Sunday, January 01, 2012

2011 reading wrap-up and dead pool results!

2011 was a good year for reading. At the beginning of the year I made a conscious but not rigid decision both to read more fiction and to not worry so much about keeping up with new books. Just read and have fun! I told myself. That's what I did, and consequently I read more books -- and overall more enjoyable books -- than I had in years.

The titles I especially enjoyed are marked with an asterisk.

1. The Radleys by Matt Haig (finished 1/8/11)
I enjoyed this novel about a family of British vampires integrated into non-vampire society -- so well integrated, in fact, that the teenage kids don't even realize they're vampires. Still, my affection for all things bloodsucking has waned in recent years, and what might have once struck me as a truly original idea now reads almost like a parody of vampire fiction.

*2. The Sherlockian by Graham Moore (1/18)
It's odd summarizing this novel, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche about the mysterious death of a Holmes expert/obsessive, at this particular moment because I'm currently reading a collection of essays by David Grann that includes a piece on the real-life case The Sherlockian is based on. The novel was quite entertaining and seems to have stuck closely to the true story. There was a sort of naive quality to the narrator that I particularly liked.

*3. American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott (1/29)
Wow. If you think you know the story of the famous stripper because you've seen the movie Gypsy, well, you don't know the half of it. Sibling rivalry, massive fame and fortune followed by crippling poverty, multiple murders, dance marathons, a multi-generational household filled with women each asserting her own power . . . the list goes on. Mama Rose is still the central, powerhouse figure in this story -- it's unavoidable. But Gypsy herself emerges as a strong and highly eccentric character, not at all the sweet, ladylike young woman Natalie Wood played in the film.

4. Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James (2/24)
This book was highly readable but totally wack. Bill James is best known for being a baseball stats guy; his hobby is reading true crime books, and in this oddity he turns his mind towards solving famous crimes throughout the last couple of centuries. At times this volume reads more like a series of book reports, as he pits the relative merits of one true crime book against another. At other times he is clearly playing detective, a role he takes quite seriously. Nutty but entertaining.

5. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball (3/2)
I hardly remember this. The author marries a young farmer and becomes a farmer herself. (I was going to write "a farmer's wife," but as I recall she is totally involved in the running of the farm and not just some accessory.) It was all right but, clearly, not terribly memorable.

6. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (3/20)
This wasn't nearly as awful as The Wordy Shipmates, but after reading this ho-hum account of the early days of Hawaii, I am not going to be eagerly anticipating more books by Vowell.

7. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (3/29)
I read this fine novel, which was not at all the crime story I expected, in anticipation of seeing the new HBO adaptation. Then we canceled our HBO subscription shortly before this aired and I never got to compare the two.

*8. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (4/5)
Delightful! A children's librarian inadvertently "kidnaps" her favorite young patron and they set off on a meandering road trip to save themselves. The author has a great way with words and a low-key sense of humor that I loved.

*9. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield (4/28)
I so loved this book that I wrote a brief review of it for Publishers Weekly. Anyone who loves fonts and graphic design would get a kick out of this one-of-a-kind read.

10. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (5/6)
Confession: I didn't read this whole book. The first half, which I did read and sort of liked, is an "introduction" that Phillips has supposedly written to a newly-discovered Shakespeare play, in which he claims his father fabricated the entire thing and that the publisher should never have published it. The second half, which I didn't bother to read, is the play itself. Phillips has written a couple of other things that sound interesting, but this novel doesn't make me want to run out and get them.

*11. Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady (5/12)
A weird, wonderful, obscure little novel about a young boy and girl who are convinced the boy's uncle is trying to kill him . . . so they decide to kill the uncle. Two of my favorite characters were an angry bull, just seething with rage, and a much put-upon leopard. William Castle, the producer of all kinds of gimmicky horror and thriller films in the 1950s and 60s, made a dreary-sounding movie based on this book and starring Mary Badham, who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

12. Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (5/18)
I wanted to love this true account of a plane that crashed in New Guinea during WWII, leaving only three survivors, but it just wasn't that great. I liked it, though.

*13. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (5/22)
Such a sad, beautifully-written story! Judith Hearne is a struggling spinster in 1950s Ireland, and she carries a dark secret that is slowly destroying her life. Even though this book tells a very specific story, it really made me think about the vast number of lonely people who must exist at the margins of society.

*14. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt (5/31)
This year's Smonk! Charlie and Eli Sisters are assassins for hire in the Old West, and their violent, darkly humorous account of their latest assignment was nominated for all kinds of literary awards in 2011. I loved it.

*15. The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (6/3)
Funny and disturbing. Read this book and you may start to recognize psychopaths in your own life.

*16. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (6/27)
Yes, the same Shirley Jackson who wrote The Haunting of Hill House. This book is utterly different from that Gothic classic, a rollicking memoir of buying a house in a small rural community and raising four rambunctious children. Who would have guessed that the author of Hill House and "The Lottery" could be so funny?

17. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (7/13)
Another highly-anticipated book that fell a bit flat. I did enjoy the creepy photographs, but the story didn't do much for me.

18. Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (7/17)
A ridiculously entertaining reread of something I first encountered about 15 years ago. The writing isn't very good, but the story is over-the-top exciting and great fun.

19. Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinaman (7/21)
A bit of a disappointment, this history of modern horror filmmaking suffered from the fact that what should have been its centerpiece had already appeared in perfect form in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind -- a chapter on the making of The Exorcist.

20. Impact by Douglas Preston (7/26)
I should stop reading these silly thrillers by Douglas Preston. They're never very good, yet I keep going back to them. In this book, the primary thing I learned was that Preston seems to have purchased a boat with the money earned from his other thrillers and he is eager to share with readers all the nifty sailing lingo he has picked up. Impact's ending is both a total cop-out and totally ingenious, which is probably why I keep reading schlock like this.

21. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Faith, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (7/28)
A sensitive, compassionate account of the Peoples Temple and their doomed utopia. I admit, I read it hoping to find mention of someone I once knew who was a member of the Peoples Temple; she wasn't in the book, but her parents were and came across as pretty terrible people. It made me sad.

*22. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (8/1)
Dammit. After all the hoopla surrounding this book, I didn't even want to read it, let alone like it. But like it I did.

*23. One Day by David Nicholls (8/7)
Another book I read in anticipation of a movie I never saw. Casting Anne Hathaway in the female lead is probably what ruined the idea of the film for me. The book, however, was wonderful. A very unexpected ending.

24. Elliott Allagash by Simon Rich (8/10)
This story -- rich genius superkid manipulates everyone and everything around him -- was done much better a few years ago in I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President.

25. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (8/21)
The satisfying sequel to The Magicians. Grossman's definitely improved at ending his novels -- this one is the best yet. When I met the author shortly after reading this book, he informed me that the advance copy I'd read was substantially different than the finished book, so now I guess I'll have to buy the real thing and read it someday.

26. Skyjack: The Search for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray (8/23)
A moderately entertaining account of the infamous skyjacker, written upon the 40th anniversary of his escapade. There are lots of plausible suspects but still no answers as to his real identity.

*27. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (8/28)
A lovely novel, so well written, about a young woman's ascent in society in 1930s New York. Honestly, the subject matter is not something that interests me much, but someone whose opinion I respect encouraged me to read this book and I'm glad I did. It's probably the best fiction I read all year.

28. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding (9/2)
An absorbing account of the meth epidemic. It was published a few years ago and it would be interesting to see where things stand now.

29. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (9/15)
Blecchhh. More high hopes dashed. This book started of promisingly, but by the halfway mark it was beginning to falter; what had seemed charming and whimsical at the outset began to feel cloying and irritating. A most unsatisfying read. I can't believe I finished this one.

30. Hound Dog True by Linda Urban (9/26)
Linda is a friend of mine and she's a fantastic writer, with an especially keen ear for dialogue, but I find the plots of her novels to be a little precious for me. This was a nice little read but not really my type of thing.

31. Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (10/3)
This book sat on my shelf for years before I finally picked it up to read it. It was published back in the 1940s, and it's about a college professor who discovers that his wife is using witchcraft to ensure his academic success. When he calls her on it and forces her to stop, her carefully constructed protections collapse and he is at the mercy of the wives of his fellow academics, all of whom are using witchcraft to advance their husbands' careers. The novel reached what I thought was a stopping point about 2/3 of the way through . . . but continued on in a most unexpected way. It wasn't the greatest thing ever, but it was a cool surprise to find this gem among my old books.

32. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (10/8)
Another never-read, long-ago purchase I rescued from my dusty bottom bookshelf. The important elements: post-World War II England, a country cottage, a touch of romance, witchcraft. It sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but this was just a really nice read, very cozy and entertaining in a low-key way.

*33. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (10/18)
I've been a fan of the film for years but had never tackled the book. What a rewarding read! It's even darker and more brutal, more complex, than the film; while the movie wraps everything up in a satisfying, comprehensible way, the book is not afraid to leave loose ends and allow bad deeds to go unpunished. I now truly appreciate how someone managed to wrangle this huge, unwieldy book into such a good screenplay.

*34. Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman (10/21)
Definitely the most poetic title of the year. It's the 1930s. The main character is a disgraced college professor who has inherited a house in a tiny Georgia hamlet and decides to move there with his mistress, even though the person who has willed it to him expressly warns him not to do so and to try to sell the house as quickly as he can. What's going on in this isolated town? Here's a clue from page 2: "It occurred to me for the first time that they might eat me. Then I shook that thought away; if they meant to eat me, they wouldn't let my flesh get this rotten." Think you've got it? Think again.

35. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (11/13)
This collection of novellas is the first thing I've read by King in ages, and it was solid. The first story, in particular, was nice and gruesome, a real return to classic King form.

*36. 11/23/63 by Stephen King (11/21)
So of course I immediately read another King book. I'd actually been anticipating this novel about time travel and the JFK assassination for months. What I ended up liking about it was how much of it was not about time travel and the JFK assassination, but rather about making choices and adapting to new (old?) situations and falling in love. King got nominated for that "bad sex scene writing" award by some British newspaper, and I thought that was a bit harsh; I found the love story in this book to be quite affecting and the sex scenes not horrible at all.

*37. Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone (11/29)
Another reread for me. This is a marvelous memoir of how the authors became book collectors; they progress from thinking, "Ewww, a used book?" to attending auctions and traveling the country to find volumes they want. It's quite funny.

*38. Stoner by John Williams (12/8)
Yeah, this book is as great as everyone says it is. For some reason, probably because of the setting, I thought it had been written in the early 1900s, but it was first published in 1965.

*39. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (12/15)
The life of astronauts, as discovered by intrepid, never-afraid-to-ask-those-questions science writer Mary Roach.

40. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (12/28)
A gratifyingly old-fashioned ghost story, featuring a wonderful little dog named Spider. Daniel Radcliffe is set to star in the film.

So that's it for my reading year. Forty books! That's a lot for me. I have no reading goals for 2012, other than to continue to embrace the opportunity to read older books that I might normally overlook.

As for the Dead Pool . . . Sean won bragging rights and the $6 pot in our 2011 Dead Pool. He had two hits: Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il. Mary and Karen (Elizabeth Taylor) and I (Andy Rooney) each had one hit, and poor Curtis and Norman had none. Lucy opted out of the 2011 Pool but let her 2010 list ride "mentally," as she put it -- good thing it was just mental, because she would have creamed the rest of us with her four hits!

Last night, over a fine Chinese meal, we constructed our 2012 lists. Besides myself, Sean, Lucy, Norman, and Mary, we had a few new players: my sister Susan and my niece Cameron and nephew Jake. I don't think the kids know half the people on their lists -- they just copied names from their moms. As usual, I don't like to make celebrities who may be Googling themselves feel bad by listing our guesses, but I will note that both the kids seem to have it in for Charlie Sheen and practically all of us have Dick Cheney listed as our "aspirational" kill.

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