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Subject:Best of 2009
Time:06:02 pm
I'm compiling this list in spite of having lost a semester's worth of time to read. In the order I read them:

"On the Way to the Wedding," Julia Quinn: I still cast my mind back to this one every now and again. Yes, it's a cheesy romance novel, but it's a good one.

"The Year of Living Biblically," A. J. Jacobs: What it means to be a (Judeo-Christian) human being.

"Three Cups of Tea," Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: I know this has been out for a while, but as I wrote after I read it, "Do you care less about 'why they hate us' than what we can do to get them to stop? Read this book."

"The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence," Gavin de Becker: I quote from (and think about) this book all the time. Read it because it (the book itself) is smart.

"Highway to Hell: Dispatches from a Mercenary in Iraq," John Geddes: I kind of had a crush on him by the end of the book.

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," David Wroblewski: A big story, about people that seem stunningly real.

"Madame de Staël: The First Modern Woman," Francine du Plessix Gray: You gotta love a feisty lady, especially a REAL feisty lady who was super-advanced for her time.

"The Book of Lost Things," John Connolly: A lovely, intense reminder of when fairy tales were scary, and how kids' fantasy lives can seem (and be) more real than their actual lives.

"An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England," Brock Clarke: Excellent and funny and heartbreaking.

"Lamb," Christopher Moore: Apparently I'm a sucker for books that gently mock Christianity.

Perennial recommendation: The "Pink Carnation" series: Historical AND romantic AND mysterious AND smart AND funny. If you can't find anything redeeming about these books you are dumb and boring.

And my most awesomely terrible:
"The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich," Timothy Ferriss: This is maybe my favorite review I've written all year.
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Subject:"The Forever War," Dexter Filkins
Time:05:35 pm
So I read this right after that worshipful book about David Petraeus, and it was a great counter-point. Sure, the first few pages were eye-rollingly melodramatic, but once Filkins settled down, it was really informative. Most of his reporting focused on the actual people who live in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he writes about his experiences moving and living among them.
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Subject:"Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq," Linda Robinson
Time:05:18 pm
Good fuel to the fire of my deep and abiding love for David Petraeus (not that it really needed the help). Also, as kind of a leftist/pacifist, this was useful for an alternate view of the military, which I tend to assume is made up mainly of kids with few-to-no ways out of the less-than-ideal circumstances in which they grew up. Nope, in this world of David Petraeus everyone (including the general himself) has advanced degrees. It was good for me to read this depiction of the military, but also disappointing that the issues around torture were never discussed. It was a good and engrossing read, but once I put the book down the gaps started showing through pretty quickly.

After an article by Ralph Peters appeared criticizing the draft [counter-insurgency manual] for taking too soft an approach to fighting insurgents, and Petraeus's four-star superior advocated qualifying the stark language of the paradoxes, Petraeus ordered modifications over Crane's strenuous objections. Thus, the final paradoxes read: "Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is," and "Some of the best weapons for counterinsurgents do not shoot," which is a less elegant rendering than the unqualified originals. Petraeus's favorite aphorism, "Money is ammunition," which he had coined in Mosul, remained untouched. T.E. Lawrence's maxim, "Do not try to do too much with your own hands" was reformulated as "The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well."

(Another book I read before my move to Philly, and am just reviewing now.)
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Subject:"The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart," Bill Bishop
Time:04:58 pm
I read this book right before I moved to Philly, and all I really remember is a lot of the author patting himself on the back for living in open-minded liberal enclaves, while simultaneously denigrating those who choose to live only amongst people just like themselves. Long story short, I don't think I got much out of it.
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Subject:"Juliet, Naked," Nick Hornby
Time:04:47 pm
Oh, I liked this book. I really, really liked this book... up until the very end. ATTENTION!! ATTENTION!! SUPER-UBER-CRAZY SPOILER ALERT!!!Collapse )
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Subject:"Invisible," Paul Auster
Time:04:37 pm
For some reason I'm surprised I've already read two other books by him (I've also since discovered who his ex-wife is). I suppose this is my long way of saying that I was surprised, once I thought about it, to realize that I had any previous experience with Auster at all, and also that I think it helped my reading of the book. I was annoyed that the second part was written in the second person (I steadfastly refused to agree to read a book for my old book club because it was written in the second person), but overall, I did like this book. The characters seemed real enough (the main character especially), which is impressive because there were some very extreme personalities. There was a lot to think about, it was very well-written, and ultimately redeemed itself from being so man-centric. It's interesting, too, that I'm not yet able to see much of a pattern developing between this and his other books I've read - the mark of a good writer, I'd say.
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Subject:"Hothouse Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire," Margot Berwin
Time:09:45 am
I tore right through this book in a couple of hours, and enjoyed it (woo, the supernatural!), but it left me with a funny aftertaste. Partway through started I becoming uncomfortable with the way the Mexican characters were treated (picture the magical negro relocated to the Yucatàn peninsula). And, now that the book is all over, I realize that I don't really know much of anything about the main character. I mean... she was divorced. Instead of having a personality, she is recently divorced. The men in the book tell her she's "cold," even though she "pretends to be sweet," but conveniently enough (I suppose) for the author, neither of these qualities are ever actually exhibited. Instead she freaks out at the jungle, and freaks out about men, and in the end we're supposed to believe she's like a totally transformed person - almost like Eat, Pray, Love, but with way less meditation. By the end of the book, I wished I'd read it on a tropical beach instead of in my parents' living room. I think I would've liked it a lot more that way.

The great, mysterious Olmec people... made it a practice to leave their children in the company of jaguar cubs so that they could learn the secrets of mysticism, including silence and invisibility.
The Olmecs disappeared without a trace, so maybe it worked.


And to be entirely superficial, the author seems to be kind of weird-looking in her jacket photo
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Subject:"Lamb," Christopher Moore
Time:09:32 am
Ahh, finally. FINALLY. I've been waiting to read this book for SO LONG. I actually bought it to read on the train home from Thanksgiving break, I think?, and only just got around to it now. No matter. I devoured it. Funny, and touching, and kind of about the things that make us human, the sub-title is pretty well self-explanitory: "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." Most of what it purports to cover are the parts that were left out of the Bible, which means that Moore can go a little crazy, which I loved. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's into the dogma, but if your religious beliefs tend towards, "Hey a-holes! Be nice to each other!," this book is right up your alley.

"Joshua, look around you, do you see any trees?"
"No."
"And the trees we do have, olive trees--twisted, gnarly, knotty things, right?"
"Right."
"But you're going to be a carpenter like your father?"
"There's a chance of it."
"One word, Josh: rocks."
"Rocks?"
"Look around. Rocks as far as the eye can see. Galilee is nothing but rocks, dirt, and more rocks. Be a stonemason like me and my father. We can build cities for the Romans."
"Actually, I was thinking about saving mankind."
"Forget that nonsense, Josh. Rocks, I tell you."
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Subject:"Midnight Pleasures," Eloisa James
Time:09:19 am
This was the other book I purchased for my train ride back to Boston, and, like the other one, I was convinced I'd read it before. Luckily for me, it became obvious shortly after I started the book that I had not (although it seems to be an understandable mistake), and I enjoyed it much more than my other train book.

Even though the plot was a little bit frustrating. Way more of the back-and-forth than I usually like, of the "I can't marry you! I want to marry you! I won't marry you! I will marry you! Now I will talk to you! Now I won't talk to you! Now I can't talk to you! Now I love you madly!" variety. I did like that the heroine was polyglot, and there was a fun sub-plot where she tried to teach a stableman's daughter to be a noblewoman (with results far better than any they'd dreamed of).
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Subject:"A Rogue's Proposal," Stephanie Laurens
Time:09:12 am
Wow, so I totally thought I'd read this book before. I purchased it (yes, purchased it!) for the train ride back to Boston from Philadelphia. Of course, it now turns out that I'd read another book by the same author about the same family that also involved a sub-plot involving cheating at horse racing, which I guess explains why the names and characters seemed so familiar. So I actually had no reason to feel mildly disappointed the entire time I was reading this book...

It was pretty fun: the heroine loves playing detective, the hero is an avowed rake who's reformed by love. I don't think the horse racing plot was quite as interesting as in the other book, though.
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