Top Ten Tuesday – My “Favorite” Reads of 2012

Top ten books I read in 2012:

Top Ten Tuesday is an entertaining weekly meme hosted by the imaginative folks over at The Broke and The Bookish. It’s almost impossible to not want to compare one’s own list to others and seeing how many we have in common and/or realizing “I can’t believe I forgot to include X,” etc. It’s also a great way to discover new book blogs and learn about books that weren’t otherwise on one’s radar. Since there are now literally hundreds of participants, I usually pick a digit from zero to nine and try to visit at least the entries that end in that number, e.g. 3, 13, 23…

This week’s topic is “Top Ten Books I Read This Year.” It’s been a great reading year for me, and I’ve certainly read more than ten books that I enjoyed very much. So these are ten of those memorable books, counted down with #1 being my favorite.

10. Earth Abides by George Stewart

20121218-073917.jpg

I only learned of this 1949 sci-fi classic this year, but am glad I did. Though parts of it feel a little naive today, what with the explosion of post-apocalyptic literature, this book was a refreshing read and a trailblazing effort of that genre. I liked how in the post-apocalyptic world of this book, the survivors decide to start their new year on the winter solstice (hey, that’s coming up fast!) instead of the arbitrary January first. And how they “named” their years. E.g., “The Year the Dog Died” (sorry, the dog’s name escapes me as I’m typing this). Update: it’s Princess. “The Year Princess Died.”

9. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

20121218-073926.jpg

I never blogged about this book, but it was an interesting review of introverts and their place in the current world. Somewhat of an introvert myself, a lot of it rang true with me. Amusing also was the section discussing how many companies are moving toward the (more extrovert-friendly) “open office” concept, eschewing or limiting the number of traditional offices in favor of a cube-farmy feel. I lost my office to this whim last year. “It’ll foster team building and mentoring,” they said. It fosters me buying better headphones… 🙂 I was also reminded of a friend’s telling me of a definition of introvert/extrovert that I’ve always liked: “An extrovert gains energy through interacting with others, while in introvert loses energy.” I’ll second that.

8. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

20121218-073934.jpg

I just wrote about this one. (scroll down 🙂 ) I only discovered Murakami last year, but will likely devour his entire oeuvre before too long. I really enjoy his odd, supernatural-tinged writing.

7. Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

20121218-073942.jpg

My 2012 “Author Biography” reading project never really took hold, although I did read a few, and this was my favorite of them. I blogged about this book earlier. Poe’s story is a tragic one…

6. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

20121218-073949.jpg

I had heard of this book “for ages” and finally got around to reading it this year. Some of the best writing I encountered, even if the subject matter wasn’t something I’d normally choose.

5. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox by John Waugh

20121218-073958.jpg

A really great history of West Point’s 1846 graduates, many of whom were key players in the U.S. Civil War, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and George McClellan. I still hope to write a blog post about this one someday. I felt like I knew many of these people by the end of the book, and it was difficult to read about some of their deaths, Jackson’s in particular. I am rarely moved to the degree I was in reading it.

4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

20121218-074006.jpg

Never blogged about this depressing book either, but it was such a great commentary on what our lives have become in “Corporate America” and “Suburbia” it’s hard to believe it was written in … 1962! This one hit home with me.

3. I Am No One You Know (short stories) by Joyce Carol Oates

20121218-074014.jpg

Some have argued that Joyce Carol Oates is an “acquired taste” and, if that’s true, I admit to having fully acquired it now. This book is a collection of short stories, many of which are quite powerful and all of which are extremely well-written. My favorite story might’ve been “The Instructor.” You should check out this collection.

2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

20121218-074022.jpg

Subtitled “and other tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements,” this book was the most fun I’ve had reading non-fiction in quite some time. The title gets its name from an old chemistry lab trick – a spoon fashioned from the metal Gallium would look like an ordinary spoon, but since gallium has a very low melting point, if it were to be used to, say, stir one’s coffee, the spoon would disappear. (They should use this gag on an episode of Big Bang Theory)

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

20121218-074029.jpg

Atwood also wrote one of my favorite short stories of the year (“Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother”) and is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This book is a dystopian masterpiece. I’ve started and stopped a post on it several times but seem unable to do it justice. I’ll keep trying. “Nolite te bastardes carborundurum!” 🙂

Well, those are ten of my favorites. I can’t wait to see what others have chosen as their favorites. Do we share any? Do you have recommendations for other books I might like based on these favorites? I’m all ears. 🙂

Advertisements

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

20120906-073634.jpg

“Gilead” means “hill of testimony” or “mound of witness.” Its meaning is taken from a mountainous region east of the Jordan River. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name, Gilead is a small farm town in Iowa. Living in the town is the dying (he has a heart condition) reverend John Ames, a preacher’s son – and also a preacher’s grandson. John, having married only late in life, has a young son himself, and this novel is the text of one long letter to his son, intended to be read by him when he “grows up.”

It’s not too often that I decide to read a book when knowing so little of “what it’s about.” All I knew of this one was that it seemed constantly praised by those whose opinions I value, and that it won the 2005 Pulitzer prize. It certainly had the credentials. In fact, had I known more about it, I might have been scared off due to the strongly religious themes (with me being a relative heathen). That would have been a shame, as I would have missed out on a beautifully written book.

For me, Ames’s lengthy letter represents the universal struggle one has when one gets older and sees the end of life approaching. Questions like, “What’s the meaning of life after all?” and “How can we best share what our multitude of experiences have taught us with our offspring.” It could be argued that these are unanswerable questions – or at least that any answers would be woefully incomplete, but Ames sure gives answering them the old college try. I guess it’s what one would expect from someone who has been able to write thousands of sermons in his lifetime (an output rivaling St. Augustine – as Ames says, “It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, only to have to find a way to dispose of it.” – this when contemplating cleaning out the attic)

Not being a philosopher or theologian, I feel unqualified to review this book on those levels, but I will say I enjoyed it in spite of my inexperience with those fields. I fell in love with Robinson’s writing quickly, too. A couple favorite passages that are representative:

“I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything.”

“The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it.”

It’s also amazing how someone with sufficient erudition, can suffuse what may have otherwise been considered just another ordinary tale of a life with such magic it becomes a Pulitzer prize winner. This was perhaps my favorite line in the book:

“…this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe.”

That blew me away. Have you read Gilead? What did you think of it? Can you recommend anything else written by Robinson? I think I want more…

(below: art from the original NY Times review in November 2004)

20120906-073647.jpg

August Reading – The Month Ahead

It’s August already, and time to think about what reading I might be able to accomplish in the new month. Strangely, for the first time in a long time, I don’t really have much of an idea which direction I’m going in an upcoming month. The one exception is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Armageddon in Retrospect,” a posthumously published collection of essays on war and peace that is being read by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club for August. Worth noting is that this book, I think, is the ONLY Vonnegut book I haven’t read yet, so this will be the last ’first read’ I’ll be able to do of one of his books. I’m both proud of and sad about this.

20120801-074216.jpg

What else, hmm… Well, I’ll have four or five short stories as part of my annual project, but I won’t know what they are until I draw a card from those remaining in the deck each Saturday morning. By the way, I was thinking about making my annual short story “Deal Me In” project a public Reading Challenge next year. Do you think many (any) people would be interested? I’ve never hosted a challenge at Bibliophilopolis, so I’m apprehensive.

What other books might I read? I have started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which would count toward my “author biography” project that I’ve been neglecting. I’m also very interested in the new bio of the Bronte sisters that I think has just come out, or is about to. It weighs in at a staggering 1,000+ pages, though.

Maybe I’ll finally get around to Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom too, as I’ve been promising for some time.

Another possibility is Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which got my attention a while ago, and of which Dale at Mirror with Clouds has reminded me of recently.

20120801-074325.jpg

Geez, I have 20 books on my “to read” shelf on Goodreads.com. Seems like I ought to be able to come up with something, right? Or… perhaps you could help guide me. What do YOU suggest I read in August?