What I’ve Been Reading – The Best of 2007

Even though the numbers fell considerably this year, I did indeed read a book or two. And though the literature-based content has dropped to near unrecognizable levels, I do indeed want to talk about it. Hell – ask me about books in real life. I’ll talk your ear off.

Which is why my friends don’t talk about books, I guess.

Because I tend to ramble – and because I’ve already written about all of these books – here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of the best of the best. Or, The Best of the Best of What I’ve Been Reading from December 2006-November 2007. (In alphabetical order by author.)

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1998)
Reviewed February 2007

I spent a ton of time in high school study hall reading books that foresaw the future – 1984, A Brave New World, et. al. The Handmaid’s Tale is cut from the same cloth, though it touches upon a future wrought with sexist laws and the depersonalization of women, from life to commodity, from mother to vessel. Sure – 1984 was scary. But the thought of women as slaves to their wombs? Even more frightening (and, amazingly, even more likely).

Paper TrailsPete Dexter — Paper Trails (2007)
Reviewed October 2007

I met Pete Dexter, kind of. I mean, I saw him at four different panels during the South Dakota Festival of Books, and shook his hand (though he was busy talking to good friend Rob Fleder). So really, I kind of consider us friends. Friends who have never met. After two days of following Dexter around, I felt I owed it to him to buy his newest book – a collection of newspaper articles. I’m certainly glad I did – hilarious to the point of side-splitting at times, thoughtful to the point of brilliance at others.

The Whistling SeasonIvan Doig – The Whistling Season (2006)
Reviewed September 2007

I actually said “hello” to Doig at the South Dakota Festival of Books; if I was friends with Dexter, I must be brother-in-law to Doig by comparison. The Whistling Season’s cover promises a festival of prairie living; My Antonia as written by a grizzled old dude with a white beard. It’s not. Instead, it’s a romp through one-room-schoolhouse Montana, with two of the best (and probably most fun to write) characters I’ve ever encountered.

Then We Came To The EndJoshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End (2007)
Reviewed August 2007

I work in a cubicle. And I work in an advertising agency. I’m a copywriter. And I dream of writing my own book. Enter Then We Came to the End, which is everything I am – a book about cubicle life in an ad agency, written by a copywriter. I’d be pissed that he stole my life from me, except his life seems to be written so much better than I’ve ever been able to do. A brilliant twist in the middle makes me think Dave Eggers should read the book. And take notes.

The NamesakeJhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake (2004)
Reviewed July 2007

Before the movie, I had to read the book. And now that I’ve read the book, I don’t want to see the movie – especially now that I have placed Jhumpa Lahiri on my top ten favorite authors list. Why should I attempt to bear the disappointment of a movie that doesn’t live up to the book? Why would I do that? (The book itself? It’s wonderful – a study on how much a name means, not just to the man who owns it, but to the man who gave it to him.)

The RoadCormac McCarthy – The Road (2006)
Reviewed March 2007

I don’t need to explain myself for this one – The Road is the best book I’ve read in the past five years, and it’s one of the few that I’ve been able to clearly discuss passionately, as if I have a degree as a The Road Scholar. (Ha! Get it? The Road Scholar? Like a Rhodes Scholar? Hello?)

HousekeepingMarilynne Robinson – Housekeeping (1980)
Reviewed August 2007

Gilead was beautiful. Housekeeping – more so. Gilead was a book that succeeded in changing the way I read. It took a different eye, and by the first 20 pages I had gained that eye. Housekeeping follows suit (or, I guess, introduced the suit in the first place) and does so with an even more interesting story. Floods, sisters, mystery and trains. What a beautiful book.

White TeethZadie Smith – White Teeth (2000)
Reviewed December 2006

Officially, this is the first book club book I ever read as part of a real book club. It was a good choice – Smith’s biting wit helps develop three generations of English immigrants as they aloofly spread themselves across London. While really the story of two twins and the girl that loves them, it’s more a picture of how different cultures meld to create the real London – not occupied by just the English, but filled to the corners with a diverse group of interesting people.

Rabbit AngstromJohn Updike – Rabbit Angstrom (1995)
Reviewed April 2007

Aside from some old friends and my wife, I have never gotten to know one person better than I got to know Rabbit Angstrom. Over the four books (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest) Angstrom morphs from young father to old retiree, bringing each decade’s excesses and failures along for the ride. Reading all four books at once lends to a better understanding, like watching a life unfold in seconds on fast forward. And while it’s a feat commonly accomplished in history books and autobiographies, nothing matches the emotion and real thought of the fictional Rabbit – from life to death, he is a character bigger than any other.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthChris Ware – Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2003)
Reviewed January 2007

Comics are fun, right? Not always. For instance – Maus isn’t fun; it’s heartbreaking and thoughtful. Jimmy Corrigan? In the same boat. I’ve never been brought nearly to tears by a comic – er, graphic novel – until reading Ware’s tome. Loneliness has never been so artfully done, longing never so deep, acceptance never so awkward. Through three generations of Corrigans we see a cycle of broken relationships made worse by what is to come, a series of mistakes being made again and again. To which I say, “Chris Ware is my hero.”


Honorable Mentions: Yeah, I always cheat and throw some extra books onto the “OMG DEEZ BUKS RULZ!” pile, though this year seems a little more sparse than usual.

Of course, my attempt to plow through The Essentials list ultimately failed (for this year at least) but I still managed to get some classics in. I loved William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, both for its simplicity and its ability to say so much in so little – a copywriter’s dream. The list wouldn’t be complete without an obligatory Steinbeck reference, and though I only read one Steinbeck book this year, it makes the list – Travels with Charley. Charley is great read, especially on a lazy summer camping day. In fact, it’s nearly perfect in that venue.

Also read from The Essentials: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (haunting, if that’s an okay word to use). Slaughterhouse Five was a re-read for book club (and not on The Essentials list), but it was necessary in the wake of Vonnegut’s death.

I absolutely fell for the new illustrated Elements of Style, a gift from little Sierra. Sure, it’s a little antiquated, but it’s still a brilliant and at times clever look at how you should write. Remember – learn the rules, then break them. I hope I’m doing it justice through my writing.

Finally, I’d be lacking in my fandom if I forgot to mention two books aimed toward children: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Little Prince. The Little Prince was read to Sierra while still in the womb and is one of the most touching books I’ve ever read. Harry Potter is what it is – the final book in a legendary series. A lot of hype to live up to. Thankfully for everyone, it delivered.

My secret goal was a book a week – 52 books through the year. I barely made it – coming up JUST short with around 45 or so.

My goal this year? Let’s keep it at 20.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 21st, 2007