Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year. As always, this is merely the best books I read this year not books published in 2011. For previous years see 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.
In no particular order:
Every Book I Read in 2011
Books published in 2011 in bold. (A) is for audiobook.
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Title: The lost art of walking : the history, science, philosophy, and literature of pedestrianism
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2008
Geoff Nicholson takes on the quotidian topic of walking, something just about everyone can do, although there who some who can who fail to exercise the ability regularly. At the heart of this work are Nicholson’s own walks. At the time of writing, Nicholson lived in Los Angeles a place generally seen to be hostile to walking although it is possible as I’ve experienced myself
. Nicholson walks in the various places he lives – London, New York, Los Angeles, and in a bittersweet final chapter he returns to walk through his childhood home of Sheffield. In between he explores the history of walking (particularly sport walkers who performed feats of endurance such as walking 1 mile an hour for 1000 consecutive hours), walks in music and movies, psychogeography, walks in the desert, and street photography. There are also walking tours, which are near and dear to my heart, including such oddities as walking tours of parking lots
. Nicholson seems to be a cranky person and that crankiness kind of sucks the joy out of his writing. Still this is an interesting book with some intriguing insights into the topic.
“Walking for peace may certainly strike you and me as futile and useless, but if a person believes it works, then it’s the most logical and rational thing in the world. To walk for a reason, any reason, however personal or obscure, is surely a mark of rationality. Money, art, self-knowledge, world peace, these are not eccentric motivations for walking; they’re damn good ones, regardless of whether or not they succeed. I find myself coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only truly eccentric walker is the one who walks for no reason whatsover. However, I’m no longer sure if that’s even possible.” – p. 85
“We walked on, not very far and not very fast. It gradually became obvious, and it was not exactly a surprise, that two hours standing around listening to stories, interspersed with rather short walks, of no more than a couple of hundred yards each, was actually very hard work, much harder than walking continuously for two hours. As the tour ended twenty people were rubbing their backs, complaining about their feet, and saying they needed to sit down. I checked my GPS: in those two hours we’d walked just under a mile.” – p. 90
Author: Ken Jennings
Title: Maphead : charting the wide, weird world of geography
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, c2011.
Ken Jennings is a person I like merely because he became a celebrity by being intelligent. Now I know he shares a common passion for maps. As a child I used to lay out maps and atlases and study them for hours and have never lost the love of looking at maps, learning from them, or appreciating their decorative aspects. Jennings connects with people like myself who love maps and to a greater extent geography through a series of essays that cover topics including geocaching, highpointing, travelers clubs, road atlas rallying, map collecting and antique sales, programming Google Earth, GPS, the National Geographic Bee, as well as maps in fiction and metaphorical maps. Jennings’ observations are illuminating and entertaining and the entire book is a delight to read.
Author: Connie Willis
Title: All Clear
Publication Info: New York : Spectra, 2010.
Previous Works By Same Author:
As noted in my review of Blackout
this book is less of a sequel and more of a direct continuation of one lengthy work about three time travelers studying life in England in the early years of World War II. Both books are part of a larger series of loosely connected works by Connie Willis about a future Oxford University where graduate students in history are able to study the past by traveling through time via a mechanism known as the net. I enjoy Willis’ approach to time travel fiction and particularly am impressed with her well-researched and detailed descriptions of contemporary life.
The three main characters Polly, Eileen, and Michael finally met up toward the conclusion of Blackout and now begin working together to find a way to an open drop in the net that will return them to Oxford. The mysterious characters of the previous book turn out to not be so mysterious after all and are woven fairly well into the narrative, although through unlikely coincidences that approach the edge of plausibility. And yes, they do get out of the past (well, sort of) but the conclusion is satisfyingly unexpected.
I did find the greatest flaw of both of these novels is that a character will come up with an idea, will then discuss the same idea, and then carry out the idea which created a lot of unnecessary repetition (especially since every attempt to return to the future is a flop). If Willis could have tightened up the novel and created more tension if she did more showing and less telling, perhaps even condensing the story to one volume. Still I found these lengthy tomes to be mesmerizing and read straight through to find out what would happen next, so it’s still an engaging work with a great attention to detail.
Author: Connie Willis
Previous Works By Same Author:
Connie Willis is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors and I particularly enjoy her take on time travel fiction in works such as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog so I eagerly sought out this book once I learned of it. This book like the two previous I mentioned is set in a future Oxford where graduate students in history study the past by traveling through time through a device known as the net. Blackout shares some of the supporting characters of the earlier novels but focuses on three young historians studying England in the early days of the second World War. Polly, the main protagonist of the novel, is an experienced time traveling historian observing people in shelters during the London Blitz. Eileen is a new historian spending time working with children evacuated to the countryside. Michael is hoping to learn about heroism by visiting various battles including the evacuation of Dunkirk.
<Spoilers Begin Here> All three historians find themselves unexpectedly trapped in their time. Furthermore, they find themselves participating in major historical events and seemingly affecting their outcome, something that the time travel theory of the net says should be impossible. The main conflict of the novel becomes whether Polly, Eileen, and Michael can find a way out of the past which means first they must find one another. <Spoilers End Here>
I find the best part of this novel is that it captures the everyday life of English people during the War in great detail, almost as if Willis were a time traveler herself shedding light on the ordinary life of the past. Willis’ thorough research and attention to detail carries the novel through even at times when the plot and dialogue are a little flat. There are other characters introduced in the novel who are seemingly dropped although their resolution is made clear when I realized that the next book All Clear is not so much a sequel as a direct continuation of a lengthy work.
Author: Simon Pegg
Title: Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid
Publication Info: Gotham (2011)
Pegg’s autobiography is another celebrity biography (an unusual genre for me although I read two in the same month) that thankfully transcends the genre. Pegg is witty and humorous as a reflects on his life but also offers good insight on his life and its impact on his comedy work. At times he also takes the educated approach to evaluating some of his beloved pop culture such as Star Wars. He does lose some nerd cred though when he admits to being a life guard and other non-nerdly exploits of his youth. Pegg also appears to be content with his life and grateful for the many opportunities he’s been given. If you like Simon Pegg and his work you’ll enjoy this book. The only downside is some inter-filed chapters which are written in a manner that can only be described as a 12-year-old Pegg writing a fan fiction about his future life. These chapters may be easily skipped.
Recommended books: Bossypants by Tina Fey, American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, and Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin.
Author: Morris Dickstein
Title: Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
I’ll start off by saying that this wasn’t this book I was expecting as I was looking for more of the experience of everyday life in the Great Depression. Upon reflection that would probably be labeled a social history, which is probably obvious to most people, but I thought it worth mentioning in case any potential reader is making the same mistake I did. The other thing I should note is that I listened to the audiobook and had a lot of trouble with the CDs so I probably did not hear the entire book, although I did hear the majority. With that said, the book is actually an exploration of culture created during the Great Depression – films, music, novels, poetry, fine arts and decorative arts – and how they were influenced by the social trends of the time and in turn their effect (or lack thereof) on society. The essays Dickstein writes are thorough and opinionated and often out of my league since they refer to things of which I have no prior knowledge. That being said I did enjoy his critique on artists and performers such as John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, Busby Berkley, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby. Overall this book was not for me but I expect it would be a valuable resource for anyone looking for the light some cultural artifacts of the 1930s shine on the Great Depression.
This afternoon my family and I took in the annual performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. The Revels is a family tradition and this marks the tenth Christmas Revels production I’ve attended (including a Washington Revels performance in 1995 and performing as a cast member in the 2009 Christmas Revels). This was also my four-year-old son’s second Christmas Revels and my five-week-old daughter’s first Revels ever. Peter showed exemplary behavior and was deeply engaged by the performance while Kay amazed me by actually appearing to watch the show at times when she wasn’t feeding or napping.
The Revels impress me each year by crafting a show around a theme with consistent narrative that logically incorporates music and dance from various traditions. This year’s production is set in a French fishing village on the Mediterranean that is hosting an annual feast that draws pilgrims from near and wide. Thus we are able to enjoy traditional music from France and other parts of Europe as well as traveling performers from the East playing Arabic music. The Sharq Trio steal the show with sets in both acts of Arabic singing, dance and percussion. The trio seemed to mesmerize my infant daughter at the very least. Salome Sandoval also lends her stunning voice as a soloist.
The center of the performance is three members of the Guild of Fools – Soleil (Timothy Sawyer), Etoile (Sabrina Selma Mandell), and Eclaire de Lune (Mark Jaster) – performing the annual pageant. Amid the music and revelry there is the lurking presence of the skeletal Boney (Linnea Coffin) who seems to be just out of sight of the villagers on stage, but very frightening to at least one four-year-old boy in the audience. At a key moment in the first act, Boney and her skeleton crew seize the light from the world plunging the holiday performance into darkness. The fools thus are given the quest of finding their namesake light sources – the moon, the stars, and the sun – which they do with plenty of song and dance and a nativity play along the way. The Revels crew deserve a lot of credit for the stage design featuring multiple layers of scaffolding for the performers and a Ship of Fools upon which the featured trio sail to fish for the reflection of the moon. The costuming is also brilliant, especially Soleil, Etoile, and Eclaire de Lune’s outfits for the concluding mummer’s play. And the makeup helped make Boney and the other skeletons the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a Revels’ production.
The final performance is Thursday December 29th at 1 pm, so get tickets and go see the show if you can. If you’re reading this after the fact, make sure to check out The Revels’ website for future events.