In case you’re wondering what I’ve been reading lately (hey, I get asked quite a bit…maybe because I almost always have a book in my hand). Your mileage with these books may vary…
NOW: Don Quixote — Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Let’s get classic. In fact, let’s do a Penguin Classic. In fact in fact, let’s stay in fiction by going to the (sort of) birth of fiction. This is a long one…see you in a few weeks (months?).
RECENTLY: Unsheltered — Barbara Kingsolver
What to say of this award-winner? It’s a not-at-all-subtle allegory about recent times in this country, but Kingsolver also tells the parallel (and true) story of the times in this country almost 150 years ago. So am I comforted by the fact that Kingsolver is pointing out this isn’t the first time bad things have happened to good people and we, as a species/society, survived those earlier tribulations so we’ll survive these? Or am I comforted that, contrary to popular opinion, some of the younger generation actually has their $%*t together better than we old farts think they do (and better than we ourselves actually do)? Or was it just a bummer to read of said good people fighting an uphill battle against mass willful ignorance in two different eras and realize that we really are a stupid, stupid animal and society? Umm, yes. All of the above.
tl;dr: Took a while to get rolling but it finished strong. And Kingsolver writes really beautifully.
How to Write One Song — Jeff Tweedy
Tweedy, of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo fame, was on Ezra Klein’s podcast this week and I liked what he had to say about creativity…so I bought this little volume and ripped through it. Some of the music-specific part wasn’t relevant to me (trust me, you do NOT want to hear me sing) but his exhortation to all of us—ALL of us—to be creative, to not be afraid to be bad at something because that’s how you get good at it, is a good lesson for everyone in every endeavor. Truly. I enjoyed this and recommend it.
The Overstory — Richard Powers
Wow. I have mixed feelings about this Pulitzer-winning work. On the one hand, I found it wonderful, engrossing and truly epic. But it also left me depressed, realizing that we as a species are too myopic and too selfish to do the right thing, even when the right thing, however painful, is what’s best for ourselves (wearing face masks during a pandemic, anyone?!). One factor about the book I found interesting is that real events and people (some fictionalized) form a thread through this tale that spans decades. That kind of timeline makes this book unique in the way it makes clear how puny our human sense of time really is, and as one of the characters observes, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” This book and its timeline is that story. I found it an interesting juxtaposition with The Ministry for the Future. I wish I’d read this one first since The Ministry at least left me feeling somewhat optimistic.
Under a White Sky — Elizabeth Kolbert
This litany of the hubris and folly of humanity’s attempts to control nature also has parts that read like a nonfiction account of the early days of the events in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Interesting, but I found it frustratingly dispassionate. As the cover blurb from Bill Gates remarks, Kolbert “just lays out the facts and wraps them in memorable anecdotes.” The journalist in me welcomed that just-the-facts approach but maybe there should have been more of those anecdotes because I found it kinda dry. And the concerned resident of Earth in me was torn between wanting to scream at the author to put some skin into the game, dammit!, and being thankful that he won’t be around to see the worst of what’s undoubtedly to come.
Gone So Long — Andre Dubus III
I’ve written elsewhere on this page that I believe Dubus might be the best writer in America—and no, I don’t say that just because he’s from Newburyport (I admit it: sure, it’s neat to recognize so many of the places and details in his books). Rather, it’s that Dubus crafts such compelling characters that you can’t help but be drawn in. Hell, one of the characters in this work is a murderer and yet you still feel (a little) for him. A friend sent me the blurb for a writing seminar Dubus is teaching next month and in it the author says he’ll help you “try to find the story through an honest excavation of the characters’ total experience.” That’s what this novel—and all of Dubus’s writing—is: brutally honest excavations of the human experience. You can’t help but feel when you read Andre Dubus III, and isn’t that why we read in the first place?
That Summer in Paris — Morley Callaghan
I picked up this Hemingway-related work from my late father’s collection just in time for the Ken Burns documentary about Papa. And I’m glad I did. I greatly enjoyed this account of the summer of 1929 when Papa and Scott and the rest of the Lost Generation were doing their Paris thing. Callaghan was part of the scene and this book is both gossipy chit-chat and fond recollection late in life of one who was there. This fan of that era found it to be equal parts exasperation and fascination: Good gravy! Could these giants and geniuses really have been THAT petty?! Apparently. To paraphrase the famous, oft-repeated (and apocryphal) exchange: Scott says, “The great writers aren’t like you and me.” To which Papa replies, “Yes, they have more neuroses.”
The Wim Hof Method — Wim Hof
The Primal Blueprint — Mark Sisson
Included among the carnage of the pandemic year is the way I became woefully out of shape. To rectify the situation, I went going back to an old resource: I used Sisson’s primal/Paleo model during my San Diego days and was pretty fit. To Sisson’s blueprint I added Hof’s work after seeing a piece about him on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. To be honest, you can get everything Sisson teaches free from his website, and Hof’s method can be found on his site, too. That said, I enjoyed Hof’s treatise/sermon…the guy is passionate about his teachings.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead — Olga Tokarczuk
This book by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was recommended by Kim Stanley Robinson on the Ezra Klein podcast. For whatever reason, it took me a little while to get rolling on this book, but once I did…wow. It’s almost like a fable, with supernatural (and very natural) aspects with the elements of murder mystery. Now that I think about it, it IS a fable, about life, nature, the Universe…what all art should be about, right? I quite enjoyed this novel.
Be Here Now — Ram Dass
I had been meaning to read this since another book by Ram Dass, Journey of Awakening, got me started doing yoga back in the early ’90s. And not only am I glad I read it, I’m glad I read it at the same time I read the book just below this one here on this page. An unusual book, to be sure, it’s a first-hand account of one person’s, well, journey of awakening, as well as offering some instruction on various paths one might explore. They can all seem overwhelming until one recalls what Batchelor says in his book: that the path is a practice not a religion, and what matters is to DO it. And so, as the mantra goes, I begin again and again and…
Buddhism Without Beliefs — Stephen Batchelor
I’ve read a lot of books about Buddhism over the years and this one is quite possibly the best. It’s concise, a quick read and quite to the point. Batchelor makes the case that Buddhism is not a religion but a practice, that the Buddha isn’t a person to believe in but someone to emulate. (I would argue, and I think Thich Nhat Hanh would too, that it’s the same with Christ. But I digress…) Highly recommended.
Portrait of Hemingway — Lillian Ross
Grabbed this out of my Hemingwayphile father’s shelves. This quick read is a profile Ross wrote for the New Yorker about a visit Papa made to New York City in 1950. Hemingway comes across a lot like, well, Ernest Hemingway. That means he’s either a charismatic writer or an asshole. Or maybe a little of both. Your call.
The Minstry for the Future — Kim Stanley Robinson
Spectacular. Truly. I heard about this book on the Ezra Klein Show and then, after I’d bought it, seeing Barack Obama had put it on his list of most interesting books of the year added to my intrigue. And it didn’t disappoint. This is an amazing book: futuristic but timely, filled with fantasy but realistic, ominous but hopeful, long but easy to read with its short chapters told from various perspectives (including some truly odd ones…I’ll leave it at that). What really sealed the deal for me is that even in these dark pandemic and dystopian-America times, along with my general misanthropy and feeling that we on this planet are just fucked because, well, humans, this book had me feeling hopeful for the distant future. Robinson crafts some truly horrible catalysts for humanity to start toward that hopeful future (including one totally realistic and very believable event set in the very near future), but that only makes the quest that much more compelling. I highly recommend this book, if for no other reason than by being fiction it puts a very relatable face on issues facing humanity, rather than just the dry, academic fact-stating of “sea level will do this and temperatures will do that if we don’t change our ways.”
Squeeze Me — Carl Hiaasen
FAN-#$%#$%-TASTIC! Couldn’t put it down. Funny as hell, oh so timely…and an ol’ fave character reappears. This might be Hiaasen’s best. It’s definitely among the top two or three.
Walden — Henry David Thoreau
Slowly plowed through this annotated edition and, having not read Thoreau since my days in prep school, I “got it” a little better than I did back then. The annotations and bigger print helped, too. Pretty wise, that HDT. Glad I reread it.
Out of my Later Years — Albert Einstein
Yes, THAT Albert Einstein. Found this among my late parents’ books. A bunch of short hits on a wide range of topics, with some scientific ones that went right over my head despite Einstein’s attempts to dumb the topics down. But Einstein’s thoughts on sociological issues—government, race, war, the role of science in society—are eerily prescient, especially when you realize he was writing about them 70-plus years ago. Politicians today should be forced to read some of these essays.
101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think — Brianna Wiest
A neighbor (and fellow bibliophile) gave me this. And as my neighbor’s note described this tome, some of it is a good slap to the face while other bits are just New Agey tripe. A lot of redundancy, and it’s kinda hard to take life lessons from a 20-something whose claim to fame is being an authority on how to live. Still, a few useful tidbits in there.
Ernest Hemingway in the Yellowstone High Country — Chris Warren
My brother loaned me this after seeing it in a magazine. And as an off-again, (more often) on-again Hemingway fan and a devout worshipper of the high country surrounding Yellowstone National Park, I simply had to read this. To be honest, I found the writing to be mostly compilation and the editing nothing short of atrocious, but it’s quick read and heartily enjoyable if you’re also a fan of Papa and Yellowstone Country.
The Lonely Silver Rain — John D. MacDonald
What a FABULOUS finale! (And yes, I dropped these last two novels in after only a bit more Thoreau…they’re just too damned good to leave sitting on the shelf, tempting me.) A perfect way to wrap up a wonderful series with a fantastic protagonist (and supporting characters) and a razor-sharp, fast-paced storyline. It ends the series…without ending it. I’ll leave it to you to read all 21 books and see what I mean. Yes, it’s worth reading them all and yes, it’s worth reading them in order. What a mix of emotions I’m left with: stoked to have read another great Travis McGee story…and bummed there are no more to look forward to. But I’m sure I’ll circle back around at some point in the future and read them all again. Ahhh…
Cinnamon Skin — John D. MacDonald
The penultimate Travis McGee novel and yet another good one. Like recent episodes, this one is pretty straightforward with not a lot of surprises. And less badassery than the normal McGee tale. But a good storyline that takes you along with it, waiting to see what McGee and his buddy Meyer are gonna come up with next. And this one ends up bringing about the redemption of Meyer…just in time for the finale to come.
Free Fall in Crimson — John D. MacDonald
A quick respite from the seriousness—and 19th century writing style—of ol’ Henry David (up a few books in this list). And another episode of not much mystery, just straight-up badassery. Although even Travis McGee is slowing down with age. Who’da thunk it?! Still, a great, fun read. Sadly, there are only two more books in the Travis McGee series. Sigh. Whatever am I gonna do after I finish ’em?
The Green Ripper — John D. MacDonald
“Quick-and-light read,” indeed. Finished Donald Hall’s book around 4 p.m. today, started this one at 5. It’s 10:45 p.m. now and I just finished. And I cooked and ate dinner, too. Yeah, that quick…and riveting. This is Travis McGee at his most kinetic, most primal. Not a whole lot of mystery or suspense in this one, just a slow build-up of potential energy until it explodes in a full-on Travis-does-Mel-Gibson-revenge-movie final act. (Think about it: ALL of Gibson’s most popular movies are the SAME THING: guy’s wife/kid gets killed by evil forces, Mel goes break-out-the-bodybag solo psycho and kills everyone. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.) Anyway, Travis McGee does it way better than Mel could ever hope to. But it does make one wonder: why, with all of Hollywood’s failed attempts at filming Travis McGee, haven’t they tried this story?
On Eagle Pond — Donald Hall
A collection of essays (and one long poem) full of waxing rhapsodic about lineage, land, place, tradition from the late New Hampshire-ite and poet laureate of the U.S. Wonderful stories and tales, with quite a bit of repetition over the course of the collection. And some of the stories got a little too heavy with the “get off my lawn” browbeating of us current young ‘uns. Also, a very ironic read for me, as I’ve recently gone through much of my late parents’ stuff and am preparing this house that’s been in my family for 48 years to be sold. Hall’s lyrical lecturing angered me at times: I always wanted to live the life of a New Hampshire hill farmer…but my parents were born in urban Boston and New York. It will crush my soul to lose this house…but I can’t afford to keep it. I chased some “simpler” lifestyles with hunting, fishing and gathering out west…but in recent years have made my living in the digital world. And I often long for that lineage Hall celebrates…but I also hear the call of the ocean, the horizon, the rest of this great wonderful world. Sigh. Life is full of contradictions, I guess. It still made me sad to read what I missed. In any case, I will pass this volume on to a dear friend, a born-and-bred Granite Stater.
The Rumi Collection
I decided I need to get more poetry and also a little more spirituality (and dare I say it: love?) into my reading. This collection of Rumi let me do both.
The Empty Copper Sea — John D. MacDonald
THAT was a good one. Certainly one of the best in the series thus far (it’s No. 17 out of 21). The older McGee I’ve remarked upon from recent stories, but more of the sly, smooth, funny Trav. The best one I’ve read in a while. And I still don’t know what I’m gonna do when I finish the series. Sigh…
Motherless Brooklyn — Jonathan Lethem
This story takes a while to pick up speed, particularly as you wrestle with the protagonist’s Tourette’s syndrome. But late in the game it takes off and makes for a good finish. How in the hell Edward Norton took this story, combined it with Robert Caro’s bio of Robert Moses and set this in the ’50s, I have no idea. I guess I’ll have to see the movie someday. Or not.
A River Runs Through It — Norman Maclean
I used to read this annually but it’s been a while. This time? Even more beautiful than I remember—and I’ve always remembered this as one of the most beautiful stories of all time. Just a wonderful, wonderful novella.
Beautiful Swimmers — William W. Warner
Simply put: Beautiful Swimmers is a beautiful book. There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize. Written and published in the early and mid-1970s, it’s a little dated—an afterword written in 1993 references the challenges facing Chesapeake Bay and you can imagine the challenges these days—but it’s still just…plain…beautiful. I recommend this for anyone, and will be specifically calling it out to friends in Annapolis.
Us Against You — Fredrik Backman
I knew I was in trouble early on when I read this passage: “How does it feel to play hockey?…Have you ever been in love? That’s how it feels.” A fast-moving and captivating narrative filled with unique, interesting characters, all combining to shed light on human experience. Everything a novel should be. Highly recommended.
PS: The author has one habit—it seems like a tic, really—that drove me nuts: at the end of a lot of sections he drops a line in there that foreshadows what’s coming…or what won’t be coming for the characters in that particular section. Makes the foreboding that much more obvious, like being hit over the head with a club annoucing, “Guess what’s gonna happen next….”. Like I say: drove me NUTS!
Family Furnishings — Alice Munro
Like I’ve said many times before: there’s no better practitioner of the short-story craft than Munro. And this collection provides more proof. There’s a reason she won the Nobel Prize. I’m a big fan.
Being a Writer — Travis Elborough, Helen Gordon
A friend gave me this collection of quotes and thoughts on writing by a wide assortment of authors from around the world. Inspirational (though truth be told: I have a Word doc on this laptop in which I keep such quotes and have many of those collected in this volume). Yeah, it got me fired up to sit my ass down and do some writing…but here I am updating this page instead. Whoops.
The Turquoise Lament — John D. MacDonald
Good ol’ Travis McGee. What’s particularly interesting is how he is evolving over time and over the course of the series of books. He’s older, darker, more cynical than before. But he always saves the day.
Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
Okay, let’s get two things straight right away: one, DFW was a very, very good writer. And two, he was very, very smart. Maybe too smart for his own good. I still fail when it comes to reading DFW’s fiction—something about all those @#$@# footnotes and sidebars…argh! That’s not writing, that’s a conversation. That said, they work a bit better in nonfiction, and they work at times in this collection of essays. The piece on John Updike is really funny—and accurate, too. The piece on John McCain’s 2000 campaign contained countless (sad and tragic) observations about our political system that remain all-too-accurate 20 years later. His assessment of tennis star Tracy Austin’s autobiography goes way beyond books written by jocks and gets at just what makes star athletes so transcendent. And let’s just say that DFW’s account of the porn Academy Awards is hilarious. But then his piece on dictionaries and linguistics—something that should have resonated with this SNOOT (it’s in the story)—was so aggravating with his sidebars and holier-than-thou attitudes that I pulled the chute on the rest of the collection. DFW was one of those eggheads who truly believes that there are two sides to every argument: his side and the wrong side. A great writer and an amazing intellect…and really fucking annoying.
Coyote Lost at Sea — Julia Plant
A sailor friend of mine gave me this bio about an American sailing…icon? Enigma? Enfant terrible? Actually, Mike Plant, was pretty much just an asshole—but he found his calling in the obscure world of solo, round-the-world racing. Good for him. He still seems to have been an asshole. Moving on.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater — Kurt Vonnegut
Wow. This book was written in 1965 and the societal and political issues it skewers could have been ripped from today’s headlines. Seriously. I feel like Vonnegut traveled through time to get today’s issues and took them back with him to the ’60s. Or maybe we’ve just been this fucked up for that long. Sigh. Prompted to revisit Vonnegut by a great New Yorker essay by Salman Rushdie (you should read it, too) and am so glad I did. What a brilliant—and entertaining—writer.
The Scarlet Ruse — John D. MacDonald
Now that MacDonald is moving into the ’70s and McGee is getting older, the tone is getting darker. The outcomes less emphatically positive. But still, Travis McGee saves the day and does so in his inimitable style. I’m saving up the next book in the series for a later date, for some time when I need an escape.
A Tan and Sandy Silence — John D. MacDonald
A tale of two books. Started out fabulously, one of the best. It seemed as though McGee had met his match (of course he hadn’t, but it seemed as though his adversary was better than previous evil-doers) and was running a little scared, but then the resolution was just a bit too pat for me.
The Long Lavender Look — John D. MacDonald
Travis McGee has to save his own hide in this installment. This might be one of my fave stories in the series…it’s a good one. Read it in a day—that’s how good it was.
One Hundred Years of Solitude — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I’ve tried several times ever since I was supposed to read this the summer before my freshman year of college. I got farther this time than ever before but…sorry.
The Tiller of Waters — Hoda Barakat
I saw this in an article in a recent Dartmouth Alumni Magazine wherein some professors listed “the book that changed their life.” Let’s see if it changes mine. Nope. Verdict: meh.
Dress Her in Indigo — John D. MacDonald
A different Travis McGee tale. Set in Mexico (which was different and I loved), a bit too much telling rather than showing (which I didn’t love)…great reading and a good time. I’m looking forward to how (if?) some of these specific characters from this story will end up in future episodes. Travis McGee…he’s good for what ails ya.
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper — John D. MacDonald
Another fabulous John D. MacDonald page-turner. This one was pretty straightforward; I expected a couple of surprises that never materialized. But just Klondike Kat, Travis McGee always gets his mouse, er…man. And we fans love it when (and how) he does.
From Forecastle to Cabin — Samuel Samuels
A friend and fellow bibliophile gave me this book as a going-away present when my plan had me headed to the islands this winter. That plan changed (damned reality!) but I’m reading this fabulous memoir of my nautical forebear in hopes of being inspired so when those plans come up again, I GO! And while I hope to go a little less forcibly than Samuels went, boy oh boy, the guy had adventures! Tales from a world gone by.
Seven Brief Lessons in Physics — Carlo Rovelli
I’m a lay scientist and this guy is all the rage in science lit these days but…meh. Upon opening the book I learned it is a collection of seven essays written for an Italian Sunday newspaper. As a result, it’s pretty fluffy. Had I known, I’d have searched for the columns online (I’m sure they’re out there).
How to Change Your Mind — Michael Pollan
Pollan’s previous work (including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) has always been excellent and this topic—psychedelics and what they can teach us—has interested me for a long time. Yes, I’ve taken psychedelics and have always felt there was more to them then just recreation, and this excellent book confirms my desire to explore those teachings again at some point in the future. This is a good read. Recommended.
Swell — Liz Clark
This was a fun, quick read by a young lady who had the guts to do what I didn’t: buy a sailboat and take off looking for waves. It was gratifying to read that she shared many of the fears and challenges that I’m dealing with now. Knowing that she overcame those fears and is still out there doin’ it is encouraging. And along the way, she had fun and learned a lot. You’ll enjoy this book.
Stream System — Gerald Murnane
The New York Times write-up on this Australian writer had such a hyperbolic title that I couldn’t NOT check him out. Seriously. Click on the link; go check out the headline. A tad dense at times but certainly good. But up to the level the Times asserted? Well…
The Dispossessed — Ursula K. LeGuin
Read this on the recommendation of an old friend and colleague. Can’t even remember what the context of Marc’s rec was but he’s never steered me wrong in the past and he didn’t with this one—although the book’s portrayal of just how shitty people can be (even people on distant worlds) is a bit disheartening. But there is a glimmer of hope…
Mother American Night — John Perry Barlow
This idol of mine (who passed away earlier this year) was on the leading edge of so much American culture and technology of the past 50-plus years that it is truly mind-boggling. After reading this wonderfully entertaining autobiography, I realize he was even more amazing than I thought. I highly recommend this book even if you don’t know who John Perry Barlow was. And for my friends who do know of Barlow, I’ll be passing this book along to you shortly. As you should do when you finish it.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved — Kate Bowler
I saw this (and other books) on Bill Gates’ list of suggested summer reading. Bowler is a professor at the Duke Divinity School who was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, prompting her to reevaluate a lot of her beliefs. The writing is kinda herky-jerky, which I suppose is the point given that Bowler’s world was knocked upside-down with her diagnosis. But it wraps up nicely with poignant thoughts about her husband and son. And a wonderful appendix offering tips on what to say (and what NOT to say) to someone dealing with a tough time.
Shakedown Cruise — Nigel Calder
This memoir from one of sailing’s gurus could not have come at a better time. I’m in the midst of taking my own first tentative steps to sea and finding out right from the get-go that this noted authority made many of the same mistakes (and some that were even more egregious than mine) was comforting. That it’s a fun tale of the adventurous times of a young family at sea was icing on the cake.
Cloudbursts — Thomas McGuane
My brother got me this new collection from McGuane for my birthday. And heaven knows I love me some McGuane. Good stuff from a great writer.
The Sea Wolf — Jack London
Reread this one for the first time in a couple of decades. If Call of the Wild is about civilization reverting to the feral and White Fang is about the wild becoming civil, this novel is about the struggle between the two—and about how all men (and women) are really a composite of both. London was so good that you wind up liking AND disliking both main characters. Good stuff.
In the Midst of Winter — Isabel Allende
A second straight HCA Literature Award-winner and a second straight translation. And a second consecutive great read. It’s strange: I found this novel to be easy reading. The writing was easy, the plot was easy, the imagery was easy—is that because it was a translation? I don’t know. I just know I liked it…and I didn’t come away from it awestruck and humbled by the writing, as I have when reading many lauded writers (i.e.: Harrison, Lent, Dillard, Proulx and most recently Murakami). Unlike those writers, I came away from Allende thinking, “I can do that.”
Men Without Women — Haruki Murakami
Murakami has won a gazillion awards, including the Hans Christian Anderson Literature Award—and I see why. I was captivated from the get-go, and stunning, evocative stories kept me riveted. One story in particular grabbed by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Still hasn’t. Then the final few stories get pretty deep into allegory (which always makes me feel like I’ll never be a good writer because I can’t think with such sophistication) but the writing was still superb. Of course, I read a translation. Just pointing that out.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck — Mark Manson
tl;dr: The “tough love” version in the vast library of modern self-help books that are really just Buddhism Lite.
The title suggests it’s a guide to “living a good life” by not giving a fuck about anything. In reality, the book simply points out that you only have so many fucks to give in life, so to speak, so choose wisely. Mind-blowing revelation! (Or not.) Oh, but it does so in such a daring-yet-cute way: “Oooh! He wrote fuck!” Whatev.
First You Have to Row a Little Boat — Richard Bode
This was given to me by a friend at the recent renaming ceremony for my sailboat, Further. It’s a cute book, full of life lessons the author learned as a boy sailing a wooden sloop on Great South Bay on Long Island. There’s nothing subtle about the metaphors used, the lessons learned, but it’s still cute. And it’s sailing-related, so…
Astrophysics for People in a Hurray — Neil deGrasse Tyson
A good, true-to-its-title quick read that is an overview of the state of astronomy and astrophysics. Informative, a couple of wow-inducing moments. A good science book for laypeople by the current king in the field.
I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories — F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s Scott. How could I not buy this? To be honest, it’s easy to see why some of the stories did not get published. Others made you realize you were reading a master of the craft. Like I say: it’s Scott.
The Bloody Forest — Gerald Astor
Found this on a friend’s bookshelf and borrowed it. It’s a collection of oral histories of the Battle of the Huertgen Forest—the World War II battle from which, I believe, my father never really returned. Not light reading and it can be a bit herky-jerky the way it bounces around. It can also be tough to keep track of which encounter where he’s talking about at a given time (more maps would have helped), but it’s about a time that had a profound impact on my family so…
Travels with Charley — John Steinbeck
God, I love Steinbeck. No, this isn’t The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, but it’s still a charming tale of a journey in search of America. Another boy-and-his-dog tale, as it were. And it’s written with Steinbeck’s inimitable skill and style. Worth reading.
Tribe — Sebastian Junger
Meh. As one fascinated by the tribal nature of human beings, and interested in the nature of the tribes in which I’m a part, Junger’s thesis—that we’ve lost something as we’ve moved from communal life to one centered on individual materialism—is what drew me to this short book. And no, it isn’t really an Earth-shattering thesis. That the author, who’s become little more than an unabashed uniform-sniffer, implies the only way to regain our community, our tribalism, our happiness, is through military action is even less surprising. And the macho posturing gets a little tiresome. His point about the dangers of our current intra-tribal divisions is certainly timely, however.
Easy in the Islands — Bob Shacochis
Shacochis burst onto the scene with this collection of stories round about the time I was in college. That they’re set in the Caribbean caught my eye; that they’re good stories kept me reading. The stories range from the hilarious to the poignant, and Shacochis paints vivid images. I enjoyed this collection and will be keeping it aboard as a portrait of life in the islands—warts and all.
Petty: The Biography — Warren Zanes
Like many of my age, I was bummed when Tom Petty passed away in early October. This bio is written by Warren Zanes of the Boston band the Del Fuegos, and the writing keeps you rolling along, making the book a fun read. There’s a bit of mythologizing and plenty of things get glossed over, but that’s to be expected, I guess, given it’s a paean to the author’s hero AND there’s a lot of material to cover. The book is also a bit heavy on cliche in places (particularly the conclusion) which was simply disappointing. Still, TP was a major player in my formative years and I’m grateful for having learned more about an artist who, as successful as Petty was, was still better and more influential than I think most music fans realize. (And Zanes’ astute assertions late in the book that influential rock bands are a thing of the past was sad and sobering.)
Wanderer — Sterling Hayden
Wow! What a great read…and what a fascinating guy. Controversial, to be sure, depending on your thoughts about politics and country and the rule of law and such. But there’s no denying that this guy did it his way. It’s a damned good thing I didn’t read this 40 years ago when I was young and impressionable—I’d definitely have told the world to kiss my ass, gone to sea and never looked back. Sterling Hayden makes Holden Caulfield seem like a phony. That Sterling Hayden was a real, live person only makes him that much more impressive. Now I know what Gen. Jack D. Ripper really meant by “purity of essence”…
Get Real Get Gone — Rick Page and Jasna Tuta
Bought the electronic version of this for a quick read on my iPad. I actually enjoyed it. Yeah, they’re a bit holier-than-thou about a lot of things, but they’re right about encouraging people to simplify and get out there (and it didn’t hurt that I can be pretty holier-than-thou, too). And they had a couple of specifics that were new to me that I found intriguing.
My Absolute Darling — Gabriel Tallent
This book got a ton of write-up in the Times and a blurb from Stephen King, who called it a “masterpiece” and compared it to Catch-22 and To Kill A Mockingbird. It is filled with amazing writing and is incredible for a first novel. But it’s also heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy. King’s blurb rightly calls the antagonist a monster and his actions are stomach-churning and soul-crushing for the reader as well as the protagonist. It takes a little while to get rolling, there are some bumpy patches, but the writing makes it as hard to put down as the subject matter makes it hard to pick up.
The Art of Living — Thich Nhat Hanh
I dogeared a lot of pages in this masterpiece full of insight and helpful guidance from the Buddhist monk and poet nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. (yes, THAT MLK, Jr.). Now if only I could put some of Thay’s teachings into practice in my life. Ah well, “begin again and again and…” as the mantra goes.
Dirty Love — Andre Dubus III
This guy is such a good writer it hurts. No, I mean it literally hurts: the characters he evokes and the stories he tells make your heart ache and your emotions swell. In this collection of related stories, Newburyport’s most famous writer made me feel at various times that people suck, relationships are fucked and that…hold on…well, okay, that person’s actually pretty good she’s just had some tough times but she’s trying hard and dammit-it-all why can’t she just catch a break for once?! Yeah, really. Powerful, good writing. One of the book blurbs says Dubus “may be the best writer in America.” After reading these stories, I sure as hell won’t argue. Amazing stuff.
One Fearful Yellow Eye — John D. MacDonald
The first novella in the Dubus collection (one book above) was so heart-wrenching that I ran to good ol’ Travis McGee for a breather. And like one of McGee’s old buddies, Travis came to the rescue with another fabulous, fast, fun ride—although I will say I knew who the bad guy was in this one way earlier than in any of his other adventures.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep — Philip K. Dick
Wow. How more UNlike the more-famous movie version (Blade Runner) could this be? I’ve only seen the original movie; I’m going to watch the so-called “final cut” soon—director Ridley Scott’s vision of the story which is, supposedly, not the watered-down, happy-ending story that the original movie, while still very dark, turned out to be. Ignoring Hollywood’s @#$#ing up of yet another great book…wow. This is a great exploration of what it means to be human: who’s human and who isn’t, what is the significance (and point) of life, and other such big questions. No, really. All in a short novel. Seriously. Give this a read.
The Dark Tower — Stephen King
Whew! Finally finished the saga. And to be honest, I’m glad it’s done. (No, I’m not going to read the add-on King wrote eight years after his original finale; what is he, The Who doing yet another farewell tour?) It’s a great epic, and in the way King weaves Arthurian legend and the American West and Lord of the Rings-style tales he accomplished what I had always wanted to do (see my notes about Song of Susannah)—and no doubt he did it better than I would have. So thanks for that, Steve. He addresses the meta aspect of the story in an afterword to this volume, and while that note seems like a massive rationalization, it’s hard to argue with his logic. But the meta aspect is still kind-of annoying and kind-of arrogant. Oh well. It’s his tale. Should you read the books? It’s a big undertaking, but if you’re into that type of a combo I reference above, have at it. Other than that, stick to his more self-contained tales. And it’s also clear that the movie version (which opened last weekend and got killed by critics and viewers) has little to nothing to do with the written version. Again I say: oh well.
The Accidental Life — Terry McDonnell
A legendary magazine editor who worked with a whole library of classic, amazing writers. And, on a personal note, someone I was fortunate enough to have known at one time, thanks to my mother (that Terry thanks my mother in his notes was a nice unexpected and touching surprise). At the risk of being really arrogant (who, me?!), I sometimes think I could have traveled a similar trajectory had I been born a little earlier and thus lived during the glory days of magazines. And that feeling increased as I read about his—and the industry’s—transition into the digital present. I know first-hand about dealing with old-media dinosaurs and the coming digital age (ask me about the email the group manager at Morris Communications wrote to the entire staff at Alaska magazine after I, at his request, sent out a memo about the Alaska website when I was senior editor there…yikes!). I could have done without some of the glamour and celebrity gawking and name-dropping, but that was the era, wasn’t it? Anyway, my biggest (personal) takeaways were: a) I would still like to live in a world surrounded with other creative people like Terry did. With those giants? Wow!, and b) I wish I’d been more supplicant when Mom arranged a meeting for me with Terry after I returned from playing hockey in Europe. I could have gotten in on the tail end of those glory days of the magazine biz AND moved in those creative circles. Terry and I are different, I realize—he was happy to observe the Hailey (Idaho) Rodeo with Jann Wenner from the top row of the bleachers whereas I moved to the Wood River Valley and lived as a local. But oh, if only I’d seen the bigger picture…
Song of Susannah — Stephen King
This might be the most meta book I’ve ever read. The author actually inserts himself into the story as an important character. Strange, to say the least. I find King’s efforts to root the tale in the so-called “real” world sometimes maddening and sometimes ingenious, but I get the urge. Hell, I remember plagiarizing major elements of T.H. White’s Once and Future King saga and placing them in my world (I was a kid…sue me) because I wanted that kind of morality tale (and the chance for glory) to exist in reality. I still don’t know how King is going to wind up the story, and that’s a good thing. I look forward to the conclusion (I hope). Sidenote: As for the impending film, it’s clear it is not the stories I’ve been reading but is, rather, the concept, with specifics utilized as needed. As with all Hollywood bastardizations, that’s good and bad.
Wolves of the Calla — Stephen King
Part five of King’s fantasy epic. Tore through this one (as I did with the others) and this one seems to have more elements that fit into the trailer for the coming film. A good read though King pulled one “I know but won’t tell you, reader” contrivance about a major plot point that really pissed me off. And when I went back to the trailer and the film’s IMDB page, it’s clear that the movie is so far from the books as to be a completely different story that uses elements of The Dark Tower. Thus far. But I’m on to book six so…stay tuned.
In the Country of the Blind — Edward Hoagland
A good, easily digested novel from the writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.” I’ve read Hoagland’s travel/outdoors nonfiction for ages but never his fiction. This was an interesting contrast to the recently read Jeffrey Lent: Hoagland’s narrative changes within chapters—hell, within paragraphs—in stark contrast to Lent’s meticulous arrangement. A bit disconcerting at times but you get used to it. In any case, this novel is an entertaining, well-crafted tale with a bit of incredulity thrown in for good measure. Give it a shot—then go get some of Hoagland’s essays.
Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen
After Jeffrey Lent, I needed something a little less strenuous—and this fit the bill to a T. Finished it in a couple of days (despite its length) because it reads so easily. I’ve been a Springsteen fan since “The River” (fun fact: his first few albums were recorded in a studio in Blauvelt, N.Y., about a mile from the middle school I attended and across the street from the bar my older brother hung out in; Eric said the band would stop in periodically) so I knew this was on the to-read list as soon as it came out. No, there are no Earth-shattering revelations but there are the requisite glimpses behind the veil. Beyond that, it’s just a fun read about a famous person’s life. What stood out for me were a few things:
- Bruce really was an overnight sensation at a very young age. Reminds me of the Doonesbury character, Jimmy Thudpucker, who, when reminded that he has to include a “dues song” on every album, points out that he never had to pay any because he was an overnight sensation at 19. Sure, Springsteen dealt with some shit (mostly related to his father) but who hasn’t?
- Given that pretty easy ride, it’s hard to feel Bruce really knows whereof he chronicles and for which he is often lauded. He certainly has no experience in a factory (though his friends and family did) and by his own admission he’s never done a day of work in his life. Yeah, neck surgery is a scary bitch…but it’s way easier when you don’t have to work and you can pay for the best surgeons in the world and so on. Yeah, mental illness is a bitch and it’s good to hear the (legal) pharmaceuticals worked for you…but they work a lot easier when their cost is of no consequence to you. That doesn’t diminish the fact that Springsteen has been an amazing chronicler of the human condition and advocate for those in need, but it does make him less of a rags-to-riches story
- That said, Springsteen’s openness about the mental illness he and his father both battled was interesting to learn—and encouraging that he’d be so open about it
- And finally, his relationship with his father had a few points of very specific resonance with me. My father didn’t go as far as Springsteen’s did, but Bruce’s thoughts on the matter and on his father gave me things to think about as I continue to process my relationship with my father
Before We Sleep — Jeffrey Lent
Man, oh man. Another masterpiece. The way this guy paints such intimate portraits…truly amazing and captivating. This book, his sixth, stumbles around a bit as it gathers speed. And a few of the sometimes-distracting, miles-long sentences Lent drops in now and again make you wonder if he was doing so simply as a tribute to Jim Harrison. But by the end you will, as one does with all of Jeffery Lent’s novels, catch your breath, smile (with a tinge of a tear at the corner of your eye) and say, “Wow.”
The Dark Tower (parts I-IV) — Stephen King
Stephen King’s magnum opus and soon to be in theaters with Idris Elba in the lead and Matthew McConaughey as the villain. I’ve been meaning to read this for ages and when I saw the trailer I knew I wanted to read it before seeing the flick. I blew through book one, The Gunslinger, in a few hours, and then devoured books two and three because, apparently, the movie takes elements from the first and third. But from what I can see of the film’s IMDB listing and the trailer, the film looks like a totally different story. (First time Hollywood’s done that, right?! Not.) As for the books, well, I like the story but I can’t say it’s blowing my hair back. Elements of the story are wonderfully captivating but it’s almost as if King was schizophrenic when he wrote these books. On one hand, he thought to himself as he was writing, “I need to make this as convoluted as possible and introduce new threads so that this takes seven-plus books to finish.” And on the other, things get resolved so conveniently as to be disappointing and unbelievable. King’s forewords and afterwords in these new editions make it clear that in a way, he was: that writing the installments with so much time in between led to an essentially new author each time. UPDATE: I wrestled with the ginormous fourth book, Wizard and Glass, over the past few days. Most of it is spent in recounting the back story of Roland, the titular character. Again, some quick clean-up scenes disappoint and some other “where did THAT come from” themes confuse—and lay the groundwork for later installments. Oh well. It’s Stephen King. It’s well-written and it’s enjoyable. Take it for that. (But I’m sure I’m going to be pissed when the movie is a completely different tale.)
The Broom of the System — David Foster Wallace
Nope. No better than my recent revisit of Joyce. Some of DFW’s satirical insights into modern society were pretty funny, but I can’t get past the cute-for-cute’s-sake nature of a lot of his writing. Too clever for his own good, to my mind. Sorry, not sorry.
Medium Raw — Anthony Bourdain
I bought this to learn more about someone with whom friends had said I would identify. I’ve never been a professional cook or a junkie (and I’m perfectly fine with my CV lacking both of those), so I wasn’t sure. But this was an enjoyable read. And yes, I do feel like Bourdain and I have some similarities: love of books and reading, love of travel and experiencing other cultures, and an inexplicable anger—and a fear and/or unwillingness to do the work of writing. It was gratifying and encouraging to learn I’m not the only one. And did I mention it’s a fun read?
A Really Big Lunch — Jim Harrison
A collection of food writing from the beloved, admired and envied (by this guy, anyway) writer. Another fun read and a balm for the wound of Harrison’s passing a year ago.
The Power of Now — Eckhart Tolle
I needed some sort of kick-start to my life so I picked this up again. I believe it’s the best of what I call the “Buddhism Lite” books out there. Helpful reminders. One I recommend.
A Purple Place for Dying; The Quick Red Fox; A Deadly Shade of Gold — John D. Macdonald
What can I say? I went to Mexico and went on a massive Travis McGee binge while I traveled. Good writing, entertaining, a character I know and love…perfect for a six-hour layover in the Mexico City airport, for reading over lunch or during siesta time in a hot, Mexican beach town. Just what the doctor (and travel agent) ordered.
Hemingway in Cuba — Hilary Hemingway
Found this in a bookshelf here at the house…no surprise, Dad being the big Hemingwayophile that he was. Hilary Hemingway is no wordsmith like her famous uncle, but a bunch of the inside info and tales were interesting, as were the photos from that time. Kinda got me amped up to go to Cuba.
Galen Rowell’s Vision: The Art of Adventure Photography — Galen Rowell
A collection of the late photographer’s columns from Outdoor Photographer magazine. Rowell’s photos captured my soul and mind, and I always wanted to have his life (apart from its plane-crash ending). His photos remain amazing but boy oh boy, what an arrogant prick…and it comes out in a lot of his columns. Still, there’s no denying the artistic talent of his photography. And I’d still love to mimic his life…but do it my own way. Fingers crossed…
Ulysses — James Joyce
I tried. Again. I really did. I guess I’m just too old-fashioned to be a modernist. Oh well.
A Book of Migrations — Rebecca Solnit
I stumbled upon Solnit in Green Apple Books in San Francisco. A sucker for travel writing, I bought this book and Solnit’s A Field Guide for Getting Lost (how can you NOT buy a book with a title like that?!). A Field Guide was okay; this book turned out to be great. Not only a “meditation on travel” as the New York Times‘ reviewer called it, it is several meditations: on Ireland, on culture, and on the evolution of language. I very much enjoyed and was inspired by this book.
Light Years — James Salter
Someone (I forget who) turned me on to Salter years ago by recommending Solo Faces. And I read A Sport and a Pastime when Salter passed away in 2015. Light Years is a fascinating character study—studies, really, because it examines the coming apart of a marriage—with loads of Salter’s sublime wordsmithing. But bring your A game because it’s NOT easy reading. It’s a bit dense, to be honest. Almost like reading Joseph Conrad. Stick to A Sport and a Pastime.
Razor Girl — Carl Hiaasen
Hiaasen is back! His best book in years (though really, even his less-great books are still awesome) and another seat-of-your-pants romp through Florida. Featuring Hiaasen’s trademark wit, ripped-from-the-news storyline and a not-so-subtle enviro bent, Razor Girl also manages to skewer reality TV, agents and, of course, lawyers. I read this book in one sitting. ‘Nuff said.
Pennterra — Judith Moffett
I got assigned this book in an environmental-literature class in college. The book stuck in my head and in 1997 I traded emails with the professor, Noel Perrin (who was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Dartmouth), to ask him about it. He sent me a xeroxed copy of the book because it was out of print—this was in the days before Amazon had everything on Earth for sale. Anyway, the book is science fiction and tells the story of two groups of humans—“typical” humans and Quakers—adapting to a new planet whose native inhabitants impose some environmentally driven limits. It’s an allegory for what happened in North America in the 17th century—old world/new world, get it?—and it’s interesting to me for its depiction of the Gaia hypothesis: that a planet and all its inhabitants are one organism. It’s a bit clunky—sexual activity and its role in the planet’s processes is overwrought and quickly becomes tiresome—and I’m not sure I buy the way some of the story lines get all tidied up at the end (human nature seems to me to be pretty intractable), but I’m glad I reread it. Can’t say it needs another rereading. Side note: that Isaac Asimov’s poignant-at-the-time intro remains so appropriate 30-ish years later only makes that intractability of human nature all the more likely.
Jerry On Jerry — Dennis McNally
Given to me by a friend and I’m glad I read it. This Deadhead got insight into his beloved (and dearly missed) Jerry Garcia in Jerry’s own words. The book could have used some editing: it’s a series of interviews and McNally couldn’t resist leaving in several irrelevant and distracting interjections of his own. Hey, Dennis! We’re not here to read your thoughts! We want to hear Jerry’s, thanks.
Here Is New York — E.B. White
I found this short piece—an essay, really—among my mother’s books while going through her stuff this summer. It was a specially bound edition from Vanity Fair—a gift for friends from editor Graydon Carter. I’m not much for New York City as most everyone knows, but since I adore E.B. White’s writing I had to read it. And boy, am I glad I did. That man could write.
Dark Matter — Blake Crouch
I saw a review of this in the New York Sunday Times and this would-be astrophysicist couldn’t resist its Multiverse theme. It reads fast and easily and much like a screenplay—no surprise there given Crouch’s background—and it all ties up just a wee bit too easily in the end. But it was a page-turner. I read this in one sitting.
Barbarian Days — William Finnegan
I resisted this after seeing excerpts in the surfing media but friends kept recommending it so I broke down. And I’m glad I did. Finnegan is an award-winning journalist for The New Yorker and a lifelong surfer. Raised in Hawaii and Southern California, Finnegan went on a long run of exploration and was first (or among the first) at some of the world’s premier breaks. Some of the surfing detail might bore inlanders, and some of his focus on pursuing great writing might bore non-writers, but for this writer/surfer it was a profile of a life to be envied—and a Pulitzer Prize-winning profile, at that.
Nightwood — Djuna Barnes
I tried. I really tried. If T.S. Eliot raves about Barnes the way he did, she MUST be good, right? After slogging through the first third or so, the writing started to take off. There were passages where it was easy to see why Eliot was so taken with Barnes’ poetic stylings. But in the end, it was just too much. Too dense. I bailed. Sorry, T.S.
A Slant of Light — Jeffrey Lent
With the passing of Jim Harrison, Jeffrey Lent now occupies the “best writer in the English language” spot in my pantheon. And truth be told: he may have taken that spot before Harrison’s death. My brother turned me on to Lent with the gift of A Peculiar Grace, Lent’s second novel. I was so taken with it that I went out and read his other three books in short order. Lent’s debut novel, In The Fall, might be the best first novel I’ve ever read. Seriously. I’d call Lent a once-in-a-lifetime wordsmith but he and Harrison overlapped so I guess they were two-in-a-lifetime. Like In The Fall, A Slant of Light takes place just after the Civil War. And like the earlier work, this book’s evocation of the time along with Lent’s powerful presentation of all-too-human emotions and shortcomings is heart-stopping. I can’t wait for Lent’s next work.
The Ancient Minstrel — Jim Harrison
The master on his way out. When Harrison passed in March of this year I went right out and bought this recently released collection of three novellas and then started in after preparing and enjoying an obscenely large multi-serving and multi-wine feast in his honor. And it’s clear in the collection that Harrison knew time was running out. In the not-remotely-veiled title story and in the final entry, The Case of the Howling Buddhas, Harrison clearly wrapped up his larger-than-life stomp on the terra. Confessing his sins? Not someone like Harrison; that’s not his style. But I wondered as the doings of his recurring character, Detective Sunderson, were wrapped up in the Howling Buddhas story: maybe, just maybe, there was a twinge of guilt. Harrison, for all of his faults (and it appears there were many), will remain the central writer in my library. I will return to his work—poetry, essays, short stories, novels…all of it—throughout the rest of my days.