Pillars of cool hydrogen rise from a small portion of the Carina Nebula
as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope
as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope
Once again, Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through a slew of books in the course of 2016 with an emphasis on the cosmic (getting lost in the stars) and profane (Thomas Wolfe's earthbound novels). Here are the best 25 of the bunch.
All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend. All but one are available online in paperback. If your local lending library is a member of Interlibrary Loan, you can borrow a copy through that system for the price of a little bit of shoe leather.
So no excuses, okay?
THE ACCIDENTAL CITY: Improvising New Orleans (Lawrence N. Powell, 2012) New Orleans was not supposed to exist, let alone exist where it has existed for the last three centuries — in a mosquito-infested swamp on the banks of a difficult-to-tame river — and that is the premise of this delightful book on the first century of the Crescent City and its Creole roots. Remnants of the original NOLA can be seen in the orthogonal grid of the French Market, but that only begins to explain the city’s extraordinary racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. Powell does the rest in this meticulous historical tour de force.
BACK TO LIFE: A Bladder Cancer Journey (Frank Sadowski, 2015) Most commonly, cancer survivors want to forget the entire awful experience, which a few devote much of their lives to counseling those with the disease as Sadowski had done. And in his case, write a brutally candid and profoundly inspiring book about looking death in the face and then staring it down. But what really shines through this eloquent memoir of his ordeal is his indomitable will to live. He simply never gave up. Sadowski writes beautifully, imparting Back to Life with a plain-spoken passion and self-deprecating humor. (Click HERE for a full review.)
BARBARIAN DAYS: A Surfing Life (William Flanagan, 2015) Write well and knowledgeably, and any subject can be made interesting. So it is with surfing, a lifelong passion for journalist and war correspondent Flanagan, who shares his adventures chasing waves all over the world -- including California, Hawaii, the South Pacific, Australia, Africa, Madeira and, surprisingly, metropolitan New York -- in this is elegantly but simply written autobiography, social history, scientific exploration and literary road movie. Read Barbarian Days and you'll never look at an ocean wave the same way again.
BORN TO RUN (Bruce Springsteen, 2016) The 500-plus pages of this autobio are lovingly rendered. Informative. Passionate. Mercifully hot air free. Funny. Immodest. Painfully candid. Insightful. Neurosis ridden. Deep. Oh, and The Boss can really write, even if it is in Jerseyspeak. His description of how he wrote his first bona fide hit single -- "Born to Run" -- is worth the price of admission for veteran musicians and especially up and comers. And answers the question of how the hell you get from Freehold, New Jersey with a $69 Kent guitar to superstardom. Hint: It takes 50 years. Talent. And proving it all night. (Click HERE for a related article.)
THE BURN PITS: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers (Joseph Hickman, 2016 ) Vice President Biden's profound grief over the 2015 death of his eldest son has taken on an awful new dimension: It is possible that Biden unknowingly signed his death warrant. In this shocking book, investigative journalist Hickman asserts that a subsidiary of Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was CEO before he became vice president, poisoned thousands of American soldiers and many thousands more Iraqis with the toxic smoke from the burn pits they operated in place of the incinerators typically run by the military. (Click HERE for a related article.)
BUSH (Jean Edward Smith, 2016) Historians have been picking through the entrails of the Bush presidency since well before he left office. Even allowing that they tend to be a liberal lot, it is difficult to find anyone who has anything remotely positive to say about Bush and his administration, and Smith is absolutely scathing in his condemnation. "For eight years," he writes, "Bush made the decisions that put the United States on a collision course with reality. . . . [His] refusal to face up to the fact that Iraq had no unconventional weapons suggests a willfulness that borders on psychosis." (Click HERE for a related article.)
THE CHINA COLLECTORS: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures (Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, 2015) Who has not admired an exquisite porcelain Oriental vase or splendid bronze? This is the backstory to our love affair with Chinese and Japanese art and the eclectic collectors — ranging from Salem sea captains to Indian Jones types to Gilded Age millionaires — who bequeathed North American museums with the greatest collections outside of East Asia. The authors do not shrink from the dark side: Much of the art was plundered, and China in particular wants to reclaim its missing patrimony.
COMING OF AGE IN THE MILKY WAY (Timothy Ferris, 1988) Physician-philosopher Lewis Thomas wrote "The greatest of all accomplishments of twentieth-century science has been the discovery of human ignorance." That is the dramatically huge takeaway from Ferris’s landmark tour de force on how mankind got lost in the stars, which while somewhat outdated nearly 30 years after publication, remains a preeminent example of how the mists obscuring the understanding of a complex science like astronomy from knuckle-headed laymen like myself can be parted through brilliant narrative writing.
ENGLISH PASSENGERS: A Novel (Robert Kneale, 2000) It is 1857 and Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his band of smugglers from the Isle of Man have just had their cargo of tobacco and brandy confiscated by British Customs. Just when it seems like things can't get any worse, he is approached by an eccentric English vicar who offers to charter his ship for a journey to the other side of the globe and Tasmania, where the reverend believes the Garden of Eden to be. Beyond Kneale's historical renderings, which include deft descriptions of the brutality of British imperialism and Aboriginal life, this is an uproariously funny book.
THE GREAT JAZZ DAY (Charles Graham et. al., 2000) This is a book about a photograph. Not just any photograph, but the greatest jazz photograph in history — Art Kane’s immortal 1958 shot of nearly 60 jazz greats — ranging from Art Blakey to Coleman Hawkins to Marian McPartland to Sonny Rollins — gathered on the steps of a Harlem brownstone. This selection is a little unusual for me because it is a coffee table book, although a modest one, and is sadly out of print, although used copies are available. There also are some terrific essays by participants in the photo shoot.
H IS FOR HAWK (Helen Macdonald, 2014) My fascination with goshawks led me to this genre-breaking runaway bestseller. It is the story of how the author adopted, raised and trained a gossie whom she improbably named Mabel because, as superstition drenched hawkers believe, the more banal the name the better the bird will be. A big reason for the book's success is that it is as much a story of Macdonald going to pieces -- and very nearly succumbing to madness -- following the death of her beloved father. H Is for Hawk is nothing less than a soaring triumph. (Click HERE for a full review.)
LONELY HEARTS OF THE COSMOS: The Scientific Quest For The Secret of the Universe (Dennis Overbye, 1991) Fortunately for me, this terrific tale is short on mind-locking theory and long on fascinating portraits of the brilliant and typically eccentric men and (too few) women who built on Einstein and began to unlock the answers to The Biggest Question of Them All in the latter half of the 20th century. Although Lonely Hearts is 25 years out of date and there have been enormous strides in the science of wormholes, superstrings and grand unification theories, it remains a great read.
LOOK HOMEWARD: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (David Herbert Donald, 1987) Wolfe, the great American novelist and playwright, churned out an awful lot of bad prose, but that matters not because so much of his work is "extraordinarily brilliant and moving," in Donald’s estimation, and mine as well. Nevertheless, there may never have been a writer who was more his own worst enemy. Donald, who had full access to Wolfe's papers, deftly explains how his massive passions, which complimented his massive physical size, kept colliding with his quest to push the boundaries of the modern novel, which was cut short by his premature death at age 38.
LUCKY JIM (Kingsley Amis, 1954) My appreciation of English humor of the Wodehouse-Waugh school has diminished over the years, probably in parallel with my realization that the English can be classist bores. Nevertheless, this story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university, as opposed to Oxford or Cambridge, has its moments. The stuffy bores who live the cloistered lives of academia can be pretty funny, Dixon's relationship with a drip who strings him along has its moments, and I certainly can relate to his hatred of phoniness.
MINOR CHARACTERS (Joyce Johnson, 1983) I would like to say that Johnson and other woman friends and lovers of Beats like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs had important roles in making these famous iconoclasts who they were, but Johnson has the good sense to not go there, because for the most part the Beats treated women like crap. Minor Characters chronicles Johnson’s years with Kerouac, beginning a few months before his seminal On The Road was published, and I kept asking myself how she could keep on loving the bum. I guess you had to have been there. (Click HERE for a related article.)
MR NICE: An Autobiography (Howard Marks, 2003) How you feel about a book I found to be a compelling and often delightful read may depend on whether you believe marijuana and hashish are relatively harmless recreational drugs or should be classified with cocaine and heroin, which are anything but harmless. And whether you support the U.S. War on Drugs or see it for what it is: An enormous waste of money that demonizes, criminalizes and incarcerates harmless people like Marks, denying them of their most fundamental constitutional rights. You have been warned.
ON THE MOVE: A Life (Oliver Sachs, 2015) When he was 12, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote, "Sachs will go far, if he does not go too far." Indeed, the British neurologist naturalist and author, who spent his professional life in the U.S., never slowed down until his death last year at age 82. He is widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients' disorders. Less well known are his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, as well as drugs. On the Move is engaging, but has a thrown-together feel, and there is too little about his signal accomplishment: illuminating the ways that the brain makes us human.
PETER PAN MUST DIE: A Novel (John Verdon, 2014) Former NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney is an ingenious puzzle solver, but unraveling who fatally wounded a charismatic politician felled by a rifle bullet to the brain while delivering the eulogy at his own mother's funeral, triggering a bizarre murder spree, is his most challenging case yet. With methodical precision, Gurney identifies and then lures and traps the psychopath behind the crime wave by setting himself up as the next target in this exquisitely paced whodunit, Verdon's best so far despite a little too much psychobabble for my taste.
PURITY: A Novel (Jonathan Franzen, 2015) This is the great Franzen's most intimate and least self conscious book yet, and his best. Pip Tyler, whose real name is Purity, is the heroine of this novel of idealism, fidelity and (yes) murder, with all of the characters, in their own way, seeking purity in their lives. Franzen has fashioned a typically sprawling and ambitious plot, with innumerable subplots chockablock with the 21st century Dickensian twists. His musings on the dark underbelly of our cyber society are profound ("The Internet had come to signify death for him"). And the ending is just about perfect.
RAGTIME: A Novel (E.L. Doctorow, 1974) It is fitting that I finally got around to reading this evocation of the dreams and prejudices of pre-World War I America in the era of Black Lives Matter and during a presidential election year. Although Ragtime is chockablock with luminaries like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Pierpont Morgan and anarchist Emma Goldman, it is the humbling story of a suburban upper-class New York family whose lives are dramatically changed by a Jewish immigrant and a black man’s fight for racial justice that makes this book so deserving as a classic of American literature.
A ROYAL EXPERIMENT: The Private Life of George III (Janice Hadlow, 2014) This engrossing book was titled The Strangest Family when first published in the UK, which seems misleading until you consider that the monarchs who preceded and followed George were royally dysfunctional while he, by comparison, was rather down to earth, at least until dementia overtook him toward the end of his eventful 60-year reign. Hadlow explores George's efforts to do better in raising his many children (he failed miserably) while rejecting the caricature of him as a tyrant responsible for the failures of British imperialism.
A SHORT HISTORY ABOUT A SMALL PLACE (T.R. Pearson, 1985) You won't find Neely, North Carolina on any map, but this fictional town's characters -- as described in a resolutely deadpan voice by young narrator Louis Benfield -- impart a wisdom that their simple surface selves do not betray. Therein lies the beauty of this nicely written take on small-town Southern culture, which while witty is unsparing when it comes to the realities of class and race prejudice. And while A Small Place may not be the great American novel some critics claim it to be, it's is danged good.
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING (Bill Bryson, 2003) If Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is Greek to you, and it has been to me despite years of trying to penetrate its meaning, then Bryson will unlock these mysteries and many more about what made the universe and our little old primordial selves in this drop-dead delightful — and by now classic — brick of a book. Bryson manages the neat trick of being profound and funny at the same time in decoding everything from quantum mechanics to the genetics of the fruit fly while rendering the scientists who solved these puzzles in delightfully human terms.
THE SON (2014) and MIDNIGHT SUN (2015) Jo Nesbø, one of the leading practitioners of Arctic Noir, is best known for his 10-book Harry Hole series (of which The Snowman is a personal favorite). But in The Son and Midnight Sun, he turns away from a homicide detective-centric plot. A junkie in prison for crimes he didn't commit and a kind-hearted hit man on the run are the unlikely heroes in these short but compelling reads. Nesbø remains a master of the deeply complex psychological thriller, and separating the good guys from the bad is just part of what makes these books terrific additions to the genre.
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (Thomas Wolfe, 1940) This deep and beautifully written classic of 20th century fiction weaves the stories of George Webber, an aspiring young writer aching for fame and love in all the wrong places, with the saga of America and Europe from the Great Depression through the pre-World War II years. Wolfe's last great work (posthumously if controversially assembled by his editor) is a searing critique of capitalism and fascism, but although you indeed can't go home again — that is relive the past — Wolfe expresses through Webber, who of course is himself, an optimism and hope for the future.
Meanwhile, here are my holiday gift giving lists for 2015, 2014 and 2013, as well as a 2012 post on the books that have most influenced me over the years and a random list of great war books published through 2009.