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Books I Read in 2009

The Best of 2009 = Blood Thunder, The Life of Pi, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, A Traitor to His Class

Blood Thunder
by Hampton Sides
5 out of 5 Stars

This is a history of Kit Carson, scout and Indian fighter.  A story of how we Americans stole the West from Mexicans and the indigenous Indian tribes.  It made me want to visit the desert and mountain country of New Mexico – so starkly beautiful and full of mystery.  It certainly was a land worth fighting for, but geez, did we ever screw those hapless Mexicans and especially those resourceful and pesky Indians!

Blood Thunder shows a side to American history I knew little about beyond the general stereotypes and the PC assessment of how the West was won.   It is easy to read and hard to put down.

by Anthony Beevor
3 out of 5 Stars

Beevor gives us a military history-style retelling of the D-Day invasion and Battle of Normandy.  By quoting soldier diaries we get both the German and Allied perspectives, plus the views of the French resistors.  I learned a lot about the tough intra-French politics and the hard feelings between the collaborators and the resistors.   Also learned about the mistrust between the UK and De Gaulle and how Ike was often placed in the middle, helping to find practical solutions to win the war.

Although Beevor is an Englishman he paints General Montgomery as a pompous fool bordering on delusional.  He points out the often overlooked tremendous cost French civilians paid during the Battle of Normandy – 70,000 killed by allied bombs and artillery which far exceeds the number of UK civilians killed by German air raids during the entire war.  He also points out that a plurality of “German” soldiers assigned by Hitler to defend the French coast were foreign conscripts mostly from Russia and Poland.  This explains why so many of them were so quick to surrender.  Had it not been for the crack SS Panzer forces, it would have been much easier going for the allies.  As an added bonus to me personally, it was fun to see the journal of my Uncle-In-Law, Major Julius Neave of the 13th 18th often quoted.

Naples ’44
by Norman Lewis
2.5 out of 5 Stars

Naples ’44 is a diary of a British intelligence officer stationed in Naples during the allied invasion.  You get an interesting look into southern Italian culture (sex crazed and violent) and an appreciation for the resourcefulness of people when everything around them falls apart.  Despite having a lot of material to work with, the book comes up a bit short.

The Hemingses of Monticello
by Annette Gordon-Reed
2 out of 5 Stars

Okay, I admit it, I skimmed through big swaths of this book.  After all, there are over 600 pages in the thing.  A fair amount of the content was worth reading about, but there were copious amounts of endless and repetitive minor half-guessed-at “facts” about minor Hemingses and their lineage.  You do however, get a good insight into the moral holocaust of slavery, an institution that makes it socially acceptable for a plantation owner to father a whole line of illegitimate slave children and then sell them off.

Jefferson appears to have been a kind and enlightened slave holder – at least by the standards of his time. He kept a promise he made to Sally Hemings who was just 16 at the time he started boffing her (ouch!) to free all their off-spring once they became of age.   In those days it was common for a slave master to sleep around with his more nubile slaves but not so common to have a sustained relationship with just one, so give Jefferson points for being loyal to Sally.  She was his wife’s half sister (another ouch!) and by all accounts, a real stunner looks-wise.  When Jefferson’s wife died in her early 30’s, he took Sally with him to be the hand servant of his two white daughters when he was the ambassador in France, and the rest is history.

The Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
5 out of 5 Stars

The Life of Pi is the saga of Piscihe Molitor Patel, a boy from India and a self actualized Hindu, Muslim and Christian, nicknamed Pi, the irrational number.  A thoroughly thought-provoking parable about survival, the meaning of faith, and how we impose moral order upon the world we perceive.  Pi finds himself as the sole human survivor in a 26-foot lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orang-u-tang and a tiger named Richard Parker.  In the world according to Pi, “Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away.  But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”

In addition to all the problems that come with sharing a lifeboat with a bunch of dangerous animals, Pi encounters a most intriguing carnivorous floating island.  Throughout it all his will to survive will inspire all readers.   From the most horribly grim and brutal details of survival come the lifting winds of the human soul.

The Snow Leopard
by Peter Mathiessen
2 out of 5 Stars

Another book I skimmed through in places.  It’s a travelogue basically; a naturalist’s expedition to the exotic Himalayas to study blue sheep and MAYBE see a rare snow leopard (in spite of the book’s title, no snow leopard is actually ever sighted).  It’s also an inner journey into Mathiessen’s bullshit Buddhist heart.  He’s a phony baloney if you ask me, and a jerk besides.  Here he presents himself as this superior spiritual human operating on a higher plane than other mere mortals, but in truth he’s a self centered narcissist too in love with himself to be a good dad to his own son whom he leaves at home to go on this quest to commune with snow leopards and count snowflakes on the head of a pin, or whatever.

The Soloist
by Mark Salzman
2.5 out of 5 Stars

A nice story about a child prodigy cellist who loses his ear and concert gigs once he becomes an adult.  He’s self centered and makes his living giving cello lessons.  He gets jury duty on a brutal murder case – a Buddhist monk kills his protégé, or maybe it was his mentor.   Anyhow, the main character ends up hanging the jury while learning about himself.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
5 out of 5 Stars

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a novel about a boy born without a voice and it’s a really good read.  The boy lives with his parents who run a huge dog breeding operation.  They create a mythical new breed based on desired personality and temperament, not standard bloodlines.  It’s mostly a book about the limitations of human communication.  Good character development and a riveting plot.  Just about everything gets totally screwed up in the end due to a tragic failure to communicate.  Only the dogs remain true and whole.

Water For Elephants
by Sara Gruen
4 out of 5 Stars

So this guy runs away from a tragic situation at home and joins a shitty half assed circus during the Great Depression and he falls in love with a lady performer who works with the circus’s big draw, a big elephant. Sounds like the makings of a fun novel to me, and basically it is.  A traveling circus train is rich territory for a full cast of loony characters, and this book has lots of them including a paranoid animal trainer, the evil Ring Master and a cranky dwarf with a heart of gold and a sweet dog as a pet.  With a nice love story and plenty of rough and tumble internecine circus-style power struggles.

Water For Elephants is a good page turner.

Traitor to his Class
by H.W. Brands
5 out of 5 Stars

Traitor to his Class is a wonderfully well written tome about the life and times of FDR.  The parallels between our present economic mess and the Great Depression of the 1930s are striking.  The same two camps – those that cry “socialist” every time a political leader suggests even the smallest degree of government oversight of the economy, and the progressives who want the government to protect the rights of the little guys, made the exact same arguments in the 1930s as they do today.  You can lift whole passages from this book and turn them into the opinion columns you read today.  Pretty eerie.

The disadvantage Obama faces comes from the fact we have benefitted from the lessons learned during the FDR era.  Because Obama – and President Bush I might add – took quick actions (TARP, the Stimulus and various corporate rescues) he succeeded in avoiding a truly colossal disaster.  And yet, because things haven’t turned around quickly enough Republicans are able to stand against him.  By contrast, things were so horrible in the 1930s Republicans couldn’t gain any traction against FDR and his New Deal.

FDR was a visionary leader who helped to create and expand the dynamic middle class that has made us the great nation we are today.  Had the narrow minded “free market” ideologues been able to win the day back in the 1930s, no telling what kind of nation we would have become — probably some sort of lopsided oligarchy.

The Grace that Keeps This World
by Tom Bailey
1 out of 5 Stars

Don’t ask me how I managed to finish this book.  It was such a dull and self-consciously written novel the only thing that kept me from falling asleep was the fact that I was so agitated by the writing I wanted to see if Bailey could keep it up for however many pages, to see if it could get any worse.  The story was based on a true headline/tragedy about a hunter family in the Adirondacks.  I limped my way to the finish line so at least Bailey succeeded in making me want to see how it all worked out.

Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson
4 out of 5 Stars

A haunting coming-of-age story set in the forests of Norway with a nicely drawn father-son relationship.  Sparsely written and yet Faulkner-esque with the chronology jumping all around.  “You must decide how much it hurts”, is the father’s advice to his son which pretty much sums up Petterson’s worldview that life dishes out pain and not much else.  I like Petterson’s writing best when he’s describing life’s mundane simple pleasures.  I think it would have been a better book without the Nazi-resistance sub-plot which struck me as gratuitous.  The novel didn’t require the extra layer of drama.

Nice ironic touch that the narrator was a voracious reader of Charles Dickens, whose novels always resolve miraculously well.  This novel ends like a penny nail rattling around in a rusty old bucket but I enjoyed it nonetheless.