Posts Tagged ‘david mitchell’

My Ten Favorite Books of 2011

I finished a Baker’s Cannonball (that’s fifty-three books) for CBR-III, but I only really finished forty-eight in 2011. But that’s plenty of books from which to choose a Top Ten.

10. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
y: the last man

This is actually a graphic novel series in ten volumes, and not a single book. But it’s a graphic novel, so it’s a quick and fun read. The premise of the story is that a mysterious plague has caused every male organism on Earth to die: except for Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist, and his helper monkey, Ampersand. It explores a lot of gender issues, but does so in a witty and interesting way. There are plenty of meta references and jokes, and a few parts even made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.

But this is a graphic novel series for grown-ups, and not a comic book for kids, so be forewarned that there are some squicky parts that prudes like me don’t appreciate, including some nudity.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
things fall apart

Culture changes with every generation. The dominant people of one generation can quickly become obsolete and shunned by the next. Things Fall Apart explores what happens when someone cannot let go of the past in order to adapt to the future. Okonkwo, the most powerful man in a remote Nigerian village, is unable to change as the times do, with tragic consequences. This book is a quick read, but a heavy one.

8. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
john macarthur: servant of the word and flock

Iain Murray is, in my opinion, one of the finest biographers of our day, and certainly the foremost Christian biographer of our generation. His proto-biography of John MacArthur is a brief but encouraging look at the life of one of my spiritual heroes. Murray himself reminds the reader that a full biography can’t really be finished until the subject’s life and testimony are complete, but this is a great glimpse at what that full testimony will look like when it’s ready to be written.

I can only wonder who will write Murray’s biography when he is gone.

7. John Adams by David McCullough
john adams

John Adams is an historical figure who doesn’t get much play time in the American classrooms of today. But he’s certainly one of the most important patriots who ever lived, and historian David McCullough brings him to life in the pages of this book. Adams was a man of deep integrity and passion, and I appreciate that McCullough chooses to write about men of character instead of those who lived more glamorous and superficially exciting lives.

6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
high fidelity

This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and pined after someone they couldn’t have. Hornby has a knack for writing about common human experiences with a humor and with that makes them seem somehow glorious because of how pitiful they are. Rob Fleming is everyman, and laughing at his romantic misadventures helps you to laugh at your own.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
the hiding place

One of the few books I re-read in 2011, I was surprised at how much richer this book was for me upon re-reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate God’s love and care for His children since I first read it back in high school, but I was very personally encouraged by this book, and the testimony of Corrie ten Boom’s life, especially in how God used her time in a German concentration camp during WWII to teach her more about His power, grace, and love. This is a book that I’ll keep in my heart for the rest of my life.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
extremely loud and incredibly close

I hear that the movie version of this book is retaaaaahded, but don’t let that stop you from reading this beautiful, tragic, poignant book. One of the first novels to be set against the backdrop of 9/11, it came under some fire for being “manipulative” because of its setting. But I think time has been kind to it, and I found the story of young Oskar Schell’s search for a way to make sense out of life after losing his father in the 9/11 attacks to be profoundly moving.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
black swan green

What High Fidelity is for relationships, Black Swan Green is for growing up. Jason Taylor is unpopular, unconfident, and uncomfortable. His parents are on the verge of splitting up, the girl he fancies fancies the class bully, and, to make matters worse, he has a stammer that makes King George VI look like Cicero. He’s the Rob Fleming of junior high, and David Mitchell writes this semi-autobiographical character with honesty, compassion, and feeling. It’ll make you look back on the miserable memories of junior-high awkwardness (if you have them. I have them in abundance) with fondness — not because they weren’t really miserable, but because that misery shaped you into the person you are today.

2. Native Son by Richard Wright
native son

Native Son may well be one of the most important works of American literature. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and harrowing. It tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a black man ironically forced into a terrible situation by the kindness of people in a class oppressing his own. Part of me wants to say it’s a sad story, but it’s also a very cold story. Wright himself described it best when he said of its creation, “I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

1. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller
prodigal god

I guess you could accuse me of copping out because I put a Christian book at the top of my list. But while this book may not change the world at large, it certainly changed my life, and my view of God’s love and grace. We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son, and we think that the word “prodigal” means “lost” or “wayward.” But what it really means is “wastefully extravagant,” and Keller posits that the real prodigal in this story is the Father, who lavishes his love and riches on a son that doesn’t deserve it. I can’t even write about this book without being moved to tears because I know that God has given me so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. Because of His prodigal love, all the riches of heaven are mine, and there’s not a thing I can do to lose it or earn more of it. This book is a must-read for Christians who want to glimpse into the depths of God’s love for them.

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What were your favorite books of 2011?

Cannonball 14: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan GreenBlack Swan Green by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who’s ever watched Mean Girls knows that there are castes in school, the same way that there are castes in Indian society. There are the Brahmin, the highest caste, which everyone reveres. There are the Untouchables, the lowest caste, which everyone shuns. And then there are some castes in the middle which nobody really cares about unless you’re in one of them.

There aren’t many Brahmin. It’s an honor to be Brahmin, and if everyone were Brahmin, it wouldn’t be as much of an honor. There are plenty of Untouchables, but not so many that they’d overrun India and take it by force.

Most people fall into those obscure, in-between castes, and nobody cares much about them. Or so they might think, at least.

When I was in junior high, I was in that in painful, nameless, in-between caste. I wanted desperately to be popular, but my every effort to win the friendship of the popular kids was summarily rebuffed. Every once in a while, one of them would throw me a bone and be nice to me (sometimes so that I’d let them cheat off me), but it never lasted. I hated life in those days. I felt like a total loser, and I despaired because, in my heart, I believed it was true.

David Mitchell captured the essence of my despair, put it in a thirteen-year-old English boy, threw in a few other hardships, and made a masterpiece.

nicholas hoult

It's like About a Boy, but not as lighthearted.

Black Swan Green is the story of young Jason Taylor. Jason lives in Black Swan Green, a nice neighborhood in Worcestershire. He has a stutter, he’s unpopular in school, he just broke an antique watch of his grandfather’s that his father gave him, and there’s something weird going on between his parents that he just can’t figure out.

Jason’s story is, in many ways, typical. He has some disadvantages: his stutter, his unpopularity, his desperate desire for popularity. He also has a few advantages: his parents are well-off, there are kids even less popular than he is for the popular kids to pick on, he’s not a complete idiot.

And it’s Jason’s averageness that makes him so relatable. Most people have relatively unremarkable upbringings. Our parents had problems and sometimes took them out on us. We fought with our siblings. We got annoyed with our friends. We were tempted to do the wrong thing in order to look cool. And it’s the sincerity of Jason’s reactions to these situations that make the story so compelling.

phoebe prince

Most of us have been tempted to do what Phoebe Prince did at some point.

Mitchell is fair in his portrayal of Jason’s bullies through his eyes. We can feel Jason’s hatred and fear of these boys, but Mitchell also gives us short glimpses of what might make these kids they way they are. Jason, as a kid in the thick of this bullying, doesn’t think that far about it, but the adult reader has to consider it, if only for a moment.

There are several brilliant scenes in the book; the teacher’s class discussion about secrets, Jason’s visit to the House of Mirrors at the carnival, the episode with the gypsies. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, too. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of life as a thirteen-year-old boy without a few laughs.

Mitchell’s writing is pitch-perfect. He does an excellent job of communicating Jason’s thoughts to the reader, but still writing beautifully. Sometimes, you have to make your main character a poet in order to write poetically from a first-person point of view.

susie derkins

I used to have Susie Derkins hair, and wear khaki cargo shorts I stole from my brother under a Chicago Bears jersey I found at a garage sale. That was when I was nineteen. Now, try to imagine how much MORE awkward I looked at thirteen, and you'll understand why I didn't post an actual photo here.

This book called my thirteen-year-old self to mind so vividly that it was almost as though I were in the room with myself: hunched over self-consciously, wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt because she didn’t have any sense of style, hair unmercifully permed by her mother, thick glasses made for American noses inevitably slipping down her face, which was screwed into a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction with herself.

This was a girl who, in her desperation not to lose the two more popular friends she had, went along with their cruel decision to ditch a third less popular friend. She wrote a really mean letter to that third girl and never explained herself and never apologized. She signed that letter with her name because she wanted the two friends she had left to be impressed with her courage. She forever regretted knowing that, whenever the third girl looked at her after that, she would always see the decisive signature at the bottom of that heartless note.

When that third girl was finally accepted back into the group, with no explanation and no fanfare, she never could bring herself to apologize for that note.

(Sue Mei, if you’re out there somewhere, I want you to know that I regretted writing that letter the minute I sent it to you, and I’ve been wanting to apologize for it ever since. I hope you can forgive me.)

If I could talk to that ill-adjusted thirteen-year-old girl, I wouldn’t tell her to just suck it up because everyone goes through this phase. I wouldn’t tell hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.

I’d just tell her I was sorry for her, and that I always would be, but that these are the things that you have to go through in order to grow up.

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