I read kind of a lot. Sometimes I even feel a little bit guilty about it. I’m never sure we are really supposed to enjoy ourselves that much. (Yes, I was raised Roman Catholic…why do you ask?)
Then, last week, an Emory University neuroscientist came to my rescue when The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other news outlets buzzed with headlines about a recent study that suggested reading can result in long-term positive neural changes to the brain.
Dr. Gregory Berns (also the author of How Dogs Love Us – I like him already!) conducted fMRIs on a test group of students during and after an assignment to read a compelling novel (Pompeii by Robert Harris) and found that heightened neural activity in the left temporal cortex was sustained for up to five days after the completion of the reading assignment.
Thanks to Dr. Berns, we no longer have to feel quite so guilty about indulging ourselves with a good book. When someone asks you why you’re reading instead of doing the dishes or the laundry, you can just explain that you are engaged in strength-training your neuro-cortical pathways.
Otherwise, I would have to feel very, very guilty about 2013 because I spent a lot of time reading. Fifty-two books in all, many of them read as book club selections, so the list is once again eclectic (if you are interested, you can view the 2012 Part 1 and Part Two and 2011 Part One and Part 2)
1. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin 755 pages
This scholarly but readable book was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln for which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Historically thorough yet infused with anecdotal accounts that create a fascinating and personal portrait of Lincoln, his family and his Cabinet members during the American Civil War. Recommended.
2. Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon 294 pages
Almina Wombwell was the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild. She married the Earl of Carnarvon, who is credited with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Their life together was the inspiration for the BBC series Downton Abbey. An entertaining read.
3. Ghost Wars by Steve Coll 732 pages
This book is frequently quoted in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower and is similarly gripping. Coll is a former staff writer for The Washington Post and The New Yorker and is currently the dean of Columbia Journalism School. His book traces the labyrinthine construct of Pakistan’s and Saudi Arabia’s cultural, religious and military layers and their often duplicitous relationship with the United States. Coll threads the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with the CIA’s sometimes shadowy gun diplomacy there and against this backdrop he sketches the trajectory of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama bin Laden, among others. This is on my VIB (Very Important Book) list. Highly recommended.
4. The Martian’s Daughter by Marina von Neumann Whitman 282 pages
Ms. Whitman is the daughter of famed Hungarian mathematician and scientist John von Neumann and an accomplished economist and businesswoman in her own right. In her autobiography, she discusses her childhood and her career, which included a stint as an economic advisor during the Nixon administration and a post as the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. auto industry with General Motors. An interesting read but of somewhat narrow focus.
5. The Alpha Masters: Unlocking the Genius of the World’s Top Hedge Funds by Maneet Ahuja 245 pages
I have no idea how or where I found this book but I enjoyed it, although it was probably obsolete upon publication, given the dizzying speed with which hedge fund fortunes are made and lost. Ms. Ahuja profiles several financial titans, including Ray Dalio, John Paulson, Daniel Loeb and William Ackman. Paulson foresaw the 2008 meltdown and profited big time from the call. He hasn’t done so well since, though and Ackman’s star has faded as well with the recent J.C. Penney debacle. Nice to know these guys can be wrong, too.
6. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 509 pages
I just had to read this to see what all the fuss was about. What a wild ride! Mitchell is a prodigiously gifted writer, cartwheeling time and space to create a giddily exhausting and visually memorable epic. But what, exactly, was he trying to tell us? If you care enough to dig, there is a thread on Goodreads dedicated to the “Easter Eggs” to be hunted in this book.
7. Wild by Cheryl Strayed 338 pages
I did not expect to like this book but Strayed won me over with her fearless prose in this memoir of her physical and emotional experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. You may not like her – she can be grating in her romantic self-absorption while seeming cavalier in failing to register the gravity of an abortion, but she is unfailingly honest. Just as a warning to sensitive animal lovers (like me), toward the end there is a brief chapter about a horse that will break your heart.
8. Fall of Giants by Ken Follet 920 pages
Huge book. Huge disappointment. I really enjoyed Follett’s Century trilogy but this book, the first of a trio about modern history beginning with WWI struck me as being a mishmash of one-dimensional characters and flaccidly written dialogue. Not recommended.
9. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo 256 pages
Not a fun read but a well-researched and written study of the lives of Indian slum-dwellers in a shanty town adjacent to the Mumbai airport. The impulse to help is somewhat stifled when you learn of the systematic corruption and waste and misappropriation of the massive amounts of charitable funds intended to ease suffering.
10. The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and Marion Mainwaring 418 pages
I try to pick off a few Edith Whartons every year and this was a good one. Wharton’s last novel was unfinished at the time of her death and was seamlessly completed by Wharton scholar Mainwaring. Wealthy young Gilded Age parvenus go off to England to pirate social prominence by marrying titled aristocrats. It generally goes badly. Recommended.
11. Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan 163 pages
Deprived of oxygen at his birth and profoundly disabled by cerebal palsy, Nolan’s unconstrained brilliance was nurtured by a determined and loving family. After his mother helped him learn to write with a “unicorn stick” strapped to his forehead that allowed him to peck out letters on a typewriter, Nolan became celebrated in his native Ireland for his poetry and fiction. This book, while told in third person, is his personal memoir. His prose is peppered with curious, unexpected syntax, “a creativity which had, chaos-like, nearly clung forever to the lip of the abyss of hell.” Highly recommended.
12. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt 386 pages
This has to be one of the best true-crime stories ever written. Berendt deftly weaves character portraits of larger-than-life Savannahians amidst an investigation of a sordid murder. A must-read for Savannah-bound tourists. Recommended.
13. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel 416 pages
A good read if you are interested in late 19th-century history of the Comanche Indians versus Texas Panhandle settlers or if you are a John Wayne fan. This book combines a study of the plot and the making of what has been called the greatest Western film ever made.
14. The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander 206 pages
Eh, I’m not really a fan of self-help books and found that the authors’ egos overshadowed any self-helping message. Long-time New England Conservatory conductor Benjamin Zander (fired in 2012) is irrepressibly full of himself; Rosamund Stone Zander touts herself as a “pioneer in the field of leadership”. Not recommended.
15. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce 338 pages
Another book about a long hike, but where Cheryl Strayed’s quest rang true for me, this one did not. Harold Fry and his wife Maureen are locked in silent combat over a too-easily-guessed secret and Harold goes for a long, long walk. Very popular book but it didn’t work for me. Not recommended.
16. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain 299 pages
I loved this book and learned so much about “Old Man River” as the Mississippi is often called. Fourth longest river in the world with a water supply that comes from twenty-eight states, it was discovered by DeSoto and, in Twain’s words, is “as dark as the inside of a cow”. Twain reminisces about his days as a steamboat pilot and his return to the River after the age of the steamboat supremacy has passed. Recommended.
17. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman 352 pages
Well-written but what I would call (along with the Harold Fry book) fluffy contemporary fiction. I know this book has been wildly popular but I was mostly just annoyed by the grievous misdeeds of the female protagonist. Let’s not be stealing babies, please.
18. How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill 256 pages
Loved this book. Cahill compresses a brief assay of the ancient world and hinges it with the Roman Empire and its fall, then goes on to tell us about St. Patrick and how the monk scribes of Ireland helped preserve ancient texts for posterity. It sounds dry but it is not. The ironic hyperbole of the title is the reader’s first hint that merriment will ensue. Highly recommended.
19. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe 544 pages
This was a re-read following a pilgrimage to Wolfe’s home in Asheville last spring. If anything, I am more beguiled than ever by the genius of Wolfe’s singular contributions to American literature. The characters of W.O. (Oliver), Eliza, Eugene and Benjamin Gant are seared across these pages in all their brooding, hard-scrabble misery and I dare you not to care about them. This is a classic. Highly recommended and on my VIB list.
20. Watership Down by Richard Adams 423 pages
No one loves to anthropomorphize animals more than I do and seeing all the bunny rabbits twitching their cute little noses on our property last summer prompted me to read this 1972 classic. Sweet, lovely tender book about a brave band of British bunnies. Highly recommended.
21. Gettysburg by Stephen Sears 515 pages
This is the classic read on the costliest of all Civil War battles and the one that is viewed as the war’s turning point toward a Union victory. It’s all here: Lee’s overconfident and weary arrogance, Meade’s debut as a reluctant General, J.E.B. Stuart’s truancy, Little Round Top, The Angle and Pickett’s Charge. I read it to observe the 150th anniversary of the battle but you can read it for the 151st. Highly recommended.
22. Isak Dineson: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman 443 pages
This may be the finest biography I have ever read. Isak Dineson is the pen name of the adventurous and complicated Danish author Karen Blixen, who, as a young woman, went to live in Kenya with her philandering husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. Her short stories, including the famous “Babette’s Feast” brought her fame. Thurman’s grasp of her subject and of history, culture, geography and psychology make this a stunningly readable book. Highly recommended.
23. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen 397 pages
I couldn’t quite let go of Ms. Blixen after reading Thurman’s stirring biography so I went to the source and thoroughly enjoyed Blixen’s memoir of her life as a young girl in Denmark and as an colonial ex-pat doggedly trying to coax a living as a coffee plantation owner in the hills of Kenya. Her affair there with big game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton supplied the romantic plot of the film based upon this book. Blixen’s affectionate yet objective observations about the Kikuyu and Maasai tribes make this a worthy historical read. Highly recommended.
24. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 404 pages
Hosseini’s previous books about his native Afghanistan are excellent. And this one is good, but I would say it is unevenly written compared with The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini describes it as “a multi-generational family story…revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor and sacrifice for each other.”
25. Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War by Dakota Meyer and Bing West 209 pages
A first-person account of a Medal of Honor recipient’s experience as a Marine in Afghanistan with particular focus on the battle of Ganjigal. Library Journal describes this book as “Black Hawk Down meets Lone Survivor”. A sobering read for the implications of the way the U.S. government and military higher-ups fail to support troops on the ground.
That wraps up Part I. More to come…