Every so often, a book appears that manage to both tell a story you haven’t heard before, and tell it so amazingly well that you can’t believe you haven’t heard it before. This is also one of the most well-written and readable books I’ve seen in a long time, and it makes you proud to know that people can work their way through unbelievable circumstances to get to where they deserve to be, while also making you a little depressed that people ever had to go through those circumstances, in the first place. This is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and it’s the story of the migration of millions of black southerners to northern cities, roughly dating from 1915 to 1970. What makes this book so readable and evocative is that she tells it through the stories of three specific people. Ida Mae Gladney, who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937; George Starling, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to practice medicine, and eventually became the personal physician of Ray Charles. Each of these stories is highly moving and completely fascinating, and Wilkerson – who has previously received a Pulitzer Prize for journalism – perfectly balances her overarching story as she moves between each persons life. What she actually did was to almost make this a suspense story. Although each of her protagonists took different routes for different reasons and – most importantly – at different periods in time, we get a window into Ida Mae’s journey, then George, then Robert, then perhaps a brief narrative from the author where her voice steps in and we gain a little perspective on something we’ve just read, or a brief story of some other man or woman and the paths they chose. What’s really interesting is that Wilkerson was able to find three people so very different in their origins and eventual life stories, but the barriers and obstacles they faced were remarkably of the same cloth. Ida Mae and her husband barely afforded four tickets to leave the farm where they were sharecroppers; George was basically fleeing Florida for his life, on a train bound for New York, after taking part in an effort to get citrus grove owners to pay the workers a few more cents per box; and then we have Robert, who drove himself in his Buick Roadmaster from Louisiana to California, leaving behind a chance at a rather comfortable life, to be honest, but one that was nevertheless mired in its own kind of southern caste system, and he simply wanted the best life – period – for himself and his family, not the best life to be found in the Jim Crow south. Wilkerson clearly spent considerable time with these three people, and the care and heart she devoted to telling their stories exemplifies the entire idea of this Great Migration. It’s a fantastic book, rich in detail, history, and emotion, and I think everyone who reads this book will love it.
I have a feeling, and a hope, that many of you are already familiar with the brilliant and engaging works of Oliver Sacks. Best known for books like Awakenings, The Island of the Colorblind, and Musicophilia, Sacks is an amazingly curious and dedicated scientist with the writing skills of a top-notch journalist. All of his works are worth reading, but I thought I’d mention this particular title - Vintage Sacks - and also the series to which it belongs.
If you haven’t read Sacks before, this is a perfect place to start. Featuring excerpts from six of his books, this is a very accessible way to enter a world of the more fascinating and yet less-examined aspects of human existence. We learn about Ruth R. from Awakenings, and her sleeping sickness (as made famous by the film of that book), postlingual and prelingual deafness from Seeing Voices, and are given a peek into Sacks’ own childhood with the lovely section from his memoir Uncle Tungsten. This is a wonderful introduction to the work of a man whose curiosity and dedication to his field has truly added to the human experience. It is highly recommended.
Also, this entire series of books – Vintage… - is highly recommended as each volume is a kind of mini-anthology of some of the best writing you will ever read. The name has a dual meaning, as the books do compile “vintage” material, but they are also published by Vintage Publishing, the highly respected paperback branch of Random House. Other titles in the series feature the works of people such as Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Alice Munro, and Martin Amis, among others. Each volume is a roughly 200-page anthology of the best writing of some of the world’s best writers, and they are all worthy of your time.
This is not the typical “great book you may have missed,” though its subject matter certainly fits the bill. Why Read Moby-Dick? is a brief but brilliantly conceived testament by bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick to the enduring merits and majesty of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Philbrick talks about Melville’s life and the process of craft that brought him to write Moby-Dick, and he explores the relationship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne that played such a vital role in Melville’s state of mind during this time in his life. Philbrick has also written a penetrating examination of not just the power of Moby-Dick as a narrative, but the scope of this novel as an analysis of the historical and cultural United States. What makes this book so special to me - however – is the fact that it not only serves its purpose as being a wonderful advertisement for reading one of the greatest novels of all-time, but that it explores in a very accessible way the importance and breadth of fiction. There are books that are much more than their basic plotline, much more than their superficial content. And I think that Philbrick’s decision to craft this as basically a kind of essay – it runs only 144 pages long and is the size of a mass-market paperback – helps foster his idea of the accessibility of great literature. Is everyone who reads this going to read, or re-read, Moby-Dick? Probably not. Yet perhaps those who choose not to follow Ahab and the great white whale may seek out some other long desired experience of literature and find the beauty in that work of art. Or maybe they’ll start to look behind the curtain a bit and read more critically the next time around. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, Nathaniel Philbrick has done the world another favor by continuing to produce insightful, historical work that helps us navigate the oceans of our collective past.
One of the greatest books I have ever read – meaning that its impact, tone, and content still resonate with me 20 years on – is the first book by Donna Williams, entitled Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic (1992). What was initially so fascinating about this book was that most works dealing with autism are written by doctors, specialists, or parents discussing the issues involved with raising autistic children. But here we have a personal story, painfully honest and open, recounting Donna’s “story of two battles, a battle to keep out “the world” and a battle to join it.”
Donna was born in Australia in 1963, and was misdiagnosed by doctors and mistreated by many in her family, for years. The word “autism” wasn’t even mentioned to her until she was 25 years old. That she was able to advance in the world, at all, let alone go to college, live on her own, publish multiple books, and become a speaker and advocate for autism, is stunning. One of the passages that sticks in my mind is when an adult Donna visits a school for autistic children. She watches the “teachers” – the professionals - basically shouting at this one young girl, trying to “get through to her,” but Donna saw something else; she saw a part of herself. She wound up interacting with this girl in a probably inconsequential way, to outward eyes, but what she provided was an invaluable connection, and a tool to help that child find her center in a world that constantly overloaded her senses.
This is truly an exceptional book, as are the two that followed, Somebody Somewhere, and Like Color to the Blind. Yes, they are about autism, yes they are about Donna’s personal journey and struggle, but all of these books resonate on a universal level with the attempts we all make to find our center, and make a balanced movement through life.
A patron and I were talking about this book a few days ago, and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it. The book in question is Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman (1998). If you haven’t read it, it’s the remarkably fascinating tale of one specific aspect of the creation of that equally remarkable project, The Oxford English Dictionary. The Professor in question is James Murray, who was the main editor of the OED in its early days, and the Madman is W.C. Minor, a Doctor who was in the care of a lunatic asylum at the time of his voluminous contributions to the highly volunteer-run origin of the OED. And by voluminous, I mean to say that Minor contributed tens of thousands of quotes and citations; a herculean feat by any standard.
This is the best kind of narrative non-fiction, in that Winchester uses the unique relationship between Murray and Minor to explore the unique creation that was, and remains, the OED, and he tells his tale in a highly readable fashion. Winchester went on to write another book about the broader history of the OED called The Meaning of Everything, and that’s a fascinating book, as well.
This book is a perfect example of why Dave Eggers is so beloved by the literary world. He first gained notoriety with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir about the years he was trying to raise his younger brother following the death of their parents. Everything he has written since then has had the same signature Eggers style, meaning his books are filled with a strong sense of his own voice in the telling of the story, contemporary language, humor, irony, a kind of free, loose sense of structure, and a hundred other things I just can’t put into words. It’s one of the reasons so many people have imitated his style with little to no success: you just can’t put a finger on his magic. One thing you can pin down, however, is his activist role in reading and in storytelling, and his constant drive to be a voice of the world he lives in. This purpose has perhaps never been put to as good a use as it has with this book, Zeitoun, a remarkable account of one man and one family’s struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrhaman Zeitoun (Zay-tune) is a husband, father of four, owner of a painting contractor business in New Orleans, almost 50 years of age, and a Muslim. He was born in Syria, worked at sea for much of his life before settling in the U.S. in 1988 and becoming an American citizen. His wife Kathy, who converted to Islam when they fell in love, took their children and left the city as Katrina began its approach, but Zeitoun stayed behind to watch after their property, including several rental properties of which he was in charge. As the flood waters rose he, like many others, made their way around the city in a canoe, until Tuesday, September 6th, 2005 when he was arrested along with a few other people by a group of local police and National Guardsmen. He was held for 23 days in absolutely horrible conditions in a local prison while never being accused of a crime and never being allowed to contact his family. To them, he simply disappeared. Perhaps he had become one of the ever-increasing death-toll being announced on the news each night. His experience is emblematic of the mayhem that was doubly visited on the people of New Orleans as the natural disaster of Katrina was met by the disaster of both the local and federal response. The men that arrested him looked at his face and heard the accent in his voice and accused him of being in Al Queda and locked him in a cage. What Al Queda had to do with Katrina, I just don’t know. It’s a harrowing story but the story is profoundly moving. And the really fascinating part is that while Zeitoun is Syrian by birth, Kathy is from Baton Rouge, born and bred, so the betrayal she feels over her husband’s treatment is just staggering. But what’s so magical about the book is that it’s not weighed down by this tragedy. The story remains not necessarily hopeful, but filled with a kind of unbroken optimism of the life these people have made. It’s a remarkable tale that is made even more so for not being an indictment of the powers that be but simply a story of what was.
This is quite simply the best book about movies and moviemaking I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. This is Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. Harris is a respected journalist on films and television, currently writing a column for “Entertainment Weekly,” and this is his first book. The end-game here is the Oscar ceremony of 1968, and the nominees for Best Picture are his intertwining focus. This was truly a defining year for American films, as the nominees were In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and, oddly enough, Doctor Doolittle. The revolution mentioned in the title comes from the arrival of the new Hollywood vanguard in the likes of Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman, Sidney Poitier, and Arthur Penn. The age of the big Hollywood musical was coming to an end, as represented by the disastrous, financial failure of Doctor Doolittle – which seems to have been nominated through nothing more than the sheer will and bribery of producer Arthur Jacobs. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starred the up-and-coming Sidney Poitier, but was also the final vehicle for the team of Hepburn & Tracy. The other three films ushered in completely new ways of handling violence, racism, sex, and the younger, slightly alienated culture expressed through The Graduate that was now ready to take the reins of Hollywood. Harris follows each of these films from their very beginnings, looking closely at all of the creative forces involved – writers, directors, producers, and actors – and creating the most complete and readable look at the evolution of a film I’ve ever seen. He interviewed almost all the major participants so he really has a full sense of what happened, not just an historical perspective type of thing where the author extrapolates what must have happened, and it’s structured such that the creation of each film is told in an overlapping way, so we find out a little bit about each film as the book moves along, building to the finished products at the end. Harris is really a terrific, clear and creative writer, and this book is so interesting because it’s not just about “the movies” but about the way films are created; all the work it takes to make it happen, and the staggering amount of influence a film can have on all those films that follow. If you enjoy anything about the cinema, you will love this book.
One of the greatest publishing endeavors of the last 50 years has been the Library of America. The Library of America is a non-profit publisher whose purpose is to publish “America’s best and most significant writing” in long-lasting editions. Their most important mission, however, is to keep these volumes in print permanently, which is no easy task. They have published over 200 volumes so far, from the complete Twain and Henry James, to journalism from World War II and Vietnam; a projected 4-volume Poetry of the 20th century set, to a collection of Broadway comedies by George S. Kaufman. Every year or two the LOA also publishes an anthology of stories, essays or excerpts on a specific topic. As it is that time of year again, I wanted to mention Baseball: A Literary Anthology (2002).
This collection, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff, is a marvelous selection of work by a wide range of authors. We have the expected inclusions, such as Ring Lardner, Red Smith, and Roger Angell, but we also find writers like William Carlos Williams, Philip Roth, James Thurber, and a great piece from Stephen King. There is something inherently dramatic and exciting about sports writing, even if you are not a fan of the sport, in question. This is a wonderful book that can be read straight through, cover-to-cover, or dipped into at random.
Some of the other anthologies from the LOA, which I recommend without a moment’s hesitation, are: Writing New York, American Sea Writing, American Earth, and The American Stage. I have never bought or read a Library of America volume and regretted it, so please check these out; both as wonderful reads, and as a great publisher to purchase and support.
If we’re going to talk about great books you may have missed, then we have to start with one of the most readable and entertaining works I’ve ever come across. This is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses (1991). I have given this book to more people than I can count and, so far, each and every person has come back to me saying how fascinating it was, typically starting all conversations about the book by excitedly saying “did you know that…”
I have no idea how I first heard about this book, but I’m so glad I did. Ackerman is well-known as both a poet and naturalist, and she’s written other books similar to this one, such as A Natural History of Love and Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, but this is my favorite. It falls under a category I’d call “creative non-fiction.” The information is very real – the delicacies of a taste bud, the strength of pheromones, the origin of the kiss, the way in which our eyes observe the stars – but it’s discussed in such a beautifully enraptured way that you can’t help but be drawn in, page after page, as she illuminates the phenomenal powers behind what we’ve come to take for granted - the ordinary functions of our senses. And it is Ackerman, herself, who makes this book what it is. A few people could have put these facts into a book and made it entertaining; David Suzuki or Oliver Sacks, perhaps, but it took Ackerman’s poetic skills to really explore the intricacies of our senses with language that’s just as stimulating and elegant. This is one of those books you simply can’t put down, but it’s structured in such a way that if you do have to put it down, you can read any of the sections on their own and spread out the fun. This is a terrific book and I think it belongs on everyone’s “must read” list.