Books Read in 2012
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. Burnham's challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous "White City" around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair's incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison. The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World's Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims. Combining the stories of an architect and a killer in one book, mostly in alternating chapters, seems like an odd choice but it works. The magical appeal and horrifying dark side of 19th-century Chicago are both revealed through Larson's skillful writing. (447 pages)
Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See
See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). (288 pages)
Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin
Oliver Sacks calls Temple Grandin's first book--and the first picture of autism from the inside--"quite extraordinary, unprecedented and, in a way, unthinkable." Sacks told part of her story in his An Anthropologist on Mars, and in Thinking in Pictures Grandin returns to tell her life history with great depth, insight, and feeling. Grandin told Sacks, "I don't want my thoughts to die with me. I want to have done something ... I want to know that my life has meaning ... I'm talking about things at the very core of my existence." Grandin's clear exposition of what it is like to "think in pictures" is immensely mind-broadening and basically destroys a whole school of philosophy (the one that declares language necessary for thought). Grandin, who feels she can "see through a cow's eyes," is an influential designer of slaughterhouses and livestock restraint systems. She has great insight into human-animal relations. It would be mere justice if Thinking in Pictures transforms the study of religious feeling, too. (240 pages)
The Sugar Queen, by Sarah Addison Allen
In this irresistible novel, Sarah Addison Allen, author of the New York Times bestselling debut, Garden Spells, tells the tale of a young woman whose family secrets—and secret passions—are about to change her life forever.
Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night…. Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.
Brimming with warmth, wit, and a sprinkling of magic, here is a spellbinding tale of friendship, love—and the enchanting possibilities of every new day. (304 pages)
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse's unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world's second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town's first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson's efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers' hearts. (349 pages)
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
A brain scientist's journey from a debilitating stroke to full recovery becomes an inspiring exploration of human consciousness and its possibilities.
On the morning of December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain--the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side--swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realties: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace; and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized Jill was having a stroke, and enabled her to seek help before she was lost completely.
In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor shares her unique perspective on the brain and its capacity for recovery, and the sense of omniscient understanding she gained from this unusual and inspiring voyage out of the abyss of a wounded brain. It would take eight years for Taylor to heal completely. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, her respect for the cells composing her human form, and most of all an amazing mother, Taylor completely repaired her mind and recalibrated her understanding of the world according to the insights gained from her right brain that morning of December 10th.
Today Taylor is convinced that the stroke was the best thing that could have happened to her. It has taught her that the feeling of nirvana is never more than a mere thought away. By stepping to the right of our left brains, we can all uncover the feelings of well-being and peace that are so often sidelined by our own brain chatter. A fascinating journey into the mechanics of the human mind, My Stroke of Insight is both a valuable recovery guide for anyone touched by a brain injury, and an emotionally stirring testimony that deep internal peace truly is accessible to anyone, at any time.
I Am A Man by Joe Starita
In 1877, Chief Standing Bear’s Ponca Indian tribe was forcibly removed from their Nebraska homeland and marched to what was then known as Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), in what became the tribe’s own Trail of Tears. “I Am a Man”chronicles what happened when Standing Bear set off on a six-hundred-mile walk to return the body of his only son to their traditional burial ground. Along the way, it examines the complex relationship between the United States government and the small, peaceful tribe and the legal consequences of land swaps and broken treaties, while never losing sight of the heartbreaking journey the Ponca endured. It is a story of survival---of a people left for dead who arose from the ashes of injustice, disease, neglect, starvation, humiliation, and termination. On another level, it is a story of life and death, despair and fortitude, freedom and patriotism. A story of Christian kindness and bureaucratic evil. And it is a story of hope---of a people still among us today, painstakingly preserving a cultural identity that had sustained them for centuries before their encounter with Lewis and Clark in the fall of 1804.
Before it ends, Standing Bear’s long journey home also explores fundamental issues of citizenship, constitutional protection, cultural identity, and the nature of democracy---issues that continue to resonate loudly in twenty-first-century America. It is a story that questions whether native sovereignty, tribal-based societies, and cultural survival are compatible with American democracy. Standing Bear successfully used habeas corpus, the only liberty included in the original text of the Constitution, to gain access to a federal court and ultimately his freedom. This account aptly illuminates how the nation’s delicate system of checks and balances worked almost exactly as the Founding Fathers envisioned, a system arguably out of whack and under siege today.
Joe Starita’s well-researched and insightful account reads like historical fiction as his careful characterizations and vivid descriptions bring this piece of American history brilliantly to life. (288 pages)
The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley. (336 pages)
Warhorse, by Michael Morpurgo
Like Morpurgo's Private Peaceful (2004), this searing World War I novel reveals the unspeakable slaughter of soldiers on all sides fighting against people who are just like them. The story is told by an English farm horse, Joey, and, as in Cynthia Kadahota's Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam (2007), the first-person narrative blends the animal's physical experience with what men say. On the farm, Joey has close ties to Albert, who is too young to join up when his dad first sells Joey to the army. Charging into battle under machine-gun fire, Joey is captured by the Germans, who train him to haul ambulances and guns. His reunion with Albert in battle is sentimental and contrived, but the viewpoint brings close the fury of the thundering guns, the confusion, and the kindness of enemies who come together in No Man's Land to save the wounded horse. Joey's ability to understand the language wherever he is--England, France, Germany--reinforces the novel's antiwar message, and the terse details speak eloquently about peace. (192 pages)
In the Garden of the Beasts by Eric Larson
Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance--and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. (464 pages)
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Before Liz Lemon, before "Weekend Update," before "Sarah Palin," Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.
She has seen both these dreams come true.
At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.
Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy. (288 pages)
Heart Earth by Ivan Doig
Ivan Doig grew up with only a vague memory of his mother, Berneta, who died on his sixth birthday. Then he discovered a cache of her letters--and through them, a spunky, passionate, can-do woman as at home in the saddle as behind a sewing machine, and as in love with language as Doig would prove to be. In this moving prequel to his acclaimed memoir This House of Sky, Doig brings to life his childhood before his mother's death and the family's journey from the Montana mountains to the Arizona desert and back again. He eloquently captures the texture of the American West during and after World War II, the fortune of a family, and one woman's indomitable spirit. (176 pages)