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LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

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LitBeetle’s Top 10 Books of 2014

6 Jan

Another year passes and another ten trillion books made their weaselly way onto my reading list, but I managed to read 39 of them, so Sisyphus ain’t got nothin’ on me. It was a science fiction-heavy year, and this is a science fiction-heavy list, but I’m unapologetic! Bring on the Future! Of the books I read and reviewed in 2014, here are my top ten.

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10. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe goes full Twilight Zone in this Kafkaesque novel about futility. In a nightmarish series of events, a professional man on holiday stumbles into a dune-side village and finds himself a prisoner at the bottom of a sand pit where he must continuously shovel sand to keep from being buried alive.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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9. Seraphina by Rebecca Hartman

Strong female heroine? Check. Compelling subplots of socioeconomic and racial differences? Check. Positive message about body image? Check. Dragons? Check, CHECK, CHECK. Rachel Hartman is building a beautiful universe with Seraphina, the first of this young adult series, filled with complex politics and shape-shifting dragons. Seraphina is a young court musician who must hide her mixed lineage from a bigoted society, but for all her efforts, the young resourceful girl still wraps herself up in a murder mystery and the deadly politics of two nations on the verge of all out war.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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8. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Twilight fiends beware: Dracula is not the inspiration for the glittering, abusive boyfriend of Stephanie Meyer’s blockbuster hit. This is the story of one man’s PTSD after encountering one of the most horrific predators in literature. If you don’t think you can handle the fear, the darkness, the soul-sucking solitude of Bram Stoker’s classic, don’t panic–Dr. Abraham Van Helsing will make sure you survive the night.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

The Sun Also Rises

7. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 There are few things I love to read more than stories wealthy, entitled young people leading lives of wanton excess and torturing themselves with unrequited lust in the heat of the Spanish countryside while intoxicated on authentic leather skins of cheap wine, and in this highly specific genre of literature, Ernest Hemingway is king.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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6. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Three children witness the stars disappear on one fateful October night on Earth. Jason and Diane Lawton and best friend Tyler Dupree all face the post-Spin world differently, but their fates–as well as the fate of the rest of humanity–tie them together as they journey to discover how their entire planet was encased in a physics-defying dome.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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5. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

If there’s one person who can renew age-old stories of revenge, magic, and prophesy, it’s Brandon Sanderson. In Mistborn, the first of a series, Vin, a street urchin and bottom rung of a gang of con artists, wakes up to find her world changed when she meets Kelsier, a legendary Mistborn who can ingest metals and use their magical properties to alter himself and the world around him. Kelsier teaches the gifted Vin everything he knows, and together the two take on the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler and his oppressive Final Empire.    Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Don’t be fooled by the fact that it took me four years to read and I only happened to finish it in 2014. JS&MN is probably going to find its place among my favorite books of all time, because somehow, probably through some authorly incantations of her own, Susanna Clarke makes 1,006 pages fly by faster than a smoke break on a Monday afternoon. Mr Norrell takes up a personal mission to bring magic back to 19th Century England. His apprentice, the dashing young Jonathan Strange, takes up the same mission but with jarringly different methods. The two engage in the rivalry of all rivalries.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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3. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Criminal Minds meets Star Trek-level space-time continuum plot twists. Lauren Beukes’s dangerously enthralling crime thriller made its way to the top of my list for its originality, unique tone, and sheer entertainment value.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

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2. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

My penchant for creepiness extends to all areas of my life, but finding creepiness in a book is my favorite. John Darnielle takes a brief hiatus from brilliant songwriting to grace the literary world with his tragic and grotesque storytelling in Wolf in White Van. Sean Phillips creates a refuge from his horrific past in the form of a play-by-mail role playing game called Trace Italian. When two misguided teens become obsessed with the game, Sean must do what he fears most: face himself.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

 

Of all the book review blogs in all the Internet, this book had to walk into mine. It’s the ultimate, bestest, most favorite book I read in all of 2014:

Ancillary-Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

 No book comes close to generating the enthusiasm I felt for Ann Leckie’s Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning debut novel Ancillary Justice. In a fresh take on AI, Leckie tells the story of Breq, a human body inhabited by the last remaining ancillary of the massive artificial intelligence that operated a battleship and its soldiers. As she unfolds her past, Breq’s current mission of stone-cold space revenge becomes clearer and clearer. Leckie’s brilliant depiction of personhood and perspective come alive in this heartbreaking sci-fi saga about one individual’s terrible loss and terrible thirst for vengeance.  Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to Goodreads

I’m looking forward to a new year and tackling the mountain of unread books that haunt my dreams every night. A huge thank you to my followers and visitors! LitBeetle would be nothing if not for you! Now let me know in the comments which books were your favorites to read in the great year of 2014!

Happy New Year from Seattle!

Happy New Year from Seattle!

On Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha”

3 Jun
Nobel Prize-winner Hermann Hesse published Siddhartha in 1922.

Nobel Prize-winner Hermann Hesse published Siddhartha in 1922.

There is no greater journey than that of searching for one’s Self. Think of Frodo and trekking to Mordor with Nazgul on his heels, Dorothy skipping toward Oz through fields of opium,  or Aeneas traversing the underworld. People love to watch the struggle against all odds, the passion that drives our favorite protagonists, and the transformations that happen along the way. I love tales of journeys the way I love football montages: all that grit and struggle and triumph. Makes a young woman tear up just thinking about it. When it comes down to it, Hermann Hesse has created one of the most read and most memorable tales of self-discovery in modern literary history. Siddhartha tells the story of the eponymous son of a Brahmin who spends a lifetime learning who he is.

Young Siddhartha grows up under the Hindu teachings of his father, a prestigious Brahmin. Siddhartha is known throughout his community as a beautiful boy, wise beyond his years, and holier than the most saintly saints. Siddhartha is so holy, in fact, that he has to leave home. His quest to understand himself and life itself motivate him to join a sect of ascetics, and when a life of deprivation and holier-than-thou judgmentalism loses its shine, he abandons the ascetics to hear the teachings of the Buddha, Gotama, and in turn, abandons the Buddha for a life of love and pleasure in the arms of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. In this way–traveling from sect to sect, mantra to mantra–Siddhartha grows from adolescence to adulthood.

At one point, Siddhartha meets the Buddha Gotama, but rejects his teaching to follow his own path.

At one point, Siddhartha meets the Buddha Gotama, but rejects his teaching to follow his own path.

In its essence, Siddhartha is a tale of self-discovery, but it is also a beautifully written character sketch of a protagonist who is rarely sympathetic and, up until the end,  unworthy of the praise he believes he deserves. The book began by portraying Siddhartha as a young man whose holiness and vigor for life led him above and beyond his childhood teachings, but we soon learn that his holiness is actually a superiority complex and that his vigor is actually discontent.

On the road toward what he hopes is a fulfilling life, Siddhartha says, “All whom I meet on the way are like Govinda. … All are subservient, all wish to be my friend, to obey and think little. People are children.” He is pronoic, narcissistic, and cruelly selfish, but it isn’t until he leaves behind all semblances of holiness for a life of physical pleasure and wealth that his true nature is really seen. In his narcissism, Siddhartha creates a fantasy of superiority to all around him, yet feels constantly his incompleteness, the flawed nature of his Self, and it drives him onward, away from the self-righteousness of asceticism, away from the celebrity of the Buddha, away from the affections of Kamala. When reading Siddhartha, it would be easy to look for symbols of holiness–patience, self-denial, wisdom–and for symbols of rotten nature–greed, lust, pleasure–but human nature can rot in a whole variety of ways and in as many ways be healed. Siddhartha’s path to discovering who he is covers all the bases.

I love living near water, and many of my fond childhood memories take place on the banks of a stream or lake. I can see how the river becomes Siddhartha's best teacher.

Abandoning teacher after teacher, Siddhartha finally finds one of the wisest: the river.

Read it if … if you haven’t read it yet. Siddhartha is one of those novels that everyone should read at one point. You can finish it in half an afternoon, and then sigh and look longingly at a river for the rest of it.

Don’t red it if … you don’t feel like contemplating life. As short as it is, the novel forces a reader to consider desire, contentment, and narcissism. It’s the kind of heavy stuff you only find in tiny, unassuming books that you were supposed to have read in high school but didn’t because your English teachers were only there to coach soft ball. No, I’m not bitter.

This book is like … a strange combination of Cervantes’s questing Quixote and André Gide’s The Immoralist: there’s a lot of marching around making grand statements, and a lot of self-pity. But like The ImmoralistSiddhartha is intensely contemplative. Also, check out The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This novel is also a quick read and follows another one of those air-headed protagonists who lost his Self. (I’ll be honest, though, and say I’m not a fan of Coelho’s. Come fight me if you want.)

Highly acclaimed German literary figure Hermann Hesse attempted his own spiritual enlightenment through Indonesia and Burma. Perhaps, Siddartha, he tried to write the enlightenment he wanted for himself.

Highly acclaimed German literary figure Hermann Hesse attempted his own spiritual enlightenment through Indonesia and Burma. Perhaps, in Siddhartha, he tried to write the enlightenment he wanted for himself.

Top 10 of 2013

31 Dec

Happy New Year’s Eve, world! I won’t be like everyone and say, “I can’t believe how fast this year went by,” so I’ll just say, “I can’t believe how slowly this year went by.” We get 365 days and I only managed to read a handful of books! Here’s to a fuller 2014 with more books and more book reviews! For now, it’s time to wrap up the year by reflecting on the important things. Here is my list of the top ten books I read and reviewed this year with excerpts from and links to my reviews on each of them! Enjoy, and thanks to all my followers, casual readers, friends, and family for helping me enjoy myself with this little, whimsical blog.

The Top Ten of 2013

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

10. To Be or Not To Be  by Ryan North

Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground. …

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni's Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni’s Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

9. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too. …

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

8. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Richard Forthrast—the billionaire, draft-dodger, former drug-runner, T’Rain founder—and his niece Zula find themselves invited to a figurative party of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, ex-military rogues, MI6 agents, and Islamic terrorists (obviously) that even Gatsby would envy, it’s so elaborate and wrought with confusion and angst. The plot that began with relatively simple, moneymaking scheme/computer virus becomes frightening and life threatening. But isn’t that how it always goes? …

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press' Letters.

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press’ Letters.

7. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites. …

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

6. Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

I think, at this point, I can officially classify myself as a Sarah Beauhall fangirl. When I saw the series as Powell’s for the first time, I decided I’d read it on a whim, not expecting anything more than brief entertainment or maybe something to write a scathing review on later. Lo and behold! I have to take back those thoughts of an unbeliever! Forged in Fire is J.A. Pitts’s third Sarah Beauhall installation, and I had more fun than ever. Pitts created a cast of full characters and a massive enough world to keep this series going strongly as Sarah Beauhall uncovers more dark magic, learns about a new secret order, and forms some important human bonds that help her understand the meaning of family. …

As troubling as it is genius, A Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood's iconic prose.

As troubling as it is genius, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood’s iconic prose.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s dazzling The Handmaid’s Tale and got a bitter taste of how scary religion can be. From my comfy seat in America, looking through my blinders out at the world, I can safely say I feel pretty free in comparison, and that other religions (*ahem* Islam) have gotten a little out of control. But Atwood’s beautiful novel is more like a slap in the face: America, already a so-called Christian nation, is short skip and a hop away from a society mirroring modern-day Iran’s or Afghanistan’s, a society that forbids the interaction between men and women, that “shelters” women with thick cloth and heavy restrictions for their “protection” and “purity,” that uses indoctrination and propaganda to destroy hope, to remove all routes of escape. Atwood’s dystopia is, in the end, much more frightening then the dystopias I grew up with—1984 and Brave New World—because it’s infinitely more possible. …

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

I don't usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

I don’t usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

3. The Devil in the White City by David Larson

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror. …

John Fowles's first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

John Fowles’s first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

2. The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVUCSI, andCriminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well. …

And the winner of the LitBeetle’s Pick of the 2013 is …

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time. …

A special runner up mention goes to …

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan's beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan’s beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So I didn’t technically review this book, but I spent the better part of the first quarter of 2013 rereading Robert Jordan’s modern classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, which culminated in this joint effort with author Brandon Sanderson. A Memory of Light ended a fourteen-book series and what was, for a lot of fantasy readers, an era of genre bliss. The Wheel of Time was my escapism from the minor horrors of high school, and A Memory of Light was a fitting end.

It would be a mistake to say I’m not obsessed with morbid mystery novels. I am. Just going to come right out and say it. Gillian Flynn’s novel goes above and beyond, taking morbidity to high entertainment. I won’t say Gone Girl is great “Literature,” but I enjoyed it the most out of all the books I read this year, and I think it will stand up to the test of time.

I can’t wait to read another several dozen books next year! Thanks, again, to all my followers who tagged along with me on my silly adventures through literature (and not-literature)! Send me book recommendations and help me make 2014 a more exciting year for books than 2013!

The Complete List

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

The Collector by John Fowles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North (and Shakespeare)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Vurt by Jeff Noon

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Stranger by Albert Camus

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts

A Lifetime by Morris Fenris

Underground by Haruki Murakami

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict

A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

City of Glass by Paul Auster

Ghosts by Paul Auster

The Locked Room by Paul Auster

Suicide Game by Haidji

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m Laughing With You … And At You: Eight Humorous Novels to Read Next

16 Aug

Humor is one of the ways we humans cope with difficult times. It’s a defense mechanism and a method of critique. It can be used to show respect for something or to ridicule something, to build up or undermine. It’s a powerful tool that a lot of people underestimate, especially when it’s used in literature. A lot of readers dismiss humorous novels because they mistake lack of seriousness for lack of talent, and there’s definitely a line to cross, as we’ve seen in the whole slew of novels in a rising genre of its own that remakes classics by including comic elements like zombies and vampires. (I think it all started with Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.) I wanted to create a list of novels that used humor, parody, satire but also included worthwhile content. Here are seven books that meet those criteria with one bonus book that doesn’t really meet those criteria but I felt obligated for whatever reason to include.

I encourage you to check out or buy a copy of Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller!

I encourage you to check out or buy a copy of Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller!

1. The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie (yes, the Hugh Laurie–of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and “Jeeves and Wooster” and “House” and that bit part in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility that really makes it worth watching, and don’t forget the live action 1996 reboot of 101 Dalmatians) is the perfect example of comedy as homage. Its hero, retired army officer Thomas Lang, is swept up into a massive spy conspiracy involving a conglomeration of every agency and criminal organization ever, and he’s forced to come to terms with his own apathy while saving the world from terrorists. The novel is everything I’d expect from the television king of sardonic humor: it’s crass, it’s dry, it’s very British, and it mindfully (as much as a book can take agency and be mindful, right?) mocks the trope of roguish-quasi-hero-saves-the-world-and-gets-the-girl. This is where two different expressions of humor are really apparent. Laurie uses his comedic skills to parody popular thriller novels, but ultimately he gives the thriller genre praise by doing so. Laurie respects the genre which is why and how he can write such a wonderful novel. As a reader, I approached The Gun Seller and enjoyed it immensely for those same reasons: I respect the thriller genre, and that allows me to be able to laugh at it. I expect and appreciate the double-crossing femme fatale. I look forward to the moment where all hope seems lost and then EXPLOSIONS!!! and the good guy wins. When I laugh at Laurie’s mockery, I lose no respect for the genre. (A few other books I’ve read pull this off well, too: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians contains elements that parody Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia; and Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be that I reviewed earlier this week parodies Hamlet.

It's available for pre-order! Don't be "that one guy" who doesn't read this thing!

You can now buy the book on Amazon, if you weren’t cool enough to buy it on Kicstarter! Just kidding. A few weeks ago, I also wrote a full review of To Be or Not To Be.

2. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is–hands down–the funniest book I’ve read this year. Maybe it’s just because I read a lot of depressing books, but nothing has ever really made me guffaw so much as this wildly popular Kickstarter baby. To Be or Not To Be is a parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is another great example of an author using humor to increase the reputation of an already powerful cultural icon. North’s book project is a chooseable-path book that allows readers to role play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s father (King Hamlet Senior, who is a ghost for most of the book). “That sounds amazing!” you think to yourself. Yes, yes it is amazing. Kickstarter thought it was amazing. Readers thought it was amazing. Publishers thought it was amazing. And apparently Ryan North thought it was amazing enough to write yet another chooseable-path Shakespeare adaptation with the recently announced Romeo and/or Juliet title!

Libba Bray is one of the best Young Adult authors of our time, and Beauty Queens is the perfect combination of humor and content. (What do you call that? Wit?)

Libba Bray is one of the best Young Adult authors of our time, and Beauty Queens is the perfect combination of humor and content. (What do you call that? Wit?)

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray is Miss Congeniality meets Mean Girls meets Lord of the Flies. An airplane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a tropical island, and some expected oh-no-I-broke-a-nail-while-building-a-water-catching-trap comedy ensues. Bray introduces a pleasant variety of girls–some stereotypically ditsy, some overly ambitious, some resentful–but it’s her attempt to tackle the much more complicated issues of nascent womanhood that makes this novel worth reading. The young adult genre has traditionally been wholesome, didactic fare safe enough for even the most conservative PTAs of our country, but it’s evolving thanks to authors like Bray. In Beauty Queens, characters deal with sexuality, gender identity, abusive childhoods, single-parent households, and love (obviously), not to mention guns, conspiracies, reality TV drama, and evil dictators. This isn’t to say the book is all adolescent feelings and controversial teen sex–this is a book that will have you chortling uncontrollably. Chortling.

Get ready for some good laughs with Ed Park's Personal Days, especially if you make your living in a cubicle like me!

Get ready for some good laughs with Ed Park’s Personal Days, especially if you make your living in a cubicle like me!

4. Personal Days was Ed Park’s novel debut in 2008, and it kind of flew under the radar. Park is one of the founding editors of “The Believer,” so he knows a thing or two about humor. Personal Days takes a humorous approach in discussing the horrifying, gruesome, bloody terrors of … mundane office life. Park may have been riding the popularity of workplace comedies like “The Office,” but this novel claims its own corner in the satire world as it follows the absurd lives of the employees of an unnamed New York City company. You have your usual office antics, quirky employees, workplace rivalries, but Park takes does an incredible job of integrating text message and email formats into his story line, making it even easier to slip into the wacky world he’s created. Thinking back on this book, I’m remembering how much I enjoyed it, and kicking myself for giving away my copy. I saw Ed Park give a reading at the old Elliott Bay Bookstore, and it turns out he’s hilarious in person, too, and now somewhere out in the world, some fortunate soul owns my copy of Personal Days that includes a nice little personalized note to Jillian from Mr. Park.

Here's another one of those sleek-looking novellas from Melville House!

Here’s another one of those sleek-looking novellas from Melville House!

5. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain was published in my favorite series ever: Melville House’s Art of the Novella, but that wasn’t the only reason why I bought and read this book. Mark Twain is the king of satire. Yeah, yeah, we all read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for middle school English. (And yeah, a lot of us saw and were ruined by the 1995 Disney adaptation Tom and Huck, starring boy-heartthrob JTT.) But try revisiting Twain’s novels as an adult. Go back to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer now that you’re sufficiently jaded with society, or have worked in customer service and are fostering your misanthropy, or read books because real people are too unworthy of interacting with you. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is the story of the eponymous village who is known throughout the land as being morally infallible. When one of the townspeople insults a passing stranger, though, a hilarious story of revenge ensues. The stranger decides to hit Hadleyburg where it hurts: right in the moral infallibility. Twain’s novella is the perfect example of “we laugh so we don’t cry,” because in the end, Twain is right a lot of the time. People are assholes. And it’s funny.

This should be on everyone's TBR list. A Confederacy of Dunces is a modern classic and hilarious to boot.

This should be on everyone’s TBR list. A Confederacy of Dunces is a modern classic and hilarious to boot.

6. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is the modern Don Quixote. It’s the story of 30-year-old Ignatius J. Reilly, an intelligent, egotistical, lazy, and paranoid man who lives with his mother in Uptown New Orleans. Ignatius’s main goal is to win the attention of Myrna Minkoff, but along the way engages in several dead-end jobs, meets a host of iconic side characters, and wanders through a richly painted New Orleans. I feel like I know at least five people exactly like Ignatius, and they’re always a good time. Like Don QuixoteA Confederacy of Dunces is filled with humor at the expense of its protagonist. The reader has the advantage of an outside perspective and can witness the absurdity of Ignatius’s life and motives, but Toole also injects an undertone of deep sadness that reflects his own struggles with depression. (If you don’t want to feel sad for the rest of your life, don’t read about Toole’s struggle to get this book–which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize–published.) Before this synopsis becomes too much of a downer, I’ll leave you with a quote from ACoD:

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

Get ready for some really dark, sick humor. The Best of Roald Dahl doesn't have any happy children, flying peaches, or big friendly anything.

Get ready for some really dark, sick humor. The Best of Roald Dahl doesn’t have any happy children, flying peaches, or big friendly anything.

7. The Best of Roald Dahl by (guess who?!) Roald Dahl is a darker sort of humor. In fact, when I read this I kind of just chuckled nervously at the surprisingly grotesque and horrific imagination of one of the most beloved children’s book authors. Dahl is most famous for his fantastical, magical, strange children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryMatildaThe Fantastic Mr. Fox, or The BFG. Many of his books have been adapted into film, where his darker side is seen (literally, I guess) a little more clearly. I didn’t realize Dahl not only wrote adult stories, but also wrote adult stories, moonlighting with erotic fiction and writing dozens of creepy stories that I wouldn’t show to children if my life depended on it. Beware! This is no walk through a chocolate factory, and these stories don’t end by living happily ever after with Miss Honey. Stories like “Skin” or “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” show Dahl’s much darker, much drier humor, though his captivating skill as a storyteller remains.

Are you a fan of schadenfreude? Do you want to see Stephanie Meyer's Twilight crash and burn in the form of parody? Get yourself a copy of Nightlight.

Are you a fan of schadenfreude? Do you want to see Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight crash and burn in the form of parody? Get yourself a copy of Nightlight.

8. Nightlight: A Parody by The Harvard Lampoon isn’t my typical reading fare. I picked it up from the library wanting to read more parody, and thought that a book with the name “Harvard” anywhere on the title had to be some good quality. More so, a book disparaging the empire Stephanie Meyer has built on soap opera romances with lusty vampires seemed up my alley. After reading the book, though, I waffled on the idea of including it on this list. While the humor elicited a few chuckles and silent shoulder-shaking from me, I don’t think I fully appreciated Nightlight‘s brilliance. Probably because I haven’t read any of the Twilight books. I’m not going to write this off just because I couldn’t care less about Meyer’s novels, or because there are more typos than I could count on my fingers, or because I would’ve found this funnier if it had been a lengthy caption in “The Onion.” If you like Twilight (but can take or joke) or you really hate Twilight and need to encourage your literary sadism, then Nightlight is the book for you.

Obviously, I need more humor in my life, because who doesn’t? What humorous novels do you like to read? Do you prefer disparaging satire or more of a roast in  the form of a novel? Let me know!