Random Reading

Are these the best books I’ve ever read? No. But they’re books that in some way inspired me, comforted me, taught me something when I was young and/or for mysterious reasons compelled me to write them up in a capsule review.

Lost on a Mountain in Maine

by Donn Fendler as told to Joseph B. Egan

Boy gets lost on Mount Katahdin, freezes, hallucinates, gets eaten alive by mosquitoes, and starts using “Christmas!” as a G-rated expletive. A search-and-rescue operation fails. Many lose hope. Boy wanders for days. Happy ending ensues. A classic children’s book, in print since 1939. (Click here to read more about Donn Fendler’s mountain misadventure.)

The Thread That Runs So True

by Jesse Stuart
Stuart’s style isn’t so much dry as parched, and he does have a habit of interrupting the story to brag about his fighting prowess. (An 18-year-old fourth grader once tried to beat him up after school.) But these tales of a rural Kentucky teacher in the 1930s and ’40s are fascinating. Sadly, many of the problems troubling teachers then are still around today in the No Child Left Behind era.

The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything

by John D. MacDonald

The appeal of this book is the implausible invention of one of the characters: a gold watch that stops time. I want one, too. Looming deadlines and lack of sleep often make me wish the universe came with a pause button. The book itself is absurdly dated, so rooted in the 1960s that you almost expect Goldie Hawn and Austin Powers to show up on the next page. But it’s entertaining to watch the characters race to get their hands on the time-stopping watch and to struggle with the ethical implications of having the power to pause time.


by Ken Grimwood

A forty-something man with an unhappy marriage and a job he despises feels a sudden pain in his chest, which he assumes is a heart attack. He collapses. When he wakes up, he’s not in a hospital bed—he’s lying on his back in a college dorm room. A vaguely familiar-looking college dorm room. He looks in a mirror and he sees himself—at age 18.

This is a book full of intriguing questions. What if you could relive your life? Would you have the same friends, choose the same career, marry the same person? What if you knew everything that was going to happen for the next twenty years—but you could barely remember your old college friends’ names, or what courses you were supposed to be taking, or what happened “yesterday.” What do you do?

What is it like to interact with parents and teachers when you’re actually older than they are? Could you change history? Could you, say, stop the Kennedy assassination? What would happen if you tried?

Every few years I reread this book and enjoy it every time. It’s amusing when the main character can’t kind find anything but “oldies” on the radio. In fact, he can’t even find the FM dial.

The culture shock of going suddenly from 1983 back to the early 1960s is part of what makes the book so interesting. I wish the author, or anyone else, would write a sequel to Ken Grimwood’s Replay set two decades later. It would be fascinating to watch a character who has seen the end of the Cold War, the explosion of the Internet, the Challenger and Columbia disasters, September 11, etc., suddenly thrust back into 1979.

I’m sure it would be very strange to return to a world where people still smoked and no one had a cell phones surgically attached to their ears.

Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

by Robert A. Caro

A great read for political junkies, especially during an election year. Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 senate race against a legendary, insanely popular former Texas governor, Coke Stevenson, was in many ways the first “modern” election campaign, complete with mudslinging, smears, soundbites, accusations of voter fraud, and appeals to the Supreme Court.

Stevenson had a long, distinguished career and reputation for honesty and integrity. He refused to respond to Johnson’s attacks and mudslinging, considering it “undignified.” “The people know my record,” he told friends. That would be enough, he assumed. Surely no one would believe the upstart Johnson’s mudslinging.

LBJ, meanwhile, never slept. He hired a helicopter and a band and barnstormed from town to town, chipping away at Stevenson’s reputation at every opportunity. It was a new way of campaigning. Would it work?

There’s a fascinating scene where Johnson wrestles with his conscience, debating whether the ends justify the means. However honest Stevenson was, he was also a reactionary who, in Johnson’s opinion, would do terrible damage in Washington. LBJ decides there’s no point in “playing nice” if it means he’ll lose. He can’t do any good for the party unless he wins.

In the end, oddly reminiscent of the Florida 2000 election with its hanging chads, the race comes down to 87 hotly contested votes.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert A. Heinlein

Speaking of politics… before Heinlein devolved into a weird, horny, scatterbrained old man, he actually wrote some pretty good books. This is one of them. A political activist, a blue-collar computer tech, and a professor who is basically a Libertarian Dumbledore get together and conspire to start a revolution—on the moon!

They argue about economics and political theory, write subversive poetry, play practical jokes with computerized toilets, and stumble uncomfortably into a war of independence, a la Jefferson and Franklin in 1776, but in space.

Madame Bovary

by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Paul de Man

Je suis un américain stupide. That’s pretty much all that’s left of my high school French. (Translated literally, it means, “Excuse me, I’m lost.”) Sometimes, listening to Quebec radio, I’ll understand every tenth word. Numbers jump out at me, though. Once I watched a tennis match on a Quebec station; the commentators’ voices sounded like this: “la la la la la forty fifteen la la la la la Martina Hingis la la la third set.”

Madame Bovary is a book that makes me wish I had better French, so I could read it in the original. What makes this book so special? Not the plot about an adulterous love affair (considered steamy and scandalous enough in its day to ban the book and put the author and publisher on trial). Not the humor (of which there’s plenty, especially in the beginning. I laughed often. Oddly, Flaubert himself never seemed to realize he’d written a funny book. In one of his letters, after the success of Bovary, he expresses befuddlement at being asked to write a comic opera).

The real strength of Madame Bovary is the poetic, almost musical, quality of the language. Flaubert chooses each word carefully, like a note in a symphony.

I’ve read every translation I could get my hands on. The best, in my opinion, is the one by Paul de Man, based on the Eleanor Marx Aveling translation. I also liked the Mildred Murmur version. These best preserved the rhythm and lyricism of Flaubert’s writing. For some reason, the widely available Francis Steegmuller translation fell flat to my ears. It was like listening to a familiar melody played on out-of-tune instruments.

Steegmuller’s collections of Flaubert’s letters make good reading. But when it comes to translations of Bovary the novel. . . .Paul, you de man.

(Naturally, the particular translation I recommend in this review is out of print, but you can still find used copies.)