It is amazing how many books you can read when you essentially have no social life. Here is my year in review for 2015. You can also click these links to read my recaps from 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.
Book of the Year
Dog Whistles, Walk Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark
Pithy without being sophomoric, this handy Bible of Beltway folkways is not as baldly cynical as Mark Leibovich’s This Town, is less snarky than Dana Milbank’s Homo Politcus, and far more intelligent than Chris Cillizza’s execrable The Gospel According to the Fix. These are authors who point out the absurdity of D.C. convention with bemusement rather than bile. It is light reading that any political junkie will enjoy, and, in a year with many very good, but not great books on my shelf, wins the award by default.
Showdown, Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America, Wil Haygood
Haygood’s thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) mediation on LBJ’s decision to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court reads like a political thriller that could be a story arc on House of Cards. The main players are all bold characters and big egos – Johnson, looking to cement his legacy on civil rights, Marshall, a giant of the legal community whose decades-long career fighting against white supremacy is richly detailed and truly inspiring, Senator John McClellan, a bigot of the first order looking to torpedo the nomination, and Senator Sam Ervin, whose acclaim during Watergate is mitigated by his disgraceful treatment of the eminently qualified Marshall.
In the balance, Haygood uses the extended Judiciary Committee hearings (Marshall’s ended up being the longest in history to date) to hopscotch around the months, years, and decades leading up to this event as a way to frame how far the nation needed to come simply to appoint a black man to the U.S. Supreme Court. We learn not only of the broad strokes, but even the smaller points, not the least of which was Johnson’s fear that Marshall would not make it through the hearing and had already lined up a fallback option (William Coleman, a black Republican). Marshall’s legal career is given the just due it deserves, from his time as an attorney with the NAACP, traveling at great personal risk through the Deep South,
to his time as U.S. Solicitor General and judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, but we also get a flavor for the man Marshall was – tough minded, a raconteur who loved good company, and constantly pushing against the injustice he saw each day.
Looking back on the lies and innuendo hurled at Marshall from a distance of nearly 50 years makes the conduct all the more revolting and it is equally troubling to think that such behavior was sanctioned and indeed encouraged in the not-too-distant past. Considering the enormous legacy Marshall left behind, we can only be grateful that he was able to overcome the naked racism displayed by those who would sit in judgment of him.
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century, Claire Prentice
This heart-wrenching tale of greed takes us back to the turn of the 20th century when a huckster named Truman Hunt brought a tribe of Pilipinos to the United States and basically turned them into a zoo exhibit at various fairs and amusement parks in the country. While these gentle people were ogled by thousands of people, their captor pocketed all the money and gambled most of it away. The legal twists and turns that resulted once these poor souls escaped his grip is equally depressing and the whole story has a stranger-than-fiction quality to it that will reaffirm any cynic’s belief in how truly awful human beings can be.
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion & The Dark Side of Cute, Zac Bissonnette
You remember Beanie Babies, right? Cute little stuffed animals that suddenly became the Dutch tulips of the late 1990s and early 2000s? Bissonnette does a fascinating deep dive not just into the fad but the man behind it – Ty Warner – a volatile perfectionist whose monomaniacal control over the plush toy empire he created alienated everyone in his life while making him obscenely wealthy. Along the way, we meet the early adopters who were able to make bank off the fad as it escalated and a few of the suckers who were left holding the bag by buying at the top of the market.
Mastermind, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova
Konnikova takes the stories of the fictional detective and deconstructs them to illustrate how to think critically. A must for puzzle solvers, law students, and fans of the TV show House.
America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Health Care System, Steven Brill
Why our health care system is such a shit show. Full review: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2015/04/book-review-americas-bitter-pill.html
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, Tim Weiner
Nixon is endlessly fascinating to me. See, Things I Love – Richard Nixon. http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2015/08/things-i-love-richard-nixon.html My full recap of Weiner’s excellent book is here: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2015/10/on-april-17-1973-fbi-agents-arrived-at.html
Killing A King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, Dan Ephron
Ephron’s briskly paced story is about much more than Rabin’s murder at the hands of a religious zealot. It is about a small window of time in modern history when it seemed possible that one of the thorniest issues on the world stage would finally be resolved. Sadly, Ephron argues persuasively that with Rabin’s killing at the hands of a Jewish extremists got what they wanted – a hardening of positions by both Israelis and Palestinians that has left a solution to this problem farther than ever from being achieved. Shalom, Chaver.
The Best of the Rest
The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, C.D. Rose
It is impossible to know if Rose’s slim tome of two-page biographies of authors you have never heard of is legitimate or an elaborate stunt, but it is entertaining. My full review:
A Letter to My Cat: Notes to our Best Friends, Lisa Erspamer
Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love after the Big Break-Up, Susan J. Elliott
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson
Two takeaways from Ronson’s polemic about shaming in the age of social media: (1) shaming only works if others make you feel guilty about what you’ve done; and (2) the half-life of any shaming is approximately four nanoseconds these days. Does anyone remember the name Rachel Dolezal? Exactly.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson
Poor guy. Wrote his magnum opus (Devil in the White City) more than a decade ago, which makes all his other books pale in comparison. That said, this one’s a page turner even though you know the end result.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer
Here is another guy whose literary mark was made years ago. But please read if you want to get incredibly mad about how lightly allegations of sexual assault against college athletes are treated.
Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year, Michael Faquhar
The shittiest things that happened on every day of the year. Great bathroom and/or vacation reading. Full review here: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2015/06/book-review-bad-days-in-history.html
1944: FDR & The Year That Changed History, Jay Winik
A reach at north of 500 pages, 1944 may have changed history, but it was more so the culmination of events that occurred in the years previous. An enfeebled and near-death FDR sucks it up to secure a fourth term in office, Eisenhower’s landing at Normandy succeeds, and someone finally gets around to liberating death camps that the Allies knew about for years beforehand but did nothing about.
America 1908: The Dawn of Flight, the Race to the North Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation, Jim Rasenberger
Big year. Long subtitle. The book’s first few chapters on the Wright Brothers are particularly good, but the bigger idea here is that many of the wonders of the modern world we now take for granted were honed during this year in our nation’s history. If only TR had opted to run again instead of handing the reins to Taft.
The Real Thing: Lessons on Love & Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook, Ellen McCarthy
Great read for the hopeless romantic in all of us.
Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape, Mark L. Gardner
If you’re a fan of Westerns.
The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips, Kevin Deutsch
If you’re a fan of young, underemployed, uneducated gang members solving squabbles via firearms and how impossible it is for police to get a handle on this phenomenon because so many other parts of society are fucked.
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe
It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History, Jennifer Wright
No, no. Mine with Special Lady Friend did not rate, but Norman Mailer stabbing his wife in the heart (she survived) and some poor kid (Sporus) who was castrated and turned into a woman by Nero, did. Love hurts, y’all.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Baffling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell
At this point, Gladwell’s books feel like super-sized think pieces you read on Vox.
You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, Jen Sincero
Some combination of fake it ‘till you make it, YOLO, and Tony Robbins.
The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationary Obsession, James Ward
You would think a book that digs into the history of ubiquitous desktop items would appeal to someone who rated “How to Sharpen A Pencil” as one of the best books he read in 2013, but you would be wrong. I just could not get into a good flow with this one.
The Death of Elvis: What Really Happened? Charles Thompson and James Cole
I will save you the trouble – years of prescription drug abuse, an awful diet, and a cadre of sycophants who were happy to be on the payroll and keep their mouths shut.
Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Ian Bremmer
Option A – W’s mindless interventionism. Option B – Old school Taft Republican isolationism; Option C – Obama’s “smart power” strategy. Your call, America.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth
Based largely on the fact that Scandinavian countries invariably rank near the top of the “happiest” people on earth, Booth peels back the onion to reveal the quirks, idiosyncrasies and less savory aspects of life in places like Norway and Finland. Personally, I would not last one winter up there, I do not care how loose they are with vice laws or how much they soak the rich in taxes.
From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Man, Jodi R.R. Smith
I’m never going to fucking learn how to tie a bow tie. Sorry. Oops, I meant to say, this is a slight tome with helpful hints about how to politely alight from dinner parties and writing gracious thank you notes (admittedly, a lost art these days).
Magic Words: The Science and Secrets Behind Seven Words That Motivate, Engage, and Influence, Tim David
You know the old saying “never trust a man with two first names.” Add on the fact that Tim David is also a magician (so, his business is sleight of hand) and you get this, a book that reads like a corporate seminar on how to manipulate other people.
Works Well With Others: An Outsider’s Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You, Ross McCammon
Again with the foot-long subtitle. Jesus dude, you’re an editor at a men’s magazine, clean it up a little, ok? Oh sorry. That is probably an example of what NOT to say in the work place. Otherwise, do not chit chat at the urinals (duh), drink too much at the holiday party (double duh), or piss off the boss’s assistant.
The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, Ryan Holiday
Pete Carroll recommends this book and hey, he blew a Super Bowl on an idiotic call, so he must know something about overcoming adversity.
The Smartest Book in the World, Greg Proops
If by smartest, the author meant dumbest and least funny, he nailed it.
When to Rob a Bank: And 131 More Warped Suggestions & Well-Intentioned Rants, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt
Should have left well enough alone with Freakonomics. Copying and pasting blog posts into a book should not be a thing.
Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion, Mark Leibovich
Another writer recycling old work in the wake of a literary “success.” Awful. My full review is here:
Whatever Happened to the Metric System? John Marciano
The author tries to stretch the quirky effort in America to convert to the metric system in the 1970s into a book-length history of measurement. Missed it by a mile … err kilometer.
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