Thursday, December 11, 2008

top ten books

Top Five Doctor Who (DWM) Comics
Top Ten Batman Stories
Top Ten Graphic Novels
Top Ten Books
Top Fifteen Radio Plays
Top Ten Fan Fic

Top Ten Books 2008

With 56 (non-comics) books read this year, I didn’t do too badly (especially considering that several of them were over 500 pages long!). Although I try to break my reading up with non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and drama, the top ten are overwhelmingly in the fiction category.

10. North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell) I’m cheating a bit here, as I haven’t finished this yet, but at 570 pages, you can forgive me for being a bit precipitous! I’ll do a full review at some point, but I’ve really been pleasantly surprised with this, after being frustrated into reading it, that no one took my Facebook hint to buy me the mini-series, which of course stars Richard Armitage. (Look what the man has done for me! Got me to read my Shakespeare, research the Crusades, watch Spooks, read Gaskell ...!) In theme and structure, North and South is similar to Pride and Prejudice, though I might at this point argue I like John Thornton more than Mr Darcy. I know, shock, shock (though I have said before I prefer Colonel Wentworth in Austen’s array of romantic heroes). I’m also learning a great deal about the Industrial Revolution in the UK (as opposed to the American Civil War).

9. Translations (Brian Friel) My friend Maria wrote her dissertation on Brian Friel and even went to Ireland to meet him and research in Dublin’s libraries. He was always highly recommended to me, but it was only by chance I picked up this play by him in an attempt to help my own writing of stage plays. I was amazed at the simplicity and naturalness of Friel’s writing historical drama. I had to look at the stage directions to realize that it was set in the 19th century. The story is about an Irish hedge-school, visited by an English regiment whose job it is to convert all the place names in Ireland into English. This is a sly observation on language, communication, and culture, with a mournful and yet tender romance somehow not “lost in translation.”

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) How I never came upon this book before now I don’t know. I was too young to appreciate the BBC mini-series when it came to PBS; I was amused by the Hollywood film. I earlier compared reading the book to the experience of clone!Leela and clone!Doctor going inside the real Doctor’s head in “The Invisible Enemy”: funny, absolutely insane, satirical, philosophical, and highly imaginative. I could quote the bit about towels ... but I won’t.

7. The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov) The Master and Margarita is a book that defies categorization (a bit like Phantom of the Opera, I find). I was given the book by my friend RenĂ©e, with whom I co-taught Gothic Horror (and who taught me to love many varied and interesting texts in the Novel as Social Commentary), who is something of an expert in Russian literature. Bulgakov was a sincerely valorous writer, in that he wrote The Master and Margarita with the full knowledge it would never be published within his lifetime—he was living in Stalinist Russia, and its exploration of Christian religious themes would have censored it immediately. The Devil is a character. Witches ride on broomsticks above Moscow. Margarita serves as Lucifer’s hostess in a hellish masquerade. The Master, while not the Master of Doctor Who, is nevertheless an enigmatic figure, a writer of an uncannily realistic account of Jesus and Pontius Pilate in A.D. 43. So it becomes a story within a story within a story ... Highly imaginative, very funny, and an interesting window into 1920s Soviet society-highly recommended.

6. Beethoven’s Hair (Russell Martin) I’ve read much on Beethoven, Hummel, Mozart, and Haydn due to something I’m working on. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed this nonfiction book and how it kept me on the edge of my seat. A really well-constructed and organized sampler of Beethoven’s life, with an easy-to-read, conversational style. It’s also the intriguing story of his hair after his death! I particularly liked reading about Hummel’s student Hiller (who ended up with the hair in question for awhile), though of course the Danish heroism and subsequent mystery was pretty gripping. If you remember in the news a few years ago hearing about the high levels of arsenic in Beethoven’s hair, which may have caused his death-this is that story, and a lot more.

5. Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson) I’m a bit cross with Bill Bryson since he’s the Chancellor of Durham University and wrote to my friend Katie, a graduate of that educational establishment, to ask her for money. But normally I’m one of his staunchest fans because I find him terribly hilarious, immensely shrewd, and like me, he’s an American with a huge soft spot for Britain and Britons. This is one of the books that cemented his reputation. I have learned that Brits in general find it as funny as I did, which is no small feat, to amuse both sides of the Atlantic equally. His other works all retain the sense of humor with surprisingly strong and acerbic opinions all bundled up with a sense of wonder and delight-yet this one takes the cake. Yah.

4. Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) My aunt, who introduced me to costume drama, told me for years to read Gone with the Wind, as with my affinity for description of costume she knew I would love it. She’d also bred a hopeless romantic, and though I went in very sceptical of having any affection whatsoever for Rhett Butler, I came out conscious of its deserving its status as one of the greatest love stories of all time. The color, the beauty, the flippancy of the Old South, the picking, gnawing tedium of the Reconstruction, inner conflict, outward battles. Scarlett experienced it all, and for all her lack of education, her selfishness, she is the type of woman who is more or less inside all of us. If you want a character who really goes through hell, this is the place to find her. But wait! you might say. Isn’t this a racist book? Well, I doubt you will ever see the n-word repeated as many times in a book. I think it’s acceptable when a book includes characters who are merely reflections of attitudes that were once genuinely espoused. You may disagree. In any case, no one can deny the scale and the energy in this moving history and love story.

3. Stumbling on Happiness (Daniel Gilbert) Every page packed enormous and consequential teachings that everyone should know. Sometimes the irreverent tone was a bit much-Gilbert does find himself a bit amusing-but overall extremely thorough and 100% engrossing. It’s a bit depressing to realize that there is no perfect way to predict happiness, because basically our brains are hard-wired against it! I read a book late last year called That’s Not What I Meant! which annoyed me because it didn’t give any practical hints for how to deal with miscommunication. It could be argued that Stumbling on Happiness won’t bring you any closer to happiness (though I think he does see the value in writing down how we feel, so we can look back at it and say, ooh, THAT’s how I felt). Gilbert tells us by way of ingenious and thorough experimental and empirical data, is that humans are very poor at predicting and remembering what makes them happy. Yet I suppose there is something comforting in the fact that I’m not alone in not understanding my own happiness or lack thereof!

2. The Road to Samarcand (Patrick O’Brian) While I didn’t enjoy my Master and Commander book this year as much I as I expected to, The Road to Samarcand more than made up for it. This was cracking good fun. Maybe it didn’t contain the emotional depth of Aubrey/Maturin, but it was a tremendously good yarn. I cried, I laughed, I couldn’t put it down. I felt I’d gone through the Himalayas, sailed the south seas, and through the Gobi Desert with the expedition. The characters are charming, and this is a story of O’Brian’s that isn’t set in the Napoleonic era. I just loved it. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

1. Broome Stages (Clement Dane) No one has heard of this book, not even antique book dealers in Hay-on-Wye. I was very, very fortunate to find a copy in the University of New Mexico library- I was tempted to steal it- after my former radio tutor D J Britton told me he had found the book in a church bazaar and that it reminded him of my writing. It’s long, but to me it trumps even The Forsyte Saga and The Magnificent Ambersons, also family sagas, in terms of scale. It isn’t quite as heavy-handed as Galsworthy, and, as a dramatist, Dane has an impressive sense of great scenes. His characters are so magnificent and so real, it almost broke my heart to follow their very human rise and fall. What also sets it apart from the other two books I’ve mentioned is its Shakespeare/acting angle- it follows a family of actors from the early 18th century to the early 20th. The book is exceptional, and it deserves to live outside the long-neglected pages- if it were up to me, it would! Now I just have to find a production company that will take me on ... If you can find the book, you will be impressed.


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