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Best of 2011: Gazette book reviewers choose favorites

Sunday, December 25, 2011
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The publishing industry seems to be in a transition between traditional books in paper form and electronic books available through the Kindle, Nook or iPad.

This transition is evident whether one is reading about books and publishing — or just looking at the paper and electronic books that fellow readers on the bus bring on their morning and evening commutes.

Big box bookstores continued to struggle this year and Borders went bankrupt, a victim of too many stores and too few book buyers.

Still, the Capital Region continues to be a great place for book lovers. Independent bookstores — such as The Open Door in Schenectady, The Book House in Albany, I Love Books in Delmar and Dove & Hudson Books in Albany — survive. Some are even thriving.

In 2011, small regional presses gained strength and presence. Cornell University Press, SUNY Press and University Press of New England offered a steady stream of books that are relevant to local communities.

Bookstores, libraries and the New York State Writers Institute brought many authors to the region this year and allowed readers to meet the authors and, perhaps, learn more about something they liked in the books. Writers groups and book discussion groups brought readers and writers together, to hone their reading and writing — or to just enjoy books and words.

Here are some of our favorite books of the year, selected because of their link to the Capital Region and because of the quality of their writing.

“Wolf Mark” by Joseph Bruchac (Rowen) — This witty page-turner offers young adult readers a challenging mystery and opportunities to reflect on the promises and threats of modern life. Eleventh-grader Lucas King and his friends Renzo Baggio and Meena Kureshi draw on the traditions and myths of many world cultures as they battle with shadowy villains in a sleepy upstate town.

“Still Speaking of Nature” by Bill Danielson (Rowen) — This is an agreeable, insightful and well-written collection of 28 essays about flowers, plants, birds, mammals and natural processes as near as the view out your window. The clear and concise essays set in every season inspire readers to get outside, explore and enjoy.

“Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” by William Kennedy (Rightmyer) — This is Kennedy’s first book since 2001. It combines the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s and the civil rights struggles in Albany in 1968. I enjoyed the dialogue and Kennedy’s obvious love of journalism.

“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson (Rightmyer) — I could not stop reading this nonfiction work about the American ambassador William E. Dodd, who moves to Berlin just as Hitler and the Nazi Party come to power. You know what’s going to happen, but Larson keeps you on the edge of your seat anyway.

“The Paris Wife” by Paula McClain (Rightmyer) — This was my favorite book of fiction this year. The author has brought to life the first marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his life in Paris in the 1920s. McClain does an excellent job of showing the development of a great writer and the dissolution of a strong marriage.

“The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta (Rightmyer) — Perrotta has created a clever scenario in which millions of people have mysteriously disappeared in a rapture-like occurrence. He has created a suburban neighborhood with residents that must now somehow keep living their lives despite such a monumental tragedy. This book is funny, touching, exciting and sad.

“Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan (Rightmyer) — This well-written memoir tells the story of an overweight newspaper writer and publisher who takes in a puppy. Together they form a strong friendship by climbing many of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The author tells his story with humor, and it’s touching and exciting at the same time.

“The Nature of New York” by David Stradling (Rowen) — New York’s long environmental history is full of triumphs and challenges. Stradling’s vivid writing and exceptional organization of facts and impressions results in a solidly researched account of the triumphs and challenges that often feels more like a thriller or page-turner than the capable history it is.

“Priceless” by Robert Whitman (Rowen) — In this excellent true crime book, Whitman, a retired FBI agent, chronicles his career recovering valuable art and cultural artifacts.

He relates his participation in nail-biting operations to recover treasures, ranging from Rembrandts to an original copy of the Bill of Rights, with dry wit; in recounting his experiences, he offers readers much information about art and American history.

“Touch” Alexi Zentner (Rowen) — This novel, a multigenerational family story, set in the British Columbia wilderness, explores the timeless themes of love, family and greed. Zentner’s writing nicely mixes the realistic and magic; his accounts of the Canadian wilderness will appeal to people who love wild places in the Adirondacks and New England.

Honorable Mention

“A Moment in the Sun” by John Sayle (Rightmyer) — This is an epic novel almost 1,000 pages long that takes place in America at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

“Heaven Up-h’isted-ness!” (Rightmyer) — Published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, this comprehensive book not only describes the origins of the club, but it also profiles some of its more memorable members. It also gives an extensive history of all the Adirondack high peaks.

“Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die” by Jon Katz (Rowen) — The purpose of this book is to comfort to grieving pet owners, whether their pet died yesterday or long ago. But Katz goes beyond this laudable purpose to write insightfully about how he and others live with animals at all stages of life.

Jack Rightmyer and John Rowan review books for the Sunday Gazette.

 
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