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2013 Reading Recap

Nonfiction

A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Suze Rotolo)
Although I have zero interest in Bob Dylan, I do have an acute interest in Greenwich Village and New York City in its 60s heyday, and this memoir dishes lavish detail in larger-than-life characters, the drug-soaked lifestyle, the political temperaments, even the price of a hamburger. Dylan is not the central character of the narrative, but he is the gravity well; even as the author writes her story, it’s clear that in the late 60s, the entire planet revolved around “Bobby”. Mandatory reading for either folk music and NYC culture buffs.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (Nathaniel Philbrick)
In 1820, the whaleship Essex was rammed by a giant sperm whale and sunk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The ship’s crew were left on three smaller harpoon craft, and ended up drifting through the ocean for 93 days before being rescued. This well-paced narrative collates historical material to give light to the culture of Nantucket, the whaling industry, and oceanography — weaving in the tale of men who were hopelessly lost, their many poor decisions, how they resorted to cannibalism, and in many cases, perished terribly.

The Lost City of Z (David Grann)
Percy Fawcett was a early 20th century explorer famous (at the time) for mapping the innards of Bolivia and Brazil despite other folks routinely failing on similar missions. In 1925, we went in search of a lost city he called “Z” and disappeared. David Grann mashes together reams of historical data with his own attempt to re-create Fawcett’s last journey. More interesting than “Z” is the historical context: the obsession with exploration, the primitive technology, the barbarity of white explorers.

Mad Women (Jane Maas)
A insider-view memoir on advertising from the 60s that details sex and sexism, working moms and their no-win situation, three martini lunches, the inner politics of big agencies and the slow descent of advertising firms from strategic partner to sweatshop. Jane lived through the Mad Men era, and reflects on its historical accuracy and inaccuracy. If you’re a fan at all of the show, or even have a passing interest in agency life from a bygone era, Mad Women is worth every cent.

The Power of the Sea (Bruce Parker)
Last year I read The Wave, a book about giant waves and the folks who ride them and study them. This year: The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, a sciencey stroll through the complex factors that drive global ocean conditions. From weather patterns to wind direction to crumbling fault lines, Bruce Parker covers rogue waves and storm surges, historical disasters, the trend of climate change, and features a long treatise on the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean.

Seven Days in the Art World (Sarah Thornton)
The author immerses herself in different pieces of the art world each for a full day: a university student work review, Takashi Murakami’s studio, a Christie’s auction in New York, ArtForum editorial offices, and more. It’s a fascinating trip down the economics and politics of a world reserved for eccentrics, crazies, and the super-rich.

Writing for the Web (Lynda Felder)
A welcome guide on crafting smart narratives for the web, with notes on succinct writing, creating good stories, working with motion, and much more. A masterclass in abbreviated, punchy writing, every page is wound tight with practical, applicable wisdom. Well worth anyone’s time.

Fiction

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams)
I am a massive fan of Hitchhiker. No lie: I’ve read the omnibus five times. I found this book … wanting. Incoherent at times, wandering, lacking the sizzle of his other stuff, Dirk Gently did not live up to my expectations. I’m going to read it again, but the first time through took real effort.

Good Omens (Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett)
Widely compared to Douglas Adams, this relatively funny novel wrings Armageddon through a wry towel and lets Satanic nuns, a bummed angel and a demon who’s pretty cool with the world as it stands take you through the end times as if it were a Monty Python movie. Good Omens is good-ish, but surprisingly for a Gaiman book, a bit draggy and uncaptivating. I wanted to love it. At best, I won’t donate it.

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
At this point, I’ll pretty much read a recipe book written by Dan Simmons. This is his early science fiction work, and it still sits twelve parsecs above standard almost anything else in that aisle of Barnes and Noble. Sprawling, rich, page-turning … you’ve read the first 200 pages and it’s 3 am.

Inheritance (Christopher Paolini)
The fourth and final book in the series that started with Eragon. As impressive as the second and third books in the series (the storytelling and creativity were, at times, jaw-dropping), the fourth falls flat. Here, the luster seems forced; there is little mystery, little wonder, just fighting fighting fighting. And then after the fighting is done, literally 100 pages of wind-down and conclusion that make Peter Jackson’s end to The Return of the King feel like a blipvert. If you like good fantasy, read the series. Just don’t expect the conclusion to be the high-mark of the tale.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (Jesse Bullington)
As good as Folly of the World was, this is better. The brothers are wretched, unrepentant, plague-surviving twins who cheat, murder and burn their way across the forests of medieval Europe. They encounter witches, pirates, demons, mermaids and dozens and dozens of folks who become mortal enemies within seconds. They are barely anti-heroes; the author does not attempt to apologize for their behavior. In fact, one of the things that will keep you turning pages is to see what absurd depravity comes next.

The Stranger (Albert Camus)
A trippy short novel about a man who finds himself charged with murder after killing a stranger for no apparent reason. It is absurd and dark and does not end well, but the writing (despite being a translation), is razor-sharp and told with a dismissing wave to the world’s sanity.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
Published in 1963, this is evidently part of many grade-school curriculum (5th grade-ish). Out of pure curiosity, and not wanting to miss out on a classic just because I’m too old, I grabbed a copy and spun through it in a few days. The story itself is pretty cool: a trio of kids get some help from a few stars-who-have-turned-into-people to cross spacetime to rescue their father from a sinister force known as the “Dark Thing”. This “darkness” takes over worlds and forces the inhabitants into rigid life patterns, removing free will. In the 60s, the looming threat to the West was Communism, and that fear is pretty apparent in the story. Today, with civil liberties being undermined by our own governments, the fear is all the more acute.

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