The presents have been unwrapped and the wrapping paper packed away. Now comes the final phase of the holiday season, when you take those gift cards to the mall or cyberstore, or take whatever cash you saved or were given, and go shopping for yourself. But what to buy? May we suggest a book?
The presents have been unwrapped and the wrapping paper packed away. Now comes the final phase of the holiday season, when you take those gift cards to the mall or cyberstore, or take whatever cash you saved or were given, and go shopping for yourself.
But what to buy? Maybe you have all the gadgets you can handle, and your closets are already stuffed with clothes you rarely wear. You can't afford some extravagant new toy, and that tropical vacation is unlikely until the recession lifts.
So may we suggest a book?
For the third year, I've asked our writers here at the Daily News and on my Holmes & Co. blog to share their thoughts on the best book they've read in the past year. They may not be best-sellers, or even books published in 2010; there are countless excellent books published before this year still very much worth your time.
Consider this list to be thought-starters to spur you on your own search for the first book you tackle in 2011:
"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," by David Wroblewski
Like making a great, new friend, David Wroblewski's debut novel, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," should remind readers of the joyful surprises of getting immersed in a truly original story. Set in rural Wisconsin in the pre-Vietnam era, it recounts the coming-of-age of its mute namesake protagonist who communicates with his parents and the dogs they breed with a private language that flows directly from his innocent heart. Edgar's love for his dog Almondine is profound and complex and reciprocated with poignant loyalty by a creature who expresses herself in ways deeper than human language. The arrival of scheming uncle Claude jolts Edgar's tale into a deepening tragedy and Wroblewski's novel into a near-epic breadth that the author carries off with bravura imagination. A one-of-a-kind novel.
- Chris Bergeron
"Under the Dome," by Stephen King
I find apocalyptic fiction fascinating because it explores the best and worst characteristics of human nature. When natural disaster, plague or even zombies render the world lawless, how would you survive and do people have a tendency to fend for themselves or help each other? That's the main thrust of Stephen King's excellent epic "Under the Dome" in which an invisible dome descends on a town in Maine, cutting it off from intervention from the outside world. Intervention is the key word here, because the people trapped in the dome can still communicate via cell phone and the media camps out around the dome to film the proceedings. Things proceed poorly at an alarming rate where a megalomaniacal selectman all but becomes the town's dictator. What causes the dome to drop on the town - a plot premise that only King could come up and with and successfully carry out - becomes the secondary plot. The real story here is about people - their ability to be brave or failings to be weak.
Many have compared this novel to King's other big apocalypse epic "The Stand." I think that's an unfair comparison. Whereas "The Stand's" global pandemic put the human struggle on a massive scale, "Under the Dome" brings it all under a microscope for a bleaker prognosis.
- Rob Haneisen
"The River of Doubt," by Candice Millard
The best book I read this year was "The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard. The book recounts Roosevelt's calamitous, ill-planned mapping of an Amazon tributary after his defeat in the 1912 election. At its core, it's a tale of mental and physical survival in an unexplored and inhospitable place, hinging entirely on self-dependency. In our age, when presidents leave office to book tours, a presidential library, and fund raising, with GPS and 911 and Secret Service agents, Roosevelt's exploration and journey alongside his son Kermit is virtually incomprehensible. The author is a writer for National Geographic and evokes a wonderful sense of time and place.
- Don Brophy
"The Lacuna," by Barbara Kingsolver
As she shows in her earlier novels, including "Prodigal Summer" and "The Poisonwood Bible," Barbara Kingsolver can take the reader to another time and place, illuminating current issues with such subtlety the references are easily lost. "The Lacuna" takes us to Mexico in the 1930s, whether the central character, Harrison Shepherd, falls in with revolutionary artists Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, and witnesses the assassination of their house guest, Soviet exile Leon Trotsky. Shepherd's travels then take him home to America, where he finds fortune as a fiction writer, and notoriety at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Kingsolver's book starts slowly, but the reader's patience is rewarded with rich characters, evocative descriptions and insights into our own world barely hinted at through the lens of places and events just beyond our historical horizon.
- Rick Holmes
"The Help," by Kathryn Stockett
Kathryn Stockett's novel interested enough Americans to keep it on best-seller lists for more than 60 weeks.
To some, "The Help" was a history lesson. To me, it was a portal to my past. A past I never really talked about. A past I never really understood.
Not that I understand it now. How can you understand the rules of the old Deep South? How can it make sense that grownups could see blacks as somehow inferior and yet entrust them to instill lifelong values in privileged white kids' minds?
Reading the stories of maids in Mississippi in the early 1960s, and their humiliating, intimate and integral relationships with the families they served, offered glimpses of clarity.
Maybe it's not so odd I knew the "underground railroad" version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Maybe it's not so odd my mother gets teary-eyed when she talks about Daisy, the woman charged with caring for her while the fancy cocktail parties played out in a room where neither were allowed to go.
With each page I read, I wondered if Frances was still alive. With each maid's story, I remembered the silent embarrassment radiating through the phone line when I thanked Frances for taking such good care of my grandparents, and her genuine happiness to hear my voice on the other end.
What went unsaid is how hard it must have been once my grandfather's Alzheimer's was full-blown, and his once-discreet jokes were no longer discreet. What went unsaid is how Frances got down to Jacksonville from Georgia every morning. And who looked after her kids while she was there.
Over the years, I learned Frances' husband was a pastor. I met her daughter, Pammy, who was called on to watch my brother and me, even though she wasn't much older than either of us.
What I never learned was Frances' last name.
As much as Stockett's 450 pages offer poignant snapshots of a time that seems impossibly ancient and yet wasn't so long ago, there's really no way to explain all the complexities of what it meant to be "the help."
- Julia Spitz
"The Trouble with Lemons," by Daniel Hayes
Tyler McAllister finds himself navigating more obstacles than the average soon to be 13-year-older with the death of his estranged father, allergies, a scrwany physique, adjustment to a new school and town, and the absence of his movie star mother. When Tyler and his new friend Lymie witness the school janitor's dead body being dumped into a quarry late at night, they get a partial make of the car speeding away. Intrique in solving this "murder" is interrupted only by Tyler's run-in with school bullies.
Through Tyler's eyes you experience the contradictory world of adults and the redefinition of friendship and family. His choices and actions make him far more than the lemon he thinks he is. The book, originally published in 1992, is a staple on school reading lists. It's a wonderful short read for adults as well.
- Dawna Alphonse
"A Visit from the Goon Squad," by Jennifer Egan
This has been a dismal year in publishing. With the exception of a few notable books published by university presses, the vast bulk of new reading material has been a collection of gossip, how-to and pop-psychology junk. Curiously, my favorite book of this year is a work of fiction, and it also qualifies as one of my favorite books ever: Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad."
At first glance, the book appears to be a collection of short stories, until one realizes that Egan is using the device of moving characters between time and space to create a coherent novel. After finishing the book, one is left stunned, while pondering where, exactly, one would find the usual concepts of plot, climax and resolution, if any. It's an extraordinary book, one that deserves more far attention that it has received, and a bright light in a dark year.
- Rob Meltzer
"Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese
The best book I read this year was, hands-down, "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese. It's a story about twin boys, born of an Indian nun who dies during childbirth, who grow up raised by doctors in an Ethiopian mission hospital and who become doctors themselves.
The historical backdrop is Haile Selassi's Ethiopia. The characters are so human and so wonderfully drawn that you wish fervently that you knew them in real life. Since Verghese is a doctor himself, he describes diseases and medical procedures vividly and clearly, so it is a fascinating look at how medicine is practiced in the developing world. It is also an intriguing family drama about the twins and their doctor father, who tries to abort them as they are being born and disappears after their birth. As the story goes on we get a clearer picture of the enigmatic man who fathered the twins, and his relationship with their beautiful but cloistered mother.
I recommended this book to my book club and everybody loved it. We had a wonderful discussion about it.
- Cathy Buday
"The Life You Save May Be Your Own," by Paul Elie
Not often a book leaves me in tears as I come to its last pages, that I find I can't read those same pages aloud without my voice breaking. That was my experience with Paul Elie's 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own'. The book braids together critical biographies of four noted American Catholic writers of the mid-to-latter 20th century: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day, into what Elie describes as their common "American Pilgrimage."
The writers' times, the nation where they lived, even the faith they each sought and practiced "in charity, in prayer, in art, in philosphy" are perhaps the subject, but not ultimately the object of Elie's story. Rather that object is a body believers and non-believers alike find themselves aware of at times. Elie describes how that body manifests itself as "in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort."
For me, this book was just such an encounter.
- Tom Driscoll
"Collected Stories," by Raymond Carver
I don't know if anyone else is a fan of the short story form, but I am. This collection of stories is touted as "minimalist," but a lot of that reputation is the result of editing by Gordon Lish. A collection of often-bleak, hard-hitting tales from the Northwest, it features the author's collection of stories, titled "Beginners," with Lish's heavily edited and published version, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Fascinating insight into the world of writing, editing, and publishing.
- Brad Hamilton
"Have a Little Faith," by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom's "Have a Little Faith" is my kind of book: Almost everything about it is little. The book is little, the sentences are little, the pages are little. I read it in two days. That's my kind of book.
That being said, the message the story tells is huge. Albom explores two worlds - Jewish, white and affluent vs. Christian, African-American and poor - by way of telling the life stories of his family rabbi and a pastor he meets during interviews at a falling-apart Detroit church.
The book opens with the rabbi asking Albom if he'll deliver his eulogy when the time comes. As a person who struggles with issues related to death, I knew this book would be a struggle to get through, but would perhaps offer some words of comfort and insight. As I got closer to the end of the book, I dreaded what was sure to come and couldn't wait to read Albom's eulogy.
As tears poured down my face, I found myself mourning the loss of a man I'd never met. That's some powerful writing. And although I don't consider myself a particularly faithful person, I appreciated the lessons both men's faiths offered.
- Nicole Simmons
"Devoted: The Story of a Father's Love for His Son," by Dick Hoyt
"Devoted" is a must read. The nonfiction book is the story of Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-son racing team that participates in the Boston Marathon and other events. Rick Hoyt is a paraplegic and his father pushes him in a wheelchair through each race. Many people from around here are familiar with the Hoyts, but the book is worth reading to get the details on how they started racing and the many obstacles they had to overcome. "Devoted" is an inspirational, quick read. And it doesn't hurt to read the book while you're training for a big race.
- Paul Crocetti
"War," by Sebastian Junger
It is no exaggeration to say Sebastian Junger's "War" does for the conflict in Afghanistan what Homer's "Iliad" did for the Trojan War: it unmasks the fascination and horror mortal combat has held for some men since the beginning of time. Spending months with a U.S. infantry platoon in the Korangal Valley, one of the most dangerous and desolate spots in that beleaguered country, Junger gets into the skin and souls of young men and some officers for whom war became an all-consuming passion, not for the politics or nation-building but for the crazy adrenaline rushes and brotherhood that borders on love. "War" isn't about patriotism or the war on terror. The author of "A Perfect Storm" looks into the heart and minds of men at war and sees they haven't changed much since Achilles dragged Hector's body through the dust of Troy.
- Chris Bergeron
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.