Monday, December 26, 2022

2022 Favorite Books




Vivian Maier Developed: the Untold Story of the Photographer Nanny, Ann Marks (2021)

Well-told biography of street photographer Vivian Maier who created an extensive body of work that went largely unrecognized during her lifetime working as a professional nanny. Fills in the life behind the photographer whose work in New York and Chicago during the 1950s and 60s came to the world’s attention through a storage-unit auction]

There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, Fiona Hill (2021)

Russian expert and British native Fiona Hill uses the trajectory of her own life as the daughter of a coal miner dispossessed by the closure of mines in northeast England who found opportunity and encouragement to succeed well beyond the expectations of her class and geographic origins to highlight the the ever-shrinking opportunity available to marginalized groups based on race, class, sex or geography in the 21st century. Hill contrasts the opportunities and support she found along the way with polarization and limits within both the US and UK and recommends public and private sector policies that would address the barriers that leave people and entire regions forgotten and wholly on their own

Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, Woody Holton (2021)

History professor Woody Holton delves deeply into the American Revolution to fill in the untold stories of women, enslaved persons, Native Americans and others who have been largely ignored in the conventional histories. Holton doesn’t overlook the major figures and events but shows rather how those major figures were assisted by these marginalized individuals and sometimes even changed their plans based on what they learned from them.

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, Calvin Trillin (2011)

A four -decade collection of commentary by columnist and poet Calvin Trillin on a wide range of subjects, including, but not limited to: media, politics, economics, language, literature, New York City and rich people.  No matter what the topic or year, Trillin’s columns, satirical poems and song lyrics are perceptive, clever, amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, Nicole Hannah-Jones (2021)

An expanded version of material first presented in the New York Times Magazine, The 1619 Project examines the impact of slavery on the history, economics and institutions of the United States. The various essays present a convincing case that slavery was an integral part of Colonial America and was incorporated in many ways into the newly-formed Republic. The basic point is that Blacks were enslaved for almost 250 years, emancipated without any resources whatsoever, actively barred from achieving economic or political success and attacked if they ever did. It’s a compelling story that gives lie to the myth of racial progress.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation and the Longest Night of the Second World War, Malcolm Gladwell (2021)

Malcolm Gladwell follows the development of strategic thought from the idea that precision bombing can end wars without mass casualties to the wholesale firebombing of Japanese cities in the last months of WW2. Along the way he provides interesting sketches of the various theories and technological developments that gave rise to the dream of precision bombing and the realities that led to the firebombing of Tokyo, followed by many other cities. Malcolm handles the technological aspects of with easily understandable prose and provides thoughtful detail on how the Air Force came to utilize aircraft in war. He even manages to (somewhat) humanize General Curtis LeMay.

E.B. White on Dogs, Martha White, ed. (2013)

Non-fiction. Spanning the years 1929 to 1984, this collection of letters, essays and the occasional poem chronicles writer E.B. White’s many dogs and his understanding of them. White experienced (suffered?) his dogs with some fondness but was always aware of that they had their own agendas. Fred--the  quick impression of a dachshund”-- is an early star in this cavalcade, sometimes warranting his own essay, other times simply making a passing appearance in a letter. His memory (or spirit) even shows up a couple of times after his death. Throughout, White is always affectionate, tolerant and warmly appreciative of the companionship his dogs provided. He understands that dogs are not always the most pleasant companions but he also understands that life wold be diminished in their absence.


The Sentence, Louise Erdrich (2021)

Fiction. Tookie, an urban Native American in Minneapolis, gets busted for helping a friend move the friend’s ex-boyfriend’s corpse which also contained a substantial quantity of drug. Released after several years in prison and married to the (also Native American) officer who arrested her, she works in a bookstore owned and staffed by Native Americans and is haunted by the spirit of her most annoying customer. The setting is Minneapolis in 2020 and follows Tookie as she comes to terms with her neglected childhood, prison and coping with the turmoil of Covid, the George Floyd killing and the vexing presence of the bookstore ghost. Tookie is an imperfect but engaging character, shackled by memories and emotions from her difficult path but also willing to take some risks toward trust and future possibilities.

The Cold Millions, Jess Walter (2020)

Fiction. Lively tale of IWW organizing, capitalist hostility,working conditions and economic exploitation set in and around Spokane, Washington Itinerant workers serving in the logging camps and mines of the northwest create profit for the well-to-do and businesses of the region but their presence is less welcome when the radical IWW encourages the workers to demand better pay and conditions. The Cold Millions begins with violence against these “vagrants” and sets the tone for the entire novel: Wobblies arrested by the hundred for simply stating their demands, they endure squalid confinement and stage hunger strikes. The infamous 18-year-old IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley is one of many believable characters in a cast that includes a variety of Wobblies, smarmy rich people, brutally indifferent cops, and an agent provocateur.  It all builds to an explosive end.

Horse, Geraldine Brooks (2022)

Fiction. Filled with characters drawn from history and the most famous race horse of the 19th century, Horse tells a story that flows into the current century. The story begins in the 21st century with the unlikely meeting of a Black Nigerian art historian and a Smithsonian curator from Australian over a “throwaway” painting of a horse before falling back to the antebellum South and the story of the racehorse, Lexington, and his fictional enslaved groom, Jarret. Well-researched, blending much historical fact seamlessly with fiction, Horse is compelling reading that explores racism in the 19th century and now.

Forbidden City, Vanessa Hua (2022)

Fiction. Set in mid-1960’s China, Forbidden City, follows the trajectory of Mei Xiang’s life as she is selected from her rural village to serve as a dance partner to China’s Communist elite. At 16 years old, Mei’s entire life has been lived under Chairman Mao’s revolution; she experienced the revolutionary indoctrination and the hardships of the Mao’s changing policies during his first two decades in power.  Mei becomes Mao’s mistress and, steeped in revolutionary ardor, aspires to become a model revolutionary. Following her odyssey the reader gets a glimpse of life at the top and factional intrigue. Mei’s ardor encourages Mao to launch the Cultural Revolution, to purify the revolutionary spirit.  As the frenzy of denunciation grows, causing real harm to real people, Mei realizes how little Mao seems to care about the suffering of the people  Recognizing the falsehood of Chairman Mao and his cult  her to life-changing decision.