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The Book Year in Review

Thankfully, I did not have a reading list for 2011, because there’s no doubt I would have failed to even come close to completing it. However, I did get through a few books this year, most of which were worth reading, and a few of which could be considered life-changing. They are (with minor spoilers):

Zeitoun (Dave Eggers) – Powerful, gripping story from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that takes a few unexpected turns. Unless you’ve been subjected to indefinite detainment recently, it may leave you in a bit of shock and awe over the issue. An especially relevant read in today’s easily terrorized world. 5 stars.

A Sideways Look At Time (Jay Griffiths) – Interesting, somewhat challenging read, simply because the author doesn’t accept most of the assumptions that underlie modern society. The necessity to constantly be more efficient, the importance of clock-time, and the limiting, controlling unity that results are challenged head-on with diverse examples of other, more relationship-driven cycles and rhythms found in indigenous cultures around the world. No matter whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing, this book will definitely make you think twice about your worldview and your priorities. 4 stars.

Forests (Robert Pogue Harrison) – A heavy read, spanning centuries of history, literature, and poetry, but written by a genius. Explores how forests, and the reality/idea of wilderness has grounded most of our cultural and religious landmarks in western society. 3.5 stars.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut) – This is the only Vonnegut I’ve read so far, so of course it is the best. His writing style is lucid and understandable, but the level of tragedy present near the end of WWII in Europe is almost impossible to comprehend. Definitely a must-read. 4 stars.

Roads to Quoz (William Least Heat-Moon) – I love the spirit of adventure that William Least Heat-Moon lives, but in his writing of this book it leads to, well, too much writing. Roads to Quoz is not as clear & focused as the epic, and more famous “Blue Highways”, and it’s a little like hanging out with someone who just keeps telling story after story to avoid dead air. That said, I don’t regret reading the book, and give it a solid 3 stars.

The Circumference of Home (Kurt Hoelting) – Quick read in the style of the adventure-epic, where one man decides to avoid traveling anywhere outside a 100km radius from his home on Whidbey Island, and avoid using fossil fuels to get around inside the . The arbitrariness of the 100km rule goes without saying, but this constraint does push him to some true adventures, including walking dozens of miles along rivers and the Sound between Seattle and Everett, biking all over the place, and kayaking across the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island with a group of Native Americans who have been canoeing across for centuries. Does prove that an independently wealthy person can live an extremely low-carbon lifestyle, but doesn’t exactly offer solutions for the masses. Definitely 4 stars, at least for this native Washingtonian, just for the descriptions of human-powered travel all over the Sound.

The Imperfectionists (Tom Rachman) – This book appears to be pretty popular, but I couldn’t get into it. And once I finally did get into it, I didn’t want to stay in it. Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but the themes of the slow decline of aging, family and business struggles and failures, and relationship missteps aren’t really high on my list of things to read about, given their relative abundance in real life. This book might be just right for some, but it wasn’t for me. 2 stars.

Bicycle Diaries (David Byrne) – This is the kind of book I’d love to write, because the author (David Byrne, of Talking Heads) just shared his experiences traveling the globe and biking in his free time. Along the way you find out which cities have the best bicycle infrastructure (hint: think northern europe), and how to get people to build bike racks for free (hint: offer to take them off the sidewalk in NYC after a year and sell them as artwork). 3.5 stars, or more if you love cycling.

Jesus, Interrupted (Bart D. Ehrman) – I’m going to totally spoil this book by revealing the two main points: 1) people who believe that every word of the Bible was written by God would have a significant crisis of faith if it were discovered that humans wrote the Bible, and 2) humans wrote the Bible. I found the book to be plodding at times, but it is very thorough and heartfelt, and definitely recommended if you spend much time thinking about #’s 1 and 2 above. 3 stars.

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (Tony Schwartz) – This book was a lifechanger for me, because I spend an inordinate amount of my time working, and I was struggling to feel that my time was well-spent. It gave me (and many others, no doubt) lots of tools to deal with this struggle, and ways to transform the happiness and fulfillment of a career by recognizing the many pitfalls in the modern workplace and, hopefully, avoiding them. My full review is here, and I give this one 5 stars (maybe less if you don’t work in an office and/or already love your job).

Manly Hero (Adrastus Rood) – My favorite book of the year, and the one I read the fastest. This fantasy is more accessible (and shorter!) than the books of J.R.R. Tolkein or G.R.R. Martin, but is really wide-ranging in its exploration of human ideals through the lens of an adventure quest. And its funny, too, both in plot twists and in wordplay. My Amazon review is here, and I give this must-read 5 stars.

So that was 2011, and I’m hoping to read more in 2012, with a goal of finishing 24 books. I’m always looking for good book suggestions, and you can find me on goodreads here.

3 comments to The Book Year in Review

  • thanks for the write-up.

    vonnegut is great; and that was the only one from your list that i’ve read. you should try his sirens of titan.

    do you find goodreads to be a lot better than shelfari? not that i really use shelfari much, but occasionally interesting.

  • Joel

    will add sirens of titan for this year – thanks for the recommendation! i think goodreads is a little cleaner (and it also has a nice iOS app), but more importantly i think more people are using it right now. i get the feeling that when amazon bought shelfari they basically stopped all development on the site…

  • cool. i’ll have to give it a whirl.

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