Since you made it here, clearly you are bored and are in need of reading material. Fortunately for you, I have a book problem. (see picture above.) And thus what follows is a random selection of books read recently and not-so-recently, or merely purchased and not read at all. But they all caught my eye. Unfortunately, my reading algorithm seems to have a big-O of something really inefficient, and I'm afraid the list is growing exponentially while I'm in the middle of processing it.
When AA Gill is Away, he doesn't pull his punches. What can I say? I'm a sucker for caustic, harsh, and beautiful language. Gill is angry. He paints exquisitely skilled portraits of the places he visits, but it's almost never a pleasure-trip.
Something about travelling makes me want to read about it; I was in Portland, replete with a VooDoo Doughnut, when I found this on the shelf at Powells. The following days found me reading this whenever I could. I read most of it aloud to my husband-- if I ever chance to snort, or choke, or laugh aloud when reading, he demands that I read him the passage. I gave a copy to my father-in-law, who started reading it aloud to his wife. And then I went and bought a whole pile of AA Gill's other books. So far, this one remains my favorite. But Previous Convictions: Assignments From Here and There and Table Talk are tied for my second favorite.
Gill is a fantastic writer. And he's been to places you really ought to go to, as well- even if only by reading his essays.
Momofuku. The pork buns are a dream. The ramen is a rich, guilty pleasure. The pickles are tangy and sweet. And David Chang is an irreverant, foul-mouthed genius. I can't get to NYC often enough for the pork buns— but I can read about them, and try to follow the recipies, and it sort of tides me over until I can get back. The cookbook reads well enough as a book on its own; as a bonus, you get recipes.
Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing.
This sat on my shelves for months, and then I read most of it in snatches
during my last semester; most specifically, while my semester was
interrupted by serving as a juror for several weeks on a criminal
trial that ended as a mistrial. (Those weeks lost to my civic duty nearly
prevented me from graduating.) Written by Francis Flaherty, an editor at the
New York Times, it's a gentle and flowing reflection on what works and
what doesn't. It's quite lovely.
"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinize them, mull them, savor them,
alone and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways
they tint each other."
Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. I confess, I bought the book because I liked the cover. It was, for me, an enjoyable ramble; meandering between a tale of the Hungarian Crusades, the author's research, the effects of prioritization, and the nature of privacy. It is, as many disappointed reviewers noted, quite light on science. Unlike those people, I didn't go into it expecting a research paper, and so I was fairly amused.
Expectations pre-select what we want to hear; you'll note those that had the highest hopes for this book enjoyed it the least. I think, in this book, we actually get a closer feel for how Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's brain operates. In Bursts, you see the anecdotes, the inspirations, the associations made by the author and the people chronicled- and yes, they're not orderly. They jump all over the place, eddying here, rushing over there, going backwards and sideways. These stories provides context, however, for the underlying thought processes-- illustrating the thin threads of association that can lead a physicist to a conversation with a cabinetmaker that revolutionizes how we understand the spread of human disease.
Maybe you just want the answer; the tidy research paper that poses the question and the answer in close juxtaposition, ignoring the thousands of conversations and diversions the researcher went through to distill a question down to the answered one. If that is what you want, you will hate this book. On the other hand, it might be informative to let go of your preconceptions and expectations and see where Barabasi leads you. Especially if you ever need to do research yourself.
In a rare excursion into fiction, I consumed Jacqueline Carey's latest book when it was released; amazon had it before the bookstores, so I read it in an evening and then promptly went back and reread whichever of her books I could see/reach on my bookshelves. (There was, at the time, a pile of kitchen cabinets in front of my wall of shelving.) Carey isn't a bad writer, and the books are entertaining as far as they go, but really I still prefer to stick to non-fiction.
Haiti. A few years ago I came across a book that managed to make me feel completely insignificant and pointless while simultaneously inspiring me with the wonder of what one man might accomplish when driven to do so.Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer by Tracy Kidder is compelling, sober, and ... well, you should read it. The health situation in Haiti before the quake was nearly incomprehensibly tragic... and now it is far, far worse.
If you can, please donate. I personally recommend Partners in Health due to Dr. Farmer's affiliation and for the decades of work they've invested in Haiti. Another good one is Doctors Without Borders.
Roald Dahl. That name conjures up images of childhood- Willy Wonka, James and the Giant Peach- but also childhood escapes into reading: I can even now go unerringly to where The BFG is on my bookshelf. And so, imagine my surprise when I happened upon a book with his name on it as I was skulking around in the non-fiction section of the bookstore.
Jennet Conant's The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington is a gripping history of both wartime DC and this complex writer. Apparently he had his way with nearly every heiress in DC! I confess that I did in fact put off homework in favour of just curling up in my favorite chair and reading. No romantic retropective this; Conant's Roald is charming and harsh, and all the more vivid in his decline.
Invariably, anyone that saw me reading this book said "Roald Dahl? A different Roald Dahl, right? NOT the children's author?" No, no, the book is about the same Roald Dahl. "Roald Dahl wasn't a spy!" they insist, with all the force of childhood behind them. Actually, he was a spy. And apparently, quite an effective one. So much for idealism...
As so frequently happens, I found myself in dupont, and so I decided to go into Kramers for a ritual mugging. I got approximately a yard and a half in the door before I ended up leaning awkwardly against a bookcase reading for a half hour. I've made no secret for my love of Anne Fadiman's prose, but I thought I'd be happiest sticking to her essays. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down quite decisively proved me wrong. A heartbreaking and compelling tale of culture clash. And now I really must start on my homework. [Also, still no kitchen. Argh.]
It's not that I haven't been reading. But what with trying to gut and redo my kitchen, I've been having a difficult time getting to the end of any particular book. One that I've been greatly enjoying in stolen moments here and there is Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman. It's a greatly fascinating delve into what our bodies are doing all day long while we are studiously ignoring and abusing them.
On the topic of kitchens, when I got tired of attacking drywall with a sawzall I scanned my bookshelves and lit upon this fantastic piece of kitchen pr0n: Terence Conran Kitchens: The Hub of the Home. I have a lot of house pr0n, but I think this is some of the best.
Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes by Amanda Hesser. What can I say? I enjoy narrative prose, and I enjoy (reading about) cooking. A friend took me along on an outing to a gourmet food store so she could buy chocolates, but did I buy any confections? Of course not; instead, I managed to get mugged by books, and in fact spent more than she did. In this case, however, the mugging was more than worth it, with tales of love and friendship and family all bookended by food. And recipes. It all reads mouthwateringly well; pity that I do not cook.
Quantitative Geography: Perspectives on Spatial Data Analysis by by A. Stewart Fotheringham, Chris Brunsdon, and Martin Charlton. This book was one of the recommended texts for the graduate geospatial statistics course I am taking. Unlike the primary textbook, it is entirely readable— I actually even enjoy reading it but I can't help but note that the primary reference source seems to be Fotheringham's other published research, which I just find irksome in textbooks.
The (Mis)behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson. I actually read this several years ago, but much like revisiting Liar's Poker this summer, it seemed an opportune time to read it again. And it is. Whether one agrees with Mandelbrot's conclusions or not, this book is fascinating look at statistical assumptions and the quest to find ever-more-accurate models. People who read it out of a desire to find the keys to fortune in the markets are doomed to disappointment; but as an open-ended discussion on quantitative modeling and predictions it's quite readable.
Coast Lines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change by Mark Monmonier. Coast lines drift, much like language drifts. I think this is why I have a desire to collect old dictionaries, and love to pore over old maps. I want to see how things *were*, and compare them to *now*. (I do not have the funds to take up something so dangerous as actually buying old maps. Instead, I buy *books* on old maps. Still dangerous, but not nearly as much as original prints.) In any case, Monmonier once again brings his skill at making the technical accessible to the general public, this time to the complex topic of mapping coastlines, and the implications of those maps for private property, politics, and the environment. I should probably give in and just buy all of his books, but I'm going to be stubborn and just buy them when I come across them. Sometimes I really enjoy a good dose of serendipity, especially in my browsing.
Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery. When I was in a creative writing class a year or so ago, the professor asked us to go around and talk about books that influenced us when we were young. Now, I could have made a case for Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, which I recall reading entirely in the stacks one summer's day; but all of Montgomery's books have been friends to me for a very long time indeed. For all that they are shelved in the children's section, the stories aren't particularly children's stories, especially her short stories. They are snapshots of rural life in the early 20th century, and can be dark or serious or ironic just as easily as they can be cute and light-hearted. I suppose it's telling, indeed, that not a single person in the class had heard of the books, though they had some dim memory of the PBS special. Instead, their memories were rife with Harry Potter and his ilk. Not that there is anything wrong with Harry Potter, but I was long past childhood when they came out. ooof. In any case, we took a drive through Canada last winter, and I brought Windy Poplars along to keep me company. Yup, I still enjoy her writing.
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Succinct advice from an author that is better known for his exhaustive depth of research. This is the book that I was wishing for while reading Omnivore's Dilemma. For an absorbing look into how we as a culture have strayed so far from eating food, as well as for some ideas on how to go back to, well, eating food— I highly recommend this book. Very well written and engaging.
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones. I've never been much of one for the classic cookbooks. I mean, I have a few, but I'm not sure I've opened them. Judith Jones edited a good number of them, and in her memoir both the authors and the books come alive, so much so that I now have a strong desire to expand my cookbook shelves. One thing that jumps out from these pages is that opportunities just kind of happen around her, and instead of standing around boggling at her luck, she goes off and *does* something. She didn't only do cookbooks; she was also the editor responsible for getting Anne Frank's diary published in America. This is a memoir of a different world, a different time. But I enjoyed the visit and I can't wait to try some of the recipes in the back.
The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. I'm a sucker for narrative non-fiction, especially on math and science. I read this right after Gladwell's latest, and found it much more enjoyable and engrossing— even to the point of missing a metro stop! It was a pleasant follow up to my semester of statistics; focusing primarily on probabilities and chance, this book covered a wide range of math without actually including the math. Coming after my months of being buried in textbooks, it made clear what the textbooks are missing: the stories behind the formulas that show the clear linakages between the people and the questions they were trying to answer. Drunkard's Walk is an enjoyable ramble through history.
Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen by Clotilde Dusoulier. I really shouldn't be posting about this, as it will spoil what little reputation I have. People think I can bake, but really it is just that I have access to some very fine cookbooks. For pure edible joy to pound of book, the winner is Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini; there are some lovely recipes in there and the book is thoughtfully laid out and a good read as well. I confess I am partial to the pastries.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.
The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are no inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
of Italo Calvino from a girl too cool and too smart and too busy for
me; we had one ill-fated date, at a too-loud bar, followed by greasy
food at Ben's neither of us wanted. The words we didn't say were
interrupted by the Ethiopian cabbie, who— after dropping her off,
instead of taking me home— drove me to an Ethiopian restaurant and
made a proposal of marriage. I have nothing more of her but books read and
unread, a litany of thoughts unspoken, vague wonderings. That said, it
was worth it, to have discovered Italo.
Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell does a decent job of correlating success with the combination of ability and luck— the luck of culture, language, and time, combined with the opportunity to spend enough time to become very very good at a given task. What I find more intruiging, however, is Gladwell's extraordinary ability to profit from well-written but ultimately anecdotal essays.
Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon, translated by Luc Sante. This book would be the height of flash fiction, save for the fact that it is comprised of 100-year-old news items. Dry, wry, and utterly brilliant. A new translation of over 1000 of Feneon's spare 3-line news reports printed in Le Matin in 1906. Not for the optimistic.
Brandy he thought. Actually it was carbolic acid.The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander. This book was an amusing meditation on the obsessions that drive us. As well as reminding me of the age-old question- "if you are doomed to live the same life over and over, is this how you want it to be?" and if the answer is no... then what are you doing to change that? Painful questions, indeed. He also has/had a sporadic blog.
Thus Philibert Faroux, of Noroy, Oise, outlived
his spree by a mere two hours.
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. The title reads like a trite self-help book (Get happy in 7 steps! Get wealthy in the same way everyone else is— oops, not this week.) Nudge actually explores the hows and whys of choice architecture (or "nudges", or "liberal paternalism"). In sum, humans can be pretty terrible decision-makers, and we're also pretty darn susceptible to falling in with whatever is suggested to us. I see this book being used far more often for evil than for good... but hey, that's how the cookie crumbles.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I'm not sure how it was that I hadn't read the Dilemma until now. I've been meaning to for years, and I was sure I'd bought a copy at one point, but clearly I'd misplaced it or gotten distracted. Easy enough for me to do. As it happened, I was in a friend's library a few weeks ago on a grey rainy day, and it lept off the shelf at me. I have to say it was a good escape in the days leading up to the new semester, and it's certainly thought-provoking. Of course, Nick managed to knock it off the table and dent it, so now I have to buy my friend a new copy.
Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis. Like some others on this list, it's not a great book. But there it was on the summerhouse shelves; and the tale that opens the book— Liars Poker played by the best and brightest— never fails to amuse me. Probably because a few Solomon refugees landed at UUwho back in the day, and they tried to bring the game with them. Also, the author used to live in my building, so chance and opportunity combined so that I reread this, what, two weeks before the Fed ran out of money bailing out investment banks? We never learn, do we?
Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World by Nicholas Basbanes
A meta-book of beauty. There is a lot of good meat for future explorations (you know, when I finish all those books I'm lugging around, or have littered on the floor and by the bed and on the kitchen table and... crap. Did I mention that I have a book problem?), it's well written, and it's just a nice wide-ranging and nummy read.
Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948 by A. J. Sherman. "Indubitably fascinating, even romantic, the peoples of the East were assumed to be incapable in their irrationality and technological backwardness of deciding their own interests, and were therefore to be guided by Britain, gently if possible, firmly if necessary, towards a better future."... "British officials and their wives... virtually all assumed without question that rule over non-Europeans, throughout large areas of the globe, was simply part of the natural order." This pretty much sums up the turn-of-the-century imperial thought. The book, primarily sourced from the vast reams of private correspondence in various museums and libraries, is a harsh but lyrical look at the British establishment of the Jewish National Home under Mandate, and its tragic saga over 30 years. I am now greatly depressed, on so many fronts.
Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy by Gregor Maehle. Most yoga books drive me crazy with intricate and woo-woo explanations, mysticism, or hype. And while there is still a lot of mystical fluff in here, there are also really solid step-by-step (or breath-by-breath) discussions of the poses in the Ashtanga series, as well as anatomical illustrations and good photos. Definitely a worthwhile book, regardless of the yoga style you might be interested in.
Why? by Charles Tilly. This is a extraordinary inquiry into how and why we construct explanations and stories, the purposes they serve, and how we construct different ones depending on our relation to the person we are telling it to.
At Large and at Small by Anne Fadiman. This was a beautiful escape into some lovely prose, ranging from ice cream to insect collecting to charles lamb to death and loss and moving. Read this book.
The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. Yes, I was taking a course on Modern Iran. I didn't mean to buy this book, however- I'd gone to the bookstore in the week after finals looking for a mindless romance but after an hour of aimlessly picking books up and putting them down, somehow walked over to Kramers and bought this instead. It's an exceedingly accessible introduction to the Gordian knot that is the Muslim world.
Storm from the East: The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West by Milton Viorst. This is a very compact and concise book; as it focuses on the Arab world it does not touch on Iran directly, but it definitely added to my understanding, and helped put some of my textbook into larger context. Very worthwhile.
My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell. This is not a great book by any stretch of the imagination. And while it is nominally about food, in reality it is a very depressing encapsulation of a woman's struggle for self and parity in the 50s. I read this with a great sense of relief that I was not born during that era.
The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution by Deborah Harkeness
The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms by James Geary
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. How much of who we are stems from where we are? What are the extents of the influence our environment has on us, and how can we better construct our spaces to inspire... greatness, happiness, or contentment?
Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design by Henry Petroski
The Cunning of History by Richard Rubenstein
Rocket Development: Liquid-Fuel Rocket Research by Robert H. Goddard
Unkn()wn Quantity: The Real and Imaginary History of Algebra by by John Derbyshire
Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess by Gael Greene. Actually, all I can remember about this book is that she had sex with Elvis. Which, you know, is *something*. There is also quite a lot of prose regarding food.
The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy was perfect reading for a grey rainy day. It's like going through a box of hand-made chocolates that you meant to give to the person you love. Each story is beautifully small, intense, and surprising; the fact that you are consuming it alone is tragic.
When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse by Ben Yagoda
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. This is a very conversational, readable book, and it makes some very good points as to why many people make the choices they do and how our minds can trick us into doing so.
Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. This is an incredibly wide-ranging book- it's enjoyable just for the sheer volume of history and context it provides for philosophy, physics, economics, psychology, and a million things in between. Also, despite being BRIGHT YELLOW (I really can't stand bright yellow) I like this book quite a lot.
Microcosmographia Academica by Francis MacDonald Cornford.
If you are young, do not read this book; it is not fit for you;
If you are old, throw it away; you have nothing to learn from it;
If you are unambitious, light the fire with it; you do not need its guidance.
But, if you are neither less than twenty-five years old, nor more than thirty;
And if you are ambitious withal, and your spirit hankers after academic politics;
Read, and may your soul (if you have a soul) find mercy!
The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived. ... Time, by the way, is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe.
This is a gem of a book on
academic politics, which just goes to show that the more things change
the more they stay the same. (Actually, the text is available on the
internet, but you'll have to find it.) This book was recommended in...
Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, which despite being in a series of books inspired by the form of Rilke's Letters was quite good.
The Art and Craft of Problem Solving, by Paul Zeitz. The first few pages of this book smacked me in the face with something I knew but never really internalized. Math is hard, dirty work. Somewhere along the way I became convinced that if something didn't make sense to me the first time around, if I couldn't just read a book and comprehend and remember the material, that I was never going to get it. It's not that I *mind* doing dirty work but I forget that progress in anything (yoga, math, writing, programming) _requires_ repetitive hard work at many points.
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man, by Norah Vincent. Norah, an androgynous lesbian, spends a year passing as "Ned" in a variety of male bastions: a bowling league, a monastery, a self-help group. She also dates women as a man. The prose is a bit annoying, and I can't say I particularly like her voice, but somewhere buried in there are some good observations on gender roles and normative behaviour.
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, by Maureen Corrigan. Maureen is the NPR book reviewer and a professor at Georgetown. I found this book in an eclectic used/new bookstore on Fillmore, and it was my plane reading home. Here was a voice I could curl up and happily listen to for hours. Musings on academic life, being a woman, what constitutes a novel, what books reflect the work we do, and reflections on relationship- all through the prism of books. In many ways it reminds me of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman, but I enjoyed "Leave me Alone" even more than I did "Ex Libris".
Woman at the Washington Zoo (writings on politics, family, and fate) by Marjorie Williams. I'd brought along books for my travels. I'd even bought and finished a book in the airport on my way out to San Diego. And yet still I couldn't help perusing the bookstore, once again at the airport. The book is a series of essays and features by the late Marjorie Williams, compiled and edited by her husband, Timothy Noah. Many of the essays were published in the Washington Post and Vanity Fair, some had never been published before. What's stuck me is how much I like this woman. Even knowing that she passed away in 2005, her voice rings with the timbre of an old friend in my head. When Mike and I drove out to Spotsylvania to visit friends and their child, I dealt with the interminable traffic (and a full bladder) by hauling out the book and reading aloud. I think we whiled away a good two hours in that manner. It's just... a really good book.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. "Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite." I love the lyrical flow of words, the restless heat of the desert, the sand that gets into the corners of one's mind and lodges there- an irritant, urging one up and out of this boxed-in world. Making me long for spring.
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It's scattered and amusing, and yes, so completely ordinary. It still made me laugh out loud every several minutes. Shields wanted to know why I was laughing but then as I went to read him a paragraph he sighed, "are you going to read the entire book aloud to me?" I would have if he'd have let me. Also, it's printed in two colors.