It's time for the 13th Annual Patty Awards, where I give out the awards for the best books I've read in the year. All of the big “A list” stars are walking onto the Red Carpet right now. Look, it's Mike Lookinland who played “Bobby” in “The Brady Bunch.” Hey! Is that Delta Burke with Gerald McRaney? Over there! It’s Philip Mckeon who played Alice’s son “Tommy’ on the “TV show Alice!” And next to him it’s that famous vixen, Morgan Fairchild! The atmosphere is electric, so let’s get started.
This year was a great year for books. I read 43, and it’s hard to pick the top 10. For once, there were very few bad or disappointing books. Of course, they cater to my tastes, so mind the description to see if it’s something you are really interested in. Drum roll!
10) The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie: The Incas are a fascinating civilization, and this book really brought to life how sophisticated, but fragile this Empire was before the Spaniards arrived. The Incas themselves were a very small indigenous group that happened to have colonized many other groups over an enormous and forbidding territory. The story of how Francisco Pizzaro and a handful of Spaniards managed to completely overtake the Western half of South America is enthralling and unbelievable. MacQuarrie does a great job of making history come alive. The book feels very cinematic and will make you want to go explore ruins in Peru. It’s also more accurate and up-to-date in its facts than most books on the Incas. Really well done!
9) The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff: It’s World War 2 and a young circus acrobat is cast aside by her Nazi officer husband. Returning to a traveling circus that is also hiding Jews, she encounters another German girl who is having to hide with a Jewish baby. Both young ladies travel with the circus as acrobats, always in fear of being discovered by the Nazis. This novel is interesting in that you learn about the traveling circus life in 1940’s Europe, but also about the dangers of being Jewish during this time. It’s also the story about the friendship between the two girls. This book is not nearly as dark as it sounds. It’s a rather light read, considering the subject matter.
8) While the City Slept by Eli Sanders: This book will stay with you for a long time. This is the true story of a horrific crime that occurred in Seattle against two young women. The culprit is a young man with a history of mental illness. The book tells the story of the young women, the troubled young man, the horrific crime, and the court-case that followed. What makes this book so powerful aside from the great writing which makes the people really unforgettable; is the fact that it is also a brutal critique of the way mental illness is treated in the United States. That’s the real crime in the book. The whole tragedy is set agains the backdrop of a judicial system, education system, medical system, and government which is not learning how to help mentally ill people and has policies that exacerbate the problem. It’s very eye-opening.
7) Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil: by Rafael Yglesias: This is a dark novel about a man who becomes a psychiatrist. Traumatized by an accident in his childhood, and then re-traumatized by his parent’s reaction to the accident, the main character tells the story of his confusing childhood in Part 1 of the book. Part 2 is about a patient that he struggles to help who re-opens his own wounds. And Part 3 is about his rather diabolical response to not being successful in that case. This is a long, dark novel about the mystery of the mind and the way traumas form our personality.
6) Holy Rus: The Re-birth of Russian Orthodoxy in the New Russia by John P. Burgess. This was a much needed piece of scholarship. I love how nuanced and sophisticated this work was. Little has been written about what the Russian Orthodox church looks like on the ground today. Books and articles tend to just focus on the unholy alliance between church leaders and Putin, or the lone remaining faithful in dying villages. Burgess fleshes this all out much more giving us a look at where Russian Orthodoxy is flourishing.It delves into dynamic small-groups, Orthodox churches that are doing very significant social service work, and the rise of Orthodox TV, radio and other media. The problems are dealt with as well, whether it’s the co-opting of orthodoxy for nationalistic purposes or the poor education levels of the average priest and how the church has had to change its training methods. The chapter on parish life was particularly fascinating.
5) In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. It’s always surprising how exciting books about arctic exploration are. You would think they would be boring—-ice and cold. But the ocean, the weather, and the temperature make these stories so gripping. This is the story of 33 men who set out to be the first to sail to the North Pole in 1880. Things don’t go exactly according to plan, and the adventure gets truly crazy and grueling. It’s always amazing to see what humans can survive. Although it’s a history book, it totally reads like a novel.
4) The Devil’s Double by Latif Yahia. This is the story of the unfortunate man who was chosen to be a body double for Uday Hussein—-Saddam Hussein’s absolutely evil, psychotic, murdering son. Latif finds himself plucked out of obscurity and having to travel around pretending he is Uday—giving speeches, attending functions, and being the target of a possible assassination. Though it all, he has to fake some kind of friendship with Uday who is truly a monster. The book is filled with unbelievable scenes of cruelty at the hands of the sadistic Uday, as well as the insanity of the extremely wealthy and decadent Hussein family. There are definitely scenes in the book that you never forget. Though it all, Latif tries to stay a good human being. This was made into a really good movie starting Dominic Cooper who does an amazing job playing both Latif and Uday. I recommend that as well.
3) Russians: The People Behind the Power: by Gregory Feifer. The two most enigmatic countries I’ve been to (out of the 80+ I have visited) are Russia and Japan. Russia is in the news every day, it’s a nuclear power that covers half-of the world’s time zones, yet it ranks 166th in lifespan just ahead of Gambia. A third of the countries villages have less than 10 people. They drink 5 gallons of alcohol per person and also have more billionaires than any country in the world. The country has been enormously shaped by its arctic and sub-arctic location as well as it’s massive size. Feifer, who as an NPR correspondent in Russia spans the country and gives a fantastic overview of Russia today. It’s a book filled with fascinating facts.
2) The Force by Don Winslow. Winslow is a fun novelist who has brought the drug-wars to life in previous books. With fun dialogue and a lot of action, his novels always take you into the underbelly of whatever he is writing about. ‘The Force” is about a New York Police Department officer named Denny Malone. Malone is part of an elite unit in the NYPD that takes down drug-gangs and gun-runners. They have a lot of freedom to operate and that leads to the temptation to become corrupt police officers. Winslow spent a lot of time with the NYPD in writing this novel and he captures the culture and language of the Force. As much as Malone wants to be a hero, the amount of corruption and temptation that the cops are exposed to is more than he can handle. This was a fun, exciting novel, but it was also a really eye-opening book about how policing, crime, and government work in a major U.S. city. Loved it!
Envelope please: AND THE WINNER IS….
1) Russka: The Novel of Russia by Edward Rutherfurd. It’s just a coincidence that 3 of my top 10 this year had to do with Russia. They were just really rewarding books and Russia is so fascinating to me. Much like James Michener, Rutherfurd writes novels about the history of a country or place (London, Ireland, Dublin, Paris, England) using new characters and new periods of history in every chapter. This book covers 1800 years of Russian history beginning with the people that settled the forests and moving through the different eras of Russian history from the establishment of Rus, to the Mongol Invasions, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, the rise of the Communists etc. It kept my attention all the way through, I cared about all the characters, and it made the history really come alive more than a history book.
“Hillbilly Elegy” and “Sweet Dreams are Made of This.” Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about the growing white underclass in places like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. The author talks about his family, their culture, and the social problems that continue to haunt them and the region they are from. It’s a very timely book considering how much attention is being given to those “forgotten people in America.” It would be a great book to discuss in a book club.
“Sweet Dreams are Made of This” is Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics’ biography. Steward is not only half of that great 80’s pop duo, but he is a producer, filmmaker, and artist extraordinaire. He has worked with absolutely everyone in music and tells lots of stories of his time making music with some of the biggest acts in the world. He’s fun and has done lots of cool things. Of course, this book was right up my alley.
Submission: by Michael Houellebecq. This French novelists is famous for his bleak, politically-incorrect novels. This novel takes place in 2022 when an Islamic Party wins the French election. Subtle and not-so-subtle changes begin to take place. The main character Francois is a typical Houellebecq character: depressed, unable to find a reason for his own existence, devoid of spiritual belief, cynical about everything, and disgusted by the political left and right. If this had been his first book, I probably would have loved it; but there were too many similarities between previous books. I was expecting more.
Well, that's it. The big stars are heading home and the limousines are pulling out. Goodbye Todd Bridges! And thanks to the rest of you for coming! We'll be back next year for some more book reviews in my annual Top 10 list. Up next year: Philip Norman’s Paul McCartney biography, a book all about Australia, Johann Hari’s global search for the real reason why everyone is depressed, anxious, and on medication, a dystopian novel about America being taken over by an Islamic regime, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, and George Friedman predicting the coming crisis in Europe. Switch off that telly and read a book.