The CE is indisputably a man of great valor. But just as Superman had his kryptonite and Samson his fear of shears, I have but to utter four little words to strike terror into my husband’s heart:
“I have an idea.”
Oh, how he quakes when he hears that phrase! “No, no, not again”, he groans.
But it couldn’t be helped. It was early in 2022 and we had long since lost interest in isolation and its proponents. I was itching to make up for lost time! The CE didn’t want to get stuck abroad due to illness or regulatory minutiae, so I came up with a much tamer option.
And, knowing he would never hear the end of it otherwise, he sighed, and assented.
Which is how, a year later (I really planned this one in advance!) we found ourselves in the middle of the Arizona desert, waving hello to miles and miles of saguaro cactus, all with their arms raised in friendly greeting.
We’d flown into Phoenix, hoping to make it to our first stop by sundown. Traffic wasn’t bad at all – perhaps the very recent and fierce snowstorm had deterred others who might have also “had an idea”.
In the last light of dusk, we reached Prescott, AZ and the surprisingly packed parking lot of the Prescott Hilton Garden Inn. Hotel snob that I am, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this any-port-in-storm overnight, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a five-star experience in a what I expected to be two-star lodgings. Everything was new and pristine, with an unexpectedly lively bar and restaurant scene off the lobby.
Among my errors in underestimating Prescott was expecting a sleepy burg and not making restaurant reservations for a Saturday night at 7 pm. Putting on his concierge hat, the desk clerk said, well, my favorite restaurant is Farm Provisions up the street – IF you can get in.
Hungry and road weary we plodded up the block in the icy cold, expecting some sort of diner or glorified coffee shop, so we were very happily surprised to step inside the door and find a lovely, candlelit restaurant. And of course, it was absolutely packed. There was one table in the furthest corner of the enclosed outdoor patio, and while we dined in our puffers to keep out the occasional gusts of cold wind, we couldn’t have been happier.
If you go, I highly recommend the grass-fed, grain-finished beef:
Ah, we slept well after that lovely meal, and awoke the next morning to the view of a creek outside our window.
We explored a bit, crossing the old railway bridge and walking along the creek a ways.
Then the CE was ready for what he calls a “cowboy breakfast” and the morning hotel clerk knew exactly where to send us. The Local Prescott is the ticket if you want a breakfast that will last you til dinner. And the decor helps you wake right up:
A quick bit of research yielded the interesting fact that a few of the CE’s favorite western luminaries had frequented Prescott’s downtown Whiskey Row, where the Palace was – and is – a favorite watering hole.
We couldn’t leave Prescott without checking out the saloon frequented by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday!
Notice the CE’s smile? He’s definitely getting into the trip now, right? He might even be thinking the whole thing was HIS idea…
We strolled around the Prescott town square, which reminded us a bit of Paso Robles (with whiskey instead of wine)
But it was far too early in the day to drink, so we said our farewells to this charming little town, packed up our gear and headed back out into the desert. It sure felt good to be back on the road again!
Some books are slam dunk Top Ten, others are like that scruffy and unsought stray dog that follows you home – you keep telling it to go away but it refuses to leave and presently you realize it is a treasure with which you cannot part. My criteria gives extra points for classics that stand the test of time, and for books I would recommend to others.
Here are the top five of my top ten for 2022:
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
What? You young whippersnappers say you’ve never heard of Leonard Cohen? Oh yes you have, you just never bothered to look up the guy who created the gorgeous, hauntingly ecstatic Hallelujah. And don’t tell me you’ve never heard Suzanne, even if it was ruinously deformed as elevator music. If you doubt Cohen’s musical or poetic genius, give them a listen and then get back to me.
Sylvie Simmons spent three years interviewing Cohen for this exquisitely written biography. She has a loving arm around his shoulder but does not flinch from showing us his dark sides. Cohen loved women – but not always well and rarely forever. Yet to a one – Marianne (So Long, Marianne), Suzanne, (the mother of his children but not the muse for the song) and later in life love Rebecca De Mornay – all maintained affection and loyalty for him. Along the way, he had a notable “encounter” with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel and a brief fling with Joni Mitchell. None ultimately could compete with his primary passion for his art, his dark shadow of depression and his spiritual search, which led him from early years of abandon on the Greek isle of Hydra to a later ascetic five years in a Buddhist monastery.
I reveled in listening to this book, switching back and forth from the audio to Spotify and Youtube to hear his songs and watch his performances. You might shy away from its almost 600 pages but I never wanted it to end. Highly recommended.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn
Paperback, 178 pages
File under: The ultimate cautionary tale
There seems to be quite a whiff of Marxism in the air these days, so keep a copy of this book on a shelf nearby to remind you how it really plays out. Every. Single. Time. If you start believing the dunks on free speech (well, not his or her free speech, not that free speech) and the re-writing of history, Solzhenitsyn is here to remind you in this fictionalized memoir that it won’t go well for anyone, including you.
Born in 1918, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 and spent eight years in a labor camp for allegedly making an offhand derogatory remark about Stalin. This book invites the reader to experience a brief moment in that bleakest existence. It was a long road from there to receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. He predicted that unless it was stopped, communism would take over the world. Consider yourself warned.
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Kindle 1239 pages
File under: You thought Hitler was a bad guy? Hold my beer..
If you remain unconvinced by Solzhenitsyn, please proceed to Montefiore’s masterful and definitive biographies of Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, remembered in the bloodstain of history as Joseph Stalin. Begin with Young Stalin (published 2003, 528 pages) to trace where evil begins and then take a deep breath and plunge into this volume to learn how a monster engages with the monstrosity of Marxism and murdered at least 20 million (the numbers vary wildly, mostly upward) in the Soviet Union.
This is a very long book with a great many players, most of them featuring unremarkable countenances and unpronounceable names. A few of them are ghoulishly unforgettable – there is the sadist Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s arch-villain Nikolai Yezhov who orchestrated The Terror, the author Maxim Gorky who served as Stalin’s “literary ornament”, Nikita Khrushchev who got his start licking Stalin’s boots, and of course Stalin’s ever-present sidekick Vyacheslav Molotov. The only joy in plodding through the accounts their late-night scheming sessions is seeing how they each squirmed in endless fear that they were the next to be purged. Stalin winked at the toll of the famine he created in the Ukraine and he snookered FDR at Yalta, despite the dire warnings of Winston Churchill. While Stalin died in 1953, he had set the stage for the era of the Iron Curtain, holding eastern Europe hostage for nearly another half century.
Not an easy read, but an important read. Highly recommended.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Hardcover (Penguin Clothbound Classics) 455 pages
File under: Getting their just desserts
How many times had I heard the famous line “Please, sir, I want some more”? More what, I would wonder, and another few years would go by before I wondered again. Everyone has heard of Oliver Twist, of the Artful Dodger and the villain, Fagin, but you are denying yourself a great pleasure if you have not read the tale.
Dickens’ villains are so bad that they even know they’re bad, unrepentant though they may be, and his heroes are so innocent and hapless that you cannot turn a page without worrying what will befall them next. The plot is as murky as “Mudfog”, Oliver’s birthplace, and his circumstances, having been immediately orphaned and assigned to a grim and hungry childhood in the workhouse.
Each rare kindness Oliver encounters is followed by a dashing of his hopes and the reader despairs again and again. It’s part of the fun! I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say whew, thank goodness all’s well that ends well. Oliver ends up getting more of everything good, especially happiness, while the despicable dog-kicking Fagin gets exactly what he deserves.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Paperback, 191 pages
File under: The road to ruin
This might be the most perfect morality tale in all of literature. What about the Book of Genesis, you ask? Hey, Eve was a piker compared to Lady Macbeth. It’s got everything. Sword fights, lust for power, murder and prophesying witches. What a thrill it was to turn a page and finally see the context of “Out, damned spot!” and witness Lady Macbeth washing and washing and washing her hands. Ah, so much “toil and trouble”!
I finally unlocked the key that allows me to enjoy rather than suffer through Shakespeare. It is so simple: just purchase the larger Folger Library paperback edition which has notes and explanations on every facing page of the play. So brilliant that it made Macbeth shine above every other read of my year.
And that is that for the 2022 reads – hope you found at least a few that intrigue you!
Books are like relationships. Sometimes you know instantly that this is “the one”. Sometimes you start out cold and yet somehow it grows on you. A book can thrill you or haunt you or hurt you or surprise you or annoy the heck out of you. If you’re lucky, a few of them will feel like gifts.
I struggled to rank the top ten reads this year. I mean, it’s hard to say you like one best friend more than another, right? The main criteria for choosing the best of the best is a lot like friendship, though: these are the books that brought me joy to read. The books I never wanted to end. The books I want to share with others and keep forever on the shelf.
Here are five of my top ten reads of the year:
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
Audiobook narrated by Norbert Leo Butz; 13 hours 21 minutes, 400 pages
File under: This one sneaker-ed up on me!
Normally I’m the last to choose a book about business or sports, which is why I am so late to the party with this one. Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir burst on the scene to stellar reviews but I just assumed it wasn’t for me. I’ve never even owned a pair of Nike’s and have taken a dim view of the company’s recent forays into thuggish wokesterism.
But I recently saw a few quotes from Knight in the news and he struck me as a thoughtful guy. And I noticed that his book is narrated by one of my favorite Broadway actors (Norbert Leo Butz absolutely stole the show as Eliza Doolittle’s father in Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival of My Fair Lady).
So I picked it up. And I could not put it down. I could not stop annoying everyone around me with how starry-eyed I was about this book. Knight was a young man with a big dream and despite his skeptical father’s opinion that he was just “jack-assing around” and should settle down to a staid career in accounting, he lived on the edge and, of course, the rest is history. His climb to the top reads more like a thriller than a spreadsheet and I’ve decided not to ding my 5-star review by having learned that ghostwriting was involved (J.R. Moehringer of (yuck!) a more recent and tawdry celebrity memoir that shall not be mentioned here.) Whoever wrote it, Shoe Dog is an inspiring read.
The Lincoln Highway: A Novel by Amor Towles
Kindle, 588 pages
File under: Road trip!
I’m a huge fan of Amor Towles, having reveled in his Rules of Civility and gloried in A Gentleman from Moscow (did you know they’re making it into a movie???!!!). I had reveled and gloried so much that about a quarter of the way into Lincoln Highway I realized I was disappointed in it because what I really wanted was to keep reading about The Count and the apple trees of Nizhny Novgorod.
So I had to get right with this tale of young Emmett Watson, whose hardscrabble Nebraska origins and hard knock life leads him and his younger brother, Billy, on a most remarkable journey along the remarkable Lincoln Highway, which debuted in 1912 and stretched from New York City’s Times Square to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Towles is a brilliant writer. He could make a grocery list read like literature. He sneaks in a pasta recipe and teaches The Odyssey while moving his characters down the road in a 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser. He is also a gentle writer and his plots glow with forbearing kindness. His books are a gift, and this one is no exception.
Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin
Paperback, 368 pages
File under: Peace like a river…
“The more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with the idea of a swimming journey”, writes Deakin, the English writer and environmentalist whose unconventional life was cut short by a brain tumor in 2006. He leaves behind this quirky testament to “wild swimming“, which has him flinging himself into the sea, creeks, pools, mud holes and rivers from the Scilly Islands at the southeastern tip of England to the River Cam to the Fens of Eastern England and the wilds of Scotland. “There is no anti-depressant quite like sea swimming”, he remarks. “I immerse myself like the fox getting rid of his fleas. I leave my devils on the waves.” I thoroughly enjoyed this read, though I shivered throughout – Deakin considers “mid-sixties Fahrenheit” to be “by no means cold”.
Trinity: A Novel of Ireland by Leon Uris
Audiobook narrated by John Keating; 34 hours 13 minutes, 850 pages
File under: the (bad) luck of the Irish
This is the sweeping-est of sweeping sagas and who cares that the characters are somewhat carelessly constructed amalgams purposed to move the reader forward through the hapless and perpetually tragic history of the Irish people. “In Ireland”, the author declares “there is no future, only the past happening over and over.”
Ireland in 1800 was a country of eight million. Two to three million had no land or jobs. Their land was stolen by the British aristocracy, their souls are preyed upon by a corrupt Catholic church and then, just for good measure, the potato blight comes along and a million souls perish. A common sight was that of dead women and their children lying by the side of the road, the skin around their mouths tinged green from eating grass in their last starving moments.
Another million emigrated to the United States (thank you, brave ancestors!) and those who stayed behind scraped by as tenant farmers on what was rightfully their own land while women flocked to work under harsh and dangerous conditions in the textile factories. All this, of course, gives rise to political resistance and the book’s main character, Conor Larkin, represents a forebear of those who despair of their plight and turn to the violence that eventually becomes the IRA.
This was a long, long read and yet I never wanted it to end. Great story-telling!
Please, please let me reverently press this slim volume into your hands and convince you to lose yourself in every page. Zorrie , a National Book Award finalist, was the most lyrical read of the year for me, a book I wish I could read over and over for the first time. It is exquisitely paced and infused with grace, the concept of gratitude for small things, grief, and the passage of time.
Zorrie was an orphan raised in early 20th century Indiana by her grim-lipped aunt who called the past “nothing but a tinker’s circus of two-bit shadows”. When the aunt dies, Zorrie is left destitute and hits the road, ultimately doing a brief stint in the Ottawa, IL radium factory. Lucky for her it was brief, as other young women, who adorned themselves with the flourescent radium on their nights out on the town, paid with their lives.
Like all of us from Indiana or wherever our origins might be, Zorrie felt the magnetic pull to home, and returned there to a life that unspooled in poetic simplicity. No matter how dull we think our path may seem, there is beauty, and magic, all about if we lift our heads to notice it.
One of the most gratifying aspects of non-fiction is that, in a few hundred pages or so, you can rather suddenly and efficiently have a grasp of something previously completely unknown to you. You think, how did I get this far in life and have absolutely no knowledge of x,y,z? This is what is so compelling about reading – there are innumerable galaxies of wonder and knowledge out there to conquer simply by turning a page.
Here are four non-fiction reads that stretched the envelope for me:
Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski, and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist by Lis Wiehl with Lisa Pulitzer
Paperback, 336 pages
File under: It’s the bomb!
So of course we all remember the headlines. A diabolical genius bomb terrorist struck randomly over an agonizingly long seventeen years, ultimately killing three people and injuring twenty-three others. Of course hindsight makes it seem to easy – the weirdo Harvard graduate who walked away from his mathematics career and went to live off the grid in a tiny ramshackle cabin in Montana.
But he was so meticulous in building and planting his bombs that law enforcement – particularly the F.B.I. – was beginning to look ineffectual, to say the least, in their inability to track down the guy who had been dubbed “Unabomber”, given his early penchant for planting the bombs in university settings.
Lis Wiehl is the daughter of an F.B.I. agent and is herself an attorney. She is also one of the nicest people you could ever meet! She painstakingly chronicles the course of this protracted spree of domestic terror, and does it well – the book is thorough and suspenseful. You hold your breath when Ted Kaczynski’s sister-in-law connects the dots and when the long-denied F.B.I. agents descend on the isolated cabin.
Fish out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life: A Memoir by Eric Metaxas
Hardcover, 416 pages
File under: He’s all Greek to me.
How do you say me! me! me! in Greek?
In this fondly written memoir, Metaxas pretty much admits that he was that annoying short kid in class who wanted all the attention all the time. I suspect he hasn’t changed much. But he has credibility – this is the guy who created Veggie Tales and also wrote a masterful and memorable biography of World War II Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). So when I received this book as a gift from a friend, I was intrigued.
As the title suggests, Metaxas’ premise is that he has always felt a bit misplaced, the “fish out of water” neither here nor there, beginning with his role as a first generation American son of immigrants. His mother came from Germany and his father from the Greek island of Cephalonia. Both parents exposed him to their strong bonds with family and their former countries and while Metaxas grew up in Queens and then Connecticut, he identifies intensely with his Teutonic and Greek heritage.
I think he intends this memoir to be a tracing of his journey from his Greek Orthodox roots to a spiritual awakening and shift to evangelical Christianity. He comments on the pallid “cultural Christianity” and political correctness he encountered in childhood and during his years at Yale University. He is open and somewhat confessional about personal missteps and the way in which he initially floundered after his college graduation. If, as we all hope, our wayward personal journeys are all leading us somewhere, he suggests that his led him to faith.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
Audiobook read by John Lee: 13 hours 20 minutes; 368 pages
File under: And you thought YOUR job was stressful?
Macintyre weaves a web almost as intricately as did the subjects of this book. One is Oleg Gordievsky, a second generation Soviet intelligence agent whose principles lead him to clandestinely switch his loyalty to Great Britain’s M16. The other is Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer with apparently no principles at all, who became an intelligence asset for the Russians in hopes of buying a new car and appeasing his avaricious wife. Where you shake your head in wonder at how the CIA ignored Ames’ flagrant behavior, your heart skips a beat with every page turn as Gordievsky threads the needle of playing for one side while his loyalties lie with the other. All’s well that ends well: Ames is serving a life sentence in prison and Gordievsky lives in the UK although not without trepidation – in 2007 there was a poisoning attempt on his life. Knowing how the book ends does not make it any less interesting to read. It’s a spy thriller that just happens to be true.
Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
Paperback, 368 pages
File under: It’s complicated.
Originally published in 1997, Reid revised this excellent history of Ukraine in 2015 and I believe she has re-released it with updates in 2023. Every time you look away, the shape-shifting history of Ukraine seems to swerve to a new path. Depending on where you want to begin, it has been variously controlled by descendants of Genghis Khan, Poland, Austria and, of course Russia. Russia has always been looking over Ukraine’s shoulder.
Geography can seem to be destiny and indeed the word “Ukraine” is literally translated as “on the edge” or “borderland”, so depending upon which border you’re close to, its citizens’ loyalties may lean toward Poland or toward Russia, or of course, toward nationalism, which is partly what makes the current tragic war far more complicated than the waving of blue and yellow flags would suggest. Communists abound, as do neo-Nazis and of course, gross corruption and organized crime. We may or may not be seeing what we think we’re seeing with this war. Ms. Reid may have to revise her book yet again by the time it all ends.
Maybe I wasn’t paying attention in the past, but these days non-fiction reading can be positively shape-shifting. There seems to be a whole new category of what I call “fictional biography” where you don’t find out until the end that what you thought was true was actually largely the author’s creative fabrication (looking at you, Marie Benedict). And history? Welllll…let’s just say, trust but verify. For instance, there’s a so-called “history book” by Howard Zinn that’s a staple in classroom curriculum that features so much spin the thing ought to be marketed as a gyroscope.
Just as many journalists no longer consider themselves bound by ethics of objectivity, so, too, have many “historians” and biographers become enchanted with the pleasures of injecting politics, point of view and the occasional flight of fantasy into works that are labeled non-fiction. Doesn’t mean it won’t be an enjoyable and even enlightening read, it just means we might need a new category: “non-fiction-ish”.
I tried to order my non-fiction straight this year, but a little bit of -ish managed to sneak in here and there. Oh well, reality is overrated anyway, right?
The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz
Audiobook read by John Lee: 9 hours 35 minutes, 288 pages
Per the above rant, I was halfway into this “true story” and enjoying it immensely when I discovered that oh, it probably wasn’t a true story at all. And oh, by the way, we’re pretty sure it was ghost-written. Come again? The book is made up, and the author didn’t write it?
Well, never mind. It’s a great story. World War II, guy is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in a Siberian prison camp, from which he and a few others make a miraculous escape and walk across the Gobi Desert and across the Himalayas to ultimately be gratefully taken into custody by British soldiers in India.
The story is so captivating it was made into a Peter Weir-directed film, as you can see by the photo. Hey, if Colin Farrell is in it, who cares if its real?
Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch
Audiobook read by the author: 14 hours 56 minutes; 400 pages
This Pulitzer Prize finalist generously chronicles the misadventures of Native American Lissa Yellow Bird, “a fanatic with a bleeding heart”. This might also somewhat aptly describe the book’s author, who bends very, very far backwards to justify Lissa’s propensity for poor life choices. Lissa, a member of the Mandan/Hidatsa and Arikara Nation tribes, has five children by five different fathers, is a self-described former crack and meth addict and went to prison for drug dealing. This, however, is tidily explained away by the bogeyman of “intergenerational trauma”. When Lissa channels her fanaticism into tracking down the disappearance of a young oilworker on the Fort Berthold reservation, she, and the reader, dive deeply into the politics and divided loyalties of Native Americans whose hard-won land glistens with oil. Non-fiction, yes, but spiced up with a great deal of point of view.
Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy by Damien Lewis
Audiobook read by the author: 16 hours 40 minutes; 512 pages
A New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Book List “best book” of 2022, this biography of legendary performer Josephine Baker focuses on newly unveiled information that reveals her to have been a French and British intelligence asset during World War II. In the “truth is stranger than fiction” department, I must have researched this book three or four times to determine whether it all really happened! Josephine Baker’s rise from the slums of St. Louis to celebrated Parisian chanteuse who strolled the Champs Elysees with her pet cheetah was already an incredible tale. Long cherished as the crème de la crème in her adopted country of France, her cool and courageous efforts on behalf of the Allies puts a big dollop of crème on top.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
Hardcover, 251 pages
What could be more real than a tree? Well, when they start talking to each other you start to wonder, but Wohlleben makes a strong case for trees as “social beings”. Since the author is a forestry manager in Germany, the focus is on beeches and spruce – did you know there is a spruce in Sweden that is almost 10,000 years old? According to Wikipedia, Wohlleben’s “argument for plant sentience” is a controversial one, so we’ll have to wait a few lifetimes to know for sure if this book is non-fiction. Still, it is an interesting read – I never before realized that “a fifth of all animal and plant species…about 6,000…depend on dead wood” or that nutrient exchanges between trees keep ancient stumps alive. And we should all be taking walks in the woods given the author’s claim that Korean studies of “older” women walking in the forest have improved blood pressure and lung capacity. I don’t know if the author can objectively see the forest for the trees, but I enjoyed the book.
The Zimmermann Telegram: America Enters the War, 1917-1918 by Barbara Tuchman
Paperback, 182 pages
Just the facts, ma’am. That’s pretty much what you can always count on from Barbara Tuchman. A storied historian with impeccable credentials, you will suffer the intricacies of her deeply researched books but emerge the better for it. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was a crucible to read but worth every page, as was The Guns of August.
In The Zimmermann Telegram, Tuchman peers through her historian’s microscope and teases out every thread of the ramifications from the 1917 British interception of a coded telegram in which German Foreign Secretary which proposed a German/Mexican alliance in the event the United States entered World War I. And there was even a murmur that the Japanese were in on the deal. The carrot Germany dangled to Mexico was a promise to help them regain their former territory in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. It seems almost too fantastic to be real, doesn’t it?
Thankfully, Tuchman can be counted on to stick to the historical narrative and while that can be ponderous, it is convincing. And suspenseful, as President Woodrow Wilson doubles and triples down on American neutrality and his insistence on a negotiated peace for Europe all while “U-boats were making a cemetery of the sea approaches to the British Isles.” An incandescent Teddy Roosevelt “raged against Wilson’s failure to lead and act…” Not an easy read but a fascinating contemplation of how differently geopolitics might have gone had the telegram gone its way without detection.
I resolve every year to ground my reading ever so slightly more in reality, yet when it comes time to tally it all up, my list invariably leans toward fiction. Let’s face it: real life is full of real troubles. It’s just easier to read about calamities that we can pretend don’t really happen.
Spy fiction isn’t usually my thing, but the reviews positively glowed for this posthumously published finale by the storied Le Carré. As David Cornwell, he served in Britain’s MI6 foreign-intelligence service, where he gathered fodder for the future blockbusters he would pen under his pseudonym. You may have heard of a few: do The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy perhaps ring a bell? Silverview is tightly constructed and elegantly written, and like the best of the genre, makes readers feel that they are being let in on how all that spy stuff really works. The thing about these sorts of books for me is that they are quite absorbing during the read (or in this case, the listen) but they fade rather quickly from memory. As “entertainment reading” goes, however, it’s a top notch choice.
A near universal aspect of flock keeping seems to be the continual epiphanies that accompany daily life with chickens. There’s something about the rhythm of it all – you’re tending the hens thinking of absolutely nothing and suddenly a significant life truth bubbles up out of nowhere. For Jackie Polzin’s unnamed protagonist braving the harsh winters of St. Paul, Minnesota, the day job of house cleaning and new-found hobby of hen-keeping spur a continually overflowing cup of self-awareness. The writing is wry – particularly around the subject of marriage; and poignant – having suffered a miscarriage and facing a future that likely does not include children, this is a woman for whom being mama to a flock of hens is especially meaningful. It’s a quick read, and, while probably anyone would enjoy it, it will particularly resonate with those who spend part of their day tending a coop.
The Fortnight in September: A Novel by R. C. Sheriff
Kindle, 229 pages
File under: Nuances, nuances, nuances
I’d been feeling weighed down by some recent soul-crushing book club reads, so when it was my turn to choose I went Googling for a pick-us-up selection. Lo and behold I instantly came across a 2020 article in The Guardian that conveniently asked prominent authors to suggest books offering escape from “lockdown culture”. Kazuo Ishiguro was quick to recommend The Fortnight in September as “just about the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of right now”.
At first glance, the Stevens family is dull as dishwater, and the 1930’s setting duller still to the contemporary reader. But Ishiguro, who has pretty much written the book(s) on nuance (Remains of the Day, Klara and the Sun) rejoices in the ever-so-delicate peeling of the onion around the layers that hold the family together and the nicks in the veneer that hold them apart. The catalyst for the novel’s tension is supplied by the family’s annual beach holiday, where everything must be exactly the same as it has ever been and everything must be splendid perfection. There is so much riding on the success of the vacation, but of course there are the niggling details of circumstance and personality that keep perfection at bay. At one point, “Mr. Stevens was thinking what a very happy place the world would be if people could lead each other quietly aside, and gently but firmly tell each other the little things they unconsciously do that irritate and annoy their fellows.“(Oh, who among us has not silently made that same wish?) The long-married Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and their young adult son and daughter all fervently want the best for one another at the same time they wish one another was just ever so slightly more of this and less of that. The novel is gently written, and somehow makes the reader feel gratefully protective of the Stevens family…and of their own.
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
Kindle, 458 pages
File under: Oh, the tangled webs we weave!
I have been stubbornly, and oh so slowly, making my way through the Henry James canon. Things started out well enough with The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady, but bogged down with The Golden Bowl. For me, Henry James may just be a never-quite-acquired taste. But I kept coming across references to The Wings of the Dove in other reading, and, after all, it is listed at #26 on the sacred Modern Library 100 Best Novels list, so I took a deep breath and book-traveled to London to make the acquaintance of Merton Densher, Kate Croy, Aunt Maud and Milly Theale.
Kate is in love with Merton but lacks the financial ballast that would allow her to make her own choices. Aunt Maud has buckets of money but strings are tied to every pound sterling. American heiress Milly Theale, with neither a mean nor a healthy bone in her body, makes Aunt Maud look like a piker in the wealth department. Somehow they all end up on holiday together in a Venice palazzo, thanks to Milly’s largesse.
Merton, like most of James’ male characters, is ineffectual. A man of in-action. Kate is of quite the opposite nature. She has a plan. And while we wait for it to unfold, we observe Milly’s undefined illness advance at the speed of a snail race. It is a damnably long read, but perhaps because it takes James that long to set us up for the rather shocking denouement.
The critic J. C. Powys observes that “What Henry James aims at is a clear field for the psychological emotions of people who have, so to speak, time and leisure to indulge themselves in all the secondary reactions and subtle ramifications of their peculiar feelings.” In other words, it’s kind of like watching paint dry. But like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, Kate Croy is an unforgettable character. You pay (458 slow pages) but there’s definitely a pay-off – and maybe some pay-back – at the end.
The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian
Kindle, 380 pages
The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian
Kindle, 272 pages
File under: Best odd couple ever
These are numbers #10 and #11 in the Aubrey/Maturin series which begins with the well-known Master and Commander. I parcel out my reading of them penuriously, because there are only 20 and 1/2 of them and I never want them to end.
In The Far Side of the World, Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy is off on another mission, this one taking him along the coast of Brazil. Naturalist (and spy)Stephen Maturin is along for the ride, of course, and the hope of exploring the Galapagos islands. Instead, he falls out a window (Stephen is known for taking a tumble in almost every book) and Jack dives into the sea to rescue him. They come close enough to perishing that I began to wonder how there could be a book #11 without our heroes. Help arrives, as it always does when “there is not a moment to lose!”
The Reverse of the Medal puts Jack and Stephen back on land, for better or worse. Jack’s affairs, as ever, are in disorder, not to mention some surprises from his past coming to light. Stephen is trying to piece together an intrigue that began two or three books ago. He is beginning to lose patience with a number of people, evidenced by his response to an interviewer at the Admiralty: “Christ’s blood in heaven, you ignorant incompetent whey-faced nestlecock”, he hisses “in a low venomous tone”.
Things may begin to look up when Stephen learns he has inherited a large sum of money, but the book ends in a cliff-hanger, so I’ll just have to wait and see. Book #13 is waiting in the wings…
As they say in the fine print, results may vary. You might adore a book that I loathe. (Don’t get me started on Ulysses…) The joyous thing is that there are so many books – something for everyone! Here are four of my fiction reads from the last year. Not the best, not the worst, better than middling…
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: A Novel by Kim Michele Richardson
Kindle, 322 pages
File under: historical fiction with a (literal) kicker
There are two historical facts that figure in this novel, neither of which I’d ever heard of before. One is a rare blood condition called methemoglobinemia. The other is the 1935-1943 Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project. Their inclusion greatly buoys the story of a young woman caught in the grip of her cultural moment, as does the author’s beautifully expressed love of the book’s Kentucky setting. It’s not a challenging read and a few of the characters seem more like caricatures, but there is one absolutely memorable standout among them and that is Junia the mule. You best watch yourself around Junia, because if she doesn’t like you, watch out for the nip or a kick. Also, it’s a book about books, so what’s not to like about that? If you read and like it, you’ll be happy to know there’s a sequel: The Book Woman’s Daughter: A Novel.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane: A Novel by Lisa See
Audiobook read by Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn
14 hours 8 minutes: 400 pages
File under: Mothers, daughters and all the tea in China
I encountered author Lisa See when my book club chose The Island of Sea Women: A Novel and I thought I’d read another of her books, which seem to specialize in bringing to light the lives of female characters in islolated cultural settings. In this case it is Li-yan, who is of the Akha people, hill tribes that populate southern China as well as parts of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Li-yan Lives in Yunnan, China where her people grow Pu’er, a highly prized fermented tea.
I remain on the fence about this author – her prose style can seem almost too simplistic, yet the themes and plots of her books are complex and exhaustively researched. In this book those themes include tea, tea, and more tea, long held cultural proscriptions, mothers and daughters and the byzantine journey of international adoption. Some of the incidents and encounters in the book seem more like events you would read in a fairy tale, but See takes cover in the Akha adage of “No coincidence, no story.” This was named a “best book of 2020” by The New York Times, NPR and The New York Post.
The Searcher: A Novel by Tana French
Audiobook narrated by Roger Clark
14 hours 32 minutes; 463 pages
File under: it’s not all leprechauns in Ireland
Crime fiction is not my usual genre but I can see the appeal. There’s suspense and foreboding but because it’s not real, there is also an overlay of escapism. The bad guys are out there, but they’re not showing up at your front door.
Tana French is considered among the best for this vein of fiction and here she introduces us to Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago cop who pulls up stakes after his divorce and moves to a rural community in western Ireland. Having chosen to work through his memories and regrets in a place where nothing seemingly happens beyond a night at the pub with the locals, Cal is unwittingly drawn into the mysterious disappearance of a local teen. It’s well written and absorbing, and was also a 2020 best books pick by the NYT/NPR/NYP triumverate.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
Kindle, 192 pages
File under: Old girls just want to have fun, too.
Vita Sackville-West is best known as Virginia Woolf’s love interest, but she was an accomplished gardener on a grand scale, and an accomplished writer on a smaller scale. Wickedly brilliant like her friend, Virginia, here she pens a very witty and yet essentially poignant vignette that portrays the challenges and opportunities of advancing age.
When Lady Slane is widowed, her children – some of whom have a keen eye on her bank account – have certain expectations of what her ebbing life trajectory should hold. But Lady Slane has other ideas. “If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”
She uses her time boldly and well, and even finds unexpected companionship. “…being so old it was agreeable to sit like two cats on either side of the fire warming their bones, stretching out hands so transparent as to let the pink light of the flames through them, while their conversation without effort rose or fell.”
Ah, the joys of fiction! It makes for a never-ending parade of Other People’s Lives which, sometimes, at least, makes our own seem normal by comparison. I’ll go in ascending order, meaning that these first eight reads were not the brightest stars in my reading sky last year:
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Kindle, 372 pages
File under: Books I’d Like to Throw Against a Wall
Let’s just say that not all classics hold up over time. I spent some time with Sinclair Lewis the year before, struggling through Main Street and eventually deciding it was worth the read. Not so with Babbitt. The word that kept coming to mind for me about this book was cynical. Lewis, a devout socialist, created a character whose political and social beliefs were antithetical to his own, and then dedicated himself to demonstrating that this character had absolutely no redeeming values. He behaves badly at every turn of the page – and regrettably, there are a lot of pages. Babbitt is nothing more a cardboard cut-out making this a very tedious read. Not recommended.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Audiobook narrated by Michael Prichard
12 hours 49 minutes; 310 pages
File under: Someone Please Strangle that Narrator
DeLillo’s name kept cropping up so I thought I should check him out. White Noise seems to be regarded as his magnum opus and won the National Book Award so it seemed like a good place to start. Except that, for me, it wasn’t. First and worst of all was my decision to listen to the audiobook version, which features a narrator who sounds very much like he is trying to sell used cars. Distracting, to say the least. I never really warmed to the story, which I guess is a commentary on the emptiness of “modern” (this was the 80’s) life and the ominous cloud (literally in this case) hanging over us all representing a bleak if not apocalyptic future. Still, this is an author with a massive following, so perhaps the fault is mine. I will try again with him – Underworld and The Silence look like good options.
This debut novel chronicling a boy’s conflicted childhood in gritty working-class Glasgow, was awarded the 2020 Booker Prize. It was a tribulation to read, which I suppose is a testament to the author’s gimlet-eyed gift. He is unerring in his precision of maintaining Shuggie’s point of view – children have no choice but to accept all and judge nothing – of his hard knock circumstances and his mother’s addiction to alcohol and self-absorption. Stuart insists the book is not autobiographical, although he did lose his mother to addiction when he was sixteen. I would rather tear my fingernails out than read it again because it made me very, very sad.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Audiobook narrated by John Lee, 24 hours 24 minutes; 603 pages
File under: What’s a Little Crushing Poverty Among Friends?
I want to like India. I want to want to visit there. But every book I have read about it (Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers comes to mind) makes it seem like the most unmanageable place on earth. The social hierarchy, the corruption, the endless swell of humanity all conspire to vanquish the simplest spark of hope. This novel, shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, shows as sobering a side of the country as any other, but weaves the tiniest thread of optimism through the narrative. The book’s title comes from a conversation on a train in which one character says to another “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” A cast of disparate characters come together in the era of Indira Gandhi’s imposed 1975 “Emergency” via their multitude of unfortunate circumstances. Despite grief, hardship and terrible luck, they ultimately manage to forge a sense of meaning and community. I didn’t love it, but you might.
Our Country Friends: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart
Kindle, 319 pages
File under: Sorry, You Aren’t Chekov
While the rest of us were locked down and holed up obsessively washing down our groceries, Shteyngart, celebrated for his previous works Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story must have looked out his window and thought “Hey, we’re all stuck here like we’re on the stage of a Chekhov play. Maybe I’ll write one.” Shteyngart is a smart, able satirist and deftly mingles his pandemic era 21st century start-up millionaire, coddled actor, bored housewife and befuddled, cuckolded landowner with the Chekov playbook (yes, there is a gun). The book was roundly applauded by cancel culture hungry elites who adored Shteyngart’s asides voting the political incorrects off the island – or at least out of the compound. For me, it felt like a money grab while he waited for the world to resume turning on its axis. He’s a better educated version of David Sedaris, the same ilk of too clever by half, but he’s no match for Chekhov.
The Tragedy of the Korosko by Arthur Conan Doyle
Paperback, 128 pages
File under: Walk Like an Egyptian
A friend gave me this book, insisting I would like it. It sat and sat and sat in my bookcase – I’d read a little bit of Arthur Conan Doyle and hadn’t loved it. Eventually she asked me how I’d like the book and I had to confess it was gathering dust on the shelf. “I’ll read it this week!, I promised. And surprisingly – I liked it!
The setting is 1895 Egypt, which at that point is rather firmly under British rule and there is considerable evaluation in the book regarding the appropriateness of this arrangement or lack thereof. A party of ten unwitting passengers are heading up the Nile on a stern-wheeler called the Korosko, bound for a pleasure trip. One moment they are anticipating a picnic; the next moment they are attacked by Dervishes and taken prisoner, told they must convert instantly to Islam or die. It is a brief, suspenseful and thought-provoking read. Too bad I left it on the shelf so long!
When I’m not dealing with the really tough questions in life, like which color of nail polish to choose, or where the heck did that chicken wander off to, I occasionally ponder the little things, like
what do I believe?
What do I really believe?
If, as I claim, I am a Christian and I believe in the triune God and that the Holy Bible is the inspired word of God, well, then, how do I go about that?
How do I justify my faith?
How do I live my faith?
How do I “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and oh, by the way, while I’m at it, “love your neighbor has yourself”. (Matthew 22:37-39)
As I’ve gone forward in the Logos Bible Study lessons, the enormity of the task becomes clearer. People spend their entire careers studying the Bible. Some of them spend entire careers studying it with the aim of disproving it, which doesn’t always go well. Former Chicago Tribune editor and former atheist Lee Strobel set out to do just that and the result was his conversion to Christianity and his 1998 book The Case for Christ.
I haven’t read that one yet. It’s on my list. But I did begin to scratch the surface this year with a smattering of Christian philosophy, history, searching and self help. I find the genre to be like the proverbial box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.
The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard
Hardcover, 400 pages
It took me nearly a year to read this book. Partly because I only tackled it for short periods of time, reading it as one would a devotional. And partly because it was a bit of a stretch for me. Willard, a roundly revered University of Southern California (USC) philosopher was considered by many to always be the smartest guy in the room. He is careful to lay out his ideas here against the backdrop of contemporary culture so that those of us who are not the smartest guy in the room can get our bearings. But he has a lot to say. And it’s all thought-provoking.
An academic himself, he is clear about the way ideas can go awry. “The killing fields of Cambodia,” he observes, are from philosophical discussions in Paris.”
He doesn’t mince words. “When we see Jesus as He is, we must turn away or else shamelessly adore Him.”
On the human condition: “That condition is one of labor, glory, dust and death…constant incongruity between human dreams and dignity, on the one hand, and human realities, on the other. We are incarnate and finite beings, trailing clouds of over aspiration and ragged incompleteness.”
And while he wrote back in the 1990’s, he seemed to know where things were headed: “You only have to ‘stay tuned’ (to media) and you can arrive at a perpetual state of confusion and ultimately, despair with no effort at all.”
Reading this book was basically like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time I finished it, I felt like I needed to start all over again to better grasp it. Definitely a stretch for me. But a worthy one.
St. Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton
Paperback, 159 pages
Well, here were two familiar names. St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Dominican monk who convinced the Roman Catholic Church that its tenets were not at odds with Aristotle, and his biographer, G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown series.
And such a slim volume at under 200 pages. This would be easier, right?
Nope. After I finally slogged to the finish, I made a note: “I had no business reading this as I have no grounding in Aristotelian or any other philosophy. Chesterton writes in puckish riddles of paradox.” (I wrote this before I read that Chesterton is regarded by many as “the prince of paradox”.)
Yes, I’m glad I read it. I will remember that the great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas was given the unfortunate sobriquet of “the dumb ox”, considered so because of his bull-like physiognomy and because he spent so much time in silent, deep thought. He loved books. When asked for what he thanked God most, he answered simply, I have understood every page I ever read.”
Ah, if only I could say the same of this book! It is another one to which I will have to return when I grow a better brain…
Prayer Can Change Your Life by William R. Parker and Elaine St. John
Paperback, 261 pages
This is – with a caveat – an easily accessible book. Without question, my prayer life could use an overhaul so I couldn’t resist the title or the great reviews spanning the decades since the book was originally published. I was intrigued at the premise of a scientific “proof” of the efficacy of prayer.
In 1952 (imagine getting this project green-lighted these days!) the author conducted a nine-month experiment at the University of Redlands with three groups of subjects. Group one utilized psychological counseling and was determined to gain a 65% improvement in their issues. Group two participated in “random” prayer and experienced 0% improvement. Group three underwent “prayer therapy” and realized a 72% improvement.
The authors go into great detail about the various personal challenges faced by individuals in the groups and the ways in which those challenges were overcome or not. According to the “formula” for successful prayer, one must 1) pray regularly; 2) make prayer an act of surrender and honesty; 3) make it positive and 4) make it receptive.
There were some intriguing and valuable nuggets in this book. But now, about that caveat. Aside from the fact that it was written in the 1950’s with a very, very different cultural perspective than we have in the 21st century, the value of the book – for me, at least – was negated by premises which have since been proven false. The claim is made that ulcers are caused by stress, that asthma is due to “bronchial neurosis and that migraines and rheumatoid arthritis can be blamed on suppressed hostility. Oh, and functional heart trouble and acne are – wait for it – psychosomatic!
Perhaps it’s throwing the baby out with the bath water to say this book is a no go, but if you’re going to claim a scientific proof of effective prayer, I think you need to have your scientific ducks in a row. Thus, I can’t recommend the book.
A Taste of New Wine: A Book About Life by Keith Miller
Paperback, 115 pages
This is another accessible read. Trumpeted as one of “100 Christian books that changed the century” and bearing a foreword from the esteemed Henri Nouwen, I began reading with enthusiasm. Alas, this turned out not to be a book for me. It is primarily a memoir of the author’s journey from successful businessman to a dedicated life of lay ministry. It is not without merit, and Miller’s walk of faith is an impressive one. I can only say that it was not a book that changed the century for me, so again, I cannot recommend it.
A Confession by Leo Tolstoy
Paperback, 77 pages
At this point, I was feeling a bit like Goldilocks. The books were too hard. Or too easy. Or too much of something and not enough of something else.
Enter the magnificent Leo Tolstoy. In this ever so brief memoir, he lays it all on the line. He was raised as an Orthodox Christian but swayed from faith at an early age by a prevailing sentiment among his peers that “there was no God”. He dedicated himself instead to a humanist goal of perfection: “to be more famous, more important and richer than others”.
But much was missing for him in the heady life he led. By age 50, he had thoughts of suicide. “What is it for? What does it lead to? I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet.” He ultimately comes to realize that it is only when he seeks God that he feels alive.
It is a quick read, but a powerful one, and whew, finally, a faith-based book that I can unequivocally recommend.
We are each on our own path as we walk in or out of faith, so it’s no surprise that it can be a challenge to find the right fit, reading-wise. I have a whole stack of books already awaiting me for my 2023 reads – hopefully some of them will help me dig deep – or at least scratch the surface of belief.
It’s always a happy moment when I meet my annual Goodreads reading challenge:
I was truly surprised, though, when I went back through all the titles and realized that almost half of the reading I did in 2022 was scriptural or theological. Could that really be? I counted again and yes, 29 of the titles I read were on my Christianity “shelf”.
I’ve been all over the place with God in my life and honestly, I am guessing God would say He has been all over the place with me as well. I’m a trial; a little skittish, a little rebellious, a lot imperfect. But we’re working on it, me and God, and after several well-meaning but failed attempts along the way to read the one-year or three year Bible, I finally found something that works for me.
I was thinking, maybe if I listened to it I could make better headway, and I was on the verge of clicking James Earl Jones’ reading of the Holy Bible (what could be better than the voice of God himself?!) when another option popped up.
Dr. Bill Creasy’s Logos Bible Study is not a word for word reading, but a navigated study through each book of the Bible. A retired UCLA professor, Creasy now leads hugely popular Bible Studies in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas as well as offering teaching tours to the Holy Land.
I think his Logos Bible Study web site offers the studies in YouTube video form, but I suspected I couldn’t sit still that long and opted for the Audible versions that I could listen to while I take my morning walks. I began in January 2021 with, of course, Genesis and – taking a week off each time I completed a book to ponder what I had learned – ended that year with the Book of Psalms.
Thus, I began 2022 with the Book of Proverbs and by August I celebrated having completed the Old Testament. (My new party trick, if it’s a good day and I am well-caffeinated, is reciting aloud the titles of the 39 OT books.) And then it was onward into the Gospels – I made it through the Book of Luke before New Year’s.
As you can see, I still have miles to go…
But I wonder if just maybe, by the end of this year, I could possibly make it all the through. We’ll see.
I thought motivation would be an issue – stick-to-it-iveness is not my strong suit. But surprisingly, during each of my week-long abstinences between books, I find myself genuinely eager to begin the next one.
Pastor Timothy Keller, founder of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author of many popular books on Christian faith and living, tweeted recently “Nothing more important for a Christian to do than to read right through the whole Bible over an over and over, at the very least once a year. You have to keep checking and refining your beliefs by immersion in the Scripture.”
I’m a long way from being able to process the entire Bible in one year, but I understand what Keller is saying. While I’ve long heard pastors and study leaders stress the importance of “being in the Word”, it never seemed like a realistic goal until I found a template that works for me. Reading it in a linear fashion has provided an exponential leap in understanding for me both in terms of history and of the Bible’s significance as the inspired word of God.
If you’ve never opened a page of scripture, you will likely be skeptical. Isn’t it boring? Well, I and II Chronicles did not exactly get my heart rate up and yes, I struggled a bit with the minor prophets. But you have to build from book to book for the entire fabric of scripture to hold together. I attended a study on the Book of Revelation a few years ago and found myself thoroughly at sea. Now I know why Dr. Creasy often says that Revelation is the easiest book of the Bible to understand — providing that you’ve already read every previous book.
And while I’m not big on “best sellers”, I have to give this one 5 stars across the board. With somewhere between five and seven billion copies printed in the 1500 years since the contents of the Bible were standardized, it is the best-selling book of all time. You have to read it to believe it…