Thanks to co-hosts Chris Robinson and John Ernst, and to dozens of NCPR friends who contributed suggestions for this season’s reading and gift-giving inspiration list.
I sat this one out–in terms of my own recommendations, but so many good ones from others I think it hardly matters. Stay tuned for information about our next call in: John Ernst and I will talk about literature that has emerged from the American West. Probably in January. And in February, Chris Robinson will join me for a call in on “over-rated classics.”
Here’s the list so far…do add your suggestions in the comment section.
FIRST: This event related recommendation…
Dr. Daniel Way’s Never A Dull Moment — a tribute to the Adirondackers he has cared for in his medical practice — great photos, too! Nice coffee table book. He will be presenting his “story” at the Indian Lake Theater on Wednesday, Dec. 11th at 7PM. (Thanks to June McKenney, Indian Lake for this heads up.)
Chris Robinson, Call in co-host, Clarkson University
I have a new colleague at Clarkson and we will be team teaching a course on “Violence and Reconciliation” in the spring semester. The course will focus on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following the fall of apartheid, and the proposed commission for Northern Ireland. I mention this because while I will be contributing material and reflection from the political and philosophical side of the discussion on whether peace, justice and trust can be cultivated in countries decimated by racial and religious hatred, torture and political oppression, my colleague’s field and approach is literary. To prepare for the class, she has given me a long reading list of fictional works that delve into the psychological effects of trauma, the relation that emerges between the tortured and their torturers, and whether victims giving testimony on what happened to them is liberating and empowering. As a result of this comprehensive list, I have been to some very dark places in my reading. The effect can be depressing, to be sure, but I have to tell you that the sense of awe that comes with seeing what fictional works can achieve in the realm of truth telling is an equally powerful effect. Fiction can convey the darkest, most fearful and violent aspects of human existence in ways that journalism and non-fiction can only suggest.
Have no fear, my list is not composed exclusively of the terrible things we do to one another.
- Cory Doctorow, Little Brother: From the title alone you will note the resonances with Orwell’s 1984. This is an extraordinary novel that examines the surveillance and security state that arises in the wake of a terrorist attack on the Oakland Bridge. Even before the attack, students in a San Francisco high school were monitored by “gait detectors” throughout the school day. Now the powers of Homeland Security are unleashed on all citizens. Civil rights are suspended, you must prove you are not a terrorist at every traffic stop, and any teacher who dares to mention Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson in their class is replaced by someone more acceptable to the new regime. Out of this oppressive circumstance, using the technology they’ve grown up mastering, a group of adolescents fight the good fight to preserve liberty.
- M.L. Anderson, Feed: Imagine a world, in the not too distant future, where nearly complete ecological collapse of the planet leads to a life lived in bubbles of painted skies, trademarked clouds, and AstroTurf. The denizens are connected directly to their corporate masters by “The Feed”: a networked jack in directly to a person’s limbic system. In the feed, you are bombarded with ads and you can purchase what they are selling with just a thought. It takes impulse buying to a whole new level. Is resistance to this kind of intimate consumerism possible? One young woman, with an older version of the Feed seeks to try. The result is devastating personally, but she stands as an example, a holy remnant, of a human history animated by free thought and dissent. This is a novel marketed for Young Adults. But I think we can all use a dose of what this book offers.
- James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room: I have been reading James Baldwin throughout 2013. The combination of intellectual brilliance and spiritual heat that is uniquely Baldwin makes him an essential writer for the contemporary age. Giovanni’s Room was known mainly for its gay themes. But I read it as a celebration of love as a response to the question of what it means to be a human being. When we censor or limit our sexuality, we deprive ourselves of genuine happiness lived in intimate relations with others. Baldwin’s writing in this work is exquisite.
- Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station: The protagonist of this novel of ideas is a would-be poet who has managed to get himself a fellowship that allows him to live in Madrid. His days become routine: Sleep late, get high, get drunk, look at some art, go to a party, stay out late, and repeat. Once in a while he manages to jot some poetic idea or other down on paper. He is morose, rootless, and aware of the phoniness of his poetic aspirations. But he manages to find a woman to pass the time with, and who connects him with other artists, and the delusion can continue. All of this drifting is interrupted violently by the 2004 terrorist attack during the early morning hours at the Atocha train station. When fakery is illuminated by trauma, is redemption or a mere return to reality possible?
- Teju Cole, Open City: This is my number one book of the entire year. It is actually difficult to describe the hold this book had over me while I read it. The writing is luminescent; words dance to their own music. Julius is a Nigerian immigrant doing his internship in psychiatry in Manhattan. After work hours, he walks the city taking on new neighborhoods. By the novel’s end, he’s traversed the entirety of the island. He travels to Amsterdam too. His walks are accompanied by his vivid thinking. This is a novel about contemplation and memory, but this does not mean it is without physical action. Indeed, the novel turns on revelation so profound that your interpretation of the work that was proceeding so comfortably and smoothly breaks apart and leaves you scrambling for a new hold on reality. This is a first novel by a writer of enormous talent and range.
- Carol Shields, Unless: A family sends their brilliant and talented eldest daughter/sister off to college. She takes courses, falls in love with a nice boy, and leads the normal life of a student. Suddenly, however, she begins to unravel. Her parents learn that their daughter is sitting on a city corner panhandling for the poor. She will not speak, bathe, or seek shelter. From this point, an ordinary story turns into a search for the trigger that sent such a healthy and happy person into such a precipitous downward spiral. What happens to a family that has known only peace and privilege in the face of such tragedy? Shields has written a nimble and provocative story that shows how thin the membranes supporting our ordinary lives truly are.
- Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly: I continue my journey through the writings of Philip K. Dick. This novel veers closely into the autobiographical when the protagonist, Bob Archer, a narcotics agent, reflects upon the double life he leads as he hunts down traffickers. To be an effective agent, he must become an effective user. The lines between sobriety and intoxication are, as you would expect, blurry. But the alterations of Archer have wider, metaphysical implications. I think I comprehended about 80% of what was going on in this book. But what I did grasp I enjoyed thoroughly. As with many of the writings composing the middle years of Dick’s career, this novel bounces from pulp fiction to philosophical/spiritual inquiry every few paragraphs. The reader can just hang on for the ride.
- David Park, The Truth Commissioner: The setting for this mystery or crime novel is Northern Ireland in the aftermath of “the troubles.” A truth commission has been set up to begin to heal social divisions and bring the remains of victims back to their families. The novel is built from the stories of four characters and their ties to a fifteen year old boy named Connor who was an informant for the police and went missing one night. These characters are: Francis Gilroy, a newly appointed minister of culture in the new government; James Fenton, a retired policeman who recruited Connor; Michael Madden, an IRA recruit in hiding in Florida; and Henry Stanfield, a scholar of human rights law, and a commissioner leading the hearings. This is a novel rich with insight on the value of truth in a country besotted with love for story-telling, and a dark and violent past.
- Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: I probably should not place this book in the fiction category. It is a study composed of testimony from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Maybe I should call it a work of memoir and journalism instead. But the book reads and feels like a novel. Krog is known best for her poetry, but she worked as a reporter covering the TRC as it travelled from town to town creating a forum where victims of apartheid could confront the murderers of loved ones and authors of their trauma. The book focuses on the question: does telling the truth, providing testimony of what happened, heal a society and set victims free, or does it open old wounds and add to the trauma of those who suffered mightily? I do believe in the value of truth and reconciliation as a tool in the politics of human rights, but this book forced me to examine my convictions closely and carefully. I remain confident in the importance of truth, but the naiveté that supported this belief in the past has been replaced by the concrete testimony of those who participated in these hearings.
- David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress and The Vanishing Point: These are two experimental novels, by the author of the crime novel, made into a movie, The Ballad of Dirty Dingus Magee. These books are impossible to describe fully. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a stream of consciousness work told by a protagonist who is in the throes of what philosophers have called “solipsism.” She is convinced that she is the last person on earth, and nothing in this book would raise questions about the accuracy of this belief. The universe she is encased in is hermetic. Having only herself to talk to, she strings together incandescent thoughts about Helen of Troy, the music of Brahms, former lovers, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and so on. One anecdote after another function to give a little order to her madness. The effect is riveting. If anything, The Vanishing Point has even less structure. It is a series of notecards written out by “the Author,” the narrator and writer. We understand that the notecards are preparation for some sort of conventional and major work, but the Author is succumbing to age and fatigue. It will not be written. The cards stand for themselves.
- Gillian Slovo, Red Dust: This is another novel set against the backdrop of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the novel’s center is a relationship between a black member of the ANC and the policeman who tortured him. Their confrontation across the tables of a TRC hearing convened in a small, predominantly white town is dramatic and powerful. The story is told through the perspectives of a cast of characters that include a lawyer who was called from her practice in Manhattan to return home by her mentor. She offers an occasionally sentimental, but clear-eyed view, of her town in the post-Apartheid era. This is a novel of psychological depth and sociological detail that is moving and dramatic. There is a film version of the book, starring Hilary Swank, which has virtues of its own even as it changes utterly the novel’s ending.
- Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases. Let me begin by noting that Nathan Englander is one of those young writers you should start reading now if you have not picked him up yet. He is the author of two short story collections that have garnered every literary prize for that form, and this truly memorable novel. The Ministry of Special Cases is an agency of last resort for those whose children, friends, spouses or family members have been disappeared. That is, they were taken by members of the Argentinian military or special police during the time of “the dirty war.” The absurdity of this agency captures something about the ethos of a society at war with itself. This is a novel of profound tragedy conveyed with an odd combination of comedy, cynicism, and, yes, romance. Five pages into this book I was entranced by the perplexing worldview and occupation of Kaddish, father of Pato and husband of Lily. He is the strongest and weakest character, reminiscent of Achilles or Moses, you will ever meet. Through the eyes of Kaddish and Lily, the violence of the Argentinian junta is never allowed to settle into mere background.
- Barbara Stewart, The In-Between: As a dear friend said when this book was first published, “the world has become a creepier place.” The In-Between is a story told at the intersection of spirituality and medicine. A young woman suffers head trauma in a terrible car accident. What unfolds next is a story located in a phantasmagoric realm that might be unconscious or it might be consciously uncanny. The story is rooted in the young woman’s past, all the way into the womb. Has the injury unleashed something from within, like a memory? Or has a door been open to an alternative dimension so that the dead may visit and even inhabit the living? The reader will have to call upon their own mystical beliefs and faith in science to comprehend the action of this brilliant debut novel for young adults.
- Ellin Stein, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: I was a fan of The National Lampoon from about eighth grade until I graduated high school. These years coincided with the heyday of the magazine whose regular issues were punctuated with special editions like parody of Playboy or the high school yearbook. The story of the people behind the magazine, from its origins at Harvard through to films life “Animal House,” is the subject of this book. For me, the book offered a bit of nostalgia. I was generally disappointed in the way Ellin Stein went about telling the story of how Henry Beard, Doug Kenney and others shaped the comic sensibility of a generation. But the magazine was funny and interesting enough on its own to keep this People-ish treatment lively.
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time: This now classic work was written for the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. It captures the just heart of the civil rights movement. If I had the power, I would make sure that every high school student in America reads this.
- Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: Mary Roach came to Clarkson for our convocation this year. I love her work for its combination of humor, scientific insight, and memorable subject matter. If you were headed on a three year journey to Mars, what would you bring along? What challenges are confronted in zero gravity? What kind of person will function best on a long trip through space?
- Janet Malcolm, Forty One False Starts: I really enjoyed this collection of literary portraits of writers and authors. Malcolm’s take on the contemporary art world is informed and thoughtful. She has a way of convincing you of the importance of the subject she is writing on even if you have never seen a single photo or painting by the person. Can I admit that I have never been a big J.D. Salinger fan? Malcolm left me reconsidering this judgment with the power of a single sentence in her essay on the author of Catcher in the Rye.
- Richard Rodriguez, Darling: Listeners will know Richard Rodriguez from his years of work as an essayist and commentator on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. As engaging a speaker as Rodriguez is, his best work is found in his essays and memoirs. He is the author Hunger of Memory, Brown, Days of Obligation, and the brand new Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. Rodriguez’s writing can have an incendiary quality, as when he takes up questions of ethnic identity and immigration. But he is mostly a quietly intelligent writer. His pace is slow and deliberate so that he can notice more than those who speed by, destination bound.
It is where Richard Rodriguez likes to walk and think that is truly unique. He finds narrow paths, sometimes nothing more than a tightrope wire, between boundaries. In Darling, he explores the three religions that sprung from Abraham in a desert culture that is austere, dangerous, and prone to spiritual visions. Rodriguez notes that he is dependent upon and has been shaped by these religions. They nourish his identity from within, and yet they limit this same identity with coercive force from the outside. Richard Rodriguez is a gay man who is a practicing Catholic. His devotion is not rewarded with exclusion rather than with a place of honor in this institution so integral to his self-identity. In every interview I have seen or read with him, he is asked why he remains a Catholic. His answer is that it is his spiritual home, and he is protected there not by the hierarchy, but by women who are also relegated to a subjugated status. “It is because the Church needs women that I depend upon women to protect the Church from its impulse to cleanse itself of me,” he writes. There is paradox here. But out of the friction of threatened expulsion comes a love and compassion, forged in experience, for the suffering of others.
Each essay that composes Darling was written after 9/11. For Rodriguez, the attacks of that day illuminated another line of unnecessary suspicion and blame between the three religions of Abraham. Those attacks also inaugurated an era where Americans turned to a hostile form of atheism to express their anger at the violent impulses and intolerance at the heart of organized faiths. Rodriguez writes this memoir as a response to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others who formed the “New Atheism.” His argument, crafted and supported beautifully in the pages of Darling, is that the prayers of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are cries of fear and helplessness by beings who suffer and die, and therefore cannot see and know everything. This darkness and mystery of finitude, so central to what it means to be a human, must be embraced for it is the source of humility that breeds love and protects us from the destructive hubris manifested in Hiroshima, drone strikes, and other emblems of scientific “progress.”
- Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary: No doubt many listeners have only vague recollections of reading some of Barthes’ literary criticism in a college literature class. They will recall the writing as abstract and odd. This diary is an all too concrete confrontation with the death of a loved one. I was engrossed by the way Barthes could describe his heartbreak. I didn’t know that one could reveal so much in so few words.
- Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life: The subtitle, How We Lose and Find Ourselves, is the key to this beautiful series of stories from the career of a psychoanalyst. When we think of the examined life, often we start with an image of Socrates or some other philosopher off in solitary contemplation. Grosz shows us how an analyst, using a well-trained ear for listening, can coax us out of entanglements of our own making.
John Ernst, Call in co-host, Elk Lake/NYC
A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY – Russell Banks (2013)
Also: Lost Memory of Skin, The Sweet Hereafter, Afflicted, Cloudsplitter
Russell Banks’ brand new collection of 12 short stories shifts in scene between the North Country and South Florida and is peppered with local references and people.
Banks has been a master story teller for years. (One of my favorites is the ice fishing story from The Angel on the Roof.) In each of these new stories, the protagonist’s life changes suddenly or opens to the possibility of change. A father of two police officers and a prison guard turns out to be a local bank robber. A man runs over the family dog and discovers that the pet was all that held him to his children after a divorce. A woman in a bar tells a long, unreliable story in which she may be the protagonist. A woman visits a friend whose husband has suddenly died and considers not returning home to her own husband.
These are all emotionally wrenching stories, each building to a carefully constructed climax and ending with a perfectly judged blackout. The prose is simple and majestic, as if carved in granite. Every word does its job. Russell Banks is a master of his art who just keeps getting better.
THE DIRTY LIFE: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love – Kristin Kimball (2010)
I am wondering seriously whether there is anyone out there except me who has not yet read Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life. If so, I am about to perform a public service.
Let me introduce you to Kristin Kimball, fresh from Harvard College and the East Village with an assignment to write a magazine piece on young organic farmers. Enter Mark stage left: tall, strong, sexy, a brilliant chef and also a man who wears his T shirts inside out every other day to save wear and tear and who abjures electricity – possibly, in Kimball’s words “a wingnut.”
Their families mix like oil and water. Hers, Republican, military tight-wired. His, early Hippie. She believes in , “the uplifting nature of manicures and a pair of new shoes.” He believes machine made goods are ruining the earth and wants to farm with draft horses.
This is the story of their first blissful and nightmarish year farming in Essex near Lake Champlain. And not just farming but raising everything a family would otherwise purchase from a supermarket. The year culminates in a disorganized, hilarious and gorgeous wedding on the farm.
The best news is that Kimball is a brilliantly talented writer – open to life with every pore, present emotionally, self-aware and observant, with a touch of the poet that conveys sharp pictures of the beauty of the world around her. Check it out.
THE BIG BURN: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America – Timothy Egan (2009)
Also: The Worst Hard Times, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher
In August, 1910 a series of small fires in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho were swept into a Palouser, a hurricane of warm air, that turned into a devastating firestorm destroying 3.5 million acres of timber in four states, wiping out entire towns and causing the deaths of entire teams of firefighters. This is the story of that fire by a National Book Award winner, but it is also the story of the birth of the U.S. Forest Service under the very odd but effective Gifford Pinchot with strong support from Teddy Roosevelt.
Typically, at their initial meeting in Albany, Roosevelt insisted on man-to-man combat — first wrestling, then boxing. Pinchot and Roosevelt split the matches and bonded. The book is also the story of the early heroes Pinchot recruited for the fledgling Forest Service, men like Ed Pulaski who fought the fire with everything he had and was ultimately destroyed by it
The Bitterroot fire changed the public’s thinking about the danger of fire. The Forest Service, at first ridiculed and under-funded, was never seriously challenged again. It also led to a continuing debate between those who believe that every fire should be extinguished immediately and those for whom circumstances and resources and risk should be taken into consideration.
There are so many stories here, they defy summary and can barely fit into the book’s 300 pages. Egan excels in making the people he describes come to life, while keeping in perspective the beginnings of the conservation movement in America.
MATTERHORN: A Novel of the Vietnam War — Karl Marlantes (2010)
Unabridged disc read by Bronson Pinchot
This is a tough, moving novel that focusses on a fire support base named Matterhorn in a remote section of Vietnam near the Laos border in 1969. The protagonist is Bravo Company and a green Marine lieutenant fresh out of the Ivy League, but ambitious and anxious to win the respect of his men. The author is a much-decorated Marine and Rhodes Scholar, and this is his first novel. He does an excellent job of portraying the racial tensions that pull at the unit and the divide between the volunteers and the “lifers.” He is pitiless in showing the perspective of the brass against that of the grunts asked give up their lives to take a single completely denuded hill again and again after it has been abandoned by their commanders for reasons they don’t understand, with the enemy well entrenched in holes they have dug out themselves.
The battle scenes have a raw, real quality, the dialogue sounds authentic, and Marlantes makes you care about Hawk, China, Scar, and other members of Bravo Company. The first three-quarters of the book has a driving pace that makes every night duty, every jungle probe, every battle action tense with expectation. The novel’s last quarter could have stood some pruning; it turns into a talky, preachy wrap up, reaching for significance. It wasn’t necessary. The story conveys its own message with conviction and effect.
ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT — Stephen King (2000)
As the subtitle suggests, this is part memoir, dealing with King’s early years growing up in blue collar neighborhoods and discovering his attraction to science fiction and EC horror comics (an addiction many of us share and still regret their banning by the comic code Nazis). There is also a special section on the horrific injuries King sustained when he was hit by a car while walking on a rural Maine road – an event that occurred while he was writing this book.
The rest is very sensible, non-technical advice for aspiring writers, such as avoiding the toxic adverb, not straining for elevated vocabulary, and cutting 10% from your first draft. There are also useful comments on dialogue, line editing (with an example), research, and tips on where to look for an agent and how to determine whether you have found one who is legitimate. King even attaches lists of his favorite reading from 2000 to 2009 when the latest edition of the book was published.
King believes that “stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world” and that like fossils they must be dug out rather than invented. King does not make plot outlines but lets his characters develop out of the basic situation — the fossil – and take the plot along with them.
This is good, solid advice for writers, expressed simply and without pomposity and showing a glimpse of the life of one of the most successful of the brethren.
FAR ALASKA – Mason Smith (2012)
Also: Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares, Towards Polaris (AKA Florida)
For anyone who thinks that the enjoyment of sex ends before the age of 70, Mason Smith’s rollicking new novel will set them straight.
Clarence Shampine — ignored, disrespected and unsatisfied with his life in the North Country makes a whirlwind proposal (a trip; not marriage) to the overweight and garrulous daughter of a local farmer. The two take off for farthest Alaska in an aging 6 cylinder truck with bald tires. An unpromising beginning, to say the least.
The narrative voice is that of Clarence – prickly, selfish, crafty and human. It is a voice that gives the novel its color and pacing, as Clarence starts to change – opening up, freeing up, taking risks and experiencing more of life. Run-ins with drug dealers, motorcycle gangs and grizzly bears ensue in this madcap journey, and his companion, Hester, turns out to be a resourceful character, an excellent horseperson, and a bit of a scamp.
Mason Smith has a unique slant on life and on his fellow humans that is always interesting, funny and alarming. This book won’t put you to sleep. It’s a romp from start to finish.
GETTYSBURG: The Last Invasion – Allen C. Guelzo (2013)
This is a new, full-scale account of the battle that took place at Gettysburg Pennsylvania on July 1st, 2nd ,and 3rd 1863. It is written by the Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College and the author of several books about Abraham Lincoln.
Having read several other books about Gettysburg, including Stephen Sears’ excellent Gettysburg and Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, I may be subject to the charge of being an addict, or at least a buff. But this book definitely holds its own. The narrative is clear and dramatic, and the sense of the terrible human cost of the battle is vivid. The overwhelming din of artillery, the dust and mud, the blood and pain and fear are all here.
Also, Professor Guelzo provides a fresh perspective. He dials down the significance but not the courage of Joshua Chamberlain’s stand on Little Round Top. He makes the case that General Meade was actually considering a retreat on July 2, when victory was uncertain. He questions the blame placed on J.E.B. Stuart’s joyride around the Union Army, which General Lee claimed cost him “his eyes.” He wonders about the blame that should attach to Longstreet’s hesitation, Dan Sickle’s disobedience of orders, Richard Ewell’s failure to pursue his attack.
For anyone looking for a solid and reliable history of the battle from the invasion of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Gettysburg address, this book is an admirable candidate. For the knowledgeable Civil War reader, it provides a new focus that is thought-provoking and convincing.
LEAN IN: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — Sheryl Sandberg (2013)
Although women now earn more college and advanced degrees than men, they still have not achieved anything near parity in the corporate world or in top government positions. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, takes on the subject of why women have not taken leadership roles as often as their numbers in the corporate and government worlds would suggest.
Sandburg mines her own personal experience and that of colleagues and friends, combining that with research from the workplace to suggest some answers. Among them: women need to claim a place at the table (quite literally in some cases, not migrating toward the seats against the wall). Women need to ask for more responsibility and better pay. Sandberg shows how women’s lack of far-reaching ambition and their concern about family/career conflict can hold them back. She describes how mentors and sponsors can help and how to get this help without asking for it directly. On virtually every page there is advice that men can use as much as women. One example: when complimented on a job well done, Sandburg asks, ”how could I have done that better?”
Sandberg has a very open, non-doctrinaire approach. She encourages women not to believe the destructive myth about “having it all” but to find their own ways, seek their own individual balance, but not to give up the search for a meaningful career unless that IS their choice. Otherwise, she advises them to shape the world around them (and their spouse) to help them get on with it.
THINKING , FAST AND SLOW — Daniel Kahneman (2011)
N.Y. Times 10 Best 2011
The author is the winner of Nobel Prize in economics. A psychology professor at Princeton, Kahneman here writes for the general reader, explaining two ways in which the mind works. What he labels System One is the intuitive, emotional, non-reflective response. System Two brings into play the logical, rational, thinking portion of the mind.
In a series of interesting examples, Kahneman shares his research on the logical breakdowns that occur when perceptions of risk, or the way a problem is framed, or the way intuition operates, can lead to logical errors in which people make choices conflicting with their actual desires.
Seeing some of these logical traps is instructive. If milk is 90% fat free, it obviously contains 10% fat. How the question is framed can make all the difference. “Miles per gallon” is preferred by auto makers over “gallons per mile,” which tells a somewhat different story.
This is a provocative book with wide implications for the understanding of human behavior and wide reference points — from writing contracts in plain English to re-designing the Food Pyramid, which few understand, and substituting a Food Plate that shows a balanced diet.
WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail – Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Also: Torch (fiction)
Cheryl Strayed (a name she invented to match her state of mind) is an unlikely candidate to slog 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, a torturous mountain route running from Mexico to Canada . Newly divorced, Strayed had recently lost her mother to cancer at 45 —the closest person to her. After that her stepfather and siblings drifted off into their own separate worlds, leaving her effectively orphaned.
Hefting a backpack so heavy and huge she dubs it Monster and wearing new hiking boots a size too small — fit, but totally inexperienced in the wild, she starts off alone. She makes every novice mistake one could make and yet survives, growing tougher mentally and physically in the process. Some days the temperature tops 100 degrees; other days she slips and slides through record snowfalls. Most people she meets on the trail (with one notable and scary exception) are kind and helpful — kindred spirits. Bears, rattlesnakes and the whisper of a Yeti make for less friendly encounters.
Several women I have spoken to were offended by Strayed’s self-absorption and her sexually adventurous nature. I found the book to be compelling reading and Strayed’s merciless honesty worthy of respect. She doesn’t pretty up her self-portrait and she dares us not to like her. The point is, I think, that she accepts and forgives herself. Meanwhile she takes us along on an adventure few of us could match on our own.
FROM NCPR STAFF
Zach Hirsch is in the middle of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (and John Ernst suggests Zach check out The Worst Hard Times when he’s done with the novel).
Natasha Haverty is reading the new Thornton Wilder autobiography by Penelope Niven (with an intro by Edward Albee).
David Sommerstein says: “OK. I started (for the second time) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. And I can report I LOVE IT – mind you, I’m only 65 pages in on a 1,079 page novel. But I say to readers – don’t fear this amazing, hysterically funny, sensitive and compassionate novel. It’s by turns silly, gripping, and deeply reflective. There’s crime & detective stuff, drugs, academics, science fiction, international intrigue, and plenty of tennis. Give it a try!”
Nora Flaherty recommends Donna Tartt: current bestselling The Goldfinch, plus her earlier The Secret History and The Little Friend.
Connie Meng: I’d like to recommend the non-fiction “Lawrence in Arabia” subtitle ” War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson. It concentrates on Lawrence, but also includes the stories of Curt Prufer, a German spy, Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist who set up a spy network in the Ottoman Empire and William Yale, hired by Standard Oil, who convinces the US Army to use him as a spy. It’s absolutely fascinating for any history buff interested in either WWI, Lawrence, or the Middle East.
Jon Sklaroff says, “My suggestion is for 20-something guys who aren’t natural readers…like me. Even if you’ve seen the movie, check out the original graphic novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars, by Max Brook.”
FROM NATHALIE AT ADIRONDACK CENTER FOR WRITING: The Goldfinch!!!!! Ellen, John, read this book. Right now. You know how I get when you don’t read the books I tell you to. Also, if you haven’t read “The Invisible Bridge” yet, I may not know you any more.
FROM NCPR LISTENERS, FRIENDS, FB VISITORS
MJ Lauzon: Dancing Dan’s Christmas, Damon Runyon.
Christine Mace: Children of Christmas, Stories for the Season, Cynthia Rylant, Illustrator S.D.Schindler
This little book by Orchard Books has 6 short stories of which my favorite is “Silver Packages.”
Wayne Miller (Ogdensburg Public Library): I have two suggestions. The first is a new one from the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan, and is currently on the non-fiction best seller list. The author points to cooking as the key to the rise of homo sapiens–and he sees returning to it as what we need to do to save ourselves.
My other recommendation is actually a series of books. I highly recommend Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe series. They are especially delightful to read aloud. I would add that people of any age like to be read to. Ask my wife. I spent evenings last winter reading them to her. Some of the titles are:
Home from the Vinyl Cafe : a year of stories; Secrets from the vinyl cafe, or, Closer to the truth than we’ve ever been; Vinyl Cafe Diaries; and, Stories from the Vinyl Cafe– all by Stuart McLean.
I’ll close by asking you to remind listeners that these and literally millions of other titles are available for borrowing in hard copy, audio books, and ebooks at or via your public library.
Chris Bigelow, Chazy Lake. Some books I read this fall and enjoyed. Can’t wait to hear what everyone is reading.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
City of Women by David Gillham
The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
NOTE: Chris also wanted to share with us the book recommendations and lecture series info for Elaine Newton, with whom Chris is quite impressed. Here’s the email Chris sent me about Elaine…”In order to see the books Elaine Newton lists as important books to read, go to : Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice Summer Reading Lists 2013-3014. Most of her choices for the 2013-2014 Lecture series come from this list. The schedule for her Lecture series in Naples, Florida can be found at: Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice Lecture Series 2013-2014. Information for tickets can be found at: the phil.org
Sadaqat Khan: First of all, a Merry Christmas to everyone. Would’ve liked to have called in, but it’s during work, which gets in the way. Good books I’ve read recently, and would recommend:
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I had never read her before. This novel is about climate change meeting Appalachia, a family and community responding to a sudden appearance of butterflies, and some of the scientists who come to study them. Told in a beautiful manner. No hard science, plenty of wonderful sentences. I heard the audiobook, narrated by Kingsolver herself, very enjoyable. Her intonation and accent bring it life. The paperback looks lovely, though.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Novel about a soldier’s experience in Iraq and his return stateside, and all the dilemmas that go with these matters. A powerful book, heard it on audio, again vivid narration, not by the author. One thinks about it quite a lot afterwards. A name to watch, I think.
Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. I regret not reading him before, must catch up. This is simply superb, the ideas presented, the quality of writing, it is incandescent in parts. He could have written it yesterday in some respects, and to think he did it in the early 60’s shows how brave he was. I should have mentioned, it is about the struggle on civil, and human, rights. A short book, but very long on quality.
Eight Months on Ghazza Street, by Hilary Mantel. Hadn’t read her before either. Better known for Wolf Hall, and Bring up the Bodies in Henry’s England. But this one is a novel about an English expatriate living in Saudi Arabia for a few months with her husband. It is set in the late 80’s, when she wrote it, and she captures the atmosphere of the place, the personal limitations, and the stifling nature of her setting sometimes harrowingly well. I understand it is based on her own experiences. Not an easy read, but well worth the trouble.
And please support your local library, and independent bookstore if one exists near you. And thank you, NCPR for this.
Martha Porschet: All The Truth That’s In Me, by Julie Berry. Wonderful young adult novel written in the 2nd person. Julie is a brilliant author. I heard her present and read at a local Barnes and Noble last month and bought the book then. Truly a beautiful story.
Elsa Schisler: Last Christmas we received a book from my sister and brother-in law which they had purchased on their trip to Alaska. They were thinking it was another book with a similar title and were apologetic that it wasn’t exactly the book they had in mind. I have told them numerous times that the book they gave us WAS the book we were supposed to get because we thoroughly enjoyed it, and it led us to another book and a great documentary…. And we have been sharing the title with many friends this past year. The book is Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie and tells the delightful tale of her life with Olous of Petersons Field Guide To Animal Tracks. This led us to the book Arctic Dance and the documentary by the same name which supports with great photos! I know their son Martin lived for a time in our Adirondacks and it was great to learn about this important family! We highly recommend these books! (One of the people Mark told about these books as he was giving them a lift back down to their vehicle after a ADK Museum visit traded a title for a title and led us to Shantyboat and Life on the Fringe of Society great reads by Harlan Hubbard….the magic of book sharing continues!)
Rob Simon: The 100th anniversary of the start of World War I draws nigh. I have, so far read two books and am reading a third:
David Fromkin – Europe’s Last Summer – the theory of this book is “it was all the Germans’ and the AustroHungarians’ fault. Sean McMeekin – July 1914, Countdown to War – this book says “no, don’t blame them, blame the Russians and the French. Christopher Clark – Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War – I am only just starting this book, but given the name I am thinking the theory is that the poohbahs failed to pay attention to the ramifications of their shenanigans and everything blowed-up (as it were). All three books are enjoyable – but what I’m thinkin is you folks (that is, the public radio gods) ought to drag these three writers into a room (virtual or otherwise) and let them duke it out – after all, it’s the hundredth anniversary of the screw-up that ultimately skewered the entire 20th century – that’s got to be worth an hour special.
Marilyn Zimber loves John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.
Helene Vanderburgh: Here’s a late suggestion for the book list. I recently read and loved “Someone Knows my Name” by Lawrence Hill. It is the beautifully written tale of a young African girl kidnapped into slavery in the 1800’s. Even the parts that are “hard” to read are so well written that I couldn’t stop reading.
Nancy Strader: My suggestions are all children’s books and may already have been mentioned over the years. We continue to get them out at this time of year and read them together.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
Lucy’s Christmas by Donald Hall, illustrated by Michael McCurdy
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian
All of these selections are favorites, mine especially, for I am a 75 yr. old New Englander who has visited Frost’s home, listened to Donald Hall’s readings and my great grandmother was also born in Jericho VT .
Linda Cohen in Old Forge:
Art & Place: Site Specific Art of the Americas, Editors of Phaidon
Catherine the Great and Peter the Great, Robert Massie
Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman
The Patient’s Stone, Margaret Wolfson
Making Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton
The Black Count, Tom Reise
Eileen in Canton:
The Elephant Whisperer and The Arc of Babylon and The Last Rhino, all by Lawrence Anthony
Jim in Burlington:
The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger
Halfblood Blues, Esi Edugyan
Rich in Saranac Lake:
First Phone Call from Heaven and The Time Keeper, Mitch Albom
Mark near Squeak Creek:
The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.
Bill in Winthrop:
Last Days of Dogtown, Anita Diamond
Plain Song, Kent Haruf
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
Diane in Gabriels:
Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman
The Big Burn, Timothy Egan
Rae Louise in Star Lake:
George and the Big Bang, Stephen Hawkin and Lucy Hawkin
Her Royal Spyness series, Rhys Bowen
Maisie Dobbs series, Jacqueline Winspear
Scott in Boonville:
Night Film, Marisha Pessi
Hyperbole and A Half, Allie Brosh
The Gravity of Birds, Tracy Guzeman. A wonderful story. Curl up and enjoy.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. A thought-provoking, well-written book about communication, connection, and arbitrary boundaries. Great reading.
James in Massena:
Inferno and Escape from Hell, by Larry Niven and Larry Pournelle
The searing new movie “12 Years a Slave” is based on a book by the same name published in 1853, by and about the Essex County man kidnapped into slavery. The story of Solomon Northup’s ordeal, written by Northup with ghostwriter David Wilson, confirmed in graphic non-fiction the anti-slavery narrative of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published just a year earlier. Northup was born near Schroon Lake in what is now Minerva and worked up and down Lake Champlain as a young man, at one point ferrying lumber south from the Adirondacks to Troy.
Two good reads to curl up with in front of a fire.
First – Philosophy and humor in cat-sized bites:
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, David Michie. When a cat stares off into space, what goes through the feline mind? Well, if that cat lives in the household of the Dalai Lama, the thoughts vary from mundane to profound, as HHC, His Holiness’ Cat, alias Snow Queen alias Mousie tells us. This is a novel, told in a series of episodes of Buddhist teachings, strung around life with the Dalai Lama like lights on a Christmas tree. Buddhism, as a cat sees it, is never dull . You will find bits of teachings and hilarious incidents surfacing during your daily life, even if you are human, not feline.
Second – History erupts into a British parking lot:
The King’s Grave, Phillippa Langley & Michael Jones. Was Richard III the monster described by Tudor propagandists or a king who might have begun the English renaissance a century early? A screenwriter and a noted military historian join together to try to unearth these and other secrets. The project’s aims were twofold:
(1)To search for the grave of Richard III, and, if found, honour him with a reburial and tomb
(2)To attempt to bring to life the real man behind the myth.
They succeeded in the first. The reader is left to decide how well they succeeded in the second.
Michelle Schwartz: I am rereading (again) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It’s an amazing story, and they’re making a cable TV series of it now, to premiere sometime in 2014.
Mike Mcglynn in Lake Placid: Work related reading includes The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, about the plants that create the world’s great drinks; Uncorking the Past, by Patrick McGovern – the quest for wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages – this is a fascinating deep study of the spread of wine culture from ancient times; Whisky Women, by Fred Minnick a history of women involvement in spirits. My free time – just finished The Sum of Her Parts by Alan Dean Foster – 3rd book of the Tripping Point Trilogy.
Roy Van Dusen: I listened to the Readers show and wished I could have called in. I just finished reading the Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I really enjoyed it. I feel it deserved the recent National Book Award. Plus it’s got that connection to the North Country. After I read the Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, I really became interested in John Brown. I recently had a chance to visit Harper’s Ferry. And now the Good Lord Bird has renewed my interest once again. Both historical fictional accounts of John Brown deserve a read. I can’t wait to visit North Elba again soon too. And I just wanted to comment on David Foster Wallace. I happen to pick up The Pale King at a book sale, because it had been nominated for the Pulitzer in 2011 but there had been no winner. Well it took me a couple of tries to read but once I had gotten into it and finished it I was very satisfied. What an amazing writer, but weird. Boy can he weave a story. By the way, I also read Swamplandia (Karen Russell) that year; another of the nominees. I enjoyed that as well. That’s all for now. Got to get back to reading. Currently working on Eating On the Wild Side.
Anne Phinney: I was thrilled to hear my book mentioned on your program. Finding My Way to Moose River Farm is a memoir about my life with a variety of animals. It also tells the story of how I journeyed from a childhood in Philadelphia to my adult life in the Adirondacks where I have been a resident for the past 27 years. My husband and I own Moose River Farm in Old Forge where we live with our current population of animal family members.
NOTE: Here’s a link for more about Anne Phinney’s book, blog and rescue work.