Books, 2015

I read a lot of books in 2015 and tracked them pretty reliably via Goodreads. Whereas last year I claimed to have read 24 books (probably I missed updating Goodreads for a few), this year I logged 74 for a total of about 25,500 pages. I suppose I cheated a little bit, since a whole bunch of those were books I read aloud to the kids, though they weren’t tiny little Golden Books or anything (average page count per book came out to around 345 on the whole), so maybe it wasn’t cheating after all.

Highlights included the Series of Unfortunate Events series (started in late August and finished at the tail end of December) and the Prydain Chronicles series, which were both fun and represented a lot of evening and weekend reading with the kids, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I reread a few books. I had been nervous about rereading Infinite Jest after several years, but it held up for me. I also reread The Recognitions and didn’t love it. I reread some Vonnegut that we had sitting around and had mixed feelings. I accidentally reread some Roth that I had forgotten I had read years ago, and though I didn’t much like the novella I reread, I did wind up enjoying some of the stories that were packaged in the same volume with it.

Part of what boosted my reading stats this year was an effort to participate in the Tournament of Books. I forget how many of the selections I wound up reading, but I believe it was around a dozen, and a few of them pretty lengthy. The ToB introduced me to a rare five-star read in All the Light We Cannot See. I tend to reserve five-star ratings for books that change the way I think about the world or that had some other profound effect on my life. AtLWCS probably didn’t quite do either of these things, but it really was top-notch writing, so I gave it a 5.

I awarded another 5-star rating to Half of a Yellow Sun, which remains the best book I’ve read all year. It taught me things about the world, made me really feel for its characters, made me laugh, and was generally just beautifully written. I’ve recommended it to many people this year.

Although I had heard of Jonathan Lethem, I had never read him before, and late in the year I picked up several of his books and liked them all a lot. I’ll read more of his work for sure. So far, he’s been a consistent 4-star rating for me (meaning that I liked the books a whole lot, even if they didn’t change my life).

I read more genre fiction this year than I’m accustomed to, picking up several sci-fi things (if you include Vonnegut, who sort of straddles literary fiction and sci-fi). Not listed below or accounted for in my stats are a number of the Poirot stories by Agatha Christie and probably a few Sherlock stories as well. I also read a lot more nonfiction than usual, mostly books about teamwork and leadership that I read as I transitioned into a leadership role at work.

Although I’ve striven in general to read a fair number of books by people who are not white men, it’s clear from looking over the list below that I’ve done a pretty poor job. I suppose it makes sense that fiction by white dudes would resonate with me since I am a white dude, but I’d like to continue to read things that offer perspectives from behind a gaze different from my own. My favorite book of the year is after all by a Nigerian woman, so it’s clearly to my benefit to read things by people who are not white dudes.

The table below shows my recorded books for the year, sorted by rating and then by whatever Goodreads chooses as a secondary sorting field. The unrated books at the bottom I think I just forgot to rate (though in the case of the Dara book, I felt like I needed to read it again some time before deciding how I felt about it).

Title Author Stars Kids For Work Nonfiction Reread Not a White Dude
All the Light We Cannot See Doerr, Anthony 5 N N N N N
Half of a Yellow Sun Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 5 N N N N Y
Infinite Jest Wallace, David Foster 5 N N N Y N
The Fortress of Solitude Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
The End (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #13) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
When Teams Work Best Lafasto, Frank 4 N Y Y N N
The Painter Heller, Peter 4 N N N N N
Mason and Dixon Pynchon, Thomas 4 N N N N N
Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1) VanderMeer, Jeff 4 N N N N N
The Reptile Room (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2) Snicket, Lemony 4 Y N N N N
Dept. of Speculation Offill, Jenny 4 N N N N Y
The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story Wickersham, Joan 4 N N N N Y
The Sense of an Ending Barnes, Julian 4 N N N N N
A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall Chancellor, Will 4 N N N N N
Chronic City Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Gun, With Occasional Music Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
The House of the Spirits Allende, Isabel 4 N N N N Y
Paper Towns Green, John 4 N N N N N
Wittgenstein Jr Iyer, Lars 4 N N N N N
Men in Space McCarthy, Tom 4 N N N N N
Motherless Brooklyn Lethem, Jonathan 4 N N N N N
Sartoris Faulkner, William 4 N N N N N
Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Eggers, Dave 4 N N N N N
Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut, Kurt 4 N N N Y N
Americanah Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi 3 N N N N Y
The Recognitions Gaddis, William 3 N N N Y N
The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain #5) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Miserable Mill (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #4) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Wide Window (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #3) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Ersatz Elevator (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #6) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Dragon Lantern (The League of Seven, #2) Gratz, Alan 3 Y N N N N
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead Bock, Laszlo 3 N Y Y N N
The Grim Grotto (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #11) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Sound and the Fury Faulkner, William 3 Y N N N N
A Brief History of Seven Killings James, Marlon 3 N N N N Y
The Austere Academy (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #5) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Prince and the Pauper Twain, Mark 3 Y N N Y N
The Slippery Slope (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #10) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Hostile Hospital (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #8) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories Roth, Philip 3 N N N N N
The Castle of Llyr (The Chronicles of Prydain #3) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Fermata Baker, Nicholson 3 N N N N N
The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain #2) Alexander, Lloyd 3 Y N N N N
The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society, #1) Stewart, Trenton Lee 3 Y N N N N
The Vile Village (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #7) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Bauby, Jean-Dominique 3 N N Y N N
The Word Exchange Graedon, Alena 3 N N N N Y
Silence Once Begun Ball, Jesse 3 N N N N N
Divisadero Ondaatje, Michael 3 N N N N Y
The Carnivorous Carnival (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #9) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
The Penultimate Peril (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #12) Snicket, Lemony 3 Y N N N N
All the Birds, Singing Wyld, Evie 3 N N N N Y
Middle C Gass, William H. 3 N N N N N
Between the World and Me Coates, Ta-Nehisi 3 N N Y N Y
Looking for Alaska Green, John 2 N N N N N
The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut, Kurt 2 N N N Y N
1Q84 (1Q84, #1-3) Murakami, Haruki 2 N N N N Y
Ready Player One Cline, Ernest 2 N N N N N
Acceptance (Southern Reach, #3) VanderMeer, Jeff 2 N N N N N
Reamde Stephenson, Neal 2 N N N N N
Foundation (Foundation, #1) Asimov, Isaac 2 N N N N N
Deception Roth, Philip 2 N N N N N
Adam Schrag, Ariel 2 N N N N Y
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6) Verne, Jules 2 Y N N N N
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High Patterson, Kerry 2 N Y Y N N
The Bone Clocks Mitchell, David 2 N N N N N
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) Valente, Catherynne M. 2 N N N N Y
Generosity: An Enhancement Powers, Richard 1 N N N N N
Authority (Southern Reach, #2) VanderMeer, Jeff 1 N N N N N
Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain #4) Alexander, Lloyd N N N N N
The Lost Scrapbook Dara, Evan N N N N N
Foreign Bodies Ozick, Cynthia N N N N Y

gun, with occasional music

Although you’d think based on this post’s title and a spate of mass shootings in America this year (more than one per day, if I’m to believe what I see on the interwebs) that this’d be a political post, you’d turn out to be wrong. The title is the title of a novel by Jonathan Lethem, an author whose name I had heard for years but whose work I had never read until this year, when in July I picked up his Chronic City and enjoyed it a lot.

A few weeks ago, I found cheap copies of his gun, with occasional music and Motherless Brooklyn, and I read gun over the last few days.

It is ostensibly a sort of noir style detective novel, and the epigraph pays homage to Raymond Chandler, whom I’ve not read but who I gather wrote similar stuff. I don’t usually go for genre fiction because the appeal seems to me to be more in the familiarity of the framework and the trappings of the specific genre than in the creation of a distinct voice or other formal innovation that I’m likely to find interesting. I’m not passing judgment on genre fiction here, to be clear; there’s a lot to be said for finding a formula that you enjoy and sticking with it (I buy shirts and pants of the types I like basically in bulk because I find them comfortable). But the books I tend to enjoy most are the ones that do something a little different in terms of voice or structure or rule-breaking, and genre fiction by definition tends to follow established patterns and thus to avoid innovation of the sort that I find appealing. I feel like once I’ve read one or two noir stories, I understand the pattern, and reading a lot more of them in which the names and circumstances change slightly but the flavor is largely the same doesn’t interest me.

So when I first started in on gun, I wasn’t too excited by it. It felt like I was reading pretty standard noir fiction, and once I had the stereotypical noir narrator’s voice in my head, I felt like I’d maybe had my fill. But then there was mention of something called Forgettol, a particular sort of a generic snortable drug colloquially called “make.” This was sort of interesting. And then I came across this:

I rode up in the elevator with an evolved sow. She was wearing a bonnet and a flowered dress, but she still smelled like a barnyard. She smiled at me and I managed to smile back, then she got off on the fourth floor.

Well that’s an attention-getter! This was not to be standard noir fare after all. We encounter other evolved animals in the book, along with some “babyheads,” who are human children exposed to the same evolution technology used to turn animals into sort of human hybrids, with the result that they’re (the babyheads) mentally mature but stuck in the bodies of toddlers and seem understandably cranky and prone to drink. We learn that we’re in a dystopic future in which the state provides free make to keep people’s faculties sufficiently dulled and in which the police officers (called inquisitors) deduct karma points from your id card when you run afoul of them. We do of course also see the usual trappings of pulp detective fiction, complete with one-liners, hard drinking, the roughing up of various and sundry people, and pretty much everything you’d expect besides the lonely saxophone background music (if there’s an audio book, I’ll bet you get the saxophone too).

So the book turns out to be a neat mix of noir and something resembling dystopic sci-fi, with pretty fun results. I enjoyed the book a lot (also, it’s short, so the enjoyment to page count ratio was very high), and I enjoyed just as much how it helped me think a bit about what I find appealing (or not) about what I do like reading (and what I don’t).

Blind Date with a Bookseller

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In Asheville there’s a cool little indie bookstore called Malaprop’s that I make a point of stopping by any time I’m in town. Almost every time I stop by, there’s some kind of event going on — an author reading, story time and face-painting for kids, that sort of thing. Yesterday my family and I went to Malaprop’s and discovered that we had just missed a book signing by the author of a book we had just recently purchased for the kids.

As I was browsing books, I found a shelf containing books wrapped in brown paper written on in black marker. A nearby sign revealed that the idea — dubbed “Blind Date with a Bookseller” — was that you’d buy a book on the vague, un-spoilerish recommendation of a staffer without knowing in advance what the book was. I loved the idea!

Of the half dozen or so different book descriptions on the shelf, the one pictured appealed to me the most, so I bought it. My wife was nervous that it might turn out to be one I had already read. I was a little nervous about the possibility too, but the little thrill of coming across this opportunity buying a surprise book outweighed the small risk. The store clerk assured us that if I had in fact read the book, I could return it for store credit. When I ripped into it, I discovered that it was in fact a book I already owned and had recently read, but that didn’t diminish my pleasure by very much at all. In fact, it was kind of fun to have myself sort of typecast as a reader interested in the sorts of things listed on the wrapper.

I won’t reveal what the book was, lest I spoil it for some reader who happens by Malaprop’s and decides to pick up a mystery book — which, if you are a reader in the Asheville area, you should!

David Foster Wallace

What an odd thing it is to mourn the loss of someone you didn’t know and can’t have known and have no personal right to mourn. It had happened to me twice in recent years before tonight.

The first time was Steve Irwin. When I learned that he had died, I felt much sadder than I really figured I ought to feel. He was a guy whose zest for life was so great and so contagious, whose wonder at the natural world and its discovery and preservation could hardly but be admired. When he died, I felt as if the world had lost a great vessel of happiness and verve. It was as if a light had been punched out. As shocking as it was, I can’t say that it was ultimately all that unexpected. He swam with dangerous animals and he flirted with death and lost, and the world was dimmer for the loss.

The next surprisingly saddening celebrity death for me was Heath Ledger. I actually hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain to know first-hand before his death that he was a sure talent, but all indications seemed to be that his trajectory was upward. His death, though less personal (even than Irwin’s, which felt more personal because of his affability), made me feel sad because it seemed the loss of a great potential talent. His performance in the Batman movie suggests that he drew from a deep well indeed, and so I mourned his death in what impersonal way I could for the sake of his art.

Tonight, I learned that David Foster Wallace has died, having hanged himself. This is the celebrity death to which I actually do have a personal attachment, although a very very tenuous one.

About a decade ago, my sister gave me for Christmas DFW’s book Infinite Jest. She confessed that she had originally gotten the book for herself but couldn’t slog through it and thought I might like it, given my interest in tennis. And slog through it I did. I was in college at the time, home on Christmas break. During the remainder of my Christmas holiday, I stayed in my room reading 10 – 20 hours a day and completed my first reading of Infinite Jest within 10 days of having received the book. (If you haven’t read it, you should know that this is a feat of endurance, though a most rewarding one.) I’ve read it a few times since, though not in the last few years.

I’ve read his other work too, of course, and have gone so far as to evangelize it, pressing upon friends and acquaintances  (willing and unwilling) my own copies of several of his books. One copy of Broom of the System I never got back.

Several years ago, having just read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (I believe), I wrote Wallace a one-or-two sentence letter thanking him for what seemed a very real honesty in his work. Months later, I got the pictured postcard in reply. What can better humanize and personalize an author than getting a thank-you note for a letter of appreciation?

Well, his work, that’s what. Wallace wrote with what seemed a devastating honesty about being a writer and, more importantly, about being human. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he wrote of despair (invoking another of my favorite authors, Melville); in “Consider the Lobster,” he wrote of the omnivore’s conundrum, something with which I’ve been struggling even just recently; his “Good Old Neon” I thought upon my first reading was perhaps the best short story I’d ever read precisely because of how it dealt with the sorts of insecurities we all feel; many of his brief interviews with hideous men I’m mortified to confess had a kernel of truth relevant even to my own experience. So much of his work was so, so good that the loss of more of it hurts hurts hurts.

A few years ago, I learned about an author named William Gaddis. He wrote only a few books, and two of them are great books and one of them is a funny but sub-great book and the others are ok. Having read the two great books, I was sad that he was dead having left no others. When I first read Steinbeck a few years ago, I found myself wishing he had managed to write just a few more books, so good were the ones I really appreciated. Pynchon has written a couple of really hard, really good novels, and a couple of other really hard worthwhile ones, and I’ll regret his death when he goes.

Wallace, in a similar but broader, much more approachable, human way, has always left me wanting more. For years, I’ve anticipated the release of his next great novel, and I’ve actually thought about the fact that, as a fairly young novelist (he’s 46 at his death), he has had the potential to write at least a few more great ones. The masters he’s followed have averaged a great book every decade or two, so we could have hoped for at least two more had he died relatively young (there has been speculation that he had a brick in the works). I feel so much more bereft as a result of Wallace’s death because he still had great potential during my lifetime and was in fact a young, budding author during my lifetime.

He wrote in various contexts of entertainment and its addictive nature. What could be more validating of his theses than the fact that so many are mourning the loss of the entertainment and stimulation that he provided us?

How much more selfish could one be — and of selfishness he wrote extensively — than to stay up late one night writing a piss-poor elegy for a man one didn’t know personally? Was this the final jest?

To hang oneself. What person in the industrialized world outside of a prison cell hangs himself? It’s morbid to think of this, but I don’t think morbidity is out of bounds for Wallace. What an awful way to go, swinging and jerking and thinking probably all the while about the best way to describe the scene in prose, how best to footnote the actual physiology of one’s own death.

To really express my admiration for David Foster Wallace and his talent, I’d have to quote most of his fucking ouvre.

I’m as sad over this as I’ve been over anything since my mom died.

His Dark Materials, Zadie Smith

I spent much of my 11-day holiday break either horizontal or wishing I was horizontal thanks to a back strain that’s still giving me fits. I took advantage of the time to get some reading done. Mleeka and I had gone to see The Golden Compass, and in anticipation of it, she purchased and read the trilogy of which that movie composes roughly one third. She was somewhat disappointed in how the movie chopped off the end of the first book and how it left out some of the back story about Dust. Having not read the books yet, I thought it was a pretty engaging movie, if it was a little slow at times (especially when Kidman was onscreen). In any case, watching the movie and hearing Mleeka talk about the books prompted me to read the books. Steinbeck they’re not, but I enjoyed the whole set. Oddly, where Mleeka found the second book to suffer from what she calls second book syndrome (wherein a second book in a set serves primarily to set up the more involved politics and relationships that drive subsequent books but are of limited interest on their own in terms of actually moving the plot along), I found it to be pretty interesting. On the whole, not a bad bunch of books for a quick read.

I had heard about an author named Zadie Smith. She made waves a few years ago with her first novel (published when she was 24, I think), and I’ve been meaning for a while to pick up some of her stuff. Her On Beauty was on my amazon wish list, and Ashley got it for me for Christmas. It was a good book, though somewhat different from what I had expected based on comparisons of her work to other authors I like. It felt a bit like a modern day take on the old comedies of manners. I don’t mean to pigeon-hole Smith here in the almost patronizing way it’ll probably come off, but the book felt a bit like Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility for the 20th century (which probably isn’t terribly flattering given that I find those sorts of books tedious and dull and light). And yet it wasn’t tedious or dull or light, and in fact, there was much to appreciate. Smith writes really great dialogue, and especially argument dialogue. So the book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was well-done enough that I decided to get her first novel, White Teeth. This I finished reading last night, and it’s the sort of book I expected based on what I had read about Smith. It was different than any of the old white guy fiction I’ve read, and it dealt with its subjects in what felt like really honest, informed ways across cultures, religions, races, genders, and ages. And it did so with wit and beauty and absurdity and sometimes sadness. On Beauty isn’t a book I’ll likely read a great many times in my life, but White Teeth I can imagine myself re-reading every few years, as I do with most of my favorites. (Uh, which is not to detract from the gift itself of the former book; had I not read that one, I might never have gotten around to reading the other.) If you happen to like reading contemporary literary fiction, this one should go on your list.

Next up I think is George R. R. Martin. I’ve never been much on sci-fi or fantasy, and I guess he’s a fantasy author. Three or four people have separately recommended him to me even knowing that I’m not much of a fantasy reader. Mleeka gobbles the stuff up, so I got her the first in his big series for Christmas, and she dug it and has since read the rest of the series that’s been published to date. She seems to validate what others have told me about him, so I’m thinking I might broaden my horizons a bit and see what I think of his books.

Against the Day

Just over four months ago, I finished Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and did a quick read of DeLillo’s Falling Man before taking on Pynchon’s latest, Against the Day. His very short The Crying of Lot 49 aside, this is the first of Pynchon’s book I’ve read in one go, if plodding through it over 4 months can really be considered a single go. I went through start to finish with no stamina-loss-related break, in any case. My slowness was the result primarily of a paucity of time to read for long at a stretch (that reality TV’s not gonna watch itself, you know). When you’re reading in 10- to 20-page increments, it’s hard to get through an 1,100 page book very quickly.

So, what did I think of it? I’m not sure. The first 700 or so pages were for the most part very engaging, and it’s the easiest long Pynchon I’ve read yet. Whereas GR was hard to follow a whole lot of the time, AtD was pretty manageable. The next 300 pages were harder to get through because the dominant plot line just wasn’t as interesting to me as some of the others. As Pynchon closes up the book (which he really does with more tidiness than I might have expected) in the last 85 or so pages, it’s a more fun read again, though not nearly as much so as earlier parts of the book. I guess I liked it well enough. Although it’s physically heavier, it didn’t feel as content-weighty to me as GR did. Something about it doesn’t seem as important to me as GR did, though I can’t articulate what the difference is or why GR has a feel of importance (maybe I’m swayed by its having won an award?). I’m sure my enjoyment/slogging ratio in AtD was higher than it was in GR, but GR I think is the better book.

One thing that really hit home for me during this read was a difference in the way I appreciate certain books. Some authors or books make me wish the whole time I’m reading them that I were able to go out and write long fiction. They inspire creativity in me. Steinbeck in his best books and Richard Powers in The Time of Our Singing make me feel this way. An author like Pynchon doesn’t. I appreciate the complexity in his books, but they don’t inspire me to want to do my own creation. Both sorts of appreciation are valuable to me; too much of the former would continuously highlight my personal creative deficiencies and make me feel like crap all the time.

I’ve been pushing really hard for the last week or so to get through to the end of AtD because I’m traveling a week from today and didn’t want to have to carry that brick around with me the whole time. Now I’m off to do what I predict will be reading of a lighter style in Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. I’m also picking through Best American Nonfiction for 2007 (edited by David Foster Wallace, one of my faves). From there who knows? Maybe the book-length study of Wallace’s Infinite Jest that should arrive in 30 days or maybe another reread of the subject of that study. Maybe back for a second shot at Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Zadie Smith and Gass are on my wish list, so maybe they’ll round out my year. Or more likely I’ll punctuate hours and hours of TV with the occasional batch of poems or shorter fiction. Recommendations always welcome.

Falling Man Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a pretty deflating review of DeLillo’s Falling Man. Last Saturday evening, I myself fell down the last four or five of our stairs and banged my left big toe up. Whether or not it was actually broken or just cracked or had a bone bruise or whether I’m maybe just a big old wuss is a matter best left to the doctor (whom I didn’t see fit to visit, as he’d at best have just given me a splint and happily charged me $300 for it). But I did that evening find myself visiting this very blog. As Mleeka glanced over and saw what was on my screen, she asked if I was updating my Falling Man entry to include an account of my own inadvertent portrayal of that character. That wasn’t my intention, of course, but her comment so amused me that I thought I’d make a note of it.