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What I Read in November & December, 2015

Well, I’m pretty happy. I managed to finish 8 books in November & December, in spite of a busy November, and thanks to the downtime around the holidays in December.

In November & December, I read:

As I mentioned in my last post, I started reading Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, but at about the 15% mark, I was burned out on it. It’s good, but it’s probably better as a slow read. I’m still reading it, slowly, but I let myself move on to other books.

The reading over the last two months of 2015 was remarkably pleasant, with only one real stinker in the bunch.

I read 1984 in October, and I did not enjoy the experience. Some portions were very well written, but on the whole, it took a pretty basic story and used it as the thin framework for a 300 page tract warning against the methods and dangers of authoritarian governments. Still, I’ve enjoyed Orwell’s essays. In “Shooting an Elephant“, for example, he manages to say something significant about the British Empire in India while telling the fascinating story of the time he was called upon to execute an elephant. He blends the two–his story and his worldview–in such a way that one is compelled to read further and inclined to give his beliefs a sympathetic ear.

So, I thought I’d try Animal Farm. I’m glad I did. It’s a quick read–about two or three hours in all–and he manages to make most of the same arguments and warnings as he did in 1984, but with clarity, emotional weight, and cutting satire. If you read nothing else by Orwell, read Animal Farm. It’s a very small investment of time with a good return.

Wonder Boys is an early work by Michael Chabon. I love Chabon’s work. I personally think he is one of the greatest living American novelists. This isn’t a remarkable opinion–many other people have thought this before me; I just agree with them. There are those who prefer Jonathan Franzen. I am not one of them. I read some of his essays (here & here) a couple years back, and, though the writing was clear and simple, there was little art and no joy. Chabon’s work is loaded with both.

I read two of his short story collections last year and mostly enjoyed them both. His The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was absolutely fantastic. Wonder Boys is also wonderful. At its core, it’s a tale of anxiety–anxiety over how the fixed past will affect the not-yet-fixed future, anxiety over missed trails, anxiety over just about everything that one discovers oneself to be. I’ve set aside another of his novels for 2016, and I’m eager to get to it.

Eight Ball Boogie was laugh-out-loud hilarious. I received it as a gift from the author–Burke was giving away copies through his Twitter feed a few years back. He takes the old Sam Spade detective story and drags it into the current-day Irish underworld, and he has a lot of fun in the process. One quote will give you some of what you need to get the feel for the book:

“I felt buoyant, untouchable. Bulletproof. Of course, that was before all the shooting started.”

The Bees was on several “best of 2014” lists. It’s a different sort of story, following a worker bee named Flora 717 as she navigates life in a beehive. It’s well-written, but I found it difficult to care about the characters in any meaningful sense, and this was not helped by the “children’s story time” tone that dominated throughout.

Gotham Knights is a graphic novel. I’m–perhaps unjustifiable–happy with myself for reading it as it’s the first book of length that I’ve read in Spanish. I found it on the shelf in the Benicàssim library, and have since discovered that it is a unique collection of Batman comics, in that it was written and drawn by Spanish authors and artists. I’ve read better Batman before, but this was still an enjoyable couple of evenings.

Frozen Assets gives me a chance to use an adjective that I don’t often think to use: workmanlike. It’s an efficient and competent, but far from unique or impressive. Actually, I’m being too generous. It’s not great. It’s the first in a series featuring Icelandic police officer, Gunnhildur Gisladottir. I grabbed it on sale, thinking it might be another translated Scandinavian crime novel–and as a rule, translated works are often much better than the average publication–but the author is from England. So, for much of the book, I was scratching my head at the various Icelandic cops and criminals using British lingo (“cuppa,” “a spot of tea,” etc). It was disorienting, to say the least. And for some reason, at the 1/3 mark, every character started saying “Ach” as an exclamation. This got old.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville, however, is a great crime novel. The book is set in Ireland in the early 1960s, and it opens with the execution of a former Nazi officer. As it turns out, Ireland has welcomed former Nazi officers, and someone is killing them off. About a year ago, the idea that Nazis received welcome in any European nation after the war would have seemed surprising to me. Then I read this: “Germany still paying pensions to Spain’s Nazi volunteers during Second World War.”

So, Albert Ryan–an Irish intelligence agent–is asked to investigate and to report back to an infamous Nazi officer. He does so, quickly learning who can and can’t be trusted (here’s a hint: no one can be trusted), and by the end, Neville has delivered a morally complicated, tense, and emotionally satisfying crime novel.

Neville’s a great writer, and I’ll be reading more of his work in the future. I can still remember a line from his Collusion: “He barely registered the detonator’s POP! before God’s fist slammed him into nothing.” I’ve never read a better description of death by explosion. True, I’ve not read a lot of descriptions of death by explosion, but of those that I have read, Neville has produced the best.

Finally, Make Room, Make Room was the stinker of the bunch. Harrison was, in his time, very concerned about over-population. If society didn’t get a handle on the rising birth rates, he worried, then by 1999, we’d be out of room and out of food. Turns out he was wrong. I picked up the book out of curiosity–Harrison is well-respected and popular among science fiction fans, his work has been influential, and Make Room, Make Room was the basis of that old Charlton Heston classic, Soylent Green (you know, the one where “Soylent Green is people!”). Sadly, the book suffers from the same sickness that afflicted 1984–it’s a tract wrapped around the thin framework of a boring story.

In any case, that’s what I read for the last two months. Not a bad list, all things considered.

I’ll be posting a follow-up in a few days with my thoughts on this past year’s reading and my plans for reading in 2016.

Happy New Year,
Dan J.

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