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2016 By The Books
2017-01-06

Time for my annual book reviews and complaining about my love life. Really it was a good year for complaining all around. We complained about the election, we complained about people complaining about the election. I do think my Facebook friends could have complained more about the Brexit. Something of a missed opportunity there. They did manage to complain about each other to an impressive degree.

Seems I went another year without rewriting my website. Not to fear - 2017's the year! I excelled so much at my job this past year that I decided to quit. Starting May 2017 I'll be on permanent vacation viajando por el mundo. I'll have plenty of time to make the move to thattroll.com. I promise a new color scheme and an artificial intelligence.

As always these are random books from all eras, recommended to me by people of all shapes and sizes, presented from worst to first.

23. Dutch (2003) - Teri Woods

This book has a 4.5/5 on Goodreads. Donald fucking Trump is our President-elect. I learned in 2017 that the world and I don't always see eye to eye. I couldn't finish this. It's a modern gangster story with flat characters and mind-numbing prose.

22. Caro's Book of Poker Tells (2003) - Mike Caro

I finally read some poker books this past year. This one was bleh. The only real takeaway for me was to pay more attention to how people look at their cards. I had a pretty good year professionally - two raises and a promotion plus another insurance settlement windfall. So in typical me fashion I blew a bunch of it on a seat at the World Series of Poker Main Event. I didn't win. Stupid book.

21. The Death Ship (1926) - B. Traven

This is written in the vein of my 2017 love life. There's not really any plot, the writer accidentally slips back and forth between past and present tense, the most memorable moments are brutal depictions of life shoveling coal into furnaces. It wasn't a good year for romance.

20. The Tin Drum (1959) - Günter Grass

A kid growing up on the Germany/Poland border just as World War II is breaking out. He plays a drum, he can break glass with his scream, he stops growing at 3 feet tall. Some casual sexual violence as well. I wouldn't recommend it. It's long and rambling and not very funny.

19. No Limit Hold 'Em: Theory and Practice (2006) - David Sklansky, Ed Miller

This year on my birthday I was playing poker at the Bellagio with my friend Nick. We got day drunk and made plans with a chip runner named Bianca to meet up at a local dive bar after Nick and I went to the Britney Spears concert. Fifteen drinks and a softcore pop-burlesque show later, Bianca's ex came charging across the bar at me with wild eyes. I, the world's lousiest fighter, held him at arm's length and dragged him outside, where Nick tackled him. Six guys came flying out of a van in the parking lot to join the fight, and surprisingly they started beating on the ex! "I told you to stay away from my fucking woman!" One guy peeled off to chase after Nick, I ran them down and managed to get Nick out of there.

Next day we played a poker tournament with Bianca and a different ex of hers. Nick took 1st and I took 3rd. So we learned our lessons. At least the ones from Sklansky's book.

18. The Pale King (2011) - David Foster Wallace

I'm running out of DFW books to read. This is his unfinished novel that was released posthumously. You really have to be a DFW junkie to enjoy this. It's long and at times painstaking, with no plot in sight. It was going to be about an IRS staffed by people with subtle supernatural abilities, but in unfinished form it's not really about anything. Just a sad final note played for a brilliant artist who committed suicide. Bunch more suicides this past year, including one of my favorite all-time songwriters - Erik Petersen. RIP.

17. Salem's Lot (1975) - Stephen King

Stephen King's 2nd novel. It's about a town being taken over by vampires. It starts off promising but loses its way in the latter half of the book. There's a love story, but that fizzles out. There's a priest character, but he disappears somewhere in the middle and we never hear from him again. By the end I wanted everyone to die so it could end. Instead there's an epilogue, and then in my version another short story set in the same town. Yawn.

16. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) - Dave Eggers

Everybody seems to like this book, but it annoyed the hell out of me. It's embelished autobiography. The first half is all about dealing with his parents dying and taking care of his younger brother. The second half is about some literary magazine that Eggers really wants to matter, but comes off to me as a zine that some rich white kids spent way too much money on. As narrator Eggers does pedantic shit like have the characters comment on how unrealistic they are and how their dialogue is obviously contrived to further the plot.

15. Preacher (1996) - Garth Ennis

A crass, violent graphic novel about a preacher who loses his faith before becoming possessed by an angel/demon. He has a beef with God and is trying to find him. I think I would like this more if I were a teenage pothead. It's a show on AMC now too.

14. The Name of the Wind (2007) - Patrick Rothfuss

After slogging through The Tin Drum, this was a breath of fresh air. It's simple, it's fast-paced, it's exciting. The love story falls pretty flat though. It's 700 pages of friend zone. Also the story is told through this clunky narrative window of an old man telling the story of himself as a young man, which is annoying. None of the plot gets resolved by the end of the book either. It's the first book of the Kingkiller series. I didn't feel obligated to read the second.

13. V for Vendetta (1989) - Alan Moore

I'm sure you've heard of it. It's cool. A vigilante out for vengeance in a fascist England. I wonder what V would have had to say about the Brexit. Doubtless it would have rhymed.

12. The White Album (1979) - Joan Didion

It's literary journalism in the aftermath of the 60s. She hangs out with the Doors, she's in court at the Manson trials, she reports on L.A. freeway traffic. She's also forthcoming about her own mental instability, although she's still alive and writing at 82, so perhaps instability is the key to longevity. Naw, probly not.

11. Shot in the Heart (1995) - Mikal Gilmore

Another non-fiction book. I read 8 non-fiction books last year. What got into me? In this case a lady friend picked it out for me post-breakfast on a stroll through a used book store in NE Minneapolis. It's an autobiographical story about Gary Gilmore, a murderer famous for demanding his own execution by firing squad, written by his brother. About as romantic as our relationship ended up being.

Mikal Gilmore grew up poor and Mormon in Utah before going on to write for Rolling Stone magazine. This story of his childhood leading up to his brother's execution is full of blood and brutality. Potent stuff.

10. Scam - The First Four Issues (2010) - Erick Lyle

Scam used to be my favorite punk zine. Recipes for fermenting Tropicana orange juice. Stories of squatting and living off of condiment bars. Each zine is long and 90% words, which is my style of zine. But at 32 I can't find much meaning in dumpster diving anymore. Some of Scam is rebellion for the sake of rebellion, and most of the rest is an optimism I do not share for the utility of lifestyle activism. By Scam #4 there are some tales of more concrete activism - a needle exchange in the Bay Area for example - but the parts I connect with most are just stories about friends getting drunk and going for it.

I talked a guy at Extreme Noise into tossing this in for free when I sold off most of my record collection before moving for the first time in 5 years. I now have one roommate and am the furthest from punk house life I've been in over a decade.

9. Angela's Ashes (1996) - Frank McCourt

An autobiography about a starving family in Ireland during World War II. This was hard to get into, as I didn't like any of the characters out of the gate. The kids are shits, and the parents are worse. But McCourt does an excellent job of humanizing them all. Reminded me somewhat of The Glass Castle in that these parents seem awful but you empathize with them just the same. Apparently the owner of Merlin's Rest is from the same town and claims it's not nearly as rough as McCourt makes it out to be. Trust in books, not bar owners.

8. The Windup Girl (2009) - Paolo Bacigalupi

Awesome biopunk scifi novel set in 23rd century Thailand. Main characters include an illegal Japanese "windup girl" working in a sex club and an American "calorie man" on the hunt for gene-hacked seeds. Vivid characters, an imaginative world, and never a dull moment. It won the Hugo and the Nebula. Check it out.

7. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail `72 (1973) - Hunter S. Thompson

HST's classic reporting on Nixon's re-election campaign. It begins with spirited stomping around the country trailing leftist candidate George McGovern as he attempts to wrap up an improbable primary victory. The story definitely trails off towards the end after it becomes evident that Tricky Dick Nixon will be re-elected. Thompson gets depressed and mails it in. The last chapter is an interview of the author, presumably because HST refused to finish the book. I loved it, but when I read it back in January I had no idea how timely it would be. Oh HST, if only you could have lived to see this shit.

4-6. The Shattered Sea Series (2014, 2015) - Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is the best fantasy writer I've read since George R.R. Martin. The series starts with a young crippled man who is about to become king of his country after his father's death. Five more POV characters are introduced throughout the series encompassing a wide variety of personalities and dialects. There's a theme of political power struggle, but at heart these are adventure books that follow characters you come to love as they sail around the Shattered Sea, mostly pulling oars and trying not to die. It's smart, it's funny, and the characters are slightly less assholes than those of The First Law series, Abercrombie's other mega-popular trilogy.

3. Winter's Bone (2006) - Daniel Woodrell

It's the book that made the movie that made Jennifer Lawrence J-Law! A 17-year-old girl in rural America searches for her missing father as her family faces eviction. Meth dealers, old ladies laying beatdowns, and idyllic poetry. Guess I better watch the movie. Phenomenal book.

2. The Tiger's Wife (2010) - Téa Obreht

Let's call it Eastern European magical realism. There's only really one magical element - a deathless man who appears throughout the story. It takes place in a fictionalized Balkan country. Half the narrative occurs in the present time with a young woman doctor whose grandfather has just died. The other half takes place fifty years ago when her grandfather was a child and knew a deaf-mute girl who had befriended a tiger escaped from the zoo. Apparently Obreht wrote this in college in her early 20s. Incredible!

1. White Teeth (2000) - Zadie Smith

And finally, White Teeth! I can't remember who recommended this to me, but thanks! Really a flawless epic novel. It's centered around two families in London, with chapters from both the parents and the children's perspectives. One family are first and second-generation Bangladeshi immigrants, the other has English and Jamaican parents and their mixed daughter. Strong themes of immigration/assimilation and genetics/race. The plot is brilliantly structured, the ending is amazing. Loved it!

Finally

That's all for this year! It's -5°F in Minneapolis and I'm far too sober. Happy reading in 2017! I'm gonna go get drunk!

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