This page is a motley collection of books - those I'm currently enjoying and faithful reference books, plus some all time favorites as well as prior recommendations. Last updated June, 2006.

Current Reads - on my nightstand, along with my reading glasses

ancestor's tale The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins
Ahhh, more Dawkins, as refreshing, concise and thorough as usual. This amazing book wraps zoology, anatomy, embryology,genetics, molecular biology and paleontology into a compelling narrative. By the end, you have a nodding acqauintance with the rich complexity of life on earth, as well as a sound understanding of the work and detail that has gone into researching and understanding the interrelationships between species and between genes. Even though I've finished this book, it stays on my nightstand while I revisit intriguing anecdotes.

The premise parallels the Canterbury Tales, with each arriving "pilgrim" providing an anecdote that contributes to the fabric of the whole. Each pilgrim is a modern species and all are tracing their roots back from the twigs of the complex bush that represents all life on earth, back along the evolutionary twigs, branches and boughs to the likely single common ancestor. We meet up with the other pilgrims at the points where their lineages branch off from our own. It is interesting to note that in the hundreds of millions of years back to our unicellular origins, we encounter only 39 of these branchings.

cheerful ladiesIn the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith
How about a nice, meandering visit to Botswana? I don't know that I would call these mysteries, although each one does have a narrative thread of a problem to be investigated and solved. The meat of the stories lies in the philosophies and relationships of the characters and the comfortably unhurried pace of the storytelling. When I finish one of these books, I feel like I've just finished a relaxing interlude with a wise friend over a cup of tea in the shade of a peaceful tree on a warm day. Start with the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency if you want to proceed through the series in order.

Pride and Prejudice (see below under All Time Favorites) currently has the top spot on the stack. It is good for a page or a paragraph, or sometimes only a couple of sentences to get my mind off my day before I fall asleep.

Faithful Reference/Non-fiction Books - These are the ones I keep close at hand

barberWomen's Work, The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Elizabeth Barber uses all of her skills as an archaeologist, linguist and weaver to assemble a very readable summary of the first 20,000 years of textile history. It tells ancient history from the domestic viewpoint instead of that of the hunter/warrior.

Prehistoric Textiles by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Barber meant to write only a short monograph pointing to some possibly fruitful areas to investigate in the field of textile archaeology. Her research uncovered such a wealth of unpublished and underanalyzed data about ancient textiles that this thick tome is the result. It is a great book for those whose appetites are only whetted by Women's Work. This scholarly work goes into detail on the techniques, social and financial and even political aspects of prehistoric textiles. I was riveted, but then, I'm partial to yarn and that sort of stuff.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Another classic, albeit in a different genre.

patternA Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, et al.
This book list a collection of interconnected patterns, or isolated truths, about the buildings and communities we live in. It is meant as a tool to help design communities and buildings that benefit the people who live in them. From the characteristics necessary for a lively town square to the specfics of how deep and sheltered a balcony must be before people feel comfortable using it, this book is full of surprises that will have you nodding your head in agreement.  Whether you are designing a house from scratch or just want help putting your finger on what your present house needs to make it just right, this book pays for itself many times over.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
For looking further into the origins of things, this is a natural . After a conversation with a New Guinea highlander friend of his, Diamond explores the deepest origins of the inequity of resources in the world. He poses the question of what deep underlying causes led to white Europeans having the guns, germs and steel that allowed them enough advantage to spread their influence around the globe. It boils down to the fact that they were on the right part of the right continent at the right time, with a little help from some infighting that gave the competition a setback, but I won't spoil the ending for you.

All Time Favorites

p_and_pPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen came late into my life, propelled there by some enthusiastic friends and a latent curiosity as to what all the fuss was about. I'm hooked. It deserves its place as a classic. It's great as a family portrait, a romance, a study of human character and as a history.

Austen writes about her time from her own experience, so the book shows a piece of the England of two centuries ago from the perspective of the author as well as the characters of. An annotated version helps interpret her assumptions. Although we might not immediately grasp the enormity of one social faux pas or another, her illustrations of character flaws and foibles are as realistic and applicable now as they were then. She is a master at grasping and illustrating what is ridiculous and what is noble in humankind, but with a wry smile that removes any sense of preachiness. She sheds light on our own times as well as her own.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers
Clouds of Witness brings together the best of the features of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. The mystery is well tangled and thought through, the characters play themselves out well, and the seeds of the ongoing background story are planted. The personal relationships between the characters develop from here until they take center stage in her second to last book, Gaudy Night. (I'm not counting Thrones, Dominations, which was finished by someone other than Sayers.)

Favorite quote: "Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force."

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
Gaudy night is the book that always sits on my bedside table. I liked it least of all the Wimsey mysteries the first time I read it - too much character development and not enough crime. Now that's why I re-read it.

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers
One of the most light hearted of the Wimsey mysteries, possibly because it was written for the stage and needed more repartee, or maybe because she had friends working on it with her.

Favorite quote: "Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, I think he has the lurking  suspicion that Brother Peter may have that little extra something that he hasn't got himself , and that it might even be a good thing to have if one didn't have to consider the County."

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Maybe all that thinking about the origins of things brings this to mind, but it's never very far out of reach in any case. I always seem to have at least a couple copies kicking around the house. My favorite is to read the stories out loud in front of a roaring fire on a wintry day. Kipling's language was meant to be heard. I can't remember not being able to recite "I am the cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me." We always had cats around the house and my mother was, if anything, more prone to reciting quotations than I am. I have been amused by the Elephant's Child with his 'satiable curiosity, chastened by the tale of the lazy camel's hump, tickled by the parsee man's creative vengeance on the rhino ("Them that takes cakes that the parsee man bakes makes dreadful mistakes."). But the Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, about a creature who wanted to be very much changed by sundown and then groused about the "improvements," sticks with me more than most. I can't imagine why...

The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber
Another all time favorite read aloud. I always identified with the Golux - very well intentioned but a little confused.

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang.
This book was introduced to me by my then 3 year old niece, proving to me once and for all that good children's books have been written since I was a child. This is a wordless story with exquisite detail in the pictures, suspense in the story and a very happy ending. The illustrations are both realistic and whimsically surreal. You could spend long minutes looking with a child of almost any age at the things you didn't notice before on each page, or following where the mushrooms grow in a certain character's footprints (noting that they also grow in the tracks of his skateboard wheels). Or you could sneak off alone with the book so you can look at each part as long as YOU want.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
A classic. Even better than the movies.

Recommended Reading - Fiction and Nonfiction

Books that are worth reading.

serpent on the crowncrocodileThe Serpent on the Crown by Elizabeth Peters
I've been travelling to Egypt lately with the indomitable Amelia Peabody. The more I get to know the characters in these books, the more time I want to spend with them. The plots are twisted,  the characters are, well, truly characters, and the archaeology is accurate.  They make for fast, comfortable and entertaining reads. I discovered them only recently, so I got to read the first dozen or so books of the series in quick succession. Now I have to wait along with everyone else for Peters to finish the next one.
Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first. The Serpent on the Crown is the latest (as of January 2006), and there is another on the way, I understand. Yum.

Sabriel and Lirael and Abhorsen by Garth Nix
Currently being enjoyed by 11 year old Alison and 13 year old Brian, as well as by the grownups, these books get passed around a lot. Nix does a good job of creating a unique new world, one where magic is as inevitable as gravity, and then giving it a border with a country that resembles England in the 20's. (And you thought we had border problems with Mexico.) The heroines of both are young women coping with their own gifts and disadvantages. The story has enough complexity to have some characteristics of a mystery as to how all the greater and lesser characters are connected. This has made for some good family discussions at our house. Both stories can be read alone, but Lirael is an obvious sequel to Sabriel. Both books await the third in the trilogy, so if cliff-hangers bother you, don't start these yet. Abhorsen is due in spring 2002, I've heard.   Update: Abhorsen was worth the wait. Wish the series didn't end there. Update 6/06: Nix seems to be as drawn to the Old Kingdom as we have been and has written some shorter works that continue the story.

The Promise of Sleep by William Dement
This thick book will open your eyes about the mechanics of sleep, our need for sleep and the terrible toll that sleep deprivation takes on our society and our personal lives. It covers everything from all-nighters in college to life-threatening sleep disorders. The style is casual, the content is factual and the references to numerous sleep studies add credibility. Far from inducing sleep, reading this book kept me up past my bedtime several nights until I finished it. (Jan. '02)

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett
I like Laurie Garrett's style. She explains the history of world epidemics while tying them to current events in such a way as to show their relvance. Then she builds on all of this to put forth a scathing indictment of the worldwide handling of the AIDS crisis in its early years, along with a clear understanding of the inevitability of that path under the circumstances. It might help to have read And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts, but I think The Coming Plague stands alone just fine. The book is worth it just for her telling of the eradication of smallpox.