Still looking for a last minute gift idea? How about a book? It has been a good year for good books.
In no particular order, here are ten that I found memorable during 2011.
1. Train Dreams by Dennis Johnson. This thin, but deeply satisfying little novella is set in northern Idaho and truly captures the mood of the landscape as it must have been in 1920. Johnson’s writing is haunting, spare and beautiful. This is a book that will stick with you.
2. Jack Kennedy by Chris Matthews. The MSNBC host hasn’t written the great biography of the martyred president, but he has written a warm and insightful book about politics and the impact one man can have on the country. A must read for a political junkie.
3. The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers. The best single book I’ve ever read about the long, twilight struggle of Native Americans against the relentless westward pressure of white society. The great Sioux warrior is at the center of Powers’ narrative, but this book has the broad sweep of history about it and the story is wonderfully well told.
4. To End All Wars by Adam Hochchild. This is a marvelous account of the First World War told from the perspective of those who opposed the war in Great Britain. You may find, as I did, that you put this book down with a sinking feeling in pit of your stomach. The war that still shapes our world was both tragic and pointless.
5. Midnight Rising by Tony Horowitz. Horowitz, a marvelous storyteller, sets out to rescue the abolitionist firebrand John Brown from the caricature shelf of history. Horowitz puts flesh on Brown’s story and helps us understand why people followed him all the way to the gallows. You’ll come away thinking that the Civil War really began with Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
6. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. This book is a collection of mostly short essays, reviews and columns by the late writer. Hitchens’ depth and range is evidence from first page to last in a big door stop of a book. The writing is superb, the connections remarkable, the sadness that the man is gone hangs on every page of this remarkable collection.
7. In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. This is the story of the improbable ambassadorship of William Dodd, a university history professor who ended up in Berlin in the 1930’s to witness and report on the consolidation of power by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. Dodd was little supported by the striped pant set, the career State Department bureaucrats, by enjoyed the confidence of Franklin Roosevelt. You may find yourself scratching your head about the antics of Dodd’s round heeled daughter who at one time or another was engaging in love affairs with a Nazi, a Russian spy and the occasional U.S. and other visitor to Berlin, a place that was a true garden of the beasts.
8. A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings. Liebling was one of the great reporters of his generation, but mostly unknown now to anyone under 50. This Library of America collection of his writings is a feast of great prose, especially so the pieces on Paris and the scoundrel governor of Louisiana Earl Long.
9. The New Deal: A Modern History by Michael Hiltzik. A financial columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik has produced a fresh, critical and highly readable review of the Depression era and the political and policy response of Roosevelt and others. Hiltzik doesn’t stretch to make the point, but skillfully draws the unmistakable parallels that exist from FDR’s administration to Barack Obama’s.
10. And, no list of mine is complete without at least one baseball book. You can do much worse than The House That Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub. The book tells the story of the characters who once owned the New York Yankees (or perhaps more correctly the story of the earliest characters who have always owned the most storied franchise in baseball). The book focuses on 1923 and how the “the big ballpark in the Bronx” came to be just as the Great Ruth hit his stride. Makes me long for spring.
Happy reading and Happy Christmas.