This is a list of books that I personally recommend. If you haven't already read them, please print out this page and take it to your friendly local independent bookseller to pick them all up. (If you live within the Boston commutershed, I recommend New England Mobile Book Fair on Needham St. in Newton Highlands—which is nothing like what its name suggests, but is definitely worth the trip. They don't stock all of the books I've listed here—some are no longer available—but for those still in print, they will order for you and pass on a significant fraction of the publisher's wholesale discount.)
Despite the length of this list, it is by no means comprehensive. I keep my library catalog in a database, and it tells me that I presently have 942 books (of which 349 were purchased at the Book Fair). Probably a third of those have yet to be read, and even of those that I have read, most of them do not rise to the level of personal interest or influence as these. (Those who think they know me may be surprised at some of the titles I've chosen.) This list has not been substantially updated in about five years; I'm not sure if that means that the couple hundred books I've bought in the intervening time were just not particularly noteworthy, or just that I'm getting lazy. Probably some combination.
Please don't attempt to divine any meaning from the order of the listing below; there isn't any.
Duane, Diane. The Door into Fire. New York: Dell, 1979. ISBN 0-440-11874-3. Reprinted as half of The Sword and the Dragon (Decatur, Ga.: Meisha Merlin, 2002), ISBN 1-892064-50-9 (hardcover) or -51-7 (trade softcover). Also previously available in paperbacks from Bluejay and Bertelsmann (Del Rey) which are widely available on the used market. See also sequels The Door into Shadow (available in the same Meisha Merlin reissue) and The Door into Sunset (currently OOP).
If I had to point to a single book that changed my way of thinking—or at least of looking at the world—more than any other, it would be this one. This, ultimately, is the book that inspired me to create bimajority.org, q.v. for the rest of that story. This story is not unconventional at first glance -- it's a fairly typical Heroic Quest of the sort which has infested the ranks of genre fantasy recently—but what makes the true impact is the society Duane weaves together.
(This is, by the way, the story, or rather series, from which most of my hostnames come.)
Walton, Jo. The King's Peace. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2000. ISBN 0-312-87229-1.
From a book that changed my world to, well, just a roaring good crypto-Arthurian alternate-historical fantasy. These two books do share something in common, though, in that the particular alternate-historical “hook” of The King's Peace is also a reworking of gender roles (although less complete than that in the Door books). Walton is a fairly well-known and respected Usenet personality, and that was enough for me to give her a try despite my general distaste for Arthuriana. A second volume (split out for publishing business reasons), titled The King's Name, was published in 2001, but I found it rather less riveting.
Willey, Elizabeth. The Well-Favored Man. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1993. ISBN 0-312-85590-7.
This is a somewhat controversial choice, and also a book I would not have ordinarily encountered were it not for the author's former Usenet prominence. I'll start out by stating the book's most serious fault: it begins very much in the middle of things, and much of the background of the world in which it is set is never explained (in some cases not even in the two prequels, A Sorcerer and a Gentleman and The Price of Blood & Honor). For all that, this book is (as the jacket copy recites) urbane, literate, and witty, so despite Willey's lack of success in the commercial marketplace I would still rank it quite highly among the books of that year.
(Full disclosure: Willey is an alum of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a predecessor organization to my employer. To my knowledge she has not published anything commercially since The Price of Blood & Honor; in fact, there does not seem to be any evidence of what she is up to now.)
May, Julian. The Saga of Pliocene Exile. (European title: The Saga of the Exiles.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981-84. Five volumes:
----------. Intervention. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987. ISBN 0-395-43782.
This is unquestionably a controversial recommendation, no two ways about it. I remember Intervention fondly for one main reason: it was the first work of “adult” sf that I ever read that wasn't by Asimov or Heinlein. Having been absolutely fascinated by it (at a time when the central idea of “metapsychic” abilities still seemed plausible to me, the more so on the basis of the pseudo-physical background May invented for hers), I then went on to be enraptured by the earlier Pliocene series. (I read the Pliocene books mostly while I was an exchange student in Finland, and still have the Pan paperbacks in the library.) Many detractors find the “meta” stuff completely unbelievable, and a good number of people complain about her rich description and multiple layers of meaning as being too “purple”.
Unfortunately, these books have really not weathered the passing of history as well as they might have. Intervention was written in the near-real world spanning the years 1945 to 2112, and as the weight of post-1986 history grows, it becomes more difficult to put oneself in the appropriate frame of mind to follow the story—significant parts of which take place in Soviet Russia and Kazakhstan. The Chardinist theology around which many of the principal characters' ideas and worlds revolve seems much less plausible now in the light of modern evolutionary theory, and even May herself seems to have had second thoughts about it.
Intervention was intended to serve as a link (or, as the title plate puts it, a vinculum) between the Pliocene books and the Galactic Milieu Trilogy originally envisioned to precede it. May experienced personal tragedies in the process of writing and publishing the Milieu books, having already switched publishers from Houghton to Knopf, and the first book, Jack the Bodiless, did not appear until 1991. I cannot recommend it, nor the two succeeding books (Diamond Mask and Magnificat). The author's conception of the story appears to have radically changed from that so interestingly foreshadowed in Intervention and the Pliocene books, and frankly I found the result rather uninspired and uninteresting, to the extent that I did not get more than a few chapters into Magnificat before deciding that I didn't care how it turned out.
Given those caveats, I would not recommend that you go out and buy these books (which are only available on the used market these days). However, I would recommend that you borrow them from your local public library, which probably still has copies of at least five of the six.
In addition to these specific recommendations, I'd like to mention a few additional authors. I've spent a lot of time in the past five years reading Misty Lackey's books, and while I don't put her forward as a particularly good writer—in fact, I think she is in dire need of an editor who can actually remember her plot-lines from one book to the next—I do find them to be enjoyable light reading. The stories are usually fun and the personalities are engaging even if not completely (or consistently) developed. (Perhaps I should qualify that: they are fun if you can include in your suspension of disbelief anything you previously read about the characters or places in any of her other books.) Lackey's “Free Bards” books explore some interesting themes that she doesn't give much attention to, or simply brushes off, in her Valdemar books (the best selling and most copious of her output).
In my younger days, I spent a great deal of time reading Madeleine L'Engle, and she has received an honored place on my bookshelf, although I haven't read anything, new or old, of hers recently.
Robin McKinley put out two fabulous books (to my mind; others would call them “horsey porn” I'm sure) in an interesting fantasy world to which she has sadly, and with a couple of short exceptions, not returned since. Her recent output has concentrated on retold fairy tales and mythology, which I'm sure is fascinating to some but does not interest me.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Lying Stones of Marrakech. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. ISBN 0-609-60142-3.
----------. I Have Landed. New York: Harmony Books, 2002. ISBN 0-609-60143-1.
Stephen Jay Gould was something of an enigma. His technical writing is extremely dense (just try plowing through even the introduction of his monumental The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, if you're not yourself an evolutionary biologist). His popular historical writing can be quite opaque, and even irritating, particularly in his insistence on referencing and quoting original sources (as if to say, look how learned I am, that I can expound for thirty pages upon this ancient German manuscript). Despite these significant faults, he occasionally managed to put together some truly insightful gems. Such was the case for two essays from Marrakech, “The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W” and “Dolly's Fashion and Louis's Passion”, which make a clear, skeptical, scientifically-based response to the public misconceptions of evolutionary psychology and cloning, respectively. Gould, like me, was quite skeptical of the validity of many of the claims being made by the evo-psych crowd, and his reasons for this skepticism dovetail quite nicely with some of the fundamental social issues surrounding cloning (which, Gould rightly points out, Nature has been doing for billions of years).
I Have Landed is a somewhat more readable collection of essays, published posthumously, which completes the series of Natural History magazine essays which were the centerpiece of most of Gould's previous popular works. I don't recommend any essays in particular out of this book, as the entire collection is quite strong and stands well together. It is a great pity indeed, that Gould's voice has been silenced, but although this book postdates its author, it had been his avowed intent to terminate the series of essays with the ones contained in this book, and he died literally days before it arrived on store shelves, so there can be no question that I Have Landed is the lasting impression Gould wanted to leave on his popular readers.
Dover, Gabriel. Dear Mr Darwin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN 0-520-22790-5.
An ideal companion to Gould's essays on evolution and natural history, Dear Mr Darwin is British biologist Gabriel Dover's entry in the popular battle between supporters of Gould and those of Richard Dawkins. I can't even begin to summarize the views of either side here, but Dover does a serviceable job of explaining the Gouldian faction's viewpoint, and two of the chapters form a devastating critique of the Dawkins side. (One of them is entitled “Is Dawkins Aware of the Error of His Ways?”.) The form of the book is something of a conceit, employing the time-honored philosophers' tradition of a dialogue between a modern-day person and a historical figure who receives an update on the current state of the world of knowledge. In this case, as the title suggests, the dialogue is written in the form of an exchange of letters between the author and Charles Darwin (with the author obviously writing both parts). While I would ordinarily find this style to be excessively twee, in this case it does serve a useful purpose: Most educated people are familiar with the basic ideas of Darwinian evolution, but know as little as Darwin would about the modern-day advances in biological and genomic understanding that form the basis of Gouldian evolution; thus, we modern readers are not all that removed in our understanding from Darwin himself. At least of those books I have read (or tried to read) so far, Dover does a better job explaining Gouldian evolution than Gould himself does.
Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0-7382-0108-1.
Feynman was one of the twentieth century's most famous, and most original, physicists. I can't even remotely claim to keep up with Feynman's physics, but this book is a posthumous collection his shorter non-technical works and addresses. Some of the material revisits territory already familiar to readers of Feynman's other popular books. I own far too few Feynman books, but of the ones I have, I think The Pleasure of Finding Things Out stands out as covering the widest range of intellectual territory.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50129-0.
Curiously filed under “Nature/Gardening” according to the dust jacket, this book is most notable for its basic evolutionary message: that plants have manipulated us humans, just as they have the other animals, into doing their reproductive bidding, by evolving features we prize such as sweetness, processability, color, and even drug content. However, taking the book as a whole does not leave one with the impression that Pollan has really addressed his supposed point. It is still a worthwhile read, if for no other reason than Pollan's thorough puncturing of the commonly-held beliefs about Johnny Appleseed. (It seems that the editor who wrote the jacket copy didn't entirely get that message.)
If you like this book, you may also want to search for Pollan's 1987 Harper's article about the surreal relationship between gardeners and law-enforcement with respect to the poppy plant. (If you are a gardener and appreciate the beauty of the poppy flower in your garden, don't read that article—once you have done so, the Federal government can confiscate everything you own.)
Sacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. New York: Knopf, 2001. ISBN 0-375-40448-1.
Part autobiography, part history of science, Uncle Tungsten is the delightful tale of how one of the world's foremost neurobiologists almost ended up in an entirely different field of scientific endeavor. Like many boys—myself included -- the precocious young Sacks was fascinated by the fizzes, bangs, and foul smells of basic inorganic chemistry. Unlike modern-day youngsters, he lived in a time and a family which encouraged youthful experimentation with all sorts of elements and chemical reagents now considered too dangerous even for most adults. Sacks deftly weaves his own experiences growing up in a scientific family —his parents were doctors, and the uncle of the title was an inventor and light-bulb entrepreneur—and the original development of the chemical and physical theory he was learning about and experimenting with. This memoir should be required reading for all high-school students—and their chemistry teachers.
Heinrich, Bernd. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 0-06-019744-7.
How is it that the golden-crested kinglet, a tiny northern bird that weighs about as much as your pocket fluff, is able to survive the extreme conditions of a Maine winter without freezing to death? That's the question that bookends retired UVM professor Bernd Heinrich's fascinating volume of observational zoology. Not content to answer just this one question (which, while interesting, is material for little more than a few academic papers), Heinrich ranges far and wide through the animal kingdom to look at all the various means living things use to keep on living -- or in the case of some frogs, enter suspended animation—in climates inhospitable to water-based organisms. Although Heinrich occasionally recedes into professorial mode (surely readers did not need to know the exact number of seeds in that spruce cone), Winter World is well worth the read for anyone who lives in a continental climate zone (or remembers having done so).
Linklater, Andro. Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. New York: Walker & Co., 2002. ISBN 0-8027-1396-3.
Who would have thought that a social history of land surveying (or perhaps of metrology) could be anything other than dull recitation? This book straddles the categories of History of Science and traditional history. In it, Andro Linklater explores the social context out of which the United States Public Land Survey System arose, from the breakup of the monestaries by England's King Henry VIII through to Thomas Jefferson's obsession with a "scientific", decimally-subdivided system of measurement unifying length, mass, time, volume, and currency—of which only the last was ever adopted, and was still only grudgingly accepted nearly a hundred years later. The story has its share of rogues, from Henry VIII himself to American land speculators to Jacobin radicals in France, and heroes (most notably the metrologist-surveyor Ferdinand Hassler and surveyor-inventor William Burt). Measuring America is a reasonably easy read and well worth the price for layperson interested in understanding the settlement patterns of the western and mid-western United States.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. ISBN 0-316-31696-2.
The Tipping Point is truly a modern classic. This little book is the first popular book (that I'm aware of) to seriously consider the mechanisms underlying fashion, political trends, and marketing—what I call “the epidemiology of ideas”. I particularly recommend chapter two; if, after reading it, you don't say to yourself, “I know people exactly like that”, you're probably one of them. At a mere 259 octavo pages, even my father can complete this book without entirely missing the point. The Tipping Point should be considered a fundamental part of every thinking person's inoculation against the highly toxic American media and cultural environment.
Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard, 1994. ISBN 0-679-43228-0.
About all I can say about this book: dense, academic, and utterly devastating to the Catholic Church's official position on family formation by persons of the same sex. (A word of caution: many other historians, while accepting the validity of the historical evidence, consider Boswell's rather progressive interpretation to be somewhat tendentious. As someone who has opinions but no claim to particular historical insight, I cannot speak to the ultimate validity of either Boswell's interpretation or his critics'—but his biases do seem to agree with mine.)
Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. Generations: The History of America's Future 1584 to 2069. New York: Morrow, 1991. ISBN 0-688-08133-9.
This book changed my view of American history. Boiled down to its essence, Generations is a generational theory of American history, supported by an analysis of the entire demographic history (to 1991) of the United States, which clearly shows both the usefulness and the weak points of the authors' theory. Strauss and Howe then go on to make what seem even today to be surprisingly trenchant observations about the future march of history and the “generational personalities” now coming into full prominence. This book is notable for some of the disagreements about generational definitions the authors have with other contemporary historians and demographers, particularly in their insistence that the Baby Boom Generation, and generations more generally, are defined not by birth cohort (i.e., the Baby Boom itself) but rather by significant cultural and social events which influence young people as they rise to adult prominence. Strauss and Howe have more recently published a number of smaller books based on this theory of history, which I have not read; Generations remains the only complete explication and demonstration of the theory's applicability. The transcript of the C-SPAN Booknotes program featuring this book is a good introduction to the content if you are unsure.
Albers, Jan. Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000. ISBN 0-262-01175-1.
The first (that I acquired) in a series of three fabulous, illustrated books from the MIT Press's Architecture and Urban Planning list. Hands on the Land is the first in a new category of architecture book: it is a “landscape history”, delving into the relationship between the changing inhabitants and the landscapes that both influenced them and were influenced -- indeed, greatly modified—by them. As a youngster growing up in Vermont, I certainly learned about how relatively recent most of Vermont's outwardly-visible landscape is, but until I read this book I had never seen such a clear demonstration of it, complete with detailed maps showing the extent to which changes in agricultural economics changed the landscape we now think of as quintessentially Vermont.
Haglund, Karl. Inventing the Charles River. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. ISBN 0-262-08307-8.
This book, published in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy, documents three hundred years of the history of the Charles River, and the changing relationship of Boston and Cambridge to it. Haglund spends most of his time telling the story of the nineteenth-century Charles, which was transformed from a tidal estuary bordered by marshes and mud-flats, into the garbage dump for a growing industrial metropolis, and then (in 1910) into the placid, fresh-water basin Bostonians (and Cantabs) know and mostly cherish today. The book is filled to the brim with maps, photographs, and engravings depicting the evolution of the river from the head of modern-day navigation at Watertown Square to the Charlestown Bridge and Boston Harbor. It includes a significant amount of material about land-making on the Cambridge side of the river which gets short shrift in Mapping Boston, and Haglund also goes into some detail about the beginnings of the metropolitan parks movement and his own employer, the Metropolitan District Commission.
Krieger, Alex, and David Cobb, eds. Mapping Boston. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999. ISBN 0-262-11244-2.
Mapping Boston began somewhat differently from the other two architecture books I just mentioned. Its publication was sponsored by Boston real-estate magnate (and MIT alumnus) Norman Leventhal, and Leventhal's map collection forms the centerpiece of this fascinating history of land-making in and around the city of Boston. More than any other major American city, the Boston of popular consciousness is a manufactured cityscape. Almost four hundred years of human habitation have left few stones unturned, cutting down hills and claiming new land from the sea and tidelands. If this book has a fault, it is that it is very much centered around what we call “Boston Proper”, giving short shrift to the outer neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Brighton. One might hope that the Leventhal collection includes the seeds of a more inclusive book, with less concentration on land-making in the future Financial District and better representation of the entire metropolitan area. Still, Mapping Boston is worth having for anyone who lives in the area or studies urban design and planning.
Levine, Judith. Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8166-4006-8.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I had long ago come to the same conclusions as Levine, and I bought this book after seeing it advertised in The New Republic mostly out of pleasure at seeing the academic press finally take these issues seriously. Nonetheless, I still found Harmful to Minors useful, particularly in its succession of case studies about society at large making a mess of young people's lives as a result of an unholy policy alliance between radical feminists and the “Christian” right. While it is certainly true that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, I would not criticize Levine too harshly given the even laxer evidentiary standards employed by the other side (when they even bother with evidence at all). She rightly points out that the sort of hard evidence necessary to prove either side's case is so difficult to obtain in any rigorous manner that we may well never be able to prove anything—particularly when the collection of such data might well place researchers in legal jeopardy, thanks both to today's overwrought “child protection” legislation and to the over-solicitousness of funding agencies to those groups who do not want to see their cherished theories definitively disproven.
The extent to which our laws and regulations have evolved—even just in the dozen years since I was myself a teenager—is quite disturbing. More and more the tendency is to criminalize (or pathologize) behavior which makes parents uncomfortable, without any understanding of the consequences on those being suppressed, nor any consideration for the lack of deleterious effects of the previous five thousand generations from children behaving in exactly the same way. (In many ways, this parallels the disturbing pathologization of any behavior more than a single standard deviation away from the mean, particularly when it can be pinned on some biochemical “cause” which must perforce be “cured” by pharmaceuticals.)
One area where Harmful to Minors is somewhat lacking is the near absence of any modern-day international comparisons. Levine does give a few paragraphs to the state of age-of-consent law in the Netherlands, but does not go into detail about any other countries, where differing social conditions led to different outcomes that might have been relevant to her case studies. It would have been worthwhile, for example, to compare the environment in the United States with that in a country which has a much more healthy attitude towards human anatomy, such as France or Finland.
Nash, Knowlton. Prime Time at Ten: Behind-the-Camera Battles of Canadian TV Journalism. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. ISBN 0-7710-6703-8.
From January 11, 1982, until the untimely passing of Barbara Frum in 1992, one newscast set the standard by which all others are judged (in the English-speaking world, at least). Every night at 10:00 sharp (10:30 in Newfoundland), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation launched into 22 minutes and 30 seconds of news, commercial-free, which was then followed by a half-hour of news-maker interviews, long-form documentaries, commentary and analysis. The program was actually two programs, produced by separate divisions at the CBC, the news division's “The National” newscast and public affairs' “The Journal”. It was a huge risk, as original anchor and former CBC executive Nash amply demonstrates in his tale of how the program came to be. From already-graying eminence Nash to boy-wonder “Journal” producer Mark Starowicz, the “National”/“Journal” combination changed the way Canadians looked at television news, and its considered, nuanced approach to the events of the day won many dedicated viewers from border states such as myself. Sadly, the program itself is now history, a victim of management shake-ups and cost-cutting at an ever-shrinking CBC; while parts of the format have been preserved in today's “National” and “National Magazine”, much of the magic is gone and many of the reporters have since found greener pastures. Nash's book stands as a testament to an era in which his was the newscast of record.
(Nash has written other books more recently. The Microphone Wars is his dry and over-long exegesis of the CBC's history from its earliest beginnings to his retirement in 1994. Trivia Pursuit, which I have only briefly looked at, is a polemic on the decline in news values in the major commercial media.)
Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-56688-8.
If you grew up in the United States at the same time as I did, or even a bit before, you probably studied European History from a text that tripped breezily from Charlemagne to William of Normandy to Ferdinand and Isabella's unification of Spain in just a few pages—with most of the text dedicated to the horrors of the bubonic plague, the very epitome of our literary construction of the “Dark Ages”. The Ornament of the World demonstrates that, for all the “darkness” that may (or may not) have been in northern Europe, there was a shining beacon of learning and culture: the Iberian peninsula—known to its cultured inhabitants in Arabic as al-Andalus. In a series of linked essays, each concentrating on a different person or event, Menocal takes us from the arrival of the deposed heir to the Umayyad caliphate, abd al-Rahman, in 755, through to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. With stops along the way in the other great centers of learning, such as Arabized Sicily and the great monestary of Cluny, Menocal describes the formative events and cultural interactions that gave rise to the greatest bastion of learning and religious tolerance in pre-modern Europe, and then led to sad, slow decline. Of particular interest is one chapter describing the parallel exiles of two contemporary philosophers, the Muslim ibn Rushd (better known as Averroes), and the Jew Musa ibn Maymun (better known as Maimonides). To her credit, Menocal avoids the temptation to preach, and allows readers to draw their own lessons from the facts elucidated, but I found myself echoing her somewhat wistful tone over what might have been.
Devine, Cathy, ed. The M Street Radio Directory. Laconia, N.H.: M Street Corporation, 2002. ISBN 0-9679849-2-0. ISSN 1052-7117.
M Street, named after the Washington, D.C., street where the Federal Communications Commission used to be headquartered, is the definitive annual guide to the thousands of U.S. radio stations, their formats, studio addresses, and personnel. Considered more accurate than the Broadcasting & Cable yearbook (assuming they even still put that out), many radio hobbyists such as myself look to M Street when we want to find out what a station is programming, what market it is in, where it is located, and who owns it. For rated markets, some Arbitron ratings information is included as well. M Street Corporation is a tiny little unnoticed subsidiary of broadcasting, advertising, and entertainment behemoth Clear Channel Communications.
Soukhanov, Anne H., ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. ISBN 0-395-44895-6.
If M Street is the standard reference work for American broadcasting, the American Heritage Dictionary is the standard reference work for the American language. The AHD's editors attempt to strike a balance between helpful prescription and comprehensive description of our American dialect of English, with the particular help of their usage panel, a body of respected American literary, educational, and scientific figures who pass judgment on controversial matters of spelling, denotation, and grammar. If I want to know the history of a word, I'll check the OED—but if I want to know what it means, here and now, I'll look it up in the AHD.
Fenner, Cathy, and Arnie Fenner, eds. Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art. Nevada City, Calif.: Underwood Books, annual series.
Spectrum is the one art book I eagerly await every single year. It summarizes and displays the best fantasy art of the previous year, based on a juried competition among self-nominated works in the categories of advertising, books (i.e., cover art and interior illustrations), comics, “dimensional” (as in “three-”), editorial (mostly magazine illustrations), institutional (“image” commissions for businesses and organizations, not intended to convey a particular message), and unpublished (private commissions and self-promotional works). A comprehensive index of artists provides information for art directors and private purchasers to contact most of the featured artists.
As I write this, the most recent volume, Spectrum 10, is still available. Ask your bookseller for ISBN 1-887424-73-3.
Wolke, Robert L. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. ISBN 0-393-01183-6.
Wolke provides an entertaining romp through the kitchen with dozens of short essays (originally published in the Washington Post) on food science and preparation techniques. The essays run the gamut from the basics of sugar and salt to measurement techniques and the mysteries of the microwave. Wolke is an engaging writer—belying his professorial credentials —and has won the James Beard Foundation Award for writing in the culinary arts. The book also includes recipes written by Wolke's better half, chosen specifically to illustrate the points made in each section.
Mills, Kevin, and Nancy Mills. Chocolate on the Brain: Foolproof Recipes for Unrepentant Chocoholics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN 0-395-98358-4.
Chocolate recipes for every meal of the day. What's not to like?
Brown, Alton. I'm Just Here for the Food. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2002. ISBN 1-58479-083-0.
Alton Brown's engaging and fast-paced half-hour series “Good Eats” is consistently the most intelligent food program on Food Network, if not all broadcast television. I'm Just Here for the Food brings Brown's irreverent style to the cookbook field, along with a logical organization of material: rather than following the traditional cookbook mode of organizing recipes by style or main ingredient, Brown organizes his recipes by method of cooking. This approach makes it easy for readers to master one technique and then apply it across nutritional and cultural boundaries. All that said, I haven't actually made many recipes from this book yet—but that's not from a lack of interest. (Do take Brown's advice on making hamburgers—they come out much, much better that way!) A.B. is a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute.
Brown has also published Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen, a guide to which kitchen equipment is worth the space it takes, and which should be tossed out at the earliest opportunity. A full summary will follow later.
Pépin, Jacques. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN 0-618-19737-0.
I don't have a category for memoir, but Jacques Pépin cleverly intersperses recipes with his autobiography, giving readers the opportunity to experience the flavors he treasures most. The rest of the book is at times humorous but more frequently an eye-opening look at the culinary education and growth of the world-famous French chef, starting from his first apprenticeship, at age 13, through his military service (as the chef to French president General Charles de Gaulle), and ending up in New York where Pépin quickly made a name for himself among the city's food élite. Pépin quickly outgrew the pre-nouvelle cuisine French dining scene in New York and went to work in the test kitchens of Howard Johnson's restaurant commissary, helping to invent the techniques of modern casual-dining chain restaurants. His story winds to a close with good humor in spite of significant adversity, detailing his transformation from a restaurant chef into a cooking instructor (along the way getting a Ph.D. from Columbia) and nationally-known cookbook author and television personality.
The book divides about evenly between Pépin's early years in France and his ultimate culinary development in New York, and his observations about the differences between the French and American attitudes towards food and cooking are quite insightful. Recommended for anyone interested in the last generation of classical training in French cuisine, when cooking was still considered a mere trade and not the profession that it is today.
See also "Science and History of Science", above.
Heinrich, Bernd. The Snoring Bird: My Family's Journey through a Century of Biology. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 978-0-06-074215-7.
I lost track of Prof. Heinrich after 2002's Winter World (noted above); I found this 450-page double memoir in the Book Fair's remainder room and decided to pick up a copy. It tells the story of two men, the author and his father, but it is more than anything an encomium for the elder Heinrich, a naturalist, collector, insect taxonomist, ex-Luftwaffe officer, who was never more at home than when he was away on an expedition to collect animal skins for museums and ichneumon wasps for his own studies. The story of the family's harrowing escape from Poland in the face of the advancing Red Army is worth the price of admission. As they settle down, first into refugee society in occupied West Germany and later on a farm in Maine, the story shifts to the younger Heinrich's adolescence and later entry into the world of modern professional zoology at the University of Maine and UCLA. To hear Bernd Heinrich tell it, Gerd was never happy with his son's choice of career, reinforced by the contemptuous attitude of many in the sciences towards naturalists and collectors like himself—although, as this memoir shows, Bernd was not among those who felt that way. By the time the Heinrichs moved to Maine, museums were largely no longer interested in paying for mounted animal specimens, so Gerd Heinrich found it difficult to make ends meet and nearly impossible to get his taxonomic monographs—the principal form of scientific contribution for a taxonomist—published in the original German. As the story moves on to Bernd's academic career, he does slip in some good explanatory material about the nature of biological research in general and his studies of animal thermoregulation and insect behavior in particular, but these are mere sketches—the interested reader should track down Heinrich's other books. Overall, I found the book a fascinating historical study, and its exploration of the personal and social conflicts of the time makes it a worthy study for many years to come.
Copeland, Stewart. Strange Things Happen: A Life with The Police, Polo, and Pygmies. New York: HarperStudio, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-179149-9.
As memoirs go, Stewart Copeland's Strange Things Happen is by no means the best written or the most informative, but it must be a candidate for the most downright fun. Copeland today is a noted film composer, but he is perhaps best known for being the drummer in the archetypal British New Wave band, The Police. The book begins in Lebanon, where Copeland grew up (the son of jazz musician and CIA agent Miles Copeland, Jr.) with his two brothers (Miles III and Ian, both future music-industry heavyweights), then follows Stewart to an English boarding-school and on to college in southern California. After college, he returns to England to work as a roadie and tour manager, eventually joining the group Curved Air (and some years later, marrying the lead singer, Sonja Kristina). After a brief solo stint as “Klark Kent”, he meets Sting and they form The Police with Corsican guitarist Henry Padovani (who is quickly replaced by guitar virtuoso Andy Summers), and in a relatively short time they become one of the most successful rock trios ever. Strange Things Happen largely skips over The Police's mega-hit period, resuming the story as the band has broken up and Copeland is starting to make a name for himself among the English nouveaux riches as the owner of a large country estate and a top-level polo team, while beginning his second career in Hollywood as a film composer.
Copeland's enthusiasm for his various musical adventures is infectious. Although he gives very little time to his stormy on-stage relationship with Police frontman Sting (which eventually led to the breakup of the band), the last of the book's three parts, "Abnormal Again", details the making of The Police's 2007–8 reunion tour, explaining some of the sources of that tension between drummer and bassist. (Off stage, the Copelands and the Sumners are, by Copeland's account, the best of friends, with Copeland trying to convince his other musical buddies that Sting's post-Police musical efforts don't suck, and that if only they knew him they would understand.) He has some interesting comments about the nature of musical fandom, and some disparaging comments about jazz (a form which he detests, despite having grown up in it). Copeland's description of his other projects—playing traditional Puglian folk music in “La Notte della Taranta”; reprising his old Klark Kent songs fronting his new Italian band, Gizmo; being a judge on a British musical game show; supergroup Oysterhead—take up most of the middle part of the book. All in all, it's an entertaining romp through the world of a multi-millionaire rock star who never stopped exploring new musical avenues.