Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through 30 or so books in the course of 2013, some new, some not so old and a couple of classics that I had not gotten around to reading. Here are the best dozen of the bunch, six fiction and six non-fiction offerings, all great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend. Most are available in paperback from Amazon.
Bangkok 8: A Novel (John Burdett, 2004) Mystery books are like popcorn for me, tasty diversions from so-called more serious offerings, but I have never come across a book (and the four sequels to it) with a protagonist quite like Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Bangkok police detective who is a devout Buddhist and son of a bar girl and Vietnam War GI, whose quest for vengeance following the murder of his partner takes him into a netherworld -- alternately sinister and hilarious -- of illicit drugs, prostitution and profound corruption.
The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith, 2013) Galbraith is J.F. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. Down-on-his-luck private investigator Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, investigates a supermodel's suicide in a tony London neighborhood in a terrific tale of the wealthy and famous that owes much to the classics of the murder mystery genre. Expect sequels, and knowing Rowling, a goodly number of them.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief (Lawrence Wright, 2013) Wright is the author of The Looming Tower, the definitive book on the events leading to the 9/11 attacks. In Going Clear, he applies his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative chops to the profoundly secretive, wealthy, powerful and vindictive Church of Scientology, which is based on the pseudo-scientific flapdoodle of sci fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, and has successfully courted celebrities like Tom Cruise.
Good-Bye To All That: An Autobiography (Robert Graves, 1929) It is easy to see why Good-Bye makes lists of the best books of all time. It traces Graves' monumental loss of innocence as a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as he grapples with the horror of the First World War and later bitterly bids farewell to England and its absurd class culture. Like all great classics, there is a timelessness about Good-Bye that still makes it so powerful nearly a century later as we deal with the horrors of wars of our own making.
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder (Charles Graebner, 2013) Registered nurse Charles Cullen, dubbed "The Angel of Death" after his 2003 arrest, was a monster, not a mercy killer, who may have murdered as many as 300 hospital patients, making him perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history. Graebner also deftly fleshes out the story behind the story: The criminal malfeasance of a series of hospital administrators who suspected Cullen was a homicidal maniac but failed to stop him.
Lawrence in Arabia: War Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Scott Anderson, 2013) While nominally a geopolitical history and biography of the heroic if quixotic T.E. Lawrence, played to such great effect by Peter O'Toole in David Lean's 1962 cinematic masterpiece, this book more importantly is the tale of British duplicity, with ample help from the French and the quasi-involvement of feckless Americans, in double-crossing the Arabs in the wake of their successful revolt against their Turkish oppressors in the closing days of World War I.
Memoir From Antproof Case (Mark Helprin, 2007) Helprin is a master of satire, high comedy and adventure (witness his A Winter's Tale and A Soldier in the Great War), all on offer in this tale of an elderly American ex-patriot in Brazil who is writing a memoir about his past lives as a World War II ace, investment banker and thief of staggering proportions, as well as a murderer, whose lifelong enemy is coffee, which he considers to be an insidious enslaver. Yes, really.
The Patriarch (David Nasaw, 2013) Joseph P. Kennedy was the founder of the twentieth century’s most famous political dynasty, and our understanding of his son, John F. Kennedy, becomes clearer in the 50th anniversary year of his assassination because of this riveting biography by a master historian of a man who participated many of the major events of his times, not least of which was the birth of the New Frontier.
Police: A Harry Hole Novel (Jo Nesbø, 2013) Since the publication of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2008, the Arctic Noir genre of crime fiction has taken the literary world by storm. In the latest novel featuring Harry Hole, my favorite Arctic Noir protagonist, the police inspector returns from a near-death experience to hunt a killer who is stalking Oslo's streets, slaying police officers at the scenes of crimes they investigated but failed to solve.
The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene, 1940) Word for word, this relatively short novel is among the most beautifully ever written, telling the story of a deeply compassionate alcoholic priest who believes himself too humble for martyrdom who is on the run in a dirt poor section of Southern Mexico in the 1930s where a paramilitary group has taken control and outlawed God, systematically hunting down and killing the priest's Roman Catholic peers. This classic is, without question, the prolific Greene's masterpiece.2666: A Novel (Roberto Bolaño, 2008) An unlikely trio of three academics embark on an idiosyncratic search for a reclusive German author. They are joined by a New York reporter, a widowed philosopher and a police detective. All are drawn to the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have disappeared, in an ambitious book that sometimes is more about a novelist's place in the world than the mesmerizing tale that underpins this nearly 900-page tome.
Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson, 2011) On the one hand, I ended up hating Jobs, an often ferocious, vindictive and even demonic genius, after reading Isaacson's bio, which is based on more than 100 interviews with family members, friends and foes, and more than 40 with Jobs himself. But on the other hand, in the end my admiration for this intensely creative entrepreneur -- who revolutionized personal computers, animated movies, music, cell phones, tablet computing and digital publishing -- won out.
Meanwhile, have you read any good books this year? Which would you recommend as gifts?