I had a lousy reading year.
One of the little treats I give myself is writing the occasional column about the books I've read. When someone recommends a book to me that really hits the spot, I'm hugely appreciative. So sometimes I try to return the favor to the poor misguided souls who happen to have stumbled on my crotchety column.
This year, I haven't stumbled across anything that I can passionately recommend, but I'll toss out a few titles while there's still some Christmas and Hanukah shopping going on.
I've already written about the best novel I read that was published this year, "I Am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe. The critics hated it but I loved it. I thought it was a profound cartoon, if that's possible. It's also a very fun read, so you can give it with a grin.
Another excellent novel this year was appallingly unheralded, "Indigo Rose" by Susan Miller (full disclosure: she's a family friend). The story is told by a Jamaican woman, Indigo Rosemartin, who came to Chicago to work as a maid.
It's narrated in her voice, her dialect, which Miller nails so perfectly that she creates an extraordinarily complete, vivid yet exotic new world for the reader. We see the suburban children Indigo is supposed to take care of - children of divorce and a poisonous mother, from Indigo's world - which puts subject matter so common to American novels into a unique and sad new voice. The book is a gem flecked with small, well-painted truths.
I love Ian McEwan but I didn't love "Saturday," which came out this year. It's very readable and some of his word runs make the irritating parts of the novel worth it. The plot is a bit like a writerly, precious British version of the movie, "Clash." The characters are all too perfectly composed. I think "Atonement," "The Innocent," "Enduring Love" and "Black Dogs" are all much better choices from McEwan.
After discovering and devouring Dennis Lehane last year, I tried hard to find a new practitioner of the semi-literary, semi-noir tough guy/spy genre I love. I didn't have much luck, but the closest I came was Michael Connelly, who put out two bestsellers this year, "The Closers" and "The Lincoln Lawyer."
Both are addictive and have worth beyond their entertainment value, though I'm hard-pressed to put exactly what that is into words. "The Closers" stars Harry Bosch, Connelly's regular LAPD detective. "The Lincoln Lawyer" is Mickey Haller, a calculating, hard-boiled lawyer who is somewhat more exotic than Bosch. One is a police procedural, the other is a legal thriller – the perfect gift set.
Some passages make you swoon and cry. Some I endured. It's a tough read. In the end, he's too smart for me; I needed something whole, not just fragments, and he wasn't giving it up.
The most fun I had was with long forgotten novels by popular commercial writers. The best was "Something of Value" by Robert Ruark. It's a fabulous, riveting account of the Mau-Mau revolution in Kenya published in 1955; along with "To Kill a Mockingbird," it shaped – perhaps determined – my view of race and prejudice when I first read it as a kid. I still think it's a good book to give to young adults.
It's also very worth digging up Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War." Wouk is an absurdly undervalued author: "The Caine Mutiny," "City Boy" and "Don't Stop the Carnival" are all fabulous.
Finally on the nostalgia front, I read Mario Puzo's second novel, "The Fortunate Pilgrim." Written in 1964 before "The Godfather" (which I love), it's a serious immigrant's story without gangsters and it's beautiful. I also read a phony baloney sequel to the Godfather books called "The Godfather Returns," by Mark Winegardner, which isn't terrible, although I really didn't need Fredo to be gay.
The book that may have done the best job of doing what novels usually do for me was "Skeletons of the Zahara" by Dean King. It's the true account of Connecticut merchant seamen shipwrecked on the Western Saharan cost of Africa in 1815 and then captured by Muslim nomads. It's an absolutely riveting survival story and a portrait of a really foreign, strange culture.
Some of the best non-fiction I read I listened to. That is, I listened to the books on tape. We seem to be in the midst of a renaissance of early American biography so I thought I'd best dig in. I've listened to Joseph Ellis's "His Excellency: George Washington," Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton" and David McCullough's "John Adams."
They're all masterful. Having biographies this good and this accessible read out loud to you is so luxurious it almost feels like cheating. It's a very pleasant way for a busy person to tackle big, weighty books.
There is one cultural recommendation I can make with conviction and without qualification, but it's not a book; it's "Spamalot," the Broadway play. If you ever have the chance to see this modern Monty Python masterpiece, do it. It's a massive injection of hilarious absurdity that can even get you through a year of poor book picking.
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