Lotsa books this year. Oboy!

2023 Bibliography

The year of reading lots of books

27 min readFeb 7, 2024

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This year I read an exceptionally large number of books compared to my usual. I credit the abundance to my wife’s absence on a couple of long trips and also because many of the books were re-reads.

Here are all of the titles I read this year in rough chronological order.

1. The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, by Anand Giridharadas (2022)

Giridharadas is one of the more thoughtful commentators writing about the changing culture in America today. In a world of bleak prognosticators, the author prefers to find the people who defy the zeitgeist and work hard to make their small corners of the world a better place. This book is a series of vignettes of such caring people, notably including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

2. Midshipman Henry Gallant in Space, by H. Peter Alesso (2013)

I like war stories, space stories, coming of age stories, and naval stories. This book delivered on all four genres. Too bad it was not a very good book. Oh, who am I kidding? It sucked.

3. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes (2012)

This was a very thought-provoking book, even if I can’t say that I agree with the author’s basic premise. Yes, contemporary elites have failed us, but why? Does our distrust of elites push them towards selfishness and insularity, or is their selfishness and insularity causing us to distrust them?

4. Life, by Keith Richards (narrated by Johnny Depp)(2010)

Once again I found myself on a long, solo road trip, so I put on this audiobook. Johnny Depp does a more convincing Keith Richards than Keith Richards does. This was my third time listening this intriguing and entertaining book.

5. The Color of Lightning, by Paulette Jiles (2009)

This book is a predecessor to Jiles’ excellent 2016 novel, News of the World. The Color of Lightning rises above its few rough spots to tell a gripping story of the creation of the United States. In particular, the stories of two of Jiles’ remarkable characters intersect in the plains of North Texas during the years when the white settlers tried to evict the Comanche and Kiowa off their lands. Britt Johnson, a recently-freed black slave, and Tissoyo, an estranged Comanche warrior form an uncertain alliance in the face of unspeakable violence. In an afterword, Jiles hints that while Tissoyo was a fictional composite of many actual Native Americans, Britt Johnson was very much a real person and the events in the book really happened to him. Highly recommended.

6. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (2010)

Snyder is a polyglot polymath expert in Eastern European politics and history. He writes with depth and clarity about a part of the world that is a cipher to most Americans. I’ve read literally hundreds of books on World War II and the Holocaust but none of them approach the iconoclastic insight — backed by diligent research — that Snyder presents here. Modern historiography attributes the holocaustal destruction of Jews and other “undesirables” to Hitler, but fails to disclose Stalin’s separate but equal genocidal actions in his role both as ally and enemy of Hitler. The author presents a refreshingly new understanding of the role the Soviet Union played during the war. It will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the era.

Without a doubt this was the most important book I read all year.

7. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham (2019)

The book presents a minute-by-minute account of the terrible nuclear accident in the Pripet marshes of Northern Ukraine in 1986. But the author goes deeper into the personalities, doctrines, and prejudices that forced both the accident itself and the devastating aftermath. The story here felt complete, impartial, and very accurate.

8. Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex), by Peter Bart (2011)

Ever since I streamed The Offer on TV, I’ve been reading about the movie The Godfather and the men and women who created it. Peter Bart was an important behind-the-scenes player in Hollywood. He worked for Bob Evans (The Godfather’s producer) at Paramount in the brief era between the studio system and the rise of the agents. There’s lots of fascinating back story and detail about how some of our most iconic movies got made. There’s an enigmatic scene in The Offer where Evans, at a lavish and glamorous post-Oscar party, credits the phenomenal success of The Godfather to Peter Bart.

9. The Last of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black (2022)

It seems as though the author wanted to put the reader right into the meteorite action, making personal friends with the doomed giants. It didn’t really succeed.

10. Someone Else’s Shoes, by Jojo Moyes (2023)

My wife and I listened to this amusing book on a long drive to and from Los Angeles. It was a perfect fit for the long freeway hours. The story entwines the tales of two very different women, one of whom loses a pair of shoes and the other who inadvertently finds them. Hilarity ensues as it turns out the shoes seem to have powers of their own. Not only was this novel very enjoyable, but it was so to both my wife and me, and that is a signal accomplishment.

11. The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, by Peter Zeihan (2014)

Peter Zeihan is a geopolitical analyst, and the best one I’ve encountered. He is also a polemicist, a fearless predictor of the future, an excellent speaker, and frequently wrong. While it’s fascinating to read a book that attempts to predict the future of the next decade, it is even better when you read it nine years after it was originally published. It allows you to assess the quality of the predictor’s ability. Zeihan is a prolific YouTuber and his observations are pithy, geopolitically informed, and bold. His analysis is always interesting and insightful. His conclusions are a scattershot.

12. The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles (2021)

I loved Towles 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow, but was less thrilled when I then read his earlier novel, Rules of Civility. I simply assumed that his trajectory was upward, but was mistaken. His latest novel, The Lincoln Highway exhibits the same maladies as his first novel. While there are captivating characters and appealing scenes, the story never seemed to land on solid ground.

13. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, by Thomas Frank (1997)

This book asserts a surprising notion: that Madison Avenue advertising professionals hijacked the imagery, music, and other tropes of the 1960’s counterculture to sell an endless range of products. It reads like a cleaned up graduate thesis but is nevertheless intriguing.

14. The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal (2022)

A science fiction whodunnit. I did not especially like this novel, but don’t let me dissuade you from reading it. It was one of the books that I listened to this year rather than reading on paper. Thus it suffered a bit from my inability to backtrack and do a “Say what?” I got confused by all of the characters and places and drinks.

15. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (1994)

Continuing down the Godfather rabbit hole, last year I read The Big Goodbye, a fine book about the making of the movie Chinatown, produced by the same man, Robert Evans. Chinatown’s director was Roman Polanski, a controversial figure today, but in 1974 when the movie was made, Polanski’s major connection to the news was when, five years earlier, his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Charles Manson cult.

Helter Skelter is a surprisingly readable book. Bugliosi is the prosecutor who convicted Manson and many of his cult members of the grisly murders, so his knowledge is unassailable in the long descriptions of the trial. The first portion of the book sets the stage with a detailed and engrossing re-creation of the people and events involved in the murders themselves. I’ve no doubt that this portion was written by Curt Gentry, a skilled and successful author who was Bugliosi’s co-author.

16. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley (2018)

“Fascist politics feeds off the sense of aggrieved victimization caused by loss of hierarchical status.” There isn’t much that’s new here, but it’s a good, solid, and concise presentation of what fuels the MAGA-redhats in the USA.

17. A Gambler’s Anatomy, by Jonathan Lethem (2016)

This novel never entirely made sense to me, but then, that is true of lots of novels that the critics love. And this is not to say that I didn’t like the book, I found every page worth turning. It’s just that the story didn’t seem to connect to anything in my reality, the events didn’t remind me of anything in my life. The main character is a jet-setting gambler, a hustler, who plays high-stakes backgammon with rich men around the world and takes their money. Except that he has a brain tumor that is about to kill him. And the story proceeds from there to…Berkeley? Lethem is one of my favorite authors but this one has me scratching my head, in a good way.

18. Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War: A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity, by: Mychailo Wynnyckyj (2019)

Since the dastardly Russian invasion of Ukraine, I’ve been reading a lot about the country that Putin so covets. This was one of the better ones. It’s the story of the Maidan protests in 2014 that became known as the The Revolution of Dignity. It is written by an academic who was directly involved yet far enough removed to see the events in their historical framework.

19. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz (1992)

Conservatives love to talk about how things were better in the good ol days when families were important and men, women, and children knew and followed their respective roles as god ordained. This well-researched book puts the lie to that fantastical vision. Coontz repeatedly punctures the claims of “family values” with actual facts. For example, much is made of the increasing divorce rate of today versus in grandpa’s day. But in grandpa’s day a far greater percentage of marriages ended — often early — when one of the partners died. Women — typically in childbirth — and men — typically in work related accidents. When the partners live decades longer, a greater proportion of them end in divorce rather than death.

20. The Tangled Lands, by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2018)

I’ve enjoyed Bacigalupi’s previous science fiction novels so I bought this one without hesitation. However, it is not science fiction, but fantasy, which is not a big draw for me. As fantasy goes, though, it’s not bad at all. The book is actually four separate short stories, all set in the same imagined world. Each author writes two of the stories yet they blend seamlessly.

It is a world where practical magic is as commonplace as shoe repair or hair styling. But over the last few decades a venomous weed has started to grow, and apparently it feeds off of magic. Where spells are cast the bramble appears, and touching the bramble is deadly. The citizens of the authors’ world are torn between the practical benefits of magic and the fatal consequences of the destroying weed it attracts. Into this conundrum, grift, greed, and cruelty emerge as the strongest force.

It’s quite easy to read about the deadly, consuming bramble as a metaphor for climate change. Wherever we benefit from the enormous advantages of fossil fuels, we find ourselves battling against the inexorable encroachment of pollution, extinction, and climatic devastation. But the authors don’t follow through, so I conclude the metaphor was unintentional.

21. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum (2020)

This is the author’s rather personal chronicle of how so many of her conservative, elite, colleagues abandoned their academic impartiality and embraced right-wing authoritarianism.

22. Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Berkert (2014)

A narrative history of cotton in our world, particularly focusing on its economic impact. This book makes good historical reading. Cotton was as much a raw material of the booming industrial revolution as was coal. Cotton was among other things, the economic engine of the young United States, and — together with sugar and tobacco — profoundly dependent on slavery, and a powerful driver of pro-slavery forces.

23. The Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest, by Sarah Corbett (2017)

I did not finish this book. It seemed to be an apology for using craft skills as tools for protest, but at a kindergarten level.

24. Finna, by Nino Cipri (2020)

A strange, short novel about stumbling through a wormhole in the universe by taking a wrong turn in an IKEA store.

25. Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (1988)

Frustrated as I was by the last two books I read, I decided to treat myself to rereading a favorite: Alan Furst’s original spy novel Night Soldiers. Then somehow the treat grew and I read all fifteen of them in order of their publication. Reading the entire oeuvre, one right after the other, I was finally able to get a clear perspective on Furst’s stories and characters.

All of Furst’s novels are authentic stories of Central and Eastern European people caught up in a continent descending into the totalitarian nightmare between Hitler and Stalin. Night Soldiers is more complex, challenging, and different from the rest. The protagonist, Khristo Stoianev, is a young Bulgarian man who silently watches a cadre of vain and stupid men marching in the streets trying to imitate fascists from their upstream neighbors, the Germans. His younger brother does not remain silent and is murdered by the marching men. Thus Khristo is primed when an agent for Soviet security recruits him to join up and become a Soviet spy. In Moscow, he is trained as a secret agent and then sent into the field. The book details Khristo’s career in the years leading up to the Second World War, the changing fortunes of European countries along with his comrades from the spy school.

Night Soldiers encompasses more operations, more countries, more agents, more time, and more complex relationships between them than any of his subsequent books. It is a foundation for all of his subsequent books.

26. Dark Star, by Alan Furst (1991)

A Polish man becomes a Soviet spy based in Paris.

27. American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, by Adam Hochschild (2022)

After the first world war, certainty about systems of government declined precipitously, and many divergent philosophies emerged as future contenders. It’s well known that communism and fascism were the two dominant ideologies in Europe. Not surprisingly, but not as well known today, these two ideologies also gained enormous traction in the United States of America. Fascism almost won.

28. The Polish Officer, by Alan Furst (1995)

As the German blitzkrieg rolls across Poland, a Polish Army officer is tasked with saving the country’s gold reserves. This is one of my favorites of the Furst spy novels.

29. The World at Night, by Alan Furst (1996)

Jean Casson lives in Paris and is every bit a Parisian. He’s a successful filmmaker, so he knows and loves beautiful women. He knows all of the cool restaurants and nightclubs in his part of town. He loves to go to the Cote d’Azur for holidays. But it’s 1940 and the specter of war looms over him and everyone he knows. What will he do? Where will he go? Furst is a master storyteller of the moody dramatic irony of people struggling under the Sword of Damocles, living in that moment when everyone knows war is coming, but before it actually arrives.

30. Red Gold, by Alan Furst (1999)

Although each Furst novel stands on its own, many characters appear in two or more books, usually only in minor roles. Red Gold is the only book in the series that is a direct continuation of the previous novel, The World at Night, sharing the same protagonist. Now the war has come to France and Jean Casson is in the resistance fighting the occupying Germans.

31. Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (2021)

This was a fun read. Weir’s “work the problem” approach to science fiction is applied to alien lifeforms.

32. Kingdom of Shadows, by Alan Furst (2000)

In this book we meet Count Janos Polanyi, a Hungarian diplomat, who plays a strong supporting role in this and several other Furst books. It’s 1938 and one of Polanyi’s agents, Nicholas Morath, visits the massive Czech fortifications that are going to stop Hitler. These fortifications are all in the northern part of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. And then we learn the fatal irony: that British Prime Minister Sir Neville Chamberlain gives the Sudetenland to Hitler thus allowing him to conquer the Czechs without a fight.

Some contemporary observers compare the British betrayal of the Sudetenland to the current Republican betrayal of Ukraine.

33. Blood of Victory, by Alan Furst (2003)

An expat Russian is recruited by the Hungarian spymaster Janos Polanyi to try to stanch the flow of oil to Nazi Germany. A nail-biter.

34. The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst (2006)

It would not be far wrong to say that all of Furst’s protagonists are the same person. Often they are louche playboys unused to taking responsibility, sometimes they are military officers, sometimes they are the flotsam of Eastern Europe, but they all behave in similar ways. This is not a bad thing, as they are all interesting and — ultimately — they do the right thing. This book’s protagonist is a journalist on assignment in Spain in 1938, writing about the civil war, often called the dress rehearsal for World War Two.

35. The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, by Zachary D. Carter (2020)

An excellent biography of arguably the most important economist of the twentieth century. As part of the British contingent helping to craft the resolution of the first world war, Keynes watched in horror as his ideas were discarded in favor of those of the big egos. The result was the disastrous Treaty of Versailles which set the stage for the Second World War.

In 1944 Keynes was the British representative to the Bretton Woods Conference whose charter was to craft the new economic order following the end of WWII. Keynes legacy shines because his ideas helped create a more egalitarian, prosperous society, but right-wingers have tarnished it for the same reasons.

36. The Spies of Warsaw, by Alan Furst (2008)

October 1937. A French colonel at the embassy in Warsaw engages in the shadow war before the shooting starts in earnest.

37. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst (2012)

In 1938 an American film star travels to Paris to make a movie. The nazis attempt to recruit him for propaganda.

38. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst (2014)

A Spanish emigre in Paris is recruited to help supply weapons to the Republicans fighting in Spain.

39. A Hero of France, by Alan Furst (2016)

1941. Paris. Resistance.

40. Under Occupation, by Alan Furst (2019)

1942. Paris. Resistance.

41. Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic, by Simon Winchester (2023)

I really enjoy reading Winchester’s books, and this was no exception. Nevertheless, it is a lesser work than many of his other books.

War correspondent Lee Carson in London in 1944 (colorized).

42. Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison, by Ben MacIntyre (2022)

Ben MacIntyre once again makes a familiar story seem fresh and new. Read everything that he writes and you won’t be disappointed.

There’s a scene in this book near the end, when the Third Reich is collapsing and the German army is in disarray. The guards of Colditz prison have apparently abandoned their posts, but there are hints that the old men and young boys of the German home guard are still manning posts in the town of Colditz, down the hill from the imposing castle. Into this dangerous scenario the lead elements of the American Army arrive, accompanied by a striking redheaded American war correspondent named Lee Carson. Reading this passage piqued my interest in both war correspondents and female war correspondents. I’ve purchased a few books on the topic and they now reside tantalizingly on my To Be Read shelf.

43. The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey (2009)

A straightforward biography of the first woman to ever occupy a cabinet post for a United States President. To a very large extent, Perkins was the architect of FDR’s New Deal. She worked hard to stay out of the limelight but the Washington DC patriarchy made that a tough job. It would not be an overstatement to say that without Perkins, we would not today have social security, disability insurance, a minimum wage, child labor laws, and weekends.

44. The Yellow House: A Memoir, by Sarah M. Broom (2019)

A very personal story of growing up in a bad house in a bad part of New Orleans. The ties of family are stronger than any other force.

45. From Russia With Love, by Ian Fleming (1957)

The Soviets set out to kill James Bond. After 66 years it’s still a good novel.

My wife and I have recently been enjoying the new mini-series Slow Horses. In the show, British spymaster Jackson Lamb, delightfully played by Gary Oldman, makes an offhanded reference to one of the characters in From Russia With Love: Rosa Kleb, the mastermind of the Soviet plot to kill James Bond.

46. No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan, by Ben Anderson (2012)

The author, a journalist embedded with the US Marines in Afghanistan, saw the war from the perspective of the soldiers. It is not a pretty picture. Those of you who — like me — grew up with the Vietnam war will recognize the uncanny similarities: a militaristic nation trying to impose its cultural values on a country it doesn’t respect or understand through the use of force. A tragic repeat.

47. Proof of Corruption: Bribery, Impeachment, and Pandemic in the Age of Trump, by Seth Abramson (2020)

This is a strange book. It’s the third of a trilogy and the only one I’ve read. It reads like a distillation of the daily news, thick and syrupy and distasteful. Pointillistically, it paints a clear picture of the corrupt behavior of the Trump administration. In particular, you will learn to loathe Rudy Giuliani.

48. Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, by Tove Danovich (2023)

People who keep chickens as pets are a joke to real farmers. My neighbor, who sells eggs for a living, has more than 12,000 hens on his 80-acre ranch adjacent to mine. He would laugh out loud at this book (except that he never reads books). I usually keep a couple dozen chickens. I enjoy feeding and watching them, but I don’t consider them “pets.” Author Danovich wants chickens so that she can put them on a leash and take them for walks, and that part of her book seems silly to me. But she is a journalist, and a good one, and she has done her homework. There’s a lot in here about the joys and conundrums of raising chickens.

49. The Lost Daughters of Ukraine, by Erin Litteken (2023), (DNF)

I felt very emotionally manipulated by this novel and did not finish it.

50. The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship, by Jeffrey Zaslow (2009)

I’m not sure why I bought this book but I think I imagined that it was about women scientists at the Ames Research Lab in Mountain View California. But no, it was about 13 young women who all grew up together in the middle class suburbs of Ames, Iowa, a middle American city in the middle of America. The remarkable thing about these women is how they maintained their relationships with each other for more than 40 years.

51. The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene (1951), (DNF)

The protagonist was just a whiney little bitch and I didn’t finish the book.

The Mount Washington Resort in its heyday. In 1944 it was the venue for the historic Bretton Woods Conference.

52. The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, by Ed Conway (2015)

It’s a real privilege to be able to read more than one book on any particular historical subject. It allows one to perceive bias, emphasis, and innuendo that would pass unnoticed if you just read one point of view. This is about my fourth book on the Bretton Woods conference and it was by far and away the best.

All of the other books on the Conference presented it as a dignified affair of diplomacy, but Ed Conway puts the lie to that notion. A better description would be a debauched gathering of bewildered mid-level staffers crammed into a crumbling, overcrowded, ancient, isolated wooden pile in the north woods, fueled on copious quantities of alcohol, sex, and bad food. Under incredible time pressure, with conflicting orders from their bosses back home, lacking a common language, charged with restructuring the world’s economy, these men (and a few women) actually, sort of, almost accomplished their mission. The exalted senior economist present, representing the United Kingdom, was John Maynard Keynes, old, sick, and overworked, he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the conference. Harry Dexter White, representing the United States of America turned out to be passing secrets to the Soviets. The personal drama there was off-the-charts. And yet, they managed to create a new, global monetary system that ushered in the great postwar economic boom that lasted until Ronald Reagan killed it with his supply side idiocy.

53. Noir, by Christopher Moore (2018)

Moore writes funny novels about vampires, ghosts, zombies, whales, busty-B-movie starlets, horny sea monsters, and extremely stupid angels. In this book he tackles the classic noir detective genre. His protagonist, “Two Toes” Tiffen, is tending bar at a San Francisco watering hole when in walks a curvy dame named Stilton, like the cheese. The dialog is straight out of Raymond Chandler by way of Spongebob Squarepants. There’s UFOs, secretive army brass, poisonous snakes, Chinese opium dens, and more. You’ll love it.

54. Independence Square: Arkady Renko in Ukraine, by Martin Cruz Smith (2023)

I dunno, I’ve been a fan of the Columbo-like Moscow Police Detective Arkady Renko since Gorky Park, Smith’s first Renko novel way back in 1981. I’ve enjoyed all of the rest of the Arkady Renko novels, too, but this one did not move me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Furst and MacIntyre. It’s still a good story, but not as good as Wolves Eat Dogs, set in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, or Havana Bay, set in Cuba after it has been cut loose by the collapsing Soviet Union.

55. Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, by J. Bradford DeLong (2022)

There’s a lot to like in this book, but there’s also a lot to dislike. It’s worth reading because the author has a unique viewpoint about history. He frames the twentieth century as beginning in 1870 and ending in 2010. His descriptions of the transforming world and the forces at play causing the changes are insightful. His writing has a peculiar and unsatisfying rhythm to it. He lays out a series of bold observations, hints that their pattern will reveal a singular, bold insight. But when he arrives at the time for insight, his clarity dissolves and the insight does not seem to fully connect. The author is a self-confessed neo-liberal, and quotes Hayek frequently, which seems to me to be a smoking gun of confusion about how the world actually works. On the other hand, he is clearly a thorough historian and talented writer.

56. Robin, by Dave Itzkoff (2018)

A straight-forward biography of Robin Williams, telling the life story of the supremely talented actor and comedian. Williams was a comic genius working in show business, that is, he was an intelligent, sensitive man whose job was to reveal his innermost weaknesses to crowds of insensitive audiences while working for hyenas eager to plunge their snouts into his bloody viscera. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink and worse. Williams’ drive to work hard caused him to create some of the greatest comedic moments in the world, and also a few of the worst. He was a gentle family man whose profession offered him countless opportunities and incentives to screw up. But he was always considerate of his fans and his coworkers, showing a genuine interest in their lives. He is remembered fondly by almost everyone whose lives he touched.

In Marin County, in 1969, I attended the same high school at the same time that Robin did. We didn’t travel in the same circles (I was a long-haired hippie and he was a clean-cut runner), so, except for a nod in the hallways, we didn’t know each other. But 13 years after graduation I was attending the wedding reception of a high school buddy (who did know Robin) when Robin, uninvited, came barging into the restaurant, and everybody fell silent to watch. He was a big star by then, and sported a huge beard he had grown for the movie Moscow on the Hudson. He approached each guest table in turn, saying hello, or making a joke. When he came to my table he jokingly asked, “Alan Cooper, where’s your hair?” I was astonished that he remembered me and my name. This tiny incident is why I believe the stories about his deep attention to and care for others.

57. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Making of America #5, by Teri Kanefield (2019)

I am a fan of the author and follow her on social media. She has written a six volume series of books about important players in American history. This book was one of them. To my surprise, the whole series is aimed at “young readers,” as was this one. So the book is simplified, both the writing and the nuance. I’d recommend it to any high school student.

58. Eight Lives Down: The Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Job in the World’s Most Dangerous Place, by Chris Hunter (2008)

The author is a British Army bomb disposal expert who served in Iraq. As you might expect, he is a man with a strong personality, with all of the concomitant strengths and weaknesses. Of course, his chosen profession admits of no mistakes. His job is nerve-wracking and dangerous in the extreme. He’s so good at his job that the Iraqi insurgents begin to target him personally, setting extra-devious explosive traps for him. A spellbinding glimpse into a unique man.

59. Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, by Ben Macintyre (2020)

Ben Macintyre does it again: telling an astonishing, true story about espionage superbly well.

Agent Sonya, a German-born refugee from the Nazis, was one of the the Soviet Union’s most successful agents during World War II and throughout the Cold War. Her cover was simple and very effective: She was an unprepossessing housewife and mother and she looked and acted the part. The most infamous of her exploits was recruiting and running a spy inside the Manhattan Project. This brilliant physicist, Klaus Fuchs, was one of the most senior technicians working on the American atomic bomb project, and he provided the Soviets — through Sonya — complete plans of the nuclear bomb (In this year’s blockbuster movie, Oppenheimer, you will briefly meet Klaus Fuchs).

60. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch (2016)

The author is a conservative political appointee who celebrated the educational reforms of the late 20th Century. These reforms were predicated on making schools more business-like, more “accountable” and more “measurable.” The changes had the best pedigree, driven by — and bankrolled by — accomplished giants of business like Bill Gates. So, she saw this transformation from within, as an advocate, and witnessed the full magnitude of its complete failure. She tells the tale in this book.

61. A Close Run Thing, by Allan Mallinson (1999)

I first read this book way back in the last century and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Mallinson’s work is widely compared to Patrick O’Brian’s, but I think that way overstates the case: it’s good, but not as good as O’Brian. Mallinson certainly takes us back to 1815 with Matthew Hervey, an eager young British cavalry officer, and the book culminates in the Battle of Waterloo. The author followed up with more books about Hervey, and I bought several of them, but I only read the second, and the remainder collected dust on my shelf. I decided it was time for another look at Hervey, so I reread this one, and subsequently decided to buy the entire rest of the series and read them all. If you are interested in deeply researched and geekily detailed historical novels about Napoleonic-era horse cavalry, this is the book series you are looking for.

62. What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, by John Markoff (2005)

The folks who invented the hardware and software that empowered the personal computer revolution were pretty much all a bunch of long-haired, drug-taking, free-speechers and not the slick marketing suits that we have come to associate with today’s techbros. Markoff is a very skilled writer and researcher and this book is a thorough look at the oddballs and geniuses who got the digital technology ball rolling in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

It only took me 18 years to get around to reading this book. As a former member of the counterculture and a tech pioneer, I assumed A) that I was the subject matter, and 2) that I knew the story already. But I was wrong on both counts. I started my first software company in 1976 (the same year that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates started theirs), but we were the ones who developed the personal computer, not the ones who invented it, and Markoff’s book is about the people who conceived of computers-on-a-chip and the systems software that empowered them. Steve and Bill and I (and many others) were the second wave and we — deservedly — get only a sideways mention.

Featured prominently in this book is Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, a fairly unsupervised collection of brilliant misfits and creative brainiacs. Their facility was hidden in the gently rolling hills just west of the Stanford main campus. Around 1974 I was working part time at the local community college as a computer operator on the IBM mainframe while concurrently learning how to program it in COBOL and 370 Assembler. One of my teachers knew some people and arranged for a field trip to SAIL for me and three other promising work-study students. The lab visit was so overwhelming that I remember little of what I saw there, but I distinctly remember — on the drive approaching SAIL — coming around a bend and seeing a yellow warning sign by the side of the road saying “CAUTION ROBOTIC VEHICLE”.

63. The Nizam’s Daughters, by Allan Mallinson (2000)

The second Matthew Hervey novel takes our hero to India where he finds himself caught between two rival warlords.

64. Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, by Brian Merchant (2023)

This is a remarkable effort and I recommend it highly. Merchant is a young, tech-savvy author writing about the social upheaval in England as the textile business began to industrialize in the 1840s. At the time, England was justifiably famous for the quality of its finished textiles. While the output of the new water- and steam-powered machines was lower in overall quality, they vastly increased the quantity. Typically, though, the new machines put thousands of highly skilled textile workers out of work. Jobless and starving, these spurned workers began to systematically destroy the powered machines. They claimed to follow the imaginary General Ludd, and were thus called Luddites. These men were not against the machines but rather against the destruction of their livelihood by the capitalists who dispossessed them in favor of the new technology. Throughout the book, Merchant compares the consequences of those 19th century power looms to the 21st century introduction of digital tools. As the old adage goes, “the winners write the history books,” and thus, in common understanding, the Luddites were just indiscriminately violent simpletons afraid of technology. Merchant elegantly dismantles that bogus definition, and by drawing parallels to today’s tech world, does so in an elegant, understandable, and contemporary way.

65. A Sailor of Austria, John Biggins (1994)

John Biggins is one of my favorite authors, and his protagonist, Otto Prohaska, is one of my favorite fictional characters. Prohaska is an Austro-Hungarian naval officer during the First World War. You thought Austria-Hungary was a landlocked nation, didn’t you?

Prohaska’s adventures are gripping and historically accurate war stories, but far more than that they show the somber truths of how men and nations are revealed and changed by war. But these stories are also shrewd, hilarious, satisfying, horrifying, and insightful.

I first read this book well over 20 years ago and it’s a delight to reacquaint myself with it.

66. A Regimental Affair, by Allan Mallinson (2001)

In this, the third Matthew Hervey novel, our hero finds himself in the inhospitable cold of Canada, fighting Frenchmen while keeping a wary lookout for angry, dispossessed native tribes.

67. A Call to Arms, by Allan Mallinson (2002)

Due to the events of the previous novel, Matthew Hervey is in despair. Only military service can bring him back to life, but only by bringing him close to death. Once again he finds himself in India, this time assaulting eastwards into Burma.

68. The Sabre’s Edge, by Allan Mallinson (2003)

Still in India, Hervey finds himself joining the siege of the great castle at Bhurtpore.

Phew! That’s more books than I have ever read in one year. I’m not sure that I can keep up the pace next year. I maintain my annual bibliography for my own edification, but I really appreciate it when others read it, so, thank you! I hope that it inspires you to read more books. Long form reading has significant advantages over newsletters, blogs, podcasts, magazines, TV “news”, and other more ephemeral writing. In a book, an author generally has to present their arguments in much greater detail and defend them with more rigor. I read plenty of those more time-sensitive publications but I always keep in mind that they make money by inducing clicks and generating immediate outrage, and outrage tends to suppress the desire for truth. If you’ll excuse my gross generalizations, the older folks watch TV “news” and get righteously fired up, while the youngs tend to watch TikTok or YouTube and get equally righteously fired up. Getting fired up is good, but it’s not the whole story.

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Alan Cooper

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher