Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Ethan's Literary Year in Review

As happened last year, herein shall follow the list of books I read this year, with commentary.

I racked up 101 books last year; this year I only did 68. However, as I said at the beginning of the year, I purposely read longer and harder books this year than last year.

One of my projects this year was to read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I did not fulfill this. I read all of his novels except his last, unfinished one; it still remains for me to read The Last Tycoon and all of Fitzgerald's short stories and miscellany. There was some purpose in not finishing Scott in a hurry, as the year closed: I was still a little sick of him. As much as I love the man, three of his novels in a year is actually quite enough.

Without further ado: the List of 2010.

1. Public Enemies, by Bryan Burrough [Half-read]
I intended to come back and finish this later, but have not yet done so. The half I did read was utterly fascinating. Burrough does as thorough a research and reporting job as it is possible to do, uncovering the story of the 1932-33 crime wave and breathing life into such figures as John Dillinger, Baby-Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and their many peers. At the same time, Burrough keeps from romanticizing them at all. For example, he calls Bonnie and Clyde a couple of vicious backwater criminals, killers utterly undeserving of the romance that sprang up around them. I thought the movie taken from this book to be fairly good, but this book is about a hundred times bigger, more detailed, and probably a thousand times more fascinating.

2. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
A science fiction classic, of course. There were a lot of things in it I liked, and it was a classic example of golden age SF's focus on the human side of its technology-laden stories. I got bored about 2/3rds of the way through, but I still recommend it.

3. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain
Twain thought this was his greatest work; I would be perfectly comfortable putting it on the same level as Huck Finn. Not funny, and therefore out of character for Twain, but what Twain lacks in humor here he makes up for in passion and in detail, and in his drawing-out of the drama of Joan's story. Twain is at his best when he assumes another's voice, and here he writes as the man who became Joan's personal secretary.

4. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
Probably the 7th or 8th time in my life I've read this book. The beginning never gets less disorienting, and the ending never ceases to make reading the whole book worthwhile.

5. Gorgias, by Plato
6. Phaedrus, by Plato
Plato doing what he does best: taking aim at our brains and blasting them into little pieces, thereby creating scholarly controversy for literally millenia to come. Both of these are worth reading; MAYBE they're worth reading the nine or so times it would take to fully understand them.

7. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles
I am looking forward to this coming semester, as it appears that I will not have to read Oedipus Rex, even once.

8. Bartimaeus: The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
An enormously fun book, mainly for the character of Bartimaeus, an ancient Djinn conjured by a young sorcerer in a sort of alternate London run by magicians. Also, footnotes.

9. The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My least favorite of Fitzgerald's novels, so far. The story of a torrid unhealthy love affair between a young couple in the early part of the Roaring Twenties. Fascinating in places, highly skillful in many places, but ultimately just sort of miserable to read.

10. Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Prabhavananda and Isherwood
A classic Hindu scripture, translated by two men enamoured of its importance. An extremely interesting read, especially for those interested in Eastern religions. I thought I found a lot of inconsistencies (I'd have to read through it again to give specifics), but I don't know if they're inconsistencies due to difficulty of translation, or simply because I lack context. Anyway, lots of heresy for the Christian, but worth reading perhaps for that very reason.

11. MacBeth, by Shakespeare
Still an overrated play. Still a lot of build-up for not really anything. Still a rushed ending. Shakespeare was still trying too hard. Actually, exact same thing could be said of the performance I subsequently saw at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

12. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
I can see why so many people love it. I can. If I had been allowed to take my red pen and cut out the 60% or so of the text that could be cut without damaging the story at all, maybe I would have liked it more.


13. The Good Woman of Setzuan, by Bertolt Brecht
Brecht is an interesting fellow. His play here is rather blatant in the point it attempts to drive home, but rarely for an author like that, he did it with enough art that I didn't hold it against him.

14. Fences, by August Wilson
This is sort of very much a "Death of a Salesman" set in the African-American community in the 60s, but is a very good play for all that--I like it much better than "Salesman."

15. The Atlantis Enigma, by Herbie Brennan
Brennan is trying to make the case that Atlantis not only existed, but ran on crystal technology, and its remnant may be responsible for our world today. He does all this on the flimsiest of evidence, but boy, is it a fun read!

16. Joan of Arc: In her Own Words, edited by Willard Trask
I am NOT obsessed. Okay, maybe I have a crush on her. Maybe. Anyway, this book is REALLY eerie; her words are elegant, and calm, and even in an English translation a thousand years later, one can almost sense the real person here. Sends chills down one's spine.

17. Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman
This book was fun, except I got bored about 2/3rds of the way through. An amusing one on which to waste an afternoon.

18. The Judging Eye, by R. Scott Bakker
Bakker is STILL one of the best fantasists writing today. This first part of what I believe will be a trilogy is fascinating, and by the time you get to the last third where a lot of it is basically a retread of the mines of Moria, there's so much else going on that you don't mind this.

19. The Knight, by Gene Wolfe
Wolfe is a better fantasist even than Bakker. His story of Faerie is somewhat maddening, but also fascinating, and Wolfe has this incredible penchant for taking things that shouldn't really be that emotional and making them somehow gut-wrenching.

20. Alan Mendelssohn, the Boy From Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater
21. Slaves of Spiegel, by Daniel Pinkwater
Pinkwater sells himself on being a subversive children's writer, on being someone too risque for the big publishers to touch. I was not impressed by him.

22. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This was a fascinating novel, miles better than either "The Great Gatsby" or "The Beautiful and Damned." It may not have had the structural perfection of Gatsby, but the characters were more developed, more sympathetic, the prose was better, the story was more elegant and richer. This became my second-favorite Fitzgerald, after "This Side of Paradise."

23. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch
SUCH A FUN BOOK. The second in the "Gentlemen Bastards" sequence, which effectively combines the Con Man and Epic Fantasy genres (read: two of Ethan's favorite things), and halfway through this book becomes a pirate story (read: now THREE of Ethan's favorite things).

24. How to be Alone: Essays, by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen has some fascinating stuff to say; his essays get a little whiny, a little self-righteous, and a little pretentious now and then, but at least he often KNOWS he is being this way and points it out himself.

25. Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake
26. Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake
27. Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake
I cannot say enough good things about the Ghormenghast trilogy, so I won't try. Many, many modern fantasy writers will claim that it was Tolkien and Mervyn Peake who inspired them to write fantasy, and having read these three books, that makes perfect sense. If you have ever wanted to read a Gothic novel that was also good literature, these are the books for you.

28. First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings, by Edward Sorel and Nancy Caldwell Sorel
29. Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
30. Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, by Lynne Jonell
31. Victory, by Susan Cooper
About none of these do I have anything in particular to say. The last three are part of the slew of YA books I read toward the end of the summer. They are all fun, in their own way.

32. The End of the Beginning, by Avi
33. A Beginning, a Muddle and an End, by Avi
These two books, which take maybe half an hour apiece to read, are both the type of book only someone who has been writing for many years could come up with and execute. They glory in paradox, and because of that I gloried in them.

34. The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo
35. Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
Having already read DiCamillo's second two novels, and having loved both of them, I decided to read her first two. Neither of them quite made the all-time favorites list, but they are both really beautiful little books, and both eminently worth reading, for anybody.

36. Me and Orson Welles, by Robert Kaplow
Anyone who likes reading about old movies, Orson Welles, the Depression, the Theater, or a young man's coming-of-age should read this book. For me, who likes reading about all of those, it was perfect.

37. Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman
38. Sandman: The Doll's House, by Neil Gaiman
39. Sandman: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman
40. Sandman: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman
41. Sandman: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman
42. Sandman: Fables and Reflections, by Neil Gaiman
43. Sandman: Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman
44. Sandman: World's End, by Neil Gaiman
45. Sandman: The Kindly Ones, by Neil Gaiman
46. Sandman: The Wake, by Neil Gaiman
For years, everyone said, "Read the Sandman books." For years, I was like, "Yeah, yeah." WOW. Sandman fans may get annoying, and it may seem like these books are overrated, but they're NOT. They're brilliant; if Allan Moore made the graphic novel literature, Neil Gaiman may be the one to make it great literature. Gaiman and his artists effectively tell a story that takes place pretty much literally everywhere, and everywhen, and sometimes nowhere and never.

47. Sandman: The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman
48. Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman
The first, an illustrated Sandman short novel; the second, an anthology of stories about Dream and his siblings, written ten or so years after the last main sequence Sandman came out. Both well worth reading for those who liked the series.

49. The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories, by Bruce McAllister
I found McAllister's story "The Courtship of the Queen" on Tor.com, and thought it was one of the most beautiful, touching fictions I had read in a long time. I wrote him an email telling him so, and he wrote me back and was very kind and gracious. Almost all of the stories in this book are remarkable in one way or another; some of them are truly great.

50. Theater/Theory/Theater, ed. Robert Gerould
58. Dramatic Theory and Criticism, ed. Bernard F. Dukore
I love theater theory in general; I hated most of its practitioners. Ho-hum.

51. Ironheart, by Victoria Tecken
68. Ink on Their Fingers, by Victoria Tecken and Benjamin Tecken
Two books by friends of mine. The first was probably the weirdest reading experience I've ever had: I was the narrator for the full-cast recorded book, and therefore I read it in bits and pieces and chunks, completely out of order, reading some sections many times, and some sections barely at all. The second book is short stories and poetry, ranging from decent to very very good. I recommend the first book to those who like YA fantasy; the second, to anyone who likes to read.

52. Miss Julie, by August Strindberg
53. Two Rooms, by Lee Blessing
More plays, more plays. Will I ever escape? "Two Rooms" is one of the saddest plays I've ever read. I did a monologue from it, which was great fun.

54. Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics, Various Authors
Very effective noir comics; those who write and draw graphic novels seem to really grasp the genre. Not for the faint of heart.

55. The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo
DiCamillo seems to have mastered the creation of beauty, and of a well-told story. Again, recommend for anyone who likes stories.

56. The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart
Clever and fun, the book gets a little too far-fetched in places for my taste, but it's a good solid pleasure read.

57. Broadway Bound, by Neil Simon
Fairly typical Neil Simon. Semi-autobiographical, about two brothers in 1949 New York breaking into comedy writing.

59. Holding Onto Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millenium, by Albert Borgman
I read this for a class. It's a brilliant history of information, charting it through its three phases of growth. Borgmann tries to calm some of the "internet hysteria," and to present a cogent argument for a balance of technology.

60. How to Conduct Organizational Surveys, by Jack Edwards et al.
Bore bore boring bored.

61. Selections from "Against Verres," by Cicero
Read in and translated from the Latin. Worth reading, in Latin or English, as examples of great oration, and as also just as history.

62. Following the Equator, Vol. 1, by Mark Twain
Twain's travels, mainly in Germany, in the 1880s. Vintage Twain. There are several chapters--notably, "The Great French Duel" and "Jim Baker's Bluejay Yarn"--that get reprinted solo in short story collections and the like. These DO tend to be the highlights, but if one needs a Twain fix, pretty much any chapter in here will do.

63. Showdown, by Ted Dekker
Dekker definitely knows how to tell a story, and the fact that his story involved more than a little magic, mystery, and bizarre fantasy suited me just fine.

64. Panzer Commander, by Hans von Luck
More of a personal memoir than a military history, though with plenty of the latter, von Luck's story of commanding Nazi tanks in WWII is fascinating and well worth reading.

65. Campaigns of Curiosity, by Elizabeth L. Banks
Banks was a female journalist beginning in the 1890s. She went to England, and employed a lot of gimmicks in writing interest pieces for London papers. She posed as a crossing-sweep, a laundry girl and a housemaid, among others, and wrote articles concerning her experiences. They are great fun to read, and anybody interested in the Victorian Era will probably find them fascinating.

66. Post-Scarcity Anarchism, by Murray Bookchin
My reaction to anarchist writers tends to be equally split between vehement agreement and wanting to punch them in the face. Bookchin caused much more of the former in me, which is not to say the latter was not present. This book was published in 1971, but the vast majority of it seems incredibly relevant.

67. The Mabinogion, by Anonymous Welsh Poet(s), translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones
Folk-stories and myths are interesting on many levels: there's the level of pure story, which is one major reason they should be preserved in the first place; there's the things they tell us about the culture of a time; there's the dissection and analysis of what they mean, where they came from, and how they were transmitted and changed; and there are sociological, psychological, archetypal, and anthropological options. Occasionally, the Maginogion was not interesting to me on any of these levels. Most of the time, it was interesting on all of them.

So. In Summary.

Books everyone should read
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake
Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake
The End of the Beginning, by Avi
A Beginning, a Muddle and an End, by Avi
The Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo
Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo
Me and Orson Welles, by Robert Kaplow

I'm not going to bother posting other categories this time; I think my comments should be a good guide if anything on the list looks interesting, and there's too much crossover and difficulty of categorization to attempt it.

3 comments:

NOT Freddy Jones said...

11. I always feel torn about this play. On the one hand, I like the characters. On the other, the ending sucks. I think I liked the Shakespeare Retold version better(this is different from Reduced Shakespeare Company, but well worth watching. Especially MacBeth and the Taming of the Shrew)

12. You kind of mirrored my exact thoughts about this book. I liked all the parts without Mr. Rochester in them, but as soon as he came into the picture the prose changed completely, and the story became sappy, boring, and disgustingly romantic(in a drippy, sucking-each-other's-faces kind of way). I'm appalled that it is so popular.

16. This is going on my list. Also, you remind me of that one part in Blue Like Jazz where he claims that every guy has a crush on Emily Dickinson at least once in their life (have you ever experienced that? Just curious).

23. Also going on my list, just because the series is called Gentleman Bastards, if for nothing else.

35. I tried renaming my dog Winn-Dixie after reading this book, but it didn't stick.

37-48. :D.
There are a couple of really good spin-off comic series. A few about Death(which I actually have not read), a few about Lucifer(I read a little, but can't remember if it was good or not), and one about the dead boys(which was quite excellent).

54. This is sitting somewhere on the floor of my bedroom. I'll get back to you on it after I've read it. (Fyi, one of the guys who I believe wrote/illustrated a story for this, Gabriel Ba, is an amazing artist/storyteller, and he and his brother, Fabio Moon, have a couple of comic books out that you should definitely check out. Ursula is one, the other is something like Tales From Urban Brazil. They also have published things in the Flight anthologies)

Okay. I'll shut up now. For the moment.

Ethan said...

16. While I have NOT experienced the part about having a crush on Emily Dickinson, I identify very much with that part in Blue Like Jazz BECAUSE of my crush on Joan of Arc. A couple other female literary figures, too, but mainly Joan.

23. Awesome books, like I said. The first is "The Lies of Locke Lamora." Should be available through the library, though if you ever want to borrow mine, that could be arranged.

35. Anke? I can't see it. Though I TOTALLY understand the sentiment.

37-48. I've been meaning to read the Death ones; now I want to read those other two.

54.

NOT Freddy Jones said...

16. Yeah, I can understand that. I identified very much as well, since I have/had crushes on several male literary figures. No, I'm not telling you which ones(I will tell you, however, that NONE of them were EVER Mr. Darcy or Edward Cullen)

23. I'll check the library.. but they'll have to wait until I'm finished with the plethora of Steinbeck I'm reading to school.

35. Nora. I can't see Anke as Winn-Dixie. Possibly White Fang though.

37-48. There are a couple of manga ones about Death that I have read. Amusing, but inanely so. If you need some fluff.

54.

(The word verification is goulem. I'm thinking that's a mix between a ghoul and a golem.. whatever it is, I want to meet it.)