What I’ve Been Reading — The Best of 2005
With a great number of “end-of-the-year” book lists being spit out from the publishing and book reading world, I thought it would be fitting, with my monthly book column and all, to create my own addition. Thanks to Millions (A Blog about Books) I’ve been introduced to a never-ending stream of recommended and must-read titles through this months “Best of 2005” lists.
Of course, my book list tends to be a little redundant; nine of these ten books have already been covered on this site in my monthly “What I’ve Been Reading” column (formerly known as “My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree,” and more commonly referred to as “that great idea that I stole from Nick Hornby’s monthly Believer column”). In fact one of the two that wasn’t, Carroll’s The City Below, may or may not have actually been read this year. Truthfully, I can’t quite remember. If it wasn’t, then it was at least read in December 2004, and I’m going to count it.
Anyways, you’ll find that this isn’t the typical “best of 2005” list, mainly because most of these books weren’t published in 2005. Instead, this is the all-star cast from this years’ “What I’ve Been Reading” columns. If you want the “best of 2005,” you’ll have to look elsewhere – I’ve been too busy catching up on the “best of 2002-2004” to pay any attention to many newer books.
So with that disclaimer I present:
The best of “What I’ve Been Reading” in 2005.
These are in alphabetical order with (publication dates in parentheses.)
Roy Blount Jr. – Feet on the Street (2005) — Reviewed April 2005
This is my favorite book ever written about or based in New Orleans. Okay, okay, that’s not as big of a claim as you’d think – I’ve read about five total books about or based in New Orleans – but I did like the book better than John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, so it’s got that going for it. It’s also the best travel narrative I’ve read this year, and I’ve got a monstrous soft spot for travel narratives. That makes two marks in the “good” column for Roy Blount Jr.
Augusten Burroughs — Dry (2004) — Reviewed September 2005
Never before have I found the demons of alcoholism more fascinating and, at times, inspiring than I did in Burroughs’s second memoir, Dry, the sequel to Running with Scissors. I indulged myself in Burroughs’ possibly exaggerated life through both books back to back, finding Dry to be a little more adult – and a little more believable. It also served to be a much more rewarding story than his younger exploits in Running with Scissors. Burroughs just has a way to make the most depressing life sound incredibly funny. Sometimes I’m wondering if I’m laughing because of or despite his hardships.
James Carroll – The City Below (1996)
Set in Boston shortly a few years before, a few years during, and a few years after the JFK assassination, Carroll’s The City Below brings us to the dark depths of politics and organized crime in a city that’s split between the rich and the poor, the city and the outlying towns. Two brothers grow up and split ways: one a would-be Catholic priest turned Kennedy aide, the other a high level official in the city’s organized crime ring. This creates obvious friction when the two meet, and boy oh boy, do they meet. Regardless of whether I read it this year or not, it’s a great novel – the dark picture of a city I’ve always wanted to visit based in part on Boston’s history.
Michael Chabon – The Final Solution (2004) — Reviewed April 2005
I rediscovered the murder mystery this year. Okay, that has nothing to do with The Final Solution aside from one the identity of one characters’ past as a Sherlock Holmes’ inspired detective. The Final Solution tells the story of a young boy (mute, but with parrot) and the mystery behind a series of numbers that the parrot consistently rattles off. The detective, now retired, rouses himself into action to discover the meaning of the cryptic clues. Sounds good? It is. It’s short, too, so you’ll have no problem reading it over your holiday break.
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (1983) — Reviewed April 2005
I’ll admit, I struggled through this book. I attempted to start it twice before finally taking it on during my first month of “What I’ve Been Reading.” Once started, two things came to mind: 1. Italian and Latin words and phrases are featured enough to make some paragraphs unintelligible to my monolingual mind. 2. In writing The Name of the Rose, Eco manages to take a sleepy, boring, old abbey and scour its image with the smell of murder. Central to the story is a remarkable library and, even more remarkable, the monks that spend their lives illuminating some of the most treasured and hidden texts in the world. Bibliophilia, murder, philosophical ramblings on theology – this book made me seem way smarter than I actually am.
Nick Hornby – A Long Way Down (2005) — Reviewed July 2005
Nick Hornby is brilliant with his voicing in A Long Way Down; each of the four main characters had their own say regarding every major event that happened after their failed suicides on New Years Day. Their group, consisting of a young bratty teenager, a former pop star-turned-tabloid wash out, an American garage rocker without a band (or girlfriend), and the mother of an adult vegetable. Hornby has a knack for speaking in voices that you wouldn’t expect from a balding British divorcee. No, I mean that in a good way.
Nick Hornby – The Polysyllabic Spree (2004) — Reviewed May 2005
Really, this is just a collection of the first 13 months of Hornby’s Believer articles. They’re all very smart, and funny, and I just can’t gush over them enough. He’s revolutionized the book review column; it’s much more interesting to read about a person’s buying and reading habits than it is to simply learn about the newest books. There truly is a natural progression in reading, and buying, books, and I believe that they should be reviewed as such.
Michael Lewis – Moneyball (2004) — Reviewed July 2005
I didn’t like baseball much before I read Moneyball, but Lewis’ book on the 2001-2003 Oakland A’s sure helped me along. Baseball is about numbers, over anything, and behind those numbers there needs to be someone that can juggle them. Enter Billy Beane, general manager (and bargain shopper) extraordinaire – a man that manages to build a contending team every year with very little in the way of financial backing. It’s right up there with David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps as the greatest sports book I’ve ever read.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005) — Reviewed July 2005
Like I said in my review – there’s nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said before. Still, I bet I’ll find myself defending this selection over any of the others. Listen, a book can still be very good even if it’s directed towards kids and is incredibly (and I mean incredibly) popular. Go ahead and knock it – any series that can redefine children’s literature, cause me to lose hours of sleep, and encourage reading in kids that otherwise don’t care about books is a top ten book any year.
John Steinbeck – East of Eden (2003, originally published 1952) — Reviewed October 2005
Yeah, I was completely naïve to the appeal of Steinbeck. But I know now: he’s very good. In just one month, Steinbeck went from “the guy who wrote The Pearl and Of Mice and Men” to “literary genius and personal hero.” The characters in East of Eden grow out of one life and into the traditions that their parents and grandparents left for them, leaving two young men who know so little about their ancestors that they can’t help but fall into the same traps that their family has always known. It’s long, yes, but it’s an amazing work of literature that tops my “classic recommendations” list.
Honorable Mentions: I’d be remiss without mentioning a few more books, the seven that barely fell off the list.
Bruce Sprinsteen’s Nebraska was reborn in Deliver Me From Nowhere (2005), by Tennessee Jones, a collection of short stories that outlines the tragic lives of the middle America’s poorest laborers and unemployed.
I re-lived my middle school Humanities class by reading the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf (2000) – an awesome epic poem that’s made even more awesome by its steadfastness throughout history.
You Shall Know Our Velocity! (2003) is a great David Eggers book, though it was flawed just enough to be maddening. If you want to read it, read a copy without the extra 50 pages in the middle, then go read the extra 50 pages upon completion. You’ll thank me later.
Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2005) helped me understand that we’re all destined to repeat the same mistakes as long as we don’t bother learning from them.
Edward Murrow’s life has been in the mainstream media lately thanks to the new movie Good Night and Good Luck, the story of his fight with Joseph McCarthy. Thanks to a blurb on NPR, I was harkened to pick up a copy of Bob Edwards’ biography on Murrow — Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism (2004). I also read Walter Cronkite’s A Reporters Life, but the Edwards book was shorter and much more palatable.
David Sedaris is always good for a chuckle, and that chuckle always comes at the expense of himself or his dysfunctional family. This collection of short stories, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), fails to disappoint.
Finally, I have to mention at least one of my newly purchased Pocket Penguins, and the winner is P.D. James’ Innocent House (2005), a excerpt from his full length novel Original Sin. It’s horribly good, but horrible itself at the same time – I just got into it and the excerpt ended. Now I’ve got to get the full-length version! Egad!
And just like that, I’m done. Those are the ten (plus extra) books I’ve enjoyed this past year.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get started on next year’s list.