Have bookworms on your holiday shopping list? Here is a look back at some of our favorite books that we’ve reviewed in Books in 2012. Maybe one of these titles will be the perfect read for you to give or receive.
Reviewer Mike Ramsey said choosing his favorite book is like choosing a favorite child, but he decided that of all the books he read for the Books page this year, “Lefty” (Ballantine Books, $28) was the standout.
Biographers Verona Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone crafted a candid portrait not only of Gomez’s baseball star father, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, but also her mother June O’Dea, a Broadway star. “It is a story of two people who today would be called megastars, but unlike today’s celebrities, these two enjoyed walking the streets and talking with cabbies, doormen, newsstand workers and anyone who approached them,” Ramsey wrote. “ ‘Lefty’ is filled with stories that will bring joy to baseball fans by giving some insight into legendary players’ personalities.”
In this season of hope and peace, Roanoke physician Sidney Barritt believes “Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” (Encounter Books, $27.99) would have a wide base of interest.
Author Jay Nordinger, Barritt wrote, treats the reader to “a complete parade of the Peace Laureates beginning with Henry Dunant and Frederic Passy in 1901 up to last year’s trio of Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman.” Some of the choices, Barritt noted, are inarguable: Mother Teresa, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross. Still others stir strong, and not always positive, responses: Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and even President Barack Obama were controversial choices. Overall, Barritt described the book as “an interesting and informative piece of work.”
Linda Rimel had a difficult time choosing which book was her favorite this year, but “Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence” (Bloomsbury Press, $30) topped her list.
Rimel wrote that author Hugh Howard has produced a work of nonfiction worthy of history buffs, “complete with a list of players, a timetable, notes, a bibliography, an index, maps, portraits and descriptions of architectural treasures lost when “Washington City” burned. Nonetheless, the book is as engaging as a novel.”
Rimel applauded Howard’s balance in this story of James and Dolley Madison. “Howard preserves the drama by limiting the narrative to what his ‘characters’ perceive, including battle reports. Ultimately, these incude an action-packed, come-from-behind victory not even Hollywood could have dreamed up.”
Two other choices that may appeal to the historians on your list are “Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion” (Regnery History, $24.95), which reviewer Richard Raymond described as “excellently researched and engagingly written.” The book, written by Peter F. Stevens, explores the disappearance of the submarine and the determination of Cmdr. Jim Abele’s family to discover what became of the ship and its crew. “Abele’s wife and sons never wavered in their fierce determination to answer those questions, and this modest volume details the amazing search for the truth, against what must be seen as official Navy indifference at best, at worst outright hostility.”
If your preference for American history lies a little closer to home, reviewer George Kegley recommends “Voices from Eastern Montgomery County, Virginia” (Pocohontas Press, $60), an intimate look at life in the county starting from the mid-1700s. “These first-person narratives document how many families in eastern Montgomery County struggled to make a living in early times before good roads and modern conveniences; how they worked and worshipped and how they managed to have picnics, parties, fishing and swimming in summer, ice skating in winter, picking cherries, wild grapes and huckleberries, baseball games and spelling bees,” Kegley wrote.
Harrisonburg-based reviewer Jason Barr had to sift through 16 titles he reviewed for the Books page this year, and his top choice was “Canada” (Ecco, $27.99). The Richard Ford novel, Barr wrote, demonstrates “how isolation and loneliness, and even desperation, can forge a person’s identity, for better or for worse.” The story revolves around Dell, a teenager who finds himself suddenly orphaned when his parents are arrested for bank robbery. “Dell fights a prolonged mental struggle to find some purpose and meaning in his life; the guidance his family completely stripped away from him.”
Depsite a few passages that Barr found wearisome, “ ‘Cananda’ is a rich, patient book that engages the reader on numerous levels.”
“Gillespie and I” (Harper Perennial $14.99) was Lori McAnnally’s favorite read of the year. Author Jane Harris created a novel that McAnnally described as equal parts mystery, thriller and psychological study. Main character Harriet Baxter becomes friends with artist Ned Gillespie and his family, and the story moves from her interactions with them in Glasgow in the late 1880s to Baxter’s spinster life in 1930s London. “Harris, through Harriet Baxter, chooses what to reveal and when. Though she works to portray herself as a tirelessly helpful woman committed to the advancement of the arts, Harriett slowly reveals her true character as the story progresses.”
McAnnally wrote that finsihing the novel was “completely satisfying, though I hated to see it end; I immediately turned back to page one to enjoy it all over again…”
Finally, my choice of best book I reviewed this year came from one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates. “Mudwoman” (Ecco, $26.95) is the story of M.R. Neukirchen, an academic who has been named president of an Ivy League college in New Jersey in the days before the American invasion of Iraq. Despite her career success, Neukirchen is mired in memories of her abusive past and, much like America in a post-9/11 world, has difficulty finding a sense of identity or security.
I found the story to be compelling, consuming and disturbing. Oates creates a truly harrowing mental thriller as the reader watches Neukirchen wrangle with demons past and present, real and imagined.