SQ Book Recommendations (Aug, 2008)

Discussions about books with friends at Lake Tahoe

While at Lake Tahoe on a short offsite meeting, a few of us talked about books. Here are the recommendations from those discussions that took place in the bus, rafting down the river, around the firepit, at breakfast overlooking the lake, eating lunch in a Truckee cabin....

Susan Lin's recommendations....

Shutting out the sun: How Japan Created its own Lost Generation (Michael Zielenziger)

Japan has a big problem. More than a million young men have given up on school or work, spending their days in their cramped apartments. In this well-researched and well-organized book, these men ("hikikomori") are both a symptom of and a metaphor for Japan's ennui. These are close-up portraits of the hikikomori, grounding their stories in the political, economic and historic realities facing Japan today. Zielenziger also suggests that women who avoid marriage and children, men who drink too much and both men and women fetishizing brand names are additional signs of the mass confusion and discontent. It is a lost generation, one that might well play a major role (by its absence?) in the future of Japan. (Adapted from Publisher's Review)

Shadow of the Silk Road (Colin Thubron)

The Silk Road connected central China with the Mediterranean. It's one long travelogue of 3rd class passage on the road--a story of hassles and dun-colored landscapes... but also of history and poetry. A slice of Asia you're not likely to read in the New Yorker or the Times, but a reality for millions. Thubron brings enthusiasm to a complicated and under-examined part of the world.

Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (John McWhorter)

Languages change, even though people might not want them to. McWhorter lays out the transformations of language over time. How did Finnish get to be the way it is? It's not obvious. A fascinating story of language development and evolution.

Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy (Sasha Issenberg)

Susan: "I learned more about supply side chain management from this book than from any other place!" It's a great question of market transformation as well--tuna used to be primarily cat food. How DID it become a global delicacy when encased in a bit of rice and seaweed?

Dan Russell's recommendations...

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Louise Levathes)

When the Europeans were just beginning their great Age of Exploration in tiny boats, the Dragon Throne launched a massive R&D effort with more than 400 ships (the biggest of which was 4 times as large as the Santa Maria!). It's a wonderful bit of historical irony that China had the biggest space program in history, then shut it down, beginning a long period of inward-looking near isolationism. A wonderful book that should be read much more widely by those in charge of research policy.

Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 (Noel Perrin)

It IS possible to reverse technology incursion into society. But you've got to be willing to make a remarkable shift in your society. In 1543, Japan's shogunate effectively reversed the trend toward killing-at-a-distance gun technology, and then held it off for nearly 300 years. The story of how they managed that is fascinating.

A Natural History of the Senses (Diane Ackerman)

I have to admit it: I love Diane Ackerman's writing. Her prose floats like rose petals on still waters; descriptive, luxurious and always always evocative. Here she writes about how we perceive--the subject of endless dry tomes. This isn't dusty in the slightest, but you'll remember her prose forever.

"One of the real tests of writers is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?" She's right.

John Lamping's recommendations...

Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized (Deborah Gordon)

"If the ants don't work like a miniature human society, how does a group of rather inept little creatures create a colony that gets things done?" She proposes a number of answers in her wide-ranging book, one possibility: ants get things done by accident, by experimenting with and constantly testing their surroundings to see what there is to eat, and who else is trying to get at it. Gordon writes with good humor about the daily work of studying insects in the intense heat of the desert, noting, "Over the years I have evolved a costume that includes a long-sleeved shirt, a cap with a kind of curtain around its lower edge, and the largest sunglasses I can find. I look rather like an insect myself."

Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in our Time (Johnathan Weiner)

... a brilliant work on the topic of evolution and a great introduction for the student of evolutionary biology. Weiner's book destroys two of the greatest myths about evolution. 1. It's slow. and, 2. It can't be observed. The study of the Galapagos Finches not only shows the importance of evolution as a contemporary subject but as one that can be observed RIGHT NOW in the world around us. It's almost astonishing to see how simple evolution truly is, how it occurs in small, quantifiable steps that we can see, if we only take the time to carefully observe. Weiner not only demystifies evolution, but makes it as a topic, thoroughly accessible to the interested layman. His prose is neither dry nor technical. An enjoyable read. (adapted from a web-review at Amazon)

Krishna Bahrat's recommendation....

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Richard Dawkins)

Do you believe in intelligent design? If so, why? Dawkins, the famed atheist and biologist with an in-your-face style takes on the thesis of intelligent design. While he sometimes goes into enormous depth on a facet of biology that will interest engineers (but not readers trying to understand his thesis), the book is basically an argument about why evolution is a much better explanation than any alternative. As he writes in the opening: " I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence."

Ben Gomes' recommendation....

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines (Richard A. Muller)

"Let's not have another president that doesn't understand science." That's the idea here. The science behind major policy issues is carefully (fair and balanced!) explained for candidates. Should we dump nuclear waste into a mine in Nevada? What about the science behind global warming? How big a worry are bio-warfare weapons? It would be great if McCain and Obama both had at least this level of basic science knowledge. It's a marvelous hope. ([ed] I'm keeping my fingers crossed.)

Anne Aula's recommendation...

Middlesex (Jeffry Eugenides)

"A fascinating study of gender issues that is well-written and a little surprising..." says Anne. Other reviews write: "Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides's command of the narrative is astonishing." There aren't many novels about hermaphrodites out there, especially ones as insightful as this.

Chuan She's recommendation...

The Memory Keeper's Daughter (Kim Edwards)

Chuan's recommendation caused a stir at the dinner table. "Sick!" said one reader of the book. "Wonderful!" cried another. You'll have to choose. The synopsis from Amazon: "A snowstorm immobilizes Lexington, Ky., in 1964, and when Norah Henry goes into labor, her husband, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Henry, must deliver their babies himself, aided only by a nurse. Seeing his daughter's handicap, he instructs the nurse, Caroline Gill, to take her to a home and later tells Norah, that their son Paul's twin died at birth. Instead of institutionalizing Phoebe, Caroline absconds with her to Pittsburgh. This deception becomes the defining moment of the main characters' lives, and Phoebe's absence corrodes her birth family's core over the course of the next 25 years. David's undetected lie warps his marriage; he grapples with guilt; Norah mourns her lost child; and Paul not only deals with his parents' icy relationship but with his own yearnings for his sister as well."

Melanie Kellar's recommendation...

Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

"Henry DeTamble is a time traveler, although not by choice. A genetic mutation causes him to spontaneously travel through time, disappearing from view, leaving behind his clothes and possessions, and arriving naked in another time and another place. For the most part, this is a curse. Henry often has to turn to petty crime to feed and clothe himself when he travels, and must run from people, thugs, or the police. Eventually Henry returns to his present time, bringing only the bodily injuries he's suffered back with him. Sometimes he travels back in time and visits an earlier version of himself. One of the places to which he travels often is the meadow behind Clare's house, and throughout her younger years, Clare meets him there and falls in love with him."

But it's not really a science fiction novel, but more of a love story with a twist. A great summer read.

Charles Martin's recommendations...

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

What is the true human nature? What happens when a society has to reconstruct itself, as the boys in this novel have to do? Would a culture divide into warring factions, or work together and create a new civilization? Golding's answer is clear. What I hadn't understood was that "Lord" was considered a failure of a book (selling less than 3,000 copies in the US before going out of print). Then, in the early 60's, "Lord" became a kind of cult favorite, and quickly moved into mainstream established literature. THAT's a story I'd love to know more about...

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (Col. David H. Hackworth & Julie Sherman)

Military books often tell the heroism of the author. Hackworth tells the story as he lived it--mistakes, near insanity, moral relativism, the fine line between crazy and approved. He lived through Korea and Vietnam, and tells the insiders tale of someone who's been in Cambodia, fighting in a place where we weren't supposed to be, doing the best he could under the circumstances. A big, complex book that engages... even if you don't like military histories. This will sing epics about Afghanistan to today's readers.

The Puglist at Rest (Thom Jones)

This collection by the O'Henry story-story award winning Jones is a revelation--the short story form isn't dead, it's just been waiting for Jones to come along and revive it. Charles especially likes the title story; a small piece of writing that sticks in the mind for a long, long time.

Aysel Özgür's recommendations...

History of Madness (Michel Foucault)

What is it to be mad? Is life, like so much else, just a socially agreed upon set of conventions? In this 1961 work, Foucault gives his perspective from a philosophical / historical perspective, writing in his "dazzling, but enigmatic style" that some love (and drives other people mad). This translation of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique is a complete translation, with added footnotes and extra material (but not a director's cut) that might make it more accessible to English-only readers.

The Atlas of Misty Continents (İhsan Oktay Anar)

Anar is one of the best known Turkish authors writing these days. "His novels are half-historic, half-fantastic and he uses such a beautiful type of narration combining modern turkish and ottoman turkish together, the language creates its own atmosphere which is best to be lost in." (from the Guardian review of Turkish novels) Alas, so far, available only in Turkish. Aysel suggests we await the translation.

Shan Wang's recomendations...

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

"With the telescopic perspective of one who's stepped out of the American mainstream and come back after 20 years, Bryson aptly holds the mirror up to U.S. culture, capturing its absurdities--such as hotlines for dental floss, the cult of the lawsuit, and strange American injuries such as those sustained from pillows and beds. "In the time it takes you to read this," he writes, "four of my fellow citizens will somehow manage to be wounded by their bedding." (from Amazon.com)

Life of Pi (Yann Martel)

"I was shocked to find myself buying into the implausible story..." says Shan. Everyone I've talked to about the book seems to agree--crazy story, but deeply insightful and worth reading. "Life of Pi is a magical reading experience, an endless blue expanse of storytelling about adventure, survival, and ultimately, faith."

Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems (David Rakoff)

Rakoff observes the first world and comments on the foibles and idiocies of worrying about things like "low thread count" in a world where people still starve. Think David Sedaris (clever, insightful, funny) with a slightly sardonic twist.

John Lamping's recomendations...

Ants at Work : How an Insect Society is Organized (Deborah Gordon)

"The basic mystery about ant colonies," begins Gordon, who teaches at Stanford, "is that there is no management." How, then, do colonies exhibit such high degrees of organization? To answer that question, Gordon has spent 17 summers studying harvester ants in a "small patch" of the Arizona desert. This report on that research is an accessible but often dry mix of science writing, memoir and speculation. "The first time I did this experiment, I used five sets of neighboring colonies. Each set included one enclosed colony and three or four neighbors...." Thoreau this isn't, but neither is it pure number-crunching. Gordon invigorates her text through bone-clean prose and a welcome sense of humor (in long-sleeved shirt, curtained cap and big sunglasses, "I look rather like an insect myself"). (From the Amazon.com review)

Beak of the Finch: A story of evolution in our time (Jonathan Weiner)

Weiner's The Beak of the Finch is a brilliant work on the topic of evolution. A great introduction for the student of evolutionary biology or the layman. Weiner's book destroys two of the greatest myths about evolution. 1. It's slow. 2. It can't be observed. The study of the Galapagos Finches not only proves the importance of evolution as a contemporary subject but as one that can be observed RIGHT NOW in the world around us. It's almost astonishing to see how simple evolution truly is, how it occurs in quantifiable baby steps that we can see, if we only take the time to carefully observe. Weiner not only demystifies evolution, but makes it as a topic, thoroughly accessible to the interested layman. (From the Amazon.com review)

Pat Riley's recomendations...

The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Lee Smolin)

As Wolfgang Pauli once famously said about a paper, "it's not right, it's not even wrong." And that, in a nutshell, seems to be the problem with string theory as an explanatory idea. It's more loosey-goosey than most ideas in physics, which makes me wonder why anyone would ever suffer from physics envy. The book examines the biggest problem in physics today, and why the current best idea just doesn't seem to be working out.

RadioLab.org: The radio show

It's not a book, but a radio show put on by NPR from the folks at WNYC (New York City's NPR station). Recent shows have looked at Laughter (why do we laugh?), Deception (why do we lie?) and Pop Music (why do some songs stick in our mind's ear?). Each show is brilliantly produced with audio engineering that's light-years above the norm. It reminds you why radio was, once upon a time, the best of mass media. RadioLab remains genius. (MP3 downloads available from the site.)

Ellen Drascher's recommendations...

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time (Greg Mortenson, David Relin)

Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse's unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world's second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town's first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson's efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way.

Othar Hansson's recommedation...

Don't Read Books. Maybe Steve Jobs is right about people not reading much any more.

Othar had a unique recommendation (as you'd expect) for this suggested book list: Don't read books, read magazines instead. IN FACT, don't read a single magazine, but get a subscription for 1 year, then rotate to another magazine of interest. Think of getting the Economist this year, New Yorker the next, then Atlantic, etc. The advantage is that you get a good sample of their interests and styles without becoming mired in the treadmill of repeated subscription offers and recycled content. Herb Simon used to say that he didn't read papers, only books, as anything important would make its way into a book. Othar agrees: Any decent book gets a review, so all you need is to read book reviews. The NY Review of Books (particularly) and Sunday NY Times Book Review are good examples of in-depth reviews.

Last updated: Sept 1, 2008