The Best Books I Read This Year

It’s that funny week between the holidays when nothing gets done except more eating, drinking and lazing around. It’s also a time that I often get wracked with guilt, as if I should be working harder and beat myself up for not really trying. But social engagements trump any obligations, plus, who is going to answer the phone or my sales emails if I send them?

It’s a better time to think about the year that was, and so forthwith I present the best books I read this year. Most of these were read on the elliptical trainer the Greenfield Y, one of the only places that I can concentrate for forty minutes on a good book.

*The Dog Stars by Peter Heller was perhaps my favorite book of the year. For me reading fiction is rare, but my friend Peter crafted this amazing dystopian novel so well that it was a very quick read. It’s the story of a man who has survived a terrible flu, 30 years in the future, and is living at a Colorado airport with just 3 percent of the US population still alive.  He flies an old plane to get a birds eye view of the bleak, overgrown surroundings, and interacts with the bad guys who desperately seek to break in and steal his guns. It’s a riveting story that keeps you engaged until the very satisfying conclusion at the end.

*Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick.  This was one of the saddest yet most compelling books I read, it tells the stories of a handful of the very lucky ones: North Koreans who managed to escape their hellish country who told the stories of starvation, relentless propaganda, the insane policies of the dictator’s family and what their lives were like when they finally escaped to South Korea. The level of desperation starving people get to is scary.

*Pot Farm by Matthew Gavin Frank. This novel takes you along with two ‘civilians’ to live on a marijuana growing operation in Humboldt county.  The protagonists, a young married couple, stumble into their positions as clippers and cooks, and portray the diverse selection of characters who are drawn to this shady lifestyle very well. There’s the Charlie the Mechanic, Lady Wanda, the farm owner, Crazy Jeff, all picking and trimming pungent buds that give them an unremovable smell.  The characters are described with realism and even what might be a day to day drudgery is narrated interspersed with flashbacks  to keep the readers interest.

*Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. This book is a long journey–as long as they get, from Moscow in Western Russia hundreds of miles on pretty bad roads, through impossibly desolate villages to the vast untamed territory of Siberia. Frazier sets out in a nearly broken down bread truck with two hardcore Russian guides, and finds himself drawn to the many gulags that do the landscape of Yukutia and Buryatia where its cold and barren and people often drown themselves in drink.  His guides manage to repair the beat up truck and take him camping. It’s an endurance that is fun to read about but would be pretty damn hard to live through.

*A Gringo in Paradise. An American couple moves to Sayulita Mexico, a surfer’s village where they fall in love with the relaxed locals and decide to build their dream house. The story shares the details of how they disconnected from their retired life in Connecticut and the many struggles they endure figuring out the manners, customs and rules for building a house in Mexico.