2010 Reading in Review: Book Recommendations

While I do keep a file of weekly downloaded short story PDFs from the awesome Narrative Magazine on my phone, most of the time I prefer to pick up physical books from the library or stuff a paperback into my carry-on bag. Old school, I know.

Here’s a round up of most of the books I’ve read in 2010 in no particular order, though I would say that the very last one pictured is probably my favorite recommendation for the year. If anything grabs you, click through the cover images.

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
by Iris Chang

Not exactly some light reading. Monica of the travel blog A Pair of Panties and Boxers turned me on to this one as I was about to go to China again. I even added the city to my itinerary. I picked the book up out of my morbid fascination with how awful the human race can be sometimes. It’s the tale of a Japanese war atrocity where one of the heroes of the story was a German expat who saved and protected many of the Chinese. You know you’re in trouble when the head of the local Nazi party is even appalled. When we talk of holocausts and genocide, this is another story that really needs to be remembered, especially as some elements in Japan still seek to erase it. (Read about my trip to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima,.) The photos aren’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.


Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger

Just as she had her own way with time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffenegger creates a unique vision of ghosts and the afterlife in this novel. Much as the element of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife does not feel at all like genre science fiction, the supernatural elements here do not read like a ghost story. She manages to make those concepts seem like normal aspects of life. It was a fantastic read, with vivid characters you grew attached to (or disliked as real people), a fascinating set of rules for the otherworld, and bits of London graveyard history. I just sat and stared for a long while after I finished the last page.


Burmese Days
by George Orwell

When I traveled to Myanmar/Burma last spring, I headed right to Bagan for the amazing plain full of temples. As I stepped off the tarmac and paid the official for the park fee, I noticed a copy of Orwell’s book sitting there on the table next to the man. He smiled, “Would you like it?” I dunno. How much? He told me in kyat and I figured it was about $5 USD. I hesitated. How many times have I passed an opportunity, penny pinching, hoping for a better deal. Oh, come ON, Kevin! Buy the darn thing. How likely do you think it is that you will stumble across another copy of this thing before the end of your stay? Imagine reading Orwell’s scathing novel of English colonialism and Burmese corruption right here in the land itself! OK, I said, and laid down the tattered kyat. I thumbed through it, clearly a photocopied version. I stepped into the lobby to find a taxi and immediately was accosted by a woman at a souvenir stand. “Want to buy?” she held up an identical copy of Burmese Days. “Two dollars!” Shit. Word of advice to Orwell fans traveling to Burma: A copy on every street corner.


Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk

Having seen the movie first, I worried that the story in my head would inevitably carry the faces and voices of Pitt and Norton, but such was not the case. Palahniuk’s narrative voice is so strong and edgier that I almost never called to mind images from the film. The ending is much better than the Hollywood version as well. He drags you right along on the nihilistic bender and never lets you go. And if, knowing the movie, you also know the little trick of the narrative, it is actually quite fun in a metafictional way to see the clues throughout the story. Clever stuff.


Idlewild
by Nick Sagan

Totally random read: Someone tweeted they missed Carl Sagan. Half an hour later I sat at a table at the local library and just happened to turn to see the wire paperback rack next to me. At eye level was Nick Sagan. I picked it up and sure enough it was his son. I checked it out and though I really haven’t read much science fiction since my younger days, I was forced to admit that sci-fi still should have its place in my reading. The story is a sort of murder mystery set in an Immersive Virtual Reality boarding school in the near future. But part of the mystery is whether or not there was an actual murder. What the main character Halloween uncovers goes way beyond his little cyber high school world and his circle of friends. It’s a trilogy now and I hope to read the next two in 2011.


The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
by Richard Dawkins

Probably the people who need to read this would never dare. As a member of the choir, however, I found there were a lot of verses I didn’t know. I too had a few misconceptions about what we know and what we don’t know. A great read, and really, for those who haven’t taken a close look at life on this planet and where it’s been and how it’s gotten here, they are really missing out on a breathtaking show. The world is an amazing place. I’ve been fortunate to get to one of the most impressive showcases for evolution and in fact an inspiration for Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands. So many other places to see, so little time…


The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi

A blog rant about seed companies pressuring Thai farmers after the 2010 floods to supplant Thai rice with genetically modified (and thus terminating seed) varieties had a link to this one. Keeping in mind that Bangkok is actually facing and sinking city/rising waters situation right now, the novel’s setting in Bangkok is ideal. The author did his homework on the differences in cultures and subcultures in Southeast Asia to develop characters. So much of it seems not far off from other incidents in history, the power struggles, corporate malfeasance, plagues, and ethnic clashes. It is a disturbing vision of what could realistically happen when oil resources dry up, the environment tilts to wacky, and the GMO idea leads to the loss of our natural seed crops and so much more. Sci-fi fans and those with concerns for our environmental future will love this. Anyone who has been to Bangkok and Southeast Asia will enjoy it all the more.


Doc Savage: The Lost Oasis
by Kenneth Robeson

“I’ll be superamalgamated!” he ejaculated. Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent), a 1930s sci-fi writer and my elderly high-school chemistry teacher are the only two people I have ever known to use that word in the exclamatory sense. Ahem. Doc Savage appeared in pulp magazines back in the day and I grew up on the 1960s-1980s novelized versions, finding them at used bookstores and garage sales and gathering well over 100 of them. I picked one up last summer just to see how they held up. Corny for sure, and gushing narrative about how awesome the protagonist was physically and mentally, but considering the original date of publication, it was like much sci-fi today, way ahead of its time. Doc Savage was the beginning of the superhero genre. Can you believe he’s now on Kindle
too? This was a nostalgic read for me and might be better for your young readers.


Salt: A World History
by Mark Kurlansky

Who knew salt played such an important part in the formation of societies, economies and even the founding of cities throughout human history? Nations were built on it. Every turn of the page is another surprise, like a trivia show revealing the importance of “the only rock we eat.” (It reminds me of meals at a homestay in Guatemala during a time when I had tried to minimize sodium in my diet for health reasons. The family was quite poor and my homestay fees no doubt a fortune for them. Meals were so simple yet so amazingly delicious. What do you use? I asked. My house mom smiled a gold-toothed smile and shrugged. “Just salt.”)


The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game
by Thomas Bass

This may be my favorite read for 2010. Here’s why: While sitting in the street in Ho Chi Minh City having a beer with a Vietnamese business associate back in the spring, I listened as he told me about his father who was a journalist working for the Americans during the Vietnam War. His father’s good friend worked for Time . His name was Pham Xuan An. He was beloved by all and trusted by journalists and generals alike. He’d “hold court” at Cafe Givral where everyone would consult with him on aspects of Vietnamese culture and politics and share with him the latest gossip. He’d go out of his way to help his American friends and even pulled some strings to get a few of them out of trouble with the enemy. And he turned out to be the greatest spy the North ever had. While there is so much more to Vietnam than the war, the darn thing inevitably comes up; like a mole on the end of a person’s nose, you struggle not to look right at it. This book is a biography of a very colorful man which also functions as a vehicle to trace the war’s history. The author interviewed An before his death in 2006. Like a Le Carre novel, you can’t put this one down. And you will never look at the history of that war the same way again.

Other Reads:
Bangkok Pool Blues (link to my NileGuide blog post about it)
The Queen of Patpong (link to my NileGuide blog post about it)
On Distant Ground by Robert Olen Butler
One of the award-winning author’s early books, set in Vietnam. Good, but if it’s your first Butler read, better to try Pultizer winner A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories or They Whisper