Tuesday, December 07, 2010

All the Rest of the Books I Read This Year

Okay, so perhaps I was slightly overambitious, or just unorganized, thinking I would write about every book I read this year in order. Even though I felt like I didn't read nearly as much as I wanted to / ought to this year, the pile of read books grew much faster than my time to write about them (or inspiration to do so). So here's what I didn't get to write about before, but did read -- I can't remember any longer which order they went in, and the shortness that this last-minute approach will require does a disservice to some truly wonderful works, but there you go.

To save time and space, instead of including pictures I've added links to the book detail page on greenlightbookstore.com whenever available, if you want to see a picture or read more about the book.

Before the end of this month, I'll post the complete list of what I read this year, highlighting my own personal best-ofs, with links to where I wrote about them. Here goes the last round!

A. D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

by Josh Neufeld

This falls in the "why did it take so long for me to listen when everyone I respect raved about this book" category. Neufeld's research is amazing, his characters compelling, his pictures of New Orleans before, during and after Katrina are cleanly, simply drawn but dead-on accurate (the ALP and I did some real-life comparisons to a couple of French Quarter bars), and I came out of this with a better understanding of the events of 2005 than I'd ever had before.

Agents of Atlas
by Jeff Parker and Leonard Kirk

The ALP tossed this one on my lap recently when I needed bedtime reading. A great little "superhero team" adventure comic, with some unexpected twists and an Asian American hero -- great fun, especially if you're familiar with the Marvel Universe.

Cowboy Ninja Viking Volume 1
by AJ Lieberman & Riley Rossmo
The premise is high concept ridiculous; the plot is nigh incomprehensible. But you cannot resist. One man; three personalities; three fighting styles; an evil corporation that trained him to kill; endless silly banter; crazy (literally) fight scenes. Awe. Some.

Half Empty
by David Rakoff

I felt as though my brain were getting sharper taking in Rakoff's wit and insight, at the same time I was melting with laughter. One of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, with Rakoff's cutting yet deeply compassionate take on everything from Rent to the Disney "Innoventions" house to his own cancer. And he is the nicest man in the world in real life. Read it!

Hellcity: The Whole Damned Thing
by Macon Blair & Joe Flood

I've been waiting for this since the first half was published years ago by an itty bitty indie comics company. It's a noir set in Hellcity (which resembles New York in August, except with more demons) and Heaventown (which resembles Bedford Falls or some other imagination of Upstate New York in the spring). It's got rock and roll, battles between good and evil, love, redemption, and getting slapped with fishes. It is one of the best undiscovered comic books I know.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
by Barry Deutsch

Hooray for this book! I've never read fiction set among Orthodox Jews so insightful and entertaining. Eleven-year-old Mirka's troubles with boring chores and conflicts with her (ultimately nurturing and wise) stempother, as well as her epic knitting battle with a troll and the trickster move she learns to defeat it, feel both universal and unique. Great stuff in the world of appropriate-for-kids comics.

The Hipless Boy: Short Stories
by Sully

I thought I understood this book when I thought it was autobiographical short cartoon pieces; upon finding out it's fiction I find it kind of rambling and unfocused, and frankly odd. Clever and sometimes poignant, but not exactly my thing. (And I find it kind of annoying when characters who have art-star friends and hang out in lofts complain of their lack of hipness. Like whatever.)

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Holy cow.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins

Oh my gosh it gets better/worse.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
by Suzanne Collins

Do not read this entire series in a weekend, like I did, unless you want to be utterly wrecked by the end. The "kill or be killed" games of children against children are a great metaphor for adolescence, but this is also about war and freedom and truth and propaganda and compromise and survival and the horror of violence, even if it's necessary, even if you win. Deserves every iota of hype it got, and more; reminded me of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy in the amount of big philosophical stuff going in a completely addicting fantasy.

I Kill Giants
by Joe Kelly & JM Ken Niimura

So darn good. This is a kids' comic, but it's dark -- the darkness at the center of it isn't revealed right away, so I won't spoil it. It's about a weird little girl who is a D&D dungeonmaster, and has a powerful named weapon that lives in her purse, a brutal wit, and a hard time making friends. It's about the friend she makes and the giant she encounters. The drawing is wild and sketchy and perfect, and makes for a wonderfully odd and satisfying story.

I Thought My Father Was God

edited by Paul Auster

A collection of the real-life stories Auster collected as part of an NPR project, this is part StoryCorps, part Moth Story Slam, part very weird Chicken Soup for the Soul. Because the things that happen to people that they remember are very, very weird. Many are tragic in the grandest and awfullest sense of the word. Some are funny or romantic or delightful. A lot are just coincidences. At their best they are like the kind of story someone tells you in a bar, or at a family Christmas party, and you never forget.

Johannes Cabal the Detective
by Jonathan Howard

I loved the steampunk-supernatural-carnival-serial oddity of Johannes Cabal Necromancer, so of course I was going to read the sequel. This one finds our misanthropic but oddly appealing hero fleeing angry folks again (necromancy doesn't make you popular), and pulled unwillingly into applying his weird-science-attuned brain to solving a murder mystery, alongside the antagonistically ethical girl from the first book. And it's mostly on a blimp. If you are a genre lover like me, what's not to like?

by China Mieville

Ooh Kraken. The titular sea-beast, literally disappeared from the museum, is about the least weird thing in this very Mieville-y weird book. Imagine a London full of religions and magic cults, each predicting a slightly different apocalypse, any or all of which might occur. There is a hapless hero, a villain who is a living tattoo and one who is made of ink, a protective imp in an iPod, a sort of board of magicians and the coppers who police them, and Goss and Subby, two of the most truly terrifying villains in ages. It's hard to keep up, but the scenery is never boring. If you have a long plane ride ahead of you, this would be a good bet for a book you will not look up from the entire time.

by John Masefield
This is a very old-school English children's adventure story, in the vein of Narnia or the Wind in the Willows or Five Children and It. Young Kay has a nasty governess and an sea captain ancestor who lost a treasure; how these things get solved involves a lot of people coming out of pictures on the wall, talking animals, seven-league boots, and other strange doings. It is dreamlike the way that an imaginative childhood is, and often funny, and quite uniquely wonderful. It would be great to read aloud, if you are the kind of family who does that sort of thing. I'm now reading Masefield's other book about Kay, The Box of Delights, which is a Christmas book and completely delightful.

Moonwalking with Einstein
by Joshua Foer
I picked this galley up because we're hosting the author in the spring when the book comes out (and yes, he is the brother of Jonathan Safran). Secretly, I was hoping to get some tips on how to remember the names of customers and publishing industry acquaintances who always seem to remember my name; it's a horrible failing that I seem to forget names as soon as I've been introduced. Foer's book has some tips for name remembering, though not a fix-all; most of the venerated tricks of memory he learns from "memory championship" circuits -- which they learned from the ancient Greeks -- involve really paying attention when the information is first presented. But there are lots of other tricks involved too -- as my bookseller friend Carol says "fun facts to know and tell on every page" -- including the fact that our highly evolved visual/spatial memories can be put to use in remembering more abstract data by using the elegant and ancient technique of the Memory Palace (and often, inventing some absurd or dirty associations, since we're also really good at remembering jokes and sex). I had a great time with the eccentric characters Foer encounters and his reflections on the evolution of memory in human history, from the Memory Palace to the codex to the internet. Good stuff.

New Orleans, Mon Amour
by Andrei Codrescu
I bought this in a tiny bookstore in Pirate's Alley, and read it listening to a trumpet player in Jackson Square, and eating rabbit jambalaya, and wandering through cemetery cities. I fell completely in love with New Orleans myself, so it was wonderful to have a fellow outsider as pithy and eloquent as Codrescu describing the city's morbidly festive charms. Reading essays written over 20 years all at once, they do start to become a bit predictable, and Codrescu is a bit of a dirty old man; still, these pieces were evocative and illuminating, highly recommended for anyone who knows what it means to miss NOLA.

Odd Is On Our Side
by Dean Koontz, Fred Van Lente & Queenie Chan

Why do I read these Dean Koontz manga adaptations? The art is generic, the plot unbelievable, the characters and morality simplistic. I simply cannot help myself, and I eat them like particularly artificial-tasting candy.

Parnassus on Wheels
by Christopher Morley

I love books, bookselling, and Brooklyn. I am the target audience for this book. I was so delighted to discover Melville House had reissued it, years after I read the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop. I was also delighted to discover that this 1917 novel has a bit of feminism in it: though the fiery bookseller Roger Mifflin is in some ways the hero, the narrator is a 40-year-old "angel in the house" who strikes out on her own as a bookselling entrepreneur after years of unappreciated baking. Immensely fun, with some very quotable quotes, especially for those of a bookselling persuasion.

Postern of Fate
by Agatha Christie

Weird -- a sort of bad Agatha Christie novel. It not only has my least favorite detectives (the fussy bourgeois couple Tommy and Tuppence), it was written near the end of Christie's life and career, and feels oddly circular and repetitive. I guess it's good to know that even the master didn't knock 'em out of the park every time.

Rasl Pocket Book One
by Jeff Smith

Remember Bone? This is like that except kinda the opposite. The sexy, morally messed-up hero, the science (time travel, parallel universes, etc.), the difficult-to-follow plot, the mysticism... did I mention the sex and the science? It's fascinating and gorgeously drawn, but definitely NOT for kids. I'm intrigued by where he's going with this... it may be years before we find out, but it's worth it.


by Jennifer Donnelly

A rich feast of a YA novel -- achingly sad and authentically adolescent, chock full of local color and telling details in Brooklyn and Paris, with a French Revolution parallel plot to blow you away, plus a love story, plus some nice class/race/ethics analysis of French and Brooklyn culture. It's not perfect (the author does a sort of supernatural and/or dream thing 3/4 of the way through that I found totally uneccessary), but it is immensely satisfying and thought-provoking. And is there any better metaphor for adolescence than the French Revolution?

by Michael Chabon

This is an epic American fantasy -- a rich stew of our national mythologies from Paul Bunyan to Babe Ruth -- and a fantastic adventure story. It's Chabon's first and only YA book, and I remember it being kind of a flop in terms of Chabon novels, but I found it completely compelling -- added to my own personal pantheon of larger-than-life tales. I read it in the summertime, and finished it looking out at the Statue of Liberty from Red Hook -- one of the most perfect reading experiences of the year.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
Deeply satisfying and yet entirely unexpected -- a universal story of outsiders, of growing up, of family secrets and cultural misunderstandings, but also a picture of a fascinating and little-known part of the world. Tea Obreht's childhood in the former Yugoslavia, among family stories and traditional legends, informs this story of a woman in an unnamed post-war country who delves into her grandfather's childhood to understand his death. The stories she uncovers -- of an escaped tiger, a man who cannot die, and the coincidences and ironies of a region almost constantly in a state of war -- make for a novel with the suspense of a thriller and the resonances of a myth. An incredible work from an incredible young writer, The Tiger's Wife marks the beginning of the career of a writer to watch.
[cribbed from my own writeup for the NAIBA holiday catalog]

Two Cents Plain by Martin Lemelman
Interestingly, Pantheon published this in a format that makes it look like a traditional book, rather than a graphic novel. It's a story that will likely have the most fans outside of comics lovers: a memoir of a childhood in a 1950s Brooklyn candy shop, with a dysfunctional family and the shadow of the Holocaust looming on one side and 1970s urban blight on the other. I like the concept slightly more than the execution -- Lemelman's drawings of people get kind of mushy and indistinguishable -- but it's an interesting addition to the world of New York nostalgia books as well as graphic memoirs.

What Was Lost
by Catherine O'Flynn

How am I NOT going to read a book recommended by David Mitchell as one of his favorite young authors? And the connections to Mitchell's work are clear: it's a compassionate and realistic world, tinged with the supernatural in a way that enriches rather than cheapens the story. O'Flynn is the only writer I've ever encountered who has really examined the strange tragedy that is the contemporary indoor shopping mall; her evocation of the bleak lives of the employees, the artificial "shopping experience" so carefully preserved with smells, music, and security, and the very old-fashioned sacrifices made to christen the new development, is chilling and familiar. The main characters are believably, hopelessly human, and their redemption is both surprising and inevitable. Can't wait to read more by this young Welsh writer -- and I wish more authors would write about retail culture like this.

When You Were A Tadpole And I Was A Fish
by Martin Gardner

A random impulse purchase from the strand, this is a wonderfully random collection of essays on topics from God to poetry to politics -- always reasoned, never pedantic, though sometimes a little irritated at encountered stupidity. The author, an Oklahoma mathematician who writes for Scientific American, is someone I look upon with great respect, and would love to have a beer or a cup of tea with.

You Were Wrong
by Matthew Sharpe

This is the book I feel worst about failing to review earlier -- because it is an amazing, strange, and incomparable small novel, and more people should read it. It was sent to me by the author, whom I know slightly as a bookstore customer (his novel The Sleeping Father was a sleeper hit), and who enjoys a sort of indie cult following. You Were Wrong is a sort of an indie love story... and sort of a mystery... and sort of a country song... and sort of a horror/suspense novel... and sort of a comedic romp... and sort of an exploration of race and family and exploitation and class... and sort of campy... and sort of surreal... and sort of earnest... and it has the best closing paragraph I have read all year. You have to read the whole book to get to it, though, and if you think you can guess how the twists and turns of the plot will go... well, you'll be wrong.