(Related 2008 lists: movie list 2008, restaurant list 2008)
List of Books I Read in 2008
- Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman (2004): Klosterman is, to me, one of those people I want to either hang out and be friends with ... or kill and somehow take credit for all he's written. There are not a lot of these people.
This is a collection of essays on recent pop culture trends, and how they function as metaphor for the human condition, interpersonal relationships, development, emotions, you name it. Thing is, even when his theses are a little contrived, they read as genuine and confident. Klosterman has an encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of pop phenomena, from The Sims to tribute bands, from MTV's The Real World to NBC's Saved by the Bell, and somehow sincerely infuses this seemingly disposable media with profound meaning, while managing to avoid preachiness. It's likely the humor and the self-effacing, earnest voice he uses, which combine into a flow so natural that you wonder why no one has drawn these comparisons before. If I met this guy at a bar and he started making the arguments in these essays in conversation with me, I'd stand enraptured for a few hours, probably all the while wondering if he was fucking with me, and concluding that I wouldn't care if he was.
Eash essay is packed with quotable prose, logical insight, and snort-inducing humor, but, like a lot of the trends he writes about, nothing seemed to stick with me except a vague feeling of satisfaction and an urge to go get some more.
- Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87): having been perhaps the only boy in America never to have collected comic books, or even read them with any interest (seriously, and I don't know why; I think I assumed that anything illustrated was, well, either for kids, or smut--the latter alternative likely inspired by a schoolmate showing me a much-abused copy of Heavy Metal, Watchmen is one of the first graphic novels I've ever read.
And what a one to start with. It was fantastic. I benefited from not knowing how critically acclaimed this novel is, having only expectations from enthusiastic reviews of friends. The setting is an alternate 1985-era US in which superheroes have been outlawed as vigilantes, and are being killed by an unknown entity. The tone is deadpan and spent, and mildly anti-American. The characters are incredibly complex, and while the recent movement in superhero flicks has been to focus on the flawed human behind the mask, this novel was the first to do it so well, and so vividly.
The art is compelling as well, fraught with recurring icons and creative use of framing, color, and space, and interspersed with excerpts from various (fictional) publications to provide backstory. The writing style -- whether it's in the dialogue, the internal monologues, the various aforementioned excerpts, and so forth, is entirely consistent with its context and characters, although Ozymandias' soliloquys get tiresome pretty quick.
I'm looking forward to the film version set for release in Summer 2009; it'll be interesting to see if the ending still works in the absence of (or distance from) the cold-war paranoia so crucial to, and pervasive in, the novel.
- What is the What, Dave Eggers (2006): the story is triumphant, moving, and sad, and the voice Eggers adopts (as Valentino Achack Deng, the book's protagonist and real-life Sudanese refugee upon which the biographical narrative is based) reads legitimately and believably, but I had a hard time understanding why Achak's refugee narrative story was related during long, reflective passages interspersed throughout about a 24-hour period in the narrator's realtime. The author's point was arguably to show that the recollection of the story intruded into into Achak's everyday thoughts, but as a reader I had a sense of urgency when reading the flashbacks, feeling that I had to get caught up to the present action. On the whole, although I enjoyed the narrative, I was left feeling unsatisfied (again, perhaps the author's point).
- Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004): there's a line in Paul Simon's "Slip-Sliding Away" in which a father longs to tell his son "all the reasons for all the things he done." In a small town in Iowa in 1956, a septuagenarian preacher dying of a heart disease does just this, via a series of letters to his 7-year-old boy, in which he relates his legacy and memories; the letters comprise the whole of the story.
This is the most beautiful book I've read in a long time: the old man relates his thoughts and experiences with grace, serenity, and the cleanest, simplest words there are, and there is poetry and wonder on every page. Themes of fathers and sons, and prodigal sons, and different interpretations of faith, and the nature of forgiveness and love and sin, all intermingle with events occurring in the last year or so of the preachers's life.
Metaphor is abundant: one of my favorite passages recalls a memory during the preacher's youth when his father (also a preacher) helped to tear down a church that had been struck by lightning; the men were covered with ash mixed with rainwater, the women sang hymns to keep everyone in good spirits. The Bibles that were too damaged were buried. The boy recalls that his father, blackened with grime, had no food to offer his son but an ashy biscuit he pulled from his breast pocket.
I can't say enough about this book. I need to read this one again. What a treasure.
- The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2004): the tale of an involuntarily time-traveling man and the woman who loves him. For me, although the development and story arc of the romantic plot seemed a little saccharine near the end (and yeah, I cried), I was more impressed with the author's solution of how to solve the problem of presenting two non-chronological chronologies in a linnear narrative.
Raises some deep questions about destiny and free will, but doesn't really answer them. Much of the exposition was awash in minute details ... possibly to give the story more realism, but to me it seemed a little tedious. Overall, however, I enjoyed it.
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynn Truss (2006): I think the negative review of this book comes from those interpreting it to be a definitive punctuation manual -- but it's not; it's a guide explaining theory, origin, and use, and it's a plea for at least some thought to go into writing. Plus, it's funnier than anything I've read on the subject. I can't believe it's taken me so long to get a copy.