Books I Love
The Forest Unseen
David George Haskell
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. I really loved this book.
Thank You For Your Service
A modern portrait of American soldiers' life after war. A powerhouse work of reporting on an important and undercovered issue. Go read it.
The Devil in the Grove
The story of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP, and the 1948 Groveland rape trial. King does a great job of balancing the big picture and the day-to-day in his history. Even if you don't care about the big picture, it also makes for a riveting, stranger-than-fiction courtroom drama. What a great book.
A History of Future Cities
A history of four eastern cities that rose from nothing in pursuit of Westernization and modernization: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and present-day Dubai. One of those rare works of history that really does raise important questions about the present. If you're interested in how cities are born or the social effects of trade, this is a must-read.
A book about conservation and the fraught, complex relationship between animals and humans in the modern world. This 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. This book will leave you with more questions than answers but that's kind of the point. Highly recommended.
A sweeping history of communication and information theory, from the talking drums of Africa to the modern internet. 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. Full of fascinating bits.
The Warmth of Other Suns
A history of the Great Migration of blacks from the American South to Northern and Western cities, told through first-hand accounts. This book is a masterpiece; it tells four stories in such rich detail that each could be a book on its own. Required reading for anyone seeking to better understand the history of America in the twentieth century.
Son of a Gun
Justin St. Germain
A searing memoir of violence and family in the American Southwest. 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 really wonderfully written, I can't recommend it highly enough.
The Rise of the Warrior Cop
A history and analysis of the militarization of American police. Balko pretty much invented police militarization as a beat, and he covers it like no other. The notion of a cop walking a beat and keeping order with a soft touch is dying, replaced by quasi-soldiers armed to the teeth, kicking down doors in the middle of the night. This is an important, depressing book about how that shift happened.
A history of Nixon's political career and America in the 1960's. A great book, shockingly readable for such a dense subject. Political storylines aside, this book does a better job of capturing the tensions and trends of 1960's America better than anything else I've read or seen.
People Who Eat Darkness
Richard Lloyd Parry
The story of the 2000 disappearance of a British woman in Tokyo. 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. And besides being an incredible true crime story, this book will change the way you think about Japan. Highly recommended.
A collection of Hessler's essays on life in China and relocating back to the US. I'd already read some of these pieces in the New Yorker, but they're still great. My favorite piece is one of the last, when the author leaves China after 10 years and adjusts to life in a small town in Colorado.
Detroit: An American Autopsy
Scenes from Detroit in decline, by a local reporter and native son. A very good, and very sad, book. Takes you much deeper than any of the national media coverage.
Someone Could Get Hurt
A hilarious and surprisingly touching memoir of 21st-century parenting. My only complaint was that it ended too soon.
A series of essays on the experience of modern aviation. 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 chapter in this book is riveting. Highly recommended.
About zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans. A crackling book, with a great balance of deep science and narrative pace. Great for science nerds.
A biography of James Brown. This book exceeded my expectations by a mile. Smith writes in a great, loose, sensory way that puts you right on stage with the noise and sweat and screaming fans. I really didn't understand Brown's cultural significance until this book. Highly recommended.
An assessment of the Chinese economy and its prospects for overtaking the West, told through the lens of the nascent Chinese aviation industry. This book is completely fascinating. Fallows does a great job of grounding this book in lots of detail and analysis about aviation while bringing in the larger story of China's economic rise and uncertain future.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers
A look deep inside the life of one Mumbai slum. This blew me away. It's an incredible read and Boo somehow manages to avoid turning it into poverty porn along the way. One of my favorite books in years.
Bissinger's memoir of a cross-country road trip with his mentally handicapped son. Great, raw, honest writing that put me in shoes I never expected to be in for a few hundred pages. I loved this book.
Mountains Beyond Mountains
The story of Paul Farmer, a doctor splitting his time between plush Boston hospitals and a clinic in rural Haiti. 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 a lot of notions about what should be done to lift up the developing world. 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.
Nothing To Envy
A fascinating look inside North Korea, as told by a cast of recent defectors. Anyone in the least bit interested should read this to understand just how a theocratic starvation state can continue to exist in the 21st century.
Behind the scenes at America's four major broadcast networks in the early 2000's. Carter is the master of this genre, and if you're in the least bit curious about how the business side of television, this is worth your time.
The Trouble With Testosterone
Assorted essays about primatology, biology, psychology, and hormones. Sapolsky is great at maintaining a sense of humor and a conversational style while still being quite rigorous in his thinking. Really good stuff.
The Fiddler In The Subway
A collection of Weingarten's best longform journalism for the Washington Post. At least three stories in this book are on my list of all-time favorite articles. Read it.
A travelogue of a trip through the cities and deep country of Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname. This is what a travel book should be: 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 and without any of the idiot abroad gawking that typifies the genre.
Believing Is Seeing
Case studies in the fuzziness of photographic truth. Although all the discussions in this book center around photographs, it's not really about photography, it's about epistemology, and 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 you're reconsidering everything you ever thought you knew. Highly recommended.
All about maps and the weirdos who love them. 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. This is a great book, full of humor and warmth.
The Big Year
A madcap story of three competitive birders criss-crossing North America in an effort to spot the most bird species in a calendar year. I could care less about birds but I absolutely loved this. A perfect light, inconsequential, totally engrossing adventure story.
The Corpse Had A Familiar Face
Assorted tales from 1970's and 1980's Miami by the Miami Herald police beat writer. 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.
A journalist's account of a year embedded with an army unit in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The best book I've read so far about the individual soldier's experience in modern warfare. Highly recommended, the ground-level complement to a broader view like The Forever War.
Memoirs of a fire lookout in the mountains of New Mexico. This is 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. A nice, very atmospheric book with hints of Thoreau and Muir throughout.
Life Is Meals
James and Kay Salter
A 365-day diary of short, whimsical notes on food, cooking, and dining. 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, with lots of charming surprises. Highly recommended.
The Devil's Teeth
A book about shark researchers on the Farralon Islands. 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 field research in general.
A retelling of Lincoln's assassination and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth. 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. Great for history buffs.
A day in the life of a public defender in the Bronx. Feige pretty much ignores the "day in the life" conceit and time-shifts at will, but aside from that this book is great. It walks the line between accessibility and shop talk and really does offer a window into a world most readers will never see firsthand. Highly recommended.
The War For Late Night
A behind-the-scenes account of the Leno/Conan fiasco. Really, really good, especially if you're an entertainment industry geek. I love Carter's approach. The players in the drama all feel like real characters, and there's genuine suspense even though you know the ending. Great nonfiction storytelling.
The Right Stuff
The story of the Mercury astronauts and America's post-WWII fighter jock fraternity. Wolfe's inimitable style works perfectly here. He gradually unfolds a character study of early Cold War America, and pulls it off brilliantly. Highly recommended.
And The Band Played On
An investigative journalist chronicles the early years of AIDS in America. 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 we know the outcome. I do have two complaints about this book: first, it engages in a fair bit of Monday morning quarterbacking, taking a lot of potshots years later with full information and nothing to lose. Second, I would have liked to see more than a few pages on Africa and the rest of the world beyond San Francisco and New York.
What It Takes
Richard Ben Cramer
A ridiculously detailed fly-on-the-wall account of the 1988 presidential election. 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. 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? 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.
A single-volume history of California. 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
An offbeat look at the science of manned space exploration. Maybe Roach's best work, even better than Stiff. An awesome mix of science, history, and humor.
Autobiography of an Execution
A mostly non-fiction memoir about defending death row inmates in Texas. There's good news and bad news: the good news is that this book is great. 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 kind of uneasy not knowing what was real, what was fictionalized, and what was somewhere in between.
Documenting a year behind the scenes at the busiest criminal courthouse in the US. 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.
A digressive look at wandering and exploration in the American West. 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.
A Prayer For The City
A behind-the-scenes account of Ed Rendell's first term as mayor of Philadelphia. 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 public employee unions, the media, state and federal government, job loss, white flight, and more. It's not perfect (Bissinger lays it on a bit thick sometimes), but overall I loved it.
King Of The World
A history of Muhammad Ali's early career. 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.
An American Insurrection
A detailed history of the political maneuvering and civil unrest surrounding the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. The thoroughness of Doyle's reporting is kind of mindblowing. The book is full of fascinating history about Mississippi, the postwar South generally, and the civil rights era, all alongside a gripping story of a few days when 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 and after reading this book it's hard to believe the Oxford riots aren't higher on that list.
Case studies of failure in the American criminal justice system. 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 individual human failures. Instead, she roots out the unseen structural and collective problems that set the table for those failures. Highly recommended for anyone with a healthy curiosity about criminal justice.
Born To Run
An exploration of running culture in modern America and among a rural Mexican tribe known for its running prowess. I really hate running, 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 just flat-out fun: a great story, memorable characters, exotic locales, and no small amount of suspense.
The author's undercover look at Mexican immigrants in America. 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 illegal border crossings. 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.
The author's account of his year as a guard in Sing Sing Prison. This book is outstanding. It's an evenhanded, engrossing look at crime and punishment in America, not to mention a very brave work of immersive journalism. It confounds your expectations throughout. I loved it so much that after I finished it, I immediately went out and bought Conover's other three books.
A Cold Case
The story of an unsolved double homicide case reopened 30 years later. This book wasn't quite what I expected, but it's a great piece of reportage. Gourevitch gets bonus points for his vivid portrait of street life in 1960's New York.
I'm Dying Up Here
A book about the heyday of stand-up comedy in Los Angeles in the 1970s. I loved this book. 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.
Naked In Dangerous Places
A sassy memoir about a year spent shooting an adventure travel reality show. 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.
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
50 essays, one about each state, written by a mix of novelists, journalists, and the like. This is a personal favorite. 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.
The Year of Living Biblically
The author chronicles a year spent trying to adhere to biblical rules as closely as possible. I expected this book 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.
A Fighter's Heart
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.). 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 the story.
The Big Picture: Money And Power In Hollywood
Edward Jay Epstein
A user's manual for the movie business. 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. If you're curious about how movies do or don't get made, read this.
The Stuff Of Thought
A wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between thought and language. 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 just so full of things that will make you sit up and say "huh." It's probably worth the price of admission for the chapter on swearing alone.
A look at the Supreme Court during the Clinton and Bush years. Quite good overall: well organized, well researched, well written. I was particularly fascinated by the personal profiles of the justices - it made me want to read full biographies on Thomas and Souter.
Everything you didn't realize you wanted to know about dead bodies and cadaveric research. Way cool. Roach takes you inside anatomy labs, mortuaries, crash test facilities, and more in a great discussion on the past, present, and future of what we do with the bodies we leave behind.
Gawande's first book, about the dimensions of medical fallibility. Not as good as Better, but still well 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.
The Ridiculous Race
Two comedy writers compete in an around-the-world race without using airplanes. Absolutely hilarious. Read it.
A first-hand account of the invasion of Iraq from a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the Marines' 1st Recon Battalion. 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.
In A Sunburned Country
Bryson does Australia. 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.
Friday Night Lights
Bissinger spends a year in Odessa, Texas in the late 1980's chronicling the high school football team and the town that surrounds it. 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. An outstanding piece of journalism.
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. Jennings surprises as a really sharp, funny narrator. This book is equal parts autobiography, history lesson, and trivia almanac, and has a lot more heart than you'd expect.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
A year in the life of the Baltimore police homicide unit. 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 great magazine profiles of cops. Read this book.
Born Standing Up
Steve Martin's memoirs about his childhood and comedy career. 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.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The classic sci fi comedy novel. Its fame is well deserved. Read it if you haven't.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about comic book writers in mid-20th century New York. 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.
A story about the rise and fall of Wall Street as told through the autobiography of a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers. 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.
How The Mind Works
Pinker explains the computational theory of the mind and the evolutionary underpinnings of certain human behaviors. This book is difficult to digest, and you have to read it with a lot of focus, but Pinker is able to write just accessibly enough that you can appreciate what he's saying. If you're curious about this sort of thing, this book is a great place to start.
Walk In The Woods
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. 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 really fun read, and a classic Bryson mix of sarcasm, sincerity, and historical anecdotes. 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.
The Lost Continent
After Bryson's father dies, he returns home to Iowa and borrows the family stationwagon to retrace the road trips of his childhood. 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 book made me want to jump in a car and follow in his footsteps.
A book about performance, the pursuit of perfection, and the social and personal barriers to better medical care. 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 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. This is a really ambitious book that sticks the landing.
Prisoner of Trebekistan
Bob Harris, comedy writer and former many-time Jeopardy! champion, writes a book about his Jeopardy! experiences and many other things. This book is a little hard to categorize. It's sort of the author's amateur investigation into how his own mind works. Regardless, what matters is that Harris has a great voice. The book is interesting, funny, educational, and very touching. Not bad for a book that's not really about anything.
The Omnivore's Dilemma
A look at how Americans create and eat their food, organized into three sections: industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer. 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.
A.J. Jacobs tries to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. 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.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
A book that covers two parallel histories: the natural history of our universe, planet, and species, and the history of scientific progress. Nobody can match Bryson's eye for the absurd; he makes a great tour guide for the scientific canon.