Book reviews

A Year in the Books

So many books …

Among my resolutions this past year was to read more determinedly — books specifically. Too much of my consumption had become bite-sized: Newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries and blog posts, and often just fractions thereof. I felt a small sense of accomplishment getting through a long New Yorker feature in a single sitting. The Internet, and Twitter especially, have made my attention span a lot shorter. 

But books are special and anyone who has seen my desk or bedside table can attest to the fact that I have oodles of physical titles lying around and also that the pile seems to keep growing. I’ll start reading one with the best intentions only to dip into something else that seems more interesting, moving the first one onto a stack that stretches back months or years.

Back when I was about 17, I decided that I wasn’t well-read enough and I made a long list of things I “should” read. My dad had sent me a bunch of books in the mail with notes on the inside cover about what age he had been when he had read them — Jack London, Alexandre Dumas, stuff like that. I didn’t pick many of them up. He died when I was 16 and I felt guilty for being so lazy and uncultured. 

I made a list of dozens of books that I figured I “should” read — mostly fiction — and got through much of it by the time I was a freshman in college. A few were enjoyable. Others were a slog. The list broadened my horizons but, in hindsight, the whole exercise was a bit silly. Not much later I read lots of “serious” stuff in college that made a lot more sense with professors putting it into context. 

Flash forward 33 years to my older, far more distracted self. Now I actually like some of the highbrow stuff that I made myself read back then and the only books I occasionally force myself to get through are those relevant to my work or for a book club that I joined several years ago (most of those are pretty good).  

So this year I decided to finish books before I started the next one and to keep track. And while I didn’t have a “to-read” list, I did have an unofficial goal of reading a book a week and also tilting away from nonfiction. I remember hearing a talk by the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison when I was on my “serious book” binge. He said that he read a book a day and I was amazed. I still don’t know how he did it, but not having a formal job probably helped. I only managed 44 this past year, and that was by forcing myself to finish a few. There were six or seven more that I abandoned, a few of which I’d like to revisit.

I’m no book reviewer but, in case a middlebrow journalist’s year of reading is of any use, here are the highlights and lowlights of 2019:

Books I didn’t finish

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Honestly the only reason I didn’t get through this fantastic biography is that it weighs in at close to 1,000 pages and so many other interesting things had popped up on my bedside table. Also, I had to return it to the library. I thought I knew a lot about the man and the period and I was wrong. Like Walter Isaacson, Chernow is a hugely-talented biographer. I’d read Titan, his biography of John D. Rockefeller, several years ago and also loved it. I’ll swing by the library soon and finish the last few chapters.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is another I just didn’t finish. This grisly tale is a modern classic written in 1965 about a 1959 slaying of a family in rural Kansas and a book that I had been meaning to read for a while. Sometimes even “modern” classics feel a bit dated — especially those by a writer like Capote who is so widely-copied — but this one holds up very well. I just ran out of gas.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. After the 5th or 6th science fiction geek in my life urged me to read this book, I finally ordered the paperback from Amazon. It’s certainly clever and I really wanted to learn more about its hero, “Hiro Protagonist.” Reading it 20 pages at a time during my commute just wasn’t the right way to get into the novel’s dystopian world, though. I’ll try again when I’m on a beach or somewhere quiet and isolated.

Books I shouldn’t have finished

Having a lofty reading target has a downside– you stick with books that you sometimes shouldn’t. I don’t want to spend too much time on this part of the list because lots of people probably never made it through my book either.

But I console myself with the knowledge that there are so many truly terrible books published. We have boxes and boxes of awful, self-promoting nonfiction titles at my office that were sent to some reporter for free. As Christopher Hitchens said: “Everyone does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

It wasn’t like I picked stuff up at random. I thought I had a pretty good filter — whether the author was someone I’d heard of or if the book had sold well. In the case of these three, those litmus tests failed me. One was even made into a movie. None were actually awful — I stopped reading some real stinkers in the first 10 pages — but these were disappointing.

Ben Horowitz is by all accounts a famously successful venture capitalist, yet his bestseller The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a dud. I was hoping that it would impart some generally useful lessons. They all were specific to running a tech company, and really not even then. It could at least have contained more drama or fly-on-the-wall detail.  Horowitz must either have really good instincts about people or really good employees and partners because he comes across as an empty suit in this book.

I had high hopes for WIld: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I blame my “y” chromosome for not liking it. I have nothing against female authors, but I’m not a female reader and some books are just targeted at that audience. That’s smart marketing since women buy more books than men. The Guardian’s explanation: “Women know how to read properly, while men have a desultory and, at best, casual approach to books.”

Sure, maybe, whatever. I had read Bill Bryson’s witty A Walk in the Woods about hiking part of the Appalachian Trail a year earlier and loved it. There was a lot about the experience and the trail’s history and also a bit about being grouchy and middle aged. I thought this would be a more serious take on a more serious hike with maybe just a little bit more navel gazing thrown in. There was just way too much about Strayed’s wacky upbringing and dying mother and her feelings and not nearly enough about my reason for picking it up. It shot to number one on the New York Times Bestseller List after Oprah picked it for her book club and was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. So much for bestseller lists.

The force wasn’t with The World According to Star Wars by Cass Sunstein. That’s too bad because he’s quite an accomplished guy. His book with Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler, Nudge, was good and a lot of his other books look really interesting. This one probably sounded promising when he pitched it to his publisher but suffered in the execution. Or maybe I’m just not that interested in the saga of how Star Wars was made. The analogies he drew to real life are pretty strained.

Pleasant Surprises

I love stumbling across new authors. Just because they’re new to me doesn’t mean they’re unknown, of course. Here are a few good ones I “discovered” in 2019:

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy. I found this Irish author by accident, but she’s actually well-known and this is the book that made her a famous travel-writer back in 1965. The title is self-descriptive and her tale is incredible — especially the parts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Murphy is, according to her Wikipedia page, still alive. It’s amazing that she lived to tell just this tale, frankly.

Tom Barbash is another known writer who was unknown to me. I picked up The Dakota Winters in the leftover bin at my office and really enjoyed it and then passed it on to my mother-in-law who liked it too. It’s a tale that mixes real people and places — John Lennon and various locations in troubled 1980s New York — with the fictional family of a struggling TV talk show host. I was 11 when Lennon was shot and New York was pretty crazy then. This is a nice snapshot.

I don’t often cackle maniacally on the bus to work, but Hits & Misses by Simon Rich had my fellow commuters looking at me sideways. The reviews compared him to Wodehouse and Thurber, which is high praise indeed. I wouldn’t quite say so, but these stories are really, really funny.

Shooting Lessons by Lenny Kleinfeld. Amazon informs me that “customers who viewed this” also looked at Swag by Elmore Leonard, which isn’t surprising. I immediately thought of it while reading this hard boiled story about a cop hunting for a killer preying on drivers of “Makro,” a ride-hailing service like Uber. Great story and pacing.

Old Favorites

When in doubt, go back to what, and whom, you know and like. I read seven books by five of my favorite writers in 2019: Bill Bryson’s The Body; Exploring Diabetes With Owls and Calypso by David Sedaris; Meet Mr. Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse; Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson; and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. I also read two books each by Bernard Cornwell and Daniel Silva and three by Agatha Christie, but I wouldn’t call any of them a favorite writer – just guilty pleasures. I also read Skin in the Game by N.N. Taleb, which is most certainly not a guilty pleasure, yet it’s the fourth book of his that I’ve read. I might call him a favorite if he hired an editor, but I keep getting sucked into his knotty, boastful, thought-provoking books like a moth attracted to the flame.

The Best of 2019

The books I recommend most highly include two I already mentioned, Bill Bryson’s The Body, David Sedaris’s Calypso, one from a former colleague, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, two “classics” that I should have put on my 17 year old list, both set in the rural South: Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and finally a nonfiction book by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

I just started running in 2018 and really loved Murakami’s deeply personal take written when he was about the age I am now. Bad Blood, aside from being a riveting tale of the fraud at startup company Theranos, is a master class in investigative journalism. The Body is classic Bryson — full of interesting tidbits woven together by a prose wizard. I’d love to be able to write just half as well as him. And the two classics are, well, classics — no need to summarize those. Here is Italo Calvino’s definition: “Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

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