A few of my favorite things...


Here are a dozen or so titles you might want to add to your reading list...both novels and nonfiction.

Novels 

The Brothers K
by David James Duncan

 

Is it a touching family saga? Or a novel about baseball? The truth, I guess, is that it's a love story – a tale that explores the intimate forces that exert an often-inexplicable grip on our hearts. In one memorable paragraph, Duncan applies his formidable powers of insight to Roger Maris, the first modern player to wear the uneasy crown of New Home Run King: "Without knowing why he did it, Maris began to play like a different person. An obsessive person. A person who'd accidentally discovered and applied to baseball what the practitioners of countless military, industrial, economic and scientific disciplines had already learned: namely, that by jettisoning one's diverse abilities in order to condense and intensify the will like a magnifying glass intensifies the sunlight, by forgetting all about being a complete person and throwing one's whole being into a single obsession, one stands a very good chance of achieving some narrow excellence. Such as an almost preternatural ability to boink 299-foot fly balls."

 

 

Golfing With God by Roland Merullo

 

Near the end of this workmanlike story, the first-person narrator comes to a remarkable conclusion about himself: "I saw, then, very clearly that the center of my energy pattern was golf –It was my purpose, my destiny, my route to salvation. I also knew, somehow, by some magnificent intuition, that it was my route to an ecstatic union with the Lord." If you love the game, you'll know exactly where he's coming from and on what level he might just be telling the truth. If it all sounds a bit far-fetched, then you'll probably want to pick up a different book. Perhaps something like...

 

 

Atticus by Ron Hansen  

 

What a great story about the depths of a father's love! Part mystery novel...part tribute to the parable of the prodigal son...this book will rope you in, and keep you thinking about what it means to be a parent  – especially as your children reach the age when they are clearly no longer "yours." 

 

 

The Dark Wind by Tony Hillerman

 

Two recent trips to Colorado stirred up in me a desire to reconnect with the master of mysteries set in the desert southwest. I like the novels he wrote in the 1980s best (such as The Dark Wind), because they offer a unique combination of taut storytelling and a deep affection for Navajo spirituality.

 

 

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin  

 

Uncork that bottle of sangiovese you've been saving, and settle in with Helprin's magnum opus – a gripping, often lyrical story about the life and times of one Alessandro Giuliani, a professor of aesthetics whose life spans the better part of the 20th century. I think you'll be caught up in this ambitious, sweeping exploration of Alessandro's fundamental passions, Beauty and Truth. Others may disagree, but I say Helprin was in top form when writing Soldier. I've read some of his other stuff – Winter's Tale, and Memoir From Antproof Case. The writing's good, often great, in these novels. But in both cases, Helprin's imaginative vision tends to soar a bit over the top for my tastes. 

 

 

The Dean's List by Jon Hassler  

 

I mention this title, but I could have picked any of Hassler's endearing, satisfying and thought-provoking tales set in and around Staggerford, the Yoknapatawtha County of the north. A skilled storyteller, Hassler breathes life into seemingly ordinary characters; his palette consists almost entirely of good people, about whom he makes you care. Other Hassler titles worth a look: The Love Hunter, North of Hope, Dear James, Rookery Blues. 

 

 

Music of a Life by Andrei Makine 

 

This is an intriguing little novel about what endures, and what makes life worth living. The protagonist, Alexei Berg, is a concert pianist just about to come into his own, when he and his parents are caught up in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. His parents are dragged off to the gulag, and he flees Moscow to seek the protection of a distant relative. There, he is betrayed - by his cousin, and, it seems, by the entire cosmos: "In the middle of the night, he would leave his hiding place. He would get up, change, stretch his legs. The serenity of the fields, the sky, the stars seen through a heat haze, called on him to have faith, to take joy in life. They were all lying." He escapes again, assumes the identity of a dead soldier, and continues his trek through war and peace...alive, but not fully alive, until music returns to his life.  

Nonfiction  

 

From Eternity to Here: The Quest For the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll

 

"The most mysterious thing about time is that it has a direction: The past is different from the future." So says Carroll, just as he sets out to eliminate the mystery by proposing a radical solution – that the universe as we know it did not actually begin with the Big Bang. "Perhaps the universe we see," he says, "is only part of a much larger multiverse," a model whose details "are highly speculative, and rely on assumptions that stretch beyond what the state of the art allows us to reliably compute, to put it mildly." Despite current limitations, Carroll asserts, we can count on quantum cosmology to ultimately solve the riddles – without the need for God, or for any reason to continue clinging to the conviction that human beings somehow matter to the universe.

 

I am always fascinated by such thinking. I enjoy having my mind blown by scientific theorems that are well beyond ability of a humble business writer to fully comprehend. And I am intrigued, too, by the inherent contradictions in a brilliant physicist's worldview: "If our lives are brief and undirected, at least we can take pride in our mutual courage as we struggle to understand things much greater than ourselves," he says. To which I reply: And what, precisely, is the point of such mutual admiration? Unless, of course, our lives do have meaning. Unless there's a greater truth at work – a truth also well beyond our ability to comprehend – that, tiny and insignificant though we may be, still somehow we are caught up in an ongoing act of cosmic co-creation – at the invitation of the One who knew us before time began.

 

 

The Extravagant Universe by Robert Kirshner 

 

Kirshner is a Harvard professor who gets to play all day (or is it 'all night'?) with the Hubble Space Telescope. It's our good fortune that he likes to share what he's learned, and that he's quite accomplished at making modern astrophysics digestible. Kirshner likens the telescope to Sherlock Holmes' magnifying glass – and takes us along, as he recounts some astonishing evidence collected about the cosmos over the past half-decade. His conclusion: we live in an extravagant universe - one comprised of much more stuff than the eye can see. There's ordinary matter; at least three kinds of dark matter (including the delightfully named 'weakly interacting massive particles' - or WIMPs); and a large dollop of dark energy that continues to drive cosmic acceleration today. The details may be confounding at times, but it's worth the effort to get this introduction to the many magnificent worlds beyond our solar system and galaxy.  

 

 

Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century by Michael Hiltzik

 

Knowing what we know today about environmental impact, and knowing how our society tends to approach disputes over pressing needs and conflicting rights, it's hard to imagine that a project like Hoover Dam would ever get off the drawing boards in 21st century America. But you don't have to embrace the utilitarian mindset of an earlier generation in order to enjoy this history of what ultimately became an impressive feat of politics, engineering and construction.

 

 

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon by Edward Dolnick

 

We remember John Wesley Powell as the first great adventurer to explore and map the Grand Canyon. Dolnick makes a persuasive case that Powell was more lucky than good. He – and some members of his inexperienced team – survived almost despite themselves. Dolnick's compelling yarn shows how even the dumbest decisions don't necessarily lead to failure. As Powell discovered, bad choices may even lead to fame, if you manage to live long enough to write the first draft of the history.

 

 

Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy

 

The whole time I'm reading this book, I'm hearing Neil Young's song "Cortez the Killer" playing in the back of my mind. Turns out, the spelling of the conquistador's name isn't the only thing that Young got slightly askew. There was blame to go around in the way this bloody chapter of human history unfolded. I thoroughly enjoyed Levy's respectful description of Aztec culture at the height of its influence, and his even-handed exploration of the complex circumstances that led to its demise.

 

The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie 

 

A wonderful introduction to four American Catholic writers of the mid-20th century: Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor and Dorothy Day. Elie explores how their work as writers was, in fact, a pilgrimage - "a journey in which art, life and religious faith converge; it is a story of readers and writers - of four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise." In the process, Elie says, these writers help us overcome our suspicions of religious experience. Through their eyes, through their experience, through their journeys...we can begin to make sense of an otherwise absurd world. 

 

 

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris  

 

Kathleen Norris may be an acquired taste: A priest friend of mine read this book on my recommendation, and found little of value. But I'm now reading it for the third time, and finding fresh insights on almost every page. Norris has a poet's gift – assembling ordinary words and everyday circumstances into images that can take your breath away. She is also deeply schooled in the writings and traditions of Catholic monastic spirituality - a background that enables her to unearth timeless truths in unexpected places. 

 

 

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 by John Barry  

 

Having lived through the great flood of 1993 - often reported locally as a "500-year flood" - I was fascinated to learn from Barry's book that a much larger deluge had scoured the same ground only a few generations before. Barry's at his best when he's describing the awesome power of a raging Mississippi. But he also does a great job dissecting the politics of levees, agriculture and flood control - issues that continue to garner headlines today. A must-read for anyone who's spent time on the banks of the Big Muddy, pondering the tales that surely must swirl in its unpredictable currents. 

 

 

Grammatical Man by Jeremy Campbell  

 

Campbell provides an intriguing introduction to information theory, and mankind's place in what appears to be a grammatical cosmos. It's a great book, in large part because Campbell makes a compelling case for a universe in which entropy won't necessarily win.