by Hugh Gilmore
We asked our readers to tell us about the books they “most enjoyed” this year. Our survey was not intended to be a popularity contest, nor a “best of” competition. Once again the results show that our readership includes many independent people with interesting tastes.
The purpose of this annual survey is to give our readers the opportunity to share their good experiences with others. Last year, I let our readers’ responses guide my own reading and enjoyed many of the suggestions we printed.
This survey is still open to your suggestions, by the way. Write me at email@example.com if you had a “most enjoyed” book or two you’d like to see included in next week’s column. Include your name, community, title(s) of the book(s), a few words saying why you liked it and conclude by telling us whether you read it in print or on an E-reader.
First to respond this year was Chestnut Hill resident Annie Hart, who works as a personal and organizational development specialist (see anniehart.com). Annie writes: “Hi Hugh, I always love your column and admire your bravery in writing it every week. I’m always excited to contribute to the favorite book list. I tend to read them on my Kindle since I’m often traveling (just came back from Italy!) Here are three goodies: ‘Gangsters, Geishas, Monks and Me’ by Gordon Hutchison (2012) is a self-published memoir that I found by accident. It was a fun, revealing and riveting account of an American man’s experience in a Shaolin temple. Good guy reading! I also enjoyed ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman (2011) and ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ by Lawrence Anthony (2009). Loved them both. P.S., I’m about to launch a new blog. I think you’d like it. It’s called the “Possibili-tea Blog” (life is magical if you know where to look). It is written by one of my muses, a tiny wizard, who insisted I tell his stories, ha-ha! Thanks for all you do. Annie.”
Local poet, artist and antiques dealer Gilly Phipps spends her time between Wyndmoor and Manayunk. Last year she pulled the plug on cable TV and now spends her free time lost in the contemplative world of books. She wrote to say, “Hi Hugh, I enjoyed your article about Chad Harbach’s ‘The Art of Fielding’ (2012). I also love books about baseball, and will prob. read that one. One of my favorite books this year (just finished it – in print form) was ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith (2010). Patti Smith’s honesty and passion for art and her long-term relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe make this book quite genuine. Hanging out at the Chelsea in New York with artists like Warhol and Dylan, she name-drops throughout the read, but does it in a natural way, I felt like I really got to know her and her beloved Robert. Her poetry is also wonderful. Highly recommended.
We next heard from Sam Masarachia, retired Chestnut Hill physician, resident of Glenside, and president of the board of directors of Chestnut Hill’s local treasure, The Stagecrafters theater group.
He writes, “Dear Hugh, I continue to enjoy the columns of both Janet and you in the Local. Here are a couple of suggestions from my reading from 2104: (1) ‘Rivers of London’ (English printing – a gift from my daughter and son-in-law, Londoners – U.S. title ‘Midnight Riot’), by Ben Aaronovitch (2011). What a pleasant surprise! It’s the story of Peter, a young London Constable who turns out to have some talents in the magic department. More of a surprise to him, there exists a secret branch of the Metropolitan Police which he joins and learns how to do magic for the police. If one enjoys this book, there are a few more in the series. (2) ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon (Orig. 1776-1789 ) in printed book form. All three volumes have been sitting on my shelf for years. Although there are some long, dull passages, Gibbon did an amazing job of telling the story of a millennium of Roman Empire history. (3) ‘Al Gray, Marine: The Early Years, Vol. 1,’ written by Scott Laidig (Kindle, 2012). This was a birthday gift from my wife; I found both the life of General Gray and the writing entertaining and the history of both Korean and Vietnam wars well integrated. Thanks. Yours, Sam.
Another reader who revived a non-current book was Christine Cayer, of Glenside. She is an inveterate used-book store searcher and finds many of her favorite reads that way. Here is what she has to say this year:
“Hi, Hugh. My favorite book so far this year (I doubt at this point if anything will surpass it, but we do still have a few weeks to go!) was ‘Shadow Country’ by Peter Matthiessen. It was published in 2008 and won the National Book Award. Matthiessen is the only American author to win the award for both fiction and non-fiction (‘The Snow Leopard’). Anyway, I had just read a wonderful article about Matthiessen in the Smithsonian magazine, which must have been one of his last interviews, as he died shortly after the magazine was issued. I remembered that I had bought ‘Shadow Country’ shortly after it came out, but had not read it yet. I also remembered that another Matthiessen book, ‘At Play in the Fields of the Lord’ (1991), was the very first book that I recorded as having read when I started tracking my reads in 1994. ‘Shadow Country’ sat on my shelf for over five years because (1) I mainly read nonfiction (although I seem to be getting away from that) and (2) it’s nearly 900 pages! I HAD TROUBLE PUTTING THE BOOK DOWN once I got into it. The characters were complex and flawed, the history of Florida in the late 19th/early 20th century was fascinating, and the story was riveting. I was sorry to see it end. Good luck, Christine.”
Local businessman Tom Tarantino, who travels to do research for a book he is writing about the great explorers, wrote in this week to say, “Hi, Hugh. My favorite read (in print form) during 2014 was ‘Arabian Sands’ by Wilfred Thesiger (1959). In it he recounts his explorations of the ‘Empty Quarter’ in the Arabian desert during the late 1940s (i.e., before oil and motor cars). He crossed it twice by camel, came to respect the traditional Bedu way of life and befriended the local leaders, including Sheikh Zayid, who began life in a tent and ended it in a palace, as the first president of the United Arab Emirates (which include Dubai and Abu Dhabi).
Our final contributor today, is Larry Schofer. He introduced himself this way: “Hello, Hugh, I have lived in Mt. Airy since 1974. Both of my sons graduated from Central High School. I am currently a self-employed translator of legal and technical material into English from German, French, Polish, and Hebrew.
“This year I reread Wallace Stegner’s ‘Angle of Repose’ (1971). In my opinion, one of the great American novels. Memoir of a crippled historian, ostensibly investigating his family history. He delves into the lives of his grandparents, who lived in many out of the way places as his grandfather tried to become a great mining engineer. He and his wife had what was initially a great love affair, followed by a decline in their relationship, and finally a very tragic ending. In the meantime we hear a great deal about mining and developing the Western United States. Stegner was a master of English prose, a great storyteller, and a magnificent historian. Some of the volunteer reviewers on Amazon thought that this book moves too slowly, but I was totally engrossed in it even in the second reading. It is possible that I was drawn in as well because of my great interest in history, but I still maintain that this is primarily a novel.
“Among current books, I would like to nominate Dan Fagin’s, ‘Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation’ (Pulitzer Prize, 2013). This is a tale of environmental pollution in our own backyard. Fagin relates a story of some very courageous parents and some engaged bureaucrats, but at the same time he talks about the limits of what science can prove. The chemical companies and the Times River water company are of course bad guys, but this is not a story meant to bash the companies. It is a tale about the hazards in modern life.
“I purchased a hard copy of the Stegner book, and I listened to an unabridged recording of the Toms River book. Best wishes, Larry Schofer.”
If you’d like to contribute to next week’s edition of our annual “Readers Roundup” of favorite books, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday.