Books I Highly Recommend
Books I've read
the last few years that I recommend:
Side, by Michael Lewis. This is the story of how changes in football strategy -
driven primarily by Bill Walsh and Lawrence Taylor - made today's left tackles absurdly
valuable to a football team. It's also the amazing story of one such future left tackle,
Michael Oher, a lost boy in Memphis who is taken in by a white family and, with their
constant care, gradually morphs into a freak talent. Since Michael Oher himself is
an extremely quiet young man, almost never quoted, this book longs for his voice, but the
book also more than makes up for what's missing with the insight into pro football offered
by Taylor, Walsh, and one of San Francisco's offensive lineman from their glory years.
Sammy Run? A Novel by Budd Schulberg. This novel was written about fifty years ago.
It's told from the point of view of a newsman who goes to write for Hollywood, but the
main subject is the narrator's acquaintance, sometimes friend, the character Sammy. I
picked this book up as part of my research into the science of ambition, because Sammy is
nakedly ambitious like no other. He uses everyone in his path, manipulating and cheating
his way through every situation, to rise up from New York copy boy to Hollywood executive
in a decade. Sammy is an appalling figure, and yet we, like the narrator, can't seem to
take our eyes off him. We root for him to fail, and he never quite does. The book was a
classic when first released. It's set against the early creation of the Writers Guild in
Hollywood (the author also wrote the movie On the Waterfront.) It holds up today
as a very compelling novel.
and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman. Each of these essays is about pop culture,
which is to say that each chapter is "about" something we already know fairly
well. Billy Joel, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, etc. What makes this book fun is that
Klosterman writes like a stoned friend rambles. He makes some of the most absurd
statements, such as "Billy Joel is the greatest musician ever" and then argues
it with such conviction, coming up with odd twists of logic that don't win him his point,
exactly, but at least earn him some respect. It's fun to watch this highwire act, and even
if you don't agree with any of it, you'll be entertained.
A Sense of the
World, by Jason Roberts. In this true narrative, Jason Roberts reconstructs the life of
James Holman. Holman was in the British Navy in the early 1800s when he went blind. In an
amazing turn, he manages to defy all odds and go on great adventures. He became, before
the era of the steam engine, the world's greatest traveler. In his day his books were huge
bestsellers, and he was famously known as "The Blind Traveler." But his envious
competitors eventually were able to discredit him, falsely, and by the end of his life he
was forgotten. By the early 1900s he had disappeared from encyclopedias. Roberts
reconstructs all of this, in painstaking detail, with graceful writing, resurrecting this
man's legacy. A fabulous book.
1776, by David
McCullough. I am not a history buff. My brother told me to read it. I found it riveting.
We Americans managed an early victory in Boston, then had our butts kicked. Most of the
book, I was wondering, "How did we ever win this war?" If not for a timely fog
and a failure of the British to press their advantage, American independence never would
by Ben Mezrich. Nonfiction page turner about a young American kid who goes to Japan for
the adventure, becomes a trader at an investment bank, gets rich off his wits, comes too
close to gangsters, and falls in love with the daughter of a gangster. Written like a page
turning novel, immersed completely in the scene.
The Kite Runner,
by Khaled Hosseini.
Malcolm Gladwell. Great idea porn. Every page interesting. Reading it, you will feel
smart. In the end, I have no idea whether to trust my first impressions more or less. But
nobody makes sociology experiments more interesting.
Jesus Land, by
Julia Scheeres. Another memoir - boy I read a lot of memoirs, huh? - but this one will
haunt you. In a voice that is never judgmental, Julia tells the story of her Christian
fundamentalist parents moving her family to rural Indiana when she was a young teen. Not
only was that part of Indiana very religious and racist at the time, but Julia had two
adopted black brothers. So this story is both her story and her brother David's story, as
they endure the torture of daily life in Indiana, and then they are shipped to a
militaristic fundamentalist reform school in the Caribbean. It's a wonder that Julia lived
to tell this tale; it's even more awe-inducing to hear her tell it so gracefully.
Blue Blood, by
Edward Conlon. This memoir doesn't read so much like a memoir as like a great war novel,
chronicling a war one day at a time. Conlon is a policeman in the NYPD, and the book
follows him in great, spectacular detail beginning with his rookie year on the force. Like
no other book, this one gives you a sense of the mindset that job instills you with.
Tiffany, by Ed Wintle. A memoir about a gay man in New York City who takes in his niece, a
troubled teen from the cultural wasteland of the suburbs. The book chronicles their first
year together. It's wonderful. This book should be read by teens and their parents
together. It will create lots of conversations. For instance, about whether teens are
better off in a city (where there is so much to do) than in the suburbs, or the way Ed
being an unconventional father figure somehow made it safe for Tiffany to love him, and
not reject him.
the House, by Ben Mezrich. Nonfiction page turner about a gaggle of MIT kids who make
millions in Vegas without breaking the law, by counting cards and working in teams. Pretty
darn fascinating and just harrowing enough.
Beat of a
Different Drum, by Dax-Devlon Ross. I have a blurb on this book's cover, so be warned I'm
plugging it again here. But I need to. Dax has written a book similar to my own What
Should I Do With My Life? that exclusively tells the stories of African Americans. Because
of its emphasis, he gets into issues like what race means in an increasingly
less-stereotyped world, and how identity is fluidly formed between avocation, race,
family, and relationships. He's got a strong, thoughtful voice and will no doubt be
writing many books.
Comfort Me With
Apples, by Ruth Reichl. Written in a breezy, casual voice, Ms Reichl's memoir of her early
days as a food writer actually handles some tricky writing challenges very artfully. For
instance, she has an ongoing affair with her editor, and yet we never find her unlikeable
and don't judge her. She indulges in food, for the mere sake of pleasure, and yet I never
found this off-putting. Maybe part of it is that the book is set in the early days of
California cuisine's emergence, and so we can say, "hey, everyone did that back in
the 70s," but I think it should get more credit than that. Enjoyable, and then a
surprisingly powerful ending that I didn't see coming and which made the whole book pay
Paris to the
Moon, by Adam Gopnik. I read this when I was in Paris, so maybe that was part of why I
loved it so much. But I'm always interested in the anthropologist-like point-of-view of
another culture, and Mr. Gopnik does a terrific job finding great examples of how
Parisians have a unique mindset and lifestyle. He also includes his son's perspective on
Paris, as a second set of eyes, and while some of this is a tad precious, it's fun just to
see a city so many ways. A great read.
Life of Bees (A Novel), by Sue Monk Kidd. * * * *
A wonderful story of a 14 year old girl who flees her mean-spirited father to discover the
truth about the mother she lost when young. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights
movement of the early 1960s in rural South Carolina. I've interviewed many women about the
mothers they never had, and the bad things done to them by parents, and this book really
captured that longing accurately. It's a perfect story, almost too perfect - the sort of
thing that only can happen in fiction - but one I couldn't put down.
Sex, Time and
Power * * * * by Leonard Shlain. This book is about the evolutionary biology of humans,
and in particular, it investigates how women evolved differently than men, and how this
has lead to mating rituals. It's a dense, somewhat-academicky book, not the sort I usually
read, but in this case, it's just so compelling. To anyone trying to understand their own
sex drive, or their marriage, or why the other gender is what it is, I can't recommend
this book enough. The book is rooted in some basic curiosities, and keeps coming back to
them: Why did we evolve to walk upright? The result was a narrowing of our hips, and as a
result female humans are the only species that has a good chance of dying from giving
birth. What were the consequences? Female humans are the only species that loses a lot of
blood in menstruation. Why is this? Humans are the only species to regularly have sex when
the female is not in estrus. Why? Why do humans masturbate so much more than any other
species? Why did language evolve?
Madras on Rainy
Days (a novel) * * * by Samina Ali. The story of a young Indian woman, raised in a very
cloistered manner in America, who's brought back to Hyderabad and forced to submit to an
arranged marriage. To her surprise, her husband's family turns out to be the warm family
she never had - but there's something mysterious about her husband. The story progresses
in ways that challenge every stereotype and expectation we might put upon it. In the end,
she is left with the messy beauty of a real life, one that cant be categorized or
controlled, only embraced.
Shadow Divers *
* * * * by Robert Kurson. A meticulously researched and vividly drawn story of two
deep-sea divers who discover a lost Nazi submarine 60 miles off the New Jersey coast in
the early 1990s. They then begin an 8 year odyssey to research the past and identify the
submarine and its fallen soldiers - and notify their families. Incredibly gripping and
death defying (though quite a few divers die as well). Into the Deep. Great nonfiction,
great characters, humbling, inspiring. (I read the galley of this book and it won't be
available until summer 04).
Da Capo Best
Music Writing 2003 * * * edited by Matt Groening. Every year my wife drags me to about 20
shows and at least one week-long music festival. It's always bands nobody's heard of
before. When the music's great and inspired, nothing's better, but when it's middling I
find myself exquisitely bored. I need some sort of intellectual context in which to locate
the music, in order to be engaged with it. This annual collection is providing some of
that. Many of these "best of" collections are lopsided with New Yorker articles
I've read before, and that's true here, but a few other innovative pieces manage to round
out the voices.
It Must've Been
Something I Ate * * * by Jeffrey Steingarten. I love to cook, but often after traveling I
get out of the swing of cooking for pleasure. This great food writer's hilarious follow-up
to The Man Who Ate Everything tackles basic questions we don't think to ask: What's really
in MSG, and if so, why doesn't everyone in China have a headache? Can you bring a home
oven up to 700 degrees to properly cook a pizza? Do you need an old rooster to make coq-au-vin
or can you just use a chicken? These and others are fodder for his kitchen science
Urban Tribes * *
* * by Ethan Watters. Playful
without being ironic, meaningful without being sappy, Urban Tribes will be a
seminal book. In a decade, we will look back and realize that this book changed how we
look at the period lived between families. Hes appreciative where so many others
have been dismissive, and remained open when others have already made too-quick
conclusions. Good stuff has come of it.
Liars and Saints (a novel) * * * by Maile Meloy. This three
generational story of a Catholic family in California starts out wonderfully, but
eventually becomes too thin, too quick, and soapy. However, it's still a nice portrait of
how secrets and lies play out over the subsequent generations.
Train (a novel)
* * * * by Pete Dexter. A great writer's next great work ... set in noir-era Los Angeles.
One can't take the eyes off Dexter's hard boiled main character, wondering what he'll do.
A second-chance love story, a caddy (named Train), and a tragic ending.
Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (a novel)
* * * a wonderful compelling mystery, a fast read, told by a child with autism.
Moneyball * * *
* Michael Lewis's story of how the Oakland A's have won so many games using so little
money by investing in people who are really good at what they do - but don't look the
part, and therefore are overlooked by every other ballclub - is both a great story and
really inspiring. Anyone who doesn't look the part will relate. A business story, a
baseball story, but really, an underdog story.
Jarhead * * * *
Tony Swofford's memoir of his time as a sniper in the brief Gulf War and his years as a
grunt in the marines is incredibly honest and rings so true with all the complex desires
of young men bonding together and being trained to fight. Cheating girlfriends,
prostitutes, nightlife in the Philippines, funerals years later, haunting memories,
filling the boredom, wishing one were always closer to the action ... remarkably gifted
writing ... any man will relate.
The Pact: Three
Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream * * * Three young African American men grew
up in a very difficult neighborhood in Newark; they met in high school and after some hard
times made a pact to support each other in their dreams. Fourteen years later, Sampson
Davis and George Jenkins are doctors, and Rameck Hunt is a dentist (his life-long dream).
The story alternates between their three voices. I can think of no better book that
demonstrates the transformative power of being surrounded by like minded and supportive
people. They reversed the peer pressure that pushed them towards the streets and crime,
using positive peer pressure to keep them on track to their dreams.
Along the Border
Lies (A Novel) by Paul Flores * * * * follows several characters living on both
sides of the Tijuana/San Ysidro border. The story lines absolutely defy stereotypes and
are remarkably fresh.
A General Theory
of Love, by Dr. Thomas Lewis * * * * This very readable primer on the new brain science of
love and attachment will make you think hard about your relationships and about how your
Novel) by Ian McEwan, * * * * A classic style of old fashioned British novel, set on an
estate in the countryside, but with such taut writing and tense character drama that he
reinvigorates the form.
The Lovely Bones
(A Novel) by Alice Sebold, * * * * At first I could barely read this (as a parent, to read
about a little girl being raped and dismembered, was so scary), but the rest of the book,
about her surviving family, told from the dead girl's point of view as she sits in heaven,
is indeed heavenly.
The Botany of
Desire, by Michael Pollan * * * A contemplative look at four plants: the apple, the tulip,
marijuana, and the potato, portraying their survival strategy, which is to satiate a very
particular human desire.
You Are Not A
Stranger Here (Stories) by Adam Haslett,
* * * * Wonderful, emotionally touching stories, many of which involve a character with
mental illness. People really trying to figure the world out, trying to learn how to live.
The best new short fiction I've read in years.
Generation, by Tom Brokaw * * * stories of people who sacrificed for the war effort and
upon returning to America were content with a simple life, having seen such horror
All I Could Get
(A Novel) by Scott Lasser * * * the most well-shaped (nothing faked) and well written
story of one man's attempt to make a buck on Wall Street before it ruins he and his
The Soul of a
Chef, by Michael Ruhlman * * * we meet three chefs as Ruhlman looks for perfection, in
cooking and in life
by Mark Bowden * * * no Black Hawk Down in its storytelling style, but equally important
for what it says about going after warlords. Chronicles the decade+ effort to hunt down
Columbia's cocaine king, Pablo Escobar
Black Hawk Down,
by Mark Bowden * * * * * minute by minute account of US military action in Mogadishu
The Shadow of
the Sun, by Ryzsand Kapuscinscki * * * * some of the best writing I've ever beheld;
various accounts of the journalist's decades in Africa
The Duke of
Havana, by Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez,
* * * * the incredibly true story of Yankees pitcher El Duque Hernandez's immigration from
Mathew Hart * * * * decently written, totally fascinating expose of Diamond trade
The Miracle of
Castel Di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss * * * * season long account of minor league soccer in
Italian mountain town
Instructions, by Anne Lammott * * * * heartfelt and moving account of her son's first year
Laura Hillenbrand * * * * * a story of a famous horse I couldn't put down
E = MC2, by
David Bodanis, * * * the history of the famous equation
In Harm's Way,
by Doug Stanton * * * okay writing, but mindblowing story of USS Indianapolis survivors
Legacy of Divorce, by Judith Wallerstein, * * * important research for our generation that
grew up with divorced parents
Carry Me Across
the Water (A Novel), by Ethan Canin * * * * innovative narrative structure that writings
students will emulate for years
How to Read a
French Fry, by Russ Parsons - fascinating science of cooking
Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers * * * * will always be grateful for how he
cracked open the memoir narrative without employing the off-putting tricks of metafiction
Momma and the
Meaning of Life, by Irvin Yalom * * * * accounts of his personal involvement with therapy
patients that really reveals how hard it is to overcome grief
White Teeth (A
Novel), by Zadie Smith * * * * genuinely warm, amusing, and terrific writing
(A Novel), by Robert O'Conner * * * * * intense novel set on US military base in Germany
during the 80s
Nocturne (A Novel), by Colin Harrison * * * * a Manhattan newspaper columnist tries to
solve the death of a murdered filmmaker
Bringing Out the
Dead (A Novel), by Joe Connelley * * * * novel about ambulance driver haunted by his
Eat the Rich,
P.J. O'Rourke * * * * capitalism vs socialism vs monarchy vs communism all around
Fight Club (A
Novel), by Chuck Paluhniuk * * * * shockingly new voice and style, stirring insight into
the dark needs of men
The Man Who Ate
Everything, by Jefferey Steingarten * * * *
The Art of the
Novel, by Milan Kundera * * *
the Archdruid, by JohnMcPhee * * * *
Beanfield War (A Novel), John Nichols * * * *
A Man in Full (A
Novel), Tom Wolfe * * * *
Novel), Richard Price * * * *
The Tibetan Book
of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche * * * *
(the only longitudinal study about growing up in divorced families and how it affects us
over time,) by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee * * * *
You Just Don't
Understand; Women and Men in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen * * * *
Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks * * * *
Handbook, Mary Oliver * * * * *