The Year in Books, 2015 II: YA and Non-fic

The Tiger by John Vaillant
A ridiculously well-rendered portrait of tigers, fear, Manchuria, Russia, survival all presented within a noir story, a gripping serial killer crime thriller. Author strikes a perfect balance, here are some choice bits:

On Yeltsin’s watch, the ignorance of many, combined with the cleverness of a few, allowed for the biggest, fastest, and most egregiously unjust relocation of wealth and resources in the history of the world. It was klepto-capitalism on a monumental scale, but it wasn’t the first time. The Bolsheviks had done something similar under Lenin. (74)

“The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” [Vasily Solkin] explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself--who is he really? Sometimes, this brings strange discoveries. (82)

...Mother Russia is not the nation, and She is certainly not the leadership; She is the land. The deep Russian bond to the earth--specifically, the soil--transcends all other affiliations with the exception, perhaps of family. (79)

For the sea otter, the moment occurred between 1790 and 1830; for the American bison, it happened between 1850 and 1880; for the Atlantic cod, it lasted for centuries, ending only in 1990. These mass slaughters have their analogue in the financial markets to which they are often tied, and they end the same way every time. (94)

[on the story of Henno Martin and Hermann Korn] At one point, Korn was moved to say “My paleolithic soul feels at home here.” (177)

Replacing [the feelings of strictly-controlled aspiration], along with crime, alcoholism, and despondency, were satellite dishes offering multiple channels that allowed you to see just how far behind you really were. Nowadays, in many parts of the world--not just Sobolonye--it is possible to starve while watching TV. (198)

Stoicism isn’t so much a virtue as it is a survival skill. (199)

[Vladimir Schetinin] rakes two tea bags in a four-ounce cup and he doesn’t mince words: when a pair of earnest British journalists once asked him how he thought the tigers could be saved, his answer, “AIDS,” caught them off guard. (222)

Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter
Fascinating history of China in World War II which traces the major characters and then zooms in to firsthand accounts of horrifying coastal bombings and the slow creeping invasion of the Japanese across the Sea of Japan and down from Manchuko during the 1930s and 40s. Afterword about post war world. US basically used the Chinese how they needed them instead of considering them a real ally, a “vinegar relationship” that continues until this day.

Olive’s Ocean
In the summers of my Massachusetts tweenhood my Woods Hole from this book was West Dennis. The feeling about driving to your favorite Cape Cod restaurant that Henkes captures on pg 138 actually exists, and it is just one of the many feelings he drops into the world of Martha. Through her actions and voice, he also includes meditations on death, love, family and life itself. And they’re all from the point of view of 12 year old, Henkes is older, but they work, and his book works, really, for any age where someone is tackling the human experience: “When (if!) the puzzle pieces fit together, everything would be okay, all her problems would be solved...If any of the pieces had been previously locked together, today’s events events had surely dislodged them.” (132). Surely it is written for kids, and it’s no wonder this thing won a Newbery, but it’s really a pitch-perfect novel, for readers of any age. The sooner people can read this, the better. For 5th graders and up. 

A Crayon’s Story
In Michael Hall’s Red art supplies come to life as students. Red isn’t able to color red, only blue, despite what his Crayola factory label says. The book is full of recognizable classroom supplies; Hall’s narrator is a Pencil, and Tape and Scissors attempt to help Red in one scene. Younger readers should easily pick up on the comparisons and qualities of the anthropomorphized objects, plus each crayon has color imagery. “He’s got to press harder,” says Army Green. “Give him time. He’ll catch on,” adds Sunshine. Red’s mother, Olive, and grandparents, Silver and Gray, are shorter (more worn) crayons. Despite the crayon community’s encouragement to try to be red, hearts, strawberries, a fire engine and Red’s self portrait are all blue, and so is Red. He’s sad, angry even, until he meets Berry, a classmate in need of water for her boat drawing. She asks for something blue, and, hesitant at first, he gets water just right. Red realizes he’s blue despite the wrapper and the drawing is a collaboration that he can actually contribute to— drawings of a sickly-looking orange and confusing traffic light are cause for anxiety earlier in the story. Red defies his label and goes his own way, and uniqueness, thinking outside the box, and being yourself, among others, are themes here as simple to grasp as they are illustrated. Hall uses paper cuts with digital Crayon drawings and pencil writing. Dialogue and Crayon labels are done in simple digital font. For grades K-3.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
The Greek root for the word thesaurus sums up this book perfectly, too: “treasure house”. Bryant and Melissa’s biography differs from Peter Roget’s book only in girth, they both are full of information and beautifully put together. The Right Word has an (perhaps unfair) advantage on the reference ubiquity in that it tells a great story. Paring down Roget’s life to focus on his peculiar, dedicated childhood, his dogged maturity and his place among one of the greatest ages of discovery known to man, the book gives the reader a lot in a little time. Bryant also gives the right amount of focus to the Thesaurus itself, showing its manifestations as an obsession, hobby, utility and success story as the book progresses.Page 18 features a watercolor collage of Roget’s childhood scrapbook and puts me in mind of the actual book I was reading. Sweet splashes each and every page with a percolating intellectual chaos that was the actual Thesaurus colorful foundation. The scribblings, list and layouts so dominated Roget’s life that even as his story globetrots to Edinburgh, Manchester, Paris and elsewhere, there is little in the way of depictions of the places— all of the story is scrapbooked in the Sweet’s mixed media scheme. Very cool. Let’s give it to Grades 2 - 5, but stick it next to the Thesauruses everywhere!

Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Orwell lite. This YA book is about living under Stalinism from to POV of a young boy, but his disillusionment creeps in very slowly despite the books day-an-a-half timeframe a short allegory of freedom and Stalinism taking place in a day and a half at a school. Sergei Ivanych, picture (pas 107-108) praises getting rid of that Jew, Four Eyes Finkelstein— drawing clear parallels to Adolph Hitler. At times the language seems stilted, but I was quickly used to it--Sasha Zaichik is only 10, but he is steeped in proud, political rhetoric. This is the review I wrote:

Russian-American Eugene Yelchin’s story about living under Stalinism is a short book about what it means to be free. A 2012 Newbery Honor, the book tells the story of 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik. He is a student, the son of a Cheka police officer (a Secret Police created by Lenin shortly after the October Revolution of 1917), and proud of his country. Slowly, however, Zaichik begins to realize things aren’t so great in freezing Moscow, with its ominous buildings and dark cars and mean-spirited neighbors. Yelchin is an artist (check out his work at and his book features dreary black and white illustrations of snowy landscapes, towering figures of politics, and one particularly heartbreaking rendition of Lubyanka Square, where the Cheka prison was located. The book moves quickly and is an important piece of writing for the world we live in. Yelchin is also Jewish and was born in St. Petersburg, the second-largest city in Russia. He wrote this book in Los Angeles, CA, where he still lives. The 1900s have been hard on both his fellow citizens and members of his religion as they’ve dealt with oppression in different forms. In Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a Jewish supporting character is given the mean nickname Four Eyes Finkelstein by his classmates and he is also the target of teacher berating. Yelchin uses these examples to discuss suffering from oppression in all it’s forms, and it’s no wonder this historical novel has been translated into Yelchin’s native language, plus Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Romanian and Turkish.

The Year in Books, 2015 I: Graphic novels and an attempt to describe Sebald

I read more graphic novels than anything else this year. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki and Building Stories by Chris Ware are must-reads. Shigeru Mizuki’s is a manga about WWII, and it’s fast-paced, visceral, and glaringly anti-war. Soldiers are given a lot of dialogue that really pushes the hopelessness of their situation onto the reader. It was similar to reading Matterhorn by Karl marinates, which I also read this year. I read a few Sandman collections this year and loved them; especially The Doll’s House. Also, Paul Pope’s stylized future noir Heavy Liquid uses accessories and paraphernalia and how much they cost and what they do to characters in a great way. There’s a malaise: S on art: "They killed it replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation. People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to Look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it and just stitched it onto a screen. A Picture of a picture on a screen…" Rodan Estrella on drugs: "It’s hard enough to have to breath…I don’t need any new necessities. I don’t need any new vices. I can barely take care of myself but I want to live." Also I loved: Summer Blonde, Dockwood, and Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer which is as much imaginative as it is responsible; he tells about mid western suburbia and the sort of extreme of what such banality can produce. Stitches where realism like permafrost, the memories in this book are evoked and illustrated in the feeling of a cold, early morning or the first few weeks of starting a new job. Small is not tortured in the book, just a victim of choice. His family chooses to keep him in the dark about things, chooses to be hard on him, chooses to interact with one another in ways that affect him as well. I think readers who identify with David’s escape into culture— books, movies, artistic expression.

I read Thierry Paquot’s The Art of the Siesta  twice this year. It’s a tight, ambitious pamphlet containing a manifesto for the daydream. His prose is uplifting and dreamlike, wander from observations to philosophy and back again. To read it is to both ponder and relax with and rise up against capitalist temporalism. It concludes with a brilliant fade out: a Joe Brainard-like remembrance list of siestas of the past, those bad, good, and in between, memorable and non-. 

Pleasures of Reading, Alan Jacobs, Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance and How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton are the three best books I’ve read on reading. De Botton urges us to look for the beauty and elegance in everyday things and appreciate. Idolatry of art and books can change this for the worse. Jacobs focuses on how books may turn culture into a cancer, and how modern education turns teachers into gatekeepers who ruin books. Reading, however, truly is education, and must be done “at whim.” He goes into the paradox of how English teacher’s end up being gatekeepers and ruining books as well. Zaid’s book is now over a decade old and has proven prophetic. He writes about all the implications of more books being written than read. I agree that it is a dangerous scenario when we are no longer listening but all shouting at once, and in my opinion it is humbling to realize that we all don’t— and don’t need— to have something to say through writing.

So with all that said, I will simply write something I think needs to be said: you should read W.G. Sebald. The Emigrants, Austerlitz, and definitely The Rings of Saturn. His work may be best summed up in this passage from Austerlitz: “In the end all anyone could ever do was sum up the unknown factors in the ridiculous phrase, ‘The fortunes of battle stayed this way and that,’ or some similarly feeble and useless cliche” (p 101). It is indescribable, and Zaid’s argument holds true, that reading— not writing— is the best way to immerse and fall in love with his “sublime” prose. His writing is full with Proustian tea and madeleines— artifacts that send us moving into an immense past. With Sebald, we soar there, but often it is only a feeling of soaring because we are actually plunging into a sort of creeping despair that hangs over the century. So another correction: you immerse yourself in Sebald as opposed to read him.

Primarily, his books are overwhelmingly melancholy jaunts with time. Narrators are usually some variation of Sebald who recalls acquaintances in The Emigrants, goes for a walk in The Rings of Saturn, and converses with his friend in Austerlitz. The Proustian Symbols—postcards, shells, children’s Bibles, paintings, landscapes, Bluewinged Parrotlets, fire engines, rooms, and often too their miasmas, gossamer dust, ruts worn in floors, handrails, or broken stuff; railway station schedules, bedclothes, photographs, bug collections, bureaus, sports equipment, celestial maps, ledgers and charts—are described with such great accuracy they breath new life into the world and reopen their little corners of history. At times, there are little photographs to represent them. 

These corners seem so dark and unexplored that you begin to think that there are whole Earths happening everywhere at every moment (I will pause here to note that I have been slightly miffed that my word processor kept wanting to correct “Sebald” to “seabed” until now). Sebald allows for slight historical inaccuracies, but this is fiction which the author is using for what one might call Sebaldian Meditation. Wading into Sebaldian Meditation is like when you find out how absurdly funny Kafka actually is. You’ve been among it, and you suddenly realize. You’re invited to discover such points in the valley in Penal Colony or before the door and guard in Before the Law. But also, he shares a kind of academic approach to history as Feynman did with physics. Just because I know the name of the duck, Mallard, say, does not mean I know anything about it. In fact, you know nothing about a Mallard knowing that it is called a Mallard, really. Sebald paints lavish portraits of history, like that of the Jasenovac concentration camp or moths, inciting deep curiosity.

Among one of the many cataloged meetings with narrator and Jacques Austerlitz (who was taken from Germany to London by way of a kinder transport during WWII) you’ll find Sebaldian Meditation. The windows into history’s many blindspots offers the perfect, and elegant and very European, platform for the discussion of life, nature, time, and decay. If there is any reason for me to recommend him, it is that his books give the reader windows to appreciate (or, judging by his dour author photographs, that plead them to heed) the fruits of meditation, slowing down, and the dangers of overgeneralization and modernity. It gives a mirror for readers, too, readers who every once in a while looking into an immensity will see themselves in something—sometimes even a homing pigeon or, like, a hassock or something.
January 2014 (so Far)

12M. RIP peter O’Toole: Full watch thru of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Fucking awesome movie. Great cinematography in the desert.

13M Tokyo Drifter – Sleeping on this movie a bit made me like it more. Suzuki wraps nior in a stylized coat like Point Blank, but it’s also a gutsy move when you know the back-story: he would be fired from the studio for his brashness despite his approach filmmaking in a Carver-like way: this is my job as a contractor, I hope to god it puts food on my table.

14M Into the Night – Maybe not deserving of the rap it gets, but Just watch After Hours or Something Wild for the same ideas OR Spies Like Us for something funnier from Landis.

15M Big Star: Nothing can hurt me. Awesome rock doc, but only because of the band’s cult status. Alex Chilton’s Flies on Sherbert Years are the coolest here. Also James Luther Dickinson’s lifestyle and approach toward art. Third might be the best rock album of all time.

16M Rooster Cogburn – Katherine Hepburn is Old.

17M The Game – this is a rewatch, but for the first time I saw it on VHS. I think Fincher has a better style palette (lighting, color, wardrobe, props) than Michael Mann or Scorsese. This is his peak with that and with the conventions of plot. Whereas Pulp Fiction or Momento use editing, the Game uses a large amount of large plot devices to continually expand the parameters of the entire story. I think this movie is better than Se7en.

18M The stress with showing Kind Hearts and Coronets to my mom was washed away after she fell asleep, thank god. A re-watch I appreciate herete the British chin-up delivery of Dennis Price’s jet-black attitude towards disposing of the D’Ayscoynes. It’s Alec Guiness’ sheer amount of time on screen that has him understated here; one cant’ help but Obi Wan and Prince Faisal and (my favorite) Gulley Jimson to The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young D'Ascoyne, Young Henry, Lady Agatha. Guniess’ range is not Caine-like or, dare I go to the extreme of, Cruise-like, but it’s him disembodying himself fully into a character and adding the toppings on after.

16. Memoirs of a Beatnik. This is not about being a hippy, in fact DiPrima says “some of us sold out and became hippies” or something or over. This is pure sex, but also a look at living the playful, un-bound life.

16. The Hunger Games MFIME again, sadly, this time harder to buck than holes. Jennifer Lawrence aside, it’s a great book. I wish I had read it pre-movie. This book is dark, sure, but the pacing and command of the reader Collins’ gets out of it washes away any reservations one may have. That said, it is popular. And if people like the story so overwhelmingly, what does that say about our day and age? I’m looking for a Collins interview to see if she comments.

17. Catching Fire – Pretty good. I don’t think it’s as good as the first one.

19M Gimme Shelter. Watch the stones listen to Wild Horses at Muscle Shoals. Watch them see the Hell’s Angels kill someone and with it, the 1960s.

20M More docs: The War Room is an awesome movie, regardless of your political views, but in lieu of your aspirations, be they political or not. This could be a required team building exercise.

18. You Shall Know Our Velocity – I read YSKOV in November or Oct so it counts but here are my thoughts. I just wasn't that interested at points, but I love the idea of the book. It is freewheeling and massively mysterious around the outside of the main story. I’m thinking Eggers AHWSG is in the future.

19 Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl’s book is readable and manageable both as an amazing memoir of the uncertain horrors of the Holocaust and the beautiful philosophical residue that came from it, which he expands upon and wraps everyday life in.

21M A Brief History of Time. Yes the movie. Not the book. Yes I am on an Erroll Morris kick. This movie is a gem.

22M Hoffa is Nicholson and DeVito acting well, but the story leaves a little to be desired as a biopic. Iit's set up well, but the story is told in broad strokes; Hoffa's wife and family is little involved. I think what this film does say is that DeVito is an underrated director, though. His production credits on projects like Man on the Moon and Gattacca, and his work on this stylized biopicthe surreal, jet-black Death to Smoochy; the similarly dark Throw Momma From the Train; and the lovable cult film Matilda show DeVito as a man of many talents, to say nothing of his acting credits.