by Hugh Gilmore

We asked our readers to tell us about the books they “most enjoyed” this year. As usual, we received a variety of responses – including a passionate statement about a book one reader did not like at all. Most of the books were published recently, but a few were rediscoveries of nearly forgotten treasures from the past. Our respondents, about half-and-half men and women, range in age from 20-something to 80-plus. They share in common a love of books and reading.

First to respond this year was Chestnut Hill resident Annie Hart, who works as a personal and organizational development specialist (see Annie writes: “Hi Hugh, I always enjoy your column. I loved both Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’ (2010) and Anita Amirrezvani’s ‘Equal to the Sun’ (2012). Both were fabulous! I loved them because they are well-written, suspenseful stories set in another country. An ‘oldie but goodie’ I just got around to was ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston, a real classic. And one just for you, Hugh, is Brenda Euland’s, ‘If You Want to Write’ (1938). She died -a real pip! –at age 93, proof that having fun writing promotes longevity. Happy New Year, Annie.”

A reader who awes me whenever we correspond is Professor Nathan Sivin, another Chestnut Hill resident. Though “retired” he still works with graduate students at U. of P., in the department of History and Sociology of Science. A few years ago he retired from full-time teaching and read all of Balzac, in sequence, in a summer. And polished off the year by reading all of Shakespeare. Retirement seems not to have dulled his appetite – read on:

“Over the past year I most enjoyed reading all of the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, a most remarkable author. Among the dozen or so, I particularly recommend ‘Offshore’ (1979) and ‘The Beginning of Spring’ (1988). ‘Offshore’ is a quirky story about a quirky collection of people who live on boats in the Thames river. The other one is set in Russia early in the twentieth century, and gives a deep view into the lives and emotions of an equally odd assortment of characters. I’m sure you will respond to Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing. She began writing when she was 58. Her novels don’t follow any of the rules, the setting of every one is different, and all are about unique situations but invite reflection on life in general. Cheers, Nathan.”

Tranda Fischelis, a Chestnut Hill writer, was one of the standout speakers at our community’s “Tribute to Loren Eiseley” celebration last year. (For an online sample of her published writing go to Last week she wrote to say, ” I was in the ER at HUP while reading Patricia Volk’s ‘Stuffed’ (2001) and could not stop laughing. A very entertaining book. It is a memoir of her restaurant family who fed New York City for 100 years.

Stories of family members were told with much humor. Then, later, while spending five days at Penn Presbyterian Hospital, I finished another fun read by the same author, ‘Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me,’ (2013). Volk compares the life of her mother, who served as hostess at the family’s restaurant in the garment district, with that of style icon Elsa Schiaparelli. It works. Rich illustrations keep the story rolling as Volk discovers who she is through the exploration of the lives of her mother and Schiaparelli. Volk has a way of redirecting my mind!”

When Bill Siemering of Wyndmoor speaks, it makes sense to listen. A MacArthur Award winner for his pioneering work in public radio, Bill now travels the world helping developing countries establish public radio networks of their own. (To see their work in action, confer Bill writes, “Thanks, Hugh for your column last week and the critique of television and making the case for creativity. Life is to be lived in all its complexity and not observed through the distorted lens of the TV camera. How was it that when there were just a few channels, we had better programs?

“I recommend a highly original way of looking at our country’s history, ‘The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible’ (2013). Written by British writer Simon Winchester, the book begins with Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, and ends with the creators of the Internet and Google. Winchester is an engaging storyteller who connects the past with the present in ways that will amaze you.”

Chestnut Hill’s Pierlisa Chiodo Steo is an actress not to be missed when she graces the Stagecrafters Theater stage. She’s appeared recently as Amanda in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ and as Elmire in ‘Tartuffe,’ where she ‘stole the show,’ according to one reviewer. Pierlisa writes, “Hi Hugh. You should put your own book, ‘Malcolm’s Wine,’ on the list. I tell as many people as I can about your book. (HG: blush) I’d also like to recommend ‘All This Talk Of Love’ (2013), a novel by Christopher Castellani. This book offers an engaging, poignant portrayal of a family dealing with huge loss, all forms of love, and the struggle to maintain one’s cultural heritage. Take care. Pierlisa.”

We’ll close today with thoughtful comments from someone who didn’t like the book she mentions. Like the child in the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” she wants to point out a very obvious point about a very popular book. Janet Gilmore of Chestnut Hill (not a blood relation), writer, quilter, and costumer, writes to say, “Maybe not the best book, but one of the most alarming, is ‘The Hunger Games’ (2008). I read it out of curiosity because I believe that any book that sells millions of copies is worth looking into. Part one of ‘The Hunger Games’ moves along quickly and seamlessly to explain the set-up for ‘The Games.’ In case you don’t know, The Games turn 24 kids loose in the woods to hunt down and try to kill each other, each with his/her own special weapon until one is left – the winner.

“Suzanne Collins, the author, has said that she was inspired to write a story about children trying (and succeeding) to kill each other by watching reality shows on television. As though that is an excuse, or justification. Though a lot of political, feminist and moral interpretations have been written about ‘The Hunger Games,’ the story is about kids killing kids. Period. I didn’t like this horrifying book at all. I’m not sure I want to know why I felt compelled to finish it.”

Next week we’ll have more recommendations and commentary by Chestnut Hill residents Tom Tarantino, Carol Rauch, Marie Lachat and Amma Napier, along with Glenside’s Christine Cayer, book columnist Nicolette Milholin, Wyndmoor’s Phil McGovern, Andorra writer and reader Linda Hodgman, Andorra Library’s Marsha Stender, Erdenheim lawyer, writer and advocate Joe Ferry, and Mt. Airy’s favorite poet and brewmaster, Lynn Hoffman.