The year 2007, in books

Wahj and I were recently talking about how we each evaluate the last few years of our lives: he sees distinctly good and bad years, while I recall the past more in terms of individual events rather than in yearly blocks.

What I didn't say was that, obviously, this year's been different.

I still kept reading books, though, and buying far more than I oughta have. I read more non-fiction (occupational hazard, I'm writing such a book myself), chalked up an impressive amount of reading during the third-quarter vacation, and ended the year by caving in to the Borders discount card (I've already had a Kinokuniya discount card for several years).

The final tally: 30 (would've been 31 if I'd been more diligent the last few nights of the year). It's the second highest number since I started keeping this annual record, and only three books were rereads --- yay me!

1. Guns, germs & Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, Jared Diamond (January)

I like books like this: big, bold and compressing heaps of history into several hundred pages (okay, closer to a thousand in this case, but still). Plenty to learn about how agriculture spread from the Fertile Crescent to the rest of the world, how 168 Spanish conquistadors defeated 80,000 Inca warriors in 1532 and what exactly Australian aborigines were doing on their continent for the millennia that preceded European arrival. Whatever the extent of geographical determinism, it's fascinating to know where we might've come from and how we got to this point today.

2. Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie (February)

I'm a big fan of Rushdie and this was a good one. Not too weighed down by talk of terrorism and politics, and always beautiful.

3. A History of God, Karen Armstrong (March)

Heavy-going stuff. I'd be a liar if I said I understood all of it; at some points, I was just flipping the pages to get through it (I find it almost pathologically impossible to give up on reading a book halfway). Nevertheless, I liked seeing how ideas about God have changed through the centuries. I'd need to learn more about Judaism and Islam to really get some of these ideas, though.

4. A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain (March) *

My idea of light reading, after the preceding three tomes. Plus if one can't go on vacation just yet, reading about Bourdain's travels are the next best thing.

5. The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes, Jimmy Carr & Lucy Greeves (April)

More non-fiction: jokesters write about the history of the joke. Entertaining without trying too hard or being over-the-top, even though there are jokes on every page. I wanna write books like this!

6. Down Under, Bill Bryson (April) *

The almost-annual reread. It's a good pick-me-up when nothing else will do.

7. Arthur & George, Julian Barnes, (May)

I'm not usually big on historical fiction, but this was absolutely engrossing. I don't know (or care) if any of it was based on historical fact; the story had its own sense of purpose and life driving it forward. Now that I think it, the character George in this book reminds me of Oscar from Oscar and Lucinda (which I read in 2006).

8. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (May)

Another solid fiction read, this time about a dysfunctional family in a college town setting --- the better to conjure up scenes of academic posturing and college student angst, all in one. Maybe the characters' preoccupations are a little too precious, as a result, but I still liked how it all came together.

9. Old Man's War, John Scalzi (June)
10. The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi (I forgot what month I read it in)

I've been reading John Scalzi's blog for years; this year, I finally got around to his books. I like the premise well enough, but I've never been big on action-adventure science fiction, so this was entertaining but not entirely my cup of tea.

11. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (July) *

I keep rereading this in the hope that more of the science he expounds will stick in my head. What I find most engaging, though, is all the drama behind all the dry facts that have come to inhabit our science textbooks. It makes me wonder what really goes on at today's science conferences before they decided whether to delist Pluto as a planet and the like.

12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (August)

I read it because I had to finish the series. It was too long, too circuitous and tried to mention everyone in the dramatis personae. This is what happens when you wait till the last book to start really killing people off.

Oh, and the epilogue? So self-indulgent. I don't care and it's very confusing to have new characters named after the ones that just got offed.

13. A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham (August)

A great recommendation from a friend. More dysfunctionality, this time with gay men and their, uh, woman. For some reason, it's all the scenes to do with mortality, particularly parental mortality, that come to mind right now.

14. Paris: A Secret History, Andrew Hussey (September)

I finished this on the day after I arrived in Paris, then toted it around for a few days to track down a couple of neat places like Passage Denferth. I had other notes about the place where Abelard used to teach (I think) on Ile de la Cité or less well-known old churches with piquant histories --- but I'm too lazy to go dig up my notes now.

Anyway, as a book it didn't quite rev up as much sordid steam as I'd hoped, but I enjoy these "alternative" histories.

15. Theft: A Love Story, Peter Casey (September)

I suppose it's a strange thing to read a book that's predominantly set in Australia while I was in Paris and London, but the idea of fakery/forgery and the international art shenanigans in the book were quite at home amidst all the museums I visited.

16. How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff (September)

I pulled this off Stellou's shelf and it was such a good read for a "young people" book. Sometimes the narrator got a little too Holden Caulfield on me, but the unexpected turns in the story (I'm trying not to give anything away here) helped to keep things going. I actually think this could be a little too intense for its "young people" label. Surely it belongs on the fiction shelf with A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and its ilk.

17. Paris Out Of Hand: A Wayward Guide, Karen Elizabeth Gordon (September)

A very different kind of guidebook, and best read --- as I did --- after one has just visited Paris. One of those whimsical, imagined journeys that always makes me wonder, how did anyone get this green-lighted at the publisher's? Not because it's bad, but because it's the kind of richly imagined (there's that word again) narrative that one hardly expects to be able to pick up anymore.

18. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (September)

Stellou gave me her galleys of this --- it's lovely to have publishing connections --- so I read it with typos and all, none of which impeded my enjoyment of the book. Very internal as McEwan tends to be, and I always wonder how he manages to keep control of everything without making these multi-layered narratives seem like schizophrenic skips through the park. I would like to write a book like this: one man, one woman, one night --- and all that unfolds before and after.

19. Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong (September)

I picked this up for a couple of pounds at --- damn, I've forgotten the name of the second-hand bookshop already, but I'm sure Stellou will remember. 200-plus pages of a crash course in Islam that I found very handy. I'm not sure that I'll ever read the Qu'ran cover-to-cover, so I think this might be a handy cheatsheet of sorts for me.

20. Goh Keng Swee: A Portrait, Tan Siok Sun (September)

Oh dear. I was so looking forward to this and then on the very first page of the narrative, the name of the man whose biography this was got truncated in a typically Singaporean fashion to "GKS" --- and that was the end of it for me. I mean, I read the whole book, but it didn't have any of the zest or oomph that one would expect from a biography at once personal and political. Oh, I know, it's hard in Singapore to tell certain stories at all, the moment they show any sign of diverging from the official narrative. But there better be some damn good notes or excised chapters lying around in someone's safe, otherwise I'm not sure what the whole exercise was for.

21. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card (October)

Wahj loaned me this because it's one of those sci-fi classics that I've been meaning to read forever. I'm glad I read it now because I don't think I would've fully gotten into it at a younger age --- after all, it's mostly about boys learning to fight a war while bouncing around in a scenario room. What surprised me was to see it in Kinokuniya's children's section a few weeks later, with a cover that would suggest it was all action-packed adventure as opposed to one big scorching mindfuck.

22. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (October)

I'd like to read more graphic novels, but I never know where to begin. This one came recommended by Salon some time ago, and I was thrilled to finally track it down at Kinokuniya (thanks to Wahj figuring out how their apparently-convoluted-but-actually-alphabetical graphic novel section is sorted). The book is a very vivid personal memoir, but mediated through the graphic novel format and so it doesn't read as "heavy" as, say, any number of the abovementioned narratives about dysfunctional families --- but it's still a solid, good read.

23. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy (November)

Another one I finally tracked down. Short and sharp, making a clear and compelling argument about why tarting or slutting it up does not make for women's "liberation". A must-read for all girls and women, alongside Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth.

24. The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro (November)

I bought this because Nardac had highly recommended Munro and I wanted to see how she turned family history into memoir (I'm trying to figure out what to do with my family narrative too). It read like historical fiction, but I suppose with that added quality of the reader wondering what's "real" and what isn't. I was just amazed at the fact that Munro could go back to the village where her great-great-grandfather had come from and find family records, including personal letters and the like (at least, I'm assuming those are actual letters, not fictionalised ones). Those aren't typically the sort of resources one finds in a village in China or Sri Lanka.

25. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jared Diamond (November)

It took me a few months to get through this, mostly because it was too heavy to lug around so I made it my bedtime reading. More fascinating case studies, and more esoteric ones too. I finally know what might have happened to the Easter Islanders who raised their magnificent statues, and learned a lot about Norse and South Pacific societies as well. The case studies are the best bit, really --- but then I always love a good old-fashioned story.

26. iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon, Steve Wozniak & Gina Smith (December)

An impulse buy --- I'm not that much of a Machead. It's an interesting narrative: the guy did originate many computer interfaces and accessories that we take for granted today after all, not to mention the universal remote control. But it sounded very much like a guy chatting into a tape recorder and less a structured, studied story with proper context and everything. Then again, if it really is Steve Wozniak's voice we're hearing throughout the story, I guess that's the sort of story he'd tell anyway.

27. Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith (December)

So beautiful and lyrical --- and I'm fairly certain I didn't completely understand it. I need to go read it again.

28. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein (December)

Another long overdue read, especially after reading John Scalzi's Old Man's War. I definitely glossed over all the military jargon (repple-depple, anyone?) and tried not to get bogged down in the politics. I must say the protagonist was much more engaging than I thought he would be.

29. Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson (December)

I was surprised to see this lying on the best friend's bookshelf because I thought I a) knew had heard of all of Bryson's books, b) had read most of the travel ones. Turns out this is one of his early ones, which you can tell because the tone and writing isn't as tight as his later books, not to mention there's quite a bit of unfathomable whining about some aspect of his travels or European culture that seems quite at odds with the more charitable approach I'd gotten used to. I think I'll stick to his more recent titles.

30. Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood (December)

I bought this off the internet and promptly read it, which makes it two collections of short stories by female Canadian writers that I read within the span of two months. This one's entirely fictional and more introspective, I think, which sorta makes it an appropriate book to end the year on.

For next year, I'm going to start keeping notes throughout the year as I read. As you can tell, my memory of the books I read earlier in the year is sketchy compared to more recent reads. Which is totally unfair to the books, plus I obviously need to supplement my wilting memory.

So: more note-taking and more reading. Also more borrowing of books from the library or friends, I think, because the place I'm moving to is smaller and I just can't keep buying books the way I do. As always, reading recommendations are welcome.


Related posts: The year in books 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003

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At 1/05/2008 9:37 pm , Blogger naixuhs said...

Great list...I would be lucky to get through half these books in a year. Being Canadian, I love both Munro and Atwood of course. Zadie Smith's book was quite hard to get into but I did feel that it came together in the end. My recommendations would be Jeffery Eugenidies' Middlesex and if you like Peter Carey, the Kelly Gang and My life as a fake are fabulous.

At 1/06/2008 11:13 am , Blogger Tym said...

Hello, cousin! I read a lot on the train, otherwise I wouldn't get that much read in a year either.

I've read both the Eugenides and the Carey titles you mentioned. They were great!


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