Thursday, December 13, 2007

Scooter & Hum’s Top Five Books of the Year

As 2007 winds to a close, I thought I would share some of the works of art -— henceforth to be known as “The Scooties” —- that spoke to me or affected my perspective in some way throughout the course of the year. Along those lines, here are the top five books that I found myself engrossed in this year, making time fly by in bed, on trains and planes, in Cup A Joe, in the atrium here at work, and many other places.* Without further ado, here is Scooter & Hum’s Top Five Books of 2007 … sponsored by Charmin:

And the “Scootie” goes to …

1. “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

From the author of “Mystic River,” Lehane weaves a tale centered on a U.S. Marshall directed to investigate a murder on a mysterious New England island in the 1950s. As he delves deeper and deeper into the setting and the circumstances surrounding the dangerous mental institution he’s investigating, he discovers implications that reach to the highest levels of state government and involve a variety of institutions for the criminally insane. As the ending approaches, the cracks that appear within the lead character and the leads he’s chasing bring you closer and closer -— with an increasingly thumping heart -— to the truth that has seemed so farfetched from the story’s beginning.

It’s another home run for Lehane on the heels of “Mystic River,” and word is that the tale is slated to be released as a movie. It’s in pre-production now and will be out in 2009, directed by the amazing Martin Scorcese. The lead role to be handled by Leonardo DiCaprio, with Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams and Ben Kingsley rounding out a strong cast.

2. “On Writing” by Stephen King

The kindest, gentlest textbook on writing you could ever find, complete with examples, background on King and his formation as one of the finest craftsmen of his generation and genre, and samples of the tales that inspired him. I haven’t decided whether King went a little too light on the actual mechanics of writing, but the maxim of the entire art -— “a writer writes” -— is hammered home with authority and proven by the author himself. A true classic, a must-read for any interested in the craft and perhaps the easiest-reading self-help book of all time.

His approach to the creation aspect of penning a tale earned a place on my wall:

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, even despair -— the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart.
“You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names.
“You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world.
“Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

3. “Tropic of Capricorn” by Henry Miller

I don’t think I liked it as much as Miller’s searing breakthrough book, “Tropic of Cancer,” but it was a fascinating, ironic look at the class division, evolution of industry and social mores of New York City in the 1920s. It’s a true gift to be able to pick up a book 70 years after it is written and still be able to appreciate the satire, humor and backdrop. It was a touch less controversial than “Tropic of Cancer,” but still forced readers to contemplate the world in a different way and fix their eyes on the seamy underbelly of society that they would prefer to remain averted to.

One of the dozens of memorable lines from the book include:

“My understanding of the meaning of a book is that the book itself disappears from sight, that it is chewed alive, digested and incorporated into the system as flesh and blood, which in turn creates new spirit and reshapes the world.”

So true, Hank. So true.

4. “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King

I hesitated to include a second King book on such a short list, but I simply couldn’t exclude this memorable tale. Plus, I’m a relatively slow reader, so there’s only so many books I can get through in a year. I have a long list of books that are on my must-read list, but, with a tip of the cap to Herb Sendek, I just have to keep chopping wood and whittle it down.

In my opinion, “Lisey’s Story” is the image of a future imagined by King had he been killed by the van that ran him down in real life in 1999, and how his wife Tabitha may have had to try to deal with the fallout of his death. Morbid, I know, but hell ... this is Stephen King we're talking about, and that is the world he deals in. The book itself revolves around a famous novelist dying, leaving his wife to sort though his life’s work and discover a side of him that she never knew while he was alive. This novel deals a lot with the human psyche and the walls and barriers people erect to deal with the problems, experiences and issues that plague us all; a topic that has threaded itself through much of King’s recent work. It’s a very revealing book with a frantic pace and tone that relates to how time is alternately affected in a possible second world, leaving the reader to feel like they’re reading against the clock at times -— yet leaves you with no desire to have it end.

5. “Beach Music” by Pat Conroy

This was a really long novel, but highly enjoyable. Going strictly by prose, I wouldn’t consider Conroy a particularly memorable writer, but as a story-teller, he has few peers. Unfortunately for me, “Beach Music” read like a bunch of different short stories stuffed into a novel format, with some of the plot appearing to be too coincidental and far-fetched (it could have been alternately titled “The Amazing But True Adventures of Superhero Jack McCall”). Yet the story-telling reels you on in a number of levels, encompassing a wide range of controversial topics, from the Vietnam War to racism to the Holocaust to our legal system to Southern culture to religion.

One line jumped right off the page at me: “I wanted to warn her, to tell her that my love was all fury and sharp edges”; the writer in me wanted more of that, more sentiments that revealed depth of character. Prose, tone and believability are all subject to the personal preferences of individual readers, but you can’t argue with the fact that this a winner in terms of the pure magic involved in captivating a reader with a well-told tale.

*These weren’t books necessarily released in 2007 (obviously). They were merely the best ones that I got around to reading this year. Feel free to let me know if you agree, disagree, have other suggestions or just want to get jiggy with it.

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