I am unable to resist best book lists of almost any form so I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual end of the year productions. I’m not as into it as some others, like the blogger Largehearted Boy, who amasses a giant list of best lists, or the librarian/bloggers at the Williamsburg Public Library, who take all those lists and turn them into one mega-list (though that list is broken into different categories, mostly for fiction).
Mostly, I keep an eye out for the lists compiled by the sources I rely on most for book reviews — The New York Times and Salon (which has separate lists for fiction and nonfiction). But I have to admit this year my favorite list came from Lev Grossman at Time magazine (which also had separate fiction and nonfiction lists). Perhaps it’s Grossman’s unapologetic appreciation of genre fiction — which was an awful lot of my fiction reading this year. Or, in a related angle, it’s his noticing books that are not the usual suspects — two graphic novels (The Death-Ray and Hark! A Vagrant!) became Christmas gifts in my house this year after I saw them on the list.
My best list consists of books I read this year, whenever they were published — though a large number were indeed new this year (one of the many benefits of working at a library is access to advanced review copies and awareness of newly published works). I chose my favorites with flat-out enjoyment as my only criterion, realizing that many factors go into that.
Fiction: A Song of Ice & Fire, books 1-3, George R.R. Martin (That’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords)
Nonfiction: Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean.
I was one of those Narnia kids. I read the books over and over (I was a big re-reader; I also read the Little House series and many others multiple times) — though I eventually limited myself to once a year, perhaps fearing the effects of over-exposure. I think some of my love for Narnia was in reaction to the Tolkien dominance I felt in the house — my older sister and cousins were all hard-core Tolkien devotees and those books were big and, in the hardcover boxed set we owned, rather forbidding. Narnia, on the other hand, was welcoming and manageable. And it was mine. My adoration for Narnia did not lead me far into the fantasy genre, or Christianity — brought up with little exposure to religion, I managed to miss the obvious parallels in the tales until they were pointed out to me later and even then I just accepted them as part of this particular story and not something that was supposed to apply to my life. Eventually I grew up and during adolescence transferred my affections to books intended for adults, like Jane Eyre and the works of Jane Austen. I did read The Lord of the Rings, once, and enjoyed it but never felt the fierce connection to that world that I had to Narnia.
I always wondered how Narnia would feel to me as an adult — especially once my friends started having kids and the kids grew old enough to read the Chronicles or have them read to them. I both envied them and worried that they might have the childhood magic erased. Like pretty much everyone else on the planet, I was drawn back to kid lit by the Harry Potter series and I felt a little reconnected, in a strange way, in reading (and being entranced by) Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, even while understanding it could not, in many ways, be more opposed to Lewis’ work. I read and loved The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s novel that was widely described as Harry Potter with sex and drugs but obviously owes a lot more to a childhood obsession with Narnia.
I just reviewed another work of nonfiction for my alma mater, The Miami Herald — the book is Zoo Story by Thomas French and the review ran yesterday. I liked the book a lot — it was obviously based on years of reporting, which is the sort of thing that the St. Petersburg Times has been able and willing to do — and which may be pretty darn scarce on the ground in the future, even at papers owned by nonprofit foundations.
The story follows the expansion and consequences of that expansion at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, where the CEO pushed for an ambitious new Safari Africa exhibit featuring elephants imported from a game preserve in Swaziland. French makes characters out of some of the zoo’s animals, which is dangerous — my only problem with Mike Capuzzo’s otherwise excellent Close to Shore was when he claimed to be inside the shark’s head — but French navigates the perilous territory very well, describing more of what happens to the animals than pretending to know what they’re thinking.
The same book is reviewed today by Salon’s Laura Miller, one of the best book reviewers in the business. Not that I’m intimidated or anything.