It’s always at the end of the year that I re-read the list of books read and find surprising trends. 2011 was no different. There was, as always, a lot of history. But the Middle East and Central Asia have faded, although not totally. This year’s main theme seemed to be Texas and its history. Early in the year I bought John Graves’ “Goodbye to a River” on the recommendation of Larry McMurtry and in a classic example of the intellectual process run amok Graves’ book set off a mad scramble to learn more about my home. The unique nature of Graves’ book led me down all sorts of intellectual avenues. Where before I had primarily been interested in Texas’ imperial period—more precisely, I someday hope to write a travel-book about the changes in specific places in Texas from Spanish times to the present. For example: what did the first Spanish explorers who traveled up to the headwaters of the Guadalupe River or the Nueces River see? One interesting nugget I dug up a few years ago is how the padres used to call the Nueces Canyon, a place near and dear to my heart, the Vale Of Saint Joseph. No one in the region ever calls it that. Not old timers, not historians, no one. But after Graves my horizons expanded to the Texas Rangers, (Chuck Norris is a pansy compared to those guys) and of course the Comanches. Lots of good new stuff came from investigations after Graves, such as: Comanches, by TR Fehrenbach, Empire of the Summer Moon, by SC Gwynne and The Texas Rangers, by Walter Prescott Webb.
Another theme emergent from 2011’s reading list was geology. I had read McPhee’s excellent Rising from the Plains a few years back and picked it up once again. This led to more specialized reading of geology in the Southwest and the use of a more sophisticated geological vocabulary. Two trips (one to Big Bend and the other to New Mexico) in particular this year furthered my knowledge of the subject and gave me a detailed familiarity of the book, Texas Roadside Geology. If you have not ever picked one of these books up for your own state allow me to recommend doing so right now. Would you like a little ‘awe’ in your life? Read a geology book about your state or region, or better yet pick up McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, Assembling California or Basin and Range.
One last trend to emerge this year was Latin America, a trend that began a few years ago when I first read Charles C. Mann’s 1491. This year I read his follow up: 1493, which is better than the first. I also read Mañana by Carlos Castaneda, So Far From God by Patrick Marnham and the Devil’s Highway. All excellent books. If you have any suggestions for books on Latin America, Mexico in particular, please email me. I’d love to hear them.
Lastly follows a few brief annotations on some, but not all, of the books I read last year.
Mirror of Herodotus – Hartog: There is nothing easy about this book, but it is a rewarding study of what is, in my opinion, the best portions of Herodotus’ book: the Scythians. This was the first ‘history’ book I ever read. I was eighteen years old and just in college. I had yet to decide what my major would be, but Herodotus’ depiction of the Scythians really solidified it for me. It was only later that I grew to love Herodotus as a travel writer. Regardless, Hartog’s long exegesis was well worth the work.
Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein: this book. Well, anyone seeking a better understanding of the impact the Chicago School of Economics has had on the world must begin here.
Dan Brown’s latest book. Terrible. Read it on an airplane, doped up on opiates with a shattered collar bone while flying home from Indonesia. The drugs didn’t make it any better, just tolerable.
Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kahneman: only recently finished this book. Still digesting but excellent food for thought.
Under The Volcano – Malcolm Lowry: read this book. You can thank me later.
Manana – Carlos Castaneda: quite enjoyable and edifying. I learned a great deal about Mexico that I did not alread know.
Runciman volume three of Crusades: still the best history of the Crusades in print. Period.
Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter: not an easy read, at all.
The Passage – Cronin. A fun and different take on vampires and the apocalypse.
The Alexander Romance: too old fashioned, but reading between the lines and a careful study imbues one with a healthy respect for just where the tropes of modern travel literature come from. Yes, I wrote that twice. Read the books if you don’t believe me. There is a straight line from Mandeville and the Iskander Romance right to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, ‘Eat, Love, Pray.’ And no, I am not joking.
Ibn Fadlan’s Russia: fascinating and well translated.
The Great War For Civilization – Robert Fisk: another tome worthy of reading and a good revisionist companion to the Shock Doctrine.
Rising from the Plains – John McPhee: buy it right now. If you do not fall in love with geology and the book I’ll pay you back. (Not really, but still, you’ll love it.)
Out of the East – Paul Freedman: ever wondered how food culture and recipes have changed over the centuries? Ever wondered just where those spices on your rack come from? Freedman will answer all your questions and more.
Helix – Eric Brown: not the best sci-fi I’ve ever read.
Rainbow Pie – Joe Bageant: what’s there to say? Joe died too damned young. Wanna know why America is so fucked up? Read Joe’s books and learn, grasshopper.
Travels in Siberia Ian Frazier: Bland.
The Heart of Buddhism Guy Claxton
The Diamond Sutra
Miracle of Mindfulness -Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m a Buddhist, so what can I say?
East of Eden – Steinbeck: still the best, after all these years.
Assembling California – John McPhee: what California is today Japan will be in fifty million years.
So Far From God – Patrick Marnham: poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.
In a Narrow Grave – Larry McMurtry
Goodbye to a River – John Graves
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – Larry McMurtry
Myself and Strangers – John Graves
Hardscrabble – John Graves
Comanches – TR Fehrenbach
A John Graves Reader – John Graves
Empire of the Summer Moon – SC Gwynne
The Texas Rangers – Walter Prescott Webb
Does Texas just flummox you? And enrage you at times? Pick up any one of these nine books and you will learn more and come to understand why Texas is the way Texas is. It ain’t pretty, but it also proves ‘national’ or perhaps, regional character doesn’t emerge from an historical vacuum.
Cities of Gold – Douglas Preston: ever wanted to ride a horse across the Arizona desert? Me neither, but after reading this book I kind of wanted to.
Geology of the American Southwest – W. Scott Baldridge: if you dig geology (get it?) you’ll find this useful.
On China – Kissinger: say what you will about Henry the K, when he writes about high level diplomacy and diplomatic history there is no one living who does it better.
Landfalls – Tim Macintosh-Smith: fun, poetic and edifying and made me want to visit places I’ve never had any interest in visiting.
The Devil’s Highway – Luis Urrea: did not like the style of writing, but it was a damned good story about just how horrifyingly difficult crossing the border from Mexico to Texas can be.
Connemara – Tim Robinson: I’m Irish so sue me.
The Great Warming – Brian Fagan: solid read on a critical period of history examined from an environmentally deterministic viewpoint.
1493 – Charles C. Mann: excellent in every way and goes to great lengths to exemplify why our world is the way it is today and why Columbus, for good or ill, matters.
Bukowski – Post Office
Bukowski – Women
I love Bukowski and if you don’t, well, more for me then.
Barbarossa – Alan Clark: remains the single best one volume, non-specialist treatment of the war on the Eastern front in print.