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The February Page Count Podcast is Live

c4-podcast-logoWe’re still sorry you only got six-ish Podcasts of Christmas, but now that 2014 is in full effect we’ll try and keep the episodes rolling as regularly as possible. This month, we revisit this whole aversion to negative book reviews thing (look for Eric’s follow up series running all week), the best audiobooks for your bucks, Korean monster movies, the uncensored 4th Lord of the Rings book “Boner Party: There and Back Again,” sensory books that you have to wear a vest to experience, and Caligula.

No Drunk Review this month; we’ll have one in March though so stay tuned for that. If you want to suggest a book for us to subject whoever is next to, be sure to let us know.

Books touched on: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Best American Short Stories 2013; The Stories of John Cheever; The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson; Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson; The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau; Dominion, by CJ Sansom; Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat; The Secret History, by Donna Tartt; The Conductor, by Jean Ferry; Marvel Comics: The Untold Stories, by Sean Howe; Snowpiercer, by Jacque Lob; Miracle Man #1, by Mick Anglo. Recommendations: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote; Lost Girls, by Alan Moore; The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree Jr.; The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson.

Subscribe on iTunes here. If you’d rather the direct RSS feed, here you go. You can also stream the episodes below.

Have any topic or reading suggestions, or comments about the show? Please email them to info@chamberfour.com or shoot us a tweet.

Listen to (or Read) the Page Count’s 12-ish Podcasts of Christmas

c4-podcast-logoWe once again managed to screw up the recording of our lengthy Twelve Podcasts extravaganza, so it’s more like the Six and a Half Podcasts of Xmas this year. But there are still book shenanigans aplenty to share with you as we close out 2013. Along with some our typical chats about books (and maggoty cheese you eat while wearing a welding mask, Mexican taco libraries, and switching the C4 review scoring to a boner scale) we played a couple literary games, such as “James Franco or Juvenalia,” and do reviews of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book/rant and Saddam Hussein’s novel.

You can listen to most of them now on iTunes, or streaming below. Look forward to a few more cropping up later in the week too. Also, the folks at Rev.com (ting-ting-ting) were kind enough to actually come through on their promise to transcribe a podcast, so you can read their work below too, and shake your head at the horrible things we forced their poor transcriptionist to type.
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The Worst Books of 2013

We already compiled our picks for Best Books of 2013. But how about the worst? Here are our staff’s picks for the worst books from the year that was.

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travels-in-elysium-coverTravels in Elysium, by William Azuski.
Everything in this book is a mystery, something the author doesn’t ever want you to forget. The mysteries are piled so haphazardly atop one another that it’s nearly impossible to uncover the plot buried beneath.

Sometimes, Eric got the distinct feeling that this novel could have something going for it if only it could get out of its own way, stop insisting so much on its own metaphysical obsessions, and actually let a story find its way out of the exotic setting, the downtrodden cast, and maybe just a couple of the better mysteries.

(Read Eric’s full review.)

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fifth-lashThe Fifth Lash, by Anis Shivani.
Shivani’s weak writing seems to stem from his contrarian attitude toward the rest of the publishing establishment. In a piece called, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” (in which he excoriates writers like Jonathan Safran-Foer for gimmickry even as he uses the Internet’s oldest gimmick, the numbered list of [overblown superlative]), Shivani sets forth this definition: “Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance.”

But Shivani writes with stark joylessness, with an often tiresome moral core, and with a glut of “substance” that, indeed, entirely ignores style. The effect is something like reading an endless sermon while speed-eating dry Saltine crackers.

(Read Nico’s full review.)

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secret-lives-of-married-womenThe Secret Lives of Married Women, by Elissa Wald.

This book isn’t outrageously terrible, and it’s certainly nothing close to the worst book Sean ever read (that would be A Young Girl’s Crimes, by David Rehak–review), but it’s also not very good. He was expecting a quick, fun, pulpy read, and the blurb on the back from Junot Diaz gave him hope that the writing might even be a touch above average. Nope. Average describes just about everything about this book.

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once-crowded-skyA Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King.

This book often feels stuck; King didn’t quite wed his interest in superhero comics with the structural demands of a novel. But even under the best circumstances they’re an ill fit. The great superhero novel is still to come, if it ever does. In the meantime, King should (and probably will) write other novels. And he should give monthly comics or graphic novels a shot too – his superhero characters and stories would be better served by the medium that inspired them in the first place.

(Read Aaron’s full review.)

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Sayonara 2013

The results are in. We’ve rounded up all of this year’s picks for Best Books into a single page. Check it out here. If you’re still looking for some last minute gift ideas, it’s not a bad place to start.

 

We’ll be pretty quiet around here next week and a half, but there’s plenty of Page Count (check out this year’s More-than-four-less-than-twelve Podcasts of Xmas) and a few fun posts scheduled to hold you over until we return after our break.

Best Books of 2013, Part 6

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

I didn’t read many books this year, so I’d been expecting to scrimp and scrape when it came to my year-end best books list. But when I combed back through my reviews, I found a whopping seven Great Reads (my yearly average is four). So here they are, in no particular order. Most were published in 2013 but a few (Spin, Constellation Games, and The Fault in Our Stars) were published in past years. Click the links for my full reviews.

 

constellation-gamesConstellation Games, by Leonard Richardson

Constellation Games is the most fun I had reading this year. It’s equal parts philosophical sci-fi and adventure comedy, a story about a video game blogger who becomes a kind of ambassador to a new alien collective that shows up on Earth’s doorstep one day. It pilots an interesting situation with tremendous wit and entertaining prose. That’s about all I ask for from books.

 

you-are-now-less-dumbYou Are Now Less Dumb, by David McRaney

McRaney’s latest book follows the tried and true formula of his first one (also a Great Read): it’s an entertaining layman’s guide to cognitive biases (or, as he puts it, the ways we lie to ourselves). McRaney does a great job turning dry experiment write-ups into captivating accounts of the human brain’s quirks and fallacies. This is one of those books that will make you more interesting at parties.
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Best Books of 2013, Part 5

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

I’m still working my way back to being the prolific reader I used to be, but I definitely got more fiction read this year than 2012. There were a number of great books this year I haven’t gotten to yet that I am sure would make this list if I had. But, here are my four favorite novels of 2013. .

 

Archangel, by Andrea Barrettarchangel-2013-by-andrea-barrett_original This isn’t actually a novel, but a collection of linked stories. There are only 5 of them, and they are all quite long, and share related characters, so it’s close enough. Focusing on a period spanning the late nineteenth century through the first world war, each story centers on characters in a scientific field–namely naturalism and genetics, though astronomy is represented. Living in a world on the cusp of globalization and scientific resolution, Barrett’s characters struggle to find reconciliation between the exciting new ways of looking at the world and comforting past notions of spirituality and religion. Like all of Barrett’s work, it is tremendously well written, and worth a read by pretty much everybody.

 

Harvest, by Jim Craceharvest My review of this book has been languishing in Google Drive for over a month now. Look for that whenever it comes out for the long version of my thoughts, but basically, this is a really good historical novel. Not nearly as weird as some of Crace’s earlier work (Being Dead), it’s still fairly gripping. Crace is a very careful and controlled writer–he reminds me of Ian McEwan in that way–so even if you aren’t into stories about social upheaval in a post-feudal English village, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here.
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Best Books of 2013, Part 4

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

The Fifth Annual Aaron Block Awards, Celebrating Excellence In The Comics I Read This Year, Presented By Aaron Block

When I began assembling this year’s ABs, I noticed that my selections sounded…familiar. In fact, three of this year’s winners appeared in last year’s slate of books. That’s at least partly due to a pause in my comic reading early in the year (a consequence of unemployment), but I think it also says something about how both the industry and my tastes, have changed in the past year. I’d be wary of repeating myself if the books themselves hadn’t changed significantly since last December, as well. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.


“Best Comic I Won’t Shut Up About” – Hawkeye, written by Matt Fraction, drawn by David Aja, Javier Pulido, Francesco Francavilla, et al., colored by Matt Holingsworth, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos

Hawkeye #11

Fourteen issues in, Hawkeye is still the most interesting superhero book on the shelves. 2013 saw the book extend beyond the hard luck/heart of gold off-hours hero story with a whole issue dedicated to Hurricane Sandy, a wordless issue told from Pizza Dog’s perspective, art turns from Javier Pulido and Francesco Francavilla, and a heartbreaking death. For sheer variety of narrative concepts, no other creative team can touch what Fraction and his artists, particularly David Aja, have done in this title. And if that doesn’t convince you to read it, check out the most recent episode of the Page Count Podcast in which I try to convince C4’s own Marc Velasquez to quit stalling and just read the damn thing.

(Side-note: the other day on the bus I saw a guy wearing a hoodie with the purple bullseye Hawkeye logo on it. That’s the first time in the history of clothes that someone wore Hawkeye-branded attire, and it’s entirely because of this comic. What more convincing do you need?)


“Best Comic That More Than One Of My Non-Comic Reading Friends Reads” – Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples, lettered and designed by Fonografiks

Saga #10Saga has accrued a dedicated fanbase (evident in the sometimes painfully twee letter column in the back of each issue) a load of awards, and plenty of critical praise. As comics go, it’s a phenomenon. But comic book phenomena rarely find traction with anyone not already initiated into the medium (movies are, of course, another story altogether, as ticket sales have never reliably translated into more readers.) That Saga has found its way into the reading habits of friends of mine who don’t regularly read comics (among them C4’s Nico Vreeland) proves it’s something special. Vaughan and Staples’s story of a young family’s first steps in a war-scarred universe is perfectly paced, colliding nightmarish action sequences and comedy, with room for quiet, thoughtful moments throughout. All of that plus Vaughan’s knack for crafting tense cliffhangers makes Saga one of my most anticipated reads every month.
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Best Books of 2013, Part 3

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

fight-songThose of you following Book Rush have already seen brief reviews of every single freakin’ book I’ve read in 2013. I’m still on pace to hit 80, which means I’ve got plenty of new releases to choose from for this Best Of list—not a single one of which will prove memorable, I’m afraid. Except for, perhaps, the worst. Ain’t that always the case? You can see 99 middling films and one horrific puddle of shit, and the one you’ll remember is the horrific puddle.

transatlanticI read some dozen novels released in 2013, and among the highlights are Joshua Mohr’s Fight Song, Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, and Out of Their Minds, a new translation of a 1980s Mexican novel by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite. All four of these books are at least mildly entertaining, often amusing, well worth a read, and ultimately forgettable—though less so than almost every other 2013 book I’ve read.

crapalachiaOne candidate for my favorite 2013 novel is Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia, an entertaining, witty and often touching book about the author’s West Virginia upbringing. How much is fiction and how much is memoir only McClanahan knows, though we might suspect the scales tilt toward the former. Not that it matters; a book well done is a book well done.

and-sonsBut the best novel I read this year is David Gilbert’s & Sons. It’s very New Yorkey, but not obnoxiously so. It’s consistently funny without being cute, and although it’s very man-centric and could have come in at 100 fewer pages, Gilbert does some interesting things with unreliable narration and fiction-within-fiction.

salt-sugar-fatFor nonfiction I have three standouts: Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat which is an informative, amusing, and scary as fuck exploration of the food industry; Bunker Hill, which is about Boston in 1775, written by Nathaniel Philbrick, historian for the masses; and La Boutique Obscure, Georges Perec’s dream journals, which I know sounds dreary but is actually quite fascinating and has a strong cumulative effect.

who-killed-jfkAnother book toeing the line between fact and fiction comes from Despair Inc. (of Demotivational poster fame), their Choose Your Own Adventure parody Who Killed John F. Kennedy? Pretty self-explanatory. It’s fun and funny, and if you enjoyed the original books, this one will have you dripping with all sorts of nostalgia.

Looking back at my previous C4 Best Books posts, I guess I’ve had years more disappointing than this one. But again in 2013, the best writing I read was from books published before my time. John Williams’ Stoner. Lots of good Esther Forbes and Kurt Vonnegut. Brilliant short fiction from Julie Hecht, Stuart Dybek and Bernard Malamud. A few excellent New York Review Books classics.

No surprise there, I suppose. Each January 1 I eagerly anticipate finding some beautiful and inspiring new offerings, and each December 31 ends with a thud.

Best Books of 2013, Part 2

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

My best  books of 2013 list is going to be short. That has less to do with the quality of books that were published this past year, and more to do with the choices I made over the last 12 months. Last January, I made a resolution to read more classics, and while catching up on books like Crime and Punishment has been great, it really affected the amount of time I could dedicate to reading new books. I also made the decision to get married, move to a new city and start a new job, so that took a good chunk of reading time too.

But I did read two books published this year that belong on my best of list:


The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

telling-roomEssentially, this is a book about a very good piece of cheese. Well, it starts with a very good piece of cheese and evolves through the author’s obsession with the cheese’s origin. It takes a pretty talented journalist to find the story in a piece of cheese, and Paterniti uncovered a very engaging story. And in places, the story reads like a fairy tale, which seems like a contrived idea, but is a voice that fits the story perfectly. This book is well put together, and worth picking up.

 

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

sound-of-things-fallingMy favorite books are usually books in which the author strings many seemingly loose threads—small insights or curious actions that don’t seem to have much to do with the narrative action—and finds a way to connect them all by the book’s end. That is the type of book Juan Gabriel Vazquez wrote with The Sound of Things Falling.  Because I look for books of that type, I usually try to anticipate the connections, and find myself anticipating how the author is going to make the connections. What I enjoyed most about this book was that my anticipations were completely wrong. Also, translator Anne McLean deserves recognition for the lyrical prose.

 

Addition to the Best books of 1966: The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud

9780374529383_p0_v1_s260x420If you’ve followed this site over the last few years, you aren’t surprised to find out that a few of us here really like The Fixer. We have it listed among our Great Reads, we’ve talked about it on our podcast, and Eric Markowsky said pretty much everything I’d want to say about it in his review published a few years ago. This book was on my catch-up list because I enjoyed The Natural as much as I did. The Fixer more than lived up to my expectations. Malamud uses a fantastic story to delve into issues of race and morality. It was a book that I found myself thinking about even when I wasn’t even reading it and also long after I had finished reading.

 

Addition to Best Books of 1977: Falconer, by John Cheever

FalconerI didn’t know much about John Cheever before reading this—I’ve read only a few of his short stories here and there—but because I love books about prison, I’ve had Falconer on my radar for a while. And this book encapsulates everything I love about prison literature. The trap with some books about prison is that authors get caught up with questions of guilt or innocence. Cheever is cleaver enough to avoid that. This book is not a story about guilt or innocence; the main character, Farragut, is clearly rightfully imprisoned. Instead Cheever focuses on the dehumanizing elements of imprisonment, and we are left to watch as Farragut is slowly stripped of his humanity. The results are, for lack of a better word, heartbreaking.

Best Books of 2013, Part 1

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]

 

Another year has come and gone, and with it, so has another New Year’s resolution. In our holiday podcast last winter, I resolved to read more new books this year. I started out on course, then I read some mediocre stuff, then I read some real babytown frolics, and eventually I returned to my own long-running list of books I wanted to read with little regard for their publication date.

So here’s my list, some newer, some older, but all books I enjoyed a great deal in 2013, and which I’m happy to recommend to you for a good 2014 to come.

 

Best New Book: The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy

Separateness

Van Booy’s writing has won me over wholly with its sincerity. His stories are large and open-hearted, and his prose is direct, honest, and evocative.

The Illusion of Separateness weaves its story from the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers, charting a course through a series of tangential connections to a chance encounter in Nazi-occupied France. For all its emotional and thematic weight, the book moves deftly in time and perspective, reading more like a good adventure than a work of philosophy. But that’s really what it is, a work of philosophy arguing its central premise with an artistic proof that no one, anywhere, is really alone.

 

Best Old Book: Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

litRavelstein

A friend of mine who lives in the middle of nowhere has a tendency to mail me books out of the blue. I’d never even heard of Ravelstein before it arrived at my door, but Saul Bellow’s last novel quickly won me over once I started reading. It’s an extended character sketch of an eccentric University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and his ideas on the good life and death. I can’t think of anyone anywhere who can rant quite like Bellow can, and when he really gets on a tear no one is funnier, more cutting, or a more insightful culture critic.

 

Best Book I Never Would Have Guessed I’d Read This Year The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

Closing

The title character in Ravelstein is based on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and Bellow’s longtime friend. The Closing of the American Mind is Bloom’s most well known book. I can’t actually say I loved it, in fact a lot of what I read there made me angry, but it gave me a lot to think about. Bloom’s perspective cuts across the political spectrum as we understand it in 2013. He’s an academically conservative atheist traditionalist who sees liberal democracy as the greatest threat to its own best promises. If nothing else, I found The Closing of the American Mind refreshing, without analogue in contemporary political discourse.

 

Best Book of Poetry: The One Day, by Donald Hall

theOneDay

A book-length poem in three parts, The One Day takes the measure of possible lives in a collage of voices. Obsessed with antiquity, destruction, loss, and renewal, it’s a modernist work that spurns modernity in preference for timeless acts of creation, whether artistic, agricultural or biological. The beginning of the third section, “To Build a House,” contains my new favorite passage about work:

… To seize the hour, I must cast myself
into work that I love, as the keeper hurls
horsemeat to the lion: –I am meat, lion, and keeper.


Best Book I Can’t Help Mentioning Just One More Time Here on Chamber Four: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

beautifulforevers

Not much to say about this one that Nico and the National Book Foundation haven’t already covered, but after reading it this summer I can’t resist adding my own voice to the chorus singing its praises. Gorgeously written, exhaustively researched, and deeply experienced, Behind the Beautiful Forevers deserves every accolade it received and then some. If you haven’t read it yet, you might make it a New Year’s resolution. That’s one that you’ll definitely want to keep.