Favorite Reads 2015

What In The World Is Robert Reading: My Favorite Reads In 2015

2015 was another good year spent between the covers.
Below is a list of the books I read in the past year, followed by abridged reviews of some of my favorites.

In the order read…

First Family : Abigail And John / Joseph J. Ellis.
Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris.
Being Mortal : Medicine And What Matters In The End / Atul Gawande.
State Of Wonder / Ann Patchett.
Colonel Roosevelt / Edmund Morris.
Brooklyn / Colm Tóibín.
Tolstoy—Tales Of Courage And Conflict / Leo Tolstoy.
The Goldfinch / Donna Tartt.
The Hired Man / Aminatta Forna.
A Ship Made Of Paper / Scott Spencer.
Dorothy Parker Stories / Dorothy Parker.
Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight : An African Childhood / Alexandra
Half A Yellow Sun / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A Hazard Of New Fortunes / William Dean Howells.
Evidence Of Things Unseen / Marianne Wiggins.
Every Man Dies Alone / Hans Fallada.
A Very Long Engagement / Sébastien Japrisot.
What I Lived For / Joyce Carol Oates.
The Handkerchief Drawer : An Autobiography In Three Parts / Thelma
Ruck Keene.
The Submission / Amy Waldman.
The Prize : The Epic Quest For Oil, Money, And Power / Daniel Yergin.
John Dollar / Marianne Wiggins.
The Cat’s Table / Michael Ondaatje.
Absalom, Absalom! / William Faulkner.
Ethan Frome / Edith Wharton.
Cat’s Eye / Margaret Atwood.
Vanity Fair : A Novel Without A Hero / William Makepeace Thackeray.
Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams.
Good-Bye To All That / Robert Graves.
A Delicate Truth / John Le Carré.
The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich : A History Of Nazi Germany /
William L. Shirer.
A Modern Instance / William Dean Howells.
The Sound And The Fury / William Faulkner.
Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter ; Seymour : An Introduction / J. D.
Far From The Madding Crowd / Thomas Hardy.
Moth Smoke / Mohsin Hamid.
Billy Bathgate / E. L. Doctorow.
Random Family : Love, Drugs, Trouble, And Coming Of Age In The Bronx
/ Adrian LeBlanc.
The Orphan Master’s Son / Adam Johnson.
We Are Not Ourselves / Matthew Thomas.
Delivering Doctor Amelia : The Story Of A Gifted Young Obstetrician’s
Mistake And The Psychologist Who Helped Her / Dan Shapiro.
Bark / Lorrie Moore.
Dirty Love / Andre Dubus III.

Theodore Rex and Colonel Roosevelt / Edmund Morris.
Theodore Rex, the sequel to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (which I read in 2014), opens with the new President traveling by train to take the oath of office in Buffalo. The year is 1900 and President McKinley had died just the day before, after being wounded in an assassination attempt. In the book’s opening chapter, Morris introduces the major issues Roosevelt would tackle during his presidency—military preparedness to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, regulation of industrial monopolies, conserving the country’s wilderness areas, labor relations, immigration, and improving conditions for African Americans.

At 42 years old, to this day he remains the youngest man to become President. From the moment he took the oath, Roosevelt confidently assumed the reins of power. Not only did he quickly win the affection of the American people, he proved to be a master in manipulating Congress to pass his legislative agenda. His accomplishments while in office were numerous, with lasting implications. He strengthened the Navy, spearheaded the building of the Panama Canal, negotiated peace between Russia and Japan and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and introduced regulations to curtail corporate power and government corruption. But the eighteen national monuments and five national parks he created are by far his most important contribution to the nation.

Colonel Roosevelt is the third and completing book of Edmund Morris’ definitive biography on the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. As this concluding book opens in the year 1908, the now ex-President is on safari in East Africa. In graphic detail, it shows the hunter Roosevelt collecting hundreds of animal specimens for the Smithsonian. On his return to America, traveling through Europe, large crowds and royalty greeted him warmly. It is assumed by most that he is likely to become President again in 1912. Once he returns to the United States, Roosevelt is confronted by a problem that was to plague him until the end of the days. After eight years in the White House, he had become accustomed to wielding power. He found it difficult being out of the limelight.

While the first two books showed Roosevelt to be a youthful, energetic man, Colonel Roosevelt shows him aging rapidly and falling out of step with the electorate. Just fifty years old when he left the White House, for the next ten years Roosevelt tries and fails to fill the void left in his life after leaving public office. It is not through lack of trying—trips to darkest Africa, a harrowing journey down the River of Doubt in South America, plus writing numerous books and a flood of magazine and newspaper articles occupy the remaining years of his life. In his later years, becoming more strident in his political beliefs, he begins to find fault with not only Taft and Wilson, but also many of his closest supporters. Suffering from atherosclerosis, Roosevelt’s health declines rapidly in his mid-fifties. Overweight and refusing to admit the passage of time, the start of World War I finds him trying to raise a battalion of volunteer soldiers to be sent overseas to fight. His attempts are gently rebuffed by the Wilson Administration. As he nears sixty, he suffers several life-threatening health events as well as the death of one of his sons on the battlefield in France. In 1919, having just turned sixty, he develops a pulmonary embolism and dies shortly afterwards. His final words are addressed to a long time valet: “James, will you put out the light.”

Brooklyn / Colm Tóibín.

Brooklyn is the sixth novel from Colm Tóibín, and the second that I’ve read by this talented Irish author. What makes his novels special is the masterful storytelling that features characters fully brought to life, warts and all. Set in the 1950s, Brooklyn focuses on the journey into adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman, as she migrates from a small town in provincial Ireland to the United States. Unable to find work at home, when an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she reluctantly decides to leave her widowed mother and older sister and relocate to a strange country. Tóibín does a marvelous job of portraying Eilis’ torn emotions as she sets out to make a new life overseas, and his description of her roiling journey by ship is sure to leave a good many readers feeling a bit seasick themselves. He also vividly captures her initial homesickness once she settles in an Irish boardinghouse in a Brooklyn neighborhood.

This coming of age story vividly recreates the rhythm of life in the 1950s in both a backwater Irish town and a bustling American big city. Its beautiful prose breathes life into instantly likeable characters, hauntingly portrayed. If not familiar with this Irish writer, this novel will make you a fan.

The Hired Man / Aminatta Forna.

I read a memoir by Aminatta Forna a number of years ago and I was impressed with her first published work. The Devil That Danced On Water dealt with the country where she spent most of her childhood, Sierra Leone. It focused on her father, a physician, who became active in politics and later served in the government as a financial minister. After he resigned from office, citing political violence and rampant corruption, her father was arrested for treason and later hanged. While not set in Africa, The Hired Man, a novel, covers much the same territory. It, too, explores the grudges and greed that emerge in the course of civil unrest.

Gost is a Croatian village in a mountainous, undeveloped region of the country. Duro Kolak is a lifetime resident of the village, a loner who does odd jobs and hunts to keep food on his table. His closest companions are the two dogs who assist him in the latter endeavor. He is the story’s narrator and a person I think most readers will take an instant liking to.

Forna is a fantastic storyteller and she has created a gripping novel that kept me enthralled from page one. She masterfully evokes the personality of a town afflicted with posttraumatic stress following Croatia’s civil war. The book chronicles the lingering tension, guilt and hidden scars the inhabitants refuse to acknowledge. Forna has received critical acclaim for The Hired Man and I can only add my voice to the chorus. It is a novel that deserves to be better known.

Dorothy Parker Stories / Dorothy Parker.

This book collects twenty-four of Dorothy Parker’s best-known stories. It was my first introduction to her work. Parker began her career as a writer for Vogue magazine in 1918, and she continued to write into the 1960s. The bulk of the stories in this collection were written in the decade following World War I. She has a unique writing style that features rapid, realistic dialogue, often presenting just one side of the conversation. Words fly like the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire across the page. While the stories are varied subject-wise, they tend to center around the often-rocky relationships between women and men, told usually from the female’s perspective.

Parker is well known for wit and satire in her writing, and this collection highlights these elements. But she also captures strong human emotions that make the stories poignant as well. While there is a generous amount of humor in these stories, they also convey deep insight into the human psyche. More importantly, the issues addressed are still relevant today. This collection makes for a wonderful introduction to both the “Roaring Twenties” and to Parker’s remarkable talent as an author. 

Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound And The Fury / William

When it comes to writers who mastered the art of Southern Gothic literature, William Faulkner is often the first name that comes to mind. In Absalom, Absalom!, a novel first published in 1936, he is clearly at the top of his game. The plot could easily be explained in a paragraph or two. But thanks to Faulkner’s teasing out the history of the Sutpen family in bits and pieces and allowing different narrators to provide their take on the story, the puzzle he presents is slow to fit together on the page. Like peeling away an onion, the core of the story is revealed only in the final chapter.

What makes this book so special, though, is not simply the story that Faulkner shares with the reader. From the very first page, one becomes aware this is no ordinary novel. Faulkner is a writer’s writer. His prose is rich and complex, and reading a handful of pages is like consuming a full course meal. It is not a book one can hurry through; it requires the reader’s entire concentration. With its biblical Old Testament feel, reading Absalom, Absalom! introduced me to a true classic that has stood the test of time.

A melodrama from start to finish, The Sound and the Fury has all the necessary ingredients: illicit love, an idiot brother, another brother who is suicidal, a third scheming to gain control over the family inheritance, and the unfathomable servant who witnesses the unfolding events with sad stoicism. Add in the fact that the story comes from the pen of one the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, and the result is a true classic that continues to impress readers today.

The book encapsulates the tragedy of the Compson family. Set primarily in 1928, it flashes back and forth in time to piece together the jagged shreds of a composite photograph. It features a cast of remarkable characters: the beautiful, rebellious Caddy; Quentin, the doomed brother in love with her; Benjy, a mute manchild who represents the unspoken sins of the Compson family. There is also the truly evil younger brother, Jason, whose character represents the dark side of human nature.

Faulkner allows each of them to step forward to tell their side of the story. What makes Faulkner’s stories so special is his delightful prose. The plot’s tangled web is slowly and carefully assembled to create a masterpiece.

So many books are soon forgotten; but thanks to the characters created in this story, The Sound and the Fury is guaranteed to embed itself into the reader’s longterm memory.

Cat’s Eye / Margaret Atwood.

In the novel Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood presents the recollections of Elaine Riley, a painter who in late middle age has returned to her hometown of Toronto. She is there to attend a retrospective of her collected art. While she has gained some fame, she is considered by many to be well past her prime. Leaving her family in Vancouver, her home base for decades, this return evokes a flood of memories from the past. The puzzle of her childhood is used to piece together the adult that Elaine has become.

Atwood does a marvelous job of recreating the longings and confusion that accompany the transition from childhood into adolescence and ultimately the scary advance into adulthood. Elaine, the book’s narrator, is a character I was instantly drawn to and able to sympathize with. This novel is a story of her many different personalities: daughter, friend, mother, and finally the artist who reflects a composite of these separate pieces.

Her memories are at times disturbing, often humorous, and always a realistic portrayal of the life journey all of us make. While it deals with the dynamics of female relationships, it also addresses the broader human journey through the highs and lows that all of us experience. It is a remarkable book, both funny and serious. Atwood is a gifted author with many excellent novels to her credit. Cat’s Eye stands out as one of her best.

The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich : A History Of Nazi
Germany / William L. Shirer.

This is not a book someone picks up lightly. Textbook sized and well over a thousand pages in length, it is truly a hefty tome. Published in 1950, it was one of the first books to seriously examine the history of the Nazi Party. While it touches upon the numerous people who contributed to the party’s rise, and its ultimate destruction, it rarely strays from one individual: Adolf Hitler.

Mining original sources—captured secret German documents—Shirer fills these pages with the recorded transcripts that provide the reader with Hitler’s own thoughts and actions. The author is no historian. A newspaper correspondent by trade, he spent five years in Germany in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War II. In that role, he had the unique opportunity to interact with the top members of the Nazi leadership.

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party was neither a socialist organization nor concerned with workers’ rights. Instead, fueled by anti-Semitic rhetoric and grievances over Germany’s treatment following the First World War, a small band of zealots, led by a charismatic leader, used a repressive regime to come close to dominating Europe, both east and west. This book has lessons still worth heeding in today’s war-torn landscape.

For those wanting a more personal account of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, I highly recommend another book by Shirer, Berlin Diary.

Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter ; Seymour : An Introduction /
J. D. Salinger.

It has been four decades since I last read J.D. Salinger’s work. This book served as a reminder of what a gifted author he was in his prime. The two long pieces in this collection were first published in The New Yorker. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter appeared in 1955.  Seymour : An Introduction followed in 1959.

It is an appropriate pairing, as both stories concern Seymour Glass, a stock character who appears in many of the author’s works, along with his brothers and sisters. Only, in this case, Seymour does not actually put in an appearance in either piece. Despite his absence, he is the focus of both.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter (what a great title!) is set in May, 1942 in New York City. The narrator, Buddy Glass, Seymour’s younger brother, has returned on leave from infantry basic training to attend Seymour’s wedding. He is the only sibling able to do so; the rest are scattered across the globe serving in the military. It turns out that Seymour is a no-show for the exchanging of the vows. After the awkwardness of a ceremony that never takes place, Buddy finds himself in a taxi with four angry relatives from the bride’s side of the family. Hilarity ensues as Buddy tries to explain his brother’s actions and soothe ruffled feathers.

Buddy is again the narrator in Seymour : An Introduction. The year is 1959 and Buddy is now middle aged and an established author. His intent in this rambling piece is to capture Seymour’s essence as a life force following his suicide, but Buddy’s narrative is almost impenetrable at times. It circles and loops and continually fails to bring the real Seymour onto the page. He touches upon the numerous qualities that made his brother so special, yet throughout the narrative, Buddy continues to get sidetracked and Seymour’s essence is merely suggested, never proven. Ultimately, it is the myth of Seymour that Buddy wrestles to understand. It is a reminiscence about how Seymour influenced Buddy’s life and the lives of the rest of his family. I think the author’s purpose is to show how little anyone knows of another’s inner life, no matter how close the relationship. It is a complex piece that takes effort on the reader’s part to get through. While Buddy fails in his attempt to bring his brother back to life, the attempt is emotionally honest and heart-felt.

The Orphan Master’s Son / Adam Johnson.

What a daring, ingenious novel. Johnson has the nerve to set his second novel in a country so cut off from the rest of the world that it might as well be on another planet. That country is North Korea. While it is impossible to know if he is providing a true picture of the country, his story has the aura of authenticity from beginning to end.

Park Jun Do is the book’s protagonist. His father was the master of Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. His mother, a singer, disappeared when he was a baby—stolen by government agents looking for beautiful women to send to the country’s capital and center of power. The story is divided into two sections. The first shows what life is like in the rural areas of the country, where starvation is a daily threat. Part two is set in Pyongyang where Jun Do becomes the “replacement husband” to Sun Moon, a famous actress.

Themes of The Orphan Master’s Son include the influence of propaganda on the populace, the place of personal identity in a repressive regime, and the corrupting effects of power among government officials. While these are dark themes, there is love, humor, and the redeeming quality of self-sacrifice as well. It is no exaggeration to say this book is a classic. It is a terrific novel.

Dirty Love / Andre Dubus III. 

The four stories in Dirty Love are novella length, with characters in one often turning up in the next. As the title indicates, love in these stories is “dirty,” but not in the sexual sense. Rather, the is focus on the need for love, how it often leaves one feeling helpless, affects the ego, and generates its fair share of insecurities. Portraying the minefields that relationships create throughout life, Dubus’ narratives beautifully capture the human experience of love’s darker sides.

All four stories make for compelling reading, but the two that stood out to me were Marla and Dirty Love. In the first, an overweight young woman finally finds a romantic partner, then realizes after moving in with him that he grates on her sensibilities. And yet she stays in the relationship, fearful that she might not find another. Dirty Love tells the story of a teenage girl fleeing both a compromising video of her that has been posted on the internet as well as an alcoholic father. She ends up with her widowed great uncle Francis, a man coping with his own approaching death. It is a powerful and moving story.

Dubus is a great storyteller and he backs it up with writing that sculpts fully formed characters. The people in Dubus’ stories struck me as totally believable, helped by the fact he has the skills to plumb their inner depths. This is the first book I’ve read by him, but it certainly will not be the last.


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