Although we sat on the sands of a Lake Michigan beach and walked the wooded trails of southern Pennsylvania this past summer, for the most part, my mate and I stayed close to home last year, that is unless we consider where we traveled through the books we read.
The writer, Anna Quindlen says that books “…are the plane, the train, and the road,” and since I couldn’t agree more, I am offering — for the fourth time in as many Januarys — the 12 best books I read in the past year; it is a much more difficult task than you might think.
I have never understood why anyone would rather sit idle when they could be sailing the seas with Robert Louis Stevenson, grinning with Mark Twain, roaming the streets of Nazi-occupied Budapest with Philip Kerr, or watching a quiet pond with Mary Oliver. So, with another year of reading both old and new alike, I offer, by the month, the best I encountered in 2019.
As usual, I followed no rules; I read anything that intrigued me, and even gave up on a few books when my interest lagged. One of the best was sent to me as an unexpected gift, another recommended by a fellow retired teacher, while others came out of the hands of the latest reviewers. My only regret is that I didn’t read more than I did, which seems now like quite a bit.
January’s best book was read in anticipation of historian Candice Millard’s visit for the Indiana State University Speaker Series.
In her fascinating “Destiny of the Republic” (265 pages; Doubleday; 2011), Millard, who has also written about young Winston Churchill and Amazon-exploring Theodore Roosevelt, paints dual portraits of the 20th President of the United States, James Garfield — who she is convinced would have been a great one — and the man whose bullet killed him, the indisputably insane Charles Guiteau.
Garfield rose from poverty to the Presidency similarly to Lincoln, was a brilliant scholar, and had every intention of reforming a corrupt government, yet he lived only six months into his term, the last three in agony as he was poked and prodded by incompetent doctors who continually probed for Guiteau’s slug.
One cannot help but admire Garfield; his meteoric rise in politics came through hard work and determination, and readers will grow more and more sympathetic to his plight as they read accounts of his patient suffering. Millard paints a pathetic picture of Guiteau, as well; his mental illness led him to believe that he was doing God’s work in shooting the 49-year-old president. But, perhaps above all, readers will marvel at how blind “modern” medicine was in the late 19th century, a time when willful arrogance ignored more scientific methods of treating Garfield, including the simple practice of hand washing.
“Not only did American doctors not believe in germs,” Millard writes, “they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession. They spoke fondly of the ‘good old surgical stink’ that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms, and they resisted making too many concessions even to basic hygiene… They believed that the thicker the layers of dried blood and pus, black and crumbling as they bent over their patients, the greater the tribute to their years of experience.”
It was appropriate that February’s best book was about bone-chilling and frost-bitten hardship of a variety we can hardly imagine, even on the longest, grayest days in the Midwest. “In the Kingdom of Ice; The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette” (416 pages; Doubleday; 2014), is Hampton Sides’ real-life saga of the ill-fated exploration of what was believed to be an “open polar sea” at the top of the world. Led by the fearless George DeLong and sponsored by the flamboyant George Gordon Bennett, Jr. — the publisher of “The New York Herald” — the hearty crew of the retrofitted Jeanette had no idea what awaited them when they left San Francisco in July 1878.
Believing that a warm-water current would lead them to the Pole and glory, DeLong and his men exhibited unbelievable courage in the face of terrible adversity. The Jeanette became trapped in the ice, and slowly, as the crew dwindled, the men were forced to abandon their crushed ship, agonizingly pull whaling boats on sledges across miles of moving ice, then row torrents of icy waters to begin wandering trackless permafrost back toward civilization, all the time starving. Only a few survived.
In typical fashion, Sides tells of two of the stoutest men who were selected by DeLong to go for help: “Much of their journey seemed like a dream, a long whiteout of undifferentiated days punctuated by a few moments of haunting clarity: A snowy owl staring at them. A pile of decrepit sleds they smashed for firewood. The corpse of a native buried in a box on a hill. A crow circling and circling and circling…”
Despite anticipating warm weather by March, I turned to yet another book about the cold, one that took me to North Korea in December 1950, and back once again to the writing talents of Hampton Sides. In “On Desperate Ground” (343 pages; Doubleday; 2018) Sides’ reality reads like fiction as he takes us to the icy Chosin Reservoir — well north of Pyongyang and the 38th Parallel — and the bitter battles heroic American forces waged against overwhelming numbers of desperate Red Chinese and North Koreans, many who attacked their enemies in sub-zero temperatures without socks and in tennis shoes.
Writing much less about the showmanship of generals Douglas MacArthur and Edward Almond, and more about the valor of American combat soldiers at places like Yudam-ni and Fox Hill, Sides manages to describe the nearly-indescribable: the eeriness of Chinese bugles just before night-time assaults; the heroics of men like Private Hector Cafferata, Jr., who, upon learning he had won the Medal of Honor, wanted it mailed because, “I hate heroes. I hate medals,” he said; and, the painful story of Navy Corsair pilots Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner, the first who was shot down near Somongni, and the second who nearly gave his life to discover his friend’s fate.
Memorably, Sides writes about the ordeal of Private Ed Reeves, who survived a massacre of American wounded on a lonely road near the Chosin: “Reeves sat up, half out of his sleeping bag, and watched as though it were a movie. He didn’t know any of these Americans especially well — he’d just shared the bed of a truck with them for a day and a half — but he was in awe of them. They didn’t beg or cry; they didn’t utter a whimper. They looked their executioner in the eye and died with dignity.”
April brought British novelist Kate Atkinson into my reading universe for the first time with “Transcription” (343 pages; Little, Brown & Co.; 2018). A complicated espionage novel, the book literally begins at its end, and readers travel back in time to the day 18-year-old transcriptionist Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5, growing more suspicious and despondent about humanity along the way.
Atkinson’s command over time allows readers to easily drift between the years, even decades, but above all, her effortless control over seemingly unimportant asides dresses her story and characters in wit and cynicism, as in this passage about the orphaned Juliet: “Her mother wasn’t here, of course. Strictly speaking, she was nowhere, although she had been buried at St. Pancras, and on her gravestone was the inscription, ‘at home with God,’ which a seventeen-year-old Juliet had chosen in the futile hope that the words might be true — that her mother might be sitting companionably with Him, listening to the wireless in the evening or perhaps playing rummy. Juliet could still hear her mother’s delighted laughter when she laid down a triumphant fan of cards. It seemed unlikely that God played rummy. Poker, perhaps.”
By May, I turned to Ohio’s wilderness and David McCullough’s “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” (352 pages; Simon and Schuster; 2019). As with all of McCullough’s books — two for which he has won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards — I anticipated a good story, and got it. Taken to task by some critics for being too limited in his approach to the settlement of the Territory, which he does in three parts and through five primary characters, McCullough is, above all, a storyteller who keeps readers flipping pages, even though it is “History.”
The most intriguing passages for me came when he tells the story of the Blennerhassetts, Harman and wife, Margaret, whose wealth and influence make them the first aristocrats in the West. Living in an Ohio River island mansion, they eventually lose it all on a terrible gamble.
“Both were new to America. He was of Irish aristocracy, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin, and heir to a fortune. She was seven years younger than he, English and though of limited means, well-educated, well-read, and as cultured as her husband. That she was also his niece had played a significant part in their decision to depart for America where they would be less likely to be ostracized for so scandalous a marriage… He was a tall, thin, gangling man, prematurely gray-haired, and slightly stooped. He dressed in the old English style, with scarlet or buff-colored breeches and silver buckled shoes… he was, as well, quite eccentric, absentminded, a touch snobbish, and easily rattled. On the approach of a thunderstorm, he would close all the doors and windows and huddle in the middle of a bed, to avoid ‘the accidental effects of the electric fluid.’”
Just as I was contemplating a June driving trip, Larry Brown, a faithful reader, aptly gifted me with Larry McMurtry’s wonderful “Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways” (206 pages; Simon and Schuster; 2000). The book may have a few years on it, but has lost none of its appeal, and I ran through it like I was blowing down I-80.
McMurtry, of course, is one of America’s great novelists, but this little travelogue does what great travel books do: entertains and teaches at the same time. Perhaps, most of all, I was amazed at how many miles he covered — vast, long-hauls from coast to coast and border to border that surely required the bladder of a much younger man.
Always interested in telling tales of the trail and steeped in the memories of his days as a boy living along Highway 281 in Texas, McMurtry says the road was his “river.” As if sitting beside him in the front seat of his rental, I enjoyed his mixture of memories and observations.
In one passage, McMurtry has returned to his home state for a speech and decides to wander a bit: “…I drifted east a little distance on the 40. My drift took me as far as Shamrock, Texas, where my aunt Margaret had lived most of her short and not notably happy life. In my boyhood she had been my chum, the only one of the twelve McMurtrys companionable enough to be a little boy’s chum… Indeed, I scarcely knew any of my father’s eleven siblings — just Aunt Margaret, and all I knew about her was that she was sad.”
July brought hot weather and a late acknowledgement of the 75th anniversary of D-Day with Milton Giles’ fast-paced “Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die” (432 pages; Henry Holt; 2019). A noted World War II historian, Giles combines an amazing series of anecdotes from the men, women and children who were among the millions affected by the Allied invasion in June 1944, including many accounts from the German side as well.
Detailing the brutality, chaos, precision, and happenstance of those days, Giles’s startling, even humorous details bring the pieces of the jigsaw together in a fine and fast read. In one prescient story, Helmut Lang, Erwin Rommel’s adjutant, recalls the famous field marshal saying, “If we don’t throw them back into the sea within the first twenty-four hours, we are lost.”
I particularly remember the miraculous account of Canadians Charles and Eliot Dalton, both majors who commanded companies on the first day of the assault. Believing his brother killed, Eliot fights on in a daze: “… he would continue his fight for several more days, aware that he was doing it not for himself but also in the memory of his beloved brother. He would eventually be wounded and sent back to England to be hospitalized. When the nurse wheeled him to the bed marked Major Dalton, she noticed a patient already lying there with a sheet pulled over his head. She asked him what he was doing, prompting him to sit bolt upright and reply, ‘I’m Major Dalton.’ It was Eliot’s brother: miraculously still alive, having survived the head wound he received on the beach.”
August was highlighted by a thin but powerful novel of the American South: Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (224 pages; Doubleday; 2019). Whitehead uses powerful imagery in this fact-based story of Elwood Curtis, a black teen in 1960’s segregated Tallahassee who unwittingly takes a ride in a stolen car; his bad fortune lands him in The Nickel Academy, the renamed version of the real Arthur Dozier School for Boys, which housed and brutalized many of its inmates for over 100 years. Some of the boys never lived to see the ends of their sentences, and bodies are still being discovered nearly a decade after its closure.
Inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, which he played over and over again in his head, Elwood’s optimism and faith in justice are more than challenged by his stay at Nickel. Upon arriving at the school, he meets the superintendent: “Maynard Spencer was a white man in his late fifties, bits of silver in his cropped black hair. A real ‘crack of dawner’… who moved with a deliberate air, as if he had rehearsed in front of a mirror. He had a narrow raccoon face that drew Elwood’s attention to his tiny nose and dark circles under his eyes and thick bristly eyebrows. Spencer was fastidious in his dark blue Nickel uniform; every crease in his clothes looked sharp enough to cut, as if he were a living blade.”
Although no reader can blame him, Elwood becomes guilt-ridden as he realizes that instead of standing up in the face of evil, he withdraws and goes along to get along. His acquiescence eats at him: “He woke after midnight, when the dormitory was dead… He squinted at the darkness — nothing. Then he was up for hours, in a spell, agitated by rickety thoughts and weakened by the ebbing of his spirit…In keeping his head down, in his careful navigation so that he made it to lights-out without mishap, he fooled himself that he had prevailed.”
September delivered Rich Cohen’s “The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, A Killer, and the Birth of Gangster Nation” (235 pages; Spiegel and Grau; 2019). It’s the bloody story of Albert Hicks, the city’s first noted serial killer and gangster, and in some ways, media darling. Suave, good-looking, and smart, Hicks plays every card he can after he is trailed and captured on the eve of the American Civil War. Foiled by a surprisingly sophisticated police investigation, Hicks goes to the gallows, but not before explaining his motivation and methodology.
Cohen’s rich dialogue, as in this very early paragraph, demands readers keep turning pages: “Even contemporaneous writers knew Albert Hicks was something other than a normal killer. He was a demon. He had that kind of charisma. He put his arm around the town and pulled its people close. In writing about him, reporters of the time were capturing a new kind of terror — the terror of the metropolis, its anonymity, all those tenements, all those windows, all those docks, and all those harborside taverns, all those numbered streets and all those mysterious lives. … The hero of the lunatics, a first citizen of a criminal nation, the subject of ancient bloody bedtime tales.”
The book that endeared itself to me most last year followed on Cohen’s grimy heels in October, Amor Towles’ charming and beautiful “A Gentleman in Moscow” (462 pages; Viking Press; 2016). Recommended by a friend as we sat around a committee table, I immediately purchased the book, somehow knowing I would want to keep and share it.
Set during the earliest days of the Soviet Union, a 30-year-old aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, is spared the firing squad but sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin in Moscow. Although confined to the hotel and unable to step out its door, Rostov lives a life of civility, kindness, and unconquerable intellectual curiosity for the next 30 years, and Towles somehow helps readers stay interested in and connected to Rostov’s desire to matter in a world that he can see only through windows and memories.
An example of the magic comes as Rostov recalls the Christmas Eves of long before the Revolution, when he and his sister braved the cold to ride through the countryside to their neighbors for celebrations: “But as they came to the bend in the road where the Count would normally give a snap of the reins to speed the horses home, Helena would place a hand on his arm to signal that he should slow the team — for midnight had just arrived, and a mile behind them the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle. And in the pause between hymns, if one listened with care, above the pant of the horses, above the whistle of the wind, one could hear the bells of St. Michael’s ten miles away — and then the bells of St. Sofia’s even farther afield — calling to one another like flocks of geese across a pond at dusk.”
It was my favorite read of the year…
In November, I turned away from historical fiction to the wonderful-terrible reality of a single day in America, as described by award-winning reporter and columnist Gene Weingarten in his “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America” (362 pages; Blue Rider Press; 2019). Weingarten randomly drew a date, the events from which he could re-tell in an hour-by-hour account; that day was Sunday, December 28, 1986. It took Weingarten six years to research and write about it.
It takes no more than the opening paragraph to see why this author has already won two Pulitzers. I’m sure we have all thought of a day gone by as “the usual,” but Weingarten proves that each day is its own, and somewhere, somehow, a drama, a tragedy, an act of kindness or stroke of luck changes lives.
From midnight to midnight the day unfolds: the ripple effect of a 3 a.m. theft of a Rhode Island college’s weather vane; the heroics of a Dallas fireman in a late-morning call to a structure fire; the suppertime murder of an Aryshire, Indiana, couple brought to the doorstep of a local minister and his wife; the 7:35 p.m. departure of 50 Russian émigrés who were returning to their homeland in the now-changing Soviet Union…
All of the stories Weingarten details prove there is no “ordinary day.” He wrote in the introduction: “Ideally, the more you’d learn, the more firmly you’d establish that in life, there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary.’ Also, that in the events of a single day — in that tell-tale grain of sand — you find embedded in microcosm all of the grand themes in what hacks and academics tend to call The Human Experience.”
Bill Bryson supplied an early Christmas gift in December with his usual brilliance, this time in “The Body: A Guide for Occupants” (496 pages; Doubleday; 2019). Best-known for his lovable and often sarcastic travelogues (“A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country,” “The Road to Little Dribbling,” et.al.), Bryson is rarely afraid to tackle any subject, from William Shakespeare to houses, from the year 1927 to “A History of Nearly Everything.” In this book, he tries mightily and admirably to explain what poet John Dryden called “the tenement of clay:” the human body and all its wonders.
Bryson’s endless inquisitiveness results in a remarkable work of research and inquiry, delving into, or at least touching upon, nearly every function the human body performs, often in startling, humorous, and blunt detail. From our microbes to our chemistry, from our hair and skin and teeth, to our lungs, gut and decomposition, Bryson suggests that since he is perplexed and amazed, we should be too. And on each page, a litany of fascinating studies and facts: our lungs process about 4,000 gallons of air each day; we trail behind us a pound of skin dust each year; our bodies are a “universe” of 37.2 trillion cells; some memories actually move about for storage in various parts of our brains; no other animal is likely to die in the process of birth nearly as humans… Part-history, part-science, part-laboratory intrigue, each chapter delivers on what we physically are from conception to the grave.
Near its end, in a chapter Bryson aptly titles, “The End,” he makes this quite stark observation: “In 2011, an interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
Another year has come to an end, and my traveling companion and I are thinking of places we would like to go; as of now, we haven’t a clue. But one thing is certain, the upcoming 12 months will bring us journeys through more books, whether we hit the road or not.
You can contact Mike Lunsford at email@example.com; his website is at www.mikelunsford.com. He will be speaking and signing his books at the Sullivan County Public Library on January 23 at 6:30 pm.