Books I’ve read in 2019
Here are all of the books I read last year, presented roughly in chronological order. For some reason I read fewer books this year than I have in past years. Then again, more of them were by women, so that’s good.
1. Slöjd in Wood, by Jögge Sundqvist (2018)
One half of sloyd is a discipline of woodworking using hand tools to make practical objects for daily use. The other half of sloyd is the daily use of practical hand tools as a discipline for learning. Picture grampa sitting on the porch whittling a stick with a pocket knife. Now imagine that he’s actually whittling something useful, a tool or a practical household item. Now imagine that you are learning this skill from grampa, and not coincidentally, learning about patience, design, thinking, and using your hands. That’s sloyd.
2. Guadalcanal Diary, by Richard Tregaskis (1943)
While it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated our national leap from fence-sitting neutrality to active combatant, we really considered the Japanese to be a sideshow, and the real battles were in Europe. Thus, the bulk of our ordinance and military were committed to defeating Germany first. The upshot of this decision was the continuous stream of bad war news coming from the Pacific Theatre as Japan raged across the Pacific unchecked, sinking Allied ships, invading islands, and threatening every sovereign nation in the region. When the US Marines finally began offensive operations against the Japanese on Guadalcanal, things did not always go well. They suffered significant casualties, failed to secure a clear victory, and the US Navy, in support of the invasion, suffered terrible losses including what remains as their worst defeat in a surface action in history.
Generally speaking, contemporaneous historical accounts are valuable as much for the light they shed on the values and framing that existed in that time as they are for the events they describe.
Tregaskis was given unprecedented access — today we’d say he was embedded — to the Marines on Guadalcanal. But his job was to bring some desperately needed good news to the home front. There’s not a lot of plot here, mostly inconclusive skirmishes between scared and confused young men, and that’s mostly what war is like. Despite the quantity of self-editing going on in the book, it accomplished its goal of giving Americans at home something real, yet something positive. The book is an undemanding read, and I was probably eleven years old when I first read it. Compare and contrast to Herr’s Dispatches.
3. The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents, by Corey Brettschneider (2018)
The United States Constitution is an astonishingly brief document — I have a copy of it right here and it’s a 3-by-5-inch booklet only 36 pages long, and it includes a list of the signatories and all of the amendments. And yet, it was written a long time ago when many of the issues of the day were far different than they are today, and certainly the language was different. This little volume by a constitutional scholar is a Baedeker Guide to the original document. The author not only explains the meaning of the clauses and paragraphs of the Constitution, but he presents the critical court cases that defined and refined the founder’s intentions. Furthermore, he is not pedantic about it, being happy to skip over entire Articles, Clauses, and Amendments that simply are no longer that important to focus his attention on those that are vital to justice and equality today.
This book was fascinating when I read it in the early months of the year. By year’s end, it had evolved into a necessary explanation of how the US Constitution was being systematically destroyed by the Republican Party and the duped innocents who empower it.
4. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, by Michiko Kakutani (2018)
Like the previous entry, this book was written as a reaction to the Titanic of America electing the iceberg of trump to the Presidency. One of the most important tools of fascism is the destruction of truth. By enveloping truth in a voluminous nest of lies, the task of extracting and identifying truth becomes too arduous for the average person. It becomes beguilingly easy to simply accept that truth isn’t any different or better than lies. And when this happens, the lies that rise to the top become the most oppressive and evil ones.
5. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)
A plot-driven science fiction novel about — and apparently for — adolescents who play first-person shoot-em-up video games. The book is slick and polished and feels like it was written by formula. But, the formula works. By the way, the book was made into a movie and it is also slick and polished and formulaic, but Spielberg, like Cline, is a master, and the cinematic take also works. No insights here, but a fine beach book.
6. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, by Marie Hicks (2017)
Lacking the industrial might of the USA or the engineering prowess of Germany, plucky England used their crafty wiles to win World War II. At Bletchley Park, some of the smartest people created processes and machines to crack the German battle codes. Yay Britain!
But after the war, England was bereft: their colonies broke free, their economy withered, and their citizens suffered in poverty and hunger. But, in the minds of the British ruling upper class, the one thing that England still had that made it England was their claim on the moral high ground. Unfortunately, that morality was a pretty hollow shell.
That same English morality caused them to drive to suicide the man who most defined the advances of Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, because he was gay. And the people who made Turing’s machines actually work were almost all women. During the War, having women “help out” seemed like a reasonable concession, but afterwards, that good ‘ol English class-based morality couldn’t accept the fact that women did excellent work that was often better than the men they replaced.
Hicks’ book is the simple story of how England discarded a clear lead in digital technology and the demonstrable advantage of a gender-equal workforce in exchange for some obsolete platitudes.
7. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas (2018)
I have always been a bit wary of the praise heaped on the Gates Foundation, but I couldn’t really articulate why. This book explained why my skepticism was well-founded. The author defines the inherent problem with billionaire charity with crystalline clarity. The non-ethical corporations make billions of dollars destroying ecosystems, plundering resources, and crushing the lives of countless people, and then they turn around and donate a few thousandths of their earnings in a carefully orchestrated public relations stunt to absolve themselves of their guilt. And, partly due to our desperate hunger for good news, and partly due to a complicit media, we give the oppressors a bye.
It’s not a coincidence that aggressive billionaire philanthropy accompanies a lot of other aggressive billionaire toxic behavior, and the author is emerging as a strong and clear voice for reframing our understanding of the economic system that creates such anomalies as billionaires. In addition to social media, he writes for (what’s left of) the mainstream media, so he gets good exposure. I wish him the best of luck in spreading the word. Please, read this book.
8. A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, by Michael Pollan (1997)
Pollan writes in the same mold as other skilled writers of non-fiction like Simon Winchester and John McPhee, but with a unique twist. Pollan always gets personally involved in his research, which gives his prose a stronger narrative structure and gobs more authenticity.
While everyone is commenting on his latest book about psychedelics, I went farther back to one of his earliest outings: the story of him building a writing retreat in his backyard. If you are interested in writing or architecture or design or building this is a fascinating book. The building he creates is only a couple of hundred square feet, but it’s designed with much thought, and the author — who starts out not knowing which end of a hammer to hold — does most of the actual construction work.
9. Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There, by Rutger Bregman (2014)
Pretty much everything we know about economics is wrong. If it’s not wrong it’s widely misunderstood. There are two main areas where this misunderstood wrongness is rampant in western countries: first is the relative strengths and benefits of the public versus the private spheres, and second is the understanding of how nations structure their finances. These misunderstandings bring us to a condition where private interests override the interest of the populace, and a general malaise in the minds of that populace in thinking that they could ever advance economically. Oligarchs and gangsters love this misunderstanding.
Bregman’s book exhaustively breaks down these confusions and shows how we not only can afford to have a generous, supportive, caring, and just state, but it would be cheaper and easier in the long run to create it.
10. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (2018)
A fine novel. This is a mainstream story told by a mainstream author in a straightforward way. The prose has the leisurely pace of a hot southern Sunday. The protagonist is a strong woman. The ending is a twist. No politics here, just a chewy novel.
11. The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, by Raj Patel (2010)
Yet another book detailing how we can create a more equitable, just, and sustainable society by getting rid of the unreasonable demands of unrestrained capitalism.
12. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, by Jonathan M. Metzl (2019)
It turns out that being a white man in America is deadly. The author is a physician in the Midwest and has done meticulous research to explain why many white men of a certain age would rather die then let people of color have access to decent health care.
13. City of Quartz, by Mike Davis (1990)
The best way I can describe this amazing book is that it’s a cultural history of Los Angeles. It’s chock full of insights about the city and the region. The author surfaces the relationships, friendships, animosities, and secret deals that built LA. He explains how a city with literally nothing to offer anybody can become so desired by so many, and it’s a great story.
This is a demanding read. The author repeatedly sent me to the dictionary and I had to reread many complex paragraphs. Usually, as here, demanding books offer the most value.
14. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, by Simon Winchester (2010)
Much of recorded history took place on or around the Atlantic Ocean and that’s a fitting subject for Winchester, the brilliant observer.
15. Sophia of Silicon Valley: A Novel, by Anna Yen (2018)
This is a novel of the boy-men who run Silicon Valley and the ambitious women who serve them. How much of this novel is true? I can’t tell you but author Yen’s biography sounds suspiciously like Sophia’s life story. A fun read.
16. The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Powers (2018)
This is an excellent and important novel. It begins as a series of apparently unrelated stories that eventually intersect and combine to tell a story of civil disobedience in service of forest preservation.
All of the stories are fascinating, but the first story is by far the most beguiling, and it’s worth the price of admission alone.
17. Sula, by Toni Morrison (2002)
A few pages into this novel and it’s clear that you are in the presence of a world-class writing talent. This is a story of a black woman, and a black town, and their world of contradictions and compromises. Thus, it’s about America.
18. Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (2011)
I was entranced by the first two seasons of The Expanse, the serial made from the series of novels of which this one is the first. It’s space opera, but it’s good space opera, like the first two Star Wars movies were. One day I was in the bookstore and found the novel and thought, “what the hell?” What can I say? it’s an excellent science fiction novel. One of these days I’ll read the second book, which I’ve already purchased. Maybe on my next trans-oceanic flight. And maybe I’ll watch season three of The Expanse soon, seeing as they just released season four.
19. Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, by Bruce Myles (1990)
What this book lacks in polish it makes up for in sheer historical awesomeness! The author tracked down and interviewed a number of the surviving women pilots who brought fear into the hearts of nazi soldiers over Russia. Their stories are both thrilling and chilling, and like most tales of warriors are filled with pathos and bravery. Having read equivalent books about American, British, and German pilots, its remarkable/not remarkable that their stories are so similar.
20. The View from Flyover Country, by Sarah Kendzior (2018)
This book is a collection of essays originally posted on the Internet in the last few years. I’d spotted this book when it first came out but avoided it because I mistakenly thought it was a memoir from someone in a ravaged post-industrial American city. Not so. It’s a series of essays documenting the collapse of American Democracy written by a sharp-eyed observer with a gift for beguiling sound bites. On the eve of the recent impeachment hearings I attended a rally in my home town of Petaluma CA carrying a sign with a Kendzior quote on it: “It’s a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government.”
21. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow (2012)
I find the author’s TV personality to be uninteresting, but her writing is stellar. She puts current events into a page-turning story while weaving these disparate threads into a coherent narrative of how America’s self-regard has turned us into the bad guys on the world stage. The lesson here is that having a military the enormous size and power of America’s means that we should be exceedingly reluctant to deploy it. Instead, a lot of hot-headed fools are constantly brewing up ill-advised adventures.
22. News of the World: A Novel, by Paulette Jiles (2016)
A good friend, packing for a Mexican vacation, asked me for some slow-sultry-day book recommendations and I obliged with a few of my favorites. He repaid the favor by giving me this slim volume. Jiles’ tale is, like so many great novels, a simple story of a long journey. In this case the protagonist, Captain Kidd, is an older man, a veteran of the Confederate Army, who is traveling across post-bellum Texas. Every body he meets, and every town he passes through, and every situation he finds himself in, is fraught with conflict, confusion, and uncertainty as the vanquished southerners try to rebuild their sundered world. But while Kidd is riddled with doubt and beset with weakness, he is clear on the purpose of his journey, and that clarity rings like a bell throughout this beautifully written novel.
23. A People’s History of the German Revolution, by William Pelz (2018)
It’s so hard to let go of power. The Revolution in Germany between the two world wars was compromised by fearful centrists and party apparatchiks who wanted liberal socialism but imagined that right wing paramilitary hate groups would be a useful tool to achieve their aims. Unsurprisingly, this assumption turned out to not be true. Also, the real strength of the left is women. Fascinating peek into a little-known corner of history.
24. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, by Eric Foner (1988)
It took me a long time to plow through this tome’s more than 700 pages, but I’m glad I did. White Americans, both north and south, have been waging war against black people since 1619 and it has never stopped. When you come face to face with a comprehensive catalog of abuse by white supremacists it’s quite breathtaking, even for someone who considers themselves to be reasonably woke. There is no doubt in my mind that the strongest force at play in America today — even stronger than greed — is white guilt.
25. 1619, The New York Times Mag, 18 Aug 2019, by Nikole Hannah Jones, et al (2019)
In recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of black African slaves to the American colonies, The New York Times bravely dedicated their Sunday Magazine to the remarkable notion that slavery was one of — if not the — defining event in the founding of our nation. The 96-page magazine contains more than 80 pages of historical essays including 17 original literary works by contemporary black writers and original artwork by leading black artists. It is accompanied by a 16-page newspaper section, produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
The lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the visionary who drove this project to completion, is excellent and sets the tone for the entire compilation. She suggests that if one alters their point of view somewhat, one can see the influence of slavery on literally everything in American life, culture, laws, politics, economics, language, music.
You know she’s on the right track because a bunch of white, male, boomer-aged, conventional academics have begun to spin up the slow grinding wheels of institutional doubt in an effort to debunk Hannah-Jones’s quite obviously valid point. Their attacks are based on insignificant disputes about irrelevant discrepancies. They clearly much prefer the version of history that casts Americans as the good guys.
26. The Great Eastern, by Howard A. Rodman (2019)
I was chuffed to find this in the local bookstore and eagerly began to read, but it was a thoroughgoing disappointment. I’m fascinated by the life of the British industrial engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and I’d like to learn more. The eponymous ship was one of his creations. I thought, finally, here was a good historical novel about a charismatic and important person. Well, no. I finished this novel through to the end because I wanted to glean whatever insights I could find, but emerged from the ordeal empty-handed. This is a fantasy novel about fantastic people doing improbable and impossible things populated with some actual historical figures and actual fictional characters borrowed from other writers. It’s kind of a train wreck. I did get to learn about Mangel Pandy, and the monologs by Captain “Moby Dick” Ahab can often be amusing, but Brunel was basically just an exceedingly ahistorical plot device.
27. The Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, by Jared Yates Sexton (2019)
White men of a certain age learn to blame themselves for their failures, even when those failures are caused by systemic failure of the extant economic and political systems of our country. What’s more, their patriarchal world-view insists that a) they indeed are solely responsible for their failure, and b) that they are not allowed to show weakness, humanity, or empathy and their only form of socially acceptable reaction to such shortcomings are anger and violence. Sexton’s deeply personal story is the armature around which he describes the spiraling state of male self-destruction in America. Toxic masculinity is widespread in this country. The problem is that it only works when it is successfully dominating someone else. When it doesn’t do that, it devours its believers.
Here’s my bibliography for 2018.