Friday, December 26, 2008

The Year in Review in Books

As of today I have read 27 books in 2008, which is an average of two and a quarter books per month. I don’t set any goals of how many I will read and, obviously, they are of varying lengths and I have more time to read during some periods than others. So there is nothing scientific about my reading and recordkeeping. I just like to keep track and it helps when I am asked for recommendations. I also like to look back and see what kind of trends I am seeing in myself as to my preferences. (I started my Shelfari bookshelf in the left margin of my blog midway through the year, on which I now list every book I read. It does not, however, include every book from 2008 and the first seven are ones I had read previously).

The definite trend this year was toward nonfiction. Of the 27 books I read, only ten were fiction. I also read a lot of sports books this year. No particular reason other than they were gifts or recommendations and I do like sports.

For this post I set out to do a Top Ten List, but it has ended up being a Top Dozen instead. Here they are in no particular order, i.e. there is no favorite of the favorites:

1. Joshua, by Joseph Girzone. This is the first of a series of several about a man named Joshua who is a modern day incarnation of Christ. The author is a Catholic Priest. I loved the very personal human/divine element that Girzone gives the main character. The resounding themes of unconditional love and grace capture the essence of Christ’s divine nature but the Joshua character is as human as I am. I plan to read more of the series next year.

2. The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. The best sports book I read this year, Lewis tells the poignant story of Michael Oher, a 350-plus pound African American boy who was taken in as a teenager off the streets (literally) of Memphis, Tennessee by a wealthy white family who sent him to a private Christian high school and eventually adopted him. Oher, who had never played football, became a star left tackle on his school’s team and was sought after by major colleges nationwide before eventually settling on Ole Miss, alma mater of his adoptive parents. (Now in his senior year, he is All American and will be a top NFL draft pick). As a parallel to the Oher story, the author traces the development of the left tackle position, the quarterback’s “blind side,” from whence comes the book’s title. If you are a football fan, I can almost guarantee that you will love this book. If you are not, and you can get past all the football stuff, you will love the story of Michael Oher and the family that helped change his life.

3. Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich. The inspiration behind the movie Twenty-One, this is the story of a group of MIT students who made millions, legally, from counting cards in casinos in Vegas, Atlantic City and smaller gaming venues around the country. I am not a gambler and have never set foot in a casino but this book was nothing short of fascinating for me. In addition to the in-depth explanation of card counting (much of which, I admit, went way over my head) and the methods the casino bosses use to weed out the big winners, Mezrich gets inside the mind of the main character who was originally talked into playing, then became addicted to, the game of Blackjack. I enjoyed the movie too, but as is so often the case, there were liberties taken that were not true to the book’s storyline. I highly recommend reading the book then renting the movie.

4. Freakonomics, by Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The subtitle to this amazing book is “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.” An outgrowth of a New York Times profile on Levitt, an economist and college professor, that was written by Dubner, the two joined forces to create this work which now has somewhat of a cult following. I hardly even know how to describe it other than to tell you it is about much more than economics and is very much about weird theories that seem to make perfect sense when you read about them. Levitt proudly admits there is no unifying theme, but yet, some unknown force seems to pull it all together. I loved this.

5. God’s Politics: Why the Religious Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. Wallis, founder of the Sojourners organization and magazine of the same name, has made much of his life’s calling providing an alternative to – if not a resounding criticism of – the so called Religious Right. He calls Christians to a high standard of standing for justice and peace for all. He pulls no punches as he highlights his differences with some modern Evangelicals but pleads for common ground. Although I do not concur with all of his views, I found myself agreeing with many of his frustrations with the likes of Falwell, Robertson and Dobson. But he is equally critical of the extremists who want to take God out of every facet of public life. He demonstrates great personal humility and recounts with great regret a media battle years ago with Campus Crusade for Christ Founder Bill Bright. The two eventually reconciled in what few could deny was a series of divine appointments. For me, Wallis confirmed once again that God’s Kingdom is quite diverse and I should be very careful about judging who does and does not reside there. (As an aside, I also read The Woman Behind the Collar by Wallis’s wife, Joy Carroll Wallis, an Anglican Priest from England. I enjoyed it enough, but was put off by her contrasts between American and British life in which she often took critical and defensive positions. It was an interesting read, but definitely not in my Top Dozen).

6. Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis. I am a longtime C. S. Lewis fan and he ranks among the few writers whose works I will read over an over. In this largely autobiographical work he conveys genuine testimony without being preachy. Although a noted apologist, he shows here how simple faith truly is a belief in things unseen. Says Lewis, “Joy must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” -- words I can neither read nor write without feeling chill bumps. I think I’ll go read this again.

7. When We Get to Surf City, by Bob Greene. Greene, with whom I began an infrequent and unlikely e-mail relationship after reading one of his prior books (he actually responded when I wrote and now e-mails me when he has a new one coming out), pens a great story about traveling with the sixties duo Jan and Dean. It’s a fun and interesting look into rock and roll and the author’s dream come true of playing in a real band.

8. Lou Holtz: Wins, Losses and Lessons, by Lou Holtz. An autobiographical piece that mixes Holtz’s philosophy of life with his trademark self-deprecating humor, this is a real upper. I know Holtz has his detractors but I am not among them. Holtz has great things to say about overcoming adversity and achieving lofty, unrealistic goals while adhering to old fashioned principles like integrity. You don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy this one and to appreciate Lou Holtz’s unique gift as a communicator.

9. Miracle at Speedy Motors, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the eighth in the “Number One Ladies Detective Agency” series, each of which has been equally fresh, funny and insightful and each of which I have gleefully devoured. When I read the first of these, I had hardly heard of Botswana. Now I long to go. If the people there are as endearing as the characters Smith has created, it’s got to be a remarkable place. If you like light hearted, feel-good fiction that is extremely well written and not the least bit sappy or repetitive, and you have not started this series, you are in for a treat. And I am jealous.

10. Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan. Jordan’s first novel, set in 1946 in the Mississippi Delta, tells the story of a young woman from Memphis who follows her husband to a farm and struggles to raise daughters in an environment clearly not her natural habitat. Told from the points of view of different characters in alternating chapters, a compelling story develops with recurring themes of racism, cruelty and misconceptions typical of the era.

11. The Shack, by William Young. I struggled with whether I should list this among my favorites of the year. I am always skeptical of the “latest and greatest” in Christian circles and thus for many months resisted picking this up. But the more I read and heard about the author (a missionary child who set out to do nothing more than put something in writing for his family), and the more I heard from friends and family who had read the book (with differing reactions), the more curious I became, and finally gave in. In spite of my skepticism, I enjoyed this a great deal and found the message of hope highly compelling. At the same time, I struggled some with the metaphorical account of the Holy Trinity. But, with all objectivity, this was a page turner for me and I would highly recommend it for believers and non-believers alike. It is quite a story.

12. West with the Night, by Beryl Markham. As I write this I am still a few pages short of completing this memoir by a remarkable English-born woman who grew up in and lived most of her life on the African continent, mainly Nairobi, Kenya. Markham, who was born in 1902 and died in 1986, first published this work, her only book, in 1942 and it was not well received. It was, however, re-published in 1982 after someone found an obscure review written by none other than Ernest Hemingway, in which he praised Markham’s prose and lamented the fact that he would never write as well as she. This has not been one of those “I can’t put this down” types of books for me. In fact, it is only about 300 pages long and it has taken me almost a month to read it. But I would not think of not completing it. As I read the story of this rogue farmer-turned-horse-trainer-turned-pilot, I am fully aware that I am reading beautifully written narrative that is totally worth the effort.


Post Script: On my list for 2009 (would appreciate hearing from those who have read any of these and would welcome other recommendations):

-- Two Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and Oliver Redin.
-- Transplant, by Bill Frist.
-- The Maltese Falcon, by Dash Hammett (can’t believe I’ve never read this).
-- More in the Joshua series by Joseph Girzone.
Post Script 2: Can't decide if I'll go see the movie Marley and Me, which opened yesterday, or not. I loved the book and am afraid it won't do it justice. Anyone seen it yet?


Kelly said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Bob. For one, it left me with some ideas of books for my husband. He thought the movie about the card counting was pretty good, but would probably enjoy the book more. Also, he might like "Freakonomics".

I, too, have read all the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books and LOVED them! I believe I've also read all the "Joshua" books. They're very good!

Although I read "The Shack" and enjoyed it, I'm not sure whether I'd recommend it to others. It just didn't leave me with quite the same impression as it did you.

I've kept a list of all the books I've read for the past ten years or so. I set a personal goal each year of trying to read at least three books a month, but like you... it all depends on the length of the book, how much time I have available for reading and whether it's light reading or not. I've probably read twice that many this year.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Oh...and if you like historical fiction, you might want to check out the two I recommended in an earlier post this month.

quid said...

Loved the post, Bob. The only book we have in common is "Mudbound", which I found to be beautifully written.

I normally post my "top 10" at year-end, but am a little more prolific, and have more time to read; I normally read 50-80 books a year. My list will be for books published in 2008. I'm almost done, so I'll post on the blog. I read mostly fiction, (another reason that I read more; it's easier)...look for it in a couple of days. Alas, I don't keep up with my Shelfari the way that you and Kelly do.

I have gotten so many good ideas for blogposts from you, I want to say thanks.


Bob said...

And thank you Quid! I look forward to seeing your Top 10. I am in awe of the number of books you read! Susan (my wife) told me last night she read 38 books in '08and I am sure when one day she finally "retires" and our nest is empty, her number will be up there with yours. If I didn't watch football and baseball games I would read more also. When you want a break from fiction, I really recommend "West With the Night." It is not easy reading but is fascinating and worth the effort. Thanks again.

Redlefty said...

I read Mortenson's book this year -- definitely keep it on your 2009 list!

Thanks for writing this. I don't read as much as I'd like since we still have young kids at home, but one day...