“The City of God” by Saint Augustine.
“From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars,” by Virginia Hanlon Grohl. Well-written, conversational, engaging. Cool insights into what it was like to raise these kids, especially in that transition into fame. Ultimately, left me feeling empty; also more distant from the artists, sort of like they’re their own class of untouchable nobility–an aura of “Let me tell you about the very [musically successful]. They are different from you and me” permeates the book–with a feeling like I’m Emma’s Mr. Robert Martin: too self-sufficient to be an object of charity, and too lacking in nobility to be part of her social circle; just as much above her notice as beneath it. I always cringe at hearing indictments of individuals who long to be artists but settle for being lawyers–I think my appellate briefs’ “Statement of Facts” have always been a cut above, I’ll have you know–it’s probably impossible to be a commercially successful artist without giving every speck of your life to it, but the joy of artistic expression can be found in a wide range of normal life experiences. Maybe her indictment is only on the parents (especially mothers) of art-obsessed children–but finding that balance between letting a child’s obsession rule them and preparing a child to be a healthy adult (whatever that looks like) is blankety-blank hard and requires constant, heart-wrenching retooling.
“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Is there anyone to like in this story? I felt exceptionally suspicious and critical of the narrator this time through. Lots of story and atmosphere in only 55,000 words.
“Cyrano de Bergerac,” by Edmond Rostand, translated by Gertrude Hall. Deserves to be a classic. I don’t know whether this cultural icon merely describes or actively creates what it means to be “french,” but it certainly feels “french” to this American who’s never set foot outside her country. I generally hate tragedies (I feel like the only people who like tragedies are those who’ve never experienced any real ones) (that, and most “tragedies” are just people being stupid when they could just as easily be smart, so it’s hard to have sympathy), but this has a spirit and humor that makes me love it anyway.
“What if? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” by Randall Munroe. A solid installment in the series. I can’t, with a clear conscience, recommend XKCD comics due to the occasional vulgar content, but this book doesn’t have that (many of the answers have descriptions of why such a thing would cause the death of the entire planet/universe and everyone in it, of course…).
“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why,” by Laurence Gonzales. Interesting stories of adventure gone wrong interspersed with biology (especially brain function) and philosophy. The author knows his stuff.
“Aeneid,” by Publius Vergilius Maro, translated by L.R. Lind. People behaving badly, people behaving heroically, Greek gods with extreme disunity and unreliability, abrupt end. But, interesting views of Greek and Roman culture, history, and national mythology.
“In the Blink of an Eye: A Cultural History of Spectacles,” by Stefana Sabin. Lots of interesting facts and pictures. I’m not convinced of the depth or reliability of the scholarship, but it provides a good jumping off point for personal research.
“Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World” by Michael Schuman. I know enough Chinese history to appreciate how little depth can be covered in a 300-page book. But as an overview and a coherent story of a culture over several thousand years, it worked for me. His perspective is somewhat that of a warning prophet: Part of Chinese culture is to believe it should be the center of the world, and its current political actions should be considered in terms of that view.
“Pearls Goes to Hollywood” by Stephan Pastis. Comics–great as ever. Commentary–makes me worried for the author’s mental health, especially as related to substance use.
“Pearls Awaits the Tide” by Stephan Pastis. Probably you either like the tangy humor, or you don’t. I walked into the Barnes and Noble where my husband proposed to me, saw two “Pearls” books on the shelf, and bought them without further thought, which shows that I’m in the “I like them” camp.
“The Iliad” by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles. I was expecting lots of adventure stories, like the Odyssey, but, no. Ninety-five percent of the book covers about a week of brutal battle in gory detail (entrails spilling out, neck tendons severing and heads lolling over and spurting blood, etc.). In the entire book, the only person worth rooting for is Hector (and I’m including all the pantheon in that). The tone is ESPN’s College Game Day: “Here’s Hector with his beautiful wife and baby boy–look at how cute he is with his dad’s helmet–And we’re back to the action! Can anyone stand up to Hector’s indomitable offense! I don’t–wait! Here comes Big Ajax! There’s some trash talk on the field–and here’s the play! Hector lets fly–that man’s arm is gold! There’s no way Ajax can take that hit! His teammates are rallying around him, saying it’s incomplete. The coaches are calling in a new play–looks like Zeus is letting Athena call this one. No, they’re calling Hector down at the line of scrimmage. And look at that! Big Ajax is giving Hector his jersey! Respect. Pure respect these two have for each other. Now, let’s take a look at where these teams are going out to eat tonight. Looks like the Acheans have a sweet local vintage being brought in from…” I guess “Iliad” translates into “The Story of Troy,” but I think a better title would be, “The Death of Hector.”
“Mistborn,” “The Well of Ascension,” and “The Hero of Ages” by Brandon Sanderson. I read all of them in one month, and it was a hugely busy month (I billed 50% more hours than usual due to a big project, there was a family matter that required several calls/appointments/forms, and I have a major role in planning a conference for 216 teenagers traveling to another state next month, plus regular life stuff), which should tell you how interesting/absorbing/entertaining/philosophical I found this trilogy. Although I loved many scenes, perhaps my favorite was a dinner scene about 2/3 through the first book. Warning: Mr. Sanderson does not strictly adhere to Miss Prism’s definition of fiction.
“The Chosen” by Chaim Potok. I found the entire thing frustrating and the ending deeply unsatisfying. It was a good book to have had the experience of reading, but I don’t understand why my friend said it’s her favorite book of all time. Maybe she read it when she was little and the ideas were ones she’d never yet considered.
“My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok. Why have I never heard of this book before? An astounding work. Makes me think of the idea of someone else needing to be another person’s mirror; the book is the mirror: What is wrong with me that I sympathize with the father perhaps even more than the artist?
“They Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne. Great characters, setting, and story. The first 2/3 didn’t seem all that “mysterious”–more like a survival story/ode to engineers (I’m fine with both). The payoff was great. That his utopias lack women is interesting like a disease is interesting.
“Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne. Exciting, suspenseful story with delightful characters and lots of humor. Some religious misrepresentation, of the type endemic in the time period in which he wrote.
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. Great characters, richly detailed setting, exciting adventure. Deserves its reputation as a great novel. Tone is much more tragic and mysterious than Verne’s earlier novels.
“Round the Moon” by Jules Verne. With a better handle on my expectations, I was able to enjoy this book as a snapshot of imaginative scientific thought based on best-available science of the times. I also didn’t expect more of the characters than they could deliver, so the journey with them went better.
“From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne. Not as exciting or entertaining as his others. Low humor. Flat characters. Constantly pulled out of the story by statements that contradict what we know today.
“Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne. Another fun adventure, especially due to the narrator’s voice. Somewhat difficult to employ the “willing suspension of disbelief” in light of today’s science.
“Five Weeks in a Balloon” by Jules Verne. Lots of adventure told with realism. (Not sure what to say about the racism/sexism. I generally feel that to judge an author by another’s culture is unfair; but I’m often pleasantly surprised by authors who were more enlightened than their contemporaries; Verne, though excellent in many ways, did not allow to to give him that compliment.)
“Last of the Breed” by Louis L’Amour. I loved this Cold War adventure book. I’ve never read any Louis L’Amour, so I was expecting a cowboy riding alone in the western prairie, maybe dealing with bandits. An exciting story, with vivid descriptions of stark and beautiful wilderness, and lots of differentiated and interesting characters. Another unexpected and appealing (to me) part of this book was getting the inner psychology of the several characters.
“Now: The Physics of Time” by Richard A. Muller. This is the type of book that leads the reader to ask much better questions than the reader could ask before. I know enough about this subject to realize that many of his paragraphs are distilling large amounts of research and theory into a very few true sentences. This makes me suspicious that there are other large amounts of theory hidden behind other of his statements. This suspicion is borne out by a post I made on social media asking about positrons and entropy. I got several responses but no answers. The worst of these was someone who said I was too ignorant to even try to start explaining the answer to me. I showed his response to my kids and we all laughed at his answer’s similarity to Evil Bob’s response when he doesn’t know the answer. (Many members of academia seem to have forgotten how to say, “I don’t know.”)
“Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines” by Richard A. Muller. Tells it to you straight, exceedingly readable, science is correct as far as I could tell (a rarity in science books written for a general audience), and I learned lots even though these are subjects I’ve enjoyed studying as a hobby.
“Carnage and Culture” by Victor Davis Hanson. Very readable, thoroughly researched, presented without the hysterics some historians can’t resist, peppered with dry wit. This is well-worth the read even if you care nothing for the thesis (although the thesis is interesting and well-supported), because the battles are a snapshot of such different cultures, using eye-witness and participant accounts (or the closest possible thing to them) from both sides of the fight.
“Stranger Planet” by Nathan W. Pyle. Another wonderfully fun, just enough sweet, offering.
“Reflections of a Scientist” by Henry Eyring. Something of a memoir. Includes his thoughts on the vastness of what God knows and the smallness of what the best of us knows. Audience appears to be high school/young college students who might be too eager to find conflicts between science and religion where they don’t exist.
“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn. Not a “book,” not an “essay” (the author’s claim), but really it’s a professional journal article (that was too long to be printed in a journal) (and that’s more accessible than most journal articles). The central point seemed to be: 1) science is messy until one idea successfully drives out all the others; then 2) science solves specific puzzles suggested by the new idea, developing cool devices along the way; until 3) the answers to the suggested puzzles start coming out funky, prompting a crisis; so 4) science loosens its tie and takes off its jacket and re-opens its mind a little bit, allowing a spec of room for an even more successful idea to get a bit of a hold, and starting the cycle up again. The book assumes the reader’s familiarity (and even facility) with a wide range of major physical science topics (e.g., various Aristotelian theories, the Leyden Jar, phlogiston, Maxwell’s equations, and the basic tenets of general relativity). The first part of the book was preaching to the choir, probably because it’s been a half-century since it was ground-breaking. (I could hear Bridget Jones intoning “yar yar yar” in my mind as I was reading.) And the idea that many (most) things tend to change in explosions (perhaps randomly, perhaps after slow, often unnoticeable, build-ups) rather than in a linear progression is probably far more commonplace now than when he wrote. I was interested in his debate with Popper’s (hence Taleb’s) idea that you can’t prove truth, only falsity–Kuhn seemed to be asserting that finding a particular “falsity” in a theory was kicking out a nasty bit and leaving the remainder (or the successor theory) “truer” than it was before; ergo, that proving falsity is necessarily proving truth. But he also rejected the notion that science is looking for “truth” at all; he said it’s only “puzzle-solving,” and he seemed content to think that science grows like animals and plants on the Galapagos grow–filling whatever niche becomes available and becoming increasingly specialized in the process. Personally, I don’t take issue with his main points (esp. the general-practitioner’s devotion to minutiae, and science is non-cumulative, and textbooks gives a false impression of scientific history, and being trained to see allows you to see what others can’t given the same evidence–like a trail of an alpha particle in a gas cloud). But I still think (and I don’t think he’d disagree) that science grows in lots of different ways, e.g., by flashes of insight/connections, random mistakes, increased effort/resources directed at a problem, new thought experiments, and pure inspiration (well, he might disagree with the last one). The parts about a universal language put me back in ye olde English theory required coursework (much sophistry, little meat).
“The Lord God Made Them All” by James Herriot. Picturesque and gory, homey and technical, sweet and infuriating stories about post-war veterinary practice in Britain. Enjoyable, interesting read.
“Dune” by Frank Herbert. I wish I’d read this years ago. Convincing world-building without a bunch of tedious description; insightful ideas in religion, politics, family structures, war; diverse, realistic, interesting characters; clever bits and details throughout; gripping plot.
“13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff. Highly researched, detailed, very readable. This book gave the facts of what happened, presenting the event with clarity, while still letting the reader see the humanity of the people who were involved.
“The Three Body Problem” by Cixin Liu. This was not what I expected– I thought it’d be an adventure story based on some high-level, technical, astronomical science. Instead, large portions felt like the dialogues of Plato, the last half felt like a mystery novel, and the first half was either a heavily fictionalized version of actual history or a shocking reveal (my public school was in Montgomery County, Maryland, and I’ve since learned that much of what my honors history teachers taught was skewed in bizarre ways– as if the worst members of the two major political parties wrote alternate sentences in the text). I know it’s a common, even necessary, device to put an uneducated character in the book so that the intelligent people can explain the science to that person– it’s a way of educating your reader. But it happened often, and the explanations were pretty long, and I would think that most readers coming to this story are already thoroughly acquainted with the science topics covered. The characters were really well-developed and extremely varied. The descriptions of the Trisolarian world were intriguing, vivid, and engaging, and held some delightful (my sense of amusement can sometimes be a little dark) and surprising insights. The philosophy felt like putting on a jacket that was tailor-made for someone not exactly your shape.
“The Federalist Papers” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. I started reading these in April, which made it a five-month project. Part of the slowness was I’d often stop and re-read, maybe three or four times, different sections, comparing the author’s views to how I know the law has actually developed in the two-plus centuries since their publication. I’m amazed by how timely they are, and how pointedly realistic, yet hopeful, the authors were. I was left with the impression that the Constitution is, at heart, a practical document that allows decent people to flourish.
“Tethered by Blood” by Jane Beckstead. I don’t usually read fantasy– unless you count my favorite series of all time, The Chronicles of Prydain, or classics like LOTR– but an associate of mine recommended this book. After the first few chapters, when I’d begun to understand the rules of this world, and started to get to know its inhabitants, I was drawn into the story. I finished it in a day or two, and I’m hoping to see a sequel.
“The Scarlett Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beautiful language, vivid characters, a story that seemed to have more depth to it as I read it, now, than it did when I last read it decades ago– one of the signs of a great work of art: it changes for you as you change. The introductory piece, “The Custom House,” had me laughing throughout the whole thing. I’d forgotten it was there as the introduction to the main story, and it’s an exquisitely crafted bit of writing.
“The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Taleb. I followed his instructions. I still found it too bitter, even in small doses. It’s like the Old Testament but with more absolute condemnation and far less hope, and with the stench of old nobility that looks with condescension on the mental abilities and quality of life of those who get their hands dirty and whose time is rarely their own. I need something a little more positive and inspiring for my next read, so I’m starting on “The Scarlett Letter.”
“The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Taleb. An excellent book that you ought to read. Much pleasanter tone than “Fooled by Randomness,” though still with personal insults. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he meant by the term “fat tails” [even after reading the notes (not explained), glossary (not defined), and other post materials], but I think the term means that things you’d expect to eventually peter out to nothing, suddenly explode in value– so if you graphed them, the tail end of the graph wouldn’t get all skinny to nothingness, but instead would get huge and fat. My guess is it’s a way of referring to how in some areas, one single data point can totally destroy what you thought was the range. There were tons of insights in this book. One that surprised me was how interconnectedness creates vulnerabilities, not just in global commerce, but even in things like the Internet, which are supposed to be able to function if any part fails, but in reality tend to gather into major nodes which are vulnerable. Something that continued to strike me as I read this book was how my local congregation, with about 150 people that show up regularly, is a pretty good substitute for what community life might’ve been like through most of human history: in that little group we have a few great musicians, some great storytellers, some great teachers, some great organizers, etc., and we need all of their talents for things to go their best, which is an almost personal antidote to the scaling (and winner-take-all) effect of mass distribution of a single artistic “winner” to the exclusion of every other artist. One issue I have is his using autism as an epithet to describe those who are inconsiderate of others’ views, and to automatically disqualify an autistic person from work requiring consideration of and insight into others’ viewpoints. This would be like disqualifying Albert Lin from extreme archeology because of his amputation, never considering that his hard work not only compensates for his lack, but gives him physical abilities far beyond most people’s. Autistic girls, especially, have strong reasons to learn well how to decipher others’ needs, motivations, viewpoints, and insights. There’s an element of cruelty in painting with so broad a brush.
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” by Ian Fleming. When my husband showed me what he’d bought, I took it in hand, checked the author, and did a double-take. “Not THE Ian Fleming of James Bond fame?” “Yes.” It required a conscious application of the suspension of disbelief throughout, but was entertaining.
“Made for Heaven” by C. S. Lewis. A tiny selection of three pithy excerpts from his view of theology.
“Fooled by Randomness” (revised edition) by Nassim Taleb. The author’s voice requires some compassion and patience from the reader. That is, I’m glad I’m getting to hear him talk about his ideas from behind the Kevlar screen of a book. Some of the puzzles seemed not to apply to middle-class people (e.g., “If you paid 20K for a painting, and now it was worth 40K, would you buy it again?” My answer: Of course not, I couldn’t afford the original 20K painting, and I certainly couldn’t afford it at 40K. I’d sell that thing in a heartbeat and contribute to my kids’ college funds. But the book said if you wouldn’t buy it again at 40K, you were stuck to your position. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me unless I imagined I had millions of excess dollars. But in that case, I wouldn’t buy it again, because I already owned it. And if I didn’t own it yet, I’d only buy it at 40K if I liked it 40K’s worth. So, I’m sure I missed the entire point of that example.) He’s a little self-contradictory (e.g., he dislikes moralizers, but his book is asking us to change our behavior based on our human tendencies to make poor choices. That’s straight preaching, bro). I loved how he wove examples from history into his explication of his theories. I loved how he got me thinking about how his theories apply to religion, science, physics, math, and politics. His “John blowing up” made me think of Silas Marner, who thought that because he looked at his gold every night the practice was safe, instead of realizing that each night was yet another pulling of the Russian Roulette trigger. I appreciated his comments about “The Millionaire Next Door”– without my husband’s nudging me to spend a little, our lives would be all black broth and rough bread. His analysis of looking at only the successful people, and of looking at results instead of the quality of the decisions themselves, reminded me of my issues with the “Talking to Strangers” test of AI versus all the judges in NYC: 1) the study would’ve been far more interesting if they’d compared the “best” judges to the AI, and if they’d looked at cases where they diverged to see what qualities had made the differences in decisions; and 2) if the judge let the defendant out on bond due to his having a job and a family to help support, and then the defendant missed his next court date, the judge still made the right decision, even if the AI machine would’ve denied bail and thus gotten a “win” in the results column. Pretty sure Frenkel would disagree with his claim that math is only for meditation– Frenkel persuasively argues that it is math that has unlocked physics– though I see his point that there’s often a huge gulf between the theoretical and the practical. This book was insightful, and often delightful. It was mind-expanding, and well-worth the time I spent with it.
“The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543: Volume II” edited by Lawrence A. Clayton et al. This fourth narrative of de Soto’s four-year exploration of the southeastern United States is not only interesting because the author, Garcilaso de la Vega (“The Inca”), used different first-hand witnesses as sources (different from those in the first three narratives, provided in Volume I), but also because his voice as a child of two worlds (his mother was a close relative of Emperor Atahaulpa and his father was a conquistador) gives a window into what a rough confluence that was to navigate.
“Strange Planet” by Nathan W. Pyle. My little brother got me this for Christmas, saying that he came across it and thought it matched my sense of humor. He was right– it’s a delightful book.
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. This time I read it, I was watching for how she illustrates motive and character attributes with sparse but telling details, and how much she allowed the reader to glimpse the inner thoughts of characters besides Elizabeth. (And, I got caught up in the story, anyway.)
“Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell. Caution: if you start this book, you should finish it. When I got to the section on transparency, I was close to outraged, because it seemed to directly contradict what I’ve been taught over the last 15 years about Autism. I put this book aside for a couple of weeks and thought about it. I now wonder if it’s inappropriate to see the autistic characteristic of inability to decode facial expression as an organic brain dysfunction that must be worked around through education. If Gladwell’s thesis is correct, then there is no organic brain ability to decode facial expression– facial expression is merely a learned social construct. If that’s true, then it’s ONLY the lack of early learning/copying of facial expression that creates the lack of ability to decode. That would suggest that the reason social skills classes work is not because they’re a work-around for an organic problem, but because they’re teaching what autistic children never bothered to learn (possibly due to a lack of interest, possibly due to the great discomfort in making eye contact). I’ve seen autistic people who are much better at interpreting facial expression and picking up on details than neuro-typical people. This dovetails well with the idea that all these things are learned social customs. I also appreciated the idea that some people are mis-matched (not “transparent”), and can suffer greatly for it. (There’s a TED talk on “how to spot a liar.” I hated it. It basically listed a bunch of completely innocuous, or socially common, or mis-matched behaviors, and said those things prove a person is “lying.” It also blamed the person being deceived– as if being trusting of others (Gladwell’s “default to truth”) is just as evil a practice as intending to deceive. Ideas in this book tended to counter those claims.) I also appreciated this book for finally giving me a way to articulate the discomfort I felt when a prosecutor once said, “Defense attorneys get upset that the officer was driving around looking to see if anything was suspicious. That’s what we pay officers to do– to drive around and be suspicious!” (I laughed at the time, but the statement never sat well with me, though I couldn’t figure out why.) One issue I had with the book was the failure to acknowledge that over-ticketing was not only due to policing tactics being entirely misapplied, but also due to the despicable practice of certain communities (especially Ferguson, which he cites in his book) intentionally using ticketing as a way to generate revenues. See, e.g., https://ago.mo.gov/docs/default-source/press-releases/2019/marshfield-sb5-petition-12-9-19.pdf?sfvrsn=ae9b3639_2 .
“The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539-1543: Volume I” edited by Lawrence A. Clayton et al. “Introduction: The de Soto Expedition, A Cultural Crossroads” by Paul E. Hoffman; “The Account by a Gentleman from Elvas” translated by James Alexander Robertson, footnotes and updates by John H. Hann; “Relation of the Island of Florida” by Luys Hernandez de Biedma, translated by John E. Worth; “Account of the Northern Conquest and Discovery of Hernando de Soto” by Rodrigo Rangel, taken from “Historia general y natural de las Indias, by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, translated by John E. Worth; “The Canete Fragment: Another Narrative of Hernando de Soto” by Eugene Lyon; “Hernando de Soto: A Brief Biography” by Paul E. Hoffman. Okay. So, what I listed here are the sections of this large volume that I read. I love reading primary sources (even if they are a step removed from the original through translation), and these are about as close as you can get, for de Soto’s four-years of marauding throughout the southeastern United States. What especially struck me was the horribly effective disease vector this expedition was– hundreds of men in their twenties and thirties who would go to one settlement, capture the leader, demand a hundred or so slaves for carrying their things and thirty or more women to use for sex, then they’d travel with this entourage to the next town, release all those people to go back home (most of them now in a weakened or sickened state, as reported by Rangel), and then repeat this process at the next town with new people. What also struck me was how contemporaries despised de Soto’s treatment of the people he met as he traveled through what are present-day Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, possibly Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, etc. I was also surprised at the various strategies used by the inhabitants who were faced with foreign technology. For example, at one place, the townspeople told them two other towns had been wiped out by disease after a different Spaniard arrived years before, and they told de Soto that if they wanted lots of pearls, they could strip them from the dead bodies, which de Soto did. This looks to me like the townspeople were trying to diplomatically wipe out the Spaniards with the same sickness that destroyed the towns. Another time, several groups heard about de Soto in advance, and they organized roughly 5,000 warriors, armed them and hid them in a barricaded town, then invited de Soto and his men inside, and then almost killed all of de Soto’s force. What saved de Soto was that he burned down the town (including all their supplies) and rode their horses through the flames, scattering the warriors, and the warriors didn’t regroup till daybreak, giving de Soto time to get out with his men before many more of them were killed or injured. There were many other examples of sophisticated people treating with de Soto’s force in different ways, between challenging their religious teachings, buying them off, purposefully leading them into desolate areas, and always, always telling them the gold they sought was somewhere at least a week’s journey out of their land. And, of course, de Soto’s ignominious death and the dumping of his body in the Mississippi River, and the desperate flight of the 1/3 of the men who were left alive after all the attacks, sailing down the river while constantly under fire by the enemy who’d figured out how to counter their military threat, was something I’d never heard before. This is not the narrative of “technologically advanced European arrives and instantly destroys the weak, credulous natives,” which is what we generally are told in school.
“Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The classic depiction of frontier life.
“Beyond the Bright Sea” by Lauren Wolk. I liked the language and ideas. The setting and characters were vividly drawn.
“Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate. Great characters, extremely readable, and a really authentic feel. Accurate about the historically documented horrors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society without leaving the reader with a sense of despair. An excellent book.
“Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of Missouri” by W. C. Jameson. It’s fun to imagine that these treasures may still be found, submerged under man-made lakes, hidden by cave-ins, or merely sitting silently under a few inches of dirt. But what I really liked was how the stories give a sense of what people were like in those times. The several references to infamous Hernando de Soto hanging out in Missouri sent me checking for other sources on this. Apparently Hernando’s secretary said they crossed the Mississippi (at a place roughly 75 miles south of present-day St. Louis) on September 6th, 1541, they tooled around on a generally southwest course terrorizing everyone they met till November, and then they headed straight south into Arkansas. I may have to go find a book on this…
“What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” by Randall Munroe. My little brother introduced me to this author, reading aloud (while I was driving us to get donuts before we headed up to Yellowstone) to me and my kids the chapters on the entire population of the world shining laser pointers at the moon, and the baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light. This book is mind-tickling-ly plausible and hilarious– especially hilarious if you’re at least a little into sci-fi.
“Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It)” by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. I put off reading this due to its provocative title. But when I kept seeing it referenced in credible articles, I decided to check it out. (I’ll first admit that I stopped reading “Lean In” when I realized it was giving advice that I would never follow, myself.) This book does not say that “men suck,” rather, it says that the flawed behaviors we use to choose leaders favors men, and asking women to emulate those behaviors is a poor response. He argues that we should be using better criteria to choose leaders, and he explains what they are and how they can be measured. I like how his Table 6-1 quickly summarizes the first chapters of the book. I especially like his advice on overcoming inherent bias by interviewing using specific job-qualification questions instead of using standard open-ended questions like “why do you want this job?”
“Football 101: Understanding the Game” by David R. Walker. Very helpful for understanding the basics. However, it also illustrates the idea that once you know something well, it’s hard to remember what it was like NOT to know it. That is, it was slow going for me, because I had to constantly reference the glossary, then look up later chapters to explain what those terms of art in the glossary meant, and then re-read the part he’d just explained. Still, it was a great help, and I wish I’d read it years ago.
“Again, but Better” by Christine Riccio. The main character’s voice was too bubbly for me, but I got used to it after a few chapters, and I enjoyed the story.
“Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. Well-researched journalism that gives a view into a culture I didn’t know existed among the working poor. If you don’t have any experience with factory/warehouse work, this book will give you a taste of what industrial jobs are often like.
“QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” by Steve Young. Great read. This book has helped me better understand my daughter. The way he described the games was absorbing and accessible, even for football novices. I liked how he dealt with unfair judgments by people who didn’t know him. (I’d intended to read this book for a while. On BYU’s Media Day, Zach Wilson said that it was one of his favorite books. I mentioned that to my husband, and he bought it for me as a surprise present.)
“The Martian” by Andy Weir. Okay, pervasive language, some crude humor. But the story was gripping, the science was fascinating, and the characters were vivid and believable (and often hilarious).
“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. This excellent book is a punch to the gut and to the head. Nothing in this book is prurient, though it is graphic. On a literary level (imagery, characterization), it’s one of the best things I’ve read. Everyone who’s mature enough to understand this book, should read this book.
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. This would be worth reading just for the history of the spraying of hundreds of thousands of acres of land with toxic chemicals that killed millions of fish, birds, beneficial insects, and entire ecosystems, while creating super-insects that were resistant to each chemical. There’s a time-capsule feeling, seeing a moment in scientific history before the breakthroughs in genetics. What is timeless is the problems with the “bull in a China shop” way that agriculture (whether suburban lawn, managed forest, or monoculture crop) continuously likes to deal with its challenges.
“Fight, Grind, Repeat” by Bobby Bones. I saw this book on the library end-cap, opened it in the middle, and liked the voice of the author, so I checked it out. Turns out he’s famous. Who knew? (Well, you probably did.) A kick-in-the-pants-type of advice book about keeping on working on what you love and becoming a better person. My favorite sentiment in the book: you aren’t a failure at hammering just because the nail didn’t go all the way in the first time.
“TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking” by Chris Anderson. I laughed at parts because it’s what our church leaders have been trying to get speakers to do for decades. Excellent insights on all aspects of giving a short presentation.
“Adventures in Wonderland” by Jon Emery. A pleasant account of the summer two friends spent working and hiking in Yellowstone, and a request that we not let technology rob us of experiences in nature.
“The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story” by Douglas Preston. So, I missed the subtitle “A True Story” when I chose this book as my prize for hitting a hole-in-one at the indoor mini-golf tournament at the library, and I was expecting something very different. But this was great– an engrossing account of the archeological researching and revealing of a culture that was wiped out 500 years ago. The repercussions provided interesting portents for our own culture.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. My guess is that the senseless violence and vulgarity in this book were more shocking when it was first published. I had an odd feeling of familiarity in the style (this is the only Vonnegut I’ve read), and then I realized it felt like reading a criminal trial transcript. Some interesting themes came through by the end.
“Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn” by Stephan Pastis. This was one of his best offerings.
“Tough Mothers: Amazing Stories of History’s Mightiest Matriarchs” by Jason Porath. Extremely readable. Interesting people. Also biased and preachy, with vocabulary choices tending towards the vulgar.
“The Magnolia Story” by Chip and Joanna Gaines. Of course the “How we met” love story was fun. But what really interested me was the level of honesty and guts needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting a business seems so mysterious, so risky– and here they did it not once, but many times. I got an “A” in accounting 200 at BYU, I passed my business law class with high marks in law school, and I can explain a TIF, but that intellectual understanding of business leaves out the gut-check that comes with putting your money and your life into your dream. I imagine it feels something like that moment last May on the top of Mount Timpanogos when I stepped off the zip-line platform and flew nearly 5,000 feet down the mountain, combined with feeling the scalpel cut across my abdomen during my first cesarean section.
“Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover with Your Left Hand” by Stephan Pastis. My favorite storylines: Croc on Jeopardy, Gopher Gusher.
“Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen. Even with the honors history classes I took in high school and college, even with the history books and lecture series I’ve read, there were things in here that surprised me– most especially about the Vietnam War and our doings in the Middle East from 1950 to present. This book has inspired me to find out more. (Like almost all historians, he mostly ignores women, which is extra lame because he condemns this practice, and because his entire book is supposed to show what a GOOD history textbook should be. To add insult to injury, he excuses himself in a footnote hidden in his Afterward by listing a bunch of boring-titled Ph.d theses-type papers from the 70’s and 80’s, and suggesting you go hunt them down and read them on your own if you care.)
“A Town Divided by Christmas” by Orson Scott Card. A quick, sweet read.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann. This well-researched and well-written book made me sick at heart. I guess it’s a true crime book, but it was recommended to me for its insight into the effects of bad law and policy. I’m glad I read it.
“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard. An exciting adventure. Reading it from a modern perspective, I found it interesting how the characters’ speech and actions showed how they were bound by Victorian stereotypes of race and gender, and yet those characters challenged those boundaries– falling in love with the right people, bleeding with and for the right people, accurately judging the pernicious influences of the Victorian culture. Haggard obeyed the code, but still managed to explore some extremely controversial ideas.
“American Sniper” by Chris Kyle. This book opened a window on a culture I thought I knew something about. I’m extremely grateful for the people who give their lives for our freedom. I can definitely see his points about micro-managing the war, embedding members of the press, and higher-ups making decisions that are safe for their careers but aren’t the gutsy decisions needed. The way he describes taking those sites, and providing cover for others, and some of the basics of how they operated, made me think about people I know who served over there, and helped improve my understanding of what they went through. What shocked me was the amount of swearing, drinking, fist-fighting among themselves, and hazing– I’d heard stories, but thought they were exaggerated.
2019 January: “Mother is Coming: A FoxTrot Collection” by Bill Amend. FoxTrot is pretty much my favorite comic strip, and this is another great collection. This was a Christmas present to myself, and my kids kept walking off with it (I was trying to savor each comic, spread out the enjoyment), so I ended up reading the whole book one evening.
2018 December: “The Poetic Edda” translated by Lee M. Hollander. I loved the way he kept to the stanza forms as much as possible, including the correct alliterative accents. The introductory material and the glossary at the back were extremely helpful to give context and meaning to each poem or poem fragment. The stories themselves, especially the (conflicting) ones about Sigurth, Brynhild, Guthrun, and Atli the Hunnish warrior (yes, that really is referencing Attila the Hun) have a power to them. It’s strange to me that so many of the action scenes were missing– the poem sets up the battle, then the next stanza has people raging over their dead family members. Very different from, say, the scene where Perseus knocks off his rival’s gang at his wedding feast.
2018 November: “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan. Anything attempting to be this comprehensive necessarily leaves out a lot. But this was an interesting retelling of major historical events, often using primary resources. However, from about 1950 to present, he began a diatribe against the United States’ involvement in the middle-east, which made me question the fairness of the rest of the book. EDIT: After reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” I think my reaction to the end of this book may have been hasty.
2018 October: “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had a general idea of what this was about from pop culture, but the book differed from my expectations. Worth reading.
2018 September: “Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. This book was informative. It was detailed enough without being tedious. It was a really interesting viewpoint of an educated New England gentleman who’d been cut down to a foremast jack, on topics including sailing, sailors, other cultures, and women. Although some of his observations might be considered condescending by today’s standards, I think he was ahead of his time. His life of service to others shows his heart was right. (Some people today try to erase historical works that contain viewpoints that offend their “modern” sensibilities. Those people creep me out.)
2018 July: “The Prose Edda” by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. My reaction: so THAT’s where J. R. R. Tolkien got his inspiration for the different types of creatures, and even their names. It’s inspired me to start reading the “Poetic Edda.”
2018 June: “Roots” by Alex Haley. Powerful book. I wish I’d read it years ago– it’s one of those books that expands your world view. At the same time, it’s definitely not a book for kids. But, I don’t think it could be told in an honest way without being as graphic as it is. Really well researched. I also liked how he had some balance; the transition between male and female points of view, the complexity of the characters be they whatever race or gender. I loved the ending.
2018 May: “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J. R. R. Tolkien (listened to it on CD while driving across the country). Yes, it’s still great. Now that I’ve studied Irish and Icelandic myths, I see some influences. It adds an extra layer of enjoyment of the epic.
“Little Pink House” by Jeff Benedict. Excellent research and writing. Evokes a “grrr” at the stupid decisions made by non-transparent governmental entities. Evokes a “grrr” at the evisceration of a basic constitutional right through a bizarre judicial interpretation– that the restriction of “public use” now means almost nothing.
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. Everyone who likes seeing deeper meaning in stories should read at least Part I of this book. An excellent work, that I still find myself thinking about years later (it’s April 2020 as I wrote this last sentence).
“Pearls on the Road” by Stephan Pastis (Darker than his earlier comics. Some of his comments make me wish I could take what I’ve experienced and pour it directly into his soul. He sounds a little like the guy in Groundhog Day just before he hits rock bottom.)
“Celtic Tales of Magic and Enchantment” by Liam Mac Uistin (A sweet rendition in a pretty format. A great introduction to the classic tales.)
“Norse Mythology” retold by Neil Gaiman (This was a good read. Perhaps a little too true to the originals for it to be appropriate for little kids.)
“Mr. Dickens and his Carol” by Samantha Silva (If you start this, you must read it through to the end. I ended up being glad I read it.)
“Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (His tone starts out bossy. But by the end, he’s talking to you like a fellow-warrior, rather than an ignorant grunt. He has practical ideas based on real-world experience and success. A lot of what he says goes against what I want to believe about creativity and art, but I can definitely see his points.)
“Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie (interesting characters, well-written, extremely abrupt ending)
“Pearls Falls Fast” by Stephan Pastis (I bought it with the gift card my parents gave me for Christmas. The commentary makes it even better than I thought it would be.)
“Year of Yesh: A Mutts Treasury” by Patrick McDonnell (The other comic book I bought with the gift card my parents gave me. Just as sweetly funny as I hoped it’d be.)
A whole bunch of books and DVDs about Ireland’s history, geography, biology, tidal forces, climate, architecture…
“The Koran” translated by A. J. Arberry (I discovered I still had a slew of misconceptions about the Muslim faith, even after all the research I did in preparation for writing about Zheng He– which research included reading several books on the tenets and history of the faith, and attending a demonstration of a prayer service and hanging around to ask questions of those who led the service.) (I should probably write a blog post about that…)
“A Different Pond” by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui (Money was always tight when I was young. One day, a friend at school asked whether that “big” house he saw me going in was mine. I explained that my room was a corner of the basement, with sheets tacked to the ceiling for privacy, and 9 of us lived there. He seemed to think I was lucky. He was right. This book made me think of him, and lots of other good people I met in my home-room in high school.)
“The Treasure Box” by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (helped me discuss refugees with my children)
“The Scariest Book Ever” by Bob Shea (funny, cute Halloween book)
“The Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters (a delightful mystery set in Victorian Egypt)
“Every Soul a Star” by Wendy Mass (well-written teen fiction, 3 point of view characters, set in a campground at the time of the eclipse)
“DNA is Not Destiny. The Remarkable, Completely Misunderstood Relationship Between You and Your Genes.” by Steven J. Heine (extremely helpful way of looking at DNA; I especially appreciated the analogy of DNA transcription being more like a dance that responds to its partner than like a computer program executing its functions)
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (an interesting entry into the continuing Potter universe)
“What Do Muslims Believe? The Roots and Realities of Modern Islam” by Ziauddin Sardar (I researched Islam before writing about Zheng He. This book went deeper than the articles I read, and in a more coherent way. I appreciated his viewpoint of being an active Muslim– I’ve never understood why some people think a faith’s enemy would be a less-biased and better informed source of information on that faith than an adherent would be– and ready to discuss the issues the “west” has with the faith in an approachable, intelligent manner)
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (still creepy today)
“Stolen Waters” by Shaun Mackelprang (beautiful language, great story, deep thinking)
“Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice (luxurious language, complex main character, captured the feeling of its day, too sexually graphic for me)
“A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight” by Maria Toorpakai (an amazing window into the culture, an amazing journey by the author, emotionally draining to read, and I’m a better person for having read it)
Chapters 1-9 of “The Course of Irish History, Fourth Edition” by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin (I was a fool for assuming Irish history was anything at all like British history. Ireland’s more like the Middle East– only greener)
Chapters 1-8 of “The Everything Irish History and Heritage Book” by Amy Hackney Blackwell and Ryan Hackney (good information, easy read)
“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil deGrasse Tyson (if you want to improve your daydreams, purchase raw materials to enlarge your thought palace, give yourself a sense of wonder at the glory and mystery of it all, this little book is for you)
“Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship” by Robert Kurson (great account of the guts it takes to treasure hunt today, and interesting history of the pirate whose ship they sought)
“Metamorphoses” by Ovid (unabridged Dryden translation)