Reading List 2010 (14/191)

More last-minute books:

  • Endangered Species, Gene Wolfe
  • Innocents Aboard, Gene Wolfe
  • Starwater Strains, Gene Wolfe
  • The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, Gene Wolfe
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gentlemen and Players, Joanne Harris
  • The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Salon Fantastique, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling
  • A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories, Robin McKinley
  • The King in the Tree, Stephen Millhauser
  • Happiness, Richard Layard
  • The Book of Air and Shadows, Michael Gruber
  • The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford

So, if I post one of these things every day this week, I’ll actually be done logging my 2010 reading in 2010.

First off, both Gene Wolfe and Stephen Millhauser write spectacular short stories. Wolfe is startlingly versatile, though he’s always kind of a tricky bastard. Millhauser, on the other hand, has a very specific style that comes across in everything he does. It’s a careful walking of the line between art and artifice, and an obsession with things that blur that boundary: child geniuses, automata, puppets, illusions, magicians, and more. His fairy tales are also terrific, because they feel like retellings of old, familiar fairy tales that don’t actually exist.

Jeffrey Ford reminded me a bit of Millhauser, actually – specifically of Edwin Mullhouse, with its careful attention to the rituals and oddities of suburban American childhood. He describes a single year in the life of three siblings, as their family slowly falls apart and their town is haunted by a prowler (and possible serial killer). The narrator’s sister Mary plays with “Botch Town,” a careful re-creation of their town’s streets and houses, and slowly the order of things is revealed by the changes Mary makes to her dolls. Haunting and lovely.

Haunting and lovely also describes The Shadow of the Wind, which I re-read so that I could then read the quasi-prequel, The Angel’s Game. There’s some overlap in characters and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books features in both, but ultimately the connection between the two is that they’re both dark, gothic stories about the power of fiction. In The Shadow of the Wind, a young boy vows to protect the last copy of a mysterious book, which sets him on a collision course with some very dangerous people. In The Angel’s Game, the main character may or may not have made a deal to write a novel for the devil. I preferred the former, but they’re both quite wonderful.

The Book of Air and Shadows is also about a mysterious book; it’s not particularly magical or inspiring, but it’s clever and well-executed.  I actually preferred The Forgery of Venus, which is about a tormented painter learning how to paint like Velasquez with the help of drug use and an international gang of criminals. (Really! It’s awesome!) Still, there were enough solid twists in this one to keep me reading. If I hadn’t read it right after The Shadow of the Wind, I suspect I would have liked it a lot more.

Finally, Happiness. This was one of those quasi-research-ish books that I read thinking, “He reviews some research that might come in handy for Secret Project #2.” It turned out to include a lot of studies I’d seen before, so it wasn’t particularly helpful on the happiness-research front. In fact, it’s not even the best overview I’ve seen; he’s an economist, and when he’s writing about psychology, it shows. But! He makes a really cool, compelling argument about taxes, happiness and the social good that I hadn’t heard before. Basically, he argues that our tax system should be accounting for the social harm that high incomes impose on everyone who comes into contact with them. The argument’s more complex than I can easily reproduce, but I’d suggest you borrow the book and read the relevant chapter. The rest of the book you can take or leave, depending on how much you already know about the topic.

Happy reading!

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