A Year of Reading, Part IX: My Favorite Favorites!

Some books are slam dunk Top Ten, others are like that scruffy and unsought stray dog that follows you home – you keep telling it to go away but it refuses to leave and presently you realize it is a treasure with which you cannot part. My criteria gives extra points for classics that stand the test of time, and for books I would recommend to others.

Here are the top five of my top ten for 2022:

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Published 2012

Audiobook read by Joshua Pollock, 18 hours 32 minutes, 592 pages

File under: Oh yes, he is ABSOLUTELY the man!

What? You young whippersnappers say you’ve never heard of Leonard Cohen? Oh yes you have, you just never bothered to look up the guy who created the gorgeous, hauntingly ecstatic Hallelujah. And don’t tell me you’ve never heard Suzanne, even if it was ruinously deformed as elevator music. If you doubt Cohen’s musical or poetic genius, give them a listen and then get back to me.

Sylvie Simmons spent three years interviewing Cohen for this exquisitely written biography. She has a loving arm around his shoulder but does not flinch from showing us his dark sides. Cohen loved women – but not always well and rarely forever. Yet to a one – Marianne (So Long, Marianne), Suzanne, (the mother of his children but not the muse for the song) and later in life love Rebecca De Mornay – all maintained affection and loyalty for him. Along the way, he had a notable “encounter” with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel and a brief fling with Joni Mitchell. None ultimately could compete with his primary passion for his art, his dark shadow of depression and his spiritual search, which led him from early years of abandon on the Greek isle of Hydra to a later ascetic five years in a Buddhist monastery.

I reveled in listening to this book, switching back and forth from the audio to Spotify and Youtube to hear his songs and watch his performances. You might shy away from its almost 600 pages but I never wanted it to end. Highly recommended.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn

Published 1962

Paperback, 178 pages

File under: The ultimate cautionary tale

There seems to be quite a whiff of Marxism in the air these days, so keep a copy of this book on a shelf nearby to remind you how it really plays out. Every. Single. Time. If you start believing the dunks on free speech (well, not his or her free speech, not that free speech) and the re-writing of history, Solzhenitsyn is here to remind you in this fictionalized memoir that it won’t go well for anyone, including you.

Born in 1918, Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945 and spent eight years in a labor camp for allegedly making an offhand derogatory remark about Stalin. This book invites the reader to experience a brief moment in that bleakest existence. It was a long road from there to receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. He predicted that unless it was stopped, communism would take over the world. Consider yourself warned.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Published 2003

Kindle 1239 pages

File under: You thought Hitler was a bad guy? Hold my beer..

If you remain unconvinced by Solzhenitsyn, please proceed to Montefiore’s masterful and definitive biographies of Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, remembered in the bloodstain of history as Joseph Stalin. Begin with Young Stalin (published 2003, 528 pages) to trace where evil begins and then take a deep breath and plunge into this volume to learn how a monster engages with the monstrosity of Marxism and murdered at least 20 million (the numbers vary wildly, mostly upward) in the Soviet Union.

This is a very long book with a great many players, most of them featuring unremarkable countenances and unpronounceable names. A few of them are ghoulishly unforgettable – there is the sadist Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s arch-villain Nikolai Yezhov who orchestrated The Terror, the author Maxim Gorky who served as Stalin’s “literary ornament”, Nikita Khrushchev who got his start licking Stalin’s boots, and of course Stalin’s ever-present sidekick Vyacheslav Molotov. The only joy in plodding through the accounts their late-night scheming sessions is seeing how they each squirmed in endless fear that they were the next to be purged. Stalin winked at the toll of the famine he created in the Ukraine and he snookered FDR at Yalta, despite the dire warnings of Winston Churchill. While Stalin died in 1953, he had set the stage for the era of the Iron Curtain, holding eastern Europe hostage for nearly another half century.

Not an easy read, but an important read. Highly recommended.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Published 1838

Hardcover (Penguin Clothbound Classics) 455 pages

File under: Getting their just desserts

How many times had I heard the famous line “Please, sir, I want some more”? More what, I would wonder, and another few years would go by before I wondered again. Everyone has heard of Oliver Twist, of the Artful Dodger and the villain, Fagin, but you are denying yourself a great pleasure if you have not read the tale.

Dickens’ villains are so bad that they even know they’re bad, unrepentant though they may be, and his heroes are so innocent and hapless that you cannot turn a page without worrying what will befall them next. The plot is as murky as “Mudfog”, Oliver’s birthplace, and his circumstances, having been immediately orphaned and assigned to a grim and hungry childhood in the workhouse.

Each rare kindness Oliver encounters is followed by a dashing of his hopes and the reader despairs again and again. It’s part of the fun! I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say whew, thank goodness all’s well that ends well. Oliver ends up getting more of everything good, especially happiness, while the despicable dog-kicking Fagin gets exactly what he deserves.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Published 1623

Paperback, 191 pages

File under: The road to ruin

This might be the most perfect morality tale in all of literature. What about the Book of Genesis, you ask? Hey, Eve was a piker compared to Lady Macbeth. It’s got everything. Sword fights, lust for power, murder and prophesying witches. What a thrill it was to turn a page and finally see the context of “Out, damned spot!” and witness Lady Macbeth washing and washing and washing her hands. Ah, so much “toil and trouble”!

I finally unlocked the key that allows me to enjoy rather than suffer through Shakespeare. It is so simple: just purchase the larger Folger Library paperback edition which has notes and explanations on every facing page of the play. So brilliant that it made Macbeth shine above every other read of my year.

And that is that for the 2022 reads – hope you found at least a few that intrigue you!

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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1 Response to A Year of Reading, Part IX: My Favorite Favorites!

  1. dizzyguy says:

    Undoubtedly all good choices. The only two I can vouch for are One Day in the Life and Macbeth, both of which are well supported by the literati who rate such things. Can never get past the old saying of So many books, So little time. But one can try.

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