Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10+ Books Read in 2012

1. Sara Mansfield Taber's Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter
Lyrical, original, and profound. At once a memoir, a piece of American history, and an examination of the question, what does it mean to be American?
>Listen to my podcast interview with the author here.

2. Anne-Marie O'Connor, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
>Read my talk at Bellas Artes in Mexico City about this splendid book. 

3. A tie! (Who says I have to decide?)

Natalie Dykstra's Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life

One of those rare novelesque biographies that can change the way one thinks about a whole country, a whole century, and certainly about one city: Washington DC. Out of five stars I give this six, lit up in flashing neon.
>View Clover Adams' photo album at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Janet Wallach's Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
The life of a priviledged Englishwoman whose curiosity fired with boldness changed the world. Alas she was less apt in love and bureaucratic shenanigans. Fascinating reading. When I came to the end, which was too sad, I went to Egypt and rode a camel.

4. Bruce Jackson's The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories
Brilliant, worth a re-read or five.
>Read my mini-review here.

5. Lonn Taylor's Texas, My  Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy
Though a collection of columns as "The Rambling Boy" for the Big Bend Sentinel, this is far from the usual mashed potatoes newspaper fare.  Taylor is a wise and lyrical writer with a background as a professional historian and his mammoth love for Texas is infectious. This is a book to savor in a rocking chair on a hot day with a tall glass of spiked lemonade at your side. Get ready to howl with the one about the in-law aunts's oodles of poodles.

6. Rubén Martínez's Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West
Another kind of Texas-- and New Mexico, Arizona, and California. I'm preparing an overdue (rave) review of this one. Stay tuned.
> Read my review of this book in the Washington Independent Review of Books

7. Ruth Levy Guyer's A Life Interrupted: The Long Night of Marjorie Day
>Read my mini-review of this exceedingly strange story and how I happened upon it here.

So what am I doing reading about the occult? I've spent much of this year reading and researching for an expanded and revised introduction to my translation-- the first into English-- of Francisco I. Madero's secret book of 1911, Spiritist Manual (a work vital for understanding the Mexican Revolution of 1910 since Madero, a Spiritist medium, was its leader). Earlier I'd seen Occult America but didn't pick it up because I (wrongly) assumed it was a bit of trade sensationalism. Then, on the Occult of Personality podcasts,  I happened to listen to an interview with the author about the Theosophist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's profound influence on the revival of Buddhism in 19th century Sri Lanka. Start reading the literature on the occult and very soon one will appreciate, as water in the desert, an author who is at once knowledgable, objective, and articulate. Of course I immediately ordered the book. It's a masterwork of scholarship. Dear Mr Horowitz, if I had a Ouija board, I would salute you with it.
>Occult of Personality Occult America interview 1 (Publick Universal Friend et al)
>Occult of Personality Occult America interview 2 (Joseph Smith, Edgar Cayce, et al)
>Occult of Personality 48 (Life and Work of Henry Steel Olcutt)
>Mitch Horowitz's website

9. Sergio Troncoso's Crossing Borders: Personal Essays and novel, From This Wicked Patch of Dust
>Listen to my interview with the author here

10. Mark Sundeen's The Man Who Quit Money
The superbly told true and head scratcher of a story.
>Author's website with link to mini-doc on the man.

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Of note, two crucial works on Mexico's second Empire were published this year:

*Los viajes de Maximiliano en México (1864-1867), By Konrad Ratz and Amparo Gómez Tepexicuapan 

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Over at Work-in-Progress, my amiga the novelist, short story writer and essayist Leslie Pietrzyk shares her list of top books read / reread in 2012, which, if you've been following her excellent blog, unsurprisingly starts with ye olde Great Gatsby. Which is, seriously, a masterpiece.

Alas, nothing on our lists coincides. This is why, in writing workshops, when we get to plot, I resort to discussing movies. Now if you haven't seen The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind or Gladiator, GHY. But plot in a movie compares to plot in a novel as cement blocks to fine woodwork.

So I just noticed I didn't read any novels this year. Oh well! I'm writing another travel memoir, that's why it's heavy on Texas and the West.