I read every day, but not generally for hours on end. Sometimes, I only manage to read twenty pages or so because my heart’s just not in it. Then, there are times where I’ll get hooked on a book and can’t put it down. Because I have this here blog thing, I thought I’d discuss the books that I read last year. My intention with this post is to write these things down before I forget them altogether since my memory is absolute crap. I have already failed in my remembering mission with certain books on this list.
Some of these books are, apparently, so obscure that they don’t have wiki pages. When that was the case, I linked the author instead. This post is a lot longer than I originally thought it would be. There are a lot of links here and my fingers are very tired now. I need a nap.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I went on a Chandler tear last year. This was the first Chandler book I read. I absolutely adore the film version with Bogart and Bacall, so it was only natural that I read the book. He is now one of my favorite authors. Nobody does dialog like Chandler. Other books of his that I read last year include:
I didn’t read all of those back to back, but I did read them all in 2010. They are all good and worth reading. If you have never read any Chandler, you should. He appeals to more that just detective mystery fans. He was an intelligent and inspired writer who gets far less credit than he deserves since most people write him off as pulp.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Speaking of dialog, nobody does dialog like Burgess. The man invented an entire slang vocabulary of his very own. Both the book and the film are favorites of mine. Every few years, I read the book or watch the movie.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
This is a big, fat, hardcover graphic novel. I’m having a hard time remembering the plot at the moment, but I do remember finding it pretty interesting and original when I read it. The art and overall tone is dark.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
This was my first foray into Dominican lit. It was recommended by a writer that I know when I asked for recommendations on good modern fiction. It jumps around a lot. Each chapter is written in the voice of a different character, but it gives you no clue that that’s what it’s doing. It takes a chapter or two before you figure it out. This book tells a fairly uninteresting story about a fairly uninteresting fellow who lived a brief, non-wondrous life. I would have been unimpressed with Oscar Wao even if the next book I read hadn’t been…
How The García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
This is another Dominican book. It seems to me that Oscar Wao pretty much ripped off the format of it, except that The García Girls gives you a warning as to who is speaking. This book did it so much better than Oscar Wao and it’s a way better book.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
I’ve long been a fan of Japanese cinema, but I believe this was my first taste of Japanese literature. It is as good a place as any to start. For 1914 and for a Japanese novel, it’s fairly provocative. It’s not an edge of your seat type of book, but it’s worth reading.
Demo by Brian Wood
Demo is a twelve-part graphic novel. I can’t for the life of me remember reading this. I just read the wiki entry that I linked above and it still didn’t ring any bells. It is on my list of books I read last year and the art looks vaguely familiar.
A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Another graphic novel. Actually, since this is Japanese, I suppose it’s a manga. I do remember reading this one… barely. It’s about a manga artist and his trials and tribulations trying to get work. It’s autobiographical and very long for a graphic novel, but I am pretty sure I found it interesting at the time.
Red Harvest and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
As far as detective mystery novels go, I think Chandler is the more lyrical writer, but Hammett has great stories. Red Harvest is positively great. I found The Thin Man to be slightly underwhelming in comparison to the movies, but it’s still a solid mystery story and well worth reading. I’d recommend reading the book before seeing the movie.
The Getaway and The Grifters by Jim Thompson
While I was on mystery novels, I read these books. I would not recommend reading Thompson immediately after reading Chandler or Hammett since you will be disappointed by comparison. I am willing to say that, had I taken my own advice, I might have liked them more, but then again, if you can’t compare mystery stories to Chandler and Hammett, what’s the point?
Slow Death by Stewart Home
Ah, Stewart Home. What can be said about his books? I already wrote a little bit about Home in the post If I Could Be a Character From a Book, I’d Be… Stewart Home books are guilty pleasures of mine.
The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski
AGAIN. This is my if-you-could-only-take-one-book-to-a-desert-island book. I’ve read it more times than I can count and it lives in my bedside table. My copy is dogeared, bedraggled and indispensable.
Kinki Lullaby by Isaac Adamson
Clever, interesting and pulpy are three words that come to mind. It’s a mystery novel by an American author set in Japan. I don’t remember the plot, but I remember finding it to be a quick, enjoyable read.
Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect, My Life In Japan’s Underworld by Manabu Miyazaki
For some very unknown reason, I absolutely love yakuza movies. Actually, I like all gangster movies, but there’s something about the Japanese yakuza culture in particular that appeals to me. I also love samurai movies, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. This is a very long, autobiographical book written by someone who is very clearly not a writer. The title leads you to believe that the book is more interesting than it is. Miyazaki is not actually a yakuza. He just happens to know a few. I would recommend reading the next book instead if you’re interested. Toppamono does detail the political unrest in Japan in the 60’s if you’re into that sort of thing.
Confessions of a Yakuza: a Life in Japan’s Underworld by Junichi Saga
This book recounts the tale of a character who actually was a yakuza unlike Miyazaki. This book, though short, is completely engaging. The yakuza protagonist certainly has some stories to tell.
Fires On The Plain by Ooka Shohei
It seems as though I went on a little Japanese literature bender last year as well. I have always loved Kon Ichikawa’s film version, but I hadn’t read the book. I’m really torn as to which I prefer. The book is packed with subtle humor and delectable phrasing, even though the story is one of sadness and horror. That is mostly lost in the movie. However, I love the fact that Ichikawa toned down a lot of the religious references in the book and I like the film’s ending better.
Heart of Darkness And Other Tales by Joseph Conrad
I think Conrad is swell. I wrote about my affinity for his writing most recently in the post A Book That Changed My Life. If you haven’t read any Conrad, you should. Trust me. The version of the book I read also contains the short stories An Outpost of Progress, Karain and Youth.
Journey Into The Whirlwind and Within The Whirlwind (out of print) by Yevgenia Ginzburg
A two-part, 900+ page, autobiographical account of what it was like to survive Stalin-era prison camps. I’ve read a thousand books like this, but I’d never read one from the female perspective before. I cannot get enough of books on the Stalin-era Soviet Union. I have no idea why. This one is interesting and compelling, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago series, which still stand as the ultimate books of this type.
Night by Elie Wiesel
A distressing, horrifying, inhuman account of surviving the holocaust. This book will break your heart and make you very angry that things like this could happen. However, that said, Elie Wiesel isn’t much of a writer. I think this book got so much acclaim because of the subject matter, not the way it was written.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
UGH. I’m not linking that one. I almost didn’t put this on the list since I only read 140 pages, but I feel the need to warn people. I’ve already written about my loathing for this book in the post The Road To Mediocrity.
The Woman In The Dunes by Kōbō Abe
Like Fires On The Plain, I am very much torn as to whether I prefer the book or the movie. Both the book and film versions of Woman In The Dunes are excellent and they actually enhance each other rather than detract. Creative, engaging and generally awesome.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
More Japanese fiction, but this time, it’s modern. This is a fairly good crime novel about some women in over their heads. It’s not anything I’d consider terribly necessary to read and it has a somewhat pulp quality about it, like something you’d pick up in an airport, but I found it decent enough when I read it.
Dreams from Bunker Hill by John Fante
I’d never read any Fante before. Charles Bukowski called him one of his favorite authors. I can see it. This is simple, nicely composed prose.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I hadn’t read this book in a decade or two and it wasn’t nearly as good as I remembered. There are sentences scattered throughout that are nearly perfect, but overall, I found this book mainly underwhelming the second time around.
Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
I picked this up at the library on a whim since the author won a Nobel Prize for Literature. I can’t imagine why. If you like Japanese tea ceremonies, this is the book for you. If you don’t, well, at least it’s a short book.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
This was a John Fante recommendation. He mentions it in Dreams From Bunker Hill. I’m glad I tracked it down since it immediately became one of my favorite books. First published in 1888, it’s a truly enjoyable read on the universal themes of hunger and starving for your craft. Anyone who fancies themselves a writer should read this book. I wrote a fictional story inspired by it in the post called Hunger.
Speed Tribes: Days and Night’s with Japan’s Next Generation by Karl Taro Greenfeld
Speed Tribes was written in the early 90’s and, boy, is it dated. Sadly, it doesn’t stand the test of time.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
It’s considered an American classic with good reason. If you haven’t read it, you should. Anderson mastered the short stories woven into a novel format in this book.
The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
A sprawling Egyptian historical epic, strangely, written by a Finnish author. I’d never read any Egyptian historical fiction before and I doubt I will again. It was engaging enough to keep reading, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you like that type of thing.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Buy this book and read it right now. I know, you’ve never even heard of Nick Harkaway and you might not trust the opinion of a fish on the intarwebz, but do it anyway. Then, when it blows your mind and proves unequivocally there there is such a thing as awesome contemporary fiction, write your congressman, senator and Nick Harkaway and demand that he write more books immediately. It is entirely unfair that he has only written one. Awesome book is awesome.
World War Z by Max Brooks
How do you follow a book like The Gone-Away World? With WWZ, of course. Strangely, this is first zombie novel I’ve read. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more since I really can’t imagine that any other zombie book could possibly top this one. It’s thorough, engaging and totally great. I read the whole thing in two sittings.
Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi
For a book published in 1870, it is remarkably funny and highly entertaining. It’s a great book. It’s too bad Kivi only wrote one.
The Year Of The Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Understated, absurd, wry, and entertaining. It’s a short, interesting little read.
Pastoralia by George Saunders
This collection of short stories was recommended to me by the same guy who recommended Oscar Wao. The book jacket has reviews containing the phrases “brutally hilarious satire”, “fiercely funny” and “a funny, funny writer”, so I was expecting it to be, you know, funny. I’m not sure that those reviewers were reading the same book that I was since I couldn’t really find the funny anywhere. I will say that Saunders is creative. He can write. Creative, yes. Funny, no.
Then I went on a little Neal Stephenson bender:
The Diamond Age
It seems disjointed at first, but all the characters, details and sideplots dovetail nicely eventually. It’s not nearly as good as Snow Crash, which is probably my favorite Stephenson book, but it’s a genuinely original universe he created and a pretty good read.
Long, convoluted, didactic, already very dated as far as the technology is concerned and frequently making its way into why-should-I-care-about-this-again? territory, but if you can make the commitment to read its nearly 1,000 pages, holy hell, is it ever worth it. It’s super, hella interesting once it gets rolling. I read the last 3-400 pages straight through because I couldn’t bear to put it down. I was sad when I finished it because I wanted more.
This book is also pretty technologically dated, but I’ve learned that most things by Stephenson are worth reading. This book falls somewhere below Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, and lands near The Diamond Age on my Stephenson rating scale.