It’s the season for Top ten Lists, so here’s mine.
For some years, I’ve been keeping track of my reading, especially books. For 2017, with only two weeks yet to go, I’m at 27 volumes, and a total of 11400 or so pages. That’s close to a thousand pages per month. (I might still make a thousand, if I finish another book or two before New Year’s.)
The “page total” figure is somewhat ambiguous, as many of the titles here I listened to on CDs in my car. Several others were read on Kindle. But for me all that counts as reading; and I looked up the non-hard copy titles to find the print page count.
This tally does not include newspapers; I typically skim through three or four per morning, online (the Raleigh NC News & Observer; the Washington Post, the New York Times & the Guardian.) And of course I read lots more stuff online, which I don’t keep any systematic record of.
I rarely get brand new, up-to-the-minute books; though a few turned up on this year’s list. And I bought several more books than I actually got read. So be it.
That’s enough background. Of this hefty stack of print (and its electronic equivalents), here are the ten that were most compelling or meaningful.
But before starting with #10, let me detour briefly to the very bottom, and add as a bonus, the books that were most disappointing. The absolute, unquestioned Biggest Disappointment of the year was one that has been touted as among the finest novels of the last century, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Thank goodness Cat’s Cradle is relatively short, and I got it in unabridged audio. That way, slogging through its vapid, poorly written pages while driving, l was at least getting somewhere. So the time was not completely wasted.
Vonnegut has been loudly acclaimed by many; but I found the writing here bland, the story utterly non-compelling, the characters uninteresting, and the whole yielded little in the way of insights into life & the world, not to mention humor, which its fans seemed to find but I didn’t.
Even the made up religion adopted by its protagonist, Bokononism, was pedestrian. If meant as a satire on real religions, it was no more than jejune.
A close second was a title even more acclaimed, by a writer whose overall popularity is undeniable, and (at a billion-plus copies sold) seemingly unchallengeable by any author except those behind the Bible. Of course, it’s Agatha Christie.
I chose what is regarded as her breakout mystery from 1925, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It is supposedly fiendishly clever & made her detective Hercule Poirot an indelible presence in mystery fiction. I may have read it long ago, and had a vague idea that the narrator was the culprit. But I wanted to read it again to see if I could better understand how it became the basis of her unparalleled success.
But I failed. Ackroyd was tedious, tedious reading. The village setting, commonly called “cozy” was to me soporific (seriously: I kept having to put it down and take naps); Poirot was such a cartoonish twit as to put the suffering back in insufferable. And the “unreliable narrator” device left me cold, with no urge to read more. So despite her towering bestselling author status, the secret of her works’ appeal, like that of Simenon’s boring Maigrets, remains an unsolved mystery to me.
So much for the worst. Now to the best. Three biographies start off the list. Here’s the longest and newest title – 23-plus CDs – fresh from our public library:
#10-Richard Nixon: the Life, by John Farrell. The book was not fun. In fact, it was often, as they say, re-traumatizing, as Farrell made his clear-eyed, plain-spoken way through Nixon’s rise, arrival, and self-destructive fall.
The book is in no way a hatchet job; but it makes clear how Nixon mixed great ability and gifts with pettiness, dishonesty, lies, and downright cruelty. Farrell does not shrink from showing how he managed to do some good things (the EPA). Yet he doesn’t blink at the ultimately toxic brew of Nixon’s character, which left millions of lives devastated and destroyed in its wake. It was re-traumatizing because my own life was one of those partly shaped, and misshapen by Nixon’s impact. The book often made me shudder, but I couldn’t “put it down.”
Another near-tragic figure fills the pages of the next one:
#9-Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the age of Jim Crow, by Raymond Smock. This is a concise and very useful biography. Yet whether Smock intended it or not, Washington emerges from his pages as a forlorn, faded, semi-tragic figure.
He was personally successful in much of his life, hailed as a “race leader,” and was a canny, below-the-radar politician. But he was also a figure used again and again by whites as an enabler of oppression.
By the time of his death in 1915, his gospel of submission to segregation and concentration on personal and mainly small business development was being challenged and rejected by “militants” in the new NAACP.
Even so, while it is fashionable in some circles to sneer at Washington’s “politics of respectability,” that ethos still persists in many corners of Black American culture. His influence may be in retreat, but it is not gone.
Finally in this trio is another biography, not only of one person, but an entire family, over several generations:
#8-Lives Like Loaded Guns, by Lyndall Gordon. I was sent in search of it by watching a film (which would be on my Top Ten Movies list, except I haven’t watched that many this year), A Quiet Passion, about the reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson. The title comes from one of her many striking brief poems:
“My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —
In Corners — till a Day
The Owner passed — identified —
And carried Me away.”
Both her life and work struck chords with me; I had to know more. I unearthed a couple other biographies. But they only seemed to scratch the surface, and did not stray from some well-established half-truths and myths of Dickinsoniana.
Gordon does not settle for this. She digs deep to show how carefully concealed but often bitter conflicts, plus scandals festering behind the hedges of New England Victorian propriety reverberated through not only Dickinson’s lifetime but those of later generations. The resulting struggles remained unsettled for nearly a century.
There’s pain and folly here, but also stubborn genius. In her poetry, Dickinson expresses a kind of skeptical mysticism that mixes belief and unbelief in ways that repeatedly spoke to me. I ordered the complete poems (1700, without titles, just numbered), which are not in this tally because I haven’t read anywhere near all. A fascinating, gripping saga.
The next two are historical but not biographical, and deal with one of my abiding favorite subjects, Quakerism. They are also, as yet, unpublished; so the titles are provisional, and presumably the manuscript versions that were shared with me may be edited and rewritten before ending up between covers.
#7- The first is a study by Douglas Gwyn of the first fifty years of biennial gatherings of Friends General Conference, or FGC. That’s the association of mainly eastern liberal American Quaker groups, formally organized in 1900.
Perhaps only the small but intrepid band of Quaker history nerds will read it, or get as much enjoyment from it as I did, but there is plenty of material for study and enlightenment here. Liberal American Friends are not much taken with history – they prefer Progress. But Progress is usually of the future, always coming about (or soon to), so Liberals haven’t written much history. Hence Gwyn is doing ground-breaking work.
In his sketches of the large assemblies of these earnest, middle class white Friends, one can begin to see the trajectory of their liberalism. It runs from the heady days of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, into the frenzy and blood of World War One, through the Great Depression and the strongly pacifist interwar decades.
But soon enough Quakers faced the new ordeal of World War Two, amid both the draft and near-universal support for the war. Then they saw the high postwar hopes foundering on the reefs of the Cold War. In their own circles they hesitantly began to grapple with the reality of racism in their own ranks, and the erosion of their semi-mainline Protestant religious identity.
Gwyn tackles all of this, in many aspects more by allusion than by detailed chronology. But as it is really the first serious look at this substantial stream of American Quakerism in the last century, it has much to offer. I hope it will stimulate further studies.
#6- Longer and more comprehensive is the other still-to-be-titled Quaker volume, one I have long been waiting for. It is by Thomas Hamm of Earlham College, the dean of active American Quaker historians. The book is the first in-depth study of the Hicksite (i.e., proto-liberal) Quaker movement, from its beginning in 1827, until the formation of FGC in 1900 (where Doug Gwyn picks up the story in his own very different way).
The movement’s origins have been well-chronicled by H. Larry Ingle in his 1986 book, Quakers In Conflict. But it took another thirty years for the movement’s story to begin to be filled in from there.
And there is much to tell: early Hicksite Quakers aspired to be a peaceable people, among the “quiet of the land.” But it was their fate to come on the scene as their country was moving steadily toward civil war over the slavery they abhorred. How were they to keep “quiet in the land,” when the land itself was increasingly far from quiet?
These Quakers were also torn by internal conflicts over how best to witness for an end to bondage. Then they faced more tumult over evolution, emerging skeptical views of the Bible and the questioning of once unquestionable religious doctrines, forms of church government, women’s rights, and more. The crucible of war forced more change, and then came Reconstruction, its failure, and what is called the (first) Gilded Age.
Tom Hamm has taken the lead in showing how Hicksite Friends coped (or didn’t) with this ongoing torrent of change. I can’t wait til this book gathers a title and covers, to get a finished copy and read it again.
The next section is not one book. It includes, in truth, nine novels, which I read this year, all by the same author: John le Carré. The leading spy novelist of the last half century, his fiction has moved from its early phase in the depths of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Empire did not spell the end of history, evil, or espionage, and Le Carré has had plenty of new material on which to apply his skills.
I had read a couple of his books before 2017. And somehow, across the decades and from across the pond, this year their atmosphere of deceit, betrayal, self-destructing ideals, and chronic, seedy melancholy felt especially familiar. They seemed increasingly to fit the country I found myself confined in through these long and dismaying months. Not that the resonance is direct or straightforward; but for me it has been inescapable, and somehow oddly consoling.
I’ll focus here on two of his tales, which go together and bookend his career: #5 – The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his initial bestseller from 1963; and his latest, #4 – A Legacy of Spies, from last summer.
In Legacy, the story recorded in The Cold is dredged up from the obscurity and secrecy in which it has been buried for half a century. In the earlier tale, two British spies are betrayed to the Soviets by their own organization and killed, as part of a larger, convoluted scheme of even broader, more sordid deception.
But in Legacy, here come the children of the two victims, now middle-aged and unreconciled to having been thus orphaned. They have connected with aggressive human rights lawyers to demand an investigation and accounting for this betrayal.
Their principal target is Peter, one of the few surviving agents involved in the initial operation. Long-since retired, he huddles quietly across the channel on a small farm in Brittany. Outwardly surrounded by abandoned World War Two battlements, his inward landscape is crowded with a spy’s ghosts and melancholy secrets.
Yet for the enraged orphans, Peter’s Cold War world is long gone; they neither remember, understand or regard their case as anything but’ official murders. Their combative attorneys are happy to oblige, badgering the agency and politicians for compensation and scalps.
Yet the assault on Peter is most intense, not from the orphans, but from within his old agency. Their current minions are under orders to keep the secrets buried, and they are ready to throw Peter under the bus as a scapegoat if necessary to do so.
How does this all turn out? No spoilers here; read both books to get the full flavor.
And these two led me also to another biography, by a writer who has learned much from Le Carré:
#3 – Kati Marton, and True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy. This also brings me round again to Quakers, because her subject is Noel Field. He was an American Quaker who became a Soviet spy, through the 1930s, through World War Two, and then thereafter.
In Field’s astonishing, stranger-than-fiction story one can see the capacity for tenacious faith that some of the most renowned Quakers displayed, in the face of persecution, violence and even death. But here it is turned inside out into a lifelong devotion to an idealized version of Communism.
Field remained unswayed by all the evidence of corruption, tyranny, torture and mass murder that his “true belief” produced, much of which he faced in his own life. After twenty years of loyal service, Stalin turned on Field, had him arrested, and falsely charged as a traitor and double agent. He was tortured into making a false confession. It was used to condemn many other innocents. Then he was kept in solitary confinement for six years, til after Stalin’s death.
Finally released, Field, and his wife, who had also been imprisoned, declared their continuing loyalty to Stalin’s memory and the Kremlin’s program despite their own suffering. In a Le Carré novel, reviewers would have jeered at these chapters as utterly implausible; Marton can cite in her defense that it really happened. The Fields settled in Budapest, Hungary, then a Soviet satellite, and spent the rest of their lives there.
I knew of Field’s journey from earlier books. But Marton’s re-telling brought home again just how disturbing was his mix of some key elements of the finest kind of Quakerism with an ideology of deadly fanaticism. It reminds me of this verse from Chapter seven in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It has haunted me ever since I first read it:
“Be not righteous over much; neither make yourself over wise: why should you destroy thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither be foolish: why should you die before your time?”
And too much righteousness, Field’s story also shows, can not only destroy yourself, but many others.
Marton is originally Hungarian, became an American, yet has spent many years in Paris. For her the city is now home. After the death of her second husband, she returned to Paris, where they fell in love, both to heal and to start life anew. Marton’s memoir of life, love, loss and renewal in the city is #2 – Paris: A Love Story.
Her Paris-ophilia is shared with another writer, with whom Marton tied for second place on this list: Cara Black, who mostly lives in San Francisco. Yet for twenty years or so, Black has returned to Paris yearly to do research for a series of mystery novels set there and featuring a French-American detective, Aimee Leduc.
The formula for Black’s series is simple: each of her eighteen novels is set in a different district, or arrondissement, of Paris. (There are twenty arrondissements, so maybe Black will produce a few more.) Given the long history of Paris, in peace and war, as a center of empire and culture, and a crossroads for refugees, radicals, terrorists and crooks, these districts have distinct characters and histories. Black explores each one deeply, then weaves its history, architecture, cultural mix and its dark side into the fabric of her tales.
The most recent of these is #2 – Murder in Saint-Germain, which came out this year. I’ve read them all. I’m nowhere near as much a Paris-ophile as Black or Marton. Yet the place is endlessly interesting, and both writers have helped me know it better from this side of the Atlantic.
And now to my Number One, my book of the year for 2017. It is:
#1 -The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.
Warmth is the epic story of the great Migration of Black Americans from the South, which began during World War One, and continued for sixty years. The book came out in 2010, but I just discovered it last spring. It’s long and rich; another 20-plus CD set, and I was glued to the whole thing.
Wilkerson spent ten years working on the book; her depth of research is astonishing. And her writing combines mastery of this research with vivid accounts of real people who made the trek, remade their lives, and reshaped large areas of the north.
She focuses in on three of them as anchors of the tale: Robert Foster, who left Louisiana for California, where he prospered as a surgeon; Ida Mae Gladney, who abandoned Mississippi for Chicago, where she became a revered matriarch of a turbulent inner city neighborhood; and George Starling, who barely escaped a lynching in Florida, and rode the train to Harlem, where he made a new home.
There are many amazing, mind-stretching discoveries in Wilkerson’s tale. One of the most remarkable for me was the fact that this migration, which involved millions, happened essentially spontaneously. It was not organized, had no leaders, began as a trickle, soon became self-reinforcing, expanded steadily, and became unstoppable. Yet even the name, “the Great Migration,” is a later invention by scholars tacked on after it was well underway.
I can’t praise this book too highly. It’s a masterpiece, and a great gift to all those who would better understand the history of black and white in the previous American century–and the contours of much that is happening now.
If I had to, I’d trade all the rest of the fine books on this list for just this one.
So there’s my list. Happy New Year — and keep reading!