Monday, December 8, 2008

Book List with Uncle E. Part 2

In my last post, I talked about fiction and poetry--some great picks for gifts for yourself or someone else.
Because I am so long winded, I needed to continue into today, so I could mention some of my recent favorites from other genres.

While I am picky with which books I label as "great," with genre I don't play favorites. I really do read everything, from fiction to philosophy to history, to sci-fi, and sometimes even (yikes!) cozy mysteries and pop "chick-lit". (You won't find any of those on my best list, I must say).
Anyway, I would be neglecting a huge section of my bookshelf if I didn't talk about biographies, non-fiction, and mysteries. So here goes.

When it comes to history, I am making up for lost time, so many of the biographies I read lately are helping me fill in the blanks. I also appreciate the nuances of what goes into writing a biography, and especially an autobiography. For biographies, I'm recommending:

Brave Companions, David McCullough
I'm a huge fan of McCullough, and this was the first book of his that I read. It was actually a gift from Uncle E.
Brave Companions is a series of short biographies of lots of famous Americans from all types of disciplines, from art to politics. If you had to read one biography, I’d pick this one. It’s accessible and, like all of his books, very well written and researched. And once you read this, like me, you'll be eager to get the other biographies McCullough has written. Don't even get me started on how much I loved Truman.

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H.W. Brands. I'm reading this now, and it's great. Brands can really write, and his research is very good. Jackson's rise to power has so much to tell us today...

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Greeley
Autobiography and memoir are tricky subjects to write--wily memory, the need to impress and embellish--these are the frenemies of the writer attempting to write about himself or herself. Now, with the controversy surrounding the pitfalls of overly ambitious memoir writer (I'm talking about you, Mr. Frey), the era of the memoir is waning, I think.
Published in 1994, Lucy Greely's autobiography is an example of what a memoir can be. Her story is wrenching and her writing was shining and beautiful. I learned a lot from reading it, not just about her, but about what a well-told self-portrait can look like.
Again, this is a book my husband stumbled on and felt I needed to read. Amazing. You should check it out it if you haven't already.

Non- Fiction

Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf.
I seem to discover many of my favorite books from interviews on NPR. This one is no exception. On Tom Ashbrook's show On Point, Dr. Wolf spoke about her book so eloquently that I rushed to get it the next day. Wolf's thesis is that the human ability to read not only changed the way we pass information between generations, but also that it actually changed the way the human brain evolved. It is fascinating and well-written. Definitely on my top 10 for this year.

Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell
Since Outliers is at the top of the bestselling lists in a few categories, you probably have already heard about this one I'm including it anyway.
Gladwell is one of my heroes. He's a great researcher. He's also writes like a real person. Smart, glib, humble, and a bit of a wisecracker, he's like a kind and chatty docent leading you about the museum of living ideas. His previous books, Tipping Point and Blink are all the things the reviewers said they were: engaging, provocative, influential. If you haven't read them, do. Don't resist. These are popular, yes, but they are also great. There is a reason that "tipping point" widely entered the vernacular shortly after this book was published.
Outliers fits neatly with the other two, and not just because of the matching cover design. Pick this one up and be part of the next social conversation Gladwell influences.

I'm confessing. I do love mysteries, from the cozy ones with recipes, to character-driven series from people like Sue Grafton and the Kellermans, to the stark portraits favored lately by some Scandinavian writers. I have some ideas about why I like mysteries so well--but it's much too involved for this post. Another time...

Back to the list. If you have a taste at all for mystery, here are a few that I think are worth it.

Sun Storm, by Asa Larsson
The main character in this book is weird. She's a loner, a smartie pants, someone reaching to her past for reasons she doesn't quite get herself. I like her. She feels a bit like me--though smarter, with a real paying job and some bigger problems.
I also like the landscape of Sun Storm. I have an affection for Sweden and I've admittedly romanticized the countryside there. There is a growing section of my bookshelf dedicated to books that transport me to that place, and Sun Storm fits there neatly.
Did I mention that this is a mystery? It's bloody, and strange, and so character-centered the nasty events almost seem out of place, but in a good way. Larsson spins a good tale, and I was sad to turn the last page. I was glad to see her character, Rebecka Martinsson turn up again in the followup book, The Blood Split, which is just as good.

In the Woods, by Tana French.
The first thing I noticed about this book was how catchy and beautiful the writing was. I say catchy because I was completely drawn in by the timing and expression of Ms. French. She can write. I caught myself saying that again and again as I read.
The main character in this book is vivid and likable and unpredictable. In fact, that sums up the whole story itself. I say that because the unpredictable nature of the story itself makes me add this disclaimer. While I LOVED the book as a whole, the ending was utterly unsatisfying. But really, the beginning of this book was so good, I was ready to put it on my "best book shelf," which is a very difficult place to get onto, I might add.
That said, In the Woods did not make it to the special shelf. It did make it to the "keeper fiction" section, though, and I won't be donating my copy to the library or trying to pawn it off at the next yardsale. I have given a copy to a friend who I think can appreciate the difficulty of loving a book that doesn't end tidily, and I recommend it to you now in hopes that you might understand such a special creature, too.

That the list. It's not nearly comprehensive of everything I've read this year, and it certainly doesn't include everything that I've read and loved. But it's a good combination of the two, and it's a good place to start when thinking about gifts this year...

Uncle E, are you reading this? I hope so. Does this help? Probably not. Tell you what. Next time you are home, let's make a plan to go to the bookstore together and have this chat in person. DH and I will buy the books, you can get the check at dinner. Deal?

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Paula said...

Yet again: I love the descriptions! I have some serious reading to do :)

La Belette Rouge said...

I love this list. I LOVE biographies and that David McCullough one sounds amazing. Autobiography of a Face is on my must read list. And, everything on your non-fiction list is making it onto mine too!!!! Thank you!! I love this post.

Kirie said...

Thanks for the good feedback. I'd love to hear what you think of them.

Kirie said...

Belle: Biographies are a fairly recent discovery of mine (the past 10 years), but I gravitate toward them now. Tell me what your favorite biographies are.

And since we're "on the same page" with the non-fiction, I'd love to know what you'd recommend. I just can't get enough non-fiction for some reason.


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