In case you haven’t noticed, the Christmas season is upon us with its annual mix of shopping frenzy, religious celebration, caloric overindulgence, and of course, gift-giving. I love it all and especially I love giving and receiving books.
For like-minded readers looking for gift suggestions, I would, of course, recommend The Bookshelf’s titles from throughout this past year and also offer these additions from my recent reading.
The first is actually a three-volume set recounting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s performance, not as president, but as a war-time commander-in-chief (“The FDR Trilogy: The Mantle of Command, Commander in Chief, War and Peace,” by Nigel Hamilton). One reviewer called these books “the memoir Roosevelt didn’t get to write.”
Hamilton, a British-born American biographer and academic, fills in several key omissions in the record and rectifies a couple of outright falsehoods in Winston Churchill’s self-serving six-volume memoir. He contrasts the prime minister’s peripheral schemes to save the British Empire with FDR’s visionary strategic thinking and single-minded focus on the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.
Much of Hamilton’s sourcing comes from newly available diaries and declassified documents, especially the contemporaneous records of William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister who was an FDR confidant and frequent visitor to the White House and Hyde Park. This set of books is the perfect blend of well-argued history and fascinating biography and is a must-read for anyone who would understand this period and its two larger than life protagonists. Highly recommended.
“Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story,” by Marie Arana. For North Americans who wish to understand what makes Latin American countries tick, the Peruvian-born American memoirist and novelist Marie Arana has now written a compelling study of these lands that folds in three contemporary stories with a thousand years of history. She argues that the dysfunction in so much of today’s Latin American societies has resulted from centuries of plundered wealth (the silver), endemic violence (the sword), and oppressive religions (the stone).
Arana’s skillful storytelling paints a heartbreaking picture of depredation, degradation, racism, and bad governance. Inca and Aztec, Spaniard and yanqui, Marxist and capitalist, polytheist or trinitarian, there are few heroes here. This is a powerful, beautifully written work, but the substance makes for some distressing reading. An annoying nitpick, though, is the placement of her many footnotes in an appendix without reference to them in the text. The reader must guess if an interesting passage or quote is footnoted and then locate the right page in the appendix to find out. (I kept two bookmarks on duty to help in the hunt.) Highly recommended.
“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” by David Wallace-Wells. I’m torn about recommending this book. It’s a hard, unsatisfying read by a writer-editor who should have done better, but for those on your gift list who may be on the fence about climate change (are there any left?), this book might convince them. The subject matter and the litany of doom and gloom make it difficult to plow through and Wallace-Wells doesn’t help by being overly repetitive and needlessly verbose.
Wallace-Wells wants to convince the unconvinced of the reality of a warming Earth and apparently thinks the best way to do that is to scare the pants off them. He offers a lot of other people’s research and statistics about what is going to happen, but little about what individuals can do about it. What little hope he offers seems to revolve around the miraculous appearance of yet-to-be-discovered technologies. Climate change is too important to be so poorly presented, but despite its many faults I still reluctantly recommend this book for the relevance and importance of the subject.
After all that seriousness, here are some lighter, fun-to-read novels to consider.
“A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles has been out for several years, but I’ve only recently gotten around to it. Cleverly conceived and elegantly written, Towles is a master of the just-right metaphor, and it’s a page-turner to boot. I don’t read a lot of novels, but one of my wife’s bookclubs recently read this one and I had to find out what all her gushing was about. She was right of course (as always). This reader of mostly histories, memoirs, and biographies loved this novel.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein has also been out in book form for several years and now has been made into a movie. This little book is a sentimental charmer, a beautifully written fantasy any dog lover will swear must be real. If you can embrace its outrageous premise, it’ll leave you in tears with a smile on your face. And, don’t fret, the racing part is only a metaphor; the real star is a race car driver’s dog who is the narrator and witness to all things. But please read the more nuanced book before seeing the Disneyfied Hollywood movie, which overdoes the schmaltz, changes a major plot element and wipes out what little dramatic tension is in the book.
"A Better Man," by Louise Penny is the latest, and maybe the weakest in her Inspector Gamache detective series. I’ve read most of Penny’s Gamache novels and enjoyed them as an indulgent but harmless way to spend a few hours. Her loyal fans will probably enjoy this one as well, but I think Penny is tired of Gamache, just as I was as I read for the umpteenth time about the backstory of our hero cop’s harrowing near-death shoot-out and his star-crossed career. This one is only for the real Penny lovers on your gift list.
Wishing everyone a great holiday season and happy reading!
Ed Guest lives in East Burke and reads wherever he can.