The Year in Books

“It is a lovely oddity of human nature that a person is more inclined to interrupt two people in conversation than one person alone with a book.”–Rules of Civility

I didn’t want to do another retrospective of the Year of the Blah (which I’m celebrating/eulogizing/hoping to incinerate with a trip to San Diego in a couple days). So instead I give you a rundown of the books I’ve read since establishing the Banana Bunker by the Beach Fortress of Solitude out here. (Subject to editing if I realize I’ve forgotten anything.)

In estimated chronological order of reading:

El Sicario: A real life former enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel tells the story of his career, complete with details from the writer about how careful the guy was in setting up meetings and disguising his identity now that he’s out of the game.

These sicko subculture obsessions of mine, I’m learning, aren’t best served in book form. A good longform binge is great; I enjoy the books, too, but chapter after chapter, day after day, they don’t deliver the same kind of binge-worthy satisfaction. It reminds me of one random family dinner when I was…who knows…10? And I declared that I could eat 20 servings of Ma’s spaghetti carbonara. I barely got through three, my sisters gleefully challenging me to keep my promise. It wasn’t that it stopped tasting good; I just got full.

The Art of Fielding: A sheltered and wimpy but graceful devotee of a legendary shortstop earns a spot on the baseball team for a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin.

When three fellow editors and our publisher simultaneously enthused about this book, it became one of the rare occasions when I went into a novel with faith and high expectations. (Yes, usually I dread that I’m getting into something horrible.) Beautiful, poetic descriptions of athletic things; personal drama that doesn’t involve saving the world or triumphing over aliens or any other try-too-hard melodramatic bullshit.

This is Where I Leave You: A middle-age guy catches his wife cheating and then goes home to sit shiva for his father, reexamining family relationships in the process.

Loaner from Ma. Aside from a far-too-graphic (-for-no-good-reason) early scene, I enjoyed it, for the most part. It’s not particularly profound, but it’s funny and heartfelt in parts. Still, it’s not much of a base to build off of, and it falls apart a bit in the last quarter. (This is, I’m finding, a common issue.)

Tenth of December: Short stories.

Quite simply, the most impressively varied collection of depressing stories in the history of words.

Damn Few: Memoir of a Navy Seal.

Fantastic look into the Navy Seal subculture. The author is very smart and well read and well spoken, so it’s a fun, balanced, charismatic description of crazy-extreme physical tasks, not to mention the ethical issues involved in war and the military.

Water for Elephants: An old man in a nursing home recounts his days as a young man working for a traveling circus.

A great example of why I begin reading novels with such resigned caution. I went into this, for some strange reason, expecting something thoughtful and literary, and it really didn’t deliver—especially not in its mass-napalming of a denouement. (Also, did I miss the explanation of the narrator’s fit about the geezer claiming he carried water for elephants? It’s such a total hissy, not to mention it’s the name of the damn book, that I thought, “Ooh, there’s going to be a story behind this!” And then, it becomes one of a dozen or so would-be teasers that never amount to anything.)

Wherever I Wind Up: Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s memoir involving his Southern upbringing and journeyman career.

Meh. It’s fine. I can’t believe I spent the entire book expecting it to climax with a no-hitter. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)

Rules of Civility: A year in the life of a young woman making friends and finding her way in 1930s Manhattan.

I did not have high expectations for this, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Should give Ma due credit for recommending this one, too—halfway through, I was fervently recommending it to other people. It’s smart and reserved in its writing, while at the same time witty and biting. Alas, while it’s not a complete shark-jumper, the ending doesn’t amount to much. (This isn’t the worst example of a disappointing ending, but seriously with people thinking their novels need to climax with insane character twists and fist-fights and spontaneous lesbianism.)

A favorite quote: “As a quick aside, let me observe that in moments of high emotion, if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say. This is one of the finer maxims that I’ve discovered in life. And you can have it, since it’s been of no use to me.”

The Shipping News: A sad-sack New York widower rediscovers his magical, mythical family roots in a small town in Newfoundland.

Well, first of all, it’s like the eighth time I’ve read it, and it’s not much of a stretch to call it my favorite book. It’s beautiful, word-to-word and sentence-to-sentence, and then the story itself is…not quite magical realism, but lovely and stylized. One of those stories that takes place “now” but is also elevated and otherworldly. Almost a parable.

The Academy: Game On: Monica Seles’ first foray into the world of YA fiction, about a girl’s first semester or so at an academy for elite athletes.

I had to read it for work. (Seles trained at the local IMG Academy as a child.) It’s harmless, for the most part, but also bound to kill brain cells.

Gone Girl: Alternating narrators—a husband being investigated for the potential murder of his missing wife, and the wife’s diary entries from throughout their relationship. (There’s a wrinkle in that structure halfway through, but I won’t spoil it.)

It’s not going to enhance your worldview or anything—it’s plot-driven, but the plot is solid and detailed. Most notably, the descriptions of (most of) the characters’ emotional responses and motivations are interesting and insightful. I’ve called it “a really, really well-written Lifetime movie.”

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