A Year in Books

I love to read and I try to always have a book going. Awhile back, I decided to journal my reading list so I could remember what I’ve read and what I thought about each book. It’s been a fun habit, especially when I look back to what I was reading all the way back in 2004!

In 2011, I read a bunch of really good books. I thought I’d share what they were and a brief review of each.

Cloud Atlas  by David Mitchell
This book was fantastically good. It is presented as a series of strangely interlocking stories that build on each other, spiraling through time from the mid 19th century to the distant future and back again. It was challenging, but very fulfilling in the end. Highly recommended. This book is also currently being adapted into a film by the Wachowskis (famous for The Matrix films).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot spent years unraveling the mysterious origins of the HeLa cells that researchers heavily rely on for studying cellular biology and disease. What she found was a remarkable story of a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer and left behind a bewildered and complex extended family. This book traces the story of Mrs. Lacks and her family alongside the scientific journey her cells have led scientists on in the same time. I’ve been recommending the book to people all year long.

Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman
As a big fan of Klosterman’s writing, I had still not got around to reading this, his first, book. I finally remedied that omission this year. Klosterman’s focus here is the 1980’s heavy metal scene and how important it was to his formative years in rural North Dakota. Not a heavy metal fan myself, it was still fun to read about the insanity of the genre’s stars in those days and the sub-culture that they spawned. This book also has one of the best cover images I can remember.

I’m a huge fan of the Showtime series based on these novels by Jeff Lindsay. In the summer between seasons, I decided to try reading the first book to get my Dexter fix and to evaluate their value beside the brilliant television series. This book inspired the storyline for the show’s first season, so all the revelations were old news to me. I also didn’t get the same character complexities from the book that I got from the show. The 1st person writing got obnoxious after awhile and, when I finished the book, I wasn’t impressed overall. I’ll stick to the TV show. 

These books are ubiquitous these days. I read Dragon Tattoo in 2010 and did enjoy it enough to press on in the trilogy. The Salander character is just as good as everyone says she is – a complex and brutal heroine with a beautiful mind. In this story, she is accused of murder and must work with her partner Blomkvist to clear her name while taking down a sex-trafficking ring. While not as good as the first novel, this one digs deeper into the psyche of Salander and has some good action set pieces as well.

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is not really a novel as much as it is an art project. Foer created this impressionistic “story” by cutting up a copy of Bruno Schulz’ book The Street of Crocodiles. By removing bits and pieces of words and punctuation, Foer pruned the book into a story-poem of sadness and lost fathers. While the story is an interesting read, the read pleasure is holding the die-cut book in your hands, carefully turning the pages and jumping around the page from word to word. It’s a beautiful project from a brilliant novelist.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
For a non-fiction science book, this one reads like a terrifying thriller novel. Preston touches on virus hunting in Africa before diving into the shocking story of an outbreak of Ebola virus in research monkeys just outside Washington, DC. As a scientist myself, it’s fun to read an account of rock-star scientists working feverishly in dangerous conditions to protect millions of people. I highly recommend this one as well.

World War Z by Max Brooks
Mel Brooks’ son Max wrote this creative book as a series of interviews with people who managed to survive a zombie apocalypse. The book is great at creating real-world scenarios for zombie infestations and  how we would handle them. Is it possible for a zombie story to be more “realistic” than it’s peers? Because this one is. Many of the mini-stories are truly terrifying. This one is also in production as a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt. Crazy.

Habibi by Craig Thompson
Thompson rocketed to fame with his sprawling semi-autobiographical novel Blankets a few years back and took his sweet time crafting a follow-up. This novel takes us to a fictionalized Arabian setting and follows the devastatingly sad lives of two young people. Through slavery, abuse and religion, the two characters are united, separated and reunited. Thompson’s heavy use of Islamic symbolism and language is a stark contrast to the Christian focus of Blankets. The art is fantastic and the story is epic and has stuck with me long after I closed the book.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Yeah, I decided to see what all the fuss surrounding these books was about. Plenty of adult males have expressed their admiration for the trilogy even though they are written for teenage girls. After reading this first book, they are definitely written for teenage girls. Sure the basic premise is very sci-fi, but the writing and execution felt very juvenile to me and that was slightly disappointing. Perhaps the next books spend more time on world-building and less time on love triangles.

So that’s what I read in 2011. Thanks to a great haul of new books over Christmas, it looks like 2012 will be a fun year too.

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