I read 55 books in 2013. Not bad. Not bad at all. Here’s the last of the bunch.
A Christmas Story – Jean Shepherd
You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas – Augusten Burroughs
Shepherd’s work is an annual tradition for me. Before I can watch the movie, I have to go back and read the original essays it was based on. And, each Christmas season, I try to include at least one new holiday book. Burroughs’ collection of holiday-themed essays was this year’s selection. I’ve read and enjoyed Burroughs’ work in the past. This, however, was a chore to get through. It wasn’t loaded with Christmas spirit, or even a fun take-down of the holiday. Rather, it was more about the highs and lows of Burroughs’ life, episodes that just happened to occur around the holidays.
Perhaps I would have enjoyed it in different circumstances, but it didn’t fit my tastes this December.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel – Robin Sloan
I’m debating whether to put together a list of my favorite books I read in 2013. If I did, though, this would be high on the list. It’s full of things I love.
Clay is an out-of-work web developer in San Francisco who stumbles upon an old bookstore with a Help Wanted sign in the window. After a brief meeting with the eccentric, elderly owner, Clay is given the overnight shift. Which is odd because there are almost no customers, day or night. But the customers who do come in are a series of regulars who check out, not buy, books from a mysterious area not open to the public.
Eventually Clay begins snooping around and, with the help of his special effects artist roomate, Google-employed girlfriend, and techno millionaire best friend, attempts to crack the ancient code hidden within the books these odd customers are checking out.
It’s a mystery, techno-thriller, fantasy, and even metaphysical novel all wrapped into one. And it’s a lot of fun.
Gilead: A Novel – Marilynne Robinson
A book that has been on my To Read list for ages, partially because it won both a Pulitzer and a National Book award. But also because parts of it take place in Kansas before, during, and after the Civil War. That’s right, there’s an honest-to-goodness Jayhawker in the story! An ancillary character is even said to have “gone to college in Lawrence” and then “married a German girl from Indianapolis.” S. is 1/4 German, so that was kind of fun.
It is an autobiography of sorts. It is a letter from John Ames, an elderly preacher in Gilead, Iowa, to his seven-year-old son, written in 1957. Ames struggles with a heart condition and wants to put the story of his life, as well as his father’s and grandfather’s, onto paper so the family history won’t be lost to his son when he passes.
The family story is rich. His grandfather was a preacher in Abolitionist Kansas, using the power of the pulpit to rally his congregation to fight against the evils of slavery. His father, also a minister, took a more pacifist path, preaching against World War I and arguing that all conflict was immoral.
Also part of the story is the reappearance of John Ames Boughton, namesake of Ames and adult son of his best friend. Boughton brings a new set of family conflicts and dilemmas into the memoir.
I found the story, and Robinson’s writing style, to be a bit tedious. Nothing about the story completely engaged me, no element pushed it forward at a brisk pace. There is the hint of something sinister beneath much of the story, but when the truth comes out, it is far from dark and dangerous. Disappointing all around.
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon
Ahh, another 9/11 novel. After hearing all the hype for this, and knowing that Pynchon was an Important author, I expected something more like Gilead: dense, difficult to read, every word weighted with allegory, metaphor, or religious significance.
Instead I got a delightful, hilarious, smart, and hip romp through the New York of 2001, both before and after the terrorist attacks.
It centers on Maxine Turnow, a street-smart, sarcastic, very-New York fraud investigator and her various links to the Silicon Alley tech scene of NYC. In the course of her investigations, she finds money from New York firms working its way to Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East. She receives a DVD showing men preparing to shoot down planes flying over New York. She crosses paths with a former CIA agent who, at first glance, appears to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, in South and Central America during the Reagan years. She meets wacko Russians, a conspiracy theory loving Jewish grandma, and all kinds of other characters.
Bleeding Edge doesn’t anwswer any questions about 9/11. In fact, it can lead you to believe it’s pushing one of several conspiracy theories. Rather, it’s a statement about a moment in time in the history of New York.
It’s a fun, funny, entertaining read. However, it is rather light on plot. And it feels like a novel someone who knows New York well would appreciate more. Slightly disappointing but still gets my recommendation.