Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 books

As I did last year, and the previous few before that, I'm posting the books I read this year.  

All in all, not a bad year.  I think my favorite reads were:  The Forsyte Saga; Running with Scissors; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; and I, Claudius.

It's been a year with a lot of historical fiction - not premeditated, just turned out that way.  And a lot of conspiracy theories (including the TV series of The Borgias and I, Claudius :-)).
And a few doorstops.

It's also been a year with a lot of stories with extremely irritating logical leaps.  Nothing bothers me so much, I think, as a story where characters jump to unfounded conclusions that are critical to to the plot.  It makes me want to put the book down.  Or scream at the author/editor, "Do your homework."  In some cases I've been able to resist the temptation to drop the book; in others...well...maybe not.  

* = Recommended
X = Stay Away
  • The Thief (Audiobook):  Fuminori Nakamura - interesting, but felt a little contrived.  There go some of those unfounded conclusions.
  • The Forsyte Saga:  John Galsworthy - I saw the lovely 2002 miniseries last year (or was it 2 years ago???), and decided to try reading it.  Interestingly, the series changed the structure a bit from the book, but was mostly pretty faithful.  I feel like they changed the end, though, at least the feeling at the end, which I found more edgy in the text version.  Liked it a lot, but I won't put it as a *, as I think it might be a bit much for most who have not seen the series and don't enjoy reading doorstops.  I think I would have gotten even more out of it if my knowledge of late 19th/early 20th Century British history were more extensive - I think the story is, among other things, intended as a commentary on Britain's role in a world where colonialism made less and less sense.  There's a bit of a 100 Years of Solitude feel, with all the repeated names :-)  Talk about doorstops.
  • The Geographer's Library (Audiobook):  Jon Fasman - Da Vinci Code lite, and making less sense, if you can believe that.  Interesting, but not fabulous.  I can't quite figure out why I was willing to finish this one, but couldn't bring myself to finish The Technologists.  Many of the same complaints apply to both.  Perhaps it was the clueless charm of the main main character (in contrast to the lack of personality of the too-many characters in The Technologists), and the visible, well-defined bad-guy (s?) (in contrast to what I presume was a bad guy who never actually appeared in the portion of the book I read, and whose motives were unspecified).  Lot of unfounded conclusions.  And in many places that it tries to be mysterious, it succeeds mainly in being confusing.
  • The Call of Cthulhu:  H.P. Lovecraft - I'd never read Lovecraft before.  Didn't do much for me.  Horror, schmorror.  I think maybe it was too much cast as hearsay to be really creepy.  You just can't get that direct access to the reader's limbic system when you're describing stuff that someone else witnessed.  Plus the leaps of logic various characters make just don't make sense.  I'd have dropped it if it weren't so short and it didn't have such a reputation.  I don't understand all the praise the story has gotten and the -sorry- Cthulhu cult it's given rise to. Give me Mary Shelley any day.  I kind of prefer the What if Dr. Seuss wrote The Call of Cthulhu? version.
  • Monkey Mind (Audiobook):  Daniel Smith - entertaining and somewhat comforting, but not terribly informative, memoir on the theme of anxiety
  • Five by Fitzgerald (Audiobook):  F. Scott Fitzgerald - I particularly liked "Bernice Bobs Her Hair".  Enjoyed Benjamin Button, but didn't quite get the point.
  • The Poisoner's Handbook (Audiobook):  Deborah Blum - I enjoyed it a lot, but it was a bit too rambly for me to * it.  I found the audio narrator a bit annoying, as well (though I've heard worse).
  • * Be Different (Audiobook):  John Elder Robison - lots of nice insights into living with Asperger's
  • The Autistic Brain:  Thinking Across the Spectrum (Audiobook):  Temple Grandin and Richard Panek - I'd put this as a *, but it's a bit uneven.  I think writers might do well to read it, or at least parts of it, as it has many interesting insights on sensory perception, which I suspect would be useful to think about whether or not you have a character on the autism spectrum.
  • * The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Audiobook):  Neil Gaiman - strange little book.  I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is - it mostly reads like something for a tween, but it's got a little bit that might be a bit inappropro, as we say in my house, for the tween crowd.  Just a little. Mostly written from the point of view of a 7 year old boy.  Very creepy and intense at times.  Lovely sensory detail.  I definitely want a black kitten with a white splotch on one ear, now.  Lovely audio by Gaiman.
  • The Art Thief (Audiobook):  Noah Charney - entertaining, informative about art history and art theft (at least to someone like me who is not very informed about the art world).  Characters are a bit annoyingly cartoonish.  And I am so dissatisfied with the end that I am almost tempted to put this as an X, but after all, the story was fun and it piqued my curiosity about several famous paintings.  Talk about logical leaps!  The final resolution made no sense, in the context of the rest of the story and was way too convoluted - I think I still don't understand exactly what happened or if it could have happened that way.  It's like the author was trying to be really clever by giving a total surprise ending that turned the whole story into a farce.  I like a good farce, but then I want to know I'm reading one, all along.  I thought about picking up a paper copy, to go back and look and see if there were more clues and I just missed them, but I decided I just didn't care about the story enough to go through the effort.  That's a place I never want my readers to be. 
  • Running With Scissors (Audiobook):  Augusten Burroughs - narrated by Burroughs.  Thought I'd try this, having heard a bit about his life, after reading John Elder Robison's memoir (they are brothers).  I'd put this as a *, but it may not be for everyone.  I liked it a lot.  He does a great job of capturing the voice of himself as a kid, as contrasted with himself as an adolescent, as contrasted with himself as a young man.  He also does a great job at capturing the sort of surreal frame of mind that allows us to accept horrors we experience.  I definitely recommend this one for some of my friends who are working on memoir.
  • Persuasion:  Jane Austen - what year is complete without one of them?
  • Last of the Mohicans (Audiobook):  James Fenimore Cooper.  Less than superb narration, though I have to say that with its flowery language this must have been an extremely difficult book to narrate.  I like Cooper's attempts to capture the voice and language/imagery used by native Americans (I have no idea how authentic it is, though).  And I have to admire the fact that a white guy in his times was sympathetic enough to native Americans to invest the time to learn about them and the nuances of their politics, and was willing to portray (at least some of them) as good and honorable and intelligent, full human beings.  I found the text difficult to follow - not sure how much of this was due to trying to keep up with the audio vs my ignorance of history (or both) vs my ignorance of the politics between various native American nations. It was interesting, though.
  • The Last Runaway (Audiobook):  Tracy Chevalier - a little disappointing, though not as much as Burning Bright.  It felt a bit contrived and mawkish.  The protagonist, Honor Bright (I kid you not), a displaced British Quaker in antebellum rural Oberlin just gets too lucky all along.  Sure she faces difficulties, including the attentions of a drunken, horny bounty hunter of runaway slaves who loves her because she reminds him of his saintly deceased mother, and sure she makes difficult and dangerous choices (run away with the bounty hunter? (he's kinda cute) or stick with the nice husband with the annoying mother?), but she never really has to deal with the consequences of these choices because everybody just loves her and forgives her for pretty much every social transgression she commits.
  • The Bell Jar (Audiobook):  Sylvia Plath.  I was fascinated by this as a teenager (not sure why), so I thought I'd give it a try again.  As an adult, I appreciate it for its palpable portrayal of the logic of depression.  As a reader, you can see that the narrator's thought process is messed up, and yet everything makes perfect sense.  It was also interesting in a historic sense.  It was written only about 50 years ago, but our attitudes are so different nowadays, compared to the social norms portrayed in the story.  Everything from Freudian analysis (the narrator's poor mother was distraught at a psychiatrist asking about her child's toilet training - who'd ask that today?) to availability of birth control (she mentions that it was illegal for her to obtain it, as an unmarried woman) to homosexuality (which seems to be the main reason for institutionalization of a couple of her ward-mates).  Not to mention some of the other more obvious social shifts, such as the expectation of a woman's virginity at marriage. 
  • An Edgar Allen Poe collection (Audiobook):  Edgar Allen Poe - I've never really been much of a Poe fan, but these recordings made it palatable.  I enjoyed The Cask of Amontillado and The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether (though this latter was a bit predictable).  It occurred to me, as I was listening to the collection, that I couldn't think of any earlier literary examples of unreliable, mentally ill/wantonly evil narrators like those in Poe's stories.  Perhaps this is one of the things that makes Poe special.
  • Le Morte D'Arthur - Volume I:  Sir Thomas Malory - talk about doorstop...  I've kind of always hated the Arthur stories (except The Once and Future King, the first section of which I was asked to read in 6th grade, and enjoyed).  I still kind of hate them, they're so macho and meaningless, for the most part - guys whacking (and killing) each other just because.  But surprisingly, I was able to get through the whole of Volume I, though I was kicking myself for keeping up with it.  And by the time I got to the end, I was mad that it ended where it did...I wanna know what happens to Tristram and La Beale Isoud.  Oh, well...I guess I'll just have to start Volume II...sometime.
  • Pride and Prejudice:  Jane Austen - because...well...I finished Volume I of Le Morte D'Arthur, and was travelling and not really in a position to download something else...and it was on my Kindle, as well as my I really need an excuse for reading P&P again? 
  • The Noel Coward Collection (Audiobook):  Excellent performances of Blithe Spirit; Design for Living; Fallen Angels; Hay Fever; Present Laughter; and Private Lives. I enjoyed the wit and banter, and appreciated the willingness to address (1920's) taboo subjects, but found the plays fairly misogynistic.
  • I, Claudius (Audiobook):  Robert Graves - enjoyed it a lot...I tend to like these royal skullduggery stories, in case you hadn't guessed.  Get my conspiracy theories and history lesson in one tasty packet.  I would have found the audio narrator's didactic performance annoying for almost any other book, but I think it worked for Claudius' voice, who, at least according to Graves' text, was rather didactic, himself. 
  • The Hamlet (Audiobook):  William Faulkner - enjoyed it, but it was a strange kind of piece.  Kind of hard to follow (surprise, surprise!)  I listened to several parts several times over, and even went back to the text, and still wasn't sure what happened.  I hope to re-read it some day, but I'm not hopeful that I'll really figure out what was intended.  I'm not sure if the issue is that I'm not familiar with small town southern life of the 1930's or if it's just a Faulkner thing, or both.  I understand that it is considered good form for a writer to leave a lot to the reader to infer, so they feel clever, but I dunno...this one left a little too much for me to infer, and I just feel dumb :-) 
  • Claudius the God (Audiobook):  Robert Graves - I enjoyed I, Claudius so much (the book and the TV series) that I went on for the next volume.  
  • Northanger Abbey:  Jane Austen -- just because.  Catherine Morland still doesn't do much for me, though I don't find her as annoying as Fanny Price.  I am still trying to understand what makes the difference between these two and Austen's other heroines.  I think part of it comes down to their very ordinariness.  There's nothing wrong with ordinary, but an author needs to draw out the extraordinary in the every day.  Her other heroines, while being absolutely representative of their social class, and so, quite ordinary, nevertheless show intellectual superiority that allows them to reflect on their situations in ways that make them interesting.  I guess that I just don't see that in Catherine.  I suppose it's there for Fanny, but well...maybe it's a little too much.
  • Cloud Atlas (Audiobook):  David Mitchell.  Partially historic fiction, I guess.   Past and future.  Interesting, but I found it a bit annoying in places. I felt like some of the voices called too much attention to themselves, especially in the future settings.  
  • Salome:  Oscar Wilde - there gores more of that historical fiction
  • The Mill on the Floss (Audiobook):  George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) - Can't totally put my finger on why I really enjoyed it.  It was very predictable, heavy on the tell, heavy on the preachy, heavy on the melodrama, but still I really enjoyed it.  I think it's that the character of Maggie is drawn so nicely, especially as a child, and the conflicts between her inner and outer worlds seem so clear.  The only thing I didn't find sufficiently justified (and it was a serious distraction for me) was Maggie's obsession with Stephen.  It's easy to see what might have fascinated him about her, but I just didn't feel what she saw in him.  Which kind of ruined the tension for me.  It would have been so easy to give him a little extra depth, but it just wasn't there.  Oddly, the story is, in some ways, very parallel to the Forsyte Saga I started the year with (nice bookends for the year) but I found Irene's infatuation with Bosinney much more compelling and believable.
  • The Technologists (Audiobook):  Matthew Pearl - I tried to like this, really, I did. Cutthroat rivalry between stodgy old Harvard and the young, hungry MIT; fight to the death of science against head-in-the-sand tradition and entrenched interests; forward looking acceptance of women and lower class access to education vs snooty blue-blood privilege.  What could be bad?  I tried to like it, if for nothing else, for the sake of the young Ellen Swallow Richards, first woman at MIT, founding mother of AAUW, who is a character in the book.  But the prose and the narration were both really annoying, not to mention the highly implausible plot.  So, contrary to my usual MO, I decided to cut my losses early.  The straw that broke the camel's back was the review on the MIT website, which I initially assumed would be positive, simply for the book's plug of MIT.  Once I read the review, I decided that the misleading view on history the book provided would outweigh any benefits of reading it.  For Ellen Richards.  In fairness, though, I will not give it an X, as I think I only read about a quarter.
  • The Enemies of Women:  Vicente Blasco Ibanez - just wasn't interesting enough to keep's hard to get really interested in a spoiled rich kid who hits hard times and is forced to live like a mid-level executive, rather than like a captain of the universe
  • The Stranger:  Albert Camus
  • The Call of the Wild:  Jack London
  • Josephus:  Leon Feuchtwanger - more on that ancient Roman history - still working on it
  • Game of Thrones (Audiobook):  George R.R.Martin - just started it as of the end of the year.  Not sure if I'm gonna be able to stick with it.  I kind of hate it, so far, and that's saying something for a person who loves stories of royal skullduggery.  I think I find the characters rather cartoonish.  Also rather too much tell - not much for me to think about, wonder about.  Give me Philippa Gregory or Robert Graves, any day.
And with Sidharta:
  • * Holes:  Louis Sachar
  • Lots of Calvin and Hobbes:  Bill Watterson
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:  John Boyne - I didn't read the whole thing (he finished it himself - he told me the gist of the end, and it sounded extremely depressing, so I'm not motivated to finish it off.  I can't handle stories where bad stuff happens to kids.)  But it's got an excellent voice of a child.
  • * The Great Brain:  John D. Fitzgerald 
  • * More Adventures of the Great Brain:  John D. Fitzgerald - one of my childhood favorites 
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:  Mark Twain - parts of it...he read parts on his own...he's turning out to be quite the Mark Twain enthusiast, isn't he :-)?  What exquisite taste!  I read this with him at the same time I was reading Le Morte D'Arthur (coincidence), and I appreciated it on a totally different level than I had when I read it earlier.  Twain's satire on the Malory work is very amusing...he has many of the same complaints that I do :-)
  • (started) The Little Prince:  Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • (started) Something New:  P.G. Wodehouse...I figured since he's such a Mark Twain fan, he'd enjoy Wodehouse, as well.  He hasn't bitten, so far.
  • * Haroun and the Sea of Stories:  Salman Rushdie - one of my all time favorite kid books (still working on it with him)
  • * WTF, Evolution?!:  A Theory of Unintelligible Design:  Mara Grunbaum - Hilarious compilation of all sorts of things Evolution has gotten wrong over the ages.  In case you didn't know it...Evolution is basically a sort of poor stoner shnook who's clearly in over his head.  You can see similar items on the WTF, Evolution?! tumblr.  I think my favorite is the carnivorous potatoes.
  • * Hyperbole and a Half:  Allie Brosh -- hilarious collection of essays/cartoons about bumbling through life.  With depression.  And insane dogs. And ridiculous, painful childhood memories.