Michael Patrick Brady


My Favorite Books of 2009

November 5, 2009

This year, the books I read and reviewed covered a variety of topics, from the ancient world and the bounds of the universe to the origins of religious thought and the potential of scientific reason. I managed to get through a lot of compelling work, but several books stood out as particularly impressive. This list is comprised of my favorite books that came out this year, all of which I had the pleasure of reviewing. Links to my full reviews may be found with their entries below.

Thankfully, I was also able to fit in a lot of reading even beyond what I reviewed this year. I tore through Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, following the poetic unraveling of his pre-war characters to their satisfying (and disillusioning) conclusions. Jean Edward Smith’s FDR was a powerful portrait of what I believe is our country’s greatest president. On a trip to Paris, I picked up a copy of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino at Shakespeare & Co. and, unsurprisingly, was bowled over by the author’s sense of humor, style, and command of history. The War For All The Oceans brought the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars to life, each page home to an astonishing tale of derring-do. I mention all of these books in the hopes that others may take interest in them, though they are not from the current year.

My Favorite Books of 2009

9. The Inheritance of Rome
Chris Wickham
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

A broad and comprehensive survey of the post-Roman world, Chris Wickham’s book is dense and layered with lots of intriguing anecdotes about the Middle Ages, as he argues that the era should be judged not as an unfortunate lull in human progress but rather as a significant period in its own right. Wickham can occasionally spend too much time on tedious archaeological evidence, but the richer passages concerning the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires more than make up for it.

8. The Roman Forum
David Watkin
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

This book isn’t out till December, but I’ve got an advance copy and I’m enjoying it very much. It’s a compact, focused analysis of the Roman Forum’s status as a historical site, artistic marvel, and archaeological excavation. It is very thorough and illuminating, illustrating the different ways that people have viewed the Forum and how they attempted to shape it. Watkin has a pithy, conversational tone and a deep, impressive knowledge of the Forum’s history and development.

7. Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece
Declan Kiberd
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Ulysses has a reputation as a difficult book, and rightfully so, but author Declan Kiberd argues that this should not limit its appeal to scholars and intellectuals. It’s an epic of everyday life that should (and can) be enjoyed by all, once all the worrying about hidden clues and obscure meanings is disposed of. At its heart, Ulysses is a touching story of two men searching their home city for meaning, and Ulysses and Us shows readers how to make that case to the uninitiated.

6. The Evolution of God
Robert Wright
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Robert Wright’s history of the development of modern religion is a provocative and highly informative book. He shows readers how humanity’s concept of a deity grew from small, local gods into the universal beings we’re familiar with. While I wasn’t impressed with Wright’s theories regarding the “zero-sumness” of interactions between the different religions, his research and historical narrative is top notch.

5. The Invention of Air
Stephen Berlin Johnson
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Innovation is the engine of human progress, driven by the confluence of energy, ideas, and well-formed communication networks. The Invention of Air uses the story of Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, to illustrate how scientific and technological progress can be nurtured and grown. The book is part biography and part popular science tract, with a broad scope and a long zoom.

4. Judas: A Biography
Susan Gubar
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

22 lines of scripture are all that exists of Judas Iscariot, yet his influence on the human psyche is tremendous. Author Susan Gubar constructs a “biography” of Judas, really more of an exploration of how art, politics, and culture represent Judas and what that projected image says about ourselves. Gubar traces Judas through Gnostic gospels, Renaissance art, and contemporary film in search of a full account of the most controversial apostle.

3. Marcus Aurelius: A Life
Frank McLynn
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

Frank McLynn is a strong, confident writer who leaves no stone unturned, and he follows up the excellent Richard & John: Kings at War with a very thoughtful biography of Rome’s greatest emperor. McLynn looks at not just Marcus the Statesman, but also Marcus the Philosopher. Though the in-depth look at stoicism is, at times, rocky, the book’s incredible depiction of life and culture in ancient Rome is stunning in its clarity and scope.

2. The Landmark Herodotus
Robert Strassler, Editor
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

This hefty tome is full of extraordinary tales of the ancient world, from a writer who lived in a time where myth and truth were often intertwined. This new edition of Herodotus’ The Histories augments the sweeping chronicle of ancient lands and peoples with maps, footnotes, and other supplementary materials to provide a solid context for what is already an incredibly compelling text.

1. You Are Here
Christopher Potter
(My Review @ PopMatters | Blog)

You Are Here is a triumph of popular science writing, compressing the story of the universe into a slim, comprehensible book. Potter’s clear, direct writing helps shed light on the mysteries of reality, from the largest celestial bodies to the smallest subatomic particles. He also impresses with virtuosic explanations of philosophy and quantum mechanics that shock and amaze.

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