My Year In Reading – 2018

Considering that 2018 took about 10 years to finish, it should come as no surprise that I ended up finishing over 60 books. That’s not necessarily that big a number, but it’s the most I’ve read in years – or at least since I kept track of this sort of thing. As an ironic counterpoint, though, since 2018 was a year filled with anxiety, dread, and depression, I made it a point to try to emphasize quality over quantity. Anything that didn’t immediately grab me, I put down. Fortunately, most of what I read this year was excellent.

The other thing, with respect to everything I read this year, is that I tried my damnedest to expand my reading horizons beyond primarily white cis men. I read more women this year than I think I ever have before, and I read more than a few books translated from other languages.  I say this not to earn a pat on the back; I’m just saying it because it’s true.  

An earlier draft of this post was going to have a few words on every single book I read or attempted to read, but I soon realized that wouldn’t be fun for anybody.  So I’m gonna condense a bit on focus on the highlights.

Spoonbenders

The year started off with a bang, as the first book I finished turned out to be one of my favorites:  Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory.  It’s a lively, fun cross that felt like a mashup of Royal Tenenbaums and  Carter Beats the Devil.  This was soon followed up Fire And Fury, which was as trashy as it was depressing.  (That was also about as much Trump-related prose I could handle; I didn’t read the Woodward book.)

Next up was Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, which was enjoyable even if it never quite lived up to my hopes for it.  (I’m not sure anything will ever top The Gone Away World, which is one of my all-time favorites, but if anybody can do it, I’d like to think he could.)   Then there was Void Star, which I sadly couldn’t get into – I would like to give it another shot – the premise is really interesting – but the writing was almost too poetic and flimsy.

At some point I decided to dip back into my backlog and finally read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and, well, yeah, that book is incredible.  I followed that up with some earlier George Saunders that I’d never gotten around to – In Persuasion Nation and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.  (This was, as it turns out, the beginning of this year’s infatuation with short story collections – I also finally got around to Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence.)  I should also note that the afterword in CivilWarLand is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read.

The Immortalists

And then we arrived at my first nominee for Book of the Year:  The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.  An absolutely breathtaking portrait of four siblings, each given the date of their death by a psychic, and the ensuing aftermath that comes with that knowledge.  I adored this book; it’s moving, tender and thoughtful, and is compulsively readable.  This book set a very high bar for the rest of the year.

And then I read The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith, a fun bit of world-building with three great and distinct characters; Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future, which never quite delivered what it promised; A.J. Finn’s The Woman In The Window, which is a fun homage of Rear Window that will certainly make for a fun movie; and then The Gone World, which is a time-traveling murder mystery which gets buried under its own flowery prose.

And then we got to Red Sparrow, which was the year’s first book I deliberately and angrily put down and refused to finish.  Shitty premise, shitty writing.

At this point I needed to cleanse my palate a bit and decided to re-read the first two mega-epics in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, so as to then read Edgedancer (a mini-novel that bridges the gap between book 2 and book 3) and then Oathbringer.  I appreciate Sanderson’s prolific nature, and his world-building continues to be among the best in the business, but that’s 3500+ pages of nonstop Sanderson and I definitely needed a palate cleanser.

So I read a bunch of short fiction.  Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark was not quite what I thought it was going to be, but it was really quite good; Stephen King’s The Outsider was a really good way of bridging the gap between his procedural Bill Hodges trilogy and his usual supernatural horror; Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief was a very interesting and brief philosophical meditation on pickpocketing.

I finally got around to reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which was staggering.  It didn’t necessarily knock me out the way it did for friends of mine, but it’s still quite something.

Florida

I feel bad about how I treated Lauren Groff’s Florida.  I started reading it in June, but didn’t get around to finishing it until a week ago.  I’d put it down only because I felt like I needed to switch things up from all the short stuff I’d been reading; I certainly didn’t mean to give it short shrift.  In any event, I’m glad I finished it, and I do plan on reading the rest of her stuff that I’ve got in my to-do list.  

I think I wrote here earlier this summer about Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen’s non-fiction account of the US Government’s research into paranormal activity, which is definitely the sort of thing that scratches certain itches of mine.  It’s a fantastic read, well researched and full of remarkable revelations.

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And then we get to what might very well be my favorite book of the year:  Claire North’s extraordinary The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  I have a soft-spot for time-travelling stories, and this is one of the best ones I’ve ever come across.  Indeed, I ended up going on a bit of a Claire North bender after this – her Gamehouse trilogy was excellent, and 84K was also quite brilliant, and Touch wasn’t quite as great as everything else but it’s still quite good.

At this point I started moving to some darker fiction.  Joe Hill’s Strange Weather is probably the best stuff he’s written – at any rate, I do think I prefer his short fiction to his novels.  Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin At the End of the World is seriously fucked up, which is to be expected from Tremblay.  Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess is a lurid and morbid true-crime story that never quite arrived at any conclusions, which kinda defeated the book’s purpose.  The Price You Pay, which is written by “Aiden Truhen” (a pseudonym that might belong to Nick Harkaway) is essentially what the Crank movies would look like if they were books.  V.E. Schwab’s Viscious was, well, viscious – I do need to get to the sequel.  Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic is a perfect example of why reading books from other cultures – especially science fiction – is so necessary.  Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel did not quite wow me as much as I’d hoped it would, but it was remarkably surreal – as was Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, which is exactly what it sounds like.

I’m trying to keep things moving along but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, a super-spooky collection of dark stories, and Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which was deep and dark and moody and absorbing.

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Moving on… I finally got around to John Crowley’s Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, which is just absolutely gorgeous.  I think I wrote about this book earlier in the year; I don’t know how to describe it other than that it’s an astonishing modern myth.  I have a bunch of Crowley in my to-read pile, and I look forward to setting aside a long period of time in which to soak them all in.

I was one of the many who got sucked into the Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but I made sure to read the book first.  I understand why fans of the book hate some of the choices that were made in the series; I still liked them both.

Emma Donaghue’s The Wonder was fantastic, and I can only wonder how I’d react to it if I weren’t a parent.  There’s certainly a straight line running between this and her earlier Room, to be sure.

Tana French’s The Witch Elm was a refreshing break from her Dublin Murder Squad books; it also might be one of the best things she’s written.  Likewise, Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore was much better than the last few books he’s written, though it suffers from some of the same weird tics he’s developed (i.e., super-creepy attempts at erotica, passive protagonists, etc.). 

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Then I got to this wondrous book:  Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Shape of the Ruins.  I’d originally bought it because it sounded like it had a Foucault’s Pendulum sort of vibe, albeit based in Colombia; but it turned into something both larger and more intimate.  JGV is a marvelous writer and this translation is wonderful.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down.  Indeed, it might be my favorite book of the year, except that I then read…

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Tommy Orange’s There There should be required reading for every American citizen, even if only for the prologue/introduction, which is among the most gut-punching things I’ve ever read.  This book concerns what it means to be a Native American in a country that has been taken away from it; how to retain one’s culture while assimilating into another that is thrust upon it; it is vibrant and gorgeous and utterly necessary.

I also got to Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which I liked, though I’m not quite sure the third section held together for me; I also suppose I need to start reading Philip Roth (I have three of his books in my to-read list, of course).  And Ling Ma’s Severance got quite a lot of end-of-year hype, and for good reason; I’ve read quite a lot of apocalyptic fiction in my time but this was a unique take on it. 

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But the last book I finished (as of today, 12/19) was Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s harrowing, bleak and utterly brilliant Friday Black.  This collection of stories is somewhat reminiscent of Black Mirror, if Black Mirror wasn’t afraid to take on race head-on.  It is startling and vivid, dark and urgent.  The final story in this collection will haunt me for a very, very long time – they all will, actually.  Again, along with There There, this is absolutely necessary reading.

All in all, this was a tremendous year for reading; there wasn’t much that I didn’t like, and even the lesser things in my pile were very quickly devoured.  If there’s one good thing about living in a nightmare, it’s that I’m very easily distracted, and nothing helps the time go by like getting lost in a ton of great books.

Weekend Recap: 43!

So, there it is.  My 43rd revolution around the sun.  It was uneventful, as I’d hoped it would be; for the last few years I’ve noticed that I tend to get a little weird and moody around my birthday, for reasons I don’t quite fully understand.  I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, basically; I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention, especially when I didn’t do anything of note except continue to exist.  I recognize that this is ironic, coming from someone who has maintained an online diary since 2001.  

If I’m ever going to compile my Games of the Year, I’m going to have to reconcile my feelings about Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s much harder to do that than I’d anticipated.  For one thing, that game has pretty much exhausted me, as far as gaming in general is concerned.  My to-play list, which is primarily backlog at this point, feels inconsequential.  Furthermore, RDR2 has made me surprisingly intolerant of, for lack of a better word, “jank.”

Case in point:  I’d recently rented Darksiders 3 and Just Cause 4, sequels to franchises that I’m rather fond of, and I found myself absolutely loathing both of them after only 15 minutes of play.  The controls were imprecise; the AI was stupid; in the case of Just Cause 4, pretty much everything felt broken.  And instead of soldiering on, I gave up.  I have no patience for unfinished business.  

For all of RDR2’s faults – and they are legion – it is a game that was clearly developed with a finely-tuned sense of detail.  I didn’t encounter that many glitches or bugs, which is incredibly surprising given the game’s vast scope.  I am also aware that the game took 7 or 8 years to develop, and the infamous comment regarding 100-hour workweeks never left my mind during my entire run through the campaign.  All that work is up on the screen; in a way, you might call this game an extreme example of artisinal craftsmanship.  

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

This is also why I’m so conflicted about how I feel about it.  Nothing that happens in that game is an accident; everything was carefully considered and deliberately chosen.  The tediousness of the game is absolutely part of the experience; this is less of a Western adventure game and more of an outlaw simulator.  Brushing and feeding your horse is necessary if you want your horse to be able to run quickly and for long periods of time, and because there’s no real fast travel, you have to do this quite often.  

But even then, let’s get to the real heart of the matter here.  Consider the beginning of the game’s first epilogue.  You finish Arthur’s story by dying alone on a hill (and if you’ve been redeemed, nobody else knows about it), and then you pick back up as John Marston; your first objective as John is milking a fucking cow, and then – not 5 minutes later – you are literally shoveling cow shit out of a barn.  I actually had to put my controller down and walk away from the game because I started getting a tension headache.  

Rockstar has done this sort of thing before, of course.  Let’s recall that in the final heist in GTAV, one of your tasks (as Michael) is to pretend to be a janitor, which means that you quite literally have to mop the floor of a high-rise building.  It’s funny at first, but then you realize that you actually have to do it – there is an actual gameplay mechanic that you have to engage with in order to progress – and it’s ridiculous.  This sort of thing happens ALL THE GODDAMNED TIME in RDR2, which means that it’s intentional, which means that I can’t tell if Rockstar intends this sort of thing to be fun, or if they’re trolling me at my own expense.  

And yet, and yet, and yet.  Even as I found myself annoyed, bored, or perplexed, I was still ultimately wholly and fully absorbed in RDR2’s world, perhaps more than I’d ever been before.  At times I appreciated the languid, slow pace of the game, because it allowed me to linger and take in the astonishing beauty before me.  (Which makes it all the more frustrating that there isn’t a proper in-game screenshot utility.)  

In any event.  

I found myself racing through the campaign and yet I’m still somehow at 82% completion.  I know there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t seen, and because I didn’t do it during the main part of the game I’m sure there’s a bunch of stuff that I simply can’t see, because I’m no longer playing as Arthur.  Would I replay the game in a New Game+ situation?  Possibly, but would I allow myself to put up with every ridiculous decision again?  

I don’t know, man.  I don’t even know where it goes in my top 10.  

Recent Things Wot I Like

I remain confused as to what I’m gonna be doing with this blog.  Indeed, I remain confused about what I’m doing on the internet, as a general rule.  I turn 43 at the end of this week and I am feeling old and uncool and yet I’m also feeling that I don’t have to care anymore about trying to appear cool, because it literally doesn’t matter.  This is not the place you go when you want to know if something’s cool.  This is the place you go when you’re curious as to what’s going on in my brain.

So maybe, now that Tumblr is gonna die a very quick death in a few weeks, and Twitter is, well, Twitter, and Facebook is rapidly becoming a place for kid photos and Twitter screenshots, maybe this here site will become what I originally always meant for it to be:  a blog.  Blogs aren’t cool.  But I’m gonna be 43 and I’m not cool, either.  My hair is grey and I’m overweight and as an adult and a parent I am far more involved in the state of the world than I ever thought I’d be, and because the world is fucking insane* I overindulge in various media and medications, both recreational and non-, because otherwise I’d be in a padded room muttering about emoluments.

So let’s get cracking, then.  

I have finished Red Dead Redemption 2 and I don’t know how to talk about it.  It’s gonna get its own post, for sure.  But the short version is akin to something I said on Twitter the other day, that it feels less like a game that I played and more like a show that I binge-watched obsessively for 2-3 weeks – not all of it was fun, but it was engrossing as all hell, and the feeling of the world is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced from a game.  For those of you that are my parents (i.e., you don’t watch TV), it’s also sorta like being wrapped up inside a huge novel and then emerging afterwards and not knowing what day it is.  

Here are other things I am in the middle of enjoying, because I feel obligated to spread positivity:

I was gonna start working on my Books of 2018 post, and then I started reading this book, and HOLY SHIT everything changed.  If nothing else, I urge everybody who is reading this post to go to their local bookstore, find a copy of this book and read the preface.  I dare you to not buy the book immediately afterwards.  Tommy Orange is a major talent with an incredible voice, speaking in a language that none of us know as well as we should.  

https://www.stereogum.com/2023673/the-1975-a-brief-inquiry-into-online-relationships-review/franchises/premature-evaluation/

I don’t know if I’m gonna do a Music of 2018 post, if only because my music listening habits have become far more idiosyncratic than I can manage and I have no idea how to take stock of everything I listen to anymore.  Hell, I haven’t even written about my headphones, which are without question the best headphones I’ve ever used in my entire life.  And, again, I’m old and the music that’s popular these days makes me feel even older.  Anyway.  The 1975 are a band that I probably shouldn’t like, but I’ll be goddamned if this song isn’t kicking my ass all the way around the block.  For a bunch of 20-something British blokes, they’ve got some serious balls making an album this strange – while also including absolutely gut-wrenching anthemic singles like the above.  

*this is maybe the most appropriate metaphor for what it feels like to be alive right now*