These are books that either impressed me, inspired me, or for mysterious reasons compelled me to read and reread them. For full-length reviews, click each title. Short capsule reviews are at the bottom of the page. Also see my musings about nature writers such as Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk
Imagine starving to death in a snowy, besieged Leningrad, licking the glue off wallpaper for nutrients. Imagine watching human beings, your neighbors, herded like cattle onto trains, en route to a clouded fate about which you and they have heard terrible rumors you cannot quite believe. In Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, these scenes from World War II seem vividly, shockingly real. Read the rest of the review.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The last thing the world needs is another review of The Lord of the Rings. Here’s one anyway. The first time I read Tolkien, the mushroom/Bombadil chapters made my eyes glaze over. (Continued here.)
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert’s book that makes me wish I had better French, so I could read it in the original language. (Full review here, s’il vous plait.)
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
This is a book full of intriguing questions. What if you could relive your life? Would you have the same friends, choose the same career, marry the same person?. (Continued here.)
Means of Ascent, by Robert A Caro
Lyndon Johnson's 1948 senate race against a legendary, insanely popular former Texas governor, Coke Stevenson, was in many ways the first "modern" election campaign, complete with mudslinging, smears, soundbites, accusations of voter fraud, and appeals to the Supreme Court. (Read more)
The Thread That Runs So True, by Jesse Stuart
Stuart's style isn't so much dry as parched, and he does have a habit of interrupting the story to brag about his fighting prowess. (First day on the job an 18-year-old fourth grader tried to beat him up.) But these tales of a rural Kentucky teacher in the 1930s and '40s are fascinating. Sadly, many of the problems troubling teachers then are still around today in the No Child Left Behind era.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein.
Before Heinlein devolved into a weird, horny, scatterbrained old man, he actually wrote some pretty good books. This is one of them. This book is also available as an audiobook, read by Lloyd James, at Blackstone Audiobooks.
The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything,
by John D. MacDonald
The appeal of this book is the implausible invention of one of the characters: a gold watch that stops time. I want one of those things, too. Pressing deadlines and lack of sleep often make me wish the universe came with a pause button. The book itself is absurdly dated, so rooted in the 1960s that you almost expect Goldie Hawn and Austin Powers to show up on the next page. But it's entertaining to watch the characters race to get their hands on the time-stopping watch and to struggle with the ethical implications of having the power to pause time.
Lost on a Mountain in Maine, by Donn Fendler, as told to Joseph B. Egan
Boy gets lost on Mount Katahdin, freezes, hallucinates, gets eaten alive by mosquitoes, and starts using “Christmas!” as a G-rated expletive. Search & rescue operation begins, fails. Many lose hope. Boy wanders for days. Happy ending ensues. A classic children’s book, in print since 1939. (Read more about Donn Fendler’s mountain misadventure.)
Chimney Pond Tales,by LeRoy Dudley
Hilarious homebrewed folklore from the slopes of Mount Katahdin. In the 1930s, park ranger Roy Dudley recorded his favorite campfire yarns about Katahdin’s resident Indian god, Pamola, on the wax cylinders of an Edison office dictating machine. This book rescues those tales from obscurity.