Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Although technically I MIGHT still be able to read a book in 2012 that would bump one of these off the list, at the rate my life is moving that probably isn't going to happen.  So here they are - my 10 favorites.  Not all are fine pieces of writing, but they appear here because I liked them, sometimes for the subject matter, sometimes for the story and sometimes because the encompassed all three: good writing, good story and good subject matter.  And they are listed in no particular order.  My biggest surprise, however, is discovering Willa Cather so many years after I had to read "My Antonia" in 10th grade.  I remember nothing about that one, but her "Archbishop" book has certainly put her on my list of very readable authors!
Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
Willa Cather loved the land and cultures of the American Southwest. Published in 1927 this book has claimed for itself a major place in twentieth-century literature. It’s a simple story that follows Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, friends since their childhood in France, as they organize the new Roman Catholic diocese of Santa Fe subsequent to the Mexican War. While seeking to revive the church and build a cathedral in the desert, the clerics, like their historical prototypes, Bishop Jean Laury and Father Joseph Machebeuf, face religious corruption, natural adversity, and the loneliness of living in a strange and unforgiving land.   It is a beautifully told story.

Wartime Lies – Louis Begley

The book is a novel.  The narrator is a Jewish man who tells the story of his early years in Poland during WWII and how he learned to stay alive by lies, deceit, cheating and creating fantasy backgrounds while he was just a tot.  The author says to the extent that he himself was a Polish Jew, lived through those times in Poland and survived, the book is autobiographic, but the story itself is fiction.  That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.  The author simply means he told of the era and of the way people had to live in a made-up story form.  His fictitious family were “assimilated Jews” – the father a medical doctor trained in Vienna; the grandparents were landholders, well-off and well-to-do.  They were professional, educated people, people who couldn’t believe that they needed to flee their own country.

I have read a lot about the holocaust but not about the facts that this story is built on.  I needed to hear it.

Alice I Have Been - Melanie Benjamin
Have you ever wondered about the little girl who was the inspiration behind Alice in Wonderland? Her name is Alice Liddell and she grew up in Victorian England. The author of this book takes the facts and figures from Alice's life and intertwines them with fiction, creating a unique story. The narrative follows Alice throughout her life, including her childhood relationship with Charles Dodgson (also known as Lewis Carroll) and the mysterious end of their friendship.

 Six Exceptional Women - James Lord
Commenting upon the nature of friendship, loyalty, patronage, creativity, and moral courage the author explores the lives of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Arletty, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Errieta Perdididi, and Louise Bennett Lord.  Not all the stories carry equal weight, but all are interesting and one in particular almost unbelievable.  It’s definitely an interesting book.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany - Susan Vreeland
 The Washington Post Review says this:  Clara and Mr. Tiffany is about art and commerce, love and duty. Peopled with characters both imagined and historic, it is also a study of New York's ultra-rich and desperate poor, its entitled men and its disenfranchised women. And it is the story of one extraordinary woman's passion and determination…Vreeland's ability to make this complex historical novel as luminous as a Tiffany lamp is nothing less than remarkable.

Caleb’s Crossing - Geraldine Brooks
Brooks is just about my most favorite writer.  In this book, the  New York Times says, one will find a tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure.

The setting is Martha ’s Vineyard in the 1660s.  Bethia Mayfield, young daughter of pioneering English Puritans, meets and grows up with Caleb, a young son of an Indian chieftain.  Bethia's father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Paul Torday
This is a delicious book, with a wacky plot and vivid characters.  The author hits politics and bureaucracy directly on target, and you find yourself laughing and nodding your head in agreement on every page, even when that page is laying out a preposterous happening.  A first novel for Mr. Torday, this one is a pure delight, and much, much better than the movie.

The Life of Van Gogh – Naifeh & Smith
The authors of the recently published “Van Gogh: The Life” indicate in the book that their intent was to reach general readers as well as specialists. I can’t speak for those specialists but as a general reader I will say that they, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have spectacularly succeeded.  There are 800 pages in this book, and I’d read it again in a flash!

The Chicken Chronicles - Alice Walker

As some of you know, I am pre-disposed to like chickens and often bemoan the fact that in my lifetime I've never had one to call my own. So I was set to like this book from the outset.  Now I have always known of the author Alice Walker -- I mean, how can one NOT remember that this is the writer of "The Color Purple," a Pulitzer-prize winner and an advocate for the world's dispossessed. That alone should make a person want to see what she has to say about chickens. That, and wondering what kind of person would name a chicken "Agnes of God?"

 Waiting with Gabriel - Amy Keubelbeck

When the author was told that the child she was carrying had a fatal heart condition, she and her husband were faced with an impossible decision: to give their baby a chance at life -- and with it, enormous pain and suffering -- or to let their baby die naturally, most likely just a few weeks after birth. The unforgettable journey that ensued would change not only their lives, but also the lives of everyone who came in contact with them, from family and friends to healthcare workers and complete strangers. This story is not simply one of personal tragedy -- it is a story of deep parental love, of the blessing of supportive family and friends, and of cherishing life. It is the story of one family, and one baby, but it will touch everyone.  I have read it twice and still am deeply touched by her words.

1 comment:

Olga said...

I have not read any of these book although Caleb's Crossing is on my list.