Reading List Apr-Jun 2011

I haven’t been reviewing, but I have been reading although even that has dropped off at the end of June with a combination of traveling, limited internet access, and irregular work hours. I will get back to the main business in July, I promise. I see that people get here by searching for Geisler’s book and I don’t want to leave the review unfinished.

The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers

This book has been the most fun thing on the recommendation list so far. It was entertaining and full of fantastic happenings – and what good is fantasy if nothing fantastic ever happens? There were a lot of opportunities for things to go ridiculously over the top – time travel, werewolves, beggar guilds, historical figures… but almost everything came together satisfactorily.

The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This was not a fun book; it felt like an accomplishment, both the impressive prose and the feat of finishing it. Admittedly, I was busy and tired when I read it, getting only a few pages in at night before falling asleep and having to reread the ends of where I left off because I’d started scanning without comprehension. It wasn’t a good way to read. There’s a lot of circularity and different memories of the same events. Dspite my failings as a reader, it was an amazing work. It did not strike me as belonging on an SFF list though, even accounting for how many books with clearly fantastic elements are classified as literature rather than fantasy. The surreal or magical elements seemed to me to be entirely internal.

Looking for Jake and Other Stories – China Mieville

The weirdness and overflow and indulgence of Mieville’s novels are some of my favorite parts, and the more abbreviated and concise nature of the short story didn’t work for me as well. There were a few good stories among this collection, but none of them left me stunned with admiration and I was anxious to move on to the next book.

Blindness – Jose Saramago

I was concerned that this would be a slow and dense book, and was happily surprised that the pages flew by. Although there wasn’t constant action – much of the book was a description of the difficult day to day activity of the suddenly blind, the situation was continually compelling. While the resolution was fitting and paralleled the introduction to the conflict, thinking back on the book a few months later I do feel a bit frustrated with the lack of answers.

The Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch) – Gene Wolfe

The author’s relationship to real world religion kept tugging on me as I was reading. It’s hard to know what exactly to say about this particular series. It was worth reading even though I don’t share the author’s worldview. Sometimes the symbolism was so explicit that I felt like I was being preached to, and sometimes the story was so self contained that I felt ashamed for equating it with an allegory. In The Sword of the Lictor, when I read “I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator”, I felt like Wolfe might as well have written, “Hey, the New Sun is Jesus, you know, Jesus, hey it’s Jesus”. At other times, it felt more like an artifact than a story. It seems to me that it’s more a rebuilding of the connections that belief might take – and a thoughtful and intellectual rebuilding too – but one that I don’t connect to and one where I can’t share the author’s vision.

Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

An important book to the SF genre, easy and quick to read. After Book of the New Sun, the straightforward style was a relief.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

The reread! I started reading this almost at the same time as the Game of Thrones show on HBO, partly so that I could nitpick, which I must say is not an angry or frustrated or dissatisfied reaction for me but merely a hobby. It also coincided conveniently with getting through a reread before A Dance with Dragons comes out on July 12. A year ago, I would have told you that I was over it; I’d waited so long that I didn’t care if I never read the rest of the series. Turns out that wasn’t true.

Kraken – China Mieville

Awesome and flawed. This seems to be a fairly common opinion. The atmosphere, the setting, the equal parts familiarity and weirdness of the Kraken religion, Goss and Subby, and the looming threats and secrets all around make the book amazing. I got into the premise much faster than I normally do with Mieville – even though I love the Bas Lag novels, I had to work through the first few chapters to get into the story. Unfortunately, the opposite happened with Kraken, as I started falling out through the middle. The parade of new characters and groups through the plot gets to be a bit much and ultimately doesn’t contribute much, and the characters in the special police unit feel unnaturally stuffed into the plot as they become increasingly slow and irrelevant and until they’re needed at the end. If I’d stopped halfway through, then read the last few chapters, the book would have been just as good.

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti – Milton Rokeach

This book is about three men in a mental asylum who believe themselves to be Jesus. The author is a psychologist who hypothesizes that even if a person is mentally confused about his own identity, he will still hold to the fundamental belief that only one person can have a given identity – he gathers the men for daily meetings to see if confronting them with other people claiming their same identity will cause them to reevaluate their own claims. The book is both funny and sad at the same time. In one incident, a man in their ward is disturbed by another man’s snoring. He yells, “Jesus Christ! Quit that snoring!” and one of the Christs sits up and says “that wasn’t me who was snoring!” While their collective insistence leads to funny moments, I think it makes it even sadder that for the most part, the three men could be extremely articulate and charismatic. One is an avid and intelligent reader, and he can recount details of the author’s lives and culture as well as the plots of the books, but then will end by claiming that he is the true author and the work was stolen from him. The author calmly mentions that he thinks he has some understanding of experiences with no external reality, since he had real seeming experiences doing LSD!

The book was written in the 60s, and the author added some comments twenty years later, expressing regret for overstepping his patients’ autonomy in rearranging their lives in such a way. He says that the study was really about four men who thought they were God in a mental hospital, but by the end of the study, he himself had been cured of the delusion that he could interfere with their lives.

Embassytown – China Mieville

I wanted to love this book, but couldn’t. It’s a work of talent and intelligence, and is probably worth reading for the ideas. There are a lot of things to think about floating around, from the structure of language and how we think about language to how a society would be arranged when in proximity to a culture that cannot be fully understood or participated in. Unfortunately, the plot is haphazard, poorly paced and full of holes. The conflict, its resolution and the narrator’s part in it failed to convince me, and with many of the characters being either alien with a different concept of language and meaning, or pseudo-alien, having been altered to imitate the alien language, it didn’t help that I found all the characters who might have been relatable to be repugnant. It was hard for me to keep reading the narrator’s tone of petty superiority. I wouldn’t mind talking about the book, but I don’t want to reread it.

Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy

Bleaker than Blood Meridian or The Road, and both are pretty bleak. But it gave me pity and compassion for the characters in a way that McCarthy’s other books have not, and left me with a lingering desire for goodness to prevail rather than merely shock, horror, or in the case of Blood Meridian, dumbfounded awe. I thought that the book captured the Appalachian landscape and dialog better than The Orchard Keeper, although the theme of incest and fatalistic guilt may be a stereotype that wasn’t entirely transcended.

To steal from an earlier review, the theme of the absent father is always present and the parable of the murdered traveler in Blood Meridian can fit both the Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, but the scope of these stories falls short. Outer Dark does contain a moving and shocking story, complete with symbolism and references to many myths and older stories, but at the end, I was left feeling that the references were more a curiosity and an intellectual exercise than something that lent much lasting meaning. For me, it’s a preparation of all these things to be distilled into the figure of the Judge. (I like to write the list a few months after reading because sometimes my perception changes with time, but for this group of books, my opinion has stayed pretty much the same as with the first reading).

A Clash of Kings – George R.R. Martin

This is the book in ASOIAF that I really love because it’s the book where I first became so engrossed in the series. The politicking in King’s Landing is my favorite part, particularly as Tyrion begins to set into motion his plans for the younger Lannister children, believing that he’s starting to outsmart the councilors, figuring out who’s trustworthy, and putting his own people in place. The fact that he’s entirely wrong doesn’t make the setup any less enjoyable. The book also contains by far the best Dany section, in the House of the Undying, and the best battle, at the Blackwater. 

Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

This is the first McCarthy book where I’ve felt disappointed after finishing. It wasn’t difficult to read, and in many instances the prose was beautiful and deliberate and well crafted, but there was an insubstantial voyeuristic quality. It was a story about a necrophiliac serial killer. I felt that there was something of a moral to it, explicitly stated at the beginning that the man was another human like every other, and also that the life of such a person was not a series of packaged explanations or consequences of how he became that way and that his life resisted such a tidy summary – but the fact that I see the book as being one that can be explained in terms of having a moral is enough to make it less of a book than his other works. Ultimately, although it illuminated the material in a unique way, there wasn’t anything new or different about the material itself to the point that it boiled down to being just a serial killer story.

A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin

One of the best things about this book is how it fits in seamlessly with the events started in ACOK and the action flows naturally from the setup. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s that I find the stories located outside Westeros to be irritating and simplistic in comparison to the events without Westeros. The Jon events at the beginning are the most interesting, with some characters that hold their own against the problem that in the first three books, Jon’s story is always all about Jon and everyone else is a sidekick or plot device who mainly exists to advance Jon’s arc. And that just makes the second half of  his Gary Stu story that much worse. I’m not a fan of the blond chick frees a literally nameless mass of brown people bit either. My biggest hope is that the story continues to be about internal Westerosi events instead of the Jon and Dany show.


Reading List Jan-Mar 2011

I had planned to do an entire year’s book list like last year, but thought that it would be easier to read and allow me to write a little more if I split it up. I do like waiting for some time and after several different books to give my opinion.

The Orange Eats Creeps – Grace Krilanovich

This wasn’t an easy book to read or to understand. It’s a drug-altered stream of consciousness, and although linear events can occasionally be deciphered, if you’re looking for a plot or a clear ending, you’re going to end up frustrated. The narrator is a teenage junkie possible vampire in the Pacific Northwest and memories of her foster sister and mother drift in and out as she drifts between convenience stores and temporary hideouts. It’s short and I found the writing style to move quickly. If you think it sounds interesting, you’re probably right and if it doesn’t sound like something you’d like, you’re probably right.

The Half-Made World – Felix Gilman

Incredibly well written. I saw this book recommended many times as one of the best of 2010 and I believe it’s deserving of that designation. The setting is imaginative, the prose is excellent, and the plot is intriguing. The developing West is being fought over by the Gun, angry, chaotic spirits attaching themselves to lone gunmen, and the Line, driven by Engines that desire the organized building and operation of an increasing number of railways and stations. But if my review thus far is a bit bland, it’s because it’s for a book that I can recommend with respect and admiration, but for all that, I was never completely absorbed in. I felt at a distance from the main characters and their thoughts and actions and was more interested in the mechanics of the world building than in any plot related incident.

The City and the City – China Mieville

Here was a book in which the mechanics of the world building were a main aspect and I found the result to be fascinating and attention gripping. A crime takes place in a “shared” city whose inhabitants coexist with deliberate lack of interaction, and a detective follows the trail between cities – that description doesn’t do the situation justice, but it’s better understood through following the characters than by an explanation. You should read it if you like Mieville and you should read it if you didn’t like Mieville – it’s very different in tone and setting than the Bas-Lag novels but is equally vivid.

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future – Vali Nasr

Very informative and slightly biased. The differences and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims are significant both in their theological outlook and their resulting politics and policies. Nasr does a great job of explaining these differences and the history of the sects. I don’t think that he’s unfair or necessarily pushing an agenda, but I do think that he has the tendency to downplay wrongdoing by Shia groups and individuals in comparison to how he presents the Sunni.

Shriek: An Afterword – Jeff Vandermeer

I’ve had the problem a few times now with characters who are accurately, descriptively and perceptively written, but are nevertheless so obnoxious and annoying that I can’t bear to read about them.Janice Shriek is so self-absorbed that even as the most fascinating events are unfolding around her – in this case, a new emergence of the mushroom-like Grey Caps and a war involving fungal weapons – she can’t stop blathering on about personal issues. I didn’t enjoy reading from her perspective, but still felt the unrelenting urge to know as much as possible about the Grey Caps. Some of the middle could have been condensed and I’d have had a better opinion.

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

Almost everyone who’s read this has been favorably impressed and almost everyone is right. There wasn’t a single story I didn’t like, although the titular story was by far my least favorite. Tower of Babylon, Division by Zero and Seventy-Two Letters were great, but I was completely blown away by Hell is the Absence of God. Many of Chiang’s stories are available online, although of course I recommend that you support him by buying his book.

The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy

Kind of a slog, to be honest. It’s worth reading if you’re a big fan of McCarthy because you can see how his style and themes have developed from this first book he published. If that doesn’t interest you, there are probably better things to read. The style whose later incarnation works so well in the bleak violent ultra-extreme landscape of Blood Meridian doesn’t ring true for me in the Tennessee Appalachians, nor does the story warrant such treatment. In fact, the story reemerges in Blood Meridian in just a few lines, and I think it’s more powerful in the few lines than in the entire novel. A lot of well-read, well-educated reviewers disagree with me and praise the way that McCarthy captures the dialect of the area, but it doesn’t have an Appalachian feeling to me.

Thunderer – Felix Gilman

I loved this book and I loved it from the first chapter. It was Gilman’s first book, and it’s enthusiastic and chaotic and fantastic. It’s about a lot of things – a man looking for a vanished god, a bird-god who left some of its power with a boy who escaped from a workhouse and a ship belonging to an countess, a man who captured bits of gods, and other gods who wander through the story and the city. In the first chapter, I was completely convinced by the excitement and desire of the city watching the bird-god pass, and it was excitement and desire that stayed with me through the entire book. I don’t think it’s technically as well written as The Half-Made World – it’s not as clean and tight and pared down – but perfection isn’t a requirement for love and I love the excess and the way that everything is constantly threatening to spill out around the edges.

Gears of the City – Felix Gilman

Usually I wait for a while between reading books by the same author, but I was so excited about Thunderer that I wanted to read Gears of the City immediately. And happily, this is also a book that I love. When I finished Thunderer, I felt that it was complete even though there were large plot points that were unresolved, so I was happy to see that this book moved in a different direction with a new story – it also increases my optimism for the sequel to The Half-Made World. Arjun is still searching for his vanished god, but his attempt to climb the Mountain that looms over the edge of the city has created new problems for him in a new part of the city.

The Ninth Avatar – Todd Newton

I wrote a full review on this site.

Finch – Jeff Vandermeer

I was a bit wary after Shriek, but I shouldn’t have been since this was my favorite Vandermeer book thus far. It’s properly weird and unsettling, and I thought it wrapped up the history of Amergris and the Grey Caps in a satisfying way although there was still a good deal of mystery and open ending remaining. It was worth reading all three books.

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

At this point, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to read next, and I decided to start reading things that looked interesting from the Westeros Fantasy and Science Fiction Book List, based on forum recommendations. When I say things that looked interesting, I’ll probably skip long epic series, books by authors that I’ve disliked in the past, books that are very difficult to find, and I don’t intend to read all of Discworld before moving on to other books. Life is too short to read books that I’m not interested in just because someone else liked them.

With that said, The Affirmation was a good recommendation. I thought that the first three quarters of the book were great, wonderfully written, and built the concept well. While the ending was certainly clever and appropriate, my perception of the situation changed in a way that I’m not sure the author intended, as I started firmly identifying one account as “true” and the other as “imagined”, which reduced the narrator from being ambiguous to simply delusional. I’m still glad I read it but feel that some of the impact was lost on me.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects – Ted Chiang

Very good, not quite as good as some of his short stories. Well worth reading. It’s about two people who work on AI pets designed to look like baby animals or cute robots. The AI is so advanced that the pets are more like children who learn language, concepts, and a sense of self. The people who work with them are able to become attached to them as living beings.

The New Weird – ed. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

It seemed inevitable, considering my liking for the New Weird authors I’ve encountered. The anthology itself was somewhat uneven, although I enjoyed most of the stories. I didn’t think that Crossing into Cambodia by Moorcock had the same tone as any of the other stories at all, and I thought that The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines by Rennie was truly terrible – who’d have known that so much violence gets boring? And I was a bit disappointed that the Laboratory section was dependent on continuing a beginning that was well enough written but felt contrived. I’d rather have seen the authors create something that was NEW new weird. OTOH, the atmosphere was overwhelming in In The Cities, The Hills by Barker and Watson’s Boy by Everson – from the first line of Watson’s Boy, I felt twitchy and claustrophobic. Several of the stories made me curious about the author’s other books. The one story I feel I should reread is Ligotti’s A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing. It was seriously weird, but I’m not sure I caught everything.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

This probably won’t be popular, but I truly disliked reading this book. I had to force myself to finish and pleasurable moments were few and far between. I have no idea why it won a Pulitzer. The brief story of Joe and the golem was the best part, and I was hoping there’d be more of that tone, a bit of the truly fantastic rather than merely the implausible, but it wasn’t to be. It’s a pretty frequent criticism that I have of bad books – we’re told repeatedly that Sam and Rosa are clever and special, but their conversations are dull and wooden. One of the biggest sacrifices Sam makes in the story is completely in the background, over for years before we encounter him again. So he ends up in the first half being like a humorless Jewish Forrest Gump, a blank slate that happens to be part of big events with famous people. Rosa had a fleeting moment of apparent oddness when we met her, but turned out to be a conventional simpering type. I also felt that the author was heavy handed and unnuanced. Even in the saddest moments, I couldn’t forget that the author wanted me to feel sad. I did have ongoing sympathy for Joe, but I found the other characters to be unbelievable and unlikable, and that the plot steamrolled over their personalities and individuality.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Long, dense and interesting. A mistake in the Kindle edition really drives me crazy – the book is repeated twice in its entirety, once without electronic chapter breaks, which made the book look impossibly long. I found the prose style to be slow in the first section, with so many different incidents of money and weapons going to the mujaheddin. The next two sections were easier to read and dealt largely with bin Laden’s rise as a financier of global terrorism and the American attempts to find a way to capture or possibly kill him. If I had one complaint, in a few places coherent narrative is lost in an information dump.

The Ninth Avatar: review

Since the author of the Ninth Avatar, Todd Newton, is a friend of mine, his book gets its own discussion instead of an end of the year paragraph. This is his debut novel.

Before starting to read, I found the cover art appealing and the font annoying. I consider it a huge plus that the novel can be read as a standalone.

A cast of characters from different cultural and religious backgrounds are joined in a fight against an undead army that is ravaging their land. A Mystian priestess named Starka has visions that the turmoil foreshadows the Avatar of Darkness. She is sent into the world to attempt to influence the events of her prophecy, and meets survivors who are determined to bring down the Carrion army.

My impressions of the book are divided largely between the different character sections. There were a few character arcs that I always enjoyed reading and a few that grated on me. In particular, I was interested in everything to do with Cairos, a wizard whose city was destroyed by the Carrion army. I could have easily read an entire book that centered around him and his magic – his sections read easily and the small glimpse of his backstory was immediately interesting. I also appreciated the sections dealing with Xymon, a Carrion army general. He had the aesthetic of a Nazi officer or any real subordinate climbing to the top through bloodshed. His jealousies, grasping and fear added interest that wouldn’t have been present if his army had been presented as a vague force of evil. Most of the other characters with their own sections were enjoyable and sympathetic but spread a bit thin.

However, the main character Starka annoyed me so much that it was difficult to read about her. I think she must be the sister of Bella from Twilight. She was always doing stupid things, asking stupid questions, had a 14 year old’s sexual maturity, and was always needing to be rescued by a man. To be fair, she was previously a sheltered member of a patriarchal religion, and she felt accurate as such, but it didn’t make her easier to read. I was disappointed in DaVille as well. He had a troubled past as a warrior, but I never got a good sense of his deeper motivations. I felt that his character was trying to have it both ways – that he was so damaged and beyond human emotions that he couldn’t connect to anyone and being pulled toward his destiny was all that was left for him, and that he was developing emotions toward Starka and becoming more caring – and I ultimately didn’t buy either. Disliking main characters who are supposed to be good guys made things somewhat difficult.

A real strength for me was the way that religions were constructed and appeared to have real signs and powers, despite each culture having its own religion and own gods or forces. It struck me as being like a world where Christianity, African traditional religion and Hinduism as well as fantasy style magic all had undeniable manifestations, and while each religion could sequester itself to some degree, it would be impossible to entirely deny that the other religions had real and tangible powers. I’d have liked to see even more about the interactions between different religions and their followers, especially how they dealt with the Pillars and the Avatars. For example, Wan Du’s deity appears to speak him, but it’s not very clear the relationship that the deity has with the Pillars, or if there’s spiritual conflict  between deities of different cities when there’s physical conflict between the warriors of the cities. I would also like to have more information on the different Avatars and how their manifestations come about. I think that the setting would be conducive to having some short stories filling in some of the history and details of the different religions and cultures.

The main problem that I had with the plot was how several plot points came and went very quickly and without much precedent. The subplot about Starka’s brother seems like it’s going to be important at the beginning, but it goes nowhere for a long time, and even when it surfaces again, it does almost nothing to change the events of the story. Elsewhere, spells and charms and magical items occasionally come out of nowhere to advance the plot. Perhaps trying to fill up an entire world with characters, cultures and an epic conflict was a little too much. There’s a reason that epic fantasy tends to require several volumes, and I felt that some detail and buildup was sacrificed to be able to tell the entire story in one book. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of epic and I prefer standalones, so my preference would have been less character perspectives and a more focused quest, but I think that the story would work well with expansion. I also think that it would work well as a movie. I’m excited that Todd Newton is continuing in this setting by writing a prequel, and I’m hoping to find out more about the beliefs and cultures that make up the world.

Reading List 2010

(From Yale’s open courses:

Black Boy – Richard Wright

All autobiographies are fictionalized.

Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor

This is a difficult book, not because the plot is hard to follow or because the story goes slowly – it was a fast read. I’ve read things about the way that O’Conner should be interpreted or about her personal beliefs. But on its own, the meaning isn’t obvious. I don’t think that a lot of interpretation is nearly as important as absorbing everything though.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

The first time I read Lolita, I was just fascinated and amazed. This time I read more slowly and more carefully and had more pity for Lolita herself.

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I liked this book more after reading it than while I was reading it. The last trip to Mexico was very vivid, and I also have taken many road trips – from Virginia to Los Angeles, to Seattle via Michigan, to Maine, and to Denver, plus the return trips except for the last. Kerouac spent a lot of time in Denver as well.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

I had mixed feelings about this story, not least because I have mixed feelings about the subject matter. I had a lot of sympathy for Franny but was never sure how I was supposed to feel about Zooey. The first section that focused on Franny was more engaging.

Lost in the Funhouse – John Barth

This was like no other book that I’ve ever read. Some of the stories were outstanding and some were terribly boring, but they weren’t typical. It may sound a bit pretentious, but I feel that I understand modern literature in a different way for having read this.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Reading it again was worth it, and I’m sure that reading it for a third time sometime in the future will also be worth it. Gravity’s Rainbow has been on my reading list for a long time now and I plan to read it in 2011, despite the difficulty, because I truly do enjoy Pynchon.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

This book is so sad that it was hard to read. It’s more than a bludgeon to beat the reader over the head with its message, but the pain and violence aren’t insignificant and I can’t imagine reading it again for a long time.

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

At some point, it occurred to me that my sympathies might lie with Lucille rather than with the protagonist, Ruth. I felt that the author was making value judgments about the superiority of one type of personality.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

If I could only have ten books to read over and over again for the rest of my life, this would be one of them.

The Human Stain – Philip Roth

I loathe this book. I loathe the plot and I loathe the writing style. And if Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth’s alter ego, then I loathe Philip Roth.

The Known World – Edward P. Jones

I agree with all the positive reviews about the merits of this book, but it didn’t make a lasting impact on me. The prose, the story lines, the characters were all well crafted, but I was never completely drawn in. It’s still a book that I’d recommend as a worthwhile read.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

There are a lot of  wonderful moments in this book. I’m glad that I missed the hype, because with no expectations, I enjoyed it a good deal. However, too much of it seemed contrived and self conscious. This isn’t a new criticism, and like many people, I also think that Safran Foer will be worth reading again in the future.

(Free Kindle books)

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

I don’t ever remember reading this before, but everything in it was familiar – apparently picking up descriptions and discussions of the book is pretty much the same as actually reading it.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I enjoyed these stories a long time ago, and they’re pleasantly nostalgic.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

I’d forgotten how short these books were. I can still clearly remember the illustrations in the book I had as a child.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When I first read this in high school, it was very successful in making me identify with Raskolnikov. The whole time I was reading, I felt his guilt and fear. I had a lot of personal philosophical problems and contempt for the people around me at the time that were causing my own guilt and stress, although I never killed anyone. This time, I appreciated the writing and psychology, but felt no particular identification, and I’m glad that I read it first when it could make more of an impact on me.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a good book. This was a good book.

Perdido Street Station/The Scar/Iron Council – China Mieville

I loved all three of these books. PSS was brilliant but uneven – I was captivated by the world building and the constant moving through the city, seeing something new with every page, but the ending felt a bit exploitative and tacked on. The Scar was the best of the three – one of my favorite books. IMO, Iron Council had pacing problems – I didn’t enjoy it as much while I was reading it, but after I’d finished, I felt that the setup paid off, and I was extremely satisfied to see that my instincts about the protagonist weren’t accidental.

The Darkness that Comes Before/The Warrior Prophet/The Thousandfold Thought – R. Scott Bakker

I really don’t understand how people whose literary opinions I respect can like this series. It’s not uniformly horrible – there are some worthwhile plots and philosophies – but ultimately I failed to find any of the characters believable. A major problem I had was that Kellhus was supposed to be insightful, motivational and a figure that inspired near-fanatical devotion, but his speeches and dialog failed to capture that.

Neuromancer – William Gibson

I feel like I missed a lot from this book, probably because I tried to read it too quickly (before a book signing). Gibson is a prophet of technology, and his most famous book is worth reading if only for that. However, I was never able to get immersed enough to care about the missions and motivations of the characters; I felt that I was watching things go by without being able to get a hold on them. I feel that this book deserves a re-read in the future.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

I enjoyed reading it, but the further I get from it, the less impressed I am. There wasn’t any specific thing that was bad – the setting, the plot, and the characters all had many interesting aspects. There just wasn’t anything sublime. I never got the feeling that the story was one facet of a rich world of history and real people.

City of Saints and Madmen – Jeff Vandermeer

Despite some flaws, this was an amazing book. The part that seemed like it might be the most dry, a history of the city, was the most mysterious and sinister. Where I lost interest was when things became overly meta. Vandermeer did an excellent job of taking phenomena related to organic fears – the mushroom growing upon decay and dampness, the squid living in the murky and possibly bottomless ocean – and creating a world where those fears become a source of culture. Finch and other books set in Ambergris will be on my reading list for 2011.

Year of Living Biblically – A. J. Jacobs

The idea was interesting but the execution lacked focus. I admit that I was biased because the author didn’t do things the way that I would have, and perhaps as someone who grew up with a system of religiously related rules – particularly at Christian school – I was overly hard to impress. Jacobs acknowledges that living apart from a devout community has a significant impact on his inability to live identically to an Old Testament Hebrew, and it’s part of the point that even in Orthodox Judaism, it’s impossible to re-create that exact environment within a larger modern non-theocratic society. But I still felt that his effort was too disorganized to be a proper experiment.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss is a very likable and clever author and his prose is fun and easy to read, but I had mixed feelings about this book. Several other readers were in agreement that it was a promising start, but the plot doesn’t get very far off the ground and an important female character is extremely irritating and lacking in personality. I’m not sure that I want to invest the time in finishing the series.

The Unlikely Disciple – Kevin Roose

It’s a revelation to hear about your own culture (at least one you used to belong to)  from someone else. I went to Baptist school, went to Liberty’s campus many times for concerts, many of my schoolmates went to college there. The rules of my high school were fairly similar to the rules at the university – dress code, restrictions on movies and music, mandatory chapel, expectations for dating… I plan to write more about how my experiences compared to Kevin Roose’s after I finish Genesis.

Lost Christianities – Bart Ehrman

I didn’t get all that I could out of this read because I didn’t finish the accompanying text of “Lost Scriptures” which contained a sampling of some extra-Biblical texts. There was too much material to take in at one time considering that I wasn’t familiar with most of the documents. The Yale courses on the NT give a more localized, more specific discussion on the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thecla. I decided to read the canonical books again (starting with my blogged review of Genesis), then come back and read the Lost Scriptures while using this book as a reference, so I will return to it within the year.

Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jr.

The movie follows the book fairly closely. It’s one of the few books that I’d say is not necessary to read if you’ve seen the movie.

Sympathy for the Devil – Tim Pratt

This was a collection of short stories, and I can sum it up by saying that it was pretty good. Almost every story was good, but as a whole, it wasn’t incredibly memorable. It seemed like a lot of the stories had weak endings. I don’t mind ambiguous or open endings, but too often the stories simply seemed as if they’d been left unfinished, unresolved.

A Garden of Earthly Delights – Joyce Carol Oates

I first read this book in the Radford library, when I stayed on campus all day between classes, about five years ago. Although the first section is by far the best, the writing stuck with me and I considered it one of the most compelling books I’d ever read. It was every bit as striking on a re-read.

Ulysses – James Joyce

It took me two years. I had to read the Telemachiad twice and then I stopped about 30 pages short of the ending for almost a year. And as soon as I was finished, I immediately felt that I needed to read it again, more carefully. But not right now.