Favorites from a year of reading

December 9, 2011

Once again this holiday season year-end review begins with the confession that my year didn’t include many memorable works of fiction. Not that I didn’t read plenty of it, but almost all of what I read were older books I’d somehow never gotten around to — J.G. Farrell’s magnificent “Empire Trilogy” (“The Siege of Krishnapur,” “Troubles” and “The Singapore Grip”), for example — or books to which I returned for the sheer pleasure of rediscovery, including a bracing dollop of P.G. Wodehouse. I still love novels, but fewer and fewer contemporary novelists (American ones especially) appeal to me, and I find it ever more difficult to avoid writing formulaic fiction reviews, which are no treat for me or my long-suffering readers.

So of the 11 books that make my best-of-the-year list, only two are works of fiction, both by writers whose work I have long admired. The first is “Saints and Sinners,” a collection of short stories by the remarkable Edna O’Brien. Now in her ninth decade, the Irish writer gives not the slightest evidence of running out of the very considerable steam that has always animated her work. To be sure, there isn’t much erotic steam in these stories, for a change, but as always there is a powerful evocation of Ireland, her love for which in recent years has been tempered by exasperation and pain at what happened to the country during the few years in which the Celtic Tiger roared. This seems to me her best book in many years.

George Pelecanos is about as different from O’Brien as a writer could be, except in one important respect: Place is of central importance to both. O’Brien’s place is Ireland, while Pelecanos’s is the District of Columbia and, to a lesser extent, its beyond-the-Beltway suburbs. “The Cut” is his 17th book but the first featuring Spero Lucas, a veteran of the Iraq War who hires himself out to track down missing items of value to their owners. He gets a cut of what they’re worth if he succeeds. In this case the quest for the pot sends Lucas deep into some of the District’s more dangerous places and requires him to use some of the skills he polished in Iraq. It also gives Pelecanos the opportunity to paint a remarkably broad and deep portrait of places in Washington that probably are little known, if at all, by people who read (or write) book reviews. “The Cut” is presented as the first in a series, so the sequels should be well worth waiting for.

As for my considerably longer nonfiction list, it begins with three books that defy easy classification. Mark Adams’s “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” is at once a travel book, a work of popular history, an exploration of the many mysteries of one of the world’s most remarkable places, and an inquiry into certain engagingly eccentric aspects of the Peruvian character. Adams is married to a Peruvian and has spent a good deal of time in her country, but he hadn’t ventured far beyond Lima until he decided to retrace the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the Yankee who “discovered” Machu Picchu (discovered it, that is, for non-Peruvians) a century ago. He hired a guide and a couple of helpers, and set off on foot for what he thought would be a breezy walk through the Peruvian countryside. It turned out to be much more than that, of course, but he had a good time and so does the reader.


‘Saints and Sinners: Stories’ by Edna O'Brien (Back Bay)

Another travel book of sorts is “Beijing Welcomes You,” by Tom Scocca, an American journalist who lived in the Chinese capital with his Chinese wife during the city’s year of the Olympics, 2008. Like Mark Adams, he is at least as interested in the people he sees and meets as he in in the places he visits. Like virtually all foreign visitors to Beijing, he was stunned by the extent and speed of its growth, but he was also offended by its pervasive pollution, congestion and bureaucratic ossification. He found much to amuse him in the city — “Welcome to Beijing” is a very funny book — but he does not seem to have left it with regrets and remains angry that the son born to him there acquired pollution-caused asthma as a farewell gift.

Then there is “Backward Ran Sentences,” a collection of mostly humorous pieces by the late Wolcott Gibbs. Gibbs, who wrote for the New Yorker between the 1920s and the late ’50s, may have been that magazine’s most prolific contributor during what many regard as its golden age. The title is taken from his wicked parody of Henry Luce and the “Timestyle” of the magazines he founded, which may, alas, be the only piece of writing for which Gibbs is still remembered. He was the contemporary of James Thurber and E.B. White and was in many respects their equal, but he was more sardonic and had less of the popular touch. I loved his work when I was young, and I still do.

In recent years this annual review has featured a lot of memoirs and biographies, but (for me at least) they were in short supply in 2011. I did very much like “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” by Rodney Crowell, a composer and performer whose work embraces folk and country music. As is often the case with memoirs that men write about their youth, his father is, if not the central character, a difficult and self-absorbed man whom his son could not help loving and who emerges as an uncommonly memorable figure in an uncommonly good book.

Ditto on both counts for “ John Huston: Courage and Art,” Jeffrey Meyers’s biography of the great film director and world-class character. Huston was yet another difficult man — womanizer, hell-raiser, indifferent parent to his young children if a good one once they were grown — but also a man of deep artistic sensibility who appreciated and understood literature as have few others in Hollywood. One strength of Meyers’s biography is his analysis of how Huston combined his literary passions with his filmmaking gifts to turn works of literary art — “The Dead,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Red Badge of Courage” — into works of cinematic art.

Finally, four exceptional books about war. The distinguished Civil War historian Gary Gallagher completes the study he has made of the two warring armies with “The Union War,” a companion piece to “The Confederate War,” published a decade and a half ago. In the first book he argued that the Confederacy was able to fight the war for as long as it did because of the almost fanatical loyalty of its troops to the Southern cause. In the second he argues that, contrary to what has become received opinion, Union troops fought not to emancipate the slaves but to preserve the Union. It is not an argument that will find favor with those who like their history wrapped in politically correct trappings, but it is solidly based on fact and entirely persuasive.

World War I has been written about almost as much as the Civil War, but Adam Hochschild finds a new slant on it in “To End All Wars.” Himself an American, Hochschild writes here about the war as it was experienced in Britain by those who passionately supported it and those who no less passionately opposed it. Hochschild finds much to sympathize with on both sides. He does leave no doubt, though, of his sympathy for Bertrand Russell, who loved his country with all his heart yet hated the war with equal ardor and was, like the country itself, painfully torn.

The literature of World War II grows at what seems an ever-escalating pace. Caroline Moorehead focuses on France in “A Train in Winter,” an account of a little-known episode in which a few score Frenchwomen were rounded up by the Nazis and eventually shipped off to the death camps. Amazingly, a few dozen of them survived and, even more amazing, a handful still survive. Talking with them, digging deep into records of the period, Moorehead tells a story of friendship and betrayal, courage and cowardice. In miniature, it tells us much about the worst conflict in human history.

Max Hastings also has his eyes on how the war touched people whose stories are little if at all known, but whereas Moorehead focuses on one small group, his subject is the entirety of the war throughout the world. “Inferno,” which for me is the book of the year, is grand in its sweep but intimate in its details. Presidents and generals march through its pages, but mostly they are in the background as Hastings tells us how ordinary people — soldiers, housewives, children — were swept up by what was indeed, in the most dreadful sense of the words, an inferno. If you can only read one book on that war, this is the one to read.

See you in January.

yardleyj@washpost.com

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