Friday, February 07, 2014

He's back! Thoughts on books read in the first month of 2014

Books Read --
1.  Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes
2.  Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
3.  Stalin’s Ghost, Martin Cruz Smith
4.  Blue Heaven, C.J. Box
5.  Iron Council, China Mieville
6.  The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, Stanley Crouch 
7.  The Astral, Kate Christensen
8.  The Silver Dream, Neil Gaiman, Michael and Mallory Reaves
9.  Ten Years in the Tub, Nick Hornby
10. Below Zero, C.J. Box
11. The Yankee Years, Joe Torre & Tom Verducci
12. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
13. The Rapture of the Nerds, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Books Bought --
Black is the Color, Julia Gfroer
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley
Death of Kings, Bernard Cornwell
March (Book One), John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
Orfeo, Richard Powers
Andrew's Brain, E. L. Doctorow

My recent reading suggests three ledes for this first post of 2014. I cannot decide between them so here they all are:

Lede 1 -- I have shamelessly stolen Nick Hornby's format for his column in Believer magazine, listing both books read and books bought. I will neither be as funny nor as insightful as Nick, but I like the format. My intentions are clearly influenced by reading his wonderful collection Ten Years in the Tub.

Lede 2 -- I plan to start January and each month thereafter with a truly great book.  The rest of the month may be nothing but plonck, but among the 100-plus books I read in 2014 there will be 12 that are dependable. Starting with the best of the best, Dicken's Great Expectations.

Lede 3 -- January is a month when there are few, if any, notable new releases (although that was far from true this year), so I like to work through a reading pile that's been growing taller throughout 2013. This consists of an author or series that I am trying to work my way through. Harry Potter, all the books by C.J. Box. That sort of thing.

And it was a good month if for no other reason than I finally read Great Expectations. I am surprised as you, Dear Reader, that I had never read this classic before. I consider Dickens the greatest English novelist (I want to say writer, but then what do I do with Shakespeare?) and Great Expectations is clearly one of his great novels, if not the greatest.

Everything that makes Dickens a joy to read is present here. The humor (and if you don't find humor in Dickens you aren't reading him closely), the numerous plot strands that all unexpectedly convergence into a single, satisfying whole and the vivid secondary characters.  What other writer's minor characters so dominate the landscape of our literature and imagination? Here we have Miss Havisham, the convict Abel Magwitch, Joe the blacksmith, Mr. Jaggers and the pompous Pumblechook.

Ten Years in the Tub is the other book that I would most recommend to other readers. Hornby makes me laugh and he sends me scrambling for a pen so I can scribble down another title or writer I want to read. If you're not familiar with his long-running column in the Believer pick this book up. I have read two previous collections and I didn't mind one bit re-reading some columns for the second or third time.

Blue Heaven by C.J. Box was difficult to read. Not because of the writing, but because two children were in jeopardy and that caused me no end of anxiety. Blue Heaven is a one-off and doesn't feature Box's recurring character, the Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince seems to me to be the book where J.K. Rowling finally learns to writ. It's the best book in the series, yet also the penultimate book, which tells you a great deal about how lukewarm I am about this series.

Science fiction often relies on conventions or conceits that assume a pre-existing familiarity on the reader's part. That's especially true of Iron Council by China Mieville and The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross.

After completing these books I thought I'd enjoy them more if I immediately went back and read them again, but who wants to do that? I like Stross and Mieville -- just not these books.

The Astral isn't Kate Christensen's best book.  I'd recommend The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award.

The Silver Dream is young adult novel.  It's the second in a series that I find mildly entertaining. 

Martin Cruz Smith's Stalin's Ghost takes a long time to take off. Honestly, unless you just want to read all his books, I'd give this a pass.

And that's also true for Jar of Fools, a graphic novel by Jason Lutes. 

I reserve my greatest disappointment for two works of non-fiction: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, a biography of the jazz great by Stanley Crouch and The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci.

Crouch's book left me wanting to read a biography of Charlie Parker. It's an extended rift on many topics, including the influence of Kansas City jazz, but Parker is often off the stage entirely.

Baseball reads. Normally. This book doesn't. It's rather odd. Torre appears to be the co-author, but he appears in the book in the third person and is quoted, rather than just telling his story. Still, a Yankee fan is going to enjoy this peak behind the pin-striped curtain.