Unlike other “best” book lists, my criteria for excellence is somewhat different. To make the list requires a combination of value (how much I paid for the book) and good reading. Whether the book was published in 2010 is of little significance to me as I am a person who likes to think of himself as immune to book hype (purposely avoiding this year’s darlings Jonathan Franzen, Patti Smith, Sarah Palin) while preferring to shop for books at used bookstores, independent book stores, book festivals, church sales and even online (gasp!). I crave the process. Here’s my list of most notable finds:
Detective Story (2008) by Imre Kertesz. I picked up a hardback copy of this small novel from the Nobel Prize winner at Raven Used Books in Cambridge for $5 while I was visiting my daughter in Boston. I thought his earlier Fateless, was a fantastic book and this one did not disappoint. Without graphic details, Kertesz captures the terror of living in a totalitarian state and the subtle ways that those who commit tortuous acts can justify their actions.
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (2008) edited Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. I continue to use this collection of 50 writers writing about 50 states for my bedtime book (requirements: short chapters, not too demanding). Some marketing book publicist gave me a complimentary copy at a book fair in 2009. There is an unevenness to the essays as you would expect, but Louise Erdich (on North Dakota), Ha Jin (on Georgia), Jhumpa Lahiri (on Rhode Island) Jack Hitt (on South Carolina - specifically Charleston), Joshua Harris (on Florida), and Susan Orlean (on Ohio) were either insightful or entertaining and it’s a great travel guide to new writers before venturing into the Land of Nod.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) by Rebecca Solnit. A fascinating look at the history of foot travel from early times to present day (it even answers the question: Which came first? Learning to walk upright which developed our brains or is it vice versa?) If you like to walk or think, this book is for you. I paid full price at the Harvard Book Store and was not sorry in the least and as I have already purchased two copies for those on my Christmas List.
Sag Harbor (2009) by Colson Whitehead. I was always a little pissed at myself for missing him at SCAD last year, but reading this novel has made it up for it. Set in 1985, Whitehead writes with great energy about being a black teenager and trekking out from the city every summer to join his buddies on Long Island. It’s mostly about being a kid and growing into a young man and figuring out how to fit in. My friend Denise bought this book discounted through the Better World Books as part of the Better World -- Whole Foods book club (a book club that is similar to the MARTA book club in name only). I liked the book better than she did. More of a guys book of serious fiction, if there is such a thing.
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. My Knoxville book friend Maggie recommended this one as did my book friend Bruce in Wichita. A perfect book for the Civil War buff who thinks he knows everything. Expect to be flummoxed by her unique approach to the war as she examines how the overwhelming, unprecedented carnage of the war changed society’s views on death and honoring those who died. I picked up an additional hardback copy at the Decatur Book Festival for ten bucks.
Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem. Denise gave me a copy last year for Christmas (can’t beat that price) and it has been a book I continue thinking about --- meriting a possible reread. I shared some thoughts about this novel on Rube Ambler’s Atlalist blog. Rube is one of the few people around willing to collaborate blog-wise, which I think makes for a richer cultural scene.
The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and The Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges. The folks at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum Bookshop knew I was interested in this 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner and found me a discounted hard back copy, which I was glad to have. This sobering book on our dying culture attacks reality television, the pornography industry, academia and the Wall St. corporate mentality responsible for our latest economic troubles. Nevertheless, we are all responsible for the rise of spectacle, if we fail to examine ourselves and the world around us.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. I zoned out while shopping at Book Nook on North Druid Hills, and thought I was purchasing Johnson’s crime noir, Nobody Move, but instead I was buying his 2007 National Book Award epic book about Vietnam. I am halfway through Tree of Smoke and even if I don’t finish it (highly unlikely) it’s been a great bargain for the fiver I paid for it. I tell people it’s a combination of the film Apocalpyse Now, the book version of From Here to Eternity and Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried.
The Cleveland Indian: The Legend of King Saturday by Luke Salisbury. My book shopper friend Dave from Seattle sent me this 1992 book in a package of suggested reading last year and I finally got around to reading it. Set near the turn of the 20th century, Salisbury gives a fictionalized account of Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who dominated the baseball with his physical prowess, but remained an enigma to those closest to him.
21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com by Mike Daisey. One of the top theatre experiences I’ve been to in Atlanta was Mike Daisey‘s, performing his latest monologue The Last Cargo Cult at the Alliance Theatre earlier this spring. A colleague at work let me borrow a copy of 21 Dog Years, so I could partially relive the Daisey experience. Not a bad book, but not a substitute for seeing Daisey live.
To visit last year's list, see here.