Caveats and regrets. I did not live up to my resolution to read more and better poetry in ‘09. So here’s resetting that one for 10. I also reread only one classic—Anna Karenina. I vow to do three times that many in ‘10.
These are all just books I’ve happened read this year, some old, some new, some obscure, some popular. Rankings are not always for literary reasons and are unranked. Criteria for inclusion are often obscure–even for me.
1. River Horse by William Least Heat Moon is on one level the non-fiction tale of a man and his boat, intent on journeying across North America by water in one season.The goals are definite, but distant, and fulfillment unsure even if the goal is reached.
2. Istanbul Orhan Pamuk. A wonderful writer in a fiercely honest examination of himself, his native city, and their parallel development from his 1952 birth to the present.
3. North To Cree Lake by Alex Karraas. Before Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska (1959),” there was Alex Karras’s North to Cree Lake. It was just that Karras hadn’t quite gotten around to writing it down yet. Young and broke in the early 1930’s, Karras left home–the relatively civilized plains of Saskatchewan–and spent seven years with his brother, Ab, living the life of an old-time trapper in the northern wilds of his native province. Compelling memoir.
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. If you think you don’t do enough, care enough, give enough the story of Dr. Paul Farmer will wipe out all doubts. Tracy Kidder’s eloquent account of Farmer’s crusade to wipe out disease and save the poor–worldwide–depicts a man whose aspirations dwarf his accomplishments but whose accomplishments dwarf any but those of the most Schweitzerlike among us.
American Islam by Paul M. Barrett and/or books like it, is an important read. There are only six million Muslims among three hundred million Americans, so most of us don’t have the opportunity to meet American Muslims; fewer still have the opportunity for substantive conversations. Thus, Barrett’s profiles of seven contemporary U.S. Muslims provides an opportunity to get behind cartoonish media depictions.
The Golden Frontier by Herman Reinhardt. Now this is a memoir. Or narrative non-fiction as it’s come to be called. Herman Reinhart came west in 1851 as a boy in his teens looking for gold. Over the course of the next eighteen years, he followed gold strikes from California to Oregon to Wyoming to Idaho, to Utah. Virtually every major gold strike drew him to it like iron to a magnet. He filed a jazilllion claims, some of which made him money, but none of which made him rich.
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. This splendid work by Dexter Filkins is the most disturbing book of this or probably any other year for me. If Filkins’ on-the-ground, in-your-face accounts of the physical and psychological brutality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t enough by themselves (and they are), I have in addition the experiences of a niece recently returned from Baghdad.
The Journeyer by Gary Jennings. Toward the end of last year, I read Laurence Bergreen’s biography of Marco Polo. Subsequently, a buddy of mine not only clued me in to but provided a copy of this narrative of the Venetian’s Asian wanderings. I have now spent some weeks and a number of pages with the European perspective of the Mongol empire, have learned a good deal of history and am much improved for the experience.
9. In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff Even if you don’t already hate war and generals, In Flanders Fields should seal the deal for you. Leon Wolff takes his title, of course, from the famous John McCrae poem about poppies and corpses. Repeated senseless assaults in waist deep mud that gained no ground and cost tens of thousands of lives–that sums up what happened during 1916-17, the year that Wolff details.
10. California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd P. Tevis, Jr. California Grizzly. Start with that title. Nothing except gold is more identified with California than that bear. even though none are left. Have been left for nearly a century. Amazingly, no one before Storer and Tevis had approached the task of chronicling its history. I’m glad they finally did it, and sorry the job had to wait for them because much documentation and oral history that might have been available a half-century earlier was lost by the time the book was published in 1955.
True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy Since Kennedy and brothers and family lived so much of their lives in public, and since they always seemed to be center stage in the pivotal moments of the last sixty years or so, reading this book seemed a little like reviewing current events of my own life. Camelot, the assassinations, The Civil Rights Act, The Great Society, Vietnam, Johnson, Chappaquiddick, Medicare, the Clinton impeachmentand on and on–Teddy and his parents and siblings and offspring and their offspring were right in the middle of all of it all the time.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles McKay Written in 1841, McKay’s book reminds of the truth of the old French saying about same and change. He explores some of the more interesting historical financial examples of boom and bust, such as the South Sea Bubble. However, he also takes a look at other instances of public mania–the adoration of criminals, the Crusades, alchemy, and the like. Some of the phenomenae he describes happened two centuries before its publication. earlier. He quotes DeFoe, whose verse might have been written for Bernard Maddoff:
Some in clandestine companies combine;
Erect new stocks to trade beyond the line;
With air and empty names beguile the town;
And raise new credits first, then cry ‘em down;
Divide the empty nothing into shares,
And set the crowd together by the ears.
How little we seem to budge and what an illusion progress seems.
13. House by Tracy Storer The book is aptly titled. It’s about building a house. Owner, architect, builders. Their relationships, their life histories, their attitudes. Kidder also explores the history of American architecture, of American building of American contracts, and of American litigation over all those. You find out quite a lot about the relationship between prices and forestry and enter the world of master craftsmen as they strive to do proud work and still make a little money in an environment where forces conspire to deny them profit.
14.Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore Moore envisions Care of the Soul as a “Guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life.” The soul is not a mechanical object to be repaired. Instead, you embrace your negatives with the notion that they are single aspects of whole entities, of which you are at any moment experiencing only a part. In that whole entity reside positives you will never know or understand unless you accept the negatives that go with them. And once you have understood the whole you will be a richer being inside and more effective in the world. Try it.
1. Attaturk by Andrew Mango. Not many of us get to name ourselves, but it’s just, fitting, and instructive that Mustafa Kemal awarded himself the surname Attaturk at the same time he directed in 1936 that a law be passed requiring all Turks to acquire an official last name. Astoundingly, people obeyed, by and large, and got themselves a last name, and had a lot of fun deciding. He did the same thing with music, with the alphabet, clothing, with virtually every phase of Turkish life, and he almost single-handedly changed Turkey from a polymorphous, quaint collection of scattered tribes into a regional power with a distinct culture and population.
2. Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides Hampton Sides takes the title of his bio of Kit Carson from one of the sensational novelettes of the day purporting to relate the true exploits of the heroic mountain man. It’s a good description not only of his fictional exploits, but of his actual deeds; however, it’s a poor description of the man himself, however. An understated, wiry, little guy, he was apparently incapable of braggadocio or self-promotion. He had a laconic, wry turn of speech that epitomizes the taciturn but spot-on phrasing of our classic western literary hero. Like the one he uttered when someone asked him if a compatriot of his might have been guilty as suspected of cannibalism during John Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition. “During starving times,” Carson responded, “no man walks in front of Bill Williams.”
American Lion by Jon Meachum Most of us, I guess, know Andrew Jackson was called “Old Hickory.” that he won the battle of New Orleans during (actually shortly after, but he didn’t know that.) the war of 1812, and that he was a feisty and combative soul. Few of us appreciate what a transformative figure he was, that because he fundamentally changed the office he occupied for eight years. No one who’s read Meachum’s book will fail to appreciate how much and in what ways America is what it is because of Andrew Jackson.
Fremont by Ferol Egan before I read this one, I failed to appreciate the significance and worthiness of John and Jessie Fremont. Lives lived largely in celebrity and position, true, lived large for personal gain, yes, but lived also for the good of society and for posterity. And we–posterity–are better off for their work.