Reading is one of the few pursuits that permit you to appear virtuous while you are really just avoiding chores, people or life in general. Pick up a book and you have an instant – and completely legal – escape chute from reality. If dinner’s not on the table because you were playing Pocket God you may not get a pass, but somehow you’re forgiven if you lost track of time while reading War and Peace.
Most people are busy and don’t want to waste time reading a book that is unsuited to them. I read the NYT Book Review cover to cover every Sunday, but there are other ways to choose a book if the NYT is not your style. My sister-in-law, Jean, and I were just talking about on-line sites for book recommendations. I use GoodReads because I like the little Widget it offers for displaying the book you are currently reading on your blog. It’s somewhere over on the lower right of this page. But I’ve also heard good things about Library Thing. I found an article online that discusses both of those and other options for sites for book lovers. If you’re not in a book club and would like to find one, check out this site.
2012 list, continued:
22. ****The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Some people look down their noses at historical fiction, but I am not one of them. Somehow it is easier to remember sweeping historic events if they are tied to the lives of characters you come to care about. Wouk’s characters aren’t quite three-dimensional but they come close enough to make this an entertaining and educational read. I’m hoping to devour the sequel War and Remembrance in 2013.
23. ***The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
If this book hadn’t been so difficult for me to read I would have given it four stars. I think any reader of this book would do well to study Karl Barth and dialectical theology before taking on the challenge. Or at least have a guide at hand as I will the next time I try to get through it. Simplistically, Bonhoeffer challenges the reader to consider the concept of “costly grace”, and it is a challenge, indeed. By the way, if you are interested in Bonhoeffer, here is a blog about him.
24.***Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
I am too spoiled by David McCullough to give this book four stars. It is a good book, and I learned a lot from it. But it can be a plodding read, and in nearly every chapter I found myself wondering what McCullough would have had to say. Isaacson is meticulous in recording the events and accomplishments of Franklin’s life, which are nothing short of astounding. But I didn’t ever feel like I really understood Franklin, the man, and thus he remains an enigma. I think he would have liked it that way.
25.***The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This is a young author to watch. She takes subject matter that might strike the average reader as straw and spins it into gold. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t interested in how cells are used for cancer research. She will explain it in a way you can follow and she will make you care deeply for the way it has impacted the lives of Henrietta’s family members.
26. ****Chesapeake by James Michener
My friend, Nancy, recommended this historical novel as prep for our visit to their little slice of heaven on “the Bay”. I spent ten glorious days immersed in Michener’s love letter to the region; reading this book was almost as much fun as the trip itself. In addition to chronicling the ethnic, religious and political history of the Chesapeake Bay, Michener includes a thorough treatment of “watermen” whose role is integral and peculiar to the magnificent estuary that is the Chesapeake Bay.
27.****Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
I searched quite awhile for a book to read in advance of our visit to Philadelphia last summer. I was hoping to find a fictional treatment of the city in colonial times, but instead, recommendations for this book about the 1787 Constitutional Convention kept popping up. I thought it would be dry and academic but no, Ms. Bowen deftly brings the times, the people and the city vividly to life while delivering a very important history lesson.This is a very good book!Includes the text of the Constitution, by the way.
28.***Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner
Thanks to Mr. Warner, I am now capable of sexing crabs. This and much, much more information both arcane and quotidian about the species Callinectes sapidus and life on the Chesapeake Bay can be found within the pages of this 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction.
29. *****Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
When I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying a few years ago, my dear husband claimed loudly that he “hated” Faulkner every time he saw me with the book. Our marriage was saved when said husband actually started reading Faulkner the following year and became a devoted acolyte to Faulkner’s genius. Faulkner wrote for himself, not for the rest of us mortals, and you must meet him on his own ground. It is worth the effort. This book of short stories includes the novella “The Bear”, one of the most stirring contributions ever made to American fiction.
30. ***The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy J. Keller
Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the widely praised author of The Reason for God and other books. He is a brilliant and very wise man and appeals especially to those who prefer their Christianity without a big side helping of cloying theatricality. His wife, Kathy, collaborated with him on this book, which will appeal to those who share Keller’s theological stance and will be dismissed out of hand by those who do not. I appreciated Keller’s reminder of the truly sacred nature of marriage, the necessity of God’s presence in a marriage to assure its strength and the reminder that a strong commitment to that union is ordained by our Creator and carries a significance that touches not just the two people in the marriage but reaches far beyond into family and community.
31.***The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
A sweet tiny sliver of a novella, set during WWII around the events at Dunkirk and easily read in an afternoon.
32. ***The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Set in WWII Germany, this novel would simply be too sad to read without the author’s inclusion of a weary but compassionate Angel of Death.
33.*****Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I don’t re-read books very often, but Gilead is a very special book and Marilynne Robinson is a very special author. In this and its companion novel Home, Robinson’s unfailing compass invariably locates the sacred in the unremarkable. In the knowledge that his time is short, elderly pastor John Ames looks back on his personal history as he writes a love letter to his young son.There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough never seems to heal at all
34.***Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! by George C. Rable
You probably don’t need to read as long a book as this one to learn the particulars of the Battle of Fredericksburg, but I found it an excellent primer for our visit to the battlefield last fall. General Burnside’s desperate ploy for a Union victory ended badly at the Sunken Road stone wall with 12,653 Union casualties. Rable includes meticulously-researched first-hand accounts from soldiers that remind the reader of the ghastly human cost of the Civil War.
35.***Truman by David McCullough
McCullough deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for this achievement. I hesitated on giving it a four-star review because of a nagging suspicion that McCullough fell just a little bit too much in love with his subject. Accusations of machine politics and cronyism dogged Truman throughout his political life yet McCullough never quite connects the dots all the way to “Give ’em Hell” Harry in this treatment of Truman.
36.***The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaajte
This is the latest novel from The English Patient author Ondaajte. Although he has denied claims that this tale of a young boy, Michael, sailing alone on an ocean liner from Ceylon to London is autobiographical, some of the events of the journey apparently parallel Ondaajte’s childhood experiences. Encounters with fellow passengers lead to adventures and misadventures on the ship and in the voyage of life.
37.***The Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
I try to read at least one of Edith Wharton’s books each year, and even her lesser works offer a privileged glimpse of life in the Gilded Age. Wharton had an uneasy relationship with her mother and never had children of her own, so her treatment of a lost-and-found mother/daughter relationship also gives the reader a peek into Wharton’s psyche.
38.****All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This is a significant work, and a dark one, and for me was not initially all that accessible. My first impression was that it was a Western, and, in fact, on one level it is. All that and more. I’m glad I read it; I’m not entirely convinced that I enjoyed it. Favorite line: …it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they
were starting out or they’d have no heart to start at all…
39. ***The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Decades ago, the CE gave me a series of decorative plates based upon Russian fairy tales. On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art I happened upon the original artwork by Russian illustrator Boris Zworykin for one of them, the subject of which was Snegurochka or “The Snow Maiden”. Just a few months later came a book club assignment to read this book, which is half novel, half fantasy, based upon the fairy tale about the maiden made of snow who is doomed when her heart warms with love for mortal humans. The book is the author’s first and clearly a fledgling effort, but Ms. Ivey paints a vivid portrait of her native Alaska and the ill-fated snow child.
40. ****The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Walker Percy has been on my “to read” list for a long time. I was not disappointed. This National Book Award-winning novel is set in the South during the early 1960’s and has a definite postmodern flavor infused by the character’s reflections upon his day-to-day life following his service in the Korean War. But there is much more; cousin Kate’s bi-polar struggles and Percy’s brilliant asides that presage the manner in which our culture has come to confuse a fixation on celebrity as a form of self-affirmation.
That’s it for the 2012 wrap-up. I’m three books into 2013 and looking forward to all the literary places I will go this year. I hope this list encourages you to grab a book and join me!