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2014: Best of Books

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Best Nonfiction
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha (2007)

Guha's tome is the best kind of history.  It's accessible, thorough, and well-researched.  I knew next to nothing about modern India before reading this book.  I was afraid that I was going to be tackling more than I could handle, what with the mammoth size of it and the excessive footnoting.  Turns out that I was able to digest it pretty easily.  It's still a heavy non-fiction book, so it wasn't exactly easy reading, but it taught me so much, and brought to life some of the biggest figures in democratic Indian history.  Difficult-to-understand concepts like the role of religion, the patchwork of cultures, and the geographic differences of India are explained clearly enough I could figure them out with ease.

For those looking for an introduction to modern India, this is a great book to start with.

Best Comic
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh (2013)

It's a bit of a cop-out to nominate a book that started as a webcomic, but this book is quite incredible. There's a lot of great stories here, including the favorites from the webcomic, but also some new stuff. It's also just plain old nice to have an actual book to read.

Brosh is excellent at getting to the darker parts of the psyche, the parts we don't like to show people. She's willing to put it all out there, and the result is a vulnerable and exciting connection that you feel with her. I don't know many other comic artists that can appeal across as wide of a spectrum as can Brosh. She's one of the most talented of her generation, and I will happily read anything she puts out.

Trend: Fewer books read

For the second straight year in a row, my books-read list was way down. Part of it was that I have been reading heavier stuff and longer books, and part of it is that I just don't read as much as I used to in book format. A lot more of my reading time is devoted to reading longform articles and news articles on the internet. I feel mostly okay about this, although I do miss being able to say "Look at all this stuff I read" when this time of year comes around. I do think that I've begun reading a bit more recently, so we'll see if this will turn the pace around, and I get more read next year.

Complete list of what I read in 2014
India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)
Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile
Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)
Travels with Charley in Search of America
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)
Look at Me

Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)

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For all the bombast around this book as an anticolonialist work, I was surprised at how gently the subject is handled. The colonizers in the book have an air of other about them, but the book is telling one man's story, and thus the book has an air of the personal tragedy, as opposed to the systemic failure that was European colonialism. The result is a warm and inviting novel that also serves as a critique of colonialism. It may have the subject matter of Howard Zinn, but it has the tone and timbre of Rudyard Kipling. One wonders if this book would have been as positively received when it was published in 1958 if it had taken a more openly critical stance.

It's not hard to see the influence that this book has had, especially in white America's understanding of Africa. Much of the story is told in a style that heavily uses animals as characters in fables and metaphors for life. There's also a lot of touchstones of"Africa," particularly tribal organization, animist religion, and lots and lots of yams. These are the first things I remember learning about when I was introduced to "African" culture. Of course, Africa, being the gigantic place that it is, makes this kind of broad-brush characterization more than a bit silly. Nonetheless, for better or worse, these are key traits in the Western conceptualization of the continent, and it's not hard to trace some of this back to Things Fall Apart.

As a work outside of its criticism of colonialism, I was more interested in the wandering overall picture than the plot. Okonkwo is a distant and flawed character, and his motivations were never particularly compelling to me. As such, the storyline and book ended with a bit of a thud. However, the setting and overall feel of the book is quite good. There's a feeling of getting to know the culture in which this book is set, and a pervasive sense of everyday life that defies the linear plot. It's an intriguing and unique way of presenting the book, and quite appealing.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/567972092

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Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)

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I enjoyed the first two books in the series, but this book rubbed me the wrong way. The theme is Katniss' failure to adapt and her permanent brokenness from the old regime, but the ultimate ending is unsatisfying.

I relish dark and ambiguous endings, and it took me a lot of thinking to figure out why this one bothers me so much. The conclusion I eventually came to is that this book feels so nihilistic. There's no moral to be drawn here, no viable solution to a problem. If I had to put it into a pithy one-liner, I'd sum up the theme as "Nothing you do can possibly matter in the face of systemic corruption." Though the book doesn't assert any further thesis, the natural next statement that leaps to mind is "It's not worth trying."

And that, ultimately, is what drives me crazy about this book. Most dark endings serve as a cautionary tale -- "Don't do X or you'll end up like our main character" or "Watch out for the people and groups you choose to associate with" or at least "You should fight against the particular systemic corruption that caused this massive unfairness." I was unprepared for the bleakness of this book.

The book is strong from a writing perspective, and that gives it a formalist vigor that may be satisfying to some readers. There's still a page-turning quality here. It just was too empty to satisfy yours truly.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1128375645

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Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)

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Good, but suffers from sequel-itis, as much of what's here is a repeat of the first book. Still, there are worse mistakes to make -- the first book is good, and even a rehash of it is still a good book. There's finally some widening of the scope in this novel, as Katniss starts to encounter systemic corruption in a way that she can't shoot her way out of. If you liked the first book, you should definitely continue on to the second.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1128372962

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The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

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I'm definitely late to the party here. I enjoyed this book. It had me rolling my eyes at the infeasibility of the authoritarian all-powerful state, but I really enjoyed its central premise of individual action as protest against systemic failure. As much as the government felt unrealistic, the theme of the book is strong and the writing is of that particular page-turning quality that caused me to finish the book in a matter of 2 days. I'd recommend this to anybody -- it's both easy to read and relevant to our wider culture.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/87787804

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Travels with Charley in Search of America

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Not Steinbeck's most enduring work, but a vivid, readable snapshot of America in 1960 nonetheless. Steinbeck's prose is well-crafted, and his editorial voice is present without being overwhelming.

Unfortunately for the work, it just so happens to fall in between two very formative periods of American history, but not quite exist in either. If the book had been written 10 years earlier, it would have been all about the post-war economic prosperity, and if it was 10 years later, it would have been about the counterculture movement. There's hints of both here, but it is a strange snapshot of an intermediary time, and the reader is left somewhat adrift as a consequence.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/852992595

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Look at Me

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This book is well-written. Egan's prose is simultaneously quick-reading and well-crafted. Descriptions leap out of the page, and it's always incredibly clear what is going on.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what the point of this book is. A bunch of things happen, then they fall apart in a nihilistic version of... what, exactly? The events and characters are a bit too glamorous to be real, and there's certainly no moral here. The book reads like it has a Point To Be Made, but I certainly can't find it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/849033311

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India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

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It's somewhat embarassing, for all of the United States' efforts to install democracy in other countries, how little attention we pay to the most populous, most diverse democracy. After all, this is our ideological sister, but popular conception doesn't go beyond seeing it as the place for call centers and cut-rate tech outsourcing.

The reality, of course, is much more complex. Looking at Indian democracy is like looking into a funhouse mirror. India isn't in the Western cultural orbit, but it's political issues are still recognizable. The solutions aren't identical, but they have a lot to teach us about what democracy means.

This is an incredible work of scholarly rigor, so incredibly thorough that a full third of the book is footnotes. Primary sources are used and quoted extensively. The writing is easy to follow, and is geared for a Western audience. This is a great way to learn a ton about a very complex political ally.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/270902330

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Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

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Great example of a blog-to-book conversion. The print job is beautiful, with high-quality full-color pages throughout. The writing and drawing is of the same quality as the blog. Though much of the book is rehashed from the blog, it's nice to have it in book form, and it translates well to the format. The new pieces that are book exclusive are of the same high quality as the original posts.

If you haven't encountered Allie Brosh's work before, go read this. It's side-splittingly funny, tender, and earnest.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/846888514

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Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile

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Nate Jackson pens an interesting twist on the sports biography. This isn't the star who gets a lucrative book deal on name recognition, this is the NFL grunt who toils in the league for a few years before getting cut.

The book is interesting mostly as a comparison to our preconceptions. Many of them are corroborated, like the high pay, rich lifestyle, and special privileges given to the professional athlete. Some preconceptions don't survive, though. The glamour of the actual games and of the daily life of an athlete is revealed as a tedious routine, alternating between practice and film study. The idea of our athletes as superhuman also takes a hit. Sure, they may be fast and strong and big, but they are also constantly hurt, whether it be the major, season-ending injuries, or the minor bruises and aches that keep them from being 100%.

All in all, this is a measured, non-glamorized account. It's an amazingly quick read, and it provides a useful context. Recommended for football fans.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/728800898

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