Books I read in 2009:
True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The
redemption-through-sports-success cliche is overdone, but Alexie gets
adolescence exactly right: all that responding inappropriately,
unmodulated reactions, feeling like a freak, and the constant feeling
of being scrutinized.
A Russian Civil
War Diary: Alexis Babine in
Saratov, 1917-1922 by Alexis Vasilovich Babine. First hand
account of the Soviet takeover of Russia and its aftermath, from a
bitter English teacher in an agricultural town. A lot of rumor,
but certainly gives the flavor of the place and time.
Unraveling the 100-Year Mystery of the Chicago Cubs by Grant DePorter, Elliott Harris
and Mark Vancil. Genially beery reflection on the Cubs' futile
history uncovers some curiosities from the year of their last
Diary, 1933-1938 by William Edward Dodd. William
Edward Dodd was U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
He brilliantly conveys the surreality of the time, the fear felt by
everyone, and the stress and distaste he felt throughout.
1902-1926 by Theodore Dreiser. Novelist's diary has some
interesting depictions of pre-air conditioning California and Florida,
but mostly is about his love life.
Diary by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was invited to the the
Soviet Union in 1927 but insisted on seeing more than the sanitized
version. He did not have a good time, so it probably wasn't a
success from the vantage point of our Communist friends. However,
he draws a vivid picture of the poverty, totalitarianism, and general
misery of the period.
The Adventures of
Marco Polo by Russell Freedman. Brief but thorough introduction
to the legendary Marco Polo
(1254-1323?) for younger readers. Accompanied by brilliant
illustrations, contemporarily done by Bagram Ibatoulline but in period
The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman. Toddler escapes murderer, is raised by ghosts in
a graveyard. Although a tad contrived in parts, it is a mind-bending
read. Read with Robbie and Eli.
Consequences: How War in Iraq
Strengthened America's Enemies by Peter W.
Galbraith. Brief but pointed critique of Bush's war, up to and
including the surge: the wrong war, executed badly, still a mess with
little hope for the new President to solve.
Carl Hiaasen. Young adult novel read with Robbie and Eli... maybe
the best Hiaasen I've read yet. Set in Florida, as always, but
with a more diverse set of developed characters. Middle schoolers
Nick and Marta try to save an endangered panther while solving the
mysterious disappearance of their science teacher.
The Country Diary
of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden. A year in nature,
specifically 1906 in Warwickshire, England, compiled
along with seasonal poetry and some amazing drawings of local animals
and plants. Book reprints her diary without any contextual material.
A Long Way Down by
Nick Hornby. Four people meet by accident on New Year's Eve in London,
at a place they've all gone to attempt suicide. Instead of going
through with it, they bond, sort of.
Politics and Race in the Age of Obama by Gwen Ifill. Not
the puff piece some Republicans alleged last fall, but an interesting
survey of contemporary black politicians in the United States. I
was particularly interested in her accounts of tension between the
older generation and those born since 1960.
The Man Who Made
Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of 'Roget's Thesaurus'
by Joshua Kendall. Enjoyably readable biography of Peter Mark
Roget (1779-1869), who turned his compulsive list-making into the
lucrative and useful Roget's
The WIlloughbys by Lois Lowry. Absurd,
witty, occasionally dark spoof of the "sad little orphan" books popular
100 years or so ago. Features twins, both named Barnaby, and an
unhappy rich boy who "speaks German" by adding German-sounding suffixes
to English words (e.g. "forgotzenplunkt").
from Ogden Nash. Poet-humorist's family correspondence
from courtship (early 1930s) to grandfatherhood (early 1970s). He
is warm and witty throughout, though the courtship section gets a bit
We Are the
Ship: The story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. A
lively book for young readers, Nelson's first, covering roughly
1900-1950 when professional baseball was segregated. Amazing
illustrations. Text probably requires more knowledge of baseball
history than most people have... when I read it to Robbie and Eli I
found myself doing a lot of explaining.
Diaries of a
Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is not a diary strictly
speaking, but a journal in which the German poet (1875-1926) recorded
reflections, sketches of compositions, and occasional anecdotes from
the years 1899 and 1900.
Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence
by Robert J. Samuelson. Samuelson--a Newsweek columnist who is not
related to the Nobel Prize
winning economist, but to whom I give extra respect because he has the
same last name--reviews the last 50 years of the U.S. economy, with the
pivotal moment being the runaway inflation of the 1970s. Perhaps overly
about contemporary economic problems, Samuelson concludes by warning
overreaching when trying to improve health care, combat global warming,
regulate banks &c. (and thus bringing back the bad old days of the
Roland Smith. Coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy who
attempts to be the youngest person ever to climb Mt. Everest.
Read with Robbie and Eli. Probably best read in summer.
Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip E.
Tetlock. Ingenious attempt to test the prediction ability of
foreign policy experts gets very complicated when it comes down to
definitions and measurements. Its most interesting finding is
that pragmatic, flexible "foxes" do measurably better than more rigid
Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. Middle-aged man is losing
job, savings, house, wife... finds whatever desperate measures he
resorts to only make things worse, and that the system is totally
stacked against him. Once he figures that out he's OK after a fashion.
Diary of an
Erotic Life by Frank Wedekind. German playwright
(1864-1918) sows wild oats, looks for material, amazingly avoids
Girls Like Us:
Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation
by Sheila Weller. Essential coverage of the musical output of these
outstanding singer-songwriters, as well as interesting social
discussion of how they fit into the feminist period of history.
More coverage than necessary of their sex lives, at which they were as
judicious as rabbits.
The Ballad of
Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson. When Jane and I
visited the Lake District 20 years ago, I first came
across Dorothy Wordsworth's journal and found it fascinating in an
idyllic way. Frances Wilson digs around in what clues there are to ask:
Who were these people? How did they get here? What did they do here?
Making of a President by Richard Wolffe. Sympathetic but
fair story of the 2008 presidential election from the
Obama campaign's perspective. Most interesting points: (a) a lot of the
"no drama Obama" persona was learned not natural; (b) the campaign's
polling often had information on public opinion that flatly
contradicted the opinings of pundits. Read while humming the Styx song
of the same name.
The Ten-Year Nap
by Meg Wolitzer. Fiction: a group of female friends who left the
workforce to have children, who are now becoming less dependent on
them, wonder what to do with their lives . Interesting
reflections on feminism, contemporary society, and personal
Letters to the
Oval Office: From the Files of the National Archives by Dwight
Young. Amusing collection of letters to Presidents from
Washington to Clinton. Some touch on issues, some just
folksy. Includes an e-mail sent to Clinton and two 2-x-4s sent to
World by Fareed Zakaria.
Zakaria is one of the most perceptive commentators on today's
political scene. Here he describes a world which has more economic
activity in more places, but where the United States still has an
important role to play (assuming it can adjust).