Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011 Year In Review - The Books I Read

I read some great (and not so great) books in 2011.  Here is my pocket review of each: 

Book of the Year: At Home (Bill Bryson)
Bryson is one of my favorite authors.  He combines a conversational style with a nerd's appreciation for historical context.  In At Home, Bryson takes readers on a tour of his English country home while stretching back centuries to source the origin of each room's purpose within the modern day house.  Along the way, Bryson takes us back to Dickensian England to discuss sanitation, the dark ages to discuss great rooms and many other stops along the way.  

Runner-Up: The Disappearing Spoon (Sam Kean)

Kean's exploration of the periodic table of the elements is chock full of fascinating little tidbits about the scientists behind the discovery of these elements, how the table is constructed and anecdotes about each substance.  You will learn about everything from how dynamite was invented to what happens if you accidentally ingest silver (spoiler alert: you turn kind of blue).  
Honorable Mention: Maphead (Ken Jennings)
Ken Jennings, best known for winning about 345 games of Jeopardy!, is also a cartography freak with a winning writing style.  In his book Maphead, Jennings's love of maps shines through, as he takes us to the Geography Bee, introduces us to geocaching, follows people who update road signs and visits the historical maps contained in the Library of Congress among many other stops along the way of explaining the importance of maps.  

Honorable Mention: Sex On The Moon (Ben Mezrich)
The author of The Social Network weaves a tale of a NASA scientist and his girlfriend, who hatched a plot to steal (and sell) moon rocks brought back by the Apollo space missions.  The amateurishness of the criminal scheme is matched by the wistfulness of the romance between the main characters.  Highly readable.

Everything else:

Tears Of A Clown, Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America (Dana Milbank)
This book seemed far more relevant when I read it in January than it does now that Beck has slithered off FOX and disappeared into oblivion, but basically, Milbank traces the complete and utter douchiness of this latter day Father Coughlin.  A truly execrable human being.

There's A Word For It, The Explosion of the American Language Since 1900 (Sol Steinmetz)
Steinmetz splits the 20th century into 10 chapters and showing when certain words came into popular use.  Marginally satisfying and not particularly challenging.

Quite Literally (Wynford Hicks)

A far better usage book that would look handsome on any reference desk or bookshelf.  Very enjoyable.

Endgame (Frank Brady)
I usually don't like biographies because I get bored with the backstory, but Brady's one volume Bobby Fischer biography is actually stronger on the early part of Fischer's life than the post-Spassky downward spiral.  This is the book equivalent of Full Metal Jacket - amazing first half, so-so second half.  Fischer is a subject who begged either for a two-volume treatment that would have allowed the author to more deeply explore Fischer's adult life, or a shorter one volume work that was more balanced between youth and adulthood.  The early chapters on Fischer's childhood and rearing are fascinating as is the (too short) meditation on Fischer's skid row years in the early 1980s.  Unfortunately, the early part of Fischer's adulthood, when his genius truly blossomed and he was the unquestioned greatest chess player in the world is given somewhat short shrift. Fischer's unquestioned genius is noted but so too is his reprehensible anti-Semitism.  If you are interested in the definitive book about the 1972 Fischer-Spassky Match, check out Bobby Fischer Goes To War.
The Lover's Dictionary (David Levithan)
This book is as slim as it is bad.  I hated it.

All Facts Considered (Kee Malesky)
I remember absolutely nothing about this book.  When I looked it up on Amazon, it appears to be a reference book of some sort.  

Rawhide Down (Del Quentin Wilber)

This book tells the story of John Hinckley's 1981 assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan.  Wilber borrows from Dave Cullen's haunting book Columbine in flipping chapters between Hinckley and Reagan until we get to the climactic incident outside the Washington Hilton.  The behind the scenes chaos at the White House and how close Reagan actually was to death are both notable, especially since the "official" story at the time was far different than what was actually happening.

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (Bill Bryson)
I told you I was a big fan of Bill Bryson.  This book is a nice companion to Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors, offering commonly (and some not-so commonly) used words with definitions and proper spelling.

Mad As Hell, The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right (Dominic Sandbrook)
I'm fascinated by the 1970s.  The decade is easily stereotyped as a sea of leisure suits, 8-Track stereos and shag carpets, but the political system almost came apart during Watergate, the country elected a complete unknown in 1976 and by the end of the decade, interest rates were flirting with 20 percent.  Sandbrook touches on these issues and many more, tracing the decade from Nixon's secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia all the way through how Reagan and his advisors successfully leveraged economic distress, military emasculation and religious fervor to sweep into office in 1980. 

The Eichmann Trial (Deborah Lipstadt)
I found this book much less enjoyable than Hunting Eichmann, though Lipstadt focuses more on the trial itself, whereas Bascomb's tale was focused almost exclusively on how Eichmann was tracked down by the Mossad.  Admittedly, the latter is far more provocative than the former.

The Lost City of Z (David Grann)
Fascinating story of British explorers of the Amazon in the late 18th and early 19th century, and particularly Percy Fawcett, who comes across as a stentorian Indiana Jones as he searches for the eponymous city for which the book is named. 

The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson)
Those Ronsons are one talented group of people.  I imagine their holiday dinners are latter day Algonquin roundtable, but to be honest, I remember very little of this book's contents.  Probably not that good.  

In The Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson)
Larson probably reached his creative apex with The Devil in the White City, but this highly enjoyable story of our Ambassador to Germany at the dawn of Hitler's rise to power is really good.  Larson modifies his two disparate story signature by telling what are more like parallel stories of the Ambassador and his daughter, each of whom has unique and unconventional experiences in early 1930s Germany.  The book felt about 20-30 pages too long, but overall, a solid read.

Fraud of the Century (Roy Morris)

The shenanigans of the 1876 Presidential election do, in their way, make what happened in 2000 look mild by comparison.  Morris's telling, which is filled with the type of political minutiae that junkies like me live for, was great.  That the election itself was not certified until a few days before the actual Inaugural presents the interesting question of why there was such a rush to "select" G.W. Bush, but in 1876, the politically distant Sam Tilden was outmaneuvered by the Republican machine supporting Rutherford Hayes.  Hayes's own complicity in the actions is questionable, but the stain left by the result (Tilden outpolled Hayes nationwide) played a big part in Hayes's decision to not stand for re-election in 1880. 

The President and the Assassin (Scott Miller)

Keeping with the post-Civil War theme, Scott Miller takes us to Buffalo, New York in September 1901 to tell the story of the assassination of President William McKinley.  His murder is a major historical pivot point for the country, as he was succeeded by the mercurial Theodore Roosevelt, whose progressivism was completely contrary to McKinley's rigid protection of industry.  His killer, Leon Czolgosz, was also a man of his time, but of the masses who were disillusioned by government and flirted with anarchism.  A final thread is the still modest amount of medical knowledge and technology - sterilization, anesthesia, and x-ray machines that were not in wide use, but might have contributed to McKinley's recovery had there been greater understanding of those techniques.

Game Six (Mark Frost)

Baseball fans will enjoy Mark Frost's inning by inning (and in some cases, at-bat by at-bat) story of Game Six of the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds.  Widely believed to be one of, if not, the greatest World Series game of all-time, Frost not only breaks down the small strategic decisions that went into the game, but layers a rich tapestry of stories about the players involved.  He's particularly fond of Luis Tiant, the Red Sox starting pitcher for Game Six and Reds manager Sparky Anderson.  Even though you know the result, reading about the myriad times where the game could have gone in a different direction still makes for an entertaining yarn.

The Last Gunfight (Jeff Guinn)
Guinn's story of "The Gunfight at the OK Corral" takes the reader back to the sometimes lawless West that was still being developed and settled in the late 1800s.  Guinn makes a persuasive case both for Wyatt Earp's self-promotion in the wake of the gun fight and its inevitability based on bruised egos and simmering feuds between the Earps and the Clantons.  Like many things related to the "Wild West," the legend was printed before the truth had a chance to come out.  

The Speech (Senator Bernie Sanders)

This is the verbatim text of Senator Sanders's December 2010 filibuster against the extension of the Bush tax cuts.  I know, you are noting the irony that the only time someone has been forced to do an "old school" filibuster, that is, speaking without break on the Senate floor, is when we want to extend tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich, but such is life.  The speech repeated itself in a number of places but the overall message of income inequality looks prescient in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  There is no denying the Senator's passion and his desire to help the middle class and poor is laudable.  That people in Vermont and elsewhere are struggling just to buy food and heat their homes is, sadly, just as common today as it was a year ago when Senator Sanders made his speech.  
The President Is A Sick Man (Matthew Algeo)

Yet another Gilded Age era tale, this time of President Grover Cleveland's secret surgery to remove a tumor from his mouth, and how the procedure was kept from the general public (spoiler alert: overlong boat trip from DC to NY).  The wrinkle in the story is that one reporter actually sniffed out the story but was mercilessly crushed by the President's men when he published it.  Along with a piece of Abe Lincoln, Cleveland's tumor (which turned out to be benign) is still in the possession of the federal government. 

A Billion Wicked Thoughts (Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam)

Two authors data mined porn searches conducted by thousands of men and women to tease out the differences between what we say we want sexually and what we crave when we watch it.  
Destiny of the Republic (Candice Miller)
Rounding out the post-Civil War presidential jag I went on is this book, which discusses the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield by Charles Guiteau.  Miller makes clear that poor medical techniques directly contributed to Garfield's painful and slow death, Alexander Graham Bell makes a cameo appearance with an early version of a metal detector (his failed b/c the bed Garfield was on when Bell scanned him had metal springs - you can't make some of this stuff up) and Guiteau is another aimless drifter and neer-do-well (like Czolgosz in 1901) who did little with his life.  Miller's fondness for the President is clear and, to a lesser extent than McKinley, his death changed the course of our country's history by elevating career hack Chester Arthur to the Presidency.  The Arthur Administration was unmemorable, but one wonders what Garfield could have achieved had he lived.  I've also seen this book pop up on some "best of the year" lists. 

Snoop, What Your Stuff Says About You (Sam Gosling)

I thought I would enjoy this book because I'm a bit of a snooper myself - primarily bookshelves, and I found out that the bookshelf is one of three places where people tend to express themselves (the bathroom (of all places) and bedroom being the other two).  Otherwise, there was a lot of, "it could mean this, or it could mean nothing" observations that I find so frustrating in sociological books.  

Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover (Julian Baggini)

Baggini takes a bunch of conventional wisdom tropes and attempts to determine whether they are true or not.  Each aphorism (e.g., "no pain, no gain," "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush") is given a whopping 2 pages of discussion, so it's hard to take anything in the book (or its conclusions) too seriously.

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (Andrew Gelman)

This book is what I imagine Nate Silver's masturbatory fantasies look like.  Dense with data points and impenetrable to those without a PhD in statistics, my one basic takeaway was the (partial) debunking of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas as Gelman argues that rich people in "blue" and "red" state vote Republican and where Republicans win the middle class vote too (and get better turnout) in the Deep South and Midwest, they win.  Kansas poor people vote for Democrats too, they just don't make up enough of the electorate to tilt it blue.  Or something.  It's a bit blurry.  

That Used To Be Us (Thomas Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum)


Boomerang (Michael Lewis)

This book feels like 5 overly long Vanity Fair articles embellished with enough fluff to turn it into a book-long treatment to take advantage of the superb (and 2010 Book of the Year "honorable mention") The Big Short.  While no one can doubt Lewis's talent as a writer, this story of foreign countries hit by the financial crisis (he focuses on Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Germany) and whether California portends a fiscally calamitous future for the U.S. just does not have enough weight to carry itself as a coherent whole.  Interspersed with trenchant observations that muse on what countries did "when the lights were out and no one was looking," were mindless and distracting ruminations on German shit fetishes, how odd Lewis felt arriving at a Greek abbey in a pink Brooks Brothers polo shirt (don't ask) and how a leader of the Irish parliament looked drunk (really?).  On balance, the good outweighs the bad, but this feels like a bad sequel along the lines of Caddyshack II or Another 48 Hours

Why Read Moby Dick (Nathaniel Philbrick)
This slim volume discusses the importance of Moby Dick in our literary canon and Philbrick's passion for the book is clear.  Having not read the book myself (and frankly, Philbrick's description of the difficulty of getting through the book made me less inclined to read it), I enjoyed Philbrick's point of view and learning about the way in which Melville put the story together.

The Professor and The Madman (Simon Winchester)

An entertaining look at the creation of The Oxford English Dictionary and how one of the primary contributors to the OED was (literally) a mental patient housed in an insane asylum in England.  Whereas Brady's Endgame should have either been much longer or much shorter, Winchester's book felt too short, that a lot was left out of the creation of the mammoth, original 20 volume OED.  That notwithstanding, this was a good book.  

Back To Work (President Bill Clinton)


I am looking forward to more great reads in 2012!

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