Readers & Writers 2009 Winter Reading List
(Printer Friendly Version)
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: email@example.com
or Ellen Rocco, North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY
Happy holidays, peace in 2010.
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
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
- 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,
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.”
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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
abdicate, v. to give up all hope of ever
having a flat stomach
esplanade, v. to attempt an explanation
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
- 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
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
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:
- The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers,
- The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom,
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.
- 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.
- The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel,
- The Hour I First Believed: A Novel, Wally Lamb.
- Complete short stories of O’Henry and of Stephen Crane.
- 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,
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.
- Water for Elephants, Sarah Gruen.
- The Glass Castle, Jeanette
- A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving.
- Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier.
- Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon,
- 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”
- The Forever War, Dexter Filkins.
- Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson.
- That Old Cape Magic, Richard
- 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 Amazon.com—in this case, a comparison was made between the titles
selected by the NY Times, Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com.
Eleven titles appear on all three lists. Here they are (includes both 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:
NORTH COUNTRY PUBLIC RADIO
St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617