December 31, 2008

2008 Year in Review

Well, I tallied 61 books this year, a fair number between 2006's 58 and 2007's whopping 66. I think a list may be overkill with the easily accessible calendar and tags on the right margin there, but I'd like to take a couple of moments to reflect. This year I've been able to guide my own reading much more than in previous years because I am now out of undergrad and not taking any classes. I had an abysmal January, reading only Freakonomics, but I quickly got up to speed and read at least four books in every month except for March, when I read three. Because my goal is not only to read 52 books but to try to average them out, I think I did a pretty good job. I feel a bit like my total is inflated because of the Stephanie Plum series, a series that I was very attracted to in the beginning but which, with the exception of To the Nines, faded considerably into stereotypes and internal cliche; I enjoyed Stephanie's adventures this year but I think I will bid adieu to Trenton in the new year. I am grateful, however, that she has introduced me to the depth present in the mystery novel via The Plot Thickens and that I will continue to read the genre.

My favorite book of 2008 is probably World War Z by Max Brooks, an imaginative and wholly believable zombie narrative told convincingly as an oral history. The narrative form and voices are absolutely perfect and this book, which I chose because I felt I'd need an excuse to read it, ended up becoming permanently imprinted on my brain. This is also the year that I began reading Douglas Coupland, and while his Generation X themes tend to be somewhat dated for me, I enjoy his wit and will continue to read him in the future. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories opened up my eyes to Japanese literature, and I hope to seek out more in the future. The Godfather was fantastic as well. The best nonfiction of the year was definitely An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, which was informative but had just the right level of snarkiness to keep it interesting; I am so glad that I picked it up in Heathrow.

I had a very successful year this year and I hope that I can keep up the numbers and the quality of the books I've been reading. See you in 2009.

December 30, 2008

Book 61: The Best American Short Stories 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2008
Edited by Salman Rushdie

I always enjoy this annual collection of "literary" fiction and I find it quite interesting to see how the guest editor's personal taste colors the collection from year to year. I was far more impressed, for example, by Stephen King's collection than by Ann Patchett's, for example, but overall I think Salman Rushdie's collection is the most interesting to me, with a higher number of quality stories willing to break out of the litfic mold and surpass any and all expectations of greatness and nuance. There are, of course, a few of the indecipherable but (of course) highly "literary" middle-age sorry-for-oneself stories such as "May We Be Forgiven", which tries to introduce a twist at the end but which fails miserably. "Bible", while interesting and thrilling, cannot resist falling into this trap at its tragically yawn-inducing "conclusion" and exemplifies all that is wrong with the insular litfic world. The story I hated most, however, was "Galatea", a poor excuse for expository writing that made no sense throughout, a fact made even more frustrating by the promise of intrigue and a bit of horror with the introduction (and following complete lack of development) of a character known as the Collegetown Creeper. Heaven forbid anything in the story make sense. So this year's edition, sadly, does fall prey to what Rushdie himself refers to as "creative writingese".

That less than stellar introductory paragraph, however, does not do justice to the collection as a whole, which features many vibrant and intriguing stories that are original and teem with life and creativity. Rushdie does not shy away from that which is fantastic or even science fictional, with T.C. Boyle's creative and clever look at pet cloning ("Admiral") leading the bunch. Also outstanding are Katie Chase's "Man and Wife", which does an excellent job at turning suburbia into the Third World without being overly moralistic or self-righteous, and Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove", which is unapologetically fantasy and which provides a refreshingly original take on vampires in a saturated market. I simply cannot get enough of her work. "The Wizard of West Orange", by Steven Millhauser, is another outstanding example of science fiction that demonstrates flawlessly that genre writing can actually (surprise!) touch on human themes and with excellent, "literary" writing to boot. I am exceedingly pleased that this year's crop of stories included many stories that went beyond the real world and took risks with alternate realities while retaining the quality expected when the word "best" is appended to the work.

Even the realistic stories in this collection are original and fresh. Rebecca Makkai's "The Worst You Ever Feel" is absolutely stunning from start to finish as it successfully harnesses the power of music to drive its narrative. This is also a fundamentally American story without re-hashing the overplayed immigrant narrative- Makkai is able to look at the refreshing promise of the "free world" without resorting to stereotypes and while powerfully evoking Old World tragedy. "The Worst You Ever Feel" is a worthy successor to the American immigrant story because it simply allows those themes to exist within the story without rambling on about the American Dream and other such cliche bull- the story breathes and is one of the most emotionally powerful pieces I have ever read. I eagerly await her upcoming short story collection. "Missionaries", by Bradford Tice, is not as evocative or emotionally moving but provides an interesting look at two young LDS missionaries and their vastly different approaches to their task, again without being heavy-handed or moralizing at all. Tice allows the reader to explore and experience the story, and the reader is richer for it. Christine Sneed's "Quality of Life" is likewise subtle and brilliant, exploring the time-old assertion that we are always in control of our lives in a fresh and ironic way, without being sappy or bitter and allowing the story to confront an uncomfortable truth head-on.

It's a pity that the stories are reprinted in alphabetical order, because the second offering is by far this collection's best and belongs only at the end of anthology (though I will concede that it would be a good opener). "The Year of Silence", by Kevin Brockmeier, is absolutely stunning and fantastic. I was made giddy by the fact that it was include, because it is science fiction through and through and not the kind of story usually respected by the hoity-toity litfic types. Its narrative form is absolutely perfect and shows deliberation and mastery of the craft. The story is of a city that gradually basks itself in silence and its attendant introspection. Told in the first person plural with as much success as Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides and in discrete chunks of plot, the story builds much as the situation within and, like Makkai's, simply allows its prominent themes to breathe and exist without over-exposure.

This collection, despite its (exceedingly small) share of boring and over-wrought stories, shines throughout and continually surprised me. There are at least four stories that vie for my opinion as the absolute best of the collection, and each one shines in an entirely different and unexpected way. Rushdie does an excellent job of selecting original and imaginative stories that illuminate our world by casting subtle shadows instead of showering us with blinding flourescence. This collection offers so much and every reader can be excited by at least one story in the bunch. The Best American Short Stories 2008 is, overall, the best installment that I have read and showcases what I believe must be the best and brightest of American short fiction. There is variety, there is depth, and there is truth in these pages.

Grade: A

December 24, 2008

Book 60: Ten Big Ones

Ten Big Ones
Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum returns yet again in this tenth installment (eleventh if you count the Visions of Sugar Plums train wreck) of her adventures as a barely-competent bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey. Unfortunately, one book reads just like another and though there is remarkable continuity between the stories, Evanovich is beginning to seem incapable of deviating at all from her tried-and-true formula. The addition of gang warfare to Trenton seems like either an attempt to focus on a real and growing problem or, more often, like a cheap and exploitative way to add suspense to Stephanie's life. At this point, though, readers know that she won't be killed or seriously harmed, so even when her car is blown up within the first few pages there is little suspense or intrigue to drive the novel. Ten Big Ones lacks the charm deployed by the previous installment's hilarious field trip and previously vivid Trenton is beginning to seem contrived and bland. This could be because the Burg is so familiar to readers, but when Evanovich adds an entirely new section of town (Slayerland), Trenton becomes just another gang-ridden, decaying city. Also maddening is the completely unrealistic expository dialogue about gang problems in Trenton, problems that, suspiciously, have never revealed themselves before, right alongside a borderline offensive explanation of gang graffiti that echoes the novel's quiet racist tones. Stephanie's ongoing romantic saga with Joe and Ranger is at its most insipid in this book and is particularly uninspired, with Stephanie quickly going downhill from a humorously confused woman to an immature brat. I am quickly losing my sympathy for the once-spunky protagonist and as strong supporting characters like Lula and Grandma Mazur are tragically reduced to stereotypes and predictable outbursts, the series weakens considerably. Everything that once made this series fresh and interesting is quickly becoming stale and boring and, though there are some good bits to this tale, I think I'm going to quit the series soon before it becomes unbearably cliche. Ten Big Ones is a good effort with some good quick gags and a hilarious (if rushed) resolution, but because it fits so well and so blandly into the established Plum universe it is incredibly disappointing.

Grade: C+

December 21, 2008

Book 59: The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate
Richard Condon

Having never seen either of the movie adaptations of this book, I went into it relatively unspoiled, which I think is a good thing because I was permitted to engage in the novel's big reveal precisely as it was intended, just before the heretofore barely implicit became blindly obvious. Because the political implications of the novel hinge on this plot twist, it is difficult to assess the novel on a first reading. For much of the story, I was somewhat bored and confused by different characterizations and rambling paragraphs of exposition that seemed to add little to the story; in retrospect, some of these bits are useful but some are unnecessarily long and come into play far later for minor plot variations. The book is largely boring but speeds up fairly well in the end, achieving a thrilling intensity in its last hundred pages that would serve it well in the previous parts. The book is also hard for someone in my generation to judge, as it feels most at home in the Cold War and must, therefore, take on a vintage feel to the modern reader. Ultimately, it is a decently written but dated story that raises its interesting issues far too late, and with far too little exploration, to make it particularly politically compelling.

The story itself is quite interesting and should pose interesting philosophical and ethical questions: what would happen if an enemy force could manufacture a Medal of Honor winner and use him as an ultimate, almost undetectable weapon? Unfortunately, a lot of the intrigue gets lost and bogged down by a downright unlikeable cast of characters who are almost impossible to relate to and a whole lot harder to care about, until maybe the very end of the book when it is too late for Condon to manufacture sympathy. Though the plot is driven by an original and well-executed idea, it crams far too much of its intrigue into its final, rushed act and fails to sustain interest throughout. The writing itself is passable and the book as a whole simply interesting, to be read and passed quietly into the "read" pile. Those interested in Cold War literature or brainwashing will probably enjoy this book, and anyone cynical about American politics will appreciate the cold and stark portrait of Raymond's mother as the most coldly calculating of political opportunists and the driving force behind an underdeveloped McCarthyist hysteria. There are hints of interest throughout the book, but they are either woefully overplayed or frustratingly underdeveloped. Ultimately, The Manchurian Candidate is consistently vaguely interesting until its final successful act, by which point readers' ambivalence has gone unchecked for so long that it's hard to get wrapped up in the action and the book is reconciled to a place on the shelves of mediocre dated political thrillers.

Grade: B-

December 14, 2008

Book 58: To the Nines

To the Nines
Janet Evanovich

It's been a while since I've joined Stephanie Plum in her never-ending adventures as Trenton's least capable bounty hunter. To the Nines is a worthy installment in the series, where Evanovich relies on her tried-and-true Stephanie tricks while adding enough new ingredients into the mix to make the book seem original and fresh. Stephanie's narration is again the driving force in the novel, although there are times when it seems tired and gets repetitive. Stephanie's continual comments about her family are generally reliably hilarious but occasionally venture in to the world of slight annoyance. Lula remains painfully stereotyped and almost offensively stupid, at times though her conception of the Atkins diet is, at its core, absolutely hilarious. Joe Morelli and Ranger, the men in Stephanie's life, are surprisingly well-developed in this novel, with their uneasy alliance in full view and beginning to be explored, though Stephanie too often comes across as shallow and immature when it comes to the two male bombshells. The plot itself of To the Nines is what makes it shine in the expanding Plum catalogue- instead of succumbing to the series fatigue hinted at in the past few books, Evanovich livens things up with a well-executed field trip to Las Vegas for several of the main characters. The most exciting development this includes is a further exploration of Vinnie's secretary Connie, who is vibrant and who successfully steps into the role of major back-up character for the trip. Trenton's character is more muted in this volume, but Evanovich's attention to characterization (with the obvious exception of the blatantly racist portrayal of Pakistani McDonald's employee Howie) and an original and haunting central plot line make this installment of the Stephanie Plum series a delightful addition to the collection.

Grade: A-

December 13, 2008

Book 57: Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow

This novel is truly that in the most basic sense of the word: its mode of storytelling feels new and vigorous while retaining enough of the classical mode to hold readers' attention and interest. Ragtime is a fast paced and ever-moving story of a country and a world moving through a period of rapid change and to have its story told through a conventional narrative structure would diminish its power. Initially I was put off by its lack of concrete characters or sensible, tangible plot points; by reading the book, however, I was drawn further and further into its tangled web and the swift current of its portrait of America between 1900 and World War I. Doctorow reveals himself to be an immensely skilled author, able not only to deliver a well-paced and continually interesting postmodern look at our not-so-distant past but also to realize when it is proper to take a step back and allow the reader to get their bearings. It would be easy to be swept away entirely in the constant flood of information that distinguishes and characterizes this novel, but Doctorow nimbly links his stories, his real-life and imagined characters and situations, and creates a story that draws its readers effortlessly into the tune of a different era.

Readers may be at first concerned about the fluidity of plots and hasty character sketches; the use of historical figures such as Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini does, at times, seem like a gimmicky way to give the novel a kind of credibility. What the novel does, however, is draw a large and complex portrait of its setting at its outset, gradually narrowing its focus and refining its plot. At the end of each section, the plot has moved considerably closer to the familiarly-named family that holds the book together. Though its narrator is never revealed and often moves from almost first person (referring to said family as "Father", "Mother," and the like) to an over-arching third person in the span of a sentence or two, the story feels familiar and intimate. Its spell is only broken in its fourth section, where it is revealed that portions of Houdini's story are, for example, drawn from his personal papers. Thematically, however, this drastic break from the book's reverie is particularly poignant as the plot moves into the times of Woodrow Wilson and the impending shellacking that World War I will give to the early century's semblance of 1800s normalcy. The over-arching plot of the novel, intertwined successfully with a multitude of side-plots that reflect the diversity of their New York settings during the period, zeroes in unexpectedly on a subtle yet vibrant discussion of the institutional racism that consistently mars America's record as a bastion of justice and democracy. This topic, however, is handled with remarkable care and calm and presented ironically- and, miraculously, without overt comment- alongside an immigrant success story that somehow only seems stereotypical in retrospect.

Ragtime is a novel that must, as its epigraph suggests, be read slowly and preferably in as few sittings as possible. It succeeds only when the reader allows it to throw them headfirst into its incredibly realistic and richly detailed world, the realism of which is accomplished through masterful use of simple, direct sentences and through a surprisingly effective lack of quotation marks. This novel is a beautiful presentation of the thunderous cachophony that hides beneath our conceptions of the early 20th century. Doctorow manages to take relatively straightforward, time-tested narratives of the maligned but dignified minority, the immigrant working their way up from the Lower East Side tenements, and the WASP-turned-revolutionary and weave them together in a way that is unapologetically realistic and utterly compelling. It is only evident afterward that the plot itself of Ragtime relies on stereotypical reconstructions of its era; this itself is even forgivable given what Doctorow adds to these stories to make them personal and to make them come alive in his chosen and perfectly rendered era. New York itself is the true main character of Ragtime, in which all its other figures operate and with which they interact, and which comes splendidly alive in this unique and compelling book. Ragtime will hook you in without your knowledge and is an invariably exciting portrait of America just after the turn of the last century.

Grade: A

December 2, 2008

Book 56: 20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts
Joe Hill

I was- and continue to be- intrigued by this set of stories, which is somewhat unlike anything I've read before. While I was expecting a collection of full-blown horror stories, Hill demonstrates his agility and resistance to be pigeonholed by writing on a variety of topics, with varying degrees of success. While many of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts do belong firmly in the horror genre, Hill often tries his hand at more traditional "literary" fiction, with varying degrees of success. One of the best stories of the collection, "Pop Art", is an excellent blend of a tender coming-of-age tale with imaginative and unique fantasy elements and an unapologetically dark tone. It is refreshing to read some of the more "literary" pieces in this collection because they bring much more to the table than the rootless extensialism that plagues many modern non-genre short stories- Hill isn't at all afraid to explore the darker corners of the human psyche and demonstrates that this can be done with a great degree of literary talent and often poetic prose. His prose is, in fact, often quite elegant and holds up to the highest standards set by more mainstream fiction. Hill throws in sly and relevant observations without hesitation or conceit and his sentences are often elegant. Too bad, then, that he seems to lack a bit in story structure.

Doubt and frustration plagued me while I was reading this collection. I often felt that a story was just beginning to live up to its potential, to get interesting, when it would stop suddenly. This kind of surprising sudden halt is done quite well in the very meta "Best New Horror", but seems lazy in "In the Rundown" and leaves the story actually unfinished. Likewise, I quite keenly felt the underlying discomfort elicited by "My Father's Mask", but at the end of the story I was quite unable to determine what exactly had happened. Ambiguity is good when used properly, but when everything in a story is unexplained the lack of development seems juvenile. Many of the stories could have been fleshed out a little more while retaining the terror that comes with the unknown and/or unknowable. Other stories seem to move nowhere for a while or to contain completely extraneous matter- most of the stories in this collection could have been shorter and would not have suffered for it.

That said, however, I did enjoy 20th Century Ghosts at times, both in horror and non-horror stories. "Better Than Home" very nearly made me cry and is a touching story in which almost nothing actually happens. Strange that the story that most closely resembles its "literary" cousins is among the best executed in this often gory collection. "Abraham's Boys" is an imaginative retelling of the Van Helsing story that leaves a little to be desired but which is interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Here, as in "Last Breath", the ending is perfect while being a bit abrupt.

"The Black Phone" ends absolutely perfectly, with a zinger that is at once hilarious and incredibly dark; the story requires you to suspend disbelief in the supernatural for a while, but it is totally worth it just to get the unapologetic humor in the last line. This story demonstrates best Joe Hill's strengths as a writer- he is willing to operate within the darker parts of the human mind and experience (and the darker horror genre) but maintains a literary finesse and does not compromise his prose for his subject matter. Hill writes excellently, but I believe he still has some trouble fully executing his plots; many stories left me wondering what the point was or frustrated that I had no idea what had happened, but all were thought-provoking nonetheless. Joe Hill's sheer power of imagination is certainly hard to match- he is unafraid to experiment and comes up with a few quite original and interesting ideas that successfully drive his stories. 20th Century Ghosts holds within it the promise of great talent and has a few definite keepers (heretofore unmentioned but memorable and recommended "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is a highlight), worth reading if readers can withstand ambiguity and points of frustration- there is more good than bad here even if many stories leave a bit to be desired.

Grade: B