Monday, January 2, 2012

Bob's Best Books of 2011


Room by Emma Donoghue's is about, Jack, a typical 5-year-old who likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma—but he has lived his entire life in an 11 x 11 room, sharing the tiny space with his mother and a nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the real world, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to create a normal life for her son. When they achieve the dream of experiencing “Outside,” the consequences are frightening. “Room is rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live.” An amazingly original novel of survival, discovery and growth—an extended view of moving outside the comfort zone of “Plato’s Cave.”

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall describes the travails of Golden Richards, the title patriarch, his four wives and 28 children. Golden's houses are the sort of places where the dog often wears underwear and a child or two doesn't. “Golden may be hapless, distracted, and deceitful, but he is large-hearted and so is his story.” Like John Irving and Pat Conroy, Udall is a great storyteller who sees humor in the human tragedy and enjoys pyrotechnics.

The Murderer’s Daughters by Susan Meyers begins with young Lulu finding her mother dead and her sister wounded at the hands of their alcoholic father. The novel traces the trauma’s impact for 30 years. Rejected by family, they are sent to an orphanage, where Lulu turns tough and calculating, searching for safety and control until they manipulate a way into an adoptive family. Lulu is a great student, becomes a doctor, marries an understanding husband and has two intuitive children who are confused the secretiveness about her past. Her sister, Merry becomes a victim witness advocate who is dependent on Lulu, drugs and alcohol, and looks for love in all the wrong places. In the background, their imprisoned father looms until a crisis forces Lulu and Merry to confront what happened years ago. I found the book psychologically complex, believable and enjoyable.

Father of the Rain by Whiting Award–winner Lily King is narrated by the insightful daughter of an alcoholic father, follows their evolving relationship over four decades. Daley watches her charismatic WASPy father flounder through divorce, disgrace and increasing alcoholism. With a caring, socially responsible mother and self-imposed distance from him, she eventually returns to her father's side after he is no longer capable of living alone. Dealing with deep and complex emotions, “King's latest is original and deftly drawn, the work of a master psychological portraitist.”

Bill Warrington’s Last Chance by James King was 2009 Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award–winner April Shea is a bright 14-year-old girl who experiments with pot and constantly squabbles with her single mother, Marcy. Together, Marcy and April care for Marcy's 79-year-old father, Bill, a Korean War vet, retired salesman, failed father and now, an Alzheimer’s patient. Bill longs to bring his family together for a reunion, but with no takers on this idea, Bill and April take off for California, where April plans on joining a band and Bill imagines he can force a reunion. With shades of “Death of a Salesman” and The Notebook, King fashions a good story with a terrific ending.

Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (Yale law professor who is married to the “Tiger Mom”) uses the 1920 bombing of Wall Street as the backdrop for a superbly written novel and well-crafted historical mystery. The ambitious plot provides a believable solution to the never-solved search for the person/s responsible for the death and injury of more than 400 people. Rubenfeld weaves such historical figures as Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud through the shifting landscape with a historian's factual touch and a storyteller's eye for the dramatic. I was enthralled as Dr. Stratham Younger, his beautiful fiancée, scientist Colette Rousseau, and Det. James Littlemore succeed in providing a reasonable solution to an important ‘cold case.’ “This fat book is heir to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.”


Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President by Pulitzer Prize winner, Ron Suskind, tells how Wall Street struggled to save itself while a young president with great gifts tries to master the world’s toughest job, and rescue the economy in the first real management job of his life. Suskind is critical of Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers, (especially Summers)—all of whom had too much confidence. His heroes are Paul Volker, Gary Gensler (CFTC), Jim Weinstein (CECS) and Pete Rouse. The ensemble cast ranges from the titans of high finance to a new generation of reformers, from petulant congressmen and acerbic lobbyists to a tight circle of White House advisers—and, ultimately, to a unique portrait of the president himself. “Based on hundreds of interviews and filled with piercing insights and startling disclosures, Confidence Men brings into focus the collusion and conflict between the nation’s two capitals.”

The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris convincingly explains how and why science was an integral part of the intellectual toolkit of the leaders of political and individual liberty. A readable history of science and intellectual thought, Ferris begins with profiles of seventeenth-century philosophical pioneers, continues with champions of the Enlightenment’s intersection of science and self-government, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, and reviews contemporary threats to this tradition. “Lucid and captivating... Ferris’s clear and educative account makes for an enjoyable read.”

This Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Backa wake-up call and a call to collective action”. They analyze the four challenges we face—globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption—and spell out what we need to do now to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. Friedman and Mandelbaum believe that the recovery of American greatness is within reach and offer a five-part formula for prosperity that could enable us to cope successfully with the current challenges.

Examined Lives by James Miller combines short biographies and synopses of 12 philosophers’ ideas of wisdom. The book is aimed at people like me who are intrigued by the history of philosophy but not prepared to take on the original texts. Miller introduces Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche, then describes how their mental abstractions were buffeted by demands of material or political realities that sometimes led contemporaries and posterity to bridle at inconsistencies between their words and deeds.

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