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books I have read, or want to read

Updated: Sun Oct 21 11:26:32 PDT 2018

To be notified when I add a positive recommendation to this list, email me.

In each category, the most recently added books are usually at or near the beginning.

Entirely missing: poetry and most juvenile fiction. A light list like this can't do them justice.

books I'm reading now
recommended (other than short stories)
recommended (short stories)
sort of like
do not like
never finished, but they might be your thing
books I have yet to read (not about software)
books I have yet to read (about software)
books I'm still trying to get
of interest to Catholics and religious voyeurs
creationism

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books I'm reading now

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Gavin de Becker

The Gift of Fear

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recommended

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Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

I got my college education in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a drug-free experience. Struth. When I caught a whiff of leftover pot smoke (if you smoke pot, you take that on your clothes everywhere you go), I knew that this person and I were not in the same world.

The culture fascinated me, but not enough to attract me. Tom Wolfe has done a marvelous job of writing about it. 400 pages, maybe a bit too long, but captured not only what happened, but also the mood and the flow.

The flow. That's the thing. Don't try to read this book for content. Treat it like poetry. Just let it wash over you.

But watch out. As you hold the book, the Day-Glo pastel colors that you see on your fingertips will gradually spread up your arms and over your body and down your throat.

Bob Woodward

Fear: Trump in the White House

This book was a crashing bore, only because none of it surprised me. I read to the bitter end, though, because of the thorough index. That helps keep track of all the players; when I follow the references in the index back to the text, the text will already be familiar to me.

An excellent reference to keep at the elbow as long as this national nightmare continues. A much more solid work than Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury.

Adam Winkler

We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights

An excellent, thorough (yeah, kinda long) introduction to the topic.

A takeaway: Many people who were shocked, as I was, by the Citizens United case thought, "Oh, my! They're advancing the idea of corporate personhood, treating corporations like people now!" Nope. Well, not exactly. It turns out that "corporate personhood" has a legal meaning that's rather different from what we normally think.

A second takeaway: the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution (well discussed in wikipedia) has been used far more for the defense of corporate rights than for the defense of the rights of racial minorities.

As an aside, was the 14th Amendment ever validly ratified? The book outlines a history that would imply, "Well, no, not really."

John Daido Loori

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life

This book is about Zen. It is about Zen practice, and how that can enrich your life as an artist.

That's completely false.

This book introduces you to Zen. Read it and return it to the library. Then go home and sit.

The Zen is already inside you. You will feel it as you feel yourself breathe. The creativity, and your artistic expression, are already there.

Jack Kerouac

On the Road
The Dharma Bums

So much has been written about these two books that I'll say little about the books themselves; you can go to wikipedia for a good start. What you'll get here are merely my own impressions.

In On the Road we ("we" meaning the original audience in 1957) were introduced to the Beat Generation. That's old hat to us now. I was only 9 when it came out; my mother, born and raised in Germany, had just started teaching junior high school in the U.S., and I remember her vague uneasiness with boys with black leather jackets and slicked back hair. Elvis and all. Who knows? Maybe a switchblade or two.

On the Road is rightly described as similar to Huckleberry Finn. In both, the main characters wander from conventional morality; in both, the authors simply describe the action without passing moral judgment. This is perfectly fine with the boys on the raft; it becomes a bit edgier (though just as entertaining) with Kerouac's characters. Life is earthy, gritty, sometimes careening out of control. There is little introspection. Nobody can accuse any character here of meeting the Buddha on the road. Kerouac himself, four years after the book appears, says, "It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.". The buddies do manage to settle down and somehow straighten out their muddled lives, but finding God? I don't see it.

The Dharma Bums, on the other hand, involves two guys examining their lives as they live them. One can almost see them tilting their heads in puzzlement, as a dog does when encountering a small strange noise. They meet the Buddha, but in themselves; that's the way it should be done. As many have done before and since, they encounter the numinous in nature, as they climb mountains and as they get away from society; not so much to hear themselves think, as to hear themselves be. Of the two books, this one is by far the most haunting.

Charles C. Mann

1491: New Revelations of the Anericas Before Columbus
1493; Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Native Americans, before Europeans came on the scene, were sparse occupiers of a largely untouched wilderness. Right?

Well, not really; 1491 introduces research which suggests that Native Americans skillfully shaped the land to their will. A pristine, untouched Amazon forest, for example? That's actually a product of human will. And Native Americans often enriched the soil.

Over and over, (the 2011 edition of) the book cites relatively recent scholarship to correct all those misconceptions in your (or your parents') high school textbooks. There is one minor item about calendars, though, that Mann gets wrong, in a couple of ways. Let's start with this paragraph in Chapter 7, in the section entitled "Counting and Writing":

Because it runs directly from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D., the Christian calendar was long a headache for astronomers. Scientists tracking supernovae, cometary orbits, and other celestial phenomena would still have to add or subtract a year manually when they crossed the AD.-BC barrier if a sixteenth-century astronomer named Joseph Scaliger hadn't got sick of the whole business and devised a calendar for astronomers that doesn't skip a year. The Julian calendar, which Scaliger named after his father, counts the days since Day 0. Scaliger chose Day 0 as January 1, 4713, B.C.; Day 1 was January 2. In this system, October 12, 2011, is Julian Day 2,455,847.

The first confusion is that this isn't the Julian calendar at all; Mann is actually talking about the Julian day, a count of days since the beginning of the Julian period. The Julian calendar is the predecessor to our current Gregorian calendar; it was proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.

Second, Joseph Scalinger did not name the Julian period after his father Julian. Wikipedia quotes Scalinger:

Iulianam vocauimus: quia ad annum Iulianum dumtaxat accomodata est.

... and roughly translates it as:

We have called it Julian merely because it is accommodated to the Julian year.

Be that as it may, the book provides rich historical detail, distilled from recent research. An appendix outlines a form of writing involving not paper or other flat media, but knots. That's right: knots in strings. Another appendix describes the math of the Mayan calendar. Yet another thoughtfully addresses the question of what we should call Native Americans. Throughout the book, he prefers the term "Indians", and explains why in this appendix, in some detail.

1491 ends with an argument that North American colonists' tendency to avoid rigid social class (unlike their friends on the other side of the pond) was largely fueled by the shining example of Native Americans.

*****

1493, or at least a major portion of it, could be entitled When Ecological Worlds Collide, and can be summarized by this statement from the Prologue:

Columbus's voyage did not mark the discovery of a New World, but its creation.

What we call the New World was isolated from the rest of the planet, until Columbus, followed by others, brought in unnoticed hitchhikers (as well as deliberately imported species). The result was the planetwide equivalent of a window-rattling sonic boom.

Consider the lowly earthworm. It was present in the Americas, but not in New England and the northern Midwest; the most recent Ice Age had wiped them out. Trees and shrubs fed on the duff that (poof!) disappeared underground (as worm poop) when earthworms were (accidentally) imported. Earthworms also threatened the food supply of insects. You can imagine the ripple effect up the food chain. A new ecological equilibrium is coming. I say "is", because we're still not seeing the full implications of this change.

Mann goes into detail about the effects of species that were introduced, as well as diseases. He talks about worldwide trade patterns, and slavery, and relationships between Blacks and Indians.

Those trade patterns, of course, affected not only Europe and the Americas, but also, say, China. And the Europe-wide famine of the 16th to 18th centuries was solved by the introduction of the potato.

You'd think that the onerous conditions of slavery would cause some Blacks and Indians to break free and form underground communities. Surprise! They did! And traces of these underground communities of the Americas are yet with us.

Not being content with boring you with the calendar matter above, I'll finish this microreview by boring you with the shifting names of geologic epochs, one of which is proposed (not for the first time) in this book. You can see a table of the commonly accepted names of geologic eras, periods, and epochs here. By "commonly accepted", I mean approved by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

What has been accepted for a long long time is the name of the recent Ice Age era: the Pleistocene, ending about 11,700 years ago. The currently accepted name of the current era is the Holocene. This name is relatively new. How new, I don't know, but I have a dictionary copyright 1996 which lists this era not as "Holocene", but "Recent".

But naming the current era the Holocene might not be stable, on two fronts.

First, there has been a move afoot to rename the latter part of the Holocene era as the Anthropocene, reflecting the effect that human activity has had on climate and geology. Different proposed dates vary from the start of the Agricultural Revolution, 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, to as recent as the deployment of nuclear weapons in 1945.

Second, Mann and others propose a new era name: the Homogenocene. (Think homogenized milk.) This era started when the planet no longer had two ecosystems, but one unified one, triggered by Christopher Columbus and those who followed; 1493 is about the establishment of that era.

Thomas Lowe Fleischner, ed.

Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness

essays by Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Lowe Fleischner, Gary Paul Nabhan, Nalini Nadkarni, Alberto Búrquez, Gwen Annette Heistand, Brooke Williams, Stephen Trimble, Laura Sewall, Edie Dillon, Sarah Juniper Rabkin, Mitchell Thomashow, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Judith Lideamore, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Saul Weisberg, Pablo Deustua Jochamowitz, Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Lauret Savoy, Jana Richman, Melanie Bishop, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Thich Nhat Hanh

Fall in love with nature, and you'll be healthy. That's an oversimplification, to be sure. As I read these essays, my first reaction was, Ok, they're preaching to the choir; I'll learn nothing here. But I came away with a deepened awareness of how our health, individually and collectively, is intimately intertwined with our relationship, close or distant, with the natural world. I can only touch on a few of the essays here.

Fleischner, for example, introduces us to Richard Louv's term "Nature Deficit Disorder". Kahn gives us a chilling picture of the process when he discusses the normalization of natural poverty: through succeeding generations, we expect the world to be more and more artificial; we get used to sterile surroundings. We are content with less and less nature. It takes more and more sterility to shock us. He then shows the link between this and our slowly but surely growing obesity epidemic, and other ills.

How do we become desensitized to nature, and to our natural poverty? Rabkin approaches this with a picture of the young exploring mind being straitjacketed and potentially calcified by overbearing adult guidance.

All this makes the book sound like gloom and doom. But there is more inspiration and hope than alarm here. Consider Heistand's moment of autoheroism:

All in all, this book provides rich insight, and will fill you with alarm and hope.

A few hours ago I excused myself from a five-year planning meeting to go to the ladies room and next thing I knew I was here, at North Beach.

It pays the reader to be alert. An unfortunate example from Búrquez's otherwise fine essay:

For the naturalist, as well as the artist, the simplicity of a small spider in an expansive field of dark volcanic cinders made an outstanding composition that elicited deep feelings. From the viewpoint of the spider, however, biodiversity was the key to survival.

No. No no no. Biodiversity is the key to survival of the spider's species, not the spider herself. Spiders take risks which endanger their own survival; but the math works out so that the species thrives. Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene makes this clear. "A hen is an egg's way of making another egg," That doesn't quite express the idea, but it invites us to stop seeing things from the viewpoint of the adult spider or hen, just because we happen to be adult humans.

Laurie Glover, ed.

Naming Mt. Thoreau

essays by Michael Blumlein, Dick Bryan, Darryl DeVinney, Hilary Gordon, Paul Park, Kim Stanley Robinson, Carter Scholz, and Gary Snyder

The official names for things on the one hand, and what we call them on the other, are not always the same.

Case in point: California State Highway 55 starts roughly at Anaheim Hills and heads straight south toward Newport Beach. As a freeway, it stops a few miles before it hits the Pacific coast, and morphs into Newport Boulevard. If there is a main drag in Newport Beach other than Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Boulevard is it. For the longest time, Highway 55 was known (even on freeway signs) as the Newport Freeway. But then Costa Mesa, noting correctly that the endpoint of the freeway itself was in Costa Mesa, insisted that the official name be changed to the Costa Mesa Freeway. And it was done, signs and all. But locals snorted at this impertinence and continued to call it the Newport Freeway, as God intended.

But what if something officially has no name, but needs one? The U.S. Geological Survey has strict rules about adding names to peaks, and the rules boil down to this: no way, no how. So one does an end run: one (not one, more like about 10) treks up to the peak, leaves a summit register there (a second-hand metal file box works quite well), and publicizes the heck out of it. Push against USGS. Rage against the machine. Disobey civilly.

Gather together a group of like-minded people, people from many walks of life: writers, artists, scientists, photographers, civil servants, computer engineers, educators, poets, physicians, friends, and families. Bring along a correspondent for The New York Times. Hike to the top of Peak 12,691. Proclaim the mountain to be Mt. Thoreau.

And that pretty much happened, without the New York Times part. Check it out yourself. Go to maps.google.com and search for Mt. Thoreau. They know about it.

This book offers reflections about the project, and about Henry David himself, by its participants. A microreview like this can't dwell on all of the essays; let me share my reactions to just two of them, followed by an unhappy look at their copyright notice.

>>> essay the first

The essay which haunted me the most was Michael Blumlein's "Thoreau's Microscope". It discusses, well, his microscope, and the invention of the microscope, and Thoreau's habit of observing nature around him, and Thoreu's later falling into ill health, and being private about it.

And then physician Blumlein jumps right into his own health, and is not private about it all. He talks about his CT scan:

My first reaction on seeing the mass: how beautiful. It grows along the path of the lung, and the lung is beautiful. It's a tree, literally, a tree of breath, which means it's the tree of life. All nature is beautiful.

All nature is beautiful, even masses of cancerous cells:

[C]ancer is not alien. It's not other. It's our own cells gone awry, and as such, it's a window into who we are ...

And he pulls you in, and makes you more curious than sorry, and makes you wonder: How's he doing these days?

>>> essay the second

One essay bored me to tears, but it was actually the most useful. It's Carter Scholz's "Emerson Thoreau Muir Ives Cage". It begins well enough by exploring the desire to broaden our horizons --

Thoreau's usefulness to society, as he saw it, was not in becoming more like it -- an impossibility for him -- but in pricking its vanities.

-- by kicking up a little dust. Scholz then talks about composers who did just that: Charles Ives, John Cage, and their ilk.

"Their ilk", says your current writer. Can you hear the condescending sneer? Good, I thought you could. It's the attitude toward anything complex and not quite so accessible, shared also by Gerald Locklin in his poem about lettuce "The Iceberg Theory".

My taste, you see runs along the like of Bach (all of them), Beethoven, Schubert, Saint-Saens, those dead European white guys. Stravinsky? Don't push it, bub.

There were aspects of the musical discussion that appealed to me: the playfulness of constructing new instruments, of tuning old ones differently, and on and on. But listen to the stuff? I'll pass, thank you, and the discussion of the music itself made me just grit my teeth and plough through the essay, because gritting one's teeth and ploughing through an essay Builds Character, dontcha know.

And then I went to sleep that night, and woke the next morning with a gift from this very essay.

You see, I live on a two-lane state highway which attracts a fair amount of slightly uphill and downhill traffic. The sound from the vehicles is complex; one hears not only the direct sound, but sound reflected from objects on the other side of the street. In any one direction (uphill, say), the reflected sound has the same pattern (rhythm, if you will, but at different speeds) no matter the vehicle, but each vehicle has a different voice. The street sound had always fascinated me, but having read the essay I now understood that what I'm hearing is music.

Mindblowing. Thank you, Mr. Scholz.

>>> copyright notice

Here's not the full copyright notice, but its commentary:

Artemisia Press supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing it or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever without written permission. Any requests to reproduce individual works should be made by the publisher. By purchasing this book, you are supporting writers, artists, and the Mono Lake Committee.

Wow. Where to begin?

Copyright law can fuel creativity, encourage diverse voices, promote free speech, and create a vibrant culture. But it can also work against those wonderful effects. The devil is in the details, Satan in the substance. As is often the case with law, those who have the gold make the rules.

As the decades have gone by, the copyright term has gotten longer and longer. The effect for most works, unless they're quite old, is to expand their copyright terms effectively infinitely. There's a helpful chart illustrating this here, along with a link to a paper covering copyright issues in more detail than you can shake a stick at.

What's going on here? Disney's going on here. They get tons of cash from Mickey Mouse and friends, and that work will likely never go into the public domain. Copyright encourages creativity, but carried too far, it discourages it.

None of this, however, addresses my main objection to this copyright notice commentary. The commentary goes beyond overly uncritical praise of copyright law to a misleading reading of it. You could be forgiven, upon reading that commentary, to conclude that complying with copyright law requires "not reproducing it or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever without written permission."

The difference between what that states and what it implies is that "not reproducing it or any part thereof in any manner without written permission" is sufficient to comply with copyright law, but not necessary. What's the difference, you ask?

The relevant difference is Fair Use. Despite what you might read in this commentary, you are free to indulge in fair use of this book. Fair use lets you quote snippets of the book to illustrate points in a review and in edoucational materials, and also to create parodies of the original work. It even lets you quote from, and comment on, the copyright notice. You can read about fair use at at wikipedia.

A copyright notice that's too belligerent discourages reviewers. They might just back off from the vicious dog and go review something else. Overly aggressive copyright notices, then, can actually reduce sales of a book. And boy howdy, this particular book deserves praise, and publicity, and sales.

So, what's going on here? Either the folks at Artemisia Press are uninformed; or they're bullying; or I'm mistaken.

I've read the book. These folks are competent. They know what they're doing. So they can't possibly be ignorant of Fair Use.

But reading between the lines, I suspect that they're fine folk, not inclined in the least to bully. Which is a good thing; we have enough bullying going on at the highest levels of power these days. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

What remains is the possibility that I'm wrong. So email me.

Oh. And.

I do realize that fair use has its limits:

Regarding Gerald Locklin's poem "The Iceberg Theory", discussed above: If you want, you can find it on the Internet. But don't do that. On that page, the poem is shown in its entirely, followed by commentary. At the bottom of the page, the critic states his belief that fair use allows him to quote the poem in its entirely, as long as he comments on it.

That is unfair use. To read the poem, go to Garrison Keillor's fine volume, Good Poems. Or, if the credits at the back of the book are to be believed, you can also go to Gerald Locklin's own volume The Iceberg Theory.

Try your library. The library is a many-splendored thing.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age

The title pretty well tells it all. Told from the viewpoint of a young man who becomes a shaman in spite of himself; that is, in spite of his temperament and inclination and laziness. There's obviously some character development here, and I'm a sucker for character development in a novel.

Lots of protosociology here too. You think that packs of humans didn't indulge in skilled diplomacy, for example? Think again.

Robinson gets extra points for using "transfix" in both its original physical definition (to fix something somewhere by impaling it) and its derived, figurative, psychological definition.

So Robinson does have a way with words. Perhaps too much so. If, like me, you'll dive to the dictionary when you see unfamiliar words, you'll be richly rewarded; but know that sometimes in this novel he just makes them up. No problem if you don't mind chasing wild geese. Example:

Though night was falling, the remaining twilight and the rising full moon illuminated the cave for a good distance in, and the first big chamber's walls were still clear to their sight. This chamber was left unpainted; it was not yet considered to be in the cave, but rather the last part of the outside. In Mother Earth's body, it was not the sabelean but the baginaren.

I tried looking for those two strange words; the best I could find was that they seemed to be similar to the Basque words for stomach and vulva, respectively. Or something.

So if you're willing to either glide over unknown words or guess their meanings from context, you'll be fine. Don't pass this novel by just because of this ... um, shortcoming.

One more thing: You might enjoy this novel better if you know what a loon sounds like, so click on this youtube link.

Kim Stanley Robinson

The Years of Rice and Salt

In this speculative science fiction novel, the Black Plague wiped out almost all of Europe, leaving a tiny, almost unnoticed remnant of Christians. The dominant religions were Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism; this novel shows how they coexisted, and what the political structures (and wars and stuff) were like in the absence of European influence. You'll be immersed in the culture(s); you'll probably learn a few new words. Your dictionary may not be up to the task; I had to resort to an unabridged one, and sometimes even then I had to use non-dictionary sources on the Web. Since this word is used so much, before you even pick up the book, see what Wikipedia has to say about the word "bardo".

What interested me in particular was how these three major religious traditions coexisted and even mingled; and also how Islam matured and ripened into something I suspect most Muslims today would recognize, but not affirm.

My favorite chapter: "Tiger Mercy", in which a tiger leads a man out of danger.

My favorite phrase: "pulse microprobability".

Richard Russo

Empire Falls

This novel shows static-charged personalities tilting in a sleepy Maine town about ready to fold in on itself. You'll settle comfortably into the droll drama

If she wanted to go back to Boston so damn bad, she should just do it. He said this knowning full well she wouldn't, for it was the particular curse of the Whiting men that their wives remained loyal to them out of spite.

until, in the last third or so of the book, the heat is gradually turned up until you discover that the story has you by the throat and won't let you go.

Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Classic (true) story of the murder of four members of a family highly respected by their rural Kansas community. The account is interesting enough, but not particularly, should I say, stellar. The one conspicuous strength was the detailed portrayal of the characters of all concerned: the victims, the culprits, law enforcement, the judge, members of the community.

Jeff Shaara

The Frozen Hours

Korean War novel. Heroics, almost as a matter of routine, because heroics are required for group survival. One rotten officer, of course. Hell frozen over.

Loren Eiseley

The Immense Journey

Meditations on the theory of evolution, seen not so much through the head as through the heart. Perhaps a bit heavy on the anthropomorphism, but still highly recommended. A haunting book.

Alan Lightman

Einstein's Dreams

This book is neither fish nor fowl nor vegetable nor mineral. In theory it's science fiction. It's centered around a certain clerk in a patent office in Berne, who is ready to submit to an unnamed physics journal a paper outlining a new theory of time.

In theory it's a novel. But it's really 30 views of what time would be like if it didn't work the way we see it work. Each view is as radically different from the others as it is from ours.

Item: Each life is a circle, like the movie Groundhog Day, but each whole life, not just one day, circles back on itself.

Item: A few people, nowhere near all people, are transported into the past and live on tiptoe, knowing that they must not disturb things, or they'll upset the applecart.

Item: Each person, when faced with a decision, actually makes all possible choices; all resultant universes actually exist. Time, not just space, exists in three dimensions.

Science fiction? Maybe. A novel? Maybe. But it works like poetry. You can't read too much of it in one sitting, like rich food, or you'll get an unpleasantly sweet taste in your mouth. Read some. Set it aside. Read some more.

Pace yourself as you read this, and it will haunt you and give you a warm satisfied feeling. Like good poetry.

Nancy Isenberg

White Trash

The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

The title pretty much says it all. It's amazing how easy it is to write history without taking class into account -- almost as if the poor, on whose backs America was built, could be taken for granted. This book decidedly does not take them for granted, but sees American history, as the title promises, through the lense of class. You'll never see American history in the same way again.

Michael Wolff

Fire and Fury

Inside the Trump White House

Juicy gossip, probably almost all true. Reveals nothing new about the character of President Trump.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphors We Live By

This book is highly acclaimed as revolutionizing how we look at language. The book excites me, but there are places where they try too hard to convince (when I was already convinced), and this caused my eyebrow to rise a little. For example, when they list sample sentences showing how speakers use, perhaps unconsciously, the "time is money" metaphor, some of the sentences convince:

Put aside some time for ping pong.
I don't have the time to give you.

But other examples don't convince, because they could just as easily have been used for the (rather unusual, of course) metaphor "time is water":

You're wasting my time.
This gadget will save you hours.
Do you have much time left?

That's not to say that they don't examine closely metaphors which fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, they look at countercultural concepts esposued by Trappists and others that less is better, that smaller is better. Countercultural values lead to countercultural metaphors.

What the authors refer to as "ontological metaphors" stretch the ordinary definition of "metaphor", which usually describes something by referring to it as something else. Ontological metaphors, rather, ascribe to concepts some of the attributes we normally associate with physical objects. Or sometimes not. Sometimes these attributes are so general, not associated with physical objects, that the concept of "metaphor" begins to border on the vacuous. For example, treating a concept as an entity:

Buying land is the best way of dealing with inflation.

And referring to such a concept:

We are working toward peace.

(Peace as a metaphor? What is that?)

And yet, this book is rich with insight about, for example, implied metaphors. Consider these sentences which illustrate thinking of the mind as a machine, and the mind as a brittle object, respectively:

He broke down.
He cracked up.

The former describes mere lack of function; the latter implies a threat to others.

It becomes clear as we read that the authors are not trying to stretch the meaning of "metaphor" to fit their picture. Rather, the role of that word in their discourse is different from what I had anticipated. They don't describe our view of the world entirely in terms of metaphor; rather, they speak of metaphor as playing a large part in that view. It doesn't take too long for the book to dwell on metonyms. A metonym is a word used to stand for something else with which it's associated; the book has plenty of examples. A metaphor is a particular kind of metonym, and a stronger case can be made for the authors' points by focusing on metonyms, as the authors end up doing.

This book prompted me to look at another application of the idea that metaphor influences underlying life assumptions. A significant subculture (not necessarily a counterculture) in the U.S. is Christianity. The significance of certain specialized words is that they're metaphors. Some of them, like sheep, are obviously metaphors; others, such as redemption and lost (after all, we do know where we are) are not. Those who fall away (there's another one!) from Christianity recognize that for them these metaphors no longer work. Those who become Chrstian are, I'm convinced, lured by the nonrational (not necessarily irrational) appeal of these same metaphors.

Confession time: I didn't make it all the way through this book. The linguistic discussion got too thick for my thick skull to deal with in an easy, flowing manner, and I moved on.

W. H. Auden

The Age of Anxiety

A dream poem. Real or surreal? The question loses its meaning in this drifting-picture. Vanity of vanities, says Qohelth, vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.

Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

A gentle chat with a wise grandmother over a wide range. For example, if you avoid eating meat, she will invite you to revisit that decision. She won't change your mind, but you will gain a more nuanced view. "[A]ppetite is one of the gods, with a rough and savage face, but a god all the same."

For another example, she remembers just how certain authors influenced her: Emerson, Poe, Wordsworth, Whitman (particularly Leaves of Grass).

As I ponder the awe-ful mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, I see a survival machine not in a specimen but in a species. When I weed my poppies, it's not the individual plants I'm defending, but the overall field of poppies. I see genetic outliers (poppies which arrive early or late, those which thrive with less water or more dense soil, those with unusual color) as insurance against long-term changes in the environment. So I see this passage in the book, for example, as a charming but ultimately cloying anthropomorphism:

Often (the spider) lies with her face against the most recently constructed [egg sac], touching it with her foremost set of limbs. And why should she not be fond of it?

Nonetheless, she approaches nature realistically. In many places the book itself is red in tooth and claw.

An amusing tidbit: She mentions a dog she had who would often escape; he would wander to the house of some neighbor or other, who would hang on to him, shielding him from the dogcatcher until she could pick him up. One day she got a call from someone clear across (the small) town. When she got there: "Can you wait just a few minutes? I'm making him some scrambled eggs."

Daniel Topolski

True Blue

The Story of the Oxford Boat Race Mutiny

For almost two hundred years, Oxford and Cambridge have taken up oars against each other. In 1986, Cambridge broke Oxford's recent winning streak. For 1987, Oxford included on their team a few young men from the United States. This was not the first such inclusion, but what made this year different was that the young Americans decided that they were so hot, they didn't need the customary rigorous training. They knew better, as Americans always do. The predictable struggle between American brashness and British tradition, honed by years of experience, attracted worldwide attention. Though the battle was won by truth, justice, and the British way, the outcome was far from certain until the end.

American hubris. What a concept.

James Prosek

Early Love and Brook Trout

Title says it all. A delightful romp through young manhood. Fishing and young girls and beautiful watercolors, oh my!

Michael P. Branch

Raising Wild

Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness

You'll find the word "myth" only once here. It's used not in the sense of something that's not true, but rather in the usual theological sense: a non-rational (not irrational) concept whose meaning can't be fully plumbed, or a story which illustrates such a concept. But it turns out that this book immerses itself in myth. The author (and his wife) are raising two children, and teaches them things which are deeply true but cannot be fully explained in a rational manner. Further, the children turn around and teach their father similarly. All this takes place in the boonies: the high desert in Nevada, where the family builds a home.

Throughout, the book is both sublime and droll. You'll like this book better if you haven't forgotten what it's like to be a child. For example, the author goes out of his way to give us this gratuitous gem in Chapter 1:

I've heard poet Galway Kinnell's scatophilic assertion that those who don't poop don't live, while those who do do doo doo do.

(Now I have an itch. Was that from an actual Galway Kinnell poem? If so, which one?)

The book ends with a rousing story that I really wish were true: the description of a (mythic/mythical) research project by the name of V.E.C.T.O.R.L.E.S.S. If you have the heart of a geek, you'll want it to be true too.

James Prosek (1975-    )

The Complete Angler

This book is a fine intruction to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler. If you read them both, read this one first. The text is engaging; the accompanying watercolors are exquisite.

By reference, this book introduced me to Oscar Wilde's essays, and to the Oxford boat race mutiny. (Sports do not generally interest me, but nowadays it's the task of U.S. citizens to be aware of overreach by those who would represent us abroad.)

If the editing had been slightly more careful, the diction could have been more consistent, but the few unpleasant surprises are more than forgivable. Also, for those few who are interested, don't take at face value Tony Bridgett's statement in Chapter 4 ("The Life of Izaak Walton and an Adventure") that the Julian and Gregorian calendars differ by 10 days. The correct number is 13.

Izaak Walton (1594-1683)

The Compleat Angler

Of all the books published in English, the Bible has been published the greatest number of times. Second place goes to Shakespeare's colleced works. Third place goes to The Compleat Angler.

It's a book not just about fishing, but about life, and living both a good life and the good life: entirely different beasts. It reflects the mindset of not only an angler, but an Anglican.

The technical advice about fish bored me, because I'm not an angler, but the reading was worthwhile because of the easy-going conversation between the angler and the hunter as they stroll around the English countryside. I felt more relaxed and at ease with life when I was finished with this book. Maybe fishing is like that.

Matthew P. Crawford

The World Beyond Your Head:

On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

An insightful discussion of how our reality is being changed as much of it is being coopted by those who would monetize it, often with our full (if not completely conscious) consent. We thrive when we can slowly, deliberately decide where our attention goes; yet everywhere we go, our senses are bombarded with advertisement. Crawford gives the example of the trays into which we place our belongings at the airport. Lately these trays contain advertisements. Others are monetizing our attention, thus making it more difficult for us to be alone with our (otherwise fruitful) thoughts.

He talks about how our perceptions are made more granular as we are increasingly isolated from the real world. What's the current condition of the brakes on your car? Are you sure? ABS is only the beginning. And consider the grocery store. Of course you're aware that it's organized to maximize profit, not your well-being. It's easy to forget these things because we've become numb to them.

In a seeming extension of his other book Shop Class as Soulcraft, he does give a positive counterexample to this unsettling trend. He speaks of apprenticeship, of handing down manual skills from one person (and generation) to the next. His glorious extended example is a shop where they make pipe organs. I won't try to describe that chapter here; you simply must read it.

One remark in that chapter did give me pause:

[C]enturies ago, as now, the cleaning, maintenance, and tuning of previously installed instruments provided the occasion for an organ "service tech" (as we might call him) to study an instrument. Generally such techs were themselves organ builders, so the activity of reverse-engineering another maker's organ to learn new techniques is itself part of the tradition of organ making. (It is much like the history of philosophy in this regard.)

Whoa, dude. My study of philosophy is shallow, superficial, and mostly forgotten. But what could he have possibly meant by this?

Robert Moor

On Trails

An in-depth discussion of many kinds of trails: those created by primordial slime, by insects, by mammals, and particularly by humans: their early efforts, their large projects such as the Appalachian Trail, their creation of networks of trails: highways, the Internet, and so on. Conspicuously absent is any mention of neural pathways; since axons they become more efficient with repeated use, they really do behave like the ordinary trails we know.

Oh, yeah. "Eocene-era Egyptian elephants" was a touch that was too nice, but I liked it anyway.

Jean-Paul Sartre

four plays:
No Exit
The Flies
Dirty Hands
The Respectful Prostitute

No Exit brings on stage three ordinary people, irritating -- tormenting, really -- each other in ordinary ways. It's not the big stuff that damns us, it's the small stuff. "Hell is other people" is a popular line from this play; Sartre says that this line is often misunderstood.

The Flies is a droll take on a certain project undertaken by Orestes and Electra. Remember? No, I didn't either, so here it is: Agamemnon, king of Argos, goes off to battle in the Trojan War, and comes home only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra's lover Aegisthus, who then assumes the throne. Orestes and Electra, son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, plot to slay Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The play visits the theme of debilitating religious guilt; Orestes ends up reminding Zeus that Zeus has no hold over him, because Zeus created Orestes (and, by extension, you and me) with freedom.

Dirty Hands examines motivation in the impending assassination of a Communist Party leader (by another member of the Communist Party) in the final years of World War II.

In The Respectful Prostitute, most of the characters are white; one is black. Of the whites, the prostitute is the lowest one on the status totem pole by far, but she's the only one who treats the black guy with compassion. And it's not because she cares for the black guy; she loathes blacks. Yet she's the most praiseworthy character. The others (all guys) don't see it that way, of course. To them she's dirt, almost as bad as the black guy who fears for his life in this small racist town.

Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary

The classic novel about adultery. Emma Bovary, bored and attracked to shiny objects, flies like a moth into the flames of adultery, lavish overspending, and yet more boredom. Death ensues.

Melissa Mohr

Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing

A thorough yet fun look at swearing in the English language (and to some extent in Latin). To swear means to certify that something is true, yes? Then why do we refer to "bad words" as swearing? What's the relationship between religious and biological swearing? Why did we once feel that we were potentially injuring God by swearing falsely? Quite a lot of other good, um, stuff in this book.

Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This book chronicles and discusses the deliberate killing of civilian populations (by Germany and the Soviet Union) in eastern and central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Dripping with detail and dripping with blood.

He makes a good case against calling the murderers "inhuman":

To deny a hman being his human character is to render ethics impossible.

To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.

The maps sprinkled throughout the book helped with grasping the geography.

This book could probably have been more tightly edited -- all the more important in a book of this length (over 400 pages). Putting many of its numbers into tables (and, dare we request, graphs) could have clarified the content some.

Thomas Mann

Buddenbrooks

This novel portrays life in the merchant class in Germany in the 1800s. It bored me for the first 100 pages or so, but then I got sucked into it. You might, too.

The description of a young student procrastinating mightly on his homework resonated uncomfortably with my own experience. And after reading this novel, I'll never skip brushing my teeth again.

This novel yielded Thomas Mann the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Jane Jacobs

Dark Age Ahead

She explains a lot, but I think she thinks she's explaining more about how the world works than she really is. She talks about several disturbing trends, including: educational institutions which confer credentials, rather than offering real education; the harm that widespread automobile use (rather than public transportation) and spiraling housing costs have done to the family; the decline of respect for science; tax receipts which are not dispersed locally and therefore not dispersed intelligently; the decline of professions policing themselves; and the stupidity of the usual practices in highway and local road planning.

Her discussion of these unfortunate developments encourages us to look around us with fresh eyes, not just in those areas she discusses.

James Galway

The Meadow
Fencing the Sky

Novelist (and poet) James Galway brings us life in Wyoming. Boring, fly-over country, right? Not if you value serenity.

Near the beginning of The Meadow:

The way people watch television while they eat -- looking up to the TV and down to take a bite and back up -- that's how Lyle watches the meadow out the south window while he eats his breakfast. He's hooked on the plot, doesn't want to miss anything. He looks out over the rim of his cup as he sips.

This book is an invitation to slow down and live a little.

Fencing the Sky is in the same vein, but with a twist. An honest, decent guy who knows how to swing a rope does so, and snaps the neck of his neighbor, a jerk who's been asking for it (and will obviously ask no more). Said honest, decent guy heads out to avoid the law. Do they catch him? The answer is (and I never thought I'd use this adjective in a context like this) cute.

Terry Tempest Williams

The Hour of Land:

A Personal Typography of America's National Parks

The author approaches the question of how we address and handle our environment, and live within it, by weaving a braid of personal anecdotes, using as a framework her travels to a dozen U.S. national parks. Perhaps my favorite anecdote:

[A]nd then, as I was driving through the Hayden Valley, the cars in front of me came to a halt. We faced a bison jam: hundreds of bison not only crossing the road but walking alongside us. I was now at a crawl, barely going five miles per hour. I rolled down my window, still listening to The Four Seasons with the volume louder than I realized. The bison started moving closer to my car. I started getting nervous, thought about rolling up my window, but then I began noticing the bison turning their heads toward the music, walking even closer to the car. I imagined they were enjoying Vivaldi as I was, and I relaxed as we listened to the music together for close to a mile, all of us, slowly moving down the road.

Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King:

The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

A too-little known ancient figure, compassionate and ruthless, cautious and bold, who used pharmacology as a weapon of state.

Gary Griggs
Kiki Patsch
Lauret Savoy

Living with the Changing California Coast

The California coast lives and moves. Before you make any real estate decision concerning the coast, read this book. It looks at the coast in detail, mile by mile. The photographs of ruined houses are about as gruesome as you'd imagine.

Lauret Savoy

Trace

Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

A poetic, almost lyrical look at the author's relationship with land. Invites you to take the same sort of look. Includes a fascinating look at how place names reflect the perspectives of privileged class.

Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction

Five times in our planet's past, the environment has changed drastically enough that many species became extinct. Well, guess what?

Kolbert looks at thirteen species, some of which are already extinct, to examine closely the idea of extinction itself, and then shows what's happening around us. It isn't pretty.

Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes from a Catastrophe:

Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Using as a sample space some half dozen spots on our planet, Kolbert calmly describes the effects of climate change in such a way that the hairs will rise on the back of your neck.

Mary Doria Russell

Epitaph

A Novel of the O.K. Corral

The Sparrow
Children of God
A Thread of Grace
Dreamers of the Day
Doc

Epitaph, a historical novel about Tombstone, Arizona, is finely crafted, richly detailed, with characters developing in the desert like weeds (in many cases, wildflowers) in a warm wet spring. Almost perfectly edited. I have never read (so far) a better Western. Come for the sizzling romantic intrigue, stay for a remote cameo appearance by Oscar Wilde.

Hauntingly beautiful music comes to us from deep space. There's no doubt: we must visit that planet to come to know its people. So one group obeys that imperative and gets the jump on everyone else, because the visit is obviously required of us. Who goes? The Jesuits, of course. In The Sparrow, we see the visit get as messy as death always is. How do the Jesuits react? The same in fiction as in real life: they go back, in Children of God. (The protagonist, having lost his faith in God, finds it again, deep in the heart of childbirth and Mother Poetry.) These novels parallel how Jesuits have always approached mission: with love, with a greater desire to listen than to preach, and persistence in the face of death.

Jews during late World War II, in hiding from the Third Reigh: where to go? Most destinations within reach aren't welcoming them with open arms. A conspicuous exception: almost-postwar Italy. In A Thread of Grace we see a tale of the brave, the cowardly, and the corrupt. (When the simplest necessities of life are scarce, corrupt isn't necessarily bad.) The title of this novel comes from the words of a rabbi, near the end:

There's a saying in Hebrew. No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.

Dreamers of the Day is yet another look at T.E. Lawrence. Unlike the movie, this novel shows Lawrence not among Arabs principally, but among Europeans (British, mostly) in Cairo, as told by a spinster Ohio school teacher. Also featured prominently are her dachshund Rosie and a young Winston Churchill. Yet another Russell gem.

Doc, another brilliant Western, is about John Henry Holliday, DDS, and his struggle with tuberculosis. Lush, like Russell's other works. To set the tone, here's a snippet:

They strolled toward town, stopping now and then to let him catch his breath and to gaze upward, for the west Kansas sky is black velvet on clear, cool December nights, and the Milky Way is strung across it like the diamond necklace of a crooked banker's mistress.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

I Do Not Come To You By Chance

In Nigeria, the most reliable way out of poverty is through corruption. This award-winning novelist shows us that world, how spam works from the inside, and how the dark side gradually attracts even the most idealistic. Witnessing that process makes one cringe. This novel is one where the reader at once both cringes and is edified. Haunting.

Norman Mailer

The Naked and the Dead

A bird's eye view of a particular Pacific campaign in World War II. I say "bird's eye" because it doesn't completely embed itself in, say, life from the viewpoint of the grunts on the ground, but also shows perspectives (flawed though those perspectives might be) of officers. The heartbreak and bodybreak are here, in breathtaking detail. The writing, unlike that of James Jones, is smooth and sanded. You get the impression here (unlike with James Jones) that this author went to college and polished his writing skills. And you'd think that, since James Jones did such a good job with a rough style, that Mailer's smooth style would get in the way. It doesn't, and his writing approaches genius.

Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played with Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Dragon Tattoo starts off slowly, but picks up speed about 50 pages in when we meet, um, the girl with the dragon tattoo. She's a rebel with a because, withdrawn, almost antisocial, but a supersleuth and superhacker (where "hacker" here has the more contemporary meaning of "someone who hacks into computers without authorization", not the original meaning of "someone who is able and inclined to invent and change software in original ways for unusual purposes"). We witness just why it is that she's so withdrawn. Seldom is such a seemingly unsympathetic character drawn so sympathetically. This is a murder mystery, but with twists. I have two concerns with it.

A minor concern is one of units. This novel discusses (fictional) events of high finance in Sweden, and amounts of money are expressed in kroner. You have to do some digging on your own if you wish to translate kroner to dollars; in 2005, when the novel was first published, there were between 6.75 and 8.1 kroner to the dollar, depending on the date in the year. Nothing wrong with letting you do that on your own. But why, then, does the author (or, more likely, Reg Keeland, the translator) dumb things down by translating all temperatures to Fahrenheit? It's jarring. We're supposed to immerse ourselves in Sweden, and from time to time we suddenly come across this Fahrenheit nonsense.

Sorry, I can't help myself. Let's put Sweden aside for a moment. It's riddle time. Q. What's the difference between the United States and a two-bit third-world dictatorship? A. The metric system.

But I digress. Harrumh.

A slightly more major concern can't be expressed without spoiling things for someone who hasn't yet read the book. If you haven't read the book, STOP READING NOW AND SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. You're still reading? Ok, remember when the investigation focuses on Cecilia Vanger, and the photographs are fuzzy, but we know it's Cecilia because of the unique combination of clothing and long blond hair? Then several chapters after this concern with Cecilia begins, all of a sudden we stumble across not one, but two, people with the same hair color and clothing. Turns out Cecilia has a sister Anita, living in London. Well, after dragging us through several chapters of just one person and then all of a sudden there are two, it comes across as a sort of deus ex machina sort of thing. Bingo! We just turned everything right side up! I don't know how Larsson should have fixed this, but it was darned annoying.

On to Played with Fire. Same charming, rebellious protagonist, different book. Written with the same skill as the previous book. No mention of temperatures, so that's fixed. This book is as engrossing as the previous one. But. I have one problem with it. As with the previous book, here's a spoiler alert: if you haven't read the book, STOP READING NOW AND SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. There's a point where Salander is being killed. Well, does she die or doesn't she? By this time through the trilogy, you know that she has a pretty good chance at surviving a seemingly hopeless situation. So you know to pay attention to the author's language very carefully. And his language is carefully worded. She indeed survives, but you think she doesn't until later. If the author's goal is to lull you into not even wondering that she might survive, his words work. But by this time you can't possibly read without wondering, so it's just a matter of the author playing a dirty trick on the reader with subtle ambiguity with crucial effect. I don't spend all this time reading a novel so the author can play dirty tricks on me. Shame, shame.

Finally, Hornet's Nest. By this time I was acquainted with the author's skill, and the only pull into reading this book was curiosity as to what happened. No emotional pull, no gut wrench. We know by now that Salander is going to come out on top of everything; what remains is the mechanics of the process. Reading yet another book in this series was like watching mindless television. Good, though.

One thing that intrigued me in all of these books was the pervasive addressing of each character by his last name. It's just part of Swedish culture, I thought. Well, it is, but there's more to it than that. If it interests you, you might be interested in a column about Sweden, pronouns, social status, and the hippie decade of the 1960s.

Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

A horrifying (in a 1984 sense), darkly funny look at the underbelly of North Korea's politics and daily life. Before I read this novel I wasn't the least bit interested in North Korea, but I was pulled in and enjoyed the ride.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain

White Bread

A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf

It was the best of breads, it was the worst of breads. The title says it all. Come for the bread fads, stay for the class warfare. A thorough, fun read.

Mallory Ortberg

Texts from Jane Eyre

And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

Imagine you could pick up your smart phone and text fictional characters, and receive texts from them. This fanciful book shows possible results. Most of the characters were ones I wasn't familiar with. The text material for those characters I knew was delightful; the other conversations were still droll. This book sparkles with its wit.

Adam Foulds

The Quickening Maze

A 19th Century English insane asylum. Alfred Tennyson (the poet). Churchly clumsiness. The beauty of nature, human and otherwise. An earthy, touching novel.

James Jones

From Here to Eternity
The Thin Red Line
Whistle

We managed to win World War II. How could that have happened? These books are set inside the Army, in and around the War. The twists and turns of the plot and the personalities are quite detailed, and show flawed persons with flawed attitudes and flawed perspectives. The persons, attitudes, and perspectives are gritty. The writing style is gritty, too, and it took me a while to get used to it. This contrasts with the smooth, sanded writing style of Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead.

In From Here To Eternity, the Army is shown as a bundle of applications of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Yet this clunky clanky machine managed to get the job done. If I wrote software that worked that way, I think I'd shoot myself.

The Thin Red Line focuses on the heat of battle, and the ways it can change soldiers.

Whistle shows what happens to the minds of soldiers after they've been in battle, often having been wounded. It's a poignant picture, but not pretty.

Fine books. Enlightening and absorbing.

A. A. Milne

The Red House Mystery

I don't care for murder mysteries, but I read this one because my only prior exposure to the work of A. A. Milne has concerned Winnie-the-Pooh and friends. I liked this novel in spite of, not because of, its being a murder mystery. Milne wrote other novels (and other kinds of works) for adults; it was just a droll experience to see the Pooh creator do something I was not accustomed to. He gave me a taste of how the English getting along with each other, without overdoing it. (I mean, without Milne overdoing it, not without the English overdoing it, although that happens too.) I absorbed this novel with the lighthearted resignation of someone flipping the channels and stumbling across engaging dialog.

Charles J. Brainerd

The Science Of False Memory

This book is somewhat dated (2005); it's nonetheless intriguing. Read it before you're called up for jury duty. Actually, do what I did: read only Part III, The Applied Science of False Memory. The rest is mainly of benefit to researchers and those working in psychology.

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre

In which our heroine follows her heart, and it serves her well. Good for her. I've known people who followed their heart and were quite unhappy afterward. Of such stuff are abusive marriages formed. Charlotte Brontë thought Jane Austen was too rational and bloodless. I think I'm rooting for Jane Austen here.

That said, Jane Eyre captivated my heart. And almost captivated my head.

Jane Austen

Lady Susan
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Mansfield Park
Emma
Northanger Abbey
Persuasion

In one way, Jane Austen reminds me of Beethoven. In his later years he was deaf, but he did some of his best work then. Austen never married, and was only briefly engaged once; yet her novels showed great insight into human nature and the ways ways people interact, and how romance can go wrong, and go right. For a chilling look at a scary pursuit of a woman's hand in marriage, for example, see Mansfield Park.

Amusing in its own special way is Lady Susan, which portrays a widowed mother of a young girl. Controlling, unfeeling, devious bitch, in grisly detail. Of all Austen's published works, this one was written first, when she was only 18 or 19, but not published until after her death because of its salacious nature.

You may want to approach these novels in one of two ways. If you're like me, you'll want to experience them without benefit of an introduction to them, because you want to know what your naive reaction is, and then read the study guide; otherwise, you'll lose information about yourself you can get no other way. If you're not that persnickety, boy, do I have a Jane Austen study guide for you! Read on for a discussion of William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education.

William Deresiewicz

A Jane Austen Education:

How Six Novels Taught Me
About Love, Friendship, and
the Things That Really Matter

Jane Austen got everything right with respect to human relationships, romantic and otherwise. This book perceptively examines how it is that she's right, and weaves it into a narrative of Deresiewicz's own growth from a shallow wimpy teenthing into a real mensch. Come for the insight into the novels themselves; stay for the perceptive objections to the Jane Austen movies everybody tells me they've seen instead of reading the books.

If you read this book before you read Austen's novels, you'll get much much more out of them, I promise.

Nicholas Carr

The Big Switch

This is a detailed narrative of the coming of electrical power, and the coalescing of its sources from private, factory-owned generators to public utilities that serve everyone, with the resultant social changes. For example, the economy of scale led to electric household appliances, and the perhaps over-selling of those. Are you aware that these labor-saving devices didn't contribute to any great saving of labor? 'Struth! We're just more, um, heroic about the pursuit of this labor. We no longer have the menfolk carrying out the carpets to the laundry line several times a year so the wimminfolk can beat the heck out of them; instead, the wimminfolk take the vacuum cleaner to those same carpets weekly, or daily if they're particularly into that sort of thing.

Aaaaand then there's the more modern parallel: the advent of electronic computation, and the coming coalescing of its sources from private computers to centralized utilities. Don't think that's happening already? Where does the bulk of the computation occur when you search for something using duckduckgo or Google? Not in your own computer, that's for sure. It happens in a server farm, you know and care not where. The impending social changes are a mix of the good and the bad. They're outlined in this book.

Nicholas Carr

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

The upsides and (sometimes not so obvious) downsides of living in an automated world.

Carr describes the world as it is, but that world troubles me a little. He talks about how operator error can result when everything goes smoothly until BAM! there's an emergency, and the operator has to dive in and sort everything out, sometimes very quickly, and often messes things up in the process. He then talks about adaptive automation, in which an automated system assigns to the operator particular routine tasks, so that: the operator's brain is up to speed, and therefore unlikely to be caught flat-footed when an emergency arises; the operator's interest is focused on the situation, so that there's no sudden shift of focus to contribute to human error; and the operator can practice his skills and keep them sharp. So far, so good. But couldn't this be refined? Couldn't the operator be allowed more control over which routine tasks he performs between emergencies? Giving him more control over his activities involves him more deeply in the system's mission.

This is not a criticism of Nicholas Carr, of course. It's a criticism of adaptive automation, as he describes it.

Another point raised by Carr provokes a further thought. He quotes University of Toronto scientist Hector Levesque, who provides the following question as one that artificial intelligence can't yet properly address:

The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam. What was made of Styrofoam, the large ball or the table?

AI will be on a better footing when it can tell us that it's the table that was made of Styrofoam. But it will be on a much, much better footing when AI can tell us:

It's the table that's made of polystyrene foam, of course. And be careful of your use of trademarks, there.

Mark L. Winston

Killer Bees:

The Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas

A fascinating look at how they got to the western hemisphere, and just what makes them different from the bees we're used to. Also gives a bit of the underlying biology. Gives a nod to the Canadians, who were able to act responsibly to this threat because, well, they're so nice and all. This 1992 book is still an excellent read.

Mark L. Winston

Nature Wars:

People vs. Pests

Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone

What exactly is a (nonhuman) pest? What are the tradeoffs in eradicating them, or merely reducing their number to manageable proportions? What are our standards when we buy fruit, and what should those standards be? What is the general public's attitude toward managing pests with toxic sprays in fields? And in our own homes? (Spoiler: we're hypocrites.) Who are the stakeholders in discussions about genetically modified products? What is needed to approach GM foods rationally and with a certain balance? How could progress in this area be facilitated by each stakeholder approaching the conversation differently from now?

Winston looks at all sides of each issue. He doesn't achieve impartiality by taking two extremes and averaging them; he goes into detail. This group is neglecting this factor of a given problem; another group is neglecting that factor.

These books are a little outdated (1997 and 2002), but their insights are rich.

Albert Camus

The Stranger

A penetrating look at someone who is dead inside. He has no feelings for anyone, ultimately not even for himself. Condemned to death for a murder for which he not only has no remorse but sees as unimportant, he approaches his own death with a dead disconnect. He had been dead for a long time anyway.

Andy Weir

The Martian

A six-member team goes to Mars, and has to abort the mission due to a freak storm. All but one of them make it off the surface alive. But what about the one? Well, they go back to get him.

Interesting scientific and technical detail (which you'd need if you wanted to survive on Mars until you could be rescued). Snappy dialog. If you like those two things, you'll like this book.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince

Are you looking at the drawing of a boa constrictor who has just swallowed an elephant, or are you looking at the drawing of a hat? If you have not yet reclaimed the wisdom you had as a child, this book may help. Magical.

Charles Dickens

Bleak House

A rich, complex novel set in the early middle 1800's about the corrupt English judicial system, about lawyers, about the poor, about the spark of humanity seen in the unlikeliest of places. My favorite character is Harold Skimpole, who has raised the Peter Pan syndrome to an art form, to his consistent pecuniary advantage. About three quarters of the way through this novel, I read the most moving pssage I have ever read anywhere.

Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five: The Children's Crusade

The bombing of Dresden during World War II, and time travel, and abduction by space aliens. Could you possibly want more from a whimsical novel like this? Ok, I'll give you more. The human race consists of not two sexes, but seven, the participation of all of which is required for human procreation to occur. Kurt Vonnegut explains it all for you.

Seth Kantner

Ordinary Wolves

A white adolescent in the Frozen North wants to be grow up non-white, like the Eskimo kids around him. A vividly realistic view of what it's like to be part of the land around you, without an intervening layer of plastic. I winced as I remembered what it was like to be growing up. Not quite "astonishing", as Barbara Kingsolver describes this book, but it did pull me in. The soul of the book is expressed in these words from the young man's father:

To the old Eskimos the land was everything. Theyknew the land. I think I was thinking that there wasn't time left ... to let you grow up and find your own wilderness. City. It's everything about insulating you from the earth. You can't have both. A part of you maybe is going to always be across the river from other people. You might be in for hard times. People believe in city. They call it the 'real world'.

Sinclair Lewis

Babbitt

George Babbitt is a basically decent but shallow and spineless middle class Chamber of Commerce sort of fellow in the 1920's. He pokes his way through the social murkiness in search of -- what? Authenticity?

Aristophanes

Plays

I cannot imagine a more fun introduction to the ancient Greek world than these plays. According to my favorite quote from The Cat in the Hat (page 18, if you want to check), "It is fun to have fun but you have to know how." Indeed you do. And to have fun reading these plays, you need a good translation and a good introduction. I have not surveyed the field, but the edition I read was edited and introduced by Moses Hadas, and the translations by him and a few selected colleagues seem serviceable enough. He has words about the importance of a good translation:

It is Aristophanes' lyricism ... which lends his comedies wings, and that is why prose or inept verse translation is peculiarly unfortunate in his case. Without the lift of poetry much of his terrain is a malodorous and heavy bog in which people of certain tastes may take pleasure in wallowing, but which is a travesty of Aristophanes' scintillating artistry.

So to have fun you have to pick a good translation and introduction. What else? To have fun with this dive into the Pool of Classics, don't hesitate to surf the web. You know how that goes. You read something, and in the middle there are links to other things. You follow some of those links, and they in turn lead you to other links to others to others. With sufficient self-discipline, you follow the links you want to and eventually come back to your original page. There's nothig remotely linear about this process. It's more like a tree: you traverse some (or maybe all) of the branches and twigs, and you become more fully educated. Let's take an example. Another passage from the intro discusses the use of well-known characters in ancient Greek tragedy (but not comedy):

No Athenian of the fifth century B.C. (or indeed of any other) saw an Agamemnon or a Clytamnestra in the flesh; these stalking figures were deliberately built up by the poets, and their costumes and mode of speech, like their emotional intensity, were calculated to set them apart from ordinary humanity.

John Collins, After the MurderWell, fine. For most of us, having read that sentence, now we know about as much as we did before. Who in the world was Agamemnon? Who was Clytamnestra? Wikipedia is your friend. Use it. So they were husband and wife? And she killed him? Why would she do that? How does the Trojan War fit into this story, and just what was the Trojan War, again? And what informs her posture and facial expression just After the Murder, as shown in this 1882 painting by John Collier? Get your clues from wikipedia.

The 11 comedies are these:

** In The Acharnians, the protagonist is sick and tired of the Peloponnesian War, but can't persuade his fellow Athenians to give up the fight against Sparta. So he simply goes to Sparta and makes his own private peace with them: for eight drachmas, Sparta agrees not to harm Dikaiopolis or his wife and children.

** The Knights is revenge comedy. In real life, Cleon was successor to Pericles as HMFIC in Athens. Cleon is variously portrayed as a statesman and a rabblerouser; Aristophanes sees him as an oafish rabblerousing military hawk. Cleon had prosecuted Aristophanes, alleging that the content of The Babylonians, a play we no longer have, libeled Athens. In revenge, The Knights skewers Cleon. Athens was the sort of free, open society in which not only was Aristophanes allowed to present this play, but Cleon was in the audience.

** The Clouds was an early, shining example of a comedy of ideas: it attacked those who held that morality and the laws should be flexible, and at the mercy of convenience. (The introduction to this play claims that the sophists held thus, but such a broad brush stroke doesn't seem justified.) Socrates is unjustly lampooned here, but it doesn't seem to have bothered him; during the play's performance, Socrates is said to have stood up in the audience so that his face could be compared with the mask of the actor playing his part. Plato's Apology suggests that this play was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty on Socrates.

** The Wasps favors those who prefer that jurists be unpaid (thus avoiding the corruption and patronage that, in the view of Aristophanes, strengthened Cleon), over those who think that paying jurists avoids a society where only the rich can judge. A young man takes the former position, and prevails over his father, who takes the latter position. Come for the intergenerational squabble, and stay for the moment that a dog goes on trial.

** In Peace, a farmer rides a dung beetle up to heaven to insist to the gods that Peace be un-buried and allowed to prevail over War. The farmer succeeds in his quest, and almost everybody is joyful, but not those who profited from war. (Do things ever change?)

** Two men help The Birds build a utopian city in the sky, which is well-positioned to blockade all prayers and sacrifices from people on the ground to the gods above the city. The gods then have to deal with the birds in the city in order to have access to the groundfolk. A lyrical play in which Aristophanes looks at Birdhood in all its glory.

** Ah, yes. Then there's Lysistrata. "Hey, gals, how do we get our menfolk to stop all that fighting and come home?" "I know! A sex strike!"

** In Thesmophoriazusae, playwright Euripides is fearful of the revenge that womankind is planning for his having dissed them in his plays. He sends an aged in-law, disguised as a woman, to women who are engaged in fertility rites devoted to Demeter and Persephone, and also engaged in discussing, with extreme prejudice, Euripides. His mission: to present Euripides in a favorable light. The in-law is found out, and anxiously awaits Euripides to come and rescue him.

** Euripides died in 406 BCE; in 405, Aristophanes wrote The Frogs, in which Dionysus, despairing of the dearth of good poets, goes to Hades to bring back Euripides. He fails. Sort of.

Among beginning classics students, surely the favorite line of this play is the song of the frogs we hear as Dionysus crosses the lake to get to Hades:

Brekekekex ko-ax ko-ax.

Dionysus is annoyed at their serenade, and tells them to stifle. They persist. Finally he flings their song back at them with such gusto that they fall into silence. This mission, at least, is accomplished.

** Ecclesiazusai describes an Athens in which there is too much democracy: the seats in the Senate are first come, first served, so early risers have all the power. In this picture, those who manage to get Senate seats for the day sell their votes for whatever the market will bear. This play depicts economic as well as political equality: communism (little C) is the order of the day. Everyone is equal. How is this communism brought about? Well, the women, by prior conspiratorial arrangement, get up before daybreak one particular day, don their husbands' clothes, fasten fake beards, grab all the seats, and pass a new law. In a foreshadowing of Communism with a big C, great emphasis is placed on material prosperity, as opposed to family values: since everyone is everyone's equal, everyone is also everyone else's parent or child; the old immediate family is gone. Plenty of delicious food for everyone. Due provision is made for sexual equality as well: old women have just as much right to sexual attention as their younger sisters. To enforce this, any man who wants to make love with a younger woman must immediately beforehand make love with an older woman. The husband of the woman in charge of this legislative effort objects. "How about men my age? We just don't have the energy to make love to two women in succession like that, so all we'll have access to is the older women." His wife responds with: "Your point?"

A local note here. Whoever cataloged this book for the Mariposa County Library shelved the book under Young Adult Paperback. I think this is quite healthy, but not everyone in conservative Mariposa County would agree, I'm sure. If only they knew. And, of course, it is precisely the uneducated bluestocking gang that wouldn't even think of suspecting Aristophanes as capable of harming our precious snowflakes, because they won't have read him. Tee hee.

Oh. Wait. Did I give the game away? Shoot.

** Finally, Plutus portrays Wealth as a blind beggar whose sight is restored so he can bestow riches on the deserving, not randomly. Up pops Poverty, who argues that if everyone is wealthy, nothing will get done, because nobody will have to work. If you have to skip reading one of these comedies, let this be it. But it's still amusing.

J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine

An excellent soap opera, if that's what you're looking for, and it worked for me on that basis. The prose impressed me that she's not exactly an artist, driven by the Muse, and living, eating, and breathing the English language; but she's a highly skilled craftsman. She has not a vocation, but a good career. It's as though she were running a highly successful worm farm. Worm farm? Well, you have to read the book.

Augusten Burroughs

Running With Scissors

This memoir is of a madcap childhood, where few rules applied. It's like Cheaper By the Dozen, but with plenty of dysfunction to go around, and little discipline. The father figure is Burrough's mother's psychiatrist (eventually de-licensed), whose approach to anger is to encourage its vociferous expression.

Here's one glimpse of Burrough's childhood household: the tag sale. They brought out to the front yard, and offered for sale, everything they could find that they didn't need. But when they looked at it, it seemed so hospitable that they formed all the items into a nice room, removed all the tags, and lived outside in front for several weeks.

A quite enjoyable read, but just about enough. I probably won't be reading the sequel, Dry.

Joseph Heller

Catch-22

A classic takedown of our military-comedy establishment. I thought it was somewhat over the top, until Milo Minderbender, entrepreneuer extraordinaire, showed how the business of war is business. After that, everything clicked into place. I still think that much of the dialogue, and many of the non sequiturs, are slightly too silly, but the novel is quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Terry Tempest Williams

Between Cattails
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Between Cattails is a children's book about life in a marsh. I read it and thought, that's a nice book. Then I read Refuge, an engaging picture of Williams's place in a rising Great Salt Lake, and in a family plagued beyond all statistical reasonableness with cancer, downwind from nuclear testing. What's engaging about it is not the situations themselves, of course, but her response to them.

Then a funny thing happened. After reading Refuge, I went back and re-read Between Cattails, and this was no longer just a charming children's book. It captured this adult's imagination, and showed me a marsh through the eyes of the woman I had come to know in Refuge.

Terry Tempest Williams

Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland

A Mormon woman absorbs (and conveys) nature, wisdom, and Navajo spirituality. You can feel the sand run through your fingers.

Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds

A series of meditations on life, the universe, and everything. Sweeter than wine. After I read this book I had to go back and reread my favorite parts. It pretends to be prose, but it's poetry on the wing.

Matthew B. Crawford

Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

A breathtakingly insightful look into how contemporary society has divorced us from intimate connection with our work, and how we can effectively rage against the, um, machine.

James W. Pennebaker

The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us

This book focuses on the "filler words": conjunctions, pronouns, and the like. What can we learn about people through their use of words that seemingly have little meaning in themselves? This book breathlessly describes what we know. Its breathlessness is premature in places: the results of some studies, while more interesting than merely chance results would be, aren't so definitive that we can jump to usable conclusions. Not yet, anyway. Other parts of the book are more convincing to this layman. An engrossing read if you're interested in language.

Geraldine Brooks

March: A Novel

Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women mentions that Father Dearest was off doing Civil War stuff. But what, exactly? What was life like for him? The Civil War has (for both better and worse) redefined us as a country, so a novel about what the Civil War was like for this guy would be welcome. Here it is. The issue of North versus South is a little murky, and this novel dives right into the murkiness. You can feel and smell the sweat as you read.

Nicholas Carr

The Shallows

A close look at how our use of the Internet reshapes how we think, set in the context of how the introduction of maps, clocks, and books did the same. An insightful, scary read, highly recommended if you surf and you wish to lead an examined life.

Robert Michael Pyle

Chasing Monarchs: Migrating with the Butterflies of Passage
Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year

Pyle takes his Honda Civic (named Powermilk) and his net (named Marsha, after a strong friend) in the pursuit of butterflies, happiness, and the occasional beer. There's more detail on the species encountered than most people would seek, but the life of a lepidopterist is shown forth with a certain amount of angst (so much territory, so little time), outright anxiety (try running one wheel of your vehicle off the side of a bridge sometime), and humor (sometimes wry). Slightly bumbling, always professional, courteous to law enforcement personnel (even the one who was on "work release from a donut shop"), and attracting the kindness of strangers at regular intervals, he led with his Xerces Society calling card, his geniality, and his looks. (Santa Claus? Kenny Rogers?) His work is no idle hobby; as butterflies go, so goes the rest of the climate.

Edward Frenkel

Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality

Clio Cresswell

Mathematics and Sex

These books are definitely not birds of a feather. Frenkel's book is about mathematics, and attempts to teach it as you go along. My eyes glazed over after a while, but even then I was usually able to grasp a faint idea about what he was discussing. He does work in love near the end, and it's a romantic (if rather strained) touch.

Cresswell's book discusses the biology and sociology of sex engagingly, but if Frenkel's book is a little dry, Cresswell's book has all the moisture of the tongue of a friendly, overly large, out of breath dog. Her book manages to discuss the part math plays in all of this, but she never attempts to teach any of the math. She shows sets of equations sometimes, but only to say, effectively, "See how pretty this is?"

And yes, the front cover is a picture of her, under a sheet with a tangle of calves and feet. The level of dignity in this book does not rise after that. Frenkel's work is hugely dignified. I'd never seen dignity as conferring an air of romanticism before, but Frenkel's book does this.

The books are about completely different topics, handled in completely different ways. Each is attractive in its own way.

Harry W. Greene

Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art

Greene loves him some snakes. And pigs and other creatures, but mostly snakes. This book traces his career and his love of nature. It's infectious: if you hate snakes, you'll soften; if you fear them, you'll be drawn to them. He also ponders the place of humanity in nature. He addresses, for example, the view of many vegetarians that not eating meat helps us dodge an ethical bullet. If you remember Mr. McGregor's garden, you'll know what he means.

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This rats and snails and puppydog tails guy goes out and adventures himself an adventure; often, the adventure adventures him. His deepest moral substrate is decent and kind to everyone. Above that is a layer of "civilization"-inspired racism, which he mistakes to be true decency; but his inner feelings override that, and for this he feels guilty. Some have advised teaching about this novel in schools only with the caution of a racist theme, but I think Mark Twain is getting in a subtle but savage twist of the knife against that very racism.

Christine Byl

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

A young woman, at home in the academic world, 125 pounds sopping wet, starts the heavy work of trail maintenance in national parks. Learns really quickly to keep her ears open and her mouth shut. Absorbs gobs of wisdom. Tells all. Heartwarming, open, and (let's face it, she's in with sweaty men with a wide variety of educational backgrounds) a little raunchy at times. A delightful read.

Shirley Sargent

Galen Clark: Yosemite Guardian

A thoroughly researched book by a highly respected local author about the first guardian of Yosemite, appointed by the State of California before Yosemite became a national park.

Lauren Grodstein

Friend of the Family

A successful, rather happily married physician loves his son. He gets so passionate about his son's welfare that one small slip causes him to lose much, and risk losing almost everything. One of those books where you walk in the footsteps of the protagonist, only to ask yourself, "Wait, what's happening to me?"

Bruce Sterling

Hacker Crackdown

An excellent history of how the telphone system and the early Internet were hacked (in the destructive sense of that term), and how the authority structure reacted (and sometimes overreacted) to this. You can read it here.

Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan of the Apes

Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land

Emma Donoghue

Room

The story of a human being whose initial formative years were spent away from human society. That's what each of these books has in common.

When we consider from time to time the concept of a child raised by animals, much of our image is derived from The Jungle Book. This children's book wasn't meant to be a literary masterpiece, and it isn't, but it's worth getting under your belt for a slightly more informed approach to this concept.

Tarzan of the Apes is similar; substitute apes for wolves. If you have seen none of the Tarzan movies, as I have not, this book is a roller coaster of plot twists. It sports a comic book style. But since it's a novel, Burroughs has the opportunity to simply state in the narrative details such as the mood of a character or a character's name. Such things should instead be learned through description and plot, but never mind. Sigh.

What one might hope for would be to see our society through the fresh eyes of someone like Mowgli in The Jungle Book or Tarzan. These books, unfortunately, don't spend much time with this. Two books which do are Stranger in a Strange Land and Room.

Stranger in a Strange Land is rolicking. It pokes in you in the ribs with its roasting of future society that is too much like our own, but at the same time celebrates, through the naïve eyes of Valentine Michael Smith, the underlying potential goodness of humanity, and the life-enriching potential of sex as we know it.

Room is a warm, cozy, terrifying look at a room. I don't know how to say more without ruining your reading experience.

Richard Wright

Native Son

This novel is a haunting look at what it can be like to be black in contemporary American society, and how crime can be something that happens to the perpetrator.

Of particular interest is this from the final argument given by the protagonist's defense attorney. Keep in mind that this novel was published in 1940.

The consciousness of Bigger Thomas, and millions of others more or less like him, white and black, according to the weight of the pressure we have put upon them, form the quicksands upon which the foundations of our civilization rest. Who knows when some slight shock, disturbing the delicate balance between social order and thirsty aspiration, shall send the skyscrapers in our cities toppling?

Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Combine the American comic book culture, Jews struggling against the Nazi cancer, a young man confronting his sexual identity, and a loving, if unconventional, family arrangement. What do you get? This novel. Warm, funny, captivating.

John Grisham

The Appeal

An appealing (if not exactly gripping) story of money, politics, and the judicial system. Not all the characters have (and maybe not all the characters deserve) complex development. But the main ones have: the Good Guys show occasional moral frailty, and the figurehead candidate for the Bad Guys shows that he is capable of moral growth. All in all, a nice job.

On a side note, in chapter 3 is a reference to a cemetery which has a picket fence to keep the deer away. I think I shall never see a picket fence which can keep out a deer. Keeping deer away from gardens is a frequent conversation in my neck of the woods.

Carl Hiaasen

Star Island

I never cared much about celebrities, so this novel shouldn't have appealed to me. But it was funny in a way that made me wince. And the real star of the show is not the celebritous young thing, or her parents or manager, but the Florida governor who abruptly resigned, stepped off the grid, and fought from the shadows, on his own zany terms, for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I'd like to see a novel about him.

John Updike

The Complete Henry Bech:

Bech: a Book
Bech is Back
Bech at Bay
His Oeuvre

Woody Allen is funny, but also a little self-absorbed. And he's no more self-absorbed than when he talks about (or films about) the movies. So I approached Updike's novels about fictional author Henry Bech a little uneasily, wondering whether I'd have another Woody Allen experience.

Not to worry. Updike's excellent (as usual) writing drew me in. I saw Bech's insecurities, his fear of being found out as a phony, his growing old, and I felt his humanity.

Allie Brosch

Hyperbole and a Half

I got this book of well-narrated but crudely drawn cartoons for Christmas, and figured out that I'd read it to be polite. It's an autobiography. It shows a difficult but brilliant (an explosive combination) Allie as a child. It also shows two dysfunctional dogs, wildly different from each other, each in a decidedly unsympathetic light. Dogs are supposed to be easily lovable, right? Not these. Oh, no.

The book gradually warmed on me as I read it. And then two places in the book took my breath away. The first was a chapter on depression. I walked away from that chapter with a good sense of what it might be like to be clinically depressed, and how hopelessly buried such a person might seem to himself.

The second asks why we are not as good as we want to be. We can behave well, but that's not good enough. It's better to want to behave well. It's cheap to treat others well if, on the inside, we really want to mistreat them. How does that work? What does it say about us? It's the sort of question that religions tangle with. Catholics see us as created well, with moral injury that does not nullify our essential goodness. Most Protestants, on the other hand, see us as having a sinful nature.

Allie does not address that specific religious question, but she does deal with the underlying issue of wanting to be better on the inside, but succeeding only in showing good (but insincere) outer behavior.

And she does this without touching explicitly on religion. Took my breath away.

T.C. Boyle

San Miguel

An absorbing page-turner, as are most of T.C. Boyle's novels, this is the stories of three women, of different generations, living on a sheep ranch on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. This novel is rather like The Egg and I, but without the silliness, and with richer pathos.

Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road

A strong, emotionally unavailable woman is far more brittle than she appears. The trick is to make the reader care about this. Richard Yates manages this quite well.

Tony Horwitz

Confederates in the Attic

This view of the Civil War from the viewpoint of a guy who sniffs around gathering clues is funny, poignant, and jam-packed with Civil War trivia, including the explosion of many Civil War myths. If you read only one book about the Civil War, let this be it.

Paul Auster

The Book of Illusions

This jaw-dropping wonder of a novel made me fall head over heels in love with the silent film era. There are other miracles in this book, but that's good enough for starters. Find the rest for yourself.

Sam Lipsyte

The Ask

A frothy little novel, full of yucks and even some tender moments. It left me unmoved. I enjoyed it thoroughly. A laff-trak sort of piece.

Cormac McCarthy

The Road

A father and young son set out to survive after (evidently) a thermonuclear war. Their bond is strong, and this adventure doesn't begin to test it. Their journey shows trust and strength and love.

Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man

I went out of my way to read this book because in late summer of 2013 it was banned from libraries in the Randolph County, NC school system.

The black protagonist in this classic novel discovers, through his college years and his career raising the class consciousness of blacks in New York City, that people see him as a (more or less, depending on the situation) stereotypical black, not as the full human being that he is. As a result, his career gradually crumbles, and he saves it, and his own approach to life, by embracing that invisibility.

E.H. Gombrich

A Little History of the World

If your knowledge of world history has turned a little rough, or (sadly, too often these days) your education didn't include enough of it, this book is for you. It was actually written for children. But if you can get past the simplified language, and the patronization that would make even a child's skin crawl, the book can fill this lack in a surprisingly short time.

But it isn't just stripped-down facts. For example, did you know that in his old age Emperor Charles V got tired of emperoring, distributed the parts of his empire to relatives, retired to a monastery, and set about fixing all their clocks? He tried to get them all to chime at the same time, without success. He then is supposed to have asked himself: If I can't even get these clocks to chime together, is it any wonder I couldn't get everyone in my empire to get along?

Thomas Wolfe

You Can't Go Home Again

Have you ever gotten a foxtail burr caught in a sock? You can pull it out in one direction, but not the other. Time flows like that. You can't go back to where you were. This is in a sense a novel about a newly published author who finds that he can't go back to his home town and live there as though nothing had happened. But that's just the beginning. His adventures take him through the 1929 stock market crash in New York City, and into Nazi Germany, with stops along the way. His well-examined life shows him that things never change back.

Almost every chapter in this novel is like a pearl on a strand, and can be read like a standalone short story (or, sometimes, an essay). Yet the story builds, and the final four chapters are an exposition of what the protagonist has learned. He had been chasing the bitch goddesses Love and Fame for decades. He discovers that things only make sense if he turns outward in concern for others, with the firm belief that things can get better, if we make them better.

It sounds like a sermon, but it's a feast of adventure, tiny details, and introspection. "All is vanity," says the Preacher. Well, says this novel, not all.

Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward, Angel

"Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy tells us at the beginning of Anna Karenina; "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It's truthy enough, I suppose, but it's also nonsense. It's not that it's not right; it's not even wrong.

Take the family whose life is described in Look Homeward, Angel, for example. Is it happy, or not? It's both, it's neither, and its members show love to each other, each member in his own way, through the dysfunction and pain.

This book was written in a more genteel age, when we capitalized the names of seasons and used hyphens differently, and people took care to find euphemisms when expressing dismay or hostility.

As you swim through the novel's rich detail, you'll soon forget that you're swimming. Take a gander at this tiny sample, and then bury your nose in this book:

A rich warm wind was blowing, turning all the leaves back the same way, and making mellow music through all the lute-strings of flower and grass and fruit. The wind moaned, not with the mad fiend-voice of winter in harsh boughs, but like a fruitful woman, deep-breasted, great, full of love and wisdom; like Demeter unseen and hunting through the world.

Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Dial women's control of their own bodies to 0. Then crank the Christian Right's power up to 11. Nobody wins in this haunting dystopia, even those who think they have.

Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior

This novel explores the apparently relentless progression of climate change and its effect on an Appalachian community, and the progression of a woman from her pupa stage to becoming a butterfly: her true self. That sentence was clumsy, but the novel sings. Hope abides, but tenuously. You'll see.

Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

A solid craftsmanlike work. He's clearly done his homework.

For the uninitiated: studying the Jesus of history is not the same as studying the Christ of faith. This book does the former. Makes me want to go back to studying theology.

Barbara Kingsolver

High Tide in Tucson
Small Wonder

If you like Barbara Kingsolver as a novelist, you might want to invite her into your home for tea, just to get to know her better. Now imagine that chat stretching into staying for dinner, and she and you stay up into the middle of the night, talking until you're too tired to keep your eyes open. That's what these books of essays are like.

Small Wonder tends to focus at the beginning on nature. If you're not a naturalist at heart, just keep reading. Her two best essays come later in this book: "Letters to a Daughter at Thirteen" and "Letters to My Mother".

Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe

This novel introduces 14 year old boys (and anyone else who is willing to be a 14 year old boy at heart for the moment) to the world of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and the world of royal intrigue of the day. Find an edition which thoroughly footnotes the historical inaccuracies. In spite of having better things to do, I couldn't easily put this book down. Filled with broad-brushed strokes of action, romance, and justice.

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Crony capitalism at its darkest. You can see inside the souls it infects.

John Updike

Rabbit, Run
Rabbit Redux
Rabbit Is Rich
Rabbit at Rest

This tetralogy features a guy who doesn't reflect on his existence as a moral creature; instead, he reacts to ethical situations from the gut, by running. I didn't think I'd have sympathy for him, but I do, because Updike shows Rabbit, the ethical oaf, picking up each situation in his hands, looking at it quizzically like a dog, and acting out of sheer clumsiness and lack of insight, but still meaning well when he can. An absorbing series.

John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces

What can I say about this book? I can say three things. First: the novel's Forward, written by Walker Percy, is the most emotionally moving Forward I remember ever having read. Second: the novel is wondrously hilarious. Third: this is probably the zaniest novel in existence set in New Orleans.

Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts

In this retelling of the rise of the Third Reich, we look at the Germans not as freaks, but as people just like us. The take-away question: could that happen here?

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays

Emerson is one of the giants on whose shoulders modern American culture stands, or at least should stand. Read some of them; you'll be a better person for it. At least skim the rest.

Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities

A somewhat absorbing tale of the criminal justice system in New York City. Until I got close to the end, I found I could put it down; near the end, not so.

Laurence Sterne

The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

This breathtakingly impertinent novel is one digression after another. It is probably 1% life and 99% opinions. It is drenched in shameless droll pomposity. I was grinning half the time, and at times I burst out laughing. So, at one point, was Susan when I read a passage to her. So read this book. When you're done, you'll wonder why you started.

Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Life reflects art reflects life. Hold those mirrors just right and you have a slow crescendo in a morality horror story. This novel is an excellent answer to the question: "What if we pushed Poe's story 'The Telltale Heart'" to the next level?

Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, MD

Younger Next Year

Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. Quit eating crap. Connect and commit. These three rules can not only slow, but actually also reverse, the aging process. This book describes how. I hope the following two details will interest you in the book.

Detail one: The aging process is not an unfortunate evolutionary anomaly, like the appendix; it actually developed to help our species prosper, even if that was inconvenient for the the individual specimen. Beyond a certain age, an individual was not helpful to the group, so better for the species if he just die. This consideration is no longer relevant in our world (except in the sense that everyone dying at age 70 would help Social Security's balance sheet). So what's an individual to do? He should understand the mechanism that causes the aging process, and send his body "I am young" signals. This book goes into the biology of that.

Detail two: Serious weight lifting can postpone the onset of arthritis. But possibly more important, serious weight lifting can reverse the arthritis you already have. Get that? You're not avoiding weight training because of your arthritis; your arthritis is as bad as it is because you haven't started weight training yet. So get busy. Lose much of your athritis.

So have I started weight training? Not yet. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes, temporarily.

One more thing. There are two rules of starting an exercise program. The first rule is, see your doctor before starting. The second rule is, see your doctor before starting.

Herman Melville

Israel Potter

The protagonist in this novel (based loosely on an autobiography) fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill and elsewhere, gets captured by the British, is shipped with other prisoners of war to London, escapes more than once, makes his way through most of his life in England, and finally manages to secure passage home. This witty story features a marvelous (and quite droll) character study of Benjamin Franklin.

P.G. Wodehouse

Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin

This is more of the breezy semidry wit of P.G. Wodehouse. You know from the outset, though Wodehouse doesn't quite tell you, that the girl gets her guy. So let me spoil it for you right now: the girl gets her guy.

Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna

This is a historical novel: not an wide, sweeping historical novel, but an intimate historical novel. You'll confront the American labor movement, Communists, Mexico, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and American xenophobia. You'll be charmed: until you realize that these days there are those who publicly praise the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then you'll be terrified.

Jill Lepore

The Whites of Their Eyes

The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History

How do those in the Tea Party get their American history so wrong? How does this affect what they believe and what they do? What really happened in the American Revolution, anyway? This book addresses all these issues well.

Dr. Michael Brown

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Did you grow up knowing there were nine planets in our solar system? Are you aware that their number has been reduced to eight? Find out just why in this book, from the horse's mouth. Expose yourself more to astronomy, science in general, politics among astronomers, backstabbing, falling in love, and so on, with this book.

Adam Roberts

New Model Army

Consider the Internet: how it connects people together. Imagine an army based on such connectivity. Imagine an army that is run by democracy: one soldier, one vote. Imagine an army without a chain of command. That is, imagine an army that is not run the old, feudal way. See such an army run circles around the old kind. Read this novel.

Chuck Hogan

Prince of Thieves

This is a delightful novel about bank robbery, told from the viewpoints of a criminal and an FBI agent. Comes complete with a love triangle. Character development (my chief reason for liking any novel) is superb.

Christos H. Papandimitriou

Turing (A Novel About Computation)

This is, in fact, a novel about computation, and only tangentially about Alan Turing. This novel is actually the framework for introducing the layperson to computing, but to much more as well: developmental biology, mathematics, the history of mathematics, economic planning, cryptography.

Point: When you're in the womb, your hands do not sprout five fingers each. Instead, you start with a mitt, and some of the cells in that mitt die and disappear. Result: five fingers.

Point: Consider the right triangle. The square of the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. This was known by several ancient civilizations. But in only one -- Greece -- was a proof developed for this. Why? Because in other cultures, status was everything. If your mentor gave you this formula, then you, his apprentice, did not dare question it. But in Greece, developer of democracy and equality, it was permissible to argue: "Oh yeah? Prove it!"

Don't miss the Afterward, a compilation of postings from newsgroup net.bookclub.turing. They introduce grains of salt with which you should take the novel. But take these postings with a grain of salt themselves; sometimes the picture they paint is incomplete or slightly incorrect.

E.J. Dionne

Our Divided Political Heart

Are you tired of yelling at conservatives? Tired of listening to conservatives yell at you? This book carefully peels the layers of current political conflict, introduces relevant history (both real and imagined), and argues that the liberal and the conservative "should be friends", as the song from Oklahoma! goes.

Seriously, there are things for which liberals should thank conservatives, and even things for which liberals should thank the Tea Party. Dionne explores all these issues not with heat, but with light.

Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

An ingenious, resourceful, creative free spirit flies the coop to find herself. Sounds trite, but this novel is a colorful funfest. I found it difficult to put it down.

William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying

A family in the Mississippi in the 1920's deals with the death of the (relatively young) materfamilias. I confess: I chortled to see these country bumpkins with their homespun ways, until a sense of reverence crept over me and I had to blink back tears. People do strange and clumsy things when they're grieving. Next time you see a clumsy griever, reach for this novel.

Jim Holt

Why Does the World Exist?

This book examines the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? It contains a survey of answers to this question from ancient times to now. Holt immerses himself in the question, interviewing modern philosophers and others who "dabble into" (Thanks, Christine O'Donnell.) philosophy.

I see the book as falling short in two minor areas. The first shortcoming is his discussion, scattered throughout the book, of the English word "nothing". He starts the book with this "Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives:"

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything would be permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding. Therefore, there must be something. QED

Well. Hmmph. If there were nothing, then it is equally true (or at least non-falsifiable) that everything would be red, and everything would be green, and everything would be blue. But beyond this, the "proof" turns on an ambiguity that I first encountered in this bit of reasoning:

Nothing is better than sex, and a dry ham sandwich is better than nothing, so a dry ham sandwich is better than sex.

One must give Holt credit for the title to his proof, the whimsy of which hints that he's offering that proof with tongue in cheek. Later in the book, he does acknowledge the ambiguity with other versions of the sex and sandwich reasoning:

Nothing is popularly held to be better than a dry martini, but worse than sand in the bedsheets. A poor man has it, a rich man needs it, and if you eat it for a long time, it'll kill you. ...

And on and on. Holt nails it pretty well thus:

Rudolf Carnap ... observed that the existentialists had been fooled by the grammar of "nothing": since it behaves like a noun, they assumed, it must refer to an entity -- a something. This is the same blunder that the Red King makes in Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass: if Nobody had passed the messenger on the road, the Red King reasoned, then Nobody must have arrived first.

But he does not give this explanation the prominence due it. If he had, much of the book would no longer be interesting. The problem of "nothing" boils down to a quirk of the English language, nothing more. Holt needed to bury the explanation to justify the existence of much of the book.

The second shortcoming I see in this book is his approach to the number zero. It does not mean nearly the same as "nothing":

Mathematics has a name for nothing, and that is "zero".

Nope. In mathematics, the closest thing to "nothing" is the empty set, not the number zero. Holt does have something interesting and valid to say about this number:

When double-entry bookkeeping was invented in Italy around 1340, zero came to be viewed as a natural dividing point between credits and debits.

Holt could have run a little further with this point. He could have pointed out that the point "zero" on the number line has special properties: at that point, the unit of use is no longer relevant. If you're keeping track of pennies, and the quantity drops from 1 to 0, then it does not matter at that point whether the unit is the penny, or the dollar, or the elephant. As soon as you leave zero, even in an infinitesimal amount, the unit of use suddenly matters again. Holt could have tied this to the sex and sandwich paradox, even though "zero" and "nothing" do not have the same meaning.

All in all, though, this book is an absorbing read.

John Grisham

The Innocent Man

Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

No, this isn't a novel. The subtitle says it all. Moving and infuriating. If the police question you, say nothing. Seriously.

Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible

A novel written from the viewpoints of the wife and four daughters of a missionary, as they all go off to the Congo. Eloquent, poignant, witty. Kingsolver is delicious:

Caterpillars one after another I laid on my tongue, their char crisp bristle taste a sweet momentary salve to a body aching for protein. Hunger of the body is altogether different from the shallow, daily hunger of the belly. Those who have known this kind of hunger cannot entirely love, ever again, those who have not.

And from the viewpoint of a mother who has lost her daughter:

As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there, but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop.

Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why do some groups of humans develop industrialized societies, and others do not? Why did X conquer Y, and not Y conquer X? There are racist answers, but then there is Jared Diamond. His answer boils down to one word: geography. But in this book, he expands that word to hundreds of thousands more words, in breathtaking detail. And it really does boil down to geography.

If you read this book, don't skip to the ending. But I'll quote from the end:

The challenge now is to develop history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology.

He makes the point that "historical sciences", as he calls them, potentially have more in common with the study of history than they do with, say, physics or chemistry. For example, one can't perform experiments in astronomy as one can in physics. But there are other approaches to knowledge in the historical sciences, and there is no reason we can't use those approaches in the study of "ordinary" history.

This man and this book are brilliant. For more books, and more about the man, go to the article about him on wikipedia.

(It would trivialize my admiration for this book to mention that I note with approval Diamond's use of the Oxford comma in the title.)

Karl Marlantes

What It Is Like to Go to War

This book addresses, for those of us who have not gone to war, what it is like, how it damages (and sometimes ennobles) those who go to war, how those who go to war can prepare themselves, and heal themselves afterwards. It contains insights for growth for all, even those who have never gone to war.

Robert Heinlein

Beyond This Horizon

NRA types often quote Heinlein as saying, "An armed society is a polite society," as though he were advocating such a society. That quote comes from this 1942 novel. Read it to see what he really meant.

Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman:

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

If you're going to read just one book about the Oxford English Dictionary, read Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything. After that, read this one. It focuses on the story of William Chester Minor, a physician who served (to his detriment) as a Union physician in the Civil War, became insane, shot someone in an insane fog, was committed for the rest of his life, and became one of the few most important contributors to the first edition of the OED. The story is at once stirring and haunting and reassuring: reassuring of the ability of the human person to find ways to heal under the most trying of circumstances, limited though that healing might be.

I have since come across two alternative titles for this book:

The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Oxford English Dictonary
The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Love of Words

William Poundstone

Prisoner's Dilemma

This book fleshes out game theory with human stories of human beings. John von Neumann, for example, quotes P.G. Wodehouse in a letter to his (von Neumann's) wife Klara: "Women have to learn to bear anecdotes from men they love. It is the curse of Eve."

I am not convinced, though, of the care with which Poundstone approaches the subject matter itself. According to a comment on p. 29, for example, "von Neumann devised the formal definition of ordinal numbers that is used today: an ordinal number is the set of all smaller ordinal numbers." Almost right: "set" should read "well-ordered set". (I am no mathematician; I read such definitions and move my lips to make sure I get things right.)

Poundstone also trips up in his recounting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He rightly says that Kennedy rejected Soviet demands that the U.S. remove its missiles from Turkey. But he neglects to say that the U.S. (if I am to believe the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Missile Crisis) secretly removed those missiles anyway (as well as those in Italy).

But on the whole, this book is a rich mine of background info on game theory, with many side trips into the history of international relations. Highly recommended.

Doris Pilkington

Rabbit-Proof Fence

This is the true story of three aboriginal girls in Australia who were taken from their families and sent to a camp where they were to learn to read and write, so they could serve white folks. They escaped, to begin a four-month journey on foot back home.

Roughly edited, but that is perfect for this book.

David Goodwillie

American Subversive

This novel is a page-turner for sure. The characters are not only well-developed; they're downright intriguing.

Would you set off a bomb in Manhattan for the good of your country? No? Read this book first.

Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything

The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

More precisely, the story of the development of the OED. A touching, human story, with plenty of wordstuff and plenty of characters and plenty of politics and a touch of madness and humor. If you have any affection for the OED, you'll probably want to read this book.

C. J. Sansom

Dissolution

Yet another murder mystery, and I don't particularly care for murder mysteries. But this one was an absorbing introduction to Tudor England. The title refers to the practice of the Crown dissolving monasteries and handing over the property to members of the nobility.

Recommended either if you like murder mysteries; whodunnit blindsided me. Also recommended, obviously, if you're interested in Tudor England.

For obvious reasons, my reaction to this book parallels that of my reaction to Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color.

Ryan Holiday

Trust Me I'm Lying

Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Frank Lloyd Wright called television "chewing gum for the eyes": momentarily pleasurable, void of substance. He was mostly right. And today we have the Internet. Holiday's book describes, in detail, how content-free the World Wide Web is, and why.

What he doesn't do is to share with us that there are places (rare though they be) on the WWW which are worth reading, just as there were TV shows which were truly edifying.

He talks about the mechanisms which make the WWW such a sewer; then he says that he has no solutions to offer. Yet there is one. After reading this book, I can stand back and see my own reading habits and how I waste my time pursuing shiny objects. I can also recognize the few places that are worth reading. This book has just saved me much future free time, thus extending my effective life span.

Oh! I have it! With apologies to William Shakespeare:

"The Web is filled with shiny objects, signifying nothing."

Maria Semple

This One Is Mine

A shallow novel about shallow people living shallow Los Angeles values. Or so I thought. Before my eyes, most of them transformed into more thoughtful, loving fellow members of the human race. They weren't seeking a fuller humanity; they just sorta stumbled into it. Scary, but heartwarming.

Len Fisher

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Game Theory in Everyday Life

An enlightening, highly readable, often funny book about game theory.

Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

This novel is about a partially functional family whose father has Parkinson's disease. The story shouldn't appeal to me because the characters have difficulty coping, each in his own way. But enough humanity shines through that one recognizes one's own brokenness in each character. I was rooting for them all, even though cringing the whole way.

Waris Dirie

Desert Flower

This is the true story of a woman of Somalia who breaks out of the poor (yet rich) life of Somalian women and succeeds in the Western world that we know. We're immersed in the overall culture of Africa and the specific culture of Somalia , and in what it means to be a woman in that culture. We see how an abundance of grit and vinegar can enable someone to do what has to be done. I laughed. I cried. I hugged myself with joy. You will too.

John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez

I was unaware of the naturalist side of Steinbeck before I read this memoir. He and his associates went to the Sea of Cortez to gather as many specimens as possible within the time limit imposed by the charter of the boat they hired.

This book is actually divided into two parts. Thne second part of it is Steinbeck's take on the trip itself. Much of this part didn't appeal to me; there are details and details and details of what kinds of specimens were gathered on a given day. But interspersed with that are pointed observations on human nature, and some rather dull speculations on the nature of knowledge. The amateur nature of these latter speculations is exemplified by his use of the term "light year" to mean a unit of time, not distance.

Worth reading on the whole, though. My favorite slice of this second part of the book was a discourse on the virtues of laziness. I know of nobody else who has offered a similarly positive view of laziness, except Larry Wall, originator of the Perl computer programming language.

The first part of the book, though, made it difficult for me to put the book down. It's not about the specimen-gathering trip; it's a character study of his friend Ed Ricketts, who ran a commercial laboratory on Cannery Row in Monterey. You don't like character studies? Read just this one. It'd make you want to have a beer with this guy. Except Steinbeck starts out by describing Ed's death, and how the people around him felt about that.

If you don't read the second part of this book, at least read the crackling first part.

Anita Diamant

The Red Tent

This story of the ancient character Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, draws one toward what life in those days must have been like. The tone is a bit dry, and somehow the author (not the character Dinah) comes across through the story as being what? smug? I almost dropped the book after about 50 pages for both of these reasons, but the book was ultimately worthwhile, partly because of its depiction of women (both individual women and groups of them) coping with living in a patriarchal society.

Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

This novel is a lush, sparkling, witty look at life in Appalachian Kentucky. A page-turner for sure. A weaving together of three excellent stories, excellently told.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Brothers Karamazov

The Russian classic about three quite different brothers and their grouchy (to say the least) father. A warm, comfortable novel. It moves at a rather slow pace, taking more than the usual time to establish various characters' back stories.

Barbara Hambly

A Free Man of Color

Though not caring particularly for murder mysteries, I was engrossed by the lush, messy New Orleans setting, the caste distinctions, the gaudy Mardi Gras festivities, the social intrigues, and finally (about halfway through the book) the murder mystery itself. Skillfully done. If you like murder mysteries, you'll love this one. If not, consider being seduced by New Orleans.

For obvious reasons, my reaction to this book parallels that of my reaction to C. J. Sansom's Dissolution.

Jennifer Dubois

A Partial History of Lost Causes

The protagonist's father dies of Huntington's disease, and she learns that she, in all likelihood, will do the same. How do you fight when you can't win?

Meanwhile, a Russian dissident runs for President against the political might of Vladimir Putin. How do you fight when you can't win?

These two characters come together, of course. This novel breathes the soul of Russia, and breathes the soul of chess. Haunting.

Pete Hamill

Tabloid City

This well-crafted novel teased at my attention, and then grabbed it more and more firmly as I read more and more of it. A novel noir is not ordinarily my thing, but this one entertained me, if for no other reason than the development of the characters. I felt I was inside each skull, looking out.

David James Duncan

God Laughs and Plays

Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of
the Fundamentalist Right

River Teeth

Stories and Writings

These books aren't normally grouped as a pair, but they should be. First, read God Laughs and Plays. You'll discover Duncan's take on spirituality, godstuff, what's wrong (or part of what's wrong) with religion in the United States, the nature of truth, what makes fiction fiction, and a whole boatload of other goodies. If you're already familiar with much of that, skim the book anyway to get Duncan's take on all this. If you're not, this will be a mighty earopener.

Then, and only then, read River Teeth. Some of these stories spoke more strongly to me than others, but it was a worthwhile trip, every step. It's best to read Duncan's stories after finding out (in God Laughs and Plays) what Duncan thinks a story is in the first place.

David James Duncan

The River Why

The protagonist in this novel was the product of a mixed marriage. No, his parents were not a downhill skier and a cross country skier. It was much, much worse: they were fly and bait fisherpersons. Their child took to fishing as to breathing. The book is actually not about fishing, but about life, the universe, and everything. It's moving, funny, and profound.

Bright shining as the sun.

David James Duncan

The Brothers K

A family's saga unfolds in all its ordinary splendor. None of the characters are larger than life, but when they're put in a bag and shaken together, the result is yummy and makes one yearn for more than the 600 plus pages of this book.

Ah, yes. Six hundred pages. But I found it difficult to put this heartwarmth down, and I usually don't suffer long novels gladly.

It makes me want to read The Brothers Karamazov someday, to see whether it holds my attention just as well.

David James Duncan

My Story As Told By Water

I've read other books by him, and they're stellar. This one, an intro to the man himself, is merely very good. Kinda preachy (maybe shrill) at times. But I'll tell you this: I haven't looked at my gold wedding band in the same way since.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island

This book is written for boys. Practically all of our stereotypes of pirates (scruffy, artificial leg, parrot on shoulder, red nightcap, and so on) come from this book, so I started reading it for historical interest. But I stayed because eventually the book wrapped me around its little finger. I needed to know how it turned out. You probably will, too.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude

This book is wonderful. I don't know what to make of it.

There's a point about halfway into the book where peace breaks out. At that point, the tone of the book seems to change. Scenes are more lush. It is as though someone had taken all the colors and bumped the saturation to the max. Then two things occurred to me.

Thing one: I'm not reading a book. I'm reading a movie, with sweeping scope and large action and grand effect.

Thing two: This didn't just start partway through the book. Even the war-torn first part of the book was part of the same movie, the same grand effect. Then the name of the movie hit me. It's Dr. Zhivago, but with all that life that's larger than life not spread across all of Mother Russia as over a piece of bread, but focused on a small town, finite in size and finite in duration.

Do not read this book and then operate heavy machinery.

Two snippets:

The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.
They soon reached the conclusion that [the phonograph] was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought ..., but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians. ... [W]hen phonographs became so popular that there was one in every house they were not considered objects for amusement for adults but as something good for children to take apart.

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women

I'll go ahead and characterize this book as protofeminist. It shows four sisters taking charge of their lives, each in her own way. It's an American classic, set in the days of the Civil War. You say you have a Y chromosome? Never mind. Read it anyway.

The style did put me off at first. I'm accustomed to fiction which doesn't say what a character's mood or attitude is, but shows it. All too often, Alcott often doesn't bother with this. She uses adverbs like "sadly" or "decidedly" or phrases such as "with dignity", and lets the reader fill in the visual details for himself. This almost killed me in the first chapter, which attempts to introduce the four little women through a (to me) tiresome dialog, filled with those dreary adverbs.

You, too, can make it past that first chapter. Once past that hurdle, and somewhat accustomed to the stilted style, I found myself to be almost a member of the family, joining in their joys and sorrows. Maybe you will too.

John McWhorter

The Power of Babel

An excellent natural history of language. Chock full of juicy tidbits of how language works, both conceptually and as illustrated in particular cases. Witty and solid. After reading this book, I bought it as a reference.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

This book is the most American thing I have ever read. If you haven't read it, and you're an America, you must. If you haven't read it and you're not American and you want to understand America, you must.

The most fascinating aspect to me was Stowe's portrayal of those who benefitted from slavery but were uncomfortable with it. Her skill derives, at least in part, from her ability to observe human nature sharply. This makes the whole book a real treat. Just to get you started, here's an example of what she observes about people:

So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls, why don't somebody wake up to the beauty of old women?

Samantha King

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Clearly lays out the facts: mixing consumerism and "philanthropy", as the Susan G. Komen Foundation does, is not in the best interests of those who suffer or might suffer from breast cancer, especially the poor among us.

Victoria Finlay

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

An odyssey through the world of color, and the history thereof. I never knew there was so much to be known about color, nor the power plays and intrigue and violence associated with it. This book is not always a page-turner, but it's quite good.

Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner

An intimate firsthand look from a doctor's viewpint at the destructive force of addiction.

Peter Hoeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow

This must be the first murder mystery I've really liked. Hoeg pulled me into the head of the protagonist, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jasperson, so skillfully that I almost forgot that I was actually someone else. Hoeg draws such a dense screen between the reader and the ultimate explanation of whodunnit, that I thought it would never unravel.

For free, I also learned about snow, and ice, and the history of the dance between Denmark and Greenland.

Hoeg's skill put me in the palm of his hand from the first page.

Gwen Cooper

Diary of a South Beach Party Girl

I'm glad I read this book. I just don't know why that is so. The protagonist and her friends are all such likeable, warm, human, genuine characters. I guess I don't care for the party scene.

Oh. And the cocaine. Cocaine falls off every page of the book as salt falls off every page of Moby Dick. I was charmed by the salt. The cocaine, not so much.

Aldous Huxley

Brave New World

A classic. I re-read it because it was among the top 10 banned books of 2010.

Ah, progress. Be careful what you wish for.

Tom Robbins

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Oh, gosh, how do I describe this book? It's funny and zany, but gets into issues such as matriarchy, patriarchy, and the relationship between religion and civilization. I call it a 42 book, because it deals with life, the universe, and everything. There's sex in it too.

H.W. Fowler and David Crystal

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: the Classic First Edition
with an new Introduction and Notes by David Crystal

An excellent reference work, but even better just to dip into on a randomly chosen page.

Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Danny Dunn and the Antigravity Paint

A children's science fiction story, part of the beloved Danny Dunn series of my childhood. (My favorite was Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, because I'm lazy.)

Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

And Tango Makes Three

A children's book of the true story of two male penguins who fall in love and then adopt a fertile egg, hatch it, and raise the young one. Heartwarming. Made it to the 2010 Banned Books top ten list, which is how I found out about it.

Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

A novel for young adults, but good reading for all adults. A young kid goes off the reservation and finds himself (sorta) in a white high school. Made it to the 2010 Banned Books top ten list, which is how I found out about it.

Gwen Cooper

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale,

or How I learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat

The title says it all. This is the only book which at one point actually pulled me into reading it faster to see how the chapter would end.

The insights into love and life are haunting and real. The cat stuff is icing on the cake. And luscious icing it is, too. It won't make you into a cat person if you're not one, but it will remind you of how much cats are individual personalities, as precious as humans.

Stetson Kennedy

The Klan Unmasked

A fascinating (but not surprising) look inside the KKK. What's amazing is the almost consistent lack of official response to the threat of the Klan.

Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood's End

An superpowerful alien race comes to us to save us, and arguably the rest of the universe, from ourselves. Quite well done. The Day The Earth Stood Still can't come close to touching this. One of my favorite passages was when the ultrarational aliens attended a (human) concert. They complimented the composers on their "great ingenuity". Nothing more. What do we humans hear in music that we take entirely for granted?

Sinclair Lewis

Elmer Gantry

Who knows? As of Sat Sep 3 2011, he might be our next President. This satire, once banned in Boston and elsewhere, shows evangelical Christianity at its worst. It's worth reading for many reasons, one of which is that it still elicits animosity from the Christian Right. Let them bristle. (I'm even-handed in this. I'm Catholic, but when Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights complains about anti-Catholic events or expressions of opinion, my usual reaction is "You're oversentive, Bill. Give me a break.")

I'm actually rooting for Elmer for most of the book, in that I can feel the pull toward virtue tugging at him, even though most of the time that tug is of insufficient strength.

Richard A. Billows

Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization

The title pretty much says it all. He talks about the battle, and Western civ, and their connection, without making too much a stretch. Informed, well-written. Don't let the occasional sloppy English throw you off.

Jack W. Lynch

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to "South Park"

A lucid, compelling look at the debate between those who say, "English should be spoken thus" and those who say, "English is spoken thus; end of story." Comes down on the side of the latter, the descriptionists, not the prescriptionists, but not without some moderating reservations.

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