I want to leave 2005 behind, but I keep getting great stuff to post, so I hope you don’t mind. I got this great e-mail from Laurie who wanted to share her favorite books from amongst her considerable reading last year. I’ll be following this up with another e-mail Laurie sent me about what makes a book really good for her:I just read your Jan. 5th entry about “year’s best” choices by various people. I thought about sending you my list, but then figured you only wanted to post the lists of people you knew [Max: Not true! I welcome e-mails from anyone and everyone!]. I don’t blog, but kept a reading journal this past year and totaled 60 books (some of them children’s books). It was fun looking at it at year’s end and figuring out what I enjoyed the most. I began reading your blog about midyear, I think, and your posts probably influenced some of those book choices.For what it’s worth, the three top titles on my list were Cold Skin by Albert S. Pinol (Catalan 2002, English 2005), War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), and Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford (2005). Of those, my enjoyment of the last surprised me the most, because it’s a poetry collection. It’s also the only book of all 60 read this year that I’d recommend to just about anyone, kids and poetry-hating adults alike. The poems are short, unpretentious, mostly rhyme and are illustrated. Washington Post accurately called it “quietly lovely”. It precisely captures the minutiae of the seasons and farm life that even a sheltered city-dweller can recognize with a smile. Also in my top ten were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (chilling), Travels With Mr. Brown by Mark Twain (Letters to the Alta California 1866-1867), and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The latter is a fun kids’ book.29 of the 60 were first published in 2005.For some idea of what those “top choices” were chosen over, the 29 first published in 2005 are:From Sawdust to Stardust – Terry Lee Rioux (biography)The Bradbury Chronicles – Sam Weller (bio)Bradbury Speaks – Ray Bradbury (nf, essays)Pinhook – Janisse Ray (nonfiction, nature)Beware of God – Shalom Auslander (short stories)Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land – John Crowley (novel)Storyteller – Kate Wilhelm (nonfiction)Science Fiction: the best of 2004 – ed. Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan (ss)Year’s Best SF 10 – ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ss)Blue Dog, Green River – Brock Brower (novel)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (novel)Cities in the Wilderness – Bruce Babbitt (nf, environment)Dahlonega Haunts – Amy Blackmarr (allegedly nf)Wonder’s Child – Jack Williamson (updated autobiography)Cold Skin – Albert S. Pinol (novel)Beasts of No Nation – Uzodinma Iweala (novel)The March – E.L. Doctorow (novel)Diary of a Spider – Doreen Cronin (kids picture book)Don’t Be Silly, Mrs. Millie – Judy Cox (kids picturebook)Whales on Stilts! – M.T. Anderson (short kids novel)Best American Science Writing 2005 – ed. Alan Lightman(nf)The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch (novel)Knee Deep in Blazing Snow – James Hayford (poetry)Travels With My Donkey – Tim Moore (memoir)Animals in Translation – Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (nonfiction)From Another World – Ana Maria Machado (short kids novel)The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion (memoir)Confessions of a Recovering Slut – Hollis Gillespie (memoir)Funniest were:Diary of a Spider by Doreen CroninTravels With My Donkey by Tim Moore (Bill Bryson meets Monty Python)Grimmest were:Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma IwealaThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionHardest to put down were:Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingCold Skin by A.S. PinolThere. More than you wanted or needed to know.Thanks, Laurie!
Heather wrote in with a great question about life after Harry Potter:Recently I have devoured the series of books by Philip Pullman called “His Dark Materials” (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). While the shelf at the bookstore I found them in was young adult and science fiction/fantasy, I felt they went far beyond the scope of what a young person would appreciate. Much like the fascination with the Harry Potter series by both young and older, but far more compelling in my opinion. Can you recommend any other authors/books similar to Pullman other than the more familiar Tolkien and Lewis?Harry Potter, as everyone knows, has dominated the world of young adult and fantasy fiction of late. J. K. Rowling’s greatest asset is her boundless imagination, but she can be lacking in her mastery of language and form. So what else is there? As you suggest, Philip Pullman has emerged with an incredible series of books (which I, too, devoured about a year ago). They exceed Harry Potter in nearly every sense, and Pullman manages to strike the perfect balance, appealing to children (and clearly adults, as well) with thrilling adventures, characters, and a seamless world, while never ever dumbing down for his young readers. It’s really a great series, one of the highlights in books from the last few years, if you ask me. But you already know this. My other favorite children’s fantasy series is Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The world he creates has a medival, Tolkeinesque feel to it, though instead of knights and princesses or hobbits and orcs, this world is populated by tribes of animals, mice and ferrets and stoats and many others. I started reading these when I was very young and I made my way through at least six or seven, so I can vouch that these are great books. The series begins with Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo with many beyond those. Having said that, I don’t think that anything out there is as good as C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series or J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. They are the masters that preside over the genre. Another thought: try revisiting (or making your acquaintance with) some classic books. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne or The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Great books one and all. Anybody else have thoughts on though this one. Hit the comment link below and let us know.Mucho Mutis!!!My buddy Brian who is a fellow follower of the travels of Maqroll the Gaviero notified me of two recent developments concerning the head Maqroll-watcher himself, Alvaro Mutis. First, and most exciting, it appears as though a new book by Mutis will appear in English for the first time ever this fall. It’s called The Mansion & Other Stories, and it will be released by the Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions. I have so many questions: will there be stories about Maqroll, will this edition be well-translated, will the stories bear any resemblence to the novellas that I know and love? I can’t wait to find out. So far all I know is this. In the early 1970s, Mutis got into an argument with his friend, the director Luis Bunuel. Bunuel felt that a “gothic” story could not be set in the tropics because that sort of story required the ambient chill of higher latitudes. Mutis strenuously disagreed, and in order to prove him wrong penned the story, The Mansion of Araucaima, the title story of this collection. Bunuel loved the story and expressed his desire to make it into a film, but he died before he was able to carry it out. My friend Brian also alerted me to the fact that the current issue of World Literature Today is devoted to Mutis. If you’re interested, you can find on the site: ten poems by Mutis, Mutis on Mutis, and several more academic papers on this fantastic writer.The Return of PolidoriThe Robert Polidori book that I mentioned a few days ago has hit bookstores. It’s called Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl. Polidori is one of the most skilled and sought after architectural photographers in the world, and in this capacity he is often called upon to capture the sleek and the new. But anyone who has seen his book Havana knows that architectural decay is his true calling. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat he presents the shattered world of nuclear disaster, both frozen in time and abandoned to a new and dangerous mutant form of nature. As always, he lets color do all the work in these photographs, seemingly luring the most poignant hues to the foreground of the compositions. But I have to say, this collection, due to the nature of the subject matter, exudes a cold and souless sort of beauty while the aching, crumbling beauty of Havana is more suited to his particular skills.A note of things to comeI finished Jonathan Lethem’s new novel The Fortress of Solitude, a week or so ago, and I intend to put some more elaborate comments on the book up here once it comes out, but I will make few comments now, too. Look for this book to be huge this fall. There will be a big push from Random House, and along the book distribution pipeline, big numbers are being anticipated. The book is very good in the same way that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is very good. The books are similar in structure and theme, both are very ambitious and largely succeed in their grand scope. Pehaps most interestingly, the careers of Chabon and Lethem are parallel. Lethem has several books under his belt each more widely read and more favorably recieved than the last, and now this latest book will be a best-seller and will make him more of a household name. The same thing happened to Chabon. Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that The Fortress of Solitude will win the Pulitzer Prize, (or at the very least will be a finalist) like Kavalier & Clay did a few years back.