Books I read in 2008:
The Diary of an Ambassador by Viscount Edgar d'Abernon.
Two volumes cover d'Abernon's four years as British ambassador to
Germany in the early 1920s... a fateful time indeed for the future of
Europe. We see Germany overwhelmed by the demands of the
Versailles Treaty, France intransigent, Britain trying to mediate, and
America potentially helpful but uninterested. And we hear briefly
of Adolf Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch; by the book's 1929
publication he was thought to have been "fading into oblivion" (Vol.
II, p. 56n). If only.
Harmless by Douglas Adams. Fifth book in "The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy" series. Introduces the concept of parallel
universes, as well as an artificially conceived daughter for Arthur
Dent. Not up to the first four.
Winter People by Joseph Bruchac. Coming-of-age story we
read to the boys. Young Abenaki rescues his mother and sisters
during the French-and-Indian War. He realizes after he
accomplishes this that he did not do it alone. Abenaki are all
noble, whites particularly British are all brutish.
London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. Fascinating story for
young adults written from the viewpoint of an autistic boy who tries to
figure out what happened to his cousin, who disappeared while riding
the London Eye. I read this with my family.
Lucky American Childhood by Paul Engle. Poet and Cedar
Rapids native shares memories of his childhood, mixing an eye for
detail with a curmudgeon's preference for the sights and sounds (and
smells!) of yesteryear. He even finds some nobility in his
misanthropic, angry father. I read this with my family.
Secret to Be Buried:" The Diary and Life of Emily Hawley Gillespie,
1858-1888. Abridged record of a 19th century Iowa farm
wife's adult life near Manchester. She is interestingly
reflective. Excellent, insightful editing by Judy Nolte Lensink
who adds context of women's lives at the time.
Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt, 1884-1886: Diary Notes of August
Göllerich. Göllerich studied with and
accompanied Liszt (1811-1886) during the last two years of the
composer's life; his diary combines class notes and pithy quotes from
"the master," sort of Liszt's Boswell.
Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans, edited by
Dan Gordon. Not so much about the Cubs, despite the title and the
wide-angle shot of Wrigley Field on the cover. Experts on
neurology discuss, in a way that's very accessible to the general
reader, the workings of the brains of players and fans.
A Tale of Two Bullies by Carol
Gorman. Nighttime reading to my boys... two middle-school
bullies from dysfunctional families come to understand each other
thanks to an innovative principal. Sometimes there are worse
things than losing face. Author is a Coe faculty member.
Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America by Allen
C. Guelzo. Excellent coverage of the context, content, and
meaning of the Lincoln-Douglas debates 150 years ago. Guelzo
argues that Lincoln made the case that democracy needs a moral element,
not just nose-counting.
of a Dean by The Very Rev. W.R. Inge. Self-edited diary,
with all the advantages and disadvantages that implies, of the Dean of
St. Paul's Cathedral from 1911 to 1934.
The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan. Unfortunately
Lincoln left us no major literary work, but we do have mounds of
letters, speeches, essays and poems. Kaplan walks us through
Lincoln's life story with particular attention to what he was reading
Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It
Can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes. Series of
short essays arguing that underlying the U.S. Constitution is a spirit
("the constitutional conscience") which has sustained America through
various historical crises, but has now been forgotten amid ideological
impatience and Washington partisanship.
Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin: Autobiography
of the manic comedian who hit it big in the 1970s with "Let's Get
Small" (the first album I ever bought). Focusing on the stand-up
performance phase of his career, the book is remarkably thoughtful and
introspective. We see the pain as well as the elation that
accompanied his rise to success.
Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945-1972 by Paul
Charles Milazzo. Detailed account of the framing of the Clean
Water Act of 1972.
Newberry's Diary: Two teenage years in the life of Julia
Rosa Newberry, a member of a prominent Chicago family. We see her
dealing with the loss of her father, the attentions of boys, world
travel, and a mysterious chronic illness that eventually killed her at
age 23. Charming in spots, but I don't see the editors'
suggestion she might have been another Bronte.
by Joseph O'Neill. Intriguing novel of self-discovery, narrated
by a Dutch expatriate splitting time between London and New York,
abetted by fickle wife, toddler son, and an enigmatic Trinidadian
Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case, 1894-1899 by Maurice
Paléologue. The story of France's infamous Dreyfus affair
told from the point-of-view of a young official with the Foreign
Ministry who was assigned to monitor the second trial in 1899.
Initially convinced of Dreyfus's guilt, he came to the opposite opinion
over time. Interesting view of a proud nation and army under
Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael
Pollan. Erudite, informed look at where our food comes from, with
plenty of consideration for ethical issues, particularly animal rights
and environmental sustainability. Leaves you with more questions
than answers, which I understand has occasioned a follow-up book.
Chosen as first-year reading for Coe students this year.
United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American
Supremacy by T.R. Reid. Occasionally breathless
introduction to contemporary European politics, stressing a burgeoning
continental identity and what that means for the United States.
More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution
and Make America a Fairer Country by Larry Sabato.
Various proposals to make Congress, the President, and the federal
courts more responsive and effective, thus bringing the U.S.
Constitution up-to-date with post-industrial society. Interesting
possibilities for American National Government class.
Death of Franz Liszt: Based on the Unpublished Diary of His Pupil Lina
Schmalhausen. Liszt was by all accounts a mild, friendly
man, so it's odd that his final illness and death was occasioned by so
much intrigue. Schmalhausen, who may or may not have had talent,
and may or may not have been his lover, gives us one account, which may
or may not be accurate. Göllerich (see above) is portrayed
as a bit of a worm.
Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission by
Philip Shenon. Breathless narrative of the Kean-Hamilton
Commission that investigated the terrorist attacks and issued a
widely-praised report in 2004. The staff is shown laboring
against political pressure, particularly from Philip Zelikow, the
executive director of the commission who had close ties with the Bush
Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism
by Ron Suskind. Mixes thorough indictment of the Bush's
maladministration of the war on terrorism with inspiring stories of
individual efforts to cross the divide of fear created by the 9/11
terrorists and our official response to them.
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.
Funny but cautionary tale about a clash of civilizations. I used
it in my Modern Political Theory class this spring. Props to Joel
Johnson of Augustana College (SD) for writing the paper that encouraged
me to do this!
Would Have Played for Nothing: Baseball Stars of the 1950s and 1960s
Talk About the Game They Loved by Fay Vincent.
Entertaining interviews with 11 retired baseball players, including
former Cub Billy Williams.
Diary of Beatrice Webb. Four volumes covering most of the
adult life of a woman active in the creation of the British welfare
state, the Labour Party, and the London School of Economics.
Interesting reflections on growing old in volume 4.
Disappointingly, while she saw the Soviet Union for what it was as
clearly as anyone when it started, after 1931 she went all gushy.
Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Before she became a
crusading journalist and moved to Chicago, Wells grew up in Memphis and
became a schoolteacher. This diary covers three years in her