Wednesday, January 4, 2006

BOOKS: What I Read, 2005 wrap-up

The final chapter... Back in January I decided I'd chronicle here every book I read this year (not counting comics, graphic novels, etc.) and write something about it. It was an interesting exercise, and I think I'll keep it up in some form in 2006, if not in these rather lengthy monthly recaps. Forcing yourself to write a bit about every book you read might smell of book-report flashbacks, but it actually helped strain the ol' brain muscles a bit and made me think about the books I was reading in new ways. It was worth doing.

The grand total for 2005, then, was 90 books read*, 10 of them coming in December (I read a few short books this month). That's not bad for an overworked journalist/father to rampaging toddler/blogger/husband with very little life, I guess. The breakdown of what I read, just to get even more geekily methodical:
Nonfiction: 52
Fiction: 27
Essays: 7
Short stories: 4
I felt like I had been reading more nonfiction lately -- I've been on a big biography and history kick -- but didn't realize it was by that much! The real world is endlessly interesting to me these days, though, as I feel like I can never "know it all" -- and I read barrel loads of fiction in years past, anyway.
And to wrap it all up, here's a few capsule reviews of December's readin':

“Presidential Campaigns” by Paul Boller. A detail-filled look at presidential politicking from Washington to Bush that includes lots of historical trivia as elections evolved from casual affairs where it was unthinkable for candidates to directly campaign to today's multimedia million-dollar races.

“How We Are Hungry,” short stories by Dave Eggers. Eggers' fiction is too self-consciously quirky and clever for some, but I like the naked edge and passion he brings to his writing. This collection has hits and misses (several short-short fiction pieces are just decorative filler), but there's a handful of tightly wound observational, vivid classics too, such as "Climbing To The Window, Pretending To Dance," about a suicidal friend, or "Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly," a tale of a doomed trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

“33 1/3: R.E.M.'s Murmur” by J Niimi. Yet another of those tiny 33 1/3 music chapbooks I like to enthuse over. This one tackles R.E.M.'s classic Southern Gothic debut with a sprawling multi-part song-by-song critique, band history, art criticism and a look at listening theory itself in this tidy book. Niimi gets lost in the fog of "critic-speak" a few too many times for my taste, but definitely provides a lot of food for thought and made me think in new ways about "Murmur" (about which the sum of my thinking has always been more or less, "gee, that sounds mysteriously cool").

After watching the new "Narnia" movie, I felt inspired to re-read the series I hadn't checked out in years. I'll do a post on my adult impressions of them when I'm done, but in December I re-read C.S. Lewis's "Prince Caspian" "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and "The Silver Chair." You can get all the Narnia books in one book these days apparently but I still have the single ones I had as a kid.

"Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past" by Sara Bader. A very cool esoteric book, with a review forthcoming for Blogcritics I will also print here.

"King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And the Rise of an American Hero" by David Remnick. I got onto a boxing kick this month, watching the great documentary "When We Were Kings" about the Ali-Foreman '74 "Rumble in the Jungle." Then I picked up this excellent book at the library, which focuses on Ali's early career in fluid, elegant prose. Something about good writing about boxing really appeals to my couch potato non-combative self, and Remnick really captures the sweaty, gladiatorial combat of it all. He etches fine portraits of three black boxers -- Ali, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson -- and makes them all unforgettable, tragic heroes. Highly recommended stuff.

"Throwim' Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds - On The Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea" by Tim Flannery. Now that is a title. As mentioned a while back, loving wife gave this to me for Christmas, and it's really pretty cool. I love natural history books, and this guy Flannery braved unimaginable hardship to explore New Guinea, one of the last "lost horizons" and home to forbidding lands and rare species. A combination of biology, exploration and humor, it's a great read, with nicely gory trivia you can share with your friends. (And you learn all about what "penis gourds" are!)

"The Truth (With Jokes)" by Al Franken. Preaching to the converted, of course, but Franken's liberal manifestos are good reading in this Age of Bush. In this one, he gives a fiery response to the 2004 campaign and what he calls the Bush strategy of "fear, smears and queers." You either agree with the man or you don't, obviously. Not life-changing reading (Franken has this oddly arrogant tone a lot of the time that distances me a bit), but a breezy, quick affirmation that not everyone rides the Bush train these days.

*And finally, the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May , June, July, August, September, October, November, amen.

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