(My) year in books – good and bad

It’s been a tried and true media strategy for years now: publications looking to stagger through the holidays while employees inconveniently take vacation get to the end of the year by slapping together a list or two.

Whether it’s ranking the Top 10 Ugliest Dictators, the 15 Countries Most Likely to Harvest Your Organs when You Pass Out Drunk, or the 25 Most Powerful Monster Trucks Ever Built, lists not only demonstrate that Americans love short, easily digestible pieces that are basically devoid of information, but they fill white space quickly with little effort.

So, in the spirit of general laziness, this blog has decided to join the fray.

Unfortunately, though, there aren’t a whole lot of things I keep track of with enough detail or diligence to put into a list. My few options include:

  • Top 10 Most Embarrassing Actions Taken by Our Current Governor (narrowing it down to 10 would be like trying to count the grains of sand on a beach);
  • Top 10 Run-ins with Gum-Smacking Rude Women in Wal-Mart whose Bratty Kids will Soon be Regulars in the Department of Juvenile Justice System (enticing, but the only names I got were from tattoos on their upper bodies, and they’d probably track me down and beat me with sticks); and
  • Top 10 largest fish I caught in 2011 (this, sadly, would largely be a wish list).

A list, however, that I can manage is one that details my favorite books of 2011, along with a look at a few that weren’t quite so endearing.

One caveat: Over the past year, I’ve gone through nearly 80 books, but about half were books on tape, or, in my case, books on CD.

Some time back, maybe six or seven years ago, I said “no mas” to the forced banter of on-air personalities, repetitive music playlists and, perhaps worst of all, the utter inanity of local radio commercials.

A co-worker suggested books on tape and they’ve proven a godsend. Now, nearly once a week on average, I’m at the Richland County Public Library, perusing the stacks for a new book on CD.

The point of the above is to make it clear that while I like to read, a good bit of my literature is imbibed while driving to and from work, or traveling the back roads while looking for a fishing hole.

As in years past, my reading (and listening) has been heavy on history this past year, but has also delved into fiction, biography, science and a handful of other genres.

The only restriction I’ve put on myself is that with the books on CD I don’t check out classics, since I believe the tomes said to make up the Canon of Western Literature should be read for full effect.

And now, without further ado, onto the list(s):

Top 10 History Books:

  1. South Carolina During Reconstruction, by Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody. This 600-plus page tome, written in 1932, took more than a month to read, yet was worth every minute. It provides exhaustive details about the immediate post-war years in the Palmetto State between 1865-77, looking at political, economic, social and religious life for both whites and blacks. Simkins was born in Edgefield and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina, but gives a surprisingly even-handed account given the date the book was written. Perhaps most shocking, Simkins concludes that not everything that happened in South Carolina during Reconstruction was bad and not every outsider or black in a position or power had evil intentions, likely a minority view at the time. Simkins went on to become president of the Southern Historical Association and wrote eight books, including Pitchfork Ben Tillman about the infamous South Carolina politician.

The best of rest (in no particular order):

  • Through the Burning Steppe, Elena Kozhina. A reminder of how absolutely crappy life was in the Soviet Union during World War II.
  • Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, S.C. Gwynne. Fascinating account of struggle between the Comanches and US government, with emphasis on Comanche leader Quanah.
  • God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, David Levering Lewis. Explores largely overlooked impact of Islam on Europe.
  • Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, Nathaniel Philbrick. Intriguing adventure led by commander with feet of clay.
  • A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner. Excellent abridged version of Foner’s longer look at 1865-77 period in US history.
  • Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, by R.A. Scotti. Captivating read considering it’s about the construction of a church, no matter how grand.
  • Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick. Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t all wine and roses aboard the Mayflower.
  • The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, Jill Lepore. The first war in what would become the US, though now largely forgotten, was unspeakably brutal.
  • Witness to Appomattox, Richard Wheeler. Excellent account of the final weeks of the War Between the States.

Top 10 Fiction Books:

  1. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. Easily one of the best-written, funniest and most compelling works I’ve ever read.  Waugh’s story telling is a delight from start to finish, yet the book is much more than just a forum for his humor. In subtle tones it tells the story not only of a single individual’s lost innocence, but the decline of English aristocracy.

 The best of rest:

  • Germinal, Emile Zola. A masterpiece by a man who wrote many masterpieces. Would have been my top pick just about any other year.
  • The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse. This book’s genius is such that it’s enough to make even very good writers want to give up the profession for in reading this masterpiece one realizes that one’s own work is closer to what is churned out when a gibbon bangs on a keyboard.
  • Blue at the Mizzen, Patrick O’Brian. As always with O’Brian, adventure o’plenty.
  • Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst. A captivating World War II spy thriller.
  • April in Paris: A Novel, Michael Wallner. Another World II thriller, except this time the Nazi has a conscience.
  • Father Sergius and Other Short Stories, Leo Tolstoy. Like all Tolstoy, a wonderful work.
  • The Rebels of Ireland, Edward Rutherford. Historical fiction at its best.
  • Winesburg, Ohio; a Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life, Sherwood Anderson. Somewhat disjointed yet entertaining series of stories about young writer about to leave small-town life.
  • The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks. Moving book about a woman who becomes caretaker for 1,500 Confederate dead in Franklin, Tenn.

Top 10 (Non-History) Non-Fiction Books:

  1. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck. I’ve read plenty of travel-type books, some of them very good and very entertaining, but nothing matches Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Published nearly 50 years ago, it tells of the renown author’s journey through much of the US with his dog Charley in a 1960 GMC pickup named Rocinante. Of all Steinbeck’s works I’ve perused, this is the most enjoyable. As I went through it, I wanted to pack up my truck and hit the road, despite the fact that I know full well the America I’d find today would be far less colorful than that of 1960, nor would my version of such an adventure be capable of carrying a candle to Steinbeck’s.

The best of rest:

  • Night, Elie Wiesel. Dark, awful, horrific, yet compelling. What else would one expect from a concentration camp account?
  • Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America, Bill Geist. Peculiar indeed, and plenty funny.
  • E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, David Bodanis. Much more than a look at Einstein’s famous equation.
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. A hilarious look back at author Bill Bryson’s childhood.
  • The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter. Much touted 1960s book compiled from interviews with baseball’s earliest stars. Great read.
  • Teacher Man, Frank McCourt. Author of Angela’s Ashes talks about life as a teacher in New York. Just as a good as McCourt’s first book.
  • Predicting Russia’s Future, Richard Lurie. More riddle-mystery-enigma discussion.
  • Building Portsmouth, Richard Candee. Detailed look at how the historic New Hampshire port city was built.
  • Cotton Crisis, Robert Snyder. Tells the story of the 1931 cotton crisis, in which Louisiana Gov. Huey Long attempted to convince Southern states to pass laws preventing farmers from growing cotton, to reduce excess supply and boost prices.

Worst books of 2011:

  1. The Castle, Franz Kafka. When Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis in 1924, he instructed his literary executor Max Brod to destroy all unfinished manuscripts. After struggling through The Castle, one wonders if Kafka’s reputation would have been better served if Brod had followed the order. This book proved one of the most difficult, dull and disjointed works I’ve come across in some time. Part of the problem may have been that the book was unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, and Brod took it upon himself to complete and publish the work. Or, it could simply be that The Castle wasn’t very good. It certainly isn’t on par with Kafka’s earlier works.

The worst of the rest:

  • The Holy City, Patrick McCabe. Well-written, but odd and off-putting.
  • The Steppe and Other Stories, Anton Chekov. Became a slog much like the Russian winter.
  • The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams. Not nearly as a good as the comic strip.
  • The Copper Scroll, Joel C. Rosenberg. Preachy and far-fetched.

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