Friday, January 03, 2014

BooksFirst: The Rest of 2013

Books Bought
Insane City by Dave Barry
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
They Eat Puppies Don't They by Christopher Buckley 
Chomp By Carl Hiaasen
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson  
To Build A Fire by Jack London
What is Mathematics, Really by Reuben Hersh 
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen
Silk Parachute byJohn McPhee
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee
Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer  
The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt

Audiobooks Bought
Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
American Savage by Dan Savage
In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson 
Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
The High Place by Jame Branch Cabell
Four Fish by Paul Greenberg 
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson
Attempting Normal by Marc Maron 
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney

Books Read
Insane City by Dave Barry
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
They Eat Puppies Don't They by Christopher Buckley 
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card 
Inferno by Dan Brown
What is Mathematics, Really by Reuben Hersh  
Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough
Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer
Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger
Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Books Heard
I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson 
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Attempting Normal by Marc Maron
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney 


Dave Barry is the king of outlandish Florida satire. His newspaper columns did much to illuminate the craziness that went on in South Florida daily. His Year In Review articles always skewer and dissect the previous year. His new novel is Insane City and takes place in the weekend leading up to a destination wedding in Miami Beach. Plenty of insane things happen involving yuppies, gangsters, erotic dancers, and an orangutan. That the orangutan is perhaps the most vividly drawn character is a concern.

While the novel is wildly funny in places, overall it seems like some punches are pulled. Barry in a reading at Politics and Prose said that everything in the novel could happen. And perhaps that is part of the problem. In a world with Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey, Dave Barry seems oddly tame. We have come so inured to Florida whackiness that mere truthiness doesn't cover it any more.

Catching Fire is the second installment in Suzanne Collin's young adult (there needs to be a better phrase for that genre) dystopian trilogy. Sequels have a problem in that a lot of the world building novelty has already been spent. But the 'universe' of Hunger Games was a bit thin so there was still plenty of world to mine. 

The books are told completely from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen which makes her awareness or lack thereof a more plausible plot device than in the movie version which is more omniscient. That plot involves the reaction of the Capitol to her subverting the Games in the first book. So in the second book they trump a special Survivor reality show style All-Stars Edition. This effectively raises the stakes since all the players are previous winners. 

I won't say the ending is Empire Strikes Back-level unfulfilling because the Games do reach their logical finale but it also clearly sets up the last book (which will be two movies). I find myself much more eager to read the finale than I was to read the second one. The stakes have been raised and the tension and drama have gone past the Game.

For a very different dystopian future than the Hunger Games universe, the grim one in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is more plausible and frightening. In the near future, the United States has become an economic vassal of China and the increasingly totalitarian government has a stranglehold on most people's lives.

Lennie is a deluded sad sack employee of a start-up trying to market life enhancing quasi-singularity procedures to the uber-wealthy. He meets and falls in love with a particularly vapid Korean-American woman in her early 20s. The book alternates chapters between the two writing in their online diaries about their relationship which is never quite stable. Meanwhile the ongoing economic crises shatter their lives on a regular basis.

The tone of the book is very reminiscent of 1984 with its increasingly powerful surveillance state. While exaggerated for comic effect, the trends it extrapolates are real and frightening.  

Lately, Christopher Buckley novels have been ambitious failures and They Eat Puppies Don't They is no exception. One half of the book follows a military industrial complex lobbyist as he tries to work up an astroturf campaign to make China a evil empirish enemy. He is aided by his eventual lover, a dynamo super-conservative woman who is everything Ann Coulter thinks she is. Together they manipulate the public relations complex that really runs Washington.

Less successful is the other half of the book which navigates the palace intrigue of the Chinese politburo as players behind the scenes react and pro-act to the provocations from the US. Embedded in all this are attempts on the life of the Dalai Lama. While the intrigue is seemingly well researched it never quite reaches the levels of absurdity needed.  

In anticipation of the movie release, I went back and reread Ender's Game which I first read in the late 1980s and I even met Orson Scott Card at a science fiction convention.

The book holds up surprisingly well considering that some of the key plot devices such as internet chats and message boards were glimmers in a programmer's eye when the book was written.

Somewhere along the line, this novel got marketed to the middle school set, and while I can see how the young uber-competent protagonist fits in, there is a lot that older readers can appreciate as well. The character of Ender Wiggins as he battles both the military bureaucracy and the aliens faces a lot of ethical questions. The biggest question of course is whether the ends justify the means. And if the ends were justifiable at all.

I look forward to reading this again in another twenty years or so.

Dan Brown is one of my guilty pleasures. Although 'pleasure' is perhaps too strong a word. It's more of a hate relationship. He is such a bad, bad writer. Every page is cringe inducing. The techno-McGuffins are always warmed over bad science fiction tropes. In Inferno, it is a super-virus destined to destroy the population, a conceit that was old when previous top-hack Michael Crichton used it decades ago.

But I am fascinated by the obsessive Frommer-esque travelogue quality of the narration. Not an action sequence goes by where the artwork in the room where the life and death struggle isn't listed in deep catalog. The endless travel trivia just entrances me. In this book, the sequences take place in Florence and Venice, two place I have been to recently, and Istanbul, a place I am dying to find an excuse to go to.

The bad taste in my mouth Brown's more than purple prose leave is countered by how it whets my appetite to see and do the things Robert Langdon misses out on while saving the world once again.
A nearly forgotten footnote in the history of the space program is a series of joint missions where US astronauts spent months living on the post-Soviet Russian Mir space station as practice and prelude to the International Space Station. 

Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough chronicles the calamities that afflicted those missions. First of all, by all accounts the Mir station was dump held together by baling wire and sheer persistence. Also, the Russian space program was this weirdly dysfunctional system where the real power was hidden and the cosmonauts had odd economic incentives governing their activities.

On one mission, a major fire nearly kills everyone on board only to be stunningly covered up by the Russians and ignored by the press. But the centerpiece of the book is about the incident where a runaway supply capsule cripples the station and punctures the skin of the vessel. By all rights, except for some heroic action, everyone on the station could have been killed. 

On the heels of the movie Gravity, this book which was written well over a decade ago describes in eye-opening detail just how dangerous space travel is and that fiction can rarely hold a candle to reality.

While in Alaska this summer, it seems everyone I met had a strong opinion about Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer as well as the Sean Penn movie based on it. The general consensus was that he was a complete idiot with no clue what he was doing. One tourist plane pilot said that his 12-year-old daughter could have lasted longer in the wilderness.

Reading the book, Krakauer while not refuting these opinions offers more nuance and insight into what would drive a person into attempting such a foolhardy scheme. Greatly padding his original magazine article because there really is not much to know about McCandless, Krakauer muses on what motivates people to perform extremely foolhardy stunts. In a long personal piece he describes how he almost died himself failing to do a mountain ascent that had never been done.

The real story may never be known, but I now have a greater appreciation for both the Alaska wilderness and the human spirit.

I am perhaps one of the few people who appreciate what Julie Taymor was attempting to do with her much maligned Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark musical. While making a thrilling theatrical show, she was also trying to explicate the myth-making process. One person who kind of understood that was her cowriter Glen Berger who has written Song of Spider-Man to give his side of what is generally considered the biggest disaster in theatrical history despite a three year run on Broadway.

As a first person story, it is very self-aggrandizing apologia, often anchored in false self-deprecation. He does his very best to show that he is a victim. He even literally tells how his dog died while the show was in production. Very early in the book he talks about how he was told to support Taymor but he turns out to be her Judas. He is the one who survives the putsch which ousts her only to whine about how the script doctor who takes her place gets full billing despite only being on the job for a few months.

I have read literally thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson so it amused to no end that one of the items included in his grab bag collection Some Remarks is only one sentence long. The unfinished (and barely started) novel is "Under-Constable Proudfoot" and in this era of cross-genre thrillers, he is leaving a gold mine on the table.

The centerpiece of the collection is his epic essay about transoceanic underground cables "Mother Earth Mother Board" which first appeared in Wired Magazine. I read it when it first came out and have re-read it a few times online. The research he did informed several subplots in Cryptonomicon.  It never ceases to amaze me how prescient and important this essay was.

The other items are also interesting, although he is never going to convince me to use a treadmill desk. 

Bill Bryson books make for great listens when traveling as I have done just that with several of his books. This collection was a great Audible deal (no link since I don't get a kickback) since it included three of his earlier books. Unfortunately the only one I made it all the way through was I'm A Stranger Here Myself as the other two were just a little too twee and dated. 

I'm A Stranger... is a collection of essays detailing his return back to the United States after decades of living in Britain. The observations are sharp, trenchant and funny. He does have a particularly good way of pointing out the foibles of American culture. Since these were originally articles, there is some repetition of jokes and anecdotes but he makes for a very funny tour guide, even to his home country.

Patton Oswalt is one of those fringe pop cultural touchstones who is either everywhere or nowhere depending on your particular bent. For me he seems ubiquitous, even having a recurring role on the under-rated space-opera Caprica. So it just seems fitting that his memoir is titled Zombie Spaceship Wasteland.

I was surprised and delighted to learn that he grew up in the Northern Virgina DC suburbs which made his stories of his misspent youth especially relevant. Despite his being perhaps a decade younger than me I recognize the nerd-adjacent scene he traveled in. The middle part of the book is also a particularly good insight into the process of becoming a standup comic.

The book never quite comes together and perhaps that is because Oswalt is still finding his way.

Far more established is Marc Maron, a formerly forgotten comic, who has made a second career as an insightful and probing podcast interviewer. The title Attempting Normal is just so completely dead-on.

Maron spends a lot of time going over his drug-fueled road to ruin that was his early career. It shows that he has genuinely earned his world weariness. He honest and candid yet oddly optimistic.

He does protest too much about his relationship with cats. He clearly is a cat person, for better or for worse.

As stand-up comic with a podcast, a book, and a TV series all plowing the same ground, I felt a little too familiar with some of his stories as he has used much of this in either his act or in interviews either on his show or with others. But he is still a fascinating character.

Substance abuse and recovery is a disturbingly common theme in books by comics and Rob Delaney with his Dada-esquely subtitled book
Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage is almost archetypically true to form. The centerpiece of his recovery story leads up to the car accident which nearly kills him.

Like Maron, he pulls no punches in either describing his early excesses or the hardships of recovery. Like Maron, he is a person whose career was written off but discovered stardom in a new medium, in this case Twitter. Lately now that he has become the posterboy for tweeting one's way to the top, I find his stuff less spontaneous and edgy. But that is the curse of anyone who has ever followed an obscure band only to watch them hit it big. 


I don't usually do any follow-up thematic summaries at the ends of these posts, but since I've bundled eleven months of reading into a single article, I can't help but notice some patterns. One is that I really didn't read that much this year. Perhaps half as much as previous years. I ought to go through old posts and pull some stats out.

Secondly, I seem to be very comfortably ensconced into a few niches. I probably need to widen my netcasting a little bit but I'm not sure how to do that. There is just so much out there and life is too short to read bad books for the practice any more.

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