Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Favorite Reads of 2016

Of the books I read this year, these are the ones that stand out.


The Relic Master, Christopher Buckley (2015)

In Europe at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation indulgences and relics were the coin of an all-too-temporal Catholic culture. The tale is knowledgeable about life, events and personages of the era. The plot is full of twists and turns, weaves fictional and historical characters, and provides enough suspense to keep the reader fully engaged. An easy, informative read.

Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Stephen Harrigan (2015)

Set in 1830’s Illinois, the story is based on Abraham Lincoln’s early career as lawyer and aspiring politician. Many of the characters are, like Lincoln, based on real persons while others, like Cage Weatherby, are fiction. The two sets of characters blend in with each other and key facts of Lincoln’s life in this seamless historical fiction. The Abraham Lincoln of this story is raw, uncertain about many things and clueless about women. What he is not clueless about is politics as an all-encompassing endeavor. He he is constantly in action on behalf of the Whig party and even at this early age sees a need to make a mark with his life. Stephen Harrigan creates the story with lively dialogue, interesting characters and good descriptions of frontier Illinois.

Peace-Keeping, Mischa Berlinski (2016)

Fiction. Set in Haiti in the years leading up to the 2010 earthquake, Peace-Keeping, centers on Terry White, a laid-off sheriff's deputy now serving with a UN mission in Haiti and a local judge with whom he becomes associated. White is instrumental in the judge's decision to challenge a long-term incumbent. The plot is pretty simple but what gives this story its power is the history and context that Mischa Berlinski provides by way of background and setting.


Non-fiction. David Gessner examines the works of two iconic western writers--the staid, establishmentarian Wallace Stegner and the radical Edward Abbey—and examines their influence on how America views its western lands. Although worlds apart in their personas and attitude toward the larger society, both writers understood and appreciated the limits that arid western lands imposed on the humans who attempted to wrest a livelihood from those lands. Gessner also includes interviews with the many writers and thinkers influenced by both men. His literary biography is no hagiography. Gessner paints a complete picture of each of his subjects and does not ignore tStegner’s cultural conservatism or Abbey’s misogyny and racism. But he also recognizes their contributions to how we understand our relationship with our arid western lands.

A review of the music that accompanied the American forces to Vietnam. Bradley and Werner follow the zeitgeist of the war as expressed in the music from its early optimistic days to the final collapse of the American military in the war's later years. Written with great understanding of the social context of the war, We Gotta Get Out of this Place demonstrates how music expressed the hopes, frustrations and divisions among the soldiers and American society at large. Three chapters focus on the experience of music and the war. The fourth chapter examines how music was brought to the war zone. The fifth chapter expands the discussion into how veterans have used music to make their transition back into civilian society. The book is laced with first person accounts that add a stark reality to the broader discussion.

Illustrates the full range of experiences and feelings about the Vietnam War. The 138 interviews take the reader beyond the usual focus on leaders and presents the the war in all its diversity. There are plenty of the usual suspects but equally important are the stories of the families, Vietnamese on both sides as well as Americans, who were affected by the war. A few interviewees still cling to the idea that America could have bested the Vietnamese Communist but most, even the hawks, have come to see the war's futility. Each of the oral histories are compelling but the stories told by the children searingly describe how war changes lives forever, even for the survivors.

Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, Richard Zacks (2016)

In 1895 at age 60, deeply in debt and honor-bound (at wife Livy's insistence) Mark Twain began an extended trip around the world telling stories from the works that had made him the America's most prominent writer. Although he had amassed a fortune from his books and articles, he lost his fortune, along with his wife's inherited wealth and was dogged by creditors. He was saved by a combination of his own talent and the friendship of H.H. Rogers, a founder of Standard Oil and one of America's richest men. The plan: Twain would travel and lecture, earning fees and gathering material for a new book while Rogers would negotiate debt repayment and publishing deals. All complex and all presented in an easy to understand narrative. Richard Zacks provides plenty of background on 19th century publishing, Twain's disastrous investments and family life in the Clemmons household. Sources include letters and excerpts from Twain's notebook that never made it into the book. The Mark Twain of Chasing the Last Laugh is at times charming, irritable, cynical, clever, excited, sad and at peace. He is a person fully fleshed out.