Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Books Read in 2015

No fiction on this year's list of 40-odd books read (well, one novel that I didn't like and didn't finish, and two cartoon strips). 

As usual, I've divided the list into my favourites, the ones I'm glad I read, and the few that just weren't for me. Tried to keep it chronological within each section...

The Best
I was fortunate to see Claudia Rankine speak on a panel with David Simon and Ta-Nehisi Coates this fall about race and violence in America. Upon returning to Toronto I immediately ordered her book. Like the panel, it did not disappoint. I’m not smart enough or articulate enough to do this book justice. It’s partially a catalogue of brilliantly captured racial inequities and injustices, part prose poem, part brilliant sports writing, part anger and eloquence -- it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  The last sentence on the final page of the book should be followed by a mic drop. BOOM. The type of writing you feel in your chest.
Two books in one – the front end is an outstanding essay, written in simple plain language, addressing the many of us who just sorta-kinda understand the economy and fiscal policy, explaining why knowing the language of money matters. The second half is a brilliantly written glossary of financial terms that combines the technical with the very funny (might be the only serious financial book that includes Wu Tang references). Also introduced me to the story of the man who tried to corner the global chocolate market, of course nicknamed Chocfinger like a Bond villain.
A selection of great essays touching on heavy topics including a sibling’s suicide, his increasingly distant father, a trip to a Russian orphanage. D’Ambrosio’s approach is very journalistic but the writing is coiled and powerful. He has a wonderful gift for observing not just people and place, but also language. The media appear in several pieces and his observations about their craft are incisive, and if it weren’t for his kindness/empathy, they would be even more eviscerating. A wonderful collection of great writing.
“His wife seemed kind and sweet and obsequious, with a soft chin that marred her real chance at beauty. Every time I looked at her face I felt lost. She had that bright-eyed, very dull niceness well-meaning people often have that strikes you as full of shit until you realize there’s nothing behind it. It’s real.”

I’m a bit of a news junkie but that addiction has been waning. I “read” at least two papers a day, but that often amounts to little more than a scan of the headlines. On average, I read maybe one full print story or column each. I’ve even cancelled the weekend papers, which were little more than blue box filler. This book provides an excellent examination of many of the shortcomings I’m experiencing with the news -  its propensity for easy targets, it’s failures to examine larger issues or provide adequate context. I found it to be a very thoughtful examination of the news media and it put into words a lot of what I’ve been feeling, and why I’m falling out of my news habit.
This is one depressingly good read. Putnam looks at trends in American society from the 1950s to the present and sees an increasingly divergent, bifurcated society. His home town in Ohio is the point from which he launches a thorough and engaging examination of education, mentoring, wages, employment, sports, the church etc. detailing how class/ socioeconomic advantages accrue from the earliest days. One of his interesting findings is that many of the societal structures, rather than leveling the playing field, are exacerbating an ever wider gap – it’s not just that the wealthy and well educated have their advantages it’s that these advantages are ever wider and growing. A terrific, yet sadly terrifying, read.
I love Twitter. I use it like a news ticker. It’s perfect for identifying great writing, interesting articles and essays. It creates a great communal experience around sports, and it opens me to new perspectives and experiences. The one downside is the hive mind - the mean spirited negativity, cruelty and piling on that often occurs when someone makes a mistake (or is just misinterpreted). Ronson’s book has several case studies of just that - people who have made public mistakes and have been publicly shamed, some excessively so. Like his other work, it’s sharply observed, clever and often very funny. It also changed how I try to behave online.

Packer tells the story of modern America, and where it might be headed, by interweaving the stories of several Americans: a Washington insider with connections to Joe Biden; a rust belt factory worker; a tobacco farmer trying to reinvent himself in the age of entrepreneurism; a reporter in Florida; and a silicon valley billionaire. Long form journalism at its finest.

Glad I read them

Vowell travels the US visiting the sites of various infamous assassinations. Like a very funny, well-researched, geeky, history paper.

An almost hard-to-believe account of a Scandinavian man who converted to Islam and ended up in the inner circle of Al Qaeda. Incredible, and often unflattering, behind the scenes looks at the intelligence communities of the US, UK and Denmark. This almost reads more like a Tom Clancy novel than the real life spy craft it actually is. Likely the perfect Christmas gift for your dad/ father in-law.

I nearly abandoned this book, but I’m glad I stayed with it. It’s a terrific look at the life (double life, triple life) of British Spy Kim Philby from his rise to his final days.

I was a giant fan of the Smiths back in high school. Was fortunate to see them on the Queen is Dead Tour and still am a fan. I quite liked the autobiography, Morrissey is a gifted long from writer. The front third, detailing his upbringing and influences, is especially good. The book lags a bit, and is far too detailed, on the lawsuit that emerged after the break up of The Smiths. Worth a read if you’re a fan.

The Songs that Saved Your Life is a chronological look at how each of the Smiths singles came to be. I read it alongside the Morrissey autobiography and really enjoyed how they complimented each other.

A rather sprawling critical history of film.  It’s a very fun read, great in short bursts. I felt as though I always wanted a second screen with youtube so I could have a quick look at so many of the films he was discussing.

A look at how big data and algorithms affect our lives (much of which goes on unseen and unacknowledged). Quite liked the lessons learned from health data and how they could be applied across other sectors. Some startling revelations and insights into financial irregularities too - I read most of the chapter on the Wall Street shenanigans aloud to my wife (which I'm not sure she enjoyed as much as I did).

This book is like a counterpoint to Chris Anderson’s very engaging Long Tail theory. It posits that the surest way for businesses to succeed - whether in sport, music, movies or literature - is to agglomerate superstars. There’s some compelling stuff here, but for every success story in the book, my contrarian brain served up just as many superstar failures.

A collection of short essays by Hornby on movies, books, writers, music and TV.  Read it on a cross country flight, a great book to take on a trip - smart writing on fluffy topics.

A troubling juxtaposition on the gross inequities of inner-city policing compared to how the justice system handles white collar crime. A bit sloppy, somewhat repetitive but nicely bellicose too (Taibbi is at his best when he’s almost at screed level). Very eye opening, I'm glad to have read it.

Had no idea Wallace Shawn was the son of William Shawn, long time editor of the New Yorker; had no idea he was also a playwright and essayist (I knew him only as an actor). This collection of essays is spotty - it has a few outstanding entries and a few that read like a first year student coming to terms with liberalism.

Almost a pre-history of what we now call hacking. The story of people who discovered and exploited flaws and loopholes in the early phone system and the authorities' efforts to catch them. The most remarkable part of this book is likely how the judicial system restrained large corporations from chasing individuals and amassing huge data sets. Seems unimaginable now...

This was one of several Calvin and Hobbes books I revisited with my kids this year. Waterson is the subject of a very thoughtful introductory essay and interview timed for an exhibition of his work at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. To my mind, no one has captured childhood like Waterson.

Podhoretz is no longer friends with some big names - Mailer, the Trillings, Ginsberg and more...this is his account of how those relationships ended (badly). From a bygone era when ideas really seemed to matter.

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is one of my favourite books. Picked this up to get a better insight into that period of Orwell’s life. Thorough doesn’t begin to describe this biography - exhaustive is likely the better word.
A deep dive into the world of Scientology. There were many times that I had to put this book down and mutter something along the lines of “Really?!?” or “Come on!” or “What the f*#%k?” Not many books leave me speechless, but this one did.

My first computer was a Commodore and I remember it well. In late grade school, I upgraded to an Atari 800xl with a hard drive (felt like going from the stone age to the modern era). I spent too many weekends coding in computer programs line by line from various magazines in hopes of getting a simple game to work (they rarely did, you often had to wait a month for the magazine to run corrections). This book brought back incredible memories of those times as it detailed the emergence of the home computer and the wealth of industries that sprung up in its wake. I especially enjoyed the section on Sierra On-Line. A very fun read, highly recommend it.

The opening section of this book might be the best thing I read this year. Interviews with all of the progenitors of heavy metal - Ronnie James Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Joe Elliot, Lemmy, Rob Halford, Penelope Spheeris. They are so candid, unguarded and funny - it’s an amazing look at the birth of a cultural phenomenon.  The middle section moved into an era of music that I’m far less familiar with (Megadeth, etc.) and the book lost some of it’s magic for me. A very fun read. I’d love to read a similar book on punk, new wave, grunge, etc.

Colson Whitehead’s write up of his experience playing in the World Series of Poker. A big chunk of this appeared on Grantland.

I’m a bit of a map/ globe geek. This book was a fun read - each chapter was a different take on maps and cartography, some of which dealt with the practical others with the hypothetical.  I quite liked the section on video game maps and mapping.

Picked this up as it won a Sports Book of the Year award and had been cycling a lot with my son. The biography of an East German competitive cyclist and how he ultimately defected to the West.

Another book of two halves. The first, an open letter to Auster’s younger self, is tremendous. A beautiful piece of writing that made me think of my childhood and made me fret and wonder about my kids. The second half deals with his later years and he spends far too much time recounting the plots of a few films in extreme detail - a very odd choice given the strength of writing in the book up until then.

I really enjoyed this book even though I only agreed with about half of it. Very well researched, well written, and timely - it looks at what the increase in automation - e.g. self driving cars and trucks - could mean for our economy and our society. I’m more of a glass is half-full kinda guy, and Ford’s outlook is much more gloomy.

Adam Nicolson’s dad bought a large Island off the coast of Scotland. Nicolson inherited it when he was 18 and his son will inherit it from him when he turns 18. This book is a loving history of this all but barren island and what it has meant to Nicolson’s family and the others that once lived there. An excellent book.

Who knew that a few Swedes have written and produced countless big hits in the last 20 years. I saw the Sign, ...One More Time, Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), Since U Been Gone, I kissed a Girl, One More Night, I Want it That Way, Teenage Dream, Bad Blood, Shake it Off. Top 10 hits for Pink, the Weekend, Ellie Goulding, Christina Aguillera, Shakira, Ariana Grande, Avrial Lavigne, Taylor Swift and Adele. One producer in particular, Max Martin, has sold over 135 million singles. This book is their story. It’s all six degrees of separation and a whole lot of “Wow, I had no idea…”

I love this long-running cartoon series. Even better in book form.

Not for Me

I wanted to like this book more than I did. An unbelievable true story of a back-up goalie who defects from Transylvania to Hungary and takes up a much celebrated life of crime.  It has all the elements of what should be a very fun book (heck, a movie!) but it just didn’t come together for me.

It takes a special skill to take two controversial polarizing figures like Bush and Cheney and write an absolutely boring book about them, somehow Baker managed it. A somnolent read about what should be a very hot topic.

The title is the best part. Might be the only decent part.  I made it maybe 20 pages. Sophomorically bad. My kids could write a more nuanced informed book on the Wall Street melt down of 2008.

I’ve been reading a lot about Chesterton so I decided to read Chesterton. I did not like the Chesterton I tried to read. The text has not aged well and I’m not so good with the fiction...
I like McArdle’s work with the Atlantic and I still like her work with Bloomberg but I did not like this book. It was like it missed the middle step in the failure to success transition. Yes, people fail in all manner of ways and yes, many learn from it and bounce back but in this book the failures and the later successes received far more attention that what it took to transition from failure to success. It’s that transition that I was interested in and it's what I wanted to read about.

Previous lists of books ready by year can be found here:

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