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Reading Diary for 2007

  and earlier
by Gontran de Poncins
KabloonaA pretty intriguing book written by a French explorer on the eve of World War II when he went to northern Canada to live among the eskimo. This book details experiences with the eskimo considerable different from those in the books by Danish adventurer Peter Freuchen, who lived among the Greenalnd eskimo in the early 1900s, some 30 years before de Poncins' trip. Too, Freuchen actually lived as an eskimo, taking a wife in the community and having and raising children among them. De Poncins spent only a single year among the eskimo, so his book is more of a shapshot of first impressions. Still, if his knowledge of the eskimo was less deep than Freuchen's, this book is a pretty interesting glimpse at how the eskimo were reacting to their progressive assimilation into the world at large. Few of those encountered by de Poncins hadn't made some concessions to the Western world: even the most traditional among them loved their daily tea.

"Mozart and Leadbelly"
by Ernest J. Gaines
Mozart and LeadbellyA collection of previously unpublished short fiction and essays from the author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," "A Lesson Before Dying" and "A Gathering of Old Men." Some of it is very good, and what isn't quite to the level of his best work tends toward the autobiographical, meaning it's still quite illuminating. Fans will enjoy; others might want to pass.

"When Television Was Young"
by Ed McMahon and David Fisher
When Television Was YoungA fun, light look at the early years of television – before shows were taped, when what was happening was broadcast live. McMahon's tone of irreverence just what you'd expect from Johnny Carson's right-hand man for all those years. He and his writing partner gathered vignettes from dozens of early TV stars, and some of the escapades are hilarious. (Read my interview with McMahon.)

"The Peter Freuchen Reader"
by Peter Freuchen
The Peter Freuchen ReaderThe Danish Arctic explorer is revealed more fully in this collection of writings assembled by his wife, Dagmar, after his death of a heart attack in 1957. While he's better know for his books on exploration, his famed "Book of the Eskimos" and "Book of the Seven Seas," it's interesting here to read some of his short fiction and of his experiences fighting the Nazis in the Danish underground. This is probably the best introduction to Freuchen's writing, and although it's out of print he was popular in his day so copies aren't hard to find.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"
by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneRe-reading the whole series to my new step-kids, and finding the books just as good the second time around. A real sense of magic and of place comes through even in this, Rowling's first book. Pretty amazing, and a real classic.

"Clapton: The Autobiography"
by Eric Clapton
Clapton: The AutobiographyFocusing a little too much on his sexual excesses and substance abuse, Eric Clapton's self-penned memoir still contains enough insight into his music to make it a worthwhile read for rock and guitar fans. The tone of modest incredulity – a sort of amazement than it was he, the author, who was in the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers and Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, who gigged with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles – gives the book much of its charm. While more details on the musicality of his playing would have been welcome, what's interesting is that his early years with the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers come off as a bit breezy, a bit of a lark – and then you realize he was in his late teens and early 20s, an age when most musicians who later make it big are still in their local club bands. And that's the point: the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers were simply local club bands; they just happened to record. That blithe spirit of innocence in which he recalls his early successes being created only makes his accomplishments on guitar all the more astounding, and this book such a treat.

by Larry McMurtry
RoadsBreaking with tradition, novelist Larry McMurtry drives back and forth across the U.S. sticking to the Interstates that William Least Heat Moon so studiously avoided, that didn't exist when Kerouc and Steinbeck wrote their books. It's as much about his own journey through life as it is about his drives, but he owns a keen eye for observation, shows a nice touch at description, and his book reads like a friend chatting with you along the drive.

"The Trouble With Physics"
by Lee Smolin
The Trouble With PhysicsAn engaging overview of the academic and cultural state of the community of research physicists, attempting to answer the question of why physics has been stuck in the same place for the past few decades after a couple centuries of near-constant progress in our understanding of the universe. Smolin's conclusion? Senior physicists have fallen prey to that most basic of human foibles, ego. Since senior physicists control most university physics departments, as well as those of private research labs, they control the research agenda – which makes it difficult for young researchers with original ideas to find the financial or professional support they need to explore new avenues of research. Thus, physics has been focusing most of its best minds and budgets on string theory for the past twenty years, despite the fact that string theory hasn't produced a verifiable prediction that could be tested by experiment. Smolin (who also wrote "The Life of the Cosmos") gives a fairly comprehensible overview of string theory and other theories competing to explain the universe as we find it – although even with three years of university-level physics, astronomy, math and engineering (before I fled to the liberal arts) some of the concepts were pretty hard to grasp.

"The Vanished Library"
by Luciano Canfora
The Vanished LibraryStructured as a series of vignettes about the fabled Alexandria library of the ancient world, Canfora explores whether the library was actually a separate structure or a part of a larger museum or palace, and whether it was truly destroyed by fire. The answers are surprising, if no less disappointing.

"Mr. Palomar"
by Italo Calvino
Mr. PalomarA sort of literary triptych inside a triptych inside a triptych. A set of nine short stories or essays, grouped into three groups of three, each revolving around our observer, Mr. Palomar. Mr. Palomar (named for the famed telescope just up the hill from where I write this) seeks gamely for ultimate order in the world, and when he doesn't find it there, he seeks order in his seeking. A wonderful bit of literary philosophy of the old-school sort.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"
by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsA fulfilling closure to J.K. Rowling's series about the boy wizard – painful and difficult enough a story to teach real lessons, but not so brutal that the young ones can't still enjoy it. With this seventh entry in her series, Rowling brings a close to a tale likely to be compared to Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring" by future generations.

"Up in Honey's Room"
by Elmore Leonard
Up in Honey's RoomMy first Elmore Leonard novel, and a bit underwhelming to be honest. While critics rave about his character development, I found the characters here to be shallow and two-dimensional. The plot – a couple of German POWs escaped to Detroit during the last months of World War II – wasn't bad, but the book as a whole came off as pretty lightweight.

"Faith of My Fathers"
by John McCain and Mark Salter
Faith of My FathersWell-written family history by the Arizona senator and presidential candidate, tracing his grandfather's and father's own naval careers before his own career as a naval aviator was sidetracked by his long stint as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It's strongly told, yet never preachy.

"A Generous Orthodoxy"
by Brian D. McLaren
A Generous OrthodoxyOne of the absolute best philosophical books I've read in many a year. McLaren is an evangelical Christian, yet in this book he explores all the main branches of Christianity and finds positives to learn from each. As a Catholic, it was both surprising and heartwarming to find an evangelical Christian 1) admitting that Catholics are true Christians and 2) extolling some of the virtues of the Catholic Church. But he does the same for the Eastern Orthodox Church, Calvinist churches, Anglicans, charismatics, Methodists and more, arguing in each case that all Christians have more in common with each other than we realize. Anyone who is Christian really should read this book – his sense of optimism, of charity, of Christian decency will give your faith a boost.

"Florida Roadkill"
by Tim Dorsey
Florida RoadkillInsanely over-the-top crime and road trip caper – sort of what you might get if Quentin Tarantino and John Cleese co-wrote a script together. A bit rushed at times, and not quite to the caliber of Carl Hiassen, but very much worth reading for a bit of absurdist escapism.

by Laura Hillenbrand
SeabiscuitPerhaps the best non-fiction book I've ever read, written with a tone and style worthy of the best literary effort. Hillenbrand makes the characters in this history of a famous horse race seem as real as your own family and friends.

"The Club Dumas"
by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
The Club DumasInteresting if uneven literary mystery, in which books are among the principals. While some of the technology and pseudo-history are fascinating, the characters are a bit thin and the ending incoherent. Still, a worthwhile read.

"Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony"
by Eoin Colfer
Artemis Fowl: The Lost ColonyNot only significantly longer than the previous four books in this series, but also significantly more interesing. Like Harry Potter, young Irish criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl is discovering the disorienting world of females. Or at least attraction to them. And he's got an interdimensional island of demons to save.

by Michael Palin
SaharaA wonderful travelogue from the former Monty Python member, as he traverses most of the Sahara – including countries like Algeria that Westerners often can't travel in. Apolitical yet highly observant, Palin's book details not only the great beauty of the great desert, but also the human suffering that often occurs outside the sight or interest of Western media.