After my rant last week about Black Friday, I owe it to my reader(s) to do my American duty and encourage Christmas shopping. Here are some reviews of a few of my recent favorite books (and one guilty pleasure):
The Tiger, by John Vaillant
Imagine the most isolated part of Russia in the middle of winter. The Soviet Union has fallen, and anarchy bubbles under a thin veneer of order. Everyone’s poor and desperate, living in crumbling buildings or shacks and driving crappy old Russian military vehicles. And there’s a man-eating Siberian tiger on the loose that seems to have stalked and murdered a poacher. It actually happened, and to complement the perfect true story is the masterly prose of the Canadian author. Seriously one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.
Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall
This is a wild ride (or run) alongside insane athletes who run huge distances for fun, from world-class ultramarathoner Scott Jurek (who hails from the Duluth area) to the Tarahumara Indians, who are known for running hundreds of miles at a time, to guys like Barefoot Ted, a California hippie who helped start the barefoot running craze, and Caballo Blanco, a mysterious American who moved to Mexico to learn running from the Tarahumara. Weird, funny, and inspiring, and if that’s not enough, it also presents a compelling theory of our primate ancestors’ evolution from tree dwellers to hunters on the savannah. If you know someone who runs or is thinking of starting, get them this book.
Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
This book pretty much tells the whole story of human civilization, from the first permanent agricultural settlements to the colonization of the continents by Europeans. It presents a theory about why Europeans were the ones to conquer other races and not vice versa, and it has nothing to do with any biological superiority and everything to do with the fact that they originated in a region that had the right plant and animal species to support civilization (and the microorganisms that decimated other cultures).
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
This was the talk of the American literary scene last year, so I was determined not to read it. I’m glad I changed my mind. The book tells the story of an upper-middle-class couple in St. Paul facing a growing antagonism toward each other and their children. The author is 51, and I’m 48, so the contours of the story were so familiar that the characters seemed like old friends, and their struggles were real enough to be painful. It captures the spirit of the last two decades, with a punk rocker turned alt-country singer, an environmentalist idealist coping with the harsh realities of capitalism, and young kids and an aging mom with so much moral and economic freedom that it becomes a new kind of enslavement.
One Day, by David Nicholls
I swear, I only picked up this cheesy English romance because my daughter finished it right when I was looking for a new book. (Oh, sure, you say.) To my great horror, I couldn’t put it down and by the end was blubbering like a baby. It’s another one for those of us who were adjusting to adulthood in the late 1980s, but my 16-year-old loved it too. We watched the movie the other night, and it wasn’t as bad as the reviews made me expect.
Honorable mention: City of Thieves, David Benioff — A darkly comic novel about the siege of Leningrad. Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon — A gothic romance set in Barcelona in the early 20th century. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley — shoulda read it decades ago. Into the Wild and Into Thin Air by John Krakauer — great adventures about Alaska and Mount Everest. World Gone Beautiful: Life Along the Rum River — a memoir by local author Linda Buturian, which features a cameo or two by your humble editor (who happens to be her brother-in-law). Sensual Orthodoxy by Debbie Blue. If you have a Christian on your list who likes theology and/or the Bible but is not exactly mainstream in their faith, this is a great book. Debbie is a Milaca writer and one of my favorite neighbors. Happy shopping, and respond on line or in a letter to the editor with your book recommendations!
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.