“There is no frigate like a book” said Emily Dickinson. Indeed, my 2013 reading carried me across oceans to Kenya, to Afghanistan and India, Australia and back to the United Kingdom, and even home to the American Northeast, South and West.
With a book in hand, you can traverse not just space but also time. I lived in ancient Greece, Tudor England, fin de siecle France. and colonial East Africa. I experienced the Vietnam War, the American Civil War and contemporary upheaval in the Middle East. I saw St. Patrick convert the Irish, watched Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and I was with George Washington as he retreated from the Battle of Long Island. I was there! (Where are all my frequent flyer miles?)
If you are reading this post, you are probably a fellow bibliophile. Welcome to Part 2 of my 2013 reading journey:
26. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis 227 pages
Amidst the dark days of WWII, the BBC asked Lewis to create a series of broadcasts to share “what Christians believe”. The result is an easily understood exposition of morality and Christian theology gently but unwaveringly expressed. Just a bit dated in places such as the chapter on marriage. But there are Lewisian gems: “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death” and ” Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self.” Amen!
27. Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton 96 pages
Edith Wharton lived to expose the constraints of social convention. Here she takes on marriage, money and social position in a slim novella with a plot that has a melancholy twist at the end. Written fairly early in her career, this is not one of her great works but allows the reader to see a great writer honing her craft.
28. Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser 336 pages
Harold Pinter comes across as a brooding misogynist and Antonia Fraser as a narcissistic ninny. Just my opinion, of course. Their egos are so enormous that you wonder how they managed to contain them in one house – oh wait, he spent most of his time in the building next door which was re-done as a study for him. No doubt they enlarged the door so he could get his giant swelled head through it. Not recommended, but I guess you already knew that…
29. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper 444 pages
This is a marvelous book and does not suffer too terribly much from having been written in the early-ish 1800’s. Yes, the language is a bit stilted but this memorable volume from Cooper’s famed Leatherstocking Tales employs as a backdrop a pristine Lake George and unspoiled forests of upstate New York upon which to unfold the exploits of “Hawkeye” Natty Bumpo and his Native American friends and foes. Highly recommended.
30. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver 292 pages
The first chapter of this book is one of the loveliest and most lyrically written of any contemporary novel I have read. Then it descends into a moribund plot contrived solely as a vehicle for pseudo-eco drivel that veers sharply away from science and into melodrama. Not recommended.
31. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 544 pages
Wow! What a tale Eugenides weaves! I felt like I was reading not only one book but two. The Greeks and the Turks and the Great Fire of Smyrna, 1960’s unrest in Detroit, the art of tending silkworms, tender love for family and home and, oh yes, a protagonist who is a hermaphrodite. It shouldn’t work but it does, brilliantly. Recommended.
32. Sayyid Qutb and the origins of Radical Islamism by John Calvert 292 pages
Qutb is a shadowy presence in The Looming Tower and in Ghost Wars where it is suggested his antipathy for the West inspired a generation of radical Islamic fundamentalists. A schoolteacher, Qutb was something of a social misfit who grew up steeped in national resentment of British rule over his country. “How I hate and disdain those Westerners! All of them, without exception.”, he said prior to a 1948 trip to study at Greeley State Teachers College in Colorado. He attended a church dance there where he described American women as “full of passion” with “thirsty lips, bulging breasts, smooth legs…” Returning to Egypt in 1950, Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, was implicated in a plot to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser and wrote “Milestones”, calling for jihad based upon the “sword verses” in the Qur’an. Released after a decade in prison, he promptly re-engaged in a plot to kill Nasser and was executed in 1966. This book is well-researched but reads more like a textbook than a biography. The author seems strangely besotted with his subject, excusing Qutb’s paranoia and opining in regard to 9/11 that many people suggested “America had it coming”.
33. The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell 193 pages
There was significant buzz around this book, which is an intelligent and tender first-person account of living with autism. Cloud Atlas author Mitchell and his wife discovered Higashida’s book while searching for ways to reach out to their son, also an autism sufferer. An insightful quick read.
34. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka 36 pages
If you think you’re having a bad day, try waking up and discovering that you’ve turned into a giant bug. Kafka’s not-so-subtle look at alienation and the human (and insect) condition is an acknowledged classic and a very quick read.
35. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes 640 pages
This acclaimed novel based on the author’s experiences as a Marine during the Vietnam War, succeeds admirably as a moral commentary without moralizing and as a political commentary without politicizing. It is less successful in character development which detracts from the reading experience.
36. The Aeneid by Virgil 386 pages
In my quest to conquer Dante’s Divine Comedy I finally realized that The Aeneid is a pre-requisite to The Inferno. It was a joy to read, and the Robert Fagles translation makes it truly accessible even to those of us who were not Classics majors. Virgil picks up where Homer left off in The Iliad and we accompany the iconic Trojan warrior Aeneas on his mythic journey to become the founder of Rome.
37. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 559 pages
This incredible historical novel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, re-imagines the life of Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian minister to Henry VIII. Highly recommended.
38. The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir 571 pages
After reading Mantel’s book, I remained curious about the women who had the misfortune to marry “off with her head” Henry VIII and this book was the perfect follow-up to Wolf Hall.
Next up: the wrap-up of my reading year…