Cool Reading V 2008

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

Reading journals from other years: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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The Cricket on the Hearth


Charles Dickens (1845)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20, Vol. III
December 2008
Dickens wrote 5 novella length Christmas Books, the most well known is the first A Christmas Carol. The third book, The Cricket on the Hearth, was in the 19th century as equally loved as A Christmas Carol. Today it has largely been forgotten. What happened? The plot centers on a blind girl who is sadly heart broken when her plans for marriage are thwarted - this would have been a familiar and even desirable outcome for Victorian readers who believed disabilities were inherited and thus the disabled should be kept from marrying for the sake of any unfortunate offspring. Today this is obviously no longer correct and even seems heartlessly inexplicable to the modern reader - as a result the book has become something of a forgotten period piece. However it is still an excellent story and well worth reading for other reasons: the Dickens characters, the scenes, the feel good ending. Unlike most of Dickens novels, there have been only a few adaptions to screen and stage. The NBC radio play from 1945 is horrendously bad, the plot is mangled beyond recognition and at only 25 mins hardly captures anything of the original. There are two silent film versions, but as far as I can tell there are no modern film adaptations other than a 50-min 1967 cartoon version which has poor reviews and doesn't appear the follow the plot closely. There was a stage adaption called Dot (1857) that was very popular throughout the rest of the 19th century but it is also now obscure. The Cricket deserves more attention despite its failings, the theme of adultery is well done and surprisingly frank, I was really moved by Mr. Peerybingle's grief and his night in front of the fire with the pixies. The scenes in the toy shop are classic Dickens and the final party scene is emotionally uplifting. Until a serious video version is made, which corrects the handicap aspect, it will unfortunately languish in obscurity, read mostly by Dickens fans.
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The History of Tom Jones a Foundling


Henry Fielding (1749)
hardcover, Random House 1960's
December 2008
Tom Jones was one of the first forthrightly fictional novels in English, where the author didn't try to frame it as a true story, such as Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe. I think the best way to appreciate it is like a connoisseur of early cars such as the Model-T. It has its own beauty and grace, yet is largely impractical by modern standards. It allows one transport to another age. It is fragile and delicate, yet full of a spirit missing in the modern world. The best way to enjoy it is to pretend you are a reader from the mid-18th century, and new vistas of understanding will come forth. History books often talk about the nature of the period as family oriented, locally oriented, manorialism, class distinctions - in Tom Jones it comes to living light, every page is a gold mine to understand the world just on the cusp of the Revolutions of the 19th century (political and economic). As a work of art its significance is hard to overestimate - Dickens for example was clearly influenced. As a narrative the length is difficult but makes the climaxes that much sweeter. As a writer Fielding was a genius, and knew so, and said so, and was right., his novel has become immortal.
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The Best Nature and Science Writing 2004


Steven Pinker (2004)
Hardcover first
December 2008
Another wonderful edition to the series. Pinker in his introduction says the best science articles "delight by instructing" and goes on to explain the lessons of each of the articles. Thus the Introduction adds a new dimension that some others in this series are missing, a master teacher explaining why some ideas are so important. After reading the Introduction last, I realized that the articles I didn't give much thought too were some of the most important, while the ones I thought were best were more lightweight. Such is the case when crossing minds with Steven Pinker. Although written in 2003, most of the articles have aged well, Pinker largely stayed away from topical hot button newsy articles.

My favorite articles include "The Bittersweet Science" in which Austin Bunn transports us back to the early 20th century and re-creates the period just before the discovery of the cause of diabetes and its cure insulin, a reminder of how lucky we are today. In "Desperate Measures" Atul Gawande takes us another trip into the history of medicine, profiling Francis Moore one of the most important surgeons of the 20th century whose seemingly reckless experimentation killed thousands and ultimately saved millions. In "Caring for your Introvert" Jonathan Rauch describes and explains the 25% of the population who would rather just be left alone most of the time, thank you very much, but does so lovingly and without judgment. In "Sex Week at Yale" Ron Rosenbaum attends a sex conference at Yale where he humorously observes academia off the deep end. In "The Cousin Marriage Conundrum" Steve Sailer explains that over 40% of marriages in Iraq are between first cousins, creating a social dynamic completely different from our own experience. This was the best article of the book as it has totally changed my perspective on the Middle East and Arab culture, very important and fascinating. Iraq is like the worst Appalachia county of inbred family fighting Hatfield and McCoys. Finally the most challenging article but also most mind expanding is "Parallel Universes" by Max Tegmark in `Scientific American`. He describes 4 theories on universes outside of the observable one. Somewhere out there in infinite space there is another person just like you.
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Ten Technologies to Save the Planet


Chris Goodall (2008)
paperback, UK edition, first
December 2008
This is an absolutely excellent overview of green/clean technology and solutions to global warming.

I thought I already knew a lot about clean technology through blogs, science news and other books - and Goodall is current with the latest news up to early 2008 - but there was hardly a page in this book I did not learn something new, or had my perspectives changed. This is not starry-eyed techno optimism, nor a pessimists dark vision. Goodall takes a sober non-ideological even-handed engineering perspective with lightly placed pronouncements on the viability of technologies, both good and bad, often convincingly overturning perceived wisdom and myth. The book would also make an excellent primer for anyone looking to invest in clean technology, it cuts through the hype and quickly gets to the bottom line of energy units and costs, and the risks. My copy is dogeared with some of the best specific products and companies to look into as investment potentials.

The chapter titles say a lot:

1. Capturing the wind
2. Solar energy
3. Electricity from the oceans
4. Combined heat and power
5. Super-efficient homes
6. Electric cars
7. Motor fuels from cellulose
8. Capturing carbon
9. Biochar
10. Soil and forests

Each chapter stands on its own and if your only interested in some the others can be skipped, but they are all fascinating. The author is British and it is written for an English audience, usually using British pounds and examples, but the US is mentioned many times and it is easy to extrapolate (many US companies are mentioned). It is very well written and easy to read.

Some examples of things in the book: because water is 1000 times heavier than air, underwater turbines harnessing tidal energy in places like Scotland and Canada have extremely "dense" energy potentials. And the technology, which is very simple, is already in place coming online at commercial scales soon. As well, wave power is a mature technology with big potential. Fuel cells for cars will probably never take off for reasons explained, but as electric generators in homes, it has a lot of potential. Carbon capture and storage, which I thought was pie in the sky, is actually a very viable technology up and working today in places in Europe. The book explains exactly how its done, and how it is stored underground.

Books like this, which are so specific, burn bright but quickly. Indeed it was written before the crash in oil prices in the second half of 2008, so it sometimes reads as if from another era. However, it is still valuable, and energy prices will inevitably rise again. It is a sort of testament to the need for government help in keeping new technologies afloat during the occasional oil price crashes.
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Jacob the Liar


Jurek Becker (1969)
Hardcover, 1975 trans.
December 2008
There are two English translations of Jacob the Liar. The first in 1975 by Melvin Kornfeld, and an "authorized" translation in 1996 by Leila Vennewitz, in conjunction with the author. I read the 1975 translation. I normally don't like to bestow "favorite" status on books since it's difficult to judge and compare such widely different works of art, but sometimes something just stays in my heart in a personal way that transcends, so I suppose this is one of my favorite books. It's a fable, a parable. It's funny, sweet and rings true in a way no other holocaust book I have read. The movie(s) don't do it justice, plot overlays that skip over the books inner life. Highly recommended.
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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders


Daniyal Mueenuddin (2009)
ARC Amazon Vine
November 2008
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders centers on various forms of romantic relationships between men and women in Pakistani culture. Along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is among the worlds most traditional societies. But it also home to a more globally oriented class, sometimes called "Third Culture Kids" because they grew up in two or more cultures mixing elements of each to form a unique third culture - indeed this very book is a product of a Third Culture Kid, Mueenuddin, who is an American citizen, but born in Pakistan and living there now. He offers both a glimpse into the traditional world kept behind closed doors, "in other rooms" - and the globally focused multiculturalism, or "other wonders". The contrast is striking, a search for identity as the traditional collides with the modern.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders has eight semi-linked short stories. Four are freely available online, a Google search will find: "Our Lady of Paris" (Zoetrope), "In Other Rooms Other Wonders" (New Yorker), "A Spoiled Man" (New Yorker), "Nawabdin Electrician" (New Yorker). The other four stories: "Saleema", "Provide Provide", "About a Burning Girl" and "Lily" are just as excellent, and it really makes sense to read them in the order Mueenuddin presents in the book (although not required). Some of the stories are more connected than others, it's a delight to find a minor character from one story expanded upon in a later. Two of the stories recount the same event from different perspectives, although strangely one is hardly aware of it happening, the discovery is like a flash of insight. Mueenuddin is discovering Pakistan's traditional identity, defining his own, and creating a third culture with a global perspective.
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The Earth: La Terre


Emile Zola (1887)
paperback, Penguin 1980 Parmee
November 2008
There are two English translations of La Terre, the first was by Henry Vizetelly in 1888, it is freely available on Internet Archive, Gutenberg and in later re-prints. Vizetelly was jailed for 3 months for indecency by uptight Victorians, but he really should have been jailed for the bowdlerizations. Luckily in 1980 Parmee made an excellent translation for Penguin Classics (The Earth), which, as of this review, is the most recent available. Amazon lists it as out of print but this is not accurate, it can still be purchased new (but apparently not on Amazon!). The problem is Penguin recycles it's ISBN numbers so the original 1980 Penguin edition is out print and the new 1990's edition (new cover, same otherwise) is not showing up in Amazon's database.

La Terre never entirely succeeds as Germinal did, the work most comparable. It is an ambitious book that could have been epic and one of his very best, but Zola tries to do too much and the energy is diffused. There are over 100 named characters, many with multiple names making at least 150 names, plus the many interrelated family relationships between each. This requires significant genealogical memory and the reward is not entirely satisfying. Zola was trying to recreate a whole rural farming village but aesthetically it didn't come together. Unlike in Germinal which has class struggle for a brighter future, there is no larger theme of social justice. The first 200 pages are slow, and the final 50 are like an antiquated picaresque Dickens novel with all the loose ends tied up in an epic single afternoon of action. However unlike Dickens there are no happy endings here!

On the positive side, it's Emile Zola. Zola is a genius at choosing and describing detail so the reader has a fair idea what "A Day in the Life of a Peasant" was like, and the book is worth reading for its anthropological aspects alone. It is comically scatological, which Zola did on purpose since the novel is about the earth (night soil, etc..), "dark humor" at its best, who knew Zola could be so funny. But this comes across a bit pejorative, highlighting the worst aspects of the rural and poor.

It's not a bad novel, but I don't think it achieved what Zola intended, and aesthetically isn't as fully realized as Germinal. If your a fan of Zola you will probably enjoy it, but not before some of his better known works.

While reading I wished I had a complete list of the characters. Afterward, I have found in an old book called "A Zola Dictionary" (1912) which I re-formatted for the web as The Annotated list of characters in Emile Zola's La Terre.
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A Day in a Medieval City


Chiara Frugoni (1997)
hardcover, first
November 2008
A Day in a Medieval City was first published in Italian in 1997 under a different title and translated into English in 2005. It is a touching tribute by a daughter to her father Arsenio Frugoni, an Italian Medieval scholar who died in a car accident in his early 50s. Before he died he wrote a short lively essay describing a typical day in an Italian medieval city between the 11th and 15th centuries. This forms the Introduction of the book. Chiara picks up from there relying mostly on pictures from the period to describe life in an Italian city - the big events such as birth, marriage, death - but also the mundane such as bathing, eating, reading, sleeping, etc..which in some ways are the most fascinating aspects since they are so familiar to us. The writing is a little encyclopedic but never boring, even though its a short book (177 pages of main text) it it not a fast read. The interpretation of medieval paintings is always fascinating since they are so loaded with iconography and the way stories flow through them, it's a visual story and this book provides the key to understanding some well known Gothic paintings. Only once did I see a mistake, regarding a rag held on a book to protect it from greasy fingers (pg.150) - this is actually something called a "Girdle book" (Wikipedia has more). There are pictures on almost every page. For this type of book, it is very good quality and has long often rewarding footnotes. I'd recommend it for anyone wanting to learn more about Medieval history at the ground level.
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Rabbit Hill


Robert Lawson (1944)
hardcover, first (borrowed)
November 2008
Rabbit Hill won the Newbery Medal for 1945. It's a short illustrated novel (by the author) about "small animals" living at a country crossroads near Danbury, Connecticut. An abandoned farmhouse is taken over by "New Folks" and the animals wonder will they be good neighbors or bad? Contains some racist content concerning Sulphronia the black kitchen maid (bowdlerized in post-1970 editions) and some strong Catholic sentiments regarding Saint Francis. It is overly sentimental, except the part where Little Georgie has trouble on the black top which is a moving scene. All these things I think makes it an interesting period piece but not a classic.
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2666


Roberto Bolano (2004)
hardcover, first
November 2008
2666 is a writers novel, best appreciated by academics (or so inclined) and other writers, often commenting on itself, the craft of writing and the creative process. For the average reader the ending lacks coherence, seemingly 900 pages of often depressing anecdotal tangents across time and location. It's a generous work in that regard, there are 100s of stories, within stories, most of them entertaining and worth reading, but characteristic of Bolano, they don't really "end" in any traditionally satisfying way - one doesn't read this novel to find out what happens - although paradoxically, mystery is what drives the book forward.

Bolano successfully breaks one of the basic rules of fiction writing - rather than showing what happens, he tells what happens, like a journalist. Thus he is able to say as much in one paragraph that others take in a chapter. Bolano says as much in 900 pages that might normally take 2500. He does not use line breaks and quotes for dialog (except in book 5), so there are often long blocks of text with no white space - it's a 900 page novel of high word count, but smooth reading. Ironically I never felt I was wasting my time, as if every detail mattered, even though I guess none of it did, all of it did.

The novel is certainly an investment of time and energy. I would recommend it to anyone interested in European avant-garde literature, Latin American literature, literature in translation and a sprawling kind of dreamy (strange) ambiguous work resistant to classification and open to interpretations.
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Say You're One of Them


Uwem Akpan (2008)
hardcover, first
November 2008
When psychologists treat childhood victims of trauma - war, violence or sexual abuse - they will often use props such as dolls or drawings to re-enact the event in a safe environment without judgment. These five stories are in a way voices of the child victims of Africa, told through the prop of fiction (a doll, a drawing), empty of ideological or political concern. Uwem Akpan has given nameless invisible victims a voice that is understandable and easily empathetical by people everywhere.

The title is a portmanteau. It can be read as "Say your one them", as in, when the bad guys come, say your one of them to save yourself. Or with a change of emphasis, it can be read as "Say.. you're one of them!" One is defensive and inclusive, the other is offensive and exclusive, the two meanings can be found in all the stories. In other words, Africa has many divisions, but it can also be made whole by finding a common humanity, if one chooses to see it that way.

This is a good book and I recommend it. If your short for time the two best stories are "Fattening for Gabon", about an uncle who sells his two younger family members into slavery. It's novella length but as the story slowly unfolds, it imperceptibly descends into a living nightmare, ending with a piercing scream that echoes forever. "My Parent's Bedroom" about the genocide in Rwanda has very powerful imagery that - like the scream in the first story - will haunt and become iconically associated in your mind with the traumas of Africa.
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Instant Expert: Collecting Books


Matthew Budman (2004)
Paperback
November 2008
Wonderful introduction to buying and selling books. Lots of basic info, good for anyone who buys even one or two used books a year.
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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam


Andrew X. Pham (1999)
hardcover first
November 2008
Catfish and Mandala announces itself as a travel book with the sub-title "A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape of Memory and Vietnam" however it transcends the genre by also examining the immigrant experience, the old world meeting the new, and the meaning of national identity. Andrew X. Pham (b.1967) was a "boat person" who came to the USA when he was 10 years old. This is the story of his return visit to Vietnam in the late 1990s.

Pham's account is not always easy going or even pleasant, he is living close to the earth and deals with some unsavory characters: prostitutes, down and out hippies, racists, disgusting foods and revolting hotel rooms, domestic violence, not to mention his almost continual bouts of sickness (graphically detailed) all combine to make it feel "unpleasant" at times. However this is the beauty of the work, to move the reader and sympathize with people very different from ourselves, to step outside our own life and experience and see the world from another perspective. Many of these more distasteful aspects are offset by Pham's sensual food writing - he was a food writer before becoming an author. Like the contrasts of taste, texture and temperature of a well designed plate, Pham balances his work between the dark and light.

This is Pham's first book and in some ways I think he tried too hard, he is still too young and in the middle of his "quest" to arrive at the kind of profundity the book seeks. He second book The Eaves of Heaven is his better, it is less fragmented and more compelling - although there have been many books written about Vietnam War it is one of the more important ones for its non-ideological perspective from a Vietnamese view. However both these books work well as a whole as they tell the story of two generations of a family; it probably works best to read The Eaves of Heaven first since it is the earliest chronologically, then move forward in time to the present with Catfish and Mandala.
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Treasure Island (Marvel Illustrated)


Roy Thomas (2008)
hardcover, first
November 2008
Marvel Comics has a new series of hardcover graphic novel adaptations of some classic books. Being a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson I picked up Treasure Island. The story is adapted by Roy Thomas, a heavy-weight in the comics world (Conan, X-Men, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, etc..) and line drawings by Mario Gully. Overall I found it a slick professional production and loyal to the original plot. There is no original Stevenson writing, it's been modernized in a sort of stereotypical stilted 19th century speak. The drawings are over the top, everyone looks like a professional body builder with freakish muscles and build, even old man castaway Ben Gunn is muscle bound. When they talk their jaws hang down to their chest, it's sort of over-done and doesn't make sense within a 19th century context. I really had a "kick" watching pirates fight like ninjas with over the head round-house kicks. All good stuff for kids, basically what this is made for. Still it was fun to re-visit Treasure Island again, the plot really is almost perfect. Probably my biggest complaint is I didn't like the artists interpretation of the characters.
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First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army


Peter Eichstaedt (2009)
paper advanced review copy (amazon vine)
November 2008
Africa is a mess of civil wars, dictators, genocides, corruption. How often we hear on the news of trouble in East Congo, Darfur, Rwanda. One little reported conflict is in the northern part of Uganda, where for the past 25 year or so rebel leader Joseph Kony has committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. He is ranked number one on the International Criminal Court's most wanted list, it is estimated over 1000 people die a week from the conflict. Kony started life as a poor illiterate village witch doctor, but soon became leader of the "Lord's Resistance Army", considered by his followers a prophet of God who will one day rule the earth with the help of the Ten Commandments - and machine guns. Through a perverse mixture of Christian and pagan African spirituality, he has created a self-perpetuating band of ruthless killers (mostly child soldiers) who terrorize the region of northern Uganda, southern Sudan and eastern Congo. Byzantine politics and extreme geography has allowed the conflict to go on seemingly with no end to the benefit of a few and the misery of millions.

Peter Eichstaedt is an American journalist who learned about the war while working in Uganda on other business. He decided to investigate further and spent years traveling and interviewing people from both sides, including a trip into the bush to meet the senior leadership of the LRA. Like most conflicts in Africa, it is complex and multifaceted. By reading this account - which is wide ranging from history to travel journal to witness stories - one is able to more fully understand not only this particular war, but other wars in Africa. Tribal loyalties, racial tensions, historical forces, poverty and corruption, child soldiers, remote and difficult geography, witch doctors -- are all part of the mix.

Eichstaedt does an admirable job in this journalistic report. The ending is not very satisfying for ones sense of justice. Kony is still out there in the bush, operating beyond the pale.
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The Pianist


Wladyslaw Szpilman (1999)
Hardcover first
November 2008
I don't watch a lot of movies (it cuts into my reading time!), but I did happen to see Polanski's film when it first came out. I experienced a total immersion into the Warsaw ghetto that has really had a profound influence on me. The story and images have stayed with me over the years, so I wanted to read the book. In this case Polanski's film probably captures a lot more of the atmosphere than the book, it really is a masterpiece of set and costume. Szpilman's book however is good at episodes. He is a master at visualizing symbolic set-pieces, it is a theatrical book moving from dramatic scene to scene. Starting with the child smuggler stuck in the hole in the wall and beaten to death by an unseen assailant on the other side (symbolic of innocent Jews caught by historical forces (the wall) and the anonymous nature of prejudice) - to the last scene where Szpilman finally emerges from hiding, but wearing a Nazi uniform and almost killed by his fellow Poles. There is an even a deeper geographical progression as Szpilman moves ever closer into the heart of evil, finally coming face to face at the end, where he finds redemption and forgiveness. It's as if these scenes were made for film or stage, but they are so unusual and original in the details, one has to assume they actually happened, or some combination of events seen, heard about and experienced into an artistically satisfying whole. It seems curious to me that although the book and movie are very popular, it is not discussed much in critical (academic) circles (that I can find).
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The Trumpet of the Swan


E. B. White (1970)
Audibook 4.5hrs
October 2008
I listened to the audio version (from Audible), read by E.B. White himself. I'm certain the audio version is better than reading the book, it's oral story telling at its best. White's soothing trombone voice, the trumpet sound effects, song renditions, characterizations, and his emphasis on the storyline converge into a wonderful heartwarming work of art.
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The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914


Philipp Blom (2008)
Hardcover first
October 2008
The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 is Philipp Blom's third book. I bought it on the strength of his former two, both of which are fantastic, and I'm happy I did - his ability to write engagingly on just about any time period is demonstrated here in what is probably his strongest book yet. Bloom's central thesis is that, traditionally told, the years leading up to WWI were overshadowed by the war - it was an idyllic "long summertime" of peace, an extension of the assuredly naive 19th century. However Blom reveals just about everything we think of as "modern" was already happening before the war, it was a time it was a time not of coasting, but of "machines and women, speed and sex," a disintegration of the old world without a clear vision of a new. Like a teenager getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, it was exciting and dangerous, a cocktail of fundamental social changes converging all at once. Technology of the car, movie, photo and electric light; class relations; women's roles, Freud; Eugenics; colonialism; modern art; cult of "manliness", etc.. all combined to create a fractured new world, where individuals don multiple identities no longer tied to tradition, and an endemic nervous vertiginous exhaustion flourished. Bloom crisscrosses the continent from Russia to England, from the Balkans to Sweden, each page a small feast of ideas, people and events. As a native of Vienna, Bloom commands a deep understanding of central European history in a way I have never seen before, revealing insights and people entirely new to me - it's a true pan-European perspective told with compelling prose.

Like the subject it describes, the book is fractured, moving between ideas, people, events, places and times - but Blom is nothing but orderly in his exposition of how things were related. Freud's theories for instance were mirrored by the political realities of the Austrian culture he lived in. Each chapter has a human interest "frame story" providing a smooth flowing narrative and Ken Burns-like feel for the time. There are ample quotations and fascinating black and white pictures, including a color plate section of modern art. It is a social history not only about the wealthy and intellectual elite, but the attitudes of the general public and zeitgeist of the many. A very long and up to date bibliography and notes section provides a lot more reading.

It's one of the better history books I have read, enhancing my understanding not only of the early 20th century, but its inheritor the present.
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Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)


Tom Vanderbilt (2008)
Audiobook (Abridged) 6hrs
October 2008
Full of great insights, not only into the externalizations of traffic, but my own internal psychological state of mind as a driver - I thought I was unique in many things but it turns out I'm like most other people. There are a ton of ideas and perspectives and I think it would take some time to fully absorb them, to drive and test them out in the real world, to observe the things described. Unfortunately I chose the audiobook version which is a poor choice for information-dense material since there is no pause in the pace and a lot of the material went by quicker than I could remember. However I did learn a lot and someday I might pick up the book as a reference to dip into here and there in smaller pieces. I really appreciated Vanderbilt's focus on people and human nature versus the more mundane things like chaos theory and mathematics. It's a challenging and powerful book if you use to question your own beliefs about yourself as a driver. Who knew a book about traffic could be so deep, or that driving could be so fascinating a subject.
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'Twixt Land and Sea


Joseph Conrad (1912)
various sources
October 2008
'Twixt Land and Sea (1912) is a collection of three short stories by Joseph Conrad. After a hiatus from sea stories Conrad returned to the great blue in this collection, much to the delight of his fans.

"Secret Sharer" is one of Conrad's best short stories in general, and without a doubt the best of the three. Although the action takes place aboard a ship, for the most part it is a symbolic journey of the discovery of self. A young untested Captain is faced with a number of challenges - morally, and as a skilled sailor - and is able to show to himself and the crew that he is a capable captain. In the end it is ambiguous if the Captain made the right choices - was he morally right or wrong in freeing an escaped murderer? Conrad leaves no solid ground to decided if it was the right choice or not, there are good arguments either way. Was it reckless to put the ship in peril by going to close to shore? Was it morally right to free a man who was essentially innocent, in effect choosing humanity over unbending law? The atmosphere of the story is creepy, almost super-natural, but Conrad remains firmly in the ground of realism, yet also employing symbolism in things such as the hat and scorpion. This combination of realism and symbolism is the very definition of Modernism and Conrad was at the forefront.

"Freya of the Seven Isles" is written as a melodrama, but Conrad doesn't follow the rules of the genre, he twists the ending; the evil guy gets away without repercussions, and the good guys pay a steep price for doing the right thing. It's an anti-melodrama. A very dark story and not very satisfying. The implication is that life is not a fairy-tale, stuff happens and no matter how hard we work, life can just turn out bad no matter what we do. I wonder if this sort of fatalism was common in the years leading up to World War I.

"A Smile of Fortune" is essentially the same idea as "Freya" but in reverse, sometimes bad things happen that turn out to be "fortunate". In this story a young man is blackmailed into taking a shipload of potatoes (a seemingly worthless haul), but when he arrives at his destination port, he discovers there is a potato shortage and ends up profiting greatly. The tricked becomes the trickster. In both of these stories the themes of fate and fortune have a long tradition in Medieval literature, making them essentially Romantic works, but with a Modern twist. Like the title suggests, between land and sea, the stories are somewhat of a mixture of styles, hybrid mutts, sort of like Conrad, a Polish expat writing in English.
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Pyramid


David Macaulay (1975)
Hardcover
October 2008
Pyramid (1975) is Macaulay's third book. It shows the building of a hypothetical pyramid similar in size to Giza. Unfortunately Macaulay took on a difficult subject. There is still controversy about how exactly the pyramids were built. The 4-ramp model shown in the book is just one of many ideas, and not even proven to work. The latest theory is described in Khufu: The Secrets Behind the Building of the Great Pyramid, involving a series of internal and external ramps (see this BBC article). Given this, it's hard to know what else in the book is accurate, or conjecture. Macaulay is at his best when he demystifies the world around us, but in this case the pyramids really are a mystery, and so it leaves the impression of inaccuracy. However we can probably assume some of it is right (the tools for example). Like all Maccaulay books, it's an enjoyable and impressive journey through history. Just don't rely on it as a blueprint for building your own pyramid!
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The Ebb-Tide


Robert Louis Stevenson (1894)
Oxford World's Classics pb "South Sea Tales"
October 2008
The Ebb-Tide was published in 1894, the same year Stevenson died suddenly of a brain hemnerage. It was a joint project with Stevenson's step-son Llyod Osbourne. It was the beginning of a new project to depict the Pacific in serious literature, to show the evils and contradictions of European colonialism. This had never been done before and it was a loss to the world with Stevenson's untimely death. It would have been a noble and important project, as Joseph Conrad would eventually demonstrate. The Ebb-Tide reverses the typical stereotypes and shows the Europeans to be uncivilized and the natives to be righteous and upstanding. Of course this all seems old hat now, but at the time it was a break from the norms that would eventually lead to post-colonialism, which is still ongoing to this day.

This story itself is very entertaining and has Stevenson's trademark psychological drama. The character of Captain Davis is particularly dynamic. The cockney language of Huish is priceless, right out of Dickens. Mr. Attwater is a bad-ass missionary, a sort of piratical devil in the clothing of the lord, operating in the wilderness beyond the pale of civilization., a prototype of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
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The Incredible Journey: A Tale of Three Animals


Sheila Every Burnford (1961)
Hardcover
October 2008
A classic children's book - or is it? Sheila Burnford (1918-84) has said she never wrote it to be a children's book, and indeed it's written in a very realistic manner - no talking animals here. The main theme is loyalty - pet loyalty to their masters, to one another, and human loyalty to animals. It's all very saccharin sweet. A more believable story would have shown the animals internal struggle between returning to the wild (going feral), versus the safety and comforts of remaining captive under human care (one of the great themes of literature). Alas, Burnford is not that kind of writer, and anyway Jack London did it best in The Call of the Wild. Interestingly though, Burnford did adopt London's technique of describing the dogs actions and mannerisms as a third party observer, and not delve into the animals thoughts (such as in Black Beauty). The more I think about it, the more London's influence seems apparent, Burnford is sort of like London's better half (who was somewhat dark). For what it is, the story is appealing, love conquers all, it was Burnford's most famous work and spawned at least 2 well known movie adaptations.
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The Painted Bird


Jerzy Kosinski (1965)
1983 hardcover
October 2008
Art can take many forms. Supposedly a holocaust novel, there is nothing corresponding to reality, Kosinski didn't experience any of the things described. Poland and the Polish people were not like he depicted (there's a reason it was banned in Poland). I suspect the only reason this was a critical success, back in 1965, is Kosinski rode on the back of Holocaust literature in order to write a shocker with no boundaries of sex and violence. It rings hollow and feels like a scam masquerading as high literature. Many of the scenes are seared into my memory, and about the best I can do is laugh. Perhaps that's what it is - black comedy - a sick satire.
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God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre


Richard Grant (2008)
PB, first
October 2008
British travel writer Richard Grant (who lives in Arizona) recently spent some travel time in the Sierra Madre mountains of northwest Mexico. It is home to narco gangsters, bandits, crippling poverty and general lawlessness. The murder rate in some areas is 10 times the worst American inner cities with some small villages completely wiped out in blood feuds (imagine Hatfield and McCoy). It is the Wild West and begins just 20 miles from the US border of Arizona.

God's Middle Finger is the type of book I call "Dark Tourism", intentionally going into the "World's Most Dangerous Places" simply for the thrill of it. Books like this let the reader feel better about their relative security and comfort, however they rarely capture what it's really like for someone living there. By foregrounding the dangerous and violent aspects for the sake of a rush, it's difficult to know if we are really seeing an accurate picture of what the people are really like, or rather seen through the eyes of a thrill seeking tourist. It's not my intention to be polemical because there are some positive things that can be said about this book. If your able to look past Grants adrenalin fueled focus on murder and gangsters, the book is a great way to learn about some of the history and people of the Sierra Madre region of Mexico; and the nature of the Mexican drug crime problem in general. It is sorely lacking a map, but I was able to trace some of his route using Google Maps, which combined with the satellite view, provides some visual measure of the extreme topography that has made it a favorite haunt of outlaws.

The book starts and ends with a high adrenalin frame story involving an encounter with bandits - I found it too good to be true, too novelistic, and too easily invented (relatives of Pancho Villa?) - we will never know but most of the book seems credible enough. Overall I credit Grant with stoking my interest in reading more about the region (there is an excellent bibliography). Many of the themes, in particular "honor cultures", can also be found in Deliverance, it's a good coda and a little closer to home for those fascinated by the dialectic between lawful society and honor cultures.
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Three Men in a Boat


Jerome K. Jermoe (1889)
Oxford World's Classics pb
October 2008
Three Men in a Boat (1889) came highly recommended from a number of "must read" type lists and so I had pretty high expectations which is always a bad start to a book. It's a comedy novel about 3 men who travel by small boat up the Thames River, based in part on a real trip Jerome had taken, but largely invented while sitting at a desk soon after his marriage at the prodding of his wife. It's sort of a satire of inland small boat traveling for pleasure first made popular by John MacGregor's A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe (1866) that by the 1880s had become all the rage. Another more famous example is Robert Louis Stevenson's An Inland Voyage (1878) - all of which can be seen as part of the increased leisure time among the middle class due to the industrial revolution and rising living standards resulting in more travel in particular in the outdoors. However those books are not comedy and Jerome uses the river travelogue/travelguide mostly as a stage onto which he casts his actors in a comedy of manners and British self-deprecation. It's one of the more overtly funny things I've read from the 19th century, although that doesn't include much. Since it involves so much in your face joking and physical slapstick, like Chaplin or The Three Stooges, it has aged well because matters of the body are timeless - some of the oldest recorded jokes in the world involve farting, which is not to say the book stinks. Rather it is an insight into the time, a look into manners and mannerisms of the late 19th century with an impishly boyish perspective.
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In Cold Blood


Truman Capote (1966)
Hardcover first
October 2008
An excellent piece of investigative journalism. Although called the first "non-fiction novel" I don't consider it a novel. To do so would suppose that journalism is objective, it is not, and anyway by most accounts Capote mostly got it right. It's gripping journalism, extremely well researched, and very American. The juxtaposition of Capote, a liberal New Yorker, among the conservative mid-westerners should not go unnoticed. It strikes a chord with the American paradoxical character of "the new" versus "stability"; change versus safety; the search for frontier versus authenticity; the fear of anarchy versus the fear of authority; liberal versus conservative. On the one side the ultimate in safety, security and authority is represented by the Clutter family - and on the opposite side the killers, younger and free, represent change, "the new" and anarchy. Capote instinctively tapped into this dialectic and became part of it himself as an upstart homosexual New Yorker in the middle of stable, secure and patriarchal Kansas. This sort of "meta" author mirroring the story is the real aesthetic and creative achievement that has kept it a classic while later "new journalism" works, characterized by their use of literary techniques applied to non-fiction, have rarely if ever exceeded Capote's initial genesis.
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Lost in the City: Stories


Edward P. Jones (1992)
hardcover, first, signed by author
October 2008
Lost in the City - a collection of short stories - is Edward P. Jones' first book, followed by the Pulitzer Price winning novel The Known World (2003), and All Aunt Hagar's Children (2006), a second collection of short stories. Both Lost and Aunt Hagar are about blacks in Washington, DC where Jones grew up in the neighborhoods he writes about. His stories are like mini novels with lush detail, multiple fully evolved characters and densely colloquial prose.

My favorite story is in the middle of the book, "The Store", it is the most uplifting and optimistic surrounded by stories of tragedy and sadness. It is about a poor boy done good by hard work and honesty. Other stories I thought were excellent include "The Sunday Following Mother's Day" about a husband who kills his wife for no reason, and the resulting years of failed relationships with his son and daughter. It's epic scope crosses generations of multiple people, but it is also grassroots, concerning people who are invisible to society. "His Mother's House" is about a street drug dealer and his relations with his family, it helped me better understand how families (mothers, fathers, sons) and the drug culture can intermingle ."A New Man" is a heartbreaking story of a 15 year-old girl who runs away from home and is never heard from again. Overall I would say I thought the stories in Aunt Haggar are better, more fully realized, longer, however these are still excellent.

The stories have a common theme surrounding an old colloquial saying "Don't get lost in the city". The word "lost" means having no direction, aimless, with no intention, and the stories are about people in that sort of jail-like state of mind, simply doing time with no direction home. It also means alienation, being lost is the opposite of family and home, all of the stories involve broken and dysfunctional families, coldness. Charles Dickens wrote about London and the poor of the 19th century, but his stories were the opposite of Jones. Instead of that "coming home to family" Christmas time spirit of Dickens, Jones invokes coldness, alienation, purposelessness. I hesitate to call Jones "anthropological" because it is also very aesthetically pleasing, but like Balzac did for Paris in the early 19th century and Dickens for London, Jones invokes the spirit of a time and place that, while not full of good feelings and happy endings, does speak truthfully. The last story of the book, "Marie", ends with an old woman listening to an audio oral-history and I think Jones is telling the reader how he sees his own work, a history of a people and place.
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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time


John Kelly (2005)
hardcover, first
October 2008
The Great Mortality is a synthesis of more specialized scholarly texts using some of the latest creative non-fiction techniques to make it more accessible for the general reader. Due to the nature of the sources, the Black Death is actually a very difficult subject matter to turn into a readable narrative - as so many failed past attempts can attest - and this is probably the best there is at the moment. Kelly covers the main themes: outbreak and origins, biology, depopulation, social and economic effects, persecutions, religion. There are end-notes (no in-line footnote), but oddly no bibliography, or no Further Reading, such as a list of modern literature about the Black Death.

Kelly makes some large leaps towards the end about the consequences of the Black Death, namely, by de-populating Europe, the Black Death ushered in the Early Modern Era with an emphasis on labor saving devices. Although this conclusion seems like common sense, it is problematic on a number of fronts - not the least being the Black Death was only one of many reasons for a demographic decline in the Late Middle Ages. As well, scholarship is actually divided if the Black Death really had any major consequences at all - it is one of the great questions of history. For the most part things just continued on as they had - the Hundred Years War took a short break then picked right back where it left off, etc.. Kelley doesn't question or go into all the finer details of his conclusions. It's very easy, too easy in a popular history book, to reach sweeping conclusions about the books subject matter "changed the world" (so many books have sub-titles to that effect), the difficult part is to prove it and I'm not sure Kelly has fully represented the scholarship. He does do an excellent job of representing the most recent debate about what caused the Black Death (plague or some other disease).

Overall I found the book highly readable, but nothing particularly new and some of the conclusions are sweeping in what was a very complex period. I've read much about it already in survey texts and encyclopedia articles, but Kelly goes into enough detail, with quotes from primary sources, to make it more tangible. If you want a "one book" on the subject without needing specialized knowledge of the Middle Ages this is probably the best there is.
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The Master of Ballantrae A Winter's Tale

Robert Louis Steveson (1889)
hardcover ca. 1950's
October 2008
The Master of Ballantrae is not one of Stevenson's better novels but I knew that before going into it. It's been sometimes described as "masterly", and since I've rarely read any Stevenson I didn't like, I gave it a try. The psychological battle between two brothers is the sub-text of this Scott-like epic historical tale with elements of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. However unlike Scott and Cooper, who had nationalistic designs, Stevenson's is a darker more inward looking story of psychology. The overall effect is strange and a bit sensational (ala Woman in White). Not to my taste, but I understand Stevenson was influenced by Scott growing up and wanted ultimately to write a series of Scottish historical romances that would help with Scotland's independence movement. But instead he wrote Ballantrae in the middle of winter (thus "A Winter's Tale") in the Adirondack Mountains of New York on his way to the Pacific, far away from Scotland, to which he would never return. Rather than a national epic it is an odd sort of genre-bending thriller probably best read today for the psychological struggle between two brothers.
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Night


Elie Wiesel (1958)
hardcover re-print
October 2008
Night has only slowly emerged over the years as the single most important canonical work of Holocaust Literature (perhaps shared with Anne Frank), reaching an apex in 2006 when Oprah chose it for her book club. It's a very short book, brutally direct and to the point, like the subject it describes. Yet it is not sensational. The problem is how does one write of significance about the Holocaust without being over-shadowed by the incredibly horrible specifics? Many memoirs suffer as "dark tourism" mired in the banality of evil. However Wiesel was able to elevate it to something even more important - spirituality, the nature of God and faith - like a beam of light cutting the darkness, he found both artistic expression and factual conveyance.
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George Washington's Rules of Civility


George Washington (1745)
Hardcover, leather bound
October 2008
George Washington's Rules of Civility was written by a young teenage Washington as part of a classroom assignment in 1745. He copied down, probably dictated by a teacher, the 110 "Rules of Civility". Rules range from the banal to the profound, from the peculiar to the universal. Some of the more entertaining include the age-old rule of double-dipping: If you dip your bread or meat into the gravy, do not do so immediately after biting a piece off.. while other rules reveal some thankfully forgotten habits: Bones, peel, wine and the like should not be thrown under the table...

This volume is edited by John Phillips and includes a fascinating investigation of the rules origins, going back through many authors and variations, originating with a Florentine Italian Humanist in the early 16th century. This type of book is part of the genre known as the Courtesy Book which were popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as ways for "new men" to enter polite society. Today books like this would be called self-help, although it is unfortunate the basic rules of civility are not longer part of standard education. This is a great little volume full of timeless wisdom. And the fact George Washington wrote it down at age 14 makes it all the more fascinating to connect the past in a relevant way with the present that I think many readers can easily connect with.
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Lapham's Quaterly Ways of Learning (V.1, N.4)


Lewis Lapham (2008)
first paper
October 2008
Each issue of Lapham's Quarterly is made up of many ingredients - introduction by Lapham, short quotes, historical selections, pictures, original essays - all on a common theme. How these ingredients hold together seems to be in part determined by the nature of the subject matter. For example in the last issue, The Book of Nature, I found the historical selections to be haphazard while the original essays were wonderful. In this issue, Ways of Learning, I found the quotes, pictures and historical selections - the main body of the journal - to be almost poetic in achieving Lapham's stated goal of letting the wisdom of the past speak to universal truths relevant to the present. In particular the choice of pictures and placement really sent a strong message that either I had not noticed in the past or the editors have improved their visual wit. At first I was a little skeptical of the subject matter, education, as being a topic that would gel well. But it turns out to be profound listening to great minds speak about education and learning, it really made me question, re-think and discover new things about myself and my approach to learning and education. Unfortunately the last section of original essays was weak, only one of six, by April Bernard was outstanding for me. Overall I would say this is my second favorite issue so far, behind States of War.
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Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley


Peter Guralnick (1994)
hardcover, first
October 2008
Last Train to Memphis (first of two volumes) is probably one of the best biographies about Elvis. It covers the early years from Elvis' birth in 1935 to his mothers death in 1958. The first couple chapters are about his childhood, but the majority of the volumes length are about the first five years of his professional career from July 1953 to September 1958. It's a very readable and often gripping account by a self-avowed Elvis fan - Peter Guralnick - who wanted to present Elvis as a normal person and not a mythological characture. Guralnick says up front he does not analyze or interpret Elvis but leaves it to the reader to find their own interpretation; so, right away we know this is not a scholarly book or serious attempt at understanding and interpreting Elvis, but a well-told narrative of the events of his life, akin perhaps to a well done History Channel or PBS show.

Probably the most compelling question the reader will have about Elvis' early life is how and why he became so successful. Elvis once explained his success in response to a question asking if he was lucky, "I've been very lucky. I happened to come along at a time in the music business when there was no trend. The people were looking for something different, and I was lucky. I came along just in time." Of course Elvis also had a genius for giving people what they wanted, as the above answer reveals, Elvis was a mirror who could mold himself to be whatever people wanted. True to his word, Guralnick never really discusses why Elvis became successful, but my own interpretation is that he was the right person at the right time at the right place, a combination of luck, talent and hard work. It was a matter of contingencies. Elvis was known as the cross-over artist, but cross-over was in the air, if it hadn't been him it would have been someone else - although probably combinations of many artists over time, instead of so much talent in one person at one time and place.

I'll be honest, I'm not an Elvis fan. I don't dislike him, just neutral, although after reading this I'm more sympathetic, he just wasn't part of my generation or my parents. There is no doubt he was a major talent, not to mention key figure of 20th century world history, which is why I wanted to learn more about him. I had many questions about his early life and rise to fame which were mostly answered in the first 150 pages or so. After that it became a little tedious reading about concert performances, snakelike handlers and the recording industry, and so I stopped reading around page 220, or in 1955. By then Elvis was on the express train his success was assured, there were too many people invested in seeing it happen, the machine was in motion. What I missed, however, was the interpretation and analysis by Guralnick to better reveal who Elvis was, he still felt remote to me.

Note: there is a wealth of material on YouTube about Elvis including early recordings and rare video before he became famous making it a richer documentary experience when combined with reading the book. Search YouTube for "Elvis 1954".
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The Best American Comics 2006


Harvey Pekar (2006)
hardcover, first
September 2008
I read a lot of books and try to be as inclusive of as many genres as possible, and so this marks my first entry into the world of modern comics, something I've been hearing about for a long time but never looked into before now. My three favorite comics from the book are "La Rubia Loca", "Recollection of Seduction" and "Walkin' the Street" (the last by Robert Crumb, the only artist I recognize). I like this trio because they are about real people, real human emotions told as a compelling memorable narrative.

The Best American Comics 2006 is the inaugural volume in a new Best American series. I'm a regular reader of other Best American titles, such as the Essays, and Science and Nature. Based on reviews on Amazon from readers with a lot more comic experience than I, this is not considered a great collection. The 2007 issue is supposedly better and I may try that one next. The book can be a good value - attractive 8x11" hardcover with partial cloth spine and full-color interior - it is going for cheap on the used market, I bought my copy for $4.
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Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays


David Foster Wallace (2005)
hardcover first
September 2008
It's a shame it took Wallace's untimely death to remind me I had not yet read the Lobster book. I read Supposedly Funny Thing a few years ago and was blown away. Reading Wallace the world is new again, I'll never see the things he describes the same again. He can write about any subject in any genre (book review, political journalism, tourism, etc..) and set a new standard of what is possible. Even if the subject matter is arcane or mundane, you still end up learning huge important universal things, it almost doesn't even matter what the subject of his essays are about, they are all just profound. I can't help coming away after reading Wallace feeling like my IQ has improved by a few points. The old saying, books are the company you keep. It is no wonder his death has affected so many. It's a terrible loss, an authors most productive years are often in their 40s-60s, Wallace was just getting started, but he was productive, and there is a lot to be thankful for.

The most memorable/important essays for me include "Up, Simba" in which Wallace was a journalist attached to John McCain's 2000 Presidential campaign. In "Big Red Son" he covers the adult video awards ceremony in Vegas. In "Authority and American Usage" he writes a novella-length book review of a dictionary - probably the greatest and most informative book review I have ever read, and which made me want to buy the dictionary and raised my interest in linguistics in general (although Wallace does that in all his essays).
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The Best American Essays 2000


Alan Lightman (2000)
Paperback
September 2008
This is my second volume from the Best American "Essay" series. Out of the 24 essays or so only 6 stood out enough to mark them for later re-reading. I guess after 8 years since its publication some feel dated or not as relevant, but it's also possible to get a broader perspective of what has lasting value.

My six favorites are William Gass' "In Defense of the Book" (Harper's Magazine) which poetically describes the many ways books are superior to digital. This is a common theme among many writers but Gass approaches it in a new and original perspective, and without being Luddite. In Richard McCann's "The Resurrectionist" (Tin House) he describes what it was like to loose a kidney and have a transplant, I was really moved by his heroic fortitude and truth of experience. Peter Singer in "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" (New York Times Magazine) lays bare the ethical delima of rich nations and poor nations on a very personal level. He posits, what would you do if you could save a child from being hit by a train by sacrificing your car in its path (which contains all your worldly goods). Likewise he provocatively suggests individuals from rich countries should be sending excess wealth - beyond basic needs - to those in the poor countries. The essay "Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain" (Creative Nonfiction) is a fascinating first-person essay by Floyd Skloot who has a serious brain injury. He describes its effects both in an external social sense and inner self. Cheryl Strayed in "Heroin/e" (Doubletake) writes about her mothers death from cancer and her own subsequent degeneration into a serious heroin addiction. A dark, sad and aesthetically beautiful piece. Andrew Sullivan in "What's So Bad About Hate?" (The New York Times Magazine) discourses on what exactly is a "hate crime" and concludes there is no such thing, every person is motivated by complex inner motivations and not an external single emotion. Similar to the "war on terror", the "war on hate" is a war on an emotion that is misplaced and causes more problems than it solves.
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McTeague: A Story of San Francisco


Frank Norris (1899)
Paperback (Penguin)
September 2008
Frank Norris (1870-1902) is comparable with other turn of the century American writers such as Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser and Harold Frederic. Like Crane he died at a young age (32), but not before producing an impressive body of work that anyone twice his age would have been proud of. He is best known for three novels: McTeague: (1899), Octopus (1901) and Vandover and the Brute (posthumously published 1914), the last critically his best. All three are now in a single volume by the Library of America ensuring Norris a place in the American literary canon.

Norris was mainly influenced by Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. McTeague, written while Norris was in college taking sophomore level grammar classes on how to write, was a conscious attempt at bringing the "European style" of Zola, in particular Zola's masterpiece L'Assommoir (1877), to American literature. With its focus on the poor working class who "degenerate" into alcohol, sex, violence and greed - it was thought poor people were naturally (genetically) disposed to these vices - Norris copies and imitates Zola's Naturalism, but set in the city of San Francisco. Critics generally hated it and saw it as cheap genre titillation of the sense hardly worthy of review, but a few saw it as groundbreaking.

Norris is incredibly easy to read, he was originally a journalist and wrote simply to get the facts across, considering himself an "anti-stylist" without using complex sentences or fancy words. His intention was to get to the truth of the thing and such a simple writing style is very effective aesthetically for the novels subject. At the same time it lacks the depth and scope of Zola; the characters often feel contrived and one-sided, the secondary characters are right out of Dickens complete with sentimentality which jars with the Realism. The novel starts out slow but picks up pace in the last third, maintaining a gripping narrative up to the surprise last sentence that left me hooting for joy.

Norris had seen early cinema and many of the scenes are described in a way that is reminiscent of early film. McTeague had such an impact on director Erich von Stroheim that he made it into an epic 10-hour long film Greed (1924), the most exspensive film ever made at the time, today it is one of the most famous films in history.
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Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World


Andrew Rimas (2008)
Paperback (Amazon Vine ARC)
September 2008

The sub-title of Beef hints of an "untold story". Actually, it turns out, there is not a single story, but many stories, each from 1 paragraph to a few pages long. These wide ranging mini stories, encyclopedic snippets really, are categorized into chapters along chronological order, from pre-history to the present. Such a presentation, without a central narrative, would not hold many readers attention, so the authors also took some trips to exotic locations and weave in travel tales related to beefy places and people. This is a standard creative non-fiction technique commonly found in books like Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History although the overall effect here is muted because there is no "mystery" to create tension. We also get some recipes, including how to make cheddar cheese.

The last chapter of the book is the best, from the 20th century to the present. It suggests the current industrialized methods of raising beef are unsustainable and the future will see changes. The earlier chapters about the history of beef are interesting, but prior to the 19th century, I found it somewhat meandering. It's not a scholarly or definitive treatment. I noticed a few mistakes; the authors use the term "Dark Ages", which has been largely deprecated by medieval historians; and they mistakenly use "sweetmeat" to refer to offal.(*)

Sort of like how a cow is made up of many cuts of beef, Beef is a a number of styles and techniques weaved together. History, travel, journalism, recipes. Some parts are more interesting than others, and it will largely depend on what the reader already knows and is interested in. It's a short book that can be read easily in a day (or cross USA plane trip).

(*) Sweetmeat is bread, sweetbread is meat. Strange as it sounds, the Oxford English Dictionary confirms it. Since I am reading an Advanced Readers Copy, this may be corrected in the final edition.
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The Best American Travel Writing 2006


Tim Cahill (editor) (2006)
Hardcover
September 2008

I bought this anthology based on the strength of its user reviews on Amazon and LibraryThing, plus my positive experiences with another title in the series The Best American Science and Nature Writing. However I had serious trepidations, after all isn't modern travel writing mostly just light touristic pieces found in Reader's Digest or the local newspaper, barely hidden attempts at selling us packaged vacations? Was I ever wrong and pleasantly surprised, the 2006 collection turns out to be one of the best books I've read this year. There are 26 essays and not one is bad, they are all fantastic and at least 4 of them are classics. Normally in anthologies like this I'm happy when a third are favorited enough to mark the page for re-reading later, but here it's almost 100%; marking the pages is superfluous.

The guest editor for 2006 is Tim Cahill, founder and editor of Outside magazine, so it is perhaps not surprising that, as a professional editor of a magazine that caters to travel writing, he was like a Saudi Sheik with unlimited funds on a shopping spree in Paris, able to pick and choose from the best the world has to offer, the only limit being 320 pages. But how does he pick the "best"? "In choosing pieces for this anthology", he says, "I've looked for the best stories I could find", [emphasis added] - clarifying what he means by story, "if I can't find a story, I often feel I'm being beaten over the head with an encyclopedia. Stories are the sole written instrument that can bring tears to our eyes, or make us laugh.. and they are more fun to read. Story is of the essence. " This collection then is a testament to Cahill's ideal of travel writing as story, and it succeeds brilliantly. Cahill also posits that America is currently in a "Golden Age" of travel writing and after reading this collection I might agree.

If you read only one travel writing anthology this would be an ideal place to start. Even if your not interested in travel writing as a genre, most of these pieces were not written as strictly travel writing, or for traditional travel magazines. The articles are mostly by well established and known journalists and novelists and non-fiction authors in top-tier magazines like National Geographic, The New Yorker, GQ and others. I look forward to reading more from this series, but based on admittedly shallow investigations of user reviews, none of the other volumes in the series look as good as this one. Perhaps 2005 was just a very good year for travel writing, perhaps Cahill has an unusually good talent for picking the best articles, or perhaps since this is my first experience with the series, and my initial low expectations - whatever the case this volume will be revisted in later years and has earned a satisfying place on my bookshelf.
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Letters From My Windmill


Alphonse Daudet (1869)
Paperback (Penguin)
September 2008

Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) was one of the most popular French authors of the last decades of the 19th century. He was a peer of Emile Zola and read and appreciated by Charles Dickens and others. Today he is almost entirely forgotten. Soon after his death his work suffered some serious criticisms, and it has only been recently that scholars have begun to restore his reputation. He was from Provence in southern France and before he became an accomplished writer he was as a charismatic oral storyteller with a looming presence, long fingers and thick beard that could entrance an audience. Thus reading him today his style can seem antiquated but when heard through the voice of a storyteller it has more resonance. Apparently his writing is very difficult to translate because of his heavy use of poetic styles and slang terms, and I do believe much has been lost in translation.

Lettres de Mon Moulin (1869) is one of his earliest and considered one of his best. It is an anthology of newspaper pieces he wrote in his 20s about life in Provence. Mostly it is recounting local legends, ghost stories, humor and encounters with local characters, embedded with extra flourishes to give the tales a little more punch to make up for what would have been more dramatic told in person. They are framed by the first story which tells how Daudet found an old abandoned wind mil and set up there in a picturesque surrounding to write the stories. The stories are generally short, enchanting, naive and innocent bliss that captures some of the romance of Provence and 19th century life before modernization.
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The Bridge Over the River Kwai


Pierre Boulle (1952)
Hardcover
September 2008

The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1952) is a short genre WWII adventure tale loosely based on real events. Its literary virtues, self-conscious and formulaic, can be attributed to Joseph Conrad's influence (Boulle's favorite author), in particular the novel Lord Jim (1900), about Victorian moral certitudes within a crumbling colonial empire, the ridged view of the system being more important than the individual - old ground for the the modernists by the 1950s. Boulle was French, and the character Colonel Nicholson was based on two actual French officers Boulle had known while in the military - but Nicholson was an old stereotype, more appropriate in World War One, by World War Two he was an anachronism and would never risen to the rank of officer in the British army, at least not without being killed by his own troops.

Boulle is best known as author of Planet of the Apes (1963) and Bridge oddly foreshadows it with a quote about the Japanese: "Monkeys dressed up as men! The way they drag their feet and slouch around, you'd never take them for anything human." He would transfer the relationship between Japanese soldier and Allied prisoner into the future exploring issues of morality between master and slave, man and animal. In the end Boulle is Conrad-light, a generation or two late, with a talent for ironic racism. Excellent movie adaptation as a sheer thriller but looses the depth, what there is.
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The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea


Sebastian Junger (1997)
Hardcover
September 2008

The Perfect Storm started out as an article in Outside magazine, where Junger was an occasional free-lance contributor, although his day job was a lumber jack and waiting tables. When he wasn't slinging an axe or chops, he expanded the original article into a book, his first, published in 1997 when he was about 34 years old. It did well on the New York Times list and quickly went on to a big-budget star-powered movie. The natives of Gloucester, the New England fishing town at the center of the story, gave it a positive reception, which for Junger was its highest praise. In fact it made some of them famous, Linda Greenlaw went on to write her own book The Hungry Ocean.

Stylistically the success of the book is remarkable because the final moments of Andrea Gail, the climax of the book, are a mystery. Jungler says it was "journalism by analogy". But the effect works well by lending the account authenticity while engaging the readers imagination to fill in the blanks, making it all the more terrifying. In addition it lends a great deal of sympathy and compassion to the friends and relatives of the dead, who also live with the unknown and terrors of the minds eye. Most non-fiction authors would have no problem interjecting some fictional dialog or scenes to make the book more readable, but it would have been a lie, the truth is unknown and it showed a great deal of integrity on Jungers part to take the high but more risky and difficult road.

Of course the book is about the storm, and not just the Andrea Gail. Probably the most riveting part of the book concerns the Air National Guard helicopter that forced landed in 100 foot seas. The details of this are well documented and Junger is thus able to sustain a strong narrative without falling back on tangents, or "analogy," as he does in the Andrea Gai story - which happens to make up four-fifths of the book. Thus some of the most popular complaints by readers is that it doesn't flow well and has awkward anecdotal tangents breaking up the storyline. However for anyone with a natural curiosity with how things work (fishing, boats, rescue), this type of braided narrative - common in creative non-fiction these days - is perfectly normal.

Overall I'm impressed with the books integrity and compassion. The writing is workman-like, dense like a magazine article but not stylistically original, except for the effective use of journalistic analogy to tell a story.
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Siddhartha


Hermann Hesse (1922)
Hardcover
September 2008

Much has been written from a spiritual and literary view about this famous 1922 book by Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse. I will look at it from a historical context perspective. Hesse was born in 1877 into the generation immediately after the German victory of the Franco-Prussian War. Think of the generation in America born after WWII, or in England after the Napoleonic Wars. It was a generation full of bright futures and expectations, Germany would at long last fulfill its destiny on a global stage. As it turned out it was this same generation that lead Germany into the misery and defeat of WWI (1914-17) and the dream and future died in the slaughter of the trenches. So it was in the aftermath in 1922 Hesse the philosopher became popular with Germans with his introspection and inward looking examination of what life really meant, what is really important. The outer world had defeated Germany and it would find strength and solace by looking inward. Perhaps it is not surprising that another generation resonated with this same message of rejecting the outer world and embracing inner vision, the counter-culture of America in the 1960s, when Hesse's book first became widely read and known in English speaking countries.
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A Year in Provence


Peter Mayle (1989)
Paperback
September 2008

Mayle's vision of Provence is pure fantasy. It's true, the details of food and weather and habits are accurate, but it rings of 19th century English colonial patriarchy. The French "peasants" are portrayed like happy go lucky children living in a Romanticized garden of Eden uncorrupted by the real world of London and Paris. Mayle is the benevolent Patriarch in contrast to the towns cast of cartoonish personalities (it's no accident this book was adapted to a comedic TV series). If it was a novel at least there would be a plot, but instead it's a faux anthropological survey with Mayle studying the life and habits of local natives and imparting information for those back home who wish to follow his colonial ambitions (Mayle was in advertising). Its been said travel writing is stuck in the 19th century and this is a prime example of the genre with a modern voice. The book has been very popular - it really is very enjoyable at a certain level - but believing the fantasy and traveling there expecting a similar experience is being complicit in a form of modern day colonialism. Mayle apparently has since left Provence because the town changed - one can only imagine why.

With that said I enjoyed reading about Provence and plan to read Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de mon moulin or Letters from My Windmill published in 1869 - it is beloved in France and offers perhaps an authentic French perspective on the region just before modernization.
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Penguin Island


Anatole France (1908)
Hardcover, boxed
September 2008

I only read the first 177 of 324 pages - I'm not a huge fan of old satires when the historical context is unclear, I'm reading the words but not really understanding, it's an in-joke with me on the outside. The first half was a lot of fun because I knew European history enough to understand the allegories and allusions . The second half of the modern period is beyond me and tiresome. One day I may return to finish when I have more context.
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The Hoksinson Festival


Helen E. Hokinson (1956)
Hardcover
September 2008

Helen E. Hokinson (1893-1949) was a cartoonist for The New Yorker from about 1925 to 1949. She died in a plane accident at age 55 cutting her career short at the height of popularity and leaving many despondent fans. Her cartoons, collected in this volume, are of her trademark "dowagers", or late middle aged women typical of the period, denizens of woman's clubs, beauty parlors, art galleries and summer resorts. They are "full figured", wear funny hats, and the sins of the flesh tend to the dietary. She called them her "Best Girls".

Hokinson is mostly forgotten today, she was the product of a generation that has mostly passed away, and with woman's liberation, her work is no longer politically correct. Yet there is something warm, timeless and appealing, sort of like the soup grandmother used to make. It certainly brings back fond memories of my grandmother, and helps explain some of my mothers own tendencies as she moves on in years. A great collection of a forgotten but beloved artist.

It should be noted that James Reid Parker was a "silent collaborator" with Hokinson, he dreamed up the situations and wrote the captions to Hokinson's drawings.
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Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora


Pierre Berg (2008)
Paperback (Vine/ARC)
September 2008

Scheisshaus Luck belongs on a groaning haunted shelf labeled "Holocaust Testament". Most are by Jewish survivors, but Scheisshaus is unusual because it is by a "gentile" (non-Jewish) French boy of about 17 years old who was accidentally caught up in the Nazi death machine. Pierre Berg's account of Auschwitz is fairly unique. His style of writing is one of cynicism and religious irreverence with romance, sex, humor and a young mans rebellious spirit that keeps him alive. This as not great literature like Elie Weisel or Primo Levi, but the story is gripping and compelling, I had trouble putting it down as it smoothly moves from one death defying incident to the next. As a story of survival it is remarkable, but sadly not uncommon for the time. The scenes in the wars aftermath during the Russian occupation of Germany are fascinating, in particular the descriptions of the Russian army as a motley horde of mixed Asian steppe races moving into Eastern Europe, the great ancestral fear of Germany come to pass through their own doing. Berg's imprisonment lasted only 18 months but by the end it feels like a lifetime has passed, the reader has aged years along with Berg, a sense of transition into a new era of innocence lost.
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006


Brian Greene (editor) (2006)
Hardcover
September 2008

As usual with this series, I learned a lot in the 2006 edition.

In "Dr. Ecstasy" I learned about Alexander Shulgin who, in a Frankensteinian laboratory in his home in CA, has single-handily created over 200 psychedelic compounds, including ecstasy. In "My Bionic Quest for Bolero" a deaf man describes his quest to restore his hearing with cutting edge "bionic" ear implants (this article became a book: Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World). In "Show Me the Science", the ever fascinating Daniel C. Dennett shakes his head at the anti-science movements and their techniques, notably the "intelligent design" crowd, but just as easily applicable to global warming deniers, Holocaust deniers and anyone with a political agenda that is at odds with science. In "Buried Answers" I learned about the business of autopsy and how important they are and how rarely they are performed these days.

"Conservation Refugees" is probably the most important article of the book. Mark Dowie introduces the concept and term "conservation refugee" and it since become more commonly used with this article a sort of genesis. Conservation refugees are (usually) native people who have been oppressed or expelled from their traditional lands after those lands have been put into conservation, usually by one of the big NGO's such as the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International. The result is the growing recognition that "wild" lands can not be left barren of people, that humans play an integral part of nature.

"The Mummy Doctor" is a great human interest story of the worlds leading expert on the dissection of mummies. The graphic descriptions of organs like cardboard and smells are priceless. In "Out of Time" I went on a journey into the Amazon and lived with a small band of dangerous head-hunters with little contact with the outside world. In "Buried Suns" I learned about the underground nuclear testing in Nevada.

These are my favorites, there are more, most of which can be read online at The Online Index to The Best American Science and Nature Writing Series.
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The Analects of Confucius


Burton Watson (trans,) (479 BC)
Hardcover
August 2008

I found the 2007 translation by Burton Watson to be highly readable. I know nothing about Confucius or even Chinese history but still found many valuable passages. It is easy to see how this (and I presume other Confucius texts) could form the ethical foundation of a culture, not unlike the Bible or Tora and other sacred texts. It's even more remarkable for being secular and not mythological based, which lends it even greater credibility, at least for this modern reader. Its emphasis on "humanity" can never go out of style. Considering its age this is certainly among the greatest books of world literature.
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Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides


James Boswell (1785)
Hardcover, 1936 unedited edition
August 2008

In 1773 James Boswell (age 33) convinced his older friend Samuel Johnson (age 64) to go on a 4 month tour of Scotland. Boswell took on the role of tour guide and confidant introducing Johnson to the "lairds" and "chiefs" of Boswell's native Scotland. For Johnson, it was his first trip outside of England. They each wrote a travel book, with Johnson focusing on Scotland, and Boswell on Johnson.

Boswell's Tour is something of a literary breakthrough. At the time it was not considered good manners to be too specific about ones personal habits but Boswell often talks about seemingly mundane things that for a modern reader would seem normal in a travelogue but for the day was scandalous. Boswell repeated conversations with well known figures that didn't portray them in a glowing light and this resulted in years of tit-for-tat newspaper editorial attacks and defenses. Later editions would include letters, apologies and defenses. Today with all the personalities long dead it seems like a Hollywood tabloid. In the context of the times, Johnson and Boswell were seen by some critics as outsiders gatecrashing the establishment - Johnson was a provincial "hack" as one Londoner called him, and Boswell was Scottish, damning enough on its own, but with a personal reputation as a "rouge" (ladies man) and heavy drinker (demons that would follow him to the grave). However their reputations as towering figures of the Enlightenment would soon be solidified, further increasing the popularity of this book.

As a work of literature Boswell's account is warm and endearing. Johnson and Boswell are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively. Boswell at once mythologizes Johnson hanging on his every word, a great master who can say no falsehood, and at the same time makes him into a lovable blundering traveler. Certainly Charles Dickens' Mr. Pickwick of the Pickwick Papers was influenced by Boswell's Johnson. As travel literature Boswell's observations of Scottish life are valuable. Boswell had an excellent memory and kept a daily diary so we have very exact details of food and conversation, although Boswell did not think much of scenery or geography.

Tour to the Hebrides was a best-seller from its first publication and is still widely read. Its influence is probably hard to quantify, it was partly responsible for popularizing the English tradition of traveling to Scotland which would be so common among the literary set in the late 18th and 19th centuries (and to this day). One can only wonder how many travelers have re-traced Johnson and Boswell on a literary vacation. In the early 20th century a cache of Boswell's unpublished papers were discovered in a castle, among them the complete unedited manuscript of the Tour. This was published in 1936, it is substantially different, with many passages cut from the original restored, it is the better and recommended.
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Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home


Nando Parrado and Vince Rause (2006)
Audibook (10+hrs), Hardcover first ed.
August 2008

I just finished reading Piers Paul Read's Alive (1974) a few days ago, and so fresh with names, maps and time lines, I had high hopes Miracles in the Andes would add a new dimension to this amazing story. Unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed, all the more so given the generally good reviews Miracle has been getting. It is perhaps inevitable in the shadow of Read's classic masterpiece that anything else will pale in comparison. The re-telling of events from Parrado's perspective is interesting but misses a lot - for example he was in a coma the first three days of the accident - and he doesn't seem to add much that is new to Read's version - which almost without exception is better told.

Beyond a retelling of the events, I had hoped Parrado would reveal something new about himself and the other survivors, but instead if often read like hagiography, glossing over the differences among the group to show them as united friends, discounting and minimizing character defects. It reminds me of how the Catholic Church writes history of saints, and it is probably no coincidence that the survivors were from Catholic backgrounds, and saints in the minds of true believers who saw the hand of God at work in this "Miracle in the Andres". I was hoping for a more in depth psychological examination of the survivors, a sort of personality x-ray to bring them to life, to intimately know them as friend or brother. Instead there is a polite respectful distance, which is frustrating, given the intimate nature of the experience.

Despite these sentiments I still recommend the book to anyone who has read Alive. Parrado's inner struggle with life and death - while not exactly original or new - is profound and worth the reminder of what is important. There are also new pictures, and an Epilogue with brief bio's of what happened to the survivors after the rescue to the present day. Whatever the faults, as the men age, and the myth grows, more books and films will appear to hopefully peel back more layers behind the "Miracle" in the Andres. But Alive remains the best book of this disaster and it is hard to imagine it ever being replaced.
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The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World--Why They Work and How to Bring Them Home


Daphne Miller (2008)
Hardcover, first
August 2008

The Jungle Effect is what Dr. Miller noticed when her San Francisco practice patients went on a "native diet". Unlike typical Western diets, which caused her patients health problems, when they switched to native diets - traditional foods from native cultures - their health improved, often dramatically. To learn more about native diets, Dr. Miller visited places such as Iceland, Nigeria, Crete, the Amazon, Okinawa to discover what they are doing right. Thousands of years of human trial and error, according to Dr. Miller, have selected for the best diets for human health and longevity.

Dr. Miller is not new in this approach. Dr. Weston A. Price in the 1930s saw the same thing and today there is a large and active community of native nutritionists surrounding Price and his legacy (see Sally Fallon's classic Nourishing Traditions). However Miller's book does offer some new and interesting perspectives. She actually traveled to native regions and sampled the foods and diets, and this makes for fascinating reading in an up to date journalistic human-interest story style. She dispels the notion that genetics plays a significant role, suggesting that anyone of an ethnic background can adopt any native diet (eg. a European can benefit from an Okinawa diet). Finally, she suggests food is more than its parts, each dish is symbiotic, so it is important to eat the entire food way, not just its elements. For example olive oil is good, but best in combination with the entire Mediterranean diet. Oddly enough, she also recommends mixing and matching various native diets (she personally cooks from different regions each night).

Dr. Miller's book is an excellent primer for anyone not already familiar with native nutrition. Her research supports and adds to the work done by the Weston A. Price Foundation, with a slightly different approach. Her field-trips make for excellent reading and reveal specific regional food-ways. The Jungle Effect is a valuable contribution to the growing literature, and an easy and fun to read introduction to native nutrition.
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Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors


Piers Paul Read (1974)
Hardcover first
August 2008

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974) is one of the most widely read books in the Outdoor/Adventure genre. It continually ranks in Amazon's top-25 sellers for its category, and National Geographic ranks it #58 on its list of all-time 100 Best Outdoor Literature. The story grips you by the collar and pulls you forward never letting up until the end. You wonder if you read a book, or were actually there, it is effortless. Alive is about a group of mostly under-25 men faced with starvation and physical endurance in a remote and harsh geographic region, it reminded me of two other classic narrative non-fiction works, Alfred Lansing's Endurance (1959), and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea (2001).

I have some minor quibbles. In the interest of a gripping narrative, Read sacrificed character development, so it was often difficult to keep names straight. By the end, about a handful stood out as "knowable", but the rest it seemed like we hardly knew them. I found myself constantly shifting back and forth between the pictures as I came across a name to remind myself who the person was. This worked, but it was a lot of work on my part that could have been smoother had Read devoted a chapter or two to more fully develop the important characters.

In addition, there is now a new book out by Nando Parrado (Miracle in the Andes (2006)) which tells the story from a survivors perspective, and while I have not read it yet, it is reported that he shows things in a different light. Contrary to Read's image of a quarreling fractious group, Parrado emphasizes less titillatingly banal aspects, and goes into the deeper transformations members went through. It is generally being reviewed as a more subtle, introspective and mature work. It has the advantage of being a first-person account and not a journalistic summary, but Alive was written within a year of the events and so retains perhaps a more authentic memory.

Alive is and will always be a classic survival story, in particular for those involving cannibalism. I can't wait to see the two movies based on it plus Nando Parrado's book.

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City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction


David Macaulay (1974)
Hardcover
August 2008

City is David Macaulay's second book. Unlike most of Macaulay's other books in this series, rather than a single building, he draws an entire city. It is interesting and I learned a lot, the Romans were more advanced with basic infrastructure like plumbing and heating than I had imagined. I think Macaulay's subject is too broad though, so he isn't able to get into the hyper-detail that otherwise is the strength of his work that makes it so fascinating. It feels like a book for 14 year olds and not enough for the adults. Still, like all of David Macaulay's books, it is well worth it.

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The Known World


Edward P. Jones (2003)
Hardcover
August 2008

A novel full of compassion in most unexpected ways, "what literature should, and can be."

This is a difficult book for me to review - I've read all the "professional" reviews I could find online, two stand out as must-reads. Luckily they are pro and con so you get a good contrast of perspectives, depending if you like or dislike.

Pro
The Known World, by Stephen M. Deusner in PopMatters

Con
The Known World, by Dan Schneider in storySouth

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A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontline of Humanity


Jan Egeland (2008)
Hardcover first
August 2008

This is my second biography of a top level United Nations humanitarian official (after Chasing the Flame) and the subject matter makes for surprisingly riveting reading. Unlike the image of a desk-bound UN bureaucrat, some of these guys put their lives on the line, out in the field in remote jungles, working with some of the worlds most recluse and violent groups, and dealing with massive crisis at the center of a global event like the Indian ocean tsunami. If there is a single hero that saves the world, probably the closes the world has is the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, or the UN Emergency Relief Chair (these boring titles don't do the job justice).

Jan Egeland, a Norwegian, worked at the UN from 2003 to 2006 and this is an eyewitness account of the disasters and problems he dealt with during that period. Egeland is probably most familiar to American readers as the man who called the US "stingy" after the 2004 Tsunami when the US pledged only $15 million in aid - the details of this incident are fully revealed in the book but suffice it to say he was mis-characterized by right-wing fanatics. Other conflicts Egeland discusses include: Ivory Coast, Iraq, Columbia, Darfur, Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Uganda. These are very personal accounts and in some cases Egeland is the first person to meet with rebel groups, it's fascinating and revealing how they live and operate. At the same time Egeland does not fully explain the historical context of the conflicts so it can be taxing to read minutia detail - I often found myself wading through areas of specialized knowledge to the more riveting human interest stories.

The title refers to the bottom 1 billion of the world who are often ignored and bear the brunt of problems. Despite the litany of death and disaster, Egeland is optimistic that the world is improving, it is better now than it was 30 years ago and so on back in time. People like Egeland, those who devote their lives to humanitarian work, are really among the worlds heroes.

NOTE: If you have already read Chasing the Flame, this book makes a fantastic coda as Jan Egeland started his job at the UN the very day Sergio was killed, at the Canal Hotel bombing, so he brings much of the recent history of the UN up to the present from where Chasing the Flame left off.

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Desert Places


Robyn Davidson (1996)
Hardcover
August 2008

Desert Places (1996) is Australian adventurer Robyn Davidson's second major travel book, her first being the better known Tracks (1980). She repeats a camel journey through the desert, but this time in Western India in the company of a nomadic people known as the Rabari. As usual, Davidison is full of lovable contradictions, sweet one moment and ready to kill en masse the next. Likewise her approach to the book takes a consciously anti-travel literature track, just about everything we associate with travel literature Davidson turns the tables. Or, at least she tries, but in the end it is still fundamentally part of the genre. For most readers, who are not conversant with the recent scholarly debates about travel literature (in relation to post-colonialism, post-modernism) the overall effect may be a little off-putting, with one New York Times critic interpreting Davidson's irreverence as "bad faith". In the end I think Davidson succeeded in writing a good travel narrative, updated with politically correct concerns about the fate of traditional nomadic people under the homogenizing assault of globalization - but her overall attempt at breaking out of the genre into something greater probably did not succeed. Still it is a fascinating look into what life is like for the Rabari, stripped of romanticism and from the perspective of women, and that makes it an important, unique and worthwhile journey.

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Island Nights' Entertainments

Robert Louis Stevenson (1893)
paperback
August 2008

Island Nights' Entertainments is a collection of short-stories by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1893. Stevenson died young in 1894 so this is some of his last works but represents a signal change in his writing style that left some clue to where he was headed had he lived longer. Stevenson was best known and beloved for his Romantic works like Treasure Island, Jekyll and Hyde and Kidnapped. However when he decided to move to the worlds most romantic place, the South Seas, his work took a turn towards realism. Stevenson no doubt thought he was growing up and becoming a more "serious" writer, although some of his contemporary critics at the time thought his realist works were among his most forgettable and that it was a shame he didn't stick with what he was best known for. However what his critics could not see was that realism was soon to morph into modernism through the introduction of symbolism, and Stevenson was already beginning to experiment, at least a decade before Joseph Conrad. I have no doubt that had Stevenson lived he would have been known as a modernism pioneer, he was just on the cusp with stories like "The Beach of Falesa". This represents Stevenson's first realistic story, focused less on the plot than on the mannerisms of society. As Stevenson wrote in a letter to his friend back in England: "It is the first realistic South Seas story; I mean with real South Sea character and details of life. Everybody else that has tried, that I have seen, got carried away by the romance, and ended in a kind of sugar candy sham epic, and the whole effect was lost - there was not etching, no human grin, consequently no conviction. Now I have got the smell and look of the thing a good deal. You will know more about the South Seas after you have read my little tale than if you had read a library."

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The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars


Andrew X. Pham (2008)
Hardcover, first
August 2008

The Eves of Heaven is an "auto-biography" by Thong Van Pham. In fact it is written by his son Andrew, but he takes on the first person voice of his father Thong, similar to the technique used by Dave Eggers in What Is the What?. It is difficult to know how accurate it is, or what degree of artistic license is involved, but in a way it doesn't matter because as creative non-fiction it reads like a novel.

Not only is the story highly engrossing, thrilling and fascinating, but it is humane. Thong never seems to loose his sense of dignity and respect for life despite the horrors of violence, drugs and prostitution that stalk him. The lush prose is deliciously sensuous in one chapter, then shifts to scenes of deprivation the next, like a master chef playing the pallet between extremes of texture and temperature - and like the fusion of French and Asian culture that is Vietnam.

The Eaves of Heaven covers over 30 years of war in Vietnam as it transitioned from a "feudal" age to the modern world in one or two generations - the Japanese in WWII, the French and then the Americans. One mans lifetime saw it all from start to end. Through this wonderfully written, humane and moving memoir of a single life, the reader is able to more fully understand the Vietnam experience as a whole.

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Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered


Peter S. Wells (2008)
Hardcover, first
August 2008

There are so many lengthy difficult books about the Early Middle Ages, written for and by specialists, what a delight to find a short and easy to read summary of the latest scholarship of this rapidly changing multi-disciplinary field, written for a general audience by a medieval scholar with an up to date and useful bibliography.

The term "Dark Ages" has a long and complicated history ever since its invention by Italian Humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries. Modern medieval historians try to avoid the term Dark Ages with its pejorative implications. However some will still justify its use because the period was "dark to us", because of the lack of written record. However even this is no longer the case, a wealth of archaeological information has surfaced to enlighten the period. The old prejudices of a violent, backwards and stagnant time are falling away. Was it different from Rome? Yes, but to apply a value judgment of a "Dark Age" is inappropriate, this powerful metaphor has sadly shaped many peoples vision of the period.

Peter Wells examines some of the enduring myths and shows, through new archaeological findings, rather than a sudden break with the past, a continuity of history. For example there is a myth that urban centers declined or were abandoned, Wells shows substantial evidence this was not the case, using a case example of London. There is a myth of continuous violence and warfare, however Wells suggests this could not have been the case because of freedom of movement and trade that was occurring. There is a myth that technology halted or went backwards, when in fact it was a period of innovation, including the deep plow, horse harness and 3-field system which created a surplus in food, population and specialization. There is a myth that Roman roads deteriorated, which is true, but the original Roman roads were built on ancient roadways and were mainly only meant for military purposes anyway. Artwork flourished in this period finding new and original expressions.

Barbarians to Angels is a quick read for a general audience that summarizes a lot of recent and difficult scholarship. For more specialized works, to understand how we know what we know, the "proof", there is an excellent Bibliography.

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The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis (1984)
Paperback, 2002 re-print
August 2008

This short work - about the length of a long journal article - reconstructs the dramatic events behind the very well known 16th century legal case of Martin Guerre, in southern France. Natalie Davis is the first modern historian to scientifically investigate the facts of the case and try to answer questions of what exactly happened and why. First published in 1984, the book today is generally considered a classic because it crossed a number of boundaries. First, it is one of the leading examples of "microhistory", which in medieval history means documenting the lives of peasants, which represented 90% of the population, but who left behind very little evidence for historians to work with, and have thus traditionally been under-represented in history. This school of history arose in the 1970s and when this book was published in 1984 it was sort of the height of fashion (which doesn't take away from its value). Secondly, the book has a wide popular readership because of the film of the same name, for which Davis was a consultant. Finally, it is a solid and commendable work of scholarship. Unlike other popular histories (such as A Distant Mirror), it sacrificed nothing in its scholarly integrity while remaining approachable and entertaining, thus introducing many general readers to real medieval history without much requirement for specialized knowledge. The story of Martin Guerre continues to be re-told centuries later around the world, its power and vitality undiminished by centuries of time or the cold lens of scholarship.
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Good-Bye, Mr. Chips, and other stories


James Hilton (1933)
Hardcover, World's Best Reading (Readers Digest), 1995
August 2008

A feel good character study of a kindly old Victorian English boys school professor. It is too saccharine sweet sentimental for my taste. Hilton tells us how wonderful Mr Chips is, how funny he is and beloved but doesn't convincingly show it, it's all sentimentality. I can see how it would remind older readers of Victorian era professors they had, sure and confident of themselves and the world before it blew up in WWI - the older reader could "know" Mr. Chips the archetype based on an amalgamation of professors they had grown up with, so it's hard to be critical of that. But Hilton has not fully fleshed out Mr Chips so he comes across for modern readers flat, a cartoon character out of a British children's boarding school genre novel.

The illustrations by Dianna Diamond in the Readers Digest edition are excellent, photographic in detail. I have not seen a movie adaptation but hope to do so as I think the sentimentality will transfer well to film.
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The Duel


Alexsandr Kuprin (1905)
Hardcover, private printed via Lulu and Internet Archive, from 1916 first English edition
August 2008

The Duel (1905) is Russian author Aleksandr Kuprin's realist masterpiece, wining him literary fame and friendship with Anton Chekov, Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreyev, Nobel Prize-winning Ivan Bunin and Leo Tolstoy. Kuprin was a born storyteller and has been compared with Kipling and Jack London. Like London, however, Kuprin "degenerated" later in life with the vices of women (prostitutes) and drink and his works similarly became sensational, like with the lurid account of prostitutes in The Pit (1915). But he reached a pinnacle of high art with The Duel.

The Duel explores "honor" in its many permutations. Honor in career, love, and the hypocrisy inherit. The main character, Romashov, is a 21 year old military officer in training in a backwater provincial town where everyone knows everyone and gossip spreads quickly. Kuprin's realistic portrayal of the horrors of Russian military life is a wonderfully rich portrait of an "odious and wanton liaison [of] gambling, drinking, soul-killing, monotonous regimental routine, with never a single inspiring word, never a ray of light in the black, hopeless darkness."

Romashov experiences a number of setbacks in his career and his romantic notions of being a hero to the Czar are shattered by cruel realities - on the brink of suicide (a common occurrence in his regiment) he undergoes a change when he discovers salvation through empathizing with the sufferings of others: "it was clear to [Romashov] at once how petty and insignificant was his own sorrow in comparison with [his friends] cruel fate." By rising above soul-crushing military doctrine of honor and violence, and finding instead sympathy with others, he finds freedom, "a proud, triumphant feeling of malicious joy and defiance."

To this end Romashov then discovers that most professions are based on "mistrust of the honor and morality of mankind.. supervisors and official, policemen, book-keepers, priests, etc.." and there are only two careers that are truly noble, science/art. and manual labor. Thus Romashov navigates his way through the world of honor in the sphere of his career, but he has a fatal flaw and that is love. In the end he is tricked by honor in love (or lack thereof) and it is his undoing. Kuprin was not entirely happy with the novels ending, and I tend to agree that its sensationalism mires it in the 19th century. It could have been a modernist novel had Romashov's duel ended in a different way, such as the alternative path suggested by his friend Nasanski. However it is still dramatic and satisfying.

The Duel is available online its original 1916 English trans.
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The War of the Worlds: Deluxe Illustrated Edition


Sourcebooks, Inc. (2003)
Paperback
August 2008

This is a multimedia collection of primary and secondary works about H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds and Orson Welles' 1938 radio play. It contains:

1. Forward (Ray Bradbury)
2. Introduction (Holmsten/Lubertozzi)
3. A short biography of Orson Welles and history of the radio play (Holmsten/Lubertozzi)
4. Mars in popular culture (Holmsten/Lubertozzi)
5. A short biography of H.G.Wells and history of the book (Holmsten/Lubertozzi)
6. Transcript of Orson's radio play (Howard Kotch [w/ Welles])
7. The complete text of the novel (H. G. Wells)
8. Afterword (Ben Bova)
9. An audio-CD including 5 tracks:
9a. "The War of the Worlds", the complete 1938 play (1 hour)
9b. Orson Welles press conference the day after
9c. H.G and Orson co-interviewed in 1940.
9d. An excerpt from a 1968 radio version in Buffalo, NY that caused similar panic
9e. An excerpt of Orson looking back on the play 40 years after.
10. Many illustrations and pictures.

This is a very generous book. Even if you already own the novel, there is enough supplemental here to make it worth having. My only complaint is that H. G. Welles original book is not very good, until Orson immortalized it on radio in 1938 (with substantial changes) it was not one of H.G.'s most well known works. Indeed, Orson's adaptation is genius, while H.G.'s story is mostly derivative of the existing genre known as Invasion Literature which was very popular in the run up to World War I. Having already read Ther Battle of Dorking (1871) I felt like I was reading it all over again, but less convincing, repetitive and sort of sappy. If it hadn't been for Orson's radio play I suspect the novel would be a minor work of H.G. Wells and not the iconic 20th century story it has become. Luckily the hour long broadcast is freely available online, but this book, if found cheap enough, is a great resource and a lot of fun.

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The Old Curiosity Shop


Charles Dickens (1840)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20, Vol.VIII
July 2008

The Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens 4th novel, serialized between 1840 and 1841. It was his best selling work to date and contains some strong auto-biographical elements concerning the death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, as seen in the death of Nell. After he finished Dickens said he though it his best work and would always be his favorite, although this sentiment would later change with David Copperfield. It sold well in America - one of the best known stories about the novel is that readers would line up at the dock, as ships came in from England, asking if Nell had died, however this is apocryphal.

Critically the novel has had a mixed reception and it is generally considered to be near (but not at) the bottom of his 16 major works. The character of Nell in particular has been the focus of scorn for being too sentimental or "vulgar" - I found certain passages of her death to be unreadable, and during her escapades around the countryside I found myself caring not one bit what happened (I almost gave up the novel entirely but luckily kept going). Up until about page 340 (of 521) the novel is fairly unfocused and not much happens. The remaining 150 pages or so are probably the best. The character of Quilp is the most memorable - Dickens doesn't fully flesh it out, but it is obvious from his habits that Quilp is an old sea-hand, old enough to have been in the Napoleonic Wars and probably one of many veterans who plagued Englands unemployed ranks in the years after. Thus for me he held a certain fascination not only as a comic "Ogre", but as an archetype of what probably was not uncommon in the period.

Despite the attention on Nell she is not really the hero of the novel, who is Richard 'Dick' Swiveller, a name not dissimilar to the authors own and Dickens' favorite character. He is transformed by 3 weeks in a coma and comes out the other side strong enough to take on and beat the evil Quilp.

Despite problems this is still a Dickens novel and fairly good. There are certain scenes and passages and characters that will live with me always.

For more in depth, an outstanding and enlightening review can be found here by "Murr".
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Getting into Guinness: One Man's Longest, Fastest, Highest Journey Inside the World's Most Famous Record Book


Larry Olmsted (2008)
Amazon Vine pre-release reviewers copy, paperback
July 2008

Getting into Guinness appears to be the first ever "biography" of The Guinness Book of World Records (as it's called in the States). "The Book" (as Olmsted and others sometimes call it) is the worlds best selling book, second only to the Bible, its sales buoyed year after year by its target market of 7 to 15 year old boys. However Getting into Guinness is for adults and is a fascinating behind the scenes look for all of us who remember, for example, the man with the longest fingernails - in case your curious he recently offered to cut them off and sell them on Ebay for a quarter million, but no one bid.

Olmstead, in the tradition of "Gonzo" journalism, writes about not only the book, and its sub-culture, but actively participated by breaking a few records himself. Thus the chapters move back and forth from scholarly archival material of history and the psychological and historical forces that have made it so popular, to his own accounts of trying to bread into The Book on two occasions (playing poker and playing golf). Throughout Olmstead investigates some of the most prolific record breakers, the most famous, the most bizarre and the most dangerous. He fluctuates between calling record breakers "fame junkies", addicted to getting into the book like alcoholics - to modern day Olympians: "it is the last bastion of pure [sports] amateurism, celebrating the drives and passions that were once embodied by the Olympic Games."

The Book started as a dry encyclopedia in 1956 meant to be used in Pubs as a reference so that bar disputes among patrons could be settled (it's founder, Hugh Beaver (1890-1967), worked for the Guinness Brewing Company). However it quickly caught the public's fascination and within a year people were breaking records for no other reason than to get into the book. This phenomenon, known as "Guinessport" in which odd-ball "sports", like balancing a milk jug on your head while walking backwards, is a direct result of competition among the fame junkies to do one better than the previous record holder.

Over the years The Book has changed, originally it was about nature and science with little focus on people, but today it is exactly the opposite being almost entirely about human records. The Books golden age was the 1960s and 70s, a period when consumer culture and materialism led to more comfortable lives and free time to live out dreams, and find 15 minutes of fame when there were otherwise limited channels. Today as countries around the world go through this same process of development, like in China, they are also discovering The Book - in 2004, China entered the "top 10 countries with most records" and is expected to continue upwards in rank over time.

Getting into Guinness is a breezy magazine style human interest read, probably the perfect format for the subject. A more scholarly account would be possible but it wouldn't be nearly as fun.
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Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction


Christopher Harvie (2005)
Paperback
July 2008

This appears to be a CliffNotes version of a longer textbook. It requires a fair amount of knowledge of English history background, the subject is so vast that names, events and places are not explained by assumed to be understood. It's sort of the worst of all worlds, a text loaded with dry statistics and no central "big picture", then condensed. Parts are good, worth skimming through and picking out the sections and chapters of interest and for the recent bibliography.
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The Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction


David Macaulay (1973)
Hardcover, first edition
July 2008

This is Macaulay's first book (1973) and with Castle is probably his most popular, but he had yet to fully develop his techniques and while the basics are there, it is thin in comparison to the only other Macaulay book I've read (Mill, 1983). Still it provides an intimate and detailed cross-generational perspective, the sense of passages of time through the lives of people contrasted with the permanence of architecture is very well done. The Cathedral no longer seems a cold stone monument but embodies vibrant and living hopes and dreams.
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The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2005 (The Best American Series)


Jonathan Weiner (2005)
Hardcover, first
July 2008

I'm writing this review in July 2008 about an anthology of magazine articles published in 2004 - I probably would have given it 4.5 or 5 stars when it first came out but 4 years on makes the difference. Many of the pieces - as chosen by guest editor Jonathan Weiner (The Beak of the Finch) - have a topical bent about current events, in particular Bush (anti) science policies which have since played out. As a Guest Editor there is a pull between choosing pieces with lasting value, and those that are period pieces soon forgotten. Weiner seemed to focus on pieces with an ideological bent, or more accurately, pieces that attacked ideologies, either way it seemed like "ideology" was a central theme.

My favorite articles include: Jared Diamond, "Twilight at Easter", a classic re-telling of the Easter Island parable of planet earth. I read this same account in his long book Collapse but I think in this shorter form it is more powerful and concise. Malcolm Gladwell's "Getting Over It" suggests that most of us get over traumatic experiences fairly well and don't need to dwell on it. Reinforcing this is Jerome Groopman's "The Grief Industry" which shoots giant holes in the whole PTSD theory and the industry it has spawned. Sherwin Nuland's "The Man or the Moment?" is a historiography piece about approaches to history, in particular the social historian who looks at the "zeitgeist" as the main driver, and the "great man" historians who focus on individual actions. Although the Great Man theory has largely gone out of favor, he makes some surprising observations how individual personalities do in fact drive history at a certain level. Michael Specter in "Miracle in a Bottle" takes on the vitamin industry which is mostly unregulated and makes claims with little scientific basis. This is an important piece because it clarifies how free market capitalism without government controls can cause problems. I used to be big into suppliments but have since focused on eating a balanced healthy diet. A similar article by William Weed "106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney" underscores the barrage of scientific-sounding stuff we are exposed to every day and how 90% of is just plain, well, baloney.

Two other pieces are memorable for good stories - "The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator" which was designed by a Jewish concentration camp inmate in Germany during WWII - and "To Hell and Back", the story of Bill Stone a cave explorer and all around polymath, who may someday end up on the moon.
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Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter


Anonymous ("The Waiter") (2008)
Paperback, pre-release review copy Amazon Vine
July 2008

Waiter Rant is a memoir by an anonymous author who for the past few years has been writing an award winning blog [online public diary] about his daily experiences as a waiter in a New York City Italian Bistro. The blog, also called Waiter Rant, has been very popular. After being noticed and approached by HarpersCollins to make a book, this is the result. It is a sort of Cinderella story since most amateurs - the author is entirely self-taught and previously unpublished - only dream of such an opportunity.

Since the author is anonymous, for the sake of the review I will call him "Phillip" after Phillip Marlowe, the private detective in Raymond Chandler's 1930s hard-boiled pulp-fiction crime novels. Chandler is "Phillips" favorite author and he credits him as a major influence on his writing style. Indeed Phillip seems to model his life as something of a wise guy - hanging out with prostitutes and drinking heavily after a hard days work, the all knowing waiter veteran who can see through customers with a thousand yard stare. There is a rough edge to it, but at the same time, Phillip is able to convey in parts some surprisingly insightful passages. His best writing is in the earliest and last chapters where he talks about his own personal challenges, history and demons. Chapter 21 "Demons" in particular made me pause long and hard. Phillip has a psychologists insight into himself and others and his honesty and candor are refreshing. However this comes at a price in other chapters where he tends to be the smart guy know it all at the expense of customers and staff - sometimes he takes it too far with a youthful bravado.

It's a well written book and although I allocated myself three days to finish I had trouble putting it down and finished in less than a day and half, it goes very quickly.
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Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin



Alice Echols (1999)
Hardcover first (ex-lib Reno NV, 18 checkouts, greasy smelly)
July 2008

There are a whole bunch of biographies of Janis, including the well known 'Buried Alive', but this late comer published in 1999 appears to be the most even-handed, well-researched, and scholarly. In fact Alice Echols is a scholar of the 1960s (without any personal connection to Janis) so there is a lot of contextual information to put the period in perspective - I've probably learned more about the 1960s San Francisco scene in this book than anywhere else, it's worth reading for that reason alone.

This is my first "rock-star biography", a genre I have avoided because of the groaning shelves of narcissistic "tell alls". I choose Janis to be my first (something she would have loved) after seeing a couple YouTube clips: one showing her singing "Ball and Chain" live, the other a TV interview at her Texas hometown high-school reunion. In these clips I saw a deep, complicated and obviously brilliant person, her charisma on stage was memorizing and off-stage equally so. For me she became more than a raspy-kinda-scary voice on the radio from another era, and I wanted to learn more about who she was, and why she had become so famous and died so young.

Joplin's personality was a wild horse who kept on the move, never finding but always seeking a new home and greener pastures, running from her personal demons while embracing her desire for living life in the moment to the fullest. She drank heavily (Southern Comfort), fucked thousands of guys and hundreds of women, got in fights with Hells Angels, shot heroin and was a mainlining speed freak. She was a vulnerable, loving and kind child from a well-off Middle Class suburban family. She was a walking enigma. Her origins are with the beatniks and folksie scene of the early 60s, she was never fully accepted in the San Francisco scene as a hippie, yet she is widely imagined as one of its founding mothers as "Perl" in a costume of boa-feathers, clunky bracelets and lots of beads.

In the end her death was no surprise even to herself, she put her body on the front-line of the cultural revolution pushing the boundaries forward on many fronts. It is unfortunate she was largely forgotten in the 70s and 80s but I think with historical reflection on the 60s her life will find more prominence - if nothing else than an archetype of a generation, but also for being ahead of her time as a woman rock star in a male dominated industry.

Echols does a good job of balancing the exterior fame with the interior truths of Joplin, a psychological profile that will remind the reader of other people they know like her, it's believable because she seems so "normal" (in a somewhat abnormal way). I came away both with an intimate understanding of Janis and a much stronger sense of the 60s having seen it through the life of a single person who was a central catalyst.
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Germinal


Emile Zola (1885)
Paperback Penguin 2004, trans Roger Pearson
July 2008

Zola's naturalism is among my very favorite styles of literature, and Germinal is his Masterpiece, so my feelings about this novel are nothing but praise. I first read it at 16 and now again at 41. It feels so real, the people, places and events, it's hard to imagine they never existed - but in a way I suppose they did exist in mining towns all over the world. Such is the magic of Zola to merge the specific (fictional) and the general (reality) in a singular vision. I look forward to reading it again once enough time has passed as both readings have brought new insights and understandings.

After reading I watched Claude Berri's 1993 film adaptation, but in French which I am not fluent - however it didn't matter, it allowed the foregrounding of the beautiful sets and costumes which are the strengths of the film; Zola was a visual author which makes transition to film that much smoother. The vision I had built up from the novel matched up almost perfectly with the movie, suggesting Zola did an excellent job of getting at the reality of the thing - over 125 years of distance in time and a translation to English melt away through the power of words to bring a common experience.
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The Boat


Nam Le (2008)
Hardcover, first
July 2008

Steve Koss wrote an insightful review on Amazon, I agree with everything he said and wanted take it a step further. As Steve says the first story is the key to the book - Nam Le tells us he "could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, [he] choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans - and New York painters with hemorrhoids." Why? These are strange things to write about and the question is what do they have to do with the ethnic literature?

Everything. The problem is, as Lee says, so-called ethnic literature is "a license to bore. The characters are always flat, generic." We as readers are either numb to it because of over-use or no frame of reference. However it is still possible to convey the feelings of the experience through a proxy, and so all of these stories immerse the reader with certain themes in preparation for the last story. Each story is similar in its exploration of alienation and loneliness in the face of a crisis, usually with death hanging over all.

It's been said there is no loneliness more acute than that experienced around other people, in particular family. The New York artist who waits alone in the restaurant for the daughter who never comes; the high school football star who fights his demons, but even with his father taking the punches, still faces it alone; the Colombian assassin who faces his destiny without his friends help; in each of the stories the main character is isolated and alienated and faces a great trauma. The experience of reading this book reminded me of when I was child, lost in the crowd, my parents seemingly gone forever and the world a difficult and cold place.

By the time we get to the last story of the book, "The Boat", our sensibilities have been so finely shaped to this sense of alienation, fear and dread that Nam Le is able to convey the Vietnamese "ethnic experience" to just about anyone in the world. The details and facts are the words on the page, but the feeling and sense of experience comes from within ourselves. Within that interpretive framework this no longer seems like a collection of short stories but a work greater than its elements, a masterful use of the short story format.
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The Leopard


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
Hardcover, first English 1960 Pantheon
July 2008

The Leopard was published in 1958 making 2008 the fifty year anniversary. If - as Goethe once said - Sicily is the key to Italy, than The Leopard is the key to understanding Sicily. While clearly a modernist novel with multiple points of view and a focus on the body, it reads like a late 19th century novel of manners, perfectly re-creating for a modern audience a lost world. This is sort of summed up neatly in the novels most famous line "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Some critics have charged it is too celebratory of the Aristocracy and old order, but Lanza Tomasi (Lampedusa's adopted son) recently said the "miracle" of the book is no reader identifies with the lower class, "everyone believes he is the Prince." The Prince is torn between intelligence and lust, described with irony in softly poetic passages. It feels like a 19thh century novel but the use of Freudian psychological theory to explain and understand motives lends it a lack of moral certitude and thus cleary placing it as a 20th century modernist tradition.

As a curious aside with numbers, the main part of the text takes place in 1860 - the last chapter jumps forward fifty years to 1910 Incidentally, the same year Virginia Woolf famously announced the end of an era: "On or about December 1910 human character changed." Fifty years after 1910 in 1960 The Leopard reached a world wide audience. And this review is written 50 years after that. Such are the neat and tidy 50-year periods of the story intertwined with history, I believe Lampedusa would have smiled with the continuity.
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Tracks


Robyn Davidson (1980)
Harcover, first
July 2008

Robyn Davidson (b. 1950) by 1975 was something of an Australian bohemian who had lived in Sydney's equivalent of Haight-Ashbury, an enclave of rebels and artists. Fed up with people and the world she decided to travel across the desert of Australian alone on a camel. The only problem is she didn't have any money or know anything about camels. The first half of Tracks describes Robyn's experiences in the town of Alice Springs, a dirty and uncultured place about right in the middle of Australia where men where men and blacks (aborigines) were treated worse than the Jim Crow south. It was here that she ran into an elderly ex-German with a sadist streak that taught Robyn how to work with camels. The second half of the book describes her trek, which became something of an international news event and a National Geographic article in 1978. She had struck a nerve with the popular imagination - the lone women in the desert on a camel - and this unknown young lady in her 20s was now a hot commodity - much to her chagrin as she hid from spotter planes and roving reporters with telescopic lenses while seeking a solitary experience.

Tracks is important in the canon of travel literature (if such a thing exists) for a number of reasons. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing considers it one of the three most important travel books of its era (1970s - the others being Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard), saying "although formally less innovative [than the other two], Davidson's feminism and anti-racism articulated the views of a new generation and showed how a genre long associated with colonial and imperial attitudes could be freed from some of that heritage." In other words, Davidson takes a very sympathetic view to the plight of the Aborigines, how poorly they are treated by whites, and the value of persevering their culture - today these things are politically correct and expected, but Davidson was ahead of the curve in the mid-1970s Australian outback. Likewise Davidson's persona is very strong and in many ways she offers a female perspective of exploration that is refreshing and enlightening.

Davidson has a number of connections with other well known artists. She went on to have a friendship with Bruce Chatwin in the early 80s and both authors had a fascination with "nomadism." (Davidson's next most important book, Desert Places (1996), also explores this theme). She had a romantic affair with the National Geographic photographer who took pictures of her trip (Rick Smolan, probably best known for his "Day in the life.." photo books). Davidson also had a three year relationship with Salman Rushdie in the mid 1980s.
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Not So Wild a Dream


Eric Sevareid (1947)
Hardcover, first
July 2008

Eric Sevareid (1912 - 1992) was a third generation Norwegian-American born and raised in a small town in northern North Dakota. His book of memoirs Not So Wild a Dream, published in 1947, is mostly about an action-filled 15 year period from high school graduation in 1930 (age 17) to the end of World War II (age 32). During that time Sevareid professionally and personally went through a number of adventures that typify his "Greatest Generation" and events of the world at large.

Sevareid was one of the pioneering "Morrow Boys", a team of radio journalists who filed daily radio journalistic pieces from Europe during the war. This allowed him to travel to many places and get up close to the front and fighting. Sevareid is at his best narrating his adventures, the book is episodic and some of the best include: Bombings in London during the Battle of Britain; the plane wreck while going over "the hump" into China; his experiences in Paris during the "phony war" and "Exodus"; the horrors of war on the Italian front; the D-Day invasion and subsequent Battle of the Rhine; the mutiny on-board a Liberty Ship in NY harbor. His accounts of the Great Depression, when he tramped around as a hobo on a train are really excellent, as is his description of a 2500 mile canoe trip, which is covered in more detail in his 1935 book Canoing with the Cree. These two books, written while still a young man, would be his most popular, and last real literary output - although he always considered himself a writer first, most of his later career was on television..

Sevareid was known for writing "think pieces", for example in one transcript, aired late in the war to popular acclaim, he talks about the unknowability of the experience of combat for a soldier, the impossibility of words to describe the immediate and often irrational emotions and thoughts of a soldier. These "think pieces" became a trademark of his later in life as a TV reporter, and Not So Wild a Dream often goes off on a thinking tangent. If there is a theme to the book, Sevareid is seeking the essence and spirit of his time and generation, what we might call the "Zeitgeist", and he often comes very close to capturing the immediate feeling of change. It is why this book is so important as a primary source for documenting the times and his generation. One of the more profound moments for me is when he sees a change in his generations attitude towards war:
"Our own men, whose cult was antimilitarism [in the 1930s students were highly anti-military], whose habit is to identify themselves merely as civilians in different cloths who detested soldiering, now subtly changed. There was a dash and verve about them that I had rarely observed before, and young boys would frankly say: "In Italy all i used to think about was going home. Now I kinda hate to quit before we get to Berlin." It was if they suddenly realized they were soldiers by profession, with the honest desire to complete this masterpiece of their skill down to the last detail."
Sevareid is right, during WWII the American military went from a small and and unpopular enterprise to a large beast that to this day is a major force in American culture, the consequences of which Eisenhower predicted in his military-industrial complex speech. Another area Sevareid muses on is the waning power of Britain and the ascending power of the USA - which given the events post-Cold War and the "Rise of the Rest" of the world, also has a prophetic tone. To get an idea what the US will be like as it becomes less relevant in the world - with the rise of China, India and the rest - one only has to read Sevareid's account of the waning power of Britain in the last chapters of the book.
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In Patagonia


Bruce Chatwin (1977)
Hardcover, first
June 2008

Bruce Chatwin in 1974 was an unknown British journalist with no books to his name. Seeking the life of a nomad he flew to the southern part of South America and severed ties with his newspaper and former life with a single-sentence telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." For the next 6 months he walked and hitchhiked around this remote region keeping a diary which became the basis for the book. According to the Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (2002) it is one of three most important travel books of its era: "[its] laconic and elliptical style, in its ninety-seven short sections averaging little more than a couple of page each, seemed to finally bring modernist aesthetics to a fundamentally nineteenth-century genre..[it was] a landmark in contemporary travel writing." The narrative does follow a geographic route, but the included map does not show it, the reader has to piece together where on the map Chatwin is next. There is almost no narrative about actual travel, each of the mini chapters starts in a new place with Chatwin already arrived. The people he meets and stays with have no background or reason why he is there. Throughout is interweaved chapters on Patagonian history, often highly esoteric and in some cases true original research by Chatwin he solves some puzzle or mystery of history: Chapter 49 is as good an etymology on the word "patagonia" as will ever be found.

Subsequent revelations showed some of it to be fiction; some of the people Chatwin wrote about later came forward and denied things happened, or who were characterized incorrectly. Chatwin never denied this but explained that his work did not so much change reality as augment it, sort of like how political cartoons can bring out a hidden truth.

Chatwin, who died age 48 of AIDS (he was bi-sexual and one of the super-star AIDS victims in the 1980s), went on to write other well known books and is recognized as a skilled stylist. His travel writing is very literary and the book is credited with reviving interest in the genre as a legitimate form of literature. It is full of great poetic imagery, I just picked a page at random and found this quote: "She was waiting for me, a white face behind a dusty window. She smiled, her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark-auburn. Her legs were a mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had the tatter of an extraordinary beauty. She had been making pastry and the grey dough clung to her hands. Her blood-red nails were cracked and chipped."
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Lord Jim


Joseph Conrad (1900)
International Collectors Library (date unknown, 1980s?)
June 2008

Conrad was experimenting with new narrative forms that would soon be known as modernism. Rather than a straight chronological narrative from a single perspective there are multiple narrators and time shifts. As well he explored the Victorian value of honor and duty which the First World War literally blew apart, thus making it a unique snapshot of a culture in its last days, no one could write a book like this today (that wasn't sarcastic). Because of these period trappings I can't give a "timeless acclaim" of 5-stars, but the writing is still wonderful, Conrad was a master of the language.

The story reminds me in many ways of Frenchmen Pierre Loti's novel My Brother Yves (1883), also about a morally ambiguous sailor who is taken under the wing of a narrator. Loti is little known today but at the time in 1900 he was probably better known that Conrad, certainly a more canonical literary figure (Loti's reputation, at least in the English speaking world, has not lasted).
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The Snow Goose


Paul Gallico (1941)
Hardcover, 1979
June 2008

Probably one of the shortest books I've read in a while (about 30 minutes) but the story is powerful and a "tearjerker". I think it suffers from an attachment to Dunkirk as a period piece with nationalistic undertones during a period when England was searching for its identity under the looming possibility of a Nazi invasion, and the United States was still on the fence about entering the war (a debate at the time as heated as the Iraq War today). But it is hard to be critical of a book like this, it is beautifully written and probably Gallico's most successful and still well worth reading.
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The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia


Paul Theroux (1975)
First, hardcover
June 2008

Reading Theroux's travel literature, one wonders why he left home - the people he meets are almost universally irritating for him, and he takes little interest in much else except perhaps his own physical discomforts and prejudices. Of course we love to hate this type of splenetic and cantankerousness writing, not unlike Tobias Smollett's 1786 Travels Through France and Italy (Smollett also took a 'Grand Tour'). Theroux models himself an anti-tourist, resisting seeing the sites but when forced he rarely has anything positive to say. This appeals to the reader who wants to travel without being a tourist, but in the end comes across as crass and of little value. He is at his best describing the lowest encounters, prostitutes seem to fill the most interesting stories (it's unclear if he partakes but he does imbibe in smoking a fair amount of hashish). Theroux followed the "hippie trail" for part of the way but found them, like most everyone, open to ridicule.

There are some interesting historical curiosities. He traveled through Vietnam in late 1973 when the US military was pulling out, and so he got to see first-hand the deserted bases overtaken by squatters, stripped of every valuable not unlike what happened to Iraq in the wake of the US invasion in 2003, and perhaps not unlike what might happen again in the near future. He also makes a literary connection between the Vietnam War and Conrad's Heart of Darkness, well before the appearance of Apocalypse Now (1979). The best scene in the book I think is with the 3 Americans living on the beach with some Vietnamese women.

In the end this is an important book in the travel literature canon because Theroux set out to create something new and found a wide following of readers helping to revive interest in the genre, but he was eclipsed by writers like Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia) who really did move the state of the art out of the 19th century into a modern aesthetic.

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Lapham's Quarterly Book of Nature


Lewis Lapham (ed.)
Volume 1, Number 3 (Summer 2008)
June 2008

"Book of Nature" is Lapham's third journal in this wonderful new quarterly (see previous review). The topic is of course "Nature" and the range and variety of works is broad. Since this is an area that I am already somewhat familiar with, many of the pieces are not new to me, but it was a delight to run across favorites, and of course the parade of new pieces I had never heard of before. There are over 100 so I will detail just a few that stood out:

The first section is called "Howling Wilderness" and deals with the power of nature that both commands worship and instills fear. Immanuel Kant, before altering the course of philosophy with the categorical imperative, mused on the aesthetics of beauty giving some wonderful definitions of "sublime" and its variants. Evan Connell recounts an epic Antarctic survival story from Shackleton's 1909 expedition, his near death experiences are so often "one is tempted to exclaim 'Oh, come off it!'". Pliny the Younger vividly re-tells one heroic tragedy during the Pompeii volcanic explosion, when citizens wore pillows on their heads to keep off falling rocks. Robinson Jeffers poetically describes sea-lions being attacked by killer whales. Jack London recalls the SF Earthquake, with people hauling trunks of possessions through the flames, the working man able to dig a hole and bury it, the middle class man without the tools or strength forced to abandon.

The second section "Garden's of Earthly Delight" is about man's control of nature according to his image. John Burger looks at the history and philosophy of the zoo, revealing its origin in early 19th century Romantic Nationalism. Vitruvius in the first-century BC discovers the length of both arms equals the height of a man, and many other fascinating body-part symmetries. Curtis White writes in 2007 about the philosophical side of environmentalism, suggesting it needs more than just science, but also an ethic, morality and spirituality. E.B. White laments the passing of a pig (not the one from Charlotte's Web).

The third section "Terra Incognita" has works which suggest "we don't know what's going on." Al Gore starts off with a motivational excerpt from the book An Inconvienent Truth - I have only seen the movie but the book seems even better. C.S. Lewis provides a wonderful quote: "What we call man's power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument." A Crow Indian laments the death of the Buffalo.

This issue contains 6 original essays all of which are very good. The first essay by D. Grahamm Burnett attempts a summary of the history of the evolving concept "nature" in the Western tradition - a complex journey indeed, I think C.S. Lewis did a better job of it in The Discarded Image, but this is probably the academically strongest essay of the bunch, although a complex and difficult topic. Bill McKibben re-examines Thoreau's Walden and its importance to modern readers. Simon Winchester ends with a really cool and fascinating essay about how different the world would be if a volcanic mountain had popped up a few miles from its present location, thus altering the course of the Yangtze river away from China. If you read only one essay in the entire issue, don't miss this one.
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Twice-Told Tales


Nathaniel Hawthorne (1837)
Hardcover, Readers Digest: Worlds Best Reading series (1989)
June 2008

Hawthorne wrote this collection of short stories anonymously in the 1830's, first published in local papers. At the urging of a friend he signed his name and raised the money to publish it as a book in two collected volumes, a copy of which was sent to former classmate and famous writer Henry Longfellow at Harvard. Longfellow gave it a favorable review and thus launched Hawthorne out of obscurity and on the path to well known works such as The House of the Seven Gables and his masterpiece The Scarlet Letter.

Overall the collection is a mixed bag, some are clearly dated while others have timeless appeal. There are a lot of stories and only a handful will I remember and/or want to re-read in the future so it was a bit of a chore to read through them all. Hawthorne was honing his style so some of the pieces are dead ends, while others echo some of his later better works.

My favorite stories include "The Minister's Black Veil" about a 17th century New England puritan minister who vows never to look at the world except with a black veil over his eyes - the reason why is the mystery of the story and revealed to us at the end. "Wakefield" has a similar theme of mysterious behavior, a man decides to walk away from home without saying he was leaving and then return 10 years later - it is based on a true story and in fact there are modern accounts of similar things happening. "The Gentle Boy" beautifully captures 17th century religious fanaticism, intolerance and historical forces concerning the conflict between Puritans and Quakers in New England. This story is probably his most mature and serious of the book. "Mr. Higginbothem's Catastrophe", about a rumor of a man's murder, is a riddle wrapped in a story, I was perplexed and enthralled to the end. "David Swann", about a young man who falls asleep by the side of the road, is a philosophical story about the nature of fortune and fate. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", about a liquid that makes the old young again, presages Robert Louis Stevenson and more recent movies like Cocoon.

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Silent Spring


Rachel Carson (1962)
Hardcover, first (no DJ)
June 2008

Rachel Carson (1907-64) died of complications from breast cancer at the age of 56 which makes Silent Spring, published before she told anyone of her condition, a haunted book, a dead woman walking seeking justice for a crime. Carson's body is almost is a metaphor for the planet. The so-called modern "environmental movement" - which the book is commonly thought to have started - is really about human justice, people are part of the environment and justice for the environment is justice for people. By reading Carson today and remembering how and when she died, we are reminded that keeping our campsites in better condition than we found them (old Boy Scout motto), not trashing our backyards, is a moral consideration both about nature and people, ultimately one and the same. Carson's appeal for justice from the grave has not been met, her predictions have come true: cancer is epidemic, public health in general is eroded, and DDT and other chemicals now permeate the earth from the Arctic to our mothers milk. Progress has been made but "environmentalism" still carries a heavy stigma among many. The American pledge ends with "and justice for all" - human justice can never be obtained so long as nature, of which humans are a part, continues to be debased.
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Cat Man


Edward Hoagland (1955)
Hardcover, first
June 2008

Edward Hoagland is best known for non-fiction environmental writing, but his first book in 1955 was a novel based on his experiences in his early 20s with a traveling circus. Most circus literature is about the performers while the crew are so much background ambiance. In Cat Man, Hoagland flips the picture and foregrounds the working guys while the circus itself fade into the background. There are two types of circus workers: performers and support crew. They have separate dining halls, buses and trains: the "first train" people are the guys (they are almost all men) who put up the tents, feed the animals, run the machines - the "second train" performers arrive later. The performers are highly paid rare talent while workers tend to be down and out low-paid alcoholic drifters - "winos" with missing teeth, long hair, ratty clothing and a homeless odor. Times were different back then, rougher, and Hoagland's world is a dirty, smelly, low-brow violent place. Yet, as ex-clown Stephen Brennan said, Cat Man is "the best, the truest circus novel I've ever read." The plot is almost non-existent, other than about a young drifter who runs off the join the circus, and it even lacks a chronological progression with chapters jumping back and forth in time and place. Some of the chapters would stand alone quite well as short stories, vinaigrettes. Rather it is almost entirely a character study and hyper-real detailed description of day to day life working behind the scenes in a circus. One critic in the New York Review of Books compared it to Moby-Dick because of its encyclopedic detail.

I really enjoyed the novel although at times found the prose so dense with detail and so slow in action that I would scan over sections waiting for something to happen, in particular the descriptions of the big cats. But like a war novel, it captures the essence of long periods of inactivity and sudden bursts of action, usually violent and dangerous. As realistic documentation of the rougher side of circus life Hoagland's Cat Man is a timeless classic.
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News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir


Peter Fleming (1936)
Hardcover, first (Scribner)
May 2008

Peter Fleming (1907-71) was Ian Fleming's (James Bond) older brother. Peter first rose to popularity in his 20's, during the early 30's, with 3 major travel/adventure books about trips through Brazil (33'), China (34') and Central Asia (36'). News from Tartary is the last of the three and describes a 6 month 3500 mile trip from Peking (Beijing) due west across Chinas western provinces and south to India. "Tartary" is an old western term meaning "Central Asia". At the time China's most western province of Sinkiang (sometimes known as "Chinese Turkestan") was embroiled in a complex struggle of colonial and civil wars with Russia, China, etc.. and was a black hole of news. Sort of like Chechnya today, it held a certain dangerous fascination for intrepid western adventurers. Fleming traveled with Swiss writer Ella Maillart (1903-97) who was herself an accomplished adventurer, although not so well known in the English speaking world, she also wrote her own book about this trip and the two can be read for profitable comparison. There are many re-prints of News in circulation but the original edition is best as it contains dozens of fascinating black and white photos, thick rough-cut paper and a color tri-fold map of the route.

News from Tartary is today considered a classic of travel literature ranked #64 on National Geographic's "100 Best Adventure Books". It is an early example of "British understatement", the bumbling amateur English gentleman who travels for no reason other than traveling, as would be copied in the post war years, with authors such as Eric Newby. Fleming graduated from Oxford with an advanced degree in English literature and while he believed in adventure, he wondered how - in a modern world of motor vehicles, trains and planes - real adventure could be written of anymore. Just as Cervantes in Don Quixote believed in the spirit of chivalry, but knew its time had passed, he was able to write about it through a bumbling knight who could be laughed at. Likewise Fleming sought to disarm his readers with word play and self-deprecation, thus strengthening the more serious parts of the book and lending the author more credibility - Fleming succeed, in the readers eyes, not because of physical prowess and skills, but despite them. By being an approachable everyman, he is more able to vividly convey to his readers - who probably have never been to remote central Asia and never will - how it feels to travel through the Gobi desert on camels, arriving in oasis, going through sandstorms and traveling through the Himalayas.
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The Bridge of San Luis Rey


Thornton Wilder (1927)
Hardcover 1928
May 2008

The Bridge of San Luis Rey hinges on old questions that writers have been asking since Antiquity: does man have free will; and why does God cause suffering? As Wilder says "..in my novel I have left this question unanswered.. we can only pose the question' correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way." Its didactic nature is meant to steer readers to a Christian perspective on these age old questions. This of course would have resounded strongly in mainstream Protestant America of the 1920s and 30s, who largely questioned the value of reading "romances" at all, but today it feels dated. As another reviewer pointed out The Life of Pi is a more modern example of this type of work (and looking backwards Voltaire's Candide (1759) asks similar questions, although is more a political tract). In any case the symbolism of the bridge is strong if not overtly so, it is a character unto itself, it's easy to make up some possible symbolisms: In the early descriptions the knotted braids of rope holding it together, built by the Incas, are like the threads that bind the history of Europe and the Americas together across the chasm of time. The life paths of the characters are like points on opposite sides of a circle with a line between them, each line intersecting in the middle, the middle being the bridge, the common point where they all come together.

Wilder doesn't really answer the question he asks, which honestly anyone can write a novel asking big important questions and no answers. The bridge feels somewhat cliche and middle-brow, we all use a bridge as symbolism in every day conversation in a sort of folksy way. It continues to get good reviews and is on the Modern Library top 100 novels of the 20th century, but how many people still read it? On LibraryThing it has a popularity of about 2100 which is pretty low for a Modern Library 100 novel (again Voltaire's Candide, a short book which deals with similar themes, has over 5 times the number of readers - and that for an 18th century novel). The Wikipedia article as of 2008 was almost void of any real content and amounted to a long stub (I just doubled its size by adding one long paragraph). A Google search doesn't turn up a whole lot of criticism or blog posts or the type of stuff we usually see for true fan favorites and/or academic darlings. At 100 pages it's a quick read, it's a clever story and the prose is lyrical so I think most people check it off the "best of" list and move on, but I would be surprised if time treats it as kindly as the canonical list makers have so far.

Update September 2011. It appears I totally missed what the novel is about in my review above. This beautiful essay by Danny Heitman in the WSJ is the best thing I've read about it.
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Candide


Voltaire (1759)
Hardcover, Barnes&Noble 2005, Introduction by Gita May
May 2008

From the "Introduction":
"Voltaire would probably have been both pleasantly surprised as well as bemused by the exceptional and enduring popularity of Candide, which he viewed as one of his minor works, unworthy to vie with his tragedies, historical essays, and epic and philosophical poems, on which he staked his posthumous reputation... Voltaire wrote contes (tales) late in his career and almost as an afterthought, for he subscribed to the neoclassical canon and hierarchy of literary genres according to which tragedy in verse and epic poetry gave an author his most reliable passport to posterity and immortality. Novels, short stories, and contes were looked upon suspiciously as upstart genres with n credible aesthetic or even moral pedigree." (Gita May, 2005)
The above quote from the Barnes & Noble 2005 "Introduction" ironically demonstrate the message of Candide - Voltaire spent a lifetime working in neoclassical genres, serious long works that are largely no longer read today - this is a tragedy really almost exactly like that described in Chapter XXV about a noble Venetian with a great library that he never reads. However, in a comic twist, it is Voltaire's least serious work in an "upstart genre" (the novel) that has remained the most popular and widely read. Thus Voltaire in a way pre-saged his own career, a timeless message in which the message is the message itself. Today the "classical" form is the novel, perhaps in the future it will be a new "upstart genre" such as blogs, Wikiipedia or other online written forms.
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The Greatest Circus Stories Ever Told: Amazing Stories of Life Under the Big Top


Stephen Vincent Brennan (2005)
Hardcover, first
May 2008

The Greatest Circus Stories Ever Told (2005) is an anthology of 13 essays and book excerpts from sources first published between about 1900 and 1926 (two are from 1955 and 1972). The editor is Stephen Brennan, a former circus clown, who provides an introduction to each piece with a little background about the author and facet of circus life. Since most of the pieces are old, they mostly discuss the circus silver age (golden age?) between about post-Civil War to WWI. However the age of the pieces should not discourage readership as the pieces are all well written, engrossing and capture a more romantic time in America.In addition I love anthologies like this because they reveal obscure but good authors and works I never would have heard of otherwise.

Of the 13 pieces I found 8 to be stand-outs. Two of these are excerpts from novels which I am now reading in full: James Otis' Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1881) and Edward Hoagland's Cat Man: A Novel (1955) and for that reason alone, discovering these novels, the anthology has been well worth it. The other six favorites include an essay by Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of; two essays by Courtney Ryley Cooper who is new to me but endlessly entertaining and sadly obscure today (see his Wikipedia profile); an essay by another obscure ex-clown with a talent for writing Robert Edmund Sherwood.

Water for Elephants, a modern novel about old circuses, has been in in the best seller list for years now. In comparison, reading about real life experiences from people who actually lived it, in short approachable extracts, vetted by an old hand, is an authentic and rewarding experience. While the crowds ohh and ahh their attention on the center best-seller ring, reading this book is like being out back of the tent, hanging with the circus people as they tell stories around a campfire: old retired clowns, the skeleton man and his wife the Fat lady, the romantic tight-rope walker, canvas men on the run, rummies - memorable stuff.

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Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks with a Circus


James Otis (1881)
First edition, read via Internet Archive
May 2008

Toby Tyler; or, Ten Weeks in a Circus was first published in Harper's Young Peopleas a serial in 1877, and then as a book in 1881. It was an immediate classic and favorite among young boys and girls who dreamed of running off with the circus. It was very popular and sold so well that a few years later Mark Twain wrote his own story of a run-away conscious-stricken orphan who joins the circus: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The central theme of the novel is doing what you know is right versus doing what comes naturally and following your instincts, as shown by the character Mr. Stubbs the monkey. Although written to be a "wholesome" children's novel of what happens to bad boys, most remember it for the romantic story of running off with the circus. Indeed, by the end Toby has become so successful in the circus, his reason for returning home stretches credibility (probably to the secret delight of younger readers who knew what they would have done in Toby's shoes: stayed with the circus!). The novel was influential for at least 3 generations, a young Carl Sandburg thought it his favorite novel and William S. Burroughs mentions it in his memoirs. Disney paid it homage in a 1960 movie adaption. Since then it has become increasingly obscure, but it's close similarities with Huckleberry Finn should give it a wider audience as a comparison novel. The original included 30 pen and ink drawings by W. A. Rogers (1854-1931) which are essential.

Read via Internet Archive
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The Swiss Family Robinson


Johann Wyss (1812)
Paperback, Penguin Classics, 2007. Ed. John Seelye
May 2008

The Swiss Family Robinson was initially written in German by Swiss author Johann Wyss in 1812, and then soon after an accurate English translation was completed by William Godwin in 1816. The Godwin translation remained the standard in English for a generation or two, but by the mid-19th century the number and variety of English translations began to multiply - there were no enforceable copyright laws and translators freely added episodes, changed names (and even genders) of some of the characters and cut portions of the text to conform to changing views on education and aesthetic tastes. There are probably over a dozen such variations and most who read the novel today are not reading the original (the 2007 Penguin Classics edition, edited by John Seelye, is the 1816 Godwin translation, which is the closest to the original). I have now read both William Kingston's 1879 adaptation (one of the more common versions) and Godwin, I believe the original by Wyss/Godwin is better. It's not abridged like most later versions so certain scenes just make more sense - some of the characters are more dynamic, like Ernest shows himself to be a capable bloodthirsty killer like his brothers (a scene cut from later editions to maintain his "bookish" nature) - the theories on education are classic Rousseauian (he is mentioned twice in the narrative).

This isn't your childhood Swiss family. Godwin's 1816 translation has rarely been in print until recently - most versions floating around are some variation of Isabelle de Montolieu's 1824 French adaptation (William H. G. Kingston's 1879 English translation of Montolieu's French adaption is probably the most common). In Montolieu/Kingston's version, the original ~400 page that Wyss wrote has been abridged to about 150 pages, with an additional 150 pages or so of new material added to the end (with an entirely different ending, new characters, etc). So if you've read Swiss family as a child, and are looking for an "unabridged" version, you may find Godwin's 1816 translation missing a lot of material - simply because Wyss never wrote it in the first place. I would also say Montolieu/Kingston's version (and others) are more "kid friendly" mainly because the Godwin translation is from 1816 and as such uses some language that is dated and has passages that would probably be boring or not make sense without historical context. So in a way there is no "right" version since most readers for the past 150 years have not been reading the "original" anyway. I would probably recommend the Montolieu/Kingston version for juvenile readers and the Godwin version for adults - or even better, read all of Godwin plus the second half of Montolieu/Kingston which is all new material, the first half just being an abridged version of Godwin.

Swiss Family is part of the "Robinsonade" tradition of castaways on a remote island who survive by their own wits and a laundry list of civilized goods. However Swiss is different from Robinson Crusoe in a number of important ways. Foremost it is a group of people and not an individual, society and civilization continue to function. Secondly unlike Crusoe who pays for his sins by being wrecked, and then finds redemption and is rewarded with his man "Friday" (Friday being the day of redemption), the Swiss family are always within the grace of god and never fall, they are rewarded from the very start for their faith. The sheer amount of material abundance in the novel is overwhelming - every vegetable and animal that is useful to man is found within a few square miles: Buffalo, cotton, penguins, gold, horses, etc.. and all ready and ripe for the picking. The stuff is there to educate the reader, so the inconvenient details are left aside (arguably a mis-education). As a product of the Enlightenment and burgeoning Industrial Revolution, the novel can be seen within the context the rise of the Middle Class. The reader is not only learning how to survive on an island, but Middle Class values in a culture of rising abundance of wealth and material goods. Partly for this reason, it is perhaps not surprising the story has continued to be popular to this day, particularly in America (a new Disney movie, an update of its 1960 classic, is coming out in 2009).

In the end I enjoyed the novel for what it is - a great adventure and inspiring family story. Many classic stories are challenging and interesting but not always "fun" - this one is just a great story and fun to read. It's even more fun knowing there are is a whole world of alternative versions available, with more adventures and different endings, but I'm glad to have read the original as it was written by Wyss (and his sons).

Update: For additional versions, the Wikipedia article has links to Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive and Google Books which have scans of old books freely available online. The Kingston version is there among others. There is also a library of pictures.

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Kim


Rudyard Kipling (1901)
1949 hardcover, MacMillan "Young People's Edition"(?)
May 2008

I didn't like Kim in balance. It has its attractions: the rich detail of Indian culture, the search for identity and opposing forces which create a fine balance along many axis, the quest story both religious and secular, the exoticism and beauty, the child-like sense of wonderment. But the Orientalism, racism and subtle homoeroticism just killed it for me, there were parts that just made me cringe and want to take a shower. As Orwell said in 1942, Kipling is a paradox: "During five literary generations, every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there." That might be a harsh judgment and with time my feelings will probably mellow.
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Seven Years in Tibet


Heinrich Harrer (1953)
Hardcover, 1954 "first edition"
May 2008

Seven Years in Tibet is a classic, to place it into historical context here is a "Brief History of Tibetan Travel Literature":

Prior to 1783, the only Westerners to travel to and write about Tibet were a few Jesuit priests and adventurers [[two early narratives are collected in Clements Markham, ed. Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and of the journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa (1876*)]]. These accounts were enough to spark European interest in the region but were too whimsical for ambitious colonialists who had grander designs in need of more specific information. Thus it is not surprising Tibet in 1792 closed its borders to Westerners: a 1783 British East India Company expedition had raised suspicions of Englands imperial intentions. Tibet became "The Forbidden Land", and for the entire 19th century - although many tried - only 3 Westerners reached the capital Lhasa, thus furthering its mystique. By 1904 the British - intending to finally establish diplomatic relations - sent an armed expedition under Francis Younghusband to Lhasa. It was successful, but bloody, causing international outrage [[newspaper reporter Edmund Chandler was there and wrote an account The Unveiling of Lhasa (1905*), as were a number of other books by participants. Travel writer Peter Fleming wrote a "full account" in Bayonets To Lhasa: The First Full Account Of The British Invasion Of Tibet In 1904 (1961*)]]. Kipling's novel Kim (1901*) was popular at the time, and it includes a romantic portrayal of a Tibetan lama which fueled imaginations of all-wise spiritual beings, but instead Younghusband found a reality of poverty and "feudal" backwardness.

After Younghusband's 1904 "gunboat" diplomatic mission, Tibet did allow a few British representatives in, but a steady tide of trespassers kept coming [[as described in Peter Hopkirk's Trespassers on the Roof of the World : The Secret Exploration of Tibet (1983)]]. Some of the more notable include Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel who in 1923 disguised herself as a beggar and reached Lhasa [[My Journey to Lhasa (1927)]] - in the same year American William Montgomery McGovern also made it to Lhasa using the same trick [[To Lhasa in Disguise (1924)*]]. By the 1930s modernity had started to make inroads, Tibet's aristocracy began to look outward, the borders were more fluid, and more well known personalities were writing about it in less Shangri-La cliches, notably Robert Byron [[First Russia, Then Tibet (1933)]], Marco Palli [[Peaks and Lamas (1939)*]], and Fosoco Maraini [[Secret Tibet (1952)]]. By the time Heinrich Harrer arrived in 1944 Tibet had only 6 years left before the Chinese Communists would invade and a new type of curtain would fall over The Forbidden Land. Harrer's 'Seven Years in Tibet' marks the end of "Old Tibet" (as a nation, and a western "secret land" literary tradition), and the start of a new contemporary era more focused on human rights, indigenous peoples and post-colonialism.

Seven Years in Tibet is foremost a great adventure story, National Geographic ranks it #20 in its list of all time best Outdoor/Adventure Literature. Some of the works mentioned in this review are also great adventure tales (David-Neel's book ranks at #55), but what sets Seven Years apart is that Harrer had a personal relationship with the Dalai Lama, the first Westerner to ever do so. The Dalai Lama is now a world figure but it was Harrer who first introduced him to the outside as his personal tutor. They remained close friends for life and it is probably no accident that after Harrer died in 2006 the Dalai Lama announced his "retirement" in 2007, a sort of symbolic closure with the West. In any case, although Harrer was not the first Westerner to reach or write about Lhasa, his war-time adventure and friendship with the Dalai Lama sets this account apart as not only great exploration/travel literature, but an important record of Tibet just before its fall to the Communists, and a history of the early life of the still living Dalai Lama.

* (work freely available online)
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The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom


Simon Winchester (2008)
Audiobook, narrated by author, 9.5hrs
May 2008

Simon Winchester certainly has the power to immortalize anyone or thing he writes about, and so it is with the life of Joseph Needham (1900-1995), a Cambridge scholar polymath. Needham is probably obscure to most people, but among his Don peers he is a legendary as the writer of a massive encyclopedia on Chinese science and civilization designed to answer that great question: Why was China the mother lode of scientific and cultural innovation for so long, and why did it come to a stop by the 15th century - why didn't the Industrial revolution happen in China? At one point China was making 15 great innovations per century (paper, compass, stirrup, etc..), according to Needham, but then the country stagnated and for the last 500 years or so had a reputation for backwardness and poverty. Similar to Jared Diamond's "Yali Question" (why did Europe have "cargo" and Yali didn't?), Needham set out to find answers by cataloging the history of Chinese innovation. He created a massive multi-volume encyclopedia of such prodigious learning, value and length it has been compared with James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, or Sidney Lee and the Dictionary of National Biography.

I've now read all four of Winchesters biographies (The Professor and the Madman (1998), The Map That Changed the World (2001), The Meaning of Everything (2003)) and I would rank "China" as good as 'The Meaning', not as good as 'Professor' and better than "Map". However Winchester has done something different this time and I hope he builds on it in the future, he has made the subject relevant on a global level - the rise of China and discovery of its past history and importance. More than a well-told and fascinating story of an eccentric English professor rescued from the obscurity of the archives, The Man Who Loved China in a way is about the bigger picture of the rise and future of the largest nation on Earth, one of the central events of the 21st century.
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Lapham's Quarterly About Money


Lewis Lapham (April 2008)
Volume 1, Number 2 (Spring 2008)
May 2008

My earlier review of the first issue of Lapham's Quarterly has a background on the journal in general; this is a review of the second issue: "About Money" (Spring 2008).

Before getting into the specific contents of this issue I want to relate a personal story. When I was younger, my grandmother would send a Christmas package each year that included a small bag of coins from other countries (real and defunct). Some were old and worn, others shiny and new, some had real value, most were no longer in currency, artifacts of another age durable enough to survive alongside rocks, fishing hooks and other curiosities of a boys collection box. I would sometimes go through the pile of strange coinage, feeling the weight of each, the different shapes and languages and pictures, the clinking sounds of different metals on metal from countries that normally never mix, except in collections, and my mind would wonder - who owned this coin, what is its story? Such is this collection of essays about money from vastly different time periods and authors, each page a coin to discover and treasure, some old, others new, some of value, others not so much, to compare and find new meaning by their relative position to one another, a sum greater than the parts.

The format of "About Money" is similar to "States of War" (see previous review) ) with an opening essay by Lapham followed by 5 thematic sections titled: "Exchange Rates", "Earnings", Expenditures", "Liquidity" and "Derivatives". Lapham says this "five-part improvisation can be read as an attempt to restore power to the American dialectic; it can also be read as a gloss on the bull-market in superstition, along the lines of what the watchers at the bedside of the Dow Jones Industrial Average like to call a "technical correction." - In other words, words of wisdom from the past about the problems of the present.

There are some real gems within and here are my favorites with brief commentary: "Savannah" (p.48) by Mortimer Thomas is an amazingly banal look at the evil of slave trading - humans reduced to pure commodity, notable for its clear-eyed lack of emotion. "West Germany" (p.50) is a letter sent to debtors offering to buy their internal organs (kidney) in exchange for debt relief - in 1987! "Wall Street" (p.55) by Daniel Loeb is a masterpiece of character assassination - and wonderfully entertaining."Peking" (p.60) by Liu Xu is a colorful and exotic journey into a lost Orient. "Detroit" (p.68) by Henry Ford tells of his early career, rise to power and business philosophy, sort of like a conversation one might have over drinks looking back on his younger days. "Roulettenburg" (p.82) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the best descriptions of what it's like to be on a gambling winning streak - I've experienced this before and the feeling, the mystery of it all, is spot on.

"Paris" (p.108) by George Orwell is a reminder that being poor (really poor) does have its disadvantages, this story would shake any romantic vision of the starving artist. "Titanic Dinner Menu" (p.119), the first-class dinner menu the night the Titanic sunk. After reading this ten-courcse meal(!) I felt like sinking myself. Probably the greatest "last supper" ever served (compare with death-row inmate last suppers). "Pennsylvania" (p.120) by John Updike, finds a natural connection between lust and money - the lights are on, the gross details are out in the open, the vulgarity of greed and sex are exposed as grubbing grabbing debasement. "Fifth Avenue" (p.133) by Mark Singer shows how shallow Donald Trump is, yet after Trump read this article in The New Yorker he said "Some people cast shadows, and some people choose to live in those shadows," suggesting a slightly more nuanced internal life of Trump. The picture facing this page by Lauren Greenfield is superb and my favorite in this issue. "Sardinia" (p.151) describes a birthday party of obscene opulence, where everything is so over the top that in the end it all seems blasai and typical.

"New York City" (p.159) by James Crammer, a recent piece from 2007, describing the current financial crises and the big picture in easy to understand terms. "New York City" (p.161) by Washington Irving, an historical counter-point to Crammer's article, warns of regular financial turmoils that come and go and the signs of their coming can be read like old sailors storm warnings. "Germany/Czech Republic" (p.166) by Loretta Napoleoni describes the trade in human sex-slaves ongoing today (we learn that a white European female sex slave can be bought in Israel for $8 to $10,000 a head).

Of the 4 guest essayists (Jack Weatherford, Jackson Lears, Tim Parks, Edward Castronova) I think Lears is the best, but they are all interesting and accessible and enlightening. There is also a counter-factual "What if.." history essay about what would have happened if Hitler had destroyed the retreating Dunkirk expeditionary force - but I found it unconvincing: Churchill always maintained he was never truly worried about loosing the war except in the early days of the German U-Boat campaign, when England for a short while lost control of the seas.

Overall a good issue. The subject matter is a little more intellectually challenging than the first issue on War, and the "narrative" is less clear. I found the more obscure pieces to be the most rewarding as I I'd never have found it otherwise. Looking forward to future issues.

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Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal


Ben Macintyre (2007)
First, hard
May 2008

The Fifth Estate (spies) in World War II for the most part played a larger role in popular imagination than reality. However there were a few who stood apart and lived up to the legends of a James Bond character. Eddie Chapman's files until recently have been locked away in secret government vaults, but through freedom of information, his story has finally gone public. Times corespondent Ben Macintyre has combed through the reports and reconstructed Eddies story with a novelists flair. First serialized in the Times and then published as book in England and the US, it is an addictive page turner, excellent weekend reading that will enthrall and entertain, all the more so because it's so improbably true.
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Since Yesterday The 1930's in America, September 3, 1929-September 3, 1940


Frederick Lewis Allen (1940)
Paperback, Bantam Classic 1961
May 2008

Since Yesterday (1940) is a journalistic history of the 1930's in America. Frederick Lewis Allen also wrote Only Yesterday (1930) about the 1920's, and these two books are probably his most well known and popular. It is written in a conversational tone for a popular audience and at times is really entertaining and fascinating. It's at its best discussing popular culture and the changing zeitgeist of America, the political and economic history is often a bit dry. It's valuable for learning about the era because it was one of the first attempts at writing a history of the 1930's, when the events were still fresh, the episodes Allen focuses on are what the people of the time found the most important and foremost in their conscious. Thus one gets a sense of how events flowed together, how one thing effected the next, a more holistic view. The 1930's were very dynamic for a lot of reasons, probably one of the most rapidly changing of the 20th century despite it's sorid reputation for gangsters, dust bowls and the depression - World War II was largely a product of the 1930's and that war defined the rest of the century (and beyond). My interpretation (not Allen's) is that modern technological innovations had begun to spread to the masses: radio, machinery, electricity - these things created more free time, rising rates of education and political involvement - it's obviously part of a continuing process that can be seen in the world today in China, India, etc.. we have much to learn about the changes other countries are going through by looking back and the changes in our own country in the 1930's.
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Mill


David Macaulay (1983)
Hard, first
April 2008

This is my first Macaulay book and I couldn't be more happy, a remarkable achievement of form and function. The progression of time, from 1800 to the present, encapsulates the character and spirit of the Industrial Revolution. The ghosts are around still, many an old mills stony ruins still lay open to explore along woody river banks. Mills were a high-technology of the day, Macaulay's hyper-real pictures and expert explanation both demystifies and creates a new romance and love through skillful storytelling and beautiful artwork. Mill was published almost 25 years ago before global warming was much of a concern, and the books examples unwittingly show exactly where and how things went wrong, as the mill transitioned from water power to coal power in the 1870s, it no longer seems abstract.. Of all Macaulay's books this is the one that will probably be closest to home, the most immediate to my personal experience, but I look forward to reading many more of his remarkable books, almost all wining multiple prestigious awards.
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Blessed Unrest How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming


Paul Hawken (2007)
Hardcover, first
April 2008

A few years ago, activist author Paul Hawken set out to create a database of every non-profit in the world categorized into a taxonomy, which is now on the web in a sort of Wikipedia community format at wiserearth.org - This had never really been done before and he was surprised by the sheer number of organizations working independently to make the world a better place. He found a common thread that all were concerned about the environment and human justice. From this he concluded that there is a global "movement" (a word with many qualifiers) the likes of which have never been seen. He compares it to the "Industrial Revolution" - at the time everyone knew something different was happening, but no one had a name for it or even described it as a unique event, it was both everywhere and unrecognized. Likewise, according to Hawken, this global movement is from the ground up, with no core ideology or leadership, it's an historical mass movement that has snuck up on us and only now being recognized as a major shift.

I think Hawken's message is a powerful one and will appeal to the millions of people working in small groups in isolation against large and powerful forces. Hawken does in fact describe a new trend that has been observed by others: the recent rise, proliferation and influence of NGOs. Hawken contends top-down organizations led by ideologies are old school 20th century, the future is distributed small organic holistic, sort of like how Wikipedia is made, millions of individuals (small and large NGOs) contributing expertise on a local basis that has the net effect of global human and environmental justice.

I had some problems with the book, it is clearly a one-sided manifesto and much of it is historical anecdote of well known incidents (the Bolivian water wars, the India coke pesticide case, etc..) and presents a single side. These issues are extremely complex, it is rarely so easy to say there are good and bad guys, it is harmful IMO to present these controversial issues so one-sided and hold them up as poster children for reform. Why not look at the real undisputed success stories that everyone can get behind? He does in some cases such as Rachel Carson's fight against DDT. Overall I was touched by Hawken's passion, vision and (ironically) his idealism.

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The Sketch Book


Washington Irving (1819-20)
The Modern Readers' Series, 1929
April 2008

Completed the ones I had not read yet. None stand out, the best remains "Rip Van Winkle", "Sleepy Hollow", "Spectre Bridegroom", "Mutability of Literature" and the Bracebridge Hall Chirstmas cycle.

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The Call of the Wild


Jack London (1903)
As collected in The Call of the Wild / The Sea-Wolf by Jack London (International Book Collector) (1990)
April 2008

The Call of the Wild (1903) is generally considered London's best work, London himself was a wild man: drunk heavily, whored, jailed, tramped, poached, prospected - the bastard son of a wandering Irish astrologer. The novel is London's reconciliation with his own wild nature - he eventually killed himself in 1916 with an overdose of morphine - but not before he produced a prodigious amount of work becoming one of the most popular authors of his age, and certainly one of the best storytellers. His work is at its best seen from the conflict between animal instinct and intellectual reason.

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The Silent World A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure, by the First Men to Swim At Record Depths with the Freedom of Fish


Jacque Cousteau and Frederic Dumas (1953)
Hardcover, first
April 2008

The Silent World was Jacques Cousteau's first book and his introduction to the English speaking world (although a French national he wrote the book in English). The documentary of the same name, showing events detailed in the book, was released in 1956 and won an Academy Award, launching Cousteau on his famed career. The Silent World has never gone out of print (estimates at over 5 million copies sold) and Cousteau went on to publish over 50 books and countless documentaries as well as a tireless advocate of ocean conservation.

In 1943 in southern France in the middle of WWII, Cousteau and friends invented modern scuba-diving. It seems unlikely with France effectively out of the war under Axis occupation, many Frenchmen had a lot of time but not a lot of resources, even basics such as food were in short supply. Cousteau, in his early 30s, found himself in a sort of proto-hippie group who lived on the beach diving for fish and showing off how deep they could free dive, manly men doing manly things while they sat out the war. Eventually they started experimenting to find ways to go deeper (stay under longer) and Cousteau commissioned the first "aqua-lung", basically the first modern scuba tank with a breathing regulator. Prior to this assisted diving was tethered to a breathing tube at the surface. Suddenly Cousteau and his two diving buddies, Frederic Dumas and Phillipe Taillez, were exploring the undersea world in ways never done before: free-floating like a fish with extended lengths underwater. They did a lot of experimentation with equipment and the effects of depth on the human bodily, discovering the rules of diving that are still followed to this day.

The Silent World is a memoir of the most interesting and dangerous experiences during that golden 10 year period between 1943 and 53 when scuba diving went from a new invention to an established and important occupation. After the war there was a lot of wrecks that needed salvaging and harbors to be de-mined. Cousteau took part in underwater archeology trips. A daring and almost fatal descent into a freshwater sinkhole cave. Wreck diving, encounters with sharks and whales. In terms of underwater exploration, Cousteau and his team were like Neal Armstrong on the moon or Christopher Columbus - but more than just explorers they were film-makers and popularizer's of the beauty of the ocean. He soon gave up his harpoon and hunted the depths with a camera, often saying people preserve what they like, and he hoped to show the oceans in a way people would like. It's easy to imagine this book being written by someone else, a dry technical manual that is outdated - but Cousteau's book remains timeless, it speaks to the imagination of limitless possibility, beauty of the ocean and excitement of discovery. I have no doubt in 50 more years it will still be in print and widely read and enjoyed.

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The French Revolution (A Very Short Introduction)


William Doyle (2001)
First, paperback
April 2008

This small-format paperback is only 108 pages ("very short") but packs a wallop. The French Revolution is a hugely complex topic, not least because it remains to this day highly controversial, there are 100s of tomb-length books including the flood of books on the 200th anniversary in 1989. Where to start? Here. Doyle gives an overview of the basic events but that is not his main purpose. Rather his chapter titles explain: "Why it happened", "How it happened", "What it ended", "What it started" and "Where it stands." In other words, he uses historiography to put it into historical context. In the end the actual events are curious and interesting, but they were so confusing and full of contingencies that even contemporaries had trouble keeping track of what was happening around them. The bigger questions of Doyle's chapter titles provide a higher-level understanding that rises above the trees and gives an understanding that would take years of reading specialized books to arrive at. Doyle himself is well known for the Oxford history of the French Revolution, respected for its even-handed treatment, representing all sides and taking a neutral point of view. It can be read in an evening and the reader will come away with a clear understanding of why it's important and where the main axis of debate lay today.

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A Passage to India


E. M. Forster (1924)
Hardcover, Readers Digest "World's Best Reading", Afterward by Scott Russell Sanders (1989)
April 2008

The 1920s were dominated by the younger modernists who rejected the older generation of writers Forster was born into so it's curious to see this work not only survive by thrive. His writing style is notably old-fashioned (enjoyably so) but the themes are very 20th century which gives it a certain air of authentic beauty. It is a mysterious and fractured novel in which we see the multiple contrasting faces of India: English/India, Muslims/Hindus, Brahmans/Untouchables (caste), clans, sects, men/women, princes/beggars, Northerns/Southerners - there is no single "India", it is a confusing, complex and fractured landscape. Can there be harmony, can order be imposed, can order even exist? Ultimately this is a spiritual question of the Universe in general: does life have meaning, the great question of all religions. In the end, when the boat sinks in the lake, for a brief moment, all the fractured elements come together in a sort of comic accidental soup - then separate and go their own way. Forster never answers the question, how could he, it is the greatest question ever, but he sets up the actors and creates the conditions to allow us to examine, ponder and wander, to "travel lightly."
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The Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck (1939)
Hardcover
April 2008

Steinbeck's novel of social injustice was from the beginning considered a Great American Novel selling over 300,000 copies in its first year, "a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all, it was read." Steinbeck scholar John Timmerman sums up the book's impact: "The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most thoroughly discussed novel - in criticism, reviews, and college classrooms - of twentieth century American literature." Within a year John Ford made a major movie starring Henry Fonda and in 1962 the Nobel committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a "great work" and as one of the committee's main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps it's most fundamental message is the equality of life, there is no difference between the poor and rich, other than a bank account, all life is sacred. Treat a poor person with dignity and respect and they will and can do as well as anyone else. It is a timeless message and one that bears constant repeating, although Steinbeck's treatment is a bit folksy and sentimental.

Contemporary critic Carl Van Doren said "This novel did more than any other Depression novel to revise the picture of America as Americans imagined it." The American image of the frontier pioneer moving westward had shifted to the Joad family. The Joads encapsulated the American character and spirit of independence, scrappy can-do hard-working virtuous, an American hero archetype. Martin Seymour-Smith says the work is fundamentally flawed because Steinbeck can not show why the California businessmen's behavior is wrong - after all, they are just trying to make a living, would the Joad's in their shoes have acted any different? "There is a conflict in him [Steinbeck] between the philosophical unanimist and the humane socialist," in other word how the Joad's treat animals (as objects) but demand equality in humans. Thus the books message of all life being sacred, no matter its circumstance, is fundamentally contradicted.

In the end Grapes of Wrath is of epic proportions and a gripping story. It's often seen as the quintessential American novel of the 1930s and certainly one of Steinbeck's best (along with Of Mice and Men).

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The Thirties A time to remember


Don Congdon (1962)
Hardcover, first
April 2008

The Thirties is a wonderful anthology of short essays about the 1930's, mostly magazine articles and book excerpts written between 1930 and 1960 by many well known authors, including Steinbeck and Arthur Schlesinger. It covers a broad slice of life including politics, crime, natural and man-made disasters, new technologies, books, music etc.. the editor, Don Congdon, has written a number of excellent introductions to each section. When the anthology was published in 1962 it was only about 22 years since the 1930s had ended, about as close to their time as 1989 is to our own, so the target audience was probably the middle aged and senior citizen - today, for most of us, the thirties are ancient history so this "old" anthology is even more interesting as a barometer of the zeitgeist of the time, an early attempt at deciding what was important by the people who had recently lived through it. This is a long (generous) anthology so I will list here the pieces that I think are essential. There are really no bad pieces, but a few are just knock-out interesting and well written.

"The Texas Babe" (Paul Gallico, Vanity Fair 1932), a profile of the greatest woman athlete of the 20th century, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson. This particular piece has since been rejected by some revisionist historians as being misogynistic, but within the context of the time, it's an excellent profile that goes to the heart of her make-up and why she was so important.

"The Akron and the Three Who Came Back" (John Toland, Ships in the Sky 1957). An edge of seat reconstruction of the Akron blimp disaster off the Jersey coast. I'd never heard of this before but it is a gruesome and compelling story, easily could be a movie.

"Hitchhiker" (Eric Sevareid, Not So Wild a Dream 1946). Excerpt from his book which has never gone out of print, I plan on reading it soon. Tells of his travels around the world as a young man, this piece about hoboing on trains. Beautiful literary style and great adventure.

"Scottsboro Boys" (Allan Chalmers, They Shall Be Free 1951). A year by year summary of major events in the Scottsboro Case, wherein a couple young southern black boys were falsely convicted of raping white women by an all white jury and sentenced to death. This was constantly in the news for most of the 1930s, an excellent and readable summation of this important marker in American black history.

"Dillinger" (Alan Hynd, True Magazine, 1956). A re-telling of John Dillinger's life of crime. He was a sort of Robbin Hood folk-hero. This is a gripping piece as good as any novel. See also the 1945 movie.

"The Almost Assassination of Thomas E. Dewey" (Burton Turkus and Sid Feder, Murder, Inc. 1951). Another gripping true-crime story, this time with a twist ending. Provides insight into the New York mobster scene and what it was like to be a hit-man.

"Pity the poor Giant" (Paul Gallico, Farewell to Sport 1938). Another sports piece by Gallico (of The Poseidon Adventure fame). The sad story of Primo Carnera, an Italian giant of a man who became the world champion boxer, only to be used up and left out to dry by his corrupt handlers. Fascinating story well told with a novelists flare.

"The Men from Mars" (John Houseman, Harper's Magazine 1948). A fascinating inside account of Orson Welles' famous 40-minute radio-play The War of the Worlds that caused mass hysteria around the country. Explains the series of unintended accidents that caused it to be so widely believed by so many.

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The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl


Timothy Egan (2006)
Audiobook
April 2008

The Worst Hard Time is a popular history of the "Dust Bowl", the period of drought in the 1930s on the Great for modern Plains (the "dirty thirties"). Egan focuses on the story of the common man, inter-weaving about a dozen characters and their families. Along the way we learn about the larger history of the settlement of the Great Plains, the series of events that lead to the "sod busters" breaking up the grasses, and the great drought of the 1930s that led to the massive dirt blizzards or dust storms from which the plains have still not fully recovered. Although left unsaid by Egan, the elephant in the room is how human actions on the environment can have massive and long term negative consequences.

Listening to this as an audio-book has its disadvantages because it is difficult to keep the names straight as Egan weaves back and forth between the many characters and places with anecdotal stories. At some point early on I gave up trying to keep all the people and places straight because it didn't really seem to matter as there was no central narrative, just a lot of random stories. The majority of the book is composed of dramatized short narratives of a page or two in length, organized in chronological determined chapters.

Comparing this to Little Heathens (my last book) - also about farm life in the mid-west in the 1930s - Heathens offers a much richer and deeper understanding of what small farm life was like (although not in the Dust Bowl). Egan's account is based largely on archival diary entries and it is often banal reading. Whereas Heathens captures the spirit of the times, Egan is at his best at the extremes - extreme events, people, weather. I would have liked to have heard more natural history about the geology, plant life, animals. More history about the recovery program and present day conditions (there is a brief epilogue). For what it is, it's a good introduction to the place and time. Probably the best way to understand it is directly from primary sources, which are still easily accessible.

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Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression


Mildred Armstrong Kalish (2007)
Hardcover first
April 2008

Little Heathens is a near anthropological survey of life on a small family farm in Iowa during the 1930's, when there was no electricity, running water, bathrooms and very few if any "store bought" goods. It is today a world foriegn in this age of convience and Millie laments the loss of the "rich store of knowledge that had been bestowed on us by life on that simple farm," and the self-confidence and self-reliance it fostered. It's odd that this simple little memoir - nothing more than an elder grandparent retelling what life was like "when I was young" - has struck a chord with so many readers, it is one of the New York Times 10 most notable books of 2007. The Times attributes its success in part because so many memoirs today are about unsavory people doing scandelous things, it is a relief to read about a real person going about a "normal" life (if such a thing exists), someone you'd like to have as a relative or friend, or even to walk in her shoes (when she wore any). Partly it is Millie herself who is humble, sincere and likeable.

But it is also, I believe, about bigger current day issues: Global Warming, Peak Oil, Recessions, high food prices and other man-made slow motion train wrecks have many questioning if society is on the right track and naturally many are looking back to the past for answers. A return to the country, simplicity, slow pace of life, the values of thrift, honor and tradition are finding wides audiences in modern forms, such as organics, slow food, alternative energy. They say when you reach a certain age "everything old is new again" and Millies account of the 1930s is finding a lot of interest in these times. It's a beautiful book of substance and simplicity, I recommend it highly.

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Deliverance


James Dickey (1970)
Hardcover, first
April 2008

Since the appearance of the movie version of Deliverance in 1972 the story of four "city boy" weekend warriors who tangle with a couple mountain men in north Georgia has become a part of modern cultural mythology. Phrases like "Now, let's you just drop them pants," and "I'm gonna make you squeal like a pig," are, for better or worse, instantly recognizable. However for everyone who has seen the movie fewer probably know about or have much interest in the original novel by James Dickey published in 1970. The old saying about the book being better than movie is not the case here, not because the movie is better - the movie in fact is such a faithful adaptation of the book most of the dialog remains intact and no major scenes are cut - rather the movie plays to its strengths of excellent actors and cinematography, while the book plays its strengths as literature with depth of meaning. Both the movie and book are excellent and for anyone who has seen the movie reading the book will add new nuances, themes and insights that take it beyond just a good thriller and into the realm of classic literature. The Modern Library lists it at #42 in its list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th century.

At its core the story is about a clash of cultures, between the "city boys" and the "mountain men". Traditionally the mountain culture of Appalachia is an "Honor Culture", similar to the border regions of Scotland (where many of the people originally migrated from). Honor cultures often arise in mountain regions because the isolated geography creates weak or non-existent law enforcement and everyone is sort of the sheriff taking justice into their own hands (Hatfield and McCoys). In such an environment a persons honor is the currency of the realm - insult that honor and revenge is required. Similar dynamics can be seen still in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya or wherever law enforcement is weak or non-existent (Iraq ca. 2008 for example).

Lewis Medlock (Burt Renyolds) represents modern mans rebellion against the confines and constraints of the rule of the law, he laments the loss of the culture of honor where a man can stand up for himself on his own turf with his own hands. However in the end he gets more than he bargained for discovers how fragile and brief life can be in the un-tamed wilderness of mens hearts. Lewis changes in the end, becoming less reckless and more content to live a peaceful and quiet life in the civilized lawns of suburbia. The other characters go through similar transformations of which I will let the reader ponder. Even the river itself is tamed in the end, becoming a resort lake.

There is one major plot difference in the novel which remains a mystery. As Ed is a leaving, the sherrif warns him not to come back. But then the Sherrif, in his final words of the book, says to Ed: "You damned fucking ape. Who on earth was your father, boy?" and Ed replies "Tarzan". Now, this has to be contrasted with an earlier line in the book when one of the mountain men says the river can climb the cliff walls "like a monkey". Clearly, the sherrif knew more than he was saying, he knew a lot more. Perhaps it was intuition, or perhaps a lucky guess, but it changes the whole character of the ending - they got away with murder because the Sherrif let them go, not because they outsmarted anyone. The wilderness always wins in the end.

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History (A Very Short Introduction)


John A. Arnold (2000)
Oxford UP paperback
April 2008

John Arnold is a professor of Medieval history in England and has written an excellent 123 page introduction to the field of history. He illustrates his narrative with obscure but interesting examples from Medieval and early Modern to show how historians approach their craft, the kinds of questions they ask, how primary sources are used, and issues such as periodization. He also has an excellent but brief "history of history" from the Greeks to the modern era touching on some of the most important authors and books (for a more in-depth look, see Burrow's excellent A History of Histories (2008)).

Although a lot of this is already familiar to me, probably the most interesting revelation was how historians (and their works) can be classified into "camps" or tribes. History is always more than "just the facts", there is an underlying purpose and approach. However historians are notoriously sly about revealing their position for fear of being seen as prejudiced or non-objective, it usually has to be dug out by the reader or exposed by an intelligent reviewer what approach they are taking. Arnold classifies most histories into three main camps: political, social and cultural. Each sees the prime mover of history through a different lens and borrows techniques and concepts from other fields (political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, etc..). Further, within each camp, historians can often have a key philosophical difference, as seen through the question: were people in the past similar to us, or different from us? This is for example what sets the Annales school apart, they see people of the past as being different from us, exotic and therefore open to a wide range of possible interpretation. Arnold offers his own solution to the problem: people of the past were both, just as people around the world today are both similar and different from us. Arnold likewise has an "on the fence" answer to the old question of what the prime mover of history is- he sees it as simply a series of contingencies, one accident after the next with no single person or institution in control of what happens. In the end I really enjoyed this VSI because Arnold writes with a novelists care, engaging the reader with stories and narrative.

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The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit


Charles Dickens (1844)
Hardcover "Books, Inc." 1936 set of 20, Vol. II
April 2008

Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) is Dickens sixth novel, written after his first visit to America. It is generally considered transitional between his earlier and later works of maturity, Dickens borrows less from the picaresque (Martin's trip to America) and begins to focus on character development and a central theme, creating a unique style of his own. The theme, as Dickens says in the Preface, is "selfishness". It was written at the same time he wrote A Christmas Carol, and at the time he thought of Chuzzlewit the best novel to date - he was particularly attached to his characters Tom and Mary Pinch. Today the novel is one of his lesser known and read, although still generally has a positive critical reception.

This is my sixth Dickens novel and they all take forever to read, at this point I have probably spent more time reading Dickens than any other novelist. The more I read the more I respect and enjoy, there is not a page that doesn't have an amazing passage, very often I find myself reading it aloud, acting out the scene and characters (something Dickens himself sometimes did while writing). There is a sense of the unlimited, of imagination unbounded - it's the same feeling I had when younger playing D&D or reading Lord of the Rings, a rich tapestry world with no end of possibility. His descriptions and choice of words are truly unique. Even if the plot is circumstantial and old-fashioned, Dickens can be read for his aesthetic and artistic beauty alone. The more immersed in Dickens one becomes, the more impressed upon the 19th century mind-set, emotions, way of thinking - a sense of the emotional, feeling, that no history book could portray.

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Earth: The Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming


Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn (2008)
Hardcover, first
March 2008

I don't know what it is about book sub-titles these days but they all have them, and this one generously has *two*, "The Sequel" and the common "The Race To.." (at least it's not "..That Changed the World"). I very often avoid books with these sub-titles because I know exactly what to expect: a long magazine article that would have been better in a magazine and not as a book. However in this case I took the chance because one of the co-authors is Fred Krupp, President of the influential Environmental Defense Fund. Even though it is indeed written like a magazine article (very skillfully I assume mostly by Miriam Horn) with lots of human interest stories and non-fiction narrative techniques, the content is well worth it.

Essentially it is a survey of the current technologies, companies and people involved with alternative energy in the United States. Even though I follow this stuff in the news and blogs there was tons of new stuff here I never knew about. Some of the people involved are really fascinating. Some of the companies are much further along than I realized. Others are probably not the solutions I thought they may be. My copy is marked up with people and companies to watch.

If the book has a re-curring message it is this: free markets work, but only if there is a cap and trade system to adjust the cost of fossil fuels upward, so that alternative technologies have a chance to develop and compete. If there is no cost to pollute, than obviously clean technologies are at a disadvantage. This has to change, and soon.

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The Animal Family


Randall Jarrell (1965), illus. Maurice Sendak
1996 hardcover re-print
March 2008

Randall Jarrell (1914-65) is better known as a poet, although probably best known today for his poetry criticism. He also wrote a few children's book, most notably The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family, the later published the same year he died and winning the 1966 Newbery Honor. It is wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak, of Where the Wild Things Are fame, in beautiful pen and ink drawings.

The story is a sort of fable along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll, but updated with a 1960s message. It is about a lonely hunter who lives in a cabin by the sea who with time comes to gather around him a "family" of very different creatures, first a mermaid, and then a bear, lynx, and human boy. Each is an orphan whose parents have either died or somehow left the scene. They all are very different animals yet find comfort and eventually identity with one another. It is a story in the spirit of the Age of Aquarius, when songs such as "Free to Be.. You and Me" resonated during a cultural revolution in which boundaries of class, race and, in this case, even species were being explored, when everyone was a "brother" and "sister".

My reading of the story in its 1960s context is only one interpretation, this is not a heavy handed preachy book by any measure, it is timeless in its message about toleration of differences, the power of love to overcome anything (including for a mermaid to live on land, in effect brining a happy ending to Hans Andersen's otherwise brutal The Little Mermaid), and in particular for those who seek out love and find it in the most un-expected places. It is a short book, easy to read, and poetically written. Over the past 40 years it has found a place close to the heart of many children and adults, I only wish I had discovered it sooner.

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A Slave No More Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom


David W. Blight (2007)
First hardcover
March 2008

Recently two new important African-American slave narratives have come to light, published here along with scholarly commentary for the first time. They are considered significant by historians because they support a theory that slaves played a role in bringing about their own freedom. Traditionally slavery is thought to have ended with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation - Lincoln freed the slaves, we are taught in school. However, is it possible that the slaves themselves played a role in their own freedom, that their own actions, conscious or not, helped bring about Emancipation? This is what today many historians contend,1 and these two narratives support that view. "For most slaves", Blight says, "freedom did not come on a particular day; it evolved by process." It was the process of waves of slaves escaping into Union lines as the war moved south, often forming shanty towns of "contrabands" (as the Union called escaped slaves, they were initially classified by the north as property). Eventually something had to be done about the"contraband" and Lincoln signed some limited laws that gave them freedom, which eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But it was the slaves desire for freedom, willing to risk life by escaping, that forced the issue of Emancipation. Further, many of these freed slaves then took up arms and joined the Union army. It is estimated over 700,000 of the nearly 4 million slaves found freedom through this "process", the remaining 3.3 million achieving freedom with the 13th Amendment.

Whatever the historical debates, these narratives are interesting and even thrilling. Although not as well written as Frederick Douglass, in many ways the adventures of these young men are more real and tangible - as private documents they were not written to be published, not filtered through an editor. They were meant for friends and family and thus have a rough, raw real edge to them.

David Blight has done a great service to historians and the public by both publishing the original sources and summarizing and expanding on them. Each of the two narratives has a corresponding chapter that re-creates the narrative in more detail and clarity for the modern reader. In addition there are two chapters that examine what happened to the men after the war including some fascinating pictures. No two slave narratives are alike and these will surely not disappoint as important historical case examples and thrilling stories. America has two new unsung heroes representative of 100s of thousands who sought and found their own freedom.

1 - See "They Chose Freedom", by James M. McPherson in The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 4. March 20, 2008

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Banana The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World


Dan Koeppel (2008)
Hardcover, first
March 2008

This is a popular science non-fiction narrative about the banana, added to my growing library of books about 'things' that have "changed the world" such as salt, lobster, cod, sushi and the kangaroo. Similair to these other books we learn about the biology, the origins, some cultural myths, the recent history and present day issues while being introduced to some interesting characters told in an engaging manner that keeps the pages flipping easily. It's an ok book for the information but I felt it could have been better.

There are some factual errors, such as calling the year 1517 "post-Enlightenment" (p.21). There are a number of typographical errors where words run on into each other with no spaces (at least 3 separate occasions, entire lines as one long word). Most of the information is archival-based, with a few interesting first-person trips to Central America, Europe and Africa. The central "mystery" that drives the book forward - the plight of the banana - is exposed too soon and too often so we basically know the ending early on. There is no "main character" who ties everything together, other than the banana and Koeppel, so it lacks a certain feeling of significance that books like this at their best have - a central compelling personal story. He doesn't mind telling us on a number of occasions how many notebooks of data and how hard he worked researching the banana - well, of course, it goes without saying but there are no footnotes and a slim 3-page bibliography.

Worth it for the interesting history of the banana and current issues, but feel the book could have been better had Koeppel shown us, the reader, more excitement for his subject and/or someone alive today we can identify with as the physical embodiment of "Banana" - the book would have been longer and Koeppel might have in the end contributed something original of lasting impact rather than a mostly archival based summary backgrounder.

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The Best American Essays 1998 (The Best American Series)


Cynthia Ozick (editor), Robert Atwan (series editor) (1998)
Paperback
March 2008

I found this at a used book store bargain bin, it is now my second "Best American Series" book and I really enjoyed it. The variety of writing that can fall under the classification of "essay" is so vast that the editor has somewhat of a hard job in choosing. In this case Ozick focuses on retrospections, older people looking back on their lives. I appreciate the thematic organization, but I am certain these are not the "best", rather ones that have a common theme. But then, what is "the best"? J.M. Coetzee examines this question and more in "What is realism?", probably the most mind blowing essay of the bunch - I'm not sure if it's fiction, non-fiction or a lesson on writing but it really opened my eyes to some of the games and tricks of writing.

Other essays I enjoyed include Jeremy Bernstein's "The Merely Very Good" which is both an interesting history lesson about some famous 20th century physicists, and a lesson of what it means to be really smart, but not at the top of your field, second-tier. "A Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hoagland is a short beautifully romantic piece about the natural world at a summer mountain cottage, although it could just as easily be anyones back-yard (replace the bears with chipmunks). Louis Simpson's "Soldier's Heart" is a somewhat dark and effecting story of a WWII vet who had PTSD and ended up in the hospital getting electro-shock therapy and the lifetime it took to recover and heal from both experiences. Finally, Diana Trilling's "A Visit To Camelot" is a re-telling of a party she went to at the Whitehouse with the Kennedy's, it's magical.
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The Hunt for Red October


Tom Clancy (1984)
First edition hardcover (Naval Institute Press)
March 2008

It's been almost a quarter century since Tom Clancy's first novel Red October surfaced in 1984. It was launched by an obscure publisher in Annapolis called Naval Institute Press better known for books targeted to career Navy professionals. Perhaps not surprisingly, Navel Institute Press had never published fiction before - it was a bold experiment by a first-time novelist and first-time publisher. Of course the experiment worked fantastically, its popularity reached a zenith when U.S. President Ronald Reagan called it "unputdown-able" - it was soon on the reading list of every red-blooded patriotic American.

Today Red October is generally seen as the genesis of a new genre: the "techno thriller". Focusing on military procedures and weapons hardware, it describes the "what" and "how" of war (the more rewarding question of "why" we fight - if we should fight at all - is usually tackled by the more literary authors). Looking at the historical precedents for this type of writing the short story The Battle of Dorking (1871) is where it all began. First published in England's Blackwood's Magazine it is a first-person account about a (fictional) invasion of England by Germany. It was written soon after the Franco-Prussian War - when Germany used new technologies to quickly gain an advantage and early victory - Dorking was a huge hit with the public playing into popular fears and policy makers who used it to justify the creation of the earliest modern spy agencies. It was so successful that today it is considered the founding work of "invasion literature", a genre of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was influential in fanning war hysteria leading up to WWI. The books were "calculated to inflame public opinion abroad and alarm the more ignorant public at home," as one English Prime Minister at the time complained.

Likewise, the techno thrillers of the 1980s contributed to a pro-military culture, a re-newed and vigorous form of patriotism that imagined American know-how (technology) would prevail against the "red" menace, like the 1983 "Star Wars" missle defense system. We already know Clancy influenced Reagan, and probably a generation of military professionals, the only question is to what degree. Clearly during the 1980s and 90s a lot of people believed the fiction and it lead to a wave of patriotic American hubris in the wake of the Soviet collapse, eventually crashing spectacularly on the rocky shores of Iraq. "They thought they could create their own reality, but reality snapped back," as historian Fred Kaplan puts it, talking about his recent book on this subject Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power.[1]

Clancy's success is a guage of how influential the techno thrill has been. After Red October, he was churning out thrillers almost yearly making him one of the top selling authors of the 80s (Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) - a peer of Steven King, Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel on the Best Seller Lists. In 1990 Red October was adapted to film starring Sean Connery eventually grossing over $200 million. Many more book-to-film adaptations followed in the 90s and by the 21st century the franchise had expanded into video games. Naval Institute Press' gamble paid off handsomely and it continues to sell new fiction titles with Red October remaining its best seller. Perhaps most influentially, the genre Clancy started has exploded with dozens of new authors and books appearing yearly, a recent example is The Ghost War by Alex Berenson which had a prominent review in this weeks New York Times Book Review (March 23, 2008).[2]

Whatever its faults, Red October is something of a creative breakthrough, it is considered the foundation of a genre for a reason. By focusing on hyper-real clinically computerized military procedure and weapons systems, it gives the appearance of a non-fiction documentary. As a marker of its success, the world he portrays in fiction - the military - has been the most vocal in its praise. This alone makes it worth reading in the same way we might read Balzac to learn about the anthropological details of Parisian life. However unlike Balzac, Clancy is "genre fiction" so don't expect a lot. The characters are uninteresting, either flat stereotypes or unbelievable, the plot has some large holes, the writing is often boring and un-inspired. Then again, Clancy can get away with it because, sadly, that is actually how many people in the military appear on the surface, the military de-humanizes by its nature - Clancy has cleverly found a way to write about a subject that has lots of interesting "hardware" and the people are so many Barbie dolls to move around. This is a shame because good writing about the military and war - All Quiet on the Western Front - humanizes in the face of de-humanization, it rebels against the machine. Clancy embraces the machine and lovingly extols its wonders, for better and worse.

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Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories

Joseph Conrad (1902)
Three stories collected in Joseph Conrad: Tales of Land and Sea, illus. Richard Powers (Hanover House: Garden City, NJ)
March 2008

Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories is a collection of three novellas by Joseph Conrad published as a single volume in 1902, it is one of the half-dozen or so volumes of short-story/novella collections published in his lifetime. The stories are Youth (1902), The Heart of Darkness (1899) and The End of the Tether (1902). Although Heart of Darkness is more well known today - it has aged well - the story Youth got title billing - Conrad worked on it between 1881 and 1998, about 17 years! It certainly was his favorite of the three based on his comments in the Authors Note, in part because it was the first appearance of "Marlow", an auto-biographical alter-ego character that would resurface in many later works. Youth is the most autobiographical, with Conrad saying:
"Youth" is a feat of memory. It is a record of experience; but that experience, in its facts, in its inwardness and in its outward colouring, begins and ends in myself.
Heart of Darkness is a more stylistic work, much to the chagrin of many readers expecting a gripping adventure story along the lines of Apocalypse Now, it is a slow, stuttering, dark, beast of a thing that even after 3 readings I still feel like I am reading it anew, an impenetrable thicket of overlapping symbolisms. Conrad says of its authenticity
"Heart of Darkness" is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case. [Heart of Darkness] was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.
I wonder what the "actual facts of the case" were - or is it best not to know. The last story is the longest of the three, it is clearly Conrad's least favorite, saying
As to its "reality," that is for the readers to determine. More skill would have made them more real and the whole composition more interesting. It is not very likely that I shall ever read "The End of the Tether" again. No more need be said. It accords best with my feelings to part from Captain Whalley in affectionate silence.
It is a damning sentiment, even by under-stated Victorian standards, however contrary to Conrad I found it to be absolutely delightful. He dispenses with the heavy symbolic artifice of the first two works and sticks with a more naturalistic or realist mode that conveys a sense of place and time, and in particular the character of Captain Whalley, is unforgettable. The villein, Mr. Massey, owner of a tramp steamer in the backwaters of the orient, is on par with evil captains like Queeg or Ahab - it was easy to imagine him being played by Humphrey Bogart. I love works rich in historical detail and this one really brings the era alive.
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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket


Edgar Allan Poe (1838)
G.P. Putnam's Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, Tamerlane Edition, Volume 2 & 3 (partial each), 1902.
Illustrated by Frederick Simpson Coburn. Set 285 of 300.
March 2008

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Poe's first and only novel. It is notoriously uneven and difficult to classify, but can generally be described as an endless adventure story of one episodic adventure after the next with no definitive ending. Poe is at his classic best in the middle portion describing the macabre adventures on-board the ship Grampus. The later half is a rush job, Poe copied entire sections from other books word for word and the plot has a weak ending. Later commentators have defended the ending by pointing out Poe imagined what the South Pole was like before anyone had been there, but Poe's vision is hardly convincing, even for contemporaries. Putnam, who published it without reading to the end - on the strength of the first and middle section - vowed never to publish another work again without reading it fully. It was generally panned by contemporary critics.

Narrative does have strengths, the macabre style he is so famous for can be seen in full development (his first big classic The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) was only a year away). On the other hand Poe's imagination seems to get away from him, he is unable to sustain a long narrative without it shattering into separate short stories. He was at his best working from start to end in manic bursts of creative energy. Whatever the critical reviews, Narrative is popular today, if for no other reason it is Poe's only (complete) novel. The descriptions of being buried alive in the Grampus, the ghost ship and the story of cannibalism with Richard Parker are well told and unforgettable.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight A New Verse Translation by Simon Armitage


Anonymous (1400)
Hardcover, W.W. Norton, 2007
March 2008

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ca. 1400) is chivalric romance literature of the late Middle Ages. It is often thought of in conjunction with Beowulf (ca. 800), but these works are nearly 600 years apart, as near to one another as Sir Gawain is to our own time. It is a part of the "chivalric revival" of the Hundred Years' War period, when the old order of knights and chivalry was giving way to longbow armed peasants who could unceremoniously kill from a distance, when the three-orders of knight, peasant and priest was breaking down. In this period of rising violence, social turmoil, the Black Death, famine and other "Crisis of the 14th century", there was a nostalgia among the nobility for the old days, the romantic stories from the 11th and 12th centuries found new popularity. Sir Gawain then is a continuation updated with contemporary aesthetics and sensibilities- a chivalric revival. It's this type of work that Don Quixote would devastatingly satirize 200 years later, effectively putting the final nail in the coffin of the medieval romance and opening the way to a new form: the novel.

Armitage has done a great job with the translation, by keeping the alliteration intact it makes for excellent reading aloud, the tongue gets a real work-out but pretty soon the guttural Germanic accent takes over with a short, crisp, pounding rhythm. By the end you feel ready to become a good Medieval knight, or at least better understand the mindset.

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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007


Richard Preston (editor), Tim Folger (series editor) (2007)
Hardcover first
March 2008

The Best American Series is an anthology published yearly by Houghton Mifflin of articles that appeared in magazines over the past year - it's kind of a "best of" for magazine articles, in case you didn't get a chance to read 100s of magazines this past year. This one is for science and nature, but they also have them for fiction, travel, comics, etc.. The first was for fiction since 1915, but starting around 2000 they really expanded the line, including one that has blog articles(!). The Science and Nature Writing series began in 2000 so this is the seventh book. It is my first of the Best American series, of which I hope there will be many more on my shelf.

There are 28 articles by 28 authors arranged in alphabetic order by the authors last name. It is a box of surprises and a bag of chips - one never knows what comes up next, once you start it's hard to stop. It's unlike a short story anthology, it's a unique experience to read magazine articles in book form without the glossy pictures, narrow columns and advertisements, it is easier and more enjoyable, sort of like Tivo, with the best of TV distilled down and all the commercials removed.

Articles about science often don't have longevity since things naturally change rapidly, and this book does have a few articles about current events that in a few years will be outdated, but most of the articles have longer appeal that will last at least another decade, and some are timeless in scope and artistic appeal. The articles are written for a popular audience, so for the general reader, they are easily accessible small windows into what's going on in the world today.

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One River Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest


Wade Davis (1996)
First edition hardcover
March 2008

One River is full of great stories and anecdotes as well as a sense of place and time that are unforgettable. I'm giving it four stars for reasons stated below and so won't focus on the positives which have already been so well covered by many reviewers. These are fairly minor quibbles in an otherwise good book.

Stylistically, the narrative doesn't always flow well. Wade presents the life of the books central character, Richard Schultes, in some sort of chronological order, but interjects anecdotal stories out of order requiring the reader to have a good memory to keep everything straight. This is a long detail-rich book with 1000s of people and place names covering about a 150 year timespan from the Amazon Jungle, to the Andes to Central America and the American West.

The amount of detail is at times excessive, in particular with place names and locations, Wade sometimes spends as much time describing where a place is (a 50 person village in the jungle) as he does about the place itself before moving on to the next place - it feels like a rote travel log at times, probably because he used Schultes private botany journals as one source. There is so much detail it sometimes crowds out the big picture, lost in the trees. I think the book could have been edited back 100 pages or so, there is just a lot of material that is pure anecdote or trivia.

Finally and probably most importantly, as a life of Richard Schultes, this is pure hagiography. He is the hero of the story in all respects. Perhaps hagiography is helpful in motivating students to become scientists, but it is not a balanced objective biography, it is a tribute by one of his admiring students, Wade plays up Schultes accomplishments but does not question or examine his failures. For example, Schultes spent the majority of his career in the Amazon studying the rubber tree and became the world expert, yet he never did complete a book about it, what a tragic loss. I don't mean to disparage Schultes, but given his stature and reputation, the lack of any criticism naturally draws the question Wade never asks. The book was written in 1996 and Shultes died in 2001 so with time we may see a more balanced perspective.

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The Jungle


Upton Sinclair (1906)
Hardcover, B&N 2004
March 2008

So much has already been written about The Jungle it's hard to write an original review without resorting to personal impressions which simply echo others - like so many cows in a Chicago stockyard, I've joined millions of other Americans in a rite of passage through Sinclair's Packingtown, and in the end "I never sausage a thing." But original discussion can always be found by asking: is the novel still worth reading today? Clearly many teachers think so, it is widely assigned in the classroom, in particular at the high school level. I partly attribute this to the books relative ease of reading (I finished it in 2 days), but it comes at the expense of artistic quality - it is a journalistic novel with a lot of facts and not a lot of things we might come to expect in a great work of art: the characters are often not well developed, there is not the beautiful language and heavy use of symbolism, and it ends on a purely propaganda note. Sinclair is more interested in the novels message than the characters, ironic given the message: people are more important than the system.

It is still worth reading for its historical detail of working class life at the turn of the century; as a lover of history I reveled in all the tiny details, not only of the meat packing but the clothes, the food, the types of jobs, the types of things people bought, attitudes, mannerisms and expressions. These were people of my great-grandparents generation, who my grandparents were born into, so it still remains personally relevant and fascinating. Another novel about Chicago from this time period, Sister Carrie (1900) does as good a job in the historical detail, but is a stylistically much more mature work of art - and it broke new ground in allowing "fallen women" to rise up and succeed, a taboo of the age - Sinclair's fallen women are "correctly" killed off or given no hope of improvement.

Because of The Jungle's historical importance in raising awareness of social issues - similar to what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for equality laws and Oliver Twist did for the working poor of England - as a novel of social improvement it will probably remain popular among educators who want to show fiction as more than just entertaining stories. In summary, the novel is a classic because it is a mythological part of the American reading landscape, and for its effects on US health laws. It is not a classic in the artistic sense, but still worthwhile for the historical detail about America at the turn of century.

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Young Frederick Douglass The Maryland Years


Dickson J. Preston (1980)
Hardcover, first
February 2008

Frederick Douglass wrote three biographies, or rather, he wrote his biography three times in different periods of life, each time recounting the story of his youth and escape from slavery, and then bringing the account forward to the date of writing. They are Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Of the three Bondage and Freedom is the most detailed and reliable account of his early slave years. Life and Times smoothed out some passages. While Bondage and Freedom is the most reliable of his accounts it remains the least read, the tendency is to read Narrative first and then for those wanting more detail to skip to Life and Times.

Douglass' 1845 Narrative was probably the single most influential American slave narrative ever written, it was widely read and well known in the decades leading up to the Civil War. However from its first publication many contested its veracity, in particular Douglass' former owners on the Eastern Short of Maryland. For the most part historians have taken Douglass at his word, or excused certain things in light of the context that he was trying to raise sympathy for the cause of abolition. It was not until 1980 that historian Dickson Preston, who lived in Talbot County, Maryland, did a more scientific study of Douglass' early years in slavery, going back through the records and seeing what could be verified, what made sense. Because Dickson is not black he had trouble finding a publisher since it was thought at the time any new biography of Douglass should be written by a black scholar, but with the help of James A. Michener (who was also living in Talbot County at the time working on his book Chesapeake) they found someone to publish this excellent objective historical investigation.

Dickson says in the Preface "this book began as an adventure in what might be called historical detective work. I had read his vividly written first autobiography.. and had been deeply moved by its stark recital of the grimmer side of Eastern Shore slavery. I had also read - and heard, for they are still spoken on the Eastern Shore - the denials, the insistence that Douglass was a charlatan who had made up most of his life story or had it written for him by his norther white benefactors. But what were the facts?" The book then is a re-telling of Douglass' narrative using supporting facts and logical conclusions to determine the accuracy and probable truths. Through this process we are afforded a much richer and deeper glimpse into Douglass' life.

The main thing Dickson discovers is that Douglass for the most part was telling the truth, but that he tended to overplay his trials and tribulations through the sin of omission - he tells the bad things but not the good. Of course this is understandable given the context of the books dual purpose as a weapon in the war against slavery. Far from being a deprived child Douglass was, at major transition points in his life, given opportunities of advancement by his white owners, he was clearly an exceptional child and not the typical downtrodden field-hand. This is not to say he was not a self-made man because he really was gifted, but others saw in him early on his great potential and he was given privileged and room to grow very few other slaves had. In the end we get a more balanced and full view of not only Douglass but the whites in his life and ultimately slave culture in Maryland as a whole, the good and the bad.

I found Young Frederick Douglass to be essential to understanding who Douglass was and how he came to be. Douglass' narrative is gripping but leaves a lot of open questions - Dickson's research helps shed substantial light on what was happening behind the scenes, for anyone wishing learn more about Douglass after reading Narrative it would be hard to go wrong with Young Frederick Douglass.

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The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird


Bruce Barcott (2008)
First edition hardcover
February 2008

In 1982 Sharon Matola, a feisty, curly-haired native from the rusty working-class town of Baltimore, left home for adventure - after some false starts hopping trains and training lions, she eventually landed in the green jungles of Central America where, in the tiny country of Belize (pop: 250,000), she created the first and only "zoo" (more like an animal rescue). Because of her passion for animals and the environment she earned a reputation as the 'Jane Goodall of Belize'. So it was inevitable when a corrupt Belize government wanted to build a fiscally questionable dam that would obliterate some of Belize's richest biological resources - including the unique roosting area of the beautiful but endangered Scarlet Macaw - she became the driving force behind a movement to stop powerful and shadowy forces. Bruce Barcott, an environmental journalist with Outside magazine based in Seattle Washington, heard about Matola's struggle and for a number of years followed her story as it went from a single womans crusade into an international turmoil involving Fortune 500 companies, the Canadian Government, movie stars and Englands secretive and rarely used highest court the "Privy Council".

The Last Flight is structured as a "non-fiction narrative", meaning there is a main character (Matola) following an evolving story (struggle to stop the dam) in which the reader is kept in suspense to find out what happens. Along the way the author imparts factual background knowledge such as: a history of Belize; Belize culture and geography; Belize wildlife; a history of dams and the environment; wildlife extinction; backgrounds on institutions like the NRDC and Englands Privy Council; how companies and environmental groups operate during disputes. In both the suspense story and factual tangents Barcott has succeeded marvelously in creating a highly readable page turner. Just as Matola is the stories personification of conservation, the iconic Scarlet Macaw becomes the symbol of all the animals that would be impacted by the dam, and ultimately of endangered animals everywhere.

Rather than a black and white "man vs nature", Barcott reveals how ambiguous and complicated conservation is, often not a question of ethics but politics. This is a book about a tiny valley, an unknown woman in a country where fewer people live than most American counties. But it is a larger more important work, it is a window into the world of conservation struggles, an awareness of the Belize people, culture and geography, and most importantly a profile of Sharon whose passion and determination is an inspiration for anyone, in particular young women and men to follow their dreams and make a difference in the world.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave


Frederick Douglass (1845)
Hardcover, Barnes and Nobel 2003, ed. Robert O'Meally
February 2008

Absolutely engrossing, written when he was just 27. I can't believe I waited this long to read it. At only 100 pages it can be read in a single evening but it's a story that is unforgetable. I didn't know much about Douglass but now that I've read this, his most famous work, his name reasonates with meaning, images and life. I wish I knew him, he's a hero for all.
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A Small Corner of Hell Dispatches from Chechnya


Anna Politkovskaya (2003)
First hardcover English
February 2008

I've always wanted to learn more about Chechnya so this is my first book about a very violent and complex war. Anna Politkovskaya was somewhat of a disidant Russian journalist who made a name for herself covering the war and putting herself in harms way - she was eventually assassinated in 2006, probably by the Russian military she managed to piss off enough times with her muckraking. In addition to her many newspaper stories she wrote three books about the war, two of which were translated into English, this being the second. A Small Corner of Hell is a long series of first-person oral histories and moralizing. It is designed to be a critique of the Russian government and military through the use of shocking imagary and emotion, an appeal to popular Russian opinion. Of course most of what is written here is true, and without her we might never know these stories. I was hoping for a more balanced and broad overview of the conflict, but the details of the individual crimes and sufferings are helpful in understanding the brutality of war. It truely is a meat grinder, after finishing the book I checked Wikipedia for the latest updates on the major people and most of them are now dead. I'd like to learn more about the war but it is like many of the wars in Africa, sensless depraved violence commited by homocidal maniacs under no authority or control. There is no honor, no hope, just a slow genocidal suicide. Things have become better since 2006 but the conflict is mostly in a lull and re-grouping period waiting for the next flare up, for the traumatized younger generation to grow up and start over anew.
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All Aunt Hagar's Children


Edward P. Jones (2006)
First, hardcover
February 2008

All Aunt Hagar's Children is a collection of short stories by Washington D.C. native Edward P. Jones, it is his third book and the first since winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World (2003). The stories are about black Americans in Washington D.C. during the 20th century. Each story revolves around family, society and self, detailing experiences emblematic of southern blacks who migrated to northern cities from rural roots: some found salvation and others a living hell. In all the stories there are transformative turning points in peoples lives. As Jones shows, they are often not conscious of what happened - life-altering events can happen in the course of the banal every-day, setting in motion life patterns that can be hard to break when it's forgotten or not noticed how it started. In some cases the patterns are passed down unconsciously generation to generation - like the devil, cycles of violence, poverty, addiction, sickness and ignorance stalk many of the characters for seemingly mysterious reasons, bordering on the mystic in some stories.

The stories are beautifully original, Jones employs authentic southern expressions creating a time capsule reverberating with fading folkways. Like the characters he writes about, Jones grew up poor in Washington. He had a strong mother - whom he dedicates the book too - and it contains many of her colloquial sayings. This is not a book to be read quickly, like the pace of southern culture, each sentence demands respect for plot structure, character development and the unique southern way of putting words together. I read this hoping to learn more about the black culture of Washington (and Baltimore up the road) and was not disappointed, but what an extra treat to have a world-class writer with a deep sense of humanity, empathy (and sometimes sly humor) show the way.

Update: Two of the best stories are freely available online from The New Yorker website where they were originally published: "A Rich Man" and "Old Boys, Old Girls".

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Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World


Samantha Power (2008)
First, hardcover
February 2008

Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply "Sergio" to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer's adviser Ryan Cocker once said, "Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy." Sergio was the UN Secretary General's "ultimate go-to guy", a nation builder in the world's toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him - from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic - came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qeada suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the UN's "9/11". He was often spoken of as candidate for the position of UN Secretary General, but his career was cut short before he had a chance to become the world-renowned elder statesman he was destined to be. This biography by Pulitzer Prize winning Samantha Power is a monument to his legacy and should connect with a wide audience. Not only an enthralling story of adventure (Sergio was almost always in the field in dangerous situations and places), but equally a revelation of what was happening behind the headlines in major crisis around the world over the past 30 years - and it is the story of the UN itself, as mirrored in the ups and downs of Sergio's life and character, its faults, weaknesses and strengths.

Power has managed to convey Sergio's persona with utmost sympathy, seductively drawing the reader into Sergio's world. His younger staff members were often likened to puppy dogs who followed him around, at one point even into the bushes to take a leak - I often felt this way reading his biography, like a puppy dog I didn't want him to leave or for the book to end, for the inevitable to happen. I dreaded the last chapter titled "August 19 2003" - it is the most thrilling chapter in the book, a masterpiece of journalistic writing - it can bring the reader to tears in a way no fiction could achieve. Samantha Power is an adviser to Barak Obama "the person whose rigor and compassion bear the closest resemblance to Sergio's that I have ever seen," she says in the credits. Power also knows Terry George, director of Hotel Rwanda, who advised her on the book and who expressed an interest in making a movie version, we can only hope.

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Mutiny on the Bounty


Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall (1932)
1960 hardcover 56th printing, Little Brown
February 2008

This is the classic novelization of the real-life Bounty mutiny, from which the four movies were based. When the writing team of Nordhoff and Hall - both WWI vets who had recently moved to Tahiti - published this their most famous collaboration in 1932, the Bounty mutiny was already about 140 years in the past, a source of legend and myth for boys and men who imagined the unlimited potential, and exotic women, of the islands of the vast South Pacific. Looking at it today in the 21st century, the novel contains colonial tropes of "exoticism" pioneered by Melville (Typee), Conrad and Pierre Loti's descriptions of Tahiti in Le Mariage de Loti (1880). It is a fun read but one word holds it back from being a timeless novel: Post-Colonialism. Had it been written in 1832 it would be a classic, but by 1932 it is a colonial artifact rife with certain expectations that ring flat. To enjoy this novel is to sustain the colonial beliefs of European cultural superiority, to be complacent of the colonial venture. However, it is still a great story, the plot is excellent and the characters memorable, Bligh is one of the great villeins of literature, a peer of Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick) and Queeg (The Caine Mutiny). For the true story, see Caroline Alexander's The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (2003).
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Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage


Alfred Lansing (1959)
First hardcover 1959 BOMC
February 2008

Earnest Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic expedition has recently become a sort of mini-industry on PBS, A&E, History Channel, BBC along with an embarrassment of riches in books, photography, websites, clubs, museums. Certainly the attention is warranted, it is one of the most incredible polar survival stories ever. However it was not always that way - after the expedition returned in 1916 it was largely overshadowed by World War I, and besides, Shackleton never even reached Antarctica, much less the South Pole, it didn't capture the publics fascination. Not until 1959 when unknown journalist Alfred Lansing published his first and only book Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage did the world really start to notice this incredible story.

Lansing's account starts with a bang and never lets up to the last sentence - it is a thrilling edge of the seat ride where, when things can't get any worse, they do. There have been a number of other re-tellings since, including most recently by Caroline Alexander The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (1998), however none of these match Lansings for its energy and drive. Most importantly some of the original crew members were still alive when Lansing wrote his book so he was able to get first hand accounts - more than an archival history, it is a primary source of not only the officers but the entire crew. Based on an informal survey of Amazon best-seller lists and LibraryThing library holdings, this book is probably the single most widely read account of any polar expedition, a canonical leader of its genre. Still, for the serious student, Shackleton's own version of events in South (1919) and Worsley's Endurance (1933) are required reading and very good in their own right, I look forward to continuing my "Shackleton journey" with those books next.
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The Translator A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur


Daoud Hari (2008)
Advanced Reader's Edition, Jan 2008, for March 13 release, paper.
February 2008

There are a number of compelling memoirs by Sudanese authors such as The Poured Fire On Us From the Sky (2005), What is the What (2006), and at least 4 more by or about "The Lost Boys" of southern Sudan. As the conflict has moved north and west, like birds flying before the storm, we are now seeing a new wave of heartbreaking memoirs arriving from the Darfur region. Each story is as unique as the person telling it, and all offer a glimpse of a world few know about because western journalists have so much difficulty working in the country, thus making this first-hand narrative by a native Darfurian a unique and important source.

As a young man Daoud Hari witnessed the destruction of his idyllic medieval village by modern Russian-made helicopter gunships and, like the logs of a raft breaking apart in the rapids, he and his family spun off in many harrowing directions. Hari decided early on that he would "use his brains and not a gun to make a better life" for himself. After arriving at a refugee camp in Chad, his skill at languages allowed him to work as a translator and guide for westerners on fact-finding trips across the border into Darfur. On about his 7th trip in August 2006 he became embroiled in an international incident with kidnapped National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek, making headlines around the world. Through the help of friends Hari was able to get out of Sudanese jail and move to the United States, where he now works for SaveDarfur.Org.

Hari's easy to read book is an excellent entry point for learning about the Darfur conflict. A nine-page Appendix called "A Darfur Primer" is, the author says, what any Darfurian in a bar would know about their own history. Hari's book contains the most complete version yet of Pulitzer-Prize winning Paul Salopek's kidnapping ordeal in 2006, taking up nearly the last third of the book; Salopek has not published an account, but he was severely beaten and almost died (a fate nearly shared by Hari). Hari tells us about the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, saying "Torture was the popular new thing because Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were everywhere in the news at that time, and crazy men like this were now getting permission to be crazy." Finally, Hari is perhaps most remarkable for never loosing his humanity despite the horror around him, reminding the reader "loosing a baby is hard. It doesn't matter where in the world you live for that." This is a wonderful memoir, intelligent, thrilling, educational, recommend highly.

See also the Wikipedia entry for Daoud Hari.

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With Dersu the Hunter Adventures in the Taiga


Vladimir Arsenyev / adapted by Anne Terry White (1923 / 1965)
Harcover first edition George Braziller, Inc 1965
February 2008

To Be Reviewed later
This is the true story that Akira Kurosawa's film Dersu Uzalais based on.

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The Man Who Walked Through Time


Colin fletcher (1968)
First hardcover
February 2008

The Man Who Walked Through Time is about Colin Fletcher's 1963 solo backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon, it is considered a classic of Outdoor Literature ranked #45 in National Geographic's 100 Best Adventure Books. It was first published in January 1968, almost exactly 40 years from the date of this review - the author was 41 when he took the trip, I am 41, and Fletcher emerged from the trip declaring "life begins at 40", adding the journey had offered him the "key to contentment." Like Dante's descent into the Inferno in media res (age 40), Fletcher descended into the Abyss of the Canyon and emerged a spiritually changed man, changing the landscape of outdoor recreation with him.

Colin Fletcher (1922-2007) was a Welshman and WWII vet who moved to California in the 1950s. An avid backpacker, he is best known for The Complete Walker I-IV (1968-2001), which for a generation or two has been the singular bible of backpacking - "Colin was sort of the founding father of modern backpacking, the first person to write about going out for an extended period and being self-sufficient." (Annette McGivney, editor of Backpacker Magazine). In 1968, the same year he published the first edition of The Complete Walker, he also published The Man Who Walked Through Time, recounting a 1963 trip in which he was the first person to walk the length of Grand Canyon National Park 'in one go' (second to complete the whole journey). More than an adventure journal, it inspired a generation to take up (create) the backpacking lifestyle as a way to fill a spiritual void and escape the confusion and chaos of Vietnam-era America. As Backpacker Magazine contributing editor Buck Tilton recalls "After Vietnam, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. So many of my friends had died from bullet holes. I read The Man Who Walked Through Time, and it was the only thing that made sense to me. Fletcher's words gave meaning to backpacking. I loaded my pack exactly the way Fletcher did and carried a walking stick like his. He was my hero."

Fletcher wrote about what he saw in day to day events, none are death defying or edge of the seat, what set it apart was Fletcher's inner journey of discovery as a metaphor of the vast expanse of time in the geology of the Grand Canyon. "I saw that by going down into that huge fissure in the face of the earth, deep into the space and the silence and the solitude, I might come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time." Fletcher found peace and solitude in removing himself from the "piercing arrows" of the modern world.

The Man Who Walked Through Time is essentially a Romantic work in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), highly influential with an earlier generation of bohemians (Stevenson invented and describes the first sleep bag in outdoor literature). Fletcher re-fashioned his account for a new generation of drop-outs who wanted to find inner solitude and discovery in the outdoors. I see in Fletcher a sort of proto-hippy, he shed his clothing and walked bare naked with a bamboo cane, floppy hat and scraggly beard. He ate pemmican and lamented the loss of the martial spirit of the natives. He found value in nature and disparaged the dam builders who would destroy it. He was a key element in the burgeoning environmental movement - The Man Who Walked Through Time will be "forever" a permanent mark in time of a movement and a generation. In February 2008, almost exactly 40 years from the books publication, the National Academy of Sciences published a report saying "Camping, fishing and per capita visits to parks are all declining in a shift away from nature-based recreation.. the replacement of vigorous outdoor activities by sedentary, indoor videophilia." The times are changing and 40 years ago today seems about 180 degrees in difference. Perhaps by 2048, 40 years from now, we will see a re-discovery of Fletchers vision of vigorous outdoor challenge, solitude and self-sufficiency in nature.

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Lapham's Quarterly States of War


Lewis Lapham (Oct 2007)
Volume 1, Number 1 (Winter 2008)
February 2008

"States of War" is the inaugural issue of a new quarterly journal Lapham's Quarterly edited by Lewis Lapham, former Harper's Magazine editor. Although packaged as a journal/magazine about current issues, it's really a collection of "primary sources" - roughly defined as material contemporary to the time, such as memoirs, speeches, transcripts and poems. These kinds of "readers" are not big sellers outside of academia, so the idea of a dressed up history reader in the newsstand alongside GQ and Time seems at first fiscally foolish and intellectually audacious. Some critics, such as Sara Irvy in The New York Times (December 31, 2007), are skeptical that dead voices applied to current events will find a popular audience, and that Lapham (now in his 70s) is associating himself with great names as a sort of self-published career epitaph. Forget the critics, he is on to something surprisingly good, Lapham's Quarterly turns out to be one of the best things I've read in years. Given the luminary contributors, perhaps it is only surprising no one did it sooner. I'll examine those authors in more detail below, but first some thoughts on the work as a whole.

What a delight to read primary sources with a common theme from all periods of history in bite-size easily digestible pieces, vetted and organized by professionals for a non-professional audience. Reading primary sources is studying history at the cellular level, most of us learn about history through more holistic but less immediate secondary sources, such as the latest history book by Simon Schama or a History Channel documentary. Primary sources are often left to the professionals or serious history obsessive to decipher, quote and explain the raw material. We also naturally feel a sense of superiority about our own "modern" times - we perceive ourselves at the height of progress, the evidence is all around from the cars we drive to the nightly theater on TV - consequently we tend to distance ourselves from past voices when it comes to problems of the day. Lapham's Quarterly succeeds in breaking through this barrier by presenting sources in non-chronological order along thematic lines - it doesn't matter when something was written, it can have universal and immortal value when it speaks to the greater truth of common human experience.

"States of War" examines the universal human experience of war. The 220 page journal is composed of three main sections: a seven-page introduction by Lapham, 174 pages of primary source excerpts, and 30-pages of four essays by contemporary historians. The heart of the journal is the middle section, the source excerpts, which is further segmented into four sections: "Calls to Arms", "Rules of Engagement", "Field Reports" and "Postmortems". I will deal with each of these separately below - each source is anywhere from half a page to 3 pages in length, on average about a page each, easily digestible within 5 minutes or less in most cases. Each page has at least one color picture (many full-page) and/or a boxed quote.

"Calls to Arms" is about the build-up up to war. Samples include the speech given by Pope Urban II at Clermont preaching the First Crusade; George Patton rallying his troops with an expletive-filled speech in 1944; an exchange of letters between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II days before the start of the Great War. In total there are 24 source in this section in about 55 pages.

"Rules of Engagement" is I believe the most powerful section. In every war there are "rules" and very often warriors are faced with the contradiction of fighting to win and fighting honorably according to the precepts of the age. It is fascinating to listen in on an exchange of letters between William Sherman (Union) and John Hood (Confederate) just before Sherman decides to burn Atlanta and go on a scorched earth campaign, with Hood appealing to humanity and God. There is a devastating story of Israeli soldiers deciding what to do about a 10 year old girl who has wondered into the front lines. An excerpt from Nixon's Whitehouse Tapes as he decides if he should bomb North Vietnam and kill 100,00s of thousands of civilians, Kissinger says in effect "I don't care about the civilians, I don't the world to think of you as a butcher." Churchill musing over the use of mustard gas in WWII. In total there are 23 sources in 35 pages.

"Field Reports" is about actual combat. These are some of the most difficult documents to read because they are so violent. George Orwell describes in detail what it was like to be shot through the neck by a sniper; a Marine describes day to day life in the trenches of Peleliu, a Pacific island in WWII, where worse than the fear of death was the smell of it, and the millions of flies it produced; there is an excerpt from All Quiet on the Western Front; an excellent reconstruction of the Battle of Agincourt by modern historian John Keegan. In total there are 23 sources in 57 pages.

"Postmortem" is reflections on war. These are the most cerebral and least titalating of the bunch, a philosophically reflective quiet after the storm. Jessica Lynch tells her story to Congress, saying she was not the hero the press made her out to be. Kurt Vonnegut sees war as an addiction. Eisenhower cautions against the military industrial complex and Wilfred Owen warns "Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!" This section has 18 sources in about 40 pages.

Perhaps what makes this collection so good is its ambiguity, there are pro-war and anti-war pieces, optimistic and pessimistic pieces - war is a complex and multi-faceted part of the human experience. In summary, I can not overstate my enthusiasm for this inaugural issue - many of the sources are unforgettable and will live with me forever. Although costly for a "magazine", if the same content had been published as a book, I would have paid $30 for it - it's a bargain at $15 and will happily find a home on my bookshelf (dog-eared and marked up).

More reviews and links at the Wikipedia article for Lapham's Quarterly

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The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe Volume 2 of 10


Edgar Allan Poe (1832-49)
G.P. Putnam's Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, Tamerlane Edition, Volume 2, 1902. Illustrated by Frederick Simpson Coburn. Set 285 of 300.
January 2008

This is volume 2 of a 10 volume set of Poe's completes works and critical commentary published in 1902 by G.P. Putnam. The paper is thick hand-made "Ruisdael" with rough-cut edges, typesetting print, and rich lithograph prints. Putnam made at least 2 editions, this is the large deluxe "Tamerlane" edition. You know it's deluxe as they give you *two* copies of each print (about a dozen in each volume), one in color(!), probably for removing to have framed without destroying the book. The less expensive and smaller "Eldorado" edition has thinner paper, less robust boards and no color prints. Each edition was limited to 300 copies. To buy a new book made like this today (hand made paper, typesetting, color lithograph ) would cost at least $300 (per book), and very few people even make it this way anymore, it's all hand done; I bought the entire set for $100 from abebooks.com, what a bargain and rich reading experience.

The short stories and novellas makes up 5 volumes (vol 2 - 6) and so this review is of the first volume of short stories (vol 2). They are in somewhat chronological order, and somewhat complete. The stories in this volume, in listed order are:

MS Found in a Bottle
Berenice
Morella
Lionizing
The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall
The Assignation
Bon-Bon
Shadow: A Parable
King Pest
Loss of Breath
Metzengerstein
The Duc De l'Omelette
Four Beasts in One
A Tale of Jerusalem

In addition it has partial text of "Narrative of A. Gordon Pym" with the remainder in volume 3, of which I will review separately. My favorites are "MS Found in a Bottle", "King Pest" and "Metzengerstein". These are not considered the best of the bunch by scholars, but I thought they had the most atmosphere and memorable scenes and stories.

"MS Found in a Bottle" is memorable for its depiction of the ghost crew of a giant hulking ship. The ship seems to create its own weather, a terrible storm into which the narrator is thrown aboard, only to find himself surrounded by decrepit old seaman who don't even acknowledge he is there and continue about their labors. Very creepy yet thrilling - who are they, why are they bent on self destruction - Poe never tells us, it will always remain unspoken.

"King Pest" is excellent for its post-apocalyptic "escape from NY" scene as 2 characters enter a forbidden plague zone in medieval London. Houses falling into the streets, skeletons in the gutters, a band of merry makers drinking from the skulls of the dead - it's Mad Max meets gothic horror - what's not to like? I'd love to see it on film.

"Metzengerstein" is about an old blood feud between 2 German families. It is similar to Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables" (really the other way around) where an inanimate object takes on the form of a feud. In Hawthorne it was the house, with Poe it is a tapestry of a horse, which comes alive and ultimately finds its revenge.

Some other notable stories include "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall" which is sometimes called the first science fiction story in English (it's about a balloon trip to the moon). The story "Morella" is often given good fare for its depiction of the question of what happens to us after we die - a wife who dabbles in the black arts, her soul can never die, and so she re-incarnates in her daughters body after her name is called out. In "Bon-Bon" there are certain Dickens "Christmas Carol" overtones as the devil appears in a gentlemanly form and takes a man on a journey to see the souls of great philosophers of the past.

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Ending Slavery How We Free Today's Slaves


Kevin Bales (2007)
Hardcover, first
January 2008

Kevin Bales is a recognized world authority on the generally hidden phenomenon of modern slavery; he best known for Disposable People (1999), a standard and influential text in classrooms and with policy makers. Ending Slavery (2007) is his latest book which reveals updated information and additional heartbreaking stories, balanced by optimistic practical solutions for the audacious goal of ending slavery around the world. Either one of these books would be an excellent place to start learning about modern slavery for the average reader. While slavery can be a depressing subject, Ending Slavery is ultimately uplifting because of its success stories, of solutions working, of the world becoming a better place and ways to keep the momentum going. By the end of the book there is a practical plan of what to do next for everyone from the concerned citizen, community leader, governments and NGO.

Modern slavery is largely hidden from view because, unlike in the 19th century and earlier, slavery today is illegal everywhere and - like drugs - the problem has gone underground. There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today - by comparison in the entire 350 year history of the African slave trade, about 13 million slaves were brought to the New World. When talking about modern slavery this comparison to the African slave trade is often made, and for good reason, our culture is saturated with the history of slavery from the movie "Roots", the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or Civil War history. If this cultural outrage of history were channeled to help modern slaves alive and toiling away today, imagine the good, but it starts with awareness. Most people don't know the basics of modern slavery: What is a modern slave? Where are they? What do they do? What can we do about it? This book helps answer those questions.

As the cover-picture of the book suggests, a happy discovery awaits within. After slavery comes freedom. New found freedom is one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable, both for slaves and those who help free them. It is no accident Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and others are among the most revered and popular leaders; or that the first and oldest human rights organization in the world is an anti-slave group (which still exists in England, connected to Kevin Bales). The struggle for freedom is far from over, and its happening everywhere from the suburbs of Washington DC to the cocoa (chocolate) plantations of Africa. Take the time to learn how slavery impacts us all, and what to do about it.

Update: There are a number of free films online that tie into the book. In particular Slavery: A Global Investigation and Dreams Die Hard detail some of the same people and stories in the book, including interviews with Bales.

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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano


Olaudah Equiano (1789)
Penguin 1995, Vincent Carretta ed.
January 2008

The Interesting Narrative (1789) is one of the earliest "slave narratives", a genre that includes classics such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and neo-slave narratives like Alex Haley's Roots (1976), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Edward P. Jones' The Known World (2003). What makes Olaudah Equiano's account unique is that is was the first slave narrative to find a wide audience, and it is not hard to understand why - not only is it a good story, but it is very well written, almost literary - it sold so well it was a cornerstone in bringing about public sympathy and support for the abolition of the slavery in England.

Just about everything we know about Olaudah Equiano is from his autobiography. He was born around 1745 in Africa, kidnapped and enslaved at the age of 10 or 11 and shipped across the Middle Passage to the West Indies, and soon after to a Virginia plantation (he was too small to work the sugar cane fields). From there he had the good fortune to be purchased by the captain of a British warship, where he learned English manners, language and customs - and a promise of freedom. But, in one of the great blows of his life, he was tricked and sold back into slavery in the West Indies, where he worked on merchant ships for a number of years, finally able to save enough money (trading fruits and rum between ports of call) to buy his freedom in his early 20s. He then spent years as a freed man working on merchant and military ships traveling extensively around the Atlantic, including a trip to the Arctic. His close calls with death were many, including disease, shipwrecks and run-ins with whites who would beat him to within an inch of his life. Equiano eventually settled down in England, married a white girl, had two children and died a wealthy and respected gentleman, a remarkable achievement for a former African slave in the 18th century.

The Interesting Narrative can be read on multiple levels. It is a fascinating first-hand document of 18th century British mercantilism, showing the Atlantic "Golden Triangle" in action. It is a story of Christian redemption - by following the teachings of the Bible, and those who transgress against it, Equiano explains why things turn out how they do. It is one of the great works of travel literature; exotic locales and death-defying adventures fill the pages. It is a powerful expose of 18th century slavery, unflinchingly detailing the institutionalized horrors and how both victim and victimizer are turned into animals. It is a call for action to end the slave trade.

In the end, we read books like this today with a certain amount of curious detachment, it has been about 150 years since slavery ended - or has it? Some 27 million slaves - more than twice the number of people taken from Africa during the entire 350 year history of the Africa slave trade - today toil in rich and poor countries around the world. Most Americans probably know more about slavery as it once existed, than as it is currently being practiced in their own time, directly touched by the cheap goods we purchase. Reading Equiano's account we can't help but be moved against slavery, all slavery, historical or contemporary, and for that the book has immortal value.

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Whatever You Do, Don't Run True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide


Peter Allison (2007)
First, paperback
January 2008

Peter Allison was 19 when he left his suburban home in Australia to follow his dream and backpack around Africa. He soon ran out of money and found himself bar tending in a South African safari resort. He moved up the ranks to a safari guide in Botswana where he stayed for the next seven years running a camp and taking daily jeep rides with tourists from around the world out into the bush.

Allison knew nothing about animals of Africa when he started. Much of the charm of the book is Allison's self-deprecating English humor as he makes mistake after mistake. His amateurism is a parody of the serious African adventurer; yet paradoxically his amateurism gives his account a sense of authority, we are able to see his wayward mistakes as a sign of his own expertise. Amateurism also provides Allison with a form of self-protection from the dangers of the bush; like a Mr Magoo stumbling into bad situations, it is his recognition of bad decisions that enable him to escape (unlike a "professional" who might not be as flexible in admitting a mistake).

Whatever You Do, Don't Run is written in the travel literature tradition of the wayward English gentleman bumbling through situations with campy humor, similar to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The idea is to de-throne the serious, to present a comic vision of the safari world that promotes harmless entertainment; but this also has the effect of disengagement and detachment - the safari guests from Germany, Japan and elsewhere become props to hang global stereotypes, or moral outrages. It also serves as cover for Allison - behind the facade of wry humor and aestheticism is a sense of moral and cultural superiority; the self parody hides his own role and responsibility.

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Beowulf An Ilustrated Edition


Translated by Seamus Heaney (1999) & (2007)
2007 illutrated first ed. based on the 1999 trans. - W.W. Norton paperback
January 2008

Beowulf was written roughly sometime between the late 8th and early 11th centuries during the Viking era, but it takes place in a previous age, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (475 ) to sometime before the death of Charlemagne (814). It was written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet in Britain based on oral tradition.

We are very lucky to have this new illustrated edition. It is based on Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney's celebrated 1999 translation and contains over 100 full-page photos of archaeological items that bring the age alive in color. Even if you already own the Heaney translation it is well worth it to have this version, the photos were picked from thousands and carefully tied into the text along with annotations.

The story seems to straddle two periods of social development, the tribal state and that of the unified political kingdom. Germanic tribes had exposure to Roman society and from that example began to form into stratified social groups that transcended kin and tribal relationship, as can be seen in the rise of the "Hall Culture", aristocratic warriors who spent time at "court" in great wooden halls.

Set in a heroic age, the monsters that Beowulf battles represent the other side of the heroic coin: fear. Fear is the greatest threat in a culture that values bravery and loyalty. It is no accident that Grendel comes at night, as anyone who has spent much time in the wilderness can attest, sitting around a campfire before letting ones guard down to sleep brings up every fear of the unknown lurking just beyond the light. It is a fear any hearer of the tale (probably being told at night) could easily imagine. Likewise the dragon represents the fear of revenge (such as blood feud), it is the stolen cup that rouses the dragon from its lair to punish the thief and trespasser. Revenge was common in a society without strong law enforcement, and blood feuds could last generations.

Typical of very old narratives I was expecting a disjointed, hard to follow and not very sophisticated story, more well known today for its age and placement in the English cultural canon than for its literary value. However I was pleasantly surprised to discover something off the pages of JRR Tolkien or from a Dungeons and Dragons game. This is the mother lode of all fantasy fiction, the origin piece - dragons, magic swords, demons, Conan-like heroes. These are the things I spent years on in my youth. It's only unfortunate I was never introduced to Beowulf earlier in life. Should be required reading for every lover of fantasy and science fiction, particularly this illustrated edition.

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The Story of Doctor Dolittle Being the History of his Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts


Hugh Lofting (1920)
First edition 1920, via Internet Archive
January 2008

The Story of Doctor Dolittle is the first book in the Dolittle series and introduces the good Doctor and how he came to talk to the animals. It is shorter and aimed at a younger audience than the later books, but it has a great deal of Victorian charm and upbeat optimism that is infectious. There are about 12 books in the series, nine published between 1920 and 1933, the last 3 published posthumously in the 40s and 50s.

Dolittle is an English gentleman who finds himself in the wrong occupation, a doctor of people, and gradually withdraws from society becoming a poor down and out town recluse. One day his English speaking pet parrot Polynesia lets him in on a secret that animals have a language of their own. Dolittle, now able to understand the complaints of animals, becomes a successful and world-renowned doctor of animals. Animal language is the central device of the series - in an age when every Disney film features English speaking animals it seems almost normal, but Lofting makes it seem new and marvelous. Indeed, the animals don't speak English, but each species has its own "secret" language - which is not too far from reality with "horse whisperers" and "dolphin languages".

It's impossible to talk about this first edition without mentioning the racism towards black Africans - not only the obvious language problems (the "n" and "c" words), but attitudes of colonialism such as European racial superiority - it goes a long way to explain why the book is not as popular as it could be, and better known from the movie series (the books went out of print by the 1970s and underwent bowdlerization). As an adult well versed in post-colonialism I have no problem recognizing and removing myself from the influence of racism, and find it instructive on what institutionalized racism looks like and how it can manifest in children's books; in other words, the non-political correctness is refreshingly curious.

Dolittle is a social misfit who has mostly found friends through nature outside of human society. He has decoded the language of nature, a language that is right there in front of us all, if we only take the time and sympathy to understand it. And he applies his powers for good and not evil, as a healer of animals and a righter of wrongs. Of course science is also the language of nature and "doctors" are also scientists. The Enlightenment optimism that science will lead to good and solve mankind's problem finds expression through the good will and kindness of Dolittle. In this sense, it is the "best and brightest" of society that will bring about goodness, a view popular in the early and middle 20th century. Today we are more skeptical of such paternalism and look for positive change through "open society", Dolittle should not be the only keeper of the language, but teach everyone. Perhaps in later books this happens. I look forward to reading the second book, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, which is longer and more mature, the basis for the film and it won a Newberry Medal.

Read via Internet Archive

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Our Town A Story in Three Acts


Thorton Wilder (1938)
Perennial (1998), Paperback, 128 pages
January 2008

Paperback reprint (1998) of the original 1938 hardcover. Wikipedia calls it "perhaps, the most frequently produced play by an American playwright." Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Characters are archetypal, scenery and props are minimalistic to non-existent. Emphasis is on the banal aspects of every day life - the message is life is what happens to us every day, no matter how inconsequential or small it may seem. A film version came out in 1940, nominated for best picture of the year, the film is freely available at Internet Archive.

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The Theory of Clouds


Stephane Audeguy (2005, French)
Hardcover, first US edition (2007)
January 2008

Have you ever gazed up into the sky and let your mind wonder and think about the clouds floating by? 200 years ago people first began to do so with a scientific perspective, classifying and naming. Each cloud is unique, ever changing, yet somehow the same. Clouds are made of water and so are human bodies, we die and evaporate and condense into clouds. Clouds can be peaceful, or fearsome such as a nuclear mushroom cloud. The themes of water and clouds intermingle in this story about the history of meteorology and the quest for a manuscript called the "Abercrombie Protocol"; it is a story about the search for love, and how all things are connected.

This is a many layered book and it certainly challenges the minds eye to see connections and meanings - yet it is also enjoyable as a story, it tracks multiple lives and generations revealing commonalities and patterns re-appearing, not unlike how patterns in clouds can cross space and time, like fractals. Although 266 pages it reads very quickly, I finished in about half the time I normally would for a book this length. Winner of a prize from the French Academy. Recommended.

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Gibbon (Past Masters)


John W. Burrow (1985)
Hardcover, first edition
January 2008

After reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, what a delight to read about Gibbon in a mere 111 pages (afterall, Gibbon himself was under five feet tall!). A short treatment about such a large subject as Gibbon and his work could have been a problem, but Burrow pulls it off. After an opening mini biography of Gibbons life, the remainder of the book is an overview of Decline and Fall: chapter titles include "Rome", "Christianity", "Barbarism" and "Civilization". The best chapter is "Civilization", it can be read as a standalone essay about Western history, it is full of fascinating ideas and insights. The last chapter "A possession in perpetuity" ties together some loose ends and has an interesting discussion on the nature of art and immortality. Any book of this nature has to rely heavily on quotes and because Gibbons writing is so powerful he can steal the show, but Burrow more than holds his own, the cadence between Burrow and Gibbon is sheer pleasure. Yet, as Burrow says:
"To present a vast historical work like the Decline and Fall as I have done, chiefly in terms of its organizing concepts and the explanations it offers, is necessarily to travesty it: to reveal the bones is to make hard, angular, dry and summary what in the experience of reading is enjoyed as flexible, rich and leisurely."(p.80)
The "bones" revealed by Burrow include Gibbon's stylistic device of black/white polarities underlying his arguments: Liberty/servility, vigor/enervation, manliness/effeminacy, simplicity/luxury, fanaticism/moderation, superstition/reason, theology/morality, asceticism/nature, unsocial/social and of course barbarism/civilization. This is not to say Gibbons has reduced history into a child-like "good vs bad" view, he does show ambiguity and unknowability in human action, but his style or technique is to create polarities and then play off between those positions. This is an excellent work of historiography and intellectual history, I highly recommend it for anyone who has read Gibbon to better understand his context and ideas, Burrow treats Gibbon with a great deal of sympathy and the reader comes away with an even deeper appreciation and passion for the man and his work.

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The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen


Hans Christian Andersen, Maria Tatar (intro, notes, trans.), Julia Allen (trans.)
Norton Annotated series, hardcover, first 2007
January 2008

This is my 5th Norton Annotated book and I really had high expectations. Sadly the magic of Andersen got lost somewhere. Maybe it's the annotations which decode and de-construct Andersen, ironically the very thing he warned about it in "The Snow Queen". Perhaps it was the random pile of images with no consistent view, often showing the same scene from multiple artists with radically different perspectives, diluting the minds eye. Perhaps it was the new translation that has lost some of its 19th century feel. Perhaps it is Tatar's own admission that she was never that fond of Andersen. Perhaps it is my own realization as an adult re-reading these tales for the first time since childhood that they are not as good as I remember. Perhaps it was learning about Andersen who seems a bit weak. With all that said, this is a wonderfully produced book as are all the Norton series I would not hesitate to buy another, it is very generous in what is provided, I don't think anything else like it exists for Andersen. The determined reader will learn a lot about what the stories mean and find new perspectives and appreciations for these classic stories.

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like you'd understand, anyway: stories


Jim Shepard (2007)
Hardcover first
January 2008

Like you'd understand, anyway is a collection of short stories written over a 4 year period by Jim Shepard, professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. The stories vary widely, but an underlying structure subtly peculates through, barely wetting our feet, inviting the curious to seek out the source of the spring. As Shepard says in an interview for the 2007 National Book Award nomination: "while lots of people have talked about how different my narratives and/or my narrative voices might be, the emotional preoccupations tend to be very similar. I probably obsess about the same five things, over and over."

The book is dedicated to Shepard's brother, and most of the stories explore brotherly relationships, in particular how "the past enters and floods our present" (p.140) - the football player in "Trample the Dead" who finds motivation in the pain of his past and future brother; the summer camp kid in "Courtesy for Beginners" whose brothers trauma inescapably creates his own nightmare. As the picture on the cover suggests, the more two brothers (or fathers and sons) struggle to achieve identity, the more their lives intertwine and become indistinguishable, driven by the "tsunami" of people and events outside their control.

As the self-referencing title of the book alludes, this is a somewhat post-modern book, the stories are not really about anything, they often end with no satisfying closure or even a discernible plot. Yet it is more than a self-conscious artsy exploration of post-modernism, its true value lays in how the subtle yet powerful stories come together to form a whole greater than its parts, and Shepard's uncanny ability to convincingly place the reader into the mind of anyone, anywhere. Shepard finds the smallest detail to bring alive a scene, time and place so that it convincingly reads like a non-fiction memoir. For example in the first story, "The Zero Meter Diving Team", about survivors of Chernobyl, Shepards "voice" is almost indistinguishable from real-life accounts such as those found in the non-fiction work Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005).

There are no bad stories, but my favorites are "Trample the Dead" (high-school football), "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" (1958 Alaskan tsunami), and "The First South Central Australian Expedition" (19th century Australian explorers). A book like this probably won't attract the typical non-fiction die-hard, but it could; most of the stories are based on historical incidents - there is a lengthy bibliography of non-fiction works used in its creation - and as all good fiction does, it explores the emotional side of things in a way non-fiction rarely achieves.

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The House of the Seven Gables


Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)
1985 hardcover, Reader's Digest (World's Best Reading)
January 2008

The House of the Seven Gables (1851) was probably more popular and respected in the 19th and early 20th century. Today it still read, but usually for entertainment, less so in schools where Hawthorne's canonic place is held by The Scarlet Letter (1850). Yet some notable contemporary critics thought this was his best work, in fact so much criticism has been written about it one can search on GoogleBooks and find 100s of old (pre-1923) literary texts that give it attention.

The plot is generally predictable and the characters are not very dynamic, yet Hawthorne has created a mythological entity, the house itself. Who has not looked at an old house and wondered what stories it had to tell. In the process of fleshing out the life of the house, Hawthorne has brought alive the little details of New England that gives the story a memorably strong sense of time and place.

There are some brilliant and timeless flashes of insight on the human condition that contemporary critics noted. Holgrave's monologue about how "A Dead Man sits on all our judgment-seats" is a dark but true observation on the nature of generational warfare beyond the grave. Hawthorne's contention that "the sick in mind are rendered more darkly and hopelessly so, by the manifold reflection of their disease, mirrored back from all quarters, in the deportment of those around them," is clearly a writer who has experienced such a thing. Hawthorne not only brings the inanimate House to live, but other objects, such as electricity where "the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time .. the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence," a strangely prescient vision of the future. The "ghosts in the machine" is a metaphor Hawthorne would have been at home with.

In the end The House of the Seven Gables is a flawed, but memorable story notably for the rich details of historical New England and the larger than life mythological character of the house. As Henry James said, "it is a large and generous production, pervaded with that vague hum, that indefinable echo, of the whole multitudinous life of man, which is the real sign of a great work of fiction."

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The Deep The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss


Claire Nouvian (2007)
Hardcover, first
January 2008

Scientific interest and study of the deeper parts of the ocean has only come into its own in the past 40 years, with the past 25 years seeing a real explosion of new discoveries. The scientific literature is abundant, but for the interested layperson there has not been much to tie it all together. 'The Deep' is one of a few recent works to bridge that gap, bringing to a wider audience for the first time some of the most marvelous images and discoveries. Nouvian says in the introduction her intent was to marry both visual and intellectual stimulation.

If you decide to purchase The Deep, it would not be overly fastidious to wear gloves. Most pages are printed in deep glossy black, even the slightest touch of a finger leaves a permanent oily smear. The blackness of the pages and the alien eeriness of the creatures is at first offsetting, but as each full-page picture goes by, the reader is drawn into another world, vicariously experiencing what it must be like to be in a deep sea diving submarine peering out the window into an "inky" blackness. It is primordial, the book achieves its goal of both intellectual transmission of new information, and the visceral experience of traveling to the deep.

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