(All books below are available in paperback and for Kindle and Nook, unless otherwise noted.)
I may not be the best person from whom to accept book recommendations. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction and I was surprised and dismayed to find that I had only read three novels in 2011. Many of the books I read this year were published ages ago. Oh well, you’ve been warned. All of the books below were ones I wanted to write about but did not (yet) find the time.
Many Open Salon members have written commendable books and I’ve posted about several of them: Matt Paust, Con Chapman, Amy Abbott aka Bernadine Spitzsnogle, Caitlin Kelly, Jill Reese aka Writer Mom (with an introduction by yours truly), and there are several more on my Kindle or in the pile of books near my desk. Here are two more I loved.
If you haven’t read Nikki Stern’s Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority, what are you waiting for? Her clarity of thought, absence of ideology and downright reasonableness demonstrate why she’s one of my favorite people in the world. Why can’t we have elected officials like her? (Nikki will probably hate me for suggesting that! And if you think I have a conflict of interest because she's my boss over at Does This Make Sense: bite me!)
OSer Ingrid Ricks’ Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story is her memoir of growing up with a devout Mormon mother, a traveling salesman father and the abusive Earl, who does not deserve the dignity of the word “stepfather.” Despite the sometimes downbeat subject matter, it is a compelling, enjoyable read; I read half of it the first day. Ingrid nails the narrative voice of her youthful, enthusiastic self, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with her. She sketches in the characters so fully and vividly that I actually had to stop reading a couple of times when I got furious at Earl’s antics. Absolutely terrific book, and thanks to Alysa Salzberg for recommending it. (Not yet available for Nook.)
I have been downloading many Kindle singles, pieces that are too short for a book and too long for a magazine article. Many are priced for $2.99 or less. One I found most intriguing was Confessions of a “Rape Cop” Juror by Patrick Kirkland, who served as a juror in a controversial New York City trial this summer about two NYPD members who were accused of raping a drunken woman who they had assisted home. The cops’ acquittal drew howls of outrage from many corners. Kirkland’s story explains in detail how the jurors, despite heated and contentious arguments about what happened, ultimately reached a verdict that they felt was consistent with the law, even if it pained some of them personally. Co-written by Katie Sokoler. (Only available for Kindle.)
I tend to read a lot of crime books (since I’ve been thinking of trying my hand at one). None this year was more eye-opening than Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five, her account of the 1980s Central Park jogger case that had the New York tabloids roaring with a barely submerged racism. Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken) explains how five young African-American and Latino men were persuaded to give dubious confessions to the crime, how the authorities ignored the lack of forensic evidence linking them to the crime, how even the black community (and probably the defendants’ own lawyers) assumed they were guilty and, especially distressingly, how the police and the tabloids refused to believe in their innocence 13 years later when DNA evidence exonerated them and pointed to the true assailant. The book is a much needed reminder of how easily any of us can be persuaded to believe in something that simply isn’t true, and how vehemently we will defend that position even when presented with compelling contradictory evidence. (Not yet available in paperback.)
A crime story on a more historic scale is Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on His Trail. His detailed account of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the subsequent manhunt for James Earl Ray is a page-turner like a great spy novel. It’s nauseating to realize how easily a worthless individual can take down a great one. The chapters on Ray’s appalling family were especially jaw-dropping.
Methland by Nick Reding was published a few years ago, but I just got around to it a few months ago. Ostensibly about how the methamphetamine epidemic affected one small town in Iowa, the book’s true subject is the erosion of America’s manufacturing base and how that has devastated many American small towns. It’s hard to be optimistic about our economic future after reading Reding’s book.
Finally, one novel I can heartily recommend is Faithful Place by Tana French. Published last year, French’s story, set in modern Dublin, is on the surface a crime story: the investigation of the death of the narrator’s teenage girlfriend from 21 years ago. What makes the book so much more is the author’s pitch-perfect (to me, anyway) depiction of the family dynamics of a struggling working-class family in Ireland. French’s dialogue is colorful, at times raunchily hilarious, and the interplay between the family members, as well as their distrust for the authorities, feels authentic.
I intend to read a lot more fiction in 2012. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad has been calling to me, I can’t believe I haven’t yet read the Raymond Carver anthology, Stephen King’s latest is on my Christmas list and Ed Gorman’s Ticket to Ride (thanks, Matt) is cued up on my Kindle. I’ll force myself to read the latest essay collections by Sloane Crosley (How Did You Get This Number) and Dave Barry (I’ll Mature When I’m Dead – autographed!), even though reading them will feed my inferiority complex; maybe that’s why I’ve avoided reading David Foster Wallace. Rosanne Cash’s memoir (again autographed!) and James Kaplan’s Sinatra bio are sitting in the pile and the bio of Steven Jobs is staring at me too, and the new Pauline Kael bio is on my wish list. My wife raved about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and even though I’m not much of a techie, I’m dying to read Kevin Mitnick’s tale of being the world’s #1 hacker, Ghost in the Wires. Now … where the hell am I going to find the time to read all these? Santa, can you give me a few more hours in the day?