Books: 2015 in Review

Hey Everybody, finally sat down to record these. A month or so late, but in blog terms, we're right on time. 2015 was a great year for reading. 8 of these books got read during 3 months of travel in France, and I approached a rate of reading that I hadn't had since 2012, when I still rode the bus and didn't have a smartphone. My how things have changed. Now I hardly even read facebook. I won't even read a movie with subtitles.  All of my work emails are emojis.
It's getting bad.

But over the last 4 years, I have logged every book I read in HabitRPG, a handy little app that keeps track of my daily activities as I log them and rewards an 8 Bit avatar of myself with quests and rewards for completing daily goals like reading and working out. It's dorky, but it keeps me motivated and supplies me with some interesting data. Or really boring data. Whatever. You're being mean.

But now for the main event:
Every book I read in 2015, with commentary for your enjoyment!

 
 
 
 

Canal Dreams

Ian M. Banks is one of my favorite authors. He writes the kind of sci fi I want to read. Slick, huge, sarcastic, sexy. His Culture novels use the infinite of space to establish scenarios that measure the moralities of human life against the infinite of darkness space. They inevitably involve a cataclysmic setpiece with a winkingly insignificant conclusion. Smart, funny and fun.

His non sci-fi work has been similarly playful, but does so by seeing how dark a scenario he can concoct and still keep your attention. And Canal Dreams is dark as fuuuuck. A Japanese concert cellist is stranded on a yacht during a Panamanian civil war and is a portrait of the heights of luxury and violence. Beautiful, swift, elegant and awful.

Like if Sam Peckimpah wrote Bel Canto. It’s great.

Read about Banks' starships first, though. Or my Dad’s favorite, Song of Stone, a starker tale about similar themes, albeit with a more charming, but less relatable protagonist.

Flashman

I started off 2015 drunk in Tokyo with my cousin Charlie and Flashman is Charlie's favorite. Naturally, I had to see what it was all about. Charlie and my dad are tied for the most widely travelled people I have ever met, but Charlie’s starting to edge in for the win, which is impressive given my dad’s 42 year lead. Charlie loooooves the Flashman novels, which are the swiftly told travelogues of the British mercenary, Harry Flashman, a scoundrel, cheat, womanizer, drunkard and coward who always weasels his way in to commendation and reward despite his despicable deeds.

It’s a super entertaining formula that Fraser employed in dozens of books, sending Flashman to Afghanistan, India, Africa, China, Japan, etc. Flashman even shows up at Wounded Knee. I can see how an intrepid traveller like Charlie would appreciate a sprawling series of novels to page through between his various destinations. It’s well-researched, bawdy, shameless stuff. So good.

Hydrogen Sonata

Back to Ian Banks. This book came out in 2013, the year of Banks’s death. I had a hard time getting around to reading it, given the knowledge that it would be the last novel of my favorite sci fi series I would ever read. I started this book two years ago. I don’t even remember where I was when I finished reading it, which is unusual for me. Not my favorite. I wish the last sci fi book I read by Banks had been Transition.

How to Build A Girl

I looooove Caitlyn Moran’s non-fiction. How to Be A Woman saved me a lot of anguish by explaining how to be feminist without having to read up on decades of theory. And she made me laugh the whole time. How to Build A Girl was disappointing as a reiteration and sometimes dilution of the experiences of a grown Caitlyn through the story of a younger and less equipped fictional alter ego. Would have fucking loved it if I read it first. Funny as shit, but not my favorite Moran.

SevenEves

Somehow Neal Stephenson rides the line between page turner trash and intellectually exhaustive when it comes to his sci fi books. Ream.De read like, idunno, Clive Cussler of James Patterson or some such. On the other hand, I don’t even wanna talk about The Baroque Cycle. Dry as fuck hard history.

SevenEves is like a challenge course version of The Martian. The Martian is one man’s struggle against the math of the limited resources that will keep him alive on Mars for 2 years, where SevenEves is the struggle for the survival of the entire human race over 5000 years on an Earth scoured by meteors. The scenarios are just as meticulous from an engineering perspective, but it also manages to deliver a hot-shit space opera finale. Nice.

Things That Never Happen

Wow. Probably the hardest read I’ve had in years. M. John Harrison wrote a bunch of shit that I gobbled up and loved over the last few years, mainly the Kefahuchi Trilogy and I read Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space in the last few months of 2013. I talked about Ian Banks as writing the kind of sci fi I want to read, Harrison does kinda the opposite. He kinda lampoons sci fi by writing it like it wasn’t genre fiction. Harrison’s sci fi never gives you what you want, and always does the unexpected. He writes space operas about very flawed, nostalgic, vain and broken people. Things That Never Happen is a fucking weird ass counter point to Harrison’s genre fiction. There’s about 20 short stories, most of which are dreary stories of loneliness and people in London crushed by the mundane in their lives, with some imagined horror lurking but never realized. 

It’s so weird and so slow. What’s even weirder is the lines, themes and characters from Harrison’s sci fi appearing in these short stories before they ever show up in his novels.

When you like an author and you read their body of work, there’s an aspect of detective work, where you try to figure out who this motherfucker is and what they’re all about. M. John Harrison will always elude this gumshoe, but there’s one particular story in here that reads like an outline of his Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and states outright some themes that only whispered at in the books themselves. And given that I read all of his Viriconium novels, The Committed Men, and The Centauri Device looking for similar insight, digging up this clue was hugely satisfying. It could blow this whole case wide open! 

There’s some really good shit in here and even when it bored me it haunted me.

To Hold The Bridge

Garth Nix wrote the Abhorsen Trilogy and Shade’s Children, which we’re hands down the best young adult sci fi and fantasy books I read in my teens. After last years Clariel, I’ve come to worry that where his 90’s work was edgy, his new work feels watered down like we’ve come to expect from a label like young adult. There was one really nice story about a witch academy in here, but I don’t remember much about these stories other than that they were kinda funny. 

Fishing with Rayanne

My mom wrote this book under a pseudonym. I like to think she did that to distance herself from the subject matter, because it is in some ways a self portrait. A strong willed woman, in a field run by men, working in a region that she embraces out of sentimentality despite some conservative ideas that are still prevalent there. She suffers, she finds a dog, she talks shit, she pays homage to the women that came before her. And in the end, she is embraced by a fan base that she is uniquely, if a little reluctantly, suited to address. Now I wrote that about my mom, but its also a plot summary. My mom hates it when I talk about this, but my mom pours her experiences in to Rayanne and that’s what makes it good. You could read this book and maybe learn a few things about my mother, but I think mainly you’ll learn this: She’s a damn good writer.

Pnin

Pnin is Nobokov’s inside joke about life as a professor of Russian, in which he gleefully pokes fun at Pnin, a hapless and lovelorn academic. It’s short. It’s cute. I liked it. It’s got this line in it:  

“Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.”

The book doesn’t get better than this line, but what a line.

On Stranger Tides

Best book I read all year. I’m a huge fan of pirates and witchcraft. A really winning combination. Apparently this book set the stage for the Pirates of The Caribbean movies and their Pirate Voodoo motif. Funny, fast, oddly factual about the time period and its principal characters including Edward Teach/Blackbeard. My favorite book is already a pirate romp (Steinbeck’s first novel Cup of Gold), so I was an easy mark for this book. It was also inspiration for the video game Secrets of Monkey Island, which was a huge influence on the games that I played growing up, which were witty, puzzle-based point-and-click adventure games that are more humor-simulators than games of skill. I did not realize how much Stranger Tides had influenced me before I even read it. Truly gratifying. 

Sunset Riders

Jesse Sawyer puts me to shame, book wise. His 2015 book list is towering, awesome and right here. http://www.jessesawyer.com/2015-year-in-reading

He also let me read his adaptation of a Super Nintendo game written as an experimental acid Western. Capcom meets Cormac. I’m already a huge fan of LSD Western’s and one of my fave movies is Renegade, a metaphysical tale of death in the desert, based on a comic by sci-fi master Moebius, where the climax has two cowboys ingesting ayahuasca and seeing who survives the trip. All of this in lieu of pistols at noon. In contrast, Sunset Riders delivers on both the tripping and the gunplay. I didn’t know I could be so happy. Sunset Riders is like Carlos Castenada wrote The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger in stead of a young Stephen King. But neither of them wrote Sunset Riders. My buddy Jesse did, and I could not be more proud. He also just married one of my best friends. I am very pleased with the whole situation.

All The Light We Cannot See

Whoa! Great book! And my lady and I both got to read it in France in St. Malo, the coastal walled city where most of the book takes place. That was really a treat, and I’m always a sucker for books about books and the pleasure of reading. This book features 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea suuuuuuper prominently, and you almost read the whole thing through the (blind) eyes of the main character. Shortly after finishing All The Light We Cannot See, I got to sit down in the parlour of Thalia’s French grandparents’ 400 year old house in the alps, and leaf through the antique volumes of Jules Verne, savoring the amazing engraved illustrations and thinking about how this was the invention of sci fi. A genre dedicated to imagination born out of inkwells in dusty turn-of-the-century France. I was hugely turned on. 

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

David Wong is awesome. I think everyone should read John Dies at The End. It’s a hilarious deconstruction of horror movies and a great gore-comedy in its own right. It also has a twist in the first and last chapters that are worthy of literature. Huge props. Its follow up This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Don’t Touch It lacks the glee of the first, but Wong again pulls of a few neat structural tricks, even if he couldn’t make me care as much. Futuristic Violence both rails against, and celebrates, the frivolity of a future born of the internet age. I laughed a few times, there’s some good lessons in here. It shares some themes with Ready Player One, and often does a better job. I’d think the characters are going somewhere and it sounds like a sequel is coming. But I’d read John Dies at The End whenever you get the chance.

So while I did not read as many books as I have in the past, we're seeing a positive trend here. I'm not super optimistic given the unreasonable amount of time off that was required to get this shit done. That said 2015 beats out 2014 and 2013 in that last year I wrote a fucking book! 
Check this shit out:
 

So that's pretty huge. I wrote most of it, did a large portion of the layout, handled printing logistics, prepped 24 posters for print, designed 6 of the interior posters and the cover. I even got Dave Kapell, the inventor of magnetic poetry to give us a blurb for the back cover. Yeah! 
Self publishing through China can be a huge pain in the ass, but I'll be damned if it wasn't reasonably priced. Pretty proud of this whole project and the trust and authorship given to me by Jeff Johnson. And it looks like we'll be starting on volume 2 shortly. Very cool.
Thanks to everyone who showed up, bought a copy or a poster.  Cheers!

In summary: 2015. A damn fine year for books.


Independence Day: A French Invention

It’s our fifth day in the Alps, and we’ve have begun to settle into a routine. Not to say that our experiences are routine. There’s nothing dull about staying in a 300 year old Maison in the Alps, surrounded by French people who speak hardly any English. Our days aren’t exactly action packed, we’ve been taking it slow, not stretching the limits of our jet-lag. But I’m kept entertained with hundreds of tiny discoveries a day. Here are a few:

  1. The goat next door has one specific chicken that is always standing underneath him. I don’t know why. It’s not to stay cool, since the chicken is there even when the goat stands in the shade. 
  2. The valley we are in has 3 notable rock formations: The Mummy, The Giant’s Butt and Mount Needle. The Mummy is a miles-long ridgeline that has the profile of a sarcophagus. You can see The Mummy from our bedroom window, where it looms over a goat with chicken standing under it. The Giant’s Butt is a large escarpment where it looks like giant sat on the mountainside. And Mont Aguille, or Mount Needle, is kinda pointy.
  3. The family keeps 3 lady chickens, Reglise, Coucou and another whose name I forget, but she keeps to the coup all day. The rumor is that she is depressed because she wants to have chicks. 
  4. The region is called Les Araignees. Meaning “The Spiders.” There are spiders here. It’s gross. There was big one in our bedroom while Thalia and her brother Dylan and I played a video game. I killed the spider with a record I found on one of the many bookshelves here.
  5. Oh! This place has a ton of books. Most importantly, there’s a bunch of Bandes-Designee, which are the large format French comic books I’m fascinated by. This house has seen a number of Thalia’s aunts and uncles through childhood to adolescence, so a quick search of a bookshelf usually reveals a few comic books. Mostly, Asterix et Obelix, a celebrated comic about a tiny viking with a Napoleon complex, but there’s also a few grungy noir comics with a bunch of titties in them, and even some copies of the Moebius Western comic Blueberry. The real winner is Saison Des Amours, which is just a picture book filled with drawings of animals doing it. 
  6. The next door neighbor Phillipe keeps a chicken farm. Those birds are huuuuuge and next week Ima buy one and serve it to the family Lawry’s style. My first introduction to Phillipe was during our evening walk. We passed a man reclining on his back porch with his feet on a table, drinking a Corona Extra, while reading a book and COVERED with KITTENS. I have told everyone he is my new favorite person. This is the new high water mark for life in the Alps.

The house itself is awesome. Large and square with small, neat rooms and narrow,well-decorated, maze-like hallways. We’re staying on the second floor which has its own door accessible via an earthen ramp once used to move hay in to the loft. The second floor has its own kitchen and a dining room/living room serving as a painting space for Thalia’s grandmother Monique. I’ve been given free range of the area and art materials after a touching tour in broken English. The main table is now where I do my drawing and where Thalia sits with me and writes in the afternoon.

Down a flight of VERY narrow spiral stairs is the main floor, with a kitchen and bathroom that are long tube rooms with shelves carved in to the walls. The living room has a huge hearth, low wood-vaulted ceilings, Oriental rugs and plastered walls. There’s a tiled, raised island that splits the room with a few lamps and a number of Thalia’s grandfather’s sculptures. This is also where Shalimar hangs out. Shalimar is a very old, very sweet, one-eyed Persian cat. She purrs easily and sits unmoving among the sculptures all day long.

There’s a pool. It’s surrounded by rotten wood planks but it’s always the perfect temperature. There’s a small creek that feeds a pond full of lily pads and a few dozen Koi in it. There’s a terrace overlooking a beautiful garden with a couple of plants in it that are supposedly pretty poisonous. I don’t know which they are yet.

There’s also a dog, Phillipe, pronounced Flip. A long, black and white four-year-old shepherd, he is a sweety and spends a lot of time chasing chickens.

It’s great here.

We wake up, usually after breakfast, and go down to eat leftover bread (homemade) with nutella and jams (homemade). Since we get up late we’ve usually got an hour till lunch which is the big meal here. Lots of wine from the cellar, good meat, good cheese, good salad. The family chats like crazy and I make fewer and fewer attempts to keep up as my French is even worse than expected. Mostly I just say how much I like the food and keep it to that. It’s working so far.

In the afternoon we go upstairs to read/draw/do French lessons/nap. Then it's back to the pool and then it's tea time on the terrace and then it’s dinnertime. Holy shit, life is good. Retirees know how to party. In the evening we watch movies with Thalia’s brother, crowding around a tiny laptop screen and chatting during buffer times. The internet here is shit.

I think that covers it. Mostly, I’m just enjoying myself. Feeling lucky to be here, and enjoying the break from work. Doing just enough writing and drawing to feel productive (some of it’s quite good!) and then spending the rest of my time trying to relax enough to do justice to the phrase summering in the Alps.

More later, but for the next month if you’re wondering what Thalia and I are up to at any given moment, you can picture us doing any of the things I’ve mentioned and you’re probably not far off.

Au revoir, dudes.