Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 numbers

365 days
100 books
35,691 pages (average of 357 per book)
53 library books
34 audiobooks
6 books read on Kindle
53 fiction/47 nonfiction
21 by dead authors (according to scattered Wikipedia searches)
33 by authors who are not white males
2 graphic novels
5 books on the World Library's 100 Best Books of All Time list
0 Goosebumps, board books, or children's books

And just in case you thought I did nothing but read this year...

1 new job
3 rooms of self-installed eco bamboo floors (2.5 tons carried in box by box)
3 international trips
3 walls repaired from drywall cracks
52 episodes of Mad Men
0 comprehensive climate legislative victories
28 teeth straightened
3 concerts
1 very understanding and devoted wife

All in all, not so bad. I'll have more thoughts later once I recover a bit more from Ulysses!

Here's the list in reverse chronological order if you want to peruse. Let me know what you think...


one frickin' hundred

Ulysses (Gabler Edition)
Ulysses is the kind of book you could read again and again and again and again and always absorb a different narrative or interpretation - but right now it's a book I'd be happy to leave where it is and never look at again. I'll still agree with someone if they tell me it's one of the best books of all time. I still gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I recognize its brilliance, its completeness, its revolutionizing effect on literature and the English language. But boy was it hard to get through.

I mean - again, can I really say anything about this book that hasn't already been said thousands of times before?

It's long.

It's brilliant.

It's aggravating.

It's so complex and uses so many styles, devices, lack of devices, structure and total lack of structure that at times you feel entirely at sea and unsure why you decided to read such a monster.

It's about nothing (the plot is an ordinary day in an ordinary life where a cuckolded husband wakes up, eats, does errands, thinks a lot, goes to a funeral, works a tiny bit, spaces out, commits every single one of his thoughts to memory, masturbates, hallucinates, feels shameful, rescues a drunk guy from a whorehouse, invites him home, and gets into bed with his unfaithful wife) and everything (Ireland, the English language, marriage, sex, religion, blasphemy, atheism, food, poop, pee, birth, death, women, men, poetry, work, leisure, ancestors, family, expectations, whimsy, planning, alcohol, money, progress, anachronism, monarchy, bureaucracy, advertising, scholarship, bathing, not bathing, teaching, inattention, apathy, shame, pretentiousness, death, life, home, sailing, Western views of non-Western cultures, infidelity, loyalty, childhood, loss, cats, petticoats, and farts).

It wouldn't be honest for me to say that I read the whole thing. I'd be shocked if more than a few thousand scholars on the planet read every single word of that book and understood it. The process of reading this book encapsulated perfectly the goal of this blog - to examine reading and what it means to be literate. When I read forty pages containing fewer than eight periods, or 150 pages of the weirdest play ever written, or a nine-part examination the English language in a scene where a baby is born and a group of guys go to a bar, I freely admit that I didn't absorb every word. I didn't get every reference, I didn't pick up each parodic joke.

But I think that's okay. Reading a book like this is an experience that is hopefully more enjoyed than endured. I enjoyed large parts of it. I endured some parts of it. I expect to go back and read chunks later in my life. But for now, I'm excited beyond measure to be done with the beast.

In general, Joyce seems to have - in my limited literate understanding of books and writing - shifted the tectonic plates of what literature means. I would guess that Ulysses truly pioneered different methods of examining the day-to-day life of humans so that I get to enjoy work by Nicholson Baker and Chuck Palahniuk and friends. That's pretty cool.

ninety-nine

Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt was a work read that covered the basics of how science gets ignored, drowned out, overcompensated, and warped to advance the ends of the industry sponsoring the "research" effort. Essentially a few scientists that have gravitas because of past work on atomic weapons get paid to say that the research done on cigarette smoke, greenhouse gases, the ozone layer, acid rain, or secondhand smoke should be doubted. These scientists are often the same individuals across fields - Misters Seitz and Singer, etc, are called upon to doubt voluminous research finding cigarettes to be dangerous, anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, a depleted ozone layer, the effects of acid rain. They aren't experts in these fields, and yet the media reports both the conclusions of experts AND these schmucks to provide "balance." It's infuriating to the experts and to us, the laypeople who don't want to breathe air that will kill us and our children or destroy the ecosystem that's sustained so much human progress. Oreskes and Conway do a great job of showing how these unscientists push back on real science with industry support.

What I didn't like about the book, other than the slight dryness of the prose, is that they didn't tell us the status of the research done that did not side with the vast majority of established theorems. Were there studies that found we're not causing global warming, or that secondhand smoke is actually healthy for you? Tell us there definitely weren't, or if there were, that they were bunk and how. The focus on how the rhetorical war was won (or lost) was very useful for someone in my line of work, but I wanted to see if the other side had a single half-leg to stand on.

Regardless, it's a great book and I'm glad I read it.

ninety-eight

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Leguin is one of those names you see pretty prominently in the sci fi section and she's always been on my to-read list. Starting with the award-winning novel about gender and identity and cold weather and connecting with the outside world seemed like a no-brainer. I'm glad I read The Left Hand of Darkness, but didn't enjoy it as much as I tend to enjoy sci-fi. It was a thought experiment more than a plot-driven novel, as science fiction used to be 40 years ago. What would happen if people didn't have assigned genders, but came into a particular sex for a little while to mate and then reproduce? How would that affect civilization? What would that mean for personal relationships, families, global conquest, and personality? Le Guin's conclusion isn't really one - it's more of a rumination. People would be less aggressive, and would be suspicious of an entity purporting to be a representative of a large conglomeration of human planets. The story was interesting, starting in cities and ranging through tundra, work farms, and continents. I'm glad I read it and I think you should too, if you like sci-fi.

ninety-seven

Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time, #13; A Memory of Light, #2)
Brandon Sanderson has done it again - mostly. For those who are unfamiliar with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, it's a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic that began in the early 90s and still has not come to a conclusion. The books are enormous (regularly pushing 900-1000 pages), the scope has broadened to hundreds of characters, and, this being a fantasy series, the fate of the world is on the protagonists' shoulders. Robert Jordan plugged away for about 6 books of stellar quality, and then he lagged for several volumes that saw main characters forgotten, plotlines stagnate, annoying plotlines introduced, and very little happen. The series started to pick up with the publication of The Knife of Dreams - Things Started Happening - but then the poor guy got sick and died. Fortunately his wife and editor picked a younger author to finish off the "last" volume. That volume turned into three - and thus far it's been a good "final trilogy." There aren't many slow moments so he can be forgiven for expanding it into three books... a lot needed to happen to achieve resolution. We're currently hurtling toward The Last Battle (yes, it's even capitalized in the book), and people are Doing Things and Stuff Is Happening. And it's entertaining and well written. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it, but I'd highly recommend giving it a shot. My only quibble is the voice of Mat, one of the main characters, who seemed a bit off, though not so much that his long-awaited chapter wasn't mostly fulfilling. Can't wait for the (really) last book!

ninety-six

Small Wonder: Essays

I'm beginning to love Barbara Kingsolver - after reading The Poisonwood Bible I was happy to have stumbled over Small Wonder: Essays in the library. I'd recommended reading this - she narrates the audiobook version and her drawl and Southern accent makes her sound a bit like Diane Rehm. I got used to it after the first (rather slow) few essays. After that it was great story after great point after excellent argument. This was written shortly after 9/11, so there are some ruminations about war and fear and government, but she shines the most when she writes a simple letter to her 13-year-old daughter, and then one to her mother. She writes about independent bookstores, sustainable living, and TV. I enjoyed nearly all of them, both in terms of her writing and her points. I'm a bit fried right now (just finished Ulysses) and am not reviewing this with enough gusto, but I'd recommend it - I'll be looking for her earlier collection of essays - High Tide in Tucson.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

ninety-five

Things Fall Apart

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Things Fall Apart through the first half - and then I got the hang of it once the conflict coalesced and the tribes found an Other. Everyone and their brother has read this book except for me - so I'm glad I read it. It's well done, especially for its time, and the first half gives you a slice of African village life and family traditions and religious mysticism through a protagonist who's got some daddy issues. I couldn't get the hang of it because the narrative was so episodic when that was definitely not what I was expecting. He also writes it in almost a fable-like format, which is really interesting, but can seem simple at times. But the relationships and the fears and the community that are all manifested in the trials and tribulations of this man and his family were well done. Nigeria is obviously a different country than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I could see this book being what existed before the Price family arrived in Africa in the Poisonwood Bible.

The second half was a bit more what I expected - white come in, mess with the local culture through a mix of technology, religion, government, well-meaning, cruelty, and ignorance. Perhaps Achebe was able to open some eyes with the way he ended it. I thought it was fitting. All in all, I'm glad I read it. I'm sure you already did.

Monday, December 13, 2010

ninety-four

The Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1

What? A comic book? Does that even count as a "real book?" I would submit, based upon reviews and awards given through two decades, that it does. Could be even more than a real book. Many superlatives are thrown the The Sandman's way, and I see why. I was very, very impressed with the story, the writing, the art, the complexity of the plot - but at its core, it's about stories. This is Gaiman's wheelhouse - he likes a good yarn.

The Sandman is one of the Endless - seven eternal anthropomorphized aspects of human consciousness: destiny, death, dream, destruction, desire, despair, delight/delirium. Dream is the Sandman, and he oversees what we, and all things, dream and hope and fear. He's close to omnipotent, yet manages to not make things boring. He's complex, and grows, and bad things happen to him that he tries to fix, and often can't. He's got a crazy family, some offspring that cause trouble, and is always dealing with other supernatural entities to preserve the dreamland - wondrous and terrifying - from unspooling. He manages to walk out of Hell because he reminds Lucifer's host of demons that Hell would be nothing were it not for the dream of Heaven. He inspires Shakespeare, he helps lost children. He exacts revenge on lovers that he thinks had spurned him. And he manages to do this all with the utmost serenity. The scope of these ten huge collections are enormous. I read the first three in an enormous anthology, and then the rest in smaller paperbacks. The art is rather good, and the writing is always fun and interesting. Very few full spots. And though lots happens in America and the UK, a lot else happens in the rest of the world - not a pantheon of gods are neglected, and very few nationalities are ignored.

But the story soars through our highest hopes to our deepest fears, our funniest jokes to our most disgusting gore, our boring day-to-day to the heights of fantasy. Sometimes the day-to-day is what Dream wants most - the scene I'll remember most is him and his sister Death (who looks like what all the Goth chicks want to look like) feeding the pigeons in New York. Two supernatural uberdeities, and all they want to do is nourish the birds.

Clive Barker does this better justice:
"There is a wonderful, willful quality to this mix: Mr. Gaiman is one of those adventurous creators who sees no reason why his tales shouldn't embrace slapstick comedy, mystical musings, and the grimmest collection of serial killers this side of Death Row. He makes this combination work because he has a comprehensive knowledge of the medium and knows where his strengths lie. He has also - and this is infinitely more important than being a Comic Brat - a point of view about the world which he uses the anarchic possibilities of the medium to express. After all, where can the glorious, the goofy, and the godlike stand shoulder to shoulder? Where else can the bubble-gum hearts, the dream travelers, the serial killers, and the occasional guest-star from beyond the grave all occupy the same space? If the sheer profusion of these inventions and the apt absurdity of some of the juxtapositions puts you in mind of on of your more heated dreams, then surely that's what Mr. Gaiman intends. Forget what he's written on the title page. Hero and author are here synonymous. For the time you spend in these pages, Mr. Gaiman is the Sandman. And look! He just brought you a dream."

ninety-three

After Dark

I liked the writing in After Dark enough that I'd want to read something else by Hakuri Murakami, but not enough to actually have enjoyed the book a great deal. It's essentially a literary translation of a typical night spent by the Japanese people the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hung out with in Lost in Translation. The characters themselves aren't very important, and neither is the plot - it's the interesting writing. In fact, it has the feel of a screenplay, because he addresses the reader directly - "our viewpoint pans across the room" etc. It does jostle your perspective and expectations in a fun way - you linger over a cell phone sitting on a shelf in a 7-11, or stay looking at a mirror after someone leaves a room. I'd recommend if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, but I'd imagine I'll find I like his other plot-centered stuff a bit more.

ninety-two

Rabbit, Run

Harry Angstrom is socially retarded. And no, Sarah Palin, I'm not using that in a pejorative fashion. I'm using it in the strict definition of "late" - Rabbit has not developed any sense of what it's like for other people to exist around him. Or that they can hear him. He relies on his natural gifts - physical prowess on the basketball court - until they no longer serve him. (By the by, it's never explained why he doesn't take this amazing talent to college as most spectacularly talented U.S. high schoolers do.)

At that point - spoiler alert though not really - he marries a girl who he got pregnant but doesn't like very much. At some point, Janice becomes a drunk. There's some ambiguity over whether she's the real villain in the whole ordeal, but honestly, being married to Harry Angstrom would drive anyone to drink. He's flighty, annoying, simple-minded, unreliable, immature, and his love and care can disappear with a mean turn of phrase. He doesn't seem to understand why people react to his boneheaded declarations with disbelief. This follows him to the end of the book, as he runs away from one problem to the next.

At first I was repelled by his awful nature and didn't get the book. But then Updike's easy, thoughtful, and piercing writing took over to show me that Rabbit is like a lot of people who make up this world. Different aspects of his easy-yet-terrified personality are like me, but fortunately not enough that I can't get through a conversation without insulting someone or fleeing.

The discussions of religion were interesting, and must have caused quite a stir in the 60s - just as the scattered thoughts about sex probably riled the censors. Still, it's an amazing book about a very sad person in a sad situation, causing more sadness due to his sad social skills.

It's quite obvious that Don Draper is influenced by Harry, and Janice by Betty Draper - and it totally makes sense. Harry just can't handle real people like Don so often can. Perhaps Rabbit will be able to function as well as Don in the later books.

I really can't analyze this classic more than it already has been, but I fully understood why and how Updike is an amazing writer. Definitely recommended.

ninety-one

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

I read Made to Stick for a work meeting, a little afraid that it'd be a self-help, New Age-y business book. My fears were unrealized. It bills itself as an extension of an idea in The Tipping Point, and manages this without embarrassing itself. I was impressed - the authors follow their own rules as they write. Those rules are: keep things simple by sticking to one core message, shock people out of their expectations to make them pay attention, stay away from abstract fluffy ideas by being concrete, be sure to include arguers that are credible due to expertise or perspective, use emotional examples so people remember and feel your argument, and tell a story to make your point - people will remember the story and forget the fluff.

These sound obvious but most of the points are forgotten frequently by people who should know better. Aside from the good advice, it's presented well, concisely, and entertainingly. I'd definitely recommend to anyone who does communications for a living (as a refresher) or anyone who wants to make a solid point, even at a dinner party.

ninety

The Prince

The Prince is a quick read, and because I'd read chunks of it in high school, I mainly just got impressions of Machiavelli. First off, he's whiny. Complains about his situation, and flatters Vettori enough that his section warning of flatterers comes off pretty silly sounding.

As I read through his various judgments and recommendations I had to stop myself from thinking this was a mordern-day U.S. conservative manifesto. Damn the collateral damage, don't take private property, and if you need to bust some heads to achieve your goals, bust away. That's not entirely fair, and I won't make the proclamation that conservatives are Machiavellian. It's more that it seems to come easier to them. Liberals have all sorts of moral compunctions about this sort of thing, and often it doesn't serve us well. Perhaps in the back-and-forth, rhetorical battles, liberals should fight a bit more like Niccolo Machiavelli.

Interesting read for that perspective, the sometimes-thoughtful argument, and to understand the reason he became an adjective.

Friday, December 3, 2010

music

That's one thing I miss this year. I still listen to it of course, and attend concerts, and find new bands, but a decent-sized chunk of my listening time is taken up by audiobooks. I'll be looking forward to next year when I can read and listen to music without a care.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

eighty-nine

9-11

This collection of interviews of Noam Chomsky in the weeks after 9/11/01 brings me back to that time and that two years following. This was when the mainstream American media turned gutless and you had to go to the BBC and truthout.org to get anything resembling a full picture of what was going on in the world. Chomsky was very much behind this idea and should be commended for being a contrary voice when so many were toeing a line that was called patriotism but verged on blind obedience.

His perspective - that America is a terrorist country in the same way that "axis of evil" countries support terrorism but is more effective and subtle at it - is troubling. He very rightly points out that the U.S. could practice foreign policy and national security more effectively and is shooting itself in the foot by making enemies and hurting innocent people when that's not always necessary. But he equates a terrorist attack like the events of 9/11 with the missile attacks on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (trying to get bin Laden) and the covert help the U.S. gave to the Contras in Nicaragua. Collateral damage and mistaken intelligence, while awful, is not terrorism, even if Sudanese people suffer from the lack of malaria medication. It's awful, but not the same - President Clinton wasn't trying to cause those particular effects, he was trying to take out someone that was actively trying to harm innocent people. The Nicaraguan Contra example is better, but still troubling. Not wanting to get into the justification for that debacle, I'll just say he makes a good point that Nicaragua went to the UN in order to receive justice (which the U.S. blocked), and uses this example to argue that the U.S. should pursue legal remedies against the perpetrators of 9/11. I'm all for legal avenues, and perhaps that would have been a more effective way of receiving justice, and possibly would have saved lives in Afghanistan. But I doubt the Taliban and Pakistani border leaders would have tracked down al qaeda operatives for us. (An interesting side note is that al qaeda doesn't merit a single mention in this book, whether by Chomsky's oversight or because no one really knew at that point that bin Laden was operating through them.)

Anyhow, the book didn't convince me that the U.S. shouldn't have invaded Afghanistan. It didn't convince me that the U.S. is a terrorist nation.

Did it rightly point out that U.S. foreign policy can be arrogant, dangerous, ineffective, and short-sighted? Sure!

Did it justify itself as a strong intelligent counterpoint to the direction of debate currently occurring in the country? Probably.

Did it make the point that there are complex motivations behind people that would attack civilians and while the action and rationale should never be justified, it should be understood in order to prevent such things from happening in the future? I think so.

Did it make me think? Was it a little repetitive? Yes and yes.

Did I find it a little hard to get through and glad I finally finished it so I can give the book away after all these years. Absolutely.

eighty-eight

Drown

After reading Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I had to give his earlier collection of short stories a shot. His clear, economical voice has the same authenticity in these stories as it did in Oscar. Thoroughly enjoyed them, from the childhood memories in the DR to the portraits of drug dealers, victims of childhood pig attacks, pool table deliverymen, and immigrants, to a guide to dating girls from different socioeconomic backgrounds (and what to hide in your house for each kind). Some of his characters have a bit of the self-destructive loathing (paired with incisive social observations) that I love about Chuck Palahniuk's writing.

Highly recommended - I'll be waiting for Junot Diaz's next book with bated breath.