Friday, April 9, 2010

Bob's Best Books from 2009

Fiction

**The Help by Kathryn Stockett who, like her heroine, Sketer Phelan, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. The novel is set during the civil rights movement when black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver or use a guest bathroom. Skeeter is just home from college in 1962, without a husband and anxious to write something more significant than the Junior League newsletter. She begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies by enlisting Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children, and Aibileen's best friend Minny, who's been fired several times after mouthing off to her white employers. The stories are scathing, shocking, totally believable, and help bring pride and hope to the black community, while alienating Skeeter from her lifelong friends. Written in three distinct voices that are pitch perfect and confident, this my favorite book so far this year. (written in March and true for the year)

*Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a wonderful 534-page first novel by a physician (and Stanford Professor) about identical twin boys born in Addis Ababa in 1954 and orphaned when their mother, a nun, dies in childbirth, and their surgeon father flees. Lovingly raised by Indian doctors at the mission hospital, Shiva and Marion have an almost telepathic connection until an adolescent love story goes awry and they go in very different directions with the practice of medicine. The sometimes exhaustive gore of medical procedures is matched by a poetic perception of the world. After medical school in Ethiopia, Marion escapes to America where the past catches up with him and he “must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.”

*The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the first novel of the very talented Tiffany Baker—and is what The Ugly Duckling might have been if John Irvine had written it. Truly, the largest baby ever born in Aberdeen, is blamed her for her mother's death and becomes the subject of constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of her peers while her sister is destined to be May Queen and the wife of the youngest in a line of Dr. Robert Morgans. When her sister leaves town and a loveless marriage, Truly becomes a serf to Morgan and mother substitute to her eight-year-old nephew. She is a “flawed, prickly, enchanting heroine--part Cinderella, part Witch, and part Behemoth…(who learns) that happy endings are possible but hard-won.” Truly's brother-in-law degrades her more than anyone could take —and ultimately Truly doesn’t. She finds her calling--the ability to heal with naturopathic techniques--hidden in a Morgan's family quilt and takes control over her life and herself.

*We are Rich by Dori Carter who seems to have an uncanny ability to pick just the right words to construct the most elegant sentences to portray powerful, poignant and hilarious insights about her neighbors in “Brigadoon by the Beach”. I couldn't put the book down or sleep until I finished it and now can hardly wait to read it more slowly and savor each page. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The Rich are very different from you and me”. Carter shows us just how different they are from the rest of us--and from each other. From the cook's son who has the audacity to make it big in silicon valley to the gardener’s son who marries the boss' daughter, a new generation in Rancho Esperanza is displacing the old guard (‘men with noses that look they've been sniffing Bordeaux’, you will never feel the same way about the top level of a Santa Barbara parking deck again.

*Still Alice by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph. D in neuroscience from Harvard, is a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard when she begins a sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease. Alice Howland is happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives the most frightening of diagnosis. Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. Sometimes heartbreaking and inspiring and often terrifying, Still Alice describes what’s it must be like to literally lose your mind.

*Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates. In these stories, Oates imagines the final days of five of America’s best known writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. Each of these is homage to the writer, an often ironic look at their work, and a tribute to Oakes’ knowledge and facility. After his death, Edgar Allan Poe finds himself on a desolate island, where he keeps a rambling diary and ultimately mates with a sea creature. A robotic replica of Emily Dickinson, “EDickinsonRepliLuxe,” is in danger of being ravished by her owner while showing the shallowness of contemporary life. Sam Clements grows weary of Mark Twain and is threatened with a lawsuit by the parents of one of his beloved young “angelfish”. As a volunteer at a London hospital during the Great War, Henry James finally finds love and learns that life is more brutal and bloody than his genteel, finely constructed prose reveals. Finally, in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemingway reevaluates his rugged “macho” persona and puts a shotgun to his head. Oates succeeds in capturing the style of each author and reveals more of their sexual proclivities than I needed to know; however, if the book were for a class in writing agility, Oates deserves an A.

Non Fiction

*The Battle for America—2000: The Story of An Extraordinary Campaign by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson is the winner in the battle to claim the Theodore White mantel for best book about the last presidential campaign. Written in more engaging terms, and with much better editing and organization, than Richard Wolfe’s Renegade, it provides an “evenhanded and comprehensive account of the race, based on interviews with key players.” Even for campaign junkies (like me), there’s lots of new insights. “It's fast-paced and beach-worthy, as good a page turner as any mystery thriller”—except, of course, you do know how it turns out.

*My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, A very positive review in the New York Times encouraged me to pick up this book about how 37-year-old neuroanatomist Taylor experienced a massive stroke that erased her abilities to walk, talk, do mathematics, read, or remember details. The book details her slow recovery of those abilities (and the cultivation of new ones) and recounts exactly what happened with her brain. The explanation of how the brain works is the best part of this fascinating memoir of the brain's remarkable resiliency and of Taylor’s determination to regain her faculties and recount her experience for the benefit of others. Although she is now fully recovered, Taylor is not the same driven scientist that she was before the stroke. Her holistic approach to healing will be valuable to stroke survivors and their caregivers, who can pick up suggestions from Taylor's accounts of how her mother provided just the kind of care to bring her back to life. The last section of the book suffered, in my opinion, with a little too much ‘energy dynamics’ and ‘angel cards.’ Maybe I just haven’t been in California long enough.

*Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer explores unfamiliar (at least to me) often-overlooked places in art and literary history where artists, writers and even a cookbook writer predicted scientific breakthroughs with their artistic insights. The 25-year old former Rhodes Scholar draws from his diverse background in lab work, science writing and fine cuisine to explain how C├ęzanne anticipated breakthroughs in the understanding of human sight, how Walt Whitman intuited the biological basis of thoughts and, in the title essay, how Proust penetrated the mysteries of memory by immersing himself in childhood recollections. Lehrer also draws from George Elliot, Virginia Wolfe, Stravinsky and Auguste Escoffier, the chef who essentially invented modern French cooking. I thought it was insightful, illuminating and well-written.

*The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls opens with the author, en route to a spiffy NYC event, spotting her mother on the sidewalk, “rooting through a Dumpster.” Walls's parents were a matched pair of eccentrics. Her father was a self-taught man, a would-be inventor who could “stay longer at a poker table than at most jobs” and had “a little bit of a drinking situation.” Dad’s version of Christmas presents—walking each child into the Arizona desert at night and letting each one claim a star—was delightful; but he wasn't so charming when he stole the kids' hard-earned savings to go on a bender. The Walls children learned to support themselves, eating out of trashcans at school or painting their skin so the holes in their pants didn't show. Walls is a worthy heir of Dickens and McCourt.

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