4. Amateur Sugar Maker

by Noel Perrin

This little 112 page out-of-print gem contains enough specific information for us to begin tapping our maples and make our own maple syrup.  Of course, I'll do much more research, but Perrin's narrative is very encouraging. Getting to the point of having actual maple syrup is a process dependent on good luck with the weather and a great deal of labor once the sap is collected. But we are going for it!  Next year.

3. Turtle Island

by Gary Snyder

This  1974 book of poetry by one of my favorite American poets, is one of his most well known collections of poetry.

the man who has the soul of the wolf
knows the self-restraint
of the wolf

For me, these few lines show the depth and difference in his understanding of the wild, which shows itself in poem after poem.  His work is life-affirming and life-disturbing.  A great poet, and important.

2. Rogue Male

by Jeffrey Household

I randomly picked it up from a book exchange in a hotel lobby.  It's a very good 1930s thriller.  A wealthy, influential Englishman, who loves the hunt, decides that the ultimate challenge for him would be to see if he can stalk close enough to a horrible dictator in a neighboring country I says he doesn't want to kill the dictator, but to see if he could.  The challenge would include getting the dictator in his sights.  He gets caught at the moment the challenge is met.  He is imprisoned, tortured, etc., but eventually escapes. The vast majority of the story is what happens after he gets way, and goes underground... literally goes underground.  In his hole, he is reflecting on the course of events.  It is an adventurous chase, where the protagonist becomes the prey.  But what is striking about the novel is that the main character is a highly skilled survivalist. It's, in fact, a great survival novel. I could not believe the detail I was reading. Imagine a thrilling survival manual.  What a strange little novel.

Never heard of this guy, or the book.

1. Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Wow, what a great novel.  This was my first time reading it. I put it off for a number of reasons, the top two being that I thought it would be like the classic 1931 film by he same name and that I tire easily from 18th century rich people writing.

It is 18th century rich people writing, but it is also a truly outstanding story.  There are many layers of frames to the narrative, all of which contribute to making a unbelievable story seem quite possible. I found myself wondering at the power and emotion of the tale. The being (it seems wrong to call it a monster after entertaining its point of view) makes one hell of a case for its right to exist and be... happy.  The pathos of the outcast is profound. That's not the tale I thought it would be.

Read it!

Hello 2013

I am off to a running start for 2013.  I really want to push myself to to read more than student papers.

12. A Raisin in the Run

by Lorraine Hansberry

I am going to use it in my 12th grade English class this year, so I re-read it. What an awesome play!

11. World War Z

by Max Brooks

I want to say it's too broad-sweeping, that there is no character development, I think those were among the writers goals.  As a broad-sweeping novel imagining the world of humanity on the brink of annihilation by zombies, it's pretty damned good.

10. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

Eh, it was ok.  Maybe I need to see a production.  It certainly does capture the spirit of Thoreau's rebellion and I am glad to see that his ideas are still alive here and there.

9. Men's Lives

by Peter Matthiessen

To celebrate friend Jarret's recent milestone birthday, we sailed on Priscilla, the fully restored late 19th century fishing boat on the Great South Bay.  The crew that operates this boat daily recommended Matthiessen's tribute to the once thriving Long Island fishing industry and the men who for generations made their meager livelihood from the sea as surfmen and baymen of the South Fork.

I love the book.  Having done some growing up on Long Island, and spent a number of my teenage days as crewman on lobster boat out of Mount Sinai, I couldn't put this one down.  It speaks of very real, imperfect people who sustained their lives by cultivating the land and fishing the sea just off the coast of Long Island. It also speaks to me personally as a romantic, a man who truly longs to make a life outside.  We die sooner at desks.

Matthiessen manages to write lovingly about these poor but very independent people, and yet unflinchingly explores the varying environmental impact of the commercial fishing industry over time.  I also enjoyed his attack on the "sport fishing" industry, which apparently has been responsible for nearly 80% of the fish sold to the major fish markets on the eastern seaboard for a number of decades.  Matthiessen wonders, page after page, why the world of politics has invested billions over decades focusing on commercial fishing when so-called sport fishing has hauled millions of pounds of fish annually for nearly a half-century.  Nor have politicians had the courage to deal with the pollution of our major rivers, which have fouled the bays (fish spawning beds) for over a century.  Somehow it's easier to attack the little guy and ignore the more significant causes. But the little guy has done his damage too.

A damned good book, but probably not a "page turner" for everyone.

8. Dracula

by Bram Stoker

A friend of mine is planning to teach Dracula to his 11th grade class of middle class slackers.  (I'm not trying to say that all middle class 11th graders are slackers, but the majority of these folks are). This is a group in which the majority will fake their way through any difficult novel, by which I mean a novel that is long and doesn't have an intensely rewarding... something... every 4-5 pages.  I hadn't read the novel and wondered if Dracula is still a rewarding read.

Dracula is an impressive attack on Victorian era sexuality and gender, fears of illness and death... and all that stuff so many other rebellious Victorian era novels are about.  But who cares about that crap?  It's also a good read by today's standards: sex, intense murder/mystery, "the case," etc.  I really enjoyed the plot as it unfolds through an assemblage of journal entries and letters sent between the characters. And there are some very memorable characters!  Of course, Dracula, the original of the sub-genre, makes all vampires that follow seem like mere fashion.  And Abraham Van Helsing is not at all the character of recent Hollywood movies.  It's worth reading the novel for this character alone.

Dracula is a very good novel, especially if you like the gothic horror genre.  This is one of the grand-daddys of its genre and, like Led Zeppelin, still has something its predecessors don't manage to copy or surpass.

7. Breath and Bones

by Susann Cokal

This a quite a good book with a memorable anti-heroine. It is a comic picaresque about a young Danish woman, an artist’s model and muse, who travels across the western U.S. in the 1880s in search of the artist who is her first love. Although the plot details are hard to swallow, it’s a fun, compelling romp through the landscape of the American west and the sexuality of this odd woman.  The two - the setting and her sexuality - don’t mix well.

It is by no means a great novel, but I enjoyed the story.  It would make a very good movie if a vibrator wasn’t central to the latter third of the plot.

6. The Girl Who Owned a City

by O.T. Nelson

This little post-apocalypse novel was recommended by one of my 8th graders.  It is the best book she ever read.  And I can see why. It is a world where everyone over 13 years old dies and the kids are left to figure out how to survival by themselves. Ten-year-old Lisa Nelson, an unlikely hero, rises to the occasion and does remarkable things.

Nelson, the author, is clearly telling a kid's version of Ayn Rand's philosophy. It's a bit too obvious in the tale, and a distraction.  Maybe not to unknowing readers between 10 and 15, her targeted audience.

3,4, & 5. The Hunger Games trilogy

by Suzanne Collins

They were a fun read. A bit shy on detail, but Collins has created a compelling character in Katniss Everdeen (what's up with that name?).

2. The Hobbit

By J.R.R. Tolkien

I finally read it and very much enjoyed it. Written nearly two decades before The Lord of the Rings, it is in the same medieval epic style, but with a much brighter and humorous tone. In fact, I was surprised by the humor and fun (which is non-existent in LotR).

Tolkien’s world is so magnificent, so rich, and full of life and character.

But I have been interested in Tolkien’s WWI experience as a soldier, and how it manifests in his novels. They are, after all, partly about “people” in a state of total war. Tolkien, who enjoyed a very comfortable, pampered, existence found himself fighting alongside regular Joes during WWI. He was most inspired by them and their special kind of heroics in the face of atrocity and absurdity of that awful war. The regular Joes fought on, despite knowing they would meet certain death (20,000,000 deaths in four years). Tolkien witnessed first hand the battle of Somme, one of the deadliest battles of WWI in which approximately 300,000 soldiers died in a matter of weeks. His heart wrenching epic battles stem from his memory.

The Hobbit, and perhaps moreso LotR, are stories of heroes as well as of the total cost of war. Great kings fall alongside farmers. In both stories, there is joy in epic victory, and the return home, but also a strong parallel sense of loss that comes to mind when thinking on them. The pastoral nature of Hobbiton is in stark contrast to the desolation and violation of the battlefield. That kind of makes going home all that much better.

But The Hobbit is really about the adventure, not the war. That is a big difference between it and the much darker and serious LotR.

Anyway, I very much enjoyed it.

1. War Horse

by Michael Morpurgo

This is a heartfelt novel for young readers about a farm horse that is sold into the British army during World War I and finds himself on the Western Front. It was recommended by one of my 8th graders when he heard that we are going to learn about the world wars. So I was to read it.

It's a good little novel. The horse, Joey, tells us of his remarkable life in a way that seems quite horse-like. I suppose not all heroes need to be human.

The days of using horses in battle are over, thank goodness. What a horrible thing to do to them. But dogs are not as fortunate.


Four books in 2011. In 2012 I am going to count student work. Or teach math.

4. The Gamekeeper

By Barry Hines

This 1975 novel came to me by snail mail from Olman’s Fifty, who reviewed it so adeptly here. Definitely read his review, which is great reading in and of itself. After I read it I wondered if the novel would impact me in the same way.  We think alike in the places this novel converges.

I don’t think I have read anything quite like this.  It’s simply outstanding. The clarity of Hines’s narrative is rare in 20th century literature, which too often is crammed with proof of its own greatness and cheap twists that negate what comes before as if nothing in life is what it seems.  Well, things are what they seem when a writer with knowledge, craft and confidence puts pen to paper.

As Olman stated, this novel isn’t for everyone.  But I thoroughly enjoyed the intricate details of the daily life and work of this British estate gamekeeper, which are very realistic and refreshingly unromantic.  While it is very good storytelling it is also somewhat of a manual for an aspiring gamekeeper.  On could avoid many expensive, time-wasting errors by reading this little novel.

Of course, as much as our protagonist is a careful steward of the land on which he lives so closely, and a cultivator of the Duke’s pheasant stock, his work is entirely devoted to cultivating the maximum number of birds for the Duke and his friends to kill during their annual one day shoot. The gamekeeper works all year for this singular purpose, brutally destroying many other populations of animals and birds (rabbits, foxes, birds of prey, etc.) in order to protect the birds that the Duke and his buddies will annihilate come Autumn.  It’s all so absurd.

I enjoyed Hines’s ability to realistically narrate the gamekeeper’s life and purpose without any insecurity.

3. Under the Banner of Heaven

by Jon Krakauer

Wow. I had already thought that mormonism was hard to take seriously. This book didn't help their case. In most ways this fastest growing religion in America is no more far fetched than the other popular religions, but mormonism has had an especially violent and troublesome first 150 years.

Krakauer focuses on the fundamentalist sects of mormonism, those that were created from a dispute over polygamy. Great.

In the news recently is Warren Jeffs, one of the "prophets," or leaders of fundamentalists who practice polygamy. He was busted for multiple counts of child rape. Apparently he liked to take on wives in a more "pure" state. Life in prison or that clown. Now on to the rest of them!