Each year, I look back at the books I’ve read in both the fiction and nonfiction categories. Here are the books I read for the first time this year that I most enjoyed, regardless of when they were originally published.
5. Parable of the Sower (1993), by Octavia Butler – This was great and somehow managed to not only live up to all the expectations I had for it but also exceeded them. Butler did a couple things within the story that broke from writing conventions. Rather than detract from the story, I found this to make the story even stronger for me.
The quote by John Green on the cover says this pairs well with 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not sure why it would pair well with 1984 other than the fact that both are dystopian. A better comparison is that this pairs well with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. As for pairing well with The Handmaid’s Tale, I completely agree. I would also go as far as to say that while The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite dystopians of all time, I would say Parable of the Sower is even better.
Highly recommended for fans of the genre.
4. In (2021), by Will McPhail – I’d never heard of the author or this graphic novel before seeing it at my local library. The cover caught my eye, though, so I decided to take a chance. What ensued blew me away. I’d describe this as what would happen if Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Being John Malkovich, etc.) took a break from writing screenplays and instead wrote an understated graphic novel. If you enjoy graphic novels at all I highly recommend you check this one out.
3. The Remains of the Day (1989), by Kazuo Ishiguro – This was understated throughout, with no real action or intrigue while the story unfolds, and yet Ishiguro does such a great job delivering what is a subtle yet powerful story that I came away feeling amazed by what I had read. Between this book and Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go, I need to make a point to read more by this author.
2. The Lowland (2013), by Jhumpa Lahiri – This is a perfect example of the power of books. I’d never heard of it and had no idea what to expect, and yet after a couple dozen pages I was hooked. The two things that stand out the most for me:
1) The writing – Lahiri has a great voice as a writer and always hits the perfect pace and level of detail. The story never comes to a halt or felt slow for me, but she also does a good job of thoroughly explaining settings, emotions, etc.
2) Just how sad the story is at times – I can see why this book would turn off a lot of people because there are a lot of readers that don’t want to read something that is utterly depressing. That said, there is beauty to be found in sadness and tragedy, and Lahiri is a master in that regard.
Even when I was reading it I knew it would be one of the best books I would read that year.
1. Armageddon in Retrospect: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace (2008), by Kurt Vonnegut – This was excellent, just like almost everything Vonnegut wrote was excellent. This collection of stories differentiates itself from everything else I’ve read by the author in one key way. Vonnegut is known for his sarcasm and dark humor. This collection of writing still has some sarcastic moments but there is no humor to be found at all. In its place are stories that feel darker and more straight forward in their pessimism of life.
6. The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media That Love Them (2004), by Amy Goodman – A good examination of exactly how corrupt politicians can be and how the media lets them mostly go unchallenged. The king in this nonfiction genre is Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. If you read that book and loved it and want something similar, I’d highly recommend this book. If you haven’t already read Manufacturing Consent, definitely read that first.
5. I Thought My Father Was God and Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project (2001), edited by Paul Auster – I’d never heard of this book before or of NPR’s National Story Project. The book contains about a hundred recollections by people around the country of moments that impacted their lives or memories that they still think about years later. Each story ranges from a single paragraph or two to three pages. While some of the stories fall flat, most are interesting and some are incredibly insightful, painful, funny, etc. The extent of the fascinating stories that people from all around the country submitted is reason enough for the 5-star rating.
4. What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures (2009), by Malcolm Gladwell – I find everything that Gladwell writes to be incredibly interesting, and this was no different. This book could be titled, “Essays I wrote that weren’t relevant to any of my other books, so they were thrown together here” and it’s still worthy of 5 stars. I think it’s valuable any time someone can get you to look at a topic from a completely different perspective, and that’s what this entire book does for a variety of topics. Highly recommended.
3. John Adams (2001), by David McCullough – This is much better than McCullough’s biography of Truman, which has little value because the author adored his subject too much to be objective. Here, though, McCullough is thorough and unbiased, presenting every detail of Adams’ life, both the good and the bad. It is not only incredibly informative but also entertaining. I’d still put Napoleon: A Life as the best biography I’ve ever read but this is probably my pick for #2.
After reading this, it’s amazing that Adams has fallen by the wayside to other people that history deems to be more important, like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. Even with all of the blemishes that the biography gives Adams, he deserves to be held in the same regard, if not higher, than all of the other founding fathers. Politically, he was as good a leader as Washington but surpassed Washington on a human level. The same goes with Franklin and others. The real loser in this biography is Jefferson, who comes across as immoral and dishonest in all of his interactions, politically, socially, and personally. Other than writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a scumbag.
2. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012), by Kurt Vonnegut – What do you do after you’ve read all of Vonnegut’s novels, short stories, autobiographical material, and commencement speeches? You read a book containing all the letters he wrote to friends, family, and colleagues. For me, this was fascinating because you see the true Vonnegut that isn’t revealed in his fiction writing. It probably won’t appeal to anyone other than the hardcore Vonnegut fan but if that description applies to you then you’ll likely find this book incredibly interesting.
1. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995), by James Loewen – This was excellent and represents everything students should be learning about U.S. history versus the white-washed history they are actually taught. Loewen does three things perfectly:
1) He presents actual U.S. history rather than the celebratory nonsense kids are taught, and in the process he highlights the distance between education and historical reality.
2) He discusses why this happens (textbook publishers not wanting to offend parents or special interest groups and also not wanting to lose business from local and state governments)
3) He discusses the effects of teaching kids a cherry-coated version of history that they will eventually learn isn’t true.