Intriguing reading from 2005

Newley Purnell recently posted his annual Bloggers’ Favorite Books listing, which includes favorite 2005 reads from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Boing Boing, Instapundit, and MoorishGirl.

Newley also queried me about the most intriguing books I read in 2005, and this is what I told him:

Three of the most enjoyable books I read in 2005 were Michael Bamberger’s Wonderland, J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen. Bamberger’s book, which recounts a year in the life of a Pennsylvania high school, was a pleasure to read — not only in its engaging nonfiction storytelling, but also in its empathetic, non-sensationalistic take on what it’s like to be an American teenager in the 2000’s. Troost’s book is the account of two years he spent with his NGO-worker wife on the Equatorial Pacific archipelago of Kiribati — and its take on the idiosyncrasies of life on an isolated atoll makes for the funniest travel reading in recent memory. Less engaging — but even more fascinating — was Ridley’s examination of evolutionary psychology, using examples from the animal kingdom to show how all creatures (including humans) have developed their various social and sexual idiosyncrasies.

Elsewhere in the realm of nonfiction, I spent some time this year delving into readings on the role of social class in the United States. I was inspired to do this after reading Bill McKibben’s April Harper’s article about alternative agriculture in Cuba — which was thematically identical to a project proposal I submitted with my failed Pew Fellowship application in 2003. McKibben is a terrific writer, and I didn’t suspect him of stealing my idea — but I was irritated that the Pew Fellowship had rejected a proposal that would have scooped McKibben’s Harper’s story by a year; instead giving away a majority (70%) of the fellowship slots to (what I considered unremarkable) projects by candidates with Ivy League credentials. As a person who was making $3.35 an hour threshing wheat in Kansas when I was a considering collegiate options at age 17 (i.e., Ivy League schooling was never a consideration), I was flabbergasted that the Pew Fellowship would give most of its financial and professional assistance to people who obviously hailed from a background of social and economic privilege. Indeed, as successful as I’ve become as a freelance writer over the years, I have yet to receive a single financial grant or fellowship — most of which go to candidates whose only financial shortcoming would seem to be student-loan paybacks to elite universities.

Hence, I vented my frustrations by delving into a literary examination of the American class system, digging into titles such as David Brooks’ humorous (if occasionally over-generalized) Bobos in Paradise, and Paul Fussell’s snarky-yet-astute Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. Also compelling (if not always fully articulate) was Jim Goad’s angry Redneck Manifesto — which, while at times lacking in even-handedness, made a strong case for the fact that poor, white, rural Americans receive little assistance or sympathy from the powers-that-be on both sides of the political spectrum.

As for fiction in 2005, many of the novels I read this year were intriguingly experimental in form — including Milan Kundera’s Immortality and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. My favorite was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which tantalizingly toyed with the line between fiction and nonfiction, and examined the dubious accuracy of memory in storytelling.

Finally, I re-read in 2005 a number of books that have been favorites since I was a teenager, including John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (which is possibly my favorite book ever). Just as it’s nice to occasionally revisit old friends in various corners of the world, it was a keen pleasure to reacquaint myself with Doc, Mac and the Boys, and Lee the Grocer in depression-era Monterey — as well as Yossarian, Major Major, Natley’s whore, and various other characters off the coast of Italy in the waning days of WWII. I’d reckon in another couple years, I’ll afford myself the pleasure of visiting them again.

For the full list of bloggers’ favorite 2005 books, click here.

Posted by | Comments (2)  | December 22, 2005
Category: Travel News, Travel Writing

2 Responses to “Intriguing reading from 2005”

  1. Steve Hill Says:

    One of my favorite books for 2005 is Travel Writing by Don George featuring a three page interview with you. I had to check out your site since your points were the most sagacious. I’ve been encourged by others to try travel writing as the new career I’m looking for but my wife would prefer something that actually makes a little money.

    By the way, Catch-22 is one of my favorite books but Heller’s “Good as Gold” is right up there as well. It’s not as meticulously written but contains even better satire.

    If you’ve got some time to kill then check out my cycling travelogue. The French Pyrenees series has been the most popular. I break a lot of travel writing “rules”, but I don’t really care since I started the site for my own amusement.

  2. michael brewster Says:

    I first read O’Brien back in 1992, I was given that book by a nice girl from Texas while I was living far too briefly in Seattle. The blurring of nonfiction and fiction intrigued me, and interestingly I am a fan of Kundera, who attacks a similar autobiographical narrative in his writings, though he would argue that his life is separate and distinct from his fiction. I certainly respect that idea, but still like to see Kundera and O’Brien along with James Joyce and Hunter S. Thompson on that broad spectrum of autobiography/nonfiction/fiction.

    Be that as it may, I surfed over here after reading your Andorra article and thinking I had discovered the new Douglas Adams. You have an excellently sardonic wit (and not snarky in the “went-out-in-1997” way) that I enjoy. I ordered a copy of Vagabonding hoping you are true to your article-writing style in the longer form.

    I also had occasion to read your “The Beach”-storming article in Salon. There are many instances in my life where I conceive of these ideas- grand gestures or small, simple challenges- that mean something, but cannot be explained to others as succinctly as I’d like, or with the effect of rallying them to my side. However, I did drive 5,000 miles from Buffalo to Kenai because my friend Tim asked what I was doing for the summer and not having a better option, allowed him to persuade me to go with a single word (“Alaska”). I think it was my field trip to William Seward’s House in Fourth Grade’s fault.

    please continue to travel and write in good grace…