A favorite book by reader John Raucher was Stefan Kanfer's biography of Humphrey Bogart.

by Hugh Gilmore

We’ve evolved a tradition here at the Chestnut Hill Local of asking our readers to tell us about the books they’ve “most enjoyed” during the year. The replies have always been pleasing and surprising, but after a conversation I had last week with our neighbor, Bill Roberts, I think I’ll have to phrase the request more carefully in the future.

My wife, Janet, volunteers as a costumer at our local theatrical gem, The Stagecrafters, and last weekend I accompanied her to their show-closing party. I was sitting near the fireplace of our hosts (Scott and Mary Ann Killinger. Scott is also a retired architect and he now designs lovely sets for Stagecrafters plays), merrily being a fly on the wall, when the tall and stately Mr. Roberts approached me. He is retired from the faculty of the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania and was a founding member of Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd, the all-world architectural firm (think Baltimore Harbor, for one).

He said, “Nice to see you again, Hugh. I enjoy your columns and I have two books I’d like to mention that really affected me this year.”

“Ah, that’s good,” I said, “your timing is perfect for next week’s column.”

“Yes, that’s good, but one of these books was quite disturbing … and stirred up some unpleasant truths about American history. I’d like to recommend it to others, but it’s hardly “most enjoyed” material.”

We talked for a while, and Bill agreed to send me an email.

Here is what he said:   “’Citizens of London’ by Lynne Olson (2010), describes how a small group of Americans in London during the darkest days of early World War II via their access to both Churchill and F.D.R. influenced America’s aid to Britain and assumed a major role in the war against Hitler.

“The second book was more informative than enjoyable. ‘The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War’ by James Bradley (2009) is the startling story of the zeal with which Theodore Roosevelt and William

Howard Taft directed the mass murder of Native Americans, Cubans, Filipinos and other Asian populations toward the agenda of Aryan/Christian dominance over ‘heathen savages.’ It reminded me of Howard Zinn’s ‘A

People’s History of the United States,’ (1980) which is entirely given to the dark side of our history. Fascinating and rather troubling, particularly if we believe that modern policies and conflicts also have their dark story.”

I hereby agree to modify my “most enjoyed” criterion for future “reading roundups.”

I know that the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and City Paper like to write about how we’re all riding 24/7 to foxes and hounds out here on the peninsula, and all we care about is maintaining a flat skyline, but read on.

Barbara Torode, Mt. Airy poet and founder of Torode Design, wrote to recommend “Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater” by Ronald T. Simon and Marc Estrin (2004). She writes: “The Bread and Puppet has toured the world, performing radical street theater since Vietnam. The puppets are often oversize. They get in your face. The bread is meant to last. Peter Schumann, the maestro, has always believed that his puppets nourish the hungry, and like sourdough rye, they fight the big white loaf of America.

“The book takes us through much of the history of Bread and Puppet Theater. It goes beyond the pageantry and behind closed doors and shows where the puppets are built up before coming to life.”

Barbara Torode also recommends the new book her husband, James Smart – a true Philadelphia asset for decades now – has just written, “Adonijah Hill’s Journal, The Diary of a Philadelphia Reporter in 1876.” Mr. Smart’s book provides a lively and fascinating non-fiction account of Philadelphia life in the centennial year of 1876, as seen through the eyes of the fictional Adonijah Hill.

One of the most omnivorous readers I know is Chestnut Hill’s Carol Rauch, a writer and devoted Kindle reader. She emailed, “You don’t need to hear of another book read by C Rauch in your wonderful column, so I asked my husband, John, what he’d enjoyed.” (John Rauch is yet another retired architect – an architectural trifecta today! – who now paints and, obviously, reads.)

As transcribed through Carol, John enjoyed “in the last few months: ‘Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy,’ and ‘Why It Matters for Global Capitalism’ by George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller  (2009) …  and in an extraordinary departure from his usual reading, ‘Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart’ by Stefan Kanfer (2011).”

Finally today, Chestnut Hill writer and life coach Janet Mather writes, “Hi Hugh. Thanks for asking. I’ve read lots of lovely books, but the most moving was ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009). I expected to be taken under by unbearable stories of mistreatment. What stands out, however, over and over, is the courage, determination, and vision of so many people in so many parts of the world. I found it deeply encouraging and often very surprising to learn how many people are thinking “out of the box” on big issues, and getting results we’d all wish for.”

All of the entries above were lightly edited, mostly for space considerations. Despite doing that, I’ve painted myself into a corner once again and don’t have room to describe my own “most enjoyed/most moved-by” books this year. My reading total for 2011 will be about 90 books. I’ll blame my falling short of 100 on the Phillies. And maybe on the time required to finish my own recently published novel, “Malcolm’s Wine.”

I’d like to give you all a copy of my book. Having readers would be worth the money spent, but it won’t count towards my Amazon.com sales total. I’m hoping to sell enough copies to tempt an agent to want to take over the task of publicizing my book. Till then I’ll have to continue to shamelessly self-promote “Malcolm’s Wine,” now available in both paperback and Kindle formats. Happy Holidays.

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