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Books I Read in 2011

Best of 2011 = My Antonia, Cleopatra, Tinker’s, Empire of the Summer Moon

by James L. Swanson
4 out of 5 Stars

This is a spellbinding historical account of the 12 day manhunt for Abe Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.  It is very thoroughly researched.  I hadn’t realized that Booth originally planned to just kidnap Lincoln, thinking that ransoming him might turn the war for the South, which, by 1865 was all but doomed.  When Lee surrendered, and the cause was officially and irrevocably lost, Booth felt the need for more desperate measures.  Nonetheless, the decision to kill Lincoln was an impulse.  Booth didn’t learn that Lincoln would be attending Ford Theater until the morning of the day he shot him.  He saw his opportunity and took it.  The other people in the conspiracy are interesting characters.  Some were drifters; some were better placed in society.

It’s hard to believe it ever happened, and not so long ago either.   My great grandmother, Gigi, who was 95 when she died and is someone I remember well, told me the about the time her father came into the sitting room on an Easter weekend when she was a very little girl with the news that the President had been shot.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
2 out of 5 Stars

This could have been a really good novel, but I found it tiresome and hard to read.  Maybe if I were smarter and more literary I could have gotten into it.  There are a few good characters, and the plot about a Dutchman hoping to make his fortune working as a clerk for the Dutch East India Company in Japan in the18th century should have grabbed me.  I LOVED the summary on the dust jacket, which is why I bought it – but reading the actual book gave me brain cramps.  There are too many characters to keep track of and there is a ton of indecipherable dialog imitating the Japanese trying to speak Dutch and vice versa.  The Dutch dialog translated into English is tricky enough.  Anyhow, I simply couldn’t read it all.  Eventually I skipped to the end where everything is tied up in a bow with a kind of flashback summary, so I didn’t miss much.

Empire of the Summer Moon
by S.C. Gwynne
5 out of 5 Stars

Most of what I know about the Indian Wars in America’s southwest comes from movies and tv shows like the Lone Ranger.  Empire of the Summer Moon is a great book that chronicles the rise and fall of the Commanches – a fierce warrior tribe of southern plains Indians.  These guys mastered the use of wild Spanish mustangs which allowed them to dominate the high plains for hundreds of years and to keep the white man (both Spanish and American) at bay for longer than any other tribe.   If you’ve got an idea in your head about “the noble savage” living peaceably with their neighbors and in harmony with nature, you’re not thinking about the Commanches.  They were a bloodthirsty bunch trying to survive in a harsh country where the currency was horses and people, and thus they spent a lot of their time – and most notably in the moonlit nights of late summer – out stealing horses and children.

We follow the life of Quannah, the last and greatest Commanche Chief.  He was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker who was captured by Commanches off her father’s outpost in Texas when she was nine years old.  As an adult, she was captured back by Americans (John Wayne is in a movie with Natalie Wood that is loosely based on this) but could never re-adapt to our lifestyle.  Quannah, on the other hand, eventually surrenders and figures out how to make some good money dealing with the palefaces on the reservation.

I really loved this book.

I Curse the River of Time
by Per Petterson
2 out of 5 Stars

Another novel by the guy who wrote Out Stealing Horses, but this one’s not as good.  The protagonist is a 37 year old loser who is divorcing his wife and obsessed with his mother who is dying of cancer.  I like Petterson’s Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness style of writing, but the main character in this novel is just not likeable and never does much of anything to move the plot along.  Like in Out Stealing Horses, the book ends with a kick in the gut.  The protagonist gets nowhere and has nowhere to go and I didn’t really give a hoot about him one way or another.

The Last Stand
by Nathaniel Philbrick
4 out of 5 Stars

I’ve read a number of books about Custer’s last stand and this one is better written and more meticulously researched than others I have read.  It’s got good battle map illustrations dotted throughout the book that allowed me to finally figure out which direction all the various players came from and how they got to where they were going.  It also provides interesting insights into the political background that led up to the battle.  Basically, after giving the Lakota and Cheyenne free reign in the Dakotas, we needed to get them off the reservation once gold was discovered in the Black Hills.  President Grant had to decide: go to war against “hostile” Indians, or do battle with the 15,000 American miners who had rushed in for all the gold.  He picked his fight with the Indians and sent Custer after them.

The rest is a studious account of Custer’s war strategy and of his blunders caused by his brashness and his insatiable political ambitions and quest for glory.  He was as much a fool as he was a man of his age.  Who knows, if the Indians hadn’t gotten him he may have become President!

My Losing Season
by Pat Conroy
3 out of 5 Stars

A memoir by the guy who wrote “Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini” and “The Water is Wide.”  I really enjoyed “The Water is Wide.”  This book is about Conroy’s senior year as captain of a crappy Citadel U basketball team in 1967.  He writes well, so the book reads like butter.  He reveals how he used his deep seated rage against his father to become the best basketball player he possibly could, and ultimately how he used that rage to motivate him to become a successful writer. The only problem with the book is that Conroy is totally full of himself.  He masks his conceit with piles of cloyingly false modesty.  On the other hand, as an ex-jock one of my pet peeves are movies or books about sports that seem to be written by people who have no clue about how the games are played so I really enjoyed the authentic ring to Conroy’s vivid descriptions of basketball game action.  He captures the ebb and flow of the basketball competition incredibly well.

Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris
4 out of 5 Stars

This book is written by the same lady who wrote Chocolat which was made into a movie I greatly enjoyed.  Like Chocolat, this book is also full of French food, but it ain’t no sweet chocolate truffle.  It’s dark.  The main character is a young girl who along with her older brother and sister collaborate with the Nazi’s (there they are again) who have occupied their little village.  That’s the main time frame.  The second time frame is when the little girl is 60 and returns to her childhood home and must come to terms with her innocent but really pretty evil past.  Mostly, she must resolve her issues with her mother (now dead) with whom she had a tumultuous relationship.  It is only after she discovers and reads her mother’s old recipe book/diary that she discovers they are actually kindred spirits.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport
by Cathleen Schine
3 out of 5 Stars

An entertaining modern day knock-off of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility set in Westport, CT.  It’s a romance-style beach book with a bunch of characters you eventually grow to like who are dealing with their various affairs of the heart. Like in Austen’s novel, the protagonists (the “sensible” older daughter, the drama queen and the disinherited “widow” fall in love in all the wrong places, and stumble around trying to make the most of their diminished circumstances against the backdrop of the cold cruel world (with occasional comic relief) only to find everything works out happily in the end.  Lot’s of pretty sharp satire about modern day Westport and our pop culture.

I’ve never read Sense and Sensibility (Julia dragged me to the movie!) but if Austen takes you up the first steep hill and big plunges of a rollercoaster, Schine’s remake is more like the dinky dips and turns towards the end of the ride.  But it’s a good little book.

A Wondrous Year,

by Geraldine Brookes
2 out of 5 Stars

Second romance-style novel I’ve read in a row.  It’s about a heroic servant girl living in a small English village that is being decimated by the plague in 1666.  It’s based on a true story of an actual village that quarantined itself at the urging of its vicar.  The heroine becomes the village herbalist and suffers along with the vicar and his wife as they tend to the afflicted.  When the plague finally subsides, the heroine is forced to hightail it out of town because she delivered, and then saved from drowning, the bastard daughter of the village’s snooty noble family and ends up someplace in Arabia for crying out loud in some guy’s harem where she delivers her own LOVE CHILD which was the result of her one night of WILD PASSION with the vicar who succumbs to a moment of weakness after snapping out of his funk because his wife’s throat was cut by the village wild woman.  All this silliness happens in the last twenty pages turning what would have been a reasonably good novel into a really stupid soap opera.

Like in the Witch of Portobella, A Wondrous Year takes a look at the tensions between male-based authoritative religions and the free flowing earth goddess stuff (with the middle ages version of Tea Party-types stirring up their superstitious brouhahas in the darker corners of the village).

Too bad the ending was so damn dumb.

People of the Book,
by Geraldine Brooks
2 out of 5 Stars

This book’s a rip off of the “Red Violin” which was a movie I enjoyed. It’s about the history of a really old Jewish Haggadah which I think is a sub-section of the Bible that Jews take out and read at Passover.  Anyhow, this Haggadah is being restored in the present by the main protagonist – a woman book restorer who analyses clues about the book’s past … wine stains on the parchment, missing silver clasps on the binding, etc. with flashbacks for the reader to find out what REALLY happened.  Each flashback reads like its own short story.  They come off as disjointed tales tied together by the fact that Jews have always been persecuted throughout their history.  The series of tough scrapes the actual book endured throughout ITS history is emblematic of what the Jews have been forced to endure.  You never get to fully know the people in the past who hid or saved the book, and you never really get to know the main character who is restoring the book and coming to terms with issues in her own life in the present.

Maybe someday it will make for a better movie than it is as a book.

The Weight of Water,
by Anita Shreve
2 out of 5 Stars

Wow, 2011 is definitely the year for romance-style novels.  I really need a new source for book recommendations.  Yet again, this could have been an okay read if it wasn’t for the totally stupid surprise ending.  Are stupid surprise endings required by romance beach books?  They must be.   A woman journalist sets out to research a brutal double murder that actually took place on the remote island of Smuttynose, part of the Isle of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire in 1873.* As the protagonist learns about the historic murders interesting parallels are drawn to the conflicts in her own life in the present.  Shreve should have left it at that.  Instead she goes for an unexpected, melodramatic and totally implausible ending which makes you think they hung the wrong guy.  Meanwhile, the main character’s life in the present totally blows up in the end too.  Give me a break.

*There’s an account of this murder written by one of my distant relatives, Celia Thaxter, who was living on a nearby island at the time (trying to establish a literary colony among other things) and was an eye witness to the crime’s aftermath.  She wrote an article about it that was published by some magazine.   Google her and read all about it.  It’s better than this book.

Letter to a Christian Nation
by Sam Harris
2 out of 5 Stars

Sam Harris is a tedious bore.  He’s also so literal-minded that he misses out on a whole side of life.  I agree with everything he says about the fallibility of the Christian Bible, and of the primitive brutality contained in many of its verses and teachings.  Fundamentalists are indeed a scourge these days.  On the other hand, by negating everything the Bible has to offer Harris basically dooms himself to a life only partially experienced.  I know the stories in the Bible are just myths and no more factually based than is Captain Ahab’s quest for the great white whale or the fairy tale about the Emperor with no clothes.  But if you can’t read novels, fables or myths without being drawn into them in order to explore the regions of truth, wonder and inspiration that lay just beyond the literal words required in the telling, then you’re really missing out.

Instead of wasting his time scolding religions and religious people, Sam Harris should get a life.  At least get some imagination!

Here endeth the lesson.

My Father’s Tears
by John Updike
4 out of 5 Stars

For some reason, I have never read anything by this famous and highly acclaimed American author until now. This is a compelation of short stories which are thinly veiled autobiographies.  Updike is 20 years older than me (I think he just croaked) and basically lived in the same places I have lived and so he paints a picture of America I can easily recognize.   His eye for the profound stuff that lurks just beyond life’s little mundane details is amazing.  He writes so well. These stories are a great pleasure to read.

There’s a sad quality however about Updike’s characters, an emptiness they all exude, that I do NOT relate to.  Here’s Updike, who led a full life as a successful author and yet, if his characters are any guide – and I believe they are – he never seemed capable of fully connecting with other human beings.  All of his relationships fail as do most of the relationships of the characters in these short stories.  His failure as a husband (he’s a serial adulterer) and as a father (ditto) seems to cast a pall on everything he sees and writes about.

This one crack at Updike is probably enough for me.

by Geraldine Brooks
4 out of 5 Stars

Of the three books of hers that I have read, this one’s my favorite.  There’s a lot more to it than female romantic struggles  – and guess what?  She didn’t ruin it with some dumb melodramatic surprise ending!  It’s about the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”  Starting with this clever premise Brooks gives us a well written historical fiction about the Civil War era and the horrors of slavery and war with interesting and carefully drawn characters, especially Mr. March, an idealist who is both tediously earnest and truly noble.  He’s a man tormented by the fact he can’t quite live up to his own standards.  This book is the dark and complicated adult story behind the idealistic and romantic children’s story.

100 Ideas that Changed the World
by the editors of Time Magazine
3 out of 5 Stars

Since this isn’t a book I debated whether to include it in this blog, but what the hell and why not? It’s a very thought-provoking compendium of mankind’s most earth-shattering and important ideas and accomplishments.  Starting from prehistoric cave drawings that reflect man’s first inklings of a spirit-filled world, it takes you right on up to the creation of the Internet.  In ancient times there was the creation of the world’s alphabets, the Greek philosophers, the concept of a single God and the establishment of Christianity.  In the middle ages come the Magna Carta and the number zero.  The Renaissance brings us the printing press, humanism and the Protestant Reformation.  The Age of Enlightenment sees us to the scientific method, Newtonian physics and free market capitalism.  In modern times we get Marxism, genetic engineering, evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Big Bang, flight and existentialism.

I wonder though, if a Chinese or African editorial board would have put together a different set of 100 Ideas.  That would be interesting to see.  In any case, THESE 100 Ideas sure did a lot for me and all of us here in the modern West, and this breezy summary of them are like Cliff Notes to a degree in Western History.

Slaughter House Five
by Kurt Vonnegut
4 out of 5 Stars

It was interesting re-reading this novel that I first read, and greatly enjoyed within a cloud of cannabis in college.  I can see why Slaughter House Five and Vonnegut were so popular with our gang.  The way Billy Pilgrim wanders through his surreal and senseless life fits in neatly with the whole hippie culture and our objections to the establishment in general and the Vietnam War in particular.  Nonetheless, it’s a serious bit of American literature.  While it’s generally pegged as an anti-war book, the bigger theme is about the randomness of fate and the human condition overall.  As clearly understood by the aliens from Trafalmadore who kidnap Billy and who can travel freely through time, we sorry humans have no control over our path in life.  And trying to stop war is as futile as trying to stop a glacier.

Too bad Vonnegut didn’t stick to the anti-war idea and not spent so much time on his decidedly bleak vision of the bigger picture stuff.  At my ripening age I prefer to believe that while life on the whole may not have any intrinsic or divine purpose, we humans have the power to create meaning, find beauty and strive to make things better.  So it goes.

by Stacy Schiff
5 out of 5 Stars

Wow, what a woman!  Very misunderstood with very little reliable documentation about her because most of what we know comes to us through the Roman historians who turned her into a manipulative vixen.  To them she was the wild sexy dame who made her two Roman lovers – Julius Ceasar and later Marc Antony – go nuts; conniving them into putting her political ambitions ahead of what was best for Rome. Schiff debunks many of the myths started by Cicero and picked up by later poets and ultimately Hollywood.

Cleopatra was the last Egyptian Pharoah, a Ptolemy (Greek descendent of Alexander the Great), the wealthiest woman of her age (and probably ever), and a cunning and effective ruler.  The head on all those ancient coins was screwed on straight!

The Big Bang
by Simon Singh
3 of 5 Stars

Cosmology for bubble brains like me.  It’s a history of our cosmological musings from the ancient Greeks to the present day.  You see how scientific theories are developed, defended and sometimes debunked and sometimes folded into the fabric of accepted knowledge.  But the science is never completely settled. Right now we’re thinking the universe was created from a single point 15 to 20 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since. Well maybe, maybe not.  I predict that in my lifetime there will be something discovered that will make us rethink even this bedrock theory.  We’ll see …

by Charles Mann
3 of 5 Stars

It’s the sequel to 1491.  An in-depth look at the many lasting effects of the Columbian Exchange: plants, animals, human genes and most especially the diseases European explorers and settlers (and their African slaves) brought to the New World, plus all the stuff they brought back.  Makes you realize just how powerful human greed was, is and always will be, and how relentless is our need to conquer other lands. Humans basically look to exploit everything, other humans most of all.  Eventually there will be no native plants, animals or human cultures as we continue on our relentless march back to Pangaea.  We face a future where we become a fully mixed and blended planet which is an inevitability that is both good and bad.

With lots of interesting and quirky facts you can rattle off to your friends such as how plantation owners in America’s southern colonies used African slaves principally because they were more resistant to malaria than were the European indentured servants used in the north and how a prodigious vein of silver on a mountain in Bolivia made Spaniards impossibly rich by trading it with the Chinese who needed the shiny stuff to back their unstable paper currency that kept collapsing.  1493 is a well researched scholarly work and a fresh and unconventional view of history.  Mind-blowing and eye-opening, but unfortunately not especially well written.

My Antonia
by Willa Cather
5 out of 5 Stars

An American classic and a title well earned.  It’s the story of Antonia, an American pioneer woman living on the Nebraska prairie.  She is a Bohemian (Czech) and faces pioneer hardships and the soft bigotry of her Anglo neighbors with great dignity and strength.  There are breathtakingly beautiful descriptions of the now lost endless plains.  You get a great sense for what life was like out there in the 1800s.  The book is told in the first person through the eyes of Jim Burden, an Anglo-American and an orphan raised by his grandparents on a nearby farm.  Jim meets Antonia when they are children.  He falls in love with her, but because she is four years older (and perhaps also because of their cultural differences) their love remains of the brother-sister variety.

The passage where Jim is warmed by the summer sun as he lays out in a pumpkin patch and is overtaken by a feeling of complete happiness will stick with me for the rest of my days …

“I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”