Oct 11, 2010

Dean's Book Choices for November

Here are the titles proposed for our reading in November:

Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford:  Non-fiction.  
An embedded reporter goes into the underworld of the Manchester United Soccer Club’s fan base and examines the psychology behind crowd violence and mob mentality.  Newsweek Top 50 books to be read in your lifetime.  (Recommended)

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Fiction. (Referenced in Dark Star Safari)
Early 1900 adventure up the Congo River by English explorers. 110 pages, Short, engaging read. One of my favorite books.

The story tells of Charles Marlow, an Englishman who took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa . Heart of Darkness exposes the myth behind colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters--the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the European's cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.  Although Conrad does not give the name of the river, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and important Congo River, was a private colony of Belgium 's King Leopold II. Marlow is employed to transport ivory downriver. However, his more pressing assignment is to return Kurtz, another ivory trader, to civilization, in a cover-up. Kurtz has a reputation throughout the region.

This symbolic story is a story within a story or frame narrative. It follows Marlow as he recounts from dusk through to late night, to a group of men aboard a ship anchored in the Thames Estuary his Congolese adventure. The passage of time and the darkening sky during the fictitious narrative-within-the-narrative parallel the atmosphere of the story.

Three Cups of Tea (One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.   Non-fiction.

In Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time , Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, recount the journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia . Three Cups of Tea is at once an unforgettable adventure and the inspiring true story of how one man really is changing the world—one school at a time.

In 1993 Mortenson was descending from his failed attempt to reach the peak of K2 . Exhausted and disoriented, he wandered away from his group into the most desolate reaches of northern Pakistan . Alone, without food, water, or shelter he stumbled into an impoverished Pakistani village where he was nursed back to health.

While recovering he observed the village’s 84 children sitting outdoors, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks. The village was so poor that it could not afford the $1-a-day salary to hire a teacher. When he left the village, he promised that he would return to build them a school. From that rash, heartfelt promise grew one of the most incredible humanitarian campaigns of our time.

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazel (300 pages)

A new book and author that has not received any awards but will if he keeps going (also is a friend of a good friend of mine and met him at an Obama inauguration celebration party; might be able to have him come to the meeting); NY Times book review:

In the opening scene of “Beat the Reaper,” the former mob hit man Dr. Peter Brown pauses in the act of disabling a mugger to give readers a paragraph-length tutorial on the architecture of the human arm. Halfway through the paragraph he throws in an asterisk, and in a footnote points out that the lower leg is a lot like the forearm, only less fragile. That footnote had me worried.   Fortunately, Brown’s creator, the novelist (and doctor) Josh Bazell, is an unusually talented writer. Most of the many digressions in “Beat the Reaper,” his first book, are genuinely entertaining, and the few that don’t work — the footnotes are the most common culprit — annoy primarily because the story is so engaging that you don’t want to be yanked out of it even for the time it takes to glance at the bottom of the page.

Bazell’s protagonist, né Pietro Brnwa, used to be a contract killer for the Mafia, as mentioned. But eight years ago, following a work-­related dispute that involved throwing his best friend out a window, he had a change of heart, entered a witness-protection program and enrolled in medical school. Now he heals people instead of murdering them — although, as the incident with the mugger shows, he hasn’t entirely given up his old ways.

It will not be giving too much away to say that Brown’s old employers eventually do learn where he is. The climax of “Beat the Reaper” finds him locked in a medical freezer, waiting for his arch­nemesis to arrive and finish him off. The plan Brown concocts to save himself is the novel’s most original flourish. It is also completely outrageous, so much so that I had to stop and think about whether I could really suspend my disbelief. In the end I decided that, as with the footnotes, Bazell had more than earned my indulgence as a reader. If there’s a better recommendation for a story than that, I don’t know what it is.



  1. I am interested to see what you guys picked from this list for your November read. All four picks are so different and each has its own merits. I do not know the new author Dean touts, but I'm familar with the other three.

    Has Bryson finally done a serious book or is his latest a humorous look at hooliganism!? Interesting concept.

    If you selected the Conrad, I could lend you each a copy from our department's bookroom as they just sit there since the guy who taught it year after year retired.

    I'll check back. Read on!

  2. Btw, if you saw today's sports pages, then you saw that Dean's daughter, Julia, was headlined for her key role in SR's surprise waterpolo victory over Redwood. Congratulations Julia!
    See you on Tuesday.

  3. Congrats to Julia from me, too. That's an amazing performance. I note that John's daughter has been "denting the twine" on a very regular basis for the MC team also. Congrats to her also.

  4. Thx Doug and I’ll pass it on to Julia.
    Look forward to seeing you all on Tuesday. Also, Lucy has been having a banner year on the course and in the press. Congrats to her and Allie.

  5. I will be there (flak jacket and all). Congrats on Julia's achievement. What does it mean to "dent the twine"?

    Restrepo was showing until a week ago in Santa Rosa -- we all just missed it (unless we're being treated to a screening at the dinner). All I can say is if all we get to eat is MREs, there may be an insurgency.

  6. For Julia it was ripping the twine which Alie does too. Yes, I’m proud of her. It’s been a tough season for their very young team. So Paul, in water polo there is this thing called a cage (goal) with a net (twine) and when Doug said dent...

  7. Paul,
    As one John McEnroe often said to the Australian Referees at the Australian Open….“Are you serious”?
    Actually I am glad that you asked that question as I am too timid to ask such a well informed and savvy water polo group. Now if you asked me about baseball I would be even more ignorant….is there any hope. I will see you Tuesday Terry

    One small issue….. does anyone have a copy of the book available that I could read this weekend.