Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jake Kilroy's 2011 Year Of Reading

In 2011, I set out to read 100 books and graphic novels. I failed. Surprising? Not really. I read around 85, which beat 2010 by about 50 books, 2009 by about 60 and 2008 by about 82. I'm fully in the swing of reading as much as I can get my grim reaper palms on. I like recalling my year of reading as if some fancy magazine executive with a monocle hired me to do a recap, which...didn't happen. But I'm unemployed, so I have time to do this "freelance work" (I commissioned myself to write this, with payments of potato tacos and beer). Anyway, here are way too many thoughts that may or probably won't blow your mind:


1. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" & "The Girl Who Played With Fire" by Stieg Larsson
Mikhail Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are strong, detailed characters that had lives long before these novels found them. That sounds peculiar, but a whole lot of mysteries and thrillers offer characters by way of the plot and it's hard to imagine what they were doing before murders started popping up. But Larsson gets it. He carefully and then wildly brings light to the darkness of each courageous moralist that make up the dynamic duo in his Millennium series. The motives are believable, the dialogue is realistic and the actions are time-consuming. And every supporting character has a back story. It's the real world, just much darker. These are thrillers without stereotypes or gimmicks, which is so unrelentingly refreshing in a genre that practically thrives on the reader knowing the ending before they start the book.

2. "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak
Any story about a German family during the Holocaust is no easy task, especially one that's narrated by Death. A German girl comes of age in the middle of a war that no one in her family welcomes and finds a strange mixture of joy and sadness as she steals local books with her best friend, listens to her father's accordion, helps with her mother's chores and engages her family's gigantic basement secret, the Jewish fist-fighter Max, in life discussions. While the world is furiously destroying itself, all you find yourself interested in is one street in some small town in Germany. It's a book about people, no matter what violence and history rages beyond the stretches of any neighborhood.

3. "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins
The plot's been done over and over, but the reason The Hunger Games works is that the two main characters, both teenagers, act as muted moral compasses in the dystopian country of Panem (the smoking ruins of America). It's a violent book that paints kids as the only sensible people left in the world without making the adults worthless (hopeless, maybe, but not worthless). It offers a fantastic world for kid or young adult readers that's exciting as hell and also ludicrously addicting once the kids start killing each other like calculated maniacs. You just have to look over some typos and a few poorly worded sentences and you're so, so in.

4. "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
It's the most atmospheric book I've ever read, as McCarthy slides in repetitive descriptions subtle enough to let the reader absorb the dark, gray, bleak and ashy world of the story. And so little happens in the narrative, while still being a captivating read, that you feel the epic hush of the new haunting, decaying world left over after the colorful one failed. I'm not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic tales, but McCarthy's story is so basic, so honest and so very precise that it makes me appreciate post-apocalyptic tales for what can be found in people instead of what happens to them. It's not "what the human spirit is capable of." Instead, it's more just "what the human spirit is" in it's most centralized thought process. To have written it seems almost impossible, because it walks a dozen fine lines without ever letting the reader know that the lines are even being walked in the first place.

5. "This Side Of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald took his main character, the obnoxious, self-absorbed and unrelentingly entitled snob Amory Blaine, and gave him the wide open world, just to let it nearly crush him. You witness Blaine's transition from youthful upstart to conscientious adult, by way of college, where you realize that Fitzgerald's mocking every arrogant university student who churns out the same opinions about poetry, socialism, the military, etc. This Side Of Paradise observes the whole college student's evolution into obsessive academic lingo and thoughtful dinner party philosophy. It's so goddamn well-written and, by the end of it, you have to wonder if Fitzgerald penned one of the best pieces of character development in the 20th Century.

6. "The Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett
The film adaption has been one of my favorite movies since high school. The movie is wittier and funnier with a generally better mood, but the book has way more depth. It's a who-done-it with the most engaging (and boozing) couple around, Nick and Nora Charles. They drink, they smoke they solve murders, all while making each other laugh. In the book, Nick's a little crankier, more serious and less light-hearted, while Nora remains just as jovial as her cinematic counterpart. But the book presents a darker world than the movie does, so Nick's sterner demeanor matches the shadows and shifty eyes of the city. In between are some surprising conversations way ahead of their time. Like Raymond Chandler once said, though, Hammett wrote scenes that didn't seem as if they had been written before. Hammett takes murder and gives it a fair balance of gritty and comedic. It's screwball at its most dangerous.

7. "Side Effects" by Woody Allen
After being a long-time fan of his films, I've learned that Woody Allen understands slapstick as well as he does solemnity, just as he knows the dance between thoughtful philosophy and throw-away absurdity. The short story collection has moments of tenderness and poignant observations of human nature, but it's all amid senselessness, craziness and nuttiness. It's so wordy while being so light, with everything from a character leaving his wife to marry an animal to a character abandoning his psychoanalyst for a magician, who then allows him to enter the plot of Madame Bovary to have an affair. It's just silly enough to make it seem whimsical but sweet enough to keep you involved.

8. "Men Without Women" by Ernest Hemingway
This collection of short stories really puts together what Hemingway was: a reflective lover of life posing as a glorious defeatist. He didn't have to live through his characters. Shit, his characters would try to live through Hemingway if they could. As Hemingway moved through the world, whether it was war in Europe or a safari in Africa, he lived in the moment without having to catch himself. He was thinking what the romantic poets were musing, but he would've informed them that they didn't need all of the wimpy sentiment and that there was something bold and brave about romance. So, even when one story doesn't necessarily stand out, you take his arsenal of worldly tales, whether it's a terrified couple discussing abortion or a major lamenting over the death of his wife, and you hear Hemingway telling you what life is and how it works. It just "is" most of the time and Hemingway will tell you that it's surely enough.

9. "Everything Is Illuminated" By Jonathan Safran Foer
I know Foer is a polarizing literary figure and I seem to only ever love or hate him. In this one, he again impresses and infuriates me. He may tinker with heartstrings in the most sneaky way, but he does give readers a dozen moments to remember, which works well, as the whole book is about containing history and the chance of making it something more that rumors and guise. Within the three main characters, there lies an underlying hope to conquer all memories, dreams and histories like children's stories. But the real world won't ever allow memories, dreams and histories to be our reality, which is what makes them so horrifyingly gorgeous. So, against all understanding, we try and try and try until we fill books about our losses.

10. "Light Boxes" by Shane Jones
I bought the book solely because the cover featured a pretty serious sketch of five thin men in top hats and trench coats standing in the snow wearing colorful bird masks. Well, it turns out those five men and the rest of their small town are planning a mutiny on the brutal month/god of February. The fable-myth-fantasia-novella is written with every contemporary literary device available and it works because the narrative is just as sparse and weird. February grew jealous of man's ability to fly, so he plagues the town with eternal winter. It's a strange tale of misery and violence with poetry weaving in and out, balancing the warmth of hope found in an old world fairy tale with the cold-hearted sadness of modern society's doom.

1. "These Days Are Just Packed" by Bill Watterson
When I was a kid, Calvin and Hobbes did a number on me. They were loud and adventurous while, in turn, quietly discussing philosophy. Looking back, I probably scored a heavy helping of social interpretation from the two. It's pretty hard to get a kid to consider morality and mortality, but, somehow, when Calvin posed a question to Hobbes in the woods or in the wagon, there came a serious pondering of existence in this great big world. Bill Watterson spent his years as a cartoonist having an open discussion about the wants and drags of mankind and the nervous wonderment of people, all while letting an uncontrollable kid's imagination run wild with his closest friend. It was perfect then and it's perfect now.

2. "Blankets" by Craig Thompson
This semi-autobiographical graphic novel was honest and sincere without ever becoming uncomfortable. For all of its beautifully bleak setting of Wisconsin and Michigan in winter, it really does take the high road of optimism and realism instead of ever portraying life as unbearable and cold. And that could've been very easy to do, considering the main themes of the book is a teenager discovering love and questioning the church. It's really just about a teenager trying to figure everything out his senior year of high school without ever appearing to be somebody who's doing that. It was superbly balanced and subtle in its brief moments of poetic waves. So, so well done.

3. "The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen" by Alan Moore
I don't know how Hollywood botched the film adaptation as hard as they did. The whole thing is adventurous, humorous, violent, unsettling and astoundingly literary. While reading these grand tales of famous literary heroes versus villains (Victorian in the first two volumes and all across the 20th Century in the third), you feel like a kid from decades past reading the classic sci-fi and adventure paperback serials as modern storytelling. The tone of each volume reflects the times as well as the varied storytelling mediums. I loved it like a kid reading comic books with a flashlight.

4. "Blacksad" by Juan Díaz Canales
Oh man, I could honestly read a dozen volumes of this series if they existed. It's anthropomorphic animals in a classic noir setting. There's enough brief nudity and violence to make the first three episodes for mature audiences, but enough cartoon bashfulness and concern to make it for earnest youths. It could've easily been stupid, but it wasn't. The type of animal each character is gives something away without having to be explained. It's the 1950s. Hitler existed, the war happened and now all animals are recovering and trying to figure out the world again. There's the Arctic Nation (the KKK) and the Black Claws (the Black Panthers). The Golden Age of Hollywood, the Cold War, the Blacklist Witch Hunt, the Beatniks, the country's move into the suburbs, it's all there. I'll always have a soft spot for classic noir setups and characters, and there's a kid lurking in me somewhere always wanting to be entertained by talking animals. It takes itself seriously enough to be taken seriously, but not enough to miss out on the joke.

5. "Hellboy" by Mike Mignola
The whole premise of Hellboy is cool. It just is. It's old school pulpy monster mayhem mixed with modern sardonic self-awareness. It never leans too far either way. One moment it's classic evil mystic shit, the next it's a gunfight with creatures from another dimension, then it's murder mystery type of wandering, and then it's something else. Hellboys a solid character. He's a great structure of ego and wit balanced with regret and wishful thinking. It always works and it's always fun.

6. "Marvel: 1602" by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is one hell of a writer. He took characters that everyone knows, tossed them back to the year 1602 and it didn't come out campy. In fact, it came across as a serious observation of history with mutant transplants. Professor Charles Xavier becomes Carlos Javier, a compassionate Spanish cripple. Doctor Doom becomes Count Otto Von Doom, a powerful Latverian ruler. Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto becomes Grand Inquisitor Enrique, a leader of the Spanish Inquisition. The list goes on. Mutants are instead called "witchbreeds" in a time of urgency, as England tries to keep its hands on the New World without falling to Scottish rule themselves. The story's never gimmicky, the characters are always of depth and the combination of fantasy powers, time travel and legitimate historical concerns makes it one radical package. It's confusing at times, but, as you know these characters as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, you know who to root for. Wonderful drawings, wonderful writing, just a wonderfully fun read.

7. "The Alcoholic" by Jonathan Ames
Maybe the most honest narrative I've read, it feels like a thinly disguised memoir, though I couldn't guess how much is real. It discusses life without an arc, as more of a series of events that come at a person over the years. Some are tragic, some are funny, some are cool, some are pathetic. Each moment seems to be observed with the same grace of "this is how it is." He doesn't relish in his drinking, he doesn't relish in his women, he doesn't relish in what surrounds him. Though the character feels like the kinder gentler younger brother of Bukowski, and discusses an affinity for Hemingway, the alcoholic Jonathan doesn't sway and march through life with the force or authority of a "man's man." Instead, he kind of chirps along like a bird with a broken wing. It could've easily been one long epic of self-praise and moments of "Wasn't that cool when I got drunk and did all that hilarious shit?" But it wasn't at all. It was very much "This is me, this is life. Sometimes, things go well. Sometimes, things go bad. I wish I wasn't this way and I hope things get better."

8. "The Adventures Of Tintin (The Black Island & The Secret Of The Unicorn)" by Hergé
Honestly, Tintin is like the Archie comics with balls. It's playful and innocent, but it still includes whiskey and guns. It brings you into the era it was written and you feel like some imaginative boy in 1930s Belgium reading this at night, saying dumb things to yourself like, "oh boy!" I can see how this sense of adventure came to influence other storytellers of the 20th Century. The Tintin comic strip started in 1929, so this was before the era of "we need a big twist." It's just a pleasantly wild, sometimes funny, mostly straight-forward, do-the-right-thing-at-all-costs, mystery-solving adventure serial. I feel like it'd be harder to market someone like Tintin now. Either it would be pushed towards more gritty or more family-oriented. Tintin stories just include whatever Hergé felt was necessary. Murder and booze are always hanging around the boy-wonder journalist and his dog, as they do everything can to solve every freakin' mystery in Belgium.

9. "Lions And Tigers And Crocs, Oh My!" by Stephen Pastis
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comic strips, mostly because it has the sharpest wit in the newspaper. It's for the cynical strokes of humor. It pays tribute to the greats and shreds the worst. Featuring a rat, a pig, a zebra and a goat named Rat, Pig, Zebra and Goat, the strip follows the group of animals through their hyper-weird lives, whether it's Pig falling in love or Zebra trying his hardest to not be eaten by the crocodile fraternity next door. It's sardonic and sarcastic while still being goofy and fun. In this collection, Pastis adds his own commentary below each strip, which is actually funnier than each strip most of the time. The dude just writes like he's already your drinking buddy and you've spent a half hour making light of his profession.

10. "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid In The World" by Chris Ware
Jimmy Corrigan is uncomfortably bleak. It's not a roller-coaster of emotions with epic highs and crushing lows. No, instead, it's just a long, thick feeling of sadness that rolls around your insides. But Ware's idealistic and flawless art, combined with his flowing cursive of poetic narrative, brings about a weird sense of curiosity. Also, it's mostly Jimmy's grandfather's parallel story that brought about a sincere satisfaction. The mix of 1980s Michigan and 1890s Chicago intertwines without getting tangled, as it never makes it obnoxiously obvious what's happening, even though I would've thought it to be a much, much better book if there had been a bigger pay-off. I enjoyed reading it, though I thought I was reaching a destination. It never truly comes and you wonder if that was the whole point.

1. "A Short History Of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is a genius. And it's not just because he knows everything that he explains, but because he can explain it to me. Science is awesome, sure, but it's rarely ever presented to me with the excitement and easy language that I need. Save for a few friends, I usually get the droning narration of textbooks or the pompous and purposefully complex speeches of windbags. But Bryson explains everything from dinosaurs to volcanoes to chemistry to the universe to mass extinction (as well as the funny, weird and peculiar stories behind the scientists). Honestly, it was one of the most fun times I've had learning. Since I'm not well-versed in science, there weren't very many moments of, "Ah, I knew that." It really was mostly just me repeating, "OH, WHAT THE SHIT!?"

2. "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safron Foer
I've been vegetarian since I was 10 and I've gotten shit for it since I was...10. And, I must say, it was refreshing to read a book that wasn't angrily arguing "eating animals is wrong" or"eating animals is right." Foer gives his readers extensive research that one would expect to find in a thesis while retelling stories from his childhood, like it were some conversation at a party. He makes it personal with numbers and interviews. The book is written with some of Foer's traditional emotional and empathetic style, with moments of over-the-top literary devices, but it's a beautiful, disgusting, overwhelming, horrifying, excellent text. It's more of a long musing on eating animals while campaigning against factory farms instead of a straight-forward academic thesis.

3. "Wild Ducks Flying Backwards" by Tom Robbins
Tom Robbins writes unlike anyone else. It's so far removed from the writing process and grasp of language that I understand as proper. His novels are like attending a music festival on drugs...though somehow contained between front and back covers. In his only collection of articles, essays, poems and the rest of his bag o' random, the wildfire novelist shows that he can seriously exist in other mediums. He talks art in essays for museum magazines as well as he can use poetry to describe the Devil coming down the stairs in a Raiders jacket. A few articles drag on a bit (because without wacky made-up characters, real people tend to look about confused), but then you look at your bookshelf and realize you have no interest in reading anything else.

4. "The Partly Cloudy Patriot" by Sarah Vowell
Vowell has stunning wit about her with a deadpan delivery. It's hard to write deadpan in reflective essays of your life, conjuring up jokes at your own expense and presenting them like nonchalant throwaways for the sake of a bit, all while laying out groundwork for political, historical and contemporary observations. But she does it with a familiar NPR narrative pacing and a tremendous appreciation for essay-writing. The book is sincere, using humor as a tool instead of a force. It's a thoughtful and genuine collection about a nerdy leftist New Yorker who loves history and politics. She's timid but critical, soft-spoken but loud, small appearance but big personality. She's also a whole lot of fun.

5. "Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit" & "Burning In Water, Drowning In Flames" by Charles Bukowski
I think Bukowski just saw the world in poems. That's why he wrote about everything from specific arguments with women to really trivial shit, like getting the mail. It's hard to be sure where Bukowski's brilliance ends and his rambling starts. He says enough to cover the entire spectrum of genius and idiot while writing about the same thing over and over. He wants you to know that he drinks, fucks, gambles and doesn't care about any of it. In his poems, there lies a confident drunk, asleep at the wheel of life, seamlessly floating on by, content with distraction and apathy.

6. "Shit My Dad Says" by Justin Halpern
I was afraid that Halpern, beyond his Twitter account, would end up being something along the lines of Tucker Max (who sucks, by the way), writing things like, "And then this crazy thing happened to my balls, and here's how my crazy dad reacted." I thought it was going to be the memoir of a 29-year-old party guy laughing at us for getting a book deal. But it wasn't. The book was earnest. And Justin Halpern is stupendously likable. You root for him, his father, his mother, everyone. It's actually a relatively simple narrative about a father and son, except, of course, the father is like a verbal confetti gun of swear words. Halpern's humorous memoir turned out to be one of the most enjoyable books about a family I've ever read.

7. "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers
When his parents die within just weeks of each other, Eggers moves out to California with his older sister and his much younger brother. And what seemed to start off as a memoir detailing the fallout that followed his parents' death becomes something of a frantic (and somewhat fictionalized) diary of his twenties instead, as Eggers raises his brother like a parent and runs a local magazine with his new friends in San Francisco. The narrative is so wild and charismatic that it almost seems unedited, but, given the score of literary devices used, it's obvious that it's very planned and an attempt at nervous realism. If Eggers seems smug or arrogant or mad at the world or losing his shit, you let it go because nobody knows it better than him. It'd be really easy to hate a book like this, but it's told in such a brutally honest way without making scores of attempts at caring what others think that you let it go and just pat the dude on the back.

8. "Morning Poems" by Robert Bly
Bly writes very observationally with compassion and humor. Maybe not in his words, but in his tone. Even in his misery, he's aware that he's writing a poem and trying to get a point across. He doesn't just write his feelings down so it comes off manic and overly charged. It's very calm. He sees the great world around him, with nature, with people, with everything, and he can narrate between the lines. It's hard to balance the depth of good poetry as well as the bluntness of accessible poetry, but Robert Bly can do it pretty seamlessly.

9. "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan
Taking a long look at "industrial, pastoral and personal meals," Pollan provides an academic narrative on the food industry in its impressive breadth and scope. He investigates meat farms, organic growers and even details his own adventure hunting animals and scourging mushrooms. It's a fascinating read for sure, despite Pollan making it seem like vegetarians would never bother to read his book, as if all us are too busy reading David Sedaris while getting high and Tivoing documentaries about socialism and dolphins. Well, guess what, Pollan? I read your book and found much of it thoroughly engrossing! Take that!

10. "The Last Magician" by Stephen Corey
The only way I can describe this book is “quintessentially American," as it seems like Corey grew up in the America we were all supposed to call our own, with picnics, fireworks, bedtime stories and Sunday papers. And, given its sincere reflection and thoughtful musings, it reads like the collection was penned by a father grateful for his new life after spending his youth traveling. He’s somewhere stationary now and wildly appreciative of having a wife, kids and a home in the suburbs. There's a lot of quiet smirks lurking behind the words, painting the portrait of the American Dream without the delirious ecstasy, but with the calm, secluded possibility that it can exist. But he never sets out to do that, so the poems don’t come off as big hope or endless love. It just comes off real, as one man tries to interpret the world from his place in it.

Happy reading in 2012, folks!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


P.S. you can't edit a ghost.