I’ve always been a sucker for end-of-year lists: books, movies, news items, whatever. It’s fun, and probably healthy, to take the time to reflect on the things that made the past year what it was. I’ve read exactly one book released on 2010, so my list is of the books I actually read this past year (more or less – see the caveat below) as opposed to those with a 2010 copyright.
A few caveats:
- A few of these I actually read at the tail end of 2009. I don’t remember which, so I made all the books over the past eighteen months or so fair game.
- Most of these are non-fiction. I didn’t read a lot of fiction this past year (numbers eight, six, five, and one), but some of the non-fiction works actually read like fiction (numbers four, three, and two).
- This is probably the least pretentious book list you’ll ever see. If you’re looking for art (whatever that is) or avant-garde, keep looking.
- I didn’t read a ton of books this past year, so consider this the NFC West of book lists, although I truly love every book on here.
- Yes, I am a nerd (numbers ten, nine and six).
These are actually in order, so I’m counting down instead of up. I know; I can feel your excitement.
10/9. (Tie) The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku and The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios – I couldn’t decide between the two so I included them both. The concepts are similar: a potentially dry, confusing subject unraveled with a fresh perspective. Kaku takes several science fiction staples such as force fields, teleportation, and faster-than-light travel and ranks the plausibility of each while explain the underlying science in language any non-physicist can understand. The chapter on teleportation blew my mind. Kakalios is a university professor who teaches a course entitled The Physics of Superheroes. This is the book version of that class. Instead of fulcrums and weights and page-long equations, his teaching tools are Superman, Magneto, the Flash, and a whole host of heroes and villains from my comic book days and before. The isn’t just a comics-are-cool book, either; you’ll learn a lot as he takes you from basic kinetics all the way to advanced quantum theory, while both celebrating and gently mocking the medium of grown men and women in brightly colored tights. Yay! Nerd fun!
8. My Name is Will by Jess Winfield – This fun, trippy little book is about Willie Shakespeare Greenberg, a doctoral student in 1980’s California who spends his time (and his daddy’s money) tossing out Shakespeare quotes like candy and doing drugs while ostensibly working on his Shakespeare thesis, and Will Shakespeare, a tanner’s son in 1580’s Stratford who spends his days pining over a girl named Rosaline and hiding his (and his family’s) Catholicism from the brutal Anti-Catholic authorities. Eventually, the two Will’s paths merge in a wacky, mind-bending mash-up of sorts. This book is filled with crude (and effective) humor and more than its fair share of slapstick, but don’t let the levity and debauchery fool you: he knows his Shakespeare. This is a must for all Shakespeare lovers, even if one doesn’t agree with Winfield’s conclusion that Shakespeare’s secret Catholicism influenced his greatest works, one can appreciate this believable peek into the young mind that would go on to have such an influence on western thought for centuries to come.
7. How the States got Their Shapes by Mark Stein – Why is the Upper Peninsula part of Michigan and not Wisconsin? Why does Oklahoma have a panhandle? Why does Maryland look like someone took a bite out of a larger state? Stein’s book is exactly what the title says: a breakdown of every interstate border and the logic (or, more often, the lack thereof) behind the mapping. This is not a dry, people-sitting-behind-a-desk-making-decisions book. It’s a lively, often humorous hidden history of these fifty states. Did you know Ohio and Michigan nearly went to war over their border, or that Florida’s border looks like is does because someone got lost? Each state has it’s own chapter broken down into individual borders (east, west, etc.) so if you don’t care why Colorado looks like a rectangle but have always wondered why Long Island looks like New York’s genitalia instead of being a part of the closer New Jersey, you can flip right to it. Yay! More nerd fun!
6. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – Calliope is a normal girl growing up in what she thinks is a normal family in Detroit of the 60’s and 70’s until she reaches her teens and discovers she is neither normal or a girl. Middlesex is a story of the American Dream told through eyes of a family that’s anything but typical. Calliope’s (or Cal, as he goes by in adulthood) Greek grandparents escape the war and chaos of their home and emigrate to America, carrying with them a secret that will lie dormant and hidden until it manifests itself inside Cal(liope)’s genetic code. Euginides’ Pulitzer Prize winner is about more than a hermaphrodite and his bizarre family tree, it’s about the promises of the American Century and the failure of a society to deliver on that promise. We witness the boom and bust of Detroit, once a vibrant metropolis feeding hungrily off the giddy heyday of the automotive industry, and we see that same city broken and abandoned, betrayed by the very principles of capitalism that once made it great. It’s also a touching, heartwarming coming of age/coming of gender tale, and Cal is easily the most interesting and endearing protagonist I’ve read in a long time – well, human protagonist (see number one).
5. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir – Lady Jane Grey was a teenager growing up in Tudor England who wanted nothing more more than to be left alone with her books and her unwavering Protestantism. Unfortunately, Jane had the dual misfortunes of being the great-niece of Henry VIII and the daughter of fiercely ambitious parents. When Henry’s only legitimate son, Edward VI, dies without an heir, leaving the Catholic Mary Tudor next in line, Jane’s parents and the Lord Protector of England launch a dangerous scheme to place Jane on the throne instead. The plan goes awry, with disastrous consequences for all involved, particularly Jane. Weir is a historian, and her debut novel reflects that with its meticulous accuracy of daily life and customs, intimate insights into the major players of the day (including Mary Tudor, Henry’s last wife Catherine Parr, and the future Elizabeth I), and familiarity with subject matter that drives the confidence of the narrative. When Weir isn’t pulling directly from history, her inventions feel as real as fact. And if you’re looking for a truly frightening villain, look no further than John Dudley, the ruthless Duke of Northumberland.
4. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – Bill Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail, an approximately 2200 mile deep woods hiking trail stretching from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Mountains, and wrote about it. Bill Bryson could write about reading the phone book and I’d read it. Not only is it a whimsical and sometimes exciting narrative about two middle-aged men trying to conquer an iron-man level feat, but Bryson also manages to find fascinating tidbits about the history of not only the trail itself, but the towns and regions that surround it. I was going to write “It’s Americana as only Bryson can deliver,” but I thought that was kind of cheesy.
3. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson – A walk through a different kind of woods. On its surface, it’s a frenetic narrative about two grown men who lie, steal, and terrorize their way through Las Vegas while whacked out on every drug imaginable. They’re seeking the American Dream, and they think they’ll find it in the decadent, artificial, five-and-dime Baroque that was Vegas of the late sixties-early seventies. It’s more than that though. Through his simple, here-it-is narrative, Thompson paints a picture of loss and isolation, of a dream gone wrong, and a nation unwilling to pick up the pieces and start over. Thompson doesn't so much comment on society as react to it, often times too much, and he makes us privy (and culpable) to the drug-addled rationalizations of a society on the precipice of insanity. I expected all that. What I didn’t expect was the innocence and pathos present in Thompson's unique voice. The reader feels for Raoul Duke – Thompson’s alter ego. He comes across as a lot more likable and sympathetic then I thought he would, even as he’s wreaking havoc wherever he goes. In the end, the book is about two people – and a country - left holding the bag from the failed experiment that was the counter-culture ‘60s.
2. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Daniel Burnham was a brilliant architect and one of the men responsible for bringing the city of Chicago into the modern world and onto the world stage. H. H. Holmes was a different kind of brilliant. A contemporary of Jack the Ripper, he murdered dozens of people, mostly women, yet hardly anyone has heard his name. These two men’s purposes collide at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The story darts effortlessly between the two men: Burnham’s struggle first to convince financers of his vision and then to build his magnificent white city on a marsh on the shore of Lake Michigan contrasts with the ease in which Holmes used his natural charisma to attract his victims. Larson does an excellent job of bringing into life this hidden history of a nation on the verge of the “American Century” and how its spirit of rugged individuality and entrepreneurial determination can bring out both the best and the worst in us. And all of this took place less than twenty miles from where I live.
1. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – Maybe it’s because I have three lab-terrier mixes myself, maybe it’s because I recently lost a cat, but I fell in love with the narrator, Enzo, on page one. Enzo is a lab-terrier mix nearing the end of his days who longs to be human, and he knows that when he dies, he’ll be reincarnated as a person. He knows that because he saw it on TV. Racing is Enzo’s memoir (or as close as he can get since he can’t read and has no thumbs – an unfortunate reality he’s always taken hard), a tale of loss and of courage in the face overwhelming circumstances. If his owner (and best friend) Denny seems a little too perfect, it’s only because we see him through the eyes of his faithful companion. Not only does Enzo give us insight into what it’s like to be a dog, but through his observations and yearnings we learn from him just what it means to be human.
Stop by the Broke and the Bookish for more great lists.