Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best Books of 2008

I just can't post a list of 92 books, lumped into the category of "I read them," without pausing to linger over the ones that made an impression, and stayed with me long after I'd closed the cover and moved on. In no particular order, the best books I read in 2008...

1. The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

The pleasure I get from reading this kind of book is so great, I wonder myself why I don't read more of them. In this book, Frye is making a case for stories, and shedding light on why we need them and how they make a difference in our lives. This is the only non-fiction book on my "best of" list, and it deserves higher praise than I can give.

2. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Bradley

Part of the pleasure I took in this story was the excellent reading by Elizabeth Klett at Librivox. I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but it was definitely more than I expected. I even blogged about it at the time.

3. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe

Everyone else is/has been reading Things Fall Apart by this author, and I am impressed with the urgency that I must read it, too. However, this is the book that was available in my library here in Krakow, and it was amazing. I've taken an interest in the past few years in African literature, especially books that touch on the tensions of colonial Africa. Arrow of God was intense and insightful--I don't think I've ever read a better description of tribal life/community in story form. In the end, human nature is the same, no matter what culture or roots shape it from without.

4. Small Island by Andrea Levy

I picked up this book on a whim while browsing in the library, and it turned out to be one of the best books of the year. I'd never heard of it before. The post-WWII lives of young men and women, some from Britian, some from Jamaica, are so real it doesn't seem like fiction. Fortunately, I wrote a better review at the time I read the book.

5. Howard's End by E.M. Forster

At the time I read (okay, listened to) this book, I wrote that it blew me away. For some reason, this turned out to be my year for reading a lot of 20th-century classics I had never read before, and this was the cream of the crop. There will definitely be an E.M. Forster book in my reading plans for 2009.

6. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

I hardly know what to say about this one, because so much has already been written on it. I said it would be on my list of best reads in 2008, and I meant it. It may be one of the best books I've read, ever. Review here, inadequate as it is.

7. Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon

I have been an unabashed fan of Jan Karon's Mitford books for many years. I don't see how anyone who loves character-based books could not like those books. I received Home to Holly Springs as a Christmas present last year, and put off reading it for half the year because I didn't think I'd like it as much as the Mitford books. Silly, silly me. All I did was delay the pleasure I had reading it. Jan Karon has the ability to show what grace looks like in real life, or what it could look like, if we'd let it. She celebrates small miracles, too, that are so easy to overlook. If you haven't read all the Mitford books, don't read this yet...but do read Jan Karon.

8. Middlemarch by George Eliot

I'm so glad I read this. It was wonderful. I can't imagine why I never read it before. (Books of nearly 700 pages don't put me off, no sir, not at all...). I keep trying to figure out which character was my favorite, and I think in the end, I could not choose. This kind of book is a tapestry that fills a wall, with figures running to and fro and intermingled with small pictures that tell their own stories when examined closely, and yet together make a grand whole which the largest room is almost too small to hold.

9. The Swoop by P.G. Wodehouse

I hesitated to add this to my list. It is not a great book, or a fine book, or a book that I'll remember in great detail forever. But it was funny, and it made me laugh, and sometimes that is no small blessing.

10. I almost left this one blank and let it go with 9 best books, but I finally decided that The Road by Cormac McCarthy deserves this place. I did not love the story and the post-modern bleakness of the book is almost heart-wrenching for someone who prefers stories that include hope. But this book made me think harder than almost anything else I read this year, and for that, it deserves a place amongst the best books I read.

Now I'm ready for 2009...bring on the books.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Reading Summary, 2008

This is my wrap-up of all the reading I did in 2008. Being able to do this is pretty much the sole reason I used my blog at all in 2008. I did not, unfortunately, write serious reviews of more than a handful of these books, although if you look at my reading logs for each month, there are some comments there.

If anyone has questions about any particular book, please feel free to ask in the comments--I'll be glad to share my thoughts on any of it. Tomorrow, I plan to post which, among this lengthy list, were my favorite books from 2008--and perhaps I'll take a swipe or two at my least favorites. Without further ado--

Grand Total of Books Read in 2008: 92 books read in entirety.

Ninety-two! (Of which, 17 were re-reads.)

Now here is the woeful part:

Non-fiction: 9 (I had purposed to read 2 non-fiction books per month, which would have been 24. This is a serious short-coming.)

Books on philosophy/culture: 3
Books that were essentially either biographies or memoirs: 6

Fiction: 81

Audio books: 23, every one courtesy of Librivox.
Classics: 14
Mysteries: 17
Literary Fiction: 26 (i.e. Louis Auchincloss)
Popular Fiction: 15 (i.e. Jodi Picoult)
Crime/Spy Fiction: 4
Youth/Young Adult Literature: 4
Science Fiction: 3
Short Story Collection: 1

(Obviously, there is some overlap in these categories.)

Books by Male Authors: 36
Books by Female Authors: 56
Books in translation: 1, and some short stories
Multiple books by the same author: 13 authors (Orson Scott Card, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.G. Wodehouse, P.D. James, Jane Austen, Jodi Picoult, Lilian Jackson Braun, John Grisham, Edith Wharton, C.S. Lewis, Mindy Starns Clark, Baroness Orczy, and Carson McCullers)

In addition to the list below, I read part of, but abandoned, three books:

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
Daughter of Jerusalem by Sarah Maitland
Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

I read some additional short stories:

"A Provincial Guy," "Holobutow," "Very controversial discussion with God," and "A Nihilist" by Adam Zielinski, translated from German

"Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"The Mark of the Beast" by Rudyard Kipling
"The Man That Was Used Up" by Edgar Allen Poe
"Laura" by Saki

I also read about one-third of Nowe Przygody Mikolajka in Polish, translated from the French.

And finally, the complete list, in more or less chronological order.

The List

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse
Original Sin by P.D. James
Persuasion by Jane Austen (twice--read once, listened to audiobook once)
Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander
The Undomestic Goddess by Sophia Kinsella
The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult
Last Days by Joel C. Rosenberg
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Hale
Old Hall, New Hall by Michael Innes
Back on Blossom Street by Debbie Macomber
The Cat Who Played Brahms by Lilian Jackson Braun
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
The Cat Who Played Post Office by Lilian Jackson Braun
The Fortieth Door by Mary Hastings Bradley
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
False Scent by Ngaio Marsh
Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Catheart and Daniel Klein
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Case of Jennie Brice by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The Cat Who Saw Stars by Lilian Jackson Braun
Emma by Jane Austen
The Lost Boy by David Pelzer
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Small Island by Andrea Levy
They Met in Moscow by Rosemary Timperley
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Remains of the Day by kazuo Ishiguro
Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borokowski
A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
Summer by Edith Wharton
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon
Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
The Dark House by George Manville Fenn
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
The Cinema Murder by E. Phillips Oppenheim
A Penny for Your Thoughts by Mindy Starns Clark
Don't Take Any Wooden Nickels by Mindy Starns Clark
Dime a Dozen by Mindy Starns Clark
A Quarter for a Kiss by Mindy Starns Clark
The Buck Stops Here by Mindy Starns Clark
A Promise to Remember by Katherine Cushman
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim
The Daffodil Mystery by Richard Horatio and Edgar Wallace
Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy
Jean and Johnny by Bevery Cleary
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Carmilla by Joseph Faridan LeFanu
El Dorado by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
The Swoop by P.G. Wodehouse
The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern Lilian Jackson Braun
Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
The Partners by Louis Auchincloss
The Latecomers by Anita Brookner
The Van Dreison Affair by Holly Roth
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Colors of Space Marian Zimmer Bradley
Mary Emma and Company by Ralph Moody
Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady
Over the Gate by Miss Read
The Hampstead Mystery by John R. Watson and Arthur Rees
The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephanie Doyon
Anthem by Ayn Rand
The Broker by John Grisham
The Rector's Wife by Joanna Trollope
Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card
Innocent Blood by P.D. James
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Tiger's Child by Torey Hayden

If you read or even scanned that formidable list--congratulations! I hope it won't sound like heresy if I say that I hope next year's list is somewhat shorter and meatier!

A book review

Of all the things I would do with my blog if I were a faithful blogger, this is one of the most fun. I love writing and sharing about I'm reading. I've been planning for several weeks to write this one...better late than never?

The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephenie Doyon is one of those books that serendipity dropped into my lap. I never heard of it; I never read a review about it; I never went looking for it. It just came to me, by way of a back-street thrift store in Krakow. Some of these shops get their merchandise from Great Britian, so there are occasionally a few English-language books and movies in their inventory. Their regular customers have little interest in these things, so they sell them for extremely low prices, about 50 cents or a dollar. Since the average English-language title available new here costs a minimum of $10, and usually more, I never skip the opportunity to look for something that I might like to read. Most of what is available is junk I wouldn't even pay 50 cents to read, but sometimes, I find something better, and that is how The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole crossed my path.

Cedar Hole is the quintessential back-water town, filled with small-minded people. There are no real opportunities, nothing to be proud of, nothing to do, and at the same time, no one seems to muster enough ambition to leave. This book is the story of two boys who grow to manhood in Cedar Hole. One of them has vision and purpose, but no desire to leave. His focus is on improving Cedar Hole, beginning with himself. The second boy has the desire to leave, but lacks the impetus to do it, and ends up staying put and living the kind of life that most folks in Cedar Hole live. Which of them is the greatest man in Cedar Hole?

The story is complex, with a cast of characters that bring Cedar Hole to life. Every-day temptations, family dynamics, tragedy, comedy--this book feels very much like real life. In the end, the greatest man in Cedar Hole chooses honesty, family, and integrity over wealth and the chance to move away. I was so impressed with this story, and its modest, simple "hero" who simply lived and worked and was there for the people who needed him.

Affirmation of existence

This poor little blog has been neglected and neglected. I've toyed with the idea of abandoning it altogether, but it does serve a purpose for me, so I can't do that. It doesn't seem to line up with what other people think the purpose of blogging is, so as blogs go, I think it's a wash, but I can't get rid of it, anyway. No cute little blogger awards, side-bar widgets, interesting link categories, or ad-revenue for me. So be it.

But, the verdict is in, and the blog will live.