I was bemused recently by an article that said reading is being rediscovered. Reading has been a doorway into new ideas and other worlds for me since I was a child. Like other readers, I read for pleasure and recreation, and to gain greater understanding.
This year I realized belatedly I was reading more purposefully. It was more like, “what the heck is going on here?” I need to understand.
So many of my long-term assumptions about life no longer hold. The values that I have believed in are called into question daily. The institutions I trusted are in decline.
As this decline happens, Matthew B. Crawford writes that “commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.” (The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014)
The growing influence of consumerism and secularization and the reactions to these dynamics are both fascinating and perplexing to me. But they are shaping our evaluative outlook, like it or not. (I don’t like it.)
It was not a conscious choice to pursue this in my reading, but over time, and with the questions raised daily by our political discourse, by year’s end it had become a theme.
However, there was much more than this existential search and in the list that follows I have briefly summarized both the good and the not so good, as I see it, in a year’s journey through the printed word, including both fiction and non-fiction.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight. This is a thorough and expansive biography of Douglass. It captures both the depth of his thought and the emotional turmoil that marked his amazing life. Despite his overwhelming strength, he was an imperfect and vulnerable human being, which makes his lasting impact all the more remarkable. It seems to me there is scarcely a leap from Douglass’ powerful indictment of 19th Century racism to the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st Century. Such is his prophetic vision and the endurance of his notable life story.
Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin. This reads more like a novel than presidential history. Goodwin recounts how Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson provided crucial—sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed—leadership in times of great peril to the country. It made me nostalgic for real leaders. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward. Woodward fills in the backstories of major media coverage of the Trump administration. Thus, I didn’t find anything of compelling interest in this recounting of conversations and decisions that have already been reported daily. This narrative, laced with “f-bombs” did not appreciably help me understand the administration any more clearly than I can get by reading major newspaper or watching cable news. Non-fiction. Not recommended.
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. It’s curious to me how the savagery of war and life in the wilderness seems most truly conveyed in fiction. Frazier captures the brutality as well as the humanity of those caught up in the declining months of the Civil War. This tale of a soldier’s harrowing journey back to his love in the Blue Ridge Mountains is American literature at its best. Fiction. Recommended.
How Will Capitalism End?, Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck believes western liberal democracies based on capitalist economies are in crisis and we’re heading for a period of entropy. He projects we will be left to fend for ourselves because corporate capitalism is not only destroying itself, it’s destroying liberal democracies as well. The institutions that once restrained the excesses of capitalism are being subsumed by secular, corporate power. This academic treatise is a worrisome analysis of the current disarray across the globe as democracies struggle against authoritarianism and economic disparity. Probably the most influential book I read this year. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Working Class Rage, Tex Sample. I think this is the best of Sample’s work. He provides clarity about how resentment, powerlessness and marginality combine with racism and political manipulation to enflame the social dynamics that confront us today. He believes the antidote to resentment is local organizing that gives people voice and influence. Non-fiction. Recommended.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari. Harari is one of the most provocative thinkers writing today. He raises questions about the future that should inform public policy for the long-term. How will we manage artificial intelligence? What will we do when automation in the workplace leaves millions of us unemployable? In the age of big data, who is watching you, and why? Harari poses profound questions that we will wrestle with as the future comes roaring at us in a daily torrent of technological change. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Peter Cozzens. Even before the end of the Civil War, white people had begun to stream west invading lands ceded to native peoples and onto homelands occupied by them for ages. The conflicts have been widely documented, but Cozzens provides a comprehensive account of the treachery, savagery and inhumanity that led to the dispossession and near genocide of native peoples across the U.S. west. This makes for tragic reading. It is a history of massacres, lies, miscommunication, broken promises and suffering. In 1863, Pres. Lincoln called several chiefs into Washington, D.C. Cozzens reports he spoke condescendingly to them, advising them that their only hope for prospering was to take up farming like white people, and offering no guarantee that they would be allowed to live on the open range as they had lived for centuries. Then he sent them on their way. One Indian told a white friend, “The government made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one, they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Non-fiction. Recommended.
In Pieces, Sally Field. In an autobiography that is at times brutally honest and intimate, Sally Field tells of her ambiguous relationship with her mother, a relationship that affects virtually all others. Her roles as Gidget and the flying nun did not plumb the depths of her desire and determination to grow as an actor as the roles of Norma Raye and Mrs. Lincoln did. And in doing so, they affirmed her abilities as an actor and also put to rest some of the ambiguity between her and her mother. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking. This collection of essays by Hawking published posthumously is mind-expanding. Hawking had the ability to explain complex theories about the cosmos in language that makes them accessible to the rest of us mere mortals. This makes for stimulating, challenging thought. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Common Good, Robert Reich. The common good is rarely mentioned in political discourse today. Reich defines what he means by the common good, points out how it is disregarded by the economic and political elite, and makes a clear case for public policy and popular organizing to re-focus on the common good. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver is a national treasure. In this novel she tells the story of two families separated by a century, living in the same poorly constructed house in Vineland, N.J. She weaves themes of social change, culture, scientific inquiry and female empowerment into a compelling tale that resonates with our contemporary social reality. Fiction. Recommended.
Every Day is Extra, John Kerry. I had to make myself stay with this autobiography through the first three chapters because they present a personal history that seems to me to fit the stereotype of an East coast elitist male upbringing. But after that, the personal history comes alive with Kerry’s military service in Vietnam, his commitment to public service, his awakening to his motivations for entering into politics and his desire to make a difference in the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Proud: My Fight for An Unlikely American Dream, Ibtihaj Muhammad. To become the first female Muslim American to medal at the Olympic Games required perseverance and ambition beyond measure. The challenges and sacrifices Ms. Muhammad faced are recounted in gritty detail. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate. The story of Georgia Tann and the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home is horrific. From the 1920s until 1950, at Tann’s direction, children from poor families were abducted, often with complicit support of the police, housed in an orphanage and adopted out to wealthy families. This fictionalized recounting of one family of these children and how their lives were changed is both engaging and heart-breaking. Fiction. Recommended.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. Reading Meacham makes me think that we stand a chance of getting through the Trump years. Meacham writes that our current moment of partisan fury is not new. We have withstood deep division before, and with informed, capable leaders, have come out the other side for the better. We can hope. Non-fiction. Recommended.
War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow. Farrow lays out how the U.S. diplomatic corp has been hollowed out by budget cuts and policies that replace diplomatic efforts with generals and military response in areas of conflict, and how this decline affects global stability and safety. I resonated with his writing. In a lifetime of traveling the world documenting humanitarian assistance, refugee aid and disaster response in the non-profit sector, I became concerned about what I perceived to be a decline in U.S. diplomacy. I saw the growing influence of China as U.S. diplomatic presence declined, even after 9/11. Farrow completes this picture with anecdotes, narrative and facts. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. To undertake a biography of a polymath like Leonardo is, to me, a monumental, if not unthinkable, task. Yet Walter Isaacson has written a remarkably accessible biography that reveals Leonardo in his humanity and social reality. This is an extraordinary accomplishment about an extraordinary figure. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Married to a Bedouin, Marguerite van Geldermalsen. A young Ms. Geldermalsen, of Dutch and New Zealand extraction, was traveling with a friend through the Middle East when she met and fell in love with her future husband, Mohammad Abdullah, a Bedouin. After further travels she returned and married Mohammad and they lived most of their adult lives in caves in Petra, the Nabatean city in Jordan, which has since been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This is a revealing look at family life through the eyes of Ms. Geldermalsen, who managed with her husband to bridge two cultures, raise two sons and lead an interesting, remarkable life. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright. Having escaped Fascism in her youth, and writing from her rich global experience as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright says that Fascism started in the 20th Century with a magnetic leader exploiting widespread dissatisfaction by promising all things. As authoritarianism rears its ugly head in politics around the world, her warning is one I take seriously and one which should make each of us in democratic societies more alert and attentive to our obligations as citizens. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Forgotten Road, Richard Paul Evans. I hoped this would be a novel I would really enjoy as it involved the journey of a man searching for renewed understanding of his life by traveling route 66 in an attempt to reunite with his estranged wife. I grew up living only one block from route 66 in a small Oklahoma town and the highway holds more than a dose of romantic nostalgia for me. But this novel doesn’t cut the mustard. Fiction. Not recommended.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan. Frankopan offers a sweeping history of the world by examining trade relationships. He makes the case that the center of world power resides in what we in the global North call the Middle East. Frankopan says this crossroads of civilization has been the most influential region for the exercise of global power and influence, and if we are to understand global dynamics, we must seek to understand this part of the world. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande. As we age, how do we continue, in so far as possible, to shape the story of our lives and maintain connection to significant others? This is the central question Dr. Gawande addresses in this sensitive and insightful discussion of end of life care. This could be a depressing subject but Gawande makes it a warm and compassionate exploration about our common humanity. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Living Faith, Jimmy Carter. For President Carter, faith finds expression through compassion and justice. He is an evangelical who gives substance and depth to faith. His search to understand faith as a way of life informed by the great theologians of contemporary times is a rewarding read. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Educated, Tara Westover. Reared by a radical Mormon survivalist father and a mother compliant to his harsh, often violent, rule, it’s amazing Tara Westover escaped and developed her own independent, educated life. Without condemning her family, this first person account provides insight into a unique and horrifying upbringing, and it is a testament to the value of education. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson. This small book offers brief explanations of significant issues in cosmology in language that makes them understandable to those of us not familiar with complex scientific language. It’s just a so-so book, far less helpful, in my opinion, than Hawking’s book reviewed above. Non-fiction. Meh.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari. A look into the future that is enlightening, provocative and even frightening. For example, Harari, among other things, says “democracy and the free market will collapse once Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves, and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorihthms.” Whew! Non-fiction. Recommended.
Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig. Set in the 1950s, this is a wonderful coming of age tale about a young boy from Montana. He lives with his loving grandmother who must send him to stay with an uncle in Wisconsin as she faces surgery and cannot care for him. He travels by Greyhound bus, meets a cast of characters and has experiences that broaden the narrow horizons of his innocent, rural life. The twists and turns, deeply human characters and loving relationships in tension with tough reality make this a wonderful tale. Fiction. Recommended.
The Book That Matters Most, Ann Hood. A mysterious book from childhood becomes the object of a life-long search for meaning. Our lives are more complex than we reveal on the surface, and we choose to conceal much that is painful and troubling. The narratives we shape, and the secrets we conceal, make for a life. In this interesting novel, the twists and turns of secrets, loss, love and healing relationships make for an engaging read. Fiction. Recommended.
What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It seems there’s no neutral position regarding Mrs. Clinton. She’s either respected or hated. In this account of her campaign she explains why she followed the course she did and what it was like to run against Donald Trump. The recounting is more personal than we’ve seen in much of the coverage of her, mainly because she felt she had to protect herself from prying media. That led to a distance that has yet to be overcome. Non-fiction. Recommended.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, James Comey. By now we’ve heard the case Comey makes for his behavior during the campaign and why he acted to reveal investigations that ultimately played a role in the election of Donald Trump. I find Comey’s explanations lacking and self-serving. I don’t doubt his commitment to ethical standards, but I do question his rationale for breaking precedent and injecting himself and the FBI into the campaign in a way that influenced the election. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Faith: A Journey for All, Jimmy Carter. At 96, President Carter continues to display an openness and activism that reveals a powerful, living faith. In this volume he defines faith as “a belief in something that has always existed; it is never based on scientific discoveries, or what we learn as facts, but always on a moral concept or a vision of something superlative or idealistic.” Non-fiction. Recommended.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ Zora Neale Hurston. This work went unpublished for 80 years due to copyright complications. But it remains a compelling, important story in 2018. Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the of the last slave ship to make the transatlantic crossing to the United States. Told in Mr. Lewis’ own words, this is a powerful recounting of the inhumanity of the slave trade, an insight into the deep emotional wounds it inflicted, and a study in dispossession, alienation, and accommodation. Powerful. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Cave of Bones, Anne Hillerman. Anne Hillerman has picked up where her father left off with the tales of Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito, Navajo police officers solving crimes on the reservation in the Four Corners of the U.S. Her tales of the Southwest ring true, and offer entertaining respite from the daily grind of political rhetoric, corruption and criminal behavior inflicted upon us daily in real life. Fiction. Recommended.
A Theology for the Earth, Anne Marie Dalton. Exploring the writing of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan, this is one of the most sound, and meaty, theological studies on the environment and spirituality I’ve read lately. There is too much in this writing to crystallize in one phrase, but the discussion of immanence is especially important. Dalton writes, “The doctrine of God’s immanence maintains that God is not distant from creation, but that all creation participates somehow in the divine reality.” At a time when we hear rigid dogma presented as the content of faith, this open-ended, sacramental understanding of Creation is a corrective to non-sensical fundamentalism and sentimentalized spirituality. Non-fiction. Recommended.
A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy. A posthumous collection of letters and essays written by the southern novelist Pat Conroy. Despite his harsh childhood, he found meaning in the stories of others and made it his life’s work to draw out those stories and enlarge upon them through fiction. He reconciled with his authoritarian father and chronicled the low country culture of his native South Carolina. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer. I have a terrible deficit remembering names. It’s complicated by a medication I take. I was interested in working on mnemonics to help me remember names and avoid embarrassment and frustration. Foer explains how he became a world class competitor in USA Memory Championship competition using mnemonics. The key: to create as outlandish, and lewd, a mnemonic as possible. Enough said. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams. This is such a pleasure to read. It’s a mix of poetry, narrative, spirituality and personal reflection based on experiences at national parks across the country. Tempest Williams’ activism is a gift to us. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Faith of Dolly Parton, Dudley Delffs. Dolly is such an interesting character an in-depth biography of her life story would be an intriguing read. I hope some biographer gets beyond the managed image to the person. This is not that book. It’s a collection from second-hand sources interjected with evangelical religious reflections. Non-fiction. Don’t bother.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel. Finkel established a relationship with a true hermit who lived in the North Woods of Maine for most his adult life, scavenging for survival, sometimes terrifying local people as a result. Non-fiction. Recommended.
M Train, Patti Smith. Patti Smith is a performer, writer and visual artist. Her album Horses has been hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best 100 albums of all time. In this first person narrative she reflects on her life, in no particular timeline, but over the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences. The book offers insight into the mind of a creative multi-platform artist. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Chasing Hillary, Amy Chozick. I thought I would get a picture of the Clinton campaign from the viewpoint of this New York Times writer as she traveled in the press corps. There’s some of that, but there’s also the writer’s reflections about her tense relationship with Mrs. Clinton, reflections that, frankly, seem less informative than embarrassing. With due respect to Ms. Chozick, I had hoped for more reportage and I didn’t need the interpersonal reflections. Non-fiction. Not recommended.
Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls. This is the most informative and complete biography of Thoreau that I’ve seen. Dr. Walls presents Thoreau in a wider view than the writings for which he is known. His relationship to Emerson is threaded throughout the narrative, and his interests and activities beyond Walden are presented. It’s a worthwhile look at an iconic figure in U.S. history. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes. While doing photography at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, I picked up this volume. It earned Rhodes a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a wide-ranging account of the lives of the scientists who developed the bomb, their evolving knowledge of the atom, the political environment in which they worked, the secrecy to which they were sworn, and the isolated social setting in New Mexico where they lived. It’s a thorough, and thoroughly engaging, account of a scientific accomplishment that has changed our world forever. Non-fiction. Recommended.
Walden and Other Writings, Henry David Thoreau. I started the year re-reading Thoreau. I suppose I would have been a Transcendentalist had I lived in his times. What strikes me about the Transcendentalists is their sense of the sacredness of nature. Thoreau witnessed the full-blown industrialization of the country with skepticism if not disgust. As we face a crisis of environmental degradation today that threatens human existence on the planet, Thoreau’s view of nature seems more prescient than peculiar. Non-fiction. Recommended.
The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman. Bird brains are far more complicated than that phrase implies, according to Ackerman. Birds are intelligent creatures, some more so than others. But in this account Ackerman reports on research around the world that establishes that birds are much more intelligent than has been recognized, and they deserve our respect and appreciation. Non-fiction. Recommended.
My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South, Rick Bragg. Ever since he wrote for the New York Times, I’ve been a fan of Rick Bragg. I must confess, however, that I’ve become weary of southern males writing about their relationship to their mothers. It’s an overworked theme in country music and there’s plenty of it in this volume. I don’t mean we should disrespect our mothers, but this trope is over done. Non-fiction. Recommended.
This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, Elizabeth Warren. I know she sets conservatives’ hair on fire, but she’s bright and clear-headed about the role of government functioning on behalf of the people and contributing to a more prosperous life. Perhaps it’s because she’s so competent that she causes such a stir. And maybe that’s why she garners such a strong negative reaction from the banksters and politicians they’ve bought. She’s a threat and she perseveres. Non-fiction. Recommended.
So, that’s it. I read a few other books about birds and nature, but they are of limited interest and not reviewed here.
I’m interested in hearing from you about your most interesting reading in the year past. Feel free to share in the comments section of this post.