Friday, January 21, 2011

A Year in Books; a Year in Life

(This is very long, sorry. Print it out for a rainy day should you care to)

The idea sounded deceptively simple.

Read 52 books in 52 weeks or, one year. And it sounded like a perfect quasi-New Year’s resolution. Something that didn’t involve strenuous physical activity, and something that I’d enjoy. After all, I enjoy reading. That, over the years had gotten away from me due to distractions and responsibilities that everyone has to deal with at some point or other.

And so I said, why not?

My job afforded me an hour for lunch, and choosing to pack instead of find some fast food joint allowed me to spend the bulk of that hour reading. I felt if I tried hard and stayed the course, 52 books could be squeezed into my life.

I started with a book I received for Christmas, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Like most people I talk to, I used to like The Simpsons, back when it had a soul, and this book seemed to speak right to me, hinting at uncovering the stories of the golden years of the show. And unauthorized histories? The scandal! Unfortunately, it didn't really deliver, as the bulk of the interviews the book was based on didn't come from the key players, only the periphery and even people not involved whatsoever. I wanted it to be the New York Times covering the story, what I got was TMZ.

And then, just like that, done. My job I mean. Unceremoniously laid off from a position I held for five years. Nothing to do with performance, mostly due to political power plays way above my pay grade, I along with the rest of my department (yes, my entire department was asked to leave), found a bar that Tuesday afternoon and drank our shock away.

Obviously the 52 books in a year challenge was going to be affected. How, I wouldn't know and of course it really wasn't a pressing issue. While some would suggest being unemployed would leave oodles of more time for reading, others might suggest I should spend my time insuring I and my family would still be able to eat.

Anyway, perhaps subconsciously to deal with this major life event, I chose to revisit an author who was so influential in my childhood. Growing up during the height of Stephen King's productivity (and, dare I say, creativity), I had been a fan. (In fact, I'd still argue that Salem's Lot is one of the 25 best novels of all time.) I consumed all of King's major hitters in the 80s, and loved each one (even The Tommyknockers!) But as we both stumbled into the 90s (I, in awkward stages of puberty, he in uneven prose) we went our separate ways, and while I certainly read a some of his other books, he no longer gave me that joy I had felt with him before.

But, having received a Kindle for Christmas, I saw an opportunity to revisit my youth with Under the Dome: A Novel.

Not necessarily a typical King "horror" novel, the book tells the story of what happens to a town (and the people in it), when a large dome shows up and cuts it off from the rest of the world.

While I felt some of the storytelling felt gimmicky, I thought this was a great return to form for King. His characters were well fleshed out and the small town politics spiraling out of control kept me turning the page. Sure, the ending felt a bit rushed and tacked on, but what Stephen King ending doesn't? If you haven't picked it up because you think King lost his fastball, I can't recommend it enough.

Patient Zero: A Joe Ledger Novel I received free at a Twitter meetup in Philadelphia in February of 2010. And let's just say there's a reason I got it for free. If you like generic thrillers with a twinge of the supernatural, it's an ok book. Plenty of cliches on top of cliches, but if you're a fan of the zombie genre, then it might be for you.

The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner annoyed me with its pretentiousness; the premise has author/food critic Jay Rayner flying all over the world to find the perfect meal, and great! I get to read about it. It's not that I minded reading about a dream assignment that I was envious of, it was that Rayner didn't really seem to enjoy his adventure whatsoever. And that jadedness seeped into his prose. Unfortunately, Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy seemed to do the same thing with basketball, only with many more words and some humor. I wanted to love this book, as I think Simmons is one of the more influential sportswriters out there, but the book overall comes across as "my opinion is better than yours," which goes against Simmons' "hey, I'm just a fan like you" writing style. Not to mention it's long. Really long. Stop a bullet long. I guess Simmons has reached a point in his career where he can boss his editor around, but that doesn't mean he should.

Michio Kaku is probably one of the 10 smartest people alive. A physicist with a calm, serene delivery, I think one of his greatest strengths is being able to explain incredibly complex theories in a simple, basic manner for the rest of us to understand. I also believe he should be the man pegged to announce the end of the world when/if it comes, because his delivery probably won't send us all into the streets to start looting immediately. I figured he was the perfect guy to help me explore the mysteries of the cosmos. Unfortunately,Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe is just not easy to understand. And I don't think that's a knock on Kaku. I think the subject matter is simply complex, and you either have a brain wired for it, or you don't.

And I don't.

By the time I finished Kaku, it was April. I had just picked up a job in the soulless financial services industry, helping one of the biggest banks in the country send this country further down the well. Worse, I worked as a contractor, meaning it wasn't full time and everyone looked at me as hired help. I could go on and on about this job, and maybe someday I will, but for now, just know that I'm glad I'm not there anymore. And I'm anxiously awaiting the next wikileaks leak.

Anyway, like I said, it was April. And I was 6 books in. 52 completed wasn't looking good. My head wasn't in the best place, and what was this stupid little self-challenge for anyway?

But I soldiered on. It's not like there were any stakes, and it wasn't like I was torturing myself. I love to read. And, for my troubles, I was rewarded.

If you haven't guessed by now, I enjoy food, and enjoy reading about it. That's why I was excited to read Alan Richman's Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater to see how a food critic for a major magazine really lived. Plus, he's a Philly guy! Unfortunately, the book is just a collection of his food writing for GQ, and while I like his take on a lot, I wanted a bigger peek behind the curtain.

Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World (Vintage Contemporaries) is an odd book. Set in a world that could be ours but is not, the book deals with identity, war, love and many of the other cliches authors write about in an interesting way. These are the types of books I enjoy - found through some book-recommendation-list digging, it's a book that probably many haven't heard about, but many would enjoy. Of course, it didn't prepare me for my next book...

I'm not going to sit here and write 5,000 words on why Twitter is awesome for both society and for the individual. I'll just say that I've crossed paths with many interesting people, and even though I haven't met them, I consider them friends. And one of those friends, happens to be an extremely talented author, who published a book of his short stories.

Matt Debenham's The Book of Right and Wrong (Ohio State Univ Prize in Short Fiction) holds stories about life, its problems, and solutions to those problems, no matter how dirty they might get. Simultaneously tragic and comedic, the stories paint genuine pictures that never offer the Hollywood ending. And that's not to say these stories are full of tearjerker moments; actually we're pretty far from that. What they offer is a look at how life is never black and white, and we're never 100% right or 100% wrong. We're always in the middle, and that's ok.

At least that's what I took from it. Regardless, I can't recommend this book enough. If you take nothing else from my words, please at least listen to this. Oh, and follow @debenham on twitter if you're so inclined.

Coming off the high of The Book of Right and Wrong, I chose to head into non-fiction territory, and picked up Columbine, a detailed look at the events leading up to and including the massacre at Columbine High School. Author/journalist Dave Cullen does an excellent job of telling the story based on his meticulous research, solidifying some things we already knew, and dispelling some of the other things we thought we knew. It's easy (and comforting) for people to blame easy targets such as the media for the tragedies that happen in our lives. Unfortunately, it rarely happens to be the case. Much like people clamored to point fingers in the recent Giffords shooting, the same thing happened after the events at Columbine. This book goes a long way to show that blame is never easy to place in a situation that is impossible to understand.

Staying in the non-fiction realm, but wanting to take on lighter fare, I picked up Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers a book about death and dying throughout history. Why I felt underwhelmed after I finished, is difficult for me to explain. Though the writing was competent, it felt as though it was just a number of magazine articles strung together. Or perhaps I just wanted more from the book. Death is such an expansive and mysterious subject that our society is both fascinated and scared by it, and I think I expected something a little deeper. Roach seemed to scratch the surface on topics, but not dig deeper. It wasn't a bad book, I just thought it would be different.

I don't know how I stumbled onto Tim Powers' Declare but I think not knowing anything about the premise of the book made me enjoy it more. And that's why I'll say nothing more about it than it's a historical thriller based during World War II and the years immediately following. Complex in narrative (at times detrimentally so), the book tied supernatural powers into the superpowers that survived the second World War, but in ways that are not at first easily understood.

Before I talk about the next book I have to admit something. My personal preference is to finish every book I start, no matter how much I dislike it, simply because I feel like I owe the author the something. I'm not suggesting this is how everyone should read. In fact sometimes I wish I didn't have this bizarre compulsion. Because if I didn't, I would have simply dropped Dhalgren 30 pages in, instead of plodding through it as I did. Do I feel good that I finished it? Not really. I had satisfaction when I reached the end mostly because I knew I didn't have to read another page. Look, I'm sure people will disagree with me, because this book did receive some critical acclaim and I can see how it might speak to some people with its subject matter. And perhaps it owes a lot to the fact that it was groundbreaking when it first came out. But in the age of the Internet, when avante garde can be achieved with 2 clicks of a mouse with your morning coffee, this story and its storytelling offered me very little.

My next book was a much easier read and, at least at the time, much more interesting. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime delves into the 2008 Presidential race, and takes a look at all the key players, as well as the strategies, arguments, and characters each presidential hopeful had and used to make their presidential bid. Though not as hard hitting or insightful as I hoped (there was hardly any mention of Internet campaigning strategy, which I would have loved to read about), it still painted a picture of what it takes to win the presidency of the United States, and what it can do to someone.

Maybe I didn't get what Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was trying to accomplish; I found it to be much about nothing using technology and Disney as a backdrop for...not much of anything. Set in the future with fantastical technical advancements (including the ability to come back to life over and over), I felt the book to the reader for granted, and assumed we would just like the premise enough to gloss over the overall lack of substance. Luckily, I followed that up with And the Sea Will Tell an account of a crime committed on a deserted island in the Pacific, written by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor famous for convicting Charles Manson. As an author, Bugliosi writes like a lawyer; factual, with a slight heir of superiority. It's both good and bad in this case - the crime and subsequent trial that follows is convoluted, slightly unbelievable and intriguing, all of which is helped by Bugliosi's straightforward approach. But, as he also is an integral character in the book, some of his opinion gets a little soiled since we can't really make up our own mind. He soapboxes a little and tries to make it for us. Still, it's an interesting book and is recommended for true crime lovers.

Both Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions: A Novel and Jesse Ball's Samedi the Deafness (Vintage Contemporaries) play with identity and the concept of reality. I found myself racing through The Book of Illusions, if only trying to get to the true meat of the story, but never finding it. The whole thing felt like set up for a much larger story. And Samedi the Deafness...well, it started out with a murder in a park and ended with...I won't give it away but the pieces to go from A to B were so tangled with lies, deceit, mistaken identities and parlor game "what if this isn't real" tricks that it crashed in on itself. Which may have been the author's point, so it's possible the joke's on me.

Justin Cronin's The Passage had a lot of hype behind it. Coming out of the University of Iowa's writers' program, Cronin attempted to write a "literary" vampire/dystopian future novel. And while I have issues with the labels "literary" and "genre" (meaning science-fiction) I don't have a better solution to categorize this book. Cronin is obviously a talented writer, I just think he needs an editor or maybe even a good friend to sit him down and explain the idea of focus. Because this book not only has an unbelievable cast of characters, and spans hundreds of years, it jumps around so much and introduces so many new and left-field concepts and then drops them to again pick up the story. I really wanted to like it (it's difficult to mess up vampire-zombie apocalyptic stories), and there are many interesting things here, but ultimately it left me wishing he had simply told the story he started with and left the future stuff for future books. To frustrate me even more, after finishing the novel I learned it's the first book of a planned trilogy, which really left me scratching my head. I still don't see the reason he crammed so much into this first book.

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine helped me learn about wine, or more precisely, the world of wine collecting. A world I will never be a part of based on the fact that I am not rich. But I don't think I'm missing much anyway; it's not that different from the kids of my youth collecting baseball cards, right down to the bullies who gyp you out of your favorite Tony Phillips' rookie card. Um, not that I would know anything about that.

I do enjoy reading a good thriller every now and then. Still Life with Crows (Pendergast, Book 4) fit that bill nicely. Predictable, absurd, gruesome and easy to read, I breezed through Douglas Preston's and Lincoln Child's umpteenth take on a serial killer, and gobbled it right up. What of course it didn't prepare me for was The Cell: Inside The 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It a detailed look at how and why 9/11 happened. At different times I believe everyone and no one should read this book, as it delves into exactly how it was planned, and exactly how our country let it happen. While it goes a long way to simply report the events leading up to that fateful day without pointing fingers of blame, it's easy to read between the lines. And it's also easy to see it wasn't anyone party's or individual's fault. It was one domino placed after the last, which ultimately only required a simple nudge.

Finishing that last book on December 29th, I decided that would be it for 2010, 30 books short of my self-imposed goal. But instead of being disappointed at coming up so short, I felt satisfied, realizing I had rediscovered my love for books and found I could still find time for serious book reading in an already hectic existence.

Plus, it gave me new motivation for completing the challenge in 2011. So, until next year...

(If you've made it this far, and received even the slightest bit of interest with the reading, please feel free to recommend a book for my 2011 list. I'm always looking for new, interesting titles, and as you have read, I have many interests and won't discriminate. I can't guarantee I will read it, but I will certainly appreciate the suggestion.)


Anonymous said...

NEWS ALERT- S&S announced that the anonymous author of “O - A Presidential Novel” is E.A. Blayre III.
His other works:

@lemoneyes said...

These are both historical novels with a female main character. I'm recommending them because I learned very interesting history from them. The first is A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. It is set in France during and just after WW I. The story is complex but interesting. I feel the book gave me a sense of what the trench warfare that was the distinctive feature of that war was like and how awful it was to endure. I know the book was made into a movie but I haven't seen it.

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman is one of my favorite novels. It is set in England in 1830 and focuses on the effort to create modern medicine. At that time some doctors wanted to learn about how the human body works by doing autopsies but autopsies were illegal. I knew about this historical conflict and had always sided with the doctors, of course. I had dismissed the people who opposed autopsies as ignorant and irrational. This novel provides a historical perspective that explained the opponents and gave me sympathy for them. Before I read this book I would have said it was impossible for anything to make me sympathize with people who were so clearly on the wrong side of history.

Both of these books are very well-written and fall into the category of "literary novels." However unlike many "literary novels" both of these have plots. If you were going to pick just one of the two I would suggest The Dress Lodger. I think it is a faster read and it provides a perspective I don't think you'll find anywhere else.

Whatever you decide to read in 2011 - happy reading.

@lemoneyes on Twitter

khop said...

what a great idea. i totally wish I'd kept better track of what I read this year. besides blogs, twitter feeds and facebook new feed that is. couple rec's, although i tend to be about 5 years behind in my reading, so you may have already read all of these:

The Book Thief - by far my favorite of the year and will certainly get a repeat read at some point.
The Shadow of the Wind - hard start, but then got into it, and it made me want to learn something about history which is impressive.
Little Bee - reminds us what charmed lives we lead.
The Girl Who series - assuming you've read these, but if you haven't i found them entertaining and a nice mental vacation
Middlesex - leaves you happy you just have one set of parts.
The Given Day - only 150 pages in, but comes highly recommended. not my favorite genre, but shows promise.
Friday Night Lights - Only 50 pages in, but interesting so far.

Never ever read Beatrice and Virgil. Almost ruined a perfectly good trip to Puerto Rico.

Goose said...

Khop... is an excellent resource to keep track of your book reading. That's what i use.

Thanks for the recs. Read Dragon Tattoo and hated it, so i doubt I'll go further. Also read Friday Night Lights a long time ago and was accused by the author of stealing his jacket. But that's a long story.