Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Year In Books

So I read a bunch of classics this year, but I read a bunch of other stuff as well (66 tomes in all, if you trust GoodReads), & figured you guys might enjoy a "Best Of" books list rather than a sappy recap of my not-all-that-notable running year. (FYI, there is some overlap with the previous post.)


A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Isaac Asimov's Foundation meets Neal Stephenson's Anathem, at a third the page count. I'd call it more spec fiction than sci fi; it takes place in the distant future where the vast majority of science, technology, & culture has been obliterated by nuclear war & reactionary fundamentalist sects, so parts of it feel more medieval than futuristic. Brilliantly & shrewdly written, confronting questions of history, philosophy, theology, ethics, and the cyclic nature of human civilization, without ever getting preachy or didactic. As relevant now as in 1960. Fans of Asimov & the like should love it.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't, by Nate Silver. I loved this book for the same reason that I loved The Predictioneer's Game and Data, A Love Story. All of them lie at the intersection of math/statistics/data/modeling and psychology/sociology. While I still think Nate Silver is brilliant, after reading this book I have a better understanding of just how terrible at modeling and predicting so many other people are (& I'm talking about people who are paid for making predictions) & why it's so easy for him to look that much more brilliant by comparison. The great tragedy of this book is that the people who are most likely to read it are probably the people who already have a pretty decent understanding of data/statistics, and the people who have a less-good understanding of those things are probably the people who would most benefit from reading it.


Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson. I have never been able to get into The Bloggess's blog, so I didn't seek out her book when it was first released. But then Patrick Rothfuss gave the audio book a five-star review, and it did not disappoint. I listened to it on the spin bike when I was recovering from my stress fracture and literally thought I was going to fall off sometimes because I was laughing so hard. (Also, as she grew up in rural Texas, there were parts that probably struck me as even funnier than they would have otherwise because I was like, "Yep, it is *totally* just like that.") A quick, easy, hilarious, entertaining read (or listen as the case may be--I think I might actually recommend listening over reading in this case because Lawson's narration is just. That. Fabulous).

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. You do not get to talk about how you understand the fabric of this country and how we've gotten to the place we are until you read this book. Just no. I think I first learned about Uncle Tom's Cabin in 11th grade & the blurb in our textbook was like, "This woman wrote this book depicting the realities of slavery & it kind of went viral & started the Civil War," and then we got to read about a bunch of white people shooting at each other & getting their limbs sawed off for the next 5 chapters. Honestly, I think would have been better off just reading this book. It's one thing to read a novel about slavery written in the present day or recent past, but there is a whole other weight that comes with reading something that was written and published before the Civil War. If you can get through this book without becoming utterly enraged and heartbroken about the things that went on in this country, for hundreds of years, under the full protection of the law, to say nothing of what the fall out was (and continues to be), you are either un-American or inhuman or both.


The Long Run, by Matthew Lane. The next time you start feeling sorry for yourself or like you're going through some hard times and are feeling frustrated & discouraged about how long the road seems, give ol' Matty Long a hundred pages or so. If you still feel the same way after, you are not human. I don't want to spoil the impact of the first few chapters, but the broad strokes are that Long was a Brooklyn firefighter, BQ marathoner, & Ironman who got run over by a bus (LITERALLY LIKE A BUS DROVE OVER HIM) in December 2005 & suffered a litany of absolutely horrific injuries. The book chronicles is journey from a miserable, barely recognizable, barely functional, physical & mental wreck of a human to, well, the guy on the cover of the book. So yeah. This book basically convinced me I don't get to feel discouraged about anything ever again.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I'd been kinda-sorta meaning to read this book for a while & kept putting it off because I wasn't sure I was up for the all the darkness, but recently a friend was like, "No seriously. Amazeballs," so I took it with me on vacation, and she was absolutely right. On the one hand I kind of think I'd say this is a great read as long as you're not going through dark, nasty stuff at the time, but on the other hand, maybe this is *exactly* the type of book you should read in that case because you might decide that things aren't really all that bad by comparison.


Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. This book was sold to me as "a classic that's actually funny" and "like 'The Daily Show' in terms of tone & political poignancy," so I thought it would make a nice break from srsbzns reading. Ha ha ha ha. Not. Yes, there are some funny parts, and the absurdist-satire-"hell is bureaucracy" theme has its moments, but it definitely ranks among the darkest, most depressing and harrowing books I have ever read, because war & stupid people.


The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith. So this book was based on actual events that happened to the author. In the spring of 2009, Smith received a call from his father saying that he needed to come to Sweden immediately because his mom had suffered a psychotic episode & was in an asylum. And almost immediately after, a call from his mother saying she'd just been released from the hospital, everything his father had told him was a lie, that his dad was involved in a criminal conspiracy, and she was flying to London to explain the truth. You might think, well, obviously, this book has to go one of two ways. Nope. Smith keeps you guessing all the way to the end, with a couple of twists I'm happy to say I never saw coming. Ditto with the resolution. A smart mystery, tight writing, fantastic storytelling, and rich, believable characters? More of this, please.


To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I don't fully understand the magic with which Lee has woven this story, but somehow she managed to write a sober, poignant, heartbreaking tale addressing some pretty hardcore themes (race, class, gender, family, community, loyalty, justice, rape, murder, and on and on and on) without it being depressing as hell (though I'm sure having the story told from the point of view of a precocious 7-8 year old has something to do with). I've been avoiding it forever because it sounded so dark and depressing, and though it deals with some pretty serious stuff, it's all unquestionably underlined by the ideas of hope, optimism, compassion, and unwavering belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings.


Jitterbug Perfume, by Tim Robbins. After Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates left me rolling my eyes, I wasn't totally sure I wanted to wade any deeper into Tom Robbins. Jitterbug Perfume has become such an iconic book, though, that I felt I had to give it a chance on the strength of the recommendations I've gotten from people who loved it, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed it. In a lot of ways this is just the type of book I'm looking for when I've been reading a lot of intense, srsbzns stuff -- it's whimsical, irreverent, and overall on the light-hearted side, but still well-written and possessed of a unique, intriguing plot and interesting, well-rounded characters. A quick, fun read if you're in the mood for something a little quirky & irreverent but still clever & well-written.

The Black Prism (Lightbringer, #1), by Brent Weeks. I'm always a bit wary of starting a fantasy series because there are just so many ways they can go horrifically bad. The Black Prism was a rare treat, though. Sure, there are a few cliched elements, but I didn't mind them because they were executed in such unique and fresh ways, which kept things interesting and (mostly) unpredictable. The young, brilliant, wise, gorgeous, powerful, beloved ruler/religious leader ("The Prism") has a sweet relationship with his mother. His long-lost-suddenly-resurfaced bastard is a sassy, chubby, uncoordinated 15-year-old who is too smart for his own good but has a heart of gold. The ex-fiance for whom the Prism still carries a torch is a hot shit, tough-as-nails soldier & one of his personal bodyguards. (Be warned, though - only the first three of four have been published & Book 4 is scheduled for 2016.)


The Blinding Knife (Lightbringer, #2), by Brent Weeks. If anything, better than the first. The Prism continues to be one of the most well-written hero-type fantasy protagonists I've ever read. I continue to adore his kick-ass love interest & her martial arts skills. His insecure-yet-earnest, almost-too-smart-for-his-own-good teenage bastard son is so believable it hurts. Bad guys do honorable things and have understandable motives. Good guys sometimes do crappy things. Ambivalent characters abound. Political machinations are brilliantly executed. And over the course of book two, it becomes clear that certain narrative arcs are coming home to roost, some of them so artfully crafted that they didn't even look like narrative arcs until now.


The Broken Eye (Lightbringer, #3), by Brent Weeks. Yeah; I'm not sure what else to say except that Brent Weeks is a genius & this series is becoming a contender for best fantasy series in the history of ever. Complex, dynamic characters with layers of back-story. Multiple ass-kicking female characters that defy tropes & stereotypes. Fantastic dialogue. Large-scale narrative planning that is clever, artful, and occasionally makes you think back two books & go, "Oh, SHIIIIIT." You will never stop guessing. My only regret? That I didn't know going in that the last book is scheduled for 2016.

The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, by Steve Strogatz. I wish I could have read this book in high school, when I was *actually* struggling with math. At this point I read it more from the point of view of, "How could I use pieces of this with students and/or the teachers that I work with?" In these 30 short essays, Strogatz begins at the beginning (with the concept of counting) and winds his way through everything from basic algebra to calculus to advanced topics like group theory and topology, discussing each topic in a way that is not only friendly and approachable for the mathematical neophite (or phobic), but fascinating. And for all that the book is aimed at a general audience, I have to admit that I learned a few fascinating things about some topics that I didn't even learn in my advanced semester-long college classes.

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. I'd put off reading anything by Salman Rushdie for years because I was afraid that my complete & utter lack of background knowledge about India might make it difficult to understand and/or enjoy. Let's be real, though; if a book gets the author sentenced to death in absentia, it is automatically a must-read. To summarize the feel, I would say that The Satanic Verses is Jitterbug Perfume all grown up--longer, more serious, a touch darker, a touch more "literary", but still dealing with themes of history, spirituality/religion, morality, life/death/rebirth, packed with quirky characters, and completely hilarious & irreverent. There are many people this book is not for (I suspect you know who you are), but if you like big, smart, multi-layered, beautifully written, baddass books that pull no punches, this one may be for you. Pay close attention & don't feel bad about reading with Cliff's Notes handy.


The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. Halfway through, I was ready to declare this the best book I've read all year. The writing is masterful. The characters are so thoroughly well-written that you almost feel like you've met them somewhere. Even the characters that only appear for a few pages come across as three-dimensional, and you can never tell whether someone is going to end up being a major character or not until it happens. The story premise, when I finally figured out, kind of blew my mind. In a lot of fantasy/sci-fi/spec fiction book, I feel like the lead-up is mostly just introducing people/places/things & waiting for something cool to happen. Not so in Bone Clocks. It's a good while before you get to the paranormal stuff, but by the time it happened I was already so engrossed that for a second I was like, "Holy shit, what is going on!" (Which makes total sense, given that most of the book is written from the perspectives of characters who are just normal people going about their normal lives at first.)

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. I read Pessl's Night Film earlier this year and solidly enjoyed it, so figured I'd give Special Topics a try. In my opinion it was if anything better, with fewer of the (admittedly miniscule) issues that bothered me in Night Film. Donna Tartt fans in particular (see The Goldfinch above or The Secret History) would I think enjoy it. In fact, the story, characters, & themes bear an almost spooky resemblance to The Secret History (an outsider arrives at an exclusive/prestigious academic institution, falls in with a clique of students with a peculiar relationship with an intriguing/mysterious faculty member, & tragedy/mystery ensues). I found myself more engrossed in this book than anything I've read in the last 7-8 years, & if I hadn't been reading it over the course of a family holiday visit, I'm pretty sure I would have finished it in one sitting. It won't be for everyone but I thought it was fantastic.

And, just for giggles, let's finish off the year with one notable running factoid, which is that, for the first time since 2012, I actually broke 1,000 miles for the year! This should not be remarkable, but with the last two years I've had injury-wise, it is. After being unable/barely able to run for the first four months of this year I didn't think I was anywhere near that, but when I tallied everything up in early December just to see how close I might be able to get, it turned out that I was already there with nearly 100 miles to spare. So that was a nice surprise.

Have a FABULOUS New Year's, all!! I'll see you in 2015!!

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