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Host: Scott LaMar

Smart Talk: Books for summer reading

Written by Scott LaMar, Smart Talk Host/Executive Producer | Jun 7, 2016 9:00 AM
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What to look for on Smart Talk Tuesday, June 7, 2016:

Have you made your vacation plans for this summer?  Whether you're traveling to the beach or mountains or just lounging by the pool or staying cool in an air conditioned house, a good book is probably an essential part of your efforts to relax.

On Tuesday's Smart Talk, we've assembled a panel to discuss what they're reading and suggest a few books you may enjoy too.

Joining us on the program are Catherine Lawrence, a writer and owner of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Todd Dickinson, an owner of Aaron's Books in Lititz, and Jon Walker, who blogs at

We'd also like to hear about a few of the books you've read lately.  Call the program at 1-800-729-7532 or email us at 

All literary genres are welcome including novels, short story collections, mystery thrillers, historical non-fiction, or romance.  Our panel will even offer ideas on books of poetry.  Current best-sellers, classics, or paperbacks -- we're open to all suggestions with a brief synopsis as well.


The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Lifewill be published on August 18.

After overseeing a major national survey on gratitude, Janice Kaplan spent a year living more gratefully. From both extensive research and personal experience, she describes how gratitude can improve every aspect of life including marriage, career, and health. She explains how appreciating your spouse changes the neurons of your brain and why saying thanks helps CEOs succeed. With warmth and wit, she inspires an audience to think positively and start living their own best year ever.   See a PBS book interview here: Janice is the former Editor of Parade magazine and has authored/coauthored twelve books, including I'll See You Again, which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 


Todd Dickinson, Aaron's Books

Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck


The author and his brother decide they want to be the first people in more than 100 years to travel the Oregon Trail by wagon; think "A Walk in the Woods" combined with "Grumpy Old Men". For four months they are pulled by three cantankerous mules, and accompanied by a spirited Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl. A lot of broken wheels and axles, interspersed with plenty of American history. Now in paperback.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George


The main character calls himself a "literary apothecary". He's the owner of a floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, and he is able to match each visitor with the exact book they need. His only flaw is finding one for his own broken heart. "Warm-hearted" "sumptuous" "enchanting".

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo


More than 20 years later, celebrated novelist Richard Russo (perhaps best know for Empire Falls) returns to the town North Bath, NY, home of his bestselling novel Nobody's Fool. Some of his flawed and funny characters have aged better than others. The original was made into a 1994 film with Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik


Bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik (the Temeraire series) weaves magic into the tale of a young girl who knows there is absolutely nothing special about her - until she suddenly becomes a wizard's apprentice. Novik finds ways to make the story fresh while retaining the feel of an old and well-loved folk tale.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

A Classic

The highs and lows of Michael Henchard's life combine to make him one of the most unforgettable characters in English literature. His pride and jealousy destroy him each time he seems to hold success in his hands.

Thunder Boy, Jr. by Sherman Alexie

Picture Book

Award-winning author Sherman Alexie explores the power of one's name in this unique and touching picture book. The boy wants his own name, not one linked to his father or anyone else. Children can appreciate the Native American naming traditions as well as the desire for identity.

The Princess in Black series by Shannon Hale

1st to 3rd grade

Princess Magnolia and her unicorn Frimplepants are the typical princess storybook characters, except when the need arises, Magnolia become a Zorro-type character to defeat evildoers. Book Three in the series is The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde". When Princess in Black fans get a little older, Hale's Princess Academy books are wonderful as well.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

3rd to 6th grade

A boy in an unnamed land is forced to flee his home and release his pet fox into the wild due to a growing war. He soon realizes that letting go of Pax was a mistake and, despite the growing danger, he heads into the woods to try to find his friend.

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

5th to 8th grade

An eighth grade girl, who was born male, meets up with the new kid her in eighth grade class, who has been diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder and feeling completely lost after having to move to a new town. The secrets they hold may keep them from helping each other. A moving and important book about identity and friendship.

Fallout: Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond


As the new girl, Lois Lane wants to fit in at East Metropolis High, but her instinct to ask questions always seems to bring her into conflict with the people who benefit from the status quo. It's the first in a great new series about a teenage reporter-in-training, with a little bit of help from her new online friend Smallville Guy.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Teen; but a great read for adults as well

This is Aaron's current Staff Pick (he's 13); based on a little-known true story.

In the waning days of World War II, thousands of refugees on the Eastern Front tried to flee the advancing Red Army by ship. Sepetys focuses on a few of the passengers seeking safety while their ocean liner is being hunted by Russian submarines.

Catherine Lawrence, MidTown Scholar Bookstore --

  1. I.                   LOCAL AUTHORS


1  Newest release (6 June 2016)

 Regional history by award-winning local author Cooper Wingert:

 Slavery & the Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania

 About the book: 

Much like the rest of the nation, South Central Pennsylvania struggled with slavery. The institution lingered locally for more than fifty years, although it was virtually extinct everywhere else within Pennsylvania. Gradually, antislavery views prevailed. The Appalachian Mountains and the Susquehanna River provided natural cover for fleeing slaves, causing an influx of travel along the Underground Railroad. Locals like William Wright and James McAllister assisted these runaways while publicly advocating to abolish slavery. Historian Cooper Wingert reveals the struggles between slavery and abolition in South Central Pennsylvania.

 About the author     Cooper H. Wingert is the author of ten books and numerous articles on slavery and the American Civil War. He is the recipient of the 2012 Dr. James I. Robertson Jr. Literary Award for Confederate History, in recognition for his book The Confederate Approach on Harrisburg.

 2.  Award-winning local author of military/political thrillers:

 Angel's Revenge, by Perry County's Don Helin

 It started with a simple phone call from the ex-wife of one of Colonel Zack Kelly's former officers. Her ex has been murdered, branded with the words Dark Angel...then dumped on a beach in New Jersey. She wants Zack's help to find the killer.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Colonel Rene Garcia uncovers a plot to hack into the Pentagon's data base to steal classified material on the military drone program....Next a military drone turns up missing.

Can the murders and the effort to hack into the DOD system be related?

As the investigation continues, Zack finds himself the next target, but will anyone believe him? And what about that missing drone?

3.  Romance by a local author:

 Central PA's own Geri Krotow writes small-town romances and romantic suspense for Harlequin. Her setting of "Silver Valley" is loosely based on Cumberland Valley/ Mechanicsburg!

 Her latest release is Wedding Takedown.

 It's Silver Valley's biggest social event of the year--and the deadliest. 

 Florist Kayla Paruso has been hired to decorate the mayor's daughter's wedding, but when she witnesses the murder of the mayor's top aide, rumors of corruption--even a cult connection--swirl through the town. Could the mayor really be involved? Luckily the SVPD offers Kayla the very best protection: Detective Rio Ortego. Who just happens to be the last guy Kayla dated. With the wedding fast approaching, Kayla's the perfect person to pry into the mayor's dangerous secrets, but Rio won't hear of it. And as their old attraction reignites, Rio's cop instincts clash with his need to safeguard the woman he's falling in love with all over again...

 About the Author

Geri Krotow is a Naval Academy graduate and Navy veteran. She has traveled to and lived in many places abroad, including South America, Italy and Russia. Her family has finally settled down in Central Pennsylvannia but Geri still writes about all the places she's been. An award-winning author, Geri writes the Silver Valley PD for Harlequin Romantic Suspense and the Whidbey Island Series for Superromance.


 4.   The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh.

 For the first time an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how these ancient ideas can guide you on the path to a good life today.

These astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.

In other words, "The Path" upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Above all, unlike most books on the subject, its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place, just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently.

Sometimes voices from the past can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about the future.

 5.   For foodies:

 The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea, by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory

 Brew your own kombucha at home! With more than 400 recipes, including 268 unique flavor combinations, you can get exactly the taste you want -- for a fraction of the store-bought price. This complete guide, from the proprietors of Kombucha Kamp, shows you how to do it from start to finish, with illustrated step-by-step instructions and troubleshooting tips. The book also includes information on the many health benefits of kombucha, fascinating details of the drink's history, and recipes for delicious foods and drinks you can make with kombucha (including some irresistible cocktails!).

 6.  For those interested in urban studies & social justice:

 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. By Matthew Desmond.

 New York Times Bestseller.  From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America.

 In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

 ...Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

 7.   For history & politics:

 Ron Chernov's Alexander Hamilton - the New York Times bestselling 2005 biography that inspired Lin Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer Prize winning musical.

 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

 Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is "a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all."

 AND The book companion to the musical itself is also now available:

 HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION gives readers an unprecedented view of both revolutions, from the only two writers able to provide it. Miranda, along with Jeremy McCarter, a cultural critic and theater artist who was involved in the project from its earliest stages--"since before this was even a show," according to Miranda--traces its development from an improbable perfor­mance at the White House to its landmark opening night on Broadway six years later. In addition, Miranda has written more than 200 funny, revealing footnotes for his award-winning libretto, the full text of which is published here.

 8.  Or, for the other side the story, the biography of a political wife in early America:

 Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, by Louisa Thomas.

 An intimate portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, who witnessed firsthand the greatest transformations of her time  

 Born in London to an American father and a British mother on the eve of the Revolutionary War, Louisa Catherine Johnson was raised in circumstances very different from the New England upbringing of the future president John Quincy Adams, whose life had been dedicated to public service from the earliest age. And yet John Quincy fell in love with her, almost despite himself. Their often tempestuous but deeply close marriage lasted half a century. 

 They lived in Prussia, Massachusetts, Washington, Russia, and England, at royal courts, on farms, in cities, and in the White House. Louisa saw more of Europe and America than nearly any other woman of her time. And as the country her husband led found its place in the world, she found a voice that resonates still. 

 9.   Historical fiction about a President's family:

 America's First Daughter: A Novel. By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

 In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson's eldest daughter, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph--a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson's oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother's death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father's troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love--with her father's protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William's wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father's reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

10.   Of course there are great new releases for Austen lovers:

 Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, by Whit Stillman.

 Jane Austen's funniest novel is also her least known--until now.

 Impossibly beautiful, disarmingly witty, and completely self-absorbed: Meet Lady Susan Vernon, both the heart and the thorn of Love & Friendship. Recently widowed, with a daughter who's coming of age as quickly as their funds are dwindling, Lady Susan makes it her mission to find them wealthy husbands--and fast.

 But when her attempts to secure their futures result only in the wrath of a prominent conquest's wife and the title of "most accomplished coquette in England," Lady Susan must rethink her strategy.

 Unannounced, she arrives at her brother-in-law's country estate. Here she intends to take refuge--in no less than luxury, of course--from the colorful rumors trailing her, while finding another avenue to "I do." Before the scandalizing gossip can run its course, though, romantic triangles ensue.

 With a pitch-perfect Austenian sensibility and wry social commentary, filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman cleverly reimagines and completes one of our greatest writers' unfinished works. As much homage to its muse's perennial influence as testament to its author's brilliance, Love & Friendship is a sharp comedy of manners, and a fiendishly funny treat for Austen and Stillman fans alike.

 - or -

 Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice. By Curtis Sittenfeld

 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible tackles gender, class, courtship, and family as Curtis Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

 This version of the Bennet family--and Mr. Darcy--is one that you have and haven't met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help--and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

 Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master's degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won't discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane's fortieth birthday fast approaches.

 Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip's friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

 And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

 About the Author

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife (inspired by Laura Bush), and Sisterland.

 - or -

 China Rich Girlfriend: A Novel, by Kevin Kwan.

 Kevin Kwan, bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians, is back with a wickedly funny new novel of social climbing, secret e-mails, art-world scandal, lovesick billionaires, and the outrageous story of what happens when Rachel Chu, engaged to marry Asia's most eligible bachelor, discovers her birthfather.

 On the eve of her wedding to Nicholas Young, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Asia, Rachel should be over the moon. She has a flawless Asscher-cut diamond from JAR, a wedding dress she loves more than anything found in the salons of Paris, and a fiancé willing to sacrifice his entire inheritance in order to marry her. But Rachel still mourns the fact that her birthfather, a man she never knew, won't be able to walk her down the aisle. Until: a shocking revelation draws Rachel into a world of Shanghai splendor beyond anything she has ever imagined. Here we meet Carlton, a Ferrari-crashing bad boy known for Prince Harry-like antics; Colette, a celebrity girlfriend chased by fevered paparazzi; and the man Rachel has spent her entire life waiting to meet: her father. Meanwhile, Singapore's It Girl, Astrid Leong, is shocked to discover that there is a downside to having a newly minted tech billionaire husband. A romp through Asia's most exclusive clubs, auction houses, and estates, China Rich Girlfriend brings us into the elite circles of Mainland China, introducing a captivating cast of characters, and offering an inside glimpse at what it's like to be gloriously, crazily, China-rich.

 11.   Or, for those who can't get enough of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series:

 A Desperate Fortune, by Susanna Kearsley

 "Fascinating and immersive... I love a novel that deals with the many ways in which people keep their secrets."--Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Outlander

Beloved New York Times bestselling author Susanna Kearsley delivers a riveting novel that deftly intertwines the tales of two women, divided by centuries and forever changed by a clash of love and fate.

For nearly three hundred years, the cryptic journal of Mary Dundas has kept its secrets. Now, amateur codebreaker Sara Thomas travels to Paris to crack the cipher.

Jacobite exile Mary Dundas is filled with longing-for freedom, for adventure, for the family she lost. When fate opens the door, Mary dares to set her foot on a path far more surprising and dangerous than she ever could have dreamed.

As Mary's gripping tale of rebellion and betrayal is revealed to her, Sara faces events in her own life that require letting go of everything she thought she knew-about herself, about loyalty, and especially about love. Though divided by centuries, these two women are united in a quest to discover the limits of trust and the unlikely coincidences of fate.

 Author's note:

Kearsley writes modern gothic novels that blend historical adventure and modern-day suspense with romance and a touch of something spooky. She lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto, in Canada.

 III.             Children's and Young Adult Recommendations

 ... besides pre-ordering J. K. Rowling's latest (with Jack Thorne):
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (rehearsal edition)

 12. (Young Adult)  The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi

 Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you're only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of Death and Destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father's kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran's queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar's wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire...

 13 (Young Adult)

 Original Fake. By Kirstin Cronn-Mills (author) and E. Eero Johnson (illustrator).

 In this Banksy-inspired illustrated novel, an escalating sibling rivalry train wrecks and vengeance is a street-art act of war.

Introvert Frankie Neumann hates his life, and understandably so. He's got a weird, tutu-wearing sister, Lou, and even weirder parents, Bridget and Brett--Frank Sinatra and Dr. Frank-N-Furter impersonators, respectively. And, he's just the guy who makes pizza at Pizza Vendetta. Though he has secret artistic aspirations of his own, his over-the-top family makes him want to stay in the background. But Frankie's life is about to change--becoming way more interesting, even a little dangerous, but definitely cool.

 After his shift at the pizzeria one night, Frankie meets David and Rory, cousins and errand runners for the mysterious Uncle Epic, a legendary anonymous street artist and Frankie's absolute idol. Little could Frankie dream that his new adventures with Uncle Epic would lead to the perfect opportunity to strike back at his insufferable sister for a lifetime of torture. But things go haywire quicker than you can say "street art kicks righteous ass," and the lines are suddenly blurred between art and Frankie's real life.

 14.  (Middle Grade)  The Trials of Apollo, Book One: The Hidden Oracle. By Rick Riordan.

 How do you punish an immortal?

 By making him human.

 After angering his father Zeus, the god Apollo is cast down from Olympus. Weak and disoriented, he lands in New York City as a regular teenage boy. Now, without his godly powers, the four-thousand-year-old deity must learn to survive in the modern world until he can somehow find a way to regain Zeus's favor.

 But Apollo has many enemies-gods, monsters, and mortals who would love to see the former Olympian permanently destroyed. Apollo needs help, and he can think of only one place to go . . . an enclave of modern demigods known as Camp Half-Blood.

 15. (Picture Book)  Twenty Yawns, by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and Harrisburg's own award-winning Caldecott Honor artist, Lauren Castillo.

 As her mom reads a bedtime story, Lucy drifts off. But later, she awakens in a dark, still room, and everything looks mysterious. How will she ever get back to sleep?

Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley's first picture book, illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Lauren Castillo, evokes the splashy fun of the beach and the quietude of a moonlit night, with twenty yawns sprinkled in for children to discover and count.


Jon Walker of --

The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin, is a novel set in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the last century; a story beautifully told, simple yet big; a harsh and tender tale with a Biblical, "old as the hills" quality to it.  It's about a man, William Talmadge - a loner, who raises apricots, apples and plums in a remote corner of Washington State.  One day he finds two young women lurking about his fruit trees, foraging for food.  They're like a pair of feral cats, and they're both pregnant, running away from an abusive brothel owner, a grimy, violent brute who is a force of pure evil that is ever-lurking just off stage.

Only one of the two women survives, Della, plus her baby girl named Angeline.  The good and compassionate Talmadge takes them both in, raising Angeline as if she were his own daughter. Everything goes smoothly for a few years, but Della is a troubled soul. She eventually abandons her young child and runs off, drifting from adventure to adventure: chasing down wild horses with a group of Indians, working in a cannery and doing some really dangerous high-tree work in a rough-and-tumble timber camp.

The tension of the novel comes from Della's fitful journey - you really hope she survives, and that she finds what she's looking for - and you also hope that she will eventually return to the orchard and be reunited with the little family she abandoned.  The characters in this novel are unforgettable, and it's the kind of book that totally draws you in.  This is the kind of book that can really engross you while sitting on a beach.  Don't be surprised that if you stick your nose into it after lunch the next time you look up, all the beach umbrellas around you will have disappeared and the sun will be setting behind the dunes!


One More Thing, Stories and other Stories, by B.J. Novak is flat hilarious.  I may have talked about this book in your Holiday-reading show last year, but even if I did, it's worth talking about again because of all the books I've read in the past few years, there is none better suited for beach reading.  It's an eclectic compilation of short stories of varying lengths, and as the title implies, one story is never enough. There's always room for one more:  Read a story, take a zizz, read another story, re-apply your sunscreen, read another, check out the people walking by, read one more, grab a handful of pretzels and shoo away the circling seagulls. That's how it's bound to go.

Novak's ear for contemporary pop culture is amazing. Not only is he pitch perfect, he's capable of detecting an amazingly wide range of frequencies.  Whether he's writing about a summer camp for gifted teens, or the best ambulance driver the city as ever known, or the man who fell in love with a sex robot, or the pleasure of being right, or about closure, or dark matter, or the guy who posted pictures of everything he ate, Novak stirs in just the right blend of humor, irony, absurdity, pathos and sweetness.

War and Peace, this is not. One More Thing is definitely not a book for literary highbrows, but it IS a zany book for literate people on a relaxing summer vacation.  I say stick it in the beach bag!


The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins is a British who-dunnit of the highest order, set in our modern-day, highly wired age. In this fabulous page-turner, a speeding London commuter train and a slew of self-centered, I-phone toting suburbanites have replaced the country manor of old, with its mysterious gardener, the butler and a parlor-full of suspicious houseguests.  Any one of the suspects that Hawkins parades past you could have done it, and she does a masterful job of keeping you guessing.

I just finished this book, and will be posting a full review of it on my website next week.  I give it 5 out of 5 stars! 


The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf is a history book that is sure to amaze.  Here's a copy of my full review, posted last week on my website:

It is very likely that Alexander Von Humboldt is the most famous and influential historical figure you have never heard of.  Until I read The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt's World, by Andrea Wulf, I sure never heard of him, even though just about everything that anybody knows these days about the earth's environment, has been shaped by this pre-Industrial Age globe-trotting naturalist and visionary from Prussia.  It all began with an insight that came to him in 1799 while perched near the top of Chimborazo, a 20,000-foot high volcano in Ecuador.  It was there that he first realized that nature is not something that can be compartmentalized, but is rather a holistic "web of life" where everything that can be seen or touched is interrelated.  The rough map he sketched on the side of that volcano would later be refined and published in one of his books.  It became known as the "Chimborazo Map" (see here), which promulgated the theory, since proven, that the vast continents spanning our planet were interconnected by ecologically distinct climate zones. 

Humboldt was a scientist with a poet's heart. He was a true romantic; capable of infusing a sense of wonder into the millions of scientific measurements he made around the globe; a man who steadfastly believed that in order to fully understand nature, one's feelings were every bit as important as the factual data. It's no surprise that when Henry David Thoreau sat in his hut on Walden Pond, the book that inspired him the most was Humboldt's Views of Nature.  Indeed, without Humboldt's insightful mind, we might not ever have been blessed by Walden, or been moved by the harmony of Walt Whitman's transcendental poetry.


Humboldt was much more than world's first environmental scientist.  He was an expansive thinker able to connect the dots between a flower growing on the side of a mountain in Ecuador to the earth's magnetic fields, the shifting continental plates, and to the ocean's tides - even to the stars and planets in the sky.  He was the first scientist to popularize the word "cosmos." Everybody who was anybody in the 19th century read all of his books.  Thomas Jefferson was one of his most ardent admirers, and regularly corresponded with the "Prussian Sage." Humboldt's books inspired Simon Bolivar to liberate South America from the colonial powers that were exploiting the natural resources of his beloved country. Humboldt's body of work led to the fields of ecology and environmental science as we practice them today, and provided Charles Darwin with the building blocks for his theory of evolution. Perhaps most importantly of all, Humboldt was the first scientist to understand that human beings are not the chosen creatures placed upon earth by God to merely exploit and control nature, but are instead organisms every bit a part of nature's web as the ground we stand on, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  


Humboldt also understood that unless we humans are careful, the forests we clear and the cities we build could wreck havoc on the balance of nature ... which brings us to the story of a Scottish lad who immigrated with his family to our country in 1849. This guy was one of Humboldt's most devoted disciples, with a burning desire to follow in the footsteps of his idol. And so in 1867, he put on his hiking boots, packed a duffle bag and set out for the tropics of South America. Luckily for we Americans, he only got as far as Cuba, where he contracted malaria, forcing him to give up on his life's dream. With great reluctance, he headed back to the more temperate climes of America, and found his way to California. There he climbed the Sierra Nevada and fell in love with what he saw.  His name was John Muir, and thanks to him, we are able to see and enjoy El Capitan and Half Dome and all the other wonders of Yosemite National Park just as they were when he first saw them. 


So here's my advice to the faithful reader's of this blog: Read Andrea Wulf's enlightening book. What she reveals about the life and legacy of Alexander Von Humboldt, a man I daresay you never before heard of, will connect all kinds of random dots floating around in your brain.  Then pull out your wallets and make a contribution to the Sierra Club! 



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