If I'm going to be honest October was a tie - there were two books I really enjoyed for entirely different reasons. But the one that's going to get the top placement and the tiny .jpg image in the corner is Stephen Oates' With Malice Toward None: A Biography of Abraham Lincoln. Recently my friend Jason and I were compiling (yet another) list of the top 10 most underrated Americans, and I put Abraham Lincoln on there. My point was that, no matter how much glory worship and idolization Lincoln has, after reading one of his many biographies I couldn't help but feel there should be more.
One of the criticisms levied at Oates' biography is that it isn't as impartial as some other works, notably Donald Herbert's Lincoln, but it's exactly that partiality and sense of passion in the writing that makes this such a great read. Painting a complete picture of the President's life without getting mired in too much minutia, Oates covers everything from Lincoln's early years up through his sessions in Congress, the Presidency, and the years of the Civil War. Many of his speeches and letters are excerpted, and taken as a whole presents an astonishing picture of a man who placed humanity in front of politics and faced one of the worst periods in our nation's history while maintaining the ideals that all men were created equal.
Elsewhere in October:
- The Ghost Brigade by John Scalzi - If I was splitting the BOTM between fiction and nonfiction, this would have taken the prize for fiction. Scalzi continues to maintain the high standard he set with his debut Hugo-nominated novel Old Man's War, and this quasi-sequel, dealing with the mysterious Ghost Brigade, super-soldiers made up of the DNA of the deceased. This is high-adventure, military space SF i nthe Heinlein tradition, and it's filled with great one-liners, nifty gadgets and big guns, humor, unexpected grace and some high-minded ideas on the questions of self and the definition of humanity. none of which gets in the way of an epic story. The last (perhaps) novel set in the universe, The Last Colony, came out earlier this year and I look forward for continuing on Scalzi's myriad worlds.
- After Dark by Haruki Murakami - A very quick, dreamy novella of the conversations and episodes that occur over the course of one night in Tokyo. After Dark moves in a more cheerful and less formalized pace than Murakami's usual work, and it's a nice diversion from his more structured novels. The plot, if there really is one, concerns two sisters: Eri - a beautiful young model who lies in a mysterious coma and may or may be watched by a foreboding evil presence, and her younger sister Mari, a more plain (if intelligent) girl who spends the evening walking through Tokyo and meeting the strange denizens who inhabit the nighttime corridors of the city. Enjoyable if not on the level of classics like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
- The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe - This came as a recommendation from CoffeeZombie, who besides running the excellent Zombie Underground seems to have zeroed in on my particular wavelength. If any book can carry of mantle of being "Kafkaesque" than this would do it. Junpei, an amateur bug collector, heads out on a secret vacation from his dull job to the coast in order to find some new interesting specimens in the hopes of getting his name in the entomology books. Without warning, he finds himself a captive of a village that is constantly under threat by the shifting sand dunes. Instead of abandoning the village, the inhabitants live in sand pits, and spend their days shoveling the sand in an effort to keep everything from being swallowed up. Junpei finds himself living a nightmare existence as he is trapped in one of the dunes with a woman. The novel, rather than focusing solely on the plot mechanics, relies instead on the sense of dread and loss of identity of Junpei as he is forced through he various escape attempts and interactions with the woman to re-define his notion who he is. The Woman in the Dunes is a baffling yet rewarding work that makes the reader look closer at the nature of authority and our roles within it.