Wednesday, January 22, 2014

40 Years On

QOTD: Who else?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law 
Against you comin' around
You should be made 
To wear earphones

THB has been mulling. That is natural given that there was a long period where there was no baseball to watch or listen to (that’s often referred to as “winter”), and there was a long stretch of no travel (that’s often referred to as “what, are you feeling ok?”).

The mind begins to wander. And, what better to review than the last 40 years. After all, who could have planned a bookend of Nixon’s resignation and the Pope retiring?  The only president to call it quits and the first head of the RC church in 600 years to fade off into the sunset.

So, what’s been going on? Let’s just try and keep it simple: 1973 and 2013…

In 1973, THB was full of idealism: Nixon was on the ropes, the Viet Nam war might actually be coming to an end, saving the environment was a hot topic, and the boomer generation (if it was called that then) was starting to see power coming its way soon. Women were entering the workforce in big numbers, civil rights laws were enacted and being enforced, technology was becoming a bigger part of the economy. THB was pretty damn optimistic (or so it seems, looking back).

It’s 2013, and THB is now too old to be idealistic, and optimism is something better left to those who don’t want to look back. THB has decided to break this essay up into its constituent parts, and let those followers with time on their hands read and decide what to think about THB’s mental state now (it must be better, baseball is coming back!).

Nuclear Disarmament: remember getting under your desk with your butt to the windows? The good news: nothing has happened (i.e., no major explosions) in 40+ years and the imminent death of civilization from nuclear holocaust has faded, along with open air testing (at least in US). That’s not to say THB isn’t worried: Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, hijacked cobalt in Mexico…plenty to be worried about, just that the status quo appears to have been maintained. No Nukes…No Nukes…No Nukes.

The Environment: for an idealist of the 60s and 70s, this has been a disaster, and growing ever more disastrous. Global warming ain’t going to be contained, the tipping point has passed (and THB is now a total, 100% pessimist). Population has doubled in 50 years. Antibiotics in the food chain, pesticides in the ground and water, SUVs (THB is beyond understanding how his contemporaries ended up making mini-trucks the “car” to have), and, to top it off, fracking.

One example: pesticide companies are suing to protect their profits even though there is a substantial risk of their products killing off bees and eliminating a key species in the food production chain. That’s in Europe, where a ban is in place; the US has no such ban!

On other hand, air quality is better, asbestos and other cleanups have happened, and nuclear energy plants were stopped from propagating (a big win!). However, nuclear seems to be coming back (with all its huge costs and dirty fuel) because it is considered cleaner than coal even though nobody knows what to do with spent fuel rods (Yucca Mountain is not an answer unless you think abandoning Las Vegas and most of Nevada is the right thing to do, oh and teaching them how to read the signs in 10,000 years) and Fukushima and Chernobyl will never be fully contained. The oceans are being depleted of fish (THB thinks the following: humans will make anything disappear or pollute it if nobody can visibly see the damage, except in China where they can’t see the hand of the person next to them on bad air days). Or put another way: what has happened to bats, bees, frogs, pine trees, and many other species (in record numbers) that have gone or are going extinct? We’re squeezing them out.

The Optimistic View: There are billions of other planets out there and we can’t get to any of them to inoculate with our problems. Long live the Universe!

Artisan Bread: THB is ecstatic because there is so much good bread out there and the ability to make excellent bread at home is here, now, even using sea water.

Sneezing: When THB was younger and living in LA, he traveled with a giant handkerchief (aka, a diaper), since he was semi-allergic and conducive to long sneezing fits. Now, people cough and sneeze into their elbows. THB would have had to wear a long sleeve shirt all the time back in the day, and it was hot in LA!

Drugs: Hey, the mantra of the 70s was “let’s legalize drugs”. Waddaya know, it seems like some legalization is here, especially with marijuana dispensaries all over California (and other states). On the other hand:
·       The War on Drugs is unstoppable, and Homeland Security is here to make sure it is funded, big time
·       Tons of people have gone to prison for possessing or selling
small amounts of recreational drugs 
·       Disproportionate emphasis of war on drugs falls on minorities (say, 10-1 comparing those in jail, vs that over half the users are white)
·       Prison guards are now the most powerful union in California
·       Mexico is a narcocountry (along with several others) and can’t get out of the cycle of US demand and violence involved in protecting supply routes
·       Compassion for drug users is long gone, as is the sense of rehabilitation (for those that do get out of prison after long, long mandatory sentences). At least the Dutch and Canadians are trying alternatives like paying alcoholics in beer to clean city streets and parks.

The Fall of The Wall:  So, in 1989, the USSR went bankrupt, lost control of its sister states (not all control: see Ukraine and EU membership), and the Cold War came to an end: the biggest political event of the last 40 years. Billions of people now live better lives (if measured by consumption), the risk of nuclear annihilation lessened, Berlin became THB’s favorite city to visit, and even Cuba attracts tourists. And, Russia is still run by thugs (well, one gigantic thug, Putin), China is as well, and as are a number of ex-Communist countries. Better?

Food: The growth of organic has been a pleasant belated surprise. THB believes that to feed 7 billion (on its way to 10 billion) we need to have large scale industrial farming that is non-polluting. That appears to be a dream for the distant future though THB has volunteered that the Great Plains states should be divided into farms (oops, soon may be too hot there for many crops) and national parks and otherwise abandoned as political entities. Is GMO safe? We won’t know until it is too late. Here’s a stat on crop planting in US: 92 million acres of corn of various varieties and 270,000 acres of kale, cabbage and chard combined. 

Religion vs Science: one definition of wisdom is to hold two competing ideas in your head at the same time. In the years since 1973, intelligent design has been compared to the theory of evolution like they are equals (in the NYT no less, giving credence to those who don’t understand science), over and over again. We have seen recent Republican candidates for president (including the college educated nominee in 2012) profess that it is a myth that global warming is exacerbated dramatically by human industry.  And, of course, the rise of fundamentalism throughout many countries, drawing followers back into the dark ages.

THB thinks it should be Religion AND Science: have faith and understand how the universe works. Don’t confuse the two. Who knows:  there are more atheists alive now than at any other time in human history.

Peace in the Middle East: 40 years ago, there was strife in the ME and today, it is about same-same as far as Israel and its neighbors. The Big News: The Arab Spring has brought something new to the area, with social media helping to (or in process of) overthrowing dictatorships. Not necessarily a better something, it is way too early to tell.  Of course, there’s the mess in Syria.   Oh, and lest we forget, the US has troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the worst foreign policy moves in THB’s last 40 years. By far…thank YOU, George and Dick.

Growth of Technology: damn, these computers are everywhere (THB means it literally, they are every few feet, usually in someone’s palm), and just about anyone under 40 (or is 50?) has a job making technology work in everyday lives.

Steve Jobs, the man of the last 40 years? For sure, the last 10.  At least a TV still looks like a TV….oops, no it doesn’t. A radio is a radio…no, it isn’t. A book is a book…sorry, no.  A camera…nope. Send a letter? What time is it? Visit the bank? Make a payment? Read a newspaper? Watch your local news? Use a dictionary or encyclopedia? A phone…all of the above!

The Women’s Movement: Depends on who you ask? Clearly, women are pretty much pursuing just about any type of career and succeeding; going to college in greater numbers than men; serving in the military, including in combat; close to becoming president. It sure seems way better than 40 years ago.  How can Lean In be a controversial message…there appears to be confusion between the message and the messenger. The message seems obvious (to both men and women). Start practicing that “tilt” towards power.

Gay Rights: Off the charts, from deep in hiding to open in most parts of the country and in most democracies around the world (still don’t think Putin is a thug? Russia is legislating to ostracize gays).  We had gay friends in 1973. We lived in the Bay Area. We have gay married friends in 2013.  Another stat: pairs with children least likely to get divorced: gay men.

Where we live: THB has always loved big cities, and particularly the Bay Area (two baseball teams, diversity, emphasis on good food, pleasant weather, public transportation, two baseball teams). Somehow the flight to the suburbs was never quite understandable to THB, and the exurbs unfathomable. Clearly busing accelerated this trend. Remember when private schools were for the malcontents and public school was where all upper and middle class kids went?

And, it turns out the big cities are more liberal politically and socially. And, from an environmental standpoint, wayyyy better for holding down rampant use of cars. Is it too late to collapse back into tighter neighborhoods and let the exurbs return to parkland and farms? Not quite: the Great Recession has killed a lot of the overexpansion, only temporarily in THB’s view. For the ultimate disaster: visit Detroit.

Sports and TV: From zero to 60 in 40 years. Basically, for about $15/season, you can listen to any baseball game via the internet, and for $125/season, you can watch any game via the internet (with short delays for your home team games). And, it’s pretty much the same via cable/satellite: you can watch any game in any sport for not that much money. And, there are sports bars that specialize in specific sports and/or teams, so you can drink with your fellow fans while watching any event taking place anywhere on the globe. And, even talk-radio is now on TV, so guys who never in a million years were thought to be photogenic (i.e., every sports writer or radio personality) are now on TV non-stop, talking away, right next to women doing the exact same thing in tight blouses.

Space Exploration: worthless. If only the money had been spent making the earth more environmentally sustainable. Life on Mars? Give THB a break…or maybe, just maybe, 500,000 years from now, it might be meaningful? Not a chance. Not for humans (or dogs).

Medical Science: THB believes that palliative measures have been way more important/impactful than the huge investments in medical research.

Which has extended more lives: Getting people to stop smoking? Making everyone in cars wear seat belts and helmets for motorcyclists? Trying to eliminate drunk driving? Promoting how moderate eating and exercising makes you healthier? Providing everyone with clean water?  Eliminating the spread of diseases in third world countries? Getting rid of guns? (oops, THAT didn't happen!)

Or, trying to find cures for cancer? Having every hospital outfitted with the latest technology? (Anyone notice that the only sector putting up buildings during the recession: hospitals.) Finding a cure for AIDS helped dramatically (because safe sex and clean needles weren’t going to stop the disease from spreading, though they are effective measures). DNA and genetic advances have been dramatic and now THB can see the day when your identity is based on DNA verification, which will soon be instantaneously available.

THB knows someone out there will disagree. Will someone also please provide the dollars spent just on the administration of all these massive efforts that don’t seem to extend or improve quality of life?  

Affordable health care: See Medical Science above; the US has managed in 40 years to become the worst case scenario: lower life expectancies and higher costs than any other first world democracy. The single most likely reason the country will go bankrupt unless some way is found to slow and reverse the cost growth (let alone the poor performance for the price). If only we ate like they do in Greece and Greece paid taxes and worked like they do in the US…utopia?

Integration: Another “depends on who you ask” category? Better than in 1973, that’s for sure. A lot better? How tragic was busing (and the resulting flight to the suburbs) for public education, urban redevelopment (or, in many cases, teardowns without build ups), the concentration of minorities in specific neighborhoods, and the inability to improve inner-city schools. THB believes in affirmative action (it seems to work, as does Head Start), and yet it continues to be dismantled. On the positive side, nobody (only a few? some?) in many communities blink when an ethnically mixed couple shows up and for sure we have way more “hyphen” kids than ever before. Discrimination (all types) is not gone; it seems to be on the wane.

Abortion Rights: no common ground (how can there be when one side sees it as murder and the other as a woman’s right to choose). Medical advancement at keeping the premature infant alive is astounding, making the divide even larger. In the last 40 years, the Republican Party has moved from supporting choice to trying to outlaw all abortions. Another wedge issue in the red and blue states? Side note: the Catholic Church members vote with their lower birth rates in US, regardless of church dogma.

On-line games: THB does not play video games, something that did not exist 40 years ago and is now bigger than the movie industry (true?). And, in total symmetry, THB is back playing bridge, real time with real people, just like 40 years ago, this time without all the smoke in the room and a much quieter atmosphere. Oh, and with a lot of old people (day-time mid-week tends to attract a non-working crowd).

Where’s Waldo: 40 years ago, THB was married to DHB, did not have kids and lived in an apartment (well, just barely, Trestle Glen was right around the corner). Today, THB lives in a large one-room apartment (a condo loft) without kids, is married to DHB, and is pretty sure the kids are not coming back. Same-same but very different in between the bookends.

Everybody has their moment of fame: 40 years ago THB didn’t want his picture taken. Today THB not only has his picture taken, he takes (sometimes shaky, shaky) pictures and posts them for everyone to see.

Deregulation: The world is in a constant state of change, migrating along a continuum with centralization at one end and totally fragmented at the other. Much of what goes on in the business world can be captured by describing which way on the continuum there is movement. So, when Reagan brought on deregulation, what did we get: GREED! Lo and behold, the most stable form of capitalism is controlled capitalism. What you avoid: boom and bust, boom and bust. Humans gravitate towards maximizing personal gain. Hmmmm….where did THB find that nugget hiding? The last glorious example: when the financial sector grew from 10% of economy to 20% we got the Great Recession. Thank YOU, Mr. Greenspan.

Patriotism: Another evil the boomers were gonna take care of, by diminishing the emphasis on how much more important my turf is than your turf. After 9/11, you really did have to stand for the national anthem, go to the restroom during the seventh inning stretch to avoid God Bless America, and stand in line at airports. Good news: you can bring those 2.36” and shorter blades onto airplanes again, same as you could in 1973, and keep those electronic devices on during landings and takeoffs. Oh, wait: no blades, and some airlines for some e-devices.

Decision making: THB likes things that can be studied, analyzed and recommended based on facts (baseball, anyone?), and with the emotion taken out of the equation. THB does not think that has become a prevailing view in the last 40 years, based on our political process, though it could be said that the rise of science impacting humanity has been the major _____ (fill in the blank) of the last 200 years.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Book List


Note: Kindle version unless otherwise noted. Non-fiction unless (novel) is appended.


Top picks (12): THB liked these books a lot, listed in order of appeal to THB (top most favored)

The Lost, A Search For Six of the Six Million, Daniel Mendelsohn: (the following is a quote from an interview with Lee Child in the NYT Book Review section) The words “truly great book” set a very high bar, don’t they, in the context of the last couple of centuries. The Lost is nonfiction, but only incidentally. It’s a memoir, a Holocaust story, a detective story, both a rumination on and an analysis of narrative technique, a work of Old Testament and ancient Greek historiography, and a work of awful, heartbreaking, tragic suspense; a book of the decade, easily, and likely a book of the century.  

Normally, THB would make up his own tribute. However, in this case, Lee says it all, there’s nothing for THB to add.

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Audio: If the definition of wisdom is to hold two competing ideas in the mind at the same time, then Gideon has done a great job trying to make sense of his life as juxtaposed with his father’s, a gay rabbi who only came out after 20 years of marriage (and two sons).  Two of the three pilgrimages are ones that THB and DB have contemplated hiking (as you might guess, the third, in the Ukraine for ultra-orthodox Jews, did not get any consideration). Another book where THB believes that was more powerful listening to than reading.

American Icon: Alan Mullaly and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, Bryce Hoffman: Really two terrific books! First part may only really appeal to those of you that had corporate experience in the last 40 years and wondered if there was a better way through the maze. Mullaly has that better way engineered: he turned Boeing and Ford around using an engineer’s drive for data mixed with cheerfully consistent leadership and the determination to let the process work. The other terrific book is how Ford survived the Great Recession through luck, timing and leadership.

A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins (novel):  It’s a story of a late 30s guy, living in San Francisco, working on a three person project to develop a computer program that can fool a human into thinking he/she is conversing with another human. The program is based on his father’s journals. He’s already divorced when he meets a 20 year old woman, and the arc of their relationship spans the book. Much meditation on how much can we know who are parents really are, the signs (or non-signs) of romance, sex cults (ooops, is this why THB fell in love with this book?), competition among “friends,” and lots of local flavor for you Bay Areans (maybe better if you’re not a hipster?).

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Live, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo: An exploration of what you can’t see even if you have been to India many times. Takes place in the years just before and after THB visited India (that attacks on Mumbai in late 2008). Corruption is everywhere, and particularly preys on the underclass, who need all the help they can get to go along with their hopes and ambitions.

Red Plenty (novel?), Francis Spufford: a semi-fictional economic-slant of the Soviet Union from the revolution until the late 60s. Not the usual political view, much more the view of the growth of the country as an industrial power, starting way after the rest of western democracies, almost catching up before heading towards bankruptcy. Even odder, interspersed with fictional stories that help explain the way the economy functioned.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Masha Gessen: Read this one right after Red Plenty to see how thugs (and the biggest thug) have totally co-opted the Russian economy, so you can get the post fall of the wall view of life in Russia under a dictator/president. And for a bit more, here’s a NY’er profice on a journalist committed to exposing the corruption: NY'er profile of Alexey Navalny

Schroder, Amity Gage (novel): A father in an impending divorce goes on the run with his 6 year daughter, gets caught and pens an apology to his wife. It’s a story of altering your identity when young, skillfully written, and mis-identifying being a good father with being a good person.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Jay Fowler (novel): A terrific story and very much about what it means to be human and maybe slightly odd. There’s more, THB is not going to spoil it for you.

On a Farther Shore, The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, by William Souder. An odd and fascinating book. THB thinks (though he cannot remember) that the author wrote this biography of Rachel Carson in the style of Carson. A mix of the details of her life and, in fairly lengthy segments, the major stories and influences on Carson. Carson was right about so much, primarily the integration of nature and how one thing impacts the whole. Dually influenced in writing Silent Spring by radioactive fallout from the nuclear testing program and the growth of pesticides, and even starting to write about global warming (known in the late 40s and 50s), the issues she raised are still with us today. THB wonders how many remember that Carson was a best-selling author before Silent Spring, her last book.

The Pleasing Hour, Lily King (novel): truly beautifully written, the story of the year after a young woman has a child to gift to her sister and then leaves immediately after giving birth to be an au pair to a Paris family where the mother has her own strange history and the father and three children come alive as real people.

You Deserve Nothing, Alexandeer Maksik (novel): a-candle-burns-too-brightly fast read about a brilliant high school literature teacher in an international school in Paris having an affair with a junior. The teacher reminded THB of his fave high school English prof who seemingly always had college student teachers sitting in his class room. Same-same? We’ll never know…

Recommended (42): Enjoyed, listed in no particular order (well, actually the order read in)

Confessions of a Surgeon: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated, Life Behind the OR Doors, Paul Ruggieri, MD; Subtitle says it all, and pretty much essential reading for anyone a) contemplating having surgery or b) over 60

Radio Iris (novel), Anne-Marie Kinney; Everybody knows this is nowhere. Story of brother and sister barely aware of life moving in and around each of them, one passively, one aggressively going nowhere.

The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer: Much rumination upon Graham Greene (a THB fave, read the Sherry biography) and Pico’s upbringing. Maybe a bit too  much rumination on Greene and not enough on Pico’s dad, who was a philosophy prodigy and well-regarded professor.

When We Argued All Night (P.S.) (novel), Alice Mattison: Following two friends from youth to very old age through the turmoil of the McCarthy era, their family dynamics, and a focus on a child of each.

The Light Between Oceans (novel), ML Stedman: Post WWI story of an Australian couple deciding to keep a foundling and the repercussions; takes place on a small island and small town on the mainland.

The Yellow Birds (novel), Kevin Powers: A forlorn tour of Iraq for one soldier and the aftermath upon his return to the US. Written by a poet; poetic and depressing.

Capital (novel), John Lanchester: Mostly because the interacting characters for the most part live on a street that THB walked multiple times per day while staying in Wimbledon during the London Olympics, so it was like reading about your neighbors, in a catty way.

Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon: Long chapter after long chapter on children unlike their parents (e.g., transgender, deaf, prodigies,) and what that means to the family. As you proceed, your appreciation for diversity and love grow, sandwiched between Solomon’s own situation (gay, father, married, son) and appreciation.

Toby’s Room, Pat Barker (novel): Back to Barker’s early success, WWI, and the challenges faced by returnees from the war.

Perfect Chaos, Linea and Cinda Johnson: Daughter and mother relive the daughter’s bipolar late teens, alternating entries. Very real, very scary, and revealing to parents on what was going on from a perspective you can’t really understand at the time.

The Greatcoat: A Ghost Story, Helen Dunmore (novel): set in England after WWII; fast, entrancing, and yes, a ghost story that THB liked.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid (novella): An imagining of how an up and comer can feel displaced enough to return to the homeland.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson: memoir of living with a crazy, religious adopted mother (and being gay)

For Us Surrender is Out of the Question: A Story of Burma’s Never-Ending War, Mac McClelland: Detailed overview of the Karen’s fight to regain their portion of Burma as told by a volunteer to a NGO based across the border in Thailand. Highly personalized, lots of history mixed with a woman trying to mix in with the men who are fighting a long uphill battle to return to their homeland.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed, memoir. A woman tries to find herself while walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Well written, quite an adventure for an unprepared recently divorced woman hiking alone, still grieving over the death of her mother. With a happy ending.  And, if you buy the Kindle version endorsed by Oprah, you get occasional underlining and links to comments by the one and only (though it appears that Doctor Phil was not there to comment as well; darn!). Recommended (the book, not the hiking the PCT, alone or otherwise).

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Teddy Wayne (novel): A weird coming-of-age story, if you can come of age at age 11 while being a pop star. Best for the inside story of a tour and not bad for insights on a celebrity’s mother/manager, who is neither as perfect nor as bad as portrayed?

Harvest, Jim Crace (novel): Quick read on a mini-plantation going to hell before the Civil War.

The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson: An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-3 - the US Army and allies in North Africa get off to a terrible start and still roll up the Germans and Italians because of superior numbers and the tiredness of the Axis forces after several years of fighting and Montgomery’s persistence. The Day of Battle, The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44 – Another slog for the Aliies, with the Germans in begrudging retreat. The Guns at Last Light, The War in Western Europe 1944-45 Long-ish and very compelling as Eisenhower marshals the forces toward the collapse of Germany. For those that don’t remember, Montgomery is painted as a very vain British general.

The Walking, Laleh Khadivi (novel): A story of two brothers who had to flee Iran after the fall of the Shah, one of whom ends up in West LA near where THB grew up.

Falling to Earth, Kate Southwood (novel): Fascinating re-creation of a family that survives a tornado in the Midwest in 1925 when nobody around them comes through without loss, and what they have lost as well.

Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, Frank Langella: Vignettes of, yes, famous people, not all of whom are dead movie stars. Very well written, wry and making these icons seem human.

Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich (novel): Another in a growing list of catastrophe novels, playing on the fears we all hold since 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, and miscellaneous tornadoes. Told from perspective on young fearful savant that predicts the next big natural disaster. Fast, easy to read, recommended if you think it is gonna happen here soon (as opposed to: it can’t happen here anytime). This book picks up right after the end of another book (an earthquake destroys Seattle) that THB read in the last few years and cannot remember the name of the book. Is that another disaster?


I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons, audio, 18 hours. Brings a bit of background to a guy who is pretty much what he seems on stage: a sense of humor, a bit humble, always on the move, fascinated by women, philosophical, generous, distant, religious, a monk, a father, highly celebrated in his old age, not interested in money, and trying to pare life down to some sort of essence. Definitely recommended to fans, doubt non-fans will be able to sustain the effort on something of this scale.


The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen (paperback, novel): only recommended if you read/listen to I’m Your Man. It resonates with all you’ve learned about Leonard and his lyrics. Oh, and early Leonard was yearning to get laid, a lot, with many different women, just like in this novel.


Amity and Sorrow, Peggy Riley (novel): an odd little book about a mother and two daughters trying to escape a polygamist’s compound, which turns into a rather scary tale.


People Who Eat Darkness: the True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo, Richard Lloyd Parry: Insight into Japanese culture told through the tale of crime from the early 2000s, by a British journalist who was stationed in Japan at the time and had access to the family of the missing woman.


The Syrian Rebellion, Fouad Ajani: A review in brief of the last 40 years of history in Syria up to April, 2012. Not a fan of Bashar al-Assad,  if he and the Baath party are overthrown Syria will struggle mightily to reconcile the Shia, Sunni, Alawi, Kurd, and Christian communities. Mightily!


Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Resposne, Lynn Powell: Story takes place in early 2000s in the hippy town of Oberlin; a mother takes a picture of her 8 year old (among 35,000 other photos mom has taken!) and a local print lab turns her in. Told in straightforward chronological style by a neighbor who aided in mom’s defense, big issues from such a silly sense of “protection” of a kid the system was going to chew up, and even more chilling fear of  the prosecutor’s office.


Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, Neil Barofsky: The same story we all know about TARP and the other stimulus packages issued by Treasury except this time an insider confirms our belief that the banks got a sweet deal and the individuals who needed help got shafted.


Oddly Normal, John Schwartz (Audio): A compelling story told by a NY Times writer of the coming of age (and out, at 13) of his youngest son. How to tweeze apart the sense of being the other by knowing you are gay at an early age and also not quite normal from other characteristics (e.g., quick temper, bad handwriting, likes girls’ clothes and dolls,  vast vocabulary, no interest in sports). Can parents figure out what to do?


All That Is, James Salter (novel): Exquisitely written; actually the writing is way better than the plot. Follows a WWII vet through his life as an editor in New York working for small publishing house, focusing on the women in his life. 


The Lady and the Monk, Pico Iyer: from 1991, a must read if you’re going to Japan. Iyer’s story of falling in love with a Japanese woman who have “big little heart feelings”


The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, Edmund de Waal: He’s a world-class ceramicist who decides, after inheriting a collection of netsuke, to trace part of his family history from Odessa to France in the 1850s, Vienna in the late 1800s through WWII, and Tokyo from 1950s to present. It is a very powerful book; his family was wealthy, financial, and Jewish until the holocaust changed everything.


The Why of Things, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop (novel). A summer spent at a summer house with a family of now four, the 17 year old eldest daughter of three having committed suicide the prior fall. A mild coming-of-age story for the 15 year old daughter, though really more how the family deals with the healing process.


Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Another synopsis about how the US fights wars in a way that seems counterproductive to actually winning them. Good insight into the Obama years of the long-running war in US history (with almost no deaths by the fighting forces there).

Yes, Chef, Marcus Samulsson and Veronica Chambers: a memoir by a now-renowned Ethiopian-born Harlem chef who was adopted along with his older sister by a Swedish couple when he was two. Interesting on the “work hard and stay humble” level and for being black in a very white club: elite chefs.

The Last Days of Hitler, Hugh Trevor-Roper (paperback, first published in 1947): THB decided to read this one after reading the bio of Trevor-Roper (see below in Neutral Category), and it is an idiosyncratic view of the end of WWII in the bunker under the Chancellery. The fawning bumblers in all their delusions as the Russians surround Berlin as told by a historian that had access to the few that got out alive.

Brewster, Mark Slouka (novel): Almost made THB’s top-ranking; a fast coming-of-age set-in-1968-9 read with four kids who are trying to get out of high school intact. 

Give Me Everything You Have, On Being Stalked, James Lasdun: THB is actually afraid to post this positive review in case Lasdun’s stalker (“Nasreem”) decides to go after me. Stalking in the virtual world is pretty intimidating if you have a reputation and living that is dependent upon on-line reviews and an irreproachable teaching resume.

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, Douglas Smith: another in the Russian history that THB seems to gravitate towards. A look at how Russian moved from the tsars keeping the people down to how the Bolsheviks did it (and later Putin did it).

Neutral (21): Something of value, not enough to actively encourage reading (or listening)

An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Adam Sisman. A British historian from the 1930s through 200, best known for The Last Days of Hitler and then reluctantly endorsing the false Hitler Diaries.

The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andree and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration, Alec Wilkinson. When following the actual expedition, very exciting; the other 70% is ho-hum (especially if you’ve read other arctic explorations.

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater Than the People in Power, Wael Ghonim. An insider’s story of the Egyptian overthrow of Mubarak by a Google engineer who was the Facebook admin of a very impactful “page” and arrested and held for 11 days at the height of the Tahrir Square protests. A first for THB: lots and lots of Facebook pages included (and not to the advantage of the reader).

Love Bomb, Lisa Zeidner (novel):. A hostage takeover of a wedding with too many psychiatrists invited. 

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson

Swimming Home, Deborah Levy (novel). A short novel of a British family vacation with another couple at a house in the south of France where a young woman shows up, asks if she can stay with the vacationers, and things go wrong.

I, Hogarth, Michael Dean (novel). A fictionalized, eccentric tale of William Hogarth as told in the first person (i.e., a mock-autobiography). Since THB knows nothing about Hogarth, it’s hard to tell how effective this is in getting across the type of person Hogarth really was. It’s a decent fast read, mildly recommended.            

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, the story of the animals and plants that time has left behind, Richard Fortey: Corny, pedantic, formulaic, and in a strange way (if you’re compelled to re-learn about 3.5 billion years of evolution) compelling. Recommended if you want to remind yourself that something different will be on this planet a long time after humans are gone. 

The Cost of Hope, Amanda Bennett (audio): Too much more a deification of her husband of 20 years than (what THB expected) a review of the efforts and associated costs of fighting hubbie’s unusual kidney cancer.

Mary Coin, Marisa Silver (novel): Another one of those multiple stories across decades that links up to reveal something about the characters and their motivations; not enough interconnection though the individual stories to make an integrated whole while the stories themselves are well done.

The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker, Janet Groth: May be of interest for you old fans of the NY’er, or is it fans of the old NY’er?

The Burgess Boy, Elizabeth Strout (novel): better to first read Olive Kitteridge (highly recommended) or Abide By Me

A Dark Redemption, Shav Sherez: British police detective solves a crime that also involves a post-college disastrous trip to Africa with two school chums

The Son, Philipp Meyer (novel): Three intertwined stories told through the Colonel (captured by Indians in the late 1840s), his son (a rancher in early 1900s) and his great granddaughter (oil woman in the 1950s). The Colonel and great granddaughter chapters are terrific; the son’s chapters are sad and pathetic. Around 40% of the way through 840 pages, THB kept reading the two interesting characters and skimmed The Son’s.

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, Ginger Strand: more a magazine level story with a lot of rehash of old serial killers (hmmm…maybe that should move it Recommended)

The Unknowns, Gabriel Roth (novel): Bob Woodward’s son-in-law, Roth book is about a nerd who becomes wealthy in a tech buy-out, and confuses analysis of emotions with actual emotions; easy and fast read, if not particularly illuminating.

The Scientists, a Family Romance, Marco Roth (no relation to Gabriel or Bob Woodward): a memoir of Marco’s father and Marco’s coming to grips with his death by AIDS (unknown at the time due to sex with men, though there was ample evidence for everyone except Marco).

The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane (audio): A famous walker finding walks to take with other eccentric walkers (and sailors!). Very poetic (especially the chapter intros), long on lists of what is seen and the history of the various walks and short on the emotion of the walks (no catharsis for the author is related).

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Anne Applebaum: THB liked Anne’s prior book on the gulags (are they gone? Probably not, knowing our thug, Putin), and this book is quite timely given the events happening in the Ukraine, as it is focused on Poland, Hungary and Germany in the post-WWII period. History does repeat, especially when it comes to the Soviet influences. And, Anne is married to the Polish Foreign Minister (per Wikipedia).

The First Rule of Swimming, Courtney Angela Brkic (novel): The first 80% is a pretty decent novel of a family of Croatian islanders surviving WWII and the Yugoslavian break-up; the last 20% is providing a Hollywood ending.

American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop, Caroline de Marerie: Actually, unusual for THB, this is book is translated from the French (though clearly the author and her sister, who did a lot of the research, speak English). A woman of her time: married twice, once to an “embassy official” (CIA?) and then to a famous, homosexual, columnist (Joe Alsop). Intimate and eager learner with many of the people responsible for post-WWII and cold war and the Viet Nam war including JFK.


In the Something Else category (3):  

Henry V, Willy Shakespeare: Read the play and then saw a performance at Santa Cruz Shakespeare in the grove, at night. One for the guys, the women seemed indifferent to men at way, THB liked both a lot.

Lidia’s Italy in America, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich: Great, easy to find ingredients and easy to make recipes

Japan 2010, THB (semi-fictional): THB decided to re-read his own book, compiled from the e-mails and blog postings, of his and DB’s 2010 trip. It was fun to read again and see how different the trip was from 2013 version.



Not Recommended (and high likely not finished – 13):  

The Collective, Don Lee (novel)

The Forgetting Tree, Tatjana Soli (novel): mystifyingly, a truly unbelievable character shows up 30% of the way through, thus ending THB’s attempt to go further.

Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, Raymond Bonner: The point was made very early, the wrong man ends up on death row. No suspense, just incompetence and a lack of motivation for justice.

Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, Anne Enright. A memoir of delivering two children in her late 30s. Good when discussing childbirth (and how not good that is) and then turns into pablum as the kids get past the first few months. Unfinished

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Suzanne Johnson (novel): one of those “two stories decades apart, alternating chapters, some connection eventually” with  two non-compelling stories

A Map of Tulsa, Benjamin Lytal (novel): 19 year old too lost for THB to want to use a map to find him

Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr: bio of David Wojnarowicz (exactly: who?)

Submergence, J.M. Legard (novel)

The Virgins, Pamela Erens (novel): as far as THB knows they are still virgins

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain (novel): too many characters surrounding the main one, a morose gay American guy coming-of-age story set in Czechoslovakia after the fall of the wall.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt (novel): somehow, rather than read her recently released novel, THB decided to try her first highly acclaimed novel; it’s a clunker.

Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker (novel): A poet with nothing much to do

Enon, Paul Harding (novel): Don’t visit this city

THB (of course) sorted the books:

-        12 Top Picks: 6.5 fiction, 5.5 non-fiction (random, though THB does read about the same in each category)

-        42 Recommended: 18 fiction, 24 non-fiction

-        21 Neutral: 9 fiction, 12 non-fiction

-        2 Something Else: 1.5 fiction, .5 non-fiction

-        13 Not Recommended: 10 fiction, 3 non-fiction