Books Read in 2005

24 Jul 2007

An ongoing list of the books that I’ve read in 2005 and a little snippet of my thoughts about them. I didn’t feel like keeping this on my blog, so here it is instead.

The goal is an average of a book a week, no cheating by reading really short books that I wouldn’t have read anyway. The totals for past years have been:

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 (to date)
23 22 26 29 46 39 42 53 36 51

332 books over nine years, averaging out to 36.89 (or so) books a year. So I’ve got some work to do.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer 26 May 2005

Scary. Scary scary scary.

In the Problem Pit by Frederik Pohl 26 May 2005

Good, but nothing really extraordinary. That, of course, is said from my vantage point of having read a lot of good science fiction in my life, and not having come across good, intelligent sci-fi (and I’ll call it that unapologetically, thank you very much) after slogging through lots of crap for years before entering the “Golden Age.” The only thing by Pohl that I’d read before this was “The Space Merchants,” which had the same problem of being rather tame commentary by today’s standards, but putting it in the context of the time in which it was written was quite cutting. I may just need to read more of his stuff.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel 26 May 2005

I wrote a half-assed review of this book on my blog. There I wrote:

I don’t know what the point is. That religion is a kind of storytelling, and that both are primal urges in human beings? That the major religions are the same? That the major religions (or maybe all religions) are comforting hokum?

Pi becomes a carnivore while adrift, much to his initial Hindu horror. Is this a sign that religions can be comforting but not always practical in the real world? That anyone, under the right circumstances, can shed his morality?

It’s about explaining the unexplainable. How did we get from point A to point B? If no one was there to see it, how can we know? We imagine, we invent, and we fill in the blanks as best we can. The only one who knew what really happened on that life boat was Pi, and he has two different stories. Which one is the best one? As he says, neither one explains to the Japanese gentlemen what happened to their ship. So which is the better story.

The one with the tiger, they agree.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

And if you, as either the teller of the story or the one being told, can successfully hold contradicting accounts in your head and derive comfort from the friction that results (a kind of heat to keep you warm, I suppose), then what’s the harm?

I don’t know if I can agree with such a conclusion. I don’t know if I can object to it, either. Before he tells his story, Pi says that it will make you believe in God, and this is perhaps the part that is rubbing me the wrong way. On the one hand, Piscine is a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, all at the same time. He sees the stories of each as comforting and challenging, pushing him to be the best practitioner of each religion that he can be, which would in turn make him a better person. (And you can’t help but like him. He’s a terribly precocious scamp, full of moxie and all that.) Sometimes the stories of each faith contradict one another, sometimes they compliment one another, and sometimes one or another will fill in a mysterious silence on a topic that the third chooses not to address. He finds harmony where others find discord.

So make of that what you will.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs 26 May 2005

I read these memoirs—even funny ones like this one—and I’m so grateful for my run-of-the-mill comfortable suburban upbringing. Really.

It’s tempting to compare him to David Sedaris, but I suspect that Sedaris exaggerates much more for comic effect; he’s too close to his siblings for his childhood to have been all that bad. I think that Burroughs’s account is pretty damn close to what he went through.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder 26 May 2005

Brief, but it still packs some wallop. Reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but that may just be something about the location. Not that there’s much magical realism, but the span of young and old, rich and poor, the scope kind of matches his stuff.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card 26 May 2005

OK, but one of those books that has such a legend about it that finally reading it can’t help but be a little disappointing. I specifically tried to keep Card’s politics out of my consciousness while I read the book. I knew that he was Mormon, and I’d heard snippets of things that he’d said (especially since 9/11/2001), but I didn’t want to delve too deeply into it because I didn’t want it to taint my impression of the book too much.

As for the idea, it’s kind of interesting, a bunch of kids actually controlling and leading military missions without knowing it, giving them an advantage of not suffering the life-or-death consequences of their actions. And while we’re supposed to believe that Card, through Ender, thinks that this is terrible, he spends most of the book describing battle maneuvers (that are always, of course, brilliant on Ender’s part). That kind of undermines the thesis, doesn’t it? War is horrible, but beautiful to describe.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 26 May 2005

Basically, a high-concept book that’s hype exceeds it’s acccomplishment. It does a fairly good job, I think, of explaining the perceptions of the world from the point-of-view of an autistic teenager. It also does a good job of conveying the frustrations of being the parent or teacher (or even neighbor) of such a person. But as a mystery and as a compellling story, it’s pretty thin. But was short and didn’t take much time to read, so it seems to have that sense of its own worth.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon 26 May 2005

Okay, but it reads like a first novel, which is exactly what it is. I really liked “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” but I don’t think I’m enough of a Chabon fan that I need to obsessively read his every work. I will get around to “Wonder Boys” one of these days, though. (Loved the movie.)

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow 26 May 2005

A horrible mess. Several intriguing ideas that just were not followed up on in any competent manner. And yet people seem to be lining up to hand him awards for it. I just don’t get it.

The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike 26 May 2005

Rabbit, Run by John Updike 26 May 2005

Drake’s Fortune by Richard Rayner 26 May 2005

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick 26 May 2005

The Making of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey edited by Stephanie Schwam 26 May 2005

Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block 26 May 2005

A reprint and the first title in the Hard Case Crime series.

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy 26 May 2005

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach 26 May 2005

Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner 26 May 2005

Another Hard Case Crime title. Not quite as good as Grifter’s Game, but entertaining.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut 26 May 2005

Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis 26 May 2005

Lewis had a great eye for the sometimes stultifying life in the midwest, but he had a horrible ear for dialogue. Cringe inducing. And the story about an older man falling for a younger woman who can’t quite give up being…young. Not his greatest effort, and “Main Street” had a much more interesting woman at the center of it, as I recall. Not a complete waste, though, if you’re an unabashedly unfashionable fan of Lewis like me.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell 26 May 2005

If you don’t know who Sarah Vowell is, get to NPR.org, find the program link to “This American Life,” and find out.

The trick with this one is that I bought an unabridged audio version of it off of Audible.com. Does it count as a book if every word of it was read to me—by the author, no less—rather than my reading the words on a page? I don’t know, and after reading this I still don’t know. (Neil Gaiman weighs in with an opinion on the whole matter, too.)

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg 26 May 2005

I still don’t know about this one. Again, it’s something that I’ve wanted to read for a while but only recently got around to, so I can’t help but be a little disappointed. On the other hand, it was really well written, and it has lingered in my consciousness for a lot longer than most things do, which makes me think that I liked it more than I suspected when I first finished it.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller 26 May 2005

I was, somehow, led to believe that this was supposed to be a funny book. Douglas Adams funny.

It’s not.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Because as much as I like Adams and the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, this book was much more profound and cerebral than the light-hearted take on organized religion in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi future I was led to expect. It takes its ideas seriously and, like Bee Season before it, it has continued to work away in the recesses in my brain quite a bit since I finished it.

It is really, really good. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Neuromancer by William Gibson 26 May 2005

Did you know that William Gibson invented the word “cyberspace”? You did? So did I.

Did you know that every mention of William Gibson is also required to mention that he invented the word “cyberspace”?

Home Is the Sailor by Day Keene 26 May 2005

There’s a twisted romance at the heart of this book, and I give the author credit for not flinching at taking it all the way to the end. You think you know how it’s going to end, because on one level you want it to end that way and on another because you expect the author to pander and give you what you want, but it doesn’t and he doesn’t.

Another title in the Hard Case Crime series that has been shaping up to be very enjoyable. I can see a few more of these being downed over the course off the summer.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick 28 May 2005

Pretty good, with a slightly disappointing, not-quite-satisfying ending, but that’s almost always the case with PKD.

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett 7 Aug 2005

While I like the Hard Case Crime books that I’ve mentioned above, nobody can hold a candle to one of the original masters of the hard-boiled genre. Lots of fun to read, but there’s a cyncism that runs through his stories that seems far more genuine that the pose adopted by some later practioners of the craft.

A Mathemetician Reads the Newspaper by John Allen Paulos 7 Aug 2005

It’s the same old story: Don’t believe everything you read. And while numbers don’t lie, they don’t always tell the whole truth, either.

Nothing really earth-shaking, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of these things, either. While the math wasn’t particularly hard, even to my layman’s brain, there were a few instances where I stopped and really tried to figure out the slightly daunting bits he presented, and think that I was rewarded for it.

Oh, and any chance to have a working mathematician point out that long-term economic predictions are a bunch of hooey is always welcome.

Lightning Field by Dana Spiotta 7 Aug 2005

I read the first chapter of this years ago and made a note of it. Earlier this year, I saw it available at the Daedalus Books website and bought it. It’s good, but in some ways it’s a very L.A. book—you have to have lived here to get some of the nuances. Lovingly critical might be a way to describe it.

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison 7 Aug 2005

I’ve always heard the Ellison was one fucked-up cat, and if these stories are any indication, I heard right. Worth reading, though. I especially liked “Big Sam Was My Friend” and “Lonelyache.”

Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips 7 Aug 2005

Another Hard Case Crime book and another one worth reading.

The Complete Frank Miller Batman by Frank Miller 7 Aug 2005

After seeing “Batman Begins,” I had an urge to re-read these, which include “Batman: Year One” and “The Dark Knight Returns.” They still hold up, and some of the satire still cuts pretty sharply.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis 7 Aug 2005

A fascinating read about the men (and woman, as he includes Abigail Adams with husband John as a package deal) who conceived and created what grew to become the United States.

And let it be known that anyone who natters on about the “original intent of the founders” when it comes to matters of law hasn’t got a clue. Ellis makes it clear that some of the best and brightest political minds deftly set aside any number of difficult questions in the hopes that still better and brighter minds could figure them out at a later date. The U.S. Constitution is full of compromises and half-measures that preserved and tenuous union and got things done, despite its resiliency and longevity. I always suspect that if James Madison were to suddenly appear in 21st century America to answer questions about constitutional intent, his first reaction would be: “You’re still using that? We never thought it would last 20 years, much less 200.”

The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett 7 Aug 2005

A really short novel that tells a halfway decent, if not groundbreaking, story. Brackett tells it well, though.

The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein 7 Aug 2005

My first Heinlein novel. It waivers between clear-eyed and cynical in its view on revolutionary politics, but it was interesting to read it after “Founding Brothers,” which had its own waivering point-of-view. If anything, it gets a little too bogged down at the end with the mechanics of the war, but I’m sure others felt the same way about the beginning and the middle, with its discussions about strategy and command structure. It is one of those books, though, that make one wonder if it will long be read, but always read differently, depending upon the political climate of the time. Ten years ago, the Loonies would have been the heroes among certain readers for fighting against the big, bad, regulating government. Today, one could almost see an aversion to them for their terrorist ways (although Heinlein is careful to make sure that their strikes are against unpopulated or military targets).

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro 7 Aug 2005

Mostly good, with a couple of great stories thrown in. I especially liked the title story, for its unexpectedly happy ending. Well, content, anyway. Also good were “Queenie” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” My first Munro collection, and I’ll probably read more of her in the future.

Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins 19 Aug 2005

“Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck”

Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas 24 Sep 2005

Another Hard Case Crime title, but not the best. My problem with it was due to my figuring out the twist ending looonnng before I was anywhere near the end of the book. That wouldn’t have been so bad if the writing was something special, but it wasn’t. It was servicable, in service to an ending that the author thought would take the readers’ breath away, but had been telegraphed from the beginning. This means that you can’t even admire the craftsmanship that went into the construction, รก la “The Sixth Sense” (even though there’s really no thematic connection between the two, and it’s just what I think of when I think of cleverly executed twist endings).

Great cover, though.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad 24 Sep 2005

There are times when I’m sorry that I’m not still in school. This is one of those books that I would love to have read and then been able to listen to someone lecture upon, followed up by a discussion group. There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t know whether Conrad was as cynical as he comes across in this text, or if I’m overly cynical and reading a lot about our current political, military, and security situations into the story written 100 years ago.

That said, I do think that there is cynicism, I think that there are elements of humor and farce in the novel, alongside tragedy, and I think that Conrad was far more suspicious of the powers that be (or were) than he was of ragtag bands of neutered anarchists (read: terrorists in today’s parlance) who spent a lot of time talking about their revolutions and very little time agreeing upon what they would entail or who would carry them out.

American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty by Michael W. Cuneo 24 Sep 2005

“Exorcism may be a strange therapy, it may be the crazy uncle of therapies, but it is a therapy nonetheless. And no less than any of the countless other therapies in the therapy-mad culture of post-sixties America, it promises liberation for the addicted, hope for the forlorn, solace for the brokenhearted. It promises a new and redeemed self, a self freed from the accumulated debris of a life badly lived or a life sadly endured.”

- From the conclusion of the book

I like that summing up, but I don’t think it quite does the book justice. Cuneo researches and writes with an open mind, but he admits that he never sees what he half hopes he will see, which is something so bizarre and unexplainable that the only possible explanation would be some sinister force of Satan. What he does see is all sorts of people with all sorts of problems who feel that the official expelling of evil forces from their lives will make things better.

Cuneo also lays the whole phenomenon at the feet of William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin, and “The Exorcist,” both the book and the movie. Combined with Vatican II and the loss of some of the mysticism of the Roman Catholic mass, as well as the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s (as well as the whiplash back to something else in the 1980s), some people were ready to see demons lurking around every corner.

All in all, its a really interesting book, even though it really just scratches the surface of possible explanations for the demonic “possessions” (which are very rare) and “oppressions” (which are much, much more common). In fact, the greatest criticism I have is that he tries to explain the phenomenon through the exorcists, rather than the exorcised, who might have been able to explain the whys and the wherefores more completely.

Duel: Terror Stories by Richard Matheson 11 Oct 2005

A solid set of short stories by an excellent practitioner, some of which were the basis for a couple of episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” The title story, of course, was the basis for the TV movie that made Steven Spielberg famous. Or at least started him down the path…

A few of my favorites were “Born of Man and Woman,” “Brother to the Machine,” “Lover When You’re Near Me,” “The Last Day,” “Little Girl Lost” (the basis for the “Twilight Zone” that was the basis for the Simpsons’ parody), “Trespass,” “The Test,” and “Steel.”

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker 3 Jan 2006

Future Imperfect by James Gunn 3 Jan 2006

American Gods by Neil Gaiman 3 Jan 2006

I think this is the best thing I’ve read by Gaiman. A big improvement over Neverwhere.

The Confession by Domenic Stansberry 3 Jan 2006

Another Hard Case Crime title, and one that I’ve been looking for for a while. It was pretty good, although I can’t believe that some people have felt a need to tiptoe around the “twist” at the end. It’s pretty obvious from the start. But, unlike Little Girl Lost (mentioned above), the story was well told, even though the end was obvious from the start.

Holidays On Ice by David Sedaris 3 Jan 2006

No matter how many times I read it, “Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!” never gets any less disturbing.

The Best Christmas Pagaent Ever by Barbara Robinson 3 Jan 2006

I try to read this every year, but only occasionally succeed. The first time I read it, probably when I was 12 or so, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever come across. And yet, it’s pretty damn touching and poignant.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 3 Jan 2006

2005 was the year of Scrooge. I read this and wound up watching two or three movie versions (including the Muppets!) and a couple of radio or spoken word versions as well. What’s interesting is that the 1951 movie version did a better job of fleshing out what happened to Scrooge and why he became the way he was than Dickens’s original story.

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins 3 Jan 2006

A little bit of Bill Bryson, a little bit of Nicholson Baker, and a little bit of “Banvard’s Folly,” unsurprisingly enough.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande 3 Jan 2006

I’ve always liked Gawande’s pieces in The New Yorker, and this is essentially a collection of those, and they’re very good, as would be expected. What struck me by the end, though, was that he approached interesting subjects—questions about the ethical and intellectual quandries in which physicians find themselves—but just sort of skated over the surface of them. Not that I expected any answers to anything; they are eternal questions after all. But perhaps a little more wrestling with the matters would have been in order. This is nitpicking, though, on what is really a very good book.