Well. So much for the whole “write more about books in 2017” resolution!
That said, looking back at my 2017-in-preview post, I can say I was…sort of, kind of on-point this year. I mean, not completely. But sort of! I’ll take it!
While I definitely did not make any conscious dents in contemporary literature—which I did not plan to do—nor did I do much to improve my focus—and, in fact, fell dangerously close to losing any sense of it entirely—I did manage to land my book count at 42 for the year, bouncing past 40 for the first time in many years.
Reading is fun.
I did focus on the TBR pile for a while, knocking off a number of fat books, some recently acquired, some that had been lingering for a while, despite my best intentions. The pile was definitely smaller, by the end of the year. Which is cool. I mean, yeah, spoiler alert, I’m not repeating that exercise this year, and between Christmas gifts and post-Christmas sales, I’ve already undone some of that quote-unquote “hard” “work.” Which I am so totally cool with because it means I’m totally smart and attractive. Except maybe I made up the part about being attractive. Who’s to say when there’s all these books to read!
There were a few “I’m all done with you, but thanks for playing” moments along the way. I forgave myself—for once and for all (until the next time I try)—for not being able to get into Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I like Dickens. I’ve read a number of long Dickens books, but for some reason, every time I pick that one up, I get about a hundred pages into it and, just drift off into the ether. It’s happened at least three times now I think. I did power through Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, despite not actually enjoying it all that much, and The Gold-Bug Variations by Richard Powers, which I sort of liked, I guess, though I wanted to like it more than I did. (College-age Darby would have loved the hell out of it, I think.) I’ve liked other Powers books much more than this one, though, so I think it might have just been bad timing.
There were other books in that first half of the year I did enjoy plenty! The Nix by Nathan Hill! A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara! The Night Watch by Sarah Waters! I’d like to single out More Curious by Sean Wilsey, an absolutely fantastic book of creative essays. Give it love. And money. The essay on skateboarding made me wish I’d taken up skateboarding, back before I got old and developed fear.
I also knocked a William Vollmann off the pile, which almost always feels like a Herculean task. I can now say The Royal Family is among the most readable, purely enjoyable Vollmann I’ve ever read. I mean, as enjoyable as as story about prostitutes and drugs and death and weird, dark shit can be.I broke this one up over the course of the year, reading about 200 pages every three months or so; I enjoyed the story but it was not a world I needed to sink into for 800 straight pages. Even if it still felt like escapist literature, compared to, you know, the reality we live in today. Good times! I can also safely say I’m probably full up on Vollmann for a while. At least until he publishes something else. Or I get conked over the head and wake up midway through a binge-read of Argall. Who knows!
There was pulpy fun to be had along the way. I finished Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn series, plowing through all 1300+ pages of The Naked God during nap breaks over a long vacation week. It wasn’t even close to being the most well-written thing I’ve ever read, and it would be hard to recommend it to anyone who is not now or does not remember being once a thirteen year old boy. (It’s not exactly…feminist.) But it was enjoyable, if occasionally cringe-inducing, and it scratched an itch for an oversized space-opera with a well-defined ending, and it did a surprisingly good job of wrapping up nearly 4000 pages worth of plot in basically the last few pages. A bit later I read The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. Dark. I look forward to reading the sequel, someday.
So the first half of the year was a successful attempt at shrinking the TBR pile, but then things got a bit weird turning toward late summer. I think I was fried on my long-books TBR pile so I gave up trying to eliminate it, turning away from it so I could get some shorter books in my life. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze and Amatka by Karin Tidbeck were both great fun. I couldn’t wait to pick up Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, because I love me some Swedish crime, and some Other Press, and some Swedish crime from Other Press. I do hope they get to publish more books in the series!
And then things started to get dark. I was reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which I absolutely loved—fantastic fantasy/fairy-tale style tale, awesome use of magic, a complex portrait of a young lady coming into her powers, sexy bits—but I was reading it, like, practically a couple lines per sitting, a page or two at a time. It did not have the attention from me it deserved. It felt like my mind was dying. And then I went on and read Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, which I think was supposed to be my jam, but mostly I just felt jammed up.
I decided, or realized, that I was burned out on fiction. Maybe too much fiction was making me feel kind of dumb, and going “lighter” in my choices wasn’t helping. I also blame the world, which kind of sucked all the fun out of the room. And so I went on to reboot my brain with a rock-block of non-fiction, sort of steering into the reality-crash skid. This, oddly, was probably one of the smartest reading decisions I’ve made in a long time. Cumulatively, I think these books got me out of my head, made me feel semi-intelligent again, and reignited my hunger for the written word. Reading is cool again!
Of note from this block, I found Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann eye-opening. Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates made Puritans way more interesting than I ever might have expected. And Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall felt like a tidily terrifying summary of how the entire world is on a knife’s edge of descending into global chaos at a moment’s notice, and however awful things might feel, they could certainly actually still be worse. I really loved this one; but I want people smarter than me who I trust to read this book and confirm or correct my reaction to it, and to suggest the books I should follow it up with, to help me flesh out my admitted ignorance of global affairs.
Memoirs are a good way to remind you that Your Life Is Not The Only Kind Of Life That There Is. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime was enchanting, and a well-timed choice. Even more extreme was The Cook Up, by D. Watkins. I can’t lie: it felt like fiction, it felt almost unbelievable in its depiction of a reality that I’ll never come close to experiencing. It felt…humbling? That might not be the right word, but.
And, hey, don’t worry, fiction and I have not broken up, but, in fact, we’re probably better than ever. I even got back on that Proust shit and finished off Within a Budding Grove. I flip pretty frequently between finding Proust awesome and finding Proust maddening but my general thought is I enjoyed this book more than Swann’s Way. Is that weird? That might be weird. I don’t know.
I also got some more short story collections into the mix, dipping into them between other books, finishing off two along the way—my first full Margaret Atwood book, Stone Mattress, and the highly enjoyable Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. What’s more, I even read more poetry this year! Specifically, I read one book of poetry: Saint Friend, by Carl Adamshick. I liked quite a bit of it. “I should do this more often,” I thought, making no concrete plans to actually do this more often.
And so yeah. 2017. I had an okay year! I read a lot of books, I spent a lot of time in the car with my kid, I managed to not fall down flat on my face at my day job, I biked my first metric century, I don’t think I annoyed anybody too much, and I survived the political hellscape that is America. Onward!