Merry Christmas Eve, everyone! Even though most of you responsible folks have already completed your Christmas shopping, maybe you’ll want to stop and pick up one of my
Top FIVE (or six because yesterday I forgot how to count) reads of 2008!
If not, then ideas for spending that Borders gift card come December 26?
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Another book I should have probably read a year ago, but I’m glad I finally did. This is a memoir, a true story about a harrowing year in the life of the prodigious writer, Joan Didion. The story begins on a sad note, and it really only gets sadder. Joan’s only daughter is hospitalized, unconscious and suffering from an unknown infection, when Joan’s husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, dies of an unexpected heart attack. From there, Joan is alone with her sick daughter and her grief, and this book is her account of that time, where she found her self feeling everything and nothing, taking actions but not seeming to go anywhere. This is a book about loss, and it is a distressing read. Even though Joan is a literary celebrity, wealthy and talented, her emotions are absent of any kind of pretention. She is a wife who wants to take care of a husband who is no longer there. She wants to write, but after working alongside her husband for so many years, work is strange.
I am young enough and lucky enough not to have lost anyone close to me, so I can barely think about how my life would change if I lost my husband and stood to lose my only child. Joan Didion writes honestly and with the precision of a journalist, and yes, the horrors of her experiences simply magnify with every page. But the writing is highly readable – I felt very imersed by Joan’s experience as I read, and I know I will have to give this one a re-read sometime.
Buy this for: Your mother. Your grandmother. Your dad. Your best “I actually read books” friend.
Amazon Link | NYTimes Review
5. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Remember my Mormon Fever? This book was probably my favorite. I know that many people from the LDS church didn’t think his account was fair, and the church itself put out an official statement disputing many of the facts represented here, but I found the book to be both convincing and fascinating, and perhaps I am not as sensitive as a church member might be, it seemed about as well researched and documented as any book I’ve read all year.
Under the Banner of Heaven is both a historic account of the creation and rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion that has grown alongside our country. It is a truly American religion, and the founders – Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the like – forged across the country in the mid 1800′s to find a place for their religion to thrive. Now, the church is the fourth most popular religion in the country. Jon Krakauer uses this book to show details of how the early founders made choices to protect their religious rights, defied government officials, and maintained unity despite internal rifts.
But in typical Jon Krakauer fashion, this historic telling, which is probably interesting enough to stand on its own, is a backdrop for a larger discussion about religious passion, and, as he puts it, “violent faith.” All branches of all faiths produce zealots – something Krakauer does not limit to the LDS church, for certain – and due to the fairly recent rise of the LDS church, many of these empassioned are more in the public eye. His example – a counter-story to the beginnings of the church – is a 1984 murder, where a woman and infant were murdered by two brothers, members of a small Fundamentalist Sect of the LDS church, who believed themselves ordered to kill. Krakauer spends a lot of time with these brothers, and other members of their family, discussing the personal climate that led them to the church in the first place, and then, what led them to commit a gruesome murder. Jon Krakauer doesn’t imply that their particular religion turned them into criminals, but that the same kind of qualities that lead people to fundamentalist religions – charisma, lust for power, want of money – lead people to make poor decisions, which they then justify by their religious beliefs.
Anyway. This book is killer. Very interesting, very thorough; a piece of American history they don’t teach you in school, that’s for sure
Buy This For: Amateur American historians, religious connoisseurs (or skeptics), fans of Into the Wild, or probably Into Thin Air (although I haven’t read it yet!)
Amazon Link | NY Times Review | LDS Church Response
4. The Gingerbread Series by Rachel Cohn
Not sure how I missed this trilogy for so long, but I was very glad to find it in 2008! These three books, Gingerbread, Shrimp, and Cupcake follow our leading lady, Cyd Charisse from 16 to 19. She begins as a boarding school evictee – home with her awful trophy wife of a mom, her two half siblings, and her doting stepdad. She’s attending an alternative high school, but the real action is happening at her afterschool job. She baristas at a hip coffee shop full of wet and salty surfers, including her artist boyfriend, Shrimp, and his delicious older brother, Java. However, after getting caught trying to spend a long night under the stars with Shrimp, Cyd Charisse finds herself on her parents’ shit list – grounded, forced to quit her job, and then sent off to New York City to meet her Real Dad, a man who her mother once loved, but who didn’t love her enough to leave his wife and family.
Throughout the series, Cyd Charisse faces different aspects of her extremely blended family, as well as learning how to have a relationship with the boy she loves. There are ups and downs, failures and triumphs, but what makes this series so winning is Cyd’s voice. She is tough and opinionated, not afraid to make a statement or have an opinion, and after being exiled to boarding school, she’s independent. But underneath her armor is a little girl who doesn’t know who her real parents are. Cyd still carries her ragdoll around, at 16. But at the same time, she exists in a very real, very teenaged world. It’s no secret to the reader that while at boarding school, Cyd was in over her head with sex and drugs and alcohol, and despite her rebellious nature, she doesn’t lash out at her parents for taking her away from such a party atmosphere – she lashes out because they sent her away in the first place. She is a very complicated lady, but her voice is so infectious I wanted her to be my best friend. I didn’t find the third book quite as cohesive as the first two, but once you’ve read those, I challenge you to stay away from that last chronicle
Buy this for: older teens, midwesterners who want a taste of city life in San Francisco and NYC, or pile all three together for your favorite young reader
Amazon Link | Rachel Cohn Online
3. Better by Atul Gawande
Again with the nonfiction, I know! But I’m not sure if I can adequately explain how much I enjoyed this book. I’d never read a book about medicine in my life – save for a few in high school, mostly tawdry Alex Delaware mysteries when I became strangely interested in Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy – but I have picked up a few habits in my lifetime that have drawn my attention to the field. Habits like Grey’s Anatomy (hey, I kicked that one!), Scrubs, and of course, House M.D. Besides from watching far too much television, I also knew a couple of premed kids in school, and watching them struggle through chemistry classes, anatomy exams that required 6+ items on each flash card, and studying for that MCAT, I decided that no matter how much I dislike my personal doctors, I still have respect for those in the field. Being a doctor is some of the hardest work you can do, I think, especially in a hospital. And this is the background that Atul Gawande brings when he writes his second book, Better, and talks not only about the ins and outs of medical practice, but the greater principles behind any work that you value.
The stories Atul tells are specific to his field – how malpractice suits both help and hinder medicine, the unsung importance of handwashing in hospitals, how different hospitals can produce such drastically different results for patients of cystic fibrosis – but the message behind each section can be applied to any field of work to, as the title suggests, Do Better. The first principle is Diligence – whether you’re filing paperwork or washing your hands in between patients, 99% diligence can cause you just as many problems as 95% or 90%. Next is Doing Right – which is the obviously important for medicine, but also for any other job. Ingenuity is the last principle – that driving force that makes you want to do your job better by trying something new.
The writing in this book is so clear and accessible. Nothing like those premed textbooks, but this isn’t a frothy Grey’s Anatomy view of medicine either. Medicine isn’t some magical skill that some people have. It is a field of work, a science, and one that is changing and evolving not based on new breakthroughs, but by people, like you or me, who try to be Better every day.
Buy this for: junkies of the aforementioned television series, relatives that really love their profession, or maybe even your high school aged sibling who you want to encourage to actually keep their childhood goals of becoming a doctor.
Amazon Link | NPR reading
2. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Okay, these last two books? These are the really good ones. The ones I loveloveloveloveLoved. And boy, did I love love love Eat Pray Love.
Elizabeth Gilbert is having a crisis. Her marriage has disintegrated. Her rebound boyfriend isn’t working out as planned. She’s on antidepressants. Things couldn’t really be much worse. Except for the part where she has enough money to go to Europe for a year, doesn’t have any kids to worry about, and oh yeah, she’s going to write a book about her travels and has some advance money to help fund her trip. I know, boo hoo, right? But Gilbert does a great job of making herself seem so human that no matter how much you might want to call her a spoiled drama queen who can’t just get a divorce and move on without jetting around the world for a year, you really can’t. She’s honest, she’s funny, and she wants to heal herself, above all.
Elizabeth’s trip will take her to three locations, and she plans on living without much in mind other than enjoying the place she is in. The first three months are in Italy, the Eat portion of the show. She plans on indulging heavily on this trip. Pasta. Gelato. Wine. And maybe even a lover. It takes her awhile to leave her flat, and she finds friends instead of sex. I thought this section was a little short, but onto India, where she would spend three months at an Ashram, studying yoga and working on her devotion. Somehow, through her talented writing and gift for engaging internal monologues, she made me want to learn how to meditate. Heck, I even went out and bought a meditation book! But the most interesting section, in my opinion, was the final one – Indonesia. Bali, in specific, a small tropical island where Elizabeth met a medicine man who invited her to come and stay. Unfortunately, she hasn’t talked to him since their one meeting, and he may or may not remember her. But she befriends him anyway, and some other locals, as she tries to balance the Passion and Devotion she explored in Italy and India.
I suspect I am one of those people who would rather read about foreign countries than travel to them, but this book even made me want to hop on a plane and get away from it all. But the real fun of this book, for me, was Elizabeth’s self discovery. There are a lot of things we never bother to learn about ourselves, because we are too busy trying to fit into society’s boxes, and Eat Pray Love made me want to spend some time doing some digging, whether I’m sitting on the couch in Michigan or on a plane to the freaking South Pacific.
Buy this for: Aunts, grandmas, and Mommies. This is a good one for the lady in your life you have no idea what to buy for. It’s a bestseller, it’s a breezy read, and a real feel-good read.
Amazon Link | NY Times Review
And now, the moment you have been waiting for…
Out of all 103 books I read in 2008, my very, very favorite was…
1. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Can we just take a moment and appreciate this book cover? This is a good cover. A finnne cover for the one book that I just CAN NOT GET OUT OF MY BRAIN.
Life As We Knew It is Miranda’s diary. She has some of the prerequisite teenaged angst – her father’s new wife is pregnant, she has a painful crush on a famous figure skater who used to train with her skating coach, and all her teachers are obsessed with the stupid lunar eclipse. But while she and the rest of her small Pennsylvania town are staying up and watching the eclipse, something unpredicted and unpredictably awful happens: the moon gets bigger. Before the TV and radios cut out, Miranda and her mother and younger brother find out that it an asteroid struck the moon, shoving it out of orbit and closer to the Earth. The damage is minor at first – everyone freaks out and ransacks the local groceries and gas prices sky rocket – but then the consquences of this natural occurence grow more and more evident. Tidal waves wipe out entire cities. Long dormant volcanos are exploding. And it seems like gas and oil supplies are just plain running out. In a matter of months, Miranda goes from average suburban teen to Survival Girl, learning to navigate the new landscape of the United States until winter hits her town HARD and leaves her and her family stranded and rationing out food.
Because of this book, I am going to demand a wood stove in any home that I buy. Because of this book, I have a new sense of appreciation for our environment and how lucky we are all that the status quo has been maintained. Because of this book, I am worried about oil running out, about the American market’s refusal to promote alternate energy sources, and the absence of community that you forget about when you don’t need anything from anyone else. But if something awful were to happen? Being friends with your neighbors could keep you alive. This book will make you think HARD, but it’s still a classic coming of age novel underneath the science and the terror. Miranda is a tender narrator, suffering like any girl her age would, unsure if she misses going to school, unsure if she should obey her mother or defy her, and worried about her older brother and father. Susan Beth Pfeffer knocked it out of the park with this one. It should be added to any American’s Must Read List.
Man, I wish YA got more R-E-S-P-E-C-T…
Buy this book for: every single person on your gift list. Haha. Just kidding. But it’s definitely a good last minute gift for teens, or fans of dystopian fiction. Or anyone who isn’t prone to nightmares.
Amazon Link | Susan Beth Pfeffer’s blog
Well thanks to everyone who’s been reading along these past few weeks! I have officially given you all my favorite books of the year, and I’ll be back after Christmas to blog about… I don’t know. Something other than books. Until I read another good one, that is Now off to finish the other million things on my to-do list. Who has a to-do list on Christmas Eve? This girl, this girl… I wish you all an enjoyable holiday, and that you get everrrrrything you want.