“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln
Once again, you’re gonna need some time for this post.
And probably pen and paper (or whatever device you use these days to make your own lists) — to jot down some titles that you’ll likely want to add to your ‘to read’ list for 2016.
Despite a recurring theme in contributors’ emails about not reading as much this year, not finding as many memorable books, and/or not remembering the titles read, I think you’ll find an remarkably rich and diverse list of titles and comments.
Eighty-three of you contributed this year, listing 455 books, with fiction leading nonfiction 59% to 41%. More than 350 of the titles were only listed once or twice. The female-male division of contributors was 57%-43% (F/M), about what it has been in the past. Contributors ranged in age from 18 to 80, with most in the 30+ to 70+ year age range. (There was one ‘family’ contribution — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter, tho I’m not sure they realized the others had contributed.)
While I don’t expect most of you will read all the way through this list (anyone who does can claim it as a book for next year), there is a tremendous amount of information here. I’ve organized it in several ways to make it all more user friendly:
- The most frequently cited titles are listed first.
2. Then, the contributors are listed alphabetically — to make it easy to find a specific individual’s favorites — followed by the titles and authors of the books they most enjoyed this year and any comments they made about those books.
3. Also, two spread sheet links have been added this year to see the titles, authors, and MillersTime contributors in summary form:
To get to (and perhaps print out) either or both of these lists, click on the links in a) or b) above. Alternatively, you can get to these lists at the very end of this post.
4. You can also click on the title of any book mentioned on this post to go to Amazon to see more about the book and its availability. (I’m not pushing Amazon and as you know am a fan of independent bookstores, but I did want to give readers a quick way to see more about a particular title.)
5. And new this year, you can click on Public Library after any title in this post to see what is available in your local library. (Note you will have to type in your zip code when you connect to the site.)
Titles that appear on the Favorites List three times or more:
- The Boys in the Boat, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (13)
- Being Mortal, (public library) by Atul Gawande (7)
- Ghettoside, (public library) by Jill Loevy (6)
- Between the World and Me, (public library) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (4)
- The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Pearce, (public library) by Jeff Hobbs (4)
- H Is for Hawk, (public library) by Helen Macdonald (3)
- The New Jim Crow, (public library) by Michelle Alexander (3)
- All the Light We Cannot See, (public library) by Anthony Doerr (12)
- The Nightingale, (public library) by Kristin Hannah (7
- The Girl on the Train, (public library) by Paula Hawkins (7)
- Americanah, (public library) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4)
- My Brilliant Friend, (public library) by Elena Ferrante (4)
- Go Set a Watchman, (public library) by Harper Lee (4)
- Our Souls at Night, (public library) by Kent Haruf (3)
- Me Before You, (public library) by Jojo Moyes (4)
- Martin Beck Detective Series,(public library) by Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall (3)
- The Poisonwood Bible, (public library) Barbara Kingsolver (3)
- Everything I Never Told You, (public library) by Celest Ng (3)
- Station Eleven, (public library) by Emily St. John Mandel (3)
For me, however, the strength and value of this (and previous) years’ lists have more to do with what contributors say about a book than the number of times a book may be listed. Sometimes, books listed only once or twice are the ones I most want to read in the coming year.
Just a reminder — this list is not meant to be the best books published in 2015, but rather what the title of this posting states — The Books Most Enjoyed by MillersTime Readers in 2015.
This list would not have been possible if those who contributed had not taken the time to send their favorite reads and their thoughtful comments. So, much thanks to all who did, those who have done so in the past — and continued to do so — and those who are new contributors.
Please forgive my endless reminders, though the results, I hope, may have been worth the nagging. (Late additions — please feel free to send them — will be posted as they arrive, without any snarky comments from the editor.)
And, of course, I take responsibility for any inaccuracies or mistakes in the posting of the titles, authors, comments, etc. as MillersTime readers rarely make grammatical or other mistakes in their submissions. Please feel free to let me know about any of my errors as I can correct them quickly and easily.
Feel free to share this post with others — family, friends, book clubs, etc.
2015 – List of Favorite Reads:
Being Mortal, (public library) by Atul Gawande (NF). The author is a surgeon, on the faculty at Harvard. He’s a gifted writer and storyteller. This is a careful and patient-centered look at end-of life medical and residential care in the U.S. The emphasis is on what are wise health-care and related choices. A short book, at times deeply personal and moving. I’ve read it twice and given it to all my kids.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, (public library) by Richard Rhodes (NF). I visited Los Alamos, which is (by Western standards) near Durango, Colorado, where Julia lives, this year to see what was left from the Manhattan Project. The answer is, nothing from the laboratories, engineering or manufacturing sites. The small historical society museum makes up for a bit of the loss and has a good bookstore. Then I read four books on the making of the atomic bomb. This history won a Pulitzer Prize. Covering three-quarters of a century, Rhodes’ book successfully marries stories of small moments of scientific insight to descriptions of the vast scale of the engineering effort of the Manhattan Project, creating a narrative of the development of the theory of atomic fission and of the technology of the atomic bomb. Recommended by Andrew.
Capital in the 21st Century, (public library), by Thomas Piketty (NF). A groundbreaking and thorough study of the role of capital in the modern economies of nation-states. Piketty is a French economist who did some of his training in the US and came away with a healthy skepticism of aspects of the contemporary mathematical approach to economics. This is an accessible work; it offers rewards to readers with no training in economics. It has a few boring spots, but what does one expect from an economics text? Disturbing conclusions about the contemporary concentration of capital and income in the early 21st-century.
Fun Home, (public library) by Alison Bechdel (F). Graphic novel. Coming-of-age in a small town in north central Pennsylvania (which happens to be the town where my mother’s family lived for several generations). Introspective, perceptive, compassionate and profound. Now a successful Broadway musical. Several twists in the story line, with unforeseen consequences. Recommended by Brittany Hailer.
Beethoven, (public library) by Jan Swafford (NF). A lengthy, illuminative and definitive life that embodies the author’s thoughtful approach to biography and explores the concept of Romantic genius. Swafford is a composer, has been a professor of music, is an experienced biographer with works on Ives and Brahms to his credit, and includes, in this study, critical analysis of most of Beethoven’s major pieces.
H is for Hawk, (public library) by Helen Macdonald (NF). A memoir of the English writer’s year after the death of her beloved father. During this period she revived her former detailed interest in and practice of falconry. Written with erudition, historical knowledge and grace, she traces, in her memoir, the parallels in T.H. White’s study and practice of hawking during difficult passages in White’s life.
The Secret Place, (public library) by Tana French (F). These are Dublin police procedurals, but they work on the level of serious novels as well, with rich characterization and sense of place. I still prefer The Likeness and In the Woods, which are chilling, with significant but fully credible leaps of imagination. In the Woods has, for instance, a marvelous description, introspective, pensive, many-layered, of the relationship between two detectives who are a team. The Likeness (originally recommended by Andrew) takes you to psychological dark places where only a few novels — The Black Dahlia comes to mind (although it’s a very different kind of novel) — have dared to go.
Extreme Productivity, (public library) by Robert Pozen (NF). This book earned very favorable reviews, so in a proactive and productive way I waited for it to drop into my lap, which it did in the DC Library one day. It’s excellent.
Co-Opetition, (public library) by Nalebuff and Brandenburger (NF). A game theory approach to business competition; shorter and more business-focused than Kahneman; both books have authors who think outside the box. Many interesting ideas about pricing, business alliances, information availability, being a player, and adding value. Well worth reading.
The Martian, (public library) by Andy Weir (F). Recommended by Andrew. By a geek, for geeks, with big dollops of bona fide science, based in about 2030 with today’s technology. An American astronaut is stranded on Mars after the rest of his crew had to make an emergency evacuation. The high-grossing movie is good in its way, but read the book first. (I saw the movie with two planetary geologists, who were highly enthused about the scenery.) Well-recommended for any teenager interested in science.
A memoir in three parts (read in this order):
Neapolitan quartet (read in this order):
The Wright Brothers, (public library) by David McCullough (NF). If you think you know all you need to know about the Wright brothers, think again. Relying primarily on letters, diaries, news articles and other written materials from hundreds of sources in the U.S. and Europe, David McCullough has crafted a fascinating biography of the Wright brothers. He tells the story about how they, first and foremost, and other aviation pioneers literally changed the world. Early on the book reminds the modern reader, who likely takes airplane and space travel for granted, that just a little over a century ago birds were the only creatures that could truly fly in the sense that they could control their speed, altitude and direction. The idea of humans engaging in mechanical flight was derided by many as an impossible dream pursued by cranks. The Wright brothers, designers and makers of bicycles in Dayton, Ohio, had the passion to pursue this dream in the face of countless obstacles, including great personal danger. The details of what they did, how they did it and the people their lives intersected help make this book so interesting. McCullough has a knack for bringing to life historical figures that the reader thinks he or she already knows well. He has done this once again with The Wright Brothers”.
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, (public library) by Hampton Sides (NF). The title summarizes what this book is all about. Want more details? Hampton Sides provides them on 497 pages of narrative and 45 pages of notes and bibliography. No one can say he didn’t do his research. As someone who was born in the American West and has an interest in the “settlement” of the West, I found this book interesting on many levels, particularly the details about events that are covered only broadly in school books and often falsely in movies and TV shows. What’s also interesting is how different and politically incorrect life was for everyone in the West 165 years ago. Once again the details makes for riveting reading. Perhaps the most important word in the title is “Conquest”. The West wasn’t just settled. It was taken from the indigenous inhabitants by conquerors, one of which was the remarkable trapper, scout and soldier Kit Carson. His story is complex. It is also just one element in a book filled with fascinating historical characters.
The Incarnations, (public library) by Susan Barker (F). This intriguing mystery set initially in pre-Olympics Beijing is about a woebegone cab driver, Wang Ju, who receives a puzzling letter. The anonymous writer claims to be Wang Ju’s “biographer and soul mate” by virtue of the many incarnations that they have shared. Subsequent letters appear, recounting the stories of their reincarnations in various guises over more than 1200 years of Chinese history. Interspersed between the accounts of past lives is the continuing narrative of the present day Wang Ju, his complicated family life, and his search to identify the letter writer who plagues him. The author, who grew up in London with a Chinese-Malaysian mother and a British father, said she wrote the book as a means of exploring her ancestral past. If you like imaginative story telling, try this book.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery, (public library) by Gabrielle Zevin (F). A selection of my book group, this novel is about a bookstore owner on a small island off the coast of New England who, beset by tragedy at the beginning of the story, struggles to rebuild his life and his bookstore. A short literary essay written by Mr. Fikery precedes each chapter. This book is entertaining, humorous, and hopeful about the future of bookstores, and it’s no wonder that it is a favorite pick of book groups. Feeling overwhelmed by all the scary terrorist news? This might sweep you away from it all, at least for a few hours.
The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, (public library) by Shankar Vedantam (NF). This book gave me a much fuller understanding of unconscious bias, how it operates and how it can be used in politics and other arenas. The author’s stories include his own personal experiences with aha moments and his observations about some of the many areas where unconscious bias is key, including the sophisticated applications of unconscious bias in shaping political campaign ads. This is the book I talked about most with friends and family this year. The author is a science reporter and an engaging writer. He can be heard on NPR and read online. He was born in India and graduated from Stanford with a degree in journalism.
Midnight’s Furies — The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, (public library) by Nisid Hajari (NF). This history book is a fascinating and well-written account of events unfolding at the time of the creation of the states of Pakistan and Modern India in the late 1940’s, including some of the historical backdrop and context for India’s Partition. The author had access to newly available historical documents. I found his portraits of some of the major political figures of the time, including Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Patel and various British officials, both informative and interesting. The violence accompanying the Partition was, as the author writes, a horror, including some of the worst sectarian massacres the world has ever seen. Many of the hopes, aspirations, rivalries, and hatreds portrayed in this dangerous part of the world are still very much evident today. My understanding of the geopolitical area has increased, but my sense of hope about a peaceful future has not. The author is an experienced writer and editor with expertise in Asia and foreign affairs. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
All the Light We Cannot See, (public library) by Anthony Doerr (F). The intertwining stories of a blind Parisian girl and an orphan German boy during World War II is haunting, incisive and not just another World War II book. Written as a young adult novel, it rises above the trope of vampires, or teenagers sick and dying or love stories. Doerr plumbs the inner life of the two teenagers, who are caught in the pain and horror of the War. If you know Brittany, that is a bonus.
Negroland: A Memoir, (public library) by Margo Jefferson (NF). The cultural critic Jefferson directs her gaze to her own black elite upbringing in pre-Civil Rights Chicago. She is in turns hopeful, sad, angry, and forgiving as she explores her life of privilege and exclusion.
Lots of books read this year but nothing outstanding, other than rereads of that wonderful Louise Penny. I reread the first 10 and read the latest that was released this year. They should be read in order. Truly wonderful books.
Nancy Wilson Cedar:
Why Homer Matters, (public library) by Adam Nicholson (NF). As he states, the Western nations would have been far better off if they had adopted Homer instead of the Bible as their moral compass. Wonderfully written, and sending one back to the originals to check out the source of his devoted inspiration.
Between the World and Me, (public library) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (NF). The current rage, and winner of the National Book Award — he has deep and righteous anger towards those who “think they are white” while describing the rather desperate times in which he grew up in Baltimore — where most of the violence he experienced was from his cohorts. He describes his father as his most important influence — a former Black Panther who would not let his family (of four wives and several children) celebrate Christmas, Kwanza, and insisted they read the True History of the Black People — as the Chief Librarian of Black History at Howard University, he provided his sons — Ta-Nehisi, in particular, with rich, remote and complicated volumes of black history. This turns out to be the most compelling and formative contribution to Ta Nehisi’s less-than-formal education. Even though he calls Howard University “Mecca”, he did not actually graduate from there.
The Bully Pulpit, (public library) by Doris Kearns Goodwin (NF). Truly enjoyed this fascinating account of the friendship between Teddy Roosevelt and Taft — two very different men who became President, and eventually had a falling-out when Roosevelt was disappointed that Taft did not carry out the major reforms he had started. But the similarity between our times and what Roosevelt was dealing with is striking — huge gaps in class, the extremely wealthy and corporations running the country, etc. Most interesting is how Goodwin familiarizes the reader with intimate details of both men’s lives — and their wives, who were so influential in their lives.
Captivating story, with some amazingly creative details concerning a blind girl’s life during WWII. Her devoted father’s training her to recognize her surrounding terrain by constructing miniature towns for her to memorize by touch so that she is able to get around on her own — which is just the beginning premise — lots more twists and turns to go.
The Bamboo Stalk, (public library) by Saud Alsanousi (F). I read this book for a course in the Literature of the Middle East at Politics & Prose — written by a young Kuwaiti author, about a Filipino ‘bastard’ who was the son of a prominent Kuwaiti and his Filipino maid. He did acknowledge him and promised to take him in when he grew up, so the mother of the boy, who brought him up in a rustic and isolating existence in the Philippines, painted a rosy picture of the life he was going to live when he arrived in Kuwait. Since the father died a hero in the war between Iraq & Kuwait, there was no one to properly introduce him to Kuwaiti society when he finally arrived in the Promised Land — AND he did not look like his father — he looked like a short, snub-nosed Filipino. Travails follow, and the concept of a bamboo stalk that can take root anywhere — with ‘no past, no memory’ is personified in the major character — Interesting glimpse of Kuwaiti society, its prejudices and values — won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
A Deadly Wandering, (public library) by Matt Richtel (NF). I haven’t finished this one either, but my son Dylan said it is a fantastic read and very important information about today’s technology and the impact on our kids.
Hands Free Life: Nine Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better and Loving More, (public library) by Rachel Macy Stafford (NF). Has some good tips on being present and living in our crazy paced world.
Operation & Training Manual for Chapter Officers: A Practical Guide for Governance in the Oriental Chair of King Solomon by Ed. Marcus A. Trelaine (NF). (Ed. Note: No Amazon or public library links available.)
A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, (public library) by Dennis McNally (NF). I did my usual rock and roll biography — an old one but relevant given the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead this past summer.
My brother recommended these Dublin city crime novels, which were very good
Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, (public library) by Christopher McDougal (NF). His second, was fine — not nearly as good as his first (Born to Run), but still an enjoyable read about some of the unsung heroes on the Greek Island of Crete during a WWII invasion, integrated with great information on super-athleticism and endurance training.
The Plum Tree, (public library) by Ellen Marie Wiseman (F). I’m an historical fiction junkie and this is a great one set in WWII Germany. Same author also wrote What She Left Behind about patients in Willard Insane Asylum in NY in the early 1900s. Based on real treatments, it was enlightening (and disturbing).
My book reading usually consists mostly of not-too-strenuous mysteries; I was surprised by how much I enjoyed an older British mystery, Cleek: the Man of the Forty Faces, (public library) by Thomas Hanshaw (F), which I probably never would have bought.
I also surprised myself by really enjoying the 1683 (?) novel by Daniel DeFoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, (public library) (F), also not what I would normally have picked up.
An Unquiet Mind, (public library) by Kay Redfield Jamison (NF). A reflection on her own bipolar episodes and how she copes with the disorder, by a well-regarded psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins University.
The New Jim Crow, (public library) by Michelle Alexander (NF). As I read the book, I thought why didn’t I think these thoughts as I lived through the growth of American prisons and the policies that filled them up disproportionately with the black, Latinos, and poor.
Bloody Lowndes, (public library) by Hasan Kwame Jeffries (NF). A relatively unknown book that I read as I prepared to go back to Selma AL for the 50th anniversary of the voting rights marches there. Lowndes is the county through which you travel from Selma to Montgomery. Bloody Lowndes chronicles the efforts of local black residents who risked everything to organize black residents to register to vote and then to exercise that vote in the years before the 1965 voting rights act, and, more importantly, in the five years after the passage of the voting rights act, theirs were acts of true courage.
Americanah, (public library) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (F). I enjoyed her writing. She got me even to like her lengthy discussions of African women’s hair and the discussions in hair salons she frequented.
To Kill a Mockingbird, (public library) and Go Set a Watchman (public library) both by Harper Lee (F). I reread the (first) to provide comparisons and background to Go Set a Watchman. It’s good to read them together.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, (public library) by Evan Osnos (NF).
I am not generally a reader of essays but this year I recommend two books of essays:
Tongues of Flame, (public library) by Mary Ward Brown (NF) – who began writing at the age of 72. They are beautifully written essays about life in the South in the mid-1900s. Each essay captures an aspect of the South in a beautiful, often very simple but stunning way. The essays tell about whites and blacks, the rich and the poor. I thought the following essays were the best: “New Dresses”, “Tongues of Flame”, “Beyond New Forks”, and “The Amaryllis”. Read them when you are relaxed and you will really enjoy them . . . and think about them later.
The Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of G. Bartlett Giamatti, (public library) (NF) – OK, you might have to like baseball to really enjoy these nine (!) essays on baseball, but they are so beautifully written and so ethical that any reader can appreciate them. Giamatti was an English Renaissance scholar and the President of Yale. He left this last position to become President of the National League (he REALLY wanted to be President of the American League because he was a die-hard Red Sox fan). These essays are beautifully written, each about a feature America’s pastime (and at times a bit repetitive), with a heavy layer of ethics throughout each essay. In 1989 he became the Commissioner of Major League Baseball and his main act was an agreement with Pete Rose, which banned him from baseball. Rose did not appeal the ruling. Eight days later Giamatti died of a massive heart attack having spent a short 159 days as Commissioner. Too bad he wasn’t Commissioner longer as baseball could use more ethics. The essays are great fun to read –- and a joy to read –- and informative as well.
The Island, (public library) by Victoria Hislop (F) a Greek authoress and a great new find. This book is about the island Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete that was a leprosy colony. It is an historical novel about the people who live on Crete across from the leprosy colony but also about the people who live on the island and how they make a meaningful life for themselves. It is beautifully written and a captivating novel. So captivating, that I read another of her historical novels, The Thread (public library) (F), about the Greeks who were expelled from Turkey in the early 1900’s, settled in Thessaloniki and their lives through WW II. It was also a beautifully written and intriguing novel, which I recommend. I then read a third novel of hers (I did find a new author that I truly liked), The Sunrise (public library) (F), but it was less captivating.
To Kill A Mockingbird, (public library) (F) and Go Set A Watchman (public library) both by Harper Lee (F) – with all of the hoopla about Harper Lee’s “found” novel, I decided first to reread Mockingbird, which is just as fine today as it was when I first read it probably back in high school. Then I read Watchman, and I quickly understood why it had been rejected. The first half of the book is not particularly well written and not particularly engaging, but the second half is MUCH better and quite engaging. I don’t think it is fair to compare Atticus Finch in Mockingbird with Atticus Finch in Watchman as they are two different characters –- they have similar characteristics, but they are not the same character. I did not react as negatively to Finch in Watchman as many readers did –- especially in the part of the book where he becomes a part of the group that is the forerunner to the KKK. I believe his comment that it is better to be inside the group to know what is going on than to be outside it. Having grown up in the South, I have to say that many of the scenes in Watchman are closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit. Alas, they do represent the South of almost a century ago.
The Boys in the Boat, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF) is a wonderful book about the rowing team from the University of Washington that wins the 1936 crew race at the Berlin 1936 Olympics – despite all of the odds including the Germans trying to “fix” the race to please Hitler. It is a true story and you know the ending, but with each stroke, you are right there rowing with the boys, whether it is a match up with the CA team, in the Olympics race in Berlin, or in any of the races in between. You get to know the team members – and more than just the final team as the boat changes crews throughout the book. You learn the beauty of the boat and the true meaning of teamwork. And you don’t have to like rowing to like and appreciate this book.
The Miniaturist, (public library) by Jessie Burton (NF) takes place in mid-17th century Amsterdam, primarily in a canal house on the Herrengracht, and revolves around a doll’s house. The doll’s house was given to Nella by her new husband to “furnish”. It turns out that furnishing a doll’s house by upper class ladies in Amsterdam was a great hobby. Nella, a girl from the country in this arranged and slightly bizarre marriage, was put off by this gift, but before long, she was “into” furnishing the house, often with items that mysteriously appeared on her doorstep and played an integral part in her new life in Amsterdam. It is very well written and quite intriguing. In fact, so intriguing that when I was recently visiting the newly opened Rijksmuseum, I made an effort to see the Petronella Oortmann Doll House, a magnificent, very large dollhouse with all of its intricate furnishings.
Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, (public library) by Kati Marton (NF) is a biography of her parents, and in turn of her and her sister, in Cold War 1950’s Budapest. Both of her parents were international — and prize winning — journalists –- her father for the AP; her mother for the UP. They were spied on, followed, and imprisoned by the Secret Police but “generally” supported by the AP, UP, and US Government personnel in Budapest. Eventually the family made it to America to restart their lives. Marton writes a beautiful biography of her family life as she saw it as a child, simultaneously “annotating” it with reports from the Secret Police files that she eventually took possession of and read. So you see the story from a child’s perspective, from her parents’ perspective and at the same time from the Secret Police perspective. In many respects this book is similar to the 2006 movie The Lives of Others that takes place in East Berlin under the Stasi. Both the book and the movie are well worth reading/seeing for a different and personal view of life behind the repressive Iron Curtain.
Bread and Respect, The Italians of Louisiana, (public library) by A.V. Margavio and Jerome J Salomone, (NF). With the 10th anniversary of Katrina top of mind, this is a history on the role Italian Americans (mostly Sicilian, and mostly from Palermo province) in New Orleans. For example, the worst single public lynching in American history occurred on 14 March 1891 when a white mob stormed the Orleans parish jail and killed 13 Italians. One hundred years ago the French Quarter was over 95% Siciliano and dubbed “little Palermo.” The book tells the story of these immigrants and their struggles for the American Dream.
Beautiful Crescent, A History of New Orleans, (public library) by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer, (NF). Two locals tell the dramatic history of the city of New Orleans. It’s a story or resilience that reads with all the suspense of a thriller.
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, (public library) by Mary Beard, (NF). Perhaps, the best classicist of our time, Beard asks the question, while the Roman Republic and Athens’s Democracy were founded at the same time, why did Rome and not Athens come to dominate the Mediterranean? The answers have relevance for our national discussions today.
Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, (public library) by Bryan Stevenson (NF). This may be the the most important book of 2015. With racial injustice and inequality in the headlines, Bryan Stevenson tells the story of Walter McMillan, and he makes the clarion call for compassion in the pursuit of justice in this country.
Emily Nichols Grossi:
All the Light We Cannot See, (public library) by Anthony Doerr (F). I have not stopped thinking about this book since I finished it a few months ago. Truly, it was with absolute sadness that I closed the back cover and with it the rich world Doerr created. The story takes place during World War II, in Paris, Saint-Malo (Brittany) and parts of Germany, and jumps around among character (all so well-developed), year and setting. I found myself pacing my reading so that I didn’t make my way through the book too quickly. I underlined phrase after phrase after phrase, and this will go on my shelf of “Favorites; Never To Be Loaned.” An infinitely worthy Pulitzer winner and National Book Award nominee.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, (public library) by Ann Patchett (F). Though I know this goes against most of the popular tide, I didn’t love Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto. It was an easy read, often pleasurable, but didn’t move or stick with me in any big way. Because of this, I picked up This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of Patchett’s essays (many of which were previously published elsewhere) with some skepticism. But my love of essay overrode all doubt, and I’m thrilled it did because I adored this beautiful collection. Patchett never overwrites. Indeed, her writing is simple but in the best way. There are no wasted words or are their words you’ll need a dictionary to understand. As a writer, I found this book as instructive as I did engaging. A rare and marvelous treat. Patchett’s pieces are moving, funny, honest, illuminating.
Just Mercy, (public library) by Bryan Stevenson (NF). I haven’t been this moved by a non-fiction, book length work in some time. Written by Bryan Stevenson, co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, it is both memoir and fact-based call to action on behalf of the grim, unequal system of “justice” meted out in America. Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware. His great-grandparents were slaves. His grandfather was murdered on the streets of Philadelphia. And yet he forged on, graduating from Eastern University and then Harvard Law School before moving south to represent impoverished clients facing death row. We are taken through Stevenson’s incredible life story through the lens of several of those he represented and tried to free from what were often completely fabricated claims. The systemic racism that pervades the American justice system is undeniable; if you doubted before and are willing to read with an open mind and heart, you will doubt no more once finishing this critically important work. Stevenson is a lovely writer and a hell of a person.
Roseanna (public library) and The Man On the Balcony (public library), both by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (F). An ardent fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, I was thrilled with the release of the fourth installment of it, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, (public library) ably attempted (because Larsson is dead) by Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz. What a joy it was to be plunged back into the dark, frenetic world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Even though Lagercrantz doesn’t get Lisbeth terribly right, in my opinion, he aces Blomkvist, and I flew through Spider’s Web. I recommend it freely to any fan of the original three stories. I’m not putting it on my favorites list but wish to give it total credit for indirectly introducing me to the ten-book crime fiction series, The Story of a Crime, written in the 1960s and 70s by Swedish couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The series begins with Roseanna and features a recurring cast of characters, most notably Martin Beck, a Swedish police detective. In Roseanna you see much of the groundwork and inspiration from which Larsson surely drew as he crafted The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et al. Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s character development and attention to detail are superb and force the pace of these exciting books to slow some. They’re never dull but they require focus, a feature I enjoyed tremendously. The Man On the Balcony is the third book in the series and is a real thriller. I liked but didn’t love The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (#2) and am currently reading #4, The Laughing Policeman. PS – The Laughing Policeman, #4 in the Sjowall/Wahloo series is fantastic! Absolutely great! The characters are so well developed and the repartee is fab.
Hyperbole and a Half, (public library) by Allie Brosh (NF). I’m not sure it’s possible to laugh harder than I did in parts of Allie Brosh’s superb book. Based in part on her blog (also Hyperbole and a Half), this part-graphic memoir takes the reader from the pits of depression to the inane hilarity of pet-ownership (dogs, in this case) to the highs, lows and reels of life. I am always tremendously grateful to artists who use their talents to help normalize that which has, for too long, been stigmatized. Brosh does this brilliantly on behalf of depression and, to a lesser extent, ADHD. She is also outrageously funny, and her intentionally crude artwork makes everything that much more hysterical. Many, many nights, while reading in bed with my husband, I would laugh out loud so hard and for so long that he’d say, “Are you going to be OK?” We could all use that sort of laughter more often in our lives. This book impacted me greatly for a whole host of reasons, and I recommend it highly.
Elizabeth Lewis Goodman:
My Brilliant Friend, (public library) by Elena Ferrante (F). I spent the better part of 200 pages thinking this book — by a writer whose name is NOT Elena Ferrante and which is all the rage in Europe — was the most tedious story I had read in years. But for the next 100 pages and for the last several days, I just can’t get it out of my mind. On the one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story set in an impoverished section of post WW2 Naples, with all the attendant violence and pettiness one expects. On the other hand, it is a psychologically honest and culturally astute description of the time and place. So I forgave the editor who should have tightened the narrative yet allowed some extraordinary insights to emerge in Volume 1 of what has now become a four-part epic documenting both the growth of an individual and the development of a nation.
Mental Healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, (public library) by Stefan Zweig (NF). I do have one author who would be at the top of my most informative and inspiring, and that is Stefan Zweig. Austrian, 1881-1942. Reading his bibliography alone is incredible. I read him for a course in the roots of psychiatry, especially the influence of Mesmer. Zweig wrote the course text, Mental Healers. It’s worth it just for the story of Mary Baker Eddy.
The Kitchen House, (public library) by Kathleen Grissom (F). This booked moved me in an unexpected way. Historical fiction that brought to reality the travesties of slavery and the effects on all families, regardless of color.
Underwater, (public library) by Marissa Reichardt (F). A Young Adult novel that deals with PTSD, grief, guilt, compassion and the list goes on. Touches almost every emotion. A very different approach to a school shooting. Publication date January 2016. I had an ARC.
The Secret Language of Sisters, (public library) by Luanne Rice (F). Author’s first venture into YA. Can you imagine the guilt you would feel if you believed a text you sent to your sister, your best friend, caused her to have a life altering accident? Great topic for teens today.
Telex from Cuba, (public library) by Rachel Kushner (F). I read this as I was preparing to go to Cuba on the day after the embargo was lifted. The last time I was there was in 1957, and this book takes place in the 1950’s just before the revolution. It portrays the lives of an enclave of United Fruit company executives running sugarcane plantations and copper mines in Oriente. In marvelous detail she captures the lifestyle of the Americans; the sensuality, the music, the mystique of Cuba; and the condition of the workers. Is it any wonder there was a revolution?
The Boys in the Boat, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF). I thank Ellen for this recommendation. Although I have no interest in rowing, I couldn’t put down this book about a rowing team that goes to the 1936 Olympics. I have a weakness for books that are non-fiction but read like a novel, and this one satisfied on every level.
Our Souls at Night, (public library) by Kent Haruf (F). My other weakness is for books about ordinary people who find nobility in the way they live their lives. This one is a beautiful, quiet book about two such people. The only thing I didn’t like is that the author made the characters sound old even though they were only in their early seventies!
Being Mortal, (public library) by Atul Gawande (NF). I always enjoyed his articles in the New Yorker. This book about death and dying and the medicines and procedures available to ease pain or prolong life raises the ultimate question of what is a life worth living and who decides. Hard to read and hard to forget.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, (public library) by Marlon James (F). Winner of the Man Booker prize, this 700 page book about the lives of people you don’t care about, speaking English you barely understand and have difficulty reading, in a country you probably don’t care about except as a vacation resort. And yet, it’s on my list because there are characters and scenes and pages of stream of consciousness that transport me to a different world in unforgettable images. Even 300 pages is worth it.
The Paying Guests (public library) Sarah Waters (F). In post-WWI London, a mother and her adult daughter take in two lodgers, “paying guests,” to make ends meet. That’s the set up for a beautifully constructed novel of a love affair, a mystery, and a moral dilemma. It’s a book of exquisite detail and storytelling.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (public library) by Yuval Noah Harari, a History Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I am only submitting one book this year because I think it by far and away the highlight of my reading year. It brings perspective to so many things in the world. Every page an interesting idea.
Shine Shine Shine, (public library) by Lydia Netzer (F). Sunny, our bald protagonist, is nine-months pregnant with her second child. Her mother is dying; her son is autistic, and her husband, a genius rocket scientist, has left to colonize the moon with robots that can cry and laugh — but not love (“show preference without reason,”) forgive (“trust data from a previously unreliable source,”) or regret (“doubt rational decisions”). This unique love story questions what we will do for love and what it means to be “normal.”
After You, (public library) by Jojo Moyes (F). If you loved Me Before You (where Louisa falls in love with a quadriplegic who wants to take his own life), you will love the sequel — even if it’s not what you predicted or wanted for her. (One Plus One is also great by the same author).
We Are Not Ourselves, (public library) by Matthew Thomas (F). The heartbreaking and sometimes uplifting story of Eileen, Ed, and their son Connell — starting in Queens in the 1940’s and progressing to present day. It’s over 600 pages, but it goes quickly.
Home is Burning, (public library) by Dan Marshall (NF). Warning: Do NOT read if you are offended by profanity, fart jokes, or potty humor — there’s a lot of swearing in this memoir about a son moving home to Utah to take care of his dad with ALS and his mom who has cancer: (Team Terminal, as he calls them). You will cry and laugh. And then laugh and cry.
Glitter & Glue, (public library) by Kelly Corrigan (NF). A story of a daughter seeing her mother through a new lens, as she becomes a mother herself — or, as her mother put it, “Your father’s the glitter, but I’m the glue. It takes both, Kelly.”
Year of Yes, (public library) by Shonda Rhimes (NF). Who knew Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s and Scandal, the woman who dominates Thursday night TV, was miserable? So, she decides to say yes to everything that terrifies her. In this witty memoir, some readers may learn to say yes too. (An extra bonus on the audiobook version, you hear her live speeches given at Dartmouth College, her Sherry Lansing Leadership Award speech, and her Human Rights Campaign Speech). Shonda is a force — or as she describes a F.O.D (first only different), and her advice is a call to arms to us all.
After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir, (public library) by Christina McDowell (NF). The story about her father Tom Prousalis who went to jail on federal charges — leaving his daughter $100,000 in debt after taking credit cards out in her name. This book is her story about how her life changed drastically: from living a fairy tale life in an affluent suburban DC to her depression, homelessness, and deeply felt loss after her dad’s betrayal. This story is about boundaries and forgiveness.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, (public library), by Brigid Schulte (NF). Ever notice when people ask you how you are, you reply: busy? This is a great book that helps you think about how you are spending your time, esp. for women. It also helped inspire me to “play” more and book a night at a trapeze school in DC.
The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World, (public library) by Amy McCready (NF). This book is a toolbox to help our children grow up to be self sufficient, emphatic, and socially responsible. In today’s ME-ME-ME world, this book is critical for parents and grandparents to read.
All the Light We Cannot See, (public library) by Anthony Doeer (F). Everyone liked it, even I. But I didn’t at first. I found the chapters too long and the characters unconnected to each other. But I started really enjoying the skill of the writer when I noticed that the chapters were getting shorter and shorter, as the time for the meeting became closer and closer and the disparity in the lives of the characters seemed to fade as the climax of the book came closer. My daughter, who reads constantly (a mother of three, a full time lawyer, the chair of a 10,000 person pro-choice PAC) but says she has time only for serious books, loved it.
An Officer and a Spy, (public library) by Robert Harris (F). I loved it. It is a bit fictionalized but one gets a sense of Dreyfus that seems to be convincing and a sense of the French military that is sickening.
Foreign Affairs, (public library) by Allison Lurie (F). Won the Pulitzer in 1983 — very enjoyable and interesting. I had once thought that I would like to be an unencumbered English professor, live alone as an intellectual…that was a long time ago and this book reinforces my decision to live another life!
The Tin Horse, (public library) by Janice Steinberg (F). I read this for a book club, and while I enjoyed the book, it was more like a beach read. However, we had a young college professor who really prepared for it and brought Philip Marlowe and a part of his book that referred to an “intelligent Jewess”. It has made me think about the origin of invention, to some extent, and I ending up enjoying the book.
Go Set a Watchman, (public library) by Harper Lee (F). I did a book review of this book (when I review books for a group, I try to get short ones so that they will be read!). I initially felt sure that although this draft preceded To Kill a Mockingbird but was never published, this book was shallow. When I prepared for the book review and especially started looking at the integration cases and situations during this time, I saw that this book has a depth and is interesting if and only if one puts in the time. I don’t normally do it and without reviewing, would have missed a lot.
A couple of Alan Furst books — He is a WWII writer with a calm but somehow gritty — maybe realistic is better — approach. I read The Polish Officer (public library) (F) this year and enjoyed that, too.
I just found The Jew Store, (public library) by Stella Suberman (NF). A book I read about 20 years ago and just gave it to my daughter, Rachael, who is visiting. The book is about the author’s family’s store in a rural NW Tenn setting around 1925 or so. My mother was born in south Georgia in 1915 and grew up in a town of about 1000, including the areas outside the town, Milan, Georgia. Her parents had a store there, too, and so many of the stories my mother told me about her life are echoed to a large extent in The Jew Store. My mother lived in Milan with her family (there were four sisters and one brother) until she went to the U. of Georgia at age 15 but dropped out after one year because it was the depression and her older brother was in law school. I think Rachael will like it and so will others.
I do have a recommendation for your readers tho I haven’t read all the books: Maggie Anton is the author. She wrote Rashi’s Daughters, (public library) (F) (a trilogy of medieval France and Jewish life there); Rashi was a rabbi who educated his daughters and his sons in law. I just liked the first of the daughters books but read the others. She has another group now, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, (public library) (F), this time an older time. I was at a lecture by Maggie Anton, and she is a real scholar who writes readable fiction that is informative. She has studied at length the role of the Jewish women in the past, and her knowledge is impressive. I have to admit that I haven’t read this book, although I have it and she autographed it. (Now that I have my Kindle and can put it in my purse and always have it near, I don’t read real books very often).
Lisa White Kile:
The Latke That Couldn’t Stop Screaming, (public library) by Lemony Snicket, (F). Snicket refers to himself as an “alleged children’s author”. The latke is alienated by various Christmas symbols, such as colored lights and a pine tree, which refer to him as “basically hash browns”. He screams until a Jewish family appreciates him for what he is and eats him with applesauce and sour cream, cutting him off mid-scream. It is as weird and tongue-in-cheek as all of Lemony Snicket’s children’s stories, and I figured it would not resonate with my four year old, but he loves it. I guess the message that it is OK to be different has universal appeal.
Euphoria, (public library) by Lily King (F). This novel has by far been my favorite. It had such real characters and such a compelling plot. For me it was one of those books that you both don’t want to put down, but do because you’re don’t want it to end.
Oldies but wonderful goodies (on your list in the past):
Fictionalized bios that I love:
Favorite authors rediscovered:
Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth – A Life Beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen, (public library) by Jane Lancaster (NF). I seem to see a theme in my reading: the book I am now enjoying follows “the woman behind the man” idea I loved in Traveling to Infinity. This time…it’s career women, and stay at home moms will marvel at her life and may have some strong feelings about the guy (her husband Frank) who got a lot of the credit for their mutual success as time-study gurus.
Short story gems:
Give Us the Ballot, (public library) by Ari Berman (NF) is a critical history and analysis of the Civil Rights Movement up to the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act carried forward to 2015 and ongoing efforts to undermine the effects of the VRA at the expense of full citizen participation in our democracy based on race.
An Example for All the Land – Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, DC, (public library) by Kate Masur (NF) is the history of DC from the Civil War through Reconstruction and lays the historical groundwork for an understanding of how we got here.
(I am producing a non-for-profit documentary film, Who Cares About DC? about statehood, racism, voting rights, and the fragility of our democracy. These books, more than others I’ve read, have motivated my understanding of DC’s unique story. My challenge is to tell our story in a meaningful way for Americans to appreciate and, hopefully find common cause with DC residents to resolve.)
Circling the Sun, (public library) by Paula Mclain (F). A story of love and adventure set in colonial Africa based on the true story of British ex-pat Beryl Markham. The book spans Beryl’s childhood, coming of age and adult trials and tribulations. Well written, engaging from start to finish.
The Book of Unknown Americans, (public library) by Christine Henriquez (F). A contemporary novel that explores the joys and challenges of Latino immigrants in the US. The story revolves around the friendship/romance of two of the family’s teenager children but many side short stories are woven throughout. Engaging and fun to read.
A Fall of Marigolds, (public library) by Susan Meissner (F). An historical fiction book with two stories of woman trying to move on after suffering tragic losses. One story takes place in 1911 in NY after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the second story takes place in 2011 as a woman has moved on with her life after losing her husband in 9/11. A scarf handed down through generations ultimately connects the women and their stories. Lovely story.
The Nightingale, (public library) by Kristin Hannah (F). I am not usually a Kristin Hannah fan, but this was a solid WWII story focused on women fighting in the resistance in France. The two central characters are sisters trying to cope as best as they can during the hardships of war. One takes the more passive route and the other as an active resistance fighter. Moving and engaging story.
The Garden of Letters, (public library) by Alyson Richman (F). Another WWII story about a young cello prodigy who is moved to join the resistance in Italy. There is a wonderful love story woven throughout. Beautiful and engaging story.
How To Be Both, (public library) by Ali Smith (F). Fantastic in the first half. Lost me entirely in the second. For anyone who loves a “writer’s writer” though, and for pure novelty of form, it’s worth a read.
Open City, (public library) by Teju Cole (F). I became a fan of Cole’s reading his On Photography column in the NYT magazine. His novel disappointed a bit (i.e., I like his nonfiction essays better), but the book is a meditative journey to read, and you’ll savor it if you’ve ever lived in or loved New York City.
The Poisonwood Bible, (public library) by Barbara Kingsolver (F). I remember this book sitting on my mother’s bedside table when I was a child and have been meaning to read it for years. Hit or miss in parts, but overall a brilliant book, with memorable characters, and as a mother (or parent) it will make your heart break in the way that the best novels about the human condition can do.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, (public library) by Alice Munro (F). I’ve been wanting to check out Munro’s work for years; alas this collection of short stories did not resonate with me, or help me understand the hype behind calling her one of the best living short story writers. But if short stories are your thing, by all means pick up this volume!
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, (public library) by Atul Gawande (NF).
If you’re a NewYorkophile, you’ll see what I mean. Nobody writes like he does anymore — he’s “not cool.” This is why I value him so highly. As do Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, he makes readers think and feel at the same time.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, (public library) by Adam Minter (NF). What happens to your trash once you dump it — a surprisingly fascinating story.
(And for mystery fans, two outstanding detective series: The Martin Beck series, (public library) by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahoo (F). Based in Sweden and The Inspector Singh series, (public library) by Shamini Flint (F). Based in Singapore).
Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, (public library) by Pema Chodron (NF). Choron is a Canadian Buddhist monk (the first female one in North America), and I read a number of her books, all written in a down-to-earth, accessible way. My favorite was Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. It’s been helpful in my clinical work, and also personally. Her main point is that opening up to discomfort can develop compassion.
Abraham Lincoln: A Life, (public library) by Michael Burlingame (NF). Our Lincoln book study group is reading this tour de force. Its two volumes are minutely researched and beautifully written. Volume One weighs in at 942 pages, and Volume Two at 1034. The Notes and Index themselves are book length. But the publisher said ‘enough!’ so there are additional notes on line at the Knox College Lincoln Study Center. Burlingame refers to the green covered hardbacks (which come in a green box) as ‘the green monster’. (It is available in paper.) He has read more than anyone about Abraham, and discovered new documents of people who knew him. This biography is the ‘go to reference’ according to Dr. Edna Medford Greene, the head of Howard’s history department, and a member of the Lincoln Group of DC. I am happy to recommend this majestic work, although most will not likely want to dive in. It’s for those with a serious interest in Abraham Lincoln as our most strategically intelligent leader and, perhaps, the most mature and developed person, as Erik Erikson the psychoanalyst has said, to come out of American society.
The Golem and the Jinni, (public library) by Helene Wecker (F) –- Wonderful and innovative –- a modern literature fairy tale. No film planned yet, but it has been nominated for several prestigious sci-fi/fantasy awards and winner of the 2014 Mythopeic Award.Film rights optioned and in development.
All three of these novels are the debut/first published by their respective authors
Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism, (public library) by John Norris (NF). Over many years I have enjoyed reading McGrory columns –- first in the Washington Star and, later, in the Washington Post. I loved her grit, wit, and political wisdom…she had common sense about the craziness of our city and country. Reading this book made me realize WHY I loved her: Irish stubborn, liberal Catholic, knew everyone in town, knew where the bodies were buried, and she really understood the ‘social teachings’ of the church which she loved and hated! I like ‘inside’ stories, and John Norris knew her well! Enjoyable!
Born with Teeth, (public library) by Kate Mulgrew (NF). I didn’t know anything about this actress till I got hooked on the TV show “Orange is the New Black”. I love the gift of bringing so many emotions to her character –- wonderful actress. Then, by chance, Kate was on the Diane Rheem show, and I was intrigued by her personal story –- so powerful. This is a book that is LOL funny, sad, insightful, fresh, and an honest memoir by this wonderful middle-aged actress. You’ll like it!
The Negotiator, (public library) by George Mitchell (NF). I have been following this guy for years…US Senator from Maine, Democratic Majority Leader, baseball guy, Ireland peace man, Middle East negotiator, etc., etc., etc. Always came across as an even-tempered, so very smart, a man of personal integrity and a compelling personality to me. The book shares his working class youth (Maine), good hard-working parents, education, etc. I liked his insights on all of the ‘issues’ that he, over the years was involved in and how he learned to be a great negotiator — simple, direct, and humble George Mitchell style! Inspiring guy — we are blessed by his goodness in our society/world.
Ah, the joys of retirement: I read over 60 books this year (fiction, non-fiction, travel-related, etc., and it isn’t easy to pick the six best. I’ve cheated a “bit’ as you will see. (Ed. note: “Cheated a bit”?)
My Brilliant Friend (1), (public library) (1), The Story of a New Name (2) (public library), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (3) (public library), The Story of the Lost Child (4) (public library) — four book series by Elena Ferrante (F). This series is a winner for the shear breadth and depth of the relationship between two young women — and the men in their lives — over many decades. The setting is Naples and the first novel begins in the 1950’s. A warm, lively, and engaging narrative, this sheer length of this series offers the best narrative and character development of any of the other books I’ve read this year. And while it’s a bit of a “Perils of Pauline” situation, it is not clichéd. The writing is very fine. I think of any of these books would stand on their own, but a commitment to reading all of them gives you the full flavor of life and times in the mid-20th century world in which they lived.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, (public library) by Jill Loevy (NF). This was by far the most important book I read this year. Written and documented by a journalist, it reads like fiction but is the true story of black-on-black crime as it plays out in South Central LA. This world of policing is told through the eyes of three on-the-beat cops –- white and black. The outrage and horror of what they, the victims of crime and their families and the criminals they face, is told in devastating detail. Read in combination with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (public library) (NF) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me (public library) (NF), you will better understand the background of the epidemic of killings we have witnessed this year in places like Ferguson and Chicago and the systemic racism that still grips this country.
Several books make up what I would call “5-star reads” because of the combination of the stories they tell, the engaging way they are told, and the compelling writing. Many of these were nominated for various prizes but didn’t win. The Little Paris Bookshop, (public library) by Nina George (F); The Star Side of Bird Hill, (public library) by Naomi Jackson (F); Eventide, (public library) by Kent Haruf (F); Lila, (public library) by Marilynne Robinson (F); The Marriage Of Opposites, (public library) by Alice Hoffman (F); The Illuminations, (public library) by Andrew O’Hagan (F); The Boys in the Boat (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF); The Nightingale, (public library) by Kristin Hannah (F); and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, (public library) by Anthony Marra (F), all fit this bill for me. Snuggle up on a couch for a few good afternoons of reading for each one of them.
The Dream of the Celt, (public library) by Mario Vargas Llosa (F). This is a fictionalized biography (based on diaries) of Roger Casement — an Irishman who revealed the atrocities in the rubber industries in, first, the Congo and, then, the Amazon in the early 1900s. He saw a similarity in the mistreatment of the natives in Africa and South America to the British suffocation of Ireland and made the latter his final cause. It’s a fascinating read about someone of whom I had never heard.
Ghost Boy, (public library) by Martin Pistorius with Megan Lloyd Davies (NF). Simply an amazing, mesmerizing, true story. It’s the autobiography of a healthy boy who fell into a coma at the age of 12 (locked-in syndrome), regained partial consciousness at 16 and full consciousness at 19 but still couldn’t communicate except with his eyes…until a caregiver noticed something about him. What happens then is astonishing and marvelous.
Our Souls at Night, (public library) by Kent Haruf (F). I didn’t know this author until I happened on this simple telling of how two ordinary individuals — one woman, one man, each of whom has lost her/his spouse — find some happiness as they start to age. Sounds corny. It’s anything but. Haruf wrote it as he was dying at the age of 71 and what a parting gift it is. It sent me to Haruf’s other three novels — Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction — all about a fictional town in Colorado. I loved them all and thought Benediction (public library) was particularly moving.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, (public library) by Jill Leovy (NF). Despite today’s headlines and focus on mass killings, there’s a much more deadly epic of gun violence in our country. Less than one per cent of gun victims are killed in mass shootings. Thirty people are killed a day by guns and 162 are wounded. At least 80% of those killed by guns are killed by handguns. There is a plague of homicide in America that is not being covered or seen. Focused on South LA and seen through the eyes of a homicide detective, Ghettoside is an examination of why murder happens in our cities and how it might be curbed, written by a reporter from the LA Times. After a slow beginning in which Leovy sets the context for his book, you will be engrossed.
Alexander Hamilton, (public library) by Ron Chernow (NF). I try to read at least one major historical biography each year. This one is a gem and certainly has given me a different view of some of our early history. It is a well-told story of an extraordinary (and sometimes flawed) American giant. (Also, if you can, see the Broadway play Hamilton, perhaps the best theater we’ve seen in the last decade.)
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF). I was late to this one and read it because of the comments of MillersTime readers on last year’s list of favorites. While I have little-to-no knowledge of eight-oar crewing, I was totally entranced by this account of how nine working class boys accomplished something no one expected them to do. It reads like a novel, though it is nonfiction, and it informs, inspires, and teaches about so much more than simply crewing.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, (public library) by Atul Gawande (NF). I’ve now read this twice, the first time when my daughter sent it to me over a year ago and again in the last few days. It’s simply a must read if you have a parent/spouse/relative/friend in the late stages of his/her life, if you will have a parent/spouse/relative/friend in that condition at some point, or if you yourself will be in that stage at some point. I rarely say anything is a ‘must’ read. In addition to the wisdom of the book, Dr. Gawande is a talented writer and storyteller.
(PS – Though I’m only part way through the Martin Beck Detective series, (public library) by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall (F). I highly recommend them to those of you who enjoy detective/mystery books. Whether listening to them (while ‘exercising’) or needing a three or four hour reading escape, they’re simply wonderful. (Listen to at least one so you can get the names right.)
Being Mortal, (public library) by Atul Gawande (NF). A must read by all in our aging years and the dialogue we need/must have with our families. Gawande is a very gifted Harvard trained physician writer who addresses the issue of mortality in today’s world.
The Girls of Atomic City, (public library) by Denise Kiernan (NF). The untold story of the women who helped win WWII and their lives at Oak Ridge, TN. Fascinating and frightening at the same time given that 75,000 people lived their and no one knew the town existed.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, (public library) by Jeff Hobbs (NF). True story written by Yale roommate about Robert Peace who grew up in South Orange, NJ. An instant New York Times bestseller, named a best book of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Amazon, and Entertainment Weekly, among others, this celebrated account of a young African-American man who escaped Newark, NJ, to attend Yale, but still faced the dangers of the streets when he returned, is poignant yet tragic.
Fates and Furies, (public library) by Lauren Groff (F). Lauren is my friend’s sister-in-law, so my book club has always read her books/short stories. In the 12 books that we read over the course of the year, Fates and Furies was the one that we talked about for the entire book club. It is complicated and dense, but a fascinating look at a marriage from both perspectives. Also, interesting fact — the book was originally two separate books that were then condensed down to one.
Necessary Lies, (public library) by Diane Chamberlain (F). It is set in the 1960s in North Carolina and a wonderful story of two women who live in the same town but strikingly different lives. The book centers around the issue of eugenics/sterilization and is extremely well written and passionate — great character development. Highly recommend!!
The Light Between Oceans, (public library) by ML Stedman’ (F). A gripping story of the struggle for human survival/life on a lighthouse, six hours off the coast of Australia and a moral dilemma a young couple faces. My heart and soul were with them. Soon to be a DreamWorks’ movie.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF). The story told in very descriptive language that unfolds the edges of human endurance, the essence of truth and goodness, and the power of conviction wrapped in an “Epic” battle in the water. I rowed with the team in every race.
Chosen?: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, (public library) by Walter Brueggemann (NF). The author and theologian raise questions for Christians about God’s chosen people and the promises of the land. Are the Israelis of modern day, descendants of the biblical Israelites? Was there conditionality of the promise to the Chosen? What about the “others”? For the first time I got a clearer picture of the issues that drive people on both sides of the theological issue, and which brought fresh light to my work in the Middle East and in our country.
Why Is Bobby Not Like Me, Mom?, by Kay Plitt (NF). An illustrated book based on a true story for children and parents. This book is dedicated to: Bobby — whose spirit never flagged and to all the dedicated siblings and parents who give these special children so much free love and receive so much more in return. This story was written specially for Billy; however…it is a book for all of us.
Ghettoside: A Story of True Murder in America, (public library) by Jill Loevy (NF). I did find Ghettoside insightful. It is a book that dispels stereotypes — both of the police and residents in some of Los Angeles toughest neighborhoods.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, (public library) by Jeff Hobbs (NF). Similarly offers lessons about how hard it is to overcome life’s challenges even when there are opportunities, role models, and caring people. Particularly found the setting of the book interesting because my family was part of the white exodus from Newark, NJ to the Oranges and eventually other destinations far from the increasingly difficult neighborhoods.
Black Flags: The Rise of ISI, (public library) by Joby Warrick. (NF). One of Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2015. The author is a Washington Post Reporter. It is the best book I have read this year. It provides a coherent, informative and eminently readable insight into how ISIS arose and developed, from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a gangster who became a charismatic leader, a couple of isolated Islamists, bonds formed in prison compounded by inadvertent release of Zarqawi and other dangerous prisoners, and American missteps and lack of understanding of what was unfolding. The book provides superb background for understanding the current ISIS threat. Highly recommended for members of Congress and all Presidential candidates. Jessica Stern, an expert in the field, wrote a positive detailed review of the book in the Oct 2 Washington Post.
Ghettoside, (public library) by Jill Leovy (NF). Leovy is a Los Angeles Times reporter who spent a year trying to study every murder in Los Angeles, which were disproportionately black-on-black crimes. Her perspective is broad: how well did the police try to establish who was responsible for the killing, to the impact of the murder of a loved one on families and friends. Leovy is convinced that black-on-black deaths are not regularly and adequately investigated (although there are notable exceptions), so that many murderers are never punished. In passing, she observes that most black-on-black murders by shooting require proximity (for example, after a routine argument), and suggests that black segregation may be a major contributor to disproportionate black-on-black killing. The book provides an informed and unique perspective into a significant problem that is not found in the pronouncements of media and politicians.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, (public library) by Jeff Hobbs (NF). Robert Peace grew up in Newark. He was raised by a single mother. His biological father was a drug dealer. Robert was an extremely gifted youth: intelligent and an outstanding athlete. His mother recognized his ability, and worked tirelessly to get him into schools that would give him a chance to make something of his life. Robert went to Yale. He was popular, charismatic and did well academically. Unfortunately, he also started dealing drugs to students at Yale. The book was written by one of Peace’s college roommates who meticulously investigated all facets of his life to understand the rise and fall of Robert Peace. On the positive side, his mom was a tiger, and he received tremendous financial support to go to Yale. But growing up in the streets of Newark remained part of him. Fellow students at Yale envied him as a brilliant student who also was a convenient drug dealer. When he could not earn a living after college, Robert started dealing drugs in Newark that led to his death. A fascinating story that raises the question of how the death of someone with so much potential could have been avoided.
The Boys in the Boat, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF). This book probably was recommended on last years list, but I read it in 2015. It was interesting to realize how popular collegiate crew racing was in the 1930’s: equivalent to the college football national championship or basketball March Madness. Many factors contributed to the success of the University of Washington crew team in the 1936 Olympics, including superior technology and inspired coaching. But the story of the boys is the key ingredient. Most of them were nobodies, growing up in the most disadvantaged circumstances of extreme poverty and disintegrating families. The life challenges that the protagonist overcame by his determination to beat the odds was incredible. Comparing his story to current concern about the difficulties students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds have adjusting to college with wealthier classmates makes you appreciate what he accomplished even more.
Gray Mountain, (public library) by John Grisham (F) .Having just read Grisham’s latest, Rogue Lawyer, I found myself disappointed that it was nowhere near as informative and enjoyable as Gray Mountain. When the economy tanked in 2008, Samantha, a third year associate in a major New York law firm, was given the option of interning with a nonprofit agency for a year with the possibility of being rehired by the firm. She ended up working in a legal aid clinic in Appalachia. It made her aware of the extreme poverty and injustice that people in the community experience, in large part due to the practices of Big Coal. The story focuses on the human impact coal mining has on the health and poverty of people in the community, rather than climate change and environmental devastation that we hear more about.
Midford series, (public library) by Jan Karon (F). They are not new books, but were new to me. I fell in love with the characters in the book…simple, but much food for thought. Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, grabs you with his simplicity and his humanity. He marries late in life and adopts a son. He grapples daily with life, and the people in the town are so real, that you cannot help but love their up and down approach to life. The books should be read in sequence, as the characters develop in all the future books.
Trilogy by the Shaaras: Gods and Generals, (public library) by Jess Shaara (F): Killer Angels, (public library) by Michael Shaara (F); and The Last Full Measure, (public library) by Jeff Shaara (F). While I have read each of these books before, I had read them separately. This time I decided to read them in chronological order as I am always awed by the enormous sacrifice that was made to preserve our Union versus the fight for individual and State rights. Whether it is the current times that compelled me to read them or just the fact that I love the Shaaras’ descriptive insights, the books were more compelling the second read.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, (public library) by Jeff Hobbs (NF). The true story of the far-too-short life of Robert Peace, the book is compelling for those of us interested in how to help kids of promise who come from challenging neighborhoods and backgrounds. Written by Robert’s college roommate, it is written with all the sensitivity Robert deserves but explores the deepest questions of why…why did it happen to Robert and why do good intentions fall short…far too often?
Deep Down Dark, (public library) by Hector Tobar (NF). The story of the resurrection of the Chilean miners and their survival and what it reveals about the human spirit and the importance of unity at the time of greatest need.
The Boys in the Boat, (public library) by Daniel James Brown (NF). It is at the top of my list and one I will recommend to others. It is the story of nine men (rowers) from the University of Washington and their quest for Olympic Gold at the 1936 Olympics. The depth of the personal stories, detailed glimpse into history of the time, human spirit depicted provide a snapshot of a time in history that is fascinating. This true story speaks to motivation and perseverance for all of us.
All the Light We Cannot See, (public library) by Anthony Doerr (F). The delightful and tender story of an unlikely relationship between a young blind girl and young German officer during WW2 in Germany. I didn’t want it to end!!!
Still Alice, (public library) by Lisa Genova (F). This touching and insightful, fictional story of Alice’s descent into early Alzheimer’s Disease at age 50. It is both terrifying and useful to readers as it provides an insight into the cognitive changes, experiences and feelings faced by a patient with early dementia and the challenges faced by their families
A Lucky Life Interrupted, (public library) by Tom Brokaw (NF). Memoir of hope and working through the healthcare maze while battling multiple myeloma. Brokaw’s reflection on his life, and what has meant the most to him, and would be a useful guide and source of support to others with chronic and acute onset illnesses.
Come Rain or Come Shine, (public library) by Jan Karon (F). The 12th in the series set in Mitford, NC –- the story of Father Tim’s son’s impending wedding in this story of small town life and the next generation in the Mitford series.
Me Before You, (public library) by Jojo Moyes (F). The story of a successful, young man paralyzed by a motorcycle accident, and the relationship with his unlikely caregiver. It is the story of his journey to deal with life changes, and how he comes to terms with his new life and the choices available to him.
The books at the top of the list are my most favorites. The others are books that I enjoyed pretty much.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, (public library) by Anthony Marra (F). Probably my most favorite book of the year. The book is set during the Chechnya civil war and tells the stories of several of the most interesting characters. The main plot covers only a few days but there are numerous flashback stories to enhance the drama.
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, (public library) by Emily Bingham (NF). I probably liked this book more possibly because I know the author (writing a memoir of her great aunt), and it is partially set in Louisville. However, it is a wonderful story of how “inverts” dealt with life in the 20’s. Many famous people are tied to this amazing and privileged woman’s life in Paris, London and several cities in America, and the writing is excellent.
The Nightingale, (public library) by Kristin Hannah (F). This may appear on many lists as it has been very popular this year. It is not as good as last year’s All the Light We Cannot See, but it does provide a good World War II story involving romance and female spies set in Paris and Vichy France.
At the Water’s Edge, (public library) by Sara Gruen (F). This book is not as compelling as her book Water for Elephants, but it is a well-written story on the World War theme. It is set in Scotland and involves three Americans on the quest to find the Loch Ness monster.
Norweigan by Night, (public library) by Derek B. Miller (F). This was a fun book, profiling a recently widowed older American man who is persuaded by his granddaughter to move to Oslo where he becomes involved in helping to solve a murder mystery. It is both funny and moving.
Rules for Old Men Waiting, (public library) by Peter Pouncey (F). Also focused on a recent widower, this is the story of a professor reflecting on his life as he prepares to die. The plot vacillates between the plot of the book he is trying to finish before he dies and past events of his own life.
Americanah, (public library) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (F). I did not like it as much as Half a Yellow Sun, but it was still a good read involving the immigration story of a woman moving from Nigeria, to America and back to Nigeria.
The Book of Unknown Americans, (public library) by Cristina Henriquez (F). A moving depiction of the immigrant experience in present day America. It focuses on the lives of several different families from Central and South America.
The Rosie Project, (pubic library) by Graeme Simsion (F). This is a fun, laugh-out-loud “palate cleansing” novel after more serious reads. It tells the story of a brilliant young man with Asperger’s type symptoms as he tries to develop a formula for finding a wife.
The Marriage of Opposites, (public library) by Alice Hoffman (F). Hoffman is one of my favorite writers and while this book could have been shorter, it was an interesting read telling the story of the artist Camile Pissarro’s Jewish mother set in colonial St Thomas.
Ghettoside, (public library) by Jill Leovy (NF). This book is going to stay with me a long time. Leovy patiently and unsparingly takes apart all the major stereotypes about inner city cops, gangs and black-on-black crime. We discover white suburban detectives who are relentless at serving the poor black ghetto community, “gang-bangers” who are little more than scared kids growing up in a world where law enforcement has never cared much about their neighborhoods, and the fundamental roots of horrific rates of murder, often the random kind. Reading this book right after finishing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is like a double-dose of radical realism.
On the Move: A Life (public library) by Oliver Sacks (NF). Oliver Sacks has always been an engaging writer about medicine and the human condition. But oddly enough, the most interesting part of his memoir, for me, was his description of his life as a young man wandering through the first two decades of his professional life and nearly crashing due to drug addiction. Who knew? A poignant subtext that he doesn’t grapple with much explicitly is how being gay and growing up in highly unaccepting times (his mother called him an “abomination” and wished he had never been born, upon learning that he was ‘that way’) changed his life course and made it hard for him to find an intimate life partner. I think he poured that need for intimacy into the connections he made with his patients, which enriched his and our understandings immensely. And by being single most of his life, he had more time to write, presumably. The book meanders a bit as he approaches his more recent decades, but overall it was an absorbing and engaging read. What a life well lived.
The New Jim Crow, (public library) by Michelle Alexander (NF). This book is both sobering and radicalizing. Like Ta-Nahesi Coates’ writing on reparations, Alexander connects the dots and explains how the “tough on crime,” “three-strikes and you’re out” and “War on Drugs” policies of the 1970s, 1980s on to today, plus the massive expansion of federal and state prisons, have codified the rollback of the civil rights gains of the 1960s. If you want to understand why so many of us are hearing the call of #BlackLivesMatter, read this book.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (public library) by Sherry Turkle (NF). Put down your mobile phone and close your laptop, if you can. Our increasing reliance on non-verbal, virtual communications is not just altering how we work, it’s fundamentally undermining how children learn empathy and transforming how families manage conflict. I’m not sure if I completely agree with everything Turkle argues, and at times she seems to rely too heavily on well-observed anecdotes rather than hard data. Still, our personal and collective attention spans seem to be shortening the more we rely on our “always on, always connected” technology. Perhaps even more troubling, Turkle suggests that we are exchanging a world of genuine conversation for one of ephemeral connections.
The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival, (public library) by Louise Murphy (F).
A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership, (public library) by Wendell Berry (F).
Lydia Hill Slaby:
The Magicians, (public library) by Lev Grossman (F). This trilogy is, as far as I can tell, what would happen if Harry Potter grew up and fell into the Narnia books. Pretend that Ronald Weasley got drunk and fell in love with Aslan. It’s outstanding.
The Emperor of All Maladies; A Biography of Cancer, (public library) by Siddhartha Mukherjee (NF). This is a beautifully written “biography” of one of the greatest foes in human history. I understand that it is a compelling read for those who have not been touched by cancer (a dramatically dwindling number these days), and I know that it’s an absolute page-turner for those who have. (Ed. – Pulitzer Prize Winner 2011)
The MOST of Nora Ephron, (public library) by Nora Ephron (mostly NF). This is a compilation of bits and pieces of her writing across the board of everything she’s written (journalism, screen plays, blogs, etc.) and it’s wonderful. I’m still not through it — I just read one story a night every now and again — having it on my bedside table is soothing for me.
The Art of Memoir, (public library) by Mary Karr (NF). This is a how-to for what she does. Half discussion, half memoir. If you like any of her other work and are remotely curious about how memoirists do their thing, you’ll enjoy this.
The War of Art, (public library) by Steven Pressfield (NF). Because writing just sometimes sucks because of whatever you’re going through, and in addition to therapy, you just need a how-to guide every now and again.
Tanya Chernov Smith:
Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives-and Our Lives Change Our Genes, (public library) by Sharon Moalem (NF). Epigenetics laid out for the layman. Entertaining and informative, this book is easy to understand even for those who do not hold a degree in a science or health-related field. This fascinating look at epigenetics and gene expression explores how everyday events affect our genes. DNA was once believed to be a static thing, inherited in mathematically determined ways from mom and dad. New science proves that everything — literally everything — can affect the expression of your DNA. Bullied as a child? The stress actually causes epigenetic changes that can pass down to your children and children’s children. Genetic sequencing still has a long way to go before it becomes a practical reality for most people, but the ways in which this new science can help us understand the past and improve our future is worth consideration.
Quarantine, (public library) by Jim Crace (F). This unusual tale tells the story of Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights of sacrifice. A more realistic story on how an eccentric, deeply religious man, with strong will and intelligence, was mistaken to have committed a miracle and then gathered a following of people. The Jesus in this story is not a flawless Son of God, but a very human young man, with his own human weaknesses and temptations. Though the writing is of excellent quality, the story does not always have strong narrative progressive hold, making it sometimes difficult to keep going with it. However, to those who wonder more about the historical Jesus than the biblical version, this short novel is definitely worth a read.
The Devil All the Time, (public library) by Donald Pollack (F). Proof that grim stories can be compelling and page turning, even in their extreme grimness. Donald Pollack expertly weaves together the stories of fragmented, arrested lives all connected in tragic and unforeseen ways. His careful maneuvering between story lines keeps you coming back for more. The story spends most of its time in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia in the late 1950s and early 60s, tracking and recording a wide range of psychopathic behaviors by a motley crew of misfits and delinquents. What Pollock does so well is create a place and time where nothing he says or shows us is beyond belief. From the beginning, we see how things are in these rural settings; we understand the desperation, the need for prayer, the aching hope that something will change and improve. Pollack gives us a dark, yet compelling portrait of human nature.
Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity, (public library) by Neal Gabler (NF). Recently, I saw an old film on TCM, “The Sweet Smell of Success”, with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. The film was quite good and prompted me to buy this biography of Walter Winchell, as the film was roughly based on his life. Although the book was over long and too detailed, and the author a tad too tendentious, I found it fascinating and couldn’t put it down. The book covers the worlds of vaudeville, theatre, journalism, cafe society, and politics from the 20’s through the 50’s. And what a cast of characters: Damon Runyan, Ed Sullivan, J. Edgar Hoover, FDR, G. David Shine, Desi Arnaz, Josephine Baker, and other assorted names from those years. I never realized Winchell was a Jewish boy from New York who got his start in vaudeville as a dancer. The book demonstrates that American politics and journalism have always been rather rambunctious.
Philosophy Between the Lines, (public library) by Arthur M. Melzer (NF). The author examines how and why ancient philosophers had to hide their true beliefs in their writings for fear of persecution. The teaching of philosophy in Greece and Rome was thought to bring the wrath of the gods upon the entire state. The book makes one completely reevaluate how one has thought of ancient Greek philosophy, and the section which reevaluates Plato’s Republic, if you had to read Plato’s Republic in college as I did, is worth the price of the book.
Latest Readings, (public library) by Clive James (NF). James is an Australian literary critic, any of whose books are well worth reading. This, his latest, discusses how, now that he has Leukemia and is seriously ill, he cannot stop reading books, and even more pertinent, cannot stop buying books. As an older person, I certainly identify with his condition—unable to stop reading or buying books. The book is short and a good read. I was glad to learn he agrees with me that Conrad’s Lord Jim is not that good, and that Conrad’s Under Western Eyes is his masterpiece. Clive James discusses Conrad, Hemingway, Sebald, Larken, and Olivia Manning, among others.
The Balkan Trilogy (public library) and The Levant Trilogy, (public library) by Olivia Manning (F). I hesitate to list these two collections of three novels each as they are, in total, such long reads, but I must because these are by far the best novels, or series of novels, I have read in a long time. The novels detail the fortunes of a young British couple in the years just before the start of World War II. The husband is a literature teacher for the British Council and his wife, in whose viewpoint the novels are generally told, is his new and bemused companion. The first series begins in Romania (and I know of no other novel that gives a detailed picture of life in Romania in the late 1930’s) and then moves to Athens at the start of war. The second series, which is more somber in tone, takes place primarily in Cairo with side trips to North Africa, Syria and Palestine. The novels give a circus of literature teachers, journalists, diplomats, soldiers, remittance men, and world travelers trying to live life as war engulfs them. The first series is almost a comedy of manners on the edge of war, although the casual anti-Semitism in Romania can be jarring. Following these eccentric characters is a delight, and this series now goes into my top ten list of good reads. Manning has been criticized for adhering to standard novel writing techniques and for not advancing the art of the novel, but that’s elitist rubbish. Her work was made known to me in the Clive James book (above).
A Manual for Cleaning Women, (public library) by Lucia Berlin (F). I picked up this book just last week at Nightbird Books and felt I should include it this year as the author seems to have been a neglected genius. Lucia Berlin has been writing short stories for some time in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but her rather feckless, or reckless life has kept her from getting her due as a writer. She had a problem with alcohol, and she worked at such jobs as a switchboard operator, a cleaning woman, and a hospital clerk, finally ending up in the depths of depravity as a writer in residence at a university. This volume contains 45, or so, stories which are short, crisp, and affecting. The first story, “Angle’s Laundromat” is that rare thing, a story set in a laundromat. The title is a bit arch, but the stories are good. Foreword by Lydia Davis, another writer whom I greatly admire.
David P. Stang:
Writing projects for the Academy for Spiritual and consciousness Studies:Interview of Colm Keane, Irish author and publisher (founder of Capel Island Press located in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland). Over a decade ago Colm Keane’s 26-year-old son died suddenly. The shock of it propelled Keane into the realm of death and the afterlife and he began what appears to be an unending search into the mysteries of death and what lies beyond the physical world. He wrote a series of books listed below that deal with Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in Ireland. He intended initially only to write one such book, but hundreds of the readers of his book wrote letters to him indicating experiences within their own families of persons who have also had similar NDEs. In the process of writing book after book, a significant part of the contents of which were furnished by readers of his prior books, Keane learned that a number of the NDEs in some way or another had encounters with the famous Italian mystical monk by the name of Padre Pio. Such encounters occurred not only prior to the death of this amazingly extra sensory gifted Italian monk, but also involved visits by the spirit of the Padre Pio subsequent to his physical demise. All Keane’s books that follow were published within the last 15 years by Capel Island Press: Going Home: Irish Stories from the Edge of Death, (public library) (NF); The Distant Shore: More Irish Stories from the Edge of Death, (public library) (NF); Heading for the Light, (public library) (NF); We’ll Meet Again: Irish Deathbed Visions, (public library) (NF); Padre Pio: The Irish Connection, (public library) (NF); Padre Pio: The Scent of Roses, (public library) (NF).
2. Books read in researching the 5th edition of my book Five Very Big Questions (a text I use in teaching a continuing education course by the same name at American University)
Chapter One: “How do I know what I think I know is actually true?”
- Man And His Symbols, (public library) by Carl C. Jung (NF). Here the emphasis is on the critical importance of the unconscious as a source of both awareness and information.
- The Roots of Coincidence, (public library) by Arthur Koestler (NF). The thrust of this fascinating book is on the transition between psychical studies and parapsychology and how these scholars in this field have sought to establish a scientific basis that confirms a multitude of different types of extrasensory perception.
Chapter Two: “Where did I come from?
- Ancestors In Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution, (public library) by Eugene Harris (NF).
- Evolution: The Human Story, (public library) by Alice Roberts (NF).
Chapter Three: “Who am I?”
- A special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 22, No.11-12 (2015) entitled “First-Person Perspective & the Self”.
- The Brain: The Story of You, (public library) by David Eagleman (NF)
- My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, (public library) by Jill Bolt Taylor (NF).
Chapter Five “ What happens to me when I die?”
- On Whitman, (public library) by K. Williams (NF). He devotes a chapter of this book on Walt Williams’s poems reflecting on death and the afterlife based upon Whitman’s apparent past and between lives memories.
III. Books related to research I am doing on the Lives of two 6th century saints Gobnait, a nun, and Abban, a bishop, who worked cooperatively during the early Christian era in Ireland.
- Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Iron Age, (public library) by Barry Raftry (NF). This is an archeological and anthropological treatment of pre- Christian Irish culture;
- Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality, (public library) by Sean O’Duinn (NF). This book, written by a Benedictine scholar monk, discusses the merger of Irish Bronze Age, Celtic Iron Age and early medieval Christianity as experienced in Ireland.
- Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions, (public library) by Mary Low (NF). This, like Three Streams, emphasizes how close to Nature early Irish Christian consciousness was anchored.
- King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (public library) by John Carey (NF). This fascinating and quite scholarly book contains translations and commentary from Irish and Latin manuscripts authored during the first few centuries of Christianity in Ireland. This was an era of pre-Newtonian consciousness featuring God as King Of Mysteries and smarter than the prescient Druids. One speculative example of this endearing style claims that the King of Mysteries was so brilliant that he constructed giant invisible pillars to support the earth and prevent it from falling out of the heavens.
- In Praise of Bees, (public library) by Kristin Gleeson (F). This is a novel about St. Gobnait written by a full-time neighbor in Ireland who is an American, originally from Philadelphia. St. Gobnait was the Irish Patron Saint of Beekeepers. I wrote the review Amazon uses in hyping Kristin’s book.
Alexander Hamilton, (public library) by Ron Chernow (NF). I actually had read about half of this while on vacation the year after it came out and then forgot I had not finished it. With all the hype last summer about the musical opening on Broadway (written/acted by fellow Wesleyan alum), I decided to finish it. This meant especially reading about his service in the Washington administration. A period that does not get enough attention — building a national government was no small feat, and Washington come off a much more in control than you might think, Jefferson as out of the loop, and Hamilton as sure of what he wanted to accomplish but willing to compromise to get it. Hamilton is not without his flaws either. Adams comes off quite differently than in the fairly recent bio of him by David McCullough. But regardless, highly recommended reading, and the narrative generally flow well. Even the section leading up to the duel in Weehawken (there is a plaque there, I’ve seen it) is gripping despite knowing the outcome.
*****This Is Not a Love Story, (public library) by Judy Brown (NF). A well-written memoir of a girl/woman growing up in an Orthodox family and her mother’s determination to find a cure for her brother.
Academy Street, (public library) by Mary Costello (F). A compact tale of a whole life, in which the author manages to keep a certain distance, but still makes us feel we know and understand Tess, whose story this is. Reminiscent of Stoner and Brooklyn, two other short books that “efficiently” covered a lot of ground.
Go Set a Watchman, (public library) by Harper Lee (F). I enjoyed reading this, no matter what its relation to Mockingbird, and whatever is true about who did and did not want it published. Just this afternoon I heard a book critic say that it’s not really a good book, but hey, I don’t have to grade it so I will leave that issue alone. Yes it’s a let down to see a racist side to Atticus, and there are even some cringe-worthy comments from Jean Louise, the central (autobiographical) character. As others have said, this book begs for a discussion.
Between the World and Me, (public library) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (NF). I have found everything by Ta-Nehisi Coates compelling, well written and powerful. He will not let you turn away from some essential and very troubling truths about race in this society. Another discussion needed.
Elizabeth Miller Tilis:
Nothing I would say was absolutely fabulous (e.g. nothing got five stars on my Goodreads’ page). Regardless, here are my picks for top reads, in no particular order:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, (public library) by Jon Krakauer (NF).
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, (public library) by Sy Montgomery (NF).
Abuse of Power, (public library) by Michael Savage (F). A controversial correspondent, his Moslem girlfriend, and an Israeli Rabbi discover and help prevent a plot within the highest corridors of power that will dwarf 9/11.
The Ninth Girl, (public library) by Tami Hoag (F). Homocide detectives get the task to locate a vicious transient serial killer. The killer nicknamed “Doc Holiday” chooses victims at random and always kills on a holiday.
The Lost Years, (public library) by Mary Higgins Clark (F). A biblical scholar is murdered after finding a rare parchment which was supposedly a letter written by Jesus. The scholar’s daughter and her friends search for the killer and the missing parchment.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, (public library) by Erik Larson (NF). Just finished this great book, Told as a story, with many actual facts; it is about the last crossing of the Lusitania
The Monkeys Raincoat, (public library), Stalking the Angel, (public library), Free Fall, (public library), L.A. Requiem, (public library), and Voodoo River, (public library) all by Robert Crais (F). I discovered a new mystery/detective writer that has me in his clutches. If you like this genre and have not read Crais, you should. Elvis Cole is the detective and his partner is Joe Pike. Cole is developed well, Pike somewhat of a mystery and that makes him the most interesting of the two. There is a strong ethical/values based ingredient in the stories; the stories are tough, violent, and evolve unpredictably. Crais for me is far far superior to Parker, Child, Patterson, etc. and more fun. I have around seven more to go before I get to his newest, Promise. But there is no need to read them in order. I started Hostage today –- the first one that does not involve Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
A Majority of Scoundrels, (public library) by Don Berry (NF). If at all interested in the west and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (as I always have been), this book is for you. Given the hype on the new movie Revenant, here is a chance to get the real McCoy in a book –- the history of that period is at best sketch, but we know enough to marvel at how humans can live and survive. Well written and incredibly descriptive of hos how the mountain men lived and worked. Here you get an accurate story of Hugh Glass (and it is amazing) – in its proper setting. If you know nothing about the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the 1800s or about Jedidian Smith, read this book. De Caprio plays Hugh Glass in the movie and said “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do…Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on the set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” Wish we could hear Glass talk about the extent to which it was a difficult thing for him to do! He did so much more. I’m not sure how the experience resonated with him when put next to the yearly experiences of the mountain men and their yearly rendezvous.
A Wicked War: Polk, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico, (public library) by Amy Greenberg. (NF). A wide ranging political view of the Mexican War and its impact on the United States from diverse perspectives. It’s not always a pretty picture and made me think about the meaning of the star spangled banner for us today. This and the next book are the ones that are discussed with four or five friends of different political persuasions.
A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, (public library), Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkel (NF). Holzer is one of the best Lincoln scholars, but in this piece is looking for a Lincoln that speaks for us today -– and in the process I wonder where or not he sacrifices a bit of his subject. He is concerned with the question of why the Civil War was fought, believing that too often the emphasis on slavery neglects the importance for Lincoln of preserving or fashioning (not quite clear) a just economic opportunity. For Holzer that, and not slavery, was his primary concern. The books in in two parts, and I found them challenging. The last part is essentially about the meaning of Lincoln for day, and that is always goo for long cups of coffee over many days. Chapter 12 gives you an idea of his purpose: “The Economic Debate: Clinton, Bush and Obama.” This is not a book for Trump in that positive government is a major legacy of Lincoln. For Holzer, a healthy political and economic future and vibrant middle class will demand positive government. I take issue with some of Holder’s characterizations of Lincoln’s thinking — but knowing that we are still seriously concerned with Lincoln’s thinking is for me hopeful. Holzer has spent more time trying to come to terms with Lincoln that most Lincoln histories –- his is always worth reading.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, (public library) by Edward Baptist (NF). This Professor of History at Cornell puts a blinding spotlight on the role of slavery in the economic growth of the United States, which, in just one generation, went from being a group of mediocre farm communities and isolated tobacco plantations to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world (by1860, South Carolina was the wealthiest region on the entire planet). Between 1800 and 1860 the amount of cotton produced in the South grew from 1,400,000 pounds to 2,000,000,000 pounds because the cotton growers forced slaves to work faster and faster 14 hours a day with only three shorts breaks. They exported more than a million slaves to new plantations by chaining them together in long line called “coffles” and walked them hundreds of miles. These slave owners had firm plans to ensure that new States that had any agriculture potential and that were admitted to the Union were declared to be “Slave States”. The Northern States, which couldn’t expand, understood this would give complete control of the United States Congress and Supreme Court to the Deep South and their refusal to accept this was the primary reason for the Civil War. Content 10. Readability 5. (Ed. Note: Land Weyland rated his books on the basis of 1-5 and seems to be making a statement here about this particular book.
Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, (public library) by James W. Loewen (NF). Written by a Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Vermont, this is a serious, well-documented account of the descent into racial segregation that started in the 1880-1890s that was experienced in virtually every State that lasted unabated until the 1950s and that continues today. The author focuses on the towns and counties that were forcibly “cleansed” during this period when all Blacks (and often Jews, Chinese, Mexicans, and American Indians) were violently force to move out and town/county borders were posted with signs making it clear that they were never to be seen in the area after the sun set. These were (and still are) known as “sundown towns”. Gathering census data from every State, Loewen identified numerous counties in 31 (out of 48) States where the number of Blacks declined the most between 1890 and 1930 including 22 (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming) where a dramatic (95+%) decline resulted in many entire counties having 0 to 10 Black residents. Many States in the Deep South were not on this list because there was little “racial cleansing” in these States because their towns has never been open to any type of minority. There are still hundreds of these towns and counties in existence. And still no one talks about them. But you can read about them. Readability 5.0. Content 5.0.
Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed The World, (public library) by Margaret Macmillan (NF). This winner of multiple awards is a clear telling of the convoluted Paris Peace Conference from January to June, 1919 where Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and leaders of 30 other countries tried to reshape the world and redefine its countries, primarily in Europe and the Middle East, that had been torn to pieces by WW I…and did so with mediocre success, leaving many still-living problems buried in open coffins under 6 inches of very loose dirt. Its failure was the primary reason WW II happened and was also the reason the United States basically handled the entire peace process by itself in 1945 and created Pax Americana. Content 5.0. Readability 4.9.
Salt: A World History, (public library) by Mark Kurlansky (NF). For thousands of years, the most important international commodities were ideas…and salt. Today taken for granted, major wars were fought over it and for many years, governments and economies waxed and waned depending on their access to it. Every page presents a fact or a connection I did not know. A well-researched and well-written account of this surprisingly complex subject. Readability 5/5. Content 5/5.
The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island, (public library) by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo (NF). Using the results of their extensive archaeological work done on this very small island, the authors, professors of archaeology at the University of Hawaii and California State University Long Beach respectively, have studied all aspects of this subject for years and they now authoritatively relate the history of the settlement of Rapa Nui and its pre and post Western contact with special emphasis on new ideas and findings regarding food supply, social organization, and statue making and placement. Their work corrects many years of unsupported speculation regarding each topic and presents a quite different picture of life through the years at this extraordinarily remote spot. Readability 5/5. Content 5/5.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, (public library) by Charles C. Mann (NF). Drawing on the texts of the early Spanish explorers of North, Central and South American and the latest archaeological research, the author repaints the picture of the Americas the year before Columbus arrived with his cargo of deadly diseases that eventually killed 70% of the inhabitants and made possible the invasion and resettlement of the continent by European economic refugees. In 1491, the North American continent held more people (30-50,000,000) than then lived in Europe and they had re-shaped the land to create farms and orchards that supported this population. Recent research has brushed aside the “history as written by the winners” to reshape long held ideas about the simple “noble savages” who were barely eking out a living. Readability 5/5. Content 4.9 out of 5 (only because I wanted to learn more).
Annie’s Ghosts, (public library) by Steve Luxenberg (NF). The author is an investigative reporter who learns after his mother’s death in her 90s that his mother had a sister who she told no one about. Finding out the truth about Annie, and his mother’s reasons for silence about her, is a herculean task and creates interest as the truth emerges bit by bit. Mike and I took turns reading this aloud to one another and enjoyed trying to predict what really happened.
Where God Was Born, (public library) by Bruce Feiler (NF). This is my favorite Bruce Feiler book, for it helped me connect the lands of much of ancient Scriptures with present-day Iraq and Iran, and to see their history as continuous.
The China Mirage, (public library) by James Bradley (NF). History of China’s relationship with the USA told by a master storyteller. Hard to put down even if you aren’t too interested in foreign policy and history.
Walking with Abel, (public library) by Anna Badkhen (NF). Story of the author’s 2-year immersion with a nomadic family in Mali. She seems able to integrate herself into any culture (other books describe her living in Afghan villages) and to write beautifully and poetically about her experience.
What Is the What, (public library) by Dave Eggers (F). Story of a “lost boy” of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng. True story but published as fiction. I almost stopped reading this several times because the truth of Deng’s life was hard to bear. A testament to the resiliency of humans, and because of that ultimately hopeful.
To print a list of books from this post, you have two choices (other than printing out the entire post):
- List #1 — Books listed by title, (non-fiction then fiction), then author, then the MillersTime contributing reader.