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Tropics' 2012 Books Read.

50 Book Challenge

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Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 11:07am Top

1. The Way Of Herodotus: Travels With The Man Who Invented History - Justin Marozzi

As much as I would like to report that I've read Herodotus: The Histories, the sad truth is that I've merely scanned it, quickly tiring of descriptions of hubris manifested in the ceaseless struggle between ancient adversaries - the Greeks versus the Persians - Darius, Xerxes, Croesus, Cyrus, et al. How unfortunate that historians have uncovered so little information about Herodotus himself, indefatigable traveler, foreign correspondent, a pioneer of prose, born about 490 B.C.E.

Herodotus wisely warns the occasionally disbelieving reader thusly:

"I am obliged to record the things I am told, but I am certainly not required to believe them".

British writer Justin Marozzi, himself a resourceful and insightful traveler, fully engages the reader as he sets out to follow in Herodotus's footsteps in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Iraq, Egypt, and Greece. Although he is as much given to digressions as Herodotus himself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Of special interest is that the author worked in Baghdad in 2004 during the American-led invasion of Iraq and while there visited the ruins of Babylon, as had Herodotus many centuries before. Remnants of Nebuchadnezzar's capital still exist, abused in countless ways, most recently under the temporary jurisdiction of American and Polish troops, who were there presumably to safeguard the site.

Although I've never visited Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Tukey), Herodotus' birthplace, I had the pleasure of spending several weeks on the Greek Island of Samos, to which he and his father were allegedly exiled, and have there visited the remnants of the Temple of Hera, the largest Ionic temple in Greece.

One wonders what Herodotus would think about the squabbling and contentiousness associated with modern politics. His writings reveal that he was tolerant of other people's religions and cultural traditions.

"Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a mad man would mock at such things."

Edited: Jan 14, 2012, 10:03am Top

2. Not With A Bang But A Whimper: The Politics And Culture Of Decline - Theodore Dalrymple

A collection of essays by a now-retired British doctor and psychiatrist who for years worked in a prison and hospital in Birmingham, England. He is of Russian and German/Jewish ancestry, his mother having arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

The essays are wide-ranging, providing the author's perspectives on the writings of other authors, including Samuel Johnson,Steven Pinker, Arthur Koestler, Henrik Ibsen, George Orwell, David Irving, Friedrich A. Von Hayek, Anthony Burgess, Sam Harris, J.G. Ballard, and John Updike.

The author's long exposure to the criminal element of British society has led him to form strong opinions about the direction in which the country has been heading, that seemingly being into a cultural abyss. He believes that "nowhere in the developed world has civilization gone so fast and so far into reverse as here" (England). The rule of law, which he reminds us is a historical achievement, is unraveling. Crime is pervasive and walking through many neighborhoods is no longer safe. He is dismayed by the concept of multiculturalism, which pretends that all cultures are equal and that society benefits by becoming "a kind of salad bowl". Additionally, he is of the opinion that government handouts have resulted in a breakdown of the family, a sense of entitlement and a decline in self-initiative. He is alarmed by schools that increasingly turn out students unprepared to assume responsibility for themselves. He traces the increasingly unstructured nature of society in part to attitudes that became pervasive during the self-absorbed 1960s. He laments the ill-conceived notion that modern psychotropic drugs would render mental institutions unnecessary. Prisons are now providing that "service".

So disenchanted has he become by England that he has retired to France.

Edited: Jan 15, 2012, 8:56am Top

3. The New Vichy Syndrome - Theodore Dalrymple

I'm not a European (my grandparents emigrated from Scandinavia to Canada in their youth) and it's been years since I visited the Continent. However, myriad problems facing members of the European Union related to the worldwide financial crisis have been widely reported in the international media. As I write this, Greece is teetering on the brink of insolvency.

The author, a British doctor and psychiatrist who for decades has worked in a Birmingham hospital and prison, is of the opinion that the ravages of World War Two destroyed European self-confidence. Europe has also been weakened by a declining birthrate and by being almost entirely dependent for its energy needs on foreign and distant resources. Although Germany remains an industrial powerhouse, the rest of Europe and Britain are allegedly being left behind in the increasingly competitive global marketplace.

"Vichy" refers to the government of France that collaborated with the Axis powers after it surrendered to Germany following the invasion in 1940. "The New Vichy Syndrome" apparently refers to a different kind of surrender - a spiritual and cultural one. The influx of Moslem immigrants has rendered some cities barely recognizable. The "elite" have manifested moral cowardice by failing to confront egregious imported traditions such as coerced marriages, denial of education for young girls, and honor killings. At the same time, Moslem young men have embraced many of the disturbing trends of their European and American peers - fluent in "psychobabble" and foul language, demonstrating a street demeanor meant to intimidate, sporting tattoos, and wearing "the international slum costume of the American ghetto".

Edited: Jan 25, 2012, 9:44pm Top

4. In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire And Patrick Leigh Fermor - edited by Charlotte Mosley

A delightful collection of letters - breezy and edifying - spanning several decades, between one of my favorite writers, London-born Patrick Leigh Fermor, and his friend, Deborah, the Duchess Of Devonshire, the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters. The first letter was written in March 1954, the last in May 2007. "Paddy", as he was affectionately referred to, died June 2011 at age 96. The Duchess lives on.

PLF, who is considered one of the world's foremost travel writers, (The Traveller's Tree, Mani, Roumeli and others) set out in 1933 at age 18 to walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul. This adventure was recounted many years later in A Time Of Gifts (1977) and Between The Woods And The Water (1986). A third and final volume will apparently be released next year.

During World War Two, as a Major and a Special Operations Executive Agent, PLF gained fame by his courageous exploits in Nazi-occupied Crete in 1944, joining a British military colleague (Captain Bill Stanley Moss) in kidnapping the German General Heinrich Kreipe, spiriting him through 21 harrowing checkpoints. These events were written about by Captain Moss in a book entitled Ill Met By Moonlight, which was later made into a movie of the same name, starring Dirk Bogarde.

Throughout PLK's long life he continued to enjoy a peripatetic lifestyle, armed with a facility for languages and immense curiousity. Upon marrying Joan Eyres Monsell in 1968, he and his wife chose to live in exquisite circumstances in the southern Peloponnese in Greece. Sojourns here were interrupted by climbing expeditions with friends, as well as numerous car trips throughout Europe and back to Ireland and Britain.

PLF's enduring friendship with the Duchess began in 1956 when she invited him to visit her and her husband at their Irish estate, Lismore Castle. Letter writing ensued, followed by numerous visits over the years. The letters themselves reflect lives lived in the rarified air of upper crust society. Famous people entering and leaving their respective circles are commented upon matter-of-factly. After the movie director Darryl Zanuck prevails upon PLF to write screen plays, he ends up on a movie set in West Africa with Zanuck, John Huston, Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard, and Juliette Greco (the latter becoming a life-long friend). On other occasions he lunches with Francoise Sagan, is invited to party with Stavros Niarchos on his yacht and Greek Island, enjoys a friendship with the author Lawrence Durrell.

In England much of the Duchess's life is given over to renovating the famous Chatsworth Estate inherited by her husband, Andrew Cavendish, Duke Of Devonshire. Her aristocratic connections make possible associations with such notables as the Queen Mother, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, the artist Lucian Freud, Prince Aly Kahn, and Georges Pompidou. A relationship with the Kennedys began as a result of Deborah and President Kennedy's sister Kathleen coming together as debutantes (her father was the American ambassador).

My favorite letters were those written by PLF describing in exquisite detail his frequent trips throughout the continent. Heavenly.

Edited: Jan 25, 2012, 1:05am Top

5. A Week At The Airport - Alain de Botton (author of The Art Of Travel)

In 2009 British Airways officials at Heathrow came up with a clever idea. Invite a well-known writer to spend a week in Terminal Five as Author-In-Residence. Provide him with comfortable lodging at the adjacent 605-room Sofitel and allow him to wander about at will, night and day. Install him at a highly visible desk in Departures.

From this experience emerges a thoughtful, wryly humorous meditation on modern life as it relates to international air travel. The author witnesses wrenching farewells, joyous reunions, family squabbles. At the Currency Exchange kiosk he wonders about the transactions that have previously been carried out with crumpled Turmenistani mamats, Malawian kwachas, Papua New Guinea kinas. He investigates the disparate menu options demanded of the Food Services people for in-flight meals. He interviews the Security Inspection employees, whose minds he imagines teem with "dangerous prospects", much like the authors of thrillers. He envies the calm assurance of seasoned pilots. We are reassuringly informed that 747s must undergo thorough inspections following every 900 hours of flight, that conveyer belts are now capable of processing 12,000 pieces of luggage every hour, that travelers in need of religious counseling can be referred to an on-site minister or priest. Even at this, one of the busiest airports in the world, where planes descend at 40-second intervals throughout the day, the runways empty late at night. In the wee hours he accompanies an employee whose responsibility it is to drive around in a jeep, examining the tarmac for bits of stray metal. In the quiet emptiness, he spots a mouse, its eyes gleaming in the headlights, and digresses whimsically (as he so often brilliantly does):

"It was of a kind which regularly populates children's books, where mice are always clever and good-natured creatures who live in small houses with red-and-white checked curtains, in sharp contrast to the boorish humans, who are clumsily oversized and unaware of their own limits."

I'm one of those fortunate people who have flown internationally primarily for pleasure, and infrequently enough to not have grown entirely jaded by the sterility of airport lounges. As I write this I'm fondly remembering an incident from the early 1990s, seated in the tiny, stiflingly hot airport in La Ceiba, Honduras, when a beautiful tropical butterfly fluttered in and landed on the sweat band of a fellow passenger's hat.

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 11:12am Top

6. Fool Me Twice: Fighting The Assault On Science In America - Shawn Lawrence Otto

Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that people can be trusted with their own government when well informed. What would he think now?

We have become science-starved. Between 1989 and 2005 major newspapers with weekly science sections fell from 95 to 35. In 2008 CNN eliminated its entire science, technology, and environment news unit. Confused and angered because of warring political factions, Americans are increasingly unable to distinguish between fact and opinion. Journalists frequently shirk their responsibility, approaching certain topics from the standpoint of moral equivalency and then letting the audience decide who is right. In actuality, one side is often simply wrong. Science, reason, and knowledge are increasingly coming under attack in the media. Studies show that American high school students have fallen far behind their contemporaries in other wealthy nations in the areas of science and math.

In 1987, under the administration of President Reagan, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Until then, controversial topics were required to be presented in an honest and balanced fashion. There was a peer review process. Following this change broadcasters began to lose out to emotion-driven commentators such as Rush Limbaugh who were (are are) adept at dispensing partisan, unsubstantiated vitriol. The media now thrives on polarization, which it can readily generate.

The energy industry spends many millions of dollars disparaging climate scientists who warn about the danger posed by rising atmospheric and oceanic CO2 levels. Senator James Inhofe (Oklahoma), ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is an ardent climate change denier. Not only is he intent upon discrediting climate scientists, he has also subjected them to harrassment. Meanwhile, U.S. Representative John Shimkus (R-Illinois), another climate change denier, explained that God, after the flood, reassured us that:

"Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done."

So there.

The author points out that there is a tendency in mainstream America to adhere to a Just World belief, that being that the wicked are eventually punished, the good rewarded, and problems corrected. Many of these individuals believe that the world is just, fair, and stable. They are highly prone to blaming the victim. And the more patriotic they are, the less inclined they are to believe in global warming.

Edited: Feb 15, 2012, 4:10pm Top

7. Obasan - Joy Kogawa

Semi-autobiographical novel written by a Japanese-Canadian who, as a child (born in B.C. in 1935), was sent with her family to internment camps during World War Two. American readers may be unaware that Canada's policies at this time mirrored those in the U.S. and were in some respects considerably worse. There were unfounded fears that Japanese-Canadian fishermen on the B.C. coast were in collusion with the Japanese navy. In 1941 Canadian gunboats confiscated the entire Japanese-Canadian fishing fleet there. In 1942, under the War Measures Act, the federal government of Canada was given permission to intern all members of the Japanese race Consequently, approximately 23,000 people were uprooted, moved inland to deplorable housing in old B.C. logging camps and Alberta farms, their boats and properties confiscated. The author's grandfather had arrived in Canada from Japan in 1893 and owned a boat-building business on Saltspring Island. This would be taken from him.

This is a heart-rending book, written from the perspective of a young girl abruptly wrenched from her home, although I found the narrative style confusing. It begins in 1972, then moves backward and forward in time. Significantly, it incorporates horrifying details of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki in 1945.

The author, a well-known poet and novelist, has been active in demanding redress for Japanese-Canadians.

Edited: Feb 28, 2012, 7:31am Top

8. The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson

I was already a fan of Jon Ronson, having recently read The Men Who Stare At Goats, and am looking forward to hunting down Them: Adventures With Extremists. In this latest venture into strangeness, he endeavors to study psychopaths.

Watch this indefatigable, endearing, self-effacing and, yes, courageous British author being interviewed on The Daily Show With John Stewart:


As a retired R.N. who has worked in psychiatric settings, I was intrigued by many aspects of this book, especially the chapter about bizarre treatment modalities undertaken in the late 1960s at Oakridge, the maximum security psychiatric facility at Penetanguishene, Ontario. For three months in the early 1960s, as part of my psychiatric training, I and other student nurses in my class daily sat in on patient interviews conducted there by psychiatrists. We had no direct contact with the patients themselves (that took place at a different mental health care centre on the same campus). It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked to read about how, a few years later, Doctors Elliot Barker and Gary Maier, perhaps unduly influenced by R.D. Laing and the so-called Human Potential Movement, determined that a handpicked group of psychopathic patients at Oakridge would benefit from marathon LSD-fueled therapeutic sessions conducted in the nude. The experiment proved to be a failure and, not unexpectedly, was frowned upon by the prison guards.

The Psychopathy Checklist PCL-R was developed in the 1980s by Canadian psychologist Doctor Robert Hare (author of Snakes In Suits) and is the diagnostic tool most often used to diagnose psychopathy. In preparation for writing this book, the author attended a seminar conducted by Doctor Hare, who revealed that he "packs heat" because a lot of psychopaths blame their incarcerations on him.

Ronson then went on to interview such unsavory characters as Toto Constant (currently incarcerated in New York State for an unrelated offence), leader of a Haitian right-wing paramilitary group that tortured and killed the supporters of now-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The writer Norman Mailer famously arranged for the parole of psychopathic Jack Henry Abbott who, six weeks after his release, stabbed a young waiter to death.

The media often provides us with lurid accounts of violent crimes conducted by psychopaths (a.k.a. sociopaths), but is strangely silent on the subject of psychopathy as it exists on Wall Street and in the halls of Congress. It is generally thought that 1% of people in the general population are psychopaths, 25% are in prison, and 4% are CEOs.

Corporate psychopaths are capable of ruining economies and countless lives. Few, however, end up behind bars.

There is an increasing tendency to label ourselves and each other and nowhere is this more evident than a casual glance at the DSM-IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association, now comprising an impressive 886 pages and describing a total of 297 psychiatric disorders. An updated, and presumably even longer version, is due to be published in 2013. There is much ongoing controversy regarding inappropriate diagnoses, especially with regard to autism and childhold bipolar disorder.

Feb 26, 2012, 5:15pm Top

A lot of very interesting books with nice descriptions! I'll be watching your list for new book ideas.

Edited: Feb 29, 2012, 9:41am Top

9. The Beautiful And The Damned - Siddhartha Deb

This is the seventh book about India that I've read in recent years. Googling this author's name will reveal details of a controversy involving the first chapter.

Siddartha Deb, who was born in small-town India, currently resides in New York City, where he teaches Creative Writing at The New School. He has written two novels and contributed articles to The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications.

This book details the author's recent exploratory visit to his homeland to investigate the dramatic changes that have taken place there as a result of globalization. He concludes that India is "a grotesquely unequal country", where changes have not been kind to the poor. We are introduced to the super-elite, the merely wealthy (many of them now living in gated communities), the lower middle class (many of them working in call centers), aggrieved dislocated farmers, exploited construction workers, and many other individuals who have migrated long distances to find work. The author visits a steel factory, with its deafening noise and searing heat of 1,200 degrees Celsius. There the workers endure 12-hour shifts, sleeping in concrete cubicles without fans or toilets, in an atmosphere of squalor. Muslims from Bangladesh, in the country illegally, subsist even more tenuously.

Rapid urbanization, due in large measure to the successes of the IT industry, has displaced many farmers from land surrounding cities such as Bangalore. Real estate developers have been buying up large tracts. Between 1995 and 2006 nearly 200,000 farmers are alleged to have killed themselves, often by drinking pesticide. These statistics apparently do not include women, or individuals who farm on land owned by other people, only the heads of households.

Data collected by the Indian government for the period 2004-5 revealed that 77% of the population (about 836 million people) consumes less than 20 rupees (or 50 cents) a day.

Merrill Lynch ranks India as the second fastest producer of millionaires (after Singapore).

Edited: Apr 9, 2012, 1:38pm Top

10. Night Draws Near: Iraq's People In The Shadow Of America's War - Anthony Shadid

This important book sat unread on one of my book shelves until I learned of the author's untimely death in February 2012 while he was covering the ongoing uprising in Syria. Asthmatic, and a heavy smoker, Anthony's state of health was further compromised by what may have been a deadly allergy to horses. He was accompanied by guides on horseback while clandestinely both entering and leaving Syria. Western journalists had been banned from covering the crisis.

This is the thirteenth book that I've read about Iraq. Shadid's book, published in 2005, covers the early years of the U.S.-led invasion which began in 2003. His contributions to understanding aspects of the conflict are considerable, given that he was fluent in Arabic (he is of Lebanese descent) and spent most of his time with ordinary Iraqis, not imbedded with U.S. troops or sequestered in the Green Zone. During this time he worked for The Washington Post.

It is valuable to remember that during the Gulf War of 1991, in response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. and its coalition partners conducted 43 days of air strikes on more than 700 sites in Iraq. Bombs wrecked bridges, railroad, oil refineries, and electrical plants. By war's end, only two of Iraq's 220 generating plants were said to be still functioning. Sewage treatment facilities were rendered inoperable. Epidemics of typhoid and cholera ensued.

The thirteen years of U.N. sanctions from 1990 to 2003 severely impacted the country's citizenry. Many thousands of children suffered and died from severe protein deficiency.

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Iraqis, already exhausted and angered by the severity of the sanctions, were perplexed and horrified by the inability of the U.S. and its allies to restore order and prevent widespread looting. Car bombings, assassinations, and grotesque sectarian violence followed. The U.N. office in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003. The Jordanian embassy was bombed later that month. Millions fled their homes and, when possible, the country. Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant Sunni Islamist, entered Iraq and initiated bombings, beheadings, and other attacks, including the destruction of sacred Shiite shrines. Civil war ensued. Many U.S. reconstruction efforts ground to a halt. U.S. troops became increasingly targeted.

The Bush Administration's naive plans to quickly democratize Iraq unraveled.

Edited: Apr 9, 2012, 2:37pm Top

11. East Is East - T.C. Boyle

This is the third novel that I've read by this author (the others were Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain). I'm a fan, delighted by the realization that more of his books await me.

Hiro Tanaka, the 20-year-old son of a Kyoto bar girl and an American hippie briefly experiencing Japanese culture, yearns to break free from the prejudices and constraints of being regarded as a gaijin (outsider) in Japan, where he was raised by his grandparents after his mother committed suicide. Freedom seems within reach when he finds work as a cook's assistant on a Japanese merchant ship bound for America. He entertains the comforting hope of eventually making his way to The City Of Brotherly Love, where his acceptance will be assured. Almost immediately, things go wrong and in desperation he quite literally jumps ship, washing up on Tupelo Island off the coast of Georgia. Here an unfortunate mishap quickly turns him into a hunted man. Tragi-comic entanglements with poor blacks, lawmen, rednecks, a group of self-absorbed writers at a retreat and, ultimately, fetid Georgia swamps, strain every resource that he can muster.

Edited: Apr 9, 2012, 4:43pm Top

12. Alexander's Path: A Travel Memoir - Freya Stark

"No part of the world can be more beautiful than the western and southern coasts of Turkey".

So begins this indefagitable author's sojourn in Anatolia in 1954 as she attempts to trace the route followed by Alexander The Great as he led his soldiers through the region in 334 B.C.

I had previously read Passionate Nomad: The Life Of Freya Stark by Jane Geniesse, so was familiar with the author's international background, her fluency in Arabic, and her long immersion in the history of The Middle East. Her first visit to that region occurred in 1927, when she arrived in Beirut, Lebanon by ship. In the ensuing decades she would garner fame by exploring and describing remote and dangerous regions of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere via horseback, camelback, and hired car.

She died in 1993 at the age of 100, leaving behind her legacy of dozens of books.

Here are a few examples of her beautifully descriptive sentences in Alexander's Path:

"...half-fallen apses of buildings, Christian or pagan, stand deep in corn, as if all were ripening for the same harvest."

".....storks, like diplomats with narrow shoulders and well-tailored cut-away clothes, walked about without any signs of enjoyment, swallowing frogs.........."

"....the alien castles spoke to each other from battlement to battlement. across forest and small tilled patches and hamlets with wattled chimneys, in unimportant undefended spaces, till their day passed and the land absorbed them, and they lay like stranded whales on its rocks and shores."

"A sudden childish delight envelops me and the frontiers of myself disappear."

"In the rapture of such beauty one could scarcely have borne a companion."

Edited: Apr 12, 2012, 12:02am Top

13. The New New Rules - Bill Maher

Prior to leaving for a month-long stay in Mexico, this is one of the books that I downloaded from the library to my MP3 player.

We don't subscribe to HBO, so I miss out on "Real Time With Bill Maher", but I do follow his comedic and political observations here and there on the Web and elsewhere on T.V. There is no mistaking his political leanings (he recently gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Obama), although Conservatives are routinely invited to make guest appearances - and do. Although I could do without his abundant use of profanity, I admire his ascerbic wit, although it can be cruelly overdone.

The term "new rules" prefaces his zeroing in on individuals and events that have registered on his societal/political radar. Not surprisingly, he has called viewers' and readers' attention to both Brett Farb's and Anthony Weiner's ill-advised sexually-explicit postings on the Web. He is appropriately derisive about Tiger Woods' serial infidelities. He's correct when he points out that Republicans keep moving the goal posts to the right and that tax cuts do not necessarily pay for themselves. And yes, it's certainly true that one doesn't have to be a parent in order to recognize bad parenting (i.e. witness the deplorable "Toddlers & Tiaras" on TLC).

As for audio books, I much prefer the written word. As soon as I returned home I checked out this book from the library. Had I not, I would have missed the photos.

Edited: Apr 14, 2012, 9:58pm Top

14. The Secret Life Of Dust: From The Cosmos To The Kitchen Counter, The Big Consequences Of Little Things - Hannah Holmes

The author is a well-known, well-traveled journalist and an engaging science and natural history writer. I was charmed by her Suburban Safari: A Year On The Lawn in which she described events, both big and small, observed during the period of a year in her Portland, Maine yard.

The Secret Life Of Dust was published in 2001 and has graced one of my bookshelves for several years. It is the result of interviews with hundreds of scientists, some of whom she visited at work in remote locations, such as Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

As she confirms, there's a great deal to be said about dust. Cosmic dust, for instance, to which we owe everything, and from which our galaxy formed. The Hubble telescope has unlocked some of its secrets and provided us with astounding images. It has enabled us to travel very far back in time.

Comets sprinkle dust when they visit our solar system. Asteroids can be described as dust balls that failed to reach planet size. Because the gravity of Jupiter disturbs their orbits, they collide with each other, releasing more dust into the solar system. Mars' moon Phobos is three feet deep in dust.

Much of the dust in our air today may be from land damaged by human use. Dust arising from storms in China's desert regions is borne eastward to the U.S. coast. Saharan dust has been tracked to the Caribbean, where over time it has provided the essential service of creating soil.

Coal is the dustiest fuel. The air pollution obscuring China's thriving cities demonstrates this. Black lung and silicosis are two conditions that have killed many thousands of miners. Asbestos and quartz are two other well known industrial dusts. The dust-filled interiors of textile mills have played havoc with workers' health. Breathing the air at pig farms, poultry farms, dairies, anywhere where animals are penned in crowded circumstances, can be very problematic (it doesn't bear thinking what the animals themselves endure).

Other airborne menaces include Hantavirus, and "valley fever" fungus.

Pesticides account for a significant proportion of the toxic dusts that we bring indoors. Soil tainted with poisons can enter our homes on our feet. Pesticides that were banned decades ago can be found in the dust of many homes.

And as for us, when we die, do we return to dust? Embalming will certainly slow down this process. Some Europeans, from the Middle Ages through the 18th century, considered Egyptian mummies to be potent medicine. Incredibly, they were at times ground to dust for use as fertilizer (see Death To Dust by Kenneth Iverson) and even shipped by the boatload to the U.S., where their cloth wrappings were shredded for the production of paper pulp.

The popularity of cremation continues to rise in the U.S. As the book points out (written eleven years ago) the rate is expected to reach 40% by 2010. (Checking an on-line chart, I see that it reached approximately 33% - falling short of predictions}.

So more of us are going up in smoke. And reassuringly, a body that burns up in an hour emits just a bit more than half an ounce of particulates.

Edited: Apr 23, 2012, 4:35pm Top

15. The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work - Alain de Botton

Oh, to be blessed with Alain de Botton's ability to notice everything.

In this delightful book, bursting with clever philosophical musings, the author sets out to investigate a variety of modern work environments. Immediately we are inspired by the author's enthusiasm as he investigates the steady procession of international cargo ships entering the Thames River in London, laden with myriad essentials, the sources of which many of us rarely contemplate -coal from Colombia, newsprint from Finland, cars from South Korea, lemons from Morocco............. And once this cargo is unloaded, how is it packaged and distributed? Our modern age necessitates astonishing efficiency - and sophisticated logistics.

But it would seem that we now have too many biscuit products. And yet, product developers are hard at work devising even more clever packaging strategies to trick us into sampling more. French and British companies "regularly locked horns like stags fighting to the death over a limited habitat, in this case, the ten or so metres of the typical biscuit aisle in the supermarkets of northern Europe".

Checking on Google, I see that there is indeed a Pylon Appreciation Society, founded by Ian, an electrical engineer who organizes national and international tours for people who are interested in transmission towers ("pylons" in England). A handy pocket guide to the pylons of the world is now available. Ian leads the author on a two-day pylon-punctuated journey from a nuclear plant on the Kent coast all the way to East London. Occasionally, Ian uses algebraic equations to calculate the force of gravity at work on the ninety-one strand aluminum cable overhead, equations "whose incomprehensibility had the incidental benefit of freeing me to admire them from a purely aesthetic point of view, as the uninstructed might appreciate a musical score or a piece of classical Arabic".

Other areas of endeavor studied by the author include career counseling, rocket science (he observes a Japanese satellite being launched in French Guiana), painting, accountancy, entrepreneurship, and aviation. After giving a lecture in Bakersfield, California, he takes a wrong turn and ends up spending a noisy, uncomfortable night in the tiny community of Mojave which, fortuitously, is home to an aircraft "graveyard". Here he reflects upon the brief history of air travel. He climbs into ruined cockpits and examines now-obsolete technologies which were once the pride of competing airlines. He supposes that many of the pilots and flight attendants of this earlier era may be dead.

"The impulse to exaggerate the significance of what we are doing, far from being an intellectual error, is really life itself coursing through us. Good health encourages us to identify with all human experiences in all lands, to sigh at a murder in a faraway country, to hope for economic growth and technological progress far beyond the limits of our own lifespan, forgetting that we are never more than a few rogue cells away from the end".

Edited: Apr 30, 2012, 4:32pm Top

16. Arrival City: The Final Migration And Our Next World - Doug Saunders

Our world is becoming increasingly more urbanized, as it must.

This award-winning Canadian journalist on the staff of The Globe And Mail has traveled extensively to document how various cities, internationally, respond to massive influxes of migrants, foreign and domestic, who are transitioning from poverty-stricken rural areas. "Arrival city" is his term for what are variously referred to as slums, shanty towns, favelas, barrios, ghettos, although he makes clear that not all slums are "arrival cities". He recounts the difficulties encountered by newcomers to cities in China, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, Turkey, Iran, India, England, France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Holland, U.S.A., and Canada. Often, these are places of "generational deferral", parents willing to make incredible sacrifices in hopes that their children will one be able to live better lives. In Mumbai, India, where wages are often as low as $1/day, money is nevertheless sent back to family members left behind in the village. Urban poverty is usually an improvement over rural poverty. Over time, as more and more people move to cities, where there exist opportunities for work and education, remittances to their villages of origin serve to better the lives of these rural inhabitants.

This is a very detailed study of the different approaches, if any, taken by some of these "arrival cities". Prepare to suffer along with the dispossessed who, despite their almost unimaginably tireless efforts, continue to struggle. And be inspired by those who succeed.

Edited: Jun 20, 2012, 11:05am Top

17. Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, And The Long Con That Is Breaking America - Matt Taibbi

Definition of "grifter" - Someone who swindles you through deception or fraud.

As investigative journalist Matt Taibbi skillfully and colorfully points out, many of us are the hapless victims of collusive, devious, and ultimately destructive dealmaking between U.S. lawmakers and powerful forces within the international banking/investment/insurance community. Much of what goes in government is hidden from the general public. We are being bled dry by a relatively tiny oligarchy of extremely clever financial criminals and their enablers in government (both Democrats and Republicans). Unfortunately, these financial sleights-of-hand are far too complex for most members of the media and the general public to understand. Collateralized debt obligations, mortgage securitization.........this terminology, describing disastrous, greed-driven transactions, is mystifying to most of us.

The U.S. electorate consists of two easily manipulated, fiercely warring tribes. The media confuses, incites, and deceives us. The blame game seesaws between political parties, while the actual miscreants (Goldman Sachs, for instance) continue to enjoy exorbitant profits. In 2008, Goldman Sachs reportedly paid out $10 billion in compensation and bonuses while making a profit of more than $2 billion. Meanwhile, it paid a pittance in taxes, moving its money around so that its earnings took place in foreign countries with low tax rates. And yet it could STILL claim deductions up front on some of that same untaxed income.

Chapter 2, entitled "The Biggest Asshole In The Universe", discusses the actions (or lack thereof) of former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan. It was disturbing enough for me to learn that he was an early acolyte of Ayn Rand, but worse still to be reminded that many of his prognostications were just plain wrong. The author describes him as "the perfect front man for the hijacking of the democratic process that took place in the eighties, nineties, and early part of the 2000s". The risk and subsequent loss suffered during a series of economic shocks were increasingly shifted to the public. Our system preaches sink-or-swim laissez-faire capitalism, but acts as a highly interventionist, bureaucratic welfare state for a select few.

Edited: May 21, 2012, 12:57am Top

18. The Swerve: How The World Became Modern - Stephen Greenblatt

Poggio Braccioloni - not a name that rolls effortlessly off the tongue; however, a man not easily dismissed from my memory after reading Stephen Greenblatt's intriguing book.

Ironically, as I've been reading about learned men advancing scientific and humanistic thought many centuries ago, Arizona's Republican Secretary of State (the State in which I reside) has indicated that he may try to block President Obama's name from appearing on the 2012 State ballot unless Hawaii GUARANTEES that he was born there. Birther insanity lives on. And pandering. And idiocy.

But back to the book. Although Poggio was employed in Rome as apostolic secretary by the court of Pope John XXIII, he was not a cleric, but rather a well-trained scribe. In 1417, the Pope was dethroned, freeing suddenly-unemployed Poggio to ride off in search of ancient manuscripts. Fortunately, he was undeterred by the Church's teachings that curiosity was a mortal sin (!!!). His travels took him to a monastery somewhere in the mountains of Germany. Overcoming the difficulty of not knowing any German, here he found a long-lost manuscript of Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius' "On The Nature Of Things", written during the era of Caesar. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) was Lucretius' philosophical messiah. Epicurus taught that man should aspire to live a life free of pain, free of the fear of death, and free of fear of retribution from the gods, who have no interest in humans anyway.

In brilliant anticipation of the situation in which we find ourselves today, Lucretius pictured the earth (presently hosting more than seven billion people) as a menopausal mother exhausted by the effort of so much breeding.

He set forth to popularize these revolutionary ideas:

Time is infinite.
Space is unbounded.
Everything is made of invisible particles.
All forms that we observe are temporary.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Gods do exist, but they do not concern themselves with humans. They do not punish or reward.
There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.
Shifts in the movement of particles set off chains of collisions. Whatever exists in the universe exists because of these collisions.
Neither creation or destruction ever has the upper hand.

Moving beyond Stephen Greenblatt's contention that this revolutionary document jump-started the Renaissance, readers such as myself appreciate the many nuggets of historical information tucked into his premise. We learn about the importance of papyrus, when and why it became unavailable, and the problems associated with then substituting the skins of animals. Is it not fascinating to learn that Thomas Jefferson owned at least five editions of "On The Nature Of Things" in several languages. and that it was quite likely due to Lucretius' influence that he included "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration Of Independence? Montaigne's "Essays" include almost 100 direct quotations from "On The Nature Of Things". Montaigne shared Lucretius' contempt for a morality enforced by nightmares of the afterlife.

The shift in Christianity toward an angry God came in the 4th century with the growth and prominence of the Roman world. Before then, Christianity was closer to the Epicurean attitude (social virtues, an emphasis on forgiveness, and mutual helpfulness).

In 1632 The Society Of Jesus (The Jesuits) strictly prohibited and condemned the doctrine of "atoms".

Powerful stuff.

Edited: May 30, 2012, 5:02pm Top

19. Horseshoe Crabs And Velvet Worms - Richard Fortey

Before sitting down to write this, I wandered out to the front yard to admire the beautiful Cycad growing there - a survivor from the Mesozoic. It's doing very well.

The author, a well-known British paleontologist (whom I gratefully previously encountered in his book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum), takes his readers on a series of fascinating real and imagined field trips into the past, focusing on living species that have something to say about evolution. The "past" is still with us, manifested by such "living fossils" as horseshoe crabs, velvet worms, lichen, stromatolites, duck-billed platypus, echidnas, lungfish and coelacanths. He reminds us that deep history is all around us and that life on earth is essentially about accomodation and replacement.

"Every organism has its trajectory through history - its biography - a narrative all its own."

"Our vertebrate pedigree goes back 525 million years".

"Our bodies still read out ancient instructions."

It has taken a very long time for life to arrive where it is today and there have been times when most of life was threatened by extinction. During the Permian Period, 250 million years ago, more than 90% of species became extinct. Close call.

The spread of Buddhism may have saved the Gingko tree from extinction.

"Science works by piling bricks of knowledge one on another to make a solid edifice."

"Oxygen would have been poison to many of the founding microbes of life on earth."

"I have met fanatics who maintain that wildlife was created as source of food and entertainment for just one bipedal hominin, who deserves to have total dominion."

"I am ashamed of our species; is this what evolution has brought us to, so smug on our bipedal pedestal?" (commenting on the cruelty of harvesting fins from live sharks).

"The extinction that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species" (us).

"We would be lost without bacteria."

"I am not worried about the survival of bacteria. They will be there to rot down the last bodies of the last humans, and then the wheel of life will have turned full circle."

Edited: Jun 18, 2012, 6:05pm Top

20. Between The Woods And The Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor


This is Book Two of what will eventually be a trilogy of this famous British travel writer's peripatetic adventures - a walk eastward through Europe - and beyond - in 1934, when he was 18. The third volume, published posthumously, is scheduled to be released in 2013. Last year I read with great interest Book One, A Time Of Gifts: On Foot To Constantinople: From The Hook Of Holland To the Middle Danube, written in 1977, decades after the completion of his walk. Patrick Fermor died in 2011, age 96. This second volume, picking up where the first one left off (as he is about to cross the Danube River at Prague) was written in 1986 and was apparently greatly facilitated by the recovery of a long-lost diary.

The author's descriptions of the landscape and architecture are poetic, his knowledge of the complicated, blood-soaked history vast and compelling. Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Tatars, Cossacks came and went in murderous succession over the centuries - "a continent where countless races had changed utterly or vanished into thin air". (A mere five years later, World War Two would convulse these regions and much more would be lost amidst great suffering.)

"The industrial revolution had left these regions untouched (Southern Transylvania)........."the rhythm of life many decades behind the pace of the west".

As the author was a well-connected young man, he was able to enjoy the best of both worlds - alternately staying in castles with aristocratic hosts and sleeping in barns or camping outdoors near Gypsy encampments.

Edited: Jun 19, 2012, 6:57pm Top

21. Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime And The Lunatic Asylum - Mark Stevens

The author is a professional archivist who has been responsible for Broadmoor Hospital's archive since 2004. In this book he focuses on some of the most infamous patients who were housed there during the Victorian era.

Broadmoor is a maximum-security psychiatric facility in Berkshire, England. It has been in continuous use since 1863. It was originally called Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Before the advent of medication, patient care at this institution was limited to "moral treatment" such as exercise, fresh air, structured work settings, and regular meals. The term "lunatic" derives from the French "lunatique" and the Latin "lunaticus" - "luna" meaning "moon", there being a widespread belief that the moon caused intermittent insanity.

The artist Richard Dadd is regarded as the most celebrated resident. In 1842, while on a grand tour of classical sites throughout Europe and elsewhere, he began to show signs of mental illness. He was obviously suspicious and delusional while in Egypt. Upon returning home, he killed his father, whom he believed was the devil. One of his paintings, "The Fairy Fellers' Master Stroke" is housed at the Tate. Another painting, "The Artist's Halt In The Desert" resides in The British Museum.

Readers familiar with Simon Winchester's book, "The Professor And The Madman" will be aware that William Chester Minor was another famous inmate. As a young man he was deeply impacted by horrifying events encountered during his duties as a Union Army surgeon in the field during the American Civil War. Later, he became increasingly delusional, plagued by disturbing sexual ideation. He spent time at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1871 he moved to London, where his suffering continued. In 1872 he shot and killed a man. A learned and voracious reader during his incarceration at Broadmoor, he contributed thousands of definitions to The Oxford English Dictionary. So troublesome were his sexual thoughts that he was driven to cut off his penis at age 68. After 38 years at Broadmoor he was sent back to America (he was the son of American missionaries to Ceylon).

Christiana Edmunds's 30-year incarceration at Broadmoor came about after she was charged with the murder of a number of people by having incorporated strychnine into chocolate baked goods. One of her targets was the wife of a doctor with whom she was infatuated.

Several children were born in Broadmoor. Sadly, both children and adults sometimes suffered from psychosis related to untreated syphilis.

Central heating did not become available until 1884. Patients had their own rooms, but they were cold and unlit.

Paranoid ideation (then, as now) is often attached to a new scientific advance. in 1863 electricity became the new "poison" for delusional patients.

Edited: Jun 20, 2012, 3:52pm Top

22. Without A Hero - T.C. Boyle

I remain in awe of this author's incredible range.

This is his 4th short story collection, published in 1994. Given the book's title, I anticipated that none of the actions of the characters populating the fifteen stories could be construed as heroic, but this proved not to be true. In "Filthy With Things" the husband of a hoarder belatedly attempts to rise above his passivity by hiring a Professional Organizer - without his wife's consent. In "Little America" a elderly, confused man en route from New York to Washington, D.C. by train gets off in Baltimore by mistake and is robbed and left to die of exposure in an unheated shed, where he spends his last hours serenely reminiscing about his famous aviator father, Admiral Byrd, an Antarctic explorer. In "56-0" Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot, sorely injured right guard for the embarrassingly inept Caledonia College Shuckers football squad, refuses to accept defeat despite its obvious inevitability. In "Carnal Knowledge" a young man belatedly realizes the folly of his romantic involvement with an animal rights activist when efforts to liberate turkeys destined for Thanksgiving slaughter go dramatically awry. In "Acts Of God" 75-year-old Willis, still working and severely henpecked, loses everything during Hurricane Leroy - but his wife miraculously survives.

My favorite character was Bessie Bee, the 52-year-old elephant in "Big Game". Bernard Puff, owner of a "game" ranch in southern California populated by animals no longer deemed useful by zoos and circuses, provides opportunities for "hunters" to shoot them ($1,000 per gazelle, $12,000 per lion, etc.) on a 25-acre pretend savanna. Bessie Bee proves not to be "game" for this enterprise.

I'm still worried about Lainie in "Sitting On Top Of The World". How did that work out?

Edited: Jun 22, 2012, 3:58pm Top

23. Huck's Raft: A History Of American Childhood - Steven Mintz

I borrowed this excellent book from the library, but plan to buy my own copy for further study.

What is today often a highly structured, increasingly competitive childhood in largely urban America bears little resemblance to what we remember from the unsupervised adventures depicted in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn".

The author, a University Of Houston history professor, has written an illuminating and very comprehensive book that I hope will find its way into many American classrooms. Attitudes regarding the rearing of children have changed dramatically since the Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

The patriarchal Puritans believed that a newborn's soul was tainted with Original Sin. Children lived somber, disciplined lives. Interestingly, unimagined freedom and adventure became available to some after they were kidnapped by local Indians. The Mohawks were renowned for their kind, uncensored parenting and there were instances in which kidnapped immigrant children chose to remain with their captors when the opportunity to return home presented itself.

As in the various countries of origin, childhood in the New World was fraught with potential dangers. Epidemics of measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc. swept through families with heartbreaking frequency. Many mothers died in childbirth.

The Quakers differed from the Puritans by emphasizing equality over hierarchy, guidance over strict discipline. They were prohibited from owning slaves.

Sunday schools, founded in the 1790s, targeted poor children who lacked resources and parental supervision.

In New England, children toiled in the textile mills.

On the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland orphans, runaways, and vagrant children were kidnapped, taken aboard ships and transported to North America, where they were sold as slaves for the plantations. Malaria killed many of them. Following the American Revolution, such servitude was greatly reduced.

Public education for white children began in the early 1830s.

The Dutch West India Company brought the first slaves to New Amsterdam (Manhattan) in 1626.

On the eve of the American Civil War, four million southerners were enslaved. Most were illiterate, deliberately denied an education. Half were children under the age of 16. These children grew up fearing (and recognizing) that often their parents were powerless to protect them or to prevent the family unit from being broken up. Half of all enslaved children grew up apart from their fathers. Perhaps 10% of these children had white fathers. The infant death rate was twice that of whites. Life expectancy was 21-22 years. Shoes were a rarity. Slave mothers condemned to work in the fields were often not able to suckle their infants properly. Cow's milk was problematic for black children in that many were lactose intolerant.

Ironically, among the white planter elite in Virginia, the day-to-day care of children was left in the hands of slaves.

Discrimination against blacks continued to manifest itself in myriad way following the emancipation of the slaves. Black migration from the South to the North, as well as immigration from Puerto Rico, ignited urban discord. In 1943 there were 242 race riots in 47 cities. Segregation in schools continued well into the 1960s.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941, Executive Order 9066 resulted in more than 120,000 Japanese Americans (2/3 of them U.S. citizens) being removed from their homes and forced to live in remote, makeshift camps until the war's end. The education of their children suffered. Racist anti-Asian stereotypes proliferated in comic books and other media.

Suburbia became a preferred destination for millions of famlies following Word War Two. A baby boom ensued. The GI Bill and a growing post-war economy improved the lives of many. The development of medications such as sulfa drugs, penicillin, insulin, and immunization against diphtheria and whooping cough reduced the incidence of death and disease, but in 1950 an epidemic of polio threatened the young. In 1952 Jonas Salk developed the Salk vaccine.

During the 1950s girls typically married at age 20 and stayed home to raise their children.

Drive-in theatres became a teen haven. Rock-and-roll changed everything. Following its introduction, the divide between teenagers and adults widened. American Bandstand made its debut on TV in 1957. During this time crusades were initiated to ban rock-and-roll from the airwaves. These efforts failed spectacularly.

In Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, under orders from the Governor, nine young black students were prevented by The Arkansas National Guard from entering a white school.

The '60s proved to be a revolutionary time for youth. Worldwide, students became more politically involved.

Later in the decade, Head Start and the TV program Sesame Street served increased educational opportunities for minorities.

Today 1/5 of all children in the U.S. are children of immigrants. The incidence is much higher in New York City and Los Angeles.

Presently 2/3 of all children under the age of six have a mother who works outside the home.

Unstructured play outdoors has decreased significantly. This is in part due to fear of crime.

Edited: Jun 24, 2012, 8:18pm Top

24. The Professor And The Madman: A Tale Of Murder, Insanity, And The Making Of The Oxford English Dictionary - Simon Winchester

Having recently read Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime And The Lunatic Asylum by Mark Stevens I was eager to proceed to Simon Winchester's book as the unfortunate William Chester Minor is a central character in both books.

William Minor was born in 1834 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to American missionary parents. His father remarried after William's mother died when he was three. At the age of 14, via a lengthy sea voyage, he was sent back to the U.S. to continue his education. He studied medicine at Yale and graduated in 1863, at a time when the American Civil War was raging. Joining the Union Army as a surgeon, he was thrust into horrific circumstances in 1864 at The Battle Of The Wilderness in Virginia, where musket-wielding infantrymen also fought hand-to-hand with bayonets and sabers. Fires (caused by the minie balls discharged by the muskets) swept through the fields of battle, killing many combatants who had been felled by their wounds, unable to escape the flames. The dying lay screaming in agony. Here, as elsewhere, retribution against deserters was swift and terrible. Doctor Minor was required to brand the face of one of these young men - an Irish immigrant - with the letter "D". In years to come, the cruel scar would afflict not only the unfortunate soldier, but its memory would also remain seared into Doctor Minor's psychopathy.

In 1866 he was awarded the rank of Captain. A personality change began to manifest itself. He became paranoid and hypersexual, procuring prostitutes in bars and on the streets of New York City. He contracted venereal disease. His army superiors, alarmed by his behavior, transferred him to remote Florida. His paranoid ideation and sexual preoccupations continued. In 1868 he was certified as suffering from "monomania" - a fierce obsession with a single (then undisclosed) topic - and agreed to be hospitalized in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington. The following year, as his delusions continued, he was formally placed on the Army Retired List. He would receive a lifelong pension and his pay would continue. Released from the asylum in 1871, he spent the summer with his brother in New Haven, then boarded a London-bound steamer in autumn, armed with a gun.

The following year he was admitted to maximum-security Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne in Berkshire after shooting an innocent man. Here he would spend the next 30 years. No medications existed at that time which might have assuaged his paranoid thoughts. These often entailed a belief that his body was routinely sexually violated at night and that he was forced against his will to participate in lewd sexual acts under the influence of chloroform.

However, during the day his intellectual pursuits (reading and painting) provided respite. His income from the Army enabled him to buy books and he was provided with an extra room in which to house them.

In 1857, an idea for "the big dictionary" began to be formulated in England by The Philological Society, a project that would eventually consume seventy years. Each known word would be assigned its individual "biography", its "life story". All of English literature would have to be perused. An army of volunteers would be called upon.

Twenty-two more years would pass before this project was launched. Each volunteer was asked to write the target word at the top left-hand side of a page, and below, also on the left, the details that followed:

1. The title of the book or paper, its volume and page number.
2. Below that, the full sentence that illustrated the use of the target word.

In the end more than 6,000,000 slips of paper would be sent in by volunteers.

In 1879 Dr. James Murray took over as editor of "The New English Dictionary On Historical Principles". He published a four-page appeal, calling for more volunteers.

Sometime in the early 1880s John Chester Minor became aware of the project. He had then been an inmate at Broadmoor for eight years. He wrote to Dr. Murray, volunteering his services, but not revealing his circumstances. His brilliance and methodology came to be regarded as a major asset to the dictionary project. As the years progressed Dr. Murray and others began to wonder about the circumstances of this scholarly man. Their first meeting took place in 1891 after Dr. Murray learned of his true whereabouts and wrote to Minor, requesting that he be allowed to visit. This meeting initiated a 20-year relationship, during which Dr. Murray would frequently pay visits to Broadmoor.

In 1902, still tortured by sexual delusions, Minor cut off his own penis.

Following repeated requests by a brother, in 1910 the elderly, ailing patient was finally granted permission to be transported back to the U.S., to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had initially been sent many years ago. The troubling delusions continued.

In 1919 he was transferred to a hospital for the elderly insane in Hartford, Connecticutt, where he died the following year, aged 85, nearly blind.

The massive Oxford English Dictionary will no longer be published in paper form, but is available on line:


Edited: Jun 26, 2012, 12:37am Top

25. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between The Wars - Paul Fussell

I retrieved this book from one of my shelves after discovering the author's obituary in the June 9th issue of "The Economist": http://www.economist.com/node/21556557

Published in 1980, and evidently read by me shortly thereafter, I was curious as to what I had recalled from Abroad.

Quite a bit, as it turns out. I owe Paul Fussell a debt of gratitude for introducing me to some of Britain's most illustrious travel writers, including Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, and Graham Greene.

"Before tourism there was travel, and before travel there was exploration."

"............it is hard to be a snob and a tourist at the same time. A way to combine both roles is to become an anti-tourist." "Despite the suffering he undergoes, the anti-tourist is not to be confused with the traveler; his motive is not inquiry but self-protection and vanity..........". "A useful trick is not carrying a camera.".........."Another device is staying at the most unlikely hotels, although this is risky.............". "Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood."

......."tourist angst".........."a gnawing suspicion that after all................you are still a tourist like every other tourist".

"Making love in novel environments, free from the censorship and inhibitions of the familiar, is one of the headiest experiences that travel promises."

"Cruel mockery of tourists - often American - is an important conventional element of the British travel book."

Edited: Jul 6, 2012, 5:52pm Top

26. Eaarth: Making A Life On A Tough New Planet - Bill McKibben

Controversy rages on about factors contributing to climate change, but its reality is now indisputable.

Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist, long committed to encouraging us to make important lifestyle changes, wrote this book in 2010.

See author's article about recent weather/fire events in the U.S. in the Spring and Summer of 2012:


"We are running Genesis backward, decreating."

Edited: Aug 8, 2012, 3:55pm Top

27. After The Plague - T.C. Boyle

Another intriguing short story collection (his 6th) by this gifted author who brilliantly addresses various social concerns and complicated human relationships. The reader is introduced to a disparate assemblage of characters struggling with (or defeated by) ironic twists of fate and occasionally victims of their own poor judgment.

In "Peep Hall" a California bartender who values his privacy becomes obsessed with a young girl taking part in a 24/7 live cam setup (peephall.com) in a nearby house where the participants' intimate moments are available for all to see.

In "Going Down" (a story within a story), a man sits reading in his home, transfixed by the plot of "Fifty Going Down", speculative fiction, the premise of which is that upon reaching the age of 50, humans then reverse course and get younger year by year, eventually returning to infancy. A blustery snow storm is raging and the power grid is down. His wife has failed to return from a shopping outing. He reads on.

In "Rust" an elderly, socially isolated couple, spend their listless days watching TV and drinking to excess. In an unusual turn of events on a hot summer's day (a sudden stroke and a debilitating fall), both end up lying helpless in the back yard, with little hope of being found in a timely fashion.

In "Death Of The Cool" Edison Banks, wealthy California ex-rock band star and TV series writer, in the midst of recovering from knee surgery and another failed relationship, belatedly learns an important lesson. Beware of strangers caressing your ego.

In "Achates McNeil" A famous ego-driven hippy-era writer cruelly disrupts the life of his sophomore college son, "Ake", when he arrives to fanfare for a speaking engagement at the school which the son is attending.

In "Killing Babies" a young California drug addict, remanded from rehab to his physician brother's supervision in distant Detroit, finds himself in the moral cross hairs of persistent anti-abortion activists.

I remain unclear about the presumably troubling future awaiting Sean and Melanie in "Captured By Indians".

It was only after reading "The Underground Gardens" and searching the Web for readers' comments that I discovered that this incredible complex, Baldasare Frontiere's Underground Gardens" actually exists.

Edited: Aug 24, 2012, 10:51pm Top

28. When The Killing's Done: A Novel - T.C. Boyle

Do all of T.C. Boyle's female characters have great hair? So it would seem.

But that irrelevant observation aside, once again this gifted author cleverly forces us to contemplate compelling, deeply divisive social/environmental issues. In this instance, weaving fiction and reality, he introduces us to the long-besieged Channel Islands off the coast of California, specifically Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands. Alma, a National Park Service biologist, and Dave, a wealthy environmental activist (not a particularly believable character, in my opinion - and despicable for having deliberately humiliated that unfortunate sommelier) see things very differently. Over time the islands' arid natural habitat has been ravaged by rats, feral pigs, sheep grazing, and viticulture. What to do? Poison the rats? Shoot the pigs? Reestablish the bald eagle population? Remove the golden eagles? Trap and temporarily relocate the endangered native foxes?

Or leave it to nature to sort things out.

See Wikipedia article for current status of Santa Cruz Island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Cruz_Island

Edited: Aug 25, 2012, 4:39pm Top

29. Them: Adventures With Extremists - Jon Ronson

I've previously enjoyed - and highly recommend - two other books by this author - The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test.

Jon Ronson is a humorous and rather brave investigative journalist who has spent more than a decade seeking out and interviewing a host of individuals with bizarre views. Many of them are conspiracy theorists; some are blatantly racist; others see the world through a distorted mirror of religious dogma.

The reader is first introduced to Omar, a strangely affable London-based Islamist who allows Jon's close scrutiny for a year as he plans for the eventual takeover of England and the destruction of Israel. We then travel around the U.S. to learn about competing philosophies within Ku Klux Klan factions and the less subtle hatreds of The Aryan Nations. We learn that the Bilderberg Group and Bohemian Grove attendees aren't as shadowy as some would suppose (check Wikipedia for membership lists). And no, the so-called "Cremation Of Care" event does not involve sacrificing children to an owl god. As for the supposed New Word Order...........................

Until popular conspiracy theorist David Icke called this to our attention, who knew that the Illuminati (the global elite) are genetically descended from extraterrestrial reptiles? And that George W. Bush is descended from the Annunaki reptilian race?

This book was published in 2001, just prior to the events of 9/11 which themselves provoked a host of conspiracy theories.

Edited: Aug 29, 2012, 1:32am Top

30. Beyond The Stony Mountains: Nature In The American West From Lewis And Clark To Today - Daniel B. Botkin

The author is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biolkogy, U. of California, Santa Barbara.

In January 1804, under the sponsorship of President Thomas Jefferson, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, leaders of a 33-member team, set out from St. Louis on what would become a two-year-and-four-month grueling expedition through parts of what are today Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. They were instructed to follow the Missouri River to its source, while studying and documenting the nature of the habitat through which it passed. A fabled notion about geographic symmetry (God had supposedly created the natural world with a rule of proportion) led President Jefferson to believe that the western mountains of North America must be symmetric with the Appalachians and that a water route to the Pacific existed. He could not have imagined the difficulties involved in crossing the Rocky Mountains.

Without the assistance of the Native Americans encountered along the way, this mission would have been at risk of failure. There was much to learn from the Mandans, the Shoshone, the Nez Perce, and others as the group passed through 18 ecological regions.

Professor Botkin retraces the journey of Lewis and Clark, describing vast and rapid changes to the natural habitat brought about by the arrival of large numbers of European settlers. The once-wild landscape at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers could well have been described as an American Serengeti; however, tens of millions of bison and pronghorn that once flourished there (and elsewhere) are gone. The Missouri River (on which the expedition spent more than a year) is scarcely recognizable for much of its length, having been transformed into "a mechanical plumbing system". All that remain of the short- and long-grass prairies are a few protected remnants. Iowa's forests were cut down to provide fuel for steamboats and the construction of railroad ties. Its wetlands were drained and its otters and beavers trapped to extinction. In the Pacific Northwest dams now largely prevent salmon from accessing their familiar rivers and streams.

There are still places where one can travel to admire what once was. In Missouri one can visit the 5,000-acre Grand Pass Conservation Area and The Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge. Although approximately 98% of prairie dog habitat has been destroyed, their "towns" can still be glimpsed on the 36-mile scenic loop of Little Missouri National Grasslands. In Iowa, one can drive along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, a narrow band adjacent to the Missouri River Valley. A naturalized remnant of the Missouri River can be glimpsed at Nebraska's Ponca State Park. These and other set-asides are available for our appreciation, but as far as rivers are concerned, few flow freely now. And scenic vistas are surprisingly difficult to access. The most beautiful portion of the Missouri River is a country of white cliffs, known as The Missouri Breaks (protection of a 165-mile stretch of the river was enacted by President Clinton as The Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument).

Bison may once have occupied as much as one third of North America, ranging from the boreal forests of Canada to the chaparral of south-west Texas. Victims of relentless carnage, small remaining populations can be viewed in a few protected areas, such as Yellowstone National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), National Bison Range (near Missoula, Montana), Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (Nebraska), and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation (Montana). Additionally, ranchers have begun to replenish their numbers.

Professor Botkin reminds us that a mosaic of many kinds of habitats is important to fish, wildlife, and vegetation - and therefore to us.

Edited: Sep 4, 2012, 1:35pm Top

31. The Saga Of Lewis & Clark: Into The Uncharted West - Thomas Schmidt and Jeremy Schmidt

A beautifully illustrated and insightful tribute to the 8,000-mile Lewis & Clark expedition which began in May 1804 near what is now St. Louis, Missouri and ended at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The outward journey took 18 months, the return, six months. The authors have themselves impressively retraced the route on foot and via canoe. Their written description is enhanced by the art of Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Charles Russell, and Charles Saint-Memin, as well as the early 19th century photos of E.S. Curtis.

The United States had recently acquired the Louisiana Territory, a region so immense that little was known about it. France had acquired it from Spain in 1801. France sold it to the U.S. in 1803.

Diseases such as smallpox, introduced by white settlers, had decimated the Native American population south of St. Louis, but hundreds of other scattered tribes populated the West. President Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would be able to convince these people about the benefits of trade with Americans. He was concerned about British incursions into the territory.

The expedition would first rely on the Missouri River to transport them west. They were assisted by French-Canadian boatmen, some of whom were of mixed heritage - part French, part Indian. Toussaint Charbonneau was a French trader living with the Hidatsas. His wife was Sacagawea, an adolescent Shoshone who had been kidnapped four years earlier by Hidatsas. Lewis would famously be present in time to deliver Sacagawea's baby, Jean-Baptiste. This young family would later accompany the expedition en route to the Pacific. Charbonneau's culinary skills (his specialty was boudin blanc) apparently compensated for other shortcomings which infuriated Lewis and Clark.

There were no dependable maps of this mighty river beyond the Mandan Indian villages near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. And after leaving the Mandans, the party would lack the assistance of other Native Americans for five long months until they encountered the Shoshones, who sold them horses.

By the time the group reached what is now known as Traveler's Rest, near present-day Missoula, Montana, they had been en route for 18 months. The availability of game varied greatly from region to region - bison, pronghorn, deer, elk gave way in the mountainous areas to beaver and other less savory fare. Grizzly bears were occasionally a fearsome hazard.

Numerous Indian tribes lived along the great rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Here salmon was seasonally abundant. Lewis and Clark first noted evidence of European trade goods in this region. Bargaining became increasingly difficult and replenishing their supplies more costly. Incessant rain and dampness rotted what was left of clothing, bedding and tents. Due to persistent storms, crossing the Columbia River estuary took ten days.

The expedition members would spend the winter of 1805-6 in crude log huts several miles south of present-day Astoria, Oregon. The boredom of their confinement was apparently assuaged by sexual favors offered by Chinook and Clatsop Indians.

In April 1806 they began the long journey back to St. Louis, altering their route through some regions, wary of the Blackfeet who were described as the "lords of the northern Plains". Had they encountered Crow Indians, they would probably have been made aware of the geysers of the Yellowstone region, but instead they caught only glimpses of the Crows' signal fires.

On August 3, they reached the now-familiar Missouri River, flowing through summer abundance of game and wild berries. Throughout their arduous journey, just one member of the expedition has died, apparently of acute appendicitis.

Sep 4, 2012, 2:13pm Top

32. Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption And The Hijacking Of America - Charles Ferguson

The author, who holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT, won an Academy Award in 2011 for INSIDE JOB, his documentary about the 2008 financial crisis.

Corruption and massive fraud were indeed at the heart of the 2008 meltdown. The author convincingly explains that the U.S. is increasingly controlled by an "amoral oligarchy" that has corrupted both political parties. About 50,000 members of the financial elite make most of the money and control the corporations.

Our most powerful and dangerous industries are finance, telecommunications, energy, the media, health care, industrial agribusiness and food production.

American public schools are funded through local property taxes, guaranteeing inequality. The high school dropout rate is as high as 25% in some areas. College tuition is now unaffordable for millions of students. We are witnessing the development of a "caste system".

Academic corruption is now deeply entrenched.

Finance has been the quickest, surest way to get rich. In the financial sector the worst offenders made the most money. And they were not prosecuted. Most still have their jobs.

We are doomed to more bubbles and crises.

Edited: Sep 22, 2012, 11:41am Top

33. The Age Of American Unreason - Susan Jacoby.

Depressing, especially while read during the frenzied run-up to Election Day on November 6th. Published in 2008, during the George W. Bush presidency, this well-known author, a child of the fifties and sixties, paints a disturbing portrait of the American electorate and its dangerous intellectual deficits, its "historical illiteracy".

Regarding education, whereas national curriculum standards prevail in Europe, here in the U.S. the control of elementary and secondary schooling is local. Inevitably, regional disparities are enormous. The theory of evolution is given short shrift in many schools, if not ignored entirely, replaced in some instances by the concept of "intelligent design". Ultra-conservative Christian thought insinuates itself into curricula, the halls of Congress, and The Supreme Court. Scientific findings are ignored or attacked, to our great detriment.

"Infotainment" has captured our attention. Despite the fact that newspapers are much more informative than television, readership is in serious decline. Opinion has become confused with fact.

Shortly before reading this book, while swimming at a local community pool, I overheard snippets of a conversation during which two women spoke derisively of our "Communist" president. They are convinced that his Affordable Health Care Act will prove utterly ruinous, and that they will be reduced to seeking medical care from a veterinarian.

Edited: Oct 3, 2012, 2:22pm Top

34. The Other Nile: Journeys In Egypt, The Sudan And Ethiopia - Charlie Pye-Smith

Checking the Web, I find that the author has written several other books of note since this one was published in 1986. A well-thumbed copy has remained on my shelf since I read it in 1991. Given all the highlighted sentences scattered throughout, I was obviously quite struck by what he revealed. And pleased that, despite numerous distractions, he noticed the birds (hoopoes, bee-eaters, pied kingfishers, swallows, kites, cattle egrets, vultures................).

What with both Egypt and Sudan recently figuring largely in the news (revolution in Egypt, South Sudan gaining fragile and endlessly contentious independence from the north), now seemed an appropriate time for me to revisit the author's descriptions of some very "rough" travel in those two countries, first in 1975 (at the age of 24), then eight years later. Of course it was his youth that accounted for his ability to endure the discomforts described (intense heat, extremely crowded trains, river boats and buses, long delays in dust-blown villages. debilitating bouts of diarrhea, flea bites). One wonders how he would manage today.

How are independent travelers in these regions faring currently? Should they attempt to do something useful while there? Many are.

"One supposition about travel which is commonly held to be true is that it broadens the mind. I saw little evidence for this, either in myself or others."

.........."80 percent of Egyptian women, compared to 60 percent of men, are still illiterate."

"In the year or so which I have spent in Africa I have not once heard the subject of female circumcision mentioned by Africans. Yet it is practised in over twenty countries, and nearly all the women in northern Sudan and southern Egypt are circumcized."

"Of Egypt's forty million inhabitants, about six million are Christians, and most of these are Copts........" (the 2012 population approaches eighty-four million and Egypt is the world's largest importer of wheat).

"The Copts claim that their church was founded by St. Mark, who is said to have arrived in Alexandria twelve years after the death of Christ."

"The great thing about deserts is that they encourage cerebral activity. Here, where nature celebrates dreadful monotony, there is little else to do but lead the life of contemplation."

Oct 4, 2012, 1:06pm Top

35. Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction - David Sheff

A heart-wrenching account of a father's efforts to rescue his son from the yawning abyss of a powerful addiction to crystal meth.

Oct 4, 2012, 1:42pm Top

Wow, you read a lot of interesting books and your reviews are terrific. The Taibbi book looks frightening, especially as it all seems entirely plausible now, whereas a decade ago I might have written that off as off-the-wall conspiracy theory.

Oct 5, 2012, 12:02am Top

Thanks, Rocketjk.

Matt Taibbi's excellent blog in Rolling Stone Magazine is here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog

Edited: Oct 11, 2012, 9:20pm Top

36. Drift: The Unmooring Of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow

The high regard that I have for this erudite MSNBC commentator has risen even further since listening to her book describing the military industrial complex's long shadow cast every more darkly over our lives.

In the social sciences, atavism has been described a cultural tendency to revert back to thought and behavior of former times - waging war with jingoistic fervor, for instance.

We are foolishly militarized, "armed to the teeth", engaged in "persistent conflict". And yet in many respects we grow weaker. Ten years on, the U.S. is still mired in Afghanistan, at a cost of approximately $5 billion per month. Spy agencies continue to proliferate. Are they held accountable? Have they made us safer? Do we learn from our military debacles? Do we even understand that they indeed were/are debacles?

Much of the American populace is unaware of the military's worldwide reach. Or its staggering cost.

Given the enormous size and complicated nature of America's military superstructure, can it be safeguarded? Can aspects of it be disassembled where necessary (e.g. its "crumbling nuclear woodpiles")? Apparently, a lot of critical "how-to" information wasn't "written down". Many of the engineers who developed our nuclear weapons program have retired or died.

The increasing privatization of our military has led to reduced oversight and lack of prosecution of criminal behavior on the part of some civilian contractors. Private contractors are not cheaper! Their use enriches corporations such as Haliburton and Blackwater (a.k.a. Xe, Academi). The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have provided huge windfalls for defense contractors. The uncompleted $108 million waste water treatment plant in Fallujah, Iraq is just one example of appalling waste and embarrassing failure.

The Founding Fathers expressed grave concerns about maintaining a standing army. Has going to war become too "easy"?

Oct 22, 2012, 11:42am Top

37. True Notebooks: A Writer's Year At Juvenile Hall - Mark Salzman

A moving account of the author's experiences while managing a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall, East L.A. Included are many poignant examples penned (pencilled, actually) by the various young participants whose lives have unraveled in horrifying ways.

Edited: Oct 28, 2012, 12:41am Top

38. The Best American Travel Writing 2010 - edited by Bill Buford

My first attempt at writing a review was thwarted by a computer snafoo (sigh), so I will be brief. As individuals, we all travel for different reasons, so understandably a golfer might be fascinated by David Owen's "The Ghost Course" (rehabilitation of a "lost" course on the gale-battered island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland), but inclined to completely skip Ted Genoway's "Batman Returns" ( searching for rare species of bats in Suriname). There is something of interest to most readers within these pages.

One wonders why, of these 21 essays and short stories, just one was written by a woman, the commendable Susan Orleans ("Where Donkeys Deliver"), who reflects movingly upon the truly burdensome lives endured by the gentle donkeys of Morocco. In the medina of Fez there exists a "donkey hospital", American Fandouk, currently under the remarkable directorship of chief veterinarian, Denys Frappier, a Canadian, who had originally planned to stay for two years, but who is still there fifteen years on.


Reading troubled Colby Buzzell's "Down and Out In Fresno And San Francisco" prompted me to wonder about his current state of mind. A Wikipedia entry reveals that this widely praised young author My War: Killing Time In Iraq suffers from PTSD related to a tour of duty in Iraq.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Garrison Keillor ("Take In The State Fair") unsurprisingly provokes chortles and guffaws as he describes his gustatory "plunge into the pool of self-indulgence" at what was presumably the annual Minnesota State Fair. Unclear as to why this would be designated a travel essay, however.

Travel, writ large, is what Matthew Power experiences ("Lost In The Amazon") as he endeavors to be the first person to traverse the entire length of the Amazon River on foot.

In "Looking for Judas" on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Tom Bissell and his friend encounter a poor Palestinian shepherd and his flock wandering through an utterly barren landscape near a portion of the Separation Barrier. This was of far greater interest to me than speculations about where the Biblical Judas ("the greatest failure the world has ever known"????) may have hung himself.

Kudos to Ian Frazier ("Travels In Siberia") and his indefatigable Russian guides as they journey through history and clouds of mosquitoes. His book of the same name awaits me on a shelf in my living room.

Edited: Nov 11, 2012, 10:28am Top

39. Best American Travel Writing 2005 - edited by Jamaica Kincaid

As in the 2010 volume of the same series, few female writers are represented amidst these essays and short stories, just two out of twenty-one - Pam Houston's "The Vertigo Girls Do The East Tonto Trail" (hiking in the Grand Canyon) and Kira Salak' "The Vision Seekers" (experiencing shamanistic healing in the Peruvian Amazon). I would recommend that the editors of future editions seek out female naturalists/biologists in far-flung areas of the world. And what about foreign aid workers? Teachers in foreign lands?

In "War Wounds" Tom Bissell accompanies his father to the killing fields of Vietnam, where, as a U.S. Marine, he was injured in 1965.

In "If It Doesn't Kill You First", newly minted young American Sunni Muslim Murad Kalam (he changed his name when he converted) attends the hajj, a difficult and at times dangerous five-day pilgrimage to Mecca and nearby Holy sites.

John McPhee ("Tight-Assed River") joins the hardworking, highly accomplished crew of Billie Joe Boling, a tow boat pushing heavily laden barges on the complicated waters of the 273-mile-long Illinois River. Imagine this - fifteen barges wired together in three five-barge strings. Each barge is 200 feet long. At times there may be just six feet of water separating the barges and the shore.

Bucky McMahon ("Adrift") disappoints by chickening out during his one-man adventure aboard an inflatable raft in the Gulf Stream off the east coast of Florida.

Madison Smartt Bell ("Mine Of Stones") revisits Haiti and reflects upon its troubled history, deforestation, and profound poverty.

Indefatigable American ecologist and conservationists J. Michael Fay ("In The Land Of Surfing Hippos") revisits coastal Gabon and proposed Loanga National Park. While there, he notices E.U. trawlers venturing illegally within the three-mile limit.

In "Welcome To Nowhere" Simon Winchester, en route home to England from Antarctica on a Russian tramp steamer, arranges to be disgorged on remote Ascension Island. The experience does not disappoint.

In 2003, two years after the U.S. invasion, Robert Young Pelton ("Into The Land Of Bin Laden") revisits the porous borderlands of Afghanistan. It is now thought that Bin Laden escaped in a Corolla hatchback.

These are just a few examples of fascinating experiences described. I'm hooked on this series.

Nov 9, 2012, 1:36pm Top

#42> If you're interested in a collection of travel essays written by women, I highly recommend An Inn Near Kyoto: Writing by American Women Abroad.

Nov 9, 2012, 3:57pm Top

Thanks, Rocketjk.

Edited: Nov 11, 2012, 10:41am Top

40. Howards End Is On The Landing - Susan Hill

I discovered this book quite by accident while cruising the shelves of our local library.

This apparently famous British author (see The Woman In Black) resolves to spend a year limiting her reading to books currently on her bounteous shelves while at the same time distancing herself from the Internet.

I am willing to forgive her for her limited interest in travel genre books, even for her curious dismissal of Canadian and Australian authors. We share an appreciation of Gerald Durrell (My Family And Other Animals), Patrick Leigh Fermor (A Time Of Gifts), and Enid Blighton's children's adventure series (The Island Of Adventure). I look forward to reading everything that Simon Gray has written.

"A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life."

"A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the last few years; I have known book bloggers boasting of getting through twenty books plus a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book Of Records."..........."The best books deserve better."

"Some people take a pride in not having read a particular book, as if the not-reading were some sort of achievement...................."

"I wonder what it would be like to have just forty books left to read for the rest of my life. I have made a mental bookshelf. It is empty now, but I am going to place on it the forty books I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life, if push came to shove."

(Just for fun, I've started to compile my list.)

Edited: Nov 25, 2012, 11:17pm Top

41. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

I became a fan of Evelyn Waugh upon discovering Vile Bodies and When The Going Was Good, two books showcasing this famous British author's brilliant capacity for sardonic wit. Unfortunately, only one of the characters within the celebrated pages of Brideshead Revisited interested me, that of Sebastian, the troubled, undoubtedly gay young man who attempts to flee the psychological/societal constraints of his upper crust Catholic family.

Edited: Dec 7, 2012, 8:43pm Top

42. Stones For Ibarra - Harriet Doerr

In the 1960s a middle-aged California couple, Richard and Sara Everton, journey to a small village in a hardscrabble region of Mexico to resurrect the husband's grandfather's copper mine which was abandoned during the Revolution of 1910.

Their housekeeper, Remedios Acosta surreptitiously places charms throughout the old hacienda while Sara struggles to accept the reality of her husband's life-threatening illness.

Edited: Dec 30, 2012, 4:52pm Top

43. The Man Within My Head - Pico Iyer

As a fan of both Pico Iyer and Graham Greene (each a product of distant fathers and British boarding school regimentation), I was intrigued by this insightful book, aspects of which appear to be a bittersweet farewell to the author's complicated and erudite father, long dead.

Greene is described as the "patron saint of the foreigner alone". Iyer is simultaneously a ceaseless traveler and a seeker of solitude. A complicated man.

"If you grow up between cultures, if you get accustomed to traveling, it's easy to find yourself always on the outside of things, looking in."

Edited: Jan 1, 2013, 8:11am Top

44. If The River Was Whiskey - T.C. Boyle

Sixteen decidedly dark, occasionally over-the-top stories by an incredibly imaginative writer.

One of my favorites, entitled "The Ape Lady In Retirement", describes the horrifying, yet hardly unexpected demise of Beatrice Umbo, primatologist, and Konrad, her housemate chimpanzee, who goes "ape-shit".

Jan 1, 2013, 11:53am Top

Unfortunately, I fell six books short of my goal of 50, having been distracted by The New Yorker, Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Economist and various on-line international newspapers.

Jan 1, 2013, 12:23pm Top

You may have fallen short, but you did read some very interesting books. I look forward to reading some of them and to following you 2013 attempt.

Group: 50 Book Challenge

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