My favorite books

These books represent my favorites since I started my on-line reading list in January 1997 through 2010.  (The list is in reverse order of which the books were read)

Favorite Fiction

The Road by Cormac McCarthy **** (out of ****) I was absolutely blown away by this book.  Easily this most affecting book I have read this year, and probably one of my favorite novels ever.  I'd been long hesitant to read McCarthy after an aborted attempt to read Blood Meridian many years ago.  I found McCarthy's minimalistic style off-putting.  However, married to this story of a father and son simply trying to survive on the road in a post-apocalyptic United States, McCarthy's style was perfect and absolutely beautiful.  I marveled at the poetry of the prose while I relentlessly turned the pages to find out what happened next.  The central portrait of the father-son relationship struck me as dead-on and a truly amazing portrait of father-son love.  I could so imagine so many of the things the boy said coming straight out of David's mouth (the father was much braver and more industrious than I could ever be).  I suspect this book is especially resonant for parents, but I really could not recommend it more highly for anyone. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy **** The best novel I have ever read. To me, Tolstoy is a genius in a class by himself. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to tell us about his extraordinarily realistic characters in ways that illuminate not just the character, but the human condition in general. This tale of adultery, society, humanity, in late 19th century Russia is highly readable and completely engrossing. Unlike a lot of great authors, Tolstoy is thoroughly accessible, which I think really adds to his greatness.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ****     Wow!  Believe the hype.  This is simply one of the best novels I have ever read.  Though at its most basic level, it is just a family drama about two parents and their three children trying to make a variety of "corrections" in their lives, Franzen creates among the most vividly-realized characters I have ever read.  Franzen captures human nature in all its greatness, frailty, cruelty, and most especially humor.  Franzen's prose is brilliant and an utter joy to read, yet he never lets it get in the way of the story.  I cannot say enough good things about this book.

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss ****   Liss presents a fascinating tale of murder, religion, and crime and punishment set amidst the nascent financial markets of 18th century England.  The narrator, Benjamin Weaver, is a former boxer and a Jew in very Christian London, who tries to solve the murder of his father, a stock-trader.  Weaver's story is an intricate tale of murder and shady financial dealings where little is as it seems.   From his writing style, to the characters, to the many descriptive details, Liss does a masterful job transporting the reader back to this unique time and place.  This is an excellent book on many levels.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem ****  One of the best books I have read in a long time.  On the surface this is a fairly simple detective story, but it is narrated by the unforgettable Lionel Essrog, a orphan and sufferer of Tourrete's syndrome.  Lionel's Tourette's allows Lethem to show-off his brilliant writing style and command of language.  An extremely enjoyable book on many levels.

Personal Injuries by Scott Turow ****  An extremely entertaining and thought-provoking legal drama as personal-injury lawyer, Robbie Feaver, is forced by the FBI to help catch corrupt county judges.  What sets this apart from most legal fiction, is extremely interesting and realistic characters that one really cares about.  The difficult choices and circumstances these individuals face, rather than courtroom theatrics, are the heart of this excellent novel.

I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb ****  A compelling and captivating tale of two identical twins, one of whom is schizophrenic, the other not.  The story traces the impact of this highly unusual fraternal relationship on the "normal" twin, Dominic, who must come to grips with his similarities and differences with his brother and how they have been shaped by a dark family history.  A wonderful book.

Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane ****   A wonderfully written and completely engrossing mystery set in a blue-collar Boston suburb.  This was truly a can't-put-it-down book, but Lehane's well drawn characters, moral complexity, and first-rate writing make the book transcend the genre.  Not just a great detective story, a great book.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden ****  Compelling pseudo-autobiographical account of the life of a geisha in pre-war Japan.  The plot is interesting, the characters are well-drawn, the language is evocative, and Golden does a masterful job of enveloping the reader in the atmosphere of another time and place

The Houdini Girl by Martyn Bedford ****  Early in the story, Rosa, the lover of the magician protagonist, Red, is found mysteriously dead.  The rest of the novel tells the story of Rosa and Red in flashbacks as Red slowly uncovers Rosa's enigmatic past for clues to her death.  The story is masterfully written and comes together like a jigsaw puzzle with increasing speed.  Red's profession as a magician allows for allegory on the nature of illusion and reality.  An all-around great book.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov ****   This book is a classic for good reason--Nabokov can flat-out write.  He is a true master of the English language (his fourth).  The book tells the often disturbing, often hilarious tale of Humbert Humbert's ill-fated obsession with his "nymphet" step-daughter, Dolores Haze, better know as Lolita.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan ****   This is as well-written a book as I have ever read.  McEwan has a masterful and poetic command of the English language.  Fortunately, he combines it with a great sense of plot and character in a fascinating tale of love and obsession.

Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer ****  This novel tells the story of Dr. Benedict Lambert, dwarf, molecular geneticist, and distant relation of Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics.  It is a love story, a science education, and a sobering reflection on the nature versus nurture debate.  The first person voice of Ben Lambert is unforgettable and Mawer's style is original, inventive, and engaging.  An all-around great book.

Eureka Street by Robert McCliam Wilson ****  A thought-provoking, enjoyable, and very funny tale of how a couple of apolitical Catholic and Protestant friends deal with "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. I learned a lot about the politics of Northern Ireland while being greatly entertained by the story of the two good-hearted losers. The story does a wonderful job of demonstrating the complete irrationality of the violence and politics of Northern Ireland. This is a great book on many levels.

The Straight Man by Richard Russo **** A wonderfully entertaining and hillarious story of a man dealing with his own mid-life crisis and a crisis in the English department he chairs at a small Pennsylvania college. I frequently found myself laughing out loud. Russo's characters and dialogue are dead-on real. A great read, especially for anyone in academia.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Good Germs, Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs ****  I absolutely loved this book about the role that bacteria-- both the good and bad-- play in human lives.  I actually stayed up late, several nights in a row reading a book about bacteria.  My favorite factoid from the book is that for every one cell of your body with your own DNA, you also have 10 cells that are bacteria.  For me, the great insight from this book is that human beings are essentially an complex ecosystem.  Your proper health and good functioning depends not just upon you, yourself, but also upon the myriad forms of bacteria we have co-evolved with over thousands of years that have become essential to how we live.   In addition, Sachs examines all the bad bacteria, why the problem of resistance just keeps getting worse, and then when you are ready to give up hope, explores the amazing new strategies scientists are coming up with to fight the worst diseases.  A terrific book.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner **** Steven Levitt is an economist who uses standard economic methods to explore intriguing every-day questions-- e.g., do Sumo wrestler's cheat? how are first names related to socio-economic status? are real estate agents really on your side?-- rather than the more typical economics fare of prices, demand, GDP, and all that boring stuff :-). As a fellow social scientist I was most impressed by Levitt's knack for coming up with intriguing questions nobody else had thought to ask and awed by the inventive ways in which he answered these questions. His chapter that argues (quite persuasively) that legalized abortion is a leading contributor of the falling crime rate in the 1990's is particularly provocative.

Overdosed America by John Abramson **** I loved this book. It is an incredibly damning account of how doctors and the entire institution of medical research have essentially sold their soul to the pharmaceutical industry. The result: lower quality, more expensive health care for Americans. Did you know that cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) have never proven effective in reducing mortality among persons who have not had a heart attack? Did you know that drugs for osteoporosis have never shown to be effective at reducing hip fractures? Did you know that the drug companies knew for years about the problems with Cox-2 inhibitors, but essentially withheld the key data? Do you have allergies and wonder why Claritin is a joke? I truly believe that any American who has interactions with the health care system in this country (i.e., everyone) would greatly benefit from reading this book.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell ****   Gladwell's The Tipping Point remains one of my favorite works of non-fiction in recent years and here Gladwell does it again.  Having benefited from a New Yorker subscription for the past year it is clear to me that Gladwell has a talent for making just about anything interesting.  Here Gladwell focuses on the power of our intuitive thinking-- rapid snap judgments-- as an incredibly useful, and all-too-often overlooked guide for our behavior.  What Gladwell does so masterfully and brilliantly is weave research and anecdotes from amazingly disparate areas-- e.g., psychology, consumer research, autism, car sales, indie-recording artists, military simulations, you get the picture-- into a fascinating and coherent framework

Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments in the 20th Century by Laura Slater ****  I have always been fascinating by many of the great experiments in modern psychology: from Milgram's obedience to authority Harry Harlow's wire monkeys.  Slater tells the stories behind these and other famous and not so famous experiments that have profoundly shaped our understanding of the human condition.  At first, I was a little taken aback by the way Slater interjected herself in the narratives, but I came to really appreciate her unique first-person perspective.  Great reading for anyone at all interested in psychology.  

Absolutely American by David Lipsky **** Rolling Stone reporter Lipsky set out to profile the contemporary West Point student and ended up spending four-years with unprecedented access to the USMA class of 2002. The students and faculty (that is, Army officers) that Lipsky profiles are some of the most memorable figures I've ever read about-- all the more impressive as these are real human beings whose job it is to defend our country. Lipsky's portrait of a classic American institution undergoing great changes, especially post 9-11, and how it effects all involved is utterly compelling. Just a great book.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell **** I was originally only planning on giving this book 3 1/2 stars, but after finding a way too work this book into virtually every conversation I've had over the past week, I decided it surely deserves the maximum rating. Gladwell describes how small changes how seemingly small changes can make huge differences in creating a variety of social epidemics-- from smoking, to Hush Puppies shoes, to Blues Clues. He also describes the unique types of persons necessary to create social epidemics. This was a simply fascinating book-- full of interesting anecdotes to amuse, entertain, (and in my case, annoy), your friends.

Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden ****   Wow.  I can't say enough great things about this book: riveting, fasciniating, compelling, horrifiying.  This is the true story of 99 American soldiers pinned down overnight in an October 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, facing thousands of angry, well-armed Somalis.  It is just a tremendous tale of modern combat and the variety of human response to such difficult and inhuman conditions.

Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina ****  Safina tells the tale of how we are not so slowly destroying the wildlife in our oceans and the people and communities that depend on them.  Far from a meaningless recitation of facts, Safina tells stories of fish and of people and beautifully interweaves the two.  What sets this book apart from many about our environmental calamaties is that Safina so clearly demonstrates the often hidden human cost.  Incredibly education and just plain interesting reading as well.

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder *** 1/2  Off the coast of North Carolina in 1857, a steamship, full or passengers returning from the California gold rush, sunk in a violent hurricane with hundreds of passengers and tons of gold on board.  In the 1980's an intrepid engineer/inventor from Ohio, Tommy Thompson, revolutionized deep-sea salvage technology and recovered billions of dollars from the sunken ship.  This is the fascinating tale of how it all happened.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing *** 1/2  A harrowing and fascinating true story of 29 men trapped in the Antarctic for over a year and a half in 1915-16.  Just an amazing story of courage and survival--and they didn't even have to eat anybody!

Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson *** 1/2   This book traces the roots of male human violence to evolutionary patterns developed millions of years ago, when humans were freshly diverged from our close primate cousins, chimpanzees.  Wrangham and Peterson describe amazing parallels between chimp and human societies.  Contrary to what many believe, humans are in no way unique when it comes to unleashing incredible cruelty on their own kind, often for little more than the thrill of it.  By placing humans firmly in their evolutionary place we can clearly see the roots of male human violence.  Wrangham and Peterson also show how the example of peaceful bonobos (pygmy chimps-- our closest genetic relative) means that humans need not be destined to violence.  The book is well written, highly readable, and deals with a variety of interesting subjects of human and primate evolution.

Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War by Barbara Ehrenreich ****    Drawing on a variety of fields from biological and cultural anthropology to history and sociology, Ehrenreich presents a compelling thesis that humans' tendency towards war and ritualized violence developed from early humans, biological and cultural evolutionary responses to predation.  Ehrenreich firmly rejects the now discounted "man the hunter" hypothesis and finds that much of human culture is apparently explained by humans difficult transition from prey animal to predator.  War and its sacralization is the ultimate consequence of this transformation.  This highly readable book changed the way I look at humans' relations with nature, nationalism, and war.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger *** 1/2 The best seller of men (and women) against the sea in the worst storm off the east coast in over 100 years. Junger makes the 100 foot waves and 100 knot winds come vividly to life as swordfishermen struggle for survival. Junger sticks only to known facts and can only speculate what happens to the crew of the swordfish boat, the Andrea Gail, whose fate he follows through the storm. Very compelling and informative reading.

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner ****  This is one of the best books I have ever read. Cadillac Desert is the story of how, through corruption and lunacy we have transformed the American West, once upon a time a vast natural desert, into home to tens of millions people and vast agricultural areas. Amazingly, our government keeps betraying ordinary citizens to subsidize millionaire corporate farmers to grow crops in deserts that eastern farmers, with plenty of natural water, are paid not to grow. Throughout our history, the government has aided the already advantaged few to despoil the environment by taking away ever more water to enrich themselves even further. Westerners and their ethic of independence are based on vast water and agricultural subsidies which make welfare look like a drop in the bucket. This was the most eye-opening (and depressing) book I have ever read.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer ****  Somehow I failed to place this on my original reading list.  I realized the omission when compiling this list of favorites.  Krakauer's best-selling tale of disaster on Mount Everest is quite simply the most compelling story I have ever read.

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr ****
An absolutely terrific story based on a real-life legal battle. A gripping, can't-put-it-down legal drama that really makes you think.  Definitely the best legal drama I've ever read.

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If you've read any of these books, I'd love your comments. 

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