My Favorite Books of 2006 — Part Two
by Joel Caris
Once again, this Imbibe column would normally be about some form of alcohol, but I'm instead talking books, as it is one of my other great loves. Before, I gave you part one of my favorite books read in 2006 and so now I offer up the much-anticipated, much-heralded, and sure-to-be-largely-ignored part two. Just to again clarify, these books weren't necessarily released in 2006—they're just the books I most enjoyed that I actually read in 2006.
One quick note before I begin. In penance for this not being about alcohol, I'm actually drinking an 18.7 ounce bottle of Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout. Thus, if you have nothing to say about my book writing, feel free to just let me know what your favorite stout is.
Now, on with the books.
A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn
And so begins the nonfiction. I read this right at the beginning of the year and it ended up being a fascinated book. Zinn is upfront with his agenda right at the start of the book, making it clear that this history would be told from the point of view of average people and would shy away from people in powerful positions. As such, it's a great reflection on the struggles the general American populace has endured over the course of U.S. history.
Zinn's an excellent writer. History is one subject that I'm not nearly as familiar with as I should be, so it's been nice to find books that actually make the events of our past interesting, as opposed to pretty much every history text book I used throughout junior high and high school. It's also very interesting reading about certain events I already had some basic knowledge of, but from the standpoint of the common worker, or the oppressed, and so on—rather than the more official version typically learned in school.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Zinn's recurring assertion that the political process is often used to channel rebellious and revolutionary energy, sinking it into a system that is rigged to satisfy the masses with small, incremental changes, thus avoiding larger and more drastic ones. It's a somewhat bleak viewpoint—which makes it all the more interesting that Zinn ultimately ends the book on an optimistic note.
The Fabric of the Cosmos - Brian Greene
Greene's first book was The Elegant Universe, which was a popular exploration of Super String Theory that served as the basis for a PBS special. I haven't read that book yet, though I do own it. The Fabric of the Cosmos does deal with String Theory, but it also serves as a more general explanation of the entire field of physics. Obviously, that's a lot of information to cover, so a 600 page book simply isn't going to give a comprehensive explanation of the field of physics. It does, however, do a damn good job of giving a general overview that is fairly understandable, even if you aren't familiar with physics.
Physics is probably one of the areas of study I'm most fascinated with. When you start getting into the activities of very small scale objects—protons, neutrons, quarks and the such—the physical world becomes fascinating and bizarre. Similarly, when you start to look at things on a huge scale—as in, the scale of the entire universe, or the speed of light—the physical world again becomes strange and fascinating. Simply put, we live in an intoxicating, mysterious world and the day-to-day physics we experience are only a small part of the full story. Greene tries to tell the rest of that story and scores a direct hit, writing a book that makes the more strange and bizarre aspects of physics surprisingly accessible. Some of the experiments that he details in the book are shocking and exciting, and will make you look at the world in a different way. If you have any interest in physics, I strongly recommend this book.
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Last week, I wrote that, as a writer, Haruki Murakami sometimes depresses me due to his sheer talent. Well, let's go ahead and add Nabokov to that list. Lolita is an amazing novel, with some of the most beautiful language I've ever encountered. The book is just lyrical, compelling, completely gorgeous even as it deals with a disturbing subject. In fact, Nabokov does an amazing job of skating a fine line between making the reader almost understand Humbert Humbert's attraction to Lolita due to his own delusions while also keeping it clear that he is delusional, sees the girl only how he wants to see her, and is supremely fucked up. It's a hell of a trick.
Once Lolita runs away from Humbert, I would say the novel starts to go downhill. It veers in some directions that just aren't nearly as strong as the first part of the book—though it in no way ruins the novel. Ultimately, though, this novel's strength does not lie in the plot as much as it does in the simple beauty and lyricism of Nabokov's use of words. He's a genius, without question.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
Jesus. Like pretty much everyone, I was greatly affected by the World Trade Center attack. Pretty much, it was like a kick in the balls. But, ultimately, it was across the country. I didn't know anyone directly affected by the attacks. I didn't lose anyone. For me, the pain of that day faded.
For those in New York, though—well, I really can't imagine. Those who saw it, who experienced it, who lost friends or family in it. Or even those living in New York who simply had to endure the barrage of funerals, the missing person posters, the countless stories—it seems like it must still be a dark shadow over the city, always there at least in some small, if not large, sense.
This novel takes place with 9/11 as a constant, dominant theme. The story involves a nine year old named Oscar whose father died in the terrorist attacks. Determined to find out more about his father's life and death, he starts traveling the city attempting to find out more about a key he finds in a vase that belonged to his father.
The story's not about Oscar's search, of course, but more about the terrorist attacks and how they affected people. It's about loss and love and family, about death, about the extreme horror of that day. Ultimately, while the book is often entertaining and funny, it's also heartbreaking. It's a brutal, emotional, exhausting book. Oscar is so well-drawn and fleshed out, that you really do feel that you know him by the end of the book. That's tough, too, because he goes through a hell of a lot. This is easily the most emotional, affecting book I read in 2006 and as a work of fiction reflecting back on the effects of September 11, it's an incredible accomplishment.
The Weather Makers - Tim Flannery
We end on another nonfiction book. However, appropriately, this is also a book that actually did come out in 2006. It's about global warming by an Australian scientist and it's a fascinating, frightening, and ultimately optimistic (if only vaguely) read. Flannery does a fantastic job of laying out the science behind global warming in a straight forward and easy-to-understand manner. In fact, I never realized how basic, in many ways, the science in. He goes over the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, our own production of carbon dioxide, and the likely effects of increased amount of carbon dioxide. It's actually much more simplistic and straight forward than I ever realized.
It's also pretty damn scary.
The accounts of briefly-glimpsed and now extinct frogs are depressing. The statistics on likely extinction of further species is also depressing. The likelihood of polar bears dying out except in captivity is goddamn devastating. (I freaking love polar bears.) Ultimately, though, Flannery writes that we can still avoid the worst case scenarios. While we're dedicated to a certain level of devastation due to the carbon dioxide that's already in the air, there's still time to begin reigning in our own outputs, thus saving multitudes of animals while also saving ourselves.
If you're looking for a primer on global warming, along with plenty of great information about the history and study of the climate, get this book. It's a great, relatively easy read that provides lots of good information and a list of ways you can reduce your own energy use and carbon dioxide output.
With that, this list of books comes to an end. Hopefully, you found this at least slightly enjoyable. Better yet, hopefully you found something to read. Now it's your turn. What books did you read in 2006 that you loved? I may already own too many books, but that's never stopped me from buying more. So give me some suggestions. What greatness did you read last year?
Joel was really drinking a 40oz of King Cobra out of a brown paper bag.
Interesting collections.Is this present in the form of Audio books ? Please let me know.
Posted by: CRIMPSON | January 10, 2007 5:04 AM
Nice one Joel.
I can't figure out if I like Howard Zinn's work or not. I think he sometimes oversimplifies things. But that's just me.
I watched The Elegant Universe but didn't read it. Now I want to read that Fabric book though. Thanks a lot.
Lolita is beautiful. Amazing.
I haven't heard of the other two books, but it's usually really fucking cold in my area this time of year, but the ground hasn't even frozen yet. Things are getting weird in every neighbourhood I know. I think it's just part of nature that we go through cycles of heat and cold, and humans aren't entirely to blame by any means but we're not helping the situation.
Two summers ago, we had a lot of local "smog advisories" and "heat advisories" in the news. I walk a lot. I caught fucking asthma that summer, and my doctor tells me it's because I exercised too much in unfavourable conditions. You know, doing crazy shit like walking to work.
Posted by: Dan | January 10, 2007 8:57 PM
I think with Zinn, he's coming from a very specific viewpoint, which he states upfront. I found it compelling--which is not to say I think it's the final word, but I think it's a viewpoint that doesn't get aired as often as it should, so it was pretty neat to read it. But yeah, there's no question that it's not an attempt at airing every side, as he's said.
The thing about Weather Makers that was really neat is that Flannery boils down the science to make it clear that it's not that complicated. Basically, he boils it down to how much CO2 there is in the atmosphere, by way of parts per million. It's just a measurement. Further, there are excellent models that can show the change in average temperature based on the CO2, which have time and time again been shown to be surprisingly accurate.
Now, you look at the yearly increase in ppm of CO2, you look at human output, and it really becomes basic mathematic to look at how much we need to reduce to keep the CO2 in the atmosphere from reaching a certain threshold, which could be pretty devastating based on the computer models of the weather (which have been accurate time and time again.) Flannery doesn't make the argument that humans are solely to blame for increases in temperature at all--but he does make the argument that we contribute to it, quite a bit, but that--much more importantly--by regulating our outputs, we can help to regulate the earth's temperature.
And ultimately, that's all that matters. Because this isn't just a matter of polar bears and frogs going extinct, it's about worldwide economic devastation and extreme suffering and hardship on the part of us, humans. So it's really in our interest to deal with this problem.
When you read up on the issue, it's really eye-opening to see how solid, consistent and agreed-upon the science behind global warming is. The sheer amount of science behind it, as well, is astounding. There really is no scientific doubt about what is happening. It's just about us doing something about it.
Anyway, I got all long winded. If you have any interest, I definitely recommend the book. Reading's always good, because then you can take the information yourself and decide what you think.
Posted by: Joel | January 10, 2007 9:56 PM
I've wanted to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I just don't know if I can bring myself to try to get through it. Part of me really wants to, part of me sets off warning signs every time I pick up the book.
Posted by: michele | January 11, 2007 7:51 AM
It was a hard book for me at times, Michele, and I don't have that close relation to 9/11 that I imagine you do. So I don't know. I certainly recommend it highly if you ever feel like it's something you can get through.
Have you read Everything is Illuminated by him? I have it, hear great things, haven't read it yet.
Posted by: Joel | January 11, 2007 4:05 PM
Great list. I just remembered to post my 2006 list today! A couple things: If you like Zinn, I highly recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me. It talks about how history is presented in textbooks and the classroom, and I found it fascinating. Second, check out LibraryThing sometime. I'm positively addicted myself. It's an online catalog for books you own and/or have read. What's cool is it gives you suggestions based on what people who liked the same books as you have also enjoyed.
Posted by: Kelly | January 15, 2007 1:49 PM
I've heard good things about Lies My Teacher Told Me. I should check that out sometime soon.
Library Thing looks awesome. It also looks like it could steal hours and hours from my life. But I think I'd be fine with that.
Posted by: Joel | January 15, 2007 3:22 PM