The end of the year marked off in great and near-great books by Augustyn Burroughs, Hillary Mantel, Robert Hughes, Robert Harris, Carol Anshaw, Mark Twain, Andrew Solomon and Thomas Cullen.
Holiday Movies, Gifts and Other Shore Advice: At our house we have a family rule that everyone gets a book for Christmas, which lately has served as a check-up on how well we know each other and whether or not we are paying enough attention. Even Teddy, 16 months, got the Amazon and New York Times bestseller “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site.” Augustyn Burroughs' “This is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More; For Young and Old Alike,”was published back in May. Since then I have purchased 10-12 copies handing them out for any excuse including important birthdays, personal struggles and various other milestones. The appeal is Burroughs solid advice and experience with overcoming multiple demons (chronicled in a best-selling series of memoirs that are morphing into made-for-TV movies and series. “Running with Scissors,” was a feature film starring Annette Bening as Burroughs' crazy mother released a few years ago.), near-fatal tragedies told as comedies. Though I have to say that “This is How” was my favorite book of the year, it wasn't the only book I loved. The others included “Rome” and “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes, an historian and art critic who died this year, reminding me I always wanted to read his books; “Imperium” a novel by Robert Harris about Cicero, a Roman statesman as imagined through the pen of his secretary and slave Tiro. The only other Harris book I'd read was “The Ghost,” about a ghost writer doing a book with a Tony Blair-like celebrity author. (Roman Polanski turned that story into a very good movie in 2010.) Hillary Mantel's two books about Henry VIII's longest-serving and most powerful minister Thomas Cromwell, who held office for eight years before the King had him executed too, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” Robert K. Massie's biography of Catherine the Great, “The Sense of an Ending,” by Julian Barnes---won the Man Booker prize---with such an incredibly out-of-touch protagonist he can only be real and “Carry the One,” a beautifully-crafted story about the aftermath of a terrible car accident by my friend Carol Anshaw. (The New York Times also picked this as one of the best of the year, so this is not just cronyism, it's also the truth.)
I also loved Mark Twain's Autobiography when I finally finished reading it this year and I am well enough into the widely-praised “Far From the Tree,” by Andrew Solomon to know that I will end up loving it, but only giving it away to certain special people who can handle it's weight. A huge book. I have to mention one other book that came to mind often recently was “Columbine,” by Thomas Culllen. The book was published ten years after the massacre at the high school in Colorado, but it was such a strong non-fiction story, so dense with reporting that it gave you a real sense of the killers. When Cullen was interviewed recently about the Sandy Hook murders, he said most of the lone killers like Adam Lanza, closely fit the profile of Dylan Klebold (whose parents were interviewed for “Far From the Tree”), suicidal and dangerously depressed. (Eric Harris , on the other hand, was a more familiar type---a homicidal maniac.) Anyway, Cullen's book, although I can't imagine how he could spend so many years with this topic without damaging himself, is admirable, fascinating and well-written.
Yes, I've noticed that these are predominantly dark notes, but even the most inhuman stories inevitably have warm spots or even a warm center . Most stories with even a resemblance to the truth contain moments of self-sacrifice and heroism as well as cowardice and horror. And so my final note is from an item I saw in Katha Pollitt's column in The Nation about her favorite ways to give. She suggests http://filltheshelves.org/ , where school libraries post a wish list on Amazon and generous people buy books for schools who cannot afford books themselves. There is an Alabama high school that wants to know everything they can find out about the history of their state---the good, the bad and the ugly. I'm inspired by people who want to know every true thing whether they are going to like it or not. Because that is the only way you can ever be surprised. See you next year!