Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Year in Books, Part 1

This was the year I started reading again. Why I stopped reading is a long tale; the nutshell version is that a few years ago I came down with a mysterious illness that made me dizzy—constantly, every waking moment. Many things aggravated it: driving, walking, anger, talking to people who made me nervous, stress in general, grocery shopping, and—perhaps most distressing—reading. So for two or three years, books piled up around me but I couldn’t read them. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve been able to read again, but I found I was out of practice; I didn’t have a set reading time and routine like I used to, and I’d become embarrassingly addicted to television. But all those books were calling, so I figured it out—more or less—and am happy to present some book reviews from the past year’s catch.

★ ★ ★ ★   The Mount
Carol Emshwiller (2002)

2012’s not over yet, but I can’t imagine finding another book that will take this one’s place as my favorite book of the year. The premise of this lyrical, wildly entertaining sci-fi tale is an uneasy one: Aliens have invaded Earth and enslaved humanity, but not in the usual TV-movie way, with plucky rebels taking potshots at sleek spaceships. In Emshwiller’s far more frightening world, the toddler–size aliens are so much smarter than humans that they’ve turned us into beasts of burden who work the fields and are ridden and raced by the wealthier aliens for pleasure. By the time the story takes place, this enslavement has gone on for many generations, and the humans are largely resigned to it. And for the protagonist, a young man who’s the favorite mount of an alien aristocrat, it isn’t a bad life: He gets good food, plenty of exercise to keep him in racing shape, and a warm stall to sleep in at night—often curled up next to his alien owner, also a youngster, who is completely devoted to his human pet. How the aliens control the humans—with a sense of entitled stewardship and the sincere belief that the humans would die or descend into barbarism without the aliens’ care—mirrors our own justifications for slavery in the past and, more immediately, our attitudes toward the animals who live alongside us right now. This important, mind-altering book is also a rollicking good read that may change the way you look at the cats, dogs, and horses around you.

★   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson (2008)

Sometimes a thick, mass-market blockbuster lives up to its hype—Lonesome Dove or The Firm, for instance. And sometimes it doesn’t, which was the case with this book that probably needs no introduction. I’m going to swim against the tide here and say that though I tore into this first volume of Larsson’s trilogy with relish, I ended up quitting about two-thirds of the way through. It took too long to get going, and the dark parts were so dark that it made me not want to spend my evenings with this book. I gave up crime novels long ago for this very reason—they focus too much on a small, twisted segment of human society that I don’t want my dreams to dwell on. I did love that bleak little Swedish town in winter, though, and I kept feeling like the book was about to knock my socks off—any time now, any day now, maybe right around the corner. Then I just got tired of waiting and decided to read something I enjoyed instead.

★  ★   An Old Junker: A Senior Represents
Howard Junker (2011)

Disclaimer: I know Howard Junker, a little. He published one of my poems a few years ago in his fine journal ZYZZYVA*, and many of us West Coast writers consider him literary royalty. So I was delighted to find that he’d written a book about his experiences as an editor, and as a college student, and…well, as a person. And this book does not disappoint. Basically a collection of blog posts, it runs the gamut from reminiscences about his school days (and an astonishingly large number of soon-to-be-famous schoolmates) to the vagaries and gossip of life in the litmag world and the motley and combative writers who make up the San Francisco “scene.” The book is—like its author—funny, erudite, wide-ranging, and sometimes scathing (don’t get him started on Dave Eggers), and it touches on dozens of authors that I now want to read, particularly Ploughshares founder DeWitt Henry, about whom Junker writes elegantly and affectionately. The only curious speed bump is that An Old Junker is presented (at least on Howard’s website) as a “blognovel of old age,” which calls into question how many of the perfectly plausible stories are actually fiction. Similarly, the subtitle A Senior Represents doesn’t do the book justice; this is a fresh, entertaining journey through an unusual life, told through the very modern device of short, snappy blog posts. So, while I wished that the book would have picked a less ambiguous genre (or spelled out more clearly what makes it a “novel”), I loved An Old Junker and genuinely couldn’t put it down.

But that's not all . . . part 2 is here.

* When I got published in ZYZZYVA, I was invited to read at an issue-release party at the San Francisco main library. As part of the deal—and perhaps even more thrilling—I got to have dinner with Howard, along with a few other starstruck contributors, at a Thai restaurant. There were too many of us to sit at one table, so we had to split up into two groups. Normally well-mannered, I shoved my way through the crowd to grab a spot at Howard’s table. And I swear, it was like having dinner with Gore Vidal—he was gracious, charming, and funny, shifting gears effortlessly between literature and current events, world travel and good restaurants. But he was no snob; I got the impression he could converse just as easily about Netflix vs. Hulu or where to find a good mechanic.

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