Saturday, December 22, 2012

Best books of 2012 - Part I

I have to apologize yet again. When I vanished from the blog scene and stopped writing book reviews, I thought I left a link to my Goodreads account so that people could still see what I was reading if they were interested. I did no such thing. So here it is now.

There's no doubt that I enjoy reading. But if you asked me how much time I spend reading, I'd say, not an awful lot. More than your average person but I believed that to be as much of a function of my not having a television as me being some fanatical reader. Thanks to Goodreads, I had to rethink my perception of myself. I read 102 books this year. I'm in the middle of two more but I do not see myself finishing either before the end of the year. Not only does Goodreads allow you to track and rate what you read, it also keeps statistics and it turns out that I read over 26,000 pages this year. Over 365 days, that's over 70 pages a day. Even if you assume I read a page a minute (which I don't), that's over an hour of reading a day. Cow holy, that's a lot.

At the start of the year, I laid out two reading objectives for myself: Read more baseball and read longer books. I'm not sure how I did meeting those objectives. I read six baseball books (as well as one basketball, one soccer, one cricket and one general sports book). I read seven books that were 400 pages or longer. It's silly that I don't read a greater number of longer books. My irrational belief is that I need to devote lengthy stretches of time to bigger books; that they require more focus to enjoy. I also believe that there are a lot of good books out there and that it is better to read two 200 page books than one 400 page one. This is nonsense. Two of my all-time favorite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, are massive in size. Of my top ten books this year, six of them were among the thirteen largest I read. More pages enables more story, more development, more analysis. I need to learn.

My reading goals for 2013 are to spend less time reading and more time engaging in writing, read larger books when I do read, read more baseball books (because I have so many) and read more books that I own. Of the 102 books I read, 87 came from various libraries. By definition, reading more baseball books will allow me to read more books I own so that will help. But I have one bookcase of books, maybe 150 books or so, that aren't baseball. Those need to be read, too. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of large books in that case. The two books I'm reading now are large, one is baseball and that one is my own book. I'm off to a good start.

2012 was a really good reading year. My top two books would probably make my top 50 of all time if I were to try and make such a list. Without further ado, here are numbers 10-6 of my favorite books from 2012 with reviews so you get more benefit than just leaping ahead to my Goodreads ratings:

 #10 Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman.

Family and friends had to deal with a good stretch of time this year when I was fascinated by pigeons. My fancy was initially struck when I read a pretty mediocre novel, A Pigeon and a Boy that was about carrier pigeons. I enjoyed reading about the use of pigeons in World War II, part of the time period of that novel,  and that led me to look for non-fiction books about pigeons. This one stood out.

Blechman looks at many different aspects of the history of pigeons, their use by humans, and how the perception of the bird has changed over the years. My only problem with this book were that the chapters were too short. I would have been happy to see every chapter turned into a book. This book did get me learning more about pigeons and also led to me reading an unusual book, Spirit Gun of the West: The Story of Doc W.F. Carver, which was about a legendary pigeon shooter of the nineteenth century. It is only through tremendous self-control that I am not joining Mike Tyson in owning pigeons.

 #9 Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia edited by Jeff Parker. I started the year reading a lot of Eastern Europe/Russian literature. I have also grown to appreciate the short story much more than I used to. As a matter of fact, I am a big fan of a new magazine (a magazine is a collection of pages of paper with a theme that are bundled and published on a regular basis. In case you didn't know.), The Coffin Factory, which publishes really awesome short stories. Rasskazy is a collection of modern short stories from Russia. Published by the wonderful Tin House Books, I thought this book was an absolute treat. 22 stories from Russia's top literary magazines, gathered into one place and translated into English. The stories are distinctly Russian but refreshingly different from the more recognized late 19th century, early 20th century Russian authors (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoeyevsky, etc.). As with any collection of stories, some are better than others but all in all, it was a great compilation and one I heartily recommend.

 #8 Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

Speaking of Kavalier and Clay, my favorite author released a new book. Chabon's stature has wavered with me over the last decade as his efforts have been good but not great. Telegraph Avenue is probably the best book he's written since K&C.

The novel is about two men - one white, one black, who run a record store in San Francisco (a record is a circular piece of vinyl used to play music. In case you didn't know). A "big box" music store is coming into town, owned by a former NFL quarterback, which threatens the livelihood of the two men. Race issues, family issues, relationship issues. Typical Chabon writing with lots of descriptions and 37-cent words. Semi-typical Chabon delving into homosexuality. Interesting characters with no real good guys. I might have it overrated because it is Chabon (the two library patrons to whom I recommended it did not like it) but we're talking about my favorites. So there.

#7 Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction by Stephen Pyne

One of our patrons has been working on a master's thesis on histiography and so some good books on writing about history have come through my hands. This one was excellent, possibly the best book on writing non-fiction I've read.

Most of the books I've read on writing are by writers who, while perhaps dabbling in non-fiction, tend to be novelists at heart. It was refreshing to see a book completely focused on writing non-fiction.

Not surprisingly, given the title, the book is very much about finding the right voice for a given writing. Pyne takes examples of different books (which is nice, too. It would be very easy to use articles for examples but Pyne sticks entirely to books), many of which he wrote, to explore how important it is to find the right way to identify the message you want to convey and the best way to convey that message.

#6 I am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett.

My favorite piece of metafiction from this year. Everett appears in this novel as himself (or at least there is a character with similarities to Percival Everett who is named Percival Everett) but the story focuses on the main character, the unfortunately named Not Sidney Poitier (which should really be written Notsidney Poitier given how he is known to people but it's not near as humorous that way, who, in addition to being named Not Sidney Poitier, looks amazingly like Sidney Poitier.

There are a number of other amazing not similarities. Ted Turner is Not Sidney's adoptive father and he happens to be married to Jane Fonda, but these are just characters named Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, and not the actual Ted Turner and Jane Fonda even though Ted is a billionaire media mogul and Jane is a babe.

The book is very funny and has great dialogue. But beyond the humor, there is also a level of seriousness as Not Sidney tries to find his way through a south that, while modern in era, is less so in tone (read: racist).

It is my understanding that if you're a fan of Sidney Poitier movies, there is yet another layer to this book of which I am ignorant as the only movie of his I've seen is Sneakers. All in all an entertaining story, this one from the excellent Graywolf Press.

I'll try and get the top five up before the end of the year but with the kids out of school and Christmas coming out, who knows. In addition, I am a judge again for the scholastic writing contest (no one wanted to do it and I wasn't going to get paid so, by definition, I had to do it again) and so I have two dozen pieces of high school journalism that I have to read, review and rate.

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