Books

My Literary Year in Review, 2018

Here's a look at the books I read in 2018 (as well as the audiobooks I listened to). Favorites are starred:

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

*The Power, Naomi Alderman (2017)

The Watchers, Jon Steele (2012)

*The Outsider, Stephen King (2018) (audio)

The Grove, John Rector (2010) (audio)

*The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton (1962) (audio)

IQ, Joe Ide (2017)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid (2016)

Straight Man, Richard Russo (1997) (audio)

*The Nix, Nathan Hill (2016)

*Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen (2016) (audio)

*The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson (2008)

*The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder (2016)

Neverworld Wake, Marisha Pessl (2018)

*The Hike, Drew Magary (2016)

My Literary Year in Review, 2017

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Completed Reads

The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss (2011) Although the book runs more than a thousand pages, I read it in two weeks, which has got to be a personal best. I even found myself taking coffee breaks at work to get in a few more minutes of reading time.[footnote]I also think it helped that this was the first book I read on my new Kindle. Being able to cart around a hefty paperback in something as slim and light as a Kindle is a game-changer, and there’s something about the more frequent page turns (thanks to the formatting and type size of the screen) that seems to establish a momentum. Plus it’s just a good book.[/footnote] It’s a sprawling, epic sequel to The Name of the Wind, and while Rothfuss’s influences are apparent, the book never feels derivative. It’s wholly its own creation. Like the first book, this one traffics in stories about stories, riding up and down layers of narration and flashback to show how myth and ambition reshape history as it’s happening. It’s also funnier and sharper than the first book. I feel spoiled getting to read the first two back to back, knowing they came out in 2007 and 2011, respectively, and that other fans have been waiting for years for the third and final volume in the series. I’m now happily among their number.

Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle (2014) There’s something hypnotic in the way Darnielle weaves together his fragmented narrative. Reading the book without knowing much about it makes for a pleasing kind of disorientation, as if you’re floating in the ocean and struggling to make out the shape of something below you. The narrator’s physical disfigurement, his role in the death of a stranger, his piecemeal revelation of his internal emptiness: it all comes together in a grim but shaking way. Some of the sentences are awkward, and there are some grammatical and typographical quirks, but it’s a compelling, haunting book about guilt, shame, and suffering.

The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle (2016) My first Boyle. A believable examination of how people would likely behave living in a bio-dome and sealed off from the world; that is to say, everybody’s kind of paranoid and bitchy and irritable, and cliques form as fast as they did in high school.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965) I remember trying to read this in middle school, but I could never make it more than a few pages. I made it through the whole thing this time, and I enjoyed it, but it’s also a stylistically bizarre book. Herbert’s total lack of subtext, and his habit of having his characters think their deepest thoughts in bursts of melodrama, makes it feel like a cross between 1950s sci-fi and knock-off Russian literature from a century earlier.[footnote]It did, though, make the terrible voice-overs from David Lynch’s film version make more sense.[/footnote] I’m on the fence about getting into the sequels, but this was worth the time.

Slow Horses, Mick Carron (2010) A decent mix of secret agents and black comedy, though it feels a little overwritten and too delighted with its habit of misdirecting the reader. Whole characters come and go, and the book feels assembled from ideas instead of attached to one of them. Still, I enjoyed the way it avoided most plot cliches.

Redshirts, John Scalzi (2012) My first Scalzi. I wanted something fun and light after a pair of grimmer books, and this delivered. I used to avoid jokier books like this, until I realized it was that kind of snobbery I wouldn’t bring to movies—that is, I wouldn’t ignore a movie simply because it was a comedy. I gave this a shot, and I’m glad I did. It’s a brisk and goofy read, but the postscripts really bring it home.

The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016) I love the hook here: what if the apocalypse happened and you didn’t know it? The main character is a contestant on a Survivor-inspired reality show that sends its competitors trekking through the woods; while she’s out on her own, a disease sweeps through society and ushers in destruction and decay. She has no idea this has happened, though, so she views her journey through scattered woods and fragmented towns as a game, even thinking that a survivor she comes across is a cameraman planted by producers. The narrative cuts quickly (if sometimes melodramatically) between the woman’s first-person account of her journey and an equally tense depiction of the filming of the show’s contest and challenges, both halves building toward moments of loss or revelation. I always stayed up later than planned on nights I was reading this. Couldn’t help myself.

Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (2011) I’d been meaning to get around to this since coming across it in the library years ago and feeling a tug of wistful nostalgia at the cover art, which evokes those grand (if mediocre) space operas of sci-fi’s 20th-century heyday. It’s a fun and engaging read, too, shifting pretty nimbly between the perspectives of two central characters whose paths eventually cross. It feels real, too, or maybe a better word would be understandable: it’s set in the near-ish future, when people have set up colonies throughout the solar system, and geopolitical issues that used to be between nations are now between planets. In other words, people are still paranoid and self-serving and uncertain of how things will play out. Those realistic touches are what helps keep the story grounded when it makes a couple of leaps halfway through into something more fantastical. I’ll likely check out the rest of the series.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996) (reread) Most people have a book, or movie, or song, or some other creative work that’s more special to them than the rest. (In fact, most people probably have more than one.) They’re the things that came to you at just the right time so that they didn’t just entertain you, or even move you, but actually shaped you.

Infinite Jest is one of those things for me. I bought it on a whim, daring myself with its length, toward the end of my senior year of college. I spent the summer alone in my college town, saving money for a move out west, my friends all having moved on, reading that book every night. It was sad and funny and big and weird, and it changed my perspective on everything from storytelling to relationships. TV writer/producer Michael Schur (of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) had this reaction to reading it, which feels exactly right: “I didn’t so much read it as I almost ate it. It kind of rescrambled my brain.”

I reread about half of it a few years ago when I was in a funk and just needed to get away, but this year I reread the whole thing. Revisiting those works that wound up shaping us is like getting in your own personal time machine: in addition to rediscovering the story, you’re reliving the memories of who you were the first time you read it. I was struck again by Wallace’s humor and empathy, but I also found myself far more tuned into the book’s structural experimentation and narrative clues. Is it because I’d already read it? Or because in the 13 years since I first read it, pop culture storytelling has begun to adopt the fragmented, anti-confluential style explored in the book? Is the structure familiar for what it is, or what it’s inspired?

It is, of course, a different thing to read a book about addiction, recovery, and mental health battles after the author has committed suicide for reasons largely informed by those things. Infinite Jest was the one true novel of Wallace’s career—his first had started out as his graduate thesis, and his last was published posthumously and incomplete—and it’s the most revealing thing he ever did. Even years later, there’s nothing else like it. It's still my favorite book.

Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane (2017) My first Lehane. The first half is a literary investigation into emotional abuse, and the second half is a runaway thriller. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, and beautifully. A fantastic read.

Tampa, Alissa Nutting (2013) In the days after I finished this, the closest I could come to describing it was “Imagine if American Psycho were well-written and interesting.” Alissa Nutting’s novel is narrated by a self-aware, sociopathic woman who becomes a middle-school teacher so she can sleep with young boys. The coldness and lack of remorse at some of the story’s darkest turns is, of course, juxtaposed with the fact that you’re reading about them to begin with, getting a prurient if sickening thrill. It’s one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in a long time in large part because of how good Nutting is at inhabiting this character, bringing the rest of them to life, and tacitly implicating the reader for their participation. It reads like a fever dream and gets lodged in your consciousness like a rock in your shoe.

Land of the Blind, Jess Walter (2003) My first Jess Walter book was the outstanding Beautiful Ruins. There are some vaguely similar themes at work here—memory, regret, the attempt to communicate your view of the world to someone else—and I liked the story’s gentle oscillation between mystery and character study.

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters (2016) A literary mystery set in a dystopic parallel world in which slavery remained legal and the Civil War ended not with surrender but with economic compromise. That’s a great hook, but Winters takes it in even more interesting directions by making the protagonist/narrator a free black man who works for the government tracking down escaped slaves. It wrestles with guilt, identity, responsibility.

Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon (2009) Oddly, this was a page-turner that I read pretty quickly even though I never quite liked it. It’s a weird experience.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch (2009) David Lynch should be on Mount Rushmore.

Against the Country, Ben Metcalf (2015) Every sentence is masterful. It’s almost overwhelmingly good and piercing and controlled.

Virgin and Other Stories, April Ayers Lawson (2016) I think back to reading this book, and all I can come up with are hunger metaphors: I devoured it, it sustained me, I swallowed it whole. Lawson’s stories deal with religion and emotional conflict in ways almost no other author is doing, and though they’ll probably pack an additional punch if you’ve got a background in abusive evangelicalism[footnote]Hi.[/footnote] that’s not at all required.

Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Richard Chizmar (2017) Why do I keep reading Stephen King? Habit, I guess. Nostalgia, too. And every now and then he surprises me with something honest and real, like Full Dark, No Stars. This was utterly forgettable, though, a middling short story blown out to novella length.

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters (2012) Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (2013) World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters (2014) I’m grouping these together, even though I read a couple other books between the first and second volumes. This is the best modern trilogy I’ve read in a long, long time, and I cannot recommend them enough. Interestingly, I didn’t make the connection until I was well into The Last Policeman that I was already familiar with Winters, since he also wrote Underground Airlines. When The Last Policeman was recommended to me, though, it was on the strength of its conceit: a rookie homicide detective is determined to solve his first murder, even though the world is months away from being struck and decimated by an asteroid. Post-apocalyptic fiction abounds, and the parts of those books that deal with life before their chosen armageddons are usually (and understandably) brief, but I’d never heard of such a detailed pre-apocalyptic story. That sense of worry and futility animates the actions of everyone involved. What would you do if you knew the world was ending in a few months? What if your job was to preserve law and order? What decisions would you make? How would you define justice?

The second and third books feel like one long volume, in part because the timeline grows shorter: the first book spans weeks, but by the third, the action is reduced to mere days. The first one is the most typical mystery story, but they’re all mysteries, really: in each one, the narrator is trying to solve a puzzle and help people around him, even while life is as we know it crumbles. They’re just outstanding books.

The Smack, Richard Lange (2017) A rock-solid mystery-thriller about a con man looking for a second chance. Imagine a somewhat more maudlin Elmore Leonard, and you’re most of the way there. Great story.

Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, Rob Sheffield (2017) This isn’t a history of the Beatles, but rather a linked series of essays that roughly cover the band’s life while freely skipping back and forth in time, pausing for asides, and chasing interesting tangents. As a result, it’s so much more vibrant and captivating than a regular biography would be. The writing is smart, funny, and insightful (it’s some of the best critical writing I’ve read in ages), and Sheffield’s love for the band and its music is palpable.

Left By the Wayside

Sword of Destiny, Andrzej Sapkowski (1992, Polish; 2015, English) I started reading the short stories set in the world of the Witcher after falling in love with the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.[footnote]Easily a desert-island game for me, and probably in my top five of all time.[/footnote] The thing I love about the stories is part of why I loved the game: the fantasy elements are treated as just another aspect of the fictional world, which mostly deals with petty or hopeful people trying to get by. I just read a few selections, though.

Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson (2007) I found this both intoxicating and slippery: the rhythms and slow pace are wonderful, and the explorations of the lives of the characters in and around the Vietnam war are fantastic, but I also started to lose a sense of momentum, or investment, or whatever you want to call the thing that makes you stick with a book through the slow parts. I'd like to dip back into this, if possible.

Favorites

In alphabetical order:

Catching the Big Fish Dreaming the Beatles Infinite Jest The Last Policeman series Since We Fell Tampa Virgin and Other Stories The Wise Man’s Fear

My Literary Year in Review, 2016

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As I did last year, I've broken the list into two sections, one for books I finished and the other for those I didn't. I read some wonderful things this year, things that stayed with me and shaped my worldview, starting with the first book of the year.

Completed Reads

playwriting-yirThe Human Nature of Playwriting, Samson Raphaelson (1949): Purchased for research while I was writing this piece. Raphaelson was a playwright and screenwriter most notable for a nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. In 1948, he taught a course at the University of Illinois about playwriting, and this book is an edited collection of the transcripts of his weekly lessons. The group discussions and the dissection of the students’ material are fantastic, and Raphaelson’s observations about life, art, and creativity are beautifully honest and devoid of false sentimentality. I think about this book often.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King (2015) (selections): King can still do a number of things well—suspense, pacing—but his dialogue and sense of character, which were never consistent to begin with, are only weakening with time. I slogged through a few stories here, but I couldn’t make it all the way. What’s fascinating is that each story is introduced by a brief (one- or two-page) note from King about the situation or thought process that inspired it, and in these notes he writes with clarity and honesty about the complicated drama of human life in ways that never seem to make it into his fiction.

The Passage, Justin Cronin (2010) (reread, selections) The Twelve, Justin Cronin (2012) (reread, selections) I dug back into Justin Cronin's work to prepare for writing this feature (here's a fuller version of the interview). The first book in Cronin’s Passage trilogy—continued in The Twelve and The City of Mirrors—is in many ways the strongest, in part because it hums with the energy of an author finally allowing himself to tackle the project he’s always dreamed of doing. The opening sequence, which sets up the sad home life of the soon-to-be-orphaned little girl named Amy, remains some of the most affecting work he’s done. The Twelve is strong, too, especially for the way Cronin avoids predictable outcomes and takes the story to interesting places.

The Summer Guest, Justin Cronin (2004) (selections): Again, the prologue could stand on its own as a great short story. What follows looks good, too; I only moved on because I was trying to cram in as much of Cronin’s bibliography as possible before interviewing him.

The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin (2016): A strong end to the trilogy, and a deft exploration of how rumors turn into stories on their way to becoming legends. The series is, in many ways, about the way we shape our communities and traditions through storytelling.

Mary and O’Neil, Justin Cronin (2001): Billed as a novel told in short stories, though if it’d come out a decade later, it would’ve just been called a novel (like A Visit From the Goon Squad). Even in straight literary fiction, though, Cronin’s humaneness comes through.

sportswriter-yirThe Sportswriter, Richard Ford (1986): Beautiful, stunning, evocative. I picked up more Bascombe books before I was even finished.

Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2001): Absolutely wonderful. It all moves so effortlessly, and it’s so full of humor and sadness and connection.

Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1993): One of the (many) good things here is the way the story pushes beyond the initial amazement that its characters feel about being the first to colonize Mars and moves quickly into the tangled, internecine conflicts and relationships that mark the political struggle to tame a new frontier.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (1996): Endearing and brisk, though I keep feeling that there’s something in Gaiman’s work his fans see that I do not.

cp-yirCrime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1867): I spent more time in 2016 reading this than any other book. I read Notes From Underground a couple years ago, and I read bits and pieces of abridged treatments of the author’s work in school, but I felt a strong desire to tackle the real thing.[footnote]I am almost perversely fascinated by the Russian masters, to the point where I feel like I need to read the greatest hits of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others if I ever want to understand humanity. I do not know where this belief comes from, but I have it.[/footnote] The scenes depicting Raskolnikov’s crimes are as taut and breathless as anything ever written, and its investigation of guilt and duty is sublime. I’m glad I sat with this.

The Tenth Man, Graham Greene (1985): The ideal quick shot to chase a book as big as Crime and Punishment (and, appropriately, dealing with the same ideas).

wind-yirThe Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007): I tried and failed to stay hooked with this one a year or two earlier, but after snagging a well-loved mass-market paperback at Half Price Books, I jumped back in and devoured it. It’s got just the right amount of purple prose, balance with humor and a humming narrative.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders (1996): There is no David Foster Wallace without George Saunders. This collection deals a lot with capitalism taken to apocalyptic extremes, but it's still warm-hearted, as expected.

Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut (1968) (selections): I say “selections” because I’m not finished as of this writing, though I will be soon.[footnote]One of the great things about collections of short stories is being able to move around in them out of sequence, or coming back to the collection a month later to finish it off.[/footnote] Going in, I was only familiar with “Harrison Bergeron,” having come to Vonnegut only in college when I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, and that on my own, not in the context of an assigned reading for class. The collection is wistful and dark and beautiful. Everything you could really want.

Left By the Wayside

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005): I didn’t make it far. I remember liking White Teeth quite a bit, but I couldn’t stay interested in this one.

All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (2016): Some neat ideas (magic is real, etc.), but the approach felt a little too broad. The best way I found to describe it would be to imagine a book created by the comments section of Boing Boing.

Favorites

In alphabetical order:

Crime and Punishment Empire Falls The Human Nature of Playwriting The Name of the Wind Red Mars The Sportswriter

"Write what you want to write, and write the hell out of it."

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I interviewed Justin Cronin for Houstonia magazine. Cronin is the author of The Passage and its sequels, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors, a trilogy of post-apocalyptic literary thrillers that follow a group of people fighting for survival after a deadly plague wipes out most of the world's population and turns some of its victims into vampiric monsters. We talked for a couple of hours at his place about creativity, how to make a living as a writer, and what kinds of stories get him going. I'm really happy with the resulting feature, and the extended interview is filled with great observations about (among other things) culture, the industry, and how the Cold War shaped Cronin's personality. Feature: How Life Feels for Best-Selling Author Justin Cronin

Extended interview: An Extended Conversation with Houston Novelist Justin Cronin

My Literary Year in Review, 2015

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Quitting a book you aren't enjoying is one of the few unspoiled pleasures of adult life. For the past few years, as I've tallied up the books I've read and compared it against those I've quit or set aside, I realize that by abandoning those books I conclude aren't for me, I've opened myself up to happier reading experiences in general. Time spent with a book is, of course, different from that spent with a film. I've muscled through several films I wound up disliking in order to have a better understanding of them as a whole, knowing that at most I'd be setting aside about two hours for them. A book, though, can spend weeks on your nightstand.[footnote]Many people, including my wife, read faster than I do. I typically read before going to sleep, and usually only make it a few pages before the day's fatigue catches up with me. Hence, a book someone else might knock out in a few days of dedicated reading will be in my life much longer.[/footnote] Accordingly, this year I thought it worth breaking out the list of books I encountered in 2015 into separate lists: those I finished, and those that, for whatever reason, I didn't.

Completed Reads

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film, Patton Oswalt (2015): Most comedians who excel on stage aren't able to find similar success in prose, and Oswalt is, unfortunately, no exception. But his latest book is still a breezy, fun read, the kind that can be plowed through in an afternoon or evening, and his observations about the cultural battle between two broad definitions of comedy (crowd-pleasing versus introspective) are astute and hard-earned.

Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish, David Rakoff (2013): A novel constructed in meter would have to be brief to avoid turning gimmick into obstacle, and Rakoff's slender book is the perfect length. The best section: when he dives into the mind of a man in a coma, haunted by his memory.

PrayerForOwenMeany_YIRA Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989): One of the best books I read all year, and my first Irving. I have fuzzy memories of Simon Birch, the 1998 film loosely adapted, but they're vague enough (and the film reportedly different enough from its source material) that I didn't have anything to interfere with my experience of the book's story and themes. I picked it up on a whim at the public library and fell into a world of bruised but yearning faith, and a sprawling, heartfully messy plot about childhood and love and death and the things that haunt all of us all of our lives. It wrapped its hand around mine and did not let go.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman (2014): A worthy and energetic end to Grossman's trilogy — begun with The Magicians and The Magician King — but still a little airy in parts. I can never shake the feeling that the first book in the series was the story the author really wanted to tell, and everything that's happened since is more of a fun "what if" extension of that initial, most powerful volume.

Bird Box, Josh Malerman (2015): A post-apocalyptic thriller I can barely remember months later. The hook was that some kind of madness or disease wipes out most of the population, and people catch the disease by seeing its effects and going mad. The good guys hang in there by the end, I think.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): The first and best volume of Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, about government efforts to investigate a supernatural, sealed-off area along an unnamed[footnote]I think; it's been a while.[/footnote] (but, I believe, Floridian) coast. This book reads like a modern update to Lovecraft, and the trilogy could have ended here and no one would've been the wiser or poorer.

Station11_YIRStation Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (2014): Of the many post-apocalyptic books out there right now, this is one of the best and most moving I've read. The end of the world is a popular topic in fiction in an era when nothing seems to be going right and national interests are giving way to personal ones. Mandel keeps the focus on the characters, though, instead of getting lost in the math. A hopeful, authentic experience.

Authority, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): Book two of Vandermeer's trilogy is, like a lot of sequels, a little softer than its predecessor but not without its own merits. The best thing about it is that it moves the location of the story from inside the supernatural region to the bureaucratic, politically oppressive office that investigates it.

Acceptance, Jeff Vandermeer (2014): Book three feels like a checklist being dutifully worked through: flashbacks for you, and you, and you, and here we are.

Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce (2014): Outstanding, stunning, wrenching, engaging, truthful, powerful, every other superlative you can think of in that vein. Hits like a hammer and doesn't stop.

The Steady Running of the Hour, Justin Go (2014): I couldn't shake the vibe that this novel about World War I seemed reverse-engineered just to coincide with the centennial of the war's beginning. It's a treasure hunt/history lesson of sorts, but emotionally a little dense, and I started skimming about halfway through.

Alys, Always, Harriet Lane (2012): A solid little psychological thriller about a woman who worms her way into a widower's life. Eerie for what we never find out about her, or what drives her.

Lucky Alan and Other Stories, Jonathan Lethem (2015): I like to stay up with Lethem, though nothing of his has ever connected with me the way The Fortress of Solitude did. Maybe that was our only time to be in sync.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015): I finished it out of sheer spite and will. Characters and plot became laughable, and the mystery doubly so.

persuasionnation_YIRIn Persuasion Nation, George Saunders (2006): Saunders should be canonized, taught in schools, and given his own holiday.

The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski (1993/2007): I spent a serious amount of time this year playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which might be one of the best video games I've ever played. I became so attached to the fictional world that I picked up this volume of short stories that created the character. They're enjoyable fantasy tales, and pleasingly unpredictable.

Purity, Jonathan Franzen (2015): This apt line from the L.A. Review of Books keeps ringing in my ears: "The Corrections was prescient and Freedom timely, but Purity arrives into a literary world already dated." There's definitely a sense of remove in the book that likely comes from Franzen's professed disdain for digital life and communications. The largest character in it — a hacktivist modeled after Julian Assange — also feels like its thinnest and least relatable. Conversely, the section that deals with the young, doomed marriage of two other characters, structured as novella written by the man, is the strongest. Go figure.

Some Luck, Jane Smiley (2014): The first volume in Smiley's trilogy of American life in the 20th century[footnote]What's with me and trilogies this year?[/footnote] was both gentle and profound. Each chapter covers a year in the life of the Langdons, starting in 1920, and that structure allows Smiley to start piling on the years like weights on a scale. The effect, after thirty-odd years of narrative, is of watching a river carve its bed out of the rock.

We the Animals, Justin Torres (2011): A grim, quick-shot novel about rough childhoods and decaying families. I don't regret reading it per se, but have zero plans to revisit.

Left by the Wayside

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (transl. Lydia Davis) (1913): My weakness[footnote]One of innumerably many.[/footnote] is my pride in my sense of what I should be reading, or should have read. The latest case in point: this gorgeous and evocative volume of the first book of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which I found moving and beautiful but eventually just sort of drifted away from by February. I'm not resigned to defeat, though.

The Abominable, Dan Simmons (2013): I liked The Terror quite a bit — ditto Summer of Night — but I lost interest in this thriller about mountain climbers who wind up facing threats from a yeti. (At least, that's where it was heading when I checked out.) I realize I liked the straight-ahead thrills more than the awkward attempt at involving the supernatural.

The Troop, Nick Cutter (2014): A Lord of the Flies tribute muddied by weak writing.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (2015): A gorgeous book that I had to put down out of basic squeamishness. I don't eat animals, and I found I wasn't that keen on intense depictions of their subjugation, hunting, and death.

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (2014): I just gave up and read the Wikipedia description.

Two Years Before the Mast, Henry Dana (1840): I couldn't lock in with the prose, which is an occupational hazard with a book that's 175 years old.

Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston (1939): I loved the early sections, but lost interest as the plot began to wander.

The Martian, Andy Weir (2011): The writing here is sometimes laughably bad and ungainly. It comes as no surprise that it was self-published before taking off with Kindle audiences and being issued as a proper book. At first I couldn't stand the gee-whiz tone of the narrator; skipping ahead, I saw that the tone wasn't confined to one character. Back to the library it went.

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (2015): Overly maudlin and drippy.

The Cartel, Don Winslow (2015): My mistake was trying to jump into this before reading its predecessor, The Power of the Dog. Worth revisiting in the future.

Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson (2009): A great idea — a futuristic take on the florid history novels of the 18th and 19th centuries — but one I started to tire of after a hundred pages or so.

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (2015): Some great writing, but a little weighed down. I realized that I was reading at one point out of a sense of social obligation to one of the year's Big Books, and not as much out of any real curiosity or connection to the work. When it came time to return it to the library, I let it go without too much sadness.

Early Warning, Jane Smiley (2015): Smiley's second novel in her American trilogy started as captivating as her first. But I think I'd spent so much time going so deep into the Langdon family that I needed a break, and so jumping into this so soon after completing Some Luck wound up a bit of a miscalculation. I'll be back to it later, though.

Favorites

A Prayer for Owen Meany, Station Eleven, Love Me Back, In Persuasion Nation

Capital-T Truth

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David Foster Wallace gave what would become a legendary commencement speech at Kenyon College ten years ago, and I've thought about it probably once a week since then. It's impossible now, of course, not to be struck with a sour horror at the speech's references to the mind being a terrible master and the plight of suicide cases. Such are the reminders of the loss.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term. […]

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Great Arts and Entertainment Writing From 2014

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Most of these are (unsurprisingly) film-related, though there are some that dig into books or television. With limited exceptions, these are features, interviews, or essays, not film reviews. (I also cheated and included some videos.) And of course, this is just a list of things I happened to read and enjoy this year, and not a remotely comprehensive account of every great thing that was produced in the past 12 months.

January

"Ebiri on That Awkward Moment: A ‘Romantic Comedy’ in Which Zac Efron Plays a Sociopath," Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

"Don't Worry About the End of Film," Richard Brody, The New Yorker

"Rep Diary: A Time for Burning," Jared Eisenstat, Film Comment

"Six Things Romantic Comedies Can Learn from Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said," Alexander Huls, Movies.com

"A Crossroads for Independent Cinema," Sky Dylan-Robbins, The New Yorker

"Remembering Rain Man: The $350 Million Movie That Hollywood Wouldn’t Touch Today," Matt Patches, Grantland

"Child's Play: The Degeneration of Blockbusters," Alexander Huls, RogerEbert.com

"As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity," Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

"How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood," Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

February

"Film Preservation 2.0," Matthew Dessem, The Dissolve

"In Conversation: Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels," Lane Brown, Vulture

"Entertainment Weekly wants you to write for it for free. Don't do it.," Scott Meslow, The Week

March

"Designing for The Grand Budapest Hotel," Annie Atkins, Creative Review

"The Joys of Dated Cinema," Peter Labuza and Abbey Bender, To Be Cont'd

"Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner On the One Thing About Internet Criticism He Doesn’t Like," Katey Rich, Vanity Fair

"Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?," Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

http://vimeo.com/87873042

April

"The Score," Michael Heilemann, Kitbashed

"Days of Future Present," David Fear, The Dissolve

"The Execution of Private Slovik, 40 Years Later," Chris Walsh, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Louis C.K. Is America's Undisputed King of Comedy," Andrew Corsello, GQ

"How Hollywood Killed Death," Alexander Huls, The New York Times Magazine

"Coming Detractions," Joe Hill, Joe Hill's Thrills

"How (and why) to fight television culture's amnesia," Brandon Nowalk, The A.V. Club

"The Death Of Sarah Jones: Safety Concerns Raised Over Midnight Rider Crew’s Previous Film In Georgia," Jen Yamato

"Christopher Evan Welch Died Four Months Before His Breakout Role in Silicon Valley: A Look at His Career," Jesse David Fox, Vulture

"Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA," Alexander Huls, The Atlantic

"William Faulkner's Hollywood Odyssey," John Meroney, Garden & Gun

May

http://vimeo.com/96558506

"The Fear of the New," Richard Brody, The New Yorker

"The Shawshank Residuals," Russell Adams, The Wall Street Journal

"Are We at Peak Superhero?," Mark Harris, Grantland

"How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star," Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

"West Wing Uncensored: Aaron Sorkin, Rob Lowe, More Look Back on Early Fears, Long Hours, Contract Battles and the Real Reason for Those Departures," Lacey Rose, Michael O'Connell, Marc Bernardin, The Hollywood Reporter

"What Is a Cinemascore?," Eric D. Snider, Film.com

"John Oliver, Charming Scold," Ian Crouch, The New Yorker

"The Great Flood," Donald Wilson, Film Comment

June

"Harvey Weinstein and the saga of Snowpiercer," Ty Burr, The Boston Globe

"Steadicam progress: the career of Paul Thomas Anderson in five shots," Kevin B. Lee, Sight & Sound

"The Leftovers, Our Town, and the Brutal Power of Ordinary Details," Tom Perotta, The Atlantic

"Do the Right Thing Turns 25, and BAM Hosts the Block Party," Michelle Orange, The Village Voice

"Shaka, When the Walls Fell," Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

"George Saunders's Humor," George Saunders, The New Yorker

"The Freaks and Geeks Series Bible," Paul Feig, Slate

Gordon Willis Interview, Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765

"The Summer Movie Season is dead," David Ehrlich, The Dissolve

"Bombast: The Punishment Continues," Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment

"The 100-Year-Old Who Taught Garbo to Waltz," Matt Weinstock, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Maleficent Could Be So Good. If Only She Were Allowed To Be Bad.," Jessica Goldstein, ThinkProgress

July

"Village Voice Editor Blasts Guardians of the Galaxy Fans for Calling Critic a 'Harlot,'" Sam Adams, Criticwire

"Has modern technology killed the spy thriller?," Charles Cumming, The Guardian

"Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) Talks Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape," Joe Swanberg, The Talkhouse

"Six million people are still getting Netflix’s red envelopes in the mail," Dan Frommer, Quartz

"Moonrise Kingdom: Wes in Wonderland," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

"Moment to Moment," Nathan Heller, The New Yorker

"James Garner, 1928-2014," Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

"When Eyes Wide Shut Failed To Save The NC-17," Scott Mendelson, Forbes

"I Killed At the Movies," Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club

"Writers Can Do Anything," William T. Vollman, The Atlantic

"Shelving to Save a Book's Life," Susan Coll, The Atlantic

"This Is the End," Wesley Morris, Grantland

August

"Love Is Strange MPAA Rating Controversy," Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

"Zip, zero, Zeitgeist," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

"Different Rules Apply," Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

"Let's Be Real," Wesley Morris, Grantland

"What It Was Like to Do Surprise Improv With Robin Williams," Chris Gethard, Vulture

"This Is the End: James Gray on Apocalypse Now," James Gray, Rolling Stone

"Fifteen Years Later: Tom Cruise and Magnolia," Amy Nicholson, Grantland

"The Scourge of 'Relatability,'" Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker

"Death of Film/Decay of Cinema at 15: A Conversation With Godfrey Cheshire," Matt Zoller Seitz and Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com

September

"Why I'm Not Watching the Inherent Vice Trailer," Sam Adams, Criticwire

"Last Week Tonight Does Real Journalism, No Matter What John Oliver Says," Asawin Suebsaeng, The Daily Beast

"The story behind the things actors pick up and hold on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Alias, and more," Chris Call, The A.V. Club

"Gilding the Small Screen: or, 'Is it just me or did TV get good all of a sudden?,'" Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Raiders," Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765

"The Death of Adulthood in American Culture," A.O. Scott, The New York Times

"Cinematic Cuts Exploit How Your Brain Edits What You See," Greg Miller, Wired

October

"Film, Digitality, and Cultural Divides," B. Ruby Rich, Film Quarterly

"'Am I being catfished?': An author confronts her number one online critic," Kathleen Hale, The Guardian

"David Lynch: 'Stories Should Have the Suffering,'" David Lynch, The Talks

"Do We Read Differently at Different Ages?," Daniel Mendelsohn and Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times

"Some Thoughts on the Planned Return of Twin Peaks," Ian Crouch, The New Yorker

"Star Wars Producer Blasts Star Wars Myths," Chris Taylor, Mashable

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPAloq5MCUA

November

"White People Problems," Briallen Hopper, Killing the Buddha

"After 33 Years and an Airplane Explosion, Their Raiders of the Lost Ark Remake Is Almost Complete. Are They?," Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

"'The Novel Is Like a Room'—an Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard," Kyle Buckley, Hazlitt

"Bread, circuses, and Oscar buzz," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

"E-Book Mingles Love and Product Placement," Alexandra Alter, The New York Times

December

"Selma Star David Oyelowo Gets Frank About Race in Hollywood," Nigel M. Smith, Indiewire

"Don't Write for Awards," Emily St. John Mandel, The Atlantic

"The Year After the Year of Racial Cinema," Noah Gittell, RogerEbert.com

"In an All-Digital Future, It’s the New Movies That Will Be in Trouble," Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

"The Birdcage," Mark Harris, Grantland

"Great Writing Is Humble," Peter Stamm, The Atlantic

"Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means," Frank Rich, Vulture

"How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA," Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

My Literary Year in Review, 2014

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This was a frustrating year for me as a reader. I finished far fewer books than I usually do, but I also found myself less patient with many of them in general. Some books swept me up from the start with their style and narrative, while others were awkward struggles. I gave books less time than I have in the past to capture and hold my interest, and I found myself gravitating toward those books that sought to speak honestly, slowly, and deeply about their characters or the real world.

Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer (2013) A gorgeous, tender, moving story about the love and anguish that accompany relationships, both those between men and women and those between penitents and their God.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King (2013) (quit) It's not like I don't know what dumb situation I'm getting myself into when I pick up a new Stephen King novel. But I do it anyway. I have only myself to blame.

Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson (2013) Ron Carlson's become one of my favorite writers, and this slim, gentle novel about a group of men reuniting in middle age has some wonderful moments. It touches on weighty things like death, family, and the damnable passage of time, but it never feels preachy or cheap.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon (2012) (quit) Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem (2013) (quit) Death of an Ordinary Man, Glen Duncan (2004) (quit) Orfeo, Richard Powers (2014) (quit) I went on a bad run here. I couldn't lock into the Chabon, no matter how I tried. It seemed to keep slipping right out of my fingers, all curlicued language and scattered plotting. The Lethem worked for me for a while, but it also suffered the drawback that inevitably comes from shaping a novel as a series of mostly independent vignettes: there's little motivation to continue when you hit a couple of bad ones. The Duncan I picked up because I enjoyed the mournfulness of The Last Werewolf, but again, I felt myself plodding through mud. The Powers started strong but dropped off, and I found myself thinking of homework when I picked it up.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915) Ford's novel hooked me from the first line, and I was amazed at how the structure and language still play so well a century later.

In the Blink of an Eye (2nd Edition), Walter Murch (2001) Walter Murch is a gifted editor and sound designer — his C.V. includes Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The English Patient, so many others — and this book, a collection of lectures he gave about the art of film editing, is wonderfully instructive about the art of the process. His argument is that we edit the visual narrative of our own lives by blinking, and that the best cuts in movies are those that fall where characters and viewers would naturally blink to shift their focus.  

Red Rising, Pierce Brown (2014) (quit) It's a YA novel set on Mars. Lots of potential, all squandered.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Daniel Mendelsohn (2012) Mendelsohn's one of the best critics writing today, hands down.

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain (2013) A deep, sprawling read about disaffected post-grads teaching English in Czechoslovakia in 1990. Leisurely paced, quietly affecting, and bittersweet.

Dead Harvest, Chris Holm (2012) Sometimes, a discount paperback is a discount for a reason.

Five Came Back, Mark Harris (2014) (unfinished) Harris's investigation into Hollywood and World War II filters culture through the life and work of five filmmakers: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. I like it quite a bit, though not as much as his Pictures at a Revolution, about the shift in American film culture in the late 1960s. I set it aside to pursue other titles, but I'll be coming back.

Red Moon, Benjamin Percy (2014) Compulsive and addicting to start, then regrettable and questionable at the end, not unlike gorging on a bag of candy. It blends post-apocalyptic ideas and werewolf adventure with a little more style than you might expect — similar to the way Justin Cronin's skill elevated The Passage and The Twelve — but it becomes clear as the novel unfolds that Percy's not sure where he wants to go, so he figures he might as well go everywhere. It's a novel's worth of story that's padded out to become a cliffhanger meant to start a franchise, and that kind of manipulation is unpleasant to wade through.

struggle_YIRMy Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009) As compelling and fresh and insightful as almost everyone else has made it out to be. Knausgaard writes honestly about childhood and regret, and his strained relationship with his father becomes the narrative through which the rest of his life is understood. It's a fantastic book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943) Friends of mine used the word "inspiring" when describing their affection for this book, and while I understand the emotional connection at the root of that, the term I kept coming back to was "resilience." Betty Smith's lightly fictionalized account of her childhood in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn is a grim, committed evocation of sorrow, suffering, and the role that luck plays in life. The main character, Francie, is above all a fighter, and her young life is something to be survived.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl (2013) Pessl's skills at crafting a page-turning narrative are tempered by the ham-handed nature of her prose and observations. (Additionally, she seems unable to let go of the quirk that requires her to italicize at least one emotional description per page: at first, it just seems weird, but then, you realize it's intentional, and you wonder why it's happening. [You get the idea.]) Still, it's a little engine that could, and for all its loopiness, I found myself strangely compelled to finish.

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957) (quit) I have convinced myself that I am the kind of person who should read and enjoy Russian classics, even though I haven't finished one since college (and that was spotty).

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014) Another propulsive little page-turner, this one taking a fanciful premise (what if you kept living your life over again when you died?) and teasing out the complications (would you become depressed? egomaniacal? bored?). Some of the side characterizations are a little bland, but the elliptical, almost mournful nature of the narrative is what makes it work.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead (2011) Whitehead's post-apocalyptic novel is unnerving for many reasons, not least of which is the driving notion that maybe an apocalypse wouldn't be so bad given the current state of things.

Lost Horizon, James Hilton (1933) (quit) The book that gave pop culture Shangri-La. Compelling in its early sections, but muddier in the middle, and I found myself returning to it with the attitude of a student resuming an unappealing summer reading assignment.

acres_YIRA Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991) One of the best books I read all year, and one of the best I've read in a long time. The idea of reimagining King Lear in the American Midwest of the 1970s might sound rickety on paper, but Smiley's narrative is rich, sad, complicated, and never gimmicky. It's the kind of family drama that expertly explores the prisms through which we view our lives and loved ones, and how it's sometimes impossible for two people to agree about something even when they were both right there when it happened. Sweeping, heartbreaking, and glistening with a sense of place and purpose.

Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, David Thomson (1996) (quit) Thomson's a smart writer, but his style is best suited to the bite-sized entries he crafts for The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Stretched to book length, it can become cloying and uncertain.

De Niro: A Life, Shawn Levy (2014) Author and film critic Shawn Levy's book about Robert De Niro is the best kind of biography: a heady, insightful blend of production history and film criticism, with a skillful narrative and a genuine drive. Throughout, Levy doesn't just want to explore what made De Niro one of the best actors in American history, but how someone once so committed to stretching himself would come in later years to play a series of forgettable roles in broad comedies. (The highest grossing films in De Niro's career are the three films in the Meet the Parents series and the animated Shark Tale.) His approximate answers: the work of being the best is taxing, and after a while, a career can start to exist for its own sake, quality notwithstanding. But even that's too simple a summation. Levy's lengthy book is full of wonderful stories, observations, and analysis, and it's one of the best film-related books I've read in a while.

By the numbers:

Total books finished: 14 Nonfiction: 5 Books (finished) released in 2014: 3 Books (finished) released before 2014: 11 Books (finished) released before 2000: 3 Favorites: A Thousand Acres, My Struggle: Book 1, Frances and Bernard, De Niro: A Life, Necessary Errors

My Favorite Opening Sentences of 2014

A collection of opening lines that stood out to me among the books I read this year: Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson “The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help.”

Ron Carlson's stories use a direct style to deal with small communities, and I like the way this opening sets a decent tone, neither brisk nor leisurely, and also introduces some of the key dynamics (friendship, reunion, helping others) that will define the story.


The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

How could you not want to read what comes next?


Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain “It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows.”

Crain's dense, ambling novel is all about texture and place, much more so than plot or action. Here we get time and place and vibe, all in one.


My Struggle (Book One), Karl Ove Knausgaard “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

The first of Knausgaard's six-volume meditation on life and loss begins with a treatise on the physical processes of death before transitioning to the emotional battles of his youth. This is just a beautiful, poetic way to begin.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.”

A great opening in part because Smith is going to spend most of the novel proving how untrue it is. Everything looks serene from the outside, but for the lower-class denizens of Brooklyn at the turn of the century, life was endless torment.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”

Another catchy genre opener that speeds the reader right into the story.


Zone One, Colson Whitehead “He always wanted to live in New York.”

Whitehead's novel is fantastic, and the opening lays out the wishful thinking of the protagonist that will come to be questioned and mourned as the novel goes on.


Lost Horizon, James Hilton “Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.”

A genteel and cold way to set the scene and introduce ideas of longing and aging that will define the book's central story, about Shangri-La and man's endless quest to return to a place he feels is better than the one he's in.


A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley “At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.”

Smiley's retelling of King Lear in the cornfields of Iowa is stunning and heartrending for many reasons, not least of which is the way it deftly portrays what feels to the participants like an epic story even as it underscores that this kind of thing happens to people everywhere. The emotions and actions feel earth-shattering to those involved, but it's all taking place on a patch of land you'd miss if you blinked.

Passages: The Pale King

From David Foster Wallace's unfinished, posthumously published novel. The rhythms catch my breath every time:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak's thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Scattered Thoughts on Ender's Game

enders_game6 I watched Ender's Game today. It was adapted for the screen (from Orson Scott Card's novel) and directed by Gavin Hood, who wrote and directed Tsotsi a few years ago and has directed Rendition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the interim. There's a lot of potential in the story — in short, a young boy is trained in tactical warfare as humanity's last hope against a hostile alien force — but a couple of key things keep the film from succeeding: its visual blandness and its weakness as an adaptation.

The visual blandness is apparent early on — everything looks like generic 2010s sci-fi, all blue lights and CGI buttons — but it becomes worse once the story follows Ender to the battle school that's orbiting Earth. The school's centerpiece is a massive zero-gravity where squadrons of young trainees engage in battle games using stun pistols and blocky props, and it's in this room where Ender's skills as a leader and thinker are supposed to start to shine. Yet Hood never matches his visuals to his characters' dialogue or experiences. For instance, as a way to make sense of the confusing weightless room, Ender and his team decide to pick one wall as "down," so they always have a way to orient themselves. That's a really neat idea, and one with loads of potential for visually showing us a version of space and combat and action that we haven't seen before. Yet Hood never visually illustrates this, nor does he do anything with the idea beyond letting two characters mention it to each other one time. Most of the sequences in this battle room are as choppy and direction-agnostic as most other modern action movies, despite the fact that the story is all about perspective and control. In other words, Hood never executes on the concept, which makes it kind of pointless to include. The first inkling of his indifference shows up when Ender and some other kids take their initial shuttle from Earth to the station, and Ender points out with a laugh that there's no real up or down in space, talking with another character about how their ideas of "horizontal" and "vertical" become purely subjective. It's a neat idea that's not even borne out a little in Hood's visuals, and the rest of the film is similarly lackluster.

Even worse, though, is the way the film feels choppy and incomplete, the way the worst adaptations do. Now, every movie adapted from a book must out of necessity compress and alter the literary story. Books are media of introspection, while films are driven by visuals; you have to radically change one to make it work for the other. Yet the adaptation also has to stay faithful enough to the book's core for it to actually qualify as an adaptation; i.e., you would not turn Ender into a 1940s gumshoe who's out to solve a mystery. The movie's going to be the heart of the book, but it also has to be smooth and strong enough to stand on its own. You have to pare down the book's beats to their emotional core, then build back out to get to the screenplay. And there are so many weird ideas, dead-end characterizations, rushed bits of looped dialogue, and clumsily edited transitions in the film of Ender's Game that you can't help but feel Hood is trying to do way too much here. He's lumbering under the weight of the book, not telling its central story. Great adaptations aren't impossible, either. One of the best of the modern era is L.A. Confidential, which trims about 500 pages of novel into just over two hours of screen time without ever feeling clipped or insubstantial. That film hewed to the three men at the heart of the story and worked out from there. Ender's Game, though, feels like Hood tried to shoot everything in the book and found himself suddenly, on page 100 of the script, up against a wall. As a result, it's a bumpy, almost random little movie that asks us to accept that the main character has become a gifted leader and good friend to his comrades while giving us almost no opportunities for that to play out on screen. It feels like it's trying to be two or three movies at once — Ender's emotional journey, Ender's tactical development, Ender's place in a galactic conflict — and as a result never feels like a single movie of its own.

"Guaranteed Megabuck ROI"

David Foster Wallace's "F/X Porn" was originally published in 1998, but the problems it addresses in blockbuster filmmaking (namely, the focus on action at the expense of humanity and emotion) are still with us. Some choice quotes:

There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.

And this:

The Inverse Cost and Quality Law ... states very simply that the larger a movie's budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be.

The essay was collected in the posthumous volume Both Flesh and Not, but it's also available to read (for now) over at Scribd.

My Literary Year in Review, 2013

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I'm always reading something. When I finish one book, I'll start another the next day (if not sooner). I try to end every day reading in bed. I'm also fortunate to count some smart readers among my friends and family, which helps keep new/interesting releases on my radar. In 2013, I finished 25 books, which I'm pretty happy with. That shakes out to a couple of books a month, which — in addition to more than 100 movies over the course of the year and, you know, doing other things and being a person — feels like a nice amount for me. Some people read more or faster, and I'm envious of that speed. But I'm happy with the books I discovered in 2013. Also: It's important to distinguish here between books I've labeled as "quit" and those marked "unfinished." Quitting a book is, for me, just what it sounds like: I decided that I just wasn't invested. Leaving one unfinished, though, means that I plan to return to it later. I'll do this often with essay or short story collections, which lend themselves easily to piecemeal reading. Occasionally, it'll happen with a novel, but that's less common.

In the order I read them:

The Lost City of Z, David Grann (2009) A fantastic, haunting nonfiction narrative that's paced like the best fiction. Grann cuts between an ill-fated Amazonian expedition from the early 20th century and his own quest to re-create the journey and find the elusive city of Z.

Five Skies, Ron Carlson (2007) I found Ron Carlson via This American Life. He read his short story "The H Street Sledding Record" on an episode of that show, and I fell in love with his language and eye for humanity. This novel, his third, is quiet and patient and heartbreaking.

Farther Away, Jonathan Franzen (2012) A smart and engaging essay collection. I got into Franzen's fiction in 2012 after having read some of his nonfiction a few years earlier, and I appreciate his style and his sense of despairing humor. The title piece is his look at the trouble and legacy of David Foster Wallace.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (1974) (unfinished) Gorgeous essays and meditations on nature, faith, and the universe, though the structure of the book led me to pick and choose instead of reading straight through. As a result, I haven't finished it.

ampastAmerican Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997) This was the first Roth I'd ever read, though I was familiar enough with his name and works to appreciate his place in American literature. I picked up this novel at local used bookstore while shopping for other titles, but isn't that always the way things work? You go in looking for one thing, or a few things, and you come away with something unexpected. I devoured this book, feeling the narrator's obsession with the Swede become my own, and I loved Roth's driving theme that everyone is essentially unknowable, and that we can never fully understand those around us. The prose is so rich here, too. One bit that's stayed with me: when the narrator rises from his bed in the middle of the night to write, his head "vibrant with the static of unelaborated thought."

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880) (unfinished) I am drawn again and again to Dostoevsky, even though I have yet to finish any of his longer novels. I read Notes From Underground a couple years back and loved it, and I half-remember working through a version of Crime and Punishment in high school, but that's it. Yet there's something about his legacy and his style, and the way his stories struggle with grace and relationships, that fascinates me. I really liked the hundred-plus pages of The Brothers Karamazov that I read, but I hit a wall, and I really do want to break through it.

tenthdecTenth of December, George Saunders (2013) Saunders has been writing for years, but I didn't discover him until late 2012, when I read "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" in The New Yorker. The story sank into me like only the best do, and the New York Times profile of Saunders got me even more excited to read Tenth of December. The collection is every bit as good, as warm, as wounded and worrying, as I'd hoped it would be.

The Hotel Eden: Stories, Ron Carlson (1997) I loved this collection. The stories range from funny to mournful to absurd, but they're always rooted in strong, concrete characters. Standouts include "Zanduce at Second," about a baseball player who keeps accidentally killing people with fly balls; "What We Wanted to Do," a barbarian's mea culpa for poor wartime planning; and the title story, a wonderful coming-of-age piece.

A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992) (quit) Drawn in by the promise of hard sci-fi and a good story; turned off when only one of those things was present.

correcThe Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001) I know Franzen gets a lot of heat from the Internet about his general antipathy toward Twitter and other social platforms, as well as his spiritual reluctance to embrace the digital age. But — aside from hitting a whole lot of problems square on the head re: our capacity for delusion and obsession online — Franzen's also written two of the novels that have stayed with me more than most in recent years. The Corrections is all about family dysfunction, and on paper the story can look grim. But in the act of telling the story (and in reading it), we can see the actual broken hearts inside these people, and come to understand what's driven them to be the way they are. One of the main characters, Gary, is angry and frustrated and confused and burdened and wildly codependent, and I shuddered with all manner of recognition reading about his efforts to strain against the life he's made for himself. The sibling dynamics are spot-on, the passive aggression between generations is true to life, and people only get ahead by taking tiny steps.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2001) (quit) There was a lot to like here, but the squirrely plot and interchangeable characters lost me after a while.

A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (2010) Absolutely fantastic. Egan plays with language, perspective, and execution in wonderful ways. It's a novel constructed like a story collection, but it works.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (2011) Slim, quick, and engaging. The story's about the twists life takes and how we're never quite sure what's happening in the lives of others, and Barnes illustrates that through a notoriously unreliable narrator, a man living in denial about his youth and behavior. The truth of the story slips in through the cracks.

Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor (1965) (unfinished) Great stories, but I also happened to pick this one up around the time I got laid off, and living in a state of general anger and depression did not make for a receptive attitude for stories that were often about rotten people. I'll pick it up again in the future.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz (2012) I remember plowing through this, but a few months later, I can remember almost none of it. I get snatches of story segments, little bits of dialogue or character, but I have zero recollection of how it all worked out. That can't be good.

NOS4A2, Joe Hill (2013) Another one I absolutely devoured, the way you tear through a box of candy at the movies. Joe Hill is, of course, Stephen King's son, and there are moments in NOS4A2 where he gets a little too close to the old man's current style for comfort: paper-thin characters built on something like quirk, as well as a horribly ill-advised decision to link the narrative world of this novel with some of King's, thanks to character and location references. Talking to The A.V. Club, Hill said he was just "fooling around" when he did that, though that's actually somehow more worrisome.

Attempting Normal, Marc Maron (2013) Most comedians are shitty book writers. Oratory and prose are totally different beats, and what works on the stage almost never works on paper. The rhythms are all wrong. Maron, though, is better than most, and his is the first book by a comedian I've read and actually enjoyed as a book, not a lark.

The_Marriage_Plot_(Jeffrey_Eugenides_novel)_cover_artThe Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011) A great story about post-graduate aimlessness. I hadn't read any Eugenides since The Virgin Suicides back in high school, so it was wonderful to revisit him.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (2012) Here's another one I blew through, though I can't imagine rereading it. It's expertly paced, surprisingly vicious, laced with great twists, and kind of disappointing in the end. I realized I was expecting a stronger sense of closure with the finale because, for all its ambitions, this is essentially a straight-ahead thriller, and not the kind that leans on ambiguity or character. Still, it's a compelling read.

All That Is, James Salter (2013) (quit) I'd heard great things, and I still believe them. But my eyes kept sliding from the page.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2001) (quit) Another one I couldn't quite lock into, though I'm not sure why. I'd like to revisit this down the road.

The Morels, Christopher Hacker (2013) (quit) Some first novels shout their debut status from the rooftops. Hacker's is like that.

leopjansThe Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma (2013) A moving, funny, beautiful book about the creative process and coming of age, filled with so many great emotional insights I was convinced Jansma had pulled them from my own brain.

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (2012) A wonderful, compact story that mines so much material from a simple set-up. (An aspiring actress in the 1960s spends a few days at a seaside hotel in Italy; decades later, the proprietor tries to find her.) Great characters, great story, and one of the most fulfilling resolutions I've read in quite a while.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway (2008) There's a David Foster Wallace vibe to much of Harkaway's book, from the author's love of language to his absurdist reconstruction of an alternate future. But The Gone-Away World is very much its own thing, and I loved it.

The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir, Domingo Martinez (2012) (quit) I really enjoyed a radio story Martinez did on This American Life. Would that I could say the same for the book.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012) Aside from scattered memories and an extended flashback, all the action here takes place on one day, as a group of soldiers are used as halftime props for a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. It's a burning satire of war media and pop culture.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer (2013) There were definitely moments when I felt like quitting on this one, but I stuck it out. Some of the character stories really worked for me; unfortunately, the main character wasn't one of them.

The Next Time You See Me, Holly Goddard Jones (2013) What looks like a simple mystery story becomes a much more interesting look at small-town relationships, race, and class. Jones is fantastic at setting a scene and creating a real sense of place.

A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz (2008) (quit) I liked a lot about it, but there was ultimately something too showy and artificial about it. Couldn't hang in there.

The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan (2011) This got a lot of chatter upon release for its frank depictions of sex, which I think is only warranted when the author in question is writing scenes so bad you wonder if they've ever had experience with what they're trying and failing to describe. Duncan's book isn't like that at all, and the sex in question makes perfect sense from a character perspective: the protagonist, a werewolf, lives for centuries, eventually having nothing to focus on but sex as it reflects his loneliness. The book's a great thriller, too, with a taut story and nice execution. Really enjoyed this one.

& Sons, David Gilbert (2013) Gilbert's novel blew me away. So patient, so haunting, so incisive with its depictions of crumbling family relationships. The mind supplies the missing "Fathers" from the title, and that's what the story is: the tale of missing fathers, men whose images and reputations tower over their sons despite their physical or emotional remove. Wonderfully written.

Pastoralia, George Saunders (2001) Great collection. Standout: "The Barber's Unhappiness."

butchcrossButcher's Crossing, John Williams (1960) I'd gone to the library looking for Williams' Stoner, but it was checked out. This was in its place, though, and I'm so glad I picked it up. It's a Western, but not in the sense of adventure or pulp. Instead, it's a finely observed novel about the way a young man's eagerness to explore the world slams into the world's harsh realities. A hunt gone wrong, a trip weighed down by avarice and fear. It's more than 50 years old, but it doesn't feel dated a day.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (2013) (quit) Cute ideas and some fun moments and character work, but I soon lost interest. Parts of it played like a Michael Chabon derivative. Might pick it up again later.

We, the Drowned, Carsten Jensen (2006) (quit) Another one whose rhythm I couldn't quite get into, but I'd like to give it another whirl sometime.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013) I found The Secret History on the shelf of a used bookstore when I was in high school. I loved it for reasons I couldn't quite put together at the time. Partly it was because it was one of the most adult novels I'd read at the time (the book came out in 1992 and I probably read it around 1998, making me 15/16). But I was also entranced by the beauty of the writing, and many of that book's passages have stayed with me ever since. Here's one:

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I missed The Little Friend, but after hearing so many people praise The Goldfinch, I knew I wanted to read it. It's not a small book, either: at around 775 pages, this one took me a while, thanks in part to a general slowdown in my reading during a busy holiday season. It moves so gracefully from one idea and setting and crisis to the next that, for hundreds of pages, I couldn't have begun to guess where the story would end up. But I was never bored reading it, not once, and I never felt that it should be shorter. It's about everything, in its way: art, and life, and friends, and theft, and greed, and pride, and hope against hopelessness. The writing is clear and powerful, and Tartt uses certain textual gimmicks (run-ons to illustrate a drug-addled mind, etc.) without ever wearing out their welcome. A great book, one of the best I read all year, and a perfect way to end 2013.

By the numbers: Total books finished: 25 Nonfiction: 1 Books (finished) released in 2013: 8 Books (finished) released before 2013: 17 Books (finished) released before 2000: 3 Favorites: American Pastoral, Tenth of December, The Hotel Eden, The Corrections, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Marriage Plot, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Beautiful Ruins, The Gone-Away World, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, & Sons, Butcher's Crossing, The Goldfinch

Favorite Opening Sentences of 2013

I read a couple dozen books this year. This isn't an exhaustive list of my favorites, merely those with openers that stood out to me. Five Skies, Ron Carlson "It was a cold May in all of Idaho, and as the month began there were only a few short stacks of lumber and construction gear on the plateau above the remote river gorge, along with all the game trails and the manifold signs of rabbits who were native to the place and who now moved cautiously among the three men sleeping on the ground."

American Pastoral, Philip Roth "The Swede."

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen "The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through."

Attempting Normal, Marc Maron "I had a bad run-in with myself on a plane recently."

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides "To start with, look at all the books."

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter "The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier."

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway "The lights went out in the Nameless Bar just after nine."

& Sons, David Gilbert "And there he sat, up front, all alone in the first pew."

"Nobody teaches a writer anything. You tell them what you know. You tell them to find their voice and stick with it, because that's all you have in the end. You tell the ones who have it to keep at it, and you tell the ones who don't to keep at it, too. Because that's the only way to get where you're going." — Wonder Boys

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My Literary Year In Review, 2012

jonathan-franzen-freedom This is the fourth year I've tracked my reading habits. I read all or part of 30 books this year. I'm OK with that, though I'd like to dig a little deeper in 2013. There were a few others titles I picked at that I didn't feel warranted inclusion, like Ryan Gilbey's It Don't Worry Me, an essay collection about 1970s cinema that's meant to be read in stops and starts, and Jeff Weingrad and Doug Hill's Saturday Night, which covers first five years of "SNL" and is a title I only ever revisit when I'm using the Kindle and need to kill time. The rest of the list is pretty straightforward in terms of what I read. If I put a book down with intent to return later, I labeled it "unfinished," but if I gave up for good, I labeled it "quit." All others I finished.

It's clear that most of my reading was made up of books from the past few years. I only had a few 2012 titles on the list, and I had a similarly small number of titles from before 2000. I'm pretty happy with the spread, though.

The final count:

11/22/63, Stephen King (2011) It's not news that Stephen King's much better at plotting suspense than he is at writing believable characters or giving them something real to say, but 11/22/63 frustrated me in new ways. It's because I'm at the approximate age of the story's narrator, who is in his mid-30s when the novel begins, which means that, geographical differences aside, I should be able to relate pretty well to his worldview and style. He's a young guy in 2011. He should feel real to me; he should feel like me, like my friends. Yet he's just a thin stand-in for King, and he's written like a 65-year-old. His references are dated, his cultural knowledge is astoundingly light, and he uses the same Kingian slang the author's characters always do. He speaks in a weird argot of outmoded slang, and while such a device might have been used to good effect — for instance, if the narrator had used more 1950s slang and fewer 2000s references the longer he was in the past, as a symbol of his growing attachment to the period — it just felt like King writing a make-believe version of himself. And it's things like that that kept ripping me out of the book. I had to keep reminding myself, "This is supposed to be a guy about my age. This is supposed to be a man I understand." Yet it wasn't. The novel had some great ideas and wonderfully plotted scenes — the run-up to the JFK assassination is breathless — but it crumbles under the weight of King's inability to do anything other than project himself onto the page.

The Instructions, Adam Levin (2011) (unfinished) I liked this quite a bit, but I found myself losing focus during the more aimless flashback sequences. It's really hard to be David Foster Wallace. I'd like to get back into this one, though.

Tales From Development Hell (New Updated Edition): The Greatest Movies Never Made?, David Hughes (2012) Lightweight but interesting, especially if you're curious (as I often am) about alternate histories, failed projects, rejected castings, and so on.

Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011) Really funny, and wonderfully honest. So many comedians write terrible books because they just churn out transcripts of stand-up material. Fey's book is the real deal.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (2011) I tore through this one, and I liked the premise a good deal (futuristic world united through online video game and hunt for power), but some (all?) of the relationship stuff felt like Cline didn't quite have the tools necessary to write honestly about awkward young love.

Pulphead: Essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011) Sullivan is a fantastic essayist — his piece on Disney is one of the best pieces of longform journalism I've read in a while — and this collection doesn't disappoint.

The Rook, Daniel O'Malley (2012) Breezy, fun, and a good supernatural story. Surprisingly emotional, too.

Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson (2011) This is a quick but gripping read. (I know that sounds like blurb copy, but it's true.) Watson's novel has overtones of Memento, dealing with a woman who loses her memories every time she goes to sleep, but she does great things with the narrative. The final section is amazingly suspenseful.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974) Haldeman's novel is the best kind of science fiction because it deals with real people and real emotions while informing the narrative with relatable twists tied to the genre. The hook here is that faster-than-light travel makes interstellar war last for centuries, with the young men and women who signed up to fight living far beyond the lifespans of their families back home. Good story.

The Rocketeer: The Complete Deluxe Edition, Dave Stevens (2009) I've had a soft spot for the Rocketeer since the 1991 Disney movie, and I'd always wanted to read Dave Stevens' original stories. I was happy to pick this up and spend some more time with the character. I find myself drawn to the story because there's something classic and unironic about him.

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst, Robert I. Sutton (2010) I am apparently the kind of person who buys business books now, or at least gives them consideration. I wanted to learn more about guiding people in addition to working with them, and I liked Sutton's plain take on things. He also wrote The No Asshole Rule, about how the biggest threat to efficiency and happiness in the office is the asshole who won't let you get anything done.

When the Nines Roll Over, David Benioff (2005) (unfinished) I loved Benioff's City of Thieves, and there were some good stories in here, but I eventually put it down. Just one of those that drifted off.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel, Stephen King (2012) I picked this up out of a combination of will, curiosity, and boredom (I was traveling for work and staring down the barrel of a long flight home). It has some nice moments, and the boy in me had fun going back to King's gunslinger world, but the end result would've worked better as a short story or novella. Just not enough here.

The Twelve, Justin Cronin (2012) I loved The Passage, and The Twelve was every inch the sequel I'd hoped it would be: scary, funny, romantic, sad, gripping, smart, moving. Cronin's got a lock on how to write literate horror and adventure, and I'm so glad to have found him. I got a review copy of this book from a bookseller friend before release, but I bought my own later on and had Cronin sign it when I saw him do a reading at a local bookstore.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (2011) It's hard to do a fresh novel about college kids, but Harbach does a good job here. He's got a good feel for the characters and a good sense of humor, though the narrative tends to sputter a bit toward the end. Worth a read, though.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Neil Gaiman (2009) Batman: Ego and Other Tails, Darwyn Cooke (2000) Batman: False Faces, Brian K. Vaughan (2008) Batman: Hush, Jeph Loeb (2003) (quit) I checked out a stack of graphic novels from the local library. Every few months I remember how amazing libraries are — they let you take books home for free — and I used the latest trip to catch up on some comic titles. Gaiman's book is a wonderful story about death and resurrection as told through Batman characters, while Cooke's is a solid caper starring Catwoman. (Cooke's throwback art is wonderful, too.) The Vaughan book was OK, though I found myself skimming because I don't know a lot about most mainstream comic characters' backstory, and if anything relies too heavily on deep canon, I tend to glaze over. Loeb's Hush, though, was the worst of the bunch. It was clumsily written and stuffed with hilariously horny images courtesy of Jim Lee. The women were always bent over or spread-eagled, and after a while I just felt embarrassed to be reading it.

1Q84, Haruki Murakami (2011) (unfinished) A coworker loaned me this, and while I was taken with the story's ideas, the pacing lost me after a hundred pages or so. Definitely need to give it another go.

The Gates, John Connolly (2009) A fun YA book about the apocalypse. Funny and fast.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen (2010) The first three-fourths had me riveted: I loved Larsen's little world and his brave T.S., a lonely boy trying to figure out how to grow up. But the final section rushes the conclusion and feels tacked-on, or rather, cut down from something far longer and more rewarding.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (2010) Stunning. Easily one of the best novels I've ever read. Franzen's observations, insight, and nuance are phenomenal, and I found myself longing to return to the book when I wasn't reading it. What's amazing is how Franzen gets so much out of what's essentially one of the oldest stories you can tell: a love triangle. It's an amazing novel, and one that's stayed with me in the months since I finished.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996) (reread) I didn't complete my reread of Infinite Jest, though I'm not sure I worried about doing so, either. I read the book for the first time in the summer of 2004, right after I graduated college, and I've been replaying scenes from it in my head ever since. I wanted to revisit it, though, in the wake of The Pale King and D.T. Max's somewhat slight biography of Wallace. Freed from the tension of wondering what would happen and how the book's world was structured, I was able to calmly dip in and out of its waters, often reading a few pages while having another book going on the side. Reading it was comforting, a way to go back and spend time with an older part of myself and see the book through older eyes. I'll likely keep reading it in bursts over the coming year.

How Fiction Works, James Wood (2008) Wonderfully structured, smartly argued literary criticism that communicates its author's passion for the form. Wood's observations and advice are great, too.

Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Pevear and Volokhonsky, translators) (1864, 1994) I read my share of poorly translated Russian lit in high school and college, but I wanted to give one of the masters another go without having to feel the pressure of a looming exam. I put out a call on Facebook for translations, and several friends pointed me toward Pevear and Volokhonsky. I'm so glad they did. Notes From Underground was profoundly moving and insightful, a sad and angry story about a man ground into immobility by his neuroses. I know for a fact that I got more out of it at 30 than I ever could have at 20. There's no substitute for life when it comes to getting a little perspective.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (2005) I really enjoyed this one. Krauss does a nice job shifting between different tones as she cycles through narrators, and I was hooked on the combination of love story and literary mystery.

Ellington Boulevard, Adam Langer (2008) (quit) I quit about 30-40 pages in. I liked Langer's "Crossing California" well enough (sections, anyway), but I just couldn't get into this one. Part of my disinterest can be chalked up to Langer's habit of describing what people are saying instead of using dialogue and action; many sections feel like summaries for a book Langer will eventually write. Anyway, what with life being precious and fleeting, I didn't want to spend more of it with this novel.

Room, Emma Donoghue (2010) Donoghue takes a horrifying premise — a young woman is abducted and kept as a sexual prisoner by an older man — and makes it both more revolting and more tolerable by filtering the narrative through the perspective of the woman's five-year-old son, who's never known a world outside the small room where he and his mother are kept. It's suspenseful and mournful in equal parts, and the use of the child narrator lets Donoghue obliquely introduce certain horrors without dwelling on them overlong or slowing the narrative. It's a strong novel.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (1990) A hilarious and surprisingly warm satire of fate, the apocalypse, and eschatological dogma. It's got a great tone that perfectly channels that flip, dry vibe that British humorists can apparently do in their sleep. Great read.

By the numbers: Total books read: 30 Nonfiction: 5 Graphic novels: 5 Books released in 2012: 4 Books released before 2012: 26 Books released before 2000: 4 Favorites: Freedom, Notes From Underground, How Fiction Works

Self-Selecting

There have been a few blog posts and single-serving sites going around recently designed to let you check which of your Facebook friends like certain pop culture artifacts. The point isn't to discover common interests, though, but to find out who in your social network has expressed even fleeting affection for a person, place, or piece of entertainment usually reserved for public derision. Popular examples: Nickelback, Kim Kardashian, "Two and a Half Men." The latest of these lists is a piece from Buzzfeed titled "People You Need to Unfriend on Facebook Immediately." It includes the items mentioned above as well as Crocs, Guy Fieri, and other pop ephemera that seem to have been created solely so people would have something to make fun of in their spare time.

Tool-based lists like these are guaranteed viral hits for a number of reasons: they're easy to implement, simple to use, and they're tied to things we've been conditioned to violently hate, or at least feel strongly about. I don't like Rush Limbaugh, or Ed Hardy, or "Whitney," or really anything on the list. Yet how selfish would I have to be to only befriend people whose political and cultural tastes were exactly aligned with mine? I don't have to agree with my friend's choices about pop culture. There will always be areas where we overlap and those where we don't. What does it mean that we want to think about eliminating those presences from our lives? Even as a joke, on Facebook?

One of the things I love about being a film and TV critic is digging into something and thinking about what it means, and then using that investigation to start a conversation. I love encouraging people to think about these things; I love being encouraged to do so by the critics I admire. The point isn't to only read reviews I agree with, but to do my best to see where someone is coming from. I don't have to stop respecting someone, or terminate a real or digital friendship, simply because they enjoy DVRing "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." If I did that, I'd be horribly close-minded.

That's what I'm worried we might be coming to. Not in a rush, but slowly, one sarcastic and self-aware step at a time. I clicked on the link in the Buzzfeed article attached to George W. Bush to see which of my Facebook friends like/Like the former president. About a dozen do, though who knows how many like him without having expressed it online. I feel a great dislike for much of Bush's presidency and the debacle that was the dual wars he waged, but my feelings toward those friends who like Bush haven't changed one bit after learning that they support a president whose actions I often found intolerable. They have different opinions on him than I do. They hold different beliefs. I'm not going to kick them out of my life for being different from me, and I wouldn't want them to cut me out of their own lives, either. I'd like to think we find more to care about in each other than a voting record and viewing habits.

My Literary Year In Review, 2011

This is the third year I've kept tabs on what I read (here's 2009 and 2010). My number's down from last year, when I read 30 books; this year, I finished 22 and abandoned two at various stages. And that decrease becomes more stark when you realize that quite a few of my choices this year were graphic novels, which take much less time to read than traditional ones. I'm not totally sure why the number went down, or even if that's something I should be concerned about. I was always working on one book or another, and (typical for me) I'd start a new book immediately after I'd finished the one before. I think it's because I traveled more in 2011 than ever before (both for work and myself), and because I finished the year with Justin Cronin's The Passage, which runs 800 tightly scripted pages and is not a journey to be taken lightly. Yet I'm not doing this as a contest, and my goal isn't to set a new personal record every year (if only because I'd eventually have to stop working, eating, and sleeping to squeeze in more titles). I just like keeping the list because I enjoy watching patterns emerge in my reading habits, whether it's seeing recommendations from certain friends appear with more frequency or uncovering certain genre patterns. I sought out more humor writing in 2011 than ever before, and I also explored more memoirs and nonfiction. Picking a favorite is almost impossible, but for sheer emotional power and ambition, The Pale King was hard to beat. Anyway, here's a chronological list of what I read in 2011. As always, suggestions for future reads are welcome.

bookwrap11-somnambulist.jpg The Somnambulist (2007), Jonathan Barnes There's a ton of potential in Barnes' historical fantasy-thriller, including the pleasing device of having the reader experience time travel from the perspective of the characters who aren't traveling through time. (So our narrative moves forward as progressive meetings with the time traveler are earlier in his life.) But the final product was too cute by half, and suffered from some of the pacing and dialogue issues that trouble first novels. I finished it out of sheer commitment to the project.

bookwrap11-kicker.JPG And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft (2009), ed. Mike Sacks For a comedy nerd, this is a fantastic read. Sacks talks with a smart group of comedy writers to pick their brains about how they got into the industry and what they think is funny. The interviews are introduced with biographical chunks that are a little too cheesy, but the talks themselves are worth it.

bookwrap11-sleepwalk.JPG Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stores (2010), Mike Birbiglia Mike Birbiglia is a hilarious comic who's found success by shifting away from typical sets and telling longer narratives that weave in jokes; when I saw him a couple years ago, his show was nothing but a few stories drawn out to epic length. Those stories work wonderfully on the stage, but they don't translate that well to the page because Birbiglia commits the sin that many stand-ups do when they write a book: he assumes that a transcript of his act will work as a humorous essay. But humor written is far different from humor spoken and performed. What feels natural out loud reads as choppy and far too short, meaning much of Sleepwalk With Me reads like half-formed pieces. There are some good punch lines in here, but you're better off hearing them than reading them.

bookwrap11-likeness.jpg The Likeness (2008), Tana French I really dug In the Woods, French's first novel, and The Likeness is just as good. It's not a sequel exactly, but a sequential novel involving a supporting character from the first book and now told from that character's point of view. It's a solid device that lets French poke around in whole new personalities while keeping the story rooted in the world readers have come to enjoy. Great literary mystery.

bookwrap11-ifoundthisfunny.JPG I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All (2010), ed. Judd Apatow The title doesn't lie: some of these stories are bitter, weird, and intentionally off-putting, while others are plain anti-humor, anti-drama, and anti-enjoyable. Still, there are some highlights, including Paul Feig's piece about his brief flirtation with sports announcing (imported from Feig's Kick Me) and Conan O'Brien's "Lookwell" pilot. Some of the dramatic pieces are good, too, but overall the collection is pretty hodgepodge.

bookwrap11-bigpayback.JPG The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010), Dan Charnas Dan Charnas used to be a talent scout for Profile Records and later the head of the rap division for American Recordings, meaning he had a front-row seat to the rise and bloat of hip-hop as a cultural force. His book is a dense but readable history of hip-hop from a business perspective, charting the path the music took from blowing out New York basements to dominating pop culture worldwide. Great read.

bookwrap11-kickme.jpg Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence (2002), Paul Feig Now this is humor writing. Feig has worked on a number of TV series and films (he directed Bridesmaids), but it's his role as creator of "Freaks and Geeks" that earned him a place in TV history. His personal essays about growing up as a weird, repressed little geek are heartbreaking but hilarious, and anyone who's seen "Freaks" will recognize many, many story lines in Feig's own childhood. A fantastic memoir.

bookwrap11-untimelydemise.JPG In the Event of My Untimely Demise: 20 Things My Son Needs to Know (2008), Brian Sack Brian Sack (who blogs at Banterist) brings his sharp wit to a series of brief, vaguely cartoonish essays written to his child. Cute but insubstantial.

bookwrap11-martians.jpg What I'd Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats (2008), Jack Handey It sounds stupid and unoriginal to call something "laugh-out-loud funny," but the phrase genuinely applies here. Jack Handey's quick essays are dependably hilarious, but the books packs so many of them together that it's easy to overload. The book feels like an ideal bathroom reader.bookwrap11-monkeytown.JPG Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (2010), Rachel Held Evans I don't agree with some of Rachel Evans' conclusions, but then, the book is about learning to live in those kinds of tensions. Her background mirrors my own in many ways: politically and theologically conservative upbringing, plenty of time with her church's youth group, and a growing sense of unease at the way some of the things she was taught didn't mesh with her developing understanding of the world around her. She's still a believer (as am I), but she's no longer on the same path as her parents or peers because she started asking tough questions and realizing that some of them don't have easy answers (if they have answers at all). If you grew up in a Southern church and/or went to a private religious university, this is worth your time.

bookwrap11-superstud.JPG Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Paul Feig Brilliant and sad and wonderful. Feig re-creates his romantic misadventures with amazing detail, and the brief chapters make for an easy (if cringe-inducing) trip through one repressed boy's rocky sexual discoveries.

bookwrap11-paleking.JPG The Pale King (2011), David Foster Wallace Wallace is my favorite author. The first thing of his I read was Infinite Jest, and after that it was over. I had to get everything. My heart broke when he committed suicide, and I met the release of The Pale King, his unfinished final work, with equal parts anticipation and sorrow. I was wowed by the book, but it's definitely a partial novel. The bare bones of a story are there, and so many sequences channel the humanity and brilliance of Wallace as well as anything he ever wrote, but it's ultimately more a coda to his career than a swan song. It's definitely one I'll revisit. bookwrap11-gunmusic.JPG Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Jonathan Lethem Lethem's first novel is a compelling mix of retro-futurism and detective noir. It didn't hit me as hard as The Fortress of Solitude or some of his essays, but it was still fun to see where he got his start. bookwrap11-gilead.JPG Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson Absolutely beautiful. Every sentence is a finely carved work of art, and I found myself reading more slowly as the novel went on so I could revel in Robinson's pace and style. It's also one of the most realistic and moving depictions of faith and struggle that I've ever read. bookwrap11-greatworld.jpg Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann McCann's novel has a number of wonderful scenes and ideas, but it's also one of those "disparate stories that are tangentially connected" books that feels like a shortcut to a novel instead of an actual profound narrative. bookwrap11-magicianking.JPG The Magician King (2011), Lev Grossman I really liked The Magicians, so I was excited to get this when it dropped over the summer. The sequel is thinner than the original — the page count is smaller and the typeface is bigger — but it's still a great narrative about two characters working from different emotional places to try and achieve the same result. That said, I had the wind knocked out of me by the ending. It didn't feel like a legitimate or organic twist, but a forced and overly bitter way to make the main character grow up a little. The disappointing final pages colored my feelings about the rest of the book, but I'd like to dig back into this one in a couple years and see how I feel. bookwrap11-batmanyearone.jpg Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli I decided to catch up this year with a few Batman graphic novels that I'd always meant to read, and I figured Year One was a good place to start. It's a good book, just four collected issues, but I liked the approach Miller took to plugging some of the gaps in the hero's early years. bookwrap11-batmankillingjoke.jpg Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Alan Moore, Brian Holland What a terrifying, riveting story. The hardback edition nicely fleshes out the issue's history with background info, character sketches, and so on, but all you really need is Moore's wicked little one-shot. This is the merciless Joker that Christopher Nolan brought to life in The Dark Knight, not the cavorting goofball of so many comic book and cartoon stories. One of the all-time greats. bookwrap11-batmanhalloween.jpg Batman: The Long Halloween (1997), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Loeb and Sale's Long Halloween is a cool idea, unfolding over a year as a holiday-themed serial killer makes life difficult for the denizens of Gotham City, but I found myself groaning at the overly orchestrated dialogue. Comic book dialogue tends to hit one or two words in every sentence with additional force conveyed in bold text, but that means taking the narrative control away from the reader. Good dialogue has its own flow, but I found Long Halloween unwilling to let that flow build on its own. Still, a fun read. bookwrap11-zombiesw.JPG Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (2011), Patton Oswalt Like most comedians, Patton Oswalt is a great public speaker and an awful writer. Where Birbiglia's long-form comedy has at least some similarities with printed essays, Oswalt's style doesn't really work on the page. He's fantastic at knowing how to make a bit work on stage, but he's not nearly as skilled at organizing his ideas into chapters (or even coherent narratives). I checked this out on faith, but I found myself skimming almost immediately. I barely remember finishing. bookwrap11-faithfulplace.jpg Faithful Place (2010), Tana French (abandoned) As a fan of French's previous two novels, I was sad that this one didn't connect for me. I quit after a while, but I might be able to find a way in if I wait a while and come back to it. bookwrap11-darkvictory.JPG Batman: Dark Victory (1999), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Again, another decent story undercut by rocky dialogue. Still, I'm something of a sucker for Batman origin stories, and this introduction of Robin was fun to read. bookwrap11-briefinterviews.JPG Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), David Foster Wallace (abandoned) I'd never tackled Brief Interviews before, and I had to quit when the bitterness became overwhelming. It's not like I didn't know that was the point of the book; Wallace's focus here is as sharp as ever, and he digs unforgivingly into the sad and awful world of semi-fictional men. Still, it was a little too much for me to take. As a Wallace fan, I plan on coming back to this one, though I might have to do it in small sips instead of bigger gulps. bookwrap11-thepassage.JPG The Passage (2010), Justin Cronin Cronin's novel (his first) hooked me from the start, opening with a sad vignette about a poor woman and her lonely child, but I didn't know just how emotionally invested I'd become until major characters went missing and I found myself saddened by the loss. The Passage feels at times like a perfect mix of I Am Legend and The Stand, but Cronin digs into the hearts and minds of his characters with more skill than your typical genre author. The novel's first third is sprawling and dense, as Cronin sets up the viral infection that will eventually turn a dozen unlucky people into vampire-like monsters whose disease will unmake the world, and things get even bigger when he abruptly jumps forward almost a hundred years to pick up the plot in the postapocalyptic wasteland of future America. Yet he makes it all work, weaving together big stories and great characters in a classic page-turner. I had more fun getting lost in this world than I'd had with a book in a long time, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. (This is the first in a planned trilogy.) A great read.

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My Literary Year In Review, 2010

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.

bookwrap10-disappointment.jpg The Disappointment Artist (2005), Jonathan Lethem A solid collection of essays and reflections, if not quite as good as his earlier Men and Cartoons.

bookwrap10-worldwarz.jpg World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) (unfinished), Max Brooks Brooks takes the Studs Terkel approach and creates an account of a zombie war told through the eyes of those who survived it. It's a neat idea, but it starts to fall apart after a while. For one, the people all talk in a kind of melodramatic prose that might've been more acceptable as narration, not dialogue. The book's also too long, and the fragmented narrative never really builds momentum. I quit reading when the choppiness of the presentation and lack of a propulsive story became too much. (Not to mention Brooks' melodramatic prose, which reads like hundreds of pages of jacket copy.)

bookwrap10-dinosaur.jpg Eating the Dinosaur (2009), Chuck Klosterman Klosterman's one of the best pop culture writers out there, and his latest essay deals in fewer absolutes than earlier collections. He's more willing to explore causes and effects than finding support for impossible arguments, and the resulting work makes him feel more human.

bookwrap10-chroniccity.jpg Chronic City (2009), Jonathan Lethem Lethem's a deceptively good writer. Much of Chronic City is told in first person through the eyes of Chase Insteadman, and I made the mistake of conflating the character's insubstantiality with Lethem's skill as a storyteller. Late in the book, when the action shifts briefly to a different viewpoint, Lethem's own style came roaring back, and I realized just how much work had gone into crafting an entirely different feel for his narrator. The story's a classic Lethem mix of pop culture and surreal fantasy, and definitely worth checking out.

bookwrap10-althoughofcourse.jpg Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip into the Life, Work, and Mind of David Foster Wallace (2010), David Lipsky A friend of mine slipped me a review copy before this hit shelves, and I devoured it. Wallace is probably my favorite author, and I was so saddened when he committed suicide in 2008. Lipsky's book is one long transcript of his time interviewing Wallace over the course of several days at the end of the book tour Wallace undertook in 1996 to support Infinite Jest. The men talk about fiction, emotion, stories, love, family, music, everything. It's a fantastic volume because it captures the immediacy of the long talks that animate road trips, as well as the mundane details that come with schlepping across the country in an old sedan. Wallace speaks in the same rambling, aspirational style that marked his prose, and reading this book was like getting him back, if only for a few days.

bookwrap10-pictures.jpg Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), Mark Harris One of the best books about Hollywood, period, as well as a fantastic examination of the way films affect culture and vice versa. Harris tracks the five films that contended for the best picture Oscar in the spring of 1968 from their inception through the awards and aftermath, and his copious research is supported by dozens of personal interviews. A fantastic look at the relationships and economics that drive art.

bookwrap10-lakeofthewoods.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-kingdork.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-travelingmercies.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-stitches.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-ghosts.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-blockade.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-downtownowl.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-terror.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-stardustjpg.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-lazarus.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-summerofnight.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-feed.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-unnamed.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-nixonland.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-persepolis2.jpg 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.

bookwrap10_genkill.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-cloudatlas.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-franzenalone.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-christiannation.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-hungergames.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-animaltheo.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-fulldark.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-catchingfire.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-mockingjay.JPG 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.

bookwrap10-woods.jpg 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.

bookwrap10-magicians.JPG 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.

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