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2011 – A good reading year

It was a year for good reading, and the outpouring of new books — despite problems besetting the publishing and book selling communities — never let up in 2011.

While I enjoy a good novel, my reading preference has always been for non-fiction. I read heavily for research. I’ve been soaking up many books on French and Parisian history, as I hope to do a book some day on a particular episode in French history in which I’ve long had an interest.

But at year’s end, I’ll differentiate from reading for research and reading for pleasure. This posting is about reading for pleasure.

I find the Best Seller lists to be indifferent guides to my own choices. In the Globe and Mail’s year-end non-fiction and fiction best seller lists (25 each), I found only three books that I’d cared enough about to buy and read. I did better by the National Post with its best books of 2011.

Three I enjoyed from that (shorter)  list were Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster Canada) and two novels, The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain (Bond Street Books) and  A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland and Stewart). My reviews  of A Good Man and The Paris Wife are in my archives.

My choice for book of the year in the non-fiction department is In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers). This is a provocative and compelling account of the rise of Nazi Germany, as seen through the eyes of U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family — especially his daughter, Martha. As gripping as any thriller, it portrays the family’s encounters with high Nazi officials (Martha was introduced to Hitler at a lunch) and reveals the monstrous details of the German regime that were evident within months of Hitler’s taking power.

Dodd arrives in Berlin as a naive university professor, convinced from the student days he spent in Germany that the cultured nation he knew so well would never embrace the evil threats that  accompanied Hitler’s rise to power. Mildly anti-Semitic himself, he is at first an apologist for Germany’s persecution of its Jews, but it is not long before he comes to realize “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem to not know what to do.” Dodd is eased out of his ambassadorship, and returns to America disillusioned with both his own country and Germany.

I found a second book by Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (Crown), equally enthralling. This is also  a gem of narrative non-fiction writing, and tells the story of the architects behind the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, and the monster who lurked unseen in that city at the same time, indulging in murders and depravity without apparent interference.

A fine  book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Vintage Canada) by John Vaillant, won the $50,000 British Columbia prize for Canadian non-fiction in 2011.As readable as any novel, it deals with the fine balance between nature, wildlife, and man in Russian Siberia. Focused on the behavior of one particular man-eating tiger, it also describes the environmental desecration that brought on a frightful confrontation between the animal and the men who work the Russian taiga. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the tiger.

I enjoyed The Tiger almost as much as Vaillant’s earlier work, The Golden Spruce, about the destruction of the oldest and largest tree in B.C.’s Haida Gwaii islands. Both books carry strong environmental messages which resonate equally powerfully.

Another Canadian book that I enjoyed this year was Charles Foran’s Mordecai Richler biography, Mordecai: The Life and Times ((Alfred A. Knopf). It scored the hit trick in Canadian non-fiction prizes, and deservedly so.

Two books I read largely for research, both dealing with chunks of Paris history, also turned out to be enjoyable for their own sake. Anyone fascinated by that great city should read them: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster) by historian David McCullough, and Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (W,W. Norton) by Graham Robb. McCullough recounts the effects of Paris on American expatriats there between 1830 and 1900. Robb describes delicious episodes from Paris history from the early 19th century to the Second World War.

Finally, a bit of fun reading I had in 2011. I enjoyed two books by Maureen Jennings: Season of Darkness (McClelland & Stewart) and one of her inimitable Murdoch Murder mysteries, Poor Tom is Cold (McClelland & Stewart). Don’t expect the pseudo-science fiction twists of TV’s Murdoch series, but you can expect a faithful remaking of 1890s Toronto in the Poor Tom book.

All in all, a good reading year. May 2012 be as strong!

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