2015 Books of the Year

Each year for the past ten or so years (since I was inspired by my friend/book-pal Elizabeth), I’ve kept track of all the books I read and come up with a list of my favorites. In 2015, I read 83 books. Whew! And here they all are:

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

Sing Sing Nights (Harry Stephen Keeler), The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (Sax Rohmer), Here’s the Situation (Chris Millis)

Ah, good old Harry S. Keeler, the Ed Wood of books. He’s here joined by a mindlessly racist old adventure novel and the shameless ghostwritten memoir of Jersey Shore‘s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, in which actual author Chris Millis takes every opportunity to mock his subject.

Irredeemably Bad

The Overton Window (Glenn Beck), Daughter of the Blood (Anne Bishop), The Art of the Deal (Donald Trump & Tony Schwartz), Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)

This was all for Hate Book Club. Daughter of the Blood was the worst. There were parts of The Overton Window that were actually kind of funny, and a couple were on purpose.

Just Kind of Okay (or So Forgettable I Forgot Them Already)

The People’s Platform (Astra Taylor), Twentysomething (Robin & Samantha Henig), The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, & Me (Sofka Zinovieff), The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)

The first two books in this category had really interesting topics and ideas, but I forget the authors’ conclusions already. Oops.

Disappointing but with Some Merit

Jazz (Toni Morrison), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (William Brashler), The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison), Operation Nemesis (Eric Bogosian), The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

A lot of these share the problem of “incorrect expectations.” For instance, I foolishly thought Jazz would have jazz in it. The Summer Book actually has a lot in common with The House on Mango Street: it’s a series of short-story postcards from a little girl’s summer with her grandmother. It even includes little drawings. Continue reading


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Hate Book Club: Trump: The Art of the Deal

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end. Go read Patricia’s review!

Usually on Hate Book Club, my friend Patricia and I try to keep it timeless, by hopping around all the most hateable books in world literature. Well, okay, at least American literature. But this month we’ve chosen a book that couldn’t be timelier. Except maybe if we’d chosen it last month instead.


The 20th Anniversary Edition has a new title, Trump: I Had Decent Hair Once.

Yes: Trump: The Art of the Deal, by Donald J. Trump and Tony Ghostwriter. What can we learn about 2016’s most terrifying presidential candidate by reading his 1987 self-help-slash-memoir guide to dealmaking?

A lot, it turns out. The first thing we learn is: Donald Trump can be really, really, really dull. I bet you’re thinking Trump: The Art of the Deal would be outrageous, or cringe-inducing, or full of Trump saying outrageous things. It’s not. It is tedious as shit.

Imagine your dream book. How many times do you want to read the phrase “tax abatement” in your dream book? Only, like, 5 times, right? Well, Donald Trump talks about tax abatements a whole lot more than 5 times in The Art of the Deal. See, this is not a book of advice. It’s a rote, moment-by-moment retelling of all his most successful deals, conveniently leaving out all the stuff that you would expect him to conveniently leave out. But, as much as Trump leaves out about his failings or secret schemes, he includes a lot of really dull stuff. Continue reading

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Hate Book Club: Here’s the Situation

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end.

Well, Patricia and I may have finally broken Hate Book Club. See, this time we picked a book we thought we’d hate, as usual, except…we liked it. (Here is her review.)

Yes, this is real.

Yes, this is real.

Here’s the Situation is the autobiography/self-help advice book by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, star of MTV’s Jersey Shore. The Situation rose to prominence on Jersey Shore after a failed first career working at a gym. His claim to fame: being muscular, tanned, promiscuous, and basically brainless.

But wait! The ghostwriter is Chris Millis, a humor writer and cartoonist who uses the book as an opportunity to make a cascade of jokes at The Situation’s expense. It’s not totally clear how much of the book The Situation was involved in writing, or honestly how much of it he ever read. There’s a good chance that he just flipped through the manuscript and said “sure.”

The result is stuff like: “I recently brought three girls back to my hotel room. After a little bit of fun, I realized I was down to two girls. It took me thirty minutes to discover the missing chick was lost in a crevice in my six-pack.” And: “Personally, my favorite drink in the club is anything given to me free, because I’m famous.” And: “I spent $1,828.94 on tanning in fiscal 2009.” And: “In my life, I’ve been a regular guy and I’ve been an international superstar. But the moral of my story is that I like the second thing a lot better.” Continue reading

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Hate Book Club: Daughter of the Blood

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end.

This month, we challenged each other to read dreadful books from our own past. I tasked Patricia with one of the worst novels I’ve ever read, The Natural by Bernard Malamud (here’s her review!!), while she saddled me with Daughter of the Blood, a fantasy novel by Anne Bishop. We’re not sure who won/lost this matchup. Both of these books are unspeakably, painfully, grindingly awful.

Daughter of the Blood

Even the cover image is giving me memory shivers.

This is the book that almost broke me. If I was ever going to give up our book club, this would be the time. But I didn’t. How smart of a decision that was, the reader may decide.

How terrible is Daughter of the Blood? Well, the first problem is that it’s utterly impenetrable. Author Anne Bishop offers no help to the novice reader. This is the first book in a series, but aside from a couple of weird glossaries involving the rankings of different jewel colors, you just get thrown in with no guidance. First some crazy lady gives a prophecy, but it’s not clear why the prophecy is important or why people care about it. Then we suddenly zoom forward like 700 years, but we’re still in the same weird medieval kingdom. A very weird medieval kingdom, as you shall see.

So the plot is, uh, okay, bear with me. There’s this girl. She’s like seven years old, and then suddenly she turns 12. She is super duper magical and is not only a witch, but the ultimate witch, so people call her Witch. Apparently this is good news. The prophecy spoke about her. She’s supposed to do something really important that everybody’s excited about. But, what is it? Aside from be super powerful? Nobody explains. We just get told she’s super important and powerful.

Also, the characters are impossible to remember. That’s because none of them has even the slightest shred of personality or interest. Plus, a lot of their names are similar. There’s this guy named Daemon, and a guy named Saetan, and a guy named Lucivar (and a minor character named Uncle Bob) (not joking here), and sometimes they live in Hell, but sometimes they live in Hayll. And it’s not clear whether this is the more famous Hell or not, and likewise the characters. And I don’t know what Hayll is. If this universe has a Daemon and a Saetan and a Lucivar, where is the Godde and Gawd and Gahd? Or Jezus and Jeezis? Continue reading


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Top Ten 2014 Movies I Saw

I saw 26 Oscar-eligible movies in 2014. Part I of this ranking covered #26 through #11, but now here are the Top Ten and my awards choices!

A reminder:

1. All ten of these movies are extremely good and highly recommended. At least 4 are new personal favorites. How crazy is that?

2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner

The Really, Really, Really Good Movies

10. 22 Jump Street. How did Phil Lord and Chris Miller make not one, but two movies, in a single year, that turned trash ideas into comedy treasure? First they made that Lego commercial fun, and then they made a great sequel to a remake. 22 Jump Street has Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill solving crime Naked Gun-style, with help from Ice Cube and his beautiful daughter.

Ice Cube

Ice Cube, knowing how to wear a hat.

A lot of comedies these days don’t know how to use visuals or sound effects to get laughs. But 22 Jump Street has all sorts of inspired moments, like when Channing Tatum is too dumb to realize something until way too late–and while he’s figuring it out, an egg timer counts down and dings. By the way, how is Channing Tatum so funny? Somebody that muscular and stupid-looking shouldn’t be a gifted comedian, right? Life is unfair.

The end credits sequence is one of the funniest scenes from a movie this year, along with Keaton and Norton wrestling in Birdman, Eminem’s cameo in The Interview, and Josh Brolin eating a banana in Inherent Vice.

9. Interstellar. If you didn’t see this on IMAX, maybe don’t bother. The immersive visual spectacle is a huge element of this movie, as spaceships launch and crash, giant tidal waves bear down on you, and a dust bowl sweeps across the earth. The word “docking” will never mean the same thing to you after you see the thrilling docking sequence. And Interstellar brilliantly uses the laws of physics in outer space to prove that an explosion is even scarier when it’s silent.

The McConaissance continues full-blast, as the gifted comedian from Bernie and the frail, bitter survivor from Dallas Buyers Club turn into the proud father of Interstellar. For all the explosions, eerie landscapes, and shocking twists (and Interstellar is a movie, like The Homesman, where you really have no idea what will happen next), the best scene is still the one where McConaughey watches messages his children have beamed up to the spaceship.

Christopher Nolan is famous for making “puzzle movies” where all the pieces come together at the end, and I have to admit I did not like how they came together in this one. But I can forgive.

8. Two Days, One Night. This is one of the best, truest stories about depression and its effects that I have ever seen, read, or experienced. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, or seen a loved one suffer from it, this movie will speak to you. Continue reading

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Every 2014 Movie I Saw, Ranked (#26-11)

Growing up, and through teenage years, I saw maybe two movies a year, tops. My family wasn’t too crazy about most movies, and half the movies we wanted to see, we missed because they were out of the theatre in a week. But in college I got a stint writing reviews for the Rice newspaper, and now my friend Lindsay is aiding, abetting, and deepening my movie habit by insisting we go watch everything.

So here’s part I of my ranking of every 2014 movie I saw. Part II will have my top 10 and my personal choices for the Oscars, disregarding whether or not they actually got nominated.

Three prefatory notes.

1. 2014 was an amazing, amazing year for movies. There are 15+ very good movies on this list, and at least 4 new personal favorites. How crazy is that?

2. Noteworthy movies I did not see: American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Under the Skin, Mr. Turner

3. If something’s on Netflix, I’ll tell you.

The Bad Movies

The Imitation Game, the worst movie I saw in 2014

26. The Imitation Game. Imagine The King’s Speech without the fun lively performance of the speech teacher, or the inspirational uplift, or the awesome soundtrack, and you pretty much have The Imitation Game. It’s a long, slow, boring movie where Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Sherlock but with a different hair cut and more pronounced autism, deals with corny made-up Hollywood villains who want to stop him, corny made-up Hollywood surprise twist traitors, a corny Hollywood Token Female Character, corny Hollywood montage sequences, corny Hollywood CGI battle scenes, and corny Hollywood dialogue. The whole plot is Turing telling his life story to a police officer for literally no reason, thereby betraying state secrets and committing treason. And it’s all buried in the dull, lifeless directing by Morten “Tedium” Tyldum.

To give you an idea how bad The Imitation Game is, consider two facts. One: the real Alan Turing’s cryptography unit employed four women, and the Bletchley Park camp was staffed 75-80% by women. Here, all the ladies are represented by Keira Knightley. 3 of the 27 credited cast members are female, so there are fewer women in this entire movie than there were in Turing’s actual group.

Second fact: there is a line of dialogue that goes, “Sometimes the people no one imagines anything of, do the things no one can imagine.” Corny, right? Clunky and awkward, right? Obvious, shameless attempt to coin a stupid inspirational phrase, right? It gets said in the movie three times. By three people. Including a teenager who dies tragically. And it’s the last line of the movie. Ugh. That stupid cornball nonsense is way more offensive than the fact that they made up almost every part of the plot and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing is wildly inaccurate.

25. The Theory of Everything. Boy, was it a bad year for Prestigious British Biography Movies About Famous 20th Century Scientists with Tragic Personal Lives. Continue reading

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Hate Book Club: The Overton Window

It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end. Here’s a link to her write-up.

This month’s Hate Book:

The Overton Window

The Overton Window: A Thriller, by Glenn Beck

“If Molly was right, then a cute but quirky mailroom temp had identified a grand, unified, liberty-crushing conspiracy that had been hatched in the conference room of a PR agency.” (p. 141)

Few books can be easily summarized in one of their own sentences, but The Overton Window can. That quote has everything, starting with a free admission that the book sounds ridiculous. Part of the challenge of Glenn Beck’s novel is figuring out when he knows he’s being silly, and when he doesn’t know.

The best example is Molly, the “cute but quirky mailroom temp.” She’s introduced as perfection itself, and she’s the only major female character in the book. She’s naturally beautiful, a free spirit, a Tea Partier, talks sassily back to boys, has tight blue jeans that hug her butt, and, of course, “she hardly wore any makeup, it seemed, nothing needed concealment or embellishment.” [sic] (p. 11) And then, despite all that wild child behavior, it takes her about fifteen minutes to fall in love with our hero.

Plot twist! Glenn Beck knows that’s ridiculous! It turns out Molly is a cunning double agent whose goal was to seduce our hero from the start, and she’d carefully researched all the right traits to appeal to him (he likes bad girls with no makeup). So it was all too good to be true, and the joke’s on stupid Noah Gardner for thinking otherwise.

Except, of course, at the end it turns out she really is a hero and she really did fall in love with him. That’s The Overton Window in a nutshell.

By the way, about our stupid protagonist Noah Gardner: he’s another example of that classic cliche, the Inexperienced and/or Dumb White Guy Whom Circumstances Force to Become a Hero. He’s like a hornier Luke Skywalker, joining the right wing fringe to chase Molly and then basically doing whatever she says in an effort to get in her pants. Every character in the novel has an Anglo/Irish last name, by the way: Gardner, Ross, Churchill, Bailey, Kearns, Landers, Nelan, Halliday. No racial minorities or even continental European types here!

Although The Overton Window is a thriller, it takes politics more seriously than thrilling you. There are extensive political speeches and conversations throughout; most memorably, Noah and Molly kiss for the first time, then immediately begin debating reforms to the IRS tax code. Beck extensively quotes a lot of thinkers who’d be surprised to find themselves quoted here: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Rudyard Kipling, Woodrow Wilson, Shakespeare, Dale Carnegie, Saul Alinsky, Andre Gide, and, most perversely, Martin Luther King Jr.

Handy chart

Handy chart

But the funniest invocation is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, in a two-chapter cliffhanger where Molly disguises herself as Natalie Portman. Why Natalie Portman? Well, as Noah says, “She’s an A-lister but she’s done mostly art-house films, so the average Joe probably couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.” (p. 229) It makes perfect sense! The book was released in 2010, when the average Joe had definitely not seen Natalie Portman in Heat, Star Wars I-III, Zoolander, Cold Mountain, Garden State, The Other Boleyn Girl, or V for Vendetta.

I digress. Here’s the plot of the thriller. Noah is a dumb horndog who attends a right-wing fringe rally because cute girl Molly tells him to go. The rally is perfectly diverse: “there seemed to be no clear exclusions based on race, or class, or any of the other traditional media-fed American cultural divides. It was a total cross section, a mix of everyone” (pp. 50-51). The rally is also infiltrated by bad guys who start a riot, getting Noah and Molly arrested. (At first it seems the bad guys are NYPD cops, and Glenn Beck distrusts the police, but nope, by the end we find out that the NYPD is all good guys.) Later, Noah and Molly discover the vast conspiracy to destroy America, which was indeed created by a PR agency, which involves dropping a nuclear bomb on Senator Harry Reid’s office, and which is clearly explained to Noah and Molly via a PowerPoint presentation. Yes, they spend crucial chapters sitting in a room clicking through slides.

Needless to say, the evil conspirators are the government, because the government is big and evil. Their plan is to blame the terrorist attack on right-wing extremists, arrest everyone in the Tea Party, and then destroy the Second Amendment en route to a dictatorship. At the end of the book, the Harry Reid assassination attempt has been thwarted, but everything else is still on. I think Beck wants us to get excited for a sequel where the real showdown happens, since there’s no climactic showdown at all in this book. In fact, there’s barely any action at all: one shootout, one woman getting poisoned, and some breaking-and-entering.

As much as it pains me to say this, Glenn Beck has some political views that I like. He’s angry about our surveillance state (and would later, correctly, call Edward Snowden a hero and a patriot), he objects to police having military equipment, and he shares our outrage about some of America’s dumber experiments in imperialism (like destroying Guatemalan democracy in the 1950s). But, just when you think he’s being a little enlightened, he randomly complains that vaccinations are terrible, or one of his characters eats “an Al Sharpton”: “fried chicken and waffles.” (Molly, despite being from the south, has “never heard of chicken and waffles.” [p. 103] What??? Also, fyi, the Al Sharpton is a real thing on a real menu, so Beck is giving us a restaurant recommendation, and is not being racist. Well, maybe a little.)

So there are positives to the book. It’s humorous, sometimes on purpose. Like a broken clock, Glenn Beck’s views are right sometimes. And Noah and Molly’s “witty” “flirtatious” “banter” achieves a weird hideous transcendence, like George-Michael and Ann:

But the best part is the cover. The back cover is littered with hilarious bullshit quotes from actual thriller novel writers. Brad Thor (which is a real person’s name) says “Glenn Beck has just shattered the thriller barrier.” Vince Flynn: “A visionary work of fiction.” James Rollins: “This Hitchcockian thriller will have you turning pages well into the night.”

Uh, you guys write thrillers for a living, right? You know there should be way more shootouts, car chases, cold-blooded assassins, and Russian submarines in this book, right? Instead of all the scenes where Noah and Molly fill out crossword puzzles and reminisce about taking penmanship classes as kids? How many of your books have chapters where the characters use PowerPoint?

And then there’s the front cover. Did you notice that on this book, the Statue of Liberty is a muscular dude with a beard??? What?!??!?!

"Enhance. Enhance." - CSI: Glenn Beck's Warped Reality

“Enhance. Enhance.” – CSI: Glenn Beck’s Warped Reality

Conclusion (and link to Patricia’s review)
I can think of no better way to end this review than to inform you that the book contains this conversation:

She ran her hands through her hair and stretched again, wriggled herself under the covers, and rolled onto her side with one arm across him, the long, cool silkiness of her bare legs against his skin.

“Now see?” Noah said. “That’s what I just asked you not to do.”

“I’m only getting comfortable.” Her voice was already sleepy, and she shivered a bit. “My feet are cold.”

“Suit yourself, lady. I’m telling you right now, you made the rules, but you’re playing with fire here. I’ve got some rules, too, and rule number one is, don’t tease the panther.” (p. 114)

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 8
Hateability of writing style: 4
Pleasure derived from hating book: 9


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