Bobbob's 2013 challenge

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Bobbob's 2013 challenge

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Redigerat: feb 12, 2013, 9:15 am

I'm hoping to keep rolling on from an excellent 2012 and keep my reading up. Since I started doing these in 2009 I've been slowly making more time for reading in my life. Last year I managed 37 books and I'm hoping to beat that a little bit this year with a target of 40 books.

I'd like to keep to a decent split between fiction and non-fiction, clear through a backlog of natural history and nature writing and maybe read a few more female authors along the way too. I also have some books I’ve half-read before that I want to finish off. E.g. The Count of Monte Cristo (it got boring in the middle but I’m assured that this is only for a few chapters before it builds back up to the excellent quality of the first third of the novel).

The list so far:

1) The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
2) Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns
3) Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
4) The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky
5) A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
6) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
7) So You Think You Know About Britain? by Danny Dorling
8) Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Currently reading: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones and Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.

feb 10, 2013, 12:51 pm

Doing great so far. How did you ike Things Fall Apart. That is a book I have read this year.

mar 12, 2013, 6:50 am

Gotta say I was a bit ambivalent about Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is well fleshed-out and believable but also rather unlikeable and boring. Maybe I need to be more schooled in English literature and post-colonialism to get more out of it.

mar 12, 2013, 7:07 am

9) The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
10) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Bad Pharma quickly took a back seat as reading two political/current affairs books side by side was getting a bit much. Now reading Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and How to be Wild.

mar 12, 2013, 11:44 am

Some interesting reads here. What do you think has been the most interesting read of 2013 so far? What did you think of Owen Jones' book?

mar 18, 2013, 9:22 am

Most interesting? Probably a toss-up between Dancing in the Glory of Monsters and Don't Sleep There Are Snakes.

The former is a brief history of the two Congolese civil wars that dominated the 1990s and 2000s. It's a fairly complex conflict to describe with all the different factions involved and Jason Stearns pulls it off admirably.

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes is a fairly typical anthropologist's memoirs of living with a tribe (in this case a group called the Piraha). But he makes an excellent case for why their culture and especially their language is so unique and important (it has features which seem to break "natural grammar" - a fairly central tenet of modern linguistics).

Also, recently finished book #11:

11) Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Redigerat: mar 27, 2013, 10:04 am

12) Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
More gritty "grimdark" fantasy by Abercrombie. This is pretty much every western trope mashed into a fantasy novel and it was great fun.

apr 4, 2013, 8:50 am

13) The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks

A collection of short sci-fi stories. The titular novella in this collection takes up the bulk of it and while it feels like mostly filler at the beginning it eventually ties up in a very rewarding way. The other shorter stories were all very good. I particularly enjoyed one about an injured stranded astronaut and his damaged sentient spacesuit trying to make their way across a barren planet to safety.

maj 1, 2013, 9:37 am

I've slowed down dramatically from my book-a-week rate earlier to managing two books in total in April. I blame the improved weather bringing my other big hobby - natural history, to the fore. I'm spending more of my free time either outdoors in the field or looking at small organisms under a microscope.

14) Driven to Extinction by Richard Pearson
It was OK. Felt rather repetitive and sometimes a bit too basic. I was mostly interested in the experiments and methods used to study the impact of climate change on biodiversity which this does a decent job of describing. The bibliography was useful too.

maj 23, 2013, 8:33 am

15) Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
More or less the same shenanigans of regulatory capture and outright criminality and deception that we saw with the banks. Except these guys are more directly harming people with less effective drugs and taking more resource from the healthcare sector that could otherwise be spent more effectively. This is all meticulously sourced and well worth a read (WARNING: side effects may include rage and exasperation).

16) Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Urban fantasy detective novel set in London. London itself is very much a character in this book. It also felt a lot like Dr. Who. A quick and fun read after Bad Pharma.

jun 6, 2013, 1:31 pm

17)Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys by Candace Savage
A short and enjoyable grab-bag of crow-related cultural history and pop. science.

--) The Hedge Knight by George R. R. Martin
I'm figuring on reading the trilogy of "Dunk & Egg" novellas of which this is the first one. I'm not adding them individually as they're not quite long enough but will count all three as one once I'm finished. The main characters in this book were fairly unremarkable but GRRM's world-building is, as ever, incredibly rich.

18) The Running Sky by Tim Dee
British nature writing built around bird watching. Ostensibly divided up by monthly themes and running around the year (a rather tired trope in all nature writing); some of the months were beautifully written and rather moving but others were turgid with purple prose and thematically all over the place. This book felt like it went on forever as a result.

jun 10, 2013, 5:16 pm

I just realised I never thanked you for replying to m question! I see you read a lot of non-fiction, I really should put more effort into that side of things.

jun 27, 2013, 12:11 pm

I've tried to keep a roughly 50:50 ratio of fic/non-fic each year but normally I end up reading quite a lot more fiction. This year's been quite different and I’ve really enjoyed it.

19) El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
A history of the rise of the drug trade in Mexico and the fight against it. Covered by an English journalist living in Mexico and covering the drug trade there for the last 10 years. If you want an overview for what’s going on, this book is not a bad starting place.

You’d think reading about idealistic detectives and journalists being shot down in front of (or even with) their families by motorcycle assassins would be depressing enough, but it gets worse and worse – mass murders, beheadings, torture etc all used as tools of the trade. These would be war crimes in any other context. But what made me despair the most was reading about the corruption that cuts off any real effort to combat the cartels. Some of these assassins were already in jail, the prison guards were bribed and the assassins allowed to leave to commit more murders as long as they returned later like a twisted form of day release. Elsewhere the Zetas would heavily recruit from the military so their own foot soldiers would have their training bank-rolled by Mexican taxpayers before they went off kidnapping and cutting off fingers.

The obvious solution to ending the huge profits and associated violence is to legalise drugs in America but seeing as internally it’s politically unfeasible for the US and externally the UN penalises countries that don’t do enough to fight the trade in certain drugs, that’s not going to happen any time soon. And in the meantime extreme violence will remain part of the language of business for organised crime in Mexico.

20)The Sworn Sword & The Mystery Knight by George R. R. Martin
The last two of the current tales of Dunk & Egg. These novellas cover the adventures of two fairly important historical characters in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. They’re all short and reasonably fun although the characters never feel that well developed compared to those in his ASoIaF books. I think these books are also the point at which the author started to write in “catchphrases” for some characters’ internal monologues. For example when Dunk is concerned he’s made a fool of himself, a childhood taunt rolls around his mind – “Dunk the lunk” or some variation. It’s an idea that works to an extent but when everyone starts repeating their phrase over and over like a damn Pokemon as has started to happen in the later ASoIaF books it gets a bit silly.

21)The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer
A thorough argument for why those in the first world have a moral obligation to donate far more money to charity (especially to the global poor) than they currently do. I’ll get too preachy if I go into it more than that but it has thoroughly convinced me to donate significantly more to charity than I’ve done so far.

22)Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel Drezner
A short book that grabbed my attention thanks to its great title. The author is a politics prof & I was hoping for a primer on theories of international politics using a zombie pandemic as a crutch to examine the relative merits of different schools of thought. That’s more or less what you get but it’s so incredibly light that if you read the definitions for “realpolitik”, “liberalism”, “neoconservatism” and “confirmation bias” you’d have covered exactly the same amount. I had a couple of chuckles out of it but there wasn’t much more to it than that.

sep 11, 2013, 12:25 pm

I read some more:

23)Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
I've been recommended this book a few times by scifi fans but was disappointed. It's a cyberpunk hard-boiled detective novel with a cookie-cutter super-cool bad-ass protagonist. He uses his incredible ninja envoy training to beat up toughs and escape impossible odds, he can read and outsmart the slipperiest of corporate bad-guys and if there’s a female character, he’s likely to sleep with her at some point in an overly descriptive sex scene.

24)The Scar by China Mieville
Almost as good as Perdido Street Station. Suffers from a unempathetic protagonist who never really gets fleshed out well enough to explain her behaviour. Other than that, the world is fascinating, the secondary characters are all very interesting and the monster (Mieville loves his monsters) is done just right without revealing too much so it retains its mystery.

25)Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
This is a collection of short stories involving anthropomorphised animals taken to a pessimistic extreme. These animals are mostly hypocritical, confused, self-important and racist. There are a few stories with bittersweet endings but most are ugly. Sedaris still manages to have you laughing at the end of each one anyway. Although a self-important fly name-dropping VIPs while sitting on a pie described as “carrying on from the upper crust” made me groan so hard it almost ruined the whole damn book

26)I Heard the Owl Call my Name by Margaret Craven
Yet another popular “spiritual” book of which I just don’t get the appeal. It’s basically the story of a young priest in 1960s sent to a difficult-to-minister parish; a collection of First Nations villages in the labyrinthine fjords, inlets and islands of the west coast of Canada. It turns out that he has a terminal illness and has not been made aware of it, instead sent to these poor villages to learn more spiritual life lessons as intensely as possible before his time comes. While being clearly well-meaning and trying to be respectful to First Nations people and the problems they face, it seemed to me that it edged over into noble savage and “magical Native American” stereotypes a bit too often (the very premise that it’s living with aboriginal people who have a magical connection to nature and “real” life is all part of this!). This causes it weirdly totter between humanising and otherising the First Nations villagers often managing to do both at the same time. There’s also some decent lampooning of western anthropologists, snooty outsiders and rich Americans but this gets tied in with a heavy-handed spiritual/religious message. There’s a great bit where a British anthropologist comes by for a week or two, berates the priest for ruining the locals’ culture with Christianity and insists on calling the Kwakiutl the “Quackadoodles” despite being corrected by the priest. She declares that they have been known as Quackadoodles in the United Kingdom for a hundred years and thus they shall remain Quackadoodles! The locals have their fun at her expense nonetheless. On the other hand, the one atheist character (a teacher), for example, is a total caricature who is eternally grumpy and rude with no redeeming features – just a big godless bogeyman. It wraps up into a story that’s simultaneously (too) sweet, sometimes genuinely beautiful and also very, very frustrating!

27)The Black Count by Tom Reiss
Alexandre Dumas’ father General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was basically an 18th century badass. There’s no other way I can put it. Starting out as the illegitimate mixed-race son of a French aristocrat in Saint-Domingue (Haiti); he was later sold into slavery but then brought back to France; legitimised; educated in the classics, philosophy, fencing & horse-riding; later enrolling in the French army as a private before working his way up to a general in record time. Reiss pieces together what information he can on the General from the son’s own memoirs (in itself pulled together from other people’s recollections as the general died when his son was 4 years old) and contemporary descriptions but most of all from the letters and sundry documents written and signed by the general. While some of what Dumas (the novelist) wrote was clearly embellishment, it’s apparent from the other contemporary sources that much of it wasn’t. It makes the later betrayals of the general and his sink into obscurity so much more painful.

28)Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals by Becky Crew
Becky Crew runs the excellent Running Ponies blog which covers unusual aspects of biology recently uncovered in the academic literature. This is basically a collection of her articles mashed together into a book. She does go the extra distance by actually interviewing the scientists upon whose research she writes about which, considering this is what she does in her blog, is miles above the kind of reporting in science you see in most mainstream news media. So if you want to learn about animals that grow and drop explosive packages, eat the brains of bats, drum with their genitals or deliberately snap bones through their own flesh, and actually read the whys and hows that go with that; I heartily recommend this book.

Redigerat: sep 11, 2013, 1:32 pm

Wow, more than 25 already! Congrats! :)

How'd you like Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk?

Redigerat: sep 12, 2013, 6:13 am

Thanks! I'm trying to make it to 40 books this year.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk was a very light read and a lot of fun. A friend had been gushing about Sedaris recently and this was the only book by him in my local library. I definitely want to read some of his longer form work.

After reading The Black Count, I've gone back to try and finish the Count of Monte Cristo. The start of the book has you hooked but the mid-section really starts to show that Dumas was literally paid by the sentence. Everyone goes on massive digressing speeches all the time and everything has to take place in dialogue. So in the last 200 pages, basically nothing has happened (although it's finally starting to pick up again!).

sep 12, 2013, 11:08 am

Thanks for your quick reply. I think I might give Sedaris a try myself some time. I also wanted to read the Count of Monte Christo but it seems to be a bit rough in the middle from what you're saying. But that is quite often the case with longer works. That's why I usually tend to love the longer works that are not dreary in the middle (such as Lord of the Rings or King's The Stand, for example).

sep 13, 2013, 7:16 am

I think it's partly because it's a multiple revenge story. These stories always start with the excitement of the terrible wrong being done. And I think most similar modern stories will handle the vengeance episodically to keep the audience engaged - e.g. the Kill Bill movies, Best Served Cold, V for Vendetta to name some I know.

The Count of Monte Cristo does this a little at the start but then shifts gear into what looks like a massive & complicated plan that will exact revenge on the rest more or less together. This leaves a big pile of set-up in the middle. I think some of the digressions will turn out to be quite important eventually but given the length of the book it's easy to get disheartened instead.

sep 26, 2013, 6:50 am

29)The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Finally finished this beast! The story itself is great with twists, turns and revelations that will keep you hooked. It's just that the prose is ruined by all the repetition and needlessly long digressions that probably weren't as grating if you read it back in the 1840s in its original chapter-by-chapter serialisation but as a single novel to be read continuously it's just awful. Apparently there are better translations out there now that remove the worst of this and also return the bits that the Victorian English translators prudishly removed. So overall a great book reduced to a merely "good" one by bloat.

okt 16, 2013, 6:46 am

30) Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan

I mainly read this after the recommendation in the comments here:

It does an excellent job of explaining how one measures and describes networks, what properties are unique to small-world networks, how often they appear in nature, society and technology and what those implications are. It was science journalism very much in the vein of The Song of the Dodo which I also really, really enjoyed last year - the narrative follows the evolution of the ideas behind the science; covering the most ground-breaking or pivotal papers as it goes along, allowing you to build up your understanding along the same routes as the scientists did doing the original hard-work. My only issue was that this book is 10 years old and I'm itching to know what new discoveries in network behaviour have occurred since then.

okt 29, 2013, 9:10 am

31) The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity by Cristina Eisenberg

A decent piece of popular ecology with a nature writing style. A little too strictly American if you ask me. Briefly touching on other countries and organisms would have really broadened its appeal.

dec 24, 2013, 7:12 pm

32) Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell
33) Hostile Habitats by Mark Wrightham
34) Sh*t my kids ruined by Julie Haas
35) God's War by Kameron Hurley
36) Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
37) How to be Wild by Simon Barnes
38) A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements

dec 27, 2013, 2:21 pm

Awesome list you put together this year! Way more than the 25 books. Which book did you like best in 2013?