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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.




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Six fiction recommendations

  1. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
  2. Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres
  3. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
  4. A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin
  5. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
  6. Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo

Five nonfiction recommendations

  1. Cod,, by Mark Kurlansky
  2. The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
  3. The Language Instinct, by Stephen Pinker
  4. Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman, by Richard Feynman
  5. 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 front.
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.

Historical fiction

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 reading, either.
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.

Historical fact

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 reading.

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 engaging.
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 read.

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 Sucharitkul). Fictionalized.
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.

Natural science

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 text.
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.

Gen-X fiction

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.