Saturday, December 27, 2014

What I Thought About Stuff, 2014: BOOKS: Harming society the old-fashioned way.

The week between Xmas and New Year's is traditionally a time to desperately stave off post-holiday near-suicidal depression with a final look back at all the things we as a society used to desperately stave off everyday near-suicidal depression that year.  Also, writing "Best Of" lists is a great way to not yet start working out to finally get in shape like you promised to do back on New Year's Eve 2013 2012 2011 2010 you get the point.

So assuming I remember I am doing this and don't run out of time, here is my own "Best Of/Worst Of" list of books, tv shows, movies, songs, celebrities, trends, sports, and whatever else briefly attracted my attention in 2014, in no particular order and with no particular rankings and with about a 90% certainty that I'm going to get distracted by pizza tomorrow and end up never finishing this.

I will begin with my own personal favorite category of pop culture, Books. This was the year I got REALLY picky about books.  REALLY REALLY picky. As in most books I gave about 10 minutes worth of time to and if it didn't compel me to read it during that time, it was SO over.

Here is a list of books I began and then dropped, with some brief thoughts, beginning with the worst of them all, The Financial Lives Of Poets, by Jess Walter. Not only did this seem too hipsterish -- as though someone had written an ironic Tumblr about what would happen if Taco from The League had married and moved to suburbia and then decided to go on selling weed after starting a website idea...

... let me point out that dumb websites propelling book plots is a trope that I CAN. NOT. STAND. Dumb businesses of any kind is a stupid, Lena Dunham-esque thing to do to try (desperately) to make your character or plot or sad, mopey hipster life in general seem fun and interesting.  But dumb websites are the worst.  If you are writing a book/movie/poem/etc. and you think "I'm going to give this person a wacky job/website/lifestyle to SPICE THINGS UP" you should immediately take everything you have that helps you engage in 'creative' tasks and dump them in a landfill where they can cause harm to society the old-fashioned way, by slowly leaching into our water supply until our great-great-great grandchildren are born with gills...

...the website in Poets being a financial website that would (GET THIS!) give financial advice via poetry. HA HA IT'S FUNNY BECAUSE: ENGLISH LIT MAJORS. Or something.

The reason I started with Financial Lives is because it was so bad it wrecked, completely, any chance I would ever read anything by Jess Walter again, as I learned when I finally got Beautiful Ruins from my local library.

I get about 98% of my books on my kindle through an app called Overdrive, which I cannot recommend enough.  FREE BOOKS.  That is seriously what it amounts to.  Overdrive lets me borrow ebooks from my local library system, all while sitting on my couch wearing my Spider-Man (TM) pajamas and wondering if there are any muffins left from the ones we bought Xmas Eve morning. (There are.)  In this era of overpriced ebooks (I used to say that no book should cost more than $0.99, but then I learned that books sell better if they are $3.99, so now I say no book should cost more than $3.99), it's nice to be able to read -- or try to read -- ebook after ebook FOR FREE.  Granted, there is sometimes a wait-list but when you have a list of books that you want to read which is 8 pages long (as mine is) something is always becoming available.

I get my book recommendations primarily from two places: HuffPo's Books section, which I exclusively read on my phone because reading HuffPo online causes me to become dizzy and disoriented from the plethora of images, videos, headlines, and shots of Kim Kardashian that litter any news website nowadays.  I think it's funny that people joke about how cluttered and weird websites used to be in the late 90s.  Have they seen MSN or Yahoo! (don't forget the exclamation point!, it'll help emphasize how annoyed you are when your Yahoo! email gets hacked a third time in a week!) or HuffPo or any news site? They look like Brian William's dream board, with fewer topless photos of Brian Williams.

I also get book recommendations from Buzzfeed, which has kind of a bad rap, I think.  Everyone needs to be reminded that there were, in fact, 37 things they didn't know about 'iCarly' (until they read that article!)

And when I see a book I might like, I go request it from Overdrive because with how terrible books are, I am getting more and more reluctant to spend actual money on them.  And then I wait until it comes in.

Beautiful Ruin was a Jess Walter book that sounded intriguing, so I waitlisted it, months ago, and then waited a long time because it was so popular.  Between that and when it came in, I tried reading Financial Lives and hated it so much I felt like I had gall stones.  Then, about two weeks ago, Beautiful Ruin came in for me to download (FOR FREE! I am so glad the taxpayers are still subsidizing those of us who read.  Keep quiet, library lovers: for now, we are getting free books at government expense. No other entertainment format can boast that it is government subsidized, except for movies with tax breaks and sports leagues which get government-built stadiums and tax exemptions, and television shows which get the chance to shoot on location for discounted rates, and musicians who play in those government-subsidized arenas. But free books at the library!) and when it came in, I was excited all the way up until I downloaded it and saw Jess Walters' name on the cover.

"OH MAN," I said to Sweetie.  "I can't read this."

"Why?" she asked.  So I told her.  Then I tried, anyway.  I read the first sentence and I just couldn't get past that it was a Jess Walters book and it was going to suck, and probably make me sad for all humanity because it would be so nakedly opportunistically sucky.  So I deleted it.

Other books I deleted after reading only a bit included Monster, by A. Lee Martinez (felt too paint-by-numbers), The Arcanum, by Thomas Wheeler (a pure "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" ripoff), Wicked Bug: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army by Amy Stewart (what could have been a well-written fascinating collection of essays on interesting bugs read like a 6th-graders Wikipedia-plagiarized set of notecards on 'interesting' buts), and The Telling Room: A Tale Of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and The World's Greatest Piece Of Cheese by Michael Paterniti, who somehow managed to come up with a great title and then immediately spend the first chapter whining about how poor he once was, following it up with an intro to the second chapter that almost put me to sleep. I really wanted to learn more about that cheese, but not at the expense of listening to a boor.

I note that those were all traditionally-published books, which helps put lie to the idea that traditionally-published authors are somehow better than indie authors.  Apparently anyone can be formulaic, too hip, drone on and on, or otherwise fail to capture my imagination, whether or not they have an editor on Fifth Avenue.

There were some indie books I gave up on, too -- I didn't just read big publishing's offal. With indie books, I was more likely to download them as a deal (free, again. I hate paying for stuff) and then delete them without reading them if they didn't seem that interesting to me.

I think that says something about indie books.  Most of them, I wouldn't have known about if they weren't offered for free through one of the 7 or 8 different emails I get per day offering free books, but it turns out that those books are like the remainder bin of a Barnes & Noble: there's a reason they're offered for free, and that reason is generally because it's the only way to get someone to download them.

I say that as someone who routinely offers his books for free, about every time Amazon lets me do it, because that's the idea for people trying to break into the field.  (The 'field' being 'the field of writers who make a million dollars or more a year writing,' which is the field I want to be in.)  The idea is "give them a book for free and then they'll buy another of your books and leave you a review and you'll sell more books, plus they'll mention it on their blogs and to their friends."

I've offered, this year, bunches of my books for free, and the total number of new reviews and mentions I've gotten are... ZERO.  So I may stop doing that, altogether.  How does it help me to let people -- 26 people, for example, who downloaded "Some Xmas Stories" for free-- download my book for free only to later on delete it without reading it, or anyway to never come back and buy one of my books, etc.?

I think the 'free book' thing, when it's a downloaded-on-sale book, helps convince me, at least, and possibly others, that the book isn't worth anything.  That was the gist of an article I wrote for Indie Writers Monthly, anyway (that same article where I learned I should price my books at $3.99), and I believe it.  So I stopped downloading free indie books.  If an indie book is good, I'll learn about it somehow, but not through a free-indie-book newsletter, all of which now get deleted because I'm too lazy to unsubscribe.

There is an indie book that everyone says is good that I can't decide if I want to dowload it.  It's The Martian, by someone or other.  I'm not going to google it to learn his name because I'm jealous.  Some guy wrote a book about a guy stranded on Mars and cracking jokes about sending pictures of boobs to Earth, and it's become some kind of big deal, on all the year-end best-seller lists and it's going to be made into a movie by Ridley Scott (and that movie will suck, but anyway, a Ridley Scott movie), so Martian Writer Guy doesn't need my help promoting his book about an astronaut stranded in space.  Hey, Ridley, my book like that has been out for like a zillion years and has actual themes of loneliness and trauma to kick around. Whatever.  I can't read a book if the entire time I'm thinking Why him and not me?

Do I still have time to get to the good books? Because this is getting long.  I'll start with good indie books, the best of which was a tie between What Time Is The Tea Kettle? by Andrew Leon, who writes awesome books, and Girl Power by P.T. Dilloway, who writes awesome books.  Tea Kettle is Andrew's creation of a new world (taking its place among his House On The Corner universe with magical families in suburbia and his Shadow Spinner world where angels and demons fight for kids' souls) in which inanimate objects aren't, and animals are intelligent but not everyone knows that, and it's really fascinating and fun at the same time.  Girl Power is P.T.'s gender-flipped superhero team, as Earth's greatest heroes (not those Earth's Greatest Heroes, but some other Earth's Greatest Heroes) find themselves transformed from men into women, and have to deal with high heels and altered family situations and more.  It's both a great superhero story and an interesting premise, and worth reading.

Close seconds were The Sensationally Absurd Life And Times Of Slim Dyson, by Brandon Meyers and Bryan Pedas, the guys who write A Beer For The Shower; it's a Forrest Gump-like story of a homeless guy with a great attitude and terrible writing skills whose dumb luck helps him make it big when his diary becomes an international sensation.  I also loved Operation: Masquerade by Nigel Mitchell, a space battle epic that deserves to be filmed by Ridley Scott, what with its interstellar war and superagent and buglike aliens and all.

Traditionally published books I read and liked included Tampa, by Alissa Nutting, an X-rated story told from the point of view of a teacher seducing a middle-school student. Not for everybody, but pretty good in a B-movie style; The Long Walk by Stephen King.  That was an incredibly chilling story of kids who must start walking and keep walking as part of some sort of tournament-like event in their alternate-USA; The Magician's Land, by Lev Grossman, capping off that trilogy in style with a nice story that didn't get too introspective (although I am a little tired of stories in which someone comes up with a sort-of Narnia for their heroes to love as kids and then go to as adults); and Infinite Crisis, the compendium of DC Comics' other world-altering year-long comic series.  It's about 4" thick, hardbound.  I won't read comics on an ereader; that's one area where physical books are better than ereaders: comics are hard to read on an ereader.

The jury is still out on S by JJ Abrams, the book I was most excited about this year.  I'm halfway through and may or may not go back to reading it.  It's good but so dense and such a chore, with a few annoying parts that nag at me.

In terms of best books, though, there were a few clear-cut winners.  100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin was phenomenal, although in retrospect I wish I'd read it a little slower; it's lots of flash or microfiction and those stories don't always stay with you if you read a lot in a day, but the book (also available only in paper, I believe) is one of my favorites.

A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson was stunning. That's the only way I can describe it.  It might be one of the greatest books I've ever read, period.  It's somehow an adventure story that reads like a fable and yet feels perfectly realistic even though it involves a guy trying to rescue an anonymous woman he calls "The Swimmer" from a bunch of natives known as "The Spine Kings" on a circular island that exists in some other world.  Get it on audio, as I did. It's the kind of book I wish I hadn't read yet so I could go read it again.

But my absolute favorite book of the year was Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway.  I cannot say enough about Nick Harkaway's books and his writing.  Before I get into Tigerman, let me say this: I had a book accepted by a publisher this year, and around the time I got Tigerman to read, I also had to edit my book for the publisher.  I finished the second run-through, changing and adding a few things, then I read Tigerman, and then I emailed my publisher and asked for more time to add to the book because after reading Tigerman I thought my book (which isn't anything like Tigerman, don't get me wrong) needed to be better just to be a book.  So I went and added more stuff to my book and re-edited it to try to get it to be 1% as good as Tigerman.

Nick Harkaway's writing is phenomenal.  It is full of asides and looping stories and flashbacks and clever details and has the feeling of some kind of wonderful pop-up book where everywhere you look you see another little detail or something you overlooked, but what's really awesome about him is that every single word counts.  When you finish a Nick Harkaway book, you realize that not a single word, letter or period was misplaced and the entire story fit together neatly so that there were not throwaway lines or plot points, nothing there just to look at, and yet it's all gorgeously told. It's hard to describe just how neat it all feels, reading his stories.

In Tigerman, Harkaway tells the story of a man left to preside over the closing of an embassy on an island slated for destruction because of toxic waste below it that keeps exploding up and threatening humanity. While the world wrangles about how to get rid of the island, the island itself and its harbor have become sort of a lawless place, and the Sergeant befriends a young boy who seems to be an orphan on the island.  The story revolves around the Sergeant's investigation of the boy's background, and some minor and major crimes on the island, all of which intersect in a way and culminate in an ending that left me breathless.

I'll try to do more in the next few days on games and tv shows and stuff.  But books were where it was at this year, for me.

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