Year in review: 2016

Well! 2016! Right? Right?

Right.

Books and I had an odd year.

I read my first full audiobook (Bush by Jean Edward Smith, which was a weird but ultimately interesting choice) and then tried one or two others but didn’t stick with them. Nothing against them, just, podcasts became more my thing for the long daily commute.

I’m still a paper-book addict. But I did find a niche for myself where dipping into ebooks makes sense—poking away at various books about coding and such on my phone during the baby’s nap time. Not too many books I actually finished, for various reasons, but these dark, quiet, snuggly hours do account for a fair number of pages.

I started off the year on a bad note, I think, picking things up and putting things down—according to my Goodreads profile I didn’t actually finish a book until mid-February. And then there were a couple graphic novels. There were some slow stretches where I’d plod through a single book over the course of multiple weeks. And then later I fell into a 2.5 month stretch dedicated to two books (I mean, they were fat books, A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava and The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, but still) (I enjoyed them both, by the by).

And then things picked up weird, crazy steam in the home stretch. I finished 35 books in 2016; 12 of those came in November and December.

And I’m pretty sure 2016 was the first year I didn’t post to this blog once since I started it. I did other blogging, elsewhere, about other things. But I sort of feel like I’ve forgotten how to write about books, how to write about what I’m reading.

How to write, really.

Strange year.

I ended on a high point with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, a fast-moving tale of global paranoia that did just enough weird left turns to jazz up what could have been an otherwise fairly rote story. Oddly, I actually started this one earlier in the year, before falling into one of my reading funks; I’m glad I finally finished putting off finishing it off. It would have paired well with Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction, one of my semi-conscious attempts to dip into more strong non-fiction this year; I’m not necessarily sure it told me too much I hadn’t already been aware of, or at least suspected, or at least would have pretended to have known about if you’d asked me about it at a party, but it pulled a lot of that stuff (the way mathematical models and/or data science-y stuff is used to manipulate and/or profit off individuals in frankly awful and often terrifying ways) together into a flowing, coherent, eye-opening narrative. The net effect is it makes you want to log off the Internet and move into a log cabin, immediately.

As has been a summer tradition for the last three years, I read a Gormenghast novel. This year’s was the final novel, Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, and I’m already sad there aren’t more novels to come. It’s a fascinating series, a strange play on what “fantasy” is—I mean, not that I’m much an expert on fantasy, really, as I’ve only started dipping into it the last few years, but. The series feels like the closest I’ve come to finding that slow-burn, long-bath experience with a piece of literature in a while, which I’ve heard described but have rarely exactly felt myself—I really enjoyed how unhurried the prose and story felt in equal measure. I could sincerely imagine re-reading it, even though re-reading things seems like a terrible idea, what with all the still-to-be-read-once things waiting in all the wings.

I can also easily imagine re-reading the Expanse series, which I caught all the way up on this year, reading book five earlier in the year and then book six shortly after it came out, and now I have to wait for new books to come out, and it hurts. It hurts. But in the good way. Getting back in touch, at least a little, with sci-fi like this, has been good; brings back some of that childhood enthusiasm for writing that never exactly got lost along the way but which gets sort of sidetracked, or something. I hope to work another series or two into the mix in the coming years.

A handful of other books I liked, in various ways, this year, and which, if I had actually been blogging this year, I might have actually blogged about, but which now I’ll just dump here in bullet form:

  • Fiction
    • To Walk the Night, by William Sloane
    • The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam
    • Beatrice, by Stephen Dixon
    • S., J.J. Abrams
    • The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning
    • The Man in the Picture, by Susan Hill
    • The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra
  • Non-fiction
    • The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by
      Brendan I. Koerner
    • Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner
    • The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation, by Adam Steltzner
    • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

And, well, there’s 2016, really. Good times.

Next up: going big, or going home.

Books I’ve enjoyed (to varying degrees) since my last post, and might recommend, depending on conditions too numerous to list at this point in time

I mean, I don’t know. There’s some I could take off. There’s some I could put on? There’s also no real order to the list. It’s a bit of blog throat clearing.

  • The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters.
  • Wonderland, Stacey D’Erasmo.
  • Binary Star, Sarah Gerard.
  • The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro.
  • Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes.
  • The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum.
  • Neverhome, Laird Hunt.
  • I Remember You: A Ghost Story, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
  • Night Film, Marisha Pessl.
  • The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson.

Though, I mean, for all that, like, holy hell, that Wonderland book, I mean…damn. And also obviously and always and forever Kazuo Ishiguro, but you knew that already, assuming you’ve been reading my blog since 1987, or whenever blogging was invented. Ahem.

Ahem.

I’ve fallen in love with The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I sometimes come off like a snob)

At the risk of speaking snobbishly of black-and-white straw men and paper-thin stereotypes, I think there’s two general outcomes for those of us who grew up on science fiction. We either become nerds, or we become English majors. By which I mean, we either stay in love with it and stick with it for the rest of our lives, or we “graduate” to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and speak only furtively, in our cups, of our misspent, naive youths.

I know, I know. Tongue-in-cheek, foot-in-mouth, it’s not so simple. The straw man is easily shoved out an airlock and the English major has no clothes. Bear with me; I promise, gray is my favorite color.*

The second case has long been the extreme to which I’ve felt myself flung toward, accidentally or intentionally. Not all the way, of course, but enough to feel a certain kinship with that hypothetical fellow, but I’ve never once doubted the validity and power and utility and excellence and entertainment of genre fiction, and in my cups, I’d knife you in a bar fight on its behalf, but, that said, whatever happened between my slacker freshman year of high school when I forgot that I liked learning things and doing well on tests and my Brothers Karamazov-loving overachiever senior year of high school when I stayed up late the night before the final just to finish reading the last 300 pages or so has had certain after-effects that have ripped across my life to date, such as a tendency away from the genre fiction I grew up on and loved from an early age and toward books about people doing people-stuff or whatever.

Call it accidental snobbery.

Unintentional elitism.

Semi-unconscious biases.

Being a jerk.

I apologize.

It’s not to say I haven’t read genre since; it’s just that maybe I’ve leaned toward the genre’s literary cross-over heavy-hitters? The China Miévilles, the Jonathan Lethems. The ones where, you know, it’s cool, because, like, they’re not pulp, like, they’re actually literary, man.

Really, I do apologize. For all I’ve said, for all I’ll ever say.

The problem is, whatever your cognitive dissonance and his output levels might tell you, humankind can not live on William Vollmann alone, and as much as I’m essentially and critically entertained through much of the super heavy ironic scare quotes lit-er-ahhh-tschyeeoor I regularly reach for, as much of that reading material should be appreciated for its entertainment value and not just for the ways it quote unquote speaks volumes to our minds about the essentials of the human condition, there do come these points where, gods be damned, I just want a story that takes me out of my own head for a couple hours, and then maybe a couple more hours after that; in the eternal struggle between truth and beauty, I want space ships that blow each other up and dragons that breathe fire, a bit of the old ultraviolence. I want technicolor strobe-light laser beams dancing across my eyeballs and closing credit sequences with heavy 90’s alt-rock screaming out of the speakers as I walk out of the cold vaccuum of deep space dazzled out into the 90 degree sunlight with popcorn grease staining my t-shirt and too much damn Diet Coke in my gut, ready to go back to whatever comes next.

I haven’t been to the movies in way too long, but that’s a story for another post.

The problem, I guess, is that I’m also a grown-ass man who can’t stand bad writing worth a damn anymore. I may have a more flexible definition of “bad” than some others do, of course, but still, the beauty of language will always be a deal maker or breaker for me, I guess.

First world problems.

Point being, as much as I might feel the longing to get wrapped up in a giant comfortable space opera blanket, if the fabric itches and scratches, I’m going to claw my way out before I have a chance to get warm. I won’t name names, but I’ve left a few books like this behind, that just didn’t do it for me. In some ways I’ve wondered if it wasn’t them, if it was really just me, if I was remembering wrongly what it was I liked about sci-fi when I was younger and read it all the time, if, maybe, there really are some homes you can’t go back to again, even when they haven’t changed a damn bit.

Then I picked up Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

Two second cut of that Maxwell cassette advertisement.

It’s the kind of surprising alignment of right book, right time, that happens now and then, though maybe not often enough; when, you know, your brain needs something and your heart needs something and then there’s a book in your hands, and it’s saying, “Yes, yes. I know. Look. I just blew up a space ship for you,” and it’s just somehow perfect. Midway through the book I’d forgotten the other two books I’d taken out from the library at the same time and I was back at the library picking up books two and three in the Corey series because I wasn’t going to screw around and not have the next books in the series immediately at hand when I’d finished the first one, I mean, come on, don’t be ridiculous.

What I admire with my head about these books is the way they balance character and plot development through crisp, tight, propulsive language. I’ve started and stopped books in which the writing felt insulting, somehow, but I didn’t get that, here; I mean, no, we’re not talking William Gass, you’re not going to pick up a paragraph and chew the meaning out of its syllables, it’s function over form, but there’s enough attention to form to make the experience of processing this language smooth and enjoyable. And every now and then they drop a phrase or two that strike the match under a little old fashioned awe and wonder. It’s just enough for what I want these books to do.

What I love with my heart about these books, specifically the first book, is the fact that they refuse to screw around. The first book, there’s a blurb on there about it being the novel equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and, yes, oh gods, yes. I think that the writers’ directive to themselves (the name being a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who teamed up to create this series) in the first book was to ensure that if it seemed like nothing much had happened in the last ten pages, to blow up a ship, start a firefight, or unleash some fresh, mysterious horror that drives a sense of the universe they’re building around the story’s events. Books two and three, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, both settle into a steadier groove, more ready for the marathon than the sprint, in which the scope and mythology expand, the mysteries of the universe grow more detailed and intriguing, all of which remains in service of a story about, of course, humanity, and the fact that we’re, you know, kind of a big old bag of screw-up. And throughout they still write excellent, chaotic sequences, keeping the entertainment value high and the page-turning qualities intact throughout.

I just finished the third book today and have decided to move on to other things, fresh wind in my sails, for at least a spell, before I move on to the fourth novel, or any of the assorted novellas that flesh out the series. What’s exciting about the writers’ process is that they are churning this series out quickly and, it would seam, with little loss of quality, even as the focus of the series shifts its attention from book to book. Last I checked the fifth book is due out next year and they’re under contract for another handful of books after that. If they keep the pace up this series could be my go-to summer-event series for a while to come. And even if not, these first three books form a wonderful sort of trilogy, and that first book just absolutely rocked.

* – Well, okay, it’s actually, like, a greenish-blue color, but, whatever.

Drive

What if there is no one at the wheel.

What do you mean.

I mean we wonder so much about intent in this novel, about Kohler’s intentions versus Gass’s intentions and whose are primary and how we are meant to conflate or separate the two, but what if neither writer nor narrator is driving this book. What if the whole thing, the bloated bundle of pages, the complete collection of words, the entire enchilada, what if it is all simply symptom, cause’s effect, history’s inevitable utter vomit.

What must of necessity come back out when you stuff the world full to bursting with violence and optimism.

Of course then the question is: what next.

Loss in life

Loss in life: that’s what I mourn for; that’s what we all mourn for, all of us who have been touched by the fascism of the heart. It’s not having held what was in our hands to hold; not having felt the feelings we were promised by out parents, friends, and lovers; not having got the simple goods we were assured we had honestly earned and rightfully had coming.

— from The Tunnel by William Gass

You can read pages and pages of this book without connecting with a word of it, or without seeing the connections that might (or might not) be forming between the words, between them and you. It can feel very much like trying to see the entirety of the horizon from a single black jigsaw puzzle piece, plucked at random from a jar of thick sludge. Who is this guy, what is his story, what is he trying to tell me? Why do I sort of detest him even when I sometimes sort of think he’s maddeningly brilliant in the way he spins his words into meaningful prose?

For all its dispensing of plot and deconstruction of character, though, The Tunnel is still, at heart, a confessional, a book (weirdly) within the confessional tradition. And therefore begs us to allow ourselves to see ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, or, in this book, in his chair. Now and then, recognition glimmers. However murky. However much it sits uncomfortably in our laps.

It’s a perfect book for today, in its way. In our social media culture, how much of each other do we actually ever get to know? Whither the connections?

And breaking, and breaking

I’ve been reading The Tunnel by William H. Gass for the latest Big Read at Conversational Reading. In large part because it’s one of those many books I’ve bought along the way with great intentions only to watch them slowly collect years’ worth of dust and dammit if I’m not going to read at least a few of them before I die.

“Reading” might be the wrong word though. The wrong term. It’s more like, more like drifting through it, like a photo of a vacation taken before the trip actually takes place. You see it but you don’t really get it. You don’t taste the ice cream. You don’t sweat the sun. You’re not at all there.

It really is a constant, claustrophobic reminder of human morality, of limitations on experience. A single trip is almost wasted on trying to grab it as it happens. While a return trip is only going to cost you.

Dearly.

I’ve been breaking

I finished school in May.

Since then, I’ve been on break, which mostly means I’ve been going to my day job and then trying very hard to do not a thing at night, and failing, a lot. Turns out when you’re used to going 80 miles an hour for about that many hours a week, when you suddenly have buckets of free time, and a desire to quote-unquote relax, it’s real easy to wind up staring at the walls, locked in the embrace of indecision. That is, when you’re not getting sucked into pretty much whatever you can justify as a way of breaking out of your “break” in order to not, you know, waste the entire night staring at the walls.

Reading, in particular, has been a casualty of this war against time, lately. I’ve started and stopped more books in the last few weeks than I have in probably the last ten years combined. It’s a little silly.

The last book I actually finished was a doozy, though. Heliopolis by James Scudamore is a pretty fantastic little book about economic disparity of the most extreme sort. It’s one of those books that’s pretty great throughout and then the last few pages just pick the whole book up and slam it through the hoop it’s created for itself. Killer stuff. Recommended.

So maybe it’s a case of having a hard time finding the book that’s meant to follow that. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve tried too soon to break out of my YA rock block. School got intense and it was about all I could handle this last semester. Of course, even then, I was reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, so, like, yeah. Brain, pummeled. And now I’m two-thirds through the Hunger Games trilogy, with the third book finally on the shelf across from me. I suspect I’ll have better luck with that than, say, DeLillo. I mean, Libra started fine and all, but. DeLillo and burn-out do not go well together.

The timing sucks. A bunch of large-scale group reads have started up across the Internet this week, such as #OccupyGaddis, a read of William Gaddis’s J R, and the Conversational Reading Big Read of A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, both of which sound awesome fun to the version of Darby that has the extra free time and the desire to use some of it contemplating and writing about tough literature much more often than he’s been able to the last few years, less awesome to the version of Darby that is dealing with the brain-cycle hiccup train crash that is that free time.

I’ve got things I should be doing, too, anyway, I guess. But.

In other news I’ve got a book review coming out in August that I somehow wrote during this last semester of school—I look forward to finding out what I actually wrote when the review comes out.

And I’m getting ready to self-publish a chapter of the graphic novel I started as a school project. Because it is 2012. And I can. So I will. (My imaginary Kickstarter campaign has already netted me an imaginary quajilliontry dollars so I ought to be able to handle the expense of posting the PDF and saying, “Fly.”)

Recent readings, and some bold claims

I’ve read almost as many books in the first two months of 2012 as I did in all of 2011. That statement? Not literally true. Give me another two months. Then the numbers will add up.

Granted, I don’t think I’ve picked up a single book with more than 300 pages in it since I finished A Clash of Kings shortly after the new year began. So. There’s that.

It’s been a weird mixed bag; some stuff I might have expected to like and didn’t like too much, some stuff I’ve gotten really excited about. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley was delightfully entertaining; one of those fun books with some good solid brains in it that really deserves to make the rounds. (And when Tina Fey picks up a British accent and nabs the lead role in the movie version, the one I’ve cast and shot in my head, I will be at the midnight showing.) I’m having a lot of fun with the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I look forward to wrapping up this week. There’s a book I’m going to be reviewing elsewhere in a couple months that I kind of want everyone to read.

And then there’s Steve Erickson’s newest novel, These Dreams of You.

I try not to use the phrase “have to,” as in, “you have to read this book,” because at the end of the day, it’s usually a lie. You don’t have to. You won’t die.

Still, you really probably ought to read this one.

I’m coming back around to it to say more, and I plan to spend some portion of the back half of 2012 rereading Erickson’s collected works, because it’s time for that to happen and I want to find what threads of his new book I can in his old work, but in the here and now I wanted to reiterate that These Dreams of You is the book people should pick up and start reading every time they consider complaining about how Jonathan Franzen shit in their Cyber-O’s that morning, or whatever. Which is pretty much all people do anymore on Twitter, I’m convinced.

Because, let me cut through the (slightly forced comparison) crap and lay it out: Franzen, at the end of the day, tried to do some mighty zeitgeist-capturing in Freedom, which he didn’t do so well, but also not so horribly. And then he’s said other stuff. Whatever. He’s human. It’s cool. Erickson, on the other hand, is a god, and in a godly fashion, he took the last 50 years of America and rolled it up into a 300 page story, completely resetting the bar for what Modern American Fiction ought to look like, and basically showing us our soul, and it is a confused one.

I tell you: he nailed it.

New video

I Am In Here from Darby Dixon III on Vimeo.

Kinetic type interpretation of the opening paragraphs of the book Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

For the tech interested: all the stop-motion marker-y and cut-out-y stuff was shot using Dragonframe; that footage was combined, sliced, and diced with the rest of the type in After Effects. The audio was originally created in GarageBand, mucked up a bit in Audacity, and then the final bits of crunch were added in Audition (once I discovered that Audition was a thing that existed that I had, like, right there on my hard drive; awesome).

This video was originally conceived and created for an independent study project in the graphic design program at Cleveland State University, in an effort to explore the intersection of design and literature. Which is a fancy way of saying I like books and I like design and I like finding ways the two play off and interpret each other.

It’s like that

Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child.

—from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf