Friday, January 14, 2011

2010 in Books.

I read some books in 2010, and here is an annotated list of them, or at least all of them I remembered to write down.  This time I'm separating nonfiction from fiction, just because; but I'm not separating comics/graphic novels from books-without-many-pictures, also just because.  Numerical ratings appear in parentheses after the author's name, corresponding to the following:

(1) - I hated it. * 
(2) - I'm not sure I liked it.
(3) - I definitely liked it.
(4) - I straight-up loved it.
(5) - It crawled inside my head and moved things around, or burrowed inside my heart and made a little nest there.

* This is only a list of books I actually finished reading, so none of them got the (1) rating.  If I were including unfinished books, I would certainly give it to M. John Harrison's Viriconium. I barely made it through the first story in this fantasy/sci-fi collection. It was a heavy, humorless, and interminable tale of war-wearied men doing manly deeds of manliness in <Mr. Voice> a time of war </Mr. Voice>, and wearily philosophizing about it all in a manly fashion.  Harrison's good with words, but the tedium, I can't even describe it (this from a huge LOTR fan), and
let's not even talk about how he deals with the female "characters."  Anyway, enough of that; on to the good stuff!


The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne (5)
Claiborne isn't the world's greatest writer, but he lays out his proposition with clarity, humility, and humor: we urgently need to reconsider how we do this whole Christianity thing, because we're really messing it up. He has made his own life the laboratory for doing it differently (waaaay differently), so his words have a little more weight than the typical writer of such themes.  His account of life in an inner-city intentional community planted seeds in my brain that are currently sprouting some weird-lookin' leaves.

The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week by Summer Pierre (3)
A nice book, full of nice ideas.  I enjoyed looking at it, but I wasn't really the target audience.

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
by Carl Wilson (5)
Wilson is a music critic, and like most music critics, he hates Celine Dion.  More than most music critics, in fact, because he's from Quebec, where they never shut up about her.  So he forces himself to listen to her music over, and over, and over, and interview her fans, and take her work seriously in an attempt to understand the appeal.  And in the process, he has to reconsider all of his music-snob presuppositions about artistic taste and its value and function.  This was a book I needed to read, and I'm glad I found it when I did.

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
by Kathleen Norris (5)
This book explained me to myself, on a level that I am not entirely comfortable explicating on a blog.

The House That Jill Built: A Woman's Guide to Home Building by Judy Ostrow (3)
This book was mostly success stories of the sort which suggest it should've been subtitled "A Guide to Home Building for Women with Lots of Money and/or Relevant Experience."  Nice for them.  The one exception was the profile of a woman who built her house with the help of Habitat for Humanity's Women Build program, which was a good thing to learn about.  (One of these days, I'm actually going to volunteer with them.)


The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac (4)
Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac (4)
Children's historical fiction about Native Americans that, for once, is written by a Native American.  (More of those here.)  The first involves a real historical encounter between members of the Abenaki tribe and a fellowship of Quakers, and the second takes place pre-contact, meaning it is a story that takes place entirely outside the circle of European influence - not something easy to find on any English-language bookshelf. Bruchac's quite a good writer, and I thought enough of these to put them in the hands of my little brother (who is going to figure out one of these days that he, being of Mexican descent, is also therefore descended from Native Americans).

Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman (4)
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (3)
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (audiobook) (3.5)
I can't call Gaiman a one-trick pony - he changes up genres and mediums constantly - but there is a curious sameness to much of his work for me, a sense that I've been here before. Still, his "here" is not necessarily a bad place to be, and there is comfort in the familiar.  Endless Nights is an anthology of short stories set in the Sandman universe, each illustrated by a different artist. Unlike the original series, all of the art is brilliant; I honestly don't remember much else about the book at this point. Odd and the Frost Giants is kid lit, Gaiman riffing off the old Norse myths, not bad, nothing special.  Anansi Boys would've been a mediocre read, I suspect, but its entertainment value was greatly enhanced by actor Lenny Henry's voice(s). If you've been meaning to read it, skip the dead tree and go directly to the MP3.

Epileptic by David B (4)
A heavy (in both senses of the word) graphic novel by a Frenchman about how his brother's ailments affected his childhood and the man he became.  Not a feel-good family tale; David B recklessly explores the darkness in his own heart, and the ending is hardly cheerful.  A fascinatingly honest autobiography that uses images in remarkably inventive ways.

Fables: vol. 1-5 by Bill Willingham (4)
Fables: vol. 6-11 by Bill Willingham (2)
An ongoing comics series, collected volumes 1-11 form the first big "story arc" of Fables.  (I borrowed them from a friend in two batches, thus the division above.)  It showed so much promise at the beginning - genuinely witty storytelling - but then devolved into a really tedious, lengthy finale in which the plot devolves into an illustrated list of creative battle strategies.  Oh, and the whole exoticized Arabian Nights thing (can we move past those stereotypes yet, please?), paired with the blatant "We're heroic underdogs, just like Israel is in the Middle East!" was really, really icky.

Finder v.3: Talisman
by Carla Speed McNeil (4)
Finder v.7: The Rescuers by Carla Speed McNeil (2)
Finder is an indie series of sci-fi graphic novels.  Talisman follows a little girl who obsesses over a lost book, and while the setting is techno-dystopian, the theme is autobiographical.  Beautifully told, and rings poignantly true to a bibliophile like myself.  The Rescuers is equally meticulously illustrated, but the story is confusing (partly because too much is implied rather than explained, partly because of layout choices), and also gets into some iffy territory regarding the tropes it uses to portray an aboriginal race.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (3.5)
I think there was one story in this anthology that I really, really liked.  Maybe it was the one with the handbag that contained, depending how you opened it, a fairy-tale village, a dimension containing nothing but a hungry demonic dog, and a handbag's standard interior (which you can read online).  Or maybe the one about the teenagers who are simultaneously the subject of, and obsessing over, a mysterious TV show (which, hey, you can also read online).  Anyway, Link's stories are always odd, usually disconcertingly so, if not outright bewildering: in a Link anthology, the rules of reality are as flexible as those of Calvinball.

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
by Chris Ware (3)
I only read this oddly-shaped graphic novel because a friend begged me to (Note: This normally doesn't work, but there were Circumstances). I'd already read a portion of it and knew what I was in for: nobody does bleak quite like Chris Ware.  His bleak is the bleakest bleak, a bleakness only alleviated by occasional darkness which tapers off into bleakness again, or an occasional glimpse of hope which is inevitably denied.  Yet Ware's genius is undeniable, both as artist and storyteller, so reading this was certainly not a waste of time... just, y'know, a major bummer.

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour (v.6) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (3.5)
I'd been waiting a long, long time for this book.  It wrapped the graphic novel series up in a manner I found satisfying, but not outstanding, and my memory of it was eclipsed shortly thereafter by the movie, so I don't have much to say about it right now.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (4)
Tove Jansson's Moomin books were the #1 literary faves of my childhood, so when one of her several adult stories finally gets translated from Swedish into English, I get pretty excited.  This is a very strange little book, understated, wintry, with complex, difficult characters that are hard to like but easy to visualize.  There are plenty of books on this list that I enjoyed and promptly forgot.  This one I wasn't sure I loved while reading it, but long afterward it lingers, starkly beautiful, in the mind's eye.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (3)
This book was a Big Deal when it came out a couple years ago.  It's built around a clever literary trick, a series of interlinked stories that nest like Matryoshka dolls, but the stories involved are mostly not all that great.  I frequently became impatient with their weaknesses, particularly the one written in an imagined far-future Hawaiian pidgin that only served to reveal that the author had no familiarity with actual Hawaiian pidgin.  Still, I have to admit it's impressive that the trick works at all.

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge (2.5)
I just couldn't get into this YA fantasy. I wanted to, and it had some cool bits (like the secret tribe of people who were supposed to be dead, and had sworn their lives to revenge; I really liked them).  But it didn't swoop me away like I wanted to be swooped.  Also, the way it handled dicey topics like colonization and genocide just seemed a little glib to me.

The Line Between: Stories by Peter S. Beagle (3.5)
I've had a great deal of affection for Beagle's work ever since that one day in grad school when, after weeks of trudging through abominably written textbooks, I picked up a copy of Folk of the Air and not five minutes later was stabbing my finger in the air and yelling to an empty dorm room, "See? See?! That is how you compose a sentence!"  As per usual with Beagle, I found the writing in this fantasy collection to be delicious, the characters masterfully drawn, the stories themselves... not tremendously satisfying.

Favorite Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton (3.5)
An assortment of comical mysteries (not comics!), cleverly composed and fully aware of their own cleverness.  I love Chesterton's enthusiasm and his playful wit, but these stories fall into that dangerous stylistic gap between outright fantasy and realism that just does not make sense.  Still, I'd read more.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (4.5)
Gorgeous, gorgeous wordless picture book about the experience of an immigrant coming to a new land.  The land, its alphabet, its flora, fauna, and customs are all completely invented, and thus communicate the feeling of drowning in a sea of foreignness very effectively.  One of those books that doesn't take long to "read", but rewards hours of attention to all the details.  If I had to recommend one book on this list to everybody unequivocally, The Arrival would be it.

Tulku by Peter Dickinson (4)
Historical fiction (young adult, I guess) about the son of a missionary from the US who survives the Boxer Rebellion by escaping to Tibet and taking refuge in a Buddhist monastery.  It's a complex story, with difficult, memorable characters and an even more difficult clash of cultures and religions, but Dickinson is up for the challenge, and from where I sit (with admittedly limited understanding of all the historical and cultural factors involved), it looks like he handles it admirably.

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye v.2: And Then There Were Gnomes by Colleen Venable (4)
Mini-graphic novel for kids.  I used to raise guinea pigs, so I have a weakness for the heroine (who is, unlike real guinea pigs, smarter than mice), as well as for the dorky, grade-school humor of the book.  I gotta get the other books in the series... uh, so I can give them to my little brother.  Yeah, that's it.

The Baby-Sitters Club: vols. 1-4 by Raina Telgemeier and Ann M. Martin (3.5)
Bought these graphic novel versions of the popular series for my pre-adolescent niece.  The grand irony here is that when I was in the target age group for the original BSC books, at the height of their popularity, I wouldn't touch them... or with anything else that seemed to be about modern reality (particularly someone else's idea of what my modern reality ought to be like).  If it didn't have dragons or tiny people or portals into magic realms or at least was about something that happened in a far-off land, preferably a really long time ago, then I wanted no part of it.  If these graphic novel versions had been available, though, I might've actually given them a go.  Telgemeier's a long-time fan and heavily loyal to the original text; her lively drawings add depth and subtlety to the characters and their interactions.  1987-Lindsey may or may not have dug these, but 2010-Lindsey genuinely enjoyed them.  And my niece lost no time in devouring them.

Chiggers by Hope Larson (3.5)
Larson's husband may have struck pop-culture gold with Scott Pilgrim, but she's miles ahead of him as both an artist and storyteller.  Chiggers is a YA graphic novel about adolescent girls at summer camp, with all the typical complexities and reversals involved in their relationships.  An entirely believable tale, beautifully drawn, subtly and honestly told.  The aspiring-geek tendencies of the protagonist made for yummy icing on the cake; her shy admiration of D&D gamers, her fantasies of herself and her crush as elven royalty... that was totally me.

Castle Waiting v.1 by Linda Medley (5)
Castle Waiting v.2 by Linda Medley (4.5)
My sister once said her favorite kind of movie was "the kind where people mostly just sit around talking the whole time."  I had to admit she was on to something.  Though not without action, comic book series Castle Waiting's best parts are the conversations its characters have, and the stories they share with one another.  The setting is a land of fairy tales, but the characters aren't the usual suspects, they're the barely-mentioned people in the background (Sleeping Beauty's ladies in waiting, the wife and child of the beanstalk giant, etc.).  I adore so many things about this series: Medley's precise yet lively line art, her unhurried pacing, her wry sense of humor.  Vol. 1 was a re-read of an old fave in preparation for Vol. 2, but though Vol. 2 was full of great story, it's clear that something went terribly awry along the road to publication.  After the first chapter, the lettering changes jarringly in both size and style, while through the course of the book the page layouts become dramatically simpler, the drawings larger and less detailed.  There is no proper title or copyright page, and Medley's name appears nowhere on the volume except on a barcode sticker.  Neither Medley nor publisher Fantagraphics are talking about it, but this doesn't bode well for the future of the series.

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