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Book recommendations

Posted on November 18, 2008

When I was a young child my mother cleaned the house of a wealthy family in the nearby town of Weston.  Often I would accompany her and would spend my time on the window seat of their library, surrounded by tall shelves full of books, the smell of leather and wood, and in the background the sound of a vacuum and my mother’s singing.

I still find immense satisfaction in books and vacations allow me the greatest indulgence: staying up all night reading a great novel.  It’s something I often did as a teenager (I know, major geek) and the demands of adult life and work and responsibility rarely allow me to do it now.

When not on vacations, I squeeze my reading in when I can.  Here are some of my favorite recent books:

  • Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.  You may know her for her quirky reporting on NPR’s This American Life and she brings the same wit and irreverance to her historical tour of all sites related to assassination of American presidents.  If that sounds like an odd premise for an historical inquiry, it is. But if you love history and trivia and odd coincidence, all with a backdrop of an actually substantial take on popular culture, I think you’ll like this book.
  • Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.  This is more conventional historical fiction, but there’s nothing conventional about the broad sweep and drama of this ostensible memoir (in the form of letters) by Owen Brown, the son of the great abolitionist (and some would say American terrorist) John Brown.  The 750-page novel is epic in its themes and scale and also incredibly intimate and humane.  Russell Banks was our first writer-in-residence and if he writes no other book than this one his place in American literature is assured.
  • 1491 by Charles C. Mann.  This historical inquiry looks at the Americas before first contact (thus the title) and explodes most of the widely accepted myths about the first Americans.  Instead of the Romantic notion of the noble primitive living in harmony with Nature, drawing on a wide range of research Mann instead reveals an often urban and heavily populated pair of continents in which the native population sought to shape and control its environment and demonstrated advanced technological know-how.  The book will dramatically alter your historical sense of what our world looked like before Columbus (and more deeply mourn what was lost in the utter devastation wrought by the arrival of Europeans).
  • The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin.  From the legal writer for The New Yorker, this insider look at the Supreme Court provides a glimpse into the mix of legal theory, political drama, and personalities that shapes major aspects of American life.  I never thought I’d say this, but Sandra Day O’Connor became one of my heroes after reading The Nine.

Soon, other recommendations.

2 thoughts on “Book recommendations

  1. Tim Dreyer says:

    I’m curious as to what kind of things your mother sang? I remember my mom singing church hymns in the kitchen.

    Also, as to books, the book 1491 looks interesting, and reminded me of the somewhat controversial ‘history’ book by Gavin Menzies 1421 – the Year China Discovered the World – an interesting look into what may have happened when Chinese explorers set out to map and explore the world before the Emporer was overthrown and China became so very isolationist.

    The history is suspect at best in some places (thus the controversy), but very interesting, and includes a lot of insights into what the world was like nearly 600 years ago. It also uncovers many reasons why Chinese and western cultures are so very different today.

    He has a follow up called 1434 that I have not read yet. I’ll look for 1491 too. I have no idea why these books with numbers in the titles caught my eye!

  2. Paul Leblanc says:

    And the height of the sub-genre may be the book written by an “independent” Norwegian scholar some years ago that basically traced ALL advances in the world back to Norway in some way or another. Everything from CAT scans to hockey to hoop skirts.

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