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December 18, 2006

Books Read 2006

So many books, and not enough time. These are my favorite books of the year, in order. Please note that these books were not necessarily released in 2006, or even 2005. These are just the books that I felt compelled to read this year based on word of mouth, my knowledge of the author, the genre of the book, and increasingly the suggestions I get from LibraryThing. I would say, though, that most of these books were selected by looking at Listmania lists through Amazon.com. Please also note that every one of these books was found in and checked out from a library. If you feel like reading one of these books based on my weak ramblings below, do yourself a favor, save yourself some money, and check it out from a library. Again, I am completely mystified as to why anyone buys books when your public (or college) library is loaded with good reading material. Mind boggling ...

On with the list!

  1. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
    By far my favorite book of the year. As the cover says, this is "The Classic Novel of South Africa" and all the images and stereotypes that phrase conjures up. It tells the story of Peekay, an English boy in Afrikaner South Africa. Peekay quickly learns that as an Englishman he is considered less than human which gives him a unique perspective on race relations in the country. The bulk of the book covers Peekay's boxing career and how it propels him into a position of respect among his classmates and the Africans he befriends. This book is really quite remarkable, it is easy to read, and it also has an oddly satisfying ending. If you pick one of these books to read, it should be this one. Also, don't watch the movie based on this book. It sucks.

  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    You've probably heard of this book, but you probably don't know the interesting story behind it. John Kennedy Toole tried to get this book published during his lifetime, but was unsuccessful. It is speculated that this caused him a great deal of depression which eventually led to Toole's suicide in 1969. His mother read the manuscript and liked the book so much that she sent it to the novelist Walker Percy begging him to read it. Reluctantly, Percy read it, loved it, got it published, and the book went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Intrigued? You should be. The book is a great read. It is funny (hilarious actually), thoughtful, and very unique. It is also considered the classic novel of New Orleans and includes one of the most memorable characters in the history of fiction: Ignatius J. Reilly. I loved it. Intelligent humor is tough to pull off in fiction. This book nails it.

  3. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
    Easily the best science-fiction novel of the year. I'd be surprised if this didn't win a Hugo or a Nebula. What a great book. What if an unknown intelligence covered the earth with some kind of membrane that took the stars away? Not only that, what if that same membrane kept the earth in a much slower state, so that every minute that passed on earth was actually about 10,000 years in the rest of the universe? What would happen? As crazy as all this sounds, the book creates a fascinating story around these phenomenon complete with scientific inquiry, religious discussion, and end-of-the-world fanaticism. Wonderful all the way around.

  4. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Is life really that hard for the typical waitress, or door-to-door maid, or Wal-Mart employee? Yes, actually, it is. The author of this book gives up her life of relative luxury to work in these jobs and see if she can make enough to eat and have a place to live. Usually her efforts prove to be both funny and horribly sad as she meets some of the hardest workers with nothing to show for it you'll ever read about. Her stop in Minnesota is particularly revealing as she barely makes enough to live in the most squalid of hotel rooms. It definitely makes you thankful for what you have, and question the very system that seems to work so well for you and so poorly for others. Can't we do better? Quick and thought provoking read.

  5. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
    Loved it and already wrote about it.

  6. A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester
    Fascinating book about the fall of the Dark Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance, with special emphasis on 1) the depravity of the Catholic church during that time period, and 2) how that and other factors created the Reformation. The book ends with a very interesting description of the life and times of Magellan and his attempt to find a water route to India. Of course, his expedition actually resulted in the first successful rounding of the tip of South America and the first documented circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan's story juxtaposed with stories of heroes of the Reformation may seem like an odd combination, but Manchester makes it work in a very compelling work of summarizing scholarship. I give it two thumbs up.

  7. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
    This is a difficult book to describe. Owen Meany is a smallish boy with some sort of Messianic complex: he believes he is an instrument of God. Told through the voice of his childhood best friend, the story centers around the fateful day Owen kills his best friend's mom with a baseball. The rest of the story follows with discussions of faith and doubt until the end when Owen's purpose in life reveals itself. It is an amazing story, so dense that it is impossible to read in any kind of timely fashion. By the way, the movie based on the book, Simon Birch does not do this work justice in the least.

  8. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
    Guess what? Your knowledge of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire he created is completely lacking. Read this book and be enlightened. Genghis Khan was a military and political genius whose merciless campaigns and far-reaching empire we are still feeling the effects of today. Weatherford convincingly crushes Mongol stereotypes and creates a much more plausible picture of the Mongol people as truly ahead of their time. Weatherford is also a professor at Macalester College, so reading this book helps you support a local author (even if you check it out from a library).

  9. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
    A cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this book describes the life of an autistic adult and his option to take part in a new treatment that might cure him of his autism. The book focuses heavily on the trials and travails of autistic individuals and the prejudices they have to face on a daily basis, but it also describes some of the ways that autistic people can overcome and be productive members of society. The possible treatment is just a plot device for more of an essay on autism in general, but it does provide for a satisfying and interesting ending.

  10. Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
    A fast and fascinating read. A shape-shifting alien lands on earth and lives here for millions of years learning about the life on our planet. Meanwhile, another more sinister and in fact evil alien is also on the planet taking part in some of the most heinous acts in human history. Eventually these two aliens meet up. This is a critically acclaimed book, but I must admit a thought it was a little "fluffy." Again, though, it was a fast read that ultimately proved worth the time.

  11. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
    A book about vampires ... how could you go wrong with that? I learned a lot about the mythology of vampires, and it caused me to do some more research about just how Romanians feel about Dracula (they actually see him as a sort of national hero). But after reading this huge book, almost 700 pages, the final showdown lasts about a paragraph. I actually had to read it twice just to make sure I didn't miss anything. That was disappointing.

  12. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and there is no doubt that it is good, but I can't help but think as I read Russo books in general that I am re-reading Jon Hassler. Russo's Empire Falls is a lot like Hassler's Staggerford, and Russo's Straight Man is a lot like Hassler's Rookery Blues. I can't get past this.

  13. The Human Story by James C. Davis
    A good review of human history, but in the end I found this book to be a little too simple. That was probably the author's intention, though. What I found fascinating about the book was how the author could boil down huge events in human history, like WWII or the Russian Revolution, to just a few pages. It must have been very difficult to decide what details to keep in and what details to cut.

  14. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
    I've read a few of Gaiman's books, and Stardust is definitely my favorite. This book was like reading a comic book without the pictures, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Too strange for my tastes, but a good first effort from a man who is quickly turning into one of America's favorite authors.

  15. The Planets by Dava Sobel
    I was expecting another Longitude but I got a quick read on how each planet in our solar system was discovered. Some of the stories prove fascinating, while others are less than fascinating. Oh well.

  16. The Braided World by Kay Kenyon
    Space travel and alien cultures! I usually love books like this, but unfortunately I didn't find the story believable enough. And this is coming from the guy who loved the story about a membrane covering the earth and blocking out all the stars (see Spin above).

  17. Red Lightning by John Varley
    This book is the sequel to Red Thunder, a book I absolutely loved. If you want to read a great story about a private expedition to Mars, check out Red Thunder. The sequel, however, leaves much to be desired. It is disappointing and too preachy.

  18. Polaris by Jack McDevitt
    A science fiction mystery novel. The crew of the space ship Polaris disappear and no one can figure out where they went. Mix in a little discussion of lifetime longevity research and ... unfortunately this premise turns into only a so-so read.

  19. The X-President by Philip Baruth
    Boring. It is discovered that during Bill Clinton's presidency a decision is made that affects the course of American history for the worse. So, a top secret plan to travel back in time to reverse this decision is hatched. This book had potential ...

  20. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
    You would think a book about a book where the characters can actually come to life would be right up my alley. Unfortunately you've got to be at most 11 years old to fully appreciate it. Good for kids, so-so for adults.

  21. Air by Geoff Ryman
    Wow. This book would be ranked higher if not for it containing the strangest ending I read all year. If someone else read it and could explain it to me I would greatly appreciate it. Otherwise, this book can only be described as a disappointment.

  22. Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes
    The worst book I read all year. You would think a book about mitochondrial DNA and its use to determine that all European ancestry can be traced back to 4 women would be pretty nifty. Nope. The book is laughably simplistic at times ... like it was written for children. Maybe it was. It just wasn't for me.

That's about it. The books I read in the order of how much I liked them. Stay tuned for my top albums of the year . See ya!

Posted by snackeru at December 18, 2006 6:56 AM | Books


I feel like I already know the answer to this question, but have you read Gaiman's "American Gods?"

Oh, and try to get a hold of his audio story "Snow Glass Apples." Man, is that good.

Posted by: bjhess at December 18, 2006 10:56 AM

Oh yes I have definitely read it. American Gods was a very good book. As I said above, though, Stardust is my favorite of his. I'll have to check out his Snow Glass Apples too! Thanks for the suggestion!

Posted by: Shane at December 18, 2006 11:06 AM

Holy Cow! Twenty-Two Books, that's almost 2 a month, how do you find the time? A couple here look interesting (especially Spin).

However I have at least somewhat defend the purchasing of books: They look cool on your bookcase; and more importantly, you can go back and re-read or refer back to something you read. Now I will check out from the library about half the books I read a year, but I do cherish the ones that I buy and go back to them frequently, even if to read a certain passage or two.

Posted by: freealonzo at December 18, 2006 2:17 PM

Honestly, freealonzo, my goal is usually 2 books a month, so I'm a little upset with having only read 22. And I don't know how I find the time. I just do.

I will concede that some people use books to spiff up the interior of a home. I will also concede that some people do re-read books. However, I would argue that you should never buy a book unless you will read it at least 5 times.

Posted by: Shane at December 18, 2006 6:11 PM

Have you read Anansi Boys (Gaiman) yet? I have Stardust on the shelf, but have yet to read it. Probably should do that before the movie comes.

You should also try Gaiman's childrens picture books and novels. Coraline is a different sort of young adult book. And I get a kick out of his picture books as well.

Posted by: bjhess at December 19, 2006 11:30 AM

My biggest problem with Ehrenreich's book was that she kept her car. If you're making minimum wage, you likely can't afford a car. If she had resorted to public transportation, then she would have discovered how difficult it really can be to get by and do your daily doings while relying upon someone else's schedule for your transportation rather than your own. As someone who's relied upon public transportation for years, the fact that she opted to maintain a car really ruined the book for me. I'd like to see her issue a 2nd edition whereupon she ditches the vehicle and tries to survive the way so many people are forced to survive...

Posted by: vln at December 19, 2006 12:29 PM

Good catch vln! I must admit I wasn't as bothered by this as I think it still illustrated that even with a car she was still struggling. Perhaps you are right though and that without a car in the story both her and our collective indignation would be even higher than it is already.

I think her point still comes across strong and clear though: even with hard work, at sometimes very physically and mentally challenging jobs, there are a lot of people that are struggling mightily. And they don't deserve it.

Posted by: Shane at December 19, 2006 1:00 PM

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