Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Books I Read in 2007, Pt. 1

In 2001, I got a Palm Pilot. I thought, "Wow, now I'll really be organized! I will put all my law school assignments on there, and I will always be on top of my shit!"

It didn't really work out that way.

I wound up never really using the Palm Pilot, and as for law school, well, the less said the better. But the Palm Pilot did lead to one cool thing: in looking for uses for the damn thing, I decided to start keeping a list of the books I read during the year. That list was originally on the Palm Pilot, but as I abandoned the ill-starred organizer (seriously, that thing expected me to re-learn to write in order to get stuff on there, clearly I should have seen that that was never happening. Every once in a while I need to write something in cursive and I damn near have a heart attack; my cursive is like that of a palsied illiterate), I just started keeping the list on a piece of paper.

Mostly I keep the list in order to remember what I've read, and when I read it. It's also handy just to see how different it shapes up year to year, both in terms of content and raw numbers. For example, 2004, the year I started working full-time: very low total. 2007, a year when full-time work didn't really figure into the picture: a banner year.

Curious as to what I read this year? Here it is, in chronological order.

1. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. This won all sorts of prizes. It's about a guy and his kid wandering around in a post-apocalyptic America. It is bleak. McCarthy also wrote No Country For Old Men (which I read in 2006). The Road would be a very, very different movie.

2. 3 Nights in August, by Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, writes about the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals and manager Tony LaRussa, framing the book around a blow-by-blow account of a 3-game series against the Chicago Cubs. The book is mostly about how LaRussa is kind of a baseball genius, but what also comes through is that LaRussa is also kind of a giant asshole.

How many night in August was that, Tony?

3. Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?, by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur. Don Paco's younger brother lives in Scotland, and for Christmas he tends to get me funny British books. This one was read entirely in my bathroom during the month of January. It was basically just two British guys listing things that are shitty, and what makes them so shitty. The book was basically a blog you could keep next to your toilet.

Man-eating plants are always a plus.

4. The Ruins, by Scott Smith. This was a good thriller that I don't want to say too much about, as doing so would spoil it. It's about a bunch of young American tourists that go visit some old ruins in the Central American jungle, and bad shit starts happening. I passed it on to my stepdad and as far as I can tell, he has not been sleeping well ever since. You know what though, fuck it, I'll spoil it: the tourists then get killed by telepathic, carnivorous plants. The plants fuck with the tourists' heads all night, and then, one by one, eat them alive. The book is very well-written and very intense. It will undoubtedly be made into a movie which has no chance of being anywhere nearly as good as the book.

5. Cast of Shadows, by Kevin Guilfoile. Another thriller. This one is set "a few years from now," in a time that is in now way different from the present other than for the fact that certain advances in cloning have been achieved, and it has become legal for couples who can not conceive to have a baby cloned from either of the parents' DNA. The action gets going when the daughter of a cloning doctor gets murdered by an unknown assailant. The assailant left behind some DNA, and the doctor gets creative with it. This book is like John Grisham for people getting a Masters in Bioethics.

6. Oblivion, by Peter Abrahams. Cop who is slowly losing his memory has to solve a crime. This and the last two books, if I'm not mistaken, were bought after appearing in Salon.com's 2006 "Best Beach Reading" list. I read them 6 months later because a) that's when they came out in paperback (who takes a hardcover to the beach?) and b) you can go to the beach in Puerto Rico whenever the hell you want.

Martin Amis: The Christopher Hitchens of novels.

7. London Fields, by Martin Amis. The best-known novel from British bad-boy novelist (how to be a bad-boy British novelist: 1) be British; 2) use the word "cunt" a lot; 3) write novel). Written in the late 80's and set in a right-before-the-Apocalypse 1999, the novel is about a woman that engineers her own murder in order to avoid having to face aging. Or as the Brits call it, ageing. If I were smarter I would have more to say about this literary classic. Amis apparently has lots of dreams where his teeth get knocked out, and he's got all these weird daddy issues because his dad was also a famous British author.

8. A Right to be Hostile, by Aaron McGruder. This is a collection of Boondocks comic strips. I'm counting it as a book because that shit was expensive.

9-12. Books 1-4 of George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows). These four books were each a thousand pages of AWESOME. Now, I'm not entirely certain that approve of Martin (seriously, "George R.R."? Just commit and go with G.R.R., buddy), but the guy has written some badass books. I'm not a big fantasy fan: aside from the Lord of the Rings books, which I've read quite a few times, I don't ever read it. But these books are awesome. They are not your typical fantasy books, in that there are no elves or hobbits or dwarves (actually, there is one dwarf, but he's of the achondroplastic variety that TLC is so fond of, not some magical bearded midget living in a palace under a mountain). All the characters are human, and none have magical powers. The setting is essentially an inverted version of medieval England, and the plot, which unravels through the points of view of a multitude of characters, is about the struggle between a variety of contenders for the throne of the kingdom where the action takes place. What makes the books such a good read, though, is Martin's eschewing of easy good guys vs. bad guys dichotomies; as the series goes on, Martin throws you for a loop by starting to show you things through the points of view of characters which had been painted as plainly evil in the first installment, and he starts revealing loads of backstory that begins to muddy the moral assumptions created at the outset of the narrative. The constant changes in viewpoint keep you plowing through the books very quickly (I believe all read all 4,000 pages of these books in a one-month period), and since just about all the characters are intriguing and have interesting things happening to them, you don't have that "Heroes" problem of completely losing interest whenever the blonde lady whose power is to see her evil self in the mirror shows up onscreen with her bald husband, whose powers seem to be walking through walls and being a really bad actor. Also, on the periphery of the story are some dragons. Don't pick up these books if you have plans for the upcoming months, or if you are very impatient: the series is expected to run to seven books, and book five is over a year overdue, and as of yet has no set release date (aaargh!).

George R.R. Martin: Not really shocking that his books are rife with underage girls getting married off to gross old dudes.

13. City of Truth, by James Morrow. After those four monsters, it was time to shift gears and go for something short and light. City of Truth is a 90-page book I found at my other brother's place in NYC. It's set in a city where the populace has all been conditioned, Pavlov- or Clockwork Orange-style, into being physically unable to tell a lie. The protagonist is a guy who works for the city and whose job it is to take old works of art or literature (from before the no lies era) and purge them of falsehoods (for example, erasing horns from drawings of unicorns). The book starts off very funny--Morrow's depiction of what it's like to pick someone at a bar without access to hyperbole or euphemism is very, very funny. Not so funny: when the guy's son contracts an almost certainly fatal disease. The book then becomes about how the guy tries to overcome his truthfulness conditioning in order to try the only treatment anyone can think of: reassuring the kid that everything is going to be all right. The book is a quick read, and well worth checking out.

14. The Neon Bible, by John Kennedy O'Toole. This was another very short book, the debut novel of the author of A Confederacy of Dunces, which may well be the funniest book ever. Seriously, go pick that one up. Neon Bible, however, is not at all funny. It's about some kid that not much happens to. O'Toole eventually killed himself, and, assuming that the protagonist in this book is based on him, it's not really very shocking. Also, as far as I can tell, the Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, has nothing to do with this book. Though it is also pretty humorless. Or rather humourless. Damn Canadians with their funny spelling and existential Quebecois angst.

Neon Bibles? Leave your funny at the door.

15. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. This was one of those books that I thought was amazing at first, but after a while I lost patience with it (London Fields is kind of that way, too)--the writing is really unique and vibrant, but it sort of begins to grate on you after a while. But it's still a really cool book. This is the author's first novel, though, and you can tell that she's going to be very famous someday, and her fame will be well-deserved.

16. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. I really liked this book, about the dynamics of a family headed by a frustrated British academic whose career has stalled and his African American wife. I've always liked Smith--who became very well known after her first book, White Teeth, became a big hit a few years ago--because when her second book came out, she actually told people that it wasn't very good and not to buy it, which I think is pretty cool, because personally I think it blows every time that some band is recording a new album and in all their interviews they say that it's going to be their best album ever, and then it's, like, Sam's Town or some shit. Mind you, Zadie Smith is not a band, but I'm glad that she is honest.

17. JPod, by Douglas Coupland. This book was crazy. I also found this in my brother's NYC apartment (an unexpected literary treasure trove). It's not really about anything other than a bunch of computer guys doing ridiculous shit at their job at a video game design company, but it was really funny. This is the first Coupland book I've read, but I look forward to reading more.

Jacque Jones is a nice guy, but he's not going to save your fantasy squad.

18. Fantasyland, by Sam Walker. This is a book about a sportswriter who joins the most competitive fantasy baseball league in the country and winds up completely giving his life over to his shitty fantasy baseball team (he even hires two paid staffers to help him run the team). You know the guy is in trouble when the book starts out and he's got a huge boner for guys like Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz (had to look that one up). I may have to make my special lady friend read that one so that she can see that relative to Walker, my own crippling addiction to fantasy baseball is no big deal.

We'll get to the second half of the list tomorrow or the next day. Remember, I am lazy.

1 comment:

Adrian said...

In fact, I bought JPod for Grek last Xmas. Glad you liked it. I only read one other book by him, Hey Nostradamus!, which I couldn't finish cuz it was depressing instead of funny. Stick to funny, Coupland!