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The 11 Most Compelling Books I Read in 2011

It’s time for my 2011 list of books! If you like this list or have read books that appear on it, leave a comment, or let me know about some of the most compelling books you read that didn’t make the list.

Also shoot me an email at Liam.Carnahan@gmail.com if you like this list and want to chat. I’m always happy to hear from fellow readers.

K here we go. 

2011, huh? How ’bout it? In the midst of a 10-year anniversary of the worst American disaster in recent memory, the death of a legend (albeit sometimes questionable), insane plastic surgery stories and a tragicomic political caucus, I found some time to read some fantastic books this year. The 11 books (get it, 2011? 11 books? 11/11?) on this list represent the best of the best, and hopefully will include some you haven’t heard of.

My list from 2009 focused on the most inspiring books, and last year’s list was simply about the best. This year, I decided to go for compelling. That means some of these books grabbed me at page one and forced me to continue reading at inappropriate times and places (during sex, for example. Just kidding?) Others that weren’t so much page turners made me want to talk about them until people told me to shut up (and often even after being told to do so.)

11. Public Enemy Zero by Andrew Mayne

Public Enemy Zero, Andrew Mayne

I got a Kindle recently. I know there are haters out there, but for someone who is constantly on the go and lives out of a small bag most of the time, having all of my books on one lightweight device is essential. Sorry (not really) if you still hate Kindles, it’s a lifesaver for my lifestyle. And this book is only available as an e-book, so… skip ahead to number 10 if you want.

The main character of this book, Mitch, is a radio host recently out of a relationship and pretty much a flat-out loser. Everything changes when, on a seemingly random day, it appears that everyone, from his ex-girlfriend to truckers to babies in strollers, wants to MURDER him as soon as he gets within a few feet of him. In other words, it’s a zombie book where the zombies are only after one guy – and that guy is lovable.

My biggest complaint is that there definitely needs to be some editing on this one, since Mayne only had readers help him edit. But it’s still fantastic. Go pick it up!

10. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

Imagine a planet named Urras, large, lush and full of natural beauty. The people who roam the planet are greedy, materialistic, incredibly intelligent and more than happy to oppress lower classes in order to benefit the wealthy. Sound familiar? Something tells me this was an allegory…

Now imagine that a small group of oppressed people from this planet rose up, and after a struggle, were “allowed” to form their own colony on the planet’s large moon, a dusty wasteland known as Annarres. Stay with me, it’s not as nerdy as it seems. Le Guin uses this premise to compare and contrast two worlds – one that is remarkably like our own, and one that is, in almost every way, a perfect anarchist society.

This book is very deep, and much of it reads like a philosophy text. I was tempted to give up a few times, but I pushed through because every time I started to set down the book, Le Guin would slap me in the face with some undeniable but previously unrecognized (by me) truth. It was worth it, hence it being on this list.

9. Seeing by Jose Saramago

Seeing, Jose Saramago

To be fair, I just finished this book last night, so I apologize if this is an emotionally charged review. This book is the sequel to a book that was on my previous list, Blindness. If you haven’t read Blindness yet, I have one question for you: What is wrong with you? That book is amazing, and go read it before you read anything else, including the rest of this post. I mean it, cause there are spoilers ahead for Blindness.

In the firs tbook, we were introduced to an unnamed city in an unnamed nation that was stricken with a plague of temporary blindness that caused everyone to lose their sight for a matter of weeks. The only person to maintain her sight was a wife of an ophthalmologist. The second book, Seeing, is similar in style, with no character names and few periods. The story picks up in the same city, four years later, but it took me a long time to figure that out. In fact, the plague of blindness and the characters in the first book are completely absent from the first half of Seeing. Instead, we are treated to an inside view of a government agency coping with a new crises – in the most recent elections, the vast majority of the population cast a blank vote. This causes all of the government officials to, for lack of a better term, FREAK THE FUCK OUT.

Of course, the relationship between the white sheets of paper cast by the voters and the milky white blindness of the first book is easy to “see,” but the poetry in Saramago’s language takes this link to a whole new level. After treating us to the horrific innards of government for half the book, we are then dragged back into the city, among the people who cast the blank votes, including the heroine of the first novel.

This book gets the award for biggest regret of 2011 – Saramago, why did you have to die before you could turn this two-book series into a trilogy??

8. Alcoholica Esoterica by Ian Lendler

Alcoholica Esoterica, Ian Lendler

The first non-fiction book on my list was given to me by my boyfriend, and I am eternally thankful. As a gin-soaked booze hound, this book has made my love of the drink more compelling and justifiable than ever. In this incredible and hilarious book, Lendler catalogs the history of every type of alcohol, as well as all of the idiosyncratic factoids that you’ve never heard of. The book starts with beer, allegedly the oldest of the boozes, and then takes us on a long romp through the rising popularity of wine. Rum, gin, spirits, cocktails, port, sherry and everything in between get their own chapter, each punctuated with quotes and a biography of famous alcoholics. From the construction of the pyramids to the lounges of Las Vegas, alcohol has been a major character, and this book shows you how. FUN.

What makes this book truly special, and sets it apart from a lot of other historical non-fictions (which can be pompous and hard to digest without a drink) is that Lendler is a true comedian. This book had me laughing out loud on the toilet more than once. Speaking of which, it’s a great bathroom read if you’re one of those poopers out there or needs a little literary boost to get things moving.

7. The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl, Paulo Bacigalupi

This book is perhaps the most “hard” science fiction work on my list (though true lovers of the genre would scoff at that classification in their nasal, nerdy voices). The entire novel takes place in a future Bangkok, well after global warming has ravaged the entire planet. The city is walled in from the tides via a complicated dyke system, and the pressure of the water coupled with the oppressive heat makes this book tense and frightening. Each chapter is told from the perspective a different, seemingly disconnected character, who of course all end up being somewhat connected by the end of the novel.

But more than anything else, what makes this story come to life is the descriptions the author gives you. It doesn’t seem like it’s set in the future, it seems like some awful place we could go visit today. I don’t know who commissioned the cover of the novel (this is one I read in paper, thank Goodness), but as you can see below the artwork is outstanding, and it matches the book very well.

A Megodont

The Wind-Up Girl in the title of this book is only one of the many compelling main characters, but she was by far my favorite. As an escaped life-like robot who had once been a proud servant and since forced into crude and sickening sexual slavery, her voice is original, depressing and the stuff of nightmares. Even if you skim some of the other chapters, it’s worth picking this book up just to read her story.

6. Last  Night at the Lobster by Steward O’Nan

Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O'Nan

Ah, now we are getting to the books that really rocked my 2011. These are the books I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

This quick read (only 140-some pages) catalogs one night at one of the worst places in the world – a Red Lobster in Connecticut. It’s closing night, and Manny, the manager, is severely depressed that the restaurant that has been the center of his life is about to shut down for good. Not only that, but the last night at the lobster is taking place only a few days before Christmas, which would typically be a good day for business, but is marred by a massive blizzard. The book opens when Manny arrives at work alone for his last day, and follows him through his numbing, depressing but oddly beautiful routine in its death throes. The last pages see Manny drive off to a future that is uncertain, leaving behind a chapter in his life that will drill a hole in your heart.

You fall in love with Manny and the hodgepodge collection of co-workers who slip away from him slowly. The “love” story that takes place between Manny and another co-worker is also heartbreaking, and O’Nan doesn’t do anything to sugarcoat it, sticking to his hyper- realistic guns. This book is ideal for those of us who are feeling bludgeoned by the economic slump and consumerist depression that has become a main tenet of American life.

Last Night at the Lobster also gets my award for Best Title of 2011.

5. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

After reading two popular sci-fi/fantasy novels for adults and finding them less than enjoyable (here and here if you want to know) I was thrilled to find this peculiar novel about peculiar children that didn’t feel as contrived or plagiaristic.

The story of this book follows a teenage boy, Jacob, as he uncovers his late Grandfather’s past. His PopPop was a victim of World War II, and possibly suffering from dementia in old age. When Jacob was a child, grandpa would tell him wild tales of a “home for peculiar children,” who had bizarre abilities, watched over by a bird-like woman named Miss Peregrine. As a teenager, Jacob is disenchanted by his grandfather’s tales, until the old man bites the dust, and Jacob is confronted with evidence that his grandfather was telling the truth. Or is Jacob losing his mind as well? Jacob goes on an international trip with his father to find the peculiar home, and that’s when things get really crazy. I won’t say anymore, because the plot is too exciting and bizarre to be ruined by a blog post.

What was most enjoyable about this book was the pictures. Yes, pictures! In a grown up book! All of the photographs the grandfather in the tale uses to convince his grandson that the Home for Children is real are right there in the book for your viewing pleasure. And the best part is, they’re real aged photographs, and boy are the deliciously bizarre. Look:

There’s LOTS more where that came from, but again, I don’t want this list to ruin anything for potential readers. Just go and get it, even if you have a Kindle. The pictures look great on e-readers and paper, so you have no excuse.

4. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

My sister gave me this book, along with two others on the list (numbers 5 and 10) and I’m eternally thankful. She’s a smart chick, so check out her blog here.

This is the best piece of magical realism I’ve read by an American author. The main character and heartbreaking narrator, Rose, is celebrating her 10th birthday when she bites into a piece of home-made lemon cake baked by her mother. Instead of tasting delicious lemon and chocolate, she finds that the cake tastes like sadness. As the book goes on, we learn that Rose can taste the emotions in all of the food she eats, right down to the factory workers who make processed goods. This changes her life forever, as it not only gives her the ability to read people’s emotions, but it also makes it almost impossible to enjoy food the way it is meant to be enjoyed. As the book continues, we begin to realize that Rose isn’t the only person in her family with peculiar powers, and she spends the entirety of the novel trying to make sense of her family’s secrets – both metaphysical and utterly real.

This book won’t give you answers to all of the questions, but it will give you insight into how a sad, odd family functions, and the detriments unhappy familial relationships bring about.

Aimee Bender is a genius with language and story telling, and I can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

3. Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

Room, Emma Donoghue

Oh God, Room. OH GOD ROOM. I still have nightmares about this book. I could say a million good things about this masterpiece, but what will probably drive most people to pick up a copy (assuming they enjoy reading macabre news stories as much as I do) is the plot.

Jack is 5-years-old and has never left Room. He was born there, and has no idea about anything, and I mean ANYTHING, on the outside world. He only knows one other person, his Ma, who has been held captive in Room by a psychotic man known as Old Nick since before Jack was born. The story is told entirely from Jack’s perspective as he struggles with growing up in captivity, and the world that waits outside the four walls that have enclosed him his entire life. The story follows the sad formulas of real-life tragedies such as the Jaycee Lee Duggard and Friztl cases. You can read the true stories of those women if you want, but I recommend picking this one up instead – though no promises that it will be any less horrific.

What most impressed me about the book was the voice Donoghue conjured up to tell the story. It’s nearly impossible to write convincingly in the voice of a child, but Donoghue pulls it off, and she deserves immense respect for doing so. It couldn’t be pleasant, as a writer, to put a child and his mother through so much torment. But the end result is a book that won’t let you put it down.

2. Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler, you are and always will be my favorite science fiction writer. She was the author of the number one book on my first list, and I liked this one almost as much (though since the first book was a trilogy, I have to say it trumped Fledgling.)

Brace yourselves, this is a vampire book. I know, I know, you HATE Twilight and all of the negative attention it’s brought the classic vampire genre. But before you start getting your fangs in a twist, listen to me – I hate Twilight too. THIS book has nothing to do with the awful Stephanie Meyers trilogy, so moveon.org, OK?

The twist this book takes on vampires is delicious and creepy, but not nearly as terrifying.  It opens in the dark, where a small person (thing?) is waking up with complete amnesia, starving, in pain and confused. It stumbles blindly for a while, killing and eating raw meat, and generally being scary. Eventually we come to learn that this thing is a small girl with extraordinary abilities – primarily in the strength, intelligence and teeth departments. She still has no memory of who she is, but it’s quite clear from the start that she’s no human – and a little girl only in appearance.

The girl, Shori, is indeed, a vampire, but not the kind that want to kill you for your blood. When these vampires bite, they do something to their “victims” that could be seen as a form of hypnosis – or a form of love. Whatever it is, it creates an unbreakable bond between the vampires and their “symbionts,” a relationship that is unknown in the world you and I inhabit. Each vampire needs 8 or 9 simbionts to survive, and they live in bliss (or something eerily like bliss) together in isolated, nocturnal villages.

What has happened to Shori involves an unbelievable crime – and possibly a the beginning of a racially charged war between vampire families. The last 100 pages of this book are a rapid account of a major trial that left me screaming in frustration and cheering in joy, though not necessarily in that order.

This is Butler at her finest, and the vampires in this book have more clout, terror and intrigue in their creepy pinkies than the vampire-sphincter-human hybrid Edward Cullen could even dream of.

1. A Billion Wicked Thoughts Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Sai Gaddam and Ogi Ogas

Surprise! My number one pick this year is a non-fiction book. As a lover of fiction and a skeptic of non-fiction, this is a big deal for me. I usually use my leisure reading as form of escapism, and leave the non-fiction on the shelf. However, when I came across A Billion Wicked Thoughts, I was so intrigued I picked up a copy right away, and thanks to that choice, my life has changed dramatically. No exaggeration.

Raise your hand if you like sex. I hope you’re sitting there in the dark, in the light of the computer screen, alone in your underwear, raising your hand. Even if you’re not, and you don’t like sex, you should read this book. Compelling is the only word to describe what lies within, which is what makes it the top book of the year for me.

Gaddam and Ogas are two neuroscientists who had a genius idea that I hope makes them very rich. They realized that the internet is the largest untapped pool of potential sexual science study participants. With search engines receiving millions of searches every day, there is a large amount of anonymous information just sitting out there for us to dine on. And much of it is about sex.

The billion “wicked thoughts” in the book refer to a billion or so web searches recorded by the internet powers that be, then analyzed by the two authors of this book. Using this data, they expand the known world of sex into a universe of unbelievable information, and the facts, suppositions and analyses that they bring forward will make you feel like your fetish for sucking on dairy soaked stuffed teddy bears (or whatever) is perfectly normal. Eat this, Freud.

I would try to explain some of these facts, but I won’t be able to do so as eloquently and comically as the two authors did. But here are some things I picked up on:

  • Searchers for “gay content” are the second most common in terms of sex-related search engine requests, preceded only by those searching for “youth content” and followed by searches for MILFS (or searches for sexy older woman.) WOW.
  • Lots of people are turned on by adultery.
  • There’s a fetish that involves hiding in people’s closets and masturbating while they don’t know you’re there.
  • The penis may have its odd (but hot) shape because it acts like a shovel to scoop out any competing sperm that might be in a partner’s vagina. How ’bout it, evolution?
  • People are often aroused by topics that should be particularly taboo to them, personally.
  • On average, gay men have larger penises than straight guys. SUCKAHS.
  • Porn for men may have unrealistic depictions of women and female sexual behavior, but it’s no more or less unrealistic than the depictions of men in books that are often seen as porn for women:

Yes, there are entire chapters dedicated to romance novels. And gay sex. And adultery. And so much more. This book changed the way I think about sex, my own sexuality, sex with my partner, women, men, straights, gays – even vampires. Please, for the love of god, if you are a sexual creature in any way, go read this book. It should be required for anyone who plans on getting nasty.

So that’s it for 2011! I hope you enjoyed. If you want more recommendations, be sure to check out my lists for 2010 and 2009. Also, leave a comment with any recommendations you may have for me. Happy reading!

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The 15 Best Books I Read in 2010

Hey all. It’s that time again. 2010 is long gone. It was a fucking crazy year, no? For me, 2010 saw a lot of Ohio, a throwback to Boston, a new (and really excellent) boyfriend who I’m thoroughly enjoying, a new and weird job, and lots of great books.

I made a list of the most inspiring books I read in 2009 at the end of last year, and it proved to be useful to many people. I received lots of feedback, and I love hearing from you all, so email me at liam.carnahan@gmail.com if you loved last year’s list, this year’s list or if you have any books you think I might like. In fact, if you think I should add a book to my list, why not post a comment describing why you loved the libro!

Anyway, this year, I did a lot of reading. I wasn’t traveling in South America this time around, instead I was working full-time (wah wah), so I had slightly less time on my hands to turn pages. No 18-hour bus rides this year. But I still managed to squeeze a lot of reading in, and here are my favorites of the year:

15. Pobby and Dingan Ben Rice

Pobby and Dingan, Ben Rice

This book was a breeze, just over 100 pages, and compelling all the way through. Its setting is what grabbed me first, in distant (to me) Australia, near opal mines. The story follows two children, a brother and younger sister. The little girl has become deathly ill because her imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan, become lost in a mine.

The rest of the story follows her brother, who in a heroic effort to save his sister, is faced with not only the dangers of a mine, but also with the struggle every child who ever had a rich imagination must go through – the challenge of comprehending reality.

It’s a little heavy, but it’s peppered with great phrases like “violet crumble” and “opal claims,” as well as odd characters that will definitely bend your reality for 100+ pages. Not my favorite of the year, but most definitely noteworthy.
14. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip K. Dick

 

 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

One of several science fiction classics on my list. This list, like last year’s, is probably going to be a little science fiction heavy, but hey, I’m a nerd. This year I’ve been reading books to spice up my day-to-day living, and nothing helps more than a good story about robots.

The image of the book cover is excellent, but unfortunately the copy I got from my library featured the movie poster for the film version of the book, “Bladerunner.” Which made me look even more like a loser.

NERD COVER

Still, the story is intriguing, and the book is very different from the movie, which was enjoyable but not quite as deep. However, as a side note, the movie does feature Edward James Olmos playing a very skinny Asian (?) man, even though he’s a Mexican-American. Here’s to you, Captain Adama.

In the book, Earth has been mostly deserted, and is now a polluted wasteland almost completely devoid of animals. Exotic animals are now used as a status symbol, but the main character of this book can only afford a very realistic robotic sheep.

His day job, is hunting down robots who have rebelled and killing them. NERD OVERLOAD, I know, but this book was one of the first to really deal with whole human/robot conflict. If that conflict is your cup of tea, then this is a bit like the dictionary.

 

13. Children of Men P.D. James

 

 

Children of Men, P.D. James

 

I’ll admit, I didn’t know this was a book when I saw (and fell in love with) the movie. I would say that I enjoyed the movie more, except that, like the above entry, it is so starkly different from the book that a comparison doesn’t really make sense.

The film Children of Men, starring, Julianne Moore, and Clive Owen, both of whom I would have sex with if they asked. They are in an aging world in which women are no longer able to produce children. They meet a young girl who is pregnant, and embark on a long and horrific journey to protect her from the viciousness of a hopeless populace. In other words, this sorta thing:

Children of Men, The Film

Those things happen in the book, but unlike the movie, the pregnant girl doesn’t reveal herself until nearly halfway through. Instead, the majority of the book focuses on the government and it’s charismatic yet brutal leader Xan, who happens to be the cousin of the main character of the book (Clive Owen for your movie fans.)

This book is a downer, there’s no getting around it. But it’s so detailed and well done that it seems as though P.D. James somehow caught a glimpse of the future. It’s definitely a good companion piece to the movie, and there’s a rumor that a TV show based on the concept is coming our way, written by none other than the man behind Battlestar Galactica. Again, here’s to you, Captain Adama.

12. Timequake Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut

Think of all the things you’ve done since the year 2001. For me, those include but are not limited to, moving over 6 times, having one or two STD scares, over-drawing my account and crying about it more than once, having several boyfriends and getting a tattoo in Peru.

Now imagine reliving each one of those things you’ve done again – saying the same things you said over the past year, making the same mistakes, enjoying the same victories. You’d still be conscious you were repeating these actions, but you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from carrying them out. Even if you had to re-do some horrible, horrible things.

That’s the premise of this weird Kurt Vonnegut book. The story talks about the “timequake” or time hiccup, and the insane aftermath when everyone finally finishes the 10 years of repetition and snaps back into the land of supposed free will.

This is not my favorite Kurt Vonnegut book, but it was still class Kurt and therefore brought all of the witty insight and oddity that I needed to enjoy it. For Kurt V. lovers, it reads like an old friend, but if you haven’t read any Kurt yet, I’d recommend you start out with his classic book that appears further down on my list.

11. American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Oh my fuck. This book is to be read only once. I had heard a lot about this book before I picked it up, but I had no way to prepare myself for what would be inside. There are scenes in this book that freaked me out so much I had to shut it and stop myself from gagging.

This book is all you need to decide that you never want to be a rich, young New York Socialite. Which I guess would be an encouraging message considering how much TV and movies make that lifestyle seem ideal…but I hesitate to say that anything about this book is encouraging. That being said, it’s a curious read, and there’s nothing quite like it on any bookshelf. It’s really great for people who enjoy fucked up books. I know you’re out there.

The portrait that Ellis paints of a member of the New York elite who has a serious mental illness is worth the trip. The book also does a wonderful job of making you go insane with the main character, and leaves you wondering whether the horrific acts inside the book were really…

10. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues Tom Robbins

 

 

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is a weirdo, and I love him for that. This book is about several things: a girl with enlarged thumbs, a flock of whooping cranes, and a ranch that a group of cowgirls seized from a douche tycoon. I mean real douches, like the kind women and gay men may use from time to time to clean themselves “down there.”

This book was shorter than many on my list, but it was so chock full of odd storytelling and incredible, bizarre phrases such as, “His smile was like the first dent on a new car.”

This book came to my attention while I was in the sleep study, because all of the research assistants were reading it and loving it. I also thoroughly another novel of his, Still Life With Woodpecker, which is about cigarettes and redheads, if that’s your thing.

Also, when I would pull this book out in public, such as on the train or in a park, quirky strangers would feel compelled to tell me how much they love Tom Robbins. I see that as a plus.

 

9. Boomsday Christopher Buckley

 

 

Boomsday, Christopher Buckley

 

Here’s a crazy statistic: Every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will become of retirement age. How insane is that? So many old hippies!

Just kidding, I love baby boomers. At least the one’s that haven’t turned into crazy politicians.

This book is about the zany world of politics, and the way the government handles this onslaught of old people. It often had me laughing out loud, then cringing at some ugly insight into the political system nestled in the jokes.

The story centers around a young, am”bitch”ous woman who is a psycho-blogger (ahem) and comes up with a harebrained way to fix the baby boomer problem of social security and all the rest: offer tax incentives for aging boomers who agree to kill themselves at a certain age.

This idea explodes, and ricochets through the slimy government, incredulous Catholic church and everywhere else in Washington. I strongly recommend this book to anyone in their early twenties with parents in their early 50s, and vice-a-verse.

8. Slaughterhouse V Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse V, Kurt Vonnegut

I’m guessing that out of all of the books on this list, this will be the one that most people have read. I first picked up this book in high school, and it has remained one of my favorites of all time ever since. I prefer its alternate title, “The Children’s Crusade,” because that really drives home the point of the book – war is stupid and involves the killing of children. This was also the theme of the top ranking book on this list.

If you haven’t read this, it’s a great introduction to Vonnegut, and is a must-read for strange people who like books. The story follows (sorta) Billy Pilgrim, a war vet who has somehow become “unstuck” in time. Every few moments he wakes up to find he’s in a different time of his life, and sometimes on a different planet.

The best part of this read, in my opinion, is the race of aliens Billy meets called Trafalmagorians, who look like toilet plungers with a hand on top. They see time like a mountain range instead of linearly, meaning they can see all moments of time at once. Try to wrap your brain around that!

7. The Unnamed Joshua Farris

The Unnamed, Joshua Farris

This very new book is a complex story on a simple premise: a man named Tim is afflicted with a disease that forces him to walk aimlessly for long periods. He has no control over where he goes, how long he walks or when he stops. When his long walks finally do come to an end, he falls into a narcoleptic sleep for hours, no matter where he is.

This, obviously, presents a problem for Tim, who tries desperately to hang on to his career, family, body and sanity. Each of those four things slip away from him slowly, some come back, some don’t.

The lawyer, who spent so much of his life chained to his desk, comes completely unhinged, forced into nature and the dangers of the outside world by a force which no doctor or therapist can curb.

Joshua Farris is an excellent writer, and I strongly recommend his other book, And Then We Came to the End. It’s told in the first person collective voice, meaning everything is told from a group’s point of view. Get it, girl.

6. The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood

 

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

 

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Margaret Atwood was sent from the future to give us a warning. She is a time-traveler, and she has painted a picture of a very viable and very scary future. This book is not a pre-quel and not a sequel to her recent book Oryx & Crake (OC), but rather runs concurrently with that novel. I read OC before I read this one, and I can’t decide which I like more.

The characters in these two stories link together only in the slightest ways, so it might be interesting for someone to experiment and read The Year of the Flood before OC. However, the world in which the characters operate is the same. Genetic hybrids run rampant, environmental crises has made everything scorching hot, and moral decay has led to a world where anything (from live-internet executions to mystery burgers made more than questionable meat) is legal. And it’s only going to get worse.

Something tells me there will be a 3rd book in this series soon, and I’ll read it as soon as it comes out. That might be a rumor I’m starting though, so don’t be depressed if I’m wrong.

5. Gun With Occasional Music Jonathan Lethem

Gun With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

Ah, this book helped my boyfriend woo me (as if he needed help.) I loved this book, by the incredible author of As She Climbed Across the Table, also worth a read. This book is Lethem’s shout out to mystery novels and film noir, but he twists it all with his bizarre, unreal and flat-out weird imagination.

The book takes place in Oakland, California, in a time when animals have been scientifically enhanced so that they can walk and talk. The vast majority of the population, including the Private Investigator narrator, are addicted to government issued snort-able drugs with names like Forgetol and Acceptol. They’re titles give you a hint about what they do for the addicts.

The rainy, gray pages of this book definitely drew me in, and it’s making me want to read every Lethem book ever written. This book is the murder-mystery for people who don’t read murder-mysteries. For sci-fi lovers, it’s required reading.

4. Let the Right One In John Ajvide Linqvist

Let The Right One In,John Ajvide Lindqvist

Oh lord, this book scared the CRAP out of me. Not literally, but it is a seriously frightening book. You may have seen either a Swedish or recent U.S. remake of a movie version of the book titled Let Me In. The book is so, so much scarier (and better.)

This is a vampire book, and when my co-worker gave it to me, I rolled my eyes. I am not into the whole vampire shtick that’s happening right now in popular culture. I much preferred (at least in a phobic-fascinated way) the zombie craze of a few years ago. But I gave this one a shot, and I was not sorry.

The story is told from several perspectives, but primarily that of a little boy who is an outcast at school. He is tortured by his classmates, but makes friends with a strange little girl (boy? creature?) who can’t enter rooms without being invited and who won’t go out in the daylight.

It’s all set in Sweden, where extended darkness gives vampirism a  whole new meaning. This book makes you feel as though you’re reading in the dark, and that someone is looking over your shoulder.

The climax of this book is unbelievably tense, and left me shell-shocked. I had to hide the book for a while, which is something I haven’t done in a long time.

3. Soon I Will Be Invincible Austin Grossman

Soon I Will Be Invisible, Austin Grossman

And now for the nerdiest book on my list. My boyfriend also gave me this book, and it was the funniest thing I read this year.

The story of Soon I Will Be Invincible is told by two narrators: a super genius villain and a recent superhero recruit. Dr. Impossible is socially inept, super-intelligent, and all in all a pretty nice guy who is bent on taking over the world, while Fatale, the other narrator, is a young woman who lost most of her body in a car crash, and has been turned into a cyborg soldier with super strength and amazing gadgets.

Nerdy, I know. But Austin Grossman has such a soft spot for the world of superhero comic books and all of the outrageous concepts, costumes, weapons, powers and personalities tucked inside that he wrote a whole novel about them. He praises the sappiness of comics in a way that makes you wish that superheros really did exist

He has also melded the superhero world seamlessly with the modern age we know today. The heroes in his book own makeup companies and are backed by corporate sponsoring. They have press releases. When they’re not working, they wear sweatpants. The Batman-ish character is slightly autistic.

The book is a page turner, and very cathartic for people such as myself, who suppress their nerd every day so as not to freak out normal people. If you’re feeling the winter-doldrums, then move this book to the top of your list.

2. Half Life Shelley Jackson

Half Life, Shelley Jackson

This was the second book I read last year, and my second favorite. Shelly Jackson is weird: her last novel was written in actual tattoos. She enlisted volunteers who were willing to have one word from the book tattooed on themselves. My friend did it. He got the word “It” on his bicep.

Anyway, this book takes place in an alternate future in which nuclear warhead testing has caused a spike in the population of conjoined twins. The narrator has a twin, a second head coming out of her shoulder. Her sister has been asleep for 20 years, which the narrator, Nora, finds quite annoying. She has decided to do something about it.

In her quest to ditch her permanently attached sister, you learn Nora’s looping, bizarre history. The book weaves back and forth through California and Nevada (and a little bit of England), and is interspersed with bizarre poems, notes and other oddities that help tell the story. There are doll houses that are surreally intricate, cooky old women, stuffed animals galore and characters that have no place in the real world, but fit in well in Jackson’s universe.

So far I’m the only person to love this book with such fervor, it may be a little too weird for some people out there. But if you like strange books like I do, then this is a must-read.

1. The Hunger Games Trilogy Suzanne Collins

 

The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzzane Collins

So I cheated again this year and picked three books (a series) as my top choice. The Hunger Games. A lot of people have probably heard of the series, and that’s because it’s so damn good. These books stand out in my mind as the best thing I’ve read across several genres in the past year- It’s the best young adult series, the best postapocalyptic series and the most riveting page-turner I’ve read in a long time. The way the books tell a story reminded me of the hunger (pun!) and intensity I experienced reading the His Dark Materials trilogy and Harry Potter. Though, I like this better than Harry Potter. There I said it.
I’ll give a brief description of the series below. If you trust me enough, I encourage you to just buy the books and don’t read the description. In fact, don’t even read the book jacket, because it gives away too much. You won’t be sorry.

Panem is a country that encompasses all of North America some time in the distant future. There are 12 districts throughout the area, each responsible for the creation of a different form of good, (fish, electronics, agriculture, etc.). Katniss Everdeen is the 16-year-old-narrator, living in the 12th district, which  is responsible for coal mining. She and her people are the poorest in the country, though everyone living in districts one through 12 is destitute, starving.

The lowly people are kept in place by barbed wired fences, oppressive police officers called “peacekeepers” and ultimately a city of wealthy people known as the Capital (which is somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.)

At the start of the second book, it has been 74 years since the districts attempted to rise up against the Capital. They lost, and the result was the Hunger Games: a barbaric, televised event in which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are sent to a high-tech, natural arena and forced to fight to the death for the blood-thristy Capital audience. Their family members are also made to watch the events.

The story follows Katniss as she enters the arena herself, and all that follows after her time there. You will not be able to stop reading once you pick them up, and it’s not just the plot. I found myself eager to find out everything I could about the strange, yet familiar world of Panem. The country is both decrepit and highly technologically advanced. Genetic mutations are normal, and the Capital has invented many new (and terrifying) species to keep the districts in their place.

This book has so much to say about the world we live in. It makes sharp, intense points about children and the roles they play in warfare and in the modern society of reality TV and materialistic worship. I think about the book every day, and talk about it so much that my boyfriend has told me that I need to stop comparing things to the world Suzanne Collins created. Shout out to my best friend Rita and her boyfriend for sending this my way.

Go! Read it! Now!

So that’s it! I spent the beginning of this year re-reading the Hunger Games, but I just started a new book last night, and it looks like it will most definitely be on my list next year.

For now, feel free to email me any suggestions! Liam.Carnahan@gmail.com is the way to go. I’m happy to hear from people who enjoyed this list.
Also, come back to my site soon. I hope to do more posting throughout 2011. Read on, readers.

 

Some Questions for You, Ms. IPad

"Someone ran over my iPod touch."

Well, that didn’t take long.  Everyone was expecting Apple to come out with a tablet computer in 2010.  Here we are, 27 days in, and Steve Jobs and his friends are already on stage practically cumming in their own pants about how awesome it is.  And I’m sure that I too will be at least mildly aroused when I see my first one in the flesh (or in the metal, as it were).  It looks pretty freaking sweet.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some serious questions about it.

Before I get to far into this, let me give you some of the best links and videos I’ve found while searching through the web like a starving and curious chimp for more information about the iPad.

  • The New York Times is of course live blogging the event.   The blog is pretty funny, especially the part when Steve Jobs pulls up the New York Times technology section, and the NYT blogger fears that if he clicks on the live blogging link, the space-time continuum may be destroyed.
  • First, click here if you want to learn almost nothing about the iPad, but get a sense of the awkwardly self-masturbatory feel of the press conference where it is being released.
  • CNN actually has some of the best videos so far.  I usually hate CNN, mostly because I think they’re mixing up Anderson Cooper with Jesus.  Here’s CNN’s best video so far.  A comprehensive look at the iPad, not to mention a video of a dog on a surfboard(?).
  • This advertisement from Apple (it will be a while before we see an opinion of this item that isn’t from its creators), makes the machine look like heaven.
  • CNN also has this interesting video hosted by an unsettling woman that gives the history of tablet pcs, which apparently predate me in age.

I’m no stranger to Steve Jobs’ technological wizardry.  I bought my first Mac about 4 years ago in college, and I’m still using it, even to write this blog post right now.  Though my computer is a little wheezy, I have to say this machine has lasted longer (at a high speed) than any other computer I’ve had.  I’m also a big fan of my iPod touch, which I bought after a man made me feel bad about him stealing my old iPod in Chicago.  So, considering my past experience with Macintosh Machinery, I have the following questions about the iPad:

Why in God’s name is it called the iPad?

I my opinion, the word “pad” has its place in the common consciousness, and it’s not with you, Apple.  I don’t want my computer to remind me of feminine hygiene products.  Sorry ladies, but it grosses me out.  I’m not the first one to make this connection:

Furthermore, I think it’s too close to iPod.  When you say iPad it kind of sounds like you made a speecho, which is a phrase my sister coined for when your tongue gets tangled while talking.  I’m wondering, how many people over at Apple sat around a big glossy table or on comfy couches with lattes and brainstormed before they came up with this name.

Are we being locked into a world where there is no Apple Alternative?

Recently my computer, which is full of crap I need for work, informed me that in order to access the iTunes store to download my free NPR podcasts, I had to install the newest version of Safari, Apple’s internet browser.  Beside the fact that I don’t use Safari because it kind of blows, I can’t fit it on my computer’s hard drive.  So, even though I paid for my iPod and laptop, Apple has made it so that I can’t use iTunes to the fullest extent.  It is shameless self promotion.  Judging by the videos of the iPad, this device is pretty heavy into software.  It runs on apple software exclusively; instead of shaping their machine to fit the usages already out there, companies and innovators have to shape their products to fit Apple’s hardware.  So, where does this leave us?  Well, I fear it leaves us with a monopoly of sorts.  It’s not hard to imagine that this computer will not open doors, but limit you to what you’re able to do.  If a company doesn’t conform to Apple standards, then that company has no place in the newest and hottest wave of technology.  Is that right and fair?

Is this a Computer Klutz’s nightmare?

If there are two things I’m good at in life, they are falling down and spilling drinks.  This computer seems like it doesn’t jive with these two skills.  The only reason my laptop has been able to survive for so long is because I can fold it in half, thus protecting its precious innards from my frequent battles with gravity.  The iPad seems like it’s wide open and begging for me to spill any number of sugary drinks all over it.  As a freelance writer, my computer is my lifeline, so I need something durable.  This baby is pretty, but can I fall on top of her twice in one day without buying 2 new iPads?  Fortunately, they do offer a case that covers the iPad, as well as keyboard and dock for upright usage.  Which brings me to my next concern.

What exactly is your definition of “accessory”, Mr. Jobs?

Must have.

Everyone in the media, myself included, is stoked about the price of this machine.  Though apple could charge upwards of $2,000 bucks for this machine, they start at just $499.  That is awesome!  I can afford it!  Of course, I wouldn’t dare to buy the first edition (see below for more on that).  However, what you are paying $499 for is basically an iPod touch that looks like it may have been put through the taffy stretcher.  It’s just like my iPod touch in so many ways, except that it doesn’t fit in my pocket.  No 3G network, no ability to make off the internet phone calls.  Without the ability to slip this puppy into my pocket on a walk, I’m not sure I’d want it.  What Steve Jobs is arguing is that this is not just an iPod touch, but more than that, and more than a laptop too.  Well, in order for it to be more than a laptop, it has to be easy and comfortable to use; this means that it has to sit upright so you don’t have to hunch over like a Neanderthal, and it has to have actual keys for good typing.  Which means you need to buy accessories.  Which means that the $499 price may be a tempting myth.  Which reminds me…

What kind of planned obsolescence does Apple have up its sleeve?

Some of the people I feel it is most justified to laugh at are those who line up early on the first day of the release of a new item.  In a world where technology is only new for 15 seconds, what is so important about being first?  It’s not a sign of pride.  Companies nowadays use a little technique called “planned obsolescence“.   For those who aren’t familiar with the term, you are familiar with its benefits.  This term describes the way in which manufacturers makes a product that, after a certain amount of time or usage, will become useless either because it’s broken or because it’s uncool.  Apple is the biggest offender of this.  That’s why there are so many different kinds of iPods.  So consider this:  The iPad doesn’t have a camera built in.  You can’t take video or pictures.  Do you think it’s because Apple doesn’t have the technology to put a video into the computer?  No, it’s because in about 6 months to a year they will release the iPad 2.0, which will have camera and video technology.  Then all those schmucks who lined up for the first iPad will throw theirs out and line up for the new one.  Then in another year they’ll release an iPad that can play adobe player.

I suggest waiting a year or two.  Then they’ll have everything on the computer that is necessary, and the accessories will be available on amazon.com for a discounted price.

I don’t want to sound too cynical, but I do think it’s dangerous to get too worked up about a product that is essentially a big iPod touch.  Let’s wait and see what happens, ok America?

The 15 Most Influential Books I Read in 2009

 

Wait! Before you read any further! If you like this post, don’t miss my most recent book list: The Best Books I Read in 2010! OK, resume.

Last year was a big reading year for me, primarily because without college I have so much more time to read books that really boggle my brains.  What I like about constantly having a book going is the way the world around you changes depending on what your reading.  A book about aliens will make your everyday interactions with existence alien-related.  Or black hole related.  Or reincarnation related.

There are some books that I read last year, however, that have stayed in my brain and still color my perception, even though I closed them a while ago.  So, as a sum up of 2009, I present the 15 most influential books I read last year.

15.  A Spot of Bother Mark Haddon

 

I read this book in one sitting on an 18 hour bus ride.  I had nothing else to do but read, as the scenery out my window was desert and only desert.  So I enveloped myself inside the fun-house mirror world in this book, written by the same guy who wrote the wildly popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The best thing about this book are the characters, who are actually based on you and your family, except slightly more neurotic and idiotic.  Neuridiotic, if you will.  Shifting from the severely limited perspective of the narrator of his last book, the narrator of A Spot of Bother can jump into the heads of each character, even those who are losing their mind.  The family members in the book rip each other to shreds in a slow, sad way.  However, the story had me laughing out loud several times, (though I usually found myself cringing only a few pages later.)  It was perfect for a bleak bus ride, and though it didn’t leave too much of a lasting impression, it definitely tinted the whole journey.  Thanks to Caroline for the book!

14. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom Corey Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is a big fan of the cyber-punk genre.  Judging by the rest of this list, he and I have that in common.  The best thing about this book is the setting.  Almost all of it takes place in the Disney World of the future, which has become the most sacred place on earth; it is a cherished gem of ancient art.  The storyline follows an all-out war between the people who manage The Hall of the Presidents and the  team that operates The Haunted Mansion.  Additionally, everyone has computers in their brains that allow them to communicate rapidly with one another sans vocalization.  Though it wasn’t the most morally profound book (it is about Disney, after all) it’s a fast read that you won’t be able to put down.  Come to think of it, I read this one in another 18 hour car ride, from Ohio to Connecticut.  You can see why I might have needed a bit of escape.

13.  The History of Love Nicole Krauss

I picked up this book because I am an intense fan of Nicole Krauss’s husband Jonathen Safron Foer, who wrote one of my all time favorite novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  You can see why he married the woman who wrote this book.  Like her husband, Nicole Krauss has mastered language and ingenuity.  This book features graphs and charts, and she has no qualms about playing with form.  The storyline, like almost all of her hubby’s work, is dreadfully sad but wildly insightful.  Though I don’t want to solely compare her to her husband, I did feel that his books achieve slightly more.  However, this book is very well crafted, and Nicole Krauss will no doubt be out with several more books to twirl the imagination.

12. The Invention of Hugo Cabret Brian Selznick

 

Man I wish this book had been around when I was a kid!  This was another one-sitting book for me, in the bean bag chair at my library in the kids section, which is where you should read it.  (Though you can go to your own library if they have a bean bag chair).  Talk about mixing genres, Selznick combines words, photographs and incredible drawings, making this semi-non-fictional 500+ page book entirely unique.  The majority of the book is sweeping pencil drawings that zoom in on certain faces or places as you turn the pages.  Here’s an example of some of the artwork you can look forward to:

Brian Selznick has somehow kept his childhood imagination perfectly intact, and has poured it out succinctly and beautifully into these pages.

11.  Generosity:  An Enhancement Richard Powers

This book is one of the most realistic fiction books that incorporates a strong science-fiction theme into its storyline.  Set in a Chicago that isn’t quite Chicago, Richard Powers follows the story of a writing teacher at an arts school (it felt so much like my old college days I thought maybe Powers had been stalking me).  He is depressed and cynical, but his entire life changes when he meets a student who, despite her refugee status, is so naturally and thoroughly ebullient that he can’t resist her charm.  Nor can anyone else who meets her.  The story embarks from there on the scientific research of a happiness gene, and spends the rest of its length discussing the morality of manipulating human genes to make everyone naturally cheerful.  Throughout the short novel Powers reflects distorted characters from our reality (think a white, Catholic-Irish Oprah).  It’s profound to the maximum, and I’m desperate to talk about it with more people, so read it.

10.  Fear and Loathing in Lost Vegas Hunter S. Thompson

Though I don’t have many “classics” on my list, this one I couldn’t leave off.  This book holds its place in the popular consciousness because it is so far from anything else out there.  Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s actual experience taking almost every single kind of drug you can imagine (and some you can’t) while covering news stories in Las Vegas, the book is hysterically funny, and almost painful to read because the characters are so destructive and risky.  I bought the movie afterward, and have to admit that it is just as good as the book.   Fear and Loathing is known as the ultimate piece of Gonzo journalism, a genre which is all too relevant today.  In fact, one might say that all modern American TV news has morphed into Gonzo Journalism, though how many drugs Nancy Grace is on is still in question.

Eric Larson

If you couldn’t tell, I’m much more of a fiction reader than non-fiction.  I prefer imagination to fact, but in some cases there are facts that go roguer than Sarah Palin.  In an incredible narrative, Eric Larson tells the story of two men:  the architect behind the 1839 Chicago World’s fair, and a serial killer who preyed on the fair-goers.  These two men never met, but at times were less than a mile from each other.  What is unique about this book is the way Larson weaves these two stories together, using his in-depth research and powerful vocabulary to make your heart race.  Though the sections on the World’s Fair’s organization enthralled me (and made me mourn for the fact that the World’s Fair will never happen again, at least not in the magical way it did back then), I was ripping through the pages to find out more about the creepy serial killer.  He designed a hotel around his desire to murder young and impressionable women, and Larson reveals the details of his killings in a sickly fascinating way.  All of this, and I learned more about mid-1800s America life than I ever thought I would.

8.  As She Climbed Across the Table Jonathen Lethem

How I love thee, Jonathan Lethem.  This book is deliciously bizarre.  It follows the story of a jilted lover, whose physicist girlfriend left him not for a scholar or artist, but for a black hole she created in her laboratory.   The black hole becomes a national interest, and the hilarious cast of characters that interact with the hole and the narrator (including two bumbling blind men and an…unconventional therapist) will make your brain vibrate with joy.  This book takes the mad scientist to a real, possible level without looking back.  It is a lovely and easy read, but the ending, guaranteed, will shock and mystify you.  If you love the Large Hadron Collider, go get this read ASAP.  Thanks to Matt Starring and Rita for this!

7.   Never Cry Wolf Farly Mowatt

 

Everything you think you know about wild wolves is wrong.  In a hilarious narrative, Farley Mowatt tells the true story of his journey into the Canadian wilderness to study wolves.  Mowatt himself makes the book worth reading; he is a strange and frighteningly smart man who has no qualms about pissing on rocks and turning in circles before he lays down for a nap, all in the cause of getting to know these animals better.  This book shatters the scary wolf image, and shows that they are nothing more than very smart, very powerful dogs.  I was skeptical about the book when it was first given to me, but within the first 3 pages I couldn’t stop reading, and in fact didn’t stop reading until it was over.  As an added bonus, the book also makes a harrowing call on the side of environmentalism, and concludes with a sad ending about the future of the wolf.  Thanks for this one, April!

6.  Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut

I’m a little ashamed that it took me so long to read this, as Kurt V. is one of my literary heroes.  I suppose that because people rave about it so much, I was afraid it would either be disappointing or take away from my deep-seated love for Breakfast of Champions.  However, this book is perfect for today.  As usual for Kurt, it’s about war.  But it’s page-or-so long chapters, as only Kurt can do, peel the skin off warfare and leave its raw, sadly comical innards exposed.  The next time you’re feeling bummed out about Afghanistan, read this book, even if you already have.  I can’t guarantee that it will make you feel better about war, but it will certainly make your thinking more pleasant.

5.  Blindness Jose Saramago

This book fucked me up.  Seriously fucked me up.  You may have seen the movie, which was one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen.  They put almost everything in the book into the movie, except for 2 quite gruesome and depressing moments.  For those of you that don’t know the premise, this story takes place in a nameless city, where a man is suddenly struck blind while driving.  His blindness turns out to be contagious, and soon everyone begins to lose their sight.  The main character is a woman who seems to be the only person immune to the disease, and for more than half the book she’s living a hellish (and I mean HELLISH) quarantine facility in an abandoned mental hospital.  If the story line isn’t enough, the commentary on humankind is intensely profound.  Add to this that the book makes you feel as if you are going blind (there are almost no periods in the book and not a single character is given a name).  You will be sucked into the white pages and the terrifying, familiar world they describe.

4.  Cloud Atlas David Mitchell

What makes this gem stand out among the others on the list is its construction.  I picked up this book and immediately began to wonder why my teacher, Peter Shippy, had recommended it to me.  The storyline took place in the early 1800s, one of my least-favorite eras to read about.  The language was confusing, the storyline uninteresting, and then, suddenly, on page 38, the story ended abruptly.  I’m talking mid-sentence.  I almost took the book back to my library and told them they had a bad copy, but after conferring with my partner Rita, I continued to read.  The next story moved on at a slightly better pace, then ended abruptly again.  Then it happened again, and I realized that as these stories went on, I was traveling forward in time.  1800s, 1930s, present day…and then the stories started to move into the future.  A Korean clone manufactured to work at a terrifying version of McDonald’s was next.  After that story ended abruptly, you move on to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.  Finally, here,  you get the entire story.  It spans the center of the book, and then…you begin to boomerang backward.  You get the rest of the story about the Korean clone next, then back to present day, then on and on until you’re back in the 1800s.  After the first two stories, I couldn’t stop reading.  Each of the complexly crafted accounts take on a different format (journal, letter, interview), and are connected to the others in a sensual and spiritual way.  To make it simple, this book is hot and intense sex for the brain.

3.  Feed M.T. Anderson

Enter the best Young Adult novel for the modern age.  This book was so influential it inspired me to write an entire blog entry about it.  This book stands among The Giver and Fahrenheit 451 in that it is an essential read for the nerdy adolescent who likes to think too much.  Feed forecasts where our times are going, but it does so from one of the scariest perspectives of all time:  the teenager.  American Teens of the Future are so immersed in technology (or perhaps the technology is immersed in them) that they can’t escape it for even an instant.  Marketers have latched on to them, and even at the most tragic moments of pubescence, they can’t avoid having someone suggest that they buy a new rugby shirt.  If technology and marketing continue to grow hand in hand, there is no doubt that the world of Feed will soon be our own.  M.T. Anderson created an entirely new language for the teens in his book, even more realistic and unique than that in A Clockwork Orange.  I also can assure you that you will cry like a baby for the many tragic losses in this book.

Bonus:  As one of my readers commented, the audio version of this book is AMAZING!  I usually don’t enjoy hearing books on tape, but I recommend it for those with long commutes.

2.  Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood

What can I say about this book besides you have to read it to believe it?  Atwood is known for her storytelling, and this book is no exception.  This may be my favorite post-apocalyptic book of all time.  Atwood covers everything about our modern times, and hits it all squarely on the head.  The world has been destroyed by a lethal combination of genetic engineering and lust for amorality.  We made the science roller-coaster go way too fast, and almost everyone on the planet was thrown from an incredible height to their death.  Now you get the story of one of the sole survivors, and the way he slowly reveals the demise of civilization and Earth will chill you to the bone.  Nothing I could write in one paragraph would describe the awe and overpowering feelings I had upon finishing this book, so I’ll stop there.

Bonus:  After you read it, or before if you want, check out this art.                        Double Bonus:  Margaret Atwood wrote a sequel to this book!  Joy!

1.  Lilith’s Brood Octavia Butler

This book holds the number one spot because not a single day goes by when I don’t shudder because something in my daily life reminds me of this book (or rather, this trilogy of books).  Octavia Butler loved to write creepy science fiction, and the aliens in this book are the most well thought-out, intriguing and downright disgusting creatures I’ve read about.  The aliens come to save us from ourselves, but their morals, their history, and their ultimate goal is so, well, alien that I’m still confused as to how I feel about them.  I don’t know what happened to Butler to make her write this way, but the central theme and most outrageous part of this book is the way humans mate with the highly intelligent, tentacled aliens.  The sex in the book is beautiful and so utterly disturbing that at times I had to put the book away (and at one point, hide it somewhere where I wouldn’t even see it).  I got so grossed out and intrigued by tentacles (which play a huge part in the sex) that my own arms started to freak me out when I would wash them in the shower.  Of course, the book makes a huge statement about the human race and our own trajectory.  It is frustrating, disturbing, riveting and of course, so influential that life is never the same afterward.

 

 

So that’s it. Those are the books that colored my perception in 2009.  I’m already 2 books into 2010, both of which I expect to be on my list for next year.  If you have read or plan to read one of these gems, feel free to leave a comment.  I am dying to hear what other people thought of these books.

And don’t forget, I have published a new list of books for 2010!

M.T. Anderson’s “Feed” and Us

I recently read Feed by M.T. Anderson.  Since I finished it, it has been stuck in my mind like a microchip.  It’s prediction of the future is barely a prediction; rather, it’s more of a summary of the current state of existence followed by a gentle stretching into the future that is already here.  The story is about a young and sympathetic teenager named Titus living in a world where everyone has a chip in their brain called a Feed.  The book follows Titus as he navigates the sloppy world of teenage friendships and virgin romances, all intensely affected by his and his friends’ Feeds.

The Feed is, on one hand, a Google in your brain.  You can look up words you don’t know in an instant, or, as the narrator of the book argues “Figure out which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in”.  That’s the kind of things you hear all the time in the book, along with people making fun of each other for using big words.  All of it is written from the perspective of a teenager, and his voice is filled with the uncertainties of teenage language:  “It’s like…um…well…I don’t know it just is.”

The Feed interacts with you in real-time.  As you pass by a store you see advertisements for a sale on rugby shirts, and with just a simple thought you can buy them and have them sent to your house.  It also allows you to chat privately with those around you, even while in a large group.  It is, in essence, a constantly chattering commercial seated permanently in your brain.  It never ceases; even at the most horrific moments of life it will try to sell you blue jeans.

Shopping technology that enhances the experience of able to gossip about your friends right in front of their faces necessitates that this book be a warning call to Young Adults.  It reads The Giver or Fahrenheit 451, but for the modern age, and it deserves a place among these as a giant and essential book for Young Adults.  And by the way, I think that because humans are living longer and longer every year, the Young Adults of the modern age include everyone 36 and under.

Needless to say, I loved the book.  Although M.T. Anderson fills the book with hilarious tidbits (the teenage lingo, for example), everything is singed with sadness about what we have allowed ourselves to become.  The Feed is  only inches away from the bombardment of advertising that we all sludge through every day.  Not to mention, technology is affecting all social relationships in new and unpredictable ways, even for grown-ups.  I can’t stop thinking about The Feed.

Which is why I flipped out when I found this video from TED.com

That’s The Feed!  Right there!  But it’s not so terrifying.  It’s almost beautiful.  I wonder, however, about the scientists behind this and how they see the world.  They have conceived and created this fascinating little piece of future, and it has such pontential to be a world-altering, progress slinging angel.  But, do they not see the advertisers crouching on the sidelines, frothing at the mouth over this?

For instance, consider the moment where Pranav goes to the supermarket and picks up paper towels.  As he has designed it, it would tell you how “economically responsible” the item was.  But, would this really happen?  Wouldn’t the Bounty corporation take over their image and force you to watch an advertisement where someone balances three plastic elephants on a Bounty paper towel…and they DON’T FALL THROUGH!  Buy it!

I want the Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry world, but I’m afraid the M.T. Anderson’s world will eat it up and spit out the bones.

The other question I must ask:  How long will that chunky machine we carry everywhere just be inserted inside our brains or bodies? How long until, instead of having words projected on a wall, you just see them on the wall.  And what would that mean?  I think we’ll find out, because at this point I think there’s no turning back.

Taking It Easy On the Laid Off

In case you don’t want to read the whole post, here’s what I’m getting at:  If you have a story or see something that is an example of someone reaching out to the unfortunate in this economic crises, no matter how humble their effort, share it!  Post it here, link it to a website, or email me the story/photo at liam.carnahan@gmail.com and I’ll post it.

My mom, like many people, is trying to find a few ways to make a little extra money these days.  She’s a bit of a green thumb, and has been growing beautiful blue flowers called Comfrey for a while now.  It’s made a bunch of our neighbors stop and stare, and it appears to be hard to find in plant nurseries.  But the stuff grows like crazy, and is hard to kill.  It was taking over a bit, so she had this idea:

Buy Some Comfrey!

Buy Some Comfrey!

She made $30.00 off of six plants!  But that’s not even the best part.  Take a look at the sign close up.

Free if you've been laid off!

Free if you've been laid off!

I thought it was rad (and funny) that my mom, who often sells things outside her modest Maine home on an honor system (money through the mail slot), was making this gesture for laid off folks.  It’s not much, since the plants didn’t cost her more than a few dollars before the recession even started.  But still, even if a laid off person is walking by and doesn’t buy the flowers, it’s nice to hear strangers saying “Sorry about the times, wish to help you out”.  And if they do take the plant, blue flowers can be a great way to brighten up (however slightly) an unemployed life.  Not to mention they should have time to plant it.

I’m inspired by this, and was hoping I could hear about some other stories or pictures about people reaching out to laid off strangers.  If you have a story or see something that reminds you of my mom’s efforts, or just an encouraging story about helping the unfortunate in this economic crises, share it!  Post it here, link it to a website, or email me the story/photo at liam.carnahan@gmail.com and I’ll post it!

Tripping on San Pedro at the Temple of the Moon

NOTE: This is a factual blog post about an intense but wonderful drug experience I had three days ago. If you feel this may be upsetting for you (mom) please either don´t read it or try to hold your tongue.

Echinopsis Pachanoi, commonly referred to as San Pedro, is the oldest cactus on our planet. It dates back 20,000 years and has been used by many civilizations, including the Incans here in Cusco. It was banned by the FDA in the US in 1970, but is perfectly legal here in Peru. Many tourists will come and pay a lot of money (sometimes several hundred dollars) to have a Shaman help them with the experience of San Pedro. What these people don´t know is that you can do San Pedro all by yourself, safely and cheaply, without a Shaman trying to put restrictions on your experience. And that is precisely what Laura, Nebraska and I did. What follows is a picture heavy (since the trip was so visual) post about the wonderful and bizarre experience we had on San Pedro, from start to finish.

In order to prepare, we fasted for about 12 hours. Some websites suggested fasting for longer, but we all love eating too much to quit for very long. San Pedro is for sale at the San Pedro Market (how convenient). We read several websites about the best ways to take the drug, and had resolved to buy the actual cactus itself and cook it, since that was what we were told was most effective, and we thought that the cactus was the only thing for sale. After asking several vendors in the market where we could find San Pedro, we stumbled upon apparently the only booth that sells the stuff. Here´s a picture of the booth and the girl, about 17 years old I would guess, who sold us the goods.

The Booth

The Booth

The girl had everything. Full cacti, pre-mixed beverages that only required heating up, and she even offered us an Yauasca cigarette, which is a much more intense drug that I´ve heard should only be used with a Shaman. Though we had heard that the tastiest way to consume SP was to use actual whole cactus, we couldn´t resist the dried up San Pedro powder she offered. While all other forms of preperation took several hours, all we had to do was put the powder in hot water like tea and drink up. Then, she claimed, about a half an hour later we would begin to trip, and it would last for 4 hours.

One Dosage

One Dosage

Each bag of powder, enough for 1 person, cost 5 soles, which is currently $1.58. So for $4.72 the three of us were able to have the most intense and fun trip that we´ve had. I´ve only done mushrooms, but my two companions have done more, and still said this trumped it. But, before the fun starts, you have to work a little bit.

San Pedro is notorious for tasting awful. We knew that it would probably be a little harder to drink the stuff like tea, so we bought some lemons and honey to help us get it down.

Our tea cups, honey, limes and San Pedro waiting for water to boil.

Limes, Honey and San Pedro waiting for water to boil.

We began to ingest it, and the taste was WAY WORSE than expected. The horrible bitterness stuck to the back of your throat like glue. The concoction itself looked like green phlegm, and the worst part was, in order to get the proper dosage we each had to drink four mugs of it.

Goopy

Goopy

It took about an hour and 15 minutes before we were all done. Laura puked halfway through her ingestion, which is not all that surprising, most people vomit at some point (we all did as you´ll read).

Laura no likey.

Laura no likey.

Step 1

Step 1

Step 2

Step 2

Step 3.  Repeat.

Step 3. Repeat.

Since the woman at the booth said it would only take a half an hour to set in, we were all feeling a little strange (and Nebraska and I slightly queasy since we had yet to purge) and decided to get outside as fast as possible. We had read that San Pedro is like mushrooms in that nature, and sunlight in particular are exquisite while high.

Unfortunately it was a kind of rainy day, which disappointed me at first. We all agreed to take a taxi to La Templa De La Luna, an old Incan temple (to the moon) that is free because it is not as intricate as the other ruins nearby. However, the Temple of the Moon is a giant rock in a valley with cliffs on either side, forests surrounding it, an expansive view of the valleys and fields of flowers on either side, and all of the steps, animals and caverns made by the Incans were carved into the side of a massive, natural boulder. Sounds pretty ideal.

On the cab ride up the cab driver insisted on telling me over and over that it was raining, and asking was I sure I wanted to go to the temple of the moon. The last thing I wanted to do at that time was talk in a language other than my first, but I was polite enough, and in retrospect I think the conversation helped me stop myself from vomiting in the cab. It was an overcast day the entire time, and though sunlight was supposed to be exquisite, the massive, fast moving clouds, cool droplets of rain, shifting breeze and most importantly loud and vibrating thunderstorm that happened that day made up for the lack of sun.

All of us were feeling pretty strange by the time we got there, but I thought it only felt like being on a little bit of pot and slightly tipsy. I was able to walk, but it felt strange to do so. Laura and I hiked around a bit while Nebraska resolved to stay on top of the temple. Shortly after we set down the temple and into one of the ravines carved into the bottom, I burped and tasted San Pedro. Almost immediately I started vomiting.

I have never puked like this before. It wasn´t painful, though it was unpleasant to taste. However, it felt like something was coming out of me from somewhere other than my stomach. It´s tough to describe, but I have read of other accounts of strange vomiting. While both Laura and Nebraska´s vomit was clear, my was a hateful, dark green. Shamans say that when this kind of thing comes out of you, it means you are letting out something that has been wounding you or keeping you down. Let´s hope they´re right.

After I finished vomiting the real trip set in. What followed was 8 hours (not 4 like the girl claimed) of the most lucid, beautiful and moving drug experience I have had to date. I hesitate to compare it to mushrooms, but the appreciation and awe I had for nature was similar to how I feel when I have taken magic shrooms, except much more calming and powerful. It also had little to no paranoia, and also held some other sort of calming, lucid quality that mushrooms lack. The trip also turned out to be multifaceted, and was constantly changing. I experienced everything from extreme happiness, personal insight, a serious feeling of connection to Pachamama (mother earth), vibrations through my body, and towards the end of the trip, visualized various figures and dances in smoke from a stick of incense. It was fun, but I do have to say that every so often a wave of nausea would rise up, I would think I was going to vomit again, but then it would disappear. I´m going to post pictures that I took while tripping, to show you what kind of a place I was in.

We began at the top of a cliff overlooking the temple.

We began at the top of a cliff overlooking the temple.

Jason contemplating Peru.

Jason contemplating Peru.

We all wanted to get as high as possible, so we climbed this baby.

We all wanted to get as high as possible, so we climbed this baby.

Next we made our way to this ledge.  Temple of the moon in the background.

Next we made our way to this ledge. Temple of the moon in the background.

Next we made our way to one of Cusco´s many magical (and sadly man made) Eucalyptus forests.

Next we made our way to one of Cusco´s many magical (and sadly man made) Eucalyptus forests.

It wasn´t long before we were all laying down...

It wasn´t long before we were all laying down...

on this spoungy moss....

on this spoungy moss....

and stared at these treetops as they danced for us.

and stared at these treetops as they danced for us.

Starving, we decided to descend into the city slowly to find food.  We came upon this little tienda built into the side of the monutain, and stopped for some water.

Starving, we decided to descend into the city slowly to find food. We came upon this little tienda built into the side of the monutain, and stopped for some water.

This was a trip.

This was a trip.

We ended up staying for a few coca-colas, which are delightfully more fizzy at this altitude. Though the man running the tienda seemed a little cold at first, he eventually came out to talk to us. I hope we didn´t sound too much like idiots; oddly my Spanish seemed to be coming out easier. The first thing the guy did is come out and point at the rock that made up the wall behind where I was sitting. Then he explained in Spanish that the rock behind me used to be a sacrificial altar for the Incans. It was carved there because the rock where the tienda now stood used to resemble the crown of a head. Weird.

Sacrafice

Sacrafice

Blue Nebraska was tripping me out.

Blue Nebraska was tripping me out.

The man behind the counter also eventually pulled out a bottle of clear liquid, which we later determined was fermented sugar cane, and offered us each some. We accepted once he told us it was good for headaches and stomachaches. We all were pretty hungry and still slightly woozy from the SP. It tasted like very strong wine, and I swear I could feel every little drop of it warming my throat and stomach. It was glorious.

We made our way down into the city, which was overwhelming. I have a friend down here who did San Pedro before going to a crowded bar, and that sounds terrible to me. San Pedro is a drug meant to be done in the most naturally beautiful place you can get your hands on.

We finally made it to an Indian restaurant, and though we were all able to put away a lot of food, it did almost nothing to end the trip. We made our way home, lit some incense and watched shapes appear in the blue smoke. By that time we were all ready for the trip to end, and luckily Laura made the discovery that a hot shower cut the feelings of San Pedro severely. After we all were showered, we took a moment to collect ourselves and then we left to get me my first tattoo.

I made the decision while in the Eucalyptus forest that I wanted to get the mountains that run behind cusco tatooed between my shoulder. I have been wanting a tattoo for a while, and always telling myself that there is nothing I like enough to get permanently put on my skin. But then I came to the conclusion that I could say that forever, and that I ought to jump at the first pretty idea I had that didn´t seem like a fad. Unless a mountain kills my family, I think I´ll always have respect for the Andes of Cusco, especially after they showed me such wonderful things that day.

Preparing

Preparing

Be a man.

Be a man.

tot

It´ll look even better when it´s not bruised.

And that´s my interpretation of San Pedro. I recommend it to people who have some experience tripping, and who don´t mind suffering a bit to get to the high. I probably won´t ever do SP again, but I am extremely happy I did.

Things are coming to a close here in Peru. I leave Monday for a new adventure in Buenos Aires! Stay tuned.