2003 readinglist review

Here it is, the thoroughly unnecessary year-end list that you haven’t been waiting for, i.e., some-books-I’ve-read-in-2003-and-think-you-might-like-to-read.

Split into two groups, you will find (1) books that I would recommend with blind fervor [“must-reads”] and (2) books that are fun, competent and/or generally good to read [“decent books”], and that I would recommend, but not as unequivocally as those in the first list. All the books in these somewhat haphazard lists are ones I’ve read this year. That said, those that I’ve read toward the beginning of the year I certainly do not recall as well as those I’ve read just this past week, so there’s inevitably going to be some skew to my comments. Add salt grain as desired. There are some books that didn’t make the rather slapdash cut, but for the most part I won’t bother finishing a book if it doesn’t pique sufficient interest-levels. This may make absolutely no difference to you. It may. I can’t imagine why it would.

Here are the lists.

“Must-Reads” (in absolutely no order whatsoever) and why you should read them, in 25 words or less (excluding quotes).Upside Down by Eduardo Galeano (non-fiction) : brilliant. Highlights the absurdities of our world. I picked it up because I was keen on the cover. Inside, it reads: “This book now constitutes a threat to the English-speaking world. That would not have been possible without the fervent complicity of Mark Fried, Tom Engelhardt, Susan Bergholz, Bert Snyder, and the Metropolitan editorial team. One day, they will have to answer for their deeds.”

The Girl With Curious Hair [and other stories] by David Foster Wallace : glowing and wild. Daring and quick. Stories for any state of mind, that can be re-read forever; puzzles whose pieces have been warped and camouflaged.

This Place on Earth by Alan Thein Durning (non-fiction) : extremely readable. One person’s attempt to piece together a sustainable relationship between humans and the earth. Earnest.

My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner : sentences that you would never expect to read and combinations of words that you would never, ever expect to see. Exquisitely fast and fun; brash. Read previous (and worthless) comments.

Trespassing by John Mitchell (non-fiction) : an impulsively anti-authoritarian take on property and the lines that draw it. Traces a fascinating history with entertaining and sometimes troublesome vignettes. Rambling and illuminating.

Beyond Growth by Herman E. Daly (non-fiction) : principles by which we might be expected to survive; read it and think. Some heavier economics, but with elegant explanations.

The Names by Don DeLillo : possibly my favorite DeLillo book. Evocative of Italo Calvino in a roundabout way. Mysterious and cool, violent and strangely quiet. Nearly perfect.

Americana by Don DeLillo : a strange kind of road trip. The best first novel I’ve ever read. Parallels, in some ways, Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, written decades later.

Underworld by Don Delillo : a rich and involving novel, full of detail and texture. Unquestionably ambitious. Indescribably wonderful passages.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver : epic, sweeping, fantastic

Still Life With Woodpecker and Another Roadside Attraction, both by Tom Robbins : playful

Decent books. Commentary where available. Individual mileage may vary.

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood : I kept expecting it to get better. What kept me going was the excellent writing and the ascerbic wit (sometimes exceedingly dry and subtle) underlying the entire narrative. (And the nested stories.) The book came to me used; I’m not sure I would have sought it out new.
  • Inamorata by Joseph Gangemi : see previous thoughts & comments.
  • Command, and I will follow by Alberto Moravia : Short stories translated into English from Italian (unless, of course, you find yourself reading the Italian). Fantastic.
  • King of Fish by David Montgomery (non-fiction) : a salmon tale; read past review.
  • Why I’m Like This by Cynthia Kaplan : immensely entertaining autobiographical short stories. Very worthwhile.
  • Found in the Street by Patricia Highsmith : well above and beyond average. A rather unexpected kind of suspense/mystery book. Atypically good. But not atypically enough to become a must-read.
  • Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol (non-fiction) : While taken from experiences in the late 1980s and very early 90s, this book remains highly relevant to the state of highly unequal education in the US. Kozol isn’t a fantastic writer, but he has devastating insight and an eye for poignance.
  • Southwesterly Wind by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (March 2004) : an interesting, low-key murder mystery of a slightly unusual sort. Set in Brazil. A curious resolution.
  • Hot Plastic by Peter Craig (March 2004) : Decent. A fiery start winds down as the book draws on and the plot thickens. The thickening is irregular, like lumpy gravy, but the story is relatively fast-paced and exciting.
  • Beulah Land by Krista McGruder : short stories, some of them intriguing, others, not so much. I liked the first half (give or take) much more than the tail-end of the book.
  • Thinking Ecologically by Marian Chertow, Daniel Esty, eds. (non-fiction) : a collection of essays (essentially) written by different authors, it’s only reasonable that some of these pieces are more interesting than others. At times academic and dry, there are still numerous nuggets of wisdom in this green-covered book.
  • The Body Artist by Don Delillo : my least favorite DeLillo book, and not a place to start if you haven’t read other DeLillo. Still enjoyable, though.
  • Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole : disappointing, given the spectacular Confederacy of Dunces experience. To be able to put things into context, however, you should know that Toole wrote Neon Bible at the age of sixteen. For this, NB is extraordinary. It’s a short, quick read, and mildly entertaining at that. Not something to seek out at the far corners of the globe, but a nice read in the dentist’s waiting room.
  • Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins – I found the narration not too gimmicky (nor too distracting), but others might disagree. Read the first three pages (or so) and you should more or less be able to figure out which camp you belong to.
  • The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler (non-fiction)
  • Mao II by Don Delillo
  • Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner (non-fiction) : Oh, the things we fear. Illustrates the disconnect between what we fear and what’s likely to happen.
  • Men in Black by Scott Spencer : an oddly entertaining book, I’m not sure why.
  • Players by Don Delillo
  • End Zone by Don Delillo : there are few occasions when I expect to find myself reading a book about (or at least involving) football. This is one of them.
  • Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and other essays by Gore Vidal (non-fiction)
  • Libra by Don Delillo
  • Running Dog by Don Delillo

Coming later: movie ratings and other crap.