Sunday, June 13, 2010

The midpoint recap

Twenty-five books down, twenty-five to go. (This excludes the two bonuses: xkcd and The Bro Code.) Right now I'm a little ahead of schedule but my pace is slowing, so the second half of the year will be interesting. I'm having nightmares about hunkering down in a dank basement, reading some horribly written novel, while the rest of the world celebrates New Year's Eve. I'm determined not to let this happen. Finished by Christmas would be nice.

Anyway, since halfway point summaries (or retrospectives, or recaps) seem to work so well for sports seasons (e.g. the All-Star break report cards that always have baseball journalists salivating), I suppose it's worth a try on a book blog, too. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the first half of book-worming, 2010-style.

But first, some stats (in keeping with my love of baseball, of course). Leading off, my gender ratio was a bit lopsided: nineteen books written by men, and only six by women. The writers' nationalities tell a similar story: eighteen Americans and seven of everyone else (only one nation, Great Britain, had multiple authors, with two). Fifteen books fell into the non-fiction category, with ten in fiction. All but four books were published in 2007 or later. Three books were under 200 pages, fifteen were between 200 and 300, five were between 300 and 400, and two were over 400 pages. In summary, the average book was a non-fiction work spanning 274 pages, published in 2008, and authored by an American male. (My girlfriend has ever so gently reminded me to include more women and authors of color in the second half; luckily for me, her English literature degree is, contrary to her lamentations, quite relevant when it comes time for book recommendations.)

And now, onto the 50BF2010 awards:

Best Non-Fiction Book: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

When I reviewed The Big Short on April 18, I described it as a "very, very entertaining book." Relative to the seven books I've read since then, this has only become even truer. This is not due to any shortcomings of those books as much as it is a further ringing endorsement of The Big Short. Michael Lewis takes an incredibly complex and arcane set of circumstances and transforms it into a suspenseful narrative with an uncomfortably ambiguous approach to morality. (Were his characters the good guys, or villains? I think it's a bit of both.) His insider story of the outsiders who prophesied the coming Great Recession is almost beyond belief; but then, never more so than the financial collapse itself, which Lewis captures vividly with intimate portraits of the people who, after watching in shock as it unfolded, proceeded to cash in on the subsequent implosion. Most of the time I feel ambivalent about the term "must-read;" but if ever the expression had an appropriate usage, The Big Short undoubtedly qualifies.

Honorable mention: SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; and Freefall, by Joseph Stiglitz

Best Fiction Book: The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

This story, of a Soviet art critic whose fragile political stature is threatened by the dawn of glasnost, is a delicately woven tale of the zeitgeist of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, and a brilliant depiction of one man's struggle with self-identity in the face of previously unimaginable national transformation. Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov's sojourns through his past and present gradually coalesce into one time-blurred journey, with surrealism as both its guide and genre, realism as its omnipresent companion, and metamorphosis as the destination. That Olga Grushin managed to pen this novel in a non-native tongue is a testament to the boundless nature of her literary imagination, and an apt metaphor for Sukhanov's own disorientation in a world not his own.

Honorable mention: The Disappeared, by Kim Echlin; and The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Worst Non-Fiction Book: Reality Hunger, by David Shields

It's officially filed under "Literary Criticism," according to its ISBN categorization. But I remain unconvinced that Reality Hunger is actually anything of the sort, and even less so that it amounts to much more than self-aggrandizement. David Shields opens his book with epigraphs by Picasso, Walter Benjamin, and Graham Greene, and then proceeds, for the next 205 pages, to steal and plunder from authors, thinkers, and entertainers both near and far, past and present. The intention, he implies, is to revolutionize the commonly held platitudes that have defined and separated the worlds of fiction and non-fiction and, in the meantime, to decimate international standards of intellectual property rights. Why this is so urgent is never made entirely clear. To be fair, it is difficult to concoct a cogent argument out of 618 literary scraps from authors who, strangely enough, write their own material. But this is no deterrent to the inexorable Shields, whose campaign to throw open the doors to appropriation of others' creativity fails to appreciate the very real line between ideas and their expression. His literary remix, unsurprisingly, dissolves into cognitive dissonance.

Dishonorable mention: The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman; and The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

Worst Fiction Book: The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

Q: What do you get when you start with a disenchanted development officer, add in a newly rediscovered friendship with an old college buddy, and, for good measure, throw in a subplot involving his wife's potential infidelity?

A: A terrible novel. One online reviewer noted, with a beautiful sense of irony, a bit of dialogue late in the book in which Milo, the book's utterly forgettable antihero, asks a colleague, "...If I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?" Her reply: "I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would." Well said. It seemed as if author Sam Lipsyte neglected to decide whether he was writing comedy or tragedy until, at the end, he eventually gave up and decided, rather arbitrarily, to stop writing. Fortunately, it was as good a point as any to stop reading.

Dishonorable mention: Family Album, by Penelope Lively

Onward march to the next twenty-five!

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