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Coyote's Top Five Books for 2009

First of all, let me say that I have disqualified two books I read this year for the simple reason they are already on my Top 10 Books of All-Time list and to compare other books with them seems unfare. These are Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, an unparalleled book about friendship, and The River Why by David James Duncan, the extraordinary coming of age story whose timeless message always speaks to me no matter what age I happen to be at the moment.

But with those two out of the way, here are the top five books I read this year.

  1. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Completely, and utterly, absorbing.
  2. The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Lyrical, powerful prose from a poet-novelist.
  3. Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy. The kind of nature book I wish I could write.
  4. Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. If you live in the West, a book you must read.
  5. American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. Just a fun, totally interesting book.
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December 2009

***

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Open: An Autobiography

A Christmas present from my youngest son (tennis books having replaced ties as automatic Christmas gifts, I guess), I have to admit I found this book extremely difficult to put down. It was written by J.R. Moehringer, who is generously acknowledged by Agassi at the end of the book. I remember thinking several times that the vocabulary was pretty darned impressive for a 9th grade dropout.

No matter, Agassi has had a difficult life and he appears to have made the most of it. But this is not the Agassi you know from reading the magazines and watching tennis on television. In fact, it is so far from that Agassi that I began to wonder at the end which is the real Agassi. And, honestly, I still don't know. This book could describe the brutally honest, open, adult Agassi who appears to have learned something about himself in his nearly 40 years of tennis. Or, it could just be yet another persona. I can't really say.

Nevertheless, an extremely entertaining and interesting book for a reader who cares about tennis. Now, if I could only find time to hit 2500 balls a day!

***

Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French by Stephen Clarke

Talk to the Snail

This is a not-very-politically-correct book, pretty funny, given to me by a foreign friend who is, uh, not French. I'm not sure I learned a lot from it, but I spent several pleasant hours on the couch with a smile on my face. And I did gain some additional motivation to go back to those Pimsleur French tapes on my daily commute.

***

Man on Wire by Philippe Petit

Man On Wire

OK, I have no great love for Philippe Petit. I'm sure he is a raving egotist and an overall pain in the kiester to be around. But I found this book, and the movie based on the book, to be extraordinarily compelling reading and viewing. Quite simply, I couldn't put the book down until I had finished it. And the fact I read every page of this darn thing, including the acknowledgments and notes in the back before I would give it up is telling.

Walking a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center is an extraordinary achievement. It seems completely impossible that anyone could have such courage. I am reading the book, and I know the man survives this, but my heart was beating fast nonetheless. I've seen more beautiful books. (This one is bound so cheaply it looks like it will disintegrate if I pass it along to all my friends, as I intend to.) And I have seen a great many books that are better written. But there are few that have this kind of emotional impact on me. What a wonderful way to spend an evening!

***

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Strength in What Remains

I'm a big fan of Tracy Kidder's, and I have been ever since I read Soul of a New Machine years and years ago. But this is not his best book. And the fact that I see it in the New York Times and Time magazine Top Ten of 2009 lists just confirms my suspicion that money--much more so than reader recommendations--somehow plays a large role in which books show up on those lists.

In any case, the book is an interesting, if not compelling, story that brings home the utter pain and horror of the civil war and genocide in Rwanda and Burundi for Deo, a young man who survives the ordeal and somehow, against all odds, ends up in an Ivy League medical school.

November 2009

***

Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons on from the Camino by Joyce Rupp

Walk in a Relaxed Manner

I've been interested in reading accounts of people who have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Although this is one of the best in conveying the details of what such a pilgrimage might look like on the ground, the structure of the book make it less interesting than it could have been. This is a book that will give you a very good idea of what to expect on the Camino, but not much in the way of motivation to make the pilgrimage yourself.

***

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

Eating Stone

If I were talented, and didn't have to work for a living, this is the kind of book I would write. It is my kind of book. Some of these paragraphs are absolute magic. Ellen Meloy has been living in the desert Southwest for a long time, and for much of that time she has been watching big-horn sheep. This is a long extended essay of what she learned about them, what they mean to her, and why we should care.

Each year I spend a day or two hiking above timberline in the mountains of central Colorado where I live to help a Division of Wildlife friend observe and count sheep. The day we got a short glimpse of 18 rams flowing up a hill and out of sight is still one of the biggest thrills I have even gotten in the out-of-doors. And we can watch the ewes and young lambs frolicking in the snow fields for most of the day. (Or until the thunder and lightening arrives.)

This year I'm going to know a whole lot more about big-horn sheep, and I might even take a copy of this book with me. There could be no better place to read these sweet, sweet words than on a hillside, watching wild sheep. This is a book I would highly recommend.

***

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Last American Man

Elizabeth Gilbert's story of Eustace Conway, whose idealistic compulsion to live completely off the land at an early age captures the imagination of countless Americans, is a most interesting book. Gilbert clearly has a deep affection for this compelling and complex man. And yet the story she tells of Conway's toxic and damaging relationship with his father and his inability to sustain relationships with the scores of people drawn to him and to his small 1000 acre farm in North Carolina, is telling. A complex story of a difficult and interesting man, well told. This book is probably not what you were expecting, and is all the better for it.

October 2009

***

The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho

The Pilgrimage

I enjoyed Coelho's book, The Alchemist, quite a lot. And I have been thinking of making the spiritual pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago for some time now. So I was looking forward to reading this (non-fiction?) book about his own journey on this well-know path . But I was mostly disappointed in the book.

The notes in the back of my book point out that Coelho spent much of his youth following in the footsteps of Carlos Castaneda, and there was something of that kind of mystical journey in this book. I've had a fascination with Castaneda, too, and have read all of his books more than once. But those books, even when they are totally weird, ring true to me. And this one didn't. So much so that I am not even certain this book is non-fiction.

***

Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine

Trespass

The first two-thirds of this book is as lyrical and well-written as any book I have ever read of this southern Utah section of the Colorado Plateau. Interesting, informative, and as compelling as any Terry Tempest Williams book. Irvine will remind you repeatedly of Williams, both in her writing style and in what she chooses to write about. I always enjoy learning more about this part of the world I live in, and I mean both the natural and everyday world of the Western United States.

But the last third of the book began to fall apart for me. I thought it was a little disjointed and disorganized. I had the sense of an author with a lot of material still on the desk and no clear idea of how to bring the book to a close. Later, after a bit of on-line research, I realized this part of the book was written after Irvine's struggle with with a physical illness that caused a great many problems in all aspects of her life. I think that struggle is reflected in this part of the book. This is probably not the book (at least the last third) that Irvine set out to write, but it is probably the only book she could write and still get on with her life. In any case, there is enormous tallent here, and I look forward to reading the next book by this interesting author.

***

The Narrows by Michael Connelly

The Narrows

Michael Connelly is one of those guys you can trust if you have a long flight in front of you and you are already feeling tired from a long week of work. All of his books are fast, intelligent reads, but I especially like his Harry Bosch detective series. This is one of the best of that lot.

September 2009

***

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, and will be a candidate for my Book of the Year pick. Gil Adamson's prose has more than a taste of Charles Frasier, and the pleasure I got out of this book was almost on the level of Frasier's Thirteen Moons.

Set in the Canadian Rockies in the early part of the 20th century, the book tells the complicated story of a desperate young woman who murders her husband to escape an unhappy marriage and is pursued by the victim's brothers. Well told, in lyrical prose, it is hard to believe this is Gil Adamson's first novel. I can't wait to read more.

***

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler

The Amateur Marriage

If you are looking ahead to 14 hours on an airplane, any book by Anne Tyler is a winner. They are interesting, fun, quirky, and easy to read when you are half asleep. But that said, this is not one of my favorites. If you have a choice, pick up Back When We Were Grownups instead of this one. That's the book where I think she got this story right.

***

1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill

1788

I was in Australia for a couple of weeks, teaching classes, and I always like to learn more about the place I am visiting. This newly released book is a top-seller in Australia, and for good reason, as it tells the story of the First Fleet extremely well. Lured to Australia by glowing accounts of its riches by Captain Cook, the reality was something entirely different. Underfunded and under-supplied, the men and woman on the First Fleet, mostly convicts, barely survived. If there is a weakness to this book, it is that the indigenous Australian population is almost completely ignored, as I am sure it was in real life, but disconcerting all the same.

***

The Blood of Strangers: Stories from Emergency Medicine by Frank Huyler

Blood of Strangers

Frank Huyler is an emergency room physician as well as a wonderful writer. These insightful essays were written while he was working in an Albuquerque, New Mexico hospital. Each one of these short stories is well-crafted and illuminating. I was in the habit of reading one or two of them every morning at Starbucks, before I started my day.

***

Right of Thirst by Frank Huyler

Right of Thirst

After his wife dies,a middle-aged doctor searches for meaning in his life in the mountains in a country like Pakistan. The novel is engaging (especially on a long flight to Australia) and well-written, but ultimately a bit disappointing and bleak. This is a first novel for Frank Hulyer, and I would definitely give him another chance to impress me.

***

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety

There are a handful of books I can read over and over again. These are rarely given as Christmas gifts (an odd practice, but one my children find amusing and typical of their father), and when they are, they are quickly purchased again and restored to the place of honor on the shelf beside my bed. This is one of those books. I find it almost a perfect book in its humanity and insight into a long-time friendship. My wife and I have similar, somewhat difficult friends, with whom we have shared nearly 35 years of Thanksgiving dinners. It is hard to imagine what our lives would have been like without them. Not so interesting or thought-provoking, certainly, to name just one difference. Anyway, this is one book I would take to a desert island and read over and over again, enjoying it each and every time as if I were reading it for the first time.

***

To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Composetela by Kevin A. Codd

Field of Stars

I've somehow got it into my head that I need to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 450 mile trek across northern Spain, on a pilgrim's spiritual journey. Too many children in college has me following the path of the wallet, rather than the heart. Five weeks on the track with nothing to do but think and walk sounds like the antidote.

In any case, I've been finding the occasional book written by some of the pilgrims. (I am studiously avoiding Shirley MacClaine's book in favor of more down-to-earth perspectives on life.) This one by Kevin Codd, an American priest, is a good one. Realistic, truthful, full of humanity and purpose. I like it. Codd uses the journey to take stock of his life, as I propose to do, and he finds spiritual and human meaning in the suffering, the friendships, and the people he encounters.

***

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun

I have become a huge Dave Eggers fan. He writes some of the most innovative and interesting books around. But this book is something a little different, a straight reporting job on what happened to one family in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit the city. It is a painstakingly detailed look at what happened to Abdulrahman and Kathy Zietoun and their family in the weeks following the Katrina disaster. It is a compelling and frightening story of xenophobia, incompetence, and chaos amidst one of the worst hurricane disasters in American history.

August 2009

***

Girl With Skirt of Stars by Jennifer Kitchell

Girl With Skirt of Stars

I am familiar with detective and mystery novels set on the Navajo indian reservation in northern Arizona and New Mexico because I have been a life-long Tony Hillerman fan. And there is something to like in Jennifer Kitchell's debut novel, which is also set there. She provides a great deal of interesting information about the Navajo People and their culture, as well as part of the Mormon culture along the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona. I also like the way she uses short chapters that follow different characters in the novel to build the story and the suspense.

But that said, I found the plot totally contrived and unsatisfying. I simply didn't believe the characters, their motivation, or the situations the characters found themselves in. An hour after I finished the book, I couldn't even remember the significance of the plot device that was the central theme of the book. I find that telling. As a first novel, it shows potential (I'd certainly give the author another look), but the overall book wouldn't deserve more than an average grade.

***

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

American Shaolin

American Shaolin was recommended by someone reading the short book reviews on my web page, who thought this book was right up my alley. I must be revealing my taste too clearly, because this is exactly the kind of book I like to read! Matthew Polly is a wonderfully funny, insightful young man who takes a year off from Princeton to travel to the Shaolin Monastery in China to study Buddhism and kung fu with the renowned Shaolin fighting monks. This is his account of this adventure and his self-depreciating sense of humor is often laugh-out-loud funny. Move over Bill Bryson, Mr Polly is hot on your tail. My plans for the garden have been hijacked once again by a book that is just too good to put down. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend.

***

I'm Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Hape Kerkeling

I'm Off Then

Several years ago I was taking a language class in Spain and I ran into a man, older than me, who has walked the Camino de Santiago, a 375 pilgrim trail across the north of Spain. Since then, the trail has been in the back of my mind as an interesting adventure if and when I ever get the kids out of college. So I was interested in this book by Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian.

The book starts out trying a bit too hard to be funny, but then Kerkeling settles into something more serious and a lot more real and believable to me. (I have taken several walks of 400 miles or more.) In the end, it is a book about friendship and about learning more about yourself. This is almost always the purpose of these kinds of adventures, and whets my appetite even more for another journey of this kind.

***

Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story of the Enron Collapse by Kurt Eichenwald

Conspiracy of Fools

This large (nearly 700 pages) book is not the sort of thing I usually read. It is the true story of the Enron collapse nearly 10 years ago now. But Kurt Eichenwald, a New York Times reported who covered the financial beat and reported on the unfolding story has written a real page turner of a story that had me reading late into the night, enthralled. It reads more like a mystery novel than a history of malfeasance. Let's just say it is no surprise to me now why our economy is in the shape it is in. Greed and politics are no strangers.

The only weakness in the book is that it ends too soon, before you know what happened to the main players in the story, although a quick search of Google or Wikipedia will bring you up to speed. Suffice it to say, if you ever find yourself in this situation, make sure you are the first one running to the police offering to rat your fellows out. It will save you about 25 years behind bars.

***

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

The Milagro Beanfield War

After reading Killing for Coal last month about how the coal barons built a Western economy on the backs of poor miners, I needed an antidote. The Milagro Beanfield War, sitting on my bedside shelf for well over 20 years now, was just the thing. This funny, compassionate novel was just as good this time, and maybe better because I understand it more after 20 years of additional experience in the world, as it was the first time I read it. Certainly one of the classics, and on my personal Top Ten of All Time list.

July 2009

***

Killing For Coal: America's Dealiest Labor War by Thomas G. Andrews

Killing For Coal

A fascinating history of of how mineral extraction, and specifically coal, came to define Colorado and its economy in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Focusing on the southern coal fields in the vicinity of Walsenburg and Trinidad, this well-researched account portrays the great disparity between the hardness of the miner's life and that of the coal operators and managers. It is a tale of greed, mendacity, and class warfare. Not altogether different from oil and other mineral exploration in many countries today. Certainly the next time I make the drive from Denver to Albuquerque I'll be seeing the country in a completely different light.

***

Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish

If, like me, you haven't picked up a biology textbook in the last 20 years, I'm afraid your biological knowledge is completely out of date. In an effort to learn more about the world around me, I've been making an effort to learn about the latest findings. Sean Carroll's books have been enormously helpful, but they are still a bit on the technical side. Neal Shubin's book, Your Inner Fish, covers much the same ground, but in a more accessible and understandable way for the general reader. The findings are absolutely remarkable. The same genes, the same body plans, the same proteins, jury-rigged over eons of time can produce remarkable diversity.

My only complaint is the title of this book. It put me off reading it for a long time. It's too cute and suggests a superficial approach to the topic. Happily, such is not the case. While much of the technical detail is smoothed over, the essence of the new understand provided by molecular and developmental biology is explained in clear and interesting prose that makes the general ideas extraordinarily compelling. It is interesting to me that we have come so far in biology that you can have a paleontologist and and a molecular biologist working side by side in the same lab and not think it is the least bit strange.

***

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played by L. Jon Wertheim

Strokes of Genius

The 2008 Nadal-Federer Wimbledon tennis final was, clearly, the greatest tennis match ever played. (Well, until, arguably, this years' 2009 Roddick-Federer final, but forget about that for a moment.) OK, don't forget about it (Roddick played the match of his life and didn't deserve to lose), but consider that Nadal-Federer was less about pure power and more about compelling theater and exquisite shot making. Here were two competitors who made the other raise his game to unbelievable heights just to win a point.

Jon Wertheim offers an amazing commentary on the match itself, interspersed with biographical details, that itself lends tension and excitement to the book. My only gripe is I think Wertheim gives short shrift to two back-to-back shots that were the best two shots I have ever seen in a lifetime of playing tennis. (I got the video of the match from my kids for Father's Day this year, so I have watched these two shots over and over.) It was tied 7-7 in the fourth set tie-breaker. Federer runs around and hits one of his trademark inside-out forehands into the far corner. A winner against every other player in the tournament. Nadal, on a full out run, catches up to it and hits a wicked, twisting forehand down the line in the only part of the court Federer can't cover. You hear the audible scream from Federer as the ball goes dipping by him. Then, on Championship point, Nadal serves out wide for Federer's backhand, gets the short ball he expects, and whips a forehand that pulls Federer off the court on his backhand side. Federer then unleashes the best backhand down-the-line shot I believe I will ever see, into the very corner of the court. The target must have been about a foot square, on Championship point. What courage! I'm quite sure I'll see that shot in my memory to my dying day.

Anyway, if you are a tennis fan, read this book. I guarantee you will enjoy it.

***

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Saint Maybe

I read this years ago, and pretty much forgot it, remarkably enough. I picked it off my self to take with me on a backpacking trip over the July 4th weekend. The weather report indicated I might well be spending more time in my tent than I wanted to. Believe me, there is nothing better than an Anne Tyler novel to take your mind off inclement weather and the cold, hard ground. A total delight, as always.

June 2009

***

The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

The Demon in the Freezer

Richard Preston first got our attention with The Hot Zone, his book about the Ebola virus, and I will say this about him: he is a terrific story teller. This true account of smallpox virus and anthrax bacteria may leave a couple of loose ends around (it was written in 2002, before the anthrax case came to its unsatisfying conclusion, and you get the sense that he didn't really know what to do about the smallpox story), but that doesn't keep you from turning the pages late into the night. Partly because it's just darn hard to go to sleep, given all the new things you have to worry about! Well told, and scary.

***

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs

I bought this thin book well over a year ago, and started it a few times without much success. But I happened to be reading it when my friend showed up and recommended Flow and The Alchemist to me. Suddenly, what this book had to say began to make a lot more sense to me. I've heard about meditation bringing about "freedom" for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I absolutely understood what the author was saying. I may be reading the short Freedom chapter once a week for a long, long time.

Here is the essence. "Reality is intrinsically free because it is changing, uncertain, contingent, and empty. It is a dynamic play of relationships. ... As long as we are locked into the assumption that self and things are unchanging, unambiguous, absolute, opaque, and solid, we will remain correspondingly confined, alienated, numbed, frustrated, and unfree." That is exactly where I have been stuck lately! I can already feel myself living a more unfettered life.

***

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow

A friend who reads as much as I do was visiting last week. After an evening of drinking beer and catching up, I started to complain about being "off the path." "I've got two books you have to read," he said. "Flow and The Alchemist." He was right. I needed to read those two books. Flow describes exactly what I feel missing from my life for the past year, and what I definitely felt for the previous 15. When work is not work because you are so involved in it that time passes without being aware of it. I liked the notion of controlling our consciousness and deciding what to do with sensory input. I've been in one of those negative spaces where I think the dishes stacked up on the counter and the sink are a conspiracy by my family to ruin my life. I decided change my attitude a couple of weeks ago, and to keep the kitchen clean just because I like it that way. Whenever I pass though, I pick up anything on the counter and put it away, load the dishwasher, etc. I don't think I am spending any more time doing anything, but the counters are clean, I am happy, and I even think some of it is starting to rub off on the rest of the family. But even if it isn't, this is the road to true bliss. I think I am finding my way back to the path.

***

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist

I loved this book. Years ago I had the experience of the Universe conspiring to help me along the path. To tell you the truth, I thought I was going crazy. Every time I walked into a bookstore I found myself in the Religion or New Age section, trying to figure out what was happening to me. Nothing in my scientific training could explain the unbelievable (to me, anyway) coincidences of my (miraculous) life. The essential lesson of this book, and one I wish I could convey to my children, is that a life lived as an adventure is a life worth living. This book has renewed my faith, and maybe my courage.

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May 2009

***

Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World by Any Seidl

Early Spring

This book is OK and it is interesting enough, but it doesn't cover much new ground. I thought I would be more interested in it than I was (I work in the Climate Science field). I read it faithfully. I just didn't neglect my chores to finish it, if you know what I mean.

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***

Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Fingerprints of God

Like 60% of Americans, as Barbara Bradley Hagerty informs us, I have had my own mystical and transcendent experience. Mine left me searching in the Religion and New Age section of bookstores for years (places you would normally have to drag me into) trying to figure out exactly what had happened to me. I was obsessed for many years by altered states of reality. I really did think I was going just a little bit crazy.

So I was fascinated with this somewhat personal account of Hagerty's own search for meaning in her personal experiences. There is science here to some extent, although mostly of the anecdotal variety. It is hard to force someone to have a spiritual experience in the MRI scanner. But, of course, in the end there is not much you can say. Yes, we have these experiences. Yes, they profoundly affect the way we see ourselves and our lives. Are they the fingerprints of God? Or brain chemistry run amok? Or maybe both? Who knows. The experiences are real enough, and at least for me, convincing enough that I've forever after had a strong connection to and a belief in the Mystery of the Universe.

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***

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson by Hampton Sides

Blood and Thunder

I grew up in the American West and read about Kit Carson as a boy. But then mostly forgot about him. As this wonderful book by Hampton Sides makes clear, that was a terrible mistake, because Carson is a fascinating and complex person. Greatly admired and respected by Hispanics, Indians, and Americans alike, he was a fierce Indian fighter and loyal soldier (perhaps his most damning characteristic). He had a knack for turning up in the most interesting places at the most interesting times in Western history. Reading this book almost makes another trip to Indian Country this summer mandatory, as I believe I will see it this time through different, and maybe more understanding, eyes.

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April 2009

***

Winter Study by Nevada Barr

Winter Study

I'll say this about Nevada Barr's books: they are hard to put down. But I am beginning to worry about Barr's mental state. Horrible, unspeakable crimes carried out by evil, misogynist men. It's not really my cup of tea, if you know what I mean. I like Anna Pigeon. I like her humor and outlook on life. Buy why this darkness and palpatable evil has become a mainstay of her latest adventures, I can't fathom.

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***

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo

I've been reading books for a long time. In all those years, there have been a handful that caused me to sit and stare out the window when I finished them, thinking, "Wow, what an amazing book!" This is one of those books. It carried me to some deep place I haven't returned from even now.

I don't even know what to say about it, except that it made me feel so many conflicting emotions, that in the end I felt alive in a deeper and more self-reflective way than I have in a long, long time. This is a work of art that turns something mean and messy and horrible into a universal truth and affirmation of the sanctity and mystery of life.

I read Hemingway's Farewell to Arms last year, and it took me a long time to get use to one declarative sentence after the other. This book is similar. Simple declarative sentences pounding, pounding, until it starts to feel like a heartbeat, the soul of the book, or maybe your own heart beating, letting you know you are still alive. I was conscious of breathing again at the end, as if I had been holding my breath the whole time I was reading it. This book will be in my library for a long time.

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***

The Mission, the Men, and Me: Lessons From a Delta Force Commander by Peter Blaber

The Mission, the Men, and Me

I don't think I have ever read a first-person account of battles, or even a military history, that doesn't leave me thinking (like the author, inevitably) "What in the world were these people thinking!" Here, according to Delta operator Blaber, the Plan, generated by leaders far away from the battlefield and relying on technology instead of boots on the ground, takes precedence over on-site intelligence, with the inevitable result of lives and opportunities lost. An interesting, if entirely predicable account, of lessons learned in battle by someone, you sense, who hopes to at least make some money on the lecture circuit teaching corporate executives what the generals should have known.

This book may be better than I give it credit for, but the author sort of lost me when he spent a whole chapter talking about a 100 mile hike he as his companions did in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to prepare for life in Afghanistan. The "Bob," as everyone knows, is full of grizzly bears. But they carried heavy caliber revolvers and bullets with "full metal jackets." Hell, I did this hike in Glacier National Park, only a few miles north of the Bob, in the Spring, as they did, by my lonesome when I was just 18 years old. The only thing I carried "for protection" was a lousy singing voice to make noise with. Foolish? Yes. Dangerous? You bet. A Real Big Deal? Not so much. Delta Force operators don't scare me as much as they used to.

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March 2009

***

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird by Bruce Barcott

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

One gets used to nature and science books often being a bit of a slog. Not so with this fast paced, interesting, and entertaining account by Bruce Barcott of Sharon Matola's efforts to save the scarlet macaws in Belize. Known throughout Belize, as the "Zoo lady", Matola is an enigmatic figure who takes on a corrupt government officials, international corporations, and dubious environmental reports to wage a fight for the nesting grounds of the last 200 scarlet macaws in Belize. Barcott does a great job weaving a story of politics, history, and enviromental science together into a compelling narrative that you simply don't want to put down. I especially recommend this book if you are planning a trip to Belize anytime soon.

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***

The Dawn Collector: On My Way to the Natural World by Reg Saner

The Dawn Collector

I first encountered Reg Saner, a local author in Boulder, years ago in a long essay about the Grand Canyon that I still remember and regard as the best piece of writing about the Grand Canyon I have ever read. This collection of essays is in a similar vein, although closer to home in and around the mesa country near Boulder, where I work. These essays are exactly the kinds of things I would write if I had any talent and some inclination to but words to paper instead of code. That may be why I like reading them. They remind me very powerfully of what I love about living in Colorado and being in the out-of-doors.

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February 2009

***

Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counterterrorist Unit by Eric L. Haney

Inside Delta Force

This is not the sort of book I normally read. But I have to admit, once I had it in my hands, it was nearly impossible to put down. It is one of those books that you read far into the night, making it very difficult to get up for work the next morning.

Eric Haney was one of the first Delta Force recruits and he tells a low key, often funny, story of what it was like to serve in this elite unit. I had no idea Delta operators were so skilled. They make your average SWAT team look like a troop of Boy Scouts. Extremely lethal. Extremely competent. So it is disturbing that Haney feels like Delta operators are often misused in the pursuit of political agendas in the murky and confusing world of counterterrorism. I will say, though, that if I'm ever taken hostage on an airplane, I will feel better knowing these guys are outside planning my rescue!

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Walking the Gobi: A 1600-Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair by Helen Thayer

Walking the Gobi

Helen Thayer is a wonder. She was the first woman to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole at age 50. Here she is, at 63, with her 74 year old husband, hiking 1600 miles across the Gobi desert in summer, one week after an automobile accident tore ligaments in her hip and angle. She has guts and perseverence, I'll say that for her. And this is quite a tale. A camel accident leaves them without enough water to get to their next supply and they only barely survive. But, God love her, she is an adventurer, not a writer. If you want prose that stirs your soul, go pick up a Barry Lopez book. But, if you are looking for travels that might inspire you at even your age, this might be just the ticket.

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Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America by Jonathan Raban

Hunting Mister Heartbreak

This book is showing its age a little bit, as Jonathan Raban visited America about the time Michael Dukakis was running for President in 1988. Still, I'm a sucker for travel books like this and I had just finished another of Raban's books (Passage to Juneau) and I find Raban's ideas and approach to a book of this kind interesting. I especially enjoyed reading about his time in the Huntsville, Alabama area. I've spent a bit of time there as well, and he expresses what it was like for me about as well as anyone could. I still don't understand the last 50 pages, which describe a short trip to the Florida Keys. This must have been extra material that couldn't find a place in his other books. A strange way to end what had--up to then--been an enjoyable look at familiar country by an observant foreigner.

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January 2009

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Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban

Passage To Juneau

My oldest son now lives in the Seattle area, and my wife and I visited last June to do some sea kayaking and birding in the San Juan Islands. I was very much taken with the Northwest and have wanted to learn more. Jonathan Raban takes a summer cruise along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska and does a good job comparing and contrasting his own personal adventure with the one Captain Vancouver took in this country in the Discovery in the late 1700s. This is my favorite kind of travel book, and I have to catch myself and remember the tuition bills, or I would be chucking it all to go adventuring myself.

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The River Why by David James Duncan

The River Why

I guess I've read this book every six or seven years since I've owned it, which--to look at it--is at least twenty-five years ago. The cover is falling off, several pages are ripped. The back page has words (prasad, sacerdotal) that I wrote there when I still traveled everywhere with a dictionary, or wrote words down when I was momentarily without one. I remember the first time I read it, on an airplane, fellow travelers looking at me strangely as I guffawed out loud and couldn't stop laughing.

The only book I've read as often over the years is Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley. I guess you could say it is on my top 10 books of all time list.

One of my Christmas traditions is to peruse my book shelves and find books I think my children will like to read and give them as gifts. It confirms my reputation as a skinflint and gives me a great deal of pleasure as I think about what they might like. When my oldest son announced he was thinking about reading some novels (what!?), this book became the obvious choice. In the end, though, I couldn't part with the battered thing and I wanted to read it again. I ended up buying him his own copy.

There have been a handful of books in my life that have been life-changing for me. This book is among them. Read it. I think you will love it.

Last Updated: 20 March 2011