All right! You can stop holding your baited breath, for I have completed the Alphabetical Reading Challenge! To summarize, in March, I looked for a blogging challenge chiefly out of boredom and instead came up with a reading challenge. Because I am infatuated with all things alphabetical, I thought I would try it: to read a book starting with each letter of the alphabet in the course of a year. Because I’m obsessive-compulsive like that, I picked out the 26 books, which were, to wit:
1. Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb. 2. Birthday Boys by Meryl Bainbridge 3. City by Clifford Simak 4. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson 5. Eugene Onegin by Pushkin 6. The Flame Trees of Thika by Elizabeth Huxley 7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith 8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson 9. The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn 10. Japanese By Spring by Ishmael Reed 11. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl 12. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky 13. The Makepeace Experiment by Abram Terts 14. The Novice’s Tale by Margaret Frazer 15. The Odd Women by George Gissing 16. The Postman by David Brin 17. Quirky Qwerty by Torbjurn Lundmark 18. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Gray 19. Sixpence House by Paul Collins 20. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy 21. Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers 22. Vortex by C. G. Bearne 23. Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson 24. Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout* 25. A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey by Kevin Murphy 26. Zelda by Nancy Milford
* The rules allow that for the letter X, the X may appear anywhere in the title, not just at the beginning
I will now detail each one for you, ’cause I know you’re all in to that kind of thing, in the order I read them. Also, you may notice that I started the challenge in March, but read some of the books before; that is because it is a year-long challenge, and that struck me as fair, and it’s my game. I should also note that nine of the books were too long (Eugene Onegin), too difficult to get after moving (Apothecary Rose, Birthday Boys, Novice’s Tale, Odd Women, Vortex), or interest failed when it came down to it (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They; Waiting For Gertrude; Zelda). So I replaced them. Enjoy.
6. The Flame Trees of Thika by Elizabeth Huxley.
Occasionally subtitled “A Memoir of an African Childhood,” Thika is just that. A six-year-old English girl tells the story of her move with her parents to colonial Africa in the early 20th century. It was a charming read as she describes their settling on the new plantation, her adventures in wild Africa — which includes getting her own horse, her encounters with the local Africans, and all the sorts of things adults never think young children pay attention to. She’s really too young for it to be a real coming-of-age story, but this tale of childhood adventure was a really enjoyable read. You know I always like hearing about people chiseling out a life from scratch, especially deep in the wild.
1. Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale by Ivan Yefremov
I picked this book up because it was included on a list of classic Soviet scifi — I have heard that the USSR was a producer of great scifi and thought that if I were to become a card-carrying buff, I should read all the greats. Well, I found out a predictable truth about Soviet fiction: it isn’t very good. Obvious propaganda is obvious, and the threat of censorship overshadows the few interesting bits. There are a few of these, though; despite sterile characterization, there are some cool parts about cosmonauts who discover a planet with an iron star. Back on Earth is the site of the predictable communist utopia. Somehow they’re in communication with other communist civilizations all over the galaxy (naturally). I never quite understood how these two storylines related at all — the people back on Earth, who had the longest propagandizing speeches, and the cosmonauts, who kept all the fragments of plot to themselves.
13. The Makepeace Experiment by Abram Terts
This book was really interesting — a satiric criticism of Lenin, the “peacemaker.” The Wikipedia sums up the book as an “allegorical novel of Russia where a leader uses non-rational powers to rule.” Makepeace shows up in town, and for no apparent reason earns the admiration and blind devotion of the entire community, which soon cedes from the USSR to form an idyllic nation of its own. However, the despot is not all he seems, and there are sinister developments. The narrator is a librarian who describes the entirety of Makepeace’s rule with a sort of naive simplicity that reflects the common blind Lenin worship. Although it takes place in the Soviet Union — including one remarkable scene where the narrator stands in Makepeace’s office and gazes at the wallpaper, all rubles with the “Sphinx,” that is, Lenin, gazing serenely out — as an allegory, it parallels Lenin’s rise to power. My biggest complaint about it, actually, was entirely the fault of the translation, which for some reason kept Russian forms of all names, locations, etc., except for the incongruous “Lenny Makepeace,” whose Anglicized name was completely distracting. No clue why the translator felt the need to batter us over the head with “Lenny is LENIN! GET IT?! GET IT?!”
18. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Gray
Early this year, I started thinking, “Why don’t I read westerns? Everything I love is in westerns: they take place out west, and are about people settling in wild wilderness areas and carving out civilization, and I love that! There’s survivalism, horses . . . what’s not to like?!” So I decided to read some westerns, and I already knew Zane Gray was one of the (pun not intended) pioneers of the genre. Lassiter, a mysterious cowboy riding a blind horse, shows up in the brink of time to save . . . um, some guy from getting tortured by Mormons, who are, by the way, the de facto villains of the peace (awesome!). The Wikipedia offers that the main character is in fact Jane Withersteen, who eventually becomes Lassiter’s love interest, and she is trying to avoid getting dragged into a marriage with the sinister Elder Tull and having to give up her really gorgeous and enormous farm to the Mormon commune. There’s a subplot about a bunch of bandits and this girl bandit and this guy cowboy who find a secret meadow and stuff? Anyway, it was really interesting. I really liked it, and I intend to read more westerns, particularly Zane Gray’s, although also on the list is Louis L’Amour and, well, that other guy.
12. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II by Edvard Radzinsky
I’m going to be very quick here because this is going on a list of “The Year’s Best Nonfiction” that I’m planning to post on the 31st. In short: the best book about Nicholas II I have ever read — the only one actually written by a Russian. Edvard Radzinsky is actually a Muscovite playwright, but he spent 20 years researching this book, and I would say it is the final word on just about everything to do with the Romanovs. Things western authors have misinterpreted for decades become obvious when explained by a Russian.
11. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
One of the few books for this challenge that I had actually already read once, but it was ten years ago, and I thought it was probably due for a re-read. This is an incredible real-life adventure story about a bunch of Norwegian guys who decided to prove it could have been possible for South American Indians to populate the islands of the South Pacific about the year 1000. They decided to prove this by building a basal wood raft and setting out across the Pacific. The whole thing is completely fascinating: he explains the genesis of the project, their funding, how they started off, built the team, built the raft, got provisions . . . It even includes a number of color photographs. Oh, and, by the way, the expedition happened in 1947, and was completely successful. (The name Kon-Tiki comes from the name of the legendary bearded chief who supposedly led a certain tribe through what is now probably Chile and eventually out into the Pacific, following the setting sun.) Anthropology currently has a lot of negative things to say about Heyerdahl’s expeditions, but personally, I think he had a better grasp on what he was doing than they do on what they’re doing, and when it comes to this sort of stuff, research done in the 40s is probably more accurate than what the humanists are coming up with today. I think he’s a fascinating guy, and the book is an incredible read. (Heyerdahl, incidentally, goes on my list of 15 inspirational people.)
4. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
For as much as I am still waffling over how I felt about this book, it’s going on my “Year in Review” best fiction of 2012 post I’m planning, and therefore I’m not going to go into any detail about it here.
21. Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
And guess what — this one is also going into my list of best fiction for 2012 post. I guess you can wait a couple weeks for my discussion of Lord Peter! Saves some space in here, anyway.
9. The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn
I think I probably would have liked this book fairly well if it hadn’t been for the last chapter or so — or if he hadn’t used first person. Yes, he should’ve picked either the ending or the first person narration, because it was the combination of the two that made me grunt in an irritated fashion when I shut the book. Zahn is one of those scifi writers who gets heavily talked up, but I’ve never liked him as much as he is usually liked. The mysterious plot was interesting enough, with a sealed ship and a highly-suspect and hush-hush job offered to a randomized group of strangers. However, Zahn suffers from something a lot of scifi authors do, and that is the need to prove to his readers that he’s writing science fiction by including as many peculiar creatures as he possibly can, which strikes me as “cute” (to borrow a phrase from Roger Zelazny) in a negative sense. Anyway, this is one that makes a lot of lists of scifi greats, and it wasn’t bad. I feel pretty neutral about the whole thing except for the ending, which still irritates me.
5. Education of a Princess by the Grand Duchess Marie
I found this at the Lilly Library and was pleasantly surprised when I started reading it. The Grand Duchess Marie was Nicholas II’s niece by his uncle Pavlov, a son of Alexander II. She did not have much to do with the Imperial court itself, and her remembrances of the Imperial family are few and honest. But even more fascinating is her relation to the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov, well-known for his involvement in the murder of Rasputin. I love getting a glimpse behind the veil into the domestic side of what is well-known, and Grand Duchess Marie is a better writer than she gives herself credit for. The book covers her early life up to her breathtaking escape from Bolsheviks in 1917; her later life as an emigre in Paris is called A Princess in Exile.
7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
I’m going to be really brief here again because Gorky is going in my “Year in Review” post on the 31 and I’d like to avoid repeating myself as much as possible. Wow, quite a number of these are overlapping — more than I thought would!
8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
I got into a huge obsession with reading horror this spring, and what could be better than the book that basically gave us horror? This is another of the few repeat-reads on this list, but the first time I read it, I was about 16 and impatient with the slow build-up and annoyed by the lack of ghosts. This time around, I got it much better. Hill House is eerie and evil, and the haunting first line is one of the best: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”
14. Nine Horses by Billy Collins
A collection of poetry. Nobody said poetry didn’t count, and as I mentioned earlier, my initial choice for N was unavailable. Another repeat: I’ve read Billy Collins’ poetry so many times, but I love this guy. Actually, this particular collection has taken longer to grow on me than his others, but it’s still his typical sweetly simple style. He gets a lot of flak for not being complex, or something, but really it’s the natural, stream-of-consciousness progression of his thoughts that makes him a great poet and, frankly, I think he’s one of the few American poet laureates who’s deserved the position.