Friday, December 04, 2009

Add these to your holiday list

My turn to recommend my favorite books of the past (two) years. (See Vicki’s post below for the criteria.)

First, two books I really had hoped I could add to the list – Drood by Dan Simmons and The Poe Shadow by Mathew Pearl. Both Simmons and Pearl are excellent writers but both of their books dragged on waaay too long – 364 (in 10 point type) for Pearl and a mind-boggling 771 for Simmons. Long-book fans will say that the length allows the author to really explore the characters and settings in depth and enables for complex, twisting plots, but I’d argue that both of these books just drag it out and that both books suffer because of it.

Okay, so what made the list? In no particular order:

Death and the Running Patterer by Robin Adair. I’ll admit, part of the appeal for me is that this book is set in Sydney and that I bought it on vacation in Australia and was able to visit many of the locations while I read the book, but it’s still a great read. Nicodemus Dunne, a fallen Bow Street Runner who was transported to Australia for petty reasons, makes his living as a running patterer, sort of a word-of-mouth news service. The original setting, the bloody crimes and the worthy villain put this book on the list. [A side note – I wanted to contact the author to discuss his book, but it turns out he’s so unconnected that his manuscript, submitted on paper, was typed on a manual, non-electric typewriter. Needless to say, no email.]

Predictability Irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions by Dan Ariely. If you think that you know what drives your decisions, read this book. You’ll learn how the power of free will makes smart people make really dumb decisions, how placing an outrageous offer next to a not-quite so outrageous offer will get you to buy stuff you don’t want, how we all cheat (yes, you too), how simply reminding people that they should be honest makes them more honest and a lot more things that seem impossible but Ariely has the research to back it up. For writers it’s a great look into the minds of the people we think we know well. Like ourselves.

Indignation by Philip Roth. It’s a quick read but that’s mostly because Roth is such a frickin’ good writer that the pages zip by. The premise is simple – one quick backseat romp changes everything for his protagonist, and not in any way you’d expect – but it’s the writing that made this book one of the best I read all year.

Why We Suck by Dr. Denis Leary. Okay, you can only read this in short bursts since Leary’s caustic writing style, while brilliantly hilarious, can get a bit soul-crushing. But those bursts are wildly fun and painfully accurate. If you are easily offended – no, scratch that, if you are offended by anything at all, I promise you Leary will offend you. And make you laugh. And – surprise! – think.

Every Boat Turns South by J.P. White. This one has all the things I love – fast-paced adventure, Caribbean setting, drug smugglers, modern pirates and a noir sensibility that haunts every page. The nautical stuff was never over done and the action was always believable and intense. A great beach book, sure, but the writing is so good that it deserves a close read. Mr. White has a new and ardent fan.

The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber. I’ve always dreamed of writing an art-based mystery (tried a few times, not happy with the results…so far) but it seems my dream book has already been written. In this masterful novel, artist Chaz Wilmot struggles to stay true to his art in a world that no longer appreciates his old-world style. But that’s okay since it seems that Chaz is also the Spanish painter Velázquez. Or maybe not. Oh, and he’s working for an Italian mobster who makes the Corleones seem warm and fuzzy. But the best part of this book is the original and satisfying conclusion. When I finished reading this book I literally gave a cheer – Gruber earned that and more.

Slamming Open the Door by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. If I could only recommend one book, a book I could honestly say every one of you should read, it would be this book of 41 poems that chronicle the murder of Bonanno’s 21 year old daughter, the investigation and trial that followed, and the horrible wake this awful crime caused. Every line is icy clear, every poem a masterpiece that you just know was never written for us but for Bonanno. I wonder if I will ever write one piece of anything as true as these poems. Given what sparked them, I hope I don't.


Deardeedle said...

First - is Dennis Leary actually a Dr. And 2 - I have been wanting to read this book. And if YOU like it, I have a fighting shot. BTW Bently and I are getting along quite well :]

Charles benoit said...

On page 11 he notes that he received a (honorary) doctorate from his alma mater, Emerson College - and on page 12 there's a picture of the document.

As for Mr. Benchley, I'm not surprised.