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2013 Book List

January 1, 2014

Since graduating from college, every year I have attempted to read a book a week and watch a movie a week. Various years have been successes, others have been incredibly challenging. In 2011, I only read 16 books, last year I read 65 books and this year I just hit my target. I was not in graduate school, but I was in a relationship, out of a relationship, dating, traveling both in and outside the country, dealing with the death of my father, helping my best friend get married, and moving. It was a busy year, and I’m a little amazed I was able to fit in as much reading as I did, now that I think about it. Of course, I borrowed extensively from my local library (although in fits and spurts).

Kate and Charlotte were big cheerleaders for my reading habits this year, and both have read many, many more books than I have this year. I eavesdropped on books they were reading with interest because they were often books I never heard of and never considered reading. So many books are released and marketed towards very specific niches, the sheer wealth of reading material can be staggering. My booklist has some more diversity this year, because I am in a book club, which has forced me to read different kinds of books than I might otherwise. However, I read a lot less non-fiction this year.

One of the things Kate and Charlotte inspired me to do was create a spreadsheet of books. Previously, I was keeping track of all of my books, movies, and television in a Word Document. I still prefer this method (because I get to see where my focus lies) but the spreadsheet did make it easier to organize and compute the kinds of books I’ve been reading. I refuse to count pages, because that way madness lies.

This year, I have read 55 books, which included 23 books of fiction (mostly literary fiction with 1 short story collection, 1 plain science fiction, and 1 thing I don’t know what to make of) 31 graphic novels, and 1 non-fiction collection. Looking at those numbers, it is no wonder that I found myself craving non-fiction at various times during the year. This year, I am again putting all of the graphic novels together as a series because I tend to think of those books together.

1. Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

I kick started my year with a pair of short books, beginning with some very serious literary fiction. This slim novel takes place among an English family at an Italian villa. Looking back, nearly a year later, I found this book had all the stereotypes of literary fiction: switching point-of-views, reoccurring passages, babbling interior monologue, SECRETS coated in fine Italian dust, failed relationships examined through lens of new experiences, the possibility of sex, significant-past-histories, and of course trademark Chekov guns. Thank goodness this was short. I found the writing pretentious, the characters shards of stereotypes. I felt it was a waste of time. I put this on my to-read list because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (the prize for the best fiction written by British, Irish, or Commonwealth authors), and seemed like it could be fun, sexy, and interesting. I regret this decision.

2. Skios, by Michael Frayn

I read this book in a single afternoon. Skios is a puff-piece of farcical fiction written by a master of the genre: Michael Frayn (theater friends may know him as the writer as Noises Off, a play Jeremy used to rave about, and may have actually been in). The structure goes like so: there is an identity mix-up at an elite Ted-Talk style conference on a secluded Greek island. Hijinks ensue for both of the mixed up men, one a very serious lecturer, the other a compulsive liar. The book can be funny, but whereas a good farce maintains the tension and balance, this one really begins to wobble in the last third. One review I read pointed out that a simple Wikipedia search would have ended everything. I didn’t feel like the situation was that slight, but it was close.

3. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky

I don’t quite know what to make of this book, even a year later. Schalansky details 50 of the most remote islands on earth with gorgeous hand drawn maps and short stories about their history, some of them true, some of them entirely false because some of these islands have no occupants, and no recorded history. The book was originally written in German, and has been translated by Christine Lo, which adds another layer of curiosity. The book is gorgeous, and a few of the stories have stayed with me (there is one about penguins that was one of the most horrific things I have read this year). Because some of the stories are true, and some are not, the book actually brings up some central questions about history, the truth of historical documents, and questions about traveling: why do we travel, where do we go, and why do we go there? The book doesn’t even attempt to solve any of those questions. I have struggled to categorize this book: fiction, non-fiction, a reference book? Either way, I recommend you read this book.

4. Next, by James Hynes

This book caught my eye way back in 2011 when it made the Semifinals of The Tournament of Books. (This year’s long list was released, and I recommend you follow it if you like books, because it an excellent conversation. 2013 in particular was a good year for judging and commentary). It’s a little hard for me to talk about this book, because I found it so affecting, although I know I am in the target audience. This is the single day in the life of a middle-class white man working for the publishing arm of a college. He flies to Austin for a job interview and occupies his time by walking around the city. Small things trigger memories of past relationships, past experiences, both good and bad. Our narrator is a bit of a nerd, and buildings are described in the lingo of Lord of the Rings, and superhero comics. This book also has one of the best sex scenes I’ve read since James Salter’s A Sport and a Past Time. It was a little weird to read smut at The Stranger’s monthly Silent Reading Party but it was extremely well written. This book got to me, and it was hard to express why initially. Basically, it was like looking at a grim possible future, and really wanting it not to occur.

5. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

The book that caused Iran to issue a fatwa (an Islamic legal judgment) on the author, calling for his death. I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 2009, and felt stranded by the dense language and references to parts of Indian History I didn’t know existed. I was hesitant to read this book, but it was Lucinda’s Book Club choice, so I give it a go. Coming out of this book, I was really surprised. When was the last time a book caused this much stir? I mean outside of the entertainment machine, where Dan Brown, Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and Susan Collins have made a stir with movie adaptations and making large amounts of money. This book is a piece of weird, fantastical literature that asks some of the big questions about the duality of man, about changing your mind, about compromising your ideals, about mental illness, about our relationship with reality, and whether or not we should consider the people who began founding religions as people with wants, desires, failures, and unrealized dreams. Authors and filmmakers have been doing this with Jesus for a long time (I particularly like Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov), but to do so with Muhammad is against the tenants of Islam, and this book caused assassination attempts. This book challenged me, and while I struggled while reading the book, I am glad to have read the book, and I really appreciate that the book was written. It was not my favorite, but challenging works like this are good for me.

6. Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

I would not have read this book, were it not for my Book Club. In this book, Bone grows up among the crushing poverty of poverty of the South, dealing with all manner of trials that children should not have to endure, and yet do. It is also based on Allison’s lived experiences. Perhaps this says something about my coping mechanisms, but while many of the other members of Book Club threw the book across the room, were angry on Bone’s behalf, and cried, my reaction was to create more distance between myself and Bone, to say “I have read worse,” and to not be surprised at the terrible depths of human interactions. I suppose this is because I have witnessed poverty in other novels, and in my personal life, poverty similar to what I have read here. The story is still affecting, and challenging, but more in an emotional way, rather than the intellectual way I enjoyed in The Satanic Verses.

7. Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

A movie version of this novel is coming out in February, so I expect to see a lot more chatter about this book in the coming months, but this is a very strange book. It was a book I picked up in the bookstore, read the first page, and immediately bought. Winter’s Tale is filled with magical realism, written with an amazing love of the English language, and glories in the weird time around the turn of the 20th century when things were modernizing, the wildness was still present among New York City. However, the novel unexpectedly switches gears about half-way through, when the writer writes himself into a corner, and then spends the next half of the novel with characters I could not give a damn about, and the magic is lost. I absolutely loved the first half of this novel, but when we switch over, I began to lose patience with the passages spewing about the grandness of spectacle, the modern world, of being in love, and the power of love. The movie seems to accentuate the crazy bullshit that I began to hate, rather than the clever charm of a modern kind of tall-tale. This started out as one of my favorite books, and wound up as stunningly disappointing.

8.  Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Part one of a book club duo, I got the chance to re-read Bradbury’s classic, and discuss it with folks, a right denied to me in 10th grade by moving up to the AP English class. This was way better than I remembered. I forgot how quickly the book clips along, the impending sense of dread, the sheer brooding oppression of the novel. I forgot the importance of the women characters, and how well Ray Bradbury could write. This was an excellent quick read that I enjoyed a great deal, and unfortunately is still relevant. Banning books, or rather, monitoring who accesses what information is a huge part of our culture, whether we like it or not.

9. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Part two of the book club duo. I had never read this YA (or middle grade?) classic before, and I imagine it would have been much more profound had I read the book around that age. What I like about Fahrenheit 451 is that there are layers that kids can appreciate, as well as adults. The Giver is pretty straight up kid’s fiction, with very simple sentence construction. It poses some interesting questions about growing up, understanding the consequences of your reactions, and whether the suffering of one is appropriate to support the well-being of many. The book is more of a disruptive book, posing the questions without necessarily answering any of them. The ending was more ambiguous than I expected, and I wonder if perhaps that is why it is a favorite of many.

10. Pastoralia, by George Saunders

I have heard much lauding of George Saunders and his mastery of short fiction in our time. I got my first brush here, and quite enjoyed myself. I tend to have mixed reactions to short story collections, but his were quite good. I really enjoyed the title story, Pastoralia about a failing naturalism park, which made me want to spend more time with the characters and there crazy, crazy world. Some of the other stories were more familiar territory, although the one about the dead aunt, that one is also amazing, and has stuck with me. I don’t recall many of the other stories, but I would still recommend this book to others.

11.Speedboat, by Renata Adler

Last year, one of my favorite books was The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, put out by the New York Review of Books classics imprint. When The Millions published their Most Anticipated list, Speedboat was one of the titles that stuck out to me. I was the first person to get this copy from the library, and this is perhaps one of my most challenging books of the year. There is no real set point of view, more like a cast of characters that float in, out, and around New York City. City life itself becomes a kind of character, illustrating the life of career women in the 1970s. Living in a city, and coming from a smaller town (although not too small) background, I readily identified with the wonder and perplexities of living, working, dating, and leaving a city. Of course New York City is its own beast, but I definitely got, and was challenged by the various observations. I wanted to talk to someone else about this book a great deal.

12. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

This is the oldest book I read this year, written in 1764. Phoebe chose this as part of her book club selection, as it is the original Gothic Novel. It is a very strange book, and I appreciated the introduction, which helped explain all of these odd tropes, like gigantism, which were common at the time, but seem entirely “WTF?!?!” today. Some things, like incest, and mistaken identity, are still tropes in the genre today. Despite the very short length, this took me a while to read because the language was all screwy.

13. Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston LeRoux

When Phoebe suggested this book for book club, I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I have never seen the famous musical, or the opera, or any of the movies except for the great 1925 Lon Cheney one, which remains the best silent film I have seen to date. I don’t remember the movie that well, but the book was better than I was expecting. There isn’t quite the level of lovey-dovey romance that I was expecting for the whole book. Instead, around 1/3 of the way through, the book becomes almost detective fiction, and the last 1/3 goes totally off the rails into crazy town. There are elements in the book that never seem to make it into adaptation, which I suppose fits into the common conception about adaptions of books. I really appreciated having read this book.

14. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

My grandmother heard an interview with the author on the radio, was intrigued, bought the book, read 100 pages, didn’t like it, and sent the book to me. I was surprised, as I had been strongly considering an Indian/Middle Eastern fiction theme for my upcoming Book Club choices. I plunged in, and was a little disappointed. This book was hyped as being like a Neil Gaiman novel set in the Middle East, and I found that to be false. The book is still good, but it isn’t quite as serious as I would have expected. I suppose I was hoping for something like a more fantastical Reamde by Neal Stephenson, but instead this was pulpier, and the plot was pretty straight forward. The book is pretty well-executed, and I think the vision of Middle Eastern hackers, and the racial dynamics at play in that setting was illuminating. I believe I still have my copy, although I may have given it to Goodwill.

15. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G.B. Edwards

Because I had good experiences with the NYRB classics imprint, I trawled through their archive, selected four books, and put them to Book Club. This is what they chose, and I am glad for it. This is Edward’s only book, and the story of Ebenezer Le Page, as narrated by his older self, growing up on the Isle of Guernsey, in the English Channel. We learn about his life on the island, his convoluted family, and the good times, and the bad. Ebenezer himself is a dry, cantankerous, unusually self-sufficient man, as well as devoted, and somewhat unusually observational. Again, NYRB proved itself an excellent tastemaker, having reprinted a book that was utterly unlike anything else I have read. At Book Club we had an excellent discussion about aged narrators, which usually range from the infirm, to the guilty, to the regretful, to the dead. Ebenezer instead is much more honest, charming, and complex as a narrator. I definitely recommend this.

16. Where’d You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

This comic novel was all the rage in Seattle and on the national scene for a while. I have lived in the Northwest for 9 going on 10 years now, and I am happy to call Seattle home. I went into the novel defensive, prepared to defend my city against the author, but instead came out utterly charmed. Not only is the novel incredibly funny, and intriguingly constructed as an epistolary, and it turned out to be softer on Seattle than expected. It was a lot of fun to see the city through someone else’s eyes, especially from the vantage point of someone else a few classes higher than myself.

17. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

For his final choice in Book Club before he moved to San Francisco, John chose a book he had read, but none of us had. While this book won the Rooster in 2012, it wasn’t on the top of my list of books to read from the Tournament. I read the majority of this book on a sunny day in the Madison Park Arboretum, and quite enjoyed the experience. This is a weird book, sort of mundanely supernatural. I remember though my grandfather talking about reading westerns as a kid, and studying westerns in film classes, but the genre is mostly something that our culture has by and large given up on. To read a book that both embraces the genre, and subverts it a la Unforgiven was fun. There is some surprising depth to this book, and not an insubstantial amount of charm and humor. To the right people, I would recommend this book.

18. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, by Teddy Wayne

Ever wonder what it is like to be a tween pop-star, attempting to come of age, and lead a career? Well, Teddy Wayne thought a great deal about it too, and this book is funny, awkward, and sad, much like most tween pop stars. The voice of Jonny is unnervingly accurate, displayed a child’s penchant for incredible focus on topics that interest them, for instance: pop music here, and the complete obliviousness to topics they don’t care about, like US history. This book did make me want to read more things by Teddy Wayne, because he is a talented writer.

19. Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

Madeline’s choice for Book Club was all local authors. I described this book as nu-pulp, which I think is pretty accurate. There are weird side-characters because, hey, why not? There are twists, turns, evil killer clowns, giant ant farms, experimental drugs, shadowy organizations, and all manner of things packed into just over 300 pages. I would say this book begin turning the wheels for what would become The Pulpy Fiction and Cheap Scotch book club. We had a pretty good conversation about trusting your narrator, and what was real, and what was not.

20. Some Remarks, by Neal Stephenson

This was my sole non-fiction book this year, and even then, it included some fiction. The collected articles of Neal Stephenson, I finally got to read what has been described as one of the best magazine articles written in the 90’s: laying a wire around the Earth. It is fascinating, and one of those monumentally large infrastructure projects that perhaps you do not hear a lot about any more. Stephenson also writes a great deal about contemporary literary culture, nerd culture, computer culture, and other issues in a reasonable, informed way that sometimes struck me as akin to some of David Foster Wallace’s magazine articles. I really liked all of these.

21. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

I discovered that during his life, Ernest Hemingway only wrote 7 books. Just seven. Others were released post-humously, and he left a wide variety of correspondence, journals, and articles, but I have read four out of seven of his novels now. I think I still like The Sun Also Rises the best, but For Whom the Bell Tolls has some really fantastic writing about the Spanish Civil War, love, and trust. I always thought of Hemingway was writing like a machine gun, in staccato bursts, but it is more the diction, the plain words, strung together in a way that makes you think about the power of the words we use.

22. Tun-Huang, by Yasushi Inoue

My third translated novel, again from NYRB. This was one of the rejected novels from Book Club that I saw at Elliot Bay Books for cheap. I picked it up, and again, not like anything else I read this year. However, with viewings of Red Cliff, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and other Chinese Cinema, I found I actually had a frame of reference for the style and tone. This novel tells a fictionalized story of how a giant cache of treasure, books, and government documents made their way to Western China, stored in a walled up Buddhist cave until discovered in the early 1900s. There is another non-fiction book (Foreign Devils on the Silk Road) about how Westerns archaeologists appropriated and stole many of these from the Chinese.

23. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The writing in this book is so good. So beautiful. I started this book last year, didn’t finish because I didn’t want it to end, and then gave my copy to Peter as a birthday present because the book sticks closely to historical fact. I don’t remember my history of King Henry VIII terribly well (except divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived), and didn’t know much about Thomas Cromwell, his to-be advisor. I enjoyed the surprise of history, loved Thomas Cromwell, who made me feel like a slacker. I am having a hard time expressing how much I loved this book.

24. The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman

I don’t remember how this book made it on to my reading list. I’m kind of glad it did, because it was silly, pulpy, fun, and time traveled in the conventional way. The book follows the travails of Egon Loeser, and his quest to both find the girl he has fallen for, and the truth behind an accident in a Parisian theater. Not super serious, but interesting to explore how so many people interpret the same set of facts. The total irreverence it gives the Berlin art scene continues. It takes place during WWII, but steadfastedly ignores the war, relegating it to the background.

25. Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer

Back when The Hairpin used to suggest books (before Nicole Cliffe left to found The Toast), I plucked this from her recommendations. I was also interested in reading some more science fiction, which likes to explore “what if?” more than pretty much anything else. This book was an easy read, and wasn’t quite as challenging in its ideas as much as I wanted, but was an incredibly solid effort in science fiction.

26 – 36. Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio (Graphic Novels and web comic)

I re-read Girl Genius again. Purchasing those graphic novels was an excellent choice, as I re-read them every 15 months or so. I continue to appreciate the depth this webcomic offers. I need to mail these to Kate, so she can re-read them!

 26. Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank (graphic novel, re-read)

27. Agatha Heterodyne and The Airship City (graphic novel, re-read)

28. Agatha Heterodyne and The Monster Engine (graphic novel, re-read)

29. Agatha Heterodyne and The Circus of Dreams (graphic novel, re-read)

30. Agatha Heterodyne and The Clockwork Princess (graphic novel, re-read)

31. Agatha Heterodyne and The Golden Trilobite (graphic novel, re-read)

32. Agatha Heterodyne and The Voice of the Castle (graphic novel, re-read)

33. Agatha Heterodyne and The Chapel of Bones (graphic novel, re-read)

34. Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm (graphic novel, re-read)

35. Agatha Heterodyne and The Guardian Muse (graphic novel, re-read)

36. Agatha Heterodyne and The Hammerless Bell (graphic novel, re-read)

37 & 38. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn (Graphic Novels)

Maddo is a giant fan of this series, and I was able to pick these up for cheap. Gorgeous art, interesting story, and it’s the first time in years I’m following a printed comic as it becomes available! The tension!

39 – 45. Bone, by Jeff Smith (Graphic Novels)

The more I read, the more I understood why this graphic novel is in the kid’s section. I was always surprised how simple the story seemed, so straight forward, with none of the layering I have come to expect of graphic novels, which are aimed more at adults. It was refreshing to read a pure hero’s adventure story though.

 39. Bone: Eyes of the Storm, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

40. Bone: The Dragonslayer, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

41. Bone: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

42. Bone: Old Man’s Cave, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

43. Bone: Ghost Circles, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

44. Bone: Treasure Hunters, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

45. Bone: Crown of Horns, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

46 – 51. Sweet Tooth, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novels)

I read these in Scotland one after noon, while Maddo did homework. I actually did not like these. I found the appropriation of Native American culture weird, the plotting like a worse Y: The Last Man, the violence gratuitous, and the art ranged between ugly in an off putting way, and ugly in an entrancing way. I didn’t like the ending, I didn’t like the cynicism.

46. Sweet Tooth Volume 1: Out of the Woods, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

47. Sweet Tooth Volume 2: In Captivity, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

48. Sweet Tooth Volume 3: Animal Armies, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic novel)

49. Sweet Tooth Volume 4: Endangered Species, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

50. Sweet Tooth Volume 5: Unnatural Habitats, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

51. Sweet Tooth Volume 6: Wild Game, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic novel).

52. Lucifer: Mansions of Silence, by Mike Carey (Graphic Novel)

I read and really liked Lucifer last year, but the Seattle Public Library lost all copies of graphic novel number 6. I found this on an epic quest for Conan the Barbarian, and grabbed it. I read it, half-remembering everything that happened last year. I think I need to re-read, because this became quite confusing at times. Still good though!

53. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (Graphic Novel)

Maddo recommended this to me because it blew her mind. I think from a formal perspective, this is probably one of the better graphic novels I have read in a long time, because of the way the book interacts with art, our perspecitve on certain art, and treating the panels themselves as art, singluar pieces to be digested, that also tell a story.

54. Batman: The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb (Graphic Novel)

Most of this story line got rehashed into the Christopher Nolan movies, so this was a weird re-tread. I found the rogues gallery inclusions intriguing, but didn’t like the repetitiveness of some of the books, because they were initially released sequentially, and felt the need to continually update the reader on things and identities. Nice reveal towards the end though.

This year I only gave up on a few books: Ghosts by Cesar Aria, Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perisic, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I would like to return to Cesar Aria, because he predicted this weird phenomenon in Venezula, where giant sky scrapers were abandoned as slums. I just didn’t click with Our Man in Iraq. I stopped reading Jimmy Corrigan because it happened right when my dad died, and the story is about a dying father, and really I didn’t want to keep reading.

In my to-read list: Joan Didion, Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry, Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, The Facades by Eric Lundgren, more non-fiction like The Big Roads by Early Swift. Also, I would finally like to take the plunger and read some David Foster Wallace.

What are you going to read this year?

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