2004 Reading List

Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell
This was a fun read. Boswell and Johnson having witty breakfast conversation with lairds of this and that isle throughout Scotland. I never realized how funny Boswell was. It's also an interesting window into Scotland at a time when hordes were emigrating to America. Boswell and Johnson commment on the emigration but they don't seem to have an inkling of how the world is about to change.
Letters to a Spiritual Seeker by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau's letters to HGO Blake collected in one place for the first time. It's interesting to see how Thoreau's thinking evolves and how it all plays out against the backdrop of history. It's dense with references but still a relatively easy read and very inspiring. It's making me want to climb Mount Monadnock again.
Patagonia Revisited by Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux
A slim and elegant little volume based on an "entertainment" that the two writers gave for the Royal Geographical Society. Chock full of literary references to Patagonia interspersed with the writers' own experiences of Patagonia. It's only 62 pages but I took about a week to read it because I had to savor it.
Birds in the Bush by Bradford Torrey
19th century nature writing. Good when he's describing what birds he sees on winter walks across Boston Common or autumn hikes in the White Mountains. Not so good when he attempts to classify bird songs or behaviors according to his strange,even for the 19th century, almost anthropomorphic categories and observations. Almost no narrative so hard to read straight through.
Work to Live by Joe Robinson
Americans work too many hours, don't take vacations, are on the edge of burnout, and don't really know what it means to have a life. Actually he's onto something. Family and community and individual health are all suffering because we work too much under the illusion that we have to in order to compete, keep our jobs, be thought worthy human beings. And the thing is it's all an illusion. We don't have to act that way. Reading this will convince you to take a 3-week vacation if nothing else.
Eastward the Sea by Charles F. Haywood
A rousing sea adventure yarn with seamen from Marblehead taking on the Barbary pirates. Not stellar writing, but excellent plot twists and turns and pacing and lots of intrigue and double crossing and traitors and sailing lore. Who knew an obscure not very good novel from 1959 could be so good at evoking the atmosphere of 1803 and the Tripoli pirates? Who knew such a story would resonate so much in these days?
At the End of the Pond: Historical Reminiscences of Weekapaug, RI by Dorothy Snowden Rowe
A charming family memoir of summers spent near Quonachontaug Pond (I think I left out some syllables there), including an amazing account of the Hurricane of 1938 (the defining event in Rhode Island history) and an authentic receipt for raspberry shrub. A tiny book, but much fun.
Walden Pond by W. Barksdale Maynard
A lively account of the history of Walden Pond before, during, and after Thoreau went there to live deliberately. Everything is covered, including the famous Bill Clinton visit to Walden Woods. The one that shut down Route 2 and made my nieces' piano teacher miss their lesson.
Three Japanese Plays from the Traditional Theatre by Earle Ernst
The Maple Viewing represents Noh, The House of Sugawara represents puppet theater and Benten the Thief represents Kabuki. Great for reading aloud. I loved reading The Maple Viewing aloud. House of Suguwara is kind of long for read-aloud but has lots of interesting twists and turns.This version of The Maple Viewing has Hachiman appearing in the form of "the first prime minister of Japan." I don't know any other culture whose prime ministers are also gods. Junichiro Koizumi with the great hair could pull it off but then I kept trying to imagine Tony Blair doing divine intervention against a demon.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Very very funny. Surely nobody really gets that upset about missing apostrophes on signs let alone that rapturous about semicolons! She could have skipped the whole "we won't have books much longer because the Internet is killing them" thing because it's been done to death for a decade yet the book remains the killer app for reading -- with or without semicolons between complete thoughts. And it is a shame that computer keyboards don't have an em dash but did the typewriter keyboard have one?
The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich
Well observed and well written. It's amazing that anyone would spend three nesting seasons observing Canada geese, but it's more amazing that what he discovers is how little we actually know about them and how much of what we think we do know is myth.
Jinriksha Days in Japan by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore
This is essentially a series of prose sketches of places. The descriptions are highly visual and richly detailed, almost like looking at a painting. It has no narrative thread whatsover except for the part where she climbs Mt. Fuji and gets caught in a storm. Scidmore was a photographer for National Geographic, which explains the intense visualness of her stories. My favorite section, and the reason I bought the book in the first place, is the one where she goes to a bunraku performance and describes not only how they do some of the puppet special effects but also what each member of her party ate as snacks and how much each item cost. I felt like I'd been to the theater with her.
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik
Competetive birding. Well written, narratively strong. I couldn't put it down. I had to find out who won.The only quibble I have with it is that the writer didn't visit the places he wrote about - he got all his info from the three competitors in search of a big year - so some of the locations aren't as vivid as they might be. I only say that because when he talks about the fork-tailed flycatcher at Plum Island he claims the cars lined up at the gatehouse are there for the "white sand beaches" and not for the fork-tailed flycatcher. Wrong on 2 counts. PI does not have white sand and those traffic jams at the gatehouse during the fork-tailed flycatcher's visit that year were definitely people who came to see the bird.
Whisker of Evil by Rita Mae Brown
Is it my imagination or does the body count get higher with each mystery she writes? This opens with gruesome death scene and the killer isn't revealed until very nearly the last page. Plus there's lots of good (and accurate) discussion of rabies. It kept me reading straight thru.
Both by Douglas Crase
A biography of botanist Rupert Barneby and artist/botanist Dwight Ripley.Who knew the taxonomy of Astragalus was all intertwined with the New York art scene? A gossipy, touching, un-putdownable story.
My Famous Evening by Howard Norman
A woman who runs away from home (in Nova Scotia) to hear Joseph Conrad read in New York, a garganey sighting in Nova Scotia, Elizabeth Bishop, bird lists, Robert Frank ... all in the same slim book.
Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson
The unconventional marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson documented and anyalzed by their son.
House of Sugawara by Takeda and two other guys(better look it up again)
More loyalty and revenge among Japanese puppets.
The Cat Who Talked Turkey by Lillian Jackson Braun
OK, Qwill and the cats don't even try to solve the crime in this one. The crime seems grafted on to a cozy story about life in Moose County.
Chushingura by Takeda and two other guys (better look it up again)
Translated by Donald Keene. Another masterpiece of joruri. Sometimes known as The Forty Seven Ronin. All about loyalty. Yes, I've developed a thing for Japanese puppet plays.
The Battles of Coxinga by Chikamatsu Moezaemon
Translated by Donald Keene. Coxinga saves the Ming empire from the Tartars all by himself. Only possible in puppet theater. This is probably the masterpiece of joruri, and I can see why. Great characters, lots of action, heroism,self-sacrifice, and stunts only possible with puppets.
Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser
Hilariously funny novel of the bully character from Tom Brown's Schooldays becoming an accidental hero in India.Full of sex and violence but un-put-down-able.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
That whale thing... See January 3 entry.
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Copyright © 2004, Janet I. Egan