Books of the year

My favourite reads of 2008, part 2

Books-of-the-yearYesterday I posted my list of favourite fiction reads for 2008, which basically comprised all those novels I’d read across the year to which I’d given a five-star rating.

Today’s list is a little more chaotic, whimsical and “interesting” in the sense that these are the books that have stuck in my head long after I’ve finished reading and reviewing them.

The list comprises a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and is presented here in alphabetical order by book title:

‘Digging Up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon’ by Druin Burch (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch — himself a medical doctor — describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and “rather wonderful”.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is more than just a biography of a man, it’s the history of modern medicine and how we owe so much to the surgeons who went before. I can no longer walk past any of the big London hospitals — Guys, St Thomas’ — without thinking of this remarkable book.

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1988)
From my review: ‘The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.’
Why I chose it for this list: It deals with so many big themes — is there such a thing as evil? does class structure affect our family lives? to what extent should a mother take responsibility for her child’s misbehaviour? is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them? — that you can’t help but cogitate on it long after you’ve read the last page.

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill (fiction, 2004)
From my review: ‘Forever is part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan.’
Why I chose it for this list: It’s beautifully written for a start, but I’ve yet to come across any book that presents the history of Manhattan in such a realistic, entertaining and memorable way.

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream thoughts.’
Why I chose it for this list: There’s something about the dreamlike quality of the writing that has stayed with me, but there are certain scenes from this book that still remain fresh in my mind almost nine months after having read it. A fight between the two brothers that begins as ugly fisticuffs but ends with them laughing at the absurdity of their behaviour, is just one.

‘The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left’ by Ed Husain (non-fiction, 2007)
From my review: I never got around to reviewing this book, but it’s an eye-opening account of how Islamic extremism has taken root in modern Britain. As a teenager Husain was radicalised by extreme clerics in Tower Hamlets, East London — and his parents, traditional Muslims, were powerless to do anything. He eventually saw the error of his ways and managed slowly but surely to change his poisoned mindset.
Why I chose it for this list: If we want to understand the root causes of home-grown terrorism this book provides some quite radical (and unexpected) insights. If you listen to the media in this country you’d be forgiven for thinking so many young men turn to radical Islam because they’ve been marginalised by society and want to express their anger and resentment. Husain’s argument is exactly the opposite. He, himself, came from a respectable middle-class family and wanted for nothing. This is an imminently readable book that shows how religious extremists have flourished in a society that values freedom and tolerance. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between traditional Muslims and extremists, and how a peaceful religion has been hijacked by political activists.

‘Nefertiti’ by Michelle Moran (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.’
Why I chose it for this list: Let’s face it, I don’t want you to think I only read heavy stuff all the time. This book by first time novelist Michelle Moran is simply a fun read set during an intriguing period in human history. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the trilogy, The Heretic Queen, which has been sitting in my reading queue for months now.

‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: This is another book I never got around to reviewing, but I’d describe it as a ‘book of our times’. It made me very angry and basically confirmed all my cynical beliefs about the current Bush administration and other money-hungry governments around the world which have their sights set on getting richer at any cost.
Why I chose it for this list: Because it turned my thinking on its head. It’s by no means a perfect book, and there were some elements I considered slightly far-fetched, but, for the most part the examples Klein uses to support her hypothesis are alarming. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next, especially given the current state of the world economy.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1973)
From my review:The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.’
Why I chose it for this list: This story resonated very strongly with me, probably because I’m almost the same age as the main character and know what it’s like to become invisible as you get older. There are certain scenes from this book which have stayed with me.

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan (fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is the first novel I’ve read in a long time that presents the modern world as it really is and does it in such a way that it feels almost too real. Rampant consumerism, the media out of control and the politics of fear, all dished up in one delicious book that I could not put down.

‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett (memoir, 2008)
From my review: ‘Not only does Everett lose a succession of family members under various tragic circumstances — his father of a heart attack aged just 51, his mother of lung cancer, his drug-addicted older sister of suicide and his air stewardess cousin in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 — but many of his friends and colleagues in the music business have also died before their time.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is one of those books that makes you thankful for what you have and not what you don’t have. It’s a book about survival — and for someone with a pessimistic streak as strong as mine it’s a brilliant example of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. Plus, I have rather fond memories of attending the book launch at St James’ Church in London.

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