Books for Coffee Breaks

BooksForBreaksEveryone knows the line “So many books, so little time.” Between real paper book, Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook books, and now, online book subscription services like Scribd and Oyster, more books are more easily available than ever. And Goodreads is there to help us sort it all out.

I personally love reading books of all kinds, from history, biography, and modern literature to British detective novels and French cookbooks. In fact over years, I have amassed a strangely large eclectic collection of cookbooks, modern and vintage. Basically, I read anything but romance novels and horror books.

Here are some of my recent favorites. If yours isn’t here, feel free to comment. I’m always looking for something new to read.

Biography


The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1)
(Robert A. Caro)

If you like Netflix’s “House of Cards,” then you might enjoy learning more about powerbroker President Lyndon Johnson, who surely must have been some of the inspiration for the character of Francis Underwood. In fact, in one scene in season 1, you can spot this biography on Underwood’s desk.

Impeccably researched, this first volume of Caro’s 4-volume Years of Lyndon Johnson set offers detailed writing on the formative years of Johnson’s life in the Texas Hill Country. The man who was to become President Johnson was built from the dusty, poor land west of Austin, despising his state legislature father for the ideals that kept his family poor and demonstrating his own innate political acumen as early as boyhood. His ambition and willingness to sacrifice anything for that ambition (including the truth) is a lesson in modern politics that continues to day. Volume 1 ends with the beginning of WWII, soon following Johnson’s very first political defeat, his run for U.S. Senate.

Caro weaves in more than just paper research–but also uses his interviews of those who knew Johnson as a boy, a poor college student in Austin, a Congressional secretary, and as young Congressman, from interviews with his cousins and Johnson City residents to college friends to Lady Bird herself. This series, to which Caro has pretty much dedicated his career, is justifiably considered the definitive Johnson biography.

Spirituality/Religion
Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers (Anne Lamott)

This is my 2nd Anne Lamott book. I’ve been trying to reconnect with the spiritual, and the way Lamott writes connects with me. What doesn’t connect with me–and over which Lamott has no control–is the price of this ebook. I purchased it for about $10–and it turns out to be 63 pages long. No excuse for a 63-page ebook to be more than $3. Again, it’s not Lamott’s fault–just pure publisher greed.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible(A.J. Jacobs)

[A.J. Jacobs: If you are googling yourself again and come across this review, you created a thoughtful and thought-provoking book.]

Not having read any reviews before picking up The Year of Living Biblically, I half expected Jacobs’ book was going to be a comedic memoir similar to references to Leviticus a la the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” (which is still very entertaining every time it turns up in my e-mail).
What I read instead was an inspiring book for the spiritually struggling, “elite liberal.”

In addition to gaining an appreciation for the difficulties of living 365 days per the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible and the further complications of the New Testament, I also respect the research that Jacobs put into this book. From the Lutheran “pastor out to pasture” and a rainbow of rabbis to creationists and snake handlers, Jacobs interviewed a plethora of religious scholars and seekers–and completed a mountain of reading–during his journey.

Anyone on his or her own spiritual journey should read this book. I have found the bibliography at the back very helpful for further reading. I only wish Jacobs had included an appendix with at least the top 25 rules that he tried to follow, for those of us who are curious about trying at least a few ourselves.

Fiction

The Golems of Gotham: A Novel
(Thane Rosenbaum)

I love this story of a NYC teenage Jewish girl, who realizes that to save her emotionally blocked father (the son of Holocaust survivors who committed suicide at their Miami Beach synagogue) from both his writer’s block and his ever-growing despair, that she must build a golem. Successful, chaos ensues as the golem brings an increasingly ghostly population into their small condo and her violin playing turns into virtuoso klezmer music over night. Laugh-out-loud and sigh-out-loud moments are frequent in this wonderful tale.

Essential Cookbooks
As our teenagers are getting ready to leave home, one by one, over the next few years, I am building up a list of Essential Cookbooks and collecting favorite recipes for them.

365 Ways To Cook Chicken
(Cheryl Sedeker)

One of the very first cookbooks I ever bought right after my college boyfriend (now husband) and I moved in together. I couldn’t cook a thing–and this book helped solve that problem. Twenty-plus years later, it is still on my shelf. I will buy a separate copy for each of our 3 children as they move out on their own.

The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American
(Jeff Smith)

I bought this cookbook waaaay back when I was first married, shortly after it appeared in paperback. It was the first cookbook I ever sat down and actually read, like a fiction book. The descriptions of the various U.S. regions, their traditions, and their foods seemed to talk to me. I continue to return to this cookbook for several specific recipes, including and especially the Cincinnati Chili. After Mr. Smith’s personal matters concluded his PBS show, I sold several all of his cookbooks (I think at one point I had them all) except this book and the Immigrant Ancestors book–I just couldn’t part with them.

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Other Favorites:

  • Gore Vidal: If you like historical fiction and haven’t read Lincoln: A Novel (The American Chronicle Series)
    or Burr: A Novel
    , buy them now! Having read volumes and volumes of history, historical fiction, and historical narrative, these two books, in my mind, are the standard bearers of historical narrative. Simply amazing. Vidal brings Lincoln to life in an utterly believable way. Meticulously researched and worth every moment of your time.
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
    (Larson)–Another wonderfully written historical narrative, this time from the author of Devil in the White City. This compelling work focuses on the frustrations of U.S. Ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, a former University of Chicago history professor, during his 1934-1937 appointment to Berlin. An amazing book.
  • Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler
    (Nelson)–Inspired by Larson’s book, I read this one to obtain an a eye-witness view on how such a liberal, intellectual community as Berlin fell victim to the laughing stock that had been the Nazi party of the late 1920s. In this book, and in Larson’s, I find frightening passages that seem to mirror today’s U.S. radical conservatives and Tea Partiers. The Nazi’s had the same flimsy grasp on history and facts that many radicals possess today. The same screams about “urban intellectuals” and “liberal media” came from the lips of Hitler and Goebbels. Required reading!
  • Memories of the Ford Administration (Updike)–A James Buchanan historical fiction novel set in the pages of a fictional academic paper on personalized recollections of the Ford administration, written by history professor Alfred Clayton in response to an academic journal’s call for papers. An interesting retrospective on the cultural sea change of the early- to mid-1970s. Very creative & highly recommended.

Some of my favorite fiction authors include:

  • Jane Austen: all titles, especially “Emma,” “Mansfield Park,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion.”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: I’m not as much of a Fitzgerald fan as I was in my teens and twenties. However, “Tender Is the Night” remains one of my favorites, tragically depicting the glaring cracks in the dissipation of the beautiful and rich in the roaring ’20s. While his stories helped usher in a new, modern age and style, I find it sad that Fitzgerald couldn’t save himself from the very thing about which he wrote. As an adult at the age he was when he died, I shake my head and wonder at what he could have gone on to write. I still enjoy Fitzgerald’s early short stories probably because they are a quality product from his youth, when he was dedicated to his writing. But Fitzgerald’s talent suffered as the alcohol, his troubled wife/marriage and lifestyle enveloped his life. I think I read more nonfiction about the train wreck he and Zelda became rather than the artistic product of his later life.
  • Graham Greene: I have a few of my grandfather’s copies of Greene’s novels and have also branched out to his short stories. I love “Our Man in Havana” and “The Quiet American.”
  • Ernest Hemingway: First introduced to Hemingway as a junior in high school, I initially dismissed him as sexist. But as I’ve aged, I can separate the misogeny from his writing as an artform: the short, descriptive sentences grows. Hemingway was after Truth in writing: telling it as it is and letting the reader decide how to react.
  • W. Somerset Maugham: I inherited a wonderful library from my paternal grandfather. Heavily represented among his fiction choices were several novels of this early 20th century British writer. Among my favorites are: “Of Human Bondage,” “The Razor’s Edge,” “The Complete Short Stories,” “The Moon & Sixpence,” “Cakes & Ale.” He can tell a short story like nobody’s business (except maybe Graham Greene).
  • Daphne du Maurier, including “Rebecca” (I treasure my grandfather’s well-worn copy), “Frenchman’s Creek,” “Mary Anne.”
  • Terry Pratchett: Always offering a laugh or two, this brilliant Sci-Fi/Fantasy author developed the lengthy Discworld series, which features memorable, well-developed characters who range from runaway luggage, glum golems and grouchy trolls to pompous wizards, inappropriate witches and overwhelmed bureaucrats. Pratchett successfully spoofed the Sci-Fi/Fantasy world, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to Ringworld, as well as modern society, politics, religion, Hollywood, and the post office. Nothing is sacred territory here.
  • Salmon Rushdie: What many Americans just don’t understand is that Rushdie is so much more than his Satanic Verses (which really wasn’t one of his best books). One of my all time favorite books is Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which he wrote for his son but is just as good a read for adults. I also really enjoyed Fury and The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Updated July 2015. 

One Response to Books for Coffee Breaks

  1. Pingback: How Do You Compare to an Earlier Self? | Coffee with Caroline

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