Monday, January 03, 2011

Book 'em

I didn't read much this year.

Maybe it was discovering the HBO series The Wire and watching seasons 1 to 3 in the month of November, maybe it was the Sunday nights spent watching the Walking Dead, or maybe I'm just getting lazier.

I read 45 books this year (43 actually, I haven't finished Miller's City of the Century and I only read a big chunk of Orwell's Collected Essays - the thing is about the size of a cinder block, I'll be reading it for years), which is down from my past few years of 50+ and nearly 20 fewer than my wife read.

Here's the list of what I read, as usual divided into the great, the glad I read them and the rest of 'em (sorted alphabetically, or at least attempted alphabetically).

Great Reads

Essays, George Orwell

Tremendously good stuff (and lots of it).

The Fourth Part of the World, Toby Lester
I LOVED this book. It begins with the 1901 re-discovery of a map, originally printed in 1507, which was thought lost forever. The author, in tracing the creation of that map, tells a parallel story of the evolution of european global exploration, cultural and economic development. One of the top 3 books I read this year. Such a rewarding and illuminating read.
This book is tough to describe. It's like a textbook meets business book meets monograph on two of the most unlikely industries to be profiled: computer hard drives and hydraulic excavators. Yeah, excavators. Think gigantic shovels. Admittedly, there were sections in here that made me want to throw the book against a wall, but they were far outweighed by Christensen's startling insights, thoughtful analysis and engaging conclusions. I'm not sure how or why I picked this up, but it was startlingly good. One of those books that continues to rattle around your brain pan long after you've put it down.
A great collection of essays from Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, Bill Bruford, Michael Lewis - all the heavy hitters of non-fiction essays. The final piece about the World Series of Poker, by James McManus, is an absolute page turner. I don't know how people can watch poker on TV but I could not put his essay down. Great stuff.
Riveting case studies that look at the decision making process and how it can be changed by external circumstances and stimuli. Gave me a whole new perspective on a number of cool topics from Starbucks pricing to condom usage.

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
It's hard to believe this book is now 20 years old. I read it when it first came out and it bowled me over. It was so good, the type of book you pass around to all of your pals. When I saw Tim O'Brien being interviewed about its 20th anniversary, I picked it back up and read it in one sitting. Beautiful, powerful, very touching writing based on the author's experiences in the Vietnam War. I'm not sure I'd call this fiction even though O'Brien does...
A pretty cool albeit depressing topic - cataloging some of the greatest collections of writing ever assembled and documenting how they were lost and/or destroyed.

The Wealth and Poverty of Regions: Why Cities Matter, Mario Polese
This book isn't for everyone, but if you're interested in economic development, urban planning or geography I highly recommend it. Fascinating case studies and examples of why some regions thrive and others falter, lots of Canadian examples and some very cool theories on the impact of retirees and immigrants on regions (grey & green economies, respectively). If I'd read this book 20+ years ago, I'd be in a different field or immersed in academics trying to study with Polese.

Glad I Read Them

The Architecture of Community, Leon Krier
Beautifully illustrated by the author, this is an engaging look at what makes a community. And while the emphasis is certainly on the built form and the designed space - it's just as interested in discussing how communities are formed and evolve. It's a stunningly well made book too, beautiful stock and end papers.

Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster
I was a big fan of James Wood's "How Fiction Works"and this book (a lecture delivered by Forster actually) is very much in the same vein.

The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson
From clay tablets to coinage to advanced derivatives a very crisply, plainly written book about money and monetary systems. Ferguson is tremendously skillful at making complicated and financial systems easy for laypeople to understand.

A fun quick read of former Talking Heads front man David Byrne's journals from various cycling trips around the world.

The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays, William Goldman
William Goldman has a CV I would kill for. Dude wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Princess Bride, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, and adapted All the President's Men for the screen. This book is a collection of his essays written for various magazines and all are peppered with great insights, biting wit and assertive writing.

The Big Short, Michael Lewis
If I've said it once, I've said it 100 times - Michael Lewis could re-write the phonebook and I'd read it. In the Big Short, Lewis looks at the few folks who saw the coming housing crisis in the states and made billions by shorting asset-backed sub-prime derivatives. Another solid book by one of the best writers going.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, Steve Martin
I have no idea why I picked up Steve Martin's autobiography, but I'm glad I did. I was too young to really be all that aware of him during his peak in the 1970s (I do recall him hosting the Muppets) so it was very interesting to read how his shtick emerged, evolved and exploded.

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, Nicholas Dawidoff
A true story about a back-up major league catcher who was used as a spy by the Americans in the waning days of World War II. Sadly, Berg appears to have had some mental health issues that would plague him through the second have of his life.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, Donald L. Miller
I was hoping for more insight into the planning and re-building of Chicago, but this book makes up for that lack with a density of information about all of the business, financial and cultural advances that the city of Chicago and its citizens were responsible for. I'm a big fan of Chicago and it was pretty eye opening to realize how much that city is responsible for considering it's young age.

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Ben Ratliff
One of the few music books I've read that strikes the perfect balance between explaining and illuminating the music and telling the narrative of a life. Ratliff does a great job on both counts and I found myself re-listening to old Coltrane tunes with fresh ears and a fresh appreciation for what Coltrane accomplished during his short life.

The Final Four of Everything, Mark Reiter
Took this up to the family cottage this year and it was one of those books that made the rounds. Each page offers a standard "March Madness" style 64 entry bracket on a different topic. Each topic is compiled and argued by a subject matter expert who whittles down the competition until a champion is named. The categories are a lot of fun and include best: James Bond; Celebrity Mugshots; Sitcom Moms; Film Deaths; Cheese; Bald Guys; Baseball Myths; Women's Underwear; etc. Sure to spark some interesting debates...

Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bissinger
What reads like some sort of anthropological field work meets time machine is actually journalist Bissingers' tale of one year spent in mid-Texas following a high school football team. Albeit a team that attracts 20,000 fans to a Friday night game and travels by private jet.

Green Metropolis, David Owen
Owen turns a lot of assumptions about energy consumption, pollution, and green living on their heads in this tasty book. Bit of cognitive dissonance as the author openly acknowledges not practicing what he preaches...

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer
I'm not a huge soccer fan. I played it for a decade as a kid but don't remember much my time in various leagues. I follow the World Cup every four years and for the past two have kept tabs on the ups and downs of Stoke in the EPL. But it's not a sport that permeates my daily life the way hockey does nor am I steeped in the history of the sport. Maybe that's why I dug this book, it's a great introduction. So much of it was new and fresh to me and gave me a whole new perspective on it. It's no Among the Thugs, but it's a good, quick, read.

How We Decide Jonah Lehrer
This book was alright, started off with a bang and tailed off from there. I have the feeling I've simply read too many books about the decision making process and am tired of re-reading the same studies discussed in book after book. Perhaps with fresh eyes, this would have been a better read.

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
I was surprised at how much I liked some of these essays. Not a huge fan of Chabon's fiction, but these small essays on fatherhood, children and families formed a nice collection.

Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, Nicholas Crane
Read this after reading the Toby Lester book. It's a pretty cool read for people into maps, geography and life in the 1500s, but it's a bit uneven and could use better graphics to illustrate Mercator's more important works.

Models of My Life, Herbert A. Simon
This was a really solid autobiography by one extremely smart dude.
Simon is considered by many to be the father of artificial intelligence and one of the earliest computer programmers. It was fascinating, to me, to read about a polymath like Simon who was trained in political science yet able to evolve and find success in a completely different academic field. There's an aside near the beginning about a lunch group he ate with a University of Chicago, nine of whom would go on to win Nobel Prizes. Makes me feel great that I spend my time blogging about a sad-sack hockey team and reading my Twitter feed.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, Ben Macintyre
I have given this book as a gift to a lot of guys this year. If you're looking for a father's day gift or something for your pops this is likely a good choice. It's a thorough re-telling of a WWII scam by British Intelligence to plant fake invasion plans on a corpse and float that corpse in German hands in hopes of fooling Axis forces.

Paris Underground: The Maps, Stations, and Design of the Metro, Mark Ovenden
I was working on a project this year where programmers developed smart phones to assist travelers with impairments navigate European subway systems. Paris was the first system on board. I picked this up as a bit of a lark and found myself submersed in great stories of how the subways were built, planned, designed, and the changes they've undergone in the 100+ years since. The cartography collected in this book is gorgeous.

Political Fictions, Joan Didion
One of the best essayists out there.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
I loved this movie and have seen it countless times, but I've never read the book until this year. A wonderful version of the creation and development of the American space program told in parallel to the work done by test pilots in the American Air Force. Another great pick for a dad gift.

Rural Studio, Samuel Mockbee
I had first come across the work of this school in Design Like You Give a Damn. This collection provides a much richer, more substantial and rewarding look at this unique architecture/ community development program

Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, Jane Leavy
I liked every other chapter. It might have been me, but I can't recall many books that left me almost simultaneously hooked and bored to tears.

The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater, Studs Terkel
I'm a huge fan of Studs Terkel and this was a fascinating book as I didn't know 80% of the people he interviewed. Silent film stars, classical musicians, long-forgotten authors. It's a testament to his style and intelligent questions that Terkel could make me interested in many of these folks.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley
This book would have been pumped full of life if a smart editor had excised about 30% of the content. I'm a HUGE fan of Thelonious Monk and I struggled to get to the end of this 800 page book (I just looked it up, it's only 608 but if felt like 1,300). Kelley provides way too much detail in some sections (the architect of Monk's childhood apartment, Monk's marks in grade school, the make and model of plane he flew to France). Makes for some tough going at parts. I also finished this book without much more insight in Monk as a man or as a composer/musician.

Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal
A fascinating Czech novella. While I enjoyed it, I don't think I drank in all the allegory/symbolism packed into these pages.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, Dan Ariely
Not as good as his first, but a fun read with some more cool sociological/economical/psychological test studies. Lacks the overall thematic arc that made Predictably Irrational such a great read.

Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, Donald Kladstrup
A very cool look at the French wine industry and the personalities that populated it during WWII.

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us - and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, David H. Freedman
After reading this, you'll never read a research study or "pharmacological breakthrough" in the newspaper again. I love that the author included an epigraph on why he is likely wrong too.

Not for Me
The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar
Early on in this book the author digresses into a fascinating anecdote about arranged marriages and the intriguing tidbit that they result in the same amount of happiness as those of love or romantic marriages. It touched on religion, choice, freedom and happiness and then it was left behind, unexplored. The rest of the book re-hashes the standard decision making theories found in every single book on the topic. I have the feeling there's a very good - if not great - book in here, it's a shame the author never found it

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip & Dan Heath
I don't remember much, if anything, about this book. Not a good sign considering one element was the "Velcro theory of memory management" or some such thing...

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler
I'm a sucker for books on behavioural economics and decision making theory. I've actually sought out, read and enjoyed papers and speeches by Thaler. This book should be tailor made for me, but for one problem: it was immensely boring. In trying to make their theories easy to understand, Thaler and Sunstein manage to squeeze every last bit of life out of their writing.

Playing for Pizza, John Grisham
The men on my wife's side of the family all read this book and urged me to. I wish they hadn’t.

Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life, Paul Quarrington
Man, do I feel like a schmuck for panning this one. Poor Paul Quarrington gets diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and writes a book about his final days interwoven with anecdotes about his love of music. I don't know if the book was rushed or if the editor(s) felt it was improper to, um, edit but this was a big disjointed mess of a book. Like I said, I'm a schmuck.

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, Edward Hollis
An interesting premise, 13 original essays about a range of western architectural wonders. Unfortunately, the pieces are dreadfully overwritten. If you dig architecture and really purple meandering prose, this book is for you.

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, Anthony Flint
Unfortunately Jacobs didn't transform the American City, which is characterized by many of the things she fought in New York City. She also didn't "take on" Robert Caro, nor was it just Jane Jacobs fight. I guess I thought we were past the "Great Man Theory" but the author certainly doesn't think so...


  1. You only read 45? Quit doggin' it.

  2. Less than a book a week? I'll keep my comments here as monosyllabic as possi- erm, as I can.

  3. Wow, that's an amazing pace. I'll try to grab a couple you recommended.

  4. Can't believe you didn't like Made To Stick. I thought it was a fantastic read.

  5. Chemmy - I think I read five or six in two weeks at the cottage. Would like to read more...

    DGB - I don't remember a single thing about Made to Stick. Not one thing. Not sure what's to blame: the book or me.

  6. Anonymous10:56 am

    Bill Buford, not Bruford. But I'm glad to know you're a Yes fan

  7. Anonymous11:59 am

    Is there anything more valuable to society than someone who points out typos AND makes lame prog rock jokes?