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Books I Highly Recommend

Books I've read the last few years that I recommend:

  • The Blind 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.

  • What Makes 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.

  • Sex, Drugs 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 have happened. 

  • Ugly Americans, 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. 

  • Blink, by 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. 

  • Breakfast 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.

  • Bringing Down 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 off. 

  • 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. 

  • The Secret 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 can’t 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 experiments.  

  • 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. He’s 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.  

  • The Curious 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 memory works.

  • Atonement (A 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. 

  • The Greatest 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 family.

  • The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman * * * we meet three chefs as Ruhlman looks for perfection, in cooking and in life

  • Killing Pablo, 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 Cuba

  • Diamonds, by 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

  • Operating Instructions, by Anne Lammott * * * * heartfelt and moving account of her son's first year

  • Seabiscuit, by 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

  • The Unexpected 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

  • A Heartbreaking 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

  • Buffalo Soldiers (A Novel), by Robert O'Conner * * * * * intense novel set on US military base in Germany during the 80s

  • Manhattan 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 passengers

  • Eat the Rich, P.J. O'Rourke * * * *  capitalism vs socialism vs monarchy vs communism all around the world

  • 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 * * *

  • Encounters with the Archdruid, by JohnMcPhee * * * *

  • The Milagro Beanfield War (A Novel), John Nichols * * * *

  • A Man in Full (A Novel), Tom Wolfe * * * *

  • Freedomland (A Novel), Richard Price * * * *

  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche * * * *

  • Second Chances, (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 * * * *

  • An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks * * * *

  • A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver * * * * *