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
spouse, other family member or friend, and all are available online in
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
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.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS: A Novel (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
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
well-trod ground, but Franzen covers new ground in this complex but
beautifully written, biting but ultimately sensitive satire. The five
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
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
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
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
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
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.
(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
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.
(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.