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2013 Fall Issue 7 (November 8, 2013)

Books & Ideas: Recommended Reading List

November 8, 2013

Need a good book? Here, our ‘Tonian editors recommended some of their favorites. If you have some down time before final projects get crazy, try one of these good reads to feed your mind... You won’t be disappointed by these literary successes!


The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power - Robert A. Caro

The fifties and sixties were the epoch of the American Century, a moment that has entered popular memory as a breathtaking peak of domestic tranquility and imperial sway.  And yet the tall prairie shadow of Texan Lyndon Johnson looms large over even these times, the most dizzying of the American ascendancy.

Beginning with his time as Senate Majority leader in the 1950s, Johnson’s achievements in civil rights and social justice, along with his disastrous blundering in the swamps of Vietnam, marked his own time indelibly and continue to shape our own.

Only three years don’t fit: 1960 to 1963.  During his time as Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson – overflowing with nervous energy and driven to achievement – was stripped of all power and relegated to the role of ceremonial peacock.  Forced to kowtow to a rich and flashy New England boy whom he did not respect, Johnson’s abject misery under Camelot is almost disturbing to behold.  Yet this snapshot of Johnson at ebb tide makes his seamless seizure of the reins of power after Kennedy’s assassination all the more remarkable by comparison

If for no other reason, Robert Caro’s latest is worthwhile for its fresh account of that dark day in Dallas (50 years this November 22).  If you haven’t read it already, the newest installment in what the Times of London called “one of the truly great political biographies of the modern age” should be a must-read this December.

- J.M. Hanley


The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner

In The Geography of Bliss, former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio Eric Weiner takes a trip around the world in pursuit of nothing short of ambitiousness: a pilgrimage to understand what makes people happy.

Weiner begins the quest in the Netherlands to take a look at the World Database of Happiness, interviewing a social scientist who dedicated his life’s research to attempting to quantify happiness.

The journey then visits a plethora of diverse climates, ranging from Bhutan – where happiness is the standard in much the same way GDP is the standard for the States – to a darkness-loving Iceland, an efficient-minded Switzerland, a culturally-absent Qatar, a light-hearted Thailand, a reserved UK, a dreary Moldova, and a crowded India.

Weiner concludes more on the tone of “the more we know the less we know,” i.e., that happiness cannot be quantified, or measured, but that certain places are visibly “happier” than others.

The methodology, spending less than two weeks in some countries (including a stay in the Four Seasons of Qatar) is puzzling if we are to take him seriously. But Weiner confesses from the beginning he is a whiner and, in general, has seen his fair share of therapists.

At times, the book comes across as a self-confessional forum for Weiner to come to terms with his own happiness. Overall, his honest wit and genuine desire to understand makes for a light and fun read.

- Maddy Crowell


War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

There’s a famous joke: once you begin War and Peace, you’ll be reading it for the rest of your life. But this massive 1,400-page project offers more than just an amusing sample from a 19th century Russian soap opera; it presents an intricate power play between humans with deep insight into the interplay between political affairs and the volatility of the private life.

Tolstoy takes you through the famous era of Napolean Bonaparte’s invasion of Austria to expand his empire. Russia, an ally of Austria at the time, was forced to stand their ground as Napolean gained power. In 1812, when Napolean invaded Russia, produced a tantalizing loss for the French, with Napoleon’s initial army of roughly 600,000 reduced to a mere 60,000.

War and Peace is certainly not deprived of lengthy and rather grating battle scenes. It’s easy to drown in these wordy and endless passages. But past them, the elaborate story of three Russian families of nobility – the light-hearted Rostovs, serious Bolkonskys, and rough Bezukovs – continue to provide an entertaining plot of love, jealousy, hatred and retribution, joy and self-discovery in an ultimately rewarding finale that, when finished, leaves one with the impression of greater clarity into the human condition. 

- Maddy Crowell


The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht

Every once in a while, there’s the rare book that is intensely profound, amazingly well-written, and takes you on a journey through a time and place that comes alive before your eyes, filling your mind like a haunting dream. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht fits this discription and goes beyond to spin a story of pure gold.

Set in a Balkan country sometime after their civil war, which occured in the last half of the 20th century, The Tiger’s Wife follows a young doctor as she comes to terms with her grandfather’s death. Her grandfather, a doctor in his day, filled her head with stories of an elusive mora, an undying cursed individual, who he encountered during his journies across the Balkans as he provided aid relief to rural areas affected by the civil conflict.

As the narrator goes on her own aid-relief odessy, she encounters traces of her grandfather’s stories laced throughout the Balkan countryside and realizes that the tales he told her as a child might not have been fabricated. Indeed, The Tiger’s Wife is both a fairytale and a chronical of war, as it delves into issues such as feminism, racism, ablism, and the consequences of war in a way that the reader viscerally understands without really realizing.

The climactic moment happens quite indirectly before ending on a nostalgic high point at the close of Obrecht’s story. Even though the conclusion slips smoothly into a finessed finish, don’t think that you won’t cry with the injustice of this Balkan tragedy. Good luck trying to put it down; the last 200 pages are a race to the finish as your hungrily try to guess the ending and fail miserably. Pick it up and be prepared to think about this book for weeks after putting it down. 

- Noelani Kirschner

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