When I was asked to speak earlier this year to the women of the Cosmos Club of Raleigh, a book club established in 1929, I compiled a list of my 10 favorite books of the last 10 years. Here’s my list, in no particular order:
1. “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini survived a World War II plane crash into the Pacific Ocean; 47 days in a life raft; and more than two years of beatings as a prisoner of war in Japan. North Carolina’s Rev. Billy Graham showed Zamperini how to forgive his captors, and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Draggan Mihailovich of CBS helped discover Zamperini’s remarkable story.
2. “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” by Jeff Hobbs. Peace, who grew up poor in Newark, N.J., was brilliant and hard working, graduating with honors from Yale. But he could never separate himself from the streets of his youth. Hobbs was his roommate at Yale. This might be the saddest book I’ve ever read.
3. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain. I gravitate toward nonfiction but this book reminded me of why I should read more fiction. Fountain, who grew up in North Carolina and has degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, writes about one day in the life of a young soldier who has returned with his Bravo squad for a victory lap. Fountain has a gift for wickedly funny dialogue.
4. “The Night of the Gun,” by David Carr. The author, a recovering drug addict, researched and documented the sordid history of his own misbehavior. Carr, The New York Times media critic who died in 2015 of lung cancer, wrote with passion and power.
5. “This Town,” by Mark Leibovich. That swamp that President Trump said he will drain? This is it, full of irony and humor.
6. “Devil in the Grove,” by Gilbert King. The most violent place for African-Americans in the 1940s and ‘50s? King makes the case, brutally, for Florida. Attorney Thurgood Marshall is a key character and emerges as a forceful advocate for the NAACP and its clients.
7. “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach. The second novel on my list. Slick-fielding Henry Skrimshander plays shortstop at a small college but he might be one of the best prospects in the country. Then an errant throw causes a crisis of confidence that upends his life and, seemingly, four other people connected to him.
8. “A Curious Mind,” by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman. Grazer is the brilliant producer of such movies as “Cinderella Man,” “8 Mile” and “A Beautiful Mind.” For more than 35 years, he has sought interesting people from various professions (a CIA director, a supermodel, a police chief) for what he calls “curiosity conversations.” Fishman is a former News & Observer journalist.
9. “In the Garden of Beasts,” by Erik Larson. I had trouble choosing between this and another riveting book by Larson, “The Devil in the White City.” I chose “In the Garden of Beasts” because of Larson’s depiction of the rising Nazi evil in 1930s Germany and because of my discovery of William Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, who was from Clayton.
10. “Father Joe,” by Tony Hendra. For 40 years, Benedictine monk Joseph Warrillow was a devoted friend and spiritual anchor for Hendra, a comic writer with an up-and-down career and, at various times, alcohol and drug issues. This wonderful book about friendship was published in 2004 but I didn’t read it until a few years later; I liked it it so much I’m including it on this 10-year list.
At the meeting of the Cosmos Club, one of the members handed out copies of an essay by writer Will Schwalbe, “Why we need to read.” Now more than ever, Schwalbe argues, we need to read good books. We are overscheduled and overconnected. Books can help us break away, discover solitude and find our inner self.
“Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life,” he wrote. “So I’m on a search ... to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.”