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My Top Eleven Books of 2015

Why eleven?

I couldn’t cut the list down to ten, that’s why.

Last year, I read and reviewed 69 books on my website, some of which had originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

This isn’t, by any means, a list of the best books of 2015. Some of the works among these eleven were published last year, but most are older. One came out in 1935; another, in 1890.

They aren’t ranked, just given in alphabetical order. These are simply eleven that I’m really glad to have read. There are a lot of others. On another day, the list would be somewhat different, maybe a lot different.

So, here they are along with a portion of my review:

 

“A House of My Own” by Sandra Cisneros

With a phrasing and bravado echoing Saul Bellow’s Augie March, Sandra Cisneros writes:

I was north-of-the-border born and bred, an American-Mexican from “Chicano, Illinois,” street tough and city smart, wise to the ways of trick or treat.

Yet, even as she writes those words, originally published in Elle magazine in 1991, she’s undercutting them, explaining that, because of her Chicago birth and upbringing, she knew nothing for a long time about a key element of her heritage, the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead.

I wish I’d grown up closer to the border like my friend Maria Limon of El Paso.

Cisneros’s new autobiographical work A House of My Own is very much about borders and about houses, particularly “the house one calls the self.” It is made up of 42 non-fiction chapters, most of which have previously appeared as book introductions or articles in newspapers and magazines, or were presented in lectures. “My stray lambs,” she calls them….

…..

“Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod

…Yet, given Axelrod’s skill at spin, what’s striking about Believer is that it contains almost no spin.

What’s startling is that, as an author, Axelrod is returning to his role as a reporter.

No question, he wants to be seen in a good light, and he wants Barack Obama to be perceived positively (especially since he still has two more years in the White House).

Yet, in his book, Axelrod’s willing to talk about failures, about stupid decisions, about frayed emotions. When he functioned so well as a spin doctor, he would never have revealed such behind-the-scenes bumps and bruises….

Best of 2015...3...

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“Harvest” by Jim Crace

…Better than the Kingdom of God — and certainly better than the Kingdom of Cousin Edward — the Village is best thought of the Kingdom of the Land.

“Plowing,” Walt says at one point, “is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land.”

At a key moment in the story, Walt and Master Kent are standing alone, equals again in some way because of the great changes that have come and will come in their lives.

Master Kent tells Walt, “This land has always been much older than ourselves. So much older than ourselves. Not anymore.”

He is thinking about how the land that they and many previous generations have known — a land of farm fields and seasons — is about to change to a land of sheep and shearing and fencing.

The land, given a new use by Cousin Edmund, will be younger, he implies.

Yet, if Harvest is about anything, it’s about how such things are secondary — how such human plans and “control” are illusionary.

People scratch the surface in this way or that, as farmers or shepherds — as shopping center builders, backyard gardeners, street pavers or landscape architects.

The land — The Land — endures.

…..

“Hild” by Nicola Griffith

The Catholic Church is big on books about the Lives of the Saints. There’s even a term for it: “hagiography.”

Nicola Griffith’s 2013 novel Hild is the first of a planned trilogy about the life of St. Hilda of Whitby, a major figure in medieval Britain. But it’s definitely not hagiography — at least, hagiography in its traditional Catholic form.

…Griffith’s novel, which is peopled almost entirely with characters who are found in the historical record, is certainly not pious. And there is much in it, including words that almost certainly have never appeared before in a written Life of a Saint, to offend or scandalize believers with expectations of what a saint is and isn’t.

For one thing, Griffith’s Hild is bisexual, and the novel is spiced with full-blooded sex scenes, including one that follows a rough-and-tumble sparring session between a staff-wielding Hild and her sword-swinging childhood friend Cian and ends with the two of them, bloody and sweating, grappling in a much different way.

She folded down onto him like honey from the comb, slow and thick and gold…belly on his breast, breast plump to his face.

Very tall and operating simultaneously at the edge and center of the court of King Edwin in 6th century Britain, the teenage Hild is a maiden who is not at all maiden-like. She is called “the butcher-bird” and “the King’s fist” for her willingness to fight in battle and to track down and kill bandits…

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“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

faces.....1.....There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book.

In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary.

If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends.

The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options.

But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty…

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“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

The Vermont doctor, successful and respected, is with friends, listening to the radio as Senator Buzz Windrip is nominated by the Democratic Party to become President of the United States.

Windrip is a shoo-in in the 1936 election, and some of the friends around that radio fear that, given his proposals and the sorts of people he has gathered around himself, Windrip will become an American dictator. Bosh, the doctor says.

Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!

Yet, it does. And the doctor is one of the first to be marched out behind the courthouse and summarily executed by a firing squad.

The book, written in 1935, is by Sinclair Lewis. Its title is: It Can’t Happen Here. And it’s all about how it can and, in this story of the then near-future, it does.

Throughout the book, one character after another says, one way or another, says, “It can’t happen here.” And yet it does.

…Windrip is a version of Louisiana Senator Huey Long, a demagogue, who was gearing up to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic presidential nomination when he was assassinated on September 10, 1935.

That was a month before Lewis’ novel was published so the book didn’t hit stores with the immediacy it might have otherwise carried. The United States, after all, was a nation with an unsettled, confused and scared populace. The country was still trying to crawl up out of the Depression, and, in fact, was undergoing a major recession. Millions were out of work. Widespread unrest was a great fear.

Like Long, Windrip, as a candidate, makes sweeping and unkeepable promises of improvements in the lives of all Americans, including a promise of an annual payment to every adult of $5,000 (the equivalent of about $90,000 in present-day money). Like Long, Windrip doesn’t worry about the facts.

FDR was said to be plenty relieved when he heard of Long’s death. He didn’t relish the 1936 election campaign with a wild card like Long out stumping for votes.

Alas, today, we have our own Huey Longs. And Lewis’ alarming vision is a warning for all of us….

Best of 2015....1...

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“Last Ragged Breath” by Julia Keller

The tone of Last Ragged Breath is set on the book’s first pages when Goldie, a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix, is running joyously along the bank of Old Man’s Creek after “something [that] smelled mighty good — that is, powerful and unusual.”

In this fourth installment in her radiant series of Bell Elkins crime novels, Julia Keller writes:

The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating…Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees…[T]he smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance… It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn’t get any more wonderful.

Goldie finds the source of the smell in a brown mass in the water, exuding the “strong smell [that] was still pleasurable but also perplexing.” She waits as the man who has taken her on this walk climbs down the side of the bank to investigate.

What he finds is a body and, separated from it, “like a bobbing beach ball,” a human head.

Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of lament that was as mindlessly instinctive to her as was her earlier devotion to the voluptuous smell of death.

Last Ragged Breath is a book about beauty in decay, beauty in squalor, beauty in a West Virginia that had fallen on hard times that are getting harder. It’s about saints who are sinners, and sinners who are saints. About the kind of people who populate great literature, and the world in which they live.

Consider turkey vultures…

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“Montaillou” by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

…As I’ve said, Montaillou is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The interviews in the Register and Ladurie’s analysis of them represent an amazing treasure.

Throughout the book’s pages, the people of Montaillou stand out in all their humanity and idiosyncrasy, and they made the book, for me, endlessly readable, even though there is no “story” here, no arc of a narrative, no beginning, middle and end. In the background are the two major waves of Inquisitional oppression that swept over the town of about 225 people and its environs. But this book isn’t an account of those.

Rather, Ladurie takes an anthropological approach to Montaillou, examining its people and its life, category by category. For instance, he has chapters on how the people of the village thought about time and space, their attitudes toward magic and morality, their thinking about death and childhood and sex. There are, in fact, three chapters on sex, and those don’t include the two on marriage.

One of the many vivid characters who stand out in the pages of Montaillou is the village priest Pierre Clergue, part of the socially dominant and often violent Clergue family, who, it seems, was always in heat.

The priest of Montaillou [writes Ladurie]…was a swashbuckler, Cathar, spy and rake — he was everywhere…He scattered his desires among his flock as impartially as he gave his benediction, and in return won the favors of many of his female parishioners….An energetic lover and incorrigible Don Juan, he presents the spectacle, rare in records of rural history, of the typical village seducer of ancient times. No question of this great carnivore restricting himself to one woman….He coveted all women….

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“The Language of Clothes” by Alison Lurie

Sometimes, a piece of clothing or an aspect of fashion has a very specific meaning.

In her 1981 book The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie notes that British officials, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, regarded green clothing as “a serious, even fatal, political act.” In fact, a popular song of the time mourned that they were “hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.”

In Scotland, earlier in the 18th century, to don a clan tartan was to make a similar political statement, and the practice was banned by an Act of the British Parliament.

Around the same time, a beauty patch was a clear signal of the party allegiance of an English lady (and her husband or father). If she were a Whig, she wore it on her right cheek. A Tory, on the left.

A century earlier, the hair length of men had been the measure. Royalists wore their hair long, as in Catholic France. Puritans, by contrast, were closely cropped and called Roundheads. Similarly, in 1960s America, the anti-Establishment young men let their hair grow and were called longhairs. Those backing the powers-that-be had crew cuts.

Most often, though, the language of clothing and fashion isn’t as definite. Indeed, after reading Lurie’s book, I’m thinking that its title more properly should have been The Poetry of Clothes…

Best of 2015....2....

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“The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

Granny Weatherwax returned home from her work as a witch, the most powerful witch on the Discworld. She took a very short nap — “Granny Weatherwax allowed herself not forty winks but just one” — and then went out and cleaned the privy, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing.

Then, looking into the privy’s shimmering water, she realized she could also see her face.

And she sighed and said, “Drat, and tomorrow was going to be a much better day.”

The next few pages, early as they are in The Shepherd’s Crown, are the core of the novel, the last of Terry Pratchett’s dozens of books about the fantastic flat planet of Discworld where the dwarfs, vampires, humans, goblins, elves, wizards, werewolves, trolls, witches and other odd living being are, well, pretty much like us.

But, before I discuss those few pages, let me get a few things out of the way.

In December, 2007, Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. In the face of this dread diagnosis, he redoubled his efforts to get the stories bouncing around in his head onto the pages of his books, producing five and, now posthumously, a sixth, The Shepherd’s Crown. He died last March.

In a note at the end of The Shepherd’s Crown, Rob Wilkins, a longtime editorial assistant, notes that Pratchett’s process involved

telling the story to himself as he wrote it, writing the bits he could see clearly and assembling it all into a whole — like a giant jigsaw puzzle — when he was done.

He would continue to tinker with the manuscript, refining and revising here and there up to and even past his deadline until, finally, he had to send it off to his publisher.

With his worsening illness, Pratchett wasn’t able to do as much refining and revising, and Wilkins writes that The Shepherd’s Crown was

not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died. If Terry had lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book.

That’s probably true. Here and there is an occasional joke that doesn’t snap as much as it might have and a scene that isn’t quite as fleshed-out as it might have been.

The bottom line, though, is that The Shepherd’s Crown is pure Pratchett, in no sense a second-class citizen among its brothers and sisters in the Discworld canon…

…..

“When God Was a Little Girl” by David R. Weiss, illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman

David R. Weiss tells a sweet story about a father and a young daughter in When God Was a Little Girl, playfully and joyfully illustrated by Joan Hernandez Lindeman.

Yet, the power of this 32-page children’s book isn’t that it’s another finely produced work to entertain and inspire young people.

This book takes the radical approach of imagining God as a child, not an adult; as a Supreme Being of giggles, not a thundering blame-leveler; and, most significantly as a female, not a male.

God transcends time and space, transcends physical characteristics such as gender. You might just as well assert that God has brown skin or red hair or blue eyes.

As human beings, we like to picture God as one of us. Jesus, of course, was one of us — is one of us. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that we are required to think of the Creator as an old guy with a long white beard. Or of the Holy Spirit as a little white bird.

As human beings, we use our imaginations to fit abstract concepts into physical images. Or maybe it’s better to say that we look at our physical world and develop abstract concepts. In either case, thinking of God as one of us helps us, in our stumbling way, to get closer to getting an understanding of God.

However, we limit ourselves and our understanding of God if the only metaphor we use is male.

In When God Was a Little Girl, David R. Weiss helps his readers — children, parents and anyone who looks at this lovely book — look at God with fresh eyes….

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Patrick T. Reardon

1.3.2016

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