Sunday, January 25, 2015

Read It, 2014

Read It, 2014


As I get older and my piles of unread books get bigger and I also manage to organize and catalog my books, it occurs to me that it would be a good idea to keep track of what I'm actually reading. I was also nudged, at least a little, by the r/books, r/printsf, and r/literature subreddit discussion pages. There are a lot of posts on those pages that tend to fall into a couple of categories: people bemoaning that they can't get enough reading done, and people bragging about how much reading they do.

Let's get the bragging out of the way first: when I was a child, I read very early, and very quickly (as tested on a machine that tracked my eye movements). I was proud of the things I read early. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time when I was six years old. At least, that's how I remember it, and there is no one now living who was there, to confirm or deny it. Of course, I barely understood the story, lacking a great deal of vocabulary and the experience to hear the music in the prose and dialogue. But I was proud of pushing on through, and I was proud of the fact that at a very young age I left the "ghetto" of the children's section in the McCord Memorial Library in North East, PA and started taking home books exclusively from the adult collection, such as Fear of Flying and The Effects of Nuclear Weapons.

I spent my allowance on books, and remember buying The Silmarillion in paperback and utterly failing to get into it, and also buying books that were superficially science fiction (but contained a little something extra), like John Cleve's Spaceways #6: Purrfect Plunder (the Spaceways series was subtitled "high adventure for adults," but would perhaps be better characterized as "costumed BDSM for adolescents.")

I read science fiction and fantasy and science books constantly, and went into college and wound up becoming and English major, which of course involved a great deal of reading. I read Woolf, Joyce -- dozens of authors, many considered "difficult." But in retrospect, I now think that I was not a good reader -- or at least not as good a reader as I would later become. I read too fast, I plowed through pages letting my eyes track the words while my mind wandered, and didn't back up, and I didn't hear the music.

I had an experience in 2006 that, I believe, changed the way I read for the better. I don't remember what triggered it or where I came across the first volume, but became excited by the publication of the Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, from Night Shade Books. In the summer of 2006 I undertook a project to record Hodgson's novel The Boats of the Glen Carrig, with pod-safe music and sound effects, and release the result as a podcast. My gear and studio setup was minimalist -- an upstairs bedroom with a PowerBook G4 laptop and cheap microphones -- and when I listen to it now, the audio quality is slightly cringe-worthy, but I am still pleased with my reading. I developed a habit of slowing down, to allow Hodgson's complex sentences to "breathe" and have some space around them. I dug into the vocabulary and started researching archaic nautical terms. I think that experience was the beginning of a new phase of reading, where I began to read more slowly and diligently.
I'm nearly fifty now and I have children and work and my eyes are old; I can't read for hours each day. I still do my best to make some reading time for myself each day. When I can, I get up before the rest of the family and read for thirty minutes or so in the bathtub.

I feel a bit like the Captain of Douglas Adams' B Ark doing this. It's silly, yes, but the bath works as a sort of isolation tank; I'll often even submerge my ears to concentrate more fully on the text. Sometimes the books get just a bit splashed, or steamed. But "books are for reading" is my attitude, and I have yet to actually drop one in the water, and I don't subject my truly scarce first editions to this treatment: for my rare books, I'll usually pick up a used paperback reading copy.

When I can, I'll also read for another twenty or thirty minutes before bedtime. My reading time has become much more limited, but somehow more concentrated, and I complete at least one book a week, and often more, depending on their length.

I have also reduced a habit I used to have, the habit of working on five or seven or ten books at once. I used to keep a pile of books by my bed, and I'd just pick one and read it, and so make slow progress through a number of books via time-sharing. This somehow dispelled boredom, but I think a better approach is to concentrate harder, and extract more from the book. Of course, if the book is truly boring, or bad, I will sometimes not finish it, but that is rare; even if I recognize that a book is not very good, I generally am still curious enough as to why it is bad, to insist on finishing it. As a writer, I often feel that I can learn quite a bit from books that don't quite work well.

Anyway, that's a very long preamble for getting started with something I should have been doing for years and years, but haven't. I'm going to start recording the books I read, as I complete them. For 2014, I don't have a precise record, but I have Facebook posts, and photographs of the book covers, my audio recordings, and various other triggers to help me remember what I read in 2014, and I ought to be able to track everything from here on out. So here we go with at least a partial reconstruction of 2014.

The Books of 2014

In 2014 I read Gibson's newest book, The Peripheral, and also re-read most of Gibson's novels in order, starting with Neuromancer and concluding with Zero History. I have not yet re-read the story collection, Burning Chrome, or the collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, but I intend to re-read those in 2015.

Gibson's Trilogies

I enjoyed The Peripheral a great deal, and I was also very, very impressed by how well Gibson's work has held up. Neuromancer remains a brilliant, brilliant short novel: telegraphic, polished, and gem-like. Count Zero is slightly less engaging. The third book of the Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, has the strongest characters and scenes. I don't recall liking it that much when I first read it, but now I think Mona is simply a brilliant character.

Of the next trilogy, the Bridge trilogy, all three impressed me, but All Tomorrow's Parties was, in my opinion, the strongest, in part because of the characters of Fontaine and Silencio, but I have nothing bad to say about any of them.

Of the third trilogy, the Blue Ant trilogy, that unfortunately isn't true. Pattern Recognition has a great setup, and some interesting characters, but just loses steam past the halfway point and becomes hard to finish. I realized, in re-reading it, that I don't think I ever actually finished it, and in fact that it had turned me off so much, that I had not bothered with Gibson's next two novels, believing that he had essentially forsaken science fiction.

Reading them now, I think that was only partially true. Gibson was writing about the present in this trilogy, or the future that is just arriving now, with themes of ubiquitous surveillance, drones, and geolocation, writing about "five minutes from now," and he wasn't wrong about those things; just this week I was reading about a Microsoft device that does "augmented reality," superimposing virtual upon the real. Spook Country is a contemporary thriller, basically a spy novel, but a very strong one, with an uplifting ending. Zero History is a little more fun, with Gibson's interesting take on the fashion industry and its intersections with the military-industrial complex, which sounds like it should be a joke, but isn't at all.

I've met Gibson. I was, I think, eighteen years old, attending a Disclave science fiction convention in Washington, DC in 1986, with my friend Art. He signed my copy of the first edition of Burning Chrome and that was the start, or nearly the start, of my habit of collecting special books (I think my first signed book was Stephen R. Donaldson's The One Tree. Sadly, both of these books are gone; I've occasionally had to sell books, during periods of unemployment. I remember that Gibson was quite tall and quite thin, sitting in chairs that were too short for him, with his knees up in the air, looking slightly like a praying mantis, but fortunately a friendly one.

He was well-spoken, but seemed slightly out of place among the science fiction fans. I was bemused to learn how little he knew about science. In one of the panel discussions, a fan from the audience described getting frustrated with Gibson's depiction of virtual reality, throwing the book across the room and crying "bandwidth!" (He was getting at the idea that the level of visual and sensory detail Gibson described would be impossible to squeeze through the low-bandwidth connections to the internet that we could imagine at the time.) Gibson responded that he didn't really know what that meant. For the sake of his storytelling, I think that's a good thing; some science fiction isn't well-served by sticking too close to the then-current science facts. Gibson reportedly imagined cyberspace based on the notional virtual space where a document in a word processing program could extend beyond the literal screen; would an undertanding of QuickDraw drawing regions have improved his imagining? I don't think so; in fact, understanding the "man behind the curtain" might have rendered the idea stillborn.

Even back then, as an argumentative and arrogant nerdy teenager, I wanted to argue that it wasn't about sending huge bitmap images, as even then we had VRML and procedural image generation; and now we have broadband and image and video compression...) But anyway, if I have a point to make here at all, it is that Gibson was and is primarily a literary writer. He comes to the craft of writing from the brilliant, honed image and intricately crafted, origami plot. Characters have not always been his strong suit, over the years (I don't think it's a coincidence that his first protagonist, "Case," kinda-sorta shares a name with "Cayce" Pollard, the protagonist of Pattern Recognition). He's occasionallyvery good with characters, now. And he's now very good with that amorphous vision thing you might as well call the zeitgeist.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy

Earlier in the year, I re-read a set of books that I remembered fondly from the nineties: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), as well as the story collection The Martians, which I had not read before.

This is a big, sprawling trilogy, and upon re-reading the books I got more out of them, and was more impressed by them, than I was the first time. Robinson with these books makes as strong a case for science fiction as the literature of ideas as Frank Herbert did with his Dune books. It's a wonderful humane vision of the future, and Robinson's fascination with ecology, climate change, and politics shines through on every page. But it is not dry: the work is also strongly character-driven, and the characters are memorable and alive in a way that very few authors achieve. It saddens me, to a degree that I don't think I can even express in words, that our real future in the anthropocene shows no signs of being this bright. And so the trilogy has become much more relevant in recent years. The story collection is a mixed bag, but the included novella, also entitled Green Mars, makes the whole thing worthwhile.

I have not read that much of Robinson's work: I enjoyed The Memory of Whiteness years ago, a sort of science fantasy; I read Forty Signs of Rain when it came out, but did not continue that series. It seems to be "Robinson lite," dumbed-down for a middlebrow audience, and I did not appreciate that at the time, although perhaps I will give those books another try. The new book Shaman does not look appealing to me; I seem to have an allergy to historical fantasy written by science fiction authors (in general I am very, very picky about fantasy in a way that I am not at all picky about science fiction; maybe I'll address that another time). I also read Antarctica in 2014, and found it quite enjoyable, a tighter and shorter thriller with some great characters. I am planning to track down more of Robinson's work in 2015, in particular the Three Californias trilogy.

New York Review Books Classics

Also in 2014, I read a number of books from the New York Review Books Classics series. This is a series of paperback reprints of previously out-of-print works, often foreign works in translation. I love these editions, with their distinctive colored covers and moderate prices. I don't want to read every book in the series -- I think there are only so many horrific novels about the Holocaust that I can take -- but I've learned to just pick up whichever ones I come across, and so far I have not been disappointed. Puzzled, sometimes, but not disappointed!

I read Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. This is quite a long book, comprising three separate science fiction novels. They describe the evolution of a cult, a cult that begins around the discovery of an ice meteorite in Siberia, the source of the famed Tunguska event in 1908. Wild, nihilistic, dark, and philosophical, this work is definitely not for everybody. I found it fascinating. The "meat machine" rants are worth the price of admission. The uncomfortable ties to the Aryan superman mythos are off-putting. What does Sorokin mean by all this? How seriously does he take it? I don't know, but this troubling and weird work will stay with me for a long time.

In the same series, I read the following books in 2014 (as best as I can recall): Store of the Worlds: the Stories of Robert Sheckley by Robert Sheckley; An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie; Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy; Walkabout by James Vance Marshall; The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye; Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (although I can't remember if I finished this one; I'll have to take a look). I have read a few more from the series including Stoner and Hadrian the Seventh although I think I read them in calendar 2013, not 2014. And I am happy to have quite a few more on my shelf waiting. I started to read The Human Comedy (selected stories of Balzac), but set it aside to complete later.

Colorless Murakami

I read Haruki Murakami's novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, translated by Philip Gabriel. It is most definitely another novel by Haruki Murakami. It is far from his best. That is probably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a truly remarkable work as well. This is only middling Murakami, and I can't strongly recommend it. It feels incomplete, and colorless itself.

The Butcher of Dresden

I read the fifteenth book in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, Skin Game. This is just a very impressive series, and more impressive than the fact that it is still going is the fact that the last few have been some of the best books in the series. There is a certain sameness to the individual stories, but in Butcher's case that feels reassuring, rather than boring; you have at least a sense of how the story is going to arc. But Butcher does manage to surprise me now and then, the characters continue to develop, and Butcher's writing is more assured, confident, and humorous than ever.

And, in No Particular Order

I'm going to wind this up for tonight because it has turned into a much longer bit of writing than I planned, but I will mention a few more books I can recall polishing off in 2014. I read Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, a wonderful book I should have read years earlier. I am currently reading The Left Hand of Darkness and I am ashamed to say I have not read The Lathe of Heaven, but it is on my pile for 2015.

I read several works of J. G. Ballard, a writer I greatly admire, but I will have to check the shelf to confirm which ones I finished. I also read a biography of Ballard, called The Inner Man, by John Baxter; it was interesting, but I feel that there is definitely room for a deeper, more detailed biography of Ballard, who I regard as a hugely important figure in twentieth-century literature. I have a massive biography of William S. Burroughs, by Barry Miles, lined up to read in 2015. I'm sure a similarly weighty biography of Ballard could be written, and it would be at least as interesting.

I read Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. That was probably a re-reading, but I would have been very young when I first read it, and I am not entirely certain if I finished it back then.

I read Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero, a satirical military science fiction novel, and enjoyed it a great deal.

I attempted to read Michael Moorcock's Cornelius Chronicles novels, and I'm disappointed to tell you that I could not finish this collection of novels; they are superficially interesting, given the way the invoke the 1960s millieu, but ultimately they are just too shallow, indulgent, and disconnected to be really engaging.

I read several of the Heechee novels of Frederick Pohl; the first one, Gateway, is the best. I started but did not finish The Space Merchants; that's another one I'd like to return to.

I read a number of books out loud to my children; one of them was a Scholastic Books edition of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. That is still a rousing yarn! I had not read it since I was in grade school. Now I'm considering reading it in a fuller, unabridged translation available, but I'm not sure which edition to buy.

We've also been reading The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, an antique, unabridged copy. This is such a strange book. I remember reading it as a child, and being a bit bored. As an adult, it's comically weird; Wyss has only a vague understanding of the flora and fauna of the world, and so just throws every useful plant and animal he can think of on to the island where the family is shipwrecked. They proceed to meet each one in turn and, in just about every chapter, shoot a new animal for no good reason. It's a very long book. There are parables and sermons. I'm not sure we're going to finish it. I'm retroactively impressed that my younger self finished it as a child.

I think we started, but did not finish, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien. I'm not sure why; I may have just misplaced our copy temporarily (the baby carries books off occasionally). I may have concluded it was boring my younger children. It's always a challenge to find something that will keep as many of them as possible from losing interest, given that they range in age from ten down to one. I should see if we can finish it.

I read The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi. I've heard good things about this book for years. As a result, I was slightly disappointed. It's a good book, but I was expecting an heir to Neuromancer and it isn't quite that. Bacigalupi's global warming-ravaged future world is really compelling, and convincing, and it's nicely written. I would happily try reading more of his work.

I read Steven Brust's novel Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grill. That's a short, fun novel.

I read Lev Grossman's fantasy novel The Magician's Land, the third book in his trilogy. It's a fantastic trilogy: dark and satisfying. I wouldn't recommend it for kids. This is a much more adult take on the sort-of, kind-of Harry Potter mythos.

I read George R. R. Martin's tome A Dance With Dragons from cover to cover and it confirmed my belief that the series is off the rails and Martin off his meds. There is nothing he could do to conclude the series that would make up for the thousands of pages of meandering, vaguely pornographic filler I've wasted my life reading. It's a shame because I think the first book in the series is a real modern masterpiece of fantasy, and the second is good too, although the plotting starts to wander, but by the third it is clear that he isn't going to bring the story arcs back together in any kind of satisfying way. What I don't understand is why so many fans are still defending the later books. They are just agonizing. Reading the series feels like going to a pleasant buffet meal. Your first plate of food was great, so you went back for a second. But you didn't really enjoy the third, and you'd like to go home, but they said you couldn't. You ate an entire wedding cake for dessert, but they still won't relent. Now they've brought out the enema equipment and feeding tubes, and closed the shackles on your chair, and you begin to scream... while Martin laughs and laughs...

I read Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney López. You can get a good introduction to the content of this book by watching this interview. López makes a strong case, and it's a rigorously documented book.

I read several books by Rick Moody, including two story collections, Demonology and The Omega Force. Moody writes great stories.

I read The Rook by Daniel O'Malley and found it a decent book, although a bit disappointing, so it is leaving my collection. Still, I think O'Malley shows promise. There is a sequel scheduled for publication later in 2015 and maybe I'll give it a shot.

I browsed Umerto Eco's The Book of Legendary Lands This is a neat book to dip into at random.

There were a few other books I may have read in 2014; I'm pretty sure I read Kage Baker's The Sons of Heaven and the Subterranean Press collection The Best of Kage Baker during 2014. I am a big fan of Baker's Company novels and stories, although the Best Of collection felt a little over-stuffed to me; there is some great stuff, and some not-so-great stuff. You might want to stick with Black Projects, White Knights, and Gods and Pawn, although the novella "Son, Observe the Time" in the The Best of Kage Baker is really worth seeking out. There is more Kage Baker I'd like to try, although I am a bit nervous that I might not enjoy her non-Company works as much. There's just something really compelling about that whole world-building story arc.

I'm pretty sure I re-read two novels by Greg Bear, Eon and Eternity, and enjoyed these; they feel just a bit dated, in terms of their Earth politics, but still hold up very well as storytelling.

I think I started re-reading Gene Wolfe's Soldier in the Mist and failed to finish it; I think I also got similarly stalled out in In Green's Jungles. I have never managed to properly finish the short sun books, much to my chagrin. They are difficult! And I say this as someone who has read the Book of the New Sun books at least four times.

I read at least part of several essay collections, Jonathon Lethem's Ecstasy of Influence, and Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone and Farther Away.

I re-read the first couple of World of Tiers novels by Philip Jose Farmer and, I think, lost interest in reading the rest. They are fun, but haven't aged all that well.

I read Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half, a collection of comics that were (I think, at least for the most part) originally published on the author's blog. Among the comics is one of the best personal memoirs of depression I've ever read, and I've read several, including Darkness Visible, An Unquiet Mind, The Noonday Demon, Where the Roots Reach for Water, and, I'm sure, others I can't recall at the moment. One of the best personal memoirs of depression. In the form of a comic. Drawn with Microsoft Paint.

I read a few Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I don't have all their titles at hand, but the first was a collection of three short mystery novellas called Three for the Chair I enjoyed them but it confirms that I'm really just not a huge mystery fan. I also read Prisoner's Base. I also found a copy of a spin-off book called The Nero Wolfe Cook Book that has recipes inspired by the dishes mentioned in the novels. Now that's an amazing book!

For most of the year I had a subscription to the New York Review of Books, and read those as they arrived. I had settled on the NYRB as the one periodical I would always read completely, and so I subscribed, where various other magazines I've subscribed to in the past, such as The Nation, Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic generally would these only catch my interest with an occasional story (although I will read anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates). I let my subscription to the NYRB lapse in September after I lost my job. I'm not sure if I want to renew; recently, it seems that the NYRB has been getting thinner and thinner.

I will amend this if I come across more books I remember reading in 2014; perhaps books I took pictures of, or books I stashed on shelves. I'm sure I must have missed a few. And I will continue with a comprehensive monthly list, starting in 2015.

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