Monday, December 22, 2003

The 2003 Reading List

I don't know if this says anything good about me or not, but in the past few years I've taken to keeping track of the books I read, with the vague goal of reading at least 50 every year (of which 25 have to be new and not re-reads). I crossed the finish line last night, and since it looks unlikely that I'll finish another book by the end of the year (one is easy but really long; the other is short but very technical), here's the list of what I read last year, with commentary when appropriate:

1. The Proud Highway, Hunter S. Thompson
First volume of the collected letters of HST. This is a pretty amazing read- it's a sort of accidental autobiography as you watch him go from being a total nobody to a major figure of American letters; it's also fascinating to watch his prose style improve as he goes.

This book is the main reason I've finally gotten off of my ass and started pursuing journalism with something resembling effort.

2. Ring of Fire- The Johnny Cash Reader
Collection of articles spanning the big man's career.

3. Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1, Brian Michael Bendis (Graphic Novel)
4. Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 4, Brian Michael Bendis (Graphic Novel)
Early in the year, I was offered the chance to review Ultimate Spidey for X-World; I was pretty sick of the books I was covering right then, so I took it, even though I'd never been much of a spider-fan. I power-read these two anthologies to catch up on continuity, and it was a pretty fun read. Although Bendis can ran into trouble when he's writing non-teen characters, he's absolutely in his element when he's doing this book. Go to X-World for lots more material on this…

5. The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkein
6. The Two Towers, Tolkein
7. Return of the King, Tolkein
I go back to Lord of the Rings every few years, and get something different out of it each time.

8. Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot, Al Franken
I am very glad that this book exists. I don't actually think that Franken's all that funny (he has moments, but he also labors for long stretches), but it was nice seeing someone stand up to Limbaugh.

9. Watchmen, Alan Moore (Graphic Novel)
They don't get much better than this. I did pick up on a couple of very small plot holes this time through, but this is still one of the crowning achievements of the comic book as a literary art.

10. Kingdom of Fear, Hunter S. Thompson
HST's on the short list of writers whom I'll rush out and buy in hardcover. I knew this wouldn't be on the level of his best work (and it wasn't), but it was still a fun, quick read. Like going for a quick drive around the block with your favorite uncle or something.

11. A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
Hmm. Zinn goes overboard occasionally, and he's simultaneously a lot more idealistic and pessimistic than I am, but I think he's right more often than he's wrong.

12. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, HST
Yes, I was on a pretty severe Thompson bender at the start of this year.

13. Drop City, T. C. Boyle
I've loved some of Boyle's stuff hated others. Looking back, I think Drop City may be his best work. Among other things, it gives you nice warts-and-all insights on environmentalism and the 60s.

14. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Walllace
When Wallace is on, he's awfully good. And he's on pretty much all the way through here. Hilarious and intelligent commentary on tennis, vacations, the Midwest, television, David Lynch, and more.

15. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
16. Jailbird, Vonnegut
I used to think that Vonnegut was a pretty shallow writer with awful prose and a bad tendancy to lean on potty jokes (the felt-tip picture of a rectum in Breakfast of Champions?) As I've gotten older, though, I've completely flipped- now I think he's a very wise, very funny man who knows how to get maximum effect out of minimum prose. Mother Night is a tiny book, but it has some profound things to say. And yes, it's funny.

17. Essential X-Men #1, Chris Claremont (Graphic novel)
This collects the material that makes up the first heyday of the X-Men. Claremont's work of this period (he has since come back a couple of times, and seems to be hellbent on pissing away his legacy by churning out some really awful stuff) makes up the body of 'canonical' X-Men continuity. The vast majority of the things that made it into the movies and the cartoons are cribbed from this era, and it took twenty years and Grant Morrison for the book to get back to this level of interest.

18. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
Rand is grotesquely wrong about a lot of things, and has the extremely irritating habit of making her villains into ideological strawmen, but it's still stirring to read the lone-genius-against-the-world stories.

19. Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
This has long been on the list of books I meant to read someday. Well, now I've done it, and I have to say that I don't really understand why Roth is so revered. Oh well.

20. Fantastic Four: Imaginauts, Mark Waid (graphic novel)
It was an impulse buy, and it ended up paying off (except that I'm now hooked on Waid's FF work, and have added yet another comic to the purchase list). Waid doesn't really write this as a superhero story; for him, it's science fiction with a dash of celebrity-culture satire.

21. Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
As with Roth, I've always meant to check Gibson out. And now that I have, I can't say that I'm all that impressed. This was mainly an exercise in name-checking hot brands. Whee. It read like Douglas Coupland on one of his bad days (I suppose it's more accurate to say that Coupland in a slump reads like Gibson, but whatever).

22. Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins
Robbins used to be the king of the heap for me; my love has waned a little bit, but he's still a fun read (as long as you avoid Still Life with Woodpecker).

23. Twentieth Century Eightball, Dan Clowes (graphic novel)
Of all the writers on the planet, Clowes seems to be the closest to my worldview and sense of humor.

24. Villa Incognito, Tom Robbins
Proof that Robbins is losing his mojo as he ages. This book isn't a train wreck, but it resembles a truncated imitation of a Robbins novel. Sharp drop-off from Fierce Invalids.

25. Essential Fantastic Four Volume 1, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby (graphic novel)
Pretty interesting, especially if you know the history of how this stuff changed the comics landscape in the 60s, but to be honest I'd rather read Waid's present-day stuff. I know, heretical.

26. Poker Nation, (can't remember author)
Book itself was so-so. But it planted the seed that led to my current poker craze.

27. Clumsy (can't remember author) (graphic novel)
Pretty impressive self-published graphic novel about a doomed relationship. The art is intentionally primitive, but the emotional punch is heavy.

28. The Stand, Stephen King
I thought it might be fun to re-read some King (worshipped him in 8th grade; no use for him since) and see how he held up. His prose stinks, his worldview is pretty restricted, and some of his dialogue is laughable, but his ideas are big and the guy knows how to tell a story. He's more good than bad.

29. Weirdos from Another Planet, Bill Waterston
The world could use more Calvin and Hobbes.

30. Summer Blonde, Adrian Tomine (graphic novel)
I really liked Tomine's story in the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002, so I snapped up this anthology. It's pretty good, but not overwhelming. He suffers a little in that his style looks enough like Clowes's to invite comparison, and you have to be pretty fucking good to come out on top when compared to Clowes.

31. Generation of Swine, Hunter Thompson
Collection of Thompson's work during the 80s. Not his best stuff, although it's pretty interesting to read his take on Iran-Contra as that starts to go down.

32. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson.
And this, by contrast, probably is his best work. If you have any interest in politics or the English language, go read this book. It's worth the effort. And the 2004 campaign appears to have some odd parallels.

33. The God Particle, Leon Lederman
A user-friendly, fun romp though particle physics. If you like science, you should enjoy this one.

34. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollin
A turgid, sentimental romp through plant biology. If you like science, give this piece of crap a wide berth.

35. Napalm and Silly Putty, George Carlin
Pretty funny, but Carlin is a little better live. Delivery counts for a lot.

36. Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar (graphic novel)
Verrrrry clever miniseries that redoes the Superman mythos with Big Blue growing up in the Ukraine and becoming a Soviet superhero. I've got an idea for an essay based on this book that would examine Superman and the American national self-image; it's just a matter of finding a mag that'll take it.

37. Being There, (can't remember author)
Loved the movie. Loved the ideas of the book, but thought they lent themselves more to cinema.

38. Quimby the Mouse, Chris Ware (graphic novel)
Every bit as weird and engaging as Jimmy Corrigan.

39. Something Under the Bed Is Drooling, Waterston

40. Foundation, Isaac Asimov
41. Foundation and Empire, Asimov.
Ideas: fascinating. Prose: not.

42. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (can't remember author)
Told from the first-person point of view of an autistic child, it's a stunt that you expect to fail, but it doesn't. Very funny and well-done.

43. Love Me, Garrison Keillor
I hate Keillor's cornball we-midwesterners-are-a-bunch-of-silly-hicks routine, but I used to love his advice column for Salon.com. So I picked up his book about an advice columnist, and it turned out to be pretty good. That still doesn't excuse him for all of his Prairie Home Companion nonsense, though.

44. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
45. Children of God, Mary Doria Russell
Reviewed here at BBF a while ago. If I were a better man, I'd link to it, but this list is already taking far more effort than I expected to. I suck.

But the books don't.

46. Songs of the Doomed, HST
My guess is that I will not read nearly as much Thompson next year.

47. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Hoo boy. I love IJ, but I can certainly see why some people would hate it with much passion. This was actually my second pass through- the first time, I was just concentrating on finishing. This time, I was able to clear up a bunch of questions that I had from the first read. This is one funny, frustrating book.

48. Milk It, Jim DeRogatis
Collection of DeRogatis' rock crit from the 90s… it functions as a sort of history of alternative rock. That much rock criticism could be a brain-killer, but DeRogatis is a pretty good writer, so it works. He is a little Chicago-and-Seattle-o-centric, which means that more attention is paid to crap like Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins than is really necessary.

49. Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser
I really liked Fast Food Nation; this one is pretty obviously an attempt to cash in on the latter's success. It's really just three separate articles smashed together into one book, on the theory that they all involve the "underground economy" in America. There's not a lot of cohesion between the three, or even that much analysis within them about this underground economy. Each article would be fine on its own if you were reading a magazine, but it's a little tough to wade through the whole thing.

50. Don't Know Much About History, Kenneth Davis
A light, single-volume overview of the history of the US. Not a whole lot of meat, but it's good for the broad outlines.

All right, then. I feel like I should also point out that I pissed away a good month trying to wade through Gravity's Rainbow before the giant talking adenoid wore down my resolve. Maybe I'll whip that sumbitch in 2004.

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