Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books of 2008

As promised, here is my only year-end list. I'll leave it to others to collect the biggest entertainment stories of the year, or the stupidest things Republicans said, or the best and worst movies - I'll just talk about books I've read and reviewed here.

Oddly enough, I have 53 reviews out there, a bit over one a week, which means it was an unusual year; probably a little too much reading, too few other activities. Looking at the categories, it was certainly a mixed bag; that's what comes from letting one's reading be influenced mainly by going to the "New Books" shelves in the library. There are 13 books listed as politics, 12 as fiction, and 6 as sports (though there are some specific sports that I didn't classify as "sports"). Otherwise, no topic came up very often, which may indicate an unfocused set of interests, or a chaotic classification scheme.

My method for developing the following was simple, I went through the list of reviews and determined whether the book was Important, Entertaining, Disappointing, or Uninteresting. Just as the reviews were subjective, so too were these classifications, and the vast majority fell into none of these - they were, in general, competent and good, not standouts for me. Here goes.

The Most Entertaining (these are books I simply enjoyed, whether fiction or non-):
4) A TV Guide to Life (review from 12/21)
Purports to be a method of applying lessons from television shows to life, intelligently abandons this for some funny (and, at times, trenchant) observations about the idiot box.
3) Hunter's Moon (1/22)
Atmospheric mystery set in the North Woods.
2) Harlan Ellison's Watching (11/20)
Dated movie reviews might seem uninteresting, but Ellison's passion and bite makes them worth reading 20 - 40 years after the fact, plus you get to step inside the psyche of this fascinating man.
1) Red Mandarin Dress (4/7)
Passable mystery set in mid-90s Shanghai, but truly fascinating in its look at China in transition as seen through one of the great fictional characters, Inspector Chen.

The Most Uninteresting (books that were kind of boring):
5) Four-Letter Words (10/26)
Written to capitalize on the documentary Wordplay, there simply wasn't enough substance here to be of interest, and the long lists of crossword-ese are boring to anyone who doesn't already know them (and boring to anyone who does).
4) Michelangelo's Notebook (1/16)
3) The Lucifer Gospel (1/17)
The DaVinci Code made a lot of money, but was pretty bad; these two knock-offs weren't as involving.
2) One World (3/5)
Philosopher Peter Singer's solution to globalization: government of the world.
1) When you ride alone you still ride with bin Laden (2/16)
Any book that gives it all up in the title has problems; if only Bill Maher was as funny as he thinks he is.

The Most Disappointing (I'm going to subdivide this category, into the books that frustrated my expectations, and the books that make me question the wisdom of the publishing industry):
I Was Hoping for More:
4) Book of the Dead (2/18)
One keeps hoping that Patricia Cornwell will pull it together and get the magic of the Scarpetta series back, and each entry gets worse.
3) America the Principled (2/8)
As fine an explanation of the problems that face America as you're going to find, undercut by a long list of completely preposterous "solutions."
2) The Post-American World (11/14)
Fareed Zakaria's explication of the new world we're making; well-written and well-researched, but I found nothing new here. After reading and listening to Zakaria, I was expecting something important, and it was just...OK.
1) The Black Swan (11/25)
An important but relatively ineffective main point, wrapped in a long narrative of self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. A book that should have been important, but ended up irritating.

Why Were These Published?:
3) Discover Your Inner Economist (1/14)
Tyler Cowen's stab at the success of Freakonomics, providing very little in the way of understanding of what economists do and what insights they might provide.
2) Stat One (3/11)
The baseball equivalent of a physics textbook that ignores Newton and Einstein, it presents a non-novel way of evaluating performance and makes the mistake of falling in love with itself.
1) Patriotic Grace (12/4)
Peggy Noonan's self-consciously "important" book, seemingly dashed off as a stream of consciousness narrative. There is no real attempt here to deal with the world as it exists, and the solution doesn't go beyond the title.

The Most Important:
10) Bill of Wrongs (1/28)
The final book of Molly Ivins, chronicling the ways in which the Bush administration has subverted the Bill of Rights.
9) The Rest Is Noise (12/15)
A selective look at 20th century classical music, exhaustively researched and well-written.
8) Free World (3/20)
An Englishman's look at how America should position itself versus the rest of the world, persuasively expressed from a perspective we don't often see.
7) Escaping Plato's Cave (2/6)
Mort Rosenblum is a real reporter, something of the anti-Friedman, who looks at how America is viewed by the rest of the world - and the results aren't pretty. And our cluelessness hasn't been properly exposed by his fellow journalists.
6) The Second Civil War (2/27)
A look at partisanship, informed by history. The conclusions and suggestions are unremarkable, but the reporting is top-notch.
5) The World Is Flat (3/3)
Tom Friedman's tribute to the wonders of globalization, tremendously flawed. It's this high on the list because it has been hugely influential, providing as it does a roadmap to the brave new world. Much of it is laughably bad.
4) A Problem From Hell (4/1)
Samantha Power's history of genocide, a basis for any thinking on the subject. It raises real questions about the Western world's dealings with this issue.
3) High Wire (12/3)
Impeccable reporting on the extent to which the powerful have shifted risk to the rest of us. The questions raised here have to be answered if we are to come through the current crisis at anywhere close to the level we think we went in.
2) The Limits of Power (12/29)
A compelling theory of foreign policy; ultimately depressing in its conclusion that we are unlikely to change anything substantive, and our way of life will be adversely affected.
1) Supercapitalism (2/19)
Robert Reich's treatise on the extent to which America has allowed capitalism to hold sway over democracy. No action that has been taken in the current crisis will allow you to think anything has changed, and that is profoundly troubling.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list - it is informative.

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