2016 was a year of travel. It took me to Maine and Colorado and Montana but most of my best travels were on my nightstand.
If this is your first On the Nightstand, I review and rate my reads on watts – a 100-watt book keeps my night light on while a 20-watt book puts me right to sleep. This is my year-end list so I won’t watt the books here, but none would be here if I didn’t enjoy them and if I didn’t think you would as well. So, where did I go in 2016? Let’s start with Binge Fiction.
Elena Ferrante took me to Italy. In My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, she led me through gritty Naples, fashionable Naples, factory Naples, and side trips to artful Florence and upper crust Genoa.
Sometimes breathtaking, sometimes infuriating, and never put down, these four novels take us through post-war Italy in the company of two little girls and their friends and family: the mafia, the poor, the elite, and the miserable. These are my Books of the Year. Literally, I could not put them down. Read these books, then give them to someone and make a friend.
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies brought me to Tudor England. She writes with lyric grace, humanizing a villain, villainizing Anne Boleyn, taking the gloss from Sir Thomas More’s bonfires of Protestants and unfolding the intrigue by which a blacksmith’s son despised by nearly everyone conducted the affairs of Henry VIII. Superb!
Patrick O’Brian sailed me across the seven seas during the wars between Napoleon and England. Just this year I’ve read Master and Commander, (Mediterranean), Post Captain, (France and Sussex), HMS Surprise, (the Indian subcontinent), The Mauritius Command, (South Africa and the Indian Ocean), The Ionian Mission, (Greece and the Aegean), The Reverse of the Medal (London), and The Wine Dark Sea, (Chile and Peru). Engrossing!
There are thrillas on my nightstand as well. In The Assassins, Gayle Lynds takes us into Washington and Maryland and by private jet to North Africa and Baghdad to track down who is killing whom to get their hands on Saddam’s lost treasure, while in Dark Angel Don Helin races through the Pentagon, a suburban DC hospital, and a sleepy beach town to find out who is murdering soldiers – and who is trying to hack into a drone. In An Event In Autumn, Henning Mankell (Wallender series) digs up a body in a Swedish farmhouse near the Baltic Sea, while in Marina Carlos Ruiz Zafon, (Shadow of the Wind) creeps with me through a gothic mansion and an abandoned cemetery looking for spirits in Barcelona. Paula Hawkins took me for a ride in London’s suburbs with The Girl on the Train, who sees a murder in a backyard as her train rolls by (or does she?). And, in this wonderful cross-over fiction, Alana White walked me through medieval Florence in her Renaissance fiction The Sign of the Weeping Angel, where Guid’Antonio Vespucci must find a killer, a kidnapper, and a priest who is making a painting of the Virgin Mary seem to cry, all just to save the Florentine Republic from the clutches of conniving pope Sixtus IV.
Non-Fiction: In A Week at the Airport, Alain de Boton leads us into parts of airports we never see. We learn why there are airport chapels (installed back when planes routinely dropped out of the sky), meet bookshop employees who don’t read books, bask in luxury lounges that ordinary us can never enter, and commiserate with exhausted employees who can’t find lost bags or lost children or who have mental breakdowns when telling families that the plane they are waiting on has crashed. If you fly, you MUST read this book.
My favorite non-fiction author is Norman Lewis, who discovered that he was assigned to the British intelligence corps in WWII solely because he had blue eyes. In A Tomb in Seville, he walks us through Spain to look for the lost grave of an in-law, just before the civil war. And, also in Spain, Adam Hochschild gives us Spain in our Hearts, a history of the mostly-American Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish civil war and of the mostly-American expats who volunteered for that dress rehearsal for WW2. It is a chilling prelude to World War II and a good look into the souls of a hardy band of Americans who wanted to defeat fascism eighty-odd years ago.
And, my non-fiction book of the year: The General vs. the President, by H.W. Brands. When the swaggering elitist MacArthur wanted to use nuclear bombs in the Korean War, and the soft-spoken president Truman refused, the stage was set for the greatest clash of wills the American public could envision. Dr. Brands is a brilliant writer. His history of the Korean War, of the early Cold War, and of carefully guarded secrets that kept a third world war from erupting in the atomic age is a gripping book, very well-written. Given that current President-Elect doesn’t want to read intelligence briefings, it also is very timely.
I hope these help you with your reading list.
See you in April.