Happy new year! Once again it is time for the annual round-up of What I Read Last Year. My goal, as always, is to try to read at least one more book than I did the year before, which I managed with no problem in 2009. I regret to say that I started, and made decent headway in, a great many books that I never finished -- probably at least a dozen. I never regret not finishing a book I don't like; I regret only that I initially made a poor choice and wasted time that might have been spent on something worthwhile.
1. Red Noses by Peter Barnes (finished 1/2)
Does a play count? I think a full-length play counts. This odd and challenging piece of drama, about a group of misfit clowns whose mission is to bring laughter into the lives of medieval plague victims, is one of Sean's favorites. I thought it was interesting but not terribly moving.
2. The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (1/7)
This novel takes place in Italy in, I believe, the 14th or 15th century, and it's about a young street urchin who gets taken into the kitchen of a nobleman's house and learns not only state secrets but also how superb food is made. Not bad.
3. Little Brother by Corey Doctorow (1/15)
At work, our webmaster Patrick read this book and held an online discussion about it. I didn't participate in the the chat, but I did pick up this YA novel and I found it intriguing. Corey Doctorow is one of the brains behind the technology blog boingboing, which I look at just about every day, and Little Brother (think Big Brother) is his take on young people, technology, privacy, how ideas spread, and so on. Most of the time I felt as if I were reading a language I only partially understood, but I'm glad I pushed myself to read this book. More than anything, it made me realize that kids and young adults have a casual grasp of technology that is very nearly beyond me.
4. Cruciverbalism: A Crossword Fanatic's Guide to Life in the Grid by Stanley Newman and Mark Lasswell (1/20)
I like doing crossword puzzles. I'd probably enjoy reading about them, too, in a book less lackluster than this one.
5. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston (1/30)
Los Angeles. Noir. Crime scene cleanup. What's not to love? A damn good novel, and the first in a long streak of terrific books I read in 2009.
6. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Whaddaya know: a book I loved hit all the bestseller lists and got great reviews, too. Doesn't happen often. Percy Fawcett was a well-known South American explorer who disappeared into the Amazon basin in the 1920s while searching for a fabled ancient city and was never heard from again. Author Grann was fascinated by the mystery surrounding Fawcett's fate and himself became obsessed with finding out both what happened to the explorer and if the city of Z ever existed. Great real-life adventure.
7. The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (2/17)
Film professor and historian Basinger looks at the golden era of Hollywood's studio system and explains in minute detail how it made -- or sometimes failed to make -- its biggest stars.
8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2/20)
Yup, another outstanding YA novel, this one about a chilling competition set in a future, radically changed (yet disturbingly familiar) America.
9. The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (2/28)
More great neo-noir, this time about a narcoleptic sort-of private eye who ends up with a case that may be too big for him to handle. Very funny, but also dark and violent.
10. Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by The Waiter (3/4)
I dunno -- I like reading stuff by put-upon service industry workers, and this guy is funny.
11. Codex by Lev Grossman (3/31)
The streak of good reads ended with this novel, which was itself a good read for about 90% of its length. But as I got closer and closer to the end, I couldn't help thinking, "How in the world is he going to tie all this stuff up?" It was nerve-wracking, so much so that I had trouble concentrating on the story. Finally, about a half-dozen pages from the end, I realized Grossman couldn't pull it off. The ending completely fell apart, and it destroyed everything good that had come before it. Far and away the most disappointing book of my reading year.
12. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (4/8)
Pitch-black hilarity abounds in this tale of a young man who decides to write a bestselling novel. As darkly cynical as anything I have ever encountered.
13. The Mormon Murders: A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death by Steve Naifeh & Gregory White Smith (4/17)
I read this mostly because I was interested in learning how the culprit faked all kinds of historical documents, then used them to blackmail the Mormon church. Not enough forgery details for my taste.
14. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (4/23)
Recognize the author's name? Yeah, it's the same guy who wrote Codex. I decided to give his new book a chance, and I'm glad I did. It's kind of like Harry Potter for grownups: it's about a group of students at a college of magic in upstate New York, complete with drugs, drinking, sex, boring lectures, magical spells, and so on. Grossman must have had trouble with this ending as well, as he seems to have gone to extreme lengths to tie up every conceivable loose end; but, miraculously, he pulls it off this time.
15. The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King (5/2)
The latest in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series. Entertaining as always.
16.The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (5/7)
A doctor in post-war England becomes entangled in the lives of a crumbling old family and their crumbling old country estate . . . which may be haunted. Eerie in great part because much of the details are so mundane. Exquisite writing.
17. Columbine by Dave Cullen (5/27)
Cullen, a journalist who has followed and researched the tragic events at Columbine High School for a decade, presents an almost minute-by-minute account of what happened that day, as well as a detailed analysis of what led up to the shooting. Fascinating stuff, much of it new to me because I didn't really follow these events when they occurred.
18. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen (6/8)
I described this book to several people as a graphic novel for people who can't read graphic novels (I count myself in this group). T.S. Spivet is a brilliant boy, possibly somewhat autistic in his obsessions, who keeps detailed notes and drawings on everything around him, both at his rural Montana home and when he hits the road for a solo trip to Washington, D.C. Handy arrows in the text point out when you should be looking at the drawings and diagrams in the margins. Very odd but also very entertaining.
19. Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. (6/23)
Best book I read all year. Junior Thibodeaux is still in utero when he receives a prophecy that the world will end on a certain date. He must live his entire life with this knowledge, and the question becomes, Does anything really matter when you know it will all -- every bit of it -- end? Funny and smart and so, so sad; just wonderful writing.
20. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett (6/24)
Here's how much of an impression this book made on me: about 3 months after I finished it, I couldn't remember whether or not I'd read the whole thing and took it on a weekend getaway with me. Boy, was I disappointed that I hadn't brought something else along to read.
21. Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (7/7)
Novella Carpenter's farm is in downtown Oakland, CA, in a none-too-savory neighborhood known as Ghost Town because so many of the buildings are abandoned. Here she has created a green oasis amid crack pipes and freeway onramps, and her story is both funny and inspiring. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak or do a reading, jump at it.
22. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (7/13)
I read this in anticipation of the movie's fall opening. Now the movie's been pushed back to February and I've forgotten most of the details . . . but I can still recall the delicious creepiness of the unfolding story. Lehane has an unparallelled ear for dialogue.
23. The Indifferent Stars Above:The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown (7/17)
Can't get enough of that Donner Party, and this new book explores, in part, what must have happened physiologically as well as psychologically to the hapless emigrants trapped in the Sierra Nevadas that cruel winter.
24. My Life in France by Julia Child (8/4)
Absolutely charming -- just what you'd expect from Julia Child!
25. Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners by Robin Abrahams (8/10)
I like reading etiquette books; I find them strangely soothing. This book had some good information for the modern age, but I was irritated by two things. First, the author converted to Judaism when she married her husband, which doesn't bother me in the least, but she constantly references her faith and tosses out nuggets of Jewish wisdom as if she's a rabbinical scholar and not just, ahem, an etiquette columnist. Second, she devotes far too much time to pet etiquette; it's quite apparent she's a dog lover and she can't stop talking about her dog as if it were her child. I really don't care much about Ms. Abrahams personally and feel her writing would improve if she were to cultivate some distance from her subject.
26. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (8/15)
The great sequel to The Hunger Games. I gotta admit, I did not see where this one was headed and was completely caught off-guard.
27. The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs (8/20)
These month-long experiments were fun and entertaining, but I prefer Jacobs' long-form immersions in crazy projects (e.g., The Year of Living Biblically).
28. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch (8/31)
I wrote a proper, full-length review of this book here.
29. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (9/5)
I love Dexter, the TV show, so I thought I'd finally tackle Dexter, the novel. Some of it made me laugh aloud. And some of it made me very, very glad Showtime made some changes to the original plot.
30. I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb (11/5)
Strange and funny, especially once you grasp that the main character really is an evil genius and is not just some picked-on loser who escapes into a fantasy world.
31. Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling by David Wolman (11/19)
How sad: I've barely finished this book, yet I can hardly remember it. At least I don't recall disliking it.
32. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl (11/29)
I read the book many times as a kid and loved it. But you know what? I liked the movie even better.
33. Cherries in Winter: My Family's Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Suzan Colon (12/29)
What a pleasant way to end the year! Suzan Colon and her husband must cut way back when she gets laid off during the current recession, and she turns to her mother's and grandmother's stories and recipes for inspiration. Charming and thought-provoking.
And now for the results of last year's dead pool. The winner was Norman, with three deaths to his credit! (Perhaps I'm not phrasing that as well as I might.) I thought I had a shot at the title when two people on my list (Patrick Swayze and Mary Travers) died in the same week, but no, it was Norman all the way. Sean, Lucy, Norman and I all came up with fresh new lists for 2010 (Curtis resubmitted last year's list, the lazy git). I cannot possibly reveal all of the prognostications at which we arrived, but I'll toss out a few names as teasers: Arlen Specter, Lesley Stahl, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lil Wayne, and Nelson Mandela, you'd better watch where you step.