Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best books of 2010

Inspired by the BBC's list of the Top 100 Books (of which, I have read 26 in their entirety; another seven are on my to-read list), I started keeping track of the books I read each year. In 2010, I read 61 books (37 hard copies and 20 audio books). Being that I'm usually in the middle of several books on any given day, I also have five books that I've started but haven't yet finished. Those will have to wait until next year. But on to the business at hand...

Because I love books and because I love lists, I have decided to highlight my favorite books from the past year. The following books are not strictly a list of the best books published in 2010, rather, a list of the best books I read in 2010. I hope you enjoy them too!
  • Best Non-Fiction Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

    I'm a bit of a criminal justice nerd, having studied the subject in college. Because of that, I enjoy reading the books and writings of prisoners. (In fact, I help catalog some of those writings in the Prison Book Program's blog. Though it hasn't been updated in awhile, new posts are coming in the new year!)

    I discovered Orange is the New Black at a local library's list of newly-released books and immediately signed up to borrow it. I've since bought my own copy, as Piper Kerman's book is the kind of memoir I like to have on my shelves. The book details Kerman's year-long stay in federal prison, 10 years after a drug crime. Various reviewers have touched on a variety of themes in the book, but what touched me the most was Kerman's discussion of books. Being an educated woman with a vast network of family and friends, Kerman was lucky enough to have a steady supply of reading material, which she shared with fellow inmates. The fact that most prisons and prisoners do not have the luxury of abundant reading material, is tragic, as books are an easy way for inmates to educate themselves. Additionally, inmates who are busy reading are not busy getting into trouble. Kerman's book is a fascinating look at what life can look like behind bars.
  • Best Non-Fiction Audio Book The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo

    This book is brilliant. Due to a limited selection of books on CD at my local library, I grabbed this one, not knowing what I was in for. It turns out, I was in for a treat! The Poisoner's Handbook is a well-written (and well-read) account of the history of 20th-century poisoners and forensic science. The book details the most widely-used and effective poisons/poisoners of the early 20th century, and documents the history of New York City's first medical examiner and toxicologist who devoted thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to determine how to identify poisons in the body, ultimately bringing poisoners to justice.

    The book is interesting and scientific without being full of jargon. With stories about poisoners and the medical examiner's office, the book is suspenseful and reads more like a novel than a text book.

  • Best FictionThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

    The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of those books that some people loved and others couldn't get into. Count me as one person who loved it.

    The book is narrated by Enzo, a golden retriever who is waiting to be reborn as a man. In the meantime, he is a wonderful friend and protector to Danny, his owner, and the family that Danny eventually has. The story is simplistic, in that the whole thing is told from the dog's perspective, but the simplicity does not detract from the story's beauty. This isn't just a book for dog lovers, but it will probably resonate even more deeply with anyone whose dog has become a member of the family.

  • Best Fiction Audio BookThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, narrated by Jeff Woodman

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a "murder mystery" (a neighborhood poodle has been found dead) told by a 15-year-old boy with autism. The story is beautifully poignant, as the narrator, Christopher, tries to overcome his social issues while he attempts to solve the dog's murder. Everything Christopher does is methodical and follows his many rules and arbitrary habits.

    My heart broke a little at least a dozen times while listening to this book because Christopher is trying so hard and his struggles and triumphs are so beautiful. The book is wonderful to listen to, as the reader makes the story come alive. Having not read the paper copy of this book, I do not know if the beauty of the story shines as brightly on the page as it does in the audio book, but I recommend trying it to find out.

  • Best Young Adult Audio Book(s)Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale

    I read a great deal of young adult fantasy novels because I find the genre so wonderful. (And, for that very reason, I will not be choosing my favorite Young Adult book of the year — I simply can't choose from so many!) I love the wizards, mystical creatures, and dystopian worlds so often found in young adult books.

    The Harry Potter series is no exception. This year, I discovered the Harry Potter audio books, and while I've read the hard copies (a few times, actually), the audio books are even more outstanding. Narrated by Jim Dale, the books come to life on CD. The characters have their own voices and intonation that is so vivid, I actually thought I had seen a Harry Potter movie that I hadn't; I had, in fact, only listened to the audio book.

    Even if you've already read the series, I recommend listening to the Harry Potter audio books as well; they add a whole new depth and dimension to the stories.
In the words of Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton, "But you don't have to take my word for it!" Grab one of these books today — you're in for a treat!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last-minute Christmas gifts that come from the heart: Donate to charity this Christmas

If you haven't pinned down the perfect gift for Great Aunt Suzie yet and you don't know what to get your friend that has everything, fear not! Rather than pawing through the droopy poinsettias and the sausage sets at the grocery store for last-minute Christmas shopping, consider giving a charitable donation.

Why do charitable donations make great last-minute gifts?
  • For starters, you can donate to most non-profits online in an instant. Many, like Heifer International, a non-profit that gifts of livestock and training to impoverished families, allow you to send an e-card or print a card at home to notify the recipient of a gift.

  • Secondly, donations to charity are tax deductible expenses. You can save money on your taxes and do good at the same time!

  • Practically speaking, there are plenty of people who don't need more "stuff." And there are certainly people on your last-minute gift list who don't need a random gift picked up at a convenience store. Making a donation to charity lets someone know that you're thinking about him, without adding to his clutter.

  • Donations to charity are the "gift that keeps on giving". Not only do you feel good about making the donation, but your recipient feels good about being a part of the gift. The organization to who you choose to donate feels great because they get much-needed money to provide much-needed services. And the recipients of those services feel good because they're getting the help they need! Many charities even accept recurring donations online, which continue to the giving! The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, is set up to receive either one-time donations or monthly donations.

  • Think donating just cash is a bit boring? You can send more than just money. With The Gorilla Foundation, for instance, you can support the amazing Koko, a gorilla who knows American Sign Language, by sending an item off The Gorilla Foundation Wish List. Currently on the wish list? A DVD of the STOMP performances (for the gorillas to watch) and things like laptops and cameras for research. You can send any of these gifts in an instant via, and can even send the foundation gift cards.
So instead of braving the crowds for the next few days to finish your Christmas shopping, cozy up to your computer with a cup of cocoa and donate to a few of your (and your recipients') favorite charities. You can even check the validity of your charity of choice with an agency like Charity Navigator, which evaluates and examines non-profits before providing them with a rating. And if you need a few ideas for some charities that could use some love this Christmas, here are a few of my favorites (with links straight to their donation pages):
  • Horizons for Homeless Children
    An organization that enriches the lives of homeless children in Massachusetts through high-quality early-education services.

  • Make A Child Smile
    Such a simple but important mission: to be a source of support to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and their families by having folks send cards, letters, and small gifts to the featured children and their siblings.

  • Prison Book Program
    Featured on IT&O before, the Prison Book Program provides quality reading material to inmates across the country, many of whom are working to better their lives by educating themselves and becoming literate.

  • Special Olympics A world-wide organization changing lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing Special Olympians with access to sports and the camaraderie of a team.
There are also dozens of local charities that need your support. To find one in your area, you can search via Network for Good or Just Give.

Happy holidays!