It is completely unprecedented that three of the top five books this year
were written by the same author, but these three books were the three most
enjoyable books I read this year. Craig Childs is just my kind of author. I would
be happy to read anything he wanted to write. That said, here are the top five
books I read this year.
What a fun book! McDougall has done the impossible and got me thinking about running again after a long detour into tennis in an attempt to save my knees. Crazy characters, impossible distances, and profound love and joy of physical movement. What a combination. I loved this book and was sorry to see it come to such a quick end. The perfect vacation book!
I enjoyed Mary Roach's first book, Stiff. I thought it was interesting and often funny. I really did not enjoy this book. I don't often quit books after I start them, but I almost did this one. What kept me going was extremely interesting material. I wish Roach had just given it to me straight. I thought she was trying WAY too hard to be cute and "funny." I found it irritating in the extreme. She is probably a naturally funny person. I think she probably would be funny if she just wrote the book and stopped reading the blurbs on the back of her books that over-sell the humor.
This book about the person and family behind the immortal and scientifically indispensable HeLa cells has
been on everyone's Top Ten lists this year. And, certainly, it is an interesting book. But I had a hard time
getting through it. It just didn't hold my attention. I think I stopped to read three or four more interesting
books while I was plowing through this one. The Lacks family is only slightly more dysfunctional than
other families I know, and that's saying something. But, in any case, I'd rather read about something else.
This is the first book I have read by Ian McEwan, but I am going to read more.
It is amazing to me how funny and interesting a book about a womanizing, five-time
married, Nobel Prize winning physicist can be. Lot's of fun.
This is not the sort of book I am likely to pick up normally, but I have been
thinking about gratitude and life changing events after a long hike this summer,
and this book called to me when I read the title. I'm glad it did. This is a
wonderful, sincere book, that just begs the reader to write thank-you notes
again and experience the joy of life-changing personal gratitude. A short read,
but highly recommended.
I got hooked on Michael Connelly when I picked up one of his books off the
shelf of a beach house we were renting in Virgina Beach one summer. I think
I read four or five of his book within a two week period. This is his latest,
which follows Detective Harry Bosch as he is involved in another crime thriller.
This is not one of his best books (the ending seems contrived to get the author
out of a jam and meet a publishing deadline), but it's a fast, fun read, as
Well, I used to worry that climate change was going to be the end of human
civilization. Now I know we aren't going to make it that far for this to be
a legitimate worry. All of our systems are going to come crashing down around
our ears from compromised computer networks. A freightening book that proves
China is going to inherit the Earth, if only because they can disconnect from
the Internet and still carry on when everything goes South. The denial of
service attacks on MasterCard and VISA this week are only the tip of the
iceberg, according to this book.
Not much to this book. It's hard to tell if the CIA won't let former agents dish the dirt on what actually goes on, or if Kiriakou doesn't have much to say. In any case, there isn't much meat here. Interesting, I suppose. But you will learn more spy tradecraft reading about George Smiley in one of John le Carré's novels.
This book revisits Scott Turow's characters from Presumed Innocent 20 years later when they are thrown together again over another dead woman. Not a great book, but extremely entertaining and fun to read. I thought I had figured the plot out several times, only to be tripped up again. Take this one with you on vacation. It beats watching football or visiting with the in-laws. I got this book on a one-week, new-book borrowing program
from my local library. I took it back at the end of the third day. Like I say, fun read.
I've been a long time fan of Jon Krakauer's. His books are always thoroughly
researched and well written. This book is no exception. And, it is not the book
I expected it to be. Pat Tillman turns out to be a much more interesting person
than I expected him to be. And my government turns out to be a great deal more
cynical and manipulative that I, even with my usual low expectations, expected
it to be. At books end, I felt sad not only for Pat Tillman and his friends and
family. I felt sad for all the rest of us, too.
I guess I have read every one of Nevada Barr's books at one time or another. If you are looking
for fast reading, enjoyable entertainment, these Anna Pigeon books are great. But this latest book
by Barr trends in the same direction as a few other of her later books, which is to say into the
darkest, most distrubing places in the human experience. This one, for example, deals with pedophilia.
I'm not sure where she is going with this series, but I have to think she is losing readers by going
too far in this direction.
The Big Hike didn't produce the Big Epiphany I was hoping for, but I did come to realize
that I wanted writing to play a larger role in my life than it had previously. To explore
some of these possibilities, I found this excellent book in the library. Blundell is a long-time
feature writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, and he is from the E.B. White school of
prose writing. I found the information in this book both useful and exciting. This is an old book (you
can buy it used for about a dollar), but it's one I want for sure in my library.
This is a book I gave to my oldest son one Christmas when he was in love
with language and it looked like he was heading down the path to becoming a
linguist. He went back to school before I could steal the book off his bookshelf
to read it, so when I found it on his bookshelf in Seattle I was overjoyed. I've
wanted to read this book for a long time. It was worth the wait. Pinker is an
excellent science writer and he makes the (often difficult) material as easy to
understand as anyone could. An excellent book.
I find one of the great pleasures in life is visiting other people's homes and exploring
their bookshelves. There is no telling what is going to be found there, but it is almost
guaranteed not to be anything I would normally find to read. (Rented beach homes are
my absolute favorites, mostly because of the trashy, sexy novels you find there. I wish
I had that much fun when I went to the beach!) This is a book I found in Seattle. Funny,
entertaining, and a great way to pass a couple of lonely days while my hosts were at work.
When the Big Hike went south, and I had licked my wounds in Portland for a day or two,
I decided to visit my oldest son in Seattle. I found I could walk around again, so naturally
I headed for a coffee shop. Along the way, I found a most appealing small, independently-owned
bookstore and stopped in for a look-around. Very quickly I decided to join the legion of Steig
Larson fans and read this excellent book. I don't usually pile onto the Best Seller bandwagon,
but this book was one of the most entertaining I've read this year. I highly recommend it for
some good, escapist entertainment.
When the Big Hike went south, and I got sick, I convinced friends in Portland to
take me in and give me shelter for a day or two, while I got my bearings. I found
this mystery book on the bookshelf of the bedroom they put me up in, and it was pleasant
company while I repaired both body and soul.
I found this book to be an excellent companion as I prepared for a long, 400-mile hike whose
purpose was to consider 40 years of my adult life and to put me in closer touch with my inner life.
There are excellent exercises and plenty of insight in this book. Unfortunately, I was mostly too
tired in the evenings after hiking all day to even think about my miserable lot in life. Next time, I'll
try a spiritual retreat to a monastery, where I will have a better chance of putting Metzger's ideas
This is the second of John Nichols' trilogy of life in a small town in New Mexico. Although not as good as the first book in the trilogy, The Milagro Beanfield War, it is still full of Nichols' unique perspective and quirky good humor. Nichols' characters are bawdy, brave, despicable, and as full of contradictions as Coyote himself. In short, every one is interesting and worth knowing. The surprise ending rocks your world view and probably reflects Nichols' long involvement in New Mexico environmental causes and politics. Still, it is not a book without hope, and that's saying a great deal.
Ever since I announced to family and friends that I plan to hike 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, I have been asked if I had read this book by Bill Bryson. I had, but quite a few years ago when it first came out. What I remembered about it was that Bryson didn't actually walk the entire trail and that he had to scramble after that for a reason to write the book. And that part is still true. But what I had forgotten was how absolutely hilarious this book is. It is almost two books. One, extremely funny, telling of his adventures with his hiking partner, Katz. And the other, more informative and less funny, of Bryson trying to pull a book together after they give up the notion of hiking the entire trail. This is a very good read. I finished it in a single sitting and immediately starting thinking of which of my friends I could invite to join me. The only real requirement is a biting wit and sarcastic frame of mind. I have a couple of people in mind!
After an oil spill in San Francisco in the late 1970s, Francis decides to do something about it in a personal way and gives up travel in motorized vehicles. Later, he decides to remain silent. This is a remarkable story of someone committed to his principles who has to find a new and different way to get along in the world. Francis eventually gets a Ph.D. in environmental sciences, wins an award as the best discussion leader (he doesn't speak!), and walks across America. Werner Hertzog said in a lecture that the best way to learn about something was to "travel on foot". Francis puts that idea to the test. It's tough to distill 22 years of walking into a book like this. Francis does a pretty good job of creating an interesting and thought provoking book.
This book is similar to Craig Childs' book on the Anasazi culture, House of Rain, although Roberts is a little more orthodox in his thinking and less willing to go out on a limb than Childs. Still, reading the two books together will give you an excellent understanding of the culture and people who disappeared from the desert southwest in the 12th century.
I've traveled in the Four Corners are of the desert southwest that Craig Childs explores in this book, and have been to many of the Anasazi ruins he describes. I have often wondered about these people and their civilization. Why did they disappear? Where did they go? This is the first book I have read that explores these questions in a thorough, comprehensive, and--most importantly to me--personal way, with boots on the ground, seeing for himself where and how these Ancestral Pueblo people lived on the land.
Craig Childs points out there are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning. He explores both in this incredible book about his travels in the desert southwest United States. Childs combines a poetic literary style with hardcore adventure, amazing knowledge of natural history, and a passion for the people who once populated this dry, stark part of the country. I found this an extremely interesting and informative account of the part of the country I grew up in, but which, I see now, I barely knew.
I'm not sure why I am just being introduced to Craig Childs, but this is my kind of book. It wasn't five minutes from the time I finished this book until I had ordered three others he had written. Childs walks, often alone, hundreds of miles a year in the most inaccessible deserts in the Southwest United States. He is an expert on finding water where people think none exists, and on the people who have lived in these God-forsaken desert environments for thousands of years. Childs is also an eloquent and thoughtful writer, whose love for and understanding of place is on a par with Barry Lopez or John McPhee.
Childs describes climbing a fin of rock in a canyon until he is suddenly aware that the slightest slip or misplacement of a foot will cause him to fall 150 feet onto boulders. He becomes incapable of movement. His predicament caused me to vividly recall a similar situation in my own climbing life 40 years ago. I could almost taste the fear again. He writes:
"But the fear came back, barging drunkenly into my head, knocking things over. My fingers tightened against the rock. I closed my eyes again. This will not do, I thought. I have to be solid. So I went ahead and killed myself. I got rid of my mind, smashing it into the rock. It was a swift act. Once that was out of the way, I opened my eyes again and took a second to review the next eight feet below me. I removed my hands from the rock and fell."
This is what I did, too. I killed myself. Came to terms with my death and made the move that saved me. But the experience scared me too much to ever get on the rock again. I think the experience gave Childs a deeper appreciation and respect for the desert rock and canyons he so clearly loves. I am happy he wasn't scared off the rocks. We wouldn't have had this beautiful and compelling book to read if he had been.
Let's just say you probably have to be a birder, or at least live with a birder, to fully appreciate the lure of Life Lists and the temptations of competitive birding. But even in my sheltered slice of birding heaven here in Colorado, I know people like this. And, I have to admit, I sometimes admire them a great deal. They see and hear things (if they are not pulling my leg!) that I sometimes despair I will ever see or hear.
This book by Mark Obmascik, a fellow Colorado birder, describes the obsessive effort three men are willing to make to see the most North American birds in a single year. The book is about to be made into a movie featuring (I hear) Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. It is entirely possible that this might be the first time a movie will be better than the book. In any case, I intend to see it the first week it is out. This book is a fun read for any serious birder. Anyone else already believes we are completely nuts.
In this day and age of cheap GPS units, it is tempting to not bother with a map and compass, but you are going to need these two essential items of backcountry gear sooner or later, and when you do it is extraordinarily useful to know how to use them. No book is better at explaining how to navigate with them than this easy to read, easy to like, book by W.S. Kals. Not only is the explanation crystal clear, the man has a sense of humor, too! I've read this book many times and I am pleased to say that this time I was pretty much familiar with most of the details. That makes me--and my wife--breathe a lot easier.
My middle son will be spending five months in Nepal this summer and fall in exactly this Dolpo area described by Matthiessen and it had been 30 years at least since I first read this book. I had forgotten what a good book it was, and it is superb at giving you a sense of the what the country is like. It scared me, frankly, and I have rushed out to by more warm clothes for my son. It also made me wish I was going with him. This is likely to be a trip of a lifetime for him. I can't wait to see the pictures and hear the stories.
I love writers who can write eloquently of place. Think Barry Lopez or John McPhee. Ellen Meloy can be put in the same category, with the added bonus of living and writing about the desert southwest United States that I grew up in and know a little about. Her turns of phase, her thinking about ordinary things in extraordinary ways, her love of language and the land around her, make her an absolute delight to read and savor. This is one of those books that earn a place on a special shelf next to my bed, where it can be read over and over again.
I almost hate to say this, because I don't mean it in a negative way at all, but this book is almost exactly the kind of book you might expect if E.O. Wilson were to sit down and try his hand at writing a novel. That is to say, it is not too bad. It's reasonably interesting--the section on ants is excellent, of course--if a bit too predicable in how it all turns out. But, if you have read any of E.O. Wilson's other non-fiction books, you can easily imagine him writing this one about the South he grew up in. Wilson is always a well-informed and competent writer, and he doesn't let you down in this book. It's not exactly Nevada Barr, but it's a perfectly satisfying leisurely read. I'd read another if he cared to write one.
This book is a little dated now, but still an excellent resource for those who are thinking about low-impact camping and hiking. Laura and Guy Waterman were among the first authors to understand the importance of leave no trace camping and they present the reason for these ideas in a straightforward, non-judgemental way in this book.
Ellen Meloy has become one of my favorite Western authors. She has a wonderful sense of place and landscape and writes beautifully about the desert Southwest where she lives. This book takes place on the Green River, where Meloy's husband is a river ranger. Lyrical, informative, and a pure delight to read.
Bill Sherwonit is about my age, and this book is about a solo backpacking trip he took into the Brooks Range in Alaska. Since I am taking a long solo hike this summer, I was interested in Bill's reflections. But mostly I just laughed as Bill struggled with his 80 pound pack containing nearly everything a person could want, including three full-size books! That's the way I used to backpack, too. But these days it is possible to go a lot lighter. I'll be out for a month with a 25 pound pack. After Bill got home and thought about it, I'm pretty sure he will have a 25 pound pack next time, too.
There is some pretty good stuff here, but mostly you see a free-lance writer who spent a lot of money going on a trip where it rained a hell of a lot of the time trying to figure out how to make a book out of it and recoup some of his expenses. I did learn some interesting new facts about Bob Marshall.
I've been reading a lot of travel books lately, ahead of a long, 500 mile hike I plan to do this summer. This book, perhaps because it was written by a hiker about my own age, is the best I've read at capturing my own motivation for doing such a hike. Ray Echols actually fell to his death on the trail he writes about so eloquently here. Although unexpected and completely surprising, I have a feeling Ray wouldn't have been too upset at the way things turned out. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I wouldn't be surprised to find myself reading it again before I leave on my own journey on the part of the trail Ray didn't finish writing about before his untimely death. I highly recommend this book if you are a long-distance hiker. Thanks so much to Alice Tulloch, Ray's wife, for putting the chapters together in Ray's absence.
I don't know much about China, but I have found Peter Hessler to be an excellent guide. His books are not profound or deep, but they demonstrate how interesting a book can be when written by an author with curiosity and a willingness to explore in unlikely places. Hessler is a freelance journalist and traveler in China since an earlier stay as a Peace Corp volunteer, which he wrote about in an earlier book. This book juggles several themes back and forth through time, but the result is a fresh look at China's past and where it might be going in the future. My youngest son will be traveling in China this summer. This book makes me wish I could go with him.
Dan White is a pretty funny guy, but he tries a little too hard occasionally is this interesting story of his five month journey with his girlfriend, Allison, on the Pacific Crest Trail, a backpacking trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. Still, this is an easy and enjoyable book to read. It's almost a coming of age story of a backpacker, as Dan and Allison learn what works and what doesn't. The book doesn't turn out exactly as you would expect, and you wonder in the end if Dan's humor is a cover for something darker. But, one reason for hiking long distances is to come face to face with your deepest self. The trail clearly does that for Dan.
I read this years ago, when I was just starting to get serious about tennis and thought it was a great book. I decided to re-read it now, because I've been promoted into a division with some *really* good tennis players and I can use all the help I can get. I found the advice, this time, less helpful. Don't get me wrong, this is a fun and interesting book to read. But, basically, you can boil the advice down to "try this, and if it doesn't work, try something else". OK. That's pretty much what I try to do. I doesn't always result in "winning tennis", but--I admit--it can be ugly.
I found this book to be similar to a Greek tragedy. You know from the very first paragraphs of the story what has happened. The only question is how it happened and, of course, that is the most interesting part. George Grinnell, of wealthy and influential stock (his uncle is George Bird Grinnell, an American anthopologists well known in the West) is a bit of a misfit and rebel. He and his five companions hope to discover whatever it is they are looking for on a three month canoe trip through the Canadian Barrens of northern Canada. Their leader, Art Moffett, dies. And the other five somehow make it back alive.
Those are the bones of the story, but Grinnell fleshes it out in a strange and compelling way. It is almost as if you were traveling down a easy flowing river and don't notice the pace quickening and the river banks steepening until it is too late to do anything about it and you are heading over the falls. In the end, we learn that Grinnell has been trying to write this story for most of his adult life, and you feel the anguish and the fits and starts in his prose. It is hard to tell if this is adventure story or confessional. It may be a bit of both. In the end, it doesn't matter. It is a tale well told that stays in your head for days and weeks after the book is finished, like a memory.
Susan Alcorn and her husband, Ralph, hike most of the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. This is a combination of notes and research Alcorn gathered after the hike and her journal entries during the hike. It may be one the best of the Camino books I have read for detailing the day to day activities along the way, but I found it slightly disappointing. Perhaps because Susan and her husband don't speak the language, she tends not to write about the friendships and relationships other authors see as the highlight of their Camino experience. I suppose each person experiences the Camino differently, but I found the lack of interaction with others disappointing.
My wife and I hiked the Colorado portion of the Continental Divide trail in 1981, and things haven't changed much since then. Maps are outdated, trails on the map don't exist on the ground, cows share many of your water supplies, and you will soon become excellent with map and compass. But, that said, it is always a joy to read about someone's experience covering ground you know well.
Karen Berger goes to a lot of trouble to fill you in on the details of the politics of land and wildlife management in the West. And she does a good job of covering the important elements of the hike, so you have a good sense of what the walking was like.
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. I found it an insightful, sympathetic, and illuminating look at the Chinese people and their complex culture. The book is often funny and always interesting. It is a wonderful introduction to China if, like me, you know very little about this important country.
Erin McKittrick and her husband, Hig, walked from their home in Seattle to the farthest reaches of the Aleutian Islands in just over a year, a distance of over 4000 miles. I like first person accounts of this kind of adventure travel, but I think it must be hard to put the day to day drudgery of a walk like this into a compelling narrative. This was my major complaint with the first half of this book, which seemed to be a series of vignettes that lacked a compelling story to knit the pieces together. It is only in the second half of the journey and the book, that a theme seems to develop that drives the action. Erin and Hig decide that this is the kind of life they want to lead, and decide they will settle in Alaska in a small, out of the way community. By the end of the book, Erin is pregnant and both are changed in a permanent way by their long walk.
An interesting book, but not one that takes hold either as a personal and insightful narrative or as an exploration of the land.
The idea behind this book is that by examining the particular, you might be able to draw conclusions about the general. It's not a bad idea, and it works reasonably well here, given that Iceland faced the same pressures, and for the same economic reasons, that other, larger economies faced in late 2008. To that end, it is a story of avarice, unjustified over-confidence, irresponsibility with other people's money, and poor judgment. In other words, the usual suspects, but in the guise of Icelanders instead of your neighbors, for a change.