SQ Book Recommendations (Aug, 2009)

Discussions about books with friends at Lake Tahoe

We all work at Google and we all read. I asked several of my friends what they most enjoyed reading in the past year or two. In the past, these recommendations have almost always proven to be both useful and extraordinarily interesting. Here's what they said when I asked them this question at our offsite in Lake Tahoe...

Elizabeth Tucker's recommendations....

The Glass Castle (Jeanette Wallis)

A horrific childhood at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents is chronicled in this book. The good news is that it's well-written, and shows exactly how resilient and strong kids can be. Despite all the odds, sometimes kid really DO overcome their environment.

Something Rotten (Jasper Fforrde)

This fourth book in the series continues the English detective's quest to protect her child, regain her husband, and save the world (not necessarily in that order). She decides that it's time to leave Jurisfiction and return to the real world of the Outland to resume her life. Taking her son and her pet dodoes, Thursday discovers that her actions in real life are possibly even weirder than they were in the realm of literature and certainly of more consequence. Fforde continues to pitch high, wide, and fast: only he could turn croquet into an extreme (and hilarious) sport with the fate of the world hanging on the outcome of the game. Particularly appropriate during the presidential election year was the political debate show "Evade the Questions Time" where politicians score points for most successfully avoiding answering questions. Rotten is the concluding volume of this series and many of the subplots and characters from the first three titles reappear, floating through the space-time fiction-fantasy continuum. It succeeds in wrapping up in a most gratifying way. As Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism would say, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." (Library School Journal review)

Denis Lynch's recommendations...

The Last Chinese Chef (Nicole Mones) "Not a great writer, but a great story," says Denis. The characters are developed and fully fleshed out. What a concept!

A recently widowed American food writer finds solace and love—and the most inspiring food she's ever encountered—during a visit to China in Mones's sumptuous latest. Still reeling from husband Matt's accidental death a year ago, food writer Maggie McElroy is flummoxed when a paternity claim is filed against Matt's estate from Beijing, where he sometimes traveled for business. Before Maggie embarks on the obligatory trip to investigate, her editor assigns her a profile on Sam Liang, a half-Chinese American chef living in Beijing who is about to enter a prestigious cooking competition. Sam's old-school recipes and history lessons of high Chinese cuisine kick-start Maggie's dulled passion for food and help her let go of her grief, even as she learns of Matt's Beijing bed hopping. Though the narrative can get bogged down in the minutiae of Chinese culinary history, Mones's descriptions of fine cuisine are tantalizing, and her protagonist's quest is bracing and unburdened by melodrama. Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that "food can heal the human heart." Mones smartly proves her wrong. (Publisher's Weekly Reviews)

Laura Granka's recommendations....

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Mai Na M. Lee)

Tells the story of Lia Lee, an epileptic child born to a Hmong family who immigrated to the U.S. After a series of unfortunate events that stemmed from cultural clashes between the hospital and the Lee family, Lia eventually ended up brain dead in a comatose state. The lack of communication between the doctors and the Lee family, in addition to their inability to understand each other, linguistically and culturally, made cooperation impossible, and eventually ended up with devastating results.

Laura describes this book as moving, and giving the reader the chance to truly see the American Medical system through an outsider's eyes.

Michael's McNally's recommendations....

Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Phyics was Reborn (Louisa Gilder)

The story of quantum mechanics and its lively cast of supporters, heretics and agnostics has always fascinated science historians and popular science readers. Gilder's version differs from the familiar tale in two important ways. First, by focusing on the problem of entanglement—the supposed telepathic connection between particles that a skeptical Einstein called spooky action-at-a-distance—Gilder includes more recent developments leading to quantum computing and quantum cryptography. Second, Gilder exercises—not wholly successfully—a daring creative license, drawing excerpts from papers, journals and letters to construct dialogues among the scientists. Sounds fascinating.

Marianne Berkovich

Bobos in Paradise:The New Upper Class and How They Got There, David Brooks

You've seen them drinking double-tall, skinny lattes, chattering on cell phones, and listening to NPR while driving their immaculate SUVs to Pottery Barn to shop for $48 titanium spatulas. They tread down specialty cheese aisles in top-of-the-line hiking boots and think nothing of laying down $5 for an olive-wheatgrass muffin. They're the bourgeois bohemians--"Bobos"--an unlikely blend of mainstream culture and 1960s-era counterculture that, according to David Brooks, represents both America's present and future: "These Bobos define our age. They are the new establishment. Their hybrid culture is the atmosphere we all breathe. Their status codes now govern social life." Amusing stereotypes aside, they're an "elite based on brainpower" and merit rather than pedigree or lineage: "Dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes." Bobos in Paradise is a brilliant, breezy, and often hilarious study of the "cultural consequences of the information age." Large and influential (especially in terms of their buying power), the Bobos have reformed society through culture rather than politics. (Amazon reviews)

Ben Gomes

The White Tiger:A Novel, Aravind Adiga

Ben describes this as the novel he hopes certain people will never read because it will be too infuriating. In this darkly comic début novel set in India, Balram, a chauffeur, murders his employer, justifying his crime as the act of a "social entrepreneur." In a series of letters to the Premier of China, in anticipation of the leader’s upcoming visit to Balram’s homeland, the chauffeur recounts his transformation from an honest, hardworking boy growing up in "the Darkness"—those areas of rural India where education and electricity are equally scarce, and where villagers banter about local elections "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra"—to a determined killer. He places the blame for his rage squarely on the avarice of the Indian élite, among whom bribes are commonplace, and who perpetuate a system in which many are sacrificed to the whims of a few.

Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Richard Dawkins

Although some people complain about the mixing of liberal politics in with a book on evolutionary science, the British apologist for evolution, Richard Dawkins, pulls no punches in this surprising book about how evolution has made some remarkable creatures... and why evolution seems to be the correct explanation for how this all came to be. The Ancestor's Tale takes us from our immediate human ancestors back through what he calls ‘concestors,’ those shared with the apes, monkeys and other mammals and other vertebrates and beyond to the dim and distant microbial beginnings of life some 4 billion years ago. It is a remarkable story which is still very much in the process of being uncovered

Ben Smith

Brothers K, David James Duncan

Ben merely says that the writing is brilliant, the characters wonderfully drawn. He also says you have to push past page 100 before making the call to continue.

Amazon Reviews says "It is a stunning work: a complex tapestry of family tensions, baseball, politics and religion, by turns hilariously funny and agonizingly sad. Highly inventive formally, the novel is mainly narrated by Kincaid Chance, the youngest son in a family of four boys and identical twin girls, the children of Hugh Chance, a discouraged minor-league ballplayer whose once-promising career was curtained by an industrial accident, and his wife Laura, an increasingly fanatical Seventh-Day Adventist. The plot traces the working-out of the family's fate from the beginning of the Eisenhower years through the traumas of Vietnam. One son becomes an atheist and draft resister; another immerses himself in Eastern religions, while the third, the most genuinely Christian of the children, ends up in Southeast Asia. In spite of the author's obvious affection for the sport, this is not a baseball novel; it is, as Kincaid says, "the story of an eight-way tangle of human beings, only one-eighth of which was a pro ballpayer." The book portrays the extraordinary differences that can exist among siblings--much like the Dostoyevski novel to which The Brothers K alludes in more than just title--and how family members can redeem one another in the face of adversity. Long and incident-filled, the narrative appears rather ramshackle in structure until the final pages, when Duncan brings together all of the themes and plot elements in a series of moving climaxes. The book ends with a quiet grace note--a reprise of its first images--to satisfyingly close the narrative circle."

Udi Manber

Five Days in London, May 1940 (John Lukacs)

Luckacs suggests that the last days of May 1940 the most important days of of the war, for it was in those few days that Churchill convinced his cabinet that Britain should fight on, alone, if need be, against Hitler's regime. Even as a quarter of a million British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, Churchill struggled to reverse the British government's policy of appeasement. In this, he faced opposition from several quarters, including prominent figures within his own Conservative Party. Churchill was not well liked, and had been prime minister for only two weeks when war broke out--Lukacs gives his readers a fly-on-the-wall view of the heated conferences between such well-known participants as Harold Nicholson, Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain, and Alexander Cadogan. The world might have been very different, had these five days turned out differently.

The Year 1000 (Robert Lacey, Danny Danzinger)

"August was the month when flies started to become a problem, buzzing round the dung heaps in the corner of every farmyard and hovering over the open cesspits of human refuse that were located outside every house." Although daily dangers were many, housing uncomfortable, and the dominant smells unpleasant indeed, life in England at the turn of the previous millennium was not at all bad, write Lacey and Danziger. "If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000," they continue, "the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was--very much the size of anyone alive today." The Anglo-Saxons were not only tall, but also generally well fed and healthy, more so than many Britons only a few generations ago. Writing in a breezy, often humorous style, Lacey and Danziger draw on the medieval Julius Work Calendar, a document detailing everyday life around A.D. 1000, to reconstruct the spirit and reality of the era.

Jamie Divine

The Shock Doctrine (Namoi Klein)

The Shock Doctrine advances a truly unnerving argument: historically, while people were reeling from natural disasters, wars and economic upheavals, savvy politicians and industry leaders nefariously implemented policies that would never have passed during less muddled times. As Klein demonstrates, this reprehensible game of bait-and-switch isn't just a relic from the bad old days. It's alive and well in contemporary society, and coming soon to a disaster area near you.

Example: "At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq'' civil war, a new law is unveiled that will allow Shell and BP to claim the country's vast oil reserves… Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly outsources the running of the 'War on Terror' to Halliburton and Blackwater… After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts… New Orleans residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be re-opened." Klein not only kicks butt, she names names, notably economist Milton Friedman and his radical Chicago School of the 1950s and 60s which she notes "produced many of the leading neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers whose influence is still profound in Washington today." Stand up and take a bow, Donald Rumsfeld. (Review from Amazon.com)

Jen Kozenski

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck)

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford. She proposes that everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one in which you view your talents and abilities as... well, fixed. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress. Your fate is one of growth and opportunity. Which mindset do you possess?

Ben Softness

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (Nicholas Carr)

While it may seem that we're in the midst of an unprecedented technological transition, Carr suggests that the direction of the digital revolution has a strong historical corollary: electrification. He argues that computing, no longer personal, is going the way of a power utility.

American Pastoral (Phillip Roth)

Philip Roth's 22nd book takes a life-long view of the American experience during the '60s. His prose is carefully controlled yet always fresh and intellectually subtle as he reconstructs the halcyon days, circa World War II, of Seymour "the Swede" Levov, a high school sports hero and all-around Great Guy who wants nothing more than to live in tranquillity. But as the Swede grows older and America crazier, history sweeps his family inexorably into its grip.

Peter Ludemann

Cartoon History of the World - Volumes 1-7 (Larry Gonick)

When Peter suggested this to me I was taken aback--how could I have NOT thought of Gonick's hilariously informative history of the planet? Starting with the Big Bang theory and moving on to the "evolution of everything," he manages to cover three billion years--from the origins of cellular life to the fossil and dinosaur periods that followed, right up to the first appearance of hominids--all with casual erudition, silly humor and delightfully cartoony black-and-white drawings. But Gonick doesn't stop there. He reinstates the record of women (their theoretical role in the development of agriculture and the matrilineal clans of the neolithic era) as well as accurately restoring black racial characteristics to the Egyptian dynasties. He also surveys other highly evolved ancient civilizations: the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Assyrians and the Israelites. Gonick cheerfully conjures rulers, warriors and slaves alike, many stumbling around in the desert, as they form the foundations for Western civilization.

(Dan's opinion: This is a brilliant series. I'm not a comic book fan, but he really lets you see world history in a very different way. His exposition convinces you to go out and read even more history because you really don't understand what happened... and that's high praise.)

Laura Hughes

Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)

The narrator is a lightly fictionalized version of the author. Lindsay escapes an Australian jail and arrives in Bombay on a fake passport. He befriends taxi driver Prabakar, who finds him a place to live in a slum away from the eyes of the law. While he runs a makeshift first-aid center in the slum, he also engages in criminal activities like smuggling and counterfeiting, and eventually starts gun-running to Afghanistan. His experiences in Bombay range from falling in love with the beautiful Karla, who introduces him to the world of prostitutes, to meeting the motherly Rukhmabai of Sundargaon, who christens him “Shantaram”, or man of peace. Interspersed amid the numerous characters like Rukhmabai, Prabakar, Karla, and Kader are the sweat and grime, dirt and squalor, disease and fire and extreme poverty - all narrated with genuine affection, passion and generosity. What could have been a mere narrative of poor people’s lives is transformed into an extraordinary piece of fiction.

Jaime Forman-Lau

When the Elephants Dance (Tessa Ulrithe Holze)

Tess Uriza Holthe writes with a mixture of metaphor and fact, a combination of the supernatural and the all-too-real. When the Elephants Dance opens, in fact, with an apposite metaphor for a horrible reality: "Papa explains the war like this: 'When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.'" The elephants in question are the Americans and the Japanese, fighting for possession of the Philippines. The chickens are, of course, the ordinary Filipinos. Three of these "chickens" by turns tell us the story of the Japanese occupation as a small neighborhood near Manila literally goes underground, hiding in the cellar and swapping stories. Holthe takes her onus as a seminal Filipino voice seriously; she sometimes seems determined to cram every bit of tradition, history, and myth into her novel, to the detriment of the plot's propulsion. But readers who stay with her will be rewarded with an extraordinary display of historical color, and will certainly root for her three narrators. (Amazon Reviews)

Christine Moschella

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Bill Bryson)

Bill Bryson has a particular style that's compelling to some readers--he compiles a huge amount of information in an easily understood form. He's cranky and opionated, but fun. Here he collects the breezy columns on America he wrote weekly for a British Sunday newspaper. Although he happily describes himself as dazzled by American ease, friendliness and abundance, Bryson has no trouble finding comic targets, among them fast food, computer efficiency and, ironically, American friendliness and putative convenience. He's deft when he compares the two cultures, as in their different treatment of Christmas, pointing out how the British "pack all their festive excesses" into that single holiday. Entertaining, and best consuming a column or two at a time.

Dacijus Turauskas

Siddartha (Herman Hesse)

You should have read this in high school... if not... it's never too late to catch up. Siddhartha's life takes him on a journey toward enlightenment. Afire with youthful idealism, the young Brahmin joins a group of ascetics, fasting and living without possessions. Meeting Gotama the Buddha, he comes to feel this is not the right path, though he also declines joining the Buddha's followers. He reenters the world, hoping to learn of his own nature, but instead slips gradually into hedonism and materialism. Surfeited and disgusted, he flees from his possessions to become a ferryman's apprentice, learning what lessons he can from the river itself. Herman Hesse's 1922 Bildungsroman parallels the life of Buddha and seems to argue that lessons of this sort cannot be taught but come from one's own struggle to find truth.

Joyce Door

How to Love (Gordon Livingstone)

The primary focus is on helping us to recognize in ourselves and in others constellations of character traits and what those traits imply both with regard to compatibility and future conduct. Avoid narcissists.

(Apparently only available as a Kindle download through Amazon. But you can go here to Barnes & Noble to get it from them.)

Dan Russell

Banana: The fate of the fruit that changed the world (Dan Koeppel) When you think about “banana republic,” it’s usually with a slight jovial sense. A small country in Central America with bumbling generalissimos and rapid political changes. The reality is far darker, with real lives, real tragedies and real American corporate evil-doing. The United Fruit company brought cheap bananas to the US, but at a huge cost because of rapacious farming methods and political subversions in Central America. What’s worse, it’s all just for profit, people and their lives be damned.

At the same time bananas are essentially a monoculture of the worst kind—essentially all of the bananas we eat are clones of the Cavendish variety. A disease that affects one, affects all. Several diseases have already rampaged through the trees—Bunchy Top, Sigatoka, and perhaps worst of all, Panama Disease. It’s tough to cross-breed bananas (which are naturally seedless), and all current progress is being made in biotechnology with direct gene manipulation. This happened once before when the Gros Michel variety was basically wiped out in the 1960s, replaced by the current Cavendish. Look for more of the same in the future. Expect a new kind of banana by 2050.

Carrie Grimes

The Spellman Files: A Novel (Lisa Lutz)

"Fast-paced, irreverent, and very funny, The Spellman Files is like Harriet the Spy for grown-ups."

Isabel "Izzy" Spellman is a private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors -- but the upshot is she's good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family's firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people's privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman. Read it and be highly entertained.

Last updated: Sept 1, 2009