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December 22, 2012


So, I've decided on my project for the next year; I'll be attempting to read all 100 of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books from 2012. If you want to follow along on the blog, I'll talk about them here in the blog under the "Notable" tag. I can't promise long articles about any of them, but I'll at least give you a paragraph or two about every book.

I'm giving myself a bit of a head start -- I listened to one of the books via audiobook this year on a long drive (Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy, discussed briefly below¹) and have started the second book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.

It's going to be quite a challenge, particularly given that the list is equally divided into fiction and non-fiction, and I am almost entirely a fiction reader, with probably fewer than 10% of my reading time devoted to non-fiction². So I'm going to likely attempt to read one of each a week, because a year from now if I have two dozen books to go, I'm sunk. One hundred-ish books in 52 weeks. I often read around 80 or so a year, so this is a slight stretch, and it also involves books which are all at a high degree of difficulty, relatively speaking, which usually means few genre books and of course, in the case of the non-fiction, some deep and difficult topics. There will be some light-hearted fare as well³. I'll mostly read on the Kindle, since that means I can take all the books, and procure new ones, wherever I go. I'll also try to keep up with the Father-Son Reading Challenges that come up. Eesh, it's going to be quite a year.

I'll try to indicate what's up next in my reading when I write one of the posts. Feel free to comment on any of them as we go, happy to engage in discussion!

An American Spy

I listened to An American Spy by Olen Steinhauser on my iPhone earlier this year; I can't recall where I was driving. I don't listen to many audiobooks because my commute is short enough that podcasts are a far more sensible option, but I do enjoy them on occasion if I have an extended drive.

I had read a prior Steinhauser novel featuring Milo Weaver, part of the CIA's Department of Tourism, a shady black-ops division which Weaver has come to question over time. Apparently, I came to the series somewhat in the middle, because I missed out on the very first book, The Tourist, but I quickly picked it up.

I particularly like the world-weariness of these books; like most great spy fiction, it concerns itself with dense plotting and the all-too-human foibles of the membership of these organizations. Even the literary James Bond is a more interesting character than the films make him out to be, but I've also always enjoyed darker books in the genre which focus on the pettiness of the bureaucracy surrounding the great game, such as John Le Carré's great novels or Len Deighton's Hook, Line, Sinker and Game, Set, Match trilogies. Bourne is good, if the action is what you go for, but for my money, there's a lot more interest to be had in the kind of person who is involved in a more realistic form of espionage. And even though I find the sort of events that occur in any spy novel to be somewhat unlikely, Steinhauser's Department of Tourism is a wonderful invention.

Sadly I can't go into much more detail without giving up good chunks of the plot -- what I remember six months later is almost entirely plot details and the sense of weariness and a cynical wariness that pervades Milo's dealings with the Department. It reminds me quite a good deal of George Smiley; if you enjoyed the subtlety of last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this series might be for you.

¹I had no idea I might embark on this project when I listened to it; it's not firmly placed in my memory.

²This is not even to mention that there are some serious behemoths in the non-fiction section of the list, particularly Caro's latest volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, something that I consider embarking upon every year.

³Such as Chris Ware's Building Stories, and I'm sure some others.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 22, 2012 12:16 PM


I think you should go for broke if you review some of them.Spoiler tags galore !

Posted by: sal go at December 23, 2012 12:09 PM

I tend to react to the emotions I have reading them less than the spoilable stuff, though I think reading "Gone Girl" a few weeks ago is one of those exceptions where the plot points provoked the emotions so well that disentangling them would be tough.

It's hard to spoil the next couple of books ("Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain and "The Obamas" by Jodi Kantor) because one's mostly an exploration of the emotional state of a soldier and the other is about recent history. But I'll keep you in mind :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 23, 2012 01:07 PM