Less than a week left in 2012, so I decided it was finally time to share my reading list for the past year. It marked my first year of using an e-reader, as opposed to traditional formats, which I must say made reading far more enjoyable. Looking back, I think I may have read more books in 2012–eighteen books in one calendar year–than in any other point in my life, including as an English major in college. This list includes a little bit of everything–contemporary fiction, classic literature, politics, religion, sports, music.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)
Without a doubt, my favorite read of 2012.
As with most “great” books, this one found a way to connect with me, transporting me back to my own college days and the games I did play. The plot centers on three main characters and the bizarre love triangle that connects them as they journey through their senior year at Brown and through their first year post-grad. By the end of the book, I despised them all, but I think it’s because they remind me so much of myself at that age, those of us who were English majors “by default…because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too pretroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical.”
Eugennides reminds us that, “college wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.” So on the one hand the characters deal with that awkward transition from college to the “real world,” while on the other, they must battle these emotions and feelings that were apparently absent in their childhood homes. In the end, it seems almost too much for any of the characters to handle, and for that reason, they all seem reluctant to leave college behind.
In a sense, it’s a character sketch of a pocket-generation nestled in between the “Boomers” and “X’ers.”Very early on, we learn that the characters are part of the Class of 1982. This would make them approximately 50 years old today. Clearly, this is an autobiographical narrative of Eugenides and his contemporaries. Indeed, much speculation has been centered on whether or the two male characters are representative of Eugenides and David Foster Wallace.
Dutton Adult (2012)
At first glance, you might think One Last Thing Before I Go is the newest Jonathan Franzen novel. Everything from the cover design, to the characters, and themes are vintage Franzen. A washed-up, middle age rock star realizes his life has been a bit empty and seeks to make amends with his daughter and ex-wife, while dealing with a life-threatening heart condition. Sounds very cliché, right? And to a certain extent it is. Tropper’s protagonist, Drew Silver, is a Franzen-lite type character, filled with flaws, but loveable all the same, a man who seems to be resigned to death and loneliness. Another middle-age, middle-class, white guy whom the East Coast critics find endearing, while the rest of us struggle to find sympathy for a guy who creates his own hell by his bad decisions.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011)
Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, provides a fascinating behind-the-curtains look into a cult(ure) few Americans understand. Beginning with an in-depth investigation into the life and times of L. Ron Hubbard, Reitman chronicles the complete history of Scientology from Hubbard’s early science fiction writing through the group’s open-recruitment of Hollywood celebrities, often referred to as the “Tom Cruise years.”
While I’m not one to pass judgment, I always viewed Scientology as one of those “kooky New Age things,” and after reading it I must offer sincere apologies to the New Agers. What I learned was that Scientology is nothing more than Tony Robbins-like self-help philosophy, tinged with science fiction. My favorite story involved Scientology’s attempts to recruit Elvis–yes, that Elvis. According to Reitman, one of Elvis’ former girlfriends, actress (and Scientologist) Peggy Lipton, tried to convince him to give Scientology a shot. Always known as a devout Christian, I’m sure Elvis never had any intention of joining the group, but he did stop by a Scientology center in LA with Lipton one time. Elvis’ response to the Scientologists? “Fuck those people! There’s no way I’ll ever get involved with that son-of-a-bitchin’ group. All they want is my money.” If you have ever been interested in learning more about Scientology, but were afraid to ask, do yourself a favor and check out Reitman’s book.
Harper Collins (2009)
A timely read for anyone concerned with our economy. This book reexamines many of the progressive arguments regarding the Great Depression and the events that lead our nation back into economic prosperity. It begins with an evaluation of the “forgotten man” argument, attributed to Yale professor William Graham Sumner. In a lecture, Mr. Sumner made the following argument, that if you begin with person A and person B, “As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine…what A, B, and C shall do for X.“
Shlaes then adds her own commentary, ”But what about C? There was nothing wrong with A and B helping X. What was wrong was the law, and the indenturing of C to the cause. C was the forgotten man, the man who paid, “the man who never is thought of.”
In a nutshell, this is conservatism reduced to a syllogism, a political movement that champions the cause of “C”–the forgotten man, and that stands up against A & B when they seek to legislate their morality onto C, using X as the excuse.
This is a message that reverberates with the American people. At our heart, we are a nation of “C’s”, but so many Republican candidates get caught up in the faulty logic of debating who is more conservative, they fail to communicate what conservatism really is–a defense of “C”, the “common man.”
Three Rivers Press (2012)
I love grunge. To me it’s more than Ten and Nevermind, Doc Martens and flannel; it’s a soundtrack to a generation. It captured the frustrations, concerns and attitude of Generation X and set it to music. Since first hearing Eddie Vedder’s booming baritone vocals over twenty years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the sub-genre and consumed countless hours of audio, watched every documentary on the Seattle scene I could find, and read countless books on the subject. Yarm’s book, which takes its name from the Mudhoney song, provides unique insight into the history of grunge in the way of brief interviews from the artists that defined the sound. If you’re looking for a tight, chronological narrative, you will probably be disappointed, but if you’re unfamiliar with the oral history style, don’t that let that dissuade you from picking up the book. It’s easily the most exhaustive history I’ve found on the subject and a must for any audiophile.
As a budding oenophile, I’ve learned a lot about wine over the past three or four years. Most of my knowledge has come from hands-on experience, tasting wines and learning which ones I love, the ones I like, and those that I despise. I kept my distance from most of the literature available on the subject, simply because I felt those who wrote on it were way too ostentatious for my personal taste. After all, my taste in wine is unique. I’ll never be accused of having a refined palate, but I know the wines I like, and would love to learn more about why these wines appeal to me and gain the vocabulary necessary to effectively communicate about it.
I’m certainly not what most people picture when they think of a oenophile.” I’m a middle-class guy who loves sports and rock & roll. I’m far more comfortable in a t-shirt and blue jeans than in a suit and tie. I’m firmly in the beer demographic, but beer always gave me terrible headaches and I never really liked the taste.
Well, if you’re like me, then McInerney’s The Juice is definitely for you, a wine primer, stripped down to its most casual form. The book is mainly a collection of pieces McInerney wrote for the Wall Street Journal and other publications on the subject of wine, so each chapter is complete unto itself.
I had the pleasure of reading this right before my wife and I took our summer vacation out to Santa Barbara wine country and it definitely helped me feel more at ease at the various wineries we visited and actually allowed me to carry on halfway intelligent conversations about wine with our tour guide.
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans frames her spiritual memoir around the fact that she grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, the town made famous by the Scopes Monkey Trial. As if she needed any more evangelical street cred., she gets it by reminding us that her father is an evangelical theologian. She goes into great detail on how her beliefs evolved one summer when she “encountered a different Jesus, a Jesus who requires more from me than intellectual assent and emotional allegiance.”
She spends the remainder of the book deconstructing the traditional, conservative evangelical worldview and how it is no longer relevant to many in her generation. While the book is definitely enlightening and presents a subject I can certainly relate to, it comes off reeking of post-modern guilt.
At its best, Evolving in Monkey Town serves as critique of the Baby Boomer’s version of evangelical Christianity. At its worst, Evans comes off as just another self-indulgent Millennial.
WaterBook Press (2011)
I recommend reading Raised Right as a companion piece to Evolving in Monkey Town. Harris and Evans are saying the same basic things, “look at me, I was raised as a conservative Christian, received a conservative Christian education, and now I am progressive thinker, suspicious of absolutism.” While I certainly don’t agree with all of their assumptions and conclusions, I appreciate their attempt to confront a brand of theology I feel can be destructive. While Evans tends to be more theological in her approach, Harris is more political. If nothing else, they serve as an interesting look into the thought process of the Millennial generation. It’s because of people like Harris and Evans that Barack Obama is President. It’s people like them who are shaping our modern culture by eradicating one destructive form of theology and replacing with an equally destructive brand of moral ambiguity. The problem is that both Harris and Evans trade in one form of extremism for another. If we take anything away from the two books it’s that Biblical literalism really messes a kid up and screws with their critical thinking ability later on in life.
As I read through Harris’ book, I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes,” to her critique of Calvinistic theology, but then found myself saying “no, no, no” to her solutions for replacing it.
Man cannot exist on fiction and cultural commentary alone. Every reading list must include at least a couple of “fun reads.” These are books that have no redeeming value outside the confines of their pages. Just about any of Grisham novels fall into that category, but that should not be interpreted as a knock again Grisham the author. He writes entertaining stories, filled with memorable characters that leave the reader wanting more. For years, Grisham was seen strictly as an author of legal thrillers, but over the past few years, he’s occasionally left that genre behind to explore plot lines. In Calico Joe, Grisham tackles what has to be his second passion in life, baseball. It is the story of a baseball superstar who barely got his career off the ground before a horrific injury ended it, and the narrator’s, whose father caused the injury, attempts to reconcile the two. At the same time, the narrator is trying to shore up his relationship with his estranged father before he succumbs to illness.
It’s not Infinite Jest, but as with most Grisham novels, Calico Joe certainly entertains.
Karl Tard Greenfeld
One of my favorite books I read in 2011 was David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise, which introduced me to the concept of ““…highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success. The members of the new information age elite are bourgeois Bohemians.” Perhaps no other neighborhood in America exemplifies the “bobo” spirit quite like Tribeca in New York City. Greenfeld’s novel takes a closer look at the inhabitants of this unique neighborhood, devoting each chapter to specific Tribeca resident–who they are, how they came to live in the neighborhood, and the their interactions with one another.
Along the way, we learn that while their lives might seem a bit moe exciting, their bank accounts a bit larger, they suffer from the vulnerabilities and limitations as the rest of us. While I was reading it, I didn’t care for the disjointed nature of the stories, but looking back, I now appreciate the structure of the novel. While I’m not using this as a ranking system of the books I read in 2012, if I had to choose the best book I read that was published in 2012, I think I would have to pick Triburbia, if for nothing else the completeness of its characters.
St. Martin’s Press (2011)
I’ve long been obsessed with apocalyptic writing and the end of the world in general. I even enjoyed some of the suspense (not so much the substance) of the Left Behind series. Perrotta’s The Leftovers serves a sort of secular Left Behind, focusing on the lives of a group of people remaining after a rapture like event, though we are told very early on that it was not a religious event. With “the event” serving as the backdrop, we see the way it complicates the lives and relationships of those left behind, some find new callings, others find new love, each one finds an inner strength they never knew they possessed.
The second Grisham novel I read in 2012. Here we find Grisham doing what he does best, constructing the legal thriller, while at the same time exposing a bit of the darker side of the legal profession. In The Litigators, Grisham shows us the world of class action litigation, a world that closely resembles the world of toxic tort litigation where I worked for a number of years. It’s this personal connection that pushed me to finish this book. Without it, I’m not sure I would have the motivation to keep reading. It’s unremarkable in every aspect, especially when compared to some of Grisham’s finer work.
So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Room Full of Record Executives and Other True Tales of a Drummer’s Life
If you know anything about the world of music, you know that being a commercially successful recording artist is nowhere near as sexy and exciting as it looks. Jacob Slichter, drummer for Semisonic, they of “Closing Time” fame, gives a blow-by-blow account of the formation of their band, landing a record deal, and the life of a radio hit. A lot of good “inside baseball” stuff here for the true music fan, exposing the guts of the record industry and how dirty it really can be.
Europa Editions (2012)
Wichita qualifies as the most off-the-wall book I read this past year, a mix of storm chasers, drug dealers, and hippies. Another book that had just enough intrigue in it to keep me motivated to read it in its entirety. It’s a bit like Running with Scissors meets Garden State, without a lot of the clever humor. I will admit that the characters are well-developed, and multi-dimensional, and give the book its only redeeming qualities.
Penguin, USA (1837)
One of the first books I bought on my Kindle was a Dickens anthology. While I’ve certainly read my share of Dickens, I wanted to set out to read all of his works in chronological order. When you do that, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club is your starting point. It’s certainly no Bleak House, but you do see hints of how Dickens would become arguably the greatest writer of the English language. Definitely a bit cumbersome in parts, but well worth the finish.
The Penguin Press (2012)
This book traces the history of one of America’s most famous and prolific companies. Sure, they put the telephone in the home of every American, but just to get to that point, through research and development, they invented and produced many other products that are now staples of every American home. Reading through some of the stories I am reminded of the fictional company, Massive Dyanmics, from the television show Fringe. Indeed, there are many similarities between the two. Once you get past some the early genealogy in this book, it turns into one of the most fascinating books in a long time.
Jeff Goins (2012)
Nothing fancy here, a self-published, self-help book on the art of writing and how to jump-start a writing career. It’s short, inexpensive and effective. I used some of the author’s tips to submit a piece to a publication in the fall and it was instantly accepted.