by HUGH GILMORE
I invited interested readers to send their nominees for an end-of-year-list of “the book(s) you most enjoyed reading this year.” Nominees did not have to be published this year, nor represent “the best” in a judgmental way.
To avoid the nip of the wind, I ducked into Top of the Hill Tavern last week. The radiant hostess Kathyln Egan seated me and right away told me that her favorite book this year was Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way” (2006). It’s the story of a young man who leaves his native Dublin in 1914 to join the Allies on the Western Front – while Ireland was fighting for its own independence back home. “The characters are so engaging,” she said, “they really draw you in. It was so beautiful, and sad.”
I was soon joined at the table by Mt. Airy poet and writer Lynn Hoffman. We’d barely begun talking when a young man walked by and muttered at our table, “Mark Twain, ‘Letters from the Earth.’”
You never know what kind of rough things are going to be said to you in a public house.
I called to his back, “You can’t talk to me like that!” A minute later, I was shaking hands with Kevin Kelly, a bright and enthusiastic young man who teaches English at Frankford High School. Still young and already a fan of Twain’s dark side – nice to know.
When I turned back to Lynn Hoffman, he told me that his most enjoyed book this year was actually a re-read: “The Tailor of Panama” by John Le Carre (1996). It is, he said, “a comic story told with a completely straight face.”
“And the back story,” he added, “is told in brilliant little digressions that don’t interrupt the narrative.”
Later, when I’d returned home, I called Eugene Okamoto, president of Harvest Books in Fort Washington, to finish up an interview we’d started. His favorite book this year was “Mr. Phillips,” by John Lanchester (2000). Set in London, it’s the story of a modest man who lives a modestly happy life until he unexpectedly gets sacked from his accounting job. He dresses and leaves for work the next day anyway and for the first time in his life walks around the city noticing everything he’s never taken the time to see before. Okamoto said he picked it up while he was home sick with the flu and “it blew me away.”
In the meanwhile, e-mail responses had begun coming in. The first was from Alex Bedrosian, of Chestnut Hill: “Hugh: While 3 inches thick and weighing approximately 5 pounds, “Gustav Mahler, Volume 4,” by Henry-Louis De La Grange (2008), is a 1758-page tome that is the quintessential text on the famous composer/conductor, depicting the latter years of his life through his death in 1911. It was so good, I even read the bibliography! I especially enjoyed reading about his time in Philadelphia.”
“Why Volume 4?” I wrote back.
He replied: “I am a former university educator from N.J., now retired (since 1989). We (my wife, Sally and I) moved to be near our son and his family in Glenside … or, to die!! I decided to read Vol. 4 of the Mahler, after reading Vol 1 … wanted to learn of the final years of his life … what he died from, etc. Have always enjoyed reading biographies … probably my favorite literary form. Being octogenarians, we have limited time remaining in this world … hence our interest in reading all we can … until Yahweh calls!!”
In a separate e-mail, Sally (Sara) Bedrosian had her own titles to nominate. She said: “I enjoyed finishing a book by Oliver Sacks recently: ‘Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood’ (2001). Our son recommended it. I found it hard going at first, but then became fascinated with his family history, wartime experiences in England, and many experiments he performed, encouraged by his uncle. Also many interesting footnotes!”
Another early entry came in e-mail form from Joan Adler, M.D., of Mt. Airy. Her choice: the highly acclaimed “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese (2009). In this story, she said, “a devout young nun leaves the South Indian state in 1947 for a missionary post.”
“Seven years later,” she continues,” she dies birthing twin boys: one of whom narrates his own and his brother’s long, dramatic, biblical story. It’s set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up, and the love story of their adopted parents. Astounding story, characters. An epic.”
Most people found it impossible to choose one favorite from among the many books they enjoyed. That was certainly the case for Carol Rauch (“You can describe me as a resident of Chestnut Hill and dog lover,” said the author of “The Artful Bouvier.”) She too nominated “Cutting for Stone,” along with a half-dozen others, and told me to emphasize her list however I wanted. The one book she wrote the most about was “Ordinary Wolves,” by Seth Kantner (2005).
“It’s classified as a novel but is really a memoir of growing up in the Alaskan wilderness,” she said. “The writing is exquisite, the environment astonishing and wonderful to discover. The difficulties of growing up against the pull of the cities and what happens in the city to those more comfortable hunting caribou and traveling by sled are poetically documented. It is a discovery of a piece of America few know.”
Those of you with a Springside connection probably know Deborah Dempsey, a former English teacher there, who now describes herself as “retired and … spending the rest of my life reading.”
“The blockbuster for me this year,” she said, “was Janet Browne’s careful, thoughtful, two-volume “Charles Darwin: A Biography” (1996/2003). I raced through it like a mystery and now have to re-read it.
Deborah Dempsey has become the peninsula’s Johnny Appleseed of books. She wrote: “I’m giving ‘Under Heaven’ by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010) to anyone who doesn’t know about this wonderful blend of historical and fantasy literature.”
And sure enough, when I saw Ned and Joan Coale, of Chestnut Hill, last week, they both wanted to nominate “Under Heaven.” If you guessed that it was pressed on them by Deborah Dempsey, you are quite correct.
(To be continued next week)