Wait! Before you read any further! If you like this post, don’t miss my most recent book list: The Best Books I Read in 2010! OK, resume.
Last year was a big reading year for me, primarily because without college I have so much more time to read books that really boggle my brains. What I like about constantly having a book going is the way the world around you changes depending on what your reading. A book about aliens will make your everyday interactions with existence alien-related. Or black hole related. Or reincarnation related.
There are some books that I read last year, however, that have stayed in my brain and still color my perception, even though I closed them a while ago. So, as a sum up of 2009, I present the 15 most influential books I read last year.
15. A Spot of Bother Mark Haddon
I read this book in one sitting on an 18 hour bus ride. I had nothing else to do but read, as the scenery out my window was desert and only desert. So I enveloped myself inside the fun-house mirror world in this book, written by the same guy who wrote the wildly popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The best thing about this book are the characters, who are actually based on you and your family, except slightly more neurotic and idiotic. Neuridiotic, if you will. Shifting from the severely limited perspective of the narrator of his last book, the narrator of A Spot of Bother can jump into the heads of each character, even those who are losing their mind. The family members in the book rip each other to shreds in a slow, sad way. However, the story had me laughing out loud several times, (though I usually found myself cringing only a few pages later.) It was perfect for a bleak bus ride, and though it didn’t leave too much of a lasting impression, it definitely tinted the whole journey. Thanks to Caroline for the book!
14. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom Corey Doctorow
Cory Doctorow is a big fan of the cyber-punk genre. Judging by the rest of this list, he and I have that in common. The best thing about this book is the setting. Almost all of it takes place in the Disney World of the future, which has become the most sacred place on earth; it is a cherished gem of ancient art. The storyline follows an all-out war between the people who manage The Hall of the Presidents and the team that operates The Haunted Mansion. Additionally, everyone has computers in their brains that allow them to communicate rapidly with one another sans vocalization. Though it wasn’t the most morally profound book (it is about Disney, after all) it’s a fast read that you won’t be able to put down. Come to think of it, I read this one in another 18 hour car ride, from Ohio to Connecticut. You can see why I might have needed a bit of escape.
13. The History of Love Nicole Krauss
I picked up this book because I am an intense fan of Nicole Krauss’s husband Jonathen Safron Foer, who wrote one of my all time favorite novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. You can see why he married the woman who wrote this book. Like her husband, Nicole Krauss has mastered language and ingenuity. This book features graphs and charts, and she has no qualms about playing with form. The storyline, like almost all of her hubby’s work, is dreadfully sad but wildly insightful. Though I don’t want to solely compare her to her husband, I did feel that his books achieve slightly more. However, this book is very well crafted, and Nicole Krauss will no doubt be out with several more books to twirl the imagination.
12. The Invention of Hugo Cabret Brian Selznick
Man I wish this book had been around when I was a kid! This was another one-sitting book for me, in the bean bag chair at my library in the kids section, which is where you should read it. (Though you can go to your own library if they have a bean bag chair). Talk about mixing genres, Selznick combines words, photographs and incredible drawings, making this semi-non-fictional 500+ page book entirely unique. The majority of the book is sweeping pencil drawings that zoom in on certain faces or places as you turn the pages. Here’s an example of some of the artwork you can look forward to:
Brian Selznick has somehow kept his childhood imagination perfectly intact, and has poured it out succinctly and beautifully into these pages.
11. Generosity: An Enhancement Richard Powers
This book is one of the most realistic fiction books that incorporates a strong science-fiction theme into its storyline. Set in a Chicago that isn’t quite Chicago, Richard Powers follows the story of a writing teacher at an arts school (it felt so much like my old college days I thought maybe Powers had been stalking me). He is depressed and cynical, but his entire life changes when he meets a student who, despite her refugee status, is so naturally and thoroughly ebullient that he can’t resist her charm. Nor can anyone else who meets her. The story embarks from there on the scientific research of a happiness gene, and spends the rest of its length discussing the morality of manipulating human genes to make everyone naturally cheerful. Throughout the short novel Powers reflects distorted characters from our reality (think a white, Catholic-Irish Oprah). It’s profound to the maximum, and I’m desperate to talk about it with more people, so read it.
10. Fear and Loathing in Lost Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
Though I don’t have many “classics” on my list, this one I couldn’t leave off. This book holds its place in the popular consciousness because it is so far from anything else out there. Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s actual experience taking almost every single kind of drug you can imagine (and some you can’t) while covering news stories in Las Vegas, the book is hysterically funny, and almost painful to read because the characters are so destructive and risky. I bought the movie afterward, and have to admit that it is just as good as the book. Fear and Loathing is known as the ultimate piece of Gonzo journalism, a genre which is all too relevant today. In fact, one might say that all modern American TV news has morphed into Gonzo Journalism, though how many drugs Nancy Grace is on is still in question.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m much more of a fiction reader than non-fiction. I prefer imagination to fact, but in some cases there are facts that go roguer than Sarah Palin. In an incredible narrative, Eric Larson tells the story of two men: the architect behind the 1839 Chicago World’s fair, and a serial killer who preyed on the fair-goers. These two men never met, but at times were less than a mile from each other. What is unique about this book is the way Larson weaves these two stories together, using his in-depth research and powerful vocabulary to make your heart race. Though the sections on the World’s Fair’s organization enthralled me (and made me mourn for the fact that the World’s Fair will never happen again, at least not in the magical way it did back then), I was ripping through the pages to find out more about the creepy serial killer. He designed a hotel around his desire to murder young and impressionable women, and Larson reveals the details of his killings in a sickly fascinating way. All of this, and I learned more about mid-1800s America life than I ever thought I would.
8. As She Climbed Across the Table Jonathen Lethem
How I love thee, Jonathan Lethem. This book is deliciously bizarre. It follows the story of a jilted lover, whose physicist girlfriend left him not for a scholar or artist, but for a black hole she created in her laboratory. The black hole becomes a national interest, and the hilarious cast of characters that interact with the hole and the narrator (including two bumbling blind men and an…unconventional therapist) will make your brain vibrate with joy. This book takes the mad scientist to a real, possible level without looking back. It is a lovely and easy read, but the ending, guaranteed, will shock and mystify you. If you love the Large Hadron Collider, go get this read ASAP. Thanks to Matt Starring and Rita for this!
7. Never Cry Wolf Farly Mowatt
Everything you think you know about wild wolves is wrong. In a hilarious narrative, Farley Mowatt tells the true story of his journey into the Canadian wilderness to study wolves. Mowatt himself makes the book worth reading; he is a strange and frighteningly smart man who has no qualms about pissing on rocks and turning in circles before he lays down for a nap, all in the cause of getting to know these animals better. This book shatters the scary wolf image, and shows that they are nothing more than very smart, very powerful dogs. I was skeptical about the book when it was first given to me, but within the first 3 pages I couldn’t stop reading, and in fact didn’t stop reading until it was over. As an added bonus, the book also makes a harrowing call on the side of environmentalism, and concludes with a sad ending about the future of the wolf. Thanks for this one, April!
6. Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
I’m a little ashamed that it took me so long to read this, as Kurt V. is one of my literary heroes. I suppose that because people rave about it so much, I was afraid it would either be disappointing or take away from my deep-seated love for Breakfast of Champions. However, this book is perfect for today. As usual for Kurt, it’s about war. But it’s page-or-so long chapters, as only Kurt can do, peel the skin off warfare and leave its raw, sadly comical innards exposed. The next time you’re feeling bummed out about Afghanistan, read this book, even if you already have. I can’t guarantee that it will make you feel better about war, but it will certainly make your thinking more pleasant.
5. Blindness Jose Saramago
This book fucked me up. Seriously fucked me up. You may have seen the movie, which was one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve ever seen. They put almost everything in the book into the movie, except for 2 quite gruesome and depressing moments. For those of you that don’t know the premise, this story takes place in a nameless city, where a man is suddenly struck blind while driving. His blindness turns out to be contagious, and soon everyone begins to lose their sight. The main character is a woman who seems to be the only person immune to the disease, and for more than half the book she’s living a hellish (and I mean HELLISH) quarantine facility in an abandoned mental hospital. If the story line isn’t enough, the commentary on humankind is intensely profound. Add to this that the book makes you feel as if you are going blind (there are almost no periods in the book and not a single character is given a name). You will be sucked into the white pages and the terrifying, familiar world they describe.
4. Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
What makes this gem stand out among the others on the list is its construction. I picked up this book and immediately began to wonder why my teacher, Peter Shippy, had recommended it to me. The storyline took place in the early 1800s, one of my least-favorite eras to read about. The language was confusing, the storyline uninteresting, and then, suddenly, on page 38, the story ended abruptly. I’m talking mid-sentence. I almost took the book back to my library and told them they had a bad copy, but after conferring with my partner Rita, I continued to read. The next story moved on at a slightly better pace, then ended abruptly again. Then it happened again, and I realized that as these stories went on, I was traveling forward in time. 1800s, 1930s, present day…and then the stories started to move into the future. A Korean clone manufactured to work at a terrifying version of McDonald’s was next. After that story ended abruptly, you move on to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Finally, here, you get the entire story. It spans the center of the book, and then…you begin to boomerang backward. You get the rest of the story about the Korean clone next, then back to present day, then on and on until you’re back in the 1800s. After the first two stories, I couldn’t stop reading. Each of the complexly crafted accounts take on a different format (journal, letter, interview), and are connected to the others in a sensual and spiritual way. To make it simple, this book is hot and intense sex for the brain.
3. Feed M.T. Anderson
Enter the best Young Adult novel for the modern age. This book was so influential it inspired me to write an entire blog entry about it. This book stands among The Giver and Fahrenheit 451 in that it is an essential read for the nerdy adolescent who likes to think too much. Feed forecasts where our times are going, but it does so from one of the scariest perspectives of all time: the teenager. American Teens of the Future are so immersed in technology (or perhaps the technology is immersed in them) that they can’t escape it for even an instant. Marketers have latched on to them, and even at the most tragic moments of pubescence, they can’t avoid having someone suggest that they buy a new rugby shirt. If technology and marketing continue to grow hand in hand, there is no doubt that the world of Feed will soon be our own. M.T. Anderson created an entirely new language for the teens in his book, even more realistic and unique than that in A Clockwork Orange. I also can assure you that you will cry like a baby for the many tragic losses in this book.
Bonus: As one of my readers commented, the audio version of this book is AMAZING! I usually don’t enjoy hearing books on tape, but I recommend it for those with long commutes.
2. Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood
What can I say about this book besides you have to read it to believe it? Atwood is known for her storytelling, and this book is no exception. This may be my favorite post-apocalyptic book of all time. Atwood covers everything about our modern times, and hits it all squarely on the head. The world has been destroyed by a lethal combination of genetic engineering and lust for amorality. We made the science roller-coaster go way too fast, and almost everyone on the planet was thrown from an incredible height to their death. Now you get the story of one of the sole survivors, and the way he slowly reveals the demise of civilization and Earth will chill you to the bone. Nothing I could write in one paragraph would describe the awe and overpowering feelings I had upon finishing this book, so I’ll stop there.
Bonus: After you read it, or before if you want, check out this art. Double Bonus: Margaret Atwood wrote a sequel to this book! Joy!
1. Lilith’s Brood Octavia Butler
This book holds the number one spot because not a single day goes by when I don’t shudder because something in my daily life reminds me of this book (or rather, this trilogy of books). Octavia Butler loved to write creepy science fiction, and the aliens in this book are the most well thought-out, intriguing and downright disgusting creatures I’ve read about. The aliens come to save us from ourselves, but their morals, their history, and their ultimate goal is so, well, alien that I’m still confused as to how I feel about them. I don’t know what happened to Butler to make her write this way, but the central theme and most outrageous part of this book is the way humans mate with the highly intelligent, tentacled aliens. The sex in the book is beautiful and so utterly disturbing that at times I had to put the book away (and at one point, hide it somewhere where I wouldn’t even see it). I got so grossed out and intrigued by tentacles (which play a huge part in the sex) that my own arms started to freak me out when I would wash them in the shower. Of course, the book makes a huge statement about the human race and our own trajectory. It is frustrating, disturbing, riveting and of course, so influential that life is never the same afterward.
So that’s it. Those are the books that colored my perception in 2009. I’m already 2 books into 2010, both of which I expect to be on my list for next year. If you have read or plan to read one of these gems, feel free to leave a comment. I am dying to hear what other people thought of these books.
And don’t forget, I have published a new list of books for 2010!