(This column first appeared in the December 5, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
At this holiday season I revisit the books I have read and reported on over the past year to make my recommendations for gifts and to offer a reading antidote to an early onset of cabin fever. Here then are a baker's half dozen books that I most enjoyed reading in 2002. And I'll even add a few books that haven't yet appeared in this bi-weekly column. For the books that have already appeared in commentaries, you can find the full text through the main page. For that reason (and because I still have some holiday shopping to do) I have not added links to this page.
Almost half of my recommendations are books about science: two chemistry and one math. Don't be put off by this: these are non-technical books with no abstruse formulas. What is great about each of them is that even those of us without that technical background can be drawn into an understanding of what science is about.
The first of these is Oliver Sachs' Uncle Tungsten (Knopf), his autobiographical account of his youthful infatuation with chemistry. Most of us know Sachs from his writing about aberrant psychological problems in books with equally strange titles like The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Island of the Color Blind. Here he turns to his earlier pre-college focus, and he begins with his infatuation with "the spectacular -- the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs, which almost define a first entry into chemistry."
The second science book is a more serious and disturbing history of The 13th Element, accurately subtitled The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus by John Emsley (Wiley). This element, the one that bursts into flame when exposed to air, serves us in matches but "much of the history is downhill from there: phosphorus bombs, flame throwers, nerve gas and many of our dangerous modern pesticides." Not a pleasant subject but very well told. (And, if you find yourself captured by this kind of chemical history, you might turn to a similar book by Julie Fenster, Ether Day, The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It (HarperCollins). It is hard to imagine that less than a hundred years ago, operations - including amputations - were performed without anesthetic.)
And then there's the wonderful math book: Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind (Simon and Schuster), the tale of the first mathematician awarded the Nobel Prize -- but for economics, just as a second mathematician, Buffalo's Herbert Hauptman, won his for chemistry. The far from attractive hero, John Nash, wins the prize after spending many years in the delusional world of schizophrenia. This story, the subject of the Oscar-winning motion picture of the same name, tells a far better (and more accurate) story and the reader learns much about the ivory tower world of university mathematical research and politics.
To me, far and away the finest novel of the year is Philip Hensher's The Mulberry Empire (Knopf) a story based on a British 19th century adventure in Afghanistan. They dispatched 50,000 troops to bring the Afghan regime under the English heel only to lose 49,999 of them. The story focuses on individual participants in this disaster, providing a sobering lesson for today's belligerents.
The best, and I believe most important, political book of the year is turncoat David Brock's Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (Crown), an account of the author's term as a hit man for the Far Right. He makes clear in this book, for example, that his own earlier attack, published as THE REAL ANITA HILL, stood for the wrong side with now-supreme court justice Clarence Thomas the real villain. This is a story of sleazy politics at its contemporary worst. Interestingly, Brock, until then the hero of the Right, was cast off by his supporters when his study of Hillary Clinton turned out not to be a hatchet job.
I wrote in my review of George Feifer's The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb (Lyons) that the book should be required reading for those young people who think only of modern wars in which a few dozen casualties on our side cause us to fold up our tents and withdraw. His book also confronts two other received beliefs: that the Japanese emperor was not a militarist and that we needn't have dropped the atom bombs. This book was of special importance to my brother and me, both at the time naval officers, for we would probably have been involved with a mainland invasion of Japan, but is an important story for all of us. This is serious history at its best.
And finally, among the books reviewed in 2002, I note Pat Conroy's My Losing Season (Doubleday) which will be my last commentary this year. It will appear in two weeks. The author of The Great Santini tells another autobiographical story, this one about his basketball career at The Citadel. Yes, it is a sports story, but it is far more than that, an exploration of college coaching at its worst and student morality at its best. How different were those times!
I conclude by briefly mentioning several books that I am currently reading and that will surely merit commentaries in early 2003. An historical thriller, Richard Holt's Old Soldiers Sometimes Lie (Doherty), I found compelling for I share the author's take on our General Macarthur, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his General Yamashita, the wrongly-designated Butcher of Manila. Vivid recent history, William Doyle's book, An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (Doubleday), is to me not only a page-turned but also a cliff-hanger, for the pitched battle was literally touch-and-go for several days. For Kennedy apologists a warning: they don't do well in this book. And finally I offer a delightful spoof of English working mothers, Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It (Knopf). This is a laugh-out-loud novel about a businesswoman juggling job and home life, written by the wife of my favorite book reviewer, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane. (Even as I write that comment, I know that Ms. Pearson would delegate me to my appropriate male chauvinist place for it.)
Happy holidays!-- Gerry Rising