|DETAIL FROM THE DRESDEN CODEX|
I read some great books in 2017, but the big thrill of the year did not make itself apparent until I read a book whose author thoughtfully tipped me to a second book, whose author tipped me to a third.
The first book was The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, the title of which well summarizes the subject. The second was Proust and the Squid, which explores how the brain transforms itself into a reading organ, while the big payoff was the third, Breaking the Maya Code. This is the story of the last ancient script to be deciphered, finally unlocking what the glyphs on the monuments, ceramics and extremely rare codices found in the Mayan city-states of Mexico and Central America actually meant. As well as baring the secrets of one of only four codices ever found -- the Dresden Codex, the oldest surviving book from the Americas at 800 or so years old.
The following 25 books make great holiday gifts. Most are available in paperback, or if your local lending library is a member of the Interlibrary Loan network, you can borrow a copy for the price of a little bit of shoe leather.
AMERICAN DUNKIRK: The Waterborne Evacuation Of Manhattan on 9/11 (James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf, 2016) A little appreciated aspect of the response to the collapse of the Twin Towers was the unofficial maritime response — ranging from ferry and tugboat operators to pleasure boat owners — that resulted in the successful evacuation of 500,000 people from Lower Manhattan. This uplifting account succeeds by moving well beyond the academic-social scientific template in which it is organized through crisp, lucid writing and a willingness to tackle and answer tough philosophical questions.
BILL GRAHAM PRESENTS: My Life Inside Rock and Out (Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield, 2004) Concert impresario Graham was known for three things: Foul language, picking up trash wherever he encountered it, and a deep and abiding love of music -- if not necessarily musicians -- that he parlayed into the most extraordinary run of concerts in rock 'n' roll history. The oral history format of this book works superbly as he tells the story of escaping Hitler's armies as a child, growing up on the streets of New York and in the dining rooms of Catskills hotels before heading for San Francisco where he founded the Fillmore and launched the careers of innumerable rock icons.
THE BOOK NOBODY READ: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (Owen Gingerich, 2004) Four and a half centuries after the 1543 publication of De revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), astrophysicist Gingerich embarked on an epic quest to see in person all the 600 or so copies of the first and second editions of the landmark book in which Copernicus first suggested that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. Three decades and hundreds of thousands of miles of globetrotting later, he was able to offer stunning insights in the form of his remarkable little book.
BREAKING THE MAYA CODE (Michael D. Coe, 1992, updated 2012) The decipherment Mayan script was, according to Coe, "one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of our age, on a par with the exploration of space and the discovery of the genetic code." He makes that case eloquently and in such detail that this book is not for the casual reader. But no matter your interest level, this is a rewarding read as Coe reviews three centuries of breakthroughs as anthropolists and archaelogists grappled their way toward realizing that Mayan was a sophisticated mix of logograms and syllabic signs and not the simplistic representations of a primitive people.
BRIGHTON: A Novel (Michael Harvey, 2016) This is a beautifully written thriller about Kevin Pearce, a baseball star, honor student and the pride of Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, who is 15 when he leaves town in the back of his uncle’s cab after helping commit a murder. Some 26 years later, Pearce is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter for the Boston Globe with a secret past tangled up in lies and broken promises that threaten to destroy his future as he realizes he can never really leave the old neighborhood as he is forced to return there in search of a serial killer who is striking uncomfortably close to home.
BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME (Ross King, 2000) How to build an immense (143 feet in diameter) dome literally over thin air? Improbably, a committee supervising construction of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s immense cathedral, turned not to an engineer, but to a goldsmith and clockmaker named Filippo Brunelleschi, a demented genius who spent 28 years in the mid-15th century solving the problems of the construction of the dome — then and now the largest in the world — by discarding commonly used flying buttresses and enlisting the forces of nature, in the process reinventing the field of architecture.
THE CASTLE CROSS THE MAGNET CARTER: A Novel (Kia Corthron, 2016) The narrative voice of this debut historical novel by playwright Corthron was a bit too unemotional in places for such a deeply emotional story, but the tale she tells is beautifully rendered: The trials and travails of two sets of brothers — one black and one white — that moves back and forth between the early days of World War II and the new millennium, touching on the barbarity of Deep South racism, the civil rights movement, love and death, and the deaf culture. The culmination of The Castle is powerful, and both extraordinarily devastating and uplifting.
THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING (Ann Trubeck, 2016) This delightful and delightfully brief (192 page) book traces the history of handwriting from Sumerian cuniforms 4,000 years ago to the digital age, and from the elegant John Hancockian cursive to today’s barely readable scrawl. Trubeck eloquently argues — correctly, I believe — that the decline of handwriting in daily life is not a signpost of a decline in civilization as much as the next stage in the evolution of communication, and that the fixation with writing by hand is driven more by emotion than evidence.
IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME (Marcel Proust, 1909~1922) Inexcusably perhaps, it wasn’t until recently that I got around to reading what many critics believe to be the greatest novel in any language (previously and better known as Remembrance of Things Past), and after slow-marching through Volume 1 (a spare 1,070 pages), I can see what all the buzz is about. Proust’s recounting of growing up, participating in society and falling in love is gorgeously rendered, but the snail’s pace at which the story advances eventually wore me down — and then out — and the remaining six volumes will have to wait.
JONATHAN SWIFT: The Reluctant Rebel (John Stubbs, 2016) As the subtitle of this marvelous biography suggests, the author of Gulliver’s Travels did not set out to be a satirist and humorist of legenday stature, let alone a formidable defender of the downtrodden in general and Irish in particular against the abuses of the English crown. Stubbs artfully captures Swift’s many contradictions, not the least of which was being a devout priest who both upheld and defied the dogma of the Anglican church. His treatment of Swift’s peculiar if chaste attachments to his “Stella” and other unmarried women is especially exemplary.
THE LAND AT THE END OF THE WORLD: A Novel (António Lobo Antunes, 1979) Forgive me the comparisons with Faulkner and Márquez, but Antunes is very much their equal. This little masterpiece by the prolific Portuguese novelist lays bare the atrocities visited upon colonial Angola as told through the eyes and voice of Costa, a Portuguese medic. His haunting account of his memories makes it one of the great 20th century war novels. Antunes’ imagery is so hallucinatory and unceasing that it reads like one long fever dream, and I sometimes found myself wishing he could dial back on the prose — at least a little bit.
THE LOG FROM THE SEA OF CORTEZ (John Steinbeck, 1941) In 1940, a year after he published Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck and best friend Ed Ricketts, a biologist, set out from Monterey, California on the chartered sardine boat Western Flyer with an eclectic crew for a 4,000-mile journey of exploration and littoral exploring around the Baja Peninsula and deep into the Sea of Cortez. The resulting book is fascinating from a scientific point of view, but Steinbeck’s insights into man and his world make it special and his biographical sketch of Ricketts ("Doc" in Cannery Row) is superbly sweet.
MAD ENCHANTMENT: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (Ross King, 2016) Who has not gazed upon the French Impressionist's paintings of the water lilies in his garden at Giverny with amazement and adoration? King reveals that behind these lovely depictions of a peaceful and harmonious world was the intense frustration Monet experienced at the challenges of capturing the fleeting effects of light, water and color, as well as his personal torments. A most readable and beautifully illustrated book, but if anything a bit too detailed unless you really want to know what Monet ate for breakfast every day.
MISSING MAN: The American Spy Who Vanished In Iran (Barry Meier, 2016) Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who disappeared in Iran in 2007 on a mission for the CIA, has never been heard from again despite the halting efforts of the U.S. to learn his fate and try to negotiate his release. Meier does a commendable job in piecing together a story with no ending, but my deeply negative views of the post-9/11 FBI and CIA color my thinking. What they did and did not do in Levinson's case was criminal, but that seems minor to the damage they have inflicted on the U.S. because of their over-weaning self importance.
NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (Peter Richardson, 2015) While most of their peers blazed brilliantly and burned out quickly, the Grateful Dead became the counterculture's most durable musical institution, playing over 2,100 shows and selling 40 million albums. No Simple Highway claims to be the first book to ask why the Dead survived, and while the answer is pretty obvious to anyone who has reveled in their music, this is an informative and enjoyable read, especially in exploring how the band continually defied predictions of their demise and became the model for the modern-day concert experience.
NOTHING EVER DIES: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Viet Nguyen Than, 2016) Wars are fought twice over -- once on the battlefield and once in our memory -- and that is the subject of this scholarly, profound and challenging but hugely readable book by the author of The Sympathizer. Nguyen cites the works of philosophers, historians, journalists, filmmakers and artists who have plumbed the murky depths of the psychological impact of war on combatants and civilians. Nothing Ever Dies is the paradigm exploration of the subject as it applies to war in general, but especially Vietnam. (Click HERE for a full review.)
ORDERS TO KILL: The Putin Regime and Political Murder (Amy Knight, 2017) The timeliness of this book cannot be understated with new Russia scandal revelations emerging by the day. Vladimir Putin's use of murder — whether in Russia or aboard, including the U.S. — has been hiding in plain sight for years. Emiment KGB scholar Knight traces Putin's rise to absolute power and the many bodies that he left along the way, including Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer poisoned while living in London, while revealing that terror attacks in Russia, as well as the Boston Marathon bombing, are part of the same campaign.
PAY ANY PRICE: Greed, Power and Endless War (James Risen, 2014) The hidden costs of the so-called War on Terror have been immense, ranging from billions of dollars in stolen money to abuses of power to the sanctioned use of torture. Although Pay Any Price is now three years old, the abuses laid bare by veteran New York Times investigative reporter Risen have, if anything, grew worse in the closing years of the Obama administration, which dared not say that the war was over and a return to normalcy was called for. Because the war will never be over and a return to normalcy is no longer possible.
PROUST AND THE SQUID: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Maryanne Wolfe, 2007) This is a fine if occasionally dense book about a remarkable journey: How human beings, who were never born to read, learn to do just that as the brain transforms itself into a reading organism. (Or in the case of dyslexia, struggles.) Wolf traces the history of reading from the clay tablets of the Sumarians to the digital age and its instant-information implications, some of them dire because of the possibility that future generations will never be able to read with a comprehension and lucidity we take for granted.
RAILROAD TRAIN TO HEAVEN (Dan Leo, 2017) This delightful pean to a simpler time when both culture and soda were pop focuses on a self-effacing poet by the name of Arnold Schnabel who communes with a chain-smoking Jesus. It is a coming-of-age novel, although Arnold is 42 years old, and has the elements the best pulp of L. Sprague de Camp, descriptive richness of Marcel Proust, open tap consciousness of Jack Kerouac, whimsy of Terry Pratchett and a dollop of Philip K. Dick. Yet is truly original and its seemingly simple, laugh-out-loud narrative belies deeper meanings. (Click HERE for a full review.)
THE SLEEP WALKERS: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (Arthur Koestler, 1959) Gingrich's The Book Nobody Read (above) is a book about a book, De revolutionibus by Nicolaus Copernicus, while this is a book nominally about the strange man who first suggested that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe, his place in the history of cosmology and how the tragically stupid split between science and religion set back the scientific revolution for centuries. Dense at times, but written with a trenchant wit by the well-known author of Darkness at Noon, who turned to writing about the history of science later in life.
SO MUCH THINGS TO SAY: The Oral History of Bob Marley (Roger Steffens, 2017) For an average white boy from the suburbs, reggae grabbed me hard and has never let go. Beyond Marley's stupendous abilities as a songwriter, he had a unique capacity to take the suffering of Jamaicans and other people and turn them into poetry, and he was and arguably remains the only global superstar. Oral histories can be messy, but that is why they can be far more illuminating than straight nonfiction prose. In Steffens' deft hands, this format renders a humanness to a man who has been endlessly mythologized. (Click HERE for a full review.)
THE THIRST: A Harry Hole Novel (Jo Nesbø, 2017) All the weird elements we have come to expect from master Norwegian craftsman Nesbø are here in spades, but the dean of Scandinavian crime writers outdoes himself in creating an especially lurid cast of psycho killers and weaving especially labyrinthine plot twists in this 11th book in the Harry Hole series. Harry is retired from the Oslo Crime Squad and happily married, but is drawn to a series of murders because of the haunting memory of the one man he let get away over his storied career. It is, he says, like hearing "the voice of a man he was trying not to remember."
WHEN HEAVEN AND EARTH CHANGED PLACES (Le Ly Hyslip with Jay Wurts, 1989) This extraordinary memoir captures the horrors of the Vietnam War unlike any other. Le Ly is 12 when U.S. helicopters arrive in her Central Coast village, and by the time she turns 16 she has been a Viet Cong spy and saboteur and endured imprisonment, torture, rape and the deaths of several members of her close-knit Buddhist family. Two decade after Le Ly escapes the agonies of war for America, her love of family and faith in humanity draws her back to her devastated homeland and scenes of joy and sadness related with a profound poignance.
ZHOU ENLAI: The Last Perfect Revolutionary (Gao Wenquian, 2007) Zhou was premier of the People's Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976 and was the invisible but all-important hand in the modernization of China. This absorbing if sometime too inside baseball bio hammers home the reality that the signature accomplishment of the man Richard Nixon called "the greatest statesman of our era" was not surviving the Long March or Cultural Revolution, but the brutish and incredibly cruel Mao, to whom he always deferred. And that Zhou ended up being more powerful in life than death.