Tuesday 31 December 2013

Wordy about words

Oh boy, this is turning out to be long. And just about books. If you're yawning already, you better skip this one...

Goodreads currently has a big link at the top when you log in encouraging you to view and (of course) share your "Year in Books". When clicked it dumps a screen of all the covers of all the books you've entered as read in 2013. Okay, it's kind of fun, and even in some cases interesting.

I've read a few books, it seems.

Too many? I found myself wishing I could filter out the stinkers (1 star), and the so-so (2 stars). Alas, I am apparently too demanding. There is no such functionality offered. I did find however that I could constrain my lists to a single tag ("shelf", as goodreads calls it), and since I enter all my ratings also as tags (so I can be a bit more specific than simply the 1 to 5 stars), I could produce cover grids for each of my ratings.

I generally tend to be a pretty tough rater, especially hesitant to give out 5 stars, but I was still surprised to find I only gave five stars to two books this entire year. And it was surprising to me to see which those turned out to be:

Thinking, Fast and Slow   Uncle Tom's Cabin

A non-fiction book, and a classic of American fiction. Weird! It is especially extremely rare that for me a non-fiction book rises to 5 stars. But those were indeed both surprisingly fantastic books, both of which altered my perspective in various ways.

Next up comes my "4.5" tag, for books which really impressed or struck me and are almost fives, but not quite there for whatever personal reason. (Most recently read comes first.)

As She Climbed Across the Table   Little Brother (Little Brother, #1)   The Remains of the Day   The Arrival   Brief Interviews with Hideous Men   Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)

Kind of interesting (to me)! Really, are these books that good?! One of them is YA. One of them is graphical. Half of them aren't even science fiction! Actually, really only one of them is science fiction in a sort of traditional (?) sense. The Arrival could be more considered as a somewhat surrealist fantasy. And As She Climbed Across the Table while containing fictitious science is set in present time, and the fictitious science is less about science than it is a vehicle of metaphor. Is Little Brother science fiction? It is fairly technological, and not all the technology quite exists -- though most of it does. Dune, of course, is straight up sci-fi -- and this would have been at least the third time I've read it through in my life, and it's still fantastic.

Of the above, the one that sticks with me the most is The Remains of the Day. I had no idea what I was getting in to with that book. I didn't know it was a movie with apparently respected actors. I had previously read the highly regarded Never Let Me Go by the same author, which I found very well written, but fairly mediocre in content. Regardless, I as for some reason curious about the author's writing, and wanted to try more. I guess I expected something along the same lines as I'd read, but The Remains of the Day was very different. Though when I think about it, was it that different? It again was a first person perspective, and depending almost completely on the personality and (of course) perspective of the narrator. But the personality presented in The Remains of the Day is so vivid (to me, at least), and the problems of his perspective so subtle -- well it made an intense impression, and provided a fascinating framework to question various elements of life. Let's leave it at that. (I never hope to see the movie; there's no way the movie can be anything but superficial shadow to this relentlessly introspective work.)

What amazed me with Little Brother, the YA of the collection, was the amazing adeptness of the author in presenting highly technical issues in an insightful and human way, as kids deal with the political and personal aftermath of a 9/11-like terrorist attack. I've never experienced a book quite like it. It felt at times almost like a manual with it's descriptions and instructions; but a manual that races along with strong characters, and a decent plot, and moral dilemmas. It was a bit goopy (?) at times, but I forgive that for what it uniquely provided.

Lethem (As She Climbed Across the Table) is just an outstanding amount of fun to read. There's a lot of word-play and metaphor; and I really love the way it's done. Even when he's hitting you rather bluntly in the face with it all, it's a rather enjoyable sort of being hit in the face.

The Arrival is a graphical novel, with no words at all. It's beautiful, and emotional. It's, again, a fairly unique thing. I'd actually forgotten all about it until I saw it show up on the grid: and the images flooded back to me.

I also can barely remember Brief Interviews with Hideous Men now. Which is interesting. But I must have been very impressed by it! It'd probably come back to me if I scanned the contents. It is David Foster Wallace, so I assume it was freakishly detailed in observations, and unflinching relentless in its supposed (subtle & ironic) hideousness.

Okay, yes, I'm now going to splatter the page with all my 4 stars of 2013...

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden   The Chronoliths   The Fractal Prince   The Worthing Saga (Worthing, #1-3)   The Quantum Thief   Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants (Captain Underpants, #4)   The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died   Malcolm at Midnight   Speaker for the Dead   The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2)   Infinity and Me   Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)   Down and Out in Paris and London   The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos   This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World's Information   The Case for God   Chapterhouse: Dune (Dune Chronicles, #6)   God Emperor of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #4)   Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)   Ender's Game

Three children's books, a surprising amount of non-fiction, and a mess of well aged sci-fi. Hmmm! I do read a lot of kids books to the kids, but I generally only record the ones that I thought particularly good (and thus want to remember reading). Here we find the inimitable Captain Underpants #4. While I have a soft spot for all the Captain Underpants books, this one seemed particularly fun with its word play. Infinite and Me is a really nice picture book that tries to explain the concept of infinity to a kid in a personal way. And Malcolm at Midnight is just a really well done mouse adventure story, which has a subtle adult story cleverly in the background.

As for the sci-fi, one can see me here re-reading the rest of the Dune series, and rather liking a lot of it. A lot of people disparage this series after the first book. But the truth is the first book, as awesome as it is, is very simplistic and straight forward in concept; Herbert's vision of Dune and the evolution of humanity and the entire sentient universe is so much more complex and sweeping. It is draggy at times -- it is so long -- but it is fascinating and audatious and unique. I also re-read the (primary) Ender's series. Interestingly, I'm pretty sure I did this before I knew when the movie was going to come out. Regardless of what some naysayers insist, Ender still holds up powerfully (for me) all these years later. And quite like the Dune series, while the sequels are a disappointment to some (because they are very different), the complexity and nuance they intelligently build on the original breathtaking adventure is compelling and deep. Hyperion is an old Nebula Award winner I'd somehow never heard of: it looks kind of dumb, but damn that silly robot-looking thing on the cover is mysteriously terrifying, and the use of time is brutal.

In non-fiction, I see a memoir I (sort of) randomly stumbled upon which turned out to be quite unexpectedly compelling (A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden). It is essays written by aging Canadian (ex-?) bank robber in prison. The surprising thing is the literary quality of the reflections, and his unique background. Karen Armstrong (The Case for God) is always great, though her books are starting to all sound the same to me; and this one was somewhat scattered and seemed not to stay true to the title. Still apparently I thought it turned out great in the end. The Lost Histories of Christianity (covering some of Karen Armstrong's frequent themes, but in a different way) really dazzled my historical senses. It's not so much the information about the alternate perspectives of the early Christian groups, most of which I already  knew, but the author's perspective on what implications of how much has been lost and how much could even now be lost by us. In short, it was an beautiful ode to the value of diversity over mono-culture in the religious realm. Brain Greene's Hidden Reality is a fairly (general audience) technical discussion of current theories of physical reality in (quantum) physics. He's big on string theory, of course; but he gives alternate theories a pretty good treatment. This Machine Leaks Secrets is about Wikileaks, and related technologies. It was a lot better than I thought it would be based on the goofy and awkward title (a play, of course, on Woodie Guthrie's guitar's slogan).

Worthing and Chronoliths are respected works in the genre from past decades I've been wanting to get to. It's great stuff. But as good as all the books up there are, and as amazing as the content and thoughts in the non-fiction, I think if I had to only choose to remember one book from the year, it would be The Quantum Thief. This book blew my mind; it is so original and on the edge of technology and language. It's certainly not for everyone! It is exquisitely technical. It is "post-human", and for half the book (if not more) it's even difficult to grasp what is even happening. But it is so gloriously described with such interesting words and images, I loved every second of it. It's almost like a poem... a very alien and technical poem. So if I loved it so much, why not haven't I given it five stars or even four and a half? Well, I fear that in the end it was more dazzle than substance. But, damn, it was some amazing dazzle... And I really liked the sequel too, though it is not quite as dazzling. I could even actually understand what was going on in the sequel for the most part. Ha ha?

Okay, I was going to have mercy and stop this blather, but surely any readers have either fallen asleep or wandered off to read something better by now, so I might as well sneak in the three point fives! These are books which which I more than just liked (for various reasons), but couldn't say I really, really, really liked. If that makes sense.

Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between   A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness   Zombie Baseball Beatdown   Dissident Gardens   Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World   Persuasion   Fool   Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet   The Lump of Coal   The Giver (The Giver Quartet, #1)   Piccadilly Jim   Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire   The Sun Also Rises   Xenocide (The Ender Quintet, #3)   The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)   If You Loved Me, You'd Think This Was Cute: Uncomfortably True Cartoons About You   Never Let Me Go   Beowulf: A New Verse Translation Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)

Quite a bit of variety here. And the reasons for me "more than" just liking them are quite diverse as well. I won't get into those peculiarities. I will simply tally: 2 YAs, 4 non-fiction, 1 kids, 3 SFs (not inculding the YAs), and 5 other fiction; oh, and 1 cartoons.

I'm actually surprised by the diversity. I feel like I'm always reading science fiction. Perhaps that because I've usually always got one of those (or two) going in the background, and am perpetually fascinated by the genre. I also, if asked, would never have estimated anywhere near the amount of non-fiction that I seem to have imbibed this year.

The only book of the above batch I feel the need to comment on at the moment is Dissident Gardens. After all the consummate weirdness I've read of Lethem's (in the past), this one was really surprising: and that's probably why it has a lot of low ratings. It really deserves more. It is straight literary fiction, following 3 generations of New York "Jewish communists", with the focus revolving around the extremely strong willed (and messed up) matriarch of a family. It was really well done; but I personally couldn't find any place to cling to in it.

Okay I'll comment on one more: it took me practically the whole year to get through Fool. Christopher Moore is brilliant in his crazy (extremely) bawdy retelling of King Lear. But wow, it was hard to take! I could only manage small doses, in certain moods. Your mileage may vary.

Another notable (even if not all that pleasant) feature of my reading this year was the amount of (very) Canadian Sci-Fi author Robert Sawyer I rapidly crammed into my brain. While I like a few of his books a fair bit, I became very, very sick of, and generally critical of, his style by the end of this marathon. The reason I did it was that I was to be attending an academic sci-fi conference with Selena at the university where he was the guest of honour, so I wanted to be more familiar with a wider selection of his work. Despite my unfortunate overdose immediately before it, the conference was really great. But I think I won't be reading any more Sawyer for a quite some time!

Anyhow, enough. (Though here are the 3s if you insist!  Never mind the 2.5, 2, 1.5 and 1s.) Go read, or whatever.

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