It’s really difficult to compile a list of the top books in a given year because like a lot of people I tend to read books based on their position on my “to read” list rather than by chronology. Some books sit on my list for a while before I pick them up to read, while others come out and immediately get elevated to the top spot. It’s not at all scientific – it’s quite random and based on mood. One thing that I did do this year without straying is read fiction and listen to non-fiction. I’m not sure why I did it – but for some strange reason I decided to listen to audio versions of non-fiction this year and read (eBook or paper) novels. So, here are the five best novels and five best works of non-fiction I read/heard this year:
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’d go as far as to say Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I’ve read in many years. I’m a sucker for novels that span generations and this tale takes the reader back and forth between the 1950s and present day and of course brings everything together at the end. A wonderfully crafted book that is funny, romantic, adventurous and loosely tied to real events. Like a lot of readers this was my first Jess Walter novel and I can’t wait to delve deeper into his canon.
Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair (2013). More than two decades in the making, the second novel from Charles McNair was worth the wait. Pickett’s Charge is a crazy, odd, funny and downright surreal romp through the Alabama countryside with one of the most interesting characters you’ll ever want to meet. I’m proud to call Charles a friend and absolutely loved this crazy novel.
Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2012). Back to Blood is not on par with Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, but it is a great read with wonderful characters and a sarcastic wit. I love Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood simply confirmed this for me. Wolfe fans old and new will love it
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read all of her books, and I have to say I think The Lowland is her best yet. One of the things I like best about reading fiction is that you get to see life through the perspective of diverse people. Lahiri brings her readers into the world of Indian-Americans and that is a unique experience for a white dude like me. On top of that she is such a beautiful and fluid writer that she is a pleasure to read.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012). Mr. Penumbra was a very enjoyable novel with a great plot and modern writing full of fun tech and geek references. I figured I’d like a novel that took place in a bookstore, especially one with a special secret that gives it a sort of DaVinci Code appeal. I also loved how Sloan brings in Google to play off the ancient intrigue of the secret society looking for clues to immortality.
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Like so many stories I read I began listening to Wild on audio with few pretensions. I have read my share of “lost and found” stories, and I generally like them which was one reason I purchased Wild in the first place. What I loved so much about Wild was Strayed’s honesty. She bares her soul in this book and you can’t help but respect the hell out of her for it. I love that as a woman alone in the wilderness she shared her innermost thoughts about what she saw and most importantly who she met.
- Who I Am by Pete Townshend (2012). Excellent autobiography! Townshend was honest, open and interesting. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who and rock & roll in general.
- Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013). Roach takes listeners on a strange and sometimes gross journey down the alimentary canal, discussing the human digestive system from top to…er…bottom. Classic interviews with scientists and researchers who study things like the influence of the sense of smell on eating habits, understanding how stomach acid works from stories about animals and even one human who had a hole in their bodies so researchers could watch how acid dissolves food, and one about doctors who have seemingly cured recurring c-diff infections by transplanting another persons shit into the patient’s colon.
- How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (2012). They say when the student is ready the teacher appears, and such was the case this summer with this great little instruction book. I was inspired by Krznaric as well as those he discusses in the book and I’m fairly certain this book helped me feel comfortable about my decision to leave my job in San Diego and move to Phoenix without a job. It also made my decision to go to work for a nonprofit much easier. If you are at all uncertain about the path of your career, read this little book and do the exercises to find out what motivates you and how to find work that aligns.
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006). I picked up this monster after having seen the film Lincoln last year — the film was based on a portion of the book. DKG leaves no stone unturned in this wonderful tale of how Lincoln convinced congress to support him with the emancipation proclamation. It’s really a story of political genius as much as the story of Lincoln’s life and presidency. At more than 32 hours it is not for the faint of heart though. But once I committed I had to see it through to the conclusion, just as Lincoln did when he decided to make a mark on the world with his presidency. Amazing detail that tells the story of perhaps the most crucial period of our democracy.
As always, for reviews of every book I read and to see what’s on my “to read” list feel free to friend me on Goodreads.
Earlier this week in my movie discussion group on Facebook we were asked what the best acting performance by an actor under 13 is that we’ve seen. Those mentioned included some wonderful performances including Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Natalie Portman in The Professional, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and even Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam. I added Saoirse Ronan in Atonement. But that all changed for me today — I saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and witnessed a performance for the ages by 13-year-old Thomas Horn…in his first ever acting role…ever…not even a commercial or a school play. Simply amazing.
Yes, the subject matter of the film is difficult and heart-breaking. It’s the story of a boy who loses his father on 911 and who goes on a quest to find the lock to a key that he believes his father meant for him to find. When the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer came out in 2005 many people thought it was too soon for a 911 themed novel. Some are even questioning whether we are ready for it 10 years later. But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a true story, it simply uses 911 as a backdrop for a powerful story of love and heartbreak. I’m sure there are people who were in New York on 911 who won’t see this film because it still hits too close to home, and I respect that, but they are going to miss one of the finest acting performances ever by an actor of any age.
I read the novel in 2007 and was a little disappointed quite honestly, most likely because I was so blown away be JSF’s first novel (Everything is Illuminated) that the follow up was sure to disappoint. I liked the novel, but didn’t love it and now I can say this is one of the rare occasions for me when I liked the film version better than the book. Rare indeed. The film is superb and I would certainly consider it among the best films of 2011. It’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off of Thomas Horn.
Horn has a very interesting life story himself. He was “discovered” when he was on Jeopardy during kid’s week and won $31,000. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close director Stephen Daldry ( The Reader, Billy Elliot, The Hours) had been looking at literally hundreds of kids for the part and when he saw Horn on Jeopardy he knew he found his Oskar Schell. The role called for a special kid, one who was quirky, maybe even borderline Asperger’s. I don’t know how much like Oskar Thomas is in real life, but he hit the role dead on. If you know any kids with Asperger’s or similar issues you know they are often brilliant, precocious and moody as hell. Horn gave us all of those moments in the film, some of which were so expressive they seemed real. The scene in which he has a mental breakdown was heart-wrenching yet so powerful that he should be nominated for an Oscar based on the one scene alone. I will say, if young Horn is not nominated for a best actor Oscar there is no point in watching the Academy Awards this year because they will be a fraud. The kid stole a film from two Academy Award winners (Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock) and Academy Award nominated actor Max Von Sydow. If George Clooney is the front runner for The Descendants (in which Clooney was very, very good) then Horn is a shoe in!
It has to be tough as an author to write another novel after publishing one of the best reviewed and most awarded novels of our time. I feel for Jeffrey Eugenides. His 2003 masterpiece Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, was named the best book of the year by The Los Angeles Times, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was an Oprah selection, and, frankly, is one of my favorite novels ever. No wonder it took eight years to follow-up with the much-anticipated The Marriage Plot.
The book was destined to be a let down, and I’m sorry to say it is indeed just an average novel. I enjoyed The Marriage Plot, but it wasn’t great. The novel is set in the early 80s at Brown University where Eugenides himself went to college. In fact, one of the lead characters (Mitchell Grammaticus) was of Greek descent and hailed from Michigan (like Eugenides) so one can’t help but wonder how much of Mitchell is based on the author. The story is a sort of collegiate love triangle between Mitchell, the brilliant but manic Leonard Bankhead and the beautiful Madeleine Hanna. Both Mitchell and Leonard vie for Madeleine’s heart but Madeleine is drawn to Leonard. The story takes some twists and turns, but ultimately the relationships between these characters are doomed. I suppose it should come as no surprise to Eugenides’ fans that happy endings are hard to come by in The Marriage Plot given his first novel (The Virgin Suicides) was about a group of young sisters who one-by-one kill themselves. And of course Middlesex is centered around a person born into a body with both male and female junk. Eugenides is certainly no typical romantic.
The Marriage Plot is also the title of Madeleine’s senior thesis, which we can assume from her studies and love for Victorian-era literature means she is a romantic. Unfortunately for her, Leonard is not and even if Mitchell was he doesn’t do it for her the way the brooding and tortured Leonard does. My trouble with story is I didn’t know who to root for. I disliked both Leonard and Mitchell, and truthfully Madeleine struck me as a drama queen herself. With nobody to cheer on, I lost interest in the love triangle and instead spent my mental energy on the subplots of Leonard’s mania and Mitchell’s religious quest across Europe. From that angle the story is definitely a coming-of-age novel and without giving anything away all three characters do grow throughout the story and eventually “find” themselves (at least we know Madeleine and Mitchell do since Eugenides kind of leaves Leonard’s issues hanging in the wind).
The Marriage Plot is getting pretty good literary reviews, including one from The New York Times and others from NPR and The Los Angeles Times. And Eugenides has already cemented himself among the best of his generation along with the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon. Again, I liked The Marriage Plot but didn’t love it.
I don’t tend to give out five-star ratings very lightly; in fact, the only book I’ve read this year that was worthy of five stars was Cloud Atlas. Until now. This morning I finished Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long, long time. 460 pages hasn’t gone by so fast in a while! Murakami’s novel came out in 2002 in Japan but was released in the U.S. in English a few years later. I had heard of the book, and the author, but I hadn’t read it nor anything by Murakami. I guess I had some preconceived notion based on stereotype that Japanese novels were always about World War II or Geisha girls and what not, but of course like any cliché that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kafka on the Shore is a brilliant novel that crosses multiple genres and takes the reader on a strange journey that would make Franz Kafka himself proud.
The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home to escape his father, a famous sculptor and possibly a mad cat-killing psycho. The other protagonist is Satoru Nakata, a 60-year-old man who lost most of his intelligence after a strange flash in the sky during World War II and who as a result can talk to cats and make it rain fish. The two are connected but never meet, and in the spirit of the magical realism of the novel may in fact be the same person! Nakata is also on a journey, having killed Kafka’s father (maybe, or perhaps it was Kafka acting through Nakata). Kafka ends up in a quiet beach town where he may or may not have discovered his mother and sister, both of whom abandoned him and his father when Kafka was four. Nakata is not so much running from the murder charges as much as he’s running toward an event that may set him free from his chains and potentially shed light on Kafka’s life story. Along the way we meet strange characters like a pimp dressed up like Colonel Sanders, a pair of Japanese soldiers from World War II who have not aged and who guard the entrance to a magical place that may be the gateway to heaven (or hell), and a transgender librarian who helps Kafka discover his place in the world. Oh yeah, Kafka may also be sleeping with his mother and gets a hand job from a teenage girl who may be his sister. Can you see why Kafka on the Shore has been compared to a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel?
Murakami’s novel is certainly Kafkaesque, but it’s also tender and funny and inspiring. Both Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata are honorable and empathetic characters who as a reader you can’t help but root for. Kafka has clearly had a troubled childhood and his father didn’t help matters. When he runs away from home he is searching for himself as well as his mother and sister and like any coming of age story the trials he goes through, both mental and physical, shape his future in a positive way. Nakata is a tragic character because he is dumb and lives on a “sub city” from the “Governor” as he says. But he’s also a strong character because he is unselfish and good (he kills the mysterious cat killer only to save the lives of other cats he has befriended and because the man encourages him to kill him). But for me it’s the magical realism that makes the story so amazing. The reader never really knows what is real and what is not in the story. Some of the characters and events may or may not be what they appear to be, and may even be figments of Kafka’s imagination. These mysteries do not ultimately reveal themselves but rather the reader is left to ponder them at the conclusion of the book. In fact, after the novel was published Murakami put up a website for readers to ask questions and it received more than 8,000!
Kafka on the Shore is the kind of novel that reaffirms why I love reading so much. I literally couldn’t put down my Nook and several times fell asleep on the sofa reading because I didn’t want to put it down and go to bed. I highly recommend it, especially if you like magical realism, and even if you have no idea what magical realism is this novel is a great introduction to it. As for me, expect to see a whole bunch of Murakami books added to my “to-read” list.
Imaginative. Ambitious. Rich. Enthralling. These are just a few of the adjectives that pop into my mind when I think of Cloud Atlas, the David Mitchell novel from 2004 that I completed last night. Cloud Atlas is so interesting and unique I’m not even sure how to describe it, but in a nutshell it’s a series of stories that span a huge swath of time from the past to the present and far into the future that are loosely interconnected and when put together tells the story of what mankind’s future might hold if we do not veer from our course of corporate control of politics and everything else. I said it was ambitious!
The story begins with the tale of a 19th century American writer on a journey in the South Pacific, reaches a pivotal point in the distant future where mankind has experienced a “fall” back to his hunter and gatherer ways, and then abruptly does an about-face and journeys back to the beginning. Each story is interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, but when put together the novel is a strange and exotic journey itself. I wasn’t sure what to think when I began reading the novel, and when the first twist came I was quite confused but continued on, and after a while I figured out Mitchell’s strategy but still had no idea where he was taking me or where I would end up. It was such a fun read.
I’m not going to delve into the plot, but I will say the novel was superbly written and the characters were robust and each was unique. Mitchell is a glorious writer with a fabulous imagination. I’m not usually one for literary gimmicks (I thought Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad relied too heavily on its gimmick), but the way Mitchell tied these stories together was quite brilliant. Again, I don’t want to give anything away because I encourage you to read this book — but I will say each story leads into the next with just a hint of connection. The novel is pretty complicated a have to admit. At times you can lose track of characters and relationships, especially since just when you get used to a character Mitchell switches things up and changes stories. I would have loved a character map, or perhaps I will simply read it again and keep notes.
I highly recommend Cloud Atlas. And you should definitely read it before Fall 2012 so you can be well prepared for the film which stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry amongst others.
I like to mix things up when I’m reading, so I will often follow up fiction with non-fiction and vice versa. I also like to check in with classic authors every so often to remind myself what great writing is all about (not that there aren’t any great modern writers, but let’s be honest…the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds are fewer and farther between nowadays). I have to admit though that I’m not a huge fan of the classics, but I do have a soft spot for American masters. Which brings me to John Steinbeck.
Somehow I managed to get through high school and four years of college without having ever read a Steinbeck novel. The closest I ever came was seeing the 1992 Gary Sinise film version of Of Mice and Men. I always assumed that I wouldn’t like Steinbeck because he was too commercially successful, and that is in fact what many critics argued when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Then something interesting happened to change my mind — I read a Steinbeck novel!
As a graduate student in English at NAU a few years ago I took a class in which we had to read East of Eden. I remember thinking to myself it was going to be a struggle and that I’d have to slog through it, but once I started reading the words on the page I was sucked in. This post isn’t about East of Eden, but suffice it to say it is now one of my all-time favorite novels and features one of my all-time favorite literary characters in Samuel Hamilton.
Steinbeck writes about everyday people and chronicled the American experience during his career, which spanned from 1927 with the publication of his first novel to his death in 1968. His political views played a major role in his writing, and his characters always seemed to say something powerful about what it takes to overcome poverty, hardship and even persecution. He was his generation’s Michael Moore, and for me that’s a good thing. He also touches on themes of religion and the difference between right and wrong, yet he does so without espousing any religious convictions or spirituality — giving him major points in my book.
After I graduated from NAU I decided to go back and, over time, read the entire Steinbeck collection. I’ve since read Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. This weekend, after several mediocre reads, I decided it was time for a palate cleanser so I am now reading To a God Unknown. After just a few pages I feel like I’ve been rejuvinated. It’s such a pleasure to sink into Steinbeck’s warm storytelling and near perfect structure.
A few weeks ago author Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I was just finishing up a book, so I downloaded it to my nook and moved it to the top of my rotation. Yesterday I finished it and I’m going back and forth on it frankly. It doesn’t measure up to some recent Pulitzer winners like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz or “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, two of my all-time favorites. But I liked it.
I hadn’t read any of Egan’s previous work, and truth be told I thought she was a chick lit author so I never even skimmed a jacket. I shall offer a mea culpa for that bit of chauvinism and admit right now that she is definitely a literary author. Goon Squad is a very modern tale written in a progressive style with interesting characters and told using a very unique literary device. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, a character that you only learn about from the previous chapter. On top of that, the chapters jump back and forth across time so that there is no easy literary flow. I was intrigued by the device and at the same time confused. I thought the concept was great, but as a result it was very hard to follow. I sort of want to go back and read it again, this time keeping a flow chart of the relationships between all the characters!
With or without the literary chicanery, the characters are all very interesting and the individual stories are fun. It was fun to read. But at the same time, I feel like I didn’t really follow the lives of the two main characters that well. The novel begins with Sasha, a young woman who we learn has a little issue with stealing things. She works for a record producer, Bennie, who was famous for discovering a popular punk rock band. Each chapter can be related back to Bennie and/or Sasha, even as they are told through the eyes of secondary and tertiary characters. For example, in one chapter Sasha’s uncle is wandering the streets of Italy looking for Sasha, who has run away from home. He interacts with her while there, so we learn a little bit about her motivation. That’s sort of how the novel goes.
I won’t say anything else in case you want to read the novel, which I do recommend. Along with the Pulitzer it has won numerous accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Book Review Best Book. I think it has won so many fans because of both the unique way Egan tells the story and because it’s a modern tale that is very well written. I am definitely going to go back and look at Egan’s other books now and will consider adding them to my reading list.
I read a lot. Many of my friends ask me how I find the time, but truthfully I don’t think that’s the right question. You should ask yourself if you enjoy reading, because if you do you will find the time. I don’t watch as much television as I used to for example. I have a few choice shows, plus sports of course, but most evenings I’ll sit on the sofa and read.
Aside from finding the time to read, people always ask me how I find the books I read. That, my friends, is an art form! The fact is I am never at a loss for something to read because I keep a list of books I’ve run across that I’d like to read. You can do this with a simple word or excel file, or you can use a web-based tool like I do. I keep my list of to-reads on Goodreads, a wonderful free app that is sort of a social network for book worms. I have several “bookshelves” on Goodreads, including my “to-read” bookshelf, my “read” bookshelf and my “currently reading” bookshelf. Whenever I run across the title of a book that interests me I add it to my “to-read” list. Goodreads also helps connect you to other people who like to read, where you can share reviews and discuss books and authors. Another list I use is my nook wish list, which I use to keep track of books I may like to download and read on my nook.
But keeping track is one thing — how do I find out about all these books? Here are some tips:
- The first place to look for good reading material is by looking for books by authors you already know you like. If you liked Franzen’s The Corrections, chances are you’re going to enjoy Freedom
- There are tons of great websites specifically designed for book lovers. A few I keep up with include The Millions, the New York Times Books site, Arts & Letters Daily, and Salon.com Books.
- My favorite bookstore is Powell’s, which is a chain in the Portland area. The employees at Powell’s recommend books online under Staff Picks. Find an employee who has similar tastes as you!
- Keep your eyes open for books wherever you are on the web. Lots of times I’ll read about a new book on CNN.com, or The Daily Beast.
- Use your smart phone to jot down a title you may find interesting while you’re flipping through a magazine at the doctor’s office or at a newsstand.
- Check out all the award winners. Each year there are tons of awards handed out for books and Powell’s does a great job of keeping track for you. They have current winners and past winners listed nicely in their Award Winners section online. I just added A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan to my reading list after it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the other day.
- Use the Literature Map to find authors you’ll like. This amazing website asks you to type in an author you like, then it suggests similar authors. How cool!
These are just some of the ways I find books to read. Now you may ask, with all these books on my “to-read” list how do I choose what to read next? Good question! That’s just a matter of mood. I just read a nonfiction book about food, so you can expect I’ll jump into some light fiction next. In fact, what am I doing blogging — I have to go decide what to read next!
“I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily.” — The Clash
Do you have any idea what to eat? It used to be so simple, you just opened the fridge and cooked up something that looked good. But nowadays it seems like every day there are new warnings about certain types of foods and new specialty diets that swear they have the answers. Eat like the Japanese. No, eat like the Greeks. No, eat like grandma told you. Aargh! Eating isn’t as fun as it used to be, despite what Anthony Bordain thinks. If you’re like me, you’re concerned about your health but you’re just not sure what’s right anymore.
I have a family history that predisposes me to adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. I’m healthy, but I’m a ticking time bomb. A few years ago, in his early 60s, my father had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. In order to stave off a similar fate I went to a cardiologist who ran some tests, told me I was fine, suggested I pop an aspirin every day and come see him again in five years. Thanks doc, but that still didn’t help me understand what to eat. So I started reading.
I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. In Defense of Food gave me some good ideas and a manifesto (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants). The South Beach Diet was a bust (have you ever tried to eliminate carbs?). All that reading led me to think seriously about eliminating red meat but I did not. And of course it made sense to increase my intake of fruits, veggies and super foods (whatever they are). Then I saw the film Food Inc. and that pushed me over the edge — I walked out of the theater having sworn off all meat except seafood. Yep, I became a pescetarian. That was two years ago, and in that time I think the only meat I’ve had (aside from fish) is half a grass fed beef cheeseburger and a few bites of turkey at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately I am exactly the same weight and bored to death at mealtimes. And I eat way too many carbs!
I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an ethical vegetarian — I’m a Darwinian so that would be hypocritical (survival of the fittest and all). I’m just confused and hungry. I saw an interesting documentary a few weeks ago called Food Matters, and that made me go out and buy multivitamins and a juicer. I’m still unsure about meat though. There are all those chemicals, antibiotics and all that darn corn. Corn huh? Maybe that’s the key?
So last week I picked up Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and started reading. He’s the unofficial spokesperson for eating healthy, and he eats meat. The book begins by posing the question — what should we have for dinner? I’m halfway through the book and have no idea what to eat, but I definitely have a new opinion of what it means for a food to be “organic” and now I’m not even sure that means anything. I am also convinced that corn is evil and grass is good. But I hope the second half of the book actually helps me answer the “what to have for dinner” question because frankly I could really sink my teeth into a big juicy steak right about now! I’ll keep you posted. And if you know what the hell I should eat I’m all ears.