Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011: My Year in Books

Here's a look at the books I read in 2011. It's my lowest total in years, but the Palin Diaries and the Fukuyama each seemed like they were 1,000+ pages long. Great books, but tough to lug around on subways and from deck chair to deck chair at the cottage...

As usual, I've divide the list into three categories - my favourite reads, the books I'm glad I read and the ones that weren't for me. The lists are sorted in my best attempt at alphabetization.


And She Stood There Laughing, Stephen Foster

I may not know much about English football, but man, do I know what it is to cheer for a mediocre team.

This wonderful book covers a season when Stoke City Football Club was promoted to Division One. Like the Leafs, Stoke has suffered from long stretches of incompetence, misery, and failure all the while enjoying incredible fan support. One of the original football teams in the UK, they haven't won a single title since the League Cup in 1972. Unlike the Leafs, that failure has resulted in relegation to lower and lower divisions of football and some very surreal moves by owners and managers. The club's incompetence has to be read to be believed and the suffering it engenders in the author is the sort many a fan can sympathize with.

"I vividly recall, in the early 90s (when we had been dreadful, and more often pitiful, for over a decade) reading Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's chronicle of the life and sorry times of an Arsenal fan. My knee jerk response to his book was, You lucky, lucky bastard. Wrapped in my own misery, I had never considered what people who follow genuinely successful teams might be like...I had to laugh as Hornby bemoaned his lot as the seasons turned bad and the Gunners just missed out on the Championship or only came runners up in the FA Cup Final one more time...for us, a bad season involves changing managers three times, losing to Port Vale both home and away, selling our top scorer to a team worse than ourselves, getting knocked out of the FA Cup before Bonfire Night, being rolled 6-0 by Swindon Town, and finishing up relegated to Second (old Third) Division. And to add to it, the bad season is the usual season...the bad season is the state of affairs that now comes to categorize and define my use of the word normal."
Foster wrote a follow-up book about Stoke's first season in the Premiership, which I have on order and cannot wait to read. I was hoping for more titles from this charming author, but was saddened to learn he passed away in June, 2011. He was only 48.
"There is no success without failure. This is why supporters of other teams hate Man United and their 'fans'. It is not that we envy their success,it is that we despise them their ignorance of real life and its burdens."
You can find it here.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind

Last year I read Pictures at a Revolution, which looked at the five films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1968. This book is an incredible companion piece, picking up where that one left off and providing a compelling look behind the scenes of Hollywood in the 1970s. Great profiles of Scorcese, Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Beatty and many others. If you like movies, movie making, Hollywood gossip and/or great writing, this is the book for you.

You can find it here.

Evel, Leigh Montville

This, my friends, is a fantastic piece of writing. Like its subject, Montville’s prose is kinetic, exciting, and on occasion, awe inspiring. Evel Kneivel was not a nice man and this bio does a wonderful job of capturing the good and bad of Kneivel. It also offers a fascinating look at the nascent pop culture and the media of the 1960s and 70s. A great read, I highly recommend it.

You can find it here.

The Haves and the Have Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, Branko Milanovic

This is a very cool look at inequality. Milanovic, a researcher with the World Bank, assembles a series of essays that have little in common other than touching on the notions of inequality. From immigration policy to the net worth of Mr. Darcy to the cost of Anna Karenina falling in love and the payroll disparity of the teams in the English Premier League, these essays provide an illuminating look into the causes and impacts of inequality. Enjoyable and illuminating.

You can find it here.

Michael Palin, Diaries volumes I & II (1969-79, The Python Years; 1980-88 The Movie Years)

I used to keep a diary, but I have a feeling I wrote pretty much the same entry day after day. That’s not the case here, where Palin records the big and small events of his fascinating life. I thought the big draw would be seeing the creative process behind the making of Monty Python, but the big takeaways for me were:
  1. How much culture Palin ingests. He is always reading a book, at a play, watching a movie, seeing a band, and on and on. A cultural life to envy.
  2. Palin’s wonderful combination of sharp insight yet kindness as a critic. He has so many informed opinions on politics, art, writing, etc. but he expresses them wonderfully and without malice (a lesson I should learn).
  3. The importance of his family. In volume I, his father’s health deteriorates, in Vol. II his sister struggles with mental illness. I often found these sections more riveting than the inside look at film making and celebrity
At about 2,000 pages, there’ s a lot of wonderful stuff captured here and, for me, it was very rewarding reading.

You can find the Palin Diaries here.

The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

You could buy this one for the pictures alone, but it’s the inside baseball that makes it such a great read. From the bad original script to the mis-adventures of filming Hoth in Finland Norway it’s amazing that this film was made at all. Lots of great insight into Carrie Fisher’s lifestyle, Harrison Ford’s cantankerous nature, Lucas’ financial troubles, an ever evolving script that was based primarily on paintings (I’m not making this up) and a few scenes that were assembled on set by the actors and directors. (Oh, and an attack on the Hoth Base by Wompas that they couldn’t pull off and had to cut from the film). If you’re a fan of Star Wars this book is worth tracking down.

You can find it here.

The Master Switch, Tim Wu

An engaging look at how our major communication systems were created, how they grew and how a few companies have come to control them. Wu looks at radio, movies and the telephone to see what lessons we can learn and what the future might hold for the world of the Internet. It’s amazing how much all of these sectors have in common and it’s staggering how many technological advances were buried due to greed and/or stupidity. The story of the man who invented FM radio is crushing.

You can find it here.

The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama

This is one dense tome of a book. Fukuyama goes back to the dawn of man in an effort to explain and understand political systems and political order. The big questions he tries to address are how do we create stable, representative societies and how do we sustain them? Despite giving me horrible flashbacks to my political philosophy courses in undergrad (Fukuyama’s takedown of Rosseau is fantastic) I loved the polymath approach to these basic questions and the complex answers that followed.

You can find it here.

Glad I Read Them

And So it Goes...Kurt Vonnegut: A Life - Charles Shields

Still in the midst of reading this one. It's very well researched and well written. Sometimes I wish I wouldn't read bios about artists I enjoy, Vonnegut is not the nicest guy or the best father. Always a bit of a disappointment when people who's work you admire turn out to be less than perfect, but as I said to someone complaining about Hitchens, if we expected authors to pass some sort of character test we'd all be left with nothing but colouring books to read.

The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, Roberta Brandes Gratz

Maybe I’ve just read too many versions of this story, but this account didn’t add much to the account of the urban planning battles of New York. Brandes Gratz has had some terrific articles in the Atlantic and at Planetizen, but this account of an oft-told tale just didn’t have the oomph I was hoping for.

Bill Peet an Autobiography, Bill Peet

When I was a kid, I loved the books of Bill Peet. My mum still has my boyhood copy of Chester the Worldly Pig and a few times a year I read it to my kids. About a year ago, I was watching 101 Dalmatians and I saw Bill Peet’s name in the credits. I wondered if it was the same guy and, in doing a quick search, found out he had written an autobiography. Well, in the spirit of Bill Peet, he didn’t just write a simple biography, he illustrated it too. Peet led a fascinating life, a depression era kid who found his way into the Disney factory system and managed to climb up and out to have a lead hand in Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians, and very successful career as children’s book author.

Call for the Dead, John Le Carré

I have no idea why I’ve waited so long to finally read Le Carré. I’ve watched the film adaptations, given his books as gifts, and been surrounded by people who are all big fans, yet I’ve never cracked one open. I’m glad I did. This is a well told, concise little book that has just enough going on below the surface to keep it humming. I’m looking forward to reading more Le Carré titles in 2012.

Cartographies of Time, Anthony Grafton

A pretty comprehensive collection of graphic representations of timelines – the graphic visualization of time. One HUGE complaint I had with this graphically gorgeous book – the layout was awful. The text almost always referred to images on previous or upcoming pages, causing the reader to constantly be out of sync with what they’re looking at. It’s a shame because this is one gorgeous book on a very cool topic.

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe

A bit uneven, but a fun read. The best parts were the early history of Western arrivals in China and the detailed re-telling of Nixon’s trip to China, complete with televised meals and advance men making the Whitehouse staff practice eating with chop sticks.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

What a great concept for a book. Get two acclaimed professionals to sit down to talk, debate and discuss their work and print up the transcripts. I preferred the Murch content to that of Michael Ondaatje, but it’s a great read.

Everything is Obvious – Once you Know the Answer, Dunan Watts

A very fun read that takes on “common sense” and explores why using past outcomes often leads to poor predictions about the future.

Fire Season, Philip Connors

Some nice writing by a member of the US Park Service who spends his Spring, Summer and Fall perched in a fire lookout high up in the hills of New Mexico. If you like Norman Mclean you might dig this.

Fooling Some of the People All of the Time,

An inside look at the equity markets, specifically how firms make money shorting companies. In this particular tale, we follow two companies – the firm that’s being shorted and the firm that’s doing the shorting and their struggles as they both try to out maneuver one-another. As someone who works outside of the regulatory and financial sectors, it’s amazing to me how much leeway companies have in reporting their financial statements. As someone who works in communications, I was constantly fascinated by the relativistic approach to the “truth.” It’s a fun read on a rather esoteric subject.

Future Babble, Dan Gardner

My big take away from this: don’t try to predict the future and don’t believe those who do. Gardner looks at an exhaustive list of predictions from all sorts of experts across a myriad of fields and finds out the one thing they have in common is that when it comes to predicting the future, they’re almost always wrong. Why is it that experts rarely outperform the proverbial dart throwing chimp? It turns out most challenges are far more complex systems, with many more variables, than we initially believe.

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, Matt Taibi

Taibi is at his best when he’s disassembling a cause or an icon, usually with extreme vigor. His polemical style isn’t for everyone, but when he’s on his game there are few writers with as much energy and insight. I liked Griftopia a great deal, it’s a fresh and interesting take on an oft-discussed over-analyzed topic – the financial meltdown of 2008. His reporting on municipal debt issues (I often link to Chicago selling off their parking metres) and his final chapter on Goldman Sachs are must reads.

The Jazz Tradition, Martin T. Williams

Williams presents a series of compelling essays about an interesting assortment of jazz players from the early days to the 1980s. I was surprised at a few of the names he picked and completely ignorant about a few others. The best part might be Williams’ unique voice. He combines a scholarly approach with a great use of the vernacular and the occasional sting of a poison pen. Williams has a very sharp wit and a very keen ear. He’s not a man I’d want to debate.

Lego: A Love Story, Jonathan Bender

A 30-something journalist re-discovers his boyhood love of Lego. Wish I’d thought of this book first, as the author gets to go behind the scenes at Lego headquarters in Denmark, to all sorts of Lego conventions, galleries and museums. The book offers a nice look at the toy, the company and the culture.

Liar’s autobiography, Volume IV – Graham Chapman

A bit too uneven to make the best of section, but a fantastic read nonetheless. Chapman led a fascinating life from his training as a physician, to his horrific troubles with alcohol, to coming out in the 1970s (John Cleese’s reaction is something else) to his pivotal role in Monty Python. All of this is very well told. His story of a trip to a Hong Kong massage parlor made me laugh out loud and has stayed with me ever since (it put a smile on my face just thinking about it).

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

More great insights on decision making theory, cognitive dissonance, cognitive biases, rationalization, irrational behavior and the issues and challenges of perception. A fun read with plenty of great examples.

The Most Human Human, Brian Christian

I first read this as a great magazine article on participating in the annual Turing Test. The book length treatment has fascinating asides on language, communication theory, the psychology and physiology of arguments (don’t argue in a luxury car, the smooth, sealed compartment offers no distractions to end an argument and no means of escape). If you’re curious about language, thought and technology, this is a wonderful read.

Punching Out, Paul Clemens

About 15 or 20 years ago, I read a book called Rivethead that described life inside one of Detroit’s countless automobile plants. This year, I read Punching Out, which describes the life inside one of Detroit’s countless empty automobile plants as it’s being disassembled into parts to be sold off to working plants in South America or to local scrap yards. These two titles provide a pretty tidy summation, and symbolic book ends, on the fate of the manufacturing sector in North America. This book is a worthwhile read.

Seamanship, Adam Nicolson

I don’t know about you, but I often daydream of buying a sea worthy ship and just taking off. (Living about one kilometer from Lake Ontario and countless yacht clubs, I also think this has to be one of the best Zombie Apocolypse survival strategies, but I digress...) This book tracks Nicholson as he returns to an earlier passion of sailing. Nicholson enlists the help of a friend, buys a larger boat, "The Auk" and writes of his journeys and trips around the coast of the UK. A great little book in that some parts made me envy his lifestyle while others made me think you’d be mad to ever get in a small ship and head out to sea.

Scorecasting, L. Jon Wertheim and Tobias J. Moskowitz

Given my love of sports writing, statistics and authors that do both well, this seemed like a book for me. I wanted to like this book more than I did, but it’s a bit hit and miss. The chapter on MLB umps, strike zones and the influence of the count was tremendous. The chapter on officiating was a big disappointment.

Stroll, Shawn Micallef

What a great book. Each chapter offers a stroll through a different part of Toronto with insights into the history, architecture and evolution of the neighbourhood. It also captures what I like best about Toronto – that it’s a walkable city made up of very different neighbourhoods and dozens of cultures. It’s also great to find a book about Toronto that goes into the neighbourhoods that we often just drive past or consider part of the concrete sprawl surrounding the ‘cool parts’ of town.

Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlife, David Eagleman

I read a very cool article about Eagleman and his research into time. In essence, why is it when bad things happen, time seems to stretch out and take forever to pass? That article, which can be read here (and it’s really worth a read) led me to this slim book – forty short stories on what the afterlife might be like. Given his research area, one would have to think this is a bit of a nod to Einstein’s Dreams, but that’s certainly not a complaint. This Forty stories all offer an off-beat, yet often fascinating, take on what might await us in the hereafter – whether it’s a bureaucratic waiting room, a disengaged supreme being, or a shot at reincarnation where you want to make sure you don’t move down the evolutionary food chain. Quite enjoyed this.

Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, Leigh Montville

A pretty solid bio. I’m not a fan of the BoSox or of Ted Williams, but Montville offers up a pretty compelling take on Williams’ life. Those who pine for the golden age of sports media should read this book to get a withering perspective on the sportswriters of the day.

Tender, Volume II – Nigel Slater

Slater is one of my favourite food writers. I love his columns in the Guardian and the Observer food monthly is always a great read. In Tender, we follow Slater’s big plans for converting the back lot of his London townhome into a vegetable patch and the recipes that follow. Great reading, great pictures and the recipes are solid too.

A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, William Manchester

My total knowledge of medieval times is that it's likely a good place for young kids to have a birthday or for 20 somethings to go on an ironic bender. Ok, I kid. But I didn't know much about this time period until a client loaned me this book. It's a pretty good read about an absolutely unbelievable time period. Mass be-headings, tortures, very relaxed social and sexual mores...not quite what I was expecting to read about (and not quite sure what it says about the fine person who loaned it to me).

What if? Volume 1

I wrote a magazine article earlier this year where I aped the style of the great Marvel comics What if? series. Then I went out and picked up volume 1 to read with my son. The series isn’t as good as I remember it (Hulk vs. Wolverine was one of the most debated topics during my tween years) and it’s difficult to read out loud to a kid, but it’s a pretty cool premise and a few of the stories held up.

Zombies Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt

Highly uneven. Some essays in here are fantastic, others are not so great. Would have liked to see more content like his fantastic essay in Wired Magazine.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead

One of the reasons I so rarely read fiction is the challenge of finding a novel with an authentic voice. So often, mid-paragraph, characters think, say or feel things that are wholly outside of their experience, vocabulary and / or character. Now, I know these characters don’t really exist, that they are all the creation of the author, but the best authors (and the best stories) make us forget about this duality. The best authors (and the best stories) have an authenticity of voice. Maybe I’m uptight, maybe I expect too much, but each time the author’s voice steps too far into the story I want to walk away from what I’m reading.

This is the central dilemma of Zone One. Colson Whitehead tells a great zombie story, unfortunately his literary voice all too often gets in the way. By the mid-way point of the novel I’d find myself skimming his long paragraphs of literary prose. Sure it’s well written, beautiful language, but it often seemed to be there because the author liked it - a big glowing beacon proclaiming “LITERATURE ALERT!”

I mean, when the central character is a nondescript, suburban kid who’s made every effort in life to be that C+, indescribably middle of the road invisible person, maybe he shouldn’t use the word lachrymose. Maybe the text shouldn’t go on about languages and codes like a semiotics student rhapsodizing Pynchon.

I did finish the book and I did love the central story, but I didn’t love the literary aspirations and I didn’t need them either.

(**SPOILER ALERT** **SPOILER ALERT** I want Mythbusters to do an experiment to see if a mash of human bodies really could bring down a large perimeter security fence. I have my doubts. Also, how is it the survivors figured out serious supply chain issues and could manufacture high tech armored clothing, not to mention "food tubes", but they couldn’t find out the source of, nor eliminate, an additional wave of zombies? **SPOILER ALERT** **SPOILER ALERT**)

Books That Weren't For Me

Guns, Germs and Steel
I'm surprised humour wasn't the fifth word in the title. I got the feeling the slightest hint of it would kill the author.

Six memos for the next millennium, Italo Calvino
Meh. I don't know why I ever try to read Calvino. Not my cup.

Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser

Pumped with factoids but lacking narrative structure/focus.

Winter, Adam Gopnik
Lots of good stuff here, unfortunately it's so wordy that large portions of it read as though Gopnik is leading a parliamentary filibuster rather than writing a book.


  1. I love these posts. Pre-holiday timing much appreciated!

  2. Seconded -- nice list. Thanks for the reminder to pick up the Milanovic book. Though the Star Wars nerd in me wants to point out that the Hoth scenes were filmed in Norway, not Finland.

  3. Blayne - thanks for the kind correction on the location of the Hoth set. That book on Empire is loaded with goodies. You should really check it out.

  4. Paul Steckley5:13 pm

    You can see the Wampa (not Wompa) base-attack scene as part of the extras on the Blu-Ray set. Let's just say it was best left on the cutting room floor.

  5. It's a pity for me that I didn't read many books as I expected last year. I could be better.

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