Bloggers’ Favorite Books of 2004

For the second year running, I asked some of my favorite bloggers which books they most enjoyed over the last year. (Not necessarily books published in 2004, but any book they discovered over the last 12 months.) Here’s what they said.

(Before we start: have a Weblog and want to contribute your picks? Email me or post your thoughts on your blog and link to this entry.)

–Blogger: Lizzie Skurnick
–Weblog: Old Hag

Lizzie writes:”I seem somehow to be about a year behind in my reading, so I’ll recommend two 2003 standouts: Meg Wolitzer’s THE WIFE and Zoe Heller’s WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?. Both were acknowledged to be clever, but generally placed in the “women’s fiction” — even midlist — ghetto. In fact, these contained the most sharply turned prose and clever plot twists of the year. I can’t think of two more solid novels. It’s impressive to be complex, but it’s far more impressive to be complex and remain a great read. Take that, Franzen!”

–Blogger: Mark Sarvas
–Blog: The Elegant Variation

Mark writes: “As for my book of the year, perhaps you’ll permit me a pair – a novel and an essay collection. It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who reads The Elegant Variation that Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli – a book that’s oddly absent from a number of year end round ups, eclipsed, perhaps, by late releases from Phillip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Marilynne Robinson – was my favorite novel of the year. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt novel about a man whose body ages in reverse, and how his condition both hurts – and helps – him in his quest from the woman he loves. I interviewed the author earlier this year, and in a pre-interview comment that was never transcribed I told him that perhaps the bravest and/or most radical/experimental move a novelist can make in this age of cool detachment is to write an unabashedly old-fashioned novel. Which he has. I’ve also gotten hours of enjoyment from James Wood’s collection of literary criticism, The Irresponsible Self. Though some have taken issue (not unfairly) with some of his arguments and his conclusions, I think no one can deny the staggering breadth of Wood’s reading. He’s one of serious fiction’s most passionate advocates, and even if he sometimes comes across dour and schoolmarmish, he’s a dour schoolmarm that we desperately need. And he’s funny as hell, too – his evisceration of Tom Wolfe alone is worth the cover price.”

–Blogger: Derek K. Miller

Derek writes: “As the sometimes stay-at-home father of two girls under 7, part-time software employee, part-time musician, and blathering weblogger, I don’t read nearly as many books as I used to, or as I’d like to. Here are my nominees, regardless of when they were published:

– “Hey Nostradamus!” (2003), by Douglas Coupland, is typical of his books: it takes place almost entirely in his hometowns of North and West Vancouver, and revolves around kids in high school, and what becomes of them and their families. There are many deaths, some deserved, some uncertain, some shockingly random. It’s about people who want to change themselves, but can’t. Only one of the four major characters does change, and only far too late, when he’s irrelevant to everyone to whom it would matter. And yet, there at the end of the book, I nearly cried. I think it’s Coupland’s best written work since “Microserfs” a decade ago.

– “Paris: 1919” by Margaret MacMillan. An astounding retelling of the six-month Paris Peace Conference that followed the First World War. Before the human and financial enormities of that conflict, leaders and citizens assumed that wars were what countries did. It was how they grew and gained influence. In Paris, some wanted to change that. But they didn’t. MacMillan shows that the Peace Conference delegates tried very, very hard. Often they were working at cross-purposes, and the results were, in the end, almost total failure. But they did not know it at the time. Maybe we never do.

– “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (1999), by Jared Diamond. Had the world been slightly different, a Bantu leader riding a rhinoceros might very well have led a conquering army from sub-Saharan Africa to overthrow the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. Today, we would be living in a world dominated by African cultures and institutions. But it didn’t happen. A big reason is that rhinos, unlike horses, cannot be domesticated. Seemingly trivial facts like that have profoundly affected how history did turn out. If you’d like to find out why that might be so, read this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.”

–Blogger: Mark Frauenfelder
–Weblog: Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things

Mark writes: “The best book I read all year is an advance copy of Cory Doctorow’s, “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town,” a novel that combines dark fantasy with contemporary science fiction. He took a huge risk with it, but he managed to pull it off, which is testament to his talent as a writer. I became friends with Cory because I admired his writing, and his work always continues to thrill me.”

— Blogger: Dale Keiger
— Weblog: scribble, scribble, scribble…

Dale writes: “The best book I read this year was the last book I read this year, Why Read? by Mark Edmunson. The author is an English professor at the University of Virginia who does not hold contemporary humanities theorists in high regard. Nor does he think much of the current consumerist approach to higher education, institutions of higher learning thinking of themselves as brands that can “leverage their franchise” (my terms, not his) and attract students by the promise to entertain them, not challenge or educate them. What Edmunson believes, and eloquently advocates, is humanities education that equips students to find their “final narratives,” which he defines as “the ultimate set of terms that we use to confer value on experience. It’s where our principles are manifest.” He writes, “I think that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to give people an enhanced opportunity to decide how they should live their lives.” He makes his case in succinct prose that’s always precise, measured, and nuanced. I will read it again someday.

The other books that made the biggest impression on me were Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Rosemary Mahoney’s The Singular Pilgrim. Rosemary is a friend, and I’m happy to say that this is her best book.”

— Blogger: Rolf Potts
— Weblog:

Rolf writes: “Of the 32 or so books I read this year, the only one that was published in 2004 was Michael Shapiro’s “A Sense of Place : Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration”, which is a series of interviews with 18 contemporary travel writers, including Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Simon Winchester, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Tim Cahill, and Peter Matthiessen. This really was an engrossing book, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in travel writing. Since I’m a travel writer myself, I found it especially insightful — not only for the interviewees’ insights about writing, but also their insights about travel.

Beyond that, there were a number of excellent books that I enjoyed this year. Of novels, I loved Alain de Botton’s “On Love”, which wasn’t a typical love story so much as an acute examination of the process and human underpinnings of love. I found it fascinating. For short stories, I thought Lorrie Moore’s “Self-Help” was a great and effective exercise in experimental narrative voice. As for genre fiction — something I don’t typically read much of — I found James Ellroy’s crime novel “LA Confidential” almost impossible to put down. And, finally, my favorite advice book this year was Tariq “K-Flex” Nasheed’s “The Art of Mackin”. Granted, I don’t really plan on becoming a mack daddy anytime soon, but Nasheed’s book is as much about common sense and human nature as it is about being a player. (I found this book by accident on after
hearing a fascinating public radio piece — — on pimp culture a few years back).”

(Ed.: Rolf’s own book, “Vagabonding : An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was published in 2002. I recommend it highly.)

–Blogger: Randy Paul
–Weblog: Beautiful Horizons

Randy writes: ”1.) John Gimlette’s “At the Tomb of the Inflatable
Pig: Travels Through Paraguay”
a terrific read about a
country that is too often neglected.

2.) Peter Robb’s “A Death in Brazil : A Book of Omissions” an excellent read about my favorite country in Latin America, skillfully interweaving the historical with the personal.

3.) Franklin Foer’s, “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization” an excellent
introduction that explains why what the rest of the
world calls football is so much more than a game.”

–Blogger: Jen Leo
–Weblog: written road

Jen writes: “A Sense of Place : Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro. The heart that Michael put into this book, and the lifetimes that these travelers have shared with us, has inspired me to dig deeper with my writing and put more thought into the history that I’m building with my life.

Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles
by Christopher P. Baker. The first time I cracked open this book I wanted to rip the pages out and frame them. I can’t stop telling people about this book.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals : Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. MAARTEN TROOST. Troost is an absolute find. I’m dying for his next book!”

(Ed.: Be sure to check out Whose Panties Are These? More Misadventures from Funny Women on the Road, which Jen herself edited.)

–Blogger: Wendy Harman
–Weblog: Harmany Music

Wendy writes: “True to form, I picked a music-type biography, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One. Sadly and truthfully, I don’t think I’d read a book published in 2004, but had heard about this one and wanted to read it, so your email pushed me to the store to pick it up and ingest it last weekend. Resolutions? Read more current offerings in 2005.

Like his music, this authorial endeavor isn’t pretty to look at and doesn’t have a great-sounding voice, but it is full of a storytelling knack that seamlessly weaves cultural and political events with the context of his life. Chronicles is an anecdotal folk biography by America’s most prolific folk artist, and feels like a dinner party storytelling session. Dylan writes as any regular man would, recounting the moments that meant something to him, not necessarily the ones that meant something to us. He cites many artists and books he encountered and was inspired by along the way, giving the public a record of the experiences that shaped him. As in his songwriting, he keeps his innermost thoughts private, describing what he saw along the street, but not how the pavement hurt his feet. Overall, a good, insightful read.”

–Blogger: Laila Lalami

Laila writes: “I’d have to say that my favorite book of 2004 was
Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi. Whether or not you’ve read the first installment, this graphic novel will engage and delight you. In stark, black-and-white drawings, Satrapi manages to weave a rich, complex tale of an Iranian teenager whose parents send her off, alone, to study in Austria so she can escape the stifling rule of the Islamic Republic. Young Marji survives the loneliness, the racism, and a broken heart, and returns to Iran, where further challenges await. Satrapi’s storytelling is not only masterful, it’s absolutely effortless.”

–As for this humble blogger, here’re my picks:

I really liked Amy Chua’s “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.” Chua makes a compelling argument that “market dominant minorities” all over the developing world–the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia and elite whites in South America, for example–stand to gain the most from globalization, and that opening the world’s markets couuld lead to social and political strife. Chua’s treatise challenges the world Tom Friedman portrays in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” in which globalization benefits all parties involved, regardless of economic status.

But my favorite book was “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze,” by Peter Hessler. The author was a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural part of China’s Sichuan province. He taught literature at a university between 1996 and 1998; I particularly enjoyed his observations, based on his interactions with the school’s communist party leaders, on China’s political workings. The book was interesting to me on a personal level, too, since I’ve spent the last nine months teaching English in Taiwan, a nation that China regards as a renegade province.

Many, many thanks to all the folks who took the time to contribute.

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