18 January 2009

2008 in books

Time for my annual book post! I managed to read a lot of books in 2008, and any of you who are my friends on Goodreads already know what I read and liked last year, but I like listing them all together and choosing my favorites and least favorites of the year.

I want to mention a couple of things before I get to the list itself. First, for the first time ever, I'm abandoning my literary pretensions. I read some good serious literary novels, and some heavy non-fiction books, but I also read a lot of popular fiction, the kind of stuff I'd usually consider trashy. And I've reached a point in my life where I'm not embarrassed by that.

Also, for the first time ever, I'm listing the children's books, young adult books, and graphic novels I've read. I'm not going to be embarrassed about those anymore, either. I'm being selective about the children's books, sticking to those I sought out for my kids to read rather than everything I read with the children, or that's pretty much all this list would be.

Below the fold, the entire list, with some commentary and awards at the end.

1. Persuasion by Jane Austen
2. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
3. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
4. The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
5. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
6. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
7. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
9. Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
10. Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
11. Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay
12. The Sisters Grimm, Book 1: The Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
13. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
14. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
15. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
17. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
18. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by AJ JAcobs
19. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
20. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
21. The Sisters Grimm, Book 2: The Unusual Suspects by Michael Buckley
22. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
23. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
24. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
25. Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
26. Mirror Mirror: A Novel by Gregory Maguire
27. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
28. The Sisters Grimm, Book 3: The Problem Child by Michael Buckley
29. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
30. The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
31. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
32. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
33. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
34. The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
35. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
36. Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
37. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
38. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
39. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
40. The Well of Lost Plots Jasper Fforde
41. Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
42. First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde
43. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
44. Ghosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara
45. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
46. The Sister Grimm, Book 4: Once Up on a Crime by Michael Buckley

Best Underrated Jane Austen Novel: Last year I set a goal to read all of Jane Austen's books. I nearly succeeded: I read 5 in 2008 and am currently working on the sixth. I did so much Austen over the last year that I'm giving her her own category, and because Pride and Prejudice is universally acknowledged to be her best novel, I'm awarding a prize to the best Austen novel that isn't P&P. In my opinion, that's Persuasion, narrowly beating out Sense and Sensibility.

Best Adult Fiction: In the Time of the Butterflies wins this category easily. It's a beautifully written novel about four sisters and their involvement in political events in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Based on real people and events, but fictionalized by Alvarez in a moving, engrossing way.

Worst Fiction: Mirror Mirror. Maguire could have stopped with Wicked and been in my good graces forever. Nothing else I've read by him has been nearly as good, and this was the worst yet. It barely kept my interest, and annoyed me in many ways that I can no longer recall because there are far better uses for my brain cells than to remember this completely blah, lackluster book.

Best Short Stories: Smoke and Mirrors. I'm adding this category despite the fact that I only read one short story collection in its entirety last year, mostly because I want to point out that Gaiman's story Snow, Glass, Apples is a far better retelling of the Snow White tale than Maguire's book. Some stories in this collection are only so-so, but Gaiman's plays on fairy tales and other works of literature are really fun to read, and I think the short story is his best medium, so it deserves a mention.

Best Adult Fiction Series: Nominees, for those who aren't sure which books above are part of a series, are Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series (on which the TV show was based), Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (on which the current film, and the national phenomenon of teen girl hysteria are based), and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (on which, sadly, nothing is based, to my knowledge). Fforde wins, because he's the best writer of the bunch, and tells the most original and clever stories of three. The Thursday Next novels blend sci-fi, mystery and literary appreciation in such a fun way, it was hard for me to put any of these books down and I zipped through them all.

Worst Fiction Series: Dexter. It's pretty much unheard of that I would recommend a TV or film version of a story over the print version, but the television show has so much more detail, character development, better side plots, better pacing, better writing, that if you're at all interested in the story of the serial killer who kills only other serial killers, I really recommend going with the show and skipping the books. Season one follows the plot of the first book, but successive seasons abandon the books for their own plots, and with good reason. We just finished watching the third season of the show, and it was excellent, but I was hardly able to even finish the third book, it was so bad.

Best Guilty-Pleasure Fiction: The Twilight series. These books are really easy to make fun of, and there is a lot to criticize from a literary perspective in terms of the writing style and quality, the characters, the plot, the too-simple resolution of a lot of plot elements... basically everything, but these books are SO addictive. It's irritating how easily they suck you in, yet I devoured them.

Best Historical Non-fiction: A tie between Team of Rivals and We Wish To Inform You... Team of Rivals took me longer to read than anything I've ever read in my life (about 8 months, on and off) both because it's lengthy, and because it's dense and requires a lot of attention. It is a really thorough portrait of the Lincoln administration, very well-written. We Wish To Inform You... also took me a while to read, though this was entirely due to subject matter. It's the story of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and it's heartbreaking and devastating to read, but it's a story more people should know about.

Best Historical Non-fiction, Runner-up: The Wordy Shipmates, which is not Vowell's best book (that would be Assassination Vacation) but is still a good read. It's a brief history of the Puritans, focusing on their appreciation of education, and Vowell writes in a really accessible, humorous style.

Best Science/Nature Non-fiction: Mary Roach's popular science books are fun to read, but I'm giving this award to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle because Kingsolver's memoir of the year her family spent producing as much of their own food as possible, while contrasting traditional farming with the industrial farming methods used to produce most of the food in the US, was both educational and inspiring. Plus, it has recipes, some of which are delicious.

Best Graphic Novel: Persepolis, both volumes. Looking strictly at artwork I might have chosen Pride of Baghdad, which is much more visually rich and interesting, but Persepolis has a far better, more developed story. It's a memoir of Satrapi's childhood in Iran during the revolution of the '70s and '80s, so her personal story is told within the context of larger political events. They're quick to read, but a lot of depth is packed into simple illustrations and text.

Best Children's Book: Ghosts in the House. This book is so cute. I love the orange, black and white art, and the story is simple and cute. Evan, who loves anything Halloween-themed, adores this book. If you go to the Amazon link I posted above, click on the photo to look inside the book, and click on "Surprise Me" to see some random pages and get an idea of the style.

Best Children's Books, Runners-up: And Tango Makes Three is a sweet story I've written about before. The Paper Bag Princess is great; it's a reversal of the typical story of a prince saving a princess from a dragon. And though they're not on the list, I wanted to mention the picture books of Kevin Henkes and Brian Lies, which we've been reading lately and which are all wonderful books for preschool aged kids.

Best Young Adult Fiction: Cornelia Funke's books deserve mention, because she is a wonderful author (she also writes some great picture books for preschool aged kids, which usually feature little-girl heroines) but my favorite was The Willoughbys, a parody of older children's novels featuring genius orphans outwitting the dim adults who wish to do them harm, which were the sorts of books I loved to read as a kid. Quick and funny.

Best Children's Fiction Series: Tie between Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm. The Prydain books are wonderful fantasy adventure stories, reminiscent at times of The Lord of the Rings, featuring a headstrong hero who learns, via his friends and his adventures, all about friendship and bravery and right and wrong. The Sisters Grimm books are incredibly clever and often funny (I read these with James and he adores them; thinks they're hilarious and great fun). They're about two sisters who are the descendants of the Brothers Grimm, and who live in a community secretly populated by familiar characters from fairy tales, nursery rhymes and beloved works of literature (including Alice in Wonderland, and even Shakespeare). They're full of mystery and adventure. We're taking a break at the moment because they've grown a little mature for a 7-year-old as the series has progressed, but we will certainly read the remaining books before too long.

And that's it! If you want to know more about any of the books I didn't mention specifically in the awards, you can click on the Goodreads box in my sidebar to go to my profile and check out all my book ratings.

What have you read lately? Got any recommendations?


11 January 2009


Evan says so many funny, ridiculous, and unexpected things that I can't help but share them. He constantly makes me laugh.

A few days ago we were playing a game where he was sitting on my lap, and I was wiggling my legs, throwing off his balance, and saying, "Oh no! Don't fall!" Evan slid off my lap and landed on the floor on his feet. He stood up, looked down and said, "Well. It's a good thing I have legs."

This morning we were playing a high-five game. You know, up high, down low, in the middle (pull your hand away), too slow! Evan likes to say "Too slow, Joe!" at the end, but this morning I said, "I'm not Joe. You're not Joe." So the next time around I try to slap in the middle and he exclaims, "Too slow, Hobo!"

Lately he's been saying "No way, Jose!" all the time. A day or two again I said something to him and he thought it fitting to reply, "No thanks, Ho-zanks!"

He's recently learned the word privacy. Not the definition, though. He will insist on having privacy in the bathroom... right up until he needs someone to come wipe him up. Nor does a need for privacy prevent him from parading around naked after a bath.

When he's surprised, Evan will exclaim in an incredulous tone, "What the?!?" Sometimes he adds on a little something: "What the holy cow?!?" is common, and we've also heard "What the holy mustache?!?"

And he still has a flair for the melodramatic. It's pretty common in our house, once the kids are bed, to hear little footsteps running around upstairs, and for Greg or me to yell up the stairs, "Back in bed!" A couple of nights ago Greg was putting Evan to bed and told him to stay in bed so we wouldn't have to yell at him. Evan burst into tears, crying, "You don't love me anymore??"

He keeps us laughing, alright.


08 January 2009

happy birthday to james!

Dear James,

You're seven years old today. Seven years old! It hardly seems possible. But it's true; you're growing up. Things are changing in your world. You're slowly growing away from being a little boy, and starting to make your way to adolescence.

7 mini Dutch babies for a 7-year-old boy

Physically, you continue to grow up and up and up. Just last week we sent you to get ready for bed and you returned, totally oblivious, wearing your little brother's pajamas. Sure, they were short in the arms and legs, but they still fit you, you insisted. It wasn't until I really looked at the photo above, taken this morning, that I realized your face is growing up too. I think it's because your grandmother just trimmed your hair to allow us to see your face properly for the first time in months. Now, looking at that photo, I can see that all traces of chubby babyfat cheeks are gone. I don't know how this is possible when you're already out-eating me much of the time now.

You still look exactly like your dad, and you behave like him more and more as you grow older. You like to tease, tell jokes, play pranks. You are agreeable and cooperative. Anger and moodiness can often be cleared away in a matter of minutes. You're as curious and inquisitive as ever, always wanting to know how and why. Thank goodness your dad is a scientist with endless patience. He's been teaching you multiplication as well as some scientific principles that I would have expected to be too advanced for a first-grader, but you've proven me wrong.

Old age hasn't yet diminished your cheerfulness or optimism. When we were stuck in airports for so many hours over the holidays, you were the optimist. You were sure, every time, that we'd be on the next flight, that any minute now we'd be boarding an airplane. You played games with your brother, you befriended other kids waiting in the airport, you made your own fun and continued to enjoy yourself and boost our spirits when your dad and I threatened to get too disgruntled. You were tired, but you kept going, so excited about going to see Grandma and Papa for Christmas. When we left the airport after that first day of unsuccessful travel attempts, you were so surprised and disappointed that it hadn't happened. It was heartbreaking.

I feel like we don't see you much anymore these days -- you're at school all day long, and when you get home, most days you play outside until sunset. We get to see you for dinner and bedtime, with a little play in between, sometimes a bath, some homework,some chores, some reading. Your days are full and busy, but you don't seem to miss us much. I don't notice it most of the time either, how little time we're really spending together, until weekends or vacations when I get to spend entire days in your company and I'm reminded of how much fun it is to play games, to cook, to read, to snuggle with you.

I love you, darling boy, my sweet baby James. Happy, happy birthday.