Sunday, June 21, 2015

Last Year's Best Books

After the massive size of last year's report of all the books I read, I started a new project this year, where I give a monthly report. I think it's working out a little better, in that the eight or so friends who actually care what I'm reading can now consider it in smaller doses, but one of them complained this week that she still hadn't made it through my end of the year report from last year:

"It's like a wall of words. It goes on forever, and I get about halfway down and I just can't read anymore."

On the one hand, I get that. Writing that post was exhausting, and reading it probably also is. On the other hand, I kind of wonder how you're going to read a book if you can't make it through a blog entry, but hey, maybe I'm just being a bitch and responding poorly to criticism. That's also possible, and actually probably. With that in mind, though, I figured I might as well sum up the best of the 87 books I read. They're in no particular order, but I figure if they still stand out to me halfway through this year, then they probably actually were pretty good.

1) Peter Bracke's Crystal Lake Memories

I said this about it: Peter Bracke's "Crystal Lake Memories" really is the ultimate book for any fan of the "Friday the 13th" movies. Bracke spent over three years conducting over 200 interviews with producers, distributors, writers, directors, actors, stuntpeople, composers, costumers, makeup artists, and anyone else who worked on the film series, as well as reviewing studio documents and archives. What comes out of that is a fascinating oral history of the series combined with an almost overwhelming collection of images. There's at least one image on every page, but what really makes this book is the recollections and anecdotes from the people involved. While some of it is fascinating from a filmmaking perspective, delving into direction, casting, setting up special effects shots, challenging the ratings board, and funding, the stories of friendship, rivalry, backstabbing, endless takes, endless rewrites, drugs, sex, religion, and everything in between were compelling. I ended up rewatching almost all of the movies while reading this, and it really does make you see them in different ways. Also, that girl who played telekinetic Tina in part 7 is a real bitch. All of the other actors hated her, and she openly hates all of the other actors. Plus she's really, openly homophobic about her leading man.

This is clearly a labor of love for Bracke, because you don't spend years of your life interviewing people about movies that are most often considered trash unless you really, really love those movies. What I also liked about this, besides that it brought me greater enjoyment of the movies in question, is that it also serves as a tutorial on the moviemaking industry. By interviewing wardrobe, makeup, catering, extras, casting agents, producers, directors, writers, actors, audience members, special effects creators, electricians, set designers, cameramen, sound technicians, and everyone else involved in making the "Friday the 13th" movies, Bracke ends up giving a 360 degree education on the way a movie is made, and it's fascinating. Putting that education in the context of films that I already knew made it more interesting and easy to understand, and while this isn't the book for everyone it's definitely a good book for people who plan to work in the film and television industries.

2) John Hersey's Hiroshima

I said this about it: John Hersey's "Hiroshima" was a short, powerful read. While he could easily venture into sensationalism, Hersey sticks with matter of fact, direct accounts from survivors of the city, charting their journeys from minutes before the bomb was dropped to the decades after. Harrowing and often heartbreaking, the book conveys the horrors and consequences of war without being preachy.

I read this because one of my students was talking about reading it on Facebook, and I respect him, so I picked it up. This should be required reading for anyone who talks about war as a solution for the problems and threats facing our nation. I'm not saying we should never go to war, but we should be aware of what we are agreeing to do to other people, and understand that they actually are people who live, and hope, and suffer, and die because of decisions we make. They are human beings, just like we are, and we should think very hard about what we decided that it's necessary to do to them.

3) Laline Paull's The Bees

I said this about it: In Laline Paull's "The Bees", readers are thrust into a matriarchal dystopia where citizens are born to specific roles, deformity and disobedience lead to immediate death, and love of the queen trumps all other concerns. This tiny kingdom of women, where the few men are treated as princes whose only duty is to mate, is your local beehive. Flora 717, a lowly sanitation worker, is born in a time of crisis when the rains are heavy and the summer too short. The hive suffers under this crisis, but there are also hints of trouble within: deformities in the nursery, irregularities in the workers, rumors of illness in the hive, and then there's Flora herself, born with the power of speech and an inquisitive nature not found in her class. Exploring the hive, Flora is drawn deeper into the hidden secrets surrounding the queen even as she tries to protect her own secrets, leading to a confrontation that could destroy her and the hive together. This was a great read, full of detail and tension.

This was a fantastic piece of fiction. On the surface, it seems a little light and inconsequential, but it still sticks out in my head when I look at last year's list as, "Wow, that was a really good book." It was a debut novel from the author, and I look forward to more of her work.

4) Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

I said this about it: Leonor sent me Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist", and at first I wasn't really sure I would enjoy it. As a gay white male, a sort-of feminist essay collection by a sometimes-not-completely-hetero woman of color didn't really seem like something that I would really connect with, but I trust my friend's judgment and gave it a try, and I'm glad I did. Sometimes angry and blunt, sometimes funny, and at all times thoughtful and well-researched, I found that Gay and I had a lot more in common than I expected and felt, at times, that we were kindred spirits. We've both struggled with our weight. We've both worked at times in environments where we hear people saying derogatory things about minority groups that we happen to be part of. We've both fallen in love with seemingly perfect men who didn't love us back and were terrible for our self esteem. We also both have odd hobbies, both watch the same trashy television shows even though we know we should feel bad about it, and we both speak out about the things that bother us about our society. While I didn't agree with everything she said throughout the book, I did enjoy reading her thoughts and letting them spur my own introspection, and overall found the book engaging.

I didn't think I would connect with this book, but I found it relevant, resonant, and powerful.

5) Adrian Walker's The End of the World Running Club

I said this about it: My friend Jackie sent me Adrian Walker's "The End of the World Running Club", and it was a great book to read while I'm working on walking. It tells the story of Edgar Hill, an overweight 35 year old father of two living with his wife in a new house in Scotland. He drinks too much, he's not the best dad in the world, and he kind of hates his job, and on top of all of that the apocalypse arrives. The United Kingdom is devastated, and even though Ed and his family survive, he quickly loses them when a rescue chopper evacuates them while he's out foraging for food. His family has been taken to evacuation ships that are leaving in a month, and Ed has no choice but to follow if he's ever going to see them again. Falling in with a random collection of survivors, Ed and his companions must travel the length of a devastated Great Britain before the boats leave, while trying to find food, shelter, and fighting for survival against the remains of society. On top of all of that, Ed has to wage war with himself, with his poor fitness and health, with the mistakes of his past that continue to haunt him, and with maintaining the will and the drive to survive. I don't know if Adrian Walker is a distance runner, but he writes like one. As a person who is currently on my own quest for fitness, the entire book really resonated with me, including the realistic ending that everyone may not like. There are parts of this book that are really bleak (if you're a realist, then humanity behaves exactly the way you expect them to behave after a disaster), but overall it's very hopeful, and I enjoyed it.

I still think about this book while I'm out walking. Sometimes, when I'm tired, or halfway through my planned distance for a walk, quotes from it will surface in my mind and push me forward. It's possible that this book isn't as good as my brain thought it was, and maybe it just came along at the right time in my life when I needed to hear exactly this story, but I don't care. I liked it.

6) Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple

I said this about it: Kevin Roose is a typical Brown University student: he parties, hooks up, drinks, hangs out in coffeeshops, has plenty of gay friends, and is a lifelong liberal from a family of liberals, which is why his family gets very, very worried about him when he decides that rather than go on a study abroad semester, he'll spend a semester undercover at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University instead. While enrolled at "Bible Boot Camp" he'll join a choir, go to nightly prayer meetings, attempt to save spring breakers, take classes that contradict everything he's been taught, and try to follow Liberty's strict 46 page code of conduct. Along the way, he finds both the expected and the unexpected, and does his best to bridge the "God Gap" between himself and the Christian classmates who surround him. "The Unlikely Disciple" was a really good read, at times touching, funny, thought provoking, and even infuriating.

I don't read a lot of books about religion, but it's sometimes a topic that I struggle with personally. I was so intrigued and moved by this book, which I bought at a church book sale, that I immediately ordered a copy for a friend. I haven't seen my own copy in months, because I let someone borrow it and they asked if they could let someone else borrow it, and off it went. The last update I got while walking across campus was a friend in the Haslam College of Business who said, "Hey! I have your book!" I know it has passed through at least three sets of hands already, and I may never see it again, but that's ok. I think people should read this book. I even recommended it as the "Life of the Mind" book that all freshmen read, but it didn't get picked. I may recommend it again next year.

I'm kind of surprised that this list isn't longer, but as I read through last year's list, there are a lot of books that I look at and think, "Yeah, that was pretty good, but..."

These six are the books that didn't have a "but" after them, so they must be the best.

1 comment:

Marcheline said...

Joel, I know this comment has nothing to do with your post, I just wanted to let you know I'm thrilled with the recent developments regarding gay marriage being made legal all over the U.S.A. I know there's a long way to go yet regarding equality, and there will always be bigots and other stupid people in the world, but this is a huge thing and I'm celebrating for you, with you. FINALLY!