The Forest Unseen
David George Haskell
Summary: A year's worth of observations on nature from a single spot in the forest.
Review: I really loved this book. Haskell spends a year revisiting the same patch of old growth forest in Tennessee, observing it and analyzing it with the mindfulness of a Buddhist monk. He peels back the layers, showing how one little piece of ground ties into the beauty and wonder of all nature. Highly recommended.
City of Quartz
Mike Davis
Summary: A book about the history of urbanism in LA, as of 1990.
Review: This book ties together threads about land developers, early 20th century boosterism, the Catholic church, racial tension, police misbehavior, and then some to paint a picture of the forces that shaped LA from a sleepy desert output into maybe the quintessential American megacity in less than a century. I don't agree with everything in this book, and it doesn't all stand up to the benefit of hindsight 25 years later, but I liked it nonetheless. In particular, the chapter on homeowners as a political constituency is still very relevant for understanding certain dysfunctions of state and local goverments as they struggle with growth and affordability.
The Emerald Mile
Kevin Fedarko
Summary: The modern story of the Grand Canyon, as told through the lens of river rafting and reclamation.
Review: This book is at least nominally about a rafting speed run made through the Grand Canyon in 1983, but it's really about hydroelectric dams as a case study in the tense relationship between man and nature and between conservation and industry. Fedarko's attempt to balance those different storylines doesn't always click, but I found the dam history and storyline pretty fascinating.
Thank You For Your Service
David Finkel
Summary: A portrait of American soldiers' life after war.
Review: My favorite book of the year, a powerhouse work of reporting on an important and undercovered issue. Go read it.
The Devil in the Grove
Gilbert King
Summary: The story of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP, and the infamous Groveland rape case in 1948.
Review: A really outstanding book. Where The Warmth of Other Suns is essential reading for the experience of the black migrant in the 20th century, this is essential reading on the experience of the ones who stayed. King does a great job of balancing the micro and macro in his history, painting a vivid picture of what the actual day-to-day experience of a black person in Klan country was like while also painting a picture of a key moment in black history as the tide was beginning to turn in the courts and in public. Even if you didn't care about the history of it, it also makes for a riveting, stranger-than-fiction courtroom drama. Highly recommended.
A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
Summary: A history of four eastern cities that rose from nothing in pursuit of Westernization and modernization: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and present-day Dubai.
Review: A really wonderful book, one of those rare works of history that constantly raises relevant unanswered questions about today. If you're interested in how cities are born or the role of trade and immigration in shaping growth, this is a must-read.
Robert Sullivan
Summary: Looking at the past, present, and future of rats in New York City.
Review: This is a classic example of a book that really should have been a long magazine article instead. There's just not enough to support 300 pages here, and the filler shows.
Wild Ones
Jon Mooallem
Summary: A book about conservation and the fraught, complex relationship between animals and humans in the modern world.
Review: This book is a fresh look at a frustrating subject: what should humans be doing or not doing in the name of species conservation in a changing world? What is the "natural" way of things? What is the "right" thing to do? What is the possible thing? Mooallem does a great job of allowing nuance without sacrificing readability or getting too tangled up in "...and yet"s. This book will leave you with more questions than answers but that's kind of the point. Highly recommended.
Slow Getting Up
Nate Jackson
Summary: A memoir of a journeyman NFL player.
Review: Pretty good for the genre, but nothing to recommend unless you're a big football fan.
The Everything Store
Brad Stone
Summary: A history of
Review: As business histories go, this is a pretty good read, and it has the requisite handful of "I bet you didn't know..." nuggets, but I didn't get that much out of it in the end.
Going Clear
Lawrence Wright
Summary: A deep investigation into the Church of Scientology.
Review: As a work of history and investigative journalism, this book is top-notch, and probably deserves all the awards it's gotten. But I found it sorely lacking as a narrative. It's dry and even a little bit hectoring in its prose, and there's a lot of detail that probably should been left on the cutting room floor. I would have loved it at half the page count.
Listening In
Susan Douglas
Summary: A social history of radio in the US.
Review: This book sort of straddles the line between being a textbook and being a book for popular consumption, so how much you'd like it probably depends on how much rigor you want. If you want a surprisingly readable textbook on the subject, this is perfect. But for me, and probably for most people not taking a media studies class, it winds up being a somewhat dry, overly comprehensive approach.
The Disaster Diaries
Sam Sheridan
Summary: A memoir of disaster preparedness.
Review: This book is basically a redux of Emergency, Neil Strauss's book on the same topic: Los Angeleno man gets paranoid about the world ending, decides to go to disaster camp one chapter at a time. It's similarly serviceable as a work of armchair tourism in action movie land, full of guns and knives and ruggedness, but don't expect anything profound.
The Monkey's Voyage
Alan de Queiroz
Summary: A book making the case for a theory of biodiversity based on oceanic dispersal.
Review: Until recently, odd distributions of related animals across the globe were generally attributed to gradual mechanisms like continental drift. New data indicates that a lot of this distribution can be explained by actual ocean crossings by animals and other abrupt dispersal events. The theory is interesting and mildly surprising but I feel like Queiroz puffed up conventional wisdom so that his deflation of it could be more dramatic. I'm not sure a whole book was necessary.
Undisputed Truth
Mike Tyson
Summary: Tyson's autobiography.
Review: I picked up this book on the strength of the reviews for Tyson's one-man show of the same name and the hope that his undeniably eventful life would make good grist for an autobiography. Unfortunately the written version is basically an unedited, stream of consciousness mess. Not recommended.
Encounters with the Archdruid
John McPhee
Summary: A profile of conservationist David Brower.
Review: This book profiles Brower by narrating three different conservation battles, each of which illuminates a different point of tension in conservation debates and contains a foil arguing for the other side. Some of the content is a little dated, but I still found it pretty thought-provoking.
An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
Chris Hadfield
Summary: The memoir of a Canadian astronaut who recently completed a long tour on the ISS.
Review: I assumed the title was just a gimmick and this would be a book about cool astronaut stuff. Instead the title was actually descriptive, and it was a book of life advice only incidentally about outer space. BOO.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Robin Sloan
Summary: A novel about bookstores, typography, Google, and ancient secret societies.
Review: This book is firmly in the same category as Ready Player One. A light, silly, undeniably fun work of nerd catnip that seems, at times, to be directly plumbing my own memory for maximum nostalgia inducement.
The Information
James Gleick
Summary: About the history of communication and information theory, from the talking drums of Africa to the modern internet.
Review: This book came highly recommended, so I was pretty surprised when I hated the prologue so much I almost gave up. Fortunately, the book turns around quickly after that and gets deep into the history of information theory and the complex relationship between information itself and how we communicate it.
The Worst Hard Time
Timothy Egan
Summary: The story of the Dust Bowl.
Review: What a compelling, depressing book. I knew the summary history of the Dust Bowl, but reading it in this form, told through the stories of individual towns and families, day by day, is just brutal. You can almost feel the dust in your lungs. Highly recommended.
Playing With Water
James Hamilton-Paterson
Summary: A memoir of solitude in the Philippines.
Review: Hamilton-Paterson spends part of every year living on an uninhabited island in the Philippines, spear-fishing for food and communing with the ocean. This is a book about why, and about the surrounding community. I'm not sure I ultimately cared that much about the why, but I will say this book contains some of the most lyrical, exquisite pieces of description I've read in my life. There were sentences and paragraphs I couldn't help but read over and over.
Very Recent History
Choire Sicha
Summary: A book about New York in 2009 told through the lens of a fake history.
Review: Sometimes enjoyable, sometimes profound, sometimes too smart for its own good. Weeks later, I'm still not sure what to make of this book.
The Warmth of Other Suns
Isabel Wilkerson
Summary: A history of the Great Migration of blacks from the American South to Northern and Western cities, told through first-hand accounts.
Review: This book is a tour de force, telling four stories in such rich detail that each could be a book on its own. Should be required reading for anyone seeking to better understand the history of America in the twentieth century.
Son of a Gun
Justin St. Germain
Summary: A memoir of violence and family.
Review: Reading this book marked the first time in years that I wound up canceling other plans because I didn't want to put down the book I was reading. It's a searing, wonderfully written memoir. I can't recommend it highly enough.
The International Bank of Bob
Bob Harris
Summary: The author gets hooked on the idea of microcredit and travels the world to investigate the results of his loans.
Review: A light read, and pleasant enough, but definitely veers into overly schmaltzy, Tuesdays With Marley & Me territory at times.
This Town
Mark Leibovich
Summary: A look inside the incestuous world of politics, media, and power in 21st-century Washington DC.
Review: A great, demoralizing, and surprisingly funny book about the surreal state of modern American politics. To me this book is basically a corrective about the actual dynamics of political power. It shows throughout that, history books and House of Cards notwithstanding, reasons for the loss, gain, and exercise of power are usually quite petty, provincial and arbitrary.
The Rise of the Warrior Cop
Radley Balko
Summary: A history and analysis of the recent militarization of American police.
Review: Balko pretty much invented police militarization as a beat, and he covers it like no other. The notion of police officer as community servant is dying, replaced by the citizen soldier version. Instead of a cop walking a beat and trying to keep order with a soft touch, we have squads in body armor kicking down doors in the middle of the night. This is an important, depressing, and riveting book about how that shift happened.
Rick Perlstein
Summary: a history of Nixon's political career and America in the 1960's.
Review: A great book, the rare history that is rich and complex yet still readable. The political side is fascinating, but even if you don't care about that, this book does a better job of capturing the tensions and currents of 1960's America better than anything else I've read or seen.
People Who Eat Darkness
Richard Lloyd Parry
Summary: The story of the 2000 disappearance of a UK woman in Tokyo.
Review: What a fascinating, bizarre, totally disturbing book. The prologue might be the most intriguing opening of any book I've ever read, I dare you to read the first 20 pages and not read on. Besides being an incredible true crime story, this book will change the way you think about Japan. Highly recommended.
Strange Stones
Peter Hessler
Summary: A collection of Hessler's essays on life in China and relocating back to the US.
Review: I'd already read some of these pieces in the New Yorker, but they're still great. My favorite piece was on Hessler leaving China after 10 years to move to a small town in Colorado.
Detroit: An American Autopsy
Charlie LeDuff
Summary: Scenes from Detroit in decline, by a local reporter and native son.
Review: A very good, and very sad, book. Takes you much deeper into what's going on in Detroit than any of the national media coverage.
The Way of the Knife
Mark Mazzetti
Summary: The story of the transformed role of the CIA and US Special Forces in the post-9/11 era, and the "shadow war" they've been waging in the Middle East.
Review: A crackling, well-researched, very unnerving story. Mazzetti has amazingly good sources and a good matter-of-fact style, laying out the facts rather than narrating over them. Unlike a lot of reportage on this topic, Mazzetti isn't just re-analyzing what's already out there, he's introduced a lot of fresh reporting and insight.
Ethan Zuckerman
Summary: About cosmopolitanism in the digital age.
Review: I probably wouldn't have read this book if I hadn't gotten it in a free goodie bag at a conference, but it was a pleasant surprise. Zuckerman has an interesting thesis and ably challenges weak assumptions about how the internet affects our behavior. I wouldn't bother if the subject matter isn't of particular interest to you, but it's a standout of the genre.
Someone Could Get Hurt
Drew Magary
Summary: A memoir of 21st-century parenting.
Review: Hilarious and surprisingly touching. My only complaint was that it ended too soon.
The Hoax
Clifford Irving
Summary: The author's memoir of when he famously pulled one over on the entire publishing world by writing a fake authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes.
Review: Not bad, but given the perfect wacky caper premise, I expected better. The ending, in particular, is deeply unsatisfying after a lot of buildup.
Cockpit Confidential
Patrick Smith
Summary: A compilation of bits about commercial air travel from the "Ask A Pilot" series.
Review: Not exactly Pulitzer material, but a fun, light read, especially if you fly a lot or you're an aviation geek.
The Oath
Jeffrey Toobin
Summary: The story of the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.
Review: Toobin relentlessly ties everything back to a central narrative, and he probably overreaches in some cases, but this a good read nonetheless, full of insight into recent Supreme Court cases and the relationship between the court and the Obama administration.
Michael Pollan
Summary: About the meaning and politics of cooking.
Review: This book has its moments, but Pollan also seems very out of touch with how normal people think about food and cooking. This reads very much like the take of a healthy, affluent person who has hours every day to think about the deeper meanings of food and the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. The chapter where he attempts to microwave dinner for his family, in particular, is full of accidental self-parody. It was hard for me to take any of it very seriously.
Salt Sugar Fat
Michael Moss
Summary: An investigation into the past and present of junk food science and politics.
Review: This book isn't terrible, but it's hard to get past the fact that Moss writes as though as he's blowing the lid off something that is not exactly news. It turns out, junk food is bad for you, and we eat a lot of it! Who knew? The fact that he goes into excruciating detail about food marketing and corporate intrigue and recent medical research doesn't add much to the plain, known facts of junk food in America.
Kingbird Highway
Kenn Kaufman
Summary: A birder's memoir of hitchhiking around the US for a Big Year in the 1970's.
Review: I'm not sure why I'm continually drawn to these stories of obsessive people, but there's something beautiful and fascinating about the singlemindedness of people like Kaufman. This book is pretty good, although it's more diary than crafted story, and it starts to get tedious in the last act. If you're only going to read one book about birders (as if!), read The Big Year instead.
House to House
David Bellavia
Summary: A memoir of the fighting in Fallujah from a US Army staff sergeant.
Review: You won't learn much about the wider view or deeper meaning of anything, but this book is a pretty engaging look into how an individual soldier experiences a chaotic, citywide battle.
Mary Roach
Summary: Roach tackles eating and the GI tract.
Review: Roach has her particular brand of travel journalism in Scienceland down pat at this point. I don't think this book quite hits the highs of Packing for Mars or Stiff, but it's still a good read, equal parts funny and educational.
Larry Tye
Summary: The history of Superman, from comic book to cultural icon.
Review: I grew up reading my dad's old Silver Age Superman comics, so this book should have been an easy sell for me. But I found it mediocre at best. There's a lack of quality storytelling, a lot of filler, and a lot of very stilted attempts to connect the evolution of Superman with different moments in American history. I wouldn't recommend it unless you're a very big Superman fan.
King Leopold's Ghost
Adam Hochschild
Summary: The dark history of the Belgian Congo.
Review: A bit dry at times, but much less than most books in the genre. Overall a really good, important, and disturbing book.
William Langewiesche
Summary: A series of essays on the experience of modern aviation.
Review: Langewiesche is at his absolute best when writing about flight (besides being an experienced pilot himself, his father literally wrote the book on aviation). Just about every essay in this book is riveting. Highly recommended.
Here I Am
Alan Huffman
Summary: The story of war photographer Tim Hetherington's life covering conflicts in Liberia, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Review: As a very raw examination of the life of a war photographer, this book has a lot to offer, but in terms of telling Hetherington's specific story (he was killed in a mortar attack in Libya in 2011), I don't think Huffman really succeeded. The parts where Huffman tries to stir in deeper meaning and themes often feel awkwardly pasted on to the more vivid retellings of specific events.
The Map of My Dead Pilots
Colleen Mondor
Summary: Notes from the perilous and strange world of Alaskan bush aviation.
Review: This book doesn't have much binding it all together, and the attempt to do so at the end fell flat for me, but it's still a great read. It's basically like spending an evening at a dive bar with a bunch of bush pilots in Alaska, hearing all of their wildest stories. If that sounds interesting to you (and it should), this book is worth a read.
Sahara Unveiled
William Langewiesche
Summary: A hopscotching account of the author's trans-Saharan journey from Algiers down to Bamako.
Review: Langewiesche writes some great, lyrical prose about the soul of the desert and its inhabitants. In terms of real narrative arc, though, there's not much there. Not particularly recommended.
Constitutional Cliffhangers
Brian Kalt
Summary: A detailed analysis of six hypothetical constitutional crises about the American presidency (e.g. Could the president pardon himself? Could a two-term president stay in power through an unusual loophole?).
Review: This book is definitely not for everyone, but if you're interested in American political history or armchair legal scholarship, it's delightful. Even though the scenarios seem outlandish, one of the key takeaways is that bizarre constitutional question marks pop up in the real world all the time, and, much as doctors learn a lot about the body from extreme cases, such issues shed a lot of light on the mechanics and vulnerabilities of the entire constitutional system.
David Quammen
Summary: About zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans.
Review: A crackling book, with a great balance of deep science and narrative pace. Recommended.
My Kind of Place
Susan Orlean
Summary: A collection of Orlean's articles on travel and interesting places.
Review: Not as high-yield as The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, but still enough to like. The pieces on the taxidermy convention and the grocery store in Queens were my favorites.
The Benefit and The Burden
Bruce Bartlett
Summary: About the current US federal tax system, its failings, and possible reforms.
Review: If you don't have any exposure to tax policy, this might be a good place to start, but otherwise it's quite uninteresting and rudimentary.
Andrew Blum
Summary: A tour of the physical underpinnings of the internet: data centers, undersea cables, network hubs, and the like.
Review: If you're particularly fascinated by the history of the internet or are the kind of person who loves to pore over cross sections of how machines work, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, skip it.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
Susan Orlean
Summary: A collection of Orlean's magazine profiles, with subjects like an Ashanti king living in the Bronx, designer Bill Blass, a birthday party clown, and a high school basketball superstar.
Review: Lots of great pieces in here, a much higher success rate than most collections. Recommended.
Insane City
Dave Barry
Summary: An absurd comic novel about a wedding weekend gone wrong in Miami.
Review: I enjoyed this book, but it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny without a lot besides humor to recommend it. It's basically a screenplay in disguise (and very derivative of The Hangover), with entirely one-dimensional characters.
Steven Levy
Summary: About the hacker subculture and its prominent members in the years leading up the PC era.
Review: This book is divided into three basic sections. The first, about MIT hackers in the 1950's and 1960's, is outstanding. The second, about homebrew hardware culture in the Bay Area in the 1960's and 1970's, is decent but bloated. The third, about game hackers and Sierra On-Line, is mostly worthless. I'd recommend reading the MIT section and then readily giving up on the book after that.
Catastrophic Care
David Goldhill
Summary: On the current causes and possible solutions to the dysfunction of American healthcare.
Review: As with other takes on something as complex as healthcare, this is kind of a mixed bag. Goldhill does better than most at identifying some of the core fallacies that drive a lot of problems in the US system, but he also suffers from plenty of blind spots and unproven assumptions. He writes with a great deal of preemptive apology, hemming and hawing in certain spots, and also doesn't ever really take the crucial question of values head-on. Worth reading if you're interested in the topic, but read with a skeptic's eye.
What In God's Name
Simon Rich
Summary: A comic novel about heaven as a corporation, with angels as middle managers and God as the layabout CEO.
Review: A very light and silly book that doesn't pretend to be anything more. Some of the jokes fall flat but overall it was a fun read.
The Mansion of Happiness
Jill Lepore
Summary: A history of American notions about different stages of life from birth to death.
Review: Given the topic and the author's pedigree, I expected a lot from this book, but it was a big let-down. Some individual paragraphs and pages were interesting, but any grander insights and threads that were supposed to connect it together were totally lost on me.
The Half-Life of Facts
Samuel Arbesman
Summary: About the mechanisms by which human knowledge grows, evolves, and replaces itself.
Review: Fascinating topic with a decent treatment by the author. Long-held truths constantly turn out not be true at all, and Arbesman dives into how we discover and reconcile that, as a society and individually. Some of the more methodological sections seem to be very speculative, but overall it's a concise and thought-provoking book.
Cheryl Strayed
Summary: Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of personal turmoil and self-destruction.
Review: I wish I'd enjoyed this book less than I did, because Strayed is not exactly a sympathetic figure. Lots of her problems are entirely self-created, and although she's mostly honest about that, she sometimes has a way of writing herself the victim when it doesn't suit. Still, I can't deny that it made for a good read. The writing was good enough that even when I didn't particularly care what happened to her, I was still compelled to read on.
Muck City
Bryan Mealer
Summary: A year in the life of a high school football team in a poor Florida town with a long track record of producing NFL players.
Review: Fair comparison or not, this book will inevitably get judged against Friday Night Lights, and although it's not bad, it's definitely no Friday Night Lights. It feels like it's lacking some connective tissue and that Mealer doesn't get as deep into the lives of locals as the story requires.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
Maria Semple
Summary: A screwball novel about an eccentric mother, her gifted daughter, and Seattle high society.
Review: Great fun. Semple provides a great send-up of helicopter parenting, blue state urban elites, and the dot-com culture. Recommended.
The Signal and the Noise
Nate Silver
Summary: All about the science of forecasting and probabilistic reasoning.
Review: Silver lives up to his now-stratospheric reputation. This makes a lot of other books in the same neighborhood (e.g. The Drunkard's Walk) look terrible by comparison. Silver does a great job of balancing readable prose, intriguing examples, and genuine analytical rigor, pulling off the rare feat of accessibility without facileness. Highly recommended.
Craig Taylor
Summary: A series of interviews with Londoners of all shapes and sizes.
Review: Like any book consisting of several dozen short, unconnected interviews, this one's a little hit-or-miss. I liked it for the most part, but it probably won't appeal to anyone who doesn't have any connection to the city.
The Matchbox That Ate A Forty-Ton Truck
Marcus Chown
Summary: An attempt to explain some of the deepest insights of particle physics and cosmology through everyday phenomena.
Review: As an explainer, this book mostly failed for me. All it really did was reinforce how profoundly strange and mindbending a lot of the scientific insights of the 20th century are. I'm starting to accept that I'll never REALLY understand the double-slit experiment.
The Patient From Hell
Stephen Schneider
Summary: A Stanford professor describes navigating his fight with cancer and the complexity of modern oncology with the characteristic rigor of an academic.
Review: Some bits of this book are interesting, but realistically it's only worth reading if you or someone close to you is actually going through the same thing.
Total Recall
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Summary: Arnold's autobiography.
Review: Arnold's never going to win any awards for his prose, but it's hard to deny that he has an absolutely fascinating life story. The story of his childhood, his bodybuilding career, and especially his early career in Hollywood, makes for a great read in spite of the clunky writing. Once he gets to the point of superstardom in the 1990's, though, it all gets a lot less interesting and a lot less personal in a hurry.
Christopher Hitchens
Summary: A posthumously-assembled collection of Hitchens' essays on his illness and facing death.
Review: The first few chapters of this book are engaging and crisp, but by the end it all starts to come loose. The last chapter, comprised of miscellaneous notes Hitchens left behind, seemed both pointless and even a little bit in poor taste. Still not sure how I feel about this book.
Monkey Mind
Daniel Smith
Summary: A memoir of living with anxiety.
Review: This book is gutbustingly funny at times, but most of it didn't leave much of an impression on me. Not particularly recommended.
David Eagleman
Summary: A wide-ranging look at the nature of the subconscious mind and all its quirks.
Review: The first few chapters of this book seemed like it was going to be yet another bland pop science book about the brain, but then Eagleman pulled it out of the dive and started getting into a lot of fascinating, meaty questions posed by what we can observe of our own subconscious. A pretty good read overall.
The Long Walk
Brian Castner
Summary: The memoir of a bomb disposal technician in Iraq.
Review: A handful of the scenes in this book, where Castner is reliving specific tense experiences in the field, are great, heartpounding prose. Sadly most of the rest of the book, about the author's emotional and mental struggles during and after his tours, was lost on me and read like a pale imitation of Jarhead.
Free Flight
James Fallows
Summary: A look at the commercial and technological possibilities of small plane aviation in the 21st century.
Review: Despite any intentions of deeper meaning, this book is mostly just Fallows geeking out about the history and experience of flying small planes. And I loved it. It made me want to run out the door and sign up for flying lessons.
The One
RJ Smith
Summary: A biography of James Brown.
Review: What a pleasant surprise. This book is really well done and gave me a new appreciation for Brown's cultural significance. Smith writes in a great, loose, sensory way that puts you right on stage with the noise and sweat and screaming fans. Highly recommended.
The Dirt
Neil Strauss
Summary: An oral history of Mötley Crüe.
Review: The first part of this book is actually pretty interesting, albeit in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Like so many of my favorite books, it provides a window into a unique cultural moment, in this case the LA rock n' roll scene during the boozy excess of the 1980's. But by the halfway mark, all the stories about drugs and groupies and hard living just become totally repetitive. This book could easily have been half as long and not suffered much for it.
Trust Me, I'm Lying
Ryan Holiday
Summary: Cautionary tales from a spin artist about how easily manipulated the modern media is.
Review: This book is a total waste of time. It consists largely of Holiday stating obvious insights as if they were profound and making broad pronouncements based on anecdotal evidence. If you're completely oblivious to the internet and the media, you might learn something from this book, but Holiday's attempt to pass it off as some kind of great work of muckraking is just another manipulation.
China Airborne
James Fallows
Summary: An assessment of the Chinese economy and its ability to catch up to and overtake the West, told through the example of the nascent Chinese aviation industry.
Review: This book is completely fascinating. Fallows does a great job of grounding this book in lots of detail and analysis about aviation while also making it about the larger story of China's meteoric economic rise and uncertain future. Highly recommended.
Unintended Consequences
Edward Conard
Summary: A defense of the American market economy and trickle-down principles from a former partner at Bain Capital.
Review: A lot of the arguments in this book were wonky enough to be over my head, and I didn't find the rest very convincing. Conard makes plenty of commonsensical points and then overextends them and seems to paper over inconvenient contrary evidence. Not recommended.
Red Ink
David Wessel
Summary: A primer on the politics of the federal budget as of 2012.
Review: A good and necessary book. Wessel tries to cut through the fearmongering and get a handle on the realities of the budget and its future. I was surprised it was so short, though; the book ended rather abruptly and I was hoping for a lot more.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo
Summary: A look deep inside the life of one Mumbai slum.
Review: This book blew me away. It was an incredible read and Boo managed to avoid turning it into poverty porn along the way. I thought some of it must have been embellished until I got to the Author's Note at the end that detailed her absurdly exhaustive research. You should read this book.
A Hologram for the King
Dave Eggers
Summary: A novel about a fading American businessman on a last-ditch business trip to a Saudi Arabian ghost town.
Review: I didn't love the ending, but otherwise I enjoyed this book a lot. Eggers is more restrained than usual, and does a great job of using Saudi Arabia as a major character with depth and complexity rather than just a foil for the protagonist. I will say that there were clear themes about American decline and the new economic order that didn't resonate with me all that much; I enjoyed it mostly on a personal level.
Father's Day
Buzz Bissinger
Summary: Bissinger's memoir of a cross-country road trip with his mentally handicapped son.
Review: I loved this book. Great, raw, honest writing that put me in shoes I never expected to be in for a few hundred pages.
Dirty South
Ben Westhoff
Summary: A history of Southern hip-hop.
Review: Westhoff basically hops around the different Southern subcultures (Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, etc.) and goes over the basic history and the key players, but he doesn't make much effort to develop any characters or tie it all together. I was entertained but it's definitely not for everyone.
Crisis of Zionism
Peter Beinart
Summary: A polemic about the conflict between modern Israeli policies and liberal ideals.
Review: Beinart's claim is that Israeli occupation and other anti-democratic practices have created an apartheid state, and that Israel is losing its liberal soul, and the support of the next generation of American Jews along with it. I certainly can't pretend to evaluate all the claims in this book, some of which seemed rather speculative, but it was certainly thought-provoking.
Mountains Beyond Mountains
Tracy Kidder
Summary: The story of Paul Farmer, a superhero of a doctor splitting his time between plush Boston hospitals and a clinic in rural Haiti.
Review: Very good, very thought-provoking, guaranteed to make you feel guilty about whatever air-conditioned room you're sitting in while you read it. An important corrective to the notion that the developing world can be fixed with only casual effort and arm's-length engagement. I still don't know what lessons I would take away from this book, and I might even re-read it, which is just about the highest praise I have to offer.
Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
Summary: A silly nerdporn novel about pop culture and video games from the early days of Generation X.
Review: This book is incredibly silly, but I would be lying if I said I didn't love the first half, before it completely unravels into sloppy fan fiction. If you grew up on TV, movies, and video games from the 1980's, you'll love it too (the first half, anyway).
The Idea Factory
Jon Gertner
Summary: A history of Bell Labs.
Review: This topic seemed right in my wheelhouse, but this book was a little too dry for me. I wish Gernter had worried less about comprehensiveness and cut out some of the cruft to create more of a story arc.
The Obesity Myth
Paul Campos
Summary: A controversial takedown of the medical establishment's obsession with obesity.
Review: Campos, a law professor, uses the medical literature to make the case that anti-obesity sentiment is a largely aesthetic and classist position without medical basis. The summary would go: if you eat reasonably well and get exercise, whether or not you end up thin or obese is irrelevant to your health (in fact, all else being equal moderate obesity appears to have some health benefit over being in the "ideal" weight range), and the focus on weight in and of itself is a moral panic that has very toxic psychological and medical effects. Sometimes Campos gets a little overzealous but overall I found it pretty interesting.
Nothing To Envy
Barbara Demick
Summary: A look inside North Korea, as told by a cast of recent defectors.
Review: Absolutely fascinating. Anyone in the least bit interested should read this to understand just how a theocratic starvation state can continue to exist in 2012.
To The Last Breath
Francis Slakey
Summary: A physics professor in existential crisis goes on a globe-trotting adventure to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean.
Review: The content of this book is pretty riveting, but I found Slakey's overwrought writing insufferable. He recycles the same rhetorical devices and faux cliffhangers over and over again and sets a maudlin tone that made it hard for me to care about anything that was happening.
An Economist Gets Lunch
Tyler Cowen
Summary: A typically wide-ranging (Cowenesque?) discourse on the invisible forces shaping the food we eat.
Review: I don't think I took any great truths away from this book, but it was nonetheless entertaining to sit shotgun in Cowen's brain while he pursued different trains of thoughts about how different corners of the food system work.
Republic, Lost
Lawrence Lessig
Summary: A detailed diagnosis of the toxic role of campaign finance in the behavior of Congress.
Review: This is an important book, if for no other reason than it introduces nuance into the discourse about the role of money in politics. Lessig rightly points out that we worry too much about the lobbyist directing a slush fund of cash to a friendly Congressman in exchange for favors, and not enough about the myriad cases where the link is much more insidious and sometimes unintentional. Sadly, I'm not sure any of his proposed solutions have much potential, but if you're interested in political dysfunction this is worth the read.
How We Do Harm
Otis Brawley
Summary: An eminent oncologist looks at all the distorted incentives in healthcare that prevent treatment from going where it should at the right cost.
Review: Quite good, and surprisingly well-written. I consider this book another salvo in the battle between modern macromedicine (using IT, evidence-based protocols, and the like) and the ideal of the doctor as a gentleman craftsman, no two patients alike. Brawley scores lots of good points. That being said, I couldn't help but wonder how many of his broader claims really apply to medicine as a whole vs. something as uniquely knotty as oncology. I think a lot of his ideas about cost control and doctor's incentives tend to apply in blockbuster cases like cancer and really don't apply to more straightforward or acute care, which has its own set of problems.
The Conundrum
David Owen
Summary: A takedown of fallacies in green thinking about efficiency and the environment.
Review: A lot of this book is a bunch of over-the-top contrarianism. It's heavy on complaints and light on solutions, and to the extent that is has anything constructive to say I could sum it up in a sentence if you grant me a semicolon: "Increased energy efficiency is a bad strategy to reduce total energy usage; it only helps if we force ourselves to reduce absolute usage and then use increased efficiency to keep our standard of living high while we do so." There, now you don't have to read it.
Desperate Networks
Bill Carter
Summary: Behind the scenes at America's four major broadcast networks in the first decade of the 21st century.
Review: Carter is the master of this genre. This book was riveting even though I can admit there isn't much point to the whole thing. It's basically just a blow-by-blow of how your TV sausage gets made, and the peculiar Hollywood way in which a mixture of cleverness, happy accident, and blunder produce what goes on the air each year in the dominant American medium.
Paul Barrett
Summary: A history of the Glock, the gun invented in 1982 that went on to become a major presence in American culture and law enforcement.
Review: I can't say I care much about the history of the Glock itself, its inventor, or his company, but as a general tour through the zeitgeist of handguns in America in the late 20th century, this was pretty interesting.
The Collapse of American Criminal Justice
William Stuntz
Summary: A look at the past and present of criminal justice dysfunction in America.
Review: This book has plenty of interesting points to make. Unfortunately, like so many books of the genre, the author's head was clearly bursting with too many different things to say and the result is a very scattered work that tries to do too much instead of walking through a focused case from beginning to end.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Burton Malkiel
Summary: The bible for efficient market theorists, a step-by-step takedown of the ways in which all the different schemes to outperform the stock market fail in the long run.
Review: Unless the idea of a detailed, somewhat technical analysis of the flaws of several dozen stock market strategies sounds interesting, this probably isn't the book for you.
The Trouble With Testosterone
Robert Sapolsky
Summary: Assorted essays about primatology, biology, psychology, and hormones.
Review: Very interesting stuff. Sapolsky is great at maintaining a sense of humor and a conversational style while still being quite rigorous in his ideas and justifications. Recommended.
The Lifespan of a Fact
John D'Agata and Jim Fingal
Summary: An essay presented in the context of the extensive and heated correspondence between its author and its fact-checker.
Review: As someone with very strong feelings about factual literacy and commitment to accuracy in the printed word, I loved this book. I found myself mentally throwing triumphant shadow punches along with Fingal like an excited kid sitting ringside. But I also have to acknowledge that, to the extent this book aspired to make a deeper point about the nature of truth and small facts vs. big truths from small lies, I don't think it succeeded. I found D'Agata's side of the debate so weak as to make no case at all and the attempt to inject a booster shot of capital-M Meaning at the end of the book was a little too forced.
The Most Human Human
Brian Christian
Summary: A book about the Turing Test and what artificial intelligence says about human intelligence.
Review: This book is full of little interesting threads that don't quite sum up. It read like a few dozen good blog posts with some awkward segues in between. Still, I'd probably recommend it on the grounds that it gave me a lot to think about.
The Postmortal
Drew Magary
Summary: A novel about a near-future after the discovery of a cure for aging.
Review: The first fiction I've read in a long time. Not terrible, but also completely insubstantial. I didn't feel like I got much out of it.
Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson
Summary: The authorized biography of Steve Jobs.
Review: I liked Isaacson's functional, information-dense prose quite a bit. As for the content and the structure of the book, it basically consists of two interwoven halves. One half, about the history of Silicon Valley and the key historical moment Jobs was such a big part of, was fascinating, especially to a native son like myself. The second half, about Jobs' personal life, was utterly uninteresting to me. On the whole I still liked the book, but I could have done with a few hundred fewer pages about how Jobs felt, the tantrums he had, his romances, the people he mistreated, and all that. I think the biggest downside to the cult of Steve Jobs is that now every aspiring tech entrepreneur who behaves like an asshole thinks they are an uncompromising Jobsian visionary instead of just the asshole that they actually are.
Rin Tin Tin
Susan Orlean
Summary: A wide-ranging biography of the radio, film, and TV icon Rin Tin Tin.
Review: I only made it about 40% of the way through this book. I like Orlean's style and she wrings about as much as she can from this subject but I just couldn't see the point of any of it. Whatever deeper themes she was trying to explore were lost on me. Not particularly recommended.
The Fiddler In The Subway
Gene Weingarten
Summary: A collection of Weingarten's best longform journalism for the Washington Post.
Review: The highest praise I can give this book is that I had already read almost every article in it and still loved it. Weingarten is easily one of my five favorite living journalists. Highly recommended.
Wild Coast
John Gimlette
Summary: A travelogue of a trip through the cities and deep country of Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.
Review: Absolutely fascinating. This book was unlike any other travel book I've ever read. It took a part of the world I had basically never given a second thought to before and brought it to life with a unique blend of the personal and historical. Recommended.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Mindy Kaling
Summary: Kaling's essays and observations on comedy, Hollywood, and the rest of life.
Review: Hit-or-miss like any book that tries so aggressively to be funny throughout, but mostly hit. I enjoyed this book a lot.
The Most Beautiful Walk In The World
John Baxter
Summary: Baxter's memoirs of expat life in Paris and its literary history.
Review: This book really made The Sweet Life in Paris seem silly and facile by comparison. Baxter is kind of all over the place but it made for a great read.
The Sweet Life In Paris
David Lebovitz
Summary: Memoirs of an American dessert chef living in Paris.
Review: This book was fun, sort of a Sedaris Light. Nothing special but if you have a particular interest in either Paris or dessert it's worth checking out. The recipes mixed in between chapters are a nice bonus.
Don't Shoot
David Kennedy
Summary: Kennedy's account of his gang violence intervention techniques and their deployment across the US.
Review: This book is pretty interesting, although it could probably have been a long magazine article instead of a whole book. Kennedy really lays it on thick with the rhetorical devices, trying to lead you in one direction so he can SHOCK you with his counterintuitive insight that's not actually that counterintuitive at all.
Cambodia's Curse
Joel Brinkley
Summary: The modern history of Cambodia.
Review: I gave up on this book after the two most interesting tidbits of the first 100 pages didn't pass fact-checking. Not terrible but the pacing and the transition from ancient to modern history was way too slow for my taste.
Walking Israel
Martin Fletcher
Summary: A Middle East correspondent walks the Israeli coast to explore the less-reported side of the country.
Review: I wasn't a fan of this book. It's not terribly engaging and, more importantly, Fletcher's stated intention is to talk about the "real Israel" beyond the conflict and the headlines, and he mostly fails at that. Inevitably he starts a thread about some fishing village and it unspools into talking about all the usual stuff. I was hoping for a fresh perspective and didn't get it.
Sleepwalk With Me
Mike Birbiglia
Summary: Birbiglia's memoirs of childhood and professional embarrassment.
Review: Not exactly deep stuff, but very funny. Birbiglia's got great comedic timing in his storytelling. I made the mistake of reading a lot of this in public and burst out laughing way too often.
Believing Is Seeing
Errol Morris
Summary: Case studies in the fuzziness of photographic truth.
Review: Although all the discussions in this book center around photographs, it's not really about photography, it's about epistemology. It's about the insidious ways we accept a certain "truth" based on false assumptions, about how we sometimes assume there is a single "truth" when there might be many or none. I have trouble summarizing this book but Morris is a master of taking something most people would accept at face value and pulling on the thread until it takes you somewhere you never thought it would. Highly recommended.
Ken Jennings
Summary: All about maps and the weirdos who love them.
Review: This is a great book. Jennings is a man after my own heart, someone who likes details for the way they point to bigger things, and maps are a great example of that. He captures a lot of what's so great about maps of all stripes and writes with equal measures of humor and love. I will say that I am getting a little worried with my tendency to gravitate towards books about weird obsessive subcultures. I'm about six months away from sitting on an overpass with a walkie talkie scribbling train crossing times in a spiral notebook so I can relay them to my ham radio friends.
The Big Year
Mark Obmascik
Summary: A Cannonball-Run style account of three competitive birders criss-crossing North America in an effort to spot the most bird species in a calendar year.
Review: I absolutely loved this. A perfect light, inconsequential, totally gripping adventure story. Obmascik clearly takes a lot of liberty with the timeline in order to give it a sense of pace, and I was fine with that. I was a little less fine with the way one character is pretty blatantly set up as the heel when I suspect the reality was a little more nuanced. Still, what a fun book.
Demon Fish
Juliet Eilperin
Summary: About the past, present, and future of the uneasy relationship between humans and sharks.
Review: Considering my unhealthy level of interest in sharks, this book should have been a slam dunk, but I thought it was pretty boring. Most of the book focuses on the human threats to shark populations, and that angle is just way too narrow to sustain 300 pages. Skip this.
Sex At Dawn
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Summary: About monogamy, prehistoric sexuality, and why the prevailing evolutionary psychology wisdom is supposedly all wrong.
Review: I doubt very much that anything in it would stand up to peer review. It's written by two semi-pros with an awkward mix of rigor and total lack thereof. There's lots of speculation, imprecise prose, and unjustified contrarianism. That being said, I at least found it thought-provoking, so if you're interested in the topic I'd encourage you to check it out. Just keep a healthy skepticism as you read.
Blood, Bones, & Butter
Gabrielle Hamilton
Summary: Yet another chef's memoir.
Review: Hamilton has a good eye for detail and this book isn't all that bad but for whatever reason it didn't hold my interest - I could never bring myself to care much about what happened next. I'd give it a B-.
David Halberstam
Summary: A portrait of a Manhattan firehouse that lost 12 men on September 11.
Review: I've always wanted to read something by Halberstam, but I'm not exactly ready to bite off 700 pages on the architects of the Vietnam War yet, so I figured this would be a good introduction to his style. I liked the book a lot, although in contrast to something like Working Fire, it's not really about firemen at all. To me it's ultimately a book about family - the fire department families with multiple generations of men on the job, the firehouse as a family unit, and the life of a fireman's wife and children. Good read.
Start-up Nation
Saul Singer and Dan Senor
Summary: Explaining the "Economic Miracle" of how Israel came to be a major player in the world economy despite a deck stacked against it.
Review: Man, this book sucked. It's probably my fault, because I was expecting something heavy on modern Israeli history, and instead I got the quintessential Friedman-esque airport bookstore pander for insecure businessmen. Senor and Singer take a handful of points about Israel's success that range from obvious to speculative and then beat them to death for one hundred too many pages.
Moonwalking With Einstein
Joshua Foer
Summary: A book about competitive memory athletes and the tricks of the trade.
Review: Considering the log line, this was a prime candidate for a totally disappointing and uninventive book, so I have to give Foer credit for his storytelling. This book was actually quite good, if not exactly deep. He doesn't lean on the standard crutches of the genre (e.g. a new university study cited every other page that proves THAT EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT THE HUMAN BRAIN IS WRONG), instead writing with style and wit and being pleasantly unpredictable. Recommended.
Freedom Summer
Bruce Watson
Summary: A historian's account of the Freedom Summer, when a corps of young volunteers showed up in Mississippi to register voters, build schools, and try to draw national attention to the civil rights crisis in the state.
Review: This book is both fascinating and horrifying. It's hard to wrap one's head around the fact that the Mississippi in the book was real, let alone existed as part of the United States less than fifty years ago. Watson writes with a great eye for detail and doesn't let things get too dry. Recommended for American history buffs, especially as a companion to An American Insurrection.
Bill Buford
Summary: The author writes about working as a "kitchen slave" in Mario Batali's flagship restaurant, and then following the thread all the way to Tuscany for an apprenticeship with a famous local butcher.
Review: I loved the first 70% of this book. Buford is working various stations in one of Mario Batali's kitchens, exploring all the gritty details of how a restaurant lives and breathes, how we relate to our food, and how culinary traditions and skills survive, evolve, and die. I was a lot less impressed with the last 30%, when Buford tries to go deeper and more historical by going to a famous Tuscan butcher shop. Still, I'd definitely recommend the book on the strength of the first part alone.
Morning Miracle
Dave Kindred
Summary: A look at the past, present, and future of the Washington Post from a longtime staffer.
Review: This was a fun read for a newspaper geek like myself, but it's a little bit hopelessly romantic and not exactly full of new insights or prescriptions for saving the news business. I also would have liked to hear more about the unique concerns of the Washington Post as a national political paper of record.
The Corpse Had A Familiar Face
Edna Buchanan
Summary: Assorted tales from 1970's and 1980's Miami by the Miami Herald police beat writer.
Review: I stumbled onto this book by accident but I'm sure glad I did. It's outstanding. Buchanan writes perfect crisp newspaper sentences, structures her paragraphs and chapters with purpose, and packs the book full of fascinating stories and people. It's rare for a book to paint a picture of a particular place in a particular time this well. Even if you could care less about the topic this is still a great read.
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
Sarah Glidden
Summary: A graphic novel about the author's Birthright trip to Israel.
Review: Having gone on a Birthright trip myself, I'm probably biased, and I could relate to a lot of very specific details in this. Regardless, I thought it was delightful. I particularly appreciated the end, when she touches on the familiar traveler's tension between breaking out of one's comfort zone and being pulled back into it. I think this book is not actually about Israel so much; it's more about youthful idealism and struggling to get your intellectual bearings as you realize how little you really know. Either way, I enjoyed it a lot.
The Sugar King of Havana
John Paul Rathbone
Summary: The life of Cuban sugar tycoon Julio Lobo.
Review: Pre- and post-revolution Cuba makes for an intriguing backdrop for any story, and this one is no exception, but that's about all this book has going for it. Not particularly recommended.
Big Hair and Plastic Grass
Dan Epstein
Summary: A detailed account of a very interesting decade for baseball.
Review: This book reads like Epstein's research notes. Rather than do the author's task of finding an interesting STORY to tell and being selective about what he includes, he just dumps everything he can find in a big pile for you in chronological order. He doesn't identify a lot of themes, he doesn't focus too closely on any characters, he really doesn't cause you to care about anyone in the book, and at times you're just reading a list of stats and award winners and game results. This book drove me nuts, because the source material is great, full of colorful characters and events, but Epstein couldn't seem to edit it down in the slightest.
Writing Movies for Fun and Profit
Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
Summary: A jokey book about the business of screenwriting.
Review: I've been fans of these guys ever since The State aired during my teenage years, and I expected this book to be a full-on satire filled with jokes and outlandish sidebars and contain no actual helpful information. Much to my surprise, even though it's done in a very silly style, it's much more of a real how-to book. I enjoyed it but it's probably not everyone's cup of tea.
The Psychopath Test
Jon Ronson
Summary: A look at psychopaths and the world of doctors, criminologists, and scientists who classify them.
Review: This is one of those books that constantly skirts around the edge of really fascinating questions without ever taking them on. I wanted to call up Ronson and yell at him the same way you want to yell at the victim in a horror movie who's about to make a very avoidable mistake. This book is very scatterbrained and although the author seems to think all his jigsaw pieces fit together neatly into a compelling thesis I didn't feel that way at all.
Night of the Gun
David Carr
Summary: The author sics his reportorial dogs on his own past as a junkie.
Review: Despite all the horrible things he's done, Carr is an impossibly likable narrator, at least to me. He oozes ink-stained wretchedness at every turn. And he certainly tosses off some exquisite sentences every so often. That being said, I just wasn't that interested in his distant past. I struggled to really care about all the long-ago events he revisits and reconstructs, but I couldn't. Not sure whether I'd recommend this.
How The End Begins
Ron Rosenbaum
Summary: A book about nuclear strategy and deterrence in the post-Cold War era.
Review: I liked this book a lot, and while I expected it to be a little dry and wonky it wasn't. There are two particularly interesting themes to the book: one is that there is something inherently absurd about nuclear weapons. You can't talk about the logic of nuclear arsenals without it all turning very Strangeloveian. Rosenbaum focuses in particular on the deterrence paradox, where once you're already doomed, retaliating is just pointless mass murder, and yet if you acknowledge that fact you undermine your deterrent credibility and make your doom more likely. The other big theme: Israel and Iran are a big problem! And we're probably all going to die in a nuclear war over a piece of land the size of New Jersey. So that part is fun.
Everyone Loves You When You're Dead
Neil Strauss
Summary: A compilation of interviews from a long-time music journalist.
Review: This is an easy book to skim. The interviews range from quirky to fascinating to boring to sickeningly pretentious, and sometimes it seems like Strauss is turning himself into the subject. But despite the duds, it was worth it just for the part where he competes against Ludacris in a Ho-lympics. Pure gold.
Working Fire
Zac Unger
Summary: The memoir of a young Oakland fireman's first months on the job.
Review: There's nothing exceptional about this book, but Unger is a pretty good observer and the world he inhabits is too juicy to resist. A pretty good read overall.
Half A Life
Darin Strauss
Summary: The author explores the defining moment in his life: when he hit and killed a high school classmate in his car at age 18.
Review: Wow. I'm not sure this is really a whole book; it boils down to maybe 80 pages of text, but man are they a fascinating 80 pages. The rare memoir that's honest without being intentionally, falsely, over-the-top brutal in its honesty.
Turn Left At The Trojan Horse
Brad Herzog
Summary: An RV road trip exploring classical themes, especially the classical ideal of the hero.
Review: The classics thing is a cute gimmick, and Herzog's voice is well-developed, but I had trouble sticking with this one. I guess I wanted a little more road trip kinetics and a little less midnight dorm room bull session-style pondering.
Sebastian Junger
Summary: A journalist's account of a year embedded with an army unit in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
Review: Very good, the best I've read so far about the individual soldier's experience in modern warfare. Highly recommended, especially as a complement to a broader view like The Forever War.
Fire Season
Phillip Connors
Summary: Memoirs of a fire lookout in the mountains of New Mexico.
Review: This is good stuff. Connors provides a nice mix of history, personal reflection, and the sort of idiosyncratic bits you would expect from someone who spends half the year by himself in a tiny room in the middle of the wilderness. Recommended.
The Checklist Manifesto
Atul Gawande
Summary: A book about how to manage growing compexity and specialization in skilled professions.
Review: Despite the hook of checklists, this book isn't really about that. It's about how to put knowledge to use. It's about the evolving relationship between technology and operators (are doctors destined to be craftsmen or technicians?), the tension between advancing the state of the art and applying it consistently, the role of feedback mechanisms in quality improvement, how to coordinate teams of narrow specialists, and so on. Recommended.
Unfamiliar Fishes
Sarah Vowell
Summary: A book about the history of Hawaii.
Review: What a disappointment. Given Vowell's unique style and the cool topic, I had high hopes for this book but I couldn't get into it at all. The material comes across as thoroughly dry.
Tina Fey
Summary: Tina Fey's memoir of childhood, motherhood, and her career in comedy.
Review: Comedians' memoirs are very hit and miss. With Fey, there's the added challenge of differentiating her real self from her character on 30 Rock. I fully expected to be let down here, but this book was great. It was funny without being schticky and didn't spend any time (OK, maybe a little time) pandering to a female audience. A solid, fun read.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System
Diane Ravitch
Summary: A contrarian look at the school choice and accountability movements.
Review: Ravitch spends most of this book savaging the track record of charter school and standardized testing proponents, and while she scores plenty of points, she fails at providing her own answers to any the big questions she poses. She's happy to be dismissive and point out the flaws in both the theory and application of different education reform fads, but she fails to wrestle with the tradeoffs within the system and doesn't provide much of a way forward. If you want a good primer of the state of education reform, this isn't bad, but if you expect a sharp thesis on how to fix America's schools, look elsewhere.
Michael Sandel
Summary: A survey course in political philosophy.
Review: This book isn't bad, but in going for too much breadth I think Sandel sacrifices most of his momentum. Just when any individual thread is getting good, he moves on to the next topic.
Reality is Broken
Jane McGonigal
Summary: How to use apply lessons from gameplay to the real world.
Review: There's a quality book buried in here somewhere, but this one is full of gaps in logic, pop psychology reductionism, and overreaching claims. I found McGonigal's thesis and evidence deeply flawed. I have about 100 other specific gripes with this book, but let's just say I was not a fan.
Blind Man's Bluff
Christopher Drew and Sherry Sontag
Summary: A modern history of American submarine espionage.
Review: Considering the topic, I should have loved this book, but the pacing felt totally off. Every time it started to draw me in, Sontag got mired in too many of the wrong details and the momentum fizzled out. Not recommended.
Luke Harding and David Leigh
Summary: An account of the release of the WikiLeaks cables by two of the Guardian reporters involved.
Review: The first hundred pages of this book are pretty worthless, but by the end the pace picks up. It's kind of like an All The President's Men for the digital era - although the result is actually pretty light on political intrigue and pretty heavy on Julian Assange's loutish behavior.
Blind Descent
James Tabor
Summary: Two teams of supercavers compete to find and map the world's deepest cave.
Review: The first half of this story, about an American team exploring caves in southern Mexico, is so exciting that it hardly matters how clunky and repetitive Tabor's writing is. The second half, though, about an Eastern European team in Abkhazia, totally loses steam. I'd give it a C+.
Life Is Meals
James and Kay Salter
Summary: A 365-day diary of short, whimsical notes on food, cooking, and dining.
Review: Considering that I will happily eat leftovers out of my hand over the sink if nobody's watching, I'm probably not this book's target audience, but I really enjoyed it. The whole book is a love letter to a life spent richly experiencing food and it's charming throughout, with individual entries ranging from ancient history to useful advice to personal memories. Highly recommended.
Direct Red
Gabriel Weston
Summary: The memoir of a young British surgeon.
Review: Weston provides a great corrective to the superhuman aura doctors tend to project. She grapples openly with demons of doubt, selfishness, and fallibility and gives you a sense of how doctors experience their work as human beings. Good short read.
Working in the Shadows
Gabriel Thompson
Summary: The author writes about spending a few months each at a poultry processing plant, a Manhattan restaurant, and an industrial lettuce farm in Arizona.
Review: This book is straight-up poverty porn, but it's pretty good poverty porn. In contrast to some other authors (cough, Barbara Ehrenreich), he doesn't pretend to be the spokesperson of the underclass or get derailed by polemical rants. He focuses on describing the day-to-day of the immigrant laborer lifestyle, and the result is a decent read.
Randall Stross
Summary: A fly-on-the-wall account of a team of venture capitalists at the height of the dot-com bubble.
Review: The world of venture capital is pretty opaque to me. This book is the best thing I've found so far about the courtship dance of the deal and the role VCs play in their portfolio companies. But, reading the book 10 years later, there's a lot of bubble-era absurdity too: the parade of vague ideas and barely-formed companies drawing bidding wars and hundred million dollar valuations is pretty unintentionally humorous in hindsight.
The Addict
Michael Stein
Summary: A year in the life of the relationship between a doctor and a patient with an opiate addiction.
Review: There are some very cool glimpses into the inner monologue of a doctor here, but overall I thought this book was pretty lacking. A large part of it might be that a lot of the book is extended quotes from the patient, waxing discursive about the why and how of her situation, and I thought the patient was full of shit. Maybe that was the point, but either way the end result isn't that engaging or enlightening.
The Devil's Teeth
Susan Casey
Summary: A book about shark researchers on the Farralon Islands.
Review: I enjoyed this a lot more than Casey's other book, The Wave. It's more focused, more personal, and if there is one thing cooler to read about than 100-foot waves, it's great white sharks. The sharks do figure into the book quite a bit, but it covers plenty of other ground, and has interesting things to say about the marine world and about science field research in general. Recommended.
The Possessed
Elif Batuman
Summary: A memoir about Russian literature, graduate school, and misadventures in Central Asia.
Review: This book is pretty hard to categorize. Batuman is clearly very smart, but sometimes her discursive and referential style make it hard to tell whether something is brilliant or complete bullshit. Some parts of this book were pitch perfect, a blend of wisdom, humor, and a little bit of pathos, but other parts totally lost me. I have no idea whether to recommend it or not.
Money For Nothing
David Zweig and John Gillespie
Summary: A book about corporate boards and their dysfunction.
Review: This is a classic example of a perfectly good 4000-word magazine article that has no business being a book. The top-level points are fine, but they dwell on each for way too long and with too many examples. There isn't even 100 pages of real material here, let alone 300+.
James Swanson
Summary: A novelistic retelling of Lincoln's assassination and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth.
Review: Very interesting. This book really does read like a novel. It's colorful and suspenseful (and light on broader history), and Swanson does a great job creating a sense of place. This book is less about the specifics of its events and more about a tableau of border-state America in the tense days following the close of the Civil War.
The Emperor of all Maladies
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Summary: A "biography of cancer" (mostly just a history of cancer research).
Review: This book was all over "Best of 2010" lists, which I think was undeserved. The book isn't bad, but it's a little self-indulgent. Mukherjee needed a better editor to rein him in and shape it into more of a story rather than just a chronology. Good if you're especially curious about the subject, but otherwise skippable.
David Feige
Summary: A day in the life of a public defender in the Bronx.
Review: Feige pretty much ignores the "day in the life" conceit and time-shifts at will. Aside from that, though, this book is a powerhouse. A great, gripping read that walks the line between accessibility and shop talk and truly does offer a window into a world most readers will never see firsthand. Highly recommended.
Made By Hand
Mark Frauenfelder
Summary: One man's adventures in learning to make things for himself.
Review: I read this book a long time ago but apparently forgot to review it. The opening of this book was full of promise and got me excited for what was to follow, but it never quite sustained that initial excitement. Good, not great.
When Brute Force Fails
Mark Kleiman
Summary: Analysis and prescriptions for smarter crime and punishment policies.
Review: This book came highly recommended, but I almost gave up on it early on. The opening chapters are just too dry and directionless. Fortunately, Kleiman regroups and eventually walks through a very engaging argument about what we get wrong in how we deal with crime. B+.
The Wave
Susan Casey
Summary: All about giant waves.
Review: As someone unnaturally obsessed with giant waves, it would be almost impossible for me to dislike this book. But it could have been a lot better. Casey tries to straddle too many different storylines that, but for involving big waves, are not very related (or at least she fails to prove a meaningful connection). I wish she had thrown out most of the stuff about climate researchers and commercial shipping and just focused on big wave surfing, which is definitely the strongest thread in the book.
The Dead Hand
David Hoffman
Summary: A history of the Cold War arms race, negotiations, and Soviet shenanigans in the 1980s.
Review: I was hoping this book would be a compendium of zany Cold War schemes, but it's way too legitimate and scholarly for that. The focus is more on strategy, diplomacy, and politics, with a particular focus on Reagan, Gorbachev, and arms control. Still, I learned a lot and Hoffman does about as good a job as possible turning pretty dry source material into a very readable account.
John Lanchester
Summary: An analysis of the financial crisis.
Review: One of the clearest explanations of the 2009 crash I've found so far. Worth reading if you're financially illiterate (or just below grade level) and trying to wrap your head around the mechanics of the housing bubble, but like most books and articles on the subject, Lanchester can't seem to restrain himself and eventually gets worked up into an anti-bank frenzy that's not all that useful for the book.
Alexandra Natapoff
Summary: A survey of the ethical and legal dilemmas involved in the use of criminal informants.
Review: Not a bad book, and seemingly the only one on a fascinating subject, but very dry and often over my head. It's clearly directed at an audience of legal scholars, not casual readers, so it's probably not worth a look.
Matt Latimer
Summary: Memoir of a Bush administration speechwriter.
Review: Most books written by political insiders take the form of either a hit piece on their colleagues or a fawning love note to them, but this is surprisingly subdued and nonjudgmental. Latimer's writing is good, but I expected a sharper wit from a professional speechwriter. I'd give it a B.
The War For Late Night
Bill Carter
Summary: A behind-the-scenes account of the Leno/Conan fiasco.
Review: Really, really good, especially if you are an entertainment industry geek. I love Carter's approach. The players in the drama all feel like real characters, and there's a genuine suspense in the storytelling even though the outcome is widely known. Great nonfiction storytelling.
The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe
Summary: The story of the Mercury astronauts and America's post-WWII fighter jock fraternity.
Review: Great book. Wolfe's inimitable style works perfectly, and this book is one of the few where it isn't just pretentious garbage to describe it using the word "zeitgeist." It gradually unfolds into what feels like a character study of early Cold War America, and it pulls it off brilliantly. Highly recommended.
Extra Lives
Tom Bissell
Summary: Assorted essays about video games.
Review: This is easily the best writing about video games I've ever read, although that's a pretty small pool. If you are or ever were even a small notch above casual on the gamer spectrum, you'll like this book.
And The Band Played On
Randy Shilts
Summary: An investigate journalist chronicles the early years of AIDS in America.
Review: Let's just get this out of the way: this book is great. The level of research that went into it is amazing, and Shilts manages to weave together a huge cast of characters and competing plotlines, and build real suspense about things where the outcome is never in doubt. That being said, I have two complaints about this book. The first is that sometimes it crosses the line from muckraking to Monday morning quarterbacking. Shilts implicitly takes a lot of potshots that are way too easy to make years later with full information and nothing to lose. The second is that Africa and the rest of the world barely figure into the book at all. There's a European storyline, but something like 80% of the book concerns San Francisco and New York, and although I realize that Shilts has to draw the line somewhere and the problem of AIDS in Africa presents fewer opportunities to showcase bureaucratic absurdity, I would have liked to see more than a few pages on the subject.
Bad Acts and Guilty Minds
Leo Katz
Summary: A book about causation and agency in criminal law.
Review: This is one of those books that nobody should read for pleasure, but I did enjoy it. It's basically a light philosophy textbook that keeps pushing the envelope on assumptions about basic notions like intent. And if you're a fan of ridiculous hypotheticals (I'm the president of the fan club), this is a treasure trove.
Lost in the Meritocracy
Walter Kirn
Summary: A barbed memoir of overachievement and the educational elite.
Review: It's very clear what this book is trying to be, but it fails on most counts. Kirn is no real-life Holden Caufield and he can't even really land what should be an easy knockout punch about the silliness of an educational system that is so easily gamed and measures, as Kirn puts it, one's ability to "run up the score." Doesn't deliver what it promises.
In The Ring
Bob Bennett
Summary: The autobiography of a famous Washington trial lawyer.
Review: I can't even remember why I originally had this book on my list. It was OK, but don't bother.
Riding Rockets
Mike Mullane
Summary: A memoir by one of the original space shuttle astronauts.
Review: I found this book because of Packing For Mars and it greatly exceeded my expectations. Considering his day job, Mullane is a good writer and unlike a lot of company men, he doesn't shy away from the unseemly or controversial. He really pulls back the curtain on the whole NASA and flyboy subcultures. Recommended.
Mark Schatzker
Summary: One man's quest for the perfect steak.
Review: This book has kind of a pop-non-fiction-by-numbers feel to it. It's got all the requisite pieces: the author on a very ill-defined quest that lets him expense a lot of plane flights, the steady accumulation of expert guides from different backgrounds, the university studies and science filler, and the explanations of how the story of some random thing is also the history of all mankind. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that the ceiling on this book isn't that high. It's also shocking how little I learned about steak for a book that is ENTIRELY ABOUT STEAK. Serviceable at best.
Don't Vote
P.J. O'Rourke
Summary: Assorted cantankerous essays about American government and politics.
Review: I bought this in an airport after an unexpected delay. What a mistake. O'Rourke is as sharp as ever in interviews, but his books seem to have gone way downhill. This feels like he got a call from a desperate editor, reheated some old stuff, slapped it together in a weekend, and then cashed a check. Skip it.
Ghost Train To The Eastern Star
Paul Theroux
Summary: Theroux retraces his earlier railway trip through from Paris to Southeast Asia.
Review: Not having read the original, I can't make the comparison, but Theroux makes for a pretty good armchair travel companion. He gets off plenty of bon mots about traveling, train stations, and the like. No surprises here but a pleasant diversion.
What It Takes
Richard Ben Cramer
Summary: A ridiculously detailed fly-on-the-wall account of the 1988 presidential election.
Review: This book is the opposite of a light read. It's not something you can just have on the nightstand and casually dip in and out of every once in a while. It's a book that you wrestle with and try not to get bucked off. That being said, it's probably one of my favorite books of all time. Even though the book is twenty years old, it feels totally relevant. Cramer does more than anyone else I've ever read to actually make sense of the absurd machine of modern American politics, to diagram how all the different pieces - the candidates, the money, the media, the handlers, the voters - fit together. You get to understand what kind of bubble candidates and officeholders live in, and the conflicting incentives at play. More than anything he does a damn good job of answering the core question of the book, which is, what kind of person has the gall to think they ought to be president? By the end, you feel like you really know all the candidates (also, in a depressing commentary on career politicians, a surprising number of them are still on the scene, including current VP Joe Biden). The best part is that Cramer only shows, never tells, but he still manages to get everything across. In the end, this book is part farce, part tragedy, and it's hard to which is sadder: what happens to the people who don't win, or what happens to the people who do. I could go on about this book for hours - it really and truly blew me away.
Kevin Starr
Summary: A single-volume history of California.
Review: Starr is California's resident historian, a professor at USC who has put out volumes and volumes on the state, and it shows here. He offers a whirlwind tour from California's primitive beginnings all the way through to the Schwarzenegger administration. It's full of fascinating stuff, but far from being just a bunch of factoids, it all feels of a piece, like the state is a character that develops slowly throughout the book.
Packing For Mars
Mary Roach
Summary: An offbeat look at the science of manned space exploration.
Review: Maybe Roach's best work, even better than Stiff. Really outstanding, an awesome mix of science and history. I would say the book doesn't have much of an arc, and is more a collection of stuff, but that's normal for Roach and doesn't really detract here.
There Are No Children Here
Alex Kotlowitz
Summary: An account of two brothers growing up in the Chicago housing projects.
Review: This is one of those books that is supposed to be moving and insightful, but no matter how hard I tried to squeeze out some fresh understanding of the American inner city, the whole thing just didn't work for me. Not recommended.
Country Driving
Peter Heller
Summary: Scenes from modern china, from the desert to the farm to the factory towns.
Review: This book is loosely organized around Heller's driving trips through China, but he abandons that premise about halfway through. I loved the first hundred pages (about driving culture in China and his trips through the desert) and the last hundred pages (charting the birth and growth of a new factory), but there's a big fat middle about his life in a rural village that fell flat for me.
Down In New Orleans
Billy Sothern
Summary: A memoir of post-Katrina exile and return.
Review: Very good, very depressing. Sothern writes lean prose and doesn't get caught up in self-pity, and the end result is an unexpectedly touching love letter to New Orleans.
Peter Heller
Summary: A memoir of a year in Orange County and Baja California learning to surf.
Review: As someone with an inexplicable obsession with surfing despite virtually no actual experience on a surfboard, I had very high hopes for this book, but it was a big disappointment, in large part because it wasn't really about surfing. Instead it was a muddy stew of different more ambitious books about love and life and environmentalism that really didn't belong here, and through it all I just wanted him to shut up and get back to surfing. Not recommended.
Uncommon Sense
Gary Becker and Richard Posner
Summary: A collection of economic perspectives from two leading scholars.
Review: This book is basically a bunch of blog entries stapled together, which sounds pretty underwhelming until you notice that the authors are Becker, a Chicago school economist with a Nobel Prize and an absurd CV, and Posner, a prolific Court of Appeals judge and legal scholar. There are some dud chapters, mostly when they try to tackle very grand topics like national security or democracy, but for the most part it makes for a great book. Fair warning: reading this may turn you into a dispassionate libertarian jerk who gives people copies of Atlas Shrugged for Christmas and won't shut up about how people should be allowed to sell their organs.
Hello, He Lied
Lynda Obst
Summary: A Hollywood producer's tales from the trenches.
Review: Obst started out as a journalist, and it shows in her very lean, punchy writing. There are also some fun stories in the book. The trouble is that the whole thing doesn't really cohere - it's just a pile of disconnected thoughts and it feels like you're just hanging out in her head more than anything else. Add to that the fact that the book is pretty dated by now (it was published in 1997), and it's hard to recommend unless you're really curious about the subject matter. The one takeaway message for me was that, given how many different players are involved and how mismatched the incentives are, the miracle is that any good movies ever get made.
Seth Stevenson
Summary: The author and his girlfriend try to circumnavigate the globe without using an airplane.
Review: This is perfectly pleasant and harmless armchair travel lit, but I have two bones to pick with it. One is that it seems pretty likely that Stevenson had a future book in mind during this trip (and maybe even already had a book deal in his back pocket), which necessarily colors the way he approached things. That's not such a grave sin, but it took some points off in my eyes. The second thing is that Stevenson senselessly decides that the whole ground-level thing for its own sake isn't enough, and that he has to deliver a sort of anti-airplane manifesto. I thought that whole thread was way off base and took something away from the rest of the book.
Tough Jews
Rich Cohen
Summary: The history of Jewish gangsters in pre-WWII New York.
Review: This book probably could have shed about eighty pages (I seem to say that about a lot of books, which says something about either bloat in nonfiction publishing or my attention span), but it's a fascinating spotlight on a mostly-forgotten era. Cohen has an eye for detail and uses it to develop his characters and create a great sense of place, putting you right there at a union strike in the Garment District or on a Brooklyn street corner. If a book about Jewish gangsters sounds at least a little bit interesting to you, check it out.
Delivering Happiness
Tony Hsieh
Summary: A memoir from the CEO of Zappos and LinkExchange.
Review: The strange thing about this book is that it's billed as being about Hsieh's insights on corporate culture, but he only really dives into that stuff near the end and it was the weakest part for me. Maybe I missed the point. Regardless, Hsieh's nothing special as a writer, but I enjoyed getting his very unvarnished play-by-play of his days in the trenches building his different companies. To me, that was the heart of the book, and not the bizarre and overly theoretical discussions about happiness that he steps into in the final chapters.
The Film Club
David Gillmor
Summary: A father's memoir of allowing his son to drop out of high school on the condition that they watch three movies together each week.
Review: This is a nice light read with some good moments. The biggest problem I had with the book was that it was just a little uncanny. The whole premise of the book and the overly-meaningful father-son dialogue make the whole thing feel more like a Cameron Crowe screenplay than any sort of reality.
Israel Is Real
Rich Cohen
Summary: A semi-historical, semi-literary discussion of Israel and Jewish identity.
Review: I guess you could call this a history book, since it is a loosely chronological account full of actual history, but it doesn't quite fit that mold. It's hard for me to describe, but I will say it raised a lot of interesting questions and taught me a lot about Jewish history. Cohen manages to take a very unwieldy topic and do about as good a job as one can do condensing it into so few pages. If you're trying to make some sense of Israel, this is a good place to start.
The Lost City of Z
David Grann
Summary: A reporter retraces the life and final journey of famed Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett.
Review: Considering the source material, I was really disappointed in this book. With its logline, it would seem hard to go wrong, but wrong it goes. Instead of generating a real narrative arc Grann just kind of bounces around the minutiae of Fawcett's expeditions and never really creates a sense of place. At the end I was left wondering how Grann was able to take the daring tale of an Indiana Jones figure journeying deep into the heart of the jungle, never to be seen again, and turn it into something that felt like homework. Not recommended.
Waiting on a Train
James McCommons
Summary: A book about the present and future of passenger rail in America.
Review: I liked this book well enough - it's about as engaging as a book on transportation policy can be - but McCommons is not exactly an impartial chronicler. He makes no secret of his pro-rail tendencies, and at lots of points he seems to only present one side of a case, or to be seeing train travel through a very nostalgic lens. It doesn't help that there were also some factual errors in the book - not a lot, or especially major ones, but they were noticeable enough that it hurt his credibility on everything else. Skip this unless you really like trains.
Autobiography of an Execution
David Dow
Summary: A mostly non-fiction memoir about defending death row inmates in Texas.
Review: There's good news and bad news: the good news is that this book blew me away. The writing is fluid, the story is gripping, and I could hardly put it down. The bad news is that it left a bad taste in my mouth because of the "mostly non-fiction" aspect. In an author's note at the beginning, Dow explains that in order to protect attorney-client confidentiality, he's changed and composited various facts and characters, but he claims the substance of the book is all true. The trouble is there's no way to trust that he got that right. After I finished, I felt uneasy not knowing what was completely true, what was false, and what was somewhere in between. Was this character a composite of multiple people? Did these events really happen in that order? Was that he actually a she? The whole exercise didn't sit well with me, which is a shame because I loved the book while I was reading it, and it would have held up great were it truly non-fiction or even just a novel.
The Big Short
Michael Lewis
Summary: An account of the months leading up to the 2008 market crash that focuses on the short sellers who saw it coming.
Review: Nothing too special, but I enjoyed it. Lewis focuses on a handful of specific characters rather than the macro stuff, and he does it well, but if you're looking for something more explanatory about the subprime mortgage crisis, look elsewhere.
Courtroom 302
Steve Bogira
Summary: Documenting a year behind the scenes at the busiest criminal courthouse in the US.
Review: Just outstanding. The depth of research in this book and the quality of the storytelling are both hard to top. It provides a very detailed, grounded perspective on the wrong and right of the American criminal justice system that never preaches or falls too deeply in love with its own anecdotes. Highly recommended.
Wired For War
P.W. Singer
Summary: All about the fast-growing use of robotics in warfare.
Review: This book is a little bloated. Singer gives way too much airtime to quotations from experts who have nothing interesting or nonobvious to say and tends to replay a lot of his points over and over. There's a pretty solid core book buried in here, but this version needed better editing. Singer also acknowledges early on that we are notoriously bad at predicting technological development and its implications, especially when it comes to war. I appreciated that. Unfortunately he then proceeds to throw himself a 200-page prediction party, which made steam shoot out of my ears like a cartoon character.
American Nomads
Richard Grant
Summary: A digressive look at wandering and exploration in the American West.
Review: This book is way cool. Grant weaves the story of his own personal obsession with the American Southwest and its subcultures together with historical threads about conquistadors, mountain men, and other wandering souls. It's a tough book to summarize, but I enjoyed almost all of it.
The Routes of Man
Ted Conover
Summary: A look at different sorts of roads and their impact on society.
Review: This is a bit of a departure for Conover. It doesn't have that raw feel of an undercover anthropologist at work, even though most of it does involve his personal travels. It also has a lot of lulls and he struggles to draw it all together. Not bad, but not great either.
Bambi vs. Godzilla
David Mamet
Summary: Assorted essays on the craft and business of moviemaking.
Review: Like most of Mamet's work, this has flashes of absolute brilliance. There are sentences so perfect you sit there and savor them over and over. Then there's a lot of pretentious garbage. I think he lost me for good when he used the words "desideratum" and "divertimento" in the same sentence.
Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation
Joseph Hallinan
Summary: An in-depth look at the modern US prison system.
Review: Not exactly a light read, but very good. This book is about 10 years old, but it doesn't feel particularly dated. Some parts are so brutal I felt physically ill. If you care about this stuff (and if you don't, you probably should), it's a good place to start. It also makes a great complement to Newjack, giving the macro perspective instead of the personal.
A Prayer For The City
Buzz Bissinger
Summary: A behind-the-scenes account of Ed Rendell's first term as mayor of Philadelphia.
Review: I don't know if a better book has been written about local politics. This book may be one of the best ones I've read about politics, period. It's a dizzying portrayal of a big city mayor trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of public employee unions, the media, state and federal government, job loss, white flight, and more. It's both engrossing and deeply depressing. Not perfect (Bissinger lays it on a bit thick sometimes), but overall I loved it.
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Ken Kalfus
Summary: A novel about a New York couple going through a bitter divorce before and after 9/11.
Review: This book is trying to be darkly funny throughout and almost never succeeds. More importantly, way too much of the book takes place in the heads of its two main characters rather than in dialogue or in them living life. I'm sure that was sort of the point, and the one positive of this book is how well Kalfus paints a portrait of modern self-obsession, but he does it at the expense of everything else. There's a real lack of story. The reviews of this book are all glowing, though, so maybe fiction truly is wasted on me.
King Of The World
David Remnick
Summary: A history of Muhammad Ali's early career.
Review: Really, really good. Remnick is able to juggle a bunch of complicated characters and create a real sense of time and place. I was sad to finish this book.
The Outlaw Sea
William Langewiesche
Summary: A look at piracy, regulation, and commerce on the modern ocean.
Review: As with Fly By Wire, it's tough to describe this book. Langewiesche approaches a few different case studies in piracy, shipwrecks, and the like with tremendous lyricism and paints a picture of a wild frontier that remains totally untamed by modern institutions. The accounts of shipwrecks (reconstructed from survivor interviews) are absolutely riveting.
Check The Technique
Brian Coleman
Summary: The stories behind 36 classic hip-hop albums.
Review: Surprisingly inane. Considering the personalities and history involved, I expected a lot more interesting stuff. Not recommended.
Jack Coughlin
Summary: The autobiography of a veteran marine sniper.
Review: This book is a little too clunky and unfocused. Coughlin doesn't find the right mix of ingredients between his personal story and the story of snipers on the battlefield. It's not bad, but if you want to read about snipers, Trigger Men is much better, if you want to read about the on-the-ground reality for US troops, Joker One is much better, and if you want the bigger picture on the war in Iraq, The Forever War is much better.
Hard News
Seth Mnookin
Summary: An intensive look at a few years in the recent history of The New York Times.
Review: If you're looking for an accessible book about the changing nature of the news industry, this isn't it. This book is pure inside baseball, a detailed retracing of what happened in the NYT newsroom in the years post-9/11, with particular attention to the Jayson Blair scandal. I enjoyed it a lot, but it's definitely not for everyone.
From Square One
Dean Olsher
Summary: A very discursive look at the author's relationship with crossword puzzles.
Review: There's a lot not to like in this book, but any crossword enthusiast will probably enjoy it.
Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
Summary: About the ethical and practical dilemmas of eating and producing meat in the modern era.
Review: I'm not sure how I feel about this book in terms of its prescriptive elements. Foer doesn't really manage to tie it all together in the end, and most of his clearer points are retreads of now-standard complaints. Still, the book was a very good read. It's personal, but not too personal, and quite balanced and thoughtful. I appreciated that he wasn't approaching things dogmatically or in some utopian context. If you're interested in these issues, this is worth a read.
The Answer Is Never
Jocko Weyland
Summary: A general and personal history of skateboarding.
Review: I've been on the lookout for a good book about skateboarding history and culture, but I doubt this is it. The prose in this book was so excruciating I couldn't even make it past page 50. Maybe it hits its stride later, but I ran out of patience.
Smile When You're Lying
Chuck Thompson
Summary: Memoirs from a disgruntled travel writer.
Review: I almost gave up on this book after the first 90 pages, but it turned around just in time. It starts to unravel again in the end, though. The middle third of this book is excellent, but probably not good enough to make it worth sitting through the plodding beginning and end.
Fly By Wire
William Langewiesche
Summary: The story of the crash of US Airways flight 1549.
Review: This very short book is great on two counts. First, the moment-by-moment account from the flight deck is genuinely gripping even though you know exactly what's going to happen. Second, this book is more interesting for the way in which Langewiesche ties the example of flight 1549 to a bigger story about modern aviation and human performance. He walks such a fine line so well that it's hard to even describe what the book is about once you've read it.
And Here's the Kicker
Mike Sacks
Summary: Conversations with comedy writers about their humor and their careers.
Review: In general, these interviews are a lot more illuminating and surprising than those The New New Journalism, maybe because comedy is so hard to get right, and so rare is the person who can do it well consistently. Read this if you're curious about what goes through humorists' heads when they're working on a bit.
Tokyo Vice
Jake Adelstein
Summary: Memoirs of an American reporter working the crime beat for a Japanese newspaper.
Review: This book was a big letdown. It feels like Adelstein has great source material but fails to turn into anything coherent. He switches back and forth between dull, unconnected anecdotes and a very weak overall arc. Not recommended.
The New New Journalism
Robert S. Boynton
Summary: Interviews on writing and reporting process with some great journalists.
Review: With a few exceptions, I didn't find these interviews all that enlightening, but on the plus side this book pointed me to a lot of intriguing books by the authors interviewed (although the last thing I ever need is a longer reading list).
Anna Funder
Summary: Stories of life behind the Berlin Wall under the eye of the East German secret police.
Review: I really enjoyed this book. It basically consists of a handful of stories told by former East Germans ranging from former Stasi targets to former Stasi officials, and Funder is wise to let them do most of the telling. Collectively, the stories paint a disturbing picture of life in a police state - what it does to people to deprive them of a private self and the ability to trust their fellow citizens. Funder also injects bits of her own experience living in Berlin after the fall of the wall and is able to give it a real sense of place.
Da Bull
Greg Noll
Summary: Memoirs from a big wave surfing pioneer.
Review: VERY light reading without much structure. Basically the book equivalent of sitting in Noll's living room and listening to him spin stories about the good old days in the surfing world (Southern California and Oahu in the 1950's and 1960's, specifically). If that sounds like your cup of tea, you'd probably like this.
An American Insurrection
William Doyle
Summary: A detailed history of the political maneuvering and civil unrest surrounding the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Review: This book is a tremendous achievement in reporting. Doyle's thoroughness is mindblowing, particularly since he manages to go into so much detail without turning it into a textbook. It's full of fascinating history about Mississippi, the postwar South generally, and the civil rights era, but is also a gripping story of a few days in which 30,000 troops were deployed in an American city and we came surprisingly close to a new secessionist conflict. Everyone learns about certain moments from the civil rights era - Bull Connor in Birmingham, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, etc. - and after reading this book it's hard to believe how little play the Oxford riots get in comparison.
Stealing The Wave
Andy Martin
Summary: A history of the big wave surfing rivalry between Ken Bradshaw and Mark Foo in the 1980's.
Review: A pretty good read if you're like me and have an abiding interest in surf culture and history despite not actually being a surfer yourself. You get an inside look at a very specific moment in surfing history: Hawaii's North Shore in the 1980's, which was the epicenter for big wave surfing and its growing commercialization. The rivalry between Bradshaw and Foo doesn't really sustain the book on its own, but fortunately there's enough else to hold it together.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers
Summary: Eggers' memoir of life after losing both parents to cancer in a single month.
Review: I avoided reading this book because everything I learned about it made it sound like a pretentious pile of crap. Reading the discursive "Acknowledgments" section at the beginning of the book, all my worst fears were confirmed. Fortunately, once the real book starts, it turns around quickly. The first half of this book was some of the best prose I can ever remember reading, and full of unexpected small and large truths. The fact that it takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area and the setting is practically another character in the book made me appreciate it even more. In the second half of the book, when Eggers starts to get more self-indulgent, the book starts to unravel, but holds on just enough through the end. Definitely recommended.
Ordinary Injustice
Amy Bach
Summary: Case studies of failure in the American criminal justice system.
Review: This is a great book, although probably 25% longer than it needs to be. Bach focuses on four examples of miscarried justice, and her research on each is remarkably deep and thorough. The key to this book is that while the cases read like crime fiction and revolve around a cast of characters, Bach doesn't focus on the key players' individual mistakes. Instead, she roots out the unseen structural and collective problems that led to a bad outcome at the level of a particular judge, prosecutor, or public defender. This book is startling and depressing - highly recommended for anyone with a healthy curiosity about criminal justice.
Andrew D. Blechman
Summary: Inside the surreal world of America's retirement communities.
Review: This book revolves around Blechman's stay in The Villages, the world's largest retirement community (it's in Florida, of course). There's far too much in here about the quirks of The Villages and its residents, and not enough of the rest. He tries to look what effect isolating the elderly from everyone else has on both sides, and what generational turnover means for political participation, community cohesion, and so on, but I felt like he never got to the heart of the matter. My favorite parts of this book were the ones concerned with local politics; it's an unexpectedly fascinating look at how small communities and their residents function as political entities.
Ted Conover
Summary: Dispatches from two years in Aspen in the late 1980's.
Review: After Conover's other three books, this one was a disappointment. I can understand that, after exploring two great underclasses (hobos and migrant workers), he wanted to report on an elite as a counterpoint, but his approach just doesn't quite work when applied to wealthy Aspenites. For the obvious practical reason that it's easier to play poor than play rich, he doesn't really immerse himself in the culture he's investigating this time around; he's stuck in a more typical observer posture, and it doesn't suit him. This book also feels dated in a way that his others don't (it may well be that what it means to be rich in America has changed a lot more in the last twenty years than what it means to be poor). This book isn't bad, but it's no standout.
Joker One
Donovan Campbell
Summary: A platoon commander's-eye-view of the war in Iraq.
Review: Campbell, who commanded a platoon of young Marines on a long and violent deployment in Ramadi, is resolutely NOT trying to tell any story of the Iraqi experience or of the political dimensions of the war. This book is purely about the reality of US ground troops in the war and about what the bond is like between men who go into battle together. On that score, it's a home run, and makes a nice complement to The Forever War and Imperial Life In The Emerald City.
The Forever War
Dexter Filkins
Summary: The author's dispatches from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Review: This book took me about 30 pages to get into, and I almost gave up, but after that, wow. Filkins is one hell of a war reporter, and comes about as close as a visiting American can come to giving you real insight into the impact of war on the Afghan and Iraqi people. Highly recommended.
Born To Run
Christopher McDougall
Summary: An exploration of running culture in modern America and among a rural Mexican tribe known for its running prowess, told through the story of an epic foot race years in the making.
Review: I hate running. I absolutely hate it. I avoid it at all costs. So when I say I loved this book, it's not because I'm a running geek. This book is tough to summarize, and it confounded my expectations. I expected a run-of-the-mill pop journalism exploration of a sport subculture, complete with all the obligatory expert visits, university studies, and so on, but this book reads like a movie (and I have no doubt the rights have already been sold). It's a genuinely gripping story, full of memorable characters, exotic locales, and no small amount of suspense. More than anything else, though, this book is the most joyful book I've read in a very long time. It's brimming with an earnestness and excitement that nonfiction books almost never possess, probably because people think it's uncool. But reading this book was a truly joyful experience, so much so that at the end I almost wanted to start it all over again.
Rolling Nowhere
Ted Conover
Summary: An account of riding the rails around the American West.
Review: While studying anthropology at Amherst, Conover decided to take leave and live as a hobo for his research. Normally this is the sort of Ehrenreichian ploy I would roll my eyes at, but on the strength of Conover's other books, I was willing to make an exception. This book is a little rougher around the edges than Coyotes or Newjack, but when you consider that he was still basically a kid during the experience, his maturity and insight is startling. He paints a complex picture of life at the economic bottom, and it's hard to form any easy judgments. For every tramp he meets who seems pure of heart but snakebitten, there's another who continues to willfully make bad choices and exploit the system. It's hard to know how relevant his portrait of tramp culture is thirty years later, but even if it amounts to a historical artifact, it's still worth the read.
Ted Conover
Summary: The author's undercover look at Mexican immigrants in America.
Review: To call Conover's project "undercover" is a little misleading, since as a white, blond American he can't exactly pass for Mexican, nor does he try. What he does do is insinuate himself into a group of migrant workers and document their experience. He works the orchards in Arizona, visits their Mexican hometown, and makes numerous illegal border crossings, among other things. This book is over 20 years old, but it doesn't feel dated at all, and Conover resists the temptation to preach. It's a great, thought-provoking read.
Ted Conover
Summary: The author's account of his year as a guard in Sing Sing Prison.
Review: This book is simply outstanding. It's an evenhanded and deeply engrossing look at crime and punishment in America, not to mention a very brave work of immersive journalism. There are surprising insights at every turn about not just the prisoners, but politics, workplace power structures, and the effect of the job on the guards. I loved it so much that after I finished it, I immediately went out and got Conover's other three books.
See You In Court
Thomas Geoghegan
Summary: An analysis of the causes and effects of America's lawsuit culture.
Review: Geoghegan uses this book to construct an elaborate theory about how we got into our current mess of litigiousness, the foundation for which is changes in labor law, unionization, contract rights, and political participation. He's an unapologetic liberal partisan throughout, and I ultimately disagree with almost all of his points, but I enjoyed getting his perspective and sparring with him in my head. The one larger point we seem to agree on is that the application of the law to Americans has become increasingly arbitrary, the effects of which are corrosive and far-reaching.
Super Crunchers
Ian Ayres
Summary: All about the proliferation of data and its effects on prediction, decisionmaking, and policy.
Review: This is the book Stephen Baker's The Numerati was trying to be. It's a steadier and more substantive treatment of a very similar subject. Nothing in here is too profound - it's still essentially airport bookstore fare - but it's not bad, and I appreciate Ayres for championing the cause of statistical literacy.
Jon Friedman
Summary: An anthology of rejected humor pieces.
Review: Any meta-point the editor (Friedman) is trying to make about the nature of rejection is largely lost, but there are plenty of gems in this collection. Fully half of them are self-indulgent pablum, but the rest are wickedly funny. Be advised that the "neurotic thirty-something Brooklynite comedienne with a failed one-woman show" demographic is drastically overrepresented.
A Cold Case
Philip Gourevitch
Summary: The story of an unsolved double homicide case reopened 30 years later.
Review: This book wasn't quite what I expected, but it's a great piece of reportage. It boils down to a character study of a career criminal and his pursuer, and it's a great read throughout. Gourevitch gets bonus points for his vivid portrait of street life in 1960's New York.
Nick Reding
Summary: A look at the dynamics of meth in rural America through the experience of a small Iowa town.
Review: Not bad, but not a standout either. Reding has some good scenes, some good reporting, and some good analysis, but somehow the book doesn't really tie together. It felt like he just barely missed the mark.
Blood In The Cage
L. Jon Wertheim
Summary: A biography of mixed martial arts legend Pat Miletich, along with a modern history of the sport.
Review: I grabbed this book off the shelf at the library on a lark and was pleasantly surprised. Wertheim does a tremendous job of bringing his main subject to life and exploring the rise of MMA from every angle. I enjoyed just about every part of this book, and I say that as someone who knows next to nothing about the sport.
I'm Dying Up Here
William Knoedelseder
Summary: A book about the heyday of stand-up comedy in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Review: This book is outstanding. It strikes just the right balance between history and story, with three-dimensional characters and vivid scenes, and it finds a good focal point for what could otherwise turn into a sprawling mess. If you're at all interested in the world professional comedians inhabit or in the history of the entertainment industry, I highly recommend it.
Home Game
Michael Lewis
Summary: Assorted diaries of fatherhood.
Review: I would read Lewis on drywall repair, so it was a given that I was going to read this, even though, like Kevin Nealon's book, it's a topic that normally holds no interest for me. Unsurprisingly, this book was very good, but if you adjust for font, page size, and very liberal spacing, it's only about 80 pages long, and yet the hardcover list price is still $25. So if you're going to read it, get it from the library - don't encourage them.
My Booky Wook
Russell Brand
Summary: An autobiography of drugs, sex, and stand-up comedy.
Review: Every so often, Brand casually tosses out a laugh-out-loud funny line. Aside from those, though, there's nothing all that engaging about this book. His biography isn't bizarre enough to stand on its own, and he fails to turn a stream of anecdotes about drug-fueled mishaps into anything more meaningful. The whole thing lacks a storyline and feels very self-indulgent.
Who Hates Whom
Bob Harris
Summary: A tour of various international standoffs, civil wars, separatist movements, genocides, and other similar unpleasantness around the world.
Review: Harris walks a fine line throughout this book, trying to be funny without being glib, and mostly succeeds. It's entertaining and pretty educational, considering the format. If you're a world history or current affairs buff, you'll like this. But I recommend skipping the Africa section altogether if you don't want to be depressed for the rest of the day.
Travels With Charley
John Steinbeck
Summary: Steinbeck's famous memoir of driving around America with his French poodle.
Review: I loved the first three pages of this book, but it was all downhill from there. Steinbeck, fancying himself the bard of real America, gets a little carried away in his prose (OK, more than a little). More importantly, though, I think this book was lost on me because I wanted to connect to his experiences and observations, but I couldn't, because the America he's writing about doesn't exist anymore. The book is old enough that he may as well be talking about a foreign country, but there's just enough familiarity that I can't appreciate it as an exotic travel narrative.
Yes, You're Pregnant, But What About Me?
Kevin Nealon
Summary: Nealon's account of his wife's pregnancy.
Review: I think I have a special affection for Nealon due to his being a fixture on Saturday Night Live during that key window when a) the show was good and b) I watched it. That's why I ended up reading a book about something that has no relevance to me and for which the target audience is probably everyone but me. I didn't love this book, but I enjoyed it, and I imagine anyone with even a modicum of relevant life experience would enjoy it even more. Nealon is a very funny man, and his particular brand of funny translates well into a book like this. It's also surprisingly touching at times.
I'd Rather We Got Casinos
Larry Wilmore
Summary: A collection of humor pieces about black (and white) America.
Review: I'm a fan of Wilmore's scripted comedy and a lot of his other work, so I thought this book had a chance to be good. It isn't. It's shockingly bad. It's mindless, predictable racial humor with very little in the way of actual wit.
Ahead of the Curve
Philip Delves Broughton
Summary: An account of two years at Harvard Business School.
Review: This book felt like it ended too soon. There were a lot of things I would have liked to see Broughton go into, but he kept the parameters of the story pretty narrow. That being said, this book is a smooth read with a good structure and lots of interesting stuff (no surprise, since Broughton was a newspaper journalist for many years before going to HBS). Anyone who's curious about the business school experience and the type of people it attracts will like this book.
Create Your Own Economy
Tyler Cowen
Summary: A book about neuroeconomics, autism, mental ordering, and digital culture, among other things.
Review: Cowen might be my favorite public intellectual, to the extent that he qualifies. He thinks and writes unlike anyone else I've read, and unlike most of his peers, I consider him to be genuinely open-minded. He doesn't have a tired shtick or an agenda, and when he starts taking me (as a reader) down a path, I have no idea where he's headed. That's very rare. This book has plenty of those moments. I won't even try to explain what it's about, in part because I'm still not sure, but I enjoyed it, learned a few things, and was provoked to think very hard about a lot of things. Cowen also has a delightful sense of humor that's so dry it may a) not count as humor, and b) be unintentional. Regardless, I burst out laughing a few times reading this book.
Naked In Dangerous Places
Cash Peters
Summary: A sassy memoir about a year spent shooting an adventure travel reality show.
Review: This book reads effortlessly, which sounds like fainter praise than it is. Peters also gets the award for the best humorous use of footnotes I've ever seen. There's not much real substance to this book, but I don't think that was ever the point. Just tagging along with Peters is fun enough.
Rapture Ready!
Daniel Radosh
Summary: An investigation of the realities, subcultures, and paradoxes of modern Christian pop culture in America.
Review: This is another case in which I was excited to dive into a world that's totally foreign to me, but it turns out Radosh doesn't make a great tour guide. There's a certain weird distance in his prose, and he tends to get bogged down in the details, or at least in the wrong details. I can't help but feeling this book could have been so much better. Not particularly recommended.
If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name
Heather Lende
Summary: Assorted writing about the author's life in small-town Alaska.
Review: The main character in this book is really the town of Haines, Alaska, and it's very fully-realized. You get a good sense for the particular spirit of the town and its residents. Unfortunately, there's not much here in the way of substance. The different chapters don't much connect, and a lot of them fall flat anyway. If you want to gawk at small town quirkiness, I'd recommend you just rent a Coen brothers movie instead.
Richard Feldman
Summary: A memoir of two decades as a lobbyist for the NRA and the gun industry.
Review: This book is ostensibly about two things that interest me a lot and about which I know a fair amount (politics) and almost nothing (guns in America), respectively. It would seem to be a good combination, but instead of being a gripping, or at least darkly funny, memoir of power politics and legislative tricks, it's essentially a very boring laundry list account of Feldman's career. What little effort he makes to impose a real narrative on things fails miserably, and his writing style has no bite to it. I expected to learn a lot from this book, but learned almost nothing.
Match Day
Brian Eule
Summary: Following three young doctors through their final year of medical school and first year as interns.
Review: It's hard to say what exactly this book is about - there are certainly broader lessons about medical education, medical practice, human relationships, and all that. But it's also something of a memoir - one of the three subjects is the author's girlfriend - and is deeply personal (sometimes too much so). I'm not going to try to deconstruct it too much, and instead just say that I enjoyed it enough to read it all in one sitting. It loses some steam toward the end, but I thought Eule was an able storyteller and that he provided a good window into the high-pressure world of being a young doctor.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
David Foster Wallace
Summary: Another collection of Wallace's nonfiction essays.
Review: Despite my best efforts, I couldn't finish this book. Unlike Consider The Lobster, most of the essays in this book a) run on way too long, and b) are about subjects of little to no interest to me. At a certain point, a 60-page essay about the effect of TV on contemporary fiction just collapses under its own weight. This whole book has the feel of a long dinner with someone who loves to hear himself speak.
Gasping For Airtime
Jay Mohr
Summary: A memoir of the author's two years as a bit player on Saturday Night Live.
Review: Overall, this book was a lot of fun. For anyone curious about Saturday Night Live or the television comedy business, this book won't disappoint. It also helps if you peaked as a SNL viewer right around Mohr's time on the show, because the book is full of great stories about fellow cast members like Chris Farley and Adam Sandler. I could have done without the very neurotic thread about Mohr's own showbiz arc, though.
Driving Like Crazy
P.J. O'Rourke
Summary: An anthology of O'Rourke's pieces on American car culture and road trips gone (mostly) wrong.
Review: O'Rourke is one of my favorite writers and humorists, so I expected a lot more from this book. In most of the new material, it feels like he's playing a caricature of himself, and in the old material, he hasn't finished sharpening his voice yet. Maybe he just loses something when he's not talking politics. I'm not sure what the root cause is, but this book is very skippable, even for a big P.J. O'Rourke fan.
West Of The West
Mark Arax
Summary: An exploration of the different faces of present-day California.
Review: Some of the chapters in this book didn't work for me - the section on radicalism in San Francisco and Berkeley seemed particularly misguided. But when it's good, it's great. Arax blew me away with some parts, especially the chapters on migrant farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley and marijuana growers in Humboldt. Of course, there are plenty of other subjects in California I would have liked to see him cover, but this book was never intended to be thorough like that. It's more emotional than factual. Highly recommended.
How I Became A Famous Novelist
Steve Hely
Summary: A sendup of the world of modern literature in which the underachieving main character decides to game the system and write a bestseller-by-numbers.
Review: This book was up and down for me - sometimes it seems like Hely is lampooning something out of obligation rather than necessity, like he has to cover all his bases. That being said, I enjoyed it a lot. Like any good satire, it's funny and often uncomfortably true. Despite an unsatisfying ending, Hely did a good job of crafting a legitimate story while also mixing in a ton of great detail. The book also has more than its fair share of great individual sentences. (Full disclosure: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher for reasons that still aren't clear to me.)
Consider The Lobster
David Foster Wallace
Summary: A collection of Wallace's nonfiction essays.
Review: I find Wallace's literary criticism to be unbearable. Not necessarily because it's bad - it might be good, but if it is, I'm certainly not up to the task of parsing it or appreciating it. Once you take that out, this book basically boils down to four very good long essays: the titular essay about the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay about his trip to the AVN Awards (the Oscars for porn), an essay about conservative talk radio, and an essay about John McCain's 2000 campaign. The lobster piece and the talk radio piece are both available online for free - I know because I read them there first. And the McCain piece, which is outstanding, is included in a separate book with extra material. With that in mind, I wouldn't bother with this book. Read the good chapters online at their original publications and get the McCain book instead.
Liberation Biology
Ronald Bailey
Summary: A pro-biotech manifesto covering recent and expected breakthroughs in fields like gerontology, oncology, and fertility.
Review: I didn't find Bailey's case to be persuasive, but that may be because I didn't need to be persuaded. I happen to agree with him on most points, and this book certainly feels like preaching to the choir. He deals with a lot of common objections to different sorts of research and proposed medical treatments, but it's hard to focus on that when he's constantly talking up new outlandish potential breakthroughs. Don't get me wrong, I like to geek out on impractical technology as much as anyone, but years of reading lazy science magazine journalism have taught me to be skeptical. I can even pinpoint the exact moment when this book lost me: it was when Bailey was gushing about a scientist who expects to replace the entire human circulatory system with a system of lightweight conveyor belt nanobots.
How To Be Alone
Jonathan Franzen
Summary: A collection of essays on topics ranging from online privacy to the Chicago post office.
Review: Underwhelming, although the essay on his father's Alzheimer's was both great and heartbreaking. Some of the chapters don't seem to belong in this book, like his Harper's essay, and others are just puzzling, like the Oprah piece. Definitely a Franzen overdose for me.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
John Berendt
Summary: A sprawling true crime story from 1980's Savannah high society.
Review: The core story of this book is excellent, but I would have preferred some more selective editing. Huge sections are devoted to other interesting characters that don't really fit into anything else. I get the impression that Berendt just couldn't resist including everything, even though it doesn't all belong in the same book. Still, it's worth slogging through that stuff for the Jim Williams thread.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wade Davis
Summary: A Harvard ethnobotanist's account of going to Haiti to discover the secrets of zombie poison and voodoo rites.
Review: The prose is a little dense, but the sheer exoticness of the story and the setting make it easy not to notice. I enjoyed the book until about two-thirds of the way through, at which point the most interesting conflict in the book is resolved. After that, Davis feels the need to continue for another 80 pages that I didn't get anything out of.
How Doctors Think
Jerome Groopman
Summary: How doctors are trained, what they know, what they don't know, and how they make decisions.
Review: On the whole, this book is quite good. The chapter on modern radiology is as great as the oncology chapter is depressing. My biggest complaint is that Groopman doesn't seem to have much of a sense of trade-offs in decision making. He wants doctors to be mavericks who make a bold diagnosis, but only in cases when the doctor would be right. There is little discussion of the cost to more routine cases when doctors go on a wild goose chase, and even less discussion of how money fits into everything.
Lies My Teacher Told Me
James Loewen
Summary: A discussion of some common misconceptions about American History and why it gets mistaught the way it does.
Review: I expected this book to focus more on specific urban legends about American history, but most of it is concerned with how teachers teach it and how the textbooks are written. It raises a lot of interesting questions about the politics of history and the goals of history education.
Trigger Men
Hans Halberstadt
Summary: All about US military snipers, with a particular focus on their use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Review: You probably don't need my review to know whether you'd like this book. If you would enjoy sitting in a bar with a bunch of special forces soldiers and hearing their crazy war stories and learning all about how to shoot someone in the head from 2000 meters away, you should read it.
The Wordy Shipmates
Sarah Vowell
Summary: A history of John Winthrop and the pilgrims.
Review: After Assassination Vacation, this was a big disappointment. Vowell's tone is a lot more serious in a way that doesn't really suit her, and she's too focused on sermons and religiosity at the expense of other aspects of the pilgrims' history. Her repeated attempts to connect the material to 9/11 and the war in Iraq also fell completely flat for me.
Elsewhere, U.S.A.
Dalton Conley
Summary: A look at sociological changes among knowledge workers in the US.
Review: I hated this book so much that I kept reading so I could find more things to hate about it. It's like an all-you-can-eat stereotype buffet. It opens with an absurd caricature of an urban professional as if Conley's ability to dream it up somehow proves his point. This becomes a habit, in which he simply makes huge assumptions and then works off of them without bothering to justify them. The only observations that I didn't hate were the completely obvious and unoriginal ones. I don't know why I don't learn my lesson about these books.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Jared Diamond
Summary: A historical/anthropological explanation for the current supremacy of Western societies.
Review: Maybe this is a testament to the influence of this book since its publication, but I didn't find a lot of new or shocking things in it. Diamond's points seemed a little too commonsensical. Still, the scholarship and writing were both strong, so it's a good primer on the subject.
The Return of History and the End of Dreams
Robert Kagan
Summary: An analysis of liberal democracy and the current geopolitical order.
Review: Anyone who wants to point out exactly how much shit Francis Fukuyama is full of is a friend of mine. This book lays out a convincing argument as to why the end of the Cold War wasn't the end of much, and makes good, restrained predictions about the near future. Perhaps most importantly, it's not padded with lots of repetition or nonsense; it's exactly as short as it should be.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Sarah Vowell
Summary: Essays about American history and politics.
Review: As with any essay collection, this is kind of hit-or-miss, but I enjoyed it overall. The piece on Al Gore is especially good.
Tuesdays With Morrie
Mitch Albom
Summary: A memoir of conversations with a former professor dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Review: This book is just as sappy as you'd expect, but it's also pretty good.
To Conquer The Air
James Tobin
Summary: The history of the Wright Brothers and the race to achieve human flight.
Review: Tobin's an able biographer, but the source material just isn't that good. I assumed that, since he bothered to write the book, that there was an interesting untold story behind the Wright Brothers. I was wrong.
Game of Shadows
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams
Summary: Baseball, steroids, Barry Bonds, and the BALCO scandal.
Review: This book is very well-reported, but the authors seem a little too pleased with themselves. They are full of manufactured outrage, and place the focus too squarely on Bonds. They also consistently fail to address bigger, and to me more interesting, questions that are tied up in the BALCO ordeal. The book is a good read, but you might want to throw it across the room once in a while.
On Writing
Stephen King
Summary: King's memoir about the craft of writing.
Review: The first portion of this book is a very skippable autobiography. Once he gets into his perspective on fiction writing, though, it gets better. What makes this book good is that he manages to talk shop without making it a how-to book. He shows restraint in offering his own perspective on big and small questions of writing rather than being too didactic. I especially enjoyed his long rant against adverbs.
Law In America
Lawrence Friedman
Summary: A brief history of law in America.
Review: Dull and surprisingly uninformative. Most of the history in this book is very basic stuff, and when it comes to his broader analysis, Friedman is too noncommittal.
The Big Necessity
Rose George
Summary: 230+ pages about sewage and toilets.
Review: This book's biggest shortcoming is the lack of any real narrative or central thesis beyond the fact that we don't pay as much attention to human sanitation as we should. George jumps around between disconnected topics like pit latrines in Tanzanian slums and the history of luxury toilet technology without even trying to justify it. And, as you might expect, the book gets a little slow as it goes on - one can only take so much sewer talk. Still, this is the sort of book that makes you look differently at an everyday something, and it's got plenty of good stuff for anyone curious about the subject (especially someone who wants to feel more guilty about conditions in the developing world).
Field Notes From A Catastrophe
Elizabeth Kolbert
Summary: Dispatches from the front lines of climate change science and policy.
Review: This book seems poorly-proportioned. It spends too many pages shoring up the existence of anthropogenic climate change and not enough time talking about the implications. Anyone open to the scientific premise isn't going to need 100 pages of proof before getting into the interesting part. Between assessments of the present and forecasts for the future, Kolbert also never pauses to explain exactly why this is a problem. I'm not a climate change skeptic by any means, but my biggest frustration is people who don't lay out the argument for why changing the earth at a geological level is either morally or practically unacceptable. Is it because it will dislocate coastal communities? Because it will wipe out animal species that are important to the ecosystem? Because it will lead to the extinction of man? Any or all of these might be true, but I'd like for people not to just take the catastrophic nature of global warming as an article of faith and tell me so. The most interesting takeaway from this book is that there are a number of positive feedback cycles and trigger points that make the natural human tendency to think of global warming as a steady, linear process very dangerous. Kolbert makes a thorough case for why stored carbon in permafrost, the ice-albedo feedback loop, and other things will make the effects of global warming far more irregular and sudden than we appreciate.
Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life
Neil Strauss
Summary: The author chronicles his slow descent into the fringe of survivalist culture as he gets more and more paranoid about governmental collapse, terrorism, and natural disasters.
Review: I'd put this book alongside A Fighter's Heart as a book that almost any man I know will enjoy, but probably very few women. The book has a good freewheeling style, and touches on all kinds of action hero stuff that every boy grows up wanting to know about: picking locks, escaping from prison, getaway driving, Swiss bank accounts, wilderness tracking, gunplay, how to make a knife out of a credit card, and so on. This book tries to impose a flimsy narrative of self-discovery over all this stuff, which doesn't really take. Fortunately you'll have too much fun reading it to notice.
Life Without Lawyers
Philip K. Howard
Summary: A walkthrough of the excesses of the current American legal regime and the reforms needed.
Review: What a letdown. Howard's heart is in the right place, and I certainly agree with most of his conclusions, but this book is absurdly vague, mealy-mouthed, and wishful. He repeats himself over and over, and when he actually offers specific examples, he focuses too narrowly on the cases of medical practice and schools. There isn't even much in the way of interesting legal history, let alone a roadmap of specific, incremental reforms. This book is a pamphlet in disguise.
Riding Toward Everywhere
William T. Vollman
Summary: A memoir of the author's experience living the hobo lifestyle and riding freight trains around America.
Review: Vollman is the type of person who will ride the rails as a hobo all over the Western US just because. For this and many other reasons mentioned in the book, he is a very strange man. He also happens to be a tremendous writer, perhaps too much so for me - in this book it felt like he was operating on a frequency I couldn't hear, like there was a mountain of meaning and soul in his beat poetic prose that I couldn't quite get at. Even despite that, I found much to enjoy, especially his idiosyncratic descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the trainyard. I'd file this under "Books That I Really, Really Wanted To Like More."
The Next 100 Years
George Friedman
Summary: A political scientist takes a crack at predicting the major geopolitical events of the 21st century.
Review: Friedman makes some solid, if well-worn, points about the driving forces behind political and military power. Among other things, he makes a good case for why naval power and passable terrain are still so important in the digital age. I probably would have a favorable review of this book if it were just his predictions for 2009-2025, but after that is where he really loses it. Before you know it, he's raving like a madman about Battle Star satellites in geosynchronous orbit and secret Japanese lunar bases and other things so fantastical that I've blocked them from my memory. It's not that these predictions couldn't come true, it's that they are so inappropriately detailed and speculative that they undermine his more serious analysis and turn the whole book into a farce.
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
Matt Weiland
Summary: 50 essays, one about each state, written by a mix of novelists, journalists, and the like.
Review: It's going to hard for me to assess this book without sounding too gushing, because it's probably my favorite book of the last year or two (favorite is not to be confused with the best, which it isn't). If you feel ahistorical and disconnected from America and what it means and used to mean, this book will change that (at least temporarily) and reintroduce you to the impossible America of literature. Reading it is like going on the Great American Road Trip you never took, with lots of wonderful, lyrical descriptions and telling details. It made me want to go pick up the old WPA guides to the states and dig through old issues of Life magazine and hop a boxcar to South Dakota, not necessarily in that order. Some other thoughts: (1) I wish that more of the essays were written by people who still lived in the states they wrote about. It seems like every third essay is written by someone who lives in New York City, and something feels wrong about a bunch of hip New York authors trying to capture the soul of the American heartland, even if it is where they grew up. (2) There is very little about the real population centers of the country in here. As in the Senate, the emptier states get disproportionate weight, and even the chapters about the populous states focus more on the emptier parts. I'm fine with this, because it's not as though LA or New York or Miami is suffering from a lack of attention, and most people reading this book are going to be coastal urbanite yuppies anyway. (3) This book reminded me for the first time in a long time of just how important and mythic the Mississippi River used to be. (4) The California, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, South Carolina chapters were my favorites.
God Is Not Great
Christopher Hitchens
Summary: A manifesto on the ills of organized religion.
Review: As usual, Hitchens is impossibly eloquent and includes as evidence a ridiculous number of globetrotting personal anecdotes. When I read his work, I wonder who from my generation could possibly produce anything like it in twenty years (whither the public intellectual?). But as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and it's hard not to feel that he's cherry-picking sometimes. More importantly, it feels like he's preaching to the choir, and is a little too excited to play the role of provocateur (among his more contrarian points, he argues that Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are/were both assholes). He also tends to conflate religiosity with organized religion, particularly the historical excesses of the Big Five world religions. The most interesting discussion in the book is in the early chapters, when he looks at the danger of religious exceptionalism and the tension between modern institutions and religious arcana. Unfortunately, he quickly discards this line of inquiry to go on a whirlwind tour of bland, well-worn criticisms. It's hard for me to imagine anyone having their mind changed by this book, which is a major failing, but if you're a member of the choir to which he's preaching, you'll probably enjoy it.
Ian McEwan
Summary: A wide-ranging metafictional novel set in 20th-century England.
Review: Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that I found this book good but not exactly a standout until the end, when the payoff changed everything. Not that the rest of the book wasn't well-realized, but I had my standard difficulties with getting absorbed into a British period drama, and the balance between description and dialogue felt very heavily tilted towards the former, like getting a far-too-long tour from a kindly British guide in each new setting. On a more positive note, the book got me thinking about something I think about often in a real-world context - what does it do to a person to have their life defined by a single mistake?
Screen Plays
David Cohen
Summary: Stories of the development and production processes for 25 different movie scripts.
Review: Like The Big Picture, this book paints a pretty unflattering picture of the creative process in Hollywood. Once you get past that, though, it's interesting to see how and why different story and character decisions were made in the movies discussed. The book forces you to think about the constraints and opportunities of film as a medium in a way that people rarely do, especially in the chapters that cover adaptations of novels. Recommended for movie buffs.
The Brain That Changes Itself
Norman Doidge
Summary: A broad introduction to the emerging science of neuroplasticity (the reorganization of the brain due to stimuli).
Review: I knew virtually nothing about the topic before reading this book, so I learned a fair bit. The general principles at work are fascinating, and Doidge does a good job making them accessible, but he's also a little bit too in love with his subject material. Each case study stretches too long, and overall the book could shed about 1/3 of its page count without any real loss. Also, one of the main takeaways from this book is that behind every advance in neuroscience, there is a monkey holocaust in a lab somewhere. I swear, every little research study cited is prefaced with an explanation of how researchers drilled, cut open, and otherwise tortured dozens of monkeys to prove some trivial new hypothesis.
Associated Press Guide to Photojournalism
Brian Horton
Summary: Probably the closest thing there is to a photojournalism style guide.
Review: Too short on nuts-and-bolts information, and too long on vague pronouncements about the craft. The discussion of the industry's future also feels dated (the digital transition was just getting started when the book was published). On the plus side, there are some great case studies of specific photos - all the planning, setup, and techniques that went into getting certain iconic images (the story behind the famous photo of Elián Gonzáles is even crazier than I imagined).
The Year of Living Biblically
A.J. Jacobs
Summary: The author chronicles a year spent trying to adhere to biblical rules as closely as possible.
Review: Another book I read a while ago but that I forgot to add to this list. I enjoyed this book immensely. I expected it to be entertaining and full of fun facts I would end up annoying people with at parties (it was both of these things), but I wasn't prepared for how sincere and reflective it turned out to be. Jacobs successfully walks the fine line between being funny and going for cheap laughs at the expense of religion. He seems to be making an honest effort to reconcile his lapsed Jewish sensibilities with a very alien culture and get a better understanding of his ancestry and of the modern sacred. Highly recommended, especially for any fellow sort-of-Jews.
Reality Check
Guy Kawasaki
Summary: A playful guidebook to creating and growing a high-tech startup company, covers topics such as VC funding, business plans, public relations, engineering, and recruiting.
Review: I was skeptical of this book because the author, Guy Kawasaki, is a member of the Silicon Valley pundit class of which I am always skeptical. He also seems to be a member of the subspecies that has coasted for the last 20 years based on one gig at one high-profile company; the Bay Area tech community is overflowing with people who answered phones for a few years at Microsoft, Sun, etc. and have since parlayed that into a vague executive bio and a string of 80 failed startups. I actually enjoyed this book, though. His straightforward, conversational style is well-suited to the material. He is also one of the only authors in the universe who understands that it's OK to have a two-page chapter when you only have two pages worth of stuff to say on a subject. Overly long chapters in nonfiction are a pet peeve of mine, because it makes it impossible to skip around to parts you care about, so I applaud Kawasaki for giving his book a structure that is USEFUL to the reader. On the content side, it covers the whole spectrum from enlightening to mindnumbing, but, per the previous point, you can easily skip the weak parts (or the parts that don't apply to you) without losing the thread. I think the title of the book is a good summary: most of the insights are commonsensical, but in practice Silicon Valley entrepreneurs all seem to lose their common sense, and this book would make a good refresher on the basics for when you've gone off the reservation.
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead
David Shields
Summary: An autobiographical open discussion of childhood, fatherhood, the development and decay of the human body.
Review: I've never really been able to appreciate the concept of "literary nonfiction," so I tend to shy away from it, but I would say this fits the bill more than anything else I've read. The book charts the arc of two parallel human lives - the general one, and the author's specific one. His 97-year old father also features heavily in his examination of his own frailty and mortality. I enjoyed the book a lot, but at times it's pretty dark. Not for those who fear introspection.
The Unthinkable
Amanda Ripley
Summary: A book about the way people respond in disaster scenarios, with case studies of plane crashes, fires, and the like.
Review: I finished this a few months ago but forgot to list it. Ripley's approach can best be described as restrained, and I mean that in the best way. She doesn't try to inject herself into her narrative or speculate unduly. She does actual REPORTING, and lets the record speak for itself pretty well. I'd be lying if I said all the insights stuck with me, but some of them certainly did - particularly the analysis of office workers evacuating during 9/11.
Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell
Summary: A book about U.S. presidential assassinations, told through the author's pilgrimages to related historical sites.
Review: I'll only say two things about this book: (a) the fact that it mostly avoids talking about JFK bothered me, and (b) when I read, I dog-ear the bottom corners of pages that have great sentences or interesting facts I want to revisit when I finish the book, and I'm pretty sure this book set a new record for number of folds by the time I was halfway done.
A Fighter's Heart
Sam Sheridan
Summary: A memoir of the author's tour through different worlds in the universe of fighting (kickboxing in Thailand, boxing in Oakland, Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, etc.).
Review: This book reminded me a lot of Jarhead in the way it explores the nature of manhood. Aside from some ill-advised chapters on dogfighting and tai chi, it was great. I totally lost myself in Sheridan's very personal story, and it gave me a lot to think about. I'd recommend this book to any guy, but women will hate it.
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt
Nick Hornby
Summary: Yet another collection of Hornby's Believer columns on what he's been reading lately.
Review: More of the same, and still good. This book also features a wonderful introduction in which Hornby delivers a case against book snobbery.
The Polysyllabic Spree
Nick Hornby
Summary: Another collection of Hornby's Believer columns on what he's been reading lately.
Review: This book is a little more tentative and self-deprecating than Shakespeare Wrote For Money, but otherwise it's the same deal. It's fun, breezy, and will point you in the direction of some great books.
The Big Picture: Money And Power In Hollywood
Edward Jay Epstein
Summary: A user's manual for the movie business.
Review: I loved this book. I felt like I learned something new on almost every page. Epstein peels back each layer of the movie business to help you understand it from all angles. I was even impressed by the parts with information I already knew, a true testament to how crisp and engaging the writing is. If you're curious about how movies do or don't get made, read this.
The Stuff Of Thought
Steven Pinker
Summary: A wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between thought and language.
Review: This book is a little uneven - sometimes Pinker is on a roll with fascinating ideas and his particular dry wit, and then every so often he lapses into professorspeak and puts you to sleep. Regardless, the book is full of insight and things that will make you sit up and say "huh." It's also worth the price of admission just for the chapters on swearing and politeness.
Chuck Palahniuk
Summary: A novel set in the waiting room at a porn shoot, told from the perspectives of four participants (Debbie Does De Palma?).
Review: The highlight of this book is how well Palahniuk develops the voices of the different narrators. Aside from that, though, it's a bit of a mess. In the end, the book is just an excuse for him to give you all the fun porn facts he learned during his research and to search for yet more ways of describing bodily functions.
The Geography of Bliss
Eric Weiner
Summary: A self-described grump goes on a tour of the world's happiest and unhappiest places.
Review: This book sort of alternates between travelogue and armchair psychology, and it's much stronger as the former. Weiner tends to get a little carried away in analysis mode and rely on the standard crutch of meaningless university studies, but his eye for detail in describing his travels makes the book worth reading.
Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman
Summary: A novel told from the alternating viewpoints of a supervillain and a rookie member of the superhero league trying to stop him.
Review: As someone who grew up reading his dad's Bronze Age comic books, I probably enjoyed this more than the average reader would. Grossman has a great time poking fun at old comic book tropes, but on a macro scale, this book is a little lacking. The lack of dialogue really hurts the flow of the book, and the plot seems to be a bare bones vehicle for Grossman to sneak in his favorite zingers. Only read this if you're a comic book nerd.
Bad Science
Ben Goldacre
Summary: A doctor/science columnist reports on the epidemic of scientific misapplications and misunderstandings.
Review: This reads more like a manifesto than a straightforward nonfiction book. I didn't necessarily learn a lot, but I liked where Goldacre's heart is at, and it helped renew my outrage on the subject.
Scar Tissue
Anthony Kiedis
Summary: The memoirs of Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Review: This book has plenty of bizarre rock star nonsense, and sometimes it starts to read like a laundry list of benders and sexual conquests, but I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I read it cover-to-cover and liked it a lot. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been one of my favorite bands ever since I found my brother's copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 4th grade, and I enjoyed getting the detailed backstory.
Chuck Palahniuk
Summary: A novel about a guy who works in a historical theme park and makes extra money pretending to choke in fancy restaurants in order to pay for his dying mother's care.
Review: I enjoy Palahniuk's style, and the last 40 or 50 pages of this book are great. But overall, this book borrows too heavily from his other work. The story boils down to the same sort of pseudo-anarchist fantasy as Fight Club, with a lot of similar plot points.
The Nine
Jeffrey Toobin
Summary: A wide-ranging look at the Supreme Court during the Clinton and Bush years.
Review: This book betrays a slight liberal bias, and spends a little too much time talking up the "conservative movement" boogeyman, but aside from that, it's quite good. The book is well-organized and well-researched, and Toobin's writing flows quite nicely. I was particularly fascinated by the personal profiles of the justices - it made me want to read full biographies on Thomas and Souter.
Steven Johnson
Summary: A book about emergent behaviors in groups of undirected units like ant colonies and cities.
Review: I read this book by mistake when I mixed it up with a (hopefully much better) book with a similar title. This one is frustratingly devoid of specifics, and the chapter on software is completely dated. Don't read this.
Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain
Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Summary: A collection of short stories, each centered around a different generation in a family of doctors in New York.
Review: There's not enough continuity between stories to appreciate this book as a whole, but neither is there enough diversity for each one to stand on its own. I was underwhelmed, although there are certainly bright spots. The last story, in particular, blew me away.
Mary Roach
Summary: A light-hearted history of research into and claims about ghosts, reincarnation, and so on.
Review: By far the weakest of Roach's three books, with most of the pages wasted on boring shenanigans from the 19th century. Roach is at her best when she's a foil for real scientists working in real labs, and this book only has a handful of them.
Righting The Mother Tongue
David Wolman
Summary: A history of English spelling.
Review: This book is even less interesting than it sounds.
Courting Justice
David Boies
Summary: One of the top trial lawyers in America discusses his major cases from 1997-2000.
Review: Boies isn't the best prose stylist, but he does a good job of breaking down complex legal issues, and you can learn a lot about procedures and how lawyers approach a broad, high-stakes case (which are, I realize, things that no one other than myself wants to learn about).
Shakespeare Wrote For Money
Nick Hornby
Summary: A collection of Hornby's monthly columns for The Believer magazine about books he's been reading.
Review: Hornby is one of those assholes who can cram an impossible amount of cleverness into one paragraph. I don't mean that in a bad way, I'm just jealous. These columns are aimless, but great, and they give you some sense of how an acclaimed writer reads things. More importantly, this book introduced me to dozens of other great books I might never have heard about otherwise. After finishing this, I learned that there are two other collections of his earlier columns, which I will pick up if I ever make some headway on my newly-inflated reading list.
One L
Scott Turow
Summary: A memoir of the author's first year at Harvard Law School.
Review: Turow does a masterful job of taking the reader through the same emotional ups and downs he experienced in his first year at HLS. I found myself getting tense along with him as his exams approached, and relieved when he got his grades. The book is also full of sharp commentary on legal education and the legal profession, particularly in the afterword. There is one big problem with the book, not Turow's fault: his first year of law school was in 1975, and I have no ability to judge how much things have changed. For that matter, I also can't say how much of what he observes is specific to Harvard, and how much of it is common to all law schools. So, I have to be careful about drawing larger lessons and assume that his book may just represent a dispatch from a peculiar set of circumstances. Regardless, if you're interested in legal education or the law generally, this book is well worth your time.
Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?
Thomas Kohnstamm
Summary: The author's account of his misadventures in Brazil as a Lonely Planet guidebook writer.
Review: The first ten or fifteen pages of this book, before Kohnstamm leaves for Brazil, are some of the best I've ever read. Maybe they set my expectations too high, because the rest of the book was a letdown. Kohnstamm is an able enough writer, but the book quickly turns into a typical booze-and-sex-fueled memoir, just a laundry list of bars visited and strange foreigners encountered that doesn't convey much of the flavor of Brazil or the business of travel writing. I might recommend it on the strength of the first chapter alone, but don't expect too much else out of it.
The Numerati
Stephen Baker
Summary: A book about the proliferation of data and data mining in modern life and its implications for marketing, health care, voting, etc.
Review: This book is rather Friedman-esque, and I mean that in the worst possible way. Baker had a germ of a thesis (and a rather obvious thesis, in my opinion), and then proceeded to work himself into a froth over it and produce 200+ pages in which he restates it over and over with increasingly strained analogies. Worse yet, the most interesting questions in this field - questions about things like changing expectations of privacy, identity, and the ways in which targeting might itself change behavior - are glossed over in a few meager paragraphs. Try one of the other trendy books on this subject instead.
Mary Roach
Summary: Everything you didn't realize you wanted to know about dead bodies and cadaveric research.
Review: Way cool. Roach takes you inside anatomy labs, mortuaries, crash test facilities, and more in a wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion on the past, present, and future of what we do with the bodies we leave behind.
Family Planning
Karan Mahajan
Summary: A darkly comic novel about sex, family, politics, and coming of age in New Delhi.
Review: I'm more than a little biased because I lived in a dorm with the author my freshman year of college. On the other hand, good fiction is usually wasted on me, so hopefully those biases balance each other out. This book starts out a little slow, but is great when it hits its stride. It's full of subtle comedy and even subtler drama. My only real complaint is that I felt like not being Indian, or at least Indian American, was a handicap in absorbing the full texture of the descriptions and the characters' mannerisms.
Malcolm Gladwell
Summary: Gladwell does some more speculating, this time on the cultural and demographic components of success and the myth of the self-made man.
Review: This book is fun, but with no shortage of cherry-picked evidence and logical fallacy. Take it with a grain of salt and enjoy it for the storytelling. As another plus, it seems a lot less padded than Blink, with the exception of the ill-advised chapter on the racial dynamics of Gladwell's personal history.
Anthony Swofford
Summary: Swofford's memoir of serving as a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War.
Review: I was afraid that having already seen the movie would ruin this book for me, but the resemblance between the two turns out to be bare. The book is not quite what I expected in that it's not at all event-driven. Instead, it's a very intense exploration of adolescence and manhood and purpose, among other things. Swofford's writing is brutal, powerful, lyrical stuff. Read it.
Atul Gawande
Summary: Gawande's first book, about the dimensions of medical fallibility.
Review: Not as good as his follow-up, Better, but still worth a read. He captures some of the tensions that exist in the American health care system that get in the way of ideal patient outcomes, and, more than anything else, gives you a new appreciation for how hard it is to be a good doctor.
A Few Seconds of Panic
Stefan Fatsis
Summary: A sportswriter goes to training camp with the Denver Broncos as a placekicker and explains the day-to-day reality of life in the NFL.
Review: This book seems like it's supposed to sort of a reinvention of Plimpton, but I wasn't that emotionally invested in the author's success or failure. The aspects of the book dealing with life as an NFL player are good, but not great, and more than a little biased toward the players. More than anything, what fascinated me about this book was what goes into being a placekicker. I'm not sure that's a great endorsement.
The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
Leonard Mlodinow
Summary: A book about statistical fallacies, probability, the history of statistics, and the nature of success and failure.
Review: Disappointingly remedial. The statistics and probability concepts covered in this book are high school level stuff, and the anecdotes and studies he references are mostly ones I already knew. The historical parts were new information, but not interesting. The only part of this book that hints at something worth reading is the section on cognitive biases and failures of Bayesian thinking, but here again he doesn't dive deep enough and seems to be writing for a very incurious audience.
Who's Your City
Richard Florida
Summary: A geography/demography book about the ascendance of the "creative class" and geographic clustering.
Review: Florida is full of it, and this book is a big pile of guesswork. Don't waste your time.
Word Freak
Stefan Fatsis
Summary: A sportswriter goes on the competitive Scrabble circuit.
Review: This book is fun, but for reasons I can't quite place. I couldn't really appreciate the wisdom about Scrabble, and the profiles of the strange characters that dominate the Scrabble world didn't really stick with me either. I guess in the end this is really a book about obsession, and what drives the story is Fatsis letting you into exactly what he is thinking and feeling about his growing attachment to the game and pursuit of ever higher rankings.
Mary Roach
Summary: One of the funniest science writers in the business tackles the topic of sex research.
Review: Not all that substantive, but very funny and full of cool but useless information.
Michael Lewis
Summary: Lewis looks at how the internet is changing the social order, our identities, and the comparative advantages of "insiders."
Review: This book was written in 2001, but the strongest praise I can offer it is that although the case studies (file-sharing, message boards, etc.) feel very quaint, the insights Lewis draws from them are still useful today. Not his best work, but not half-bad eiher.
Discover Your Inner Economist
Tyler Cowen
Summary: Tyler Cowen, econ blogger extraordinaire, basically writes about whatever he feels like.
Review: Of all the pop econ books I've read, this is the only one worth anything (I really should learn my lesson). Cowen bucks the trend of explaining pointless things through equally pointless analysis and instead brings his qualitative economist savvy to bear on things like how you should consume culture and what restaurants you should visit. If you're thinking about reading a book in the genre, pick this one.
Three Nights In August
Buzz Bissinger
Summary: Bissinger profiles Tony LaRussa's St. Louis Cardinals during one weekend series against the Cubs.
Review: Not on the same level as Friday Night Lights, but still very good. He's able to produce a lot of broader insight about the sport and the players and uses the three-game structure to good effect. That being said, you probably won't like this unless you're a baseball fan.
The Full Burn
Kevin Conley
Summary: A book about stuntmen in Hollywood.
Review: I was naturally curious about the day-to-day reality of a career stuntman, and how the job has changed over time. This book has some of that, but left me wanting more. There's lots of filler, and too much time spent profiling individual stuntmen at the expense of other things.
The Ridiculous Race
Steve Hely
Summary: Two comedy writers compete in an around-the-world race without using airplanes.
Review: Absolutely hilarious. Read it.
Dan Koeppel
Summary: A book about the natural and cultural history of the banana.
Review: The story of how the banana went from a novelty to a staple fruit is full of intrigue ranging from overthrown governments to diseases to robber barons to modern genetic science. Koeppel's approach is a little scattershot though, so the book drags at times. Whether I would recommend it really depends on how curious you are about bananas, the Industrial Revolution, and Central American history.
Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do
Tom Vanderbilt
Summary: A book about driving habits at both the individual and social level.
Review: This book is interesting enough, but I couldn't help but think Vanderbilt missed the chance to do a lot better. He tends to lean on the standard science writing crutch of rattling off the results of lots of studies, and he also fails to tie together the different threads he presents. For example, he spends a good portion of the book talking about traffic engineering for speed, and another good portion talking about traffic engineering for safety, but never really discusses tradeoffs between the two or unifies them under one analysis.
First Stop In The New World
David Lida
Summary: A wide-ranging look at Mexico City in the 21st century.
Review: Lida's prose can be awkward, and some of the chapters should have been cut, but his subject is interesting enough to shine through. If you're curious about the city, and you should be, this is worth a read.
To Engineer Is Human
Henry Petroski
Summary: Petroski, a civil engineering professor, talks about engineering failures and the impact they have on engineering progress and public attitudes.
Review: Surprisingly interesting, despite fairly dry prose. This is something I didn't know I cared about until Petroski convinced me.
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Lewis Wolpert
Summary: A biologist looks at the relationship between human evolution and modern beliefs.
Review: This book is excruciatingly dry and repetitive. He makes a one paragraph point and then spends 30 more pages restating it and supplying bland anecdotal evidence. I'll summarize the whole book for you: humans are the only animal that understands the concept of causation, and we've gotten a little carried away with it and like explanations for everything, and we end up with superstitions and religions and that sort of thing. Now you don't have to read it.
Generation Kill
Evan Wright
Summary: A first-hand account of the invasion of Iraq from a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the Marines' 1st Recon Battalion.
Review: This book is impressively restrained in its politics. Rather than focusing on the right or wrong of the invasion, the focus is squarely on the Marines he accompanies. He takes you inside the camps and the convoys and shows you what the soldiers go through with sharp, funny prose and a great eye for detail. Read this book.
The Canon
Natalie Angier
Summary: Angier, a New York Times science columnist, guides a tour through all (or at least most) of the sciences.
Review: This book starts out strong but peters out quickly, and Angiers has a need to quip when there's no quip to be had. By the halfway point, any joy is gone and it has become a slog. Read A Short History of Nearly Everything instead.
The Happiest Man In The World
Alec Wilkinson
Summary: A biography of Poppa Neutrino, a man who has sailed a raft made of garbage across the Atlantic and invented a new football offense, among other things.
Review: The story of Neutrino's life is full of adventure and eccentricity, but throughout the book, it feels like Wilkinson is grasping for a larger theme and failing to find one. At the end of this book, I don't feel like I learned anything new about Neutrino as a person, or what his experience means for anything else. I don't necessarily blame Wilkinson for that, because his subject is particularly inscrutable, but it left me underwhelmed.
Follow The Story
James Stewart
Summary: Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Wall Street Journal editor, writes a how-to book for writing narrative nonfiction.
Review: This book is a great insight into Stewart's creative process and a nuts-and-bolts look at how you turn a set of facts into a real story with characters, an arc, and dramatic tension. If you are curious about how great nonfiction writers write, check this out.
In A Sunburned Country
Bill Bryson
Summary: Bryson does Australia.
Review: A very earnest and funny exploration of a very strange place. This book will make you want to go to Australia and retrace his steps.
Double Or Nothing
Tom Breitling
Summary: The autobiography of an internet millionaire who teamed up with a friend to buy the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas.
Review: I thought an account of what it's like to suddenly get rich and own a casino would be interesting. I was wrong.
The Kings Of New York
Michael Weinreb
Summary: A year in the life of a championship high school chess team.
Review: Reasonably entertaining, and it will teach you a lot about chess, but nothing special.
Parliament of Whores
P.J. O'Rourke
Summary: P.J. O'Rourke explains how the federal government works with his characteristic skepticism and wit.
Review: This book was published in 1991, but it doesn't seem dated at all. Highly recommended if you want to hear what one of America's best, smartest humorists has to say about why the government can't seem to get anything right.
Kitchen Confidential
Anthony Bourdain
Summary: Anthony Bourdain's memoir about becoming a chef and navigating the New York restaurant business.
Review: My only real problem with this book is that Bourdain tends to generalize from his own experience. He thinks he's talking about all restaurants when he's really only talking about one small upscale segment, and he tends to assume all chefs are like him. Aside from that, though, it's a fun, engaging memoir.
Friday Night Lights
Buzz Bissinger
Summary: The book that spawned the movie and TV series. Bissinger spends a year in Odessa, Texas in the late 1980's chronicling the high school football team and the town that surrounds it.
Review: An outstanding book, and one that's only tangentially about football. The football team is really just a foil to discuss small town America, economic transition, race relations, and teen angst. A great piece of journalism.
Cop In The Hood
Peter Moskos
Summary: A Harvard PhD candidate in sociology spent a year as a beat cop in inner city Baltimore and wrote a book about it.
Review: The storytelling in this book is very lacking - it reads more like a sociology paper. That being said, it's full of real insights into the priorities of modern law enforcement and the dynamic between cops and criminals. If you're curious about those things, check it out.
Ken Jennings
Summary: Ken Jennings explores the history of trivia and looks inside some of its many subcultures, from college quiz bowl to game shows to pub quiz nights.
Review: Jennings surprises as a very sharp, funny narrator for this exploration. This book is equal parts autobiography, history lesson, and trivia almanac. But if you're looking for a behind-the-scenes tale of his Jeopardy! experience, read Prisoner of Trebekistan instead.
Imperial Life In The Emerald City
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Summary: A Washington Post reporter covers life in the Green Zone in the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
Review: I can't really speak to whether this book is evenhanded, but it's a pretty disturbing picture of the chaos and mismanagement in the critical months following the Iraq War. I think what I ultimately took away from the book is that all the talk of war profiteering and backroom deals and hidden agendas was overblown; that it was sheer ignorance, more than malice or greed, that led us to screw things up so badly.
Tales From Q School
John Feinstein
Summary: A book about the notoriously brutal qualifying tournament for the PGA Tour.
Review: This book is surprisingly entertaining, although a little scattered. The constant barrage of stories about tragic collapses and miracle comebacks is draining. If you have any interest in professional golf, this is worth reading, but otherwise don't even think about it.
Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich
Summary: Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as a working class American to see how the other half lives.
Review: This book is mildly famous and has garnered a lot of praise as a brutally honest look at the American working poor. I found the whole thing crass and disingenuous. Ehrenreich barely spends a few weeks in each of her jobs and cheats on her original rules at various opportunities. She doesn't really live like the working poor at all - she's just at blue-collar fantasy camp. The equivalence she implies between her experience and the real thing is a tremendous disservice to the real working class.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
David Simon
Summary: A year in the life of the Baltimore Police homicide unit, and the book that gave rise to the TV show of similar name and, indirectly, The Wire.
Review: This book blew me away with its breadth, storytelling, and Simon's ability to turn all the homicide officers into fully three-dimensional characters. This book is not really about policework, it's about the people who do it and the people they go up against. Some chapters in this book read like a great mystery novel, while others read like long magazine profiles of career police officers. Read this book.
Born Standing Up
Steve Martin
Summary: Steve Martin's memoirs about his childhood and comedy career.
Review: I would read a Steve Martin book about sea snails, so this was an easy sell. Don't read this if you're looking for humor, but if you want a great memoir, Martin displays uncommon insight into his own past and into comedy in general. Recommended.
Gang Leader for a Day
Sudhir Venkatesh
Summary: A sociology graduate student spends several years hanging out with the leader of a drug gang in Chicago public housing during the late 1980's.
Review: This book should have been a lot better, but Venkatesh is not as good a writer as he is a field researcher. He can't seem to get the story off the ground and draw the reader in. Don't bother with this one.
The Black Swan
Nassim Taleb
Summary: A book about risk and our inability to deal with uncertainty and extreme events.
Review: Taleb wants to convince you that our thinking about risk is useless because history is driven by huge, unpredictable events that we systematically underestimate. He convinced me fine, and the book is peppered with occasionally strong insights, but it also has lots of strange digressions and abstract analogies that overcomplicate the basic central thesis.
The Blind Side
Michael Lewis
Summary: Michael Oher, who comes from a broken home in inner city Memphis and can barely read, gets adopted by a rich white family and sent to a mostly-white private school. Did I mention that he's 6' 5", 325 pounds, freakishly athletic, and almost immediately becomes one of the best high school football players in the country?
Review: As usual, Michael Lewis takes something I didn't know I cared about and makes it read like great literature. Whether or not you care about high school football, urban poverty, trends in NFL strategy, or race in the American South, this is a great, well-told story and worth the read.
My Life
Bill Clinton
Summary: Bill Clinton's autobiography.
Review: I think this book took me longer to read than the entire Harry Potter series. It's just that long and just that dense. I enjoyed it, but I also happen to be a big Bill Clinton fan and a bit of a policy nerd. And I have to admit that by the end it was starting to feel like homework. I came away with two realizations: Bill Clinton is even smarter than I thought, and even more of a megalomaniac than I thought.
The World Is Flat
Thomas Friedman
Summary: Thomas Friedman tries to explain globalization.
Review: Friedman really puts his ill-conceived analogy skills to the test in this astoundingly uninformative book. It's a mish-mash of wild speculation, obvious truths, and irrelevant anecdotes. Anyone who has ever read a newspaper since 1999 already knows everything this book has to offer.
You Shall Know Our Velocity
Dave Eggers
Summary: A novel about two friends who inherit money from another friend who dies young, and then take off on an impulsive trip through Africa and Europe trying to give it away.
Review: I loved the premise, and the book has its bright spots, but I don't really see what all the Dave Eggers fuss is about.
The Restaurant At The End of the Universe
Douglas Adams
Summary: The sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy.
Review: Extremely disappointing. Not in the same league as Hitchhiker's Guide by any stretch.
Slaughterhouse Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Summary: A very famous vaguely sci-fi novel about World War II, particularly the firebombing of Dresden, that was apparently assigned reading in every high school except for mine.
Review: I have to say I don't see what the big deal is. The book wasn't bad, but I didn't find it especially poignant or well-written either. I thought it was completely forgettable.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon
Summary: A whodunit about a murdered dog told from the point of view of an autistic child.
Review: This book manages to walk a fine line, using the conceit of an autistic narrator effectively without letting it overshadow everything else. The short length of the book helps, as I felt like the premise was starting to wear thin by the end. It's an interesting and enjoyable enough read, although I think the unintended true moral of it is that being autistic sucks. A lot.
Everything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Summary: A book about the cognitive effect of popular culture in which Johnson argues that pop culture has become more stimulating and complicated over time, and makes us smarter.
Review: The premise of this book is certainly appealing to me as a way to retroactively justify all those video games I played. But this is a perfect example of a 30-page term paper disguised as a 200-page book. The main thesis is easy enough to go along with, but it gets beaten to death and beyond, and he doesn't provide any really profound evidence to justify all the extra pages. Not worth reading.
Harry Potter (Series)
J.K. Rowling
Summary: You know.
Review: I gave in and decided I had to see what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed all the books, but the pacing is a little off. The earlier books are more obviously children's books, and then, as the broader appeal of the series became clear, she started to write for a more adult audience and both the plotlines and prose become more convoluted. If for some odd reason you haven't read these yet, I'd recommend them, if only for the sake of cultural literacy.
All The President's Men
Bob Woodward
Summary: The classic book about the step-by-step uncovering of the Watergate scandal.
Review: As someone who knows only the basic parameters and cultural memory of Watergate, this book was hard to follow at first. Woodward and Bernstein freely throw around references to specific people, events, and organizations that have no meaning to me. Eventually, though, it all comes together, and this book reads like a great murder mystery even though you know the ending.
The New New Thing
Michael Lewis
Summary: Michael Lewis profiles Jim Clark, the fiercely strange and brilliant founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape.
Review: This book is about Clark, but it isn't. This is Michael Lewis doing for Silicon Valley and the tech bubble what he did for 1980's Wall Street in Liar's Poker. It's a book about mania and obsession and a strange subculture of American business. The fact that Clark is a fascinating individual is just a bonus.
Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card
Summary: A sci fi novel about war, militarism, and leadership, among other things.
Review: Everyone told me I had to read this. I finally did, and it was very good, although not exactly "nag me about it for 10 years" good.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams
Summary: The classic sci fi comedy novel.
Review: Its fame is well-deserved. Read it if you haven't.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon
Summary: The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about comic book writers in mid-20th century New York.
Review: To call this book ambitious would be an understatement, and I probably only absorbed a fraction of its different layers. It's worth reading for the sense of place alone. Chabon is a master of description who gives an unbelievably vivid sense of settings ranging from the Prague ghetto to postwar Manhattan to Antarctica.
Steven Levitt
Summary: Steven Levitt is an unconventional, unorthodox, loose cannon economist who plays by his own rules. Some might call him a renegade. This ain't your daddy's economist! Did I mention that he's also a rogue?
Review: I assumed I didn't need to read this book because all the people who read the book and then couldn't shut up about it had already given away the interesting parts. I was right.
The Mother Tongue
Bill Bryson
Summary: The history of British English.
Review: Disappointingly dry and disorganized for Bryson. Don't bother.
Made In America
Bill Bryson
Summary: Bryson covers the history of American English.
Review: This book is full of interesting information about the development of the American accent and lexicon, but reads more like a reference book than any kind of narrative. Aside from a loosely chronological structure, it's just a firehose of fun tidbits that Bryson found during his research. Probably best to read it in small increments.
Liar's Poker
Michael Lewis
Summary: A story about the rise and fall of Wall Street as told through the autobiography of a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers.
Review: It's easy to see why this book launched Lewis's career into the stratosphere. His observational powers are keen, and he shows a knack for telling big stories through little things. My only complaint is that I hoped to learn more about the financial system itself, but this book focuses on issues of culture and human folly without much discussion of the actual financial instruments and interactions.
24 Declassified: Operation Hell Gate
Marc Cerasini
Summary: Spoiler Alert: Jack Bauer saves the world.
Review: Sam got me this book as a joke, so I read it to spite him.
All The Trouble In The World
P.J. O'Rourke
Summary: A book about the fashionable worries of modern humanity, like over-population and environmental destruction, told through O'Rourke's travels in the worst example of each (the Amazon rainforest, Bosnia, etc.).
Review: Although I applaud anyone who maintains a chapter-long analogy between Fremont, CA and Bangladesh, this book feels overreaching, in terms of both its scope and its contrarianism. It's overly long, and sometimes O'Rourke sounds like he has run out of steam and has resorted to playing the character of himself. Like Peace Kills, I preferred the first chapter, a summary of his general sentiments. I have to conclude that O'Rourke works best when he's covering everything that's wrong with the human race in the course of a few pages, instead of trying to deconstruct it piecewise.
How The Mind Works
Steven Pinker
Summary: Pinker explains the computational theory of the mind and the evolutionary underpinnings of certain human behaviors.
Review: This book is difficult to digest, and you have to read with unusual focus (there's no filler here), but Pinker is able to write just accessibly enough that you can really appreciate what he's saying. If you're curious about this sort of thing, this book is a great place to start. I can also pretty much guarantee that you won't find a book with more instances of the word "cuckold."
Peace Kills
P.J. O'Rourke
Summary: Essentially a compilation of O'Rourke's dispatches from war zones such as Somalia, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Review: O'Rourke offers his typically acid take on the world's various modern wars, but what's surprising is how sober his tone is at times. He proves here that he is not a gleeful humorist, but rather someone who is deeply troubled by human folly and who uses humor as a way of dealing with his outrage. What I loved most about this book was the first chapter, titled "Why Americans Hate Foreign Policy" - O'Rourke's game attempt to tie it all together with a whirlwind tour of the vagaries of 20th century war and diplomacy.
The Areas of my Expertise
John Hodgman
Summary: John Hodgman acts as a sort of lit-nerd Willy Wonka fabulist and writes a lot of pages about things of various kinds.
Review: This book is even harder to review than it is to summarize. I can't even really call it a book, because you wouldn't read it the way you read any other book. Is it funny? I guess. Is it overwrought? Probably. Are there some things in the book, like a list of 700 made-up hobo names, that prove Hodgman to be not just a genius, but my favorite kind of genius? Absolutely.
Deep Survival
Laurence Gonzales
Summary: A book about how people handle life-threatening situations and what separates the ones who live from the ones who die.
Review: Gonzales looks at cases of plane crashes, lost hikers, and that sort of thing to try to figure out what makes the survivors special. I have a healthy curiosity about this subject but found this book pretty useless. It's a lot of haphazard speculation and Gonzales never really reaches any sort of unifying theory about the subject. All I really learned from this book is that fighter pilots are even more bad-ass than I had assumed.
From Beirut to Jerusalem
Thomas Friedman
Summary: Before Friedman took a job as America's weird uncle who has a new hare-brained rant every time you see him, he was actually a real reporter with real expertise. Here he writes about his days as a New York Times reporter in Beirut and Jerusalem during the 1980's.
Review: I am woefully ignorant of most of the conflicts in the Middle East, and even though the information in this book is pretty dated, it offers a useful window into the dynamics in Lebanon and Israel. Friedman writes with restraint and insight, and has some truly great pieces of analysis, like the chapter on Israel and Jewish identity. Now if he could only stop indulging his analogy fetish. Which one is it, Tom? Is the Middle East like an ice cream cone, or is it like The Great Gatsby? Make up your mind!
Primary Colors
Joe Klein
Summary: A trashy political novel based not-so-loosely on the Clinton campaign.
Review: Not exactly great literature, and certainly not educational, but it's not a bad read.
Walk In The Woods
Bill Bryson
Summary: Bill Bryson tries to walk the Appalachian Trail and, in so doing, get back in touch with America after spending much of his adult life in England.
Review: One of the review blurbs on the back of this book referred to the Appalachian Trail as "the last great American wilderness." I assume that person has never been to Alaska or Utah or the Sierra Nevadas or, for that matter, anywhere west of the Mississippi. But I digress. This book is a very fun read, and a classic Bryson mix of sarcasm, sincerity, and historical anecdotes about his subject (he spends quite a few pages detailing various Appalachian Trail deaths). In the end, the book is a kind of loving elegy for the Appalachian wilderness and an appreciation of the physical and emotional tonic nature can provide. Highly recommended.
Max Barry
Summary: A satirical novel about office life.
Review: Pretentious, half-baked, and not at all worth reading.
Richness of Life
Stephen Jay Gould
Summary: A collection of essays by the famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Review: I wouldn't say I read this book so much as I plodded through it. The writing style and subject matter are both dense throughout, and especially tough for someone without much of a life sciences background. Not a book to take to the beach, but certainly educational if you're curious about the topic.
The Lost Continent
Bill Bryson
Summary: After Bryson's father dies, he returns home to Iowa and borrows the family stationwagon to retrace the road trips of his childhood.
Review: My favorite Bill Bryson book, in no small part because it's the most sincere and personal of all his books. He's still funny and sarcastic, but he shows a softer side too. This whole book reads like a love letter to the American wide open, and made me want to jump in a car and follow in his footsteps.
The Undercover Economist
Tim Harford
Summary: A Freakonomics ripoff that tries to explain the economics of everyday life.
Review: Don't read it.
Neither Here Nor There
Bill Bryson
Summary: Bryson wanders around Europe.
Review: On the plus side, Bryson does have some observational gems about the places he visits, and his powers of description made me want to visit places I didn't know I cared about, like Hammerfest, Norway. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed. Bryson seems unusually crabby throughout the book and is too prone to rants for it all to hold together.
The Botany of Desire
Michael Pollan
Summary: Pollan analyzes the coevolution of the human world and the plant world through four case studies: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana.
Review: Pollan has a tendency towards purple prose and taking his own speculation too seriously, but once you get past that you'll find a unique approach and a compelling thesis. Read this if you're curious about how the histories of plants and people have shaped one another.
The Economic Naturalist
Robert Frank
Summary: Another Freakonomics ripoff with economic explanations for everyday phenomena.
Review: Useless and awful. Don't read it.
Stumbling On Happiness
Daniel Gilbert
Summary: A pop-sci take on all our cognitive hang-ups that prevent us from remembering or predicting what makes us happy.
Review: Not the most serious treatment of the subject, but Gilbert's evidence is compelling, and he keeps it simple enough that you can really appreciate his conclusions, chief among them that assessing a possible future by imagining it is just about the least accurate way to do it.
Atul Gawande
Summary: A book about performance, the pursuit of perfection, and the social and personal barriers to ideal medical care.
Review: Portions of this book are repurposed from Gawande's New Yorker articles, but even if you've read them, the book is utterly fascinating. Gawande uses well-chosen case studies like executions, the history of hand-washing, and combat medics to make his larger points about achievement in general and the modern medical profession in particular. The book is sweeping and bold in its aim, and I can't even articulate what it's really about. Just read it.
The Universe In A Single Atom
Dalai Lama
Summary: The Dalai Lama discusses the common ground and conflicts between science and spirituality.
Review: Not the most exciting read, but it's certainly refreshing to hear a spiritual leader speak with great respect and reverence for science, and to see it as an ally and extension of his faith rather than an enemy. If you want to read about some very big questions as approached by a very wise man, check this out.
Prisoner of Trebekistan
Bob Harris
Summary: Bob Harris, comedy writer and former many-time Jeopardy! champion, writes a book about his Jeopardy! experiences and many other things.
Review: This book is a little hard to categorize. It's sort of the author's amateur investigation into how his own minds works, coupled with lots of different chunks of autobiography. Regardless, what matters is that Harris has a great voice. The book is interesting, funny, educational, and surprisingly touching. Not bad for a book that's not really about anything.
Malcolm Gladwell
Summary: Gladwell tackles the adaptive unconscious and snap judgments.
Review: This book is about three times as long as it should be. Gladwell latches onto each point and makes it over and over instead of moving on. If you can sort through the chaff, though, it's fairly interesting. Just don't expect an academic level of rigor. Plenty of conclusions are jumped to, and questionable assumptions made.
Ultramarathon Man
Dean Karnazes
Summary: Dean Karnazes, otherwise known as the guy who once ran 350 miles in one stretch and 50 marathons in 50 days, writes about his experiences as an ultramarathon runner.
Review: Karnazes isn't the best writer, but the subject matter of the book is so cool that it's easy to look past the clumsy prose. It's effortless and fun to read along as he narrates all his superhuman feats.
Why My Wife Thinks I'm An Idiot
Mike Greenberg
Summary: The memoirs of Mike Greenberg, ESPN anchor and sports talk radio host.
Review: I can't remember why I ended up reading this book. It wasn't bad, but there was nothing memorable or fresh about it either. You should probably only buy it if you're in an airport bookstore and need something to read on the plane.
Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim
David Sedaris
Summary: Another collection of essays from David Sedaris.
Review: Good, not great. Me Talk Pretty One Day is much better.
The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan
Summary: A look at how Americans create and eat their food, organized into three sections: industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer.
Review: Pollan's agenda (monocultures are bad, mass-produced meat is bad, our subsidies are bad, fast food is bad, etc.) is clear throughout, but the book is also consistently interesting and full of things you didn't know before. Pollan is a great storyteller and his closing pitch, that you should develop a closer relationship with your most basic necessity, is powerfully made. This book will change the way you look at your food for at least a week, until you revert to all your old habits.
The Know-It-All
A.J. Jacobs
Summary: A.J. Jacobs tries to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.
Review: This book is one of my favorites, which may say more about me than it does about the book. It obviously has its share of fun facts, but it's also full of very sincere, human moments. Jacobs does a beautiful job of capturing the joy of new knowledge and of tearing down the false dichotomy between knowledge and wisdom. I absolutely love this book.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
Summary: A book that covers two parallel histories: the natural history of our universe, planet, and species, and the history of scientific progress.
Review: Bryson is a great tour guide for a trip through the canon of science. Nobody can match Bryson's eye for the absurd, so he makes a great guide for a tour of everything science. This book is a favorite.
Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris
Summary: A collection of humorous essays about anything and everything.
Review: Hilarious, and difficult to put down. Highly recommended.