Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year-End Book Wrapup '13

This year I read 34 books, 20 of them by women and 14 by men. (I guess that counterbalances last year, when my reading list was super testosteroney.)

Top five books of the year:

1. Building Stories by Chris Ware
I'm still peeved at the way this one got knocked out of the Tournament of Books, because it's wonderful. Deceptively simple, but dealing with profound themes of loneliness and isolation and interconnectedness. A somewhat unlikeable, yet ultimately sympathetic, heroine. A unique presentation (a combination of comic books, boards, pamphlets, and booklets that can be read in any order). Overall a tour de force and the best book I read this year.

2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Another ToB book. I really loved the unique voice of this novel, and its mix of humor and profundity. When I originally blogged about it, I suggested it might edge out Building Stories for my favorite book of the year. I would have to re-read both of them to see if that still holds, but I do know that I thought this was also awesome.

3. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
The ultimate winner of the ToB, and a deserving one. This book about North Korea has really stuck with me, and recent news coming out of that country just makes this feel more authentic. A seriously excellent book. See why I'm planning to read as many 2014 ToB novels as I can? There's lots of great stuff to unearth!

4. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I loved Fangirl too, but ultimately I appreciated the depth and emotion of Eleanor & Park even more. My favorite YA of the year.

5. Kingbird Highway by Kenneth Kaufman
Just slipped in under the wire, but it's such a great book. It goes far beyond just recounting birds and birding and is a wonderful example of how memoirs can transcend their subjects. You probably need to have at least a nominal interest in birding to really enjoy it as much as I did, but man, I really did.

Runners up: Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, American Pastoral, The Strnger Beside Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liar, Bring Up the Bodies, A Death in the Family, The Rosie Project

Bottom three books:

1. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
Fairly depressing, fairly unrealistic, kind of a letdown after the rest of the series. Didn't love it.

2. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
I really wanted to like this novel a lot more than I actually did. Not a favorite.

3. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
You've already heard me explain this one a bunch of times, but, didn't dig it.

No runners up; in fact, I couldn't even find five, and none of these was truly terrible. I guess it was a good year for books! And also a year where I read fewer books than usual...

This coming year, I'm focusing on some books that are lingering on my "to read" shelf as well as some re-reads. I have a nice symmetrical list of 10 each. (In the former category: Swann's Way, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Oryx and Crake, Telegraph Avenue, The Brothers K, The Emperor's Children, Nocturnes, Slam, Sanditon, Middlesex, Shades of Grey, Waiter Rant. In the latter category: Brideshead Revisited, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Wives of Henry VIII, Catch-22, All the King's Men, Cloud Atlas, The Corrections, Appointment in Samarra, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and the river chapter of Finnegans Wake.) [ETA: I forgot Henry James. I'm going to add The Wings of the Dove for sure, and Portrait of a Lady if I have time...]

(I had Rebecca on the list too, but I just re-read it because I taught it this semester. It was great fun to re-read, and I'm teaching it again next semester because it was also fun to teach.)

The actual list of 20 books is flexible; I reserve the right to abandon any of these books midway through and replace them. [ETA: Indicated by a strikeout.] This is more about clearing off my shelves and reading books that I've been meaning to read or re-read for ages. I'm not much of a book abandoner, so I doubt that will happen much if at all, but there's not going to be a Gravity's Rainbow situation here, if you know what I mean. Oh, and I don't usually blog re-reads, but enough time has passed with most of these that I'm going to revisit them and see how I feel the second time around.


The Revolution Was Televised (by Alan Sepinwall)

I read the self-published version of this book, which has since come out through more traditional publishing channels, so I'm not sure if anything has been added or changed in the new version. (Such as new interviews.) But this is a look at twelve TV series that revolutionized television, including Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. It's essentially one chapter on each, with an introduction and a prologue to tie everything together.

The individual chapters don't entirely hinge on whether you've seen the show in question, but it helps. (The Deadwood chapter was the only one that felt slow to me, because I've never seen it and am not interested in it.) I thought in terms of arguing for a "revolution," some chapters were stronger than others. (I loved the chapter on Oz, for instance, even though I've never seen the show.) Sadly, the one that really sticks out to me is the one on Buffy, which doesn't fit into the timeline and isn't tied as strongly to any of the other shows. I get the idea that Sepinwall was really missing a female-centric story* and shoehorned it in a bit.

*Borrowing his convention of the asterisks--I wonder if his traditional publisher let him keep that one--I will say that reading this book really does bring home how basically all of the great dramas of this era have featured male protagonists, and hardly any strong female characters. At least we have Dr. Melfi and Peggy Olson. But maybe the next revolution can be born out of shows like Scandal and The Good Wife and Girls and Homeland, with women more at the center. To Alan's credit, he addresses this a number of times within in book as well, and even mentions several of these shows in the process.

I would have liked a little more big picture discussion of  how each show specifically changed television--although some are argued very clearly (Oz, The Sopranos, Lost) some of them I am still left wondering about (Friday Night Lights, Buffy, Deadwood) beyond "this is a really strong drama." But overall, the idea of a "golden age" of TV drama is clear and persuasive, and I really enjoyed reading about each of the individual shows. Recommended!

Oh, and if you don't read Alan Sepinwall's TV criticism on a regular basis, you are really missing out. He's the best in the business and can be found here.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kingbird Highway (by Kenn Kaufman)

This book was a Christmas gift from me to me and I just tore through it. It's the memoir of Kaufman's birding Big Year in 1973, when he hitchhiked around North America as a teenager to try and break the record. The subject matter of course is why I picked it up, but it's also extraordinarily well-written. If you have any interest at all in birding or in crazy quests, you'd probably enjoy this. I absolutely loved it.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Husband's Secret (by Liane Moriarty)

This is a page-turner about a trio of women whose lives intersect, and reminded me of nothing so much as Gone Girl. Some of it is predictable (the "secret" is fairly obvious) but how it plays out is definitely not. It's well written and suspenseful. I'm focusing on "fun" reading between now and the end of the year, and this definitely qualifies.

I loved all three lead characters and their stories. There is perfectionist Tupperware saleslady Cecilia, Tess whose husband and best friend have fallen in love with each other, and Rachel who is still grieving the death of her teenage daughter. There are some big themes, some melancholy moments, some sadness, and some moral complexity for sure, and an ending that is quite haunting.

There's also a very interesting throughline about "what-ifs" and alternate outcomes that make things feel both fated and absolutely accidental. Absolutely worth a read.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time 100 Wrapup

Cue the trumpets and confetti, I finished another booklist! I've been at the booklist project since 2000. It's only taken me 13 years to read these 200 books! Or really seven years to finish the first list and five more years to finish the second. But who's counting?

When I did my Radcliffe wrapup post, I chose 10 books that I'd remove from the list and my top 10 favorite books. I think I might need more than 10 favorites, but we'll see when we get there. First...

My Ten Least Favorites
1. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński
2. Herzog by Saul Bellow
3. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipul
4. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
5. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
6. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
7. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
8. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
9. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
10. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

I didn't really have a lot of runner ups for this. By and large, the Time 100 list is great. Of the list above, the only ones I really feel confident saying I hate or strongly dislike are the first four. The next two are ones that I actually would like to re-read, since it's been so long since I first read them and I feel like maybe they should get a second chance. And the last four I don't feel strongly about, just didn't enjoy as much as everything else on the list. Not bad, right?

 My Ten Favorites
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
3. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
4. The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
6. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
8. White Noise by Don DeLillo
9. Beloved by Toni Morrison
10. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Oh my god, this was so much harder to narrow down. Some things that were on my shortlist: Lolita, The Sun Also Rises, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Clockwork Orange, Ragtime, Atonement, White Teeth, Possession, Play It As It Lays, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Infinite Jest, The Blind Assassin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, On the Road, Brideshead Revisited, and Money. For starters. I love all those books!

10 I'd Like to Re-Read
1. To the Lighthouse
2. Mrs Dalloway
3. Appointment in Samarra
4. Death Comes for the Archbishop
5. Brideshead Revisited
6. Snow Crash
7. Go Tell It on the Mountain
8. Catch-22
9. A Passage to India
10. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter 

The first eight are books that I know I loved, but haven't read in years. The last two are ones that I have disliked for so long that I don't even remember why, so I want to at least try and see if I still dislike them. (I also considered Wide Sargasso Sea in this category, but, naah.)

So what's next? I may yet tackle the MLA list that started it all (I have 26 books to go on that one, which at this rate should take me two and a half years) but for 2014 I'm going to take a break in favor of doing some re-reads and clearing off my bookshelves a bit. I don't usually blog re-reads, but I will make exceptions for coming back to a book years or decades later. (I haven't read Catch-22 since high school, for example.) More on those plans as they solidify.


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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow (by Thomas Pynchon)

This book finishes up the Time 100 list (wrapup post to follow), and unfortunately it was not one of my favorites. I have no doubt that it's a great book--there is some beautiful writing, some funny surrealist scenes, and thematic interestingness. But there is also a lack of emotional grounding, or grounding in some type of recognizable world or logic, and I felt disconnected from most of it.

The ending was affecting, and it was certainly my favorite part of the book (right behind the candy scene from the beginning) but it should have affected me more than it did, I kind of had forgotten about Gottfried, though. Certainly I didn't care about him the way I cared about other characters like Katje or Roger Mexico. Also I never really got a handle on what "Schwartzgerat" meant in the first place. I didn't really have a handle on a lot of elements, and I chalk that up to me not being on the book's wavelength in general.

Another issue is at what point does 700 pages of tongue-in-cheek misogyny cross over into actual misogyny? For me, I was there a few hundred pages ago. It's a very sexualized novel by design, and the presentation of male sexuality is no great shakes, but at least some of the male characters seemed to have agency and identity apart from being sexualized. Anyway, I loved this essay, which covers much of the same ground in a more academic way (and comes down mostly on the pro side of the argument):

Gravity's Rainbow often reads like a male fantasy gone out of control: the phalli are a little too large, the female characters too eager to bed down with Slothrop, the victims of sadists far too eager about their own pain. And because the narrative doesn't offer final readings, it is never quite clear how much really is mockery or disruption and how much is the residue of real assumptions about gender. These exaggerations self-consciously invite a feminist critique, from an outsider's perspective. But the novel itself does not supply that critique; it can only inflate or dislocate the discourses of its own crimes, and so at once gesture to a newly written self and reduplicate an old and tiresome one.

The whole essay is great. Anyway if you love Gravity's Rainbow, come tell me about it. I'm curious to hear more.

"'The basic problem,' he proposes, 'has always been getting other people to die for you. What’s worth enough for a man to give up his life? That’s where religion had the edge, for centuries. Religion was always about death. It was used not as an opiate so much as a technique—it got people to die for one particular set of beliefs about death. Perverse, natürlich, but who are you to judge? It was a good pitch while it worked. But ever since it became impossible to die for death, we have had a secular version—yours. Die to help History grow to its predestined shape. Die knowing your act will bring will bring a good end a bit closer. Revolutionary suicide, fine. But look: if History’s changes are inevitable, why not not die? Vaslav? If it’s going to happen anyway, what does it matter?'"

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Lost and Found (by Chris Van Hakes)

A novel by Friend of the Show and indie writer Chris Van Hakes, aka Shalini. I stayed up late on vacation to finish it, and it's an extremely satisfying romantic comedy-type read. I could nitpick a few minor things (can't I always) but overall this is great, and absolutely of the quality of any traditionally published novel. She had it professionally edited, commissioned the perfect cover, and overall did a terrific job with it. I loved the feminist notes, the character arc of Delaney, the Darcy-and-Elizabeth-esque flavor of the central relationship, the pacing, the authenticity of the complications in the relationship, etc. etc. If you like this genre, it's $3.99 on Kindle and highly recommended. (I'm looking at you, Marian Keyes fans.) Congrats, S!