I read 30 books this year, which is a pretty satisfying number for a man with several jobs and the various commitments that come with being newly married. I started and quit on three more, and though I get into the specifics on those below, the bottom line is that life is far too short to waste it reading bad books. Books require a time commitment unmatched by other media, so while I’ll usually push through a film to see if it can redeem itself, there’s a world of difference between losing two hours and forfeiting two to three weeks. It’s remarkably liberating to live like this, too. I’ll die not having read a tenth of the books I want to read or should read, so spending extra seconds with bad ones is foolishness.
Here’s a chronological list of what I read this year (based on order read, not publication date), with more after the jump. As always, I’m open to suggestions about what to read next.
In the Lake of the Woods (1995)
, Tim O’Brien
I really wanted more from this one. I’d hoped the premise — a failed congressman and his wife retreat to a cabin in the woods, she vanishes — would lead to some good mystery and suspense, but O’Brien, famous for the Vietnam book The Things They Carried
, just finds a new way to insert the horror of war into a new story. Once I realized that (spoiler
) he wasn’t going to solve the mystery, and was in fact going to be very proud of his inability to do so, I grew bored. There’s a difference between eerie ambiguity and just not giving a shit, and O’Brien fell on the wrong side of the line.
King Dork (2006), Frank Portman
I finally picked this up after having it recommended to me at least a year ago, and I’m glad I did. Portman’s coming-of-age story absolutely nails the emotional hell that is high school, so much so that I was almost uncomfortable reading about his young hero’s lonely quest for survival. But the book’s hilarious, smart, and quick. Coincidentally, this is another mystery that puts the emphasis on the people instead of the story (it’s as if my subconscious was preparing me for the finale of “Lost” by reading these), but Portman pulls it off thanks to his focus on great characters and the way he actually lands the ending.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), Anne Lamott
Absolutely fantastic. Anne Lamott details her youth and talks about her gradual coming to faith after years of bouncing between beliefs, and her description of the moment she converted is dazzling in its honesty. She writes of her life as a single mom and talks with humor and compassion about friends, death, hope, and family. One of my favorites of the year.
Stitches: A Memoir (2009), David Small
A quick, sad read. David Small underwent throat surgery as a teen that left him mostly voiceless, and this graphic novel is his memoir of the event. He had an unhappy, clouded childhood, and this book is a way for him to mourn a host of losses.
20th Century Ghosts (2007), Joe Hill
Joe Hill’s full name is Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen. I enjoyed his debut, Heart-Shaped Box, and this collection of his short stories reinforced the fact that he’s now the better writer than his father. His horror stories are like the elder King in his prime, but the great thing is that these stories cover all genres. Some are surreal, some fantasy, and many just finely realized examinations of growing up. “My Father’s Mask” is as creepy and visually compelling as a David Lynch flick, while “The Widow’s Breakfast” is a straight-ahead story about a rail-riding hobo in the Depression. “Better Than Home” is a sweet story about a challenged boy and his dad connecting through baseball, while “Best New Horror” scared me completely.
Blockade Billy (2010), Stephen King
The best thing about this novella was that it didn’t take long to finish. I grew up on King, and until a recent bout of purging owned a copy of everything he’d written, so I’ve been able to chart his various ups and downs from one project to the next. However, he’s now almost completely given in to the temptations of gimmickry and laziness, and his formerly plot-driven stories have been replaced by a kind of back-in-my-day bitchiness that robs his narratives of their ability to connect. He’s also clunkier than ever, shoving in badly situated pop culture references that are usually nothing more than nods to whatever beach read he’s just finished in his spare time. I know that a part of me will always be morbidly curious about his latest work, but I also know that this is nothing more than the hangover of reading It at 14 and being spellbound.
Downtown Owl (2008), Chuck Klosterman
Klosterman’s essay style boils down to “This is like this because of course it is.” Or “This is basically what you think it is, but for reasons you never even knew you’d thought about and would probably reject if you ever considered them.” It’s a fun enough use of a few basic declarative patterns, but it’s not quite enough to give his first novel real impact. He cuts between the lives of three residents in a small town leading up to a disastrous winter storm, and though he’s capable of nailing certain speech rhythms and of capturing the utter boredom of youth, every character feels carved from the same Klosterman-shaped block of wood. Worth checking out for fans of Chuck, but not his most entertaining work.
The Terror (2007), Dan Simmons
I remembered almost nothing about this book before starting it except a capsule review on The A.V. Club that looked on it favorably. I’ve never been a big historical fiction reader, and it’s because too often it feels like a parlor trick, no matter how elaborately done or thoroughly researched. I’d rather read a nonfiction book or a fictional narrative than try to split the difference. But one of the (many) reasons The Terror worked for me is that Dan Simmons used real people who are mostly obscure to modern readers, allowing for a gripping what-if scenario set in a real time and place that didn’t feel hokey. His sprawling novel uses the Franklin Expedition of the 1840s, which attempted to chart the Northwest Passage, as a springboard for supernatural horror. The book’s first two-thirds are its strongest, particularly for the way Simmons dryly and accurately deals with the reaction of the men to the presence of an unknown and unbeatable monster that begins to terrorize them when their ships get snowed in. He doesn’t quite build up enough story to justify some of the developments at the end, though. He’s much better at crafting a gripping, suspenseful tale of men driven mad by circumstance.
Stardust (2009) (unfinished), Joseph Kanon
I quit after 40 pages or so. When I was younger, I refused to give up on books, no matter what it took to slog through them, but I now know that life is too short to spend even a few weeks of it reading something that’s not interesting. The time commitment and emotional investment that just aren’t worth it. If I feel my interest flagging, I keep going for a while, but if a story just isn’t connecting with me, I let it go.
The Lazarus Project (2008) (unfinished), Aleksandar Hemon
I made it further in this one than the Kanon, probably as much as one-third or 40 percent, but I simply ran out of energy. The premise was intriguing: Chapters alternate between the aftermath of the killing of an immigrant around the turn of the century and a novelist’s modern-day journey to research the past, both of the dead man and his own family. But there’s a kind of despair and hopelessness that make the story impossible to read after a while; imagine Foer without the humor or linguistic skill. I grew tired of the protagonist’s limited emotional range and cursing of the heavenly fates and decided to move on.
Summer of Night (1991), Dan Simmons
The Terror, despite a few erratic jumps at the end, hooked me on Simmons, and I opted to read this one next when a friend described it as “It, but written better.” That turned out to be mostly true. Simmons’ novel follows a group of young boys in small-town Illinois who band together to fight a supernatural evil in the summer of 1960. It’s a fun, engaging read, though Simmons’ weakness with geography makes for some confusing chase sequences. The main flaw, though, is that it needed a better edit. I don’t mean it should be shorter; at 600 pages in paperback, it’s an enjoyable length, long enough to dig into the story and characters. But the repetition of certain phrases and bits of information in a few scenes, often separated by only a paragraph or two, is occasionally jarring. A cleaner, tighter edit would’ve shaved these out. Still, worth checking out for horror fans.
Feed (2002), M.T. Anderson
A quick, tightly drawn YA novel about a society in which people are so dependent on the Internet that it’s been internalized via chips in their brains that allow them to shop, chat, and communicate via thought. Like the best satire, it’s only a step or two beyond the current world, and in the eight years since its release, it’s only grown more relevant.
The Unnamed (2010), Joshua Ferris
I adored Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, for its satire and humor about the dark undercurrent of life facing modern twentysomethings. His follow-up, though, is very different, and though he’s still an assured writer, I remained unmoved by The Unnamed. I didn’t mind the speculative-fiction premise — a man comes down with a freak malady that controls his body and forces him to walk for miles in all directions — nor did I have any trouble relating to the emotional parallels of search, loss, etc. What hurt the most was watching the man and his wife utterly destroy each other for 300 pages. They’re not in love, and never really were, which means that every exchange and decision is tainted by the fact that, deep down, there’s no reason for them to care about each other. The novel also skirts some potential real-world issues by making the man an extremely successful lawyer, so that while his disease does entail a loss of dignity, he’s still ridiculously wealthy and able to finance his increasingly long jaunts by stopping by an ATM in his moments of control. This makes his inevitable breakdown not more tragic, merely less sympathetic. Despite a few moments of genuine humanity — in the best sense — the novel is ultimately about a cold man and bored woman who dislike each other and suffer for decades. It lacks all the shine and power of Ferris’ first work, which used loneliness and other dark emotions to great, bittersweet effect to talk about the way we live life. Here, it’s just bitter.
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), Rick Perlstein
What a penetrating, fascinating, and heartbreaking modern history. Perlstein’s hefty volume includes more than 100 pages of exhaustively sourced notes at the end, and his research is reflected in the narrative’s fastidious detail and impressive scope. He traces the cultural and political fortunes of the United States between 1965 and 1972, using Johnson’s 1964 landslide and Nixon’s 1972 landslide as touchstones to explore just how divided the nation became. It’s also a sad story, one that highlights the beginnings of the divides that still make political discourse a difficult task for those with opposing views. Perlstein expertly weaves together disparate story lines about war, poverty, race, class, and faith to create an amazing and compulsively readable account of a horrible era in American life. I can’t recommend it enough.
Persepolis and Persepolis 2 (2004), Marjane Satrapi
A fantastic memoir, filled with equal amounts of strength, resilience, and despair. Iran’s history is (for me) a murky one, and this is a streamlined way to understand some of what’s been happening there the past thirty years.
Generation Kill (2004), Evan Wright
I’d been meaning to read this since before it was adapted into an HBO miniseries in 2008, and I’m so glad I did. The miniseries was fantastically made, but one of the things lost in translation was the first-person point-of-view of reporter Evan Wright. The book is a fantastic piece of reporting that also captures Wright’s humor, fear, and willingness to examine the ugly and conflicting emotions that define war zones. (For example, one of the Marines in Wright’s Humvee is a lethal machine gunner who winds up accidentally shooting a child, an act Wright finds horrific even as he takes comfort in the gunner’s skill and accuracy when they ride into battle.) A riveting look at modern war.
Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s novel plays with the notions of narrative and reality in interesting ways — Michael Chabon described it as “nested dolls or Chinese boxes” in a blurb, and that’s as good a way to put it as any — but not always successfully. I enjoyed the heady rush as one section gave way to the next and each story seemed to be contained in the one after it, but Mitchell spent so much effort making his emotional argument (journey trumps the destination, our souls move on, etc.) that the novel’s midpoint felt like the perfect conclusion. As a result, the unwinding halves of the stories that carried the book to its end felt superfluous. They weren’t terrible, but they undercut what had come before, and they felt like fat that could have been cut entirely. I was gripped until the midpoint; from there, it was a slog just to skim. Mitchell made his point with grace, then bludgeoned it home for 200 more pages.
How to Be Alone (2002), Jonathan Franzen
My first Franzen. I saw right away why he’s so popular and divisive: he’s a brilliant and perceptive writer who nevertheless can come off as whiny in his personal pieces. His journalistic essays, particularly the one about the U.S. Postal Service, are the best in the book.
The Myth of a Christian Nation (2006), Gregory A. Boyd
A thoroughly researched and well-argued book, though it tends to skew a bit toward preacher prep. (Every chapter is broken into subsections, which are typically dispatched with “Here are three reasons that [this is the case]” introductions.) This makes sense, since Boyd adapted the book from a sermon series he preached in 2004 that caused close to 1,000 people to leave his church when he spoke about how Christian morality and American pride are wildly conflicting ideals. Easier going for those with evangelical backgrounds, but a necessary thesis for everyone to hear.
The Hunger Games (2008), Suzanne Collins
I learned of The Hunger Games from Alex Day, one of the few (only?) YouTube users I regularly check on. The YA trilogy has earned some solid buzz, so I decided to check it out before it was turned into a movie (and it’s a good thing I did). The first installment is a rock-solid page-turner that’s plenty dark, and the premise — the children of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic America are forced to fight for food for their individual territories in a kind of Battle Royale — is a good one for the genre. A fun, quick read.
Animal Theology (1995), Andrew Linzey
This is when I started to really consider what I was doing when I ate meat. I’ve always hated hunting and the idea of it, but I never really applied that to my life in terms of eating store-bought meat. My wife has been a vegetarian for years, but she never pushed me to make any dietary changes. I realized I was growing less and less content with the idea of consciously inflicting suffering on an animal that, though not a part of a planet-ruling society, still possessed the ability to feel pain and express fear. Even though I’d read (and loved) “Consider the Lobster” years ago, and was moved all the way back in high school by “The Hungry and the Hunted”, I didn’t really examine my behavior or beliefs, despite the clarity and impact of the moral argument. When I read Andrew Linzey, I began to understand even more that in addition to the moral secular arguments — which are very good — there’s also a Christian one to be made, one that views mankind’s stewardship of animals as a holy thing and views the animals themselves as important creations of God. Dominion isn’t despotism, Linzey argues, and it’s hard not to agree. I also started to ask myself what I wanted to get out of eating meat. If it was the knowledge that my meal had come from an animal that had once been alive and that had experienced slaughter to get to my plate, that was one thing; but if it was merely to enjoy a taste and texture sensation I’d grown up with, one that could be replicated with other materials or balanced outright with other foods, that was something else. And I realized I was eating meat not because I objectively loved it, or because I wanted to eat flesh, but because I was used to it, and because not thinking about it was easier than thinking about it. So I stopped. Not all at once; there were still a few bacon-inclusive breakfast tacos for a week or two (sorry, babe), but eventually I just phased it out. I liked the challenge of finding other food sources as well as the knowledge that I was eating better, healthier, and more responsibly, both in a global and spiritual sense. I was tired of eating burgers or barbecue and feeling not just full but distended afterward. I felt better eating veggie patties made from beans or grains, and eating protein substitutes for my daily lunch at the office. I missed it less than I thought I would.
Full Dark, No Stars (2010), Stephen King
Now this is more like it. King’s latest novella collection is still riddled with some of the annoying tics that have come with his old age, like a weird propensity to use specific brand names (e.g., Bing, randomly) that dates the stories before they even hit shelves. He’s also not nearly as good as he used to be (or as good as other authors, like his son) at shifting voices between stories; I’m thinking of the annoying trait of referring to Montgomery Ward as “Monkey Ward,” which two separate characters do in stories set almost a century apart, an act that would never happen outside of an indulgently written Stephen King book. Still, for the most part, the stories are much darker and more daring than anything he’s written in almost 20 years, pushing past the points of easy resolution and getting into some murky and dangerous moral waters. Two of the four stories don’t involve the supernatural in any way, and they all feature protagonists who draw curved lines in the sand to define their ethics. King’s prime is still behind him, but this is a solid outing.
Catching Fire (2009), Suzanne Collins
After a brief break in which I bought the rest of the Hunger Games trilogy, I jumped back in and devoured the second volume. It’s a great second act that deepens the story of rebellion and anarchy while shoving its heroine back into another gruesome round of Games. Written bluntly but with an engaging speed that’s undeniable.
Mockingjay (2010), Suzanne Collins
Collins’ trilogy is highly addictive, but in the third novel she gives in to too many temptations and ideas, stuffing the narrative with excessive odds and ends that make the story feel rushed. Conversations are summarized rather than allowed to unfold, and entire chunks of action are breezily recounted by the narrator with no change in tone. Collins seems to have an aversion to text breaks within chapters, but this is the first time it really hurts the pacing. Additionally, after starting with such a strong book that put the narrator at the center of the action (as she recounted her experiences fighting in the Games), it’s a disappointment to end with a book that so often has the narrator miles away from the action, mournfully kicking around a room until someone reports back to her what’s happening. An engaging and interesting story, altogether, but the first book remains the best.
In the Woods (2007), Tana French
A solid and engaging mystery story that brings a literary air to a bloody procedural. There are also weird but mostly enjoyable hints of something deeply supernaturally weird happening around the edges, and if French never lines these up at the end the way you’d expect, maybe that’s the whole point. A thoroughly engrossing story, and one I thought about whenever I wasn’t reading it. That’s always the sign of a good book: when you’re impatient to return to the fictional world it’s created.
The Magicians (2009), Lev Grossman
I had the same reaction to The Magicians. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about reading it, thinking about the characters and the magical worlds they inhabited. Magicians is an adult novel about college-age kids enrolled in a magical university, and it’s structured as a series of tight vignettes that give it a slightly looser feel than typical chapter-based novels. Grossman knowingly incorporates ideas and details from earlier major fantasy works — Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling — but he also name-checks them throughout. The point of this isn’t to mimic what came before, but to cast it as easy fantasy next to a purportedly more real story. The main characters travel to a land they thought was make-believe, and when they get there, they have angry conversations with its ruler that display a darker take on theodicy than Lewis. (His characters don’t grant that the existence of a just ruling presence leaves room for the existence of evil. A tough issue, to be sure, and though I come down on a different side of the fence, I was still moved by the pain of these yearning men and women.) He intentionally sets up a perverse, dark version of Narnia to work out his own theological kinks, and it plays a little like “Lars von Trier’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” but it works. For Grossman, the fantasy worlds are always in some ways a letdown, and the glorious battles are far more violent and less enjoyable than stories made them out to be. It’s beautiful, hilarious, sad, and riveting. I plowed through it in days.