Friday, January 1, 2010

2009: Five Books I Have Read

Happy 2010 Everyone!

We have spent the day reflecting on the year that has passed and the year that is to come. And so I've been thinking a lot about writing and reading. One of my goals (I won't say "resolution") is to keep a log of what I've read so I can better remember. No doubt some of those entries will also appear here on my blog, so keep your eyes peeled.

My final entry on the "5 Things" theme is on books I read in 2009. I read a lot, so this list barely scratches the surface of the dozens of books I've enjoyed all or in part this year. I certainly recommend them all to you, though of course your mileage may vary. Each of these transported me to their respective worlds in a memorable way.

And in no particular order...

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

The final chapter in Vandermeer's Ambergris series, Finch is a noir detective story set in the decaying city occupied by fungal overlords. If that isn't a hell of a hook, I don't know what is. While obviously connected to the previous stories set in Ambergris, Finch stands on its own just fine -- perfect for me since it's the first one I've read.

Detective John Finch works to unravel the mystery surrounding an unusual double murder on behalf of his mushroom masters. Finch and his city really come to life in Vandermeer's staccato, tactile prose. Finch is as fallible and anti-heroic as you expect any good noir detective to be. The mystery is weird, gets weirder, and ends with explosive consequences for Finch and his city.

I was fortunate enough to meet Jeff when I attended his "Booklife" seminar in Seattle in November. He talked about the challenges of adapting the detective genre to a fantasy novel. I think he managed it quite well. Thanks Jeff!

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I've already done a couple of blog entries on this, but it definitely belongs on this list, too.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Another great noir detective story, this time set in a far future where people store their minds on cortical stacks and "resleeve" them into cloned bodies whenever the old body wears out. With such serial immortality in the offing, you wouldn't think murder would be much of a problem -- just resleeve a backup stack into a new body and you're back in business (if you can afford it, that is). But former UN super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is pulled out of deep storage to investigate why a prominent businessman was murdered. Kovacs' client? A resleeved backup of the murdered man.

Altered Carbon is an electrifying page turner, full of lurid sex and cyberpunk-style violence. It challenges fundamental assumptions of what it means to be mortal--what it means to be human--when the rich and powerful can wear whatever body they want. Protagonist Kovacs is even more of an anti-hero than Finch. Both are unwilling detectives with tortured pasts, but Kovacs is closer to his feral nature. He's a brutal, deadly opponent, wielding the memories of a thousand lifetimes like knives. He's sometimes hard to sympathize with, but that serves to make our peeks at Kovacs' vulnerable side more meaningful.

The sequels to Altered Carbon (Broken Angels and Woken Furies) are also quite good, but they didn't have quite the same impact on me as did Altered Carbon.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

My wife has been encouraging me to read this for years, and I'm so glad I finally did. It's a classic story of well-meaning white missionaries who go to Africa (in this case, the Congo) and manage to ruin their lives in the process. Told from the point of view of the Mother and the four daughters in alternating chapters, the family's disentegration under its inflexible patriarch and naivete is one of the most damning, haunting, true things I've read.

The Poisonwood Bible can at times be painful to read, but it's a tale well-worth savoring. The characterizations of the four daughters is especially memorable. My favorite was Adah.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A book of ten short stories, each with a different main character, but linked to the other tales by overlapping events and characters. We start and end with misguided Quasar, a member of a Tokyo doomsday cult who helps perpetrate a sarin nerve-gas attack -- yet who is not entirely unsympathetic. Through the other stories, we experience themes of reincarnation, chance, artificial intelligence, and quantum physics.

Ghostwritten is definitely on my list to re-read.

Other Notables: Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente, Folktales of China edited by Wolfram Eberhard, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America by David A. Taylor

Still Reading: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake, and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

What did you read in 2009?

Still so much left to read!

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