By the Book: 2016 report card on book club’s choices

Washingtons Crossing

I’m doing mini-reviews of the dozen titles my library book club read last year. The opinions are mine alone.

‘Ladder of Years’ (Anne Tyler): A married woman, on vacation with her family, walks away from it all. Walks away as in disappears, unsure of her place in her family and in life. There was some reflective stuff, but I found it, and her, shallow. My grade: B-

‘Washington’s Crossing’ (David Hackett Fischer): Sure, he crossed the Delaware and defeated the British and Germans — we remember that from grammar school. But Fischer is a superb storyteller and turns that event into a nail-biting page turner. A+

‘Arthur and George’ (Julian Barnes): Mid-century Edinburgh. A fictional story featuring Arthur Conan Doyle, a guilty or not guilty Indian prisoner, a slaughtered sheep, a lengthy trial. Zzzzzz. F

‘Middlemarch’ (George Eliot): More than 850 pages from the mid-1800s. Run for your life! Caroline, our leader, asked my wife and me to run the meeting. Yikes! It was the only book in the club’s history that nobody finished — truckloads of words firmly cemented together. F

‘Kayak Morning’ (Roger Rosenblatt): Roger paddles his small boat in a South Shore creek trying to come to grips with the death of his 38-year-old daughter. He records his own thoughts, he quotes passages from other authors. A gentle look at the process of healing. A

‘A Bend in the River’ (V.S. Naipaul): Maybe we’re prone to believe that if a book’s been around long enough it must be good. I don’t remember much about this; I’m not even sure I finished it. I asked my wife what she’d thought. “I hated it,” she said. F

(Halfway through and three F’s! Uh-oh.)

‘Our Souls at Night’ (Kent Haruf): Haruf brings together an elderly widow and an elderly gentleman who’ve vaguely known each other for years. Overcome by loneliness, she visits him at his home and a friendship blossoms. Sweet without being saccharine. B+

‘A Bell for Adano’ (John Hersey): Italy. World War II. A small town occupied by the American army. The Nazis have taken the town’s bell — which traditionally had heralded births, deaths, weddings — and melted it for ammunition. Hat in hand, the mayor asks the major if he could find a replacement. A

‘End of the Affair’ (Graham Greene): Maybe we’re prone to believe that if a book’s been around long enough, and the author is English, it must be good. This was dreary and unlikely — the main character hammering home his hangups about God ad nauseum. D flirting with F

‘Dead Wake’ (Erik Larson): The Lusitania always seemed overshadowed by the Titanic. Larson changes that, following the liner after it leaves New York and tracking the German submarine as it begins its deadly hunt. Then, practically by chance, the one finds the other and … B+

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr): World War II again. A young French girl, blind and alone; a young German soldier, horrified by what he’s seen; a rare jewel removed from the museum for safekeeping. Good guys, bad guys, tense, fast-moving. A+

‘The Wright Brothers’ (David McCullough): I reviewed this last month. Very good, typical McCullough. A

Hey, choose one. As the King of Hearts explained to the White Rabbit: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.”

Jerry CaseJerry Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].