Saturday, January 20, 2007

2008 - Best Books of the Year

Fredericka, Georgette Heyer.
Classic Regency romance, 296 pages. See also The Grand Sophy (346 pages), The Nonesuch (300 pages), Sylvester (276 pages), The Unknown Ajax (286 pages), all with capable heroines and intelligent heroes with deep (occasionally untapped) resources of humor and generosity. Rereading them has been a great pleasure. I’m not as fond of her bad-tempered rake-heroes, though I must admit I've read every one of her books I’ve been able to find and all of them with some degree of pleasure. The details of her evocations of the period are a marvel. 

Hope Human and Wild: true stories of living lightly on the Earth, Bill McKibben.
Narrative essays about successful environmental case studies, 235 pages. Engagingly written even on a repeat-reading.

The Price of a Dream: the story of the Grameen Bank, David Bornstein.
Biography of Yunus Muhammad, 370 pages.  Focuses on the history of Grameen lending banks in rural Bangladesh.

Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh: anthropological study of the rhetoric and realities of Grameen Bank lending, Aminur Rahman.
Scholarly inquiry, 188 pages.   Measuring the distance between ideal and actuality.

Give Us Credit, Alex Counts.
Economic philosophy and history of Grameen-style cooperative lending in Bangladesh and Chicago, USA, 361 pages. Interesting to see how microcredit may play out in other societies than Bangladesh.

By Faith Alone: one family’s epic journey through 400 years of American Protestantism, Bill Griffeth.
Family/ American history, 288 pages. A surprisingly engaging way to trace the history of our nation – through the author’s family history. The chapters about Salem and the witch trials were especially moving as the author is descended from one of the two courageous and saintly old ladies who were the last to be wrongly executed for witchcraft. (We are descended from their youngest brother who was an old man at the time of their execution).

Mayflower: a story of courage, community, and war, Nathaniel Philbrick.
Colonial history, 461 pages. Interesting for the focus on the relations between Native and European and the fluctuating loyalties that led to King Phillip’s War. Now I know what the notation on our family genealogy – “died in Great Swamp War” – refers to, as one of our hotheaded ancestors shows up in this history briefly.

Edible Forest Gardens. Volume one: ecological vision and theory for temperate-climate permaculture; Volume two: . . . design and practice . . ., Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
Permaculture theory, 378 pages, and design guide, 655 pages.  A good lot of work, but what an appealing idea! Re-creating an Eden of food-bearing trees and other perennial plants growing in mutually beneficial groves.

Break Through: from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility, Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
Environmental philosophy and blatant hope-mongering, 344 pages. They urge that human power and ingenuity be unleashed, not curtailed; that we focus on aspiration and possibility rather than gloom-and-doom limiting. The writing is vigorous, the reasoning hard-headedly realistic, and the tone generous.

The White Witch, Elizabeth Goudge.
Novel set at the time of the English Revolution, 439 pages.  Even-handed in its treatment of Roundheads and Cavaliers, intricately and accurately detailed with characters that fit within their time, but best of all an exciting tale of adventure. The main character is an herbalist and healing woman whose prosperous brother becomes staunchly Protestant and whose true love is a Catholic on the run.

The Seven Sisters of India: tribal worlds between Tibet and Burma, Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham.
Photographic essays, 167 pages.  Tribal groups in the Indian subcontinent – what a wealth of lifeways I’ve known nothing about.

Dreams from my Father: a story of race and inheritance, Barack Obama.
Autobiography of the first black president of Harvard Review (now US president-elect), 442 pages. I read it because I kept getting emails “quoting” from this book and had to check for myself if anyone was really that idiotic and evil-minded. What I discovered was a thoughtful, candid (and often mis-quoted) author, quietly intelligent, ready to question himself, capable of holding in his mind and elucidating for the reader ideas more complex than a one-line slogan. Worth reading whatever your political propensity.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations – one school at a time, Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin.
(Auto)biography, 338 pages. Climbing enthusiast, who after injury was nursed back to health by a Pakistani village, promised to return and build them a school – which he has done and then done again in other villages – 55 times in the heartland of Taliban activity. I’m glad the world has such people in it – though he would be difficult to live with (another encouraging thought – being irritating does not keep us from being useful).

Out of Poverty: what works when traditional approaches fail, Paul Polack.
How to end poverty, 232 pages.  Chapter titles tell the story -- Learning to do the simple & obvious  -- 12 steps to practical problem solving -- 3 great poverty eradication myths -- It all starts with making more money -- Design for the other 90 percent -- From subsistence to new income -- Affordable small-plot irrigation -- A new agriculture for 1-acre farms -- Creating vibrant new markets that serve poor customers -- Slums: incubators for new income opportunities. His ideas sound practical, realistic  and alive to me.

Stoneheart, Charlie Fletcher.
YA fantasy adventure set in modern London, 450 pages.  One boy, troubled over his father’s death, sets off a season of peril as he becomes aware of the usually unseen movements of statues and gargoyles throughout the city. There is a sequel, Ironhand, which was not quite as gripping, but that may have been the difference between reading it to oneself and hearing it read really wonderfully by a gifted English actor who did all the voices just right. 

A New England Town: The First Hundred Years: Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636-1736, Kenneth A. Lockridge.
History of a Massachusetts town established as a Puritan utopian society, 220 pages. Fascinating glimpse of very real long ago founders (our ancestors among them) who reveal themselves to be surprisingly contemporary and understandable as they face unexpected problems with their best-laid plans.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver.
Locavoring memoir, 370 pages. This year-in-the-life-of will likely become the bible of the locavore movement (eat what grows only within a 100 miles of home). The writing reminds me more of her unsatisfying Prodigal Summer than of her other much greater books. I’ve come across most of her ideas before, more freshly, in Real Food, etc., and Kingsolver’s unusually ideal farm-access doesn’t give me much inspiration for my own situation, but the book’s worth reading if the locavore idea is new to you and the writing, though less than exciting, is highly accessible.  And she chose a great title.

Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula to Fast and Sustained Weight-Loss, Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
Nutrition, 292 pages.  Health = Nutrients/ Calories. This doctor advises increasing nutrient-density.  Which means a 90% emphasis on “natural plant foods” (beans and greens, yellow and orange vegetables, whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, seeds and nuts), and the remaining 10% or so from animal and other sources. He shrugs off the organic argument and doesn’t think different oils make much difference. I wouldn’t chapter-and-verse him and think his menus look unappetizing, but have found the basic outline (fruit for brek, salad with beans for lunch, and at dinner include a salad and two cooked veg with your meat or beans) a healthful and streamlined way to make meals that satisfy without being overly caloric.

The World is Flat: a brief history of the 21st century, Thomas L. Friedman.
Economic observation and philosophy, 639 pages.  Focusing especially on globalization: its environmental, social and political drawbacks, as well as its individual and social opportunities and achievements.

alphabet, Inger Christensen, translated from Danish by Susannah Nied.
Booklength, pre-apocalyptic poem structured around the alphabet and the Fibonacci sequence, 77 pages. A “plea an ordinary plea” to live on this earth in our “real real world” and not to destroy nor bring to an end all that exists: “eider ducks, spiders and vinegar exist: and the future, the future.” The English translation is psalmlike in its rhythms and powerfully straightforward.

Everlost, Neal Shusterman.
YA fantasy, 313 pages. This romp through an alternate afterworld examines the ideas of fear and ambition and true love, and does so with an almost mythic sensibility.

Wooden Fish Songs, Ruthanne Lum McCunn.
Biographical novel of the father of the Florida citrus industry and groundbreaking hybridizer – Lue Gim Gong, 385 pages. Told in the voices of three women: his haunted mother in China; the stubbornly myopic New England missionary who became his mentor; and the feisty woman (daughter of freed slaves) who with her husband are Lue’s assistants and partners. Lue, a generous, intelligent man, remains a benign mystery – the disappearing point of origin that connects three otherwise disparate realities.

Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins.
Poetry, 171 pages.  Lucid and witty and very (!) funny, with every so often surprising depth of feeling. See also The Trouble with Poetry, 88 pages.

Daniel Plainway; or the Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League, Van Reid.
Novel, set in Maine just after the War between the States, 385 pages.  Like others in the series - Mollie Peer (336 pages), Mrs. Roberto (339 pages), Fiddler's Green (300 pages) - simply fun, refreshingly innocent tale, full of Maine folklore and local history, with a large cast of likable characters loosely shaped around solving a mystery. As always goodness and kindness prevail, but this third book is the best of the Moosepath League bunch. Another book of Reid’s, Peter Loon (298 pages), historical adventure in post Revolutionary Maine and more mysterious in mood, is told only from the main character’s point of view: a young backwoods man who comes to age at his father’s death when he ventures forth into a world more perilous and populated than he would have thought. 

The Gospel of Food: everything you think you know about food is wrong, Barry Glasner.
Nutritional history, 228 pages.  This USC sociologist argues engagingly that nutritional research is largely inconclusive and contradictory and that we should eat a wide variety of fresh food for the taste and joy of it and avoid fads and food dogma.  Really there’s more to this book, though, than diet advice – an enlightening historical overview of the laughable “evil foods” of past generations, stories of great (also horrible) meals at top restaurants and days hanging out in the kitchens of top chefs, food adventurers seeking the most authentic ethnic tastes, a defense (or at least a new view) of McDonald’s and foodie-snobbery, feeding the hungry, so-called miracle foods, food purity and GMOs. His last subheading: Eat and Let Eat.

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