html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Some good books.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Some good books.

Dude, it’s been a million years since I did a book list. But I’ve read some good stuff since then.

Very good:
Just finished Under a Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown, which I heard of here. Oh man. Remember when you read Outlaw Sea, like I told you, and you stayed up late into the night because you couldn’t put down the chapter about the ferry sinking? That’s what this whole book is like. I cried for those moms fleeing with their babies.

I also really liked Prayer for a City, by Buzz Bissinger. I vaguely think I read Friday Night Lights, too, on a flight to Hawaii, but it was obviously the wonky book about Ed Rendell and his efforts in Philadelphia that I remember.

Oh! If you want to understand California ag, which obviously you do, you should read The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. Super good, a very hard look at the farms in the Tule Lake bed that are bigger than some states. Good technical stuff on cotton, a couple generations of flamboyant doers and a look at very modern ag. Thanks for lending me that, Teddy. Are you going to want it back?

American ground, unbuilding the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche was good, but very obviously three long articles stitched together. That’s cool, though. I’ll read anything he writes. In fact, I think I have. He lives in Davis. I should stalk him.

The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau. Good recommendation, Ari, better than Redemption : the last battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann, which was a good explanation of how the Reconstruction went tragically wrong but not, like, a fun story. Garreau plays fast and free with generalizations about regions of American and big trends. He’s a catchy writer, too. He’s practically a blogger!

The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street over California's Ancient Redwoods, by David Harris. Another sad book, about the bad guys winning in a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber. You see the same bad guys at the thick of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, so it offers a new angle on hating those fuckers. A very good story, well-enough written.

If you think you would like a book about freight transportation (trucking/container ships/trains) by John McPhee, then you would like Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. Not so much plot, but lots of interesting detail and characters.

Oh! Thanks, Kwindla, for Radio Free Dixie, which was itself a good read, but combined with Blood Done Sign My Name (both by Timothy Tyson) and Redemption have left me struggling to remember that there must be some good in the American South, that I can't happen to see at the moment but must exist.

I had mixed feelings about The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg. I liked Smilla's Sense of Snow a good deal, but thought it went weird in the end when it stopped being about understanding snow and started being a thriller. That was kinda how all of Quiet Girl was. Neat premise, that the guy can hear everything, and I expected to like it more seeing as how I am so disproportionately auditory. But it was kinda a thriller the whole way, with wrongdoing I couldn't exactly figure out and action I didn't really believe. But I read it all smoothly and think I liked it more than not reading a book. So maybe you'll like it too.

Light reads/young adult:

A couple good series:
I very much enjoyed Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series, in which a contemporary werewolf has adventures and doesn’t leave out the sex. I found these through Prof. Shalizi’s booklists. I would now trust his tastes, except he recommended the Parker series of olde Japan mysteries which were utterly trite except for the annoying exoticism of Japanese honor rituals, which is a different kind of trite, I guess. Don’t read those.

I quite liked Jennifer Lynn Barnes' series about how it, like, totally sucks to have the Sight in high school. Golden and Platinum, so far. I predict a Silver because there is a third sister.

Stand-alone books:
I just read Everlost, by Neal Shusterman, which was sweet and moved smartly along.

I think my favorite read in a good long time and my top recommendation is Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale. That was just great. It really was. The girls from a village of stonecutters get sent to a princess academy, from which the prince will choose a wife. They are not passive about this. I’ve very much liked all of Hale’s fairytale settings and re-tellings, but this one is my favorite so far.

My older recommendations here and here. Tell me more stuff to read, OK? My request list at the library is down to one book.

UPDATE: Heh heh heh. Since I posted this yesterday afternoon, two separate writers on this list have googled themselves and come by. Hi! Sadly, Langewiesche isn't one of them and he didn't invite me out to dinner to tell me how amazing my blog is. The world is bleak and unforgiving.

I'll add some unsolicited advice to one of 'em, since she's been back a couple times: Honey, you're good now and you're going to be amazing when you're grown. In the next few years, as you come into your strength, you're going to stop wanting to be treated like a precocious sweet thing. When you get to that point, switch your photos. No peeking out from behind your hair, no cocked head angle. The cocked head angle is a flattering shot, but it is for listening to taller men and is both sexualized and submissive. When you are ready to be peers with your public, look them straight on. Only smile if you want to. Cutesiness is a pretty good formula (especially if you are cute), but you have even better options. You have so much talent that when you are ready to use other methods, they'll come through for you.

Incidentally, I am SO DISAPPOINTED that Shane Claiborne switched his glamor shots. I suspect these are a truer depiction of his attention and affect, but he had three old ones that were spot-on imitations of the headcock and moue that women often use. Having a scruffy dreadlocked guy use them shows their full ridiculousness. Forcing anyone who wanted him to speak use those shots was even better.


Blogger billoo said...

Megan, could I recommend Housekeeping by M. Robinson.

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Drea said...

If you liked Pricess Acadamy, you MUST read Book of a Thousand Days. Same lovely language, but characters are more focused and deeper.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Noumenon said...

I just read Moneyball and it made me literally laugh and cry. I would like to see if it works for you because I can't predict whether you'd like it.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Rhonda said...

RE Langewiesche's World Trade Center book...check out the site. The book took the view of construction bosses and the administrative agents for the Mayor who wanted to clean the site as quickly as possible...leaving thousands of human remains at ground zero. Literally thousands of body parts were found over the last couple of years by a new operation that had to be set up because human remains kept showing just closed weeks ago.

Of the 30 named sources in the book , 28 were construction and only 2 firefighters of the lowest possible rank--no NYPD or PAPD police of any rank. There were no fire chiefs interviewed or quoted. FDNY Chiefs ran the site ...why were none interviewed? I know this as fact, because I DID interview them and all the rest of the NYPD, PAPD and FDNY leaders at the site.

Langewiesche got access through the DDC agency and then had to keep quiet. The FDNY bosses were at war with Langewiesche's heroes. They wanted to work more slowly than the Mayor or his flunkies so not leave anyone behind.

Langewiesche had no clue that his dualistic argument--heady and intellectual DDC engineers versus physical and non intellectual firefighters was a fiction ...the FDNY chief and boss of the two firefighters he did interview IS AN ENGINEER WHO WROTE A TEXTBOOK on the subject.

Stereotypes and bias instead of truth rules "American Ground." Great fiction. Bad facts

5:10 AM  
Blogger fasolamatt said...

The great thing about "Nine Nations of North America" is that at 25+ years old, it still rings true.

Recco: The Prize, by Daniel Yergin: the history of oil, from Mesopotamians slipping on shiny black rocks to Saddam invading Kuwait. Riveting.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An Abundance of Catherines--a teen book that my wife brought home from the library recently. All the early high schoolers are reading it, apparently.

Very funny, about a high school genius who is attempting to find an equation that will predict who will break up with whom in a relationship, using his own experiences in dating 20 different girls named Catherine as data. Simultaneously, it's the story of a roadtrip he and his Arab buddy take to Tennessee.

(Should also give you some more insight as to why the South is a great place in many ways.)

P.S. Garreau is awesome. He's a Washington Post Style-section writer so we who live in the DC area are lucky enought to get his occasional features, which are always highly informative yet breezily written.


6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also by Michael Lewis, 'The Blind Side' is very good. And the kid who Lewis writes about weighs over 300 lbs and still has mad hops.

Maximum City -- a non-fiction book about Bombay. The author is friends with the guy who wrote 'Sacred Games,' and you see many of the characters from 'Sacred Games' in 'Maximum City.'

China Road by Gifford -- an editor at NPR in Beijing travels the Chinese equivalent of Route 66 over 6 weeks. Highly recommended.

The History of Love by Krauss -- I think this is Jonathon Safron Foer's wife. Anyway, sweet, heartbreaking, lovely all around.

Sometimes a Great Notion by Kesey -- someone was telling me this was the picked as the best book by northwest authors to come out of nw.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Dewb said...

If you liked Outlaw Sea you should check out Freighter Captain. Check out the author's bio:

"Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, marine surveyor, and writer. He has been an English teacher, commercial airplane pilot, and ship captain. He is the author of a maritime textbook, Deadweight: Owning the Ocean Freighter, a novel, Freighter Captain, and numerous articles on maritime subjects. He is a noted public speaker, and was the subject of a Learning Channel documentary, Repo Adventurer."

It's not on Amazon and probably won't be in your library, but it's well worth the $8.95 here:

Other things I've read and enjoyed lately:

The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I never got around to reading this because I'd already been spoiled on the "twist" and thought I could imagine how it all went, but I was way wrong. The big reveals happen in the first third of the book and the rest is, well, it's Philip Roth doing whatever it is that he does. Very, very good, if that's your thing.

The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox. An editor/historian of Victorian fiction spins out his first novel, a Jane Austen/Sherlock Holmes style inheritance-law thriller, but amps up the sex and violence factor for the modern reader. Great fun.

Falling in Place by Ann Beattie. I'm still reading this one, but so far, I'd say it's like Catcher in the Rye but set in 1980 instead of 1950, with multiple narrators, and not hideously overrated.

Coincidentally, I picked that one up last month when I was in SF. $2 in the used bookstore by the Rockridge station. Read the first couple chapters at 3am on the bus back into town after a show in Berkeley, and got totally hooked. And then left the book on the bus.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

"The Princess Academy": I think I know some graduates.

"Moneyball" was a fine book, but laugh and cry? I'm guessing your a male baseball fan who loves, loves, loves statistics, am I right?

My most recent book read: "God's Harvard", non-fiction about a new college founded for elite home-school fundamentalist Christian youth plotting to take over the world through their dominance of the Republican party. Thumbs up!

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Cosma said...

The thought of someone trusting my taste is — what is the word I want? oh yes — terrifying. But in any case: science fiction, fantasy and horror, mysteries, miscellaneia

12:45 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

"The Princess Academy": I think I know some graduates.

You hang out with stonecutters? This book is not what you think.

Prof Shalizi,

I've had several good finds from your lists. Thanks.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous HC said...

I'd recommend nearly anything written by Gene Wolfe to read. Given your desire for plot over puzzle and strong female characters, I'd recommend that you start with "Pandora by Holly Hollander" by Gene Wolfe.

Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog is also brilliant.

You might also consider A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, and Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart.

On the nonfiction front, The Devil in the White City is a gripping account of the Chicago World's fair, and a serial killer working at the time. Or, on the more academic side, Stephen Biddle's Military Power is a recent and readable landmark reconception of how modern battle works.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Justus said...

I had a similar experience: I mentioned a (cook)book in passing in a recent blog post and within hours one of the authors had commented. A friend who is more vain than I suggested s/he probably had a Google Alert set up.

Recommendations that you will probably hate: Diary of a Rapist, Lanark, anything by Amelie Nothomb or Michel Houellebecq, King Leopold's Ghost (about the 1885-1910 Congolese Holocaust).

9:18 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I read _Devil in the White City_ and don't remember it strongly.

_King Leopold's Ghost_ made me sad.

The rest will go on the request list, except for Justus's anti-recs, which will not.

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Under the Sky" by Langesweiche (sp?) is equally good. Helps you understand flying as well. -K.

Are we still doing the experience thing: This morning, I was disappointed, because I wanted a piece of fruit with my breakfast. I have run out of oranges; I would not like to eat two bagels.

9:37 AM  
Anonymous O. E. Parker said...

Seconding The Blind Side--simultaneously a warm portrait of some unique people and a glimpse into the evolution of football tactics and big money college recruiting. Often hilarious.

I preferred Nicole Krauss's first novel, Man Walks Into a Room. It's an imperfect but lucid, poetic work asking "what if you woke up and all your memories were gone?"

Other literary/poetic recommendations: W;t (Edison), Einstein's Dreams (Lightman).

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can take this recommendation with a grain of salt, since my boss is the author, but Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health is an extremely valuable (if depressing) book for anyone who cares about how the government uses science in protecting public health.

In fiction, I just read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition; it was very good, though I’m not sure I’ll find myself wanting to re-read it the way I have some of his other books. This one’s set in the present time, and seems to aim for a science-fiction-type feel by making the protagonist feel constantly out of sync with her surroundings. I think I enjoy it more when the protagonist is at ease in her surroundings but I find them jarring because they’re part of a dystopian future.

On my last vacation, I thoroughly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s entire Golden Compass series.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Kwindla said...

Catching up, catching up .... Yesterday the dog and I were taking our morning constitutional on the boardwalk when a woman rode by us on a bike, slowly like, staring me down hard, and said: "you're so boring."

"You don't know the half of it," I (wish I had) said.

Both Tim Tyson books are wonderful. I was born and raised just a few miles up the road from the setting for the memoir ("Blood Done Sign my Name").

I had a strong reaction to your framing of the Tyson and Lemann books as provoking a generalized disappointment in and perhaps dismissal of the American South. In deference to the comment policy, I will do my best to explicate this reaction primarily in experiential terms.

Both first-hand observation and the consumption of historical, sociological, anthropological and journalistic conveyances leads me to believe that generalized disappointment in hominid behavior is best thought of as the rule rather than exception.

The only two reasonable reactions to this unfortunate substantiality are: 1) to adhere consistently and rigorously to a concomitant dismissal and disarrogation of all people that one encounters; all people that one is lucky enough not to encounter directly; and all acts, works, faiths, tendencies, morals, beliefs and practices of both categories of people. Or, 2) to engage in a well-intentioned effort to hold in one's mind as much of the context as one can stand to consider of the manifest and manifold frailties of any human being in any particular time and place.

Myself, I vacilate between the above two extremes like, well, like a human being.

As a child of the twentieth-century south, it is perhaps clearer to me than to you that a context which allowed people to create and perpetuate particular terrible injustices, inequality, madness, evil and hate is also the context in which particular great and redemptive human expressions found root. Some of those expressions are particular and local, which only those of us who grew up among them are likely to cherish. Some are of broader interest: certain strands of liberation theology, theories of political engagement, of literary form and style, of food and of music.

When I moved from North Carolina to Boston at the age of seventeen, I could not believe how segregated that city was, and how overtly racism figured into public discourse. By the era of the first Bush presidency, it was possible for a reasonable person to suspect (though perhaps on the basis of perceptions jolted by culture shock) that racism was more pernicious and debilitating in the northeast and mid-atlantic than in the middle south.

A further few turns of the cultural wheel and swings of the political pendulum have shifted the ground again. And perhaps my original observations were poorly synthesized. But certainly the South holds no monopoly on racism.

On a roughly related note, I have found the (limited) discussion of this year's electoral race chasm to be depressingly interesting (I am dreading Pennsylvania):

As an additional aside, I was also surprised to learn how commonly my new neighbors in New England found it necessary to comment on the presumed backwardness (by which they generally meant racism, intolerance and ignorance) of my home. This from residents of a city in which busing riots lasted into the eighties.

All of the above verbiage you might be wise to chalk up as defensiveness. My lovely wife must be very tired by now of hearing me say that the margin of victory for at least the last three of Jesse Helms' senate races were provided by transplants to North Carolina. (In other words, that exit polls suggested that if only native-born North Carolinians had been allowed to vote, we would have had a sane, democratic -- and not coincidentally -- black senator.)

2:48 AM  
Blogger nick said...

Seeing you mention To Funny To Be President (good book) in a later post compels me to recommend Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death but Robert Sheer, if you haven't read it. The essay on Jimmy Carter is not only worth the price of admission, as they say, but one of the smartest things you will ever read about politics.

Off my standard issue recommendation list, everybody should read The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. Everybody that I have recommended the to loves it, regardless of whether they like basketball or not, and I know you do post on basketball topics occasionally.

And, to recommend two books that you have may have read, and that will cover territory that you are probably familiar with, but that are worth reading for their breadth of knowledge, entertaining writing, and ability to make a complicated subject compelling, both Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down (by E.J. Gordon) and Number: The Language of Science (by Tobias Dantzig) are excellent.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a native North Carolinian as well, and I'll second Kwindla's comments, and confess my deep and continuing shame that my birthplace and home managed to elect Jesse Helms to the Senate 5 times.

I also thought that Blood Done Sign My Name was fantastic. The most striking part of the it, for me at least, was the proximity of the setting to my own experience. The murder that set off the racial violence Tyson describes in Oxford occured on US-158, the road that I traveled on every time I left the house I grew up in. Tyson describes all kinds of cultural artifacts that are familiar - food, College Basketball, friendly rivalries between Christian denominations, and it underscores how much has changed in the last 40 years.

Tyson is around the same age as my parents, and let me tell you, the change in racial attitudes between now and then is tremendous. I don't mean to minimize all of the problems that persist, but it is grounds for hope. My even in my (brief) lifetime, I've seen changes. When I was in Middle School, my classes were depressingly WASP-dominated, but my little brother is attending the same school 9 years later, and his classes are full of black kids, asian kids, latinos, etc. There's a long way to go, but things are getting better.

3:46 AM  
Blogger April said...

The River Why by David James Duncan a funny book about a boy coming of age in a fishing family in Oregon. Some very funny family dynamics. Light easy read.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. You've probably read it, but if not it's awfully good. The happenings in a village of Alaskan natives as they face forces of modernization. Touching on the different responses they take.

I am currently reading and enjoying Wanderlust based on a passing recommendation that you made for it. I am a fairly new reader of your blog and I'm excited to read some of your recommendations. Thanks!

11:45 AM  

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