Given that it’s the first week of January 2017, everyone has a list, collection or blogroll about 2016.
It was the best of this and the worst of that. Oh, and a lot of famous people died.
I’m going to remember 2016 for the good books I discovered at various local library sales. So here’s my 2016 list of the best books I read last year:
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
This biography of young Teddy won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, so I expected it to be good. It was sublime.
Like any good writer, Edmund Morris uses details to great effect. The term “larger than life” is rarely used accurately in describing a fellow human being. But TR was just that – a tornado of a man who devoured life.
The details: Teddy visiting the Badlands in the early 1880s and waking to sub-freezing temperatures, whipping wind and steady rain. His hosts see him off for a 6 a.m. ride assuming he’ll return by 8 a.m. breakfast. Roosevelt returns 13 hours later, bursting with energy and wanting to talk deep into the night.
TR as governor of New York, taking a month-long “vacation,” during which he writes a 35,000-word book.
Roosevelt’s guests were schooled to never let conversation falter when visiting the great man. Any lapse likely meant losing Teddy to the open book he always kept near his line of sight. Roosevelt read an average of one book a day for more than 50 years, all while holding down some fairly important jobs.
I could go on and on with the brilliant details. Morris wrote follow-up biographies of Roosevelt 20 and 30 years later, but they are not as good as the original. This book is fabulous.
The Devil in White City
After visiting Chicago again in October, I read Erik Larson’s terrific book on the 1893 World’s Fair. The author alternates chapters on the furious World’s Fair planning, construction and six-month run with the murderous spree of a nearby doctor, the charismatic H.H. Holmes.
Again, the detail Larson provides is so splendid; I had to find out how he reconstructed certain events with such specificity. The author anticipated these inquiries and provided a welcome summary at the end of the book explaining his methods.
Terrific personalities and an engrossing story.
The Big Short
I haven’t seen the movie, but I am curious how they tell this complex tale on the big screen. Author Michael Lewis does a great job breaking down how a few greedy Wall Street traders found a way to game the system.
Bottom line: the rich are getting richer in ways we don’t even know about.
I’ve written about this book previously. Brilliant portrait of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as a fearless and eerily tranquil battle leader. The chapters on Grant as president seem short on detail and accountability for what was a shamefully corrupt administration.
Still, a terrific biography if you enjoy reading about military leaders.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
I’m still reading this New York Times best seller by former NYT public editor Daniel Okrent, a ridiculously resourced accounting of Prohibition. Hard to fault a book for having too much detail, but Okrent really dives into the weeds here.
He names people, dates, places and uses of alcohol that will leave your head spinning. It adds up to a colorful tale of a colorful era of U.S. history.
There’s Carrie Nation, a temperance movement leader famous for using a hatchet to bust up saloons throughout the Midwest. And George Remus, the notorious “king of the bootleggers” who held parties in which he gave the guests diamond stickpins and new cars. The Jay Gatsby character was allegedly based on Remus.
The list goes on and on. Fix a drink and read this book. You won’t regret it.
Me: Stories of My Life
I kept seeing this Katherine Hepburn biography in various bargain bins, so I finally bought it. That’s when I realized it’s actually an autobiography. As if the famously obstinate Hepburn would allow anyone to assist her.
The result is not great writing or great research. Details are left to the details Ms. Hepburn considers important. I wonder who would dare edit her!
But it’s definitely her voice and her personality. The book reads as though Hepburn dictated it through a series of interview sessions, which she probably did. It is full of short, declarative sentences that sum up Hepburn’s emotions on a subject, event or person.
The reader is left with delightful anecdotes on Hepburn’s interactions with domineering and sexist Hollywood kingmakers, such as Louis Mayer and John Ford. Those chapters are countered by tender memories of Hepburn gathering with her large family at their beloved Fenwick, Conn., compound.
One complaint: the late actress comes across as hopelessly out of touch while commenting on social and women’s issues. A strong editor might have persuaded her to drop these thoughts.
Shakespeare: The World as a Stage
I would call this light read by Bill Bryson a Shakespeare book for non-Shakespeare fans. It gives you the basics on the celebrated playwright, and moves on to incorporate the quirky and interesting people and aspects of Shakespearian life.
Bryson traces the conflict between Protestant and Catholic forces in 16th century England. He explains in detail how plays were produced, and how the experience fit into ordinary life.
Later Shakespearian eccentrics such as Delia Bacon (the first scholar to argue Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) and the Wallaces (an American couple who spent years studying English records for Shakespeare mentions) are covered well.
In short, Bryson entertains and delights in 190 pages.
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at [email protected].
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