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Books for 2011

Cover of "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodor...

Wilderness Warrior

Over the course of what seemed like a very busy year I found time to do more reading than I have in many years. Two themes dominated my titles: the years of the Great Depression and survival literature. My two favorites for the year were books I read very early on: Jared Diamond‘s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Douglas Brinkley‘s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.

Both Diamond and Brinkley are gifted writers and impressive researchers.  There’s also an interesting convergence in that Mr. Diamond and the 26th President are/were ardent birders.  Collapse is in many ways a sad, sobering tale of how some cultures persisted in stupid behaviors that so ravaged their ecosystems that the societies perished.  The final pages suggest that humanity has the wisdom to not repeat these kinds of self-destructive choices but I don’t share Mr. Diamond’s optimism.

Then there’s the phenomenon of Theodore Roosevelt. Wilderness Warrior offers wonderful insights into the unfathomable Roosevelt spirit.  Our America would be a much less beautiful place had it not been for Teddy and many of his passionate conservationist contemporaries like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.  Reading this book certainly changed my views on the role of government vis-a-vis big business.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine, without the efforts of these few individuals, the Grand Canyon as a massive mining pit and Yosemite and similar locales lined with countless fast-food emporiums.  I’ll never again pass through a national park or forest and fail to offer thanks to T.R. for preserving so much of America for future generations.

Here’s a list of the rest of my readings for the year:

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Books: A Surgeon’s Memoir

Michael J. Collins’ Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs: The Making of a Surgeonis a memoir of the surgeon’s journey from breaking old concrete (and other very blue collar jobs) to pre-med and residency. The primary focus is on Collins’ family and personal life with relatively little of his actual medical experiences. For readers like me interested in the nuts and bolts of the acquisition of surgical expertise this tome doesn’t compare to the author’s earlier Hot Lights, Cold Steel (not to mention William Nolen’s 1970 classic The Making of a Surgeon). Even so it’s a delightfully told tale with great vignettes of Irish Catholic life in Chicago.

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Books: Desert Adventure

Skeletons on the Zahara retells the story of shipwreck, enslavement and salvation of the crew of the cargo ship Commerce that sailed from Connecticut in 1815. The original narrative was written by the ship’s captain, James Riley and was a favorite of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau. In addition to the incredible tale of survival, the books is replete with fascinating details about history, nomadic society, biology and more.

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Books: "Ten Hours Until Dawn"

I recently finished Ten Hours Until Dawn, by Michael Tougias. Ten Hours… tells the story Captain Frank Quick and the crew of his pilot boat the “Can Do” as their aborted rescue mission turns into a struggle of survival off the coast of Salem, Massachusetts during the great Blizzard of 1978. It’s a harrowing, spellbinding and tragic tale. Tougias does a masterful job of characterizing each member of the crew and documenting their heroic final hours. I realized as I read that I remember this storm. I was just beginning my second semester teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey and I wasn’t able to get to my office that day.

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"The Nine" – An Excellent Read

The first book I selected to read on my new Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader was Jeffrey Toobin‘s The Nine, a superb history of the major cases and figures of the Rehnquist Supreme Court from 1992 to 2005. The book confirms the obvious: the systematic evolution of the court from the liberal days of Chief Justice Warren Burger to the most conservative panel in over a century under John Roberts. It is sobering the learn how so few key individuals guided the change beginning with Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. Troubling, too, is how overtly political the appointments have become and how closely the Reagan/Bush appointees follow the party line. Two personalities stand out in particular in this regard. Justice Scalia has what I can only characterize as a weird literalist view of the Constitution while Justice Thomas seems like a deeply troubled, close-minded, disinterested (and probably incompetent) jurist.

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The Knife Man

I finished reading The Knife Man, a biography of 18th-century physician, John Hunter, the father of modern surgery. It’s a fascinating portrait of an obsessive personality whose work was a vital foundation for subsequent giants like Charles Darwin and Edward Jenner. The subtitle of the paperback edition –“Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery”– hints at the historical setting, a time of religious orthodoxy when medicine was practiced without pain killers and gross anatomy studied sans refrigeration.

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Good Reads in 2008

It was a very good year for reading although in retrospect several of the books I most enjoyed had sobering themes. I tortured myself by reading several longish tomes on the Bush administration and one on the Bush family history. Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (Fred Kaplan) is a sobering narrative on how a few key ideologies (and powerful ideologues) drove Mr. Bush into one pitfall after another. It’s frightening, really, how so few individuals can virtually control the destiny of an entire nation overcoming the countering influences of all other government institutions and the will of the citizens. Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Thomas Ricks) details the stunning American missteps in the ill-fated military adventure in Iraq. Many of the key players in both books are the same. Ricks points out the terrible consequences of U.S. leaders’ arrogance and simplistic world-view (not to mention their profound ignorance of history).

Prior to these in-depth accounts, I got through Kevin Phillips’ American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, an intriguing history of the Family Bush from the late 19th-century Walker and Bush ancestors through the presidency of George W. It’s a compelling narrative of family ties to military industries, oil and Yale going back well over one hundred years. Amid those relationships one finds the origins of today’s close ties to Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon and Halliburton. I could only wonder as I read how a nation’s foreign policy could be so heavily influenced by generation after generation of a single family.

I’m just now finishing Naomi Klein‘s controversial The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The work is a detailed critique of Milton Friedman‘s free market economic theories and, more importantly, their implications on U.S. foreign policy. I approached this book with caution given the diverse opinions of reviewers but I must say it does help explain large-scale socio-political events like the repressive overthrows in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970?s. As well, the book is prescient in light of the U.S. government’s efforts to privatize vast segments of governmental functions and the collapse of the global financial infrastructure.

During our trip to New Mexico in May we visited the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos and I picked up Brotherhood of the Bomb : The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (Gregg Herken) a superbly well-written and enthralling history of the development of the atomic bomb. It’s a fascinating account of the big egos, challenging science and complex history of the period from the final years of WWII through the death of Teller in 2003.

I didn’t totally ignore my penchant for medical works. My favorite for 2008 was How Doctors Think (Jerome Groopman). It’s unnerving, although obvious I suppose, to know that doctors have the same foibles as the rest of us and can have a bad day just like you or I can. The book will change how you approach your next visit to the doctor’s office.

Last Christmas Trisha gave me Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy–Until You’re 80 and Beyond. This slight, folksy volume reminded me of all those obvious things you should be doing to keep yourself going and inspired us to sign up for the local fitness club for the year. I don’t know if I’ll make it to 80 but I’m sure feeling a lot better (mentally and physically) with regular trips to the gym.

I sped through a handful of other books this past year and have become somewhat addicted to online news from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Yahoo News. It will be interesting to see where serendipity takes me in 2009.

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