Monday, January 2, 2012

Best Books of 2011 (GUEST BLOGGER)

This is our first appearance of a guest blogger. This post was written by Sally Perrine, one of the cohosts of Peace Radio, aka DJ Sally P, activist, community leader, and staff member at Moscow Public Library. Somewhere in there she has a spouse and lovely grown kids.

Sally gets her books at the library as well as an independent local bookstore, both of which are excellent choices for frugal types.

Sally’s Booklist – Best of 2011:

Running the books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg (ANF). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which features two of my favorite issues – prison (and its reform) and librarianship. Steinberg was a rather rootless young man – the early chapters were very funny and dealt with his angst about his place in life – when he took on the job of librarian in a tough Boston prison. From then on, his connections with the prisoners who sought out the library as a reprieve, as a distraction, as a place of hope, provided this reader with enjoyment. Here’s a snippet from a review by Elif Batuman: “Whether he is discussing Sylvia Plath with a fragile prostitute, compiling recipes for a gang member who aspires to his own cooking show, or helping a garrulous pimp write his memoirs, Steinberg is unfailingly thought-provoking, witty, humane, and above all, relentless in his pursuit of a good story.”

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America, by Matt Taibbi (ANF). OK. This one will bum you out! Taibbi likens the American economy to a giant casino that regularly cheats the majority of its players out of their life savings while enriching a few players. He has the ability to explain complex issues in street language without being simplistic. Taibbi is a great investigative reporter (I learned a new word reading his work – autodidact), and it’s been fun following his career as he directly investigates issues, then afterwards goes to experts for explanations of what he’s seen and heard. This story is extremely depressing, dealing as it does with “too big to fail”, and he’s pretty pessimistic about the outcome.

My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy (ANF). Read-aloud wonderful, this book about books is a total delight, with as many laugh-out-loud moments as it has powerfully emotional reminiscences. Conroy, as he has done in all his books, reflects on his childhood as the son of a marine fighter pilot, and describes the ways in which books saved his life.

Day of Honey, by Annia Ciezadlo (ANF). Co-titled, A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, this book follows Annia through her life as a newly-wed journalist in Baghdad and Beirut, focusing on the people she met along the way, and their daily lives. She loves to cook and to eat, so much of her writing focuses on markets, restaurants, and the various kitchens that she pieced together in these war-torn cities. You’ll end up loving her, her husband, and his eccentric family. The book ends with recipes!

The Company We Keep: A Husband and Wife True Life Spy Story, by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer (ANF). Very interesting inside story about the CIA; some aspect of the work itself covered, much about the toll spy work takes on personal lives. Intriguing look at this most secret of US activities – overseas espionage.

Heart of the Monster, by Rick Bass and David James Duncan (ANF). This book, apparently hurriedly put together in response to the Megaload/Alberta Tar Sands situation in the NW, is a dream to read. Duncan, especially, is one of my favorite writers (his book, The Brothers K, is one of my all-time favorites), and his love of the environment in this region is tangible. Mixing fact and lyrical prose, this book will break your heart. Or inspire you to activism!

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan, by Jamie Zeppa (ANF). Beautiful account of a young woman’s journey from Canada to Bhutan. Feeling a bit adrift, Zeppa decided to teach for a year in Bhutan, and came to love the country in ways she hadn’t felt for her native land. A year stretched into 3, she taught young children, college age students, lived in several small villages, and found that the pace of life in Bhutan suited her so much that she was overwhelmed on her return to Canada. Lyrical writing, descriptive phrases that brought thiew as seen through the eyes of one of the sons from a blue collar household in rural West Virginia. Essential reading. This and his previous book, Deer Hunting with Jesus.

Dirty Secret: A Daughter comes clean about her mother’s compulsive hoarding, by Jessie Sholl (ANF). This nonfiction account reads like a novel – and follows a daughter’s journey with a hoarder mother. Full of good information about the neurological and psychological traits of hoarders (I share some of them!), and the difficulties they cause for their loved ones – and others, of course.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson, (ANF). An odd little book (Ronson’s previous book was “The Men Who Stare at Goats” - made into a movie), ostensibly about the Hare Test for psychopathy, but mostly about Ronson himself, the process he uses to put together a book, and his own nature, which is characterized by high anxiety. There were some very funny bits about his reactions to meeting the people he interviewed – many of whom had been diagnosed as psychopaths. I did learn some stuff about the history of psychiatry and the current usages of various diagnoses.

The Big Burn, by Timothy Egan (ANF). Read this one in a gulp. The guy’s an amazing writer! And I learned a lot about this area, the people involved, and the politics of the times. The 1910 Fire, of course, is what this book is about – the fire that devastated the forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana and the effects of which can still be seen. Anyway, strong recommendation to anyone just wanting a kick-ass read – with really solid info about our local history.

Here Comes Trouble, by Michael Moore (ANF). I’ve read all his books, I’ve seen all his movies, but I still learned a lot about this man. The first chapter deals with the repercussions following his Oscar-winning speech 4 days after the bombing of Baghdad. He received some serious death threats and attempts on his life – so much so that he put himself on house arrest for a couple of years, and had to hire Navy Seals for protection for awhile. Then he followed up with an account of a number of conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, which did a lot to pull him back out into activism. This book is full of little gems like this, and stories showing his life-long activism and courage.

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, by John Wood (ANF). Inspiring account of one man’s effort to bring libraries to third world children. Wood, on a hiking trip in Nepal, visited a school in which there was a locked-up library with books that the children couldn’t read. He vowed to return with books. It snowballed, d/t his efforts and entrepreneurial skills, and to date he has brought 10 million books to kids in 5 countries. His website, Room to Read, provides additional information. (I learned about this book from a NYT editorial written by Nickolas Kristoff)

Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, by Greg Palast (ANF). Fierce, angry book about the problems caused by the financial elite, not just in this country but worldwide. Palast is a true investigative journalist, and he brings us along as he travels to Alaska, Equador, Central Asia, and elsewhere uncovering the crimes that have brought this world to the brink of ecological and financial disaster. Reads like a thriller.

Feynman, by Ottaviani & Myrick (YANF). Graphic novel version of an autobiography of physicist, Richard Feynman, whose personal life and teaching skills were as impressive as his scientific skills. Great illustrations. And you might learn some physics as well!

Faithful Place, by Tana French (AF). OK, I lost an entire Saturday with this one! Another across-the-desk recommendation, this extraordinarily compelling family saga/ crime novel pulled me right in and didn’t let up until the end. Set in Dublin, this character-driven novel features detective Frank Mackey, who returns to his birth home after an absence of 20 years to revisit the disappearance of his girlfriend. They were planning to run away, get married, and start a new life away from the poverty and alcoholism that had trapped them both. Smart, occasionally funny, amazing character interrelationships, and an acute sense of place combine to make this one of the best novels I’ve read – maybe ever.

The Monk Downstairs (AF). I liked this book on so many levels. One, it was a flat-out love story between two adults - very lush and sexy. And, two, it was an exploration of the ways one can live a life, the finding of the balance between contemplation and action. And, three, it was so beautifully written that I wanted to just savor the experience. It made me feel good about the human experience.

An Irish Country Doctor, by Patrick Taylor (AF). This guy’s a wonderful writer. Love to bask in the essential goodness of the story of 2 rural G.P.’s in Northern Ireland - village doctors practicing their art and science among delightful characters. Mainly escapist fantasy, but Taylor knows his history, and inserts bits of heartbreaking reality about poverty and political unrest. Very compelling story, this.

The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross (AF). This book is just fun. Well, apart from the Nazi werewolves and approaching Armageddon. But Stross has crafted a story that combines madcap “saving the world” theatrics with mundane office place bureaucratic nitpicking. Very funny, in a Bill Murray, Ghostbuster sort of way.

The Complaints, by Ian Rankin (AF). Classic Rankin (minus Rebus), this police procedural, set in Edinburgh, “stars” D.I. Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. Fox, his sister, Jude, his co-workers, people a complex, character-rich story, that holds interest as the story twists and turns. Very satisfying to read a novel featuring characters who depend on intelligence and their knowledge of human nature rather than force. Rankin’s a master!

Moonlight Downs, by Adrian Hyland (AF). There are so many similarities between this book series and the Steig Larssen series; both written by a man featuring a (weirdly) strong, physically small female protagonist, who rushes into danger, righting wrongs with little or no sense of her own peril. Emily Tempest, the main character in this series, does not have the awful past experiences of Salander, but is equally rash, tough, and brave. All in all, a satisfying read, set in central Australia among the indigenous people there.

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull (JF). Recommended by a 9-year-old, this fantasy kept me enthralled throughout. Main characters were a brother and sister, each exhibiting different aspects of courage and character – the younger brother’s recklessness getting everyone into danger (and advancing the plot nicely), the older sister’s caution and intelligence getting them out. The story is populated by fairies, satyrs, trolls, witches – all gathered into a refuge to prevent their extinction. Very fun read!

Red on Red, by Edward Conlon (AF). I was pretty engrossed in this novel – loved the characters, and the story of two NYC cops proceeded in an unhurried, organic pace. Written by the author of the NF bestseller, Blue Blood, Conlon, who is a detective with the NYC Police Dept and a Harvard graduate writes well and knows his stuff. Very visual; I felt like I could “see” the terrain and the situations as they unfolded.

A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid (AF). Fascinating Scottish police procedural featuring 2 of the most appealing female leads in my memory – Detective Karen Pirie, and journalist Bel Richmond – both smart, tenacious, hard-working. The story moves from 1960’s Scottish mine country where the battle between unions and the owners rages, to the present, and is full of the social commentary, social justice themes that I most enjoy.

The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo (AF). This one made me think. I had to go back to the beginning to reread the first part, and mark the pages that gave specific names in order to keep track of the characters. A Norwegian thriller that moved 50 years into the past to WW 2 and Norway’s part in that war, and then into the present following some of the main characters and their descendents. Fascinating, and a worthy “successor” for Steig Larssen fans. And this guy’s still alive and writing!

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman (YAF). Author recommended by my son,Alex, this young adult sci fi novel was excellent! Provocative plot (difficult or “unwanted” teenagers are harvested for their body parts) and wonderful courageous characters make this another important teen read and an author to follow!

When Will There by Good News?, by Kate Atkinson (AF). Fascinating crime novel/family saga that touches on the repercussions of early childhood trauma and the ways in which it affects people many years later. After a truly appallingly violent first chapter, the book proceeds to explore the lives and characters of the protagonists – the chief detective and her old friend and former colleague approaching the mystery from a couple of perspectives, and a wonderful young character, the resilient orphan, 16-year-old Reggie, whose love and courage lead to a conclusion. Excellent novel!

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, by Steve Earle (AF). Singer-songwriter, Earle has written a wonderful novel that reads like one of his songs. Set in a poor area of San Antonio, featuring heroin addict Doc, the ghost of Hank Williams, and Mexican immigrant, Graciela, whose magic healing touch transforms everyone she meets. As Howard Mosher says in his review of this novel, “If Jesus were to return tomorrow to twenty-first-century America and do some street preaching on the gritty South Presa Strip of San Antonio, he’d love Earle’s magnificently human, bighearted drifters.”

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (YAF). Australian author, Zusak, has tackled the war, the holocaust, and has cast Death as the narrator in this far-ranging, troubling, compelling novel. Main character, Liesel Meminger, is orphaned at age 9, sent to a foster home, and lives out the war years with her dad, who she loves nearly immediately, her mom, whose brittle personality and angers take her a little longer, her best friend, the irrepressible Rudy, and Max, the Jew who wanders into their lives and lives in their basement a la Anne Frank for a time.

Bright’s Passage, by Josh Ritter (AF). Bright’s Passage, set in WW I France and West Virginia, features main character, Henry Bright, an Angel, and assorted other and sundry characters. Surprisingly dark in tone, given the joyful presence of its author during his musical appearances, the novel starts with the death in childbirth of Henry's 20-year-old wife, the birth of his son (the “Future King of Heaven”), and the forest fire that started after Henry, on the advice/demand of the angel - speaking through his horse - burns down his cabin. The story twists and turns, moving back and forth from the horrors of the war to the present. It’s a beautifully complex novel that ends with an affirmation of life.

Blue Heaven, by C.J. Box (AF). An “Everybody Reads” selection for 2011, this thriller, set in N Idaho, is a non-stop adrenaline ride, and starts off with 2 kids in peril. A story of contrasting cultures – rural Idaho vs inner-city Los Angeles – and a very clear good vs evil clash, this is one scary book. (One of the transplanted L.A. cops ruminating on the people in the small town that he moved to, “They’d never know in his heart he thought of them as jaded Europeans thought of Americans: as childlike, boisterous, loud, too insular to appreciate what they had, to unsophisticated to realize how easy it had been for them.”)

The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens (AF). Described as “smart, sexy, fast-paced” by Vince Flynn, this thriller has a main character very like Salander from the Steig Larssen books – kind of impossibly strong and brave, and damaged from childhood abuse. A page-turner, with some really appealing characters. My favorite was the African mercenary, Francisco Beyard – a tough guy with a tendbacklinksMode=ON

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