Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through another 30 or so books in the course of 2014, some new, some not so old and a couple of classics that I had not gotten around to reading. Here are the best dozen of the bunch, actually the best 14 because one offering is a trilogy. All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend, and all are available online in paperback.
AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS (Taylor Branch, 1988, 2006, 2012) This three volume biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. runs to some 1,600 pages and is the definitive retelling of the great civil rights leader's life from his birth in Atlanta to his assassination in Memphis at the age of 39. Branch does not pull any punches, confirming that as great as King was, he was a profligate philanderer who could be his own worst enemy.
THE BARBAROUS YEARS: THE PEOPLING OF BRITISH NORTH AMERICA (Bernard Bailyn, 2012) Establishment of British, Dutch and Swedish colonies in America in the early 17th century would seem to be well-trod ground, but Bailyn sheds often fascinating light on the socio-economic aspects of colonization, as well as the brutal encounters between the Europeans and native peoples.
A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH (Jussi Adler-Olsen, 2013) Adler-Olson's Department Q murder mysteries are the latest Arctic Noir sensations, and deservedly so. A Conspiracy of Faith is the second of five starring Copenhagen Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekicks, Assad and Rose, who take on the coldest of cold cases, Department Q's specialty, this one involving the double murder of a brother and sister two decades earlier.
THE GOLDFINCH (Donna Tartt, 2013) This is the best book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read in a very long time. The improbable plot works, sometimes despite itself, gripping me on an intellectual and emotional level. While its length (771 pages, count 'em) seem to be daunting, the adventure therein -- at its core a dissection of the screwed up-edness of the human condition in the guise of a coming-of-age story -- is nothing short of amazing.
THE HUMAN STAIN (Phillip Roth, 2000) Roth, as usual, magnificently interweaves American history in this tour de force about Coleman Silk, a classics professor, who is forced to retire when his colleagues decide that he is a racist. He is not, and the real truth as conveyed by narrator Nathan Zuckerman (who also appears in Roth's American Pastoral and I Married a Communist) is incredible.
IRONWEED (William Kennedy, 1984) This final book of the so-called Albany Cycle is the best of the three because Kennedy really fires on all of his writerly cylinders in telling the story of Francis Phelan, a once great ballplayer turned drunk who has come home to make peace with his sometimes violent past -- he has hallucinations of three of the people he killed in the past --and rekindle his relationship with the only woman he truly loved.
LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION (Daniel Okrent, 2010) The 18th Amendment ostensibly addressed the single subject of intoxicating beverages, spawning the 13-year Prohibition, but this delightfully trenchant book reveals that it did much more, including enormous changes in international trade, speedboat design and marketing, as well as the establishment of national crime syndicates and even women's rights.
THE LIES OF SARAH PALIN: THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HER RELENTLESS QUEST FOR POWER (Geoffrey Dunn, 2011) I read a half dozen or so books about or by Palin in the last year for a research project, and if you're going to read only one about the Killah from Wassila, this is it. Dunn more than makes the case that the right-wing darling is a pathological liar and, when in positions of power, is downright dangerous.
LIFE (Keith Richards and James Fox, 2011) Okay, like most folks I had low expectations for an autobio by this Rolling Stones' founding member, but the cat can write almost as well as he can play -- and survive drug binges and busts. In fact, the beyond endless accounts of his over-the-top embrace of hard drugs are the only downers, while his confirmation that Mick Jagger is an asshole, albeit an extraordinarily talented one, is affirming.THE MARSH ARABS (Wilfred Thesiger, 1964) It was a big year for travel books (see The Road to Oxiana below), but Thesiger's account of living among the fiercely independent tribal Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq is as much a magnificent and moving account of a people whose lives changed little for many centuries, untouched by the modern world, as a traditional travelogue.
THE ROAD TO OXIANA (Robert Byron, 1937) Historian Paul Fussell calls this delightful and sometimes downright zany travel book what Ulysses is to the novel and The Waste Land is to poetry. A bestseller upon its publication, it chronicles a fascinating journey through the Middle East to the land of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya on the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.
THE SECRET RIVER (Kate Grenville, 2005) The story of early colonial Australia has never been told better than in this magnificent work of historical fiction, which tells the story of William Thornhill, an illiterate English bargeman who is deported, along with his beloved wife, Sal, to the New South Wales colony where they are confronted with having to forcibly take land from the Aborigines who came before them if they are to survive and prosper.
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