Recently Read Books: 2012

(in no particular order)

1. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is a funny writer. He creates funny characters and has them do funny things. This novel is about a horny dinosaur who invades a California coastal town.

This is one of Moore’s earlier works, and it isn’t as polished as his later works, but it’s fun nevertheless. In one representative scene, the eponymous, aroused monster falls for a tanker truck as it idles in a parking lot. The tanker’s driver dies in the ensuing hijinx, which illustrates one of Moore’s more endearing traits as an author. Also in this book you will meet the delightful Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland, one of the author’s strange and wonderful characters. Kendra, along with the entire wacky, fictional town, reprise their roles in Moore’s “The Stupidest Angel.”

2. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin

Salatin is a guru in the new agriculture movement. He is an energetic, outspoken enthusiast of locally grown, healthy, sustainable plants and animals. While he has written several quite readable books, he’s a farmer who writes, rather than a writer who farms. Ever since Michael Pollan made him famous in the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Salatin has had a wide and growing audience. His approach to farming is so notable that he proselytizes his methods however he can. In this book he makes the case that you can actually make a living at farming without compromising sustainability.

3. The End of War, by David L. Robbins

This excellent book describes, in novel form, how the victors wrapped up the pursuit of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. There was still a lot of blood remaining to be shed when the outcome of the war was clearly seen to be an allied victory, but the allies were not at all a unified front. The three main players, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all knew that their actions in 1945 would have lasting effect on the shape of Europe in the decades to come. All three came from wildly disparate backgrounds and brought equally disparate ideals to the bargaining table.

This novel has been called flawed because of its ambitious and problematic subject matter, but for devotees of the genre, it is revealing and fascinating.

4. Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming

In the 1960s I was a big fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Live and Let Die was my favorite. It’s been well over 40 years since I’ve read it and it was fascinating to reread it as an adult.

Fleming’s novels were simple, formulaic, and improbable, yet they were mind-expanding to young mid-century readers like me. Fleming’s time as an OSS agent in World War II gave him and his creation a frisson of reality, and Bond’s worldliness and his success with women made him quite appealing to a twelve-year-old boy, and there’s a twelve-year-old boy in many of us.

Fleming’s Bond is grittier and more authentic than the cinematic Bond. Yet his knowledge and sophistication in all things, from gambling to booze to politics, is what makes him an appealing action hero. The Bond of the movies got that part right.

Fleming’s creation made the secret agent genre into a world-wide phenomenon. The sixties witnessed countless movies, TV shows, magazines, products, toys, and standup routines based on the idea of an ultra-sophisticated tough guy who could kill a man with a single blow of his hand, and who devastated the ladies with his cool. This was a meme to reckon with.

It wasn’t until John Le Carré introduced George Smiley a generation later that one could see the reality from which Bond sprang. Both are useful archetypes, one realistic and human, the other unrealistic and what we fantasize we might be.

5. The War of the Rats, by David L. Robbins

I read this excellent book about the battle of Stalingrad more than a decade ago and really enjoyed it. The horrific pitched battle between the Russians and the Germans inside the city of Stalingrad is told through the true story of a young Russian sniper. He is so successful at surreptitiously killing Germans that the Russian command makes him the head of new sniper school, and a hero in the newspapers. In response, the Germans dispatch their best sniper to kill the young Russian. What a great storyline!

Sometime after I first read the book, a movie loosely based on the book, called “Enemy at the Gates,” was released. It was also excellent, but the stories varied somewhat, and they began to muddle in my head. It was a pleasure to reread the novel again so I could tease apart the different interpretations.

6. Guide to Concrete: Masonry & Stucco Projects, by Phil Schmidt

A simple book, written to help the homeowner build patios and pathways.

7. Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard, by Jessi Bloom

I can’t really believe I read this whole book cover to cover, but I did. It was similar to eating an entire bag of marshmallows: unsubstantial, yet somehow good at the time.

This book is aimed primarily at urban and suburban gardeners, and how to safely add chickens to the mix without forcing them to stay screened in a coop.

8. Republic Lost, Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig is a prodigious talent in the legal field. A youthful prodigy, he initially held conservative views, but in later years has a been a leading voice for reform, particularly in the area of intellectual property in the digital age.

In this book, he reveals his current thinking about how the influence of corporate money has destroyed our democratic process. The book is an intelligent call to arms for reform. I highly recommend it.

9. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

I have been an avid reader of military history since I was about six years old. Of the hundreds of books, fact and fiction, that I’ve read about war, this is the best one. I first read this telling of the battle of Gettysburg in 1976, when, to little fanfare, it appeared in paperback, even though it had won a Pulitzer Prize two years before. Author Michael Shaara died soon after its publication, and the book fell from sight until the release, in 1993, of the movie “Gettysburg,” whereupon the book was rereleased and finally began to garner the attention and accolades it deserved.

When an author writes nonfiction, he or she is restricted to telling the story using only documented facts. There’s a whole lot of history that isn’t documented, and often an adroit novelist can convey more of the truth of history than can be done with mere facts. That’s exactly what Shaara has done with the three days of Gettysburg in 1863. Weaving his narrative around a dozen or so of the leading players on both sides of the conflict, his smooth prose tells the story of men caught in the web of their own making, forced by circumstance into a decisive battle.

This is at least the fourth time I’ve read this fantastic book, and the first time I’ve listened to it as an audiobook. As expected, it remains engrossing, entertaining, educational, historical, and pure fun. Even though the events are well known, we see them unfold through the eyes of the players, and we are fascinated anew.

Nowhere will you find a better description of war and warriors than here. Shaara takes us inside the heads of Lee and Longstreet as they both fret over J.E.B. Stuart’s epic failure to enlighten the Confederate army. While tolerant Lee regards the lapse as that of an errant, prodigal son, Longstreet seethes in his desire to court-martial the joy-riding young cavalry officer.

On the Union side, Shaara paints the most detailed and loving portrait of an honest-to-god American hero, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin, the intellectual Maine professor of rhetoric who has the tenacity and courage to hold the extreme left end of the Union army line on Little Round Top against wave after wave of Longstreet’s Texans.

In the light of the book’s renewed success, his son, Jeff Shaara, took up the authorial mantle and has written a fine series of sequels and prequels to The Killer Angels. I’ve read several of these and, while they are well worth reading, none of them touches the brilliance of the Father’s original masterpiece.

10. Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense, by Sam Eastland

A beach novel about a tough Russian who used to be the Tsar’s right hand man. Improbable story, fun read, forgettable.

11. The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes, by Stephanie Pierson

A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at one of the most homely and unsung cuts of beef. Pierson has more to say about brisket than one might imagine can be said about this ultimate comfort food.

12. Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton

A series of prose portraits of rugged individuals who refuse to succumb to the economics and ethos of factory farming.

13. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler

Adler’s book is a self-described homage to MFK Fisher, the iconoclastic foodie of the 1930s and 40s. Interesting agri-philosophy peppered with useful recipes and kitchen ideas.

14. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky

This book is fascinating. Clay Shirky is one of, if not the, smartest, most perceptive observers of the sociology of the post-industrial age. There is simply lots of meaty good stuff about people, culture, civilization, and human nature here, and how digital technology is facilitating remarkable social change.

Humans remain the same, but our behavior changes depending on the social and economic opportunities presented by our environment, and that environment is becoming dominated by digital digital tools and networking, so our behavior changes to match it.

15. Agincourt: A Novel, by Bernard Cornwell

I read this plot driven beach novel on the beach (actually, on the airplane on the way to the beach). Highly recommended as such, but don’t look for anything else. Cornwell’s work is historically accurate and interesting for that, but don’t look for literary sparkles here.

16. Fighter Pilot, by Robin Olds

A superb memoir of a legendary character. Robin Olds is an archetype of the Greatest Generation and of fighter pilots. An easy and enjoyable read that will make you proud to be alive.

17. Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45, by Neill Lochery

An account of the fascinating role Lisbon played during World War II. As the capital of small, neutral Portugal, the city hosted spies of all countries and intrigue aplenty. The city’s mayor tiptoed on a razor’s edge playing Allied against Axis interests without provoking either to belligerence.

18. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

I couldn’t finish this book. I could barely get started. It took the author page after page of stodgy, congested prose to say very little. The sheer weight of the volume deterred me from anything after the first tortured plot point, which was more like a plot continuum.

19. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Sue Townsend

I read this book with some consternation. It was too readable to abandon, yet too problematic to enjoy. The main problem it posed was that it is about the 99th book in a long series of “Adrian Mole” novels by author Townsend, beginning when the protagonist was 13 years old. It would certainly have been easier for me if I had read any of the 98 predecessors, but I am woefully ignorant of British pop culture and entered the fray unprepared. Oh well.

On the plus side, it is largely written in the epistolary style, which I find quaintly endearing.

20. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

An unforgettable and beautifully written biography of Louis Zamperini, a track prodigy and Olympic runner who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. The young airman’s ordeal in a plastic raft and as a Japanese prisoner of war will simultaneously tear your heart out and inspire you.

This is a superb book in every respect, telling a true story with painstaking verisimilitude and detail, along with the pacing, characterization, and balance of a fine novel. If you wonder why they’re called “The Greatest Generation,” this book will inform you as to the answer.

21. The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters, By Chip Kidd

A coming of age story of an innocent young man in art school, studying that new discipline, graphic arts. The protagonist finds himself under the influence of wanton women and maniacal art teachers. Is this autobiographical? Certainly not. Maybe.

22. They Eat Puppies, Don’t they?: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley

I’ve been a big fan of Christoper Buckley since reading his first novel, “Steaming to Bamboola” about a million years ago. His second book, “The White House Mess,” an amusingly titled political satire disguised as a story about the guy in charge of the President’s Kitchen, was a hit and established his literary direction. Since then, Buckley has been master of the genre of political-satire-by-infiltration; kind of the novelistic equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s TV personality. Usually he does a fine job, but not in this effort. I finished this send-up of US-China relations out of loyalty, but it really didn’t measure up to Buckley’s normal quality.

23. The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks

The engaging English psychologist writes once again about how trauma and disease gives us a glimpse into how the mind works. In this volume he relates the story of how he loses sight in one eye, and how that affects the way he sees and thinks.

24. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

A heartbreaking story of immigrant life in America in the early days of the 20th Century. Sinclair makes a compelling case for implementation and reform of work laws, consumer product safety laws, political campaign laws, and a multitude of others. The conclusion he arrives at, apropos of the time, is socialism.

25. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling

A classic collections of stories from England’s Victorian storyteller.

26. Food Rules, by Michael Pollan

Because America is relatively young collection of people from other cultures, no truly indigenous American cuisine has ever existed. Not only does what we eat have a multitude of origins, but this country was formed by hard working, unreflective pioneers with little time to enjoy the subtler pleasures of life. Consequently, refined eating and quality food have never played a significant role in this country.

A country without its own cuisine is a country adrift in the kitchen, and, as Pollan has written elsewhere, most Americans don’t have a clue about what to eat. In this slim volume, the author gives us a series of simple rules of thumb that we can use as a guide to good eating.

The foremost, and overarching, rule that Pollan arms us with is this excellent one:

Eat food, not too much, mostly leaves.

The first two words of this axiom are freighted with meaning, as Pollan has often pointed out, most of what Americans consume is not really “food” at all, but an edible, food-like substance made from highly processed corn.

27. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Russo, one of my favorite novelists, let me down with this effort. Russo’s metier is crafting characters who carefully teeter between annoying and lovable. In this book, he lets his people err on the side of annoying. The protagonist’s parents, whose role in the narrative is to be the archetypes-of-annoying, are fascinating and interesting, but they needed to be balanced by characters more lovable.

28. Parrot and Olivier In America, by Peter Carey

I really enjoyed this excellent and amusing book. It’s a historical novel, a comedy, a satire, and a romp. Carey tells the story of two Europeans, a working class English rogue and a French Noble, on their 1831 trip to America together.

The novel is rich and complex, the characters improbably multifaceted, and their personalities and backgrounds impossibly different, yet they are thrust together to visit the New World. Hilarity, with a colossally bright wit and of an atmospheric scope, ensues. The book satirizes everything it touches, with a grace and color hard to find.

evidently this novel is a send-up of Alexis de Tocqueville and his famous account of his journey to America. I have never read that work but this novel kindles my interest. Do yourself a favor and read “Parrot and Olivier.” You’ll have lots of fun.

29. An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

Martin’s novel is a small and personal tale of a ruthless and beautiful woman in the New York art scene.

30. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester

A detailed biography of the Atlantic Ocean. Very readable, very fascinating.

31. Summerland, by Michael Chabon

If you love elves and orcs and baseball, this is the book for you.

32. Story’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

The more I live with chickens, the more I like them. The more I like them, the more interesting it is to learn about them. “Story’s Guide” is the chicken rancher’s bible.

33. Fobbit, by David Abrams

A novel set in the rear echelons of the Iraqi combat zone. Not epic, but worth the read. Based on the author’s experience in Iraq.

34. The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox

This fascinating and readable book is exhaustively researched and clearly written. Justin Fox tells the story of an unbelievable yet remarkably durable meme: that movements of the stock market can somehow be predicted. The idea that the stock market is something other than a casino, that it is something more than just a wild gamble, that an intelligent person can rationally invest and consistently make a profit is impossible, yet our greed is so strong we conjure lies to tell ourselves otherwise, and this is the biography of those lies.

The intriguing tale of how an absurd idea can become widely accepted as true comes to life in the narrative, along with those economists and thinkers who fight back against the notion. The author is a scrupulous journalist, and he holds his point of view in check throughout, believing–correctly–that the sheer implausibility of the historical facts make his point better than could any editorial emphasis he might add.

In 2011, I attended an exclusive technology conference at a swanky resort in Phoenix, Arizona. During the lunch break I happened to sit across the table from a bright young man and we struck up a conversation. We couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds: He was an East Coast literary intellectual with Ivy League credentials, while I’m a Californian, ex-hippie, technology entrepreneur. We liked each other immediately. His name was Justin Fox, the author of this book.

Fox’s day job is the editorial director for the Harvard Business Review, and he writes about economics for Time magazine. He said he would send me a copy of his book and was gracious and thoughtful enough to remember to actually do so when he returned home. I sent him a copy of my book in return.

I’m a computer geek, and not a scholar of finance or investment or the men who dominate those fields, so I had no expectations of recognizing any of the players in the drama. However, as the book unfolded I was astonished to discover many names whose work I was already familiar with in the fields of computer science and cognitive psychology. These scientists and researchers played significant roles in the fields of finance and economics, including John von Neumann, Benoit Mandelbrot, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Amos Tversky. What a fascinating surprise!

This is a great book and I highly recommend it. In particular, if you wonder how the financial establishment trashed the American economy in 2008, you will find the answer here.

35. Bossypants, by Tina Fey

This memoir of a TV comedienne is an amusing trifle.

36. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves

The 1934 book describes the reign of the Claudian Emperors of Rome, including their intrigues and excesses, some 2000 years ago. This is an interesting and worthwhile historical novel but I found the first person, memoir-style writing problematic. There was simply too much telling and not enough showing.

37. War Games: Inside the World of Twentieth Century War Reenactors, by Jenny Thompson

Most of us a familiar with Civil War reenactors. They teach us ancient history by showing us how the combatants lived and died in the compelling drama of simulated battle. There is another diverse group of reenactors, though, whose interest is in World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan. These reenactors tend to hide from the limelight, unlike their 19th Century counterparts, because many of the participants in the real events are still alive, as are the emotions surrounding the conflict. Author Thompson does a good, albeit leisurely, job of showing us the moral fuzziness in this emotional milieu.

38. Comrades and Chicken Ranchers: The Story of a California Jewish Community, by Kenneth L. Kann

This book is an oral biography of many of the Jewish immigrants who came to Petaluma California in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It also interviews their children, grandchildren, friends, and a few neighbors and associates. It tells the story of an immigrant community that was at once utterly representative of the American melting pot while being just as utterly unique in the way that only a deeply ethnic minority can be.

Two years ago, my wife and I moved to Petaluma, so this is very relevant history for me. When I mention the book and the story of the Petaluma Jews to my new neighbors, they nod knowingly and give me additional fascinating tidbits. The Jews didn’t create the chicken ranching business in Petaluma, but they were prominent practitioners of it, and eggs and chickens were big business here in the years before, and just after, WWII.

39. Notes From a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

This book chronicles Bryson’s farewell tour of England after 20 years of residency there. He decided to take one last look at the island nation before returning to his native Iowa. Bryson is a good storyteller, always interesting, and at times he can be hilarious.

40. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The last book I read in 2012 might well be the best book of the year, and certainly one of the most fun. The novel, set in Thailand a hundred years or so in the future, when energy is scarce and disease wrought by genetically modified foods are plentiful, is a gripping story of intrigue and smoky atmosphere.

I am not a fan of deus ex machina fantasies like those of Tolkien and Rowling. I’m much more interested in the defensible extrapolation style of Heinlein and Asimov. Bacigalupi stays clearly within the lines of straight-up science fiction, and the backdrop of steamy Southeast Asia powered by spring engines is immensely satisfying.

The plot surprised me at every turn. Even the eponymous character of the windup girl didn’t make her appearance until chapter three, and then her essential purpose in the story wasn’t clear for several more chapters. The twists continued right up until the very end.

Bacigalupi’s prose is every bit as atmospheric as Alan Furst’s, easy to read yet richly layered. I highly recommend this book.

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