Monday, December 27, 2010

Jake Kilroy's 2010 Review Of His Year In Reading

2010 was my return to crazed, frenzied reading, where I took in as many stories as often as I could. Over the course of the past year, I also got really addicted to talking about books. I was originally going to compile a list of what I thought were 2010's best books, but I realized how rare it is that I read books the year they come out.

So, after being asked for book recommendations a few times in the last month (and always, always wanting some recommendations from anybody in return), I made a list of books I read (or listened to) this past year (or or up until Christmas Day anyway) that I thought were totally awesome. I also included blurbs about what they are and why they were pretty rad. It's a pretty lengthy deal happening below, I know, but, like I said, 2010 was also the year that I got addicted to discussing books too.

1. "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand
I finally got around to reading it and, even with the hype, it's one of the best books I've ever read. Even if you disagree with the Objectivism philosophy (and I'm kinda halfsies on it), it's still flawlessly written. The sentence and story structure are cold and perfect, matching the personalities and conversations of the dynamic architects and journalists. It's an epic by the most impossible means, as it relies on people being people to bring about a stunning piece of bold literature. It never loses steam.

2. "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury
It's a Halloween story for sure, but it's more about adolescence than anything else. A sinister evil comes to a small town and two boys and a father have to come to terms with age in a spooky reality. The prose is so fun and unsettling and funny, giving way to some serious nostalgia. It reads like the first ghost story you remember retelling.

3. "The Given Day" by Dennis Lehane
A radical piece of historical fiction, the book tells the stories of an Irish family and a black family at the end of World War I. Actual historical events, such as the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and a score of other important moments make their way into the threads of the story, told in the cracks of city life. It has about as much history as it does fiction, even with actual people in history playing pivotal and conversational roles. Everyone keeps talking about crime, unions, baseball and the changing modern world. It's incredible.

4. "Gun, With Occasional Music" by Jonathan Lethem
It has all of the classic narrative language of a Chandler or Hammett mystery, but all of the modern sci-fi chaos of a Philip K. Dick novella. The book has noir down so perfectly in so many instances, it comes off as a really good parody or tribute. It has the ever-classic stereotypes, but it's the sci-fi weirdness that stands out, like babyheads (evolved babies with drinking problems) and evolved talking animals (including a wise-ass kangaroo goon). It's just really fun, with a good balance of noir and sci-fi, while also balancing silly and serious.

5. "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
Adams is just as absurd, if not absurder, as I expected. And it's way fun. But it's also wildly British. You can spot the silly narrative trends that Adams pioneered for later authors. It documents the end of the world, the outrageous insanity of the universe beyond and it introduces the reader to the tempo and chaos of the series. It's so weird and cool.

6. "Villa Incognito" by Tom Robbins

Even his lesser novels are still better than just about everything else, though I hold Robbins to higher standards. This book isn't as easy-flowing or as perfectly worded as his earlier novels, but it's still just as weird, just as philosophical and just as humorous. It takes mysticism in Southeastern Asia and combines it with Vietnam soldiers going M.I.A. It evaluates the big picture drug trade, the American military in foreign lands and...well, romantic bestiality. It's not the best introduction to Robbins, but it's a lot of awesome craziness if you're already down with his work.

7. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Foer Safron
This book was so unrelentingly heartbreaking, it kind of made the emotion seem cheap. And I think the author was doing that on purpose, so...there's some give and take with it. However, it was spectacularly well-written, combining hope with misery in a nine-year-old narrator. The novel follows a young boy's New York City adventure after he finds a key that belonged to his deceased father. The father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and that day becomes the main theme of the book, as a kid just tries to figure out life. It's overwhelming.

8. "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman
Consider the possibility that underneath London is a place called London Below, where magic is real and dangerous. Places in London Above are similar but different in London Below. Knightsbridge in London Above is "Night's Bridge" in London Below (where the darkness takes a person from your party as its toll). It's sinister urban fantasy and nobody does it better than Gaiman. And he proves it with his two eternal and amoral murderous assassins Mr. Croop and Mr. Vandemar, who are two of the most engaging characters of violence I've ever encountered in fiction.

9. "The Hot Kid" by Elmore Leonard
It's one of Leonard's longest novels and it's a few-year saga of bank robbers and marshals in the Midwest around the time that Dillinger was charming the nation. There are a few real-life characters in the distance of the narrative, so it's partially historical fiction. But it's mostly just an easy-going read about one young, calm marshal and one loud, obnoxious bank robber. It's engaging with a lot of slow parts. But it also gives you a vibe for the 1920s and the romance of crime back then.

10. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway
Set during the Spanish Civil War, American Robert Jordan finds himself with guerrilla rebels hiding out in a mountain cave, waiting to blow up an nearby bridge. It has all of the things I love about Hemingway, but it also has all the things he does that I don't care for. It's not the best introduction to his work, but, if you're already a fan, I figure it's a must. The book has several pretty intriguing musings on suicide and politics, including one long story within the book about killing fascists that blew my mind.

1. "Born Standing Up" by Steve Martin
I think I've just gotten to a point in my life where I understand that I'll read, watch or listen to anything Martin does. He writes in such a conversational way, you feel like he's just recapping something casual to you. This particular book documents his childhood to the moment he quit stand-up comedy. He shows how an interest in magic, music and a goofy sense of humor lead to him becoming a stand-up superstar. It's hard to believe he's a celebrity because he writes like someone you end up talking to at a party. It's so, so good.

2. "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris
I was years late on this book. I always loved Amy Sedaris and people would tell me to read her brother. I didn't know what that meant. Then this book took non-fiction and turned it into an array of short stories. I'm one of the skeptics that wonders how much is actually true, but it's so wacky, so heartbreaking, so funny and so intriguing the way it makes normal people in their day-to-day lives seem more interesting than everything else.

3. "On Writing" by Stephen King
The first half details King's writing career, from neighborhood kid newspaper printer to bestseller. You see the influence that his family life and childhood had on his writing decisions. He explains why he wrote, how he evolved and what he thought of the whole experience. It's excellent. The second half becomes his own version of a writing class, where he explains what works and what doesn't and how to keep a legitimate writing schedule. Some is common sense, some is good refresher and some is a number of really killer new things to know.

4. "My Custom Van" by Michael Ian Black

If you love Black's aggressive form of deadpan that you've seen in interviews, blogs or on Twitter, you'll dig it. The first few essays had me laughing out loud, but once I understood the formula, the jokes had less of an impact. However, it continued to be really funny. The essays' content is all over the place, ranging from letters to a whorish squirrel to hating David Sedaris because everyone likes him.

5. "Manhood for Amateurs" by Michael Chabon
I'm realizing now how little I read non-fiction, because I didn't think this book was incredible. I thought it was good, but he uses so many unnecessarily big words and overly academic interpretations of really minor things. However, I will say that it did make me laugh out loud sometimes and it did address a lot of interesting moments in a man's life. As a collection of essays musing on masculinity, it's well-organized and Chabon definitely knows how to write and even deliver a solid unexpected punchline here and there.

Graphic Novels
1. "Batman: Year One" by Frank Miller
It's the start of Batman years after Batman was created. Batman, who is naturally awesome, is restarted here and it contains so much in such a short story that it kind of wins for impressiveness. It made me rethink characters I've long known, understood and enjoyed. It was real and intense while also embracing the pulp comic vibe in a really subtle way. It's a really solid work.

2. "Preacher" by Garth Ennis
Jesse Custer may be the manliest of men in anything I've ever read, but he's not aggressively manly. He's just kind of like "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." And, in this nine-volume series, Custer has to track down God so he can kick the shit out of him. Seriously. Powered by something horrific living inside of him, southern boy Custer has to take down God with the help of his gun-toting ex-girlfriend Tulip and his new Irish vampire shitbag best friend Cassidy. It's bad-ass, and, at times, campy and/or pretty unsettling. In promises violent adventure and it sticks to its word.

3. "Y: The Last Man" by Brian K. Vaughn
All the men and male animals of the world die off in a single second, except for one twentysomething slacker and his male monkey. Society collapses once half the world is dead, but it is then rebuilt by women, all while pop culture enthusiast Yorrick Brown tries to find his girlfriend while maybe helping save the human race in this ten-volume series. He, along with a few female protectors, must figure out why everything happened and what can be done for the future. It's funny, endearing and apocalyptic. It's also really addicting.

4. "From Hell" by Alan Moore
It's easily the most impressive use of the graphic novel medium I've ever encountered. Drawn in black pen sketches, it becomes a dense work of historical fiction conspiracy theory as it details who Jack The Ripper was and why he committed the murders. It's not a thriller, but, instead, it's a legitimate account of a pretty serious what-if scenario.

5. "The Losers" by Andy Diggle
This two-volume series makes no apology for being straight-up action. From start to finish, it's anarchy and chaos. If you're looking for something in-depth, this isn't it. But, if you're looking something totally fun and wild, it's this, for sure. It's a lot of shooting guns and a shit-ton of fast-paced conversations about American politics. There's a plot, yes, and even some twists, but it's mostly just radical action and high-stakes international espionage and cover-ups.

1 comment: said...

Great list Jake. I need to read Something Wicked This Way Comes. I love Bradbury and I'm distressed I haven't read this yet. So very glad you liked The Fountainhead. I wholeheartedly agree with your review. The Lethem book is on my to-read list too.

And man, Jesse Custer IS pretty amazing, isn't he?