Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bob’s Ten Best Books of 2010


**Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a witty and wise debut novel by Helen Simonson that introduces the unforgettable character of Major Ernest Pettigrew. The widowed Major epitomizes the Englishman with the "stiff upper lip" who clings to traditional values and tries unsuccessful to pass these along to his yuppie son, Roger. The story centers on Pettigrew's fight to keep his greedy relatives (including his son) from selling a valuable family heirloom--a pair of Churchill hunting guns. The embattled hero discovers unexpected comfort and consolation from his neighbor, the Pakistani shopkeeper, Jasmina Ali. Pettigrew and Ali's backgrounds and life experiences couldn't be more different, but they discover that they have important things in common. This wry, yet optimistic, comedy of manners with a romantic twist has great humor and insights on almost every page and is my favorite book of 2010.

**The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray
by Walter Mosley was a surprising contender for my favorite 2010 book. Ptolemy Grey is 91 years old, suffering from dementia and regrets while living as a recluse in his Los Angeles apartment. Ptolemy begins to change when Robyn Small, a 17-year-old family friend helps clean up his apartment and straighten out his life. He volunteers for an experimental drug regime that may restore his mind, but shorten his life. Ptolemy uses his rejuvenation to solve the mystery of the recent drive-by shooting of his great-nephew, and to render justice, guided by the memory of his murdered childhood mentor, Coydog McCann. Though the medical details of his ‘recovery’ aren’t convincing, it is a creative literary technique that provides Mosley with a chance to show how talented a writer he is.

**The Lacuna is Barbara Kingsolver's best new novel in nine years since the excellent Poisonwood Bible). It focuses on Harrison William Shepherd, the son of a divorced American father and a Mexican mother. After getting kicked out of an American military academy and seeing the “bonus army riots”, Harrison spends several years in Mexico in the household of Diego Rivera; his wife, Frida Kahlo; and their houseguest, Leon Trotsky. When Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison returns to the U.S. and settles in Asheville, N.C., where he becomes an author of historical potboilers (e.g., Vassals of Majesty) and is later investigated as a possible subversive. Narrated in the form of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, the novel starts slowing, but achieves an emotional peak when Harrison wittily defends himself before the Un-American Activities Committee (the panel includes a young Dick Nixon). I thought Kingsolver subtly wove parallels between the fall of Aztec civilization, the 1930s and 40s (and by implication), our own era. Kingsolver was masterful in resurrecting “a dark period in American history with the assured hand of a true literary artist.”

*Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore is a charming “coming of age” Southern novel in the tradition of Harper Lee or Fannie Flagg. It’s the early 1970s, and Catherine Grace Cline is the quick-witted daughter of Ringgold’s third-generation Baptist preacher, who is dying to escape her small-town life. Every Saturday, she sits at the Dairy Queen, eating Dilly Bars and plots her getaway to Atlanta. At 18, she packs her bags, leaving her family and the boy she loves, to claim the life she’s always imagined. But before things have even begun to get off the ground in Atlanta, tragedy brings Catherine Grace back home where a series of extraordinary events alter her perspective–and she begins to wonder where her place in the world may actually be. “Intelligent, charming, and utterly readable, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen marks the debut of a talented new literary voice.”

*The Inperfectionists by Tom Rachman charts the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter is an exquisite short story with the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper—and one woman who reads it religiously. Obit writer, Arthur Gopal, whose overarching goal at the paper is indolence, encounters personal tragedy and, with it, unexpected career ambition. Late in the book, as the paper buckles, recently laid-off copyeditor Dave Belling seduces the CFO who fired him. Throughout, the founding publisher's progeny stagger under a heritage they don't understand. As the ragtag staff faces down the implications of the paper's tilt into oblivion, “there are more than enough sublime moments, unexpected turns and wretchedness to warrant putting this on the shelf next to other great newspaper novels.”

*The Widowers Tale by National Book Award winner, Julia Glass, is “elaborately plotted and luxuriously paced, … inquisitive, compassionate, funny, and suspenseful… addresses significant and thorny social issues with emotional veracity, artistic nuance, and a profound perception of the grand interconnectivity of life.” The widower is Percy Darling, an acerbic patriarch and former Harvard librarian. His historic property includes a large house, pond and a spacious old barn, once his late wife's dance studio, now an upscale preschool. A mischievous and erudite curmudgeon, Percy only agrees to the school’s intrusion in the hope that his floundering daughter, Clover, will finally secure a job that makes her happy. Not that she'll ever catch up to her sister, a celebrity oncologist. Glass is great with the character development of family members and their associated contacts from a variety of social classes.


*Game Change
by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is the best, by far, of the four books I’ve read about the 2008 campaign—gossipy, insightful and informative. “Sarah Palin was serene when chosen for V.P. because it was “God’s plan.” Hillary didn’t know if she could control Bill (duh).”The men get less attention than the women who tend to come off slightly better. “Obama can be conceited and windy; McCain was disengaged to the point of recklessness; Biden talks a lot, and John Edwards is a cheating, egotistical blowhard.” But, hey, that’s politics. The authors worked their “200 sources” well. Many of the book’s events were covered previously, but sometimes, this volume delivers totally behind-the-scenes and genuinely surprising information. I was a campaign junkie, but was surprised that Senators Schumer and Reid (official Hillary supporters) encouraged Obama to seek the presidency and that Palin was initially screened by a Google search for “female Republican officeholders.”

*Comeback America by David M. Walker, former comptroller general of the US is an important analysis and set of recommendations to address the fiscal catastrophe facing America. Walker does excellent analysis and makes courageous recommendations in a totally non-partisan manner. Everyone needs to read this book—or at least the summary provided at the Peterson Foundation web-site.

*Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy
by Joseph Stiglitz is a “spirited attack on Wall Street, the free market and the Washington consensus.”As a Nobel Prize winner and chairman of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, Stieglitz has some practical insights on what lead to the “Great Recession” and how to prevent the next one. He provides an understandable overview of modern economic theory and “the wrongheaded national faith in the power of free markets to regulate themselves and provide wealth for all.” It is hard to make economics consistently interesting, but Stiglitz comes close and ends with a plea for the original focus of economics as “moral philosophy.”

*The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity by Richard Florida is a broad, optimistic look at the current economic crisis and the opportunities it presents. Florida examines the latest of the "Great Resets," moments of transformative upheaval (like the Great Depression) "when new technologies and technological systems arise, when the economy is recast and society remade, and when the places where we live and work change to suit new needs." Though Florida often rushes to neat generalities and cheerleading, his background as a historical geographer provides interesting insights and a unique perspective on the yet unresolved economic calamity.

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