Saturday, March 19, 2022
Today I have a burning need to talk about books. It’s the kind of word that sits there and kindles and waits and wants to be talked about but needs just the right time because you can’t talk about something as big and amazing as books on any old day of the week.
The problem is… what books? Random books? Favorite books? We already established it’s impossible to pick a favorite anything. A favorite in each genre? Still too much competition. Top ten?
I could talk about books all day, which is all the more reason to come up with some constraints.
I never read reviews before reading a book. There’s just no way to trust them. You can barely trust an Amazon review of a spatula.
48,768 people think it’s the most AMAZING spatula they have ever used in their lives and 37,436 people think it’s the WORST thing they’ve ever used in their lives and want the spatula to die along with whoever invented it.
If I can’t even confidently buy a spatula, I sure as heck can’t take someone’s book recommendation.
I like to read a book without expectation. Sometimes, forgive me, I judge it by its cover and read it because it’s beautiful. That has not always worked out so well.
I usually like to read reviews after I’ve read a book, and usually only of the books I seriously disliked, for two reasons. One, I want to see if maybe I missed something and could see the book in a different way, and two, I want to see what kind of idiots liked it in the first place.
But I digress.
So let’s call this the very very short list of books I love, and a few that I hate. I picked these because if I could tell you to read something, or not read it, this would be it. Certainly not all of it, but a good place to start.
Oooooh! I know! The Oscars are coming up, with all their movie categories and awards. So let’s make this the Academy Awards of books. I know there are a billion book awards already out there but this is my blue ribbon list. Completely spoiler-free.
Welcome to the red carpet.
And by the way, that dress look great on you.
Part 1. The Bests
Best Picture Book: Eloise by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight
It takes a special kind of writer to create a children’s book. Simple without being simplistic. Meaningful without being preachy. Funny without being silly. Touching without being corny. You might say that’s true of any genre, but kids’ books have to look good and sound good – not just to kids but to the grown ups who read them out loud.
My first best most favorite read-it-a-hundred times book was Eloise. I still have the original hardcover my father bought for me.
I just love Eloise. I absolutely do.
The writing and illustrations are hilarious hilarious hilarious. If you love Nanny as much as I do, you know that she says everything three times.
Eloise is one of those books, if you’re in a bad mood, it will fix you every time. Along with seashells, it’s one of those things I can’t believe I left in a box when I moved here.
Best All Around Children’s Story That You Will Also Love As An Adult: Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E. H. Shepard
Sometimes you really can’t separate a story from its illustrations. The right combination of author and illustrator can create something magical beyond just words and pictures.
I’ve read this book and its companions dozes of times. I laugh out loud and cry out loud every time. I was probably introduced to Winnie the Pooh via Disney movie, but once I discovered the books I became a die hard classic lover. It’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s fun.
And by the way, it’s Winnie ther Pooh, don’t you know?
Best Stream Of Consciousness: On The Road (the original scroll) by Jack Kerouac
I admit this is not for everyone. It can be a bit daunting to get through what amounts to a 400 page paragraph. It’s just so blissfully insane, and probably helped that I read it after Ralph and I had just finished our cross-country road trip. I first read the “publishable” version, then the original scroll. It’s worth reading the history of it as much as the book itself. This, for me, is art. A piece of someone’s actual soul on a page.
Best Book To Geek Out On: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you were a child of the 80s and don’t adore this book then I don’t know who you are. This is one of those books I read in a single day, up in bed until ridiculous hours in a fever dream of pop culture geekery. Don’t listen to people on Goodreads who complain about the plot or the fact that the book amounts to inside references to 80s obscura. That’s the entire joy of the thing.
I own, but have not read, Ready Player Two in part because I’m afraid it won’t hold up. I’ll get there, but I will probably read the first six more times.
Best Classic You Probably Hated In High School Until You Rediscovered It Under Your Own Power: The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
I swear to God I’m a madman. I have never been an angst-ridden teenage boy but I love every word of this book. I’m not sure I can explain why. It just seems to speak to the angst in all of us. It’s one of the top few books I have read the most times and I’ll do it again. It’s also one of the few books that when people tell me they hate it, I get a little cranky. If you didn’t like it, just pretend you never read it next time we talk. I’ll forgive you the white lie.
Best Hard Sc-Fi: Dune by Frank Herbert
The entire series, in fact. Forget what you’ve seen in the movies, even the rather enjoyable recent adaptation. This is one of those books that proves that it isn’t about the cool tech or the high wire special effects. It’s about the story.
It’s not spaceship-flying fluff and it is rather dense. But it’s an immersive and brilliantly built story. It’s an entire universe of political intrigue, relationships, philosophy, and religion. With spaceships. And giant worms.
Best Literary Masterpiece: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I read this entire book with one word in my head: yes. Sometimes you don’t know why something is so affecting, you just know that it is. It’s in the way characters are birthed and how settings become their own characters. It’s in the way an author expresses something you didn’t even know you felt until you read it on the page. The writing is just beautiful. Steinbeck is one of those authors who can take ordinary words and put them together in extraordinary ways.
I think this book should be banned from schools because then everyone would want to read it instead of just dissecting it to death for a term paper. What a waste of an experience that is.
Best Laugh Out Loud Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Lots of books get a snort or a chuckle out of me, like anything by Jane Austen, but not many get a guffaw. This was one of those books, followed closely by Naked. Maybe you can relate to some of the crazy in his family, and maybe you can’t, but either way you have to laugh. There is a bare honesty and hilarity to this book and now I’m sad that it is also in a box in a house where I am not.
Best Fantasy Series: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I have a rule about reading a series before all the books have been released, which is: no. I learned that lesson when Stephen King took 15 years to put out the next volume in his Dark Tower series. Granted, he was literally hit by a van in between, but that really put a crimp in my reading schedule.
I inadvertently made an exception with Harry Potter and instantly regretted it because I loved the book so much that I couldn’t wait for the next. Did I learn my lesson? No. When the next book came out, I read the first one all over again, then the second immediately. Then when the third one came out I read the first, second and third.
In case you’re wondering where this is going, I read the first book a lot, and the entire series end-to-end twice. The movies? Meh. But the books were so much fun. What is more iconically enjoyable than good vs. evil, and magic wands and spells that fix everything, and sometimes don’t so you find yourself crying? To anyone who does not like these books, I say: pfffft.
Best Single Period History: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
My least favorite subject throughout all my school years was not math, although that was a close second, but history. It was so boring, so rote, so disjointed. “History” amounted to memorizing dates and learning about the ancient Phoenicians in excruciating detail. Every year.
I imagine people become history teachers because they love history, because I don’t imagine they are simply in love with timelines. But I never met a history teacher who put anything into a context that made sense. It’s like history was just one event after another on some sort of linear arc.
That’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It is about one single year in American history and it paints a picture, not of history, but of life. From the Lindbergh kidnapping to Prohibition to politics, the Yankees, the mob and a bunch of other stuff, you actually get a sense that more than one thing happened at a time.
Admittedly, there were some slow parts and it wasn’t the best Bill Bryson book ever, but it was thoroughly fascinating to get a picture of what life was like during this period.
Best Single Place History: Boom Town by Sam Anderson
This book does for Oklahoma what Bill Bryson did for 1927. You may wonder why on earth anyone really cares about the history of Oklahoma, except, maybe, for people who live in Oklahoma. Because it’s absurdly interesting, that’s why.
The story of the city is juxtaposed against the story of its famed basketball team, the Thunder. Things I knew about basketball before reading this: zero. Interest I had in basketball before reading this: zero percent. Things I did immediately following reading this: watched Thunder games. I also added half a dozen other books to my list of things to read as a result of what I learned.
The storytelling is fantastic. This was one of those books that got context and narrative right.
Best Book That Was Made Into The Worst Movie: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
I thought this book was such a captivating look into the lives of nomadic workers, the kind that live in RVs and show up at Amazon warehouses during the holiday season to work ridiculous hours under unpleasant conditions so you can get your fart cushion in time to wrap it for your six year old nephew. The stories of the people, their lives, their whys, were funny, profound, sad, interesting and human.
I know the movie won Best Picture but I feel that it missed the mark utterly on what the book was about. Forget the whole purple mountains majesty conceit, and read the book. I guarantee you will not get the same feeling.
Best Book In A Collection Of Best Books: My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederich Backman
It started with A Man Called Ove. Then came My Grandmother at which point I didn’t care what the title was, I would read it if it was written by this author. Every one of his books is a gem, but this is the favorite book post, not the favorite author post, so I had to choose the best of the best. It’s the epitome of brilliant storytelling meets uncanny insight. It’s so creative and unique. You will laugh out loud, cry into your pillow and then run to the library as fast as you can for another of his books.
Best Book That Changed My Life: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
It sounds dramatic to say a book changed my life. I hear people say that all the time and I don’t believe it. It usually has to do with woo-ey things like finding yourself or some such nonsense. There is a difference between a book having a profound effect on you and a book changing your life. Lots of books affect me. But this one tangibly changed my life.
You probably know I have a thing about food. But I didn’t know much about it other than what I want to see on a plate. Then I read this book and learned about how meat happens, the unethical way that animals are treated, and the ramifications for us from a health perspective. It is written well and the storytelling is great. It sounds weird to say I enjoyed it because it was such an awful topic, but I did.
How did it actually change my life? Since reading it I have never purchased meat from a supermarket again, and only purchase farm raised meat from sources I trust.
Part 2. The Worsts
Worst Book That I Feel Like I Should Have Liked: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
This was like The Catcher In The Rye meets Jack Kerouac. Literary, meandering, creative, angst-y. I just didn’t get it. I wanted to get it. I tried to get it. Instead I found it ponderous and unreadable.
I picked it up because it was on an episode of Ozark, so it was mostly just for fun. Sadly, it was anything but. It’s also one of those books that people wax ecstatic about, which makes me really sad, because I wonder if maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset. Maybe one day I will try it again and love it. But that won’t be soon.
Worst Book Ever, Period: Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Yet another book that I wanted to love. Nay, expected to love. After all, it’s all nature-y and environmental. It turned out to be pretentious, snobby, and boring. I don’t think this is a spoiler, but I found his constant preaching about the nobility of “the simple life” beyond disingenuous. It’s easy to live in a shack, grow potatoes for a year and talk about how nice it is to be poor when it’s funded by your rich writer friend and you can go home to mommy for a warm meal on any given Sunday.
Every time I read another person’s glowing review I’m convinced it’s a case of if I don’t love this book then I’m just not cool enough. Dislike with five negative stars.
Worst Book Ever, Period Exclamation Point: Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn
At least Walden had the benefit of being literary. Here’s how to sum up this book, and trust me, this is not a spoiler: 30-something rich guys have existential angst, get rid of all their stuff, move to a small town in Montana where they look down on people for their shitty lives, scoff at anyone who owns a sofa, and get preachy about how they’ve figured out the right way to live. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything but self-absorbed, self-righteous drivel. If you liked this book, stop it.
Worst Book With The Nicest Cover: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The cover is black and padded with gold leaf and the pages are edged with gold. I bought it synopsis-unseen because I thought if someone cared that much about the cover, they had to care about the story. Alas. I guess it wasn’t the worst story ever, but it was superficial, stupid, pointless and not very entertaining. I feel like the author had a message that he really wanted to cram down your throat but it was so muddled that I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
I’ll sum it up: earth is dying. People go to another planet. They meet indigenous beings and proselytize to them. The end. It’s possible there was a religious message there? Or an environmental one? Or just a story about first contact? I have no idea. It was a waste of a cover.
Before this becomes a book of books, I’m going to call this a successful first Academy Awards of Books. I KNOW I left a ton of gems off this list and I am going to obsess about it for the rest of my life. Perhaps one day we will have an encore book post. But right now I’m going to read one of the four I currently have started.
Photo: bookshelves that we had specially built when we remodeled our condo AF (After Flood). They covered two full walls and even then we had piles of books on the floor.