I tried to read as much as I comfortably could last year. Perhaps it’s strange to insinuate that reading for pleasure could be uncomfortable, but I get antsy and have to move every couple of hours. Being a slow reader, this doesn’t add up to much. Anyhow, in 2015 I tried to rotate between fiction and non-fiction, with the intent on reading a variety of genres. But in the end I read mostly fiction, and only a couple of non-fiction books. I also read a few great Japanese short stories in Japanese, but I can’t count them as complete books. So here are the books in the order that I read them, with commentary and a rating of my experience of them.
- Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, by Dennis McKenna. Anybody my age with an interest in psychotropic compounds has inevitably come across the literature or videos of the late psychedelic guru Terrence McKenna. While he tended to venture further into the mystical spheres of conscious-expanding drugs, his brother focused more on the science. Part autobiography, part botany textbook and part day tripper’s travel guide, Dennis recounts he and his brother’s upbringing, and how their lives followed parallel courses on different planes of reality as they searched for truth through the 60s up to Terrence’s death in 2000. It was an interesting read overall, although some sections dragged when the author spent time on events more memorable for him than could be for his readers. I recommend this for fans of Terrance McKenna and or psychotropic botany. 6.5/10
2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Written in 1984, this early cyberpunk novel was the inspiration for The Matrix. Like the Matrix, I can only remember the big scenes, but I do recall that the minutia in between was economical and drove the plot well. A perfect balance of story and style, the reader gets a dose of authentic sci-fi with this one. I look forward to reading more of Gibson’s work. 7.5/10
3. A Dance with Dragons, by George RR Martin. Book five of the (to be) 7-book A Song of Ice and Fire. Like every other fair-weather fan of fantasy, I got hooked on GOT in the first chapter of the first book. As with all the other ASOIAF books, this one is a big, multilayered epic full of skull-splitting, blood magic, ice giants, dragons and political smoke and mirrors. What’s not to like? Martin’s writing is accessible without choking on the regular fantasy tropes and gets its widespread appeal from being far-reaching in scope and grisly in all the right places. 8/10
4. 不思議の国のアリス/ Alice in Wonderland in Japanese, by Lewis Carroll. A bilingual American friend recommended I read this to improve my Japanese. I got about halfway through it before I tired of poring through my dictionary to find definitions for the colorful, decidedly unusable language employed in the book. It was interesting to see how this well-known classic translated into Japanese, however I wasn’t reading it fast enough to keep my interest. Recommended for students of Japanese with more patience than me. 6/10
5. The Sense of Style: A thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker. If you’ve never read a Steven Pinker book, it only takes a matter of pages to understand why the man has as many accolades as he does. Funny and cerebral, his analysis of the English language, syntax and modern grammar makes for an intriguing study into what separates good from bad writing. Pinker delivers pages of sentence diagramming, cartons and lists of do’s and don’ts with humor and clarity. Calling it an indispensible guide for writers might be a stretch, however it’s definitely useful as an up to date reference book when wordsmithing questions arise. 8/10
6. Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut. “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.” Who doesn’t love Vonnegut? While thinner in plot than some of his other works, BOC is thick with cutting observations about the people, politics and passions of a sick and troubled America. It was my first time to meet Kilgore Trout, the aged fictional avatar of the author himself. Kilgore’s physical brittleness is balanced against his compassion and intelligence, making his observations all the more penetrating and endearing. 7.5/10
7. Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino. If you didn’t already know, Calvino is one of Italy’s modern literary heroes. His works are sumptuous and dense, shot through with threads of levity that give even his most ominous stories cheek stretching brilliance. At just 96 pages, this was one of the shorter books I read. The three stories within are a literary treatment of the 5 senses and how they relate to the human experience of love. It was good, but I recommend Cosmicomics for anyone looking to get into Mr. Calvino. 8.5/10
8. Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut. A fair amount of Vonnegut last year. I think I was trying to recreate the literary high I experienced one summer years ago when I read Cats Cradle, The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse 5 in a row. While fully in line with all things Vonnegut, I didn’t really get the sense of sybaritic joy that I did with the above-mentioned titles, or even Breakfast of Champions. I did like that the narration took place precisely 1 million years after 1986, and how the dumb luck of a few survivors of the apocalypse makes them the progenitors of earth’s subsequent denizens. 6.5/10
9. 2BRO2B, also by Kurt Vonnegut. My short, final handshake with Mr. V last year. It’s technically a short story but came up on my Kindle as a separate volume so…Imagine Brave New World condensed into 20 pages with an dark, yet satisfying ending and you’ve got the gist of To Be oR Naught To Be. 7/10
10. Influx, by Daniel Saurez. A brilliant young physicist named Jon builds a machine that reflects gravity. When his invention is stolen by the nefarious Bureau of Technology Control, they force him to choose between joining them or being disappeared. Jon’s high principles land him in a futuristic Alcatraz, from which it takes him a looong time to escape. But when he does…oh boy. Packed full of one-liners, over-the-top action scenes and a predictable romantic ending, this one screamed Hollywood hopeful. An OK read for SF imagery, but the plot barely produced enough thrust to carry me to the end. For better or (in this case) for worse, I usually finish what I start reading. 3/10
11. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, by Christopher Ryan. I’d been listening to Dr. Ryan’s Tangentially Speaking podcast for two years before I read the book that’s made him famous. Ryan and his wife Dr. Cathilda Jetha challenge the standard narrative that monogamy is the natural default setting for humans, citing growing rates of divorce, adultery and deflated libidos as just a few problem patterns around the world. They eloquently and convincingly argue that promiscuity troubles us today because the concept of romantic ownership is a modern construction at odds with the egalitarian practices of our ancient ancestors. Colorful, humorous and academically grounded, this was easily one of my top three reads of 2015. 9.5/10
12. The Martian, by Andy Weir. I hopped on the bandwagon with this one not because Matt Damon plays the protagonist in the movie, but because I’d read a short story Weir posted on Reddit four years ago called, The Egg. It had struck me has exceptionally good writing for a new writer, and when he came back on Reddit to do an AMA (ask me anything) interview, I was hooked. Here’s a guy who wrote a story for fun, self-published on Amazon and made it super fucking big in a matter of months. Inspiration for any unpublished writer out there. It’s a pretty good story, too. But here’s hoping the whole humans to Mars thing is on its way out. Probably wishful thinking… 8/10
13. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. I’d never read anything by Margaret Atwood, despite her reputation as one of the best female SF writers out there. I wasn’t disappointed. The weird dystopian world she creates is a believable extension of our own not-so-distant future, populated by feral GMOs, faceless corporate police thugs and god-fearing flower children all vying for scraps of leftover humanity. I finished this one psyched to see what other bizarre worlds have flowed from her fingertips. 8.5/10
14. A Slip of the Keyboard, by Terry Prachett. This is a collection of essays written by the late Mr. Prachett whom, I now know, was far more prolific and popular than I’d previously thought. I’d read Good Omens and maybe something else he’d written long ago, but that was all. The 40 volume Discworld series? Never heard of it. Apparently it was a big hit. The essays are funny as hell and I know now that if I’m really to be an accomplished reader of fantasy I’ll need more Prachett. That’s all there is to it. 7.5/10
15. The Master and Margarita, by Michail Bulgadov. Salmon Rushdie recommended this as a must-read, and since that guy seems to know a thing or two about books I decided to give it a go. The Master and Margarita was a novel that initially had me thinking I was in store for some dated work-of-historical-importance. One of those satirical dissections of Russian culture esoteric to anybody unfamiliar with the setting. But my ignorance of Moscow failed to detract from my enjoyment of the book. If anything, it had me wishing I knew more about Stalin’s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem. If only I could read it in Russian…the original is always better. Thanks, Mr. Rushdie. 9.5/10
16. The Swarm, by Franz Schatzing (1/2 finished). This one came up on a blog about underwater fiction, of which I’ve concluded there is far too little. I thought I’d blaze through this and then straight into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and then I saw it rang up 1,000 pages on the Kindle and so I’ve still got a while to go. Reminds me of a cross between Tom Clancy (or what I imagine his books are like) and that Saurez guy I mentioned above. Flat characters in interesting settings experiencing incredible circumstances. I’ll finish it and then give it a 6/10, because at this point I can’t see it getting any better than that.
And that’s it. Not a big list by any means, but a good 5,000+ Kindle pages over what was a busy year for me. To those of you who can devour a novel in a single sitting, or several over a weekend, I commend you. And can’t help but wonder if you’re getting enough exercise.
Ah, books… I’ll crank one out someday…possibly to be reviewed by an amateur blogger too distracted with writing reviews to finish his own novel.