"The Mendacity of Hope should help wake up all those Obama-voters who've been napping while the wars escalate, the recession deepens, and the environment goes straight to hell." --Barbara Ehrenreich
How much of an impact can an animal have? How many lives can one cat touch? How is it possible for an abandoned kitten to transform a small library, save a classic American town, and eventually become famous around the world? You can't even begin to answer those questions until you hear the charming story of Dewey Readmore Books, the beloved library cat of Spencer, Iowa.
Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL is subtle, insightful, fascinating. She has completely integrated the historical details into a living portrait of a man, Thomas Cromwell and his development in a very difficult time and place, Henry VIII’s court between 1500 and 1535. Way more than a “historical novel” it’s a study of religious fanaticism, power politics and human compassion. The book won both the Man Booker Award and the National Book Award.
Pearl S. Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH is a classic that I re-read early in the year. And I am still thinking about it almost a year later. The complete arc of a man’s life set in the very violent and devastating era of China in the first quarter of the 20th century. Buck dared to write a colorful, detailed and realistic setting, but it is the character of Wang Lung that really makes this book stay alive.
SCHOOL FOR LOVE by Olivia Manning is a small, quiet, dry and fascinating novel. Manning is too little known probably because she’s such a quiet writer, but nothing I read all year created a sense of place and a sense of loneliness quite like this story of an orphaned teenage boy marooned in Jerusalem right before the end of World War II, at the mercy of a hypocritical and domineering “aunt”.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a super talented writer, especially of short stories. Her first book of stories INTERPRETER OF MALADIES won the Pulitzer Prize, and I loved that one. Her second book of stories, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, is the one I read this year. It is brilliant. I know lots of people don’t like short stories, but try Lahiri, because these stories allow you to enter a complete world just like a good novel does, and she develops many faceted characters and plot just like a novel too, only with graceful brevity.
Julie Orringer’s first novel THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE is a big, sweeping novel set in Paris in the 1930s then in Hungary during WWII. Her characters are a family of Jewish Hungarians with three smart, talented sons, one of whom is an architecture student on scholarship in Paris. Throughout the first half of the book, the dread of what you know will probably happen to these fascinating characters creates a tension in the reader, and when the violence begins to touch their lives you cannot put this book down. She explores characters, families, and a little known twist on the German government’s inhumane treatment of occupied peoples.
THE CELLIST OF SARAJEVO by Steven Galloway will make you think about the Balkan War of the early 1990s in a different way. The story of four citizens caught in the death trap of the city over a period of two weeks brings the time and place to life. The outrageous behavior of the Serbs bombing and killing citizens of Sarajevo, trying to kill as many Croatians and Bosnians as possible for over two years, without a single international agency or other country stopping the siege is heartbreaking.
WAIT TIL NEXT YEAR by Doris Kearns Goodwin is about as American as baseball, which is a major part of this fine memoir. I put off reading this book because I was afraid it would be too sentimental. But much to my delight, she has written a very unglamorous account of her growing up right outside of New York City in the 1940s up to the mid 50s. Baseball, especially the Brooklyn Dodgers, were a passion for her and her father and mother. Indeed, up and down the streets of this close-knit community were baseball fans, rooting for the Yankees or the New York Giants or for the Dodgers. The illness of her mother, the role of race both in baseball and her community, and the struggle for equal opportunity by some of the girls she knew add depth to this lovely recounting of her growing up.
MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS by Tracy Kidder introduces the reader to Dr. Paul Farmer and his medical mission in Haiti, but it is way more than a biography of do-gooder. Farmer is a force of nature who since 1980s has pioneered medical outreach to rural Haitians and at the same time trained Haitians to do the medical work themselves. Even before the earthquake of 2009, Haiti had few roads, little clean water, desiccated lands because American interventions to dam up rivers, corrupt government aided and abetted by foreign powers. Farmer’s Partners in Health has set itself a huge, unending task. But as if that weren’t enough, Farmer has introduced new protocols for treating tuberculosis throughout the world that the UN’s World Health Organization resisted but finally accepted because it saved so many more lives. Kidder’s writing is clear and detailed, personal and affectionate, but also frustrated and impatient. He strikes a fine balance in introducing you to Farmer’s almost saint-like efforts and the help and frustration of those around him.
A.J. Liebling’s THE ROAD BACK TO PARIS is a volume of the journalist’s work that is now out of print. Other volumes of his New Yorker pieces are available however, and I highly recommend any of them. Every piece he wrote for the New Yorker is full of life, odd and telling details, compassion and sometimes righteous anger at the corruption of people, even the ones on “our side”. He loved boxing, food, France and the men who fought Second World War for the Allies, sometimes mixing up all his passions in one essay. Few journalist write pieces like these any more.
THE BROTHER GARDENERS by Andrea Wulf recounts the way in which the avid gardeners and naturalists of Europe (especially England) in the 1700s changed the course of gardening. By traveling around the globe some naturalist like Joseph Banks brought back species from all over the world and the plants and trees growing today in Kew Garden show you much of what he did. But a man named Collinson and others in England cultivated species of plants and trees mostly provided to them by the intrepid American collector John Bartram, who sent seeds and roots across the ocean many times a year for over 40 years. The cultivation of these specimens and incorporation into cultivated gardens changed what we grow in our own gardens today. It’s a fascinating story and gives new meaning to the concept of “invasive species”.
$20 PER GALLON: HOW THE INEVITABLE RISE IN THE PRICE OF GASOLINE WILL CHANGE OUR LIVES FOR THE BETTER by Christopher Steiner
Imagine an everyday world in which the price of gasoline (and oil) continues to go up, and up, and up. Think about the immediate impact that would have on our lives.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTELLER
Quickly established as an essential and enduring companion for aspiring writers when it was first published, Betsy Lerner's sharp, funny, and insightful guide has been meticulously updated and revised to address the dramatic changes that have reshaped the publishing industry in the decade since.
"The reasoned and insistent exhortations of a man with a cause who, rather than mellowing with age and wisdom, continues to grow in forcefulness and vision." --Booklist
A raucous, truth-telling look at the white working poor--and why they have learned to hate liberalism.
The story of the world-famous monument and the extraordinary world's fair that introduced it, by the author of Conquering Gotham and Urban Forests
Gertrude Stein and Alice Babette Toklas met on September 8, 1907, in Paris, and remained together from that day until Gertrude's death in 1946. They became a legendary couple, photographed by Stieglitz, Man Ray & Cecil Beaton, painted by Picasso, and written about in the works of Hemingway, Paul Bowles and Sylvia Beach.