Charity Logo

Charity Logo

Charity of the Month


In December I am riding for Heifer International. Founded in 1944, Heifer International works with communities around the world to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth. Its approach is more than a handout. Heifer provides animals (e.g., heifers, goats, water buffalos, chickens, rabbits, fish, and bees) and training to impoverished people in over 30 countries. The animals can give milk, meat, or eggs; provide draft power; or form the basis of a small business. Communities make their own decisions about what crops, animals, and market strategies make sense for their everyday conditions and experiences.

Heifer International is based on 12 Cornerstones, such as Sustainability; Genuine Need and Justice; and Gender and Family Focus. Perhaps the best known Cornerstone is Passing on the Gift, in which Heifer recipient families pass on the offspring of their animals to others in need. In this way, whole communities can raise their standard of living.

A donation to Heifer International also can make a wonderful alternative holiday gift. Instead of yet another sweater for Grandma that she really doesn’t need, why not donate a Heifer animal or a share of an animal in her honor? Does your child really need so many new toys? Instead of five new toys, give him/her three new toys and a Heifer flock of chicks. Heifer has honor cards to let your loved ones know of your gift on their behalf.

I have set up a Team Heifer page to support Heifer International through A Year of Centuries. My goal is to raise $500. Please make your donation through If you would like more information about Heifer’s work, please visit Whether you give to honor a loved one or make a regular donation, thank you for taking steps to transform the world for the better.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Memorable Books from the Past 12 - Make That 13 - Years

As we approach the end of this month that has highlighted the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy, I’d like to focus on some books for adults.  After all, the goal is to promote literacy and a love of reading in childhood that carries throughout life.

Since 2000, I have kept a list of every book that I have read.  Back then I set a goal of reading at least a book a month, which would be 12 per year.  However, this morphed into a Rainman-like quirk: if I read more than 12 books, it has to be a multiple of 6.  (Don’t ask me why; it’s just something that I do.)  So, every year from 2000 through 2011, I read 12, 18, or 24 books.  Last year was different because of my commute, which has become prime reading time.  I’m actually reading a lot more now thanks to audio books.  Last year I read 54 books (still a multiple of 6!), and this year I’ve read 32 books so far.

At the beginning of 2012, I had been adhering to my unusual reading plan for 12 years.  I noted this milestone by compiling a list of the most memorable book from each year.  Here is that list along with my most notable book (plus honorable mentions) from 2012:

2000  Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. This is the fascinating story of John Harrison, who in the 1700s invented the chronometer, the first instrument that allowed sailors to determine longitude accurately.  The longitude problem had been particularly vexing to Great Britain, the maritime world power of the day, because lives and cargo were lost when ships miscalculated longitude and crashed into the shore.  (Latitude did not pose such a problem because it can be determined from the position of celestial objects.)  Parliament offered a huge monetary prize to whoever could find a way to calculate longitude.  With competing scientists using different methodologies (notably astronomy), this true story also contains a great deal of human intrigue.  Interesting side note: Longitude is also an excellent movie starring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) as John Harrison.

Honorable Mention: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.  Though not light reading, this certainly is an interesting book.  What makes it memorable for me, however, is that it represents a kept promise.  I took a very enjoyable philosophy class at Georgia Tech.  The professor assigned Zen to us.  He told us that we wouldn’t be tested on it in any way, but we should read it for our own education.  We could choose whether or not to do so.  Although I didn’t read it that quarter, I promised myself that someday I would.  Ten years later, I did, and I’m glad.

2001  Dogs, Geese & Grizzly Bears by Charlie Elliott.  A delightful collection of short stories set in the natural world, this book was written by Charlie Elliott, a notable outdoorsman who was the first Director of Georgia State Parks and the first Director of the Game and Fish Commission (now the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division).  He also wrote for magazines and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in north Jasper County is named for him.  Additionally, the comic strip character Mark Trail reportedly is based on Charlie Elliott. 

2002 – (tie) Glimpses of Grace by Madeleine L’Engle.  Madeleine L’Engle is my favorite author.  She was the first person to show me the connections between science and faith, two realms that most certainly are not mutually exclusive.  I discovered her books as a preteen and was delighted to discover in later years that she also wrote numerous books for adults, both fiction and nonfiction.  Glimpses of Grace is a collection of excerpts from the spectrum of her writings, compiled as a daily devotional book.  I, however, was not disciplined enough to read just one excerpt per day, instead devouring this book in only a few sittings.

(tie) The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion by Barbara Brown Taylor.  (Obviously, this book is in the same vein as my attraction to Madeleine L’Engle.)  My church hosted a Wednesday night study over several weeks in which we read and discussed The Luminous Web.  It was the most stimulating and thought-provoking experience I have had at church.  It was like receiving rich, hearty food of substance, full of vitamins and other nutrients.  What a blessing!

2003  The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands.  Scientist, inventor, statesman, and bon vivant (isn’t that a great word!), Benjamin Franklin truly was a Renaissance man, probably America’s first.  If I got to host a dinner party of famous people, Benjamin Franklin definitely would be on the guest list.

2004  Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.  Reporter Stefan Fatsis begins to cover the world of competitive Scrabble, discovering along the way that he himself is a pretty good player.  The book contains fascinating accounts of the game itself (e.g., the importance of knowing all of the two- and three-letter Scrabble words) and the sometimes unconventional people who play it (e.g., foreigners who can barely speak English but dominate on the competition circuit).

Honorable Mention: Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I love all of the Jane Austen books, but this somewhat lesser-known novel tells the inspiring, heartening tale of Anne Elliot’s second chance at love with Captain Frederick Wentworth.

Honorable Mention: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I knew the basic story, of course, but I had never actually read the book.  When I did, I thought, “No wonder this is a classic!”

2005  Dixie Lullaby by Mark Kemp.  The subtitle is a good synopsis of the content: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South.  Definitely a must-read for fans of Southern rock.  As I made this list and revisited the various titles on my library shelves, I realized that I had left a bookmark in one of the pages of this book.  (The author and his father are visiting Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters.  As the three drive around rural Wisdom, Kentucky, they pass a number of scary JESUS IS COMING signs, put up by a colorful local character named Dewey Cooper.)  I was delighted to discover this passage that pretty well sums up my religious outlook:

“Look yonder,” Young drawled as we passed one of Cooper’s warnings.  “He makes it sound like Godzilla’s coming or something.”  Young slapped his knee and exploded in laughter that infected my dad and me, too.  “Those signs like to have scared the hell out of me when I was a little boy.”  He got serious again: “You know, personally, I think it’s a damn great thing if Jesus is coming.  Why you wanna warn me about it? I thought it was supposed to be good.”

2006  Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire.  This is an imaginative tale of Elphaba (who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West) as she grows up in Oz pre-Dorothy.  It often portrays her in a rather sympathetic light and the “good” Glinda (Good Witch of the North) in a sometimes not-so-flattering light.  A reminder that none of us is all good or all bad?  My only criticism of this book is a borderline pornographic scene toward the beginning that serves no purpose.

2007  The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  Of all of the books that I have read in the last 13 years, this one has stuck with me the most.  The author traces four meals from their origins to the table:

1) A conventional meal that is a product of the U.S. industrial-agricultural complex (e.g., McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets).  Before I read this book, I really had no clue about U.S. agriculture policy.  In a nutshell, it’s insane.  We pay farmers to grow more and more corn, which lowers its price, which spurs them to grown more and more corn.  What to do with this glut of corn?  Why, put corn syrup in everything, and convince people to supersize their fast food meal for only 79 cents!  Also, feed corn to cows crammed into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); since cows are designed to eat grass, not corn, pump them full of antibiotics so that they can “handle” the corn.  This results in super-resistant strains of bacteria down the food chain, including in humans.  Not to mention all of the petroleum-based fertilizer necessary to grow all of this corn.  Literally tons of fertilizer wash down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a huge dead zone where nothing can live.  I happened to read this book before riding RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).  Seeing all of the corn in Iowa, which literally covers the state, I realized that Iowa is one of the most industrial states in the U.S.

2) A USDA-certified organic meal.  Such certification is not nearly as eco-friendly as you might expect.

3) A locally grown organic meal.  The author focuses on Joel Salatin, an unconventional yet brilliant farmer in Virginia.  Salatin’s farm is called Polyface Farm, an indication of the many crops and animals he raises in an intricate, holistic system.  Salatin shows that farming can and should be a challenging (physically and intellectually) yet intensely gratifying endeavor.  The more food that we grow and eat locally, the better off we will be economically and health-wise.  If you read about Salatin, you’ll want to be a farmer yourself.  Robert and I were so inspired by his approach that we named our own little place Polyhound Farm.

4) A meal that the author hunted and gathered himself.  Michael Pollan gathers mushrooms to include with this meal.  I particularly remember his description of a mushroom’s mycelium, the unseen portion of the fungus that can extend hundreds or even thousands of feet underground.  It’s almost like reading about an alien organism.

Honorable Mention: Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz.  The Allen family in white Atlanta and the Dobbs family in black Atlanta were pretty much the most influential in their respective worlds.  They gave Atlanta two of its most noted mayors, Ivan Allen, Jr. and Maynard Jackson.  I grew up in Atlanta (DeKalb County) but knew little of the important contributions both families made to government and civil rights.  I highly recommend this book, particularly to other native Atlantans.

Honorable Mention: Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis. I was born just after the Civil Rights Movement, and we never got that far in my history classes.  This memoir really opened my eyes to some of the injustices that African Americans faced during the Jim Crow era and to the incredible courage that people like John Lewis showed.  It’s hard to believe that such things happened so recently, right here in America.  If, like me, you need to learn more, this is a great place to start.

Honorable Mention:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  In this novel, autistic teenager Christopher is falsely accused of killing his neighbor’s poodle.  He sets out to prove his innocence.  What makes this book unique is that the story is told in first person, giving the reader a glimpse into how the mind of an autistic person works.  In that way, it promotes understanding of those who are “different.”

2007 was quite the year for good books!

2008  The End of Oil by Paul Roberts.  This book explains how the industrialized world became dependent on fossil fuels and how, barring a scientific breakthrough, our near-term energy policy likely will be a patchwork of fossil fuels and various alternative fuels.

2009  Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anything by Malcolm Gladwell is well worth reading, but this is the first book of his that I read.  He provides convincing arguments that the most talented among us (e.g., Bill Gates, The Beatles, Asian math students) aren’t super brilliant or extremely lucky.  Instead, certain cultural, familial, and other perfectly explainable influences can converge in just the right way to produce such superstars.

Honorable Mention: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.  Score one for the public domain.  In this delightfully outlandish adaption of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, Seth Grahame-Smith overlays the tale of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy against a backdrop of zombies that have invaded nineteenth- century England.  A fun read regardless, this is particularly enjoyable if you are familiar with the details of the original Pride and Prejudice.  Also, I loved the half dozen or so illustrations, which reminded me of the ones in the old Nancy Drew books that I loved.

2010  The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies by Richard Hamblyn.  Luke Howard is one of the most interesting and influential scientists that you’ve never heard of.  A nineteenth century amateur meteorologist, he spent his life studying, analyzing, and drawing clouds.  He came up with the simple yet concise system of the three basic cloud types that we still use: cumulus, cirrus, and stratus.  Having studied Latin in high school, I especially enjoyed learning that Luke Howard selected Latin cloud names partially to be consistent with the Latin binomial nomenclature of biology that had just become accepted in the scientific world.

2011  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  Intriguing title, isn’t it?  So is the story.  The entire book is written as a series of letters between the sundry characters.  Set on the British island of Guernsey in 1946, the book focuses on the lives of the island inhabitants as they emerge from Nazi occupation during World War II.  The islanders devise the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society to avoid punishment from the Nazis regarding a contraband pig.  Many of the Society members have never read much before, and – lo and behold – they discover a new passion.  Despite the very real and sometimes heart-wrenching realities of the war, the warmth of the connections between the characters shines through as they rely on each other and reading to get them through their dark hours.

Honorable Mention: The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  This captivating story from the early years of the Civil Rights Movement sheds light on the relationships between privileged white families and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi.  Most aspects of these relationships are horrendous.  However, an unusual bond forms across racial lines as white Skeeter compiles an anonymous book of true stories from Aibilene, Minny, and other black maids.  From chapter to chapter, Skeeter, Aibilene, and Minny alternate telling the story from their varied perspectives.  I listened to the audio version of the book, which added even more to it for me as different actresses read for the different characters.

2012Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose – Doing Business by Respecting the Earth by Ray C. Anderson.  This book made as big an impression on me as The Omnivore’s Dilemma did.  I wish Confessions of a Radical Industrialist were as well known because every business should follow the principles championed by Mr. Anderson.  His company, Interface, Inc. manufactures carpet tiles, used primarily in commercial applications.  Carpet tiles can be very cost effective because only a few tiles – rather than a whole room of carpet – can be replaced if a small section has high-traffic wear or staining.  Interface was already a very profitable company when Anderson had an epiphany.  He realized that he should operate his company in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way.  He did this not only to help the planet but to be even more profitable.  These two ideas do not have to be at odds with each other!  Interface, Inc. has developed processes for recycling old carpet, utilizing labor of indigenous people, switching to solar and other alternative fuels, reducing water use and contamination, and achieving negative greenhouse gas emissions (i.e., less than 0).  One part of the book that I particularly enjoyed was the description of Interface employees spending time outdoors, researching how things they observed in nature might be incorporated into the manufacturing process.  They came up with carpet tiles that look like leaves on the forest floor.  The naturally pleasing and random pattern eliminated concerns about congruity between adjoining tiles or even matching dye lots.  This pattern became one of Interface’s all-time best sellers.

Honorable Mention: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.  This classic, first published in 1895, popularized the concept of time travel.  It also set the stage for my fascination with steampunk, which I discovered soon after I read this fantastic book.

Honorable Mention: Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne.  This is another forerunner to today’s steampunk.  Phileas Fogg sets out on a seemingly foolhardy journey, full of excitement and clever twists.  It has one of the best story endings that I’ve ever read – but you’ll just have to read it for yourself.  I highly recommend doing so!

When I compiled this list, I was rather shocked that the majority of my most memorable reads have been nonfiction.  However, when I consider that I enjoy learning about the world around me and how all of the pieces work together (or not), maybe my list shouldn’t be such a surprise.

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