Monday, December 27, 2010

End Year Book Review (July - December) 2010

Well folks, it's that time a year again where I humbly submit my reading list for the year with a few thoughts about why I did or did not like the books. I hope you can find some of this a useful guide in deciding what to read for yourselves next year. It's a wonder, reading. The worlds that can open up before you. Happy New Year.

Click here for my Mid Year Book (January - June) Review 2010.

Why Do Men Have Nipples by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D.

I love the subtitle: 100 Questions You Would Only Ask Your Doctor After Your Third Martini. I'm fortunate to have many doctor friends who have trudged late into the night with me, drink after drink, answering all of the inane questions I could have simply found in this book. Questions like Why do farts ignite? or Why do old ladies grow beards? or Will my arms need to be surgically removed if I sleep on them for too long? and, of course, Why in the hell do men have nipples? All of these answers and hundreds more can be found in this interesting little book filled with humor and, more importantly, good science.

Rage by Stephen King (July)

After achieving success as a young writer in the seventies, Stephen King put out several old manuscripts from his college years under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. This is one of the earliest and, in my opinion, one of the best stories of King's long, wonderful career. It's a psychological thriller about a high school boy who finally snaps and hold his class hostage for a day. The most fascinating things happen in that room as he unravels the minds of his teachers and several of his classmates. This is a must read if you like psychological thrillers.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (July)

As with Rage, this was another short novella released under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It's also a psychological thriller that takes place in a future dystopia in which a walking competition is held every year for teenage boys. Only 100 are chosen out of thousands of applicants. Once the 100 begin walking they must walk a certain speed as soldiers on tanks follow along and dish out up to three warnings for falling behind. After three warnings the walkers are shot dead on the spot. Walking the entire the state of Maine and being shot one by one, the bulk of this book is the mental deterioration of each character as they struggle to survive and be the the last one walking. This and Rage can be found in a compilation called The Bachman Books which also includes The Running Man.

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and Other Confusions of Our Time by Dr. Michael Shermer (July)

Shermer's books always have such a great balance of interesting topics, humor and great science. This book explores common strange beliefs like UFO's, astrology, creationism, extra sensory perception and holocaust denial. There's even a really great essay on Ayn Rand and the subculture of cult systems. Shermer's motto is cognite tute (think for yourself) and nowhere does he do a better job of espousing and encouraging healthy skepticism than in this book.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (July)

This was the first time I've had the pleasure of reading Huxley. While I much prefer the darker tone of Orwell's 1984, I found this portrayal of the future/commentary on the present to be relentlessly funny and remarkably poignant. It's always such a pleasure when the classics are truly great and not boorish relics of our sentimental past. This holds up with any fictional social criticism of the day and is far more deep felt than anything Palahniuk is writing (although I, of course, love Palahniuk).

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share and Follow the Golden Rule by Dr. Michael Shermer (August)

This was easily one of the most interesting books I read all year. It is a naturalistic explanation for morality that explores the reasons for why we show immense capabilities for both moral and immoral actions. Shermer makes a strong case using evolutionary biology to explain what selections and pressures have molded us into social creatures who value cooperation, understand hostility and are moving towards a greater understanding of bioethics with the help of science. Any of my theistic friends who believe they have a handle on the moral argument need to read this book if, for anything, an accurate account of the naturalistic worldview.

The Box: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson (August)

I purchased this book in Alaska and read it during lunch one day. It's a collection of short stories from the guy who brought us I Am Legend, Hell House, and What Dreams May Come. The titular story was adapted into a Twilight Zone episode in which a mysterious box with a button is sent to a couple with a note promising a remarkable amount of money in exchange for pressing the button. The only catch is that pressing the button will cause the death of a single human being somewhere in the world. This is a great psychological story and the others are great as well.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch (August)

Isbelle got me this book for my birthday. It's the newest in an ever growing pile of biographies telling the story of Flannery O'Connor, my personal favorite writer and a hallmark of grotesque literature in the American south. This was easily the most interesting biography I have read of her and the credit is all due to Gooch's ability to weave fact with passion. This book also dealt more intimately with Flannery's love life and writing disciplines...two things I found very interesting.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (August)

This is easily one of the most interesting books to come out in the last twenty years. I've read it five times and every time I start I simply cannot put it down. It takes a resilient stomach to read sections of this book and it's helpful to have a sense of humor, a taste for satire and a good, strong drink. Celine and Henry Miller would be proud of Ellis, their literary hell-spawn.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (September)

I bought this book on my 27th birthday shortly after it was released. It explores the idea of a unified theory which would bridge the gap between special relativity and quantum theory. Hawking posits a very interesting idea he calls "M-theory" in which the unified theory of everything is a complex web of theories rather than one theory itself. This book gained a lot of publicity because in it Hawking boldly claims that we no longer need an intelligent designer to explain the existence of the universe. This doesn't mean that there is no such designer, it just means that we now have workable naturalistic models to explain the existence of our universe. Check out the chapter on how it is possible for something to come from nothing with M-theory. I remember drunkenly trying to explain this book to my friend Joseph in a pub in New York City. It's amazing how things do and don't make sense when you're looking at the bottom of a glass. I met a very nice stranger (professor at some college in Boston) when I was on tour. He gave us a place to stay and some whiskey and, in return, I gave him this book. Sometimes I regret it (it was a 1st edition!) but mostly it makes me smile.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin (September)

Holy crap this was a great book! It chronicles Martin's life from his college years and stand-up beginnings on his journey to becoming the most successful comic in history. When he released his first comedy album it shipped platinum. This means that it pre-sold over a million copies. In the fucking seventies! Martin is a great writer as well and for any of you (us) out there fighting hard to create and make a living with any form of art this was a totally inspiring story about a true living legend of comedy.

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough (September)

This book was a beast. Clocking in at over 700 pages long it is an arduous account of Neil Young's amazing life from childhood and high school through his first bands through the Buffalo Springfield years through the first few solo albums through Tonight's the Night and Zuma through the unreleased stuff through the Geffen Years and the Trans shit and the lawsuits and the back surgeries and the marriages and sons with cerebral palsy and the genre shifts and the comeback and the grunge and the MTV and the unplugged and the crazy Crazy Horse shit and the band members, managers, producers, lovers who all came and went and all of the colleges and tours and reunions with CSN....well you get the picture I guess. This book is really ONLY for I am happy to keep.

The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 by Charles Bukowski (September)

This was my first Bukowski. I bought it at Strand in Manhattan while standing on a trembling ladder looking for obscure poetry. I don't know quite how to put this but discovering Bukowski is such a big deal that the only thing I can compare it to is when I discovered the Beatles at age 21. I mean, this dude blew my fucking mind. This is a collection of his best poetry throughout his entire life, the only compilation like it that I know of. If you get anything by him I would start with this one. So so so so so so so so so so so friggen good. My friend was in NYC a few months later and asked me for a book recommendation for the plane ride home. I told him to go to Strand and literally buy ALL of the Bukowski he could afford and that I would explain later and that he would thank me. He did and...he did.

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (September)

I read this on the road driving for long stretches through the American desert. I was shocked at how boring most of it is. There are some truly gripping moments in this book but they are rare and, unfortunately, not worth my recommendation. Sorry McCarthy....I'd rather re-read Faulkner all over again (yikes!) than trudge through this stuff. (I'm making a frowny face right now).

Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain (October)

This is a collection of mostly religious satirical essays. First if all, Twain's writing is brilliant. I don't think there's a single person who would disagree. But his wit is entirely something else. I never knew how hilarious he was not how passionate about the human condition and the footholds of reason and belief. This is a fun, charming collection of essays that I wish on my most hated enemies and loved ones alike.

Pulp by Charles Bukoswki (October)

I bought this book at Powell's in Chicago on a day off with Isbelle. Once again I was on a ladder somewhere looking for Celine when she found this one in a stack of New Arrivals. This is the last novel Bukowski wrote before he passed away and, without surprise, it is a novel of death and dying but NEVER with a hint of sentimentality or safety. It is as crass, humorous, honest and lovely as anything he wrote when living in the slums with all of the hours in the heart L.A. It makes me sad to think about this book but at least he was still writing great and kicking life's ass at the ripe old age of 74. This book was dedicated to "bad writing" and well, that always makes me smile.

White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985 by Allen Ginsberg (October)

I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with ole' Ginsberg. But I have noticed that I have a fondness for his work in the eighties. It's more tired, more worn down and less sentimental. There's more sober self-reflection and less drug-addled rambling. More sex and more love. It's a soft moment in his career and this is a great collection to commemorate that time.

KISS: Behind the Mask by David Leaf and Ken Sharp (October)

I don't know how many of you know this about me but for those of you who don't, let this be my coming out party. I am a fucking HUGE KISS fan. The first concert I ever went to was the KISS Reunion tour in 96. I was twelve years old and singing down heavily tattooed old bikers in front of me. I know every lyric, guitar solo, and album art these dudes have ever put out. So naturally, when I got this book at Powell's (this is what I was getting on that damn ladder) I was stoked to read it. It is a thorough and exciting biography with the bands history told through a narrative and then each member personally. It also has a play by play of every record they've made with band commentary and little known facts about tours and gear. Loved it.

Eating The Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman (October)

I have not read single Klosterman book that was not good. This one is no exception. It's a bit less funny than his former books of essays but the writing and subject matter are superb and Klosterman, once again, shows why he is the master of over-sentimentalizing popular culture in a way that makes you nostalgic and, somehow, not pukey. Eighty Thousand thumbs and toes up for this one.

Love Is a Dog From Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski (October)

This collection largely deals with Bukowski's encounters with women but this is one of my favorites:


a single dog
walking alone on a hot sidewalk of
appears to have the power
of ten thousand gods.

why is this?

Come On In! New Poems by Charles Bukowski (October)

This is one of many posthumous collections of, presumably, poems that Bukowski thought were crap. Here is one of my favorites:

come on in!

welcome to my wormy hell.
the music grinds off-key.
fish eyes watch from the wall.
this is where the last happy shot was
the mind snaps closed
like a mind snapping
we need to discover a new will and a new
we're stuck here now
listening to the laughter of the
my temples ache with the fact of
the facts.
I get up, move about, scratch
I'm a pawn.
I am a hungry prayer.
my wormy hell welcomes you.
hello. hello there. come in, come on in!
plenty of room here for us all,
we can only blame ourselves so
come sit with me in the dark.
it's half-past

The People Look Like Flowers At Last by Charles Bukowski (October)

Another collection of new poems from 2007. One of my favorites is:

the creation coffin

the ability to suffer and endure,
that's nobility, friend.
the ability to suffer and endure
for an idea, a feeling, a way,
that's art, my friend.
the ability to suffer and endure
when love fails,
that's hell, old friend.
nobility, art, hell,
let's talk about art for a while.

destiny is my crippled daughter.
look here, it's difficult,
me against them,
with them.
Kafka, let me in!
Hemingway beware!
Hegel, you're funny!
Cervantes, you mean you wrote that
novel at the age of

great writers are indecent people
they live unfairly
saving the best part for paper.

good human beings save the world
so that bastards like me can keep creating art,
become immortal.
if you are reading this after I am long dead
it means I made it.

so writers of the world
it's your turn now
to misuse your wife
abuse your children
love thyself
live off the funds of others
dislike all art created before and
during your time,
and dislike or even hate humanity
singly or en masse.

bastards, even if you read this
after I am long dead
forget about me. I
probably wasn't that

Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsider the Classics edited by Jim Deragotis (October)

This is probably the most depressing book I have ever read. The subtitle gives you a good hint but these essays are less "reconsiderations" of classics and more just whiny entitled and mostly unfounded criticisms. Now, I have a contrarian spirit and I fight sentimentality with the best of them. I'd rather have the painful truth than the comfortable lie. Etcetera. But this book goes after some seriously fucking indisputable records. Here is a list of records trashed in this book: Exile On Main St., Born To Run, Rumours, Led Zeppelin IV, Grievous Angel, Double Fantasy, Ram, Exodus, and Kick Out The Jams. Need I say more? Don't waste your time. Go listen to "Second Hand News" for the millionth time and love every second of it like I just did.

The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain (November)

Another really interesting collection from Mark Twain dealing with religion. This is less critical of religion itself and, more interestingly, uses the story of Adam and Eve to analyze the cooperative and hostile differences between a man and a woman. It's extremely funny and witty (of course) but also has some beautiful imagery. My favorite entry is that of the snake and Eve's Soliloquy is gorgeous.

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

This is a fairly auto-biographical novel about Bukowskis life as a child through the time he went to college. It is a brutal tale of his his father's abuse, mother's neglect and his own shaping indifference of a world in depression era Las Angeles. Bukoswki once said that all his father taught him was pain and ,in doing so, how to type. Read this book and you'll understand why that is most certainly true.

Wilco: Learning How To Die by Greg Kot (November)

This was an interesting book that catalogues Wilco (Jeff Tweedy)'s story from the Uncle Tupelo days on through the A Ghost Is Born record. It is thorough telling of all the records, tours, and stories in between and a good look at the mind of one of the most interesting American bands in years. This book got me back interested in Henry Miller novels and so the push and pull of fiction and non-fiction continues. Favorite moments in the book were the stories about the Summerteeth record and subsequent tours. Worth a read if you dig Wilco.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris (November)

This was also one of the most interesting books of the year. As Sam explains in this TED Talk, his contention is that morals and ethics correspond with values and that values correspond with well-being and suffering. On the moral landscape the peaks represent total well being and the valley's represent total suffering. When viewed this way there begins to emerge this idea that there are right and wrong answers to particular moral questions, even if we cannot know them all. He believes that a continually developing neurological study of values at the level of the brain will help us map this moral landscape. This book is really about the next conversation. Books like Shermer's above have adequately accounted for the moral drive of a human being (and many higher mammals similar to us). These evolutionary drives are not always flattering and, even though they were selected for, are not necessarily conducive to total well being. So how can, with as much understanding of cognitive behavior as possible, start to forge our way into a new conversation about morality? I believe this book is the answer. Probably the most important book I read all year.

Religion and Science by Bertrand Russel (November)

This is a really great book on the history of the tension between science and religion. It deals with Galileo and astronomy, medicince and witchcraft and all sorts of other interesting collisions between these two great giants. Russell, of course, believes that the two are in direct confrontation (as most personal god claims are scientific claims) and that at the end of the day science is the best model for explaining our universe and that the evidence for most religious claims is still too lacking to lend provisional assent. I, of course, agree.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter is one of mine and Isbelle's favorite shows. I don't know why I never thought to read the books but since she had them on her shelf I thought I'd try it out. They're pretty good and definitely worth reading if you're a fan of the show. There are some interesting differences and, even though this guy isn't Dostoevsky, I found that I really couldn't put this book down. It moved quick and was never boring or drab. Great suspense and thriller story.

The Last Night of the Earth Poems by Charles Bukowski (December)

To my knowledge this is the last collection of new poetry released before Bukowski died. It is a TREMENDOUS volume filled with amazing poems. One of my many favorites is:

be kind

we are always asked
to understand the other person's
no matter how
foolish or

one is asked
to view
their total error
their life-waste
especially if they are

but age is the total of
our doing.
they have aged
because they have
out of focus,
they have refused to see.

not their fault?

whose fault?

I am asked to hide
my viewpoint
from them
for fear of their

age is no crime

but the shame
of a deliberately

among so many


Planet News: Poems, 1961-1967 by Allen Ginsberg (December)

This is one of the most boring collections of poems I have ever read. Wanna know why? Because all of the poems are basically like this:


As orange dusk-light falls on an old idea
I gaze thru my hand on the page
sensing outward the intercoiled weird being I am in
and seek a head of that - Seraphim
advance in lightning flash through aether storm
Messengers arrive horned bearded from Magnetic spheres
disappearing radios receive aged galaxies
Immensity wheels mirrored in every direction
Announcement swifting from Invisible to Invisible
Eternity-dragon's tail lost to the eye
Strange death, forgotten births, voices calling in the past
"I was" that greets "I am" that writes now "I will be"
Armies marching over and over the old battlefield --
What powers sit in their domed tents and decree Eternal Victory?
I sit at my desk and the scribe the endless message from myself to my
own hand

Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (December)
Wow. I knew that Leonard Cohen was a poet. I even knew he was a good poet and had achieved success well before he was a musician. But I had no idea it was this good. this heartfelt and funny. Most of these poems he wrote while living in cave in his sixties. My favorite is:

to a young nun

This undemanding love
that our staggered births
have purchased for us -
You in your generation,
I in mine.
I am not the one
you are looking for.
You are not the one
I've stopped looking for.
How sweetly time
disposes of us
as we go arm in arm
over the Bridge of Details:
Your turn to chop.
My turn to cook.
Your turn to die for love.
My turn to resurrect.

Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (December)

This is the second installment in the Dexter series. I'm not expert on writing but I did notice that the screws seemed to be a bit tighter this go around. I'm now more interested in finishing the series than I was with book one. Great read. Cool story.

You Get So Alone At Times It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski (December)

Another collection of amazing poems. Here's a short favorite that Isbelle turned me onto:

about the PEN conference

take a writer away from his typewriter
and all you have left
the sickness
which started him
in the

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountains by Charles Bukowski (December)

This one blew me away:

throwing away the alarm clock

my father always said, "early to bed and
early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy
and wise."

it was lights out at 8 p.m. in our house
and we were up at dawn to the smell of
coffee, frying bacon and scrambled

my father followed this general routine
for a lifetime and died young, broke,
and, I think, not too

taking note, I rejected his advise and it
became, for me, late to bed and late
to rise.

now, I'm not saying that I've conquered
the world but I've avoided
numberless earl traffic jams, bypassed some
common pitfalls
and have met some strange, wonderful

one of whom
myself --- someone my father

Slouching Towards Nirvana by Charles Bukowski (December)

Well, I won't bore you with another poem but this collection is yet another bunch of beautiful forgotten poems. This guy was a madman.

The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are by Robert Wright (December)

This was a really fascinating book that takes Shermer's ideas about the evolutionary explanations of morality and puts them under an intense microscope. There were times that I would read this book after a bit too much wine and feel myself near the proverbial edge of despair. The truths about our past very hard to consider. Realizing that my reasons for certain feelings and emotions are no longer evolutionary valid is a tough but beautiful place to be in and forces one to engage in that Greater Conversation that I am fortunate enough to have with people all over the country and from all walks of life discovering ourselves again through art, drink, quiet, and, of course, wholesome conversation. Great science. Great ideas. This book was fantastic.

1 comment:

CK said...

OK, so, even though I disagree with you about Bukowski - I think he was a hack - I will say this: I fell in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay in exactly the same way that you fell in love with him. Not in NYC, of course, but in a dingy attic filled with old boxes of books, when I was twelve. Reading her poetry was like lightning bolts. To this day, although there are many better poets that have gone before and come after, and even though I've learned a great deal more about what constitutes great poetry, I would seriously shed blood for her sake if I had to. So, I understand. Sometimes it's not the best poetry that shreds your heart to pieces.

And I agree with you about that particular Ginsberg poem. Geez.

Also, I attended that same KISS reunion tour. And it was AWESOME.

I'm looking forward to diving into several of these recommendations. Thank you.