Books I read in 2013

  1. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks  by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein. The authors argue a case that Republicans are responsible for much of the petty infighting and stagnancy of our dysfunctional Congress. Their main complaint is overuse of the minority filibuster.  The first half of the book is in academic style, and thus a more challenging read. I felt the writers’ condescension throughout, and take offense to some of their positions. For example, they state as fact that the most educated Americans are also the most polarized on election issues. In my lifetime, I find that the most educated people are the most likely to be open-minded and see another’s point of view. I do appreciate their long list of suggested improvements to our unarguably broken government, but don’t agree with all of their positions.  
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This was a sweet and innocent book and as much of its value for me lies in the descriptions of how people used to live in England, as in the story itself. I was actually cautioning out loud for Jane not to marry Mr. Rivers; his cold arrogance triggering too many memories of when I caved in to a powerful man telling me what I needed and what I thought.
  3. (SS=short story) The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs. A thriller for an innocent mind. Nothing really happens that means anything terrifying, but if you let yourself get swept away, it is still pretty scary.
  4. The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke. Another Dave Robicheaux novel set in the swamps and seedy bars around New Orleans. This one as good as the best of them, with the prescient Jewel setting me up for Dave’s death in the end. He didn’t die, nor did his best friend Clete. Or did they?
  5. (SS) Selected Scenes From the End of the World by Brian Keene. I think it was just one chapter of brief glimpses into scenes. Fairly lame zombie stories. Creative but not very interesting. Based on what fans say of the entire book, it may not have been an accurate introduction to the author.
  6. Callahan’s Legacy by Spider Robinson. This is a crazy-ass book. Fun, irreverent, and insightful science fiction disguised as a tale of one night amongst bar patrons who spin more bad puns than you’ve ever seen in a single volume. At times painful, as when the piano player told the story of his life. At times tamely realistic and compelling, as when Jake describes the exact pronunciation of the letter “I” his wife cries out in labor pains. Basically this is what it’s about: Buck burns millions of dollars in the fireplace, Akayib describes the woes of being incapable of feeling physical pain, Mary takes up with an alien cyborg, Nikola Tesla brings a death ray, a three-legged three-armed three-breasted lizard attempts to destroy planet Earth… aw, forget it. There is no easy synopsis.
  7. 14 by Peter Clines. Great book! It begins slowly and casually when Nate moves into a new apartment building, chosen because it’s cheap and in downtown L.A., and not for much else. There are a few weird things in the apartment, so Nate does a little poking about, meets his neighbors, and starts asking question. Suddenly I am counting the minutes till I can listen to more of my story on the iPod! It turns out to be unexpectedly creative science fiction. The characters were not just interesting, but fun, the plotline carried me from the inauspicious beginning all the way through the end, where there are a couple chapters of heart-pounding, nail-biting suspense. Recommend!
  8. The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
    • A Study in Scarlet – Published in 1886, this is the first novel of Sherlock Holmes, introducing both characters, and indeed introducing them to each other. Holmes and Watson are intrigued by the murder of an American in London, and Holmes shocks everyone by handcuffing a London cab driver rather early in the story. Startlingly, with no preparation or explanation whatsoever, the next chapter begins with entirely new characters in the salt flats of northern Utah. Sure enough, the original band of Mormon pilgrims make their way front and center to the theme of power, fanaticism, secret societies  and murder. Yes, I read a few bits online about how the Mormons are all upset about how distorted the story is, and one of Doyle’s descendants apologized for him, etc. Let me say this: I was a Mormon for eight years (I am now excommunicated for refusing to bend to their ways) and my knowledge of some of their dark truths is reinforced with this fictional story. I’ll leave it there. “What in the world does this have to do with Sherlock Holmes?” I asked for several chapters, till finally I realized it was the back story to the cabbie’s motive.
    • The Sign of Four published in 1890. Holmes explains his syringes of cocaine as necessary when there is nothing else to keep his mind occupied. Watson is disgusted, but soon there is another mystery and he is not forced to take action as a doctor and friend. This one seems to begin simply but grows into a wonderfully rich story of war, comradeship, desperation, robbery, wealth, betrayal, treachery, and even the surety of an honorable man. The characters travel around the world all for the sake of treasure. Trained as an anthropologist, I take offense to Holmes’ characterization of the pygmy friend of the wooden legged man, but I am also aware that it was trendy to dramatize the “dark savages” back then.  In the happy ending, no one gets the treasure, and Watson is lucky enough to win the hand of Mary Morsten.
    • [All Short Stories below published in 1892](SS) A Scandal in Bohemia published 1892. A man beg’s for Holmes’ help in retrieving some damning photographs. When the problem is solved as well as it can be, Holmes takes a photograph in payment.
    • (SS) The Red-Headed League  This was a brilliant scheme and quite an entertaining story of a young and ingenious robber.
    • (SS) A Case of Identity  Another very clever plot by a man out to keep money that does not belong to him. Who ever would have guessed it. Except for the great detective himself?
    • (SS) The Boscombe Valley Mystery I liked this one in which Holmes clears the charge of a young man for murdering his father. It could have been fleshed out, because there were many uncomfortable underlying plots: secret marriages, secret loves, secret money.
    • (SS) The Five Orange Pips The initials “KKK” are no mystery to an American, and possibly not to anyone in 2013. Holmes immediately identified the danger, and sent his client home, presumably to safety. But this once, it was no good, for the man was murdered as soon as he left Holmes’ residence. The motive wasn’t really revealed, or the story of the killers, or their band, or what they had against the family, or the meaning of the paper on the sundial. As Watson clearly pointed out in the beginning, the end was never clearly known, and that leaves us both dissatisfied.
    • (SS) The Man With the Twisted Lip A funny one and quite easy to believe. Watson arrives at an opium den and is surprised to find Holmes. Nope, neither one of them is using.
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle This was a clever short story and one I imagined, as I listened, how one might begin writing a mystery. Do you start with a blue jewel in a turkey’s gullet and work backward, or do you begin with a person who covets a jewel, and work toward the conclusion?
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Speckled Band Aha! Even the great Sherlock Holmes could not guess the truth till the end. Poor motivation for the murderer, I thought, but satisfied by the delicious wickedness of his plans.
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb A lawless scheme is revealed following the narrow escape of a hydraulic engineer sans thumb. Not quite satisfactory in that we do not learn the story of the terrified and beautiful young German woman, or bring the group to justice.
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor Set up in order to trick us into thinking we know the culprit responsible for the runaway wife. But in the end, it’s just a matter of a good woman who isn’t sure what to do about honorable circumstances. Holmes gets everybody at the table to talk it out.
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet Here, a father feels he can do nothing but look at the circumstances and condemn his only son. It’s a relief to the reader to find that that son was behaving honorably, but by then it’s too late for the men in question, and their relationship is ruined.
    • (SS) The Adventure of the Copper Beeches A governess decides to take the position with Holmes’ assurance that he’ll keep an eye on her. She returns later, however, to describe truly bizarre circumstances. Holmes and Watson agree to visit her there, and soon untangle the whole wicked story. The three manage to get out alive.
  9. (SS) The Veldt by Ray Bradbury. A wonderful children’s horror story. Published in 1950, it is a lament against the reckless embrace of technology in our lives, and still seems as though it’s set in the future, despite our mind-bending technological advances since this story was written. Both children and parents are so smitten with their own use of technology they cannot anticipate the future catastrophe, and cannot feel remorse at murder.
  10. (SS) The Catbird Seat by James Thurber. I love this story of office place tyranny and revenge.
  11. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Whhoo, talk about boring. I typically love these old English novels. I even like Jane Austen. But this one barely kept me around till the final third of the book where it became interesting.
  12. The Stand by Stephen King.  Don’t let the size of the book turn you away. This one will keep you interested in every single chapter. And it’s not the kind of horror story that gives me nightmares (and I get them easily). It’s about God vs. Satan, so the horror runs along the lines of what wicked people are truly capable of, and how devastating it feels when you think you’ve been forsaken. There were a couple parts that were dissatisfying to me. The character of Nadine, built up to enormous anticipation, didn’t have the key role I was expecting to see once she finally got to Flagg. Granted, she foiled his #1 evil plot, but even that was not the scene it could have been, and more could have been made of Nadine’s assistance to the good side. But no matter what happened, all Flagg’s people died in a nuclear blast, set off from within Vegas. If the Free Zone people had still been walking into trees in a daze, things would have turned out alright. That was frustrating. Despite all that, I loved the book immensely. The original plot of population destruction by biological warfare is totally believable, as is the US government’s denial of every bit of it to the bitter end. The characters are so well developed the reader can guess their reactions to things.
  13. Heartsick by Chelsea Cain (a Portlander!). The first in the series with Detective Sheridan. My first Sheridan read was the fourth in the series, and not about Gretchen at all. So, I came at it from a direction that hardly anyone else did (read=I don’t need Gretchen to be happy). Here I learn about twisted, evil Gretchen, and how sick Sheridan really is, and it just made me sad. Cain’s writing gets better later in the series, and mind-blowing violence is not used so often as it is here. (tip o’ the hat to Chuck Palahniuk)
  14. (SS) Vanilla Bright like Eminem by Michel Faber. Dang, this one is so hugely moving. Dare I use the too-often used word “poignant?” The main character: a dad, a husband, a man, is thinking about things and reveals memories we can easily relate to such as the first intimacy with his wife and an argument with his teenager. He experiences the best moment of his entire life while sitting on a train watching his family sleep.
  15. (SS) Reeling for the Empire (from Vampires in the Lemon Grove) by Karen Russell is that same kind of creepy tale I’ve learned can be fairly common in East Asian stories. Revolting and irresistible  this is the story of how women turned into silkworms find a way to escape their lives of slavery.
  16. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. A beautiful book that I haven’t read in awhile. Like West With the Night, and A Million Little Pieces, a really good book is still really good, even with a flawed author. The traditional stories and remedies give me pause here, just because I hesitate to accept any assertion about “a people” without validation.
  17. The Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov. I love the scifi classics, and have since I was a wee bairn. This is apparently the first in the robot series, and we are introduced to the robot laws for the first time. It was seriously dated, with the Mrs. playing the role of emotionally uncontrolled distraught damsel in distress/ source of betrayal. The married couple’s conversations were not natural at all. The detective’s narrow focus and quick succession of failures doesn’t seem to reflect a man who is as good at his job as he is supposed to be. It was an ok story, but I’ll move on to the next in the series.
  18. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Cute story that could have been developed more. Fun little twist at the end, that might have been apparent to any world travelers, but was missed by yours truly.
  19. Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye. Another book I read because my daughter is reading it. Fairly entertaining children’s/young adult’s fantasy. Tara met Obert Skye at her elementary school years and years ago, and has been wanting to read this book ever since.
  20. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. The story has little action, and is primarily the thoughts of the Butler, Mr. Stephens, about things that have happened. Stephens’ exquisite professional, earnest, and literal reaction to everything that is said to him has served him perfectly as an English butler for 30 years, but now he suspects his job demands change. The reader is allowed to see how carefully he struggles to learn to “banter” so that he can make afternoon tea-time more enjoyable for the owner of the house. It took me awhile to realize it is a love story, with the delicious aspect that this butler – who is the definition of perfection for a butler – has nearly zero sense of how to be a man. He can’t deal with being attracted. He can’t deal with emotion. While his father died, all he could say, over and over and over, was “Well, I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better.” When the housekeeper lost her aunt, the only comment Stephens managed was  criticism about how she was failing in managing her housekeeping staff. These two may be suited for each other, but it would take superhuman effort on the part of the housekeeper to realize how much he cares for her, while he would never say it, and would probably never even know it.
  21. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I enjoyed the rich character development here, and the exposure of racism and classicism in the story that so clearly mimics real life. Sherman McCoy is a simple-minded idiot of a financial genius. So caught up in his own greatness he forgets to think about anything that matters (except his daughter). So it’s not the way one might initially imagine a criminal…but it is satisfying that of all the disgusting humans in this book, the millionaire is the one who pays for it in the courts and prison cells. The book does a fairly good job of describing the disparity between McCoy’s daily life and the lives of people less fortunate: the prosecutor, the English journalist, black community organizer Reverend Bacon, and most especially the poor Henry Lamb and his family. With the possible exception of the Lambs, every last one of them is a criminal.
  22. The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, Volume 1 by Henry Fielding. It opens thus, “Book I. Containing as Much of the Birth of the Foundling as Is Necessary or Proper to Acquaint the Reader with in the Beginning of This History,” and continues in much the same manner. An enjoyable wordy book with multiple passages that nearly put me to sleep, but a storyline that is constantly relevant and amusing. Tom Jones himself is a well-meaning rascal and fortune smiles upon him no matter what poor company he keeps or poor actions he resolves to take.
  23. The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, Volume 2 by Henry Fielding. Mr. Jones is humiliated and joins the Army for a week or two. Sophia runs away from Blifil and takes her horrible nurse with her on a journey to find Jones. They both end up in London, but not together. (But the author takes his time and fills an entire novel to say that much)
  24. The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, Volume 3 by Henry Fielding. nearly everyone in the entire story ends up in London: Black George, Squires Allworthy and Western, Miss Western, Mr. Dowling, Blifil, all the society people who already live there, and even a letter from Mr. Square’s deathbed. The mystery of Tom’s parentage is finally solved (and didn’t we guess his mother right from the start?). And surprise, surprise, 346,747 words later, Tom and Sophia get married. It was a cute story, tediously dull at times, verbose and bombastic. But I am glad to have read it. Besides, who can resist titles such as these? I submit the last chapters to make my point: X. Wherein the History Begins to Draw Towards a Conclusion, XI. The History Draws Nearer to a Conclusion, XII. Approaching Still Nearer to the End, and Chapter the Last. In Which the History Is Concluded.
  25. Twenty One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. (watch this fun flash movie) This is the one I was looking for when I bought Around the World in 80 Days. I remembered a story that had sparked my imagination. A story about William Waterman Sherman’s fantastic journey from San Francisco to Krakatoa, where inventor families built the most astonishing houses with the wealth of a gigantic diamond mine. How they set up a gourmet government, an unlikely economically stable system based on food. And how all of them had to flee because of the volcanic eruption. And here is the story, with all of the original facts and a little less magic (because I am 43 now, and no longer 9 years old).
  26. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.  An adventure story of two regular lives, filled with the incredible journeys, joys, heartbreak, devastation, and disillusionment that any life holds. It remained compelling as it followed the lifetimes of two Jewish cousins in New York, before, during, and after Hitler’s menace. But these two cousins are comic book geniuses, and no matter how horrible things get, the men simply cannot hold back the boyish dreams of inked panels. Somehow the magic of little boy dreams about super heroes doesn’t ever leave the story. It’s personal, political, funny, and sad, but mostly just real; Sammy can never resolve his relationship with his own homosexuality or the career he doesn’t respect but can do better than anyone else.  Joe can never find a way to process the knowledge that he could not rescue his family from Prague, and they were all killed by the Germans. He escapes Sammy, Rosa, and his son for 13 years because he is so ashamed of himself that he can’t think of a way to come back to them. Read this one.
  27. Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings by Tyler Perry. I was hoping for a laugh out loud book, and this one earned some chuckles. But it is unexpectedly a lot of good advice for young people. For anyone, really. The funniest part is Tyler Perry’s impersonation.
  28. (SS) Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar by Neil Gaiman. Ben is having a particularly disappointing tour of the England coastline when by chance he meets two acolytes of Cthulhu. Over several pints of an ale called Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar, Ben has a really great time and ends the night passed out on the side of the road, as one might expect. It’s a mystery story though, because Ben soon finds out that the town doesn’t exist.
  29. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Can you believe I had never read it? The novel is famous for it’s descriptions of life during the 1920s in America, and I agree it is a delicious setting. Gatsby is a sad character, and Daisy too. They’re all kind of sad, surface people (my adjective for people with shallow personalities) except for the narrator, Nick, who observes it all with fascination and contemplation.
  30. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman. This is a wonderful book and I recommend it! Richard Feynman spins a tale of his early life from childhood to a budding career in physics.  These are Adventures of a Curious Character, one whose innocence and effort pay off. He seems unable to cast judgement, and it earns him some incredible adventures and insight. He is a new role model of mine, reminding me to observe, ask questions, be patient, listen, and THINK. It’s also filled with humor, as only a humble, earnest person can be.
  31. Blink! by Malcolm Gladwell. This book is another scientific gem. Gladwell talks about the inexplicable abilities of the human mind to make accurate judgments in the first two seconds of experiencing an event, without any apparent data.  He proves over and over that it’s true that we can do it, even though we remain pretty sure that it’s impossible. He shows how our hunches are real, and we should trust them. Want a reason to fall in love with the magic of human beings? The magic of science? Possibly support for creationism? This book could be it.
  32. The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Vol II by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Unlike the way I described each Sherlock short story above, I will not do so with this book. Too many stories and too little time! This volume includes more exciting Holmes mysteries, and his stalwart Watson cataloging them for us. Twenty-three short stories are included, from “Memoires of Sherlock Holmes,” and “Return of Sherlock Holmes,” as well as the famous The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best one of all, and the first time the reader is allowed to follow all the steps and clues along the way, thus I could attempt to unravel the mystery myself before Holmes got to it. The setting is upon the foreboding moors, complete with bogs and fog and scenes in the dark. Thrilling, puzzling, scary, and then resolved in a more satisfying manner than the quick stories where we just have to trust in Holmes’ brilliance.
  33. (SS) The Swim Team by Miranda July is ridiculously pathetic and funny, as I’ve come to learn July’s stories can be. Now, don’t you wish you had the self-confidence to coach a swim team without a pool?
  34. (SS) The Tablecloth of Turin from A Kind of Flying by Ron Carlson. Almost irreverent, except that you begin to feel sorry for the evangelist. He really does believe in his tablecloth, and you want to believe him too, because it would be wonderful.
  35. Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. (Update: I re-read the book, and find it improves the second time. And, I can even explain the early deaths of main characters if Martin is loyal to the Targaryen line above everyone else.) Amidst the super-hype of the television series, I was prompted to begin reading this one (though I still have not seen any of it on television). I do love fantasy. However, sigh, it’s not written well enough for me to get into it. I hate when the writing of a book keeps distracting me from the story. “Oh, there he goes using that phrase again,” I say to myself (seriously, how many times do I need to be told a guy is wearing boiled leather). Or, “now why would the author go with that angle?” Or, “What was the point in building up this detailed back story and character development, only to kill the person in the first half of the first book of the series?” (that last one happened a lot) Or the opposite: no back story and a quick casual introduction of a character, so that I continued to ignore them for chapter after chapter, until it turns out that the person is not going to be killed off, and now I can’t remember how he even got into the story. Arrgh! It’s so frustrating! Another thing that’s driving me crazy is that the seasons are not what we are used to, but it’s only carelessly mentioned, and it took me till book 3 to begin to understand it. The story line is that there are several powerful lords that have only recently been united into one kingdom under one king. One of the lords is asked to take a seat in government as the hand of the king, who happens to be his best friend. The post doesn’t last long, because soon the king is murdered, and the king’s wife and son murder the lord hand, and then it’s total chaos in the land. I like it that the author refers to an ancient time that was much wealthier and more advanced than the current time, giving some depth to the events. Further, he weaves in multiple religions and old wives’ tales of monsters beyond the wall, that turn out to be real – a fabulous background for all the silly sword fighting. Martin has even spread the story geographically to another continent – a nice, deserty balance to the cold Medieval-ish setting for the rest of the book. The magic is a little unexpected, but it’s woven in well, so it doesn’t jar the reader. Don’t get me wrong: I would LOVE to be able to write a story this well. But as a picky reader, I want better quality.
  36. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.  A crippled historian, estranged from his family and desperate to avoid being put into a home, carves out a sanctuary for himself in his grandmother’s house. To keep himself interested in life, he plans to write a biography of his grandmother, and perhaps to sort out the mystery of why she married his grandfather and then why she never left him. He uses old letters and newspaper articles to craft his imagined version of what happened. A very realistic story is told, of a girl raised in Eastern sensibilities with a sense of adventure, who follows her intelligent and earnest new husband, and finds the inspiration to make a life for herself, her family, and her friends in the wild American West. The little family lands in the roughest of places; mining towns where villainy and weaponry are the way to build a future. The two young idealists refuse to stoop to those means, however, and thus are ruined over and over. The crippled biographer does eventually manage some self-realization, which was really what he was after all along. The tale itself is a portrayal of human life so painfully realistic I almost want to spare you, but the author weaves it so well I have to recommend this one. It is a beautifully written book.
  37. (SS) The Rocking Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence. Such a sad story. This is a tale of a sweet little boy with a surprising ability who uses his gifts to try to help his family. The boy wishes to ease his troubled mother most of all, but she is too shallow to see that her family’s greatest riches are in the kind spirit and loving heart of that little boy.
  38. Book 2 of A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
  39. (SS) In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel. I heard this one read aloud by Mary Beth Hurt to an audience for Selected Shorts. As I have pointed out before in my example of B.D. Wong’s reading, sometimes the reader makes a story for me. It was good anyway, but Ms. Hurt’s handling of it is what grabbed my heart. In this story, Best Friends are together in an intensive care unit in a hospital by the beach. One is dying and begs her friend to keep her laughing and distracted, while they wait for her to die. I did laugh a few times. The laughs were genuine, but lasted 2 seconds and faded from my eyes more quickly than from my lips because the sadness is just so big. In the end, the well friend realizes without a doubt that she cannot save her dying friend. She realizes nothing’s going to come up at the last minute and change the outcome. That takes a piece out of her. I felt that way when my mother died, so maybe that’s why this story sticks with me.
  40. Book 3 of A Song of Ice and Fire: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

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