Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Books of 2014

For the purposes of this blog "best" is defined as my favorites among the books I read in 2014.  My fiction choices reflect my interest in history.  Both Leonardo Padura and Fannie Flagg weave unique, compelling and very different stories from actual events.  History also figures prominently in my non-fiction favorites.  I knew little about Red Cloud before reading the Drury-Calvin biography and enjoyed reading about a Native American leader who stood fast against the US.  World War One I knew plenty about but not in the detail I learned from Christopher Clark.

All that said, here are my choices for 2014 :


The Man Who Loved Dogs, Leonardo Padura (2009, translation 2014)
Cuban writer Leonardo Padura recreates the assassination of Leon Trotsky with a deft tale of intrigue set in the context of Joseph Stalin’s quest for absolute power in the Soviet Union and the pre-war climate of the 1930’s.  Leon Trotsky’s exile is a well-told story which Padura leavens with some introspection and regrets on Trotsky’s part.  Alongside Trotsky’s odyssey, the reader is introduced to Ramon Mercader, a Spanish Republican plucked from the defeat of the his cause by the KGB and trained as an assassin.  All of this is narrated by a Cuban writer who encounters a mysterious man and his two Russian Wolfhounds at a beach.  As the mysterious man confides in him, the narrator begins to suspect that he is talking to the assassin himself.  Each subplot brings its own set of contradictions, erratic behavior and, ultimately, understanding.   The early chapters read much like a history of the era but as each subplot evolves the reader is drawn into the details of each man’s thoughts and actions.  Although Trotsky’s assassination is a foregone conclusion, Padura invests the story with mystery and suspense.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Fanny Flagg (2013)

A tale well-told about discovery and history.  Sarah Jane Poole, “Sookie” to everyone in Point Clear, Alabama, approaches her 60th birthday to learn that she is an adopted child.  Her birth certificate showing the woman Sookie has known all her life as mother is a forgery.  Her real birth certificate lists a Polish mother and unknown father.  The discovery changes her life.  How Sookie’s life changes gradually reveals itself along with the story of Fritzi Jurdabralinski, the name listed on the birth certificate as mother.  Fanny Flagg tells the story in a lively, often funny narrative that captures the feel of small-town South, the barnstorming days of early aviation and tells the story of the remarkable women who flew military aircraft during WWII

 The Heart of Everything That Is:  the Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, Bob Drury & Tom Clavin (2013)
Excellent history of the Indian leader Red Cloud, whose multi-year campaign against white expansion forced the US government to sue for peace.  Authors Drury and Clavin are clearly sympathetic to the Indian point-of-view; in their telling, Red Cloud’s resistance makes perfect sense.  What makes the story compelling is the detail about Indian culture and strategy.  Red Cloud’s achievement was unifying fractious and independent Sioux bands in a strategic campaign against the US Army whose institutional racism did not credit Indians with strategic ability.  This history debunks the image created in film and TV of the cavalry coming to the rescue.  Not only were the troops not cavalry—they were mounted infantry—but their horses were often worn-out, ammunition in short supply, and officers prone to fall for the bait in one of Red Cloud’s ambushes.  Add the Sioux’s mobility and knowledge of the terrain and you have the bluecoats at a disadvantage.  The authors don’t spare the Army leadership, a collection of officers whose ambition and prejudices often worked to Red Cloud’s advantage.

The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark (2012)
A detailed, intricate history of the interests, intrigues, rivalries that led the great powers of Europe to create a series of alliances with, as Christopher Clark writes, “a trigger set in the most volatile region of Europe.”  The story  is long and involved—562 pages of text, 100 pages of notes—but Clark carefully and systematically lays out all of the threads to present a comprehensive history of how that trigger exploded with an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914.