So… This has not been a good year for me, reading wise. As I’ve contemplated putting this post together over the last couple of days I can’t help but feel like I’ve forgotten a title or three somewhere, but, after two days of mulling I suppose if the missing tome(s) hasn’t shaken loose by now then I’d better just get on with things and do the math.
It appears I have read only 18 books in 2014. The previous year (2013) that number was 25 and I thought that was a poor performance. I also listened to 9 novels on Audible in 2014. Listening to books is a new thing for me and being old fashioned, I feel like it doesn’t really count as reading. But, as I need the help with the numbers I’ll say I’ve “read” 27 books.
I listened to the first 4 of Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” novels. They were fucking awesome. I don’t think listening to a book is the same as reading one, but these books provide me with a unique opportunity to test this theory. There is one more book in the series, “At Last” and I am going to actually read it (with my eyes). Hopefully this will give me perspective on this distinction. The books were pretty amazing to listen to. This guy – St. Aubyn – has a gift. The reader on the audiobooks added a lot to the experience as well I thought, with his various British, Australian and American accents.
There are a couple of reasons I attribute my poor reading performance to…
Foremost is my dedication to reading the entire “New Yorker” each week. I’ve read the magazine for years but I’ve never been so slavishly dedicated to finishing every article. I don’t know why I’m doing this. It’s rare that I feel like the 10 page profile of some influential gallery curator or the extended article on the private papers of a Supreme Court Justice from the 50’s (2 recent examples of looonnngggg articles I felt compelled to finish) was worth the time and effort, so why do I do it? I hope to shrug this habit off in 2015. Perhaps I will give each article 5 minutes or perhaps 1 page and if I’m not feeling it, I’ll move on. That sounds reasonable right?
Also as I’ve aged I’ve found myself becoming a “complete-ist” in general. I will stick with a show, a movie or a book even if I’m not grooving on it, in hopes that it will live up to the hype. When I cop to this behavior I can’t help but hear that expression, “consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind” at the back of my head. If I don’t like it I should go with my gut, right? My examples below argue otherwise.
Here are a couple of times that I felt this way. Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” was tough. The sentences, with their complex structure and expansive and very specific vocabulary do not make for a breezy read. There were places where I had not a clue of what was going on, but still found the language beautiful and/or intriguing. It was also crazy violent. Points! There were a couple of times I was close to giving up. I didn’t and felt like the end rewarded me for it. I almost, again almost, want to re-read it, so I could get clearer on the themes and symbolism oozing out of this fucker. McCarthy is deep, dude. Very original. That was my first McCarthy novel. I’m open to reading more.
Another popular writer who I’d never read is Chuck Palahniuk. I’m not as sold on him. I almost didn’t make it through the book, but again was glad I did at the end. He’s got some great stuff going on – attitude, I love when a writer can convey attitude – and he’s absolutely a singular voice but this novel, “Lullaby” didn’t come together for me. I think it has to do with the supernatural aspect (which I’m generally not a fan of anyway). If he can achieve the same level of mania in a “realistic” setting then perhaps I’ll be more of a fan. I guess I should try “Fight Club.”
The last reason I’ve underperformed is probably my favorite and the most fun to cop to. I went into a bit of a Charles Manson rabbit hole this spring. It started with the “Life and times of Charles Manson.” This book was fine. It gives you background on the man that you don’t get from “Helter Skelter” or “The Family.” I’d say it’s most remarkable achievement is really giving you a good sense of the atmosphere in Berkeley CA in the late 60’s. It’s astounding how this majorly low-level pimp who’d been in prison for most of his life was able to come onto the scene and get over so thoroughly on these young people in every respect. The world was a very different – and more trusting – place. Obviously. It also gives you some good dirt on the Beach Boys angle, which is also pretty amazing. I mean the Beach Boys are fucking awesome – how is it that Manson was hanging with one of them?
The real prize though was “The Family” by Ed Sanders. It’s a long and exhaustive behind the scenes tell-all of all the players and the run-up to the Tate/LaBianca murders. It’s an insane story – as everybody knows – but just as insane as the murders are the little details about the Family and what Charlie was able to get people to believe. The Helter Skelter/Race war theory is so fucking out there it’s just unfathomable that anyone – even a 16-year-old runaway taking LSD on a daily basis – could believe this shit. This book really gets into the minutiae in a good way. It shows the flip side to the peace and love counterculture going on at the time. For example, Topanga canyon was apparently crawling with devil worshipers. Talk about an un-mellow scene.
It’s enough to make you want a dune buggy army of your own.
Oh, the last thing I’ll mention – I had to read a bunch of Young Adult novels for an assignment at the beginning of the year. I’m not that into YA literature in general, but I’ll sum up my take-away from those 6 or 7 books that I read; John Green is the real deal. “The Fault in our Stars” is really an achievement. I can’t remember another book that made me cry. Literally.
And on to the books:
Morrissey – Morrissey – 7/10 – Poor Morrissey. Talk about a real life Charlie Brown. Bad shit just follows this guy like a storm cloud, but then he wouldn’t be Morrissey if it didn’t, would he? A little repetitive in spots, quite interesting in others.
Manson – The Life and Times of Charles Manson – Jeff Guinn – 7/10 – packed with information but the author has no passion for the subject.
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green – 10/10 – Just amazing in pretty much every respect. Major props. Not sappy at all, despite the odds.
An Abundance of Katherines – John Green – 6/10 – This one was a bit more by the numbers.
Looking for Alaska – John Green – 7/10 – His second best book. A bit after school special-ly, but still quite good.
Colin Fischer – Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz – 8/10 – Funny stuff, not my bag but quite good. Written from the perspective of an autistic child.
I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President – Josh Lieb – 9/10 – This was an impressive and very funny book.
Paper Towns – John Green – 6/10 – Didn’t connect with this one.
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy – 8/10 – see breakdown above. The guy is unique. How can you marvel at the beauty of a sentence and still have no idea what it’s saying.
King Dork – Frank Portman – 8/10 – I liked this guy’s voice. Story was only okay.
Blood Trails – Christopher Ronnau – 7/10 – This came straight from the dude’s Vietnam notebooks. Some good stuff. Overall kind of boring. I wanted more of “the shit.”
Russian Debutante’s Handbook – Gary Shteyngart – 7/10 Hmmn – I wanted to like this book more. He’s a unique voice. I enjoyed “Little Failure” more.
Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky – 6/10 – This was not for me – I can see why a younger person might enjoy it. Sappy!
Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage – Rob Delaney – 7/10 – I like Rob Delaney. I relate to his experiences. He’s a little too sanctimonious at times but, being a comedian, often he’s quite funny.
The Family – Ed Sanders – 9/10 – A major Manson freak fest. See above.
Lullaby – Chuck Palahniuk – 6/10 – Too ghost story-esque for me (it’s not a ghost story – but has magic). I want to read more of his stuff.
The 90 Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within – Alan Watt – 8/10 – This book was very helpful to me. I would recommend it for anyone who has had trouble finishing a novel. Like yours truly.
Redeployment – Phil Klay – 7/10 – I grabbed this last week and blazed through it as it was a NYT 10 best. I liked some of the stories quite a bit, but the weaker ones feel really weak to me. This dragged down the average in my mind. If you cut the 2 or 3 objectionable stories it would be a 9 imho.
The following are the books I listened to.
The Shining – Stephen King – 8/10 – I’ve always wanted to and now I have. Good shit. So different from the movie.
Doctor Sleep – Stephen King – 5/10 – Now I don’t have to read another Stephen King novel, I don’t think. This sucked.
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson – 8/10 – Pretty great. Long. Very long. But really takes you somewhere new and different. Some hardcore North Korean shit.
Going Clear – Lawrence Wright – 8/10 – Salacious as all get out. A fun romp.
Little Failure – Gary Shteyngart – 9/10 – I really enjoyed this. A fun listen.
The Patrick Melrose Novels
4 books: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk – Edward St. Aubyn – 10/10 – Really some of the best stuff I read this year. The dialog is so true. The settings are so real and specific and it really draws you into the world very effectively. You may not like all, or even any of the characters – in fact if you do like more than 1 or 2 of them there’s something wrong with you – but it doesn’t matter. This is what great literature does. It takes you somewhere and makes you know this place and these people.
Until next year I suppose… xo JSM