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2012: Best of Books

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I'm even less of a new book hound than I am a new movie hound.  It's rare that I read a book that's come out within three years, much less one that's been written within one.  So, of course, this is the best stuff that I read this past year, regardless of when it was published.

Best Fiction

Perdido Street Station (2000) - Full review here

There's hope for fantasy as serious fiction.  Holy crap.  I had kept up with just about all the big fantasy authors through the 1990s, but the genre has mostly failed to hold my interest since.  It could be that I've aged out of the genre, or it could be that the genre stagnated, but my best guess is that it's a combination of both.

It's hard to outline just how much this book altered my outlook.  Even when I had liked fantasy in the past, it had been as imaginative escapism.  I really thought that the fantasy industry was incapable or unwilling to provide real criticism or relevance to our world.  Perdido made me realize how wrong I was.

Yes, this is a fantasy world, but it's not too difficult to see echoes of our current world, with the threat of authoritarianism and subjugation of individual freedom.  The threats may manifest as fantasy, but it's not so damned unbelievable as "The ultimate source of evil is coming to destroy everything!"

 

Best Nonfiction

The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) - Full review here

I am not a "this changed my life" kind of person with anything.  But this book really did change my life.  Michael Pollan outlines the worst of our food industry, including the meat-packing, monoculture, and cultural blindness that has resulted from our cheap food.  The arguments are laid out so thoroughly, convincingly, and above all, without preachiness that it resulted in me changing my eating and shopping habits significantly.

It's not going to change everybody's mind.  But it outlines an issue that everybody should have at least a moderate understanding of.  Our food policy has granted us the most prosperous food system in history and should be celebrated.  But it also should be examined and not taken for granted.

 

Best Graphic Novel

Stuck Rubber Baby (1995) - Full review here

Comic books have embraced the autobiographical and semi-autobiographical genre, and this is one of the best.  It's well-written, well-drawn, and full of thoughtful introspection on both an individual and a societal level.  It's history writ small through the lens of one semi-willing participant.

The protagonist has an almost willful ignorance, which lets the author get away with what otherwise would be maudlin simplification.  This tells a story about a place to which I have no connection, a time during which I wasn't alive, and some social movements of which I was not a part, and it makes me care anyway.  Emotional relevance is difficult to find in any art form.

 

Honorable Mentions

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2005) - A wonderful historical work in a fantastically easy-to-read style, yet with plenty to say.  Excellent summary of history that tends to get glossed over in U.S. education. (Review)

 

Worst

Fractured Fables (2010) - Terrible mass-market comic book drek, wrapped in a lame homage to Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Feels like just about every contributor in this compilation mailed it in. (Review)

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2001) - Decent writing kept me involved through the first third of the book, but couldn't wait for this one to end.  Plot is hackneyed, overtold, and plain boring. (Review)

Beloved (1987) - While I'm tearing down idols, let's go after this one.  There's plenty of real tragedy to be found in this period of history, why do we have to muddy the waters with mediocre magical realism? (Review)

 

Here's the full list of what I read this year.

The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)
Stuck Rubber Baby
It Was the War of the Trenches
Warriors Of The Steppe: Military History Of Central Asia, 500 Bc To 1700 Ad
Fractured Fables
Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
The Best of 2011 New-to-me Books
Skitzy: The Story of Floyd W. Skitzafroid
Beloved
I Am Legend
Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Résumé, Ages 0 to 22
Exit Wounds
Bizarro Comics
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)
Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
Android: Free Fall
The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
The Scar (New Crobuzon, #2)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)
Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)
The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Holidays on Ice
The Portable Nietzsche
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
 

Android: Strange Flesh

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Ouch. The first standalone book based on the Android universe, Android: Free Fall, was a good-if-not-great book, which is a spectacular surprise for a tie-in book. As a result, I thought this book might follow in the same footsteps. No such luck. This was pretty bad.

The biggest problem here is the oh-so-flat characterization. The main character has a serious case of "woman written from a man's perspective," and the other three main characters are direly predictable and unbelievable. The plot should make this storyline a page-turner, but I found this hard to get through because of the clumsy and sometimes eye-rolling style.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/534442844

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

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I kept waiting for this book to get good, and it never did. This is well-trodden literary territory, about the golden age of comics and World War II. Chabon seems to be itching to prove how edgy he is by making golden age comics some kind of allegory for... well, sorta for World War II, and sorta for the birth of modern America, and sorta for the realities of romantic relationships in the 40s. But it never really works. Instead, we are given a gimmicky, muddy mess of a book.

The book was incisive enough to win a Pulitzer in 2001. It could be that the book has aged poorly, but it's more likely that the emperor had no clothes in the first place. Either way, this is not a book I'd recommend.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/73844162

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

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A very light nonfiction adventure story. McDougall has done a great job unearthing interesting stories to tell of amazing long-distance running feats. He uses a simple, fluid style, and a combination of these factors makes the book is a very fast read.

Sometimes McDougall is a bit over the top. Nearly every character in the book is distilled into one or two characteristics, and McDougall's breathless style of telling makes everything a bit too much. With nearly every chapter, McDougall introduces us to a new long-distance runner, and he always wants us to believe that this is the best runner in human history. It gets old quickly.

What's more, McDougall also has an agenda. Most obviously, he has a belief that bad running form is the culprit behind every running injury, and he believes that running shoes encourage us to have bad running form. Ergo, the large running shoe corporations are mistakenly decreasing our health.

For all his bias, he might be right. There's a particularly interesting chapter that summarizes an archaeological viewpoint that running allowed us to use persistence hunting us to become homo erectus. It seems plausible. And he does establish a correlation between running injuries and the growth of shoe companies, though he's a long way from establishing causation.

If you're interested in running, and can handle a bit of over-the-top advocacy, this book is worth reading.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/459143380

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/455879203

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The Portable Nietzsche

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There's a lot to review here. To start with, there's the original writing by Nietzsche, including four complete works many excerpts from his other works and letters. There's also the translation from German to English, and the curatorial choices of inclusion, both by Kaufmann. This is a great cohesive package. Having started from nothing before reading this volume, I now feel like I have a strong overview of Nietzsche. That's saying a lot for a single volume.

This volume begins with quotes and letters, which like the other selections in the book, are exhaustive, and do an excellent job of revealing both Nietzsche the man as well as Nietzsche the philosopher.

The first and largest of the complete works is Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a ponderous tome using a forced pseudo-biblical writing style. Nietzsche considered this his masterwork, which is revealing both of his obsessively strong attention to detail, and also of his tendency to frustratingly cleave to ideals beyond feasible use. I struggled through much of the book before finally giving up midway through the third part. This is Nietzsche at his most inaccessible and overblown, though there are certainly passages of brilliance. Nietzsche really could have used an editor for this work.

The next complete work was Twilight of the Idols, which is a wonderful distillation of Nietzschean thinking. This is both the easiest book to read, and the best example of Nietzsche as social philosopher. If somebody is looking to start studying Nietzsche, this is the best place.

The last two complete works, The Antichrist and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, are Nietsche's last works before he entered the asylum. It's tempting to see these as the last, strained work of a dying mind. Though I could find a few snatches that supported this view, I think they stuck out more because I was looking for them. Earlier works, such as Zarathustra, seem to show as many or more flaws. There's a bit more strain in these later works, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Nietzsche is overreaching with some of his arguments here.

Though I'm no Nietzsche scholar and thus have no experience with similar Nietzsche overview works, I can recognize that the translation and quote selection are both very strong. There's a good amount of discussion about the difficulties of translation in the editorial preface to Zarathustra, and the excerpted quotes are almost always Nietzsche to the hilt, delivered with his trademark incisive clarity. The editorial commentary by Kaufmann is also very good, identifying Nietsche's strong points and calling out the philosopher when he gets overly disconnected from reality. This collection, published almost 60 years ago now, seems to still be the definitive starting place for Nietzsche, and that's a testament to Kaufmann's work.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/440956144

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Holidays on Ice

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The crown jewel of this particular collection is clearly The Santaland Diaries, the chronicle of Sedaris' time as a Macy's Elf, the ones who chauffeur parents and children through the maze of the New York Macy's to get them in and out as fast as possible. It's a remarkable read, and Sedaris' style fits perfectly.

Trouble is, I had heard that story already, and recently. It's a favorite around the Holidays on This American Life. The collection, then, rested on the other stories for me. And none of them quite has the same touch. The other pieces are all fiction, but the rough-grained satire of Sedaris is too predictable to adapt well to the stories. The stories ran together into a mush of Christmas sarcasm, much like angel food candy that's been left out next to the radiator.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/423531546

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The Deeper Meaning of Liff

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/386391345

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Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)

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This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/386388743

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)

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I'm a bit late to the party on this publishing phenomenon. I saw the first Swedish movie, though haven't seen any of the rest, either Swedish or American.

It's easy to see why this got turned into a movie. This is a page-turner. I knew the story already, and I still read this in a matter of two days. Although some of the book gets a bit stilted, particularly on the initial descriptions of Elizabeth, the plot moves along quickly and compellingly.

Good vacation read.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/391140502

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