Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Part 5

Nothing good can come from trying to read in a car. And I have the queasy memories to prove it. Among them, “I’m hot, Mom”, moaned my then seven-year-old son, who had surreptitiously hauled a stack of books into the back seat on a drive to LA. I was distracted, trying to navigate a freeway exit.”How can you be hot? It’s raining. It’s cold.”

“I’m hot, Mom,” he whimpered. And then I realized it had nothing to do with hot and everything to do with carsickness. “Roll down your window!!!” I yelled. Too late. Nope. Can’t read in the car.

We spent most of September on the road, and I spent most of that time with my eyes on the horizon, looking neither right nor left lest the familial curse of carsickness strike, even  during our drive through the bucolic Texas Hill Country:


Thus, I read only two measly books that month. But one of them was The Alamo, and we were in Texas, so that almost made up for the dearth of reading opportunities. It is one thing to visit The Alamo; it is another to stand before it knowing some of the historical background. “As it happened, Spain and France had never got around to settling just here Texas left off and Louisiana began.” And knowing just how fiercely General Antonio López de Santa Anna intended to exploit the general sense of confusion around the boundaries and status of this wild west place called Texas. And knowing how Tennessean Davy Crockett had lost his Congressional seat and said defiantly, “You can go to hell, and I will go to Texas”, which placed him with Jim Bowie (yes, that Bowie) and Colonel William (“line in the sand”) Travis at The Alamo, where their bravery and sacrifice breathed life into the flailing Texas Revolution. Today, they are depicted on a stirring monument that stands in front of The Alamo:


“Remember the Alamo” was the war cry that preceded Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto a few weeks later and heralded the beginning of The Texas Republic.


Here are the paltry reads for September and October:


The Alamo by John Myers Myers. Kindle. 244 pages, published 1948. The tone is folksy; you can almost hear a Texas drawl. It may not be the best book on The Alamo, and it doesn’t make Phil Collins’ (yes, that Phil Collins!) list of Top Five Alamo Reads but it was an apt place to start. Recommended.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin. Kindle. 384 pages, published 2016. A different sort of revolution. It was a macabre kind of circus and with Toobin as ringmaster, you can finally make some sense of what went down with Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose run struck me as a sort of Black Muslim-fueled joyride by misdirected disaffected young people with guns. Their ideology seemed based on nothing but narcissism and the adrenaline rush of revolution, which pings disturbingly of current circumstances. My book club was divided as to whether Patty Hearst was a sympathetic victim or a lying, manipulative brat. Judge for yourself. Recommended.



Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. Kindle. 400 pages, published 2003. A kinder, but not gentler tale than the ones above. Alan Brennert writes historical fiction about Hawaii, and this novel focuses on the struggle and courage of some eight thousand Hawaiians who were confined on Molokai’s leper colony during the first half of the twentieth century. The story follows the main character’s near lifetime of sequestration until antibiotic treatment became readily available in the 1950’s. The book is well researched, but the prose is not sophisticated. I learned a lot but I am neutral on recommending it.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Audiobook,  read by Christopher Timothy. 450 pages, published 1972. A truly kind and gentle read. The author, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, collected vignettes of his experience as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England, in a series of books of which this is the first and best known. His calm, compassionate and humorous observations of bovine, equine, canine, porcine and human behavior are sweet but not saccharine.


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund DeWaal. Paperback. 354 pages, published 2010. Fascinating look at nineteenth and twentieth century art and history through the travails of the Ephrussi banking family and a collection of Japanese netsuke that survived, more successfully than the family itself, the savage vicissitudes of World Wars I and II. Highly recommended.


The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen. Kindle. 432 pages, published 2016. Intelligent young know-it-all moves from socialist Finland to NYC and gets her nose out of whack because America is not Finland. The tone is strident and more than a touch condescending. Note: the population of Finland is a homogenous (here, by the way, is their strategy on refugees)  5.4 million; the population of the United States is a diverse 320 million or so. The premise of the book is frankly inane, so not recommended.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Kindle. 290 pages, published 2016. Such a pleasure to read this book! Jahren grew up in Minnesota, remembering the blue spruce of her childhood. She teetered between becoming a literature major or a science major, and lucky for us excels at both passions. This book is a wise and gorgeous memoir of her career as a paleobotanist. She interweaves stories of the survival of plants “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet” with her own survival as a female scientist doing “curiosity-driven research” in the desert of academia. Highly recommended.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Audiobook, narrated by Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, and Richard Ferrone. 326 pages, published 2005. Well, this was just a disappointment. The author’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, is one of my favorite reads ever, but my tag for this post-9/11 novel has to be “not his best work”.  The premise is compelling: a nine-year-old boy loses his father in the attack on the World Trade Center and tries to find meaning in it, just as his grandparents also continue to sift through their memories of the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Despite the precocity of the protagonist, or maybe because of it, for me this novel did not illuminate. It was roundly hailed by the critics, just not by this one. Not recommended.


The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. Kindle. 160 pages, published 2010. A brief and brilliant read. Like a meteor sailing through the sky, it is there and then gone, but the memory remains brightly lit. I avoid McCarthy in general because of the violence and cruelty – fine if people want to kill each other but couldn’t he leave the animals out of it? But this play is completely different from his other work. An unnamed black and white man debate the meaning and value of life and their differing opinions regarding the existence of God. Pithy and profound and you could almost read it in one sitting so there is no excuse not to. Highly, highly recommended. Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson starred in the film:



I covered more miles than pages in September and October. Texas, Virginia, Michigan, Chicago, back to California, then to New York and back to California again. I love being on the road, but have to admit it was nice to get back to my favorite reading spot: fluffy pillows, fire in the fireplace; purring cat in the crook of my elbow, golden retriever at my feet. Beats being car-sick any day!

Dodger says we need to wrap this up – just one more post to come for November and December reads…





About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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1 Response to Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Part 5

  1. dizzyguy says:

    Nice selection. Agree on all reviews on those I have read. Sunset Limited confirms McCarthy’s chops as one of our greatest living writers, loved the tale of Molokai people, and Lab Girl was as fun as presented. The saga of the Alamo can get its hooks into; it did me. Looking forward to more Good Reads from CCL. Keep going!

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