Archive for December, 2011

2011 Book of the Year – The Big Roads

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, by Earl Swift. A new-born industry is growing explosively, changing the entire landscape of American communications and bringing down the cost of doing business. Consumers are buying and using its products at an amazing rate, but this same industry requires a tremendous infrastructure. Who’s going to pay for its construction during times of global conflict and economic struggle? Private companies, the federal government, or the states? No, I’m not talking about the Internet. I’m talking about the original superhighways. Earl Swift tells their story in his fascinating book: The Big Roads. The dedicated engineers, the clueless and turf-coveting politicians, the entrepreneurs willing to risk getting in early were all there, just as they are now and Swift does a good job of making it reasonably entertaining to readers with little technical knowledge.

On a personal note, my grandfather began his post-WWI career as a State Road Commissioner in West Virginia and eventually became a senior Highway Civil Engineer with the Forestry Service.

American history is relatively short and yet it repeats itself in so many different areas. Maybe it’s time I look at re-subscribing to American Heritage magazine.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2011 Books of the Year – Without Reservations

Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach. Steinbach takes a sabbatical from reporting for the Baltimore Sun and travels alone through Europe in an effort to break out of a self-determined rut and rediscover her more adventurous self. She effortlessly describes her stays in Paris, London, Oxford and Italy where she befriends several other travelers and does a lot of walking through the narrow streets and wide courtyards. Her adventures might not seem very extreme to experienced globe-trotters, but this neophyte with a virgin passport was enthralled, and inspired, by her stories.

By revealing past relationships and aspirations for the future, she also examines how to define herself as she enters a new period of life as a single woman of a certain age: her divorce several years behind her and her sons grown and independent. She does not seem to reach any conclusions on this subject, but perhaps they are addressed in her second travel memoir: Educating Alice.

(follow up) Steinbach’s second book, Educating Alice, does not answer the questions left unresolved from her debut, nor does it have the same effortless flowing atmosphere as the first set of travel tales. However, it may hold some appeal for those interested in stories about educational adventures in Europe and Japan.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2011 books of the year – Running the Books

On to the best non-fiction books of the year 2011.

Running the Books by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg’s memoir about his time working in a coed Boston prison library conveys the tension, paranoia, hope and hopelessness that is prevalent in that environment. He gives depth to his characters, both civilian and con, while describing his own internal struggles to find his life path as a lapsed Orthodox Jew from whom much was expected. It reminded me of the visits a group of us took many years ago to the minimum security facility in Pleasanton to play tennis against the inmates. Also of note is Ben Wiseman’s excellent cover illustration using multi-colored date stamps to create a portrait of Steinberg.

For a darker, even more intimate look at life behind prison walls, I recommend Jeffrey Archer’s three-volume memoir, A Prison Diary, detailing his time in British prisons following his perjury conviction in 2001.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2011 Books of the Year: historical mysteries

It’s that time of year again: time for “Best of” lists. This year I managed to finish almost 150 books and, although most were of only average quality, some managed to rise above the others. We’ll start with my favorite genre, historical mystery and look at the non-fiction titles in future posts.

Best Historical Mystery (foreign setting) Borgia Betrayal by Sara Poole. Poole’s debut mystery about Francesca Giordano, the woman who serves as the poisoner and protector for Pope Alexander VI of the Borgia court almost made last year’s list. The second in the series isn’t as strong as “Poison,” but then, neither is this year’s competition. The mystery about who among the Pope’s many enemies is attempting to kill him is a little weak, but the action is fast-paced, the romance is very sexy, and the characters and descriptions of Rome are first-rate.

India Black by Carol Carr. An excellent debut mystery set in 1876 about a brothel keeper recruited (blackmailed) by the British government to retrieve some missing documents before foreign agents can relay the information abroad.

The Blood Royal: A Joe Sandilands Murder Mystery by Barbara Cleverly. I thoroughly enjoyed the initial four books in the Sandilands series set in India, but the more recent titles showcasing his work upon his return to England have been extremely disappointing. However, this latest adventure is a worthy comeback effort. The mystery surrounding a plot to assassinate members of the royal family and high-placed government officials is adequately complex, but sometimes predictable. What makes this book worthwhile is the introduction of a new female character, Constable Lily Wentworth, who practically steals the book from Sandilands with her intelligence, feistiness and wit. Publishers Weekly totally disagrees, but I hope we see more of Lily and much less of Sandilands’ niece, Dorcas, in future books.

Best Historical Mystery (U.S. setting): None of the three books I read this year in this category made this list’s cut.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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