Earlier in the year, I wrote an entry called "Five Books That Taught Me", and I always meant to write a follow-up to that entry. As I said then, I've always loved to read - a love fostered by my parent's love of reading and the large library of books they've collected over the years.
I read and read as a boy. I remember reading classics like The Red Badge of Courage, The Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, all of Sherlock Holmes' mysteries, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I even lost my first job as a teenager due to reading! When I was 16, I was hired to work at a local plant nursery. I had to ride my bike 4 miles to get there and the work was wet and dirty; I didn't like it. So, for a week, I left home with my lunch, pedaled until I got to a big fir tree a half mile from home, and then sat there underneath the tree all day, reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (yes, I was that kind of a nerd!). I wasn't happy with getting fired for not showing up (especially because it disappointed my mother a lot!), but I did enjoy myself reading.
So today I thought I'd write about books I've read that surprised me. These books were unexpected "jewels": ones I had no idea I'd enjoy as much as I did. Ones that made an impression on me. Here we go!
1. Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand
- This book came out in 2001, and friends recommended it to me, but I avoided reading it thinking, "What's exciting about a horse story?". Boy, was I wrong! Ms. Hillenbrand's breakthrough book is actually the story of 4 individuals whose lives intersect during the Great Depression in the United States: Charles Howard, a California millionaire determined to make West Coast horse racing a big attraction; Red Pollard, the hard luck jockey that Howard hires to ride for him; Tom Smith, the laconic trainer whose unorthodox techniques prove so effective, and a horse that everyone thought was too small and destined to be a loser. Together in 1937-38, these underdogs thrilled millions of Americans with their comeback victories, both on the track and off. Hillenbrand's account of Seabiscuit's legendary victory over War Admiral in a match race on November 1, 1938 is spine-tingling! I was introduced to a piece of American history that I had never heard of before, and I've rarely read something so inspiring. It was the first book I recommended to Deborah, and she loved it too!
2. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert
- I don't remember why I picked this book up in 2007 or 2008. I'm not usually one who would read a "chick book" (though my wife does say I'm a "sensitive kind of guy"!), but I'm glad I read this one. Gilbert tells her story of self discovery after her divorce and the deep depression she fell into afterwards. She travels to three countries - Italy, India, and Indonesia - and in each places renews and refreshes a different part of herself through immersing herself in the colorful cultures there. In Italy, she revels in all things physical: food, drink, and "La Dolce Vita"; In India, she visits an Indian ashram for 3 months, and explores her spiritual self; In Indonesia on the island of Bali, she learns to find a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence - and even falls in love, again. Her account of her experiences was funny, thoughtful, and poignant. I'll never forget her portrayal of Depression and Loneliness as two "detectives": a "good cop, bad cop" team that trail her in Italy. She wrote: "Then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity...Then Loneliness starts interrogating me. He asks me why I am all by myself tonight, yet again...why I can't get my act together...asks where I think I'll end up in my old age...I try to shake these two goons, but they keep following me....I don't want to let them in, but I know Depression has a billy club, so there's no stopping him..." A powerful and talented writer!
3. River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard
- I read this this past summer. I hadn't ever read anything about Theodore Roosevelt, but I thought I knew all there was to know about him, having taught about him in my U.S. History classes for years. Ms. Millard's book, though, told the riveting story of a trip Roosevelt took in 1913-14 into central Brazil after his failed attempt to be re-elected President in 1912. Roosevelt wanted to restore his confidence through the challenge of mapping an uncharted river, the Rio da Duvida ("River of Doubt"), with his son Kermit, and the famous Brazillian explorer Candido Rondon. The expedition endures a number of setbacks and challenges - some are surprises, some because of human error - and Roosevelt almost dies! There is murder and intrigue, and in the end, when Roosevelt returns home, some even doubted his discovery! This book, like Seabiscuit, surprised me because it taught me about a piece of history that I had never known before.
4. Lucky Man: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox
- This book surprised me because I've never been much for reading biographies or memoirs, especially of Hollywood types. So again, I'm not sure why I picked this up this past August. But Fox proved to be a thoughtful and honest writer. He tells the story of his life growing up in Canada, moving to Hollywood to pursue his dream of being an actor, reaching the pinnacle of fame at 30, only to discover that he had Parkinson's disease: an incurable, degenerative disease that ultimately changed his life. I enjoyed how funny and honest, and at times, self-deprecating, Fox was about his fame and his life and his own vices. I agree wholeheartedly with what one reviewer said about this book: This readable, witty autobiography reminds you why it was generally a pleasure to watch Fox onscreen: he's a nice guy with an edge, and you don't have to feel embarrassed about" liking him." I especially liked the credit that Fox gives to his family, especially his wife, for helping him face the challenges he now faces, and for helping him grow. He is indeed a "lucky man".
5. Wild: From Lost To Found on The Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
- I think this book was like Eat, Pray, Love to me: recommended by Oprah, a story written by a woman traveling after a devastating loss (in Strayed's case, the death of her mother), looking to find herself. Why would I want to read that kind of story again? But I enjoyed it! Strayed's memoir of her 1100 mile solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail was engaging just in the fact that I couldn't imagine a woman doing this all by herself: especially a woman who had NEVER hiked in her life! Strayed vividly, humorously, and honestly recounts all of her challenges (her 80+ pound backpack she nicknames "Monster"), her joys, the pleasures and terrors of her journey, and all that she discovers. She faces down rattlesnakes, black bears; she survives losing her shoes; endures intense desert heat and record snowfalls; meets and makes friends along the trail, and survives scary encounters with unsavory men. I enjoyed the fact that even though I haven't ever hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I recognized many of the places she described (especially her stay for a few days in Ashland, just down the road!). Deborah and I both loved this book, and hope to hike a part of this famed trail (just for a day!), inspired by Strayed's book.
Five books that surprised me. I keep hoping I'll find another Pearl like these!
"The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)