Another six months is ending since my last edition of the Reject Pile, and I find myself strangely short of lousy material to complain about. However, the end of 2015 still feels like a milestone I should mark with some sort of review. So, this time in lieu of the truly awful, I give you this year’s superlatives.
The Book Most Like a Movie (That Hasn’t Actually Been Made)
A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre
Kim Philby’s over-the-top, James Bond-esque story had every spy cliché you can think of, right down to the cameo by the ill-fated frogman. This was the book I read this year that most left me wondering if any of it really could have happened until my mother remembered Philby making the American headlines. Hell, Ian Fleming even comes up.
Runner-up in this category: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Art Treasures by Robert Wittman and John Shiffman. This book is a little less James Bond and a little more “Miami Vice.”
The Best Beach Book
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joann Druett
Even if fiction is normally more your bag when you’re at the beach, consider this short work about a small crew headed for New Zealand. They’re shipwrecked and forced to rely upon one another for survival while they await rescue. Around that time that it all starts to sound a little bit Swiss Family Robinson, the story makes a hard left at “crazy twist of fate” that will really make you think.
The Most Thought-Provoking Read
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
In the 1950s, a black woman living in the poor part of a town came to Johns Hopkins for treatment at its clinic. Although Pap smears had been around for about ten years, they weren’t in widespread use yet, so she didn’t have one. Instead, the clinician who treated her took a biopsy of a strange lesion on her cervix, and that’s where the story takes on its strange, sad irony. Henrietta Lacks died from the advanced cervical cancer her doctor discovered that day or from the terrible radiation treatment she endured later. Her biopsy is still growing: Mrs. Lacks’ extraordinary sample gave medical science the HeLa cell line. Author Rebecca Skloot follows the cell line through its casual change of hands among collegial researchers and its broad application in laboratories worldwide. But, she also follows Mrs. Lacks’ family in their mistrust of and disenfranchisement by the medical community. Does science really belong to us all?
The Book with the Most Over-the-Top Character
Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery
Although Kim Philby gives this book’s namesake a run for the title of Most Over-the-Top, Vietnam’s Madame Nhu takes the prize in a photo finish. Madame Nhu was imperial royalty among Vietnamese, comfortable with French culture at least as much as her own. This woman was the practical adult member of brother-in-law Ngo Dihn Diem’s wildly impractical regime, and Ngo brothers (Diem and Madame Nhu’s husband) both knew it. That said, she could present the charming and exotic-seeming hostess to American leadership like Lyndon B. Johnson, and then just about draw blood from American reporters whose newspaper articles departed from her press releases. Madame Nhu’s relationship with the United States became very complicated, and this lady was at least as complex as her times. Part of the interest in this story comes decades later, in the way the woman jerks around the book’s author, who knows she’s being manipulated but can’t quite resist giving in to her demands. If you don’t face palm at least once when reading about the author’s odd, long-distance relationship with the aging Madame Nhu, then you haven’t been paying attention.
The One Book I Am Bagging On
Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers by James B. Donovan
This Cold War espionage story should be very intriguing, as it was written by the attorney for a relatively high-ranking Soviet spy, Rudolph Ivanovich Abel about Abel’s trial in the US for espionage. The question wasn’t so much if Abel had committed espionage as whether or not he could legally be executed for it. After all, treason is punishable by death, but Abel never claimed US citizenship. And, what if they could trade him for some American asset captured behind the Iron Curtain? Interesting premise, right? Plus, the story set up as if drawn from Donovan’s personal journal, so it’s organized in the sort of short segments that a busy person should be able to digest. The downfall? It was written by a lawyer who couldn’t turn off the tendency to bludgeon you with legal details. I don’t know what made me think the action of the story wouldn’t be so much about which papers got filed at which court and when. If legal drama appeals to you, then have at it by all means – Donovan knows this story better than anyone else could – I just couldn’t stick with it. I made it to page 134 out of 428 (not counting the index) before I lost interest.
I’ve got my 2016 reading list planned right through the spring, and here’s hoping I’ll have this much good luck with my selections in the year ahead…although I admit that writing the Reject Pile is definitely fun.
Image: Created this image for free from Tagxedo.com, just for fun.