BTT: Annual Review

Booking Through Thursday asked:

What’s the best book you read this year?

Links are to the thoughts I wrote out at the time I read them.  I am eliminating re-reads from contention, and can still only narrow it down to three Bests:

The Worst was While they Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family, by Kathryn Harrison – a true crime book.

My Favorite reads were two books written by old friends:

I would like to add a category – Most Disappointing. My award goes to Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan.

Incidentally, here is my complete list:

1. Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott

2. Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

3. Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris

4. Persuasion, by Jane Austen (re-read)

5. Paradise Lost, by John Milton

6. Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris

7. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, by Lili’uokalani

8. Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton

9. Clapton, The Autobiography, by Eric Clapton

10. Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

11. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

12. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, by Colleen McCullough

13. Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman

14. Die a Little, by Megan Abbott

15. Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow

16. An Insider’s Tour of the Pike Place Public Market, by Michael Yeager

17. Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

18. Taft, by Ann Patchett

19. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara (re-read)

20. A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

21. Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

22. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown

23. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

24. The Dahlia Connection, by Michael Dovell

25. Chance Occurrence, by Kristin Shaver

26. Chicago, by Studs Terkel

27. While they Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family, by Kathryn Harrison

28. The Unreachable Star: My Unauthorized Travels with Patti LuPone, by Maile Hernandez

29. Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History Through America’s Gateway, by Loretto Dennis Szucs

30. Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

31. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (re-read)

32. The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

33. Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

34. Falling Out of Fashion, by Karen Yampolsky

35. Niagara: A History of the Falls, by Pierre Berton

36. The Year She Left, by Kerry Kelly

37. Mr. Pip, by Lloyd Jones

38. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

39. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

40. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

41. MacIntosh..The Naked Truth, by Scott Kelby

42. A Christmas Memory, One Christmas and The Thanksgiving Visitor, by Truman Capote

43. Hercule Poirots Christmas: A Holiday Mystery, by Agatha Christie

44. The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

45. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

46. Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, by Robert Lee Hall

47. A Different Kind of Christmas, by Alex Haley

48. Christmas Classics, compiled by The Modern Library

49. Memories of John Lennon, edited by Yoko Ono

50. Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth


Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth 50

I had to purge my books again because my TBR bookcase is overflowing.  I have it down to a full seven shelves and four additional piles.  During that mini-project, it occurred to me that I haven’t read any Philip Roth this year.  Roth is one of the authors that I like enough to try everything that he has written, so I buy anything with his name on it when I can find it for a dollar.  This is why I have so many unread books.

Goodbye, Columbus was his first book.  It is a novella and five short stories.  The novella was a coming-of-age romance across the social classes.  Neil was a Rutgers graduate from Newark that worked in the library and Brenda was a Radcliffe student spending the summer at the country club.  They had a lovely summer that ended with his spending two weeks with her family, at the end of which is a wedding.  Her brother married his pregnant girlfriend.  Then Brenda goes back to school.

In between there were several Battle of the Sexes conversations, challenging conventions and some of what it meant to be Jewish in an upwardly mobile post-war America.  I was particularly interested in one character’s comment (it might have been Neil) that African American families moved into neighborhoods in Newark that the Jewish immigrants vacated once they had made some money.  I have heard that more recently as a sociological commentary.  The theory, if I remember correctly, was that the Jewish community might have been a bridge to build better “race relations” because they came from the same place – neighborhoods and economics – as many African Americans, but it never materialized.

I found it all very interesting until the end.  SPOILERS:

They break up because Brenda left her diaphragm in her house and her mother found it.  Her parents demanded that she break up with that evil boy.

Really?  It didn’t once occur to her to say, “Hey, Mom.  At least he didn’t knock me up like my brother and what’s-her-name that got married five minutes ago in your own backyard.”

So I guess that part is just dated.   And not in a way that gives us any new insight into anything.

The rest of the stories were good.  I particularly liked one where a boy is challenging his rabbi to explain why, if God can do anything, he couldn’t have made Mary produce the baby Jesus without having intercourse.  I remember my friend Noah telling me that Judaism encourages people to study the Torah and ask questions without relying solely on faith.  The rabbi didn’t have a good answer for the kid, and drama ensues.

I am in the middle of two other books right now, with a third for my book club that I need to start.  So I doubt that I will finish anything else before the end of the year.  I might just start working on a 2010 Books and Reading Recap.

Memories of John Lennon, edited by Yoko Ono 49

I first listed Memories of John Lennon on my LibraryThing page in 2007.  That means I started reading it in 2007.  I put it down because I was (sorry) bored.  It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for three years.

I picked it back up after the anniversary of Lennon’s murder, and some of it is really good.  Yoko Ono pulled together a whole ton of stories – vignettes might be a better word – with photographs and sketches from John’s friends, colleagues (none of the Beatles, of course) and otherwise famous fans.

Some were really short.  Norman Mailer contributed this:

“We have lost a genius of the spirit.”

Bono contributed a sketch of Lennon.  And some people wrote on for days.  The trouble is, so many were saying the same things:  how admired, genius, clever, warm, loving, blahblahblah.  You know what I really liked?  Yoko offered up a story at the end involving an art gallery showing her work and being snubbed in a junior high sort of way and how John Lennon held her hand and kept his chin up and got her through it.  I could have read a whole book full of stories like that.

Christmas Classics from the Modern Library 48 for the 50 Book Challenge
Book 5 for The Holiday Reading Challenge

I forget when I picked up Christmas Classics, but it has been on my shelf for awhile.  And I don’t know what I was thinking, because I had already read most of what was in there and believe me, except for the Linus speech from the Bible, these exerpts are better taken in their entirety from the original source.

There were pieces from A Christmas Carol and Little Women (gag) and The Pickwick Papers.  I hadn’t read O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” before, and I enjoyed that.   But “The Fir”, by Hans Christian Anderson is (don’t laugh) part of the reason that I can’t have a real Christmas Tree!

The most enjoyable piece was a Sherlock Holmes tale set over the Christmas Holiday, that has little to do with Christmas other than the proverbial goose.

Overall, if you have a family that likes to sit around the fire and read these things, Christmas Classics is a great book.  I’d rather taken my Dickens straight up.

This was my last book for the Holiday Reading Challenge.  Thanks to Nely for setting it up.  I wouldn’t have read five holiday books otherwise!

A Different Kind of Christmas, by Alex Haley 47 of 50 Book Challenge
Book 4 of the Holiday Reading Challenge

1855.  Fletcher Randall is the North Carolinian son of a plantation owning state senator, studying at Princeton.  One day, he is befriended by three Quaker brothers, who take him home to Philadelphia, introduce him to a successful black businessman, and bring him to a meeting of local abolishionists supporting the Underground Railroad.  And his mind is blown

He goes back to school feeling angry and imposed upon.  Then he starts to do some research.  Later, he goes back to Philadelphia and volunteers his services.  The rest of the story is about how he sets up the escape of a group of slaves – some of whom work at his own home – over his Christmas vacation.

This book is all of 101 pages long.

I did not believe for one minute that this kid spent one weekend in Philadelphia, half a semester reading up on slavery and abolition in the library and suddenly has that kind of a change of heart.  Having said that, it was a compelling tale.  The glimpses of how the Railroad worked.  How each person along the line might have contributed.  The likely and unlikely supporters.  The human consequences of doing the right thing.  This could have been an epic. 

The short description given of the Quakers, for example.  They don’t accuse, or argue or get visibly angry.  They use their calm and patience and persistence to win others over to their side.  There’s a lesson for this lovely holiday season.  (Although admittedly, the Quakers were awfully manipulative.  And presumptuous.)  I would have loved to see those characters fleshed out further.

It seems that Haley just meant to deliver a short holiday tale to remind us that once there was A Different Kind of Christmas.  For that, it works.

Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, by Robert Lee Hall 46 on 50 Book Challenge
Book 3 on The Holiday Reading Challenge

I don’t remember what whim made me pick up Benjamin Franklin and a Case of Christmas Murder, but it looks to have been from the Little City Book Sale last June. 

It is a charming, rather Holmesian novel that has Dr. Franklin in London over Christmas in 1757, and this seems to be the second in a series of mysteries.  He is there to talk with the Penns about their damnable taxes, and he also solves mysteries.  His sidekick/narrator is a twelve year old boy that is a servant of sorts and also his unacknowledged son.  Got that?

The premise is that Franklin and the boy, Nick, are at a party on Christmas night when the host very publicly falls dead.  Franklin suspects murder and puts himself on the case.

This book does a better job than the Poirot novel of using the Christmas season to set and enhance the mystery.  I find that odd since I understood historically, we didn’t start to get really crazy about Christmas until the 1800s.  Oh, and that lead to the moment when I wanted to smack Franklin:

He and Nick go into a toy store.  Nick has never been in a toy store and thinks it is the best thing he has ever seen.  Franklin buys toys for the murder victim’s children, speak to the clerk in the store and then they leave.


There is a shady brother and mistaken identity and a wife that is clearly hiding something – the usual.  But the boy narrator is observant and clever and brave and has just enough wide-eyed wonder to make it charming. 

I could read more of these.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman 45

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman, was a random pick, except that I it was another war history.  It is the story of the family that owned and operated the Warsaw Zoo during World War II.  Once the zoo was bombed to pieces, and the animals either run off, killed, or shipped to German zoos, the Zabinskis used their property to hide Jews and other fugitives with the Underground movements in Poland.

Besides the fact the it was a story of courage and survival, I also appreciated that this book reminds me that:

  1. The War started long before Pearl Harbor.
  2. The Russians were not The Good Guys.
  3. In fact, about the worst place on Earth you could be is between the Nazis and the Red Army.

Ackerman did some fine research, between the journals and interviews and public records.  I am grateful, because this was a story that needed to be told.