31 December 2008

My Year in Review, Books

I read a lot of books in 2008, although I unfortunately didn't get around to reviewing too many of them. This is a list with commentary of just a handful of them that affected me the most or that I enjoyed (or simply that I'm still thinking about).

(Note: I was planning on re-reading and writing booklog entries for all of Pynchon's works, in the order in which they were published. I got about halfway through my re-read of GR when other things came up, and I never got back to it. Maybe I'll try and finish the project this year, maybe not.)

Oil!, by Upton Sinclair (1927). I read this way back in January -- it's the book that There Will Be Blood is (loosely) based on. It's easy to read this as a socialist screed (and I'm sure that Sinclair meant it to be such) but it's also an involved study of a naive young rich boy's transformation into a socially-responsible young man. Every character is portrayed humanely, even the "evil" oil-magnate father that became Daniel Plainview in the film. Worth a read by any fan of the film or anyone simply interested in the political literature of the early twentieth century. (Original review here.)

The Start of Darkness, by Rich Burlew (2007). This one is really only for fellow fans of the amazing webcomic The Order of the Stick (link goes to the first comic -- they get way better than that one, I promise). This isn't because the book doesn't tell a complete story, or that it wouldn't work at all for those not familiar with the comic, but most of the joys of The Start of Darkness derive from the way that Burlew provides a brilliant prequel to the events of the comic without "pussifying" his characters at all. The story of how Redcloak became the goblin he is in the comic is one of the most heartbreaking and amazing things I read all year.

1632, by Eric Flint (2001). Holy shit, I'm sticking this on my list? Yep -- I read this way back at the beginning of the year, and it still resonates in a strange way. Far from literary fiction, this piece of modern pulp SF has one of the hokiest premises imaginable... and it's executed so well that you forget that fact within a mere handful of chapters. No one would claim 1632 is great literature, but it's one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. Exactly what a good cheap paperback should be. (Original review here.)

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie (2008). I'm not sure if I read Abercrombie's first book in this series (The Blade Itself) this year or at the end of the last, but both the first and second books deserve placement here. The Blade Itself was a brilliant piece of fantasy revisionism filled with gritty characters and desperate men and women -- my favorite was the conflicted torturer Glotka who sublimated his own immense physical pain into his work. Before They Are Hanged continues the story of Blade, and while it doesn't give quite the same kick that we get from meeting all the fantasy archetypes from the first book, it more than compensates by giving the reader a depth and heft to the worldbuilding that was missing in the first. Before They Are Hanged is half "road movie," half war novel, either half of which would have been so entertaining that I wouldn't have been able to put it down. I bought the third novel The Last Argument of Kings a few days ago and without even opening the first page I fully expect it to end up on next year's version of this list.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson (2008). This is one of those books that throws the famous xkcd comic off its curve. It's easy to get caught up in the strange terminology and re-imagining of pre-Enlightenment thinking shown in Neal Stephenson's latest, but the author is deft at getting the reader to accept his terminology at his pace, and once the first 250 pages have set up the world the real story begins. Physicists may quibble with some of Stephenson's scientific extrapolations, but to me the whole thing fit comfortably within the confines of SFnal speculation. The finale of the novel leaves plenty of unanswered questions and the ending (despite being emotionally cathartic) feels a little flat, but there are few books out there that even attempt the kind of scope of Anathem. Stephenson is to be commended for even attempting such a ballsy nerd novel as this, and the fact that he so regularly succeeds makes up for many of his missteps.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1996). Including footnotes, this book is more than a thousand pages long. I flipped the book open to a random page and counted 430-odd words. Which means that this book is something like 400,000 words long -- your average doorstopper SF novel is about 100,000. And I can't say that the book is riveting for its entire length -- Shana could tell you stories of my frustrations will Wallace's endless meandering about his characters' psychological ministrations. But there is a method to the madness and at the end of the day the month or so I spent reading Infinite Jest were well-spent -- the world lost one of its most brilliant and perceptive writers when he killed himself earlier this year. It's hardly a quick read, but it's an amazing one, and I'll be reading more from DFW in 2009 for sure.

Hopefully next year I'll review books as I read them so I don't have to resign myself to these short paragraphs about such great books.

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