Some years, I read one terrific book after another, the kind that make me call a friend and say, "You've gotta read this book." With a couple of exceptions, this year was just an OK year. John Updike's novel stands out as one of those exceptions.
I've always believed a good novelist can illuminate the human condition far better than any collection of pundits, academics or experts of any stripe. Updike's Terrorist, an exploration of the making of an American-born fanatic, is a tour de force that does more to reveal how estrangement and alienation can be drivers for terrorist acts than any nonfiction blathering I've seen anywhere. The closing paragraphs are riveting, and the last sentence is a "wow" experience only the best writing can elicit.
Breathtaking literature where the narration is so magical that the plot is almost incidental is rare, but Richard Ford's The Sportswriter comes close. Reading this novel is akin to sitting across the table from someone telling a story. Readers not fond of cerebral works with little plot and almost no dialogue should avoid this one, since the "action," as it were, unfolds primarily in the title character's mind.
Anita Diamant's The Last Days of Dogtown is an evocatively written story set in a Massachusetts hamlet in the 19th century. Its collection of offbeat characters struggle to connect with each other while facing daunting obstacles of their own and society's making. A definite page-turner, it's far from a "light" read.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, is a quintessential example of the novel one reads for plot. The storyline makes it almost impossible to put this book down, and the ending had me cheering. While the characters are fairly well drawn (though a bit superficial), it's the well-paced narrative about a young orphan who joins a Depression-era circus that makes this one a perfect airplane book.
A detective novel with a political twist, Red House is written with a staccato style complementing the genre. Filomena Buscarsela--a single mom, former Ecuadorian freedom fighter and New York detective--is an aspiring private investigator with a penchant for cases that bring in little or no money. K.J.A. Wishnia smartly crafts this quick read.
If you nonfiction snobs are still reading this, one work I highly recommend is Morris Berman's Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. One caveat: This book is so, um, dark, I had to put it down for several weeks before I could finish the last chapter. The work is well documented, smartly argued and depressingly convincing. Unlike similar books, it has no reassuring epilogue along the lines of: "What you can do to make this horrible reality just go away." In short, the book tells it like it is, and many readers will find the message unwelcome.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson came highly recommended from several sources. Essentially a history of science, I enjoyed Bryson's humor and writing, and it was informative, but it was a tad too chatty for me. I would have preferred more about the science and fewer gossipy, though interesting, tidbits about the scientists.
Perhaps not typical summer reading fare, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by sociologist James W. Loewen is nevertheless a must for anyone interested in the racism endemic to the American experience. Loewen describes the little-known phenomenon of towns forbidding the presence of African Americans after dark. Initiated around 1890 for a constellation of reasons, this widespread practice sees a modern counterpart in gated communities and all-white exurbs that develop as suburbs become integrated. It's a well-documented book and also briefly addresses the bigotry facing Jews, Italians, Chinese, Catholics and others deemed unworthy by the white, Protestant then-majority.
Two books that made a splash when they came out should have been drowned in a sea of remainders. You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen had almost enough substance for a magazine article on the mother/daughter relationship. Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman was equally disappointing. A more accurately descriptive subtitle would have been: And Other Superficial Thoughts Concerning the Mundane, Silly Trials and Tribulations of a Privileged, Wealthy, New York White Woman.
Next year, I may go back to my old formula of avoiding best-sellers. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your reading, summer and otherwise.