Monday, December 30, 2013

Jake Kilroy's 2013 Radical Year In Reading

I love end-of-the-year best-of lists. I like them for music, movies, babes you noticed at the local Chipotle, whatever. And my favorite is when friends' do it, because there's a 90% chance it's going to be less snooty and more excitable than critics. My main bag is reading, so that's what I bring to the table around new year's. The problem is that I jump around when it comes to what's on the shelves, so my annual end-of-the-year best-of sorts it out from what I read this year, not what came out this year.

Anyway, here are the best of the books, graphic novels, and audiobooks I took into my mangled brain in 2013! Woo!

1. Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen
For some reason, it's a stunning achievement to make fiction real, and this had the precision of a daily sharpened blade. It wasn't always enjoyable, as life can often prove uneasy, but I had to know if The Corrections was a fluke. It wasn't. This book was just as vivid and huge and beautiful and infuriating (with even less likable characters, really). Just another American family from the midwest, afraid of everything and hungry for anything, simply trying to figure out one aspect of life after another, tripping over nostalgia and desire.

2. Bluebeard
by Kurt Vonnegut
In every work by Vonnegut, there's comedy in the tragedy, no matter how big or small. There's a tone of whimsical shrugging, even when life is explained as one big terrible impractical joke. It's never worked better than in this "autobiography" of the artist Rabo Karabekian, who has an item locked up in his barn that he doesn't feel compelled to show the world. It's absolutely gorgeous.

3. The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman
This series had a pretty wild start with The Golden Compass, but part two and part three of His Dark Materials go for the weird dark madness of kid's imagination and adult-shaped reality. It's atheist mutiny along several worlds (including the land of the dead) that the good folks and bad people are leaping in and out of. The series expects the best of its young characters as well as its young adult readers, and it's one of the most articulate, intelligent young adult series ever. And it's kick-ass fantasy.

4. Live By Night
by Dennis Lehane
In this semi-sequel to one of my favorite books, The Given Day, the youngest member of the Boston cop family, The Coughlins, starts out on his own in the petty crime world as everything goes full swing into the Jazz Age. After getting mixed up with a few bruisers and dames, he takes on the grand, beautiful, illustrious world of Cuba and becomes a benevolent king of the whiskey trade during Prohibition. It doesn't romanticize anything, and it doesn't go over the top with grit. Tremendous.

5. The Garden of Eden
by Ernest Hemingway
It's hard to believe Hemingway wrote this character-driven sexy game. It's about a honeymooning couple that gets involved with a French girl, both in lust with her. Released more than 20 years after his death, after he worked on it for the last 15 years of his life, Hemingway's classic prose is present, along with his borderline poetic and hard-to-follow conversations, but it's unlike any of his other work. It's  wonderfully constructed by the hands of a writer who I assume was losing his grip at the time.

6. Slaughterhouse-Five
by Kurt Vonnegut
Yes, it took me way too long to finally read this book. If this had been my first Vonnegut, I would have a different opinion.  He cracks the jokes and he crafts the misery, and it's beautiful as always (though you can tell fine-tuning was coming in his technique). It's such a wonder how easy and impossible Vonnegut can make life seem simultaneously.

7. 1Q84
by Haruki Murakami
Even though it's one of the strangest sci-fi stories I've ever read, it's not too weird at all. The sci-fi is an element of a love story, but it's slow, meticulous character development instead. It's frustrating at times, since you want it to go big and wild with what's hinted at, but it sticks to the hearts and minds of two central characters accidentally wrapped up in another dimension of 1984.

8. Florence Of Arabia
by Christopher Buckley
A satire, this was among the first to joke about post-9/11 "war on terror and Islamist extremism." The main character, a CIA operative named Florence, travels to the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wasabia to start a women's television channel that suggests equality and pokes fun at male-established power. It's intended to start a culture revolution, but it spins out of control into cultural anarchy.

9. Eragon
by Christopher Paolini
An epic was written by a 15-year-old who understood the elements of good old school fantasy, it legitimately has everything you need or expect from an alternate medieval tale of dragons, wizards, trolls, rogues, and everything in between. It's strong, but it never gets brutal. It hits the spot if you're looking for the most thorough collection of medieval fantasy traits in one series.

10. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
This is a gorgeous book, but not because of the story or the narrative. It's actually because of what the book allows you to do on your own. A single sentence about a water drop on a leaf in a Japanese garden gives you an entire scene. It's breathtaking, but it's also tedious as hell for some of the first two-thirds. This book takes patience. The last third is perfect, but the first two acts are a bit slow-going and gives you significantly more than you need to follow the events of late 18th/early 19th Century Japan with employees of the Dutch East Indies settling themselves in and figuring out a new culture.

1. Saga
by Brian K. Vaughn
It straight up feels like a wilder take on Star Wars with sex and swear words. But it's never gimmicky. It has touches of Firefly and Game Of Thrones, and it gives the story all the room it needs to be breathe.  Snarky and wise-ass romantic dude with ram horns and a brutal sword marries an honorable ex-soldier babe with the look of a punk and the wings of a fairy. Fairy has their lovechild, and the two lovebirds are on the run from just about everyone in the universe. This story could legitimately go in any and every direction, and I'm beyond stoked.

2. Top Ten
by Alan Moore
Alan Moore created a city where every single person is a superhero or supervillain, from movie stars to bums. They take the subway, they have day jobs, they have special powers, and they're always wearing costumes. This series follows a particular precinct as they battle radioactive drug dealers and alien prostitute serial killers. It's all so nuts, but the characters are human and complex and surprisingly real.

3. Morning Glories
by Nick Spencer
Described as "Lost at a boarding school," it has all the potential to learn from its predecessors. And if it doesn't, I'm going to lose my mind. If it does, it could be one of my all-time favorites. It's also crazy violent. I guess it's more like Lost meets Hunger Games meets The Faculty meets Archie in a way.

by Jeff Smith
As Smith's Bone has gone down as one of my absolute favorite things ever, I bought volume one of this series on a whim. Turns out it's fantastic, and it's done with bare-bone dialogue and a very small story with a huge sense of history. Former young scientist uses the Tesla's lesser known technology to drift between worlds and steal art to pay for his revenge plan. Yup.

5. JLA
by Grant Morrison
This series crafts these long-known superheroes as their most ideal and definable. It makes each member of the Justice League vivid and concrete. They have motivations, hesitations, and regrets. It's the strongest, most legit version of everyone.

*Special Shout-Out*
I read the entire DC Crisis storyline this year, from Crisis On Infinite Earths to Final Crisis, along with all of their lead-ups. That shit's too hard to gauge or even coherently explain, considering all of it being one massive clusterfuck of every hero and villain ever in the DC multiverse. It's a hell of a time though. I suggest you dive into that madness if you want to understand how DC's universe of characters (Batman, Superman, etc) exist in different variations of past, present, and future. It's not always great, and it almost never makes total sense.

1Identity Crisis
by Brad Metzler
This is what happens when you give a political thriller author a chance to fully embrace graphic novels and get buckwild with it. You get a murder mystery story with the Justice League that doesn't seem silly. It's personal and emotional, and it focuses on history and human interaction instead of anything super.

2. The Joker: Death Of The Family
by Various Authors
After a year-long disappearance, Joker returns more gnarly than ever (cutting off his own face and wearing it as a mask, for starters) to bring individual and very personal trauma to each member of the Bat Family to show how they slow down his beloved Batman. It's dirty and violent, with Joker showing what real insanity is (where murder is indistinguishable from a handshake).

3. Batman: The Black Mirror
by Scott Snyder
This made me feel so weird. In it, Commissioner Gordon's unhinged son is an all grown up serial killer taunting and teasing the Gordon family. It's tightly written and uncomfortable at every turn, and it's pacing and character vulnerability are on-point.

4. Batman: The Court Of Owls & The City Of Owls
by Scott Snyder
It's hard to do something new in a well-known history, but the whole Court of Owls rhyme/legend is slipped in the Gotham mythos so perfectly, it reads as if it was always there. It's a finely tuned Batman working with a fresh, exceptional history of his surroundings and the men that build the doomed city.

5. The Silencers: Black Kiss
by Fred Van Lente and Steve Ellis
A semi-comic story about villains, it makes it all seem plausible within the realm of superheroes (who they refer to as "The Tights"). You never see heroes beyond their arms and legs, but you get the evil-doers in all of their human glory, with the criminal leader, Cardinal, trying to retire and make a quiet life for himself.

1. What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through The Fire
by Charles Bukowski
After enough Bukowski, a reader can anticipate him. He gambles at the horse tracks, he's always involved in some weird relationship with a woman that reeks of desperation, he can't stand the upstarts, he acknowledges his fame, he listens to classical music, he watches the city breathe, sure. But as the list grows longer, it becomes this breathtaking observation of everything and nothing. It's an astounding belief that life can be documented and detailed in poetry. He'll write about the grocery store, he'll write about dinner parties, he'll write about writing. I've read a lot of him, and this long-ass collection was the first time it felt like a conversation with the great poet laureate scoundrel.

2. Barrel Fever
by David Sedaris
This was a rare instance of reading a style that I tried to do when I was young. These were just absurd stories of things going wrong for people, and it made me laugh. Sure, short stories can be a powerful, moving, extraordinary medium...but they can also be great for nonsense. A collection of ridiculous premises (one actor's several-page-long Oscar speech, a mother/wife falling apart in a holiday newsletter, etc) that are articulate and well-crafted, so the silliness shines through as a glorious fiction.

3. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
This was more societal causes and effects than anything else really: how abortion in the '70s caused a decrease in crime in the '90s, how real estate agents go about selling their houses versus selling other people's homes, et cetera. It gets convoluted at times, and there's an air of "this is the real truth" when, in some cases, it seems like that's the entire argument against previous theories. It just doesn't carry the brute arrogance. Instead, it makes me appreciate data for being the truth-sayer it's always been and will always continue to be, boiling it all down to fun, wild, and accessible knowledge.

4. Wake Up: A Life Of The Buddha
by Jack Kerouac
As a total surprise to me, Kerouac wrote a true book about the life of Buddha. It's not jivey or jokey either. It's his retelling of Siddhartha Gautama and how he became the Enlightened One. It goes over concepts as part of the narrative, its dialogue is vibrantly religious, and it's a wildly good take on spirituality in general.

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