Books, 2016

Oops, I apparently never published this post at the end of 2016. I discovered it only after writing up a draft of my book list for 2017. So I’ll post this now and my 2017 list once the year wraps up. These are books from 2016. When I mention “this year,” I mean 2016; when I mention “last year,” I mean 2015.


Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.

Riordan vs. Luhrmann

My daughter has read all (or perhaps all but the very latest) of Rick Riordan’s books that’re based loosely on various popular mythologies, and my son has by now read most of them. Among these are the books popularized in recent years in the form of movies pertaining to the central Percy Jackson character.

I’ve avoided reading more than brief snippets of the books, but my son’s 3rd-grade teacher recently asked if I’d be willing to give a Riordan mythology book a read to determine whether or not it’d be suitable to lend to 3rd-graders. Since this one — titled Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods — purports to be a more faithful retelling of the myths, she was worried that some of the content might be a little mature.

I cheerfully agreed to give it a try. It’s not a small book, and I got through about 100 pages before crying uncle. It’s about what I expected in terms of whether or not it’s appropriate for 3rd graders. There are some mature-ish topics mostly sort of danced around in a way that’s probably better for tweens than for the younger set but that I wouldn’t personally object to my son’s reading.

More troubling to me than these topics, which Riordan mostly handles in a reasonably oblique way, are instances of sexist language and attitudes. Of course, we’re reading about ancient Greek mythology here, and Zeus for example wasn’t exactly leading the march for women’s rights, so I don’t suppose I expected a feminist presentation of the old material. But Riordan has Percy as narrator use phrases like “chick magnet” and “had to get with her” and “screaming like little girls” and (with respect to women, though here inhabiting some god or another’s voice if I recall correctly) “take what you want,” and I feel like he could have offered the story in a voice like Percy’s without falling back to these sorts attitudes and language. In the summary I wrote for the teacher, I acknowledged that I was much more bothered by these slips than by Uranus jokes (which I find funny) and references to sex, murder, incest, etc.

I also just really hated the voice. The gimmick of the book is that Percy has been asked to tell what he knows about the old myths, so Riordan retells the myths in an annoying, sort of too-cool teenager voice that strikes me as not merely annoying but also inauthentic. I think it’s a condescending approach. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to the teacher about it:

My main objection to the book honestly is that it foregrounds Percy’s frankly sort of annoying voice and all but resorts to the use of text speak and emoji to strike a tone that ultimately deflates the richness of the stories being told. I wouldn’t forbid my kids to read this, but I’d probably give them a disclaimer that it’s a pretty low-calorie read and try to offset it with something more enriching and less condescending.

As I characterize the book in that way, I find myself thinking of Baz Luhrmann’s old Romeo and Juliet movie from the ’90s. It did something similar, providing a more modern and stylized take on the original play so that it was more thrilling and accessible than, say, the old Zeffirelli movie of the play or the text itself. And, well, I actually liked Luhrmann’s version a lot (I’m sure it had nothing to do with sort of a crush I had on Claire Danes at the time). So what’s the difference between what Luhrmann did then and what Riordan has done here? I’m not really sure. Luhrmann at least preserved most of the original text of the play, I suppose, so that the foregrounding of his stylistic choices was at least more firmly rooted in some of the original aesthetics and story structure. Maybe it’s that for all that Luhrmann modernized and stylized the play, he didn’t dumb it down, and I feel like Riordan dumbs things down a lot and sort of makes the dumbing down almost the primary focus. I’m not a fan of condescending to kids, and while I think it’s fair to help ease them into difficult things, I think there are better ways to do so than what Riordan does. Or maybe it’s that Luhrmann added actual beauty to the original whereas Riordan here adds only personality (and personality that I find annoying), so that it is strictly derivative and not meaningfully additive.

Later, I felt like my assessment had come off as kind of snobbish and had sort of missed the point, since the teacher was probably looking more for an assessment of appropriateness than for a more formal aesthetic or literary critique, so I talked to my kids about Riordan’s books and sent along another email, excerpted as follows:

As I reread my last note, I cringe at the realization of how pompous it comes off. I thought I’d back down from my snobbish attitude about it and see what my kids thought about Riordan compared to some other books like the Harry Potter series and books by Kate DiCamillo (e.g. Despereaux).

My daughter (11 years old) reports that Harry Potter is on a tier well above what Riordan writes, though she likes Riordan quite a lot because she finds him funny and finds the characters relatable (which is after all what Riordan’s going for, especially in this book).

Finn says that Riordan’s books are super mega awesome and that the Harry Potter series is super mega awesome and a half, which to him means just a little better (his grasp of fractions being apparently tenuous). Finn’s down on DiCamillo, though he forgets that he liked several of her books quite a lot when we read them to him a couple of years ago (my daughter rates DiCamillo’s books somewhat closer to Rowling’s books than to Riordan’s).

So, the children have spoken. Riordan’s aim seems to be to make mythology relatable to children, and it seems that he’s a success. I find what I’ve read of the books (bits and pieces mostly) annoying in the way, I suppose, that old people often find the younger set’s things annoying. Get off my lawn, etc.

Confronted with a child choosing between Rowling and Riordan, I would surely point the child toward Rowling, who I think writes in a less condescending and more sophisticated way, but I’d like to back away from my earlier assessment that I’d urge Riordan only to a child who otherwise wouldn’t read anything.

A Bad Problem to Have

I tend to be a little skeptical when a celebrity not known as a literary author comes out with a book or appears in a literary magazine. For the poetry of Jewel and T-Boz, or of Jack Palance (who gave a reading from his poems at my college years ago) I had very low expectations. These were clearly vanity publications. So when I recently saw that B.J. Novak, known primarily for his work on The Office, was this month’s author in one story and that in fact he had a collection of short stories coming out of which “A Good Problem to Have” was a member, I worried a little. Was one story — almost certainly my favorite of all the magazines I’ve subscribed to in the last decade — selling out by putting a non-literary celebrity’s name on their cover?

Anecdotally, there’s a little detail that lends some credence to the idea: Consider the end matter for the issue:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 39 December 30, 2013. ONE MORE THING by B.J. Novak. Copyright 2014 by B.J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Now compare that with the prior month’s copyright notice:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 38 December 2, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jen Fawkes. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to One Story, 232 Third Street, #A108, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

I thumbed through a handful of a dozen or so issues from the past year or so and found that almost without fail, the end matter read much more like the latter, with credit given to the author rather than a publishing house. This gels with the way that magazine publication often (not always) works. An author has a story accepted for publication at a magazine and only later assembles a group of stories into a collection for publication in book form, so that when the magazine publishes the story, the copyright notice lists the author rather than the publisher or a book title. So a copyright notice that lists a major publishing house and a book title is something of an anomaly in my recent experience with one story. This becomes important, so hang onto the fact for a moment.

Among the last dozen or so issues, there is one other exception to one story‘s usual copyright notice. In issue number 183, a story by the well known Elizabeth Gilbert is cited as an excerpt from her book The Signature of All Things. Gilbert announces her publication in one story here, and interestingly, she’s friends with the publishers and is listed in the magazine’s end matter as a sponsor. I’m not suggesting timely impropriety here; she’s listed as a sponsor going back well before her publication. Still, in two recent cases, we have celebrity status figures (vs. just well-known writers) headlining one story just as they have new books coming out. It smells just a little bit of large press sponsorship to me. Is it possible that Knopf and Viking have given one story money to shill for the well known authors of forthcoming books?

If so, I honestly have mixed feelings. It takes money to run magazines, and it’s clear from the donation and subscription solicitations I keep getting from one story that they’re not exactly rolling in dough. So on the one hand, who’s to blame the magazine if a Knopf or a Viking comes along with a fistful of cash in exchange for publication of the authors of reasonably good stories?

But on the other hand, what happens if the story quality suffers and the magazine begins to lose credibility as a source for good literature? I thought Gilbert’s story was pretty good. I knew Gilbert only because I had heard of the movie adaptation of her Eat, Pray, Love, and my expectations weren’t very high. I was pleasantly surprised by her story. When I saw Novak’s name on the cover of the magazine, my knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes. Surely this guy was a hack, and with a new book coming out, gracious me, was it possible that my favorite little magazine was selling out? But Novak’s not just a comedian. He studied at Harvard and had writing and producer credits on a very funny, popular television program. He is not without talent. I was skeptical but open-minded.

And boy was I pleased when I started reading his story! It centered on a very clever sort of creation story behind the old math problem about two trains traveling toward one another at different speeds. It was funny and had some heart. It was well written and had the promise to be a really fantastic story. And then it ended abruptly with a feeble callback to a statement made earlier in the story and with all its goodness left unrealized on the table.

A story as good as what I’m accustomed to reading in one story would have pretty well put aside my worries about what was beginning to seem like an occasional bit of quid pro quo with publishers who might be in a position to help a little magazine out (and again, who could blame the long-suffering magazine?). But I don’t think Novak’s story should have made the cut. Or, it had plenty of potential but needed a lot of editing before making the cut.

Of course, there’s the problem. Think back to my description of the way magazine and book publication often work. Vetting by magazines happens first, and the books that stories ultimately make it into acknowledge the magazines for their initial publication of the work. Magazine editors have the opportunity to work with an author to polish a story and bring it up to snuff, and in fact, I’ve read accounts from one story authors describing how useful that process has been to the improvement of their work. I imagine this is a big part of why the stories in one story tend to be so consistently good.

But if a story is already ready for press in book form and the book publisher offers it to a magazine, it seems likely that the magazine will have a reduced privilege to make editorial suggestions. Of course, I don’t know anything at all about the life cycle of Novak’s story, but it’s hard for me not to think that because the piece made its unfortunately abortive way into a book and was then offered to the magazine, one story pretty much had to take it as it was, and as a result, the magazine this month featured an inferior story.

This all makes me feel pretty sad. For one thing, I think that with better editing and a jaunt through the usual publication meat grinder, Novak’s story might have been a great deal better. It could have been a wonderful piece, in his hands or the hands of another who’d thought it up and done it full justice. So there is a horrible waste at hand here. Skirting the standard editorial process here diminished his achievement. I also feel like Novak’s fame more than his ability may have played a role in his sudden publication of a book of unvetted stories. He reportedly got a seven-figure deal for the book this story will appear in and a second book. As far as I know, otherwise unproven authors aren’t generally entitled to such deals, so it’s hard to figure the deal arose from much beyond his reputation as a comedic actor and writer — which is fine but which doesn’t mean he’s entitled to a literary stage for ultimately sub-par work. And of course I mourn one story‘s involvement for two reasons. First, I hate that a quality magazine has to (if I have things right) make deals with publishers to peddle the work of celebrity authors with forthcoming books (as if taking money from amazon.com, which has done much to kill small presses, wasn’t indignity enough). And second, I’m sad that for the first time since I’ve been a subscriber (admittedly only a year or two), the magazine has published a prose story that I really thought wasn’t worthy of the magazine (and, worse, that it might have been).

I suppose I’ve offered qualifications enough, but just to be clear, I have no insight into what deals one story may have made with any publishing houses. I may be wearing a tin-foil hat, and everything herein that’s not verifiable should be considered utter speculation, the ravings of a crank. I actually really hope I’ve got a lot wrong, that somebody will tell me what I’m misunderstanding about Novak’s story that makes it great.

If there is something a little opportunistic going on here, it’s left me very much on the fence with regard to Novak. I sort of want to read his book, but I also really sort of don’t now. Maybe I’ll choose to believe that one story has had its cake and eaten it too here, benefiting from a sort of payola while sending a coded message to its discriminating readers, by publishing a sub-par story, that the cited collection was not worth reading and the acceptance of the work one purely of financial necessity rather than a lapse in editorial judgment or a full-on sellout.

(Vacation) Under the Volcano

I’ve read a great many of the Magic Treehouse series of books to my kids over the last few years, including #13, titled Vacation Under the Volcano, which I’ve read several times. In the series, Morgan le Fay inexplicably sends children on perilous adventures to perform menial tasks and learn obvious lessons. It’s all a little too cute, and when I first started reading these years ago, I kind of hated them. They’ve grown on me a bit over time.

In any case, as I said, I’ve read #13 several times, but only this time did it occur to me that the title incorporates the title of Malcom Lowry’s vaunted novel Under the Volcano, which details a very different sort of peril (dipsomania), though if I recall correctly, the protagonist shambles around the city for a day in much the way that Mary Pope Osborne’s Jack and Annie wander around on their brief journeys.

I wasn’t a great fan of Lowry’s book when I read it a long time ago but suspect I just wasn’t in the right mind set for it. It’s hard not to chuckle at the notion of a dark mashup of the two, however, with Jack and Annie prowling around Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead trashed on mescaline.

That is All (Again)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief review of the first sixth of John Hodgman’s recent book, That Is All. I’ll summarize: I found it funny (silly, actually) and not really worth time I would have preferred to devote to literature that aimed higher.

Even so, I continued to plod through the book a few pages at a time, mostly while on the toilet, really in much the same way that one flips through the joke sections of Reader’s Digest while on the toilet. Tonight, I found myself torn between reading more of Hodgman’s book (I had about 90 pages left) and reading something I thought I’d really find nourishing. I hunkered down and basically speed-read the next 50 pages. I should pause and note that this is not a book that lends itself to speed-reading. Full of tables and footnotes and asides and a running calendrical storyline at the tops of the pages, it’s actually something of a chore to get through. And the information itself is often so bizarre, usually purposefully incorrect, forcing you to stay pretty alert or risk missing out on a lot of the humor. Essentially, it’s a book that demands a lot of attention while giving you very little back in return. In a word, it has been infuriating.

But tonight, between two sections titled “The End” and “The Beginning,” I began to catch a whiff of redemption. After all that silliness, Hodgman lays down something like this:

If you live, as I do, in a city that is not only full of intrinsic dangers (falling pianos), but also prone to natural disasters and targeted by violent extremists; and if you, as I do, enjoy a family history of cancer or some other congenital disease; and if you are, as I am, sedentary and overweight and over-asthmatic (as I assume you must be, as you are reading a book) … [ellipsis Hodgmans’s]

ALL OF WHICH IS TO SAY that if you are, as I am, a mortal human, then the likelihood that death will intrude upon your life cruelly, quickly, and before your chosen time — that it will take you before your own personal story for the world has unfolded the way you wrote it or it was written for you, and before you can even say goodbye — this likelihood is greater than you admit… [ellipsis mine]

Life may be miraculous in its unlikelihood in the universe, but it would be a fallacy to suggest that its rareness makes it inextinguishable.

This is the manner in which Hodgman closes “The End” before moving on to the “The Beginning” (which is the end — eat your heart out Burnt Norton). In the final section, Hodgman gives us a true and proper narrative, a story that made me slow my reading back down even while negotiating the silly calendrical top-matter and actually begin to enjoy the book. It was beginning to seem a worthwhile read (and then it ended; that was, I suppose, all).

Even with redemption in the air, I can’t say that I liked the book. I sort of hated it, as a matter of fact, until the final sprint. Or, I was amused by many of the little pieces that made up the book, but I resented the the thing as a whole. As I said in my initial impression linked above, any batch of a dozen pages of the book would have made a funny blog post, but I sure didn’t need them together all at once. I won’t read any of Hodgman’s earlier books, but if he wrote another in the mode he adopted toward the end of That Is All, I’d snap it right up.

That Is All

An acquaintance of mine worked on the production of a recently published book by John Hodgman entitled That Is All and was excited to recommend it heartily. My taste in books tends to be pretty well in sync with hers, and I took her recommendation to heart. I’m about a sixth of the way through and am not feeling great about the purchase.

The problem probably lies less with the book than with my expectations. Knowing the sort of humor that Hodgman has written in the past for The Daily Show, I suppose I should have expected something like the silly, meandering book at hand. Hodgman has written another book or two that I presume are in the same vein as this one, and had I done any research to learn what they were like, I would have been prepared for That Is All.

The strange thing is that before beginning this book, I wouldn’t really have counted myself a very serious person. I teach my kids fart jokes and enjoy low-brow and high-brow humor alike. I like cornball, and I like silly. And Hodgman’s book is nothing if not silly. My problem with the book lies not in the humor — for it is very funny — but with the investment it requires. It reads like a blog, but it’s packaged as a book. I like blogs. I earn my livelihood thanks to blogs. I would eagerly read a Hodgman blog written in the style of this book. But because it’s a book of several hundred pages, I feel pressure to read it in book-like chunks, and every time I go to it, I feel like I’m wasting time. There are more important, more serious things I could be reading, things that would nourish and instruct me rather than diverting me in the way an occasional blog post coming to me via feed reader would do. Who knew I was such a curmudgeon?

Hodgman is a smart, funny guy, and he’s assembled a book full of smart, funny things. It’s just not the sort of content I’m generally interested in putting much time into. I’ll finish it bits and pieces and will enjoy it, but not without something like guilt while doing so.