by Hugh Gilmore
Although elsewhere this is the time of year when “Best” lists appear, out here on the Chestnut Hill Peninsula we prefer a more mellow kind of listing. We’ve been asking our readers to tell us their “favorite,” or “most enjoyed” books of the year. We place no time of publication or genre restrictions on your selections.
As a kind of survey we also ask whether the suggested books were read in a print or an e-book format. If you missed this two-week window and want to participate anyway, please send along what you want to say. When I collect enough for a column, I’ll pull a bunch together and publish them. Say, a month from now.
This weeks’ contributors: Many people from the community know 50-year Wyndmoor resident Judy Smith for her volunteer work for the Springfield Township Library and for being chairperson of St. Paul’s Annual Rummage Sale. Judy wrote, “I want to recommend ‘The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment,’ (2014) by Dan Rottenberg. I saw the review in the Inquirer and heard the author at Chestnut Hill College. Anyone who has lived in Philadelphia will truly enjoy this book. It mentions a lot of the people we are familiar with in the city and Chestnut Hill. Having been born during the depression and hearing my family talk about this man, not pleasantly, I truly enjoyed reading it since I am 84 years old and lived through the era. I read the book in hardback. Many thanks, Judy Smith.”
Joe Ferry from Erdenheim is a frequent contributor to this column is. He is a lawyer and “cult hero” adviser to the home inspection industry. He writes, “Hugh, here’s a couple: ‘I Was Vermeer’ by Frank Wynne (2006) is a fascinating account of a roguish Dutch art forger who was so good at copying Vermeer’s style, and so clever at concocting plausible provenance to account for their absence from catalogs, and so deft at securing their authentication by eminent authorities, that he ended up on trial for his life when several of his forgeries were discovered in the collections of prominent Nazis.”
Joe also recommends: “Italian Ways” (2013) by Tim Parks, a transplanted British novelist and university professor who has lived in Italy for 33 years. “The book is a collection of Parks’ humorous observations of the state-run train system, the part it played in the unification of Italy and the numerous indignities its incompetent stewards impose on travelers.”
And, finally, Joe offers: “The Cairo Affair” by Olen Steinhauer (2014). It is a gripping Ludlumesque tale of skulduggery and intrigue by U.S. and foreign agents in volatile regions of the Middle East. Merry Christmas, Joe.”
Dennis Brookshire, also from Erdenheim, recently retired as staff editor, photographer and writer for the world-famous Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. He preceded his brief list with this note about the role books play in his life: “Many years ago, in the sixth or seventh grade, I tripped over the joy of reading. The book was a boy’s sea adventure story, and – perhaps similar to your experience – I was immediately hooked to the extent that I still often prefer reading more than other entertainments and challenges. My preference is overwhelmingly ‘literary’ fiction, but I find biographies and political analyses increasingly gripping, especially books about presidential elections, such as “What it Takes” by Richard Ben Cramer (1992), which I expect to reread in 2015.
The first book Dennis recommends is “Straight White Male” by John Niven (2014) . “Until recently, I had not heard of Mr. Niven,” he wrote. “Wow! in more ways than one. First of all, the book is shocking in language and explicitness. So, reader beware. (Although not easily shocked, after reading the first chapter, I hesitated.) Second and more important, it is laugh-out-loud satire with some very serious points to make. The book has scenes that can bring one to tears of sadness, empathy, and maybe even increased self-awareness.
Another suggestion from Dennis is Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (2014). “His best writing since ‘Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science.’ Like all of Dr. Gawande’s work, this book is incisive, tough-minded, and compassionate. The title seems to say it all, although he has much more to say about end-of-life decisions and how they matter to everyone – the individual patient (emphasis on individual), family and friends, and medical staff.
And finally, Dennis offers “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (2012). “A ‘pop’ novel? ‘Chick Lit’? It might be all of that, but also so much more. After a second reading, I experience it as a meditation on contemporary marriage. An entertaining thriller that could serve as a primer on what it takes to nurture and preserve a relationship.
“In closing, Hugh: Thanks for doing what you do!”
Our final contributor today is Ellen Deacon, of Chestnut Hill. Ellen’s a native Texan who arrived in Philadelphia in 1969 and moved up here to Chestnut Hill about 10 years ago. She manages apartments for a living and is married to “the love of my life, Ernest (Ernie) Cuff.” She describes herself as passionate about healing our country’s confusion and ignorance about matters of race and class. “Funnily enough, despite my academic training (I specialized in Melville and Corneille), I don’t usually think of myself as a ‘serious’ reader. I like a relaxing read that’s well-told, and not too close to the reality of today’s world. I enjoy writers such as Maeve Binchy, Anne Perry, P.B. Ryan., and Anne McCaffrey. I do most of my reading on my Kindle Fire – easy to read under the covers without disturbing my husband with a light in the middle of the night.
Despite that inclination, Ellen says, “Every now and then I read a ‘grown-up’ book and that is what I want to recommend today. It’s ‘Americanah’(2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author who seems to be becoming increasingly respected. I loved this fully engaging love story. It is sharp-witted and often very funny. It also provides a thought-provoking social commentary on the way American whites, African-Americans, and African people, all interact around the subject of ‘race.’ I care a lot about “race” and the issues it raises in our daily lives, and this book gave me a chance to laugh, get absorbed in a great story, and be informed and challenged, all at the same time. Ms. Adichie is a first-rate novelist, in my opinion, and, in a sense, a fine successor to Jane Austen.”
Ellen closed her submission with this kind note: “Take care, and thanks again, Hugh, for the joy you bring so many of us by your dedication to writing and your willingness to share from your life’s journey in that oddly (because it really is so much about you) non-self-centered way you have of telling tales and sharing observations. Warmly, Ellen.”
Thank you to all the contributors who make this column so informative for our reading fellowship. HG
Hugh Gilmore is getting ready to go to press with his newest book, a memoir titled “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Book launch reading/signing will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, at the beautiful Bombay Room of the Chestnut Grill and sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival. Other “units” of Hugh’s writing can be found on Amazon.com.