Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Books of 2012


When I was a teenager, I always had a book with me, the bigger the better. I still remember reading both Roots and Battlefield Earth simultaneously when I was a junior in high school, and carrying those two books with me wherever I went--about 1700 pages of literature total--drew quite a few comments from my teachers. Unfortunately, my hunger for reading fell away during college, where professors emphasized analyzing literature over enjoying it; the teenager who once read dozens of books in an average school year was suddenly the twenty-something undergrad who read barely two or three a semester, and even then found little enjoyment in them. Even after graduation, during my first two years of full-time teaching, I was working 14-16 hours a day, which left little time for pleasure reading.

However, now that I'm in my fourth year of teaching and my schedule has evened out--though I still put in upwards of 12 hours a day at work, 6am to 6pm--I can't get enough to read, and it doesn't matter the subject, style, or author. This year alone, I read books about forensic science, Theodore Roosevelt, zombified mothers, wormholes, demonic possession, the Trojan War, South Korea, Walter Cronkite, Superman, a World War II submarine, homicidal cats, dystopian teen prisons, Mumbai slums, Saturday Night Live, gay marriage, and so on. There were graphic novels, biographies, memoirs, poetry collections, short story anthologies, children's books, comic books, young adult novels, works of narrative nonfiction, and immortal works of literature. And they came from everywhere, too: India, Spain, Colombia, South Korea, the United States, England, France, Chile, and Iraq. It was a prodigious year, to be sure, and one that I hope to trounce next year.

Below are the books I read or re-read (*) in 2012, in order. Some of my favorites, for those who are curious, are shown above.

  1. The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (David Grann)
  2. Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and My Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders (Franz Lidz)
  3. The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith)
  4. How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator (Andre de Guillame)
  5. Blankets (Craig Thompson)
  6. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Marjane Satrapi)
  7. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Tom Standage)
  8. Pyongyang: A Journey into North Korea (Guy Delisle and Helge Dascher)
  9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick)
  10. Night Shift* (Stephen King)
  11. Pulphead: Essays (John Jeremiah Sullivan)
  12. Lord of the Flies* (William Golding)
  13. The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Benjamin Wallace)
  14. Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (North, Bennardo, and Malki!, editors)
  15. Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
  16. Anthem* (Ayn Rand)
  17. Cosmopolis (Don DeLillo)
  18. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
  19. Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust (Victoria Barnett)
  20. Night* (Elie Wiesel)
  21. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Geoffrey Kabaservice)
  22. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Evidence in Jazz Age New York (Deborah Blum)
  23. Losing My Faculties: A Teacher's Story (Brendan Halpin)
  24. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed)
  25. The Fried Twinkie Manifesto: And Other Tales of Disaster and Damnation (Ryan Moehring)
  26. Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam (Pope Brock)
  27. Do Not Ask Us What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Robert Draper)
  28. Here, Bullet: Poems (Brian Turner)
  29. August: Orange County (Tracy Letts)
  30. All My Friends Are Dead (Avery Monsen and Jory John)
  31. The Taking Tree: A Shrill Parody (Shrill Travesty and Lucy Ruth Cummins)
  32. Go the F**k to Sleep (Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes)
  33. That's Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale (Matt Mogk and Aja Wells)
  34. Cronkite (Douglas Brinkley)
  35. Skipping Towards Gomorrah (Dan Savage)
  36. The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell)
  37. Endgame: Bobby Fisher's Remarkable Rise and Fall--from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Frank Brady)
  38. Trout Fishing in America (Richard Brautigan)
  39. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (Tom Bissell)
  40. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Luis Sepulveda)
  41. That Night (Alice McDermott)
  42. The Stupidest Angel (Christopher Moore)
  43. Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year (Charles Bracelen Flood)
  44. The Best Man (Gore Vidal)
  45. The Committment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family* (Dan Savage)
  46. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life and Death (Jean Dominique Bauby; Jeremy Leggatt, trans.)
  47. HHhH (Laurent Binet; Sam Taylor, trans.)
  48. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
  49. England Under Hitler (Comer Clarke)
  50. Book (Robert Grudin)
  51. So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel (Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch)
  52. It's Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein)
  53. Skinny Dip (Carl Hiaasen; audio book, read by Barry Bostwick; abridged)
  54. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
  55. The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code (Sam Kean)
  56. Kingdom Come (Mark Waid and Alex Ross)
  57. Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion (Peter F. Stevens; audio book, read by Robertson Dean)
  58. Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld)
  59. The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown; audio book, read by Paul Michael)
  60. Where Things Come Back (John Corey Whaley)
  61. Lost in Shang-Ri La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (Mitchell Zuckoff; audio book, read by the author)
  62. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
  63. Behemoth (Scott Westerfeld)
  64. First Day on Earth (Cecil Castellucci)
  65. The Ticking (Renee French and Chris Staros)
  66. American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang)
  67. Tricks (Ellen Hopkins)
  68. Pitch Black (Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton)
  69. Demo: The Collected Edition (Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan)
  70. The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court (Jeffrey Toobin)
  71. Stargirl* (Jerry Spinelli)
  72. Me the People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America (Kevin Bleyer)
  73. Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible (Tim Gunn)
  74. Goliath (Scott Westerfeld)
  75. How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You (Matthew Inman and The Oatmeal)
  76. Goliath (Tom Gauld)
  77. World War Z (Max Brooks)
  78. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Rachel Maddow)
  79. On Bring Different: What it Means to be Homosexual (Merle Miller)
  80. Colonel Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
  81. Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (Jon Ronson)
  82. How to be a Person: The Stranger's Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself (Editors, the Stranger)
  83. Scorch Atlas (Blake Butler)
  84. Bonechiller (Graham McNamee)
  85. Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality (John Schwartz)
  86. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories (Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, and Maggie Stiefvater)
  87. The Odyssey* (Homer; graphic novel illustrated by Gareth Hinds)
  88. Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
  89. The Silver Pony: A Story in Pictures (Lynd Ward)
  90. Chicken With Plums (Marjane Satrapi)
  91. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrab)
  92. Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins)
  93. Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)
  94. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Katherine Boo)
  95. Down the Rabbit Hole (Juan Pablo Villalobos; Rosalind Harvey, trans.)
  96. Of Love and Other Demons (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Edith Grossman, trans.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Children ("Down the Rabbit Hole" by Juan Pablo Villalobos)

In 2010, Emma Donoghue's novel Room caused a minor sensation among critics and readers alike--by their own admissions, neither group had ever really read anything like it. The story of a mother and son kept imprisoned in an isolated room by a kidnapper known only as Old Nick, the story is told from the point of view of the child, his situation unclear at first. He speaks as you'd expect all five year-olds to speak, in riddles and personifcations that are less about adolescent confusion and just simply about an immature mindset, one built half on misunderstandings about the world--referring to objects as though they were living proper nouns--and half on his mother's abstract ways of explaining away their god-awful situation. Had Donoghue written the novel from any other other perspective--the mother's, Old Nick's, even a detached and dispassionate third-person--Room would have lost the uniqueness and voice that led it to become such a bestseller in the first place.

Juan Pablo Villalobos employs the same technique in Down the Rabbit Hole, his first novel. And while Villalobos had quite a few impediments to gaining the same amount of success and popularity as Donoghue--he didn't have an established readership or credibility with critics, his novel came in at only 70 pages, and it was first published in Spain, meaning the time spent on translations caused it to be published after Donoghue's novel, even though it appeared in print the very same year--he manages to use the technique much more effectively than Donoghue.

Told from the point of view of Tochtli, a nine year-old Mexican boy, Down the Rabbit Hole starts in much the same way as Room: from the little information we are given outright, we know that our narrator is being kept in seclusion by an older man whose identity is sketchy at first; he follows a strict routine within the boundaries of his home; his mind is allowed to run free with fantasy; and the outside world, available only through a television set, is kept far away. The boy's one persistent dream is to have his very own Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, and he dreams of this little achievement between lessons with his teacher--Mazatzin--and repeated viewings of the same samurai films. As he does, we slowly piece together the reasons behind his seclusion--his father is a violent drug kingpin--and how his father's depravity--a shed full of loaded guns, a running menagerie of prostitutes, violent beheadings, bribing government officials--is treated as little more than the curious eccentricities of a dad who is otherwise doting and compassionate towards his son.

Unlike Donoghue's novel, Down the Rabbit Hole is short--a decision that keeps the first-person technique fresh. In Room, which clocks in at almost 400 pages, the first-person point-of-view becomes tiresome after a while; after all, Donoghue is keeping her readers perpetually trapped in the simplified world of an adolescent. Villalobos, on the other hand, gives us just enough of Tochtli to build a clear, coherent, and interesting story before it becomes redundant and frustrating. By the time the novel closes, we've come to understand Tochtli's life--and the life of his father--seen him pursue his hippo dream to its inevitable, disappointing failure, and been offered enough foreshadowing about what is to come--two taxidermied hippo heads, the significance of golden crowns, a samurai-film sacrifice--that we understand where the story is going without also having to be led there. Villalobos manages to use a literary technique long enough to craft a wonderful little story without the technique--and, in a sense, the narrator--overstaying its welcome.