NPR’s Book Concierge 2018

Once again NPR has released its annual Book Concierge. This very cool tool lists the best books of 2018 that have been reviewed or otherwise mentioned on NPR. This is more than simply a best books list, however. It is an interactive tool that allows you to select books by category, mixing and matching in a very fun way.

For example you can select Staff Picks and Eye openings Reads. You can select just Nonfiction or you can select Nonfiction and Identity and Culture. There’s a category for Seriously Great Writing. I keep intending to read a book in that category. Maybe I will yet.

Take a look. Play around. Have fun. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Hippie coverHippie
Paulo Coelho
Knopf (September 25, 2018), 304 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.25
I somehow managed to snag this title when the Kindle edition was briefly on sale for $2.99

I have known Paulo Coelho’s work for some time. I read his novel By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept quite a few years ago. Terry read his more recent novel, The Alchemist.

This book is something of a departure for Coelho. It is autobiographical, but he tells the story in the third person, referring to himself as Paulo. He writes about his younger days and a bus journey he takes across Europe headed for Nepal. Before he gets deep into that story, however, he describes his unjust abduction and torture by a paramilitary organization in Brazil. That incident informs his encounters with authority throughout the book.

The main narrative begins in Amsterdam where he encounters Karla, who convinces him to join her on a trip on the “magic bus” headed for Nepal. Said magic bus is in fact a rickety school bus filled mostly with young hippie types seeking enlightenment. Interestingly, Coelho describes what he believes to be Karla’s thoughts, even though the book is supposed to be entirely factual.

The book ends before the bus arrives in Nepal because Paulo does not stay on it. But how that comes about and what happens to Paulo and Karla’s relationship I will leave to you to discover when you read the book.


For a long time I was an Audible member and listened to audiobooks while I was out walking. Amazingly, my old Audible account still exists and I was able to see that I was a member from 2002 to 2010. I cancelled my subscription because I was not happy with the selection of books available from Audible at the time and because I was not happy with the cadence and tenor of how many books were read. I also discovered The Great Courses. I found the thirty-minute lectures perfect for my walks and the rhythm of the lecture more natural to my ear.

AudibleI am rethinking that. There are a lot more books available in audio format these days. It seems that most books from the (few remaining) big publishing houses are available in audio format. Many books are read by the author, which is a big plus. And as much as I love The Great Courses, I have listened to most of the courses they have in which I am interested and their newest courses don’t always match my interests.

But here’s what caused me to write this. Penguin Audio has re-released an old audiobook, originally published on audio cassette (remember those? I no longer even have a cassette player!), of Elaine Stritch reading selected stories of Dorothy Parker.

Did you get that? Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker! Here’s the review in The New York Times Book Review.

That is more than enough to make me think about listening to audio books once again.

Tales of the City

Tales of the City28 Barbary Lane: “Tales of the City” Books 1-3
Armistead Maupin
Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (December 6, 2016)
869 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $16.99

How it is that I never got around to reading Tales of the City until now, I have no idea. The up side is that I have had the delight of reading it and enjoying it for the first time here in late in 2018.

You now doubt know that the stories contained herein were originally published as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle and later compiled into books. The present volume consists of the first three books in the series: Tales of the City (1978), More Tales of the City (1980), and Further Tales of the City (1982) .

The time is the mid-1970’s. Mary Ann Singleton has just arrived in San Francisco from the Midwest and rents a room at 28 Barbary Lane in a house owned by a mysterious Mrs. Madrigal. There she meets a variety of San Franciscans, both gay and straight. Being a 1970’s kind of guy and being a Bay Area kind of guy I was in my element.

This time around I only read the first book. It’s like ice cream: you can only take so much at a time. But I’m delighted to know that two more books await me.

Blue Desert

Blue Desert coverBlue Desert
Charles Bowden
University of Arizona Press
October 2, 2018, 224 pages
Kindle edition $12.95, Amazon paperback $17.95

Blue Desert was originally published in 1986. The University of Arizona Press recently reprinted two of Bowden’s books from the era: this title and Frog Mountain Blues.

Bowden lived most of his life in the Arizona desert, and this book reflects his love for the region and his distaste for the sprawl and growth of the region. He prefers the out-of-the way places. Much of the book centers around Ajo, AZ, a small town west of Tucson and south and west of Phoenix. However Bowden strays as far west as Palm Springs and as far north as the Glen Canyon Dam.

The author of the introduction to this reissue takes pains to point out Bowden’s objectification of women in the book, something that is indeed obvious at points. Indeed, his neglect of his wife as he describes it in the final essay is appalling and inexcusable. The writer of the introduction points out that Bowden took a more measured approach in his writing in later years.

Nonetheless Bowden does an excellent job of painting a picture of the Sonora desert along with all the unpleasantries therein. He describes the shabby treatment Mexicans received at the hands of whites. He describes the violence that occurs. Yet his love for the region is pervasive throughout.

If you have a love for the desert and the American Southwest this is a book worth reading.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree of Life coverThe Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen
Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, August 14, 2018
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.49

This book discusses two different but interrelated topics: the classification of living things and the horizontal transfer of genes.

Quammen starts by going back in time and discussing the work of Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, and others. Linnaeus, was among the first to seriously explore taxonomy, the classification of plants and animals. Darwin, of course, developed the theory of natural selection.

While the book contains an extensive history lesson, much of it focuses on the modern era. Quammen discusses the likes of Lynn Margulis (once married to Carl Sagan) and Carl Wose. Both were interested in classification and both studied horizontal gene transfer. Margulis hypothesized, and was later proven correct, that the mitochondria in cells originally came from bacteria. Wose was known for splicing RNA molecules and creating a new classification system.

Quammen’s writing is engaging and readable and frequently displays a sense of humor. He recounts his visits to many of the key players in the field, which are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

The book does not have a satisfying conclusion. Quammen closes it by discussing the death of Carl Wose and remembrances by colleagues. But there would be no way to properly wrap up the stories of horizontal gene transfer and classification as the work is ongoing.

The Great American Read

PBS just finished its series The Great American Read. It was all about the one hundred novels that Americans found the most rewarding. That is not to say American novels (I took the American Novel class from the great Bob Vieten back in high school), but novels that Americans enjoy and recommend. The list included literature from around the world.

Great American ReadThere were no limits on which novels qualified for the list. It included serious literature such as War and Peace on one end of the spectrum and the ultimate page-turner, The Da Vinci Code on the other. Some entries on the list were rather dubious to my mind, such as the Left Behind series and Fifty Shades of Grey. Others very much belong, like Lord of the Rings and Invisible Man. There were certainly some clear omissions. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is on the list, but Huckleberry Finn is not. Every English teacher will tell you that the latter is without question the deeper and more profound book. Likewise Crime and Punishment is on the list, but the Brothers Karamazov is not.

As for me, I have read only seventeen books on the list. Not a terribly good average, I suppose, but then I have read both Huckleberry and Karamazov.

It is not perfect, but PBS is to be commended for producing and airing the series.