top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

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Last December I posted my first Top 10 Books list. Nearly instantaneously I received heaps of praise on my choices and my startlingly revealing criticism and insight. The post received in-depth coverage in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and I was interviewed on Good Morning America and The View.

Oprah even called back in December and said she was sorry she had waylaid her book club, due the poignancy of my analyses. “Jeff,” she said, “I just talked with my people and we’ve decided that, because we don’t want to miss another opportunity like this, we’re going to launch a digital book club next year.” I said, “Cool Opey, hit me up when you do.”

She hit me up.

Thus, without further ado, and among much clamoring from the masses – and Opey – I present to you the “Top 5 Books of 2012 – First Edition.” These are the top five books from among the books I’ve read over the past six months. Expect another five this coming December!

top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

5. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

catching fire suzanne collinsGenre: Fiction

I tend to stay away from wildly popular books published in today’s day and age. My thought is that a book is like a fine wine – it tastes better after other people have told me how it’s supposed to taste. Unless of course it’s Vladimir Nabokov – that shit is torture no matter what day and age you read it.

With the second book in Suzanne Collins’ now world-famous Hunger Games series, I thought it would be impossible for her to write a second book that was as good as the first.

I was completely wrong.

This second book set a new standard for the series, pulling the reader along with each cliffhanger so that we continually say, “Just one more chapter…” An intriguing aspect of Collins’ dramatis personae is her central character’s simultaneous likability and, well, hate-ability. Katniss was a selfish bitch who can’t see past her own petty desires and frustrations. Granted, she is continually put in extremely harrowing situations, and who knows how the rest of us would act when faced with the political tumult and life-threatening dilemmas she finds herself continually embroiled in.

You can read this book in just a few hours and it will be a few hours well-spent, carried along by an original and compelling storyline and by a cast of secondary characters with their own colorful backgrounds and personalities.

My only regret with reading this book is that I then read Mockingjay.

4. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

tortilla flat john steinbeckGenre: Literature

Favorite line: “…while her knees, her hands, and her lips did penance for an old sin, her modest and provocative eyes, flashing under drawn lashes, laid the foundation for a new one.”

Tortilla Flat is likely one of the funniest books I have ever read, portraying a group of drunk 1920s paisanos (a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Indian and Caucasian bloods) on the coast of California in a similar light with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The characters want nothing more than a carefree existence, which they find through their best friend Danny, a roof over their heads, and lots and lots of wine.

The “adventures” of Danny and his Knights are not what your modern-day novelist would call adventures, but I think that is what elevates Steinbeck’s originality. Their selfishness is their primary motivator, coupled closely with a strong desire for wine, although they are continually able to justify and rationalize their immorality in incredibly humorous ways.

I won’t lie, if you have never drank wine out of a fruit jar, you will have a burning desire to do so at about page 115. DK “Coach” put it well in his review: “No one’s going to make this part of a college reading list. But there is something wholy American about John Steinbeck.”

3. The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

the burning land bernard cornwellGenre: Historical Fiction

Favorite line: “For a moment everything is as you imagined it, then it changes, and the details stand out so stark. Details of irrelevant things. Perhaps it is the knowledge that these small things may be the last you will ever see in this life that makes them so memorable.”

Uhtred Uhtredson, the central character of this series, is somewhat akin to Katniss from The Hunger Games. Caught unwillingly in extremely stressful situations, he is quick to anger and tends to let his emotions rule him. However, he differs from Katniss in that he wants nothing more out of life than to fuck and fight. The only thing that keeps him in check, besides his love for his wife, is his oath to Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and the ruler who in the ninth century laid the foundation for what we now know as modern England.

But Uhtred, after a life-altering event, decides to go Viking in this fifth volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles. Uhtred, to clarify, was born a Saxon, raised a Dane (when the Vikings took him captive), and is sworn by oath to serve Alfred, a Saxon king. His loyalties are continually tested between the established Saxons and invading Danes, most notably in The Burning Land.

My favorite aspect of Cornwell’s novels is his startlingly accurate portrayal of battle. Reminiscent of Red Badge of Courage in its fog-of-war mentality, Cornwell instills details in all the right places, never being too descriptive and never glazing over too much. His balance of detail and action is impeccable. The favorite line above is from the beginning of the climactic battle that defines the fate of Uhtred in The Burning Land.

2. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

life of pi yann martelGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

One of the most well-written and effectively structured books I’ve ever read. Brilliant without being lofty, Life of Pi, using prose as the carving knife, cuts away at the stigma surrounding the all-important questions of life, primarily centered around the veracity of religion and the struggle for meaning in a world of seemingly meaningless trials – at least they seem meaningless when you’re stuck at sea for close to a year – alone.

One would think that a story about a boy surviving on his own in a lifeboat lost at sea would get boring at some point. Not so with Life of Pi. Yann Martel did an incredible job keeping the reader hooked and interested where other writers might lose the reader to monotony and dolorous humor. Granted, it helps when he throws a hyena, an orangutan and an enormous Bengal tiger into the same lifeboat.

My only beef with this wonderful novel is the disconnect between the first part, which dealt solely with the protagonist’s quandary regarding religion – he develops keen interests and loves for Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – and the second part which dealt solely with him being lost at sea. There was very little connection between the two – they could have been two different novellas and no one would have noticed. In the second half, the protagonist only mentions religion and God a few times, whereas the entire first third of the book dealt with the existence of God (or gods). I kept waiting for a tie-in that never surfaced.

Regardless, this is a book for readers of all types and levels.

1. Rosie – Anne Lamott

rosie anne lamottGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “She panicked frequently at how quickly the time flew and yet how every day loomed before her like a dragon, waiting to be slain.”

This is the first Anne Lamott book I’ve read. As soon as I finished  I berated myself for not having read her sooner.

I never thought I would read about the “growing pains of motherhood” and decide it was one of the best books I have ever read. Anne Lamott shattered that illusion with Rosie, a story about an alcoholic widowed mother trying to raise her daughter Rosie and find meaning in her own life in the process.

Comprised of a small but effective cast of characters, Rosie reveals life truths we all know but refuse to acknowledge regarding self-respect, self-deceit, fear and love. It’s a little darker in that most of it is told from the point of view of the weak-spirited alcoholic mother who just can’t seem to kick the addiction, but I think that was kind of the point. This book is about real life, and what many children go through when they have alcoholic parents.

Rosie is the epitome of Lamott’s attention to being conscious. And not simply the consciousness we all experience in mundane living, but a consciousness akin to satori, or Buddhist enlightenment. She is aware. The pictures Lamott paints are vivid and descriptive, revealing details of life I would never have thought to even notice. Her depiction of her two protagonists, Rosie and Elizabeth, cuts to the core of what it means to be human, battered by our own worst enemy: our mind.

This may not be a book for everyone – there is no action, nay there is barely even a plot. But it is wonderfully written and very insightful. We can all discover something about ourselves by reading Rosie.

top 5 books – second edition

The second edition will be revealed in December after I get back from my round-the-world smartphone tour, where I will travel around the world and, instead of signing books, seeing as I have nothing in print, I will sign people’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. This is a real thing.

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