As 2004 winds down, I thought I'd take look back at my reading from the past year. Many of the following books are crap, but a few were worthwhile. Maybe there's something here you'd like to check out:
"The Moviegoer," Walker Percy. 3 stars
Another disenchanted 1950s youth tries to find himself and deal with his cool-ass name (Binx Bolling). This one has a New Orleans backdrop.
"Dalva," Jim Harrison. 2 stars
Didn't think he convincingly captured the female voice of Dalva. But I did enjoy the portion from Michael's perspective.
"Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes," Edith Hamilton. 3.5 stars
This is worth rereading to brush up on classical mythology. And written by a Bryn Mawr professor to boot!
"The Rebel Angels," Robertson Davies. 3.5 stars
My first introduction to Davies. Set in a Canadian college, it was quite enjoyable.
"Screenwriter's Legal Guide," Stephen Breiner. 3 stars
Handy book that I probably should have read before signing all the contracts with the Australian producers.
"Deliverance," James Dickey. 3 stars
Quick, enjoyable read with occasionally awkward prose -- odd since the writer is also a poet. It's also worth noting that the line: "I'm going to make you squeal like a pig" is not in the book.
"Shooting Under Fire," Peter Howe. 3 stars
I got this when I was working on a Vietnam screenplay. Basically it's a war photojournalism coffee table book -- sounds like a surefire bestseller formula to me.
"The Best American Short Stories 2002," Sue Miller, ed. 3 stars
This series is handy if you want to catch up on the New Yorker fiction. Most of the stories didn't blow me away, but they were solid.
"Seabiscuit," Laura Hillenbrand. 3.5 stars
Great book with lots of cool details from the era, including Bay Area factoids. I'm not into horseracing, but I would definitely recommend it.
"Masks of the Illuminati," Robert Anton Wilson. 2.5 stars
Clever and interesting, though it lost me a bit at the end: There's a long stream-of-consciousness passage.
"Supertoys Last All Summer Long," Brian Aldiss. 2.5 stars
Stories from this British sci-fi "master" were OK, not amazing.
"Lives of the Poets," E.L. Doctorow. 3 stars
A series of short stories followed by a novella that all link together. Not bad.
"The Reel Stuff," Martin Greenberg, ed. 4 stars
OK, this is a totally cheesy sci-fi compilation of short stories that have been turned into movies. But the stories are really good -- perhaps it was helped by the fact that I hadn't seen the movie in most cases.
"Future War," Jack Dann, ed. 3 stars
Another sci-fi compilation, this one about warfare. Pretty good stuff, though no "Reel Stuff."
"I, Robot," Isaac Asimov. 2.5 stars
I guess I got on a sci-fi kick for a while there. You have to admire Asimov's ideas, but these stories don't really hold up. Haven't seen the movie yet, but I understand it's very loosely based.
"Achilles," Elizabeth Cook. 3.5 stars
Amazing, heart-wrenching prose in this slim volume. The part at the end with John Keats seemed a tad gratuitous, though.
"What's Bred in the Bone," Robertson Davies. 3 stars
The sequel to "Rebel Angels." Not quite as riveting, but lots of amazing detail. Davies seems to know everything about everything.
"Under the Net," Iris Murdoch. 4 stars
My introduction to Iris Murdoch -- sad that it took me this long. This book is the funniest of hers that I've read.
"The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow. 3 stars
Took forever to read and came off as very episodic -- apparently a lot of the chapters were published earlier as separate works. Didn't like it nearly as much as "Henderson the Rain King."
"A Severed Head," Iris Murdoch. 3.5 stars
Reels you in from the start -- a great quick psychological drama.
"Old School," Tobias Wolff. 3 stars
This vision of boarding school life totally rang true for me -- even though it takes place 20 years before I went. And no one really gave a crap about short story competitions when I was in school.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," J.K. Rowling. 3 stars
Obscure treatise on land-use policies in rural Botswana.
"Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth. 4 stars
Why did it take me so long to read this? Probably the best book I read in 2004 -- totally hilarious.
"A Question of Upbringing," Anthony Powell. 2.5 stars
This was when I embarked on Powell's 12-novel "A Dance to the Music of Time" series (written between the 1950s and '70s). His style of very detached, very ironic, very British prose takes some getting used to.
"Far Frontiers," Martin Greenberg, ed. 2.5 stars
Yet another sci-fi compilation. This one was pretty run-of-the-mill.
"Sirens of Titan," Kurt Vonnegut. 3.5 stars
Funny, sad and clever. No "Slaughterhouse-Five" maybe, but a good read.
"Collier's Greatest Short Stories Vol. 1 (American)," various authors. 3 stars
I bought this six-volume series on eBay for $10, and I'm working my way through it. My favorite story in here was one by Theodore Dreiser about an old guy wandering around looking for his dead wife. Forget the title -- maybe it was "an old guy wandering around looking for his dead wife."
"A Buyer's Market," Anthony Powell. 2.5 stars
Volume two of the "Dance" series. I believe I was still underwhelmed by this point.
"Vernon God Little," DBC Pierre. 3 stars
I don't think he quite pulled off the voice of the disaffected Texas teen, but it had its moments.
"A Bend in the River," V.S. Naipaul. 2.5 stars
I was surprisingly unimpressed by my introduction to Naipaul. It went out of my mind almost immediately after I read it.
"Seize the Day," Saul Bellow. 3 stars
A nice short Bellow after "Augie," this studies the relationship between a father and his drifting son.
"Pnin," Vladimir Nabokov. 3 stars
Not great for Nabokov -- didn't have much cohesion, more just a series of quirky anecdotes. But the Pnin character was great.
"The Rule of Four," Ian Caldwell et al. 2.5 stars
This was touted as a more erudite "Da Vinci Code." I disagree. It had some cool puzzles, but the writing was very amateurish.
"The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown. 3.5 stars
I'm a little embarrassed to give this such praise, but for what it was -- a cheesy mystery/thriller with fun bits of history and religion thrown in -- it worked great.
"The Acceptance World," Anthony Powell. 2.5 stars
I slowly began to warm to the series with this book. You have to admire a writer who pens a three-page description of a "sex scene" that is so detached and British that it's impossible to tell if anything actually happened.
"Reading Lolita in Tehran," Azar Nafisi. 2.5 stars
As a Nabokov fan, I was excited about this one. It gave a sense of life under the Ayatollah, but on the whole it was a bit disappointing. It never built any narrative momentum.
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Frank L. Baum. 2.5 stars
I read this as I was reading "Wicked" to refresh myself. Let's just say it's definitely written for children. Some of the dialogue is just bizarre. Like when the witch melts, I think she says, "Watch me now. Here I go!" Glad they didn't use that line in the movie.
"Wicked," Gregory Maguire. 3 stars
I was floored by this guy's lyrical prose. What a great writer. I think the plot itself could have been more elegant, but it works pretty well.
"The Golden Gate," Seth Vikram. 2.5 stars
A 1980s novel about San Francisco written entirely in the form of sonnets. Interesting effort, but I wouldn't really recommend it.
"Isaac Asimov's Utopias," Gardner Dozois, ed. 2 stars
Another unremarkable sci-fi anthology. I'm a big dork.
"Skinny Legs and All," Tom Robbins. 3 stars
Robbins is an outstanding artist. Without relying on esoteric words, his descriptions take you places no other writer can go. The story itself, however, seemed to lack some payoff at the end.
"Easter Island," Jennifer Vanderbes. 2.5 stars
Aspires to be literary but is more like a glorified romance novel. It did teach me some cool facts about Easter Island, however.
"Starship Troopers," Robert Heinlein. 2.5 stars
Not much plot to speak of here, but lots of opportunities for Heinlein to spout about a utopian society where citizenship is only granted to those who have served their country. By the way, it's nothing like the movie.
"At Lady Molly's," Anthony Powell. 2.5 stars
Volume four of "Dance." A bit frustrating at times. Like when the narrator tells you he got engaged without any kind of elaboration. You would think we'd want to hear more since he's the freakin' narrator, but whatever.
"Roger's Version," John Updike. 2.5 stars
I don't know what I expected from this, but this wasn't it. The idea is that a computer science grad student believes he can prove the existence of God. But it ends up being more about the narrator's affair with his niece.
"Cassanova's Chinese Restaurant," Anthony Powell. 3 stars
Here, by the fifth novel, the series finally started to work for me.
"The Kindly Ones," Anthony Powell. 3.5 stars
The sixth novel in the series and the best yet. Flashbacks at the beginning tie nicely to the rest of the plot. Very elegant work.
"Collier's Greatest Short Stories, Vol. 2 (American)," various authors. 2.5 stars
Weird story choices. The only Poe story is "The Gold Bug." Plus lots of quasi-offensive African-American dialogue. Granted, this series was published in 1940.
"The Bell," Iris Murdoch. 3.5 stars
Very different than other Murdoch work, in that it wasn't first person and it wasn't from a man's perspective. Weird to ask if Murdoch can write for women, but the thought did occur to me. Comes together nicely at the end.
"Collier's Greatest Short Stories, Vol. 3 (American)," various authors. 2.5 stars
Lots of stories about the Civil War, trains and Wild West gamblers. Not sure they all hold up that well. Plus these books are so musty, they sometimes give me headaches. But I will power on!