Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Hooplah: Cover to Cover (A Literary 2008 Year in Review)

(We really just love using the phrase "Year in Review" in our posts. Expect 2009 Year in Review Previews to begin any day now!)

"The average American spends three minutes a day reading a book." -Dick Meyer, Why We Hate Us

I took in this sentence while racing against the clock, trying to complete a goal I've been after for a few years now: reading 52 books, cover to cover, in one year. Were Meyer's statistic to mean something to me, it'd be that I need to get out more.

As it stands, I defy the average with my love of reading. I'll tell you right now, I didn't finish Why We Hate Us in time, and can only say I finished 52 books during 2008, though the very first was started in late 2007.

And truthfully, two books were finished that I had least four years ago, if not more, but I didn't cross that 50% threshold, meaning I finished the majority in 2008, so I'd have cheated a little in counting them toward my goal.

But enough about what I didn't do, what I might've read or how sneakily I almost crossed the finish line. I still read thousands of pages and dozens of books, absorbing the full gamut of fiction's genre offerings and battling against the perception that non-fiction is for dry, old professors and grad students.

So read on, as we've been asking you to do since late 2007, and see what treasures (and trash) last year brought.


Figuring out what one read over the last year (or six months or week) can be difficult for some. As a highly organized reader (perhaps to make up for other organizational lackings), I track each book read on the bookmarks used. On the back of each bookmark, handmade from whatever random paper I have around (newspaper clipping, movie ticket, old baseball card, fridge post-it in the shape of a dog, etc.; if you want them, I'll make you some; if your friends want them, I promise a low price...), I jot down the title of the book I just finished, ten to a bookmark, with the ink used color-coded to the sort of book. Black ink = fiction; no grand literary value. Blue ink = fiction of literary value or non-fiction. Maybe 2009 will see a new color! (I'm a dork.)

I now have a handy record going back nearly six years. Can you remember what you read in the summer of 2005? Give me a few minutes and I can tell you, possibly to the week.

So in organizing this review, I've laid out the bookmarks affected and am overall happy with the material consumed. This list doesn't include comic book trades/collections or graphic novels; while many could be considered books (density, story structure, themes, pure length), I've got enough to review without bringing them into the mix.

Beginning with the last book started in 2007 (finished in 2008), here they are:

0. The Unburied by Charlies Palliser - I'll be brief, since this was technically an '07 book. An intriguing mystery set in the 19th century amid the scholarly world of a cathedral & its school, I'd recommend this to those who enjoy historical fiction and history in general. Much is to be said about the way it delves into our research in and impressions about the past.

1. Wicked by Gregory Maguire - I saw the musical version of the book on New Year's Eve 2007, with Mandy, Buck and his wife. This spurred both of us husbands to read the book our wives heartily enjoyed. For my part, I found it an excellent political satire, mixed with the "unknown" backstory of the witches of Oz. Just as good as everyone says, full of characters as realized as any "literary" fiction, it's turned into the first of a series (Son of a Witch; A Lion Among Men) that promises more hours of enjoyment. If you've seen the musical, you don't know half the story.

2. Congressional Anecdotes by Paul F. Bollers, Jr. - part of a series of anecdotal volumes dedicated to the US government, Congressional Anecdotes culls from over two hundred years of US political history, from the very first Congress to sometime in the early 90s, when this was published. An updated volume is sorely needed. These are stories, bits of gossip, confirmed rumor and, of coruse, anecdotes that've survived through the years because, in large part, you get a better idea of the character of the people we choose to lead us by their foibles, slip-ups, outrages and humor than any major speeches. You don't have to be a political junkie to enjoy these often-hilarious, always enlightening stories about those folks on the Hill.

3. True Grit by Charles Portis - seen the movie? Old John Wayne as the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn is a face seared into our collective memory, but the characters in this book come alive just as clearly as the best film. It's all about the narrator, a 14-yr-old girl, getting justice for the murder of her father; accompanying her is gruff US Marshall Rooster Cogburn. A western (and American) classic, take time to read this short novel that is best summed up by its title.

4. Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman - Also read by Buck (after my praise), Grossman's first novel is one of the best first novels I've read, and it's not the only one on this list. Switching between two narrators, the perennial-jailbird supervillain and the new, untested heroine, SIWBI manages to not just offer a tongue-in-cheek look at traditional comic book tropes, but also a crackling good story. The stories are simple: Dr. Impossible, supervillain, desires to conquer the world and, after breaking out of prison, sets to it; Fatale, new part-human/part-robot heroine, is asked to join the preeminent hero team and there her adventure (in part of self-discovery) begins. A humorous adventure yarn, I cannot recommend it enough. Very sharp writing.

5. Duma Key by Stephen King - the most recent novel by the most popular American novelist, this is a return to form for King, a horror story. Edgar loses an arm, gets divorced and moves to the Florida island Duma Key where, much to his surprise, he discovers he can paint. It might not sound riveting, but trust me when I say it is. King explores "phantom pain/sensation" to startling effect, providing first a ghost story (with a tinge of HP Lovecraft) that moves quickly to supernatural horror. Potentially the best horror novel King has written in years.

6. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill - the author's full name is Joe Hillstrom King, and yes, he is the son of #5's author. But we don't need to know that to enjoy this first novel, also a ghost story. As far as hauntings go, Hill knows the basics, how to get the chills going up your spine. If you have the cash, get this in paperback; if not, certainly a library read. The protagonist (aging rock star) is not always sympathetic (in fact isn't, for much of the book), but that doesn't matter when bad things are happening to him. A quick read for Halloween time.

7. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson - the best fantasy read in 2008 was not part of a sprawling epic or a revered classic. This first novel by Sanderson, the best first novel on the list, is a done-in-one fantasy that I tosses the familiar archetypes and stories right out the window. No Dark Lord to conquer, no elves, no wizened sorcerer leading a young farmer - this is the story of a prince who's been cursed (left for dead, but he refuses to say die); his betrothed (made a widow before she even met her prospective husband) left to fend for herself amid a scheming court; and a priest sent to convert the prince's country to the true faith, else it be put to the sword by his overlords. Sanderson was chosen to complete the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time epic (Jordan died writing the final, 12th, volume), and I picked up Elantris to see what the young gun was all about. Far from disappointed, I now purchase his novels in hardcover when the come out. In this economy. Without discount. That's the dedication I have to this amazing talent. If you were ever curious about fantasy as a genre, but were turned off by 1,000 page tomes or mammoth series, fear not: you can buy Elantris.

8. The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin - as a child of the Midwest, I love a good tale of inclement weather. Laskin here recounts the January 12, 1988, storm that killed over 500 souls, many of them schoolchildren trapped in single-room schools or trying to run home through the whiteout conditions and freezing temperatures. It is a tragic story, so don't expect a bunch of smiling faces, but some lived. And it's to remember the survivors and the dead that Laskin penned this well-researched account.

9. Mistborn I: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson - the other book I picked up by Sanderson, The Final Empire is the first in a trilogy (just completed) that poses the question "What if the Dark Lord won?" Few fantasies have dealt with this concept as well as Sanderson, and the world he builds (along with a unique, metal-based magic system) is wholly realized and sound. I devoured this book in days. You can see how Sanderson improved his craft between this and Elantris, with tighter action and steadier pacing. Not to diminish his first work; both are the works of a great writer.

10. The Little Ice Age by Brian M. Fagan - Is Al Gore right? Are we in a global warming trend, or are we coming out of a little ice age that began some seven hundred years ago? Fagan's scholarly work is certainly for history buffs, and those interested in the environmental debate. It focuses far more on cultural impact, and there could've been a touch more on the eco-side of things, but the overall book works. A little dry at times.

11. Star Wars: Legacy of the Force II - Bloodlines by Karen Traviss -Star Wars holds a special place in my heart. I've read dozens of EU ("Expanded Universe" - stories beyond the movies) books and comics; they are what got me to read so many years ago. The "Legacy of the Force" series picks up over thirty years after the original movie, with original characters aging and the focus moving to their children. This series' main goal is to reintroduce the Sith as opposing agents to the Jedi, and to shake up the galactic order (hasn't that happened enough?). I read Betrayal, the first volume, in summer 2007. Good, not great; intriguing. I waited until I could read a larger chunk of the series (as evidenced below) and have mixed feelings. All of Karen Traviss' contributions were excellent explorations of secondary characters, the military and aspects not often touched on in the main Skywalker/Solo stories (like, families that fail). I can recommend her efforts, but not Denning's (Allston is always good for a yarn). Troy Denning's installments ruined the series for me. Most of you probably won't start a nine-book Star Wars series. The few who will should use the library or used book stores. It isn't worth full price. The promising elements (Han & Leia's son falling to the Dark Side, but for "teh greater good;" Boba Fett facing death and family; the Jedi order balancing ethics vs. governmental responsibility with Luke right in the middle) were never realized. Better I go through this than you.

12. SW: LotF III - Tempest by Troy Denning - shame on you Troy Denning! A competent author, I just don't think the man works in the Star Wars universe. His stories feel written for middle-aged women, specifically those gunning for Harlequin romances. He also plays over favorites with characters, not terrible in itself, but awful when you force everyone else to act out of character to justify your favorites' actions. Not good. Poor writing!

13. SW: LotF IV - Exile by Aaron Allston - he's a work horse, that Aaron Allston. He turns in competent writing with each of his installments in the series, burdened as he is by Denning's characters (Traviss ignores them). For good Allston Star Wars EU, check out the Wraith Squadron series.

14. Ghosts of the Fireground by Peter M. Leschak - it's dry like kindling, but unfortunately it rarely catches fire (horrible metaphor!). If you can get past the first 50 pages and into the actual firefighting (and the counterpoint story of the Great Peshtigo Fire, the best part of the whole book), it'll hold your attention. But this is a magazine article about Peshtigo ballooned into a self-important memoir.

15. SW: LotF V - Sacrifice by Karen Traviss - as always, great work, Karen.

16. No Heroes by Chris Offutt - this book has a stuffed possum on the cover. Buy it for that, stay for the Appalachian portrait of life at the turn of the 20th Century. Offutt's memoir is endearing and informative of his past, though suffers from a poor ending. But, until the last few pages (where's my epilogue?!), it's a keeper. His prose is clear and original in describing his early life in these hollows and on the ridges and coming "home" again to teach at Morehead State University, trying to "fit in" with a crowd he hadn't been a part of for 20 years. Running parallel is the story of his in-laws, telling their Holocaust survival story; the title is most significant with their tragic recollections. If you ever worked the Appalachian Service Project (you know who you are), it might be very informative about the people you're helping.

17. SW: LotF VI - Inferno by Troy Denning - boo!

18. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy - I started this and got bored about twelve years ago. How young I was. Most of you know the story, about a renegade Russian defecting with his experimental sub (and officers). The book is known for introducing Clancy hero Jack Ryan, who has been the lead character almost without fail in all of Clancy's subsequent techno-military thrillers. It's also a first book! Another! While the jargon can get you, and the technical exposition is unnecessary at times, it's a lot tighter than it has any right to be. Rent the movie, enjoy it's brisk pace and suspense. Then read the book, and discover a master fiction writer developing his craft. (This is the first of a series of books I read this year that I had previously started and set aside. For this one, I began from page one again.)

19. SW: LotF VII - Fury by Aaron Allston - sort of yay.

20. The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber by Nicholson Baker - okay, who here reads essays for fun? Anyone? Nicholson Baker is an essayist at heart, a humorist second and a fiction writer third. This collection covers the first two, including the massive exploration of the world "Lumber" and all its historical contexts (such as, lumber meaning the thoughts collecting dust in our head). This section is a researcher's dream, as he's scoured hundreds of sources to discover one word's curious past. The preceding essays, including one memorable work on the dying card-catalog system, are in the least quirky & well-written, if not also intellectual and humorous. A note: he's like Seinfeld, in that he chooses small things to write about, minutiae, and this can seem a waste of paper to some. I wouldn't give up the time I spent reading about movie projectors here for the world. Some great stuff. I started this one about four or so years ago, got a hundred pages in and stopped (that's about a third); finishing it felt good.

21. The Good Brother by Chris Offutt - this was originally a school read, and introduced me to Chris Offutt. I haven't always been a diligent student, and stopped after a few chapters, as I didn't need to finish it for a good grade. I went back and started over, happy that I did. Virgil's brother Boyd is murdered in rural Kentucky as part of a larger (but ultimately meaningless) kin feud; it cannot stand, but Virgil isn't the violent type. His choices (and eventual flight to Montana) spur a dynamic story that rightly won praise. However, the ending almost comes from left field, and may be a bit intense for the preceding 250+ pages, but this portrait of a man driven to murder to avenge his brother, and the ramifications that send him a thousand miles from home, has stuck with me. There's no doubt I'll check out Offutt's work again.

22. Shadow by Bob Woodward - started while Clinton was still in Office, this book looks at how all Presidents have lived in the shadow of Watergate, with everyone on the lookout for a scandal or smear. How this impacted each of the five subsequent Presidents depends on the man and the problem(s). Although it needs an update either through Clinton's full second term (nothing about his pardons) or into GW Bush's tenure, as it stands, it's a very evenhanded look at a political office fraught with stress, animosity and little relief. I can recommend it, for the political-minded among you (all you Political Hoedown readers), but it may be a little dry for the average Joe. Still, Clinton's chapters read like a mix between soap opera, farce and legal drama.

23. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson - technically not a novel, but a collection of short stories that tells a larger tale, it's held in some regard by literary historians. I found it more/less engaging, but it is dated in its writing style. But thinking back, I do want to recommend it, and I shall. It might not be extremely adventurous, but the themes of loneliness and despair - the desire of these small-town Ohioans to escape both - rise above the period and hold a timeless quality. It's American at a changing time, early 20th Century, the age of progress, innovation and upheaval still ahead. But these folks can't cope. All tell their stories to a young man who dreams of leaving, to become Something Different in a bigger world.

24. Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson - best science fiction novel of the year; this one is amazing. I don't know if it's the style of writing, the characters or the setting (a few hundred years hence, with the world order completely turned on its head after mass riots, genocide, WMD-type attack, the elimination of the capacity to produce electricity, the return of steam power, and world war threatened at every turn); everything clicked for me. The novel's conceit is that it's a reprinting of the annotated autobiography of a controversial (and in academic circles, despised) former military and political leader, the right hand of the revered (and late) king/emperor/dictator, Fitzpatrick. Through his eyes, we see the young Fitzpatrick move from military academy and frivolity to take his hereditary place as head of the Yukon Confederacy, the world power at this point. From there, mass war (for the betterment of all) is waged, the tragedies that came before are revisited and we understand why the truths in this "autobiography" have been censored for so long. Much is taken from real history (Fitzpatrick is modeled after Alexander the Great; his military campaigns mirror Alexander's to a degree), altered to fit the story. In that, it underscores what we've always known: history repeats itself. At times grim and tragic, I was never disappointed by the narrative drive or the emotional core of this achievement.

25. Stick To Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain by Scott Adams - it's a (near) daily blog by Dilbert-writer/artist Scott Adams, reprinted in book form. So, that makes it by default funny, easy to read (with one or two page entries, the time commitment is loooow) and full of snark. You may not agree with every socio-cultural stance he takes, but I can assure you there'll be a few belly laughs to be had.

26. The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier - a great romance, wonderful speculative fiction, very introspective. I don't want to say much, but it deals with a plague, a city of the dead and (potentially) the last woman alive on earth, trekking across the Antarctic to find someone - anyone. The two narratives working off each other form a great dissertation on enduring memory. Now in paperback, and widely available due to great reviews, there is no excuse not to read this.

27. A Year at the Movies by Kevin Murphy - his task was to watch a movie a day for a full calendar year, not always as easy as it sounds. Kevin Murphy is best known as a writer and actor on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (he was Tom Servo) and this book is nothing else but a continued love note to the movies. He can be very pretentious at times, snobby even about what he considers to be "good cinema," but art is subjective. So on balance, good. I'd have liked more reviews of the movies he sees instead of asides or stories about how he saw them (which aren't always interesting). Why does he think this is great and that is trash?

28. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber - set in Victorian-era England, and featuring a cast as varied as it gets, this sprawling epic follows the life of the highly intelligent Sugar, a sought-after prostitute, and her rise from the gutter to high society. She takes up with the flaky, aimless William Rackham, a perfume baron whose own wife is full of infirmities both mental and physical (and mainly due to her isolated upbringing in prim Victorian Society) and sees her life change, not always for the best. Raucous, raunchy, insightful and a biting social satire, it "dares to go where...the works of Charles Dickens would not," to quote's review. While Dickens looked at the lower strata of society, you get the grittiest detail with Faber (and a caveat to gentle readers, we're dealing with hookers; it can get graphic). Dickens poked at the elite, but Faber stabs holes through them. It's also about 900+ pages long, so be prepared. What time you give it, it gives back in highly crafted story and exemplary writing.

29. The Brethren by John Grisham - another good legal thriller (featuring three crooked judges in jail, plotting a way to get out or get even) from a respected author. Widely considered one of his better books, and I won't disagree. A beach read for me.

30. The Black Echo by Michael Connelly - his first novel, and therefore the first appearance of his famous detective Harry Bosch, The Black Echo is a well-constructed murder mystery that balloons, as these things will, into a far larger plot. As it turns out, the murder victim is known to the wild card Det. Bosch, in fact was a former Vietnam tunnel rat who deserves more than he got. During the investigation, Bosch tries to unravel who would want to kill the man - making it look like an overdose - and what they could be after. The writing is fresh and eager; you can tell this is a "young" fiction writer (though Connelly was not exactly a kid when he wrote this) aiming to please and avoid sameness. Followed by...gosh, a dozen more books, roughly.

31. Hawke by Ted Bell - do you like action? Gun fights and lithe beauties? Secret agents and dastardly plots? This is an action super-secret agent movie in book form. A little trite at times, and the characters are hardly three-dimensional, but that's not the sort of book this is. It's light, entertaining fluff. Three sequels follow.

32. Killing Floor by Lee Child - Child's first Jack Reacher novel (and first novel); I read this on Buck's recommendation and there was no looking back! It's a 1st person narration, looking at a murder that leads to more sinister (and clever) scheme. Wrongly arrested Reacher, fresh from a career as a military policeman, has to navigate the "good old boys" small town south while trying to prove absolutely his innocence and find the killer, all without getting killed or sleeping alone...if you catch my drift. It's a bit hard-boiled, sometimes over-serious, but I have two more Reacher installments on my shelf to be read this year. A solid start.

33. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - so...Dracula's real? And still alive?! That's the conceit, hinted at, of this astounding literary horror event. A woman tells of her and her father's exploits trying to follow the real-life trail of Vlad the Impaler, thought to be Dracula the immortal vampire. Far-fetched? In Kostova's hands, we get a thoroughly researched novel that crosses thousands of miles in eastern Europe, England, Spain and Turkey, all painstakingly described. In fact, the settings are as much characters as not. You can read it for the surface Search, or delve deeper into the notions of continuing violence and war, how we try to stop it and yet never seem to; or maybe you find an appreciation of history itself, the delicate string that adds depth and qualification to our modern lives. Whatever you choose to look for, still read the book (which is yet another first novel).

34. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - any edition of this short novel comes with a few short stories, FYI. The title tale, of an average man surviving a vampire apocalypse until he (supposedly) becomes that last man living, is quiet and terrifying. If you saw the movie, you missed the subtlety and crippling frustration that grips the main character; against the latter he fights every day. This is a survivor's story as much as about "vampires." And the ending, nothing like the movie, is truly chilling. The back-up short stories range from top-notch to forgettable. Matheson is prolific, especially with shorter work, so you're going to get some chaff with the wheat.

35. Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy - Kennedy is a humorist with the best of them. His self-deprecating musings carry all the snark and eye-rolling we've come to expect from the Not Exactly Greatest Generation, Gen X. In his second "memoir" (and I use that term loosely), he recounts his days at a fading record label working the Dream: he actually gets to meet the rockers, be a part of the music process, interact with the raw creativity...from behind his desk and at marketing meetings, and through the veil of management and product placement. Oh, and by "fading," I mean the label is about two steps from a buy-out or bankruptcy. So he picked the wrong time to join up. Bust a gut laughing as I did and get this slim volume.

36. America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn - while more serious in subject than Rock On, Steyn writes with no less humor. Addressing the spread of "Islamofacism" and Islam as a faith - and all the cultural, political and demographic shifts that entails - he posits that "Western Society" has turned the corner to extinction, or minority-status within its own countries. Only America, strangely immune to the siren song of the iman, hasn't shown a trend to Islamification. Now, whether you agree or not on the merit of this (demographically, the shift in Europe is real, with most countries' native populations not procreating at replacement levels, while Islamic immigrants are virtual baby factories), the book is very intriguing. It'll make you think and bring you smack dab in the middle of this ongoing and vital conversation.

37. City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate - it's a murder mystery told by a Pakistani ex-mujihadeen slacker detective set in London. It's funny, original and I'd even go so far as to say bold, in that it tackles Islamic extremism not from a political point-of-view, but from the street-level. And really, that's a side note to the overall story, the half-comedic struggle of the detective to Make Something of Himself for his Dad. To read the book, it helps to have a passing familiarity to British slang.

38. SW: LotF VIII - Revelation by Karen Traviss - my only regret when reading this was that I had to follow it up with a Denning book to finish the story. Other than that, Traviss has become a favorite author of mine.

39. SW: LotF IX - Invincible by Troy Denning - I have posted a review of this book. Read it, to be entertained. To summarize: it sucks hard, long and without shame. This is bad writing at its finest (worst?).

40. Devils on the Deep Blue Sea by Kristoffer A. Garrin - Raise your hand if you've 1) been on a cruise, 2) thought about going on a cruise or 3) watched "The Love Boat." Lots of hands! This book is for you, and everyone else. It's a rollicking history of the cruise boat industry (what we have now, post-WWII, not Titanic-era), spiritedly mixing fact and anecdote, personal history and boardroom battles and including all the warts, lawsuits and infractions along with the successes. Rarely gets dry ( ching!) or muddled in the epic cast of real-life characters. And yes, if you are a fit, attractive (and legal) gal, your activities director wants to sleep with you.

41. Farewell, Summer by Ray Bradbury - this is a companion novel to Dandelion Wine and was originally the second half of that book. Where as the former deals with summer without end and the citizens of a small Illinois farm town north of Chicago (circa 1910), this volume brings the characters to autum and fall, with school approaching and, for the children, maturity. I'd read both books together for full affect; they really are parts 1 & 2 of a story, not separate books. Individually, adults (especially those moving through and past middle age), will get more out of this than kids.

42. 1912 by James Chace - this final book by the late Chace makes me want to hunt down everything else he's written. Following President William Howard Taft (R; lazily running for reelection), Woodrow Wilson (D; determined to snag victory), Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive/Bull Moose; bounding for the victory line with all the machismo he can muster) and Eugene Debs (Socialist; illuminating a fairer, less revolutionary view than his socialist successors), 1912 gives us the year-and-change campaign that changed American politics. First, it broke the stranglehold on the White House Republicans had enjoyed for most of the previous fifty years. Second, it is a stunning reminder that third parties can work, when backed by ideas and personality. Finally, it started the true liberal/conservative deathmatch that's been going on every since. Anyone with even the slightest interest in politics will find this tome priceless. You can also see that current President-Elect Obama borrows more from Republican/Progressive history from this time than Democratic.

43. The FairTax Book by Neal Boortz & John Linder - no one likes taxes, right? These guys don't. Linder's a Georgian Congressman who's been pushing a flat national sales tax for years. With Boortz, he's put together the best explanation for why such a tax is needed/would benefit the average guy/isn't a way to reward the Top 1%. With another round of tax cuts imminent, it's vital to understand this revenue stream for the government and where the money comes from. I urge you to check this out from your library (or buy it new or used) to at least get some more insight on another aspect of this debate. Regressive tax, flat tax, no tax - we all have heard the terms, but rarely understand the nature of each side.

44. Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace - Wallace, recently deceased (by his own hand), wrote with astonishing complexity and great wit. Here are presented a collection of early stories and a novella that remind us why he was considered one of the best writers of his generation. Not for the "light" reader; he can be funny, but he's also post-modern or whatever wacky tag you want to give such deconstructive work. Challenging? That might be better. But rewarding, too.

45. The Teammates by David Halberstam - a short book that covers sixty years of baseball history, seen through the friendship of four Red Sox: Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Peske, Bobby Doerr and the tempestuous Ted Williams. You don't have to love baseball to appreciate this story of four friends and the game they loved. It's short, so that helps.

46. Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley - funnier than the movie, with a similar story, read this if you like satire, poking fun at Washington DC and/or political correctness, good ficton or the bizarre nature of the smoking debate. It's one of his earliest novels and probably sharpest. For the movie-watchers: his son plays a smaller role, the kidnapping makes more sense and the main character's workplace is more than just a set. Nick Naylor is a "smokesman," the main PR guy for Big Tobacco's lobbying firm, and he's good at what he does. He can take most insults and turn them right back around with a smile on his face, but he'll admit to being rattled after an appearance on the Larry King Show when a caller threatens to kill him. A kidnapping a near-death experience only highlight his growing unease with his job, with what he is as a person.

47. The Inheritance by Samuel G. Freedman - following three families from the FDR-era through the 1994 mid-term election, we see the American political majority move from left to right. It's slow at times, but so is history. These stories serve as an example of how politics can both empower and enfeeble our great country. Ambitious for the "light" reader, with some dedication it can bring a greater understanding of the polarization facing our country. A decent follow-up to 1912.

48. Timeline by Michael Crichton - Crichton, like Grisham or King, is a master of popular fiction. This techno-thriller is a time-travel adventure/mystery/rescue, featuring wild scientific theory, medieval combat and just enough grounding in reality to make you think it might all be possible (as with most Crichton novels). I enjoyed it and recommend it; one of his bests. It's a shame that he passed away late last year, but we still have one more book to look forward to around mid-Year.

49. Sarum by Edward Rutherford - 1,000+ pages, dozens of characters, a ten thousand-year-long story, Stonehenge(!): This is Rutherford's first book, roughly the size five books by a normal author, but who cares? It's the sort of book you settle in to read for a month or two, preferably in winter and with lots of tea present. In Sarum, we follow five families over many generations, from the dim prehistoric hunter/gatherer years through the pagan Celtic times to Roman, medieval, Renaissance, revolution, and colonization finally to land in the mid-1980s. The binding tie for these families, at times friendly but often hostile to each other, is their location - the Sarum region in south-central England (which boasts Stonehenge). We follow their lives and those of their kin through the veil of time, as they work the land into farms, towns cities, etc. If you're a fan of James Michener, his mix of familial- and historical-epic entwined - I highly recommend this book. If you just like a ripping good story that will engross you each time you pick the book up ("I just read how many pages?!"), read this book.

50. The Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler - hey, the last "first novel" in the list! Cussler is, thirty-four years after penning this adventure, a go-to name for action & treasure-huntin' fiction. The Mediterranean Caper introduces us to Dirk Pitt, hero of more than a dozen tales by Cussler (and more recently, his own son...Dirk Cussler). He's a hard man, but fair; not unwilling to slap a woman, but just as likely to bed her for her own good. Wait.... Ok, he's a little rough by today's standards, but this is a pulp novel and those archetypes are normal. Indiana Jones is comparable, and Dirk comes off by novel's end as a character you want to revisit. It's a by-the-numbers action mystery, trussed up with fresh characters and plenty of energy. A solid beginning for Dirk Pitt's adventures and Clive Cussler's blockbuster career.

51. Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex? by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, MD - the follow-up to the informative and side-splitting Why Do Men Have Nipples?, this collection of mundane, bizarre and important questions about our health and bodies doesn't quite satisfy like the first volume, but for the price you can get it at used or new (bestsellers are cheap!), that's OK. The authors include a lot of IM discussions they had, describing the writing of this book and the comedy it entailed; that part could've been trimmed. But the questions are still oddly compelling in their simplicity and the answers satisfactory. Thus, I can say I got more out of it than not.

52. (or 51 1/2). Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer - do you think the US is self-loathing? Do we despise our culture even as we feed it with our attention, or think our public figures are mockeries of good morals, yet can't get enough? What about our government and politics - do you sleep at night thinking they're all on the level, that everything is being done for the better good? Meyer looks at why there's a perception among many that the US is in the pooper - culturally, morally and politically. Ideas about community, pluralism, decency and shared responsibility permeate this not-overlong discourse. One critique: he should've spent more time on solutions than problems. Oh, but that's the end of the book, and I didn't finish it until many hours after the stroke of Midnight on Dec. 31, 2008. Ah well. I've loaned the book out once already, and have another few customers waiting for its return.

Almost made it.

I started the (relatively) short Why We Hate Us the evening of the 29th through the New Year, and just couldn't find time on the 30th and 31st to finish. Between traveling back from seeing the in-laws in OH (30th) and work & a New Year's Eve party (31st), it wasn't in the cards.

But I came close, and over the course of 2008 I read a number of great books, many purchased on a whim or read on recommendation. We don't always have to choose our reading list from the New York Times bestseller list or whatever Oprah fancies. Between the million-selling blockbuster and the (melo)dramatic memoir are the foundations of good literature, the vast unsung catalog that supports libraries, bookstores and readers like me. As you can see, I am not opposed to the popular, but also do not let myself be dictated to by BookScan's weekly numbers.

2009 sees me reading C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, a series I have yet to read, in a wonderful boxed edition of small paperbacks from the 70s that Mandy got for me two Christmases (?) ago. Next on the shelf? The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury; Stephen Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy; Devil's Cape by Rob Rogers; Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan; The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton by Fawn Brodie; Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon; City of Pearl by Karen Traviss (something good came out of "Legacy of the Force!"); Civility and Integrity by Stephen L. Carter; and quite literally hundreds more.

I hope you enjoyed following me over the last year's worth of reading. Love of the printed word is a passion I enjoy sharing with everyone I meet; you readers are no different.

So I release you! Print this out and head to the bookstore - your Barnes and Nobles, Borders, Books-a-Millions, Andersons, Brent's; Half-Priced, Frugal Muse, Myopic Books, etc. Amble up and down the aisles as you pick an armload of books that threatens to rob you of the mortgage payment. And if that's an issue, everyone that reads this has access to a local library, still the best way for the prolific reader not to become the destitute, well-read vagrant.

An added treat from all of this: I will begin reviewing the books I read, in clumps of ten (per bookmark, remember). If I get time, I'll go back and see what good reads lurk under the stones of previous years.

Until next time.


For many great book reviews, check out Bookgasm: Reading Material to Get Excited About.


jmc said...

Hoop - any insight into why you choose the books you read? They seem to vary a great deal in terms of style and content. What would make, for example, Girl With Curious Hair stand out to you as a must read?

The Den of Mystery said...

I don't like to limit myself to one particular genre or type of book. When choosing a book to buy, I weigh the description, who might be "blurbed" on the cover or back, what others I know might've said about it, if I've read anything by the author...even the cover and title, shallow as that might sound. The normal stuff.

In some ways, I have incredibly low standards, since I buy tons of books. Many books were bought just because, and that usually means I heard good things about the author. I picked up a real corker, Doom Wind based on the idea that it'd be terrible (killer wind scours the earth! What will humanity do?!) and therefore, maybe a little fun.

But more recently, I rely on reviews (online, mostly - is a great resource), word of mouth and authors I know/know of.

Regarding Girl With Curious Hair, I'd read a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace and enjoyed it greatly. Based on that, and word of mouth, I picked up a few other books of his, deciding to read this particular collection "in memoriam" of his death. A friend of mine also had the book, but hadn't read it, so Wallace's death provided an opportunity for a grim book club or sorts.

Fiction I usually choose because the story/stories sound engaging; they don't have to be "literary" to be enjoyable, and sometimes, are far more profound the pulpier they get (more on that another day). That's why I radiate to the "genres" more than many of my fellow English majors (the true English majors, those who believe suffering is a must for good writing, who cannot read a book that doesn't highlight in some way "what went wrong" - potentially the most popular type of depresseing "realistic" fiction you can find. And what does it teach us? That life has the capacity for misery? Do we need a pretentious academic to tell us that?).

Picking non-fiction, I try to fill knowledge gaps (but there are so few, you might protest) or read wild, captivating true-life tales of adventure and whatnot. Non-fiction is the bee's knees, kids. Don't let your textbooks fool you!

Does that help?