Cool Reading 2010

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2010, I read and reviewed 138 books. Below is the full list with reviews of each plus a list of favorites. See also my end of year newsletter A Year In Cool Reading 2010.
Favorite books read in 2010:

The Slave Girl and Other Stories by Ivo Andric
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin
This Borrowed Earth by Robert Emmet Hernan
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery by Steven Nicholls
China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford
The African Queen by C.S. Forester
The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlof
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann
The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm by Kenneth W. Gronbach
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life and Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antartic Expedition in the "Fram", 1910-12 by Roald Amundsen
Reading journals from other years: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer


Sarah Bakewell (2010)
Hardcover first
December 2010
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French Renaissance writer most famous for his book Essays (1580), a term he coined, and is credited with inventing the genre. The essays are wide ranging and introspective, as essays are, they touch on any topic and train of thought the author wishes the explore. His book was an immediate success and has been tremendously influential with writers and thinkers in every century since. It is usually included among the most influential works of all time, one of the Great Books. Thus of course I've never read it, nor knew anything about its author.

Sarah Bakewell's biography of Montaigne is unconventional, she weaves together the life, what his essays say, and how he has influenced later generations. It is a perfect introduction, and a great motivator to read Montaigne. The sub-title is "How to Live: Twenty Attempts at an Answer". It's strange though, because on the one hand she distills life lessons from the essays, for example chapter titles include Ch 7: How to live? Question everything, Ch 1: How to live? Don't worry about death, Ch.4: How to live? See the world, etc. but on the other hand she says his essays are not meant to be didactic. Perhaps I need to actually read Montaigne to understand this contradiction. In any case I found Bakewell's love affair with Montaigne infectious, he seems like a fascinating person and someone I would like to get to know better.

This is the last book I read in 2010, just before New Year's Eve when we make resolutions for how to live in the new year, a more perfect time to read a book about how to live a good life is hard to imagine, a cap to a wonderful year in reading. I happily take advice from Ch 4: How to live? Read a lot.
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Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped


A. Roger Ekirch (2010)
Hardcover first
December 2010
The dramatic story of early 18th century James Annesley has inspired at least 5 novels, most famously Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. Annesley was especially popular during the 19th century, among burgeoning middle classes who loved rags to riches stories - but it has long been dismissed by historians as fanciful fiction. During the 20th century, interest in Annesley waxed and waned, mostly waning and receding in popularity until by centuries end he reached the lowest level of interest in over 200 years - by now, you've probably never heard of James Annesley. Then recently, American historian Roger Ekirch found a trove of 18th century legal documents that showed Annesley's story was, incredibly enough, mostly true. It's a case of fact being more interesting than fiction, the stories veracity is only now coming to light for the first time.
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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective


Kate Summerscale (2008)
Paperback
December 2010
What a great book. I read it with one eye learning about the 19th century, and the other as an amateur detective, trying to piece together clues to solve the murder case - it's the kind of book I couldn't wait to pick up and keep reading. It's like having the pleasures of a fictional mystery, with the intellectual rewards of non-fiction. This sort of "Victorian mystery-history" is not new, a similar one recently is The Ghost Map, but Summerscale's book is artistically a home run. It reflects how a real-life event shaped fictional accounts (The Moonstone, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and how those fictional accounts circled back and influenced real-life events (the culture and language of police detective work). It also has some psychologically penetrating and timeless insights into the dynamics of step-families.

Critics of the book seem to be those who normally read mystery books and were sold on the dust-jacket marketing about it being a thrilling mystery. It is not. Rather it is a thrilling history book with literary conventions. For the history reader it is pure delight, but for the fiction reader it may be more difficult or less pleasurable. In any case, I recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in the 19th century, Victorian literary history and true crime.
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The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857


William Dalrymple (2006)
Ebook P8
December 2010
This is a remarkable history. I knew almost nothing about the 1857 revolt in India and so wanted an introductory narrative account as background before I read J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (Booker Prize 1973), but I think The Last Mughal may end up leaving a more lasting impression. It's every bit as dramatic as fiction, all true, all the more tragic. Dalrymple's style has been compared to Edward Gibbon -- a mixed compliment for a 21st century author -- but I think he does combine modern scholarship with the best of old school narrative non-fiction that made Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire such a remarkable work of literature. Dalrymple's style and technique brings back something that is often lost in modern history writing. The extreme characters, crazy events and exotic times are dramatic, and Dalrymple knows how to let the sources speak to effect without editorializing. By focusing on a single city and a single year, and with access to veritable library of primary source documents rarely seen before in western accounts, Dalrymple has created a richly detailed and riveting narrative about the Indian Mutiny that still has relevance today in shaping perception about that part of the world.
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Castle


David Macaulay (1977)
Hardcover
December 2010
David Macaulay's Castle has been around since 1977, like an old castle it continues to have timeless appeal and will be a fixture in the reading landscape for generations. Castle architecture is a complex business and Macaulay chisels away with pen and ink drawings at some of the more interesting features, it's not as complex as Cathedral or Mill (my favorite), but accessible to young readers and interesting enough for adults. The fictional back-story restores important context that is often lost when looking at historical buildings: castles were built for a particular purpose, by a certain person, at a particular time -- having long outlived those times and people, they remain in our lives as permanent reminders of fleeting mortality.
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The Ghost Map


Steven Johnson (2006)
Paperback
December 2010
I enjoyed Steven Johnson's treatment of a famous cholera epidemic in Victorian London. I was skeptical at first a book-long treatment would hold my interest, like so many non-fiction books these days which are bloated with encyclopedia tangents and hung along a thin cord of a story. But Johnson's narrative skills are top notch and the book works well on a number of levels. On the surface it's a Sherlockian detective story, the mystery of what is causing the cholera and how its discovered. There were times I could hear the horse hoves on cobblestone, smell rank sewers and see black pools of sewage. Johnson sets the stage throughout and is a master at providing context in an atmospheric way that turns a seemingly dry topic into a lively trip back in time. It's also literary with many references to Dickens and other period excerpts. I also liked how Johnson looked at so many aspects from the biological to the sociological to the political - he can zoom out from the very small to the very large, from the specific "micro history" to the grand "big history" and bring it all together. Overall a well crafted story that is educational and entertaining popular history.
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The Best American Travel Writing 2010


Bill Buford (2010)
Amazon Vine
December 2010
2010 is an excellent year for Best American Travel Writing. When your done you'll have a lot to talk about at your next social function, from Morocco to Siberia to Florida to Scotland, it's a lot cheaper than going in person. The longest piece is by Ian Frazier, which takes about 20% of the book, it is an excerpt from his recent Travels in Siberia.

There are 21 pieces, but I'll just high-lite a few of my favorites. Michael Finkel in "The Hadza" (National Geographic) describes what it was like to live with a band of hunter-gatherers in the East African bush. The Hazda people are some of the genetically oldest humans still alive, and thus possibly still living in similar ways our ancestors did before leaving Africa tens of thousands of years ago. I find every aspect about this fascinating, from what they eat, sexual habits, etc.. it says a lot about who we are today. They have no wars, major disease, hunger, classes, etc.. they are the answer to Utopia, if you don't mind eating baboon brains cooked in the skull and sleeping in the open on the ground. Finkel leaves after considering their lifestyle as "one insanely committed camping trip."

J.C. Hallman in "A House is a Machine to Live In" (The Believer) is a biographical piece about Knut Kloster Jr, who was a pioneer of the Norwegian cruise ship industry, and who built the ship The World in which residents live full-time as the ship travels the world non-stop. He weaves historical anecdotes about utopian visions of island retreats from classic authors with the reality of a modern cruise ship and the people who live on it. I thought I'd hate it, the ship and the people, like with David Foster Wallace's skewering in "Shipping Out", but The World actually seems like a neat idea, if you can afford the $200,000+ a year it costs to own a small room.

George Packer in "The Ponzi State" (The New Yorker) interviews some regular people in Florida who were hurt by the real-estate bust. Indeed, he shows how the entire state of Florida is built on a Ponzi scheme dependent upon new arrivals -- when people stop immigrating to Florida, it will fiscally implode. The state's main industry is real-estate. Fascinating look at a weak part of America that could drag down the rest of the country, if not already.
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The Damned Yard and Other Stories


Ivo Andric (1923)
Hardcover
December 2010
The Damned Yard and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, from Bosnia. Although best known for his novel The Bridge on the Drina, he was a prolific short story writer. Indeed he published 6 volumes of short stories, and 5 novels. Yet, his shorter works have been haphazardly translated into English, typically with a few of the longer ones like "The Damned Yard" and "The Vizier's Elephant" as novellas, or with a few selections with other authors in collected anthologies. The first major volume of short stories in English was in 1992, The Damned Yard and Other Stories, edited by Celia Hawkesworth. The second was The Slave Girl and Other Stories about Women, in 2009. These two volumes contain some of his best work. The Damned Yard and Other Stories has 10 stories: "The Damned Yard", "The Vizier's Elephant", "The Bridge on the Zepa", "In the Guest-House", "Death in Sinan's Tekke", "The Climbers", "A Letter From 1920", Introduction to "The House On Its Own", "Alipasha" and "A Story".

My favorite is "The Damned Yard" for its Russian doll layering of story into story, with a real gem of a story in the middle that reflects the overall structure. Complicated, yet aesthetically satisfying and effective. "The Bridge on the Zepa" is an earlier short story version of The Bridge on the Drina, a good place to start before reading the novel, to see how the idea for that novel evolved.
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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine


Michael Lewis (2010)
Audio P8
December 2010
Wow I loved this book. The mortgage crisis that began in 2007 (the "Great Recession") was only correctly foreseen by about 20 investors around the world. Who were they? Herein we learn about these unlikely characters, outsiders and misfits who saw the world was about to end and no one believed them. They walked away with fortunes by betting correctly against the market ("shorting"). It's larger than life, reality better than fiction. It's also a primer on what went wrong and why, an education in high finance that is entertaining, a rare combination. This book got me interested in finance and investing again after 3 years of being disgusted with the whole thing, now I have a much better understand of what happened and what to avoid in the future (investment firms, big banks, complex securities and most people from Wall Street).
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Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth


Mark Hertsgaard (2011)
Amazon Vine
December 2010
Mark Hertsgaard's book Hot is written much in the same style as Bill McKibben's Eaarth, wide ranging popular journalism with a mixture of science, history, current affairs, argumentation and autobiography.

Hot differs from Eaarth in being slightly more upbeat by focusing on positive examples and trends already underway towards mitigation of the effects of global warming. This is an important distinction, between efforts to stop/slow global warming, and efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming. For example he looks at Dutch plans for keeping the ocean at bay - for the next 200 years! Though he says if it rises more than 6 feet, even the vaunted Dutch engineers will throw up their hands and swim away.

Some things I learned include: "100 year flood" doesn't mean once in 100 years, but a 1 in 100 chance of happening every year (a big difference). Lloyd's of London has been told by an internal science report to expect 3 feet of sea-level rise by 2050. 80% of CO2 comes from the richest 20%. In a hotter future, the best places to live in the USA, Hertsgaard recommends New York City, Chicago and King County, Washington - because of current leadership and mitigation efforts already underway.

This isn't a canonical book because much will be outdated in a few years, but for those wanting to keep up with some of the latest developments at the local government and corporate level (ca. 2005-2009), it has some great reporting. Since Hertsgaard is based near San Francisco, there are a bunch of California examples, a coda to McKibben's Vermont-focus in Eaarth.
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Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold


Michael Benanav (2006)
Hardcover first
December 2010
In 2003 Michael Benanav was in his 30s and lived in New Mexico. Following a lifelong interest in exploring deserts, he traveled to Mali and paid a tourist agency for a 3-week trip by camel to the middle of the Sahara Desert, traveling with a caravan that carries salt from an ancient mine north of Timbuktu. It's a grueling journey physically, not something undertaken or accomplished easily. His writing is honest, simple and believable, Benanav comes across as likable person.

Nothing particularly dangerous happens other than the perils of daily life in the Sahara. It's a pleasant story though not as introspective as great travel writing can be, perhaps a limitation of Benanav's age or writing experience; it won a recommendation for younger readers from the ALA. There are other better known Sarah travel books, the benefit of this account over older classics is it is recent, it shows how modernity and ancient ways can coexist in harmony. It's a submersion into an ancient way of life, nearly anthropological in detail, curious and fascinating for anyone from the developed world to experience.
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The Life and Works of Ludwig van Beethoven


Jeremy Siepmann (2001)
Audio P8
November 2010
I have little background in classical music, but Beethoven has always been my favorite, specifically the 9th Symphony, which I've been listening too regularly for the past 30 years or so, I consider it the best piece of music ever composed. However I knew nothing about Beethoven's life so this audiobook is a perfect introduction. It's 5 hours long, at least half of that is music (Naxos owns a library of classical music). Siepmann's writing is full of superlatives and equal to the greatness of the music, though the man was far from perfect. Indeed he seemed loathsome. Yet I'm intrigued and want to learn more. Overall I'm really impressed and delighted with Jeremy Sipermann's "Life and Works", part of a series of classical composers. It's an education in classical music, with word and song.
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A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment


Philipp Blom (2010)
Hardcover first
November 2010
A Wicked Company provides new and refreshing perspectives on certain individuals of the (French) Enlightenment. The main premise, that Denis Diderot was a major intellectual figure, who has not been given his due in comparison to better known Rousseau and others, is clearly true, though I wonder if 200 years later anyone cares anymore outside of specialists - influence matters, and Rousseau won that game largely because of his wild character and skillful writing. It's hard to imagine Diderot being newly influential today, except perhaps if he were anointed Patron Saint of Wikipedia (I'd support that). As a book about Diederot and Holbach, Enlightenment philosophy, the Encyclopedie, and Parisian Salon's in the 1750s and 60s it's well worthwhile, but not as good as Blom's earlier Enlightening the World which covers a lot of the same ground.
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Sylvie


Gerard De Nerval (1853)
Internet Archive
November 2010
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) was a French Romanticist and insane Parisian Bohemian, he (in)famously walked around with a pet lobster on a leash of blue silk ribbon. He was friends and collaborator with the Romantic era A-list, including Victor Hugo, Dumas etc.. but he never found monetary success and gave up early, hanging himself to death from a Latin Quarter street banister after a series of mental breakdowns. Yet not before writing what some consider the best French romantic poetry and prose of the era, including a hashish-filled travel book to the "Orient". His life-story reminds me of Syd Barret, a crazy diamond; or perhaps William Foster Wallace. He was a man of his times who took his art beyond the safety margins.

Sylvie is a novella that Marcel Proust called a "masterpiece". Umberto Eco spent three years studying it at University and read it continuously from youth. Harold Bloom included it in his The Western Canon (1994).

It's a lyrical piece with strong Romantic elements and, amazingly for its age, proto-modernistic symbolism. Grecian allusions, Medieval landscapes, Renaissance paintings come alive. Bring your historical dictionary. It concerns love lost, namely how an un-named narrator recounts when he was a younger man and managed to screw up three opportunities to obtain three woman. The women can be seen as allegorical of course and the work takes place on multiple levels, from the romantic to the literal to the psychological to the historical. It's one reason so many very smart people have been taken in by its charms as you can keep reading it over and over. It's also just a nice story on the surface that is universal, an older man looking back at youthful loves lost, told in a charming way with exotic settings.

There are a lot of translations around, I read an old one from the 19th century (intro by Andrew Lang), which in some ways better captured the lyricism and period flavor lost in some newer ones, but was also more difficult to follow the storyline. If your willing to read it slowly and carefully I think it's a good (and cheap) option, but Penguin Classics also has a newer translation (among others), and there is one from 1922 that is freely online.
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The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West


Arthur Graeme West (1919)
LibriVox
November 2010
Arthur Graeme West was an English soldier and poet who died in the trenches of France in 1917, from a sniper bullet. He left behind a mass of papers which his friends turned into a book soon after the war. It contains scattered diary entries, not really a memoir, and a collection of poems, the most famous being `The Night Patrol`:
And we placed our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood.
Wormed our selves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
In West's diary we see how he changes over time, from a patriotic soldier to a strong anti-war thinker, from religious believer to atheist, as he becomes increasingly despondent at the futility and waste of war. He sees the greatest purpose in life as the opposite of pain, namely pleasure (physical, mental), and anyone who denies that pleasure (which he calls happiness) has no right to do so. He was about 50 years ahead of his time, the entire baby boomer generation would say the same thing during the 1960s. His book was published in 1919 and it received some attention at the time, but more so recently, he's today probably considered a minor author of the WWI canon.

Listen via the always wonderful narrator Ruth Golding at LibriVox, with original text as scanned book at Internet Archive.
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Song's of Innocence and Experience


William Blake (1789)
Hardcover, facsimle
November 2010
Songs of Innocence and Experience are William Blake's two most famous books. The best way to read them is as the artist intended, with a facsimile of the original artwork/poems. They are admittedly a little strange and opaque at first but its possible to pry out some double meanings to discover the "contrary states of the human soul," and if not that, at least enjoy some mirth and joy in lightness of being.
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Madamde Bovary (trans. Davis 2010)


Gustave Flaubert (1856)
Hardcover
November 2010
Madame Bovary (French 1856; tr. Lydia Davis 2010). The only way to really understand how important this novel is to read other novels written in 1856 or prior. The difference is night and day, reading Bovary is like reading a modern novel, while everything else is a 19th century slog. It's as if in 1856 Flaubert traveled to the 20th century and brought back the future. Of course he did not travel in time, he created the future, he created the modern novel. It's a cliche, but it really is true - and so clear when one reads his peers from the same period.

In one sense though it is clearly a 19th century novel, and that is the plot and ending, it's typical melodrama with the fallen woman getting her due. A true modern novel would end with Emma living alone in an apartment in Paris, like the ending of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920) - but that would have been too radical for the 1850s (much less 1920!). Flaubert's real breakthrough is the writing style, realism, which allowed for a much more penetrating insight into the human condition. The test is if the truths revealed still hold up today, and I think they do, they are universal and timeless. As well Flaubert is at times really very funny, he seems to hate his characters as much as we do and spares them little, but can get away with it because he is telling a truth that we all know, realism again.

Lydia Davis' translation is professional and works, though I didn't have the same positive impression of Flaubert's writing as when I read some of his other works by other translators, so I suspect something has been lost here. Reading it was tiresome in parts, in particular the first 100 pages which are microscopic character development, but I hope to read other translations in the future, there are at least 5 good ones available, according to Julian Barnes.
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Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body


Neil Shubin (2009)
Audio P8
November 2010
Your Inner Fish is a popular science book and scientist memoir - the author digs up millions year old fossils for a living in exotic parts of the world. The main idea is that humans evolved from more primitive creatures, like fish, and we still have the vestiges of those creatures in our biology and anatomy. The first and last chapter are very good, but the meat of the book was somewhat uninteresting, for me. The author is clearly excited about it, and other readers really enjoyed it, but for some reason I just didn't find much of interest.
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010


Freeman Dyson (2010)
Amazon Vine
November 2010
The guest editor of 2010's edition, Freeman Dyson, is not my favorite. I find him negatively opinionated, counter-intuitive for the sake of it, and on the wrong side on environmental issues (a rebel without a cause). He is negative towards much of the material (calling it "fluff"), editorializes the section headers ("Gloom and Doom"), poisoning the well by interfering between the reader and the author. Leaving aside my gripes with Dyson (ie. trying to ignore his negative opinions of the material he has chosen for us to read (!)), there are some very good articles in this collection, below are some of my favorites.

Andrew Corsello's "The Believer" (GQ) is a nice up to date biography of Elon Musk - there have been a number of these, but his rapid accomplishments warrant a new one every few years. Like Henry Ford, Musk will probably leave behind a lifetime trail of biographical works about (and by) him, it's always a pleasure to read the latest. Jane Goodall in "The Lazarus Effect" (Discover) is a short piece about how a species of stick-bug was saved from extinction through the discovery of a population of 4 or 5 insects living on a single bush on a remote island in Australia, the last of the species. The juxtaposition of epic save vs. irrelevant bug is literary.

Jim Carrier in "All You Can Eat" (Orion) is about where all those endless bowels of shrimp come from at Red Lobster (and 90% of the shrimp sold in the USA). Turns out most come from unregulated toxic ponds in third world countries - this article has turned me off from eating shrimp except from known organic sources in the USA and Canada. Felix Salmon in "A Formula for Disaster" (Wired) describes David X. Li, a Chinese immigrant who invented a flawed math formula for valuing real-estate risk that was used to create financial instruments that lead to the 2008 real-estate bubble burst. Li has since returned to China.

Elizabeth Kolbert in "The Sixth Extinction?" (The New Yorker) gives a compelling and dark story about how the current extinction rates compare with past extinction. In short: very fast. Robert Kunzig in "Scraping Bottom" (National Geographic) describes Canadian tar sand mining and its environmental impacts and economics, it's an important story that will become increasingly contentious in the future. Richard Manning in "Graze Anatomy" (OnEarth) describes the value of letting cows eat grass instead of corn-fed. I've known about this for years but it's very important and this article quickly educates. Finally, Burkhard Bilger in "Hearth Surgery" describes the quest to build the perfect wood-fired stove for third-world homes. It is surprisingly complex and riddled with 30+ years of failure, but the future of the atmosphere may depend on reducing soot and CO2 emissions from these stoves, which are used by about half of humanity. The article mentions StoveTec which has a number of fascinating YouTube videos of these stoves being manufactured and in use, I may even buy one for myself someday.
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The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn


Nathaniel Philbrick (2010)
Audio P8
November 2010
Like most Americans, I've heard about Custer and Little Bighorn my whole life. I even visited the battlefield on a cross country trip a few years ago. So this is the first book I've read about it, I wanted to uncover what all the hoopla is about, why the remote battlefield the weekday I visited was packed with visitors from all over the world? Why is there an entire field of pseudo-scholarship called "Custerology", and fans as devoted as Trekies or Star Wars geeks, who dress up and re-enact the battle and discuss it like scripture? I came to the book with the attitude of "show me", convince me that Custer and Big Horn are really that interesting. Unfortunately, Philbrick assumes the reader has a high level of interest from the start, and early on begins to de-mythologize and uncover the truth behind legend. I was never hooked, never convinced this was worthwhile to learn more about in detail. Compare with Philbrick's masterpiece In the Heart of the Sea, where he spends a long time upfront about Nantucket and whaling and Quakers before starting into the story of the whale-ship Essex, by which time you are transported into a richly detailed world. He never captured my attention, and I think the reason is Philbrick himself is fairly new to the subject, unlike his childhood home of New England covered in his other books.

Because of the books revisionist take, it inevitably, and probably accurately, comes across not as legend but tragedy, not as heroic but stupid, not as predestined but a series of contingencies. To its credit it's interesting from a military buffs perspective, Philbrick skillfully re-creates the minute by minute battlefield action, which comprises the majority of the books length. Philbrick also focuses on individual personalities and inter-personal politics as driving forces, supported by primary source material, which is effective. Yet I kept thinking "who cares." Little Bighorn didn't change much in the Plains Indian Wars that wouldn't have happened anyway, if Custer had won it wouldn't have changed much because larger forces were at work, this was not a pivotal battle on which history hinged. Thus we are left with an historical event that has more appeal to pop culture mythology - the story of flamboyant rare bird who "bit off more than he can chew" and got his comeuppance, a classic American trope. In that sense the story was and still is best told in fictional drama, like in the film Little Big Man. For those seeking a more factual account Philbrick is a good option, but the bare truth is not as powerful or psychologically satisfying as the legend in this case.
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Exit Wounds


Rutu Modan (2008)
Ebook P8
November 2010
Exit Wounds is a graphic novella for Young Adults set in Israel, by an Israeli author. In this story, the setting in contemporary Israel, with suicide bombings forming the backdrop, is unique and topical enough to hold interest. It's essentially a relationship story (I suppose one could call it a love story). However given how much the two characters fight and misunderstand one another, the real mystery is what kind of relationship they have, what is the basis of their love. Other than sharing some extreme events together, like how scary movies can draw people together (good date films), I'd actually say this is not a relationship of substance. It ends with the hint of a continued affair, good luck to them and their continued fighting! Of course, given how much fighting goes on in that part of the world, it may be an intentional literary device, their relationship a microcosm echoing larger events, the nature of which I don't fully grasp due to my cultural gap - for example is the boy Palestinian with a Jewish girlfriend? That would be great, but I don't think it is, probably just a class-crossing rich-girl / poor-boy story, with Israel as a backdrop of little significance.
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The Peasants: Autumn


Ladislas Reymont (1904)
First, hardcover
November 2010
The Peasants is the novel that won Polish author Ladislas Reymont the Nobel Prize in 1924. It was published in four volumes, in total over 1000 pages. Each volume is named for a season: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. It takes place over 10 months in a Polish peasant village, a real place that Reymont had once lived. It has been described by Martin Seymour-Smith as the greatest peasant novel ever written, the most authentic. He accomplished what Emile Zola tried but failed in The Earth, to re-create an entire farming village with a large cast of characters. In fact the plot of The Peasants slightly resembles Zola, but Reymont is clearly the superior because his people are more real, less grotesque, if not a little more boring, naturally.

I really did get the feeling of what it was like to be a peasant who has little experience of the "outside" world. To know a few things really well, like how to harvest cabbage, as if born with the skill; to be not so much an individual but a part of a whole village where privacy is limited and life's main events, like marriage, happen outside ones control. Small violence's and graces make up the day, dirt and mud is all encompassing, food the almighty task master and currency.

Unfortunately for Reymont and his obvious masterpiece, no one has bothered to publish a modern translation since it first came out in English in 1925. It was never re-published in any quantity, and so its only available in expensive rare editions, the first volume alone cost me $25. The translation is somewhat stilted and out of date, the brittle pages leak fumes and are darkly colored. While I enjoyed it somewhat, I can't justify spending another $75 to read the remainder under these conditions. I sent a note to the New York Review of Books to look into it as possible re-print. An obvious literary injustice, and a Nobel winning novel at that.
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The Lucky Mill


Ioan Slavici (1881)
Internet Archive
November 2010
Ioan Slavici (1848-1925) was an important Romanian writer. A native of Transylvania, he was a founding father of the nation of Romania's native story-tellers, active during the period when Transylvania unified with Romania, in 1918, and earlier when Romania became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Unfortunately he chose the wrong side of history - a supporter of Germany during WWI and a virulent anti-Semite - his reputation never recovered in the post-war years when he was ostracized by Romanian intellectuals. Today he is almost completely unknown in the English speaking world, which is not entirely surprising since most classic Romanian writers remain untranslated.

Slavici wrote many novels and short stories, but his best known, outside of Romania, is The Lucky Mill (1881), adapted to film in 1957 as "The Mill of Good Luck". It appears to be the only major work of his that has been translated into English, in 1919. I first came across it when a digital scan showed up on Internet Archive's daily new books feed, available here. I really enjoy discovering obscure writers by accident this way.

Like many of his stories, The Lucky Mill is about peasant life in remote mountainous regions of Transylvania, where the modern rule of law conflicts with ancient customs. "Big Men", or Chieftains, who manage roaming pig herds in the woods, rule over the local peasants with impunity, stealing and murdering. They are immune from the law, which exists for the benefit of the powerful (whom the Chieftains work for), while the peasants live by ancient codes of honor. It's the kind of story any poor person living today in Iraq or Afghanistan or Chechnya would immediately connect with, but is probably remote to modern readers living in a society governed securely by law. The story is effective at conveying the feeling of oppressive fear in ones own home, of being trapped and forced into a degrading situation and unable to do anything about it, with no one but yourself to protect your interests. The protagonists take on epic qualities, it is easy to forget they are men of little consequence and power beyond what they create by playing "the game". It's a glimpse into an old world, heroic and epic, oppressive and afraid. Overall I thought the story was atmospheric and well crafted, but at a loss for the translation which is stilted in the dialogue. It's not world-class literature, but very good regional. The evil character, a dashing Transylvanian swine herder, has a dark and brooding blood-lust, an animal sexuality, that gives the story punch, it's easy to see how Bram Stoker found inspiration in this part of the world for his most famous character.
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The Slave Girl and Other Stories About Women (Central European Press Classics)


Ivo Andric (1923)
Ebook P8
October 2010
Ivo Andric won the Nobel in 1961 for his stories about Bosnia. He is most famous for the novel The Bridge on the Drina, which for most readers is the main Andric experience. Yet, according to the Introduction in this volume, Andric was foremost a short-story writer and not a novelist. His novels are constructed as collections of stories, weaved together to form a whole (except for The Woman from Sarajevo which is his one work most like a traditional novel). So to fully appreciate Andric, you have to know he was a prolific short-story writer who published 6 volumes of short stories (compared with 5 novels), most of which have never been translated into English. Only in 2009 was a second collection of stories translated and published, by Central European Press under review here, using as theme those stories that have a woman as a central character. It's a hugely generous volume at over 535 pages, footnotes and glossary, two introductions (one at over 20 pages is equal to anything in a Oxford or Penguin edition). There are 22 stories total, 2 of which are 100 page novellas. Ten of the stories I think are classics and easily stand up to anything by Tolstoy or Thomas Mann, two authors he is commonly compared to. The quality of the stories, exotic setting and writing blew me away. This is a great and unexpected find, it is my first Andric and I plan to continue reading more of his "wisdom literature".

Andric mostly writes about small provincial mountain villages, kasabas, in Turkish Bosnia during the 19th century. The mixture of Christian and Muslim is well known to modern readers who have followed the wars in the Balkans in the late 20th century, here we have a taste of the origins of those conflicts. The pre-industrial rugged and colorful beauty of the landscape, dress, manners, food, etc.. are reflected in the stories of the people. Andric has a whiff of ancient tales, like old people recounting the stories of evil deeds from times past as a warning to the young (Kyser Soze!). Yet they are not moralizing. They tell how things happened with no clear answer why. Andric tells the events of what people do, but does not try to determine why, he doesn't psychologically analyze, and so people do things for no clear reason, which is really how life is. Andric is focused on what people do, and the consequences of those actions on other people around them. The cause seems to be self-evident in the texture of the background - the geography, the customs, history and political events, human foibles. It's really a simple approach, ancient in style, akin to verbal storytelling such as fairy-tales, but Andric raises it to timeless literature.

To help me remember these stories, I wrote short plot summaries of my favorites which can be read here if so interested.
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Travels in Siberia


Ian Frazier (2010)
Hardcover first
October 2010
Travels in Siberia is an excellent and up to date travel book through Siberia by American writer Ian Frazier, best known for his 1980s travel book Great Plains. Parts of the book were originally serialized in The New Yorker, which sponsored one of his five trips to Russia (those five trips making up the five main chapters of the book). There are countless older travel books about Siberia, many with the exact same title "Travels in Siberia", but things have changed rapidly since the collapse of the USSR so it's good to have a recent account. Frazier's fascination and love of Siberia is somewhat infectious, though he and his friends often wonder what the appeal is given all its problems and horrid history. Frazier is an excellent writer who focuses on the small detail, such as types of trash on the road, the types of clothes, food, restrooms, service (or lack thereof) etc.. one really gets the sense of how crude and rough it is, like a third world country. As a traveler, Frazier is ironically not very adventurous, given how dangerous Siberia can be, it is a safe pedestrian journey. The most daring thing he did was jump out of the car and snap a picture of a prison from afar. When his Russian guides went off to party with the locals, he would stay at camp alone inside the tent. Perhaps because his Russian language skills were very basic it limited his comfort level in new situations. We learn a lot about his guide Sergei, an archetypal Russian who had an amazing ability to fix any vehicle problem with a nail, wire and roadside refuse. In the end I think it's a good book because it covers so much territory and Frazier's eye for simple but revealing detail combined with his excellent writing and humor keep it always interesting and fun to read.
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The Long Ships


Frans G. Bengtsson (1941)
NYRB paperback
October 2010
An excellent swashbuckling tale of adventurous derring-do in the Viking Age. It's written in the tone and style of a Nordic Saga, like what Scott did for England in Ivanhoe with his faux-Medieval-speak, but mercifully more readable. The plot is in four episodic parts, like a TV serial they form a whole. By the end you feel like you have lived a long and lucky life of a Viking. It is historically accurate in terms of events and places and famous people. I sometimes had a hard time reconciling the characters psychologically with what I know from history - could the King Harald in this book have been so in real life? They seem too simple and not entirely human. Whatever the case it is an entertaining story, which is all the author intended, and unique for its influential Romanticization of the Viking Age, according to library check-out statistics it's one of the most popular books for generations of young readers in Scandinavia, and beyond.
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Fight Club


Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
Audio P8
October 2010
Fight Club (1996) has been compared to Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because the main character has a Jekyll and Hyde split personality on which the plot turns. But perhaps a better comparison is with Stevenson's lesser-known short story "The Suicide Club" (1878), which explores similar themes through a secret society that meets to engage in activities considered reprehensible. In both fight club and suicide club, self-destruction and death are at the core, the mental illness of the club's president is a dark force tearing society apart. Stevenson's Suicide Club remains largely unknown today, though popular in its day, I suspect Palahniuk's Fight Club will follow a similar path, a cult classic with readers from a certain age and time.
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Creative Nonfiction 39 (Fall 2010)


Lee Gutkind (2010)
Magazine
October 2010
In this issue on page 14 is a "Required Reading" list of non-fiction works by Norman Mailer, including The Executionare's Song which is similar in style and content to Capote's In Cold Blood - although considered a novel at the time, today it would probably be published as nonfiction because it is so well researched. Other interesting nonfiction Mailer works include The Armies of the Night (1968, Vietnam War); Of A Fire on the Moon (1971, Apollo 11); Marilyn (1973, Monroe's life); The Fight (1975, "Rumble in the Jungle").

Two pieces were my favorites, Jerald Walker's "The Heart" about his younger brother who married a heroin addict and the authors heart break over his brothers Jerry Springer lifestyle. Jim Kennedy in "End of the Line" describes how his 10-year old son drowned near OC Maryland, caught in an undertow.
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Lapham's Quarterly: The City (V.3, N.4)


Lewis Lapham (2010)
Journal
October 2010
TBD
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The Road


Vasily Grossman (1934)
LibraryThing EarlyReviewer
October 2010
The Road is a collection of short stories by Jewish Russian author Vasily Grossman. He is best known for long epic novels like Life and Fate so this is a good short introduction to his writing. He mainly wrote about World War II and the stories are typically heavy and dark. However they are not hopeless, there is always a sense of right and wrong and evil exposed, so you are left feeling upright, if not good, at least somewhat satisfied.

The most powerful piece is "The Hell of Treblinka", which is more non-fiction, it was one of the first published works to describe the Holocaust and remains a classic, the imagery will become a part of your Holocaust experience. Other good stories include "The Road", told from the perspective of a mule (the animal) on the Eastern Front and "The Old Teacher", a powerful re-imagining of the cleansing of Jews from a Russian village. "In Kislovodsk" was published in The New Yorker a few years ago and is a haunting story about a Russian doctor ordered by the Germans to poison wounded Russian POWs.

There is a lot of extra material in the New York Review of Books edition, including lengthy introductions to each section, biographical, time-lines, even copies of personal letters, it's well done and exemplary. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in WWII-era Russian writers, Jewish literature, Holocaust studies.
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Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu


J. Maarten Troost (2006)
Audio P8
October 2010
J. Maarten Troost should be bottled and sold as an anti-depressant. It is the kind of book that requires little thinking, but leaves one laughing at life, relaxed and happy - exactly what you expect from a trip to the South Pacific. I won't comment on its literary merits, except I think he does an excellent job of balancing modern colonial attitudes among western travels with the perspective of the natives, I came away with a slightly better understanding of what is must be like to be a native islander in the 21st century. Most of all though, Troost is very funny and I always looked forward to picking it up and reading the next chapter. This is my first Troost book and I will be seeking out others when I need a lift.
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Utz


Bruce Chatwin (1989)
Ebook P8
October 2010
In Bruce Chatwin's novella Utz (1988), one of his last completed works before he died, an anonymous English narrator travels to the mystical city of Prague where by chance he spends a day with an eclectic collector of antique porcelain statues. They part friends, but years later the narrator, now in London, receives news the collector has died; he returns to the secretive Communist country to find out what happened. In flashbacks we learn about the collector and his unusual life leading up to his death. The backdrop to the story is woven with Continental history, we learn about Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (16th c) the worlds greatest and strangest collector, the Jewish golem, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, Meissen porcelain, a former German Baron running contraband to the West for the Communists, and his prodigious sex life. It is also very funny, some of the dialogue is Monty Python-like. Themes of obsession and collecting, what we might call "geeking out" today, are central.

Strangely, I noticed parallels with Graham Greene's The Third Man, which also involves an English narrator traveling to a eastern European city (Vienna) under Communist rule to find out what happened to his friend who had recently died. The two stories follow similar paths. However while Greene's ending is dark, Chatwin leaves us with a rainbow and a smile. I've since done some research and learned that Greene was an admirer of Chatwin, and that Chatwin's story was an unapologetic tribute to the mystery stories of Greene.
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The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2000


David Quammen (2000)
Ebook P8
October 2010
2000 is the inaugural volume in the wonderful Best American series, which is still going strong 10 volumes later in 2010. In the Introduction and Forward the vision for the series is explained, and it says the pieces must be timeless and not ephemeral. Since 10 years have gone by, I can say about half of them still hold up, the rest seem like period pieces from another era.

My favorite pieces include Natalie Angier's "Men, Women, Sex, and Darwin" which is a revealing look at how men see women, and women see men, in the age old debate concerning older men being attracted to younger men (or the other way around). Angier suggests it's not because men are attracted to more fertile women for Darwinian reasons, but because women are attracted to older men because they are less egotistical(!). I don't know if I believe it, but there are other eye opening perspectives in this piece. Atul Gawande in "The Cancer-Cluster Myth" shows that it's nearly impossible to find any case where cancer cases cluster - in towns or streets or schools - due to environmental factors (toxic dumps etc..). Cancers cluster for no reason at all, it's the mathematical nature of the distribution of random events, yet people refuse to believe there is no reason and look for a cause.

Brian Hayes in "Clock of Ages" talks about the efforts to build mechanical clocks that will last thousands of years, such as the Long Now Foundation. Humorously, in the end he surmises any such clock will eventually cease to be maintained by future ancestors, because they will be far more interested in building their own long-lasting clocks, and so the cycle repeats. Cullen Murphy in "Lulu, Queen of the Camels" gives a fascinating overview of the efforts by wealthy Arab's to biologically enhance the camel, to run faster for racing, to produce more milk, meat, better temperament etc.. even to create a new species by cross breeding with Lama's. It ends on the ominous note that as the world sees more desertification from global warming, the camel will become more important and will be the domestic animal of the future.

Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer" (later a book of the same name) is an epic piece on smallpox that is just as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. Forget Ebola, Anthrax or any other scary disease, a single person with a vial of liquid smallpox could do a "soft kill" of the United States because the virus spreads to fast, is so deadly, and there are no stocks of immunizations available to stop it. Apparently Russia has a few tons of the stuff leftover from the cold war without much control, it seems like a bigger threat than nuclear. Fascinating piece and extremely scary, written before 9/11 and the anthrax mailings.
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Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals


Jay Kirk (2010)
Amazon Vine
October 2010
Kingdom Under Glass is about Carl Akeley (1864-1926), an American taxidermist who invented modern taxidermy and was famous for going on dangerous African safaris in the company of Teddy Roosevelt and George Eastman (Kodak) in search of specimens for the American Museum of Natural History, which can still been seen there displayed in diorama's. Killing the largest elephants and great apes was Akley's life-long single-minded obsession, his white whale.

It's tricky to present the mass slaughter of African wildlife by rich colonialists in a modern light without being judgmental. But like freedom-loving Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves, or Teddy Roosevelt who shot 8 endangered white rhino on a whim because he was bored, yet also created the National Park system to protect wildlife. Kirk doesn't directly make a judgment about Akeley, but the reader is left with the facts and can't help but see through the romanticism of the time for what it really was, the frivolous slaughter of wildlife as a passing fad and entertainment. Akeley's magnificent obsession to preserve animals by ironically killing them was not lost even on him, and he eventually became like a stuffed museum piece, cold and heartless and ultimately an extinct species of man.

Kingdom is Jay Kirk's first book and it's a winner, to say it "reads like a novel" is cliche in an era of creative non-fiction writing, but it really is true. It reminded me of works by Simon Winchester or David Grann, who also resurrect forgotten but interesting adventurer-scholar Indiana Jones types from the 19th century. Although 340 pages the reading is effortless and goes quickly, I found myself almost speed reading at times, which I attribute to Kirks delightfully smooth prose and compelling narrative.
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The Belly of Paris


Emile Zola (1873)
Ebook P8
October 2010
The Belly of Paris (French 1873; tr. Brian Nelson 2007) is one of the earlier works in Zola's 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series. It takes place in 1858 in the great Parisian food market of Les Halles. While the plot is somewhat anemic, the real strength is in the descriptions of Les Halles, its vendors and mainly the food itself. Vast quantities of food. Zola reaches levels of such lush detail to make one both ravenous, and nauseous with sights and smells before the age of refrigeration and knowledge of bacteria. On another level the novel is a satire of the greedy Bourgeois, or middle-class, which are depicted as the comfortable "fat people", in contrast to the revolutionary inclined and dangerous "thin people". Beneath the proper and upright middle class is a greedy animal driven by materialism, ready to stomp out threats to its creature comforts. Zola's criticism of the Bourgeois has both the particular historical interest of 19th century France, and universal timelessness. It's curious to see a novel from the 1870s focusing on middle class obesity and excessive materialism, a problem more relevant to our era, Zola was prescient about where the future was headed. It's even more curious that this novel was only recently translated in 2007, prior to that the most recent translation was from the 1950s and had long been out of print. Although the story itself is somewhat simple, the lush descriptions are fascinating and beautiful, sublime even, no other book in the series is so heavy on description, and his satire of the evils of greed and materialism among the middle class are as relevant and subversive as ever.
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Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather: Stories


Gao Xingjian (2004)
Ebook P8
September 2010
You know, there is nothing more I wanted than to give this critically well-regarded collection of short stories by Chinese Nobel-laureate Gao Xingjian a glowing review, it would made me feel part of a community who appreciate the best in world literature, which is how I'd like to think of myself. But I have to go with my truthful reaction which is -- "eh". There are six stories total. The first four (which make up 50% of the books length) are Chekhovian slices of life from 1980s China. "The Cramp" is best, it captures the sense of quiet isolation and terror a handicap person feels surrounded by normal people. It does this by putting a normal person into a temporary handicap position which we can all understand (swimming cramp), and ends the story showing a girl in crutches looking out at her healthy friends in the water while she waits alone, a reversal of perspective. "The Accident" is the most Chekhovian, about a man who is killed in a street accident and we see how events unfold among the townspeople and finally slip away as if nothing had happened. It is perhaps a fable of the Maoist years, the baby survived to carry on but the fathers blood turned to dust and forgotten on the road of progress. The last two stories which compose the final half of the book, and provide its title, are in a style or school or writing that I found difficult to understand. There is no plot, sentences seem to exist for emotional impact but do not advance a storyline, stream of conscious incomprehension that leaves on either mystically enraptured or frustratingly confused.
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The Third Man


Graham Greene (1949)
Audio P8
September 2010
I've never seen the film and knew nothing of the story so had the nice position of reading this famous story tabula rasa. My impression is of a nice genre story, sort of what you'd expect from a typical noir from the 30s or 40s. I'm sure the film is better since it shows bombed out Vienna, smartly dressed men and women, old nightclubs from a former age, etc.. the book only hints at. The plot itself is somewhat predictable after you realize there is only one way for the story to go, the beginning is the best when there is still mystery. This is my first Greene fiction, I'm glad to have read something finally, it's a short introduction.
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Das Boot


Lothar-Gunter Buchheim (1973)
Ebook P8
September 2010
Das Boot (German, 1973) portrays a German U-Boat during the second half of 1941 at the height of the campaign; by 1943 U-Boats would cease to be a serious threat to Allied shipping. The crew is shown in more humanistic rather than propagandist terms, the German Captain is ambivalent about the Nazi's and Hitler, the only thing the crew thinks about repeatedly are whores and sex. Bad smells, soiled clothing, wild facial hair, mold and claustrophobia are central actors. The juxtaposition of old whores and ships being blown up is effective, the banal vulgar details make the fighting scenes all the more real, and frightening. The ending is unfortunately melodramatic, but it's satisfying in a 19th century literary way. Buchheim wanted an anti-war novel that didn't glorify or mystify the German military, and from that perspective the ending makes sense, in the same way All Quite on the Western Front ends.

Since Buchheim actually served on a U-Boat during WWII, the novels verisimilitude is striking, many consider it to be the most authentic submarine novel ever written. This was re-enforced by the 1981 film version, which showed the technology of a U-Boat with great accuracy, although Buchheim criticized the Hollywood plot and hysterical acting as being overdone and cliche. He saw the film as "another re-glorification and re-mystification" of German heroism and nationalism. If you've seen the film, read the novel for a more sober and realistic look.
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The Grand Design


Stephen Hawking (2010)
Audio P8
September 2010
I had two problems with this book 1) much of it was over my head and 2) I listened to the audiobook, things went so fast I had no hope of keeping up. Still, I was able to follow the core ideas, I think. Hawking believes that M-Theory is the GUT (Grand Unified Theory) and although it has not been empirically proven, which could take centuries and generations, we can still think about its meaning and significance today. Hawking will probably die in the next few decades, most of us within the next 40-60 years or so, should we simply not think about the greater significance of M-Theory as a GUT since we don't have the tools to prove it yet? This book is a thought experiment - let's assume M-Theory is true - what is the significance? A 60000 year quest to find the creator has reached a conclusion. We don't need a creator, something can be created from nothing. That is an exciting idea - even if we don't live long enough to see it proven, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. I'm glad someone of Hawking's experience and intelligence has given us his sense of where the future lays and what it means, he is a sort of time portal. Many have faulted him for jumping the gun, but I see it as a positive gift, a pearl of wisdom.
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The World Without Us


Alan Weisman (2007)
Ebook P8
September 2010
This is a good book and covers a lot of interesting ground. It's also exceptionally well written and a delight to read, a model of creative non-fiction. I was expecting a morose apocalyptic vision of the future appealing to misanthropic instincts, but it's really more of an education about the world we inhabit today. In a way it's a book of hope because he shows, in places where humans have intentionally vacated, nature can quickly return when left alone. There are some distressing parts however, such as the long term prevalence of plastics in the oceans, heavy metals and radiation in soils and water, and of course CO2 and other harmful gasses that are displacing normal atmospheric chemistry balances. Weisman takes no moral high ground, humans are one in a long line of life that will leave its mark in the geological record, and in our case, far into space with radio waves and even interstellar probes which could last a billion years or more. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent compared to other animals, but if we die off due to overpopulation and poor management of resources, whatever we leave behind would be an empty legacy. As a recent The Onion headline reads: "Archaeologists Unearth Lousiest Civilization Ever. 'What A Bunch Of Losers,' Researchers Say." I hope we don't end up like that.
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A Town Like Alice


Nevil Shute (1950)
Audio P8
September 2010
A Town Like Alice (1950) is a middle-class myth, about overcoming adversity, finding true love and material success through hard work. It's layered with Christian themes, a sort of mix of the Book of Genesis and the New Testament - Jean Paget is Eve, Joe Harman is Christ (an explicit reference made a number of times), and lawyer Noel Strachan, who narrates the story, is God-like (he even becomes a God-father). The story begins with two innocents cast out from former comfortable lives into the hell on Earth of Japanese occupied Malay. There, Jean and Joe's desires for one another germinate. For his sins Harman is literally crucified, and Paget must toil the earth for her survival. Harman is later reborn, seemingly risen from the dead, and Paget becomes his follower. The first part in Malay appears to be separate from the later Australia part, but they are mirrors of one another, the former foreshadowing the second, like allegories between the Old and New Testament, the first more brutal and primitive, the second more loving and nurturing. The novel depicts gender roles in a ridged traditional manner, which is typical of Shute's generation who fought WWII. Yet Jean, as an Eve the creator figure, is a leader not only of women, but indirectly men and the community, which she largely births.

I think this novel spoke meaningfully to a generation of women who came of age during the 1930s and 40s, whose entry into the workforce would help fuel the economic miracle of the 1950s and beyond. Now it feels a bit dated, a period piece, but it's still a pleasant story. By analyzing it like a Professor one can extract some useful insights into the history of the time when it was written, which makes it still worth reading, if nothing else for a well told story.
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The King of Kahel


Tierno Monenembo (2008)
Amazon Vine
September 2010
The King of Kahel is the inaugural book in Amazon's new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, which publishes foreign works in original English translation. The author, Tierno Monénembo, is from Guinea and lives in France, and his novel won the 2008 Prix Renaudot. It is a good pick for AmazonCrossing's premier novel.

During the 1880s French colonial aspirations reached an apex. One little known colonialist at the time was a wealthy French businessman by the name of Aime Olivier de Sanderval. Having made his fortune in the manufacturing industry in France, he aspired to be a real aristocrat, no less than a King. He had a life long interest in Africa from childhood, so he traveled to the mountain highlands of Guinea to a place called Futa Jalon, a geographically unique and beautiful region which has been called the Switzerland of West Africa. The tribes who lived there were fractured and warlike. Through cunning and mostly luck, Sanderval was able to obtain a piece of land over which he became King, complete with his own native army and minted coins. Then things started to go wrong.

The novel has an authentic feel of a 19th century retelling, based as it is on a true story, but with the sly irony of a post-colonial perspective which results a humorous image of Sanderval as a bumbling fool who succeeds despite himself, a reputation well deserved. The jacket compares his story to Heart of Darkness but that's only superficially true (both are set in Africa), it's really more in the spirit of The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, another story of bumbling fools with grand designs and limited capabilities.

Since Monenembo follows real history, the plot is a little complex and not quite novelistic, there is a lot of subterfuge and politics. It's certainly readable by anyone, and well written, but it's not an entirely easy read, being steeped in 19th century French history and Guinean place and people names, though these things attracted me to it. The reader will get much more out of it with GoogleEarth (which has pictures of places and even buildings mentioned) and a Guinean encyclopedia would help. But this is why I enjoy novels in translation, in particular by authors who are from the country in question, it is more rewarding to learn about a place and history through stories.
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AWOL on the Appalachian Trail


David Miller (2006)
Paperback (2nd edition, 2010)
September 2010
There is a library of books about hiking the Appalachian Trail, but David Miller's account of his 2003 thru-hike is the first one I've read. It's well written, I felt I was hiking alongside Miller sharing the strained ankles, blistered feet, constant hunger and wet, beautiful views and feelings of elation and freedom. Nothing particularly exciting happens that is out of the ordinary for a hiker, but it's never boring and gives an accurate sense of what it is like. I've section-hiked the trail in MD and VA for many years.

Like all good travel literature, the journey is both literal and allegorical, there is the physical conquest of space, and an internal journey of growth. In taking the trip Miller is seeking an escape from his ordinary life as a 9-5 cubicle worker, as he says early in the book, "I see a benefit in thru-hiking. It is an escape from me." Yet hiking the AT nowadays, while laudable, is also very ordinary, accomplished by hundreds every year. Miller hikes the trail in a very ordinary way, sleeping in shelters, hiking northward, not diverging from the white blaze or missing any step of the trail, sleeping and eating in towns. Is it any surprise when Miller finds in the end that "there has been no epiphany.. I have no insight in how I can return [to the real word] and avoid the doldrums that brought me here." Perhaps this is the books inner message and lesson, that seeking the extraordinary in an ordinary way leads to more of the same; to experience true change we have to step beyond boundaries, off the beaten track. Miller touches on this again when he says, in what I thought was the most insightful quote of the book, "the perception of disadvantage is more debilitating than disadvantage itself", that is, perception creates limitations, the key to freedom comes from within. They are just words easy to understand (and just as quickly forget), but to really absorb that lesson is well worth a few months on the AT.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Sports & Games (V.3, N.3)


Lewis Lapham (2010)
Journal
September 2010
"Sports & Games" is more a volume of curiosity and entertainment than deep revelation, how much depending on your interest in history and sports. The focus is on American team sports, which was disappointing as I am more into games than sports, and there were only a few articles on games, such as chess, and nothing on outdoors sports like fishing, the most popular sport in America.

Still I found some favorite excerpts, and leads to books that are now on my wishlist (linked below). An excerpt from Lord Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" about a dieing gladiator is vivid, "He reck'd not of the life he lost nor prize, But where his rude hut by the Danube lay." Roger Bannister retells the day he first broke the four-minute mile in 1954, "Those last few seconds seemed never ending." Chrétien de Troyes (12th century France) wrote some of the earliest Arthurian romances and the included excerpt from Cligès, about a mysterious knight who wins every tournament but remains anonymous, a trope would be a recurring theme in English literature. George Plimpton reports from Muhammad Ali's dressing room in 1970 in the minutes leading up to a world title fight. Sidney Poitier who stops in to offer advice on what to say in the ring, Ali responds that's "terrible man, you stick to acting and leave me the rhyming and the psyching." Henry Ford in My Life and Work, the first of his many biographies, recounts the famous car race that won him enough money to start the Ford Motor Company in 1903. American doctor Victor Heiser, in his best-selling memoir An American Doctor's Odyssey (1936), is about his experience teaching Philippine headhunters to play baseball instead of killing one another, with great success, they even learn to mimic the American slang "Slide, you son of a bitch, slide!" Commodore Matthew C. Perry in his memoir Narrative of the Expedition of An American Squadron recounts a Sumo wrestling match, "they heaved their massive forms in opposing force, body to body, with a shock that might have stunned an ox..the effect of which was barely visible in the quiver of their hanging flesh." Tacitus from Annals (2nd century AD) describes a Roman amphitheater that collapses, killing or maiming over 50,000 people.

Of the six original essays, my two favorites are by Caroline Alexander "The Great Game" about the connection between the manly culture of sport in Europe with World War I; and Beth Raymer's excerpt from her book Lay the Favorite (2010) about modern sports gambling, it looks like a great book.
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Cider With Rosie


Laurie Lee (1959)
Audio P8
September 2010
Cider With Rosie is a series of sketches about the author's childhood in the Gloucestershire village of Slad. I've never been to England but Laurie Lee's amazing poetry/prose makes it seem real. It's heavy with sentimentality and romanticism, a dangerous trap for many writers, but it seems to work in this case, like Jello-mold with Turkey dinner. Lee was among the first generation of what we call "modern", he is an ambassador to a time and traditions now gone, old enough to see its passing but young enough to adapt to the new world. I was fortunate to listen to the unabridged reading by Lee himself, which gives the added dimension of hearing to an old man happily recounting the days of his youth. A remarkable work all the more so since it was published in 1959, it could have been published at any time, and will no doubt continue to be read for generations to come.
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The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering


Melanie Thernstrom (2010)
Hardcover, first
September 2010
Most people with chronic pain are on a long journey to find a cure or even some relief, such as Melanie Thernstrom, a journalist and author, who has had chronic pain for over 10 years. After she was given a magazine article writing assignment about pain, she decided to take it a step further and expand her investigations into a book. Part history, part memoir, part science journalism, it's the sort of book that is easy and compelling to read, while also imparting a great deal of information that is useful for pain sufferers. There is no magic potion inside (other than perhaps physical therapy), in fact we learn pain is highly complex and not well understood and everyone is different. I read it mainly for hard facts, any information that might help in my own case, and I did learn a lot - the book is much cheaper and probably more informative than most pain doctor visits. I think anyone in chronic pain will learn something, it's wide ranging and offers jumping off points for further research and action.
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Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery


Steven Nicholls (2009)
Ebook P8
August 2010
Five-hundred years ago in North America, at about the time of Columbus' arrival, the flora and fauna was very different from today. Using reports from early European explorers and colonizers, Steve Nicholls has been able to piece together a picture of former wealth that is almost unbelievable in abundance. Maybe you've heard of stories of buffalo herds that stretch as far as the eye can see, pigeon flocks that blotted out the sun for hours, or cod fish schools so thick they stopped boats from sailing. These stories and many others Nicholls describes with cinematic quality. This vision of past natural abundance is both amazing and sad, sad because it's now mostly all gone. Whatever natural world that still exists in North America, seemingly rich and abundant, is really a mere scrap of a former paradise. Our perspective in time, limited by short lifespans, gives a false sense of abundance compared to actual historical levels. The United States once had great natural wealth, but most people don't even it's now mostly gone. Nicholls shows what is was once like. Paradise Found is a long book and I found it somewhat emotionally hard going at times, in the way holocaust books are difficult, but I am glad to have read it and now understand how things used to be. Ignorance of the past is a sort of false paradise.
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No God in Sight


Altaf Tyrewala (2006)
Paperback
August 2010
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The Count of Monte Cristo


Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Internet Archive + Audio P8
August 2010
A confession: I could not finish and stopped about half way through (after the runaway horse incident in Paris). The first 20 chapters or so are spectacularly good, in particular the prison scenes. Even the origin story of Vampa the Roman bandit is great fun. Then it moves to Paris and slows down as Dumas un-dresses layers of deception about who knows who, and who knows what. The novel is at its best as an adventure/escape story in the beginning but unravels into a sprawling proto "sensation novel", forerunner of the mystery novel, which I really don't like. I admit to missing the dramatic "One", "Two", etc. as Dantes takes down his enemies, otherwise I was able to complete the plot by reading the Classics Illustrated comic. I'm disappointed as I really wanted to like the novel, and I did at first, it was not abandoned lightly.
Of the parts I did read, the 1888 Routledge illustrated edition is great. The translation is pretty close to the same used in modern editions, and the rich letter press fonts are a delight, but the best are the hundreds of lithograph illustrations on almost every other page which bring the period and story to life.
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No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations


David S. Wilcove (2008)
Ebook P8
August 2010
I'd never really thought of "animal migration" as an interesting topic, but No Way Home is a neat overview of some of the world's great animal migrations, their histories, routes, reasons and current status. Air, Land and Sea chapters cover everything from Monarch butterflies to American Bison and African Wildebeest to Whales and Salmon. In almost all cases habitat destruction and other human causes have either completely destroyed or severely set back migrations. As Wilcove says, once a migration is gone it is extremely difficult to restore. But it's not a depressing book, some migrations have been brought back from the edge and are healthy today, such as some sea turtles, whales. It suggests the destruction of nature is not a foregone conclusion, it can be saved with the right attention. The chapters on the butterflies and bison stood out from the rest as the most interesting, perhaps because I have been to some of the places. It's great to have these short narrative stories about some of the worlds great migrations.
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Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal


Peter Thomson (2007)
Ebook P8
August 2010
Peter Thomson is from Boston and in 2000 he and his brother decided to travel to Lake Baikal by way of steamer ship across the Pacific and the Trans-Siberian Railway. Trained as a journalist and with experience as an NPR reporter, Thomson brings a professional quality to his travel account that makes it enjoyable and easy to imagine being there. Nothing really "happens" exciting or out of the ordinary, but we do learn a lot about Lake Baikal and some of the environmental issues it is having. It's basically a long National Geographic article with some personal memoir mixed in, well done for what it is, a contemporary travelogue. Of special note is the paper mill on Lake Baikal which has been the major source of pollution and a great source of contention internationally. The book was published in 2007, and in 2009 the mill was closed for good, a hopeful sign that Russians are taking more seriously efforts to protect this unique and special place.
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The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond


Scott L. Montgomery (2010)
Ebook P8
August 2010
Scott Montgomery is a long time energy insider working for oil companies and in other facets of the industry. In this book he takes a rational non-partisan look at the problem of energy and the many questions and challenges for the future from national independence to global warming. He tends to get most excited about Fusion as a technical solution (he thinks 10 years for the first working plant), but he also predicts that energy will continue to fragment and come from a myriad of sources. Technology is only one part of the picture. Montgomery, better than most writers on energy, has a less mechanistic view of the world and is able to incorporate the messy, unpredictable variances of human actions. For example the recent rise of oil to $140/b had less to do with "Peak Oil" and more to do with peoples actions economically, socially and politically. So it goes with energy in general, from its creation to adoption to use, it's a very complex subject that is at the heart of the modern world. I came away from The Powers That Be, not excited about this or that technology or solution but, with a deeper understanding of how entrenched and complicated energy is, and that we will be using fossil fuels for a long time.
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At Home: A Short History of Private Life


Bill Bryson (2010)
Audio P8
August 2010
At Home is an absolutely fascinating narrative, in a cast of 100s (thousands?) Bryson magically retells some of the most interesting stories of history in short vinaigrettes. Hardly a page went by that didn't have a books worth of interesting material to further investigate. There have been other histories of "Private Life" but probably none as entertaining, wide reaching and personally affecting. Just about everything about the modern home and lifestyle - short of clothes, stairs and a few other ancient relics - are inventions of the past 200 years or so. The 19th century in particular saw an amazing amount of change. If Bryson's book has any lesson for the present, it's that the future will no doubt be very different.
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Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography


Francis Wheen (2008)
Audio P8
August 2010
Marx's Das Kapital is one of the most influential books of the modern era, but it is also over 1000 pages, few people have the time or patience for its peculiarities. It's a strange, incomplete and difficult work. This short biography of Das Kapital provides an excellent and understandable overview of how it came to be written, what it actually says, and how it has influenced others. Not being an economist I had trouble following the economic theories, but its literary connections were surprising. It's essentially a satire of classic 17th and 18th century economic philosophers, Edmund Wilson called it one of the greatest ironic works ever written. Marx references 100s of great literary authors and works, including Tristam Shandy, which Das Kapital resembles with its endless digressions, and incredibly Frankenstein, which was a favorite of Marx. He was disappointed when no one took notice of his treaties literary merits. Instead it was picked up by an obscure group of Russians who under Lenin molded the theory to include the concept of a "proletariat intelligentsia" (working class thinkers) to run the show, an idea Marx was against. Thus started the misuse of Marx by every dictator in the world up until this day. Ironically it is only in the West, with its freedom of academic discussion, that real Marxists can exist (whatever "real" means). This is a short book but dense with insight and ideas, it would reward reading again and I hope to do so, it's probably the closest I'll ever come to actually reading Das Kapital itself.
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Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity


James Hansen (2009)
Audio P8
August 2010
Storms of My Grandchildren has its strengths and weaknesses. It is comparable to Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth (the book) with a mixture of autobiography, history, science and evangelism. It is strongest in its technical explanations of how we know what we know, and Hansen's personal accounts of historic events, like his run-ins with Bush-era censors. Hansen for me has more credibility than most, I tend to trust him. Although most of the book is about the science and explaining how we know it, in the end he says the problem now is one of politics and to support 350.org as the best political action group.
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Annapurna: Conquest of the First 8000-metre Peak


Maurice Herzog (1951)
Hardcover, near-first
August 2010
Annapurna: Conquest of the First 8000-metre Peak (1951) is a famous and important book in the Outdoor literature genre. It recounts the first successful climb of a mountain greater than 8,000 meters. There are only 14 such mountains in the world, all in the Himalayas, and they represent the super bowl of climbing. When a French team led by Maurice Herzog climbed Annapurna in 1950, no one was sure these mountains even could be climbed and survived, but they were determined to find out one way or another. After he was done (and survived) and famously wrote "There are other Annapurna's in the lives of men", it started the race for the ultimate prize, Mount Everest (first peaked in 1953 by Hillary), and Himalayan mountaineering in general.

Why is the book so famous? Maurice Herzog became the first living mountaineer to attain global celebrity status. National Geographic calls it the most influential mountaineering book ever written, as of 2000 it has sold over 11 million copies. I think a number of factors are at work. It was written in 1951 soon after WWII when millions of veterans accustomed to the adrenalin and danger of war were left with comparatively boring lives and looking for thrills to fill a void, not to mention a generation of young men who were too young to fight finding ways to prove themselves during peacetime. The idea of exploration caught the worlds attention, in particular climbing the worlds highest mountains was in the early 1950s the moon-shot of its time. The cover shows Herzog in a space-age like suit, straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Finally, the book is written with novelistic techniques, what we today call "creative nonfiction", although in some ways its firmly rooted in the 19th century traditions. The book itself I found to be a slog. The last 60 pages or so are fantastic, but the first two-thirds of the book are really boring and tiring. There is even a parody novel The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) which pokes gentle but pointed fun at Herzog's sometimes pompous writing style. I'm glad to have finally read it since it is so historically important and impossible to avoid in mountaineering and outdoor literature, but it's reputation has probably exceeded its aesthetic qualities compared to more modern works.
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Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd


Nick Mason (2004)
Audio P8
July 2010
A somewhat typically British reserved and polite retelling by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. While it is factually accurate and important as the only Pink Floyd band member memoir, it doesn't capture the spirit and energy of the times or the music. The book did confirm what I always suspected, Roger Waters is the musical genius behind it all. Of course every member was important and contributed to the end result, but Waters' music and lyric writing was at the foundation. There was a huge leap forward in the sound and quality starting with Atom Heart Mother, which can be attributed to bringing in top of the line talent in the studio. At some point Pink Floyd became a hot commodity and they were given the best people and tools ie. money. But this was the criticism embodied in Punk Rock which felt shut out by the machine and bragged it could cut a record for a few thousand dollars versus the millions for a Floyd-like studio moon shot. By the late 70s Pink Floyd became one of the dinosaurs of rock.
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Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures


Robert K. Wittman (2010)
Amazon Vine
July 2010
Priceless (2010) is by Robert K. Whittman who helped found the FBI's Art Crime Team. He is probably America's leading investigator of art crimes. Unlike many countries which have dedicated art crime police, the United States has traditionally just handled it as any other property theft. But as Whittman shows in this exciting memoir, catching art thieves takes special skill and talent. Whittman recounts about a dozen undercover stings as he poses as an unscrupulous buyer and gains the trust of his mark before busting them in the act of the sale. Whittman also uses the book to impress how important it is to have a dedicated Art Crime police unit (within the FBI or elsewhere). Unfortunately after 9/11 this has not been a priority, and when Whittman retired from the FBI in 2009, he did not leave optimistic about the Art Crime Team's future.

I enjoyed this book. It's cinematic pacing makes it hard to put down, it is true crime without glorifying crime, it's a first-hand account and not journalistic flourish, no one is killed or even hurt (other than financially) yet the thefts and recovery are all high drama. Whittman teaches us some things about art, and the FBI, and the criminal underworld. Since nearly 60% of all art theft is from private residences, it's the kind of thing most people should be aware of, in particular since the 1990s when it really exploded. For criminals, the penalties are lax, art is generally easy to steal and sell. Whittman has always worked from the shadows as an undercover agent, in this book he has shown himself to be a real hero and finally gets the public credit he deserves.
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China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power


Rob Gifford (2007)
Audio P8
July 2010
China Road (2007) is a remarkably insightful travel memoir. As Gifford traveled the length of National Road 312 from east to west, he compares it to American Route 66 of the early 20th century, where migrants traveled to the promises of California. In China's case it's Shanghai. Unlike many travel writers, Gifford didn't helicopter in for a 14-day trip for the purpose of writing a book, rather he studied China in school, speaks the language, and lived there for 6 years as a reporter, his insights are deep and well informed from experience.

China is so vast it is hard to contemplate. As I zoomed in with a gods-eyed view using Google Earth, following Gifford's trek along Route 312, I saw how every square mile of China is densely populated, an ocean of peasants and farmland. Referring to it as a country in the way we speak of Mexico or England is deceiving, it has more people than all of the 40+ countries in Europe PLUS all the countries in South America combined. In terms of people it is a large continent, yet operates as a single nation. In the end Gifford has a somewhat pessimistic view about China's future. The next 10-20 years will be key as a new generation born post-1960 take charge. Will they be able to maintain growth (peace) while allowing for more individual freedom, all the while holding a vast population together as a single nation? There are many contradictions. China Road is a great book on many levels and highly recommend, in particular in combination with Google Earth, both of which have totally changed my perceptions about China, although as Gifford says, anyone who says they understand China does not understand China - it is a dynamic place that constantly rewards new study and learning.
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The Burning Leg: Walking Scenes from Classic Fiction


Duncan Minshull (2010)
LibraryThing Early Reviewers, Hardcover
July 2010
The Burning Leg (great title!) is a small-format book containing brief excerpts and very short stories about the subject of walking. It's about 100 pages in length and almost all the selections are in the public domain (pre-1923). I often read anthologies and would not call this one "generous", for $20 the book could be read cover to cover in a hour or two. I'm not sure who the ideal audience would be, perhaps as a gift to someone off on a long hike who wants something light and easy to carry and who reads slowly. It would also make a fine ornamental piece, like in the bathroom of a vacation lodge or in the backseat of a car, any place where people are traveling and appreciate short pieces that can be read in a few minutes.
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Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers


John L. Casti (2010)
Ebook P8
July 2010
In Mood Matters (2010) John Casti says a lot of things many of us have already thought or known intuitively, about how ones attitude (mood) shapes events, and how we cycle back and forth between pessimism and optimism (mood). These cycles, says Casti, take place on a society-wide level and can explain and predict historical events. Not because social mood determines events, rather mood biases events. Just as when you are having a bad day and everything seems to go wrong, we can bias ourselves towards negative things with a pessimistic attitude, and this is true of society as a whole.

Mood Matters has one huge glaring problem, and that is there is no explanation or theory as to why mood matters, that is, what is the underlying mechanism at work? Without that, it is not science, it is simply an observation of pattern, with no testable theory. Casti cherry picks events from history that fit the model, as evidence, but that is inductive reasoning, the classic trap of amateur historians from time immemorial. History is a giant prism which anyone can find a nearly infinite number of patterns if you just put the blocks together right, like a Lego set. To really come up with a theory for history (and thus the future) one has to have a testable theory. For example, there is some fascinating work being done in the field of psychology on how people view time (past, present, future), it is a testable science, could this be at the trigger behind the larger social mood cycles? There are other theories for explaining social cycles. A demographics-based theory like The Age Curve is based on the rising and falling numbers of people within a generational cohort - a simple idea that explains a lot without need for mystic or complex unknowns. Of course all these theories are not exclusive, they could probably be married in some way, one effecting the other. Mood Matters is a thought provoking book.
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This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World


Robert Emmet Hernan (2010)
Ebook P8
July 2010
The timing of Hernan's book is in perfect sync with the ongoing British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The format is simple: 15 chapters retelling 15 best known environmental disasters. Most of them I had heard of, a few were new, but none did I know the full story. Environmental disasters can take 20 or more years to play out as health impacts and law suits work through the system, so the book provides recent updates even to old affairs like Love Canal. If you were alive when these disasters happened, and followed the news, like with the current BP oil spill, you have a mental picture of the story. However for the younger of us, we've only heard about these disasters in bits and pieces and don't have a full story - this book solves that problem nicely, like watching a Frontline episode.

The 15 disasters:

Minamata, Japan, 1950s
London, England, 1952
Windscale, England, 1957
Seveso, Italy, 1976
Love Canal, New York, 1978
Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979
Times Beach, Missouri, 1982
Bhopal, India, 1984
Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986
Rhine River, Switzerland, 1986
Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1989
Oil Spills and Fires of Kuwait, 1991
Dassen and Robben Islands, South Africa, 2000
Brazilian Rainforest
Global Climate Change

The disasters I found most heartbreaking were Minamata, Japan because of the callous denial that went on for decades which destroyed nearly everyone involved. Love Canal, New York was similar, as was Times Beach, Missouri - the criminal negligence confounds belief. I was surprised that Bhopal, India was mostly the fault of inept Indian plant managers and not a US company, although they were ultimately responsible. Likewise with Exxon Valdez the captain wasn't even at the bridge when it grounded, unlike the image of a drunken sailor that surrounds him. There wasn't a disaster I didn't gain new perspective and learn something new, I highly recommend it for anyone living in our age of man-made catastrophe. Heroes, villains, triumphs and surprises fill every page.

I would normally give this book 4 stars but have added a rare (for me) extra half star because the quality of the writing is so good. It's the kind of writing I wish I could do. It's not stylistic, but simple, clear, compelling and free of politics. Also the events retold here will still be remembered 50 years from now, combined with the prose, it will remain fresh and readable for generations.
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Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea


Steven Callahan (1986)
Audio P8
July 2010
Adrift is notable because it was written by an American born post-World War II, 1952 to be exact, and the incident occurred in recent times, early 1980s. There have been older, longer and more epic castaway stories, and contrary to the publishers blurb it is not the longest survival alone at sea. It struck a chord because it happened recently, to an American Baby Boomer, making the New York Times Bestseller List for 30 some weeks. National Geographic honored it as #67 on its list of all-time greatest outdoor/adventure stories. I have yet to read a dud from the list and this is another good one.

The writing is occasionally cliche and repetitive, some of the descriptions difficult to visualize, the emotions at times piled on to over-effect. Yet we do feel as if we are there, the little details add up to a whole experience and give one a sense of the hunger, physical toil and fears of being aboard an inflatable life raft. The back-story aspect is weak, he was basically just vagabonding around; the after-story is one of capitalizing on his experience.

Some memorable experiences include a sense of vertigo with the only thing separating Steven and a 5000 feet fall to the bottom a thin rubber sheet, as items dropped overboard spiral out of site on a long journey downward. The image of his legs pushing through the rubber bottom into which sharks and fish crash. Eating raw fish eyeballs, cracking spinal bones, livers and the contents of fish stomachs. It's all very "rubbery" as he struggles to heal gashes in the rubber flooring while working to tear open fish and chew them raw while slipping and sliding inside the lifeboat. The heightened senses on reaching land where everything seemed ultra-real, and solid.
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The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice


Peter D. Ward (2010)
Kindle
July 2010
One of the more confusing aspects of the IPCC report was how far oceans will rise. The numbers in the report were not very worrisome, but many scientists said the seas could rise much further. Peter Ward tries to bring some clarity to the confusion. He says anything over 5 feet is beyond civilizations ability to deter and thus many places will be abandoned. Certain hot spots like Bangladesh, Holland, San Francisco, Venice, New Orleans and southern Florida make appearances as Ward envisions what they could look like in the future. His book is not a prediction. He offers instead scenarios that are within the realm of possibility because *they have happened before*. The geological record is chock full of evidence of rapidly rising seas. This is not debateable, it's as clear as a dinosaur bone (although some people deny dinosaurs existed). How exactly our future unfolds no one knows, Ward doesn't know either, but he looks at parallels between the past and present atmosphere and it's not pretty. One thing we are certain of however, as CO2 levels rise, so do the oceans.

25% of CO2 released by humans stays in the atmosphere for over 50,000 years, longer than the half-life of radiation. It's a permanent gift to the future and how it impacts sea level rise is significant - actions today will impact the future for a very long time. Oceans are currently rising 2mm a year, this is well documented. About 10,000 years ago they were rising at 2 inches per year, or 16 feet a century - again, well documented and not debated. The earth is very capable of doing it again. No one is saying 16' in a century *will* happen, in fact it's very unlikely, but oceans have risen and fallen very often in the past and this process is tied to CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which is expected to be at levels way beyond anything seen in millions of years. Could seas rise that far or fast? They already have. This is ultimately the message by Ward - he makes no *prediction* that it *will* happen, he offers scenarios informed by what has happened, and suggests there are enough parallels with those events in the past with the present to be concerned. Anyone who denies that position is either intellectually dishonest or not operating in good faith.

My quibbles with the book is it written breathlessly, parts repeat, it could have used better editing to enhance the killer points. I read it on a Kindle and was surprised when it was over at 70% - the remaining 30% is notes, bibliography and index [one of the disadvantages of a scroll-like kindle, versus a codex-like book, is its hard to find where a book proper ends, it sneaks up on you]. Overall a quick and sometimes entertaining read about a serious subject. It will no doubt bring out the deniers who will misrepresent it, but if your at all interested in what the possibilities of sea level rise are, this is a good book to look at.
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Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans


Brian Fagan (2010)
Audio P8
July 2010
I know very little about pre-history and thought this would be a good introduction to Europe 60k->11k BP. Maybe it was because I listened to the audio-version, I wanted to give it higher marks, but it just didn't gel. The first half is either a repeat of well known information, or specialized knowledge that I could not follow. The second half is better as it gets into how humans lived, however as soon as things got interesting it quickly moved on. If the first half of the book had been condensed into a chapter or two, and second half filled out more, I think it would have been better. In any case I did learn some things and look forward to exploring more, it peaked my interest, Fagan gives some dramatic and evocative scenes that illustrate the character of the age.
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Papillon


Henri Charriere (1969)
Ebook P8
June 2010
Henry Charriere was a quiet, mild inmate who stayed out of trouble. He did his time in the prisons of French Guiana and was eventually given privileges to go on errands on the outside. When the time was right, he simply walked away to freedom in Venezuela. Years later he decided to write a novel. Using his experiences as a kernel of truth he created the legend of Papillon ("Butterfly"). Unlike Charriere, Papillon was a man's man, the con's con who would kill at the drop of a hat but who remained respected by even the guards and wardens for his honor and nobility. There was nothing Papillon could not do - catch more fish than anyone, sail so well as to be praised by the British navy, love and impregnate two native women at once, break from prison with impunity, cause the wardens wife to swoon and save his children from sharks. Papillon was not real, he was a comic book hero, but Henry Charriere was a real man. Unfortunately Henry decided to publish the book as an autobiography and it's suffered ever since as one critic after the next has picked it apart. If he had instead published it as novel, critics would be left wondering how much of it was actually true, and the author and his reputation would have benefited.

Whatever the debates on the novels false claims, the story is still very good because Papillon the character retains his humanity, his honor and dignity, in a world determined to destroy it. It's a microcosm of the issues in Europe during the Second Thirty Years War (1914-1945). Charriere blames technology and its emphasis on the machine and systems over individuals, he says the primitive peoples are the most honorable and human, while the most technologically advanced are barbaric and evil. From the perspective of the time, it would seem to be the case. There have been a number of books written about men who escaped World War Two to live alone in wild parts of the world: Papillon, Seven Years in Tibet, The Sheltering Desert, Kabloona, an interesting genre that I look forward to finding more. Papillon is also just a great prison escape adventure story, entertaining and immersive.
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The Early History of the Airplane


Orville Wright (1901)
LibriVox
June 2010
The Early History of the Airplane is a 1922 pamphlet composed of three reprinted magazine articles by the Wright brothers:

"The Wright Brothers' Aeroplane", Century Magazine, Sept. 1908, Orville and Wilbur Wright
"How We Made the First Flight", Flying, Dec. 1913, Orville Wright
"Some Aeronautical Experiments", Wilbur Wright, speech given in 1901

The last article, "Some Aeronautical Experiments", is the most historically important, it is based on a speech given by Wilbur a few years before the first flight while still working with gliders. In the early years of the 20th century it was eagerly studied by would-be aviators and reprinted countless times. It went on to become the "Book of Genesis" of 20th century aeronautical technical literature. Although highly technical and now outdated it is sort of like listening to a steam-punk scientist. The first article, "The Wright Brothers' Aeroplane", was commissioned by Century Magazine as an exclusive account of the first flight on December 17, 1903, it would take the brothers four years to write.

Listened to via LibriVox. Original pamphlet at Internet Archive.
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Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire)


Vikas Swarup (2005)
Ebook P8
June 2010
I've never seen the movie but the book is pretty good, a bit genre and over the top, but a clever middle-class epic of India. It reminded me of Maximum City, the two can be read together with parallels, Q&A is the lighter Bollywood version of Maximum City. Curiously, both authors were born in 1963, and both the books were published in 2005. Q&A went on to have a world-famous movie version made, but Maximum City is the better book IMO, yet they are both very good at capturing modern India and Mumbai.
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The Sheltering Desert


Henno Martin (1957)
Internet Archive & Paperback
June 2010
The Sheltering Desert (1957) is a fantastic African travel/adventure book, I loved every aspect of it. Two German scientists escape into the Namib Desert to avoid incarceration by the British at the start of World War II. They survive like Robinson Crusoe for 2.5 years in a landscape of harsh beauty and danger. Everything they need they learn how to make from scratch. Like Bushmen they revert to a primitive but naturally ideal state as each day is a struggle for water, food, shelter and safety from other predators. At night, from the safety of a cave eating the days kill, they philosophize on big questions such as the merits of civilization versus hunter gatherers, the nature of evolution, all the while listening to the progress of WWII on a radio. They become highly attuned to the thoughts, emotions and habits of animals around them. For the reader armed with a map of Namibia, it's a total immersion into a place where some of the oldest humans have existed, the next best thing to going there in person, or returning in spirit. For some reason the book is well known in Namibia, most modern travel guide books mention it, but it's completely unknown outside that context. I would put it nearly on-par with contemporary classics like Kon-Tiki and Seven Years in Tibet as a work of outdoor literature, for its mix of adventure, danger, natural description and exotic locale.

The 1958 English translation appears to be in the public domain, there is no copyright renewal registration for it. Internet Archive has a copy of The Sheltering Desert online free in various formats. A German publisher has it in print, and there are some (rather exspensive) used copies on the market. There was also a film version made in 1992, but does not appear to have made it to VHS/DVD (if you have a copy, pls contact me!)
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Henry Ford's Own Story


Rose Wilder Lane (1915)
LibriVox
June 2010
Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House series. In 1915 Rose was 29 years old and working for the San Francisco Chronicle when she gave a series of informal interviews with Henry Ford. These articles became the basis for a book-length biography called Henry Ford's Own Story, published in 1917.

Rose's biography was only the second about Ford ever published, yet it was still early in his career, he would live another 30 years yet. It's unfortunately a mythologizing account with factual inaccuracies, Ford himself was unhappy with it. The personal details of Ford, his machines and history become secondary to Rose's fictionalization for the sake of a story. She did the same thing in biographies of Charlie Chaplin and Jack London (who were also unhappy with her treatment). In all her stories, the same simple heroic romance is retold of life as a successful struggle against adversity and its inevitable reward. It makes for good literary fiction of the Dicken's fated universe type - the good guys win and the bad guys get their due - but as biographies of well known and famous living people, they were a mixed blessing, any astute reader could see there must be more to the story left unsaid, skeletons in the closet.

There have been many biographies of Ford, some of them pretty good. I can't recommend this one, even Ford himself didn't like it. At its best it is an example of how Ford was mythologized from early on into a populist hero, and how he was viewed by the world circa 1915/17. Whatever the faults of Rose's book, the LibriVox reading by Lee Ann Howlitt is very well done and pleasant to listen to.
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Roshomon, And Other Stories


Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1914)
Ebook P8
June 2010
Rashomon, And Other Stories, translated by Takashi Kojima, 1952. This short collection of six stories includes the famous "In a Grove" (popularly called "Rashomon"), which I have seen on film countless times and is one of my all time favorites. If I had never seen the film, the story in print would not have left much of an impression, it is so brief and lacking detail, but with the images of the film in memory, it was like re-watching the movie again in the minds eye. It's remarkable that such a modern story was written in 1914, it still seems modern to this day, one of the shortest masterpieces of world literature. The other five stories cross multiple genres and I found them to be ok but nothing great like "Rashomon".
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Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq


David Hnida (2010)
Amazon Vine
June 2010
Paradise General is a personal memoir about a 3 month tour of duty in a M*A*S*H-like hospital in Iraq in 2007. Dr. Hnida ("Dave") talks about the intense injuries and drama that arrive by helicopter carrying plenty of horrible things like limbs/face/balls/heads blown apart, soldier gang rape, suicides, cancer, etc.. not meant to shock, it's the reality of what they do. Dave is very human, able to show a wide range of emotions such as fear of his first days facing responsibility for someones life, anger at Army protocol that keep him out of the mess tent without socks, compassion for a young mans life who he was unable to save, and good natured humor all around. The many swings of emotion in the book reflect what it's like in an ER and you come out of it a little exhausted, maybe a little changed. To his credit Dave allowed a dozen or more people he worked with to read the unpublished manuscript to correct it for inaccuracies. This of course means we don't get any real dirt or nastiness, but that is alright by me. It's also pleasantly free of political bickering, ideological slant and soap boxing. Dave is an Everyman, volunteering to do his part for his country, making the best of bad situations and happy to return home to wife and kids. Despite the horror of the job, Dave retains a positive outlook and good sense of humor to remind his patients, and us: so long as your alive, everything is good.
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Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort


Edith Wharton (1915)
LibriVox
June 2010
American author Edith Wharton, living in Paris at the start of the Great War, was motivated to action. A true humanitarian, she created charities in Paris to house and feed refugees pouring in from Belgium and northern France. She also cared for orphans and provided relief for the growing number of soldiers stricken by tuberculosis ("consumption"). These charities were known as the "Edith Wharton War Charities" and they helped many thousands of people.

In 1915, Wharton and Walter Barry took four one-week car trips to the front lines, from Dunkerque in the north, to Belfort in the south. Their car was loaded with food and provisions and, because of her war charity work, the military go-ahead needed to observe the conditions along the front lines up close. She reported some in Scribner's Magazine and collected those plus more into the book under review here, published in 1915. Her reportage made her the first American woman war correspondent in history.

Fighting France has been criticized as war propaganda, meant to incite the passions of Americans to become involved in the war. There is some truth to it, Wharton and the French were interested in this goal. In fact she was named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1916 for her efforts on behalf of the Allies. However it is also a sensitive and artistically rendered accounting of the destruction, a snapshot of life in the trenches and hospitals.

Listened to audiobook via LibriVox.
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Made in U.S.A.


Hans Otto Storm (1939)
Hardcover first
June 2010
The great American critic Edmund Wilson seems to have read everything worth reading in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and his reviews from that period can be mined for obscure authors and titles worth revisiting today. One of those authors is Hans Otto Storm, from California, who Wilson profiled in a 1940 New Republic article called "The Back Room Boys", alongside the better known John Steinbeck. Unfortunately Storm died in an electrocution accident in 1941 while building a transformer for the military just days after Pearl Harbor, so he never really had a chance to develop as an author. Of his published work, only two short novels does Wilson consider of value, Pity the Tyrant (1937) and Made in the U.S.A. (1939), the former being his best. I was attracted to Storm because before he was a writer he was an engineer and his work is well informed with engineering systems - ships, machines, tools. In particular he had a lot of experience on steamer ships from the 1920s and 30s in Latin America.

"Made in the U.S.A." is about a cargo/passenger steamer that runs aground on an uncharted sand-bank in the vast south Pacific far from help. The Captain is inept making a bad situation worse. With the threat of a typhoon coming and lack of leadership the people of the boat break into warring camps. The book is a social fable showing different classes and races, a microcosm of American society, reminiscent of the read/blue divide in America today. An apocalyptic/existential threat looming is an unseen force motivating actions of self-interest versus that of the groups interests.

The hero of the novel is of course the ships engineer (Storm was an engineer), he is a rough but humorous character who does not take sides but remains loyal to running the machinery of the ship. In this way each of the characters can be atomized as a social portrait and criticism. The artist who looks and acts the fool. The mid-western prudish teacher who sheds her conservatism in the face of time running out. The Korean immigrant who seeks asylum from Japanese persecution but doesn't find sympathy from America.

Storm was American but his parents were German who escaped the persecutions of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe in which liberal socialists rose up and were generally crushed. They are the fore-bearers of the "left" today and Storm's politics are clearly leftist, in a very traditional European way, mixed with American California culture. It's a curious and interesting read and one that has been neglected.

There are a couple funny quotes, this on community buffet tables: "The food was good, and the passengers gorged themselves with the horrid, calculating efficiency of the lower middle class."

This on the definition of a banana-horse:

"The [motorized life-boat] will conk out in twenty-minutes. It's a banana-horse."
"What's a banana-horse?"
"I see you've never been a taxi-driver. A horse, you see, pulls a wagon. A banana-horse is altogether too far gone to that; he just stands in the shafts to make the wagon legal." (ie. horses back bowed like a banana; carts unattached to horses illegal to be left on the street).
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001


Edward O. Wilson (2001)
Hardcover first
June 2010
I read this collection of science magazine articles in 2010, ten years after the articles it contains were originally published, and there were only about four out of the twenty-two that I believe are worth commenting on. The rest are still pretty good and interesting but somehow seem to have slipped outside the zeitgeist of the current age.

Malcolm Gladwell in "Baby Steps" (New Yorker) offers counter intuitive wisdom about the importance of the first 3 years of a child's life. Basically, kids are going to develop naturally in any environment. Early bad experiences are not set in stone because the brain is plastic and can change given new opportunity in the future. This is a Gladwell article, so it's hard to know how counter-factual it is at the expense of the facts.

Bill Joy in "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us" (Wired) is now considered a classic essay, appearing just before the Dot-Com bust, he offers a darker vision of the future. Although nanotechnology grey goo has not come to pass, the creation of synthetic life by Craig Venter in 2010 is the very thing Joy warned about 10 years ago.

Richard Preston in "The Genome Warrior" (The New Yorker) gives a pretty detailed account of how Craig Venter and his company Celera battled through the 1990s to sequence the human genome. Lots of politics and egos involved in the race for a Noble prize and potentially fortunes of money.

Verlyn Klinkenborg in "The Best Clock in the World" (Discover) describes how atomic clocks work - amazingly, there is no single clock that keeps the world on time, there are hundreds, it is the average of them, and they are constantly being adjusted (of sorts) - precise time is an illusion.
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Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food


Paul Greenberg (2010)
Amazon Vine
June 2010
The question Greenberg is most often asked is "What fish should I eat?" and in Four Fish he shows how difficult that question is. We all know wild salmon is better than farmed, but is that still true in 2010? Greenberg has some surprising answers. The book is strongest talking about the future of fish (which is the subtitle) and I learned a lot about fish farming, omega-3's, fish engineering, etc.. Greenberg is not limited to just four fish as he looks at a lot of "substitute" fish such as Tilapia. He seems to briefly touch on and update lots of commonly perceived wisdom about fish with the latest developments. For example the status of the Cod grounds off New England which have been closed since the collapse in the early 1990s.

Greenberg is a "seafood writer" (journalist) and this is his first book, previously he has written for magazines. His pedigree is a New England sports fisherman. The book is not "helicopter journalism" (writing outside field of expertise), it's not "green journalism" (although he does call it a "fish in trouble book"). Greenberg personally, and for enjoyment, spends time on party boats, gets up at 3am for Canyon tuna runs, while spewing his guts out in 5 foot seas and reeling in a barrel sized tuna. He doesn't make a big deal of it, but anyone whose done these things themselves will appreciate Greenberg's perspective as a sports fisherman. He believes small scale fisherman make better stewards of fish stock than large scale factory ships.

I'd recommend the book to anyone who fishes, in particular in the northeast since that is where some of the anecdotal stories are set - but Greenberg also travels to Vietnam, Norway, Alaska, Hawaii. If you've ever asked what fish to eat, this is a deeper and more nuanced answer that should also provide plenty of table talk. Finally it's just a breezy and enjoyable way to learn more about the current status of "fish in trouble", what's being done, and what to expect in the future. I came away cautiously optimistic about the future of fish.
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Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!


Selma Lagerlof (1912)
Internet Archive
June 2010
When the famous Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman was asked what had influenced him the most, he did not hesitate about the 1922 silent film The Phantom Carriage directed by Victor Sjöström. He first saw it as a child, and watched it every year as an adult. Its influence can clearly be seen in his movies, in particular The Seventh Seal. The Phantom Carriage is today considered a classic among first generation films and is still widely watched, it was recently re-issued on DVD with a new soundtrack. Yet few people know this famous film which influenced one of the greatest directors of all time was based on an obscure little Swedish novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof. The novel is called Körkarlen (1912) and it remained untranslated into English until the release of the film in 1922, when it was published under the English title They Soul Shall Bear Witness!. The passage of time has done strange things to both novel and film.

At the time, film was considered a lesser art, or not even art at all, while literature was a well established high-art of prestige. Lagerlof hardly paid attention to Sjöström's request to film an adaption of her book and she was not involved with the script. Today, the film version has become an influential classic while the English version of the novel has become nearly extinct. No copies are available for sale anywhere in the world, and only four copies are known to exist in research libraries: Washington DC, London, Amsterdam and Sweden. I was able to access a digital reproduction from the Library of Congress. It's probably the rarest book I've ever read, yet written by a Nobel-laureate and the basis of a famous film!

The story itself is quite spooky. As it turns out, the last person to die on New Years Eve is tasked by Death personified (complete with sickle and robe) to operate the "Death-Cart". The Death-Cart is a beaten-down horse-drawn carriage which travels the earth to pick up the souls of the dead and take them to heaven or hell. Time stops for the carriage and what seems like a year to the operator goes by in a second for the living. Sort of like how Santa Clause is able to visit every house in a single evening, the Death-Cart is able to pick up all the years dead souls. It's a dark, atmospheric, Gothic novel. The film captures it beautifully and has some cutting edge special effects using double exposure to create ghosts that can walk through walls and, famously, a carriage that rides under the ocean to pick up the souls of drowned seamen. It is a novel of redemption. Just like Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a selfish man leads a vice-filled life and is taken on a ghostly tour by Death to see the fruits of his sins. He repents, promises to reform, and is given grace emerging a changed and better man.

This is the 4th book I've read by Lagerlof. It received mixed reviews, some calling it great, others not so good. It would be easy to make a case either way. I recommend it for the fan of Lagerlof, the film or Bergman. It's an interesting case of one art form trumping the other in spectacular fashion: the novel has become the dead soul which the film has returned to pick up and deposit.. in heaven or hell.

I've uploaded the copy I obtained from the Library of Congress to Internet Archive. Rare no more.
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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet


David Mitchell (2010)
Amazon Vine
June 2010
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has at least 150 named characters in difficult to pronounce and remember Japanese and Dutch. It's not a complaint, just a forewarning that Mitchell makes you work, this is not a breeze through. At the same time, the story is lively and holds your interest and has quite a few unexpected twists. Mitchell's writing is poetic and never tires, though heavy on movie-like action and dialogue, it is an immersive experience in an exotic world. In addition to real locations, like the man-made island of Dejima, some of the events depicted are based on true history, such as the Nagasaki Harbour Incident, and subsequent suicide of a Japanese character, although Mitchell changed the details of those events to fit the storyline.

Big universal themes of liberty and enlightenment are at the heart of the book and elevate it beyond a mere adventure story. In the late 18th century two revolutions, in France and America, unleashed two powerful forces on the world: libertarian ideas which would lead to Democracy; and the empowerment of the common man which would forge the bonds of national communities. The novel is about these themes of liberty, freedom of the individual, the power of truth. It's a novel set in Japan, but it's also a global novel about the world on the cusp of modernity.

As a reading aid, here is a list of characters for short-term memory-challenged readers like myself.
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The Sonnenburg Torture Camp


Anonymous (1934)
Internet Archive
May 2010
This harrowing pamphlet describes incidents of brutality by Nazi's inside the political prisoner camp Sonnenburg on the Polish frontier in 1933. It was written by an escaped prisoner and has everything we have since learned to expect from Nazi's: inhumane torture, cruelty, guards described as "brigands and adventurers", sadistic criminals. This call for help, published in the US in 1934 by a Communist group, is all the more harrowing knowing how history would unfold. The persecution of these few hundred Communist activists, so early on in the Nazi regime, would eventually engulf and mirror the experiences of millions. It is a dark prophecy, and a warning for our own era to never forget or discount human rights abuses.

Read via Internet Archive.
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The African Queen


C.S. Forester (1935)
Ebook P8
May 2010
The African Queen is about a trip down a river, but it also an inner journey of growth. The main characters begin the novel somewhat oppressed - she by her domineering brother who wouldn't let her ride in cars, punished with the "silent treatment", unable to appreciate the world. He is so accustomed to doing what other people say, he becomes easily cowered into a hopeless venture. Brought together on board the boat African Queen (a noble name), they grow and become more self-assured as they overcome adversity. Dormant feelings rise to the surface: pride, manhood, womanhood, honor. Ultimately the intended quest is never achieved. Yet, they have achieved something greater, nobility where there was once compliance, and initiative where there was once insecurity. If only for trying, success can be found in ways never imagined.
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French Tales


Helen Constantine (2008)
Ebook P8
May 2010
French Tales (Oxford, 2008) is a collection of twenty-two short-stories, each set in one of the twenty-two regions of France. The translations are new by Helen Constantine but the stories range across 19th and 20th century authors. Each story is meant to give a flavor of a French region, either in style, characters, history or setting, and expose English readers to French authors who are otherwise not in translation, or modern translations. In addition there are about a dozen beautiful full-page B&W photographs showing buildings or places from the story. I found five of the stories outstanding and will briefly describe them, hopefully without spoilers.

Didier Daeninckx's "The Phantom of Rainbow Street", set in Alsace, is about a journalist tracking down a newspaper story in a small town, but all his leads are dead ends. He stumbles on a different unrelated story he was not expecting, one with haunting ties to a WWII atrocity that occurred 40 years earlier, still alive in the shadows of the town. Paul Hervieu's "The Bull from Jouvet", set in the Rhone-Alps, is about a simple farmer high in the Alps who has an encounter with a dangerous bull. Anne-Marie Garat's "We Can't Go On Like This", set in the pine forests of Aquitaine, is a wonderful story about a lone man who witnesses a dramatic event. It reminded me of Deliverance, it is hauntingly good. Emile Zola's "The Flood" I have read and reviewed before, based on a 19th century translation, this new modern translation is better. Finally Prosper Mérimée's "Matei Falcone", set in the wilderness interior of the island of Corsica, is about a tough chieftain who lives by the codes of honor that require blood for blood. It's so brutal one almost finds it incredible, yet we hear about acts like this all the time in cultures of honer in Iraq and Afghanistan, it only seems more shocking re-set in Europe - a great story that is highly memorable.
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Jurassic Park


Michael Crichton (1990)
Audio P8
May 2010
Jurassic Park (1990) is pop-culture, not literature, it was originally written with the idea of turning it into a screenplay, and so it has action-movie pacing and visual emphasis. The story is part of the Lost World genre. It is well executed with the timing of revelations, building of suspense and creative vision. The 2 billion dollar Jurassic franchise dominated the techno-optimistic 1990s, when anything seemed possible. Chrichton himself, though, was anti-science, the novel is a pessimistic polemic against science; later revelations that he was a climate change denier hurt (or bolstered) his reputation. Yet ironically for most readers/viewers, Jurassic Park instilled an awe and wonderment of what science might accomplish. Jules Verne was the same way, associated with most fans as a science-fiction prophet of things to come, he really was anti-science and critical of mans hubris, there are parallels with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Jurassic Park. I can't say I didn't enjoy it, but the gears of writing technique were in plain view, its has the magic of a county fair haunted house.
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The Best Creative Nonfiction: Vol. 3


Lee Gutkind (2009)
Paperback
May 2010
I'm a bit disappointed in this issue of Best Creative Nonfiction. Although it has 25 essays, it's only 235 pages long, is Norton cutting costs by reducing page count? It looks wispy on the shelf next to last years whale-like Vol.2 and whispers forebodings about the series future. Reinforcing it's dark mood, there are only a handful of essays that stand out as being good enough to mark as favorites.

Part of the problem, I believe, is the selection committee which appears to be dominated by academic women. Almost every essay falls into two camps: the minority identity politics essay (handicap, women, black, gay, etc..) or the dysfunctional family history essay (characterized by a woman retelling a story about their grandfather, mother, uncle, etc..). So we have "good for you" politics mixed with "feel good" sentiment. I think Gutkind should try for a more varied selection process or editorial staff. One suggestion is each issue have a Guest Editor that makes the selection from a sub-set chosen by the permanent editors, similar to the "Best American" series.

My four favorite essays were by Emily Rapp in "Okahandja Lessons" about a handicap woman who travels to Africa and learns handicapped people are looked on differently there than in America. In "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho", Wesley Yang writes probably the strongest essay of the book, about the 2007 shootings at Virgina Tech and how it feels to be a young Asian man in America. It has shades of Oscar Wao. Alice Dreger in "Lavish Dwarf Entertainment" gives a funny and enlightening romp through the world of dwarf entertainers. In the most dramatic piece, Gregory Orr in "Return to Hayneville" recounts his experience of being kidnapped and almost killed in Alabama during the 1960s as a Civil Rights protestor. This is a great piece because it's a reminder that many young white people died in the South during that period.
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Paradise of the Assassins


Abdul Haleem Sharar (1899)
Paperback
May 2010
Paradise of the Assassins (a translation of Firdaus-e-Bareen, 1899) is the best know work of Abdul Halim Shaere (1860-1927), who was a father of modern Urdu Literature, from northern India and present-day Pakistan. It was immensely and deservedly popular with Urdo readers in its day, and was one of the first stories written in the Urdu language that is also in the style of a Western novel - it owes much to the style of Sir Walter Scott. For modern readers it's still surprisingly entertaining and accessible, and relevant to current events in that part of the world. The story is set in the Medieval period and concerns the Hashshashin - the Islamic cult from which the word "assassin" originates - who murder enemies based on the promise of rewards in heaven (nubile virgins). Ultimately it is critical of how religious devotion can be manipulated by more earthly concerns to get young men to commit evil deeds. The novel was prophetic by showing how religious fanatics can become disillusioned with life and enraptured by the promise (illusion) of paradise to the point of committing suicide-murder. This English translation was printed in 2005 in Pakistan.
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Nobility of Spirit


Rob Riemen (2008)
Ebook P8
May 2010
I won't summarize Nobility of Spirit (2008) because others have done a good job already, and truthfully it's resistant to summary, as artful books are, each person seems to take away something different. What was most powerful for me was the notion of freedom and the danger of democracy turning into totalitarianism if truth is subverted in the name of ideology (socialism, capitalism); it is perhaps cliche to mention our "dangerous times" since this has always been the case, yet in America and elsewhere, we seem to be in a period of ideological re-examination and firming up post-Cold War, 9/11 and Great Recession. It's impossible to predict the future, but one thing is certain, if we politicize everything to the point truth becomes relative and subjective, it's a sure road to barbarism and anti-civilization, as seen in the early 20th century. This book is a reminder to be more vigilant about seeking the truth, no matter where it lies on the political spectrum, and to not fall into the trap of subjectivism and nihilism which is all-pervasive in popular culture/politics.

This is a short book, a long essay, but one to read slowly and carefully over a number of days. It's literary antecedents will appeal to anyone with a literary passion, seekers of meaning in life, what it means to live a good life.
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How to Read a Novel


John Sutherland (2006)
Ebook P8
May 2010
John Sutherland is one of my favorite authors and I'll happily read anything he writes. Parts of this novel readers User's guide from 2006 (written in 2005) are already outdated in regards to electronic books. But there really are some great insights of wisdom. He put word to things I already learned from experience but never articulated and that connection is reassuring. The first part is a history of the novel, things to know about titles, first sentences, page 69, the copyright page, epigraph, genres, hardcover vs paperback. There is a good chapter on knowing the context of a novel, where it is set and its literary antecedents, and how these things can make reading a novel richer - the more you read, the richer reading becomes. Then he goes into how to choose what to read next, how do you know what a good novel is? (This is in respects to newly published novels). We all have strategies for picking novels, but given there are over 10,000 works of fiction published each year (over 2,000 books in general per week), any advice is helpful. He generally thinks professional reviews are unreliable, as are blurbs and covers and anything commercial. He gives most credit to book awards, but even there it's often hit and miss. Overall this is a short breezy read with humor and likability, a friend by your side coaching you on how to go about it all in a world overflowing with books.
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The Tiger: True Story of Vengeance and Survival


John Valliant (2010)
Amazon Vine
May 2010
The Primorye in Russia may be better known to readers unfamiliar with the region as the place where the book Dersu the Trapper took place, from which the Kurosawa film Dersu Uzala was adapted. Or if you've never heard of these works, they are Russian and Japanese classics and provide great context for John Vaillant's The Tiger.

The Primorye is a remote and unique region in eastern Siberia along the Pacific coast, an ecological Eden of diversity and wonderment. John Vaillant's book is a true-crime thriller about a rouge man-eating tiger incident there in the 1990s. It uses tiger hunting drama to good effect, namely to teach more about Primorye's flora, fauna, people and history. Mostly focusing on tigers (95% of the world's population have been wiped out since 1940), the population in Primorye is one of the last remaining, and under intense pressure from poachers.

Vaillant is at his best with the anecdote - many books of this type can read like gripping stories stuffed with encyclopedia facts. Vaillant's digressions are nearly always new, interesting, relevant and worth the time. The central crime story is pretty good too, but without all the anecdotes, it would have made a good magazine article in length. Probably the best tiger hunting adventure book ever written is Jim Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaon, he has chapter after chapter of edge of the seat tiger encounters. But Vaillant takes the thrill of the tiger hunt to a new level using modern creative non-fiction narrative techniques.

2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger, and tiger conservation groups around the world have also named it the Year of the Tiger. The Primorye in Russia is ground zero for tiger conservation efforts, with Russian President Putin hosting a tiger conference in the Primorye this fall. Read The Tiger for drama and education, but you may also become involved with tiger conservation through efforts such as the Wildlife Conservation Society's "The Tiger Project" and the Wildlife Alliance, who are both active in Primorye.
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The Catcher in the Rye


J.D. Salinger (1951)
Ebook P8
May 2010
Salinger started it, the middle-class suburban teenager angst novel, a genre perhaps familiar to people of my generation with the 1980s films Ferris Bueller's Day Off (similar plot) and Breakfast Club (similar characters). These types of stories exist in post-WWII America with its emphasis on Cold War conformity, material striving as patriotic duty, an empty shallowness in the suburbs. The Graduate was another in this line, better though. The oppressive conformity is mostly a thing of the past, today teenage rebellion is less a cultural force of change to be feared, than a biological right of passage to be celebrated, McDonalized, channeled into product. Ironically, books like The Catcher in the Rye have become an emblem of that celebration, evidently to the consternation of Salinger who hated the idea his book was so famous, he never allowed it to be adapted to film or stage, even refusing most interviews. He didn't give the appearance of selling out which only heightened the novels reputation. It's an important book because it started a genre at a time when societal values were changing due to economic and political forces, it was the right book at the right time. It's literary merits are a "minor American classic" as one critic has said. I found it only slightly appealing aesthetically, the colloquial language ironically outdated. It's a novel almost entirely of characterization, there is little plot, it's a road novel running from one incident to the next. Ultimately it's a force, one of the top-10 most read novels in America, it's impossible to ignore. I'm giving it high marks mostly for its historical importance and likelihood it will continue to be read and discussed for while yet.
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The Wonderful Adventures of Nils


Selma Lagerlof (1907)
LibriVox
May 2010
The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906-7) by Swedish Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof is one of the most popular children's books from Sweden (along with Pippi Longstocking). It has been translated into over 40 languages, plus films and animations. As a testament to its popularity, the Swedish 20 krona banknote has a picture of Lagerlöf on the front, and Nils on the back; and the Swedish national children's book award was named the Nils Holgersson Award, established in 1950.

Lagerlof wrote the book at the request of the Swedish National Teacher's Society, as a school book; but rather than a dry geography text, she wrote an entertaining literary story, modeled after Rudyard Kipling's animal tales. It's been required reading in Swedish schools ever since, many children and adults read it for pleasure. A short literary history of the novel can be read at the Atlas of Sweden.

Nils is a 14-year old boy who is lazy and disobedient. When his parents leave him home alone, an elf chastises him for his misbehaviour by turning him into a tiny vulnerable imp. The smaller Nils has one new power, he can understand the language of the animals. Befriended by a flock of wild geese, he flys northward over Sweden into Lapland and back again in a series of adventures. From the air they can see a large part of Sweden and thus Lagerlof is able to include a lot of historical and geographical material into the story. Each chapter is a mini story, often a retelling of a fairy tale or myth with Nils and his animals as the protagonists. The stories weave with characters re-appearing in later episodes. Nils learns about compassion, justice and respect of nature and returns home a better person. It is ultimately an optimistic book and beloved by many. It's a long book and even though the English translation has already been slightly abridged it could be abridged further. But it leaves a strong impression and has an epic quality, it is easy to see why it is so popular.

The LibriVox recording by Lars Rolander is a perfect retelling. It is both volumes.
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Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air


David MacKay (2008)
Ebook P8
May 2010
Excellent tutorial/resource for learning about alternative energy, specifically what our options are. There is a considerable amount of mis/dis-information out there, just about every statistic is tainted in one way or another with an agenda. MacKay brings order to the chaos and looks at solar, wind, nuclear etc.. and how much is really needed to account for our current and future energy needs. He assumes that, no matter where you personally stand with global warming, in the big picture fossil fuels will run out and/or they are a national security problem, so no matter what, an energy transition away from fossil fuel is needed. Thus he spends only a brief chapter talking about global warming, the book is politics free, simply looking at energy units. This is a neutral, objective, math-based account. Bill Gates recommended it on his blog is where I first learned about it. MacKay doesn't offer best solutions, just options. It seems clear though that nuclear is going to have to play a major role because the engineering required to power soley from other sources alone would be such a huge undertaking it is doubtful we will have the political will or time to do so. Gates himself is investing in a new type of nuclear reactor, he has seen the future.
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Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth


James Tabor (2010)
Amazon Vine
May 2010
Blind Descent is about elite explorers who seek out the ultimate prize: the worlds deepest caves. These so-called "super caves" require days or even weeks underground in large supported missions like climbing Mt. Everest, yet most people know very little about this highly specialized field of exploration. It is one of the few exciting books for a general audience about extreme caving.

Tabor's book is "adrenalin literature", it keeps one flipping pages and the heart racing, the kind of creative nonfiction pioneered with Into Thin Air and Perfect Storm. But it feels less mature and gimmicky, at 250 pages there are 49 chapters, stopping unnecessarily in the middle of a scene, I suppose to build tension and create cliff-hangers. In effect it causes so much white space between chapters at times I was turning pages faster than a falling rock. There is an unnecessary amount of antagonism created around Bill Stone's personality, the freedom of creative non-fiction for the sake of entertainment went a little too far by inflating Bill's personality against a Russian caver. We have a "race" (which it really isn't) against two antagonists (who really are not). No doubt these techniques will sell books, but I wished for something of more substance and less artificial drama.

Tabor admits that he owes a large debt to Bill Stone's book Beyond the Deep, which is about one of Stone's epic cave explorations in Mexico. Indeed the most gripping part of Blind Descent is when it recounts scenes from Beyond the Deep. Although it doesn't have the journalistic range of Blind Descent, Stone's book is a true first person primary source, sort of like the difference between those who went to war, and those who stayed home and romanticized about it. Blind Descent is an easy and quick journalistic introduction to caving and I'm glad to have read it but look forward to reading Beyond the Deep and wish I had earlier.
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The Story of My Life


Hellen Keller (1903)
LibriVox
May 2010
The Story of My Life (1903) is the "miracle worker" Hellen Keller's autobiography. It is the primary source used in most of the films about her, by which she is most widely known, which is ironic since she can not see or hear. The first 4 chapters are about her transition from the state of a feral child under the guidance of "teacher" who gives the unruly Hellen her first word "wha wha" (water). This scene has mythic power, as she discovers language, she is able to express herself and make a connection with others, a fundamental human need. It struck a chord, a Gallop pole ranked her the 5th most admired person of the 20th century, behind only Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Einstein and Martin Luther King. She wrote her autobiography when only 22 years old; this has the benefit of a youthful energy, close enough to her childhood to remember it, but the final chapters lack the substance of a life yet fully lived. I found the chapter about her favorite authors and books fascinating, a life of the mind unhindered by disability. I listened to the LibriVox recording, version 2 by George Cooney, which is excellent.
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Hannibal


Jacob Abbott (1849)
LibriVox
April 2010
In the mid-19th century, Jacob Abbott (1803-1879) wrote a series of biographies as an introduction to famous men and women in history such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, etc.. ostensibly for children, but also appealing to adults. His books do one thing very well, and that is tell a dramatic story in a compelling narrative. His biography of Hannibal is factually accurate in terms of the events, based as it is on ancient texts like that by Livy, it is comparable to Gibbon in style, though not nearly as detailed. Modern critics will rightly point to Abbott's antiquated Victorian-era morality lessons, but I think it provides a certain warm grandfatherly charm, and unintended humor. In any case it's easy to overlook Abbott's occasional commentary for the sake of the narrative of events.

Hannibal focuses on the Second Punic War, the one in which Hannibal famously crossed the Alps with war elephants. The First and Third Punic War are covered in the first and last chapter by way of summary. This account is mostly a biography of Hannibal and so skims over other famous scenes and characters, but Hannibal was the Napoleon/Alexander of his day and thus the central figure of the Punic Wars. If you've only heard of Hannibal and want to know why he is so famous without reading Livy or a longer book this is a great way to go. Although there are some better modern books of this type, like by Harold Lamb and others, this one is free online and has an audio version. The LibriVox recording is well done, see also the map and engravings in the original book.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Arts & Letters (V.3, N.2)


Lewis Lapham (2010)
journal
April 2010
"Arts & Letters" (Spring 2010) is one the better issues of Lapham's Quarterly, up there with "War", "Eros", "Medicine" and "Learning". Anyone interested in literature, painting, music, architecture will find this mixture of classic, famous and insightful selections a real joy to read, and a guide for exploring more. This is my 10th issue of Lapham's and although not a Great Books education, it is perhaps a taste. Below are some of my favorite selections.

Leo Tolstoy from What is Art? (1898) says that art is the process of conveying ones own feelings to others so they may experience the same. T.S. Eliot explains how dead artists influence the living, but more importantly, how living artists change how the dead are perceived. Vitruvious from On Architecture (25BC) says that manual skill and theoretical knowledge are complimentary, and in an artist, one without the other is lesser than the whole. Victor Hugo in an excerpt from Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) shows how architecture has been the writing instrument of man, each stone block a letter, each building a sentence. Stefan Zweig in The World of Yesterday (1943) remembers what it was like first learning about classic authors, rushing to the library to look up and read every new name and idea he came across.

Kurt Vonnegut gives an insightful lecture on the basic forms of storytelling. Richard Nixon and Elvis meet in a hilarious Whitehouse transcript from 1970 - Elvis volunteers to help uncover drug-using hippies. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Spanish Dancer" (1908) is a short but hot read. George Orwell from "Politics and the English Language" (1947) famously shows how language is being subverted for political ends. Alexander Pope in An Essay on Criticism (1711) gives perhaps one of the most poetic and truthful skewering of art critics ever conceived, "Those half-learned witlings, as numerous in our isle / As half-formed insects on the banks of the Nile."

Zadie Smith in On Beauty (2005) shows what's it's like to be a naive but devoted freshman in college, at once learning new things while old myths are destroyed. Andy Warhol from POPism (1980) remembers when he first became famous. Lee Quinones recalls spray painting subway cars in NYC in the 1970s. Ovid, from Metamorphoses (5AD), tells the story of Pygmalion. Maxim Gorky recalls seeing his first moving picture in 1896, "It darts like an arrow straight toward you - watch out!"

Of the four original essays, my favorite is by Jamie James called "In The Gloom The Gold", a short biography of Ezra Pound. Imagine running into this character, even today: "He would wear trousers of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie handpainted by a Japanese friend, an immense sombrero, a flaming beard cut to a point, and a single, large blue earing."
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Creative Nonfiction 38: Immortality (Spring 2010)


Lee Gutkind (2010)
Magazine
April 2010
This is the first issue in a new magazine style - as opposed to the old journal. It's a large format, color, and looks like a magazine. It's also my first issue of the journal (now magazine) as a new subscriber. The theme is "Immortality" and there are half a dozen essays on the topic. Two are standouts, one by Eric Hagerman called "Just a Minute" about the ecological crisis on Earth. The other by Todd May called "Teaching Death" in which he describes his undergrad class on Death and how people perceive death (or choose not to), full of wisdom, it is worth re-reading on occasion. David Shields gives a list of 122 works of creative non-fiction, his "required-reading" list from his new book Reality Manifesto. There's a good article on "stunt writing" and some of the key works in that genre such as Nickle and Dimed, The-Know-it-All and Supersize Me. Finally a brief history of creative nonfiction from 1993-present including some of the key works and events of the genre.
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Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War


Karl Marlantes (2009)
Audio Audible
April 2010
In 2009, nearly 40 years after the Vietnam War, Marine veteran Karl Marlantes published his first novel, Matterhorn. He worked on it for over 35 years, starting soon after coming home from the war. He wanted to show what it was really like fighting in the bush, and probably has done more in that regard than any other Vietnam novel to date. It's a long historical novel, the kind with detailed maps, a unit org chart, dozens of named characters, and a lengthy glossary of over 100 esoteric terms about Vietnam War culture. It's an adrenaline filled novel, reviewer Sebastian Junger (of The Perfect Storm) said Matterhorn is "not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered."

Racial tensions make up a big portion of the story, most Vietnam books/movies skim over this, not so in Matterhorn where about half the characters are black, an accurate reflection of the make-up of the Corp at the time. Race was just one of many aspects of the war. Vietnam was complex and has been resistant to realistic representation because there were so many fronts. On the surface it was America versus North Vietnam, but as many historians have said, it was as much a civil-war in America playing out in the jungles of South East Asia. Racial conflicts, sexual liberation, class warfare, generational warfare, drugs, music and counter-culture. O'Brien in The Things They Carried dealt with the surreality of Vietnam by using post-modernist techniques. More traditional narratives either work as non-fiction memoir, or come across sounding like WWII in the jungle. Marlantes has cracked the code in Matterhorn and written an entertaining, accessible and realistic work in the grand old tradition of realism that captures the many conflicts and difficulties of the war. Like Gone With the Wind, Matterhorn will probably be more of a popular culture achievement, not a literary one; it's already a New York Times Bestseller. But it may yet win some awards, Marlantes really does deserve credit for bringing a deeper understanding, at least from the American military perspective.
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Novel 100: Ranking the Greatest Novels of All Time


Daniel S. Burt (2004)
Hardcover
April 2010
I own and have browsed many books like this, but The Novel 100 is the only one I've read straight through cover to cover, as a testament how good it is. Each of the 100 essays/chapters is an infectious rhapsody to the power and beauty of great novels. Burt's insights range from the historically contextual, aesthetic merits, existential meaning, summary, and just plain old personal recommendation. While the list doesn't offer any great surprises (Ch.1 Don Quixote, Ch.2 War and Peace, Ch.3 Ulysses etc..) what it does offer is motivation to actually read these works. Or for me, motivation on which ones to skip (for now) because they are too dark, complex or esoteric. As Harold Bloom once said, the trick is not what to read, but what not to read. About 25 books I've already read, about 26 Burt convinced me are worth reading yet, and the rest, well, maybe one day I'll get to Finnegans Wake. Overall this is one of the better guides to the classics I've come across, at least those in the arbitrary 100 or 1000 list-type. It also contains a runner-up of 100 additional books in an appendix.
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Deep Travel: In Thoreau's Wake on the Concord and Merrimack


David K. Leff (2009)
ebook P8
April 2010
Deep Travel (2009) is a slow and reflective travel book full of historical anecdotes, musings about the geography, architecture, industry, and everything that makes up the landscape along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. David K. Leff lives in Massachusetts and kayaked the rivers over a number of trips. He follows in the wake of others who did the same, most famously Henry David Thoreau who wrote about it in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Leff has written more than just a travel book, he is defining a genre which he calls "Deep Travel". It's something we have all done but probably don't have a name for. Deep Travel is to go about the local world and consider its history and place, to let the geography and environment direct the flow of attention. To seek out the novel, the hidden, the forgotten - to ask questions about those things in plain sight overlooked by everyone else. Like in a daydream, to wander slowly and deliberately, to wonder consciously about those things that make up the backdrop of the everyday.

This is an unusual travel book, yet wonderful in its vision. I've never been to the places it describes - the rivers and old industrial towns, mills and canals - but I feel I have now traveled there in person. The everyday and ordinary have been made interesting and fresh, layer upon layer of detail filled out to form a whole. It's a concept that works, but is also appropriate in a world where traveling to the far reaches to find the unusual is having negative consequences on the environment. In this book we learn local travel can be as interesting as the far away. Leff can also be seen as part of what I call a neo-transcendentalism movement that seems to be appearing in New England, a quest for the authentic America through the deliberate mimicry of the styles of Thoreau, Emerson and others; the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tinkers is another example.

Even though this is a regional American work, it's worth reading by anyone for a number of reasons. It will appeal obviously to anyone who lives in the region to learn more about their own backyard. It will appeal to those who have never been there to get a better sense of a place they may never see, or a deeper understanding of a place they may have only passed through briefly. It's a genre defining book that introduces the idea of traveling slowly, deeply, locally. As Leff says, "Exploring a place close to home can teach us as much as the farthest reaches of the globe. Travel is best that inspires us to see anew and become more engaged with our native landscape. It enriches our lives and motivates us to protect nearby areas."
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Dog Boy


Eva Hornung (2010)
Kindle
April 2010
The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, were the founders of Rome. Mowgli was the hero of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Tarzan was "King of the Jungle." Stories of feral children raised by animals have a long tradition. We are fascinated by the freedom it promises, stories of survival, man in a perfect Rousseauian natural state, but we are also repelled by the grotesque behavior and unsanitary conditions of going "feral". Such as it is with Australian author Eva Hornung in Dog Boy, a realistic recreation of the true story of 4-year old Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow for two years, surviving winters of -20 degrees with no heat or cooked food. Although a fictionalized treatment, it probably goes further at achieving the truth. We learn intimate details of living as a wild dog: the sense of existing in the moment from one meal to the next, of the dangers from "Strangers" (foreign dogs outside the pack), marking territory, play, social hierarchies, mating and birthing behaviors, smell and memory. This is not a "talking animals" novel, it is not Watership Down, the dogs and people all act in recognizably realistic ways, it is not a fable like Animal Farm. By the novels end you have become like a dog, thinking and acting appropriately, the world of dogs opened. For that reason alone it's a great book for dog owners or anyone wishing to better understand animal human relations. It also implicitly questions mans superiority over animals. A great read for anyone curious about feral children, the wild dogs of Moscow or animal/human relations.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Religion (V.3, N.1


Lewis Lapham (2009)
journal
April 2010
Religion has a few highlights. An excerpt from Gianfrancesco Straparola's The Nights of Straparola (1553) is an entertaining story about an evil land-lord who on his death-bed commands the souls of his helpers to the devil. Straparola is a mix of Boccaccio and Charles Perrault, he inspired Shakespeare, and was the first to write down "The Puss in the Boots" and "Beauty and the Beast," among other fairy tales. Emile Zola in "Priests and Sinners" (1870) gives a good account of a rural Breton priest who rules over his illiterate and superstitious parish with a measure of religious certainty while standing by and watching a devil-possessed girl die of sickness in bed. Jorge Luis Borges in an excerpt from "The Gospel According to Mark" tells a twisted tale involving an educated city-boy who works in a rural farm and teaches the illiterate workers about religion, only to find they have taken his word too literally.

Jon Krakauer's excerpt from Under the Banner of Heaven (1982) is a wonderful character portrait of a radical right wing conservative religious Mormon who takes the word of God to the highest level - against the US Government. The excerpt from Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State (1896) is pretty cool as the first documented vision of an Israeli state for the Jews.

The four original essays are pretty good, my favorite is by Warren Breckman called "Secular Revival" in which he sees the world as becoming more religious, secularism is on the wane. He calls for a revival of secularism, not by the harsh and shrill argumentation of Dawkins and other 'God is dead' types, but by appealing to peoples needs through the bottomless soul of literature, the mysteries of nature and science and other aesthetics.
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Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy, and the Escape from Tibet


Jonathan Green (2010)
Amazon Vine
April 2010
In 2006 a video began circulating on YouTube showing Tibetan refugee's escaping across the border into Nepal while being fired upon by Chinese army goons. In the distance a lone figure falls dead on the mountain. This became known as the Nangpa La shooting, which is the story behind investigative journalist Jonathan Green's book Murder in the High Himalaya. It seems like a minor incident now, but Green draws in many facets and people to build a gripping and important contemporary story about Tibet, and a very personal profile of exactly what "human rights abuse" means.

Green begins with a brief introduction to the history of Tibet and the Chinese occupation in 1950. He then threads a braided human interest narrative about two main characters: Kelsang Namtso, the 17-year old girl murdered on the mountain; and Luis Benitez, an American mountain climber who witnessed it and whose life would be changed forever. Each chapter switches back and forth between the two, moving forward in time until their paths finally cross that fateful day. It reads like a novel. The book then moves forward from the incident showing how it effected everyone involved.

I don't like to use the Nazi analogy, but its true, Tibet today is like occupied Europe under the Nazis. Not Western Europe, but Eastern Europe, where things were much tougher. It makes for thrilling if not chilling reading with late-night escapes, dogs, searchlights and check-points. Sadistic guards, torture, bribes, safe houses, underground railroads, etc.. it's all real and happening today. Green's book is one of the few reliable accounts since the wall of secrecy and Tibetan culture still keep most people silent.

Murder changed how I view Tibet, its clearly a very bad situation. As well it changed how I see wealthy mountain climbers who hoard the peaks every year in feats of egoistic bravo, while at their feet Tibetans are trying to escape to freedom and being shot. It makes climbing Everest seem somewhat banal and anti-climatic and strips it of its romanticism. The true story of Tibet is clearly not good business for China, or mountain climbing companies, all of whom collaborate to keep silent. The book is full of pseudonyms, people are afraid of being ostracized for speaking out, either from the tight-nit climbing community or by Chinese authorities. The book has been optioned to be made into a film for release in 2012, hopefully this powerful story will reach a wide audience.
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Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming


James Hoggan (2009)
Amazon Vine
April 2010
Climate Cover-Up is a genealogy of the climate denier industry. Assuming Global Warming is real, and it really is, there will be winners and losers. The losers happen to be the worlds richest and most power industries (oil and coal and related sub-industries). They have poured 100s of millions of dollars into public relations campaigns to deny or sow doubt about the science in order to stop or slow down regulation. Each day they continue with business as usual, is money in the bank. It's that simple. Hoggan's book is a tough read because each page is loaded with outrageous actions by climate deniers - logical fallacies, outright lies, astroturfing, etc.. every PR trick in the book. It's far bigger and worse than the tobacco crusade to deny smoking causes cancer. I ended this book wanting to reach out and strangle every professional climate denier. I wish the book had more to offer on ways for the average person to make a difference in the PR wars.

James Hoggan runs DeSmogBlog which is very good.
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In the Land of Pain


Alphonse Daudet (1930)
Hardcover
April 2010
Alphonse Daudet was arguably the most famous writer in the world for a brief period in the late 1870s. Today he is largely unread and hardly known. I've made an effort to read a lot of his work because I like his breezy charming style, wide variety and his happy go-lucky nature. However he also had a dark side, the last years of his life were a living hell in the late stages of syphilis which caused excruciating neurological pain that moved unpredictably throughout his body. Chronic pain, as Daudet knew, is not a great muse for writing, but he made an attempt to write about it. He never completed the book before his death, but did produce about 50 pages of notes, which were published by his wife in 1930 (in French), and translated by Julian Barnes into English in 2003.

As Barnes writes in the Introduction, Daudet discovers "the ironies and paradoxes of long-term illness: Surrounded by those you love, and unwilling to inflict pain on them, you deliberately talk down your suffering, and thus deprive yourself of the comfort you crave. Next, you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates: you fear becoming a symptoms bore. Meanwhile, the anticipation of indignities to come - and the terror disgusting those you love - makes suicide not just tempting but logical; the catch is that those you love have already insisted that you live, if only for them." (Introduction, xi)
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An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It


Al Gore (2006)
Paperback
March 2010
An Inconvenient Truth, book and movie, are probably some of the most historically important works on Global Warming in terms of popular awareness. Even if your a total skeptic, no one can deny its historical role in amplifying the "debate". It's worth reading simply out of curiosity for what all the hoopla is about. Given all the scorn for Gore and his book/film in 2006 and 2007, I was expecting extreme scaremongering, and so I didn't read it. But I picked it up in 2010 and found a fairly modest mainstream treatment of the science of Global Warming. He gets the essence of it right and explains some complex things in an easy to understand way. In fact much of the hatred towards Gore was politically motivated out of fear of his running for President in 2008. As it turned out that never happened, and now we can look more objectively at the film and book for what it is - an education tool for beginners on a complex topic. Is it perfect? No, even in the four years since it was published the science has changed, but it is largely correct and a great introduction that will continue to be talked about and read for decades to come.
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The Best Creative Nonfiction: Vol.2


Lee Gutkind (2008)
Paperback
March 2010
At 326 pages and 28 essays this is a generous collection of nonfiction, but I only found six essays that stood out enough to remark on. Yet, how how good those six are, they make the book as a whole worthwhile seeking out. Probably the best essay is "Moby-Duck" by Donovan Hohn. It's the longest in the book, comprising nearly 60 pages or 20% of the entire length. The pun on "Moby-Dick" is not just because of its length. Like in the novel, the essay is a weird hodgepodge of style and content, sometimes a straightforward journalism about ocean currents and the plastic derbies that floats in it, other-times existential angst on the modern human condition. It is one of the best nonfiction essays I've ever read, a nod to the literary greatness of Moby-Dick.

There are two superb mini-biographies. The first, called "Pursuing The Great Bad Novelist" by Laura Sewell Matter, is about the Victorian romance novelist Charles Garvice (1850-1920), whom you have probably never heard of. The Wikipedia article (see previous link) gives some background about him, but Laura's story about how she came to learn of Garvice from a book page leaf that washed up on the beach in Iceland is literary gold. The other min-biography is called "The Dangerous Joy of Dr.Sex" by Pagan Kennedy (an original piece first published in this book). It is about Alex Comfort, the stodgy English professor who was the unlikely author of the ever-popular The Joy of Sex. His story is basically an encapsulation of the sexual revolution and how far and quickly things changed in a single lifetime.

There are two psychology essays, the first "Instead of the Rat Pack" by Gwendolyn Knapp is about the authors mother who never throws things out and hoards stuff in her house to the point of excess requiring "active intervention." The other is a short web piece called "Shrinks Get It Wrong Sometimes" from Shrinktalk.Net, about a patient who foresees his own death. Finally there is a true crime essay called "The Suicide Murder? of Joseph Kupchick" by James Renner. It concerns a young man who apparently killed himself, but there are many clues to suggest it was actually murder. His father and mother become the lead investigators as the police and journalists write it off.
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The Treasure


Selma Lagerlof (1904)
LibriVox
March 2010
The Treasure aka Herr Arne's Hoard (1904), is a novella-length fable, or fairy-tale, by Nobel-Prize winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlof It is set in Bohuslaen on the West coast of Sweden in the middle of the 16th Century. In fairy-tales (and literature), female antagonism is an often-repeated storyline: the virgin/whore, angel/monster. There is a tradition of the pure, silent, virginal young girl on one side, and the powerful, sexual, wicked woman on the other. For example Bram Stoker.s Dracula compares sexually powerful Lucy with her three suitors, to monogamous and virtuous Mina who thinks only of her fiancé. Lucy ends up dead, staked through the heart, while Mina lives. It is a similar comparison in The Treasure between two sisters. The suitor is an exotic prince from distant shores, who has disguised himself and invaded the home and committed a murder. His dual nature is Vampire-ish, both seductive and repulsive, Prince charming and murderer. The ghost of the innocent murdered sister restlessly walks the earth seeking justice, while the living sister is seduced by the promise of wealth and power. The antagonism between the sisters is at the stories heart, and the heart is where the story finds its literal resolution, at the end of a steel blade - the only conclusion possible so that both sisters may find peace.

Lagerlof has busted some myths and written an anti-fairy-tale. The leading male character, rather than saving the damsel in distress, turns out to be a villain in disguise. The leading female character, rather than being passive, takes an active role by turning the murderer in to the authorities. Finally, the antagonism between virgin/whore is resolved, not by one winning out over the other, but by both dieing to save the another. It is ultimately a story about the love of two sisters, the love of woman for woman. Lagerlof herself was a lesbian and early feminist.

Lars Rolander's authentic Scandinavian accent brings this story forcefully alive with rolling R's strong enough to shake the bones of the dead, or the souls of the living. It is a prefect reading, thanks to Rolander and LibriVox.

The Treasure at LibriVox.
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The Call of the Weird: Encounters with Survivalists, Porn Stars, Alien Killers, and Ike Turner


Louis Theroux (2005)
Audio P8
March 2010
Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends is one of my favorite TV comedies (even though it's technically a documentary). It's an iconic time capsule of extreme 1990s American culture, after the fall of Communism when anything seem possible ("The End of History"), but before 9/11 brought us back to reality. Theroux filmed odd-balls and dreamers, people un-moored in one way or another from bourgeois sensibility, following a dream or idea over the line to that region the rest of us call simply: "weird". In typical British style, Theroux is the comedic straight-man who provides a springboard for his subjects to self-deprecate as passion and conviction finds a bemused audience. Yet, the show was never disrespectful, in the end both subject and viewer come away a little more enlightened, usually with a new found sense of compassion and humanity. I'll never forget the people and their weird subcultures, and wonder what happened to them.

In the mid-aughts, Louis decided to go back and revisit his subjects and find out what's happened since. Most of them are less radical now, either out of their subculture entirely, or toned down. A few of them are as unpleasant as ever, mainly the racists, but they still seem like normal people - which is Theroux's greatest gift, to find common humanity. None of the stories grabbed me like in the original series, it all seemed less engrossing. However if your a fan of Weird Weekends, this is a short book and well worth the time to follow up.
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American Salvage


Bonnie Jo Campbell (2009)
Hardcover
March 2010
American Salvage is "Northern Gothic", Flannery O'Connor transported to rural MI with Finns and Germans and snow and mud (and no religion). Although only 166 pages, the stories are dense with atmosphere and character, and like the best fiction, it leaves a deep impression of a place and people. Most of the characters are on the surface grotesque, discarded bodies in a salvage yard, but underneath there is a "core of platinum" - survivors in the rough that continue living despite disabilities. Physically injured men, addiction, sexual abuse and emotionally scarred women figure prominent in these stories - it's unpleasant to look; but Campbell usually leaves a bit of light at the end, something to keep us going, too.
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102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers


Jim Dwyer (2005)
Audio P8
March 2010
Dwyer has assembled first-hand reports from survivors of the Twin Towers to build a dramatic narrative account of minute by minute who did what and where. Dwyer lets the facts speak for themselves. He doesn't dwell on dead bodies or injuries or the horror of jumping or people freaking out. He is a journalist reporting from the front lines and we get a respectful, immediate factual report. Like in later accounts of the Titanic, heroes and acts of uprightness abound, men helping women and the disabled, people going beyond the "call of duty", fortitude and stoicism fill the pages. There were some mistakes made and Dwyer doesn't cover them up. We learn more firefighters died than were necessary because of a lack of communications equipment, and infighting with the NY Police Department. We learn that most of the people in the North Tower were unaware the South Tower had fallen, or that the North Tower was even conceivably going to fall. That the towers were poorly designed for safety due to a roll-back of safety laws in the 1960s. That the Police Chief ordered the circling police helicopters to ensure no more planes hit the tower - how this could be done is never explained, but only one option seemed possible - collision. Overall an interesting read if diffuse, I found documentaries about 9/11 to be much more powerful.
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The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet's Surprising Future


Fred Pearce (2010)
Paperback
March 2010
It is common wisdom that the world has too many people and thus faces an uncertain future from resource constraints (Peak Oil, food shortages, etc..) and pollution (global warming, ozone etc). However as Fred Peace shows in this easy to read and refreshingly optimistic book, the answer to our problems may lie in the simple numbers of demography. Pearce starts with a history of population control, beginning with Malthus in the 18th century, which lead to Eugenics thinking of the early 20th century which lead to the Holocaust and then to the sterilization programs in India by the UN and 1-child policies in China - all of which have been disasters and essentially nationalistic and/or racists at the core. Along the way he shows uncomfortable connections with the environmental movement and Malthusian/eugenics thought.

As it turns out, population control has been naturally occurring on its own. In countries all over the world, birth rates are on the decline as woman choose to have 0 to 2 children, which is near or below replacement rates. The reasons are not by design, it just sort of happened, a result of increased affluence and urbanization brought on by the green revolution of the 60s, and increased access to and awareness of birth control. Given a choice, women don't want big families, they'd rather invest resources in a few healthy children and pursue their own life interests. The numbers tell the story and Pearce's book is full of page after page of amazing perspectives that totally changes how one sees the world. In short, most likely we will reach "Peak Population" by 2040, that is, the total number of humans on the planet will peak at around 8 billion and then begin to decline, rapidly. There are already some days on planet earth when more people die than are born.

Pearce has written a fascinating and optimistic book, we really need it in this time of gloomy predictions about the future. Demography very well may be the saving grace of the human race. Or I should say, women may save the day by choosing not to have big families. My only complaint is he doesn't look at the potential downsides of a declining and aging population - on market economies, tax bases, standards of living, etc.. and what conditions in the future could cause a reversal of increased birth rates, such as what happens during baby booms. Nothing is assured, but assuming the macro trends stay in place - globalization, urbanization, woman's liberation - the population problem, and conversely environmental and resource problems, may just have a good chance of resolving themselves with time, and we may look back on this period as an overpopulated transition to a more stable and gentle age.
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The Best Creative Nonfiction: Vol.1


Lee Gutkind (2007)
paperback
March 2010
This is the inaugural issue (2007) of a yearly anthology of the "best" in creative nonfiction. The included authors are not super-stars like John Wolfe or John McPhee, rather entries are chosen by a team of academics from a pool of over 600 small-run literary journals, and online blogs, so the writers names are new, and pieces are occasionally somewhat experimental. It is edited by Lee Gutkind, who is called the "Godfather" of creative nonfiction, a field that really came into its own in the 1990s and exploded with popularity in the 2000s. There are 27 pieces in total, of which my 9 favorites are described below. I would like to given it more stars, but 9 out of 27 is sparse territory for a "best" anthology, even if these 9 are really very good. I do plan on continuing to read future volumes in the series, the experience is akin to walking in a crowded public space, you never know what's coming next, but if you don't like it, something new comes along.

Carol Smith in "The Cipher in Room 214" describes a suicide in a Seattle Washington hotel by a woman whose identity has remained a mystery - it's a haunting case for everyone who has investigated it, she is at once famous in death and anonymous in life. It's very literary - on her death she left a dried maple leaf next to her bed, and at her grave site, where the state buried her, is windswept with maple leaves. Spooky.

John O'Conner in "Badlands" gives a expose of a competitive eater in New York named Badlands. Overweight and not seemingly very bright, he seems to have found the one thing he does well, eat, and loves the spotlight even if he rarely wins. It's at once funny, sad and grotesque - a quick immersion into a strange American subculture, like an episode from Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends. "The Pain Scale" by Eula Biss is an experimental piece but it works well as she describes the many psychological complexities behind the seemingly simple 1-10 pain scale measure - horrifically, we learn that 30 years ago babies were routinely operated on without anesthesia..

Rebecca Skloot in "The Truth About Cops and Dogs" gives a fantastic account of a pack of wild dogs in Manhattan(!) that routinely killed pet dogs - but due to a loophole in local law, no one was able to do anything about it. After the authors own dog was attacked and nearly killed by the pack, she wrote this article which appeared in a local paper and garnered city-wide sympathy. Jeff Gordinier in "Miles To Go Before We Sleep" recounts his trip on the Poetry Bus, a nationwide bus tour of poetry readings. Responses from passing vehicles on the highway to a bus with big red letters on the side that said POETRY BUS "ran the gamut: confusion, suspicion, laughter, longing, euphoria. You could see it in their eyes first, and then their scrunched brows, and then in the way they moved their lips: Poetry Bus?! What the hell is that?"

Olivia Chia-lin Lee in "Pimp" describes becoming a high-class prostitute in San Francisco. It's probably a fake memoir, a working out of her own childhood issues and/or adult fantasies, but her insight into the male psyche is precise, and entertaining. In "The Woot Files", Monica Hsiung Wojcik writes up an etymology of the origin of "w00t" and other l33t-speak jargon, successfully incorporating an AIM chat session. In "66 Signs That The Former Student That Invited You To Dinner Is Trying To Seduce You", Lori Soderlind writes 66 numbered passages describing a scene in which she is invited to dinner by one of her students who then tries to seduce her. There are a few twists to the story with clues to the mystery which make this a curious and interesting read, not the sort of thing one reads in mainstream publications but well worth it. In "Wild Flavor", Karl Taro Greenfeld describes life in a Chinese boom-town where wild animals - raccoons, cats, dogs, badger, ostrich etc.. - are kept alive in cages and killed at 'Wild Flavor' restaurants. The scenes of wild animal holocaust are directly connected with the rise and spread of the SARS virus and Greenfeld describes one restaurant worker who is infected by the blood of a sick animal. Greenfeld went on to write the book China Syndrome about SARS.
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Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet


Bill McKibben (2010)
Amazon Vine
March 2010
The main premise of Eaarth is that the world is not going to change sometime in the future for our grandchildren, rather it has already changed - it's too late, we are in the middle of a meltdown, it is adversely impacting us right now. McKibben supports this with compelling evidence in the first half of the book, which is the best part IMO, although not without problems (see below). McKibben's solution is to reduce complexity, reduce size and reduce growth - smaller, local, slower. This approach is nothing new as can be seen in many movements such as local food, slow food, anti-globalization. He compares the last 200 years of capitalism and growth to that of human childhood development - and we are now entering a more mature phase, when growth is no longer the goal but rather stability and reliability are the preferred traits.

Unfortunately McKibben's premise is misguided. He offers a simple solution to a complex global problem that requires both local and international change. While it's true we need to act individually and as communities locally, there also needs to be work on the level of national and international policy. We need both small scale and large scale tools. All scales have their unique challenges and neither is a silver bullet solution.

One of the problems with McKibben's evidence-based argumentation in the first half of the book, where he shows how and why the world is already in hot water by citing science reports, is that he uses many of the same logical fallacies that climate deniers do. Certain studies are cherry picked for their emotional impact with overly large conclusions drawn. Studies are cited but there is no balance in terms of how reliable they are. Was it one scientist with 1 year of data, or 100 scientists over 50 years? It's like reading the comments section of certain blogs, argumentative rhetoric without the kind of substance that's needed to really arrive at the truth. It's actually very difficult to determine how reliable the science reports cited are, not unlike sorting out all the claims made in the vitamin and alternative health industry. That is exactly the kind of hard work we hope McKibben would do for us - instead he cut and pasted the same headlines we already know about on the Internet without really examining them in detail to determine the nuanced reality behind them, which is nearly always the case.

Bill McKibben's Eaarth is a passionate and informed argument for a belief system that is a model of Vermont environmentalism. This is not a bad thing, but it is preaching to the choir and ultimately just deepens the divide. Vermont, where McKibben is from, is repeatedly used as a positive role model. Unfortunately Vermont has many unique characteristics geographically, demographically and historically that simply don't apply to other regions of the US or world. Of course McKibben is just using Vermont as an example, but it's one of the worlds best examples for his cause. McKibben doesn't ask the hard questions or look at the messy contrary evidence because it doesn't make for as good a story.

Eaarth is worth reading, because there is a considerable amount of up to date information in particular the first 100 pages on what's happening to the world today with climate change; I know a lot about it, but still learned a lot new. Ultimately I don't think the books main premise says anything very new, at least for me, I already knew "we are so screwed" years ago. For some readers though it may be an eye opener and bring coherence of different topics into the bigger picture. I'd love to see someone set up a web page that investigates in more detail each of the claims made in the book and ranks them according to degree's of assurance, reliability and number of studies supporting it. Such as this example. In the end this is a book worth reading but do your own research also.
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Beatrice and Virgil


Yann Martel (2010)
Amazon Vine
March 2010
Beatrice and Virgil is a quick, smart and often funny novel revolving around the serious topic of the Holocaust. It's very "meta" (post modern) often wryly commenting on its self and the creative process of writing - I would find myself being critical of the technique, and then a few sentences later, Martel (or the narrator) comments on the same thing as if reading my mind, and thus disarming it and maintaining a sense of mystery and deeper connection with the author. Thus there is a sense of self-consciousness, almost to the point of claustrophobia, emphasized by the closed dark space of an taxidermists office - very different from the wide open Pacific ocean in Life of Pi. It's an allegorical novel - the greatest allegory every written, Dante's Inferno, from which the novels title and characters are derived. Despite the literary edifices (including a lengthy section about an obscure but very good short story by Flaubert), it's heritage as a beast-fable makes it easy to read and accessible to a wide audience. For those with a more academic literary background it has a lot of "inside jokes" that contrast with the seriousness of the subject matter in a slightly incongruous manner, although this seems to be the intent. Overall a good literary read with a lot to think and chew on, including some delicious luminescent pears.
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An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century


James Orbinski (2008)
Hardcover
March 2010
An Imperfect Offering is written by Dr. Orbinski, who is the former president of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a humanitarian relief organization similar to the Red Cross which provides medical care in war zones - in fact MSF's founders were originally with the Red Cross when they broke away and founded MSF in 1970 due to an ethical disagreement about remaining silent (politically neutral) in the face of human rights abuses.

The 400 page book can be seen in three parts - the first is a memoir of Orbinski's early life and how he came to join MSF in the early 1990s. The second and longest (roughly ppgs. 37-300) is a detailed and gripping narrative of Orbinski's field experiences in Somalia, Afghanistan and Rwanda. Rwanda in particular makes up the core of this section, and is at the heart of the book. It is some of the best writing about the Rwandan genocide available, really important and amazing stuff. The last section is after Orbinski is elected president of MSF (in large part because of his service in Rwanda), wins the Nobel Peace Prize and is less in the field and more of an international political actor.

I've read 5 humanitarian memoirs, and they all struggle with the contradiction between the apolitical vs political - that is, are doctors simply to help the wounded and needy, or do they also support or oppose one side or the other in a conflict? The answer is yes to all. Orbinski understands this better than most, he knows it's impossible to be involved in a conflict without being a political actor. This is the books core insight. However I think the book is at its best simply as a well told story about a doctor working in third world conditions with limited supplies and support, overwhelming casualties, constant threats and dangers. In this sense it is dry on the edges (beginning and end) and meaty in the middle. It tries to be many things but is best as a vivid war memoir from the perspective of a humanitarian aid worker in some of the most infamous conflicts of the 1990s.
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Paper Moon


Joe David Brown (1971)
Audio P8
February 2010
Addie Pray is better known as Paper Moon from the title of the Bogdonovich film. It's been almost 40 years and now is probably a good time to see if it's a classic with legs, or a period piece getting long in the tooth. Granted, it's a topical novel in today's zeitgeist, since it's about the Great Depression, and I was drawn to it for that reason. But even though the historical setting is the 1930's, the spirit and mood of the novel is solidly late 1960's. Do what makes you feel good and damn the consequences, fight the man, love conquers all. In the spirit of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it's an American rebel hero Picaresque novel.

Addie Pray is great in terms of narrative flow. At first the confidence man stories about selling bibles to widows are cute and fun, but soon wears thin. Before the reader gets bored however, Brown increases the ante, so to speak, adding another plot twist. As this wears thin he adds a new story with additional complications. Each story gets a little longer and more interesting until the last story takes up nearly a third of the book and could stand alone as a novella. This sort of building up mirrors the techniques used by the confidence-artist characters of the novel and is very effective in making it believable.

The ending is a moralizing lesson about love being more important than money - 1960's remember? While the message is fine, it feels a bit heavy and direct and dates the work. It's a tradition heroes ride off into the sunset, a nice fairy-tale. Addie Pray is a well crafted novel, entertaining and fun. It probably won't be a classic but it's a great book for the heart.
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The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession


David Grann (2010)
Amazon Vine
February 2010
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes (2010) is a collection of 12 essays by New Yorker staff writer David Grann. The essays were previously published between 2000 and 2009 in The New Yorker (9), The New York Times Magazine (1), The New Republic (1) and The Atlantic (1). It is a sort of "best of" of David Grann, and oh how good it is. He is one my favorite authors. Although best known for The Lost City of Z (2009), I think this is the better book, Grann is at his best with the essay. There is not a dud in the dozen, each is as richly told as a novel, a marvel of economy and imaginative space. Partly it is Grann's skill as writer, but largely it is his ability to find fascinating stories of people living outrageously interesting lives, and to get the people to tell their story. To give some idea how good these stories are, 3 of them have already been optioned to be made into films (not including Lost City which makes 4 Grann films currently in the works), and 5 of them previously collected in other "Best Of" book anthologies. If you've never read Grann before this represents a decade of his best work, I recommend it highly. See also the Wikipedia article for the book, which includes links to the subjects of the articles with the latest news and updates.
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"The Seven Poor Travellers"


Charles Dickens (1854)
LibriVox
February 2010
"The Seven Poor Travellers" (1854) is a short Christmas story co-written by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It is based on a real place in England called Six Poor Travellers House (Dickens is the 7th traveller of the story title). Part 1 is the opening frame story, part 2 is a story-within and part 3 the conclusion of the frame. I can't be sure but it seems Dickens wrote most or all of part 1&3 (the frame) while Collins probably wrote the story of Richard Doubledick (wonderful name). I found part 1&3 to be enchanting and part 2 of little appeal. Ruth Golding gives a professional level reading which adds to the stories atmosphere. If for no other reason than learning about the Six Poor Travellers House part 1&3 are well worth the listen, but if your a poor traveller for time, don't feel too guilty about skipping the main course IMO.

"The Seven Poor Travellers", read by Ruth Golding at LibriVox
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The Things They Carried


Tim O'Brien (1990)
Amazon Vine
February 2010
The Things They Carried was written 20 years after the author returned from Vietnam. On the surface it's a series of interconnected short stories but it plays with notions of reality versus fiction, self-consciously telling the reader none of it is real, yet also revealing O'Brien's biographical story, calling into question the reliability of memory and how what we know to be true. It is through these post-modernist techniques that O'Brien creates a surreality that plays into the drug-fueled stereotypes of the Vietnam War and 1960s (think Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter); an aesthetic whole that is very pleasing, fragmented yet solid and effective on a number of levels.
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003


Richard Dawkins (2003)
Hardcover first
February 2010
2003 was a good year for BASNW guest editor Richard Dawkins. Of the 29 articles my favorite 11 are:

Natalie Angier in "Weighing the Grandma Factor" explains how the presence of a maternal grandmother in a family leads to children with more advantages than those without, grandmother keeps the wolf from the door. Timothy Ferris in "Astronomy's New Stars" gives a brief history of amateur astronomy - sort of like Open Source software, it can fill in and even replace the professionals. Ian Frazier in "Terminal Ice" has a lengthy but fascinating article about icebergs, it really could expanded into a book. Elizabeth Kolbert in "Ice Memory" travels to Greenland and spends time with ice core drillers - she in fact did later write a book about it, but this article is a good introduction.

Daniel Lazare in "False Testament" blows the lid off the Old Testament, convincingly showing much of it to be simply made-up, part of a propaganda campaign in the early first millennium. Charles Mann in "Homeland Insecurity" makes a case against ridged and brittle security systems in the wake of 9/11. For example, one can't stop determined thieves from entering your home, but layers of deterrents make it hard enough they might not try, or fail if they did. Most security fails badly, like Unix - crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy in the middle.

Steven Olson in "Royal We" has a fascinating look at genealogy, as he noticed many people could trace their lineage back to a royal person given enough generations. In fact due to the nature of math, all people of European descent alive today are directly related to 80% of the people who were alive in the 10th century.. that is, we are all probably directly descended from Charlemagne .. and his cook and hair dresser and everyone else! Steven Pinker in "The Blank Slate" furthers his work in tearing down the resilient but wrong idea that we are born blank slates, a cherished ideal in Democratic and Totalitarian societies alike that leads to some horrific ideologies.

Steven Silberman in "The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks" is a condensed biography of Sacks and his work placing him and his work in historical context. Gary Taubes in "What If It's All Been A Big Fat Lie?" says Robert Atkins's low-carb diet was right all along - it was this article in 2002 and a few others like it that spawned the huge low-carb diet craze of the 2003-2004 era, but Atkins death in 2005 and the companies bankruptcy sort of ended it. Finally my favorite article is the last one, by Edward O. Wilson called "The Bottleneck", Wilson looks at all the reasons the earth is running up against resource limitations and the physical impossibility of things continuing as they have been. It's nothing new but worth repeating and eloquently and convincingly said.
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Black Hawk Down


Mark Bowden (1999)
audio P8
February 2010
Black Hawk Down is a war book with a pornographic focus on heroics, patriotism, blood and piles of dead enemies. If a FPS (First Person Shooter) could be made into a book, this might be a model. It is perhaps important because it documented the most intense urban fight America had experienced since Vietnam. Also during the 1990's there was a drought of military conflict for the United States, Black Hawk Down was a spiked drink to keep the blood pressure pumped when otherwise bases were closing and the military contracting in the wake of the Soviet collapse. The American military was adrift, not unlike the men in this story. Now that we are post 9-11, the 90s seem quaint compared to the epic battles of real consequence in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no deeper meaning or lesson, only that it was the ferocity and bravery of the Somalians who were the primary actors.
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The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm


Kenneth W. Gronbach (2008)
Hardcover & audio P8
February 2010
Generational theory has become widespread in America, most famously pioneered by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It is common with marketing consultants, since GT can predict trends, there is a lot of money to be made with the right call. Gronbach is a seasoned marketing consultant. His version of GT is based on Demographics. Everything can be explained by one simple fact: each generation is of different size, some smaller and others bigger. This creates waves in the marketplace, for example with 20 year cycles of big numbers of 18-26 year old males followed, by 20 year cycles of small numbers of the same age group. These demographic waves create and destroy markets, for example motorcycles. It's a very simple yet powerful observation that has a lot of application.

Strauss and Howe on the other hand not only describe the generations, but explain them with complicated personality characteristics loaded with value judgments akin to generational warfare. Gronbach tosses all that aside and simply looks only at the demographic size of each generation, which in many cases is enough to explain things. Generation X, which has been much maligned for a long time, only real fault is it's small size which means it has been unable to participate in society at the same level as its predecessor, the Baby Boomers. Thus the "slacker" tag.

I learned a lot from this breezy and captivating book, but there were so many questions and seeming contradictions I wish it had gone into more depth. Gronbach wears his personal politics openly and they usually fall on the side of conservatism ie. he suggests now would be a good time to "solve" the Middle East problem, namely Iran, with military measures, because of the large number of young people in Generation Y. But also fairly he takes a liberal view towards other issues like immigration. Who knew that 50% of all live births in the US are to Latino's! We would be sinking without them. He also forecasts China's economy will stall because of its 1-child policy (so much for the rise of China).

One thing I would caution about this book. Gronbach is using a "common sense" approach with a very simple tool to explain very complex phenomenon - this can be dangerous, as the world is much more complex. Still, it may be macro enough to get general trends correct some of the time, although more so in hindsight. Gronbach doesn't look at or explain things that are contrary to his theory. Gronbach is an evangelizer and visionary, the book is a manifesto, what's needed next is someone to do the hard research to see how well the theory really works.
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A Country Doctor's Notebook


Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov (1925)
Paperback
February 2010
Before Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) became a full-time writer and author of the classic The Master and Margarita, he was a young doctor treating impoverished rural Russian peasants. His experiences as a country doctor - no electricity, overworked and under supplied - formed the basis of a series of essays first published in an obscure Russian magazine between 1925-27. Humorous, dark and literary, the collection offers a glimpse into modern medicine meeting Medieval superstition. Dramatic and fun, eye opening and shocking, laughable and pitiful, the patients and the doctor somehow seem to survive a cultural divide of 500 years. Great reading, highly recommended.
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The Hungry Tide


Amitav Ghosh (2004)
Audio Audible
February 2010
I read The Hungry Tide (2004) because I wanted to learn more about the Sundarbans, the worlds largest mangrove forest. It is situated along the ocean border of India and Bangladesh at the delta of the Ganges River. I'd never heard of Sundarbans before, and was fascinated by a large wilderness area so close to one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The reason it has remained so wild is because it is one of the most dangerous places in the world: cyclones, man-eating tigers, snakes, crocodiles. Yet about 4 million substance fishermen make a living there, with a high annual death toll (over 200 deaths a year from tigers alone). It is truly a land of exotic beauty and danger, where the ancient and modern collide, fertile soil for a romantic novel.

The novel delivered on my expectations of immersion in foreign culture through a well told story. The plot is slow and labyrinthine and mysterious as it reveals its secrets, like the swamps, with sudden moments of furious danger. It is also a cultural novel. India is a country mostly of poor farmers, and their point of contact with middle-class urban professionals is a large part of the novels focus. These class interactions are helpful in understanding Indian culture today, as it rises out of third world status, at least from a middle-class perspective, for whom the novel was written for, and by. It's not a "great" novel by any means (it won't stand the test of time as India continues to change), but its enjoyable, particularly as a vehicle for learning about the Sundarbans.

I listened to the audiobook version and believe it is better than reading - the narrator (native Indian) brings the characters alive with accents and pauses and inflections, rounds them out in a way I would not have been able to imagine otherwise. It greatly adds to the sense of place in an already atmospheric novel.
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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life and Death


Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
Kindle
February 2010
A beautiful memoir about paralysis and hospital life. I recently spent 6 weeks in a hospital with paraplegia and thus have an intimate sense of what paralysis is like. The useless limbs except as a source of pain, the limbs which hurt but could not tell if they are hot or cold, the empty Sundays, the staff you want to kill over small slights, etc.. obviously this book means a lot to me and is among those rare few "favorites of a lifetime". The movie is very good too, although dramatized with some material that is purely fictional, it provides a visual sense to fill in the details of the book. The writing though, that is what makes it more than just another memoir. The first four short chapters: Prologue, Wheelchair, Prayer and Bathtime - are classics which stand alone as models of writing. Some favorite sentences

"..these uncooperative deadweight limbs, which serve me only as a source of pain."
"..if the nervous system makes up its mind to start working again, it does so at the speed of hair growing from the base of the brain."
"But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva that endlessly floods my mouth."
"If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere."
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Hospital Sketches


Louisa May Alcott (1863)
LibriVox
January 2010
It seems hard to believe today, but in 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, women military nurses were considered a novelty; fears were of harming their "naturally weak nature" and fraternizing with men. But it was a role successfully pioneered by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea War, and the Union was looking for all the help it could get. Before she became a famous novelist with Little Women, upbeat and adventurous 30 year old Boston native Louisa May Alcott volunteered at a Union hospital in Washington DC. During her intern of 6 weeks she was able to help soldiers wounded at The Battle of Fredericksburg. She wrote a series of letters home vividly describing what a Civil War hospital was like, and the many characters who made up the patients and staff. The letters display a keen sense of humor and observation that would become her hallmark. A short book but highly engaging and fascinating for the quality of writing, the drama of life and death, historical detail, and Alcott's infectious optimism, humor and strength.

Read via Internet Archive.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Medicine (V.2, N.4)


Lewis Lapham (2009)
journal
January 2010
Medicine deals with life and death and has inspired some of the greatest writing, it's a genre that apparently I have overlooked. Herein are excerpts of some of the best:

We begin with A Journey Around My Skull, a memoir by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), where he first learns about a brain tumor as blood in the eye. Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind (1995) gives one of the best descriptions of going insane I've ever read, "the blood on the window had merged into the sunset". Zhisui Li in The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1994) gives a curious account of Mao's first dentist appointment, with dark teeth green from tea and gums oozing puss Mao asks, "Is it really that serious?", the dentist replied "Yes, I wouldn't fool you." Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) describes an elderly patient who had late onset syphilis (70 years post-exposure) and because of its side effects, euphoria, decided to leave it untreated.

John Barth in The End of the Road envisions a fictional scene of an illegal abortion that goes terribly wrong in a 1950s era Maryland suburb (morale: don't eat hot-dogs beforehand). A transcript from the 1971 film The Hospital, starring George C Scott. "Let him go. Before we will him." Mikhail Bulgakov in A Country Doctor's Notebook tells about rural Russia and a newbie doctor who tries to save a girl with a silver tube down the throat (if he can only find the windpipe). James Orbinski in An Imperfect Offering (2008) describes a scene of chaos and horror at a hospital in Kigali on the opening day of the Rwandan genocides. "Courage, courage my friend." Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse during the Civil War and wrote a vivid account of the colorful patients under her care in Hospital Sketches (1863).

Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997) jaw-droppingly describes what it is like to be completely paralyzed, using only his left eyelid to communicate his memoir, "I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva that endlessly floods my mouth." Two days after it was published he died (the book was later made into a film). Fanny Burney in 1811 wrote a letter to her sister describing her mastectomy without anesthesia, a 20-minute ordeal in which her scream never faltered for want of breath. Joan Didion has migraines and tells us what it's like, after the pain has passed there is a "pleasant convalescent euphoria. I feel the air, sleep well, eat gratefully. I count my blessings."
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Too Loud A Solitude


Bohumil (1976)
paperback
January 2010
Many readers see this story by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal as an allegory, in particular a political commentary on the danger of banning books in a totalitarian society. But Hrabal was a better writer than simple allegories. Indeed it is a highly biographical work: Hrabal also worked as a trash compactor, also saved books from destruction and built a library of them at home, also drank lots of beer. Beer is a central element of this story, it is drunken riotous unpredictable comic romp with flashes on genius and splashes of scatological angst, sort of what happens when you drink too much - loose control of your body and hold forth with sporadic ideas of great importance from the ether. Hrabal is sort of a pseudo-magical realism, stream of conscious writer; what makes him so popular is the cinematic quality that has resulted in so many adaptations of his work (Closely Watched Trains most famously, but even Too Loud a Solitude was made into an animated(!) film in 2007). He was basically a bar fly who drank a lot and listened to other drunkards telling stories to which he incorporated into his work. He wasn't exactly a Charles Bukowski barfly, Hrabal was more classically trained, but there are some similarities.
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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America


Rick Perlstein (2008)
First edition hardcover
January 2010
There is a divide in America, often called "Red State/Blue State" or simply Republican/Democrat. What is it, and how did it come about? Nixonland is a detailed re-telling of the political and social history of America between 1965 and 1972, when the divide, as we currently know it today, first emerged. As someone who didn't have the pleasure of living through the sixties, but who is heir to the era and its events, this book has been an amazing revelation. The divide continues to this day and everything can be traced back to these stormy 7 years.

Perstein's narrative technique and skill is enthralling and often humorous, he can go on for pages on a particular topic that would stand alone as a classic essay on the topic under discussion. The books is full of these, too many to recount, but some of my favorites include: Watts Riots (p.3-19); The Summer of Love (p.185+); Newark Riots (p.190-194); about the film Bonnie and Clyde (p.208); protest at the Pentagon (p.214+); Columbia University and the SDS (p.263); Democrat National Convention in Chicago (p.289-327); Cornell University protests (p.374+); Berkley protests (p.382+); Nixon and Patton (p.472); Kent State (p.479-495); Nixon and Billy Graham (p.500+); George Wallace assassination (p.660-665); Jane Fonda's Vietnam visit (p.703+); Republican National Convention 1972 (p.712-719).

Perlstein's main thesis is that after WWII and the material success of the 1950's, the Liberal left believed it had won 40+ years of fighting for the rights of the downtrodden - the middle class had emerged triumphant and most people in America had substantially better standards of living. This moment of "liberal consensus" (an illusionary one Perlstein believes) saw the creation of a new divide, one characterized by, although not created by, the personality of Nixon. This new divide was about who would control the country - the "elite" cosmopolitan liberal educated professional class - or the "silent majority", suburban/rural patriotic religious middle classes. Nixon's genius was to recognize this divide at the core and continually drive a wedge through it, to be the hero of the Silent Majority while demonizing the Loud Minorities. The arguments over Nixon, pro and con, gave us the language for this war, and it has not ended yet. Welcome to Nixonland.
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The Kill


Emile Zola (1871)
Oxford World Classics, ebook P8
January 2010
The Kill is Zola's second novel in the Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It is a retelling of the Phaedra myth with timeless human character archetypes and relationships, but with specific historical details of Paris in the 1850's. Zola uses the perverse sexual and monetary excesses of the novels characters to criticize the Second Empire's decadent morality. It is highly symbolic, including the title La Curée, a French hunting term which alludes to the entrails of a dead animal given to the dogs after a successful kill. Paris was literally chopped up during the Second Empire for construction of new wide boulevards, and thrown to the dogs, so to speak, who used graft to profit from the state during the upheaval. This is not my favorite Zola novel - the plot is Byzantine, the characters are loathsome and the vocabulary obscure - but can appreciate its historical value and aesthetic aspects. The detail of the nouveau riche in decadent Second Empire Paris - clothing, food, furnishings, mannerisms - are all well described. For some reason Zola's descriptions of smells seem to be the most memorable, usually of a moist and earthy nature, "wet human flesh" and "hothouse" flowers and "dusty carpets" etc.. the intentional effect is one of pervasive rot and decay, but smell is a dimension usually lacking in 19th century novels, Paris at the time was no doubt a smelly place. Another interesting effect Zola achieves is everything is turned inside out (like the entrails of a dead animal) - inside and outside spaces seem to merge into one, the street and bedroom are one - this reaches a climax at the end when buildings are destroyed and we see interior spaces open to the world like gashing wounds.
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Invisible Links


Selma Lagerlof (1894)
LibriVox
January 2010
Selma Lagerlof was born in Vaermland, Sweden, in 1858. She was the first woman to receive a Noble Prize in Literature, in 1909. Her works are still very popular in Sweden. She is mostly unread in the English speaking world today, but her influence is with us through Ingemar Bergman and others. I like to think of her as the Swedish Nathanial Hawthorne. She is best known for her first novel, The Story of Gosta Berling; and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a children's novel that also served as a geography lesson-book for Swedish school-children, as seen from the air on the back of a Goose (c.f. France's Le Tour de la France par deux enfants), it is a children's classic in Germanic speaking countries. She wrote many other novels including Karkarlen which was made into a 1921 silent film The Phantom Carriage - it was influential with Ingemar Bergman when he was 12, so we have Lagerlof to blame for corrupting Bergman.

The work under review here, Invisible Links, is not one of her better known but, like almost everything she wrote, it is worthwhile. This was her second published book; a collection of short tales in various genres. As LibriVox narrator and native Scandinavian Lars Rolander says, "Invisible Links is a good introduction to the writings of Selma Lagerloef". In classic Scandanavian tradition most of the stories contain some sort of connection to the faerie world that determine the fate of the characters - thus, "invisible links." There are 14 stories in all, 12 reviewed below. The best stories are, in my opinion, in bold. Lars Rolander's excellent LibriVox reading, with his heavy Scandinavian accent, is highly recommended for a powerful invocation of place and time.

Invisible Links at Internet Archive (scanned book)
Invisible Links at LibriVox (audiobook)

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"The Spirit of Fasting and Petter Nord" - this is the longest story in the collection. It is a contemporary love story, and a tale of revenge and justice with a twist.

"The Legend of the Bird's Nest" - a fable of sorts about an old, angry and mean hermit who finds redemption and renewal in a birds nest. Neat little tale.

"The King's Grave" - Scandinavian pagan culture was ruled by fate - one's death was foreknown by the Gods and fated to occur. This wonderfully told story, set in the woods of Medieval Sweden, shows how fate rules the lives of simple country people, through the grave of a Viking King. Very evocative, the stone king is memorable.

"The Outlaws" - a Medieval setting, two outlaws hide in the woods from justice, one older the other younger. Beautiful realist descriptions of nature blended with magical forces, a dialectic between Christianity and paganism. A number of memorable scenes including rippling water that looks like a mermaid, men who look as stones, fighting eagles in a tree, an axe in the forehead.

"The Legend of Reor" - a short poetic and symbolically tinged romance involving white snakes and virgin nymphs in the deep dark woods.

"Valdemar Atterdag" - a poetic interpretation of the painting Valdemar Atterdag holding Visby to ransom, 1361" (1882). Lagerlof's contribution to Sweden's national romanticism.

"The Romance of a Fisherman's Wife" - excellent but somber fishing story about the deception of a young woman into marriage. Probably the most emotionally believable story of the collection. Bait, hook, reel-in, dress and feast.

"His Mother's Portrait" - Hawthorn-like story about a picture of a mans mother who continues directing his life from the grave. Overt symbolism.

"A Fallen King" - morality tale of a mans false-accusations of his wife fidelity that made him seem like the victim but in truth he was the perpetrator - when the truth comes out he is "a fallen king." Another twist to an old story.

"A Christmas Guest" - A sort of Dickens Christmas story about a town drunkard who reforms his ways and becomes a better person in the spirit of the season.

"Uncle Reuben" - the closest thing to comedy in this otherwise somber collection. A young boy dies by accident and for generations after in his extended family, whenever someone does something wrong they are reminded to be more like (or less like) uncle Reuben.
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The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag


Jim Corbett (1948)
Jim Colbert Omnibus
January 2010
Jim Corbett's second book, following his classic Man Eaters of Kummaon. In the first book, each chapter is a self-contained unit, concerning 1 tiger and Corbett's story how he hunted and killed it. Here it is an entire book about 1 man-eating leopard which took 10 weeks to track and kill in the foothills of the Himalayas. It has its moments, but I was not as enthralled with adrenaline as in the first book - perhaps the initial aura of Corbett has worn off. The final kill lacked the drama such a long hunt deserved. But heh, this is real life, not a novel, in that sense it's still the stuff of legend. Corbett's humanitarianism, respect for life and humble simplicity make him a pleasure to read.
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The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antartic Expedition in the "Fram", 1910-12


Roald Amundsen (1912)
Internet Archive
January 2010
The South Pole (1912) is Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's account of the first expedition to reach the South Pole and plant the "giant nail". He is most famous today as the foil or contrast to British explorer Robert F. Scott who died attempting the same journey at about the same time in a sort of "race for the pole". Much more has been written and sung about Scott whose story is very dramatic, while Amundsen's comparatively uneventful trip has mostly been forgotten. This is a shame because Amundsen is a model of preparedness, on how to do things correctly. It lacks the tragic aspect of Scott, but it has a secure feeling of confidence in the face of adversity, of a well made plan executed perfectly. After reading so many tragic Arctic and Antarctic explorer stories - Scott and Shackleton and Franklin etc. - what a delight to read about one that went well, no one died (or came close to dieing), and the goal was achieved.

As a literary work Amundsen's account is pretty good, it is vivid and never really bogs down in repetitive detail. Chapter 8, "A Day At Framheim" is particularly good. The snow-tunnel fortress will forever live in my memory. The sauna, the "crystal palace", the smell of American pancakes. The descriptions of the dogs are excellent.

If there is criticism, it is that Amundsen is somewhat aniseptic in washing out anything that would make him or the expedition look bad. As we learn in The Last Place on Earth, there was a serious problem between Amundsen and Johanseen (which eventually led to Johanseen's suicide in 1913), but it is completely excised from the book. One wonders what else was left out.

I read the book using two excellent sources. The original edition is available as a scanned PDF, which includes numerous maps and photographs that are indispensable. There is also a LibriVox audio-book version, from which I found certain chapters to be enjoyable read aloud.
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Bonjour Tristesse


Francoise Sagan (1954)
Ebook P8
January 2010
A French classic... if your able to identify with vaporous, bored, boring and careless people. Which includes apparently many readers, as the authors legion fans attest (her later novels were more of the same). In the 1950s, this sort of exotic life was chic and admired, but as a fantasy for suppressed adults who grew up in the depression and WWII. Ahh but for the post-war kids.. perhaps a better title would be `Because I Can: a coming of age novel for the up and coming me generation`.

The title could be translated as "Hello Darkness", and if that sounds familiar, the Simon and Garfunkel song "The Sound of Silence" is rumored to be based on the 1958 film version, directed by Otto Preminger.
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1066: The Year of the Conquest


David Howarth (1977)
Audio P8
January 2010
The events of 1066 AD cast a big shadow over the past 1000 years. It's easy to mythologize it, to portray the actors and period as heroic. In this popular history, Howarth resists the heroic tendency and rather brings it down to a personal scale in a believable way, sticking to the facts without going to the other extreme of academic dullness. The simplicity and directness of the people he writes about matches his writing style. Howarth has the feel of an amateur historian, but in the best sense, mixing professional practices with colorful narrative stories. Although the analysis often feels simple, it is expedient and reasonable given the lack of sources. History here has no overarching theory or grand design, it is a series of contingencies, one thing influencing the next. In the end, it was mostly "luck" that made William the Conqueror, according to Howarth. Although this is the most detailed account of 1066 I have read, some aspects Howarth missed entirely. For example, an arrow in the eye is medieval iconography for someone who has lied under oath. Howarth doesn't mention that Harolds death by arrow was probably apocryphal Norman propaganda. But it just underscores the question, what is better about 1066? The amazing things we know happened, or the myths and legends surrounding it.
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Selected Poems of John Clare Vol.1


John Clare (1820)
LibriVox
January 2010
David Barnes is one of LibriVox's best narrators (Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Oscar Wilde's Canterville Ghost and Gustave Flaubert's Three Short Works). John Clare is one of England's best poets of the 19th century. The two combined make for a wonderful listen. Clare's poems are like music (hear for example #16 "The Hedge"). The poems are short and reward multiple listens. To pick 4 favorites they would be (in no order): #15 "Woodland Thoughts", #5 "What is Life", #12 "Sudden Shower", #19 "An Idle Hour".

Selected Poems of John Clare, Vol 1 at LibriVox
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The Metamorphosis


Franz Kafka (1915)
LibriVox
January 2010
The Metamorphosis is one of the most analyzed stories in history, but still, you can't read it without wondering, What's this story about? Obviously it's a lot more than just an insect fantasy. I suspect Kafka was making fun of bourgeois [middle-class] values and life. This is why the literary establishment loves it so, because it challenges and provokes, it runs counter to the tides of prevailing culture (although mainstream now). The book itself can be seen as an insect.

Listened via the wonderful LibriVox edition by David Barnes.


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