Whoa, end of the year. That came FAST.
2015 ends in about 12 hours, so I’m going to call my year in reading officially finished. I don’t think I’m going to be finishing anything else, particularly since I’ve just cracked open Django Wexler’s The Price of Valor. This year I read 99 books — definitely a solid year in reading. If you’re curious, you can check out my previous literary high-points in First Quarter, Second Quarter, and Third Quarter. And I might do a full reading round-up later in the week, depending on whether I think anyone might be interested or not.
Anyway, of the books that I read between October and December, six left a major impact on me. Here they are, in the order that I read them:
1. The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton
Nan and Jinny St George have both wealth and beauty in generous supply. In the New York society of the 1870s, however, only those with old money can achieve the status of the elite, and it is here that the sisters seem doomed to failure.
Nan’s new governess, Laura Testvalley, herself an outsider, takes pity on their plight and launches them instead on the unsuspecting British aristocracy. Lords, dukes, marquesses and MPs, it seems, not only appreciate beauty, but also the money that New York’s nouveaux riches can supply.
A love story of love and marriage among the old and new moneyed classes, The Buccaneers is a delicately perceptive portrayal of a world on the brink of change.
For a long time, the only thing I’d read by Edith Wharton was Ethan Frome, which I read in high school. That…. did not leave me with the desire to read more Wharton. But over the last year, I taught a college short story class, and the anthology had several Wharton stories – the delicious comedy of manners ones. This was a different side to Wharton – though, in fairness, I’m pretty sure that a lot of that style of writing might also have gone over my head as a sixteen-year-old. However, I’m really not interested in re-reading Ethan Frome to find out – that book was motherfucking depressing. I can say, however, that I absolutely adored The Buccaneers, and would highly recommend it to others. Others being, obviously, everyone who reads this blog. So consider yourself recommended!
2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Magicians was praised as a triumph by readers and critics of both mainstream and fantasy literature. Now Grossman takes us back to Fillory, where the Brakebills graduates have fled the sorrows of the mundane world, only to face terrifying new challenges.
Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom. Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.
The Magician King is a grand voyage into the dark, glittering heart of magic, an epic quest for the Harry Potter generation. It also introduces a powerful new voice, that of Julia, whose angry genius is thrilling. Once again Grossman proves that he is the cutting edge of literary fantasy.
I think it’s honestly hard to beat Grossman for prose quality. For me, he’s right up there with Gaiman and Morgenstern (Erin, not the made-up Princess Bride author) for sheer beauty of language. I love his sentences, his wryness, his delicious embrace and commentary on the absurd, the cliché, and the beautiful. It’s entirely possible that I could read just about anything by Grossman and be very well pleased. The Magician King had the same issue as the first book – namely, there’s a point where as a reader I think to myself, “This is all quite lovely, and I’m having a nice time, but is there going to be a plot at any point?” – and, full credit to Grossman, the plot does emerge soon after. But the writing itself is so fantastic that I still enthusiastically gave it five stars when it came time to rank it. I also really enjoy the way that Grossman cuts the fairy-tale sweetness and safety with some extremely nasty and scarring elements – kudos, and I’m looking forward to picking up the third.
3. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
I have a great respect for Kameron Hurley as an essayist (plus, I follow her on Twitter – so, yeah, there’s that), but I hadn’t read any of her epic fantasy, though I think I would have had to be dead to have missed the buzz. This was my first – and all I’d heard was “gender-bending” – listen, who in their right mind views THAT as the takeaway here? I see multiple intricate societies with very different social and power structures, carnivorous fucking plants, PEOPLE RIDING BEARS, and the incredible mind-fuck of the mirror universe except without distinguishing beards. The fact that one society has three genders, another has five, and another one just seems to have two (but also what appeared to be a giant praying mantis as an Empress – at least I think that’s what it was) is so far down the list of interesting things that it wouldn’t even make my final cut. Anyway, I liked this a lot – but while I sort-of enjoyed it for the first half, the second half is when shit got real. Very interesting, very mind-fucking, an interesting mix of grim and hopeful, definitely not like anything I’d ever read before.
4. Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
The people of Fall River, Massachusetts, fear me. Perhaps rightfully so. I remain a suspect in the brutal deaths of my father and his second wife despite the verdict of innocence at my trial. With our inheritance, my sister, Emma, and I have taken up residence in Maplecroft, a mansion near the sea and far from gossip and scrutiny.
But it is not far enough from the affliction that possessed my parents. Their characters, their very souls, were consumed from within by something that left malevolent entities in their place. It originates from the ocean’s depths, plaguing the populace with tides of nightmares and madness.
This evil cannot hide from me. No matter what guise it assumes, I will be waiting for it. With an axe.
Dear lord, was this Lovecraftian. In fact, I think Cherie Priest just out-Lovecrafted Lovecraft. I know we just (finally) retired the Lovecraft statue, but maybe we could’ve found a compromise and created a bust of Cherie to hand out as an award.
I’m not really one for contagious madness as a story device (in fact, it skeeves me out good and proper), but this was incredibly done. Priest uses a lot of different characters to tell the story, and is incredibly good at depicting the slide into madness. Plus, a lot of good creepiness fact, and the historical fiction element. She’s got a lot of balls in the air here, but never drops a single one. Utterly impressive.
5. Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Jeanne Marie Laskas first met the young forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2009, while reporting a story for GQ that would go on to inspire the movie Concussion. Omalu told her about a day in September 2002, when, in a dingy morgue in downtown Pittsburgh, he picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he’d never intended. Omalu was new to America, chasing the dream, a deeply spiritual man escaping the wounds of civil war in Nigeria. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old named Mike Webster, aka “Iron Mike,” a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the greatest ever to play the game. After retiring in 1990, Webster had suffered a dizzyingly steep decline. Toward the end of his life, he was living out of his van, tasering himself to relieve his chronic pain, and fixing his rotting teeth with Super Glue. How did this happen?, Omalu asked himself. How did a young man like Mike Webster end up like this? The search for answers would change Omalu’s life forever and put him in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful corporations in America: the National Football League. What Omalu discovered in Webster’s brain—proof that Iron Mike’s mental deterioration was no accident but a disease caused by blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game—was the one truth the NFL wanted to ignore.
I picked this up at an airport kiosk and read it during my flight. Now, I picked it up for one simple reason – Jeanne Marie Laskas was one of my professors during grad school. See, my graduate MFA program had this whole idea about making sure that its graduates were at least somewhat well-rounded as artists – there were three tracks that you could study – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. We all had to take one course in a track other than our primary field of study – which meant that whenever you took one of the big overview courses (of which there were three, one for each) about 2/3rds of the people in that course were some very grumpy people who were having to study outside of their field of interest.
It was character building.
Now, since I am not even close to being a poet, and in fact have not studied poetry academically since high school (which, incidentally, did not stop me from acting like I knew what I was doing when I had to TEACH poetry in a basic college literature course two semesters ago – but, very importantly, that was about paying my mortgage, so I made it work. With, it must be said, some assistance from NPR.), so I took the non-fiction overview with Laskas. It was, I must say, fantastic. I gained a whole new appreciation for memoir, a deep and virulent hatred for the misleading narrative transgressions of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and overall had a lovely semester. I also always have an interest in Laskas’s work, as she is a really excellent writer. Concussion was born out of a GQ article that Laskas wrote on the same subject, and honestly the material is slightly thinner than you’d like to see for a full-length book project, but it’s a fast and extremely illuminating work.
6. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Rock star, crowdfunding pioneer, and TED speaker Amanda Palmer knows all about asking. Performing as a living statue in a wedding dress, she wordlessly asked thousands of passersby for their dollars. When she became a singer, songwriter, and musician, she was not afraid to ask her audience to support her as she surfed the crowd (and slept on their couches while touring). And when she left her record label to strike out on her own, she asked her fans to support her in making an album, leading to the world’s most successful music Kickstarter.
Even while Amanda is both celebrated and attacked for her fearlessness in asking for help, she finds that there are important things she cannot ask for-as a musician, as a friend, and as a wife. She learns that she isn’t alone in this, that so many people are afraid to ask for help, and it paralyzes their lives and relationships. In this groundbreaking book, she explores these barriers in her own life and in the lives of those around her, and discovers the emotional, philosophical, and practical aspects of THE ART OF ASKING.
Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet. THE ART OF ASKING will inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot – it functions well as a memoir, but also as an overall statement of belief and purpose in shared communities and in voluntary acts of support and gift-giving. It’s a lovely book to read around the holidays (I read this on Christmas), since so much of it is Palmer showing the massive extent to which she is willing to trust complete strangers, and also the large extent to which that trust is honored. And, for those interested in these sorts of things, the book also offers some extremely interesting and on-point insight into how Palmer was able to use Kickstarter to fund her album, in the most successful Kickstarter at the time (obviously, she has now been blown out of the water by the Oatmeal cat card-game). Hint: the answer isn’t something that would appear on any Market Yourself And Your Book In Ten Easy Steps! blog-post or self-published pamphlet.
Did you read any of these this year? If so, what do you think? Did you read others that were awesome? If so, throw them in the comments section! And most importantly — have a fantastic 2016!