Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading Envy's Best Books of 2011

I've compiled other best of 2011 lists earlier this month, and posted my reading statistics for the year, but I have yet to tell you what my favorites were.  That time is now.  I was going to delay until closer to midnight.  What if one of the three books I'm still in the middle of is a sleeper favorite?  I had to let it go.  Also, I may not finish them by then, and I might be busy!

Best Novel of 2011

I will start with my absolutely favorite of the year - The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

I read this book when it was nominated (and a finalist) for this year's Hugo Award for best novel.  I had never read Ian McDonald before, and plan to go back and read more of his novels.  This was a combination of interesting setting (slightly future Turkey), nanotechnology, a mystery relating to a legend, art traders, a boy with an interesting disorder, terrorism... if it sounds complicated, it was, but written masterfully.  The language alone was enough to rank this book high.  And that isn't just within science fiction, this is across the board.

While I recommend this book to everyone, there have been some who haven't loved it as much as I did.  However, the very well-read science fiction readers on the Incomparable Podcast shared my view that this should have won the Hugo award, hands down.  And when let readers ask McDonald anything, he explained his writing process in answer to a question I asked that made me want to get my hands on everything else he's put his hand to.  He recently published his first YA novel, and that looks to be interesting too. 

I couldn't just pick one book.  I read 175 books this year, after all.  Allow me to pick favorites in a few more categories, just to cover all my bases.

Best Modern Novel of 2011

I'm hesitant to pick a novel I just finished this week, because I won't know until next year if it is truly sticking with me or is just the best book I read recently.  But because of the writing, the story, and the music elements, I'm going to pick Appassionata by Eva Hoffman.

Other books I might have picked, if I hadn't read the Hoffman - Mating by Norman Rush, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Best Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Read of 2011

Most people might not read enough of this sub-genre of speculative fiction to have a favorite, but it made up 8% of my reading for the year!  The definite hands winner in this category for this year is a book that was published the year I was born (1978), and I just got to it while I was in bed with a terrible cold.  If you've read the book, you will understand the irony of that.  If you haven't read it, you must.  It is the best of its genre - The Stand by Stephen King.

Honorable mentions include Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Sleepless by Charlies Huston, Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, and The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Best Non-Fiction Read of 2011

Since I grouped all non-fiction together this year, it was hard to choose, but this book is dreaming fuel - Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky.

The other book I really enjoyed is Decoded by Jay-Z.

Best Short Stories of 2011

This was a tough call, because I read a lot of short story volumes this year, and enjoyed many of them, all for different reasons.  The volume that gets the prize because of how memorable it has proven to be - The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer.

Other recommended sets would be St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell, and American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Best Classic Novel of 2011

Since only one book actually qualifies this year, and because I was so damn proud of myself for finally getting through it, this one is an easy answer - Ulysses by James Joyce.

Best Fantasy Novel of 2011

I read so much more fantasy and science fiction than I have in previous years, so this category is impossible.  I enjoyed the Patrick Rothfuss novels, as well as the Tiffany Aching subset of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.  Recently I devoured The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and then there was Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.  I'd recommend them all equally.

Best Poetry of 2011

Phew, another tough one.  Just head over to my poetry shelf and read something!   

Best Audio Book of 2011

Thanks to an account on and the library's Overdrive offerings, I have listened to a lot more audio books this year.  The tie goes to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (narrated by the marvelous Jim Dale) and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  

2011 Reading Stats

Since I track my reading in GoodReads, I am more than happy to use their widgets and statistic analysis to look at what I've read this past year.  I'll post a little later with my favorites of the year.  I just can't help myself, I love to look at the numbers!

View clickable version here

In my head, I rate most books at a 3, but the statistics show that I actually give most books a 4. Books have to be truly great to get a 5. As I've been reflecting back on the year, it is interesting to me that some of the books I now call my favorites of this year were not necessarily those with the most number of stars. It just goes to show you that how I rate books is flawed, or at the very least subjective.

Possibly the most interesting bit of data to me was to see that I'd managed to read around 15,000 more pages this year than in 2010. I have no idea how or why. I like to look at pages vs. books, because what if I read stacks of poetry vs. a few mighty tomes? Regardless, I read a lot this year.

I feel like I should say that to me, saying I read 197 books is misleading. In the list I keep for myself in Google Docs, I show a nice round 175. The disparity is probably from accidentally leaving off a few, but most likely from not including cookbooks in my own count. I review a fair number every year, usually baking in theme. You can view that list over here. It is a fun list because I list everything two ways - chronologically and then by category, something I don't always bother with in GoodReads. Anything in italics is a re-read. This year I grouped all non-fiction into one category (excluding cookbooks), but some years I separate that out.

There is a lot more analysis I could do that I will spare you on.  It would be interesting to know how much of these are audio, since I listened a lot more this year, which are eBooks, and which were read for book clubs vs. on my own.  I also feel like I read a lot more new books than I did other years.  GoodReads does graph that, but it is just a blue blobby showing a concentration in the 21st century.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming

I've knocked out a bunch of books from my to-read list in the last week, and have 1-2 more I'm hoping together through before January 1.

The Kingdom of OhioThe Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I was pretty entertained by the faux historical fiction this turned out to be. Enough of it is true... enough, but a lot of it has sent me running off to fact check, only to be chided for believing it to begin with. Tesla and Edison were real people, at least. :)

Part of the novel has a steampunk-friendly tinkerer-hearted side, and then it will have sudden emotional gutpunches like this, which I took the time to type up before finishing, just so I wouldn't lose it:

"Walking alone through the city streets, I'll start thinking about you and all the ways it could have been different - and then suddenly find myself, as if just woken up, baffled and blinking on some honking street corner, or standing in a fluorescent supermarket corridor, or sitting alone at the dark little bar near my apartment, at a loss for what I'm doing in this ill-fitting world of unknown faces and chaotic shapes, where all that makes sense are my memories of a vanished time, and you."

The narrator's story is perhaps the most interesting one of all, but you have to read most of it between the lines (and footnotes), until the end. You know something is coming though the whole novel, and while I would have preferred to be more surprised, I did stay up until 2am to get there.

Some book titles trigger songs. Just like last time, I kept singing one song to myself every time I saw the title. Take a listen to Bloodbuzz Ohio by The National.
I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees.
I never married, but Ohio don't remember me....
We need more songs about Ohio!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Call by Yannick Murphy

The Call: A NovelThe Call: A Novel by Yannick Murphy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was on the Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2011 List, so I decided to give it a whirl despite not being overly interested by the description (large animal veterinarian in new england).

The technique used at first seemed repetitive, with each little mini section starting with whichever call the vet was getting. The vet, by the way, is dealing with his own health with "high levels" and an accident with his son.

Midway through, "the call" takes on a new meaning, and brings an interesting twist to the book. Suffice to say the second half was more interesting and went more quickly than the first!

This will probably only be interesting to music lovers, but because of the name of this book, I've been humming Ralph Vaughan Williams song "The Call" all week!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Appassionata by Eva Hoffman

AppassionataAppassionata by Eva Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is more of the 4.5 stars variety for me. The story is about Isabel Merton, a concert pianist, who ends up in a relationship with a man involved in the politics of volatile Chechnya. The amazing part of the novel isn't the story, but how the writer has capture the emotions of music in words. There are portions where various thoughts of people attending Isabel's concerts are written in streams overlaying each other, as well as Isabel's own thoughts while she plays and I wanted to shout, "Yes! This is what it is like!" So few people know, and fewer can explain, and Hoffman has.

The book has no chapters, but there are sections of Isabel preparing for concerts in various cities, interspersed with sporadic sections of her in the "in between" (usually while traveling) where she reads the journal of one of her former teachers. There is also the story of her childhood, particularly of her brother, which has a clear impact on her own life and outlook. Because there is no pause, no end, I found it difficult to stop reading, and wanting to start from the beginning when I came back to it. In fact, that would have been an homage to my own piano training, my own teacher who would announce "Again!" after any little error.

Beyond the writing about music, which I connected fully with, is a commentary on what revolution, war, terrorism, and violence mean to us in our current society. Do we take it seriously enough? Does it even matter to us? Do we diminish it or ignore it? Do we take responsibility for our own part? The novel does an interesting job of asking the questions and demonstrating several different answers in the perspectives and actions of several of the characters.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

Go-Go Girls of the ApocalypseGo-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If a post-apocalyptic book can be funny, this is it!

Basic summary: The world has been over for nine years, and Mortimer has been cozy and safe, protected in a mountain fortress he bought for himself when he saw the end coming. But he gets bored and decides to wander, and finds that the former United States is still in chaos, but a chain of strip clubs have started to be the center of new communities. Then he decides to look for his wife....

This is a quick read, full of blood and guts and strippers. Oh and cannibals. And steam power. Just a little bit of everything, really.  Just the thing for down time on Christmas Eve....

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first found out about this book when it was named a finalist for the National Book Award.  When I first read the Kindle preview of this, I decided I probably wouldn't like it because it felt like a "book club book," meaning a little light for my tastes. Having actually sat down and read it, I still dislike it, but for different reasons.

The second sentence of the novel: "We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall." This voice is not just for the set-up of the book, like I'd originally thought. No. Throughout the entire novel, Otsuka maintains this impersonal "we," referring to the Japanese women who move to the United States in the late 19th/early 20th century to marry men they've never met. The focus of the book shifts from "Come, Japanese" to "First Night" to "Babies" to "The Children" and so on, ending with all the Japanese in the area being round up and sent to Japanese internment camps during WWII.

It feels more like an epic poem. The entire time I was picturing someone reading these lines, intoning them low and serious, like the backdrop of a religious ceremony. As of such there isn't really a plot, per se. The reader never gets to know one person's story from another, everything is just a list of things that happen, but it is always to "we" or "one of us" and you can't follow anyone's story all the way through. It is almost as if Otsuka, in wanting to tell these womens' stories, diminishes their lives even further.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Books of 2011

On Wednesday, I said I was tempted to compile all the lists of lists of the best books of 2011 into one list, then sort it by popularity.  I couldn't resist!  Here are the top 12 books of 2011, as determined by everyone in the English speaking universe.  If you look at the list of lists put together by Random House, I used every list except those that were over 50 books (come on people, that isn't selecting anything!) or those that were genre-specific.  Those that were broadly fiction or non-fiction were included.

A few comments on the list - quite a few of these are first novels.  Harbach, Obreht, Wilson, Morgenstern, Waldman, and Russell; congratulations to those authors for really achieving something special.  I just bought a copy of The Tiger's Wife at the Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, SC, and it is the #3 book of 2011.

Book Author # of mentions
Art of Fielding, The Harbach, Chad 10
Marriage Plot, The Eugenides, Jeffrey 10
Tiger's Wife, The Obreht, Tea 9
1Q84 Murakami, Haruki 8
State of Wonder Patchett, Ann 7
Open City Cole, Teju 6
Blue Nights Didion, Joan 5
Bossypants Fey, Tina 5
Family Fang, The Wilson, Kevin 5
Night Circus, The Morgenstern, Erin 5
Submission, The Waldman, Amy 5
Swamplandia! Russell, Karen 5

You can see the entire list I compiled here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Vacation Reading

I work Monday and Tuesday next week, but I have already started to gather the important stack of vacation reading.  I started taste-testing the books tonight, which were picked largely by picking interesting sounding titles from the beginning of my to-read list.  I have one for work, two for baking research, and the rest for fun.

Top to bottom:

-Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse
-Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories
-The Kingdom of Ohio
-You've Got to Read This!
-The Gone-Away World
-The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
-The Italian Baker
-The Food of Spain
-Embedded Librarians

I still have time to declare these books unreadable and to make another pile.  I definitely didn't mean to pick two post-apocalyptic books, especially considering that I'm still listening to Swan Song. 

What are YOU reading over the holidays?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of Steve Jobs is fascinating and bewildering. He was clearly not a nice person, to say the least. His first wife described him as "englightened yet cruel," two qualities I can't reconcile with one another.

At the same time, Jobs was integral into how every person uses technology today. His belief in the importance of perfection in design and his ruthless ambition might be unmatched in any person left living, and I honestly don't know if the world can do without him.

Because of changes in my own working life, I think I was reading this wanting to know what Steve Jobs could teach me. Is it possible to apply his concepts of belief in a superior product, collaboration, and territory without being an unpleasant human being?

I think Isaacson portrays his strengths and weaknesses in what seems to be a fair light, and I enjoyed the progression through this one man's amazing life. If Jobs isn't someone I would want to model myself after, at least I can develop a greater appreciation for what one person can accomplish in even a shortened lifetime.

The research is thorough but the writing gets a bit repetitive - that's what happens when a book rushes to print, I suppose. I'd give it 3.5 stars if I could. To Steve Job's story (and not this book itself), I give 5 stars.

Jobs on how one of his earlier trips to India changed his ways:
"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things - that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present tense. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more than you could see before. It's a discipline; you have to practice it."

An example of Jobs' many eccentricities and strange health practices:
"There was also the issue of his hygiene. He was still convinced, against all evidence, that his vegan diets meant that he didn't need to use a deodorant or take regular showers.  'We would have to literally put him out the door and tell him to go take a shower,' said Markkula. 'At meetings we had to look at his dirty feet.' Sometimes, to relieve stress, he would soak his feet in the toilet, a practice that was not as soothing for his colleagues."

A useful tidbit:
"There falls a shadow, as T.S. Eliot noted, between the conception and the creation. In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important."

From an engineer who left Apple:
"I thoroughly enjoy talking with him, and I admire his ideas, practical perspective, and energy. But I just don't feel that he provides the trusting supportive, relaxed environment that I need."

One of the many comments on his reality distortion:
"You realize that it can't be true, but somehow he makes it true."
"You did the impossible, because you didn't realize it was impossible."

On inspiring your workers:
"'I've learned over the years that when you have really good people you don't have to baby them,' Jobs later explained. 'By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things.'"
"I've found people who can't wait to fall into line behind a good strategy, but there just hasn't been one."
"I discovered that the best innovation is sometimes the company, the way you organize a company."
"What are the ten things we should be doing next?" (and then cross out bottom 7)

"Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do... that's true for companies, and it's true for products."

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favorite of the Murakami books I've read (and I've read about half). Where I sometimes feel distant from or frustrated with his characters, I loved Aomame and Tengo, as well as several of the characters in their periphery. I loved the alternate reality. I loved how music permeated everything, and I listened to the works mentioned during most of my reading of the book (it starts with Janacek and moves through Haydn 'cello sonatas before touching on the St. Matthew Passion and Horowitz's piano playing). I loved the way the story was told, alternating points of view with trailing threads between - it was mastery.

The usual silly themes of spaghetti and cats were present, but what Murakami does with cats in this book has to be read to be believed.

The only thing I'm not sure about is the little people... that whole idea wasn't resolved to my satisfaction. From what I've read in interviews with the author, they just showed up one day, and I'm not sure he knew what to do with them either.

"Aomame said, 'Even if things were the same, people's perception of things might have been very different back then. The darkness of night was probably deeper then, so the moon must have been that much bigger and brighter. And of course people didn't have records or tapes or CDs. They couldn't hear proper performances of music anytime they liked; it was always something special.'
'I'm sure you're right,' the dowager said. 'Things are so convenient for us these days, our perceptions are probably that much duller. Even if it's the same moon hanging in the sky, we may be looking at something quite different. Four hundred years ago, we might have had richer spirits that were closer to nature."

The next time I read a Murakami book, I simply must try Kafka on the Shore. I've heard it has a librarian.  I wonder if it would be like 1Q84, where I took breaks in reading so I wouldn't finish too quickly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lists of Lists for 2011

We are embroiled in final exams right now, and I'm also transitioning into an added position at work, so I haven't been posting much.  I've been reading a lot though, and soon I'll post more reviews as well as my end of the year reflection.  That is always my favorite part of the end of the year.  Holidays?  Well, okay.  I'd rather read best of [insert year] lists!

Random House has pulled together an amazing list of lists: Best of Book Lists 2011.  I got it from my co-worker Robyn, who always knows everything about books before anyone else.  She's amazing, and one of my best reading resources.  Maybe I'll get to some of these books in 2012;  I know I've made it to some already!  Pretty soon I'll be asking for your favorite reads of 2011, and maybe your favorite album.  Get ready!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

House of HolesHouse of Holes by Nicholson Baker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've read a lot by Nicholson Baker, and the man can be incredibly maddening when he wants to be (for instance when he strings librarians up by their toenails in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper). He can also turn a lunchtime escalator ride into a novel (The Mezzanine). Actually, I preferred that to this novel of "raunch." I kind of got the point after the first story or two, and while I enjoyed his seemingly endless names for body parts, that was really the only redeeming quality. The story was nonexistent, the characters were interchangeable, and at the end, I felt like I needed a shower ... in a bad way.

Mo-om, I think I got some creepy reclusive author on me!

Don't get me wrong.  Nicholson Baker is worth reading.  I just wouldn't start here (or maybe I wouldn't even go here!).  If you want a novel that is shameless about sex but has a better story, you can try The Fermata, but my favorite is Vox, a novel that claims to be about phone sex, but I found incredibly touching.   It had traces of what I loved about the movie Before Sunrise.

My favorite Nicholson Baker book is The Anthologist, because the character Paul Chowder is well-written, and it started me on a poetry reading kick that I haven't tired of. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Top Ten Books on my TBR List for Winter

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by the Broke and the Bookish; every week there’s a new topic to discuss and this week’s is:

Top Ten Books On My TBR List For Winter

Oh, man.  I am so excited for winter reading.  First there is that 2 week chunk of days off, and this year contains no traveling, no family, no visitors.  Other than getting ready for my class spring semester, I will have a few commitments.  I should be able to read a lot.  Add to that the Around the World in 52 Books Challenge that I'm participating in, and you have one excited reader.  Here are ten of the books I'm looking forward to reading in the next few months!

1. The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
I have previously enjoyed other books by Houellebecq, and although I have not read his entire oeuvre, it has been a while since I've read anything by him.  Looking through Amazon, it looks like something by him came out last year, and I completely missed it (Whatever is the title).  A lot of critics are praising The Map and the Territory, and it sounds like this might be one of the more significant works by the author.  I won't be reading it for my Around the World Challenge, despite the fact that he is French, living in Spain, because I have previously read work by him.  (I believe I'm reading Balzac for France!)

2. Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
I loved The Hummingbird's Daughter, because of its blend of magical realism, Spanish language (while it is translated, quite a bit of dialogue is still in Spanish), and the healing powers of the main character, Teresa Urrea.  It looks like Queen of America has the same main character, who I will be happy to return to, and it also looks like it takes place along the border of Mexico with other countries (USA, Cuba, etc).  Even better - I recently won a copy through the GoodReads publisher giveaway.  Since I was going to read it anyway, getting a book for free doesn't hurt.  I'm also not planning on using this for my Around the World Challenge because I'd read Urrea before, but I might read it the same week as the other Mexico pick just for kicks.

3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
I have already read Snow Crash at least once.  I think twice.  It is the pick for one of my online book clubs for January, and I am looking forward to reading it again.  When I re-read the Sprawl Trilogy when we did the Neuromancer readalong on SFF Audio, it was remarkable how much more I got out of it since I had read so much more science fiction in the past few years.  I'm expecting to have a similar experience at this point in my reading life with Snow Crash.  Except this time, I'm going to listen to the audio book.  Scott from SFF Audio claims it is one of the best audio books, and he would know!

4. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Speaking of audio books!  I keep hearing good things about Lauren Beukes.  She just won the Arthur C. Clarke award for her second novel, Zoo City.  I have audiobooks of both at home, waiting to be listened to.  The other thing that makes me excited about these particular books is that they are the very first audiobooks published by the new (2009) publisher, Angry Robot Books. They seem to be doing publishing in a way friendlier to the 21st century than most publishers - their eBooks do not have international restrictions or DRM.  In other words, they want us to READ them.  Thank goodness.

5. Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
On the other side of that 21st century publishing coin, I will be happy to finally have access to Half-Blood Blues at the end of February, which is still technically the winter.  After all the acclaim (award nominations, award wins) and all the frustration in actually getting a copy, I want it more than ever.  (Want me to do something?  Just tell me I can't... Yeah, I'm one of THOSE people.)

6. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This comes out in March, which gives me just enough time to read the two books by Winterson that I haven't read yet (see books 7 and 8! aha!).  Jeanette Winterson is one of my favorite authors, and my two favorite books of hers are The Powerbook and Written on the Body.  Such beautiful language.  This is her autobiography, and from what I've read (and from what I suspect just in her writing), it is bound to be an interesting and powerful story.  The title sounds like a question I've heard from my own mother.  Maybe Winterson and I have some things in common?

7. Art & Lies and 8. Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
I don't actually know much about these books, I just stumbled across them at an amazing used bookstore in Asheville, NC, knew I hadn't read them, and purchased them on the spot.  I think I will have read everything by the author when I finish these two.  These are good candidates for reading during the December holidays, actually.  Her prose is beautiful, so I will be reading these with sticky notes in hand.

9. From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon
In all of this international fiction reading that I am going to be doing, I am most excited for the books from Iceland.  I only get to officially pick one, and this is one of the many on my to-read list.  From the Mouth of the Whale has a winning combination.  Ancient culture!  Cold weather island!  Good writing!  Could someone find me a way to get paid to read books from Iceland and travel there as well?  Dream job!

10. The Old Man and His Sons by Heoin Bru
Another cold-weather-island book and possibly the book I'm most excited to read for my Around the World challenge.  It may also be the only Faroe Island work of fiction that has been translated into English.  I looked for a long time, and many are available in Icelandic but very few other languages. 

Part of me feels like I should include 1Q84 on this list, since I am still in the middle of reading it, and it is really great.  But I'm not sure I can look forward to a book I'm already reading.  What are you looking forward to reading?

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Great Dystopian Novel To Read List

Longer list alert!  This is the other half of the reading list mentioned in this post, originally compiled by Ross E. Lockhart.  These are the books I'm adding to my to-read list, because it is a silly goal of mine to have consumed all post-apocalyptic and dystopian titles.  Have any to add?  Any favorites to weigh in on?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  

Amis, Martin
Einstein’s Monsters  
Anderson, M. T.
Armstrong, Jon
Grey (et.seq.)
Asimov, Isaac
Pebble in the Sky
Auster, Paul
In the Country of Last Things  
Ballard, J. G.
Hello America
Barry, Max
Jennifer Government
Bates, Paul L.
Beaton, Alistair
A Planet for the President 
Beckett, Bernard
Böll, Heinrich
My Melancholy Face  
Boston, Bruce
The Guardener’s Tale
Boyd, John
Last Starship from Earth 
Brain, Marshall
Brooke, Keith
Brunner, John
The Jagged Orbit
The Sheep Look Up *
The Shockwave Rider  
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward
Vril: The Power of the Coming Race 
Burgess, Anthony
The Wanting Seed
Burroughs, William S.
Blade Runner, a Movie
(see also Nourse, Alan E.)

Carbonneau, Louis
Barrier World
Cobb, William
A Spring of Souls
Cohen, Stuart Archer
The Army of the Republic

Cowdrey, Albert E.
DeVita, James
The Silenced
DiChario, Nick
Valley of Day-Glo
Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said  
The Man in the High Castle *  
Disch, Thomas
The Genocides
Farmer, Philip José
Riders of the Purple Wage
Ferrigno, Robert
Prayers for the Assassin (et.seq.)
Fischer, Tibor
The Collector Collector
Fukui, Isamu
Gray, Alasdair
Lanark: A Life in Four Books * 
Grimes, Tom
City of God
Hairston, Andrea
Hall, Sarah
Daughters of the North Harkaway, Nick
The Gone-Away World Harris, Robert
Harrison, Harry
Make Room! Make Room! * 
Herbert, Frank
Hellstrom’s Hive
Hubbard, L. Ron
Final Blackout
Huxley, Aldous
Ape and Essence
Johnston, Paul
The House of Dust
Keogh, Andrew
Keppel-Jones, Arthur M.
When Smuts Goes
Kerr, Philip
The Second Angel
King, Stephen
(writing as Richard Bachman) 

The Long Walk
The Running Man
Kuttner, Henry
The Iron Standard
Lamar, Jake
The Last Integrationist
Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Lerner, Lisa
Just Like Beauty
Levin, Ira
This Perfect Day
Lewis, Sinclair
It Can’t Happen Here *
London, Jack
The Iron Heel *
Lowry, Lois
The Giver
Lundwall, Sam J.
2018 A.D. or the King Kong Blues  
Mark, Jan
Useful Idiots
McCarthy, Wil
McIntosh, Will
Soft Apocalypse
McMullen, Sean
Eyes of the Calculor
Mellick III, Carlton
The Egg Man
War Slut
Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Moore, Alan
V for Vendetta
Morgan, Richard
Market Forces
Thirteen (AKA Black Man) Morrison, Toni
Nabokov, Vladimir
Invitation to a Beheading
Neiderman, Andrew
The Baby Squad
Nolan, William F. and George Clayton Johnson
Logan’s Run
Norden, Eric
The Ultimate Solution
Nourse, Alan E.
The Blade Runner
(See also Burroughs, William S.) 
O’Brien, Michael D.
Eclipse of the Sun
Oppegaard, David
The Suicide Collectors
Philbrick, Rodman
The Last Book in the Universe
Pohl, Frederick and C. M. Kornbluth — The Space Merchants
Pollack, Rachel
Unquenchable Fire
Powers, Tim
Dinner at Deviant’s Palace
Rand, Ayn
Reed, Kit
Robinson, Kim Stanley
The Gold Coast: Three Californias (Wild Shore Triptych) *
Rucker, Rudy
Russ, Joanna
And Chaos Died
Scalzi, John with Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, and Karl Schroeder 
Sharpe, Matthew
Shirley, John
Black Glass
Silva, Ulises
Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside
Singer, Lee
Slattery, Brian Francis
Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America *
Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man
Smith, L. Neil
The Probability Broach
Spinrad, Norman
The Iron Dream
The Fifth Sacred Thing  
Stevens-Arce, James
Takami, Koushun
Battle Royale
Tevis, Walter
Theroux, Marcel
Far North
Tomson, Rupert
Divided Kingdom
Turner, George
The Sea and Summer  
Turtledove, Harry
The Gladiator
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr.
Player Piano *
Walton, Jo
Waugh, Evelyn
Love Among the Ruins
Wells, H. G.
The Time Machine
When the Sleeper Wakes
Weyn, Suzanne
The Bar Code Tattoo (et.seq.) 
Williams, David J.
The Mirrored Heavens
Wilson, Robert Anton
The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy  
Wilson, Robert Charles
Womack, Jack
Random Acts of Senseless Violence Wright, Ronald
A Scientific Romance
Zamyatin, Yevgeny
We *

Dystopian Novels Reading List, Part 1

Have I ever explained the title of this blog?  I hope it is pretty obvious... the sentiment that there are too many good books, and not enough time to read them.  Following busy readers in GoodReads and bunches of reading blogs is like sitting at a restaurant and being convinced that everyone else picked better menu items than you did.  I suffer from constant reading envy.

Another thing that really feeds my reading envy?  Lists!  I love lists.  At the back of the Brave New Worlds volume of dystopian short stories, editor John Joseph Adams included a chapter "For Further Reading," compiled by Ross E. Lockhart.  Such a great idea, and on the website you can even access the lists as a PDF or as buying lists in  The list is incredibly long, so first I will post the books I've already read, and my next post will detail the books I haven't read yet!
Lockhart indicates the books with "high literary value" with an asterisk, so I'll just leave his judgment as is.   See after the list for books that didn't make the list, but should have.

Notable Dystopias, already read: 

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid’s Tale *
Oryx and Crake
The Year of the Flood

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl *
Ship Breaker

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451 *

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia
Parable of the Sower *  

Collins, Suzanne
The Hunger Games (et.seq.) 

Crace, Jim
The Pesthouse

Doctorow, Cory
Little Brother 

Gibson, William
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Neuromancer * (really this should say Neuromancer et. seq.)

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World * 

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go 

Lem, Stansiław
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub   

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road * 

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas (“Sonmis Oratio”)  

Orwell, George
Nineteen Eighty-Four * 

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash 

Stewart, George R.
Earth Abides 

Westerfield, Scott
Uglies (et.seq.) 

Some of these I'd classify as post-apocalyptic (and indeed, the Wastelands anthology contains a similar list, which I've been working through ever since!), but I think some books are easily both.  In fact, it is pretty hard to have a post-apocalyptic world that isn't dystopian.   

I would heartily endorse the reading of any book on this list.  The Lem is a bit difficult because it is pretty ridiculous, and I wouldn't say the overarching theme of Cloud Atlas is dystopian (but it is still a brilliant book).  My favorites probably include the Atwood, the Butler, and Orwell, as far as in their handling of dystopian worlds and themes.
I'd also add a few more books to the list, definitely worth a mention:

Noise by Darin Bradley
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (they left this off the Brunner list, but I'd put it back on!) 
The Book by M. Clifford
Ready Player One by Ernst Cline (this post-dates the anthology)
The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq 
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson (hey, it made io9's American Dystopia Top Ten list)

The Kitchen as a Laboratory

The Kitchen as a Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and CookingThe Kitchen as a Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking by Cesar Vega
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Molecular gastronomy - applied. Written by actual food scientists, each chapter addresses a different food question and narrates the science that particular scientist or team undertook to find the answer. Some of these experiments were grant funded research, yet the book is easy to read for the most part, even for a lay person like me.

The book starts with a chapter on grilled cheese, where I learned why mild cheddar melts better than aged, and why fondue works. I couldn't put the book down after that.

Other chapters address texture, crispness, thickening agents, and my favorite - chewy ice cream. The scientists took a look at what makes salep dondurma (which Harold McGee wrote about in the NY Times in 2007) work, and to see if they could replicate it with other ingredients. They had to do this since the key ingredient, salep, a wild orchid derivative, isn't allowed out of the country of Turkey, where it is indigenous to that area only. I was fascinated and horrified and probably won't go to the trouble of trying the recipe they developed on my own, since it is a long list of ingredients I'd have to special order and aren't immediately recognizable, but I could if I so chose.

That's pretty much the underlying sentiment in this book - can we? why not? and how? I was fascinated by it and imagine others would be too. You can just gloss over the chemical diagrams like I did.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories ed. by John Joseph Adams

A few years ago, I read my way through Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, also edited by John Joseph Adams.  It was an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories that I really enjoyed.  This volume is all dystopian stories, similar vein, but not quite.  In fact, I think I can say for sure that I prefer post-apocalyptic over dystopian.  I believe this is because I enjoy reading about people who have survived, who are rebuilding, and all the ideas and creativity that can come out of that.  In a dystopia, people are often unable to take control of their lives, and bad things are happening to them, usually by other people, most likely the government.  Just one observation I made of my own preferences.

That isn't to say this isn't worth reading!  I took the list of the table of contents from John Joseph Adam's website, and will make brief remarks on the stories. Most remarks will be questions since most of the stories seem to ask them, and answering them would give them away. 

The Lottery — Shirley Jackson
Apparently this is the old standard of dystopian stories.  The story itself was good, also shocking, but I was more interested in reading about the reception of the story when it was first published in the New Yorker.  Subscription cancellations... hate mail... all to show the power a story can have.

Red Card — S. L. Gilbow
I'm not going to lie, I loved the concept of this story, where certain people get license to kill with no consequences.  It does introduce a different type of conflict in daily relationships!

Ten With a Flag — Joseph Paul Haines
The first of several fertility related dystopian stories.  What happens when the government knows to much about your unborn child?

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas — Ursula K. Le Guin
Oh, Ursula Le Guin and how she can build a world.  What about this little sentence - "Let the tambourines be struck above the copulations..."  She describes a seemingly perfect world.  It was horrifying, and the last sentence is the title.

Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment — M. Rickert

A culture where if women dissent, they disappear.  Phew.  I remember this author from the Wastelands anthology - her story Bread and Bombs haunted me for months (I'm still not sure I understand it, but you can read it full-text online here.)

The Funeral — Kate Wilhelm
In a controlling society, a glimmer of hope...  this reminded me of the tone of Never Let Me Go, perhaps just with the children and the headmaster type character.

O Happy Day! — Geoff Ryman
This story seems to ask the question of what would happen if a group of homosexual men were given the task of loading people onto the train cars bound for concentration camps?  It felt more like an exercise in "what if?" than a fully developed story.  This story had me stalled for quite some time.

Pervert — Charles Coleman Finlay
I loved this story, actually.  A nice twist to question how we think of sexuality in our society.  Can we make this required reading for people who want to make laws about other people's relationships?

From Homogenous to Honey — Neil Gaiman & Bryan Talbot
A graphic novel offering.  What if moralistic dictators could time travel to rid the world of immorality as they defined it? 

Billennium — J. G. Ballard
A crazy nightmare of overpopulation, one that John Brunner would be proud of.

Amaryllis — Carrie Vaughn
This was a repeat read for me, since she was a Hugo Award finalist this year.  Another fertility dystopian story, with a twist involving fish.

Pop Squad — Paolo Bacigalupi
The price of achieving immortality?  Making reproduction against the law, and babies into nothing more than pests needing to be exterminated.  How's that for a fun job?  An okay concept, but at this point I was kind of tired of fertility dystopias.

Auspicious Eggs — James Morrow
And the opposite of the reproduction horror spectrum - where women who don't reproduce are put to death.

Peter Skilling — Alex Irvine
Sometimes saving yourself for the future is a gamble.

The Pedestrian — Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is a master at writing horror into the everyday.  Even a walk.

The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away — Cory Doctorow
Doot doot doo.  This story was tl;dr.  (That is shorthand for too long, didn't read... having this volume as bedside reading wasn't always the best choice, and I usually love Doctorow's dystopian voice.  I'd read Little Brother before I'd try this again.

The Pearl Diver — Caitlín R. Kiernan

Talk about complete loss of privacy - the government and your boss are both watching you, and they're collaborating.  Wait, this doesn't seem that off....

Dead Space for the Unexpected — Geoff Ryman
“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman — Harlan Ellison®
I've grouped these stories together because they both have to deal with accounting for your time in ridiculous ways.

Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution? — Genevieve Valentine
Are you sure you don't know something we need to know?  Some of the writing reminded me of the overload of media and commercialism from Stand on Zanzibar.

Independence Day — Sarah Langan
Self-regulation, ridiculous surgery, and constant danger.

The Lunatics — Kim Stanley Robinson

Men forced to mine the moon practically every waking moment, and the work days are getting longer.  I don't want to ruin the story by saying any more.

Sacrament — Matt Williamson

The art of torture once it becomes a regulated form.

The Minority Report — Philip K. Dick

I've never seen the movie, but knew the basic premise.  The actual story is great, and the pacing really struck me as being well done.   I couldn't get the "precogs" out of my head.  In all the action, the true dystopia has to be the lives they lead.

Just Do It — Heather Lindsley

This might be my favorite story of the anthology.  It is funnier than most, but anyone who remembers the chapter in Fast Food Nation where he meets the smell/flavor chemist will definitely appreciate this story.

Harrison Bergeron — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Everyone is equal!  For better or worse!

Caught in the Organ Draft — Robert Silverberg

When the old and rich implement a draft so that they can live forever off of younger peoples' organs.

Geriatric Ward — Orson Scott Card

Completely devastating story about society trapped in an early onset aging epidemic.

Arties Aren’t Stupid — Jeremiah Tolbert

People are genetically engineered to be good at one thing, and to be in pain when they can't do it.  Deep in my memory this story made me think of a Sesame street with the two puppet types - one that wanted the fruit in the tree but was too short to get to it, and the taller puppets with the arms that wouldn't bend so they couldn't feed themselves.  (This will make sense when you read the story.)

Jordan’s Waterhammer — Joe Mastroianni
Deeply disturbing society where love and sex are mysterious words passed down from the ground above, and human life has no value.

Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs — Adam-Troy Castro

This story!  This story will stick with me.  Smart of JJ Adams to stick it near the end.  True dystopia occurs when people are willing to endure anything for amenities.

Resistance — Tobias S. Buckell
Dystopia and voting.  For anyone who didn't live through the chad scandal.

Civilization — Vylar Kaftan

I loved this story, written in a Choose Your Own Adventure style!