Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book list: the best of ...

Top 5 of 2007:

2007 was a very good year to get me started reading again because I found a ton of books I really enjoyed. That's definitely been less the case in subsequent years.  There were no significantly lengthy tomes in 2007. That would change in subsequent years.

1. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer - this got me started reading everything Krakuer put on paper, which is somewhat good (Under the Banner of Heaven), somewhat bad (Eiger Dreams).  If you're not a romantic at heart, it's not a book for you, because you'll have a hard time thinking anything other than "what a stupid kid," but it's a great story told exceptionally well. Alas, like everything he's ever written, it results in criticisms that the edition I read felt the need to respond to.  Krakauer is an entertaining author, but the guy can't handle criticism.
2. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - one of the greatest novels I've ever read, it's far and away my favorite Vonnegut work.  It's also the most unlike Vonnegut in that it's very linear and realistic, without any sort of fantastic or science fiction elements. But he displays the ability to be a fantastic traditional storyteller here.
3. Bloodsworth by Tim Junkin - a nonfiction account of Kirk Bloodsworth's fight to become the first man exonerated because of DNA evidence (note the correct use of word "exonerated", Ryan Braun).  It's a sad book in nearly all ways, but it's gripping and powerful.
4. The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin - admittedly, it's too glowing with respect to my second least favorite Supreme Court justice of recent times (I'm sure there were worse justices in the pre-Warren court era, but I won't pretend to be a scholar on them at all), Sandra Day O'Connor, but Toobin's book is the reincarnation of The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, which is one of my favorite books of all time and the best book I've ever read about any part of the U.S. government.
5. Zodiac by Robert Graysmith - there are a lot of books I considered here, but the story of trying to track down the Zodiac killer was suspenseful and fascinating for mainstream non-fiction.

Also on the list: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I know, I'm a defense attorney at heart, this should be on the top five, but it's not); The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett; Horsemen of the Esophagus by Jason Fagone; Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley; The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman

Top 5 of 2008:

2008 was dominated by soccer and David Maraniss, with a lengthy visit by Norman Mailer and my first 1,000+ page book during this span (The Executioner's Song)

1. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby - I'd tried reading this several years before, having had my wife bring it back from the UK for me at some point (admittedly, I think I asked more nicely than that and she wasn't my wife at the time) and set it aside. I didn't get it, how are all these games significant? There's just one league, right?  My understanding of top flight football in England wasn't much improved in 2008, this was before the revelation that would follow (largely helped by Bloody Confused! and FIFA 2005 for the PS2 -- Martin Tyler: "now Shevchenko!") and soccer would become one of the most frequent appearances on the reading lists. This has my favorite quotation from any book, and it's entirely worth the effort. You may not understand all of it, but if you're a sports fan, you'll know enough of it.
2. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin - I have an unabashed love for Steve Martin. His work is horribly uneven, he appears in loads of dreck, but he's capable of generating sincere and masterful works. This, along with The Pleasure of My Company, is what I'd put in that class. It's a very poignant and sentimental, but seemingly honest portrayal of his life up until he left stand-up comedy. Because it doesn't cover his entire life, it's a less enthusiastic memoir than most, but has a kind of quiet dignity and sadness that is striking. Yes, in many ways, it's remembering a past that likely never existed, but all autobiography is mostly fiction -- this is at least it's fiction worth reading.
3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - the main conceit of this book should have turned me off to it. It's an Asperger's boy as the narrator. It reeks of gimmick. But that makes it that much more striking because it really worked here.
4. Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World by David Maraniss - I knew nothing about the 1960 olympics, but I know plenty now. Maraniss makes it a very living picture and addresses a lot of themes without being heavy-handed.
5. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - this should be required reading at BYU. This is not to say it's factually perfect, I'm sure it's not, but it tells a story that most people will never hear. In the absence of this book, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would be a complete mystery to all but its adherents.
Also on the list: Clemente: the Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss - another extraordinarily sad book, this had me feeling awful reading its final chapters; Bloody Confused! by Chuck Culpepper - a helpful entree into the English soccer system with a fair amount of humor that's only occasionally tiresome; The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer - this isn't In Cold Blood. But it's a fantastic imitation of it and really brings characters to life.; The 33-Year-Old Rookie by Chris Coste - Coste is a great player-author, and even though the story's not exactly new, it's well-told.

Top 5 of 2009:

I slayed the only F. Scott Fitzgerald novel I hadn't finished, make my first venture into the world of graphic novels, and finally, finally finish The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

1. Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America by S.L. Price - baseball stories don't got much more tragic than this, and Price did a great job of reminding readers that the tragedy didn't end at Mike Coolbaugh's family and friends. A balanced story of the sadness and desperation that follows so many people associated with the game of baseball.
2. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - this was surprisingly enjoyable. I'd hated Cat's Cradle, which took me something like 6 months to read and caused me to stop reading Vonnegut in high school. But this captured the essence of random walk Vonnegut where nothing is off limits and everything is hard to follow, but it all works out.
3. The Machine by Joe Posnanski - I read this in less than a day. It's just good Posnanski writing, there's nothing else to say. I knew the story for the most part, but it didn't make it any less fantastic.
4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - all my other Steinbeck experiences were exceptionally brief novels that didn't overstay their welcome. They don't compare to this. It's a surprisingly bright and optimistic outlook, considering what I expected, but gave me a great look at Tom Joad as one of the greatest characters in literature. It was good enough it caused me to like the album The Ghost of Tom Joad for a while. That's impressive.
5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - I liked this book a lot. But lord it took ages. I had started reading it on at least a half dozen occasions and had even gotten halfway through it once. But I started over and finally got through it. It was worth the effort, which means it has to be on the list, even if the others were all much easier reads.

Also on the list: Once in a Lifetime: the Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos by Gavin Newsham - a fantastic story of a league that's largely forgotten (NASL) and an explanation for just why it couldn't last; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - I was surprised at how fresh the story seemed, even if the world its characters envisioned exists only in the recollections of Republican presidential candidates; As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires by Bruce Weber - an informative, but living expose of sorts on the life of baseball umpires at every level.

Top 5 of 2010:
1. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall - it starts slow, but if you're a runner, you'll love this book by the time you're done. I still am up in the air as to the efficacy of barefoot running (and broke my foot in Vibrams not three months after reading this book), but it has a powerful storyteller as a late-to-the-party advocate here.
2. The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski - I have read Posnanski's book about Buck O'Neil and Buck O'Neil's autobiography, and Posnanski made me feel like I knew Buck O'Neil even more (O'Neil really wrote about the Negro Leagues generally in his memoir). This book is the reason I'm a member of the Negro League Baseball Museum that I've been to once and the reason I'll likely drag my wife when I return to Kansas City in the fall.
3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein - ok, gimmicky narrators apparently work with me. There's a lot of this book that's hackneyed and melodramatic, but the narration is so impeccable that it's worth reading anyway.
4. The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven by Aaron Skirboll - this book has one flaw, and it's that there isn't enough of it. It's a story that begged to be told, and I was absolutely engrossed in it, I just wish there had been more, because I know the possibility was there. But even with that deficiency, it's a must-read to me.
5. You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting - Whiting's discussion of Japanese baseball bookended my first trip to Fenway Park, so perhaps it's overestimated in my mind, but it brings a lot of gaijin baseball players (Randy Bass, Charlie Manuel, and Leron Lee, among others) to life and tells a story few bother to discuss.

Also on the list: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - it took several efforts, but I finally discovered that Lolita was actually funny; The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - the title story is a masterpiece, the others don't quite live up, but the book is very good; American Lightning by Howard Blum - it's fair to criticize the story for bringing together stories that were really completely unrelated, but it also does so by largely dispensing with the story about D.W. Griffith. Set that flaw aside, and it's an entertaining read that could stand to have more detail.

Top 5 of 2011:
1. The War for Late Night by Bill Carter - for someone who'd never seen The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (I got really sick on my honeymoon and missed the debut episode and then returned home where I would never be watching TV at that hour of the day), I was a Conan advocate. This book won't disappoint other Conan fans and was fascinating from start to finish.
2. City of Thieves by David Benioff - a grisly genre novel, yes, but it's well-told and brings scenes to life.
3. The Late Shift by Bill Carter - it's not as fascinating as its effective sequel, but it's very familiar and may have even gained significance because of the post-Conan context in which I read it.
4. Nim Chimpsky: the Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess - a story that was well-captured in documentary last year in Project Nim, but the book is the real source and is emotionally evocative and raises significant questions about what it means to be human and whether being human necessarily implies superiority.
5. The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson - like American Lightning, the narratives aren't really as intertwined as they seem, but both stories are utterly fascinating and worth reading, even if both seem too fantastic for words.

Also on the list: Zoo Story by Thomas French - it's not recommended to all, because it's a sad story for literally everyone, but it gives what seems to me to be an even-handed discussion of zoos and a heartbreaking story of the operations of one zoo in particular; The Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst - I've read all the baseball books, it seems. Going to Barnes & Noble, I'll have read over 50% of the books on the shelves, but this still ranks near the top of the list.

My reading list: 2007-2012

Back when I was on livejournal, I took up what was characterized as the 50 Book challenge, wherein you read 50 books in one year. I started this in 2007, having probably read a total of one or two books in their entirety in 2006, since I had a habit of reading half a book, putting it down and never finishing it. I completed it by November, promptly stopped reading for a month and went back at it in January 2008.

It's now ceased to be anything out of the ordinary for me, and I've done it rather easily more often than not. I felt like I'd done a particularly good job this year, having already finished 13 books, despite the fact that one of them is the 2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, which usually takes a month to read. This year, it took a trip to Turkey. And toss in the fact that I'm reading what has to be the longest book I've read in terms of words (The Power Broker by Robert Caro, which clocks in over 1100 pages, but more than that, is a large sized book with small print. There are probably 10,000 more words in it than in any of the other tomes I've slogged through).

Sometime last year, I went through all the lists I'd kept for the prior years and put together a list spanning all of the books I've read since I embarked on what used to seem like a gargantuan task. Now it turns out that I read because I like it and because I have loads of books, because I kept buying them even when I didn't read.  If you're interested, here's the link to the list:

At the end of that list, you'll find all the lists for the individual years.

For 2012, thus far, as I've said, I've gotten through 13 books: 
January (5)
When March Went Mad by Seth Davis
College Humor: The Website: The Book by the writers of
The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
The Book of Drugs by Mike Doughty
The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford

February (8)
Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. by Robert Coover
Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
D.C. Noir edited by George Pelecanos
2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook edited by the editors of Baseball America
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
How to Archer by Sterling Archer

I considered 13 an auspicious start. Then I looked at the prior lists. Uh, not so much. In fact, it's barely above the median (and below the mean).

In comparison, through February in past years:
2007: 24 (thank you, Ian Fleming!)
2008: 9 (I literally worked around the clock for all of February and was in our New York office from 8 a.m. until midnight to 3 a.m. every day for two weeks and was working 9 a.m. until midnight in my office the rest of the month). 2 books is impressive for that month, really.
2009: 12
2010: 12 (one of these was From Here to Eternity, though, so that was responsible for tying up most of those months).
2011: 9 (I moved to DC and started a new job on January 30 where I then proceeded to work all the time I wasn't looking at houses, so I have a few excuses)