Friday, January 01, 2016

2015 Book Awards

So last year, I decided to shamelessly steal from my friend Peter Bratt and start reviewing my reading list at the year's end.  See that post for 2014 here.
I'm now planning on making this an annual tradition, so here are my books from 2015

1. Anno Dracula by Kim Newman January 3, 2015
2. Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman January 20, 2015
3. Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman January 22, 2015
4. Alexander: The Sands of Ammon by Valerio Massimo Manfredi,February 9, 2015
5. The Natural Approach by Stephen D. Krashen and Tracy D. Terrell, March 5, 2015
6. Alexander: The Ends of the Earth by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, March 6. 2015
7. About Language by Scott Thornbury, March 7, 2015
8. The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow March 17, 2015
9. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault March 28, 2015
10. Grammar for English Language Teachers by Martin Parrott, April 2, 2015
11. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault April 30, 2015
12. Funeral Games by Mary Renault May 13, 2015
13. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain June 23, 2015
14. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, August 10, 2015
15. Tom Sawyer Abroad by Mark Twain, November 13, 2015
16. Tom Sawyer Detective by Mark Twain November 20, 2015

A rather pathetic year in reading, I'm ashamed to say.  It's less than half the number of books I managed to knock off last year.

So what caused the dramatic decline in my reading?  
A number of things, all related to my moving from Phnom Penh to Saigon in April.

Phnom Penh, because of it's relatively small indigenous population (compared to other world capitals), and because it had been flooded with NGO workers, UN workers, and foreign missionaries, had developed a lot of cafes and coffee shops catering to Westerners.  On my days off, I would wander from one air conditioned cafe to the next, and got a lot of reading done simply in this way.

Saigon also has plenty of coffee shops.  (The Vietnamese really love their coffee.)  But it's much more in the Asian style--small stools set up on the sidewalk out in the hot sun.  I could never really relax in these places.  There were Western style cafes as well, but Saigon is a lot more spread out than Phnom Penh, so I couldn't really walk from place to place as easily.  And then, when I did get to a place, they were a lot more crowded and busy than the cafes in Phnom Penh, so it was hard to just find a table in the corner and lose yourself in your book, like I used to do regularly in Phnom Penh.

I've never really been able to do much reading in my apartment.  Too lonely and quiet and dark and gloomy.  And with the Internet and the TV, too many other distractions.

Which brings me to my second point.  Internet addiction and TV addiction.
There's some debate among psychologists about whether Internet addiction is a real thing or not.  But if it is a real thing, I definitely have it.  The hours I waste mindlessly surfing the web--unable to pull myself away and go do something productive!

In Phnom Penh, I was able to keep this addiction somewhat in check by deliberately refusing to install Internet in my apartment.  (I would type up most of my blog entries on Word Processor on my Internet free computer, and then transfer them to the blog later at a Internet cafe or at work.)  But in Saigon, I've rented an apartment that comes already furnished with free Internet.  So the addiction has completely taken over.
Similarly with the TV addiction.  I wrote before about how it was ruining my life in Phnom Penh, but eventually my TV in Phnom Penh broke (possibly from overuse), and I deliberately requested the landlord NOT to repair it.   But now in Saigon, my apartment came furnished with a new working TV, and cable TV access.  So I've wasted countless hours just watching absolute junk every evening.

I'm of the generation that has had my attention span ruined by Internet and TV, so reading books requires a conscious effort of concentration from me.  And when I come home from work tired, or with my brain frazzled from the day's stresses, I can't seem to muster the will power to read.  And so I just resort to turning my brain off and mindlessly starring at screens.

And speaking of work and stresses, this is the 3rd reason my reading has declined so much.  The new job I started in Saigon has been a lot more demanding and stressful than my old job.   So that has caused a dramatic decrease in my reading time.
Plus, in Phnom Penh I used to have 2 days off in which, more often than not, I completely neglected to make social plans, and had absolutely nothing to do, so I would just wander around to coffee shops and read.
At my new job,  I'm essentially working 7 days a week.  (Technically I have Fridays off, but practically I'm in work every Friday preparing for the weekend classes.)  So no more free days just to wander around and leisurely read.

And one more thing--I've been working on a couple of different applications this year, and have been having my usual problems with procrastination.
Everyone procrastinates in different ways, but in my case I tend to procrastinate by doing mindless things (more TV and more Internet surfing, mainly).  Things that require conscious effort from me (like reading, or keeping up on my e-mail correspondence)  tend to get even more neglected.

So, those are all my excuses for not doing much reading this year.  I'm going to try really hard to do better on my book list next year.

With only 16 books, it's a rather paltry list to go through and make awards, but I'll go through the motions anyway.

Best Fiction

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
With a book that's been so highly praised (often called the greatest book in all of American literature) there's a danger in being captured by the critics.  Is this really the best fiction I've read this year, or am I just terrified at contradicting popular opinion?
Well, possibly a bit of the latter.  But although the book did have some frustrations (all of which were detailed in my review), it also had moments of pure brilliance.  Some sections also felt way ahead of their time.  The whole section with the King and the Duke, for example, was great.  The way Mark Twain made you simultaneously both root for and root against the anti-heroes made the humor he milked from it that much sharper--in the same way as the Flashman series would later do.

Worst Fiction

Tom Sawyer Detective by Mark Twain .  By default.  As I said in my review, it's really not that bad.  But it's certainly not that great either, and since my reading list for this year contains only a small handful of fiction books to choose from, this one wins by default.

Best Historical Fiction

Funeral Games by Mary Renault .  It's like Game of Thrones, only it's much more interesting, because it's actual real history.

Worst Historical Fiction

So, despite loving Funeral Games, I was completely bored by Mary Renault's other two books in her Alexander the Great trilogy.  Make of that what you will--either the fault is with me, or with her, and I'm not entirely sure which.  But since this is my blog, I'm just going to judge these things on my own subjective feelings.  Both Fire from Heaven and Persian Boy tried my patience, but because it focused on Alexander's childhood, Fire from Heaven had the least amount of stuff going on plot-wise.  So the award goes to Fire from Heaven.

Best Non-Fiction

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman
Okay, so technically this one also wins by default.  It's the only non-fiction I've read this year. (With the exception of books I read for professional development, but I put them in a separate category from pleasure reading.)
But, this was actually a really great book, and I suspect I'd still chose it even if I had read more widely this year.
After I finished it, I gave it to a co-worker of mine in Phnom Penh, and he also expressed to me how much he enjoyed the book.  "I was reluctant to read it," he told me, "just because the cover looked so cheap and pulpy.  But then once I got into it, it was really, really interesting, and well done."

Since this is the only non-fiction book I read this year, there can be no worst for this category.

Best Book I Read for Professional Development

The Natural Approach by Stephen D. Krashen and Tracy D. Terrell
I'd been hearing about Krashen's theories for years, but this is the first time I've actually read his book.  And he's actually a lot more reasonable and moderate than a lot of his critics portray him.  Although I'd part company from him on a few points, I agreed with much of what I read here, and it's made a big impact on my own thinking.  For example, I borrowed heavily from Krashen in this presentation I did on the importance of comprehensible input with young learners.

No worst for this category.

No Reading List Graveyard for this Year
Last year, I listed all the books I started, but never finished, in my "reading list graveyard".  This year, I was slightly more disciplined on not picking up too many books at once, and have no abandoned reading list projects for this year.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Austerity

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