Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Top 5 Books You've Read Recently

Kind of a wussy title, a bit like a column you might read in the O magazine. (Well, not 'you,' or 'me,' but whoever reads such columns.) That said, I went with 'recently' so that we could all define this Top 5 as we wish--Tim, for instance, has read (I'm guessing) about 40 more books than I have this year (I thought it was the 15 Book Challenge!). So 'recently' can be whatever you wish, within reason--this year, since June, etc. (The idea for me is that I couldn't include something like Great Gatsby, Sun Also Rises, etc., basically any of the greats that I haven't read in ages. You get me. I'll stop rambling.)

Ryan's Top Five

1. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut - I read this earlier this year, and I really believe it is Vonnegut at his finest. I hesitate to say it is his greatest novel, but I don't hesitate to say it's my personal favorite.

2. The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks - To me, reading this book was like one of those movies you never just sit down and watch, but you see enough parts of it to have seen it at least twice. I've read just about every section, some more than once, but never in sequential order. (I read the first 70 pages sequentially and got a bit tired of reading about types of gun, wanting instead to read about fortification techniques.) The whole concept, of course, is brilliant, and the tone of realistic concern and straightforward explanation that defines this book is admirable. Good show, Max Brooks.

3. Ten Little Indians, Sherman Alexie - A shoo-in as this was the last book I read, so it is very "recent." This was a book of short stories. Such books are generally tough for me to follow as I prefer complete novels, but Alexie's writing flows very smoothly and keeps you interested. (He writes a bit like a Native American Nick Hornby who's more concerned great writing than humor.) In the end, it is a book of short stories, and any such book unfortunately varies in quality. Some were excellent ("What You Pawn I Will Redeem") while others were decent, but not great. Hence, Alexie wins the bronze.

4. Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich - Here's a book that's not one of my favorite reads ever, nor is it going to win any awards or have any legacy as a "great"--it's just a good and compelling nonfiction narrative. Mezrich is a solid writer; it's not hard to imagine this book garnering similar popular accolades based on its subject matter, but with subpar writing. So it's refreshing that the narrative feels tight, structured, never boring and never too indulgent. Oh, right, it's about counting cards in blackjack, if anyone didn't know...

5. Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut - In terms of greatness, this surely is better than Alexie's collection of short stories. But, you know, ranking two Vonnegut works so high would be boring. It suffers from the same problems I have with collections of short stories, which normally shouldn't be read straight through; I place a lot of importance on completing a book, so short story collections generally don't interest me. That said, I sometimes follow this belief to a fault, as it's led to me overlooking some damn fine short stories--as in this book. "All The King's Horses" is about an East Asian guerrilla warlord literally playing chess with American soldiers' lives, and it is fucking awesome. "More Stately Mansions" also stands out to me, and "Harrison Bergeron" and "Welcome to the Monkey House" are classic, of course.

Tim's Top 5:
Given that of the 49 books I've read this year, 24 of them were read in their entirety before February 28, I'm going to define "recently" as after May 1, 2007, because it'd be a mockery to define recently as spanning 11 months, but it'd be even more ludicrous to say the last three months, since that would cover 4 books. And I can honestly say I enjoyed at least five of the 17 books I've read since May.

1. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - Read in July (3 days) - This is my favorite Vonnegut work, I'd grown enamored with the premise when they ran ads during MST3K for the Nick Nolte film version that I never got around to seeing. The premise is executed more flawlessly than I could have imagined, since I've always been pretty lukewarm towards Vonnegut's work, thinking I should enjoy it far more than I do. It's more story-based than most of his work, but the story is a simple one, so it really is mostly style that pays off.

2. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer - Read in November (2 days) - The book is relentlessly sad, Christopher McCandless is a tragic figure who struck me as someone who was in many ways like me, just without the relentless tendency to sell out. We share a common interest in getting far too interested in things and taking things way beyond their plausible conclusion. McCandless' commitment to trying to find another path for himself was, in many ways, foolhardy, but it's one that even in failure, strikes me as more respectable than the lives of quiet desperation for which most of us are willing to settle. I'm a romantic, I guess.

3. Too Far From Home by Chris Jones - Read in May (1 week) - I've always been fascinated by the idea of being an astronaut. It's certainly not for me, given that I am 1) not much of a risk-taker, 2) not interested in math, science, or joining the military, and 3) way too old to start planning for a fatality-based career at this point. But their stories are fascinating, and this book tells a story that hadn't been told to death, since people's interest in the Columbia disaster was pretty much limited to the astronauts aboard the Columbia, not those who were indirectly affected by it. Its story of cooperation with the Russians reads like an entertaining study in political science, and it has its share of gripping drama.

4. Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley - Read in May (1 day) - Paul Shirley is one of the few blogger-types who can genuinely entertain. He's an athlete, he's an ISU alum, but he's also the person who writes the most like I think I do among people I've read. Anyone who can make me genuinely interested in reading about the NBA must be pretty entertaining.

5. Horsemen of the Esophagus by Jason Fagone - Read in June (2 weeks?) - It's certainly not a must-read, but Fagone's study of competitive eating, its performers, and the popularity growth in the field was more memorable than most of the books I've read this year. Fagone created actual characters, so that I rmeember more people from the book than I do from nearly any other I've read. Whether it's Joey Chestnut, Sonya Thomas, Kobayashi, El Wingador, Tim Janus, or any of the dozens of competitive eaters that have reached quasi-fame, Fagone does a good job of telling their stories and discussing the controversies surrounding the most American of all competitive activities (I will not call it a sport).

Honorable mention: The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman, The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon; Blowing My Cover by Lindsay Moran

Books not worth mentioning: Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez; Forty Million Dollar Slaves by William C. Rhoden; Shampoo Planet; I Am America (and So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert; Wigfield: the Can-Do Town that Just May Not by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello; The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd, and Veeck as in Wreck by Bill Veeck

Dan's Top 5:

(Disclaimer: As I simply do not ever get around to reading without great impetus, this list is essentially a ranked list of the last five books I can recall picking up.)

1. Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night - This one is all Ryan's doing. Looking for something good to read, and ignoring the stack of books that I've bought already and haven't picked up, I called Ryan from the bookstore and asked him for a good Vonnegut book. He recommended this and something else, and his synopsis of this one intrigued me more. It's the best book I've read in a while, but even though it wins by default, it would probably still hold that distinction if I actually bothered to read.

2. Hunter S. Thompson - The Rum Diary - Being a Hunter S. Thompson fan, I was excited to read his novel. I left it for a while, but in the end, it was really good. There was a profound sense of randomness and confusion as I was reading it, but I expect that was the desired effect. One of the strongest settings I've ever experienced.

3. Richard Hack - Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters: The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire - I finished this book right as The Aviator came out in theaters. It made me really appreciate the movie, and I now consider Howard Hughes to be one of my personal heroes (craziness aside).

4. Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs, and Steel - To be fair, I haven't finished this one yet. I'm still trying to get around to plowing through it, as it's really trying to actively teach you something - a quality I'm not used to when reading books. Once I do finish, though, I doubt it would rank anywhere lower than #2 on this list. It's so informative, and it really changes your perspective on human history.

5. Nick Hornby - A Long Way Down - I loved this, as it was a quick read, and how can you not love Hornby? However, it didn't leave a lasting impression like About a Boy or High Fidelity (if I ever bothered to read it).



Cortney's Top 5

I will preface this by saying that I am not good at ranking things at all-- Ryan constantly asks me what my top 5's are, and I find the rigidity of a ranking system to be a little difficult to work with (maybe that's why I don't like sports). But I'm going to give it a shot.


1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: This book is remarkable. Clearly I'm not alone on this one, as it won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2004. Eugenides intertwines many different themes and stories in such a way that I'm convinced his style is superior to his story (though the story was great too).

2. Night by Elie Wiesel: Another award-winner, thought this won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. This was my introduction to the literature of the Holocaust, and everything I've read since echoes its sentiments. Wiesel is an amazing storyteller, with a lyrical, almost biblical style. Heartbreakingly honest, this book sets the bar for Holocaust narratives.

3. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier: I have yet to read a Chevalier book I haven't liked or loved. Chevalier's style is difficult to describe-- it's more or less historical fiction centered around fictional and nonfictional characters. This specific novel was a fictional account of how two very different youths in London inspired William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which happen to be among my favorite works. Sounds dry, but it was quite the page turner.

4. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: This was one of those bestsellers that I'd heard of through someone or another and picked up at the used bookstore for about $2 (which, truth be told, is where I get most of my reading material these days, which explains a major presence of bestselling contemporary fiction). Little did I expect to be so enraptured by this story. This novel is by no means perfect, but it made me think, and sometimes that's enough for me. Now it's been optioned for a movie, which should be interesting.

5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer: This isn't completely fair because I haven't finished it yet, but I'm well on my way to doing so. Krakauer's investigation of the lives of Mormon fundamentalists in the Arizona Strip is chilling. To make a long story short, he's explained how the fundamentalist (read: polygamists) broke off from the LDS church, and how it's basically a glorified way to rape children. Reading this book is like watching a well-executed train wreck...it's fascinating and horrifying all at once.

*Making this list has been painful, but only because it's shown me how little I've read recently. I really ought to get back on the ball.

3 comments:

Larryville Slugger said...

I will preface this by saying that I am not good at ranking things at all-- Ryan constantly asks me what my top 5's are, and I find the rigidity of a ranking system to be a little difficult to work with (maybe that's why I don't like sports). But I'm going to give it a shot.

I also know zero html, so bare with me...

Cortney's Top 5

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: This book is remarkable. Clearly I'm not alone on this one, as it won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2004. Eugenides intertwines many different themes and stories in such a way that I'm convinced his style is superior to his story (though the story was great too).

2. Night by Elie Wiesel: Another award-winner, thought this won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. This was my introduction to the literature of the Holocaust, and everything I've read since echoes its sentiments. Wiesel is an amazing storyteller, with a lyrical, almost biblical style. Heartbreakingly honest, this book sets the bar for Holocaust narratives.

3. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier: I have yet to read a Chevalier book I haven't liked or loved. Chevalier's style is difficult to describe-- it's more or less historical fiction centered around fictional and nonfictional characters. This specific novel was a fictional account of how two very different youths in London inspired William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which happen to be among my favorite works. Sounds dry, but it was quite the page turner.

4. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: This was one of those bestsellers that I'd heard of through someone or another and picked up at the used bookstore for about $2 (which, truth be told, is where I get most of my reading material these days, which explains a major presence of bestselling contemporary fiction). Little did I expect to be so enraptured by this story. This novel is by no means perfect, but it made me think, and sometimes that's enough for me. Now it's been optioned for a movie, which should be interesting.

5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer: This isn't completely fair because I haven't finished it yet, but I'm well on my way to doing so. Krakauer's investigation of the lives of Mormon fundamentalists in the Arizona Strip is chilling. To make a long story short, he's explained how the fundamentalist (read: polygamists) broke off from the LDS church, and how it's basically a glorified way to rape children. Reading this book is like watching a well-executed train wreck...it's fascinating and horrifying all at once.

*Making this list has been painful, but only because it's shown me how little I've read recently. I really ought to get back on the ball.

The Monkey said...

Welcome aboard, Cortney!

Larryville Slugger said...

Thanks! I'm glad to join.