Wednesday, December 29, 2010

12 Books of the Year

I hate awards, but I love nominations. I love lists, but I hate rankings. So, instead of creating a list of my favorite books read this year, and burdening myself with putting them in some hierarchical order, I'll just pick out a book for every month.

I'm pleased to say I read 46 books this year, which is much higher than normal for me. Granted, about half a dozen of those I marked as "Did not finish" because they were either so bad or not what I was looking for that I didn't want to waste my time on them. Sadly, there were several bad ones I slogged all the way through anyway.

Of the 46, 15 were non-fiction. The topics ranged from silly to serious; some had a tone like a textbook, others like a very interesting conversation. I expect my trend towards non-fiction to continue for the coming years.

In a similar statistic, 14 of the 46 were from the library. As obvious as it sounds, I'm proud of myself for rediscovering this fantastic resource. Especially with the ability to reserve books online, it has become very easy to locate obscure books or pick up the hottest new releases. As much as I love books, I'm a cheapskate and I hate paying full price for them. What could be better than free? The library increased my access to non-fiction and new releases, but also freed me from the feeling of guilt if I chose to stop reading the book.


I don't know whether these books represent the year that was, or future months in which they'd be a good read. So, let's start with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I was a big sci-fi buff when I was a little kid, but I rarely read it now. I love the George Pal movie, so I thought I'd give this one a refresh. It was certainly worth it. A very short novel, but filled with great imagination. 4 stars.


A shorter, colder month, great for curling up with a book that you just can't put down. For me, Steinbeck's East of Eden was a revelation. I read The Grapes of Wrath last year, but mostly just thought it was okay. This one blew me away. Each chapter was like a well-crafted short story in and of itself. It was sweeping, literary, emotional, and beautiful. The kind of book where when you finish it, you just have to sit there for a while and bask. This was absolutely my favorite book of the year, and is very high (if not top) on my favorite books of all time. 5 stars.


The third month, how about a trilogy? Honestly, if I were going to make a recommendation, I would suggest only reading the first of the Millennium series. It's not that the other two are bad; they're pretty good. But I think, like many sequels, they offer diminishing returns. The main character of Lisbeth Sanders is a compelling (though difficult) heroine, and I enjoyed having a couple additional adventures with her. 4 stars.


On April 20, 1999, two students went on a killing spree that scared the nation, and became known as the Columbine High School Massacre. The book Columbine by Dave Cullen, is a very lucid and fascinating account of the events of that day. Not only does it dispel some of the myths that sprang up from misinformation, but it also paints a chilling picture of the two young men. A really fantastic book. 5 stars.


On May 25, 1977, one young filmmaker released a movie that cheered the world, and became known as Star Wars. Though it is impossible to go back to the days before mega-blockbusters laden with fantastic special effects, The Making of Star Wars does a great job of letting you feel what it was like. Nobody knew if it would be successful, many of the techniques had never been done, but everyone was young and idealistic. 4 stars.


Speaking of idealistic, and going back even further in time, we come to Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, he and some equally loony friends recreated a raft out of native material and sailed from South America to the Polynesian islands to prove that earlier native peoples could have done the same. His book, Kon-Tiki, is a first person account of the struggles and adventures they went through along the way. Entertaining, educational, and inspiring. 4 stars.


Okay, okay, it's summer. You want to read something goofy and fun, not all of this fact-based stuff. Well, have I got the book for you. The Ruins is quite possibly one of the worst books I've ever read. The writing is fine, but the plot, characters, action, all of it is just enormously stupid. So why list it here? Because, if you were sitting out lounging on a beach somewhere, this would be perfect. It is awfsome. It is terrifible. It isn't "so bad it's good," it's "so bad that I'm having fun marveling at how it could possibly get any worse," and yet it does. 1 star.


So bad it's good? What kind of doublespeak is that? Continuing my re-exploration of some old sci-fi classics, I read George Orwell's 1984 again. If you like to think when you read (rather than check your brain at the door like that last one), then this is a great opportunity. It holds up remarkably well, although I am eager to read Brave New World for comparison.


The Ruins and 1984 on the same list? That doesn't make any sense. Welcome to my world. Actually, welcome to just about everybody's world. Predictably Irrational was a wonderful read in which the author shows how in many situations we humans don't always do what would logically be best for us. But the more interesting aspect is that this behavior can still be predicted, as he shows in several experiments. A very entertaining book on a subject I had never even thought about before. 5 stars.


I'm not a big Stephen King fan, but I have always enjoyed his earlier books. I had never read Salem's Lot, and I thought I was due. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it didn't have the problem ending like so many others. A good vampire story, and a refreshing change from the benevolent, glowing, dreamy teenagery kind. 4 stars.


Richard Stark's Parker #1: The Hunter is a graphic novel. I'm not one of those guys that's embarrassed to say "comic book," but I think this one deserves the bumped-up description. The art is simplistic yet subtle. The story is an old one often retold, but it works very well here. This one is numbered "1" but I haven't yet made the effort to see if others have been released. I will eagerly read them if and when they are. 5 stars.


Winter is coming. For those familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, that phrase says a lot. Here, it's just a cutesy intro for my December pick, A Game of Thrones. I have read all of the (existing) books already, and now this one twice. It is epic fantasy, which I normally stay pretty far away from, but it is done in a realistic style. The intrigues of the court take center stage far more than swordplay, and the magic is almost non-existent. It also doesn't hurt that it is currently being turned into a mini-series for HBO. Highly recommended to anyone just looking for a good tale well told. 5 stars.

Well, that does it for this year. Of course, there were many more good and great books that I didn't mention, and I hope the same is true for next year.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I am a Jerk

Yes, it's true. I admit it. As a matter of fact, I'm even going to post a little anecdote that proves it. And I don't care. In fact, I am not remorseful or repentant in the least! So, let my tale begin...

Yesterday, Karen and I went out to get a Christmas tree. We drove over to the local gardening shop, which has the best selection. To get to the actual entrance requires going a long way through an adjacent parking lot, and the strange shape of the location causes it to be more or less just a single, long, narrow lane. As K drove down the lane looking for a spot, a giant SUV zipped up behind and followed about three feet away from her back bumper. A bit unnerving. We pulled into a spot, and the Canyonero sped by to continue to look for a space. Neither of these occurrences are that unusual.

However, we were able to see where the mammoth SUV parked, and it turned out the lady driving it entered the store just a few feet ahead of us. Perfect! I immediately started walking very closely behind her. Every time she stopped, I stopped (and sighed). If she turned, I turned to stay directly behind her. After very little time, she stopped and turned to look directly at me.

Me: "Does it bother you that I'm behind you?"
She: "Well, yes, when you're so close behind me."
Me: "Maybe you should think about that when you're driving."

Exit Greg, stage right.

It's not really the best zinger in the world, but it was a spontaneous act. Am I just on edge because of the holiday season? Karen, of course, thought it was great (although I also suspect she was a little embarrassed). Am I wrong? Should one not confront another person about things like that?

A little bit later, we could see the woman further back in the Christmas tree section. She wasn't looking at us, but she was talking animatedly on her cell phone. I wondered what that conversation was like. I have no doubt that my role in her story was that of "creepy jerk."

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