by Hugh Gilmore
Before I offer my own brief list, here’s an invitation to our readers to submit their choices for their “Most Enjoyed Book of the Year.” This is not a “Best of” list, but simply inviting you to mention a few of the books you “most enjoyed” reading this year. It’s a way of sharing cumulative wealth.
It does not matter when the books were published. You may nominate up to three books. Tell us whether you read the book as a print or an e-book (on what kind of device?). If print, was it purchased, or borrowed? Please tell us the community you live in and why you liked the book. All submissions will be published as my last two columns of the year. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now, some books for ladies (and men too, of course) who like men’s books. I like to think of myself as a person who does not shy away from serious books, be they fiction or nonfiction, but every year, when I review my reading list, I find that a lot of “men’s” books have snuck in there. I guess it’s time I admitted that I find irresistible any books I come across that concern true crime, survival, terrible ordeals, addiction, war, or anything behind-the-scenes. Here are some of my favorites from 2014, in no particular order.
“The Odds: A Love Story”(2012) by Stewart O’Nan. This is a short novel written by a still-young (born 1961) American writer who is an absolute master of quiet realism. In it a long-married, long-failing couple take a bus from Cleveland to Niagara Falls. They are going to wager everything they barely own on hitting big at the casino. Almost satiric, but never a false note. O’Nan’s books don’t seem like novels. If he gets under your skin (he’s under mine), consider yourself lucky. He’s written 16 novels and a story collection. His newest, “West of Sunset,” is due in January.
Here’s one for wine buffs: “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” (2008) by Benjamin Wallace. I’d best preface my remarks about this book by saying that so many of the persons described in this book have sued, or threatened to sue, so many other persons described in this book that I’d best steer clear of particulars. Suffice it to say that there is a very busy, very expensive market for rare and old wines. This book describes how scarcity of product created an underground business created by forging old labels, refilling old bottles and telling lots of lies. The centerpiece of the book revolves around some old bottles of red wine that possibly belonged to our first oenophile president, Thomas Jefferson. This is a marvelous tell-all book. I don’t think you can be sued for reading it.
For those of you who like to keep track of the monsters that dwell among us, here is a long Kindle single: “Boom: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush.” This short work (117 pages) was published in 2014 by the very adventurous journalist, Tony Horwitz. Horwitz’s plan was to start in Alberta, Canada, and follow southward the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that promised (threatened?) to carry tar sands oil from Canada, into Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska down to the Gulf Coast refineries. On his journey he talks to people of every kind along the way and gets their stories and their opinions on how plains society and ecology are being affected by the pipeline. The only undisputed positive is, of course, that jobs are created where there were none before. Other than that, just about everything along the way is going to hell, according to the folks he talks to. Each interview subject is a story unto him- or herself. Very sharply observed, but, better yet, written in a way that lets his subjects speak for themselves.
In September I read a fascinating article in Harper’s magazine that commented at length on the jazz saxophonist, Art Pepper’s, memoir, “Straight Life” (originally 1979). The article was written by novelist and Vanity Fair magazine contributing editor, Lili Anolik. In it she quotes several noted literary critics saying that “Straight Life” is one of the best books, of any kind, ever! That made me hunt down the book and I bought the 600-page book as a hardback since there were no library copies to be found.
Anolik’s article describes the unlikely publication of this book. It was not “written” by Art Pepper, but spoken, at times almost like scat singing, into an audio recorder operated by his wife, Laurie. She had the uncommon good sense to have him record some sections repeatedly and then edited the versions he gave her. The resulting book was remarkable.
Created near the end of his life, it tells in first-person, in jazzy slang, from a criminal junkie’s perspective, the story of his life, from abused childhood, to being featured in Stan Kenton’s band, going head to head with Sonny Stitt, and spending years in San Quentin and other prisons. Pepper’s story is amazing for its detailed honesty. There is not a hint of apology. In one of the strongest passages he describes his first experience with mainlining heroin and says he knew at that moment he would never own his own life and he didn’t care, he’d pay any and every price he knew was coming from that moment on.
Amazingly, Laurie Pepper wrote her own memoir, quite personalized, but bouncing off of Art’s, titled, “ART: Why I Stuck With a Junkie Jazz Man.” (2014). I haven’t read it yet, but it’s in my pipeline.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” The story of a Son and His Father / A Father and his Sons. Coming in January, 2015.