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winter 2013-14 075

I began having a challenge list several years ago when books that I wanted to read kept sinking to the bottom of the pile and it made me feel guilty to not be reading them.  Some of the books had been on the pile for years.  By creating a list and challenging myself to read five pages a night I was able to read and enjoy the neglected books.  

These are books that I do want to read, but I always give myself an out that if the book is awful, I can quit and substitute another title.  I have only done that once.

Of course, when I read the required five pages, I rarely stop at that.  

I offer you the challenge of choosing a book or five or ten and see if it works for you as it does for me.  Which ones would you choose from your TBR pile or wish list to be your challenge books for 2014?

Here is my list for 2014 (There are 21 books this year because the Zimbabwe book is so tiny):

1.   Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s by Jennifer Worth


Jennifer Worth came from a sheltered background when she became a midwife in the Docklands in the 1950s. The conditions in which many women gave birth just half a century ago were horrifying, not only because of their grimly impoverished surroundings, but also because of what they were expected to endure. But while Jennifer witnessed brutality and tragedy, she also met with amazing kindness and understanding, tempered by a great deal of Cockney humor.

She also earned the confidences of some whose lives were truly stranger, more poignant and more terrifying than could ever be recounted in fiction. Attached to an order of nuns who had been working in the slums since the 1870s, Jennifer tells the story not only of the women she treated, but also of the community of nuns (including one who was accused of stealing jewels from Hatton Garden) and the camaraderie of the midwives with whom she trained. Funny, disturbing and incredibly moving, Jennifer's stories bring to life the colorful world of the East End in the 1950s.

Regeneration Trilogy: by Pat Barker

2.   Regeneration (1991)

3.   The Eye in the Door (1993)

4.   The Ghost Road (1995)

Wiki says:

…She turned her attention to the First World War, which she had always wanted to write about due to her step-grandfather's wartime experiences. These had resulted in a scar from a bayonet wound, and he would not speak about the war. This interest resulted in what is now known as the Regeneration Trilogy—Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—a set of novels which explore the history of the First World War by focusing on the aftermath of trauma.

The books are an unusual blend of history and fiction, and Barker draws extensively on the writings of First World War poets and W.H.R. Rivers, an army doctor who worked with traumatized soldiers. The main characters are based on historical figures, with the exception of Billy Prior, whom Barker invented to parallel and contrast with British soldier-poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

5.   Pendragon: The Definitive Account of the Origins of Arthur by Steve Blake, Scott Lloyd

The Arthur portrayed in popular literature and the romances of old is a figure far removed from the warrior remembered in the early writings and traditions of his own people. The original story of Arthur belongs to the Dark Ages, a time of chaos and war, when his people were forced to retreat to the western reaches of their territory. Their oppressors sought to strip them of everything—their lands, their lives, even their history. Tales of Arthur’s exploits were reworked to fit a new political agenda and then circulated across medieval Europe, the real origins of the legend obscured. But in his native land the truth survived.

Using half-forgotten sources and clues hidden in the ancient Welsh landscape, historians Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd lead us on an adventure every bit as exciting as the legend itself. Arthur’s family tree is traced, his warriors named, and his battlegrounds pinpointed. Blake and Lloyd reveal that Arthur was not the shining Christian king of popular romance—not even, in fact, a king at all—but a fearsome figure known to his followers as, simply, the "Leader of Battles.” And they shed new light on one of the greatest mysteries of British history: the location of Arthur’s final resting place.

6.   The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman

During the fateful quarter century leading up to World War I, the climax of a century of rapid, unprecedented change, a privileged few enjoyed Olympian luxury as the underclass was “heaving in its pain, its power, and its hate.”

In The Proud Tower, Barbara W. Tuchman brings the era to vivid life: the decline of the Edwardian aristocracy; the Anarchists of Europe and America; Germany and its self-depicted hero, Richard Strauss; Diaghilev’s Russian ballet and Stravinsky’s music; the Dreyfus Affair; the Peace Conferences in The Hague; and the enthusiasm and tragedy of Socialism, epitomized by the assassination of Jean Jaurès on the night the Great War began and an epoch came to a close.

7.   Zimbabwe's Heavenly Ruins: A Mystery Explained by Richard Ganter

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe are acknowledged as one of the most impressive monuments in Africa, but also one of the most mysterious. Many scholars have investigated them without coming to any agreement on the identify of their builders, their purpose or even their date.

The author considers the ruins in both an African and a global context, and reviews investigations of other archaeological and historical enigmas around the world. He finds previously unsuspected connections between Zimbabwe and ancient civilizations such as the Phoenicians and the builders of the Giza pyramids. Finally he offers a truly 'heavenly' explanation for Great Zimbabwe with unique astronomical charts.

8.   Sir Francis Drake by John Sugden

More than four hundred years after his death, Sir Francis Drake remains one of the legendary figures of history. His career is one of the most colourful on record. The most daring of the corsairs who raided the West Indies and Spanish Main, he led the English into the Pacific, and circumnavigated the world to bring home the Golden Hind laden with Spanish treasure. His attacks on Spanish cities and ships transformed his private war into a struggle for survival between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, in which he became Elizabeth I's most prominent admiral. His exploits marked the emergence of England as a major maritime nation.

9.   Travels by Paul Bowles


In more than forty essays and articles that range from Paris to Ceylon, Thailand to Kenya, and, of course, Morocco, the great twentieth-century American writer encapsulates his long and full life, and sheds light on his brilliant fiction. Whether he’s recalling the cold-water artists’ flats of Paris’s Left Bank or the sun-worshipping eccentrics of Tangier, Paul Bowles imbues every piece with a deep intelligence and the acute perspective of his rich experience of the world. Woven throughout are photographs from the renowned author’s private archive, which place him, his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, and their many friends and compatriots in the landscapes his essays bring so vividly to life.

10.  The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss

A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life.

11.   The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

…Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families-feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.

But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

12.   Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision by John Howard Griffin

13.   Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion: The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign by A. Wilson Greene


…Greene's ultimate focus on the climatic engagements of April 2, 1865, the day that Confederate control of Richmond and Petersburg was effectively ended.  The book tells this story from the perspectives of the two army groups that clashed on that day:  the Union Sixth Corps and the Confederate Third Corps. But Greene does more than just recount the military tactics at Petersburg; he also connects the reader intimately with how the war affected society and spotlights the soldiers, both officers and enlisted men, whose experiences defined the outcome. Thanks to his extensive research and consultation of rare source materials, Greene gives readers a vibrant perspective on the campaign that broke the Confederate spirit once and for all.

Note:  This is where my great-grandfather was wounded near the spine on June 22, 1864.  He survived or I wouldn’t be here.  

14.   The First World War by John Keegan


… But the heart of Keegan's superb narrative is, of course, his analysis of the military conflict. With unequalled authority and insight, he recreates the nightmarish engagements whose names have become legend—Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli among them—and sheds new light on the strategies and tactics employed, particularly the contributions of geography and technology.

No less central to Keegan's account is the human aspect. He acquaints us with the thoughts of the intriguing personalities who oversaw the tragically unnecessary catastrophe—from heads of state like Russia's hapless tsar, Nicholas II, to renowned warmakers such as Haig, Hindenburg and Joffre. But Keegan reserves his most affecting personal sympathy for those whose individual efforts history has not recorded—"the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, undifferentially deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable."

By the end of the war, three great empires—the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman—had collapsed. But as Keegan shows, the devastation ex-tended over the entirety of Europe, and still profoundly informs the politics and culture of the continent today. His brilliant, panoramic account of this vast and terrible conflict is destined to take its place among the classics of world history.

With 24 pages of photographs, 2 endpaper maps, and 15 maps in text

15.   The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by Stanley Cloud, Lynne Olson

The Murrow Boys is the first book to tell the collective story of the talented and spirited correspondents who, under Murrow's direction, formed CBS's pioneering World War II team. They were intellectuals and wordsmiths first, whose astute reporting and analysis were like nothing else on the air. These ten men and one woman - including such familiar names as Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and Howard K. Smith - invented the craft of radio reporting as they went along, winning the hearts of Americans.

All in their twenties and thirties and infused with the foolhardiness of youth, the Boys brought to vivid life the war's great events: Shirer, in defiance of Hitler's orders, was the first to break the story of the French-German armistice; Larry LeSueur landed with the second wave of Allied troops on Utah Beach in Normandy; Richard C. Hottelet was the first to report on the Battle of the Bulge…

16.   If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino imagines a novel capable of endless mutations in this intricately crafted story about writing and readers.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct, through which two readers, a male and a female, pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another.

I have mentioned that this book is on my TBR pile several times this year so now it is on the challenge list, and it will NOT be put off any longer.  

17.   The Healing Wound: Experiences and Reflections, Germany, 1938-2001 by Gitta Sereny


One of the most vivid explorations ever of the legacy of Nazism in Germany. No person has examined the lingering evil of Nazism more deeply than Gitta Sereny. As much a work of autobiography as a work of journalism, The Healing Wound spans over sixty years of Sereny's investigations into the darker side of history, from her first encounter with the Nazis at a Nuremberg rally in 1934 at age eleven to her chilling interviews with the highest Nazi officials. The Healing Wound combines political statement with the haunting personal memories of one of the twentieth century's most relentless witnesses.

18.  Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach

Turning away from the privileged world of the "eminent Victorians," Gertrude Bell (1868—1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence's brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.

19.   Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

As the summer of 2004 draws to a close, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are still hanging in there—longtime friends, bandmates, and co-regents of Brokeland Records, a kingdom of used vinyl located in the borderlands of Berkeley and Oakland. Their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkeley Birth Partners, a pair of semi-legendary midwives who have welcomed more than a thousand newly minted citizens into the dented utopia at whose heart—half tavern, half temple—stands Brokeland…

20.   Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader   816 pages

In 1978, paleontologists in East Africa discovered the earliest evidence of our divergence from the apes: three pre-human footprints, striding away from a volcano, were preserved in the petrified surface of a mudpan over three million years ago. Out of Africa, the world's most ancient and stable landmass, Homo sapiens dispersed across the globe.  And yet the continent that gave birth to human history has long been woefully misunderstood and mistreated by the rest of the world.

In a book as splendid in its wealth of information as it is breathtaking in scope, British writer and photojournalist John Reader brings to light Africa's geology and evolution, the majestic array of its landforms and environments, the rich diversity of its peoples and their ways of life, the devastating legacies of slavery and colonialism as well as recent political troubles and triumphs.

21.   A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life by Wright Morris

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Robert Fuller says:

Chapter 36 (still in India) was updated just a few minutes ago.

Also the Kindle ebook of The Rowan Tree will be free on Amazon through Christmas:

My memoir Belonging is free on Smashwords, and it should soon be free on Kindle.

There is also a Goodreads Giveaway for Belonging:

Belonging: A Memoir
Paperback – October 24, 2013
by Robert W. Fuller


"How did you make the leap from Physics to Dignity?" This question arises at every Robert Fuller talk. Belonging traces Fuller’s personal evolution and suggests that taking one’s questions seriously will lead to a life of meaning and purpose. Accompany Fuller as he meets with “somebodies” like Robert Oppenheimer, Indira Gandhi, Mikhail Gorbachev, David Bowie, John Denver, and President Jimmy Carter, and share in the wisdom he finds in people whom the world writes off as “nobodies.” Belonging shows how transformative quests await anyone willing to learn from somebodies and nobodies alike."

I'm still looking for reviewers for either or both books. They are companion pieces in many ways.

NOTE: plf515 has book talk on Wednesday mornings early

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Wed Dec 11, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.


Which book should I start reading on January 1rst?

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