Books of note
This page contains brief comments on some books that I would recommend.
Most of these are books I've read recently (within the past couple
of years), but I have put in a few others that shouldn't be missed
by anyone interested in the genres in which they are listed.
You can also see my list of 25 best
non-fiction books, with additions and comments
from other members of my Ultimate Frisbee team, Red
Fish Blue Fish.
Need some help getting started? Try these:
Six fiction recommendations
- The Name of the
Rose, by Umberto Eco
- Corelli's Mandolin,
by Louis de Bernieres
- High Fidelity,
by Nick Hornby
- A Soldier of
the Great War, by Mark Helprin
- All the Pretty
Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
- Nobody's Fool,
by Richard Russo
Five nonfiction recommendations
by Mark Kurlansky
- The Man
Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
- The Language
Instinct, by Stephen Pinker
- Surely You're
Joking, Mister Feynman, by Richard Feynman
- The Walls Around
Us, by David Owen
Stories set during wartime
Not a genre that I would have expected to interest me, but ever
since The Odyssey (and perhaps before) war has been the backdrop
or foreground of some remarkable stories, including these:
- Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres
- This book paints an enchanting picture of camaraderie and love
in a terrible time: the occupation of a Greek island by Italians
and Germans in WWII. Amusingly and cleverly written, with a few
hints of magical realism. We really love the characters, which
makes the last portion even more heartbreaking. I don't know anyone
who "believes" the ending, in the context of the rest
of the book, but I also don't know anyone who didn't find this
book moving and engaging.
- A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastian Japrisot
- I could easily have placed this book in the "unusual mystery
stories" category. It tells of a woman whose fiance is reported
killed in WWI, and her long and fascinating attempt to determine
what happened to him. Every person she encounters in her research
gives her a few new fragments as she gradually assembles a picture
of what happened. Along with the detective story we get a moving
portrait of love and hope. A great book.
- A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin
- Whatever you may think of Helprin's politics, it's worth reading
this book. The unbelievable (literally) but fascinating story
of a man's life, particularly during WWI, as told by him to a
youthful listener. May make you rethink the meaning of a "happy
ending". By turns thrilling, touching, painful, and fascinating,
it will definitely keep you entertained.
- Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
- A classic, with elements of absurdism (or perhaps surrealism?)---and
of course, its title has become a commonly used phrase in the
U.S. vernacular. The story of some fliers at an airbase in WWII,
as they try to just survive the craziness around them. My friend
Jim claims to be see something weekly that reminds him of this
book. Great dialogue, well conceived, disturbing and amusing.
- Regeneration, by Barker
- Authors notes suggest that this is based on a true story, though
there's no way of telling how faithful it is to life. The story
centers on the relationship between a psychiatrist and his paitent
in England in WWI. The patient is a soldier, commended for bravery
on the battlefield, who has decided that the war is a senseless
waste of life and that he will not continue to fight. The military
command, unwilling to simply execute him for treason, prefers
to treat his case as one of insanity or shell-shock and have him
"treated". The real conflict to which we are witness
is that of the psychiatrist with his own conscience, as he tries
to convince this all to sane man that he should return to the
- Cold Mountain, by
- The book follows the lives of two people---a woman living in
the West Virginia Hill, and her fiance who has just deserted from
the Confederate army---over a period of several weeks as the man
tries to avoid both Confederate and Union troops and make his
way home. Suspenseful, gripping, and moving in spite of being
written in a matter-of-fact, quiet style that reminds me of Cormac
McCarthy'sAll the Pretty Horses.
I thought the style seemed a bit affected at times, but I still
recommend the book.
- Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler
- An unusual book about a Canadian Jewish clan founded by the
near-mythic Solomon Gursky. I liked it less with every page I
read, and yet I kept reading and ended up liking the book. Can't
really say I would recommend it, but I can't say it's not worth
- The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
- This really belongs in unusual
mystery stories but then this category would be a bit
small. An enlightened monk and his servant try to figure out why
one monk after another is dying at a depressing monastery in the
dark ages. Fascinating, well written, definitely worth reading.
Also a pretty good movie starring Sean Connery.
- I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
- A great book.
- Zarafa: A giraffe's true story, from deep in Africa to the
heart of Paris, by Michael Allin
- In the early 1800's, a giraffe was captured in North-Central
Africa, and shipped down the Nile and across the Mediterranean
(with her head poking up through a hole in the deck) to Marseilles,
from where she was walked, with a large entourage and to the delight
of enormous throngs of spectators, all the way to Paris. This
story serves as a backdrop to a brief discussion of the history,
politics, and economics of the times. A good, short, interesting
book. I grade it B+.
- Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world,
by Mark Kurlansky.
- Another in the same (new, I think) genre as Zarafa: ostensibly
about a narrow subject, this book ranges far and wide through
history, geography, politics, economics, ethics, and ecology,
all through the relationship to cod fish and fishing. An excellent
book, I grade it an A.
- The Road To Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands,
by Nicholas Clapp
- The author heard or read many stories about the city of Ubar,
a wealthy metropolis in eastern Arabia that was supposedly destroyed
in a cataclysm many (hundreds? thousands?) years ago. In this
book, he discusses his historical researches (in a bit too much
depth), his success in mounting an expedition, aided by satellite
photos showing the ancient road to Ubar, and finally the discovery
and excavation of the city (described in insufficient detail).
Not quite up to Schliemann's discovery of Troy, it's still a good
story and a good read. I rate it a B+.
Unusual mystery stories
Not the entertaining-but-empty page-turners that I also read and
enjoy, these all have some style or twist that makes them worthwhile
- Snow Falling on Cedars------------------
- Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathon Lethem
- Accurately described on the dust jacket as a cross between Raymond
Chandler and Philip K. Dick, this is a mystery story set in the
Berkeley area in a Dickian near future. I think it's very funny,
clever, and fresh; some of my friends think it's derivative and
not particularly interesting. You be the judge.
- Possession, by A. S. Byatt
- The Alienist, by Caleb Carr
Personal growth (fiction)
- Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
- Doesn't quite fit in this category, but who's counting? This
book was so good, I'm excited about the fact that the author has
written several other novels...and just think, since I selected
this one at random, it's likely that it's not even his best! This
book is about an aging, amiable and loser of sorts---a low-income
wage laborer with a history of making bad decisions, who lives
in a declining small town in upstate New York. Everyone (including
himself) thinks of him as being irresponsible and undependable,
but the truth is, it isn't easy being him. Extremely funny and
- Tracks of Angels, by Kelly Dwyer
- A young woman moves to Boston to escape her family's tragedies
and start again. Somewhat emotionally needy on the surface, she
knows inside that she deserves better than she's getting...a message
conveyed to her by the cranky and dishevelled angel who shows
up on occasion when she's feeling particularly down. Don't let
the hint of mysticism turn you away from this excellent book---unlike
my description, it's not at all hokey. The main character is engaging,
and the story is compelling.
- Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver
- Another woman trying to cope with the errors and tragedies of
her past and to connect with her virtually estranged father. Kingsolver
has a great gift for description through analogy, and some of
her thoughts and images will stay with me. An excellent book.
- The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
- An overbearing young missionary drags his family to the Belgian
Congo. Unwilling to change in any way to adapt to life in a very
poor, isolated village, the missionary becomes increasingly deranged,
and his wife and daughters struggle to cope. Very well written,
well plotted, and well paced, this is an excellent book.
- A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, by Michael Dorris
- Innovative storytelling on the theme of how family troubles
can have effects that propagate through time. The book is divided
into three sections, each with a different protagonist: first,
we see the somewhat troubled life of a teenage girl as she tries
to learn to like herself after a difficult, unloved childhood;
then, the girl's mother; and finally her grandmother. We see how
family secret/tragedy from the grandmother's youth continues to
affect the current generation. Well told, with excellent characterization.
- All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
- In the early 1900's, a 16-year-old boy leaves his home and ventures
into Mexico, where he gets work on a ranch and falls in love with
the rancher's daughter. A typical coming-of-age story in some
ways, the book is elevated far above the norm by perfect pacing
and a deceptively straightforward writing style. I liked this
book a lot. Unfortunately, I can't recommend The Crossing
(the next book in the "Border Trilogy")---either the
style or the story wasn't up to the original standard. Or perhaps
I just got tired of the style.
- The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
- A Jewish high school kid is first a rival, and then the best
friend, of an Orthodox Jew whose father leads a strict religious
sect. Both kids grow spiritually and emotionally as they make
some tough decisions. A bit heavy-handed at times, but worth a
Auto/biographical works (fictionalized and nonfiction)
- Family Man, by Calvin Trillin
- Trillin relates, with his signature humor, anecdotes about how
he and his wife raised their daughters in New York. Like most
Trillin, each page is excellent but any 10 become a little tiresome.
Read one chapter at a time, though, and it's very good. I give
it a B+.
- Jasmine Nights, by S.P. Somtow (a pen name for Somtow
- A supposedly pseudo-biographical story loosely based on young
Somtow's youth in an exceptionally wealthy family in Thailand.
The last third has some elements that are hard to believe and
that I found a bit jarring stylistically, but overall this is
a warm-hearted and amusing story. The narrator's aunts are hilarious,
and the book does a good job mixing social commentary and an interesting
coming-of-age story. A total departure from Somtow's other works
(science fiction and horror).
- West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
- One of a pair of books that I recommend, concerning women living
in Africa in the first half of the century (the other: Out
of Africa, by Isaac Dinesen). This is the autobiography of
Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviatrix. The book has a simple expository
style that is unspectacular but hard to fault, and many of Markham's
stories are remarkable.
- The Camel's Nose, by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen
- To us Schmidt-Nielsen fans, this autobiography is worth reading
for its insights into the character of one of the greatest physiologists
of this century. Particularly interesting is the fact that his
first major research efforts took place when he was in his mid-thirties,
which is later than I expected. If you're not a fan of Schmidt-Nielsen
(or have never heard of him) then you probably would be better
off looking elsewhere.
- Naturalist, by E.O. Wilson
- Wilson is the world's expert on ants. Find out how he got that
way. Not quite a page-turner, but Wilson has interesting insights
into how his formative experiences led him down his unusual path
of research. Touches briefly on his disheartening and unfair treatment
(I think, not just based on this book) in the sociobiology "debates,"
and provides an eloquent defense of the study of ecology, even
as its stock has fallen with the rise of various forms of biology
that focus on individual organisms and even individual genes.
- The Catcher was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff
- The strange-but-true life of Moe Berg, a Jewish baseball star
at Princeton who went on to become a long-time second string catcher
in pro baseball in the thirties (who "could speak twelve
languages, but couldn't hit in any of them"), then a spy
for the OSS during WWII, and then a free-loading eccentric. I
wish the book did a better job at conveying why Berg was so well-liked
and interesting to his friends---we are often told he was a great
raconteur and he certainly had plenty to recount, but we get little
feeling for his personal style. Still, Berg was truly one of a
kind, and the book makes for interesting reading.
- The Periodic Table, by Primo Levy
- Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman, by Richard Feynman
Low lifes and criminals (fiction)
- Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow
- Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, by William Kennedy
Real-life disasters (nonfiction)
Not necessarily great literature, but these stories can be fascinating.
- The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger
- If you've been on Mars for the past few years and thus missed
hearing about this book: the book follows several victims and
near-victims of a massive storm in the North Atlantic several
years ago. A gripping account of the fates of various fishermen,
Coast Guard rescuers, etc., the book really impresses you with
the power of the sea.
- Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer
- Also a best-seller in 1998, this book gives Krakauer's account
of a couple of disastrous Everest expeditions. A good look at
how a bit of bad luck can turn a few normally minor misjudgements
into a tragedy, up in the "Death Zone" where, just by
being there, you are literally slowly dying.
The Climb, by Anatoli Boukreev
- Boukreev (killed earlier this year in an avalanche) gives his
account of the same tragedy Krakauer tells about. Boukreev was
a guide on one of the expeditions (Krakauer was a client, paying
to be taken to the top). Boukreev's perspective is notably different
from Krakauer's. If you have enough interest in the subject to
read them both, you'll find it worthwhile to do so.
- Endurance, by Alfred Lansing
- Probably the most incredible true story I know---the tale of
Shackleton's "failed" expedition that set out to cross
Antarctica in 1914. Just before landfall, at the southern edge
of the Weddell Sea, their ship Endurance was caught in the ice.
It eventually sank to the bottom, leaving the entire crew stranded
on the ice with only three small lifeboats, some sledges and dogs,
and a random assortment of food and supplies salvaged from the
ship. This book tells how they managed, persevered, and eventually
made it home. The prose can be too breathless or overwritten,
but the story itself is so amazing that this book is a must-read.
Something to think about the next time the guy at the sports store
says "Oh, of course you HAVE to have Gore-Tex." Or have
to have anything, for that matter.
- The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
- Doesn't really belong in this category, but where else to put
it? This book is a collection of essays about food, by a food
critic. But it's not a collection of restaurant reviews. The title
essay concerns the author's successful attempt, when he became
a food critic, to overcome his large assortment of food phobias
so that now, he eats everything. Other essays discuss truffles,
steak, the history of apple pie, etc., etc., all told with wit.
I rate it an A.
- The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker
- A remarkably interesting book on language, the human brain,
linguistics, etc. The material is interesting in its own right;
additionally, Pinker is an excellent writer.
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks
- The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen J. Gould
- How Animals Work, by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen
- Perhaps the best short, data-based book ever written. Schmidt-Nielsen
discusses adaptations that allow rats to maintain their water
balance in the desert, whales to provide oxygenated blood to their
flukes without losing too much heat, african hunting dogs to run
for hours in the hot sun without overheating, etc., putting it
all in the greater context of physiological scaling laws, and
explaining it all with wry wit.
Cognitive and computational science
- Inevitable Illusions, by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarin
- The Winner's Curse, by Thaler
- The Design of Everyday Things, by
- Longitude, by Dava Sobel
- A good, short book, about the invention of the first reliable
marine chronometers. The book describes the tragic consequences
of the inability to accurately determine longitude, the tremendous
attention and effort that was devoted to devising a solution...and
the eventual success of a small-town clockmaker who devoted his
entire life to the construction of a few ingenious clocks that
finally, triumphantly resolved the problem. The book's biggest
drawback is that it doesn't give any diagrams or descriptions
that let us see the inventions that are sketchily described in
- The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning (and other tales of
American enterprise), by David Owen
- David Owen is one of my favorite authors. He has a pleasant
self-deprecating style and editorializes freely as he describes,
in a series of essays, various aspects of human inventiveness:
the invention of the Xerox machine, the idea of melding cartoons
and ads for children, etc. Entertaining and informative, if lightweight.
- The Walls Around Us, by David Owen
- David Owen bought a very old house in New England, and as he
renovated it, he got interested in the history and design of houses,
and the materials used to build them. Written with Owen's usual
wit, but the book will also tell you how to build a cabinet and
how to choose a sheetrock installer.
- The Beach, by
- Critically acclaimed, and very readable, but not worthy of the
hype. A gen-X backpacker in search of a real adventure
instead of just the same-ol' same-ol gen-X tourism stumbles into
a seemingly idyllic life with some kindred spirits on an isolated
beach, but eventually the shallowness and of the existence and
the savagery they are willing to use to preserve it turns the
formerly stress-free existence into a kind of hell. Very readable,
but too heavy-handed with the "Lord of the Flies" theme.
- Generation X, by Douglas Coupland
- Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland
- Unhappy twenty-something computer geek eventually finds happiness
with a group of like-minded co-worker friends. Likeable characters,
nice story...somewhat shallow, and things work out too nicely
in a "happily-ever-after" kind of way, but I like the
style and sensibility.
- High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
- Almost every male I know who has read this book has two reactions:
(1) Hey, the protagonist is a lot like me, and (2) do NOT let
my girlfriend read this book. I'm ashamed to admit how well the
internal life of the protagonist matches my own thoughts and feelings,
as he stumbles semi-aimlessly through life and love. The best
book in this category.