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Beloved

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I feel like an ignorant boor, but I really was not able to get behind Beloved. The whole thing really seemed like a slog. Whether this is because I don’t like Toni Morrison, or whether it was because I simply didn’t like this book, I don’t know. I’ve not read anything by Morrison previously. She has such a revered reputation that I’d like to give her another chance, but this was hardly the type of reading experience to encourage me.

Magical realism figures heavily in this work, particularly through the literal manifestation of the victom of a grisly murder. Magical realism is wonderful when it works, but thoroughly alienating when it doesn’t. I spent most of the book scratching my head and saying “Yeah, but...” instead of going along with it.

I will say that this book did more to help me understand the crushing life of the American black underclass in the 19th century, and for that I applaud it. But, in the end, it feels like I could have gotten the same thing more convincingly and more thoroughly from a history.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/59242229

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Skitzy: The Story of Floyd W. Skitzafroid

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Skitzy is a not particularly great comic book, of historical interest, published in a loving bound folio edition. It’s of nominal interest as an adult work done by an artist mostly known for a children’s work (Corduroy), but the story is too simple and the art too sparse for it really to be worth a recommendation.

Oh, and it also falls prey to the common misconception that schitzophrenia is the same as multiple personality disorder. It’s not. Look it up and stop being lazy about it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/326310060

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The Best of 2011 New-to-me Books

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Yeah, I know it’s late February already, but I’ve been behind, ya know?

Best Fiction (tie)
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron, 1979
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, 2010

These two books have the common thread of being stories of middle class America at some level, but also saying something more fundamental about love and human nature. Both are frank, and end without being wrapped up in nice little packages. The similarities are many, and it says a lot about my tastes that they are numbers 1 and 1a on my list of best of the year.

Styron’s novel is one that focuses on mid-twentieth century New York, seen through the semi-autobiographical lens of a Southerner writing 30 years later. And, of course, there’s the Holocaust, and symbols of guilt and redemption, as well as desire for physical love, and emotional catharsis. This book is extremely dense, and has rivulets of different themes everywhere.

Franzen makes his second straight appearance on my best of year lists, as The Corrections made it last year. Freedom has similar denseness of theme to Sophie’s Choice, though the themes here focus a bit more on social structure and environment. This book really is fantastic, and at this point I have to cop to being a Franzen fanboy.

Best Nonfiction, Best Graphic Novel
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, 2006

I suppose choosing this as my nonfiction book of the year makes me one of “those comic book people,” but this was a pretty easy pick. This book amazingly emotionally resonant, which is even more amazing because it is written by a southern-born white lesbian, a demographic with which I share little.

This is the best comic I’ve read since I discovered Maus 10+ years ago. It’s an amazingly vivid autobiographical work, letting the reader relate to the everyday life of a child in the 70s. The story and topics are told through the lens of the adult Bechdel, but the innocence is captured as if told by a child.

Honorable Mentions
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, 1999 - Stephenson manages another hit. Not quite as good as The Baroque Cycle, but Stephenson is still the best of neo-cyberpunk.

Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, 2003 - A charming memoir of growing up in pre-revolution Cuba, told by a refugee of the Miami airlifts.

Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, 1996 - Not quite as good as the first two in the Mars trilogy, but still a fascinating social examination through science fiction.

Worst
Dong Xoai: Vietnam 1965 by Joe Kubert - We have plenty of glorification of how awesome America is through the dominant storytelling of World War II. Bringing it to the Vietnam war is insensitive denial of reality.

Luba: A Love and Rockets Book by Gilbert Hernandez, 2009 - I love comics. I love sex. This comic book has lots of sex. It still fails.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1973 - Postmodern emperor has no clothes. You say classic, I say bullshit.


All Books
Just in case you want it, here’s the full list of books I read this year, along with links to their reviews.

Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession

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Eminently readable, and a good history. The chronicle of baseball cards is matched by good analysis of the industry, particularly rich when it reaches the mid-20th century.

The baseball card industry has become rather soulless, with chase inserts as the norm, and with progressively graying collectors age and fail to be replaced with fresh blood. The book outlines a lot of the process that’s led up to it.

Sure, Baseball cards are rather trivial in nature and appeal, but it’s a bona fide industry, worthy of analysis and history, and I’m happy that it’s covered by a book like this.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169453128

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Warriors Of The Steppe: Military History Of Central Asia, 500 Bc To 1700 Ad

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Warriors of the Steppe is dry, but informative, following in the proud tradition of history books. That said, it tells a reasonably comprehensive of the history of nomadic steppe peoples, which is not easy when you have 1200 years to cover.

The standards are all here, from the rapid expansion of the Mongols to the vicious fleeting rule of Tamerlane. You get treatises on known steppe tactics, and how recurve bows were made and why they resulted in success on the battlefield.

The best parts are when Hildinger discusses why steppe cultures were so powerful. He discusses the cultural traits that led to success on the battlefield, and the the reasons that the cultures were driven to expand. He also outlines a convincing pattern for how and why the empires inevitably either shifted away from nomadic culture or fell apart quickly.

Not a must-read, but good if you like the topic.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/317982650

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Fractured Fables

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Every once in a while, in my quest for interesting comics, I inadvertently stumble on completely run-of-the-mill comic trash. This is one of those comics.

A bunch of comic artists got together, ripped off the Fractured Fairy Tales idea from Rocky and Bullwinkle, didn’t put much thought into their creations, and came up with this compilation of boring, banal crap. This collection seems to be unable to decide what age it’s aimed at. Some of the themes are more mature, but the writing seems to be aimed at 8 year olds. Feels like somebody in this project took it and forced it to be a children’s collection.

Avoid, avoid, avoid.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/318066421

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It Was the War of the Trenches

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It Was the War of the Trenches tells a well-known story through a different medium. The art in it is fantastic, and it deliberately eschews cohesive narrative so that the reader gets a full experience of the disorientation that was the reality for World War I. Unfortunately, it loses a bit in personality as a result. It’s too easy for the reader stay removed from the art and narrative, and dehumanize the soldiers. Not a book I’d recommend.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/315830924

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Stuck Rubber Baby

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Stuck Rubber Baby is that perfect blend of autobiography and history. To have it all come packaged as a graphic novel is even better. This has joined the pantheon with the likes of Maus and Fun Home as superlative graphic novel work.

The story pulls no punches. This is a graphic novel for mature audiences, as it deals with truly dark aspects of humanity, including discrimination, violence, and murder. This contrasts with the naivete of our narrator/protagonist, who is truly just trying to figure out himself and his life. The South in the 1960s was not an easy place to be, and makes a great contrasting backdrop.

Well-drawn, and well-written, I would absolutely recommend this to anybody.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/311186416

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The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)

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A continuation of the Mistborn trilogy. Mostly forgettable, as emphasized by the fact that I have mostly forgotten it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/214437502

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Our Cancer Year

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Our Cancer Year is written by the American everyman comic artist, Harvey Pekar, and Joyce Brabner, his wife. He’s the author of American Splendor, an ascerbic, tell-it-like-it-is series of comics that chronicle the life of the lower middle class.

Our Cancer Year picks up right from the American Splendor series, and in fact, feels like it could be an entry in the series, except that Brabner plays a major authorial and narrative role in the comic. The same Pekar bluntness is there, but with a healthy dose of outside perspective that Splendor lacks, presumably brought by Brabner. Still, it’s similar enough that if you know whether you like American Splendor, you’ll know whether you’ll like this book as well.

This book is a dark, but accurate-feeling chronicle of what it’s like to go through cancer treatment. Pekar is not easy to get along with, and as the subject of the cancer, much of the book is concerned with his turbulent relationship with his doctors, nurses, coworkers, and even his wife. Pekar does not want to let cancer rule his life, and he alternates between denial and despair, a situation that clearly wears on the other people in him. But Pekar is fascinating because he is flawed. The reader is sometimes frustrated with Pekar, because Pekar is not always likeable, but there is also an affinity between the reader and Pekar. It’s a mysterious combination, but a powerful one.

The book isn’t easy to read, but it is worth it.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/265043147

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