In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle sings of “beautiful, beautiful soup”. To me there is none more beautiful than the kind of a little of this and a pinch of that stirred in to make a year’s worth of reading. I just don’t know, is reading a virtue or an affliction? If the former, I’m on my way to perfection; if the latter, I’m in in the soup. Book soup, that is. Taking up where I left off last week, here is the second half of my reading year’s list:
*** Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson 496 pages
Olson traces the experiences of three prominent Americans who spent most of or all of WWII in London: journalist Edward Murrow, political animal Averell Harriman and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John Gilbert Winant. Through their sometimes harrowing encounters, the reader learns of the courage and steadfastness summoned up by Londoners through the Blitz and draconian years of food rationing, as well as the ambivalent sentiments Brits felt toward the 1.6 million American troops who flooded the city of London prior to the D-Day invasion. What I learned: F.D.R. did nothing to help Jews emigrate until 1944; too little, too late. Of Churchill and Roosevelt, Churchill’s daughter said “being with them was like sitting between two lions roaring at the same time…”
****A Room with a View by E.M. Forster 196 pages
Like everyone else, I thought, I’ve seen the movie, why bother to read the book? Wrong. This is an absolute treasure. But oh, how I wish I had saved it to read in Italy (one of these days…) Incisive and brilliant at every turn. Quote: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise.”
*** The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucille Lagnado 368 pages
The second memoir I have read about Jews fleeing Egypt after the Suez Crisis. The first was entitled Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt by Jean Naggar. Somewhat different in time and experience, both remembrances are highly personal. Neither are great literature but both make you wish you could have experienced Egypt the way these women did during their childhoods.
1/2 In the Mirror by Kaira Rouda 200 pages
I give this half a star because Ms. Rouda went to the effort to write a book and I admire that. But this was a terrible, horrible book. Pairing chick lit and cancer is not my idea of a good read. My book club concurred; bad, bad medicine.
***** For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
For a long time, I was more Team Fitzgerald than Team Hemingway. Then I read this. Wow. Living your whole life in four days. Don’t quibble about the thees and thous – anyone who knows Spanish understands the formal address and if you don’t, just let it go and keep reading. This is life and death all compressed into the valley and the hills beyond and Robert Jordan and Pilar and Pablo and Maria. Que va.
**** Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson 592 pages
I can’t remember a time when I so enjoyed reading an almost 600 page book. It made me 1) want to re-read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own account of his experiences; 2) angry at Winston Churchill for his blunder of the Dardanelles operation during WWI (see the film Gallipoli if you want a quick primer) and 3) throw up my hands at the British and, especially, the French at the maneuvering over the Middle East which undoubtedly contributed to the perennial upheaval in that region. Okay, a little bit mad at the U.S., too, for Standard Oil sneakiness. Big Bonus: learning about Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn’s paving of the way to a Jewish homeland in Israel. Quote: Woodrow Wilson’s “new world order” rested on a bedrock of ignorance.”
*** Bel Canto by Ann Patchett 336 pages
My first Ann Patchett read. I wanted so much to love it, since her recommenders are so passionate. Truthfully, I admire her skill – she is a good, better than good, writer; but I did not love it. It is based on a factual event, the 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru, and interwoven with Patchett’s adopted love of opera. Quote: “The French had very little experience in being deferential.”
*** To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel 304 pages
Questions for you: did you know that there are approximately 9,600 species of birds on earth? That only two birders have (as of publication of this book) seen 8,000 species? That oology is the study of collecting of birds’ eggs? That the Dusky Seaside Sparrow went extinct in 1987? Of the existence of the Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle? If not, you need to read this book.
*** The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera 312 pages
I am an unabashed fan of Kundera ever since The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But…I did not like this book. I did not like the baseness of the characters or the brutal misogyny posing as eroticism. I struggled with the tinge of magic realism. It gets three stars simply because of its intellectual timbre, which cannot be denied. John Updike said of Kundera, “(He)…was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs–‘the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half”–who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: “And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down.” Quote: “You begin to liquidate a people…by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history.”
*** Banker by Dick Francis 341 pages
I read this book at the urging of a friend. I expected to hate it. Wrong. It was a great read! If you love intrigue, horses, England, and a fast read, this is for you. Lots of fun!
*** 1/2 The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 416 pages
Rowing = pain. This is a book worth reading. A young man abandoned by his family after the 1929 Crash rows with his teammates to success in the 1936 Olympics. Tags: 1936 Olympics, University of Washington Rowing; Husky Clipper; Joe Rantz; courage; persistence; Nazi Germany
**1/2 Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst by Adam Phillips 182 pages
A psychoanalytic biography, and only just okay. I was left with more questions than answers about the man who “sees modern adults as people who cannot recover from their childhoods”. Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Time might be a better choice if you want to read about the founder of psychoanalysis.
*** The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 848 pages
My first mistake, probably, was to “read” this via audiobook. Yikes. It was really, really, long. A Booker Prize winner, this novel is set in Victorian New Zealand. Catton weaves a complex web of characters and motivations but the ending fizzled and made me wish for my twenty-seven hours back.
*** Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 940 pages
Published in the early 1600’s, this is considered the definitive novel of the time and a national treasure of literary Spain. They can have it. I know, I know, I’m a heretic. But once you get past the tilting at windmills, it’s all silliness and repetition. Three stars for its place in literary history, but only two from me as far as the pleasure of reading it. I am, however, respectfully mindful of Cervantes’ cautionary nudge: “with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”
** The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer 448 pages
This book has generated a lot of buzz. Packer’s deft use of character sketches personalize the 2008 financial crisis and trace his version of its origins. The narrative would be more affecting had it been more objective. Four hundred pages of bankers depicted as Snideley Whiplashes and all the unions wearing white hats. And somehow, Barney Frank is never mentioned? Quote: “…most people in bankruptcy weren’t irresponsible – they were too responsible.” Huh?
**** The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien 839 pages
This made my top ten list for the year. O’Brien chronicles the odyssey of Josip, a Croatian boy orphaned by the Communist incursion into then-Yugoslavia at the end of WWII. Lyrically written, but the teensiest bit flawed by the fact that it lapses into weary pontification toward the end. Quote: “We are born, we eat and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem, left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”
*** The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 226 pages
The protagonist is a teen whose humanity glows despite an Aspergers-like affliction. He and Toby, his pet rat, persevere, while his parents and neighbors end up looking like the village idiots.
*** Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather 87 pages Cather’s first novel, published in 1912, is a must-read for her fanatic fans but probably not for anyone else. Tags: hubris
**** Tinkers by Paul Harding 191 pages
Oh, what a beautiful book this is! After numerous rejections, Harding’s novel was accepted by Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher affiliated with NYU Medical School. Initially ignored by the literary world, it was lofted by word of mouth to become a surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If I tell you the book is about death, you won’t want to read it, so I’ll just tell you that it is about life, which is equally true. Highly, enthusiastically recommended!
*** The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 224 pages A sci-fi romp through space firmly entrenched in pop culture since being made into a popular film in 2005. You’ll never look at a mouse in quite the same way after reading this.
*** 1/2 Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson 656 pages
A splendidly-written biography of the man whose cold stare and obsession with industrial design brought us the i-everything.
***1/2 The Sea Wolf by Jack London 244 pages
London pits philosophical materialism against idealism on the high seas. Four stars for the book’s memorable characters, but I subtracted half a star for the sappy ending. London writes masterfully about adventure; less so when he takes on romance.
** 1/2 Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline 288 pages
More than 250,000 orphans from crowded eastern cities were transported to foster homes in the Midwest in a seemingly misguided welfare program of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The subject matter is worthy but the maudlin execution of this novel makes it more appropriate as a young adult read.
*** The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow When The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are in wild agreement, I sit up and take notice. They both loved this book and so did I. The author recounts the fifteen years he spent as devoted guardian of Mumble, a Tawny Owl.
*** Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxas 352 pages
I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be the book I drop at the door of all my unbelieving friends. But Metaxas’ abundant enthusiasm for his subject matter does not sufficiently convince me that a pair of lost car keys that suddenly materialize on a dashboard constitutes a miracle. He is more persuasive in his exposition of the overwhelming scientific evidence for design in the universe.
***** Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 504 pages
There’s a reason why classics remain classic a hundred and fifty years later. Pip and Joe and Miss Havisham and Estella are among Dickens’ many great gifts to literature. This is a delicious read.
**** Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington by Sharyl Attkisson 432 pages
Despite the confrontational inclusion of the current president’s name in the title, this is an important book for readers on either side of the political aisle. Attkisson objectively and unblinkingly shares the cautionary tale of our government’s threatening intrusion into her digital and professional life. Highly recommended.
**** The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert 512 pages
I know, you all love to hate Elizabeth Gilbert because she went slightly over the edge of self-absorption in Eat, Pray, Love. But this is not that book. This is a fine, skillfully-written novel that will take you from Pennsylvania to Tahiti to the Netherlands and manage to pique your interest in moss along the way. Highly recommended. Quote: “What a stark and stunning thing was life – that such a cataclysm can enter and depart so quickly, and leave such wreckage behind.”
**** Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson 272 pages
We should all read anything Marilynne Robinson writes. Period. That said, this book was a burden for me to read. So much sadness, hurt and trouble. Her Lila always on the verge of leaving Ames in the same way we are always on the verge of turning away from God. A gentle, somber fever dream of a book.
*** The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry 96 pages
Classic short stories by the author known for his ability to end things with a twist. These are period pieces, but they have a timeless moral center.
**** The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 698 pages
I’m not sure which was the greater achievement, the building of the Panama Canal or the writing of this book. At times, even reading it seemed like an insurmountable task but it was absolutely worth the effort. Tags: geopolitics, Ferdinand de Lesseps, yellow fever, Theodore Roosevelt, mud, mud and more mud.
**1/2 The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks 416 pages
Not my cup of tea but I’m sure everyone else will go see the movie that is made from this implausible mash-up of bull-riding, art collecting and, of course, romance. Complete with a happy ending and a falling star on the last page.
*** Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott 304 pages
I like Anne Lamott, even though, in this book largely about forgiveness, she repeatedly disrupts her narrative and spews a most ungracious form of venom toward anyone who does not share her political views. I hope she will take her own very sound and original advice from another of her excellent and highly readable books: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
**** 1/2 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 544 pages
The reading year ended on a high note with this original, luscious, ethereal, redemptive, compassionate triumph of a novel about a young French girl and a young German boy whose lives intersect in WWII France. So. Achingly. Beautiful. So highly recommended that I will hunt you down and maim you if you don’t read it.
Onward to books of 2015. Happy reading!