Lists of Books


At the end of the summer, my friend Jenni Buchanan does an excellent job compiling the syllabus for her book group, Rediscovering the Classics. One of my favorite meetings each year is the one where Jenni reveals the list for the year, which is based on a theme. This year’s theme is “Literary Life Lessons,” and it includes some interesting reads, activities and field trips paired with books. After the syllabus announcement meeting back in August, Jenni and I were going for a hike, and I was telling her how I envy the task of creating the reading list each year. I love lists, and I love books, so lists of books make me happy. Jenni’s response to me was, “Well, why don’t you make up some of your own reading lists?” So, that’s what I set out to do here.

These lists are made up of books that I have not read. Consider it a way for me to organize my to-be-read stack around themes. With only a few exceptions, most of these are in my personal library. I had quite a few books to choose from, given that my to-be-read stack is actually a three-shelf bookcase. Also, given that Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon is only a few weeks away, I figured this is a good time to start building my reading pile in preparation for that event.

Women & Space
Before I was born, my mom worked as a computer programmer for the space program. She eventually ended up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is where she met my dad. Women in the space program have been getting a lot of attention recently, and there are some promising books out and an upcoming movie based on Hidden Figures. Here are my books on women and space:

  • Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr
    I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Sally Ride in grad school when I was organizing an event where she was the main speaker. She was kind, intelligent and inspiring, so I am really looking forward to reading more about her amazing life.
  • Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
    This book looks at the women known as “human computers” who used pencil and paper to do the complicated calculations necessary for space exploration. They were instrumental in building the U.S. space program and JPL.
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
    Shetterly introduces us to the women who were “human computers” in NASA’s early days, but Hidden Figures specifically looks at Black women who did the work of calculating things like flight paths by hand while also being segregated due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. Be sure to watch the trailer for the upcoming movie to get a glimpse of why it is so important that we recognize the outstanding achievements of this group of women.

Stephen King Books I Want to Read
Stephen King has written enough books to warrant his own list. I did not start reading King’s novels until about ten years ago when I picked up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I had previously dismissed King as simply a horror writer, but as soon as I delved into his work, I realized I was wrong, and I had grossly underestimated his ability as a storyteller. Yes, there is horror, but more than that, he creates highly relatable characters and writes about childhood in a way that is nostalgic without being overly sentimental. King’s books are usually quick reads–even the ones that are well over 600 pages. They make for an excellent choice when you want a good book to get lost in. This list could be really long, but I will keep it short and limit it to unread King books in my personal library and a few others I hope to get my hands on soon:

  • The Shining
  • Insomnia
  • Rose Madder
  • The Dead Zone
  • Different Seasons
  • Misery
  • Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales

Eastern California
Regular readers know that my favorite road buddy Tim Pershing and I love making adventures of our road trips. Tim’s family is in Reno, so we have made quite a few trips north and south on the 395 through Eastern California. On one trip we were stopped at a gas station in Independence, CA, and we saw a sign pointing toward Mary Austin‘s house. We both wondered who she was, so I got my phone out and started reading up on her.  We learned she was a nature writer in the early 20th century and that she was involved in the famous California Water Wars that eventually resulted in water from the Owens Valley being drained to supply the growing city of Los Angeles. You can learn more about this and more history about the region at the Eastern California Museum in Independence. Eastern California is also home to Manzanar, one of the camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. If your travels take you through this part of California, be sure to stop at the Manzanar National Historical Site. Here are a few books I have picked up on my trips through Eastern California:

  • The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
  • Essential Mary Austin: A Selection of Mary Austin’s Best Writings
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
  • No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869 Edited by Ida Rae Egli

Soccer Stories
I have only been a fan of soccer in the last couple years, and I owe that to the U.S. women’s soccer team and their 2015 World Cup victory. After watching those games, I was hooked and began rooting for the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League. We have been lucky this year to have two books hit the shelves by players from the 2015 World Cup team, and I have quickly added them both to my list. I recently attended a book signing for Carli Lloyd’s new book and was happy to see that the line stretched around the block. Anyone who doubts the popularity of women’s soccer should have seen the crowd gathered for her signing. So, here’s my short list of soccer stories to read:

  • When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World by Carli Lloyd
  • Forward: A Memoir by Abby Wambach

Alexander Hamilton
I am hooked on the soundtrack for Hamilton, and often when I am listening to it, I find myself googling details about the founding fathers and the early decades of our country’s existence. What I am really enjoying about Hamilton‘s popularity is that many others are finding a new interest in this part of our history. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has brought history alive in a creative way and opens up new ways to see and connect with the founding of the U.S. With that, I would like to tackle these two books:

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
    This is the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write Hamilton. I read the first page of the prologue and got chills. The writing is just that good. I get the feeling that this is not some dry, old history book.
  • Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
    Hamilton fans lovingly refer to this as the Hamiltome because of its size and extensive content. There are pictures, lyrics, notes, commentary and just about anything fans of the show could want. It is a good way to keep yourself busy while you wait for Hamilton’s America to premiere on PBS.

Books I Should Have Already Read
Have you ever been talking to people about books, and they start bringing up certain classics or other well-known works, and you stand there quietly, afraid to admit that you have not read the book being discussed? I think we all have those books–they are the ones that our friends are surprised to hear we have not read. I have slowly been trying to collect some of these when I visit used bookstores, and here are some of the titles currently in my to-be-read stack:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
  • Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Meridian by Alice Walker

Why You Need to Read California by Edan Lepucki


I first learned about Edan Lepucki’s new book when Sherman Alexie went on The Colbert Report and promoted it. Both Alexie and Stephen Colbert spoke about the battle between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group, and encouraged viewers to buy California from Powell’s, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Lepucki’s publisher is a subsidiary of Hachette. Seeing as how I enjoy watching Colbert and love Alexie’s books and short stories, I couldn’t resist a recommendation from them. (Oh, and you want me to order it from Powell’s? Bonus! Hold on a moment. Let me log into my account. Well, since I’m on the site, I might as well order a few books to take advantage of that flat-rate shipping.)

I was not sure what to expect from this book. I avoided reading much about it and did not read the summary on the flap of the book. All I knew was that it had to do with a couple, Cal and Frida, surviving somewhere in Northern California in the wake of the collapse of civilization. If you have not read the book yet and want to be surprised by how the story progressed, stop reading this post and come back when you are done. There will be spoilers. This is part review and part reflection on this amazing book.

Lepucki never clearly defines a single cataclysmic event that leads to the post-apocalyptic world Cal and Frida live in, but we do learn that there are major climate issues, economic collapse and shortages of food and basic services. Cities like Los Angeles are falling apart, and those with money are fleeing to well-protected places called Communities. Cal and Frida make the decision to head north and hide out in the forest.

Even just a few pages in, I was struck by Lepucki’s beautiful writing. I almost didn’t care what she was writing about. Her use of words just flowed so easily that I would have been fascinated had it been a simple manual on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The sentences are beautiful in their simplicity, and I often think of how Frida clung to a turkey baster as though it held the history of the world prior to the collapse of modern civilization.

In the first chapter, Lepucki writes, “From the small pile of artifacts, she picked up the abacus. She liked to pull the blue beads back and forth across the wires. She counted, she tapped, she closed her eyes. Frida had played with the abacus as a little girl and even then had depended on its calming effect” (4). Full disclosure here: my parents were both math and science geeks, and they gave my brother and me an abacus to play with. So, if I had to take one artifact into the post-apocalyptic world, it would be an abacus.

This passage about the abacus represents how Lepucki takes ordinary words and elevates them to a level that makes the reader want to savor every word. There is something about the way Cal and Frida must find shelter, tend the land and do the basic things to stay alive that makes post-apocolyptic life appealing—at least in the way Lepucki writes about it. It’s a life free of smart phones, advertising, traffic jams and all the trappings of this “comfortable” life we are accustomed to.

Of course, roughing it on their own is not necessarily enough. Frida stumbles upon what she calls “the Spikes,” strange formations made up of junk that serve us some sort of barrier. Frida’s curiosity about what lies beyond the Spikes drives the couple to find out if there are other people nearby. They find an old ghost town taken over by a group of people that happens to be run by Frida’s brother Micah. Their settlement is called the Land, and the people there work hard to keep their existence secret. Cal and Frida had thought that Micah died when he set off a suicide bomb back when they were all still in LA. It turns out that was someone else, and they had planted DNA evidence to make it look like Micah had been the bomber.

The Land seems like an ideal place on the surface. Existence is a communal experience. Everything is shared, and people contribute equally in labor. But it’s not all it appears to be, and Cal quickly starts to question things. We learn that Micah is in regular contact with a nearby Community, and he is engaged in some questionable practices in order to keep the Land’s existence secret and its inhabitants safe.

We also learn more about the Communities. They are controlling place where inhabitants are under constant surveillance and must abide by rules regarding things like having children. When we get a glimpse of Pines, a Community not far from the Land, we see that it hearkens back to an idealized version of the past, one where clean streets and friendly faces hide any problems or discomfort with the system.

Lepucki presents us with several alternatives in a world where civilization is falling apart. What we see is that even these last vestiges of society are little more than a last ditch effort to cling to a world that no longer exists. The Land and the Communities are on the verge of collapse themselves. When we last see Micah in the book, we know he has a plan to set off a bomb at Pines, and we also see that the things he does to try to guarantee the survival of the people on the Land are also the things that could cause the Land to break apart. In the end, Cal and the now pregnant Frida may have found a comfortable life at Pines, but it almost seems that they would be happier back in their little cabin in the forest with no one else around.

In California, the characters try to cling to this idea that there can still be some form of civilization despite the evidence around them. Basic services are in short supply, huge areas are being wiped out by extreme weather, violence is increasing and cities are crumbling. In this book, the apocalypse isn’t caused by a single event like zombies, an outbreak or major earthquake. The erosion of civilization itself is the apocalyptic event. That’s what makes this book so unsettling. It points out just how fragile our idea of civilization is. The beauty of this book lies in how Lepucki manages to convey that in a simple story of two people surviving in a post-apocalyptic world.

This book is worth the read. I really enjoyed it and found myself taking the last 50 pages very slow. I did not want it to be over. Go to your favorite independent bookstore and pick up a copy, or click on the link in the Work Cited section below to go to order it from Powell’s.

Lepucki made an appearance on The Colbert Report shortly after her book was released, and the interview is worth a watch. In the interview, she recommends Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clarke. I have not read it yet, but I plan to. I also look forward to Lepucki’s next book. 

Work Cited:

Lepucki, Edan. California. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.