Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Nik’s Picks 2004: Favorite Books Read

...And so we kick off the “list-o-mania” that comes with the end of every year. I’m a total sucker for the “best of” lists that multiply like rabbits on crack this time of year, and always enjoy throwing my own two cents in there. Since I now have my own little corner of the Internet to blog and blather on in, I’ll be posting my periodic ”Nik’s Picks” (catchy, eh?) over the next few weeks on movies, music, comics, et cetera ad infinitum.

To kick it off, here’s a look at my favorite books I read in 2004. Most of my lists will concentrate on things that came out during 2004 (like movies, f’r instance) but in the case of books, I don’t discriminate because heck, there’s a mighty lot of good books out there written before this year. Actually, most of the books I read came out before this year. Anyway, without further ado, the five favorite books I read in 2004, complete with mind-numbing Appendix.* So hang on, this is a long post (but probably the only one for the week, as we’re off to California Wednesday to visit the folks).

“The Dark Tower” by Stephen King, Book 6, “Song of Susannah,” and Book 7, “The Dark Tower.” King’s impossibly epic, 30-years-in-the making magnum opus draws to a close, the tale of Roland the Gunslinger and his quest for knowledge at the Dark Tower in a ruined world. Sure, King went on a bit -- more than 3,000 pages for the whole series -- and there are those who will quibble with the fateful, startling ending to it all in Book 7, but overall, the heart and soul of this series stands with fantasy classics throughout the ages. It’s King’s crowning statement.

“Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World,” by Haruki Murakami I love all the books I’ve read by this thoughtful, surrealist Japanese author, so almost any of them could go here (and his enormous epic, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which I read in 2003, is a great place to start). This early work is more cyber-punk and labyrinthine than his later novels, but it’s a fascinating tale of dual natures and reality. Half the chapters are set in Tokyo, where the narrator engages in a strange high-tech conspiracy set deep under the city, while in alternating chapters, an entirely different story seems to be taking place, set in a fantastical, prison-like village. How the threads come together under Murakami’s exquisite prose is strange indeed, but it all makes a twisted kind of sense. It’s the sort of book that’s really hard to describe, but haunts you for weeks after you finish.

“The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” Volumes 1-3, by Robert A. Caro. I’m still reading the 1,100-page third book, “Master of the Senate,” and the fourth and final book isn’t even written yet, but this remains one of the finest political biographies of modern times. What’s striking is that the central figure, LBJ, really is an unknowable, driven near-sociopath with an immense lust for power, with little to redeem him; yet he accomplished many good things, and Caro’s incredibly well-researched, smoothly-written prose is compulsive reading. More than just a tale of a future President, it’s really a microcosm of the entire American political system in the rags-to-riches tale of LBJ and the century he lived in. Few writers could make election intrigue, Senate parliamentary procedure and Texas wheelin’ and dealin’ read so well.

”Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota” by Chuck Klosterman As written about just a few weeks back, this is a quirky, borderline profound piece of pop culture criticism, using ‘80s hair metal as a metaphor for growing up confused in a small town. Even if you’re not a fan of the bands he writes about, Klosterman’s mix of humor, trivia and memoir will ring bells for anyone who’s ever been a passionate fan of something. (2002)

The Known World by Edward P. Jones. This first novel won the 2004 Pulitzer prize for fiction, and tackles a controversial subject -— black slaveowners in the pre-Civil War South. It’s something rarely acknowledged in history books -- how could a black man own slaves? -- but it did happen, and author Jones, a black man himself, does a stunning job reimagining this strange subculture and its conflicts. “The Known World” takes us into the plantation owned by freed slave Henry Townsend, and over nearly 300 pages we learn his past, his fate, and what happens to his plantation after he was gone. Jones grapples with slavery in ways I’ve never seen in fiction before, with some lyrical yet not overblown prose reminiscent of Toni Morrison or “Cold Mountain.” It’s a complex book filled with dozens of characters, a grand, sprawling, sad and thoughtful success in historical fiction.


*Appendix A
And to truly get wordy, if anybody’s actually interested, the pool from which I drew, here’s all the books -- excepting comic books, graphic novels, that sort of thing -- that I read in 2004. Yes, I do keep track of such things religiously, and yes, I have never known the touch of a woman.

“A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson
“Dude Where’s My Country,” by Michael Moore
“Monster Of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and in the Mind,” by David Quammen
“Stiff: The Curious Life Of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach
“Reefer Madness,” by Eric Schlosser
“The Life of Mammals,” David Attenborough
"What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias And The News”, by Eric Alterman
“Cheaper By The Dozen,” by Frank B. Gilberth, Ernestine Gilberth Carey
“The Mosquito Coast,” by Paul Theroux
“American Sphinx: The Character Of Thomas Jefferson,” by Joseph Ellis
“40 Ways To Look At Winston Churchill,” by Gretchen Rubin
“The History of Murder,” by Colin Wilson
“Belles on their Toes,” by Frank B. Gilberth, Ernestine Gilberth Carey
“Deadlines Past” by Walter Mears
“Strangers on a Train,” by Patricia Highsmith
“Heavier Than Heaven: A biography of Kurt Cobain,” by Charles Cross
“Personal History,” by Katherine Graham
“Drop City” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
“Clinton and Me,” by Bill Clinton’s “joke writer” Mark Katz.
“Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the ‘90s” by Jim Derogatis
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World,” by Haruki Murakami
“The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon
“The Secret Lives of U.S. Presidents" by Cormac O’Brien
“Paper Trails” by Ellen Goodman
“Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” by Chuck Klosterman
“Dress Yourself In Corduroy and Denim,” by David Sedaris
“The Dark Tower Book 6: Song of Suzannah,” by Stephen King
“My Life,” by Bill Clinton
“Oracle Night,” by Paul Auster
“The Elephant Vanishes,” by Haruki Murakami.
“Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskind
“Comic Creators on Spider-Man,” edited by Tom DeFalco
“Taboo Tunes, A History of Banned Bands And Censored Songs” by Peter Blecha
“Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden and the Stolen Election of 1786,” by Roy Morris Jr.
“Surviving The Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey To The Limits of Human Endurance” by Dr. Kenneth Kamler
“Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’” by Tom Shales
“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde
“The Dark Tower Book Seven: The Dark Tower” by Stephen King
“Give My Regards To The Atom-Smashers: Writers on Comics,” edited by Sean Rowe
“The Plot To Destroy America,” by Philip Roth
“Slipping Into Paradise: Why I Live In New Zealand” by Jeffrey Masson
“A Galaxy Far Far Away: Writers and Artists on 25 years of ‘Star Wars,’” edited by Glenn Kenny
“Star Trek: The Return” by William Shatner
“Coast of Dreams, California on the Edge, 1990-2003” by Kevin Starr
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path To Power” by Robert A. Caro.
“Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation,” by Chris Turner
“America: The Book” by the staff of “The Daily Show”
“Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004,” edited by Mickey Hart
“All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists” by Terry Gross
“What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America” by Thomas Frank
“Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota,” by Chuck Klosterman
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent” by Robert A. Caro
“South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate” by Robert A. Caro

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