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My Year in Books: 2011, part 5

January 15, 2012

WHITE LIKE ME — Late last year, I saw a talk on the concept of white privilege given by anti-racism advocate Tim Wise. The talk and the topic deserve a post of their own (at least), but suffice it to say that the talk opened my eyes to the subject in a way I badly wish they had been a long time ago. Having appreciated the insight in his talk, I started seeking out other speaking engagements on YouTube, and bought what seemed to me to be his “entry-level” book on the subject, a personal memoir of his own journey of realizing and understanding racism and privilege in American culture.

As a public speaker and advocate, he’s honed and refined many of his arguments and anecdotes for maximum effect and uses them often, so having watched many of his talks I was well familiar with some of his favorite ones, but there was a lot in here I hadn’t heard in his talks. Without becoming a scold, he communicates all the moments in his life — moments just about anyone in the middle-class could identify with — when he realized race was a factor he had never noticed before. By calling them out, it forces the reader to acknowledge and wrestle with them as well.

Or rather, it forces a reader who is white (like me) to do so. A non-white reader would be well familiar with the racial component of each and every one of those moments, and that’s kind of the point. It’s easy for me, even as someone with a number of non-white friends, to blithely assume that because racism isn’t a problem for me, it isn’t a problem. That’s wrong, and I intend to continue working to understand and overcome my own sense of privilege, so that I can be a better friend and a better person. And I intend to read more of Wise’s books in future. [Kindle Edition]

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE — Confession: before this I had not read any Vonnegut. I finally got around to reading this one, the name of which I’d heard but knew nothing else about, and was thrilled to discover what so many people already knew about Vonnegut. It’s funny, intelligent, even profound and heart-aching at times. I loved it and I’ve already recommended it to other friends who are just lately becoming pleasure readers. I’d recommend it to you, too, but in all likelihood you read it years ago, in your formative years, and I’m telling you nothing at all new here. [Kindle Edition]

HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST — I first heard about this book a while back when John August announced he had optioned it with the intention of developing the film version. The book leans heavily on the medium of the written word, so he’s got his work cut out for him, but as he’s no stranger to the adaptation game — and considering that he took it upon himself to option it, rather than being approached by a producer — I’m sure he’s got a plan and I look forward to the adaptation.

It’s the story of a man who, with open (and hilarious) cynicism, sets out to write the quintessential Successful Book. Along the way he skewers the full range of hacky (and fantastic) novels and novel writers, and the writers’ pretensions of “artistry,” including excerpts of novels so spot-on I’m half-convinced I’ve actually read a few of them.

Funny, smart, well-written (and badly written well) with some unexpected emotional punch, I don’t see the movie in my head[1], but I do see what would compel someone to want to make one, and I’ll definitely check it out when it’s out. Highly recommended, especially to you “readers” out there who will recognize a lot of the skewered tropes. [Kindle Edition]

A PRINCESS OF MARS — With JOHN CARTER coming out soon, I thought I’d take a look at the source material, considered by some to be one of the seminal works of modern science fiction.

I can certainly identify many of the trees that grew from this seed, but the seed itself is… the kindest word for it would be “quaint,” I think. From a time when men were Men and women were Property, John Carter the narrator is so hopelessly narcissistic and self-involved it almost goes all the way round to becoming charming again. Almost.

There is a good amount of imagination on display here, incorporating the contemporary belief that there were canals (and, therefore, canal-builders) on Mars, and Burroughs imagines an impressively detailed world, though it’s surprising the difference in sophistication of sci-fi (really, this is more fantasy) between now and then. It was, for example, apparently perfectly acceptable that John Carter got to Mars just… ‘cuz. No explanation ever given, he just sees Mars in the sky one night and then he’s there. It’s magic.

It also has no real story. Beyond the overarching “love” story of John wanting to save the titular Princess from having to do anything but be in his awesome presence, it’s just a series of events. There’s not building narrative, no thematic connection, earlier skirmishes only rarely raise their heads to antagonize him again. It’s just stuff happening, and stuff that’s been so heavily “borrowed” that it ends up feeling rather dull. If this was quintessential “sci-fi” in its time, no wonder the genre had a bad rap for so many years. [Kindle Edition]

BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF — I used to have no patience for slice-of-life type stories, but I guess I’ve (gasp) matured or something. A collection of stories — mostly narrated by and about young black female characters trying to find their way in the world. In my pursuit of an English B.A. I read a number of black-female-coming-of-age stories, so it was a relief to read a book full of them none of which entail incestuous rape.

The author varies her writing style and approach enough to keep it fresh and interesting, tailoring the voice to the story — sometimes writing erudite and clever, sometimes going full-on The Novel Push By Sapphire and writing dialectically. I liked it, and if you like more “literary” fare this is a solid example. [Kindle Edition]

THE GRENDEL’S SHADOW — From what I can tell, Andrew Mayne seems to be a pretty successful and prolific Kindle author — he’s got a number of books on Amazon for $0.99, they keep popping up in suggestions and, I mean, it’s hard to say no to a book for a buck.

So I picked this one up and read it. It’s not bad, though not entirely what I expected. It’s a quick read — I read it in a day over the holidays — and inoffensive, but it also didn’t make a lasting impression on me. It’s very plot-driven, about an interstellar game hunter of sorts, and a journalist who is following him on one of his jobs. You don’t really get to know or connect with any of the characters, and so I had very little stake in them when things got dangerous. It had an alright plot, but no real story. Still, it was enough that I’m going to give Mayne another look at some point. [Kindle Only]

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER — Seth Grahame-Smith is a genius. I don’t mean as a writer — although he’s quite good at that, as well — I mean as an ideas man. He started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, capitalizing on the zombie craze[2] and taking advantage of Pride and Prejudice being long in the public domain to create something great without expending a great deal of effort (compared to writing an entire book) to do so. A number of people have started to do the same, but as far as I can tell he thought of it first. Like I say, genius.

I’d probably be shittier about it, out of jealousy, if I didn’t know that he has the talent to write an entire novel on his own. Having read this book, I know that he does. The novel takes many of the facts of Abe Lincoln’s life and recasts them in the light of a secret vampire conspiracy threatening the nation, and Lincoln’s equally secret quest to stop it. It’s in the same vein as PP&Z — a new twist on an existing story — but it’s much more original story peppered through with some checkpoints of historical fact.

It’s hilarious in the same way that the Zombie Survival Guide is hilarious — that is to say, it’s funny largely because it approaches the subject with a completely straight face, and gets away with it. But, like Zombie Survival Guide, and even moreso its follow-up World War Z, it’s also a shockingly good novel, engaging and entertaining and — to use a cliche — tough to put down.

I don’t know how I feel about Timur “WANTED” Bekmambetov directing the film adaptation — on the one hand, his overblown and ridiculous style could be perfect; on the other, he’s very self-consciously over-the-top and the book’s strength, as I said, is in playing it as straightforward as possible. Either way, I recommend the book. [Kindle Edition]

A FEAST FOR CROWS — Apparently this book and the latest one, A Dance with Dragons, were intended to be one volume but got a bit out of control and had to be split into two. This one focuses on what’s going on in King’s Landing and around the Seven Kingdoms, leaving the Wall, the North, and the Free Cities (across the sea, mostly Daenerys and her dragons) to A Dance with Dragons.

If I’d had to wait the five years between books that long-time readers have, I bet this would have frustrated me a great deal. As it is, knowing I could read at least one more book any time I chose, I enjoyed this part of the story, especially the promise of certain characters getting their just desserts.

I missed Tyrion, who appears in Dragons instead, and found my eyes glazing over a little every time I got to a Brienne chapter (fans of the show, but not the books, will meet her in April). Her part of the story just isn’t that interesting to me — she just wanders around, being mocked by everyone, thinking about how ugly she is, and pining endlessly over [possible Clash of Kings/Season 2 spoiler redacted]. I have enjoyed the arc that has developed in Jaime’s story. I’m not sure if it’s entirely plausible, but by contrast with Brienne his chapters make me sit up and pay attention.

I’m reading Dance with Dragons right now (concurrent with a few other books), so I’m almost ready to join the long-time fans in the (possibly eternal[3]) wait for the next book. [Kindle Edition]

I AM A GENIUS OF UNSPEAKABLE EVIL AND I WANT TO BE YOUR CLASS PRESIDENT — A young evil (secret) genius uses his limitless wealth (accrued by playing the stocks, naturally) to attempt to rig his school elections. Another fairly quick read, well-written and amusing. I doubt it will show up on any “Classics of English Literature” lists down the line, but not every book needs to. Made for a good literary palate cleanser to round out my year. [Kindle Edition]


1. Unless he changes it to How I Became a Famous Filmmaker and makes it about a guy who sets out to make the quintessential Oscar-bait indie film. That could be one way to translate it.

2. There are a lot of zombie novels out there for Kindle.

3. I know it’s shitty to just say it outright like this, but I hope Martin’s made some pretty comprehensive notes in case he dies before finishing, so someone can finish it as was necessary with Wheel of Time.

From → reading, reviews

One Comment
  1. The comment on the first book ‘White like me’ can also be extended to numerous other social issues. You write and I quote: “It’s easy for me, even as someone with a number of non-white friends, to blithely assume that because racism isn’t a problem for me, it isn’t a problem”
    As a teenager and growing up I couldn’t grasp at a gut level some struggles like “race equality rights” or “women rights” and one you should be familiar with: “same sex couples equality rights”.
    Because simply those were never a problem for me either (And sometimes I could not fully understand how they could be problem to someone else).
    And I believe the grand issue encompassing all of them is “tolerance and mutual respect”.
    Thank You Michael for this post.

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