Thursday, January 10, 2013

Best books of 2012 - Part II

Here is the continuation of my best books of 2012. Numbers 6 through 10 can be found here.

#5 The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin

Part of my early year run of Russian novels. It was a surprise to me that fiction topped my reading lists for the year. Even more surprising to me, of my top five, four were first-time novels by their respective authors. It just shows to go you that open-mindedness to new experiences can be a rewarding thing.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is one of those first novels. Grushin was born in Russia (the same year as I was born which will be brought up again in this post) and moved to the United States in her late teens. The title character is a former artist who abandoned his art for an opportunity to work for the Soviet government editing a journal on world art. In that position he became a spokesperson for the Communist party, and was called upon to belittle and criticize art and artists that he had once loved.

The book bounces between the present and the past until the two are blended. Sukhanov is called upon to write a critique of the artist Marc Chagall, a task Sukhanov believes is a test of his loyalty to the party. Sukhanov initially is an unlikable fellow but as we learn more about his past and the choices he has had to face, it becomes a question over whether he had choices and if so, whether he made the right ones.

For a novel, it is important on many levels. One, it is a look at those who "sell out", sacrificing their talents or passions for money, their families, their government, what have you. Two, like Rasskazy, it is a great look at modern Russia while still tying the present to the past. Three, it makes you think about how much choice we actually have in life.

#4 Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is another first novel written by someone about my age (Cline is a year younger). The story is set in 2044 where people, in response to a horrible economy, have turned to virtual reality experiences in the form of an online simulation game. When one of the game's creators dies, he leaves a video with clues on how to solve a puzzle. The person who solves the puzzle will receive part ownership of the company as well as the remainder of the game creator's fortune.

The game creator grew up in the 1980's and the puzzle, as well as the novel, is rife with eighties music and games. Those trying to solve the puzzle immerse themselves in eighties culture in an effort to try and understand the game creator and the references.

Because the quest takes place online, the characters in the novel are represented in the game world as their avatars. Their representations in the game are nothing like the real people behind them. A group of young gamers bands together, there's some love interest involved, and eventually the chase for the final solution comes down to this small group against the corporate-backed internet service provider who is also trying to claim victory.

I question how enjoyable this book would be to someone who is not a male in their late thirties, early forties. Or males in that age group who weren't geeks, nerds, dorks, etc. during their teens. The title, Ready Player One, references the announcement that prefaced the game play on many early video games. There are references to many video and arcade games as well as Dungeons and Dragons. Movie references and song references galore, too. It references Real Genius, for crying out loud, so you know I liked it.

If you're not in what I deem the target audience for this one, beware. If you grew up when and as I did, I think you'll like it.

#3 Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

My dream is to one day be able to play Krzhizhanovsky across two triple word scores in Scrabble.

I think you can figure from the name that this is yet another book by a Russian author. Unlike the other two in my top ten list, which are modern works, this is a collection of older short stories but reads like something that has been written during my lifetime. Siggie (as I will call him) was born in the 1880's and worked as an editor of an encyclopedia in Russia. Siggie's stories were ahead of their time and some had a little bit of a subversive tone to them. He would show them to friends but never had them published, being fearful of either rejection or repercussion. When he died, his wife gave his works to the state archive where they sat for decades until they were discovered by a scholar then eventually compiled, translated and published.

What a boon for us. For someone who didn't like short stories here I am with two books of them in my top ten. Unlike Rasskazy, this is solid from beginning to end with no disappointments (of course, it's a smaller number of stories (7 versus 22) and by one author as opposed to 22).

It's almost like this book combines the best parts of Rasskazy and the Dream Life of Sukhanov. The writing has a very dreamlike quality to it and there is much blurring between past and present as well as, sometimes, life and death. All the stories have a dark quality to them but not morbidly or even depressingly so. There's actually a bit of lightness and humor to all of them. It's a neat trick to be darkly entertaining. Tim Burton in book form perhaps. There are the necessary political elements but not overly so, nothing so symbolic as say, it's near peer Master and Margarita (another favorite). Just strong, entertaining stories.

#2 The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Technically, this is a second novel written but the first published by Karunatilaka (who while possessing a long name does not have the Scrabble potential of Siggie). Shehan is also a near peer (four years younger than me) which is making me think that there is something about being the age I am and being able to relate to the writings of my peers, even in novel form. I may be crazy, I don't know. Just seems a little too coincidental.

One of the reasons I love this novel is because I can absolutely see myself in the shoes of the main character, WG Karunasena or Wije. Wije is a longtime Sri Lankan sportswriter who has developed a type of writer's block. He believes he can only write when intoxicated. That's not the particular pair of shoes I see myself in. At a party, Wije gets into a discussion of the greatest cricketers of all time. Wije brings up Pradeep Mathew,  who seems to be a legendary bowler yet no one has heard from him (an interesting conundrum) and Mathew has long since disappeared from the face of the earth.

Wije and his neighbor Ari decide to rekindle awareness of the greatness of Mathew as well as determine what happened to him. As Wije digs, he discovers talk of match-fixing, cricket politics, and love all being behind Mathew's vanishing after his brief domination of the cricket pitch.

I came into this book with no knowledge of cricket and none is really needed. I did want to learn more afterwards and I have to say that I enjoyed watching highlights on YouTube, especially those of Brett Lee. I can't say I have any desire to watch an entire match. Seems a little endless but as a fan of the pitcher/batter matchup in baseball, it is just about as much fun watching the bowler/striker conflict in cricket.

Beyond the cricket, this is just a fun book. As the tale progresses, the legitimacy of Wije as a narrator comes into question and the end of the book brings an interesting twist to that particular question. Just a great book. As for the similarities between myself and Wije, I tend to have my interest captured by topics (see pigeons this year) and will delve into them with great fervor. Wanting to bring attention to and/or passionately following an overlooked athlete, I can see myself doing that.

#1 Banned for Life by D.J. "Duke" Haney

The book that helped me stop blogging. I won this book in a contest on The Next Best Book Club where a condition of winning was taking part in a book discussion with the author. The book was fantastic but the discussion was even better. I enjoyed learning about Duke's adventures in the publishing world (this is one of two books published by the defunct And/Or Press and it took him nine years to get this published) but enjoyed even more getting to know him better and reading his writings. I had hoped to write a review that would be remotely close in caliber to the book but that just isn't going to happen.

This is Duke's first novel and he is the least close in age to me of the other novelists in my top five (he's eight years older than me). So maybe I am in the trees with my theory.

In Haney's tale, musician turned filmmaker Jason Maddox begins a search for the vanished punk singer Jim Cassady, a vocalist that Maddox enjoyed in his youth but has become a matter of speculation since the suicide of girlfriend. Maddox manages to track down Cassady on the other side of the country, morbidly overweight and living with his mother. Maddox falls in love with a married Yugoslavian actress and struggles to maintain his relationship with her as he tries to revive Cassady's life and career and deal with the memories of Jason's deceased friend and former bandmate Peewee.

Like Legend of Pandeep Mathew, an appreciation of the general theme, in this case punk rock, isn't necessary for appreciation of the book. You also have the quest by the main character to find a lost individual who had special meaning to him. The vast difference between the two books is the writing. Whereas Wije is questionable as a narrator, the biggest question about Maddox is whether he is fictional. Haney's writing is so emotional and detailed and filled with people who seem real that the story comes across as being almost autobiographical which it is not. It is a rare novel that is able to capture characters so well. Haney writes about people. You and me people. People who love and hate and laugh and cry and shout and whisper and live ordinary lives. Just a fabulous book.

Haney has a collection of non-fiction out called Subversia, the first book published by The Nervous Breakdown, a great website that Haney writes for.

There's the top ten books I read last year. I hope you check some of them out and enjoy them as much as I did.

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