Five Years Ago This Month: January 2015

Five years ago this month...

...I completed the 12hppofxmas. Those early seasons of Grey's Anatomy were a real killer to my reading productivity.

...I listed the books I read in 2014. I read a lot of good stuff, but unfortunately not enough books from The List.

...I started reading Les Misérables. This was a terrible idea I had for a series on the blog called "la lecture en français" which unsurprisingly has still only one entry so far. Reading Les Misérables while also trying to finish this project made sense in early 2015 when I was still travelling weekly between places for work and had tons of reading time as a consequence. Eventually I counted the chapters of Les Misérables and realized that there are 365 of them, though, meaning that if I ever get to reading this book in French after all, it will be a project in itself. Maybe I'll blog about it, maybe I won't.

...I was distracted. The shelving I mentioned in this post is still in my living room and probably one of my favourite features of my house.

An adorable ice sculpture of two fish who are apparently in love.

2020 Reading Plans

Well, after being really conservative with my 2019 reading plans, I'm getting bold with the plan for 2020, which is to say that this year I plan to finish reading the Top 100. I don't love announcing that because it feels like a dare to the universe to get in the way of this plan, but I also don't want to beat around the bush anymore. I have ten books from The List left to read. I can do this.

Before we get into my plans, take a look at last year's list (minus the Top 100 books I had included). As usual, items that I read or discarded are struck out.
  1. Annual Shakespeare play (feeling a little awkward that I made this official last year and then entirely failed to do it, but oh well)
  2. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
  3. Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew
  4. Dune by Frank Herbert
  5. Elven Star by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  6. Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
  7. Hild by Nicola Griffith
  8. HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
  9. Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski
  10. Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott
  11. The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
  12. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
  13. Little, Big by John Crowley
  14. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  15. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
  16. Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk
  17. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  18. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
  19. The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
  20. A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
  21. Spindle's End by Robin McKinley
  22. This Word Now by Owen and Jodi Egerton
  23. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  24. Wild Rose by Sharon Butala

For 2020, I have the usual mixture of List books and also books that are on my unread bookshelf. I'll be including six spots for book club books on my so-called "TBR Bingo" again, plus the following 32 books. Two of these won't fit on the bingo card, so I've omitted the two books that I think I'm least likely to actually get to this year, as I race to the finish line of The List.

I'll put these in alphabetical order again. New additions are bold as usual, and I've underlined the Top 100.

As for the rest, here they are in alphabetical order by title, because I love to just keep arbitrarily mixing this list up:
  1. Annual Shakespeare play
  2. Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
  3. Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew
  4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  6. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  7. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  8. Dune by Frank Herbert
  9. Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
  10. Fire Sea by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  11. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  12. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  13. Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle
  14. HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian
  15. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
  16. Little, Big by John Crowley
  17. The Little Mermaid and Other Stories by Hans Christian Andersen
  18. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  19. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  20. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  21. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  22. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  23. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  24. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
  25. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
  26. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  27. This Word Now by Owen and Jodi Egerton
  28. Ulysses by James Joyce
  29. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  30. Wild Rose by Sharon Butala
  31. The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer
  32. The Year's Best SF edited by Gardner Dozois


Wish me luck and let me know what your reading plans are for the year!

What I Read Last Year

Everything I read last year that I haven't returned to the library or whoever I originally borrowed it from

I had another excellent reading year in 2019, which has brought me within sight of the end of my Top 100 project! I picked up a total of 57 books, left four of them unfinished, and listened to two of them. That's just a tiny bit more than one book per week. I also managed to meet last year's goal of reading 50 pages per day, although it was down to the wire in the last days of the year.

I haven't quite figured out how to manage the audiobook thing yet, because it's really a different experience than reading the words directly, so none of the stats below include audiobooks.

Here are more charts than anyone asked for:

First, we have the breakdown of pages I read per day. Note that I do not have the time to track actual pages read of each book per day, although God knows that with my spreadsheet love, that's the direction I'm moving in. The way I actually generated this chart was to divide the number of pages in each book with the number of days it took me to read it, then map that all out over the course of the year. I obviously read more in the summertime, and the various peaks represent things like holidays or graphic novels.


Second, where did I get my books? Well, mostly from the library. (By the way, all of my pie charts are broken down by number of pages rather than by book. I'm not sure if this is actually more accurate, but it's my personal preference for my tracking.)


Third, who wrote my books? As usual, it was mostly men. Also as usual, this is skewed by The List. I've split this up somewhat awkwardly as "Male," "Female," and "Other." "Other" for encompasses short story collections which include works by both men and women, comics where the writers and artists are a mix of men and women, or works cowritten by men and women. To my knowledge, none of the authors I read last year would be considered gender non-binary.


Top 100

As I get closer and closer to the end of The List, I'm finding myself with more and more motivation to just get it over with. I read 15 Top 100 books in 2019, and yes, that means that I only have ten remaining. As with my update last year, I haven't actually posted any of these reviews yet, although the USA reviews should be going up in February. I had a good time with many of the books listed below, and a very very bad time with at least one of them.
  • USA by John Dos Passos
    • The 42nd Parallel, 392 pages
    • 1919, 413 pages
    • The Big Money, 483 pages
  • Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara, 220 pages
  • Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, 330 pages
  • Native Son by Richard Wright, 504 pages
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 581 pages
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, 275 pages
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 359 pages
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, 814 pages
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, 200 pages
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves, 432 pages
  • 1984 by George Orwell, 268 pages
  • The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, 374 pages
  • Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, 377 pages

Random/Romance

My Random/Romance reading pretty much kept pace with the Top 100 last year. I do have to confess that I got back into reading some very short books toward the end of the year, just to keep things moving. I suspect that I'll be getting back to some longer works for the remaining Random/Romance selections, though, because that's what I've got sitting on the shelf. We'll see!
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, 404 pages
  • Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, 345 pages
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, 512 pages
  • Nexus: Ascension by Robert Boyczuk, 382 pages
  • Hild by Nicola Griffith, 546 pages
  • They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, 373 pages
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, 432 pages
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, 309 pages
  • Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, 242 pages
  • The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami, 324 pages
  • Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, 101 pages
  • The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman, 125 pages
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, 93 pages

Other Novels

I actually read more Top 100 books than miscellaneous other novels last year for the first time in I can't even guess how long. Again, this is all about how clearly I can see that light at the end of the tunnel these days. I mostly liked my recreational reading, although nothing truly blew me away.

Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott, 401 pages

I finished up my slow reread of the Little Women trilogy with this book, which even while reading it I couldn't tell if I'd ever read before—a good demonstration of how memorable it is. In this book, the boys from Little Men are mostly grown up and Alcott pairs them up with the girls involved, or doesn't. It's extremely evident that she was getting sick of writing these books. At the end she threatens to just kill them all in some cataclysm so that no one will ask her about them anymore. This isn't a bad book and doesn't diminish the other two, but it's not that great either.

The Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers

  • A Closed and Common Orbit, 365 pages
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, 359 pages
As with the Gormenghast trilogy last year, my book club read the second book of this series, and I read all three that are currently available. Chambers has either created or is writing the first example I've encountered of something I'm calling "cozy sf," in which the characters are all super understanding, caring, open to new things, etc. and just resolve their issues by working together. Humans have abandoned Earth to live in generation ships, and have been welcomed into a galactic federation of far more advanced species. Bad things do happen in this universe, but the overall atmosphere is really positive. I have to confess, it's scratching a bit of the Star Trek itch that Discovery just hasn't been satisfying for me. I'm a bit too cynical to really love this universe, though.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, 238 pages

Published in 1722, this is Defoe's hard to categorize account of a man's experience with the plague in London in 1665. It was early days for the modern novel, so there's a lot of blending of fact and fiction here, with various death stats listed every so often but no sources cited or anything like that. In 1666, after the plague had passed, a huge portion of London burned down. The best part of this book is its contemporary 17th/18th century attitude toward the events unfolding, which is one of horror, religious feeling, and bewilderment. It also renewed my gratitude for modern medicine.

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman, 413 pages

Something close to steampunk but not quite. This book is about a young couple named Arthur and Josephine who become involved in a battle between two different spiritualist factions of sorts. The blurb about this book made it sound like it would be a Lovecraftian horror sort of thing, but it was a bit different and a bit overstuffed with ideas. Not a bad book but I think it would've been a lot better if the focus had been narrower.

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, 203 pages

Green Room is an excellent movie, so I was really excited to see that Jeremy Saulnier was directing a new movie for Netflix. After watching the adaptation of this book, though, I had more questions than answers (and I just overall didn't really like the movie). So I picked up this book, which is about a man who goes to Alaska to help a woman in a remote village whose son has gone missing. Meanwhile, her husband is on his way back from fighting in Iraq. It's pretty visceral and clarifies some things that the movie leaves very ambiguous, but other than that I don't have much to say. Giraldi does a good job describing unrelenting cold except that I could never really tell if he had any personal experience with it. His writing is also full of the kind of metaphors that tend to drive me crazy.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, 515 pages

Kay was one of my favourite authors when I was a teen, but this marked my first return to his work since 2010, when I read (and disliked) Ysabel (see also my first Retrospective post. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have a great time with this book either. In Kay's usual fashion, it builds on an actual historical period: in this case, it's the troubadours of medieval southern France. While it does include many of Kay's emo fantasy hallmarks (everyone has some great sorrow that they're carrying, having sad sex with each other, etc.), things moved extremely slowly toward an unremarkable conclusion. I have The Lions of Al-Rassan queued up for my next Kay read, and I hope that it's a return to form!

It by Stephen King, 1090 pages

It is the reason that I was too scared to read Stephen King for a really long time. It was on the bestseller list the year I was born, and throughout my childhood my mom talked about how she couldn't finish reading it because she was too disturbed by it. I never actually saw the miniseries that launched a thousand coulrophobias. So back in July, I ended up watching It: Chapter One and knew that I would immediately need to read the whole book, which I did. Unlike the movie, this is a story of two timelines interwoven: the Losers Club, a group of kids living in Derry, Maine, in 1958 when an ancient horror visits their town, and the adult Losers, who return to Derry in 1985 to meet that horror again. There are legitimate skin crawling moments scattered throughout this book, although I had a really tough time reading Bill's stutter (which is a lot less effective in print than on screen), and it's too long. The ending is extremely poignant in a way that I was not at all prepared for. My only wish is that I could've read it faster—I spent over a month reading it, and I think it would've been even more effective in a shorter period of time.

Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer, 365 pages

This is the second book of Palmer's Terra Ignota series, featuring a very politicky future world full of bizarre gender stereotypes, gods and monsters, high tech in every sphere. It's really hard to describe this book is a few sentences, especially being a sequel. The first book, Too Like the Lightning is one of the ones that I wrote a full review of.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett, 285 pages

I wrote a longer review of this book here. The second Discworld book picks up where the first left off, and then continues on with a mysterious red star that keeps growing larger. Already we're creeping more toward satire than parody, though. I'm excited to read the next book, which introduces the Witches, who are some of my favourites.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, 486 pages

A fun middle grade novel about a group of gifted children who are recruited by a man named Mr. Benedict through a series of puzzles and tests. Most synopses I've seen stop there but the bulk of the book is actually the mission that Benedict has recruited them for, which involves foiling an evil plot for world domination. I liked the book well enough and liked the characters, but it felt very long. I couldn't help thinking of my own middle grade reading tastes, which were dominated by the Sweet Valley Twins, Babysitter's Club, the Little House books, and L.M. Montgomery's complete works, all of which I'm pretty sure are shorter than this, at nearly 500 pages. I won't be continuing the series, but I think it's worthwhile for readers in its actual target audience.

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor, 280 pages

I fell victim to the hype for this book, which is told in two timelines: one where Eddie and his group of misfit friends find mysterious chalk figures leading them around their town, one where sadsack adult Eddie deals with the past coming to call. At least one of the twists was really telegraphed, in my opinion, and that left me with a bit of a bad taste about the whole thing. I'm not sure if the problem was that this just isn't really my genre, or what. I'll at least grant that it was a very quick and engrossing read, though.

Elven Star by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, 360 pages

This is the second book in the high fantasy Death Gate Cycle, the first book of which I apparently read all the way back in 2015. No wonder I was a little bit bewildered. Anyway, this series lives and dies on its worldbuilding, with the characters still being very broad. In this case, the novel takes place in a world which consists of truly enormous trees, covered with mossy growths that can support buildings and bodies of water. This book also introduces a character named Zifnab, a mage who crosses over from the Dragonlance books (I have read at least one of these). I was all ready to abandon the series after this book, but then I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I took the next book, Fire Sea off of my sister's shelf and now it's on mine, ready to be read.

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams, 176 pages

Every time I reread a book, I'm reminded of why I should do it more often: if I enjoyed it once, I'll probably enjoy it again and I'll notice things I didn't pick up on before. In this case, my book club read this exploration of the Singularity mediated by an artificial intelligence bound by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, a couple of years after I read it for the first time. Although I'd forgotten just how horrifying some parts of the book are, I also noticed things this time that I didn't before, which reframed the ending of the book in fascinating ways. So I think I'm now not only recommending this book, I'm recommending you read it twice?!


Graphic Thingies

I've been off of graphic novels and comics for a year or so, but I did a reading challenge in the summer, fell behind, and ended up reading a handful just so I could get caught up. As usual, you'll encounter a lot of ambivalence below.

This Place by various, 276 pages

Some government agency or publisher must have commissioned this collection (I couldn't find an editor's name or anything, which is so baffling). It's a retelling of various moments in Canadian history from an indigenous perspective. I think that the mission of this is admirable and worthy but I found that a lot of the stories were not very well-executed. They were done as partnerships between indigenous authors and artists, and it was really obvious which authors were familiar and/or comfortable with the graphic storytelling medium.

Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky, 120 pages

This was the biggest graphic novel failure for me in 2019. It's about a former Israeli soldier trying to remember his role in the Lebanon War. I had trouble understanding what was going on and figuring out the context of the events shown. This was originally a film, and I'm going to try to find and watch that instead.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, 235 pages

If Waltz with Bashir didn't work for me, this was a huge success, and a reminder of why I'm still reading comics now and then. There are three narratives in this book, involving a folk tale, a straightforward account of a first generation Chinese-American boy, and finally this sort of sitcom plot about a white boy and his Chinese cousin. These narratives are eventually interwoven in a way that explores the complex identity and worldview of so called ABCs.

Superman: American Alien by Max Landis and others, 224 pages

I struggled with whether I wanted to read this after the recent revelations of Max Landis (who I've been a big fan of in the past) being a creep beyond just what you might expect from a guy with famous parents. Ultimately I decided that it wouldn't hurt to get it from the library. It was only my second superhero comic ever and it was ... pretty good? It's basically the coming of age of Clark Kent, and being not terribly familiar with the character of Superman, I think it illuminated a few things for me.


Non-Fiction

With my recent focus on the Top 100 list, my non-fiction reading has really fallen by the wayside. This is part of the reason that I've decided to try listening to non-fiction audiobooks. I've resisted audiobooks for a long time because of how weird the reading rhythm is for me, but that's not as much of an issue with non-fiction, where it's much harder to read with any rhythm at all, depending on the skill of the writer. I'm now working my way through figuring out which audiobook readers I like and dislike.

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, 4 hr 30 min

A book that probably would've overstayed its welcome if I'd actually read it, this expanded my view of reading in ways that I'm still working through. It's a tongue in cheek account of how it's possible to talk about books you haven't read, but also of how to think about books that you have read. What does it mean to read a book? If I've read a book, but forgotten it entirely, have I read that book? Could I speak more authoritatively about it than about a book I've never read, but heard a lot about, like Pride and Prejudice? Should I be embarrassed that I've never read Pride and Prejudice? Do you believe that I've never read Pride and Prejudice? Anyway, I'm very happy to add this book to my inner library, something the author states that all of us have. If you ever spend any time thinking about what reading is, I think you'd do well to at least skim this book.

March Sisters by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley, 4 hr 9 min

Four essays, one about each of the March sisters. I don't know that I have much to say about this, because to be honest I found the essays overlong and a bit boring. Anyone who's read Little Women as an adult could tell you there's a lot going on there when it comes to each of the characters.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, 303 pages

A cautionary tale about relying on good faith in business from the Wall Street Journal reporter who originally broke the Theranos story. Basically, it outlines how Elizabeth Holmes managed to fool a lot of powerful people and convince them to give her a bunch of money. This reads like a thriller.

We Came Naked and Barefoot by Alex D. Krieger, 301 pages

The Moor's Account (which I reviewed, so haven't described it here) left me really unsatisfied and very curious about the actual Narváez expedition. A force of several hundred explorers/colonizers died over the course of this 1527 expedition, including its leader, but four men survived to walk across North America and meet back up with other Spaniards on the west coast. Their route has been a matter of contention for years, and Krieger outlines his proposal for their route in this book. Originally intended to be a much more thorough exploration of the route and of Cabeza de Vaca's text about the journey, Krieger died before he could finish that work. This includes translations of Cabeza de Vaca's text and of a summary of an earlier text. The primary/secondary sources are the best part.

The Identities of Marie Rose Delorme Smith by Doris Jeanne MacKinnon, 120 pages

The cover of this book, a Métis woman in an old-timey dress and hat, stopped me in my tracks at the library one day, and I couldn't resist bringing it home. Marie Rose lived and worked on the Canadian prairies from 1861 until her death in 1960, meaning she witnessed basically everything that happened here. This book is not so much about the events of Marie Rose's life as it is about her different ways of viewing herself and the way we can view her now: as an historical figure, herself an historian and author, and just as a person who was a member of a family. I highly recommend this book.


Flotsam and Jetsam

Just a few of these last year, because I didn't even manage to ready my annual Shakespeare play (I went to my sister's wedding instead).

Tales of Men and Ghosts by Edith Wharton, 208 pages

To my dismay, there were more stories of men than ghosts in this collection, and a lot of the stories were just ok. Having only read a couple of Wharton's novels and just this collection, I don't feel entirely confident saying that her novels are better, but I've certainly enjoyed them more. Standouts from this collection are "The Bolted Door," "The Daunt Diana," "Afterward," and "The Letters."

Lords of the Housetops edited by Carl van Vechten, 241 pages

Based on the superlative introduction to this short story collection, van Vechten really loved cats. Unfortunately, as he acknowledges, it can be tough to tell human stories about intelligences so different from our own, and thanks to that, not all of the stories here are particularly strong ones. I was happy to read "The Black Cat" again (I'd forgotten that its protagonist both maims and kills a cat in the story), and I nearly cried reading "Monty's Friend," (despite some nasty racial stuff about the indigenous aggressors in the story). Best of all, though, is an essay called "Calvin," which seems to be a straightforward obituary of a remarkable and beloved cat, which I actually did shed a tear for.

The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans by Tom Mahoud

Stick with me here, because this isn't a book, it's a website. I was driving to the pool the night before posting this and decided that I just needed to add it, because it was one of the most engrossing things I read in the entire year. I spent a whole Saturday morning in my pyjamas just going from page to page, reading this story. It's about the search for a missing family of German tourists in the Death Valley.


Unfinished

There were four books that I left unfinished last year, and I would have liked not to finish a few others, if they hadn't been List books. If I ever do another challenge like this, not finishing books will definitely be allowed.

Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski, after 505 pages

This is the second volume of Danielewski's planned 27 book series, The Familiar, about a young girl named Xanther and her very strange white kitten, along with (obviously) a ton of other stuff. I read the first book of the series (which is now on hold after five books because it is not exactly reader friendly, to put it mildly) back in 2016 and didn't love it, but picked this one up anyway after enjoying my reread of House of Leaves so much. I got over halfway in and didn't care about any of the many disparate threads besides Xanther and her cat. Everything else felt like filler written in the most alienating style possible.

So You Created a Wormhole by Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch, after 37 pages

Subtitled "The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel," this is a humourous exploration of various time travel tropes and types. It also, for me, was an excellent demonstration of the subjectivity of humour, which is to say that I found it really horribly unfunny. Your mileage may vary.

Spindle's End by Robin McKinley, after 27 pages

I've been planning to try rereading this Sleeping Beauty retelling for several years. I purchased it while still in high school because I love Sleeping Beauty and the book has a gorgeous cover. It's one of the few books that I remember from that time that I didn't really enjoy reading, so I've been curious to give it a second chance as an adult. I picked it up back in May and when the first few pages didn't grab me, I decided to just leave it at that.

Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, after 67 pages

A non-fiction book about how white women supported racist policy in the American South. I was enjoying the small amount of this book that I read, but found myself never picking it up day after day. Possibly the right book at the wrong time.

Number of books read: 53 (plus four unfinished)
Total pages in 2019: 18,410
Total pages per day: 50 (48 excluding graphic thingies)
Total audiobook time in 2019: 8 hrs 39 min