2017 reading list

More first-time reads than last year, not that that was hard to do. I followed up on my desire to read more “classics”, picked other titles up on whims, and got burned by a book or two.

  • Blue Highways: A Journey Into America – William Least Heat Moon

    The author lost his job and wife, so he drove the back highways of early 1980s America to see what he could see. A lot of scenery, a lot of people, a lot of reflections and stories told and lived. A very good read, one that I took my time savoring.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

    The first human expedition to Mars goes less than perfectly, leaving a single offspring of the crew alive to return to Earth years later, having grown up essentially a native Martian and having learned miraculous abilities from the locals. Thus the Earth (or rather, Heinlein’s vision of a near-future, radically different Earth) is the strange land. The offspring, Mike, quickly becomes wrapped up in money and politics beyond his knowledge or ken. This much is good stuff, tense and inventive. And then the middle of the book happens.

    Look, I’ve read The Past Through Tomorrow (and enjoyed it thoroughly), I had some idea what I was getting into with Heinlein and his tendency to have a character preach the premise of the story. But the middle of the book eventually just slogs and bogs along. I was afraid Mike was going to stay in that home clear through to the end of the book, with Heinlein’s authorial megaphone character holding the floor, nine paragraphs out of ten, to propound and argue and rehash his worldview the whole way. The constant casual chauvinism endemic to the book’s era gets annoying after a while, too.

    I actually started skipping through dozens of pages just to get to something readable. I never do that. Never. That’s how bad it got. Looking back, I realize what happened: Heinlein switched genres without telling anyone. The middle of the book is no longer sci-fi. It’s utopia literature, a mix of Type A and Type B (as I call them). Type A is when, as in Plato’s dialogues, people sit around and discuss how to run the ideal society. Not the most gripping of stuff, unless you’re really into the author telling you how the world should be. Type B is when a traveler comes upon a wondrous foreign land, and someone shows him around and then sits him down and tells him how their ideal society is run. This is typically not the most gripping of stuff either, which is why the whole genre fell out of favor over the centuries. (That and, with advances in living conditions, people found better things to do with their time than imagine a land filled with pancake trees.)

    Fortunately the plot moves on and the book comes back to life, with Mike trying to build his own utopia under the guise of a new religion that seems to be obsessed with how wonderful running around naked is.

    It’s one thing to come into a book expecting one thing about an idea, only to get a different approach to that idea. That happened here; I don’t know that I was expecting anything in particular, but a Martian coming to Earth was a surprise. My major problem is with that middle section, with Mike quietly doing nothing much while the book shifts the focus to Jubal’s political and religious commentaries, with Mike mostly only used as a whetstone for Heinlein’s ax-grinding. The Martian worldbuilding was good — I would have liked more, but it would have been outside the author’s intended scope, so I’ll let it pass — and Mike’s POV and development were good. If you know me and have read the book, I needn’t say that I disagree with a lot of the religious philosophy espoused, but I won’t hold that against the book when so much else is wrong with it. I’ve since been told that The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (which I’d been looking for when I picked this up instead) is a good read by someone who disagrees more than I do with Heinlein’s philosophies, so I’ll try Heinlein again someday . . . but after reading this, I was tempted to just stick to his short stories.

    But love him or hate him, the man wrote great titles.

  • The Tale of Ginger and Pickles – Beatrix Potter

    A harrowing, keenly incisive economic screed that would surely get the author branded as a wacko bent on brainwashing children if it were released in America today. Foolish animals run a shop charitably, only to run into the realities of an authoritarian government, with cynical results. I liked the pictures of bunnies.

  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

    Very entertaining, as one would expect. Adams’s usual snark, wild plotting, and sharp descriptions are fully on display here, and I always have a soft spot for the Gently type of character who insists on coming at the world from his own peculiar angle. If you haven’t read it, read it and its sequel. That’s all there is to say.

  • The Bridge Over The River Kwai – Pierre Boulle

    A quicker read than I expected. Captured British soldiers are set to building a critical bridge for the Japanese in mainland Asia during WWII, while some other Brits seek to blow it up. Several very strong personalities on either side shape the plot, and in fact are the main attractions. It’s good.

  • Never Call Retreat – Bruce Catton

    Another of his Civil War histories, this one covers from December 1862 up past Lincoln’s assassination. It’s the same trilogy as The Coming Fury and so has quite a bit of space devoted to the politics and politicians, in this case notably spending some time on just how ugly the racial politics could get. A blurb on another of his books mentions Catton’s “affection for style and color, his interest in details that reveal or imply the whole, his conception of history as the drama of personalities”, and that, combined with the fascination and wealth of the subject matter, sums up his continued appeal for me.

  • The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

    This is not just one long read about a boy putting together a windmill to provide power for his impoverished village in Malawi. This book can be divided into three rough sections. First is an account of the local culture (particularly the magic) and of Kamkwamba’s family background. That done, the middle tells of a harrowing famine year in Malawi, which probably takes up half the book on its own. It’s an unaffected but harrowing tale as things gradually get more and more desperate. Kamkwamba’s family runs out of money, forcing him to drop out of school, which leads into the last part. Kamkwamba uses the local library to learn enough engineering to build a ramshackle windmill to give his family a little electricity, which gets the world’s attention. The book is written in a frank, simple narrative voice that makes one feel that one is right there through it all. I suspect that Mealer did very little editorial work in translating Kamkwamba’s words into English.

    It’s all a fascinating read. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen a list consisting of “witches, Satan worshippers, and business tycoons”, but maybe I’m just visiting the wrong blogs.

  • The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime – Miles Harvey

    The kernel of this book is a study of the life of James Bland, a nobody who systematically stole several hundred priceless maps from institutions across the United States (and a few in Canada) before being caught. Harvey surrounds it with the history of maps and map thievery, the current state of map collecting, the thrill of discovery and thievery and collecting in general, and other things that don’t come to mind immediately. Included are literary quotes; interviews with librarians, collectors and sellers, and an FBI agent; and speculatory ruminations about all the above. I always enjoy this kind of in-depth insight into a subculture that I maybe didn’t even know existed. This is one of the highlights of the year for me.

  • The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age – David Leopold (ed.)

    It’s basically a coffee table book. If you want Al Hirschfeld drawings, there are hundreds of ’em. If you want to read about the arc of his career and a few incidents shaping the same, there’s some of that. If you want to read lots of names and Broadway play titles, there’s a lot of that too. Anything else, and you’ll be disappointed. There are a few anecdotes and Hirschfeld opinions — he didn’t like Snow White and subsequent Disney animations, and the look of the genie in Aladdin was modeled after his work — but they mostly just fill in a few stray corners here and there.

    Hirschfeld was a much more pervasive, more varied artist than I had supposed, and I enjoyed looking at his art and being bad at finding the NINAs he put in most of his drawings. Truly one of a kind.

  • Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy – Tim Moore

    A cycling enthusiast, disgusted with the Lance Armstrong era of professional cycling, decides to retrace the route of the (convincingly) worst-ever race, the 1914 Giro de Italia, in which less than 10% of the starting field finished. And he’s going to do it in period-appropriate gear, on a period bike.

    It’s partly my fault that I went in expecting something akin to the lost maps book, with an expert blending of here-and-now with entertaining historical bits and anecdotes. The book starts out with a long period of hapless putting-together of an appropriate bicycle, while breezily violating one of my deepest dislikes, that of casual obscenities in the narration. That grimy part over with, it’s time for the actual riding in Italy, which is a much better read, largely because the anticipated anecdotes finally appear. Humor and tragedy, horror and pathos suffuse a tale of mountains, homicidal Italian drivers everywhere, the occasional angel of mercy, and bystanders who by turns jeer and applaud a lunatic on a bike with wine corks for brakes.

    The blurbs are also at fault (I know, crazy, right?), with several declaring this to be a very funny book. It’s funny in fits and starts but never really builds on itself in that regard. If you like cycling, I guess it’s a good book, and might be funnier if you know the scene more than I do. Otherwise, go read any of the other books I’ve read this year instead. Other than Stranger in a Strange Land. Or The Round House.

  • The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

    A poor Chinese farmer sets off to meet his bride-to-be, a slave in the local rich family’s house. His life thereafter is filled with ups and downs, flood and famine, family and fortune, and the occasional empathic prickings of a conscience he doesn’t understand. It’s a very human saga, with events largely driven by external forces but their effects shaped by the personalities of those involved. Wang Lung, the main character, averages out to “sympathetic, tragic, likable at times, but still typically a jerk”. Buck apparently wrote this story partly to give Western readers insight into Chinese life, and I came away feeling that it was a success in that regard.

  • The Round House – Louise Erdrich

    The narrator, Joe, is at the time of the events narrated a teenager living on a Native American reservation in the ’80s. When his mother is savagely attacked, he finds himself distracted from his aunt’s boobs and Marina Sirtis’s hair long enough to try to help bring her attacker to justice. (Justice being one of the chapter titles, along with many other TNG episodes. I noticed each time, honest, but it took a while for me to catch on to the deliberateness of the pattern.)

    There’s a lot of anguish, a lot of familial interrelations, some Scooby-Dooing, some Indian law, some teenage shenanigans, a looming Marine-turned-priest, and increasing amounts of people living lives of quiet despair. It’s kind of an unpleasant book, is what I’m getting at, which is understandable given the premise . . . but it goes above and beyond the call of duty. I could have done without the pubescent boys ragging on each others’ naughty bits and the octagenarians spending most of their time talking about sexual adventures of the past. Also this book contains the worst use of the number twelve I have ever seen, tossed in so casually that it didn’t register until I reread the paragraph it contained. Sometimes realism is not a sufficient justification.

    Anyway, there’s a pretty good book in here underneath the sordidness. It’s well-written, well-plotted, well-realized, it’s just not my cup of tea. I can’t imagine it’s much of anyone’s cup of tea. Even hormonal teens are going to be put off by imagining wrinkly great-grandmas talking about how fat their sex partners were in the good ol’ days.

  • Past Time: Baseball As History – Jules Tygiel

    Something a little lighter. It’s been a while since I read a book about the history of baseball. This is a collection of nine short essays, objective without being dry, that traces the interplay between baseball and American society, and how each reflects the other. It starts with the unification of various stick-ball games into a single “national” game intended to promote manliness, science, and morality; continues through the advents of radio and TV and watches as white and black politicians alike show up at Negro Baseball games to court the black vote; and ends with rotisserie leagues and the Baby Boomer romanticization of baseball in the ’80s and ’90s. With so much ground to cover in so thin a spine (about 220 pages), the essays rarely delve deep and occasionally resort to lists without calling out the importance of individual items. However, I found it an enjoyable and educational, if not amazing, read.

  • The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw – Patrick McManus

    Something even lighter. A collection of humorous articles of mostly an outdoorsy nature, talking about the author’s exploits. Fishing, hunting, camping, getting lost while hunting for a friend you were supposed to go fishing with, that sort of thing. It’s written in a normal sort of voice, with the only “backwoods” inflections occurring when the author makes up a name (I hope) to protect the innocent, or trots out a euphemism for a less family-friendly exclamation that obviously was spoken. There’s also a lot of deadpan bald-faced lying to save one’s dignity, like when the author finds excuses for repeatedly missing the dumbest antelope in the world (“Oh, that was just a warning shot”). My favorites were the chapters about knot-tying and about Man’s relationship to Boat, where the author’s wife gets upset when she catches her husband and a newlywed making lewd remarks about a girl’s name, only to apologize when they claim they’re talking about a woman, not a boat . . . and then it turns out they were actually talking about a boat after all. The title chapter is ironically the only underwhelming essay in the lot (read Lear’s “The Night The Bed Fell” instead). It’s a fun, light read overall.

  • Nice Guys Finish Last – Leo Durocher

    This is my book of the year so far. It’s an autobiography, one yarn leading to another about Durocher’s experiences and run-ins with players, executives, league presidents, and sportswriters. I read much of it picturing an old, gruff man sitting across from me, just rattling off all the stories he’s practiced telling over the years, leaning forward and shaking a finger for emphasis. Babe Ruth, the Gashouse Gang, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Sinatra, and many other big names make substantial appearances. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the book involves “The Lip” shooting off his mouth or getting taken out of context or clashing with authorities, and naturally the narrator usually sees more merit in Durocher’s side of things, being eager to set the record straight. But it’s a fascinating, enthralling look at personalities and culture during a rich part of baseball’s history, and through it all Durocher projects enough of a sense of sincerity that I feel content to largely take him at his word about his view of events.

  • Look at the Birdie – Kurt Vonnegut

    Fourteen short stories that Vonnegut never published, plus a letter and an editorial foreword, both of which are very welcome. A few of the stories, like “F U B A R”, are charming or heartwarming; some, like “Ed Luby’s Key Club”, get downright brutal; some have twist endings; and they’re all pretty good, to the point of reminding me just how much a good writer can pack into a short story. “Key Club” and “King and Queen of the Universe” might be the ones that stick with me the longest, as well as “Confido” just for its premise. A wide range of premises, although psychologists and a couple of other ideas pop up repeatedly, but I was surprised by the lack of science fiction. Nevertheless, Vonnegut is going on my list of authors to read again soon, with his imagination, writing style, and very agreeable viewpoint.

  • Beyond the Far Side – Gary Larson

    Contains a disproportionate amount of rhinoceros.

  • Watership Down – Richard Adams

    Given how much I read Brian Jacques growing up, it’s silly that I never got around to this book until now. But I am silly. This book is not silly, although it is less brutal than I expected it to be. Despite all the Bad Things happening in it, somehow the prose style . . . I’m not sure how to say it . . . there’s always a feeling that, even if it looks like someone is about to die, the main thread will just keep on going. Like, you’re going to be sad when it happens but not hit in the gut? It’s not a bad thing necessarily, just the style, but worth noting. The only other time I’ve encountered this is with Ender’s Game, which the feel of the flow of this book’s plot kinda resembles.

    Anyway. This is a story about several rabbits who, based on a Bad Feeling from the local seer, leave their home warren and strike out for new territory. They run into one difficulty and danger after another that force them to surpass their latent rabbitness and find new ways of living, which is all the more striking because the author makes a point of keeping their anthropomorphism at a bare minimum — in fact, he breaks into the narrative from time to time to tell us how what’s going on is perfectly standard lapine behavior, even if it isn’t what a sensible human would do in that situation. They also meet other rabbits who have anthropomorphized their way into dystopias.

    It’s a good story, well told, and would probably have been a favorite of my childhood. I enjoyed the legends about El-ahrairah, their trickster uber-rabbit legend, and I enjoyed the learned quotations for themselves even if they didn’t always contribute to my appreciation of the chapter that followed. My only complaint is that occasionally Adams tells when it would have been better to show.

  • A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey – Kevin Murphy

    I picked this up for a buck at a charity sale and I admit, it looks like fluff. A guy who got his fame by playing a robot who pokes fun at cheesy movies, and he parlays it into a book about watching at least one movie in a theater every day for a year. Yeah, sure, whatever.

    It’s really not fluff. Kevin Murphy is serious about movies, to the point of calling himself a snob, although he demonstrates that that means more “I have my own particular standards” and less “I’m not allowed to like anything the hoi palloi like.” The focus of the book is ultimately not about the individual movies, but more about seeking to recapture the magic of going to the movies, and about the state of the movie industry.

    The book is divided into fifty-two chapters. Each chapter starts off with a title and the list of movies Murphy watched that week. It’s not guaranteed that Murphy will actually critique any of those movies. Instead, he will talk about at least one of the moviegoing experiences he had that week, and often expand that into a general idea. Experiences range from multiplexes to a theater made entirely of snow, from Cannes to a Finnish film festival, from Hollywood’s grand cinemas to the last theater left on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to the tiniest public theater Murphy could find (in the Australian outback). Along the way, Murphy encounters a number of people devoted to the cinema and to sharing it with others.

    The “take seven different women to Serendipity so I can understand date movies” experiment, in which everyone involved was already married, makes for the funniest chapter in the book. Along the way Murphy sees current releases, classics, and silents in a broad range of genre and quality. And he talks about why he likes or dislikes many of the movies and theaters, without coming off as any worse than a curmudgeon. A fun and educational read, and a good pick for a motion picture enthusiast.

  • Dune – Frank Herbert

    The story of how Paul Atreides overcomes the evil of the Harkonnens and the brutality of the planet Arrakis to fulfill his destiny as Guy With More Titles Than Aragorn. My first impression, which came very quickly, was that the prose was much less dense than I expected. But the world-building is there, and done well, and the journey feels epic, even if much of it was spoiled by what I knew about the story going in. I would have enjoyed it more without the spoilers, but still quite a good read.

  • The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas

    Turns out this is (part of) a direct sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I have not read. Whoops!

    Anyway, there’s a lot more politicking and less fighting than I expected. A lot of people trying to out-noble each other, which can be traced to the fact that most of the story involves Louis XIV and his court. Our four heroes are admirable and lofty in their speech and chivalrous enough, but not especially heroic, and the antagonists aren’t treated as villains either — also a thing it took me a while to get used to. Aramis’s motivations and actions in particular made much more sense when I stopped trying to read him as a Selfless Hero. The book uses a lot of Madame and Monsieur and the like as pronouns for unclear antecedents. I did enjoy it once I took it on its own terms, but — even given that this was only part of a larger work — the plot would take a much different shape if written nowadays.

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