Posts Tagged ‘classics’

Books I have read in 2011

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Here are the books that I have read this past year in no particular order. Lots of fiction, lots of non-fiction, lots of new, lots of old, a few literary classics. It’s all good.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat; Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, by Hal Herzog

An unintentionally ambiguous political billboard in Petaluma got me thinking about the nature of being an omnivore. A friend recommended this book and it was as billed: a thought-provoking look at human’s relationships with animals.

Ambiguous Petaluma billboard

Ambiguous Petaluma billboard

The book doesn’t take a political stand, but its author is definitely against unnecessary cruelty to animals. His investigations bring him face to face with some annoying realities of how our society treats animals in reality and in our minds (and legislation). For example, the life and death of a fighting cock is far better than is the entire, tortured, miserable, pointless existence and painful, prolonged, disgusting death of the average Foster Farms broiler. Yet the cock fighting is illegal in most states, looked down upon most everywhere in the United States, and few people know or care about what happens to billions of pathetic chickens at factory farms across the land.

The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi

A straight-up science fiction novel of the old school. It was reminiscent of the great days of scifi in the 60s and 70s. It had fun action, strong women, psychedelic sheep. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and you will, too. On the strength of this book, I bought another Scalzi title for next year.

Program or Be Programmed, by Douglas Rushkoff

This tiny volume demands your attention. The author makes the case that digital technology exerts a powerful force unlike any other creation of man. He argues, quite convincingly, that you will either master that force or be mastered by it. You should read this book.

Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon

For a decade, I knew I really wanted to read this book, but sometimes life conspires to tantalize you. The feeling I had when I finally cracked this book open was, I’m sure, just like the feeling a wine aficionado has when opening a treasured vintage from a legendary year. What’s more, Chabon did not disappoint. The novel is one of those remarkable concoctions of big history, quirky vocations, fascinating people, and human pathos that nails the essence of a good novel.

The eponymous heroes of the book are comic book artists and the novel is set during and after World War II when comics boomed into American culture. Everything about this book is delightful, and Chabon is one of my favorite authors.

Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb

What is wrong with this book? It’s a historical novel set in Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War. It is a bleak, atmospheric, portending murder mystery with historical figures woven into a story with fictional characters. This is all the stuff that I love in a novel, but for some reason every time I picked up the book I fell asleep. I never did finish it. Maybe I’ll try again next year.

Chocolate and Cheese, by Hank Shteamer

Ween is my favorite musical group. They sound a lot like the Beatles only with more cursing and a wicked sense of humor. Way back in junior high school, Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo formed the band named Ween, calling themselves the brothers Ween, Gene and Dean. Gene has a dreamy, psychedelic style, and Dean is a head-banging metal guitarist. Their union is remarkably delightful.

While their own sound is distinctive and appealing, they are genre fans, and love to play in other musicians’ styles. Their eclecticism isn’t satire, nor do they simply cover other artists’ work, but it’s genuine homage to talent without prejudice. The breadth of their taste is astonishing. You can hear authentic strains of legendary musicians from Pink Floyd to Jim Morrison, from Hank Williams to Prince, from Jimmy Buffett to Metallica, from the Grateful Dead to Roger Miller, from David Sanborn to The Pet Shop Boys.

Their music forms are all over the place, too. Listen for a while and you will hear classic rock and roll, airy jam anthems, heavy metal, children’s songs, sea shanties, call-and-response, eighteenth century English ballads, European techno, chewing gum pop, and country and western. It’s a cornucopia of delightful musical cross-reference.

Ween's Chocolate and Cheese album cover

Ween's Chocolate and Cheese album cover

This tiny book is about them, but in particular it is about one of their 16 albums and how it marked the fulcrum of the group’s career and music. In the beginning, their style was irreverent, loud, annoying, and appealed to the head-banger college set. They toured with a DAT playback unit as a rhythm section. Precocious, quirky, and talented, they signed a record contract with Elektra in 1992. Their first Elektra album, Pure Guava, was familiar stuff to their fans, but their second big-label album, Chocolate and Cheese, was a breathtaking departure from their roots. Gene and Dean recruited three real musicians to join them and dramatically improved the quality, depth, and scope of their music. They didn’t lose that humor and irreverence, but their songs acquired a professionalism and artistry that was entirely new and only hinted at by their early years. This book chronicles the process of maturing evidenced by the album.

This book is broken into three parts: before the album, after the album, and all about the album. It’s a fan’s book, written by a fan, and published as part of series for music fans, so this ain’t literature. If you listen to and love Ween (those two things mostly go together) then you will enjoy this book.

Fences, Gates, And Bridges: A Practical Manual (1892), by George A. Martin

The craft of building good fences hasn’t changed all that much in the last century. Dig deep, brace, prepare to rebuild. You need to build the right fence for the task at hand. Gates are interesting variations: some need to accommodate animals or vehicles, others are just for people. Some gates need to work under a load of snow.

Fences for Pasture and Garden, by Gail Damerow

Damerow’s contemporary take on fences is remarkable mainly for how similar it is to the Martin book written in 1892. About the only real difference is the section on electric fences.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt

I’m only part way through this book. Fascinating topic, but middling quality writing.

Spons on Carpentry and Joinery; A Manual for Handicraftsmen and Amateurs, by E & F N Spon

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the brothers Spons, book publishers in London, set out to document how craft was done. They described the tools and techniques of more than 30 crafts. In this reprint of the 1910 edition, the crafts of carpentry and joinery  are described in anachronistic detail. Very interesting history and filled with useful stuff if you like to do things the old way.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

This is a fabulous novel. McEwan slowly and deliberately paints an indelible portrait of a family of appealing people. Briony, the dreamy fourteen year-old daughter lives in a world of fantasy and imagination. She misinterprets certain events on the family’s estate that she witnesses. Her insistence on her fabricated version alters the lives of all the other characters. How can she atone for her error?

Your Goats; A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing, by Gail Damerow

I thought a children’s guide to goats would be about my level. I was right. Damerow is the author of several definitive texts on animal husbandry and 4H projects.

Understanding Wood Finishing, by Bob Flexner

Wood finishing is without equal in its confusion and obfuscation. Products are numerous, mislabeled, and deliberately confounding. Into this chaos comes a man who thinks clearly, examines thoroughly, and writes plainly. This excellent book will be the single most useful book in any woodworker’s library, starting with mine. I now know and understand the differences between oil-based, oil-derived, and oil-free finishes, among many other things. If you work wood, get this book.

Getting the Most from Your Wood-Buying Bucks; Find, Cut, and Dry Your Own Lumber, by American Woodworker

Now that I own some acres in the country, I not only have a place to store and dry my own wood, but a source for trees, too. Next summer I hope to build my own wood drying, solar-powered kiln. This book showed me how to do that.

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

Even though several of Alan Furst’s novels are so similar that they are starting to blend together in my mind, he is still my favorite novelist. Nobody else has ever had such effortless mastery of the dark, Sword-of-Damocles world of Europe drifting into World War II. He writes of civilians, spies, soldiers and the women who love them in such atmospheric brilliance that you can smell the fog and souks and musty riverbanks that are his settings. In this latest novel he tells the story of a Greek policeman who tries to maintain his independence from the Nazis even though the Greek government has already capitulated without much of a fight.

The Bread Builders; Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott

When you dig into the ways bread was baked in pre-industrial times, you not only find that the recipes are different, but you find that the ovens were different, too. Similarly, when you explore the ways that pre-industrial ovens were built, you find that the bread dough was different, too. Daniel Wing was interested in handmade bread, and Alan Scott was interested in historical, wood-fired ovens. Their skills came together in a wonderful serendipity that has sparked a 30-year-long adventure in reconstructing the older, better ways of making bread. This book and the wisdom within it are their gift to us. Alan Scott passed away a few years ago, but his children carry on his work right here in my home town of Petaluma CA. My new favorite bakery, Della Fattoria, is in our little downtown, and has been baking bread the Wing/Scott way for many years. Their bread is simply indescribably delicious. I have always loved bread, and I thought I knew my way around a good loaf, but the great Weber Family bakers have opened my eyes (and my mouth and my wallet) to what really good bread is all about.

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing your Flock, by Judy Pangman

This book is a lame collection of sketches of chicken coops. Then again, if you need more than a sketch, you are missing the point. There are plenty of ideas here, some useful advice and, after reading it, you will go out and build your own chicken coop without ever looking at this book again.

The Self-Sufficient Life and How To Live It: The Complete Back-to-Basics Guide, by John Seymour

This book is a broad survey of how to live independently from outside sources. Seymour is gentle and realistic in his understanding of just how difficult and demanding a task that is, yet he is undaunted in his practical enthusiasm for trying.

DK books are always beautifully illustrated and produced and this is no exception. The illustrations and woodcuts are lovely, pastoral, and quite motivational. We’d all like our gardens, milking barns, and beehives to look like those in this book.

One of the delightful wood cuts from the book

By far the most interesting part of the text is Seymour’s concise descriptions of what to do with a modest amount of land. He starts by supposing you had just an urban back yard and suggests how it might best be used. Then he supposes you had a community garden and tells how it could be made to thrive. Next he tackles a one acre farm and finally a five acre farm. The latter two descriptions are about the clearest and most concise plans for independent living I have ever read.

He covers virtually everything you might need from transplanting seedlings to butchering a hog. It’s a coffee table book, so some of the finer points may be lacking, but the whole story is here.

My favorite passage in the book is his description of making compost. He says, “You can make the best compost in the world in 12 hours by putting vegetable matter through the guts of an animal. To make it any other way will take months, whatever you do.”

Made by hand; Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by Mark Frauenfelder

On the golf course, tennis court, or soccer pitch, you can clearly see the difference between players who took up the game as an adult versus those who played as a child. When a child learns a sport at a young age, the basics get into his mind and body at a level that simply cannot be achieved in adulthood. My brother-in-law says that the kid gets it in hardware while the adult is condemned to just getting it in software.

My late Father was a craftsman and he taught me a reverence for wood, metal, and the tools and skills needed to work them. As a child, I spent hours in the workshop as my Father taught me to use tools and make things. As an adult in the world of software, I let my manual skills atrophy until, in the last decade or so, I found myself craving the feel of physical craftsmanship again. I’m still very much an amateur but now I have a hobbyist workshop far better equipped for wood- and metalworking than my Father could have ever imagined, and in it I get to enjoy the act of making.

Mark Frauenfelder is a technical writer who shares my reverence for craftsmanship and for making things. In this book he describes his attempts to become more involved in the physical world in which he lives by mastering many manual skills. Mark, who is the editor of Make magazine, clearly likes and admires makers, but he is trying to learn as an adult.

Just like a childhood athlete, my tool handling skills are in my hardware. Even though I bumble and learn by trial and error, my trials are at a noticeably higher level than those of, say, Mark Frauenfelder, learning to make things as an adult.While I share his interest and enthusiasm, I marvel a little at his naivete as he tells of his adventures building chicken coops and musical instruments. It makes me realize how lucky I am.

The book is a revealing self-portrait of a man looking for something missing in his life and finding it in the simple act of making. Discovering the source of satisfaction came as a surprise to him, and in a much different way, it did to me, too.

Everything is Obvious; Once You Know the Answer, by Duncan J. Watts

This book is an enquiry into common sense. The author explores what it is, what we imagine it to be, and what it is not. Common sense tells us that common sense is simple and easy, but actually it’s complex and difficult to acquire. Common sense tells us that everyone has it, but actually commonality in common sense isn’t so common. This is another one of those books that show that what we think about ourselves as a species is generally wrong, and that’s a good thing.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens; Care, Feeding, Facilities, by Gail Damerow

This is the definitive guide to keeping chickens. It’s all in this classic book.

The Tipping Point; How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell just looks at things differently than the rest of us do. He sees patterns and implications that elude most of us, and he writes about them in easy, digestible prose. He has his critics, and one should read Gladwell with a grain of salt, but one should read Gladwell.

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop; What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, by Clifford Nass

I love this book. Nass is one of those few scientists who excel at inventing experiments that reveal the workings of nature. What’s more, he plays in a sandbox that is largely untenanted by scientists, and until he arrives, the field is filled with rumor and falsehood. Here he aims his empirical guns on how humans feel about each other. It turns out that humans are strange, quirky, self-deluding, lovable goofballs. Don’t miss this book.

Spomenik, by Jan Kempenaers

This is a coffee table book of photographs of soviet era monuments in the former nation  of Czechoslovakia. Haunting images of a recently deceased cultural/architectural vision.

Tops: Making the Universal Toy, by Michael Cullen

I have made a couple of tops on the wood lathe, and I want to make some more. Haven’t yet, but this book will be my reference when I get around to it.

Woodturning Full Circle, by David Springett

Springett has developed a fascinating technique for turning simple shapes on the wood lathe, then cutting them and gluing them back together to form astonishing forms that appear to defy physics.

The Art of Segmented Wood Turning: A Step-by-Step Guide, by Malcolm Tibbetts

Conventional turning is somewhat wasteful of wood for the simple reason that bowls are hollow, and the center of the wood block is discarded as shavings. In terms of volume, the majority of the wood is wasted. Segmented wood turning is a technique that is far more conservative of wood because only the walls of the bowl are there to begin with.

Segmented bowls are turned from constructed assemblages of hardwood pieces carefully cut, fit and glued together. Not only does this method save rare and valuable wood, but it allows the turner to create bowls with remarkably beautiful mosaics of color and texture built right in.

Malcolm Tibbetts is the acknowledged master of segmented bowl turning, and this book is the bible of the craft. He has taken the techniques farther than any other practitioner and his bowls are breathtaking in their beauty and craftsmanship. His techniques are not hard to duplicate, but his work is remarkable because it is so imaginative and well executed.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain

A clever American is banged on the head and wakes up in medieval Britain. Twain uses this premise to skewer contemporary revisionist thinking about the honor and wisdom of chivalry. He accomplishes his mission.

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok

This classic novel is set in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Two boys, one the son of a Hassidic Rabbi, the other the son of a devout but more modern Zionist Jew, become friends and grow up. These two boys were anachronisms in the 40s, and today their religious devotion seems positively archaic to this secular California baby boomer. Fascinating nevertheless.

The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling, by Daniel D. Chiras

I bought this and skimmed it, only to realize that I had bought and skimmed this same book about five years ago. Nevertheless, it’s filled with really practical advice from a pioneer in passive solar residences.

Turning Boxes with Friction-Fitted Lids, by Bill Bowers

This Mahogany box with fitted lid was my first effort following the methods in this book.

This Mahogany box with fitted lid was my first effort following the methods in this book.

This simple little book gives simple instructions for making lidded boxes on a wood turning lathe. Following Bowers instructions, I was able to make a tight fitting lidded box on my first try. This is not a great book, but it’s a decent introduction to one technique that works.

Tauntons Complete Illustrated Guide to Turning, by Richard Raffan

An encyclopedic work composed mostly of articles taken from past issues of Fine Woodworking magazine, a publication with exceptionally high editorial standards.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

This classic of American literature won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for its revealing portrait of a simple farmer in pre-revolution China. The protagonist, Wang Lung, isn’t a particularly religious or doctrinaire man, but he is as susceptible to self-delusion as any human, and in this novel he exhibits all of them.

If this book were published today I doubt that it would have the impact or success that it did 75 years ago. I suspect that its themes of individual rights, the woman’s role, economic predestination, and incipient revolution were all much newer and unexamined back then. Today, it seems that there are many contemporary books that treat these ideas more forcefully. So I admit to some presentism when I conclude that this book was…meh.

The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution, by Jim Murphy

Everyone knows that George Washington was a great American Hero but few know why. By describing his famous crossing of the Delaware, this book shows why Washington deserves all the accolades heaped upon him. Even after 230 years, we can only marvel at the boldness, skill, and visionary leadership of the man.

Murphy sets up the story by describing the headlong flight of the Continental Army away from the British, and their mercenary allies, the Hessians. The Redcoats and the Germans trounce the Americans in battle after battle across New York and New Jersey. The decimated rebel army is forced to flee across the Delaware River, where they shiver in the cold awaiting certain destruction at the hands of the enemy.

It is at this lowest possible moment, when everything is stacked against  him, that Washington shows his courage and leadership. As the weather closes in, and his subordinates express doubt and scheme against him, Washington decides to attack! Depending on the performance of a few remarkable men, Washington takes just a portion of his tiny army and executes one of the most daring maneuvers in martial history. The attack is a remarkable success, and the hated Hessians are utterly surprised and routed. Never again do they threaten the Continentals in the same way. The Americans gain a sufficient morale boost from the battle to sustain them through several more years of war.

Dragon’s Gate, by Laurence Yep

A novel about a young Chinese man who emigrates to California in 1870 to work for the Central Pacific Railroad constructing the first transcontinental rail link. The writing is pedestrian, but the incidents are well-researched and based on historical fact.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

While a big part of this quasi-autobiographical novel is a coming-of-age story, it is a fine display of the novelist’s capabilities. When it was written, the novel was neither as well understood as it is today, nor was it as widely accepted. In this masterpiece, Dickens showed the world how it was properly done, and from the vantage point of 160 years later, his lessons are clear. His plotting, foreshadowing, and character growth are done with skill and finesse. While one can see the marks of the writer in the words, those marks exhibit bold confidence and a fine craftsmanship.

A friend of mine was shocked to learn that this was the first time I had ever read this classic novel, and well she might, as most American kids read it in junior high school, and English majors study it in college. Maybe I waited too long, but if I had read this book as a youngster, the Victorian-era camouflaging of sexual references would have made much of the story impenetrable to me. I suppose, too, that if I had read this in college, I would have been daunted by the sheer weight of an older English dialect and the convoluted story telling style. Even today, I would say that shorter would have been better.

Interestingly, it is clear to see just how much influence Dickens had on one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.

Jumped, Rita Williams-Garcia

Reading this novel was something of a culture shock for this straight, bald, suburban, white guy. Jumped deals with youthful violence at inner city schools, and describes a milieu unknown to me. After the initial shock I found myself fascinated by the setting and intrigued by the storytelling. It’s a very good book.

The story focuses on one day in the life of three high school girls. While never stated explicitly, the girls are either black, Latina, or some mixture. Although each of the three girls has a clear persona: the athlete, the coquette, and the princess, each of them is far more complex than just that, and each is grappling with all the drama of youth. When one girl inadvertently provokes the other into a physical fight, the third girl must decide whether to interfere, and her struggle is the fulcrum of the story.

Each girl is given her own, first person voice in alternating chapters. This allows the author to speak in the vernacular, and to illustrate the internal thoughts and motivations of each character. Reviewers say this book is for young adults, but I would rate it for any age.

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer is a young author and this, his first novel, has launched him into fame as a great novelist. The protagonist travels to Ukraine to learn about his great grandmother, who resisted the Nazis in a small shtetl. The author threads a centuries-old story of Jewish-Ukrainian history, the World War II story of his great grandmother, the story of his own contemporary quest, with the hilarious commentary of his young Russian driver, who sounds uncannily like Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin being a Wild and Krazy Guy on Saturday Night Live. Foer makes it all work, and the novel is a keeper.

Good Faith, by Jane Smiley

This is the first Jane Smiley novel I’ve ever read, and it will certainly not be the last. She tells the story of an average man caught up in the effervescent excitement of the real estate boom of the 1980s. Smiley leisurely paints a compelling portrait of a man perplexed by a beguiling world.

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

Steve Martin is one of the most talented polymaths to ever grace an industry, let alone the world of entertainment. Among his many talents he’s also a great writer. In this slim autobiography he tells the story of his coming of age as a stand-up comedian, one of the toughest jobs in the world. It’s a compelling read, written with gentle humor and hard-won insight. Learning the origin of some of his most durable jokes and comic bits is voyeuristically fun, and like all autobiographies, what he leaves out tells as much as what he puts in.

Taking Woodstock; A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and a Life, by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte

This is a great story of a landmark event in our cultural history: the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York in the Summer of Love, 1969. Elliot Tiber was the local promoter who brokered the deal to host the concert at his friend Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. Elliot’s story is the story of Woodstock, but it is also the fulcrum of change for his entire life, as the events of 1969 were for so many of us Boomers. This is a well-written, fun to read glimpse into history and transformation.

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Victor Sebestyen

A very readable account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. After more than 60 years, the great experiment in communism came unraveled quickly. Here’s a good chronology of each state falling away from the Russian leadership, and how the Russian’s let them go. The story of Poland is fascinating, as is the role of American bankers in the failure. The most interesting parts are getting glimpses into those leaders most in denial, some right up to the moment they were killed by their former victims.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain

Twain gets away with playing the kind of fictional tricks that have, in the last hundred years, become cliched, simply because he played them first. In this satirical novel, a light-skinned black slave woman exchanges her even-lighter-skinned black son for the privileged white boy she is charged with caring for. She raises her black son as the scion of the land- and slave-owning family, and raises the actual heir as her enslaved son. The protagonist is a universally underestimated lawyer who’s hobby of taking fingerprints allows the whole plot to unravel at the most inopportune time. Twain’s humor is always pretty broad, but it is genuinely American and it is always a useful glimpse into our racial past.

I, Tom Horn, by Will Henry

This is a fictional autobiography written by one of the most accomplished authors in the Western genre. Tom Horn was a famous cavalry scout during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He was regarded as an effective manhunter in the wild West, but as the century drew to a close, commercial interests wanted the West to be less wild. Was Horn guilty of killing fourteen year old Willie Kickell or was he accused of the murder to salve increasingly civilized sensibilities? In the author’s earnest attempt to be fair to Horn’s memory, the novel is labored in parts, but overall it’s a good read.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

From a distance, this book looked to be so fatally puerile and cliched that I was almost too embarrassed to read it. I’m glad that I finally overcame my self-consciousness and read it anyway, as it turned out to be quite good, even if it was a tear-jerking chick book. The writing was excellent, the characters believable, and the plot well-paced. The book is about the black maids of middle class white women in the American South just on the cusp of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.  It certainly has some problems, particularly that all the white characters–barring the protagonist–are either foolish or evil, while all the black characters–barring one abusive husband–are beatific in their patience and altruism. But fictional characters are often caricatures to tell a rousing story and in this case the author delivers.

The Golden Ocean, by Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian is justly famous for his 20 volume epic novel of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin during the Age of Fighting Sail. This book was O’Brian’s dry run, his test vehicle, his first draft, his testing of the waters. In the late eighteenth century, British Admiral George Anson sailed into the Pacific on an epic adventure hunting Spanish gold. O’Brian puts his fictional protagonist onto Anson’s very real ship to tell the story with the accuracy and veracity only available to the novelist. O’Brian was sufficiently pleased with the result that he created one of the finest series of novels ever written, placing them in the same genre.

Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living, by Doug Fine

The author decides to reduce his carbon footprint on this planet by moving to the cutties of New Mexico and living off the land. I enjoyed his well-told and simple story. He challenges himself to live without his car and to reduce his consumption of wasteful goods. Endearingly, he refuses to abandon his taste for ice cream, so diary goats figure prominently in his story. This wasn’t just some stunt for a book, but a genuine life change for the author, and he continues to manage his rural homestead and tell about it on his website “Dispatches from the Funky Butte Ranch” (

The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory

This is an excellent historical novel about the life of Katherine of Aragon, the Princess of Spain, daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. She arrives in England knowing her destiny is to be the Queen of England, but her journey to the throne is a tortuous and fascinating one, eventually marrying King Henry VIII.

Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling

Fifteen-year-old Harvey Cheyne falls overboard from a luxury liner and is rescued by a the crew of a Newfoundland fishing schooner. The spoiled young man learns about real life by joining the fishermen, at first against his will. A simple story told well.

Baudolino, Umberto Eco

A sort of Italian magic realism novel about life, thinly disguised as a physical journey taken by the title character. The humor of the first part of the book was warm-hearted and clever. In places, the narrative sparkles with brilliance. Later in the book, the author subjects Baudolino to ever more fanciful and allegorical adventures that didn’t really work for me.

Counting Heads, by David Marusek

This science fiction novel sounded good on the dust jacket, but it never really lived up to my expectations. The writing was weak in places, the plot was strained, and some of the characters were downright bizarre. It had some clever insights into what our future might contain, but the ensemble wasn’t really believable. Ultimately I would recommend it only to an enthusiast.

The Archer’s Tale, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell is a formulaic genre author, and this book is formulaic and generic. The writing is straightforward but not great, while the plot and characterization is contrived. The larger historical events that are the background to the plot are based on historical fact, and I enjoy such historical fiction. The story concerns an English archer in the Hundred Year’s War. Like so many other genre books, it trivializes the injustice and cruelty of medieval adventurism, but so do most entertainments. A beach book.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

What a great read! This is historical fiction at its best: intriguing, involving, fascinating, and informing. The eponymous character is a minor Dutch clerk stationed in an artificial city off the coast of Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century, when Japan was strictly interdicting all intercourse with the outside world. It’s a coming of age story for a nation rather than an individual, written by an author of remarkable power and vision.

When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot Over North Vietnam, by Ed Rasimus

An excellent personal memoir of air combat in the 1960s. Simple prose, elegantly written. Any warrior’s story is best when presented this way.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Reis

This is a very important book and hopefully it will have a strong influence on how businesses are run. Many of the stories in it try to convince the reader that “lean” concepts can work inside a large organization. I am deeply skeptical of this assertion, but remain hopeful.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal, by Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin is a firebrand. He is a proselytiser for the benefits of farming in a human scale. He sees clearly that the industrialization of farming is an abysmal failure and he castigates it with thoroughness and expertise. But he is not a retrogressive, back-to-the-Earth hippie. To the contrary, he’s a man who appreciates modern science and has the wisdom to put it to use. He has pioneered a method of raising animals that mimics the way buffalo herds interacted with the great grass plains of North America before Europeans killed them all and plowed under the great grasses.

Salatin gained a national reputation when Michael Pollan wrote about him in his bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Salatin is a polarizing writer because he says what he thinks and he lives what he preaches. His teachings are a fulcrum for the new agriculture movement. Young farmers describe their beliefs with reference to what Salatin says. One of my neighbors quit her job in the city, bought a farm, and is raising meat and vegetables in open worship of his methods.

In this book, he takes a scattershot approach to describing how we have built a society that makes honest, high-quality, locally-sourced, healthy food extremely difficult to grow. His arguments are quite convincing and I finished the book ready to man the ramparts of the food revolution.

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few years ago, the successful young novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer, had his first child. He used this signal event as a rationale to investigate his on-again-off-again vegetarianism. He wanted to make a morally defensible decision about whether his son should eat meat. This book is the product of his investigation.

He says in the beginning that it is not a vegetarian polemic, but it is clearly, unequivocally a vegetarian polemic. Reading it from the omnivore’s perspective, it makes me want to wipe out factory farms, but it isn’t having much effect on my meat eating habits. Foer’s investigation of modern meat farming has a couple of big flaws. He confuses modern concentrated animal farming techniques with normalcy, and he anthropomorphizes animals to a fault. I am an advocate of humane farming and butchering, but cows are not people. The biggest flaw in his reasoning, though, is his failure to grasp that we live in a complex ecosystem of plants and animals, and animals play a vital role in the cycle of health of our farms and ourselves. In particular, large grass-eating herbivores, that is, cows, are an integral part of the creation and maintenance of healthy North American soil.

Foer’s most egregious error, though, is his failure to use his investigation as a lever to fix the ills of the food business. To me, political vegetarianism is a toothless protest. I find far greater appeal in Joel Salatin’s more realistic and morally honest approach to replacing factory farms with human-scale food providers.

The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks

Engagingly complex science fiction novel. Banks supposes that life in the universe is widespread and species are widely variant in their physical makeup, but modestly compatible in attitude. The book seemed very old school, like straight out of the heyday of scifi in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the plot turned on a couple of points that I found hard to suspend my disbelief for. Worth reading, but flawed.

Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer

This is the story of Pat Tillman, the former football star US Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan. Krakauer is a great writer because he can transform a simple story into a morality tale for life. This book is no exception, and it has affected my opinion of the American adventure in the Mideast. Tillman is a man very like other Krakauer protagonists: an intelligent athlete who competes primarily with himself and his life story is fascinating and inspiring. Equally inspiring are the two women in his life, his wife and his mother. When Tillman was killed, his wife copes by forgetting, while his mother copes by doggedly assaulting the Army until they finally, reluctantly reveal the truth of his death, and give the author access to the facts that undergird this book.

The Secret Life of Compost: A Guide to Static-Pile Composting–Lawn, Garden, Feedlot, or Farm, by Malcolm Beck

This book has been called the “bible” of composting, and there is much to learn here if you want to convert just about anything into high quality soil. The last chapter is the best.

The “Have-More” Plan: “A Little Land–A Lot of Living”, by Ed and Carolyn Robinson

This is a brochure-sized, paper-bound booklet that extolls the virtues of abandoning your urban apartment and buying some acres in the country to live off of the land. It was originally published just after World War II, probably 1946, and it is filled with optimism and the ‘can-do’ attitude of America’s salad days. There is no irony in this book.

Hot for Words: Answers to All Your Burning Questions About Words and Their Meanings, by Marina Orlova

Ms. Orlova is one sexy babe of an etymologist, and she uses her looks to full advantage in this amusing little book. The author writes short essays on the origin of words, and each page is illustrated with a provocative picture of her in scanty clothes. Nothing hard core here, folks. It’s all as innocent as a 1950s pinup calendar. It’s a fun read and you will learn things about words and phrases that you never knew before.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher

A book about the importance of attention that is failing to hold my attention.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

I first read this book in the mid sixties, a couple years after its first publication in 1961. I was already a big fan of Heinlein and science fiction. Over the years, I’ve probably read this book a dozen times, but it’s been at least 25 years since the last time. While all the details sound very dated, the story is still brilliant and brilliantly told. It’s a timeless tale of a Martian who comes to Earth and, in mastering Earthican society, reveals our foibles and contradictions.