I’ll reach for a novel every time. It is mostly thanks to my book clubs, travel and the occasional moment of discipline that I am grudgingly prodded into reading non-fiction. About a third of the books I read in 2015 occur in the “real world” and I am here to tell you it can be a frightening place!
I began the year with a resolution to pick up a title I had missed along the way. Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings (464 pages, published 1973) plunged me into the world of neuroscience and the hell that is the world of post-encephalitics temporarily “awakened” by experimental doses of L-DOPA from the effects of the “sleeping sickness” epidemic in the early 20th century. I have always enjoyed Sacks’ books for his tender compassion toward his patients (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; Musicophilia) and for the way he reliably sends me to the dictionary (arithromania, agrypnia, kinematic…) A strange read, a good read. Oliver Sacks died in 2015. His last missive, Gratitude, is on my to-read list.
A visit to Gettysburg in the spring prompted me to brush up with a few books on Civil War history. The elegantly written Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton (109 pages, published 1974) provided excellent preparation to our battlefield visit and Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost by John David Hoptak (242 pages, published 2012) was a compelling wrap-up to our time on the hallowed ground that is the Gettysburg battlefield.
Two more slices of 19th century U.S. history were served up by my book clubs this year. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of an American President by Candice Millard (432 pages, published 2011) was a terrific read about the bizarre circumstances of the assassination of president James Garfield. Shot by psychopath Charles J. Guiteau, Garfield’s death was due more to the incompetent care he received from his physicians because Joseph Lister’s theory on antiseptics went long unheeded by the medical establishment. Alexander Graham Bell makes a cameo appearance as he desperately tries to save the dying president.
No less shocking was Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival by Peter Stark (400 pages, published 2014) which details John Jacob Astor’s star-crossed dream to settle the Oregon coast. Torture by Indians! Starvation! Infighting! More starvation! Calamity! More starvation! Not a happy tale.
I read two biographies this year. One focused on Spanish and Tudor royalty: Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII by Giles Tremlett (372 pages, published 2010). The other detailed the complicated life of Marxist “princess” Svetlana Stalin: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (768 pages, published 2015).
Due to the “too many books, too little time” quandary, I have a hard time making myself re-read books I’ve enjoyed, but an exception was made this year to revisit Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman (340 pages, published 2006). Taking the road less-traveled by dropping out of high school to compete for a birding “Big Year” list, Kaufman took the roads most-traveled, hitchhiking back and forth across the United States to achieve his goal. Set in 1973 when hitchhiking was still practiced by people without a death wish and when cellular and digital communication were still far in the future, Kaufman’s experiences seem almost archaic, but he imbues his odyssey with a sense of adventure that is timeless. His passion for tracking down the Mexican Crow, the White-Collared Seedeater, the Spotted Redshank (that turns out to be a Yellowlegs), the Brown Booby and the Gyrfalcon is palpable and infectious.
These were all worthy reads, but there were a few truly luminous non-fiction stars in my 2015 sky. Yes, I’ve been holding out on you. Next week: my top five.