So Many Books, So Little Time...

David P. Stern


      A good book leaves its reader changed for the better--amused, elated, informed, thoughtful, appreciative, perhaps impressed by some unusual personality or insight, perhaps better prepared to face a challenge in life. Alas, good books are rare: only a small fraction pass the above test. I have spent many hours browsing in libraries, sifting through bookstores and reviews, searching for elusive "good" books. Some are better than others, but each is a find.

            Over the years, a list of such discoveries has accumulated and it follows below, each book with its thumbnail description. To be sure, these are personal choices: I like non-fiction, especially biographies of unusual individuals, also travelogues, history and (being a scientist) books pertaining to science. Even if your tastes differ, you might find here something of interest to you.

            Anyone compiling a list like this quickly finds that books go out of print much too quickly. By the time you discover a book, it may well be gone from bookstores, even from public libraries, whose turnover can be remarkably rapid. That is what makes library sales and second-hand bookstores fun! If any books here hard to locate, and you do not mind paying the price of new for a second hand copy in good condition, try the "Advanced Book Exchange," a central web address for a large number of second-hand book dealers at



My Life as an Indian. by William Schulz.         Life of a young white American who married into an Indian tribe, around the turn of the century. Originally published as a series of linked stories, a perceptive and readable look into a way of life that is no more.

The Ends of the Earth , by Robert Kaplan

            The world is heading into a crisis--too many people, too few resources--and the have-nots, euphemistically named "third world," are the ones bearing the greatest pressure. A travelogue of East Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand and Cambodia (plus a few more), deeply disturbing.
            Same author: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan --an earlier book (ca. 1992), a trip through Croatia, Serbia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, a part of the world where the violence of the past still dominates the present.
Stories by doctors--all very readable:

Manhattan Country Doctor, by Milton Jonathan Slocum.

            Life in a New York neighborhood during the depression, through the eyes of a young doctor and his wife--living among whores, gangsters and ordinary families, each with its problems. Was that a kinder, gentler time--or wasn't it, really?
Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery by Richard Selzer, Simon & Schuster 1976
            An overview of the human body, precisely presented by a poetic surgeon. With classical illustrations and a haunting chapter on the ultimate fate of our bodies.
            Same author: Raising the Dead, part a factual account, part a fictional one (you decide on the proportions) about the shadowy existence of a comatose patient, based on the author's own near-death experience.
The Life of the Skin, by Arthur K. Balin, Loretta Pratt Balin and Marietta Whittlesey, Bantam books 1997.
            A bit similar to "Mortal Lessons"--here, too, doctors introduce the reader to their art by recounting actual cases. If you ever thought dermatology was a minor medical sideline, this detailed and feeling book will educate you.
Vital Signs, by Fitzhugh Mullan,
            A personal story emotionally told, by a 32-year old doctor in the unexpected role of a patient. The story of his slow recovery from cancer and from effects of an operating-room accident.
Brain Matters by Bruce H. Dobkin, Crown Publishers 1986,
            A personal account of the successes and failures of a neurologists--including the case of his own father. Well written.
Emergency Doctor, Edward Ziegler with Dr. Lewis R. Goldfrank.
            Like hell, the emergency room of Bellevue hospital in New York City sees plenty of human misery. Luckily, it also has Dr. Goldfarb and his crew.
* * * * * * * * *

Deadly Feasts, by Richard Rhodes.

            A book about prion disease, from Kuru and Gadjusek's cannibals, to the "Mad Cow Disease" and to present-day fears. Richard Rhodes superbly traces a tangled story, and few of those reading his account will remain complacent. Some might even turn vegetarian.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.
            A gripping adventure which fully deserves its long run on the best-seller list. Jon was on Mt. Everest (even to the top) on the day when too many climbers tried to scale it and a sudden deadly storm erupted. Told with compassion and insight, a story to remember.
Star of Peace by Jan De Hartog
            A 1984 novel about 1939 events: a devout, innocent Dutch captain takes a cargo of Jews expelled from Germany, only to find no one is willing to receive them. Fast paced, well written.
Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen
            A funny, irreverent coming-of-age novel, mainly about Mona, a Chinese girl in a fashionable NY suburb, who decides to become Jewish. A well-written tall tale--or is it?
The Man who Loved only Numbers, by Paul Hoffmann.
            The life of Paul Erdös, a mathematician with uncommon talent and idiosyncrasies. Delightful (but see next item).
My Brain is Open, by Bruce Schechter (Simon and Schuster, 1998).
            Yet another biography of Paul Erdös (see above). A more insightful portrait of the man--how he carved out his unique niche, his family, even some of his math. Delightful too, of course.
Private Yankee Doodle, by Joseph Plumb Martin edited 1962 by George E. Scheer, Eastern Acorn Press.
            The recollections of a soldier in the American Revolution, charmingly written, extremely readable. Seems like starvation was the main enemy.
Rebels and Redcoats
            An account of the American revolutionary war, extensively quoting its participants. A long struggle with uncanny parallels to the Viet Nam war.
In Search of History by Theodore H. White.
            Aptly subtitled "A Personal Adventure," the eyewitness story of a perceptive reporter in China and Europe, during WW II and afterwards.
Fermat's Last Theorem by Amir D. Aczel.
            A somewhat frustrating book, trying to get across to non-mathematicians the achievement of Andrew Wiles in proving Fermat's theorem. One gets glimpses, but the technical details are daunting.
Tribe of Tiger, subtitled "Cats and their Culture," by Elizabeth Marshall
            A wonderfully intimate look at cats, big and small--especially lions, pumas and common tabbies. We will never know how exactly the mind of a cat works, but this book probably comes as close as any.
The Perfect Storm Sebastian Junger
            Story about the lives of Gloucester fishermen, and about their deaths in an exceptionally violent storm.
The Flying S by Igor Sikorsky (1967, badly out of print)
            An autobiography describing the three aviation careers of Sikorski in one lifetime--building 4-engine bombers in Czarist Russia, building long-range flying boats in the US, and developing the modern helicopter. Fascinating and personal.
Good Evening, Everybody, the autobiography of Lowell Thomas.
            Life as a world-wide adventure--gold mining in Colorado, the British conquest of Palestine from the Turks, Laurence of Arabia, the German disorders after WW I, early aviation, India and the far west, and much more, ending with a career in broadcasting. Great fun (but also out of print).
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.
            A thick scholarly study, written with passion, with more technical and personal detail than any previous one. History ought to be written like this. Only slows down when the author moralizes.
A Hole in the World by Richard Rhodes.
            Autobiography of a tough youth, the story of two brothers and a cruel stepmother. Well written, attentive to detail and emotion.
Lawrence and Oppenheimer, Nuel Pharr Davis.
            Fascinating study of two young geniuses who started together as professors in Berkeley and then became prime movers in the Manhattan project. Reveals aspects over which Rhodes skimmed in "Making of the Atomic Bomb"--and vice versa. Loses some focus towards the end.
The Coldest War, James Brady.
            A young officer's view of the Korean war, well told. The reader gets to feel what it was like to be on the front lines.
Anne Frank Remembered.
            An autobiography of Miep Gies, the remarkable woman who hid Anne Frank and her family. A tribute to the Dutch resistance movement and the human spirit.
First Light, by Richard Preston.
            An inside view of the life of astronomers at Palomar (and elsewhere), by a writer who lived among them for a while. Focused mainly on James Gunn and his colleagues, trying to locate the earliest quasars, and on Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, hunting (perhaps) "killer asteroids."

Motoring with Mohammed, Eric Hansen.

            A travelogue from Yemen, tied up with a personal quest. Written in good humor and with a warm feeling for the country (see next book below). Stranger in the Forest by same author, the story of a solo walk across northern Borneo--even better.

Baghdad without a Map  by Tony Horowitz.

            Also a somewhat humorous travelogue, covering the entire Near East, but the humor only slightly eases the impressions of a tough neighborhood. The chapters on Yemen make nice comparison with Hansen's book (preceding).
Invisible Invaders, by Peter Radetsky.
            The gripping story of virus research, well written, meaty popular science, quite up to date.
Looking for a Ship, by John McPhee.
            A trip to South America and back aboard a container ship, with an close view of merchant mariners and their troubled profession.
Control of Nature by John McPhee.
            Like most of McPhee's books (all seem good!), focuses on interaction of society and technology. Three stories: stopping the lower Mississippi from finding a new (and shorter) way to the sea, away from New Orleans; stopping a lava flow on Iceland; and the battle between Los Angeles suburbs and the crumbling mountains in their back yard.
Road Fever by Tom Cahill.
            Adventure travelogue, written with spirit. An attempt to place a new record in the Guinness book by driving a pickup truck from the southern tip of America to the Alaska northern shore in less than 24 days.
Southern Exposure by Alex Shoumatoff.
            Two long stories: a trip up the Amazon, to people who live on the edge of the jungle; and (the better of the two) a visit to the highlands of Zaire, including hikes with pygmies through the forest.
Arctic Grail, by Pierre Berton.
            A Canadian author traces the history of the quest for the North-Western Passage and the North Pole. Remarkable gallery of odd characters and high adventure, well told.
The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth.
            Japan extends from Cape Soya in the north to Cape Sata . This is the story of a walk from Soya to Sata, through the less-populated western coast of Japan, by an Englishman fluent in Japanese with a good eye for cultural nuances.
Nobel Dreams by Gary Taubes.
            The story of Carlo Rubbia, the Nobel prize he won for discoveries in high energy physics. and the second Nobel prize sought by him, which turns into a mirage. Inside view of the high-pressure world of cutthroat physics.
Expecting Somebody Taller by Tom Holt.
            Funny fantasy, well written. Wagner's Valhalla exists and its gods and heroes are still around when a well-meaning wimp named Malcolm inherits the source of its power.
On the Road by Charles Kuralt.
            Autobiographical story of a noted journalist who traveled around the US (and sometimes beyond) searching for interesting places and people. Some notable stories.
Eyewitness by Robert Payne (very much out of print).
            Autobiography--the youth of a distinguished writer. It spans a remarkable decade: Spain 1939, meeting with Hitler, Singapore 1941, flight to China, a remarkable view of China's internal turmoil and civil wars, with a final interlude in India.
Slide Rule by Nevil Shute (Out of print)
            Shute became known as a writer, but much of his life writing was a sideline to a career in aeronautical engineering (his full name: Nevil Shute Norway). This is the story of his career in aviation, and the highlight is the great airship competition of the 1920s, when Shute was on Barnie Wallis'es winning team.
            (Incidentally, Shute is mainly remembered for "On the Beach," "A Town like Alice" and the prophetic "No Highway," prescient of the "Comet" jetliner crashes. However, some of his older books are at least as good. Trustee from the Toolroom is probably the best, Checker-board, Around the Bend, all good, all gently upbeat.)
Russian Journal, by Andrea Lee.
            Perceptive impressions of an American Black, an exchange student in Russia around 1979.
Quest by Leopold Infeld (badly out of print).
            Autobiography of a distinguished Polish physicist, ending with his emigration to the US and association with Einstein.
My World Line by George Gamov
            The outstanding life of a gifted and imaginative physicist, born in Russia, establishing there a career after the revolution and ending in the US. Gamov did not live to write the final chapters, and the book is far too short, but it's an exciting yarn nevertheless. Long out of print.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
            Orwell's story of volunteering in the Spanish Civil war, of his time in the trenches, his wounding and of all he saw and felt.
Not Without my Daughter by Betty Mahmoodi.
            By an American woman who married Iranian doctor in the US. After the Shah was overthrown the husband took the family back to Iran, and suddenly Betty Mahmoodi and her daughter found themselves trapped in an alien society. A story of perseverance, friendship and ultimate escape. (A film exists, said to be inferior to the book.)
The Kingdom by Robert Lacy.
            A history of the Saudi kingdom, of the days before oil and afterwards. A modern parallel to the stories of King David and the 2nd book of Samuel.
My Early Life, by Winston Churchill,
            A classic, beautifully written autobiography, covering military service against the Mahdi in Sudan and in the Boer War.
Borderlines by Charles Nicholl,
            Travels in Thailand and its opium-growing border with Burma and Laos, in the company of a remarkable young Thai woman.
Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon by Iosif Shklovsky.
            Russia's counterpart to "Surely you are Joking Mr. Feynman." Like that book, it's an autobiography in tall tales, funny and bittersweet.
Russian Blood by Alex Shoumatoff.
            A gifted travel writer traces his family's roots in Russian nobility and among emigrees who came to America.
African Madness by Alex Shoumatoff.
            Travels in Madagascar, Rwanda etc., also "In Search of the Source of AIDS."
The John McPhee Reader, edited by William L. Howarth.
            A sampler anthology first published in 1976, with a chapter from each of a dozen books. This sort of thing rarely works, but here it does and very well; credit the compiler, whose preface is excellent.
            More Mc.Phee:
            Coming Into the Country, three stories about Alaska; the one about the Klondike today is particularly good.
            The Curve of Binding Energy, the life of Ted Taylor, A-bomb designer.
           Table of Contents, a collection--about bears in New Jersey, country doctors in Maine, small hydro plants in New York state, etc.
           Oranges, all one could ever want to know about oranges, their history and the people who grow them in Florida.
Moments in the Life of a Scientist, by Bruno Rossi,
           Autobiography of a great scientist, on early cosmic ray research, Italy, Los Alamos etc., pleasantly told.
What Little I Remember by Otto Frish.
            Another life in science, another story of Los Alamos.
Farm by Richard Rhodes.
            Distillation of a year spent on a family farm in Kansas. A lifestyle that is both wholesome and demanding, sophisticated and precarious.
From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves; From X-rays to Quarks.
            Histories of classical and modern physics, respectively, by Emilio Segre. Lucidly written, with just the right blend of technical details and personalities. The scientific nitty-gritty is there too, tucked away into appendices.
The Man who Knew Infinity, a biography of Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel.
            A book rich in details, covering in detail not only the great mathematician's family and his life in both India and England, but also the life of his friend and mentor Hardy.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. (This was written long before the movie!)
            One of my few dips into fiction--mindless, contrived, but clever and fun to read, "a good bad book." May be a bit overelaborate, but I look forward to the film.
A River went out of Eden, by Chana Cox,
            The autobiography of a Jewish woman who spent 8 years at Five Mile Bar on the Salmon River, an isolated spot where I discovered this book while on a rafting trip. Warm, well-written.
Genius, by James Gleik, a biography of Richard Feynman.
            Gleik's comments add little, but when Feynman does the talking, the story becomes lively.
Forty Days, by Bob Simon.
            Simon led a CBS camera crew which strayed across the Kuwaiti border and ended up in Iraqi jail. Mean place, mean people, honest account.
Policewoman One, by Gayleen Hays with Kathleen Moloney.
            Story of a veteran LA policewoman--an entertaining bunch of tall tales, undoubtedly true.
Brother's Keeper, by Donald Westlake.
            Old, vintage Westlake, centered on invented monastery in NYC. Funny, entertaining. By no means miss other tall taled by Westlake --e.g. The Dancing Aztecs, High Adventure, Smoke, Good Behavior and of course The Hot Rock, also made into a delightful movie, the last one Zero Mostel starred in.
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, continued in Child of War, Woman of Peace,.
            Autobiography of a Vietnamese woman, in her home village, in the city and then in America. Strong stuff, well written (with the help of her son). A movie also exists, combining both books, but its reviews were not favorable.
All My Patients are Under the Bed, by Louis J. Camuti (1980).
            Story of a cat veterinarian in New York City, personal, entertaining, easy reading.
Is there a Doctor in the Zoo? by David Taylor.
            Witty, warm account of the veterinarian at the Manchester zoo, many tales, very British.
The Fall of Yugoslavia by Misha Glenny.
            By a BBC correspondent fluent in Serbo-Croatian who traveled all over the country. A close look at a civil war as of mid-1992, quite frightening.
Zero 3 Bravo, by Mariana Gosnell.
            Travelogue: a young woman flies solo coast-to-coast and back in light plane, registration number 03B. Upbeat, personal, full of interesting encounters.
Alone with the Devil by Ronald Markman and Dominick Bosco.
            True accounts by a psychologist delegated to study the minds of convicted murderers in California. Rather explicit and frightening.
Logbook for Grace, by Robert Cushman Murphy (Time-Life books 1965, 1st. ed. 1947).
            Lovely diary (intended for his new wife Grace) by a naturalist aboard one of the last old-style whaling voyages--under sail, with hand-held harpoons cast from small boats. Witty, well-written.
You Belong in a Zoo!, by Peter Brazaitis (Villard, NY 2003).
            A charming collection of "tales from a lifetime spent with cobras, crocs and other creatures." Peter Brazaitis started at 18 as junior zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, rose to oversee the reptile house, and later became senior zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan. Even if reptiles are not your favorite part of the animal kingdom, this book is a treat.
My War, by Andy Rooney.
            A candid, first-hand account of an unsure college kid drafted into the army in 1941, emerging from the war a seasoned writer intimately familiar with war. Written many years later, "My War" still recaptures the wartime mood and atmosphere.
The Brass Ring, by Bill Mauldin (Norton, 1971).
            Bill Mauldin is best known as the cartoonist whose "Willie and Joe" put a familiar face on the US infantryman, tempering the horrors of WW II with gentle humor. Bill Mauldin started as such an infantryman, too. The story of Bill's earlier life, however, is no less interesting. Growing up poor in rural New Mexico, Bill was 13 when his parents split up; earning money by cartooning even then, he together with his brother (16) then decided to live independently. An intimately written, witty book, many illustrations.
Philadelphia Chickens, by Sandra Boynton (Workman Publishing Company, 2002).
            It looks--outside and inside--like an illustrated book for children, but don't let it fool you. (A note on the bottom clarifies: "For all ages, except 43.") The vital part of the book is the music on the CD tucked inside the front cover, but don't ignore the book, either. A delicious bit of tomfoolery, disguised as a musical review whose stars may be animals but who act like some all-too-familiar humans.
Funny in Farsi, by Firoozeh Dumas (187 pp., $21.95, Villard Books 2003)
           Subtitled "A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America," this is a witty, sunny and sensitive account of an Iranian girl living on the divide between a loving, traditional (and very extended) Iranian family and the reality of modern California.
Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack (subtitled "A Boyhood Year During World War II"), by Charles Osgood (Hyperion, NY 2003).
            It was 1942, Charles Osgood was 9 years old, and thanks God, Baltimore was far from the horrors of war. Here is the story of a funny kid who stuffed paper in his ears and tried to run away from home, with a child's passion for Zorro's adventures on film and for radio heroes. A sunny, nostalgic little book, a fresh but candid look at a bygone era.
Stargazer, Fred Watson (x+342 pp, De Capo Press, 2004).
            The astronomical telescope, in the hands of Galileo, jump-started the scientific revolution--but how Galileo got it is a story by itself, and its evolution from there on is also filled with unexpected twists and turns. Fred Watson, a senior observatory astronomer, tells those stories well--and even if the track thins out in the 20th century, there is plenty here for any astronomer, vicarious or serious.
George Washigton by Paul Johnson, 126 pp, Atlas Books by Harper Collins, 2005
            It is harder to write a good short biography than a long one, but this one succeeds admirably. It leaves a vivid image, not just of Washington's leadership during the War of Independence, but also of his personal life, forebears, habits, his social climb, and not least, of his quiet leadership of the US Constitutional Convention (it wasn't all Madison and Hamilton), and of his presidency. A short book, but one to be savored slowly.
Journey from the land of No, by Roya Hakakian, x+246 pp, Crown pub., NY 2004.
            Subtitled "a girlhood caught in revolutionary Iran," the first half of this book tells of the life of a Jewish family in the Shah's Tehran, an extended family with crises and problems, a family proud of its Iranian roots. A revolution brings an oppressive theocracy into power, and sunny life turns into nightmare: the story becomes somewhat fragmented, but its painful message is all too clear.
Blowing my Cover, my life as a CIA Spy, by Lindsay Moran, 295 pp., G.P. Putnam's Sons 2005.
            A young woman seeks an exciting career in the service of her country. The training is challenging, but the job itself is lonely and frustrating. Is the CIA as effective as it is believed to be? Read and form your own judgment. (Then compare this one).
Leonardo da Vinci by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Boris Kulikov, 128 pp, Viking, 2005.
            Books for young readers are often more carefully crafted than those for grown-ups, maybe to encourage reading among the visually tempted. This slim biography is one of them, and it may well open your eyes.

        Da Vinci was unique. Contemporary of Columbus, vegetarian, an illegitimate son of a notary, he was apprenticed to a talented artist and produced memorable art, such as the Mona Lisa and "The Last Supper." But he often neglected art in favor of his pursuit of knowledge, of any kind. His main legacy to the world have been about 13,000 pages of notes, written in mirror script: only about half of them have been recovered.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 6 September 2007