Best Books of 2015 – III
Although written in chronological order, these three posts can be read in whatever order you like…
A book that was a surprisingly good read to me was American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus. I don’t know if I would have even picked up this book had I seen it in a bookstore. But this was another one that I heard about from an NPR podcast when the author was being interviewed about her just published book. This non-fiction book is about the author’s great-, great-grandmother who is purported to be a ghost haunting her stylish Santa Fe, NM, home from the 1800’s that has now been turned into a hotel. The book traces the story of Julia from her home in Germany to her frontier life in New Mexico and back to Germany when her health is failing. The author tells about her visits to all of these places as she searches to unravel the mystery of how Julia died and why she is still haunting her old home. The author even consults mediums, psychics, and dowsers in her research with most interesting and surreal outcomes. I can’t tell you how many times while reading this book that I got goose bumps when a new detail was revealed, up until the very last page.
While on vacation in North Carolina, I picked up a book about my favorite place in the world, appropriately entitled Montreat by Mary McPhail Standaert and Joseph Standaert. This is one of those slim historical books filled with vintage images and snippets of old stories. This issue told the history of Montreat from its early beginnings in 1897 through the present day mostly through vintage postcards. In spite of it being a brief read, I learned the genesis of the name for Lake Susan, why so many of the distinctive buildings were made from smooth rocks taken from the creek that runs through the town, and how the iconic, nearly 100 year-old gate that greets all visitors came to be.
As I learned other interesting facts about this peaceful place, I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about this place I have loved so much for as long as I can remember. Fortunately, there is a bibliography that can serve as a reference guide from which to draw future learnings.
Based on my reading and enjoying two of Walter Isaacson’s previous books, Einstein and Steve Jobs, this year I read and thoroughly enjoyed his most recent non-fiction, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. For someone born in the 50s who grew up with the development of the digital age, I found it most interesting to read how the computer and Internet actually evolved quite separately from each other even though we think of them as almost one and the same today.
This book starts in the 1800’s with the development of “mechanical” calculating machines through the development of electronic systems that incorporated vacuum tubes as the original “on-off” circuits of digital computers, through the miniaturization of these circuits first with transistors, then microchips, and ultimately micro processors. Concurrently while computers were advancing from mainframe to mini to desktop PCs (a part of digital history I vividly remember having programed by typing on punch cards in college), the Internet was maturing from the military and research-based “ARPANET” to the Internet as we know it today, ironically in large part thanks to wider access everyone was granted thanks to Al Gore’s political efforts in spite of all the jokes to the contrary during the 2000 presidential election that Al “invented the Internet”.
And while the development of the computer and Internet cannot be attributed to just one innovative inventor, if it were not for one individual that probably few people have heard of, Tim Berners-Lee, who actually invented the World Wide Web, we might still be using the Internet predominately for what it was originally most used for—email.
Following in the vein of historical nonfiction books about companies and their founders I have grown to enjoy, an entertaining read this year was Remembering Woolworth’s: A Nostalgic History of the World’s Most Famous Five and Dime by Karen Plunkett-Powell. As I’ve grown older, more and more, I enjoy reflecting back on the nostalgia of my youth in the 60s and 70s and this title seemed to offer more of that opportunity. Although my adolescent memories are less of Woolworth’s and more of the Ben Franklin’s 5 and 10 in Malvern, AR, as I read I began to appreciate that were it not for Frank Winfield (F.W.) Woolworth’s rag to riches story, the knock-offs I am more familiar with (Kress, McCrory, Ben Franklin’s) likely would never have come into existence.
Although his iconic Woolworth’s “Red-Fronts” sat majestically on main streets all over the US and throughout many parts of the world from their humble beginning in 1879 to their demise in 1997 (a colorful 118 year history), what was so amazing about this story is how Frank literally turned our nickels and dimes into at one point the largest chain of stores in the world. And along the way, with 13.5 million dollars in hard-earned cash, he built the 60-story Woolworth building on Broadway in New York, an edifice that reined as the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. Frank invented the successful 5 and 10 stores earning billions of dollars in the process and pioneered under the same roof, the addition of “Refreshment Rooms” (what would become the luncheon counters) and the sale of parakeets, hamsters and turtles, pets of which it has been estimated that every baby-boomer once owned at least one in their lifetime.
Two facts I particularly enjoyed learning was that Woolworth’s sponsorship of the traditional New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, CA not only began in the early 1950s, but the 1954 parade was also the first program ever to be televised nationwide in color (something of significance for those of us who can recall our first color TV being brought home to replace the old black and white model). The other fact of interest to me was that it was at the Woolworth’s luncheon counter in Greensboro, NC that the famous “sit-in” occurred in 1960 during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Without even realizing it at the time, I’ve actually seen that historical luncheon counter as it now resides in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.
For my classic this year, I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, a book I selected based on having visited Cannery Row last year on a trip to San Francisco.
I have mentioned before that I managed to get out of school without having read very many classics so I have a lot of catching up to do. Often we wonder what makes a book a classic and now that I finished reading this one, I am no clearer on understanding that. But for those yet to read this book in high school, they will be fortunate in two respects: that it isn’t a long book (less than 200 pages), and towards the end, they will encounter this gem of a sentence upon describing an undesirable type of party.
These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.
Overall this year, I read a total of 34 books, 11 fiction and 23 nonfiction, a far cry from the number you fast readers out there probably devoured this year but maybe an inspirational number for those of you who haven’t realized that there are only so many great books you can read in a lifetime and as they say, “Time is of the essence.”
So many books, so little time, indeed! I think I read about 33 books this year (and didn’t finish them all!), so you are ahead of me 🙂 I am still meaning to read Cannery Row too, and I am interested in American Ghost. Ever since I first had the chance to spend time in New Mexico, I have found it entirely intoxicating. I should probably read a classic too! Even though it might take me until March to decide which one:)
I think you would enjoy American Ghost; I think Ann is reading it now. And I am close to finalizing my classic for this year.