Saturday, December 30, 2006


by Michael Flynn
While I read this book, researchers in London announced new findings about the Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year-old Greek computer discovered in a shipwreck in 1900. This was the kind of discovery that makes one wonder what other surprises remain to be uncovered from the past, or what past discoveries have yet to be correctly interpreted. Eifelheim tells two stories: one taking place "Now," as a historian struggles to determine why one of the many Black Forest villages hit by the plague in the 14th century was never rebuilt, despite its ideal location. (His partner, a physicist, is nearing a breakthrough that could also shed light on the case.) And the other story takes place in that village, shortly before its disappearance, as mysterious insect-like hominids suddenly take up residence in the nearby woods. We follow the priest, Dietrich, who happens to be the most educated man in town, as he tries to make sense of the visitors, who could've neatly fit in with the monstrous gargoyles on his church. Science as we know it does not yet exist, and there are no words for "interplanetary travel" or "alien species." The townspeople, who have spent their lives in the land the Grimm Brothers would later immortalize, interpret them as demons or mythical beasts, but Dietrich urges a cautious welcome. If, as they seem, they are stranded travelers, struggling to repair their craft, wouldn't it be the Christian thing to offer aid? Definitely the best medieval science fiction of the year.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists

by the editors of McSweeney's
If you can proudly carry around this pink and sparkly book with a moonlit unicorn on the cover, your sense of humor is probably edgy enough that you'll enjoy the humor inside. Then again, maybe you're an eight-year-old girl. In any case, Mountain Man Dance Moves takes David Letterman's Top Ten Lists to the next evolutionary level. Each list was submitted to McSweeney's magazine by a different writer, which ensures a lot of variety, and the humor ranges from silly absurdity ("Four Ways in Which My Life Is Just Like Pac-Man's") to dry wit ("Pickup Lines: The First Drafts"). Some lists build upon themselves, like tiny short stories. There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and, I'm ashamed to admit, read-out-loud moments. The perfect gift for your secretly-giggly hipster friends.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stumbling on Happiness

by Daniel Gilbert
Despite appearances, Stumbling on Happiness is not a self-help book, and won't tell you much about how to be a happier person. But it may you help you avoid some wrong turns in the pursuit of happiness. Humankind's ability to predict the future is one of our fanciest tricks; it is, arguably, what makes us human. But it's also one of our newest tricks, and, as Gilbert shows in study after study, our predictive abilities have their limitations and flaws. Your own imagination, as powerful as it is, is often completely wrong when it comes to predicting the outcomes of your decisions. Gilbert's writing style is full of humor and creative examples of each of his points, and there are plenty of "a-ha!" moments. And he does offer a simple solution, which he is pretty sure you'll refuse to follow up on, thanks to your brain's built-in biases. I'll take that as a challenge!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Ghost Map

by Steven Johnson
150 years ago, London was the largest city in the world, and in many ways very much like any modern metropolis. But the city was almost entirely lacking in infrastructure, public works. The flush toilet had recently been invented, but citywide sewers were still years off, and "night-soil men" were paid to haul off human waste when it collected too deeply in cesspools. To put it mildly, the city stank. Editorials were frequently published in the newspapers about the putrid air, and the ill-health it undoubtedly caused, especially in the poorest parts of town. Then, in late August, 1854, people start dying in Soho. It's not the first time cholera has attacked the city , but it's the deadliest. Whole families die overnight, while their neighbors are spared. Steven Johnson tells the story of the two men, a doctor and a minister, who overcome the pseudo-science of the time to find the exact cause, stop the spread of the disease, and ultimately change the way London, and cities across the world, functioned. Our 21st-century vantage point allows us to zoom in and out, from microbe to metropolis, in ways Dr. John Snow would have loved. Johnson does a wonderful job of making this scientific detective story into a page-turner.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Spot of Bother

by Mark Haddon
It's a time-honored dramatic convention: comedy ends in a wedding; tragedy ends in death. Much of the suspense in Mark Haddon's latest book comes from the uneasy sense that the story could go either way. From the start, we follow George Hall, as he and his wife prepare for their daughter's marriage to what could very well be the "wrong man." As upsetting as this is, George has problems of his own: his body, quickly followed by his mind, seems to be slowly coming unglued. He handles this as any British Gentleman would; he keeps it to himself. Of course, losing one's mind is not something one can keep a secret for long. Unlike Haddon's last book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his latest book gets into the heads of a wide range of characters. Some of the underlying themes, though, are similar: one's interior life may never be glimpsed, even by those one feels closest to. Everyone has their secrets, and miscommunications, and the exquisite chaos the characters spin around the Big Day is perhaps too neatly resolved. Though not as brilliant or groundbreaking as The Curious Incident, A Spot of Bother is an expertly crafted, enjoyable novel.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

This is Your Brain on Music

by Daniel J. Levitin
A successful record producer who became a neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin is in a unique position to write about music. Luckily, he's a skillful writer as well, explaining the jargon-filled fields of both music and neuroscience for the layman. What, exactly, is music? Why does it provoke such an emotional response? Why do we dislike some music so passionately? How can a few tiny bones in my ear possibly sound like a symphony? How can we hear a strange new version of an old song and still identify it -- something no computer can pull off? Levitin sheds light on all these questions and many more. This is one of those science books that not only gives satisfying answers but also fills the reader with wonder.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Polysyllabic Spree

by Nick Hornby
"If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. And every now and again you'd get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I'm still backing literature 29 times out of 30."
- Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby writes like a good friend; he's opinionated, self-deprecating, smart and funny. The Polysyllabic Spree is a compilation of Hornby's monthly columns for Believer Magazine, in which he basically blogs about the books he bought and the books he read each month. Hornby is a strong believer that reading should be fun. This doesn't mean that books have to be trashy, just that there's no reason to slog your way through something you don't enjoy when the world is full of incredible books. His enthusiasm for books is contagious, and, whether or not you share his tastes, you may find your reading appetite re-invigorated. Fun stuff.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The March

by E.L. Doctorow
In Doctorow's latest book, Sherman's March appears like a hurricane, inexorably twisting its way across the south, unimaginably vast and destructive. At the center, if not always in control, is Sherman himself, who is both weary and strangely at home. We follow several fictional characters at the edges of the storm, as well, people who are victims, opportunists, or a bit of each. Pearl is the daughter of a slave and a slaveowner. No longer a slave, she uses the march to find a new identity: could she pass for white? Could she pass for male? Is there any place for her in the new world? Arly and Will, two convicts, use the march as their escape from punishment; they quickly don whichever uniforms are most advantageous at the time and thrive on the chaos around them. Colonel Sartorius is a surgeon who dreams of an antiseptic world where he can achieve more than daily amputations. At times the great and terrible march seems like the only place to be; the world around it has fallen apart, and the world behind it is in smoking ruins.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Wake Up, Sir!

by Jonathan Ames
Alan Blair is a sad alcoholic living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. Then again, he's a witty young man, a published novelist with an unbelievably efficient butler named Jeeves. When his aunt and uncle insist that he returns to rehab, he has a better idea: an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, where he can get down to finally finishing his second novel. He and Jeeves hit the road, falling into various misadventures along the way. Part of what I loved about Alan was the way his education and erudition served him so poorly in his dirty, real-world settings. In this respect, the character brought to mind Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces. Both characters seem to live in denial of the real world, floating somewhere above it in their minds, and below it in the minds of everyone else. Jeeves is obviously too good to be true, but his unflappable exchanges with Alan made me laugh out loud. Wake Up, Sir! bounces around on the sheer joy and pain of never quite fitting in, wherever you go, leaving the world a wonderful, horrible adventure.


by Jared Diamond
In his 1998 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues that the most important factor determining the rate of a society's development has always been its location. In Collapse, however, Diamond shows that location does not seal the fate of societies, which can choose to adapt to their environments or not. Using examples from Montana, Greenland, Japan, New Guinea, Rwanda, and Easter Island, he builds a strong case that societies succeed only by throwing out any behaviors incompatible with their environment. And as population increases and globalization knits the world together ever more tightly, there are fewer and fewer societies existing in isolation. If every society now desires to live like ours in the "first world," can the world sustain us? Will we adapt to our global environment, or choose our lifestyles over our survival?

Black Swan Green

by David Mitchell
Mitchell, author of such headspinning novels as Cloud Atlas (see below) and Ghostwritten, has, at first glance, stepped off his runaway train to write something more traditional: a semi-autobiographical "first novel." This is a coming-of-age tale of a year in the life of one 13-year-old boy living in a suburb in northwestern England in 1982. That's right, just one boy, one voice, one village, one year. This is still David Mitchell, though, and he shows that a year with Jason Taylor can be just as wonderfully complex and multi-layered as anything else. Jason's voice is unique, something he himself learns to deal with over the course of the book. Identity is a theme familiar to Mitchell fans, as are several other themes here: self-perception, the power of the individual, the strong versus the weak, the unrelenting change inherent in being alive. Beautifully done.

Good Omens

by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Good Omens has been described with phrases like "If Douglas Adams had written the Omen" and "Monty Python does Armageddon." I don't quite see it as living up to Adams or Python, but it does hold its own as an entertaining end-times fantasy. The story revolves around a demon, Crowley (formerly employed in the garden of Eden) and an angel, Aziraphale, who are called on by their respective teams to kick the end of the world into gear. The Antichrist is switched at birth, and hijinks ensue. Crowley and Aziraphale, immortals who have spent thousands of years living on Earth, have actually grown to like humans (and each other), and are a bit ambivalent about carrying out their final mission. Meanwhile, a strange young woman named Anathema Device lives her life according to a big book of prophecies written by her distant ancestor. Is there any escape from the divine plan?

The Omnivore's Dilemma

by Michael Pollan
Pollan, whose last book was the superb The Botany of Desire, writes this time about the origin of food. That's not to say the historical origins, although he does occasionally visit that topic. I'm talking about the origin of that thing you just ate. Where did it come from? What was it made of, and why? (And why, so often, CORN?) How much better is "organic" food? How did we become people who know so little about the food we eat? Our ignorance about food is something most of us have become very comfortable with. But this yawning gap in our everyday lives is something Pollan says we should pay attention to. To blindly put our trust in the various industries assembling our grocery items, or to blindly follow whatever diet trends are on the bestseller lists can have disasterous results, not just for our bodies but for our society at large. Pollan's prose is engaging, eye-opening, and warm, despite the sometimes unsettling subject matter.

The Island at the Center of the World

by Russell Shorto
Somewhere in the New York State Library, a man painstakingly translates a sheaf of 450-year-old documents, piecing together, for the first time, a detailed picture of the Dutch settlement that would gradually evolve into New York City. From this trove of information, Russell Shorto has crafted a warm, vivid, and very human story that feels more immediate than many current-day accounts of New York life. Shorto helps us interpret what exactly happened during the infamous sale of Manhattan Island; sheds light on peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant; and introduces us to Adrien van der Donck, lawyer and dreamer, who emerges as one of the most influential (and underappreciated) founders of New Amsterdam. Van Der Donck, according to Shorto, envisioned a Manhattan that was much more than just a corporate outpost managed by military men. Van Der Donck fought passionately for his vision of religious tolerance and individual rights. This is one of those books that makes you wonder how your high school history teacher could possibly have made history seem so dull.

The Unfolding of Language

by Guy Deutscher
You hear it several times a year: the English language is going to hell in a handbasket. People are losing their ability to put together a sentence. No one has any respect for grammar or punctuation these days! Like many linguists, Guy Deutscher finds this standard rant both amusing and ignorant. Turns out that it's not just English, it's every other language as well. And it's not just "nowadays," either. People have been complaining about the younger generations' mangling of their language since the ancient Egyptians, and probably long before that. The fact is, languages are constantly falling apart, and, nostalgia aside, there has never been a Golden Age when the rules of your favorite language were perfectly upheld. So how, in the face of this constant, global linguistic decay, do languages survive and even thrive? Deutscher explains the way language evolves over time, and even speculates about how the first languages might have come into existence. The book is a bit thick at times, but illuminating, thought-provoking, and funny as well.

A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off The Couch

by Haven Kimmel
I'm not usually a big memoir reader, but I loved these two. Kimmel writes about childhood truthfully, without a trace of cutesyness or melodrama. She captures the voice of her younger self perfectly, while letting us read between the lines, seeing things that Zippy's little girl and Couch's adolescent weren't yet ready to see. Like all families, Kimmel's is strange, and Zippy, of course, has no idea. As she grows, she starts to wonder some things, like why her mother never leaves the couch, what, exactly, her dad does for a living, and why her friends' parents often offer her a bath. The second book, She Got Up Off the Couch, moves into deeper, darker territory (as adolescence often does), while still often being laugh-out-loud funny. What happens when Zippy's couch-bound mother decides it's time to get up and go to college? Will the family survive?

Lincoln's Melancholy

by Joshua Wolf Shenk
"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."
- Abraham Lincoln, in an 1841 letter to a friend.
Through most of his life, Lincoln's friends and associates commented on his depressive nature. One of his law partners, William Herndon, wrote about Lincoln that "his melancholy dripped from him as he walked." Friends in New Salem, where Lincoln lived as a young man, put him on suicide watch during one of his darkest periods. Joshua Wolf Shenk's book asserts that Lincoln was a nearly perfect textbook example of a person suffering from depression. Yet, as many of us think of him, he seems to have had one of the healthiest minds in history. Shenk builds a sympathetic and very personal portrait of Lincoln as an extremely high-functioning depressive, a man whose darkness may have played a large part in his greatness. At the same time, he sheds light on the differences between Lincoln's time, when "Melancholics" were seen to have advantages along with their obvious disadvantages, and our own time, when Depression is seen as a disease to be cured.

Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Nothing so far has spurred our current government to do much about impending global climate change. Meanwhile, heatwaves and hurricanes have shown us that our country is not actually immune to those changes. So what, exactly, would have to happen that would be severe enough to get our government into gear? That seems to be the question on Kim Stanley Robinson's mind with Forty Signs of Rain. How about serious flooding at our nation's capitol, nearly returning DC to the fetid swamp it once was? How about, later that same year, record low temperatures that grind the eastern seaboard to a halt? Robinson puts his characters at the center of the storm, politically as well as meterologically. Anna Quibler and Frank Vanderwal work with the National Science Foundation. Anna's husband, Charlie, is a stay-at-home dad and environmental advisor to a liberal senator (and possible presidential candidate). In Fifty Degrees Below, the driving question becomes: If the USA put our best minds and billions of dollars to work on the problem, is there really anything we could do at this point? I prefered the second book, which mainly follows the eccentric Frank. Forty felt too much like an introduction, while Fifty throws you right into the maelstrom.

The Tree of Life

by Peter Sis
Peter Sis brings a warm, watercolored texture to the story of Charles Darwin's life. Each page is like something discovered in an attic, or folded into an old atlas on a library shelf. At the same time, Sis makes Darwin seem more human than ever. We learn of his childhood, his excitement at travelling around the world (on one spread, Sis seems to have reproduced, in miniature, every single page of Darwin's seagoing journals), his joys and sadnesses as a father, his secret scientific writing, and how close he came to fading into obscurity.

No Plot? No Problem!

by Chris Baty
Many of us have talked about writing a novel "someday." Chris Baty believes that the reason most wannabe novelists never write their novels is that they lack a deadline, without which it's too easy to put novel-writing off indefinitely. So in 1999 Baty and friends created their own deadline, which they called National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). If you sign up, you're agreeing to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That's the size of a short novel, like The Great Gatsby or Brave New World. At the end of the month, if you've made it to 50K, you're a winner - no judges read your manuscript to decide its literary merits. The point is quantity, not quality. At the end of the month, you'll have a first draft to either shred, delete, or edit to polished perfection. No Plot? No Problem! is Baty's companion book, and it's definitely got me fired up about actually sitting down and writing the novel I've been chewing on for so long.

The History of Love

by Nicole Krauss
I loved what Ken Kalfus said about this book, that it "will break your heart and at once mend it." The History of Love haunted me even as I read it. It's primarily the story of an old man, a young girl, and a book, and the possibilities of connections between the three. Krauss feels a lot of affection for these characters, and lets us take our time to get to know them, while gradually putting together the pieces of the grand story beneath the story. Beautiful, funny and sad.

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists

by Gideon Defoe
After reading a particularly toothsome book (see directly below), I was having trouble finding anything suitable to follow it up. The Pirates! was perfect: short, silly, and infinitely charming. The story concerns a Pirate Captain (called only, "the Pirate Captain") and his merry crew, who are misled into attacking the H.M.S. Beagle. Somehow the pirates go on to befriend Darwin, who tells him his Important Theory (ahem) and asks for their help in rescuing his brother, Erasmus, from the dastardly Bishop of Oxford. This is Pythonesque humor: the author has absolutely no interest in confining himself to historical accuracy or even the rules of "good writing." Cliches are abused, to comic effect; chapter titles are completely irrelevant; and most of the pirate characters are called things like "The pirate with a scarf" or "the pirate who played the accordian." Defoe's goal was apparently to make the reader laugh out loud, and he does that with aplomb. I felt compelled to read sections aloud to some friends and family, who, luckily, thought it as funny as I did.

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell
Meet seafaring notary Adam Ewing, musical wunderkind Robert Frobischer, investigative reporter Luisa Rey, aging vanity press editor Timothy Cavendish, dinery clone Sonmi-451, and post-apocolyptic goatherd Zachry. Each of their stories begins in a time and place far removed from the previous story, and each story (save the last) is interrupted halfway through. One might expect a structure like this to collapse under its own weight, killing whatever interest one might have in the characters. Quite the opposite. Mitchell keeps us interested in all the characters, each story is returned to and concluded, and there are enough connections between stories that a larger story starts to take shape. (I must heartily recommend the audio version: the language can be quite baroque, and the six different narrators of the audiobook do an incredible job of keeping the story flowing smoothly.)

Assassination Vacation

by Sarah Vowell
NPR regular Sarah Vowell, with her little-girl voice and quirky essays, may seem like an odd person from whom to get a history lesson. But Assassination Vacation is a truly engaging cross-section of American history, using the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield as a starting point. Vowell travels across the country, often with friends or family in tow, to visit historical sites and flesh them out with surprising detail. I can't say I ever knew anything about McKinley or Garfield, and I doubt I would normally pick up a book about either President, but after a few dozen pages I was willing to let Vowell take me wherever she went. She's like your favorite aunt-you might not start out sharing her passions, but you know it'll never be boring. (NOTE: My wife and I listened to the audio version, which I highly recommend. Not only do you get Vowell's unique voice, but an odd assortment of celebrities join in, such as Stephen King, Jon Stewart, and Conan O'Brien.)


by Ian McEwan
It's easy to forget all the things that happen to us in a day. Pick a random date, say, two weeks ago, and it's tempting to say that "nothing much" happened then. But even on a slow day, a million tiny dramas and epiphanies can play themselves out. Some may lead nowhere, while others may be the start of life-changing developments. Henry Perowne, the hero of Saturday, is a comfortable guy, with a rewarding job, a loving wife, and two children he's proud of, and we follow him through what starts as a fairly unremarkable "day off." Terror, both remote (a possible terrorist attack on the news) and immediate (his mother's dementia, street thugs) hangs over the story, but Perowne is a capable and optimistic man. He's neither a hero or a villian, but an ordinary upper-middle-class guy who we're glad to get to know, especially his ordinary day gradually becomes extraordinary.


by Thomas DeZengotita
Mediated is a hard book to describe, which is a shame, because I find myself recommending it to almost everyone I know. Imagine that you are the sun, and every flower on Earth points toward you, every leaf on every tree angles toward you. This is somewhat similar to the situation we, as 21st-century Americans, face every day. Each of us is at the center of our own solar system, surrounded every day by hundreds of flattering appeals for our attention, be it television, radio, books, magazines, billboards, etc. What effect does this have? How do we, who are practically the stars of our own reality shows, compare to our grandparents, whose media intake was but a trickle? How do kids growing up today find their way through the constant barrage of information, advertising, and entertainment? Is there anything left in the world that's still real, or is "real" the best we can hope for? DeZengotita neither celebrates nor condemns our situation, but he does a great job of describing it, and opening the reader's eyes.

The Ancestor's Tale

by Richard Dawkins
This is the first of Dawkins's books I've read, though I've admired him at a distance for years. I do get the sense that this book, encyclopedic as it is, was more of a pure joy for him then some of his other works. The Ancestor's Tale is a delightful journey "down" the evolutionary tree (by which I mean backwards in time) all the way to the beginning of life on Earth. Modern humans, of course, populate only a tiny twig on the great and humbling tree of life, even if you consider only those species that are still in existence today. It's not long before we're joined on our journey by chimpanzees, and ponder what our common ancestor might have been like. We continue back in time, joined by more species in the (reverse) order that our branches split from theirs, and stopping here and there to learn what we can about evolution itself. Dawkins's style is entertaining and exuberant; he's as wide-eyed as the reader at some of evolution's acheivements. My friends got an earful of my excited recountings of Dawkins's revelations, i.e.: "Did you know that less than 4% of animal species are more closely related to us than starfish are?" Though written for the layperson, Dawkins assumes the reader is intelligent, and there are a few challenging tangents. All in all, an exciting and illuminating voyage through evolutionary history.

A Thread of Grace

by Mary Doria Russell
How did Italians manage to save the lives of 43,000 Jews in the last 20 months of World War II? Russell's third book, while decidedly more earth-bound than her stellar SF novels, The Sparrow and Children of God, is equally concerned with questions of heaven and earth. Are there crimes for which one can never be forgiven? How far can one go into hell and still come home? A Thread of Grace is a complex tale, with several main characters and dozens of bit characters, as beautifully real as those in Russell's previous novels. (Fans of The Sparrow may see Emilio Sandoz echoed in the character of Renzo Leoni.) The horrors of the war, as well as the unending kindness of the Italians who hid the Jews, are made real by Russell's earthy, glorious writing.

Mr. Lincoln's Wars

by Adam Braver
Whether the thirteen stories of Mr. Lincoln's Wars adds up to a novel depends on how neatly one likes one's story threads woven together. The stories take you back and forth in time, meeting characters real and fictional, many of whom never show up again. Braver does succeed at bringing the reader into a world, one of grief, kindness, violence, compassion, and madness. The writing is so vivid and detailed that I felt I could smell Lincoln's office, the horses on the cobblestones, the Civil War hospital. One of the stories, about a man who finds an outlet for his violent impulses in the War, was a bit too gruesome for me. Lincoln himself is portrayed as a good man, haunted by depression and death, both larger-than-life and more human than we've ever seen him. On the whole, Mr. Lincoln's Wars brought to life a man, and a time, I was fascinated to visit.

The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry DeTamble has a genetic disorder that makes his life unpredictable: hellish at worst and emotionally jarring at best. During times of stress, sadness, or physical hardship, Henry travels back (or sometimes forward) in time. He has no choice about when it happens or when and where he ends up. He'll find himself suddenly hundreds of miles from his home, naked and hungry. Sometimes he'll meet himself, as a child or as an adult. One day at work, he meets a woman who gives him the strangest look. This is Clare, who has known him, sporadically, since she was six years old. But in his life so far, he's never met her. Their relationship is full of these strange causal loops, which Niffenegger guides us through with no confusion. Like The Lovely Bones (see below), this book uses elements of fantasy or science fiction not as a either a central focus or as a cheap gimmick, but as a way to get at the poignancy of every day life. Henry's time travelling points out the fragile timing that is at the core of all human relationships.

The City of Ember

by Jeanne DuPrau
Lina and her friend Doon are 12-year-old school kids in Ember, a town that's familiar, but rather odd: it's pitch black outside, 24 hours a day. Floodlights are turned on every morning, and turned off every night. Food comes from storerooms in the bowels of the city. Supplies are running a little thin—Lina's grandmother tells her of a heavenly, but long-gone, treat called "pineapple"—and power failures seem to be occuring more and more often. The townspeople seem entirely uneducated in the ways of science. They have never questioned the workings of their city, and now it's falling apart. A few have tried to explore the outer reaches, but found only blackness. When Lina finds a mysterious set of instructions that seems to tell of a way to leave Ember, she and Doon investigate, and what they find shakes them to the core. It's a terrific young adult book that resonated deeply with my 35-year-old soul.

The Americas: A Hemispheric History

by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
If you enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel for its big-picture examination of long-term cultural trends, you might enjoy zooming in just a bit on the more recent history of the Americas. Just as Jared Diamond's book attempted to explain why different cultures evolve differently, The Americas follows the turbulent history of the New World, from the first human migrations up to today. Only when the Americas are studied collectively, argues Fernandez-Armesto, can one start to understand how we arrived where we are. How did the most promising, resource-rich, culturally complex zones fall into political chaos and unrest? And how did the barren hinterlands to the north grow into the United States of America? Can the "other Americas" ever hope to catch up without being allowed to exploit their natural resources the way the USA has? This brief, but masterful, survey of American history provides some thought-provoking answers and will undoubtedly spark some questions.


by Octavia E. Butler
Dana, a modern-day woman, finds herself repeatedly slipping back in time to save the life of one of her ancestors. No explanation is made of the time-travelling, it just happens. And it's a bad thing, because Dana is black, and her ancestor, Rufus, is the white son of a Maryland slaveholder in 1815. Butler never calls this book science fiction; there's "absolutely no science in it," as she once said. But if it's a fantasy, it is, for the most part, horrifyingly realistic. Dana is not a passive observer; she has been "called back" to save a life, and she knows her own existence depends on it. Out of necessity, she gets to know Rufus, his parents, and the slaves on the plantation. And as she gets stuck there for longer periods of time, she finds her choices dwindling until she herself is a slave. Escape, even for someone with her knowledge of the future, is next to impossible. The book is full of complex relationships: the mixture of dependance and revulsion between Dana and Rufus, and the similar feelings between the slaves and their master. Kindred makes history as raw and painful as the multiple injuries Dana brings home from her journeys.


by Robert Harris
While not necessarily great literature, Pompeii is a gripping historical thriller and disaster story, well-researched and beautifully told. Marcus Attilius Primus is a Roman water engineer sent to fix the failing aquaducts in the Campania region of southern Italy. The reader is told at the start that Vesuvius will erupt in two days. This puts quite a layer of urgency underneath Attilius's struggle to put the clues together. As resourceful as Attilius is, and even with the help of the great philosopher-scientist Pliny, it becomes apparent that no one at the time even realizes that Vesuvius is a volcano. Attilius's investigations lead him to Pompeii, which, unlike all the surrounding towns, has more than its share of water. A sleazy, power-hungry ex-slave named Ampliatus seems unusually interested in Attilius's work, and helps fund an expedition up the slope of Vesuvius to find the blockage in the underground aquaduct. Time ticks away, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Attilius will even survive until the time of the blast. At one point, the intrepid aquarius is actually up ON the steaming black summit of the mountain. When the eruption starts, we see it from all angles: from the panicking streets of Pompeii, from Pliny's fascinated perch in Misenum, from military ships in the harbor, and from WAY TOO CLOSE, which is always where Attilius seems to be. The book can easily be read in real-time, but you'll probably want to read much faster.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson
Until my teenage years, I was pretty sure I would grow up to be a scientist. I pictured myself with the beard, the lab coat, the telescope. What could be more exciting than making discoveries about the way the world works? Then I met Mr. Lane, my High School biology teacher, and he impressed upon me that science was mainly about memorization of the periodic table. My youthful fascination with science—the unfathomable depths of space, the terror of dinosaurs, the miracle of evolution—soon faded, becoming more of an armchair interest. Bryson's book is like a shock to the system, jumpstarting my old sense of scientific curiosity. In fewer than 500 pages, Bryson sweeps through the entire history of science, touching down wherever there's a good story to be told. You not only learn, for example, exactly what Isaac Newton contributed to science, but also what a world-class weirdo he was. Science is crawling with strange characters, career-destroying (and sometimes fatal) feuds, happy accidents (and awful ones), and competing ideas on almost every subject. Mr. Lane, wherever you are, maybe you need this book even more than I did.

I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark

by Brian Hall
An intimate look at the lives of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Sacagawea, Toussaint Charbonneau (her husband), and York, Clark's slave. Hall writes from the inside out; his writing style changes completely depending on the character he's spending time with. When you see the world through the eyes of Lewis, things are complex, multi-layered, shot through with dry wit and irony. Clark, on the other hand, is a simpler man, good-hearted and easy-going. Sacagawea's sections are difficult at first; not only does she come from a culture worlds apart from that of Lewis and Clark, we first meet her as a child being kidnapped by an enemy tribe. Disorientation is a part of her story, and Hall lets the reader get a little lost with his characters, all of whom are visiting uncharted territory. Somehow we come to feel that we know each of these people better than they ever knew each other. Hall takes you beyond the heroic history book tales, into the sweat and tragedy of real life, and I've never read a more heartbreaking story.

The Fortress of Solitude

by Jonathan Lethem
A word of warning: Do not read this book for its plot. This is stunning prose poetry in the guise of novel. Lethem dangles several intriguing plots in front of you, but don't hold too tightly to them—they just don't go much of anywhere. Read the Fortress of Solitude instead for its breathtaking depictions of childhood. No one does it better. Every child grows up in a culture different from that of their parents', and Dylan Ebdus, hero of this story, is the child of white counter-cultural types who are part of the first wave of the "gentrification" of Brooklyn in the early 1970s. Dylan's efforts to fit in to the world around him are rarely successful, but with the help of a mysterious black friend, Mingus Rude, he starts to find his niche. More than most novels I've read, this one is pumped full of music, so that you can feel the 70s vibrating through you, soul changing to funk, to disco, to punk, to rap. Lethem captures the heartache of a kid who desperately wants to be black, or at least be cool, or at least be something.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon
Christopher Boone is a 15-year-old autistic boy who loves math, computer games, and his pet rat, Toby. He lives with his dad, who does his best to care for a very challenging kid. One night Christopher finds the neighbor's dog impaled on a garden fork, and he's accused of the crime. He decides to solve the mystery in the manner of his hero, Sherlock Holmes. While he shares Holmes's logical mind, he is hampered in his detective work by his inability to understand other people's emotions, or even to look them in the eye. He's also incapable of lying and metaphor - ("You're the apple of my eye!") is incomprehensible to him. The book is written as if it's Christopher's journal, and it doesn't take long to slip inside his head. It starts as sort of a quirky whodunnit but turns out to have surprising depth and suspense. Christopher Boone is unforgettable.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

by Orson Scott Card
After reading some pretty good science fiction, I started reading this, and thought to myself, "Oh yeah, this is how it's done." This is the good stuff. Pastwatch is a far-future organization dedicated to viewing and studying the past. Machines let researchers watch anything from any time through history. Teams work on projects, trying to find the truth behind ancient legends, for example. One researcher, studying slavery, finds a clue that the long-dead people she's watching might occasionally be able to see her as well. If this is possible, could she help them out of their terrible suffering? Should she? And if everyone could agree to alter history, how could it be done in a way that wouldn't backfire? This storyline alternates with a vivid account of Christopher Columbus's life, as he grows and focuses his formidable energies on his lifelong mission. He's presented as a generally good man who is very much a product of his society. Card makes him a rich and fascinating character, and there's a lot of suspense in anticipating his eventual collision with the well-meaning time-travellers. Will it be the end of both parties? My wife and I found the book impossible to put down.

The Hours

by Michael Cunningham
Forget the movie, even (for a while) forget Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway -- The Hours stands on its own as a stunning book, lyrical and heartbreaking, witty and painfully real. While it is closely based on Mrs. Dalloway, it's written in a different style, and the three main characters of the book (Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn) are fresh and unique. Their relationships with those they love, and with each other, feel true to life. Each of these women goes through one day in June, and the overwhelming sense is that wherever (and whenever) they are, they are just human beings trying to get through the next few hours.

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things

by Barry Glassner
Many of us may watch more TV news than we care to admit, especially in the last two years. There's a sense of needing to "keep up" with world events. Glassner's book was written in the late nineties, but it applies just as well today. His premise is that Americans are fed a constant media diet of terrifying "news items" that are often inaccurate, vague, or just plain wrong. There's no time for corrections, though, because the next terrifying story is already headed your way. Killer bees! Flesh-eating virus! Teen pregnancy! Internet predators! These hyped-up scare stories take attention away from actual problems that desperately need our attention, such as overpopulation, destruction of the environment, a failing educational system, and underavailability of health care. The book is both reassuring and upsetting: a thoughtful reminder to focus our energies.

The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold
Wow. Simple, creative, and very moving. 14-year-old Susie Salmon sits in Heaven, telling the story of her murder and watching the Earth below as her family, her friends, and her killer deal with the aftermath. It's not a mystery, exactly, but there's plenty of suspense and emotional tension. Grief can tear families apart and bring people closer at the same time. Susie's voice is unforgettable, full of compassion, but not quite ready to let go of her earthly desires. From her vantage point, she can see everything, but living people are unpredictable as ever.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

by John McWhorter
How does language change through time? How did one language become thousands? Is there any real difference between dialects and languages? What was the first human language like? McWhorter thoroughly explores these ideas and many more in this fascinating book. If you enjoyed the scope and spirit of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, I highly recommend this parallel story of human development. Though McWhorter's style is very informal (sometimes even silly), he does take you, step-by-step, through a vast evolutionary world.


by Louis Sachar
This young adult book is great fun for adults as well, though we may try to read too much into it. Relax. It's a tall-tale, meant to be enjoyed. Stanley Yelnats' first Summer Camp experience is no vacation; he's sent there by a judge for a crime he didn't commit. His camp-mates are the toughest juvenile delinquents in the country, and the motto of the camp is, "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy." But what's the real reason for all the hole-digging? Is Stanley's bad luck all because of a curse put on his family? And if so, how can he turn his misfortune around?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

by Michael Chabon
For anyone who daydreams about the larger-than-life characters and locations in 1930s - 1950s New York City, Kavalier & Clay is like a candy store. The World's Fair is here, as well as Salvador Dali, Raymond Scott, the Empire State Building, the Golem, Houdini, Antarctica, the Nazis, and, of course, the golden age of comic books. What makes the book greater than the self-indulgent pulp it could've been? Sam Klayman and Joe Kavalier, the cousins at the heart of the story. It's a story about escape, in all its forms - and sometimes, the futility of escape. As amazing as their adventures are, Sam and Joe live in the real world, and that's what makes the book as beautiful as it is exciting

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell
This was one of the most suspenseful books I'd read in a long time. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien intelligence. The book follows two timelines - one after Sandoz's return (Sandoz is a complete emotional and physical wreck), and one before and during the mission. It's great writing - At first I was dying to know what happened on the planet, but soon I was just glad to spend time with the characters. The sequel, Children of God, is well done - not as hard-hitting as the original, but more complete.

The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman
The first in a trilogy, The Golden Compass is ostensibly Young Adult Fiction, but gets into increasingly deep and dark areas. Amazing stuff. It all starts with a girl named Lyra, who lives in Oxford, England, but not the one we know. In her world, each person has a "daemon," or spirit-animal, who is always with him or her. This daemon can change into any animal at any time, and can talk with you the way you might talk to your conscience. When you reach puberty, your daemon chooses a permanent form. Rumors are circulating about a group of kidnappers separating children from their daemons. Could this have anything to do with the mysterious city visible in the Aurora Borealis?

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

by Chris Ware
Chris Ware is almost more of a graphic designer than a comic book artist. His creations have the look and feel of early 20th-century publications - painstaking ornamental flourishes and tiny lead-type novelty advertisements - but the ache of postmodern despair. Jimmy Corrigan is sometimes portrayed as a kid, sometimes as a lonely middle-aged man. His drawings are so intricate and precise - I feel as if, once more, I'm wearing glasses for the first time, able to see incredible details I've missed for years.