Friday, January 12, 2007

2006 - A Year in Books - Part 2

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

I re-read The Tipping Point because the very best books deserve multiple examinations. New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell is probably my favorite contemporary author, because he is clearly very smart and a splendid writer. The Tipping Point talks about the nature of trends, how they get started, and the people who are central to spreading them. It has deserved its standing at the top of the NYT Best-Seller list for many years now. Definitely read it if you haven’t yet.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson

This book, by the editor of Wired magazine, also tackles pop culture and trends, but shows that the biggest trend in the Internet age is the explosion of niches, and the money to be made in targeting them. An important business book that had me wanting to start a “long-tail” business by the end of Chapter 2.

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

Ah, the biggie. Without a doubt the most complex and thought-provoking novel I’ve read in a long time. Ayn Rand was an unabashed capitalist, and Atlas Shrugged is clearly a charged and layered look at the perils of central planning (or socialism) as a means of governing society. The characterizations are complex even if the mystery aspect of the novel is a little predictable. A cautionary tale indeed, but readers should be cautioned not to read this book while operating machinery. A couple of the speeches run on for dozens of pages and reiterate many of the same ideas presented earlier in the novel. Despite the heavy hand, the themes in the novel ring true today.

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

This book is a modern day Dracula tale who's primary strength is its rich descriptions of European locales including Istanbul, Budapest, and the Pyrenees of southern France. Not a vampire tale in the Anne Rice vein by any stretch, The Historian has many merits though I wouldn't recommend it for a wide audience.

The Temeraire Series - Naomi Novik

Three books have been released in this genre-fusing series. The main conceit, introduced in the first book His Majesty's Dragon, is that dragons are real creatures who have lived and served alongside mankind for centuries. In Napoleonic Europe, they comprise the "Air Force" of the English and French armies. It combines dragon fantasy - of which I'm not normally a fan, I swear - and seafaring adventure - ditto. The combo works. I was introduced to the series through the news; Peter Jackson, of The Lord of the Rings fame, has optioned the first novel to be made into a movie. Throne of Jade and Black Powder War continue the nascent trilogy.

Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony - Eoin Colfer

The Artemis Fowl series has the reputation, in my head, of being something akin to Harry Potter-lite. The stories skew younger than HP, but are no less imaginative or colorful. They feel more like vignettes, and an above-average reader should have any book of the five within three or four hours. Highly recommended.

The Blind Side - Michael Lewis

Lewis is another of my favorite author's, and I'm pretty certain I've read all his stuff. His last book, Moneyball, looked at the intricacies of building a baseball team. In The Blind Side, he explains the evolution of the left tackle position in football through the story of a preternaturally talented young man from Memphis who overcomes unspeakable hardship to become a top college recruit and future NFL star. Lewis has a style that will make you laugh as you learn - I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

State of Fear - Michael Crichton

What Atlas Shrugged is to socialism, State of Fear is to global warming. Only a novel in the traditional sense, every page has footnotes to direct readers to global climate studies that both confirm and contradict the global warming position. Crichton's arguments are compelling, and the reader comes away a healthy skeptic, because there's a lot of data out there.

The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson

Last we heard from Johnson, Everything Bad [was] Good for You. The subtitle of The Ghost Map might as well be Cholera is Bad for You. This book is about the work of two men in Victorian London who combined on a landmark study that proved how cholera was transmitted. The story is told well, and while Johnson may not have Gladwell or Lewis's touch for spinning a tale, the pages went by quickly.

Well, that was it for 2006. Unfortunately, I'm starting off 2007 with a dud, a book called Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen. The premise is fabulous - young JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams are charged with the safekeeping of a book mapping all imaginary lands. Problem is, Owen is a really bad writer. The plot skips along but there's no characterization whatsoever - each chapter contains one or two blatant winks to ideas that pop up in LOTR or The Chronicles of Narnia, but there are no substance to them. It's annoying.

Regardless, my Amazon wish list is growing so I'm looking at good stuff to read going forward. I hope you enjoyed the rundown. Let me hear your opinion in the Comments.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

2006 - A Year in Books - Part 1

2006 – A Year in Books

I read a lot this past year, having replaced a lot of late nights out with many early nights in. My recollected count is 26 books, but I easily could have forgotten one or two titles. Most everything that I read I would recommend to an appropriately interested reader. I’ve listed them in the approximate order I read them.

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis has been, for the last decade or so, my favorite author by a large margin. The funny thing is that I came to love his writing on theology but I had never read his most famous series. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie out last winter, I finally buckled down and read The Chronicles heptalogy. I am certainly glad I did. Wardrobe is without doubt the allegorical classic, but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the most enchantingly beautiful and ultimately poignant in the series.

The Undercover Economist – Tim Harford

I like economics because it helps explain the way the world is. Most of the time, the conclusions reached by economics run counter to common sense – and more often than not, the economic explanation is right. This book is a veritable companion to Freakonomics, which remains the gold standard of economic analysis applied to the real world.

Success Through Failure – Henry Petroski

This guy has written some interesting stuff, including a cool little book called Small Things Considered. This is science and engineering reading, and he uses the word “obviate” a lot, which means to make something unnecessary. He talks about how most of our best inventions are improvements on old ideas, where the shortcomings or failures of a previous generation of technology spur invention in the new.

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

This was a re-read, having listened to the unabridged version on a cross-country drive in 2004. It’s a pop novel, ultimately full of spurious facts, crazy conclusions, and two-dimensional characters. Of course it’s terrific. Having also read the prequel Angels and Demons, I am definitely glad Brown scaled back the unreal technology and unbelievable situation content in Code. I’ll look forward to the next Robert Langdon novel.

Missing Links – Rick Reilly
Shanks for Nothing – Rick Reilly
Who’s your Caddy? – Rick Reilly

This summer, following a chance listen to sports talk radio featuring SI columnist Rick Reilly, I really got into golf novels of all things, starting with RR’s new one, Shanks for Nothing. I thought it was great, endearingly funny, and the literary heir to sports farce in the grand style of Caddyshack. Then I realized he’d written a first book about the quirky denizens of the Ponkaquogue Golf Course called Missing Links. Fortunately, my boss had access to a treasure trove of golf novels. Many Saturdays and Sundays this summer were spent by the pool, drinking beer, and reading about golf. Who’s Your Caddy? is a non-fiction account of Reilly’s experience caddying for famous golfers and celebs – it’s only good, but worth a borrow.

The Green – Troon McAllister
The Foursome – Troon McAllister

Two more great golf novels by the author Troon McAllister. They center on a memorable character named Eddie Camanetti who is the world’s best golf hustler. My duel love of golf and gambling probably biased me, but more often then not I’d be up late to finish one more chapter. I need to read the next two books in the series this year for sure.

Everything Bad is Good for You – Steven Johnson

Another non-fiction entry, this author’s book got some airtime from his interesting contention that popular culture (TV, movies, video games, etc.) is actually making us collectively smarter. This is because the forms of entertainment we consume have gotten much more complex. Compare a TV show like Perry Mason to CSI, or a Starsky and Hutch to Lost; we’ve gone from linear narratives and a handful of main characters to shows with multiples perspectives and whose casts are legion. Same for video games. As leisure time has grown complex, our minds have had to adapt to them, and it makes us smarter. Of course, it’s good to have a balanced approach – so I still read a lot of books.

Part 2, coming soon...