Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Year in Review

It's hard to believe my third year book blogging has come to an end. My tastes and preferences have shifted some since I first began, and this year especially marked a move away from YA and towards more adult fantasy and sci-fi as well as nonfiction. Though five YA books made up my top ten last year, only one made the list this year (Ship Breaker). Three nonfiction titles made the list, including Fey's Bossypants, which is even better in audiobook (in fact, four of the top ten books I listened to on my iPhone). The order of the list below is only mildly significant.

My top 10 books read in 2011:
1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (sci-fi fiction)
2. Bossypants by Tina Fey (nonfiction/audiobook)
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (classic fiction/audiobook)
4. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (nonfiction)
5. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (YA dystopian fiction)
6. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (fiction/audiobook)
7. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (dystopian fiction)
8. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (fantasy fiction)
9. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (fantasy fiction)
10. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal (nonfiction/audiobook)

Total books read and reviewed: 85
I read fewer books this year (I read 109 in 2010), but I'm not at all disappointed with my number. This year I participated in more after-work activities (e.g. taking cooking and mosaic classes), and I also started taking daily walks, all of which cut into reading time, but in a good way.

Fiction read: 64
Nonfiction read: 21
Nonfiction became a larger part of my reading this year (25%), and many of my favorite books were nonfiction, including the three listed above, Packing for Mars, and Just My Type (the latter two were both shortlisted for my top ten list). My interest in the weird, nerdy, and random, which so guides my fiction reading, can be well-fulfilled in through many nonfiction books.

Adult read: 70
Young adult read: 15
The last two years I had a goal to keep YA to no more than one-third of my reading total. Though I kept the same goal this year, it wasn't even necessary, as YA made up only 18% of my reading. I think I've been somewhat burned out from it, and there hasn't been a lot that's kept my interest. However, in addition to Ship Breaker, listed above, I did enjoy Rampant a lot.

Female authors: 34
Male authors: 51
For most of the year, these two numbers were fairly equal. Then, sometime in the fall, the men surged ahead and I never read enough by women to make up. It's something I'm a bit disappointed in, though I'm not sure it's something I want to actively work on equalizing.

Years published:
- 2011: 32
- 2010: 15
- 2000-2009: 21
- 1990-1999: 8
- 1900-1989: 7
- 1800-1899: 2
Though I don't have the official stats, I'm definitely reading more newly published books than before, largely because my "oh, I always meant to read that!" list has grown rather short. 

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 74 (68 from library, 6 from friends/family/students)
- Total purchased: 2
- Total for review: 5 (4 from NetGalley, 1 from NCTE)
- Total otherwise acquired: 2 (1 from Paperback Swap, 1 free for Kindle)
- Total already owned: 2 (these are books I've had for over five years)
No surprises here. Because of my daily walking and many long car trips, I did listen to a lot more audiobooks (13 total, all from the library) than in previous years. I purchased a grand total of two books this year. One, Game of Thrones, was purchased because we had a Borders gift card and I thought my husband, who takes forever to read books, might read it. The second, Across the Universe, was due to the author's clever marketing (see post).

Challenges I participated in:
- Back to the Classics Challenge 2011
- POC Reading Challenge 2011
I got a little distracted and never finished the Back to the Classics Challenge, though I did meet my goal by reading seventeen books for the POC Reading Challenge.

Happy new year and best wishes for 2012!

Monday, December 26, 2011

"Embassytown" by China Mieville

One of the purposes of science-fiction is to take the reader into a new environment so that he or she can approach traditional ideas and concepts from a wholly different perspective. That's why world-building is so essential to the genre and why, when it's done right, sci-fi can be so thrilling. This is the case in Mieville's Embassytown, a novel which transplants the reader to a world of Terres (humans) and Ariekei in order to explore the nature and evolution of language.

Embassytown is not for the weak reader or someone wanting just fun escapist fiction. It takes some work, especially in the beginning, to understand the world that has been created, and throughout the book close attention is needed in order to understand the discourse on the nature of language. The book focuses on a peaceful settlement where humans live and work with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei speak in Language, which is formed by speaking separate words simultaneously from two different mouths; however, in order for true Language to happen, not only must the right words be spoken, but they must be said with the right intent, with a single purpose. For the Ariekei, Language is truth and can communicate only what is true; lies do not exist. The only way the humans have been able to communicate with the Ariekei is by creating Ambassadors, human clones trained from birth to speak the Ariekei words and communicate as a single organism.

The protagonist of Embassytown is Avice, a traveler who, as a child, was made a simile in the Ariekei Language. Though she doesn't speak Language herself, she becomes embroiled in the human/Ariekei relationship when the stability of Embassytown becomes threatened.

Mieville's exploration of the differences between human and Ariekei language and the evolution of both is fascinating, but way too difficult to try to describe here. I was also interested in the novel's approach to the nature of colonization. Embassytown, in the beginning, is far different from most human colonies in that the two species coexist peacefully and for mutual benefit. However, when a new Ambassador, EzRa, creates a dependence for their language among the Ariekei, that careful balance is tipped and near chaos and destruction occur.

Avice is a great protagonist, both a part of Embassytown and separate from it. She's able to float between worlds and has a more nuanced point of view than many others. Her relationship with her husband, Scile, was a little less clear, especially because he disappears fairly early in the book.

I'd highly recommend Embassytown to fans of classic high science-fiction, especially those looking for something totally new.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 POC Challenge Wrap-Up

This was my second year doing the POC reading challenge. I signed up at level five (16-25 books) and was happy that I achieved my goal by reading 17 books by authors of color. Last year in my wrap-up post I noted that I was disappointed that I hadn't read more books with authors of color (rather than books with protagonists of color but white authors), so I made it a point to focus on that this year. Here's what I read:

Books read:
1. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
2. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
3. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
4. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
6. Complications by Atul Gawande
7. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
8. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
9. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
10. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
11. Pym by Mat Johnson
12. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese 
13. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 
14. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh 
15. The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin 
16. Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling 
17. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Books by white authors with protagonists of color: (not counted toward challenge)
- Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

By far my favorite books were from Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. I loved each book in her fantasy series. I also enjoyed River of Smoke, a sequel to a book I read a few years back. My least favorite books were Wench and Cutting for Stone.

Like last year, I realized that it takes some work to consistently read authors of color. I made a point of actively seeking such authors in the beginning of the year, but there was a five month gap in between reading my 11th and 12th books for the challenge. It was too easy to be exposed to primarily white authors.

I'm glad I did the challenge again, especially because I've met some great authors like Jemisin, Murakami, and Ghosh.

"A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness

I'm an enormous fan of Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy and thus had no hesitation checking out Ness' newest book, A Monster Calls, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. However, this book has a significantly different feel and purpose than his previous novels, which makes them hard to compare.

First, though A Monster Calls is packaged as a novel, it's really a short story that, through large type, large margins, and many illustrations, has been stretched to two hundred pages. I don't think there's anything wrong with the length of the story, but it would have been helpful going in to know its format. There are different expectations for a short story than for a novel, and a certain absorption into the book that's not possible at shorter lengths.

In its style, A Monster Calls most closely resembles a fairy tale in which a hero must confront his demons to learn the truth about himself. The book's protagonist is thirteen-year-old Conor, whose mother is dying and who has a terrible secret he's unwilling to tell anyone. He's confronted one night by a monster that takes the shape of the yew tree outside his home; the monster will tell Conor three stories, and Conor will provide the fourth and final tale. The piece is a clear allegory, with the yew tree monster representing those aspects of the hero that he most wishes to hide from.

Ness does an excellent job of capturing the dark and stormy atmosphere of Conor's inner life. The accompanying illustrations, done by Jim Kay in smudgy black and white, powerfully reinforce the mood. There's a clear message in the end--that there is both bad and good inside us all, and only by speaking the truth of both can we be healed--which is brought home in forceful and moving way.

Despite all this, I wouldn't say the book really got under my skin (in a good way) or will have a lasting impression, completely unlike the Chaos Walking books. I can see it as a book an adult might read an (older) child--it's quite dark, but there's are elements that feel like they need to be shared to be understood.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Just My Type" by Simon Garfield

I suppose you have to be a true nerd to be excited about a book like Just My Type, a compendium of essays on all things related to fonts. But, really, it's a fascinating subject, and it's to Garfield's credit that the book keeps a light tone and is chock full of party facts (e.g. "Upper or lower case? The term comes from the position of the loose metal compositor's hands before they were used to form a word--the commonly used ones on an accessible lower level, the capitals above them, waiting their turn" (23).) 

Just My Type takes the reader through the creation of type, starting with Gutenberg's printing press and continuing through modern digital type. He also discusses the history of many of the most well-known and ubiquitous fonts, as well as the philosophy and controversies behind typography itself (Should fonts be beautiful and recognizable? Or are the best fonts unnoticeable?). There's not a straightforward or linear structure to the book; each chapter addresses a specific topic, which makes it easy to read and digest.

There were many surprises for me. For example, the word "font" didn't enter ordinary language until the first Macintosh computer, which allowed users to easily change fonts for the first time. The creation of fonts would have seemed, to me, a relatively easy endeavor, but it was striking how much time and work went (and goes) into developing new fonts--it's an art form and a science.

Perhaps what I liked best about reading the book was how it brought out my own font feelings and prejudices. I'm a Times New Roman devotee, most likely because it was the default font on Microsoft Word in the mid-'90s, a time when I would have been first regularly crafting papers for school. Though, like all young people, I experimented with all the available fonts, writing some terrible play in which each new paragraph was a new font, I was largely conservative. To me, Times New Roman was the only real font, and I somehow just assumed everyone else felt the same. In fact, I probably would have (wrongly) said that all books and newspapers were printed in it--it's just so academic, so stately. It says, "I am intelligent and have something worthwhile to say" (even its appearance on a list of "worst fonts" in Just My Type does not deter me). Every document I write, whether it's a business letter, an application, or a handout for my students, is written in Times New Roman. 

I've always hated Arial, a font my classmates began using at a time when I was rigidly Times New Roman. To me, Arial, with its more rounded lettering and wider spacing, says:
I'm not very smart, and clearly I'm trying to cover up that my essay isn't long enough by using this font.
I felt somewhat vindicated to see many other people hate Arial, though their disdain comes from it being derivative of Helvetica.
But the font that really drives me bonkers is Calibri, the new default font for Windows 2007. The school at which I teach recently updated to Windows '07, and now all the computers are set for Calibri. It's even more rounded and soft than Arial, but it's somehow smaller than Times New Roman, so it's impossible to see when I'm trying to read my students' essays on their computers. Blech.
How would I ever consider giving an essay an A if it was written in Calibri?
 Just My Type is one of those books that has to be enjoyed as a book--not an ebook or audiobook--as the viewing of different fonts and accompanying photos is essential to its understanding. It's enjoyable and eye-opening, as it shows just how much an impact fonts have on our everyday life. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama

I voted for Obama in 2008 and will do so again in 2012, but I realized that, like with most politicians, I don't know a whole about him personally, beyond the basics. Dreams From My Father, written well before his presidential and senate days, seemed an ideal place to start.

Obama's memoir is an interesting, though not especially absorbing, book. Though it's personal in its exploration of issues of identity and race, there's a certain aloofness to it as well. I learned a lot about Obama's early life, his complicated family, and his struggle to define himself, but I didn't feel like I got to know Obama as a whole. The cool and calm demeanor he's known for now seemed always present.

However, there's a lot to gain from Dreams beyond studying Obama himself. He's especially astute in discussing the black experience in America and the difficulties of improving individuals' and communities' lives. Obama spends a while discussing his time as an organizer in Chicago. It's admirable work but extraordinarily frustrating; I kept finding myself becoming cynical about anyone's ability to enact change. When he travels to Kenya to meet his family through his father's side, he's able to compare and contrast the lives of people in two very separate countries.

From Dreams From My Father I learned about Obama's early life, and I appreciated his analysis of race, but I feel like I missed out on connecting to him as a person. Of course, that's what I wanted out of the book, not necessarily what Obama intended, and perhaps what he did discuss was more important for me to read.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities has been immortalized by its opening ("It was the best of times...") and closing lines ("It is a far, far better thing that I do..."), and when I began reading the book for the second or third time, I doubted Dickens' renowned words would have much effect on me. So, I was surprised that by the time I reached Carton's famous last words, I was teary and emotional, overwhelmed despite my intentions otherwise.

Dickens' story of the excesses of the French Revolution comes down firmly against the revolutionaries, though it is sympathetic in the plight and exploitation of the people by the aristocrats. I would have preferred some nuance here, but Dickens is so skillful in his description and in evoking emotions of outrage (both against the rich and the mob of the people) that the novel works anyway.

For me, the greatest weakness of Dickens' story is the simplicity of his characters, who are mostly one-dimensional: either noble, true, and innocent or bitter, ruthless, and unforgiving. This dichotomy is most present in his female characters of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Lucie is young, pretty and pure, and because of that, she is beloved by everyone--and I found her annoying. Like Les Miserables' Cosette, Lucie has no real personality yet is the axis on which all the other characters turn. Evil is always more interesting, and so is Madame Defarge, even though she's no less a flat character. Defarge's constant knitting serves as one of the most indelible images from the novel, and her single-minded pursuit of revenge forces the narrative forward. However, even when her backstory is revealed, she is made no more sympathetic, which is a shame.

The male characters are somewhat better, though Darnay is for the most part a mirror of his wife Lucie, and Mr. Lorry benefits only from his age and kindliness. Sydney Carton, the hero of the story, is the only real exception, as he's a man with true good and bad inside him.

Listening to the novel at a leisurely pace was a perfect way to re-enter a story I was already familiar with. Narrator Simon Prebble does an excellent job with the male and female voices and keeps the pace moving appropriately.

I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities when I first read it as a highschooler, and it was no less enjoyable this time around.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson

This seems to be the time for challenges to the world of psychiatry among my reading. There was Sybil Exposed last month, and now Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The latter is less clearly focused than the former, but it's a lot more fun. Ronson's new book explores the diagnosis of psychopaths and some of the problems surrounding it. He also interviews and researches some diagnosed and potential psychopaths in hopes of learning more about them. 

Unlike most nonfiction books which have a clear central premise, The Psychopath Test is much more loosely organized. The book begins with Ronson's interest in the somewhat vogue idea that many of our great leaders are psychopaths (or have other personality disorders), and that illness helped them achieve their greatness. Nonetheless, the book doesn't stay on this train of thought, exploring everything from Scientology's anti-psychiatry crusade, to conspiracy theorists, to the creation of the DSM (the APA's diagnostic manual). Reading the book is, at times, like following Ronson's stream of conscious association; everything doesn't always seem relevant (for example, he spends time criticizing the DSM, but "psychopathy" is not even a disorder listed), but it's so interesting that it doesn't matter.

One train of thought that initially sets Ronson off is his skepticism at the legitimacy of some of the APA disorders. This idea ran throughout Sybil Exposed, though Ronson's book stays more neutral than Sybil. I was drawn in because it's something I feel myself, even though I'm married to a psychologist, perhaps because I teach at a public school in which learning disabilities are excessively over-diagnosed for students by parents looking for excuses and rationales for medication rather than the truth. Ronson's not out to "expose" the APA or challenge its work, but his research does raise questions about the manner in which disorders are created and diagnoses made, as well as psychiatry's close relationship with pharmaceutical companies. As Ronson says near the end of the book, "There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it."

Ronson is a personal writer whose use of his own story creates intimacy with the reader. He's comically self-referential (as when he continually reflects about whether he's displaying psychopathic tendencies) and approaches his material much like his reader would.

I don't know if The Psychopath Test would be best for someone researching psychopathy, and it probably annoys some psychiatrists, but I found it fascinating and a lot of fun while also providing some insight into the problems facing the psychiatry field today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Across the Universe" by Beth Revis

Though I'd had this book on my radar for awhile, it was Revis' savvy marketing technique that finally drew me in--she convinced her publisher to include the names of every one of her early Facebook fans in the acknowledgements of the paperback version of the novel. And, since I was one of those fans, I couldn't resist buying the novel. Smart Revis, very smart.

I've not been very interested in YA this year, but I liked the premise of Across the Universe. Amy is cryogenically frozen, along with her parents, for a 300-year voyage in the spaceship Godspeed to a new planet Earth is hoping to colonize. However, she's woken up fifty years early and finds herself among the inhabitants of Godspeed, including its leader-in-training, Elder. With Elder, Amy tries to determine who's waking up individuals early and what secrets Eldest, the current leader, is keeping from his people. It's a neat premise, even if its execution didn't fully live up to it.

The setting and situation allow for a lot of questions to be explored. How would you maintain peace and happiness among people confined to such a small area of life? How would you maintain a population while avoiding overpopulation or genetic problems due to incest? I enjoyed exploring Revis' answers to these questions, even though their complexity is dampened by the stereotypical evil of Eldest. Early in the novel, he instructs Elder that one of the primary causes of discord is "difference," and since we all grew up with children's books about puppies and rabbits getting along, we know he's bad. By the time we learn he thinks Hitler was a good leader (Really? You don't think we got it?) and that another cause of discord is "independent thought" ("Evil, evil!" us independence-lovin' Americans shout), there's not a lot of hope for nuance.

Elder's lack of questioning about his history (e.g. he knows about classic American leaders like Abraham Lincoln but he doesn't wonder how many Eldests there have been or how long ago the Plague was) and the overly simplistic explanations for technology are also somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, despite my issues with the world's construction, there are some good things. Revis has created an interesting mystery in a claustrophobic environment. The pace moves quickly, alternating between Amy and Elder, so the novel never feels boring. Not all the questions are addressed satisfactorily, but enough are answered to wrap up the book and leave an appealing opening for its sequel.

Across the Universe wasn't the novel to break my YA slump, but it was a quick and largely enjoyable read, so long as I didn't think about it too much afterwards.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)" by Mindy Kaling

Fair or not, Kaling's book is bound to be compared to Tina Fey's Bossypants. In fact, I'm going to compare them. It's hard not to--both women are television comedy writers and actors for popular quirky shows that appear on the same night on NBC, and their books address similar topics (childhood, the entertainment business) through a similar structure. In the end, I enjoyed Fey's book more, though that's not to say Kaling's work is not enjoyable.

Kaling had a reassuringly "good" and average upbringing (nice to be reminded that celebrities tend to start as "one of us"), though her stories of post-college life are funnier. She describes trying to make it in New York (I especially enjoyed her description of her audition for the musical Bollywood Nights) and her recognition with the creation of the play Matt and Ben, which landed her the Office job. She spends a lot of time on her female friendships, relationships which are so close as to have made me a bit jealous.

Kaling and Fey are both willing to make fun of themselves, which I think is essential for any kind of celebrity writer. Nevertheless, you come away from Fey's book thinking, "Damn, that woman is scary competent." On the other hand, I found myself periodically thinking "Wow, Kaling's so lucky to have stumbled onto this Office gig" and then having to correct myself. Obviously Kaling is an intelligent and talented writer who earned her place, but she's so self-deprecating that you begin to doubt it. I think this is a shame.

Kaling is on one of my favorite television shows, and she has written some of its best episodes, but for me, the book only elicited the occasional chuckle. Kaling felt more like a very open friend than a professional comedian (though she'd probably denounce that title), though even so the book left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, the book is slim and a quick read, so I wouldn't discourage anyone from trying it.

P.S. Something I learned from Is Everyone and Bossypants (and everything I've ever seen her in): Amy Poehler is awesome. Where's your book, Amy?

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff

Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra sets out to dispel some of the myths that have surrounded the famous queen for ages, particularly those portraying her as nothing more than a seductress, a femme fatale who led Julius Caesar astray and destroyed Mark Antony. In A Life, Schiff instead posits Cleopatra as an intelligent strategist focused on maintaining her rule and independent kingdom.

There are a lot of great details throughout the book that make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in the classical world. Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemy dynasty that had ruled Egypt for years, yet they were Greek. The family had a nasty habit of killing each other off in order to gain the throne (and you thought the characters in A Game of Thrones were bad), something Cleopatra gamely participated in as well. So fabulous was Cleopatra's wealth that she gave away horses and couches to Roman dinner guests.

It's Cleopatra's relationships with the Roman leaders Caesar and Antony that have given her the most notoriety. These relationships take up much of the book, though the men come more to life than Cleopatra. In the end, it's difficult to know how exactly Cleopatra felt about the relationships. On the one hand, Egypt needed Rome as an ally, so a relationship with the men makes political sense. On the other hand, Cleopatra had children by both men and famously commits suicide after Antony's death (though, significantly, she does so after being conquered and imprisoned). Did she love them? Did they love her? These questions cannot be fully answered.

Though Schiff's research is exhaustive, in the end, the reader learns more about the context surrounding Cleopatra than the queen herself. This may be largely because history is written by the winners--in this case, the Romans--so the information we have on her is from a biased and critical Roman-centered point of view. Schiff does a nice job of trying to parse through the sources, determining each author's agenda, but it also means she's left with little in the way of fact. Most everything about Cleopatra herself is boiled down to "probably's." It was frustrating to know so much about Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra's wealth, Alexandria's status in the Mediterranean, and the status of women and so little about the the woman herself.

The book does not begin chronologically, and so I found it confusing at first because it would jump back and forth in time. Once it became traditionally chronological, I had an easier time. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Robin Miles. Miles has a pleasant neutral voice, but she's not particularly engaging, and I wished for a bit more spunk. I did fall asleep at intervals during the book, but I'll attribute that more to my tiredness than a failure of Schiff's work.

Cleopatra: A Life is a comprehensive look at an interesting and important period in history and the intersection of two very different cultures. Although at times a tad dry or repetitive, Schiff does much to raise Cleopatra beyond the Hollywood image of her and into her own right as a powerful and intelligent leader of a nation.