Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 great books for Christmas gifts

Ask Santa for anything but a share of his cookies
Last year I recommended 9 great, fun to read wine books that weren't necessarily new. This year I'm going to expand the concept past wine books.

I can't compete with the New York Times' best 10 books of the year list because I don't read enough; their editors speed through hundreds of books in a year, while I probably read a couple of dozen. I'm not going to try to compete with Keith Law's 100 best novels of all time, either.

These aren't the 10 best books I've ever read, or my 10 favorite books. They're just 10 great books I really enjoyed. By limiting the ambition of the list, I don't have to include Great Expectations, and I might tip you off to some fun reading you otherwise might have missed.

A History of God  

Author Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has taught Jewish history to rabbinical students and lectured about Islam to Muslims. This book covers the creation and evolution of the three major Western religions; it's interesting how much they borrow from each other. She shows how all three have been affected by the same internal movements towards extremism, and why this follows from less mystical and more literal readings of the Bible and the Koran. You'll have a better understanding of all three religions, even your own, after reading this.

All She Was Worth

Japan has an interesting tradition of noir detective fiction, very little of which is translated into English. This is one of the best, a 1992 tale of a detective hired to track down his nephew's fiancee, who disappeared after the nephew learned she had a bad credit history. The credit card was relatively new to widespread use in Japan in the 1990s, and the Japanese don't take shame well. But no spoilers here, and if you're intrigued, don't read any longer reviews, just buy it.

Altered Carbon

This was the most serendipitous book find of my life. I was on a boat in the Galapagos and needed something to read. This was the most intriguing-sounding book on the small shelf, a noir sci-fi set in San Francisco 800 years in the future. The central conceit is that personalities have been digitized, which means they can be stored and transmitted into new bodies. Author Richard K. Morgan pursues interesting ramifications, including that the wealthy need never die, while the poor only get one body that they might even sell. The book opens when the narrator is hired by a wealthy man who shot himself in the head just before his regularly-scheduled 48-hour download of new information. The man, now in a new body, wants to know, Why did I do it?

As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires

I love baseball and could do a list just of 10 baseball books. This is one of the most interesting I've read recently because it brings to life a side of the game most fans never consider. Author Bruce Weber spent almost three years in the company of minor-league umpires learning the trade while being paid almost nothing and getting booed in small towns every night. The human stories alone would be interesting, but you'll watch the game at a new level after learning what umpires are trained to do. Example: umpires are taught that the closer a play, the more demonstrative they should be, to show that they have no doubt whatsoever. There's a key postseason strikeout, of Ryan Howard by Brian Wilson in the 2010 NLCS, on a borderline pitch that I've gone back and watched after reading this, and sure enough, after a split-second hesitation, the umpire pinwheels 360 degrees: nope, no doubt whatsoever.

Farm City

There are plenty of books about the farming experience, but this is my favorite. Author Novella Carpenter decides she wants to grow her own food, but she lives in Oakland, so her dangers are more than the average weevil. At one point, she finds herself facing down gun-toting teenagers. I love the section when she tries to go a month eating only the products of her labor and finds herself undernourished and unattractive; seducing her husband becomes a challenge. The book is inspiring for her persistence. I don't want to become an urban farmer, but Novella Carpenter is my hero.

The Last Werewolf

Glen Duncan is an English literary author who had won no awards and was being dropped by his publisher. At a New Year's Eve party, he bitterly told some friends, "Maybe I should write a book called The Last Werewolf." Fortunately for readers, his friends said that was exactly what he should do. Duncan's stylish prose helps elevate this book, but what makes it great is the world-weary voice of his narrator, Jake Marlowe, who regrets but cannot contain his once-a-moon lust for killing, the more brutal the better. The book has vampires: cold, somewhat verbose and unable to have sex, whereas Marlowe is mute when in wolf form, articulate at all other times, and always intensely sensual.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Published in 2007, this terrific history of the CIA written entirely from declassified records -- many from the KGB -- won the National Book Award for nonfiction. You won't be surprised at the many dirty tricks the CIA tried. What is eye-opening is how bad they were at it. Even in famous incidents where the CIA thought they were putting one over on the KGB, such as a listening post they installed in Berlin, years later they learned the KGB knew all along and used the opportunity to feed disinformation.

Nickel and Dimed

To find out what it's like in the US working class, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spent a month undercover at three different low-income jobs: as a waitress, a maid, and at a Wal-Mart. Many images stay with me from this book: wealthier citizens looking askance at her for buying a single beer in her maid's uniform, as if poor priorities were what brought her low. Territorial Wal-Mart employees obsessed with a smidge of authority, such as being in charge of the sweater rack. Diner patrons who think they're in a five-star restaurant, demanding that their burgers and fries be served in courses. The kindness of coworkers she just met, offering space in their homes. The book has been criticized by both left and right for ideological reasons. After reading it, you'll notice how much media coverage of working-class life is about ideology, or outlier stories of success or criminal failure, and how little is about how it feels, day to day, to struggle to get by.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao

As important as China is to the world, recent Chinese history was opaque to me before this book. Australian-trained doctor Li Zhisui became Mao Zedong's personal physician in 1954 and served close to him most of the time until Mao's death in 1976. Many lurid details (example: Mao never brushed his teeth, rarely bathed and some young women considered getting a venereal disease that Mao refused to have treated as a mark of honor) have led Chinese nationalists to condemn the book. It's more than a tell-all, though; it's worth reading to understand the scope of the failure of Mao-style Communism. Did you know about The Great Leap Forward? In the late 1950s, Mao told millions of Chinese to turn in their cooking pots, which could be melted into steel for great works. The West covered it at the time as a Chinese economic miracle, but millions died of starvation. A long, tragic page-turner.

Understanding Comics

Whether you read comics or not, this book is for you. It's a comic book about the unique visual grammar of the comic book format. Example: how does time function in comics? A single frame might be a split-second capture of an image, but it rarely happens that way; instead, we might see a back-and-forth conversation that could last 10 seconds or 30 seconds. The time from one frame to the next might be a second, or "eight months later." Author Scott McCloud explains how the less photo-realistic a drawing is, the more able the reader is to picture himself as that character, which explains why Japanese and European comics often have cartoonish characters walking past very real backgrounds. All comics fans should read it, but I like giving it to non-comics readers, who might actually appreciate it more because they didn't realize what a fascinating, powerful art form is often wasted, in the US, on superpowered heroes in tights.

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Cara said...

Your list reminded me how I have wanted to read The Last Werewolf. Maybe this will serve me to go pick a copy up! I remember really loving Nickel & Dimed, but having trouble convincing other people to read it. I should probably pick it back up. I just didn't like that you took a swipe at superhero comics as a whole, when there has been some very good writing and storytelling in a few of their iterations, just as much as there are so many great non-super hero stories that non-comics or graphic novel fans would probably enjoy.

W. Blake Gray said...

Cara: I used to read some superhero stories: Spider-Man when I was little, X-Men and a few others when I was a little older. There have been some good superhero stories. But comics are so much more than that, and I think non-comics readers don't always realize it. And I'm not talking exclusively about "graphic novels." "Sandman," "Preacher," "Fables" -- these are great works of literature in serial form.

W. Blake Gray said...

But for you, Cara, one more recommendation: Have you read "Joker" by Brian Azzarello? It's the only book I've ever seen about the life of a henchmen. Very dark.