Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman
I knew these were darker than Disney (and everyone else in the 20th C.) would have children believe, but wow. I think there was a stretch of seven stories in a row in which at least one person was casually executed. Cinderella's avian helpers not only dress her up nice and pretty before the soirees, they peck out her step-sisters' eyes! For the sake of professionalism I won't discuss what wakes up Briar Rose or turns the Frog Prince into a man, but let's just say they're a bit more intimate than the chaste smooches that are typically depicted.
Pullman does a first-rate job editing, especially since the various versions the Grimms published are a self-contradicting mess. He's managed to whip some of the stories into shape without losing their pre-modern, fever-dream, nonsensical character. He includes a brief analysis at the end of each story which I would have liked to have even more of. There are also lists of similar stories from other cultures, which given a large windfall of time I would like to track down. Pullman deserves credit for really editing this, not "editing" it in the way that David Foster Wallace discusses editing the Best American Essays 2007. (See his forward, Deciderization 2007: A Special Report, [fulltext pdf] included in his posthumous 2012 collection Both Flesh and Not.
Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas
Very disappointing. I previously read Thomas' PopCo, which I loved, and whose cleverness and vitality only further overshadows OTU. I'll save you a lot of trouble: the main character of OTU is a struggling author who is debating writing a novel in which nothing happens — a "story-less story." OTU is, eo ipso, a novel in which nothing happens. The end.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl
Would have been twice as good if it was half as long. ("Don't worry about getting to your point; I am going to live forever.")
The conceit of using citations to reference works as similes was clever, especially since the narrator was an over-acheiving college freshman, but it wore out quickly.
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf
Wolf did a sterling job balancing the history, neurobiology and pedagogy of reading and writing. I was (am?) dyslexic, so this was of special autobiographical interest to me. If I am reading her correctly, my difficulty learning to read when young, my continued ineptitude at foreign language and music, and my visuospatial and pattern recognition interests and skills are actually all rooted in the same cause and not independent as I had casually assumed.
Wolf has also informally tracked which sub-careers dyslexics end up in. Dyslexic doctors are more likely to be great radiologists, for instance, since it requires more visuospatial cognition. I was fascinated to learn that dyslexics in business gravitate to finance, and those in computing towards AI/ML/Pattern Recognition and Graphics/Vision. Those interests fit me perfectly. Score one for being neuro-atypical, I guess.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
It would be a ton of fun to do visual effects for a film adaptation of this. The illusions are brilliantly described. Actually all of the visual imagery is very well done. These characters would make good fodder for 15-minute sketch exercises like Chris Schweiser used to post.
Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson
Be advised the pluarilty of this is a single essay from the mid 90s about laying undersea fiberoptic cable. Stephenson manages to make that more interesting than I would have thought possible, but I picked this up looking forward to multiple, bite-sized essays so a single 125 page piece was tough to swallow.
(Side note: a recent BusinessWeek had a map of current undersea cables, and FLAG, which is the focus of Stephenson's essay and was bleeding edge in 1996, dwarfing previous cables' capacity by magnitudes, was just barely big enough to even make it onto the map 17 years later.)
It was also a little odd reading all these interviews and essays which revolve around the progression of Stephenson's career and how it relates to his "Baroque Cycle" since he's published three novels between that and Some Remarks and all of them are very different. The commentary has been left behind by events. It feels like picking up a book written in 1985 that's full of interviews with Reagan about transitioning from actor to SAG president to GE-backed orator but completely ignores his becoming governor and then president.
The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro
Not my usual kind of book, but still a lot of fun. It was a nice coincidence that I started reading this right as I began watercolor classes. You can tell Shapiro has a real passion for art; various passages really got me fired up to work on my own stuff (both digital and aqueous). She does a good job describing the artistic process in terms of both physical and internal manifestations.
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman described this as "a fairy tale for adults," which is extremely apt. It diverges pretty significantly from the film version. Unsurprisingly I like the book version better, but this is one of those rare times when I don't find the movie to be drastically inferior.