A year in reading

I’ve kept a reading log since Fall 2000 but I’ve never made it public. One, because it makes me look more anal than I am. Two, more importantly, we all know these logs are lies, right? This list represents only the full books I have finished—not the books I abandoned (several), not the magazine articles both online and off- (lots), and not the blog posts and tweets and Tumblr posts (lots more), not the manuscripts & manuscript proposals I read for my job (LOOOOOOOTTTTTS). Still, what follows after the jump is my reading diary, from Christmas 2013 through Christmas 2014. There are brief notes and, when useful, links. Dates the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. You’ll figure it out.

[12/25/2013] Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back by Frank Schaeffer (memoir): Basically, what the title says. A cultural architect of modern Christian conservatism repents, learning to embrace humility and uncertainty in a tale that’s garrulous, hilarious, and argumentative. B+

[1/5/2014] The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang (novella): What I wrote on Amazon.com: “A phenomenal tale, in a genre (time-travel) that is notoriously difficult to get right or to make anew. Chiang remains the master of the sf short story. This one is emotionally rich as well as formally playful, containing stories within stories, just like Scheherazade’s 1001 NIGHTS, from which Chiang draws as a major influence.” A+

[1/11/14] Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez (novel): Post-virus SF meets Rapture-bound Evangelicals, in a lived-in, fully realized novel that’s less grim or satirical than anticipated. Nunez’s one of my favorites, and her evocations of an America wiped clean by a disease and conservative Christian enclaves ring true, even though Nunez’s a little more convinced that she’s doing something new in her sci-fi than is warranted. At least she gives humanity and presence to her Rapture seekers, even if she doesn’t buy their fundamental precepts. B+

[1/17/14] Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama (comics): This comic makes my head hurt. Wordless comics do that to me. So do comics that read right to left, as this one does. So do comics that are obsessed with formal experiments; that feature a thin, even line that makes it hard to tell the difference between foreground and background, movement lines from landscape detail. But I was always glad for the headache. A-

[1/30/14 – 2/2/14] You’ll Never Know [3 volumes] by C. Tyler (comics): Maybe the best comics memoir done in a decade. And, yes, that decade includes Fun Home and John Porcellino’s King-Cat collections. A

[2/3/14] Pompeii by Frank Santoro (comics): A highwater mark for avant-garde comics, sketchbook comics, outsider-art comics, and, hell, just comics in general. Set in ancient Rome, as modern as this morning. A+

[2/9/14] My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (religious essays): See my thoughts here. A-

[2/13/14] You Have to See This: Portraits of Lawrence Weschler by various writers & artists (essays): A noble hodgepodge in honor of a curious, genius critic whose tastes and modes are hard to pin down. B-

[2/18/14] The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys by Alan Light (biography): Research for a book project that didn’t pan out. Standard pop-music bio, with occasionally interesting thoughts from some of the Beasties’ peers. C+

[3/1/14] Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine (comics): Precise, chilly line control, along with equally chilly characterization. I prefer a little more looseness, and a lot more empathy. I also want my comics to read less like wan literary fiction of the young and affectless and to read more like something looking less for respectability. B-

[3/1/14] Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine (comics): Four short comics stories by the chilly, remote Kubrick of graphic novels. But I don’t much like Kubrick. C+

[3/5/14] You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner (novel): It’s the 100th anniversary of this First Classic of American sports lit. Tried half-heartedly to wrangle that hook into an essay for, say, The Classical or Grantland. But, as funny as Larder can be, a little of Al’s antics on the field and off is enough, and I got tied up with my Beastie Boys proposal to give this full attention. B

[3/8/14] All You Who Sleep Tonight by Vikram Seth (poetry): Witty, charming, occasionally arresting, often too glib. B

[3/11/14] A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (comics): Hurricane Katrina unfolds and floods, in this bracing, thick-lined comic that weaves together several storylines in a beautiful, natural-seeming way. This was research for a lecture I was writing, and I ended up not using the comic much at all. B+

[3/14/14] Peter Arno’s Sizzling Platter and Hell of a Way to Run a Railroad by Peter Arno (cartoons): Around Spring Break, I discovered that the seventh floor of the UGA main library—where I work—has an extensive collection of magazine and newspaper cartoon books. Arno, the famed New Yorker cartoonist, has a bold line, a way with drawing sexy women, and a ribald wit that’s unmatched. A+ / A+

[3/15/14] Nightcrawlers and Homebodies by Charles Addams (cartoons): …Except perhaps by Arno’s contemporary and magazine co-worker, Charles Addams. Addams’s wit is more morbid and less sexy; his line is thinner and more precise and detailed; his jokes depend less on then-contemporary pop culture (which means I got more of Addams’s jokes than Arno’s). But, if you wanna understand 1940s and 1950s American urban culture, and you’re sick of Mad Men, start with these two. A+ / A+

[3/19/14] Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm (writer) and Rich Tommaso (art): I’m a sucker for baseball comics, and this one’s art style and quiet but insistent pace has the melancholy sparseness of Seth in his prime. B+

[3/19/14] Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop by Joe Conzo (photos), Buddy Esquire (flyers), Jeff Chang (timeline), and edited by Johan Kugelberg, w/contributions from various artists: Splendid visual spectacle of the 1980s in New York City, shame about the words. Still, for a “you are there” sense of hip-hop’s roots, start here. A-

[3/22/14] Sardine in Outer Space by Emmanuel Guibert (words) and Joann Sfar (art): This duo works better the other way around, in terms of writer and artist, but this comic is loopy, unhinged fun. Plus, pirates and girl heroines will always be welcome in my eyes. B

[3/24/14] Maria M.: Book 1 and Love from the Shadows by Gilbert Hernandez (comics): Two more of Beto’s “Fritz” “movie” adaptations. If that seems like a lot of quotation marks, that’s because the irony in this enterprise is starting to show. Still, pleasures abound, especially from Love from the Shadows. Both are nutso, pulpy, and juicy. B / B+

[3/28/14] Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman (memoir): Questlove’s one of the most seminal figures of popular music over the last 25 years, and his genial, gently experimental memoir shows why and how he’s connected all the dots in black pop, and how he’s moved the genre(s) forward. A-

[4/8/14] R. Crumb Draws the Blues by R. Crumb (comics): Brings together Crumb’s short and long tales of blues life, biography, tall tale, and memoir. Nice to have it all in one place. B+

[4/15/14] Don’t Start Me Talkin by Tom Williams (novel): Masterful satire of race in America and blues culture. See my Clarion-Ledger review. A

[4/17/14] The Good Times Are Killing Me by Lynda Barry (illustrated novel): Every teen girl I know will get a copy of this book from me. Tenderhearted, and thus heartbreaking when the pain comes, this one floors me. A+

[4/28/14] Little Nothings: My Shadow in the Distance by Lewis Trondheim (comics): Volume 4 of Trondheim’s one-page comics diaries, hilarious and beautifully watercolored, little snapshots of slapstick and found poetry. B+

[4/30/14] An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor (religion): Best book on Christianity (or, really, any major religion) I’ve read this year. Humane, erotic, tender, evocative, concentrated beauty amidst (and because of) the chaos. A+

[5/3/14] Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge (comics): Bagge’s rubbery, self-consciously zany style doesn’t always fit his biography of the founder of Planned Parenthood but I learned a lot, including even more respect for contraceptive advocacy—and realistic, sane, non-Evangelical views of human sexuality—than I already had. B

[5/5/14] The River by Alessandro Senna (comics): Wordless, watercolored, haunting, dreamlike, and sometimes difficult to understand because of all that. It mesmerizes. A

[5/5/14] The Fever by Megan Abbott (novel): See my Bookslut review. C+

[5/9/2014] 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz (text), James Romberger (art), and Marguerite Van Cook (colors): A comics revelation, especially Van Cook’s colors. It’s the definition of “ugly beauty.” Don’t read it right before bed. A+

[5/9/14] The Song of Roland by Michel Rabagliati (comic): In which Rabagliati loses his sentimentality for good, telling the story of his father-in-law’s death from cancer with surprising wit and a whole lot of earned tears. A+

[5/12-13/14] Monster Rally, Favorite Haunts, and Drawn and Quartered by Charles Addams (cartoons): More from the macabre master. B+ / B+ / A

[5/14/14] Andy Catlett: Early Travels by Wendell Berry (novel): Low-key but loving—if a little too nostalgic—look at a Depression-era childhood in rural Kentucky. B

[5/16/14] Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson (comic): So well-done that I wish it were necessary. Leave L’Engle alone—Larson’s strong enough to work with her own stuff. B-

[5/20/14] Factotum by Charles Bukowski (novel): A little of Buk’s scuzzy alcoholism goes a long way, especially with not much plot to speak of, a repetition to the events that numbs any feeling I might have had, and way too much romanticized rape. C-

[5/25/14] The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin (novel): …And here’s the rough, working-class Bukowskian life more artfully and sympathetically rendered, with two boys whose luck goes from worse to worser, and with women (mothers, girlfriends, waitresses, friends) for whom it’s even shittier. Somehow uplifting. A-

[5/28/14] Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor (religion): What happens when your faith fails you? How do you find it again? What happens when you re-find it and it no longer looks or feels the same? Taylor poses these questions, as well as the beginning of some answers. God, I love this woman. And, yes, I meant the pun. A+

[6/1/14] It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture & Other Essays by Wendell Berry (essays): Opening lecture wins the prize, and a long interview with Wendell and Tanya clinches the division. If you’re a beginner to Berry’s nonfiction, here’s a good place to start. A

[6/5/14] The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz (film/coffee-table book): Wondrous archive of a great filmmaker, with interviews on each film that are intermittently good—Wes stays mum on some subjects, no matter how much prodding. That’s admirable but means that the visuals have to do a lot of heavy lifting, maybe more than they can bear. Fortunately, the visuals are astonishing. B+

[6/22/14] Bread & Wine by Samuel R. Delany (story) and Mia Wolff (art): Lewd and loving like good love is, Samuel (academic, acclaimed SF writer) finds his better half in Dennis (a homeless man who sells him stolen paperbacks). Wolff’s scratchy, raunchy art brings forth the couple’s story—a longstanding (and still going) marriage. B

[6/26/14] Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (letters): More wisdom in one of their back-and-forth exchanges than in 500-page scholarly tomes. More beauty, too. Earthier, funnier, and wilder than expected—Snyder ain’t the commie pinko you might expect; Berry ain’t the “conservative” you might expect. A+

[7/15/14] The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams (novella): A primer on standup comedy and racial humor disguised as a semi-academic biography of a forgotten, once-famous comedian. Sometimes biting, sometimes too dry for its own good. B+

[8/1/14] I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett (novel): If you can accept the premise of a black man named Not Sidney Poitier and the endless reiterations of the joke that inspires, you can accept this satire as lacerating and freewheeling. Sure, the joke gets old. But there are other, better ones, though maybe it should bother me more than it does that a black writer imagines Ted Turner as the most sympathetic, fully realized character in a dark comedy about modern blackness. B+

[8/4/14] Pirates and Farmers by Dave Hickey (essays): The master art critic returns, as cantankerous, caustic, and brawling as ever. B+

[8/5-6/14] Peter Arno’s Parade and Peter Arno’s Cartoon Revue by Peter Arno (cartoons): More from the Ernst Lubitsch of cartooning. B+ / B+

[8/25/14] Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett (novel): As the title implies, this one’s a tad self-referential and maybe, um, a smidgen experimental. For all the fragmentation, abandoned storylines, interrupted adventures, and voices shifting from reality to dreamstate, Everett keeps the reins on pretty tight, as it’s fundamentally a novelization of the author’s coming to term with his father’s impending death. It’s much funnier and loopier than that previous sentence makes it sound, especially about African Americans in the West. A-

[9/21/14] Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt (novel): What I tweeted at the time. (That “both” should be “either.”) Sexual harassment has never seemed so funny. A

[9/30/14] Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God by Frank Schaeffer (religion): …In which Schaeffer continues to grapple with uncertain faith, throw haymakers at Evangelical Christianity (Go, Frank, go!), and come to terms with interfaith dialogue, and art that speaks to the core of humanity that ain’t necessarily animated by Christ. B+

[10/2/14] A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (nonfiction novella): There’s no excuse for me to have waited this long to read this. A+

[10/14/14] The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson (short stories): A major cartoonist turns out to be an equally major short-story writer. See my Bookslut review. A

[10/23/14] Children & Other Wild Animals by Brian Doyle (essays): See my Bookslut review. B

[10/23/14] Dark Rain by Mat Johnson (writing) and Simon Gane (art): I’ve been waiting for comics about the contemporary South, and here we are with a pulp thriller set during Hurricane Katrina. Nightmarish, honest about pain and grief and redemption. Maybe two too many explosions but, hey, it’s a rip-roaring tale that ends in measured happiness. B+

[11/02/14] Fridays at Enrico’s by Don Carpenter, finished by Jonathan Lethem (novel): Carpenter died with a complete draft done but some tinkering left to do. I can’t see the seams between the two writers’ voices. Normally, novels about writers writing make me climb the walls but this is visceral, moving, wise if acerbic about love, even wiser about addiction. A+

[11/03/14] Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (essays): The title essay ain’t even the best one here, and that’s saying something. Hope amidst the nonstop disaster of American life. A+

[11/10/14] The System by Peter Kuper (comics): Wordless, rough, stenciled, vibrantly colored, a little too simplistic despite all the overlapping storylines. Good to have it back in print, even though reading it straight through reveals its limitations. B+

[11/22/14] Surf Texas by Kenny Braun (photography): Exhibit #265,399 in why digital photography can never fully compete with celluloid. I’ve said more than once that, in a future life, I’ll take up surfing but I’d have to be raised in a place where riding the waves is possible. Well, I grew up in Texas, so I could’ve done this. Maybe it’s not too late. A

[11/22/14] The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis (comics): Too abstract for my tastes, and so new-agey that I got the hives, the images and the journey nevertheless compel me. B

[11/23/14] Gus & His Gang by Christophe Blain (comics): A re-read. I let a friend borrow my last copy. He didn’t return it. I understand. The western gets reinvented as burlesque comedy. Blain’s scratchy, fluid style yields dividends, and it’s amazing how sexy those tiny drawings can be. A

[11/23/14] Against Innocence by Jackie Wang (essay): As long as rape victims, casualties of police brutality, and peaceful protesters of a corrupt state are judged by the standards of perfection, argues Jackie Wang, they’ll never get a fair hearing. Ask Eric Garner, whose murder was justified because, hey, he was selling loosies, after all. Ask any poor girl complaining of sexual assault, when both the school and her church say she’s to blame because she had consensual sex before or even wore a short skirt that one time. Ask Trayvon Martin. Wang forcefully contends that innocence as a rubric for sympathy, empathy, and justice is immoral and perpetuates the status quo. Lots to argue with, and she gets deep into the weeds of legal studies, media studies, and cultural theory. It’s hard work because it has to be. A-

[11/25/14] Hildafolk, Hilda and the Midnight Giant, and Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson (comics): Big, bold, freewheeling bande dessinee-style comics for the adventurous little girl in your family. Gorgeously drawn, filled with folktale lore (some real, some made up for these books), and generally as openhearted as can be. Joys, all of them. A / A- / A+

[12/1/14] Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (comics): I like Yang’s humaneness enough that I wish I liked his clunky, flatly colored art more. But I don’t. At least I learned about the Boxer Rebellion, at considerable length. B-

[12/3/14] Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott (essay): I’d give it a higher rating if I hadn’t read so much of it before. A good beginning “reader” on Lamott but you’re probably better off with Traveling Mercies or Help Thanks Wow. B+

[12/16/14] Lila by Marilynne Robinson (novel): Takes place in the world of Gilead (2004) but don’t go in expecting the rhythms and voice of that novel. Lila Dahl’s voice and vision took me by surprise with every sentence. A rich, rewarding novel about religion, philosophy, love, marriage, the Great Depression, and grace, this is a towering achievement, made more so because its voice is so rough-hewn and shy and unadorned by education—academic, theological, or otherwise. A+

[12/24/14] Assumption by Percival Everett (novel): Weird triptych of detective stories featuring Ogden Walker, a biracial deputy in small-town New Mexico, and the troubles he finds, and maybe causes. Everett subvert genre expectations at every turn—sorta of a downhome version of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy—and the dialogue excels. A lot’s left unresolved with each case, and the ending makes you read everything before it in a new light. B+

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to A year in reading

  1. Pingback: The way I read | Quiet Bubble

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