Friday, June 3, 2022

A Ranked Paragraph About Every Book I Read in 2021 (part 2: pre-2021 books edition)

51) The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)


50) Bee People and the Bugs They Love (Frank Mortimer)

I think I would actively dislike Frank Mortimer if I met him in person, and I didn't get a ton out of this book, but it was mostly fine.

49) All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy)

This story of two boys who run away with some horses genuinely did nothing for me. I didn't even really connect with the language. The plot kind of did something, but I don't really like plot, so that's kind of bottom of the barrel. Someday I'll understand McCarthy.

48) The Corona Crash (Grace Blakely)

Another in Verso's weirdly demsoc series on the covid-19 pandemic. Much better than last year's The Care Manifesto, but also weirdly invested (if I'm recalling correctly) on pseudo-Keynesian responses to the pandemic.

47) I Am Cuba (Stephen Langdon Cost)

Probably more on the historical fiction end than the literary nonfiction, I ended up feeling about this similarly to how I felt about a much better book by Miéville that comes up much later, although on a different subject.

46) The Silence (Don Delillo)

A slim Don Delillo novel about how bad phones are, probably. No, that's not fair. It's about a power outage and an escalating series of philosophical discussions with some weird hetero shit thrown in. It's apparently classified as Humor in my app? That's a choice. Solidly written and completely forgettable, honestly.

45) Death in a Promised Land (Scott Ellsworth)

I feel like I read this a century ago. Ellsworth is an academic focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and this is written in reportage style. It's hard, with moments of resistance. It's similar in many ways to Les & Tamara Payne's The Dead Are Arising, especially in the pacing. I am glad to have read it.

44) Angelica's Smile (Andrea Camilleri)

I'm going to be honest: this one kind of left no impression on me other than that I remember it being unfortunately horny and I was into the fact that the people were robbing rich folks' vacation homes.

43) The Track of Sand (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one that left little enough trace on my memory that even reading summaries doesn't really bring anything forth other than the image of the dead horse in the show version. I'll be honest: it could be good, it could be bad. I did read it! I just have no memory.

42) The Paper Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

One of the less great Montalbano books sees the Inspector contemplating his age and getting hit on by a bunch of hot young ladies. Never a womanizer, there are moments that are fun but overall it ends up feeling a bit all over the place.

41) The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Carolyn Keene)

The first four words of this book are “That Oriental-looking woman…” so yeah. There’s some shit about perfume. A really bad one.

40) Treasure Hunt (Andrea Camilleri)

While the explosive opening (two old religious jerks firing rounds onto a town square in a house filled with crucifixes and a sex doll) ends up overshadowing the actual mystery, it is a really good opening. One of the better examples of the way Camilleri starts playing with metafiction later in the series (as the television show version of Montalbano begins eclipsing the books, at least in parts of Italy) despite paring back some of the other literary devices, and the mystery itself isn't bad.

39) Phoenix Extravagant (Yoon-Ha Lee)

Another casualty of brain fog, Yoon Ha Lee's Phoenix Extravagant is a book I will need to revisit again at some point down the line. My overwhelming feeling is that he is being pigeonholed or incentivized to write things that are more in line with Young Adult fiction than the Machineries of Empire series, and I find that to be a bummer. Maybe in 2022 I will try to do a full read-through of his work. I think he's one of the best authors writing, and I'm bummed I haven't connected with his last two books.

38) Rounding the Mark (Andrea Camilleri)

Still fairly early in the series, Rounding the Mark sees Montalbano disgusted with the pseudo-fascist response of the Prime Minister to the G8 protests and prepared to resign. He gets caught up with Ingrid again, as well as inadvertently leading a refugee boy to some human traffickers. One of the more tumultuous in the series, it's also a fairly solid case study in the movement from the more complex early novels toward the later, breezier ones.

37) The Clue in the Diary (Carolyn Keene)

Having flipped through it, I still remember absolutely nothing about this mystery. Which is a shame, because I literally don’t know if it was any good. I don’t think so, though, really.

36) The Bungalow Mystery (Carolyn Keene)

One of the less interesting mysteries, but it does start with a bang in a storm on a ship. I also remember the Donnelly’s being likable.

35) The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Carolyn Keene)

A Nancy Drew doppelganger and something called “charge plates” are most of why this mystery is fun. There’s a marriage too I guess?

34) Tentacle (Rita Indiana)

Rita Indiana is a Dominican genderfucky songwriter. Tentacle is about a full-transition shot and the fulfillment of a prophecy and time travel, I think? It's a good time if you dig a really fucked up book that rings real through speculative elements. Also their songs are very good.

33) The Revolution of the Moon (Andrea Camilleri)

Another piece of historical fiction centered on the 27-day reign of a queen in Sicily in the 18th century. It's a cute, zippily written political thriller about a woman being in power and providing things the people actually need - like bread and reproductive rights - right up until the moment that the larger power structure gets rid of her. Like The Sacco Gang (more on that later), it's probably more Camilleri than real history, and as with that book I'm pretty fine with that.

32) Breasts & Eggs (Mieko Kawakami)

I think this, along with Detransition, Baby, were the two books I was most disappointed I didn't like more from authors that were unfamiliar to me. There are some exceptional moments here, descriptions of sweaty nights and intergenerational conflicts that barely breathe a word. There is also a scene in a spa that involves a possibly trans character. That scene really took the wind out of my sails.

31) The Patience of the Spider (Andrea Camilleri)

This 2004 novel is another example of a really solid early entry in the series, with the closest I think Camilleri ever came to a genuine supervillain/rival style antagonist. While not quite up to the mark of the great books in the series, it's a real good one.

30) The Age of Doubt (Andrea Camilleri)

Another one of the stronger late books, The Age of Doubt has a rock solid opening that puts his aging issues, his relationship doubts, and his dissatisfaction with his job into a hypnagogic cauldron and sets things boiling. The luxury yacht juxtaposed with the speedboat (which themselves, in the port, are juxtaposed against the many refugee stories throughout the series) and the poisoning are fun.

29) The Hidden Staircase (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew does haunted houses, Scooby Doo-style. In my memory this is actually one of the more elaborately-plotted books of the ten I read this year, including the abduction of Carson Drew, Nancy’s lawyer father. It’s a good one of these.

28) Password to Larkspur Lane (Carolyn Keene)

The tenth book in the series is a pretty pleasant one as well. A mysterious wheel of fire is showing up at her friend’s family’s house. There’s an old lady being held against her will. I barely remember how it ends, but I remember enjoying the ride. I also just dig any goofy supernatural shit, so maybe that informed my take.

27) The Secret of Shadow Ranch (Carolyn Keene)

Fucking cool-ass ghost horse. I remember this one really positively, but I also remember reading that it was one of the ones more heavily edited for being hella racist. So there’s that. I think this is the one that introduces love interests for the gals, who are wildly uninteresting.

26) The Dance of the Seagull (Andrea Camilleri)

The titular dance - Montalbano sees a seagull swoop and plummet and spin in strange circles before expiring - is one of the more powerful images in the series. Most Montalbano books rely on their propulsive prose, your interest in the mystery, the landscapes and the exquisite descriptions of food, with only a soupcon of interest in the surreal or poetic movement of things. The mystery is a little less compelling, although Fazio's twists make up for some of that. A good piece of texture for the rest of the series, but maybe not the best starting point.

25) The Wings of the Sphinx (Andrea Camilleri)

Another entry in the mid-late period Montalbano books sees the Inspector obsessing over senescence. Which isn't bad or good, necessarily - I enjoy, to a degree, the fact that he ages along with the author instead of staying Bond-young forever and which paid off greatly in the last two stories (see my 2021 books of 2021 list for those) - but it can get a bit samey. Of those, this story might be my favorite as Montalbano looks for a girl with a sphinx moth tattoo and encounters some real weirdos.

24) Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Carolyn Keene)

Nancy Drew is going to inherit a bunch of money! But it’s actually a different Nancy Drew, who is an actress. This one is honestly probably the best on a pure popcorn level, imo.

23) The Potter's Field (Andrea Camilleri)

If there were a Hollywood movie in any of the Montalbano books, it's almost certainly this one. A(n apparent) mob hit in a Potter's Field (effectively unmarked graves) leads Montalbano on a Judean goose chase that sees him interacting with Dons and academics. Published in Italian in 2008, it's almost like a rewrite of The Terracotta Dog but with more dialog than history. For my money, that means it doesn't rate quite as high; but then, I'm not like other girls.

22) How Long Til Black Future Month? (N.K. Jemisin)

Reading the story summaries on Wikipedia conjured a feeling or memory in my brain for almost every one of the stories in this collection, which I kind of wasn't expecting given the lifetime I feel like I've lived since I read it early in 2021. I think the thing I said at the time to people was that it was quite good, but it does feel like Jemisin really excels at the novel (or, perhaps more accurately, trilogy) length. That's probably true. It's also true that the broad range of genres Jemisin tackles here within speculative fiction is exciting, considering what she is capable of when working in longer form.

21) Backflash (Richard Stark)

Parker is the kind of noir protagonist I can get behind, even if I haven't read a ton like him: steely, ready to kill, but mostly interested in getting the job done. In Backflash, the job is robbing a casino boat for an anti-gambling politician. I'm curious about continuing my mystery tour after Carolyn and Andrea grabbed my heart and my head in 2021. I don't know if it will be soon, but Stark's Parker is definitely going to rattle around until I get to him eventually. More on No! No Buzz.

20) The Colorado Kid (Stephen King)

Stephen King at his Most, in some ways. A mystery from the perspective of a new newspaperwoman, with the state stamp on a pack of cigarettes as the central complicating factor. It turns out to be nothing exceptional except in the ways it isn't; there's genuine ambiguity and ambivalence in this in ways I rarely associate with King, and a curbed storytelling impulse that instead focuses on inessential relationships.

19) The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (Fritz Lieber)

Leiber Does Lovecraft. Specifically, the Horrible Document version of Lovecraft. It's no Our Lady of Darkness, but what is. Pretty good, from what I remember.

18) Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (Malm)

My main memory of this is that it's the best of the pamphlets in Verso's coronavirus series (excluding Dean Spade's Mutual Aid, which I don't know if is technically in the series but it far, far outstrips the rest), and that it gets a little Lenin Bro-y in bits. Plenty of salient points throughout, though.

17) The Deep (Rivers Solomon)

Inspired by a clipping. song about mermaids who were descendants of the slaves tossed overboard in the Middle Passage, The Deep is about the one of them who remembers and the toll that takes. Like Sorrowland, it's about flight from a supposedly utopian community to find the fucked up reality of the outside world. It's also about care for the individual and care for the collective, and how those things can come into conflict without any conflict rearing its head. And it's about cool mermaid shit. So it's good.

16) The Visitors (Clifford D. Simak)

Obelisk aliens land in Simak's beloved landscape: a picturesque midwestern small town (probably in Wisconsin). Newspapermen try to piece it together. The aliens are Roadside Picnic levels of inscrutable. They're also metaphors for industrialization. It's quite good.

15) Cemetery Boys (Aiden Thomas)

Definitely the best YA book I read this year, as a hater of YA. I expected this to be another thing I read and kind of enjoyed, but the ending really caught me off guard. The story of a young trans brujo whose culture doesn't quite accept him and whose attempt to prove himself goes awry when he summons the wrong ghost. It's kind of the thing I might recommend for people that aren't in the headspace to read the density of Summer Sons or the visceral heartwrenching of Sorrowland, but want some version of their themes and storytelling polished, like a rock, in the editorial and publishing tumbler of a book marketed as Young Adult.

14) October (China Miéville)

An early-in-the-year read, and (I believe?) the only one of Miéville's books (excepting his dissertation) that I hadn't read previously. An account of Russia's revolution(s) written in a really solid literary nonfiction style, I was most impressed by his acknowledgment of the failures on the part of the revolution to respect the anarchist cadre. Probably a lot of things to say about this, but I mostly remember appreciating the verve with which it was told, Miéville's incomparable ability to focus in on particular details and resonances, and the feeling of reading a pop history that might not exactly reflect my poltics but didn't outright disagree with them from the jump.

13) The Housekeeper and the Professor (Yoko Ogawa)

I fell in love with The Memory Police last year, and finally saw another Ogawa book cross my path this year. On some level, I think I might like this better. The story of a single mother who works as a housekeeper to a mathematics professor who suffered a traumatic brain injury which means his short term memory ends after 80 minutes, this is a decidedly non-genre take on disability and care work and the beauty of math and the beauty of language. I kind of adored it.

12) The Dead Father (Donald Barthelme)

This is the book that got me to start No! No Buzz near the end of this year. It's an interesting bit of experimental fiction, and I'm curious to read more Barthelme because so much of my reading has been of the fairly light variety, and there are things here that challenged me (and others I found challenging). Anyway I said what I wanted to say in the video.

11) The Only Good Indian (Stephen Jones)

Among the best horror novels I've ever read, definitely, The Only Good Indian is about four men who commit a crime that comes back to haunt them. It fits in the model of John Carpenter, to me, as a powerful example of homosociality in horror. That Carpenter was heavily influenced into this by John Ford, the Western film director, is an irony not lost. With powerful scenes of men expressing emotions, genuinely fucked up moments of horror, and an unflinching look at historical atrocity, it's another one I feel really confident calling special.

10) The One-Straw Revolution (Masonobu Fukuoka)

A good chunk of the reading I did this year was in preparation for some Island Demeter games that didn't quite pan out as I'd hoped, and this sort of memoir, sort of philosophy, sort of farming polemic was one of them. It tells of Fukuoka's experiments in what he sometimes calls Do Nothing Farming, where he cultivated land without use of any plows and, in doing so, invented the seed bomb. The technicals were a little beyond my comprehension, but his productive nihilism really struck a chord with me.

9) Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer)

This was one of those books that I picked up mostly because people just keep buying it? And I was curious. I really enjoyed my time with it. It felt a bit overlong and repetitive in parts, but the central thrust is really strong, Wall Kimmerer is an excellent storyteller, and it was overall just really positive. More on No! No Buzz

8) Princess Bari (Hwang Sok-Yong)

Hwang Sok-Yong is apparently one of South Korea's most well known authors, and I'm pretty embarrassed to have just learned that. I'm excited to hopefully read more of his work. This novel is about the seventh daughter of a North Korean family, named after the titular character of folklore, a seventh daughter of a royal family. Both were left to die and survived; both experience harrowing travels that clarify the world and reveal that the healing waters are the waters that give life to us and what sustains us. Princess Bari stands out to me as a story of the abandoned and vilified that unflinchingly tells stories of people who, despite being singled out for truly harrowing experiences, continue to act in solidarity. More on No! No Buzz

7) The Sacco Gang (Andrea Camilleri)

My introduction to Andrea Camilleri, and one I'm happy to have been my first. Published by Europa (unlike the Montalbano books, which are handled by Penguin Random House), it's a sort of historical fiction about a family of leftists called the Sacco gang who tangle with the fascist police and the mafia in the late 1800s (I think that's right). I think it's ultimately more clarifying of Camilleri's positions and interests than it is a historical document, but I have no problem with that.

6) The Secret of the Old Clock (Carolyn Keene)

The very first Nancy Drew mystery begins “Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.” Which upended a number of assumptions I’d had, including her age (apparently she was originally sixteen, but was aged up in the 1950s rereleases, which I learned later were the ones I read). I really didn’t expect her to be driving. The mystery here is about a will hidden in an old clock, which a rich family denies exists so they can become richer. It’s one of the more fun entries in the series, and does a good job introducing Nancy and the style of writing (The Most Cliffhangers Imaginable).

5) The Shape of Water (Andrea Camilleri)

The first Montalbano book introduces the inspector and his crew, but most importantly it introduces Ingrid, the Swedish race car driver whose flirtation with Montalbano is one of the series' hearts. A mystery involving a politician found dead in a field notorious for Mafia-run sex work leads Montalbano to uncover corruption in the halls of power. Camilleri's prose develops a lot over the course of the series, but not in a good or bad way, necessarily; here there are a number of chewy, long sentences and a sense of history that get pared down in the future, and it's nice to see the development.

4) The Sign of the Twisted Candles (Carolyn Keene)

My favorite of the Nancy Drew stories. It does the will trick again, but the candles and spaces are actually really evocatively described. I believe this is by a different ghostwriter than the bulk of the previous books, and I’m unfortunately pretty into his way of keeping things moving while focusing on images.

3) The Mushroom at the End of the World (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing)

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's critical investigation into the matsutake mushroom is one of the best things I read this year. It's somewhere between academic tome, journalistic travelogue, and extended personal essay on race and capital. Lowenhaupt Tsing embeds with matsutake pickers and buyers, examines the moment the undomesticatable mushroom becomes a commodity (in the air, shipping between Seattle and Japan), ruminates on the ways it refuses commoditization by developing a gift economy, and touches on the weird, cool world of fungi. Not just one of the best things I read; one of the coolest. It reminds me of Christine Yano's work on Hello Kitty or Nisei Stewardesses. Well told, straddling the line between popular and academic, thoroughly cited, and sticky.

2) The Old Drift (Namwali Serpell)

If The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu wasn't the best surprise of 2021, then this was. Different lists, though, so both count. I found Namwali Serpell through Transit Books' Undelivered Lectures series (see my brief thoughts on Preti Teneja's Aftermath from the same series, also in the other post, or my post from last year) and then her previous novel (this one) came by. I'm not in the practice of reading big intergenerational epics these days and thought I would bounce off. I really, really didn't. The story of Zambia from the late 1800s through the early 2020s, it weaves elegantly between colonial history, magic realism, literary fiction, and science fiction. And the thread is a sentient mosquito swarm. I really can't speak highly enough of this book.

1) The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri)

The second Montalbano book, and my personal favorite. Being early, it still has Camilleri's more yarn-length sentences rather than the drumbeats of the latter novels, and because of that it has more going on in terms of developing the history of fascism in Italy as a player in the present than, say, the punchy joy of a Cook of the Halcyon. With interwoven mysteries about a grocery truck, a mafia hit in police protection, and two World War II-era bodies buried in a ritual fashion, everything here propelled me forward and really cemented that I love this goofy series.


Plus, some bonus rereads! (unranked)

How Much of These Hills is Gold (C. Pam Zhang)

As I'll say a couple times throughout this, a good chunk of my reading this year was inspired by the fact that I thought I was going to be running some games for Island Demeter; one was a Nancy Drew-inspired detective game that involved a farm, the other a Weird West cooking game. I still hope to run them. I reread Zhang's incredible novel in service of the latter, and it only redoubled my opinion that it is a really special thing, full of gorgeous sentences and complicated in the most bountiful ways.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (Temi Oh)

I started this year on my third reading of Do You Dream of Terra Two?, a fact I would have called auspicious if I didn't have this year. It's still an exceptional thing.

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