My annual list of the best books I read this year:
Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle by Lauren St John. Born in rural Texas, Earle dropped out of school after the eighth grade and was living on his own by 16. By the time he was 30 he had become a hardcore crack and heroin addict, ruined his relationship with everyone who cared for him—and made brilliant albums that blended bluegrass, country, folk, and rock into something new. St John was given unlimited access to Earle, his friends and his family, including his five wives (as of 2003 when this book was published. He’s had a few more marriages since then.). This is a fascinating, well-written biography of a great American songwriter. By the way, the author quotes Emmylou Harris as calling this “the saddest song in the world”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nb2JmcBuEo&list=RDOcus-K7BtSY&index=3&spfreload=10
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen. Trapeze artist Leitzel was the most famous woman in the world at the turn of the 20th century. Alfredo Codona was the world’s greatest trapeze flyer (who could do “The Triple”—three somersaults in midair at 60mph). This is their story. Hat tip: Joan Goldsmith.
Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain by Roy Morris, Jr. “He had come west as Sam Clemens, out-of-work riverboat pilot and Confederate Army deserter. He returned east as Mark Twain—increasingly renowned journalist, lecturer, and short story writer.”
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit. I have always been deeply conflicted about Israel. Certainly Jews deserve a homeland after surviving the Holocaust. And yes, Israelis have transformed the desert into a dynamic, thriving modern democracy in a very hostile neighborhood. Yet the state of Israel survives through ruthless tactics and is responsible for many sordid episodes in its past. Shavit, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has written a history of the country’s ethical struggle since its independence. I found it to be well-balanced, informative, and helpful in understanding this complicated country.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. Hitler’s ill-conceived invasion of Russia was based on his belief that Russia would fall as quickly as France and Poland. Instead, this two-year bloody battle of attrition (1942-1943) became the turning point of the war, weakening the Germans so they could not resist the Allied invasion in 1944. Consider the cost: At Stalingrad the USSR suffered more than a million casualties (including a half-million dead) and the Axis powers suffered 850,000 casualties. Beevor’s readable history delivers the big picture of the battle as well as intimate stories of the human suffering on both sides, both military and civilian.
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan. Despite the current headlines about the Middle East, Ukraine,
and Russia, Kaplan argues that the geopolitics of the South China Sea will become the flashpoint for future international power struggles. Thoughtful and somewhat alarming.
Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Social networking isn’t new, says Standage, who is digital editor at The Economist. The one-to-many mass media of the 20th century was an aberration—in the past, person-to-person connections were common, like the graffiti on a wall at Pompeii that reads like a Facebook news feed, Roman newspapers annotated with reader comments, shared journals of the Tudor era, coffee houses as social connectors, and the close-knit wired community of telegraph operators.
Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Victor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. In the world of Big Data it doesn’t matter why something is happening, only that it is happening. For example, WalMart discovered through data mining that when hurricanes were predicted, their Pop Tart sales increased. They then adjusted their inventory based on that obscure fact. Takeaway: The ability to collect and analyze vast amounts of information is transforming everything by finding correlations that enable accurate predictions of future behavior.
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff. The Internet (mobile, texting, streaming media, location-based services, etc.) has caused everyone to focus primarily on the immediate moment. Past and future have become less important than staying current with what is happening right now. This new “presentism” affects our politics, our relationships, our business, and our careers.
How Music Works by David Byrne. I loved this book. It delivers exactly what the title promises, from the way the architecture of musical venues influences instrumental arrangements, to how the brain perceives sounds, to a look behind the scenes of today’s music business, to the history of American and non-western music, and more. Hat tip: Joan Goldsmith
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. The world’s best thinkers become practical advisors for today’s emotional problems: Help for unpopularity from Socrates, for not having enough money from Epicurus, for frustration from Seneca, for inadequacy from Montaigne, and for a broken heart from Schopenhauer. Much wise. Much humor.
The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food by Adam Gopnik. The history, philosophy, and meaning of food; the history of restaurants, the origin of the cookbook, slow food, understanding wine reviews, and charming insights into the national character of the French. For anyone who likes to eat and think.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherje. I don’t know anyone whose life has not been touched by cancer, either personally or through a friend or family member. This is an eloquent history of the science behind the fight against this disease. Mukherjee, a practicing oncologist, also illuminates the complicated relationship between doctors and patients and some of the ethical issues that arise during treatment.
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson. A collection of essays and journalism on modern culture by the science fiction writer who coined the term, “cyberspace.” He believes all cultural change is essentially technologically driven.
Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death by Joan Halifax. Halifax is a Buddhist teacher who has worked with the dying for more than 30 years. Clear-eyed. Practical. And inspiring.
Beware of God by Shalom Auslander. Dark and funny irreverent parables about sex, money, God, shame, and death. My favorite book of the year.
Canada by Richard Ford. Here is how this novel begins: “First I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed.” Beautifully crafted, carefully observed, powerful and haunting. Unlike some literary fiction, Canada kept me turning the pages until the very end. Important Note: This book is not about Canada.
Forty Stories by Anton Chekhov. Portraits of the Russian character (often drunk), and the Russian landscape (Crimea to Siberia), written with, well, Chekhovian ironic detachment: Stuffy government officials, secret love affairs, the last days in the life of a Bishop.
Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett. Much like Agatha Christie did for the archetypical English village, Burdett creates an entire world for his detective hero to inhabit—in this thriller, it’s Bangkok’s seamy and corrupt underworld. Not for the squeamish.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every year I try to read a classic novel that I missed in high school or college. First published in 1726, this is a brutal satire of politics, religion, science, gender, the possibilities of progress, and just about everything else. Slow going in parts and some of the references are obscure, but overall the book is amazingly relevant to today’s world.
The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield. A young Greek joins the Persian army of Alexander the Great on its way to conquer India. But first, Alexander must conquer Afghanistan, whose army uses unconventional (and horrific) tactics in battle. Unputdownable.
The Devil’s Company by David Liss. A historical novel set in London in 1722. A private investigator (called a “thieftaker”) is tricked into an adventure filled with intrigue and high stakes. Twists and turns and a deeply satisfying ending.
The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett. On a back shelf in my library I found a 1975 paperback ($1.95!) of Hammett’s early stories. I’m glad I did. The Op (unnamed, overweight, cynical, and tough as shoe leather) became the foundation for Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and the entire genre of hard-boiled detectives. Razor sharp writing here—not a single word is wasted.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Love and obsession, lust and oppression, a world where the erotic and political blend together. This 1984 novel, written and set during the Cold War, is actually a book of philosophy that asks whether or not our actions have significance in the world.
Lock In by John Scalzi. In the future, a terrible disease has resulted in extremely advanced technology. Human nature being what it is, this doesn’t go smoothly. A science fiction crime thriller that is a great ride. Hat tip: Tom Negrino.
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. A man whose family lost their fortune is reduced to working in a small grocery store he once owned. He is caught between following his moral code and providing a better life for those he loves. Steinbeck wrote this short novel in 1961, a year before he won the Nobel prize for literature. Highly recommended.
Pro Tip: For long flights or insomnia you can’t do better than to pick up one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mysteries. They’re all terrific reads—well plotted and full of surprises. I buy ‘em by the armful at our local library’s used book sale.