This week’s list of suggested titles was submitted by Clint J. Farr, a regular columnist for the Juneau Empire’s Arts section.
“The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America”
I love Bill Bryson because Bill Bryson is the writer I want to be. “The Lost Continent” is a sweet celebration of what is great and ridiculous about America’s small towns and highways. Bryson reacquaints himself with his home country having been an ex-pat in England for nearly 15 years. Clearly having picked up the dry humor of the British, Bryson deadpans his way through our back roads. “Keep Alabama the beautiful” the road sign says. “Okay, I the will” says Bryson back. I love a book that makes me laugh out loud. His humor is rarely mean, something I admire, but he can still unsheathe a rhetorical sword when needed. His description of the large box hotels in historical Savannah Georgia is priceless.
“The Third Chimpanzee”
Like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse,” Jared Diamond’s treatise on the biological underpinnings of human’s most curious behavior is hodgepodge of disparate science thrown together with unassailable logic and authority. He has a gift of explaining the natural and physical sciences, and their intersections, with common sense examples and readable language. If anything, Diamond’s wraps up the biological underpinnings of our stupidity in too neat of a little bow. Yet if you’re looking for an explanation of why men and women are slightly different sizes, why we abuse drugs, and why we wear makeup, while sticking solely to biological explanations, this is a great book. At the very least, it’s great fodder for party talk. And fellas, if ever you’re trying to impress a woman at a gathering, try explaining the biological underpinnings of lipstick. You’ll either distinguish yourself as an “interesting” guy, or you’ll get slapped. Good luck.
“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”
Siddhartha Mukherjee, a cancer doctor, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with this beautiful book about an ugly disease. There are thousands of books about disease, the victims, and the doctors and epidemiologists who combat them. Some are quite good. This one is amazing. First off, the writing is great. More often, writing is the downfall of these books. Physicians and health scientists commonly have the good writing beat out of them by their college degree programs. Through some freak accident, Dr. Mukherjee is a great writer. The book’s structure works well too. It toggles from intimate tales of cancer patients and their doctors to more professorial looks at the biology of cancer and its movement and change in different populations and over time. Thus we get a thorough look at the constellation of cancer and its impacts, while letting out the occasional chuckle or tear.
If it had not happened, you would not have believed it. Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini. Zamperini was an Olympic miler whose running career was cut short by WWII. During the war he survived a plane crash, six weeks in the Pacific on a raft, and two years as a Japanese POW. How he endured it all and found peace afterward will stay with you long after you close the book. Hillenbrand’s writing is clear with not a word wasted. Exhaustively researched and detailed, her story is never allowed to drag. The action is sharp, the crash thunders, the sun burns, and the hits sting. She clearly loves her subject and apparently the two struck up a friendship as she wrote the book. Suffering her own long-term illness, Hillebrand’s ability to finish the book apparently impressed Zamperini. Both in its subject and writer, I’ve never read a book that so clearly communicates the resilience of a strong mind and body to hardship.
“Still Life with Woodpecker”
I don’t know. I had to put down at least one Tom Robbins book. I’m not sure if his stuff is amazing because he’s actually a great writer, or because I read all his books back-to-back in my late teens when exploding hormones and an opening mind made any mildly original book or movie THE BEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN. Naughty and sexy, but also kind of sweet, “Still Life With Woodpecker” provided an education in lust, love, hidden codes, eco-terrorists, redheads, and living in the moment. His casual writing is hilarious and conversational, like he’s in your living room, “you gotta listen to this!” I’ll still pull it off the shelf every few years. Surprisingly, for a book exploring rather adult themes, Still Life With Woodpecker triggers a fit of nostalgia for an innocent time and unlimited possibility. There are other authors I enjoy who are a lot like Robbins, particularly Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Moore, but I think Robbins remains the most wildly inventive. “People are never perfect, but love can be.”
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