Saturday, January 01, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new: 2010 wrap-up

Does anybody care if I promise to be a better blogger in 2011? From what I hear, the kids are abandoning blogs and their grannies have all flocked to Facebook. Since I fall somewhere between those two demographics, I guess I can do whatever I want -- the question is, will anybody notice?

2010 was a year of lists. For the first time I tried to keep an ongoing list of movies I watched, but it got out of control very quickly: I saw 18 movies in the first 5 weeks of the year and then fell behind; I started losing ticket stubs and misremembering viewing dates. So I gave up on that. But I did record all the books I read and create a dead pool list, so I'll share those results with you. I'll start with my reading list (the titles I especially enjoyed are marked with an asterisk):

*1. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the 14th Century by Ian Mortimer (finished 1/10/10)
This is the kind of history book I really enjoy -- it makes facts, figures and events seem immediate. This book was really written as a sort of travel guide, explaining what you, a 21st-century visitor, might expect in terms of travel methods, lodging, dining, wardrobe, and much more. Ian Mortimer, who's a British historian, is matter-of-fact about describing things like bear-baiting, which sound barbaric to our modern sensibilities, and provides the best description of the anguish people must have endured during the bubonic plague outbreak that I've ever read. Outstanding! What a great way to start the year.

2. Rabbit Hole by David Lindasy-Abaire (1/10)
I read this because Sean was going to be directing it. It's a really good, solid read, though I preferred it in performance. Sean just saw the movie version last night and was extremely disappointed. "What I don't understand is, why would the filmmakers choose to take that material and make it even more depressing?" he said. We both agree that the humor that offsets the play's sadness is one of its great strengths.

*3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (1/19)
This book has the ugliest old lady cover, and the publisher just repackaged all of Morton's books to have the same look. Too bad, because she's a good writer, adept at handling multiple story lines and different eras, and I don't want her to miss out on readers because her books look stuffy. I have described this novel as "The Secret Garden for grownups." It's a family saga that takes place at four different points in time and in both Australia and England, and there's an intriguing mystery that can only be solved by looking at the events in all those times and places.

4. The California Roll by John Vorhaus (1/28)
I picked this one up because John Vorhaus stopped by the store and I so enjoyed talking with him that I had to find out what his writing is like. This is a fun, exciting mystery with noir touches. The best part is how Vorhaus plays with language, mixing genuine grifter patois with his own verbal creations.

5. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (2/12)
Much more noirish that the movies it inspired, The Thin Man reads like a book in the middle of a mystery series -- man, I wish Hammett had written more about Nick and Nora Charles!

*6. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (3/13)
The best book I read all year, and that's saying something. Golden Richards has four wives and 28 children, he's contemplating an affair with his boss's wife, and yet he's lonely. The plot is kind of shapeless but the writing is sharp, both funny and observant. Golden, the youngest of his wives, and one of his sons take turns telling the story, and it wasn't until I was about three-quarters of the way through this novel that I realized they are all polygamists, and they are all lonely. Very funny and very touching. I absolutely loved it. Oh, it also has a fantatsic cover.

7. Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen (3/17)
This was pretty good. Jokinen became an undertaker just so he could write about it, so I had a little trouble taking him seriously. He did have some interesting things to say about how things work behind the scenes and about the future of funeral homes. Time to start thinking about contacting the Neptune Society!

8. 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander (3/26)
This book actually took me a very long time to finish -- I think I finished the previous three titles while struggling through this one. While it's a well-written story, I found William Alexander quite annoying. He seems to have unlimited time and money for his hare-brained schemes. (I've heard the same criticism leveled at his previous book, The $64 Tomato.) Nevertheless, the book conveyed one great idea -- the perfect is the enemy of the good -- which doesn't make me want to copy any of Alexander's stunts but has left me with a desire to finally read some Voltaire.

9. So Cold the River by Michael Koryta (4/26)
My boss read this novel and loved it; she outlined the plot so breathlessly and enthusiastically that I just had to read it! All the great stuff she described occurred within the first hundred pages and then I was left with 400+ pages to slog through in this turgid book. It took place in Indiana, though, which was a nice trip down memory lane.

*10. Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World by Mark Frauenfelder (4/30)
Frauenfelder is, among other things, the creator of Make magazine and a leading force behind the whole new DIY movement. Here he details his desire to learn how to do things for himself, rather than buying stuff made by others or hiring someone to do things for him. His particular interests -- making cigar box guitars, carving wooden spoons out of fallen tree limbs, building a chicken coop, etc. -- are not my own, yet he describes his whole learning process (attempt, fail, attempt again, fail again but better this time, attempt yet again, eventually succeed) in a truly appealing way. His story is inspiring without being the least bit sappy. The fact that he lives in L.A. is a bonus -- it's such a pleasure to think of this kind of guy living in my neck of the woods.

11. The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey (5/13)
I'm embarrassed to say I can remember almost nothing about this contemporary noir except that I enjoyed it. Harvey has written a couple of sequels featuring the same P.I. and I wouldn't hesitate to read them. Oh! I just remembered that I read this while I was visiting Budapest -- make of that what you will.

*12. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (5/31)
Bryson is one of my favorite authors, and his latest didn't disappoint. He takes readers through a house (using his own as a model), describing how each room came to be used for its modern-day purpose and how the objects in that room came about. Social history at its most entertaining.

*13. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (6/4)
The title is what sucked me in, but it was the writing that held me. The main character is a girl who can taste people's emotions in the food they cook, and it opens up a world that is almost unbearably painful to her. Through food, she learns that she is not the only member of her family harboring a secret or a strange gift. Exquisite.

*14. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (6/30)
Whoo boy. Nearly 60 years old, this book has a crazy freshness about it that makes it feel like it was penned yesterday. The Killer Inside Me was originally published as a cheap pulp paperback, and its graphic descriptions of horrific crimes and sadistic pleasures were ahead of its time. I read it in anticipation of the movie, which I never ended up seeing.

15. Role Models by John Waters (7/20)
Eh. Didn't live up to my expectations.

16. Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp through 1960s America by Natasha Vargas-Cooper (7/25)
I love Mad Men and I love the author's blog, in which she pulls out some detail of each episode and examines it closely, putting it in the larger context of 1960s America. When I heard this book was coming, I was a bit worried that it would just be a reprint of stuff she'd already written about online, but no: it's full of fresh material, examining everything from sexual mores to interior design to food. It's a great way to wallow in Mad Men minutiae while waiting for the new season to start.

17. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (8/24)
A big, fat novel about the hidden history of witches, vampires and demons, and, sadly, an all-around disappointment. I grew immensely weary of the repetition of mundane details (did I really need to know every single time the main character drank a cup of tea or put on a pair of black leggings?) and the ending was maddening: chapters and chapters of buildup, only to stop just before the protagonists set out on an epic quest. It's clearly the first book in a series, one which I will not continue reading.

18. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (8/29)
A good but barely satisfying conclusion to the otherwise great Hunger Games trilogy. What annoyed me most is that our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, was absent from much of the action and served mostly to report others' adventures after they happened.

19. The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia by Mike Dash (9/19)
For some reason (probably that awesome title!), this book grabbed my attention and I had to read it the moment it came out in paperback. It ended up being just OK, but it did introduce me to a criminal with the best Mafia name of all time: Giuseppe "The Clutch Hand" Morello, whose withered, deformed right hand didn't prevent him from becoming a powerful Mafioso in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

*20. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (9/26)
Another book I read in anticipation of the movie, and I loved it. Mysterious, deeply sad, and thought-provoking, it was a hundred times superior to the film.

*21. True Grit by Charles Portis (9/30)
I read this book a couple of times as a kid (it was one of my dad's favorites, so there was always a copy around the house), and it definitely held up on this reread. I had watched the original movie again shortly before I read this, and I was amazed at how closely they resembled one another. I'm looking forward to the Coens' take on the story, but it looks very different from the source material.

*22. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure (10/10)
What fun! I love the Little House books, but my enthusiasm pales in comparison to McClure's. She traveled all over the midwest visiting and commenting on various Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, exposing the cult of Laura-philes. I've decided to reread all the Little House books this year, thanks to her delightful account.

*23. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (11/21)
This is another book that took me ages to read; it seemed to take even longer because almost every day a particularly enthusiastic co-worker would ask me, "Did you finish Skippy yet?" and it started to get on my nerves. This book, however, I loved. Skippy is a 14-year-old Irish schoolboy who does indeed die on, like, page three, during a doughnut eating contest. The story then jumps back several weeks to show us what led up to that event, but the plot involves so much more than just the titular character's demise. Funny and tragic and wonderfully written. Yes, Kate, I finally finished it.

*24. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (12/24)
An oldie but a goodie, it was a great little book to finish on Christmas Eve. I was surprised at how familiar it seemed, considering I hadn't read it in more than 30 years.

*25. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (12/29)
Another fine tale of family secrets held for generations. How can I best describe Morton's writing? Gratifying, I think, is a good word -- she satisfies and pleases with her stories and the way she tells them. Now I need to go back and read her first novel, The House at Riverton.

Well, that's my reading list. Every year I try to read at least one book more than I did the year before, but this year I came up far short: despite feeling as if I were reading all the time, I finished 8 fewer books than I did in 2009. I could have gotten closer if I'd pushed myself to read the last few chapters of two books I started (one on taxidermy, the other on deep cave exploration), but neither seemed worth finishing. I also failed to read the one book I'd promised myself I'd finally get to, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Maybe this year, but maybe not. Probably not.


Dead pool news!

There was no winner in our 2010 dead pool. Lucy (Lena Horne), Curtis (Robert Byrd), Sean (also Robert Byrd) and I (Zelda Rubinstein) each had one "winner," while poor Norman managed to kill off nobody -- apparently, his list is life. We compiled our 2011 lists last night and convinced my sisters Mary and Karen to participate this time; Karen hesitated at first because someone at work tried to talk her into joining a dead pool that cost $100 to enter, but she jumped right in after I told her ours was only a buck to play, winner take all. Curtis, who's now living in Atlanta, joined us via speakerphone to share his predictions; as usual, Dick Cheney topped his list. Dick Cheney, in fact, appears on everyone's list, I think, except mine -- if collected, focused hatred is enough to kill a man, you're not long for this earth, Dickwad. As usual, I think it's in poor taste to name everyone on our lists here, but I will reveal that Nancy Reagan, Ray Bradbury, and Mickey Rooney (especially Mickey Rooney) made more than one person's cut, and Lindsay Lohan made a successful and welcome comeback. Surprisingly, Fidel Castro disappeared from the roll call.


Finally, The List!

Entertainment Weekly revealed its list of 25 Movies You Need to See Before Oscar Night this week, and I'm in surprisingly bad shape, having caught only 11 of the 25 thus far (though I'm going to start rectifying that immediately when I see True Grit later today). Here is The List, with the movies I've seen in red -- I intend for them all to be in red by the February 27 Oscar ceremony:

1. The Social Network
2. The King's Speech
3. Inception
4. The Fighter
5. Toy Story 3
6. True Grit
7. Black Swan
8. The Kids Are All Right
9. 127 Hours
10. Winter's Bone
11. The Town
12. Rabbit Hole
13. Another Year
14. Get Low
15. How to Train Your Dragon
16. Blue Valentine
17. Biutiful
18. Animal Kingdom
19. Waiting for "Superman"
20. Alice in Wonderland
21. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
22. Inside Job
23. The Illusionist
24. Tangled
25. Burlesque

Get Low threw me -- what was that? It took me a moment to realize that not only did I know what it was, but I had actually seen it and liked it. Embarrassing. The only thing I'm really dreading is Burlesque because -- well, it just sounds too awful for words. Maybe I'll be surprised, but maybe not. Probably not.

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