Books I read in 2016

  1. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. An earlier version of Ready Player One, it seemed to me. Great creativity and a pretty good story about a skater chick who crosses paths with a skilled hacker and swordsman, meeting his foes in a virtual computer world as well as in the real world. A drug epidemic sweeps the land and it turns out to be a massive plot to control the masses through the use of an ancient Sumerian language. I geeked out on technology as well as anthropology.
  2. The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. I’ve read it before, but I enjoy this series and thought I’d go about starting from the beginning and heading through in order. It’s a rougher read than later books, but the gripping story is undeniable. Detective Robicheaux is a cynical Vietnam vet and sort-of recovering alcoholic. Like so many men I’ve met: he is motivated by wanting to do the right thing, protect the people he loves, and do his job while maneuvering through bureaucratic obstacles, but still he’s a mess, and that means the process and the results don’t come out as planned.
  3. Heaven’s Prisoners by James Lee Burke. Aha! This book explains Robicheaux’s unlikely daughter Alafair, rescued as a toddler from a plane crash in Lake Pontchartrain, the only survivor in a drug- and possibly human-trafficking trip. The cover of the book shows Alec Baldwin, so I looked it up and sure enough, this one’s a movie, with the Detective played by Tommy Lee Jones. Thugs attack Robicheaux and kill his wife and the rest of the book is about vengeance.
  4. The P.G. Wodehouse Collection by P.G. Wodehouse. When a person needs a chuckle, you can’t do better than PG Wodehouse and the inimitable Jeeves. Some old favourites here, and some new ones. I enjoy getting to know characters and then having them show up again two stories later. Jeeves is unbeatable for getting a bloke out of a scrape while saving face for all involved.
  5. Boy by Roald Dahl. I bought this one because the reviews said it was good, and it is. A well-told, true story of a Norwegian boy growing up in Wales. He had a loving family who probably had no idea how brutal his schools were. I did not realize such dreadful, abusive conditions existed in Welsh boarding schools, and how families felt it was necessary to send their boys off to these horrible places to give them a proper start in life. The abuse became more severe as he grew older and it’s astonishing that he grew into a fully functioning man who brought joy to so many kids. Yes, ignorant as I am, I had no idea till nearly the end that this is the author of some of my most beloved stories, including James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  6. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. (look at that, two Welsh authors in a row) This is the first in the Century Trilogy, a series by a skilled writer who has been a fave since I was a teenager and read Eye of the Needle and On Wings of Eagles. Then Pillars of the Earth came out and remains in a class above most, and was my absolute favourite book (even above LOTR) for over two decades until I discovered Shantaram (see my 2015 list). I can appropriately describe this trilogy as epic. It follows five families, beginning in the days before WWI. Follet’s characters are fictional, but they move among real people in real events, and in this way he educated me about much of world history from a perspective of the people on the ground, like Billy Williams who begins working in a coal mine at age 14, and Grigori and Lev Peshkov, orphans trying to not to starve. I was in the trenches in Flander’s Fields and was amazed at the Christmas Truce, and I was with the revolutionaries in Red Square, and inspired by the British labor movement.
  7. Winter of the World by Ken Follett. Book two covers WWII, following the same characters and introducing more as they have children and bring more people into their lives. I had to read the first book twice to get them all organized in my head, then I was able to manage it after that. Carla is a German resistance fighter, who risked her life to expose a hospital that killed old and sick people. Woody finds his calling in news photography and captures incredible shots by chance at Pearl Harbor, right before the love of his life is killed by a Zero. Daisy drives an ambulance during the Blitz and undergoes transformation from an obnoxious socialite like her horrible Russian Princess mother, into a deeply caring and intelligent woman. The book steps through the Spanish Civil War and the nuclear arms race. The characters become more globalized, interracial, multi-cultural, and more open about their homosexuality.
  8. Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett. The final book was not just a history lesson, but a linking together of vague memories of childhood to what was going on in the complicated political intricacies of the time. The Berlin Wall was built and boys fought in Vietnam. Tania was a journalist sent from Russia to cover the Cuban Missile Crisis on location. Her brother Dimka works for Krushchev and eagerly anticipates the rise of Gorbechev. George started out as an activist getting beaten by separatists in Alabama, then ends up working for Bobby Kennedy. With each world-rocking death, I practically bit my fingernails waiting for the murders of Martin Luther King, Jack and Bobby. Follett masterfully kept all the families’ paths crossed, and the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the characters from book one were now fighting Communism and fighting heroin addiction and fighting corrupt politicians. The author makes some surprising statements near the end, for example accusing Reagan of being more corrupt and engaging in far more illegal activities than Nixon ever did, but the social tide in America changed so that any challenge of the government was seen as anti-American, and so the population is no longer free to expose politicians like we once were. Ouch. The Iron Curtain finally comes down and the Frank family is reunited after 40 years. This is an amazing book.
  9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s stories are always a win for me, and this one was enjoyable too. His stories are filled with frightening and lovely and funny things. It’s comforting to know that some of us grown ups are still eager to put aside our present obligations to read about the magic of childhood, and how the yearning for those dramatic and imaginative times continues with us. I’m only sad that I can never discover Gaiman for the first time again.
  10. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I do not know what it is about 19th century novels, but I love them. Authors from that time often luxuriate in words, and lounge around in the fine details of things that are never relevant to the story, but are delicious to someone who is more interested in escaping than getting to the resolution. This was my first reading of this book! And it was pretty good. Another French Revolution story, which I did not realize it would be till I read it. Possibly poorly named…was it really about two cities? Very interesting portrayal of mental health disorder brought on by trauma, and how it continued to manifest in times of stress though the doctor had periods when people assumed he was “cured.”
  11. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I fully enjoyed this book about atheism and why everyone should be an atheist, because it was persistently interesting. I laughed, and scoffed, and raised my eyebrows, and shouted “yes!” at times. The author relies much too heavily on On The Origin of Species by Darwin, to make his points, and seems so focused on natural selection that it borders on uncomfortable. Poor Darwin, held up as the authority in nearly everything Dawkins had to say. And Dawkins is too happy to quote anyone who has been published, at the risk of using weak sources (i.e. Chagnon’s rubbish about the Yanomamo). But at the core, I enjoyed this book mostly because I firmly agree with so much of it – though possibly not with his way of making his points. After discussing with a few people, I realized yet another reason: The God Delusion is Dawkins’ response to his critics, those who have harped on him all his life, originating in the church, the family, the community, the media, his own mind. Someone free from the browbeating would probably not understand why he approaches the topic in the way he does. Someone who had not made the years-long grueling self evaluation it took to finally wrench ourselves away from baffling and painful religious faith, to embrace something that is authentic to us, but vehemently attacked by others, would not feel the instant validation that I felt when reading this book. So basically, I’m exactly like a Trump supporter in my opinion of The God Delusion: Yes, some of what he says is preposterous and offensive, but I’m voting for him anyway.
  12. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. This one was difficult for me, so I’ll give a warning for anyone else: if you have suffered from trauma – any trauma – this book will be a trigger. Dr. Van der Kolk talks about what he has learned about trauma by using the stories of his clients as examples. The stories are often devastating. I kept reading because I was waiting for the “here’s what you can do” chapters, which didn’t begin until around chapter 12. I gather it’s written for psychiatrists more than for people suffering. By then, I had experienced many nights of nightmares. It was often depressing to hear that trauma not only messes with the mind, but constructs architectures of chemical and physical processes in our bodies that are resistant to changing. The body says “once upon a time this method saved your life, so now we are going to use it in every slightly sketchy situation.” The good news is that there are lots of ways to approach healing, and this psychiatrist resists medication if at all possible. We can do some architectural rennovation in our bodies.
  13. Bossypants by Tina Fey. I had to go lighter after that last book, so I went for a comedian. This book was unexpectedly feminist and powerful and confident and savvy and self-assured. It wasn’t about the gags, but telling the story of an awkward kid years later becoming a boss. And since Fey was doing the telling, you were blessed with her frank perspective, which honestly is that life is friggin funny. And also, women can be kick ass bosses if you’d ever just let them.
  14. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman. On a road trip with the kid, we listened to the audiobook of one my offspring has been wanting to read. I’ve read it twice already, but it’s for sure in the top 10 list, so I don’t mind a third reading.
  15. Bill Bryson Collector’s Edition (Notes From a Small Island, Neither Here Nor There, and I’m a Stranger Here Myself) by Bill Bryson. Ok, so I read Bossypants in the middle of Body Keeps the Score, because I needed a break. And when I finished the trauma book, I needed more comedy, and that’s where Bill Bryson came in. I’ve spent a lot of time in England in my books lately. This book is a collection of short stories and a particularly nice collection for an American. I got to hear about Great Britain from the perspective of someone looking at it as he was about to leave, and I got to hear about New England from the perspective of someone who had just arrived. How wonderful it is to have your country described to you by an outsider. The comparisons are hilarious. But I loved his descriptions of England (actually the whole island) the best – illuminating the very small details of what make a people.
  16. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. I know! All this Neil Gaiman was not my origial intent but how can one go wrong? Let me tell you…THIS one is so good! Right up there with Good Omens and Neverwhere. First let me explain that I am Cherokee and we tell each other our stories of the beginning of time, before the people, when the animals sang their songs and pulled their pranks and created the world as it is. This is the same story, only it comes from a different people, and the details are different and equally as wonderful. So I recognized Spider as Jistu, and I loved him right away. Set partially in England, partially in Florida, and finally in the Caribbean Island of St. Andrews, contemporary main characters make the best of things. This requires soliciting help from elderly women (the oldest is 104) in the neighborhood and the animal gods of the otherworld. It’s fascinating and fun and so sweet (Gaiman just can’t help himself with the sweet). Brothers reunite, fight, fall in love with smart and winning women, and finally work it out.
  17. Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke. Dave Robicheaux is still grieving the murder of his wife and accidentally gets mixed up in more problems when he chats with an old friend and bluesman and alcoholic who is in a bind. Robicheaux is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, but gets out on bail to try to solve his own case and clear his name. When strangers threaten 6 year old Alafair, Burke moves himself and his daughter to Montana to figure out what is going on. The remainder of the book is in the Flathead Lake area of Montana. And yes, in the nick of time, he gets the proof he needs to clear his name and avoids going to prison.
  18. God Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler. (click that link for a couple of sample chapters) It’s the Bible, condensed. Russell states in the introduction that his intent is neither to mock nor to endorse the Bible, merely to tell the story without sugar-coating it. He tells the Bible stories in unflinching modern language. It’s actually pretty damned funny to have the entire Bible boiled down to key points: When God killed almost all of humanity and destroyed the world with a flood, he decided to make it up to man by creating an awesome rainbow because who doesn’t like a rainbow? Jesus spent much of his time convincing people to drop out, the harp player went through a Heavy Metal and a Hip Hop phase we find out, when the book takes a commercial break to advertise Solomon’s greatest hits album (Song of Songs), after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, Jeremiah became depressed and started writing bad high school poetry, and the Jews were saved indirectly by Vashti refusing to give King Solomon a lap dance. “What is Paul accused of?” asks the governor. “He worships some dead guy, who he says came back to life, and is now a god,” the clerk said. “How am I supposed to investigate THAT?” asked the governor. There is some cursing because sometimes life is just too real to be polite. Anyway, everything is exactly out of the Bible: no stories changed. Probably not even the cursing.
  19. Dune by Frank Herbert. The third time I’ve read this, and I manage to get more every time. There is much to the story and it’s always a good read. It occurs to me that the complicated background stories would have been worth fleshing out and telling more, but Paul’s move at the very end – to make himself emperor – wipes out many possibilities.
  20. Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert. This second book of Paul’s life is sad and disturbing through most of the book. Interesting, but distressing. Such a cynical commentary on religious power – how it grows beyond it’s founding ideas and sickens and becomes violent. Powerful religion no longer resembles it’s original intent. Change the names of the characters and you’ve got any religion known today. Very interesting to me was the story of the reanimation of Duncan Idaho and his love for Alia.
  21. Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. The story gets darker, though the twins Leto and Ghanima grow up and try to make the world right again. Their aunt Alia is possessed by her grandfather’s ghost, and loses her ability to fight on the side of good. Against all odds, Paul returns, very angry, and Leto does not find the reunion he was hoping for. Instead, Leto becomes one with Dune and sets a new course for the planet.
  22. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris. Well known to me via his many contributions to This American Life, this is the first book I’ve read by Sedaris. His humor is wicked and self-deprecating, and a little bit inappropriately arrogant, in that he announces his proclamations on things and though he knows it’s unconventional, believes deep inside that his judgements are true. His experiences (and this book describes them with withering detail so that you can’t help but cringe in recognition of your own life) push the boundaries and he is both proud and ashamed of himself. He says so often what I want to say, “Can I touch it?”
  23. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. I ran out of credits and didn’t want to buy a book at the moment, so I read one I already owned.
  24. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willet. This one is a new fave that I have been recommending! Apparently these are characters already revealed in Willet’s earlier book(s?), but I did not get the sense I was missing anything, except maybe a too-casual discussion of the murder during a writing workshop prior to the time of this story. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed Amy’s transformation from a woman who had been sort of trapped in the security of her totally predictable life. She fell down and knocked herself out, and recovered enough to get back to the house and then give an interview, before fully regaining her mind. Amy read the interview later, which she could not recall in the least, and was soon buried in praise and admiration. She realized that saying the right thing isn’t required after all, and it was a relief for this opinionated woman to start speaking and acting exactly the way she wanted to. That was all it took for her to steadily rise in her career and her satisfaction with life again.
  25. War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk.