Year in Review, 2009
During 2009 I read books. These were the best.
Origins, Amin Maalouf, (2004)
Non-fiction. A Lebanese writer and journalist traces the story of his grandfather and family at the turn of the 20th century. Maalouf explores family myths, letters and genealogy as he unravels the tales partially remembered from now deceased aunts, uncles and grandparents. Starting from a trunk of letters from his grandfather’s archives, Maalouf details the choices faced by young men late in the Ottoman Empire. Unlike many of his generation, including his younger brother who emigrated to Cuba and prospered, he grandfather rejected emigration as the only route to opportunity but sought to bring the Western knowledge and skills to what was then the Orient. Iconoclastic and stubborn, the grandfather pursues his dream against the odds and the backdrop of a multi-ethnic society in a region that modern readers know only for its strife and conflict. The author’s research leads from the hills and villages of Lebanon to Beirut and to Havana. The writing is good, the research is careful and the story an understanding portrait of a man, his place and his times.
Consequences, Penelope Lively (2007)
Fiction. Multi-generational tale of life, change and determination stemming from a chance encounter. Trapped in a middle-class life that offers her nothing but compromise, denial and disappointment, Lorna meets artist Matt on a London park bench in 1935. The two marry against her family’s wishes and to his family’s surprise and move to a rustic farm cabin where Matt carves wood blocks to make fine prints. Lorna learns how to run a 19th century household. Child Molly takes the story into the war years and Matt’s death. Lorna joins Matt’s long time publisher, first as office manager, then wife and lastly as the mother of a son whose birth takes Lorna’s life. Another generation begins with Molly’s daughter, Ruth who brings the story back to Matt and Lorna. Well written with transitions that are subtlety made despite their inherent drama.
Lucky Jim, Kinsley Amis (1954)
Fiction. Jim Dixon is a man out of place in a post WWII British university where he is employed as a lecturer in the history department. His only certainty is that he knows how tenuous is his position and how much he dislikes the insufferable individuals who control his life, particularly Professor Welch and fellow lecturer Margaret. The story is one that has been told many times since but Amis’ tale is particularly absurd and well presented. His description of Dixon’s hangover early in the story is unmatched as is Dixon’s understanding of the profound insignificance of his historical research. I first read Lucky Jim as assigned reading in a sophomore college English class. It was the only assigned reading that made me laugh out loud. Forty years later, it still does.
Crossing the Continent 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South, Robert Goodwin (2008)
Non-fiction. Piecing together the largely undocumented role of Esteban Dorantes, a Spanish slave who accompanied his master on an ill-fated expedition to Florida in 1527. Abandoned to their fate, the party was able to make its way across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas where four survivors—three noblemen-would be conquistadors—were able to deal with hostile Indians and a vast wilderness across northern Mexico into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finding their way back to Spanish settlements farther south. As a slave, little about Esteban is recorded but Goodwin is able to assemble a convincing narrative that Esteban’s background and experiences in multiple cultures essentially made him the leader of the group. What is documented is that Esteban was able to assume the identity of a shaman and cooperate with the various tribes and bands the group encountered along the way. Upon their return to Spanish settlements their experiences and knowledge enabled Estaban to become a guide for Marcos de Niza’s expedition north. The story ends with Esteban’s death at the hands of Zunis under mysterious circumstances .which Goodwin acknowledges is unlikely ever to be solved.
Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Fiction. The adventure of a band of rabbits who leave the supposed security of an established warren on the word of a clairvoyant. Interesting parable of behavior in the face of unknown adversity and opportunity. Adams mixes a wealth of information about rabbit behavior with an anthropocentric presentation that requires some time to realize these are rabbits and not human beings. The story is well told and compelling.
The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie (2008)
Fiction. Lush, detailed story bridging cultures and time. The basic story is a 16th century Italian arrives at the court of the Mughal emperor, claiming to be a descendent of a lost princess. The story is set in a rich history of Middle Age international rivalry and conflict even as it engages the reader with the history, motives and thoughts of a varied cast of mostly real characters. This is a fiction woven closely into known facts. Rushdie’s style takes some getting used to; he feints and wends his way through the story, telling it in layers that weave back and forth in time. The style can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing but this reader was always able to find my way through those rare occasions and follow a fascinating story, well told.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles (2008)
Fiction. A passenger begins writing a complaint letter to the airline that has stranded him and many others at Chicago’s O”Hare Airport. The letter turns into a reflection on the own writer’s own failed life and a metaphor for individual helplessness in the face of modern technology and implacable bureaucracy. Cleverly done, with multiple story lines telling how the writer came to be stranded as he traveled to attend his daughter’s wedding after a complete absence from her life since birth.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, (2006)
Fiction. Death narrates the tale of a nine year old German girl, Liesel, who is given up to a foster family in Munich in 1939 after the disappearance of her “Kommunist” father by a mother who can no longer care for her. On the way to her new home she witnesses her younger brother’s death and burial after which she retrieves a copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. The book becomes not only a link to her brother but the beginning of her literacy, bonding with her foster father and further book thefts. The story is way too complex for a short review, suffice it to say that reading and words are Liesel’s salvation during the war. The story resonated with me since books were my own link to sanity during Vietnam. Maybe that’s why I think The Book Thief is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto and the Contest for the Center of the World, Roger Crowley (2008)
Non-fiction. At the peak of their power after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks began looking to the Mediterranean Sea to open an additional front against their infidel Christian enemies. By the middle of the following century the Christian world was under siege across a broad maritime front by a skilled and resourceful foe. Roger Crowley brings the conflict to life with a gripping account of the contest between disorganized and feuding Christian states and a determined foe with the wealth of empire at its beck and call. The raids, sieges, intrigues, attacks and counterattacks are described in brutal detail. And though the final outcome is a matter of record, the story pulls the reader along, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the next clash.
The Healing of America: a Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, T.R. Reid (2009)
Non-fiction. Journalist TR Reid circles the globe in search of relief from chronic pain caused by a long ago shoulder injury. His odyssey allows him to compare and contrast health care systems among the world’s industrialized, developed nations. He finds some pain relief and a wide variety of approaches to financing and delivering health care. Among his finds is the realization that most developed nations—with the glaring exception of the United States—have answered “the first question” about health care in the affirmative and have committed to ensuring that all citizens will, in fact, be able to obtain the health care they need at a price they can afford. This book is an engaging and easy read despite the complex technical and policy issues Reid addresses. He ends on a positive note with the belief that America can, indeed, create the best health care system in the world by learning from the experience and ideas of other nations.
Nikki, The Story of a Dog, Tibor Dery (1956, with 2009 introduction)
Fiction. Post-war Hungary, 1948. A middle age couple confront the reality of life after war and in a changed political environment. Also confronting change is Nikki, a mixed breed terrier who adopts the couple with her enthusiasm and adoration. Dery knows terriers and Nikki has all the moves and personality that is associated with her breed. She, like the people she adopts, also has the endurance to deal with the uncertainty and seeming randomness of life under the new order. This is a sweet, little story, much enlivened by Dery’s understanding of dogs, people and society.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (2007)
Fiction. The story of Arnold Spirit, Jr., an adolescent Spokane Indian in his first year of high school. Arnold, known as Junior, is the child of reservation poverty and alcoholic parents and a young man of uncommon determination. He takes a teacher’s advice to leave the reservation by attending high school in a nearby white community where he is an oddity. The strength of the story is the absurdity of reservation life and living between cultures. Junior is both aware and challenged by the absurdities, even when they turn into tragedies. The story is at once funny and sad, just like life. Only in this case it’s an Indian life.
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman (1984)
Non-fiction. Barbara Tuchman analyzes four examples of folly, which she defines as persisting in action despite clear evidence that the action is counterproductive and harmful. She further defines folly as a collective failure, not simply the whim or will of a single forceful leader. In each of the four follies—Trojan willingness to accept the Greek wooden horse, Renaissance popes (and senior hierarchy) neglecting their spiritual duties in favor of their own worldly affairs, British failure to understand and appreciate American revolutionary spirit and America’s similar errors in Vietnam—Tuchman shows that wishful thinking combined with a sense of entitlement and destiny often blinds leaders to reality. The chapters on Vietnam are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago when Tuchman wrote: virtually every mistake that led to America’s defeat in Vietnam are on display in Afghanistan. It’s actually a depressing book because it tells me that humans, their societies and leaders are not capable of looking at history’s lessons and using them to avoid similar errors.