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My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

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Wrap-Up Season 2011: Surprisingly Good Books, part two

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on December 13, 2011

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – This is the novel about Chicago’s meat-packing industry that put the nation into such an uproar over how their meat was prepared (at one point it implies that when workers fall into the renderer and die, their meat is just be added into the sausage) that the government created the Food and Drug Administration and started regulating food preparers. But the novel is actually a story about how this family of Lithuanian immigrants gets totally crushed by capitalism. I particularly enjoyed Sinclair’s attention to the numbers, the amount of dollars and cents this family needs to keep their head above water. It’s a very emotionally affecting novel, and it would’ve been utterly perfect….if it had ended about 2/3rds of the way in. After the family falls apart, it’s patriarch starts going on these picaresque adventures (at one point there is an extended interlude where he helps a drunken millionaire’s son get home and then has a bartender steal the $100 that the son gives him) and then the man ends up embracing socialism, so it all gets a little silly. Still, even that is a little respectable. Sure, all that stuff ruined the book, but I can see why Sinclair had to put it in. Sinclair wanted his book to change the world, so he needed to put in something about what his riled up readers should go out and do. He allowed his political instincts to overrule his artistic ones, and, maybe, for him, that was the right decision.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – This book is by a hedge fund manager who claims that we’re terrible about predicting the future because none of our projections allow for ‘black swan’ events, which are huge, discontinuous events that change everything (like, 9/11, or the Harry Potter phenomenon). That part is pretty interesting and even somewhat convincing. What’s more fun, though, is the narrative tone of the book. The author comes off sounding like a megalomaniac and an amazing dick. He sounds like such an asshole that he almost feels fictional. It’s as if Taleb was writing a very experimental novel where a fictional persona expounds upon a science-fictional idea. It’s a really engaging book.

Candy Girl by Diablo Cody – This is Academy-Award winning screenwriter Diablo Cody’s memoir about her year as a Minneapolis stripper. I was really sick when I read this book, okay, but I still enjoyed it. It goes into all the proper anthropological detail about what being a stripper is like…and I am sucker for that kind of stuff.

Paying For It by Chester Brown – There are a surprising number of graphic novels about the author’s sexual dysfunction, but I think this own stands out even in that crowd. For years (decades?) the author has been patronizing prostitutes exclusively (as in, he has not been pursuing any other kind of sexual relationship) and in the course of this pursuit, the author has developed all these theories about why patronizing prostitutes is a sensible alternative (for people like him) to romance. The book covers his odyssey, beginning with his first visit and ending with him happily ensconced in an exclusive (though still monetary) relationship with one prostitute. It ends with fifty pages of appendixes in which he details his views on prostitution. Oh, and for some weird artistic reason, he never shows the faces of any of the prostitutes he visits! They are always turned away, or their faces are hidden. The book is really bizarre, but it was also really good.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather – This is a series of three linked novellas that doesn’t sound like it ought to cohere at all. The first is about an elderly professor reflecting on his family and on the son-in-law (who died in the war) who was the only person he felt close to. The second is a flashback to the summer that the son-in-law spent excavating a New Mexico plateau that held a Native American city. The third is about the professor’s lonely summer without his wife and daughter (they’re vacationing in Paris). And yet, somehow, it all does come together. It’s about excitement, and the intellectual life, and loss. It has a very wistful tone, which avoids being cloying because it’s broken up with the very exciting, adventurous middle. Also, maybe I just love Willa Cather so much that I can even enjoy her minor novels.

Portrait of the Addict As A Young Man by William Clegg – Literary agent Bill Clegg’s memoir about a two month $70,000 crack cocaine binge. I don’t know why this was so entertaining. I think it’s because the dreamlike tedium of the narrative kind of echoed the tedium of the binge: the endless succession of hits in an endless succession of five-star hotel rooms. Also, I was really sick when I read it.

Local by Brian Wood – If there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that I am a sucker for graphic novels about shiftless twentysomethings. In each of this series of twelve comics, the main character, Megan, ages by one year and moves to a new city (and grows up a little). There’s one about her having a horrible roommate in New York and one about her being a fairly creepy movie theater clerk in Nova Scotia and…well…if you like this sort of thing, you’ll really like this series: it is wanksty early-20s at their most elemental.

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey – Reading this book made me realize what I dislike about biographies. They’re too long. You know, I’m only going to read maybe (at most) 10,000 books in the whole rest of my life. It seems like a huge waste to devote a whole .01% of that to learning about a single person. What have all these famous dead people ever done for me? Why do they deserve so much of my headspace? This book neatly solves that problem through the novella form autobiography. I’d probably never read a full book about Florence Nightingale, but I will definitely read a novella about her. There’s definitely room for biographies at a length somewhere above a Wikipedia entry and somewhere below a full book.

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