Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading in Review

I don't know if this is of much interest to anyone other than me, but since the sidebar serves as a tally of sorts of reading that I've done through the year, and I've now built up a couple years of backlog, I thought I'd clear it out into a post so I don't lose the information.

A few general observations prior to the list:

- My rate seems pretty constant:  22 in 2011 , 22 in 2010.
- My attempts to bridge the gap between what I do read and what I want to read seem to founder.  At the beginning of 2010 I laid out for myself a shelf of 10 books that I wanted to read by the end of the year -- working on the theory that this would allow me to pick another 10+ on the spur of the moment.  These are were much all substantive "I ought to read this" kind of books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Yet in the end, I only finished three of these, and they were the lightest reading on the list.  Though I did start three more of the target books (all of which remain unfinished.)
- While from long habit I think of myself as a fiction reader, what seems best classed "light non-fiction" seems to make up a lot of what I end up reading.  (12 in 2009, depending on definition, and 6 in 2010)
- It also strikes me that what I finish reading reflects that most of my reading is either done in very short snatches (and thus favors books which don't require long stretches of close concentration) or else getting completely sucked into a book and doing nothing else while at home until it's done.  Books which are neither suspenseful nor well suited to serial reading seem to suffer.
- I did at least make it through a little bit of what can be classed as literature: Pride and Prejudice (re-read after some years) in 2009 and The Leopard and Absolom, Absolom! in 2010.  This also means I can now say that I've finished a Faulkner novel.  Not really sure if I'll try that again, but I guess one ought to try.
- As proof that I'm not above re-trying what failed the first time, I find myself with an even longer shelf of books that I have set out for myself to read (or finish reading) in 2011. 

Brief comments and ratings on a five star scale follow.


The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky**** This is a quiet and episodic book, divided into one chapter for each month of the year, detailing both the author's growing enthusiasm as an amateur astronomer and the specific objects you can see in the night sky each month of the year. I found this a particularly nostalgic read having grown up around planetariums and star gazing.

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth ** Having very much enjoyed some of Norman Cantor's earlier history books, this one was seriously disappointing, both error prone and shallow.

Waiter Rant*** The transition from blog to book is something very little writing can withstand, but the author of Waiter Rant produced a readable and well written book, part autobiography, part behind-the-scenes-in-the-restaurant-business.

The Man Who Was Thursday ***** This was a fourth of fifth read of what remains far and away my favorite Chesterton book.

Last Call ***** Again a re-read, this one of one of Tim Powers' best novels, a modern fantasy in which the highest stakes gamblers of all struggle to control supernatural archetypes through a game called Assumption played with Tarot cards, with control over each other's souls and the throne of the Fisher King as the stakes.

The Death of a Pope **** A well written thriller in which international intrigue surrounds the conclave to elect a new pope.

Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World **** Thomas Madden looks at the similarities between American history and that of the Roman Republic, with an emphasis on how the Romans stumbled into an empire while in search of security.

Pride and Prejudice ***** Another re-read. While the story is long familiar, immersing in Austen's prose style is always a delight.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded *** Looks at the explosion of Krakatoa not just as a disaster movie-size geological event, but also as one of the first times a global news story was reported and followed around the world via the telegraph and international news services in near real time.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals *** Pollan's effort to trace back everything that went into a series of meals is interesting, but occasionally veers off into paranoia or lack of realism. Those who are already seriously into making most of their meals "from scratch" in the normal kitchen sense may wonder why he doesn't calm down and just make dinner.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life *** I'm a sucker for back-to-the-land agriculture stores, and this one is quite well written (coming from an author Barbara Kingsolver), though there are odd moments when I'd find myself mentally at odds with the author's opinions, or with the composition of this particular experiment in self sufficiency.

The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans *** Recounts the author's experiences in the Balkans over several decades and reinforces the lesson that that Balkans are fascinating, but often bad news.

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy *** The building of the post-revolution United States Navy, with all of the congressional horse trading, budget overruns, and mission creep that one would expect.

Valkyrie *** This book is short and is not a comprehensive history of the Valkyrie plot, but the personal history from childhood through the end of the war of the longest surviving Valkyrie conspirator makes for a fascinating window on the period.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader *** Charmingly written, some of these reflections on life as a book reader and hoarder felt strongly familiar, while others made me think, "Wow this person is different."

The Battle: A New History of Waterloo *** Dry in places, but fascinating in depth of detail, this is perhaps the definitive modern history of one of the most pivotal battles of modern history.

The Killer Angels **** Well written and gripping, while rich in historical detail, the classic novel about the battle of Gettysburg.

The Age of Napoleon ** In some ways, this seemed more written to fill a spot in the Modern Library Chronicles series than to stand on its own as a book, though I found Alistair Horne's game try at it enjoyable, if cursory.

Napoleon: A Life *** Not the deepest survey by any stretch, but an decent quick overview of Napoleon's life.

Hobberdy Dick ***** An excellent short novel dealing with themes and characters from English folklore, set in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

The Return of the King ***** Nothing makes you value Tolkien's original prose like re-watching one of Jackson's movie adaptations. I'd re-watched the movie of RotK and immediately had to go read the book.

A Christmas Carol ***** Need one say more?


The Price of Everything *** As a novel, Roberts' work is passable, as a primer on the microeconomics of price it puts things in very understandable terms.

The Gargoyle Code **** Fr. Longnecker's homage to The Screwtape Letters is a successful updating because he remembers to take aim at the foibles of his audience, not just "the mainstream culture".

The Indian Bride *** Dark and spare as Nordic crime novels are supposed to be.

The One Minute Manager ** What's there is basically good advice, but I could have done with a nonfiction explanation rather than the "fable" format.

The Last Full Measure *** A wider canvas and overall not quite as well executed as his father's Killer Angels, but still an enjoyable Civil War historical novel.

The Little World of Don Camillo ***** Guareschi's stories about the two fisted priest and his arch enemy/friend the communist mayor in a small village in the Po river valley remain as universally human and as specifically Italian as ever.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit **** Yes well, it's a Wodehouse novel. What more need one say?

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers **** You don't think about how much the inventions of the past changed the world. This is effectively a "Triumph Of the Nerds" telling about the personalities who brought the world the telegraph in a remarkably short time, the telegraph operator culture the network created, and how the wired age was different from the age before it.

Three Men in a Boat ***** I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never actually read Three Men In A Boat before, though of course I'd heard the story of the can of pineapple numerous times.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time *** This book did a good job of setting Paul's epistles in the cultural context in which they were written -- though I found it a bit disorienting to read a book in which the author felt it necessary to explain why Paul would be such a curmudgeon as to be against things like promiscuous sex. (You see, back then, they had bad promiscuous sex.) Still a primer on how alien and messed up Classical culture could be is always fun reading.

Galileo's Daughter **** The life of Galileo framed around his relationship with his daughter Sister Maria Celeste. It is touching, informative, and well written.

The Leopard**** A Sicilian novel set in the period of Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily and the uniting of Italy into one country, it's both well written and gives a strong sense of the passing of an age.

Three Cups of Tea *** A mountain climber-turned activist working to build schools for girls in Pakistan and later Afghanistan.

Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome *** At times dry or slightly disjointed, but this bio of one of Rome's great emperors fills the gap that many people forget existed between the expanding empire of the time of Christ and the shrinking empire of Late Antiquity. Hadrian is the emperor who fixed Rome's boundaries and turned his focus to consolidating and administering all the territory which had been added over the previous two centuries, and the process brought a measure of stability which would last nearly a hundred years.

Absalom, Absalom! *** Faulkner's classic novel in Faulkner's classic style. I was very impressed with what he was doing, but not always with how he was doing it.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto *** Pollan can become tendentious at times, but his defense of eating "real" (as in, made from ingredients you can identify rather than industrially processed) food and tailoring how much you eat to how much physical work you do (duh) is common sensical. Though it often struck me that those who mostly make their own meals at home are pretty much already where he works hard to find his way to.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think **** This was a particularly fascinating look at how people tell how much they've eaten and how much they should eat. It's not remotely a diet book, but to the extent that it looks at how you determine how much to eat (and how you can be fooled into eating more than you mean to) it can be a useful tool for making your own plan to limit eating.

The Civil War: A Narrative--Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1 **** Steeped in detail but still readable, Foote's novelist background shows in making this one of the more readable history books you'll run into.

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam *** McPherson argues that Antietam was the true turning point in the civil war, but the book is actually a pretty cursory discussion of the battle itself and more a high level discussion of the changing dynamics of the war.

Spies of the Balkans **** Furst's latest World War II era page-turner is set in northern Greece and the Balkans as the war spreads.

A Most Contagious Game *** A well mannered British mystery in which a man retires from work in the City to the old country house he's always dreamed of, to find that it comes complete with a priest hole, a skeleton, and a two hundred year old murder mystery.

Parched **** Heather King's harrowing autobiography of addiction and recovery is incredibly well written, though since change comes so late in the narrative I found myself heading straight back to Amazon to order Redeemed and find out "what happened next".


Jeff Miller said...

My rate varies a bit.

2007 - 163
2008 -188
2009 - 169
2010 - 206

This year a hundred of those were audiobooks since I have a longer commute now.

Project Gutenberg helps me to keep a good diet of classic literature to help cut down my book costs. Review books also help cut down my costs and supply me with mostly high quality Catholic books. Other than that I also consume large quantities of SF/F.

As for Tim Powers - oh how I love his books. Maybe time for a re-read this year.

Dorian Speed said...

I learned about Tim Powers via your blog, Jeff! Agree with Darwin - Last Call is terrific.

owenswain said...

Your book list alone makes me want to subscribe to your blog's rss but I am trying, poorly, to cut back and apparently so are you. You'ruined my morning and after I bike to get my hair cut I am biking to the library to pick up something by Anne Fadiman but will I read it because there are so many books waiting for me to get of the Internet to read already, and paintings to paint and drawings to draw and such and - besides a horrific run on sentence is there a theme here, do you think? Hmmm