Here are my favorite book from this year.

The Dervish House (2010) by Ian McDonald (audiobook read by Jonathan Davis). Star Trek talks about exploring “strange new worlds,” and this book does just that as it takes place in a near future Turkey. McDonald really seems to know the culture, or cultures, of Turkey. A good book will always teach me something, and this book did a lot of that. I was continually going to the net to verify the fantastical things presented in this book such as the mellified man. I can’t wait to read more by McDonald. On my shelf right now is his River of Gods which takes place in India.

The Minotaur Takes Cigarette Break (2000) by Steven Sherril (audiobook read by Holter Graham). This book must get an award for the most literal title. The Minotaur of legend now works in a steakhouse and falls in love. I really felt for the Minotaur. There is no other book that I could compare this to.

The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett (audiobook read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpen, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell). I chose this book after one of my students reviewed it in my reading class. If you haven’t heard anything about this book or the movie made from it regarding the lives of African American women in the 1960s, I’ll give you a few minutes to climb out from under the rock you have been living under and look it up. Done. Good. Having four different actors read the different viewpoint characters really enhanced the listening experience. This book easily passes the Bechdel Test. You can look that up too.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker (audiobook read by Arthur Morey). This is my best book of the year. Pinker looks to see if and why violence has declined in the world, especially the first world. He covers a great number of disciplines. If you read this book, let me know. I’m dying to find someone to talk to about this. If you want to read a contrasting opinion to this thesis, read Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (2012) by Christopher Ryan and Jetha Cacilda. It is also very interesting but did not make it into the best books list because it seemed to cherry pick its data and use tenuous logic. However, it is very much worth reading if just to get a contrasting viewpoint to Pinker’s.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (audiobook read by Grover Gardner). This starts off with an anthropological look at economics and posits that barter systems don’t come into being until after money. Before money, there is debt and credit. I really enjoyed this book and it was a real eye opener for me. It’s on my list to be reread in the future.

Washington: A Life (2010) by Ron Chernow (audiobook read by Scott Brick). I didn’t think it was possible, but Chernow takes the lifeless pristine marble statue that is George Washington and turns him into a real living person. This is the magic of a great biography. I would also recommend Chernow’s  Alexander Hamilton. These are chunky books that are well worth the effort.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution (2007) by Robert Middlekauff (audiobook read by Robert Fass). This book is part of the Oxford History of the United States Series. This is just a great series. This is the third that I’ve read and enjoyed. Check out the whole series. If you read Washington a Life by Chernow, this book will fill in a lot of the missing pieces. For example, Benedict Arnold is missing from the Chernow book.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011) by Candace Millard (audiobook read by . You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll say “what the…?” This is the story of the assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Guiteau and the medical incompetence that killed him. This story has many interesting turns. And what is Alexander Graham Bell doing in this story? Well, read it and find out.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000) by H.W. Brands (audiobook read by Nelson Runger). This is my favorite biography of the year. Not only is Benjamin Franklin a terribly interesting person to begin with, but Brands does an excellent job of both writing and selecting quotes from Franklin that bring him to life. After reading this, I picked up an anthology of Franklin’s writings from the library and started reading through them. What a joy!

John Adams (2008) by David McCullough (audiobook read by Nelson Runger). After seeing the miniseries John Adams, I just had to read this book. It started out just being a CD book to listen to in my truck, but I got so wrapped up in it, I started carrying around a portable CD player. This is the book that really showed me the various perspectives you can get on the same historical events through different biographies on the people surrounding those events.

Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Mieville. I took my time reading this book. I started it in April and finally finished in December. But this is the kind of book I like to read slowly. I wanted to take in each carefully described scene of this thoroughly disgusting and dirty cityscape with its odd denizens and hidden histories. Mieville does a remarkable job of world building here. He gives the most beautiful descriptions of foetid streets, rank rivers, industrial pollution and vile characters. This is a book that you can open up to the beginning of just about any chapter and enjoy the horribleness of the establishing description. However, be prepared with a computer and a good search engine. Mieville’s work is chock full of British English and obscure mythological references.

And almost making the list…

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin (audiobook read by Suzanne Toren). I was just a few hours shy of finishing this 41 hour audiobook in 2012.  However, it will be my first book of 2013, and I’m sure it will make next year’s list.

 

 

 

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Here is a list of the worst books I have read/listened to in 2012.

Bite Me: A Love Story by Christopher Moore (audiobook read by Susan Bennett). This latest installment about vampires in San Francisco is mostly a rehash of jokes from the first books in the series that I liked very much. Skip this one, but check out Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, You Suck: A Love Story, and A Dirty Job. All are very funny.

Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity (Abridged) by David Bodanis (audiobook read by Adam Levy). I did not realize that this book was abridged when I picked it up at the library. It is an overview of the history of electricity. The abridged version is about 4 1/2 hours long while the unabridged version is 6 1/2 hours long. Why abridge something so short? It leaves out scientists like Volta and Tesla. Not only does the abridgement skip over these guys out, but it keep referring to their work as if the reader already knows about it. What it did contain was very interesting, but it’s incompleteness just made it frustrating to follow. Skip this one, but check out Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity (Unabridged).

Venus of Dreams by Pamela Sargent (audiobook read by Andi Arndt): I don’t remember much about this book other than it was filled with characters that I did not care about, it took place on Venus, and it was a drudge to get through. If you want to read a better book that takes place on Venus, read The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Even though it was written in 1953 and Venus has no relationship to the actual planet other than its name and location, this Venus is a much more interesting place filled with more interesting people, even as flat as they are.

After Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (audiobook read by Peter Ganim). This is probably the worst book of the year. It is the sequel to the book When Worlds Collide. The plot is boring. The only interesting thing about this book is that it gives you an insight into the sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism of the 1930s. Summary: White English speaking people good, brown, non-English speaking, alien, non-servile people bad. Instead of this book or it’s predecessor, go watch the 1951 movie  Worlds When Collide. It is a science fiction classic that presents the best parts of the novel.

James Madison by Richard Brookheiser (dead tree version from the library). Madison has got to be far more interesting than Brookheiser presents him. He was the president during the War of 1812 when the British captured Washington and burned down the White House for crying out loud. I’ve read a more interesting Madison as a background character in biographies of other founders. Instead of reading this one, find another biography of Madison, and if you enjoy it, let me know.

As I mentioned in my last post, part of my criteria in choosing what to read is based on my vanity. To that end, I look to what others view as quality reading, and from that, I gather lists. I don’t have a list that I created myself. There is not even a very good list like that in my head. But I do have a notebook full of lists that I have gathered off of the Internet.

When I first got into reading science fiction literature as opposed to novelizations of movies and TV shows, I looked online for some reading lists of what would be consdered classic or the best SciFi. My first list was the Top 200 Sci-Fi Books List by Peter Sykes. So far, I’ve read 64 books from this list. Now that I think of it, I recently finished Slaughterhouse Five. I need to knock that off the list. That brings my total to 65. I like this list because it takes into account other lists and awards as well as an online reader poll.

I also have list of the Hugo and Nebula award nominees and winners for best novel. I found these on Wikipedia. The Hugo Awards is based on fan recognition. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards. The Nebula is given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It’s more like the Academy Awards.

Last year, I made an effort to read all of the Hugo nominees before the awards were given. I got through five of the six. The last book, Palimpsest, was too stylistic, and it never really attracted me. So far this year, I’ve only read one Hugo nominee. I don’t know if I have lost interest in it or not, but this years reading project has been focused mostly on my next list: Shakespeare’s Plays.

This summer, I determined to watch, read, or listen to all of Shakespeare’s plays. I made it through 26 of the 38 before getting busy with other endeavors. It’s a shame too because the language was getting easier and easier, and I fear that when I do get back to it, I will have to re-acclimate to it. If you have never been able to get into a Shakespeare play, I would recommend watching Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet. If that doesn’t do it for you, Shakespeare is definitely not for you.

Do you have any book lists that you read from? If so, let me know by posting a response to this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

In 1985, I was flying home from Monterey, CA to Tulsa on leave from the Army. Sitting in my seat, I pulled out my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and began reading. The beautiful young lady sitting across from me asked me what I was reading. When I told her, she said “Wow, you must be smart.” I simply replied that it was the most interesting book that I found in the bookstore and went about my reading.

This is not a story about how I had still not developed enough “game” by the age of 19 to strike up a decent conversation with this very cute girl. It is not about how I completely missed her signals and opening moves. Nor is this about how I still kick myself in the mental keester every time I think about it. That sad story is reserved for my therapist. This is the story of how I choose the books I read.

The first, and probably most important factor that draws me to a book is the hook. For me a good hook is an interesting concept that drives the book. A book with an exceptional hook that I read recently is Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. The hook in that book was that it was set in a world where everyone was color blind and primarily saw in shades of grey. However, some people did have the ability to see a particular color. One person might see red, another blue, someone else may have a strong sense of yellow, and another person might be able to faintly see green. Fforde really works with this concept in that one’s social class is determined by what colors they can see and how well they can see them. Fforde’s website even has photos showing what such a world might look like. A great hook like that is just begging to be read.

The second thing that draws me to books is price. I love a good bargain. My favorite part of the bookstore is the bargain bin. There is something caveman about hunting for books in the bargain bin: looking for the book that demonstrates the weakest price yet containing the maximum literary meat to cull from the herd. My greatest kill was buying an autographed copy of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman for about five dollars. The only drawback is that my trophy room/library is now crammed with the remains of books that I have yet to gut for their sweet sweet word meat.

The final factor in deciding on a book is my vanity. Sometimes I read a book because I think it will be cool to say that I read it or that I know something about that particular topic. That was probably part of the reason I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo back in 1985. I know it is a big part of the reason why I am now trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I just think it would be cool to say, “yeah man, I’ve read all of the Bard, haven’t you?” I will have a license to pretension when I complete that mission. However, this is not just limited to treasured classics from days gone by. A couple of years back I delved into Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series with Dead Until Dark. I felt a need to know something about the current urban fantasy trend that seems quite popular today. From Bill Shakespeare to Bill the Vampire, what can I say?

While I never did make a connection with that beauty on the plane, I just have to console myself with the fact that she got off in Dallas while I went on to Tulsa, so it probably would never have worked out anyway. At least, that is what I tell myself. Then I lie back in bed, pick up a book, and look over at my mega-hot wife who doesn’t mind my having the light on to read while she is trying to sleep. And then I realize, it was all for the best.

A friend and colleague of mine, Shawna, sent me a facebook post asking about my favorite books and how I choose the books that I read. I thought this sounded like a tough assignment, and as I looked into it, I became more and more aware of just how tough it would be to pick my favorite books. This sent me into a two day thought spiral trying to figure out how to best answer her question. My first reaction was to hide under the covers and hope that the question went away. However, the questions continued to haunt my thoughts. At the same time, I was also reading a book by Stanislas Dahaene called Reading and the Brain which looked at how reading actually works in the human brain. I wanted a way to relate the information that I was learning in this book, not for any altruistic reason like teaching others this great information that I am learning, but to more firmly establish what I learned in my own mind. Somehow, these two ideas came together and I came to the conclusion that I should start a blog about books.

This is that blog.

My goal with this blog is not to review books, although that may happen from time to time, but to examine ideas contained in books and my thoughts on those ideas. This blog will also discuss topics such as reading, story telling, various forms of media¹, ideas I learn from books, my opinions on those ideas, how books affect my worldview, and anything else that I can even tangentially relate to books.

While I see this blog as mostly a metacognitive² exercise for myself (because who is going to want to actually read about someone talking about books in this day in age), I invite you to comment on this blog. Suggestions, questions, alternate viewpoints are all welcome. Remember to be polite because you just should.

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¹Media includes books, ebooks, audiobooks, movies/TV shows made from books, books made from movies/TV shows. I may even go retro and discuss clay tablets, scrolls, papyrus, or whatever else information may have been embedded into in the past.

²Metacognitive – thinking about thinking

 

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