Mike's Reading List
This is a list of books that I have found entertaining, enlightening, & useful over the years, along with some of my own commentary. Like nearly everything else on this site, it is forever expanding -- so feel free to return.
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Can't Find it Here?
Current Reading: Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003). Most people who know Billy Beane either love him or hate him; and chances are after reading this book, you will fall squarely into one of these two categories. Nevertheless, you might also fine yourself intrigued with this story of how Beane built a winning team with a small budget and an unconventional approach to scouting, signing, and developing players.
Highly Recommended: Moore, Michael. Dude, Where's My Country? (New York: Warner Bros., 2003). Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. I have always admired Michael Moore for his courage and his gift for guerilla comedy, but he can be a bit shrill and intemperate at times (half-assing one's way through the National Guard in wartime does not quite make one a deserter); therefore, I approached his latest book with a bit of skepticism. Nevertheless, I was impressed. Moore's penchant for hyperbole is very much in evidence here, but it is abundantly clear that he has done his homework. Dude, Where's My Country? is bursting with primary sources references that constitute a paper trail of official treachery, exposing in black and white the arrogant, deceptive, exploitative juggernaut that is the Bush administration.
Biography and Autobiography
Cash, Johnny. Cash: The Autobiography (New York: Harper Mass Market Paperbacks, 1998). The cover leads one to believe that this is one of those "as-told-to" celebrity autobiographies that the publishing industry cranks out as product; but Johnny Cash in an accomplished writer in his own right, and anyone familiar with his writing style will see ample evidence of it in this book. Cash is a quick, riveting, and thoroughly enjoyable read that is equal parts comedy and tragedy, brimming with inspiration but laced with tales of its subject's many forays into the darkness. Yet some of those dark tales make up the most entertaining parts of the book, and the best are told in a hilarious style that sometimes flirts with the gonzo. Of course, Johnny is a complex individual with interests that often seem incongruous, and the sections on religion and the joys of Wal-Mart shopping toward the end of the book tend to drag on a bit too long. But by the time you finish this book, Johnny will probably feel like your favorite uncle anyway, if he doesn't already.
Hickam, Homer. Rocket Boys (aka October Sky) (Delacorte Press, 1998). A true story of a group of high school boys from West Virginia whose interest in rocket science brings recognition and inspiration to a dying coal town in the late 1950s. An inspirational and compelling read, this book is a potential classic that has been compared to Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hickam, Homer. Sky of Stone: A Memoir (New York: Delacorte Press, 2001). The last of Hickam's "Coalwood Trilogy," it tells the story of his return to his hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia in the summer of 1961 to find the town and his family in turmoil. Hickam has a gift for easy narrative that makes his stories, which are based on true events, just as compelling as the finest fiction. If you liked Rocket Boys (aka October Sky) , you will like this one.
Breathed, Berke. Classics of Western Literature : Bloom County, 1986-1989 (Washington, DC: Washington Post Co., 1990). No one captured the sheer absurdity of the 1980s like Berke Breathed in his Bloom County comic strips. This collection of strips from the final four years of syndication amply illustrates why Breathed's motley commune of people and animals was a voice of sanity in an insane decade.
Dikkers, Scott and Loew, Mike (eds.). Our Dumb Century : The Onion Presents... (Three Rivers Press, 1999). An irreverent lampoon of twentieth-century America from the creators of The Onion, the foremost source of online satire.
Northcutt, Wendy. The Darwin Awards : Evolution in Action (New York: Dutton, 2000). A collection of anecdotes culled from the Darwin Awards website, featuring people who meet premature ends through acts of foolishness, ignorance, and desperation. A must for anyone with a twisted sense of humor.
Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic Books, 2000). A healthy dose of reason in an increasingly unreasonable world, this one should be required reading for all Americans. You will never view the evening news the same after reading this.
Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live (New York: Times Books, 1992) "Interpreting statistics gleaned largely from the Census Bureau and other government sources, Goldman has created over 100 maps, ranked by county, of mortality rates, toxin emissions and concentrations, and demographics. The text raises disturbing questions about the relationship between pollution and disease, and the tremendous geographic disparities in mortality rates. Governmental publication delays and the sale to private firms of proprietary rights to information hampered Goldman in obtaining the most current information, but except for AIDS-related data, the geographic rankings should hold for some time."-- Linda Knaack, Library Journal
Leiberman, Marc and Strohm, Richard (ed.). Your Rights As a Consumer : Legal Tips... (Career Press, 1994). A brief but useful primer for consumer empowerment, this book provides useful tips on dealing with fraud, deceptive practices, rip-offs, and inaccurate credit reporting.
Spence, Gerry. Give Me Liberty! : Freeing Ourselves in the Twenty-First Century (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998). An eye-opening demonstration of how modern Americans have surrendered basic freedoms to what Spence calls "the New Slave Master" -- the complex web of government and corporate interests that control virtually every aspect of our lives -- and offers solutions as to how we can begin to reclaim individual liberty and truly democratic government.
Ratnu, Inder Dan. The Ultimate Defense (Travelers Rest, SC: Terraplane Publications, 2001). I would be remiss if I didn't include my own publication in this list. A strange little book by an unusual man from a distant land about a subject that Americans grew tired of long ago: the Clinton impeachment scandal. But Ratnu loves to concoct alternative versions of history; in his first novel, The Eternal Bondage, he explored what might have happened had Churchill not been elected PM prior to WWII (the Axis Powers won, of course). Now Ratnu has set his sights on Clinton, another of his political heroes whom he tried to "rescue" from an early retirement by writing this book and sending a copy of the manuscript to the White House. Clinton gracefully acknowledged its receipt, but declined the advice within. So The Ultimate Defense is actually the story of its Indian author's efforts to influence American politics and world history by offering some sage advice (that the President publicly admit his indiscretions and apologize, which he does tearfully in the book). A quick and fascinating read that will make you chuckle in places and think in others.
Wolfe, Tom. A Man in Full: A Novel (New York: Bantam Books, 1999). As he did in his 1987 work The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe uses his gift for social observation to compose the antithesis of the modern minimalist novel, full of bold characters and colorful tableaux and set in that most fertile of grounds for American literature, the deep South. But this is not the South of Faulkner and Mitchell, not anymore -- and as Wolfe seems to suggest, this is no longer the socially mobile America that inspired Horatio Alger and made Fitzgerald's work so bittersweet. In fin de siècle America, he who dares to run faster and stretch out his arms farther only draws attention to himself and invites others to cut him down. Wolfe seems acutely aware of this modern catch-22; one is either a slave or a fugitive, and the scope of one's ambition often determines which course is taken. In my opinion, his only mistake is his insistence upon offering an answer to the conundrum in the form of an ancient Roman philosophy. But even though the ending is a bit farfetched, it does provide a refreshing element of postmodern absurdity.
A Man in Full: A Novel is a page-turner despite its epic length. I wouldn't recommend it for a weekend read, but if you have some time to kill and wish to absorb yourself in a compelling story, you can't go wrong with this one.
Ayers, Edward. The Promise of the New South : Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1992). An accessible but thorough history of the American South from the end of Reconstruction (c. 1877) to the turn of the century. A must-read for American history enthusiasts.
Cobb, James C. Redefining Southern Culture : Mind and Identity in the Modern South (Athens, GA: U. of Georgia Press, 1999). A collection of essays examining the many faces of southern culture from an eminent historian of the region.
Del Re, Gerard and Patricia. History's Last Stand (New York: Avon Books, 1993). A strangely entertaining chronicle of history's most famous deaths, defeats, disappearances, and downfalls.
Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross : Martin Luther King,Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (NewYork: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1999). The definitive biography of MLK; remarkably researched, objectively written, a superb piece of scholarship.
Holmes, George. Later Middle Ages, 1272-1485 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966).
Johnson, M.P. and Roark, J.L.. Black Masters : A Free Family of Color in the Old South (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986). A fascinating study of a rare but significant phenomenon in southern history. Johnson and Roark treat this subject as sensitively as possible, yet as one can imagine, it has generated more than its share of controversy. One Amazon reviewer raises the valid point that Mullato Masters may have been a more accurate title for the book.
Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods A handy little volume that contains over 2,500 references to deities from religions present & past.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice : The History of Brown V.... (Random House, 1977). Believe me when I say that this an EXHAUSTIVE history of the Brown v. Topeka Bd. of Education case. Nevertheless, Kluger's exceptional literary skills make this an engaging and rewarding read.
Koch, Adrienne and Pden, William (eds.). The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson . One of the best Jefferson anthologies in print. Contains his unfinished autobiography, various essays and journals, Notes 0n Virginia, and a wealth of correspondence.
Lesy, Michael Wisconsin Death Trip (2nd reprinted edition: U. of New Mexico Press, 2000). I ran across this one in graduate school quite by accident when researching another topic. A fascinating anthology of archival photographs, this book documents the dark side of life in a small town in southern Wisconsin during the depression of the mid-1890s. The photographs are bizarre, some of them morbidly so (e.g., a shot of a dying man who was apparently roused from his deathbed and propped up in a chair, in which one can see the metal brace holding up his head), and are interspersed with equally bizarre and morbid newspaper accounts of homicides, suicides, addictions, and depravity. Lesy somehow convinced the history department at Rutgers to accept this as his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s; but while it is not quite worthy of such lofty status, Wisconsin Death Trip is nevertheless a compelling work.
Padfield, Peter. Himmler (New York: MJF Books, 1990). A right-wing regime wrangles its way into power by means barely legitimate under its country's constitution, exploits public fear to increase its popularity, and plots military distractions abroad while it erodes civil liberties and democratic institutions at home. Its leader is an arrogant ideologue with a penchant for delegating authority and taking long vacations; but much of its real power is concentrated in the hands of a prim, prudish man with a repressed childhood and a genteel public persona that conceals a vicious mean streak. This regime consolidates its authority and represses internal dissent by creating a massive "homeland security" force that cuts across bureaucratic lines and whose duties include punishing criminals before they commit crimes and compulsively compiling databases of information on innocent citizens.
America in 2003? No, it's Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the "prim, prudish man" responsible for its most atrocious actions was Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the dreaded SS, head of the Gestapo, and director of the notorious concentration camps. This book is an extensive biography of Hitler's most ruthless henchman that provides fresh insight into the past and some hard lessons for the present.
Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues,... (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1997). This is the first comprehensive history of the Negro Leagues, and this fact alone would be enough to warrant my recommendation. Ribowsky's writing style is a bit awkward at times, and the book would have been strengthened by the addition of a bibliography or at least a bibliographical note to document his research, which was obviously quite extensive . Nevertheless, it is an impressive piece of scholarship that also tells a fascinating story, complete with some rarely-seen photographs.
Sinclair, Upton.The Jungle (Bantam Classics, 1981). What will amaze the modern reader about this book is not so much that these abuses were practiced at the turn of the century, but that many of them are still practiced in watered-down form today (e.g., food dilution, slumlording).
Schoenbrun, David. On and Off the Air : An Informal History of CBS News . A fascinating and very readable personal narrative from one of the great early television news reporters, this book tells the behind-the-scenes story of CBS News from its beginnings on radio through the golden age of television and the tumultuous '60s, to the decline of network news in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob. All the President's Men (New York: Touchstone Books, 1994). The classic by Woodward and Bernstein that describes how the two young Washington Post reporters broke open the Watergate scandal in 1972.
Bruni, Frank. Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W.Bush (New York: HarperCollins, 2002). Hot off the presses as of this entry [March 2002], this insider profile of George W. from the reporter who covered his presidential campaign for the New York Times is presently making the Bush administration quite nervous. Yet Bruni actually paints a rather objective portrait of Bush, calling attention to his gregarious personality and disarming warmth while highlighting his sometimes-disturbing lack of gravity and eloquence. This is a study of Bush the man; one will find no shocking personal or political revelations here. Which poses the question: why are his advisers so concerned about it?
Slansky, Paul. The Clothes Have No Emperor (New York; Simon and Schuster, 1989). A day-by-day chronicle of the Reagan years, this book is merciless and indisputably accurate account of the 1980s in all its folly, cynicism, and greed. It would be depressing if it weren't so damn ridiculous. It's well worth the price.
Summers, Anthony. The Arrogance of Power : The Secret World of Richard Nixon (New York: Viking, 2000). Do you think Richard Nixon was a crook? Chances are you don't know the half of it. From the commencement of his political career in 1946 to his resignation from the White House in 1974, Nixon was the embodiment of political corruption, for sale to the highest bidder and willing to do whatever necessary to acquire power. This exhaustive biography of Nixon is very well-researched and meticulously annotated, and is enough to make one recoil at the realization that he was actually leader of the free world for six tumultuous years.
Woodward, Bob. Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). A well-researched, if not well-balanced, treatment of the effect of the Watergate Scandal upon the presidents that followed Nixon. While there aren't many real revelations here, this book is a solid overview of modern presidential paranoia and scandal that contains a few little-known tidbits, such as the dramatic progression of Reagan's Alzheimer's less than two years after he left office, Bush I's pathetic tirades against Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, and the true extent of Clinton's womanizing. There are some problems, e.g., Woodward glosses over the numerous transgressions of the Reagan administration while devoting over half of the book to the mostly-inept missteps of Clinton, et al. -- but if you are a political junkie, I suggest you have a look.
Nissel, Angela. The Broke Diaries (New York: Villard Books, 2001). I bought this book because I thought that it would contain some helpful hints for saving money. It doesn't, unless you want to count scamming free textbooks from publishing companies and going on bad dates for free meals as desirable cost-cutting measures. But as an inner-city girl at an Ivy League university, Nissel had to do whatever was necessary to stay afloat financially, and that's what makes this an entertaining and eye-opening book. Anyone who has ever been broke (as I have) can appreciate the stories of petty rip-offs, humiliation, and desperate resourcefulness that Nissel tells in her "broke diary" entries, and those who have not can get a funny and instructive crash-course on what it is like to be poor. This one is reasonably priced (for the broke) and well worth the read.
Terkel, Studs. The Great Divide : Second Thoughts on the American Dream , (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988). I bought this book several years ago, and have just now gotten around to a thorough reading of it. I wish I hadn't waited so long. For those of you who do not already know, Studs Terkel is perhaps the greatest listener in the history of journalism, a master of the art of oral documentary. The Great Divide is one of his lesser-known works, but nevertheless is a masterpiece on a par with Working, The Great War, and Race. Set in 1980s America, The Great Divide explores the post-Watergate cultural and political wars through conversations with combatants, casualties, and innocent bystanders. Above all, this book seems to suggest that the "great divide" is not a narrow line but a broad band of grey that cuts across the American landscape like a cultural no-man's land, trapping a wide variety of Americans in the crossfire of battles between wealthy and powerful interests.
Brinkley, Douglas (ed.), Fear and Loathing in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). I will skip all the adjectives and hyperbole that usually accompany any description of Hunter S. Thompson. Suffice to say that there is no other like him, anywhere in the world. Devotees of The Doc will be fascinated by this glimpse inside his personal life and creative process, including his never-ending struggles with editors and bean-counters, his relationship with his family, and his unusual correspondences with a broad spectrum of characters ranging from Pat Buchanan to Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Those who worship Thomspon as a demi-god or deride him as a cartoonish acid casualty would find a great deal of evidence in this book to debunk their assumptions -- but it's likely few of those people would bother to slog their way through these missives, some of which are quite lengthy and esoteric. Yet the true initate will find it difficult to put this book down, and will be heartened by the abundance of evidence that despite his public persona, Thompson is indeed a complex, multi-dimensional man with a great capacity for reflection, compassion, patriotism, and -- yes -- morality.
This is the second volume of selected correspondence to and from Thompson, and is more historically significant than the previous volume in that it chronicles the demise of the 60s counterculture, the '72 Presidential campaign, Watergate, and the genesis of "gonzo journalism." I have read only pieces of the first volume (The Proud Highway : Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 ), so I am at a loss to compare the two; but if the first volume is anywhere near the quality of this one, I would recommend it as well.
Carroll, E. Jean. Hunter : The Strange and Savage Life of... (New York: Dutton, 1993). The tabloid Thompson, told in anecdotes from the author's interviews with his friends, family, and associates interspersed with the author's gonzo interpretations of her personal foray into Hunter's world. Includes a complete Thompson bibliography.
Whitmer, Peter. When the Going Gets Weird (New York: Hyperion, 1993). This is the scholarly biography of Thompson, complete with bibliography and exhaustive end notes. Whitmer is appropriately respectful of Thompson's work and presents a balance account of his life until the final chapters, when he becomes obsessively concerned with the Doc's physical deterioration and his fame-driven withdrawal from society.
Hell's Angels : A Strange and Terrible Saga... (Ballentine Books, 1996). This is the book that established Thompson as a talented and outrageous writer of subjective journalism. Hell's Angels is still the definitive work on the biker subculture, due mainly to the fact that no one has ever been able to infiltrate their ranks and earn their trust as effectively as Thompson did in the mid 1960s.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Vintage Books, 1998). This pioneering work in subjective journalism remains popular both for its outrageousness and its brutal insight into the underbelly of American culture. No matter how drunk, drugged, paranoid, and malevolent Thompson alter-ego Duke and his "attorney" got, they still appeared quite sane and sincere compared to most people who walked the streets of turn-of-the-seventies Las Vegas.
Fear and Loathing : On the Campaign Trail '72 (New York: Warner Books, 1973). This "gonzo" perspective on the 1972 presidential election remains one of the rawest and funniest political memoirs ever.
Generation of Swine : Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s (New York: Vintage Books, 1988). A collection of Thompson's San Francisco Chronicle columns from the 1980s -- about the only work he published during this period.
Songs of the Doomed : More Notes on the Death of the American Dream (New York: Summit Books, 1990). A hodgepodge of stuff from the '50s, '60s,'70s, and '80s. Includes excerpts from Thompson's unpublished novels, snippets from earlier books, a chapter on his 1990 "lifestyle bust," and a hilarious account of a practical joke involving a pig's head, a toilet, lipstick, and a Taser. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Kingdom of Fear (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).
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