It’s almost the end of the year and as many do, I’m taking a moment to look back over the last year and to look forward to the next one. One thing I’m looking back on are the books I read in 2018. I said I wanted to read 24 in 2018, or two per month, and I wound up at 25. They are spread across fiction and non-fiction, classics and modern literature, history and fantasy.
One thing I did different this year was to start giving books I’d read a rating. I didn’t intend for this rating to be an assessment of the quality of the book, but rather an assessment of how much I liked it. There are a quite a few books on my list that are impressive books, but that I wasn’t a huge fan of. “Milkman” is a good example. It won the Man Booker Prize this year, but I gave it a 4/10. All to say, don’t see the number as my critical assessment.
I’ve also included some brief notes about my experience reading the books. Some received no rating as I felt they fell outside my criteria for evaluation, meaning I wasn’t reading them in order to enjoy them so it felt wrong to rate them. Some of these notes contains spoilers, so read at your own risk.
Now, without further ado, here is the list.
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad - 9.5/10
Dark. So dark. But fantastic. A surprise at the end that Kurtz dies so quickly, but nonetheless fantastic. I had slightly different expectations after having watched Apocolypse Now, i.e. for more to happen on the trip up the river, and I was surprised that the story was actually a recollection of a sailor. Great book, though calling it that is somewhat difficult given how dark it is.
Moonglow - Michael Chabon - 6.5/10
Some really neat moments in the book and a captivating story. Sometimes the language felt overwrought, and he had a peculiar interest in women's breast. Most women in the book had some description of their bosom. Okay, but not the best.
Madeline's World - Brian Hall - Did not finish
Well written, well observed, but I had a hard time remaining interested about the minutia in the life of a three-year old at great length. Hall's arm-chair theorizing on the evolutionary explanations for things children do (why a child mimics a parent, for example) seemed somewhat out of place, and toward the end, tiresome. Maybe if I was a parent, I could have came to the end, but I couldn’t bring myself to it.
90 Degrees North - Fergus Fleming - 10/10
Supremely well written, supremely well researched, continually captivating. Not a moment where I think Fleming could have done better. Amazing what people did to get to the North Pole. Humanity as a species seems to just throw bodies at a project in order for it to be successful.
How to win friends and influence people - Dale Carnegie - 7/10
Some very sound, practical advice in here. Sometimes it seems a bit too canned; "Just smile more!" And a bit too self deprecating. Overall however a worthwhile read.
Best American Travel writing 2009 - 8/10
8/10 some fantastic pieces in this collection. “Intimacy” was especially moving. Definitely will order the 2018 version now!
Moby Dick - Herman Melville - 9/10
Fantastic as always. Second time I read this. I'd forgotten how abrupt the ending was, though it was a familiar feeling I got at the end as the last time. Only reason it doesn't get a perfect score is because I haven't yet learned to love the digressions about whales.
Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - 5/10
Sometimes felt like proselytizing rather than fiction. For a book of cultural commentary, it gets a 6.5/10. It's not new points that she is making, and she recycles some old tropes, however some is nuanced and fresh. For a book of fiction, a 4/10. Story is engaging, though skews to being overly romantic. Conflicts do feel like they occur for the sake of something happening in the plot rather than a product of the situation. Some plot threads are never followed up or carried through, i.e. Dike's suicide, Kimberly as Ifemelu's friend. Over all, I'm not upset I read it, but I would be reluctant to recommend it and I wouldn’t read it again.
Best American Short Stories 2018 - 7/10
A good collection with a nice array of styles and voices. Some seemed a bit trite, but others stood out with such force as to almost carry the entire collection.
The English Patient - Micheal Ondaatje - 9/10
Deeply researched with beautiful prose, and flawed but well-developed characters. A tragic, though gripping story. Sometimes I struggled to know what was actually going on in the story which I think is a shared fault of mine and the author. He wrote a dense book, so I need to come switched on, but sometimes it might have been too dense. Read after it won the top booker prize for the last 50 years.
The Responsible Company - Yvon Choinard and Vincent Staples - 8/10
Good principles, good techniques, a bit repetitive.
Designing your life - Bill Burnett - Did not finish
Got started, but got interested in other books, so put this down to focus on those. I like the idea of design principles to life. Will pick it back up at some point.
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbra Kingslover - 6.5/10
A really good book, but somehow it didn't grab me. Told through the voices of five women – the wife and four daughters of an ardent Baptist preacher. She nails the progression of voices as the daughters age, and I was interested to get to the end, but sometimes it was very social justice, how bad America is, etc. Also, while the voices were fell well done, the characters somehow didn’t engage me fully enough care about them in the way I do in other books. Felt like I was just hearing their story than really emotionally involved. Interesting considering they were actually well-developed characters, but somehow they just didn’t quite click with me.
The Milosevic trial: A companion - No rating
Had good information on the trial and setting the scene.
In a Free State - V.S. Naipul - 7/10
Obvious masterstroke to the work, but it was not one that I loved. The story the collection pulls its name from sounds so much like Hemingway at times, I was surprised it was not mentioned in any of the reviews/articles I read about this book. Naipaul however is a master stylist, creating a fantastic pace that picks up like a stone rolling down a hill. My favorite was “One out of Many”. A clear, well defined character who I felt like I knew intimately at the end of the piece. One to I’ll likely go back to at some point.
Na Drini Cupria - Ivo Andric - 9.5/10
Exceedingly well developed. A mastery of how to pace and structure a novel. Some moments I could feel in my own body. At times, the stories and characters felt a bit contrived, but this was an easy thing to look past as many were very original. Would have been nice to stick a little bit closer to some characters (like Alihodza), but there was enough to carry the reader through the work. A masterwork and a text to steal from.
Best American Travel Writing - Lauren Collins - 6/10
An okay collection. Lot of big familiar names, and some stories would be very loosely called travel stories. Someways it’s good for a genre’s boundaries can be pushed, but in some places it felt like the editor was too open minded about the definition. Standouts: Citizen Khan, Land of the Lost. Meh: Eva, she Kill her daughter
Born in Yugoslavia, Raised in Norway - Dragana Bieliki - No rating
An interesting collection of thoughts and perspectives on identity and belonging. Quite a few notable passages that I’ll keep with me for future work.
A Horse Walks into a Bar - Philip Grossman - 6/10
Deserving of the praise calling it a tour de force. It is short, and intense, hard to swallow at times, but still human. Grossman rides the line of going too far, but doesn't. Ultimately, it doesn’t carry as much resonance as other books. Tamara is a not terribly effective device to get to know the judge, despite some good moments. And the format of this being a stand-up comedy show gets tiresome. The comic relief that the audience in the book gets I felt is lost on the reader (which is ultimately the most important). The jokes aren't all that funny when read on the page, mostly they are just sad. Thus, you end up doing a lot what feels like unnecessary reading to get to the various points. I think all dialogue- or even dialogue-domiated prose is tiresome on a reader, and should be used sparingly by an author. The reader ends up having to wade through so much that could have been skipped over were it done as narration rather than dialogue. And in this book, much text is dedicated to denoting what the audience did or said or looked like or whether they laughed or not, which I think is often much better left as subtext. I feel a bit bad giving it a 6. Would rather see it as an 8, but it was just damn unpleasant to read at times. I'd say an 8 for the overall story in the book, but a 4 for how the story is told. Thus, a 6.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Philip K. Dick - 4/10
I got about 50 pages in, but was not grabbed. Having seen the movie before, I feel the movie is such a superior dive into this scientific world. This read like Bradbury's “Fahrenheit 451” which I felt is best read by ninth graders to marvel at an interesting idea but not to marvel at the way language is used to make that idea take shape in the mind of the reader through a story. This is a commonality with sci-fi writing and one reason why it doesn't attract me so much. Nonetheless, given my affinity for the movie, I felt I should give this a try, but it did not warrant the time for a full reading. I have no doubt however that sci-fi fans would enjoy it, but it is not for me.
Warlight - Micheal Ondaatje - 10/10
Can not imagine a better book. Rich in detail, rich in character, rich in story. A chest of pearls to walk away with. Reminded me quite a bit of “The Goldfinch” – young boy is left to his own devices by his parents and through a series of characters in his life, becomes a mild societal renegade. I loved to “The Goldfinch,” so it was fantastic to see Ondaatje use a similar story arc. I was intrigued by his use of the first-person narrator. The sentence structure supported the idea that this was a story being spoken aloud, but it sounds like the protagonist is speaking aloud to himself. Also was interested to see some information on the Yugoslav front during WWII and how brutal it was after it was over. Definitely a theme to be explored further.
Meditations of a Hedge Fund Manager - Aaron Smith - No Rating
Aaron Smith is clearly well-read in scripture. He did a good job of presenting a theme and then a collection of verses expounding and exploring that theme, but I think my favorite parts where when he contextualized to his life and experience. A good read for anyone Christian that works in the finance world
Monk of Mokha - Dave Eggers - 8/10
A gripping book that weaves in the history of coffee in an interesting way and a story that sucks you in at the more dramatic moments. Eggers did well to skip to exciting parts and hop over repetition (stopped at this checkpoint, then another, then another, etc) though there were still a few places I think could have been skipped. And Mokhtar, the protagonist, is a true character. Highly recommended for anyone interested even a little bit in coffee.
The Trial of Adolf Hitler - 7/10
An excellent account of a little-known event in history. It was quite interesting to see some of the names appear in the early years, and read about the opposition to Hitler. In history class, we mostly learn about Hitler the leader that started WWII, but we don’t hear the story (beyond the basics) of how he acquired that power. It was interesting to see also some of Hitlers own doubts about himself, and his resounding self certainty later on. I don’t have any suggestions for improvement for the book and would gladly recommend it to anyone interested the great wars, however the 7 score is based on how much I enjoyed it. While it was excellently researched I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did other books, like “90 Degrees North“
Milkman - Anna Burns - 4/10
A great delivery from Burns, but not one that I wanted to stick with. It’s obvious that she knows and feels a great deal about the topics she's writing about, but the style makes it a challenge to follow through with. The text goes off on a great many tangents and anecdotes and includes a good deal of 'information on the side' which made it very challenging to remain engaged with. Plus the style is very roundabout, text heavy, saying not too much, but with a great, great many words. I can see that there is some artistic conceit to the style in that it mirrors the feeling in Ireland at the time and that it mirrors the language and emotions/mental state of the protagonist, but ultimately I felt it placed to great of a burden on the reader to remain interested without much incentive. I came to feel like I was wading through a miasma of text without a clear feeling as to why it was worth the effort, so I put it down and likely won't pick it up again. If you do choose to read it, I found it helped to read the text in your head with an Irish accent. Seemed to make it flow better for me.