Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015 Books

2015 Book List

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

Top picks (14): listed in order of preference
The Gardens of Kyoto, Kate Walbert (novel): Published in 2001, this book does not actually focus on the gardens of Kyoto, just the hint of them and their “true” meaning: something other than actual gardens, the ethereal representation of other worldly places. This wonderful novel makes use of the subtleties of loss, memory, misdirection and the tragedy of war to evoke emotions with simple words and events filled with brief, hesitant conversations; almost a coming of age book yet it is the emotions not events that are so gripping.   
One of Us: the Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, Asne Seierstad (translated): Chilling and suspenseful though we all know about the slaughter of teenagers on an island near Oslo. We’re all the hero of our own movie, even when it’s a horror film. Maybe more impactful because of the translation, which is direct and somehow devoid of emotion, almost clinical, even when describing emotions of those involved. Maybe that’s Norwegian-style?
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara (novel): THB has an adage for high schoolers that your college years are unduly influenced by your first year college roommate(s). Hanya has now written 700+ pages proving THB’s maxim! The book is haunting (THB had nightmares while reading the book), a tale of unbelievable child abuse of Jude (the main focus of the book), told almost matter of fact, in flashbacks, and his externally extremely “successful” life from age 16 on. And, how often do you read a book that the only characters discussing their emotions are male?
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy: a large and intimate picture of murders of and by black men in the inner city of Los Angeles. A depressing story told with compassion for the victims, their families, and the highlighted dedicated police officers who believe in finding the perpetrators.
Bettyville: A Memoir, George Hodgman: George recounts his life intermixed with a year in rural Missouri of helping his 90 year old mother who has early dementia. Their relationship strongly resonated with THB: like THB’s mother, Betty (only a few years older) was cold, lacked affection, did/did not want his help, proud and disappointed in him, hard to please, insistent. At the same time, George recounts making a life for himself in NY as an editor, a gay man in the midst of the devastation of the AIDS crisis, and his struggles with addiction.
The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own, David Carr: The 2008 autobiography of the just deceased NY Times media reporter. Novelized version of his life (i.e., the one “remembered”): a basically good guy who took a couple of wrong turns and ended up in a ditch (addiction). Reported version (i.e., a lot closer to the “truth”): a guy who saw the sign that said dangerous curves ahead and floored it, heedlessly mowing down all sorts of people at every turn.
All That is Solid Melts into Air, Darragh McKeon (novel): The early days of Chernobyl, highlighting how fear and thuggery ruled Soviet Russia, with an important essay at the back that explains the immensity of the long impact of nuclear radiation. THB was reading this book when the head of the Russian political opposition was assassinated, making it even more poignant.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard  Flanagan (novel): An Australian surgeon’s life is recounted: from humble beginnings he becomes a surgeon, survives a Japanese POW camp, mulls over the love of his life (his uncle’s young wife), all written in direct and emotion-filled prose.
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Most of you have heard of Ayaan and this book, which is a very powerful memoir. The question is: too strong on the condemnation of Islam? For THB, a focus on the issues of women in subjugation regardless of religion would have made for a more reasoned obsession, yet how can obsession be reasoned?
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Peter Pomerantsev: THB’s annual foray into the land of things Putinesque, this time how a “free” press can be used for promoting the current tsar’s vision, even making up enemies to be destroyed by Mighty Man.
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer (hardback): Another of the oldies, pub’d in 2009. If you’ve been paying attention to all these scientific studies of the brain in action and why we act the way we do (think about social interactions, what influences us), then you’ve heard pretty much every story Jonah has to tell. Even then, it’s a good group of stories well told, all in one place, and since you’ve been paying attention, you’re six years smarter now than Jonah was when he did the compilation.
The  World Before Us, Aislinn Hunter (novel): A lovely book, jogging back and forth between the 1870s and today, following the life of a 34 year old museum curator and researcher of the 1870s who had a defining moment as a 15 year old babysitter when the 5 year old she was helping watch went missing. 
The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris: A former Marine and now journalist gives a thorough history of PTSD and the current thinking on treatments. Curiously, the only med that seems to work on PSTD is propanolol, a drug that THB takes daily for helping with his essential tremors. Coincidence? Both are off-label uses.
Girl at War, Sara Novic (novel): After a 10 year old girl survives a horrific episode during the early days of the Yugoslavian civil wars, she is sent to the US to join her younger sister with adopted parents. As a young woman, after the wars have ended, she goes back to Croatia to see if she can find her godparents. 

Recommended (38): Enjoyed, listed in no particular order (well, actually mostly in the order read)

Hold the Dark, William Girardi (novel): many dead bodies in the cold of Alaska, with beautiful writing throughout
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl, Martin Windrow: Yes, a man who had an owl as a pet. Lots about owls, and much about this specific owl, from quite a few years ago.
Indonesia Etc., Exploring the Improbable Nation, Elizabeth Pisani: a pretty decent eclectic primer of the recent history and vastness of Indonesia, told from POV of a itinerant traveler island hopping.
Train to Warsaw: Gwen Edelman (novel): in the 1980s, a couple makes a short bittersweet return to their shared memories of the early days of the holocaust, in this fast/short read
The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Daniel James Brown: A heartwarming story reasonably well told about what it takes to be the member of team where every individual has to give him/herself unselfishly over to the communal goal to optimize their endeavor (what every coach/manager dreams of!).
Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes (audio book, ready be the author): Goes in the “everybody knows” category of books, with lots of historical perspective on kleptocracies. Big aha: kleptocracy incites the rise of fundamental religious uprisings.
Olivier, Philip Ziegler: A long bio of the great man of the theater, and you really get a feel for him (and most of the famous British actors of his time).
The Removers: A Memoir, Andrew Meredith: A family and Philly neighborhood dissolves amidst stories of being in a job picking up and cremating dead people before becoming a writer.
Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson: an oldie autobiography, from 1999. Prescient ant scientist was on forefront of all major (except molecular) moves in biology in the last 60 years. Still around, now focused on saving species (and environment) from extinction (THB view: nothing will work).
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast: A “graphic” (hey, lots of drawn pics) memoir of her parents, focused on end of life. Slyly extremely insightful and poignant. Obviously a fast “read” (hey, there are lots of pics).
A Deadly Wandering, a Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, Matt Richtel: An early story of driving while texting. THB strongly recommends that if you are driving alone, put your phone in the trunk. And, if you can find it, buy an analog car, not a digital one.
Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter, Maria Venegas: A modern day killer (though not for hire), who was born and lived in Mexico and spent enough time in the US that most of his kids still live In the US as citizens. Maria, one of his daughters, separated herself from her dad after he abandoned the family and 14 years later got to know him again, spent time with him in Mexico, and maybe even forgave him his thuggery.
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (novel): set 1920s England, a couple rents space in a house belonging to a widow and her 25+ daughter (who does all the housekeeping), who need income. Sparks fly! A murder occurs, and the murderers live with regret. Anguish and desire extremely well described.
Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Roberts: Long, very long, and took THB a long time to read. Enjoyable, a bit of a compendium of other views of the guy from Corsica who grew up to be a famous general, liberal Emperor, and outcast in the middle of the Atlantic.
The Marquis, Laura Auricchio: More of interest because of Napoleon, the equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet. Lafayette (De Lafayette in his own time) lived a long life, spanning the American and French Revolutions, survived both with only peripheral involvement, and maintained a lifelong jovialness that belied what was going on around him.
The Last Kings of Sark, Rosa Rankin-Gee (novel): light summer fare, done well with the usual Hollywood ending except that they don’t have bright endings for threesomes, somebody had to be left with only memories
A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter (novel): Salter died in June, 2015, and this was his breakout non-military sex-is-the-theme book, published in 1967. The main characters (she’s young, perky, willing, easily aroused and French; he’s in his mid-20s, an American, Ivy League dropout, lithe, easily aroused, no interest in working) spend 85% of the book intimately embracing in bed, on the bed, near the bed, in the car, maybe in the woods, mostly in hotels or on the way to or from hotels or long meals.
Penelope Fitzgerald, A Life, Hermione Lee: A biography of the British author (THB remembers reading only one of her books, The Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s last book, which he loved). This book would be a top pick except THB started skipping the sections where each book was dissected. Otherwise, it is a fascinating portrayal of a very interesting person who came to authorship late in life, wrote both non-fiction and novels (and book reviews, short stories, etc.), came from a very interesting family, lived in near-poverty for quite some time, and was fairly represented in this book (and had a challenging relationship with her oldest son!).
The Power of the Dog, Dan Winslow (novel): Pulp fiction based on the Mexican cartels, the CIA involvement supporting right-wing drug producing anti-communism groups in Latin American, the semi-delusional DEA zealot, the beautiful whore and a stone-cold killer with a touch of innocence.
The Cartel, Dan Winslow (novel): More killings in quantity, the vendetta between Art (DEA) and Adan (missing the accent, head of one of the cartels) continues. True? Based on truth?
The Car Thief, Theordore Weesner (novel): Weesner died this year, and this book was published in 1972 (another oldie for THB, a trend?). A very accurate portrayal of a boy coming of age in the mid 1950s in Detroit; accurate in the male sense of capturing the ambiguity of emotions, the not-belonging, and the lack of self-awareness mixed with total self-indulgence.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: The fish did not discover the ocean; a black man (journalist) writes a short, powerful “letter” to his 15 year old son describing the racial, American water they swim in.  Accept his truth: it’s his truth, not yours.
The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War, Yochi Dreazen: A story of the growing number of suicides in the military, now a top killer. Depressing as it isn’t enough to send unprepared troops off to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re also shortchanging them on treatment while in or after being in the service.
Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel: Specific stories about soldiers that suffer from PTSD and the many suicides. A companion book to The Invisible Front, though THB read them about 5 months apart. It is very, very scary what Iraq and Afghanistan vets have to face during and after.
Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (novel): A very unusual book, dealing with different versions of hiding true identities, mostly taking place in a small town in the 50s through mid 60s.
The Moor’s Account, Laila Lalami (novel): As told by a slave brought from Spain, based on factual material detailing how the Spanish explored Florida in the 1500s and went about enslaving natives.
My Life as a Foreign Country, Brian Turner: A memoir by guy who followed in his family’s history of enlisting in the military, plus he’s a poet. Another in the “why Iraq and Afghanistan were bad for all” books.
After Birth, Elisa Albert (novel): A jazzy version of what it feels like to go through a tough C-section and post-partum blues. Young women read this at your peril: you may not want to have kids or, at least, skip the first year after delivering!
Outline, Rachel Cusk (novel): A few dinners with different Greek Andres? Deep (and short) philosophical discussions with various people on a plane and in Athens. Just THB’s style!
The Man Who Couldn’t Stop OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought, David Adam. It appears everyone is a little OCD; if you have it beyond a few random obsessive thoughts, you’d know. The author, a British science journalist (and a good one!), has the illness and his version: thinking (from about age 19 on) that he’s going to get AIDS. The “solution” for him: Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Zoloft, in his early 40s. A very good summary of the history of diagnosis and treatments (amazingly, lobotomies are still a solution).
The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink (novel): The plot: young, hot woman (narrator) marries guy working on stealth health project after very short romance, moves to Europe, engages in environmental activism, husband dies. THB does not think that this accurately represents what this short book is about. There’s birding, philosophy of open marriage, female sexual expression, Germanic male heaviness, and death. Maybe this isn’t what the books is about either? It’s snazzy and engrossing.
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald: Grief after her father dies drives the author into depression and extremes including deciding to train a goshawk, all the while retelling T H White’s version from the 1930s of dismally failing to train his goshawk. Stirs up THB’s own grief of losing a parent, though actually White’s failure seemed truly tragic.
Green on Blue, Elliot Ackerman (novel): Takes place in the territory between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early days of the American involvement in Afghanistan. A young man is driven by the code of revenge for a bazaar bombing that injured his brother and ends up a soldier with a chance for revenge. Written by an experienced Iraq and Afghanistan war vet with obvious knowledge of the culture and history of the area.
Los Angeles, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham (paperback): Another golden oldie, this one from 1971. Tons of pictures, this British architecture historian covers THB’s home for his first 18 years with a very positive glow (wait, that was the smog that was so prevalent in those days).
Hold Still, A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (hardback): Interestingly, the memoir is better than the photographs, which did not reproduce well, even in a real book (and there are tons of photos, as expected from a memoir by a famous photographer). Another one of those talented people who somehow brushed up against other famous (and talented) people and had a fascinating family story (hers and her hubby’s) to tell.
The Harder They Come, T.Coraghessan Boyle (novel): Fast paced, retired parents dealing with a troubled grown son. Anger everywhere, and the regret over the inability to change the path of mental illness, big government, drug cartels in the forest, and aging. 
Aquarium, David Vann (novel): another short and fast paced story, this one from a 12 year old’s point of view, about her mother’s past and the anger that came with that past.

Neutral (11): Something of value, not enough to actively encourage reading (or listening)
The Third Plate, Field Notes on the Future of Food, Dan Barber: tedious and correct: if you wanna fix the chain, you gotta fix all parts of the chain, starting at the source.
Midnight in Europe, Alan Furst (novel): the master of “just before WWII European intrigue” novel may have hit the wall
All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld (novel): nothing happens in the present, key events are all in the past
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright: Better (and way less depressing) to read the NY’er profile of Paul Haggis. Paranoia, imprisonment, celebrities, and the cult of intimidation (even of the IRS - yep, Scientology is big and dedicated enough to intimidate the IRS, let alone members and ex-members).  Scareeeeee! And, yet, it seems like many members are helped by the psychology of improvement.
Lila, Marilynne Robinson (novel): a great writer spends far too much time in the head of one (semi-literate) character, far too much time.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (novel): Odd book: fascinating story told from many viewpoints, and takes way too long to get on with Jamaican / CIA machinations.
Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime, Scott Simon (audio): During the last weeks of his mother's life, Simon recounts the events in the hospital while they reminisced about the juicier moments of her unusual life (she was not Jewish yet had three Jewish husbands, one of whom went to jail for cooking Nixon's tax returns) near show business (first husband was a drunk comedian) while pretty much raising Scott on her own during his younger years.
Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, Phillip Gefter: Maybe not enough for a full biography, and not enough on the ravages of AIDS (both Sam and Robert died of AIDS). Lots of name dropping. Maybe better to read Just Kids and look for magazine articles on Wagstaff.
The Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist: A short book made up of short chapters on shows and philosophies behind putting on art exhibitions. Worth reading, though repetitive.
The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, William Klaber (novel): based on a true story of a woman posing as a man in the 2nd half of the 19th century, even marrying another woman. Had to be a novel, not enough is known about Ms/Mr Lobdell to make into a biography.
Medicine Walk, Richard Wagamese (novel): Just okay, the story of a boy in the midst of discovering who his parents were wove into itself a bit too much.

In the Something Else category (4):  
The Trustee’s Legal Companion, Liza Hanks and Carol Elias Zolla (niece!), in paper: Unfortunately, this book was of interest to THB, and very helpful
A Book of Walks, Bruce Bochy, in paper: Yep, by the Giants’ skipper, a short little ode to a few different walks Bruce has taken, a fundraiser for Wellstone Center, in the Redwoods near Santa Cruz.
In the Castle of My Skin by George Lemming Lesson Plans: THB downloaded the lesson plans, not realizing that they were actually lesson plans, not that the name of the book was In the Castle of My Skin and the lesson plans were there to help teach the book. OOOOPS! Then THB doubled-down and ordered the paperback: 4 point font. Not gonna happen: nothing to report!
The Defiant, M Quint (related to my bridgemate, MQ), in paper: for Young Adults, THB liked it (making him a YA?). As B. Russell said: the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.   This book skews with the doubters, who keep running into the fools and fanatics.   

Not Recommended (and high likely not finished – 19):  
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman (novel): THB inadvertently read part of this book out of order. No problema: the lead character is so amorphous that it didn’t matter: she was still uninteresting, doing uninteresting things.
Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist, Thomas Peele:  a very good story very poorly told about the Black Muslims in Oakland. THB knew a few people mentioned, not enough to save this slog.
Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson (novel): overly overwrought
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (novel): blah, blah, blah; THB has read several other books by O’Neill and enjoyed them. This one: many words going nowhere
Baseball Maverick, How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets, Steve Kettman: Too much on the Mets and not near enough on Sandy, who was the one who got Money Ball rolling for the Oakland A’s. DB’s bro, AEH, did some of the early arbitration work for the A’s and gets a nice mention, well deserved. (Note: Sandy now also a baseball genius as the Mets made it to the World Series!).
Reason In a Dark Time, Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What it Means for our Future, Dale Jamieson. A very poorly worded title and the book ain’t much better. Which struggle failed? Seems like the deniers won and everybody lost.  We’re eating our way through every possible resource. Remember, there are billions and billions of planets that at this point we have no hope of screwing up. None! The top recommendation: Leave the coal in the ground…DUH!
Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas (novel): A young swimmer cannot control his anger, ends up in jail, has his first gay lover, and then becomes an assistant to stroke-like victim. The swimming is extremely well written, the melancholy of the rest of his life is way too melancholic.
Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (novel): another book focused on characters that are alcoholic, depressed, living meaningless existences.
The Betrayers, David Bezmazgis (novel): THB must have been in another state when he read the review, because melancholic Jewish contemporaries looking back at melancholic Soviet Jewry is not his thing. 
The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, Christine Kenneally: rehashed hash? So many chapters covering previously well-covered history that THB never made it to the sub-title stuff. THB went back and looked at the review and the reviewer must have started on page 145; Kenneally’s long lost invisible cousin?
All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews (novel): Too many puny sorrows treated like major sorrows for THB.
The Visionist, Rachel Urquhart (novel): Shakers in turmoil, characters a bit too oddball for THB.
Guantanamo Diary; Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Slahi “smuggled” out his story, being involved on the US side in Afghanistan in the early 90s to being incarcerated from the early 2000s onward because he knew Bin Laden. The story goes on for far too long (he is very unlikely to have had anything to do with 9/11), as does the book.
Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, Glenn Kurtz: there are lot better versions of discovering a holocaust family history than this one, start with one of THB’s top picks from 2013, The Lost, A Search For Six of the Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (cited by Kurtz!)
Man of the Helm, Nina Stibbe (novel): from top to bottom, THB recommends Love, Nina. This book needed to get out of the head of the 10 year old narrator and into more adult thought.
The Fishermen, Chigazie Obioma (novel): THB should know better, another story as narrated by a pre-teen, set in Nigeria and loaded with fairy tales and not enough adults.
Things Invisible to See, Nancy Willard (novel): a freebie off Amazon, an oldie with too much of a touch of fantasy for THB.
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science, Alice Dreger: There should’ve been a decent to very good book here. Unfortunately, stridency, self-importance, over-justification, and killing off opponents took precedence.

Total Books:  84
The sort:
-         14 Top Picks: 6 fiction, 8 non-fiction  
-         36 Recommended: 14 fiction, 22 non-fiction
-         11 Neutral: 6 fiction, 5 non-fiction
-         4 Something Else: 1 fiction, 3 non-fiction
-         19 Not Recommended: 11 fiction, 9 non-fiction
-         38 novels, 46 non-fiction

Total books
Top Picks
Something Else
Not Recommendd
36 Total
11 Total
4 Total
19 Total
8 (+2) Total
36 Total 22/14
29 Total 12/17
2 Total  2/0
18 Total
12 Total
42 Total 24/18
21 Total 12/9
3 Total 1.5/1.5
13 Total
8 Total
26 Total
29 Total 19/15
3 Total
all N-F
11 Total
10 Total
25 Total
11 Total
7 Total
All Fiction

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