In The Road to Little Dribbling, as in all of Bill Bryson’s travel books, you can be assured of two constants: first, that your guide is a sensualist who immerses himself (and thus, the reader) in all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes he encounters on his wanderings; and second, that along the way he will spot surprises, incongruities and contradictions that he obligingly transmutes into laughter.
Roger Angell, now 94, has had an extraordinary life. A longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker and one of the best-ever writers on baseball, he is the only writer elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Baseball Hall of Fame. His wonderful new collection, This Old Man: All in Pieces, is, he says, a grab bag, a portrait of his brain at this point in his life. The title piece, a moving and personal account of aging, received the 2014 prize for best essay from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
The holidays can be a bit stressful, but luckily, laughter is an excellent stress reliever! So crack open one of the three books below and crack up around the Christmas tree.
What motivated Adolf Tolkachev to begin spying for the CIA? Was it for money? Did he require an ego boost? Was it based on his hatred of the Soviet system? It likely was a combination of all three. But what mattered most to the CIA was that Tolkachev was delivering a treasure trove of Soviet military secrets during a critical period of the Cold War. Tolkachev’s daring exploits are described in riveting detail in David E. Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy.
Ronald Reagan is trending. Everyone from Ted Cruz to Barack Obama sings his praises. Why is Reagan so popular? Was it his movie-star looks? His cowboy swagger? His “America first” doctrine? H.W. Brands covers it all in his thorough biography, Reagan.
Years ago, as a small-town newspaper editor, I spent a night riding along with an officer on patrol. The shift began with a potential car dealership break-in and ended with an encounter with a drunk stumbling along the side of a lonely road. That night―as memorable as it was―pales in comparison to the drama that Steve Osborne shares with readers in The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop.
The Folded Clock, as crafted by novelist Heidi Julavits, is intricate and delicately worked. Time doesn’t flow linearly in this memoir as we might expect. What at first glance appears to be the diary of a writer in her 40s living an enviable life—an apartment in Manhattan, a house in Maine, sabbaticals in Europe—turns into a structure more complex, like an origami crane. Meditations on marriage and friendship appear and reappear. Diary entries might skip six months, or jump back a year. Julavits arranges the raw material of her diary in such a way as to provoke insight across the units of time that we normally experience: the day, the week and the month.
At this moment on the other side of the world, a girl is sitting in the dark. A rare skin disease prevents exposure to the sun, to a shining bulb, even to the benign glow of a Kindle screen. She covers up the slightest cracks of light with tin foil. What do people who pass her house on the street think of these ceaseless black-out blinds, she wonders. She doesn't find out.
“Running a totalitarian regime is simple: tell the people what they’re going to do, shoot the first one to object, and repeat until everyone is on the same page.” Such was life in Ukraine for young Lev Golinkin and his family, and it might have been tolerable had he not also suffered daily beatings in school for being a Jew. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the family fled to Austria where they lived in a refugee hotel before immigrating to the U.S. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the story of that journey and of Golinkin’s struggle to reclaim his identity.
To imagine what life was like growing up in a French village in the early 15th century, don’t think of A Year in Provence. Think of modern-day Syria.