The Best of My 125 Book Year

Some years ago a "52-books-in-a-year" meme sprouted up, in which people "challenged" themselves to read a book a week for a year. I thought at the time, as I do now, that this is an absurdly small number of books; reading for merely a half-an-hour to an hour a day one can easily polish off a book a week (depending, admittedly, on the length and difficulty of the book and the reading speed of the individual). Considering that the "average" American supposedly watches four hours of television a day, sacrificing a quarter of that to book reading doesn't seem like much of a challenge, and I'm under the impression that most bibliophiles read quite a bit more and watch quite a bit less. To prove the point at the beginning of 2009 I decided to simply keep track of my reading. My final tally came to 125 books. You can see whole list at Library Thing. (The Doc Savage book "The Man of Bronze/The Land of Terror" counts twice as it's two books collected as one.) Below are short reviews of the best of this list.

Some notes: I included graphic novels in the tally, though I can often read them quite a bit faster than prose books, so perhaps that's 'cheating'. In 2009 I read 68 graphic novels and 57 prose books. Also some of the prose books were admittedly short, the novella The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, for example. Others, though, were very long, the longest being the 1,400 page Chinese classic Journey to the West. In fact, because this book is usually divided into four volumes, I considered counting it four times, but I figured if I was counting novellas once, I might as well count Journey once as well. There is an inconsistency there, however, because I only read one volume of the 16-volume 1001 Arabian Nights, and counted that as '1'. Indeed, the whole notion of keeping track of what I read became somewhat maddening; should I count the individual pieces of short fiction I read, online or in magazines? What about individual issues of comic books? What about magazine articles and blog posts? How about poems? Surely if these things were collected into a book I would count it? Should I perhaps keep track of the number of pages and when they reach some pre-determined "book" length, count them? In the end I decided it was simply too insane, and could easily lead to ludicrous ends; for example, should I also count the words I read on street signs and see if they add up to a "book"? No, I counted none of it. Books are an incredibly imprecise measure of reading to begin with, since they come in all manner of sizes and shapes and with different fonts and type sizes. So for simplicities sake, I kept things to what I could easily identify as prose books and graphic novels.

93 of the books I read were originally written in English, 26 in Japanese (all Manga), 2 in French, 1 in Chinese, 1 in Arabic, 1 in Ancient Greek and 1 in Norwegian. (I read all of them in English.) I should probably endeavor to read more work in translation, and maybe even resume my old attempts to read in Spanish (two and a half short books read, some years ago).

I also tried counting up the years of publication, but too many of the works were repackaging of earlier works, translations from one year of a book written in another year, collections of stories from many different years, and so on, so I gave up. After all, I read The Argonautica, does that count as 3rd century BC (the year it was written) or 1959, the year of this particular translation, or the year of its current printing? And are any of those dates particularly helpful?

Rather then review every book I read, which would be exhausting, here's the books I read that I can most heartily recommend, in no particular order. This is obviously not a "best of the year" in the sense that a lot of the books below were released before last year, and I make no claim to have read every 'notable' book of 2009 (though I have indicated 2009 releases below). However, I passionately endorse all of these as the kind of books I want to shove in everyone's hands and make them sit down and read.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (2009)

This is not quite the book I would have expected from David Mazzucchelli, an artist previously best known for drawing Daredevil and Batman (including Batman: Year One, which formed a loose basis for the film Batman Begins). And yet, here it is, the kind of art-school/coffee-shop/newspaper-review-section beloved work normally produced by indie comics darlings like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. The title character, Asterios Polyp, is an architecture professor who has a crisis of faith and runs away to become an auto-mechanic after his wife leaves him and his house burns down. However, this not just another About Schmidt-style midlife crisis story, but a simple, beautifully illustrated and haunting book about art, mythology, architecture and love.

The Best of Michael Moorcock (2009), Mother London, Gloriana, Death is No Obstacle, The Warlord of the Air By Michael Moorcock

I've already written extensively about my love for the work of Michael Moorcock, so all I'll mention here is the book The Warlord of the Air, which is a book that takes place in a 1971 as it was imagined by the Victorians, complete with air pirates and anarchist revolutionaries. Cameos are made by Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Lenin (or Ulyanov) and others, and this proto-Steampunk novel remains a cannier send-up of imperialism than Avatar could ever hope to be.

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en

First published in the 16th century, Journey to the West is to a Chinese story akin to that of King Arthur, in the sense that it's a tale that's been retold and staged and filmed for generations and elements of it known to just about everyone, even if they've never encountered the source material. The story centers around a highly fictionalized version of a historical monk, Xuanzang, who traveled from China to India in the 7th century. In Journey he is joined by the Monkey King, Sun Wukang, a reformed immortal monkey who once caused great havoc in the heavens and was condemned for it to spend 500 years trapped under a mountain. Along with pig-faced Zhu Bajie, the ogreish Friar Sand and a dragon transformed into a horse, the group battles dozens of demons and monsters on its way to the sub-continent. Admittedly, over the course of 1,400 pages the tales get a little repetitive, but there are enough moments of sheer exuberance, glee, humor and weirdness to show why this book has survived so long and is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Also, The Monkey King himself is one of the most wonderfully charming characters I've ever encountered, up there with Falstaff or Don Quixote.

20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa (vols. 1-6, 2009)

One of the reasons it took me a while to get into manga is that it can be intimidating; with such a huge amount of material in every conceivable genre, where should I even begin. Well, if you're looking for a place to begin, I can think of no better place than 20th Century Boys. Part coming-of-age story, part political thriller, part action drama, and part send-up of science fiction cliches, the series is the story of Kenji, a lowly convenience-store worker stuck taking care of his sister's abandoned baby, who discovers that someone seems to be carrying out a plan for world conquest he and his friends devised when they were children. Can Kenji stop the plan before the final catastrophe strikes on New Year's day, 2000, or is it already much, much too late? Urasawa is considered one of the grand-masters of the form, and his skill in story-telling, pacing, characters and pitch-perfect art makes mainstream American comics look decades behind the curve.

Spaceman Blues and Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery

Brian Francis Slattery is currently on a short list of writers whose work I will read whatever they put out, along with Kelly Link, David Mitchell and a small number of others. Spaceman Blues particularly represents a dizzying display of unbridled talent, sentences as rich and tasty as ice cream and a giddy, spiraling, page-turning storyline. It also represents, I think, the only New York City book I've ever read that really feels like the New York I know and live in, pages crowded with bursts of recognition. Just go get and read it already.

Wonton Soup 1 & 2 (vol 2, 2009) by James Stokoe

Oni Press seems to have cornered the market on a certain kind of hip, smart, fun, manga-influenced comic that speaks to readers outside of the traditional comic book store, especially to teenagers. This is most obviously represented by the justly mega-popular Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, which is brilliant, but may I also draw your attention to James Stokoe's hallucinogenic sci-fi cooking comedy Wonton Soup? Johnny Boyo left a brilliant career as an up-and-coming culinary student to tour the stars, eat exotic foods and do copious amounts of drugs with his dreadlocked best friend. Will Johnny Boyo's cooking skills be enough to fend off vicious space-ninjas and other assorted monsters? And will he come out of his narcotic stupor long enough to remember the girl and the cooking championship he left behind?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

This book is a classic, the basis for the movie Blade Runner, and one of Dick's best, so I don't really need to discuss it, but I would feel remiss leaving it out of the best books I read last year.

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

As I mentioned above, David Mitchell is one of my favorite living writers, maybe the best living writer today. (Sorry Philip Roth!) If you've never read his work, start with Cloud Atlas, but Number9Dream, the story of a Japanese boy, a lost father, the Yakuza and the Beatles, evokes more than any other Mitchell book the influence of the great Haruki Murakami, and is as good as anything else he's written (which is saying a lot).

Parker: The Hunter (2009) adapted by Darwyn Cooke from the novel by Richard Stark

Normally, I don't go in much for comics adaptions of novels. Most of them are awful, with certain notable exceptions, such as the adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass by none other than David Mazzucchelli (of Asterios Polyp, see above). Another exception is Parker: The Hunter, from the crime noir novel by Richard Stark (aka the late Donald Westlake), which turns the master's fast-paced classic into a symphony of clean lines and stark contrasts of color. Cooke's love for the source material comes out in every page, and propels us with bated breath through each twist and turn of Westlake's revenge drama. Really, there's no reason that a 'graphic' adaptation of a novel can't inspire just as much creativity and interesting-use-of-medium as a film adaptation, and this book shows us exactly why.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Like Electric Sheep above, this book doesn't really need much added attention but I'd feel weird leaving it out. It's Catch-22. It's a hilarious war satire. You may have read it in school, but I only read it last year, and yes, it's just as good as it's supposed to be.