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pile of books

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For the past decade or more, my reading habits have been very cyclical: for months at a time, I can’t seem to pick up a book, and then all of a sudden, something will kick in and I’m reading a lot. So, since it’s been a while since I’ve done a non-magic edition of Book Nook, here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading lately:

Government by B. Traven

This is the first of the mysterious B. Traven’s Mexican “Jungle novels” a sharply provocative and humorous set of novels set in Mexico just before the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. This initial book is a masterpiece of dry humor and wry observation. It’s major subject is the petty and not-so-petty corruption of government officials at every level of society. But Traven makes clear that the corruption of the local officials in their drive to exploit every peso and drop of sweat out of the local Indian population is just a reflection of the larger overall exploitative capitalist system happening on the national level. The author pulls no punches and names things for what they are. It’s a system where friends and family catapult you into power, but you must always watch your back or you’ll get stabbed by one of them. The parallels to today couldn’t be more apt or timely. This is a book that shows you the blueprint. Especially remarkable as well is a contrasting passage where Traven describes how the tribe of local Indians choose their leaders democratically, in a way that ascribes grave responsibility and accountability to the chosen one.

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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

I enjoy Anne Tyler’s novels because when reading her books, I get the sense that she is in no hurry.  She’s a writer who knows that after this one’s finished she’s going to write another one, and the current one is a wave in the larger ocean of her work. She doesn’t feel that she has to put everything she knows in one book. So this story is a small one of a woman’s life viewed at several milestone years. Externally, not a lot happens. But we see how a child of promise slowly has her options closed off as life proceeds and what it might take to find some sense of freedom in the end. Tyler’s characters always feel real enough so that you feel a sense of loss when a book is over, loss for the people who you have met in the course of reading the novel.

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Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton

It’s rare that one can read a guide book straight through like a work of fiction, but Radical Walking Tours of NYC is one such book. It takes us on over a dozen walking tours of several neighborhoods of NYC, and vividly depicts the rich labor and political history of this city which has been home and host to so many great figures and stories. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about history they never told you about in school. Whether it’s the location of Allen Ginsberg’s apartment or Emma Goldman’s massage parlor, you’re sure to find out something new here. Bruce Kayton is well qualified for the task as he for many years led such tours through the city.

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The Untold Stories of Broadway by Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Years ago, Mary Henderson wrote a seminal work on the history of New York City Theater buildings, The City and the Theater, and now Jennifer Ashley Tepper has come out with an oral history of the people who worked and performed in those buildings in The Untold Stories of Broadway.  The multi-volumed series is organized by theater building, and in each chapter the people who worked in each theater on various productions tell what it was like to be part of that experience. The author has interviewed scores of people. The work is valuable in the 360-degree view that the book gives you of theatrical production. So, for example, in a chapter on the Shubert Theatre, you not only get the point of view of the actors who worked on such shows as Spamalot, Rent, and A Chorus Line,  but you also get commentary from the house manager and even the concession stand operators. You’ll also learn a lot about the physical layout of each theatre, and why some theaters are suitable for one kind of show, while other buildings are better for other kinds.These stories are not necessarily juicy remembrances of gossip, but honest, workaday accounts of people’s experiences from the inside. Many books purport to give a “backstage” view–this one really does it. Highly recommended for Broadway Babies.

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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

For years, my friend Tom has been trying to get me to read Bill Bryson’s books, and now I finally understand why he is such a fan. Bryson is a very entertaining writer and this account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian trail is a fun read. A gentle humorist in the vein of Dave Barry, Bryson takes you along his sometimes grueling hike, and introduces you to a wonderful set of characters, both those who join him to walk the trail, like his unprepared but faithful companion Katz, and the variety of hikers he meets along the way. Bryson is funny, but he also succeeds at communicating the awe-inspiring nature of the path, and the sheer doggedness and courage it takes to accomplish completing the trail. At times, the tale proves unexpectedly touching. For myself, I was very happy to sit in my easy chair and nod my head saying to myself, “Yup, that’s why I’m sitting here.”