The great majority of the books I read are nonfiction--mostly history, religion, archaeology, linguistics, and science, with occasional forays into music, sports, and food lit.

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The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List Cover Image
ISBN: 9781579659066
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Published: Artisan - March 19th, 2019

You want erudite? This book is erudite, although it wears its learning lightly. (Oy--only the second sentence, and already he's dragging out the cliches.) You want funny? Trust me, it doesn't stint on the funny. You want definitive? Of course it's not definitive--take a look at the subtitle. You want good writing? Contributors include Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, Joan Nathan, Maira Kalman, Ian Frazier, Daphne Merkin, and plenty of others who are comparably gifted.

There are people who won't appreciate this book, but they put mayonnaise on pastrami and ketchup on scrambled eggs.

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Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101873465
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Published: Vintage - February 5th, 2019

David Reich of Harvard Medical School is one of the geneticists who led the way in developing new methods for studying very ancient DNA and using those techniques to sequence the genomes of individuals who lived many thousands of years ago. Here he combines the results (many of which came out of his own lab) with findings from archaeology, anthropology, and historical linguistics to tell a substantially revised story of how early humans spread out of Africa and settled the globe. If you're familiar with an older version of the migration-out-of-Africa-to-everywhere-else story, you're in for some stunning surprises.

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Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States Cover Image
ISBN: 9780300240214
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Published: Yale University Press - July 24th, 2018

If I were to tell you this is a book that's largely about ancient Mesopotamia (what is today southern Iraq) and left it at that, you'd probably say, "Uh, that doesn't really sound like my cup of tea" (or Sumerian beer, as it were). But this book happens to ask very big, extremely interesting questions. To wit: What do we mean when we refer to the "origins of civilization" or "early civilizations"? Was "civilization" typically a good thing for all those involved?  Admirers of Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari -- prepare to engage with James Scott's restless and brilliantly original mind. 

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Basketball: Great Writing About America's Game: A Library of America Special Publication Cover Image
By Alexander Wolff (Editor), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Foreword by)
ISBN: 9781598535563
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Published: Library of America - February 27th, 2018

Of course Michael Jordan is pictured on the cover, because -- and I say this with full awareness that I'm at risk of being tried, convicted, and sent to Clichémongers Prison -- this book is the Michael Jordan of anthologies of basketball writing.  Take a look at the table of contents: John McPhee, Pete Axthelm, David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Curry Kirkpatrick, Bob Ryan, Charlie Pierce, Darcy Frey, John Edgar Wideman, Pat Conroy. . . . a veritable Dream Team! (Did I really say that?) 

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California Dreamin': Cass Elliot Before The Mamas & the Papas Cover Image
ISBN: 9781626725461
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Published: First Second - March 7th, 2017

This is a graphic novel/biography (I still can't get used to calling nonfiction books "graphic novels") of Ellen Cohen, a (mostly) nice Jewish girl from Baltimore whose family owned a deli and who didn't want to work in a deli but instead transformed herself into one of the most distinctive vocalists in pop music history -- Cass Elliot. She was quite a character, and Penelope Bagieu's portrayal of Ellen/Cass is poignant, generous, inspiring, happy-sad, and altogether delightful.

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The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge Cover Image
By Abraham Flexner, Robbert Dijkgraaf (Commentaries by)
ISBN: 9780691174761
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Published: Princeton University Press - February 21st, 2017

A 1939 essay by Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, is followed by a 2017 companion essay written by the Institute's current director, Dutch physicist Dijkgraaf. Both are pleas on behalf of what is called basic research -- something of an endangered species these days -- and the pure, unimpeded intellectual curiosity that commonly drives it.  Up in the Institute for Advanced Study in the Sky, da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Einstein, and Fermi nod vigorously in agreement with this small jewel of a book. 

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Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802125712
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Published: Grove Press - December 13th, 2016

I'm fascinated by language, but I've never been very adept at learning foreign languages. Dutch linguist/polyglot Dorren is clearly quite good at learning them (he claims to speak six and read an additional nine, and I have no reason to doubt him).  In sixty short chapters, he succeeds in telling us one or two (or more) really interesting things about each of sixty of the languages of Europe. All the biggies are here, of course, but think what a star you'll be at parties when you inject something about Galician, Romani, Manx, or Frisian into the conversation! I guarantee that the book's breezy, conversational style will draw you in if you're at all predisposed to the subject matter.

Joe Gould's Teeth Cover Image
ISBN: 9781101971796
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Published: Vintage - April 18th, 2017

Of the many famous profiles that have appeared in The New Yorker, two of the best known are the two published by the late Joseph Mitchell--22 years apart -- about Joe Gould, a Greenwich Village derelict/madman/man-about-town who claimed to have written a 9-million-word "Oral History of Our Time."  Current New Yorker staff writer (and Harvard history professor) Jill Lepore began to suspect that there was a lot more to Gould's story than Mitchell had ever uncovered (or let on), and this riveting little book is the result of her investigations. An amazing piece of detective work that leads to unexpectedly creepy revelations.

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1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List Cover Image
ISBN: 9780761141686
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Published: Workman Publishing Company - January 13th, 2015

I can't say that I've been a great fan of the lately popular "to do before you die" genre. I don't want anyone telling me what I have to do before I die (it's bad enough being told what I have to do today or tomorrow). But I am a long-time fan of Mimi Sheraton, who has been one of America's most knowledgeable and entertaining food writers since around the time that Anthony Bourdain had his first taste of Gerber baby food. This beautifully produced 990-page volume is, to my mind, maybe the coolest browsing book for food lovers ever published (with the possible exception of the Oxford Companion to Food, which costs $40 more).
It doesn't matter whether Sheraton is writing about quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings) or about toasted marshmallows -- turn to any page in this book and you'll know within seconds that a consummate professional is your guide.

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Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476761367
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Published: Simon & Schuster - November 17th, 2018

Over the last thirty-six years, readers of the Boston Globe have come to rely on H. D. S. Greenway for in-depth reporting and pungent analysis of foreign affairs. In this engrossing memoir of a peripatetic career in journalism, Greenway, here given an opportunity to stretch out, proves to be a splendid raconteur as well. For me, the chapters on Southeast Asia in the '60s and '70s were especially affecting, but Foreign Correspondent is a grand, endlessly informative, and frequently good-humored read from beginning to end.

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And on Piano ...Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock's Greatest Session Man Cover Image
By Julian Dawson, Klaus Voormann (Foreword by)
ISBN: 9780984436224
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Published: Backstage Press - April 2011

You may not know the name Nicky Hopkins, but unless you have managed to completely avoid contact with the rock music of the '60s and '70s, you've heard him on keyboards innumerable times. That's Nicky playing piano (or harpsichord, or organ) on the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," the Beatles' "Revolution," the Who's "The Song is Over," the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," the Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers," John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," Ringo Starr's "Photograph," Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," the Easybeats' "Friday On My Mind"--you get the picture.

Hopkins suffered from debilitating medical problems for his entire adult life; he died in 1994 at the age of 50. Julian Dawson's biography--which is warm and admiring without being uncritical or worshipful--is a fascinating tour through rock 'n' roll's greatest and most memorable era.

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American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church Cover Image
ISBN: 9781610395465
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Published: PublicAffairs - June 9th, 2015

Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, is unquestionably one of the most fascinating, most puzzling, and most polarizing figures in American history. Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam focuses on the latter part of Smith's career--the Nauvoo, Illinois period--which culminated in his violent death in 1844.
If you read Beam's column with any regularity, you know he's a stylish writer, but this book demonstrates that he's also a judicious, evenhanded historian with a knack for mixing in colorful details without overdoing it. I know a fair amount about Mormonism, but I learned a lot from American Crucifixion--even though it's aimed at the intellectually curious general reader and not the specialist historian of religion (I'm somewhere in between the two, but tilting toward the latter). Alex Beam has done a first-rate job of excavating a relatively obscure but massively consequential corner of American history.

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Eminent Hipsters Cover Image
ISBN: 9780143126010
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Published: Penguin Books - October 28th, 2014

Over the years I've generally held to the belief that I'm not much of a Steely Dan fan, an opinion that--like most of my opinions--I've never been shy about sharing with friends and total strangers. But reading this book has made me realize, first, that the number of Steely Dan songs I've always liked or have grown to like far exceeds the handful of Steely Dan songs that drive me nuts because of their obtuseness and/or Donald Fagen's vocals, and, second, that Fagen is a helluva prose writer and that his grouchiness (partly sincere and partly an authorial strategy, I think) is kinda charming and amusing and only rarely overplayed. He's my kind of grouch, and folks, he might be yours too. He also has a sharp sense of humor and an immense store of knowledge about the history of jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll

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Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062206442
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Published: HarperOne - March 19th, 2013

The short answer is yes, Jesus existed. Ehrman wrote this book in part to counter the arguments of the self-proclaimed "mythicists," a tiny but loud (and rather pathetic) posse of pseudoscholars who continue to maintain, in the face of impressive evidence to the contrary, that Jesus of Nazareth never existed--or, if he did exist, he was a figure of no great importance or impact in his own time.

But what really makes this book enjoyable to read--one can only derive so much pleasure from seeing Ehrman mop the floor with the mythicists--is the experience of watching a first-class biblical scholar and historian of the ancient world do his thing: Which books of the New Testament, and which sections of those books, are most useful for establishing Jesus's historicity? Which are not so useful? What about Roman and Jewish historians (same two questions)? Assuming that Jesus existed, who was he? (At least, what can today's historians establish with a fair degree of probability--questions like, Was he the son of God? are appropriate for theologians to discuss, but outside the realm of what reasonably objective historians are capable of answering.) What did he believe and stand for? Which quotes, of the many attributed to him in the New Testament, are things that he is likely to have actually said? What is he not so likely to have said? And how do scholars go about making thesedeterminations?

These are pretty interesting questions, don't you think?

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The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616203061
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Published: Algonquin Books - June 11th, 2013

From 1957 to 1978, midwesterner Janet Groth worked at The New Yorker as a receptionist. "So what?" you might be inclined to say. But when I saw that the third chapter was about Joseph Mitchell, one of my favorite writers, I picked up the book to read that chapter and maybe one or two others. Whaddaya know--I found Groth's writing to be so insightful and charmingly honest that, after reading the warm account of her friendship with Mitchell, I went back and read the first two chapters and then skipped ahead to chapter 4 and kept going.


Part of the appeal of this memoir is the fact that the forty or so writers who had offices on Groth's floor included some of The New Yorker's real stars of that era (Mitchell, Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald, Muriel Spark, Calvin Trillin, E. J. Kahn Jr.). But Janet Groth herself emerges as a thoughtful and very likable memoirist. Later in life she finished her PhD, became an English professor, and produced a total of five books on the critic Edmund Wilson. So why was it that in her 21 years at the magazine, she was never promoted above the level of receptionist, save for a short stint in the art department? Groth's willingness to tackle this and other tough questions--about her own life, and the lives of family members, lovers, and New Yorker colleagues--is one of the great virtues of this keenly intelligent (and gently gossipy) book.

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Help Your Kids with Math: A Unique Step-by-Step Visual Guide Cover Image
ISBN: 9781465421661
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Published: DK - June 16th, 2014

Leave it to the folks at DK to transform mathematics education into a brightly colored, visually elegant, indisputably spiffy barrel of computational fun. This book provides such a user-friendly refresher course that it could have easily been titled Help Your Kids With Math And, In Doing So, Come To The Realization That You've Retained Way More Math Skills Than You Might Have Previously Thought. Fortunately, DK went with something a little less clunky.

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The Classical Tradition (Harvard University Press Reference Library #17) Cover Image
By Anthony Grafton (Editor), Glenn W. Most (Editor), Salvatore Settis (Editor)
ISBN: 9780674072275
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Published: Belknap Press - May 6th, 2013

If you love great reference books as much as I do, you may find it impossible to do without this staggeringly wide-ranging, 1067-page guide to the numberless ways in which the classical heritage of ancient Greece and Rome has influenced the post-classical world of the last 1500 or so years. Organized like an encyclopedia but not intended to be exhaustive, The Classical Tradition includes articles on all the usual suspects (Hercules, Cupid, Helen of Troy, monsters, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar), as well as on many less-obvious topics: comic books, Marxism, Pablo Picasso, plague, veterinary medicine, fascism, Martin Heidegger, American founding fathers, and Armenian Hellenism. Lots of entries having to do with sex, but you knew that.

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Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation Cover Image
ISBN: 9781605299488
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Published: Rodale Books - October 27th, 2009

I love to read, but I've read an embarrassingly small number of so-called Great Books in my 58 years. That's not really true--the small number part is true, but I'm not all that embarrassed. Anyway, one of the Great Books that I thought I'd actually enjoy reading but never got around to was Darwin's On the Origin of Species. My friend Glenn, who's an evolutionary biologist, frequently praised the elegance of Darwin's writing style and kept urging me to dive in. But I didn't. I had books to read on medieval Africa and baseball catchers and OCD and pre-Islamic Arabia and English usage and underappreciated rock guitarists and the Talmud and the glories of the cocktail hour and the German legends (not to be confused with the fairy tales) of the brothers Grimm. And I'm a slow reader. Darwin had to wait.

Then, voila sis-boom-bah, a graphic novel/comic book/whatever-you-call-it of On the Origin of Species came along, adapted by the science writer Michael Keller and illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller. Most of the text is in Darwin's own words, and wherever Keller is putting words in Darwin's mouth it's abundantly clear that that's the case. This book is the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, the finch's beak, and the Galapagos tortoise's carapace, to put it zoologicolloquially. The illustrations are gorgeously apt, and the words, well, they're largely drawn from one of the three most influential books in the history of the world (along with the Bible and the Qur'an). (Please don't start telling me about The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, and Harry Potter.) I don't know if I'll ever read the original in its entirety. But after reading the Keller-Fuller adaptation, I sure feel a whole lot less ignorant.

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I Am a Strange Loop Cover Image
ISBN: 9780465030798
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Published: Basic Books - July 8th, 2008

Some 30 years ago, I spent 15 or 20 minutes in a Harvard Square bookstore, paging through a book called Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. It was unlike anything I'd ever read, seemingly a groundbreaking work, but I came to the conclusion that it was way over my head. I never did read it.

Last year, feeling uncharacteristically brave, I decided to tackle Hofstadter's 2007 book, I Am A Strange Loop, which had been billed as a continuation and elaboration of some of the themes he introduced in Godel, Escher, Bach: What is the nature of human consciousness and self-awareness? What, really, do we mean when we say, "I"? Can we reject the traditional religious concept of a soul but still maintain that the term "soul" has a different kind of validity? And do humans have anything that can justifiably be called "free will"?

Bottom line: I'm immensely grateful that I followed through and read this book cover to cover. Not an easy read, but an affecting, provocative, and persuasive one.

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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393354324
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Published: W. W. Norton & Company - March 7th, 2017

Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published in 1997, but I didn’t read it until 2005-2006, shortly after a hardcover edition containing a new chapter on Japan and Korea became available. I underlined the text generously and filled my copy with notes in the margins – everything from expressions of amazement at Diamond’s brilliant insights to angry dissents when I thought he was overstating the role of geography in the development of human civilizations. A boundless intellectual feast whether you agree with the author’s conclusions or not.

This is a volume in an Oxford University Press series aimed primarily at adolescent readers, but it is so informative, accurate, authentic in tone, and generous in spirit that I can enthusiastically recommend it to any adults who want to learn about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). (At the Booksmith we shelve it in the psychology section, rather than with the children’s books.) The Thought That Counts is structured as a memoir in six chapters. Each chapter is divided into two main parts, entitled “My Story” and “The Big Picture.” In the “My Story” sections, Jared recounts his experiences with OCD in a roughly chronological narrative, beginning at age 11, when he was first diagnosed as having the disorder, up to the present day. (He is now in his mid 20s, has a BA in English and creative writing, and works as a clinical research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital.) The “Big Picture” sections, also in Jared’s voice, expand upon issues that were touched on in the previous autobiographical part. The book’s organization is logical and adolescent-friendly and, along with the crystal-clear prose, serves to maximize its accessibility and overall usefulness. Right now, Jared Kant’s book is the only one in this series that we have in stock, but we’ll be happy to special order any of the others. If we get multiple requests for a particular title, we’ll start carrying that one too. We stock the OCD volume because one of our booksellers has a personal interest in the topic, having lived with the disorder for about 35 years. As some of our long-time customers already know, that would be me. One more thing: all the books are priced at $9.95. That’s cheaper than a half-dozen oysters or a decent lobster roll.

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The Poetry of Zen Cover Image
By Sam Hamill (Translated by), J.P. Seaton (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781590304259
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Published: Shambhala - February 13th, 2007

Don't let the title scare you off - you don't have to be a Zen master, a mystic, or a frequent reader of poetry to enjoy this accessible little volume. The poems, which have been translated from Chinese and Japanese, cover a span of over 2,000 years. They range from the contemplative and profound to the irreverent and goofy. Find a comfortable chair, pour yourself a cup of tea or sake, and cultivate a yen for Zen.