I just finished a great book last night – “The Way of Kings”, by Brandon Sanderson.* And it occurs to me that I’ve read a lot of good stuff of late, and this is as good a time as any to cover what I read last year.
First: the stuff I didn’t finish.
- Elizabeth Kostova, “The Historian.” I tried my best; it just seemed to take forever to get where it was going, and I think I just grew impatient.
- Tom Bissell, “Magic Hours.” Tom’s one of my favorite writers – I’ve linked to him extensively here in the past – and I picked this up specifically because a short piece he wrote about David Foster Wallace. The book itself is a collection of non-fiction pieces, and I’ve read about half of them so far – the one about “The Room” is terrific.
- Sergio de la Pava, “A Naked Singularity.” I’m normally a huge fan of dense, difficult avant-garde-ish fiction, but this one was a particularly tough nut to crack. I’d like to get back into it; at the time, though, I was too easily frustrated and was content to pick up something easier instead.
- Umberto Eco, “The Prague Cemetery”. Second year in a row I’ve tried and failed to get into this one. I’m hit or miss with Eco; I adore Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, but couldn’t get into Baudolino and a few others that I’m forgetting the titles of. Will probably abandon.
- Ariel Winter, “The Twenty Year Death.” I picked this up on some relatively decent word-of-mouth, and also because I was thinking about writing some sort of pulp mystery thing and thought this might make for a worthwhile read for research purposes. I made it through the first third but couldn’t keep myself interested.
- Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl.” Sometimes I’ll be reading a book, and at some point I’ll have to put it down because of something else. I usually only have a one or two-week window in which to get back into the book before I lose the thread completely. My biggest regret of the year was putting this down (I don’t even know why, at this point) and being away from it long enough to be totally disengaged from it, and so it’s on my must-read list for 2013.
- David Foster Wallace, “Both Flesh And Not.” I’d already read some of the pieces in here, for one thing; for another, D.T. Max’s biography (which I’ll get to in a bit) re-broke my heart a little bit, and so I found re-reading DFW a bit more uncomfortable than I’d like. Will definitely get to in 2013; this is a no-brainer.
- George Saunders, “Pastoralia.” There was a point this summer where I bought, like, 5 or 6 books all at once, and I couldn’t decide which one to start. I’m actually about to start his new book, “Tenth of December”, which just came out today, and assuming that goes well I’ll be diving back into this one again.
And as for the stuff I did read, here it is, listed in the order in which I read them.
Alan Lightman, “Einstein’s Dreams”. Don’t quite remember why I picked this up; I’d heard about it for a long time, and I guess I was finally in the mood to give it a go. Each chapter is, essentially, a re-imagining of linear time. As someone who was obsessed with the concept of linear/nonlinear/relative time back in college, this is very interesting subject matter, and it’s written well enough to get the points across. But it also feels a bit slight and ethereal, and not in a good way. Still, an interesting read if you’re into that sort of thinking. 7/10
Stephen King, “11/22/1963”. He’s still got it, man. And while he still has certain mannerisms and tics that are incredibly distracting, which is odd considering that they’re in every single goddamned book he’s ever written, and I’ve read most of them and so I should be used to them by now – like how every town in every city has vaguely racist, misspelled signage along its main street – he’s still knows how to tell a great story. This was a ton of fun to read. 8/10
Hugh Howey, “Wool (Omnibus Edition)”. My wife got hooked on these books and finally convinced me to jump on board, and I’m glad I did; they’re remarkably well written and relentless in their tension and pacing. He is the golden boy of DIY publishing, and with good reason; he’s a naturally gifted storyteller. We had the pleasure of meeting him at an author meet-up earlier this year, and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. 9/10
John Sullivan, “Pulphead”. I’m having a bit of trouble remembering this one at the moment. But here’s my quick reminder to myself after I finished it: “pretty well done, although some essays are better than others. 8/10” That’s a high grade for what seems like a lukewarm review, but I meant it at the time, so it stays.
Rich Walls, “Standby Chicago”. One of the cool things about that Hugh Howey author meet-up I mentioned is that, in addition to Hugh being a super-nice guy, every one of the fans who showed up was also super cool. I’m friends with a few of them on Xbox Live and Steam now, and while Rich isn’t a gamer, he is a rather accomplished author in his own right. This is a very sweet, delicate, sincere novella, and I found it engaging. (Also found it hard to relate to, if only because I’ve never had so many strangers talk to me ever in my life.) 7/10
Hugh Howey, “Wool 6”. A prequel to the Omnibus Edition; this actually raises a few more questions than it answers. Required reading if you’re at all invested in the Wool series; it won’t mean as much to you if you come to it fresh. 8/10
Chad Harbach, “The Art of Fielding”. Beautiful, heartbreaking. Takes a startling turn at a certain point; I thought it was going to be the origin story of a mythic baseball prodigy, and it turned out to be something else entirely. Well worth the journey. 8/10
China Meveille, “The City & The City”. I tried to read another one of his books a few years ago – “Perdido Street Station” – and found it impenetrable and, for lack of a better word, un-fun. This was a lot more my speed – a multi-dimensional murder mystery. I still find his writing style a bit annoying, but he’s unquestionably one of the most imaginative authors out there. 8/10
Patrick Somerville, “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature”. A marvelous collection of short stories that are all sort-of interwoven. Inspiring and brilliantly written. Very much looking forward to reading more of this guy. 9/10
Erik Larson, “The Devil in the White City”. My GoogleDoc comments: “thrilling, gripping, depressing.” It’s an interesting read, even if the two stories that he attempts to tie together aren’t quite as evenly balanced as I’d anticipated. 8/10
Tana French, “Broken Harbor”. The fourth in the Dublin Murder Squad series; this one was not quite as good as the previous three. Still bleak and depressing as all hell, of course. GoogleDoc comment: “might be the first time that the lack of a proper ending was a good thing.” 7/10
D.T. Max, “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”. After DFW’s death, D.T. Max wrote a beautiful celebration of his life and work in the New Yorker, and it seemed logical for him to follow that piece up with a full biography. I’m not sure how this book would read to someone who isn’t a hard-core Infinite Jest fan; but I am a hard-core Infinite Jest fan, and so this book revealed a lot of interesting information about the creation and inspiration behind that particular work. The ending is a bit sudden, but then, it was in real life, too. 8/10
Iain M. Banks, “The Hydrogen Sonata”. I’m a big big fan of the Culture novels – I’ve been wanting a videogame adaptation of that universe for a long time. As far as those books go, though, this is a minor entry at best, and made for a disappointing read. 6/10
Robin Sloan, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore”. I flew through this one in about 3 or 4 hours, which is why I’m not rating it higher; it feels too slim and it winds up too quickly. But I loved everything else about it; it was fun and smart and did a lot of the things that I’d hoped “Ready Player One” would do, but didn’t. 7/10
Justin Cronin, “The Passage”. I re-read this to prepare for The Twelve, and it was even better the second time around. An absolute gem. 9/10
Justin Cronin, “The Twelve”. I’m glad that I read these two back-to-back; I felt very much on top of things when the second book got started. It must be said, however, that Cronin is not nearly as good at action scenes as he is with everything else, and there’s a lot of action in this book that just kinda falls flat. This is the middle book in a trilogy, and I must say that I have absolutely no idea where the third book can possibly go; the ending of this one ties up about 90% of the loose ends. 7/10
* No, I haven’t read any of the Wheel of Time stuff, and I’m not planning to, either – this particular book came recommended specifically on its own merits, and since it’s the first volume of a projected 10-volume project, I’ll be more than happy to stick with this for the foreseeable future.