We read fewer books this year than in years past, so we’ve enlisted the woman who kicked off our Friday Recommends guest blogger posts, otherwise known as “sister Ellen,” to help us with this year’s list. Ellen, take it away!
[we hand computer to Ellen]
Despite predictions that my first attempt at blogging would lead to no return-invitations, I have been asked by Voreblog (the Male) to fill in as guest-blogger for their annual review of the best books read in the previous year. So here ‘tis —
Sister Ellen’s Books 2009: a year in review.
Frankly, I don’t remember all the books I’ve read this year. I read a lot of books. (Mr. Grit chimes in here — bad books). What evs. I liked ‘em, I read ‘em. Even I, however, am just a bit embarrassed when I compare the mountain of literature you see below with last year’s list, compiled by Voreblog. It appears that this year’s list has been composed by a child. But let us judge this year’s feast of literature on quantity, not quality. I read two entire series of novels. Thank you, Jim Butcher. Thank you, Charlaine Harris. I read one-half of an embarrassing novel filled with were-animal sex scenes. Anita Blake, why must you be such a whore? To be fair, I now warn all who venture to my Facebook profile to steer clear of the genre known as paranormal romance.
Books I have devoured in 2009:
Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files:
Summary: Harry Dresden is the sexiest, most complex wizard-hero I have yet to encounter. I would have a cup of coffee with him.
Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Novels:
Dead Until Dark
Living Dead in Dallas
Dead to the World
Dead as a Doornail
All Together Dead
From Dead To Worse
Dead and Gone
Summary: S-T-E-A-M-Y. Eric the Vampire/Northman? Yes, please. Bill? Maybe; but it’s a weird name for a vampire. Stories are quick, energetic, entertaining.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Summary: Great books combining two of my favorite things: journalism and Swedes. There is nothing more awesome than clipping through a book at a furious pace, when suddenly you are made to pause by a passage involving having a cheese sandwich for breakfast. Who does that? Answer: Swedes.
Suzanne Collins’ “adolescent series”
The Hunger Games
Summary: Books haven’t made me feel this good since I imagined I was eating blueberries and milk and bread along with the Boxcar Children. Seriously, stories of children surviving in the wilderness get a “thumbs up” from me.
Vampire Haiku by Ryan Mecum
Ryan writes of vamps
Never have I laughed at blood
And sucking so much
The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
Summary: I didn’t know I could like a Presbyterian this much.
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Summary: This book led me to proclaim: “Holy Shit! I’ve been doing it all wrong.” As well as: “Well, of course it makes sense that everyone needs a full love-tank.”
5, 6 and 7 of the Harry Potter series
Book 4 of the Twilight series
I don’t know what to say for myself. Again, I make a plea for judgment based on quantity (27 new books! 31 if you count the re-reads!). In sum, I got lost in books this year and enjoyed the fantastic escape that books can provide.
Thank you, Voreblog, for allowing me to share.
[Ellen hands computer back to us]
Thank you, Ellen!
If there was a throughline to our reading this year, it was food. We began the year on a Michael Pollan kick and ended it with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In between was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. You may recall that one of our new year’s resolutions was to eat locally and cook more ourselves. (If we had to grade ourselves, Erin would give herself a “B” while Ben would give himself a “D+.”)
So how do those three books compare?
Kingsolver’s book is the most romantic of the three. For a year she and her family ate only what they could grow on their own farm (or buy locally). No bananas. No oranges. No Pringles. No Hostess Ding Dongs. No Dewey’s Pizza. It sounds dreary, but Kingsolver actually makes it seem desirable. She also acknowledges that she’s #73 on Bernard Goldberg’s “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America” list.
Eating Animals, Foer’s first stab at non-fiction, is a mixed bag. The prospect of fatherhood — and his pet dog, George — leads Foer to reconsider his own eating habits and how he wants to raise his son. This leads Foer to break into a factory farm and relay some truly disgusting revelations about chickens. More philosophical than Kingsolver, Foer is also angrier — he has the zeal of the newly converted. You could argue that his disdain for farms (even the more humane family farms) is simply impractical, and it is. That’s Foer’s point. He wants to provoke. We’d pay money to see him and Barbara Kingsolver in a room together. Extra if Wendell Berry came too. (And really big bucks if Robert Pattinson just happened to wander in.)
Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is still the food book we measure all others against. While he didn’t quite inspire us to hunt our own boar, Pollan offers a coherent view of everything from the Western diet to the food industry, agribusiness, organic food and the basics of better grocery shopping. In Defense of Food, his bite-size follow-up, sacrifices narrative by focusing on the practical. His new book, Food Rules, releases next week.
Now, without further ado: Our top seven books of the year, conveniently arranged into fiction, non-fiction, and young reader.
THE BRIXTON BROTHERS: THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, Mac Barnett. No book was funnier to read this year than the first entry in the new young reader detective series, The Brixton Brothers. The real mystery here is not why the “Brothers” is plural (there is only one Brixton, the inimitable Steve) but rather why a super-secret stealth group called The Librarians is out to kill our hero for checking out a book on quilting. Barnett is fearless about confronting other impenetrable mysteries too, notably: How do you read a book and dunk a basketball at the same time? Both a spoof and an homage to the likes of Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity will amuse a 32-year-old no less than one who’s twelve.
WHEN YOU REACH ME, Rebecca Stead. If the Newbery Award is worth anything, this book will win it. A brilliant little puzzle of a book, When You Reach Me is also a sly homage to A Wrinkle In Time. A sixth grader named Miranda begins noticing strange little occurrences all around her: first her apartment key is stolen, then a shoe disappears, and suddenly cryptic notes arrive saying things like, “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Whoever is writing the notes knows things about Miranda and the future that nobody should know. Who’s sending them? And why? Around this riddle Stead weaves a story rich with detail and feeling — about growing up, self-discovery, mothers and daughters, and making and losing friends. Plus Dick Clark makes a cameo as a key plot point. Hard to beat that.
(Thank you, Steph Porter and Molly Gillespie, for steering us toward these books.)
MORE OF THIS WORLD OR MAYBE ANOTHER, Barb Johnson. It was not the banner year for short story collections that 2008 was, but 2009 did produce a gem in Barb Johnson’s More of This World or Maybe Another. Johnson’s large-hearted stories trace the lives of New Orleanians trapped in circumstances of abandonment, adultery, heartbreak and desperation; what makes them not just bearable but remarkable (the title story is a wonder to read, and reread) is Johnson’s lean, musical prose, as well as her wit and empathy for all her broken people. They may be unable to escape themselves, but her characters win a sad wisdom just by getting by. What’s not sad is watching Johnson read in person; she’s dry, sharp and witty.
LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, Colum McCann. “Things happen. Things collide,” Colum McCann writes in Let The Great World Spin, a sprawling narrative where a dozen disparate lives — a priest, a prostitute, a judge, his grieving wife — converge in tragedy and wonder. Using Philippe Petit’s walk between the Twin Towers in August 1974 as his inspiration, McCann tries for something almost as virtuosic. It’s no failure on his part if it doesn’t completely cohere — his aim is high and his heart is true. After you’re done reading it, rent Man on Wire for more high-wire hijinks. Then string your own tightrope between your roof and the house next door and amaze the neighbors!
COLUMBINE, Dave Cullen. What could have been a morbid, voyeuristic exercise is, in Dave Cullen’s capable hands, a cathartic release. Recreating the almost minute-by-minute events of April 20, 1999 and weaving in a wide angle perspective both of who Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were and what led them to kill, Columbine is a humane, unflinching book. Cullen gives shape to both the horror of the shooting and a community’s attempt to understand and forgive in the decade since.
THE BOOK OF BASKETBALL, Bill Simmons. We’ve read no less than three profiles of Bill Simmons and his New York Times-bestseller that all follow the same story line: “Who knew so many people would want to read a 736-page hardcover book about basketball?” Um, how about anyone who has ever read his blog? Simmons combines hoops knowledge with savvy pop culture references to give us, if not exactly the NBA Bible, something we’ll still be quoting chapter and verse for years to come. Yes, some of his references are labored and/or won’t age well (Spencer & Heidi, Tiffany Amber Thiessen, etc.), and he throws John Stockton under the bus (despite ranking him a respectable #25 in the Pyramid of NBA All-Stars), but we’ll forgive him. Perfect bathroom reading. We think Bill would take that as a compliment.
ZEITOUN, Dave Eggers. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a driven, successful painting contractor, stays behind in New Orleans while his family evacuates prior to Hurricane Katrina. After the levees break, Zeitoun paddles around in a canoe, rescuing trapped residents, checking in on his properties and feeding abandoned dogs. Then, suddenly, he is arrested. What unfolds from there is shocking. No less shocking is that the same Eggers who wrote the showy, exuberant A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius tells Zeitoun’s story with such restraint and understatement, letting the injustices speak for themselves. The result is a riveting, hopeful book of one family’s survival in a time of chaos.
There’s a lot on our reading list that we didn’t get to this year, notably Mary Karr’s Lit, Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, and The Flat Belly Diet For Men. More on these when we catch up in the new year.
But wait, you’re saying. Isn’t there an elephant in the room? Wearing James Joyce glasses? Weren’t you part of a certain online literary group that tackled Ulysses? And how did that turn out? Did you put that feather in your cap?
Welllllll … yes and no.
Yes, we tackled Ulysses. We even tackled The Odyssey first. The difference? We finished The Odyssey.
Ulysses? Our bookmark remains on page 167, where it has stayed since mid-September.
So no, we didn’t quite put that feather in our cap.
Will we ever return to the events of June 16, 1904? Maybe. Probably not. If our Virgil pulls us out of the mire, there’s a chance, we suppose. (But that very Virgil has, apparently, quit us for good, instructing us in his last comment (dated October 4) to “enjoy [our] tepid hot dogs.”)
Until then, consider it: Joyce 1, Voreblog 0.
Again, thank you to guest blogger Ellen.
Coming soon, maybe even tomorrow: The year in TV! Unless we convince sister Bevin to help us with the music list first!