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Christmas Book Bag 2013

Christmas is a time for family and friends.  It’s a time for celebration and spiritual reflection.  It’s also a time for gift giving.  I’ve celebrated enough Christmases to know that gift giving is an art form.  The problem is there is no “one” gift that satisfies the taste and interests of all the individuals on our Christmas list.  Years ago, I decided to give something I would want to receive – a good book!  So, listed below are five books that I especially enjoyed reading this year, and plan to give to others.

This year’s collection of Christmas books includes two hefty history texts, a memoir, and two very interesting and very different novels.


1.         A. Scott Berg: Wilson

If you ask a group of historians to list the top five Presidents, most, if not all of them, will include our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson.  Most of us think of Wilson as a prudish, Presbyterian, Princeton professor who somehow got elected.  In fact, most of us don’t know that Wilson was celebrated historian and political theorist, and that his progressive political agenda became the basis for the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, and what we now know as Democratic Liberalism.

Wilson’s photographs may have depicted him as stiff, guarded and reserved, but he was in fact an energetic workaholic who literally worked himself to death.  A. Scott Berg depicts Wilson as a passionate vibrant human being who loved both of his wives (his first wife died in the first year of his presidency.), adored his daughters, enjoyed golf and biking, and loved to meet and greet the public.

Berg clearly likes Wilson and his biography makes the reader want to like him as well.  Trust me, Wilson is a worthwhile read, and you will not be bored by it.


2.         Doris Kearns Goodwin –         The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, WM. Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Those of you who are fans of Goodwin’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals will initially be a tad disappointed in this book.  After all, name the President that has had a more dramatic life than Lincoln?  But once you get past that fact, The Bully Pulpit will keep you fascinated.

This is the story of the rise of modern America.  It is a story about the Robber Barons of industry and banking.  This is the story of America and its rise as a world power.  This is a story of two men who were friends, then enemies, then friends again who struggled to reign in the power of the industrial plutocrats and protect the needs of the common citizen and worker.  This is the story of the power of the press and “muckraking” journalists who fought for worker’s rights.  And, for me, the most interesting part of this book is how two men who were so different in their habits and demeanor could be both political and personal friends.

Doris Kearns Goodman is both a gifted and talented historian and writer.  This book, like her other books, reads like a “comfortable novel” rather than a turgid historical text.


3.         Michal Hainey:            After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story

This book is a painful memoir and not a suspense-laden mystery, but it sure reads like one!  Michael Hainey’s father died of a heart attack when Michael was six years old.  He died, or so Michael was told, while having a drink with friends after work.  But at thirty-five, while looking at some old obituaries about his father’s death, Michael realized that there was a lot of confusing information and missing facts about his father’s death.  For the next ten years, Hainey spent his spare time trying to find all the facts and make all the pieces fit.

At one level, Hainey’s quest can be regarded as a demonstration of a son’s love for his father.  At another level, it can be looked at as an obsession and deadly addiction.  I’m not going to tell you what Michael found or make any judgment about his ten-year search.  I’ll leave that up to you.  Enjoy!


4.         Elizabeth L. Silver:     The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

I thought that Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was an unsurpassable psychological thriller, and then I picked up The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.  This book is intelligent, cleaver, riveting, engrossing and totally believable.

This is a story about personal guilt, circumstantial accident, love, and a person’s sense of humor and integrity.  Yes, someone is killed!  Yes, Noa was there.  Yes, she knows exactly what happened.  Yes, she knows enough to save her own life.  But she won’t talk.  She won’t plea.  She won’t do anything to avoid her execution date.

Do not read this book late at night, when you are all alone and feeling vulnerable!  As Sam Sacks of the WSJ put it: “This book will make Gillian Flynn stand up and applaud!”


5.         James Salter:   All That Is.

At an age 87 long after most authors retire, James Salter has blessed us with a quiet masterpiece – All That Is.  This is a simple story of one man and the quotidian doings and day-to-day humdrum of “carrying on” wit things.  This is the story of Philip Bowman who grew up in the Depression and came to manhood as a naval officer fighting the Japanese.  After the war, Bowman finds work in New York as a book editor.  Over the years, Bowman finds success in his field, but not in his private life.  After a failed marriage, Bowman becomes the perfect date: successful, well-read, articulate, and making few demands of his partners.  This is a story of a human being who has lived a rich full life.  It is a story of triumph and tragedies, love and loss, success and failure.  This is a quiet story of a life well lived, but lacking in personal gravitas or purpose.

Having said this, this is not a maudlin or depressing book!  Really!  Salter creates a cast of characters who are trying to live their lives as best as they can.  A task that all of us have to daily deal with.

  • By Danielle on 12.17.2013 at 5:20 pm

    These books sound very interesting, and there’s a lot of variety on this list. I’ll be sure to check them out!

  • By Mason on 12.17.2013 at 5:42 pm

    All That Is sounds like a fantastic read – I believe my grandfather’s read it, and now I get why. Merry Christmas!

  • By Melissa Niksic on 12.18.2013 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks Al! I have Elizabeth Silver’s book waiting on my nightstand. Can’t wait to read it!

  • By Ann Talbot on 12.18.2013 at 4:00 pm

    Great list, as always, Al! Can’t wait to read Elizabeth Silver’s book! I may need to take another week off over the holidays so I can read everything on my list!

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