Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Books I Read in 2010

I decided to keep track of all the books I read in 2010.   I read thirty: twenty fiction and ten non-fiction.  It seems that I am old school - I don't read ebooks or listen to audiobooks.  And I didn't count any books that I didn't finish (except one).
Thanks to austinevan for this stack of books photo

I posted the entire lists of what I read, together with my impressions of each one (fiction, non-fiction).  But, just in case you don't want to read about all thirty, I think that these were my favourites:

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Kavalier & Clay
Valley Of Bones
Super Sad True Love Story

Non Fiction
Consider The Lobster
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
How to Become a Scandal
The Age of Paradox

Of course, I feel that I should have read more.  Maybe I'll follow the advice in How to Read More Books and aim for more than 100 books in 2011?  Probably not, though.

It is interesting that I read twice as many fiction as non-fiction.  I used to never read novels; but then I made an effort to change that.  Maybe I've now over-shot?  The non-fiction books I read are not (directly) to do with my work (whatever that is).  Though maybe that's because there are not many books about that?  Or maybe because I already read plenty about that stuff online?  I found it interesting that so many of the books I read were by chance (given as gifts or in a library-sale-bag).  I notice that I like novels that are set in places I know (London, Edinburgh, Princeton) or am visiting (Rome, Edinburgh).  And I like to read lots of mysteries and sci-fi, but none of my fiction favourites are exactly any of those genres (although three of the four sort of are).

But assembling these lists and writing my little reviews was a lot of fun - almost like reading a year's worth of books all over again.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Fiction Books I Read in 2010

I decided to keep track of all the books I read in 2010. I wondered what I would learn from doing this? To make it easier for me to publish and (hopefully) for you to digest, I've broken it into fiction and non. So, here are the 20 fiction books, in the order I read them in 2010. (You can also read my 2010 non fiction list).

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Set after an unspecified apocalypse, this book follows an unnamed father and son trudging along a road through a grey wasteland of death and destruction. If this sounds grim, well, it is.
Thanks to osiantynska for this image of piles of books
Although I like horror films, I don't read many (any?) horror books; this one was a gift. I often regretted reading it right before going to sleep. And, after reading the book, I really didn't want to watch the film version. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the book - grim, yet gripping.

2. A Star Called Henry (The Last Roundup) by Roddy Doyle.
Henry, the son of a one-legged hitman, grows up on the streets of Dublin in the early 20th century. He gets mixed up in the Easter Rising of 1916 and becomes a hitman for the IRA.

Roddy Doyle's convincing portrait of Irish street life is by turns comic and tragic. It cleverly makes you see why someone would want to become a terrorist; but also how Henry is inevitably betrayed by his own cause.

3. Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan
Just like A Star Called Henry, Loving Frank is a novel based on true events. This one follows Mamah Bothwick Cheney, who had an affair with Frank Lloyd Wright.

There was nothing wrong with this book but it just didn't grip me. I never did finish it... but I'm going to count it anyway, partly because I made it most of the way through. And partly because my total number of books read would be even worse otherwise.

4. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
This science fiction novel portrays a world that is being reshaped by nanotechnology and being carved up amongst competing tribes, such as the neoconfucians and neovictorians. Several interlocking plot threads follow nicely-drawn characters and weave the details of the fully-imagined future cultures.

I read - and loved - Stephenson's SF classic Snow Crash and his hugely ambitious Baroque Cycle historical fiction books. Diamond Age is quite different again from these in style and subject matter. But, just as with his other books, Stephenson crafted a novel that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

5. A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre
Le Carre's post-9/11 spy thriller is set in Hamburg and centres on Issa, who may be a Muslim medical student, or a Chechnyan terrorist, or the son of a Russian spy, or all of the above.

Another fictional book that make me feel smarter and better-informed about the real world and its moral complexities.

6. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley
Each of the perfectly crafted short stories about Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict now scraping out an existence in a Watts shack, stands on its own. And yet the whole collection hangs together like a novel.

Brilliant stuff.

7. The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
Portraying the alienation and action in the life of a post Cold War spy is now a well-trodden path. But Steinhauer's tale of a CIA "Tourist" (a spy of no-fixed-abode) is well-executed, with convincing characters and a multi-layered plot, played out against backdrops that combine glamour and squalor in equal measure.

8. Making History by Stephen Fry
This is polymath and over-achiever Stephen Fry's third novel. It is an alternative history (what if Hitler won WWII?) although it is cleverly framed as an alternative reality (what if we could go back and change history to prevent Hitler's rise to power?). As you might guess, there's a be-careful-what-you-wish-for twist and Fry uses the what-if's to illustrate how things are better than they might have been.

Not the best novel I've ever read, but entertaining enough and I particularly liked the details of the London and Princeton settings.

9. American Gods: A Novel by Neil Gaiman
I rarely re-read a book, but American Gods was selected for One Book One Twitter, an experimental online bookclub and I decided to join in the fun (a little bit). AG follows the journey of Shadow as he learns about the gods that followed people to America and wound up as shadows of their former godselves, as people forgot their old gods in the New World.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book, partly because of the added Twittery dimension, but also because I noticed a lot more the second time through this dense and cleverly written imaginative work.

10. Neverwhere: A Novel by Neil Gaiman
Next, I decided to read a new-to-me Gaiman novel. Neverwhere takes you beneath London into a fantasy informed by punning on the Tube stop names (you meet black friars, an Earl holds court and there's a central character who is an angel called Islington).

Lighter-weight than American Gods, but fun none-the-less.

11. Fleshmarket Alley: An Inspector Rebus Novel by Ian Rankin
As our big holiday this summer revolved around Edinburgh, I followed my tradition and read a book set in that city. I was happy that Fleshmarket Alley is a real location off Cockburn Street - and only slightly disappointed that it is really called Fleshmarket Close (as are the books outside of the USA). We saw Ian Rankin in the flesh (and Alisa spoke to him), as the Edinburgh Book Festival was in full swing when we visited.

Fleshmarket Alley / Close is a solid entry in the seemingly neverending series of well-written Rebus murder mysteries.

12. Best of Philip K Dick by Philip K Dick
I was inspired to read this collection of sci-fi short stories by the World Cup. Remember Paul? Well, Philip K Dick wrote Martian Time-Slip which I hear involves an octopus that can predict the future (or maybe is controlling the future). Sadly, that book wasn't available in the library. But this collection was - and it contained several of his short stories that were later reworked into films (Minority Report, Total Recall and so on).

13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
I was flying somewhere when I ran out of books to read. I think I had a 45 minute layover in Chicago? So, I ran into a bookshop and bought this book. It turned out to be a great choice.

The mid-twentieth century Cambrian explosion of comic books is the backdrop for and inspires the style of this novel about two Jewish cousins and their families in New York City. Although the action roams far and wide, including Prague (with several magical appearances by the Golem) and frozen mad battles in Antartica.

14. Valley of Bones: A Novel by Michael Gruber
Cuban-American detective Jimmy Paz investigates a mysterious, mystic nun implicated in the murder of an Arab arms dealer. This turned out to be a very original entry in the mystery/thriller genre, as it roams back and forth in time and between continents.

15. Murder on the Leviathan: A Novel by Boris Akunin
Translated from the Russian, this is a period murder mystery set onboard a cruise ship. I particularly liked how each chapter was told from the view point of a different character.

16. The Echelon Vendetta by David Stone
At the local library fundraiser, I bought a bag of books for a dollar. This was one of them. But this CIA spy thriller wasn't half bad.

17. Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski
There were several things I liked about this thriller by former Philadelphia City Paper editor Swiercynski. It is simultaneously set in Philadelphia and Edinburgh, both cities I know quite well. The action and plotting are a bit comic book but there are enough comedic touches to make it an entertaining ride.

18. Cold Service by Robert B Parker
19. Hush Money by Robert B Parker
Both of these Parker books were in the for-a-dollar bag. They are each competent entries in the Spenser detective series. Quick and painless reads.

20. Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart
Picked by several people as their book of the year, this novel is set in Rome and New York City in the near future. It traces Lenny (obviously modeled on Gary) and Eunice (his Korean American gf) as they navigate their way through the fashion-obsessed, technology drenched, book disdaining world. Everyone is glued to their apparats (descendants of today's smartphones) which broadcast constant streams of data about you and bombard you with information about the people and things around you. I particularly liked the portrayals of the Bipartisan party and the ubiquitous National Guard checkpoints.

In a lot of ways, SSTLS reminded me of William Gibson's recent novels, although Shteyngart is more skeptical of the frantic, technology driven future. It reminded me of a thought I had whilst in Rome in November - that there is hope for a happy future after an empire collapses, which is heartening given what the USA is going through currently. There are many clever references ("The Rupture") but there is also a lot of depth. Lenny and Eunice are convincing characters and quite different from one another. My last novel I read in 2010 and one of my favourites.

The Non Fiction Books I Read in 2010

I decided to keep track of all the books I read in 2010.  I wondered what I would learn from doing this?  To make it a little easier for me to publish and (hopefully) for you to digest, I've broken it into fiction and non.  So, here are the 10 2010 non fiction books, in the order I read them.  (You can also read my 2010 fiction list).

Lewis exposes the convoluted financial mechanics and dreadful yet unsurprising morality that lead to the world-wide financial collapse of 2008.  He tells the story through little-known financial players, most of whom saw the problems much earlier and decided to do something about it.  Often that something was to make as much money as possible.

Using the contrarians is a clever way to explain the complicated financial engineering and to make sure that the message of Wall Street being evil, greedy and incompetent gets thoroughly hammered home.  One reason I read this book: my friend Janet was the copy editor. A second reason: I was the "special guest" at the all-female book club, as I was expected to be able to explain the financial mumbo jumbo.  Luckily, Lewis himself does a good job in explaining CDOs and CDSes and the like.  And, even though he somewhat oversimplifies what happened, this was one of the Big Idea Books of 2010 and I was glad to have read it.

2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
An eclectic series of essays on everything from the motives of talk radio hosts, to why sports autobiographies are so compelling and yet so unsatisfying, to the spectacle and dubious ethics of the Maine lobster festival.
Thanks to simon_cocks for this image of a book on the beach
I'm told that I really should read DFW's Infinite Jest but instead I keep reading collections of his essays (in 2009 I read and loved A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again). I'm sure some people will find his constant use of abbreviations, lengthy parenthetical remarks and huge footnotes annoying, but I happen to love them. And every essay takes unexpected zags that keep you on your mental toes.

3. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton
This elegant collection of essays explores the details, delights and distresses of modern work.

I enjoyed de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and - particularly - The Consolations of Philosophy. His twitter comments aren't bad, either. So, clearly, I'm a fan of this English philosopher and you won't be surprised that I liked this one, too.

The life and times of William Shakespeare seem to always fascinate scholars - and they fascinate me, too. Shapiro smartly picks a single year to illuminate the Bard and how contemporary events influenced some of his greatest works - Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Or maybe Shapiro is using the hook of revealing more about Shakespeare to educate us about a tumultuous year in English history - Irish rebellion, threatened invasion by a Spanish Armada, Essex and Elizabeth's complicated courtly romance and the favourite's fall from favour.

5. By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal
Linguist Crystal wandered all over Britain to learn more about English as it is actually spoken today. He also took a trip or two to illustrate a little bit about the how the language is evolving elsewhere.  He assumes a fair amount of knowledge of British culture (and especially British TV), which some might find off putting.  But I liked each carefully crafted chapter.

6. On the Rez by Ian Frazer
On the Rez is a long, rambling mix of biography and history.  The biography is mainly that of Frazer's friend Le War Lance, although he throws in some other portraits, too. The touching story of SuAnne Marie Big Crow is particularly powerful.  The history that weaves in amongst the tales of Frazer and Le's troubled friendship is that of the Oglala Sioux Nation.

A difficult and important read.

7. Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Steven Jay Gould
A theme that runs through many of these  essays from Natural History magazine is how scientists can be wrong in interesting ways: how they can arrive at the right answer via the wrong path (or the wrong answer via the right path).  And, of course, the Theory of Evolution continues to be Gould's touchstone.

I enjoyed this collection, although I would recommend that SJG newbies start with one of his earlier works (such as Wonderful Life or Eight Little Piggies).

The astronaut who drove non-stop cross country in a nappy (or a "diaper", if you prefer) because she was in a love triangle with two other astronauts.  The friend who betrayed  Monica Lewinsky's confidence.  A judge who falls off his rocker.  The exaggerations of a Million Little Pieces.

There is plenty of schadenfreude to be derived from this book - and maybe a little insight in human nature, too.  I wasn't really all that familiar with these scandals, so it was fun to learn about them (in a scholarly book, of course).  And then to find out a bit more about how what really happened was a lot more complicated.  That you could even understand this apparently crazy behaviour.

I knew virtually nothing amongst quantum theory before I read this book.  By the end of it, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how different the concepts are, and how this complex set of theories is still evolving.  This is the second Very Short Introduction I've read.  Both were good - and easily to slip into a pocket, so you can read up on erudite subjects even when in Forever 21.

10. The Age of Paradox by Charles Handy
A lot of non-fiction books have a snappy title that betrays the central idea, which they then repeat for hundreds of pages.  I was worried that this book was going to be like that - explaining everything in terms of paradox.  However, even though that Handy does discuss lots of puzzles - work, justice, citizenship - in terms of paradox, it actually works.  Published in the mid-1990's, it is interesting to read now - as much of what he predicts has already come to pass - and it still feels relevant today.