2013 in Reading

I started 2013 with a simple reading goal: Read one book a week. My daily schedule at the year’s beginning was such that it should have been pretty easy. I had one deadline a week for Serious Eats, and I took care of Julian during the day. So I’d take him out to a playground in the morning, do a little SE writing or personal writing in the afternoon, and then read when I wasn’t writing.

I actually like this kind of structure in my day. Often, when Julian and I go out, we walk a mile and a half to a playground in Prospect Park, run around like madmen for an hour, and then walk a mile and a half home. That’s good physical exercise. And then with the writing and reading, I’d get my mental workout. Evenings were for meals, drinks, and catching up with Jen, and possibly a little television.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads. (Here’s my account.) Goodreads has a reading challenge every year, and I challenged myself to read 55 books in 2013. I figured that’s one a week, plus a little motivation to go farther. I did pretty well in the first quarter of the year, averaging a little over a book a week. Had I kept up that pace, I probably would have ended up reading about 60 or 65 books in 2013. I didn’t quite make it. I rounded out the year at 25 books, or about one every two weeks.

What happened? Well, to put it simply, the book deal happened. Once I committed to writing a book, my afternoon hours were entirely, uh, booked up. And sometimes my evenings. And often my weekends. My original deadline was ambitious: approximately 30,000 words in 3 months. I hit the ground running, started my research, and wrote like crazy.

But my reading suffered. Of those 25 books, I think the first 15 happened in the first 12 weeks of the year.

Once my deadline loosened up, I was able to get back into reading. The other 10 books happened in the last 15 weeks of the year. Not quite the same pace as before, but not bad, either.

Now that the manuscript is nearly done, I’ve set myself another goal for 2014: 50 books a year. I’ll have edits on the book to tend to, and other writing obligations, of course. And I have some ideas in mind for future book proposals, at least one of which I hope to start work on after I turn in my manuscript. But I want to carve out time to read, even when I’m writing feverishly.

Now, some thoughts on 2013’s list. I won’t talk about everything; not all of it’s worth discussing. I’ll just hit the highlights.

  • COLUMBINE, by Dave Cullen. I started this in December 2012, and finished in January. I also started reading Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, but I hated the narrator so much, I threw the book across the room. Yes, there’s a theme: Sandy Hook. I have an idea for a novel, and because I’m not sure I’ll ever do it, I’m giving it away here. There’s a guy named David Kaczynski; you’ve heard of his brother. What fascinates me about David is that, when there’s a mass shooting, he reaches out to the family members of the shooter, who, in a very real way, are victims too. What a deeply, fundamentally humane thing to do. I wanted to understand what it feels like to be David, or Adam Lanza’s father. I think there’s a book to be written about David, either fiction or non-, and I thought I wanted to write it. But COLUMBINE gave me nightmares, and the narrator of KEVIN was so self-absorbed, I hated her more than I did her son. And Jen looked at me one day while I was reading COLUMBINE and said, “I can’t sit here every night and talk about dead children.”
  • HUNGER GAMES. Speaking of dead children… I sort of hated these books, and yet I read all three of them. Quickly. Very quickly. There’s something about the prose that makes them so easily readable. I read all three because I wanted to try to unpack Suzanne Collins’s prose style. Why do I sort of hate the books? First, I think the breezy prose is at odds with the violence and nihilism of the world she’s built. I also think it’s crazy that the books are coy about “Will Catniss fuck whatsisname or won’t she?” when it’s clear she’s killed and will kill again when she needs to. Sex? Let’s play coy. Graphic violence? Here you go, on a platter. But even the violence is written in such an ephemeral style that it seems dreamlike and fake. There’s much more to say about these books, but I suspect I’ll be damned if I ever read Collins again.
  • DEATH OF BUNNY MUNROE, by Nick Cave: Man, speaking of nihilism. This was both a fun book to read and a fun antagonist to hate. I felt terrible for the kid, though. I might read another Cave novel, but it’ll be a long damn while.
  • FOREVER WAR, by Joe Haldeman: This book is so good, I’ve read it twice now. It’s the story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war against an alien species. Because of the effects of time dilation, a trip to a distant battle may take only weeks from the perspective of the soldiers, but a dozen of years or even several hundred years from the perspective of people on Earth. In their time away, the soldiers find that humanity has dramatically changed, and they have trouble fitting in. The novel was written as a Vietnam allegory, but it works as a commentary on war in general and its effects on the psyche. It’s a haunting novel, full of rich characters and believable scenarios. It’s good even if you’re not normally into science fiction.
  • TENDER IS THE NIGHT: The Fitzgerald classic. I reread it for the first time since college. Dick Diver is a moron and an asshole, but he’s a tragic figure nevertheless. I always find myself very sad about how he ends up in this book.
  • DRUNKEN BOTANIST: Fantastic book about the botanical origins of our favorite drinks: beer, wine, spirits, and even a mixer or two. I reviewed it for Serious Eats in April of last year.
  • THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, by P. K. Dick: An alternative history in which the Nazis and Japanese win the Second World War, splitting up the United States and the rest of the world among them. The victorious powers are plotting against each other, in much the same way the United States and NATO entered a cold war with the Soviet Bloc after winning WWII on “our” Earth. A central element of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is a book several of the characters are reading, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is an alternate history novel in which the Axis Powers lose the war, and the United States and the UK enter into a cold war. Fascinating book, with well-drawn characters and a twisty plot. It’s also, you’ll be surprised to hear, the only Dick novel I’ve read.
  • STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: My second Patricia Highsmith novel. I like it less than I like the movie version, and I like it less than I like the first Ripley novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Bruno is somehow even creepier in the book than he is in the film, which is saying a lot. I think I’ll probably hit the rest of the Ripley novels before I try any other Highsmith.
  • THE CUT, by George Pelecanos. Really enjoyed this one. It’s nothing more than a private-eye procedural, basically. The main character is Spero Lucas, an Iraq vet who’ll recover stolen property for you, no questions asked, for a 40% cut of the value of the stolen goods. This is the first of a new series for Pelecanos, and I liked the Lucas character enough that I’ll come back for the second. Which surprises me. I have RIGHT AS RAIN, the first in his Derek Strange series, and I didn’t like it enough to read any of the others. It took me a long time to give Pelecanos a second chance.

Right, well, there we have it. My 2013 reading highlights. Like I said, I hope to do better this year.

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