100 Favorite Books of All-Time (90-81)

Today I continue with my list of 100 favorite books of all time.

Previously: 100-91

90    T. H. White:A Biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The life story of the author of one of my favorite all-time books (foreshadowing!) is in itself a great addition to art of biography.  Townsend Warner finds humanity in someone who at best was reserved from the human race (at worst, misanthropic) drawn from his writings and correspondence.

89   You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting

The United States and Japan share a national pastime in baseball, but approach the game in different ways.  This book expertly explores the culture of Japanese baseball and inevitable culture clash that occurs when “gaijin” – players from the US and Latin America – play in Japan.   Whiting also wrote a follow-up about the arrival of Japanese stars in the Major Leagues called The Meaning of Ichiro, but Wa is the better work.

88    Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback by George Plimpton

I’m a big fan of George Plimpton’s writings especially his participatory journalism writings within professional sports teams.  Although all are enjoyable reads, I think Paper Lion is the best example of Plimpton’s ability to show the inside experience of playing the game and more importantly the personalities and fellowship of the athletes.

87    The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Like many classic children’s books, I didn’t read this as a child but discovered it when I was in college.  It inspired me then and I look forward to reading it again with my son (while he’s still a child).

86    Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

My favorite Shakespearean comedy (partially because I portrayed Sir Toby in a high school production) with the perfect mix of witty dialogue, physical humor and characterization.

85    Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk

This biography is great on two levels.  First, it is an excellent perspective to understanding Lincoln the man, the leader, and the President through the lens of his melancholy.  Second, it is inspirational to learn that not only Lincoln suffered from depression, but that this seeming mental disorder was an advantage to his leadership skills.

84    Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Another children’s book I read as an adult, follows the adventures of a boy and his baby sister as they go on a quest in the magical Underland beneath New York City.  It’s a wonderfuly imaginative adventure that is at times disarmingly introspective.

83    Tales of the City Series by Armistead  Maupin

Maupin’s serial of newspaper articles-come-novels are a wonderful, quick-witted, dialogue-rich collection that bring San Francisco of the 1970’s & 80’s, with a 2007 update.  I have to confess that the 2nd & 3rd books get a little ridiculous, but the series is redeemed by the 4th book Babycakes which among other things is the first fictional work to feature the AIDS pandemic as a central theme.

82    Snowshoeing Through Sewers: Adventures in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia by Michael Aaron Rockland

Forget hiking the Appalachian Trail or climbing the highest peaks, this book is a great travelogue about outdoor adventures in America’s urban and suburban places. Stories include canoeing around Manhattan, cycling across New Jersey on Route 1, and participating a Delaware River Raft Race. I recreated one of his adventures by walking Manhattan’s Broadway from end to end and it was a refreshing way to see the City. This is a good fun book and will make you reappraise what it means to get outdoors and back to nature.

81    Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman

Don’t dare call them “rats with wings”!  This book explores the most noble of birds the pigeon and their tempestuous relationship with human beings.  I think every pigeon-hater should read this book to dispel the myths and learn the truth about my favorite bird.

Next Friday, another ten books!

Movie Round-Up

Persepolis (2007)

This  film brings to life  Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoirs in a beautifully animated form.  A lot of the detail from the books are left out, but it covers the high points.

Man on Wire (2008)

Exciting documentary that treats Phillipe Petit’s famous high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as a heist story.  The “dramatizations” are a bit hokey but as well done as dramatizations can be.

The Knights of  Fix-A-Lot (2003)

I confess, I think Bob the Builder is great.  This feature length story follows Bob & the crew as they restore a medieval castle with the help of Bob’s bossy father and a new-agey local heritage historian.

Helvetica (2007)

There are people who are passionate about fonts and I just don’t get it, but this film helped me understand fonts and their design a bit more.  Helvetica is a modernist, sans serif font that has become ubiquitous especially in corporate logos.  I’ll never look at storefront signage the same again.  The typeface designers interviewed are a crotchety, passionate and intellectual bunch and a hoot to watch.

The Best Beatles Songs You’ve Never Heard

The Beatles are an amazing band in that if you go through their catalog you can find dozens of songs that never see the light of day on classic rock radio but would be hit songs for many other bands from the 60’s. Paste magazine recently ran a series of articles called The Coolest Beatles You Might Have Missed (the link goes to the final post in the series which lists all of Paste‘s songs).  Coincidentally, I have my own list (and iTunes playlist) called The Best Beatles Songs You’ve Never Heard.  I planned to write this post a couple of years ago, but after working on it for some time it just wasn’t working and I deleted my draft.  So I can’t accuse Paste of stealing my idea, but to quote Bono, I’m “stealing it back.”

The basic idea here is to find Beatles songs released during their career that were never featured as the A sides of singles, collected on compilations such as 1962–1966, 1967–1970, and 1 or otherwise overlooked by everyone but the most dedicated Beatles’ geeks.  From this I’ve culled 15 tracks spanning the Beatles recording career that I think make a fine alternate Best Of collection.

I’ve bolded the tracks that are also on the Paste list, and the song titles are linked to a youtube recording of the song.
There’s a Place

In that most pop music of the early 60’s focused on boy-girl love, cars, and frivolities, this is a daring song that is an anthem for introverts. “There’s a place/where I can go/when I feel low/when I feel blue/And it’s my mind,” is pretty brainy for pop music.  Of course, it is a love song too, but we hear John Lennon in his ‘guru’ persona telling his lady love that she too can find happiness in solitude and introspection.

Not a Second Time

A kicking rock song with some great harmonies.  But wait, who is it that Lennon is harmonizing with?  Why it’s himself!  This is one the earliest examples of the Beatles playing around in the studio to improve their music, in this double-tracking the vocals.  With or without that historical footnote, this should’ve been a hit

I’ll Follow the Sun

The Beatles for Sale is an underrated album in which the band both rejuvenates by going back to their rock and roll roots with a number of covers, as well as experiments with new ideas that they would build on in future recordings.  This song is a little of both, a McCartney original that was originally written in 1959.  It has a beautiful melody and peaceful vocals that belie that this is a pretty dark song about a man whimsically ditching a woman, probably due to a fear of commitment

You Can’t Do That

This is one of those songs where you just have to ignore the lyrics, because they’re icky, paranoiac, and somewhat misogynistic.  This song you listen to for the music, bluesy with some great changes between the choruses and verses, call & response vocals, and a jangly guitar.

I’ve Just Seen a Face

For all their innovation and influence on pop music in the sixties, I don’t think anyone ever credited the Beatles with inventing folk rock.  And yet listening to this stripped down, cheerful love song with a bluegrassy feel, I think the Beatles out-folk a lot of the folkies.

I’m Down

This is a great rock & roll rave up, but I think it benefits from a live performance such as the one at the dearly departed Shea Stadium where their joy and energy shine  through, and John famously plays the organ with his elbows.

The Word

This another innovative song in which the idea of love is presented in abstract, universal terms as opposed to the boy-girl romance themes that dominate pop music.  Here is guru John again preaching about love.  The theme is revisited in the more well-known song “All You Need is Love,” but I think the “The Word” is musically better with it’s funky beat, and lyrically it avoids the cliches of the later song.

I’m Looking Through You

More great folk music, in a sadder and somewhat slower track than “I’ve Just Seen A Face.”  Then it all changes with the bouncy rave-up on the chorus.  Groovy, man.

I’m Only Sleeping

I love naps, so this is practically my theme song.  Listening to the music, you’d be right in guessing that psychedelic drugs had some influence, yet lyrically this song is about the feelings any of us (even the clean and sober) have as we’re dozing off. It turns out that Lennon enjoyed spending time in bed reading, writing, and thinking.  And he wrote a song about it.  That’s so cool.

And Your Bird Can Sing

Although the Beatles totally rocked-out on their cover of the thoroughly materialistic “Money (That’s What I Want)”, their own song writing often touched on anti-consumerist themes.  “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” and this song are examples, with “And You’re Bird Can Sing” being a great rocker with tight harmonies and clever lyrics.

Don’t Pass Me By

The first song penned by Ringo Starr to make it on a record is this fun little ditty with a bluesy tune and country piano and fiddle flourishes.  Ringo worked long and hard to get a song out, and his effort pays off.

Long, Long, Long

This is a slow, sad, spiritual song with some contrasting speed-ups.  It’s both eerie enough to be disturbing and beautiful enough to make me weep.

The Inner Light

George Harrison recorded three songs with the Beatles influenced musically and thematically by Indian music and Eastern spirituality: “Love You To,” “Within You, Without You,” and the most successful “The Inner Light.”  In just two-and-a-half minutes, Harrison invents World Music and deftly summarizes Taoist philosophy.  Not bad for a pop song.

Two of Us

An introspective song about love and friendship, and something of a road song too.  I particularly like the line “Two of us sending postcards” since this is a favorite pastime I share with my wife.  I had the DJ play this song at our wedding reception.

You Know My Name (Look up the Number)

If you watch the Beatles’ movies, television appearances, and interviews you know that they were a hillarious group of young men.  Yet their humor rarely makes it into their music.  That’s what makes this song so special as the Beatles sing the same line over and over again in a variety of styles (the Anthology version includes a ska break!).  The lounge singer portion makes me bust a gut every time.

Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs is cited in an inordinate number of books I’ve read in the past few years (including Emergence by Steven Johnson) and I’m very interested in the way cities work, so it was natural for me to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  In some ways, it is the book that seems to summarize many things that I’ve long felt about why cities are important, what makes them great, and how “city planning” gets it so wrong.  It’s amazing that this book was written almost 50 years ago describing the decay of cities that projects and city planning inflicted, not just because that things had already gone down hill at such an early date but that even with Jacobs’ evocative warning, the ideas of city planning continue to be followed to this day!

I’ll have to say there’s a lot I learned from this book.  Jacobs seems to have a knack for understanding how the sidewalks and a neighborhood work, kind from an anthropological perspective, but almost also from an engineering perspective.  She can take things we take for granted apart and see how they tick.  Jacobs also understands the factors that create diversity from which good cities draw their strength and vitality.  These are, and none of them are optional:

1) mixed primary uses (such as commercial storefronts, residences, and landmarks organically mixed together.

2) small blocks (that break monotony, allow for greater commercial enterprise, and prevent isolation by allowing more people to circulate together)

3) aged buildings (again prevents the monotony of projects all built at once in the same style as well as being incubators for ventures that can afford their low rent.

4) concentration (that is a dense number of people living, working, shopping, and visiting an area with activity of some sort throughout the day.  Density is a good thing for a neighborhood as opposed to overcrowding which is a very bad thing for a building).

Jacobs cites many examples of cities & neighborhoods that work due to the conditions above as well as how city planning theorists have contributed to the destruction of diversity and the decline of cities.  Interestingly, parks – things that even I thought were good – are an example of bad city planning when they are constructed to be a virtue in themselves as opposed to part of a diverse city.  Some of the worst slums in America have plentiful park space, but Jacobs explains that these parks create borders to neighborhoods and become vacuums that are underutilized and dangerous.  On the other hand, Jacobs does not put much blame on the automobile, since the city planning theories she opposes arose at the same time as the automobile and she contends one did not influence the development of the other.  There is a place for cars in cities, but a diverse neighborhood would cause a natural attrition of the great numbers of cars that damage a city and allow a more beneficial balance.

In the later chapters, Jacobs proposes many alternate tactics to how people who love cities can work to create diversity.  These include subsidizing dwellings instead of projects, attrition of automobiles, visual order, and reorganizing city government to create leadership that works together within a district.  I know of no examples in which Jacobs suggestions were tried, but they seem to be good ideas that would be worth trying even today.

The death and life of great American cities / Jane Jacobs ; with a new foreword by the author.
Publisher: New York : Modern Library, 1993.
ISBN: 0679600477
Description: xxiv, 598 p. ; 20 cm.
Edition: Modern Library ed.

Book Review: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Somehow, despite majoring in History & English (both with an American focus) at college, I never managed to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793).  A fellow guide on Boston By Foot’s Son of Boston tour gave me a copy for my birthday so I’ve finally redressed this glaring oversight.

Franklin’s memoirs are thin for a man who lived such a long life (albeit they end abruptlty in 1757 due to Franklin’s death while composing them), yet have some incredible detail of apparently minor events in his life.  For example, he writes an amusing story about stealing stones to build a wharf in Boston’s Mill Pond so he could go swimming with his friends.  I also like how he learned about vegetarianism through a book that came to his brother’s printing shop and adopted the practice himself.  Later when sailing to England he noticed that a fish ate a smaller fish and adapted his diet to include these fish since they too ate others.

The first part of the Autobiography takes the form of a letter to his son William, and much of the book is instructional in tone for William (and other readers) to learn lessons of virtue.  These come in examplse from Franklin’s own life, and Franklin writes at length regarding his efforts to perfect himself.  In some sense this book goes beyond memoir to personal hagiography.  I know from other sources that Franklin did not always practice what he preached but the book remains interesting none the less especially from the perspective of what Franklin found important.

I highlighted some passages of the book that I’d like to quote here but much to my vexation I lost it shortly after completing it!  Hopefully, I will find it and can edit in those passages later.  Of course, this book is worth a second read, so I could always get another copy.

The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin. New York : Dover Publications, 1996.

100 Favorite Books of All-Time (100-91)

As a new feature on Panorama of the Mountains, I’m going to create some all-time lists of things I like (music, movies, tv, etc) and post an installment each Friday.  First up, books!  Since I recently turned 35 and now have about 30 years of reading experience under my belt (not to mention cataloging every book I’ve ever read on Library Thing), I figured that this is as good a time as any to reflect on my favorite books.

Please note that I use the word “favorite” to describe these books.  This is in no way an attempt to make a definitive list of the best books of all time, just my personal favorites.  If a book you love doesn’t make this list it’s because I didn’t like it enough, or more likely never read it or maybe never even heard of it.  So don’t razz me for the books that don’t make the list, but if you’d like to suggest a book I should read, post a comment on my Book List page.

Before I start the countdown, I want to award a couple of ‘honorable mentions’ to books I love that aren’t exactly the types of books you read cover to cover:

HM#1 The World Almanac & Book of Facts

Every year from about 1982 through about 2000, I looked forward to getting the new edition of the World Almanac that usually came out around the time of my birthday (the perfect gift!).  I must’ve been destined to become a librarian because as a child I could spend hours flipping through this reference book to learn about city populations, facts about all the states and presidents, famous peoples’ real names, and the world’s tallest structures.  These days I get my cravings for trivia satisfied by the internet, but there will always be a place for the World Almanac in my childhood mythos.

HM#2 Rise up Singing by Peter Blood & Annie Patterson

This song book compiles the lyrics for over a thousand songs – popular, folk, children’s, traditional, religious, and even a little rock & roll.  There are tabs for guitarists as well, but as a vocalist I just like to break out this book to sing – with friends, with family, or even on my own.  I think if I were stranded on a desert island I’d want this book with me, because singing helps keep me sane (and I can never remember the lyrics to songs).

100 Puff: A Novel by Bob Flaherty

This novel really tickle my funny bone, and combines a lot of things I like into one narrative – Boston, the Blizzard of ’78, and dysfunctional Irish Catholic families.  It reads as if Dude, Where’s My Car were written by John Irving if he’d been raised Irish-American and Catholic.

99 The Grand Complication: A Novel by Allen Kurzweil

Speaking of books that appeal to my interests, this comic novel is set in New York Public Library and the hero is a nerdy, eccentric librarian.  There are a lot of bizarre twists & turns in the mystery at the center of this novel, but I like it mostly for the characters and

98 The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young

This historical work does a couple of things I’d like to see historians do more often.  First, it explores an historical event from the point of view of an ordinary person, in this case the 1773 destruction of tea in Boston Harbor from participant George Robert Twelves Hewes.  Second, it examines how the popular memory of historic events is created during and after the life of an events participants, and how that popular memory diverges from the actual history.  A lively and accessible work for anyone interested in the process of history.

97 Stalemate Icchokas Meras

So far, Stalemate is my favorite book read for my Around the World for a Great Book project.  Set in the Vilnius ghetto in Lithuania under Nazi occupation, this book is a compelling account of ghetto life and stark exploration of power and its abuses.

96 King Lear by William Shakespeare

In my opinion this is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, a mature dramatist’s character study of how vanity and selfishness destroy a family.  I hope to see this play performed one day because I’ve only read it as a book thus far.

95 Vandals in the Stacks?: A Response to Nicholson Baker’s Assault on Libraries by  Richard J. Cox

One of my favorite books I read in graduate school (and it wasn’t even assigned) is Cox’s response to Nicholson Baker’s Doublefold.  Beyond addressing the specific issues of Baker’s book, Cox ably describes the roles of libraries and archives in preserving material.  It’s an excellent book for educating students in a library/archives program as well as a public relations piece in defense of the importance of libraries and archives.

94 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

As an English major and wannabe reader I’m insanely jealous of Dillard in that she’s done what I’d love to do – live in a remote cabin and write about everything she observes in nature – and she’s done it so well with such brilliant prose.  It’s one of those books where one can just read a sentence over and over again and just say “Wow!”

93 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

A fascinating study of global human civilization and how development of human societies relies on the topography of the continents on which we live.  This theory underpins the historical account of how societies in Europe & Asia were able to amass the resources to grow and eventually dominate other parts of the world.  It’s a popular work that clearly explicates some very big ideas (albeit sadly without any references).

92 The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This is a book that took me several readings to like – first in high school when I didn’t get it at all, then in two different college courses, and I ended up reading the book twice in a row the second time around.  I guess in this case familiarity breeds affection, and I can’t help but think of Quentin Compson each time I walk across the bridge on the way to work.

91 The Iowa Baseball Confederacy: A Novel by W.P. Kinsella

I became enamored with the baseball fiction of Kinsella in my youth, and this totally weird book about time travel, mystic visions, and a 40-day baseball game (with a stone angel in the outfield!) may have been my introduction to magical realism.

Check in next Friday for another ten books in my list of all-time favorites.

Beer Review: Dogfish Head Raison D’Etre

Beer: Raison D’Etre
Brewer: Dogfish Head
Source: 12 oz bottle
Rating: ** (6 of 10)
Comments:  This beer has a great punny name, but is a cute name enough to make a good beer?  It looks good colorwise, a deep reddish-brown although the head was thin and the carbonation was made up of some large bubbles instead of a gentle effervescence.   It has a fruity, caramel taste with an aftertaste a bit too bitter for my liking.  The thin head all but disappeared after a few sips. It also backs an alcholic wallop.   So, my judgement is that it’s a decent beer, but probably not one that’s going to give you a reason for being.

Best laugh I’ve had all day

Walking across the Weeks Footbridge on Tuesday night, I witnessed a man (or a woman with heavy overcoat & shoulder pads, it was dark) setting up a tripod on the edge of the frozen Charles River. This person then proceeded to film himself standing on the banks of the river while spinning a hula hoop. He actually had two hula hoops and switched back and forth between the two. The second one was “glow-in-the-dark” and gave a nice phosphorescent radiance to the snow.

It’s one of those moments that I wish I remembered to bring a camera with me everywhere or go. Better yet, it would be a good moment to overcome my shyness and ask this person what he was doing. I do hope he was trying to entertain passersby, because I’d rather laugh with him than at him. Maybe the video he made is on the internet already?

Riding Big Red

Last month, Boston’s transit authority the MBTA introduced a new “high-capacity car” on the Red Line which they call Big Red. Basically during rush hours a couple of car without any seats are placed at the center of the train. As an experienced commuter, I’ve long become accustomed to the limited circulation within MBTA subway cars. This is especially true for people in wheelchairs, people with bikes, luggage, or other bulky items, and people like myself who travel with children in strollers. Even when it’s just human bodies, it can get pretty tight in the subway car. So I found this an excellent idea and having recently had a chance to ride the Big Red (with my son in his stroller) found it much more convenient to board, get into the center of the car, and find a place to ride in peace without getting in anyone else’s way.

While Big Red is promoted as a high-capacity car, I think it’s real advantage is in improving the circulation of passengers within the cars which will contribute greatly to speeding up boarding times at the station. In a normal subway car, the ride is often slowed down by:

  • People who start boarding while other people are trying to get out of the train
  • Passengers who stand in front of the door while other people are trying to board and unload.
  • Passengers who completely block the aisle w/ their bodies and/or accouterments.
  • Passengers who refuse to move into the center of the car (of course w/ other passengers blocking the aisles can often be blamed for this)
  • People who insist on squishing into an already crowded train even when it’s been announced that another train is approaching.

I’ve only had a chance to ride a Big Red car once, but I did find that a lot of these problems were alleviated by the more spacious interior of the seatless cars. The MBTA has received a lot of harsh criticism for Big Red – most noticeably from that bastion of fair & balanced journalism the Boston Herald which pictured a subway car full of heifers under the headline CATTLE CAR. I personally applaud the MBTA for thinking creatively, and even if Big Red flops, I hope they continue to try out new ideas that may improve the rider experience on the T.

I’ve travelled on transit systems in other cities that have spring-loaded seats that can be flipped down when needed by the riders.  I think this is something the MBTA should consider to make the interiors of the subway cars more flexible.  On the U-Bahn in Munich, I was also impressed that at the stations in the center city all the passengers would exit out one side of the train while boarding passengers would enter from the other side of the train, greatly decreasing the amount of time the train has to spend at the station.  I think the MBTA should try this at Park Street station by having passengers board the train from the side platforms and exit onto the center platform (although since the elevator is on the center platform, anyone needing the elevator would still have to board from the center platform).

I’ve submitted my comments to the MBTA through their Big Red survey on their website.  Let’s hope they keep trying things out to make getting around our great city all the more pleasurable

Book Review: Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden

“I’m going to snuggle in bed and read the geekiest book ever written, ” I proclaimed and went off to read Transit Maps of the World (2007) by Mark Ovenden. “That is a geeky book,” my wife confirmed. But it’s a book so wonderfully geeky that it goes all the way around to being cool again.

As the title implies this is a book of maps from transit systems around the world, not being too picky about a strict definition for urban transit thankfully.  The book approaches maps of metro systems from an historic and design perspective.  The book is divided into six zones with the older and larger systems getting more attention in the early zones, with less detail on the smaller and newer systems (although amazingly some of the systems in Asia that are of recent vintage are growing in leaps and bounds).

Ovenden appreciates the simplicity of a diagramatic map that eschews topography, where the lines branch out at 45 degree angles, the stations are marked with simple white circles and bulls-eyes for transfer stops, and the stations are clearly labeled in a unique font where the words do not cross the lines.  The book illustrates that most metro maps in the world are variations on these simple design themes that originated with Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground.  The major exception is the New York MTA map which is geographically based, and I think appropriately so due to NYC’s unique topography, although here I disagree with the author (I also found an interesting topographically-correct map of Boston’s MBTA system at a website called Radical Cartogaphry).

What I like about this book most is the author’s delight in the maps and the maps and the transit systems they represent.  There’s really a lot of positive commentary in this book and joy in public transit.  Even the MBTA, much-maligned by Bostonians, comes off sounding pretty good.  He even includes this classic, hand-drawn map of the old Boston MTA system where the elevated tracks are rendered in 3-D.

Here are a list of transit-related websites suggested by the book, plus one that makes up maps for Boston’s future that I’ve been a fan of for some time.  I think my fellow transit geeks can waste away many an hour here.

Transit maps of the world / Mark Ovenden ; Mike Ashworth, editor.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2007.
ISBN: 9780143112655
Description: 144 p. : col. maps ; 24 cm.