Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Books I Read in 2007, Pt. 2

What was the biggest lie to come out of the White House in the last ten years? Was it WMD's in Iraq? The Iranian nukes that will supposedly rain down on us any minute now? The whole not having sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinski thing? Compassionate conservatism?


The biggest lie to come out of the White House in the past ten years was this gem, reported in US News and World Report on August 20, 2006:
But President Bush now wants it known that he is a man of letters. In fact, Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove, his political adviser. White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year (while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50). The commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone-two on Abraham Lincoln and, more surprising for a man of unambiguous convictions, The Stranger, Albert Camus's existential tale of murder and alienation.

Yes, that's right. The White House at one point had the cojones to claim that George W. Bush, between morning workouts, 10 p.m. bedtimes, and whole days full of running the government into the ground while using the Constitution to wipe the ass of America, somehow also read 60 weighty tomes, many of them lengthy biographies or historical volumes, others high literature (or, as Bush himself put it, "three Shakespeare's") . And that's not for the whole year--that's through mid-August. This lie is so pointless and transparently false that I can't even verbalize how irrationally mad it makes me. I mean, after this, the lie gloves were off. I wouldn't have been surprised if after this they'd started claiming that Bush was a surgeon, and that he was the one that fixed Giuliani's ass cancer with his special laser butt surgery techniques and chemotherapy-secreting nipples, and that we've always been at war with Eastasia. Let's move on.

I left my book list off on Sam Walker's Fantasyland, which is not dirty like the title makes it sound. After that came:

19. Time's Witness, by Michael Malone. Malone is an author from North Carolina who is very, very talented. This book is kind of like To Kill a Mockingbird, but much bigger and funnier. The book is the second part of a trilogy that is well worth checking out, as is just about anything written by Malone. I don't know why he isn't more famous than he is.

20. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. One of only four female authors on my reading list this year. 2006 was even worse: one book by Atwood, and one "book" by Maureen Dowd. Hideous. Apparently I am a literary sexist. I don't know why this is. I also don't really have too many albums by female artists. My bad karma on this front will probably somehow lead to a Hillary Clinton presidency. America, I apologize.

21. The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins. This book was fucking excellent. It looks at human evolution backwards by looking at humans, and then goes back and looks at, for example, the last common ancestor that we humans shared with, say, the Neanderthals, and before that, the last common ancestor that all the major primates descended from, and before that, the last common ancestor of all primates and lemurs, and before that, the last common ancestor of, I don't know, all non-ungulate mammals, eventually going back all the way to the theoretical single-celled organism that all life on Earth is descended from. Along the way, Dawkins takes all sorts of potshots at Christianity (he also wrote a book called The God Delusion, so you can sort of guess where he's coming from on that front). The book is awesome because it is essentially about all sorts of awesome animals that are now extinct, which is what all books should be about or at least have a chapter on.

Right, below: Megatherium Americanus, the giant ground sloth. Now extinct, this was probably the most badass mammal that ever lived. If I could breed an army of these and control them with my brainwaves, I would rule the world. In theory, climate change and hunting by early humans killed them off, but I'm pretty sure that what really killed them was an army of nuclear Frankensteins. It's the only rational explanation.

22 and 23. The Sportswriter and Independence Day, by Richard Ford. Beautiful writing. The plots of these books (the first two installments of a trilogy about a man, Frank Bascombe, who lives in New Jersey and doesn't do much) are nothing to write home about--if you're looking for action, look elsewhere--but the writing is amazing. I don't generally write in my books or underline stuff (I used to in college, but that was so I'd have something to say in section), but these two books are all sorts of marked up. This stuff is kind of like John Updike in that it's about well-off, introverted white guys and their enviably oh-boo-hoo problems, except that with Ford, you don't want to punch the author or his protagonist in the face every minute that you're reading it. These books are not for everyone, but I think if you come across them at the right moment in your life, they will mean something to you. God I am lame.

24. Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin. I don't know how or where I picked up this book. It is about a kind of Prince Charles-like Prince of England who is forced to undertake a mystical quest to conquer America before he can become the king of England. It is absolutely ridiculous and well worth checking out. It does kind of drag a little in the middle. Kind of like how this is dragging. You can bail out now, you don't need to be here.

25. Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, by Kary Mullis. I hated this book. It is a memoir written by a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who likes to surf and drop acid. My cousin recommended it to me--she loves it, being a chemist herself--but it was easily the most insufferable thing I read all year. Blaaaaaah. Hated hated hated it.

26. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by JK Rowling. Hey, did you hear Dumbledore's gay? No shit.

27, 28, and 29. White Jazz, The Big Nowhere, and The Black Dahlia (in that order) by James Ellroy. Ellroy is the guy who wrote L.A. Confidential, and that book, along with these three, forms a quartet. I read L.A. Confidential and a few of his other books a few years back, and really liked them, so this year I went back and read the other three in the series, except all out of order. The chronological order is Dahlia, Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz, so I was really all over the place in reading them in the order that I did, but they're fairly loosely connected--basically what ties them all together is that they're all set in L.A., and all four of them have a character named Dudley Smith (the James Cromwell character in L.A. Confidential) causing trouble. Ellroy is obsessed with the story of the Black Dahlia's unsolved murder because his own mother was unsolvedly murdered in L.A. as well. He seems like a pretty fucked-up dude. However, his books are pretty damn awesome, great noir stuff. Black Dahlia is my least favorite--it's kind of unnecessarily flowery (pun!) and it's no surprise that the movie version is damn near unwatchable. I know that the ladies all seem to love Josh Hartnett, and I'm sure he's a very nice guy, but man is that guy 20 different kinds of awful.

30. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace. Wallace is considered the shit for his crazy fiction experiments--got a MacArthur Genius Grant and everything--but I think he's at his best when doing non-fiction. This is a collection of magazine articles he's done over the last few years, and it is excellent. More on Wallace in a bit.

31. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. There is no real way of explaining this book, but how can you not love that title?

32. Collapse, by Jared Diamond. Diamond's follow-up to Guns, Germs, and Steel focuses on examining large, prosperous civilizations that collapsed in a relatively short period of time. He identifies several factors that can lead to these sudden collapses. Problem is, the book gets pretty repetitive after a while, and it becomes a bit of a slog. Also, I found out that this is what Diamond looks like, and after seeing that, it was much harder to take him seriously. He looks like Harry Shearer in A Mighty Wind.

33. Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey. Another MacArthur Genius Grant guy. This is a book of essays. I didn't really dig it as much as I was told I would. He writes a lot about the 60's and 70's, which apparently for him consisted of reading lots of art criticism and watching short films where all that happens is that a dude gets a haircut and smokes a cigarette. (Sign me up!) I guess you had to be there.

34. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Here's how I described this book to a friend of mine over email when I started reading it:
i am reading a book called "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace.
He's the guy uses lots of footnotes (in fiction). IJ is his big magnum opus. It's not really distillable into a short description, but basically it is set in a near future where some environmental catastrophe (never quite explained, but it is implied that it is essentially the result of greedy corporations just dirtying shit up and no one really giving a damn about it) has led to the US annexation of Canada and it focuses on a teenage genius/tennis prodigy and a recovering drug addict/burglar who get involved in a whole bunch of crazy shit having to do with a government conspiracy, paraplegic Quebequois terrorist assassins, and a movie that causes the brain's
pleasure circuits to overload, turning viewers into vegetables that just want to watch the movie over and over. It is over a thousand pages long, including a hundred pages of endnotes, some of which go on for dozens of pages. It is crazy.

"That sounds awful," emailed back my friend.

But I like it. I've read it twice now. There's no explaining it.

35. Icon, by Frederick Forsyth. Very cool spy thriller from 1996 which somehow pretty much managed to predict the rise of Vlad Putin.

36. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy. I read this because it was really small and fit in my pocket one day that I had to go out and run errands. It is about an asshole dying and kind of realizing he's led an asshole life and that all his friends and family are assholes. I bet Tolstoy was the fucking life of the party.

37. Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile. Like the movie, except mujaheddinnier.

38. Arctic Dreams, by George Lopez. Some book about the Arctic by a guy that really, really likes the Arctic. Pretty cool, but I lost interest after a while. There was a lot of the guy talking about how quiet shit was. I mostly read this because apparently pretty soon there's not going to be an Arctic. I'm not sure if that will affect all the quiet or not. Also, Eskimos seem like they'd be pretty fun to hang out with. Also, you know what animal just doesn't make sense? The narwhal. There is now way that thing should exist.

Narwhals: small whales with unicorn horns filled with magical navigational powers. Created on the 8th day, the day that God created really awesome weed.

And that was it for 2007. I'm sure George W. Bush read 127 books, including Infinite Jest 4 times (once translated into Czech), but I can't feel bad about myself, because the man is a huge genius. Are you still reading this? I apologize.

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