Saturday, January 01, 2005

Read Any Good Books Lately?

I've been looking over that recently-posted list of books I read last year, and I thought I might talk a little about which of them really stood out. As it happens, I read quite a few extremely good books in 2004, and the "honorable mention" list, were I to make one, would be pretty long. But picking out the best of the best is actually pretty easy. So here ya go.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman: The author recounts his father's experiences in occupied Poland and in a German prison camp in WW2, and reflects on his own strained relationship with the man decades later. One of the most painful things I have ever read, but it's the kind of pain that's good to experience once in a while, I think, because we need to remember just what kind of horrors our species is capable of. Oh, and, yes, it's a cartoon. With mice. Somehow, this works.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves: An "autobiographical" account of the life of the Emperor Claudius, from his boyhood to his assumption of the rulership of Rome. My knowledge of Roman history isn't good enough to say how factually accurate it is, but all the details ring true, and it certainly seems like the author's done his homework quite exhaustively. So much so, in fact, that, as a novel, it shouldn't work. It's mostly long, long, long passages of, well, history. Not much dialog, not much plot in a conventional sense. But the history itself is so fascinating (murder! intrigue! scandal! sex!), and Graves' Claudius is so likeable and possessed of such a wonderful dry wit, that the end result is an utterly compelling read. (The sequel, Claudius the God, is also very much worth reading, but I found the first one decidedly superior.)

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: Protagonist Henry De Tamble has an odd affliction: at uncontrollable intervals, he disappears from the present and reappears at random points in his own past or future. Which maybe sounds silly, but not to fear; this is a classic example of a book that asks you to accept one impossible premise and then works out the consequences of it in ways that are absolutely believable. Not only that, but every single thing it does, it does perfectly. The characters are living, breathing, real people. The out-of-sequence plot unfolds at exactly the right pace, drawing you inevitably to a conclusion that has an incredible emotional impact. It's billed, by the way, as a love story, which it very much is, but it's not a sappy or manipulative love story, and it's definitely not your cookie-cutter romance. I read it practically in one sitting (a rarity for me these days). It made me cry.

The Earthsea trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) by Ursula K. LeGuin: What really impresses me about these books is that they work on absolutely every level. The prose is beautiful. The fantasy world-building is highly original and very well thought out. The stories are richly symbolic in a way that makes them feel as if they've been pulled directly out of the human collective unconscious, and yet they're simultaneously cracking good stories about very real-seeming human beings. Fantasy does not get better than this.

Life with Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse: I am frequently in the habit of walking down the street while reading a book, which often gets me some pretty strange looks. Well, I happened to be reading this during a period when I was doing a lot of walking because I didn't have a car, and I can only imagine what I must have looked like strolling down the street reading this and laughing my fool head off. But I couldn't stop doing it. And, well, that's Wodehouse, and I don't know what more to say, except, "Must read more Wodehouse!"

Oh, and, while I'm at it, the booby prize for Worst Book of the Year goes to Obsidian Fate by Diana G. Gallagher, an especially crappy Buffy novel, about which my main memory is thinking that, if the world were going to end, my greatest regret would be that I'd wasted the last week reading that piece of tripe. Oh, and it also spawned a rant about things that annoy me in TV tie-in books. So at least I got something out of it, I guess.

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