100 Favorite Books of All Time (50-41)



Before I count down the next ten books on my list, I have to deal with some erratum.  I was thinking of a book I really like a couple of days ago and wondering if it was on my top 100 list.  It wasn’t, which seemed unfortunate so I checked Library Thing to see how many stars I’d given it.  The book was not in my Library Thing catalog at all!  I checked my old spreadsheets and documents and it wasn’t there either!!!!   I read and loved this book just 3.5 years ago, yet I wrote down nothing about it.  This bothers me more than it should.

At any rate, this is not a scientifically ranked list, so let’s just make it my 101 favorite books list and slide this book into number 50.5:

50.5   Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

This memorable biography tells the life story of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and his tireless efforts for the preferential option for the poor.  Farmer’s work in Haiti and elsewhere is awe-inspiring, and Kidder captures Farmer’s story in an engaging and enlightening manner.

50    The Baroque Cycle by Neal  Stephenson

This is probably a cheat since The Baroque Cycle is not a book, but 3 books.  Or 8 books.  And I haven’t even finished reading them yet!  But it’s a masterful story of the birth of modern Europe that dabbles in science, finance, politics, cryptology, numismatics, black humor, and rip-roaring adventure.

49    Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay  Stevens

A fascinating history of the mind-altering drug and its use and effect in American society, arts, music, and politics.

48    Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara  Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich participatory study of what it’s like for the working poor in America.  Should be required reading for anyone who thinks the poor are lazy.

47    The Grapes of Wrath by John  Steinbeck

A classic novel of one family’s exodus to California during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

46    Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow

Perhaps the most comprehensive biography of King and his contemporaries, it draws upon FBI surveillance tapes that allow for day-by-day, hour-by-hour exploration of King’s Civil Rights campaigns.  A great book for learning about the man behind the legend.

45    The Appalachian Trail Reader by David Emblidge

I really love hiking and this collection of stories approaches the Appalachian Trail from different viewpoints: history, poetry, naturalism and best of all the stories that hikers pass along to one another along the trail.

44    1939: Lost World of Fair by David  Gelernter

A beautiful and poetic telling of the fair as a utopian experiment and what it meant in the lives of some of the visitors of the time.

43    The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

A great book that dismantles the romantic myths of rugged individualism in American history and shows that Americans have prospered best during times of communal efforts and government aid.

42    The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists by Taras  Grescoe

A voyage both humorous and depressing in which the author deliberately follows the beaten path to the world’s most touristed spots.  It’s part sociological and part cynical view of humanity’s need to travel.

41    Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass by  Lewis Carroll

Fantastic works of nonsense literature.  Not just for children, and not what Disney et al makes of them either.

10 more books next week, or maybe 11 or 12.

Beer Review: Samuel Smith’s Organically Produced Lager Beer

Beer: Samuel Smith’s Organically Produced Lager Beer
Brewer: Samuel Smith
Source:  550 ml. bottle
Rating: *** (7.3 of 10)

Comments:  Note to American commercial breweries:  this is what lager is supposed to taste like!  This is a golden beer with a lot of bubbles and a thick head (although the latter disipates rather quickly).  It’s a well-balanced taste with a doughy flavor and a hint of apples. It’s a nice smooth beer I could drink a lot of if I could afford it.

Beer Review: Weihenstephaner Korbinian

Beer: Weihenstephaner Korbinian
Brewer: Weihenstephaner
Source:  One pint, 0.9 fl. oz. bottle
Rating: *** (7.6 of 10)
Comments: This doppelbock beer  has a caramel brown color, a thick head, and lots of carbonation.  In other words it looks sort of like a glass of Coke.  But the taste, … ah, there’s a world of difference.  It is a sweet beer with a burnt sugar or molasses strap cookie flavor with a nice warm aftertaste.  Has a sticky mouthfeel, but not unpleasant.  All told, this is a gooooood beer!

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, Part II

I’ve read three more episodes and with lots of help The Bloomsday Book: A Guide through Ulysses by Harry Blamires, Paigerella’s podcast, and (shamefully) SparkNotes, I’m coming to appreciate the ways in which Joyce combines the mundanity of ordinary activity with scatterred memories and words (both spoke and thought) that take on many meanings.

“Hades” includes a journey to the famed Glasnevin Cemetery.  Why did I never go there on my travels in Dublin?  Oh yeah, it’s because it’s way the heck in the north of the city.  Probably explains why Bloom and his companions have such a long carriage ride.

Passages from “Hades” that stand out are all about death, death, death, but it’s a beautiful death at least.  Check this out:

Coffin now. Got here before us, dead as he is. Horse looking round at it with his plume skeowways. Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a bloodvessel or something. Do they know what they cart out here every day? Must be twenty or thirty funerals every day. Then Mount Jerome for the protestants. Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute. Shovelling them under by the cartload doublequick. Thousands every hour. Too many in the world


Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up: and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning. Pennyweight of powder in a skull. Twelve grammes one pennyweight. Troy measure.


“Aeolus” is a harder episode for me to follow.  Set in a newsroom there’s a lot of men bellowing hot air as well as Bloom being rebuffed, both of which harken back to Odysseus and Aeolus, the god of the winds.   I know this only from reading The Bloomsday Book by Blamires.  Then there’s a whole section about Irish submission to British Empire by way of the story of Moses, St. Augustine and a speech from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.  Quite impressive, although I wish I’d been able to pick up on that myself.

One prominent thing in this episode that I did pick up on is Nelson’s Pillar, which is prominent in Dublin today due to it’s absence.  It was destroyed by a bomb in 1966.  Appropriately in Ulysses it is a symbol of submission to a “defective and immoral power” (Blamires, 54) as it is a “statue of a onehandeled adulterer.” Today on the site of Nelson’s Pillar stands the tall, needle-like Spire of Dublin.  A nearby statue of James Joyce looks right at the Spire.  I wonder what he’d make of it all?


“Lestrygonians” – the island of giant cannibals.

As he set foot on O’Connell bridge a puffball of smoke plumed up from the parapet. Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it, I heard. Be interesting some day get a pass through Hancock to see the brewery. Regular world in itself. Vats of porter wonderful. Rats get in too. Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating. Dead drunk on the porter. Drink till they puke again like christians. Imagine drinking that! Rats: vats. Well, of course, if we knew all the things.

Once on this very same bridge I saw a petite, curly-haired blond woman break out into a song and dance rendition of Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever.”  This passages seems somehow appropriate to that.

This episode focuses on food, and digestion which leads Bloom to ponder similarities with sex, labor and birth.  From The Bloomsday Book I learned that even the writing style in this episode is perstaltic I found this thought interesting: “How can you own water really? It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.”

Bloom is totally grossed-out by men chomping down their luncheon at a restaurant and goes to “a moral pub” for a nice vegetarian meal and wine instead.  A man after my own heart except that I don’t look at flies and think of happy times early in my marriage.

Some more resources that help clarify Ulysses for me:

  • Two schema that list the titles, symbols, organs, colors, techniques et al for all the episodes are on Wikipedia: Linati and Gilbert.  It’s amazing how Joyce mapped everything out and tied it all together.
  • James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Photo Tour of Dublin shows what sites mention in Ulysses look like today (or at least in 2004).  Very interesting for creating a mental picture.  I’d like to also find a map tracing the actual routes Bloom and Dedalus take through Dublin on that day.
  • Two websites discuss Music in Ulysses: James Joyce Music and a University of Iowa course page.

Book Review: Facing the Lion by Joseph Lekuton

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna (2003) by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton is a memoir written by a man who grew up in a nomadic herding community living in the traditional ways in Kenya.  By fate he becomes the child who gets to go to the local mission school and finds that he likes education and eventually dedicates his life to reconciling these two different lifestyles.  There are a lot of fascinating episodes including a chapter on a ceremony where he and several other young men are circumcised.  Lekuton is excellent at describing the signifigance of this ceremony to him and his culture in a way that gets a reader like me past an initial revulsion.

The book also offers many details of Maasai life like a pinching man who keeps the children in line, the way cows are cared for and valued, and the roles of men and women in society.  Lekuton’s school life is equally detailed with humorous episodes about him playing soccer before the President of Kenya and going to America for the first time to study at (brrr) St. Lawrence University.  At the time Lekuton published this book he was teaching at school in Virginia and spending the rest of the year with his tribe in Kenya.  As of 2007, Lekuton is serving in the Kenyan Parliament.

I first learned about this book from an Unshelved comic.  It is written with children in mind but definitely entertaining and informative for an adult as well.

The author mentions two charitable organizations he supports at the end of the book: Nomadic Kenyan Children’s Educational Fund and Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition.

Facing the lion : growing up Maasai on the African savanna / by Joseph Lekuton and Herman J. Viola.
Publisher: Washington, D.C. : National Geographic, 2003.
ISBN: 0792251253 (Hard Cover)
Description: 127 p., [4] col. leaves of plates : col. ill., col. map ; 22 cm.

100 Favorite Books of All Time (60-51)

Almost halfway through the list of my favorite books of all time!



60    Irish America: Coming Into Clover by Maureen Dezell

An uplifting study of what it means to be Irish AND American.  There were a lot of instances in this book where I exclaimed to myself “that’s just like me” or “that’s like my family.”  Not everything matches up but there’s enough that I think Dezell is on to something

59    Time and Again by Jack Finney

A unique time travel adventure whereby the simple practice of self-hypnosis allows a man to go back to New York City in the 1880’s.  It may be the only book of it’s genre that just takes joy in the touristic aspect of visiting another place and time.

58    A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle

Doyle is one of my favorite writers and this is his best novel.  Set in the time of the Easter Rebellion and Anglo-Irish War, this epic story mixes fact with fiction as the protagonist Henry Smart rubs shoulders with the historical figures of his day.  The adventure continues in a second novel Oh, Play That Thing, but sadly after a brilliant start the sequel falls flat.

57    Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

This may be my first favorite book which I read in 7th grade when I had already gotten my geek on for Colonial and Revolutionary history.  Featuring a boy in Boston who interacts with the leaders of the Revolutionary era, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect book for me at the time.

56    The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

A book that teaches Taoism through the lens of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters.  Or a book that uses Taoism to understand Winnie the Pooh.  Either way it was a great introduction for me to both topics.

55    Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

An unsettling expose of what goes into making our food in today’s agribusiness. It’s hard not to be disgusted and outraged by the things Schlosser describes. Recommended reading for anyone who eats.

54    The Portable Door by Tom Holt

A couple of clueless, apathetic dolts get jobs doing next to nothing at a company that turns out to be run by goblins.  Their indifference in such a phantasmagorical setting makes for a lot of the humor in this clever novel.  The first of a series of four books of which I’ve only read two.

53    The lost continent : travels in small-town America by Bill Bryson

I’ve long been a fan of Bill Bryson, perhaps even before it was fashionable to do so.  This is my favorite of his books partly for chauvinistic reasons (it’s about America with equal parts admiration and skewering of our nation) and partly because it was written before Bryson became a famous travel writer and thus has more of an Anyman feel to his travel adventures.  A Walk in the Woods, Notes From a Small Island, and Neither Here Nor There are also favorites of mine.

52    The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Forget the movie musical and read this brilliant novel about a bold girl named Dorothy Gale and her travels through the magical land of Oz.  Sparse on the details but big on imagination.

51    In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

I read this book first when I was in high school and interested in 60’s counterculture.  This was my introduction to stream-of-consciousness literature.  Both bizarre and beautiful this is some great creative writing.

The top 50 starts next Friday!

Boston By Foot Special Tour: Bells, Bridges & Locks

On a sunny but breezy Sunday afternoon, a couple of dozen brave souls ventured out to explore the connections across the Charles between North Station and the Charlestown Navy Yard.  The occassion was a Boston By Foot tour for the Boston By Foot Meetup Group called Bells, Bridges, & Locks.  If you feel bad about missing this tour, fear not as it will be offered again on July 1st & July 3rd during Harborfest.  For more in-depth exploration of this area, you will also want to take the Tour of the Month called Exploring the Charles River Basin on July 26 (yours truly will be one of the guides).  Save money on all these great tours and more by becoming a Boston By Foot Member.

Until the summer comes, check out my online album of photos from the tour.

Peak up at the worlds widest cable-stay bridge
Peak up at the world's widest cable-stay bridge

Highlights of the tour:

  • The Zakim Bridge from below.
  • Crossing the Gridley Locks on the Charles River Dam.
  • Discovering how a fish-ladder works.
  • Learning that two of Boston’s bridges fought one another all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Saying the words “bascule bridge.”
A charming bridge with a litigious ancestor
A charming bridge with a litigious ancestor

Movie Round Up

Constantine’s Sword (2007)

Journalist and former priest James Carroll takes a journey through his own life and through the history of Christian-Jewish relations.  The documentary covers persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of Christians and the influence of religious belief in making wars (including Christian evangelism in the US Air Force Academy).  The movie rambles around the world and asks more questions than it answers, but they are good questions.  What has Christianity done to persecute Jews and how has Christianity supported unjust war?  Good things to ponder if one wishes to follow a God of Love.

Confessions of  a Dangerous Mind (2002)

The “true” story of the libertine tv game show producer Chuck Barris (creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show), who also claims to have worked as a contract assasin for the CIA.  I like quirky, but I found the deliberate over-the-top acting and (admitedly appropos) crudity a bit off-putting in this otherwise mildly entertaining movie.

Chop Shop (2007)

A gritty verite film set in the Willets Point area of Queens (the now-departed Shea Stadium towering in the background in many shots).  Here 12-year old Alejandro lives and works at an auto body shop as well as a variety of odd jobs both legal and illegal trying to save money to by a taco van with his sister.  A bleak and honest film about a boy with way too much responsibility waying him down.

Beer Review: Wachusett Blueberry Ale

Beer: Wachusett Blueberry Ale
Brewer: Wachusett Brewing Company
Source:  12 oz. bottle
Rating: ** (6.9 of 10)
Comments:  I confess, I like fruity beers, and this is one of the better ones I’ve encountered.  The blueberry aroma and flavor is quite apparent but it’s good that it is a real blueberry aroma/flavor, not artificial.  Appearance-wise it looks like a very pale lager beer with lots of big bubbles, but it tastes good so I guess there’s a decent beer under all that blueberry.  I should review the draft version of Wachusett Blueberry served at Dogwood Cafe where it’s topped off with actual blueberries floating in the glass.

Beer Review: Brooklyn Lager

A beer from the city of my paternal ancestors (but quaffed in Boston).

Beer: Brooklyn Lager
Brewer: Brooklyn Brewery
Source: Draught
Rating: ** (6.4 of 10)

Comments:  This is a dark, bubbly beer without much noticable aroma.  It tastes hoppy and fruity with a good balance and nice finish.  This is a decent beer that I won’t go out of my for, but definitely think it’s worth drinking where it’s available.