Thursday, January 4, 2018

2017 Books

Full list here. Still feeling like I don’t read enough fiction. Only about 25% of the total, although none in the top 5, so maybe I know what I like. Disappointed by David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski; Delighted, as always by Tyler Cowen, Edith Wharton, Rob Sheffield and Tim Harford. Shout-out to Pat, GLo, my dad and 5Books for the referrals and the reviews. Already a dozen titles in my pile, including Norman Mailer (Harlot’s Ghost), Charles Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit) and Dostoyevsky (Demons).

Fascinating look at a cholera outbreak in London in 1854, this book deals with the rise of cities, the dangers of confirmation bias and the growth of science, all built around a riveting story of crisis and investigation.

Brilliant study of growth in the American standard of living from 1870 to 1970, and the suggestion that we may never see its like anytime soon. The Internet is great, but it can’t hold a candle to the benefits of electricity, indoor plumbing and the car.


 Chronicle of life in the big city for Roma beggars, Filipino nannies, Polish construction workers, Arabic princesses and African sanitation workers, among others. Gives you a real sense of who the people you see on the train are, what they do, and how big cities could not function without diversity.

Delightful, carefully reasoned consideration of various basketball-related disputes and hypotheticals, including a disquisition on pickup dos and don’ts, building Frankenplayer and the concept of a “memory hero,” someone who is overrated by virtue of being a favorite player in our youth. A delightful read from one of my favourite writers right now.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I read this after all of the hype and it still blew me away with its insights and candor on what it means to be black in America. Everyone should read this book.

Monday, January 30, 2017

January Books

Right back at it. Already off the pace and ignoring my resolution to read more fiction this year. Always happy to read anything by Tim Harford. Hillbilly Elegy was bracing, though flawed, and the Smith Tapes reminded me how distant 1972 is from the present.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Not as good as his other books, but, like everything he writes, lucid and a pleasure to read. I think I had read half the book in excerpts before I cracked my copy.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972Vivid picture of another part of America, along with the acknowledgement that it won't be so easy to make America great again. Not perfect, by any means, but worth the effort.

The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972

Great collection of interviews with icons of the 1970s, celebrities, activists, everybody. The times they have a changed.

What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East
Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam & Modernity in the Middle East

Very helpful concise history of politics and culture in the region from the beginning until now. Recommended.

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility

Interesting premisse, repeated over and over again in various opaque epigrams. Short book that seemed to go on forever, oddly appropriate, I guess.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Books of the Year

I read 67 books in 2016 (full list here, let's be friends on Goodreads, people!) and only a few were the result of fishing expeditions at the local bookstore or the CHPL. Most were referrals from trusted sources, and I am thankful to Farnam Street, The New York Times, the Economist, Tyler Cowen, Arnold Kling, and a few other online sources for recommendations. Also thanks to G-Lo for her monthly reporting and occasional exchanges of recommended reading material.

But a special shout-out to my friend Pat Fay, who introduced me to the book of the year, and an author of four of the books I read this year. I had the idea to send him something I thought he might like around 2010. I had visions of an organic book club where a bunch of friends would be passing stuff around sua sponte; mailboxes choc-a-bloc with unsolicited reading material from trusted sources. Happy days.

Well, it never really grew beyond Pat and me (the other two founding donees, Tom and Jason, quietly ignored me),but we are going strong, exchange a book or two a year and follow each other on Goodreads, where I am glad to say he has taken to posting reviews, which are a valuable tool in assessing candidates for my attention.

Which leads me to the book of the year, and my 2016 discovery of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the peripatetic Polish journalist who reported from Africa, Iran, India and the USSR in a deceptively simple way. combining the wonder of a stranger in a strange land, with an astute assessment of what was actually going on. It showed up at my door last year, uninvited. I opened it knowing nothing, and when I finished it, I felt like the scales had fallen off of my eyes. How could this book and this person be out there and me not know about it?

I think I liked the Africa book the best, but I have to choose Iran as my book of the year, because the subject matter was so interesting and most of the detail of the events largely unknown to me. Plus it was my first, and you know how that works.

No big resolutions for 2017, except to read more fiction, and maybe to get out of my chair a bit more. But there's a big pile of stuff against the wall that I can't wait to get to. And it's cold outside. You know how it goes with resolutions.

Shah of Shahs

a "compelling history of conspiracy, repression, fanatacism, and revolution", and that's putting it mildly. Somehow, someone who can't quite figure out what's going on helps you understand it in a way an expert never could. That's the best I can explain it. You need to try it for yourself. 


Goodreads calls it "an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas."
I found the combination of literary history, professional competition, love and mystery masterfully done--one of those books where you constantly are reminding yourself that a fellow human being did this, however improbable that may seem.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens. How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
The scope of this book is ridiculous, but somehow he ties it all together in that Jared Diamond or Joseph Campbell way that has you nodding your head and thinking that now you really do understand it all. Maybe that's not quite accurate, but it's not entirely wrong either.

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books (Stuff I've Been Reading)

I do love Nick Hornby's writing, and I didn't know that he had written a gang of book reviews until I came across one in the Chapel Hill Library. It didn't take me long to seek out the Omnibus version, and never has 500 pages flown by so quickly. He helps you understand things about everyday life and the joy of reading, that, like Kapuscinski, looks far easier than it really is. The older I get the more I realize how hard it is to be simple and clear.

The Remains of the Day

Struggled with this and the Age of Innocence as my final selection, but I chose this one because I liked the relationship dynamics and the chronicle of the end of an era in Britain. It's a great story, but the deeper you get into it, the more you realize that it's also an historical artifact and a meditation on what it means to be a person in a community of others.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

December books

Forgetting my book of Maupassant short stories at home, along with the Bahamian sun and the Economist Christmas issue, kept me from finishing the year as strongly as I'd hoped, but I was delighted, as always to see a pile of book orders waiting for me. I will always order something I come across that looks interesting, but often by the time I am home to pick it up, I've forgotten who recommended it and why I thought it would be interesting. This tends to be a feature, not a bug, as it has been a joy to open the cover on something that I know nothing about, except that at one time, it sounded interesting enough to order.

Full 2016 list here. Top 5 for the year to follow soon.

Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus

On WritingOn Writing

From the English section of my neighbourhood bookstore. Thought it might be interesting, and it was, mildly, if somewhat repetitive. Didn't see the same poetry in his life that Mickey Rourke did.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of AuthorityThe Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority

Published in 2014. Good look at how movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were nihilistic and without any goal other than to smash the status quo. Brexit and Trump both eerily consistent with the author's claims.

Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are

Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are

Interesting summary about how much more we know now about how the brain works, and how little that is. Still closer to phrenology than the singularity.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical ThinkingHow Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Not as interesting as I'd hoped, but worth the effort. Concepts all well presented, but I was familiar with many of them already. Finally understand the law of large numbers, though.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

November Books

2016 list is here. Don't think any of these will make the Top 5. But I enjoyed them all, especially the Lawrence book.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Very readable account of what TE Lawrence actually did in the Middle East, which was, in reality, much more bureaucratic than the movie version. And he was apparently a bit of an odd duck--very unlike the Peter O'Toole version. Excellent insight into the birth of the Sykes Picot agreement, which has been much discussed of late.

The Crocodile by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Crocodile

Born Liars: Why We Can't Live without Deceit

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

October Books

Comfortably past my goal of 50 books for the year, but last year's number looks unattainable. The burden of office will do that to a reader. No top 5 candidates this month, but only one title that I wouldn't recommend.

The Burden of Office by Joseph Tussman

The Burden of Office: Agamemnon and Other Losers 

able look at classic dilemmas (Creon, Lear) from a political standpoint. The present will shrink to littleness if you but assign its boundaries.

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of ComprehensionOvercomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension

Book not unlike the topic.
Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction

How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle

Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction 

Very nice synopsis of trade and economic growth through history. Admirably concise, but I learned quite a bit.

How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle

Gift from Worldwide. Somewhat anecdotal, but generally entertaining look at the psychology of athletic performance. Perception of effort is a key ingredient of performance, and the brain is a poor, and somewhat corrupt, judge.
The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive

The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive

Thursday, October 6, 2016

September Books

A mixed bag. But Possession is a candidate for this year's Top 5. It was singularly clever and like nothing I can remember reading; and a good story to boot!


Sometimes an author or a book makes you wonder how they did it--how someone can be so lyrical, inventive, whatever. Something that seems beyond what a person is capable of. This is one of those books. Not perfect, but I couldn't put it down, and was moved by the end. 

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires

War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires

Interesting look at how and why empires end--largely due to an erosion of the power for collective action. Learned a lot of post Rome, pre-Renaissance history that was new to me. Dragged at times, and stretched to prove the theory, but worth the effort.

The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900

Things move slower than we think. Could have made that point in an article. Interesting point, ponderously made.

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself

Short essays explaining the many ways that can interfere with thinking clearly about things. Nothing new, but good to be reminded.

Essays of E.B. WhiteEssays of E.B. White

Of a time. Sometimes the essays run together, but they are all well written and mostly interesting. The timeframe (1920s-1970s) shows a dramatically changing society.