10 Books (Some) Explanation

10 Books No Explanation was a fun little Facebook trend. I am vastly in favor of populating Facebook feeds with book covers, so I was happy to oblige. Also, I love books. I’m incapable of the “no explanation” part, but I can at least get the 10 books part right. These ten are chronological from my youth to now.

1. Hey Al by Arthur Yorinks. My mother read me tons and tons of books when I was a child. Now I get the thrill of reading those books to my own children. Of the uncounted thousands of books I was read, Hey, Al stuck with me. It is a beautifully illustrated book with a deeply felt story. I was certainly not old enough to fully appreciate its themes of contentment, but it captured and held my imagination to a great extent. 25 years later, It was one of the first books I sought out to read to my son when he was old enough to sit through a whole story.

2. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I’m moving from an underappreciated Caldecott winner to a massively celebrated Newbery winner. This book is the very best of YA fiction: rich prose, realistically-drawn characters (real adults and real children, not caricatures of either class), a careful and rewarding plot, and real stakes (although those stakes are not what you think they are at the beginning). It deals with racism, ableism, suspicion, fear, greed, careerism, and more in ways that are not watered down but also appropriate for a ten-year-old to handle. And it’s a murder mystery! And it features grammar/syntax jokes prominently! And in the end it’s about community, love, and forgiveness. It’s basically a perfect book. I owe a lot to The Westing Game in terms of what I think a good book should be.

3. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. It is not an exaggeration to say that I owe large chunks of my sense of humor to this book. The story of Milo and his trusty watchdog Tock is so imprinted on my heart that the only sticker on my laptop is a parody of the cover art that replaces Milo with Finn from Adventure Time (another all-time fave). Ah, the world of the tollbooth: The Doldrums. Jumping to Conclusions. The Word Market. The Mathemagician. The Terrible Trivium. But not only is it funny, it is a moving story about awakening to the beauty and strangeness of the world around us. The stories I remember most from my youth are the ones that take children’s concerns seriously, and this does. But seriousness does not have to be dour.

4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I read this over and over in my teenage years. It is about nothing less than trying to be a good man. I have always resonated with everyday characters who are just trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, and George is the quintessential version of that character for me. Steinbeck balances the grimness of its time period, setting, and story with the nobility of trying to be kind, just, and loyal.

5. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. This simple, focused exposition of the core tenets of Lewis’ Christian faith challenged me when I first read it as a teenager. It comforts and encourages me now. Oh, to write this beautifully!

6. The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem. I don’t remember what bookstore I was in, but I remember coming to the end of a row and seeing this lovely little cover on an endcap. I picked it up and was immediately enthralled by the essays on music, books, and film. I had never considered myself as having a style or having influences as I began college, and Lethem’s explorations of the art that influenced his writerly style struck a chord with me (even having not read his fiction books at that point). This book taught me how to self-reflect without being grating or self-absorbed (except the last essay, which is self-awarely self-absorbed). If you like essays on art, this is a great little read.

7. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The Mote is in the top tier of best sci-fi books I’ve ever read. (Fahrenheit 451 and Ender’s Game are in that small category too; both barely missed the cut here.) It’s a far-future first-contact story the likes of which I’ve never read. The aliens of The Mote are deeply fascinating and very much other–this alone sets it apart from much sci-fi, which make aliens either basically human or avatars of a moral issue. The human characters act and think like actual humans, not like paragons/renegades or ruthlessly gray-area cutthroats. They are consistently written and then sometimes deviate from their own consistencies in very human ways.

The story is gripping, fast-paced, and told over a fairly long scope of several years. (Those descriptors should be contradictions, but they’re not.) The end of the story is complex and satisfying. The moral quandaries presented are compelling and concerning. There’s a section of about 100 pages in the middle of the book that is so intensely suspenseful and interesting that I had to put it down for a week because it was emotionally wringing. If you like sci-fi and haven’t read the Mote, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

8. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson. A 400-page (in hardback!) parallel history of Oklahoma City and its pro basketball team. The big idea is that Oklahoma City (and, the implication is, all of civic life everywhere) goes through inevitable seasons of boom and bust, with cities that are able to recover from bust being uniquely situated to ride the next boom. This sounds pedestrian until you read it written across the 115-year history of Oklahoma City, which is astonishingly wild in its highs and lows. Sam Anderson is also an extremely good writer, both very very funny and heartbreaking in his pathos-oriented moments. As an Oklahoman, I feel comfortable saying that this non-Oklahoman understands Oklahoma about as well as anyone not from Oklahoma could. Also it’s about the Thunder. MY TEAM!

9. Beginning Operations by James White. Imagine a giant space hospital. Bigger. Even bigger. That big, yeah. Imagine that it treats aliens; mostly aliens unknown to the doctors that are treating the aliens. Imagine that the doctors themselves are mostly aliens. Now imagine that there’s a handful of humans there who are themselves aliens to the rest of the population, and that all of these people are trying to work together to do medical diplomacy—any species that saves the life of a new species of first contact can’t be that bad, right?

Tl;dr: it’s House M.D. vs Star Trek vs Galaxy Quest. You’re welcome.

10. The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel by Dan Sinker. With apologies to … uh … everyone, I can’t ignore this absurd, foul-mouthed book on any list of my favorite / influential books. It is one of my most returned-to books, simply because it is so funny. It is a comedic novel told entirely in Tweets that were actually published one at a time to the @MayorEmanuel Twitter handle. It follows a fictional version of Rahm Emanuel’s campaign to become mayor of Chicago, but in an entirely surrealist fashion: a duck named Quaxelrod is the campaign manager, parodying the actual campaign manager; the ghost of Mayor Daly appears; road trips and snow days are had. Something like three tweets in the whole book have no curse words. There are over 1000+ uses of the F word (Sorry! Sorry!)

Dan Sinker provides commentary on many of the tweets, giving insight into the obscure Chicago references and the no-context tweets. It ultimately is a big ‘ol love letter to the city of Chicago, a statement about the ridiculousness of running for office, and an early proof of concept that contemporary forms of Internet zaniness can transcend into art.