by Hugh Gilmore
We asked our readers to tell us about the books they “most enjoyed” this year. In this way we hope to boost some deserving titles that might be neglected by the usual “year’s-best” lists.
Mt. Airy’s Susan Bockius, design consultant for Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, wrote to say, “Hello Hugh, I enjoyed your column about ‘finding your creative self in the New Year.’ I recommend ‘Woman in the Wilderness’ (2005) by Jonathan B. Scott, a wonderful novel based on the life of Johannes Kelpius and the small group of spiritual explorers who came to America in the late 17th century to found an intentional community in the Wissahickon. The research is exemplary and the story compelling. Happy New Year, Susan.”
Chestnut Hill traveler and writer Tom Tarantino, checked in with, “Hi, Hugh. We visited some friends in Montreal and stumbled across Inuit art (it was everywhere). My ‘most enjoyed’ book of 2013 was ‘Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic’ (2000) by Norman Hallendy. He has written a highly reverential, well-illustrated book about the ancient Inuksuit stone figures of the Arctic and their uses as guide marks, hunting aids and symbols. Inuksuit ‘act in the capacity of a human.’ There now is an Inuksuk (singular form) in Chestnut Hill, over at Cherokee Apartments.”
(HG: The sculpture referred to is but one of many in the quietly lovely, outdoor sculpture park developed by Mr. Tarantino on the apartments’ grounds.)
Amma Napier is an educational and leadership consultant from Chestnut Hill. She writes, “Each year at Christmas I ask my husband and daughters for a new hard copy of one well-received book that year. It’s a gamble as they are not all satisfying (for example, ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen). Last Christmas I asked for Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies,’ the second in her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy. It was every bit as good as the first, ‘Wolf Hall’ (both, incidentally won the Booker prize). I love her odd, but compelling, use of person. Her writing is lovely, sometimes like poetry. This year I asked for ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt, I am sure it will not disappoint. Be well, and thanks for including my recommendations!”
Christine Cayer took her Local subscription with her when she moved to Glenside a few years ago. She responded, “Hello, Hugh. I was away for a few days, and am just reading the Local this morning. Your column re: ‘finding your creative self’ was wonderful. Thanks for that. Maybe I’ll be inspired.
“My favorite book of 2013 was ‘Savage Beauty, The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay’ by Nancy Milford (2001). I bought it on a whim at a used-book sale for 50 cents, knowing nothing about Millay. The book was wonderful! I was sorry to see it end. What a fascinating person she was, with a kind of ‘rock-star celebrity.’ It is nearly impossible to imagine a poet today garnering the kind of attention that she did. Many of her poems are included in the book, and though I profess to not having read any significant amount of poetry since forced to in high school, I thoroughly enjoyed them, especially in the context of the book.”
Marie Lachat is chairwoman of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival. She writes, “Hugh: This year I continued my quest to complete all of Jane Gardam and Paul Auster. Whittling down the list of books I loved reading in 2013 was hard to do. One favorite was ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce (2012), which told of the most unusual life-seeking journey that began when Harold, a well-meaning English fellow, headed to the mailbox to mail a letter.
“Recommended to me by Chestnut Grill’s Greg Welsh and regarded by many in the food business as the best memoir of a chef ever written was ‘Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef,’ by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011). From an idyllic Bucks County childhood much disturbed by a family that splits up, to finding her passion, Hamilton’s journey is fascinating. Not to be read on an empty stomach.
“For 2014 I anxiously await ‘Little Failure: A Memoir ‘ (2014) by Gary Schteyngart. With a title like this, what’s not to love?”
“Semi-retired” Chestnut Hill College professor Phil McGovern lives in Oreland. He taught a course in American Politics this fall and will teach again this spring. He writes, “Hi Hugh, Enjoy your columns in the Local and I would like to recommend the book ‘TransAtlantic’ (2013), a novel by Colum McCann. It deals with racial, religious and class conflict, in both Ireland and the United States, from the mid-19th century to the present day. The author’s blending of fictional and historic personalities to illuminate those issues in both countries is educational and enjoyable. Happy New Year, Phil.”
Linda Hodgman, of Andorra, is a committed reader, librarian and writer. She was the focus of a Local article, “Thy Neighbor’s Library” back in January of 2010. She writes, “Hi, Hugh. My choices were all published in 2013. In no particular order, my first pick is James Salter’s ‘All That Is.’ Salter’s elegance of style makes the reader’s heart flutter …and he has an ability to create characters that you fall into. I’ve promised myself to go back in 2014 to reread his wondrous earlier works … all completely magical.
“I also recommend, ‘Levels of Life’ by Julian Barnes, a little gem about ballooning, photography, love and grief. It is resonant on the desert of grief.
“And finally, I spent a lot of time with Krzysztof Michalski’s ‘The Flame Of Eternity: An Interpretation of Neitzsche’s Thought.’ Don’t think of reading this if you don’t want to be made vividly aware of the horror that permeates our lives as creatures who will one day die. Not that this book is depressing … it’s not. Ultimately Michalski’s vision calls us out of ourselves in a way that is beautiful and optimistic and rather thrilling. Cheers and best regards, Linda Hodgman.”
Nicolette Milholin lives in Mont Clare, Pa., but is a literary columnist dedicated to interviewing authors, reviewing books and promoting literary events. For a sample of her generous and literate spirit, see bookboundcolumn.blogspot.com. Nicolette writes, “Greetings fellow book columnist! This year, I’ve reveled in a handful of fantastic new novels that expertly compress life spans and capture the dense weight of time in compelling narratives, especially ‘Lookaway, Lookaway’ (2013) by Wilton Barnhardt; ‘The Lowland’ (2013) by Jhumpa Lahiri; ‘Someone’ (2013) by Alice McDermott, and ‘Beautiful Ruins’ (2012) by Jess Walter. Thanks so much for including me, Nicolette.”
Carol Rauch, of Chestnut Hill, describes herself as, “retired from consulting to architects and engineers, a freelance editor and graphic designer; a Bouv-less lover of Bouviers, and an aspiring costume seamstress for Quintessence Theater.”
Her reading? Carol says, “I found fascinating: ‘Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant’ (2006) by Daniel Tammet – wonderful to learn what it is like to be him. And I adored ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ (1989) by John Irving, an oldie. I am in love with Owen and am sorry he is no longer alive. Happy New Year, Carol.”
Marsha Stender, librarian extraordinaire at the FLP Andorra Branch, writes, “As of Jan. 6 I will be promoted to Library Supervisor 1, and I’m going back to the Nicetown branch. This year, I really enjoyed ‘A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century’ (1999) by Witold Rybczynski. Also, ‘The Last Runaway: A Novel’ (2013) by Tracey Chevalier. And finally, Rick Bass’s ‘Nashville Chrome’ (2010), a novel based on the lives of the singing Brown family.
“I hope you will still consider me your dedicated librarian! If there is anything I can do for you in your research, please let me know. Best wishes, Marsha.”
Joe Ferry, of Erdenheim, is a frequent correspondent to the Local. A Philadelphia attorney, he’s built a national practice advising home inspectors (see: joeferry.com). Joe leans primarily toward nonfiction. He writes, “This year’s recommendations include ‘One Summer: America 1927’ (2013) by Bill Bryson; ‘Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies’ (2012) by Ben Macintyre, and finally, yes, a novel: ‘The Dinner’ (2013) by Herman Koch.” Joe closes with, “Nollaig Shona! Hugh.” (HG: Irish for Merry Christmas.)
Finally, Mt. Airy’s brewmaster-poet Lynn Hoffman writes, “Dear Hugh, my favorite novel this year fits with your interest in redneck noir: Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’ (2012). It’s a softly tense family/ecological drama and one of the most finely-observed novels I’ve read in a long time: I found myself nodding in agreement and chuckling at the truth of it. An immensely satisfying read.
“My favorite poetry book this year was Thomas Lux’s ‘God Particles’ (2008). Just when you thought wit was outlawed in American poetry, Lux comes along and brings it back. So long, Lynn.”
(HG: Many of the entries I received were long and recommended up to a dozen books. Editorial decisions were necessary. Anyone who’d like to see the complete (rough) lists can email me and ask for the doc.file. I’ll send it.)