“Acquiring even simple pieces of information physically alters the structure of our neurons” writes John Medina in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (264 pages, paperback, published 2009) Maybe this is why I love to read so much – I can almost feel the little clicks and whirs scritching away with every paragraph. I’m not big on the self-help genre, but this was a book club assignment and I ended up really enjoying it. Medina’s book is sort of “Oliver Sacks light”; less cerebral perhaps, but pithy and practical.
More of the best of the rest of my 2018 reading:
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of NYC Series) by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1416 pages, Kindle, published 1998)
Yes, one thousand four hundred and sixteen pages of NYC history. This 1999 Pulitzer prize winner was my most ambitious read of the year. When I walk the streets of Manhattan now, it is with an awareness that the Lenape Indians once trod here, that the Dutch settlers were beaten out by the British, that immigration problems are nothing new (the history of German, Irish and Chinese immigrants in NYC is fairly hair-raising) and that, unsurprisingly, political corruption has a very long and very rich history here. More a chronological encyclopedia than history book, it is still a must-read for any earnest student of the world’s greatest city.
Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose (432 pages, Kindle, published 2000)
I’m glad I read this book. But I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it. It is a bit terse, a bit dry, and I felt like it took me as long to read it as it did to build the railroad. Ambrose’s insistence on packing every technical detail into the race to lay track from west to east and east to west somehow managed to dull the excitement of the incredible achievement that was the transcontinental railroad. Still, it gave me a much better understanding of that period of history and of the route of Interstate I-80, which traces the railroad’s hard-won path.
Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (622 pages, audiobook narrated by Allan Robertson, published 1959)
I read somewhere that this 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner holds up as the iconic primer for understanding American politics, and so it does. Yes, it’s a bit of a period piece – our world was a somewhat less cynical place back in the 1950’s – but the give and take, the tit for tat, the sweeping and sometimes ruinous ambitions of those who are drawn to Capitol Hill remain the same over the decades. A major thread through the book is about who might be consorting with the Russians. Everything old is new again (eye-roll).
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (449 pages, audiobook narrated by Heather Lind, Norbert Leo Butz and Vincent Piazza, published 2017)
Not that Manhattan Beach, Californians. This novel by Pulitzer prize-winning author Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) takes place on that patch of beach by the same name at the tip of Brooklyn. The 1930’s, gangsters, a poignant father and daughter relationship and WW II-era divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard are the subjects Egan weaves into this winsome and immersive tale. She is a real talent. Of the character Eddie, remembering his daughter Anna as a child: “Her small, warm hand slipped inside his own. It was always there, that hand, like a minnow finding its crevice.”
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (560 pages, audiobook narrated by Dean Robertson, published 1998)
Finally got around to reading this. I’m in that very tiny minority who are not avid fans of Barbara Kingsolver, but I have to say this was an absorbing listen. Everything Kingsolver disdains about God and man is wrapped up in her character of Nathan Price, the megalomaniacal holy-roller free-lance missionary who drags his wife and daughters from Georgia to the Congo with disastrous results all around. The prose is luscious and lyrical, the spiritual and political underpinnings of the novel less so. But it is memorable for its characters, one of them being the Congo itself, which Kingsolver presents in all its dark, relentless mystery.
The Secret Scripture: A Novel by Sebastian Barry (304 pages, audiobook narrated by Wanda McCaddon, published 2008)
The elderly Roseanne McNulty has been housed in a Sligo mental hospital so long she doesn’t even remember when or why she came there. Or so she says. “No one even knows I have a story”, she thinks, but the psychiatrist Dr. Green, who is charged with her care, becomes curious about her past and thus the story begins to unfold. Barry is a spell-binding storyteller and so tender in his use of language that I hung on every sentence of this tale of Irish politics and family secrets.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel by Mark Sullivan (460 pages, audiobook narrated by Will Damron, published 2017)
Sullivan, a long-time collaborator of author James Patterson, has said he was at a personal low point in his life when someone told him in passing about Pino Lella, an Italian freedom-fighter in World War II. Sullivan found the seventy-nine-year-old Lella, fictionalized his story in this novel and felt his own life redeemed in the process. Some of the feats attributed to Lella in this tale left me wondering how much was true. How one young man could be so Zelig-like, appearing everywhere in Italy at the most pivotal of moments during the war, was a bit curious to me. However, the story is a compelling one, and my very favorite aria, Nessun Dorma, is prominently featured, so I’m not complaining.
Next week – the rest of the best of the rest. After that (finally) the year’s Top Ten.