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The Best of my 2009 Reading List

January 16, 2010

This blog is mostly about books. Occasionally, it’s gonna be about me not having pants and wanting to be on Oprah. But I started this blog as a way to keep a record of my 2010 reading and I’d like to keep it as connected to books as I can. Since I’m plugging along through Things in the Night (Estonia) right now and it might be a few days before I can finish that book, I thought I’d do a retrospective entry about last year’s reading. 

I’m plotting two entries: The Best of my 2009 reading and the Worst of my 2009 reading. I’ll explain how books landed in either category as we go. So, since this entry is about the BEST, let me tell you what helped me hone my list. 

In order to be on my “Best of 2009” list, a book needed to:

1. Be recommendable. There are lots of books that I read last year that I really liked, but I don’t know who else would like them. If I’m putting a book on this list then it’s because I feel I could easily say to someone, “You should read this book.” 

2. Make me think. A book with staying power.

3. Kept me interested with a clear plot and engaging characters.

(These are books that I read last year — certainly some of them have been around for much longer.)

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

When a book just makes me break down and cry, I know that it is powerful. This book did that to me. As a matter of fact, I’m unsure if I will ever be the same after reading this book. My friend Debbi loaned me her copy nearly 10 years ago; I started to read it and then put it down and forgot about it. Then I got a copy for my birthday this year and devoured it. Here is the blurb from the pubslisher:

“In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong.” 

This book is about God — it’s about faith — it’s about children — it’s about the ethics of invading unknown lands (socially, ecologically, spiritually); it’s about science and religion. And it’s about love. But more than that, it’s an engaging story [the second half more so than the first half] that will totally invade your life and make you crave for someone to talk to after you’re finished. So, if you pick up, I’m here. Let’s talk about it. 

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

When you need a good nostalgic trip into the land of private detectives, there is no one better to curl up with than the boorish, but likeable Philip Marlowe. 

First of all, I thought I had the plot all figured out, but then Chandler fooled me – okay, which isn’t hard to do, I’ll admit. But it’s nice to be surprised by the endings of books every once in awhile. And while some of the stuff is a tad overdone here in the twenty-first century, I have to remind myself Chandler was one of the first to perfect the hardboiled detective novel. 

I’ve never been a big noir person. But I have to admit, the language in his book is incredible, the dialogue is rich, and the characters fun. I can totally picture all of the fast-talking cops, the sleazy mobsters, the femme fatales. I enjoyed reading it…even though I felt like I had been reading a long time and I looked down, was 70 pages in, and it looked like I had just started. It’s long…I mean…there is twist number one, twist number two, twist number three…and then a resolution. And then some more resolution. 

This is the way I see it: Raymond Chandler was one of the best writers of the 20th-century. He just happened to enjoy writing crime novels. 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

I’m not gonna lie. This book caused me to be “unfriended” on Facebook. I posted a status update about reading this book and the next thing I knew I got a nasty note from a girl and she dropped me as her friend. Apparently Mormons don’t want you to read this book. Or just be forewarned that it might cause tension with your LDS friends. Here is the blurb: “In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered the wife and infant daughter of their younger brother Allen. The crimes were noteworthy not merely for their brutality but for the brothers’ claim that they were acting on direct orders from God. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer tells the story of the killers and their crime but also explores the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism from which the two emerged.”

This book will make you sick — it might make you cry — it will certainly engage you. The story of the Lafferty brothers is almost too much to handle at times, but Krakauer juxtaposes the gruesome tale with some major research into the history of the Mormon church in general and that stuff is utterly fascinating. The comparisons with Islamic fundamentalists cannot be ignored and I think this book is a poignant read in today’s day and age. I pretty much went around for the two weeks it took me to read this book doing nothing but saying things like this, “Did you know that Joseph Smith….” and “Bringham Young did some crazy stuff.” Yes, this book is very slanted — Krakauer is an amazing journalist and he doesn’t pretend to set out without an agenda. He was also sufficiently angry at the church for putting up major roadblocks at every turn during his investigation. I think Mormons will have a hard time with his snide and clearly cynical views of the church in general; he also blurs the lines a lot between FLDS and LDS. Despite its flaws, I still think Krakauer has his pulse on the most interesting human-interest stories of our time. 

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I found this book at the Cannon Beach Book Company. There was only one copy left and beside it was a handwritten note that said: Read this one! Best book of 2008. I started reading it on vacation and then I couldn’t put it down. I loved the technique of using different narrators to move the story along — If Jordan had used third person point of view, the story would have been equally as compelling, but not as gut-wrenching. 

Jordan’s use of foreshadowing was fantastic. Enough to help you prepare for the inevitable, but not obvious enough to give away the ending. I didn’t even enjoy all the characters (despite being in their heads)…which is an interesting little twist. How do you write a character that will be equal parts unlikable and sympathetic? 

Books like this make me want to close them up and go write. They remind me that good storytelling DOES still happen and that it can happen in a well-written package. I’m always hopeful when good writing and good stories find success. I hope more people read this and no doubt Jordan will earn her $ when Hollywood comes buying those movie rights. And books like this are what Oscar dreams are made of…someone’s probably already on that…

The Quiet American by Graham Greene 

I will be honest, this book took me a little while to get into. I must have been halfway through the novel when it finally hit me that I was reading something amazing. It is a novel that really crams a lot into its 180 pages. This book is a political book about Vietnam. However, it’s 1950s Vietnam — years before America’s involvement escalated. It’s a love story. It’s this hard-hitting emotional punch in the gut. But it’s also slow moving like a river; by the time you hit the rapids, it’s too late and you’re already sucked in. 

The book follows Fowler, a war correspondent, is following the war between the Vietminh and the French, and Pyle, a “quiet” American — working for the American government. At the book’s core is a love-triangle between these two men (different in so many ways) and a young Vietnamese woman. 

The book then expands beyond the love-triangle and into the essence of man. Do we really know who is good and who is evil? The slight book is well worth the time.

Other books worth checking out:

The above books may be my top 5, but it was hard to leave these off the list. Here are a few other books I think are worth checking out: White Oleander by Janet Fitch, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

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