I fell short of many goals in 2015: I’m not thinner, fitter, a markedly better person, or a millionaire. I didn’t read the 50 books I’d promised Goodreads and I haven’t blogged more – on this site or any of my other neglected little web portals.
But it’s 2016 now, and there’s no point starting a new year by dwelling on old year failures, particularly when I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to accomplish any of them anyway.
I did manage 29 books, some of them for school, but most for pleasure. While I didn’t make my Goodreads quantity goal, had they had a quality goal, I’m confident I would have exceeded it. So, in a tribute to good taste over free time, here are some highlights.
It was a year of new releases by several of my favorite authors. Erik Larson, Matthew Pearl, Sarah Vowell and Jon Ronson all put out new books. While Dead Wake, The Last Bookaneer, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (respectively) were all solid books, none was its author’s best work.
Larson’s Dead Wake illustrated the final days and destruction of the Lusitania in great detail, but suffered from the lack of a central character to support the historical narrative and give the reader someone relate-able. Pearl’s novel was a solid yarn about an attempt to steal the final work of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vowell’s history of Lafayette’s (and France’s) role in helping the United States escape the rule of Great Britain had less of her usual humor, but was enlightening to those of us who didn’t pay attention in history class that week. Ronson’s was the best of the four, profiling people who gain notoriety through the moral outrage and shaming of the world’s self-righteous internet community. It was a funny and fascinating look at how we’re all one stupid comment away from losing our job and becoming a late night show punchline. I only wish he’d delved deeper into the fact that the women in his book seemed to have suffered worse, longer-term consequences than the men, even though their misjudgements weren’t any more egregious.
In addition to these old favorites, some new (to me) authors made my reading list. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz was a funny, yet respectful, look at the people of the South who are still smarting from (and fighting, in different ways) the “War of Northern Aggression.” It’s a thoughtful profile of a part of the South that a Northern like me finds hard to understand.
Australian author Helen Garner was a thrill to discover. I read two of her non-fiction books, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial. The former tells the story of the murder of Joe Cinque and the subsequent trial of the woman suspected of the crime. This House of Grief is about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson, who drove his car into a reservoir resulting in the death of his three young sons. Both were high-profile cases in Australia apparently, but I’d had no knowledge of either before I read the books. Garner’s writing is so engaging, that the reader easily relates to her. Rather than writing as a journalist with a deep knowledge of law and criminal trials, she writes like the average person, asking the questions and making the observations we’d all have. Her gentle humanity shines through in both books.
Very different, but just as gripping, was another book in the true crime genre, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. This is the opposite of Garner’s books, written very much in the voice of an unbiased journalist. But still, Seierstad’s narrative of Breivik’s murder of 77 people, 69 of whom were attending a youth summer camp on the island of Utoya, is heartbreaking as the reader first gets to know some of the victims, before following Breivik as he dispassionately slaughters them. The story itself is so wrenching, that it doesn’t need any additional emotional context from Seierstad.
Finally, two of my favorite books this year dealt with civil rights. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is about author Kristen Green’s return to her hometown in Prince Edward Country, Virginia. There Green, a white woman, learns how 1,700 black children in the county were robbed of their education in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and her family’s role in the tragedy. It’s an embarrassing, shameful piece of American history that should be more widely known, particularly when putting current race relations into context.
Goodreads tells me that, of all the books on my 2015 list, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited the Civil War, was the least read by others on the site (only 51 others had the pleasure of this book). Author Dick Lehr tells the story of black newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter’s fight against filmmaker D. W. Griffith and the City of Boston to show Griffith’s wildly racist and inaccurate film, The Birth of a Nation, in the city’s cinemas. It’s an unforgettable story of civil rights versus freedom of speech, which goes far beyond Boston, resonating across the country. I’m both a Bostonian and a silent film fan, but had never heard the story of this remarkable battle. I hope more people read this book and acquaint themselves with the remarkable Monroe Trotter and his crusade.