After the Fall, All the Shah's Men, books, Death in Venice & Other Stories, Empress, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Guns Germs & Steel, Kim, Mao: The Unknown Story, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Miracle in the Andes, Moloka'i, Nicholas and Alexandra, Poland, recommendations, The Bridge Across Forever, The Green Mile, The Pilgrim's Progress, True Women, Twilight in the Forbidden City, Utopia, We the Living
After completing The Harshbarger List I set about on a new reading task. I decided to compile all of the books that had been sitting unread on my shelves for three or more years. Several had been there more than ten years. Their pages longed to be perused, their knowledge longed to be imparted, their jackets longed to be dusted off.
Twenty-one books had the depressing honor of going so long without a reader. I’ve given brief descriptions and an opinion for all and listed them as best I could in order of preference. There’s always a bit of wiggle room depending on how I enjoyed the writer’s style vs the subject matter. The majority of the titles were non-fiction, and it was a pleasure to see world events play out side-by-side from different countries and perspectives.
Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
5 Years Dusty: Accurately described as ‘an atom bomb of a book,’ Mao is a feat of monumental dedication and research. The authors pored through thousands of archives and interviewed hundreds of people who knew Mao personally or who had a family member personally connected to him. The information was riveting, jaw-dropping, and outrageous. I continually interrupted my husband in his own reading to share a new piece of information or atrocity. I purchased the book after having lived in China for a year, and the only reason it got dusty is because it was too big to easily carry around with me on my travels.
Miracle in the Andes, by Nando Parrado
7 Years Dusty: I don’t remember why or when I acquired this book, although I’m pretty sure it was from a book fair in my hometown. I’d never heard about the rugby team that crashed in the Andes and their incredible survival story. I couldn’t put the book down, and while snowshoeing in Montana I evaluated my own chance of survival if I was left in the mountains without food, appropriate clothing or water. The story had me captivated, and even though I read it towards the beginning of 2015 it’s stuck out at the end of the year as an enduring favorite on The Dusty List.
Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie
10+ Years Dusty: I don’t know why I never got around to reading this book. I’m pretty sure I’ve had it at least since the 1997 Anastasia cartoon film came out. On the other hand, living in Russia for a year gave me perceptions and associations I wouldn’t have had before, and I’m glad I waited until now to read it. The Romanov family has always been of especial interest to me, and it was wonderful to picture their world as I went deeper into their histories and downfall. It was also interesting to learn more about the origins of World War I.
Poland, by James Michener
10 Years Dusty: This book was given to me as a Christmas gift by my husband when we were in college together. I tried reading it at the time but couldn’t get into it, even though I went to Poland shortly after receiving the book. When we started dating a decade later, I started it up again as we planned our honeymoon in Poland, finishing it while we were there. Michener has long been a favorite of my father’s, so I’ve heard praise for his books my entire life and it was about time that I finally read one. It was so much fun to read about these places while seeing them in person.
The Green Mile, by Stephen King
10 + Years Dusty: It’s taken me a lifetime to finally start reading Stephen King books, and I was completely and pleasantly surprised. I generally avoid serial authors for their habit of churning out books that all sound alike. I stopped reading Mary Higgins Clark books in Jr. High when I could pick out the bad guy in the first few pages. The Green Mile is my fourth out of five books by Mr. King, and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. I was so distracted at work for the duration of the book, because all I wanted to do was go home and keep reading.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser
5+ Years Dusty: The film by Sofia Coppola is one of my favorites, and I was pleased to see how well the movie followed the actual events. I was surprised that one big event was left out of the film completely, although there was a hint of it. I’d had one opinion of the ill-fated Dauphine going into the novel, and I was left with a more positive feeling towards her at the end.
Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert
4 Years Dusty: I don’t know where this book came from or when it appeared on my shelves, but four years is a good guess. I made the mistake of judging the book by the cover and assumed it was sentimental nonsense (I never read the backs of books. They give away too much information). I read the book with a keen interest and pleasure, and I enjoyed learning about a piece of Hawaiian history that I’d never heard about.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford
5+ Years Dusty: I think this was also purchased from a book fair in my hometown, but I don’t know if it was before or after I visited Inner Mongolia. In any case, a year in China and a visit to the Mongolian grasslands paved the way for a very interesting read about one of the most influential men in history and how his rule shaped the modern world.
All the Shah’s Men, by Stephen Kinzer
5+ Years Dusty: I think this also came from a book fair. The fair is an annual event, and the corridors of the shopping mall are lined with tables bearing thousands of books which can be purchased by the inch. I’m not sure what led me to select this particular book, as the subject matter wasn’t something I’ve been interested in until very recently. The history and politics in the Middle East is important to know, and it bears such a huge relevance to what’s going on in the world today. The novel itself was very exciting to read, and it begins with such suspense that you have to keep reading.
The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
10 + Years Dusty: I know exactly why this book was on my shelf in the first place and why it took so long to read. It was referenced in another book I read in late Jr. High or early Sr. High, The Horse Whisperer. This book was put aside because it looked ‘boring’ and ‘hard to read.’ The pages of verse turned me away, and when selecting from a list of books I’d avoided reading for years, this one was still picked up with reluctance. It was with great relief that the book moved along quickly and agreeably. Christian’s journey inspired a lot of deep thought, and was another book where I interrupted my husband to share passages with him. The book was in two parts, and I preferred the second of the two. The first has a lot of repetitive action.
Empress, by Shan Sa
5 + Years Dusty: I’m sure this book was picked up after living in China, but I’m not sure where or when I got it. I’d never known that China had had a female Emperor, and I appreciated the familiarity of what it may have been like to live in the Forbidden City over the dry description of what it was actually like. (See: Twilight in the Forbidden City below.)
True Women, by Janice Woods Windle
3 Years Dusty: I found this book in the clearance pile at Hastings when I moved to Missoula, and I picked it up because I like the TV movie of the same name from 1997, starring a 22 year old Angelina Jolie. I was impressed that not only did the film closely follow the book, but that it was all true. Even though I enjoyed the stories, I had a hard time getting into the book. It could have been that I was trying too hard to finish The Dusty List by the end of 2015 and that I was burning myself out.
The Other Queen, by Philippa Gregory
3+ Years Dusty: I’ve read a couple of Ms. Gregory’s books over the years, starting with The Other Boleyn Girl in 2008. They’ve followed the paths of other serial authors where the first book I’ve read is my favorite and the rest tend to fall into predictable patterns. What I enjoy about her books is that it gives me a nice fleshed-out view of a chunk of history, which helps me remember the events in greater detail. I don’t find the writing itself to be brilliant, and the way she establishes her character traits by repeating key phrases over and over tends to get on my nerves about halfway through. This is the first book I’ve read about Mary, Queen of Scots, and I’m now interested enough in her history to seek out a more in-depth biography.
After the Fall, by Arthur Miller
10 + Years Dusty: In high school I was in a couple of Advanced Acting classes. The students selected their own play and director, and all casting, lighting, costumes etc was entirely student produced. Part of the curriculum was researching and presenting a play, and then the class selected a play from those options. I chose another Arthur Miller piece, Playing for Time, which is still among my favorites and which I’d love to see performed some day. I’m confident that I would have acquired this other Miller play around the same time. It’s a strange one, for sure. Everything takes place inside the protagonist’s head with a lot of erratic movement from one memory to the next. It helped me to read the play as if I was watching it, and I tried to imagine how I would have directed and cast it in our high school theater and with my long-ago theater friends. (Has it really been 13 years since graduation??!!) The plot was more satisfying after it dawned on me that Miller’s characters represented himself and wife Marilyn Monroe.
Twilight in the Forbidden City, by Reginald F. Johnston
3 Years Dusty: I opened this book with great anticipation and closed it in great disappointment. While living in China I read Emperor Aisin Gioro Pu-Yi’s autobiography about life in the Forbidden City, the fall of the monarchy, the rise of communism, and how a man went from emperor of China to gardener citizen. Pu-Yi’s remembrances of his early years at court were not very descriptive, and I was hoping that this book, written by his English tutor, would fill in some of the missing details. I found the account to be very dry, with more effort given to the political situation in the country than what it was like to live alongside the last member of a dynasty. It was filled with so many names and places that had nothing to do with my interests. After finishing Johnston’s book I re-read Pu-Yi’s story (also dry) but was intrigued to see where Pu-Yi discredited or disagreed with what his tutor had to say. Johnston’s book was used against Pu-Yi after he was arrested. (Watch the movie. It’s amazing.)
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
10+ Years Dusty: I know this book was mentioned in a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast that I would have read in elementary school, so that’s probably why I had it on my shelf. I’ve been ambivalent about other stories by Kipling, and this one followed the same path. British Imperialism plays a key part in the story, but unfortunately I was more interested in what the Indians were doing. A big problem with my copy is that it had pictures showing scenes from the movie, which varied greatly from what actually happened in the book.
Utopia, Thomas More
10 + Years Dusty: I know this book was on my shelf because it was the favorite of the heroine in the 1998 film Ever After. Danielle praised it for elevating the case of the everyday peasant. The prince scorned it for being sentimental and dull. I’m afraid I sided more with the prince on this one. The ideas were intriguing, and it did made me wonder which freedoms I’d sacrifice for pure equality and pure peace.
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
6 Years Dusty: It’s with some surprise that I’m realizing a good number of my Dusty Books came from that book fair. It must have even been the same year. If I’ve got the timing right, all of those books would have been acquired around 2008, meaning the travel bug was well and truly caught with three trips to Europe under my belt. I had a strong desire to learn about world culture. This book was put off until the Dusties had diminished to only a few options. I was so excited to learn about how some societies were able to dominate while others remained third world nations. Unfortunately, it’s never good to start a 500 page novel with a complaint about how boring the first paragraph is. I had to drag myself through the whole thing. Too much information was smashed into one missive, and I felt I’d be better off with a week’s lecture to cover the information in a single chapter. For all of that, it could also have been shortened because the same conclusion was repeated over and over again. Mr. Diamond has an annoying habit of presenting facts and then declaring that he believes something else in spite of them. It WAS interesting to speculate about what the world would look like today if any of these ancient events had worked out differently.
We the Living, by Ayn Rand
6 + Years Dusty: I would have purchased this book because another of Rand’s books, The Fountainhead, was a member of my Top Ten List. (Don’t tell Rand, but she’s been bumped from the list.) I was pleased that this book takes place in St. Petersburg, where I lived for a year, but annoyed that the characters sounded just like the figures in The Fountainhead. I became so impatient with their actions and ideals that by the end of it I was fed up with Objectivism, fed up with the glory of suffering for stupid reasons, and fed up with Ayn Rand.
The Bridge Across Forever, by Richard Bach
10 + Years Dusty: Another book by the same author, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, has been one of my favorites since early high school. I remember reading it on a camping trip with my father. I looked forward to reading this love story, which boasted the honor of being on the NYT Bestseller list for over a year. I’ve been keeping notes on all of the books I’ve read for the last couple of years, and my comments for this one were, “Awful, sentimental drivel.”
Death in Venice and other Stories, by Thomas Mann
8 Years Dusty: I purchased this book from a used book store in Colorado. As a German major, I’d read one short story by Mann in my German literature class. I don’t remember enjoying it, so I’m not sure why I’d pick up more of his work. Honestly, I was probably showing off, and it took me eight years to follow up on that. The book was a collection of short stories: Death in Venice, Tonio Kroger, A Man and His Dog, The Blood of the Walsungs, Tristan, Mario and the Magician, Felix Krull, and Disorder and Early Sorrow. I’d hesitate to say that any of them were my ‘favorite.’ I disliked The Blood of the Walsungs the least. I hated A Man and His Dog with a passion. A man takes his dog for a walk (as predicted by the title) and 70 pages later he’s still walking the dog. I wouldn’t have bothered finishing the book at all if it hadn’t been on a binding list. My husband and I take books along on our hiking trips so that we can enjoy our literature alongside a brook or in a sunny mountain meadow. I brought only this book with me so I would have no choice but to read it – miles away from the nearest shelf with more tantalizing options.