The best books I read this year

I read a lot. This year for the first time I actually kept track of all the books I read. As of today the total is 71. I just started Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel The Company Man (very good, btw) and will certainly finish it by tomorrow. Next up is Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley and I may get through another before Jan. 1.  (I read fast and I always have. In 8th grade I read Decline and Fall of the Third Reich twice.)

So out of all those books these are the best one’s I read this year in history, fantasy, SF and what is usually called Fiction. Very few of them were published this year if it matters.

I am always on the look out for something to read and I don’t care what the topic is, so if you’ve read anything really good lately please let me know.  I am particularly looking for a good biography of Lord Palmerston and a history of the Hanseatic League in English. Now you know why Mrs. CollateralDamage finds me so difficult to shop for.

History (First Person)

  • The Indian War of 1864 by Eugene F. Ware — This manuscript was discovered after the death of Ware who served as an officer in the war against the Native Americans during the Civil War. It is a superbly well-written account of life on the frontier and life in the frontier army. While he is certainly a racist, he also shows surprising moments of compassion.
  • My Diary North And South by William Howard Russell — It astounds me that this book is out of print. Russell was England’s best and most acclaimed journalist in the middle 19th century. This book is the story of the year or so he spent covering the start of the US Civil War. Russell was soon hated by both the armies and civilians of the North and the South because he was in fact an impartial reporter. The story of his effort to get out of the U.S. and back to England is, by itself, more than enough reason to read this. He was a remarkable writer, too.

History (Narrative)

  • Constantinople by Philip Mansel — A history of the city under Ottoman rule from 1453 to 1922. Until the Young Turks overthrew the Ottomans and began forcing out non-Turkish peoples Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Its many, many different ethnic and religious groups forged a unique collective identity and a truly fascinating city. This was done through bloodshed and eventual acceptance that anyone from the city — no matter what their background — was better than anyone not from the city.
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman –Fascinating look at our Civil War from the outside and where I found out about William Howard Russell.
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk — Lots of appearances by William Howard Russell and more terrifying and true adventures than I would have believed possible. There are just far, far too many similarities to the U.S. recent invasions of the same areas.

Science Fiction

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami — I really can’t describe this book so I’m just putting in someone else’s summary of the opening:  “A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.” That last phrase is quite an understatement.
  • The Dervish House by  Ian McDonald — Had I not read 1Q84 this would have been the best SF I read this year. It is set in Istanbul and I picked it up just after reading Constantinople so I can say with confidence that he gets the city and its history perfectly. I won’t go into the plot except to say it’s very good and very plausible. My favorite element though was one of the main characters, an old man, who with three of his old friends are the last members of a Greek orthodox church still in the city and most of their scenes take place at the cafe where they gather for coffee and talk. I would have given anything to have joined them.
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald — This is such a wild, fantastical, fun story of life on a strange railroad-based society on another planet that I had to keep checking to see it was the same guy who wrote Dervish House. It is not as good as Dervish House but it is very good.

FANTASY

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This is fantasy fiction for grown-ups — the characters, plot and setting are all deep and believable. This is the best new fantasy writer I have read in at least a decade.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — Written in 1968 and considered one of the all time classics of the genre, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It deserves its reputation. And Mr. Beagle, as my brother Aristo and his wife Stacy can attest with much more knowledge, is a really great guy.
  • The Knight by Gene Wolfe — If Gene Wolfe wrote a grocery list I would pay to read it. In this an American is transported to a fantasy world. Any resemblence to anything else you’ve read with that device ends there. Wolfe is almost totally unknown outside the world of genre fiction and that is a shame. I also reccommend his great collection of short works: The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories … and Other Stories.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — I am a huge fan of Abercrombie’s work. He and Glenn Cook are the best writers I’ve read telling epic fantasy stories from the view of the grunts on the bottom of the chain of command. Like the battle of Helms Deep narrated by one of the front line orcs. Red Country is my favorite of Abercrombie’s to date because it tells stories that are only epic to the people involved in them, not because the FATE OF THE WORLD is involved. (I hate FATE OF THE WORLD as a plot device. ) The stakes — and the rewards — are small but far from unimportant.

So-Called-Traditional Fiction:

  • Hav by Jan Morris — A travelogue to a fictitious, nearly isolated European nation somewhere between Italy and Greece. Nothing and everything happens in this book. It reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars — not in a derivative way — for perfectly documenting a culture and a world that don’t exist. You will want to buy train or boat tickets to go here (there is no airport yet).
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad/A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul — I read them in that order and they bookend colonialism and its impacts. Conrad’s story is a tragedy that is heroic in scope and examines the costs to the colonizers of being the overlords. There are elements that remind me of Melville’s non-Moby writing — the atmosphere/sense of place and also because it has a plot that would have been hackneyed in the hands of a lesser writer. Naipul presents a tragedy on a minute scale. It is the story of the aftermath of colonialism. It is set in Africa and the main character is from a family that moved their during colonialism from another colonized nation. The society has broken down and then found a great new leader and everyone is struggling to figure out what it means to be from this nation. That is a gross simplification but it will have to do.

Why I had to stop reading Michael Lewis’ The Big Short

I’m a fan of writer Michael Lewis. Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Sandra Bullock Wins An Oscar, are all good books. As is The Big Short, his latest. I started reading it yesterday and by bedtime I was half-way through (it’s a short book and I’m a fast reader). When I got up this morning Mrs. CollateralDamage said I was making very unhappy noises in my sleep and I’ve felt on edge all day. I read some more of the book, realized I was getting increasingly agitated and finally put it down. This book is a non-fiction horror story, and one whose end we don’t yet know.

Daily Show gets it right again. The Big Short is about four people who guessed (and bet) right about mortgage-related ponzi scheme which has led to our current economic “downturn”. What is probably upsetting me about the book is that it confirms my most cynical beliefs about the world. Several of the people in the book repeatedly ask questions of bankers, bond raters, bond salesmen and anyone else they can find in hopes that someone can prove to them that all this buying and selling of sub-prime mortgage securities isn’t just a house of cards. They want to know because they are betting that it is and want to find out if they’ve just blown their money. That, my friends, is a motivated investigator. They are either told they don’t understand how this all works (which we quickly realize means the person who should understand doesn’t) or they are met with blank stares. They try to tell regulators, they try to tell other investors, they even try telling the investment bankers who created this train wreck what is about to happen. AND NO ONE WILL LISTEN. They are Cassandra’s writ huge – except that they make a crap load of money, whereas Cassie just had to suffer.

The other terrifying thing about Big Short, is that it confirms my greatest cynical fears: That most of the people in places of power are either corrupt or fools. Now you’d think that after eight years of George W. I would already have had these fears confirmed but there’s something about Lewis stories of smug, arrogant idiots/crooks gaming the system that scared the feces out of me. It doesn’t help that I really don’t see any reason for the economy to improve. The head of our bankrupt government wants to spend more money. His opposition thinks the best way to deal with the government’s being bankrupt is to keep in place a tax cut for the richest people in the nation. The banks are pretending they’re solvent. People keep saying it’s up to consumers to spend our way out of this mess but it’s overspending that got us into the mess in the first place.  And no one but no one is talking about what happened to all the debt created by the mortgage fiasco. Wall St. and the financial press seem to think that as long as the Dow is over 10K all is right in the world – EVEN THOUGH NONE OF THE PROBLEMS THAT GOT US INTO THIS HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED. Meanwhile no one who was responsible for any of this is going to jail and the nation continues to bleed money and people in two wars everyone knows we have no business fighting.

Sorry, Mr. Lewis, I can’t take anymore. I’m going to go read something much more soothing, like World War Z or John Dies At The End. As my old drinking buddy John Milton once told me, “Stare into the abyss long enough and it starts to stare back.” Well, at least St. Peter told me I was the nicest of the damned…

 

BitterlyBooks does great catty reviews of non-fiction books

I have no idea who is writing BittlerlyBooks but he/she/it/they are geniuses (or a genius).

Here’s just a few great quotes

From the review of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second Life: Making Money in the Metaverse by Daniel Terdiman:

… there is detailed information on other opportunities in the adult services industry including sex fasion, sex clubs, sex animations, and sex furniture. For example, "escorts can earn from US$3 to US$14 in an hour. Again, over time, and with volume, it adds up pretty quickly"(p.17), or you can sell "a wide range of penises and vaginas in various sizes and levels of functionality and complexity"(p.165), and "there’s also fashion for all kinds of specific subcommunities, like furries"(p.16). Other chapters cover topics such land sales and construction, but they don’t have phrases like "people whose job it is to manage the escorts,"(p.166) which is nicest way of writing "pimps"(p.167) that I have ever seen.

From the review of Healing with Crystals by Pamela Chase and Jonathan Pawlik:

What is in this book: Instructions for owning and operating crystals, which are actually a lot like housepets. Pets that occasionally ask to be buried in dirt. "Crystals like to be stored in sunlight and open spaces. They like to be used and enjoyed"(p.34). You can ask your crystal questions about where it would be most comfortable: "Would you like to be on the window sill? By the bed? Etc."(p.51) and question it about its uses: "Shall I place you in my receiving hand, on my heart, on my third eye?"(p.51).

From the review of Game Widow by Wendy Kays

Would you recommend this book to widows of U.S. servicemen who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan? Without reservation. Ms. Kays’ description of a game widow as “a woman whose husband might as well be dead to her because he is constantly engaged with video games”(p.xii) is as respectful to their situation as it is similar. The fact that Ms. Kays’ not-dead husband has earned a living by sensationalizing the ongoing sacrifices made by the United States Armed Forces and marketing it as entertainment can only add another layer of empathy and understanding.

I could quote more but I’m pretty sure I’ve already run afoul of the fair use rules.

My only complaints:

  1. New reviews are only published on the 1st and 15th of each month. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO IN THE MEANTIME???
  2. Needs more hardcore business books. If you can stay awake through them business books are comedy gold.

2006: My favorite books

Here’s a list of books I encountered this year and really liked.

Non-fiction

Fiction

  • Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett: The funniest writer going. If it’s not quite up there with The Wee Free Men, Jingo, Mort, Pyramids, or The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, that’s because those set the bar so high.
  • The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud: Part one of a trilogy (shudder … WHY???) telling a story of magic and politics from the POV of an enslaved djinni. I read a lot of YA fiction. Fortunately there’s a lot out there that’s really, really good and this is one.
  • The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau: This story about escaping from a dying, post-apocalyptic city can be read as allegory or just as a really good story.
  • The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, Chris Wooding: How dark can YA fantasy get? Pretty damn dark. A great book and one that hasn’t been spoiled by a sequel.
  • Abarat, Clive Barker: A strange and totally unexpected fantasy world with strange and totally unexpected paintings by the author. Sadly, it is part of a trilogy. What are you going to do?
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov: OK, so it was a re-read. Sue me. Of all the eastern European fabulists whom I love — I.B. Singer, Gogol, Kafka, Lem — he is my favorite. M&M is the story of the devil coming to the USSR in the 1920s interwoven with a retelling of the crucifiction. It reminds me of Miyazake’s Swept Away. Like that wonderful movie it bends reality superbly and after my first go around with it I didn’t really have a clue what it was about. But it has amply rewarded each return visit.
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks: If you read only one post-apocalyptic fictitious history of a world wide war with zombies this year, this is the one. Some reviewers found it humorous (perhaps because Mr. Brook’s father is Mel Brooks?), I didn’t. Funny & Zombie? That’s Shaun of the Dead. This is a horrifying look at what it would be like if the entire world were engulfed in modern war made more marketable because the bad guys are zombies.