'tis the end of the year, which means it's time for: "Best of" lists. Following is a list, in no particular order, of the three best non-fiction, and fiction, books I read this year. Note that these are NOT necessarily "new" books, they were just "new to me," as in, books I'd never read before (thus, "My Antonia" and "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" don't make the list). The lists are in no particular order (other than maybe the "honorable mentions.")
- Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. An amazing book, and one to be treasured if, like me, you are a sucker for astonishing sentences whose cascading vocabulary both flows and coagulates ("A tintype picked from the wedge of the pages. Sailorsuited poppet a fiend's caricature of old childhoods, a gross cartoon.") I would rank only Blood Meridian as a better book by McCarthy (with, perhaps, "The Crossing" from the Border Trilogy right up there). Basically, this book is the adventures of a down-and-out as he survives in the rankest underbelly of Knoxville TN in the 1950s. Any other summary is, well, insufficient.
- Toward the End of Time by John Updike. Not really one of Updike's best (for that, I'd still go to "Of the Farm") but still a rewarding (if unsettling) read. Set in the not-distant future, the protagonist Ben still has money, a family, a lovely home, a car, and membership in the golf club, even though the midwest has been blasted by thermonuclear devices (to me, the continued existence of the Brahmin middle class (even if, no doubt, meant ironically) after the Apocalypse, as well as futuristic sci fi just not being Updike's metier, are the book's weaknesses). Even if Ben's lifestyle has pretty much survived intact, Ben may not, as the year (and Ben's health and relationships) devolve. Best parts of the books are occasional historical "drop-in" vignettes, and, of course, Updike's inimitable prose: "Thick as leaves, the starlings blackened the bare branches so that there was only a shuffle of sparks of daylight between them."
- Rock Island Line by David Rhodes. I came upon this novel in perhaps the wrong order: Like many, when the critically-acclaimed "Driftless" was published, I "discovered" Rhodes ("Driftless" was an "All Iowa Reads" selection.) In retrospect, I wish I'd read Rock Island Line first, mostly because it provides context for some of the characters in "Driftless," and partly because, well, it's a better book, if that makes sense. Insightful description of what it's like to grow up young and different in rural Iowa (as well as under a train station in Philadelphia).
Honorable Mention: Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery – Audiobook version (Cassandra Morris, narrator) I know there are many admirers of this book out there, but I found its approach somewhat cloying and contrived. I didn't mind that so much, however, in the audiobook version, because the part of Paloma is read by one Cassandra Morris, whose insightful and natural rendition make it much easier to forgive the sentimental manipulativeness (albeit a skillfully-articulated manipulativeness) of the book.
- Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler. While not as good as Hessler's own "River Town" or, say, Ian Johnson's "Wild Grass," Oracle Bones is still an excellent overview (from a Westerner's viewpoint) of modern changing China (with the full recognition that those two adjectives are Sino-redundant). Hessler approach is definitely one of participative observer, and, if you've ever been to China, you'll understand why that's almost a necessity. I'd recommend reading "River Town" first, as many of the same people's stories are carried through in both books. Hessler has a new book on his travels in China out in 2010; for next year's list, perhaps?
- After the Prophet: the epic story of the shia-sunni split in islam by Lesley Hazelton. Wow, what a good book! If, like many Westerners, you are basically ignorant of proto-Islamic history, this book can profitably be read like a historical novel: You won't know the characters, but you will be quickly swept up in their story. If you know the basic structure of early Islamic events, you will still be amazed at what you learn, and how rich and relevant this history is (for example, the details and historical implications of the one time a woman lead Islamic troops into battle). Very well written, and not an "epic" in length, there is little reason to leave this one off your reading list.
- The Tyranny of E-mail: by John Freeman. I (get to?) read a lot of technical/Internet literature, and a lot of it is pretty painful, but Freeman has done what so many others fail to do: Taken a "big picture," historical look at how we came to be buried in bits and bytes, as well as coupling it with some common-sense suggestions on how to "deal" with the world of Spam-alot. So many "How to" books ignore the big "How Did We Get Here?" question that I want to scream, "Can you expect us to take you seriously when you don't take the past seriously?" Freeman's analysis of, basically, the invention of time by our technology (or, vice-versa) is an interesting and useful read.
Honorable Mention: The Cultural Work of Corporations by Drake's own(!) Megan Brown. I'll be honest: The only reason I'm listing this as an "honorable mention" is that I haven't quite finished reading it! (I will have it done by the end of the year, though, so that's why it still counts!) As mentioned above, as book selector for Cowles Library's business stuff, I see an amazing amount of claptrap and works of fleeting (at best) interest. Thus, the approach by Dr. Brown is beyond a breath of fresh air, it's more like entering a new country: She explores historical trends in business literature from a socio-humanist perspective that makes one wonder what all these other business scribblers are playing at. Moreover, her critical approach repeatedly unearths the buried assumptions of writers and corporations: For example, just because the latter is "benevolent," doesn't mean it is benficient! Small quibbles: I'd change the title to "Cultural Work of Organizations," as the book's messages are just as relevant to non-profits and (dare I say?) educational institutions; and a more commercial "trade" release would help spread its much-needed message. Until then, you all will have to wait until the new year, when I return Cowles Library's copy!
Happy reading, everyone!