Sunday, January 1, 2012

52, And Then Some: My 2011 Reading List

I don't know what happened this year. I made my usual resolution to read 52 books this year, expecting to meet with my usual level of success. In 2007 I read 49 out of 52, in 2008 only 44/52, in 2009 53/52, and in 2010 a respectable 52/52, even if I was still trying to finish the last book on New Year's Eve. In 2011, I didn't have that problem. I actually could have stopped reading in October, because somehow that's when I hit 52 books.

My tally for the year is 76/52.

I have no idea how that happened. I didn't do anything special, or set aside any extra time to read or anything. All of a sudden, I guess I just started reading really fast or something.

That said, here's my list for the year, with a warning that I do swear a little in some of my notes, but some of these books deserved a good cursing:

1/52: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom became the first book of the year for me because I was too scared to start a book that long so close to the end of last year. I have no idea what I was supposed to get out of this book. I wasn't angry, depressed, or moved, just slightly annoyed. I'm also not sure why Oprah chose this for her book club. It's pretty anti-the American middle and upper middle class, and wasn't that the target market for her show?

2/52: Amy Sedaris' Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People was cute and funny, but my friend Sara wasn't kidding when she said that any crafts actually made from the instructions in this book would be pretty shitty. I guess it inspired me a little for my crafts project for the year, in which I was supposed to send something handmade to six people on Facebook, but I still haven't met that goal.

3/52: Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol started out fast and interesting, and ground down into "How can this book not be over yet?" territory with a protracted ending that just kept ending and ending and ending. It did remind me, though, that I havent ever toured the National Cathedral, so I kind of want to visit DC for a weekend now. Also, as much as I like and expect shocking twists in books like this, one of the ones here was so ridiculous and ludicrous that it pretty much ruined the rest of the book for me. I have no idea what that twist was, since I didn't include it in my notes, and I'm sure as hell not rereading this just to find out why I didn't like it.

4/52: I reacted pretty strongly to Julie Powell's Cleaving. At twenty pages in, I wanted to punch her in the face. When the book opens, she's already been having an affair for two years, her husband knows about it and forgives her EVEN THOUGH SHE'S OPENLY HAVING AN AFFAIR*, and she doesn't want to leave him because of all the nice things about being married but she also doesn't want to stop having her affair because having sexy forbidden sex is hot. I hate her so much.

They even talk about it. Like she spends the whole night while they're watching movies checking her blackberry, and her husband is like, "Sorry he hasn't texted you all night," and she starts discussing how terribly neglected by her boyfriend she feels WITH HER HUSBAND.

Now that I finished the book I still want to punch her in the face, and I realized that if she is still working in the butcher shop that she was working at in the end of the book then I actually could, because it's only a few blocks from my grandparents' house.

On the plus side, I have to admire her for being honest enough to write a whole book whose basic message is "I'm a fuckup. Also, I'm selfish." She doesn't shy away from it at all. Also, I feel a little bad for her because I know what it's like to be in love with someone to the point that everything makes you think of them and you spend the entire day hoping that they'll call and throw you a scrap of attention and then you drink yourself to sleep because he doesn't. Yeah, I've done that. It sucks. The difference would be that I wasn't already married to someone else when I fell in that kind of love.

And no, I'm not judging her for being a cheating spouse. I've had friends who cheated, I've helped cover up for friends who cheated, and back when I was young and thin and had a full head of hair a guy cheated on his fiancee with me for a couple of months. Clearly, my moral standard is far from spotless in this particular area, but Julie Powell presents us with a husband who has absolutely no flaws. He doesn't lie to her, doesn't beat her, isn't the wrong gender, isn't already cheating on her with someone else; according to her, there is nothing wrong with him and he is perfect, and it's really hard to feel sympathy for someone who has someone who is perfect and still feels like she deserves something more. I'd even be less enraged if this was a book about leaving her perfect husband, but it's not. She wants to have a boyfriend for hot sex and a husband for everything else, which isn't fair to either man.

Also, I learned a lot about butchering.

5/52: Thomas Tryon's Crowned Heads is a set of four short stories about Hollywood stars capped by a very short story that ties them all together. "Fedora" tells the story of an ageless movie star and her horrible secret, "Lorna" is the story of a pinup queen gone to seed, "Bobbit" shows a former child star unable to admit that he's grown up, and "Willie" is the story of an old Hollywood legend alone in his house in the hills when strangers knock on his door. The stories are rumored to be based on specific people, but it's more obvious in some cases than others, and it seems pretty clear that Tryon was not a fan of Hollywood after his time there as an actor.

6/52: Last Christmas I saw a lot of people buying David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk for kids, but now that I've read it I have to say that a lot of those people probably didn't read the book first. Yes, these are stories about cute little animals that act like people, but they're also cute little animals that get AIDS, cheat on their spouses, argue about racism, fight about religion, and act like people that you wouldn't actually like. I thought it was cute, but maybe for teenagers and adults.

7/52: Peter Straub's A Dark Matter tells the story of a writer whose wife and high school friends all participated in a secret ritual in a deserted meadow in the 1960's without the writer. One kid vanishes, one spends the next 40 years in an asylum, one goes blind, one becomes a professional thief, one becomes the wife of a Republican senator, one ends up a slave to the guru who ran the ritual, and one gets bitten in half during the ritual by something with enormous teeth. The writer, at a loss for a new book, tries to put together what actually happened in the meadow by interviewing everyone who's still alive. It was a interesting, but not horrifying (as promised on the cover).

8/52: Poppy Bright's Wormwood was an interesting collection of short, disturbing stories.

9/52: After my friend Jackie mentioned reading Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I realized I had it on one of my unread books piles, so I read it, and I liked it. I noticed that there was a movie adaptation, but when I read the synopsis and reviews, I realized that the movie completely eliminates Arthur Lecompte from the story, and merges some of his characteristics with another character. This left me not wanting to watch the movie.

10/52: Curtis Sittenfeld's The Man of My Dreams teaches us that you have to love yourself before you can really find anyone else who loves you. A week after I read it, I couldn't remember anything about this book. It left no impression at all.

11/52: Bill Bryson's African Diary was a short but funny chronicle of his week in Kenya, touring CARE sites. It's weird how the message here, that people in developing nations need help, is the same as in Mountains Beyond Mountains, but reading that book made me want to punch people in the face and reading this book makes me want to go on a trip with Bill Bryson.

12/52: David Grann's The Lost City of Z was a great, educational yet entertaining read. It tells the story of how Percy Fawcett, a legendary British explorer, vanished into the Amazon jungle in 1925 searching for evidence of an unknown, advanced civilization deep in the Brazilian rainforest and how at least a hundred people vanished or died trying to find out what happened to him. The author eventually travels to the jungle to search for Fawcett, too, and while he doesn't find him he does find the Lost City of Z, sort of. Also, I learned that there are bees in the Amazon rainforest that sting you in the eyes ON PURPOSE. Now I have another place to never ever visit ever.

13/52: I read "Real Housewives of New York" Countess LuAnn's book, Class with the Countess, which I got for a dollar at Borders, and wrote an extremely classy blog entry about it.

14/52: Juanitta Baldwin and Ester Grubb's Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains was interesting, but really needed an editor. There were sentences without punctuation and paragraphs with no structure, but the stories themselves were intriguing. One of the people even disappeared from a trail that I've been on!

15/52: Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust was bleak, the first one more than the second. They're both very well written, but it's hard to say I liked them. Mostly I just felt depressed and crushed beneath the ugliness of human nature.

16/52: H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was free from the Kindle store, and it has been several years since I read it, so I downloaded it with my free Kindle app for the iPad. It's still good, and is now the first e-book I've ever read.

17/52: Pearl S. Buck's Death in the Castle was really tense, although it started a little slow. It's the story of two broke English aristocrats who agree to sell their castle to an American, but when the American gets there he explains that he's moving the castle to America. The Brits are angry, the castle is haunted, the American is in love with the maid, there might be hidden treasure behind one of the secret doors, and then there's the murdering. I guess I didn't expect a modern thriller from a Nobel prize winner.

18/52: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go started out a little confusing, then turned sad as you realized what was really going on in the book, and then it should have been bleak and hopeless but instead it still managed to be touching and heartbreaking instead.

19/52: Tad Williams' Caliban's Hour retells The Tempest from Caliban's point of view, opening twenty years later when Caliban has made his way to Milan, intent on revenge against Prospero and Miranda. Prospero has died, but Miranda, now a matron, is helplessly forced to listen all night as Caliban shares his tale and counts down the minutes before he kills her. I never really liked "The Tempest", but I really enjoyed this book.

20/52: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was beautiful and wonderful and when I got to the end I cried and cried and cried and that burned my eyes a little. It's the story of a little endangered orphan boy, and how a graveyard full of ghosts adopts him and raises him as their own while trying to keep him safe.

21/52: I bought Steven Paul Davies' Out at the Movies to donate to the resource center because we don't have a lot of pop-cultural books, but then I decided to read it first. It's definitely, as it said, a history of "gay" cinema, because it more or less ignores lesbian movies. A few are mentioned, but it focuses on films about men. It goes decade by decade, but includes a lot of plot summaries and not as much discussion of cinema as a craft. The author also spends pages praising "Brokeback Mountain", which he pretty much considers the pinnacle of gay film, so I took the whole book with a grain of salt.

22/52: Jennifer Egan's The Keep was really engaging. It tells the story of two cousins who reunite after a horrible prank gone wrong in their teenage years at a castle in Europe, but the story is actually told by a narrator in prison who isn't either cousin. Once the cousins actually reunite, things go off the rails rather quickly and keep getting worse, while at the same time things in prison start a downward spiral and then all of a sudden both stories slam together and it turns out to be a really good read with surprising depth at the end.

23/52: I didn't like Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates as much as I did Assassination Vacation. It was interesting, but slower moving.

24/52: I can't believe I didn't read Roger Manley's Weird Tennessee before now, but then I realized it hasn't been out that long. I've had the one for New York for years, but I guess it takes a while to work your way through all the states. There are a lot of things here that I haven't seen before, but I was kind of excited to see how many of them I have been to. I feel almost like a native.

25/52: Ramsey Campbell's Obsession tells the story of four teenage friends who receive a mysterious letter promising to grant what they most need. Of course, when they get it, it turns out to be one of those horrible "Monkey's Paw" type wishes, and ruins their lives. Even worse, when they all grow up, the price of the wishes comes due, and it's twice as bad as the wishes were. I found this to be ok at first, but I got a little bored in the last hundred pages and just kind of slogged through.

26/52: Joe Hill's Horns tells a story of revenge where the Devil is the good guy. Ig Perrish has spent a year in hell, suspected of murdering his girlfriend by everyone who knows him. Outcast and shunned, he wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his temples, and discovers that they can make people tell him things and can make people do things, terrible things that maybe aren't so terrible after all.

27/52: I love F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by the time I finished The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories I kind of felt like I'd had just enough of F. Scott for a little while. I really enjoyed "Bernice Bobs Her Hair", "The Offshore Pirate", rereading "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", and the title story, but a few of the others were a little heavy and sanctimonious. They seemed almost out of character.

28/52: Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to Less Than Zero, sure was a Bret Easton Ellis book: morally ambiguous characters with no sense of direction, a vague plot, gratuitous sex and violence, drugs, and a vaguely empty feeling when you finish it like you're not sure you even read a book at all. It's the literary equivalent to a breeze blowing past a restaurant: it smells good for a second, but isn't really nourishing.

29/52: I suddenly felt like rereading Stephen King's Carrie again. I still like it, but am still annoyed that he forgot who the character of Stella Horan was between the beginning of the story and the end of the story, and the editor never caught it. Stella is Carrie's teenaged neighbor when Carrie is three years old, but later in the book she's one of Carrie's high school classmates. This has irked me since the first time I read the book.

30/52: John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let Me In, also known as "Let the Right One In" was creepy and disturbing and so good. Every time I thought it had reached a threshhold of disturbingness, something new and horrible popped up on top of that. Adding in that it was also pretty suspenseful, it made for a really good read.

31/52: David Sinclair's The Land That Never Was tells the story of Sir Gregor MacGregor, a con man in the 1800's who convinced hundreds, possibly thousands, of people to invest in the South American country of Poyais. He had an embassy, bonds, commissions for the army, ships ready to go, books and reports about the country and the GDP, and hundreds of Scottish colonists who left on ships to start the colonization. Then they got to South America and found out that there was no country of Poyais, and hundreds of them died before the rest got back to England and sued. Then MacGregor moved to France, and did the whole thing again. It would be funny, if not so sad.

32/52: When I saw Fred Rosen's Lobster Boy at the used bookstore, I thought, "That looks like something my friend Kim would read!" and it turned out to be morbid and fascinating. I liked it a lot.

33/52: Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was good, but also depressing. It tells the story of a poor woman, Henrietta Lacks, who went to Johns Hopkins for charity medical care and had samples of a cervical tumor taken without her consent or knowledge. She died, but the tumor cells lived on as the HeLa line, one of the first human cell lines to survive and grow in a laboratory. The HeLa cells eventually spawned billion dollar industries, helped cure polio, and led to countless medical advances, but Henrietta's descendants are too poor to afford medical care or schooling, and the world has never known who the woman behind the cells was, how she lived, or what she left behind.

The worst part was an interview with this lady scientist who helped take her children's blood under somewhat false pretenses, so that they could figure out the HeLa DNA and use it to know if cell cultures in their labs had been contaminated. The children thought it was part of a cancer screening, to make sure they didn't have what their mother died from, and no one told them different because they were afraid that the children wouldn't donate the blood otherwise.

The scientist lady is like, "It's terrible. I feel really bad for their whole family. If you talk to them, could you tell them I said so, and then tell them that I'd really like more blood if they ever feel like giving any?"

34/52: Michael Chabon's The Final Solution tells the WWII-era story of an old, retired, once-famous British detective who is called in by the local village police to investigate a murdered boarder at the rooming house and the missing parrot of a young, mute, German refugee staying there. The bird speaks only six-digit strings of German numbers, the meaning of which is the focus of the second mystery in the novel, and while the detective never grasps what they mean the reader, who has the historical perspective of the end of the war, comes to a sad and heartbreaking realization at the end.

35/52: George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London was a semi-autobiographic tour of Paris and London for a few years as a member of the working poor. I learned that when you are poor, there are a lot of bugs everywhere.

36/52: Stephen Baxter's Ark was the excellent sequel to a book of his I read last year or the year before, Flood, and picks up right where that book left off. It's hard to say this is a good book, because it doesn't really stand alone without the other book, but together, they make an entertaining story.

37/52: John N. Nance's Orbit tells the story of Kip Dawson, a man who wins a trip on a commercial spaceflight. On the way up, a freak accident kills the pilot and knocks out the radio, leaving him stranded in orbit alone with no hope of rescue. Finding a laptop in the cabin, he starts writing a long message to his family, telling the story of his life, unaware that the laptop is sending and that the whole world ends up reading as he counts down the five days until his air runs out. The last half of the book, while a little hard to believe, was very tense, and I stayed up kind of late to finish it.

38/52: Every couple of years I suddenly feel like I want to read Margaret Atwood, so at some point I added The Blind Assassin to my reading pile, and now I picked it up and remembered that every couple years when I read a Margaret Atwood book it turns out to be long and kind of slow and I get bored.

39/52: I bought James Patterson (and, in tiny print, Gabrielle Charbonnet)'s Witch and Wizard because it was pretty much the nearest paperback to my hand when we were on a quick store run between work stuff, and it was on a lot of bestseller lists a while ago. It tells the story of a parallel earth USA, where a totalitarian government takes over and begins imprisoning everyone who is different because all of those people actually have magical powers. Whit and Wisteria Allgood are, according to prophecy, the most magical of all and the book tells the story of their imprisonment and escape in their own words. I had a problem with the narrative voice being exactly the same even though the narrator switches back and forth between the two, and also thought that Wisty spent way too much time describing her muscular brother's fantastic abs. I see that there is at least one sequel, but was pretty bored by this and won't be picking it up.

40/52: Chuck Palahniuk's Tell All was entertaining, but such a short, fast read that it turns out that I spent more time waiting to go into Borders to buy it than I did reading the book itself. It tells the story of veteran actress Kathie Kenton, an Old Hollywood survivor of an Elizabeth Taylor-esque personal life and film career, through the eyes of Hazie Coogan, her Thelma Ritter-style employee and companion. As Kathie's career winds down, she is seduced by a handsome young man, and Kathie and Hazie discover that he's already written a tell-all of his love for Kathie, complete with her tragic death. As they work to thwart his efforts, told in constantly revised final tragic chapters, the story descends into a hilarious string of bear attacks, bathtub terror, yakuza assassins, and the utter, final horror of being outlived by Lillian Hellman.

41/52: Mary Higgins Clark's Let Me Call You Sweetheart continues her reign as the Queen of Suspense. This one is about a lady lawyer who starts poking into an old case and suddenly she has to find the real killer and he's menacing her daughter and it might be her ex-husband or it might be her mentor or it might be a mobster or it might be a homosexual jewel thief or it might be a plastic surgeon! And she might fall in love by the end of the book! I mean, really? Does it matter what the specific plot is? You kind of already know what you're getting with one of these.

42/52: Judith O'Brien's Mary Jane retells the origin story of Spider-Man from Mary Jane, the old friend turned girlfriend's point of view. It's an interesting take on a familiar story, but also wanders off into teen girl issues like gossipy friends and getting anorexia because you're too fat to be on the cheerleading team. The weird part, though, is that each chapter has a little pencil drawing of the characters on the opposite page and Harry Osbourne (played by James Franco in the movies), is totally drawn like Kellan Lutz. Not just a little bit, but Kellan Lutz's actual face drawn onto some other body. I have no idea how the illustrator managed to confuse the two.

43/52: Sam Staggs' Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard was entertaining, and made me watch the movie three times while reading the book, but I have the same complaint here that I did when I read his "All About Eve" book (which someone borrowed from me and never returned): when he gets to the part where he talks about references and homages to the movie in other movies, he seems to be really stretching in some places. Just because William Holden wore a bathrobe in another movie, too, doesn't mean that the movie was referencing this one. Sometimes guys are just naked and wet and put on a bathrobe.

44/52: Even though my friend Sara said it was good, I wasnt sure that I would like Megan Abbott's The End of Everything because I really like her noir, period stuff and this was a more modern-era novel. It turns out that Sara was right, though, and I did like it. A lot.

45/52: I enjoyed Chris Kimball's Fannie's Last Supper, in which the author and a team of chefs set out to cook a 12 course meal from Fannie Farmer's Original 1896 Boston Cooking School Cookbook using authentic ingredients and techniques, and I really enjoyed all of the historical background on Fannie Farmer and the evolution of cooking, kitchens, and dining in general, but I also couldn't shake the thought that this really was a rich people's adventure. I know that the higher levels of gastronomy and fine dining have always been reserved for the rich, but he spends two years renovating a Victorian cookstove, buying sterling silver punchbowls, and testing and retesting recipes. While it's kind of fascinatingly repulsive to hear about learning to clean and dress a calf's head, buying 110 year old gold-rimmed glassware to serve sorbet in is an adventure beyond most people's means.

46/52: Edward Lee's The Black Train was supposed to be a scary story about Civil War ghosts in Tennessee, but it wasn't especially scary. It was a little gross, and there was a lot of sex: gay, straight, water sports, incest, ghost sex, bestiality, etc. but it felt kind of like the gross-out moments and the sex were just distractions from how thin the rest of the story was.

47/52: Michael Chabon's A Model World is a collection of short stories, broken into two parts. In the first part, all of the stories seem broken, as if some piece of them is missing. They all involve romance of some sort, but they all read like Chabon has no real idea of how to relate to women or understand them. I don't mean in the "he's secretly gay" sense, but more in the sense that he just seems disconnected and his characters relate to women as if they are a completely foreign species. Part of it might also be that all of the stories are told by male narrators, so the men don't understand the women but the women only act, without ever feeling or explaining themselves. The stories in the second part are all about the same characters at different points in their lives, and while they suffer the same flaws as the first half, they hang together as a whole, as if this was part of a novel that fizzled out.

48/52: I picked up Benjamin Nugent's American Nerd because it was marketed as a quirky, funny, memoir type exploration of what it means to be a nerd in America. Instead it was like a real sociological study, and not really fun at all.

49/52: Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree tells the story of how Karen, a straight A good girl student, spends a summer living with free-spirited Biba and her brother, Rex, in their crumbling family home in London. Ten years later, Karen is picking Rex up outside of prison after he finishes serving for double murder, and she has a ten year old child in the back seat. The story alternates between the past and the present and gets really, really tense, especially when you think you kind of know what happened and it turns out that it isn't what happened at all.

50/52: Les Daniels' Wonder Woman: The Complete Historytells the complete history of the character in the media, from her invention by Dr. William Moulton Marston (who also invented the polygraph machine and lived with both his wife and his mistress in one house for his entire adult life with their shared children) through the TV series and into the present day. It includes a lot of rare photos and artwork from old issues.

51/52: I liked Michael Chabon's short story collection Werewolves in Their Youth much more than I liked "A Model World", because the stories here seemed more complete.

52/52: Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves is long and slow, and you figure out the allegedly shocking plot twist well in advance due to the title of the book, which seems like kind of a poor choice. Anyway, it's the story of five different love stories and one story of theft and blackmail told via the intersection of a story of vandalism, therapy, and obsession.

53/52: Rebecca Coleman's The Kingdom of Childhood (not to be confused with the teaching manual of the same name) tells the story of Judy, a kindergarten teacher, and Zach, the 16 year old classmate of her son that she starts having an affair with. At first, her affair seems kind of bizarre and motivationless, but then the story starts flashing back to her childhood and how she got to be this way, and the whole thing takes a really dark, scary turn really fast. It was good, but not at all the story I thought I was getting.

54/52: Thomas Tryon's Lady was a slow, sometimes aimless coming of age story about a boy and his rich neighbor, who supports their family but has a terrible secret. In the end, the secret isn't really all that terrible, and while the novel is sometimes touching it oftentimes doesn't seem to really be going anywhere.

55/52: I have to admit that I read Augusten Burroughs' A Wolf at the Table with a high degree of skepticism. After Running With Scissors the family sued and then settled out of court on the grounds that he had exaggerated and that it was not a factually accurate memoir, so part of me questions why Burroughs waited until his father was dead to write a book portraying him as an abusive alcoholic psychopath who terrorizes the family and murders guinea pigs. It's easy to portray a man as a complete monster when he can't defend himself.

56/52: Remember when my friend sent me Todd Gregory's Every Frat Boy Wants It, and it was hilariously awful? Well, my gay book club was advertising the brand new sequel, and it was somehow even worse! Games Frat Boys Play tells the story of Jordy, the Mary Sue-est Mary Sue who ever Mary Sued through a work of fiction. He's a dumpy genius with a 100 million dollar trust fund who speaks four languages and spent his whole life at Swiss boarding school, then decides to go to college and join a frat because he wants friends, to fit in, and to love a boy. Initially rejected by Chad and dissed by Chad's hot minions (think Regina George and the Plastics, but as gay boys instead of drag queens), he is invited to join the fraternity after they spot his Tag Heuer watch and realize that he's secretly rich. Chad still doesn't want him, so Jordy spends Christmas break working out a lot and becoming super buff, then uses his mad computer hacking skillz, huge trust fund, and genius brain to exact his revenge while also banging his way through an endless stream of gay clubgoers, personal trainers, and drunken straight guys who all find him irresistable now that he's hot.

57/52: Black Swan Rising says it's by Lee Carroll, but it's not! Lee Carroll is actually the pen name that Carol Goodman and her husband Lee Slonimsky used to write this fantasy novel together. It tells the story of Garet James, a jewelry designer who wanders into a strange shop and is offered a thousand dollars to open a silver box. Once she does, all sorts of things are unleashed, she finds out she has a magical destiny, and she has to work with fairies and vampires and dragons to stop an ancient evil from destroying Manhattan. It's a departure from Goodman's usual stuff, but it's a pretty good read.

58/52: Rereading The Secret History is like visiting a place that you love, and having the trip actually go well. I should write about this book someday.

59/52: Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy, which tells the story of a foreign terrorist operative implanted in the US under the guise of a high school exchange student, is clearly supposed to be a satire on the consumerist, falsely religious culture so common in America, but everything Palahniuk has to say here feels like it's been said before, and the story itself ultimately falls flat.

60/52: I really enjoyed Tobias Wolff's Old School, which tells the story of a boys' prep school where every quarter the students compete for an audience with a visiting writer, and how the competition slowly destroys all of their friendships. Ayn Rand is pretty savaged by Wolff, but from what I've read her depiction was pretty accurate.

61/52: Mary Higgins Clark's Just Take My Heart tells the story of a courageous widowed district attorney prosecuting a man accused of killing his famous actress wife while also in the sights of a notorious serial killer. She finds herself behaving oddly, and filled with strange feelings toward the defendant, and maybe it's because she had a heart transplant on the same day that the famous actress was killed and the actress was an organ donor and donated her heart to a young widow, because this is entirely mathematically possible, right?

62/52: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Cemetary Dance was a diverting story of murder and police and animal sacrifice and the FBI and voodoo and zombies.

63/52: I read Frank Gray's Scoremanship and wrote a blog entry about it. Now I know how to score with any chick, anywhere, just in case I ever want to.

64/52: Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour was interesting, but I like Bourdain a lot more when he is being honest and funny. Too often in this book he seems kind of almost lecturing, like when he's talking about the American war in Vietnam and how awful it was and how we all have moral responsibility for it or how vegetarians need to stop lecturing from the comfort of their own homes when poor people in Cambodia have to eat chicken or die. I'd find his moral posturing more convincing if he wasn't delivering it while discussing the fact that someone payed him to fly around the world, eat, and write a book about it.

65/52: Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of short stories set in the universe of her other book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It was entertaining, but mostly reminded me that she hasn't written another book since, and that I really liked that first one.

66/52: Christopher Pike's Falling was another of his attempts to write an "adult" book instead of those teenage horror thrillers that I read all of in junior high. This one was an FBI thriller about serial killers and kidnapping and gritty FBI agents with dark pasts, but remember when Jesse from "Saved By the Bell" decided to go straight to "Showgirls" and it was all nipples and seizures in the pool and fuck fuck fuckity fuck with the swearing and the "Look! Look how grown up I am!" and it was awful? This book was kind of like that, in that all the FBI agents were constantly talking about cock and pussy and blowjobs and "look at the huge cock on that suspect" (someone in the book actually says that), and it was also kind of awful, especially the agent who broke all the rules to find justice but somehow didn't get fired. TWICE.

67/52: I found Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker in the free book bin at McKay's (oddly, they gave me store credit when I brought it back; I guess the demand changed or something), and decided to pick it up because it was about the financial industry and I had a vague idea that if I read it I would understand more about my friend Keri's job. It turned out to be kind of interesting and pretty entertaining for a layperson, and now I understand Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac better, and bailouts, and buyouts, and junk bonds, and how awful it must be to be a woman in the financial industry, at least in the 1980's.

68/52: I reread Dominick Dunne's The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and enjoyed it. It makes me want to reread some of his other books, since it's been a while since I picked up most of them and I've always found them kind of breezy and comfortable.

69/52: Rick Riordan's The Titan's Curse is the third book in the Percy Jackson series, and follows the kids on yet another impossible quest with yet another impossible deadline. I enjoyed the book, but it felt pretty similar to the one before it.

70/52: Rock Riordan's Battle of the Labyrinth, the 4th book in the Percy Jackson series, makes me kind of wonder if Percy Jackson might be a little dumb. In book chronology, he's known that he's a demigod and that other gods, demigods, and monsters might try to kill him for about three or 4 years, I think, but in all that time he doesn't seem to have done any reading or research to figure out anything about all these other gods. Instead, every time it's like, "Who's Typhon? Who's Janus? What's the Labyrinth?" I think I learned more about mythology reading Wonder Woman comics than this kid has actually being part of the myths. I did like the twists in the story, though.

71/52: I stayed up late at night and got up early in the morning to finish The Last Olympian, the final book in the Percy Jackson series. It's pretty much a book length battle, mostly across the streets and parks of Manhattan, as Percy and his friends make a final stand for Olympus against Kronos, lord of the Titans, and it ties up the series really well.

72/52: I reread Martha Sherrill's My Last Movie Star and then sort of wrote about it.

73/52: Mark Mills' The Savage Garden is a mystery that turns out to be a double mystery. Adam, a student from Cambridge, comes to a villa in Tuscany to study and write about a famous garden. As he works it becomes clear that the symbolism in the garden points toward a story of adultery and murder, but at the same time the mysteriously sealed third floor of the villa seems to point to another, much more recent murder. As the danger around Adam grows, it becomes clear that someone is manipulating him into discovering the truth, but who and why? I really enjoyed this, although it was a little slow at the beginning.

74/52: My friend Kim sent me Richard Benson's F in Exams, a collection of real, hilariously bad answers to test questions, and it made me laugh and laugh.

75/52: Back when the movie Notes on a Scandal came out there was a lot of discussion about how it made the teacher too sympathetic, and downplayed that she was a child molestor. I remember reading a lot of articles that talked about the differences in the way society perceives a female student sleeping with a male teacher and a male student sleeping with a female teacher, and even reading something in a men's magazine that talked about how the fathers don't know what to say, because really they're so proud of their sons for nailing a hot older babe and society won't let them say it. (Classy, I know, but a lot of men's magazines are like that. See articles like this one about studies showing that men's magazines and convicted rapists using the same language to describe women.) In Boy Toy, Barry Lyga definitely presents the opposing view, and reminds us that these kids are victims, not studs. It's the story of Josh Mendel and how five years ago his affair with his history teacher completely destroyed his life. He's angry, can't talk to or touch girls, is anti-social, and now when he's about to graduate high school his former teacher is getting out on parole, his baseball team has the biggest game of the season coming up, and he has to decide where to go to college while all of the old memories come flooding back. It's a good book, but sometimes painful to read.

76/52: I'm With the Bears: Stories From a Damaged Planet, edited by Mark Martin, was a fast but depressing read. The stories are well written and interesting, but it gets a little sad reading endless drought, famine, deforestation, starvation, fighting, etc.

So, yeah, that's a pretty long year of reading and, as always, doesn't include cookbooks and comics. For 2012, I'm just going to resolve to read 52 books again, and see what happens.


Lauren P. said...

1-I have been looking forward to your list!
2-I almost picked up Cleaving-but didn't because I assumed it would be frustrating-good to know it was.
3-I read Never Let Me Go as well. Did you watch the movie? I haven't yet.

Amazing reading, Joel!

stanford said...

Nicely done, Joel. I have to say, the volume of material you metabolize astonishes me. I'd love to hear more about when and how you read.

Also, I agree with Lauren, as January 1 approaches I start to think 'I wonder how Joel did this year and what cool new books he'll put on my radar.'

Very interesting and helpful as usual!

JMBower said...

so many books....I read your post and Stan's, and then started my own...and hung my head in deep deep shame, for both numbers and quality of literature read. I humbly bow to your literary dominance. There were a few there that I might be interested in, thanks for the reviews!

and I'll third the "This list is how I figure out what how I'll add to my reading next year" notion.

strong cookie. said...

this is simply my favorite post of the year. I realized that I had forgotten to include a few books on my list this year, so I am going to have to keep better track like you!

I am adding a lot of these to my wish list.

Thanks Joel!