5 Star Books
Whether you read a book a week or a few a year, it’s always helpful to get a recommendation. I thought I’d pass along a few of the best books I came across in 2012.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get this Number
Both books from Sloane Crosley are the kind of treat you might save for a flight or a long wait at the DMV. Her wit and storytelling ability make everyday experiences come to life. Crosley draws her reader into the odd situations in which she finds herself. It’s refreshing to read essays from a talented writer who makes you smile, makes you think, and makes you realize most of us have a few quirks which would get a chuckle out of a reader if we were brave enough to write about them.
The world remembers him as Papillon, but the autobiography of the world famous prisoner and escape artist is penned under his given name, Henri Charriere. The name comes from his prominent butterfly tattoo, and Papillon couldn’t have chosen a more poetic name. Like reading the selectively cleaned up memoir of a Mafioso, Charriere’s life before prison can be described as “colorful” to say the least, but regardless of what stories he has to tell about life in France, the real adventure takes place in French Guiana, the Caribbean, and the jungles of the Amazon. His life has the suspense of a jailbreak story, the excitement of the unknown, and a lead character you can’t help but root for, even though he’s no angel. Papillon reads like a memoir crossed with an episode of Law and Order and I’d read it again in a heartbeat.
I’m behind the curve on discovering Stewart O’Nan, who is well loved among readers and I’m looking forward to catching up on the O’Nan collection. The cover art caught my attention first, but I lucked into a story which is both realistic and charming. An older main character living alone in Pittsburgh and a plot with no sex, no drugs and no shocking twist at the end isn’t a formula for selling books these days, but Emily struggles with the type of things many of us have. She misses loved ones she has lost, struggles with the shortcomings of friends and family, and worries about living alone. Throughout the story, Emily pulls the reader in and O’Nan pulls off a difficult trick: he writes an older woman beautifully, doesn’t make her a caricature, and had me rooting for small joy and large victories for Emily all the way through the novel.
Sarah Vowell has written a half a dozen books to date, and not every one of them has captured my interest like Assassination Vacation. For anyone who enjoys Vowell’s contributions to This American Life, you’ll recognize the voice in her books, and although not every book has content which made it onto the radio, all of them have the charm and unashamed nerdiness of Vowell’s interest in history. Unlike the dry textbook material we all choked down in high school, Vowell tells the story of three presidential assassinations (and a fourth attempt) with the enthusiasm one might get from a friend. It’s an amazing corner of history, where three presidents in the span of one lifetime were killed. Although Lincoln will forever be the giant of the era, it’s shocking to remember that Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln was not only alive during all three assassinations, but was intimately affected by all three. Books like this one and authors like Vowell keep readers who may not love reading history engaged. A book like Assassination Vacation will keep me coming back for more as long as Vowell’s writing.
In a Sunburned Country
I’m not the first person to sing the praises of Bill Bryson and I won’t be the last. However, I’m not such a fan that I can’t pick favorites. I enjoy reading every Bryson book I’ve picked up, but in some cases, it’s like you’re getting a quick slideshow of a trip where some of the details are lost. In Bryson’s book about Australia, he describes a country so vast and uncharted that he could go on forever and still have amusing material to share. Whether it’s the peculiar history of the country or odd little anecdotes about his travels there, Bryson is in perfect form and certainly makes me want to explore Australia myself if I should have a few years to spare. After all, it’s possible that the world’s rarest life form or largest gold nugget is still waiting to be discovered in the outback.