Thursday, December 17, 2009

favorite books of 2009

another year of steady traveling meant more time to read, which was fun. and for this list i don't hold myself to books released this year as i do with a favorite music list. sure it's arbitrary, but who really cares. so in no particular order i give you 10 books that i have thoroughly enjoyed this year.

- indignation by philip roth: i discovered roth for real a few years back (very late to the party, i confess), and always feel that i'm in good hands with his writing. how he maintains a level of quality and consistency year after year(he's 76 and seems to publish at least one novel a year) is remarkable to me. this book, set against the backdrop of the korean war, recounts the life of the character marcus messner, a jewish new jersey native who travels to ohio for college to escape his over bearing father. it's an off-kilter fish-out-of-water story that is both hilarious and wince-inducingly harsh, moving but not overly sentimental.

- the sacredness of questioning everything by david dark: david's latest is a grab-the-rails-and-hold-tight ride that synthesizes serious academics with keen insights into pop culture. in the book he celebrates the sacred process of questioning our assumptions about most everything: faith, religion, politics, commerce and underlying motivations. i would say that he asserts that an ongoing examination of all of these things leads us down a path of a more vibrant and expanding life of faith. many of the references are familiar to me (radiohead; william gibson; arcade fire; philip roth; johnny cash; etc.), and yet david's insights into these references are ones that i'd like to think i could have and explain as well as he does. i'm fortunate to know him, even at a distance, and am consistently inspired and challenged by his tough and gracious thoughtfulness.

- fool by christopher moore: one of my favorite writers tackles shakespearean dramedy with another cast of bizarre, profane and hilarious characters, including Pocket, the story's hero, a diminutive court jester, Drool, a bumbling, slow-to-think sidekick; a weakened King Lear and many others. as with all of moore's books, this is a fast-paced freak fest of episodic comedy with as many quotables as a classic bill murray or chevy chase movie, and research on the subject matter that also reflects moore's intelligence at melding post-modern sensibilities with respect for classic thought.

- gentlemen of the road by michael chabon: chabon may be my favorite writer alive right now. i was sickened to learn that he write his debut novel, the mysteries of pittsburgh, between the ages of 22-24, as i still wish i could write one sentence that measures up to his skill. he's only gotten better, imho, over time. what's been fun in recent years is the way that chabon jumps from genre to genre, and even mashed them together. a prime example would be the yiddish policeman's union, which combines an elmore leonard pulp-crime-noir murder mystery with philip roth's political what-if, a la the plot against america. in gentlemen of the road chabon tells a grand road adventure story set along the silk road of the 10th century, with swindles, cheaters, warring tribes and attempts at sex and love into a quick-reading 224 pages.

- christianity for the rest of us by diana butler bass: one of two books i read this year by diana butler bass (the other being a peoples' history of christianity). this one is a study of progressive mainline congregations that are growing and thriving, primarily by being present to their local communities and intentionally pursuing a variety of spiritual formation practices. what's more, many, if not all, of the churches she researched actively served and embraced marginalized communities and committed to being places where those communities were not only welcome, but cared for and embraced as part of a community. to be sure, many of these congregations experienced the pains of growing and changing, but the stories that butler-bass tells are not only encouraging, but prescriptive of what many communities in similar situations can explore for their own progression.

- falling man by don de lillo: de lillo is heralded as one of the finest literary novelists around, but the first thing of his that i read, the body artist, underwhelmed me and i struggled to finish it. a friend urged me to give de lilo another try, and i'm glad i did. this post-9/11 story follows a number of manhattan-ites whose lives were upended, and how a few of them connect with one another. recurring throughout the story is a performance artist who re-creates the image of "the "falling man", the iconic picture of a twin towers victim falling to the earth, and who continues to trigger memories, emotions and responses to peoples' experiences. the writing lays bare their emotions and moods without being voyeuristic or patronizing, and leaves them each in situations unresolved and intriguing.

- spook country by william gibson: gibson, author of neuromancer, tells another futurist's tale of spy culture and post-9/11 intrusion by the rich and powerful. what could be a litany of conspiracy theory type gripes displays a realists look at how technology can monitor the behaviors and actions of many, as a former indie rock cult hero-turned journalist enters an adventurous trek that, on the surface, is merely an interview piece of an artist utilizing new technology. it spirals into inclusion of crime syndicates, mysterious, eccentric millionaires and a culture of planned un-ease that keeps people from trusting one another. gibson sees the foreshadowing of how power reacts to progress and tightens its grip to assert control. realism without paranoia crafted by a fantastic writer.

- the medium is the massage by marshall mcluhan: mc luhan's prescient 1967 tome on how messages will be delivered through design is uncanny in its predictions for how technology will shape communication (commercial, inter-personal, cultural, etc...) as it progresses. correlations between the printing press and the internet are easy to spot here, yet remarkable in their ability to envision such a future. as music, publishing, tv and film are all undergoing their massive shifts, this is a fascinating read to spark more imagining for where we are headed.

-----alert: the next two are business books. some like 'em on lists like these some don't. you're now informed-----

- the designful company by marty neumeier: neumeier gives a timely reminder that how an organization is designed to work affects, and to large degree, dictates, how that organization functions, communicates, innovates and progresses. for me, this was an affirmation that all marketing / messaging starts from the design of what is being messaged. most everything else is cleverness and smoke and mirrors. but when intentional design is enacted, the rest of the storytelling flows from that. for anyone that thinks that that sort of thinking is too esoteric to work, neumeier has some things to say to you. it's a quick read, so take the plunge.

- what would google do? by jeff jarvis: jarvis, an avid blogger, reporter and media professor, delves into the core values by which google has built its web dominance. much of this comes as counter-intuitive thought to 20th century top-down, command and control thinking, and jarvis shows how this new model of doing business offers amazing opportunity and potential for those willing to look for the niche first, and then get deep and wide as required, with real-time feedback from customers. jarvis crafts what-if scenarios for how a google mindset would look in various industries (book publishing, automotives, telephone among them), and while it veers into fawning territory at times, the overall lessons are worth a read for anyone wanting an overview of how the web's most influential company is thinking.

1 comment:

Lars Rood said...

Hey. "The Medium is the Massage" was actually a pretty groundbreaking book for me a few years back. I was doing research and came across it and suddenly he's message clicked for me. Now I'm not saying I have anything figured out but I'm glad to see that I wasn't the only one for whom this book was a big deal.