Nothing endears a person to me more than a perfect book recommendation. In that spirit, allow me to offer a survey of the recent releases that hit the spot for me this year – small atonements to the kindly readers who have endured plenty of bombast and muddle from me.
By far the best tip I got this year (literary or news) was a rather urgent one to immediately read "Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul" by Tony Hendra, the British satirist best known for commandeering National Lampoon in its glory years. This is a spiritual, but hilarious memoir of Hendra's lifelong tutorial with Father Joseph Warrillow, a Benedictine monk. Being an occasional satirist and public smart-aleck myself, I am probably overly sensitive to the sorts of sins Hendra must right. Still, "Father Joe" is a profoundly humane, authentic, and haunting account of a funny, sad man's long encounter with wisdom. The wise man who proffered this prescription to me wisely insisted that I get the book on tape, read by Hendra, who is a world class mimic as well as writer. I bought the hardcover later to keep the underlined passages nearby.
The most perfect book I've read in ages is "Fabulous Small Jews," a collection of short stories Joseph Epstein published in 2003. Again, this is wisdom packed in belly laughs. It would take a writer as skilled as Epstein to describe why these brief tales about ordinary Jews toiling in and around today's Chicago are so, well, fabulous; I'm not up to that. The stories are so genuine, detailed and honest, they read like nonfiction. They noodge the pomposity out of life's big issues and sets them beautifully in a dry cleaner's travails. Who could resist stories with titles like "Felix Emeritus," "The Third Mrs. Kessler" and "Don Juan Zimmerman"? They move the reader as life does when it's well and truly observed. This has been my favorite book to give out and the success rate is high. (Epstein's "Snobbery: The American Version" is well worth a spin, too.)
Another novel set in Chicago rounds out my recently written favorites, "An Unfinished Season: A Novel" by Ward Just. Just is pegged as an ex-reporter novelist, a Washington and political writer. This book doesn't fit that billing. It's a boy's growing up story, but from a perspective that painfully draws the defeats and decays that await men when they do grow up. It's elegant and brilliant with images I'll never forget.
The final great book I read in 2004 was written in 1993 and is rightly prefaced by the word "classic" now: "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest Gaines. It's a novel about a black man wrongly condemned to death in 1940s Louisiana whose dignity is salvaged when a reluctant visitor teaches him to read. The quiet heroism of the teacher is the only kind most of us are likely to ever encounter – accidental, defiant, conflicted and unrewarded. It's something akin to "To Kill a Mockingbird" without the children.
I'm a glutton for spy novels who ran out of authors whose cooking I like several years ago. I consider the two great masters to be the much-worshipped John LeCarre and the hugely underestimated American, Charles McCarry. Lucky for me, both came out with new novels this year and both were very good. LeCarre's "Absolute Friends" was polemical; McCarry's "Old Boys" was whimsical. Both were tweaked for not being as good as the authors' earlier masterworks. Probably true: but they're great reads, with handsome, memorable writing. (For LeCarre fans, I've written a defense of "Absolute Friends" elsewhere.
The best real world spy story I encountered was Miranda Carter's biography, "Anthony Blunt: His Lives." Blunt, a prominent English art historian, was the last of the Cambridge spies to be uncovered. He's not well-known in America but is perpetually best-selling in England, for good reason. The man is fiendish, inscrutable and thoroughly exotic. This biography may be heavy going except to fans of British intrigue. But Carter's biography is a vital compliment to what I consider the best novel of the past decade, John Banville's "The Untouchable" (1997).
The long election put me in dire need of escape fiction. The only ones I can commend are Dennis Lehane's novels. I read them all and especially admired "Mystic River," "Shutter Island" and "Darkness, Take My Hand." I don't know why these dark, grisly, violent sagas of the Irish in Dorchester, Mass. are escapist, but they are – gripping and addictive. The cruelty and evil he portrays seems to me to be frighteningly plausible and understandable, contemporary and constant. He writes with perfect pitch even for those of us made tone-deaf by pop culture obsessed by urban violence.
I read (okay, tried to read) far too many political books in 2004 but, again, I can only recommend one enthusiastically: "Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America" by Morris Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope. This thin book guts the prevailing political paradigm that America is rigidly and angrily parceled into red and blue, retro and metro, secular and God-fearing factions. Based largely on public opinion research, Fiorina's tight argument is hard to resist. But it's also hard to explain why politicized America is so wrought up, intolerant and indeed divided. I think explaining that is one of the more important projects for political ponderers next year. With luck, I'll find some books that help.
Finally, at the very top of my 2005 reading list is a first novel just published this week, "Indigo Rose" by Susan Miller, a psychologist and award-winning author of short fiction. Miller was also my big sister Judy's best friend growing up. She lived three houses down from us and was, unusually for a really, really big kid, always nice to me. Like all the books mentioned, Miller's is easy to find online. Hint, hint.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer