Saturday, April 04, 2009

Book list

Now that my sage green down jacket and bright red wool scarf spend their days in a rumpled heap at the bottom of my closet, it's time I close the door on my winter reading list and begin gathering forces for late spring afternoons in my Adirondack chair. But first, a few recommendations from this year's exercises, some from my basement stash, and others from the fine, fine Daniel Boone Library located a few blocks away. I spent more time in the orange speckled wingchairs upstairs in the reading room (with natural light streaming through the floor to ceiling windows) than I did in my own green wingchair this winter, my favorite $50 purchase now inhabited by a pillow covered in lupines. But the backyard is already shaping up to be a great space again; violets and sedges have taken full advantage of the available light following the burn, and my trusty colleague has donated a truckbed's worth of firewood to the reading cause. I hope my summer list includes as many great books as my winter list did...

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen. A terrific, intimate book by one of my favorite modern writers. Detailed character studies of a middle class family dealing with Alzheimer's.

How to be Alone, Jonathan Franzen. A book of essays regarding the modern condition of happiness in a world where we're constantly barraged by worthless stimuli, never able to simply exist.

The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen. Excellent autobiographical book about growing up in Webster Groves, Missouri in the late 1960s. This book made me want to run into the author one day at a coffeeshop. I felt very close to a writer I've never met after reading his book.

On Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell. Another wonderfully researched and thorough history account, this time about the original Puritan settlements. As a typically great Sarah Vowell book, it connects the modern political situation to the early American settlers. I think she may hate Reagan more than I do.

The Earth is Enough, Harry Middleton. As much about flyfishing for trout in the Ozarks as The Sun Also Rises is about bull fighting. This short book is a poetic tale of a man's affection for the natural world.

Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music along the Red River, Tracey Widiger Laird. Written by a childhood friend, this historical account details the rich musical history of Shreveport, Louisiana, a town now so far detached from the production of interesting music, that this book serves as a paean to a brilliant moment in it's history.

Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, Bruce Babbitt. I bought this book a few years ago when Bruce Babbitt visited Columbia to pitch his idea of turning the Missouri River from a seldom used thoroughfare for barges to a scenic riverway allowed to ebb and flow along the floodplain. The audience was tough that night, as most of them spend their summers paddling the Missouri, participating in cleanups along the Missouri, preserving and protecting the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge. He came with a pie-in-the-sky idea, but never really addressed the cost of buying out the countless farmers who plant crops in the Missouri River floodplain. Nevertheless, his book suggests a more sustainable America, where land use planning is not solely the responsibility of developers, but of the local community and the federal government. A thorough history of the development pressure around the Florida Everglades during the Clinton administration serves as a backdrop.

Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, Bill McKibben. From the leading environmental sciences author (whose environmental books are ALWAYS checked out from the Columbia library) comes a fun journal about testing the limits of his body. Never before an athlete, McKibben spends a year training to be a competitive downhill skier. The book is less about the passion he develops for skiing and the search for snow (a topic he addresses as it pertains to global climate change), but about how he became addicted to training. Near the end of the book, his father's failing health comes to the foreground, providing contrast to the manic pace best illustrated by his devotion to running.

Rabbit Redux, John Updike. Actually, I'm adding this one to serve as a warning. Following Updike's death, I checked out a few of his early books, having mostly read his later pieces and eloquent poetry in the New Yorker. After undergrad, I plunged into writers from the late 1960s-early 1970s: Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth, Updike. I was actually tired of George Eliot and Trollope. I wanted nothing to do with high English writers, wanting instead to understand the modern condition so I'd be prepared for the heartbreak, failure and infidelity that seemed to follow so many people around after they left the safe confines of college. But I'm grateful I didn't read this book back then. I likely would have given up on modern writers altogether. As a typical Updike book, it paints a vivid portrait of 1970s America. If you're my age or older, you can almost see the shag carpet and orange lighting peering out from oversized brown lampshades through his words. The despair of being trapped in a loveless marriage and of subsequent adultery (a common theme in his writing) takes a backseat to a graphic, often lewd fantasy world of pedophilia. I stuck with it, this first book of the Rabbit series, despite my constant moaning and groaning about how downright icky the second half of the book was.

Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as told by the men who made it, Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff. Amazing collection of interviews with early jazz greats like Danny Barker, Lil and Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Jelly Roll Morton, Coleman Hawkins and about 40 others. The interviews include detailed descriptions of life in jazz clubs of Harlem, Kansas City, New Orleans and New York. Great book.

The Invisible Pyramid, Loren Eiseley. Another heady book from a talented naturalist, this time about space exploration. In this book he argues that since we can't take care of our own planet, we really shouldn't be sinking millions of dollars in space exploration. Written in 1970, he mirrors my own thoughts: the biggest threat to biodiversity is a growing population, especially one that consumes as irresponsibly as we do today. Like his other books, this one is written mystically, sometimes difficult for me to understand when the kids are whispering on the chaise in the reading room.

And so, I'm taking suggestions for my summer list now...


Anonymous said...

I don't know how you do it - stack of unread books grows taller despite my best attempts to keep up.

I think I must move How to be alone to the top of the stack.

I wish I could be more like you.

my best--ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Oh my lord, you're so silly. You produce, silly. How could you have time to read when you write so much? I should start combing through all the published Ted McRae articles this summer! I think you'll dig Jonathan Franzen. He went to Swarthmore!

Scott Merritt said...

I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed "The Snoring Bird" by Bernd Heinrich. Not literature like you have listed, but pretty amazing story(ies) and good writing. Ted might dig "Papa's" obsession with ichneumons. And Allison - Bernd is also a runner.

Anonymous said...

Oh lord, don't bother reading my dry, documentative papers. Here's a Cliff Notes version that applies almost equally well to every one of them: I collected some beetles, this is what they are.

If you want stunning, evocative science with originality of thought, read John Muir's Mountains of California or Charles Darwin's Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (if you haven't already done so - I'm just catching up on some things I should have read long ago).

my best--ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Thank you Scott for the recommendation! I had to look up ichneumon (a kind of wasp? also a character in early Medieval bestiaries? Funny thing, I spent a year working on translating 10th century bestiaries and never came across one of these...oh well.) and trust that my fine library will have it. I checked out a Daniel Botkin collection of essays today on a whim: Strange Encounters-Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist. I devoured his books in preparation to an Amazon Basin trip, so I look forward to this one, too...

Allison Vaughn said...

I took a great ecology class as an undergrad in which we read Darwin's oevre. I loved it. Also a lot of Malthus in the mix. I've read some of John Muir's essays, but not the big book. Excellent. Two recommendations in as many days! I'm excited. Next time you're in Columbia, you have to see this library. It's a really great space.