Friday, December 9, 2011


One of my favorite repeat conversations I get have with my students is one where I inform them I do not have a television.  (For the record, I never thought I'd be that guy but here I am, four and a half years, without a TV...who knew?)  Their face is classic shock and dismay, usually followed with an exasperated "But, what do you do?!?!"  As sad as some of the psycho-sociological analysis one could apply to the meaning for these students and society at large, I just think about all the free time I have for other things.  Namely, reading.
As an adult, reading whatever I please, I have finally learned that there is no shame in quitting a book.  It took almost thirty years, but I figured out that you don't get in trouble and the earth keeps turning.  I imagine my life would have been a lot different had I applied this philosophy in high school.
This has been an excellent year for books and I thought, with all the "year end" lists abounding, I would do my own.  So, here are the books that I thought were worth finishing that I read in 2011:

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon
This was one of the only books that I became more disappointed with as it progressed.  Now, it was still good enough to finish, and, ultimately, the author hurt himself with his excellent writing skills with such an intriguing and compelling opening sequence.  Or sequences.  The book is actually three stories which may or may not be related.  Each one is captivating unto itself and you almost forget how much you enjoy them individually when one chapter ends and you flip back to another storyline.  Usually plots like this drive me nuts as I often read in short spurts - bus rides, bank lines, etc. - but it has a driving storyline and therefore was a fast read.

This Is Where I Leave You - Jonathan Tropper
Equal parts humor, heartbreak, and awkward silence, this story of a grown family brought back together to "sit chiva" (the Jewish tradition of mourning a loved one) for a week is about as real as contemporary storytelling can get.  The characters are great, in all their messed up ways, and the narrator is not excluded from this.  Aside from having just lost his father, who he wasn't that close with, he is recently separated from his wife after she cheated on him, not to mention he really only speaks to one of his four siblings.  The perfect combination of a sitcom and a car crash that you can't take your eyes off of, this novel had as many enjoyable bright moments as enjoyable dark ones.
"The thing about people who work in finance is that they consider their job infinitely more important than anything or anyone, and it's perfectly legitimate to tell everyone else to f*** off because they have a conference call with Dubai. If Barry was sitting next to the president of the United States during a nuclear attack, he'd still be staring down at his BlackBerry with his default expression, the one that says 'You think you've got problems?'"

Island Beneath the Sea - Isabel Allende
I'm not a huge fan of historical novels and historical fiction usually doesn't entice me, but this book, by famous Chilean author Allende, translated from the original La Isla Bajo el Mar, was incredible - probably my favorite on this whole list.  Through it, the story of a fictional young slave - we meet her as a child - and the real life story of the present day island that holds Haiti and the Dominican Republic is told.  More importantly, and mostly unknown, is the fact that this is the scene of the first and only successful slave revolt and subsequent revolution in the New World.  The story covers many years, countries, and characters.  Whether real or fictitious, each is rich for the page in the way their role in the infamous events that followed unravel.  I highly recommend this book and plan to read more from Allende in the future.

The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
        I got sucked into this trilogy before I even knew what happened.  I never jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon, didn't give the Twilight series a second look, and tried and failed to get into the Dragon Tattoo Girl who kicked stuff.  I've been secretly itching for a popular series.  The wait was worth it.
        It is technically Young Adult Lit so I admittedly was able to cross all three books from my list in about a two and a half week period.  Regardless of the heavy foreshadowing, impossibly constant chapter-ending cliff-hangers, and a premise that will make me sound crazy, there is a reason these books are so popular amongst the pre-teen (and teen) set.  The idea that a future society exists where children are annually put into an "arena" in a fight to the death as a means of governmental control, is mockable.  But when this same book is appearing on legitimate middle and high school reading lists or required novels due to the social, philosophical, and political discussion they can generate, I'd say its a book (series) worth checking out.  I know I am personally responsible for at least three people becoming anit-social book-addicts for a few weeks.  Also, how much more fun will the March release of the first movie be when you and all the "tributes" are already on a first-name basis?!?

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
Also, considered Young Adult Lit, this is the semi-autobiographical story of an Indian boy in Washington state who makes the bold decision to attend school in the nearby town and not on the reservation itself, where his entire life is.  Thus begins his high school experience where he is marginalized by the white townies and seen as a traitor by his reservation community; he is essentially ignored in both worlds he now exists in.  A commentary on tolerance, race, culture, and prejudice, this National Book Award winner is fast, interesting, and surprisingly funny and self-effacing.   The tone sounds and paces itself just like a precocious teenager's journal would, and the occasional doodles and illustrations accentuate this sense perfectly.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa is arguably Peru's most famous contemporary writer and there's a reason for that.  As long as this book took me to finish - due the density of each page, not being bored or finding it tedious - it was one of the most fantastically crafted stories I've read in a long time.  The story centers around a young law student moonlighting as a news copy-editor at a radio station in Lima, Peru.  He has recently befriended the bizarre scriptwriter for the station's wildly popular serials and been introduced to his "aunt," whom he enters into a secret illicit love affair.  (It should be mentioned that this woman is the sister of his real aunt, not a blood-relative.)  As the story progresses the chapters alternate between the aforementioned relationships and the radio serials themselves.  This was a little confusing the first few even-numbered chapters, especially when you're introduced to a new set of intriguing characters only to leave them at the end of an often unfinished cliff-hanging storyline.  As the novel progresses and the titular scriptwriter begins going mad, the stories do too, combining characters, resurrecting supposedly dead ones, or confusing their jobs or pasts.  The novel also never loses its charm or momentum; in some ways, it even seems to gain it.

The Language of God - Dr. Francis S. Collins
Written by one of the leaders of the monumental Human Genome Project, the book makes a case for the essential co-existance of God and science.  Collins, an ex-agnostic/atheist, is one of the few successful and renowned biologists in his field who is also a proud Christian.  Often receiving criticism for his faith from colleagues, saying that being a biologist/scientist and a believer is a serious conflict of interest, he sets forth with this book to justify that this is not the case.  Without evangelizing or name-calling, Collins does an impressive job of categorically knocking down or casting significant doubt on many oft-used anti-diestic arguments, as well as providing a sort of spiritual memoir.  Whatever your views, this is an enlightening, well-written [long-form] essay that will make you think...even if, like me, you don't understand a thing he says about astrophysics.

What is the What - Dave Eggers
A few years ago I read a good book about the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.  Those, often very young, non-Muslims in the population forced to walk unfathomable distances across an unforgiving landscape for survival.  That book was called They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky and was written by three such now-grown "boys."  This novel, however, though autobiographical, written in first person, and centered on around an actual individual is authored by the incredibly talented, Dave Eggers.  Valentino Achak Deng was a very young boy when his Dinka village was attacked by Arab militia, killing many, including, he presumes, his mother before his very eyes.  He has an unfortunately typical tale: walking for what amounts to years, living for more in various refugee camps, surviving on what amounts to table scraps for food, and eventually arriving in the US and adapting to a new culture.  What Eggers does masterfully, however, is weave Deng's current life in Atlanta with flashbacks to his unfortunate childhood.  What could have been a straight forward chronological telling of a tragic story, suddenly becomes a highly textured tapestry that is difficult to put down.  If you're going to read one book on the plight of Sudan, make it be this one.
"Have you ever seen [your mother] terrified?  No child should see this. It is the end of childhood, when you see your mother's face slacken, her eyes dead...when she does not believe she can save you."

Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer
I ended the year with a book that I've read before; it is one of my favorites!  Safran Foer is one of those talented writers that does not seem to believe in the traditional rules of crafting a story, nor of what can be done on the page itself.  This novel is a fairy tale of sorts; it takes an intriguing story and twists it into a fanciful journey through multiple narrators, time periods, and forms of communication.  The basic plot centers on a Jewish-American, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to the Ukraine to search for a woman who helped save his grandfather from the Nazi's.  Unfortunately all he has is an old photograph, a name, and a town.  He also has enlisted the help of a young translator, named Alex, who's grasp of the English language is limited, endearing, and comical; his grandfather, who won't let anyone else drive his car; and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, his grandfather's seeing-eye dog.  If that is not a recipe for a great story, I don't know what is!

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling
Earlier this year I read (most of) Tina Fey's memoir, Bossy Pants, which was interesting and definitely humorous, however, not engaging enough for me to finish it, thus it's absence from this list.  Kaling - better known as The Office's Kelly Kapoor - has done what Fey didn't: write like a comedian.  Just like a stand-up act or a sketch-comedy show, Kaling keeps her topics short and sweet, switching topics like an ADD, ritaline-addled toddler.  Even the chapter titles will bring a smile to your face; "Don't Peak In High School," "The Day I Stopped Eating Cupcakes," "Revenge Fantasies While Jogging," and "Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly?" are only a few titular gems.  Yes, it is brainless fluff, but Kaling herself is nothing but intelligence and drive.


kelsi said...

Stetson! You are so much better at writing about your books the me! I need you to teach me your ways. Also, Dibs on Everything is Illuminated :)

jsmarslender said...

Yea! Thanks for posting a list! Looks like you've got some great titles there. I'll have to check a few of them out. I miss Tom's library - ours here is okay, but not as good. Ah well. I also got sucked into the Hunger Games series and loved it. It's icky and scary and great. I'll let you know what I read...

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