Some Books I've Liked
This list is not "my favorite books." It's just a list of books I've read or re-read, recently, that I liked and wanted to tell people about. It's extremely incomplete and completely random. If you or I enjoy it, I will add to it from time to time.
Charles Mann, 1491. A brilliant survey of what we know about the human populations of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans, and a brief, often scathing history of how we've handled our knowledge. The author is not an archeologist or anthropologist, but he has done his homework, and is a fine reporter and summarizer, writing with clarity and flair, easy to read but never talking down. Discussing intensely controversial subjects such as dates of settlement and population sizes, he lets you know where he stands, but presents both sides fairly. A fascinating, mind-expanding book.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma. I have never eaten an Idaho potato since I read Pollan's article about what potato fields are "treated" with, in his earlier book The Botany of Desire. This one is scary in a different way. It probably won't stop you from eating anything, indeed it is a real celebration of (real) food; but the first section is as fine a description of the blind, incalculable power of Growth Capitalism as I ever read. (Did you know that cattle can't digest corn, and have to be chemically poisoned in order to produce "cornfed beef"? So, there being lots and lots of grass, why feed them corn? Read the book!) There are some depressing bits in the section on "organic" food, too, but the last section, where he hunts and gathers his dinner, is funny and often touching.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich tries to get by on minimum wage, in three different towns, working as a waitress, a house cleaner, in a Wal-Mart... Yes, it came out eight years ago, and yes, it's just as true now, if not truer. (I just read in my hometown paper that 47% of working people in Portland have to rely on food stamps. Not "welfare queens" — people with jobs, working people.) She writes her story with tremendous verve and exactness. It reads like a novel, and leaves you all shook up.
Talking about being all shook up: I was thinking about what novels I've read the last few years that not only moved me but changed me as a true work of art does and rewarded me as a true work of art can. I've already talked about Saramago. The only other novel of that calibre that came to mind — so far — is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. It's about very poor people in Mumbai/Bombay. It is not a perfect novel, but a great one. The awful sadness and injustice of the story left me wrung out, but there is a spaciousness to the book that moves beyond pain, a great generosity, a rare human sweetness.
And a little more about Michael Chabon. Zowie! A year or two ago, Molly Gloss made me read Kavalier and Clay. I was afraid to — oh gee I don't know enough about comic books, here I am still calling them funnybooks like we did in 1945... But the thing about Chabon is, you don't need to know about whatever it is he's writing about, because it's all in the novel, and becomes part of your mind so fast you might as well have known it all your life. — And also I thought he was one of those cold brilliant young male writers who turn me off like a light. But no. He is a warm brilliant young male writer. Quite a different matter.
I have read a couple of reviewers who are all worried about The Yiddish Policemen's Union because (they say) it's so Jewish, nobody who isn't could possibly understand or enjoy it. As a shiksa, I say fooey to that. You don't have to be a bagel to eat one. I devoured the YPU. It is better than a thousand bagels.
Scouting around in our invaluable Murder By the Book store — in Exotic Locations, even though we knew there wasn't a new Venetian mystery by Donna Leon yet — Charles and I came on Magdalen Nabb, whose crimes are solved by a Marshal of the Carabinieri in Florence. Nabb is a bit uneven but when she's good she's very good, and we highly recommend The Marshal and the Madwoman, and a quite frightening story of kidnap, Property of Blood. In the same section we found Rebecca Pawel's fine psychological novel, set in Madrid just after Franco took over, Death of a Nationalist.
And Molly Gloss's new novel, The Hearts of Horses, will be out in November. I got to read it early. Oh am I lucky! I think I'll just read it all over again in November...
Copyright © 2007 by Ursula K. Le Guin