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December 15, 2008

Books Read 2008

Here are the books I read in 2008. Most of them were pretty good. In fact, I usually stop reading a book if about half way through I don't like it, so most of these mini-reviews will be positive. If you read any good books this year, please let me know! I'm always looking for a good book to read.

As always, every one of these books was checked out from a library. And for those of you that are interested:

Books Read 2007
Books Read 2006
Books Read 2005

  1. Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  2. I find that I enjoy fiction more than non-fiction and this is by far the best fiction book I read this year. Plainsong tells the story of a year in the life of many different characters in Holt, Colorado, but none of them are as interesting as the life of Victoria Roubideaux. Victoria is a pregnant 17 year old who gets kicked out of her house and decides to live with two older, single brothers on their cattle farm on the outskirts of town. You might think, "Wow, does that sound boring," but you'd be wrong. It is actually quite beautiful. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  3. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
  4. Again, you would think a book about building cathedrals in medieval England would be as boring as watching paint dry, but it is not. As is always the case in good books, the stories of the main characters are riveting. Tom Builder is a master craftsman moving from town to town begging for work to support his family. He has a dream, however, to one day build a cathedral. Prior Philip is caught in the middle of a war of succession for England's throne and the church is caught up in this political reality. These two lives, plus many others, are brought together in a book that is at times quite difficult to put down.

  5. Eventide by Kent Haruf
  6. The sequel to Plainsong goes back to the town of Holt, Colorado to pick up where we left off concerning the lives of Victoria and the McPheron brothers. New characters are brought into the mix, including a young 11 year old boy named DJ who takes care of his elderly grandfather and tries to find some comfort in the friendship of two neighbor girls whose father has abandoned them. It is at once heartbreaking and beautiful. Taken together, Plainsong and Eventide make for a wonderful story on the resiliency of the human spirit and how the people around us make a huge difference on our lives.

  7. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  8. I usually don't like fantasy novels much. Most of the time they are too similar and too reliant on magic and sorcery to drive the story. The is especially true of the Sword of Truth series. Egads is that ever bad. But The Name of the Wind is really, really good. It tells the story of Kvothe, a boy that is orphaned when the Chandrian, a legendary evil, kills his family. He takes to the streets and scrambles to make a living before he decides to go to the University to firstly learn the higher magic of "naming" but also to learn more about the Chandrian. This is the first book in what will be a trilogy and I really can't wait for the next one to come out in April.

  9. So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger
  10. A worthy second effort from the author of Peace Like a River, this book tells the story of struggling Minnesotan writer named Monte Becket. Through some strange circumstances Becket decides to travel with Glendon Hale, an outlaw that is trying to right a wrong from years past. It is a story of redemption that I found a little unsatisfactory at the end (especially in comparison to Peace Like a River) but still very much worth the read. Especially if you like a good "Western" type story.

  11. Outliers by Malcom Gladwell
  12. This was a fascinating and quick read with a pretty interesting thesis: Successful people are given fantastic opportunities, are probably born at the "right time," and are able to rise above cultural legacies to reach that goal of success. Sure, hard work factors into the equation, but over and over again Gladwell demonstrates that most of the time successful people were just in the right place at the right time and they were smart enough (or even forced to) grab hold of the opportunity. For example, why are most successful hockey players born in either January, February, or March? Read this book to find out.

  13. The Lost Fleet: Courageous by Jack Campbell
  14. Ah, back to story of Black Jack Geary and his efforts to bring the Alliance fleet home after a failed battle in the Syndics home territory. Fantastic military science fiction and much to my happiness this book starts to bring in the idea that their are aliens pulling the strings in this never ending war. I love a good alien story. I don't know how many books will be in this series, but I am certainly enjoying it.

  15. Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
  16. Speaking of aliens, Rollback tells the story of astronomer Sarah Halifax, the only person on earth able to decipher an alien message, and maybe the only person able to decipher the next alien message received 38 years later when she is 87 years old. By this time there are medical treatments available that can make people young again, and she and her husband decide to go through with the process. Unfortunately, the rollback treatment only works on him. I don't know how Robert Sawyer does it, but he is incapable of writing a bad book. I am riveted by every one of his books, and this one is no exception. Besides the story of the aliens and what they actually want from us, there is a philosophical side to this story discussing the troublesome idea of becoming young again. Would you do it? Interesting to think about.

  17. The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence S. Ritter
  18. Originally published in the early 1960s, this is a collection of oral histories gathered by Ritter with an old tape recorder as he traveled the country looking for elderly baseball players. Most of these ballplayers played in the first two decades of the 20th century when the game was relatively young. The game and life they describe is fascinating, but perhaps even more remarkable is how constant the game has stayed over the years. If you are a baseball fan this is a must read.

  19. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
  20. A detailed look at how the Oakland A's baseball club stay so competitive from year to year. Lewis and A's GM Billy Beane give a lot of credit to carefully gathered baseball statisics, with perhaps none being as important as on-base percentage. In other words, Beane tries to select players who get on base more, be it walks or hits. That is just one of the many baseball statistics discussed in this book, and it is hard to argue with Beane's success, especially considering his tight budget. I would have liked this book more, though, if the author hadn't been so flippant regarding the Twins' success.

    UPDATE: There is a better review and description of this book from Freealonzo in the comments of this entry. Thanks Free!

  21. Breaker Boys by David Fleming
  22. The story of the early National Football League is really quite fascinating, especially told from the viewpoint of the small towns that had teams in the early days of the league. This is the story of the Potsville Maroons, a team from Potsville, PA in the heart of coal country. It would be unfathomable that a town as small as Potsville would have a team today, but in 1925 they were the best team in the league. And if they hadn't played the "Notre Dame All-Stars" against the wishes of the NFL, they would still be considered the 1925 league champions. Instead, that honor was given to the Chicago Cardinals, a team the Maroons beat, and some say the curse of this ill-gained championship is still haunting the Cardinals today.

  23. The Lost Fleet: Valiant by Jack Campbell
  24. Again, the story of Black Jack Geary bringing the Alliance fleet home is great, read-it-in-an-afternoon military sci-fi, but in this book the character of Madame Co-President Victoria Rione really started to get on my nerves. I'm sure you would agree.

  25. The Meaning of Sports by Michael Mandelbaum
  26. Why do Americans watch baseball, football, and basketball? Why are we so riveted by these contests? This book seeks to answer that question from a sociological perspective as it tells the history of each of these sports and how they sprung up from the societies that existed at the time of their creation. Baseball, the agrarian, outdoor sport with no time limit; football, the industrial sport ruled by the coaches and featuring specialized jobs; and basketball, the fast moving, post-industrial sport of individuals that make up a team. A relatively quick read, I must say that at the end I still didn't quite get the author's main thesis. But as a quick history of the three most popular sports in America it was well worth it.

  27. 1632 by Eric Flint
  28. What would happen if you took a small town in West Virginia and plopped it in the middle of 17th Century Germany? Well, apparently you would have a group of coal miners trying to bring the principles of the American Revolution to this feudalistic and war-torn era. Throw Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus into the mix and you've got a story that is interesting most of the time, and confusing the rest.

  29. Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick
  30. You know, I can tell that Mike Resnick is a pretty smart cookie, but I couldn't help but think that this book was written as fast as humanly possible just to prove that the author can crank out novels at an amazing pace. Having said that, does this book have aliens? Check. Military intrigue? Check. And as the title implies, this book also has a little mutiny thrown in for good measure. Nothing earth shattering ... I enjoyed it, but I wish the author would have spent a little more time fleshing things out.

  31. Zoom by Iain Carson and Vijay V Vaitheeswaran
  32. This is a pretty decent book about the efforts to make more fuel efficient cars, and what kinds of fuels are in the running. What is more interesting is the authors' conclusion that we should be demanding more from our government to make this happen. So, conservatives probably won't like that conclusion, but the authors make a pretty convincing arguement.

  33. Universe on a T-Shirt by Dan Falk
  34. A very short and concise history of man's effort to explain the universe around him, from the discovery of the idea of the atom, to Copernicus's heliocentric model, Maxwell's theories of electromagnetism, to Einstein's theory of relativity, to string theory and a whole lot in between. As comedian Brian Regan says, "I turned on the TV to watch a show about string theory. The show started at 8:00 and at 8:03 my head exploded." Unfortunately, I have to agree. String theory is a difficult concept to grasp, especially its scale (very tiny) to the huge efforts it would take to test it (solar system sized). Oh well, I'm probably a better person for having read this.

  35. Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss
  36. I must admit, I didn't know much about Roberto Clemente, one of the most famous baseball players ever, but I found out my kids actually learn about him in school (they attend Park Spanish Immersion). So, I thought I would check him out. He was definitely a great baseball player, but he was also an incredibly proud man who didn't let anything negative about him slide past his notice; he was a man who was phenomenally loyal to his friends and family; he was a man who gave a lot himself to his home country and people in need (as is evidenced by his tragic death); and he was a huge hypochondriac. A lot of his maladies were real, but wow! Did he ever complain about everything happening to his body. Another thing I found interesting about this book was the description of the segregation that black ballplayers had to face in Spring Training in Florida. Clemente, quite understandably, could not stand it. Anyway, mission accomplished: I learned a lot about Roberto Clemente.

  37. Personal Days by Ed Park
  38. A pretty funny book about office culture that follows the mishaps, firings, and nicknames of a fictional office in Manhattan. I'd be surprised if anyone couldn't relate to something in this book concerning the cubicle culture that we are forced to work in.

  39. One Step Closer by Christian Batalden Scharen
  40. It is amazing how many Christian themes the rock band U2 can espouse, and still not be considered a Christian rock band. This book tackles all these themes, especially the idea of the "theology of the cross," as well as the theme of social justice. A good book, it would have probably been better to discuss it within the context of a Bible study or something. As it was, I found it easy to put down and unfortunately easy to forget.

Posted by snackeru at December 15, 2008 8:41 PM


I read Pillars of the Earth about 2 years ago. We still have the book so if you ever need to refresh yourself on something, it's yours to borrow.

I'll have to check out the Lost Fleet series. Sounds cool.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at December 16, 2008 11:23 AM

Wow 20 books, that's one every 18 days and there's still 15 days left in the year.

I'm more of a non-fiction guy myself and will have my list up before Christmas (more like 12 books), but there is some interesting stuff here that I might have to check out.

Two additionally things about Moneyball. First, it's basically a story about using data to make decisions instead of anecdotes. Something that you think is natural but is really a radical concept in sports, business, and institutions. Second it's about determining what the market overvalues and undervalues and making decisions accordingly.

The market overvalues hard throwing closers? Then trade them at their peak value for players that are undervalued (using data to determine their worth). Fascinating book about sports, business, and decision making.

Posted by: Freealonzo at December 16, 2008 11:25 AM

Thanks Free! That is a much better description of Moneyball than the one I wrote up. I look forward to your list! Hopefully it will start me on my reading for next year!

And Craig, you should check out the Lost Fleet. I definitely think you would enjoy it.

Posted by: Shane at December 16, 2008 1:21 PM

You might enjoy the follow-up to Pillars as well, World Without End. It takes place a few hundred years later in the same town. You can see some of the descendents of the original characters here and there, and Jack Builder is something of a legend.

I think my review was basically that it was like reading Pillars all over again (since it follows the same formula so faithfully), but that's exactly what millions of readers want--to read Pillars of the Earth for the first time again.

Posted by: Kurtis at December 16, 2008 1:21 PM

Kurtis, that is exactly why I haven't picked up World Without End yet. I need some time to forget about Pillars. I was afraid they'd be too similar and you just verified that.

By the way, Mudville will be on the list next year. That is a given!

Posted by: Shane at December 16, 2008 1:24 PM

Thanks Shane, always one of my most anticipated posts on any website of the year because I usually get some inspiration from you. Here's my list of books read in 2008 (I probably am forgetting a couple):

Fiction, in order of preference:
1. "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien
2. "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac
3. "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne
4. "A Painted House" by John Grisham

Baseball in order of preference:
1. "Crazy '08" by Cait Murphy
2. "The Soul of Baseball" by Joe Posnanski
3. "Stengel: His Life and Times" by Robert Creamer
Also, I've been helping Chris Jaffe with his book "Evaluating Baseball Managers" that will be published in the Spring. I've read two different drafts and added many editorial comments to it, and I recommend it highly whenever it is released.

Non-fiction in order of preference:
1. "The Powers That Be" by David Halberstam
2. "An Army at Dawn" by Rick Atkinson
3. "The Day of Battle" by Rick Atkinson
4. "John Dillinger Slept Here" by Paul Maccabbee
5. Public Enemies" by Bryan Burrough
6. "The American Language" by H.L. Mencken
7. "A Crack in the Edge of the World" by Simon Winchester

Bios in order of preference:
1. "The Right Stuff" by Tom Wolfe
2. "Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover" by Anthony Summers

Currently reading: "Collapse" by Jared Diamond

Plan to read:
1. "Pillars of the Earth" (my father has been calling it his favorite book for about a decade, but I always forget to grab his copy)
2. "Thunderstruck" by Erik Larson

If you're curious about any of those I read, let me know and I can post more.

Posted by: Will Young at December 16, 2008 10:44 PM

Will! Thanks so much for your input. Wow, your books are a bit more academic than mine! I'm interested in what you have to say about "The Things They Carried," "The Powers that Be" and "An Army at Dawn." If you could share what you thought of those, that would be fantastic. Too bad you don't update your blog anymore!

I liked "A Painted House" a lot. Good baseball vibe in that one. And I tried to read "Collapse" but I found Diamond in need of a good editor.

Posted by: Shane at December 17, 2008 4:40 PM

Will, I found it interesting that you read The Powers that Be (about the rise of the four big newspapers: Wash Post, NY Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune) in these days of crumbling newspapers. Talk about a book that describes an industry that looks a whole lot different today than that what Halberstam wrote about. A great book for those interested about the rise of the newspaper industry (too bad Halberstam is not around to write about its demise, I am sure he'd have some insight).

Jared Diamond needs a good editor?!? While Guns, Germs and Steel was better (and a cool title) and Diamond can be a tad scholarly and dry, Collapse laid out pretty convincingly how human and environmental factors have led to the demise of cultures and regions. He took what I think was a pretty complicated subject and made it relatively easy to comprehend.

Posted by: Freealonzo at December 18, 2008 8:04 AM

Without getting too political, I was absolutely floored by "The Powers That Be". I was reading it in late-August and early-September right around the time Palinmania swept the nation. That book had some passages describing the way the Nixon campaign handled the media in 1968 that could have been transported 40 years into the future and applied word-for-word to this past year. Plus, Halberstam is an incredible writer on any topic. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone interested, not only in the media and newspaper industry, but also to anyone interested in American politics from the 50s to the 70s.

I'm struggling to really get into "Collapse". I loved "Guns, Germs and Steel" when I read it a couple of years ago, but I'm finding his central thesis here much more of a stretch. Still, I love learning about history that I don't know.

(Brief aside, my favorite quote is from Harry Truman: "The only thing new in the world is history you don't know.")

"An Army at Dawn" was very good because I had absolutely no background in the North African campaign during WWII. Every history course I took during college focused solely on Europe and the Pacific, so it was great to learn about this third front that ultimately helped topple the Axis. Plus, it segued nicely into "The Day of Battle" (and I knew very little of the Italian campaign either other than Mussolini's topple) which I read just weeks before my honeymoon to Italy.

Finally, "The Things They Carried" was written by a former Macalester student (from Worthington, MN) and I picked it up while in New Jersey for a wedding. I read the first 100 pages of a copy my friends owned (I usually read about 10 pages a night to help me fall asleep but couldn't put it down), and then grabbed it from the Mac library when I returned to the Twin Cities the next day. I thought it was spectacular. I would call it the "Catch-22" of the Vietnam War in terms of great storytelling, sarcasm, dread, but still the obligation to follow the orders.

Posted by: Will Young at December 18, 2008 9:03 AM

Will if you want to read a fascinating book about 1960's politics read Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. Covers the years 1965-1972 and is absolutely fascinating.

Agree GG&S is better than Collapse but that doesn't mean Collapse isn't good. (kinda like saying a Radiohead album isn't as good as O.K. Computer -- nothing is).

Posted by: Freealonzo at December 18, 2008 10:41 AM

I'll throw in/out my ten favorite books from the past year's reading (actually listening, since I've got plenty of commuting time for audiobooks). They are all non-fiction. More or less in order of preference:

1. "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy," by Donald Kraybill

2. "The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and the 82 Days that Inspired America," by Thurston Clarke

3. "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War," by Michael Dobbs

4. "At Canaan's Edge: American in the King Years, 1965-1968," by Taylor Branch

5. "Einstein: His Life and Universe," by Walter Isaacson

6. "American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR put the Nation to Work," by Nick Taylor

7. "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright

8. "Defying Hitler: A Memoir," by Sebastian Hafner

9. "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero," by Leigh Montville

10. "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," by Jonathan Eig

And two works of fiction:

1. "Blind Your Ponies," by Stanley Gordon West [think "Hoosiers" set in western Montana]

2. "Jerk California" by Jonathan Friesen

Posted by: ofergopher at December 22, 2008 10:32 PM

I am sure that you are going to be posting something Shane, but Carl Pohlad's passing is really an interesting moment for this great website. He helped to deliver two World Championships to our State, which gave us all quite a bit of joy. But also, for years, he has been one of the reasons for much of the frustration discussed here.

Now is not the time to rehash any of that, now is the time to be respectful. But, wouldn't it would be interesting to know how many times his name has been mentioned in our conversations over the years? And, it is also intriguing that the ballpark that he worked toward for nearly a decade was not finished prior to his death.


Posted by: Derek at January 6, 2009 9:17 AM

it's "the count of monte cristo" for me - i like the sound of personal days

Posted by: madeira at January 13, 2009 3:56 AM

Shane....I think we need some Vikings Stadium love!

Posted by: MOJO at February 3, 2009 8:15 AM

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