My 2020 Bibliography
As usual, I read lots of books this year. Some of them were fun and frivolous while others were as serious as a heart attack. Welcome to 2020, the year of breakdown.
It pleases me to find plenty of women authors on my list, and several of the best books were written by women. For this year’s reading I continued to quest after an understanding of America’s descent into dysfunction, but I also found myself reading a lot of escapist fiction. That seems only fitting for the year of pandemic.
1. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, by M. Kat Anderson (2005)
I’ve been slowly reading this book for the last couple of years, by just a couple of pages every few days. It’s fat and scholarly, yet it’s still an easy read. Being a textbook, this volume is exhaustive and repetitive, so don’t feel that you have to make a marathon of reading it as I have. Just a few chapters will open your eyes to the remarkable vision the author reveals.
California was invaded by Europeans right around the time that the idea of the “noble savage” was popular. The arriving Europeans, finding the resident natives living well by eating the apparently wild plants and animals of the state, conjured the narrative of the innocent brown-skinned natives merely being the lazy beneficiaries of the miraculous fecundity of California. Even such luminaries as naturalist John Muir misunderstood what he witnessed in the then-relatively un-Westernized California. Because the Euros didn’t see European-style agriculture, they assumed that there was no agriculture at all taking place.
Anderson destroys that conception. Her remarkable story goes counter to the popular thinking of who the aboriginal Californians were and how they lived, and her book has apparently had a lot of influence on historians, conservationists, and sustainable agriculturalists.
Anderson asserts that California was a cornucopia of tasty and nutritious food precisely because the semi-nomadic natives assiduously cared for the land, the water, the trees, the shrubs, and the animals. Their ability to live off the land was because they carefully and conscientiously cultivated it. Just as the Westerners depended on barbed wire and the plow for their style of agriculture, the indigenous Californians depended on fire and judicious harvesting. They burnt fields and woodlands regularly to suppress weeds, pests, and choking deadfall. The fires promoted new growth and cleared lines of sight for better hunting.
Of course, the first thing the Europeans did was stake permanent claims on land the Indians used seasonally. They then clear-cut it, fenced it, and plowed it. They built their houses right in the path of wildfires, so they aggressively stopped any burning. Within a few years the destruction of the native cornucopia was assured. When the fossil fuel is gone, we will find ourselves living lives much closer to those of the native Californias and less like those of the German, Swiss, Italian, American, and English settlers. After all, the native Americans methods sustained for 10,000 years, while the European ways have exhausted the soil in less than 200 years.
2. Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock, by Barney Hoskyns (2016)
This was a fun book about America’s new rock n roll celebrities in those wild and crazy days in the 1960s and 70s. Upstate New York was a haven for many artists, musicians, and alternative lifestylers. This is a fascinating chronicle of the talented, lucky, good, bad, and ugly of the era.
In the first half of the Twentieth Century, Woodstock was known for its artist’s colonies and crafts retreats. It attracted an array of painters, bohemians, makers, and escapees from Manhattan. It even hosted a Buddhist colony. In 1964, Bob Dylan bought a house there, talked into it by his then-manager and current resident, Albert Grossman. In many ways Grossman was the uniting force that brought significant rock and roll talent to Woodstock. The little hamlet eventually became home to a fabulous panoply of players including Janis Joplin, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Joan Baez, Todd Rundgren, Peter Paul and Mary, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, and dozens more.
Oddly, Dylan, who, in the public’s mind, was so identified with hippies and the counterculture, was not a hippie, didn’t like hippies, and notably did not participate in the famous Woodstock Festival in 1965.
3. How Will Capitalism End?:Essays on a Failing System, by Wolfgang Streeck (2017)
Well, much to my surprise, all of the scholarly early architects of capitalism clearly foresaw that, if widely and successfully adopted, capitalism would devour itself. There’s lots of eye-openers in this book.
4. How Design Makes the World, by Scott Berkun (2020)
Not just an explanation of what design is, but essays on why design is important. Berkun is an articulate observer of the tech scene with a strong appreciation for the role of design within it.
5. Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, by Ben Goldfarb (2019)
All of my life I’ve looked at the American landscape and failed to understand how it came to be shaped the way it is. I could never understand what created the countless broad, flat-bottomed, fertile valleys that dominate the temperate world. This book makes clear that it was the beaver that did all of that.
Those flat, fertile valleys formed in the marshes and wetlands were created by beaver dams. Countless millions of these large rodents worked for millennia to shape our world, making it a more supportive home to fish, waterfowl, trees, and shrubs. Their dams stopped erosion, sequestered moisture and carbon in the soil, and created perfect ladders for the anadromous migration of fish upstream, which in turn fertilizes mountain forests.
The very first big industry in the New World was the mass harvesting of beavers. European trappers fanned out across North America and killed beavers by the million. The pelts were sent back to Europe where they were turned into…hats. The mania for beaver hats was short-lived but long enough to see the population of beavers in North America driven near to extinction.
When we hear of farmland becoming exhausted, part of the story is over-plowing and over-grazing, but another part is the absence of the original creator of that farmland: the much-maligned and misunderstood beaver.
6. Sword of Honor, by Evelyn Waugh (1965)
English author Evelyn Waugh has a brilliant knack for biting humor and incisive story-telling. I’m surprised I haven’t discovered his writings before this. This volume, published in 1965, relates the wartime thoughts and adventures of an upper-class Englishman, Guy Crouchback. It is composed of three books originally published separately, Men at Arms (1952), Officer and a Gentleman (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). Contemporaneous observers claim that the stories are largely autobiographical.
7. Figure it Out, by Stephen P. Anderson (2020)
This is a book about how we understand things. Not just how we see and hear, but how we create mental images and metaphors for assessing and categorizing the things we sense.
8. The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (2008)
Maybe it’s because it’s a translation from the original Chinese, and maybe it’s because it’s difficult for me to identify with the events of the Cultural Revolution, but this book didn’t really grab me the way it has many others. Some of the trans-dimensional ideas put forth in the latter part of the book are interesting, but somehow unsatisfying.
9.Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the USS Tang, by Richard O’Kane (1977)
10. Run Silent, Run Deep, by Edward L. Beach (1955)
Meandering around YouTube, I found myself watching a guy play a WWII submarine game. He was captain of a Gato-class sub in the Pacific. According to the game, he was doing fine, sinking merchant ships and skunking the anti-sub destroyers and patrol craft. But based on what I know about good sub doctrine, I thought he should of gotten killed many times over. Everything I know about good sub doctrine I learned reading books by guys like Dick O’Kane and Ed Beach. It’s been decades since I read them, but I pulled them off the shelf, blew the dust off, and reread a couple of them.
The books are showing their age, and the novel suffers from the prejudices of an earlier age. Yet, they are still excellent chronicles of the astonishing things people do in wartime, especially submarine commanders. And — unlike that gamer — one thing they don’t do is to leave their periscopes up for more than a few seconds at a time. And they always sweep the periscope in a full circle as the first thing when it breaks the surface, just to make sure they aren’t about to be surprised by a warship behind them.
11. The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, by Jesse Eisinger (2018)
The justice department, like so many government agencies, is supposed to be non-partisan. In practice it doesn’t work out that way. Here’s a brief history of the people whose job it is to rein in white collar crime, and how and why it doesn’t seem to get done anymore.
12. Fusion Visual Effects with Davinci Resolve 16, by Damian Allen, Tony Gallardo, and Dion Scoppettuolo (2020)
I make a lot of stuff out of wood and metal in my work shop, and lately I’ve been learning how to make YouTube videos showing how I do things. One of the tools I’ve been using is a non-linear video editing program called Davinci Resolve. It’s an amazingly powerful program, and for all its capability, the user interface is (relatively) learnable, memorable, transparent, and flexible. But it’s still an enormous program and learning to use it is basically a full-time job. This textbook helped a lot, as do the many YouTube videos posted by others.
13. Artemis: A Novel, by Andy Weir (2018)
It’s very difficult for men to write from a woman’s point of view, and this book proves it. However, if you forget about that one thing, it’s a fine science fiction story.
14. From Truths to Tools, by Jim Tolpin and George Walker (2019)
These two guys write simple books about how to design elegance in the physical world through the use of classic proportions. They explain the underpinnings of Greco-Roman architecture better than anyone else.
15. The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It, by Gerald Astor (2015)
This is a very well done oral history of the American Eighth Air Force, formed in the mid-1940s in the crucible of the anti-fascist war in Europe. The author manages the hat trick of telling the big story of an historic organization, while simultaneously giving credible personal views from the cockpit, all in a readable narrative without getting lost in the trivia.
There are three basic roles for military air power: tactical, strategic, and support. Tactical means direct fire support of troops on the ground. Strategic means dropping bombs from high altitude. Support is reconnaissance, transportation, and supply. The Eighth Air Force was primarily devoted to strategic bombing.
Between the world wars, several influential aviators asserted that the proper role of the airplane was strategic rather than tactical. They imagined huge fleets of bombers, flying miles high, out of reach of ground fire, raining death and destruction on the enemy. They argued that strategic bombing would slow the enemy’s production and destroy their morale. While their arguments proved somewhat true, they didn’t tell the whole story.
The biggest misunderstanding was simply how deadly flying was. Both strategic and tactical air combat, not to mention training flights, were really good ways to die. Airplanes are very brittle, and they cannot withstand much firepower. They have no armor, are filled with explosive ordnance and highly flammable gasoline, and a single well-placed anti-aircraft round could destroy a four-engined B-17 and kill its entire crew of ten airmen.
Tactical flying, mainly strafing, means low and slow flying. Unfortunately, airplanes flying low and slow are quite vulnerable to ground fire, even from small caliber handheld weapons, and many skilled dogfighters crashed while supporting their ground forces. In that era, pilots flying low to the ground often couldn’t successfully parachute out of their damaged airplanes.
The Eighth Air Force’s mission was strategic bombing and they diligently and heroically flew countless sorties over enemy positions, often deep behind the front lines, and they took catastrophic losses doing it. The Eighth Air Force suffered more than 47,000 casualties, approaching a horrific casualty rate of 50%.
The bombing certainly annoyed the Germans, but it most assuredly did not halt their military production. Like the English, the Germans quickly learned that by dispersing, hardening, and camouflaging factories, they could be proofed against strategic air raids. Counter to the vehement assertions by advocates of strategic bombing, the rain of death from above slowed but never stopped the manufacture of tanks and guns.
The claim that strategic bombing would reduce the enemy’s morale is the most specious of those made for it. I find it seriously ironic that the USA, startled out of its isolationism, shocked into unity, and driven to war by a massive air attack on Pearl Harbor could possibly imagine that others would be demoralized by our retaliatory air attacks. What’s more, the British were subject to terrible strategic bombing raids during the blitz and it rather buoyed their morale instead.
The military use of aircraft has always been a siren’s song for warriors, and officers will always find a way to justify their actions. Over the course of the war, the Luftwaffe was effectively destroyed, thus Allied officers could claim “air superiority.” In the Vietnam War, American officers crowed about “body count” in the same way. It was something we could measure, and something that sounded useful, so it was a swell justification for its apologists.
But the Allied strategic bombing effort wasn’t without effect. Most war stories are told by warriors so we don’t hear much about the most devastating aspects of war, which are always those suffered by civilians. What the Germans couldn’t protect against strategic bombing was their civil infrastructure and civilians themselves. German cities, and European cities occupied by the Germans were smashed into rubble by the Eighth Air Force. The fire-bombing of Dresden and the destruction of the historic abbey at Monte Cassino, for example, were horrible events that hurt civilians far more than they hurt combatants. Of the millions of bombs dropped over Europe only a tiny fraction actually hit their military targets, but the rest didn’t just go away. They landed on someone’s farm, or their store, or their house, or their church, or their family. The first casualty of war may be truth, but the biggest casualty of war is always, always the civilians. This is an eternal truth of warfare from the Spartans to the Hundred Years War to the Falklands.
16. These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill LePore (2018)
This is an excellent one-volume history of the United States of America.
In 2019, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones published a Pulitzer Prize-winning essay in the Times that proposed the apparently-radical idea that black slavery was the central fact of American history, and our national story should be told from that point of view. I have no idea whether LePore and Nikole Hannah-Jones know of each other’s works, but These Truths clearly accepts Hannah-Jones’ challenge.
This volume is an American history, not a history of slavery or a history of black America. But it skillfully integrates and presents as a unified narrative all of the important players and forces in our past, including the less savory aspects of America that we are generally content to downplay, if not deny outright.
From the very beginning, the book refuses to shy away from the fact of slavery in America. As the author tells the story of the growth of our nation, she tells the story of oppressed people, too. This is something rarely done in a general history book.
How could a country built on the bedrock assertion that “all men are created equal” allow slavery to flourish as an institution? LePore does not gloss over this question or treat it as a rhetorical device. Rather, she answers it by showing how the founding fathers built a strong case for slavery on the quicksand of English racialism. Today, it’s no longer a question that must be answered but a structural problem that must be resolved, because the injustice and inequality that exists in America today is a direct outgrowth of racial slavery.
There’s plenty of other value in this book, including the growth and dominance of political marketing and propaganda in our elections in the latter half of the 20th Century.
17. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, by Robert Gerwarth (2016)
There’s an old saying, “The winners write the history books.” Well, this is a history book about the losers. From my American — that is, victorious — point of view, there were two world wars, the first began in 1914 and ended in 1918, and then the second war that began in 1939 and ended in 1945. But to much of the world there was just one war, and it began roughly around 1910 and didn’t end until the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Some of the worst combat and most degrading human misbehavior happened in the interregnum, away from the famous battlefields, in the dark years between the overt combat in Western Europe.
18. The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, by Stephanie Kelton (2020)
This is a fantastic book. It presents in clear, easy to understand language, the fundamentals of a Modern Monetary Theory. Economics is one of those disciplines that lives in the gray area between the rigid proofs of math and the subjective world of art. The fact that economics involves numbers and statistics make it appear to be math-like in its objective truth. The reality is anything but that. Economics is a “science” that was largely made up inside the heads of dreamers, out of touch with reality, using mental models that were insanely unreal. Finally, we are getting to a point where cooler heads are beginning to articulate a science of economics that has some actual basis in reality. Modern Monetary Theory is one of those sciences. It’s basic premise is that, inside a state that issues fiat currency (the USA is one), there is no downside to deficits. The old, invalid, tropes still hold sway in places of power but there is hope that we can eventually get away from the lies economists tell.
19. Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose (1985)
There are many reasons why I have a very strong attraction to war stories. One of the most elemental is just the simple appeal of ordinary people rising to the level of greatness that combat demands from them. Another very strong appeal is the creative strategic planning and engineering cleverness victory in war demands. The most fascinating and compelling battle I’ve studied is D-Day, the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, because it exemplifies all of those attributes. But D-Day was a massive thing, with hundreds of thousands of players from many nations on the ground, in the air, on the sea, under the sea, and falling to the ground. And of all these tiny cogs in the great machinery of D-Day, arguably the most intriguing is the story of the capture of Pegasus Bridge in the darkness on the eve of the big amphibious assault.
Stephen Ambrose is a justifiably famous chronicler of the Second World War. His biography of Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower is considered canon. His bestseller Band of Brothers told the story of American Airborne troops to millions of readers. But between those efforts, he told the more intimate story of the tiny force of British commandos who landed unpowered, plywood gliders with pinpoint accuracy on a tiny strip of dirt between a river and a canal, stopping just inches short of a concrete bridge abutment, in the dark. They then emerged from their gliders and captured and held the bridge until relieved by seaborne forces later on D-Day. It was a nearly perfect military exercise, that literally became a textbook battle. Ambrose’s telling of it is gripping.
20. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, by Thomas Frank (2020)
I’ve always been confused by the term “populism.” It turns out that a) so are about a hundred million other people, b) it clearly should mean something good, c) it most frequently is applied to horrifically bad behavior, and d) this confusion and obfuscation is all created on purpose.
Thomas Frank is an “originalist” when it comes to the term “populism.” That is, he adheres like a stubborn limpet to the original definition. In this book he articulates the archetypal definition of populism by describing the multitude of attacks on it over the years.
Frank’s prose is hyperbolic, intelligent, and compelling. I’m convinced that populism in its original sense is a Very Good Thing, but I remain unconvinced that the word itself retains any meaning or value.
21. Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover (2018)
I had no idea what this book was when I purchased it, except that it had gotten widespread praise. I thought it was a critique of our educational system, but it was far from that. It’s not even really about education, or schools, or being a student.
It’s a skillfully-written but painful memoir of a girl growing up in a tough-as-nails, rural, fundamentalist, paranoid, abusive family. The author goes into excruciating detail of the abuse she suffered and says remarkably little about her education. Apparently lots of people found that heart-warming.
I thought the author took pains to avoid blaming her family or fundamentalism. I got the strong impression that, while she condemned the horrific actions of her father and brother, it was still okay because, hey, they’re family! This book did not sit well with me.
22. All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ’n’ Roll Memoir, by Kathy Valentine (2020)
I liked the music of the Go-Gos, an Eighties band from LA notable for being the first all-female group to write their own material, play their own instruments, and hit the top of the music charts.
This book is more like an oral history than a skillfully-written memoir, but it is gripping because of the raw honesty of its author and the pathos of her simple tale. Valentine grew up wild in the suburban mean streets of Los Angeles: drugs, alcohol, sex, parties. She discovered music and musicians and the music scene in LA in the late 1970s and decided, as in the title of the book, that all she ever wanted was to play in a rock-n-roll band, although I think it would be more accurate for her to say that all she ever wanted was to be a rock-n-roll star. There’s a difference.
She achieved her dream for a few wild and crazy years, playing bass guitar in one of the most enthralling bands of the era. While the Go-Go’s rocketed to fame and fortune, her alcohol and drug abuse blossomed out of control. Eventually, she grew up and found help and got straight and made peace with her post-stardom life. Had she not, she would have died young, tragically, beautifully, and in excellent company.
Compare and contrast this woman’s memoir with Tara Westover’s memoir.
23. Under Occupation: A Novel, by Alan Furst (2020)
On a dim street in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, a man runs for his life, is shot, and as he dies he hands a document to a stranger, Paul Ricard, the hero of the story. As Ricard tries to find the proper people to give the dead man’s document to, he slowly slips into the role of resistance fighter. Furst is a master at this genre, and the story evokes the Damoclean sensation of living in your own home town as an enemy of the state.
I’m a huge fan of this author, and eagerly await each of his noir spy novels. His books, though, are tending towards a sameness that is…unfortunate.
24. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer (2017)
This is the most important book I’ve read all year, maybe all decade.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how America, a country whose citizens are overwhelmingly in favor of paying for and providing social democratic programs is yet run by an upper-class of criminals, living in profligate luxury, who force austerity on the rest of us.
While there are some humans who will die before they compromise their values, most people see that compromise as a trade-off, a sliding scale. When the compensation is large enough, they will do the bidding of their benefactors regardless of how odious it might be. When there are citizens at large rich enough that they can give money sufficient to make the trade-off, politicians sell themselves. When those rich citizens have so much money that they can pay off dozens or hundreds of politicians, the entire system is suborned. The first thing the newly compromised political system does is make it easier for the suborning to continue and to expand. Welcome to America in the New Gilded Age.
The same people that created the John Birch Society are still misbehaving, but this time they have abandoned trying to convince people to be inhumane and instead are just bankrolling inhumanity. And their war chest is at least as large as that of the Republican or Democratic Parties. In essence, the USA is currently being run by a third political party that has no name, holds no rallies, nominates nobody, operates invisibly, is heavily subsidized by the government, and is accountable to no one.
This book is terrifying. Read it.
25. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (2011)
This is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. In 1933, FDR appointed William E. Dodd as Ambassador to Germany. With his family, including, Martha, his very strong-willed daughter, he took up residence in Berlin and began his work with the German government, including the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. A quiet Southern college professor, Dodd arrived in Berlin determined not to assume anything about the new regime and its charismatic leader. But events over the next 18 months slowly revealed the truth of Hitler and Nazism.
I just learned that a movie is being made of the book and should be released in 2021. Tom Hanks plays Dodd and Natalie Portman plays Martha. I’m looking forward to it.
26. Caliban’s War (2), by James S. A. Corey (2012)
27. Abbadon’s Gate (3), by James S. A. Corey (2013)
28. Cibola Burn (4), by James S. A. Corey (2014)
29. Nemesis Games (5), by James S. A. Corey (2015)
30. Babylon’s Ashes (6), by James S. A. Corey (2016)
31. Persepolis Rising (7), by James S. A. Corey (2017)
32. Tiamat’s Wrath (8), by James S. A. Corey (2019)
Last year I read the first volume of the science fiction series The Expanse, called Leviathan Wakes. I liked it well enough that I purchased the second volume, Caliban’s War, and, as I do, let it sit on my shelf for several months awaiting the right moment. I finally began reading it this summer, and, well, I fell down the rabbit hole.
It’s been years since I liked a book enough to carry it around with me wherever I went, but The Expanse had me doing it again.The books are plot driven and nobody would accuse them of being literature, but they are very well-written, the characters are engrossing, and the plot is complex and sophisticated. The books are impossible to put down.
At the broadest level, the books tell the ambitious story of humanity transitioning from living within our solar-system to living within our galaxy.
As you would expect from this genre, the characters are strongly typed but they are not cardboard cutouts. They are well-rounded with complex histories and desires. They are all stronger and cleverer than actual humans, but so are most heroes in most books. The characters and action might be contrived, but they are contrived supremely well.
The strongest point of the series is that each book tells a clear story, with a bold beginning, nail-biting build up to a startling climax, and then a warm and satisfying denouement. In interviews with the authors, they clearly assert that this is no accident.
Even though the first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, left many plot points unresolved, it resolved enough of them well enough to make the story satisfying with a strong feeling of closure. The authors say that, when the first book met with success, they got together to plot out the second novel in the series. They also plotted out in detail the next eight books, and to their eternal credit, they plotted an end to the story. So what they give readers is eight strong novels, each with their own characters and bold story arc, that are part of a larger, 4,000 page novel, with its own coherent story arc. There are four main protagonists present in all of the books who form the armature of the stories, and then there are other characters present for one or three or five books. It’s all very deftly done.
The SYFY channel made a TV series of The Expanse and it was excellent. Watching the first two seasons motivated me to buy the first book. It also motivated Jeff Bezos to buy the entire TV series and move it to Prime. They’ve just released season five, and I’m about a third of the way through season four. The TV show remains excellent, and it’s a delight to see the characters and events depicted in action on the screen, but the books are better.
33. Enemy of all Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, by Steven Johnson (2020)
Pirates. A history book about pirates. It’s full of interesting stuff that you didn’t already know about pirates, the creation of the legend of pirates, and the people the pirates robbed.
34. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (2014)
This was a fun and captivating read. The legend of Lawrence of Arabia is well-known, mostly because of the epic David Lean movie of 1962 (still a fantastic picture and well worth watching. I did). Lawrence’s story is inextricably linked to the formation of the socio-political structure of the Middle East, and author Anderson tells Lawrence’s story as a historian as much as a biographer.
Generally, where there is one colorful, larger-than-life character, there are often several other equally fantastic personalities and this was certainly true in the Middle East during WWI. Anderson concentrates on three other exceptional people contemporaneous with Lawrence: a German spy, a Jewish spy, and an American who starts out working for Standard Oil but ends up spying for the American government.
35. Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America, by Michael Hiltzik (2020)
I love railroads. I thought this book would be about building the railroads across America. It was not. It was about the financial shenanigans of unscrupulous speculators like Jay Gould, James J. Hill, Jim Fisk, and J. P. Morgan. It details their barely legal, not really legal, slightly illegal, questionably legal, arguably illegal, definitely illegal, and OH MY GOD THAT IS HORRIBLY ILLEGAL actions in the first Gilded Age around the turn of the 19th Century. To them, railroads weren’t for transportation but were simply levers they could use to pry money away from unsuspecting investors. They were despicable men and they did despicable things, and a by-product of their grubbing and trickery was creating a sprawling railroad system that was loved and hated, important and trivial, used and feared. Above all it was private. That is, it served the needs of the robber barons and only incidentally served the needs of a growing nation.
The moral of this story is that the bad behavior of today’s billionaires is built on a firm foundation of greedy ethical lapses and corporate misbehavior established by America’s first wave of morally bankrupt rich men.
36. The Underground Railroad: A Novel, by Colson Whitehead (2016)
This book was a gentle counterpoint to the shoot-em-up action of The Expanse books. Surprisingly so, as there’s little that’s gentle about slavery and the treatment of slaves, but the author’s calming tone is in tingling contrast to the subject.
The book shows us a lot about the antebellum South by telling us the story of one slave’s escape. The underground railroad was a loose collection of abolitionists and free blacks who assisted runaways. It wasn’t, of course, a real railroad with tracks and locomotives. That’s just a metaphor, but the book turns that table around and describes an actual railroad with stations and rails. To a slave kept in the fields without any education or experience, the sensation of escaping may as well have been as disorienting as an actual train ride underground.
37. Leviathan Wakes (1), by James S. A. Corey (2011)
38. Caliban’s War (2), by James S. A. Corey (2012)
39. Abbadon’s Gate (3), by James S. A. Corey (2013)
40. Cibola Burn (4), by James S. A. Corey (2014)
41. Nemesis Games (5), by James S. A. Corey (2015)
Well, I fell down The Expanse rabbit hole again. After finishing the eighth book in the series, I resumed watching the TV series. I went back and started with the first episode of season one. It’s entrancing video, but I began to notice some deviations from what I remembered happening in the books. That didn’t bother me, but it made me curious, so I fetched the first novel off the shelf and started re-reading it, and didn’t come to a halt until I’d re-read five books. Upon re-reading it’s clear that not only do the stories hold up well but the foreshadowing and intertwining of long story arcs into single-book story arcs is really well done. The same is true of the personalities of the protagonists. They are well-rounded and complex and you want to know more about them. I think this is remarkable in a space opera.
By the way, the ninth and final novel of the series is due out in 2021.
42. The Churn, by James S. A. Corey (2014)
As I’ve been tweeting about The Expanse many others have suggested that I read the series of novellas that explore the backstories of the characters and events in the series. The first one I read is the origin story of one of the four protagonists, Amos Burton. It’s good. I read it in one sitting.
43. Being Gary Fisher, by Gary Fisher (2020)
Gary Fisher is a legend in the mountain biking world. Many credit him with inventing the mountain bike, and although even he admits this is an overstatement, he was instrumental in its creation and subsequent popularization. Since he sold his mountain bike company to Trek in 1993, Gary has slipped gradually into the role of peripatetic proselytizer for all things pedal-powered. This book is his very personal memoir. It’s bright, colorful, garish, off-kilter, and intensely visual, just like its author. Gary gives the blow-by-blow story of klunker bikes bombing down the hiking trails on Mt. Tamalpias in Marin County California, and then the story of the tiny bike makers that emerged from that movement and how they revitalized and rebuilt the moribund bicycle industry in their own image. The book is brutally honest, yet, like all autobiographies, there is an enormous amount left unsaid.
As a 10-year-old, skinny-but-tough Gary was a bike racing prodigy. Left alone, he would likely have progressed to representing the USA in Olympic cycling. Today, Gary is bald as an egg, but in the 1960s he sported a wild shock of unruly blond hair. He also hung out with the Grateful Dead and engaged in self-medication. The powers-that-be in conservative bicycle racing authority really didn’t like that, so they claimed there was a rule against long hair. I’m sure they figured that Gary would cut his hair and toe the line, but instead Gary just quit racing, a significant loss to the bike racing world due to simple, xenophobic fear. For the four years that Gary was out of bike racing, he dived deep into the Grateful Dead scene, not as a concert-going Deadhead, but as a behind-the-scenes technician and support person. And as a light show artist.
As it happens, Gary and I have a long history together, most of it from those four years in exile. He and I went to the same high school, we both sported long-hair, and we were both intensely creative makers. During his cycling hiatus, Gary and I put everything we had into our traveling psychedelic light show, called The Lightest Show on Earth. We played at many venues in the Bay Area including big ones like The Carousel and Winterland Ballroom, and accompanied rock and roll bands big and small.
While light shows were a beautiful, expressive, and creative thing, the light show business was a quixotic joke. Bill Graham, the Bill Gates of the rock and roll concert scene, hated light shows and denied them a role and refused to pay them or make room for them. Although Gary and I did amazing work inventing projectors and control systems and media (from the stage Jerry Garcia called us the best light show he’d ever seen), it ultimately proved to be a dead end. We both eventually abandoned light shows. Sometime in 1973, the projectors, slides, and clock faces got packed away and we moved on. I started fooling around with digital computers, and Gary refocused his prodigious attention on bikes again, and the mountain bike was born.
Working on the light show 50 years ago was a formative time for me. Gary, two years my senior, was an influential mentor. He is one of the most creative people I’ve ever known, and working with him was exhilarating, revealing, frustrating, and mind-expanding. The light show was Gary’s strong vision and I was merely his implementer. He could visualize solutions to problems that were inconceivable to others, and his concepts were startling in their originality. He was a fearless maker, willing to tackle anything whether or not he had the manual skills to do it properly.
These days, Gary and I only see each other on rare occasions. Like him, I am independent and strong-willed, and like him I have my own creative driving forces. When we get together, as my wife says, “we suck all the air out of the room.” But we appreciate each other’s accomplishments from opposite sides of Marin County, still in the penumbra of Mt. Tamalpias.
I’ve been keeping an annual record of the books I read for about the last ten years. It’s been a fantastic thing and I only wish I had started doing it a few decades earlier. All year long I jot down the name of any book I pick up. At the end of the year I flesh out the list with my thoughts. Sometimes, I don’t have much to say about a less than memorable tome. Other times, I’m inspired to write an essay. It’s all good. And it’s fun to be able to go back in time and remember books I’ve forgotten, and honor books that have influenced my thinking. I recommend doing it for your own reading, whether or not you put your list in the public eye.
You can read about my 2019 books here.