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Coyote's Top Five Books for 2011

This was a bit of an off year for me with only 36 books read. I've been consciously trying to spend more time in the mountains, so that may have had something to do with it. Any my New Year's resolution is to learn more about gardening this year, so who knows. Nevertheless, here are five books that I am extremely glad I got around to reading!

  1. The Big Burn by Timothy Egan. The story of the US Forest Service and how it came into being. A history I wasn't aware of and one that effects the quality of my life every day.
  2. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Reading this book caused me to run out and get an iPhone. And I can't tell you how happy I am with it! Glad I didn't work for the SOB, though.
  3. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. My favorite book about Ethiopia, and a wonderfully told story as well. Beautifully written.
  4. Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Another history of the American West I was unfamiliar with, Gwynne's treatment of the Comanche Nation is fabulous reading and reveals the darker side of Manifest Destiny.
  5. In the Plex by Steven Levy. A fascinating account of the people and personalities behind Google. Reading this book along with the Steve Jobs biography gave me a different insight into the Silicon Valley culture.
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December 2011

***

Steve Jobs
by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs

An extremely solid and fair biography of a complex and interesting man. I thought Isaacson did a great job of getting out of the way and just telling the story in as straightforward a manner as possible. For someone who's professional life has matched the evolution of Apple as a company, it was a most fascinating and interesting account of the players and personalities of the people who made it all happen. Definitely worth reading for anyone who has owned an Apple product and fallen in love with it. This book will certainly explain why.

November 2011

***

The West Wing: The Complete Series

The West Wing

I know I am suppose to be reading, but I took 5-6 weeks off to view one of last year's best Christmas presents: the entire seven seasons of the West Wing, one of the best television series of all time. It was almost better than reading a book! All right, at times it was better than reading a book. This series has it all. Fantastic writing from Aaron Sorkin and others, wonderful acting, and compelling stories. I enjoyed this series as much as I've enjoyed many a fine book, and it kept me up equally late at night. To tell you the truth, now that I have finished it, I may be able to get a little more sleep! I'm looking for something similar in my stocking this year, but who knows. This kind of quality is hard to come by.

October 2011

***

The Last Place
by Laura Lippman

The Last Place

Laura Lippman was coming to speak at an auditorium near my house, so I thought I should read one of her books before I went to the lecture. This is one of her Tess Monaghan books. Let's just say Tess is one of those women who finds herself in some interesting situations, in the way for Nevada Barr's park ranger, Anna Pigeon. I liked the book. It was fast, sometimes funny, and mostly interesting. If you need something to hold you over on a airline flight, this book will do well enough.

***

Modern IDL: A Guide to IDL Programming
by Michael Galloy

Modern IDL

A lot of people ask me, "What in the world do you do on that long flight to Australia!?" I normally give the same lame answer, "I watch 3-4 really, really dumb movies while trying to get some sleep." But, this time I did something more productive. I read Mike Galloy's very interesting and helpful book, Modern IDL, cover to cover. What a pleasure!

Mike advises users already familiar with IDL to skip the first six chapers if they like. I'm glad I didn't! I almost learned more there than in the rest of the chapters. Mike and I have had very different experiences with IDL, have used it in different ways, and I found it refreshing and interesting to read Mike's lucid explainations of this different approach. I found myself making notes almost every time I turned the page.

The book covers a lot of ground, and I found myself often aware of problems and dangers that he must by necessity skip or gloss over if he planned to write a book that could be held in the hand (not to mention carried in a flight bag). But, still, there was an impressive amount of explanatory material that made difficult subjects at least seem approachable. His explanation of iTools, for example, made them almost seem comprehensible, although he provided little detail(correctly, in my opinion!) in this section. And surely his three pages of text and an index entry for the BLAS_AXPY function in IDL will be found in no other IDL book published anywhere in the world!

This book is obviously not aimed at the novice IDL user, but for those of us who have been around the block a few times, it will open the eyes to new possibilities and a fresh way of thinking. Very well done, and a valuable contribution of the growing IDL literature.

September 2011

***

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches
by S.C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon

Gwynne has written a most interesting and entertaining book about the Comanche Indians and their role on the Great Plains. Although focused on Quanah Parker, the son of Cynthia Ann Parker (a young girl kidnapped by the Comanches when she was just 9 years old) and a Comanche war chief, this is really the story of the collision of the southern Plains Indians with Manifest Destiny. If you are interested in the American West at all, this is a must-read book in the tradition of Hampton Sides's wonderful book about Kit Carson, Blood and Thunder. Both reveal the darker side of Manifest Destiny and the terrible toll it took on the native Americans that stood in the way.

August 2011

***

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
by Tony Hsieh

Delivering Happiness

This is a business book, which normally would find its way onto my reading list about as often as any book in the teenage romance genre. But my son, an avid reader himself, and someone who spurned science to find his passion along the business path (Oh, my goodness!), recommended this one to me. I generally make an attempt to read books my children are interested in, first to learn a little more about them, and second so I have something to talk to them about. (I am awaiting the definitive book on Peyton Manning and/or the FIFA scandal so I have something to talk to my other sons about.)

This was actually a pretty good book. Tony Hsieh is probably a better CEO than he is a writer, but he did OK in this attempt. He tells, essentially, the story of Zappos and what this company is all about. I really don't know if Hsieh's goal was to sell shoes, but I have to admit I bought a pair after reading this book. And, more importantly, I have been giving some thought to just what my purpose is in life. All in all, a pretty good result from reading a book!

***

One for the Road: Hitchhiking Through the Australian Outback
by Tony Horwitz

One For the Road

I'm still reading travel books. (I've got to get this out of my system soon. Maybe I should go on another long trip!) This book is about hitchhiking around Australia. Probably not something I am going to be doing anytime soon, although I do have another trip to Australia planned for next month. Still, Horwitz is a fairly entertaining guy, and it's fun to read of his adventures with the usual suspects you run into when you are traveling.

***

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

The Help

Wow. There is maybe one book a year that I neglect work to read and sit in silence when I have finished it. This is the book this year! I'm not a New York Times Bestseller List kind of guy, but they definitely have this book listed correctly. Funny, interesting, thought and memory provoking, and well worth reading. I wish every book I read was this good!

***

The Innocent: A Novel
by Ian McEwan

The Innocent

There is no question Ian McEwan is a talented (and often funny) writer. Any writer who can make you feel sympathy for a womanizer (Solar) is well ahead of the game. But, this story is just too outlandish for me. I'll try him again, but I'm hoping for a more believable scenario.

***

It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace
by Rye Barcott

It Happened On the Way to War

I returned from a month spent in Ethiopia to find this book on my desk. Barcott, as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, formed an organization to support youth in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, a neighbor of Ethiopia. It was fascinating to read this book and compare it with my own experience walking the streets of Addis Ababa. Everything about it rang true to me, including the ambiguity, the difficulty in understanding another culture, the uncertain nature of what you thought you believed strongly. But, clearly, this is a young man who is willing to confront the world head on, with his mind and heart wide open to the experience. Sometimes the problems of Africa seem so large as to be unmanageable. Barcott doesn't let that stop him, and plunges in anyway. Good for him and good for anyone who is willing to follow his inspiring example.

July 2011

***

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
by Steven Levy

In the Plex

This is the 25th Anniversary Edition of this venerable book, and well worth reading again! We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the IBM Personal PC and this book is all about the people whose work led up to that amazing piece of machinery. It's good, sometimes, to go back to your roots.

***

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
by Steven Levy

In the Plex

This is a fascinating look at the Google founders and how Google does business around the world. Levy clearly has unique access to Google and uses it superbly. This book, in turn, both scared the daylights out of me and reassured me that all might possibly be right with world after all. I still don't know what to think, except the times, they are a changin'. Highly recommended for anyone following the news in the computer industry. Suddenly, SO much is making sense to me!

***

Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea
by Robert D. Kaplan

Surrender or Starve

This is a much more compelling book to read than the more pedestrian A History of Ethiopia by Harold Marcus. Perhaps because it deals with more recent history. Kaplan is particularly enamored with the leadership of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which is where the current President of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, came from. And there was promise when Kaplan wrote this book in 2003. Since then, alas, the Ethiopian leadership has devolved into the same old, same old. Meles would appear to have almost no popular support among the people, and yet garnered 98.6 percent of the vote in the last election. Ethiopian politics is about staying in power, no matter what. As in most African countries, this means making your friends rich and making your enemies suffer. Kaplan points out persuasively that starvation is not the natural order of things, but a political tool that is wielded by most of the governments in the Horn of Africa. You see the truth of this just be reading the news of the day in Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.

June 2011

***

A History of Ethiopia Updated Edition
by Harold G. Marcus

A History of Ethiopia

This is a fairly old book now, written in a conventional way, but it does fill the interested reader in on some of the history of Ethiopia through the Haile Selassie era. I found Robert Kaplan's more modern history of Ethiopia a much more compelling read.

***

Ethiopia - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture
by Sarah Howard

Ethiopia - Culture Smart!

An extremely helpful book in understanding some essential elements of the Ethiopian culture. You will learn more as you go, but this book provides a context for your own experimentation and learning.

***

There is No Me Without You
by Melissa Fay Greene

There is No Me Without You

Melissa Fay Greene tells the story of Haregewoin Tererra, a woman of modest means, who opens her house and home to AIDS orphans. Nothing is ever simple in Ethiopia, and this story is not either. To Green's credit, she tell's the story as truthfully as she can. On my flight to Ethiopia, the plane is full of young families (almost always white, it seems to me) heading to Addis to adopt orphaned children. And on the plane home, you can see without a doubt that these children are going to be smothered in love and affection, pampered in ways that will be the polar opposite of their life in Addis. But, still, there is something in me that keeps me from getting my head totally around the adoption process. These children are ripped from their entire culture and placed in another. I'm not sure that is always the best idea. This book wrestles with these problems and issues. I found it immensely though provoking.

***

This is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes
by Marilyn Berger

This is a Soul

In preparation for spending a month teaching in Ethiopia, I loaded up my Kindle with books about the conditions, people, and politics in Ethiopia. This is one of the first I read. It is an excellent, if slightly breathless, account of an American doctor, Rick Hodes, who found himself in Addis Ababa almost by accident, but came to love both the people and his work with them. This book will give you a good look at the many physical and health problems facing the Ethiopian population.

May 2011

***

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken

There is no question that Laura Hillenbrand's telling of the story of Louie Zamperini's life is interesting and well researched. But there is this nagging feeling that Hillenbrand's sources were, well, reading from a script that had been honed in the re-telling and re-remembering over the years. It has that made-for-inspirational-tv-movie feel to it. I wasn't surprised, for example, to learn late in the book that Zamperini became a motivational speaker. This is exactly how one would package this material for that purpose. Interesting, certainly. Inspirational, possibly. Believable, not so much.

***

Cutting For Stone
by Abraham Verghese

Cutting For Stone

I've been getting ready for a trip to Ethiopia and I have been looking around for books to read that would get me ready to visit the place and know something about the history of the country. This book was suggested to me by several people. Goodness! I'm glad they did. This is one of the best books I've read in several years. In fact, the last book I read that I enjoyed this much was Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, which is odd because Ethiopia's calendar uses 13 months, one of which is only six days long!

It wasn't until I finished the book that I realized I was familiar with Abraham Verghese. Quite a number of years ago he wrote a book I thoroughly enjoyed called The Tennis Partner. Verghese is a full-time physician and part time writer (or visa versa, I can't remember), but his writing was good then and is fabulous now. There were any number of paragraphs I had to stop and savor before moving on. This is a fabulous epic novel, with a story well told and memorable.

***

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

A rare rainy, cold weekend in May, jubilation at getting the last child through college, and a bit of a lull before an intense period of work this summer, all conspired to convince me to lay on the couch this weekend and finish this amazing Millennium trilogy of Steig Larsson's. What a treat! Any book that keeps me up to 1AM on a night when I have to get up at 4AM to go to the airport is a heck of a book. Most enjoyable!

***

The Girl Who Played with Fire
by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire

If the measure of a good book is how often you sneak away from work to read it, then this second book in Larsson's Millennium trilogy is a very good book indeed. Dark and disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but so well paced, organized, and presented that you forgive Mr. Larsson his sins and enjoy his company immensely.

***

The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL
by Eric Greitens

The Heart and the Fist

The news about Osama bin Laden caused me to want to learn more about the Navy Seals. This book was the first to catch my attention and was not the kind of book I expected it to be. I can see why it had five star reviews on Amazon. I had no idea Rhodes scholars like Eric Grietens would find themselves in the Navy Seals, but I'm glad they do. It restores some of my confidence in the US military and the often difficult job they do. Call this an antidote to the Jon Krakauer book about Pat Tillman, Where Men Win Glory.

***

The Lincoln Lawyer
by Michael Connelly

The Lincoln Lawyer

A typical Michael Connelly detective novel. Fun, entertaining, and hard to put down. It's a formula, but it's a good formula, and few do it any better than Connelly. This book had a twist that I didn't see coming. The perfect book for a rainy day or a long airline flight.

***

Where the Hell Am I?: Trips I Have Survived
by Ken Levine

Where the Hell Am I?

I found this small book of travel writing for less than $3 in the Kindle version and downloaded it. Take it along on your next airline flight. It will more than pass the time and you will finish it exactly as the wheels touch down. Levine was a writer on some of your favorite comedy TV shows, but he has done a lot of things and he is very funny. These are very short reports, almost like e-mails home, from some of his travels. Not great literature, as Levine well knows, but a lot of fun. Highly recommended.

***

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants

Don't buy this book for the children unless you are ready to have the Talk, but do buy it for yourself if you are craving a few hours of pure fun and entertainment. This was a thoroughly wonderful story that I didn't want to put down. I always know its trouble when I am sneaking off with the Kindle to read for an hour or so in the middle of a work day. But it was that kind of a book, and it was finished way too soon. I can't wait to see the movie. Hal Holbrook is going to be perfect in this role.

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April 2011

***

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
by James Gleick

The Information

James Gleick can make just about any topic interesting and engaging. He is one of the finest science writers of our time. But with information theory he really has chosen a tough row to hoe. It is a confusing, subtle mis-mash of counter intuitive ideas that has to be pulled together into a coherent whole. Glick manages to pull it off with his usual clarity and sense of style. This is one of those science books that I keep thinking about over and over again. Very well done.

***

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Aron Ralson

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Aron Ralston is the young climber who cut his arm off when he became trapped in a remote canyon in the Utah desert. This first person account is reasonably well-written, if you ignore some obviously made-up dialog from some of the minor characters in the book. What surprised me about the book, though, was how unsympathetic I felt about Aron himself. I didn't care for his me-first attitude, considered him a thoroughly dangerous travel companion, and didn't think he had learned a single thing about himself from his ordeal. I really didn't expect to come away from this book thinking the guy was a total jerk, but that is basically the way I feel about him. Very strange.

***

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
by Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

There are parts of this book I liked a lot. And other parts that I didn't like as much. I liked the premise that you need to get "lost" to find yourself very much. I have found myself thinking of this theme a lot lately, as I contemplate my hike last summer and the effort of writing my latest book. Solnit has definitely been on a similar journey and writes eloquently about it. But her life has been very different from mine and I found some chapters a difficult fit with the tone and subject matter of most of the book.

***

Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space
by Cees Nooteboom

Nomad's Hotel

Cees Nooteboom is my kind of traveler. He likes out of the way places where he can wander into some kind of adventure. Occasionally his style is bit too literary for my taste (I don't know much about art, for example, but clearly Nooteboom does), but often he is just hanging out, talking to people, learning about what is around him. I think he and I would probably agree on what we like about travel and about why we often like to travel alone.

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March 2011

***

Alive: A Classic Adventure of Survival in the Andes
by Piers Paul Read

Alive

One of the classic stories of survival, Piers Paul Read writes about the October 1972 crash of an Uruguayan plane carrying an Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes. Of the 45 passengers on board, 16 survived for 10 weeks, forced to eat the passengers who died. Two survivors managed to walk out of the wilderness to get help. An incredible story of fortitude and survival instincts in the very worst of circumstances.

***

The Geography of Bliss
by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss

The sub-title of this book is "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," which, combined with the banner "The New York Times Bestseller", is normally the kiss of death for a book I want to read. But it was a Christmas gift that was laying on the shelf one day when I really wanted something less serious to read than what I was currently reading. So I picked it up, and had a reasonably hard time putting it down.

In truth, it sometimes tries a little too hard for laughs, but it was quite interesting and it had some dynamite quotes in it for a writing project I was working on. I'm a bit of a grump myself, I guess, but I would have liked the book better with a different sub-title.

***

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
by Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival

This book started slowly for me, but as I kept reading it became more and more fascinating. I've spent quite a lot of time outdoors in the mountains and I could find the truth of what Gonzales writes about (both good and bad) in my own experiences of becoming lost and disoriented as hypothermia set in. Even worse, I could see the panic, loss of focus, narrowness of vision, and general idiocy taking over in my tennis match last night when I was starting to be beaten by a 15 year old kid. Fortunately, I remembered what I had read, slowed down, took a couple of deep breaths, and before I knew it, a couple of old-man lobs had the situation under enough control I didn't completely embarrass myself.

***

Bringing Down the House: Six MIT Students Took Vegas for Millions
by Ben Mezrich

Bringing Down the House

I'm not sure of the literary merit of this book, but it was a rollicking good read, a lot of fun, and even managed to get me interested in taking my friend, Charlie, up on teaching me to play Blackjack. (Charlie's old girlfriend traveled around the world as a member of a team of card-counting Blackjack players, as these players were. I guess he picked up a couple of useful tips along the way.) If you have a couple of hours to kill on an airplane, you could do far worse than this book!

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February 2011

***

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann

Lost City of Z

An extremely well-told story of David Grann's obsession with the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for the Lost City of Z in the Amazon jungle. Filled with facts about Fawcett's life, but with personal experience woven into the book in a most suspenseful and enjoyable way. It was very hard to put this book away and get some work done. Together with the Candice Millard's River of Doubt, which I read several years ago, this book has given me a much deeper appreciation of the Amazon region and the native tribes who live there.

***

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn

This is a fascinating true story by one of America's best storytellers. As someone who spends a lot of time in our National Forests, I had no idea how hard Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and all the early forest rangers had to work to make it happen. Our country would be a whole poorer without the far-reaching vision of these incredible men.

Anything you read by Timothy Egan is thoroughly researched, extremely well written, and immensely informative. This is another terrific book.

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January 2011

***

The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
by Carl Safina

View From Lazy Point

Carl Safina is the sort of knowledgeable naturalist that I generally find among my circle of friends. He would fit right in and probably enjoy our pot-luck dinners. This is to say I believe I share a large part of his worldview, which tries to be optimistic in the face of the natural world, but more often descends—if not into despair—then into a deep cynicism that humans will ever get it together enough for things to get much better. Naturally, I try to keep this to myself and stay positive when I'm around the kids. But as I read this book, I got the feeling that Safina was also trying to stay upbeat around his editor. I'm sure he was getting a lot of comments like, "Geez, Carl, lighten up a bit or we will never sell any books!"

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. It is beautifully written, interesting, entertaining, and often depressing. I suppose that is the way the world is, but I wish Safina hadn't reminded me of that quite so often.

Last Updated: 9 May 2011