At this time of year, everyone is making lists. From Santa Claus to Time Magazine, you can find list of the naughty, nice, sexiest, most nominated people, books, movies and music.
I’m game — I’ll make a few lists as the year ends. However, I like the way that Stephen King compiled his list. He included the books he’d read this year, not necessarily books that were published in 2008. I hope you enjoy them — and maybe find something fun or entertaining for 2009!
Let’s begin with books:
Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (pub. 2007)
Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (pub. 2008)
Passionate Minds by David Bodanis (pub. 2006)
Shattering the German Night by Annette Dumbach (pub. 1986)
Young Men & Fire by Norman MacLean (pub. 1992)
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen (pub. 2006)
Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (pub, 2008)
While Blackmon’s book I’ve noted before (back in September) can add dimension to my research, I find that Dumbach and Ackerman paint a fuller picture of Europe under Hitler’s domination. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a lush treatment of little heralded efforts to save people and nature as Poland was crushed. Diane Ackerman uses language masterfully and her storytelling skills rival any novelist I’ve read. Conversely, Shattering the German Night is an academic text on the White Rose Resistance– but that shouldn’t be a drawback. Dumbach’s research illustrates both the pride and patriotism AND the fear and shame of ordinary citizens caught up in Hitler’s “new Germany.” How that dichotomy ultimately plays out provides the tension in her research. If you’re planning on seeing the upcoming movie, “Valkyrie,” read Dumbach and view the German film, “Sophie Scholl: the Final Days” as well.
Wandering back a few centuries, Sarah Vowell and David Bodanis explore the intellectual landscapes of the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. Vowell, wit and pundit of NPR & Assassination Vacation fame, takes on John Winthrop and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While some may find Shipmates less nuanced than her other works, her pleasure in the “American Experiment” glows on every page. Her descriptions of the ideological battles between Winthrop, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are juicy — their pride, pique and piety leap from the page. And…. for me this is just cool…. she brings Perry Miller back into vogue. In grad school, Miller was THE historian of the Puritan age, and he was considered just as dull, and incredibly prosy. I kind of liked him — and seeing him respected was kind of a perk! Bodanis, alternately praised and panned for his breezy writing style brings the early days of the French Enlightenment to the page in Passionate Minds. Ostensibly a dual biography of Emilie du Chatelet, a mathematician often credited as one of the interpreters of Newton that lead to Einstein’s breakthrough, and Voltaire, author/philosopher/greatest thinker of an Age, Bodanis focuses more on the spirit of that age than the specifics of the two leads. Yet, I think there is such a role for this style of historical writing. Mme. du Chatelet is a fascinating woman, well-matched with my dearly loved Voltaire — and this introduction paves the way for the more serious treatment found in Judith Zinsser’s new academic biography, La Dame d’Esprit.
With Three Cups of Tea and MacLean’s book, I’m not quite sure how to categorize them. I loved Tea, Young Men & Fire not so much. However, each took up residence in my mind. Interestingly, both begin with men defeated by nature — from there the stories radically diverge. MacLean (and his son John, who finishes the book for his father) spends a great deal of time explaining what he’s trying to say — lots of time. To the point, I needed to imagine someone telling me the story — repeating themselves for emphasis. Yet, there were moments…… as he is riding away from Mann Gulch, hot, dehydrated and spent — his heart and horse are beating to the rhythm of “I’ve done it, I’ve figured how it happened.” As a historian, I know that feeling. I love that feeling. With Greg Mortensen, I’ve never climbed Everest or even visited the Kashmir — but how he developed a philosophy for changing the world through education is inspirational. I shouldn’t say that — for many that makes it sound hokey, even trite. He doesn’t fall into the sentimentality one could expect — he’s a messy, realistic do-gooder in a dystopian world. It makes for fascinating reading.
Seeing Redd by Frank Beddor (pub. 2007)
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley (pub. 2008)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (pub. 2008)
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (pub. 2005)
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (pub. 2007)
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (pub. 2008)
Two series, three au courants, and one splendid romp are the fiction entries for this year’s list. Seeing Redd is the second entry in the Looking Glass Wars series by Frank Beddor and how completely imaginative. Imagine Lewis Carroll’s Victorian London runs parallel to many others — and the young girl he uses as the model for his stories is truly Princess Alys of a parallel universe filled with treacherous nobility of varying Suites, and protective Hatters. Splendidly imagined and executed, I’m eager for the 3rd volume.
On the other hand, the Twilight series is so not the drama. All the mom conversation at school is whether we should let our tween daughters read the books. Everyone is looking for the next Harry Potter…. and the frenzy surrounding Stephanie Meyer’s series does seem to fit the bill. It’s entertaining, the pacing works and for the most part it’s PG-13. And I like the strong female lead. That being said, I only have a few reservations about my girls reading it. And knowing, she talks to me as she reads ameliorates most of my concerns.
Little Brother, Supreme Courtship and American Wife are all “books du jour.” Sittenfeld has probably received the most press — American Wife is an imagined biography of First Lady Laura Bush. While not a roman a clef in the traditional sense, one keeps wondering how thinly veiled the portraits are… In contrast, Christopher Buckley’s Supreme Courtship is relevant in that it hit the shelves just s few weeks before Sarah Palin became a household name. While Publisher’s Weekly called the book a flaccid satire, his description of a populist judge, unfettered by political considerations works rather well. It’s not as strong as Thank You for Smoking or even Boomsday which was seriously under-appreciated. Little Brother is truly a wow book! Neil Gaiman calls it 1984 for the modern age.
Quite possibly one of the most entertaining afternoons I spent curled up with a book this year was with Gods Behaving Badly. Marie Phillips creates a world where the gods of Olympus walk among us. Masquerading as humans they crowd together in a seedy London boarding house. Artemis is a dog walker, Aphrodite runs a phone sex business, and Apollo has a lame talk show…. into this mix falls Alice, a very ordinary mortal. Hijinks ensue with love and the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. I giggled for days……