Books I read in 2017

  1. Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller. A relatively short and easy read about the author’s process toward intimacy in relationships, both platonic and romantic. It does not explain his methods or give the reader any strategies, but does point out that in his case anyway, the block to trusting others was realizing a deep sense of low self-esteem that caused him to keep walls up and push anyone away who got too close. The author is clearly religious, and brings up his faith sometimes, but as an atheist, I found his faith very easy to work with and not cloying.
  2. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman. I liked this one so much the first time around, I read it again. I still love the way he played with ants. Original review in 2013.
  3. Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation by Aisha Tyler. It’s ok. Tyler is a good writer and has somewhat of an interesting life, but this one falls into the genre of comedians trying to write a funny book and it just doesn’t work on the page like it does on the stage. Just write a book, my dear. You are funny, and it will turn out great, so stop trying so hard. There is a lot of exaggeration and extreme details to make me pretty sure I’m not getting an accurate tale of her life, but in between the posturing and attempts to be funny, this woman has a remarkable story and I admire her for her outlook and her success and her pride in herself.
  4. Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart’s book reminds me of the Aisha Tyler book. Both of them are reaching for the dramatic and make mountains out of molehills – for a laugh, I think. But it just makes me roll my eyes. You guys built a comedy career out of your personal tragedies and that’s what you consider a tragedy? Oh for heaven’s sake. Anyway, Shteyngart’s story has an interesting insight into Russia from his perspective, which I do appreciate. The stories from an immigrant kid in America are always insightful for me. He talks about being a successful author, and that surprises me, since this book was pretty boring. On my first reading I was mystified at why the final epic reveal in his life is a rather mild episode about a toy plane and his dad before leaving Russia. Not remarkable to me at all. In my second reading in 2022, the episode is downplayed by the author too, so I don’t know what I was thinking. In the second reading, I spent most of the book annoyed as hell at this self-absorbed guy with an uninteresting life. Near the end, the author indicates that yes, he knows this now, and was illuminating that for me the whole time. Not sure I buy it, but ok. The one thing that seemed real, finally, in the end, was how he hinted at how abusive his parents really were to him all his life. Not their fault, he makes clear, but yeah, finally I find the actual trauma in his life. It wasn’t all the other BS about a keloid scar and a larger than average nose – his actual lifetime trauma was his abusive parents. That, in my opinion, is where his victory lies; when he overcame what can destroy a human being, and made a success of his life.
  5. Astoria by Peter Stark. I read this only after I saw Part I of the play in Portland, based on the book. I have tickets for Part II coming up January 2018, and will likely read the book again before I see it. This is an epic story detailing John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a fur trade empire on the Northwest Coast of North America. He privately financed two parties, one by sea and one by land, that aimed to set up a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River, with the full support of President Jefferson. Only a few years after Lewis & Clark, I had never even heard of this expedition, which is the one that found the route that ended up being the famous Oregon Trail. I read the book because, while they failed to establish a new capital of commerce in 1810-1813, the little settlement they named “Astoria” survived, and is only 45 miles away from me right now. This book is well written, fleshing out the larger than life characters involved, the nearly-incomprehensible challenges in the journey, and the many deaths that naturally befell the would-be conquerors. Bonus: more back story details to John Day, one of the men in the overland expedition. The book was published in 2014, and thus the author makes efforts to portray Native tribes and individuals accurately, such as explaining what exceptional traders they were before Europeans showed up, and shrewdly bargaining (whereas Lewis & Clark complained about how stupid they were, but that was probably to cover up embarrassment at not being able to swindle Native traders).
  6. (short story) The World of Shadow by Kate Hamer. Lovely, lovely little sad story. A boy has a miserable life with an unsuccessful and overbearing, angry father. He meets a girl his age in the wood one day and they play together for hours. The father and boy are forced to move away the very next day and his life, while wretched, is not completely miserable. As he looks back on his life he gives thanks that he loved, and was loved, by that girl in the wood.
  7. (short story) The Hospital by Keith C. Blackmore. Apparently an introduction story to a zombie book that I haven’t read. I’m not a zombie story fan, but I’m open to free audible short stories! This one has some creative variations on the story and plausible post-zombie apocalypse environment. It was well-written and entertaining and appropriately gruesome in the end, but the main character still manages to get away from the insane nurse, who was clearly more of a danger than the zombies.
  8. The Martian by Andy Weir. I was riveted from page one. Mark, the protagonist, is a NASA scientist and astronaut, yes, but he’s just a regular young guy who curses and questions authority. He makes fun of everything, including himself, and is deliciously upbeat despite being accidentally abandoned on Mars. The technical details are so convincing that I’m sure the author must have inside knowledge of the space program. Mark’s battle to stay alive in mind-blowingly impossible circumstances is heroic and engaging.
  9. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner. Stegner has an immense skill for portraying characters. I was sucked into the story. This one follows the story of the Mason family from their time of meeting each other till their deaths. It’s a good look at early life in the American and Canadian West in the early 20th century. The book was hard on me, not just because the Masons lived a hard life, but because Elsa loved and tried to support her man, then died of cancer – like my mother. And Bo… was a man with tremendous dreams and potential for love and generosity, but turned into a bitter, nasty man who inspired hatred from his children. Sadly, I related to this all too well.
  10. (short story) Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson. This one is so well done! I see on Sanderson’s website it is in preparations to be made into a movie. Good choice. The “Snapshot” is a massive, expensive program owned by a city and used by the Police Department. What it can do is reproduce, to a molecular level, the city itself on a given day. Everything is there, in a cavern below the city, including buildings, taco trucks, blades of grass, and humans. Officers on Snapshot duty live on the outskirts of the city, in hopes of never confronting a copy of themselves when they are in there. They go back to a date in history, and place themselves at the scene of a crime, in hopes of getting important details that will help them capture the criminal in real time.
  11. The Way of Kings, Stormlight Archive I, by Brandon Sanderson. In this book I remain mostly fascinated with one main character, Kaladin, who is 15-ish and full of dreams of war and glory. But he was raised to be a surgeon by his father, a good man. Kaladin makes the right choice and decides to go to school to be a doctor, but is forced into war by a bitter lord. He already hated the upper classes, but after watching his gentle younger brother slaughtered in battle, he is consumed with hatred and bitterness. His otherworldly skill in battle and uncanny knack for staying alive wins him forgiveness when he acts out, until he witnesses a truly heinous act by a lord. The lord brands him a slave and sends him away at about 17 or 18. Most of the book is him as a slave, battling his personal demons (almost committing suicide) to become the leader he was meant to be under insanely challenging circumstances as an enslaved person. He slowly and accidentally learns that he can do magic somehow, but has no idea how, and tries to learn it. Shallan is less interesting to me, but this might be because her childhood story is not clearly revealed until later books. Of the three (four?) children, Shallan is the only one who turned out close to normal, but all of them have serious mental and behavioral issues due to their horrific father. After being sheltered her whole life due to being a girl, she undertakes a sea journey that lasts months, tracking down a royal in hopes of becoming her ward, which would allow her to steal a magical tool that Shallan and her brothers believe will save them from poverty and maybe even death. After impressive tenacity, hard work and bravery, she manages to get accepted by Jasnah. Shallan is startled to find that she loves scholarship more than anything, and it gets in the way of her thievery because she is happy and fulfilled for the first time in her life. Dalinar is a Highprince, uncle of the King, a withering, whiny boy who became king when Dalinar’s brother was assassinated. Dalinar has faith in everyone, including the King, and makes it his mission to unite the lords and end the six-year war once and for all. The final main character is Szeth-son-son-Vallano, who is the all-powerful assassin who wields an enormous magical blade and can do lots of magic, including to fly (ish). It took me a couple books to realize that the totally mystifying Prelude in the book is Szeth’s background. I think it is, anyway. Szeth has identified himself as “truthless,” meaning he has committed a terrible crime and must serve for all eternity his master. Whomever holds the truthstone is his master, and for a long time, it is low class brutes who make him carry heavy things and dump beer on his own head for entertainment. But a group of men bent on world domination get hold of him – of course they do – and give him a list of people to assassinate in order, and the details of how to make it look, and one by one, the deaths contribute to terror and weakening of the entire realm. Szeth hates every second of it, first of his original shame, and then of the killing. He can hear the screams of every person he ever killed, and there are so many. His character is hard to read, but I want to know how he got to this place. I appreciate Jasnah, aunt of the King and sister of Dalinar, who is beautiful and chooses an academic path in life. I also like Hoid/Wit, a court jester who is so much more. Hoid seems to have his fingers in a lot of things and has the big-picture view of absolutely everyone. But he is only dangled tantalizingly at the fringes.
  12. Words of Radiance, Stormlight Archive II, by Brandon Sanderson.
  13. The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
  14. (short story) Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson. Can you believe I did not realize that this one, and Snapshot were written by Brandon Sanderson (author of the Stormlight Trilogy that I loved so much I read them twice already) until I wrote this list of books I read this year? The stories are clearly different and did not remind me of each other, and yet I enjoyed them all – clearly one mark of a great author. In a post-apocalyptic future, there are regular humans, and Epics, human-like beings who somehow have a power. This guy’s power is the ability to self-replicate, to split and reproduce, by the hundreds, maybe thousands. The protagonist cannot understand where the matter comes from: it seems like it isn’t possible, but he discovers that the more copies of the Epic Mitosis are out there, the weaker – and dumber! – they all are.
  15. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Unsatisfying but deeply profound with expert character development. I mean, if you’re depressed and you want to wallow in it some more, definitely this book is for you. It’s melancholy on every page and follows five very sad people with whose lives get worse as the book goes on and they each lose their reason to hope. The main character is the deaf mute Singer, who becomes a magnet to the characters in their small town, because they all project their impressions onto Singer. He becomes for each one what they need, and that is how he is valued, but none of them tries to get to know Singer, leaving him painfully lonely. His best friend on the other hand, is another deaf mute who is the most unsatisfactory character of all, who never returns all the generosity and adoration of Singer. He’s selfish to the core, yet Singer adores him and I could never figure out why. I guess Singer was projecting his own impressions onto Antinopolous. In the end, all the hope is pretty much wiped out of everybody. It’s profound because it illuminates the darkest part of being human and living: we’re all crude and selfish in one way or another and our hopes are always dashed. It’s also a great commentary on the ills of society and the appeal of Communism or Socialism.
  16. Copper Sun by  Sharon M. Draper. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while. It’s clearly written and educational, and I began to think it would be perfect for a middle-schooler. Turns out, it’s categorized as a young adult novel. Maybe my kid recommended it as the result of an assignment? In any case, the topics were harsh, but laid down in soft words. Brutality was easily seen between the lines for anyone’s who has lived awhile.
  17. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I’ve been meaning to read this one for decades. Since it’s publishing in 1988, the author has gained something of a guru quality, particularly on that literary bastion, facebook. It was with great disappointment that this, too (after I just read Copper Sun), turned out to be a book for middle-schoolers. I felt the same disappointment when reading The Little Prince. The lessons are beautiful and perfect and vital. The setting is rich, the characters just right. For anyone who needs to choose a path in life, be she 8 years old or 28, it’s good.
  18. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. A book filled with moving short stories. Each one of them gets right in and settles in your skin, or your head. Some are hard to ever forget – like the Bible salesman who takes advantage of a haughty loner, just so he can steal her prosthetic leg. Like the opening story of the grandmother who reads in the paper about The Misfit, a dangerous criminal, and works herself up with worry when everyone knows she’s overreacting, until you realize you should have taken her more seriously. Each one launches right into characters in the middle of something, and O’Connor’s skill is such that within a paragraph or two you are completely engaged. These stories are famous for being windows into moral and philosophical questions.
  19. American Fascists by Chris Hedges. Chapter one sets the stage for the whole book by explaining that there is a dangerous “dominionist” movement among Christian right extremists. Hedges explains that his father was a minister and that he is a deeply faithful man. In other words, his intent is not to cast doubt on faith, but to isolate and expose a branch – but a powerful branch – of Christianity that threatens to shake the foundations of this country and could likely be the greatest national threat we have ever faced. Hedges shows how the Christian right infiltrates politics and the media, then uses tried and true fascist rhetoric reminiscent of Orwell’s newspeak and the xenophobic fervor of WWII, to frighten vast numbers of Americans into believing that there is a war underway and that they are surrounded on all sides by people who want to eliminate Christianity and Christian morals. He provides current examples (it was published in 2007) to back up his case. All the central chapters provide example after example of why extremist conservative Christianity is bad…but I’m not sure it all supports the premise of chapter one. It’s all shocking and familiar, since I am from an extremely religious family. Though I haven’t personally seen or experienced every example, I have personally experienced most of them. Update: 2020 I read this again. This time, chapter one was chilling. The first couple times I read this book, I could follow his logic, but couldn’t buy the idea that it was a current threat on the level he was suggesting. After Trump, I realize everything he warns against actually IS happening, and I’m witnessing it. Christians may not appreciate this book because he fails to remind the reader that he’s not talking about ALL Christians, just those who subscribe to the dominionist movement, and what he says is very inflammatory and uncomfortable – mostly because it’s true. Hedges does attack too forcefully for my taste, and loses some of my respect for his neutral journalist skills.
  20. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Oh, I love this story. I’ve read it before but I wanted it again. Janie comes home to scornful gazes of her old community. They titter and squawk about her, they tsk tsk and Mmmm Hmm, and do everything they can to shame her. “The porch couldn’t talk for looking.” But Janie walks proud and pays them no mind and exudes a mature confidence and solid foundation of knowing exactly who she is and what is important. Most of all, she is sad, sad as hell, and still a little bewildered by it all. Phoeby, her old friend, alone takes up for her, and heads over to welcome Janie home. Janie tells what happened. Hurston’s words are dessert. Crumbly like coffee cake and syrupy like a fresh peach. She said deceptively innocuous things – about the sky, about a smell – that made me pause the audio just to think about it. I felt the loss of Teacake too, when it was all over.

I re-read a bunch. When I’m out of audible credits, I go back through my library and pick out favourites. These included Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Education of Little Tree, 14, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge (I read this one at least once a year), Gone With the Wind, Callahan’s Legacy, Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune. I must have had a lot of chores to do this year, to have the opportunity to plug in so often.