(** = best of 2006)
The Headmaster 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.
Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler – About her trip through Chile. I’d intended to read this before I went to Patagonia last month, but it didn’t happen – so when I saw a copy at Half-Price Books right after I got back, I bought it. I didn’t miss anything by not reading this before my trip, since she spends all of 2 pages on Torres Del Paine, which she did in a day trip(!!) - and that pretty much captures the book. It’s very superficial. There’s a lot of “I met these people, or those friends-of-friends-of friends, and we went drinking” - sort of a small, mobile frat party, with a constantly changing cast of characters. She does comment on the political background (Allende and Pinochet), and people’s commentary about it, including the ongoing squabbles between Chile and Argentina; she discusses the Indians who inhabited the continent before the Europeans showed up; and every once in a while, she writes a good description of a beautiful area of the country. But it’s all very superficially done and not particularly cohesive. Mediocre at best.
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 :-)
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.)
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.
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.
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 on my 2004-5 or all non-fiction lists.) 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.
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.
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.
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, I 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.
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.
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.
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 the author is often somewhat overly-reverential about Oppenheimer, that doesn't diminish the nightmare she describes Oppenheimer going through as a result of McCarthy's witch hunt after the war. An interesting and light perspective on 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 in 2002 below.)
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.
Adventure Divas by Holly Morris – The author adventure-traveled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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(!)
‘Tis by Frank McCourt – Angela’s Ashes ends and ‘Tis starts when McCourt is 19, and emmigrates from
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.
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.
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. Excellent introduction.
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 the politics of the time shaped her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 on 2004-5 or All Fiction lists.) Check out this interview with Powers in The Believer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry – The second of Wendell Berry’s books I’ve read and, like Jayber Crow (see my 2004-5 or all fiction lists), 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Lawrence Block’s “Burglar” books – 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.
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.