December’s been another good reading month. I’ve managed to read a lot despite being very busy.
Some of what I read was for research, and I have to say that when you have the word “avengers” in your title, you’re duty-bound to write a really good book. I think that book, which is not named below, wins the dullest book I read in 2012 award. Wow.
I also read a lot of holiday short stories and novels. I found very few to recommend, although most were nice, light, uplifting fair which was exactly what I needed during a hectic holiday season. The ones I mention below rose above all the others. I’ll put these recommendations in next year’s holiday list as well so you won’t have to remember that they exist.
Most of what I read was fascinating. Here’s the best of the best:
Baxter, John, Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas, Harper Perennial, 2008. A wonderful little erudite book about an ex-patriot Australian cooking Christmas dinner for his wife’s family in France. No pressure there.
This is beautifully written, with lots and lots and lots of great descriptions of setting and food and food and setting. Lots of history of certain customs and traditions. It even has a bit of suspense: will he get the piglet he wants for the centerpiece of the dinner, will it (or any piglet) fit in the oven in the old farmhouse, and will the family eat the finished product, made with “unusual” (read: Not French) spices? By the time I got to the piglet section, I actually cared about all of those things.
A lovely little Christmas book, and one that can be read outside of the holiday season, if you’re so inclined. The clash of cultures stuff is particularly nice.
Bowden, Mark, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012. Bowden’s book came out after the book by the Navy SEAL, which I have not read. This book, like all of Bowden’s books, is heavy on facts, light on analysis. This isn’t something you should read for an in-depth, thoughtful approach to everything that happened.
But if you want to know what happened—or at least, what the principals say happened—read this. It’s well-written, a quick read (except for all those excerpts from Bin Laden’s letters: Honestly, I scanned that crap), and suspenseful, even though I knew what was going to happen. Lots of hard work went into this mission, and lots of agonizing. Really interesting, on its face, and Bowden does a good job marshaling the facts as he could discover them.
Butler, Charles, “Sole Sisters of ’72,” Runner’s World, November, 2012. Runner’s World has been publishing a series of articles about the history of the sport. This one, about women who crashed the New York City marathon in 1972, is wonderful. The article brings out the difference between the marathon then and the marathon now, about the way women’s running wasn’t accepted then and is now, and also explores what happened to these women after this one moment in their lives. I hope Runner’s World continues this series, because I’m finding it quite compelling.
Cohen, Rachel, “Priceless: How Art Became Commerce,” The New Yorker, October 8, 2012. Fascinating article about two men—Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen—who essentially started the art sales/art appraisal industry in the Gilded Age. Nifty history, and just a fascinating look at the beginnings of a modern business.
Connolly, John, “Books to Die For: Ross Macdonald’s The Chill,” Mystery Scene, Fall, 2012. This isn’t just one of those essays that reviews a book; this is a critical essay that discusses a writer’s entire life, and then happens to point out a book that the essayist considers to be the writer’s best work. I’ve read Tom Nolan’s excellent biography of Macdonald, but I had either forgotten a few things or Nolan didn’t mention them. They’re here, and it’s worth getting the entire issue of Mystery Scene just to read this one essay.
Kushner, David, “A Home at the End of Google Earth,” Vanity Fair, November, 2012. I find myself thinking about this article at the oddest times. Five-year-old Saroo Munshi Khan ended up on the streets of Calcutta after being separated from his brother. Khan literally couldn’t find his way home. Eventually, he ended up in an orphanage, and then got adopted by a couple in Australia. Twenty years later, he was perusing Google Earth when he saw some landmarks he thought he recognized from the years before he got lost. And that led him on a surprising adventure. Well worth reading.
Locke, Attica, Black Water Rising, Harper Perennial, 2009. A historical mystery set in early 1980s Houston (boy, does it grate on me to call the 1980s “historical”). The hero, lawyer Jay Porter, is a former 1960s radical who had become a lawyer in one of the poorer districts of Houston. He’s also black. He has cultural baggage, yes, but also some very real baggage from his radical days. He saves the life of a woman late one night, and that surprising (to him) act of kindness changes his life. With one or two exceptions, Locke—who was a child in that time period—captures the changes as the 1970s bled into the 1980s. Beautifully realized, well constructed. I’m hoping to read much more of her work.
Stockham, Kay, The Crash Before Christmas, Kindred Spirits Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. A delightful Christmas romance. I figured out what was going on at the end of chapter three, but most readers won’t. This novel, about a bush pilot who crashes in a blizzard and is rescued by a mysterious woman, is occasionally creepy, and very suspenseful. It’s a great holiday read; I suspect you’ll enjoy it year-round.
Talbot, Margaret, “The Screen Test,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2012. Margaret Talbot’s father Lyle was a working actor for his entire adult life. In the early 1930s, the studios tried to make him into a leading man. It didn’t work. Talbot chronicles her father’s arrival in Hollywood and his early days in this personal essay. It’s fascinating, particularly if you like Old Hollywood stuff, like I do.
Wickenden, Dorothy, “The Union Man,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2012. Every now and then, the long critical essays reviewing certain books are valuable in and of themselves. This one is. It’s a brief examination of the life of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. I love Civil War stuff, but I’ve never read a biography of Seward, and now I’m wondering if I should. I always found him fascinating; now I find him more so, because of this. This little essay is the best place to go for a short—and interesting!—biography of Seward.