What I read in 2011

My hopes of reading 50 books in 2011 were dashed by a lot of busy work, and all I’ve got to show for my reading this past year is a mere 47 48 49 titles, plus a few on the go — a surprising number of the finished books being cooking, baking, and brewing books. That said, of, those books I did read, I had a range of reactions, many of them blogged here (under this tag).

Since I apparently cannot embed the code for the covers here in this post, here’s a permalink to a screenful of covers over in Librarything. Note, there are two pages. Note, also, this is not an endorsement of all of these books. Many are good, but a few are not.

The highlights? 

The best SF novels in the bunch are the Vinge (A Deepness in the Sky, yes, I finally read it), Stross (The Atrocity Archives) and the Russell Hoban (The Medusa Frequency), with the Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman trailing behind. (I know I’ve praised her work here, but that particular novel didn’t stick out for me all that much.) I also really liked Speculative Japan and Speculative Japan 2 (and positively reviewed the latter for the Kyoto Journal, though I don’t think the review is out yet), which I found much more interesting than the Japanese-YA-in-translation The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yatsutaka Tsutsui. James Morrow’s Cat’s Pajamas and The Eternal Footman also stand out in my memory of the year’s reading, though only time will tell which of the Godhead Trilogy I end up preferring. (Eternal Footman is great, but somehow neither of the other books in the trilogy has topped Towing Jehovah for me in terms of sheer audacity…) I also really enjoyed John Barnes’ long-ago fantasy effort One for the Morning Glory, and am a bit sad that the other books in that imagined trilogy never got written (or, at any rate, published).

I didn’t finish Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but not because it seemed particularly uninteresting… it was just a huge book that I found inconvenient to carry around. If I’d been reading it in ebook format, I might have gotten further into it. However, I did find it a bit familiar, as SFnal plots go — indeed, I found it almost like an extended version of Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman, and that might be part of why I put it down: King seems to want to trace the events from the first day the barrier comes down, while Anthony rightfully realizes that we don’t necessarily need all that. Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids I found rather difficult to interpret: whatever he was up to, he either achieved it and mystified me, or just didn’t quite pull it off. I’m not sure, and far be it from me to try call it one way or the other. (I do think several reviewers (especially Clute) pretty much nailed my own mixed feelings on the book, though my thoughts are here.) But I think  I definitely think Sterling moving into some other mode of writing, and the transition is difficult and awkward — and it’s supposed to be. Maybe it’s the start of something really interesting, but I don’t know.

I was really not so fond of the Fritz Leiber and Norman Spinrad books in this pile, though of them all, I think Spinrad’s Deus X bothered me the least. (And even the worst of the Spinrad novels, Little Heroes, made me want to read more Spinrad, if at least to see if he’d done anything I might like as much as I liked Greenhouse Summer.) I also couldn’t even finish the second of the Titus Crow omnnibus reprints (The Clock of Dreams / Spawn of the Winds), so put off by the overt, pulpy racism of the latter book. (Yes, yes, I know it’s self-conscious, but still.) However, the downright worst SF book of 2011 for me was Anthem by Ayn Rand, and I only got through it by listening to it on audiobook, while washing the dishes… though not the worst book in the pile — that indignity belongs to another Rand novel, The Fountainhead. I only attempted to read it because I was writing a story in which Rand was being parodied, but the damned book is so painful to read, and I never got past a few hundred pages at most. I should note: Anthem is not so bad as an SF novel in itself, or as critique of the Soviets. Sure, it’s a bit Zamyatinesque, but all young writers have their sources to draw on. But knowing what Rand is trying to argue, the allegory comes out thin and brittle, and far from moving.

For brewing books, I’d saying the standout addition to my library is Stan Hieronymous’s Brewing with Wheat, though I also like Smoke Beers a lot. The Brewer’s Publications book on Pale Ale is quite dated, and not that useful in terms of formulating one’s own recipes, though it is an interesting window on how homebrewing used to look, as well as a passable introduction to some of the history. (I wished I’d gotten it alone, instead of with a bunch of other Brewer’s Publication style books — I’d have realized how uneven the series is, and done more research before getting the others.)

As for cookbooks, Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart are the most used, while the Belgian and Danish cookbook, and Ricki Carroll’s book Home Cheese Making I read attentively, though that translated to no actual cooking/cheesemaking. (Though I plan to remedy this soon.) The Ruhlman/Polcyn book has at least translated into several batches of bacon so far, and I plan to do more with it — including some air-dried bacon and other things — in coming months. Likewise, I need to start cooking from Dutch & Belgian Food and Cooking soon, especially as I plan to brew a lot more Belgian beer this year.

I’m shocked to find I only read two graphic novels this year — Stitches by David Small, and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Both feature depressing experiences of childhood, and both feature characters overcoming crap. Both are good, though the extremity of Stitches makes it a little more interesting to me. (Also, it was a gift from Miss Jiwaku, so maybe that’s part of my feelings about the book.) However, I suppose I could call Yannick Monget’s The World Tomorrow a sort of graphic novel — it consists mainly of images of places in the world now, and how they might look in an era of climate collapse. Perhaps shocking for some, the book did little for me: I’ve been seeing that kind of thing in my mind’s eye for too long to be surprised by what Monget did in those modified images.

All of the books I read on John Coltrane were useful, though the de Vito anthology of interviews and the biography by Lewis Porter most usefully so. (Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Clawing at the Limits of Cool was an alright discussion of the parallel careers (and collaboration) of Trane and his sometimes-employer Miles Davis, but covering two careers as it did, it couldn’t go into as much depth, and very little was there that I hadn’t gleaned elsewhere.)

As for the other books, there’s a range of reactions I felt. Here’s a summary:

Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma was okay, but a bit light and not all that surprising in its details. If you’ve read much about Burma, you will not be too surprised, though unlike some accounts, she does get to talk to a number of Burmese intellectuals.

Platform by Michel Houellebecq was everything people say about it — well-written and nasty and hateful and misogynistic and all that. I presume people either love or hate this book, but for me, the reaction is a little more complex. The man can structure a narrative, to be sure, but I kind of hated the narrative he structured so deftly. It struck me as self-indulgent and yet also somehow brutally honest. When misanthropes are honest, they come off as assholes, but are they wrong? I’m not sure. If you think people are crap, you will love Platform. If you are inclined to hope otherwise, it will make you uncomfortable… especially if you are honest with yourself about why your are merely hoping, and not quite believing so. After I finished it, I felt an urge to read more of his work and figure out why it made me uncomfortable. Mercifully, the urge passed.

Meanwhile, I expected Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores to be more misogynistic than it was. Admission: it was my first Marquez novel, and I didn’t know what to expect, but when an old man decides to rent himself an adolescent virgin for his 90th birthday, well… The book turned out to be less about sex or even love than about sickness, old age, and dying, and how the idea of love might be a part of how we cope with it, perhaps more important than love itself. I think John Updike was right in his assessment of the book, in this light, though I will say I was not blown away by the novel, and do not, despite its brevity, consider it a likely candidate for introducing people to the work of Marquez, given all that I’ve heard about his other work. I will, for my own part, withhold judgment until reading his more widely-lauded works.

Harry Wu’s Bitter Winds, a Chinese gulag memoir, was interesting when I read it, but to remember its contents is somewhat unpleasant. In that, I suppose Wu did his job. Perhaps I am weary of reading gluag autobiographies, I’m not sure; there were things here more horrific than The Aquariums of Pyongyang, though in all, the latter book sticks out as more horrifying overall.

It would be wrong to mention Wu’s book and the Chinese Foreign Languages Press book Stories About Not Being Afraid of Ghosts in the same paragraph, but both being China-related, I will mention the latter book next. It is a delightfully ridiculous book, ostensibly a collection of Chinese folktale about people who refused to fear ghosts — the book being, in itself, a kind of allegorical enactment of the bizarre opening essay, full of quotes from the speeches of Mao about how Chinese Communism has set the peasants free of superstition, exploitation by priests and monks, bla bla bla. The collection and the essay are both somewhat joyless, which is what makes them amusing. But when considered against the backdrop of the world described by Wu, the humor becomes black — a glimpse of the stupidity of sociopathic bureaucrats trying to reshape the human mind into a mold that fits their doctrines.

Speaking of sociopaths seeking to reshape the human mind to fit their doctrines… The Bad Popes by E.R. Chamberlin was an extremely entertaining read, especially since I worked through much of it while I was in Rome. While some might argue that any pope is a bad pope, this book works through the most egregious of the lot, and egregious here is a nice way of saying the most monstrous. Yet the narrator’s approach to explaining their crimes puts them in context, and old Rome comes alive in all its theocratic-political nastiness. There is a strange kinship I felt between this book and Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen’s look at the 1970s as a golden age of paranoia, in that the ’70s look, though Wheen’s eyes, like a cold, dark, brutish time full of violence, fear, and unrealistic belief systems in the heads of people with all too much power. Wheen’s book and Chamberlin’s were both very entertaining.

Primitive Selves by E. Taylor Atkins (for which my official review in the Japan Times appears here) and Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave were both very useful books for me in looking at Japan — something I’ve been doing more and more, both to understand how the realities of the colonial period different from South Korea’s official and popular historiography, but also because I am finding it a useful tool for looking at Korea’s present and future. Those who want a more nuanced view of the range of attitudes towards Korean culture and art in Japan during the colonial era should check out Primitive Selves, while those who want some ammunition for the discussion about why Japan is so much bigger in the Western imagination than Korea would find a lot to think about in the Benfey book.

Hell’s Cartographers was interesting; some would say, dated, but I think in this book, that’s a feature, as I felt I was getting a look at an older generation of writers. Some of whom are not remembered as all that important anymore, which is interesting. I got a kick out of some of the interviews, and thought it worth reading, though it took me a while to get through it.

I also have a lot of time for David Sedaris: he has a way of putting things that just works, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames is full of great examples of that. This is a book I have used in classes, when I got the chance to teach Creative Writing, and Sedaris’ style as an essayist is helpful in illustrating that sometimes, how you say something is such a crucial considering in saying in what you say — er, or writing what you write, in any case.

I was disappointed by Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, for reasons I’m not sure I really understand, though I took a stab at it in my review of the book. This saddened me, as I really like (and recommend) his short stories in One Good Story, That One, and had hoped to like the novel.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a book I’m still thinking about, so I’ll just say it was interesting and connected to me in a deep way, but like many reviewers, I think Crawford could have done a bit more work in considering how the message maps onto gender, onto other kinds of work, and so on. I suspect his ruminations connect well to the urge so many younger people feel today to do things like start gardens or small-scale farms, to make their own beer, cheese, wine, soap, bread, bacon, sausages, build their own furniture, learn how to make hack together DIY technologies, and so on. I think it’s a good, cool thing, and I wish Crawford had considered that shift in attitude a little more.

Douglas Kenrick’s Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life was the one science book I got all the way through this year. It’s a fun evolutionary psychology book, and deftly intertwines Kenrick’s personal anecdotes with his scientific research in a way that illustrates both interesting specific findings of his, and the kind of thinking going on in evolutionary psych, quite well. There were a few surprises along the way even for me, despite my having read a number of other books on the subject. One of the most interesting is the discussion of the American culture war as being a conflict between two groups following differentiated mating strategies. (!) I found the book worth my while despite a lot of the concepts being familiar to me.

I wasn’t as crazy about Pat Walsh’s 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published (and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might) as some of my friends, but I think it’s a good wake-up call for anyone who aspires to write professionally. Worth a look.

EDIT (17 Jan 2011): Ooops, forgot Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Good mystery, and I remember being amused by how well the mystery genre maps onto the way early cyberpunk worked. This kind of stuff is about the voice, the set piece scenes in different places —  a tour of the underworld, and it works really well that way.

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