Monday, January 4, 2016

Books of '15: Recommendations

Since September, anytime anyone has asked for a book recommendation, I have enthusiastically stumped for the non-fiction book of 2015 that I will discuss in detail below.  There were other challengers, but that one made it to the top of the heap.  On the other hand, I must say that of the 10 works of fiction that I read this year, I only assigned my top rating "highly recommended" to two of them.  One of them gets the nod here, but I just have to ask: what's up with all of the disappointing fiction out there?

Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

A Kim Jong-Il Production; The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, & a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, Paul Fischer, 2015

A book that includes the word "extraordinary" in its subtitle ought to deliver, and this one does.  Kim Jong-Il loved movies and wanted North Korea to rival the world leaders in filmmaking.  Unable to create an indigenous film industry that was up to his standards, he kidnapped South Korea's best actress and best director to use them to create films in North Korea.  Any story out of the hermit kingdom is very difficult to research, but Fischer did exhaustive research.  What's more impressive is that he tells the story in a gripping way.  Some creative non-fiction authors can't get over the hump of not showing their work.  Fischer tells this story with cinematic detail.  It's just amazing.  If you read nothing else this year, read this book. 

Honorable Mentions: Non-Fiction
The Corner; A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, David Simon and Ed Burns, 1997
Against Football; One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond, 2014
How About Never?  Is Never Good for You?; My Life in Cartoons, Bob Mankoff, 2014

Best of the Year: Fiction

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, 2008 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2009

When this won the Pulitzer Prize, it had its moment on my social media feed.  I remember people being excited about the book, and I remember not being able to get a copy at the library.  I just parked it on my list of books to read and waited until the furor died down.  It died down enough that I could not only get it out of the library but also renew it enough times to finish it while reading other books.  I seem to have left my book monogamy ways behind me, at least for now. 

But to the book itself, this is a loose collection of short stories with the Olive Kitteridge character as a throughline connector.   I"ve become jaded to the short story form in general (too many seem to rely on the supernatural to advance plot).  Also, as the satirical Lit-Crit Hulk Twitter feed (possibly defunct) said "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A FUCKING NOVEL."  Refreshingly, Strout does not rely on the supernatural to move her stories forward.  Also, she strikes a nice balance between introducing new characters and vignettes while keeping enough of the core team together that the reader cares all the way through.  I'm a sucker for big arc of life literature, and Olive Kitteridge fits that mold, although we only really get to know Olive as she gets older.  Strout's writing is not only perceptive, descriptive and humane.  It also feels important. 

Worth the hype, amazingly. 

Honorable Mention: Fiction
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng, 2014

Happy reading!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Books of '15: Anti-Recommendations

Having never come up with a good antonym to "recommendations," I persist in calling these warnings "anti-recommendations."  Perhaps I should adopt the betting lingo of "stay-aways."  Bettors call a game that makes dumb people wager on it but offers little chance of winning a "stay-away."  How about this: I recommend that you stay away from these books that I read in the past year.  Life's too short.

As usual, most all of the 22 books I read this year, I hear about on Fresh Air.  Via the podcast, I listen to every minute episode except the repeats and the segments about jazz.

Worst of the Year: Non-fiction

The Skeleton Crew; How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases, Deborah Halber, 2014

Deborah Halber's interview on Fresh Air was fascinating.  Deborah Halber's material - volunteer investigators tracking down leads in cold cases through the use of online databases of them - really drew me to want to learn more after her interview.  Deborah Halber's book does not deliver on these promises.  Rather than focus on the really fascinating part - the cases - she focuses on the slightly unhinged people who give up their free time and marriages and career progress to try to solve them.  She focuses on the pissing wars these people get into over status in online forums and other barely-meaningful properties.  Halber hits her stride a little bit in the fourth fifth of the book, but then she disappoints with a "who cares?" ending.  There's maybe enough for an in-depth magazine article here, but apparently not enough for a book.  It's Halber's first book, so it may be her inexperience.  On the other hand, it may be that the promise of this cluster of stories didn't get delivered when she dove in.  She had to write what was left in her notebook, which was not as interesting as an episode of Forensic Files

Worst of the Year: Fiction

The Giver, Lois Lowry, 1993

Sometimes, a worst of the year book disappoints by failing to fulfill expectations.  Other times, a book flat out makes me angry.  Take this steaming pile of misanthropy, for example.

Lois Lowry must hate children, or possibly all people.  Now, that's harsh language for the author of the impeccable A Summer to Die, but to be fair, in that book, there's a dying childThe Giver's dystopian hell made me angry and confused all at once.  We read this for family bedtime reading, and I soldiered through it because the whole family was reading it.  I also, though, dearly hoped (and expected) that Lowry would eventually explain why the neutered, colorless, feelingless society would have been created in the first place.  Alas, (spoiler alert spoiling an absence of something), it never comes.  Things just happen in the unnamed community, or rather, they happened a long time ago, and the characters we meet inhabit this totally messed up world.  No doubt, The Giver is a comment on something, but God knows what.  Maybe air conditioning.