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American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama is the complete title of this remarkable book. Rachel Swarns is an engaging writer, and knows how to weave an interesting tale. The interconnected lives of Michelle Obama’s ancestors are fascinating and inspiring. Sometimes the book get bogged down in historical detail, but you can pick it up and tap in at any point in the story.

A- for bogged down in historical detail.


Author Victoria Sweet is a consummate storyteller. Her portraits of the fascinating, often doomed residents of the Laguna Honda Hospital were spellbinding to me. But there are more treats in Sweet’s book. Even laypeople will be drawn into her medical research into Medieval  medicine and how its wisdom can inform the medicine of today.  And her account of her 4 year walking pilgrimage in southern France was an engaging detour interspersed at every summer. This was one of the most readable books I’ve encountered in a long time. Part autobiography, part travelogue, part history of an amazing institution, and partly a series of intelligent essays, anyone will enjoy reading this book. Required reading for doctors, but by no way not just doctors.

A: It’s an original. Never read anything like it, really.

David Weinberger has done it again. In a breezy, scholarly mix of insight and hard data, Weinberger show us how knowledge itself has lost currency to be replaced by knowledge-networks and webs of data.

Showing both the dark side of ubiquitous information as well as the promise of unfettered access to knowledge, Too Big To Know traces the path we have taken starting from the contained static published book to where we are now in the digital age.

Using his signature chatty, pithy style, Weinberger gives us a full view of the changes in online communication including the dangers of ‘echo chambers’ but also the explosion of scholarly communities which are now more broad and inclusive.

Check out a good review by Jeff Jarvis.

Of course an A. Weinberger’s a favorite of mine and this one does not disappoint.

I love a biographer who writes like a novelist. Robert K. Massie builds a compelling story of Catherine’s amazing life using only the facts, which are astounding. Obscure German princess becomes child-wife of the emperor of Russia… and upon his death assumes the throne. Bright, thoughtful, and surprisingly free of the ridiculous egos that most royals succumbed to, Catherine pulled her country into the 20th century and played a full role on the European stage.  Intellectually intimate with Diderot and Voltaire she was a self-educated scholar with an impressive understanding of politics and philosophy. To be perfectly honest, towards the middle of the book when the Russia-Prussia-France squabbles got bogged down with infighting and double-crossing, I got a little bored. Otherwise, I loved the book.

A- (minus for the interminable squabbling)

Filled with pungent details around what its really like to grow onions and raise pigs in the backyard of an Oakland California tenement, this book reeks of originality and spunk. Some passages, relating to dumpster diving and ‘poultry harvesting,’ are not for the faint of heart, but author Novella Carpenter brings a sense of gritty dignity to her experiment in living off the land in an urban environment. I loved Carpenter’s on-the-fringe neighbors, and I loved imagining what her living room looked like (with bee hives) and smelled like (with rabbit hutches). There’s nothing out there like this book. Breathe deep and enjoy.

A – (minus for occasional ‘narrative meandering’)

Clay Shirky’s most recent book highlights the power of social networks to enhance information and communication. Shirky is an engaging writer, conversational, and yet content rich. The book is peppered with lots of great examples. It’s a good read.

Solid A for content and readability

And now for something completely different: John Pollack sings his tribute to the lowly pun. The oft maligned quirk of language has persisted since ancient history and has attracted an impressive list of supporters and critics. The book is a pleasurable engrossing read, with lots of detail and tastefully placed reminders of the book’s subject.

If you have read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, you’ll love this one. Both books are in that somewhat overly precious genre of oh-so clever works about writing and language.

A very nice A- (the minus for a few really bad puns)

Tim Riley nimbly treads the thin line between pop biography and scholarly research. The book is scrupulously well documented and yet an entertaining narrative emerges, very readable.

Lennon’s early life is astounding with its odd twists and turns, punctuated by two bizarre and self-absorbed parents. The book is worth reading, just to digest the first 15 years of his life.

But the thing that I really respect about this book, is what Riley leaves out. We are never given the name of the misguided brute who assassinated Lennon in the New York hotel lobby. And this is at it should be. There should be no glorification: no limelight. Any kind of attention could only prompt other sick-minded individuals to look for their moment in the sun of infamy. Better to let the culprit remain unnamed, neglected.

My take: commendable A- (How many biographies really do read like a novel? This one does. The minus is for a few passages that ramble on with anecdotal facts and comments that end up being all sound and fury signifying nothing. )

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, PhD in biology, has written two compelling books. An interesting mix of personal narrative and scientific facts, the books weave a path between her own story and the story of the poisoning of the earth. To me, it is astounding that, after reading them, not everyone takes up the cause to save the planet from the looming threat of toxins, petrochemicals and carcinogens.

To be honest, her books have triggered me into action, both for my future and my daughter’s. This is a must read for anyone who cares about the 7th generation.

Note: Steingraber wrote “Living Downstream“, the 1990’s bestseller.

Solid A for relevancy and integrity (no plus, because every once in a while she rambles on a bit, not often but every so often, so if you find yourself skimming in a few places, know that you are not alone. So did I.)

Framed as a Socratic dialog between savant and novice, the book lays out the fundamentals of the eco-theology movement in clear, eloquent prose. Co-authored by a physicist and theologian, the book’s arguments beautifully blend compassion with objectivity and logic. (Thomas Berry is the theologian and Brian Swimme is the physicist.)

Once again, the books that make it to OssumBooxs usually are the ones that float to the top, mostly due to excellence and quality. This one is no exception.

Solid A for readability, conciseness and eloquence of arguments. If you read one book about the global climate crisis, this is the one.