When xenophobia and prejudice seems to infect so many aspects of our daily life, it is important to understand the cultures upon which we throw our prejudices. Reza Azlan’s brilliant book is an invitation to understand the history and evolution of Islam, and a tool to achieve greater tolerance toward anyone outside our own borders, skin color, and socioreligious frames of reference. Western views have trumpeted their correctness over what we percieve to be barbarism in other countries, overlooking our own barbaric acts throughout history and to the present. No god but God provides a framework with which to consider the worlds largest religion with consice and incredibly absorbable information, and the importance of informed consideration has never been more needed.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn won the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a wife and husband team, and it’s not hard to imagine a Nobel in their future if they continue with such important work. Half the Sky addresses humanitarian crisis on a scale perfect for human consumption. It shocks with its raw and often bloody facts, and inspires hope with its sincere invitation to contribute to practical and incremental solutions. Any problem which effects millions of people is a problem worth discussing, and Kristof and WuDunn have opened the floor to conversation. It would be a shame to not be a part of that.
In the 1960’s Jerry Mander was your regular Don Draper (but with morals), on top of the business and on top of the world. Mander founded and ran what might have been the most prominent ad agency in the country, but he left it behind as the struggle to create advertising for car companies and not-for-profits became impossible to reconcile. He went on to create the first ad firm strictly for not-for-profit organizations, and eventually left that behind to write this book. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television is an insiders deeply studied view of the harm inherent in not only the industry behind television, but in the very medium itself. If Emerson were alive to witness cathode ray guns shooting electrons at phosphors to create what we have come to accept as reality, he might have written a similar work. At once scientific in its approach to proove the negative effects of viewing, and eloquently existential in how it addresses societies evolution since television, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television is necessary reading for anyone interested in the current state of affairs. Though it was written in 1978, Mander’s voice is as fresh as the day the book rolled off the press.
David Byrne has been travelling the world for decades and observing everything from the elevated perch of his bicycle seat. He shares his wide ranging thoughts which spin from amusing anecdotes about spontaneous marching band interventions to heavy cultural critiques on the destruction of community due to highways cutting through our homes, and our social and environmental breakdown in the face of mass media. Ever since Talking Heads, Byrne has been an artist renowned for his unique vision, which is clearly still 20/20. Bicycle Diaires is proof positive.
A book which attempts to explain the paranormal abilities of the mind by addressing the frontiers of physics, the connection between brain and body, and closely connecting mysticism with quantum mechanics. Even if you’re only intrigued by half of what you read here, that half will have you second guessing the nature of reality. Which might not be a bad idea, considering the quality of what we call reality.
Calamities of Exile by Lawrence Weschler
From the preface: “The three narratives joined together in this volume were conceived…as a sort of triptych: three tales, that is, about basically decent expatriates…each of whom tries to do the right thing with regard to the totalitarian regime holding sway over his homeland, to varyingly calamitous effect.” Dr. Kanan Makiya in Iraq, Jan Kavan in Czechoslovakia, and Breyten Breytenbach in South Africa. You must read this.
The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
Essential reading for the modern human obsessed with our insane culture. “George Saunders is so funny and inventive he makes you love words and so wide-eyes wistful he talks you into loving people.” – Sarah Vowell
“An astonishingly tuned voice – graceful, dark, authentic, and funny – telling just the kind of stories we need to get us through these times.” – Thomas Pynchon
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
“I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books; & it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others: 12 years of preparation & 2 years of writing. The others needed no preparation & got none.” – Mark Twain
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
One of our most frequently recommended books, (we’ve “lent” and replaced our copy more than a few times), this richly detailed account of a ten year old boy who relocates to the Greek island of Corfu from England and finds himself surrounded by captivating flora and fauna is an anthropological and zoological masterpiece. Gerald Durrell grew up to become a world famous naturalist, conservationist, and author.
Gerald’s brother Lawrence, also a renowned novelist and playwright, said: “This is a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book — the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters.” Each page is filled with undeniable charm.
“Under the guise of a detective novel, Lethem has written a more piercing tale of investigation, one revealing how the mind drives on its own ‘wheels within wheels.'” – The New York Times Book Review
Lionel Essrog may be one of American Literature’s most inventive characters, a small-time mobster cum detective, who also happens to have Tourette’s.
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Stories which occasionally frustrate with their jarring and open endings, exhilarate with their insight and originality, and inspire with their unfaltering, direct, and wholly sincere gaze into the human condition. Everything Wolff has written is worth your time. Of his first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Raymond Carver said: “This book of stories…is an occasion for which we should be grateful.”
The Iron Heel by Jack London
Written in 1908, this dystopian novel predates Orwell and Huxley, and could have certainly helped direct their visions, even their voices. London was a vocal socialist, and The Iron Heel may be one of his most brutal and frighteningly prophetic novels, almost as if the W. Bush administration used it as an operating manual. One hundred years later, the book still reads as relevant, current, and cautionary. It enrages and calls us to act.
“…draws readers in with her easygoing manner and ability to entertain, but surprises with a bittersweet paean to childhood naivete.” – Publishers Weekly
Haven Kimmel happens to be incredibly, almost intolerably funny; her memoirs elicit freely rolling tears from loud peels of laughter, while her novels are as quietly haunting as early Capote and McCullers.
by Paul Collins
Do you think you could find Concord grapes fascinating? No? Think again! Could there be a hole at the top of the world which leads inside the earth itself, possibly to a whole new and lost environment? Have you ever heard of the moving three-mile long painting of the Mississippi River? Or the man who convinced all of London that he discovered a new Shakespearian play, when in fact he wrote it himself? And the Pneumatic Underground, New York City’s first subway, (completely air powered!), which only a handful of people ever had the pleasure to experience? Paul Collins writes thirteen accounts of amazing failures by nearly great individuals, failures spectacular enough to give us all a bit more faith in ourselves.
I am not Jackson Pollock by John Haskell
Deceptively simple, incredibly evocative, these short stories repeatedly drop little philosophical bombs which stop your breath; you only realize what has happened once you see the fallout settling on your preconceived notions. Haskell finds synchronicity in the stories of an elephant named Topsy, executed at Coney Island in 1903, Paris’s turn of the century Hottentot Venus, and the mythology of Ganesha. It’s almost hard to believe.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
One of America’s greatest non-fiction writers, Joseph Mitchell wrote New York and its people as no one else had before, perhaps as no one will again. He found the true character and characters of the city, for better or worse, soaked up the nuance in every voice and street corner, and elegantly broadcast it for all to hear. His masterpiece in this necessary collection, Joe Gould’s Secret, single-handedly defines journalism-as-literature.
The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
From page 3: “You are now thinking I’m either brilliant or a murder suspect. Why not both? I’m teasing you. I am a murder suspect, but in a very relaxed way and definitely not guilty. I was cleared way early, but I’m still a suspect. Head spinning? Let me explain.” If you are only acquainted with Steve Martin as an actor and comedian (or banjo player), then brother, you haven’t lived. We are anxiously awaiting his next offering.
If P.G. Wodehouse decided to boldly fornicate with modern perversion (we’re speaking literally here: actual fornication with the kind of people you only read about in books), take up boxing, win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and use his painfully honest brain to turn his life into such a compelling meditation on humanity as to render it sublime comedy, what you might see emerge could resemble something like Jonathan Ames.
From the jacket: “…the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee of the Sudanese civil war. Fleeing from his village in the mid-1980’s, Deng becomes one of the so-called Lost Boys — children pursued by militia’s, government soldiers, lions and hyenas and myriad diseases, in their search for sanctuary, first in Ethiopia and then Kenya. Eventually Deng is resettled in the United States with almost 4,000 other young Sudanese men, and a very different struggle begins.”
Eggers befriended and spent years interviewing Deng, culminating not only in this book, but in a visit they both took to Deng’s village in Sudan — the first time Deng went back since his harrowing journey began as a child. Written from Deng’s perspective, Eggers gives us not only a painfully compelling story, but an important book, the kind of intimate history lesson we need to teach ourselves so as to understand how complex and devastating life is beyond our own borders. The atrocities which scour the face of the African continent on a daily basis need far more attention than they are currently receiving from the west. To find out more about Valentino Achak Deng, Sudan, the Lost Boys, and how to get invovled, visit: www.valentinoachakdeng.org
Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler
Weschler oscillates between cultural comedies and political tragedies with dazzling, sometimes mind-numbing ease and speed, painting bridges with words which connect such seemingly disparate events as a war-crimes tribunal in the Hague to Vermeer’s inexplicably tranquil art hundreds of years earlier. (And mind-numbing only in that reading his work can knock the breath out of you long enough to realize that you never thought the world could be so connected; and realizing that connection, the unfolding possibilities come pouring in.)
“…Weschler’s work as whole holds that you can care about the cast of light in L.A. and the survival of memory after the Holocaust, that they’re not mutually exclusive but maybe even inseparable.” – Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows and Wanderlust: A History of Walking
That the history of orchid collecting could be as oddly variegated and mysterious as the flowers themselves was the kind of information we were shocked we hadn’t come across sooner. In Orlean’s hands, the flowers nearly evolve right on the page, resembling here the insects which pollinate some orchid varieties, and there the elusive and highly sought ‘ghost orchid;’ other specimens lure insects with their sweet smell and temporarily blind the bugs by releasing sticky pollen into their eyes, while some smell like rotting meat and others have evolved right up into the trees due to competition on the ground. Even more improbable: it’s all true.
Intrigued by a Florida court case in which the entirely unique (eccentric and brilliant?) John Laroche was under investigation for orchid poaching, New Yorker contributor Orlean dove into the orchid culture (we didn’t really know there was an orchid culture before reading this book) with a kind of awe, curiosity, and intelligence that still baffles us a bit, weaving tales of how orchid hunters were hired in the Victorian era to search as-of-yet uncharted territories for exotic species — often resulting in death — with deeply personal accounts of her own soul-searching in the midst of such passion and obsession. It is a book unlike any other.
It was also (sorta) turned into a fairly insane and amazing film by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, in which they paint Orlean as a drug addict sex fiend! Check it out!
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The inside of the book jacket reads “A boy, a tiger, and the vast Pacific Ocean” which is only partly true. This is also a story of family, the fierce and frightening animal kingdom, and how we project our imaginations onto the face of grim reality in order to survive. It’s this defense mechanism of outward projection which Yann Martel is so expert in navigating.
His fiction is so direct and first-hand as to seem like nonfiction, and the horrors he places before Pi are like snapshots from a National Geographic, almost impossible to stomach yet impossible to turn away from, utterly new and overwhelming in their high-resolution crisp color. In fact, we’ve often wondered at seeing this book shelved in the ‘young adult’ section of most book stores if the entire story hasn’t been misinterpreted by many of its readers, or perhaps more softly interpreted. (Does that sound presumptuous?)
Beyond the story of a boy, a tiger, and the endless space of ocean in which they find themselves together, Life of Pi is about the human animal, which can be as savage and purely instinctual as the wild beasts we lock in our zoos and marvel at. It is a story with the power to make hearts faint and resolute heads spin.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
We really can’t get enough of Salinger. Some have argued that he’s too safe, but we disagree. Some of his sentences make us marvel at the beauty and wit of the English language, and some of his stories are like thunderclaps, shocking with their raw and natural power. Franny and Zooey does for the existential crisis what Salinger does for American literature, and we pray incessantly that we will some day stumble across more of his brilliant work.
Frog by Stephen Dixon
Dixon seems to be one of those authors read most by other authors, who has inspired some of the modern greats with his consistently original voice. Both Frog and Interstate were finalists for the National Book Award, yet many of his thirty books are out of print. Reading Dixon is like sitting not always comfortably on the edge of his frontal lobe, looking back over every dense thought and memory as it unfolds.
Emerson’s call for harmony with nature and reliance on individual integrity echoed loudly from the beginning of his career. His first published essay, Nature (1836), embodied the roots of his transcendental philosophy, which guided many great thinkers in their own search for meaning and understanding of the world they lived in. Selected Essays can be handled like a bible, opened almost anyplace and read randomly — a paragraph here, a sentence there — for solace, instruction, and inspiration. The Over-Soul, in particular, is one of those pieces of writing you can read a hundred times and and never come away empty-handed from. Here’s a brief excerpt: “The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power an beauty.”
Oh, why don’t we just keep going?
“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. Every man’s words who speaks from that life must sound vain to those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.”