Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Year in Books: 2009

As promised, here is my review of the books I read in 2009. You may recall that I read a lot of books this past year. So many that it made me a little crazy. But I'm much better now. ;)

Most of these books were fresh reads for me. But there are some revisits. Great books deserve revisiting, much like great music and great movies.

I have done my best to recall all that I read over the past year but know for a fact that I've left some out. My notes are not as comprehensive as I would have liked. I'll do better in 2010.

Where possible, I have linked the book title to Amazon.com and the author to wikipedia.

Here we go. In no particular order:

  1. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

    This is a rather in-depth history of money, how it came to be and what purpose it has served to advance civilization. I liked this book, although I found it to be a somewhat challenging read, as I don't have a background in finance. Still, it was worth reading and broadened my perspective on the subject.

    Favorite Quotes:

    The Crusades, like the conquests that followed, were as much about overcoming Europe's monetary shortage as about converting heathens to Christianity.”

    If the financial system has a defect, it is that it reflects and magnifies what we human beings are like. As we are learning from a growing volume of research in the field of behavioral finance, money amplifies our tendency to overreact, to swing from exuberance when things are going well to deep depression when they go wrong. Booms and busts are products, at root, of our emotional volatility.”

  2. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated by Judith Rich Harris

    I reviewed this book here.

  3. When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists by Chris Hedges

    I reviewed this book here.

  4. The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph Of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

    I like Hedges' style of writing. Here he explores our entertainment-driven society and the implications of a post-literate world. From New Age fundamentalism to professional wrestling, Hedges tackles the danger of illusions and what it says about our social evolution. His polemic is refreshing albeit alarming.

  5. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

    I reviewed this book here.

  6. Plato and Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

    I reviewed this book here.

  7. Sadhana: The Realization of Life by Rabindranath Tagore

    Tagore, a Bengali poet and philosopher, is one of my favorite writers. He has a marvelous way of blending the material and the spiritual, with such art and grace. In this book, originally published in 1913, Tagore explores India's spirituality and philosophy, commenting on the essence of self and evil, love and beauty, life and enlightenment. A must read for the philosophical, or wannabe philosophical, mind. And you can download it here for free.

    Favorite Quotes:

    Man's cry is to reach his fullest expression.”

    Curiously enough, there are men who lose that feeling of mystery which is at the root of all our delights, when they discover the uniformity of law among the diversity of nature---as if gravity is not more of a mystery than the fall of an apple, as if the evolution from one scale of being to the other is not something that is even more shy of explanation than a succession of creations. The trouble is that we very often stop at such a law as if it were the final end of our search, and then we find that it does not even begin to emancipate our spirit. It only gives satisfaction to our intellect, and as it does not appeal to our whole being, it only deadens in us the sense of the infinite.”

  8. The Life You Were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose by Dan Millman

    Okay, confession time. I went through a stage last Summer where I revisited my woo days. And the next few book selections reflect this. I'm not apologizing, just informing; I may be a skeptic but I still read woo when I feel like it.

    One of the gifts I received for my birthday this past June was a consultation with a Vedic astrologer (edited to add: don't send me an email asking for this astrologer's contact info...I won't support your throwing good money away). Being the good little Jehovah's Witness I was, I'd never been to an astrologer of any sort and thought it might be fun. And it was fun.

    The reading seemed accurate, but knowing what I know of the human mind, suggestibility and the non-verbal cues we give off that could lead an astrologer to show an uncanny ability to predict/retrodict things, I took the whole experience with a grain of salt. But the astrologer did recommend reading Millman's, "The Life You Were Born to Live". It's a book that outlines your life path (and is quite detailed I might add) based on a form of numerology. I had fun with this book, looking up the life paths of all of my friends and co-workers. Pure entertainment.

    If you're interested, my life path according to Millman's numerology is 29/11. In brief: "Those on the 29/11 life path are here to combine creative energy with higher principles and integrity, finding ways to apply their creativity in service of others, aligned with higher wisdom." Sounds like me. But then, half of the book sounds like me. Again, take it all with a grain of salt.

  9. Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential by Caroline Myss

    Myss, a "medical intuitive", explores archetypes as a means of helping you understand your life and the “sacred contract” you've come to this planet to explore. I don't subscribe to the idea of a pre-conception "contract" but I do so LOVE archetypes and metaphor and enjoy playing with these concepts. So, from that standpoint, this is a good read.

  10. Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue by Neale Donald Walsch

    This was a revisit. I read this book shortly after leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses. I was still a believer at that point and wanted to re-write the concept of God I'd been raised with. This book helped tremendously. I reread it this year because it's an interesting Q&A with the Divine, whatever you conceive that to be. Although I am now a non-believer, I still find the metaphor of the Divine interesting and find Walsch's take balanced and insightful. I particularly enjoyed his commentary on relationships which I blogged about here.

    Favorite Quote:

    "...the purpose of your relationship is to create an opportunity, not an obligation---an opportunity for growth, for full Self expression, for lifting your lives to their highest potential, for healing every false thought you ever had about you, and for ultimate reunion with God through the communion of your two souls..."

  11. When Everything Changes, Change Everything: In a Time of Turmoil, A Pathway to Peace by Neale Donald Walsch

    I had high hopes for this book and even wrote a blog entry mid-read about how much I loved it, but in the end, it went off into more woo than even I, a recovering woomeister, could take. Walsch, like many other New Age writers, supports the idea that we can master the universe mainly by means of our thoughts and perceptions. This book is not as bad as The Secret, (nothing is as bad as The Secret, which I wrote about way back when) but if you hold a materialist worldview, you'll be left with some vomit in your mouth. The best thing about this book is the inclusion of the poetry of Em Claire, Walsch's wife.

  12. Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

    Okay, moving right along. I am a huge Roald Dahl fan. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my favorite book as a child. But it wasn't until this year that I read Danny The Champion. I had started and stopped it many times over the years and could never get into it, perhaps because it was more real-life based than Dahl's usual fanciful and fantastic story-telling. But a friend brought it to my attention and because it meant so much to him, I read it and ended up enjoying it thoroughly. It is a dear story of a father and son and will not only touch you, but make you laugh, as only Dahl can do.

    Favorite Quote:

    "Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one's own parents, have two or three private habits up their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them."

  13. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

    Having enjoyed Gladwell's previous books, this was no exception. Gladwell looks at what makes people successful and his conclusions are not what you would think. The only criticism I have of this book is that his examples are all men; there are no female case studies in the lot. Makes me think that one of the keys to being successful in this world is being born male. But I digress.

    Favorite Quote:

    "The values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are."

  14. Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

    I enjoyed the first book, finding it a novel consideration of economics and what drives human behavior. This follow-up left me disappointed. I found many of the conclusions faulty at best, dangerous at worst (Are they really proposing drunk driving over drunk walking?!). The chapter on climate change turned out to be the most controversial (no surprise there).

    Favorite Quote:

    For all the progress women have made in the twenty-first century labor market, the typical female would come out well ahead if she had simply had the foresight to be born male.”

  15. Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

    I found this autobiography, written by someone diagnosed with Savant Syndrome, a rare form of Aspergers, to be incredibly intriguing. If you want to gain a better understanding of this oft-misunderstood illness, Tammet's book is a good place to start. His writing is sincere and simple, yet profound.

    Favorite Quote:

    Numbers are my friends and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. Eleven is friendly and five is loud, whereas four is both shy and quiet --- it's my favourite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself.”

  16. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

    This is the book that is moving me closer to complete vegetarianism. Foer takes a look at the question: why do we eat what we eat? He looks at the cultural, emotional, philosophical and ethical drives behind our food choices. As well, he goes behind the scenes of factory farming giving the reader a first-hand understanding of how most animals find their way to our tables. The book is not preachy, but it will make you stop and think about whether being an omnivore is the most informed choice you can make.

    Favorite Quote:

    "Not responding is a response---we are equally responsible for what we don't do."

Book Club Titles

I, and one of my managers at the bookstore where I work, started a book club at the end of 2008, which entered full swing in 2009. We covered an eclectic mix of titles. With much protestation, I took my first major leap into reading fiction, only to find myself quite enjoying some of the reads.

The following were book club reads this year:

  1. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by Greg Mortensen

    This is the inspiring tale of Mortensen's near-death experience mountain-climbing which lead to his beginning a great humanitarian work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A must-read.

    Favorite Quote:

    "Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they've learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."

  2. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

    This is a fictional exploration of the dreams Einstein might have had while his waking hours were filled with theoretical formulations and work in a patent office. Short chapters and imaginative ideas make this book an easy and thought-provoking read.

    Favorite Quote:

    "Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone."

  3. Ancient Secrets of Success by Tulshi Sen

    Sen explores ancient wisdom and applies it to modern life in this title. My friend, and fellow blogger, Ganga, explores Sen's work in depth on her blog.

  4. Fault Lines by Nancy Huston

    This book was the tipping point for me; after this read, I became open to the idea that fiction and I could be friends.

    I reviewed this book here.

  5. The Book of Negroes (U.S title: Someone Knows My Name) by Lawrence Hill.

    An incredibly moving and mostly historically accurate fictional telling of one slave's journey across continents, time and history. The main character is written with such depth and emotion that you are drawn into the story immediately and have no difficulty staying with the 486 pages to completion. A captivating read.

    Favorite Quote:

    "I had imagined, somehow, that my life was unique in its unexpected migrations. I wasn't different at all, I learned. Each person who stood before me had a story every bit as unbelievable as mine."

  6. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

    This is one of my all-time favorite books. It's written for children but has become much-loved by every adult I've shared it with (I actually once did a reading of the book for my two best girlfriends which left us all in tears).

    Reminiscent of The Velveteen Rabbit, Edward Tulane, a china rabbit, goes on a hero's journey and learns, often painfully, what life and love are all about. I will confess to reading this book at least five times this year, and listening to it at least two more times on audiobook. When I feel lost, it is Edward's journey which brings me home again.

    Favorite Quote:

    If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”

  7. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

    A reread for me. I've read it many, many times. Not much to say that hasn't been said, except, if you haven't read it, what are you waiting for?

    Favorite Quote:

    "One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving."

  8. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis

    Part of a lecture series co-sponsored by the CBC radio here in Canada, The Wayfinders considers the implications of the loss of language and culture that is being experienced on our planet. While Davis at times romanticizes ancient history and culture and offers no suggestions on how best to retain their wisdom, his lecture invites a worthy contemplation of the subject.

    Favorite Quote:

    "If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite--the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment--is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times."

    (End of book club selections. On with the rest.)

  9. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donoghue

    I reviewed this here.

  10. Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

    Wow. Wow. Wow. This may be my favorite book of the year. I underlined and marked-up a considerable amount of this book. It gave me a deep appreciation for storytelling and the feminine archetype. I am woman...hear me roar.

    Favorite Quotes:

    "Although there will be scars and plenty of them, it is good to remember that in tensile strength and ability to absorb pressure, a scar is stronger than skin."

    "Stay here long enough...stay here long enough to revive your hope, to drop your terminal cool, to give up defensive half-truths, to creep, carve, bash your way through, stay here long enough to see what is right for you, stay here long enough to become strong, to try the try that will make it, stay here long enough to make the finish line, it matters not how long it takes or in what style..."

  11. Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds and Are All Pretty Sure We're Way Above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan

    I reviewed this here.

  12. How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

    Similar in content to Why We Make Mistakes, Lehrer considers the mechanisms that drive our decision-making processes. It's a very interesting review of the latest research in neuroscience and will open your eyes to what really drives your behavior.

    Favorite Quote:

    "A bad mood is really just a rundown prefrontal cortex."

  13. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher

    Having some ADD tendencies myself, I found this book an interesting exploration of exactly how attention span works, or doesn't.

    Favorite Quote:

    "If you really want to focus on something, says Castellanos, the optimum amount of time to spend on it is ninety minutes. "Then change tasks. And watch out for interruptions once you're really concentrating, because it will take you twenty minutes to recover.""

  14. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong

    I reviewed this here.

  15. I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales From a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams

    I reviewed this here.

  16. The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession by Paolo Coelho

    Coelho is one of the few fiction authors I have read consistently over the years. His books touch on the spiritual in the mundane and never fail to delight me. This was a revisit when I was going through a rough patch in a relationship last year, as it explores the beauty of love without bounds.

    Favorite Quotes:

    "Stop being who you were and become what you are."

    "Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused."

  17. Living Without a Goal: Finding the Freedom to Live a Creative and Innovative Life by James Ogilvy

    I enjoyed this book, which explores the value of creating a life as you live it, much like an artist creates a painting from a blank canvas, as opposed to being chained to a path of overarching goals or mired in a philosophy of absolute meaning. It weighs a little heavy on jargon, but the point does come through in the end.

    Favorite Quote:

    When you try to identify the use of your entire life, you are asking to be used. When you try to identify the function of your entire life, you are asking to be turned into a mere functionary.

  18. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

    I reviewed this here.

  19. The Sexual Paradox by Susan Pinker

    I reviewed this here.

  20. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

    As a recovering self-help addict, I found Ehrenreich's thesis well-researched and sobering. Much of what we believe about how our thinking works and its effect on the world around us, is, well, wrong. From the faulty belief that positive thinking effects cancer outcomes to believing that the Universe is your personal wishing machine (as in The Secret's "Law of Attraction"), Ehrenreich exposes the pitfalls of being “bright-sided”. Having experienced the effects of the positive thinking movement first-hand while dealing with breast cancer, Ehrenreich sheds light where it needs to be shed.

    Magical thinking continues to be one of the greatest threats on this planet. Be it religion, New Age woo, alternative medicine, the anti-vaccine movement, conspiracy theories or any other number of ways in which we deceive ourselves, we need to begin to look at how our thinking may be denying life's bitter realities and how that in turn affects life, not only in North America, but on this planet we all share. "Bright-sided" is a great way to ease yourself into critical thinking. Think of it as a loving slap upside the head.

    The great PZ Myers talks about Ehrenreich's experience and the dangers of magical thinking in matters of health. A great discussion follows the entry and is worth devoting some time to reading.

    Favorite Quote:

    "I don't want to die, but I especially don't want to die holding a pink teddy bear."


    And there you have it. I'm certain I've missed at least a dozen titles from this list but this will have to do. I'll take better notes this year. Or I'll just do my best to write a review for every title I read.

    tall penguin


Chihoe said...

Wow you sure had a busy year reading so many books!

tall penguin said...

Yes, I sure did. And as I said, I know I've forgotten some of them. I'm pretty sure I made it through more than 50 books last year. It was enlightening to say the least. I'm a better person for the experience but don't think I'll be doing that again any time soon. My brain felt a bit crispy-fried in the end. You can indeed have too much of a good thing!