Fifteen things about me and books

“15 Things About Me and Books”  is a meme moving slowly across the biblioblogosphere started by John Scalzi in 2005.  I’ve seen it done by Steve Lawson, Michael Sauers, Jenica Rogers, Iris Jastram, and Angel Rivera.  Now it’s my turn.

1.  The first book I read on my own as a child was about cats.  I read it at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn.  It started with cats in Egypt.  It also had a page about how cats like to sleep on top of books.  My cat demonstrated by laying down on this book.

2. I never read a lot of the children’s classics as a child (for example – Where the Wild Things Are, The Phantom Tollbooth, Winnie the Pooh, Make Way for Ducklings, Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time, many more).  From an early age I was interested in reading about history and specifically biographies of colonial and early American figures.  To this day I read more non-fiction than fiction.

3.  I did read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books twice, with the exception of Farmer Boy which I wasn’t interested in at all.

4.  It always annoyed me when TV shows had a kid reading a book and that kid suddenly appears in the book participating in the action.  Reading was never like that for me and I always thought I was doing something wrong.  I still think they need a way to illustrate imagination in a way that works for more literal-minded children.

5. Defying the stereotype of librarians and bibliophiles, I’ve made a conscious effort to not collect lots of books in my own home.  I strive to check out books I can from the library.  The only books I own are reference books, gifts, books by people I know, and books I could not get through a library.  When I finish a book I give it away.  It helps that I live in Boston with access to all the Boston Public Libraries, the Minuteman Library Network and the Harvard Libraries. Of course with my wife’s books and son’s books, the house is still cluttered with books, but imagine how much more so it would be if I weren’t so disciplined.

6.  I was an anti-audiobook snob for a long time.  I listened to one for the first time in 2007 and now I listen to them regularly especially while doing processing work in the archives.

7. In order to remember the books I read I started keeping a list in the back of my journal in 1990.  Around 2000, that list became a spreadsheet.  In 2003, I started writing summary reviews of every book I read.  In 2006, I started publishing those reviews on this blog.  In 2008, I entered every book I’ve ever read* into LibraryThing.  To date I’ve reviewed 292 books on this blog and 765 books on LibraryThing (making me the 58th most prolific reviewer). Last year I ranked my 100 Favorite Books of All Time, although the list ended up having 125 books because I included series under one title.

8. I rarely reread books although I’m going to make a conscious effort to reread my 100 favorites starting this year.

8. When I was in high school I thought I would become a novelist & short story writer when I grew up.  To date I still have not written any books.

9.  The longest book I’ve ever read was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo which was over 1200 pages in the edition I read.  Surprisingly I read it in only 12 days, devouring it during a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

10.  In college when struggling with a difficult assignment for my physics course I reached a point of stress where I tossed the textbook out the window.  It landed with a resounding boom that echoed off the neighboring buildings.  Tension relieved, I retrieved the book and finished up the assignment in 15 minutes and went to bed.

11.  Since 2003, I’ve been trying to read a novel (in English translation) by an author from every country in the world.  I call it Around the World for a Good Book.

12. Second semester senior year I took 3 English literature courses and a history course based on Southern writers and had to buy something like 25 volumes of fiction.  Instead of going to the bookstore I went to the local book exchange and picked up paperbacks and ended up spending less than $20 for the semester.

13. For much of my life I could spend hours looking through The World Almanac and Book of Facts, staying up late learning things.  Now I surf the web.  There’s something lost and something gained.

14. In the winter of 1997 during a temporary layoff from Colonial Williamsburg I worked at the college bookstore at William & Mary.  It was the only retail-type I ever had and it was relatively relaxing but I wouldn’t want to do it again.  I loved the special dollies designed the carry the books around for shelving.

15. People sometimes make fun of me for reading too much.  I feel I can never read enough.


Book Review: The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer

Author: Guus Kuijer
Title: The Book of Everything
Publication Info: Arthur A. Levine Books (2006)
ISBN: 0439749182


This short book is a brutally honest work of young adult literature set in Amsterdam a few years after the liberation and end of World War II.  Thomas only wishes to be happy but has to deal with his fundamentalist and abusive father.  The book is colored by magical realism and a touch of surrealism as Thomas is aided by witches, calls down the plagues of Egypt, and converses with a lonely Jesus.  A powerful and touching book that touches on a lot of issues: childhood, family, religion, community, and kindness.

Recommended books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle and Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O’Connor
Rating: ***

Lost Beer Reviews

I’m way behind on beer reviews with the last one posted in January and the one before that in November!  This does not mean I’ve stopped drinking beer.  In fact, I’ve scribbled down some notes and  calculated some ratings but never got around to making the posts.  Alas, too much time has passed for me to write a review in good conscience that I actually remember anything about the beers.  So I’m just going to post the scores below as a reminder of what I may want to try again.

The good news is that I will be in Amsterdam soon with the opportunity to try Dutch and Belgian beers and write some good reviews while there.

Date Beer Rating
11/24/09 Cape Ann Fisherman’s Pumpkin Stout 6.4
11/24/09 Magic Hat Odd Notion 6.8
12/17/09 Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 6.3
12/18/09 Rogue Dead Guy Ale 6.8
1/11/10 Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter 5.6
1/12/10 Southampton Public House Double White 6.4
3/23/10 Wachusett Quinn’s Amber Ale 7.4
3/30/10 Harpoon Belgian Pale Ale 6.5

My Reading List Goes Dutch

In three weeks I will be traveling to Amsterdam (Eyjafjallajökull-willing) and since it’s always good to know something about a place before one visits, I’ve added a number of books to my reading list by Dutch authors and/or books about Amsterdam and the Netherlands.  Many of these books come recommended by the excellent biblioblog The Hieroglyphic Streets.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Dream Room by Marcel Möring
My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
The Darkroom of Damocles by William Frederick Hermans
The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
The Assault by  Harry Mulisch
The Embarrassment of Riches by  Simon Schama
Amsterdam by Geert Mak
Amsterdam : a traveler’s literary companion edited by Manfred Wolf.

Here are a couple of other books apropos to the topic that I’ve read previously with links to the reviews:

Brilliant orange : the neurotic genius of Dutch football by David Winner
Vermeer’s Hat. The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

I’ll keep reading until the vacation is over, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to read all of these books.  Still, if anyone wants to recommend the quintessential Dutch book that I  must read, let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Amsterdam by Geert Mak

Author:Geert Mak
Title: Amsterdam
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (1999)
ISBN: 0674003314


This is a highly-readable history of eight centuries of the history of Amsterdam.  Dutch journalist Mak makes great use of hooks upon which to build each chapter of Amsterdam’s history such as an archaeological artifact, a sketch by Rembrandt, primary source writings, paintings and photographs.   I get the sense that the translation is a bit off in places and the place names are hard for an Anglophone out-of-towner to keep up, but these things largely do not impede my reading or enjoyment of this work.  This is a good introduction to the city I hope to visit next month.

For other reviews check out The Hieroglyphic Streets.

Recommended books: Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows by Liza Picard
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Author: Nancy Isenberg
Title: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2007), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 0143142283


This biography attempts to make up for two-centuries of scholarship on Aaron Burr that’s been informed by myth and fiction.  Isenberg makes Burr’s case – while not ignoring his mistakes and flaws – as one of the important leaders of the early United States republic, albeit one whose career ended in failure.  Not only that, but since his posterity has had no supporters, much of what is taught about Burr comes from the writings of his political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Isenberg also makes it clear that Burr had many positive qualities that have been overlooked:  a war hero in the Revolution, an excellent lawyer, an intellectual, a feminist, an innovative political campaigner and someone who often refused to play the game of sycophancy nor venomously maligning his political rivals.  These last traits though honest would hurt him in both his military and political careers as less noble figures would claw their way past him.

In this book Hamilton comes across as the Fox News pundit of the Federal period willing to wield his poison pen to bear false witness against his political rival.  Jefferson on the other hand is intent on building a Virginia dynasty and while willing to have Burr get him votes from New York did not want to lose power to the Northern Democratic-Republican Party.   Isenberg explores all the famed events of Burr’s life – the contested election of 1800, the duel with Hamilton, and the western filibuster – and Burr comes out looking pretty good in all of them, at least on a relative scale.  For if Burr is ever immoral, corrupt, or dishonest he is no more so (and often less so) than his contemporaries who have much better historical reputations.

Isenberg’s final paragraph sums it best:

These were our founders: imperfect me in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities.  That they did good for our country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography.  What seperates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.

Recommended books: Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Aaron Burr by Milton Lomask, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels and Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy
Rating: ****

Concert Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra – Ligeti, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky

On Saturday night, I enjoyed my first performance at Symphony Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra accompanied by my mother.  Assistant Conductor Julian Kuerti lead the orchestra on three lovely pieces by Eastern European composers:

Marc-André Hamelin performed on the piano for Shostakovich’s concerto and I really enjoyed Thomas Rolfs‘ trumpet on the same work.  I tend to be drawn to the timpani though, like Holden Caulfield, I like a good kettle drum player.

I can’t begin to make an informed review of a classical music performance, so here are some assorted reflections:

  • Our seats were in the third row of the 1st balcony, dead center.  I can’t imagine a more preferable place to sit at Symphony Hall.
  • The acoustics really are good.  I felt like I had violins all around my head.
  • Trying to find some commonalities among the composers I conjured up that two were Russian and one was Romanian.  Two lived in 20th Century and one in the 19th.  Two lived through World War II and the Iron Curtain and one under the tsar.  All incorporate some folk and traditional music motifs in their compositions.
  • I haven’t seen many symphonic conductors, but Kuerti is the first one I’ve ever seen raises his arm so far back that he strokes his shoulder blades.  It was like he was lashing himself on every upstroke.
  • Hamelin finished of the Allegro con brio movement of Piano Concerto No. 1 with some very animated hand gestures that reminded me of the piano player in a carnival shooting gallery.
  • The part of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 with the Chinese gong made me laugh allowed because it was so delightfully unexpected (although I should have noted that a gong on the stage would eventually be used).  It reminded me of a George Plimpton story where he participates with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He is given the gong because “he can’t mess it up” but hits it so enthusiastically that even the conductor notices.  I looked it up and the piece Plimpton played gong on was indeed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2.
  • I need to take advantage of the <40 = $20 program again within the next three-and-half years.

Previously: Tour of Symphony Hall

Patriots’ Day 2010

Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we’re celebrating Patriots’ Day, or the 235th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution.  Today three generations of my family enjoyed watching the Boston Marathon as I went with my mother and son.  The fun started at Roxbury Crossing as we saw a pair of fighter jets fly over, presumably having kicked off the Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  Peter was more interested in the commuter train, Acela, and Orange Line trifecta below us.

The leading women's runner (and eventual winner) Teyba Erkesso at Cleveland Circle.

Our first frustration was when the 66 bus stopped at Brookline Village and the driver said we weren’t going any further.  So we hopped on the D-branch trolley and ended up watching the marathon from Cleveland Circle instead of Coolidge Corner as intended.  I got a workout holding Peter on my shoulders and he enjoyed seeing motorcycles, trolleys, a firetruck, bicyclists, dogs, and of course the wheelchair racers and eventually the runners.

Robert Cheruiyot and Deriba Merga are neck-in-neck at Cleveland Circle (Cheruiyot would finish first and Merga third).

We’d hoped to go down near BC to meet up with some friends but the police wouldn’t let us cross Commonwealth Avenue to get to the B-train.  So we took the C-train downtown instead.  It’s actually a fun way to watch the marathon.  At times, the trolley went almost as fast as the runners!

Peter watches the Marathon from the "ding ding trolley".

Well it’s been another fun Patriots’ Day.  If you live in one of the other 49 states and want to join in on the fun sign the Facebook petition to Make Patriots Day a Federal Holiday.


Book Review: The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel

Author: Miriam Pawel
Title: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chávez’s Farm Worker Movement
Publication Info: Bloomsbury Press (2009)
ISBN: 1596914602


I’ve never known much about Cesar Chávez and the United Farm Worker’s union so I was pleased to receive a free copy of this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  The book is not about Chávez directly although his presence hovers over the events covered in this book for both good and ill.  Instead Pawel focuses on the stories of nine individuals who dedicated their lives to the farm worker movement – field hands, organizers, lawyers and a ministers. Their overlapping stories offer a glimpse into the movement’s rise and fall from the 1960s to the 1980s.

At first it’s an inspiring story of boycotts, strikes and union elections where the union prevails against the growers (and their Teamster thugs) as well as scoring legislative victories.  Chávez becomes a national hero for his inspiration, non-violent leadership.  Unfortunately like many organizations the UFW is torn apart by internal conflicts and Chávez only exacerbates the problems.    Pawel details how these close friend and colleagues of Chávez see him becoming increasingly paranoid, micromanaging and megalomaniac, purging the union of people on specious grounds and making life miserable for those who remain.

This book is ultimately heartbreaking but there are glimpses of hope nevertheless.  It’s inspiring that despite all the difficulties these nine people dedicated themselves to an ideal and a cause.  While shattering the myth of Chávez the hero, this book still illustrates the good that can be done by ordinary people working for social justice.

Recommended books: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard by John Hoerr, and Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow
Rating: ***

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladiesby Jhumpa Lahiri

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Title: Interpreter of Maladies
Publication Info: Mariner Books (1999)
ISBN: 039592720X

Previously read: The Namesake


Lahiri’s collection of short stories demonstrates that she is one fine writer.  The stories – mainly set in the Cambridge/Boston area or in India – cover some common themes such as the meetings of peoples of different cultures, strained relationships, and children with a growing understanding of the adult world.  The last theme is best demonstrated in “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine” told through a child’s perspective of her parents’ Pakistani dinner guest and how that leads to her coming to terms with sociopolitical realities.  The first story “A Temporary Matter” ends on an act of cruelty that is a real kick in the gut.  Indeed, many of these stories demonstrate the downside of human nature and so the reader shouldn’t read this for a pick-me-up.  Yet there is unexpected joy as well as in the last story “The Third and Final Continent” about an Indian immigrant and the elderly woman who rents him a room which has a surprisingly upbeat ending.

Recommended books: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, The Deportees: and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle, and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman

Author: Paul Krugman
Title: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008
Publication Info: Books On Tape (2009), Audio CD
ISBN: 1415965080

Previously read: The Great Unraveling


Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes a brief overview of what he calls “depression economics” that arose from the perfect storm of events that brought down the global economy in 2008.  Much of the book is a revised form of an earlier book about fiscal crises in Latin America and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s.  These earlier crises should have been a clue to what could go wrong with the bubble economy of the 2000s but most of the people who should have known better thought that depression economics were a thing of the past.  Krugman does a good job of explaining what went wrong and offers solutions to prevent a repeat: regulate anything that works like a bank as a bank and allow governments to offer stimulus to the economy when needed.  These solutions seem obvious of course but Krugman also explains how these reforms work and what happens when they’re missing.  In short this is a good overview of the fiscal crisis for the non-economist that is written in an engaging, sometimes even humorous, manner.

Recommended books: Free Lunch David Cay Johnston, What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank and The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz
Rating: ***

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Author: Donald Miller
Title: Blue like jazz : nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality
Publication Info: Nashville : T. Nelson, c2003.
ISBN: 0785263705


It’s hard to know what to make of this book.  At first it seems to be a hipster reflecting on Christian ideas in the secular world.  Then I learn that the author is a lifelong Christian and it feels like a bait-and-switch and that this is going to be a sneaky evangelical tract.  Miller fortunately is none of these things and is blessedly impossible to put in any box.  Still I find Miller hard to read, I think because he’s so much like me – shy, inconsistent, overwriting and overthinking things.  I’m finally won over by the chapter in which Miller and his friends in a small Christian group at a largely hedonistic college decide to participate in the college’s annual bacchanalian festival.  Miller jokingly suggests setting up a confession booth and the group ends up doing so, but for the purpose of confessing the crimes of Christianity and their own personal failings as Christians to the partying students who come to their both.  Miller is much better than Frank Schaeffer at writing about humility, love, transcendence, and how to lead an authentic Christian life in a secular world.

Favorite Passages:

My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect.  I don’t really do that anymore.  Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.  I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons.  Who knows anything anyway?  If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything. – p. 103

Rating: ***

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Author: L.M. Montgomery
Title: Anne of Green Gables
Publication Info: Books in Motion (1999)
ISBN: 1596077328


I listened to the audiobook rendition of this classic novel while refoldering.  I read the book in print 20 years ago.  I guess it was atypical of a 16-year old boy to read this book, but I was not a typical 16-year old boy.  Megan Follows helped too.  Anyhow, Anne Shirley wins me over every time with her cheerfulness, resourcefulness, intellect and determination.  The character I relate to most is Matthew Cuthbert who I think is my literary hero.  (I wept when he died).  Anyone who hasn’t read this wonderful novel – child or adult, male or female – should give it a try.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Patience With God by Frank Schaeffer

Author:  Frank Schaeffer
Title: Patience With God
Publication Info: Philadelphia : Da Capo Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780306818547


You ever get the feeling that Fundamenatalist Christians and the New Atheists are two sides of the same coin, both steeped in literalism and blind to any other point of view?  That’s the basic premise of this book where the author takes on both ends of the spectrum.  Sometimes I feel like cheering on Schaeffer as he tears into his victims, but my more charitable side finds the book excessively snarky when Schaeffer critiques the Fundamentalists and the New Atheists. I think the premise is excellent but the book needs a more objective perspective to work.  The better parts of the book are when Schaeffer talks about his own life (he grew up the son of a famed evangelist, left for a secular life, and returned to a more progressive religiosity in the Orthodox church) and the need to for transcendence and humility in human life.

Rating: **1/2

Words I Don’t Know

I’ve never been the scholarly type who looks up words that I don’t know, an especially bad habit for an English and History major.  I get a lot from context clues, but there are still a lot of words I read and just don’t know what they mean.  This doesn’t stop me from using the words.

To alleviate this flaw, I’ve been jotting down some words and am going to take some time to look them up in the OED and define them here in my own words.  No pun intended.

ostensibly, adv. – something that appears to be so but isn’t necessarily so.  I think there’s a Paul Robeson song about this.

sublime, adj. – something that is just peachy-keen, wonderful, and all-around groovy.  Can you dig?

scruples, n. – doubts or thoughts that cause one to have uncertainties and hesitate.  I apparently have a lot of scruples.

chagrin, n. – I often hear the phrase “much to my chagrin.”  Now I know it refers to a state of worry or vexation.  I tend to have as much chagrin as scruples.

sophistry, n. – this is the practice of making arguments that are intended to deceive.  I remember reading this word in a description of the health care reform debate.  It makes so much sense now.

desultory, adj. – hah!  This word means flitting about and doing things in an unmethodical manner.  That’s right, I can be rather desultory as well as chagrined and scrupulous.

crest, v. – this is a word used recently in regard to Massachusetts’ recent floods as in “the river is supposed to crest on Wednesday.”  Like many of the words above I got the gist but didn’t know exactly what “crest” meant in this sense.  OED didn’t help so I got my definition from the National Weather Service: “The highest stage or flow occurring in a flood.”  That’s pretty much what I thought, but it’s good to know for sure.

There are more words to define.  I’ll make a series of it.


Boston & Me: 30 Years Together

This week marks yet another anniversary in which the number of years being marked is increasingly baffling.  30 years ago on Easter weekend my father took my sister and I for my first visit to the city of Boston (Easter was on April 6th that year so let’s just say we arrived on April 5th).

Here’s what I can remember:

  • Our first day there it rained.  A lot.  I have a specific memory of walking past the Boston Massacre marker while being pelted by sheets of rain and wind.
  • Easter Sunday, however, was beautiful and sunny.  We walked around Boston Common and the Public Garden in our Sunday best.
  • It really annoyed our Dad that we insisted on walking toe-to-toe along the red paint of the Freedom Trail.  As a dad myself now I can understand how frustrating it is when the little ones dawdle.
  • I really enjoyed visiting historic sites like the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill.  From that point on I loved to read about history and visit historical sites whenever possible.
  • I’m pretty sure we went to the Childrens Museum too.  It was a busy weekend.  This was back when the Childrens Museum had the giant’s desktop and grandma’s attic.  I miss those exhibits.
  • It’s really eerie to think that this weekend really set the course for my future careers in museums and libraries as well as moving to Boston.
Me aboard the USS Constitution in April 1980.