Readers & Writers 2009 Winter Reading List

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Every few months I’ve been sending my son a care package. He’s been in Asia for more than two years. Recently, he thanked me profusely for sending him—not chocolate or homemade cookies, not new socks or his favorite toothpaste, not even instant dinners or power bars—but, books! Oh joy! He reads. Misses having access to endless volumes in English. Something we all take for granted with the fabulous public library system across this country, not to mention booksellers in every village. I tell you this by way of encouraging you to buy books, if you’re purchasing presents this holiday season. And if there are young people on your gift list…well, books!

Keep those suggested titles coming all year long. You can send your recommendations directly to me: or Ellen Rocco, North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617.

Happy holidays, peace in 2010.
Ellen Rocco

Scattered throughout this list you’ll find some of the winning entries in the Washington Post’s annual contest inviting readers to offer their alternate meanings for common words. For example:

coffee, n. the person upon whom one coughs.

flabbergasted, adj. appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

Ellen Rocco, NCPR Station Manager and Readers & Writers co-host

  • The Forever War, Dexter Filkins. A Pulitzer winning account of this journalist’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq between the late 1990s and about 2006. I could not put it down. Nothing flashy, nothing showy, but quietly and grimly compelling. Very timely in light of President Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. (Not to be confused with a science fiction novel of the same name by Joe Haldeman, originally published in an abridged edition about 30 years ago and recently re-released in its entirety.)
  • City of Thieves, David Benioff. A well-told coming of age story set in war-time Leningrad, or St. Petersburg, when that venerable city was under Nazi siege.
  • Tokyo, Fiancee; Fear and Trembling; The Character of Rain, Amelie Nothomb. I have read the first two of these three titles and will read the third soon. A friend gave me two of Nothombs novels—both deeply autobiographical and philosophical, in a friendly kind of way. She is a young Belgian writer who spent extended time during her early childhood and young adulthood in Japan. I sent these books to my son, who has been living and working in Japan for a few years, and apparently they are being passed around and read enthusiastically by his friends.

Chris Robinson, Co-host Readers & Writers, Hannawa Falls

Various studies show that our country and culture is becoming more visual and less literate.  That is, we get the bulk of our information from images accepted passively as opposed to words that are interpreted actively. The consequences of this transformation are too extensive to recount fully here.  There is a relationship between democracy and literacy that is profound, complex and deep.  Let me just note one dimension of this relation.  Reading has a time all its own, and the pace, while altered by the writer’s style, remains slower than the pace of our day to day existence.  This is one of the great appeals of reading. It marks a break from the rhythms of contemporary social life accelerated by technology and measured in sound bites. Because reading contrasts with ordinary life in terms of speed, it grants us time and distance for critical self-reflection and critical appraisal of the various forces at work that tell us how we should think about particular political issues, larger questions of justice and the good life, and (more abstractly) what it means to be human. Declines in reading and literacy make us all more vulnerable to future forms of authoritarianism and interpersonal carelessness.

Here’s what I have been doing to fight the passivity of the visual in my own little neck of the woods. It is light on fiction, but I’ve read some great novels for the show.

  • Thomas Cahill, A Saint on Death Row.  Cahill is known best for his “Hinges of History” series that began with How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Cahill’s most recent book is a departure from his historical work. Dominique Green was executed in Texas in 2004.  As a teenager, he was involved in a robbery that resulted in the murder of a man.  The evidence linking Green to the murder was circumstantial at best. Nevertheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Cahill’s book is a careful and sympathetic study of the role mercy and forgiveness must play in the justice system. His argument is bolstered by his analysis of the racism and classism at work in Texas courts and penitentiaries.
  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland.  This is an extraordinary study of the life and political tactics of Richard Nixon.  Particular light is shed on Nixon’s use of the racial divide to inspire fear in what he called the “silent majority” of whites.  This analysis provides a clearer explanation of the South’s shift from being a stronghold of the Democratic Party to the sure bet it has been for Republicans since 1968 than seeing it as a simple effect of LBJ’s Great Society.  Perlstein’s rich study of American politics through the eyes of Richard Nixon and his opponents will be a trip down memory lane for older readers and an eye-opener for the young. 
  • Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless.  This is a collection of impressionistic journal entries Herzog kept while filming “Fitzcarraldo.”  The film, shot in the jungles of Ecuador, included an unforgettable scene of a steam ship being pulled over a mountain.  There were no special effects in the scene. What you saw was accomplished by Herzog and his crew.  Herzog has a unique voice on the page.  I was sorry when I came to the end of the book.
  • Paula Kamen, Finding Iris Chang. I read this book after seeing a taped interview with Iris Chang on The Book Show.  The interview was dated the year she published The Rape of Nanking, and she was so forceful and articulate it was hard to reconcile the image on television with the story of her suicide.  Our tendency is to romanticize the suicides of creative people, but often it boils down to all that we don’t know or understand about depression and bipolar disorders. This book, written by a college friend of Iris Chang, de-romanticizes her death and tells the harrowing story of a person in the throes of mental illness.
  • R. Dwayne Betts, A Question of Freedom.  At the start of this book, Betts is a teenager who is doing well enough in High School to think about studying engineering at Georgia Tech. However, after a single night of madness, where Betts stole a car at gunpoint and committed several felonies in the process, he became part of one of the more harrowing statistics describing life in America today: 11% of all African American males from 18 to 30 years of age are incarcerated. Betts’ story of his prison life is nevertheless unusual and compelling.
  • Astra Taylor, Examined Life. This is the companion to Taylor’s documentary film by the same name. The idea was to film interviews with philosophers as they walked along city paths, airports, or rowed around the pond in Central Park.  The effect is to bring philosophy down to the level of lived life.  The interviews with Slavoj Zizek, Cornel West, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, Kwame Appiah, and others are clear and accessible. Both the book and the film are effective in reminding us of the importance of the examined life.
  • Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963.  When Susan Sontag succumbed to cancer a few years ago, she left behind a set of journals that her son David Rieff has decided are important enough to be read by a wider public.  The entries are often intimate, and detail Sontag’s discovery of her gay sexuality along with more prosaic concerns about her intellectual development and how to live on her writings.  There are several more volumes to come.
  • George Sanders, The Branded Megaphone.  I think of Sanders as a sober Hunter Thompson or a funnier, less vain, Gore Vidal.  The essays in this collection are sharp pieces of journalism and observation.  Whether Sanders is talking about the sorry state of political cultural discourse in America today or reporting on a teenage Indian mystic, his writing is endlessly provocative and entertaining.  And he will be coming to St. Lawrence next fall.
  • John Serio, ed. Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems.  John Serio is my colleague at Clarkson, and his collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems has been celebrated in every important literary circle and journal this past year.  Serio is the world’s foremost scholar on Stevens’ poetry, and his introduction to this volume reminds us of the lyricism of Stevens’ poems and their deep philosophical undercurrents.  We are blessed with many wonderful scholars and writers in this region, and John is one of them.
  • Mark Danner, Stripping Bare the Body.  In my book, Danner is the most important journalist working today.  I make it a point to read all of his work because of its quality in terms of both reportage and political reflection. This volume collects Danner’s reporting from post-Duvalier Haiti, Sarajevo, Iraq, Thailand, and Afghanistan.  The thesis is captured in the title: War and political upheaval reveal deep truths about the political societies in question.  This becomes an uncomfortable question when we think about what the use of torture in the war on terror exposes about America.
  • Russell Shorto, Descartes’ Bones.  This is such a cool book.  Here’s the philosopher who argued, compellingly as it turned out, that we are two substances, physical and mental. The mental is the more important. Indeed it is who we are truly.  So isn’t it a bit ironic that no one can be really sure what became of Descartes’ body after it was exhumed from its Swedish burial site to be moved backed to France some seven years after his death?  Shorto spins a great and complicated story that captures the political and cultural vicissitudes of the modern age spawned, in part, by Descartes himself.
  • John Williams, Stoner. My list is short on fiction this year, I know.  But Stoner is so good that it stands on its own.  The title character is a poor farmer turned professor of medieval literature.  He is raised in a household where stoicism is the ethos and expressions of love were nonexistent.  His first experience of love was the literature that changed his life. The second was the feeling he had for his daughter. But he had a disastrous marriage, as cold and unloving as his upbringing. These are the elements that clash and mutate in this brilliant story of a life of mind and body.
  • Cornel West, Brother West. Let me admit that this book is not as good as I hoped it would be. Still, West is an amazing intellectual, speaker, and, well, prophet.  This is an “as told to” autobiography, but you can hear West’s voice on the page.  The story of his life is fascinating, from his upbringing in Sacramento to his education at Harvard and Princeton to his very public teaching career.  West has made important contributions to philosophy, democratic thought, and the contemporary discussion of race in America. He is arguably the most important of that dying breed called “public intellectuals” living and working today.
  • Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through the Pearly Gates.  I love jokes and I love philosophy, and so of course I am going to recommend this book.  I also recommended their first book, Plato and Platypus Walked into a Bar. The jokes in this second book all concern death and the afterlife.  How do we illustrate the will to live: An inmate on death row asks for strawberries for his last meal. The warden tells him “Sorry, but they’re out of season.” The inmate says, “No problem.  I’ll wait.”

Here’s the joke referred to in the title:

Heidegger and a Hippo stroll up to the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter says, “Listen, we’ve only got room for one more today. Whoever gives me the best answer to “What is the meaning of life?” gets in. 

Heidegger says, “To think Being itself requires disregarding Being to the extent that it is only grounded and interpreted in terms of things and for beings as their ground, as in all metaphysics.”

But before the hippo can grunt one word, Saint Peter says to him, “Today’s your lucky day, Hippy!”

John Ernst, Reading List Call-in Co-host, Elk Lake/NYC

  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes. British writer Richard Holmes ties together the ideas and personalities of the romantic age from about 1760 to 1840, relating Shelley, Keats, and Byron with Watt, Lavoisier, Volta and Linnaeus. The first among the great scientists whose stories are told here is Joseph Banks, whose career spans from serving as a junior botanist in 1796 on Captain James Cook’s first voyage, to being the long-time President of the Royal Society, encouraging man promising young scientists who followed in his wake. Others profiled include Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miner’s lamp, among other things; Mungo Park, lost on an expedition to trace the Niger River; and the great astronomer William Herschell, whose sister Caroline rivaled him in talent and effort if not in public acclaim. The stories of the lives and interactions of these extraordinary people, at a time exploding with new ideas and energy and optimism, make vivid reading.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann. (Also by this author: Noah’s Choice and The Aspirin Wars.) This is a fascinating look at what the Americas were like before the time of Columbus. Mann, a very adept journalist, synthesizes the research of geologists, biologists, archeologists and historians, exploding the common errors associated with our views of pre-Columbian America. These errors include the beliefs that the hemisphere was lightly populated; that the native population had a limited effect on the environment; and, that America was inhabited by a small population of primitive hunter/gatherers. In a sweeping narrative, Mann tells the story of the rise and fall of great civilizations and enormous cities. Much of what he covers is information that the typical textbook omits or gets wrong. Absorbing and important as the sweeps away the cobwebs of myth that have prevented us from appreciating the people and civilizations that preceded us.
  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Kazuo Ishiguro. (Also by this author: Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.) These five short stories are connected both by theme—music and nightfall—and in the case of the first and last stories by a shared character. One of the things Ishiguro does so well is to lure you into what seems like a truly ordinary situation with what one critic called his “perfectly weightless style.” Only be degrees do you become aware that what you imagined was a mundane, familiar world is actually an absolutely bizarre place and that what confronts you is by turns hilarious, embarrassing or terrifying. And you never saw it coming. My advice is: ignore the lukewarm reviews you may have seen and read this book.
  • Ford County, John Grisham. I have a terrible confession to make. I have read all of John Grisham’s 17 novels about the law and lawyers. He is not, admittedly, a writer of great finesse, but he is a hypnotic storyteller. This current book is his first collection of short stories, mostly set in the town of Clanton, Mississippi, each a snapshot of the residents at a point of dramatic intensity in their lives. These stories keep you coming back for more.
  • The Diversity of Life, Edwin O. Wilson. (Also by this author: On Human Nature and The Ants.) This 1982 book by the legendary professor of entomology at Harvard presents a fascinating and compelling look at the earth’s diversity, and offers a plea to halt its erosion and some prescriptions for doing so. Rational, well-researched, non-hysterical, this is a book that anyone concerned for the future of our planet could read and ponder with benefit.
  • Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls. (Also by this author: The Glass Castle.) This is the story of the author’s rawhide-tough grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who was born on a hardscrabble Arizona ranch in 1901, was breaking horses at age 6, and teaching school as a teenager 500 miles from home. Lily learned to drive as soon as there were cars and to fly planes soon after, and she could bust any cowboy in a game of poker. Walls composes the story she calls a true-life novel from her own memories, her mother’s vivid anecdotes and from research on her grandparents. My advice is to get hold of a copy.
  • Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr. (Also by this author, two earlier memoirs: The Liar’s Club and Cherry.) Here the title is a play on her dedication to literature and her struggle against alcoholism. What is compelling about Mary Karr’s writing is her no-holds-barred honesty and her refusal to back away from harsh judgments—most of all of herself. Through this dark subject matter flashes of humor spark continuously. Karr’s diction is fresh, slangy, direct. This is a book that grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you up, and leaves you altered.
  • Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Reserve, Alan Rabinowitz. The author is currently director of the Global Carnivore Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. In this book he describes his struggles to do original field research on jaguars in the remote mountains of Belize in the 1980s. Over time, he was able to convert a few Mayans to the advantages of preserving rather than hunting the diminishing jaguars. He was also able to influence the Belize government to establish a 100,000-acre permanent refuge and center for eco-tourism, one of the first in the world. This is not a scientific treatise, although it describes original research—rather, it is the story of an unusual man, obsessed by his task, a misfit in the New York City world in which he grew up as well as among the Mayans, but in the end a man who accomplished great, almost impossible, things.
  • In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen. (Also by this author: The Snow Leopard and Killing Mr. Watkins.) On June 26, 1975 in Oglala, South Dakota on the Lakota Reservation, two F.B. I. agents were killed in a gun battle with residents. Leonard Peltier, a leader of the American Indian Movement, known as AIM, was charged with the killings. This book is a pitiless look at the attempts of AIM to organize against exploitation and brutality. Matthiessen makes a strong case that Peltier was framed and refused to name those who were guilty. Peltier remains in Federal prison, often in solitary confinement, after many failed parole hearings. The book makes you see the world from the underside, a place where greed for the rich lodes of uranium on Indian lands and paranoia against non-Anglo radicals, leads U.S. leaders to send clean-cut young F.B. I. agents into a battle where the ends are meant to justify the means. This book was stripped from booksellers’ shelves for eight years because of lawsuits by those described in its pages—lawsuits that were lost to the very last case. This is a grim story and, sadly, not a new one. But it is one that deserves to be widely read by everyone who values fairness and justice.

willy-nilly, adj. impotent.

Dale Hobson, NCPR Web Manager


  • Thirst, Mary Oliver.
  • A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997, Wendell Berry.
  • The Mad Farmer Poems, Wendell Berry, with wood engravings by Abigail Rorer.


  • Singularity Sky, Charles Stross.
  • Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross.
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross.
  • The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible. King James version richly and eccentricly illustrated by wood engraver Barry Moser.
  • 30% Chance of Enlightenment, Tim Brookes. This travel book following the monsoon season in India is familiar to NCPR listeners who got an exclusive first read under the title "Banned in Trivandrum," by subscribing to our Books by Email newsletter.

June Peoples, NCPR Membership Director

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. I'm re-reading this for the third time in just a few months because I just can't seem to let go of Edgar and these extraordinary dogs. It's thoughtful, haunting, beautiful and deeply moving. I don't think I'll ever be able to forget this story and I know I'll never forget Almondine and Essay.

negligent, adj. absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

Jackie Sauter, NCPR Program Director

  • Remembering the Bones, Frances Itali. A finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. a poignant novel about the staying power of family through time and memory. From the Canadian author of the award-winning and equally wonderful novel Deafening set in Belleville, Ontario. Both are highly recommended.
  • The Supreme’s Greatest Hits, Michael Trachtman. The 37 Supreme Court cases that most directly affect your life, the most significant issues the court has grappled with, from equal rights to freedom of speech to divisions of church and state. Many of these read like thrillers, with surprise endings.  Complex legal issues are explained clearly. This book is illuminating.
  • Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Madeleine Albright. The former U.S. Secretary of State and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations tells how jewelry played a role in international diplomacy. 
  • The Armand Gamache mysteries by Canadian author and former CBC journalist Louise Penny. Set in an idyllic little village in the English townships on the Quebec-Vermont border, these cozy mysteries feature a recurring cast of characters, good writing, complicated plots, lots of great eating at the local bistro, and the irresistible Chief Inspector Gamache from the Surete du Quebec in Montreal. Anyone who lives in the North Country will relate to the descriptions of the landscape, the weather, the history, and the blackflies.
  • Laurie Colwin. For the food lover and cook. This writer of short stories and novels also left behind several books of food essays and recipes. Get Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, and More Home Cooking. You’ll have fun with “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir,” and “The Case of the Mysterious Flatbread.”

Susan Sweeney Smith, NCPR Major Gifts and Outreach Director

I've been reading a ton on The Kindle. It paid for itself already! Well, really, I paid for it.... but the cost of not buying those "old fashioned books" paid me back already. I think I read more now that I have it... it's so easy to take everywhere and the dogs tried but did not successfully chew it! Anyway, here's my list....


  • A Happy Marriage, Rafael Yglesias.
  • Love of a Good Woman, Alice Munro.
  • A Gate At The Stairs, Lorrie Moore. Wonderful coming of age novel.
  • This is Where I Leave You, Jonathon Tropper. Hilarious and hopeful.
  • Abide With Me, Elizabeth Strout.


  • Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters, Arthur C. Brooks. I've had this for awhile and only recently actually opened it... very interesting read.

abdicate, v. to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach

esplanade, v. to attempt an explanation while drunk.

Connie Meng, NCPR Theatre Critic and Announcer

  • The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein. It’s a terrific novel of family, love, loyalty and hope told through the eyes of the family dog—NOT CUTSEY!

David Sommerstein, NCPR Assistant News Director/Reporter, Program Host

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson. Not the most perfect or groundbreaking novel, but a superb page-turner. And, it’s got a great winter setting in northern Sweden.

Christopher Dunn, Potsdam


  • The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, Orlando Figes. The story of how ordinary life—kind of—was lived under Stalin, and one of those books that should be read, unrelentingly grim as it is. Solzhenitsyn already told us now some survived all the worst of the worst of those times: these are mostly the stories of the ones who weren’t in the Gulag—who tried to live their lives in a country gone mad. It is amazing, nothing less, how kindness and compassion, as well as vengeful informing, could exist in the midst of what one chapter simply calls “The Great Fear.” Lessons to be drawn are unclear, as they always are in this type of history—don’t put Josef Stalin in charge of your country? Well, I won’t—easy to avoid, now he’s dead. Like the appalling histories of the murder of the Jews of Europe, there must be some moral more than, say, don’t vote for Adolf Hitler. I won’t, but he’s unlikely to run again any time soon anyway. Toleration and patience are good lesions for nations—but why is it they never seem to be learned for very long?
  • Grant and Twain, Mark Perry. How Grant’s memoirs got written. The story of a monumental struggle, that should make any other writer blush to talk about writer’s block. Grant had written only military orders (very well and with model clarity, by the way) and Presidential speeches and documents before this; nevertheless, in a race with fatal and increasingly painful throat cancer, he wrote the best military meoir, and the best autobiography yet done in the United States. This is the story of how he and Mark Twain worked together (Grant did all the writing) to see it done and published to save Grant’s family from poverty. May it send readers to the Memoirs.
  • With Wings Like Eagles, Michael Korda. Such easy and interesting reading you wonder how it could possibly be any good. But it is. Korda points out new things about the background to the Battle of Britain—not least, the conflict between Air Marshall Dowding and Winston Churchill.
  • Soldiers and Ghosts, J.E. Lendon. This one is maybe specialized. But it happens I’ve always had an interest in military history, and also in the Greek and Roman ways of fighting. Lendon argues that both civilizations were ruled by their understanding of their own past, rather than by any developments in technology or by the appearance of new enemies. The legion, like the Greek phalanx, was a product of heroic legends rather selectively interpreted.
  • Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, Phyllis Rose. The Victorian culture and attitude was more vastly different than ours than maybe we understand. Read Rose’s account of the marriages of the Carlyles, the Ruskins, the Mills (John Stuart and his second wife), Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth, and the slightly freer association of George Eliot (Marian Evans) and George Lewes, and you will sometimes wonder if we all lived on the same planet and belonged to the same species—other times, it’s depressingly clear they did.
  • The Zimmerman Telegram, Barbara Tuchman. I think the third book (1958) by a famous writer of history. The story of the incident that propelled the U.S. into WWI. Still the standard by which to measure any historical study of any dramatic moment in history, and any history of espionage. I find myself reading it from time to time the same way I’d read an espionage thriller. (While you’re at it, her Guns of August, 1962, though longer, is just as good—the account of the first month of WWI.) Any who remember her only as the outspoken, if not fevered opponent of the Vietnam War will be struck by her contempt for Woodrow Wilson’s dogged neutrality in Telegram, and her (apparent) agreement that Germany had to be defeated (as I read it) in The Guns of August. It seems to be quite a different person speaking.

lymph, v. to walk with a lisp.

flatulence, n. emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.


  • (Well…) don’t forget Science of Discworld I (1999) and II (2002), and Darwin’s Watch (2005)—all collaborations by T. Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen—a mathematician and a biologist. If you’ve read such things as Science of Star Trek, say, this is nothing like that. Much cleverer. It’s unequal proportions of story and science. I can’t think of any other books on science—physics, evolution—done quite as entertainingly.
  • Likely the last opportunity to recommend T.P.’s works, except to say that if anyone reads all from Equal Rites (1987) to Unseen Academicals (2009), that person will have a lot of fun. Exposition on a spine of narrative. You’ll never guess who really created Earth and the universe—and did you know Discworld has a god of Evolution?
  • Oh, yes: Unseen Academicals, just out! I thought Pratchett had written his last book, but not so at all. There are miracles, apparently. The Wizards of Unseen University, Discworld, are maneuvered into a game of foot-the-ball with an up-and-coming rival school (I suspect Pratchett has read enough of Harry Potter’s games, too.) No magic can be used, for the excellent reason that rival wizards using magic tend to level their surroundings, and their rivals, and leave dangerous thaumatic fields around whose half-life is unknown. But Apes, professors and Orcs (yes! Read it) are legal. Also, fashon modes have come to the city, and…well, it’s as complex as most of his tales, and as much of a delight.
  • Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett. I read a lot about the newer crime/detective stories, but has anyone in this audience ever read this 1929 second novel about the Continental Op—a fat, middle-aged unromantic (to put it very tamely—harder and tougher in his way than Sam Spade) professional working for the Continental Detective Agency who seems to be able to create more havoc than Spencer, Hawk and—well, you name ‘em—all put together. And all told without flourishes by an author as professional as his characters.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery (trans. Alison Anderson). Charming, sad, find.

Betsy Folwell, Blue Mountain Lake

Lots to look for in audio books. The talking book library has about a two-year lag, but most of the titles called in during the show will be produced. Here are some audio book titles I would add to your list:

  • Someone Knows My Name, Lawrence Hill. A slave’s journey from Africa to South Carolina to New York City to Nova Scotia and then Sierra Leone—based on actual events and experiences of African-Americans who sided with the British and were given free passage to Nova Scotia during the Revolutionary War.
  • Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell. This is a hoot, read by the author, but also a good history on the Masschusetts Bay Company.

Most public libraries have a terrific selection of CD and cassette books. It’s really surprising what’s available. I love nonfiction read by the author, such as Tony Horwitz reading his Blue Latitudes or Voyage Long and Strange; Rory Stewart reading The Places in Between; or, Here If You Need Me: A True Story, about the Maine conservation department chaplain is very nicely read by the author, Kate Braestrup. Another think to look for is good actors reading books, like Kathy Bates reading V. I. Warshawsky mysteries. All of the Patrick O’Brien books have a wonderful reader, as do the Number One Ladies’ Detective series. The most successful series has to be Harry Potter on CD.

People with vision disabilities may be eligible for cassette tapes from the Talking Book and Braille Library. These can be ordered through

gargoyle, n. olive-flavored mouthwash.

Richard Loeber, Saranac Lake

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

  • Four Against the Arctic, David Roberts.
  • The Associate, John Grisham.
  • Patrick, Son of Ireland, Stephen R. Lawhead.
  • Andrew Jackson, His Life & Times, H.W. Brands.
  • The Color of Lightning, Paulette Jiles.
  • John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhaus.
  • Finding Common Ground, Tim Downs.
  • The Book of Useless Information, The Useless Information Society.
  • Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson.

testicle, n. a humorous question on an exam.

Chris Bigelow, Chazy Lake

  • Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay. A story about the round up of Jews in Paris, July 12, 1942, by the French police. Once I finished it, I realized that the author of Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky, was one of the people taken that day. I reread Nemirovsky’s book and the letters in Appendix II. One of the letters from Nemirovsky to her husband is written on July 13, 1942 from the police station where she is being held. Both books are heartbreaking, but very good.
  • The Given Day, Dennis Lehane. The story of life in Boston after WWI. It includes the fears of the time, the fight to organize unions, and the roles of blacks, immigrants, and whites, rich and poor. Lehane intertwines a white family and a black family caught up in these issues.

Susan Olsen, Borealis Color, Saranac Lake

  • Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz. This mixes humor and affection with clear-eyed science and elegant writing. I highly recommend it for anyone who knows, loves or lives with a dog!

Daniel Palmeteer, Canton

  • Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer. Account of the life and death of Pat Tillman, former NFL football player, by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
  • In the Graveyard of Empires, Seth Jones. A history of war and invasion in Afghanistan that puts the current conflict in perspective.

Pam Yrugartis, via email

My vote for the best mystery of this past year is:

  • The Private Patient, P.D. James. The prose is just wonderful, which is not often found in mysteries. There are marvelous characters, including her long time detective Adam Dalgliesh, and her best plot ever, I think. The author is well into her 80s. I only hope I can still read books like this when I am her age!

Jan van Stralen, Brockville

  • Hockey Dad: True Confessions of a (Crazy)Hockey Parent, Bob McDonald. I have not read it, but it is on top of my annual Christmas giving list (I have a crazy hockey Dad as a son).

Polly Ohman, Lake Clear

  • Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. I am captivated—I’m audio-reading this one. It’s about 560 pages on 19 CDs. His writing is lyrical, detailed, thought-provoking, and the audio version has a great reader. Also by Verghese: My Own Country.
  • Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder.
  • Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson.
  • The Help, Kathryn Strockett.
  • Still Alice, Lisa Genova. About early onset Alzheimer’s, fiction but thoroughly researched.
  • God is My Broker, Christopher Buckley and John Tierny. A rather silly and amusing novel about a poor monastery in New York State.
  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak.

balderdash, n. a rapidly receding hairline.

Amanda Barnes, via email

  • Delicate Edible Birds, Lauren Groff. The book is a collection of short stories by a young author whose best selling first novel was The Monsters of Templeton, which I have not yet read. The main characters are all distinctly different women each with a thought-provoking tale to tell. There is an underlying connection or theme in these stories, but it is subtle. The women protagonists reminded me of Alice Munro’s main characters appearing as they do as believable, though not always likable. The settings vary greatly in both time and place. This would make a good gift, an appropriate book club choice, or just a worthy winter read.

Shirley Wolfe, via email

  • The Help, Kathryn Stockett. This well-written novel is set in 1962  Jackson, Mississippi with an interesting cast of characters, mostly women. I think the title has a double meaning—the black women who are the help in the homes of wealthy white women and the help that the black women provide to a liberal young white woman recently returned to the area from college. Engaging and sometimes amusing amidst the serious background of the era.

Bill Sullivan, via email

  • Think on These Things, J. Krishnamurti.

rectitude, n. the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

pokemon, n. a Rastafarian proctologist.

And we heard from these callers during the program:

Wayne, Heuvelton

  • The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas.
  • The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Slavomir Rawicz.

Ray Louise, Star Lake

  • The Maisie Dobbs detective series by Jacqueline Winspear; the Royal Spyness mystery series by Rhys Bowen; series of mysteries set in the Lost Villages of the St. Lawrence Valley by Maggie Wheeler.

Chris, Saranac Lake

  • Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow.
  • Assisted Loving: True Stories of Double Dating with My Dad, Bob Morris.
  • Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Jason, Saranac Lake

  • The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan. This is book one of a series.
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson.
  • Shantarum: A Novel, Gregory David Roberts
  • Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, Ralph Helfer.

Trixie, Boonville

  • This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, Elizabeth Merrick, editor.
  • The Sandy Bottom Orchestra, Garrison Keillor.
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl.

Lisa, Ogdensburg

  • The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel, Debra Dean.
  • The Hour I First Believed: A Novel, Wally Lamb.

Jim, Potsdam

  • Complete short stories of O’Henry and of Stephen Crane.

Bill, Potsdam

  • Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
  • Persian Girls: A Memoir, Nahid Rachlin.
  • Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson.
  • Here If You Need Me: A True Story, Kate Braestrup.
  • The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett.
  • Fidelity, Wendell Berry. A collection of stories.
  • The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Slavomir Rawicz.

Carla, Franklin Falls

  • The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett.
  • World Made by Hand: A Novel, James Howard Kunstler.
  • The Outlander fantasy series by Diana Galbadon.

Helen, Parishville

  • Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen.
  • The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls.
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving.
  • Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier.
  • Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor.

Holly, Potsdam

  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, James Hansen.
  • And, the mysteries of Hazel Holt, in the “British cozy” tradition.

Dan, Canton

  • The Forever War, Dexter Filkins.
  • Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson.
  • That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo.
  • Up in the Air, Walter Kirn.

Ted, Star Lake

  • Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage, Deborah Cramer.
  • It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, Robert Fulghum.

oyster, n. a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

circumvent, n. an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

Here is the list of the 10 best books of 2009 selected by the NY Times:


  • Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy. Concise, fine-grained short stories set in places as far-flung from each other as Montana, an East Coast boarding school and a 1970s nuclear power plant.
  • Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem. This is Lethem’s eighth novel, set in an alternative-reality Manhattan.
  • A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore. Moore’s first novel in more than a decade, narrated by a Wisconsin college student hungering for worldly experience.
  • Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, Jeannette Walls. Told through the voice of her maternal grandmother—a mustang breaker, schoolteacher, ranch wife, bootlegger, poker player and bush pilot—the novel reanmiates a chapter of America’s frontier past.
  • A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert. The chapters in this exquisitely written novel alternate among the lives of a British suffragist and a handful of her Anglo-American descendants.


  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes. Holmes harnesses the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention in this superb history, which recreates a glorious period, some 200 years ago.
  • The Good Soldiers, David Finkel. Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and editor at The Washington Post, gives full voice to his subjects, infantry soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas (average age 19), posted in the lethal reaches of Baghdad at the height of the “surge.” Captures the harrowing realities of war.
  • Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karry. This sequel to The Liars’ Club and Cherry is also a master class on the art of the memoir.
  • Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, Liaqut Ahamed. The parallels with our own moment are impossible to miss in this narrative about four members of “the most exclusive club in the world,” central bankers who dominated global finance in the post-World War I era.
  • Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, Carol Sklenicka. Ten years in the making, this prodigiously researched and meticulous biography sympathetically and adroitly integrates its subject’s work with the turbulent life that brought it into being.

Many newspapers, magazines and websites provide a “best books” list each year around this time. I stumbled on an interesting one put together by—in this case, a comparison was made between the titles selected by the NY Times, Publishers Weekly and Eleven titles appear on all three lists. Here they are (includes both fiction and non-fiction):

  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli.
  • Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon.
  • Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead.
  • The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes.
  • Born Round, Frank Bruni.
  • Cheever, Blake Bailey.
  • Columbine, Dave Cullen.
  • Fordlandia, Greg Grandin.
  • The Good Soldiers, David Finkel.
  • The Lost City of Z, David Grann.
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford.

To contact North Country Public Radio, view our reading lists online, or send a book title or comment to Ellen Rocco:

St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617
1- 877-388-6277