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Archive for December, 2010

More Good Reading

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

The second installment of my favorite books from 2010 continues the somewhat offbeat — at least far from the bestseller list — choices that delighted me over the past 12 months. Most of my reading tended toward nonfiction, but of the contemporary novels I read, one stood out: Thomas Mullen’s wonderfully clever “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.” Tom Mullen lives in Decatur and is a friend, I should acknowledge up front, but I’d love this book even if he were a stranger. Tom does a marvelous job of creating a lively and very real Depression-era landscape, filling it with a strong cast of characters, most notably the bank-robbing, time-hopping Firefly Brothers, and tells a highly original, page-turning tale that seems as honest now as then.

Pat Conroy once wrote that he didn’t care how many outrageous things James Dickey did — or was rumored to have done —  in his life, it was his poetry that mattered. And Dickey’s best book, “Poems: 1957-1967” still matters. I re-read it in 2010 and came away again awed by the power and passion of Dickey’s words, the beauty and fire of his voice, and the fact that a handful of the most unforgettable poems ever written in the English language may be found in these pages.

I read, learned from and deeply admired a pair of biographies during the year. Ronald White’s “A. Lincoln” and Ron Chernow’s “George Washington” are both seminal studies that give us revealing looks at these larger-than-life figures. There are already more books about these two Presidents than anyone could digest, but there are no finer one-volume accounts that measure so perfectively and fully their complexities and contradictions and find for us the sources of their greatness.

And finally — perhaps because I seem to lack the last ounce of humility — I am duty bound to disclose another source of great personal pleasure: the publication of my new book, “Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling Through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson.” Few things have given me as much joy as researching and writing that book, and my hope is that some others will find in its pages an equal reward.

Regardless, of course, I hope for everyone who has been with this blog at any point throughout the year the best of holidays and best wishes for a very happy new year!

Celebrating Good Reading

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

I was going to write about the best books of the year, but when I was assembling some materials for it, I realized I haven’t read as many new books in 2010 as I thought. I’m afraid any list of the year’s best from me was be terribly incomplete or too narrowly focused. It turns out that, upon reflection, I’ve read a lot of older books, fiction and nonfiction, during the last 12 months. Many of them have been among the “classics,” which makes recommendations sort of, well, unnecessary. Do you really need to be told “War and Peace” is a great novel you ought to pick up and read sometime?

So in a somewhat more restricted form, I want to report on several books I read or re-read in 2010 that I really enjoyed and would strongly endorse for anyone who’s tired of bestsellers or just looking for something different, maybe even challenging. One of them is Tobias Smollett’s “Humphrey Clinker” (occasionally spelled without the “e” in Clinker). Published in 1771 in London, it was and is a wonderfully funny picaresque novel, written in the form of letters by six very different characters. We learn who they are by what they write and say about events, especially when each character has a different take on occurrences. It takes a little patience to get used to the style, but it will make you laugh and it will teach you a bit about life in 18th century England.

If you love history and haven’t yet read David Hackett Fischer’s book “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1995), don’t delay. It’s an extraordinary analysis that is brilliantly researched and as readable as a Stephen King novel. If you think you know all about Paul Revere and his midnight ride and you have not dipped into Fischer’s book, you have an enlightening surprise coming. The historian shows us not merely how and why that ride took place but fits it into a much broader and comprehensive look at the beginnings of the American Revolution.

I also had the good fortune to read through two of the finest collections of short stories ever published: “The Stories of John Cheever” and “The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor.” Both writers have died, of course, but they left us a golden legacy of the imagination. Even as their styles were quite apart, their stories remain rooted in our universal lives, our desires, our loves and our failings. They are both dazzling in their own distinctive ways, and their stories will stay with you for a long, long time.

Finally, Pat Conroy’s latest book, just published last month, isn’t getting nearly the attention his novels do, which is a shame. If you want to know why Pat writes the way he does — and why Pat is who he is — this slim volume “My Reading Life” will tell you. It’s a lovely tribute to the people and books who helped Pat find his own inner creative life, and he pays a stirring honor to each. Fans of his work should keep their fingers crossed for a copy under their tree on Christmas morning.

I’ll offer a few more suggestions in the next blog. Until then, happy holidays!