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.