Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Book Round-up

 I read more books in 2011 than I have in a long time, for the simple reason that half of them were audios!

Politics/Current Events
The Secret Man: Bob Woodward.  Everything you always wanted to know about Deep Throat.  I came of age during the Watergate era and for over 30 years D.T.’s identity was not known, the greatest mystery of our time.  Mark Felt, a Twin Falls Idaho native, "came out" at age 92 in 2005.  For those unfamiliar with the Watergate scandal, read Woodward's All the President's Men first to put this book into context.
Hot, Flat and Crowded: Friedman discusses environmental concerns and their possible solutions.  Dull with some enlightening information.   I did not press on to the very end of the book.
Nothing to Envy:  Barbara Demick.  To say North Koreans have a difficult life is putting it mildly.  Their infrastructure is in shambles, citizens are starving, hope is not in their vocabulary.  South Korea runs a government program to train defectors how to function in modern society.  Definitely a must-read now that NK’s "Glorious General Who Descended From Heaven" has passed on.  I have deep pity for the people of NK.
People’s History of the US: 20th century social movements are examined from an extreme liberal viewpoint; eh, don't bother.  Borderline absurd.
The Looming Tower:  Details the gradual growth of radical Islam leading to 911 and why the US was not prepared to prevent a 911; examines the issues surrounding not only that attack but the earlier terrorist attacks during the Clinton era.  Excellent.
Charlie Wilson’s War:  Profanity alert: very foul language (quotes).  What an eye-opener on US-Soviet relations and the birth of Al Qaida.  The war referred to is the Soviets vs. mujahadeen in Afghanistan circa 1980.  The US supported the mujahadeen to put down the Soviets, thus planting the seeds for the rise of Al Qaida and for the downfall of communism.  A must read if you can wade through the language.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: Female Iranian professor rebels against strict society in her own way after 1978 revolution.  Dull at times, and disheartening.  Reveals women's stiff challenges in Iran.
In the Heart of the Sea: second reading of Philbrick's book; a remarkable adventurous tale of a whaling crew's survival, and impressively well researched.
On Mt. Hood:  The facts and history of Mt. Hood and the author's personal experiences with the mountain, a dormant volcano.  Spending a fair amount of time on the mountain and its environs myself, I enjoy reading what others do/think/see/experience there.
Baghdad Without a Map: Fun and funny tale of Horowitz's Middle Eastern travels.  Read it before you go!
The Last Stand: A new look at the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Easier to follow troop movements than some previous books on Custer and Sitting Bull.
Night: Elie Weisel’s life as a Romanian Jew during World War 2; gut-wrenchingly sad.
Hiroshima: Hersey interviewed survivors of the bomb drop and herein are their detailed horrifying personal accounts.  This short book originated as a magazine article in 1946.
The Glass Castle: J. Walls.  Author's gypsy childhood revealed; almost unbelievable.  I wonder why some folks can survive a beastly childhood, yet others crumble even though raised in good homes.
In the Garden of Beasts: Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Germany as seen through the eyes of the American ambassador and his family, including his carelessly loose daughter.  Book abruptly ends with the recall of the ambassador.
Silence of the North: woman lives on her own in wilds of Canada and survives on her grit and determination. Remarkable.
Rocket Men: The US in the "space race."  Fascinating.  Brings back the proud emotions of US accomplishments in space.  When I was 7 my Dad told me we would put a man on the moon when I was 14, an incredibly short time for a development so complicated.  And it happened just like he (via President Kennedy) said it would.
The Darkest Summer: The first 3 months of the Korean War in minute detail.  Helpful to me because I knew little about the causes of the Korean War and why the US became involved. My  uncle spent 14 months in Korea during the war.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A must-read for the over 50 age group and can certainly be enjoyed by younger folks too.  Bryson details his 1950s / early 60s childhood.  I laughed out loud many times--what a fun book.  Yet I want to ask him why he threw in the "f-word" 4 or 5 times.  No one I knew talked like that (I never heard that word until high school in the 70s).  We had our mouths washed out with soap for more benign offenses.
Tough Towns: A dozen bank and train robberies between 1890-1930 are chronicled, mostly in the Midwest.  Author details how citizens of victimized towns mobilized to thwart bank robbers.  A fun book but not scholarly; was there a paucity of sources or was the author lazy?
Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Author D. Loewen examines 12 high-school history textbooks and details 10 common topics such as Columbus, Pilgrims, Vietnam War, and how they are presented to students.  Textbooks are more intent on presenting a feel-good history than on teaching truth, or stimulating discussion and controversy.  Interesting to me, as a historian as in high school and college I was dissatisfied with many of the sources we used.  In my world it's permissible to know that imperfect people have guided the US to become a great country--far from flawless of course, but who can argue that Americans have it pretty good?
Crazy For the Storm: Author as a child amazingly survived a small plane crash that killed his father.  That small part was interesting.  The rest of his life story was dull and crude so I skipped most of that. 
Atlantic:  Simon Winchester.  A "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean including how it was formed and how man's experiences through history have been shaped through interaction with it.  I like that this book sums up important events all in one place--formation of the earth, early exploration, oceanic warfare, inventions such as the trans-Atlantic cable and then wireless communication, etc. etc.  Readable pertinent history.
The Perfect Mile:  The pursuit of the sub 4-minute mile chronicled.  Roger Bannister was a household name during my childhood yet I never knew how he came to be just that. 
Non-Fiction Crime
In Cold Blood: I first read Capote's book in 9th grade and it's just as riveting to me now as then.  An in-depth chronicle about a heart-rending tragic event that brings one to wonder why people do what they do.
Columbine:  D. Cullen.  A non-sensational account of the realities of that horrible day.  Myths are busted, the aftermath is covered.   Carefully written. 
Starvation Heights: In Kitsap County Washington, a "fasting" doctor starves patients to obtain their assets.  Of local interest.
Without a Doubt: OJ Simpson trial as told by Marcia Clark, the chief prosecutor.  She took a lot of heat for her failure to convict and yes, there were major errors committed.  The corruption of justice in this case is infuriating.
Doc: Jack Olsen writes about a Lovell Wyoming doctor who molests his female patients; when word gets out the town polarizes.  Well told story of a disgusting man.
Son: Olsen's story of Kevin Coe, a prolific rapist in Spokane Washington.  Do you really know your neighbors and are you ever truly safe?  This seemingly normal guy was attacking women in broad daylight.
The Murder of the Century: A gruesome 1897 NY murder is looked at, and the way the press reported it is analyzed.  Ho-hum.
Skyjack:  G. Gray.  A summation of D.B. Cooper's infamous crime on Thanksgiving Eve 1971.  Is his skeleton stuck in a tree somewhere in SW Washington or did he live out his life in obscurity carrying his notorious secret to his grave?   We still don't know because there was little new or revealing info in this book.  It smacked of an author hoping to make a few bucks by capitalizing on the publicity surrounding the 40th anniversary.  On the plus side most information about the case is now contained in one source.
Death in the City of Light:  by David King.  A sadistic serial killer preys on desperate Jews and others anxious to escape occupied Paris in 1944.   Longer than it needs to be.  The value in this book is the setting and wartime circumstances, and the revelation that there was more than one way to punish Jews and undesirables.

Stiff:  Mary Roach.  Who would've thought there's a book that describes the study and use of cadavers?  Written for the layman, it addresses the advantages of study on cadavers, and attacks ethical questions.  Am glad I read it.
Rising Tide: John Barry.  Boring as all get-out, the book covers the causes and costs of Mississippi River flooding.  US taxpayers are nailed over and over and over because folks build and are permitted to rebuild in predictable flood zones.
Tsunami, the Underrated Hazard:  An in-depth study of every type of tsunami along with photos of geologic phenomena created by past tsunamis.  Fascinating, informative, and frightening.  If you're "lucky," your coast will be hit by an earthquake-generated tsunami in which you'll have at least a few minute's warning.  An underwater landslide-generated tsunami gives you zero.
The Ghost Map: The mystery of an 1854 London cholera epidemic is solved.  Many thanks to the 19th century thinkers who made the world a safer, cleaner, more pleasant place to live.  Good book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A black woman's cells were taken after her death for use in medical studies, and are behind many important scientific and health advances.  Controversial because neither Henrietta nor her family ever gave their consent, and while scientists and companies became wealthy off her cells, the Lacks family remained mired in poverty and ignorance.
A Crack in the Edge of the World:  Winchester's study of earthquakes centered around San Francisco's tragic event of 1906.  Valuable course on the science of quakes and what the future holds for populations in high-risk zones.  Readable science and history.
Thunderstruck: Eric Larson's chronicle of Marconi's discovery over 100 years ago that made wireless transmissions possible.  Woven in with that is an account of a murder that really isn't related to Marconi in any way, except that the perps were easily captured because of Marconi's invention.  OK.
Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded:  Winchester's in depth look at not only the violent eruption of this Indonesian volcano, but of the fallout it created around the world.  He even goes so far as to connect it to the rise of radical Islam.  Thorough and fascinating.

My Father, Maker of the Trees by Irivuzumugabe: A must read.  This man witnessed the genocide in Rwanda.  He describes his life journey to find meaning and solace, and forgiveness in his heart.

NOTE: separating one book into its own spiritual category gives the impression that I generally don't read spiritually-oriented books; let it be known that I read the Bible and/or Book of Mormon daily, along with articles on spiritual themes.
Year of Wonders: Geraldine Brooks.  Despite being a somewhat trashy and contrived novel of life during the black plague years, the story gives a window into what life might have been like when people were dying left and right.  In the end though my time would be better used reading a non-fiction book on the subject.
Big Rock Candy Mountain: Stegner's autobiographical novel.  Painful, brutal, full of turmoil, torturous to read.  And unforgettable.  Like all of Stegner.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey: How do we reconcile what seems like a chance happening, the effect it has in our lives and the lives of those around us?  To what extent is God involved in the events we experience?  We all have a personal answer to these questions.
Cranford: Gaskell's fun and poignant tale about an English village where women are the dominant influence.
Far From the Madding Crowd: Thomas Hardy.  Gabriel the shepherd and Bathsheba the foolhardy heiress.  Tragic happenings, yet the end is not as bleak as it could/should have been.
Farenheit 451: Bradbury's futuristic novel about censorship and one fireman's gradual realization that books should be cherished rather than burned.
Finding Nouf:  In the murder investigation of a young veiled Saudi woman, cultural barriers impede the murder investigation. Not a great book yet interesting and some suspense.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: V. Blasco.  I hardly know where to start.  This book has deep meaning on several levels.  Setting is pre World War 1 South America, then wartime in Europe.  Part of the main family is German, the other part French.  Family relationships, ostentatious lifestyles, cultural conflicts, some romance, and the question of conflicting ideologies are all set against the backdrop of a vicious war.
The Golden Compass:  YA book; too much fantasy for me.
The Help: black housekeepers in deep South during early 1960s relate their struggles to a white author.  I listened to this on CD.  Different actors are used for each character, complete with varied Southern accents.  If not for that I likely would consider it only a slightly above average novel.  Excellent on CD.
The Kalahari Typing School: I'm probably the last one on the planet to start this popular series in which a Botswanan woman runs a business.  Enjoyed it.
King Solomon’s Mines: English hunters in Africa search for diamonds, barely survive, then become involved in local tribal warfare.  Great adventure book.  This book may be the basis for modern adventure movies including the Indiana Jones series.
Look Again: A mother discovers her 2-year-old adopted son looks very much like the face on a missing child flyer.  She delves in to find out more of her child's past.  Book is intriguing but the end is dumb.
North and South: Gaskill.  Hard-working mill owner meets family fallen on hard times.  This is a great story as is the BBC production.
People of the Book: After reading Year of Wonders by Brooks I vowed not to read another one of hers.  I picked up this one without paying attention to the author because the subject matter fascinated me.  It is a great story line and am glad I read it.   But . . . I resent her inserting trashy sex a few times, an insult to a reader's intelligence.  Sorry GB, but it's just not believable that a woman flies to Europe from Australia, is driven directly to a  museum to examine an ancient book, works on that tedious project all day, is taken out to dinner by one of the museum people who she just met, then hops in the sack with him after dinner.  Hard to take the character seriously after that.
Rebecca: Classic du Maurier mystery of a mis-matched English couple whose lives are overshadowed by the memory of Maxim's deceased first wife.  Full of suspense and surprise.
Riders of the Purple Sage:  Zane Grey makes Mormons the wickedest baddest people on the planet in this 1870s Western set in Southern Utah.  The solitary stunning landscape comes through vividly.  I loved reading this, even though the badness was over the top.  But that's what a Western novel is.
Shane: Classic Western tale of good vs. evil on the frontier. "He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89, a slim man, dressed in black. “Call me Shane,” he said. He never told us more."   Shane appears out of nowhere and his dark past is alluded to but never entirely revealed.  In 10th grade the book was read in English classes, and then the Alan Ladd movie was shown.   For weeks students walked around saying, "Shane!  Come back Shane!"  And I still lapse into it once in a while.
Slats Grobnik: When Chicagoan Mike Royko was alive I enjoyed reading his column except when it was about his working-man character Slats Grobnik.  I tried the book but could only get 1/4 the way through.  He's just too extreme and sarcastic for me.  One of two books I did not finish this year.
Sometimes a Great Notion: Ken Kesey.  Second reading; on my all-time top-ten list.  I first read it in summer 1972 at my employer's house--I was babysitting 2 kids full-time--it was one of only 2 novels in their entire house.  I've never forgotten it.  The Stamper family of Southern Oregon struggles through dysfunction and economic bad times and tragedy.  Kesey makes you despise his characters.  They are weak, yet strong--that's what makes us human I guess.
Walking Across Egypt: An elderly woman living alone bonds with a wayward teen.  Humorous and sweet.  First in a short series but I've only read this one.

I re-read 4 Elizabeth George Speare books this summer; Speare's books are still perfect for pre-teens.  No nasty modern social issues in sight.

The Bronze Bow: Vengeful young man in early Palestine learns forgiveness from Christ.
Calico Captive: Women captured by Indians in early New England.
The Sign of the Beaver: Boy left to fend for himself in a remote cabin in early New England.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond: My childhood favorite.  Early New England mystery.


  1. I enjoyed this. It's entertaining to read your thoughts about certain books. I'll have to check it again when I need book suggestions in 2012. Glad you shared!

  2. We have a lot of overlapping titles. What were your favorites?

  3. I had to leave out favorites--just couldn't narrow them down. On the other hand . . . mmm, perhaps I'll throw in an extra post here.