Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A little bit of everything on my 2017 reading list

For a few years, earlier this decade, I read baseball books almost exclusively. I reviewed them both for my own blog and for Baseball America. I cranked through baseball biographies, season recaps, offbeat observations, novels, and minor-league-chasing-the-dream tales. Some of them were quite good; most, in the grand scheme of things, were somewhat forgettable. Inevitably, I got burned out on baseball books. In looking back on my reading list for 2017, there's not a single one in the bunch.

There's not really much of a theme to this year's list at all. I had a few re-reads, especially early, a couple of which were prompted by the political dystopia we were plunged into after the catastrophic 2016 election. Others I plucked off the shelf on a whim, some of which had been sitting for years, never read, waiting for the moment I would finally get to them. Here they are, roughly in chronological reading order.

The Ball is Round, by David Goldblatt. This was a Christmas gift from my wife's aunt and uncle. After years of meat thermometers and strap wrenches, I finally didn't have to feign my enthusiasm when thanking them. I am a relative newcomer to soccer (football), having gotten hooked on the Premier League 4-5 seasons ago. The history of the game is a big blind spot for me. This book filled in a lot of it. And will fill in even more when I finish it. I set it aside a couple of times because it was so long and I progressed so slowly through it that other books or tasks took priority. I will get back to it. Someday. It's a good read and deserves to be finished.

All the President's Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (Re-read) I'd read this one at least twice before, originally back in college for a journalism class. How better to inspire a new generation of reporters? It took on a new relevance with the inauguration of a man who makes Nixon look like a boy scout by comparison. The most striking contrast between then and now is 40 years ago Congress had the balls to stand up for what is right. Eventually. They did drag their heels at first, but nothing like the present-day gang.

1984, by George Orwell. (Re-read) Sadly, this one is much more relevant now than when I originally read it years ago. The CDC's banned-words list is right out of the Big Brother playbook. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Don't let anyone from the liberal #fakenews media tell you otherwise.

The Late George Apley, by John P. Marquand. I mentioned this book in a 2016 post about Pulitzer Prize winners, as one I had never actually read despite purchasing it years earlier. I finally cracked it open and made it all the way to the end, nudging my Pulitzer total up to 5. It wasn't the most action-packed book I've ever read, but it was kind of creatively done as being told in letters that almost lent it a genealogical feel. My ancestors weren't quite as well off as the Apleys, and were hopefully somewhat less snooty as well.

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad. This was another one that had been languishing unloved on the shelf for years. I may have even bought it the same day as George Apley, for all I remember. I used to spend a lot more time in used book stores in the old days, stashing away titles for some day. This was my first Conrad novel, and it may be some time before I attempt a second. It's dense stuff, and while there was more action than George Apley, that's not saying much. Conrad didn't bother making his protagonist very likable, and I wasn't much broken up when his wife killed him. He had it coming.

Slam, by Nick Hornby. (Re-read.) I'm a big Hornby fan, and this may actually be my favorite. I think I like it more now than when I read it the first time. I still don't really get the whole talking Tony Hawk poster bit, or the time travel part, but it's well told and the bits that are meant to be funny are funny. Sam's a good character with an authentic voice. I'll re-read it yet again someday, no doubt.

The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper. (Re-read.) I think the rule is if you re-read a Hornby you have to re-read a Tropper as well, just to keep things even. This was the first Tropper book I read, probably 12-13 years ago now. It's not my favorite of his, but it's pretty solid. I was amazed how much of the detail I had forgotten. I remembered the basics about the main characters and very little beyond that. It was almost like reading it for the first time.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus. This is another that was collecting dust on the shelf forever before getting read. I blogged about it in September, when I finally finished it, more than 30 years after starting. A protagonist even less likable than Conrad's secret agent, but then again, warm-and-fuzzy wasn't really Camus' thing.

How Not To Be a Boy, by Robert Webb. The only brand new book on the list, I actually preordered this from Amazon.uk. I've been a Webb fan since That Mitchell and Webb Look. He's funny and seems like a good human (at least based off his Twitter feed), so I was intrigued by the concept of a memoir breaking down all the ways we raise boys (and girls) to behave based on gender roles. It was funny in places and sad in others. I enjoyed it overall, but maybe only 4 out of 5 stars worth.

Split Images, by Elmore Leonard. I've seen multiple writers over the years point to Leonard as someone who knows how to omit the boring bits that readers don't want to read anyway. So when I found this at a library sale, I figured it might be informative as well as entertaining. And it was, to a point. Leaving out the boring bits results in a lot of dialogue, which is all well and good, but some of it wasn't ... convincing? The story overall didn't really hook me, either. I mean, it was fast-paced and I did get through it in relatively good time, but something about an arrogant rich guy who murders people to rid the world of scumbags just didn't work for me. I might give Leonard another shot, but I can't see re-reading this one.

Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers), by Simon Price. The Manics are the band that I can't quite figure out how I missed when they broke in back in the '90s. I mean, they didn't really break big in the States, so I'll use that as my excuse, but they would have been right in my wheelhouse. I've been making up for lost time the last couple of years, collecting most of their albums and listening frequently and repeatedly. But I didn't know a lot about them. I found a copy of Everything on eBay to fill in the gaps, at least up until the late '90s (first five albums). The cover includes a Guardian quote deeming it the "Rock Book of the Decade." I'll second that, and give it my Best Book of the Year nod. I learned a lot and was sorry to get to the end.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Back in high school, my friends and I would rent Humphrey Bogart movies and watch a couple on a Friday or Saturday night (yes, we were living large). I'm sure The Big Sleep was among them. But despite enjoying several Philip Marlowe flicks, I never read any of Chandler's books. This was one of my favorites of the year. Chandler definitely keeps things moving, with plenty of twists so you don't see it all coming in advance. I read all of Marlowe's lines in a Bogart voice (in my head, not out loud), with a lot of black and white scenery unfolding in the background. I actually kind of miss reading it now that I'm done. More Chandler, please.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). I read The Cuckoo's Calling a couple years ago, and while it's very different from the Harry Potter books, Rowling's gift for story telling and characters is present no matter what she writes. I found The Silkworm in the discount book bin at Tops last week and snatched it right up. I'm about halfway through so far and it's as entertaining as I expected it would be, though the description of how Owen Quine's body was found, well, yuck, I could have done without that image. Or most of the recap from the Bombyx Mori (the story within the story). Clearly, Voldemort wasn't the most disturbing creature roaming around Rowling's mind.

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