The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux
If you had the time and the skills, would you spend months paddling a kayak — solo — among remote islands in the South Pacific? It sounds like a dream to some people, perhaps torture to others. Theroux makes the trip an anthropological exercise, yet one with humor interspersed among interesting and strange interactions with natives and ex pats. He considers currents and ancient boat-making skills along with similarities and differences in languages to trace the dispersal of people and cultures in this far away corner of the world. The takeaway is that it’s not all paradise as Theroux investigates social issues that have been introduced by visiting sailors, conquering governments and new technology alike. All in all, his writing style and approach to the subject matter made more of a lasting impression than a straightforward series of news articles might have.
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult’s writing style and treatment of the contemporary issue of school shootings were impressive, but I barely finished this book. She really got inside the heads of the kids planning and carrying out the horrible deed and her craftsmanship was admirable but I just couldn’t handle an entire book on the topic.
In Trouble Again by Redmond O’Hanlon
Many books about risk taking are serious dramas, emphasizing the peril and dangerous aspects of exploring. Others, like this account of probing the Amazon region with local guides and little ego, include humor for a refreshing, self-effacing look at the choices we make. It reminds me of my book, There’s a Porcupine in My Outhouse, and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, because it underscores the foibles of being human, the blunders and ignorance that can be funny.
Robert Murphy: The Pond
This was an influential book for me when I was growing up. I was fortunate to live in an area and at a time when I could roam outdoors and observe wildlife and nature. The Pond is a beautiful story that made me want to be outdoors that much more and developed my interest in writing about the things I saw and experienced. It’s one of the things that inspired me to save my money and buy a little cabin in Vermont just after college, a hideaway I still own and cherish (read about it in my book There’s a Porcupine in My Outhouse).
Willa Cather: My Antonia
Here’s one you may have read in high school (unwillingly), but revisiting it was a treat. I didn’t expect to get beyond the first few pages but what a beautiful story it turned out to be. The evocative feeling of the landscape made me want to be on the prairie despite the hardships of the lifestyle. The writing is wonderful.
Keith Richards: Life
I have been a Rolling Stones fan for longer than I care to admit, but never knew how they crafted their songs. This book details both the creative process and the crazy lifestyles of the band that has shaped so much of rock music. The writing was good and surprisingly honest — the drugs they did and the lack of sleep they got completely blew me away!
Avenue of Spies by Alex Kershaw
This book details a side of World War II that is rather unknown, that of the people of Paris during occupation, both the collaborators and the resistance. The writing is superb, it really makes you feel like you’re in the scene, in the moment Kershaw is writing about, and the reader develops great admiration for the doctor who saves so many through his quiet courage — as well as revulsion for the blind followers trying to ingratiate themselves with Hitler. Just as my latest book, So Close to Home, proves, there is still so much to investigate and unearth about this war that profoundly affected a wide swath of the world and brought out the best in some people and the worst in others.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
This was a fantastic book in that McCullough was able to really make the reader love and respect Wilbur Wright, that the reader just develops such admiration for both brothers for their perseverance. What governments and countries were unable to do (manned flight), these guys did without outside help. It shows that when you put your mind to something you can do what other people have only dreamed about. I loved that the writing doesn’t get bogged down, it just flows, and I hope that’s how my writing works. I always thought that at his age and with his experience, McCullough would get ponderous but this book doesn’t, and that’s what I hope for with my writing, I don’t want to come across as scholarly.