What I read in 2010

It’s the end of the year, so it’s as good a time as any to dump a bunch of thoughts on books I’ve been reading. While this year I didn’t try anything too crazy – 52 books in 52 weeks or the like – I ended up reading more then a few books. A quick note: For most of these, I’d been planning on writing long, in depth reviews (and there’s still a couple I’m thinking about doing that with) but I never did.

There’s also a few here I’d already reviewed – and while my rating now may not jibe with the original rating, this is based on how I feel about them now. Nothing is static, really. Anyway, I linked to the original review where applicable. Feel free to read into the juxtaposition between the two!

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius – Dave Eggers (4 / 5)

Eggers’ debut ‘novel’ is still an interesting read, even 10 years after it’s release. While his smartest-guy-in-the-room gimmicks get tired fast, there’s a core of a great story here between him and his brother. I rather liked it, but then, I’m a big fan of Eggers, gimmicks and all.

Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung – Lester Bangs (3.5 / 5)

A decent collection of Bangs’ writings from the 1970s (mostly from Creem, but also a few other places). Some of his reviews are dated and sometimes he just seems brash for the sake of being brash. But there’s a few pieces here that rank among the best writing on music I’ve read: his travelogue of going across England with The Clash or his piece on racism in punk rock. On the whole, I think the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff.

Summer of ‘49 – David Halberstam (3.5 / 5)

An interesting look at the 1949 season and how the Yankees and Red Sox battled throughout it. Full review coming up sometime soon.

Seven Seconds or Less – Jack McCallum (4 / 5)

McCallum’s account of a season with the run-and-gun Suns of 2006. It’s a great snapshot at one of my favorite teams to watch (I still bust out tapes of the Lakers/Suns series on occasion). It’s a great read, especially when he profiles the players, but while he spent an entire season with the team, his focus is their playoff run – I’d love to have a longer look at the team, but I’m more then happy to have this.

Men With Balls – Drew Magary (3 / 5)

Magary’s a funny guy, but he only works well in short doses. This book is the same way: it’s funny here and there and it’s a great book to pick up and read a bit of now and then, but as a whole it’s just too much. Maybe it’s from his background in advertising, but when he’s not funny, I felt like he tried too hard to make some larger point. Instead, it comes off feeling hokey.

Our Band Could Be Your Life – Michael Azarrad (4 / 5)

A collection of profiles of various alternative bands from the 1980s, Azarrad’s book functions as a tapestry of how alternative became mainstream. He deftly goes from early acts like Black Flag, Mission of Berma or Minor Threat, who each had to blaze their own path across the US, to bands like Sonic Youth, Mudhoney or Dinosaur Jr., who built on that legacy and became massive successes. He also touches on the rise of independant labels – K Records, Sub Pop and Dischord, et al – and how they influenced the direction of modern music. There’s a few bands he misses (R.E.M., for instance) but the book works fine as is. Highly recommended for music fans.

The Miracle of St. Anthony – Adrian Wojnarowski (4 / 5)

A look at Bobby Hurley and his high school basketball team, which in spite of poverty, an eroding city and a school which teeters on bankruptcy, succeed wildly. Wojnarowski paints a picture of a tough coach and a couple of nuns who, by sheer force of will, keep their team alive. Think of it as a cross between A Season on the Brink and The Last Shot; it’s not as good as either, but few basketball books are. Recommended for sports fans.

Awake in the Dark – Roger Ebert (3 / 5)

A mixed bag of Ebert’s writings from over the years. His reviews are interesting to read, especially years after the movie’s release, but his longer features are mixed and don’t demand attention as well. It’s worth it for film lovers who may find a few overlooked gems in the piles of his reviews, but as a whole, it doesn’t work as well as his Great Movie volumes. Full review here.

What It Takes – Richard Ben Cramer (5 / 5)

On one level, a highly detailed look at the 1988 Presidential Election. But on another, it’s a look at what the people who can to get up and honestly say to themselves that they not only should be President, but they can be. His look at the roots of power, the trappings of political celebrity and how the media creates and destroys status are some of the best writing on Presidential politics I’ve read. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Live From New York – Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller (3.5 / 5)

An oral history of Saturday Night Live, as told by the hosts, writers and performers. As can be expected, it’s funny – and, just as the show has been, uneven. The selections on the first five seasons present an electric, dynamic show which broke all the conventions; as the show ages, it’s interesting to see how the writers and performers balance that attitude against the commercialization of the show. It’s a good look behind the scenes, but it’s not much more then that.

The Epic of Gilgamesh – Anon. (Translated by NK Sandars) (N/A)

I don’t really feel comfortable reviewing something like Gilgamesh since I don’t really know how to put it in context. As best I can really put it, it’s a great story which flows into the supernatural while never really straying far it’s core: a fear of mortality. I think it’s interesting that such an old work – easily thousands of years old – can be so timeless.

Columbine – Dave Cullen (5 / 5)

An exhaustedly researched and detailed book on a event which, for all it’s infamy is surprisngly misunderstood. Cullen goes back to the root causes of the shooting and forward to years later, charting what happened to the parties involved – yet he never loses sight of his goal to present the shooting in the harshest, most accurate light possible. It’s a daunting task, but Cullen’s book more then succeeds – it’s not just illuminating and insightful (busting every myth around the shooting) but it’s highly readable. Highly recommended. Full review here.

Esquire’s Big Book of Fiction – Various, ed. by Adrienne Miller (4.5 / 5)

A great collection of short fiction from Esquire’s pages. There are a few clunkers, sure (A Man In The Way by F. Scott Fitzgerald stands out) but there’s some gems by Raymond Carver, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace and more. A great collection!

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell (4.5 / 5)

A novel set in Dejima, the only port open to foreigners in feudal Japan, where a Dutch trading clerk gets mixed into a struggle between Japanese warlords and his failing trading company after falling for a Japanese girl. It starts off somewhat slowly, but once Mitchell gets going, it’s a great read. My fav. new book of 2010. Full review here.

Gonzo – Corey Seymour (2.5 / 5)

An oral biography of the late Gonzo Journalist Hunter Thompson. There’s a few enjoyable stories here and a couple that illuminate what he was probably like… but there’s almost a cult of personality around him and it feels like they’re trying to protect his legacy. It doesn’t add much to his legacy, but if you like Hunter’s books, you’ll like this.

A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again – David Foster Wallace (5 / 5)

A great collection of essays from the late Wallace. Highlights include a trip to the Illinois State Fair, a look at the tennis pros at the fringes of tournaments and Wallace’s observations on a cruise. I can’t recommend this book enough – depending on the page, it’s hilarious, insightful, though-provoking or more likely, some combination thereof. Fuller review here.

The Purple Decades – Tom Wolfe (3.5 / 5)

A colleciton of pieces from when Wolfe wrote nonfiction. Some, like his profile of Junior Johnson, still resonate at highlights of what he called New Journalism. Others, like his profiles of New York’s elite, are hilarious takes that skew the well-intentioned people who throw fundraisers for anarchists. But once it moves to book excerpts, it loses steam; if you’re going to read about Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, one might as well read the whole book.

Don Quixote – Cervantes (trans. JM Cohen) (5 /5)

I can’t say anything about this that hasn’t been said better, so I’ll keep it short: It starts off kind of slowly, but by the end of the second half, you’re sad to see Quixote go. It never ceases to be funny and it gets better and better the deeper you get into the book. You owe it to yourself to read the entire thing.

The Twelve Cesears – Suetoneus (Trans. Robert Graves) (4 / 5)

Okay, so Suetoneus isn’t exactly the best source for an accurate picture of Rome. But his lone surviving book is a racy, scandalous look at the Cesars and their closest relatives. From what they did during the day (bribe, backstab and murder) and night (the debauchery of some of them is amazingly excessive, even by modern standards) this book is one hell of a read.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 – Various, Ed. Dave Eggers (3.5 / 5)

As always, this volume of this series is a mixed bag. There’s a couple clunkers, a couple of pieces that are just okay and there’s a couple that are outstanding – Joy Williams’ piece on the role of nature in American fiction is worth the cover price alone.

The Continental Op – Dashiell Hammett (4 / 5)

A few short detective stories by one of the masters of the hard-boiled genre. In these, the anoynmous Op uses his fists, his wits and sometimes other criminals to net a criminal. They’re surprisingly dark – in one, he doesn’t let things like innocence get in the way of sending people to prison. They’re not as hard to follow as Chandler’s stories (more on those in a second), but they’re just as well crafted. A good introduction to the genre.

My Bookie Wook – Russell Brand (2 / 5)

Brand’s autobiography is full of him behaving badly and living excessively and eventually everything works out for him, right in time for him to flaunt how well read he is. Maybe if I was more of a fan of his work, I’d feel more strongly about his book, but for right now, this is a pretty straightforward addiction memoir.

Trouble Is My Business – Raymond Chandler (4.5 / 5)

These four stories, all featuring Chander’s great detective Philip Marlowe, are confusing, full of crazy twists and violence and compulsively readable. While everything may not always tie up at the end, it’s a hell of a trip. I’d drink like Marlowe does if I lived a life like his.

Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia – Robert Greenfield (3.5 / 5)

Garcia was a complex guy; he was one of the most talented musicians of his generation, yet he never really craved the spotlight. He had problems with food, drugs and women, but how much of that can one attribute to his watching his father drown as a small child? To having a finger cut off by his brother? Greenfield ultimately paints a picture of a man devoted to his craft who succumbs to escapism: heroin, binge eating, yes-men who allow him to live a life of excess and constantly moving from lover to lover, leaving a train wreck of ex-wifes and children in his wake.

The Histories – Herodotus (Trans. by Aubrey De Selincourt) (N/A)

One I don’t really feel comfortable putting a number to. Herodotus’ aim was to chronicle the Persian/Greek war, but he ended up capturing a wealth of fact and rumor from the ancient world: everything from a fountain of youth in Ethiopia to gold-covered, giants man-eating ants in India to Spartans smartmouthing people at every chance. It’s a great read and it’s surprisingly well-rooted in truth.

The Last Days of Socrates – Plato (Trans. Hugh Tredennick) (N/A)

Another book I don’t feel comfortable reviewing, since I’m not well read in philosophy. These four dialogues each relate to the trial and death of Socrates and each are interesting in their own ways. I personally enjoyed Apology, a look at Socrates’ own defence against charges of heresy (maybe, anyway), the most.

The Iliad – Homer (Trans. E.V. Rieu) (4 / 5)

The ancient tale of the wrath of Achilles and the smarts of Odysseus and the tragic fate of Hector (and the city of Troy). I can’t put Rieu’s translation completely in context (I’ve only read parts of Robert Fagles’ verse translation) but it’s somewhat clunky and dated. Still, I’d recommend it for people who may be put off by an epic poem.

Gretzky to Lemieux – Ed Willes (4 / 5)

A great look at the 1987 Canada Cup, probably the best hockey tournament ever played. Full review coming soon.

All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren (4.5 / 5)

Despite it’s repuation, I found Warren’s book is less about politics and more about actions. The character of Willie Stark is spellbinding, especially in conflicting he is in quest to do good, but by being crooked. I really enjoyed this book, especially Warren’s prose.

Still reading:

The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

The Gulag Arechiplago – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The History of the Peloponesian War – Thucydides

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