As I didn’t start this blog until November 5th, this will be the first of several posts where I will write reviews of the books I read from January 2009 to October 2009. There are some great books that I’ve read this year so have your TBR list handy!
The year started out slowly, as far as the number of books read in a month. Summer vacation saw a revival of voracious reading that toned down only slightly with the return of work.
Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine
2006. 288 pages.
First of all, what a great idea for a non-fiction book! I am neither a shopaholic or a penny-saver. I spend within my means, but like most Americans, I am susceptible to materialism. So I was intrigued by what challenges the author would face as she went through a year without buying anything but necessities. (What constituted necessities was of course an object of discussion throughout the book.)
The book started off well – entertaining and thought-provoking – but it went downhill toward the end. The year without shopping happened to be 2004. As the election drew nearer, the book became an outlet for self-righteous political venting which Levine could barely connect with the original premise of the book. And to be clear, my criticism is not due to the content of her venting, but to the way she expressed it. She writes as if everyone reading her book will believe exactly the way she does.
So, the more I read, the more I started to dislike the author, at least the part of her that she revealed in the book. With an apartment in New York City and a home in Vermont, it was always going to be hard for her to convey to us that she was “roughing it” by not buying anything. And then she goes and scuttles the book by straying off into tangential, obnoxious territory. I skimmed the last fifth or so of the book as a result.
Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
2006. 320 pages.
And now we jump to one of my favorites of the year. In the present day, a scholar tries to figure out why a German village called Oberhochwald was never resettled after the plague, unlike all other towns like it. The majority of the book takes place in Oberhochwald in the year 1349 and we learn why this village was an anomaly. An alien ship crashes into the Black Forest near the village. From the perspective of the educated village priest, we watch as the villagers and the aliens interact.
The premise may sound silly, but the story is actually quite serious. It’s an excellent mix of historical fiction and sci-fi. The villagers and the priest view the aliens through their medieval worldview that is steeped in superstition, religion, and limited technological knowledge. The aliens, coming from a highly hierarchical culture, are intrigued by the differing values of the human society. But danger besets aliens and humans alike as winter sets in and the plague encroaches.
The story here is incredible and surprisingly and deeply moving. The book is well-researched and the village comes alive as a result. The only flaw consists of the boring and sometimes incomprehensible interludes with the present day scholars, but fortunately the majority of the book belongs to Oberhochwald.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt
2008. 352 pages.
Last year, at age 25, I became a car owner for the first time. I had had my license since I was a teenager, but driving my own car around in the D.C. metropolitan area brought traffic into a new focus. I had to figure out the best ways to merge on the Beltway, how to avoid gridlock, and all sorts of urban driving skills I had not acquired when learning to drive in rural Maine. So when I heard about Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic, I knew it was something I’d enjoy reading.
The book basically tells readers that we are not as good drivers as we think we are. It talks about how road engineering can change the way people drive. There are some cool engineering experiments taking place over in Europe that the author observes and explains. He talks about how traffic differs in cities around the world and gives examples. It’s a book that definitely provokes thought as to how we could make driving safer. So many people die in car accidents every year, but it seems as a society we have accepted this cost too easily. Traffic is worth picking up even if you don’t have the time to read the whole thing: even reading a few chapters will give a greater self-awareness while driving.