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Stuff I Liked in 2014, pt. 2 – Books

Looking over my Goodreads page, I was shocked to learn that the number of books I read this year precipitously dropped 70% compared to 2013. But that seems like a fair trade-off for gaining 11 levels in online Boggle. Since I never manage to read new books, here are the most interesting ones from any year that I finished in 2014.

 
The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley AmisThe James Bond Dossier
by Kingsley Amis

I don’t have many opportunities to call things “jaunty,” so I’ll call this book a jaunty defense of Ian Fleming’s work, the kind you’d hear passionately laid out from one fanboy to another after several beers’ worth of debate in an alternate universe where all fanboys are Kingsley Amis, Stephen Fry, and Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes. Like any good fanboy defense, and there aren’t any, Kingsley’s repeatedly turns into a mitigation, admitting to and excusing some of the worst qualities of Fleming’s work. This becomes a tad unbearable when Amis tries to mount a defense for, say, casual racism. But the rest of the time his lengthy essay is astute and harmless and a good time for anyone who’s read all of the original Bond books and wants some light critique of them, i.e. no one (barring me and some pasty men who died when Roger Moore still had human skin).

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Stuff I’ve Read: Feb.-Mar. 2014

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The James Bond DossierThe James Bond Dossier
by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t have many opportunities to call things “jaunty,” so I’ll call this book a jaunty defense of Ian Fleming’s work, the kind you’d hear passionately laid out from one fanboy to another after several beers’ worth of debate in an alternate universe where all fanboys are Kingsley Amis, Stephen Fry, and Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes. Like any good fanboy defense, and there aren’t any, Kingsley’s repeatedly turns into a mitigation, admitting to and excusing some of the worst qualities of Fleming’s work. This becomes a tad unbearable when Amis tries to mount a defense for, say, casual racism. But the rest of the time his lengthy essay is astute and harmless and a good time for anyone who’s read all of the original Bond books and wants some light critique of them, i.e. no one. (Barring me and some pasty men who died when Roger Moore still had human skin.)

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2013: A Year in Media Absorption, pt. 3 – Books

I very rarely read new books, because I can’t afford to buy them, and the throngs senior-citizen library groupies have them checked out for months. So here are the 10 1ish best books from any year that I read in 2013.

The Player of Games by Iain M. BanksThe Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks

The great irony of speculative fiction about futuristic societies is that it dates itself way before the future actually gets here. Technology outruns imagination, or at least outmaneuvers it, making an author’s visions of tomorrow seem quaint before he’s even dead. Which makes it so impressive that I had to keep reminding myself that The Player of Games was written 25 years ago, before most people had ever used a mobile phone or anything resembling email or the Internet, and when cloud-based computing, digital imaging, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology were all dreams. All of those and their offspring play crucial roles in Banks’s novel, yet his versions never seem like archaic extrapolations of 1980s technology. If the publisher had changed the date on the The Player of Games’s copyright page to 2013, I would’ve believed that Banks had conceived it this year. That’s an amazing testament to his vision and his skill, in a story that’s a flat-out blast to read. It was my first dip into the Culture series, and knowing that eight more novels are waiting out there for me is like having found a pile of unopened Christmas presents.

The Bloom County Library, Vol. 4: 1986-1987The Bloom County Library, Vol. 4: 1986-1987
by Berkeley Breathed

The very first strip in this collection reminded me of Berkeley Breathed’s most brilliant idea in Bloom County: that Opus, Milo, Steve, and all the others are actors performing in a scripted production, like a sitcom that that we view through the windows of the panels, but that those actors are playing themselves living their real lives in the world of Bloom County, which only exists for our benefit.

Alas, this also made me realize that I subconsciously stole that idea whole cloth for a pilot I wrote in 2010. It’s flattery, Berke.

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Stuff I’ve Read: June-July 2013

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Lipstick Traces
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
by Greil Marcus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lipstick Traces is the first book since my required text at college which I didn’t read so much as looked at each word briefly before it vaporized behind my eyes. It’s an experience like following a trail of ashes; I could track it from beginning to end, but I couldn’t distinguish any single section from another.

I could’ve given up on it, I guess, but something made me want to find out where Greil Marcus was going with all of this. Were all 447 pages really going to be about drawing a line to punk from a rightfully forgotten and deeply shit-dipepd French social-theory movement? Does Marcus not realize that we can’t understand most of what he’s trying to communicate? Or does he simply not care, because he knows how devoid of importance it all really is?

To be fair, the other reason I held on is that Marcus’s first 100 pages, in which he talks about punk in general and the Sex Pistols in particular, are so fantastically good that I expected he had the potential to climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself. He never does, but the first section of Lipstick Traces is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the unique power of British punk for those of us who love it.

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed
by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend of mine compared The Dispossessed to Atlas Shrugged, and Le Guin’s book does feel like the flipside of Rand’s — a paean to communal anarchy instead of selfish libertarianism. Le Guin’s novel is definitely smarter and more skilled than Rand’s, but since that’s not saying much, a bigger compliment is that it’s more nuanced. Rand saw doubt as weakness, but Le Guin not only lets doubt slip into her ideas, but also plants it. Nevertheless, The Dispossessed is only slightly more engaging than Atlas Shrugged. It’s a debate novel, mostly made up of indistinguishable characters discussing their points of view. Not much happens, and not much of what does is interesting. Le Guin’s ideas aren’t powerful enough to keep the pages turning. I really looked forward to picking this book up the first time, but not again after that.

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Stuff I’ve Read: May 2013

Stuff I've Read: May 2013
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Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I gave up on this one real quick. I don’t know what it is with me and Thomas Pynchon. I find his writing — his dump truck full of words, smugness, and dippy, smart-ass names — needlessly obfuscating and more irritating than any other novelist’s. I realize this is my problem, not his, but that doesn’t mean I need to spend 750 pages of my free time trying to fix it.

Theft by Peter CareyTheft by Peter Carey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Carey’s quickly becoming my favorite author of books I don’t like. He willingly sacrifices clarity and plot architecture–the two most important aspects of writing to me–for character and voice–two of the least interesting aspects of writing to me–but I tear through his novels like nobody else’s. Carey turns out his books as effortlessly as a Midtown deli churns out Monday-morning egg sandwiches, though with exponentially more apparent joy while doing it. It’s not his fault if I just want a yogurt.



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Stuff I’ve Read: April 2013

Stuff I've Read: April 2013To regularly keep up with what I’m reading, please follow me on Goodreads.

Letters to Sherlock Holmes by Richard Lancelyn GreenLetters to Sherlock Holmes by Richard Lancelyn Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you think you’d be interested in a collection of actual letters sent to Sherlock Holmes, then you certainly won’t regret the hour or two it takes to read this one. After all it contains the only known letter to a fictional character requesting his help acquiring an autograph from the lead singer of Soft Cell. If you’re unsure if you’d be interested in a collection of actual letters sent to Sherlock Holmes, your time would be better spent resetting your Internet passwords or relearning the quadratic formula.

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Stuff I’ve Read: Mar. 2013

Stuff I've Read: Mar. 2013
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The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This exceptionally disturbing book has some beautiful writing, but its slow pace and intentional lack of narrative left me plodding through it. But I’ll always remember the title Handmaid’s description of the act of sex, which is so unlike any I’ve ever read and I imagine is as alien to all men as it was to me:

…the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slug’s eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, traveling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision. To achieve vision in this way, this journey into a darkness that is composed of women, a woman, who can see in the darkness while he himself strains blindly forward.

She watches him from within.

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