I only started writing about each book I've read since 2006, when I started this blog, so at first I thought it wouldn't be fair to try to make a "favorites of the decade list." I can hardly remember what i did this morning, let alone remember what I read in 2002. But then I thought that if I can't remember a book without checking a list, well, maybe it isn't memorable enough to make this list. So problem solved--this list only consists of books that came to mind, without checking any of my lists.
In alphabetical order by title:
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. An intense look at a man who was often his own worst enemy. One of the best biographies I've ever read.
Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America, by J. Anthony Lukas. The title pretty much says it all--it's part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and part cultural history. Lukas manages to weave together many threads of widely varying colors, from the violent struggle of labor vs. owners in the West, to the founding of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, to the early careers of pitcher Walter Johson and Ethel Barrymore. A fascinating read.
Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. Magicians in the early 1900s. Really, what more could I ask for?
The Echoing Green, by Joshua Prager. This book made me realize that I do not know what I thought I knew.
Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear, by Jim Steinmeyer. After reading "Carter Beats the Devil," I wanted to find out more about the history of magicians on stage. I learned a lot about how magicians do what they do, and learned a lot about what I can do to become a more effective performer as well.
In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. I'm glad I read this book for two reasons. First, for a book of this size and with such a daunting reputation, it's a damn fun read. It often has, of all things, a very gossipy tone, and a couple of head-spinning plot twists (when I was reading it, a friend who had recently finished it asked, "Did you get to the letter yet?" I said no, wondering what she meant. Well, when I got to the letter, I knew EXACTLY what she meant). Each densely packed page contains marvels of prose; yes, sometimes it can feel overwhelming, and there definitely were some skimming moments. But more often than not, I wanted to read every word. This would be a marvelous book to read aloud to someone (until your voice gives out, somewhere in the middle of chapter one). The other reason for reading this is that it feels like a cultural get-out-of-jail card. As in, "I don't know anything about art, but I've actually read Proust." It's something not everyone gets around to, so finishing it made me feel the way I think I'd feel if I climbed some impressive mountain.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. The classic about the boy spy. It's easy for people today to get all caught up in Kipling's "white man's burden" attitude. But the power of his writing, and love for the places he wrote about can be felt here in his description of Kim's journeys.
Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner. Reading this book made me think it is a marvel that this country has survived some of the epic bungles of the spy agency.
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924/ Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia/ The Whisperers by Orlando Figes. As you can see, I seem to think Mr. Figes is the absolute go-to guy for Russian history. His books often cover very big events, but he brings them down to a personal level through the true stories of people who lived through these times.
River of Doubt, by Candice Millard. Why, look, it's this year's winner! But not because I just read it a few months ago, but because of Millard's thrillingly horrifying descriptions of the jungle in this story of an expedition that began with an excess of pride and nearly ended in disasters.
Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis. Charles M. Schulz hid his true self in plain sight--everything he ever was or wanted to be, felt, loved, or hated could be found in one of the panels of Peanuts. And what he was was a man who seemed to be almost incapable of happiness, one of the more puzzling people you will ever meet in the pages of any book.
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal. Henry Morton Stanley constructed his own personal history out of layers and layers of lies. Jeal somehow found the real story, and it's a good one.
Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, by Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. The story of the battle for control of an area that refuses to be controlled. Essential reading for anyone interested in the Raj.
Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus. A sympathetic, but evenhanded biography of one of the twentieth century's most uneasy figures.
And that's it--for now. I have a bad feeling I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night remembering important titles I've left out. So I apologize in advance for this list's potential expansion.
Many people are making end of decade lists, so I thought why shouldn't I as well? I know! I'm glad you agree.
I'm calling this list "favorite movies" because I am not claiming that they are the best of each year, just that they are the ones I liked. Of course all of this comes with a warning: there are an astonishing number of movies that I should have seen that I haven't yet, and looking at each year's lists of films released made me feel enormously guilty (shouldn't I have found time by now to see "Gosford Park?" or "28 Weeks Later?" or "Hellboy 2?"). So if you notice a year that has only one or two titles listed, that doesn't necessarily mean it was an awful year for movies--it might just mean I missed pretty much everything that year. But if a title that you would think should be on anyone's best of list is missing, that also doesn't necessarily mean that I didn't see it--I might just not have liked it that much (sorry, "Dark Knight).
So here is my collection of decade favorites, organized by year, and at the end there is my best of the best list. Questions? Problems? Disagreements? Disparaging remarks about my taste in movies? Please let me know.
The one, the only, the eagerly awaited, highly controversial, and incredibly...uninfluential 9 Best Books I Read During 2009, by me. Not a critic, not an expert, just a girl with a library card and no fear of using it.
When I went back through my book posts to look at my options for this list, I was surprised at how many books I either had little feeling for or outright bored me. This was not a banner year for my book selections by any means. To be honest, at first I had trouble coming up with more than four titles. But I did.
Here are the rules, for those of you who are new to my list (and really, how did that happen? where have you been?): this is not a list made up of books published in 2009, just the ones I read in 2009. Some are new, some are older, all are recommended for one reason or another. Titles are linked to my original write up.
9. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn
A history of the Federal Theater Project, a source of fascination for anyone with an interest in the Depression, the WPA, and of course American theater. More informative than thrilling, but still always readable, Quinn's book is clear, comprehensive, and full of the stories and characters that made this venture such a rare and exciting time in theater.
8. The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen
Cohen's book tells the story of Helen Jewett, a prostitute who was murdered in New York City in the early nineteenth century. The murder trial that followed. The trial became the blueprint for all the sensational "trials of the century" that have since followed, and arguably gave birth to the tabloid press in America. Cohen's research is awe-inspiring--she digs through the layers of exaggeration and fiction that have covered the case over the last one hundred years, and manages to find some truths. The result is the reclamation of Helen Jewett as a person, rather than a victim in a penny dreadful.
7. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley
An entertaining--and helpful--look at the history of people and their behavior during disasters, and what you can do to help yourself if you are (hopefully not) ever caught in some kind of catastrophe. You wouldn't expect this book to be a page turner, but trust me, it is.
6. Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead's book details the eventful story of Lucie de La Tour du Pin, a French noble woman who came of age right before the Revolution, and spent the rest of her life alternately running from one regime and winning favor with another. Paris, Bordeaux, London, Rome, and of course, Troy, New York, were just some of the places where Lucie landed. Moorehead works off of Lucie's own memoir, but also puts it in context with plenty of background about the period; if you need a clear, thumbnail history of the French Revolution and years after, this is a great place to start (provided you don't have the version I wrote for an AP European History Exam study guide, ha ha).
5. Wedlock, by Wendy Moore
This is the harrowing story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, an 18th century English heiress--indeed, one of the wealthiest women in the country at the time--and her (almost) fatal marriage to the manipulative and abusive fortune hunter Andrew Robinson Stoney. Moore's description of Stoney's horrifying treatment of Mary--everything from starving her to beating her to blatantly flaunting his mistresses in front of her (he got the nursemaid pregnant and wanted to move her into their bedroom)--makes you marvel that she survived. And not only survived, but successfully sued for divorce in an era when that was almost impossible for women. If someone wrote a romance novel that used the story of Mary's kidnapping and escape from Stoney after she finally left him and took him to court, that author would be laughed at for being too melodramatic. Moore tells this almost unbelievable story with just the right amount of drama and coolheaded evidence.
4. The Forger's Spell, by Edward Dolnick
A book about one of the greatest art forgery scams of the twentieth century--the manufacture of a bunch of fake Vermeers by a hack Dutch artist during World War II that were sold to great museums and taken by greedy Nazi collectors. How did Han Van Meegeren fool so many people, including some of the world's best known art experts? Dolnick explains everything. The lesson is how easy it is to convince people that they are seeing one thing when the evidence so glaringly says something else. We do see what we want to see.
3. The Judgement of Paris, by Ross King
King's book mostly focuses on two artists who meet at the turning point of art in 19th century France: traditionalist Ernest Meissonier and Impressionist pioneer Edouard Manet. I know little about art, but learned a great deal from King's always entertaining book--especially about how art was as discussed and debated in France in that period as any episode of American Idol. Different times, indeed.
2. The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
Grann not only writes about Percy Fawcett, the English explorer who disappeared into the Amazon jungle in the 1920s while searching for El Dorado, but also of the multitudes of people ever since who have obsessively followed him, hoping both to find Fawcett or El Dorado--including eventually, reluctantly, the author himself. Grann does an excellent job of interweaving the stories of Fawcett, the building of his legend after his disappearance, and his own adventure in the Amazon. You won't be able to put it down--it's the kind of book that will make you miss your stop on the train. Like I did.
1. River of Doubt, by Candice Millard
I actually found this book courtesy of Mr. Grann, who referenced it in his book about Amazon adventurers (always check the bibliography of a book that you enjoy). Millard tells about Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous journey through the Brazilian rain forest, another attempt by him to quench the restlessness he felt after his early and unwanted exit from American politics. Roosevelt originally was scheduled to voyage down a known and manageable river, but when, after arriving in South Americ, he was offered the chance to navigate the unexplored Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), he leapt at the chance. The expedition was already living dangerously, thanks to Roosevelt's choice of a completely incompetent provisioner, who overloaded the travelers with useless, fancy goods; they were even more poorly prepared for the newer, more difficult route. There was danger, privation, and death at almost every bend of the river (Roosevelt himself nearly died from an infection). In the lengthy history of disaster expedition literature, this story stands out because so many of the problems were preventable, caused by pride and carelessness.
This book isn't just about the jaw-dropping story of the journey, though--it's also about the Amazon and the rain forest and the horrible and amazing flora and fauna that live there, rulers and survivors of their own strange world, unknowing and uncaring of us. Millard shows how the trees, plants, fish, birds, and insects all combine to make the jungle a heaving, living, seething entity, where the only thing more terrifying than the strange sounds that come from nowhere is silence itself. Millard creates this place with such color and economy that it makes me think I should just give up writing.
The Last Duel, by James Landale
Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, by Jim Steinmeyer
The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, by Alexander Waugh
Previous Years' Lists
2006 (this is my favorite list, by the way)
There are so many things we use everyday without a thought that once were earthshaking wonders--electricity, for example, or cars or airplanes. And of course, rubber.
Yes, humble rubber. Without rubber, electrical wires were a live danger that regularly shocked or even killed people. Without rubber, all kinds of vehicles, from bicycles to airplanes, would never have been able to handle the usage we put them through. Rubber made machinery work more smoothly and longer. Rubber was once so valuable that there were rubber barons that built palatial estates and a glittering opera house in the middle of the Brazilian jungle. The report on rubber stock prices was the most important news of the day for traders.
When the market for Brazilian rubber crashed, all this disappeared along with it. The estates and opera house were swallowed by the jungle. The rubber barons were ruined, and their Brazilian workers abandoned (in some cases for the better). This didn't happen by accident, though.
In 1876, Henry Wickham, a British adventurer, whose adventures were more often failures than successes, committed one of the great acts of biopiracy of his age. He loaded a steamer with 70,000 hevea seeds and brought them back to England, where they were planted, and the sprouts shipped around the British Empire: India, Malay, Singapore. It took almost three decades for the little plants to make an impact, but when they did, it was huge. Hevea, a Brazilian rubber plant, grew even better in Southeast Asia than it did in its native countries, where it was at risk from a number of local pests and diseases. By the beginning of the 20th century, rubber grown in outposts of the British Empire had taken over the world, effectively destroying the Brazilian rubber industry.
In The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire, Joe Jackson tells the story of Wickham, and how his one great success was a success for everyone but him. Wickham was born into a middle-class family that became genteelly poor when Henry's father died, leaving his mother to raise the children alone. When Henry came of age, he did what many poor young men in Victorian England did--set off into one of the great unknown places in the world in the hopes of making a fortune and moving up in the world, something that would be almost impossible to do in rigid, class-conscious London. Wickham went to Nicaragua, with the idea of collecting feathers from exotic birds for his mother to use on the hats she sold. Really, though, he hoped to find something that would bring him a bigger fortune and of course he hoped to sell the account of his travels; this was the period when explorers' memoirs were best-sellers.
I'm glad to say that our production of "Titus Andronicus" opened last weekend, which means that I am DONE with it (I was just asst director, not in the cast). It's a difficult play under the best of circumstances and we never had the best of circumstances. There were a number of productions either performing or in rehearsal at the complex (that's what I'll call it now that we have two theaters), and somehow we were the one that always got shunted to the side. The Saturday before we opened we weren't even able to get into the theater because it was booked for several kids' ballet school performances of "The Nutcracker." No one told us this until three days before, so the day we should have been doing final run-throughs before tech, we spent cleaning the theater for the kids shows. Then we had all kinds of problems getting pieces for the set built--basically, the cast had to do it at the last minute, some people staying all night to work on things (uh, not me--I'm not the one you want handing a saw at 3 in the morning). When we finally got into tech, we had problems with the lighting. Arrgh.
This will never be my favorite production I've ever worked on (though I am a great admirer of the super professional cast who put up with all the problems with more grace than anyone could have asked for). I don't love the play, for starters, and I wish we had had more time to work on, well, acting. But it was a learning experience, and I'm glad I was involved. Now all we need to do is recapture the magic of some of our earlier work. Oh, and that should hopefully require a choice of material with a part for me.
End of the year coming...I will have lists coming soon! Not just end of year, but end of decade! Yikes! where have you gone, Y2Ks?