For those unfamiliar with this exciting feature of the OA, here goes. Professor Finnegan and I retire to a cabin for a couple of weeks each summer, a place without television, internet, or phone service. It's heaven. For weeks beforehand, I carefully select books (she does as well) and then gorge myself during the holiday. One rule above all other rules: NO WORK BOOKS. On my return, I long to continue the vacation, and so review the books I've read. Here you go.
It was a good year, with only 1 real disappointment and it was a doozy. I sometimes pick a theme and this year it was biographies, although I didn't read as many as I thought I would. Still, there's a fair representation.
1. Craig Johnson, Cold Dish and John D. MacDonald, Nightmare in Pink. Two good mysteries, for those who like their mysteries male. Cara and I have started watching the Longmire TV series on A & E. Cold Dish is the first of the Sheriff Longmire book series on which it's based. Nice book and very much in the Robert B. Parker Spenser tradition, which I like. I'm looking forward to the rest. MacDonald's Travis McGee series is over 50 years old now and it's truly the mold from which Spenser, Jack Reacher, and others descended. I'm thoroughly enjoying working my way slowly through the series, although, fair warning, it's over 50 years old and its sensibilities occasionally startle the contemporary reader.
2. Chris Lear, Running with the Buffaloes and Kenny Moore, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Lear lived with the University of Colorado cross country team for the 1998 season and this is an amazing account. One of the best running books I've ever read. Highly recommended. Bill Bowerman was a legendary track coach at Oregon and co-founder of Nike with his former student, Phil Knight. Moore grew up in Eugene, ran for Bowerman at Oregon, and made the Olympic Marathon team twice, finishing 4th at the awful 1972 Olympic Games. On the one hand, that history gives him enormous access and insight and he uses it beautifully. On the other hand, the book descends a bit into hagiography. It certainly refuses to take any kind of critical look at Nike. But the chapters on Munich and Prefontaine are worth the price of admission.
3. Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days and John C. McManus, September Hope. Very good military histories, another favorite genre of mine. Lloyd recounts the last hundred days of World War I. He has a particular personal connection--his great uncle died in those battles--and that adds to his account. McManus gives a deeply researched, excellent account of the Market Garden offensive in World War II, the basis for the famous book and movie, A Bridge Too Far. He concentrates on the Americans and offers a particularly strong portrait of General James Gavin. Nicely done.
4. Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and the Legend and Fred Kaplan, John Quincy Adams. Two very good biographies, although Eyman's is superior. He's generous to Wayne, perhaps too generous when it comes to the ways Wayne shirked duty in World War II, but also even-handed in his assessments. He's particularly strong when it comes to the films; the book nicely combines a biographical account with film criticism. He also handle the politics well. Kaplan's book is interesting partly due to what it represents--the historiographical comeback of JQA. JQA's extraordinary campaign against slavery, particularly in his post-presidency, contrasts sharply with the ignorant, racist populism of Andrew Jackson. Decades ago, Jackson, in the hands of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was the hero. Now, it's Adams. Kaplan thinks about writing and the bio is organized around JQA's amazing diary, a lifetime effort filled with poetry, essays, observations, character sketches and more. Yowza. But JQA can do no wrong in Kaplan's eyes, and that's simply not true. Plus, Kaplan truly doesn't understand or address the economic issues of the era in any detail. But good books.
5. Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings. What a disappointment. I'd heard good things but, to steal from John Sloop, this book was TERRIBLE. I only finished it because: 1) I'm stubborn about finishing books I start; and 2) Every 75 pages or so there was a nice bit of dialogue or description that was witty and encouraging. They never lasted. Twp major problems with the book. First, it's the perfect example of what Mikhail Bakhtin would call a monologic novel. The author never gives the characters room to breath, to grow, to do anything. She grimly marks the boxes on the Very Serious Novel checklist and woe befall anyone or thing that doesn't fit. There's a particularly egregious use of AIDS, simply to make a melodramatic character point and, amazingly enough, to add some titillation. You have to read it--but don't--to believe it. Second, the vision at the heart of the novel seems to be this: You are whatever you're going to be at 15. That's it. Your life trajectory is set. What an awful thought. She needs to read the next two entries.
6. Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes. This is important social commentary performed as a hard boiled detective story/Scooby Doo/Buffy the Vampire Slayer show. Seriously. I'm betting that 100 years from now, this will be regarded as the novel of the Great Recession. A retired police detective has a terrible cold case--a killer drives a Mercedes through a crowd waiting for a job fair to open and kills a number of them. He then starts sending letters to the detective. The detective tries to identify him before he can kill again. Pretty simple. Except that it's not. It's a great detective story as retirement forces the detective to gather slowly a group of Scoobies, rather than experts on the force, to help him, all of whom also become threatened by the killer. They're a weird collection, all on the edge for one reason or another (like Xander, Giles, etc.) King also spends, as you might expect, considerable time in the mind of the killer. Yet it's also important to see how all of this generic mishmash works. King invokes The Grapes of Wrath in the opening and the point of the novel gradually becomes clear over its course: There are no throwaway people. Everyone matters and too often we don't honor that. The Mercedes metaphor might be a bit heavy handed--the rich are RUNNING YOU OVER--get it? Except that it's not--I've not seen reviews that have read it this way. You can read the book for the mystery, thrills, and chills. But as is often true of King, there's more going on here. The detective and his Scoobies grow, rise, breath and face the challenge. They matter. Here that, Meg Wolitzer? Great book.
7. Colum McCann, TransAtlantic. Wow. Just. Wow. I hate myself for failing to read McCann to this point. I love the idea that there's more of him to read. He tells the stories of 3 Atlantic crossings to Ireland from the US--the first flyers to cross, Frederick Douglass's trip to Ireland, and George Mitchell's peace negotiations. Sounds weird. But it's wonderful. Read it.
8. Alan Sepinwall, The Revolution was Televised. Engaging and entertaining history of the great television series since the millenium--The Wire, Oz, Mad Men, FNL, Buffy, etc. Lots of fun facts and good stories, as well as some nice critical evaluation. Word of warning: Spoilers glalore. I mean, there are all nearly off the air, with 1-2 exceptions. But if you don't want to know developments in one of these, don't read the book. Actually, it'd probably make for a great undergrad course, too.
9. Philip Caputo, The Longest Road. Caputo, the author of A Rumor of War, among many other books, and his wife, Leslie, piled their two English setters into a truck and an Airstream trailer and drove from Key West to the Artic Circle. The model is obviously Travels with Charley, although Caputo actually made the trip. An engaging and thoughtful book--nice contribution to road trip literature.
There you go. Bearskin Lodge books, 2014.