Sunday, November 29, 2015

From Beethoven To Bethlehem: Twenty-Five Great Books For Holiday Gift Giving

Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through a slew of books in the course of 2015, ranging from an 88-year old literary classic to hot-off-the-press offerings. Here are the best 25 of the bunch.  All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend, and all are available online in paperback.

BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH (Jan Swofford, 2014) The great virtue of this doorstop of a tome is that it strips away the theories, postures and myths about this profoundly influential composer,
who was the crucial figure in the transition from the Classical to Romantic eras in Western music.  Swofford keeps interpretation to a minimum in telling the story of Beethoven's life ("the most astonishing thing about him is that he survived the burdens of being Beethoven," he writes) and parks out the finer points of musical theory in a handy appendix, a relief to readers like myself who are not classically trained.
BONITA AVENUE: A Novel (Peter Buwalda, 2015) From the outside, brilliant math professor Siem Sigerius, his wife, children and future son-in-law are bourgeois normalcy itself, but lies, deceptions and twists of fate reveal the family to be profoundly dysfunctional.   Propelled by three distinctively different narrative voices, this spectacular debut novel is darkly humorous, suspenseful, entertaining and addictive as we are taken from the Netherlands to California and back, through literal and figurative pyrotechnics, and ultimately into the heart of madness.  

(Marlon James, 2014) The too often violent history of post-colonial Jamaica has fascinated and revulsed this longtime lover of Bob Marley's music in particular and ska and reggae in general.  A Brief

History more or less revolves around the 1976 politically-motivated assassination attempt on Marley, and the author's cast of rastas, gunmen, drug traffickers and CIA agents, rendered with a sublime inventiveness, casts a gripping light on that event and the tremors from it, which reverberated all the way to New York in the form of the crack epidemic, and well into the 1990s.
CATALOGING THE WORLD: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information World (Alex Wright, 2014) Some 25 years before the first microchip, 40 years before the first personal computer, and 50 years before the first Web browser, Belgian librarian Paul Otlet envisioned something very much like today's Internet.  This led to his great achievement: Construction of the Mundaneum, a mechanical collective brain that would house and disseminate everything ever committed to paper.  A fascinating and fast-paced history of a regretably obscure visionary and creative genius.
THE CORRECTIONS: A Novel (Jonathan Franzen, 2001) The dysfunctional family as novelistic
gist is well-trod ground, but Franzen covers new ground in this complex but beautifully written, biting but ultimately sensitive satire.  The five members of
the troubled Lambert family, each in their own very different way, are walking commentaries on social issues ranging from laissez-faire parenting to sexuality and homosexuality to U.S.-Third World relations.  The climactic Christmas homecoming goes awry, of course, but is deeply moving as the large-heartedness of this kooky clan prevails.
THE DINOSAUR FEATHER (S.J. Gavan, 2008) Too many of the characters in this weird but engrossing Danish murder mystery have anger-management problems which tend to gum up a plot that can seem needlessly complicated because everybody lies and has something to hide.  But this is a worthy addition to the top shelf of Actic Noir and the back story -- fossil trench warfare waged by scientists over whether birds are descended from dinosaurs -- is the improbable glue that keeps the journey from murder to murder interesting even if the ending is more or less predictable.

ELEPHANT COMPANY: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals WhoHelped Him Save Lives in World War II
(Vicki Croke, 2014) We all know that elephants are pretty damned smart, but Croke's wonderful story of

Billy Williams is a revelation. Mesmerized by the great beasts' intelligence, character, courage and humor, Williams became a gifted "elephant wallah" deeply skilled at understanding the beasts, as well as treating their maladies.  In return, the elephants made him a better man, and in the process saved countless lives as the Japanese overran Southeast Asia.
FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town (Beth Macy, 2014) A cautionary tale about the dark side of globalization and the Bassett Furniture Company, which once was the world's largest wood furniture manufacturer.  Enter the Chinese, who decimated much of the domestic industry. The few holdouts included the indomitable if patriarchal John Bassett III, who through smarts, loyalty to his workers and sheer cunning, beat the Chinese at their own game and saved his business and the town of Galax, Virginia. 
IN COLD BLOOD (Truman Capote, 1966) I first read this true-crime masterpiece about the quadruple murder of Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter and his family in 1970 or so and very much liked it.  But it was more compelling the second time around and more
obvious to me that it actually was a "non-fiction novel" because of the liberties Capote took in telling the story, including weaving in factual discrepancies when it helped the flow.  Critics howled, but so what?  It's art, and the psychological relationship between murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith is especially fascinating.

THE INDIAN BRIDE (Karin Fossum, 2001).  The success of the Arctic Noir murder mystery genre has spawned imitators who simply don't have the chops of a Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson, which makes reading any book in Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer series a delight.  The Indian Bride is typical of Fossum's masterful plot construction, but it is her psychological portrait of the residents of a provincial Norwegian village rocked by a brutal murder and Sejer's understated but methodical quest to find the killer that makes this book such a terrific read.

JONI MITCHELL: In Her Own Words (With Malka Marom, 2014)  I have written that being young is to love Joni Mitchell's music and  growing older is to understand why you do. I am convinced of that even more after reading this anthology of recorded
interviews with the singer-songwriter from 1973, 1979 and 2012, by which time Mitchell had stopped recording and touring.  Mitchell's musings on her collaborations with other artists, notably jazz legend Charles Mingus, and her creative processes are riveting and make her greatest music -- reverentially covered by so many contemporary musicians -- seem even greater.
THE LAST GOOD KISS (James Crumley, 1978) Having pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel for Arctic Noir thrillers, my thirst for the well-crafted detective story took me to Crumley and three overwritten and ultimately unsatisfying offerings in his C.W. Sughrue series.  But The Last Good Kiss clicked, probably because it predated the three others.  The prose flowed beautifully, cliches were kept in check, and Dashielle Hammett would have approved of the story line in this debut of Sughrue, a Vietnam veteran turned hard-boiled gumshoe with a fondness for the bottle and a slim but enduring and endearing hope for mankind.
MAN IN PROFILE: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (Thomas Kunkel, 2015) If The Sympathizer was the best book of fiction I read this year, Kunkel's biography of one of the giants of long-form journalism is the best non-fiction entry.
Sadly, upon his death in 1996 at age 87, Mitchell was less known for his extraordinarily elegant writing than a decades-long case of writers block. Mitchell arguably was the progenitor of New Journalism (a term he loathed), and as John McPhee has written, "When New Journalists came ashore, Joe Mitchell was there on the beach to greet them."  (Click HERE for a full-length review.)
NICA'S DREAM: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (David Kastin, 2011) Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter had it all: Wealth, a title and influence of one of the most powerful families in the world.  But then she heard a recording of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," fell deeply in love with jazz and began an extraordinary three-decade rein as the legendary jazz baroness of New York City because of her close and loving relationships with dozens of jazz greats, not the least of whom was Monk himself.  A great bio for jazz lovers and a worthy addition to the history of the genre.
ROSCOE: A Novel (William Kennedy, 2002)  This comic masterpiece is the most accessible of Kennedy's Albany books (his Ironweed was one of my selections last year) and Roscoe Conway, second in command of the New York capital city's notorious political
machine, is perhaps his most likeable character, which is saying a heap because Kennedy imparts even his homicidal mobsters with charm.  Roscoe decides to quit politics as the book opens, but of course that is easier said than done as he overcomes obstacles, scandals and disasters small and large that all seem to lead back to the loss of his true love.
THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark For the Ivy League (Jeff Hobbs, 2014) People have been writing books about their college roommates for years, but this one is very different and very special because the roommate was not a famous novelist or scientist in the making, but rather Robert Peace, who against formidable odds escaped the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey for Yale.  Hobbs's biography is a must-read: Painstakingly researched, painfully honest, and like the title says, ultimately tragic.

(Robert Galbraith, 2014) J.K. Rowling built a literary empire with the Harry Potter series and she's well on her way to doing it again with the first two Cormoran Strike detective novels written under the name of Robert Galbraith.  The initial

offering, The Cuckoo's Calling, which introduced Strike and secretary Robin Ellacott (think Holmes and Watson), was good, but The Silkworm is better still with a labyrinthine plot based on a controversial bestseller-to-be and its uncomfortable place in the shark-infested waters of the British book publishing business.  Is Galbraith/Rowling sending a message here?  You betcha.
SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM (Joan Didion, 1968) Great writing -- or in this case great journalism -- is never passé. This collection of 20 magazine essays, most on 1960s California, is so rich and Didion's observations so pungent that they still leap off the page 50 years on.  Favorites include being on location with John Wayne in Mexico, the Hawaii of fact and fantasy, a musing in the Santa Ana Winds, and an encounter with a preschool-age child who is given LSD by her hippie parents in Haight Ashbury.

STEPHEN CRANE: A Life of Fire (Paul Sorrento, 2014) Next to Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, no other 19th century American writer was as romanticized in his lifetime.  But while Crane may have "opened the gates to modern American
literature," as this biographer puts it, it's a wonder that he accomplished anything.  Preternaturally shy and a spendthrift who repeatedly undercut and double-crossed editors and friends alike, his one redeeming quality seems to have been a deep humanity evident in his greatest and most impressionistic works, The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

STEPPENWOLF (Herman Hesse, 1927) I read this classic in the late 1960s when I was first exploring inner worlds, which in turn led me to examine spirituality, but four-plus decades on, rereading it was a revelation.  Who can't -- and shouldn't -- relate to Harry Haller, a joyless and lonely intellectual (who Hesse has said mirrored himself at the time he wrote the book) who struggles to reconcile the man and the beast within, only to fall in love on the path to liberation and then fall further into the surreal "Magic Theater - For Madmen Only!" where his fate is finally determined.
THE STORY OF ALICE: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland  (Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, 2015) Has there ever been a more peculiar relationship in life and fiction than that between Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (Carroll) and
Alice Liddell, the child for whom he invented the enduringly popular Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass?  Douglas-Fairhurst is a fine biographer and plumbs the inevitable questions about Carroll's sexuality, as well as less controversial aspects of his life and place in the shifting cultural landscape of Victorian society, all to fascinating and witty effect.
THE SYMPATHIZER (Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015) This remarkable debut novel is hands down the best book of fiction I read this year and is bound to become a classic of war fiction.  The Captain, the story's narrator, leaves South Vietnam to go to university in the U.S. and becomes fluent in its language and ways before returning to his war-torn homeland ostensibly to fight the Communist cause.  But he has a secret: he is a Communist sympathizer and spy.  Among the greatest lessons imparted in this marvelous book is that the Vietnam War was not an American struggle; we merely supplied bodies and napalm. (Click HERE for a full-length review.)
TIBETAN PEACH PIE (Tom Robbins, 2014) The author of the great Only Cowgirls Get the Blues, as well as a bunch of other "seriocomedies," as he calls his novels, says this book is neither an autobio nor a memoir, but it is both.  I had tired of Robbins, as
great as his shtick could be, because it had become shopworn from too-thin material.  But Tibetan Peach Pie is a delightful reminder of a heyday when his prose, with its interwoven social and philosophical undercurrents, was magical. His observations here about LSD and his personal exploration of that deeply misunderstood drug are among the most acute that I've read.
A TOWN LIKE ALICE (Neville Shute, 1950) War romances are not my cup of tea, but the author of On the Beach won me over with his engagingly written tale of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman who endures a death march in the jungles of Malaya during World War II to improbably end up in the remote and rugged Australian outback where she is reunited with a man who nearly lost his life to save hers.  Paget faces the challenge of her life, as well as ossified gender and racial stereotypes -- in trying to turn the tiny community where she decides to live into "a town like Alice" -- the outback "oasis" of Alice Springs.

THE WEATHER EXPERIMENT: The Pioneers Who Sought To See the Future (Peter Moore, 2015) For anyone who loves observing the weather, as well as marveling how often forecasters still get it wrong, this book is a delight.  This group biography reveals how pioneering 19th century researchers -- with nothing more than thermometers, barometers and hygrometers their disposal -- succeeded in cracking the weather's code by observing, inventing and observing some more despite a so-called scientific establishment that continued to cling to ancient, church-sanctioned views of meteorology.
Meanwhile, here are my lists for 2014 and 2013, as well as a 2o12 post of the books that have most influenced me.

No comments: