The Goal

I'm a huge fan of goals. Especially goals where I have to go through a list of things. I get my list of movies from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, I got my list of albums from an old article no longer available from the Guardian, I got my book list from a few different sources and squished them all together—

Here's the A-to-Z Challenge, my 2019 reading goal. The rules are:

  • You must complete one fiction and one non-fiction book for each letter of the alphabet.
  • Exclude articles ("The", "A", "An", etc.) from the beginning of titles.
  • They must be "substantial" books—as in, they shouldn't be books that you can sit down and read in an hour or two.
  • Ideally, start this challenge with books you haven't read yet; to make things a bit easier, you can include books you've read in the last few years.

That's it. Below I'm going to list my books and give a little review and some dumb arbitrary amount of stars. Enjoy!

The Fiction

All The Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The other two I wanted to list here were both Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom and As I Lay Dying. Both of those are fantastic, definitely worth reads, AA being one of my favorite books of all time.

All the Pretty Horses was tough for me to get through the first few chapters but once you break past the seal you get immersed into this awesome sprawling western-southern landscape. One of the best written (style-wise, plot-wise) books I've read.

Book Thief — Mark Zuzak

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A fantastic read. I had my doubts going in (especially given the large amount of work that exists revolving around WWII which uses the horrible atrocities as a crutch for lazy storytelling or bad writing) but this novel was exceptionally good. It is one of the few novels where I was genuinely upset by the end and where the characters felt "real" to me.

Count of Monte Cristo — Alexander Dumas

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Let me just note here: I love the Count of Monte Cristo. It's a huge work (1,200+ pages) with a ton of characters that you start to love or hate or forget who they are and have to check the cliff-notes.

The book, for me, was divided into four parts (slight spoilers ahead): the imprisonment, the dudes in Italy, showing off how cool the Count is, revenge. The first and last parts are awesome but if you're a casual reader you'll get to a certain point where you're going to be like, "Why have they been talking about these two random dudes for like 300 pages?" If you power through this, you get to a huge chunk of the book where the Count can do no wrong and is essentially the Peggy Sue character of the book. This is kind of frustrating but if you power through you get to the end (around the last 300 pages or so) and everything starts clicking together.

It's a work that takes a long, long, long time to get to the payoff, and, honestly, the payoff isn't all that great. But it is an interesting view into high society of the time and the revenge stuff is pretty cool.

Dune — Frank Herbert

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

I liked this one despite not liking the writing style so much.  It gets pretty repetitive: minor narration, someone talks, italics says what they're thinking, response, etc.  Either way, I'm not one who easily gets into scifi but this one was pretty good; it didn't emphasize "how" everything worked (one of my major gripes with scifi) and the tech felt natural.  The plot is pretty good, mainly political intrigue and survival-based, which is nice.  Over 800 pages you get attached to some of the characters and aren't always sure how things will resolve.  Try it out; there's a reason why this book is consistently rated as one of the best scifi works out there.

East of Eden — John Steinbeck

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Definitely one of my top books. I don't even want to say anything about it: go read it if you haven't.

Farewell to Arms — Ernest Hemingway

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

I'm not a huge fan of Hemingway: tough dudes doin' man stuff during the war doesn't really cut it for me. This felt like a way-less-funny and way-less-tragic Catch-22 and, for whatever reason, it felt difficult to read for me as if it were translated poorly from some other language.

I don't remember a whole lot about what goes on in this work except that some medic is into this girl, drinks a ton, some bad stuff happens, he meets the girl again, then the ending happens and you're sort of like, "Well, why did I read this?"

Wasn't a fan.

Golden Compass — Philip Pullman

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Didn't expect to like this one. It took me a long, long time to get into—maybe the first 150 pages (of 300) I was "ehhh" about the work. Then something clicked and I got into it. I have His Dark Materials and I was so into it that, at the end, I decided to just dive right into the second book. It's not something I usually do without going back and consulting my list of things in my queue which should demonstrate how immersed I got into this work.

Handmaid's Tale — Margaret Atwood

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Well-written, good ideas, immersive. I remember this being a pretty good read.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler — Italo Calvino

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Yo dawg, I heard you liked short stories.

Like all of Calvino's work, if I talked about what it was about it would ruin the whole thing. It's worth a read.

Journey to the East — Hermann Hesse

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Hesse, for me, is hit-or-miss. Love most of his work but a few of them fall flat for me. JttE is a short work about gaining and losing spirituality and the importance of being "one with" the God-figure (or, at least, that's what I took from it). There are a number of "home is where the soul is" references and travelers "going to the East [the Light]" but losing the God-figure and then abandoning their journey. Journey to the East == Journey to the Light == Journey to Truth, get it? Yeah.

Kite Runner — Khaled Hosseini

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This is a book that you'll keep wanting to read because there's so many cliff-hangers and, for me at least, it was a look into a culture for which I don't know much about their day-to-days. I dug the story, you get into the characters, and there's a lot of memorable stuff in here.

Life of Pi — Yann Martel

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

I had no idea what I was getting into with this one. I thought it was a children's book about a man on a boat with his friend, who was probably a talking tiger, and they would chat about spirituality and things.

Boy, was I wrong.

Without giving too much away, this book takes us on a journey similar to something like Robinson Crusoe (or Gilligan's Island?) with a number of twists, turns, facts about animals and sea-life, and passing thoughts about various things that the narrator is thinking.

It turned out to be one of those books that I genuinely wanted to keep reading, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Modjeska — Antoni Gronowicz

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I have no idea where I found this book but going through it was interesting: it's essentially an embellished biography of an actress. If you can find it, check it out.

No Country for Old Men — Cormac McCarthy

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Call it, friendo.

McCarthy is fairly polarizing: you'll either love his style or you'll chuck it out in the first few minutes.  I'm the former.  I was gripped with this one.

Old Man and the Sea — Ernest Hemingway

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

This is one that I had to slog through. I remember when it ended that there was some strange sadness that I felt which had built up over my time reading this book, and when it was done I had to sit with it for a bit and think about it. It's a good book, but I think for me it was only good when I thought about what I read after I read the whole thing.

Prayer for the Dying — Stewart O'Nan

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

In my opinion, this is the definitive Plague book. Camus' work, while much more popular, wasn't as enjoyable to me as this one. It's also one of the two books I've read that were written in second person, so it's got that going for it.

The Queen of Spades — Alexander Pushkin

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Interesting short story but nothing great about it; the characters are mostly forgettable and the whole thing revolves around the story which is pretty easy to guess the end of.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Psychological horror? I'm not sure if this counts as one but this was my first McCarthy work—and, weirdly, after reading the more Mexico-centric books, it's my least favorite. That doesn't mean it's not great, though. It's done in the typical McCarthy style ("Who is saying what here?") which paints a picture for the audience that the characters quickly, brusquely, act on.

Sound and the Fury — William Faulkner

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

There's no way to explain this one. You've just got to read it. In fact, you've got to read it twice. One of the hardest books to work through, I feel, but definitely worth it.

Time Traveler's Wife — Audrey Niffenegger

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

To say I disliked this book is a bit of an understatement. While the idea is pretty interesting, the execution is awful. The characters were frustrating, the plot dragged at times, and the dialog was trying very hard to sound natural. The only cool part about this book is that it takes place in Chicago.

The Unvanquished — William Faulkner

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This was a collection of short stories (in a series?) which was bound together about the same characters over time during the US Civil War. My bias is towards loving Faulkner's prose even if nothing is going on, but I feel that this is an interesting story to get into, if only because of the Grandmother's story-line.

The Virgin Suicides — Jeffery Eugenides

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This book is a fantastic and beautiful book that makes me nostalgic for a time I never lived through.

The Wind in the Willows — Kenneth Grahame

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Like talking animals? Like spoiled-rotten toads? Like automobile accidents? This book is for you.

X's For Eyes — Laird Barron

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

If I had a half-star I'd give it one-and-a-half maybe.  This book is campy, there is no doubt about that, but besides its campiness (throwing back to the Hardy Boys, those adventure pulp cartoons from the 80s, and "invincible and genius duos" of olden days) it is fairly hollow: the book essentially follows the pattern of: something strange happens => the boys think it's strange and are sarcastic about it => everyone else is worried but the boys know what to do => the boys get the thing done.  There is a twist, which is apparently Barron's trademark according to other reviews, but, honestly, it was a slog getting through this (relatively short) book for me.  Just not my scene—but if you look at the reviews, you'll see there's a substantial cult following for this kind of thing.  Maybe check it out if you dig this kind of thing.

You Shall Know Our Velocity — Dave Eggers

★ ★ ☆ ☆☆

The last hundred-or-so pages of this book save it from being one-star. I felt like getting through this book was harder than plowing a street by hand: everything felt difficult, tedious, and the-same-thing-over-and-over. You feel like there's going to be some big payoff at the end but you'd be wrong. The only good part of this book is the part that Hand writes.

Z for Zachariah — Robert C. O'Brien

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Written as a diary of a girl in a post-apocalyptic future (present?), this book presents more like Alas, Babylon and less like the Zombie fiction we've grown to expect from post-apoc.  There is a fair amount of "where is this going...?" but it's a book where the journey is more important than the ending.  Half-buildup, half-thriller, fairly satisfying overall.   To note, this book was completed with the help of his wife and daughter after he died in 1973 and, to their credit, the voice stays consistent throughout the book.

The Non-Fiction

Argonauts — Maggie Nelson

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Half critical-theory who's-who, half biography, half shower-thoughts. I was lucky to have read a bunch of the work which is cited here so I understood the context but this isn't necessarily a book you can just jump into—but it probably wasn't meant to be. The book asks some interesting quests, poses some interesting ideas, and show how normal an "abnormal" (at the time) family is.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness —Susannah Cahalan

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Definitely interesting, definitely informative, definitely a thing that should be read. Having said that, there was something I just didn't click with, with respect to the narration and the flow of the story.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed — Richard Miles

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I learned a bunch about how much people hated Carthage back in the day and I was definitely into learning about what was going on during the time around Carthage's fall—but a lot of this book drags for me. If you're not really into history you might want to skip this one; I'm only halfway into history and I only halfway dug the book.

Death and Dying — Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Everyone who is going to die one day should read this book. Everyone who knows someone who will die one day should read this book. This is a fantastic book, half-theory and half-stories, which changed how I view death and dying.

If KR's name sounds familiar, it's because she was the one who came up with the five stages of grief.

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — Siddhartha Mukherjee

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

This is a great history of cancer—not only how we used to think about it, how we used to work with it, but also how difficult it has been to treat. More recently, it shows the political instability of cancer research and gives some insight into how close (or far) we are away from being able to talk about "curing" some cancers. I walked away from this book with the feeling that we're closer to the stone age when it comes to fighting cancer than to the digital age. It's definitely a book that gets you to start donating.

Fascinate — Sally Hogshead

★ ★ ☆ ☆☆

This book has one good idea: that there are different ways to sell something depending on what it is, what people think of it, etc. The book could have been something like 10 pages just describing that. Instead, it's sort of a strange hybrid of (admittedly interesting) stories from the ad world, a textbook to teach about different types of ways something can fascinate, and a workbook to make your brand fascinating. After I was done I went to the Wikipedia article and read about the idea and learned approximately the same amount in a few minutes as I did reading that entire book.

Gift of the Crow — John Marzluff

★ ★ ☆ ☆☆

I'm a fan of bird books, and crows are pretty interesting. But this is another case of a book that has a few things to say but drags them out for pages and pages. I feel that I learned more about crows by reading some short articles online than I did reading this work—which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless the point of the work is to educate others about crows.

How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dave Carnegie

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Every person should be taught this stuff in high school (middle school?). This book should be called, "How to be a good person and friend." Nothing world-changing or ground-breaking, but things that one should think about and exercise.

Improvise — Mick Napier

★ ★ ☆ ☆☆

Okay, here's the deal. I'm a big fan of Napier, I've seen him do improv dozens of times. I took classes at the Annoyance, which structures classes around the ideas in his book. The ideas are great. The exercises are great. The general attitude towards improv, in my opinion, is awesome.

Having said that, I cringed a lot at the writing. It is a style which tries to emulate how he speaks, but it loses something when it is translated into text. If you imagine him saying this aloud it's fine—but in the book it comes off as strange, stilted, or awkward.

Look up his ideas, though, even if you skip his book.

Joan of Arc: A History — Helen Castor

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

This is a weird one for me.  I'm not all that interested in 14th-to-15th century Europe, nor am I all that interested in religious figures, nor am I usually into what I'll call "historical poetic license" --- I'll get into this in a moment --- but I feel that someone who is into one or more of these things would enjoy this book quite a bit.

Two issues.

One, this book is a book about (?) Joan of Arc, of which countless other works have been written: something new needs to be brought to the table, in that case.  This book is divided unnaturally (in my opinion) into two parts: the historical setting half, and the Joan half.  The historical setting portion shows the author's chops when it comes to discussing the historical setting but it's extremely dry if you don't like this sort of thing.  Not the issue, if you don't like dry history don't read dry history.  The Joan part is the issue; it reads just as dry and lifeless as the historical portions, though it attempts at making the book sound more like a (fictional) novel by giving dialog in places where obviously dialog would not have been recorded, vivid details, inner thoughts, etc., etc.  These latter parts feel a bit shoehorned and, to be honest, I would have liked the book more had it simply been about this period of time and the Hundred Years War.  The Joan part was significantly drawn out and seemed almost like the author had written half of the book then the editors wanted to attach a Big Name to the book.  I thought that the author had more fun with some of the rulers than she did portraying Joan.

Two, this book is, at the same time, very dry and very flowery.  I don't know how to describe this style any better so go and read a sample of the writing (preferably from the second-half of the work).

Besides these two points, I feel that this is probably an interesting read for some but I am unfortunately not the demographic for it.

Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom — Douglas Walter Bristol

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
This is exactly what it sounds like: talking about Black Barbers after the Civil War.  The book itself is well-written and nicely sourced, but it drags on and on and on and the writing is, in my opinion, very dry.  For me, this was a one-star, but if you're genuinely interested in this period of history, or the civil rights movements, or how working-classes evolved in the US, you might really dig this one.  The topic is fascinating and even if you don't want to read the book you should check out Wikipedia or something for some of the goings on back then.  The book wasn't for me, though.

Lights and Sirens — Kevin Grange

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
This one is a weird one: I liked the stories, the medicine stuff, and it got me interested in learning more about basic medical care (which, I think, was its goal); on the other hand, the writing was really cheesy at times and felt out-of-touch with the generation he currently belongs to.  Not necessarily bad, but it took me a little while to get into.  It's a fairly quick read though and you'll learn a lot not only about medicine but about the importance of keeping with things and always trying to get better.

Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat — Oliver Sacks

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Oliver Sacks has, in my mind, never written a bad book. The writing is great, the cases are interesting, and you come away thinking about what makes a person a person. Highly recommend.

Never in Anger — Jean Briggs

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

An interesting telling of Jean Briggs' brief (< 2 year) stint of living with an Inuit tribe. You will learn a ton about how they all live and what they do for fun and what they do for work and how they build their homes and how they get supplies—

And all of that is good, but it feels like the book was 2x too long. One large chunk of the book is devoted to her talking about how the Inuits didn't like her much and showed it in different passive-aggressive ways. It felt weirdly tacked on, given the rest of the book.

Either way, I'd recommend this book.

On Writing — Stephen King

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

This is worth reading if only to see what a pop writer has to say about how to create well-crafted stories and learn a bit about how he got in the craft.  The stories are pretty interesting and the advice is your standard Writing 101 type stuff (though done in a way that gives the reader some good examples that one might not find elsewhere).  I'm not a huge fan of King's writing but no one can deny that the guy can churn out hits.

Phantoms in the Brain — V.S. Ramachandran

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

This book had a strong beginning but a weak ending for me. The parts on phantom pain were incredible. The parts which followed I didn't remember until I looked them up again. I remember enjoying the read so I'm rating it as average.

Quiet — Susan Cain

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A frustrating book.  Much of the text is about how cool, awesome, and simply the best introverts are.  Much of this is at the expense of making sure the reader knows that extroverts are grunting cave-people who rarely know what they are doing but who get all the spoils (not said in these words, of course).  Sure, that's fine, but, as with many psychology-sociology books, it goes over mostly anecdotal stories and then goes on to talk about a small study that seems to confirm this.  It doesn't talk too much about the other things surrounding any of the issues.

Besides that, and I don't say this often, but I was bored by this book.  And it's not like I don't read boring things: I've read a whole lot of really dry, really academic, really terrible, or really convoluted books where I've been bored, but this is the first book in a while where I put it down and didn't pick it up for weeks.

Anyhow, the one-sentence sum-up is, "Even though introverts are quiet, they have things to say."  That's it.  You don't have to read the book now.

Ratio — Michael Ruhlman

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

What a strange book. Half cookbook, half science textbook, this tells the amateur cook reader, "Hey, all of this stuff is actually the SAME stuff with slightly different ingredients or ratios." After trying a few recipes I was amazed at how putting a little more of XYZ into a recipe could change it so dramatically. It made me appreciate cooking (and especially baking) so much more.

Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character — Samuel Noah Kramer

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

I love the Sumerians, but this book dragged on and on and on for me. Most of the information is still valid (though significant progress has been made since the book was published) and many of the stories are interesting, but the format of the book is fairly academic feeling (which makes sense for a professor in the 1950s era to write in) and so it loses some of the charm that it might otherwise have. Compare this with a few of the other works about the Sumerians and you'll notice the difference immediately.

Thinking Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The origin of "System 1" and "System 2" thinking. There's a lot to read about in here. I felt like there was a significant amount in the book that was more fluff than substance, but the first third of the book contained the golden nugget that teaches the reader the language that's common in circles that talk about the ways we think and act. It's a book that's good for everyone to read, even if they only read the first few chapters.

The Universe in a Nutshell — Stephen Hawking

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

A bit of a rehash and (I feel) a somewhat dumbed-down version of Brief History of Time. Probably a good book to give to a person interested in physics but who doesn't have much of a STEM background.  BHoT gets much higher marks.

Vindicating The Vixens — Sandra Glahn

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

It took me a surprisingly long time to find a non-fiction (and non-technical) book starting with 'v'. Interestingly, most of the ones that I found were about some-or-other religious topic which I didn't want to dive into right away knowing that it would lead to a rabbit hole of having to read other works to understand the references. This work, on the other hand, looked fairly promising and the table of contents looked interesting.

This is a collection of works by individuals so it's hard to give it a star-rating, but it goes deeply into some things that I don't have a clue about: mostly biblical and biblical-adjacent stuff.  I learned a bunch and I felt that the arguments were sound.  It was also pretty funny that, in the introduction, they made special care to say that they weren't just a bunch'a liberals trying to feminize the church (obv paraphrased here) but that they were real, true believers (which comes across in the essays) which feel that women got the short end of the stick in the bible.

It's interesting, but halfway through the book I "got the point" and it was a little bit of a slog through the rest of the essays --- I'm sure that someone who is interested in the bible and the interpretations of the bible would find it much more interesting.  To note, though, there was one interesting part where someone had written a piece about a woman who had been mentioned, in passing, in only one passage of the bible.  That's some dedication.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things — George Lakoff

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The idea here is cool. Categories are important. Categories need context. But after the first few chapters, you realize that Lakoff is trying to make a semi-comprehensive text about his theory of categorization which is extremely abstract and—for the layperson (and even the academic?)—not all that interesting or applicable. If you're real big into categories, check it out. Otherwise, just read the Wikipedia page to get a gist of what he's talking about.

X and the City: Modeling Aspects of Urban Life — John A. Adam

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

This was a weird intersection between people interested in Urban Planning (??) and mathematics.  I think both will be disappointed here.  The math, if I remember right, is around the undergrad math major level but the problems couldn't hold my interest at all.  I'm not sure if it was because I've seen some of it or what but I remember getting done with this book and being like, "Jez, finally."  I'd scan through the first two chapters to see if this book is for you.

Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Joan Didion has been through a lot.  I've been a fan of her work for a while, and this has the classic Didion style along with the extra punch-to-the-gut of it being a true story.  It's an excellent read and anything else I say here would spoil it.

Zen in the Art of Archery — Eugen Herrigel

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

I feel that reviewing this book would strictly go against the teachings of this book.