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My Year in Books: 2011, Part 1

January 9, 2012

Along with the My Week in Movies posts, I’ve kept track of how many books I read over the course of the last year, with a view toward giving a quick review of them at the end of the year. Missed that window so now it’s the beginning. Credit for the inspiration goes to Kuri at To Try A New Sword on a Chance Wayfarer, who does a similar thing on his blog. They’re listed in the order I finished reading them.

Books marked with a are books of which I read a significant portion (more than half), but opted not to finish. I’m pleased to note there aren’t many, but I’m also pleased to note there are a few. I used to have a hang-up about always finishing a book once I’d started it.[1] But after a look at my post-“Borders bankruptcy sale” bookshelves, and a cataloguing of my eBook library, I’ve realized I will not live long enough to read even half of what I’d like to, if I insist on torturing myself with every half-coherent collection of words that finds its way into my hands.[2]

Toward the end of the year, I simply stopped reading books after 25 pages printed — or 5% on Kindle — if they failed to convince me the effort was going to be worthwhile. In the cases I determined it would not, the reason was always clumsy prose. Some of the books seemed to have very interesting premises, but by that point I knew that I would just be miserable and resentful trying to extract the ideas from the words on the page.

The books I abandoned so early are not mentioned here, because I’m sure many of the authors (largely the self-pubbers) are googling them regularly, and that would just be mean and unconstructive.

Most of the books, you’ll notice, have a Kindle edition, since I read most of them on Kindle. You do not need a Kindle to read Kindle books (they have reader apps for Mac, Windows, Android and iOS), but the newest Kindles are so stupid cheap that if you’re a heavy reader, it really is at the point where you can’t afford not to get one. Especially with Lendle and the Kindle lending library giving access to so many books, legitimately, for free. (I upgraded over Christmas from my second-gen to the Kindle Touch and I’m loving it.)

Anyway, without further ado, let’s begin a review of My Year in Books: 2011.

THE SELFISH GENE — Richard Dawkins is famous these days as an outspoken atheist — and sadly most famous as the rude, cruel, aggressive and snide caricature that people have as their mental picture of the man. It’s a caricature which in no way reflects the actual character of his writings and public appearances, but his (largely religious) opponents have constructed a narrative which most people who hear it (even many non-religious people) are strangely happy to accept and repeat. Even those who actually read some of Dawkins’ work or hear him speak, confronted with the contradiction, will say “Well, yeah, he was fine there, but generally…”

Still, the very tenacity of the caricature, in a strange way, only goes to show that Dawkins was wildly ahead of his time when in 1976 he coined the term meme to refer to the unit of reproduction, and evolution, of an idea in the social consciousness. Like many such notions, what is accepted as fact today was radical in its time, was was the larger argument of the book itself — that the gene, not the organism or the group, was the actual unit by which evolution and natural selection take place.

The book is not, it should be stated, what many who have not read it have assumed and asserted it to be: an argument that we have a gene which makes us selfish. It is not Dawkins’ argument that we have a selfishness gene; quite to the contrary, it’s his contention that the gene itself is “selfishly” concerned only with reproducing itself or its copies, which may in fact have the result of selfless action at the level of the organism which contains the gene.

He makes his case very clearly and cogently, and indeed his view has become the accepted mainstream biological view of genetics and much of what he argues for almost defensively seems common knowledge even to an interested layperson like myself. But it is also a very informationally dense book; being a scientist, and dealing in evidence, Dawkins bolsters all his arguments with multiple case examples. Making this book one of the first I read this year is one of the reasons I thought I might not get through too many, because it’s a book that takes a pretty serious time and concentration commitment. It’s the kind of book I need to set aside every few pages — every few paragraphs, in some places — to let my brain contemplate and assimilate what I’ve learned. Still, it’s well worth the effort, and highly recommended. [Kindle Edition]

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE — The sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, in which the eponymous Girl actually becomes the focus of the story, as opposed to the first volume in which, despite being the titular character[3] had very little to do with the murder mystery at its core. I actually would have liked it better if it had kept up that formula, though — if Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist had become a latter-day Holmes and Watson (which is which to be the subject of many a senior thesis, no doubt), solving crimes with their various and varied resources, both material and mental, while wrestling with their own complicated relationship and equally complicated pasts.

Perhaps that was Stieg Larsson’s intention for future The Girl W— installments, had he not died and had he in fact intended to write any. As it stands, this book focuses on the intrigue of Lisbeth Salander’s past and her connection to a massive conspiracy of government corruption and organized crime, but really functions primarily as a set-up for the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. On its own, it’s not really very good. It’s reasonably well-written — although I think it’s quite evidently edited with a lighter hand than would have been the case if Larsson had not been deceased, and could really stand to be tightened and polished — and is a prerequisite to understand the twists and turns of the more satisfying Hornet’s Nest, but rather unsatisfying on its own, especially considering what a brick of a book it is. [Kindle Edition]

THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY (THE HUNGER GAMES/CATCHING FIRE/MOCKINGJAY) — Pretty much the only time this year I went and wrote a standalone review, so I’ll let that stand as my thoughts on the topic. [Kindle Edition]

BOSSYPANTS — I’ve previously discussed my entirely inappropriate love for Tina Fey, so it should come as no surprise that I loved her book, a memoir of her life (more professional than personal) filled with the self-deprecating humor which makes her comedic voice so recognizable and, for me, delightful. If you like Tina Fey, you’ll love Bossypants. If you don’t, we’ve got bigger problems than Bossypants, you and I. [Kindle Edition]

ALPHA BETA — A history of the modern (“Roman”) alphabet, how it developed and how it (and written language in general) changed the world. Some really fascinating stuff here in terms of the sociopolitical implications of language (assuming that’s the kind of stuff that fascinates you, as it does me), and some delightful revelations about how certain characters came to look, sound, and carry the names they do today. Ironically, I read this book to take a break from the largely scientific/skeptical topics I’d been reading throughout 2010 — before Selfish Gene I’d re-read The Demon-Haunted World — only to find the author referencing Dawkins and Sagan! That said, while the author is pretty evidently a fellow skeptic, when religion is mentioned, it is done purely in reference to the fact of religion’s undeniably powerful role in the spread of written language, with no editorializing on the truth (or otherwise) of the information the language was being used to disseminate. A great read for those interested in language and linguistics. [Kindle Edition]

THE ACCIDENTAL BILLIONAIRES — Maybe it’s unfair to compare the author of this book to Aaron Sorkin, who adapted it into Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but I think even on its own the book leaves a great deal to be desired. It isn’t just that it lacks the polish, poetry and pace that makes Sorkin’s fingerprint so distinct; the fingerprint it does have is that of a writer who has a thesaurus and is not afraid to use it. I wish more writers understood the excessive use of unusual or obscure synonyms for common things is not the same thing as a good turn of phrase. As I said on Twitter at the time, I find it a sign of insecurity and not sophistication when a writer describes everything as azure, cyan, or aquamarine. A confident writer knows it’s okay to just say blue. If you’ve seen SOCIAL NETWORK, you already got the story and it’s told more skillfully. Don’t bother with the “source material.” [Kindle Edition]

THE CHILDREN OF MEN — Speaking of source material, Alfonso Cuarón’s CHILDREN OF MEN is easily one of my all-time favorite films, so I was curious to see how similar the original novel was. The answer: hardly at all. The filmmakers did almost entirely their own thing with it, to the point that it sometimes feels like they just heard the premise of the book, drew some of the names randomly from a hat, and did their own thing from there. I suppose if I were a fan of the original book I’d probably be pissed, but I was a fan of the film first and, in my opinion, the film is superior. The book is darker in some ways, and it’s an interesting exploration of the premise, but doesn’t really go anywhere, plot- or theme-wise. Unlike Accidental Billionaires, I did find this to be well-written and is perhaps worth reading if pondering the choices made between book and film interests you. [Kindle Edition]

A GAME OF THRONES — Source material again, this time for a ten-episode (i.e. ten hour) HBO series adaptation. I’ve had friends recommend this series to me for years, but only as the adaptation approached and the advertising intrigued me did I finally jump into the series.[4]

Unlike the HARRY POTTER films, which adapted with varying degrees of success but which never really communicated the depth of the world and of the underlying story — much of which never made it to the screen — if you saw the HBO series, you’re good on A Game of Thrones. Not only did much of the story make it to the screen verbatim, with lines of dialogue straight from the page and certain shots and even cuts playing out exactly as in the novel, but the luxury of time had the show actually adding new scenes that allowed them to get more information — character, backstory, nuances of the world — out of the narration or a character’s internal monologue and into dialogue, organically. I was extremely impressed.

That’s not to say Game of Thrones isn’t still worth reading, if you delight as I do in a well-turned phrase, or you want to read the bits that were still too expensive or intense to make it on the screen, or discover even more the depth of the world and its vast history (or just get more Tyrion — never enough Tyrion). But if you wanted to get the jump on season two or beyond by reading A Clash of Kings, you could go straight from the HBO series to the second book and have missed very little. Which is as much a testament to the clarity of Martin’s storytelling as it is to the skill of those adapting it. [Kindle Edition]

THE COLOR CORRECTION HANDBOOK — Should I count technical books? I suppose there could be an argument against, but I read it this year so here it is.

When it comes to color correction, I’ve long known, as the saying goes, “enough to be dangerous.” Both in the sense that I know enough to be able to do my own thing on my own projects without having to spend a lot of money, and in the sense that I’m capable of opening the hood just enough to monumentally fuck things up. This book has helped and will continue to help me become more of the first kind of dangerous and less of the second. I’m going to have to re-read it occasionally to really learn and understand it, but even what I’ve absorbed so far was well worth the price. (I finally “get” the power of the curve tool!) [Kindle Edition]

1. And likewise finishing a series — I never did get around to reviewing Eclipse or Breaking Dawn, but oh yes, I read them.

2. Especially in the age of the eBook, when even the quality gatekeeping of a publisher — hardly foolproof in the first place — has been cast aside. Some of them are good, even extraordinary. The vast, vastmajority are dreadful. (Feel free to throw this remark in my face when I inevitably self-publish.)

3. In the English translation, that is; the original Swedish title translates to Men Who Hate Women. And while I can’t decide if the sexification, objectification and infantilization of the nominal heroine in the English title misses the mark thematically, or is meant to underscore it, I have to admit it isa better title.

4. Like my hang-up about finishing books once I start them, I also tend to have a hang-up about reading a book before I see the adaptation. I don’t always manage to do so, especially when I don’t know until the credits roll that the film or show wasbased on a book, but I still try to make the effort.

From → reading, reviews

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