Close to the order read. Complete with two sentence reviews.  Titles in italics because wordpress makes underlining difficult.

Plowing the Dark – Richard Powers –  This is the first book I’ve read that was published >2000 that felt dated.  A typical Powers efforts that incorporates Seattle, virtual reality, and a hostage in Beirut.  Doesn’t quite work.

Zero – Charles Seife –  Do they still have bookclubs? This was part of a set of books on numbers: pi, i, ln 2, golden ratio that was an introductory offer in the early aughts. The book starts with paleolithic counting sticks and ends up in string theory. I could mostly follow along, only giving up on Riemann spheres and the different sized infinities of real and imaginary numbers – there are apparently infinitely more imaginary numbers than the infinite set of real numbers. Um, okay math, I’ll take your word for it.

Intuition Pumps – Daniel Dennett – Daniel Dennett has been churning out amazing books and arguments for decades, but this is his best and most accessible to the lay person. Dennett _does_ philosophy, right there on the page in front of you, and explains it in jargon-free prose that any undergraduate could understand. This a book outlining how to best think like a human.

“Thinking is hard. Thinking about some problems is so hard it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them.”

Dennett then gives us dozens of tools to use, tricks to try, and false flags to be wary of before ending up at his favorite hard problems – free will and consciousness. These arguments have been made before in _Consciousness Explained_ and _Freedom Evolves_, but this time they come with a prep course on working through the arguments.

“‘It’s inconceivable.’ That’s what some people declare when they confront the ‘mystery’ of consciousness, or the claim that life arouse on this planet more than three billion years ago without any helping hand from an Intelligent Designer, for instance. When I hear this, I am always tempted to say ‘Well of course its inconceivable _to you_. You left your thinking tools behind and you’re hardly trying.

This is a readable approach on how to try.

American Pastimes – Red Smith – I had never heard of Red Smith when I started this, but bought it to help fill the dreaded baseball off-season. This is a collection of his (daily) columns on all things sport – first hand accounts of Dizzy Dean’s World Series, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the passing of legends such as Wagner and Big Train Johnson, Bobby Thompson, all the way through Curt Flood and Reggie Jackson.

There are also mentions of the Olympics, Tour de France, football, basketball and other unimportant sports. Seriously, Smith was especially enamored with the horses and boxing and his contemporary accounts of Secretariat, Ali, and Marciano are still fresh.

Trading Bases – Joe Peta –  I picked this up last spring, and am very glad I finally got around to it. The author was a Wall Street stock trader who devised a betting system for baseball games while recuperating from getting hit by an ambulance in a crosswalk. There was much more about finance and especially the collapse of Lehman Brothers that Peta experienced first hand then I had expected, but it is tied nicely together into a discussion of risk management and gambling. I was under the impression that the business-MBA world was spreading through baseball – see Jonah Keri’s _The Extra Two Percent_ but this book makes the surprising argument that the Moneyball phenomenon could still have a huge positive influence in the trading world of The Street.

Bomber Country – Daniel Swift –  The author’s grandfather, his father’s father, was shot down as a bomber pilot in WWII when his son was four. The grandson sets out with his dad to find out more about the missing man. They know he was shot down over the Channel, and that his body washed up on a Dutch beach.

The process is ingenious, through archives, logs, letters, and eventually war poetry. He visits RAF reunions and cemeteries, target city libraries, taxis in a Lancaster bomber, and walks the beach (where dozens of airmen ended up) to tell a tale. The ending is superb, bringing together Auden and Icarus in an obvious move that I wouldn’t have imagined.

‘I don’t know who Icarus is for you. but for me he is Acting Squadron Leader James Eric Swift of 83 Squadron, Bomber Command, who fell to the sea of the coast of Holland on the morning of 12 June 1943. He was returning from bombing Munster. His given name was James, but everybody called him Eric. But that is not quite true: for really, nobody calls him anything. When I was beginning to write this book, my father and I spoke of how we might refer to him, for he did not yet have a name. Names imply a role in the ever-shifting arrangements of a family – Daddy can become Grandpa, and titles like ‘your aunt’ or ‘my brother-in-law’ make sense only at certain times – and this man’s family role ended on a summer day sixty-five years ago. As Ovid reminds us: Daedalus, ‘the unhappy father’, was at that moment ‘no longer a father.’

An earlier observation, on his grandfather crashing just before his unit took part in the firebombing of Dresden, and guilt, quoting from Orwell: ‘Now no one in his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust… [but] there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. War is by its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savage we are some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.’

Failing improvement, we owe our falling boys honesty.

Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert –  This is not a cheery book, but then these are not cheery times for the vast majority of Earth’s biota. As you would expect by an author that is a staff writer for The New Yorker, the subject is well delivered. It happens that this is the second book on the same subject I’ve read, both sharing the same title. The other was by Richard Leakey from 1995. Things haven’t improved.

Both detail a natural history of extinction, with the earlier book paying more attention to the previous extinction events. The book by Kolbert spends more time documenting the present crises. Both touch on Brazilian experiments with varying sizes of forest reserves, and the Simon/Ehrlich debates. The newer version includes chapters on the vanishing amphibians and bats of the Americas, which hadn’t emerged in 1995.

There are three main arguments for preserving natural variety – ecological, economic, and moral. The ecological arguments boil down that humanity is dooming itself by depleting the natural reserves of the Earth, and that through some biological mechanism we’ll all end up living out McCarthy’s The Road or King’s The Stand as the human population crashes.

The economic argument is more pragmatic – with thousands of species disappearing annually, we are throwing away potential medicines or green power sources that it would be to our great benefit to sort out and find before they are lost.

The moral argument is at the center of every WWF fundraising letter with pictures of various doomed megafauna – those pesky shoulds and oughts. The moral argument seems selfless but is essentially selfish – a wish to preserve, conservatively, the status quo.

We are indisputably living during the Earth’s sixth extinction event, and causing it. Of course as a supremely comfortable first world inhabitant my best course of action is to buy less junk, burn less fuel, and all those always pertinent bromides. In the end though, I think the biological ending is unavoidable. We are living in a flat ecological world, as long as the planes keep flying. After our end, life will continue on without us, and speciation will recur once we pass, leaving our own KT boundary of plastic and monoculture pollen as a bleak monument.

Company K – William March – Great War fiction, published in 1933.  The author was a U. S. Marine, and was awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross, a feat that cannot have repeated many times. The novel is episodic, with each member of Company K receiving a few lines or at most a few pages, like a modern day oral history. The vignettes cover boyhood though death in old age, all tied to their time in the trenches but of course most take place in 1918 France.  Deserters are shot, cowards survive, officers fragged, prisoners executed, Marines are gassed, a pet goat stewed, and we share it all through their individual voices.  Powerful.

Henry Thoreau, Life of the Mind – Robert Richardson – This is a much more melancholy Thoreau than appears in his work.  I was especially interested in his various fall outs with Emerson, his seemingly innate contrariness – which does come through his work, and how much he was involved in his family’s business.  One day I’ll acquire a Thoreau Pencil.  Until then I’ll mull ‘… Indian… Moose…’

Orfeo – Richard Powers – Lovely Indiespensable copy.  The usual genius at work, I am afraid most of the music is lost on me as I’ve never had an ear for it.  The plot borders on silly, which doesn’t leave much for me to enjoy.

The Course of Empire – Bernard DeVoto – A sweeping narrative history of the European discovery of North America, leading to the eventual Manifest Destiny of the United States.  I thought it held up well despite its age (1952).

Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala – A memoir of terrible loss. The author quickly describes the event in the opening pages – while spending Christmas vacation at her life-long favorite beach resort in her native Sri Lanka, an earthquake they do not feel sends a wall of water. She spots the ocean frothing higher than normal, asks her son to latch the glass door to the veranda, and shortly calls for her husband. He gives her an ‘in a minute’, she insists, he takes a look and they wordlessly grab their sons and run down their hall. They don’t stop to knock on the door of her parents room. They attempt to flee and fail, overcome in a stranger’s jeep on the road outside the resort.

Only the author survives, losing her husband, parents, and two young sons. Later she notes the wave was at least 30 feet high at the resort and went two miles inland. She passes through every stage of grief, self-loathing, alcoholism, denial. and eventually writes about it all. Unforgettable.

Brothers K – David James Duncan – A hundred pages in, I nearly chucked this one on the donate pile. I managed to stick with it but am ambivalent about the result.

This sprawling book covers the emergence of a large family in rural Washington, with most of the action occurring in the 60s and 70s. The father is a minor league baseball pitcher, mother a 7th Day Adventist, and the kiddos finding their footing. Some allusions to the other K brothers – Karamazov. Large sections of this book feel very writerly – long school assignments detailing family history, the obvious Karamazov bits. I was interested enough to finish it, but barely.

Baseball Founders – Peter Morris – received as a review copy from LibraryThing.  Was OK, breakdown of early baseball clubs in post civil war NY and NJ.  Donated.

I Was Right on Time – Buck O’Neil – Purchased at Negro League Museum on last trip to Kansas City.  Read on drive to Montana to retrieve boys from in-laws.  This is a familiar story, having read Posnanski’s _Soul of Baseball_, but wonderful all the same.  Buck’s story and the Negro Leagues are fully ensconced in the consciousness of his country, thanks to his efforts.  I was especially struck by his quick mentions of his time in the segregated US Navy in WWII.

Up, Up, and Away – Jonah Keri –  I was trying to save this for the off-season but didn’t quite make it. The history of the Montreal Expos presented by one of my favorite baseball writers, writing from a long-suffering fan’s perspective. In retrospect what the team’s management accomplished is even more impressive. It is also sad to realize that if they could of only held on a few more years the new mlb.tv revenue (which is evenly shared among the teams) would have ensured their survival.

On a personal note, I will always remember a 2002 trip to Montreal to see a series between the Royals and Expos. Of course the (terrible) Royals were swept. My wife charmed the bullpen catcher out of a ball. And we figured out ‘we’ were pregnant with our oldest – quite an eventful time!

The Ploughmen – Kim Zupan – As luck would have it I read this book on a trip to western Montana, including Missoula. The novel is set around Missoula, and the landscape becomes almost a character in its own right. This novel is amazing, tracking the interaction between a sheriff and killer. The murderer especially crackles off the page, the most haunting character I’ve read since Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s _No Country for Old Men_.

The sheriff’s introspection as the relationship between the two men develops is especially well done. I couldn’t stop reading, finishing after midnight, regretting it all the while as the pages remaining dwindled. I didn’t want this book to end.

The Spanish Civil War – Hugh Thomas – The definitive, two-volume history.  Just sad how quickly neighbor turns on neighbor, given the chance, and how much a warm-up for Germany and Italy this turned out to be.

The Civil War, the Final Year – Library of America – Fourth volume of series of first-hand accounts, letters, diary entries, and the like. The good guys win.  Lincoln is shot.

A Place in Space – Gary Snyder – Mostly positive.  I admire the poet but am left wanting to engage the author over the apparent hypocrisy between his decrying our human manipulation of the earth and all the consequences of that, with everyone living on 100 acres bordering a National Forest.  We can’t all live the way he chooses.  Urban density is the only possible answer to 7 or 8 or 10 billion humans, and a functioning natural world.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual – Patricia Lockwood – Lawrence poet, breaking through.  Good on twitter.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas – I really warmed to this novel as I read it – though it took a while.  Reminds me very much of _Revolutionary Road_, but with a larger, generational scope.  I was left especially effected by how many loose ends were left – the angst, the decaying father, the financial woes- that were never resolved but only muddled through.  This is not a comforting story, but an honest one.

Beyond the Revolution – William Goetzmann – This is a sort of intellectual biography of the United States.  It reads very much like the collected lecture notes of an old professor – which of course, it is.  I was hoping for a little more in-depth approach, instead of a quick sweeping survey hitting the high points.  Ideas and concepts are mentioned but not fully developed.

Poets on the Peaks – John Suiter – This is a fantastic book, I am very glad I found a copy.  Much of the material will be familiar to readers of Snyder and Kerouac, but Suiter adds his first hand experiences in the same locations.  The photographs really add to the history.  It is heartbreaking, in retrospect, to read Kerouac in his (last) sober reflections, as he came down from the Desolation fire lookout to fame, and his unwanted transition to icon or token.

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt – This was my second installment of an Indiespensable subscription from Powell’s.  I couldn’t be happier with that. I never would have read this book otherwise, and found it a delight.  The novel itself was almost a ‘who-dunnit’, set in the nearly present-day New York art world.  I eventually came to enjoy the supposed philosophical asides, complete with footnotes that were equally likely to be completely fictional as real.  I would recommend the book to any serious reader with the wherewithal to be on the lookout for fake footnotes.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr – Indiespensable.  This is a wonderful novel, beautifully written.  Taking place in war time Germany and France, shifting between interwoven lives eventually thrown together.  My only quibble are some certain plot twists that defy (my) belief.

Redcoats and Rebels – Christopher Hibbert – This is a readable history of the American Revolution from the British perspective. It delves into the various personalities in British politicians and generals in the fight, and how often they viewed it as a dead-end proposition.  There were perhaps no military encounters, outside guerrilla skirmishes, that the rebels could claim as victories, yet the British eventually retired from the conflict.  This book helps explain why.

Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison – Received as part of Indiespensable subscription.  I never would had read this book, otherwise.  I am very glad I did, never having really thought about the possibilities of guilt and pain laid bare here.

The Great Glass Sea – Josh Weil – This is if nothing else a beautiful story, it almost seems as if the fantastic past/future-esque setting detracts from the real issues and feelings brought up.  Twin brothers in an indeterminate Russian past both end up working on a futuristic greenhouse project requiring projecting sunlight reflected from space via giant mirrors.  One brother embraces this future and the other utterly rejects it.  I had to resort to Google to look up The Caspian Sea Monster – ekranoplan – and was surprised to find that was historical.  Go ahead and look it up and be amazed.

All the Land to Hold Us – Rick Bass – I have long admired Rick Bass, but missed this when it was first published. It then languished on my ‘to read’ shelf. I loved this book, the deep history of the story, rising to the surface like prehistoric water. The oilman, the salt lake, the elephant, and the elementary school class.

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems – Gary Snyder – 50th anniversary edition from the last of the Beats.  Ordered new from Powell’s, this version comes with an audio CD of Snyder reading from the work today, and 50 years ago.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – Long romance novel, closes with heavy-handed philosophizing. Mostly glad it is over.

A Life of the Buddha – Michael Edwardes – Old Folio Society version, Oddly formal translation, simple pen and ink drawings. If you want ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ in the mouth of your buddha you should look this version up.

Citizens – Simon Schama – Extremely readable narrative history.  This has to be the definitive, ‘entry-level’ take on the French Revolution.  I personally would have preferred more explicit references – footnotes, etc – on the areas I was especially interested in.  I thought the ending of the book felt rather thrown together, but after 800+ pages I’m sure the author and reader should agree to a truce.  I don’t know enough about French history to suggest a better ‘end point’.  The launch of Napoleon might have been a good spot, but this book didn’t go that far.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell – In a word, weird.  I don’t know that I could describe this novel to anyone else, but in the end I was delighted by it, and the reiterative takes on the main story.  Very enjoyable sci/fantasy fiction, and usually I am not a fan.

Earth House Hold – Gary Snyder – Oh that we could have collectively listened.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov – First time reading, interested enough to finish the trilogy.

Lila – Marilynne Robinson – Easily my favorite of the Gilead Trilogy.  Lila must be reckoned with.

All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews – A hard subject, well told, the tone just struck me as a bit… off.

Loitering – Charles D’Ambrosio – D’Ambrosio loiters a bit in the pity, pushing self-awareness for all it is worth. I was constantly amused by the referral to Seattle as some sort of intellectual backwater to be escaped, as I had to work very hard to escape TO Seattle from my own backwater.

To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway – Hard to read past the cheap racist descriptions, hasn’t aged well, which is a shame, as the gritty noir story is a good one.

I’m pretty happy with this list, and extra time on the bus in only going to help 2015.  My top two reads were Bomber Country and Wave for non-fiction. I really liked Lila, but am not sure how it would stand on its own without having read Gilead or Home. Of the Indiespensable books, The Blazing World was probably the most enjoyable, as I know I would have never otherwise considered reading it.

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