For the third year running, I asked some of my favorite bloggers to weigh in on their favorite books of 2005.
As in previous surveys, respondents weren’t limited to titles published this year, but simply any book they discovered during the last 12 months that made a lasting impression on them. (I’m happy to say, by the way, that while year-end book round-ups are commonplace this time of year, mine remains the only one consisting solely of bloggers’ picks.)
This year’s roster of bloggers is perhaps the best yet — and it includes, for the first time ever, an honorary non-blogger contributor: Malcolm Gladwell.
Herewith, the Bloggers’ Favorite Books of 2005 survey:
Blog: The Minor Fall, The Major Lift
Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George was the best book I read this year. I’m a big fan of Barnes (big enough, at least, to plump for the English edition; it should be out on these shores by March), but even those who find his fiction to programmatic or essayistic (common, but baffling, complaints) will find themselves swept up by the questions of justice, identity, and truth to oneself raised in the novel. (It also functions as a fairly good cod biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, if that’s the sort of thing for which you’re looking.) The last thirty pages aim for a level of transcendence that is never quite achieved, but that doesn’t make this book any less of an accomplishment. I also want to mention Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, which, even if it hadn’t been composed with dazzling speed by a refugee from Katrina within months of that disaster, would be an incredible achievement. I’m not sure whether the cliché of journalism being the first draft of history ever really holds true, but Piazza has managed to make what can be considered the finest first argument that the city deserves. Read it and hope that it comes to pass.
I have to recommend Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Desertion, which is about family and faith and politics, the ways in which they intersect, and how they demand loyalty. Beautifully written, with wit and sensitivity.
I also enjoyed Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, based on the story of his great-aunt Teresa, a woman who was considered a saint, and who inspired a revolution. Brilliantly told.
Reza Aslan’s No god but God, is one of the best non-fiction books this year. It makes an excellent case for the re-appraisal of Islam in historical terms and really should be required reading for everyone in Washington.
My favorite book was The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr. It’s a non-fiction book about a guy named Luca Turin who is obsessed with odors, specifically, perfume fragrances. He is a biophysicist who wrote a best-selling book that reviewed hundreds of perfumes, in the same way a wine reviewer would write about wine. He believes that the odor of a substance has to do with the way it vibrates on a molecular level. Our noses, he says, contain the equivalent of a scanning electron microscope. This flies in the face of conventional thought on the subject. The reigning theory is that smell is a function of a molecule’s shape, not the way it vibrates. Burr makes a great case for Turin’s vibration theory, and the story of how nobody in academia will listen to Turin was a real opener. The peer review system for scientific journals is revealed to be totally corrupt.
Fiction or nonfiction?
Nonfiction? Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.”
Three of the most enjoyable books I read in 2005 were Michael Bamberger’s Wonderland, J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen. Bamberger’s book, which recounts a year in the life of a Pennsylvania high school, was a pleasure to read — not only in its engaging nonfiction storytelling, but also in its empathetic, non-sensationalistic take on what it’s like to be an American teenager in the 2000’s. Troost’s book is the account of two years he spent with his NGO-worker wife on the Equatorial Pacific archipelago of Kiribati — and its take on the idiosyncrasies of life on an isolated atoll makes for the funniest travel reading in recent memory. Less engaging — but even more fascinating — was Ridley’s examination of evolutionary psychology, using examples from the animal kingdom to show how all creatures (including humans) have developed their various social and sexual idiosyncrasies.
Elsewhere in the realm of nonfiction, I spent some time this year delving into readings on the role of social class in the United States. I was inspired to do this after reading Bill McKibben’s April Harper’s article about alternative agriculture in Cuba — which was thematically identical to a project proposal I submitted with my failed Pew Fellowship application in 2003. McKibben is a terrific writer, and I didn’t suspect him of stealing my idea — but I was irritated that the Pew Fellowship had rejected a proposal that would have scooped McKibben’s Harper’s story by a year; instead giving away a majority (70%) of the fellowship slots to (what I considered unremarkable) projects by candidates with Ivy League credentials. As a person who was making $3.35 an hour threshing wheat in Kansas when I was a considering collegiate options at age 17 (i.e., Ivy League schooling was never a consideration), I was flabbergasted that the Pew Fellowship would give most of its financial and professional assistance to people who obviously hailed from a background of social and economic privilege. Indeed, as successful as I’ve become as a freelance writer over the years, I have yet to receive a single financial grant or fellowship — most of which go to candidates whose only financial shortcoming would seem to be student-loan paybacks to elite universities.
Hence, I vented my frustrations by delving into a literary examination of the American class system, digging into titles such as David Brooks’ humorous (if occasionally over-generalized) Bobos in Paradise, and Paul Fussell’s snarky-yet-astute Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Also compelling (if not always fully articulate) was Jim Goad’s angry Redneck Manifesto — which, while at times lacking in even-handedness, made a strong case for the fact that poor, white, rural Americans receive little assistance or sympathy from the powers-that-be on both sides of the political spectrum.
As for fiction in 2005, many of the novels I read this year were intriguingly experimental in form — including Milan Kundera’s Immortality and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. My favorite was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which tantalizingly toyed with the line between fiction and nonfiction, and examined the dubious accuracy of memory in storytelling.
Finally, I re-read in 2005 a number of books that have been favorites since I was a teenager, including John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (which is possibly my favorite book ever). Just as it’s nice to occasionally revisit old friends in various corners of the world, it was a keen pleasure to reacquaint myself with Doc, Mac and the Boys, and Lee the Grocer in depression-era Monterey — as well as Yossarian, Major Major, Natley’s whore, and various other characters off the coast of Italy in the waning days of WWII. I’d reckon in another couple years, I’ll afford myself the pleasure of visiting them again.
Blog: Number One Hit Song
Probably my favorite book, of all the ones I’ve read, is The Diviners by Rick Moody. I was shocked to discover that I was in the minority about it–I found it to be absolutely fantastic, in both the complimentary and literal senses. This is what I said in my review:
“The Diviners is bloated and silly. It is vast; it contains multitudes. To its detractors, it might be the greatest manifestation of hubris since the Johnson administration….I am overflowing with love for this beautiful, flawed book.”
Runner up: Dream Boogie, by Peter Guralnick. A huge bio of Sam Cooke, one of the most compelling and tragic of R&B singers (which is a hard contest to win in that group!). I’m calling it a runner up because although it may be Guralnick’s most painstakingly researched book, and Cooke’s a fascinating topic, it is like 4,000 pages long and I really *cannot* get through it. And I don’t want to be like one of those folks who insist that Lipstick Traces is the greatest book ever written because everyone knows that no one’s actually made it through the whole thing. Please, it’s unreadable. So, it’s a runner up.
Blogger: Ben Preston
I’m currently reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which is the history of the colonization of Australia – convicts, prison sex, and all. Truly fascinating stuff, reminds me of just how dirty and miserable life was for many during the Victorian era. But I digress. . .
My pick would be “Destined to Witness” by Hans J. Massaquoi – originally published in German as “Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!” It’s Massaquoi’s biography. He’s the son of a Liberian politician and a German nurse and spent his childhood growing up in Hitler’s Germany and weathered the war in Hamburg. It’s an interesting look at Germany during this time period, as well as human psychology, given that as a child, Massaquoi identified with the Nazis, attempted to join the Hitler Nazi youth (and failed, naturally), despite being black, and therefore the very thing that Hitler’s Germany sought to exterminate.
He ultimately emigrated to America, became a prominent journalist and editor of Ebony. Apparently he lives in New Orleans.
Blogger: Baylen Linnekin
Blog: To the People
*A Short History of Nearly Everything is the third or fourth Bill Bryson book I’ve read and loved. In this scientific historical, though, instead of dealing with the minutiae of life in a comical way Bryson… oh, well, he does exactly that again. But rather than focusing on his family or his travels Bryson here looks at how throughout history man has tackled the biggest questions ever asked and explores the mysteries of life that may never be uncovered. My favorite observation from the book: all living things consist solely of atoms that are themselves not alive. If one was to pick apart any living thing atom by atom, what would remain is a pile of stuff that is not and has never itself been alive.
Gone Bamboo by chef/TV host/author and mercurial god Anthony Bourdain is about as much fun as I’ve had with a little work of fiction in a while. Which really was a pleasant surprise considering that his previous attempt at fiction (the mafia/culinary clunker Bone in the Throat) was unreadable. (I owe someone named Dwight Brown – who said exactly as much in the comments section at To the People – an apology and a thanks for spurring me to read Gone Bamboo.) I’m currently working on (and loving) Bourdain’s excellent Les Halles Cookbook and this year read and loved Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, to which Bourdain wrote the preface. I’m hoping The Whole Beast will nicely presage Bourdain’s own The Nasty Bits, which is due out Spring 2006.
Blogger: The Taipei Kid
Blog: The Taipei Kid
Since I am working and going to school, I haven’t had much time for
books. However, I have found time to read:
West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise by Tara Bray Smith
Sometimes confusing details, but everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Hawaii. If you are American, you’ll feel very proud of our 50th state (and happy the author found success and happiness despite having a drug-addict mom).
Blogger: Wendy Harman
Blog: Harmany Music
Freedom of Expression by Kembrew McLeod. In what started out as a prank, Kembrew succeeded in trademarking the phrase “Freedom of Expression.” He then wrote a hilarious and accessible critique about how digital culture is shaping up. His website and documentary are
masterpieces to boot.
Oracle Night by Paul Auster. A compelling story told with a skill that amazes me. I have continued to wonder about the characters in the months since I read the last page. Plus, there are footnotes. Who doesn’t love a novel with footnotes?
Blog: Time I’ll Never Get Back
Looking back, I read a lot this year, but not a lot of stuff I loved. One book that really resonated was “Urban Tribes” by Ethan Watters, which explores the dynamic of twenty/thirtysomethings who form family-like communities that function as de facto families. Watters laid out this concept in a NYT article a few years ago; the book was published in 2003 but I just picked it up this year. As a member of an extended urban tribe myself, it was really interesting to read about how these groups form, what they mean to their members, and what they mean for our society and culture on the whole.
I also loved “Becoming Justice Blackmun,” but you might have to be a law geek like me to appreciate that one.
And, finally, the honorary non-blogger contribution comes from bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, who, as I explained in my email to him, may not technically maintain a blog but who nevertheless has a much cooler Web site than most famous scribes.
i think i’ll go with “the chosen,” jerome karabel’s history of ivy league admissions. if i had any doubts about the existence of an american class system, they were erased by that book.
(Ed: Be sure to check out Gladwell’s most recent book, the fantastic “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”)
As for me, I found Eric Schlosser’s “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market” to be incredibly compelling, particularly for its illumination of the failed policies of America’s absurd “war on drugs.”
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to contribute.
Happy reading in 2006.