Friday, November 21, 2008

Top 5 Favorite (New) Books Read in 2008

It's looking increasingly unlikely that I will meet the 50-Book Challenge. I am mired on 37. So I think it's high time to pull the trigger on a list I've been intending to write all year.

Ryan's Top 5:

1. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut - This book blew me away. While reading this book, I constantly thought to myself, "This is the great American novel." I think, when you've read 10+ Vonnegut books and feel you have a pretty good grasp on the author, you don't expect to find an undiscovered gem. But this book has every opportunity to stand beside Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five as my three favorite Vonnegut books.

2. Then We Came To The End - Joshua Ferris - What can I say, I love office culture and the books, movies, TV shows, etc., regarding it. Anyway, this book is written in the first-person plural--a fact which would strike one as seeming gimmicky, but it never comes off as such while reading it. Ferris cleverly inserts the singular author/narrator into the story at key moments. This book is also pretty funny. Good stuff. Incidentally, the first book I read this year.

3. Flight - Sherman Alexie - This book should be taught in schools. And it would be, too, if I had the ability to acquire any texts I want. But alas, I do not have said ability. Anyway, every high school kid--and especially every transient-population high school kid, and especially especially every foster child high school kid--should definitely read this mug. A quick, entertaining read with a powerful and refreshingly simple message: violence blows.

4. When You Are Engulfed By Flames - David Sedaris - I don't think I will ever like this more than Corduroy or Me Talk Pretty One Day, but so what? Those books are damn good, and so is this one. Nuts to anyone who said this book was a weaker effort from Sedaris, that he was writing about lighter, less interesting material. Bullshit. Sedaris' masterful ability to coax the Funny and the Interesting from any incident--no matter how mundance--is veritably unparalleled.

5. The Year of Living Biblically - A.J. Jacobs - A fun and interesting read on modern, and ancient, Judeo-Christian beliefs. I learned more from this book than I did from 15 years (read: 15 Easters) of church.

Honorables: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard; Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut; Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem; others.

Dan's Top 5:

1. Watchmen - Alan Moore - Fuck it, I'm just going to reprint my review that I gave it:

In the entire set of books I've read, I've only reread two. Watchmen is one of them. First, being a graphic novel, it's fairly easy to reread. However, even if it were a printed novel of more than four hundred words, I imagine I'd still be rereading it, because it's a great piece of literature.

But then, one of its key successes is what Moore tried to use it to prove - that comics can achieve things that neither film nor printed novels can. (I use "comics" out of respect for Moore, who as I understand it, didn't like the term "graphic novel.") It's easy to dismiss the whole medium of comics after associating them with superhero-based periodical magazines seemingly fueled by sugar and adrenaline, a few steps away from being printed versions of adventurous Saturday morning cartoons. Watchmen changed that and showed that comics could be used to create something great and truly artistic.

This is literature.

It is ironic then, that Moore does this by using superheroes and masked vigilantes. However, every single one of them has their own flaws and depths. Most have a chapter dedicated mainly to them, so that you can gain an appreciation for their character. By far the most popular character to try to dissect is Rorschach, the trenchcoat-clad vigilante whose journal helps narrate the book. As the plot progresses, we can see both a perception of the world that is devoid of any existence of morality and a deep-rooted desire to uphold certain values and principles at any cost.

I imagine that many people will be reading this book in the coming months as the upcoming movie adaptation is hyped amongst the circles of the book's adoring fans. With the degree of achievement that this comic represents, it is not a question of how well the movie will succeed in recreating Watchmen, but how little it will fail. It is hard to imagine a comic approaching this level of perfection again.

There will likely be some who cannot get past the concept of reading a comic and taking it seriously, thus putting it down soon after they start reading. If you've never read comics before, then this book will change your views on what they are able to accomplish, as long as you are able to check any preconceptions at the door. If you have read comics before, but you've never read Watchmen, then be prepared to drink from the Holy Grail.

2. High Fidelity - Nick Hornby - I'm amazed it took me so long to read this book, but then again, I'm a slow reader. There's enough difference from the movie that I can say it was really worth the read, and it provided a fresh new lease on the story. I'm sort of sad and frightened at how well some guy from England knows my life story. You know, except for all the sex that was added to make it interesting.

3. When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris - One of the stories in this collection - Town and Country - made me realize just how genius that Sedaris' work is. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read the whole story and then reread the very first sentence. The circular irony - if I can call it that - takes the story beyond funny and into a realm of the-joke's-on-you that I had previously believed only Andy Kaufman was in.

4. Batman: The Long Halloween - Jeph Loeb - Another graphic novel makes the list, and this may be the best Batman story out there. It's another story that transcends - or expands - its medium. It's really a classic film-noir detective story. It should earn respect as being one of the primary inspirations for The Dark Knight, which many - including myself - are hailing as the best movie adaptation ever of the world of comics.

5. Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson - Corey Seymour - Quite a nice account of the entire life of The Doctor. I have a suspicion that there are better biographies to come, especially if they don't paint such a dreary picture of Thompson's later years, but this serves as a fantastic introduction to understanding the man for those, like myself, who missed his glory years.

Tim's Top 5:

Wow. Apparently this blog still exists. I'm at 59 books for the year, so it's odd that coming up with 5 I loved is so difficult, but so it goes. For a year I intended to plow through most of Shakespeare and Vonnegut...I've read nary a page of either. The number afterward is, of course, the number in the sequence of 59 books where the books were read. Why? Because Ryan mentioned that one book was first and I'm borderline OCD about tracking things that mean nothing. As a modest response to the other lists, I've read The Year of Living Biblically (in January) and High Fidelity (several times years ago), and will never understand people's love for David Sedaris -- nor why I keep trying to give him additional opportunities to make me understand.

1. Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon - This book is, I think, my favorite thing Chabon has ever written. Though I've yet to complete Kavalier and Clay (and that's the only thing I haven't read), from the half-book I've read, I'm going to find it an unlikely suitor to replace this collection of short stories. The title story is profoundly touching and one of the best instances in creating an offbeat narrator with whom a reader can nonetheless connect, and the remainder of the book is about on par with it. It's a fantastic work that thumps even Raymond Carver's best work when it comes to short story-writing. (#18)

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - This is a book that I was consciously reminding myself to be skeptical toward. It's fish-in-a-barrel, right? It's not compelling to basically turn an Asperger's kid into a narrator, it's just Rain Man in book form. Right? Well, if so, it's compelling anyway. The book is emotionally compelling and manages to have a narrator who is by definition static but creates a story that simply changes the reader instead of the narrative voice. (#29)

3. The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer - The entirety of Mailer's novel seems so exceptionally odd in every way that it's hard to remind yourself that it really happened. Gary Gilmore, a perfectly ordinary petty criminal with sociopathic tendencies, became a man of huge fame solely because he wanted to die rather than linger in prison for ages. The story of him fighting for his execution while others fight to stop it and others (including Mailer himself, it turns out) fight to make money off selling the story to Hollywood is surreal and bizarre, but gripping, particularly after the first 200 pages or so. It's a good thing, since there's another 800 after that, but it's generally intriguing and a sad tale for everyone involved. It also doesn't hurt that I read much of this book in Spain and some in Morocco. I loved Spain...and enjoyed certain elements of Morocco (#20)

4. Rome 1960: the Olympics that Changed the World by David Maraniss - Both of Maraniss's books really struck me as impressive works of biography, but this one offered a reasonable biography of around a dozen people in the context of a few weeks in the Olympics. Although I'd grown up adoring the olympics, you didn't hear of 1960 -- 1968 had Bob Beamon, 1972 had Mark Spitz and terrorists, 1984 was Carl Lewis, and 1936 was Jesse Owens. 1960...1960 was nothing. Rafer Johnson wasn't a name, Cassius Clay wasn't an Olympian. Maraniss' book brings the intrigue of the Cold War and the clash of a East/West Olympics to vivid life and doesn't limit it solely to the American perspective -- though that is obviously the primary emphasis. Less emotional than Clemente, which is one of the saddest books I've read, it nonetheless carries a punch. (#40)

5. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - Murder and religion make a compelling pair. I'm a sucker for Krakauer's book, and this one was more educational than I would have anticipated. Far from being the anti-Mormon screed that the LDS church has made it out to be, it details a lot of their history in what strikes me as a profoundly even-handed manner and constantly emphasizes the differences between fundamentalist LDS and ordinary LDS -- so much that I think it takes it really easy on LDS and its numerous withdrawals from these once-preeminent tenets of their church. (#22)

Honorable mention: The 33-Year-Old Rookie by Chris Coste (#30), Bloody Confused! by Chuck Culpepper (have I mentioned that I am enamored with Premier League soccer? Maybe I need to try Fever Pitch again) (#55), Havana Nocturne: How The Mob Owned Cuba…and then Lost It To the Revolution by T.J. English (#41), Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile (#1), Clemente: the Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss (the end of this book is as upsetting as anything I have ever read) (#46), The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (#58)

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