Thursday, May 28, 2015

Alrightreads: May

Anyone who's commissioned repetitive corporate work from me knows that I'm a firm believer in doing things properly and by the book, though preferably with the minimal amount of time and effort expended.

It's satisfying to tick off a book a day and get this self-imposed task over with quicker, but those picture books and Choose Your Own Adventures have to be balanced out. And however much I might enjoy all those undemanding pick-'n'-mix short story anthologies, when this is over, it's the (necessarily longer) stories I've spent more time immersed in that are going to be the most memorable, for better or worse.

So this month, I restricted myself to books of at least 480 pages. It was supposed to be 500 pages, but then I saw that the bird book I'd been looking forward to was a bit shorter than that (including full-page title pages, and admittedly quite a lot of said pages were taken up by pretty pictures). What are you going to do, mark me down?

May 2015

59. Roger Hargreaves, Mr. Messy

1972 / Physical book / 32 pages / UK


Just kidding.

Classic though.

59. James Joyce, Ulysses

1920 / Audiobook / 783 pages / Ireland


It's  been called the book that people read to look intelligent rather than to actually enjoy, but it's so damn impressive, I don't even mind that a lot of it is (intentionally — how could it not be?) tedious and impenetrable. It certainly didn't have the effect of making me feel clever or worthy as I resorted to SparkNotes summaries to ground me before every chapter, like when I played through most of Monkey Island 2 with the walkthrough (for shame). So I didn't have the authentic bewildered experience, but since I'm a sucker for pompous literary parallels just for the sake of it (it helped that I read The Odyssey recently), I feel I got the maximum kick out of it. Anyway, sod off, those stream-of-consciousness sequences are probably the most realistic and intimate characterisation there's ever been. It's not my favourite novel ever, but it might be the best.

59a. SparkNotes contributors, SparkNotes: Ulysses

2002 / E-book / 81 pages / USA?

Don't worry, it doesn't count, it's just here for completion. It's basically a mandatory introduction/appendix.

60. Rob Hume, RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe

2002 / E-book / 480 pages / UK


I don't know much about birds, or even particularly like them, but as an extension of the environment they carry a lot of cosy nostalgia for that faraway temperate land. During my final year of university, I didn't realise how fortunate I was to be walking along a canal every day on the way to the bus stop, watching the ducklings appear in the spring and grow increasingly less adorable week by week. As a child growing up next to a farm, I couldn't have imagined that one day I'd pine for that annoyingly repetitive "whoo-whoo, whoo" call outside the window every night.

This is a book all about birds. It's dense with stats and colourful pictures, basically perfect, but with 800 species to deal with it gets repetitive pretty quickly. They could have snuck in the occasional frog or lion to keep us on our toes.

Faves: Owls.

Worsties: Seagulls. Don't miss you.

61. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

1880 / Audiobook / 796 pages / Russia


Even the deepest treatise on morality and the human condition is going to seem a bit pedestrian when you're recovering from Joyce. I got more out of it knowing the depressing context — written shortly before Dostoevsky's death and in the aftermath of losing a child — and I'm sure it's rife with thoughtful quotes, but I guess after Ulysses I should have looked for something a bit more upbeat, dynamic and less specifically Christian. That said, I have an inexplicable fondness for miserable Tsarist Russia and always enjoy spending time there.

62. John Keats, The Complete Poems

1814-1820 (collected 1976) / E-book / 752 pages / UK


I know, I can't imagine me sitting down to read Romantic poetry either. I never studied Keats or his kin in any depth, so it was basically a random choice and an attempt to enjoy some pleasant verse without the burden of dissecting it, beyond choosing a couple of faves. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but at their best, the pastoral poems fed my (falsely) nostalgic escapism as I was carried along by the flowery currents. I'm not a poet, my metaphors don't have to work. At their worst, the extended adaptations of Greek myths just made me wish I was reading the originals. Like a Kurt Cobain of yesteryear, Keats' popularity may partly rest on his tragic early death, since there's not much of real substance here, but that could just be because I'm soulless or something. To make things more interesting, take a drink every time he mentions 'pinions.'

Faves: Lamia and pretty pastoral ones.

Worsties: Endymion, Otho the Great.

63. Michael Alan Nelson, Greg Scott, Patrick McEvoy and Pablo Quiligotti, Fall of Cthulhu Omnibus

2007-9 (collected 2014) / E-graphic-novel / 602 pages / USA


It wasn't going to stay high-brow forever. But look, at least it's got a decent page count (collecting 27 comics, or 'graphic chapters' for the ashamed), even if the main impression I had when reading was of a Saturday morning cartoon laced with gratuitous gore. It's the first post-Lovecraft Cthulhu story I've read (not counting Metallica or that episode of The Real Ghostbusters) and I wasn't impressed — it's all gritty action rather than suspense, and fails to understand that these "unspeakable" horrors lose their weight when you actually draw them going RARRGHHH! and stuff. Didn't your creative writing tutor teach you to tell, not show? I was going to say "at least the art's nice," but even that deteriorated as it went along.

64. Mimi Sheraton, 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List

2015 / E-book / 1008 pages / USA


More affluent-American-centric than would have been ideal (North America and Europe takes up more than half the book; the Philippines doesn't get a single entry, which is correct), the apparently famous food writer does make the occasional concession to commoners, usually in the form of patronising entries on the dubious joys of bread and dripping, jellied eels and other kitsch poverty staples.

I kept count and I've tried something like 193/1000, though most of those were doubtless in disgraceful proletarian versions and so hardly count. I probably even dine with a single set of cutlery for god's sake.

Faves: The India section was literally mouthwatering. I didn't know that could actually happen.

Worsties: I haven't tried head, so call me judgemental, but I'm going to go with head. And mushy peas.

65. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

1973 / Audiobook / 776 pages / USA


The spiritual successor to Ulysses, I spared myself the effort of trying to follow the various side quests of the gargantuan ensemble and just let the soothing paranoia wash over me during nocturnal listens. I can tell you the basic plot, but only because Wikipedia's summary was filling me in along the way. Maybe one to read again when I'm older and have more time on my... when I'm older.

66. Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian

2003 / Physical book / 909 pages / USA


I like to make things hard on myself, hence committing to reading a load of books in a bookworm-unfriendly country. They do have bookshops here, but the classics section of the main national chain is depressingly tiny. They seemed more interested in selling bags. After scouring a couple of used book shops (your donations to charity shops on the other side of the world somehow end up here but they don't let me donate books in person for free, work that one out), the only tome I could find with a worthwhile page count that looked in any way appealing was this one. Even if it turned out to be more Dan Brown than Bram Stoker, in no way as "terrifying" as that multitude of review quotes promised, and a bit too full of the author showing off her extensive research by having the characters do the same research, I enjoyed the travelogue aspect at least. Now to find some way to humanely get rid of it.

67. Robert Dimery, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

2005 / E-book / 960 pages / USA


I didn't bother to listen along this time, since that would have consumed too many precious days here on my deathbed and I've already got all that food to get through. It's not like I haven't made many similar voyages through the presumed classics before over the years, so there weren't as many revelations this time around, but I gave a few more appealing weirdos a chance and it mostly paid off. That was mainly based on my existing assumptions of what I'd like though, rather than any persuasion from the reviewers, since their conservative write-ups are largely lacking in passion. If I want emotion and arrogance, maybe I should check out the 1000 worst of something next time? Though I did enjoy the desperate contextualising of introductions like:

"In November 1999, Berlin celebrated the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and Metallica unleashed an orchestral ode to joy." (The album has no connection to Berlin, they just noticed the month was ten years after another month).

Heard: 193/1001 (not bad considering I'm not supposed to like things people like)

#1: Disintegration

#193: Tarkus

68. Clive Barker, Imajica

1991 / Audiobook/e-book / 823 pages / UK


My first successful attempt to get through one of Barker's big 'uns  I didn't make it past the first cassette of Weaveworld thanks to a dreary narrator  this dream-inspired odyssey is a very different beast to his usual nightmare-grounded offerings, and despite featuring an assortment of unpleasantness from dismemberment to AIDS, it's positively glowing compared to things like the Books of Blood and Cabal. Being more experienced in shaky sci-fi than outright fantasy, I did find it hard to let go at times when basic facts were given an unnecessary magic spin, such as zebras, crocodiles and dogs "obviously" not being of this Earth. Don't make me discuss the tree of life again, I have enough of that at home.

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