Happy New Year, friends! (And people who might not be friends but may be reading this for some reason anyway.)
Every year for the past several years I have set a goal to read 52 books over the course of the year, and every year on January 1 I look back at the last year and see how I did. As you can see from the title, I did really well this year, achieving my highest end of the year tally ever. I can directly attribute this to one thing: In August I started reading books on my Kindle while using the treadmill. I never really used my Kindle regularly before that, because I always have regular books sitting around in stacks in my living room that need to be read so that they get out of the house. When my friend Leonor sent me a Kindle book, though, I decided to try reading it on the treadmill, and that was all there was to it. From August to the present, I have been constantly reading two books at the same time: an e-book on the treadmill and a regular book off the treadmill. That book was #45, so it worked out to me reading 42 books in 4 months, which is sort of an insane speed even for me.
As in past years, I set a few rules for myself. I usually don't count graphic novels or cookbooks, but I also set a new goal this year: I resolved to post a review of every book that I read on Amazon, because I heard about the Amazon Vine program. If you haven't heard of it, being invited to join it means you are one of the top reviewers on Amazon, and people will send you free books. I figured free books would be a wonderful thing, and I already write a tiny review of each one for this entry, so it seemed worth giving a try.
By December I'd stopped looking at my ranking, even though I was still posting reviews, because I couldn't deal with the highs and lows any more.
I'll look at it for the first time in a few weeks when I get to the end of this entry.
On the way to that, here are the books:
1/52: In The Heavens Rise, Christopher Rice explores new territory: a supernatural thriller. Not only is it a departure for him, but it's also actually good! Niquette and Marshall are unspeakably changed by one dark night in the swamp, and Ben and Anthem are the beest friend and boyfriend that Niquette leaves behind. Now, after almost a decade in a coma, Marshall is coming back for revenge using dark powers that they cannot defend against, and if he can't find Niquette then he's happy to destroy her friends instead.
2/52: Joyland represents an increasingly rare accomplishment for Stephen King of late: a standalone story that has nothing to do with any of his other novels. It may seem familiar from the basic elements (a ghost, a violent murder, a psychic little boy), but instead of retreading old ground King offers a story that is moving, a little bittersweet, and completely readable. In the summer of 1973 Dev, a college kid going through his first breakup with a girl, and his new friends Tom and Erin take jobs at Joyland, a privately owned amusement park in the Carolinas. Although the park is in the business of selling fun, they find out very early that there is also a shadow over it all, in the form of a long ago unsolved murder in the haunted house ride. As they move through summer and into fall, Dev has a lot of growing up to do but is also unknowingly growing closer to a killer who intends to silence him and the new friends that he's made. This was a fast read, but I really enjoyed it.
Amazon reviewer ranking: 4,829,824
3/52: In The Lost Years Mary Higgins Clark gives you exactly what you expected when you decided to read a Mary Higgins Clark book: there's a murder, a mystery, a possibility of more murders, a bunch of red herrings, and a beautiful, single young woman at the center of it all who might fall in love by the end of the book. That doesn't mean that it's a bad book, just that she delivers exactly what she's well known and loved for, and if you want a nice mystery that you can fly through and know that all of the loose ends will be neatly tied up by the end, then this is for you. In this one, Mariah's father is a famous Biblical scholar who may have discovered a lost Vatican treasure, but he's murdered and the lost document disappears. Did Mariah's mother, suffering from Alzheimer's, kill him, or has she been framed by a killer close to the family who may kill again to protect the priceless treasure? The only thing I didn't like about this book was that the exposition in the first chapter seemed a little hamfisted and clunky, which was a surprise given how well Clark's books usually flow.
4/52: Lynne Hall's Strange But True Tennessee is a short collection of places and stories from around the state that are just a little weird but also entertaining. I liked that she gives an address for all of the landmarks and locations, as it put me in mind to take a few day trips based on what's nearby, but the write-ups are very short in some cases where I wanted more information.
5/52: Fire in the Blood, a formerly lost work by Irene Nemirovsky, is a brief but moving portrait of a set of families in a small French village between World War I and II. The entwined lives, loves, and scandals of the village are narrated by Silvio, an old man who left in his youth and returned to grow old in peace, and the secrets of the past are slowly revealed to be as damaging as those of the present. The ending is not only unexpected, but also deeply felt.
Amazon reviewer ranking rose to 3,295,216
6/52: Sam Staggs' Born to be Hurt chronicles the making of the film "Imitation of Life" in extensive, at times exhausting detail. Although the primary focus is on the 1959 version, there are a few chapters dealing with the earlier film and the players involved in making it. For the most part, though, it focuses on Lana Turner, director Douglas Sirk, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore, and to a lesser degree Sandra Dee, although her smaller focus makes sense since she's the smallest part of the four leads. I really like that Staggs doesn't just focus on the movie and the stars, but spends a lot of time placing it in context, both with other films and with the social climate of the time. I also liked that he cuts right to the chase and starts by pointing out that this is a movie about race and racism hidden in a glamorous Lana Turner love story, which allows him to appreciate both aspects of the film equally and with appropriate seriousness when needed.
Amazon reviewer ranking rose to 1,373,063
7/52: Walter Schieb and Andrew Friedman's White House Chef documents the eleven years and two presidential administrations that Schieb spent as the chef in the White House. Hired by the Clintons and continuing until Bush's reelection, Schieb provides a rarely seen perspective on both administrations, chronicling historical moments like the first state dinner for Nelson Mandela or being in the White House on 9/11/01 but interspersing those stories with intimate moments like teaching Chelsea Clinton to cook before she went away to college or discussing the correct way to steam ball park hot dogs with George W. Bush. Schieb also provides a number of recipes from both administrations with short stories about when and how they were served, and offers helpful tips like what order to make the components in and which ones can be made in advance and how to store them until needed. Overall, this was an interesting "behind the scenes" peek at the day to day running of the White House, and I enjoyed it.
8/52: I reread Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner and wrote a whole blog entry about the book, whether or not it is still relevant, and my own personal relationship with queer literature.
9/52: Peter Clines' Ex-Purgatory returns us to his "Ex-Heroes" world of superheroes fighting to save humanity after a zombie apocalypse for a fourth time with a familiar comic book plot: "Everything you know is wrong". Our story opens with George Bailey, a college janitor who dreams every night that he is a superhero, St. George, who can fly and is super strong and fights alongside a band of other superheroes. He assumes these are only dreams until he meets a girl in a wheelchair, Madelyn, who tries to convince him that not only are his dreams real, but that she knows it because she is also a superhero. As readers of the series, we know she's right, but what happened? How did our heroes get here? And how do they get back to the people that depend on them for survival? Clines manages not only to craft an interesting adventure, but also to further illuminate the backstories of the heroes and villains we've come to know in the previous three novels of the saga. It's a fast but satisfying read.
Amazon reviewer ranking: 910,283
10/52: Even though it was written at the beginning of the last century, E.M. Forster's Maurice remains surprisingly resonant today. The coming of age story of young Maurice Hall, we follow his sometimes detached and sometimes painful struggle to adulthood as a gay man at a time when being so and acting on it was illegal. While it could have easily detoured into sensationalism or overwraught prose, Forster strikes just the right balance to help us empathize with Maurice without grounding us in suffering, and the ending is both satisfying and surprising, given the time in which it was written.
Amazon reviewer ranking: 703,252
11/52: J.G. Ballard's High-Rise introduces us to a modern luxury apartment building that has everything you could want: swimming pools, a sculpture garden, a school, a supermarket, a liquor store, and raging class warfare that rapidly spirals into homicidal violence. As hallways are boobytrapped, stairwells are blocked, and elevators are commandeered, social structures and societal norms rapidly break down as the residents descend to their basest nature even as they try to ascend to the topmost floors. I really enjoyed this, but it was a little disturbing for the casual reader. If you're ready for a dark, pointed critique of modern urban life, then this is the book for you.
Amazon reviewer ranking fell to 711,152. I felt crushing disappointment.
12/52: I picked up Shauna Cross' Whip It because I enjoyed the movie. If you like roller derby, you'll kind of like this book, which shows some of the fun of participating but glosses over training, injuries, and getting to know any of the characters besides the narrator. There's no discussion of the background of derby or why any of these women participate in it, leaving the book to focus solely on a narrator whose story, once the glossy trappings of derby are stripped from it, isn't all that original or engaging. It's a typical teenage coming of age novel, and once you strip it of the trend factor that roller derby brings there isn't really anything original left. We've seen this all before, but it's on skates now.
Amazon reviewer ranking rose to 665,789. Amazon loved me again!
Amazon reviewer ranking rose again! 628,047
13/52: Neil Strauss takes the reader backstage on a tour of the music industry in Everyone Loves You When You're Dead, a compilation of almost 300 of his interviews (and about 500 pages) over the years for various publications. What I liked about this was that even though he hits the predictable "big names" (or the people who were big names at the time of the interview), there are also interviews here with other critics, managers, roadies, and fans, and Strauss treats them all the same way that he treats Orlando Bloom or Madonna. (He may actually be even kinder to them than he is to Madonna, as he documents an ego-driven freakout she had in front of him over Green Day leaving a venue before her and therefore seeming more important.) Some people might be put off by the choppy style of the book, as he breaks some of the interviews into multiple parts and places parts of others between them, but that also serves to emphasize connections and comparisons between subjects, and I got used to it really fast.
Amazon reviewer ranking rose again, to 437,220. I was on a runaway schoolbus to Free Books Town!
Amazon reviewer ranking continued to rise: 385,706
14/52: I feel a little bit mislead about Samira Kawash's Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, because the dust jacket promised a "fascinating story" and what I got was a business school textbook about the growth and development of the candy industry. It's a very detailed, very comprehensive look at candy, nutrition, and public perceptions of food, but it's not a very fun read, and I struggled to finish it. Eating candy may be fun, but reading about it in this book felt like studying for a term paper.
Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away. My reviewer ranking fell to 390,184
15/52: Someone recommended Philip Jose Farmer's A Feast Unknown to me as "an updated story of Tarzan and Doc Savage", and if by "updated" you mean "highly sexualized" then yes, this certainly was. There's a flavor of sex here for everyone: gay, straight, bondage, bestiality, incest, adultery, and it's all narrated in graphic detail. There's even an entire chapter about Doc's enormous penis and how Tarzan can't help but be slightly intimidated by it even though we've already heard all about his enormous penis. There were some interesting ideas here about telling superheroic adventure stories in a more adult way and about the link between sex and violence as a basic feature of human nature, but I felt like those ideas were lost in a flood of pretty gratuitous sexual imagery and deliberately raunchy language.
16/52: Peter Straub's Mrs. God is a short, ultimately disturbing haunted house story. Professor William Standish, a mediocre academic with a troubled home life, received permission to visit and study the library at the secluded English estate of Esswood House, a home for writers and poets where Standish's great grandmother worked and died under mysterious circumstances decades before. While exploring her papers and exploring the house, things grow increasingly odd: the same meals are served every day, the servants seem invisible and elusive, his hosts are absent, and the house is filled with hidden doors and stairwells. Is there something wrong with the house, or is there something wrong with Professor Standish? As the book rapidly moves toward a surprising and tense conclusion, the answer may actually be both.
17/52: Jeff VanDerMeer's Annihilation takes us on a scientific mission to a place known as Area X. We don't know for sure where this is, except that it is on the coast, was formerly inhabited, and is now surrounded by some sort of barrier. There have been 11 previous expeditions into Area X, all of which ended in failure and loss of team members, but now a group of four female scientists, stripped of their names and most of their gear, are trying to succeed where those groups failed. Finding a lush wilderness with creatures that are both familiar and also strange, the group begins to fracture almost immediately, weighed down by the secrets of the team members and the secrets of Area X. An exploration of the unknown with an unreliable narrator, this was interesting but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, as much of the story is unresolved. Since it's the first book in a trilogy the answers may be forthcoming, but as a stand alone story it's pretty open ended.
18/52: Robert R. McCammon's I Travel by Night takes us back a few centuries to New Orleans after the Civil War, to introduce us to a different kind of vampire. Trevor Lawson, forced to become a vampire while lying wounded on the battlefield at Shiloh, hasn't turned all the way to the dark side. By not eating enough people, he's held off some of the transformation while holding onto belief in a story that he can become human again by consuming the one who made him. While searching for her, he hires himself out as an adventurer, righting wrongs and helping humans. Now, he's been asked to help find the victim of a kidnapping, but the kidnappers have specifically requested him, laying an elaborate trap that he has no choice but to walk into. This was a fast read, but full of interesting characters, and we can only hope that McCammon visits them again.
My Amazon reviewer ranking continued to fall, dropping to 394,488
19/52: Massimo Francisco Marcone's In Bad Taste details some of Marcone’s adventures as a food scientist, travelling the world to examine the origins, superstitions, and practices surrounding some of the world’s most exotic food. From coffee brewed from beans excreted by cats to edible bird nests and “maggot cheese”, he leaves no stone unturned, but based on the descriptions you sometimes wish he had. It’s one thing to hear that nuts passed through a goat’s digestive tract and quite another thing to read a description of him sifting through goat feces by hand to retrieve the nuts in question. For the sake of authenticity, I guess detail is good, but for a book about food this was very unappetizing.
20/52: Mark Mills' Amagansett takes us to the east end of Long Island in the early 20th century. The fishing industry is in decline, the rich are starting to move in, and right in the middle of this class warfare and changing way of life a local fisherman finds the daughter of a wealthy family dead in his nets. While the coroner declares it a tragic drowning, the fisherman and a local policeman, both struggling with secrets of their own, feel that there’s more to the story, and begin an investigation that endangers not only themselves but the way of life on the island and the shape of the future for the people living there. This was tense and engaging, and filled with historical detail and authenticity. I read it on the plane to Long Island, but the real village has changed so much that it's unrecognizable as the place described in the book.
21/52: In Song of Spider-Man Glen Berger, one of several co-writers of the musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”, takes us on a behind the scenes descent into theater hell. Hired to help write the most expensive, most discussed Broadway show in recent history, Berger quickly finds himself trapped in a battle of conflicting artistic vision, celebrity ego, and business priorities as costs spiral out of control, actors back out of the production, and then the injuries start. By the time the story ends, the question isn’t what the musical will be like but if there will even be a musical at all. Berger is careful to mention repeatedly that this is his recollection of events over years of working on the musical, but nobody’s sued him for writing it, so it’s possible that as scary as this story was, it might all be true.
22/52: Christopher Bram's Lives of the Circus Animals takes the reader on a witty, entertaining tour of the New York City theater scene, following the intertwined lives of a veteran performer, his personal assistant, her brother the playwright and her somewhat boyfriend the failed actor-turned-director, the playwright’s dim but hunky ingénue ex-boyfriend, the ingenue’s cast members, the audience, the theater critic whose words could change all of their futures, and the psychiatrist trying to keep them sane. Bram tells a story about theater that is theater itself, filled with touching moments about life, death, growing up, and growing old. This was a great read.
My Amazon reviewer ranking surged upward to 273,353!
23/52: Daniel Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Girl tells a story of tragedy, ruin, and the rise of sensational journalism and social reform in the US in the mid-1800's. Documenting the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a girl famous in New York City for working at a popular cigar shop, Stashower details the inability of the police to solve the case, the corruption and ineptitude of the NYC police force, the history of the violent gangs in control of much of the city, and the outcry in the newspapers of the day over the unsolved murder and the vice and graft running rampant. At the same time, Stashower tells the life story of Edgar Allan Poe, moving through his early life and upbringing, his string of personal and professional failures, and then the moment when the stories collide: A year after the murder, Poe fictionalizes the story in an attempt to save his own career and to finally solve the crime. Well researched and full of historical detail, Stashower is careful not to draw his own conclusions about the murder or about Poe's own mysterious demise, and takes the reader on a fascinating, factual tour of a New York City that is long gone and somewhat legendary.
24/52: I read Sarah Symonds' Having an Affair?, a handbook for dating married men, and blogged about how terrible it was, not for moral reasons but for how badly written it was.
25/52: I read John Trefry's Plats because a friend knows the author and posted on Facebook for people to please read it. This book is hard to get into, but filled with beautiful descriptions and intricate wordplay. It follows a succession of nameless women throughout the day as they slip in and out of each other's roles, consciousness, and possessions as they seek to distinguish themselves in any way from the city around them and to endure in any way beyond the fleeting moments that construct their lives. Ultimately the woman, and the author, fail, as I couldn't recall a specific character or image after finishing the book.
Amazon gleefully dashed my hopes, dropping my reviewer ranking to 279,271
26/52: I really enjoyed Margaret Cho's I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. It's a collection of entries from her blog and other writing, and she discusses racism, sexism, gender identity, discrimination, politics, gay rights, homophobia, bisexuality, censorship, social norms, institutionalized oppression, and a number of other topics with humor but also a lot of anger. There were points where I was reading and thinking, "This directly affects me. Why aren't I this angry about it?" so I guess it was also motivational, in that it made me start thinking about what other action I could be taking.
27/52: Gore Vidal's The Smithsonian Institution was a fast read, and funnier than it should have been given some of the subject matter. It concerns Ty, a teenaged math and physics prodigy who is summoned to a secret laboratory in the Smithsonian to help work on bombs for the coming war. Once there, he discovers that parts of the Smithsonian enable him to move through time, that the exhibits come to life after hours, and that he is doomed to die in combat if the US enters WWII. Working in secret to avert the war while working with the laboratory to help win it, Ty is helped along the way by a cast of characters from around the museum and US history including a pottery-obsessed President Lincoln, the bored and amorous wife of Grover Cleveland, soldiers and citizens from throughout history, and the mysterious James Smithson himself, the founder of the museum.
28/52: Cassandra Clare's City of Bones had a lot of possibilities and interesting ideas, but never quite seemed to come together. Clary Fray's mother has a mysterious secret, her father is long dead, and she and her platonic male best friend are enjoying an evening out at a club when she sees a group of teens that no one else can see, and watches them murder a guy whose body disintegrates into dust. In a matter of hours, Clary's mother is missing, she is chased by demons, none of her friends are what they seem, and she is taking shelter with the Shadowhunters, a group of people with mysterious powers pledged to protect humanity from demons, monsters, vampires, werewolves, and all manner of supposedly mythic creatures. She's caught up in a war that she doesn't understand, and the more she finds out the higher the stakes get. This is readable as a stand-alone novel, but you'll probably have to read the whole series to have everything resolved.
29/52: Lee Carol's The Watchtower, a sequel to Black Swan Rising, returns us to the world of jewelry designer Garet James, who discovered in the previous book that she is descended from a line of women pledged to protect the world from supernatural evil. Picking up a few months after that book ended, Garet is in France, looking for signs of her boyfriend Will, a 400 year old vampire who stole a magical box from her as part of an attempt to turn himself mortal so that he can be with her. Believing that he has sent her a sign, Garet tries to join him on a journey to the Summer Country, the land of the fey, but along the way she and Will find themselves battling the forces of evil alchemist John Dee and his men, jeopardizing their mission and also their lives. This book not only opens up more of Garet's world for the reader but also delves into Will's backstory, and both plots run parallel before they run together with surprising results.
30/52: The Shape Stealer picks up at the moment when The Watchtower ended, with Garet and Will back in Paris and Will mortal for the first time in 400 years. Unfortunately, they also brought Marduk, the shape-shifting demon who originally made Will a vampire, back to Paris with them, and now Marduk and John Dee are on the verge of destroying the world unless Garet, Will, and a band of surprising and unexpected allies can stop him. It was a good read, full of tension, but the end had a definite sense of finality, as if this was the end of the series.
My Amazon reviewer ranking rose to 248,902
31/52: Sarah Vowell's Take the Cannoli is a witty, well written collection of essays and articles from Vowell's early career. Covering a variety of topics, some of the material may seem a little dated today (there's a whole essay on making mix tapes), but the charm and humor of Vowell's personal voice shines through. Anyone who can make a tour of the Trail of Tears funny while still conveying the pain, oppression, prejudice, and suffering in an honest light is worth a read.
32/52: 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.
My Amazon reviewer ranking, like my hopes for free books, continued to rise: 215,206
33/52: Richard Laymon's The Woods are Dark may have been shocking when it was written, but now the story of vacationers fleeing vicious cannibals in the American west seems dated and gory just for the sake of gore. Laymon is a good writer, but the characters descend into savagery to survive a little too quickly, some of their motivations are never clear, and the ending seems very thrown together.
The climb to the top of the Amazon reviewer rankings continued unabated: 196,665
34/52: Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale introduces us to Tara and her family. Tara vanished on a walk in the woods twenty years ago, leaving behind a ring, a boyfriend suspected of killing her, and a brother and parents fractured by her loss. Now she's back, but she still looks sixteen. And she thinks she was only gone for six months. And she's been living in a magical village by a lake with fairies. Is the girl who showed up on Christmas Day really Tara? And if it is, where has she really been? Is she crazy? And is her family crazy if they start to believe her? This was an interesting read. The real story isn't about Tara or what happened to her, but about how the people around her cope with her disappearance and return, and what it means to them.
My ranking crept ever upward: 195,976
35/52: Patrick Flanery's Fallen Land was intense and disturbing. Louise is the last remaining owner of the family farm and, crippled by debt, is forced to sell it to a developer. Now she remains in her small farmhouse as a neighborhood springs up around her, haunted by the secrets of the land itself and her ancestors who lived on it. Just up the street, Nathaniel, Julia, and their young son, Copely, have moved into the home of the now bankrupt land developer. Nathaniel and Julia are haunted by pasts of their own, and as the family struggles to adjust to moving from Boston to this strange Midwestern place they also struggle with disturbing incidents within their own home: furniture moves in the night, windows open themselves, and shocking acts of vandalism fill the rooms. They each fear that it's another member of the family, sleepwalking and disturbed, except for Copely, who knows the truth but is not believed. The truth is that Paul, the bankrupt developer and architect of their home, is secretly living in a hidden survivalist shelter in their basement, entering the house at will, turning off the burglar alarm, plotting ways to reclaim what he believes is still his, and growing increasingly paranoid, desperate, and mentally ill. Occupying the same space and occupying each other's lives, the collision between the players can only end in horrific disaster.
A tiny jump upward: 195,065
36/52: In Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage, Cressida Mayfield is missing. She has vanished in the night after being seen at a rowdy lakeside bar in the company of her sister's former fiancée, wounded Iraq veteran Brett Kincaid. Brett's memory of the evening is unclear, but Cressida's blood and hair is in his Jeep and hundreds of volunteers are searching the nature preserve where Brett and the Jeep were found. Where is Cressida? What happened to her? And what will happen to the Mayfields and the Kincaids as the answers to these questions unfold? This is an interesting, absorbing story of loss, destruction, family, selfishness, and forgiveness.
One thing, though: The Carthage, NY depicted in this book has no relation or resemblance to the actual Carthage, NY other than in name. As a person who went to high school ten minutes from Carthage, it took me about half of the book to finally stop getting jerked out of the story every time a detail was wrong. The town and the entire geography of Northern New York State is completely reimagined here, which is odd considering that the real Carthage is surrounded by real lakes, rivers, nature preserves, prisons, airports, and colleges that would have allowed the story to be told in exactly the same way. It almost seems like Oates liked the name of the town, but didn't want to be bothered with actual research.
And then Amazon, possibly cautioning me against overenthusiasm, dropped my ranking a tiny bit to 197,874
37/52: Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock's Queer (In)Justice is a slightly dry but very interesting account of how the United States has criminalized, stereotyped, and punished gender nonconformists and LGBT people from colonial times to the present day. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the notes and citations are almost as long as the book itself. This book serves as an eye opening read and as an excellent resource.
38/52: I'm sure, given her level of success in fields outside of entertainment, that Rosie O'Donnell is a capable, intelligent businesswoman, and it would have been great to read a memoir about someone like that. Instead, Celebrity Detox presents a rambling, disjointed, often incoherent (based on the included blog entries, anyway) portrait of a woman barely in control of her rampant emotions and who blunders through life in roughly the same emotional state as a seventh grader, dropping profound thoughts like, "A human being. A human. Being. Being what?" along the way. I feel like there might have been good ideas, and even some good anecdotes, in here, but it was hard to spot them amid my constant eye-rolling at how bad this was.
39/52: 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.
My Amazon reviewer ranking rose by less than a hundred to 197,758. I complained that I would never get out of the 190's.
40/52: No one in Megan Abbott's The Fever actually has a fever, but there's plenty of other suffering to go around. The story centers on Deenie, friend of the popular girls, her brother Eli, high school hockey stud, and their divorced father Tom, who teaches at their high school. Their family, already on unsteady ground, is thrown into turmoil when Deenie's friends begin to suffer from an unknown illness, with seizures, vomiting, blinking, nervous ticks, stutters, and comas. Did the girls get into something? Is there a threat to the community? Does it have to do with nearby fracking, or the HPV virus they all just received shots for, or the nearby polluted lake, or a threat within the school building, or is the problem actually something more sinister? Abbott slowly builds tension through a succession of widening worlds, from the family unit to the microcosm of high school to a town in crisis, and by the time I got to the last third of the book I had to read it all the way through to see the finish.
41/52: After reading Tucker Max's Assholes Finish First I'm left with the same few thought as when I read his first book: Why did I read this? While he is sometimes funny, he's also misogynistic, crass, and abusive. I guess the "sometimes funny" wins out over how awful a person he is. Attempting to post my review of this book on Amazon led to a hilarious back and forth where I was not allowed to post the review because it contained profanity, but then it turned out that the profane word in question was actually "assholes", which was in my review because it was in the name of the book. I eventually rephrased so that I wasn't actually quoting the title, but still find it sort of hilarious that you're not allowed to use the word "assholes" in a book about assholes that's titled as such.
Somewhere, somehow, Amazon heard my complaint to my friends about being stuck in the 190's, and dropped me to 222,536
42/52: 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 working, 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.
43/52: In Kathe Lison's The Whole Fromage, Lison sets out to discover why there are so many cheeses in France and why they are so very, very delicious. What she produces is part travel guide, part culinary instruction, part history lesson, and a lot of fun. She also includes really detailed descriptions of the many cheeses that she samples in her travels, which can be rough reading if you're on a diet. Overall, though, this was a fun, interesting read.
I stumbled back upward: 208,087
44/52: The Real Housewives Get Personal was probably already outdated the moment that it was published. Promising a "behind the scenes" look at the Orange County, New York, New Jersey, and Atlanta franchises but it doesn't really give that. There's very little about reality television production here aside from a few mentions of the casting process, and the interviews with the housewives that make up most of the book are just reiterations of things that viewers have already seen on the show. It's kind of amusing, in retrospect, to see how hard Bravo Television pushed certain portrayals of Housewives that we now know were absurd, like Theresa Guidice's "fabulously wealthy" lifestyle that was built on forgery and bank and mortgage fraud, but for the most part there's really nothing in this book that a few hours of watching the shows wouldn't give you.
45/52: 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 rose again a little more: 200,852
46/52: In It Can't Happen Here, US presidential candidate Buzz Windrip is going to pull the country out of economic depression. He's going to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common working man. He's going to create jobs, and as a folksy candidate from the Midwest, he's going to champion "the little guy" and show those Washington do-nothings who's boss. He's also a strong proponent of traditional family values, old time religion, mothers staying at home with their children, and the "lesser races" knowing their place. He has no use for the Commies, the Socialists, or liberal college professors filling up the minds of young people with subversive ideas. In short, he's everything the common white man wants to vote for, and once he gets into office, he's promising to make some big changes. It sounds like a current "ripped from the headlines" discussion of modern American politics, but Sinclair Lewis published this tale of the rise of an American dictator in 1935. It's scary how relevant this still is today, and how much it really still can happen here.
204,448. Oh, Amazon, why hast thou forsaken me?
47/52: A well meaning parent probably gave their incoming college freshman my secondhand copy of Sheridan Scott's Now you tell me! 12 College Students Give the Best Advice They Never Got, but I feel like their money could have been better spent elsewhere. In trying to cover a cross section of students, the book either gives the same advice over and over ("Get involved! Join clubs! Meet people! Set boundaries with your roommate!" Be yourself!") or the students contradict each other ("Join a fraternity!" "Don't join a fraternity!" "Pick a major early!" "Take your time picking a major!"). While some of their stories, like those of the student attending a historically black college or the student at a military academy, might offer a different perspective most of the advice is something that anyone who has gone to college can give. Additionally, several important demographics are missing among the 12 student sample. While the author picked a cast that's racially diverse, all of the students who discussed dating did so in a heterosexual context. There are no non-traditional freshmen, and none of them self-identified as people with disabilities, either. Overall, this is a lot of advice that an incoming student could hear for free from friends and family who have gone to college.
48/52: Ron Horsley's Sin Gorge introduces us to the world of Everything Under, a place of werewolves, vampires, fear bottlers, and other creatures seen through the eyes of John Flicker, a bookstore owner in Columbus, Ohio. Flicker is a rarity in Everything Under, a doppelgeist: his undead Body has a consciousness of its own, but is haunted by his also undead Soul, an arrangement with both advantages and sometimes amusing disadvantages. Flicker, who sometimes aids the police with cases outside the norm of human criminal activity, is chasing a monster in Columbus, a very large monster that takes very large bites out of homeless people, sprays them with acid, and sets them on fire. Will he be able to stop the rampage? And what will he find when he does? An interesting entry in the "urban supernatural horror fantasy genre", it stands out quite a bit by not including a lot of urban supernatural horror fantasy sex. The only thing that bothered me a little is that this is very obviously intended to be the beginning of a series, so a lot of the story is taken up with world-building in ways that isn't always organic to the plot. Overall, I liked this, and would definitely read a sequel.
49/52: Heather Lauer's Bacon: A Love Story crosses the line from "enthusiastic" to "annoying" sometime around the fiftieth or sixtieth time that the author refers to bacon as "The Best Meat Ever". A collection of smaller essays, the book offers trivia, recipes, and a brief overview of pork farming and the process of making bacon and related meat products, but little thought appears to have been given on how to make the essays work together as a whole collection. Information is often repeated as you read from chapter to chapter, and it doesn't always feel necessary. I also had a concern that some of the information, such as descriptions of businesses and restaurants and their menus, may no longer be current at the time of publication due to the constantly changing nature of the restaurant industry. Bacon enthusiasts will probably enjoy this book, but it gets repetitive for others after a while.
My Amazon reviewer ranking surged ahead to 181,501!
50/52: David Hughes' Tales From Development Hell promises stories of the greatest movies never made, and it delivers. If you've ever read a book and thought, "This would make a great movie. I wonder why nobody's made it," this book goes a long way toward explaining why. From endless rewrites to bidding wars to temperamental actors wanting their roles beefed up to producers wanting to leave their own mark on a story, Hughes travels every circle of development hell. When I finished this, I was more surprised that any movie ever gets made than anything else, but I did think that some of the narratives were a little too "inside the business" to connect with anyone who is not very interested in the moviemaking process already.
And just like that, my ranking started to slip downward again: 182,720
51/52: Christophe Dufosse's School's Out never seems to live up to the promise of the positive reviews I read. Described as "sinister", reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and a "re-imagining of Lord of the Flies", the book ends up seeming rather hollow, and never lives up to any of that praise. I was shocked to read that it won a prize in France for first novels. The book focuses on classroom 9F. Their young, first year teacher, has just committed suicide by jumping from the classroom window, and Pierre Hoffman takes over. He's warned by his fellow teachers and by one of the students of 9F that something's wrong in the class, and that he's in danger, but he never really seems endangered. He gets a strange package in the mail, and suffers through anonymous hangup phone calls, but that's it. He discovers that one of 9F's elementary school teachers is also dead, but as the novel moves toward a surprising climax the whole thing ultimately feels pointless, because the author never lets us get to know any of the students. They act as one group, which is part of the point of the novel, but we never really care about that group, so we aren't really that bothered by 9F's fate. I guess it's possible that a book like this resonates differently in our culture from the way it does in France, but I felt like reading this was a waste of my time.
52/52: Anne McCaffrey's An Exchange of Gifts is a short, sweet story about two people escaping terrible circumstances together. Meanne, actually the Princess Anastasia, fakes her death in the forest to escape betrothal to a man she doesn't love. Hiding in an abandoned cottage, she meets Wisp, a young runaway who doesn't tell his story but whose back is covered in bruises and welts. They live in a world where most people have a Gift, and over the months use Meanne's gift for growing to sell plants and herbs to support themselves, but as Meanne's past begins to close in around them Wisp is forced to reveal that he, too, has a Gift, and it's more powerful than Meanne could have imagined. Will the two of them be able to trust each other enough to save themselves? I enjoyed this, and wished it was a little longer.
53/52: 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.
54/52: My parents bought me Vic Weals' Last Train to Elkmont when they came to visit in the spring. It is an oral history of the logging communities along the Little River in the Smokies, before (and a little bit after) the land became part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, centered around the community of Elkmont. The stories are organized in roughly chronological order, and accompanied by photographs from the author's own collection and other sources. It's amazing to read this and see photos of areas that are heavily wooded today basically logged all the way down to the soil, and the stories are entertaining and educational. I enjoyed it a lot since I live so close and have been to the preserved part of Elkmont that still stands in the park. If you're not a fan of local Tennessee history, though, this may not be as entertaining for you.
55/52: I didn't know who Todd Glass was before my friend Sara bought me a Kindle version of The Todd Glass Situation, but he's really funny. This book, a memoir of his life as a standup comedian with ADD and dyslexia who decided to come out of the closet as a gay man in his late 40's was often funny, but just as often touching and thought provoking. While he's at his most eloquent when discussing the challenges and struggles of being in a 15 year relationship while still in the closet, the book also offers a fascinating account of the behind the scenes world of standup comedy and the many famous and funny people that Glass has met along the way.
My ranking fell! Again! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, AMAZON? WHAT? 184,833
56/52: 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.
57/52: In John Knowles' A Separate Peace, Gene and Phineas are roommates, friends, and rivals. Students at an all-male boarding school during WWII, adulthood and the likelihood of being drafted looms on the horizon, but during the summer session such concerns are pushed away as Phineas effortlessly leads the entire student body as a popular, cocky athlete. Gene walks in his shadow as Phineas' self-proclaimed best friend until his anger, resentment, and drive for individuality overwhelm him and he takes action that affects them both for the rest of their lives. This was a good read, and the teenagers seem very authentic, which is not always the case with these kinds of books. I'm kind of shocked that I read a male-boarding-school novel, and none of the guys raped each other. This may be the first time.
58/52: Andy Weir's The Martian was engaging, tense, funny, well written, and enjoyable, but part of it was hard to accept. It's a story set in the near future about Mark Watney, one of the first astronauts on Mars, and how he is accidentally left behind and presumed dead during an emergency evacuation. He has no way to contact Earth and no way to get home, but he has supplies, ingenuity, and a desire not to be the first person to die on Mars. Like I said, though, the book eventually gets hard to accept, in that there is a point when so many things have gone wrong and so much has happened to him that suspension of disbelief gets more and more impossible, because all you can think is, "He really should be dead by now." It was a good read, though, and will probably end up making a pretty good movie someday.
59/52: In Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Celia and Marco have trained their entire lives for a competition of magic, one in which they don't know the rules or the prize for winning, but one in which they are bound to compete by their eccentric masters. The arena laid out before them is the Night Circus, a mysterious land of black and white tents that only opens after dark and that holds wonders the likes of which the world has never seen, from ice gardens and cloud mazes to living carousels and menageries of living paper animals. As Celia and Marco slowly duel, unaware that only one can survive and painfully aware of a growing love between them, the consequences of the game threaten the lovers, the circus, and the patrons in ways that none of them can imagine and not all of them will survive.
Suddenly my Amazon reviewer ranking was rising again! 167,569
60/52: I may have disliked "Julie and Julia" (the book and the movie, although I hated the movie less because I like Amy Adams), but I loved hearing Julia Child tell her story in her own words in My Life in France. As she says herself in the book, many of the things she saw and ate and learned how to cook are rapidly becoming lost art, due to modernization of techniques and the way the world has changed, so it's a fascinating picture of the way things were even if you're not a fan of Child or cooking.
61/52: Before I read The Time of My Life, a collection of personal essays about going to the prom by seventeen authors, I had no idea that the prom was so depressing. While some of these stories were amusing, almost all of them ended in some kind of terrible heartbreak or life-shattering disappointment. This was sort of interesting, but if I hadn't already read things by some of these people nothing in this book would make me want to seek out their other work.
62/52: In the afterward to Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Theresa Anne Fowler says that she tried as much as possible to stick to the established particulars of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the people in their lives. While I've read almost all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's published work, I've never read his biography, so I'm not sure about the validity of this book, and I wonder about some of the things presented here, like the part where F. Scott and Earnest Hemingway have sex. I wonder about a lot of the plot, actually, because in this book F. Scott is clearly the villain, a verbally and sometimes physically abusive drunk prone to fits of jealousy and philandering, and even though she loves him Zelda is his blameless, long-suffering wife. While I'm sure that neither of the Fitzgeralds were saints, this book goes a long way to suggest that one of them was much closer to sainthood than the other. At the same time, though, this is a well-written and engaging book about a woman married to an author, and a couple trying to deal with the demands of creativity, fame, and mental illness. I enjoyed reading it, but by the end was spending more time wondering about the accuracy than I was considering the plot.
63/52: Marjorie Klein's Test Pattern is more or less a "Twilight Zone" episode in book form. It's 1954, and Lorena Palmer is a mother with dreams of being a tap-dancing television and movie star, if only she can find time to practice her routines and get her big break between making biscuits and keeping house for her shipyard welder husband, Pete. When they purchase a television, the second one in their neighborhood, their daughter Cassie begins to see strange things in the test pattern channel: news stories about Lorena Bobbitt and school integration, men walking on the moon, four guys with long hair singing about holding her hand on Ed Sullivan, and then a news story about local housewife Lorena Palmer shooting her husband, Pete. Can Cassie save her family, and, ultimately, will she want to? The book was interesting, but didn't seem very original.
64/52: Glenn David Gold makes magic in Carter Beats the Devil, the fantastic tale of stage illusionist Charles Carter and his rise to stage and vaudeville fame. He'll face rivals, find love, face challenges, and along the way become implicated in a presidential assassination and the changing course of history. I loved this book.
My Amazon reviewer ranking reached the highest yet: 140,763
65/52: Ron Horsley's Jennyripper, the sequel to Sin Gorge, features the return of doppelgeist detective John Flicker and the rest of the cast in the shadowy world of Everything Under. Fresh off of his previous case, Flicker is asked by one of the major vampires in the city to investigate a brutal murder that appears to threaten both the regular citizens of Columbus, Ohio, and the denizens of the Under. As he digs deeper into the case and the history of the city itself, Flicker also finds himself digging into his own history, and the answers to his questions may end up being things he never wanted to know. This was a well written, entertaining read, but I would definitely not pick it up without reading the previous book.
EVEN HIGHER! 131,213
66/52: Tom and Lorenzo's Everyone Wants to Be Me or Do Me was a wonderfully sarcastic commentary on celebrity branding and image-construction. This is a comprehensive, well-constructed criticism of every part of the "celebrity lifestyle" and the way that the public eats it up, but the message is delivered with humor and obvious love for whole idea of celebrity as it exists in our society. I really enjoyed reading this, and have made, "Everybody out of the way. There's a masterpiece coming through, and it's me," the last thing I think before I get out of the car every day.
67/52: David Magee's MoonPie was a short, but entertaining, biography of Tennessee's most famous snack: the MoonPie. Magee gives a history lesson interspersed with anecdotes from people all over the country about MoonPies, starting with the origin of the snack in Chattanooga to the way that it's made today. It's a marketing story of the almost accidental success of a small, family-owned bakery told with whimsy and affection. As was probably intended, reading it made me pick up a MoonPie at the grocery store, and I was happy that I did.
115,991. When do the free books come?
68/52: As a Northerner who has now lived 1/4 of my life in Tennessee, I was curious about Chuck Thompson's Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Over the course of a few hundred pages, Thompson makes a lot of valid, fact-based arguments for the idea that the South (mostly the former Confederacy) and the North are culturally, ideologically, politically, and socio-economically two different countries that would actually be better off separating themselves from each other. Unfortunately, every valid argument is immediately undermined with vicious (but often funny) sarcasm and vituperative hatred of all things below the Mason-Dixon line. Thompson is unable to find a single positive thing about the South in his hundreds of pages of interviews and visits, so this book only serves to alienate the Southern half of the audience. The South is not a perfect place, but neither is the North, and painting one side as fully negative in every possible way does not present a balanced argument.
69/52: Amy Talkington's Liv, Forever was a short, interesting read that would probably make a decent movie someday. Liv Bloom receives an art scholarship to prestigious Wickham Hall, which claims to be the best prep school in the country. Overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Liv immediately finds herself not fitting in, with the only friends she makes being Gabe, who says he can hear the angry spirits of Wickham's past suicidal students, and Malcolm, a wealthy member of a campus secret society known as The Victors. Instantly in love for no good reason, Liv and Malcolm are soon sneaking out for late night meetings until one of them goes a little awry, and Liv is dead. Now, the school is claiming that she, too, is a suicide, and only Gabe and the other lingering spirits of the Wickham dead can help her figure out who killed her and why. Why are all of the dead students girls? And why did they each die in October, ten years apart? And why were they all scholarship students? Can Liv and Gabe trust Malcolm, or is he actually part of why she was killed? As I said, this was interesting, with the only real flaw being that Liv and Malcolm are instantly, deeply in love for no reason. At first that seemed like it might be part of the plot, but no, it just turns out to be a little bit of sloppy writing in an otherwise entertaining book.
The free books aren't coming, because my ranking fell to 119,101
70/52: Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States takes on a pretty daunting task: covering about 500 years of LGBTQ+ presence in the United States and how it has impacted and been impacted by the overall history of the country. For the most part, it's a good, broad survey, but there are some flaws, the most notable being that even though the book was published in 2011 the history stops in the 1990's, meaning that some of the arguably most important developments for LGBTQ+ people (growing marriage equality, serving in the military, greater social recognition of LGBTQ+ family units, Harvey Milk being recognized on a postage stamp) are not included. I did learn some new things in the early chapters dealing with the Colonial Era and the Civil War, but it also felt like there were a lot of omissions as the book moved into the 1980's and the premature conclusion.
71/52: In Peter Clines' 14, Nate has just moved into the Kavach Building, an old brownstone in Los Angeles. The rent is low and the utilities are included, but as he settles in, Nate notices a few things that seem a little weird. Apartment 14 has four different padlocks on the door, and they've been there so long that they're painted over. Apartment 23 has no doorknob and no actual apartment; it's a door with a number, nailed to the wall where the apartment should be. In Nate's own apartment, the kitchen light only produces blacklight, no matter what kind of bulb is in the fixture, and as he starts to meet the neighbors he learns that there's something a little off in each of their apartments as well. And in the common rooms. And in the basement. And on the roof. As Nate and his neighbors begin investigating their strange building and its strange history, it becomes clear that their lives are in danger, and possibly the entire world as well. This was a fast, entertaining read, and tension builds consistently and inexorably throughout the book.
72/52: Kevin Dwyer and Jure Fiorillo's True Stories of Law and Order was a missed opportunity. It gives the true story of 25 episodes of the show, starting each chapter with a one sentence summary of the episode inspired by the crime, but never gives the name of the episode. While reading it, I was thinking a lot that I sort of remembered this or that episode, but with no real references back to the show this ends up just being a true crime book of 25 interesting stories. It was an interesting read, but the connection to the show really should have been stronger based on the title.
73/52: Ayun Halliday's Dirty Sugar Cookies is a humorous food memoir, a series of food-based anecdotes that are funny and sometimes touching and that chart her journey from picky childhood eater to the mother of a picky childhood eater. Nothing about this really stands out, but I grinned a few times while reading it.
74/52: Greg Iles' Natchez Burning is a sprawling, epic story of family, racism, and the secrets of the past set in Natchez, Mississippi. Unfortunately, it's a little too sprawling, as it is the first book in a trilogy and not intended as a self-contained story, which means that you will read 800 pages of murder, sex, racism, the KKK, journalistic ethics, drug dealing, references to past books starring the same characters, gunfights, music, and politics, but the plot will remain unresolved. If you're willing to accept that, this is a well written, engaging book.
75/52: B.D. Hyman's My Mother's Keeper isn't just the candid story of her life with her famous mother, Bette Davis. It's also the first blow in a public family fight, as Hyman writes in the epilogue that this book, published while her mother was still alive, was her attempt to say everything that her mother wouldn't listen to in person. She definitely had a lot to say, sharing chapter after chapter and story after story of Bette Davis being a clinging, drunk, moody, needy, selfish narcissist of a mother, as well as being a hostile hostess, abusive sister, and monstrously frightening grandmother. This is, of course, a completely one-sided portrayal with no input from Davis included, but an interesting read for fans of the actress in any case.
76/52: Shawn Micallef's The Trouble With Brunch isn't really a book about brunch, but is instead an updated look at Thorsten Veblen's ideas of the leisure class and conspicuous consumption seen through the lens of the "brunching class". Micallef asks what it means to be "middle class", especially in an urban environment, and how class warfare is still alive and well in our society but buried at the unspoken bottom of discussions of gentrification, farmer's markets, big-box-store encroachment, the overlap of work and leisure, and what it means to be able to spend an entire morning paying too much for eggs and mimosas. Should it mean anything? Micallef argues that yes, it should, and forces people in the brunching class to take a good look at themselves and the way they are shaping the class warfare narrative. This was a short read, but interesting and thought provoking. Also, I was the first person to review this, which is weird since I read about this book in a Gawker article. I assumed more people would have read it.
77/52: Lev Grossman's The Magicians sounds on the surface like a mix of "grown up Harry Potter" and "The Chronicles of Narnia": Quentin Coldwater, a moody loner and fan of the magical literary world of Fillory from a beloved series of childhood books, is plucked out of his everyday life in his senior year of high school to take a special test for a school he has never heard of or applied to: Brakebills Academy. He passes, and is invited to spend college at the only academy for practicing magicians in North America. He eagerly accepts, and spends four years practicing magic but also doing what college students do: drinking, smoking, falling in love, and having sex. He and his friends also discover that Fillory is real, but when they journey there after graduation they also discover that it is not the happy land of their childhood: Fillory is at war, and there is a chance for Quentin and his friends to become the kings and queens of Fillory, but there is also a chance that they will all die trying. Is living out Quentin's childhood dream worth dying for? This was a good read with fleshed out-complex characters. While it starts out feeling derivative, the worlds and stories created here quickly become their own. Some of the characters can be annoying at times, but they still feel like real people, and are flawed just like real people are.
78/52: In Lev Grossman's The Magician King, Quentin Coldwater has returned to Fillory. He and his friends rule the land, but being a king is a lot more boring than it's cracked up to be, and there are stirrings of trouble along the edges of the kingdom. Seeking adventure and answers, Quentin and his high school friend, Julia, set out on a quest, but rapidly find themselves bounced out of Fillory and back into the real world. When Quentin's magic is of no help, they must rely on Julia's cobbled-together self-taught magic and shadowy network of contacts to get them back in time to save all of the magic, not just in Earth and Fillory but in all of the worlds. With Julia acting strangely and Brakebills refusing to help, can Quentin trust her? How did she learn magic after failing the entrance exam at Brakebills, what did she become, and if they succeed, what will it cost them? This was a good, engaging read if you enjoyed the first book in the series. It was also a faster read, even though it's almost as long, because the plot is tighter and moves faster.
79/52: In Gwenda Bond's Girl on a Wire the world of the circus is a world of treachery, rivalry, magic, and homicide. Jules Maroni, a teenage high wire walker, and her family of performers have joined the Cirque American, but they are unwelcome and immediately shunned due to a decades-old feud with the circus' other major stars, the Flying Garcias. As the hostility mounts, a series of accidents begins to plague the circus, mirroring a series of accidents that happened long ago when the Maronis and the Garcias performed under the same tent, accidents blamed on the witchcraft of Jules' grandmother. As Jules finds herself drawn to the handsome Remy Garcia, she also finds herself the target of increasingly dangerous threats from an unknown enemy. Is her grandmother really a witch? Is someone stalking Jules in revenge for the secrets and sins of long ago? And will Jules' next walk on the high wire be her last? I found this very enjoyable, although a fast read.
80/52: Luke Barr's Provence, 1970 captures a unique event at a unique point in time: the meals shared between food writer M.F.K. Fisher and chefs Julia Child, James Beard, Simone Beck, and Mark Olney in the winter of 1970. All of them are at cross roads in their careers, with Child and Beck reaching the end of their partnership, Beard in poor health and struggling to finish his cookbook of American food to make the argument that America does have a unique cuisine of its own, Fisher attempting to move away from nostalgia for pre-war France and to write about the state of food as it was at the time, and Olney having just published his first cookbook and trying to define himself in relation to the "food scene" and "food stars" gathered above. Drawing from journals and letters, mostly from Fisher, Barr recreates a turning point in American cooking and writing about food, as everyone involved in the meetings, meals, and discussions would shoot off in different career directions after that winter, but this book is written from Fisher's point of view. Since Fisher did not like Olney at this time, the book treats him pretty savagely based on her impressions of him, and treats his impressions of her as ridiculous snobbery.
81/52: I have serious doubts about whether Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy would have been published, much less in hardcover with color illustrations, if someone other than Tim Burton wrote it. A slim book of poetry about outcast, grotesque children, there are some interesting images and disturbing ideas, but the quality of the writing is grade school, at best.
My Amazon reviewer ranking plummeted to 125,420, and I resolved to stop checking it.
82/52: Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land concludes the Magicians Trilogy, taking the reader on a tour of the series' locations and characters from the very beginning to what is, apparently, the end of the magical land of Fillory. Quentin Coldwater, cast out of Fillory at the end of the last book, returns as part of a strange team of magical outsiders, the outcasts of the magical society he joined in college, gathered together by a talking bird to steal a suitcase containing an unknown object of great magical power. At the same time, Eliot and Janet find themselves in the middle of Fillory as the magical land is winding down and prophesied to end. Eliot refuses to let it die, and they find themselves on a quest to save it, unaware that the two different plots are slowly moving together due to secrets about Fillory and about themselves that none of them ever suspected. This was a good read, and picks up plot threads and characters that seemed to have been dropped in the first two books, neatly weaving everything together and ending on an interesting note with future possibilities.
83/52: Deborah Davis' Party of the Century isn't just, as the subtitle promises, "the fabulous story of Truman Capote and his black and white ball," but is also the fabulous yet often tragic story of Truman Capote himself. Davis has written a biography of Capote framed by the biography of his party, recounting the evening and planning leading up to it in exhausting detail but also tying those details back to the life that shaped Capote into the kind of person who worried about them. While interesting, the problem with this approach is that it also frames the ball as the crowning achievement of Capote's life, something that fans of his writing would argue against. Still, it was an interesting read and a fascinating portrait of social status at a time when social change was ripping through the country.
84/52: Sam Wasson's Fifth Avenue, 5 AM has a great premise, according to the cover: "Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman". Unfortunately, the book doesn't follow through completely on any of those ideas. There's some of a biography of Audrey Hepburn, but only for a set period of time and without any real depth. There's an account of the making of "Breakfast at Tiffany's", but very little about the movie's aftermath or how it is viewed in the modern context. There's also some discussion of the changing role of women in society at the time of the movie, but the book never ties the movie and the sociological shift as definitively together as the subtitle suggests that they should be. This was a short, interesting read with lots of little anecdotes about making the movie, but doesn't live up to the ideas in its own title.
85/52: In Chase Novak's Breed, Alex and Leslie are rich, successful, and childless. Growing more and more desperate after trying treatment after treatment, they make one last attempt, flying to Slovenia to see a mysterious doctor who claims to have a 100% success rate. Ten years later, Alice and Adam, Alex and Leslie's ten year old twins, live in a house of secrets. They've never been to a doctor, are never allowed to walk to and from school by themselves, do not go on playdates, and are locked in the bedrooms of their crumbling townhouse every night. From behind their doors, they hear their parents talking, growling, and making increasingly worse noises, and when they wake up furniture is destroyed, pets are missing, and the house is covered in filth. Are Alice and Adam in danger? Who are their parents and, more importantly, what are their parents? This was creepy and moved quickly, and I enjoyed it.
86/52: Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation follows a woman from young adulthood to relationship to marriage to motherhood to the possible end of it all, told through a series of short snippets and scattered thoughts. It is a story that speaks to almost everyone, about the slow abandonment of dreams and the give and take of relationships, about the way that plans go awry and day to day life takes over and has to be struggled through. It's a short, fast read, but an interesting diversion for a few hours.
87/52: Kenji Yoshino's Covering is both timely and powerful, drawing on legal precedent and a careful study of court cases while using Yoshino's own experiences with race and sexual identity to humanize the discussion. The basic premise is that the courts and current legislative climate protects groups of people but not their behavior, forcing them to "cover" by pressuring them to downplay aspects of their identities that do not conform with social norms. As a person who has heard about "straight acting gays" for years from my peers, it was an interesting read.
So, here we are at the end of the year.
My Amazon reviewer ranking remains fixed at 125,420
No free books are coming to me from Amazon.