Friday, December 26, 2014

My 2014 Year In Books

Herewith, the good, the bad, and the ugly from my year in books:

Book of the Year

All The Truth Is Out (Matt Bai): Essential reading for anyone interested in the time in our history when politics and tabloid journalism "crossed streams" and gave us the modern Beltway media. My full review is here:

Honorable Mention

How To Be Interesting (In 10 Steps) Jessica Hagy: As pithy as it is insightful, Hagy uses graphics (with a heavy emphasis on Venn diagrams) to illustrate basic truths about ourselves and where (and how) we should focus our energy. Bonus? You can read the entire book in less than two hours. 

The Invisible Bridge (Rick Perlstein): Had I been blogging back in 2009, Nixonland, the predecessor to this book, would have surely been my book of the year. As it is, this doorstop (804 pages) is encyclopedic in its assessment of the years between Nixon's resignation and the Republican National Convention of 1976. Perlstein efforts, and largely succeeds, in turning over every cultural and political rock in his illustration of Ronald Reagan's inexorable rise to the head of the Republican Party. 

Stuff Matters, Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our World (Mark Miodownik): Using a photo of himself drinking tea on his deck, Miodownik explores the "stuff" shown in that picture and how it impacts our modern world - the porcelain made to use his tea cup, the glass surface of the table it rests on, the concrete slab it all sits on, and much more. Generally accessible to those of us with a limited scientific background, Miodwonik is a winning writer with a breezy style. 

The Good

The Squared Circle - Life, Death & Professional Wrestling (David Shoemaker): Shoemaker, who writes under the nom de plume "AKA The Masked Man" for the sports website Grantland is a passionate fan of professional wrestling who gives the reader not just the history of "sports entertainment," but enough behind the scenes stories to make any mark happy. On the other hand, the interludes of premature wrestler deaths is a sobering reminder of the demons and sacrifices many in the sport carry. 

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps (Chris West): West brings a historian's eye and a short story writer's talent to his survey of modern British history as told through stamps. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum): I read this book after seeing a PBS special that featured several stories from what turned out to be a fascinating book about the ubiquity of turn-of-the-century (and thereabouts) instances of death by various forms of poison - be it carbon monoxide in New York City tenements or the thousands who perished during Prohibition drinking tainted alcohol. 

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander): Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand today's prison-industrial complex and how it has arisen through the aggressive prosecution of young, mostly brown and black skinned young men for low-level criminal offenses. 

Appomattox, Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War (Elizabeth Varon): An excellent examination of how the end of the Civil War was refracted through different lenses (North and South), Varon relies on numerous contemporary sources to illustrate how the South never accepted that they were defeated (the myth of the "Lost Cause" arises almost immediately) and how the North's reaction ran the spectrum between "in your face" jingoism and Lincoln's admonition to show charity to all. 

Network (David Itzkoff): Itzkoff's book about this seminal 1976 movie delves into all the nooks and cranies that not only went into making this still-relevant movie, but provides rich background and texture about its stars, and most particularly, its mercurial screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky. 

Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Nicholas Griffin): Griffin uses the 1971 visit to China of a group of American ping-pong players as a jumping off point for the examination of U.S/China relations and also as a cautionary tale about the perils of quick celebrity, as shown through the swift rise and downfall of one of the team's stars, Glenn Cowan. 

Tomorrow-Land, The 1964-65 World’s Fair & The Transformation of America (Joseph Tirella): While the imperious Robert Moses was putting the final touches on the New York World's Fair, a social revolution was roiling an inch below the surface. 

It’s Not You, 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single (Sara Eckel): I found this book to be filled with good and reasonable advice about dating without being too preachy or smug. 

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert): I know this book has made some end of year "best of" lists, but I was not blown away by it. Don't get me wrong, it was good, but in discussing prior mass extinctions and what we are doing to our planet now that may lead to another one, I found myself struggling to follow the narrative. 

Flash Boys (Michael Lewis): Continuing his series on Wall Street, the Great Recession, and what has (and has not) changed about our financial industry, Lewis tackles the niche market in flash trading, "dark pools," and other esoteric financial instruments that will leave you incredibly depressed at knowing how little of what we call "investment banking" has anything to do with anything other than making a quick buck while pushing the legal envelope. 

The Dylanologists (David Kinney): Dylan fans make Deadheads look like amateurs in comparison, but the object of their affection is as inscrutable and distant as his lyrics. 

Divide (Matt Taibbi): Another book about the inequities of the criminal justice system, but here, the experience of poor, minority defendants is juxtaposed against wealthy corporate interests. Suffice to say, the outcomes will not fill you with a sense that we are achieving equal justice under the law. 

Proof, The Science of Booze (Adam Rogers): Like Stuff Matters, this book deconstructs a process - the creation of alcohol - through history and also by component part. A little science heavy for my taste, but a decent read otherwise. 

On the Run (Alice Goffman): As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Goffman embedded herself with a group of inner city men and their families. The result is this uneven meditation on the difficult choices men and women who live in poverty make about their lives. My full review is here:

The Last Stand (Nathaniel Philbrick): An expansive and well-researched history of the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn. 

Bloody Spring (Joseph Wheelan): Grant's Wilderness Campaign is examined in all its bloody detail. Wheelan makes a persuasive case that Grant's stubborn commitment to his war of attrition is what finally broke Lee. My full review is here:

The Doors, A Lifetime Of Listening to Five Mean Years (Greil Marcus): I'm a sucker for anything having to do with the Doors, and Marcus's book examines the band's prolific output and profound influence on music by devoting a chapter to each of about a dozen of the band's songs. 

Thirteen Days In September (Lawrence Wright): Another book that made some "best of" lists, I did enjoy this re-telling of the thirteen days President Carter spent at Camp David with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Wright's genius is putting you in the middle of many of the negotiating sessions, late night kibitzes and inner thoughts of the participants. 

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work (Mason Currey): Currey examines the habits of artists across the centuries in this light, readable book that confirms much of what we think of genius - it's esoteric, eccentric, and an often lonely pursuit. 

A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps (Chris West): A nice companion to West's examination of British history, though because much of the history discussed was familiar to me, not a particularly enlightening read. 

The Bad

Seven Bad Ideas (Jeff Madrick): A left-leaning lesson in economics and failed theories that read way too much like a dusty textbook for my taste. 

Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity & Get Discovered (Austin Kleon): Barely suitable toilet reading. Sorry. 

Talk to the Hand (Lynne Truss): A disappointing jeremiad against modern manners by an author whose Eats, Shoots and Leaves is one of my favorite books. 

The Last Magazine (Michael Hastings): A thinly veiled roman a clef by the now-deceased Hastings about his time at Newsweek magazine was both oversharing of personal peccadilloes and overinflated about himself and his colleagues in journalism. 

Still Writing - The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (Dani Shapiro): I do not have a single memory of anything from this book. Like literally, none; ergo, "bad."  

All The Time In The World (Jessica Kerwin Jenkins): Discussion of the hours of the day and their connection to things in our world, or something? Again, it's all fuzzy. 

A Short Guide to a Long Life (Dr. David Agus): A bunch of shit you won't do to increase the likelihood you will live longer told in an uninteresting way. No thanks. 

The Ugly

You’re Not Special (and other encouragements) (David McCullough): Tell a bunch of millenials they are not unique snowflakes and turn that into a book deal where you drone on for 300+ pages. Stick with Oh, The Places You'll Go for your graduation needs, people. 

The Politics of Life (Craig Crawford): I overpaid (50 cents at a book sale) for this banal attempt to turn the ordinary "politics" you encounter at home and work into some sort of opportunity to utilize Machiavellian tactics. 

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