Saturday, January 07, 2006

Best Reads of 2005

  • The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
  • The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
  • The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch by Jules Witcover
  • The River of Doubt by Candice Millard
"There are other things that she could say to me, things I will never hear. I doubt that many mothers say these things to their daughters . . . They try to protect us, even when we’re middle-aged. So I must supply the words for myself: Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
--The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich, pp. 273-274

"I confess that I come from the earlier news-business world that was divided between “us” and “them.” “Us” were the old newspaper toilers who wrote for print and saw ourselves as the guardians of the highest standards of our craft. “Them” were the television types we saw as majoring in the flippant and superficial.”
--The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch, Jules Witcover, p. 329

I approach every book with the same simple request: Tell me a story. I want engaging characters, a compelling plot (or compelling characters and an engaging plot, either way) and narrative purity. I don’t like artifice or obscurity or experimentation for the sake of experimentation*. Ultimately, I always ask, “Was it a good read?” A number of books that I read in 2005 met that standard; four were exceptional. The four, my Best Reads of 2005, are: Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum, Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer; The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch by Jules Witcover and The River of Doubt by Candice Millard.

These four books cover a range of authorial styles and genres. There are two widely different novels, a biography and an adventure tale-cum-biography. Erdrich’s novel aspires to literary excellence. The Lincoln Lawyer is a courtroom thriller. Witcover’s biography delves into politics and journalism—a delightful double-double. And The River of Doubt is a true adventure tale featuring, as a definite bonus, one of my favorite past presidents.

At first, I was uncertain about The Painted Drum. Erdrich seemed to have abandoned her traditional, fertile field of native American life. It was only a feint; the main character, a painted drum, was waiting just off stage. When the drum makes it appearance, 40 pages into the book, we are off on an enchanting, evocative tale. A powerful narrative arc, vivid characters (customary with Erdrich) and a compelling insight into native American life (also customary) are the rich rewards awaiting the reader. I don’t place this book on the same level as Gilead or Atonement. Few books are, but this one’s close.

Connelly had two books appear in 2005: The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer. The Washington Post selected The Closers as one of its best books of the year, so why did I give the nod to The Lincoln Lawyer? Because it was the most recent book by Connelly I’ve read and, with Connelly, his best book is the last one you read. In the past 10 years Connelly has emerged as the leading practitioner of the police procedural. Much of his success is because (forgive me, Michael) he transcends the genre. Book after book, Connelly gives us riveting plots, memorable characters and a dash of social commentary. If you are unfamiliar with Connelly, grab his first book, The Black Echo, and work your way through his oeuvre.

Witcover won me over when I met him at the National Press Club’s annual book fair. I asked him to sign a copy of his recently released biography. “Were you an ink-stained wretch?” he asked. What followed was a brief synopsis of my journalistic career. Witcover listened intently, disregarding the norm that insists any discussion at a book signing is about the author not the reader. But it is exactly that inquisitive nature, which Witcover revealed this past November, that made him one of our preeminent political journalists for a generation. Witcover’s career roughly coincides with my awareness of and interest in presidential politics and this book is strongest in dwelling on those campaigns in the 70s that are of the greatest emotional and intellectual resonance with me. Equally as interesting as his re-telling of 50 years of political coverage is when he pulls back the curtain to talk about life as a newspaper reporter long before the advent of Fox News, cells phones and blogs.

I love true adventure tales, what Maureen Corrigan dubs the “male extreme-adventure tale”—he-man exploits of extreme derring-do and occasional foolishness. The genre is typified by such superb books as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. The River of Doubt is just such a “male extreme-adventure tale”, but with an added bonus. It’s also the account of Teddy Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted river in South America. It’s a gripping yarn, well-told by Millard, a former National Geographic writer and editor.

Here’s a few other books I read in ‘05 that are well worth your attentio


  • War Trash, Ha Jin
  • Drama City, George Pelecanos
  • The Position, Meg Wolitzer
  • Aloft, Chang-rae Lee
  • The Closers, Michael Connelly
  • Bangkok Tattoo, John Burdett
  • The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
  • The Accidental, Ali Smith
  • No Country For Old Men, Cormac
  • Arthur & George, Julian Barnes
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Saturday, Ian McEwan
  • North, Frederick Busch


  • Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
  • The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby
  • 1776, David McCullough
  • Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan
  • The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

And a few disappointments:

  • The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco
  • Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham
  • On Beauty, Zadie Smith. Fiction
  • The March, E.L. Doctorow
  • Europe Central, William T. Vollmann

The first two months of 2005 were devoted to re-reading works of favorite fiction . . . Slaughterhouse Five, My Antonia, Morgan’s Passing and others. It was a rewarding two months.

*Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is an excellent example of experimentation for the sake of experimentation. He’s a superb wordsmith. There are brilliant phrases, beautiful passages, in this novel, but to no good end. It is a hopeless jumble of a novel. Bad is another description that comes to mind. On the flip side, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a perfect example of a writer in tune with the reader. He never leaves us guessing, but never tips his hand too soon. Just as we began to understand what’s happenings he confirms our realization. Ishiguro deftly handles the narrative.

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