Tuesday, December 31, 2002
True story about the search for a ship that sank somewhere off the East Coast in 1857 with 21 tons(!) of gold on board. It's about an entrepreneur/scientist who puts together the venture for this search (including inventing all sorts of new technology, private funding, building his team, etc.) and how they found the ship in 1989. Fascinating story, well written. I couldn't put it down.
Monday, December 30, 2002
Excellent pulitzer prize-winning book. Heavy stuff (figuratively and literally; it’s 800 pages!), but an amazing story about extraordinary people. Well-written, and remarkably easy to read.
Saturday, December 28, 2002
Graham's Pulitzer prize winning autobiography - First third is pretty boring - socialite girl, growing up and getting married. Then her husband commits suicide and she takes over running the Washington Post. Great story.
Friday, December 27, 2002
Thursday, December 26, 2002
My favorite writer. Great stories, beautifully written.
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Short stories about Einstein day-dreaming about different concepts of time. Incredibly creative book. Also read a book of his essays Dance for Two, which I enjoyed, and his second novel, Good Benito, which I didn’t like much.
Tuesday, December 24, 2002
Boorstin is a historian and was librarian of congress for years. He has written prolifically and I've enjoyed everything of his I've read (also see The Discoverers). This is a series of essays subtitled Essays on the Unexpected, in which he “uncovers the elements of accident, improvisation and contradiction at the core of American institutions and beliefs.”
Monday, December 23, 2002
I re-read this recently, and - like the first time I read it - it was great. Essentially a history of science, but in classic Boorstin fashion, it's not a boring time-line of what happened when. He takes the time to go into detail about people and discoveries that he thinks are particularly interesting or important. And he asks (and answers) interesting questions - particularly the questions about why things didn't happen a different way.
Sunday, December 22, 2002
Saturday, December 21, 2002
Friday, December 20, 2002
Pulitzer prize winner. Excellent, very well written book that confirms how incredibly precarious the US was at the time it was founded. In the intro, Ellis describes the founding as "an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck - both good and bad - and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome." And how the framework for our political institutions that was "built in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction."
Thursday, December 19, 2002
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Great story of Amundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole. The contrast between the very practical Amundsen (who won the race and survived the trip) and the arrogant Scott (who did neither) is amazing.
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Monday, December 16, 2002
Very entertaining autobiographical anecdotes by the Nobel-prize-winning physicist who has a fantastic sense of humor and a child’s sense of playfulness. I also enjoyed What Do You Care What Other People Think?
My favorite of Conroy's – about a kid at military school. I also really enjoyed Prince of Tides. The Water is Wide is another great Conroy story – about a year he spent teaching on an impoverished island off the coast of S. Carolina. It’s scary that there are parts of the country seemingly living in a different time - but it’s a good story and well-written. I didn’t like Beach Music much.
Sunday, December 15, 2002
Saturday, December 14, 2002
Friday, December 13, 2002
Thursday, December 12, 2002
One of my all-time favorites. I first read Atlas when I was 12 or 13 and then reread it every few years into my twenties. In a 1991 Library of Congress survey, a majority of Americans named it second only to the Bible as the book that had most influenced their lives. I also enjoyed the The Fountainhead.
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
About the space program by one of the earliest mission control flight directors (Gene Kranz was played by Ed Harris in the Apollo 13 movie... He was the guy who wore a white vest in mission control.) Not very well written, nor particularly insightful, and I would've liked more detail in several places (but I'm a space junkie, so I'm not representative of the broader audience this was obviously written for.) Nonetheless, interesting reading about very young, very smart guys, who carried enormous responsibilities while constantly working on the bleeding edge of technology...and obviously performed amazing feats. Imagine NASA as a start-up.
Tuesday, December 10, 2002
Gergen has been a Washington insider for decades, during which he’s worked closely with 4 presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton). In this book, he offers his assessment and insights on the leadership qualities of these 4 men.
Monday, December 09, 2002
Sunday, December 08, 2002
Historical novel about Charles Fremont (explorer and first (? or at least very early) governor of California. Also read Eagle's Cry, Nevin's novel about the Louisiana Purchase but didn't like it as much. Maybe because of personal interest rather than the content of the book, though.
Saturday, December 07, 2002
Smart, entertaining book about 2 women in different centuries; story revolves around a chess set. Entertaining novel. Very clever. Her second and third novels, A Calculated Risk and The Magic Circle, were bad and worse.
Friday, December 06, 2002
Applies epidemiology to social change. Very easy read and fascinating. Also, check out Gladwell’s web site (www.gladwell.com) for the random, interesting articles he’s written for the New Yorker. (A few of these articles were the foundation for Tipping Point.)
Thursday, December 05, 2002
Wednesday, December 04, 2002
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Clever, well-written mystery. It's a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Godel, Escher, Bach. And if you know anything about art/art history (which I don't), you'll probably like it even more, since the art world is the backdrop. I’ve subsequently read the rest of his books – all of which were disappointing.
Monday, December 02, 2002
Denby is a 40-something movie critic who returns to Columbia Univ. to take the Humanities Literature and Western Civ classes that all students are required to take. The book is about his thoughts on the books, the class discussions, the profs and the students as he takes these classes again 25 yrs after he took them as a freshman - and obviously with a perspective including 25 more years of "life experience".
Sunday, December 01, 2002
Krakauer is an experienced climber and writer for Outside Magazine who joined a 1996 Mt Everest expedition to write about the commercialization of the mountain. This is his first-hand account of the disasterous expedition on which 8 people died. Krakauer’s Into the Wild was also ok in a bizarre, 'rubbernecking at a car-wreck' type of way.
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
46 Pages by Scott Liell – About the remarkable impact that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet (which was only 46 pages long) had on changing the mood of the colonies in early 1776 - leading up to the Declaration of Independence in July.
109 East Palace by Jennet Connant - About day-to-day life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, told from the perspective of Dorothy McKibben, the woman who ran the "front office" for Los Alamos in a storefront in Santa Fe. Despite the seriousness of the work being done, the absurdities of life in this remote and highly secret campus were often funny. Eg, a wedding in which only the first names of the bride and groom could be used in the vows because of the required secrecy surrounding the project (Well-known scientists had aliases to use in Santa Fe or when traveling); or the 12 feet of mattresses that were piled under the first nuclear bomb as it was raised up to the platform for the test at Trinity (in case the hoist broke and the bomb fell, it would have a "soft landing".) Though often somewhat overly-reverential about Oppenheimer, Connant offers an interesting and light perspective on the 2+ yrs of the Manhattan Project. (For a fantastic book on the scientists and science of the Manhattan Project, read Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. see my blurb.)
Absolutely American by David Lipsky – Lipsky was given unprecedented access to follow a class through West Point. Interesting book about kids who chose a very different college experience. The class he followed graduated in 2002, so Sept 11 had different implications for them than for that class at most other colleges.
Action Inquiry by Bill Torbert – I haven't read much in the last several months, and I struggled through this book; the writing is dry but the content is good - and I'll re-read it when I get a chance. It's about creating an environment in which people and organizations learn and develop.
Adventure Divas by Holly Morris – The author adventure-travelled the world to create what became an award-winning PBS series about women who are literally changing the world – in Cuba, Iran, New Zealand and India. In between trips for the Adventure Diva series, to make some money, she takes jobs with Lonely Planet & other documentaries to hunt headhunters in Borneo, climb the Matterhorn, and cross the Sahara. Fun, funny and fascinating.
All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs by Elie Wiesel – After re-reading Night a few months ago, I became curious about how that experience shaped the adult Elie Weisel. This is the first volume of his two-volume autogiography, covering from his childhood to 1969. He describes his happy childhood in Romania, during which he was a devout student. The chapter on the concentration camps is followed by a short chapter on how/what to believe in after experiencing such horrors. Following the war, he lives in a French orphanage, then becomes a journalist and writer so that he can testify to his experience and support Jewish/Israeli causes:
My people’s quest was mine; its memory my country. Everything that happens to it affects me. I have lived its anguish and been scorched by the fire of its dreams. I belonged to the community of night, the kingdom of the dead, and henceforth I would also belong to the wonderous, exhilirating community of the eternal city of David. It is incumbent upon the Jewish writer to be witness to all that has haunted the people of Israel from its beginnings. That is his role – not to judge but to testify. And in our tradition the responsibilities of the witness are greater than those of the judge; if the testimony is true, the verdict will be just.As expected, a very powerful memoir.
All too Human by George Stephanopolous - interesting insider's view of the Clinton White House. Well-written and it came across as pretty honest.
America Afire by Bernard Weisberger. About the contested (and nasty)election of 1800 between Jefferson & Adams. Was particularly interesting in light of the election of 2000.
An American Life by Ronald Reagan. A folksy, engaging autobiography – that also demonstrated there was more below the surface than most people gave him credit for.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt - Like anyone not living under a rock for the last few years, I’d heard the rave reviews about Angela’s Ashes (pulitzer prize winner in 1997) – but wasn’t particularly interested in reading about what McCourt calls in the third line of the book a “miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” But despite what was absolutely a miserable childhood (abject poverty, constant hunger, alcoholic father, etc.), McCourt tells the story through his eyes as a child, and his spirit and humor shine through. Everything the rave reviews said about this book are true. This is an amazing book that McCourt didn’t write till he was 66 years old(!)
Another Day in the Frontal Lobe by Katrina Firlik – I was curious about an “inside look” at being a neurosurgeon, so I opened it and read the first paragraph:
The brain is soft. Some of my colleagues compare it to toothpaste, but that’s not quite right. It doesn’t spread like toothpaste. It doesn’t adhere to your fingers the way toothpaste does. Tofu - the soft variety, if you know tofu - may be a more accurate comparison.This is an engaging and entertaining perspective from one of only ~200 female neurosurgeons (out of a total of ~4,500) in the US.
April 1865 by Jay Winik – This month included the fall of Richmond, Lee’s distinguished surrender to Grant, handled (amazingly) graciously by Grant, Lincoln’s assasination and more. Like the founding era, this book illustrates again that the US is astoundingly lucky to have men of such remarkable character in key positions at critical times. Winik’s writing is overly dramatic, but the content is well worth ignoring his irritating writing style.
Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox – This book is the amazing story of the people who actually made Apollo happen. While most books about Apollo focus on the astronauts and high-level figures at NASA, this book (based on interviews and documents,) tells the story of the managers and engineers who achieved fantastic feats of systems engineering and technological development and integration to make Apollo possible. Fantastic book.
Assault in Norway by Thomas Gallagher – Astounding true story of a handful of Norwegians on a mission in 1942 to sabotage the world’s largest “heavy water” plant, which was being operated by the Germans in Norway. (“Heavy water” is a key ingredient for building atomic bombs.) This book reads like a good thriller and, at times, the suspense and coincidences, etc. might seem overdone – if it wasn’t true.
Beyond the Deep by William Stone & Barbara am Ende – This book is about a 1994 expedition to explore the Sistema Huautla, a cave system in Mexico, which – at ~35 miles long and almost 5,000 ft. deep - is the deepest cave in the Americas, and the 5th deepest in the world (as of 2002, when the book was published.) Think of mountaineering expeditions – but underground. There were 44 people on this expedition, who carried massive amounts of equipment into the caves, while doing some pretty hairy rappelling in and around waterfalls. They also spent significant amounts of time route-finding through flooded tunnels using a technology Stone had invented to allow them to recycle their own breath (rather than hauling huge numbers of scuba tanks with them.) The one “camp” sounded like it was hammocks hanging off bolts in the cave walls above an underground river. (Not a good place to be in a flash flood!). Stone and Ende lived underground for 44 days during this expedition. This is not something that’s on my list to do - but the book was interesting and engaging.
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – Michael Lewis is back with another book about a sport that's interesting and entertaining even for people who don't follow the sport (see Moneyball blurb.) This time, the sport is football. Lewis describes an interesting shift in the value of the left tackle, the player who protects the quarterback's "blind" side (left side for right-handed QBs). In addition to being valuable simply because they protect a highly-paid quarterback from getting crushed, the best players in this role have a "freakish" combination of size, agility and speed that makes them rare even among top atheletes. Much of this book is about Michael Oher, now a college player who has this rare combination of talents. When he was 15, Oher was living on the streets of Memphis, and through a random series of events ends up going to a private school and living with a wealthy white family, who encourage and support him through high school, and help him through the bizarre frenzy of college football recruiting. An interesting and very easy read.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Another quick, entertaining read from Gladwell (see Tipping Point below). This one’s about the “power of thinking without thinking” ie, instantaneous decision-making. Unfortunately, much sizzle but little steak… Lots of interesting examples, but weak on real explanations.
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon – This is my random gem of last year. Not sure where I stumbled into this book, but I loved it. William Least Heat Moon loses his job (as an English professor) and his wife walks out on him at about the same time, so he decides to travel around the country on the “blue highways” (those marked in blue on the maps). This book is about his 13,000 mile journey in a van he named Ghost Dancing. It’s a very well-written, insightful, often very funny travelog that’s generously sprinkled with quotes from Whitman (and others.) A great read.
Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks – Insightful, easy to read, and often funny commentary on today’s cultural elite (the bourgeois bohemians) which is based on brainpower and personal accomplishment rather than family lines.
The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski – About the evolution of books and bookshelves, with emphasis on bookshelves. Slow in places where he delves into gory detail on how the certain shelves were constructed, etc., (the author’s an engineer) but I’d never thought about how books and bookshelves have changed over time.
Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammett – Tammett is a 27-year-old autistic savant with Ausperger’s syndrome (Think “Rain Man” - but he functions better in every-day life.) He can do amazing mathematical calculations in seconds, has an unbelievable memory (pi to the 22,514th digit), and can learn languages (like Icelandic) in a week. He also has synesthesia, which means he experiences numbers as shapes, colors, textures and motions. This is a very engaging book about a remarkable young guy.
Boy Genius by Carl Cannon - About Karl Rove. Whatever you think of Rove or the Bush administration, Rove has had an enormous impact on Texas politics during the last 20 yrs and on Bush’s success. This book is an interesting, quick read that describes Rove’s strategies and tactics which, while successful, often demonstrate a nasty “whatever it takes to win” mentality.
Bush at War by Bob Woodward. Interesting perspective on the goings-on in the Bush Administration from Sept 11 through late 2001.
Cadillac Desert - great book about water policy in the western US, which I read while backpacking in the desert of SE Utah. Fascinating read.
Chasing Daylight by Gene O'Kelly - Gene O'Kelly, the 53 yr-old CEO of KPMG, was a highly successful, type-A workaholic - until he went for a checkup and was told he had advanced brain cancer and maybe 3 months to live. In the ~100 days between that diagnosis and his death, Kelly wrote this book - about being present, enjoying "perfect moments", about balance and about acceptance. Not particularly well written and pretty disjointed at times, but definitely worth reading.
Cleopatra's Nose by Daniel Boorstin - Boorstin is a historian and was librarian of congress for years. He has written prolifically and I've enjoyed everything of his I've read (also see The Discoverers). This is a series of essays subtitled Essays on the Unexpected, in which he “uncovers the elements of accident, improvisation and contradiction at the core of American institutions and beliefs.”
A Cook’s Tour (Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisine) by Anthony Bourdain - This (in)famous chef (thanks to his other book, Kitchen Confidential) sets out on a far-flung journey to find the perfect meal - and ends up eating some meals that sound like episodes of Fear Factor. But it’s all very entertaining.
The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll – This book was originally written in 1989, and since it’s about hackers and networks (pre-internet, as we know it today), it’s definitely dated – but a fun read. Stoll is an astrophysicist working as a system manager, and notices a 75c accounting discrepancy. He spends 2 years obsessively tracking what turns out to be a German hacker involved in industrial espionage.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey – After about two weeks of gray, dreary weather, including the worst ice-storm in Austin history - 3 days of temps below freezing and the city literally shut down under a coat of ice (yes, 3 days of temps in the 20s and an inch or two of ice is considered an “ice-storm” around here…. Gotta love winter in Texas :-) – I wanted to read about somewhere warm and sunny. What better choice than reading about the desert and canyonlands of SE Utah - one of my favorite spots on earth. I read Desert Solitaire years ago, while on a 4-week backpacking trip in that part of the country, and - while there’s something special about reading a book about wherever you are - I enjoyed it (almost) as much this time around. Abbey says that his intent is “not imitation but evocation” and in this he’s very successful. He captures the slickrock desert and canyons beautifully, including a great chapter about rafting down Glen Canyon (which was drowned when Glen Canyon Dam was built.) He writes that “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit…” and while he’s somewhat excessive, he’s not entirely wrong in his railing against the “improvements” that the Park Service has made - but which diminish the wilderness. Definitely a great read.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – True story of the the architect who designed and oversaw construction for the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and a serial killer who was murdering women in that neighborhood at the same time. The serial murderer part is bizarre, but the story of the fair is interesting. Reads like fiction.
The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin - I re-read this recently, and - like the first time I read it - it was great. Essentially a history of science, but in classic Boorstin fashion, it's not a boring time-line of what happened when. He takes the time to go into detail about people and discoveries that he thinks are particularly interesting or important. And he asks (and answers) interesting questions - particularly the questions about why things didn't happen a different way.
Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley – describes a mescaline trip and Huxley’s musings on the nature of perception. (random trivia: Jim Morrison’s band derived their named from this book.)
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama – Since he’s by far the current front-runner for my vote in next year’s election, I decided to read Obama’s first book – written long before he was running for President. The book is more personal than I expected. As expected, though, it’s very well-written, thoughtful and insightful – and in the “discovering yourself” category, Obama definitely had a lot more complexity to deal with than most people, and wrote about it in a compelling way. But the last quarter of the book - about his pre-law school trip to Kenya - really dragged. Earlier in the book, the detail he included was interesting and provided texture to his insights; in the last section, it was just too much detail and was…. well, boring. Overall, though, I enjoyed it. And his other book is already on the pile of books next to my bed.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – After a horrible divorce, Gilbert spends a year traveling – 4 months of hedonistic existence in Italy, then 4 months at an ashram in India, then 4 months finding “balance” in Bali. The author often tries too hard to be funny/cute/clever, which makes the book seem pretty superficial and glib - but I enjoyed it.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. If you notice when people use “it’s” instead of “its”, you’ll enjoy this book. A witty, gentle rant on the use and misuse of punctuation. Who’da thunk a book about punctuation would ever be a best-seller!?
Ethics for the New Millennium by the Dalai Lama –an approach to ethics based on universal, rather than religious principles.
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman – a well-written and witty collection of 18 essays about books and language. The first essay is about how, after 5 years of marriage and a child, she and her husband decide they’re “ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation.” Then came the issue of how the co-mingled books should be organized. Other essays are about shopping at a secondhand bookstore (from which she buys 19lbs of books), her family and the word games they play (eg, competing to find typos on menus), and the pleasure of reading a book in the location that it describes. A fun and entertaining read.
Eyewitness to Power by David Gergen. Gergen has been a Washington insider for decades, during which he’s worked closely with 4 presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton). In this book, he offers his assessment and insights on the leadership qualities of these 4 men.
Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene – Offers a great explanation of cutting-edge cosmology for non-physicists. Greene goes through the history of cosmology and quantum physics as background for his explanation of string-theory/M-theory, 10-dimensional space, etc. Excellent use of analogies and unexpectedly sprinkled with humor and fun pop-culture references. I already have his other book (The Elegant Universe) in my pile of books to read.
Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz. About the space program by one of the earliest mission control flight directors (Gene Kranz was played by Ed Harris in the Apollo 13 movie... He was the guy who wore a white vest in mission control.) Not very well written, nor particularly insightful, and I would've liked more detail in several places (but I'm a space junkie, so I'm not representative of the broader audience this was obviously written for.) Nonetheless, interesting reading about very young, very smart guys, who carried enormous responsibilities while constantly working on the bleeding edge of technology...and obviously performed amazing feats. Imagine NASA as a start-up.
Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Interesting book about being more engaged in everyday life, rather than passively floating along. (“Finding flow” is like being in “the zone”.)
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis (pulitzer prize winner) - excellent, very well written book that confirms how incredibly precarious the US was at the time it was founded. In the intro, Ellis describes the founding as "an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck - both good and bad - and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome." And how the framework for our political institutions that was "built in a sudden spasm of enforced inspiration and makeshift construction."
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman – Friedman was pulitzer-prize winning NYT correspondent in Beirut and then Jerusalem beween 1979 & 1989. Excellent book on the dynamics of that part of the world.
Full Circle by Luis Sepulveda – Another book I started before my trip to Chile… An engaging travelog by a Chilean novelist who spent 3 years in a Chilean prison as a political prisoner and was exiled in the mid-70’s. His travel adventures in South America – and especially those in Patagonia – and stories about the very colorful characters he met are very entertaining. This is a fun, light read.
Genome by Matt Ridley - Fascinating, easy-to-read story about the human genome and the impact of mutations.
Good To Great by Jim Collins – Excellent book. Collins has a very simple prescription for creating great companies. I also enjoyed his previous book, Built to Last.
Great Books by David Denby. Denby is a 40-something movie critic who returns to Columbia Univ. to take the Humanities Literature and Western Civ classes that all students are required to take. The book is about his thoughts on the books, the class discussions, the profs and the students as he takes these classes again 25 yrs after he took them as a freshman - and obviously with a perspective including 25 more years of "life experience".
The Headmaster by John McPhee – This is the story of Frank Boyden, the headmaster of Deerfield Academy - a prep school that now competes with Andover and Exeter. Boyden was headmaster of Deerfield from 1902, (when the school had 14 students,) to 1968. Interesting profile of an interesting man and the institution he created.
Honeymoon with my Brother by Franz Wisner – After being dumped by his fiance right before the wedding and being demoted at work, the author takes his brother on his already paid-for honeymoon to Costa Rica, where the brothers are inspired to go home, sell their assets, and travel around the world for a couple of years. Entertaining read.
How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker - explains the complexity of the mind and why it's so incredibly hard to make a computer do what your mind does.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer – combining neuroscience and entertaining writing, Lehrer describes how the best decisions are a combination of rational and emotional decision-making processes. Fascinating and very easy to read.
In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan – A fascinating view on developmental psychology. Kegan describes the evolution of mental models/capacities of children, adolescents, and adults, and the dynamic relationship between capacities and cultural demands. The writing is pretty esoteric and academic at times. In the preface, he describes telling his father when his first book was translated into German and Korean. His father responded, “Great! Now when will it be translated into English?” Yeah, there’s still some of that going on, but in general, he used good examples to illustrate his points and the model he describes is definitely thought-provoking. I’ve already gone back and re-read several sections of this book – some parts more than once - and I suspect it’s a book I’ll be returning to for a while.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer is an experienced climber and writer for Outside Magazine who joined a 1996 Mt Everest expedition to write about the commercialization of the mountain. This is his first-hand account of the disasterous expedition on which 8 people died. Krakauer’s Into the Wild was also ok in a bizarre, 'rubbernecking at a car-wreck' type of way.
John Adams by David McCullough - You’ve heard the rave reviews of this recent McCullough tome, so suffice it to say that this is an excellent book about a fascinating man. And no matter how busy and productive you think you are, John Adams will make you feel like a slacker.
Julie & Julia by Julie Powell – Flaky, almost 30-yr-old New Yorker with a boring, dead-end job decides to cook every recipe (524 of them) in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. So for a year, she cooks and blogs about it. Very amusing and sometimes laugh out loud funny.
The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs – About the year that the author spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica – and then hilariously trying to figure out how to use his new-found knowledge. Quirky, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and (obviously) packed with information about random (though alphabetically organized) stuff you never knew you knew nothing about.
Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford. Great story of Amundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole. The contrast between the very practical Amundsen (who was won the race and survived the trip) and the arrogant Scott (who did neither) is amazing.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – This is a series of letters Rilke wrote between 1903 & 1908 to a young would-be poet. Rilke offers advice on life, love, being an artist, etc.
Longitude by Dava Sobel – fascinating book about the problem of figuring out longitude while at sea, and the guy who successfully built clocks that would keep time on board ships to solve this problemt. Read the book to understand why clocks mattered :-)
Longitudes & Attitudes by Thomas Friedman – mostly a collection of Friedman’s NYT columns following Sept 11, but also includes a diary he kept during that time. Insightful, thought-provoking and well-written. (also see From Beirut to Jerusalem below)
Made in America by Bill Bryson – a fascinating history of American English. Packed with excellent, useless trivia about etymology and, of course, Bryson’s humor.
The Making of Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes - Excellent pulitzer prize-winning book. Heavy stuff (figuratively and literally; it’s 800 pages!), but an amazing story about extraordinary people. Well-written, and remarkably easy to read.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Vicktor Frankl – This is an amazing book. The first part of the book is about the 3 years Frankl spent in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. The second part of the book describes “logotherapy”, his psychological theory based on man’s “will to meaning”.
Mauve by Simon Garfield – Excellent story of William Perkin, who invented mauve, which was the first synthetic color, and which took the fashion world by storm. (Until that time, dyes were made from various natural sources – roots, leaves, insects, etc. – and were often expensive to get and produced inconsistent colors.) By demonstrating a very practical (and very profitable for him) use of chemistry, Perkin essentially created the field of industrial chemistry.
Men of Salt by Michael Benanav – After hearing that trucks are threatening extinction of the 1,000 year-old camel-driven “caravan of white gold” (referring to rock salt) in the Sahara desert, the author goes on a 40-day trip with a camel caravan from Timbuktu to the salt mines at Taoudenni. Interesting, quick reading and very entertaining.
Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson - a personal account of neurobiology that’s very engaging and extremely easy to read. Johnson tries several of the latest techniques in neurobiological testing, and discusses the geography and chemistry of the brain – and the implications for our behavior and emotions. Fascinating read.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis – I’m not a baseball fan and I don’t read books about baseball. But this book was fantastic – about a baseball GM who uses takes a different perspective on player statistics and builds powerhouse teams on extremely small budgets. Way more interesting than either of Lewis’ previous books: Liar’s Poker (which was amusing for 5 mins) and The New, New Thing (about Jim Clark & Silicon Valley.)
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – A very light, quick read about Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 20’s – writing in cafes, walking along the Seine, being hungry and broke, skiing in the Alps, etc. He tells stories about his interactions with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Beach (who owned the Shakespeare & Co book store.) He ends the book saying, “This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” If you’re at all interested in the literary expat community in Paris in the 20s, you’ll probably like this book (even if you’re not a Hemingway fan.)
My Losing Season by Pat Conroy - I don’t read many sports books, but this one was written by Pat Conroy, so I couldn’t resist. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book starts:
“I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one. There was a time in my life when I walked through the world known to myself and others as an athlete. It was part of my own definition of who I was and certainly the part I most respected. When I was a young man I was well built and agile and ready for the rough-and-tumble of games, and athletics provided the single outlet for a repressed and preternaturally shy boy to express himself in public. Games allowed me to introduce myself to people who had never heard me speak out loud, to earn their praise without uttering a single word. I lost myself in the beauty of sport and made my family proud while passing through the silent eye of the storm that was my childhood.”
This book is primarily about Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at The Citadel military school, but also includes flashbacks to earlier in his childhood. He writes about how he felt and what he learned from that season, about the spirit with which he and his teammates played and bonded, and handled their often abusive coach, and about the joy they felt at playing the game. Another great book from Conroy.
Nabokov’s Butterfly by Rick Gekoski – A rare book dealer, Gekoski tells the stories of 20 major books that he’s handled in his career. Very fun reading.
Night by Elie Wiesel – With the new translation that was just published, I re-read Night, and was again amazed by the power of this little book.
Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux – With a trip to Patagonia planned in Nov, I tried some of the travel literature related to Patagonia. First read In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, a classic of travel literature - but found it boring and disjointed. Then read Old Patagonian Express about Theroux’s trip by train from Boston to Patagonia. It’s not really about Patagonia – but I really enjoyed Theroux’s eye for detail, sense of humor and writing style.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan – This book has been on every “Best of 2006” list I’ve seen, and it’s worth all the hype it’s getting. It’s fantastic. The book is about 4 meals and the food chains that supply those meals. The 4 meals are from McDonalds, from Whole Foods, from a local, “sustainable organic” farm, and a meal that the author hunted & gathered himself. Parts of this book are astounding – like the extent to which corn and petrochemicals create the foundation for most of the US’s food supply, (Yup – you read that right) incentivized, of course, by inane government policies lobbied for by big agribusiness, the petrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the soft drink industry, and others. (You read that right, too.) And in today’s news, the FDA gave preliminary approval for meat and milk from cloned animals – and is ‘unlikely’ to require labelling of these foods (I kid you not. See FDA OK's food from cloned animals.)
The book also offers interesting insights into the complexities of sustainable farming and the interactions between various aspects of the farm (and the natural world in general). There’s a fascinating section about mushrooms – about which we know surprisingly little.
This book is very well-written and engaging. I guarantee you’ll think about food differently after reading it. (And you’ll find me at the local farmer’s market when I do my shopping on saturday morning :-)
One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick – Fick graduated from Dartmouth (classics major) and joined the Marines in search of adventure, since “there was no longer a place in the world for a young man who wanted to wear armor and slay dragons.” Fascinating account of his training as a Marine officer, deployment in Afghanistan and then to Iraq, where his reconnaissance battalion helped spearhead the invasion. Well-written and insightful.
Personal History - Katherine Graham's Pulitzer prize winning autobiography - First third is pretty boring - socialite girl, growing up and getting married. Then her husband commits suicide and she takes over running the Washington Post. Great story.
Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam - Excellent book about Michael Jordon and the NBA.
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby – Subtitled “A hilarious and true account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.” (Know what he means?) This is a collection of 14 of his monthly columns/reviews. Be forewarned that this book will add to your list of books to read.
The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald - This one almost landed in the reject pile, but – although there were several things I didn’t like about this book – I did like the simple concept. The book provides alternatives to the The Karpman Drama Triangle roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer - negative roles driven by fear. The alternatives offered are Creator, Challenger and Coach - positive roles driven by passion in pursuit of a vision/goal, which create a different approach and energy. The concept is very simple and could’ve been presented in an article. It definitely doesn’t need a whole book. And I don’t like fable-style books, so I didn’t like the way it was written. The concept, though, has broad applicability in our culture where a ridiculous number of people/groups seek out and claim victimhood.
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – An interesting account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the man who, while institutionalized in an insane asylum, submitted over 10,000 of the quotations used as examples. Very easy reading; it reads like a novel.
Raid on the Sun by Rodger Claire – Fantastic true account of Israel’s 1981 audacious and successful bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. This was the first mission of Israel’s new F-16s, and the required distance to fly and the weights of the planes were way beyond design specs – yet the mission was a total success and the reactor was completely destroyed. We can all be thankful that this mission destroyed Saddam Hussein’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium in 1981. Written with the cooperation of the Israeli Air Force, including interviews with the pilots who flew the mission, this reads like fiction. Great story.
River of Doubt by Candace Millard – Interesting account of a trip by Teddy Roosevelt down the River of Doubt, a previously unexplored tributary of the Amazon. Has to be one of the worst-planned trips ever (who leaves their lightweight canoes behind when they’re planning to travel down an unexplored river???) While this trip almost killed Roosevelt, he’d been looking for an adventure – and he found one.
Setting the World Ablaze by John Ferling. A comparative biography of three key players in the American Revolution – Washington, Adams and Jefferson.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder - True story about the search for a ship that sank somewhere off the East Coast in 1857 with 21 tons(!) of gold on board. It's about an entrepreneur/scientist who puts together the venture for this search (including inventing all sorts of new technology, private funding, building his team, etc.) and how they found the ship in 1989. Fascinating story, well written. I couldn't put it down.
Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – This is an enjoyable, funny, educational sprint through science’s “big questions” - how the universe was created, the laws of physics, how life was formed, the rise of homo sapiens, etc. Not as funny as A Walk in the Woods (see 2002 blurbs), but certainly more educational.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby – When I ran aross this book in a bookstore, I bought it because I’d vaguely heard of it (though I had absolutely no idea what I’d heard) and the hugely understated title struck me as very amusing. (Who describes any trip in the Himalayas as a “short walk”?) Newby’s very British understatement and his dry sense of humor made me laugh out loud at times. After 10 yrs in the fashion industry in London, Newby decides he wants to go on an “expedition” and invites a friend, who suggests they go to north-eastern Afghanistan (a region where no Englishmen have been in >50 yrs.) Newby writes:
“I was filled with profound misgiving. In cold print 20,000 feet does not seem very much. Every year more and more expeditions climb peaks of 25,000 feet, and over. In the Himalayas a mountain of this size is regarded as an absolute pimple, unworthy of serious consideration. But I had never climbed anything. It was true that I had done some hill walking and a certain amount of scrambling in the Dolomites with my wife, but nowhere had we failed to encounter ladies twice our age armed with umbrellas.”To mitigate this lack of experience, they took 4 days of climbing lessons in Wales before heading to Afghanistan. (Yeah, I’m sure that really helped!) Regardless, Newby survived the trip to write this funny classic in the travel genre.
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman – Very entertaining autobiographical anecdotes by the Nobel-prize-winning physicist who has a fantastic sense of humor and a child’s sense of playfulness. I also enjoyed What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Sixpence House by Paul Collins – Collins moves from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a village known for having a population of 1,500 and 40 bookstores. Very amusing.
Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman – First third is about the Culinary Institute of America’s ‘master chef’ exam (which sounds like one of those cooking reality shows), and the other two-thirds about two top chefs – one running a restaurant called Lola’s in Cleveland and Thomas Keller, the chef at French Laundry in Napa. Interesting and entertaining.
The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley – I picked up this book because I liked the title, and decided to buy it as soon as I saw the intro was written by W.H. Auden. Excellent decision… I was blown away by this book. Eiseley is a naturalist, anthropologist, scientist, environmentalist, historian, poet (and more), and his writing is fantastic! This is a collection of his favorite essays (and a few poems). He describes the natural world with wonder, beauty and spirituality. I read this book slowly, savoring every sentence.
A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell – The first line of this book (“How do we become who we are?”) caught my eye, and I really enjoyed this very well-written memoir by a pulitzer prize winning book critic for the Boston Globe. She grew up in Amarillo in the 1950’s and 60’s, and writes about how her family, her love of literature, and how the politics of the time shaped her.
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert – Our imaginations are what distinguish people from other animals and enable us to create visions/predictions for our futures, and what we think would make us happy. Gilbert describes how our minds work - and how incredibly bad our accuracy is in these predictions. This is a fascinating, very easy read.
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt – About the 36 years McCourt spent as a public school teacher in NYC. McCourt’s writing style and gentle humor are wonderful. Though the third in McCourt’s trilogy, this was the first of McCourt’s book I read and I liked it so much, I immediately read Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis (see below).
Team of Rivals by Gail Kearns Goodwin – absolutely fantastic book about Lincoln and the 3 men he ran against for the republican nomination in 1860. He was an extremely unlikely candidate and was disdained and looked down upon by all 3 who were strong, nationally known figures. Yet he won the nomination and convinced all 3 of them to join his cabinet, and over time, earned their respect and admiration. Lincoln’s leadership and political genius were astounding. I had a week of extremely abbreviated sleep as I couldn’t put this book down.
A Theory of Everything by Ken Wilber – subtitled “An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality”, Wilber integrates … well, everything. His vision includes “matter, body, mind, soul and spirit as they appear in self, culture and nature… [and] embraces science, art and morals.” Much of the book is a fascinating overview of developmental psychology applied to individuals and cultures/societies, and then he describes some applications of his theory (which are illustrative, though somewhat superficial.) Interesting stuff.
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson – After a failed attempt at K2 in 1993, Greg Mortenson got sick and lost coming down the mountain and was nursed back to health in the town of Korphe, Pakistan. In return, he promised to build them a school – which he did - and has subsequently built over 50 schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fascinating book about a guy who’s making a real difference.
Time was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer – Mercer was a journalist who published the name of a source who subsequently threatened his life, so he went to Paris for a while and ended up living and working at the legendary bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., with some very colorful characters.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Applies epidemiology to social change. Very easy read and fascinating. Also, check out Gladwell’s web site for the random, interesting articles he’s written for the New Yorker. (A few of these articles were the foundation for Tipping Point.)
‘Tis by Frank McCourt – Angela’s Ashes ends and ‘Tis starts when McCourt is 19, and emmigrates from Ireland to New York. As tough as his childhood was, I felt worse for him after he arrives in NY and he feels so completely out of place – but he eventually goes to college and finds his place (as a teacher). Another great memoir from McCourt.
To Conquer the Air by James Tobin – About the race to fly. Everyone knows the Wright Brothers won, but the story is fantastic. The brothers took a very meticulous approach and were competing against contemporary luminaries like the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (who spent >$70k on his attempts vs. the Wright Brothers’ expenses of <$1k), and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as a bunch of French competitors. Even after the Wright Bros’ successful flights at Kitty Hawk, it was years before they got the recognition they deserved. Really great story. Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson – With an approach largely shaped by Zen Buddhism and Native American principles, Phil Jackson brought “mindful” basketball to the NBA. Fascinating look at how an alternative approach had great success, and fun stories about the Chicago Bulls in the early ‘90’s. Very easy to read.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes – I really enjoyed this book by a woman who buys and renovates a villa in Tuscany. She obviously loves the area and she writes well. Very descriptive and entertaining. Great summer reading.
Vernon Can Read by Vernon Jordan – Interesting memoir of Vernon Jordan, who played major roles in the civil rights movement and was an advisor to several presidents.
What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America by Tony Schwartz – After co-writing The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump and reaching the top of the best-seller lists, Schwartz was trying to figure out why he wasn’t feeling on top of the world. He started meditating and spent the next 4 years experiencing various aspects of the “consciousness movement” including psychadelics, Esalen, biofeedback, Enneagrams, etc.
With Malice Toward None by Stephen Oates. Good, easy to read biography of Lincoln. Oates also wrote a really good, easy to read biography of Martin Luther King (Let the Trumpet Sound) that I read several years ago.
Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Matthews. The KIPP charter schools around the country are doing an outstanding job of engaging and educating low-income kids with phenomenal results. This book is about the founders of KIPP and the creation of the program. This is what education should be. No doubt these schools are changing kids' lives. An easy, inspiring read that provides a glimmer of hope for the US public education system.
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki – These are transcripts of exerpts from informal lectures on Zen by the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and a key player in the American Zen tradition.
Absolute Power by David Baldacci - I think this is the best of his novels. Though the others are also good airplane reading.
Angels & Demons & Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Very clever, reasonably well written thrillers. Despite the hype about Da Vinci Code, I thought Angels & Demons was better. Also read his earlier 2 books, Deception Point and Digital Fortress, which were ok, but not as good.
Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. My favorite writer. Great stories, beautifully written.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand - one of my all-time favorites. I first read Atlas when I was 12 or 13 and then reread it every few years into my twenties. In a 1991 Library of Congress survey, a majority of Americans named it second only to the Bible as the book that had most influenced their lives. I also enjoyed the The Fountainhead.
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg - When, much to everyone’s amazement, Eliza Naumann, the under-achiever in her odd family, wins her school’s spelling bee and then the subsequent state spelling bee, the dynamics of her family change, and the family begins to unravel. There were some parts of the book (particularly in the first half ) where the author spends too much time describing Eliza’s study of words - and the book drags. Not one of my favorite books, but I’m glad I stuck with it.
“Burglar” books by Lawrence Block – eg, Burglars Can’t be Choosers, The Burglar who Studied Spinoza, The Burglar who Liked to Quote Kipling, The Burglar in the Rye, etc. The main character is a bookseller by day, burglar by night and, of course, something always goes awry involving him in a mystery, which he solves with a whimsical, dry sense of humor.
The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer – One of the better airplane books I’ve read in a while. A young aide is injured during an assassination attempt on the President, and a close friend of the President’s is killed. Eight years later, the aide sees the supposedly dead friend of the President – and then (of course), he has to figure out what’s going on. It’s engaging and entertaining.
Brothers K by David James Duncan – About a family in the 1950’s and 60’s. The youngest son, who narrates, describes it as “the story of an eight-way tangle of human beings.” The very different characters go in very different directions, but at the core, they’re tangled together as a family. It’s well written and Duncan’s phraseology is often very creative (eg, describing a family road trip as “pre posthumous purgatory”.) I also really enjoyed his first book, The River Why, and his more recent collection of short fiction and nonfiction, River Teeth.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner - This is the only novel by Stegner that I’d never read. It’s a somewhat autobiographical account of his brutal childhood. His abusive, itinerant father is constantly chasing his latest get-rich-quick scheme, dragging his family behind him and getting more bitter at each failure. His ever-loyal mother always has an excuse for his father’s behavior. And the two sons who hate their father, love their mother, and are just trying to get through their childhood. The writing is very good (though not Stegner’s best), and it’s a book worth reading – but it’s not one of my favorites of Stegner’s.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - I finally got around to reading this book that everyone raved about when it was published - and it turned out to be a great start for 2007. Written from the perspective of an autistic 15-yr old, it’s interesting, clever and funny in a very gentle way. Definitely worth reading.
A Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester – At a loss for how to describe this book, I turned to Amazon’s editorial reviews, and they said it better than I could: “A gorgeous, dark, and sensuous book that is part cookbook, part novel, part eccentric philosophical treatise … Join Tarquin Winot as he embarks on a journey of the senses, regaling us with his wickedly funny, poisonously opinionated meditations on everything from the erotics of dislike to the psychology of a menu, from the perverse history of the peach to the brutalization of the palate, from cheese as "the corpse of milk" to the binding action of blood.” Keep a dictionary handy; Lanchester’s vocabulary is fantastic. Also read Fragrant Harbor, but it was extremely disappointing; I struggled to even finish it.
Dream West by David Nevin - historical novel about Charles Fremont (explorer and first (? or at least very early) governor of California. Also read Eagle's Cry, Nevin's novel about the Louisiana Purchase but didn't like it as much. Maybe because of personal interest rather than the content of the book, though.
John Dunning novels – The main character is a cop who becomes rare book dealer. The stories are mysteries related to rare books. Fun reading – and the book collecting aspect intrigued me.
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – Powers’ new book (which just won the National Book Award) is about identity and what makes us who we are. A young guy, Mark Schluter, totals his truck on a straight stretch of highway and suffers brain damage resulting in Capgras Syndrome (a real neurological syndrome usually found in schizophrenics), which makes him believe that his sister isn’t really his sister, but is an imposter. His sister contacts an Oliver Sacks-type famous neurologist who gets involved in this unusual case while handling his own identity crisis. And there’s the nurse who seems over-qualified and overly-involved in Mark’s case. And there’s a cryptic note that was mysteriously left at Mark’s bedside while he was in the coma. Many questions, much complexity – but all very well-written and eventually resolved… It’s Powers doing what he does so well. (also see The Gold Bug Variations below.) Check out this interview with Powers in The Believer.
The Eight by Katherine Neville - smart, entertaining book about 2 women in different centuries; story revolves around a chess set. Entertaining novel. Very clever. Her second and third novels, A Calculated Risk and The Magic Circle, were bad and worse.
Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman - Short stories about Einstein day-dreaming about different concepts of time. Incredibly creative book. Also read a book of his essays Dance for Two, which I enjoyed, and his second novel, Good Benito, which I didn’t like much.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea lives on the island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, who came up with the pangram (a sentence containing all letters of the alphabet), “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” As the letters from this sentence fall off a building in the town, the town council decrees that those letters may no longer be used – and they disappear from the book. To regain the use of the full alphabet, the town has to come up with a pangram that’s no longer than 32 letters. It’s a creative, fun read - particularly toward the end, when you’re deciphering letters written without using most of the alphabet.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – Hitchhikers Guide meets the Classics. This is this author’s first novel and it’s great – very clever, well-written, lots of word play, and thoroughly entertaining. Set in an altered version of London in 1985, literature is so important, there’s a division of the “police” that handles “literary crimes” (like forging Byronic verse), time-travel is common, and (some) people can move between the “real” world and the worlds in literature. The heroine is a “Literary Detective” chasing a bad guy who’s kidnapping characters out of literature. I’ve also read his second book “Lost in a Good Book”, and his third (can’t remember the title) but they weren’t as good.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I picked up the 50th anniversary edition of this book, which I hadn’t read since high school, and I loved it. Great story, insightful and foresightful (is that a word?) And his coda in this edition – telling the politically correct types to keep their hands off his writing – is passionately written, very funny and absolutely right on target.
The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Clever, well-written mystery. Great vacation reading. It's a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Godel, Escher, Bach. And if you know anything about art/art history (which I don't), you'll probably like it even more, since the art world is the backdrop. I’ve subsequently read the rest of his books – all of which were disappointing.
Fourth Procedure by Stanley Pottinger - medical thriller with a great plot twist. excellent beach reading. This was his first book. The second one - titled something like "Slow Burning" wasn't nearly as good.
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers – After living in Holland for several years, publishing 4 books, and breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, Powers (the character) returns to the US to be a visiting writer at the midwestern college he’d attended. He gets involved in a project that culminates in an advanced Turing Test. Working with a cognitive neurologist who’s developing a computer neural network, Powers trains this system (named Helen) on the Great Books curriculum that he’d had to study as a grad student. This primary story line is classic Powers – it’s engaging and thought-provoking and very smart.
He simultaneously tells the story of his relationship with the girlfriend he left in Holland, and about a grad student he has a bizarre crush on. These parts of the book were less engaging - though I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects about the writing of his previous books.
As usual, Powers' writing is great. A few of my favorite lines/paragraphs:
What was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? The rest of the afternoon alone seemed unfillable. I went shopping. As always, retail left me with an ice-cream headache. (p32)
Though Taylor, I discovered how a book both mirrored and elicited the mind’s unreal ability to turn inward upon itself. (p141)
It occurred to me: awareness no more permitted its own description than life allowed you a seat at your own funeral. Awareness trapped itself inside itself. The function of consciousness must be in part to dummy up and shape a coherence from all competing, conflicting subsystems that processed experience. By nature, it lied. Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution. (p 218)
I picked up an old microscope at a flea market in Verona… I showed him where to put his eye. I watched him, thinking, this is how we attach to existence. We look through awareness’s tube and see the swarm at the end of the scope, taking what we come upon there for the full field of sight itself. (p226)
Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman – another of these books (like DaVinci Code, Codex, Rule of Four, The Eight, etc.) which weaves history and in this case, alchemy, into a current-day mystery.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson - 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Set in the 1950's, the narrator is a 77-year-old small-town pastor, whose health is failing, so he writes an extended letter to his 6-year-old son - about life, faith, and relationships between fathers and sons. The writing is quiet, insightful and often lyrical. After all the hype about this book, I was skeptical, and although it took me a while to read, I really enjoyed it.
The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers – The first time I started this book, I couldn’t get into it. Second time, I got into it and had a hard time putting it down. The book bounces between 2 timelines – 1950’s and the early study of DNA, and 1980s when a couple is trying to figure out why a very promising young geneticist dropped off the map (in the ‘50’s) and ended up (in the ‘80’s) doing grunt work at a data processing facility. This book is pretty dense and includes (sometimes very detailed) references to everything from music to genetics to art. (The title refers to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Poe’s short story, The Gold Bug.) Not a lot actually happens in the book, but it’s incredibly clever and well-written. I’ve bought several of his other books to see if I like them as much. 7/06 update: Just read Plowing the Dark– and it’s not nearly as good as Gold Bug. Two different stories going on again but they don’t tie together well, and the writing seemed pretentious.
The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford – I’ve read and enjoyed most of Sandford’s ‘Prey” series, so I bought this to read on the beach in Mexico. This is one of his series with a main character named Kidd, who’s a programmer/hacker. Kidd finds a friend brutally murdered, and his laptop (containing a lot of potentially harmful information about a lot of people) is missing, so (of course) Kidd and his wise-cracking hacker friends have to go after the murderer, find the laptop and revenge their friend’s murder. It contains some fun MacGuyver-like creativity related to hacking and breaking and entering. Overall, it’s entertaining and light… Just right for the beach.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams –I’ve started this book several times over several years, but never actually finished it until now. It’s silly, amusing, funny and sometimes very witty. I enjoyed it. (And now I know where Alta Vista’s Babel Fish got its name. Cool!)
Huckleberry Finn & Tom Sawyer by Twain – re-read these classics recently, and was reminded of Twain’s genius.
Greg Iles – I don’t remember which of his books I read first, but I liked it, and then read all his other books. Good airplane reading.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry – This is the first book I’ve ready by Berry and it made me a fan of his writing. About a small town and the people who make up the community, described through stories, anecdotes, observations and memoirs of Jayber Crow, the town barber (and grave digger and church janitor on the side). Insightful and beautifully written.
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov – This book starts: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The story includes some twists; the characters are great; the writing is very good – though not the amazing writing of later works. You know exactly where the story’s going, but it’s a great read to get there.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel – Fantastic story about a boy in a life raft with a tiger. (yeah, I know… sounds silly. I looked at it on those front-of-the-store best-seller racks several times, but never bought it until a friend recommended it.) And I loved it. It’s a wonderful, creative, well written story.
Lion’s Game by Nelson DeMille – entertaining airplane/beach book. I read all the rest of DeMille’s prior books and enjoyed them. His more recent books have been lackluster.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery - What a wonderful little book! I've read this book twice before - years ago in French and more recently in Spanish. In both cases, it took me forever to read the book and I was so focused on figuring out what each word/sentence meant that I didn't even remember the story. This time I read an English translation (2000, by Richard Howard,) with "restored original art", and I loved it! I'll definitely be re-reading this one periodically. And I immediately pulled a couple of other Saint-Exupery books off my bookshelf to re-read.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – This is an incredibly disturbing book - but the writing is absolutely fantastic! The writing and the insight into Humbert Humbert are so good that by the end of the book, I didn’t hate him (as I’d fully expected to do); I just felt sorry for him. This writing is even more amazing given that English was Nabokov’s third (!) language. Gotta read more of his.
Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy - my favorite of Conroy's – about a kid at military school. I also really enjoyed Prince of Tides. The Water is Wide is another great Conroy story – about a year he spent teaching on an impoverished island off the coast of S. Carolina. It’s scary that there are parts of the country seemingly living in a different time - but it’s a good story and well-written. I didn’t like Beach Music much.
March by Geraldine Brooks. I really enjoyed another of Geraldine Brooks' books (People of the Book), and I liked the premise of March, so I had high expectations for this book and wasn't disappointed. This book is about Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, who'd enlisted in the Union army, where his idealism runs into the reality of war. The book was engaging and well-written.
A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood. Two very different brothers – one a successful publisher with wife and kids in London and a gay lover in LA, the other preparing to take his vows as a Hindu monk - spend some time together after years of distance. The book flips back and forth from the perspective of one brother to that of the other. I enjoyed it and like the way Isherwood writes.
My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan. This one should be in its own “total trash” category, but it’s hilariously funny (particularly the first half) and extremely well-written. The soap-operatic plot twists and characters get a bit old in the second half, but it’s fun reading regardless. The author was a long-time writer for Frasier and this book is filled with that sharp, smart wit. Great summer reading.
Old School by Tobias Wolff – A wonderful coming-of-age novel about a scholarship kid in a New England prep school with a very strong literary tradition. In the writing contest in which the students compete to win a meeting with visiting authors (eg Frost, Ayn Rand), the protagonist is obsessed with winning the opportunity to meet Hemingway – and finds his voice in a way that has long-term repercussions.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. An entertaining, very well-written fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century illuminated manuscript, which is on permanent display at the National Museum in Sarajevo. A rare manuscript, interesting characters, mystery, intrigue, history, romance, multiple time lines… what’s not to like? (See also New Yorker article about Dervis Korkut, the museum’s chief librarian, who saved the book from the Nazis.)
A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry – The second of Wendell Berry’s books I’ve read and, like Jayber Crow (see above), this is also about the community of Port William and the intertwined lives of the people who live there. This book has several main characters, and by the end, I felt like I knew them all well. Like Jayber Crow, this book meanders along at the pace of life in a small, rural town, and it seems appropriate to read it slowly and to savor the fantastic writing.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen – Prompted by the impending release of the movie, I re-read this recently and again enjoyed Austen’s sharp wit and social commentary. (And the recent movie captures that very well, BTW.)
Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag – After giving up on PG Wodehouse (see reject pile for that story), I was looking for some “good” trash to read, and this paperback was right at the door when I walked into Barnes & Noble. It’s a decent airplane book – gory murder, liberal judge who’s in danger, wise-cracking cops, and even the (completely expected) twist toward the end. It’s a quick, entertaining and completely undemanding read.
The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - About a young American WWI veteran, who leaves his fiance and a comfortable life / opportunities, etc. and goes to Europe in search of meaning / personal fulfillment. Over the years, he comes in and out of contact with the other characters, whose conventional lives look caricatured. I’ve heard people rave about this book – but I just thought it was ok.
Recapitulation by Wallace Stegner – A successful diplomat returns to his home town to organize his aunt’s funeral and reflects on the people who impacted him while he was growing up, and influenced who he has become.
Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason – Of the same genre as The Da Vinci code, this story revolves around a 15th century coded document. Better written than Da Vinci code.
Second Growth by Wallace Stegner – About a rural town in New England - the people who live there, the urbanites who spend their summers there, and the encroaching outside world. Not one of my favorites of Stegner’s, but I enjoyed it and it’s – as always – well-written.
Secret life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – for some reason, it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. Good story and well written. Very easy reading. Her next book, Mermaid Chair, was very disappointing.
Shogun by James Clavell - fantastic book. A "must read." (I took a class at college on feudal Japan because of this book.)The rest of that series are also good, but not as good.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse - I was looking for something quick to read when I saw a copy of Siddhartha on one of my bookshelves. Well, this is one of those books that I quickly realized should be read slowly, so it wasn’t particularly quick - but it was great. Siddhartha goes through several very different phases of seeking in his life, and eventually reaches serenity and enlightenment. Definitely adding Hesse to my list to read more of his.
Daniel Silva novels – I read several of these and enjoyed them. Main character is a Mossad agent who’s also an art restorer. Very entertaining.
Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway - great collection of short stories.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – I bought this book because of the absurd title and the creative layout – each chapter is a class on a syllabus for a Great Works literature course, with the conclusion as the final exam. It’s about a high school senior and her father, a professor – but it gets more complicated than the standard coming-of-age fare. I was immediately impressed with the writing, described by one reviewer as demonstrating a “talent for verbal acrobatics”. This is the author’s first book – published to mostly rave reviews - so I’ll bet there are more to come from her.
Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner – Through reading his journal from the trip, an elderly couple remember a trip they took 20 years previously. Switching back and forth from the trip to the present, the book is about life, getting old, marriage, commitment, choices. It’s by Stegner – so (as always) it’s beautifully written.
Sphere by Michael Crighton - very engaging novel about a spherical space ship lying on the floor of the ocean. Great beach reading.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - laugh-out-loud-funny book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. His book about Australia (In a Sunburned Country) is also good, but not as good.
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner – part history, part memoir and part fiction about the plains of southern Saskatchewan, where Stegner grew up. As always, Stegner’s writing is amazing and his descriptions of this harsh frontier are beautiful. And as much as I like almost everything of Stegner's I've read, this is one of my favorites. A couple of paragraphs that particularly struck me – from The Whitemud River Range, a story about cowboys rounding up cattle during the brutal winter of 1906-07:
On those miraculously beautiful and murderously cold nights glittering with the green and blue darts from a sky like polished dark metal, when the moon had gone down, leaving the hollow heaven to the stars and the overflowing cold light of the Aurora, he thought he had moments of the clearest vision and saw himself plain in a universe simple, callous, and magnificent. In every direction from their pallid soapbubble of shelter the snow spread; here and there the implacable plain glinted back a spark – the beam of a cold star reflected in a crystal of ice. (p.163)
Nothing between them and the stars, nothing between them and the North Pole, nothing between them and the wolves, except a twelve by sixteen house of cloth so thin that every wind moved it and light showed through it and the shadows of men hulked angling along its slope, its roof so peppered with spark holes that lying in their beds they caught squinting glimpses of the stars. The silence gulped their little disturbances, their little tinklings and snorings and sighs and the muffled noises of discomfort and weariness. The earth and the sky gaped for them like opened jaws; they lay there like lozenges on a tongue, ready to be swallowed. (p. 165)