Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Updated Shrew

Image result for vinegar girl coverTitle: Vinegar Girl
(Hogarth Shakespeare series)
Author: Anne Tyler
Genre: Literary Fiction / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

In this retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s (Pyotr’s) “break her spirit” vibe has been tamed down to something more likable and socially acceptable. This renders the story (for me at least) more enjoyable.

This is a less strict retelling than New Boy was for Othello, but no less entertaining for that. Aside from Kate’s off-putting bluntness, there wasn’t much resemblance to the Shakespearean original until about halfway through the book. The author mostly dispenses with all the hidden-identity/wooing-of-Bianca (Bunny) subplots and focuses on the Pyotr/Kate relationship. I thought that updating “marrying her for her dowry” to “marrying her for a green card,” was particularly clever.

As far as the characters went: at times Kate was so socially clueless that she seemed like she belonged somewhere on the autism spectrum…but I suppose Shakespeare’s Kate was pretty outrageously rude too. Pyotr is much less intentionally mean than Petruchio with a lot of his bluntness/rudeness coming from cultural differences. Kate’s father (Dr. Battista) is transformed into an exaggeratedly eccentric scientist, and her sister (Bunny) becomes an airheaded teenager…both of whom feel a bit more like something out of Austen or Dickens than Shakespeare.

Overall, I’m not a fan of romantic books (or The Taming of the Shrew) but quite enjoyed this book…the Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress.

Othello on the Playground

Title: New Boy
(Hogarth Shakespeare)
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Literary Fiction / Retelling
Pages: 205
Rating: 4 of 5

This retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello drives home the pettiness of those involved by setting the action mostly on a school playground with a cast of 6th Graders. The action takes place over a single day in the late 1970’s when Osei, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, joins an all-white school with only a month left in the school year.

The author tells the story in the third person, constantly shifting point of view to follow the thoughts of Osei (Othello), Dee (Desdemona), Ian (Iago), and Mimi (Emilia). This exploration of each character’s thoughts and motivations is what makes this book worth reading. Mimi/Emilia’s characterization was probably the most interesting since she has rather muddled motivation in the original play.

I appreciate that the author didn’t make the story purely about racism as some people try to do with Othello. Racism is certainly a big component, but Ian/Iago’s issue has more to do with jealousy (over influence, popularity, power, etc.) than race – his racial prejudice just increases the vehemence of his jealousy/hatred.

There were a couple things that kept me from giving this five stars. The main issue was that sometimes when the author changed perspective she retold the exact same events over again. In the first section of the book she does this four times; I suppose the intention was to set the stage, but it was more tedious than clever. The other thing that bugged me was the too-detailed description of Ian and Mimi making out/grinding. Yes, I understand that it was establishing Ian’s skeezy take-what-I-want character, but ew!

Overall, this was an interesting, thoughtful retelling that I would definitely recommend to fans of the Bard.

An Angry Prequel

Image result for wide Sargasso sea coverTitle: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Genre: Modern Classic
Pages: 190
Rating: 2 of 5

Having just finished Jane Eyre, I decided to read the spinoff/prequel (sometimes considered to be a modern classic in its own right): Wide Sargasso Sea. I’m not going to give away too many plot points from the book, but the whole thing turns on a major plot point in Jane Eyre, so if you aren’t acquainted with Jane Eyre and want to someday read it without knowing the deep dark revelation that occurs halfway through the book, beware:

Image result for river Song Spoilers

And if you didn’t just read that in River Song’s voice you need to go track down all the (new/revival) Doctor Who seasons that are available on DVD and watch them right now…you’re missing out on a great show.

And now that you’ve had ample opportunity to look away if you want to avoid the big Jane Eyre spoiler… This book is about Rochester’s first wife – the crazy one that is locked in the attic, occasionally roams the house at night, and is the cause of Rochester’s disillusionment. In Jane Eyre we only get Rochester’s side of the story as to where she came from, how he was tricked into marrying her, and her subsequent descent into debauchery and madness. Jean Rhys’s book purports to fill in the details of what really happened.

Rhys didn’t want to add to the story so much as subvert it. Her story is strongly post-colonial as it is set against the backdrop of simmering anger,  hatred, and racism following the emancipation of British slaves in the West Indies. Hardly anyone in the story is likeable, and Rochester (who is never named, though it’s clearly him) is probably the most detestable of the lot. Men in general are portrayed as using women as pawns or playthings, discarding them when they become inconvenient, and then blaming them for their own misery.

The writing is mostly a somewhat fractured stream of consciousness style that shifts its point of view between Rochester and “Bertha.” It kind of works with the idea of madness/disorientation/trauma that runs throughout the book. I enjoy books with a narrator of questionable reliability, but found this one so chaotic that it was hard to follow at times

Overall: this is only worth reading if you are really into stream-of-consciousness writing and seeing Rochester recast as an unforgivable cad.