Reading List 2009 (22/55)

Flood, Andrew Vachss
Strega, Andrew Vachss
Blue Belle, Andrew Vachss
Hard Candy, Andrew Vachss
Blossom, Andrew Vachss
Sacrifice, Andrew Vachss
Down in the Zero, Andrew Vachss
Footsteps of the Hawk, Andrew Vachss
False Allegations, Andrew Vachss
Safe House, Andrew Vachss
Choice of Evil, Andrew Vachss
Dead and Gone, Andrew Vachss
Pain Management, Andrew Vachss
Only Child, Andrew Vachss
Down Here, Andrew Vachss
Mask Market, Andrew Vachss
Terminal, Andrew Vachss
Another Life, Andrew Vachss
Shella, Andrew Vachss
Born Bad, Andrew Vachss
Everybody Pays, Andrew Vachss
Batman: the Ultimate Evil, Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss is the master of mean, the Godfather of gritty, the hardcase of hardcore. (But in that case why am I writing like James Ellroy channeling late-night fifties radio shows?) He’s got a flair for a well-turned phrase - even if he does tend to reuse the best ones from book to book. His books are rooted in some very nasty parts of our culture, and shine a light where a light badly needs shining.

Okay, so Vachss can be a bit formulaic - but why worry when it works? Child abuse + Burke-as-knight-errant + hot but damaged kick-ass chick + cast of eccentric sidekicks = compelling fiction, most of the time. Vachss is particularly good at conveying the seedy underbelly of New York, but he does a good job of taking Burke out of his depth, too. Burke trying to get by in rural Indiana, for example, is played both for amusement value and for cultural commentary.

Vachss does tend to reuse plot elements from his novels in his short stories, or maybe vice versa, so I wouldn’t recommend reading the novels all in a row followed by the short stories - you won’t enjoy them much. Still, I definitely plan to read these again someday. I just might take a little more time between books!

I would not, however, read Batman: the Ultimate Evil again. As clever a conceit as Batman fighting child prostitution is, it’s neither good Batman nor good Vachss in execution. Not recommended.

Book-a-Day? Nah …

According to my informal count, I’ve read 72 books so far in 2009; today is the 78th day of the year, so I’m six books behind. Not that I’m trying to manage a book a day this year. That would be doom. Really. Doom. I would like to graduate eventually, thanks very much.

Reading List 2009 (11/33)

Some past reading:

The Virgin Heiresses, Ellery Queen
Swan Song, Robert McCammon
The Best of Eric Frank Russell, Eric Frank Russell
Lady Killer, Lisa Scottoline
Blasphemy, Douglas Preston
Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
Payback, Margaret Atwood
The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
A Flaw in the Blood, Stephanie Barron
The Best American Mystery Stories 2008, ed. George Pelecanos
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Leanne Shapton

Goodness, I’ve somehow failed to update this in ages. I think that’s for two reasons. First, I’m working on my dissertation damn hard (yay!). Second, I’m actually blogging about it over at Making Games, so when I make a new post that’s got to have first priority.

Still, why wouldn’t I want to take a few moments to rant about books? Ah, books. And you know it’s a good batch when almost two months later, I’m having trouble deciding which ones to write about at length.

A lot of these books came up from the bowels of my collection when I decided that I had to go hunting for Swan Song. (It was all the way in the back, under a bunch of other things I decided I had to read or re-read!) I’d read Swan Song a number of years ago, but I found some of the imagery so powerful and striking that it’s never let me go. McCammon envisions a nuclear apocalypse that, as with King’s The Stand, turns into a battle of good versus evil across a ruined America. McCammon’s villains, though, are shockingly sympathetic; while they do horrific things, McCammon puts them through enough awful experiences of their own that one can read them as terribly broken rather than virulently nasty. McCammon also picks powerful moments, characters and images to emphasize. The one that made me go hunting for the book? Air Force One riding high above the whirling, boiling clouds of death.

I had to re-read the Eric Frank Russell when I found it, too, because my dad had recommended it to me a few years ago. Some of the stories rely on a clever trick (”Jay Score,” for example) and don’t stand up particularly well to re-reading. But in general, Russell’s ironic voice and his cutting impatience with hogwash keep the stories feeling shockingly fresh. “Metamorphosite,” for example, takes on how empires run and where they’re vulnerable - doubly relevant in this age of terrorism. “Allamagoosa” skewers bureaucracy equally well, and is damn funny to boot.

Payback is a thoughtful, witty and erudite trip through everyone’s favorite topic these days, debt. Atwood takes a writer’s perspective on the topic, unpacking what we really mean when we talk about debt and lacing her argument with wonderful vignettes drawn both from literature and life. I’ve found some of her fiction self-obsessed and self-indulgent; here, though, Atwood is at her best. Highly recommended.

Finally, when I was a kid I used to dream about being Phineas Fogg. Who wouldn’t want to be a supremely competent yet casually heroic globe-trotter? But wow, upon rereading as an adult, I’ve discovered that the guy is a dick. I think Philip Jose Farmer wrote a counter-text to the book; I’ve got to dig it up and see what he makes of it.

Reading List 2009 (12/22)

And the rest of my 2009 reading so far! Notice I’m well ahead of a book a day - by more than 25%, for the curious - but I doubt this will last past January. As the semester gets underway, I’ll have less opportunity to read fiction, and non-fiction always slows me down.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Emma, Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Lady Susan, Jane Austen
Hold Tight, Harlan Coben
I Remember the Future, Michael A. Burstein
Space Magic, David D. Levine
The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox
The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier

Why yes, I do really enjoy Austen. Do we need to fight about that?

The theme of this week’s reading, though, was “Holy shit, why have I never heard of this amazing book before?” Specifically: Levine, Knox, Collier. I cannot say enough good things about any of them, and trying would make this post unreadably long - so we’ll stick with the more-or-less facts.

I picked up the Burstein book because I’d heard it had a lot of stories about time travel, which it in fact did. (Did I mention I love time travel?) But I found the stories largely uninspiring. They were good and some of them were clever, but none of them left me delighted. The concepts were all excellent, but the execution just didn’t push my buttons. Then a friend said, “Why don’t you try David Levine?” So I did, and went, “Right! Yes! Terrific! This is what I wanted!” There are a few duds in the collection (”Fear of Widths”) but the stories are largely tight, well-conceived, and well-written. I particularly appreciated how he smoothly moved back and forth between science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy and alternate history. “Tk’Tk’Tk” is the award-winner here, but my personal favorite was “Love in the Balance.” While it wasn’t the best story in the collection, I was completely enchanted with the world the story implied, and I’d read just about anything Levine chose to set in that universe.

Knox tells the story of a man’s lifelong friendship with an angel, who visits him one fateful night in his vineyard in 1808. The book’s structure moves year by year through Sobran’s life, sharing incidents and vignettes that shape him and define his relationship to Xas, the angel. (Though I also loved the introduction of Aurora, the local baroness, who is delightfully practical about the whole angel thing.) The language is gorgeous yet simple, the characters well-developed and the supernatural elements original (and wonderfully done!). Really, this book was a delight from beginning to end, assuming you don’t mind a little tragedy in your romance and vice versa. I almost dismissed it as an Oprah’s-book-list-wannabe, but this little gem is something much richer, deeper and stranger. Highly recommended.

Finally, Collier’s book left me walking around the house going, “Oh my god! Capital flows of domestic investment! Wage gaps! Devaluation of local currency! Yes!” He tackles the problem of the “bottom billion,” as one might guess from the title - the billion people living in seriously troubled countries that are failing to grow. I’m totally impressed with his empirical research, and even more so with his ability to make complex economic concepts clear - and to explain why they matter, profoundly, for our policies toward failing states. If you read one non-fiction book this year, make it this one.

And now, Shabbat Shalom for real!

Reading List 2009 (10/10)

The advantage of vacation early in the year: one gets well ahead on one’s reading.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
Touchstone, Laurie R. King
Darker than Midnight, Maggie Shayne
Ritual, William Heffernan
Pandora’s Daughter, Iris Johansen
No One Heard Her Scream, Jordan Dane

As always, I began the New Year (and celebrated my birthday!) by re-reading Lord of the Rings. Every year I find something new in it; this year I spent a lot of time on the poetry, as a way of understanding the world’s disenchantment and re-enchantment. (Why yes, I do have a friend writing his dissertation on that topic. Why do you ask?)

I finished a bit quicker than usual, because I was on vacation and spent most afternoons on the beach with a book. Hard to complain, right? But I realized I would have to conserve the remaining books I’d brought with me if I wanted to make it to the end of vacation without going a bit stir-crazy. Fortunately the hotel had some English books I could borrow, but they were all fairly ridiculous thrillers. The Heffernan had the advantage of being partly set at Chichen Itza, where we’d just visited the day before, and partly set at the American Museum of Natural History where the boy volunteers - but really I wouldn’t read any of them again except under duress. Especially the Johansen. I’ve read a few of her stand-alone books and they’re pretty universally terrible, not to mention embarrassingly formulaic. Somehow in the back of my head I think they’ll be up to the level of her Eve Duncan series (which is, let me tell you, not a particularly high bar to set) but they never are.

The one bright spot - and I knew it would be one - was Touchstone. I love King’s work in general and yes, I do have a massive crush on her portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. This stand-alone thriller, though, focuses on labor-union skulduggery in 1920s Britain. King does a wonderful job evoking the feel of the period, and she’s equally convincing when writing about striking miners and about aristocratic country week-ends. She manages to avoid the worst cliches of both genre and period while doing it, too! It’s really easy to fall into faux-Christie, say, but she keeps her own voice. Not that the novel was perfect: the Big Twist was something I’d figured out in the first chapter, and it’s likely that most careful readers could do the same. Still, overall I’d recommend the book to anyone who likes a good thriller, even if you aren’t already a fan of King’s.

The second half of my reading to date gets its own post, but that may have to wait until after Shabbat. Shabbat shalom, everyone! Happy 2009!

Reading List 2008 (35/259)

Last reading roundup of the year:

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
The Talisman, John Godey
Restless Virgins, Abigail Jones & Marissa Miley
The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine
Made to Stick, Chip Heath & Dan Heath
How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less, Melissa de la Cruz & Karen Robinovitz
Foreskin’s Lament, Shalom Auslander
Beyond Reach, Karin Slaughter
The Rules of Silence, David Lindsey
The Color of Night, David Lindsey
Mr. White’s Confession, Robert Clark
The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
The Haunted Looking Glass, ed. Edward Gorey
Detection by Gaslight, ed. Donald R. Greene
Dragonhaven, Robin McKinley
The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
The Book of Vice, Peter Sagal
Kennedy’s Brain, Henning Mankell
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Cheating at Canasta, William Trevor
McCain’s Promise, David Foster Wallace
The Compton Effect, Leslie Horvitz
Duma Key, Stephen King
Coma, Robin Cook
The Innocent Mage, Karen Miller
The Awakened Mage, Karen Miller
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
A Moment on the Edge, ed. Elizabeth George
At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft
The Incredible Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson
The Darkest Evening of the Year, Dean Koontz
T is for Trespass, Sue Grafton
Killer Year, ed. Lee Child
Killing Castro, Lawrence Block

2008 needs to be over now.

Reading List 2008 (40/224)

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated my reading list. What does one read after the unexpected and untimely death of one’s father? In my case, Alastair Reynolds (for characters who have it even worse than I do) and Dickens (for easy sentiment and plenty of engaging plot).

The Ill-Made Mute, Cecelia Dart-Thornton
The Lady of the Sorrows, Cecelia Dart-Thornton
The Battle of Evernight, Cecelia Dart-Thornton
Hunter’s Oath, Michelle West
Hunter’s Death, Michelle West
The Broken Crown, Michelle West
The Uncrowned King, Michelle West
The Shining Court, Michelle West
Sea of Sorrows, Michelle West
The Riven Shield, Michelle West
The Sun Sword, Michelle West
The Prefect, Alastair Reynolds
Dead By Sunset, Ann Rule
Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh
Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh
Starburst, Frederik Pohl
Blue City, Ross Macdonald
The Amateur, Robert Littell
The Negotiator, Frederick Forsyth
Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds
Galactic North, Alastair Reynolds
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds
Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds
Children of the Holocaust, Helen Epstein
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
Hard Times, Charles Dickens
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens

I’m afraid I don’t really have the heart to do reviews, despite how terrible the Dart-Thornton series was (and with such a great premise, too!). Oh, and I really liked the West books despite the fact that given her pacing, she’s going to have to write approximately three hundred books before wrapping up the things she began. Also I’d never read Dombey and Son before, but it may be my new favorite Dickens. And that’s that.

Another forty or so books to come before 2009 begins. It looks like I’ll be coming in under 300 books for the year, which isn’t a great surprise given that I’ve been too depressed to read much recently.

Thank You, Obama Voters

So, yes, I voted this morning, and it was just as great an experience as you’d have guessed from the twenty other OMFGIVOTEDSQUEE posts you’ve read today. There were handshakes all around, high fives, long lines and two sixteen-year-olds telling people, “Vote Obama for me, because I can’t vote yet!” It was about what I expected from an Upper West Side Election Day morning, really, and hardly post-worthy.

I did just learn, though, that the Obama rally in Chicago has caused my Extremely Stressful Deadline to be pushed back from 6pm today until noon tomorrow, so that the fellowship office staffers can go rally for Obama too. Now I’m doubly glad I voted for the guy. Obama, I owe you one.

Happy Anniversary To Me

Today is my anniversary! I count it from my first date with The Boy, since we couldn’t reconstruct exactly when we met. Twelve years later, I still feel like the luckiest woman around. I’m profoundly grateful to have such a kind, generous, creative, loving, wise polymath of a guy in my life. Here’s hoping for another twelve years!

The past two months have been tough; it’s nice to come back to posting with some good news for a change.

(Next up? Books, books, books!)

No More Spam?

This is mostly a test post to see if the upgrade has solved the evil spam problem.

On the bright side, I can also post to officially announce that I did 125 pushups last night, in five sets. That’s an average of 25 pushups per set, though I actually did two sets of 30 and then three shorter sets. I had no idea how strong and competent I would feel. Rock and roll!