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?


  1. Interesting. Totally agree about Pillars of Earth. The TV film was almost as tedious, apart from the heroine who held the screen. Sometimes quite short books are guilty of 'padding' And that is even worse!
    The books I enjoyed this year were John Burnside's 'The Devil's Footprints', Leslie Norris Collected stories, 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood and a re-read of Barnaby Rudge. I've read many more but not worth singing about. Oh, and I also totally agree with your praise of Lonesome Dove. I've read the related books and I can't sing their praises enough. The western, as a genre would never have died if all books were of the same calibre. Sad to say, fantasy will one day, in my opinion, will suffer the same eclipse, for much the same reason

    PS what's that purple 'Folio' book you have in the picture? I squinted but couldn't quite see

  2. Thanks for the suggestions, Mike. Your opinion that shorter books are often "padded" is a valid one. At least the longer ones usually provide some meat to go with the padding.

    As for the purple Folio Society edition - that's _Tess of the D'Urbervilles_. It didn't show up that well in the photo. I love the gorgeous Folio editions, whenever I can get my grubby hands on them.

    Fantasy may suffer an eclipse similar to the western, but I think that in general it has undergone a bit of a Renaissance in recent years, especially in regards to quality. The lower-quality years of fantasy took place in the 60's, 70's, & 80's. Those were the decades of the "Tolk-clones", D&D, Dragonlance. Those tropes cheapened the genre as a whole and left a bad taste in lots of readers' mouths.

    Overall, I think the quality of the writing and content in fantasy is consistently higher now than it has ever been. Outside of a few - probably long-running and previously established - fantasy series, you are unlikely to step on an elf or a dwarf.

    Now, if you take into account the YA trend toward "Twilight" spinoffs of every sort, I can see that. I think YA Fantasy is setting itself up for a fall into irrelevance. The Pied Piper (a sparkling vampire, surely) may lead them all to the sea. Which is a shame, because there are some truly wonderful YA books being written. Margo Lanagan, anyone?