Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 Book Roundup

2012 was a banner book year in these parts.   Many were audio books that I listened to while driving, cooking, cleaning, walking, etc.  Books on CD were my lifeline, until my player broke.  Now I listen to downloads on my iphone from Library2Go.

My latest reading goal is to read at least 2 classics per year that I have somehow missed along life's path.   And, in 2013, I vow to start whittling away at the tall stack of books on my nightstand.  They are all books I have bought because they are non-fiction long reads, yet there they sit while I keep on checking out library books on subjects I'm more in the mood to learn about at the moment.

History and Biography                                                                        

AUDIOWhat If ? 2 by Cowley: author demonstrates how life would be altered if 6 named historical events had not happened.  Mmmmm, I never could see the point in this kind of grand speculation.   

 Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Lansky: A grass-roots drive to collect, catalog and make available Yiddish books that would otherwise have been lost or destroyed at the possessors' deaths.   Lansky and his skeleton crew drove all over the Northeast following rumors of people who had Yiddish books to donate.  The stories of these Jewish people are remarkable, and the determination of the author to save the books is exciting.  Well worth reading.  I enjoy and even crave books about people who make good things happen.

 7 Miracles that Saved America by Stewart: A discussion of divinely inspired events that positively affected the US and the world.  Columbus, Jamestown, US Constitution, Battle of New York, Lincoln and Gettysburg, Battle of Midway, Reagan's survival, are all examined.  Recommend.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander Newfoundland by DeFede: on 9/11 the people of Gander Newfoundland ministered to thousands of airline passengers stranded by events in NY.  Folksily written.  A marvelous story that comes off too average, yet very worth reading.  Another book where ordinary people step up to the plate in behalf of others.

AUDIO1861: The Civil War Awakening by Goodheart: detailed information and obscure info explored pertaining to the formative events of the Civil War; recommend for CW buffs.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Ralston: Everyone knows the basic story of Ralston's almost-one-week spent pinned by a boulder.  This book goes deep into his psyche.  Loved following his thought process as he worked a solution to his problem.   As a hiker myself (though not anywhere near his class), I have personally experienced a few "near-misses."  Once a fellow hiker rolled off the edge of a cliff while the rest of us couldn't move fast enough to grab her (she was saved by the skinny trunk of vine-maple tree).  On Mt. St. Helens I gently rested my hand on a huge boulder (like 4'tall), and it immediately dislodged and went bounding down the slope onto the trail below.   I could fill a book with tales of injury and death of hikers that I have read about in The Oregonian.  I was at Multnomah Falls the evening a hiker (drunk it turned out) went over the edge of the trail and died.  So I know what can happen.   There are times we (and Ralston) are in the right place at the wrong time, or left an essential step out of an activity.  In his case it was neglecting to notify anyone of his whereabouts.  I saw this movie first and turned down the sound because of foul language, yet the book is mostly clean.

AUDIOWho Do You Think You Are? by Myers: A NY Jewish woman's painful childhood is explored, the impetus being a secret locked box she found after her mother's death.  SHE DIDN'T OPEN IT FOR 12 YEARS!  What kind of person puts an intriguing mystery on the shelf for 12 years??   When she finally did open it . . . well, here comes a spoiler--there was nothing much interesting in it.   All the build-up of anticipation was for naught.  I found the book borderline annoying for that reason.

Forever on the Mountain by Tabor: 1967 climbing disaster on Denali is meticulously and fairly examined.  7 climbers died in a wicked storm and as is usual, accusations fly in every direction about what went wrong.  Sometimes people die when they do maverick things, you know.   Really enjoyed this book both because of the intriguing subject and balanced tone.  No Monday morning quarterback attitude here.

 AUDIOThe Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore: 2 men with similar backgrounds but very different presents, share the same name.   Wes Moore, the Rhodes scholar, befriends Wes Moore the felon.  Interesting.   We can blame our upbringing for our crappy lives, but in the end we have made the choice to live in a particular way.

Lost in Shangri-La by Zuckoff: A WW2 plane crash in New Guinea is chronicled.  Good.

Guests of the Ayatollah by Bowden: Provides a solid introduction to the birth of radical Islam.  I remember the events so well--the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, the 15 months we flew our American flag while the hostages were hoping for release, and the hour when Jimmy Carter turned over the keys to Ronald Reagan, and the hostage's plane took off from Tehran.  The book filled in details the average American (me) doesn't know.  Strongly recommend as it will help you understand events that have occurred since the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.

A Woman in the Crossfire by Yazbek: An Alawite journalist risks her life to apprise the world of the staggering atrocities being committed in Syria just a few months into the revolution in the spring of 2011.  At that point deaths were being counted in the 10s, maybe hundreds.  Now, 18 months later, they are counted in the tens of thousands.  But death is not the worst that can happen to a Syrian unfortunate enough to live during the dictatorship of an Assad.  And for that reason, a fourth of the way into the book I reverted to skimming the pages.  

Yazbek's life is dear to her and a few others, but not to the regime.  She kept and published this diary at the peril of her life and needless to say, no longer can live in her beloved country, which is being torn to shreds, one innocent child/teenager/citizen at a time.  I weep for Syrians who are stuck in this horrific maelstrom; there can't be a family in the country which is untouched by the sadistic hand of some of their countrymen.  Everything awful you have read about Syria's current condition is only a sliver of the repulsive reality.  If more Americans read this book, more action would be demanded of the Western World to put a stop to it.

AUDIOSeabiscuit by Hillenbrand: I never cared a lot about horse racing but this is a decent story of perseverance and victory.  A skilled author can interest me in anything, I guess.

AUDIOUnbroken by Hillenbrand: A marvelous chronicle of survival in a WW2 Japanese prison camp, and a bitter life turned around for good.  Remarkable and inspirational.  Everyone should read it, then take a page out of Zamperini's life.   People are way stronger than they think they are, but most of us are never tested to such an extreme.

AUDIOCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Fuller: Where to start?   It's a follower to Don't Let' s Go to the Dogs Tonight, but this one is about Fuller's mum.  Pain, flaws, and failure, and moving.  I really love her honest writing.

Leaving the Saints by Beck: If I felt like creating a quasi-fiction category here, this would be in it alone, yes, meaning all by itself.  Sadly sarcastic, caustic, and insulting towards her father, her mother, her siblings, the LDS Church, and her readers.  Much of what she avers I know personally to be false, which leads me to seriously doubt her story of sexual abuse by her famous father.  Pathetic.  Deplorable.  Shameful.

AUDIOCitizens of London by Olson: Yay for the stalwart English who persevered under terrible WW2 conditions!   And yay for the Americans who aided them!    Enlightening, uplifting.

We Die Alone by  Howarth:  During WW2 an Allied secret agent on a mission is injured and caught behind enemy lines in occupied Norway.   He outwits the Germans with help of the natives, but their efforts to get him to safety in Sweden die on the vine.   The agent spent something like 4 weeks injured and lashed to a sled out in the open under a rock in the mountains, where the Germans couldn't find him.  In a Norwegian winter.  He lay there in 0 degree temps, through blizzards, with little food.  He should have died many times.   Not expertly written but riveting just the same.   I almost felt guilt reading this while tucked under my feather comforter.

AUDIOThe Gnostic Gospels by Pagels: a very readable history of Christianity.


AUDIOGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Weatherford: fascinating and remarkable story.  Genghis Khan has a lot more to do with why the world is what it is, than I could have guessed.  Very helpful in understand modern history.

1491 and 1493AUDIO by Mann: 2 lengthy books detailing life in the Americas before, then  after Columbus.  Some myths, some myth-busters.  I liked both; 1493 has stuck with me better.

AUDIORin-Tin-Tin by Orleans: I was a devoted fan of Rin-Tin-Tin in my childhood.  Listening to the book was a pleasant trip down memory lane.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Huntley: book was adapted from Huntley's journal kept while teaching English to teenagers in shattered post-war Kosovo.  People were literally rising from the ashes.  How does life go on when the infrastructure is destroyed, every thing comforting and familiar has vanished, and you've seen your family members killed in front of you?  Shocking yet inspiring.  Everyone should read it.

The Last Hero by Bryant: biography of Henry Aaron, baseball's highest black achiever.     I say that because though his personal records have since been broken, it  has been done in the era of sports substance abuse, and therefore doesn't count, to me at least.   Until about the last decade Aaron still exhibited bitterness about the extreme racism he and other black players faced in the early days (40s-50s-60s).  His team pulled into town and went straight to the cushy hotel, while the black players hunted the slums for a black boarding house.  A modest introvert, Aaron left the publicity to the glory makers (unlike Bonds for instance).  The importance of this book lies in the way the author demonstrates that racial advances in pro baseball paved the way for racial advances outside the game.  

There's more baseball detail in this book than I care about, and I admit to skimming portions of it.

 Manhunt by Bergen: Chronicle of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the operation that led to his death.  The book gives context to the famous photograph of Obama, Hilary Clinton, and other high-ups gathered around a computer screen in the White House situation room.    The various options for getting to bin Laden are explained, as is the intelligence that found him in the first place.  Even so, the US officials knew there was only a 50/50 chance that the compound in Abbottabad was bin Laden's hiding place.   Even though al Qaida is still around, getting rid of ObL did damage to the movement and tied up the major "loose end" left from 9/11.

The  Natural  World                                                                        
Krakatoa by Winchester: A detailed study of the 1883 eruption and its effects worldwide.  Love this kind of book; wish for more pictures.  Almost excellent.

Maphead by Jennings: wittily written book by witty Ken Jennings.  Fascinating.  Calling all map-lovers!

The Raging Sea by  Powers: 1964 tsunami generated in Alaska hit Crescent City CA.  Lots of personal detail concerning residents, businesses, etc.  Good and very personal.  Maps included.  Crescent City is vulnerable to tsunamis; in the 2011 horrible Japanese earthquake/tsunami, the only US death was near Crescent City.

No Bone Unturned by Benedict: Doug Owsley, a forensic scientist with The Smithsonian, can read bones like I read old documents.  He's in demand around the world to identify remains (9/11 casualties, for example).   He became involved to stop the fed's and American Indian efforts to disallow examination of 9500 year old Kennewick Man (which was a local issue for us Oregonians).  Book involves anthropology, archaeology, geology, law, etc.  I loved it except that the author was clearly biased against the American Indians and the government (not generally, just in this particular book).  They deserved it, but still.

Thought / Current Affairs / Practical                                      

 AUDIOMere Christianity by CS Lewis: well-known argument for Christianity that impressed me deeply.  Now I know why Lewis is so often quoted, particular in General Conference.  Not a perfect book, just excellent.

 AUDIOThe Panic Virus by Mnookin: A report on parents' reactions to vaccines when they were suspected to cause autism.  Even though that particular study has been 100% discredited, many parents trust the internet conspiracy theories while distrusting credible medical findings.   Don't even get me started on the ignorance and selfishness of those who turn up their noses at the scientifically proven benefit and necessity of vaccinations.  For 40 years I have been doing historical research.  I have shed tears when turning page after page of death records of children (and adults!) who died of diseases we have the power to defeat with the point of a needle.  I listened to my Grandmother describe her baby boy's suffering and death by diphtheria.  And in 1980 I held my best friend's baby as she struggled for breath due to whooping cough.   She died at 2 months, too young to be vaccinated.  Someone(s) out there had declined vaccination for their own uppity reasons, and that killed my friend's innocent baby.

Make the Bread Buy the Butter by Reese: Amusing and informative.  Reese takes readers through her adventures in food experiments and in raising her own [fill in the blank].  Full of recipes.  I love this book.  Read it and laugh.  I"m still chuckling at her $15 eggs and her goat-raising venture.  She has done the experiments, then details her personal opinion as to what is worth making from scratch and what is not.

 Scorpions For Breakfast by Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona: The second book about Arizona I've read this year.    Pull out your pom-poms because it's rah-rah time for Jan Brewer.  And that's ok.  It's her book and she is the governor and yes she did step into office at a tough time financially and otherwise for the great state of Arizona.  The book is her explanation of the law, SB1070 that she signed, which among other things, gives law enforcement power to request people show proof of citizenship under very specific conditions.  And I agree with her.  What is the problem with people who don't think illegal immigration is sucking the life out of the state, or that it's racist to require proof of citizenship when voting, or that it's racist for police to ask for proof of citizenship when they have a reason to do so, and so on?   

Usually I would chuck a sensational-style book like this, that's so one-sided.   But I admire her stance and her guts and her love for the people of her state and country, and on the flip side I have zero patience with those who take information out of context to twist it for their own political advantage.  Which is what happened with SB1070.  The back cover of the book is a hoot:

True Crime                                                                                 
 Stranger in the Family by Naifeh: Concerns a seemingly normal man who attacks people; turns out he is oddly disturbed.  A ho-hum story.

 Charmer by Olsen: Jack Olsen was a great true-crime writer.  This one concerns a petty thief in Seattle who becomes a murderer.  Not his greatest, yet another fair effort to figure out why people do the things they do.

 A Safeway in Arizona by Zoellner: The Gabi Giffords shooting is examined in the context of dysfunctional Arizona.  Zoellner is a native Arizonan and is a personal friend of Giffords.  I was taken aback that he has observed the same depressing negatives about Arizona that I have on my half-dozen visits there.  So it isn't just me.  I love a lot of things about Arizona, but there is plenty on the disturbing side.  I have lived half of my life in a state with probably the best land-use planning in the country.  And then I go to Arizona and see poorly developed communities that foster isolation and even promote crime.    I know Arizona suffers from the influx of illegal aliens that suck up their services and bust their budget, and that's a big problem we don't have as much of in the Pac NW [see review of Jan Brewer's book]

Historical Fiction                                                               
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Ford: Some experiences of Seattle's Chinese community during WW2 are explored through fiction.  It is an eye-opener; I have not read much about the Asian communities in American cities.

 AUDIOEscape From Andersonville by Hackman: Through the eyes of imprisoned Union soldiers we learn how absolutely horrible conditions were in this most infamous Southern prison.  A devoted officer escapes and does not forsake the men under his command.  Eventually he returns to save their skins.

 AUDIOThe Kite Runner by Hossein: I'm probably the last to read it.  An Afghan boy/man suffers greatly from his own iniquity, then atones for it.  Ethnic hatreds don't do anyone any favors, yet most of the world's problems stem from this behavior.  The movie is also very effective, perhaps more so.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by Doyle: A tale of a naive German boy, son of the commander of a Nazi death camp, who befriends an incarcerated Jewish boy.  It's a pathetically tragic story, and I think the movie of the same name is better than the book.

War Horse by Morpurgo: A campy, sometimes silly story of a horse told in his own words.  That sounds more harsh than I mean to be.  It's a good story, and I enjoyed the movie also.

 AUDIOThe Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas: one of those must-read classics and probably the longest book I've ever read.  Listening to it on my iphone took about 5 weeks, even though I had it going while exercising, cooking, driving (including a 26-hour round trip to Sugar City), etc.  But, one of the most marvelous books written; it covers faith, humility, forgiveness, and tons more.  It helped me to use Wikipedia's character chart to keep the relationships straight.  A must read.

AUDIOLord of the Flies by Golding: On every top 100 book list, I finally broke down and read it as part of my effort to read 2 classics per year.  Not a pleasant story, yet an interesting study of human behavior including banner qualities such as jealousy and envy.   I was glad when it was over.

AUDIOJacob Have I Loved by Patterson: Teenagers coming of age on a Chesapeake Bay island, where their spare time was spent crabbing and oystering.   Good.

AUDIOA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Smith: Soooo Brooklyn, so enchanting--it's the Brooklyn I never knew.   Some of my ancestors settled in Brooklyn about 1883; I was born there, then we moved away when I was a baby.  Painful story, yes.  Not a blockbuster but on the top 100 lists for a reason.

AUDIOThe Bridge of Sighs by Steinhauer: The book follows an intriguing plot in which an Eastern European detective works solving problems soon after WW2.   What a suspicious, frightening time and place to be living.  The mystery is a little better than average, but vulgar in parts, which labels a reasonably good book a disappointment.

The Cater Street Hangman by Perry: First one by Perry I've read.  She's the prolific author who was once convicted of helping a friend kill a woman in New Zealand.  Yikes.  Now she's a Mormon, and now she's a best-selling author of mysteries.  This book is one in a series of murder mysteries set in Victorian England.   I'm not a big reader of fiction so I can't say I'll read another by Perry.

Skipping Christmas by Grisham: I found the book in our house and have no idea where it came from.  An exaggerated little ditty about people who come to realize what's important in their lives.

AUDIOThe Last Juror by Grisham: An above-average novel of mysterious crime and vengeance.  I don't usually read pulp fiction (does this count?), but this was intriguing.  A college student becomes an accidental journalist and faces crime and vengeance.

AUDIOThe Murder Room by PD James: Years ago the PBS series Mystery created a number of Dalgliesh dramas (James's main character), which I enjoyed.  Murder Room is the first one I have read and concerns 2 murders that occur in a museum.  It sure is slow going for a while yet still kept my interest.

AUDIOThe Silver Locomotive Mystery by Marston: a stolen custom-made silver coffee pot leads to murder and mystery among stuffy, and I mean stuffy, Brit upper class.  Entertaining and very average.  It got a tiring that the theft of this filthy rich old woman's blasted silver coffee pot was the worst thing that ever happened to her.

AUDIOTelegraph Days by McMurtry: spunky Nellie prevails over her trials.  The first half of the book drew me in, then I got sick and tired of her constant reference to copulation which consumed most of the second half.   Ugh.

AUDIOA Painted House by Grisham: Life on an Arkansas cotton plantation through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.  I liked this story.   Grisham gives you the feeling you're there, experiencing the ups and downs of raising cotton.   There are some very dramatic moments in the life of this little boy that are never really resolved.  The kinds of things that give people PTSD and a lifetime of counseling.   The maturity and wisdom shown by the boy marked him more as say, 10 or 11-years-old, than 7.

AUDIOFaceless Killers by Mankell: I like the PBS series starring Kenneth Branagh.  It's gritty and depressing but the stories walk through seemingly unsolvable crimes with crazy but believable twists.  Not your usual chipper British detective.

AUDIODolores Claiborne by King:  A most curious book,  A woman was involved in a murder and kept it a secret she kept for decades.   I have to say it's one of the most fascinating novels I've ever read.  The entire book is narrated by the protagonist, who is unintentionally hilarious, telling the story of her grown-up life.   Sprinkled in the audio production are interesting sound effects.  At times Dolores carries on conversations with other people all in her own voice.   This is an unforgettable book that I can't actually recommend because of occasional bursts of offensive language.

AUDIOSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury: Not a big Bradbury fan.  I saw this movie years ago and liked it so much, which led me to the book.   The author is so wordy at times; I know that's his style, but there were moments when I wondered just what in the heck he had been talking about the last 5 minutes (this was an audio book, remember).  In the end, the message is good, the message is important.

 AUDIOThe Best of O Henry by O Henry: a half dozen of O Henry's best stories are told, including Gift of the Magi.   


AUDIOThe Virginian by Wister:  Cultured, gentle East conflicts with rugged wild West in the form of Miss Molly Stark and the Virginian.   This book is on my all-time top 10 list.  I've read it many times; now I listened to it and loved the narration, especially the easy Southern drawl of the Virginian.   My Western American Lit professor once defined a Western as [paraphrased here] man alone or in small groups, facing elements of conflict, in a vast unsettled landscapeThe Virginian is a a classic. 

 "You must do a thing well in this country."

Some wisdoms from a conversation between The Virginian and Scipio LeMoyne, a ranch hand: 
"Trampas is a rollin' stone, he [Scipio] said." [Trampas is about to become the "bad guy"]
"A rollin' piece a mud," corrected the Virginian.
"Mud!  That's right!  I'm a rollin' stone.  Sometimes I'd most like to quit bein'." [Scipio]
"Well that's easy done," said The Virginian.
"Well no doubt, when you found the moss you wanna gather."[Scipio]


"When a man ain't got no ideas of his own, he ought to be kinda careful who he borrows 'em from." [Scipio]

AND, grieving over the naive-ness of Shorty, an obtuse young ranch hand:

"It may be," he [The Virginian] reflected, "that them whose pleasure brings you into this world owes you a livin'.   That don't make the world responsible.  The world did not beget yuh.  I reckon man helps them that help themselves.  As for the universe, it looks like it did too wholesale a business to turn out an article up to standard every clip.  Yes it is sorrowful, for Shorty he is kind to his hawrse."

Wister captured the tension when The Traveler and The Virginian melancholily converse as they depart the scene of a rustler's hanging; it is brilliantly ominous, mysterious and haunting.  And I feel I'm right there riding with them.  And I want to weep when The Virginian chances on the newspaper on which his friend Steve, whom he just hung for cattle rustling, wrote, "Goodbye Jeff.  I couldn't not have spoken to you without playing the baby."

NOTE--Alphabet Juice by Blount: Blount's book has it's own category, called DNF (did not finish).   I so looked forward to reading it, then couldn't stick with it.  It felt jumbled out of order, or at least I couldn't connect the parts.  I really did try. 

I read Princess Academy last year, then dove into these.  I loved all of the first 6 on this list.   Austenland was ok.  I did not like The Actor and the Housewife.  Way too far-fetched and absurd to me.  The women in my broad circle just don't depart from their busy lives of family, volunteering, etc. to chase and befriend Hollywood celebrities.  OK, maybe we don't get out enough, but still . . . 

The Goose Girl
River Secrets
Forest Born
Enna Burning
Book of a Thousand Day
Rapunzel's Reveng
The Actor and the Housewif

Bridget urged me to read Bradley's series and I'm glad she did.  Enjoyed Flavia's maverick personality and thought.  Flavia proves that a person has to go to great lengths so as to not be bored stiff in English society.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Red Herring Without Mustard
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
I'm Half Sick of Shadows
Till next year!