The Insomniac’s Bookshelf: How I read my way through 2011 in the dark

Every night is a new adventure when you can’t sleep. Usually I fall asleep easily and then wake up a few hours later and finally fall back to sleep by dawn’s early light. Yeah, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get me to commit to any breakfast dates.  But last night the gods of anti-sleep pulled a fast one on me: I could NOT fall asleep, even though a husband, two dogs and a cat (Dodger has recently been awarded a good-behavior place of honor in our bedroom at night) all managed to slumber sweetly beside me.

Our new roommate: the Dodge

I finally got some shut-eye between 3 am and 6 am, but in the long hours preceding my “nap”, I was grateful for the insomniac’s best friend: a good book and a reading light.

Which reminded me: some Polloplayer readers have asked for another book list update and the last day of the year would seem like a good time to provide it. Thanks to my membership in two book clubs, the list is an eclectic one. The list is chronological, and I’m awarding stars for those of you who are looking for recommendations. I will divide the list into two posts, as it turns out I did a fair amount of reading this year!


1. The John McPhee Reader 416 pp

***  Selections from McPhee’s works. Recommended especially for the chapter “The Crofter and the Laird”, McPhee’s enchanting account of life on the Inner Hebrides islands of Scotland.

McPhee lived for several months on his ancestral island of Colonsay while writing "The Crofter and the Laird" (image from

2. Little Bee by Chris Cleave 266 pp

* Not recommended. Everyone loved this novel but me. It was a bestseller but I found the characters unsympathetic and the plot overpromising and implausible.

3. The Iliad by Homer (Fagles translation) 614 pp

***** What can I say? The ultimate page-turner. There will be blood!

4. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok 301 pp

** Meh. Highly readable account of the author’s childhood with a paranoid schizophrenic mother. For my money, Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle was a better treatment of this genre.

4. Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morrison 570 pp

**** The third and final volume of Morrison’s meticulous account of Roosevelt’s life. A larger-than-life read of a larger-than-life character, this account covers the period of Roosevelt’s life from his White House departure to his death.


5. Postcards by Annie Proulx 320 pp

**** Proulx is the rare best-selling author who just happens to be a fine, fine writer.

Annie Proulx's latest is "Bird Cloud: A Memoir" (image from

6. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine 323 pp

*** Okay, this is an esoteric one, but I enjoyed it. Hooke was a contemporary and rival of Sir Isaac Newton who, according to the author, was gypped out of his rightful claim for his contribution to Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational attraction and for his partnership with Christopher Wren to the plans for St. Paul’s cathedral. A fascinating read for a survey of the history and innovations in Europe during the 1600’s.

7.  Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore 235 pp

*** I dare you to read this and not be moved. An account of an unlikely and redemptive friendship between an art dealer and a homeless man.

8. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson 304 pp

*** A novel of family tragedy and growth told against the backdrop of rural Ontario, Canada.

9. Rivers in the Desert by Margaret L. Davis 303 pp

**** Fascinating account of the building of the Los Angeles aqueduct, the Owens Valley water wars and William Mulholland’ fall from grace after the tragic failure of the St. Francis dam.


10. The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Francke 416 pp

***** Disturbing but ethereally written translation from the German about a woman who had the misfortune to be a child in Germany during WWI, a young adult during the era of the Weimar Republic and an adult mother during the privations of WWII. I should warn the squeamish that there are passages of graphic although not gratuitous sexual encounters between two sisters. An astonishing work from a preternaturally accomplished young author.

One to watch: the German author Julia Francke (Wikipedia image)

11. Extraordinary, Ordinary People by Condoleeza Rice  328 pp

*** I read this after seeing Rice speak. A memoir of the forces that shaped Rice’s childhood and ascent to a powerful Cabinet position in the George W. Bush administration. My impression after reading the book is that the assumption that Rice is a right-wing conservative is far from accurate.

12.  Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow 817 pp

***** A stunning biographical achievement and a must-read. I have a whole new appreciation of the wisdom and sacrifice that won us independence and launched our nation.


13. Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler 448 pp

*** Interesting account of a journalist’s experience living in contemporary China.  Wry humor and some behind-the-scenes portraits of real-life China. However, am I impertinent to suggest that this staff writer for The New Yorker needed a better editor?

14. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks 385 pp

*** As a former musician, I really enjoyed this. I thought it was a much better read than Sacks’ popular The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.

15. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright 421 pp

***** A thorough, searing and often frightening account of the ways in which radical Islam of the 1940’s wrapped its tentacles forward in history and led to the tragedy of 9/11. Prepare to be horrified by the innumerable ways in which the terrorist attack could have been averted but for petty bickering among blockheaded government agencies.


16. The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin 336 pp

*** A lovely book that intertwines the slim details we have of J.S. Bach’s life with that of Pablo Casals and his iconic interpretation of the famed Bach Cello Suites. Best read with a recording of Bach’s transcendent cello suites at hand.

17. Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury 536 pp

**** A haunting and lyrical fictional account of the squalid lives and shame of defeat experienced by Palestinians from 1948 forward,  based on factual interviews the Lebanese author conducted with refugee camp residents.

Recommended: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury (image from

18. Children of Dust by Ali Eteraz 334 pp

** An autobiographical account of growing up Muslim in Pakistan and the US. Interesting, but I personally think the author (whose real name is Abir ul Islam) might have written a better book had he spent some time in therapy and chiseled his ego down to manageable size before putting pen to paper.

19. The Siege of Mecca: the Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda by Yaroslav Trofimov

*** Somewhat esoteric (as you can see I was on kind of a roll with Middle Eastern reading) but significant piece to understanding the puzzle of contemporary radical Islam.  The author is a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and has an excellent grasp of his subject matter. This book (a gift from sister-in-law Jean) had been on my shelf awhile and my understanding of it was greatly enhanced by the other reading I had done on the subject.

20. “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas 540 pp

***** Extraordinary account of an extraordinary personage. Also a gift from sister-in-law Jean – thanks, Jean, keep them coming! Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a member of a revered intellectual German family, emerged from a somewhat agnostic childhood to embrace Christianity and the pastorate. His conviction that his calling dictated that he work to save  the Christian church and Jews in Nazi Germany led him to eschew offers to leave his homeland for safety and instead, place himself on the periphery of a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was executed in the final days of the war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, second from right, during an eighteen-month imprisonment at Tegel. He was later arrested and held in concentration camps before being executed in April of 1945. (image from


21. The French Resistance: 140-1944 by Raymond Aubrac 40 pp

**This is just a small booklet of mostly photographs but gives a rudimentary account of the brave men and women who made up the Resistance in WWII France.

22. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 288 pp

** This novel was on a lot of “best of 2011” lists. The author’s breezy style and quirky characters make for an entertaining read, but if you’re looking for substance, you’d best look elsewhere.

23.  The Devil in the White City: a Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America  by Erik Larson 447 pp

**** This is a book that rightfully belongs on any “best of” list you want to make. Don’t let the ponderous sub-title hold you back: this is a terrific, gripping read that meshes the giddy excitement of the fair that ushered in the innovations of electric lights, the Ferris Wheel and Crackerjack with the chill of a serial killer on the prowl.

More to come…time for a nap!

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
This entry was posted in Annoyances of Life, Music/Art/Literature/Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Insomniac’s Bookshelf: How I read my way through 2011 in the dark

  1. Chicken Emperor says:

    I can personally attest to the persist efforts of the Chicken Lady in running through all of these books. She goes into a sort of intense trance as she sinks further into the book in front of her. I sometimes enjoy cheering her on as I thumb through the National Enquirer looking for Kardashian stories. I, and all of the coop ladies, are proud of her 2011 list!

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