Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Month in Books (February)

February wasn't quite as good a month for reading as January was, in that I only read eight books instead of ten, but in my defense February is a shorter month than January and one of the books I am currently reading is really long. Still, I've liked most of what I've read this month, and here they are, in order of completion:

1) I picked up Lucy Snyder's Soft Apocalypses during a one-day Kindle discount sale in January, but it's kind of weird that I've never read any of her work before. She and I have been Facebook friends for a few years because we have mutual friends and befriended each other through mutual commenting on those friends' posts, but somehow I haven't gotten around to reading any of her work until this month.

I shouldn't have waited this long, because I liked it, and already ordered more.

The book was an interesting collection of science fiction and horror stories. Most of them deal with apocalyptic near-futures, but there are also a couple set in the present day. The horror is mostly good and creepy, although there are a few gross moments in the first story, and the near-future stories blended horror and science fiction in ways that made me wish the story would continue in a few cases. Overall, like I said, I liked it.

2) Robert McCammon's The Hunter from the Woods isn't exactly a sequel, but stars Michael Gallatin, the Nazi-fighting secret agent werewolf from The Wolf's Hour. Both of the books are a lot better than they sound based on that short description, as my first thought when I hear "Nazi-fighting secret agent werewolf" is to wonder what grade the kid who thought up that concept was in, but they're worth a look if you like war stories and if you like werewolf stories. If you like them both together, then hey, this might be the pair of books for you.

This one delves both into Gallatin's past before the first book and his future after it. There's a little violence, and some sex, but there are also some good, suspenseful stories about war and the nature of "the enemy". The ending leaves open the possibility for McCammon to revisit the character again, but as yet there is no word on his website of whether or not this is planned.

3) I had trouble summarizing Frederick Kaufman's A Short History of the American Stomach, and I also had trouble reading it. For a short book, it was a long, slow read. It's about the way that the American public relates to food, but lacks a tight focus that would make it easy to summarize. It's mostly about the national obsession with dieting trends, from Puritan era purges and fasting to dieting in the modern sense, but is really just a historical sampling of that idea and doesn't seem fully complete. I kind of forced my way through this because it wasn't funny, or informative, or even really that interesting, and it seemed like it should be.

4) J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World takes the reader to the tropical, sunken ruins of London, some time in the near future. A series of solar flares has burned off part of the atmosphere, leaving the Earth a much hotter place of rising seas and completely melted ice caps, overrun by scavengers, refugees, and flora and fauna mutated by the increased radiation from space. Are the lizards, plants, and giant insects devolving? And will humanity follow?

I was never clear on why the protagonist, a biologist, did a lot of the things he did, especially toward the end of the story, or the motivations of the other two main characters. I wanted to like this, because I really liked High Rise when I read it last year, but after the descriptions of savage nature and sunken ruins there needs to be a reason to care about the characters, and I didn't really find that here. I didn't dislike the book, but I didn't especially like it, either. It turned out to just be something I read.

5) Greg Mortenson, a proponent of education and alleged builder of schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and has enjoyed weeks on the bestseller lists for the books chronicling his work, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. He's faced death on the Himalayas, been kidnapped by the Taliban, and marched alone into distant mountains to further the education of poor children at the edge of civilization. Unfortunately, as Jon Krakauer carefully documents in Three Cups of Deceit, all of his stories are lies, and he has for years treated CAI, the charity allegedly building schools in his name, as his personal ATM. The book is short, but ultimately devastating, as Krakauer methodically dismantles all of Mortenson's personal mythology and outlines all of the ways that his foundation and board of directors has enabled this to continue. I enjoyed the read even though I have no personal investment in that charity.

6) Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming is a story about people who want to be lost. John Johnson, movie producer, and Susan Colgate, former pageant winner turned actress, both walk away from their lives, in hope of finding something vague and undefined. Johnson's departure is planned, a liquidation of all of his assets followed by a walk into homelessness, while Colgate's is completely unplanned: she walks away unharmed from a plane crash in which everyone else dies, and is believed dead for a year. Now, John meets Susan at lunch, Susan vanishes again, and John sets out to try to find her. Will he succeed? Why does he want to? And how do their past disappearances shape the present one?

I sort of liked this book, but that's my problem with Coupland. I really liked the first one of his books that I read, and every book after that has been a case of diminishing returns. The best thing I can say here is that I am ambivalent, which is a compliment compared to how much I hated The Gum Thief, so maybe my Coupland stock is on the rise, or maybe I've just hit rock bottom with him and can sink no lower. Either way, I have the same problem with Jane Smiley, and am starting to think I might with Joyce Carol Oates as well. I liked that first one, but maybe shouldn't have ever read any more after that.

7) I don't usually count graphic novels in my yearly book total, but I'm going to make an exception for Ande Parks' Capote in Kansas, which tells the story of Capote's trip to Kansas to write In Cold Blood in stark, black and white visuals. The book opens with the heartbreaking death of the Clutter family, and does a really good job of showing Capote's alienation and isolation throughout his life and his difficulty in being accepted by a wounded Kansas town that's suspicious of outsiders. The only thing that doesn't work, to me, is the inclusion of the ghost of teenage Nancy Clutter, who follows Capote through the story and sometimes acts as his only friend. I get that she's there to show the human side of the story, and also to act at times as Capote's conscience and guilt over exploiting their deaths for his own gain as a writer, but those purposes are already served by other parts of the story. Some of her scenes are very powerful, but the final one comes off as a little too whimsical and "happy ending" for what is actually a pretty dark story.

8) John Grisham's Calico Joe introduces us to three baseball players: Joe Castle, a dazzling rookie pulled up from the minors who can't stop hitting home runs; Warren Tracey, an angry, drunk veteran who is a horrible father and a terrible person; and Paul Tracey, Warren's son, who plays the last baseball game of his life at the age of 11. Moving back and forth between Castle's rookie season in 1973 and the present, Grisham charts a collision course between the three and the impact it has on the rest of their lives. This was short, and at times somewhat predictable, but not a bad read.

What's weird to me is that I hate watching baseball. I will go to baseball games if invited because I like the park atmosphere and the food, but actually watching the game bores me to tears, and I never do at home. I love reading books about baseball, though, and rarely come across one that I don't like. I just kind of wish that doing so would somehow make me like watching the game more.

Anyway, that's it for February. My yearly book total at the end of this month stands at 18.

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