Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Year's Reading

Reviewing an entire year's worth of reading in retrospect is a daunting task. Looking back, we may misremember what we thought of a given book, or overlook the flaws that were so obvious on first reading. I'm left instead with impressions, random scenes, rather than the coherent whole. But what the hell, I'll give it a try anyway.

2011 was a year of mixed reading – a variety of genres, subjects, and styles. I followed through on my resolution to read (and re-read) more classics. I have a deep love and respect for nineteenth-century novels, but I find that all too often I pass them up because of their sheer size and the mental demands they require. Let’s face it, most modern genre novels require less of the reader than Dickens, Tolstoy, Hardy, or George Eliot.

Total Books Read in 2011: 49

That’s down several from the year before, but the difference is due more to the size of the books than anything else. I tackled some real doorstops last year. I’ve never had issues with long books, but I realized something about them last year.

Most are pointlessly bloated.

I don’t say all. In spite of its digressions, I wouldn’t shorten Anna Karenina by a word. Same goes for Middlemarch and The Adventures of Don Quixote.

In some cases, I may even encourage said author. George R.R. Martin – feel free to make the next book, and the one after that, just as long as you like. If some of the narrative is off-topic, so be it. When I open a new volume of A Song of Ice & Fire I’m perfectly happy to spend weeks, months, or years enveloped in the narrative. Though I’ve had quite enough of that Meereen plot-line. Bring everybody home to the Seven Kingdoms.

In the bloated department, there are varying levels of severity. Patrick Rothfuss, for example, keeps things interesting and fun in spite of an oversized and meandering narrative. I can enjoy The Wise Man’s Fear in spite of its heft because Rothfuss is a damned fine storyteller.

Another one? Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book. I don’t go in for science fiction, generally, but this is Sci Fi lite. It's about people - about how different, and yet how similar, we are to those who came before. A thought-provoking book. Not a spaceship in sight, thank you. Oversized, and beautiful, and (I thought) somewhat anti-climactic.

Going several degrees worse – Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I’d heard good things about it, and I have a weakness for big historical novels. I found some of the story intriguing…but mostly I thought it was a big, ungainly, sprawling mess. Flat characters and a tiresomely redundant plot. I found myself, six-hundred pages in, thinking “haven’t I read this part already? Surely I did, back on page 324?”

One final mention of an over-large book? The Dragon Queen by Alice Borchardt. This was a selection for my book club. Weighing in at only 473 pages, it’s practically a novella compared to the others I’ve mentioned. And yet… And yet it seemed twice as long and painful as any of them. I will say no more on the matter. But be forewarned.

Some Highly Recommended Books of 2011:

Note: I’ll leave the classics off this list. Recommending a classic seems almost...well...redundant.

    Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay – I’ve already reviewed this one here, so I’ll be brief. The latest fantasy-historical by Kay. Asian setting. It matches up well with some of his best works like A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan.

    Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another book I’ve already reviewed here. It’s by Ursula LeGuin. What more needs to be said?

    Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. Harsh, funny, touching. Whether you like westerns or not (and I’m generally lukewarm on them), read this one.

    Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King – Native American magic-realism. Entwines Native American mythology with modern Native American culture. It’s essentially about stories – their significance, their relevance, and the effect they have on who we are and who we would like to be.

    A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – At this point, giving Martin my recommendation is like spitting into the ocean. Pointless and redundant. But I’ll do it anyway. The man is sadistic. Downright evil. Oh, and genius.

    Holiday by M. Rickert – One of my favorite fantasy short story writers, and criminally under-read. This collection came out around Christmas 2010 in a gorgeously illustrated hardcover edition. Weird fiction full of deep ideas, disturbing images, and sudden unexpected glimpses of the wondrous. If you like short fiction, try her. You won’t be disappointed.

A Few Disappointments:

    The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – Mentioned above. Too long, too wooden.

    Something Rich & Strange by Patricia McKillip – I’m a big fan of Patricia McKillip’s books and her lush, lyrical writing style. I purchased this one because it’s a bit of a rarity. The second book in a planned series illustrated by Brian & Wendy Froud that was cancelled after this book came out. This seemed forced and overdone to me. Her images were as lush as usual, but not as clear, and the modern environmental fable didn’t work as a plot device. Stick with McKillip’s other books.

    The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers – This book seemed almost like a shoe-in on the “loved it” list. Shelley & Byron & Keats and succubae in early nineteenth century Europe. It had everything going for it except its execution. I was never drawn into the story, and I found it unfocused and often confusing. The main character was neither very likeable nor very coherent. I wanted to like it. I really did.

    The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll - I really enjoyed Carroll's The Land of Laughs, so I had similar high expectations for The Marriage of Sticks. The book had its moments, but the ending seemed both preachy and highly contrived. I was not impressed. I have several more of Carroll's novels hanging around, so I hope this was just a blip on the radar.

What was your favorite book that you read in 2011?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

2011 Under the Bridge

I’m getting to this a bit late, but an annual review post is almost obligatory, and since this would be my first annual review post, it’s doubly so. This first year of blogging didn’t progress as smoothly as anticipated. To say that it came in small, short-lived bursts would be fairly accurate, and it grew smaller and more short-lived as the year drew on. Life, and laziness, disrupts the best laid plans. And this was not “best laid”, but more along the lines of “seat-of-your-pants”.

All told, 2011 was an exciting year for me. In a time when so many are struggling, out-of-work, and out-of-pocket (including many close friends and family), I was fortunate enough to remain gainfully employed. My wife and I took a long-planned and long-awaited vacation to England in the spring, which turned out just about as perfectly as I had imagined it might.

From a writing perspective, it was neither as productive nor successful as I’d hoped. My bare handful of short stories made the rounds of some excellent magazines, with plenty of encouraging feedback but, all told, polite refusal. A glimmer of hope arrived in December with the acceptance of my story, “Flatland”, by Jabberwocky Magazine, one of my absolute favorite venues. So I’m hoping to carry that momentum of success into 2012.

The novel I began 2011 with sits (rather comfortably, for the time being, with its feet up and a full pipe of the Old Toby) at a point not far from its ending, but written so firmly into a corner that it may have to gestate there a while longer.

The good news is that I started a new novel that I’m damned excited about. It began as a short story, but I quickly realized that the idea was too large to fit within those confines. So I started from scratch. And, amazingly, I even have most of the novel loosely mapped out. That doesn’t sound like much, but given my previous methods of writing, it’s re-inventing the wheel. It seems to work, productivity-wise. It’s a great feeling not to spend the first two hours of every writing session feeling my way ahead blindly. Because, I’ll be honest, I don’t have the patience to spend two hours wringing my brain for nothing.

Within the next few days – I promise this time, no kidding – I will be posting up my 2011 reading year in review. Some great books; some not so great books. A wide variety that includes fantasy novels of various types; historical fiction; classics; short story collections; even a western (one that dually classifies as a classic, and rightfully so).

Looking further ahead - I have ideas for posts on living simply, Charles Dickens, book collecting, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a few of them actually written.