Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011

I'm a big end-of-the-year list kind of guy, and I enjoyed doing my own book and movie lists last year. I'm back at it this year, and since I'll be squeezing in a few more movies this year, I'll start with my top ten books of 2011. I read 42 books this year, down from 49 in 2010. I read more YA last year, which tends to go faster for me. The books on my list weren't necessarily published in 2011, just books I read this year.

10. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers: Published in 1946, this is the oldest book on my list. Frankie Addams dreams of escaping her Southern hometown, going away with her brother and his fiance. McCullers nails the Southern gothic thing. Hell, she may have created it for all I know. I am certain Harper Lee was a fan of this book, as there are many similarities to her own Southern coming-of-age book.

9. Half a Life, Darin Strauss: This is one of two nonfiction books on the list. Strauss struck and killed a girl with his car when he was 18. He writes unblinkingly about the next half of his life, his reaction to the tragedy and his struggle to accept happiness again in his life.

8. Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman: Newlyweds Becca and John die on their wedding day, and the remaining members of their families must find meaning with the rest of their lives. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Waldman is able to find beauty in tragedy.

7. the imperfectionists, Tom Rachman: This book tells the story of the rise and fall of an English newspaper in Italy. Within the larger story of the dying paper, Rachman gives us the lives of the people who are affected by its demise.

6. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach: This one had me with the northeastern Wisconsin setting, the description of which brought back more than a few pleasant memories. Much of the book centers around a baseball team, but this book, like all great books, is about so much more than what is presented on the surface. A passing knowledge of Moby Dick makes this book even more impressive.

5. The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings: Matt King is an out-of-the-loop husband and father who must step up after a tragedy. I have to admit, I read this one after hearing about the movie. I knew I'd see the movie, so I wanted to read the book first. I didn't have many expectations, but I really enjoyed the book. Hemmings has a sparse writing style, much more direct than your typical literary fiction, a style I quite like.

4. Townie, Andre Dubus III: This is the second nonfiction book on the list, and it's a powerhouse. This book shows the evolution of a man, from fear and anger to some kind of understanding. Ultimately, it's about Dubus coming to terms with his father, coming to understand, perhaps not fully, but enough. Sometimes that's the best we can do.

3. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer: The beautiful story of Oskar Schell, a young boy learning to live after losing his dad on 9/11. Some may find this one overly sentimental, but if it's well done, and Safran Foer is a master, I'm a sucker for sentimental.

2. The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter: Matt Prior's life is a mess. He loses his job, he can't pay the mortgage, and to top it off, his marriage is crumbling. What's a guy to do? Matt has a unique idea to solve his problems, if he doesn't get himself killed. Walter uses one man's personal descent as a metaphor for the times.

1. a visit from the goon squad, Jennifer Egan: This is a brilliant book. Don't take my word for it, Egan won a little something called the Pulitzer Prize for this baby. Egan masterfully uses multiple characters, weaving their stories together to create a transcendent whole. I don't want to give anything away, but at one point Egan uses the power point format, and if for no other reason, you should read this book just to see how she pulled it off. 

Let me know what think of my choices. I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed reading this year in the comments, might give me some ideas for 2011. Your top book, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

I caught the SNL Christmas special earlier this week, and this skit killed me. I hope everyone has a better time than the family in this clip (obviously someone filming their TV, but it's all I could find).

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Perfection and Loss

The Green Bay Packers quest for a perfect season ended yesterday in Kansas City. I suppose most people thought the Packers would waltz out of KC with another victory, but as any football fan knows, Any Given Sunday and all that.

The Packers had won 13 in a row this season, 19 going back to last season, the 2nd longest streak in NFL history. Before yesterday, the Packers hadn't lost in 364 days.

I remember that game well. It was Dec. 19. The Packers played the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Aaron Rodgers was unable to play due to a concussion he'd suffered a week earlier against Detroit. With a back-up quarterback, no one gave the Pack much chance. The team rallied behind Matt Flynn and battled admirably, in the end falling just short.

It wasn't the kind of game that most fans will remember, but it's a game I'll never forget. It was the last game I watched with my dad. He was in the hospital, but he thought he might go home the next day. He was in good spirits as we watched the game. When the Packers fell short, he characteristically went into positive spin mode, seeing the loss as a springboard to bigger things.

As it turned out, he was right about the Packers. Wrong about his health. My dad was technically still alive the following Sunday when the Packers beat the New York Giants, the beginning of their Super Bowl run, the first of 19 straight wins, but he was in a morphine haze in hospice, the game just background noise because it felt like the right thing to do.

So the Green Bay Packers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday, ending the quest for perfection. It was the first time the Packers lost a game since my dad died. Man, he would have loved those 364 days.

My dad would have said this was just a bump in the road, something to learn from. As I drove home from my friend's house, I could hear our conversation. It brought a smile to my face, and tears to my eyes.