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. Part 1 ran in last week’s edition.
Lest it be said that a prophetess is not honored in her own country, I should tell you that my wife, Janet Gilmore, picked as her favorite book of 2010 “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire” by Amy Butler Greenfield.
She explained: “It’s about the fevered quest in the 1500s and1600s to discover how to dye cloth bright red. The answer was found in the cochineal beetle of Mexico. The dye, shipped to Europe created a sensation, producing the brightest red the world had ever seen. Spain’s cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune. The political, technological, social and commercial warfare over that monopoly was fascinating. I love books about the world being shaken by small discoveries.”
Joe Ferry, of Erdenheim, one of my favorite correspondents, wrote: “The two best books I read this year were ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes, and ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen. Two great yarns by extraordinarily gifted writers. I also enjoyed Joe Queenan’s memoir ‘Closing Time’ (2009). He was five years behind me at St. Veronica’s and Cardinal Dougherty, and I don’t remember him, but do remember some of the people and all of the neighborhoods he describes so accurately.”
Nancy Pugh, also of Erdenheim, is the former travel agent/owner of Tortuga Travel. Now retired, she recommends “Cutting for Stone” (a third vote!) and Jeannette Wall’s “The Glass Castle” (which also received three mentions). Nancy found Wall’s memoir to be “in the same literary tradition of Frank McCourt.”
Music teacher Pat Downie, of Mt. Airy, wrote, “Dear Mr. Gilmore, I so enjoy your articles.” Ahem. She recommended “The Glass Castle,” writing, “It could be subtitled, ‘How to raise three successful children by going against ALL child rearing teachings, including not feeding and clothing them regularly, and moving them around to avoid Dad who was drunk 60 percent of the time.’”
By now, most of the readers in town know about the acclaim this year given to Eliza Griswold, who wrote “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam” (2010). Great things seem to be in store for this brilliant and brave young woman.
I wondered if her father, Bishop Frank Griswold, of Chestnut Hill, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, had any (other) books he’d recommend to our readership. Graciously, he wrote: “Hugh, here are my suggestions: ‘Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010), professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, who describes himself as a ‘candid friend of Christianity.’ His account is both brilliant and critical. In spite of the length of the book – more than a thousand pages, and, therefore, not to be read in bed – the text is lively, illuminating and never dull.”
Bishop Griswold also recommends “Home Town” by Tracy Kidder (1999): “A carefully and compassionately observed and described encounter with the heights and depths of the human condition as it is encountered in the lives of the long-term and occasional residents of a New England college town.”
And now, the book I most wish I had also read, if I could have discovered it under the same circumstances. Tom Tarentino, of Chestnut Hill, wrote: “The book I most enjoyed this year was ‘Helmut Ditsch: The Triumph of Painting’ (2009). It features large-scale paintings of glaciers, mountains and ice. I found the book in a lodge in Patagonia, where the view was of the very glaciers painted. The book also contains a rather intoxicating essay by Reinhold Messner, the greatest mountaineer in history. It was presented in 2009 at, of all places, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.”
Mellon Bank officer Gail Morse, of Oreland, wrote: “Lots of good books read this year. At the top of my enjoyment list would be ‘The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo’ trilogy. I also enjoyed ‘The Outlander’ by Gil Adamson (2007). The year is 1903 and, having just killed her philandering husband, 19-year-old Mary Boulton flees into the Canadian Rockies wilderness while being pursued by her two revenge-seeking brothers-in-law. A fantastic portrayal of the natural environment, great character development and good suspense throughout.”
Bill Hengst, of Mt. Airy, is both a professional gardener (“I drive a purple truck”) and a writer of short stories and poetry, with a poetry chapbook (“Yard Man”) to his credit. He was the subject of a long appreciation by the Inquirer’s Gardening Editor, Virginia Smith, last year. Bill said choosing a favorite was hard, but if he had to, he’d choose, T.C. Boyle’s “The Women,” (2009) and then “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt (1996). “Each of these books,” Bill wrote, “pulled me into the narrator’s story with enough sauce, pathos and pain to make me want to keep reading.”
A Chestnut Hiller contributing to this column was Melissa Dribben, the compassionate and observant Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer. Melissa wrote: “I LOVED ‘The Help,’ by Kathryn Stockett (2009). I thought it was masterfully done. The protagonists were complex and believable and so were all but one of the racist Southern women – and that one was so delicious to despise that nuance hardly mattered. The story revealed itself in perfect timing; the history and pathos and humor and suspense had me blubbering and laughing and horrified. And there is one line in it that any woman who has ever been patronized on a date will never forget.”
She added: “I also loved ‘City of Thieves’ by David Benioff (2009), which did not at first seem like a book that would appeal to me – a buddy story set during the siege of Leningrad. But the two young men prove to be a fascinating pair – and their saga will stay with me for years to come. Again, there was one line that will be etched forever even in my pathetic memory. The insomniac in the pair talks about ‘babble on the brain.’ How well I can relate.”
Chestnut Hill Local writer and Flourtown resident, Barbara Scherf wrote and offered two “dog books” she enjoyed. She writes: “W. Bruce Cameron’s ‘A Dog’s Purpose: A novel for humans’ is hands down the best. It’s told from a dog’s point of view and really gives you insight into how a dog possibly thinks. A close second in this category is ‘Dog Walks Man,’ by John Zeaman. It’s about a middle-aged man who gets stuck walking the dog twice a day, but he turns things around and looks for the little adventures and Zen in dog walking. Very sweet.”
Barbara adds: “Thanks for doing this. It’s inspiring me now to keep a list of the good books I’ve read through the year so I can post them to my blog and share with others.”
The final words go to Professor Moylan Mills of Penn State, Abington: “’Finishing the Hat,’ by Stephen Sondheim (2010) tells how he wrote the words for his wonderful Broadway songs. Along the way he has anecdotes, gossip, and snark about his show biz colleagues, as well as inside info on the creation of his shows. Not to be missed if you are, like me, a Broadway Baby.”
Thanks to everyone who contributed. I enjoyed and appreciated your responses.HG