On the advice of counsel, my usual New Year's resolution is to drink more champagne. This year, I'm adding "read more books" to the list - despite what Gawker has to say on the topic. And anyway, I've started a conversation with "I've been rereading Dune recently, and ..." so I'm not really concerned.
With so many titles floating around, it's hard to know where to start. Fortunately, I have some guidance courtesy of io9 and the librarians of National Geographic. Their lists, after the jump ...
I could easily spend the next year reading nothing but sci-fi. The home world suggests 20 that will change my life, 12 that I should read at the beach, 6 from the Arthur C. Clark award short list, and their picks for the 20 best of the 'aughts.
I'm thinking I'm going to start with either Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim or Mike Carey's Castor novels.
If you'd like a little more variety in your subject matter, the staff of the National Geographic Society's Libraries and Information Services (LIS) division has you covered. They've put together a list of their favorite books read in 2009. Enjoy!
The Almond Picker -- Simonetta Agnello Hornby (2005). The death of Mennulara, the "almond picker" sets off a flurry of gossip and speculation in a sleepy town in southern Italy. Some think she is a saint; others despise her, and just why does a Mafia don show up at her funeral?
The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein (2008). This tale of family, loss, redemption, and fast cars--recounted entirely from the perspective of a retriever-terrier mix named Enzo--ups the ante on the recent trend of high- concept anthropomorphism in popular fictions.
Await Your Reply -- Dan Chaon (2009). You'll never take yourself for granted again after you read this mysterious and riveting story that spins around the question of whether, in this age of identity theft, people are really who they say they are.
Bad Things Happen – Harry Dolan (2009). Take a ride on the mean streets of.... Ann Arbor? David Loogan has just accepted a position at Gray Streets mystery magazine-and embarked on an affair with his new boss's wife. It's not long before bodies begin turning up left and right, and a young investigator is involved. Dolan's neatly symmetrical plot is tight, his dialogue is crisp, and his humor wry.
The Brief History of the Dead -- Kevin Brockmeier (2006). Told from two places in alternating chapters, one in "The City," where the departed live on as long as there are people on earth who remember them, and the other in Anarctica which follows a researcher as she (unknowingly) becomes the last living person. This makes the city's population dwindle significantly. Not as morbid as it sounds, this novel plays greatly on memory and common interactions with strangers we often take for granted.
Caspian Rain -- Gina Nahai (2007). Told through the eyes of a lonely 12 year-old girl, this novel relates the troubled life of a Jewish family in Iran just prior to the Islamic Revolution.
Child 44 -- Tom Rob Smith (2008). Grisly, gruesome, and gory are just three ways to describe this debut novel by young British screenwriter Smith. In Stalin's Soviet Union, it's a crime against the State to suggest that a murderer — much less a serial killer — is in the midst of the populace. Exiled from his home, a war hero must find and stop a criminal that the State won't admit even exists.
City of Thieves -- David Benioff (2008). The fictional story of the experiences of the author's grandfather as a Russian teenager surviving the siege of Leningrad in World War II. At times comic, at times heartbreaking, and at all times full of life in a setting filled with death. A terrific read.
Crow Lake -- Mary Lawson (2002). Four children living in northern Ontario struggle to stay together after their parents die in an auto accident in Lawson's fascinating debut, a compelling and lovely study of sibling rivalry and family dynamics in which the land literally becomes a character. There's a bit of a geographical element, and a lot about the value people place on education (or not). I didn't want the story to stop.
The Dart League King: A Novel -- Keith Lee Morris (2008). Dark, funny, entertaining, and suspenseful novel about a dart league match in an Idaho town.
Death of a Red Heroine -- Qiu Xialong (2000). This is the first of the Inspector Chen novels – mystery novels that take place in Shanghai in the mid-90s, post-Tiananmen Square, with exquisite descriptions of life in modern China. The whole series is recommended.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog -- Muriel Barbery (2008). A grumpy concierge tries to hide her intellectualism from the snooty tenants, but one troubled young girl and a new Japanese neighbor suspect she is far more than she appears.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned -- Wells Tower (2009). Blistering collection of disturbing and involving short stories by a talented new author.
Ex-Libris -- Ross King (2000). A bookseller in 17th century London is hired by a mysterious woman to track down a rare document known as The Labyrinth of the World.
The Forgotten Garden -- Kate Morton (2009). Told out of sequence and through a great span of time, you learn about a little girl who was found abandoned on a ship bound for Austalia before WWI. She'd been left by a mysterious woman named The Authoress, and in her possession, she has a book of fairytales. As the young child grows to be a woman, she and her granddaughter follow the path that leads to her shocking identity.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire -- Stieg Larsson (2008 and 2009). These two bestselling murder mysteries are set in Sweden. The first is an intelligent, ingeniously plotted, utterly engrossing thriller featuring crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk hacker savant Lisbeth Salander that is variously a serial-killer saga, a search for a missing person and an informed glimpse into the worlds of journalism and business. The sequel involves an Eastern European sex trafficking ring.
The Graveyard Book -- Neil Gaiman (2008). This is an awesome mix of "The Jungle Book" and ghost story. It's probably appropriate for the 9+ set as there are some violent scenes. The book tells the story of a boy whose family is killed when he is a baby. He is able to crawl to safety of the local graveyard, where the ghosts who live there take him in and raise him. It's a wonderful book for anyone who likes ghost stories and the supernatural.
The Hunger Games -- Suzanne Collins (2008). Thrilling and fast-paced, this book will linger with you. It's best not knowing anything about it -- just that it takes place a little bit in the future and has teenagers as the main characters -- including a tough-as-nails (but also sympathetic) female protagonist. It's sort of a mix of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Orwell's 1984, and episodes of “Survivor.” Impossible to put down once you start.
Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City – Kirsten Miller (2007). Life will never be the same for Ananka Fishbein after she ventures into an enormous sinkhole near her New York City apartment. A million rats, delinquent Girl Scouts out for revenge, and a secret city below the streets of Manhattan combine in this remarkable novel about a darker side of New York City you have only just begun to know about. The sequel (The Empressʼs Tomb) is already out, and a third book is scheduled for summer 2010.
The Magicians: A Novel -- Lev Grossman (2009). Mixing the magic of beloved children's fantasy classics (from Narnia and Oz to Harry Potter and Earthsea) with the sex, excess, angst, and anticlimax of life in college and beyond, Lev Grossman's Magicians re-imagines modern-day fantasy for grownups.
The Manual of Detection -- Jedediah Berry (2009). Berry's debut novel stars Charles Unwin, a clerk for the famous detective Travis Sivart, whose own promotion to detective is followed by a series of bewildering events. Sivart goes missing, the supervisor of the detectives turns up dead and Unwin is left to solve the many mysteries. This is whimsical, Kafkaesque noir, but it also pays homage to the hard-boiled staples.
The Name of the Wind -- Patrick Rothfuss (2007). From his childhood as a member of a close-knit family of the nomadic Edema Ruh to his first heady days as a student of magic at a prestigious university, humble bartender Kvothe relates the tale of how a boy beset by fate became a hero, a bard, a magician, and a legend. Rothfuss's first novel launches a trilogy relating not only the history of humankind but also the tale of a world threatened by an evil whose existence it desperately denies.
Old Man's War -- John Scalzi (2004). The story is set in a future where Earth belongs to a colonial union of other planets who are looking for new worlds to inhabit. To establish and protect these new colonies, they need an army and draw upon the senior population of Earth by giving them new youthful bodies in superb condition. Scalzi's a really great writer--strong characters, funny dialogue, and a believable universe (if you're into science fiction).
One Hundred Demons -- Linda Barry (2002). This volume of "Autobiofictionalography" by the creative comic artist Linda Barry is a delight and inspiration. Barry uses an Asian painting exercise called "One Hundred Demons" to organize and connect 17 "autobifictionalographic" stories in which she meditates on a variety of demons that include pretentious boyfriends, lost childhood friends, family relationships, and even the 2000 presidential election.
People of the Book -- Geraldine Brooks (2008). An ancient Jewish codex is discovered in war-torn Sarajevo, yielding clues to its guardians and whereabouts through the ages. This is the mesmerizing story of its turbulent journey from past to present, bringing together Jews, Christians, and Muslims, intertwined with a modern love story.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith (2009).This book combines the classic tale of Pride and Prejudice and a subplot about zombies. Zombies answer certain puzzling questions: Why were those troops stationed near Hertfordshire? Why did Charlotte Lucas actually marry Mr. Collins? (She had recently been bitten by zombies and wanted a husband who could be counted on to behead her—of course!)
Suite Francaise -- Irene Nemirovsky (2005). An extraordinary story about the German occupation of France, embedded within the real story of the (remotely) Jewish author who ended up perishing in a concentration camp.
Supreme Courtship -- Christopher Buckley (2008). A funny send-up of the judicial nominating process. Mr. Nice Guy President decides to pick a Judge Judy-type media darling after his first two nominations have been savaged.
The Towers of Trebizond -- Rose Macaulay (1956). In this adventure set in the backlands of Turkey, a group of highly unusual travel companions makes its way from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond, encountering potion-dealing sorcerers, recalcitrant policemen, and Billy Graham on tour with a busload of Southern evangelists. But though the dominant note of the novel is humorous, its pages are shadowed by heartbreakas the narrator confronts the specters of ancient empires, religious turmoil, and painful memories of lost love.
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters -- Rose George (2008). From the depths of the world's oldest surviving urban sewers in to Japan's robo-toilet revolution, George leads an intrepid, erudite and entertaining journey through the public consequences of this most private behavior.
The Book of Marvels: An Explorer's Miscellany -- Mark Collins Jenkins (2009). Jenkins selected the best traveler's tales from ages past. The book is arranged by type of environment, such as "The Sea," "The Forests," and "Peaks and Chasms." The illustrations are gorgeous, and I simply could not decide which section was the most fascinating.
Cartographic Encounters -- John Rennie Short (2009). When the first Europeans came to North America and Australia they were met by people with rich geographic and cartographic knowledge of the land. These indigenous populations are often excluded from modern tellings of exploration, but John Rennie Short uses journals and writings by the European explorers themselves to shed light of the role of the forgotten native cartographers.
DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption -- Stefan Bechtel (2009). This companion book to the show has 15 stories of the dogs that have been lucky enough to be taken in by the Best Friends Animal Society and receive care at Dogtown. It's a really moving book that highlights the great works that Best Friends does and the amazing resiliency of body and spirit in all of these dogs.
Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe -- the Editors of National Geographic (2009). A fabulous itinerary of foods, dishes, markets, and restaurants worth traveling far and wide to savor--or simply staying home and reading all about them.
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East -- William Dalrymple (1999). Dalrymple is one of those intrepid British types who throws on a backpack and heads into remote lands, turning out beautiful prose after he's made it back in one piece. This time he retraces the steps of a nearly Orthodox monk named John Moschos who traveled through what was once Eastern Byzantium.
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets -- Sudhir Venkatesh (2008). In the late 1980s and 1990s, rogue sociologist Venkatesh infiltrated the world of tenant and gang life in Chicago's Robert Taylor Home projects. He found a complex system of compromises and subsistence that makes life (barely) manageable. Venkatesh excellently illustrates the resourcefulness of impoverished communities in contrast to a society that has virtually abandoned them. He also reveals the symbiotic relationship between the community and the gangs that help sustain each.
The Hemingses of Monticello -- Annette Gordon-Reed. (2009). This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826.
A History of New York -- Washington Irving (1809). At the 200th anniversary of its publishing and the 400th of Henry Hudson's expedition, this well-known but little-read book deserves a return to the spotlight. Tight and witty characterizations and evocative scene-setting keep up throughout the work. Particularly interesting are Irving's sharp criticisms of contemporary attitudes, including scathing satirical "defense" of the treatment by colonists of the natives.
Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America--and Found Unexpected Peace -- William Lobodell (2009). A former religion reporter for the L.A. Times writes about conversion and loss of faith and all of the characters he wrote about along the way.
The Monuments Men -- Robert M. Edsel (2009). This story chronicles the little known Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) department of the U.S. Army. This small group of art historians, art conservators, and museum officials commissioned as officers in the Army, working in dangerous conditions close to, or in some cases behind, enemy lines, risked all to pursue one of the greatest treasure hunts of all time: the countless works of art and cultural significance looted by the Nazis from all over Europe. This seemingly dry topic is presented fascinatingly upbeat, with an amazing cliffhanger. Best part: is it is 100% nonfiction; no liberties taken for dramatic effect here. Highly recommended.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent – Eduardo Galeano (1971). This is an essay written by an Uruguayan journalist. Galeano analyzes the history of Latin America as a whole from the time period of the European discovery of the New World to contemporary Latin America, arguing against European and later U.S. economic exploitation and political dominance over the region. It is extremely well-written, in a beautiful and concise style. It is one of the few books I have read all the way through in recent years.
Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China -- Peter Hessler (2007). Nonfiction about the oldest known examples of writing in China, the guy who found them, Hessler's experiences tracking down this info, Hessler's life as a journalist in China and the exploits of some of his former students from when he was Peace Corps volunteer.
Outliers: The Story of Success -- Malcolm Gladwell (2008). Why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."
Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country -- Sudeep Chakravarthi (2008). Explains the Maoist separatist movement and its roots in India.... Looking inside the "real" India.
The River of Doubt: Roosevelt's Darkest Journey -- Candice Millard (2005). A fascinating story of a period in Teddy Roosevelt's life that not many people know about. Roosevelt comes through as a true explorer as he travels to the Amazon to map an uncharted stretch of river.... it is a harrowing story, full of intrigue.
Stones into Schools – Greg Mortensen (2009). This book continues from where Three Cups of Tea left off. While it might not be the best literary book of the year, it should provide inspiration for us all.
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System -- Raj Patel (2008). Uncovering the mysteries of the world food supply chain.
Through the Grand Canyon – Ellsworth Kolb (reprinted in 2009). Photographer Ellsworth Kolb narrates the adventure he and his brother Emery took navigating treacherous waters from Wyoming to Mexico in 1911-12. The brothers operated a photo studio on the Grand Canyon's rim and took the first-ever motion picture footage.
When Wanderers Cease to Roam; A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put – Vivian Swift (2009). For over two decades, Swift traveled the world, for work and fun, and then she settled down with five cats in a house in a small village on Long Island Sound. Wanderers is her diary (highly illustrated with her watercolor drawings) of those years, with diversions into her past. It's charming, delightful and captivating.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames -- David Sedaris (2009). Essays about Sedarisʼ favored topics: death, compulsion, unwanted sexual advances, corporal decay, and more death. Sedarisʼ best stuff will still—after all this time—move, surprise, and entertain.
Wordy Shipmates -- Sarah Vowell (2008). Essayist and public radio regular Vowell revisits America's Puritan roots in this witty exploration of the ways in which our country's present predicaments are inextricably tied to its past. In a style less colloquial than her previous books, Vowell traces the 1630 journey of several key English colonists and members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.... Gracefully interspersing her history lesson with personal anecdotes, Vowell offers reflections that are both amusing and tender.
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