Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Best Books of 2010 (Part One)

I read a lot of books. A lot. Last year, I posted a "Best Books of 2009" in November. This year, because I have already read so many great books, I decided to do one post for the first half of the year and one for the second half. I'm sure my adoring public has been waiting with baited breath, and will appreciate the extra recommendations...

The Clive Cussler Award (Could not put this book down):

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Given that his previous book in the Millenium trilogy won this award last year, it is only fitting to hand it to Larsson again. Deservedly so, as his second book kept me turning the pages so quickly I got windburn. After page 200 I dare you to attempt to put this book will not be possible.

The David Simon Award (Smartest Book):

The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

Hilarious, witty, insightful - all these labels and more could be applied to this book that also displayed an inhumanly encyclopedic knowledge of basketball and pop-culture. If you want to understand basketball or even more about sports in general, you have to read this book.

The James Patterson Award (Worst Book):

Omerta by Mario Puzo

I almost went with the new Dan Brown book (unread) and, truly, this one really pains me to write about. Sigh. The Godfather is rightfully a classic but this was a poor attempt on Puzo's part. Not quite as bad as The Godfather Returns / Revenge but it might as well not have been written by Puzo. All the things that made his other novel so great were shunned and replaced with a terrible and predictable story.

The Rick Reilly Award (Best Written Line):

If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

(p. 454) "And if the house wasn't haunted, I knew I was, and probably always would be. Some of us die in a day. For some, like me, it takes much longer than that. Years, perhaps. We all die, like Adam, it's true, only it's not every man that's made alive again, like Ernest Hemingway. If the dead rise not then what happens to a man's spirit? And if they do, with what body shall we live again? I didn't have the answers. Nobody did. Perhaps, if the dead could rise and be incorruptible and I could be changed for ever in the blinking of an eye, then dying might just be worth the trouble of getting killed, or killing myself."

Ellroy Award*(Most Information Packed into One Novel - New!):

Exodus by Leon Uris

He literally could not have packed more info into this book about the birth of Israel if he tried. Whether giving the history of the holocaust, the Jewish state or religious background there are more facts in here than an atlas.

Top 5 Books of the First Half of 2010

5. Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

I am a big Stephen King fan - as evidenced by The Stand hitting number 3 on my list in 2009. This book blew me away for a couple of reasons: a) it is unlike anything else he has written before or since ; b) it is possibly the best romance story I have read. Romance? you say, Stephen King? In short order: yes, and yes. This novel, part of his epic Dark Tower series contains some of his best writing of his career.

4. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

This is an older novel and is highly regarded as a classic of the crowded, courtroom - drama field so overpopulated by John Grisham. Turow, in my humble opinion, has written the book Grisham always wishes he could. The story is realistic, moving and often insightful. The final twist literally takes your breath away.

3. If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels continue to amaze with their consistency and fantastic writing. And...somehow Kerr always manages to pull the rug completely out from under his reader with one stunning twist after another. This novel helped to shade the entire series in a new light for me - Bernie Gunther is a survivor who has bitten and clawed his way through one of histories darkest periods. His existence is a brutal purgatory where redemption and judgement always seem just out of his grasp (rightfully so?). I am eagerly awaiting the seventh offering: Field Grey due out in the UK in October 2010.

2. Open by Andre Agassi

1. The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons

These two books were so close in the rankings that, in honor of Simmons, they demand a point-by-point breakdown.

Purpose of the book: Agassi sets out to hold a mirror to his entire life and truly reflect on his whole being. He comes to the conclusion that tennis, as much a part of his life as it was, is not the most important part. Simmons write the defining book on the NBA. Period. Edge - Agassi

Writing Style: Agassi is straightforward and his prose is incredibly open and shockingly not self-serving. Simmons breaks up his book with more statistical analysis than Wall Street. Add in Simmons hilarious footnotes and we have a winner. Edge - Simmons

Best Part of the Book: Agassi details his comeback that leads to him playing the best tennis of his life long after he has passed an age when people continue to play. It is thoroughly inspiring. Simmons puts up his Pyramid of the top 96 guys in the NBA and the reasons why. It is thoroughly hilarious. Edge - Even

Revelations: Agassi could not win a tournament once because his wig was falling off. He also used crystal meth at a dark chapter in his life and Stefanie Graf was a way larger part of his life than you can imagine. Simmons details MJ's baseball "sabbatical" and just about every other possible thing that happened in the NBA. Plus he includes his "runner up" best cocaine story and best cocaine story in NBA history. Gold...pure gold. Edge - Simmons

Intangibles: Agassi has written a book that forces the reader to take a look in the mirror and reflect on their own life. It is truly a life changing book, and it rightfully deserves consideration for the Pulitzer prize. Simmons has written a 700 page book on the NBA that includes a "What if..." chapter, a "Wine Cellar team" chapter and paragraphs such as "Imagine a guy was in prison and the warden told him if he grabbed 40 rebounds in 40 minutes he could be paroled. That was how hard Moses Malone hit the glass." Unfailingly insightful and funny. Edge - Simmons (by a freaking inch!)

So ultimately, Simmons takes it...but not by much.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Ballad of Bernie Gunther

How is it that Philip Kerr continues to ascend my list of top authors as easily as he does?
He is six books into his watershed Bernie Gunther series with a 7th due in October 2010. The first three books in the series (March Violets, A Pale Criminal, A German Requiem) were written in the late 80's and early 90's and were later collected into a one volume edition titled Berlin Noir. These books were tough, tough noir so hard it made your stomach ache like you had been chewing on broken glass. Kerr's books were so taut and twisty they released slowly like a coiled cobra.
One of the reasons the books were so effective was Kerr's lean and powerful prose which was aided immensely by the historical depth of the Nazi era. Of course it helped that his character, Bernie Gunther is a former German police detective with the morality of a pirate. Gunther gets to witness the Nazi depravity before, during and after the war.
Seventeen years after the trilogy finished, with a solid closure, Kerr resurrected Gunther with a novel (The One From the Other) so unbelievable and perfect that it easily kept pace with the other novels and in some ways expanded and surpassed them. This was Kerr writing retrospectively about the Holocaust and showing a new side of the history of his character during the war (during which he has not set a book).
A year later he put out A Quiet Flame which detailed a piece of history Argentina hopes will be relegated to few memories. The novel was set amid postwar decadence in the South American country and it is a slam bang thriller so well written it made my list of 2009's Best Books.
The sixth book If the Dead Rise Not fills in many of the gaps in Bernie's life and adds a worthy new chapter. Kerr's willingness to experiment with new narrative structures (such as two different time periods) has kept the series from growing stagnant or stale.
This sixth book, more than any other, further characterizes Gunther as a moral quandry. He is a reluctant hero, a man trapped by the flow of a dark piece of history and condemned to a brutal existence. He dishes it out - but has to take a fair amount too. And, he is forced to commit horrific acts that are morally reprehensible but understandable given his contemporaries. Gunther is a hero for his time, when a hero was a dark knight who had to be just as brutal as the Nazi's in order to battle them. More than any other character in noir, Gunther is a man haunted and hunted by his past. He is trapped by the sins of an entire nation but shows time and again how much of a surviver he is, as well as a stunning ability to overcome trouble.
One of the more brilliant twists Kerr devised was forcing his character to leave Germany and move to South America with the people he despised most. For the character it was shattering moment, and continues his Dante-like journey through the stages of hell. Kerr leaves the morality of his character's choices up to the reader and that is why the series is so successful.
It is my theory Kerr has written the seven definitive books on the Nazi era. He has gone far and beyond most histories and gives the reader a true feeling of what Nazi Germany (and Argentina....) were like.