Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nine thousand books and complete recall

"The first presenter was Kim Peek, the model for the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Peek has read nine thousand books, and has complete recall of them all; he can read a new book in an hour, sometimes scanning the left page with his left eye while he reads the facing page with is right. (His condition may be caused by the absence of his corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.)"

-- The New Yorker, January 29, 2007

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Thirteen Moons and Calvin Coolidge

8. Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier. Fiction, 1-25, p. 420
9. Calvin Coolidge, David Greenberg. Biography, 1-26, p. 159

Thirteen Moons is Charles Frazier’s first book since the release of his spectacularly successful Cold Mountain. Thirteen Moons has not enjoyed either the commercial or critical success of Cold Mountain, which is something of a mystery. I found this to be a lyrical book with a muscular narrative that kept me turning the pages.

Thirteen Moons is the story of Will Cooper, who at the age of 12 makes his way to the Cherokee Nation as a “bound” boy –indentured, by his aunt and uncle, to a shopkeeper. Will is given the task of running a remote outpost. En route he meets the young woman that he will love throughout his life and on the day he walks up the steps of the outpost he meets Bear, the Cherokee chief who will become his adopted father and second great love.

After he gains his release, Will expands his business holdings and becomes a frontier lawyer. He uses his knowledge of the law to build a paper empire, buying vast portions of the mountain country to provide a home for Bear and his clan and to save them from the brutal, forced journey to Oklahoma that devastates most of the Cherokee Nation.

Thirteen Moons is the story of loss – Will’s loss of Claire, the Cherokee’s loss of their homeland, the nation’s loss of innocence and, ultimately, the loss of a bountiful land. When Will first arrives much of the big game has already been eradicated and by the end of the book – when he is an angry old man taking pot shots at a passing train – the great forests are being logged out and the once clear rivers are a sad, muddy brown.

Frazier is a consummate story teller. Thirteen Moons is something like a Russian matruska or nesting doll with stories within stories. Frazier does a remarkable job, not only in capturing the spirit of frontier life, but in painting a vivid portrait of the way life was actually lived, both by the Cherokee and the invaders from the East.

Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg is part of The American Presidents series from Times Books. It is a splendid collection of brief biographies now encompassing 23 books, 23 men; especially valuable are the biographies of such little-known presidents as Harding, Arthur and Coolidge.

Chances are that all most of us can recall about Coolidge, the 30th president, is that he was known as “Silent Cal.” He was an extremely reticent man, yet Coolidge enjoyed great popularity. It is not overstating the case to say that he was revered by the American people.

A few highlights:

  • A successful governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge became Warren Harding’s running mate in 1920. He became president upon the Harding’s death.

  • He was elected in his own right in 1924. Except for Theodore Roosevelt, no other vice president “who inherited the presidency had won so much as his own party’s nomination in the next election cycle.”

  • Reticent he may have been, but Coolidge was a successful public speaker. His speeches were uniformly well received. He held 520 presidential press conference – more than any chief executive before or since – used radio addresses to the nation effectively and was abetted by the day’s leading publicists.

  • The nation enjoyed great prosperity under Coolidge, but, of course, the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression were on the horizon; events that brought into question and, finally, disrepute Coolidge’s trickle down economic policies.

Greenberg judges Coolidge’s presidency with an even hand. He sees Coolidge as a forerunner of the modern presidential style. “ . . . if he fared poorly in the presidential duty to get a program through Congress, he was eminently successful in fulfilling the other function of the presidency – to be a representative symbol and visible embodiment of the people.”

“Because of his modern approach to governance – and his faith in the New Era – it is more helpful to see Coolidge as a bridge between two epochs . . . “ Greenberg writes. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to soothe the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Nick Hornby vs. Sigmund Freud

6. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, Nick Hornby. Books on Book, 1-20, p. 153

Freud Inventor of the Modern Mind, Peter D. Kramer. Biography, 1-21, p. 211

I don’t think much more needs to be said about Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a collection of Nick Hornby’s columns from Believer magazine. I raved about Hornby in an earlier post. Sufficient to say, Hornby is funny and spot on (almost always) in his observations on the books he’s read.

Freud Inventor of the Modern Mind by Peter D. Kramer is one of three recent entries in HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series. I disliked this book – largely due to the subject matter – and would not recommend it.

Basically, I believe Freud was humbug and it will be interesting to see if he warrants a spot in a series like this 30 years. Listen to Kramer’s conclusions: “What, finally, do we make of Freud? . . . he was more devious and more self-aggrandizing than we had imagined him to be . . . There is a disturbing consistency in Freud’s indifference to inconvenient facts. The tendency runs through the whole of his career. His biographies . . . are as distorted as his case reports. His sociology and theology are as arbitrary as his clinical interpretations. Repeatedly, he is less original than he makes himself out to be. Where he is most innovative, he is least reliable.”

Alright then, to quote the Thing, “Nuff said.”

I finished the most recent issue of The New Yorker. It contained an interesting article by David Denby on the perilous state of movies today. I’ve read about 130 pages of Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and will begin David Greenberg’s biography of Calvin Coolidge tomorrow.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thoughts on books that inform and entertain

A reader asks . . . Whoa. Stop. Halt. “A reader?!” I wasn’t at all certain there were any. This is frightening. Sobering. It introduces a new element of accountability. I’m no longer writing for my own amusement. Sorry, I just needed to interject that note of perspective Now, to continue, a reader, who identifies himself as Pierre, asks, “I'm glad you think that Water for Elephants was a good read; I just checked it out today. Along with that, I like books that do the simple job of entertaining! Do you know any books like it that I may be interested in?”

To demonstrate just how seriously I’ve taken my new responsibilities, I haven’t thought about much except this question since it popped into my virtual mailbox 12 hours ago. Except, I wasn’t really thinking about Pierre's question. I was thinking about this question, “What books, like Water for Elephants, do a good job of both informing and entertaining the reader?” That’s the question I’m going to delve into, although I will respond to Pierre’s question as well.

The best books that strike a balance between informing and entertaining are non-fiction. Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air are examples of this. Many of the traditional elements of fiction are present in these books. Hillenbrand, Goodwin and Krakauer are storytellers who rely on a strong narrative. Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow also come to mind. I’m certain Pierre can offer additional non-fiction titles.

Fiction is problematic. We (I) must issue a caution. Caveat emptor. Let the reader beware. The challenge posed by fiction when considering books that balance information with entertainment is that novelists may legitimately do what they damn well please – compress timelines, discard actual people (after all, they are only characters in a novel), combine two people into one, put words into someone’s mouth, etc. This means that we must weigh the writer’s motives. In Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen genuinely wants to tell us (teach us) something about traveling circuses in the Depression. She has no reason, for example, to write that Stars and Stripes Forever is the disaster march – meaning something had gone badly wrong at the circus – if it were really Stars Get In Your Eyes or How Much Is That Doggie In The Window. Her novel is not improved in any measurable way by altering the facts. So she doesn’t. That warning dispatched, let’s consider fiction that balances information and entertainment.

I tried to think of criteria for this, but was largely unsuccessful. For example, I couldn’t say that a novel striking the balance we seek would be capable of producing a respectable work of non-fiction. That’s an elusive standard because you could produce a work of non-fiction based on about any novel out there. That’s true, in part, because if you parse almost any novel (hedging my bets a little here) you will learn something about the life and times that the characters’ inhabit. For example, I suspect there are at least a few historical and biographical books about life on the Nebraska prairie leading up to the 20th Century, but that does not mean that Willa Cather’s fine My Antonia is an example of the type of novel we are attempting to identify. It’s not. It is one of my very favorite books. It is a classic. It does not successfully blend information and entertainment. That’s not Cather’s goal.

I can only conclude that the search for such a novel is like shopping in a store with no prices – if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. In the same way, you either know the kind of book I am talking about or you don’t.

If we cast our net back almost a century, I think that Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Age of Innocence meet our standard. Both novels are vastly entertaining, while patiently guiding us through the nuances of the manners and mores of the wealthy denizens of Old New York. Of more recent vintage, I think Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Ian McEwan’s Atonement both fit this category. I hadn’t thought of Gilead in this way until reading Hornby’s column on the book. Hornby observes that Gilead contains “beautiful luminous passages about grace, and debt and baptism . . . there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.” He’s right. Robinson elaborates on the basic tenets of Christianity. (I might have said fundamental tenets, but that’s a good word gone bad through its unfortunate application to a few overly-enthusiastic brethren.) McEwan provides a startling vivid picture of what it might have been like to have lived through the evacuation of Dunkirk at the outset of World War II. I’d also add Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons to this shortlist. I’m only a 100 pages into this novel, but Frazier gives us a remarkable account of life on the American frontier around the time of the Jackson Administration.

Naturally, historical fiction comes to mind, although the warning issued above must be trotted out once more. There be dragons here. Patrick O’Brian, author of the splendid Jack Aubrey series, is a great example of an author who balances information and entertainment. Another example is Bernard Cornwell. I have not read Cornwell’s Sharpe series, but I am a fan of his recent trilogy set in England in the late ninth century.

That’s my thoughts. Let’s hear yours. What titles, fiction or non-fiction, do you believe are good examples of books that successfully balance the ability to inform with the need to entertain? Finally, Pierre, back to your original question. I’d plow through the various posts of this blog during the past year for suggestions on entertaining novels. There’s no shortage of them. I might suggest the novels of Ivan Doig or Laurie Colwin, the short stories of Alice Munro, Michael Connelly is damned entertaining. Then there’s Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley. Oh, and . . . well, you get the idea.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nick Hornby and Water for Elephants

5. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen. Fiction, 1-17, p. 331

Like the proverbial cavalry, Nick Hornby’s unexpected arrival has saved the day.

Hornby is, of course, the writer of eminently readable novels that generate eminently watchable films (High Fidelity, About A Boy).

He is also the author of a regularly appearing column in Believer magazine about the books he’s bought and the books he’s reading. I’m not especially a fan of Believer. With the exception of Hornby’s work, the content has not caught my fancy. Hornby's column is of great interest because, perversely, I love to read about reading. A year or two ago, Hornby’s Believer columns were collected into a book, The Polysyllabic Spree. It was delightful. Now there’s a second collection, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. It’s equally delightful.

And this is where Hornby’s timely arrival has saved the day. In his introduction to Housekeeping vs. The Dirt Hornby argues that reading should be fun. “One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.”

Not so, argues Hornby, who knows – as all devoted readers do – that we read for many reasons and one of those reasons is for pleasure. Reading brings enjoyment. Which means that if you’re reading The Da Vinci Code or Don Quixote, the newest Justice Society of America comic or a history of the Lincoln Administration, it doesn’t matter just so you're entertained. But if it’s a slog why read it? “Please, please,” writes Hornby, “put it down . . . Start something else.”

Which is brings me to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Jacob Jankowski is about to graduate from Cornell’s veterinary school when his parents are killed in an auto accident. In his grief, Jacob flees Cornell only to finds himself part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, where he is enlisted to care for the animals.

Water for Elephants is, of course, a love story. Jacob falls for a lovely young entertainer, who happens to be married to Jacob’s psychotic boss. But there’s more here than love between boy and girl. There’s also love between boy and elephant, and girl and elephant too.

Let’s return to Hornby’s thesis. Water for Elephant is fun. It’s a hugely enjoyable read. Gruen satisfies my two primary requirements for any book – to inform and to entertain. In the author’s notes, Gruen said she developed the idea for her novel after reading a Chicago Tribune article on a photographer who followed circuses around in the 1920s and 1930s. She immediately immersed her self in researching traveling circuses of the Depression era.

As a result, we learn a great deal about how traveling circuses operated, the training of elephants and much more. Gruen, in effect, pulls back the canvas of the tent to reveal the workings behind the circus mystique. And let me be clear nothing here is didactic, tedious or slow. Nothing interferes with the story Gruen tells.

I read a review of Water for Elephant in the New York Times. The reviewer got a little snarky, especially about the quality of Gruen’s prose. I don’t see it. Instead, I think it goes to Hornby’s point that we think books need to be hard to be good for us. Water for Elephant is not a hard read. It is an easy read. An enjoyable read. A good read.

After putting down Water for Elephant I picked up Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons. I am able to complete Peter D. Kramer’s biography of Sigmund Freud. I’ve also got just a few pages to go in Hornby’s Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and I am also almost finished with the most recent The New Yorker.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Absurdistan is a raucous, vulgar, comic novel

4. Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart. Fiction, 1-13, p. 333

I’ve managed to maintain my goal of a minimum of 100 pages a day, despite not reading anything at all on Thursday.

I’ve completed four books so far in 2007, as well as The New Yorker’s winter fiction issue. The New Yorker contained short stories by Louise Erdrich and Ian McEwan, two of my favorite writers. By far the best story in that issue, however, was by Paul Theroux. I’ve also read a couple of comic books, Justice League Society #2, Martian Manhunter #2, and Avengers Disassembled, a hard-cover collection of a story that originally appeared over the course of three issues of the Avengers.

I’m also reading, on the average of a poem every two or three days, Saving Daylight, a collection of poetry by Jim Harrison.

Next up: Freud Inventor of the Modern Mind by Peter D. Kramer, another recent Eminent Lives release by HarperCollins, and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Absurdistan is a raucous, vulgar, comic novel, whose hero is 325-pound Misha Vainberg, son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. Misha, who attended college in America, where he earned the nickname, Snack Daddy, desperately wants to return to America, but can’t because his father, a Russia criminal, has slain an Oklahoma man.

Misha languishes in “St. Leninsburg,” until he conjures a scheme to escape to America by first fleeing to the oil-rich nation of Absurdistan where he plans to obtain a Belgian passport. He secures the passport but finds himself in the middle of an Absurdi civil war. There are two religious sects in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani. One sect believes the footrest on Christ’s cross slants to the right. The other believes it slants to the left.

After bedding the daughter of a prominent Sevo man, Misha finds himself with a position in the Sevo government:

“You’re in the land of the young and the fashionable,” Mr. Nanabragov said. “Now, listen to what our Misha’s going to be. He’s going to be the Commissar for the Nationalities Question.”

“Minister of Multicultural Affairs,” I lightly corrected him.

“Mul-ti-cul-tu-ral. What a nice word, Parka, you should add that to your new Sevo dictionary.”

I add only real words,” Parka said, rubbing his nose.

The war, as wars tend to do, spirals out of control. Yet, no one outside Absurdi is paying much attention, which comes as no surprise to the Israeli Mossad, as a result of its focus groups into how genocides are perceived by the American electorate. “See, the way ‘Absurdsvani’ is pronounced and spelled, it’s utterly impossible for an American to feel anything for it,” the Mossad agent tells Misha. “You have to be able to use a country as a child’s first name to get anywhere. Rwanda Jones. Somalia Cohen. Timor Jackson. Bosnia Lewis-Wright . . .”

Dick Cheney and his minions from Halliburton are among the villains in this novel, a sort of Catch 22 for our times. After all, war may be hell, but it’s good for business and for the bottom line.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Tocqueville biography valuable contribution to our understanding of Democracy's Guide

3. Alexis De Tocqueville Democracy’s Guide, Joseph Epstein. Biography, 1-10, p. 205

“In the United States, religious zeal never ceases to warm itself at patriotism’s hearth.”

“There are two things that will always be difficult for a democratic people to do: to start a war and to finish it.”

“The passion for material well-being is essentially a middle-class passion.”

“I believe that the Indian race in North America is doomed.”

Alexis De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who earned lasting fame by writing about democracy. Tocqueville, who left behind a small body of work, is principally read and regarded today because of a single title – his two-volume Democracy in America.

Democracy in America continues to be read (and regarded) because more than 160 years after it first appeared (volume one in 1835, volume two in 1840), Tocqueville’s observations – such as those above – are still trenchant. Tocqueville would have scorned to wear the crown of visionary, but it is evident he was an unusually perceptive and clear-sighted man. As Seinfeld might have said, a deep thinker.

Joseph Epstein, author of Alexis De Tocqueville Democracy’s Guide, the newest entry in HarperCollin’s Eminent Lives series, doesn’t hesitate to label his subject a genius. He also considers him among the greatest political writers ever.

When considering Tocqueville’s work, Epstein says, “The point to keep in mind is that Democracy in America is only secondarily about America. The accent in the title needs to be placed on its first word, “democracy,” which is the book’s true subject . . . “ Tocqueville, says Epstein, “was less concerned about the fate of democracy across the ocean in the United States than he was about its consequences at home in France” where revolution had a tendency to break out with all the ugly frequency of acne on a teenager.

Tocqueville, who was always given to a melancholy disposition, seems to have suffered from depression in the final years of his life. His mental state may have stemmed, in part, from his disappointment that he did not have a more accomplished political career, despite being singularly ill-suited for public life. A poor public speaker with a thin voice, Tocqueville lacked charisma, was held back by his ironic manner and was, evidently, too thoughtful for the politicos of his era. Yet despite these obstacles, Tocqueville did serve a brief, yet successful, five-month stint as minister of foreign affairs to President of the Republic Louis-Napoleon.

Ultimately, Tocqueville was as prescient about his place in history as he was the fate of the American Indian: “It seems to me that my true worth is above all works of the mind; that I am worth more in thought than in action; and that, if there remains anything of me in this world, it will be much more the trace of what I have written than the recollection of what I will have done.”

What Tocqueville has done and written is admirably captured in this slim volume by Joseph Epstein. It is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Democracy’s Guide.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Book Two: Gaiman's Fragile Things

2. Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman. Speculative Fiction, 1-7, p. 355

Book two: Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman. I am on the pace that I want to maintain for the year – a minimum of 100 pages a day. I still have The New Yorker to complete. I will be starting Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart and Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy's Guide by Joseph Epstein – it is part of the Eminent Lives series.

Fragile Things, which contains short stories, poetry and other oddities by Gaiman, is an uneven work. The true Gaiman fan – and there are many – will enjoy it without reservation. Those unfamiliar with Gaiman would be best served by reading the book over a period of a month or six weeks.

Gaiman’s an imaginative writer, often humorous and wildly inventive. Notable works in this collection include A Study in Emerald, Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft; The Monarch of the Glen, a novella featuring Shadow from his American Gods tales; and How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a clever tale about otherworldly tourists.

Gaiman offers up equal parts fantasy, horror and science fiction with a dash of humor.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

1. Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Kenny Moore. Running, 1-6, p. 417

My first book of 2007 is completed: Kenny Moore’s fine Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. Reading this book is like running a 12-mile run – exhilarating, joyous, liberating.

Moore’s book is principally a biography of Oregon Duck track coach Bill Bowerman, but to tell Bowerman’s story Moore found he must also relate something of the settling of Oregon, share the stories of the men Bowerman coached at Oregon and delve into the the history of Nike, which was co-founded by Bowerman and one-time Duck runner Phil Knight. Because of Bowerman’s success as a coach and his influence upon track and field, we also receive an abbreviated history of the sport spanning about five decades.

Bowerman was a force of nature. A brilliant and intuitive coach, he eschewed the one system fits all approach adopted by many coaches, instead favoring a training program tailored to the individual. He especially believed that less could be more, emphasizing the importance of a hard-easy approach to training.

Among the athletes he trained were the author, a two-time Olympian; Bill Dellinger, Dyrol Burleson, Otis Davis, Jim Grelle, Harry Jerome, Archie San Romani, Jere Van Dyk and late, legendary Steve Prefontaine.

Bowerman’s accomplishments extended beyond the track. He was a decorated World War II solider, helped launch the jogging movement in America after returning from New Zealand where he witnessed the popularity of Arthur Lydiard’s running program for the masses in that country, he was a tireless innovator, whose desire to prevent injuries in his runners led to countless running shoe designs, including the revolutionary waffle-sole trainer. His zeal as a shoe designer led to the founding of Nike, once a scrambling Eugene business selling running shoes from car trunks and today the largest distributor of athletic footwear in the world.

Beyond the Oregon athletes, Jim Ryun and Frank Shorter are here, Mary Decker, Lasse Viren, the Mexico City, Munich and Los Angeles Olympics, a couple of running movies by Robert Towne and much, much more. Moore, long a talented writer for Sports Illustrated, has given us an inspirational, enjoyable book. Lace up your trainers and hit the trail, this book is a delight.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

'07 reading continues with Bowerman, Gaiman

On the fourth day of January, 2007, I am continuing to read The New Yorker's winter fiction issue, Kenny Moore's biography on the late Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things.

Fragile Things is widely uneven, but when Gaiman is on there's nobody better.

The Bowerman book is an absolute joy. Bowerman was a force of nature; he was a superb and inventive coach and a visionary who helped launch Nike.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Virginia library system weeds out the Classics

The Washington Post for Tuesday, January 2, carried a story about a sobering trend among Washington area libraries. According to the Post, thousands of fiction and non-fiction works, many classics among them, are being removed from library shelves.

The Post says that The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway are among the books in danger of being removed from the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public Library system.

Why? The system’s five most checked-out books in December: The Innocent Man by John Grisham, The Collectors by David Baldacci, Cross by James Patterson, Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille and Lisey’s Story by Stephen King.

“Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level,” writes reporter Lisa Rein.

“Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system’s return on its investment by each foot of space on the library bookshelves – and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz.”

The Post quotes Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch library system, as saying, “We’re being very ruthless. A book is not forever.”

The entire story can be read here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/01/AR2007010100729.html .

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Early report on 2007 reading

My reading in 2007 began on January 1 with:

Most of the contents of the January 2007 Smithsonian magazine.

An initial foray into The New Yorker’s fiction issue. The New Yorker is rapidly becoming my favorite magazine.

I started Kenny Moore’s biography of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. I used to subscribe to Sports Illustrated just to read Moore, who is both a runner and writer, but better at both than I.

I also started Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, a collection of short stories, poetry and other oddities from Gaiman.

I continued on the 2nd with Moore, Gaiman and The New Yorker.

Monday, January 01, 2007

My best reads of 2006

Best Reads

  • Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • After This, Alice McDermott
  • The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
  • The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro

Recommended Reads


  • Muhammad, Karen Armstrong
  • Heat, Bill Buford
  • Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns
  • My Life In France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
  • The Places In Between, Rory Stewart
  • Manhunt, James L. Swanson
  • The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, Marc Weingarten


  • By A Slow River, Philippe Claudel
  • Echo Park, Michael Connelly
  • The Two Minute Rule, Robert Crais
  • God’s Pocket, Pete Dexter
  • Late Wife, Claudia Emerson
  • Tracks, Louise Erdrich
  • The Whole World Over, Julia Glass
  • The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks
  • The Big Blowdown, George Pelecanos
  • The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos
  • A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor
  • Digging to America, Anne Tyler

If you read only one book this year, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin should be the book you read. It demonstrates how non-fiction can – although rarely – be far superior to fiction. It contains the qualities intrinsic to any great book with the ability to inform, to entertain and to inspire.

The book focuses on Lincoln’s efforts to secure the Presidency, his decision to place his rivals to the Republication nomination in his cabinet and his relationship with those men. Salmon Chase never ceased to believe he should be President and pursued the office while serving as Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln tolerated Chase’s ambition because he was an able administrator. Edward Bates and William Seward served ably as well as loyally. Seward, who had the greatest claim to the office, became Lincoln’s confidant and friend.

The book emphasizes Lincoln’s moral character -- his integrity, his inherent fairness and his freedom from egoism. It is these qualities that set him aside from generations of politicians and assured his immortality. Goodwin also illustrates Lincoln’s political genius – he deftly managed his nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency and balanced the composition of his cabinet throughout his Administration so as to blunt the worst of the political opposition.

And while we do not think of Lincoln as a people person, Goodwin shows he was exactly that. Lincoln built lasting relationships, gained the admiration of most of his Cabinet (Chase excepted) and, from the time he was a child, delighted in entertaining any gathering in which he found himself with well-crafted, humorous yarns. She dispels the image of Lincoln as a gloomy man, given to a continual state of depression. Lincoln felt the magnitude of the war’s horror, but also envisioned “the new nation conceived in liberty” that would arise from the end of slavery.

Well written, impeccably researched, Team of Rivals belongs on every reading short list


It’s difficult to describe The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Unlike most of Munro’s prior works this is not a collection of short stories. Nor it is a memoir, although there are elements of both in this strong and altogether pleasing new book. What is certain is that all of the elements that make Munro such a delightful writer, and reading her such a delightful pastime, are present – her sly understanding of social manners and mores, the strong sense of time and place and the close observation of human behavior, including her own. The View from Castle Rock offers the reader rich, evocative stories that totally immerse the reader in the experience of reading and in the fabric of these lives. It is difficult to proclaim this Munro’s finest work because she has written so much so well for so long. Let us say then that it is a fine book, elegantly written and observed, and a pure reading experience.


Alice McDermott has never been better than in After This, a tale of an Irish Catholic family from Long Island. Under the hands of other novelists this book would have stretched to a thousand pages, but McDermott is especially skillful in what she chooses not to write. McDermott allows the reader to bring his own intelligence, imagination and experience to these pages, yet in leaving some things unsaid she never leaves the reader wondering exactly what has taken place. The story of these lives unfolds with clarity; it is only that McDermott understands that we understand. She recognizes that the reader is a partner in the process; that writing is completed through reading. It’s a masterful book that cements McDermott’s well-earned reputation as one of our generation’s finest novelist.


The Emperor’s Children is Claire Messud’s closely observed novel on the struggle for independence and identity. Messud is a muscular writer who commands a reader’s attention. Her style of writing can quickly lead to confusion for any reader who allows his attention to wander. There can be a great deal of text between the opening and the closing of a dash. Yet this very demand for focus ultimately serves the reader well. It is on the second, or even third, pass that the depth of Messud’s observation is seen most clearly. The Emperor’s Children is a splendid, powerful novel.


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is spare and unsparing and starkly poetic. The world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. And through this bleak terrain of hopelessness and unrelenting horror walk a man and a boy, suitably nameless. They are journeying south in the wasted hope of something better – warmth, food, a welcome. In the starkness of the narrative, of the dialogue and the plot, McCarthy lays bare the foolishness of hope and the impossible optimism of every post-apocalyptic novel that preceded The Road. Those who have survived do so in the full knowledge that the world is dead and that all life is a loan. And yet. Love not only survives between the father and his son, but is strengthened by their misery and loss, their shared need one for the other. In his weakest moments, the father ponders whether he can take the son’s life in order to save him. He knows that he cannot. In the final pages there is some suggestion that kindness and love have not gone cold, have not entirely vanished from the icy cinder that is man’s heart.

A few favorite passages from '06 reading

“But she’s still sexy as a pay channel . . . ”

--The Echo Maker, Richard Powers (p. 68)


“But if it was the promised land, it was not because of trees or climate, but because, just getting here, they’d found something new inside themselves.”

--A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher (p. 361)


“ . . . he may be surpassingly admirable, but I don’t feel comfortable with the sort of people who collect his works.”

--Nabokov’s Butterfly, Rick Gekoski (p. 106)
(on Churchill)


“This is family. In the family you are a certain kind of person. Your mother, my mother in particular, piles one half-truth about your character on another until she has built up a whole structure, a fabricated person. It begins in small ways: you are untidy or reliable or good with figures or you eat too fast; you’re frightened of frogs, you hold your pen in the wrong way, and then these threads are woven into the family tapestry, a sort of Bayeux which for ever commemorates this entirely imaginary scene. Now he is becoming – the myth declares – competent.”

--The Promise of Happiness (p.127), Justin Cartwright


“Life is strange. It doesn’t give you warnings. It jumbles everything so you can’t pick and choose, and bloody moments follow moments of grace, just like that. It can make you wonder if man isn’t like one of those pebbles that lie on the road, lying in the same place for entire days until someone kicks it and sends it sailing through the air for no reason. And what can a pebble do?”

--By A Slow River (p. 115), Philippe Claudel*


“Despaiux was waiting for my answer. He stood before me, his contempt growing as I sat there, looking back at him—and beyond him—into the emptiness where I alone could see ClĂ©mence. He pulled his hat down and turned his back on me without saying good-bye. He walked off. He went home to his regrets and left me to mine. No doubt he knew—as I do—that you can live in regrets as in a country.”

--By A Slow River (p. 137), Philippe Claudel


“How was it, thought Saga as she stood there, making every effort not to cry, which meant not blinking or uttering a sound or even moving the tiniest bit, that life could give you so much experience, so much pain, yet leave you just as able as you’d ever been to make a fool of yourself?”

--The Whole World Over (p. 274), Julia Glass

Biblio Baggins' 2006 Reading List

114 books read in 2006, my lowest total since 109 in 1997. From 1996 through 2006 I have read 1,212 books. The most in a single year – 150 in 2001.

Here’s the complete book list for ’06. Numbers following the book indicate the date it was completed and number of pages.

Comments to follow.

1. A Gesture Life, Chang-rae Lee. Fiction, 1-4, 356
2. Shoedog, George Pelecanos. Thriller, 1-7, 200
3. The Hearing, John Lescroart. Legal Thriller, 1-11, 451
4. The Second Chair, John Lescroart. Legal Thriller, 1-14, 387
5. The Beet Queen, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 1-22, 338
6. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin. History, 1-25, 754
7. Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster. Fiction, 1-26, 306
8. Teacher Man, Frank McCourt. Memoir, 1-28, 258
9. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go, George
Pelecanos. Thriller, 1-29, 234

10. The Crazed, Ha Jin. Fiction, 2-3, 323
11. God’s Pocket, Pete Dexter. Fiction, 2-8, 274
12. The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks. Fiction, 2-13, 418
13. The Body Artist, Don DeLillo. Fiction, 2-14, 124
14. Purity of Blood, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Fiction, 2-15, 267
15. Christopher Marlowe, Poet & Spy, Park Honan. Biography, 2-19, 367
16. The Big Blowdown, George Pelecanos. Thriller, 2-19, 313
17. Tracks, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 2-22, 226
18. The Two Minute Rule, Robert Crais. Thriller, 2-26, 325

19. John Paul Jones, Evan Thomas. Biography, 3-2, 311
20. The Music of Chance, Paul Auster. Fiction, 3-2, 217
21. The Best British Mysteries 2005, ed. Maxim
Jakubowski. Mysteries, 3-4, 341
22. California Girl, T. Jefferson Parker, Mystery, 3-7, 370
23. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight,
Marc Weingarten. Journalism, 3-12, 294
24. The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. Fiction 3-12, 329
25. 18 Seconds, George D. Shuman. Thriller, 3-16, 308
26. Andrew Jackson, Sean Wilentz. Biography, 3-19, 166
27. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin
Thomason. Fiction, 3-20, 368
28. What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank.
Current Events, 3-24, 251
29. A Sudden Country, Karen Fisher. Fiction, 3-27, 366
30. The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King,
Michael Craig. Poker, 3-30, 262

31. The Pale Horseman, Bernard Cornwell. Fiction, 4-2, 346
32. Nabokov’s Butterfly, Rick Gekoski. Books on Books, 4-4, 240
33. Hell to Pay, George Pelecanos. Mystery , 4-5 , 344
34. Every Secret Thing, Laura Lippman. Mystery, 4-8, 388
35. Wildlife, Richard Ford. Fiction , 4-10 , 177
36. Every Book Its Reader, Nicholas Basbanes.
Books on Books, 4-14, 316
37. The Crown of Columbus, Michael Dorris and
Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 4-18 382
38. Riding with the Blue Moth, Bill Hancock. Adventure, 4-21, 246
39. The Promise of Happiness, Justin Cartwright. Fiction , 4-23, 306
40. Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead. Fiction , 4-25, 212
41. Manhunt, James L. Swanson. Civil War History, 4-28, 391
42. The Beginning Place, Ursula K. LeGuin. Fantasy , 4-29, 183

43. By A Spider’s Thread, Laura Lippman. Mystery, 5-4, 354
44. March, Geraldine Brooks. Fiction, 5-10, 273
45. D.C. Noir, edited by George Pelecanos. Short Stories, 5-12, 308
46. Digging to America, Anne Tyler. Fiction, 5-15, 277
47. The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 5-19, 248
48. City Room, Arthur Gelb. Journalism, 5-21, 641
49. The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig. Fiction, 5-25, 345
50. Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith. Fiction, 5-30, 336
51. Clemente, David Maraniss. Baseball, 5-31, 354

52. The Hard Way, Lee Child. Thriller, 6-1, 371
53. Let Me Finish, Roger Angell. Memoir, 6-4, 302
54. Four Souls, Louise Erdrich. Fiction, 6-8, 210
55. Alentejo Blue, Monica Ali. Fiction, 6-14, 299
56. Sundog, Jim Harrison. Fiction , 6-19, 241
57. Baltimore Noir, ed. Laura Lippman. Short stories, 6-20, 291
58. The Foreign Correspondent, Alan Furst. Espionage, 6-23, 273
59. The Flaming Corsage, William Kennedy. Fiction, 6-25, 209
60. At Canaan’s Edge, Taylor Branch. History, 6-29, 771

61. The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl. Fiction, 7-2, 367
62. The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos. Thriller, 7-5, 371
63. The Places In Between, Rory Stewart. Non-Fiction, 7-8, 297
64. No Good Deeds, Laura Lippman. Thriller, 7-10, 343
65. Heat, Bill Buford. Cooking, 7-13, 315
66. By A Slow River, Philippe Claudel. Fiction, 7-15, 194
67. James A. Garfield, Ira Rutkow. Biography, 7-18, 139
68. Piece of My Heart, Peter Robinson. Thriller, 7-23, 436
69. Manhattan Noir, ed. Lawrence Block. Short stories, 7-24, 257
70. Fantasyland, Sam Walker. Baseball, 7-25, 344
71. A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor. Fiction, 7-27 , 209
72. A Death In Belmont, Sebastian Junger. Non-Fiction, 7-28, 260
73. Talk, Talk, T.C. Boyle. Fiction, 7-31, 340

74. Pegasus Descending, James Lee Burke. Fiction, 8-3, 356
75. Francis Crick Discoverer of the Genetic Code,
Matt Ridley. Biography, 8-3, 210
76. Positively Fifth Street, James McManus. Poker, 8-16, 385
77. The Whole World Over, Julia Glass. Fiction, 8-24, 509
78. The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde. Fiction, 8-29, 383

79. Remember Me, Irene, Jan Burke. Mystery, 9-2, 303
80. Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden. History, 9-6, 637
81. Forgetfulness, Ward Just. Fiction, 9-9, 258
82. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon. Fiction, 9-13, 297
83. Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Short Stories, 9-19, 294
84. Henry Adams and the Making of America,
Garry Wills. History, 9-24, 404
85. Special Topics in Calamity Physics,
Marisha Pessl. Fiction, 9-29, 514

86. My Life In France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme.
Biography, 10-1, 302
87. Poker Face, Katy Lederer. Poker, 10-2, 209
88. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Fiction, 10-4, 241
89. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer. Memoir, 10-7, 368
90. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai. Fiction, 10-12, 324
91. Chronicles, Bob Dylan. Autobiography, 10-16 , 293
92. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud. Fiction, 10-22, 431
93. Echo Park, Michael Connelly. Mystery, 10-25, 416
94. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson.
Humor, 10-27, 320
95. After This, Alice McDermott. Fiction, 10-30, 288

96. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. Fiction, 11-6, 406
97. The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama. Non-Fiction, 11-9, 362
98. The Mission Song, John LeCarre. Thriller, 11-12, 337
99. I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek. Short Stories, 11-16, 307
100. Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann. Fiction, 11-18 , 210
101. Kidnapped, Jan Burke. Mystery, 11-20, 366
102. The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. Stories, 11-25, 349
103. 50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America,
Bill Novelli. Non-Fiction, 11-26, 239

104. The Echo Maker, Richard Powers. Fiction, 12-1, 451
105. Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen. Fiction, 12-3, 306
106. Fear of the Dark, Walter Mosley. Mystery, 12-8, 308
107. Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns. History, 12-12, 412
108. L.A. Rex, Will Beall. Crime, 12-12, 353
109. Late Wife, Claudia Emerson. Poetry, 12-16, 54
110. The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford. Fiction, 12-21, 485
111. Muhammad, Karen Armstrong. Biography, 12-22, 214
112. Camouflage, Joe Haldeman. Speculative Fiction, 12-23, 296
113. Ambition & Love, Ward Just. Fiction, 12-28, 277
114. To the Power of Three, Laura Lippman. Mystery, 12-31, 430