Books, 2021

tl;dr some book recommendations since the last time I did this.

I’m downstream of and benefit from a lot of good book recommendations. Passing some of them along here. (As always, I welcome book suggestions and recommendations!)

There has to be something better than Medium. Recommendations welcome in comments.

Just flat out good, clean, well-written joy

I’m late to the Robert Caro party. As the article describes it, Caro’s favorite theme is “the acquisition and use of power.”

Reading Working reminded me of the joy in watching House or BBC’s Sherlock or frankly anything where there’s one fantastically competent human being. Caro’s writing is just so well-written and well-edited. This book is “Caro’s selection of observations…on the arts of researching, interviewing and writing.”

It was a great warm-up that made The Path to Power fly by. I’d never thought about Texas hill country or LBJ a whole lot. Answering “how did LBJ amass the power needed to somehow both (1) pass the Voting Rights Act and (2) escalate the US role in the Vietnamese Civil War” starts with this book.

Fiction

I mentioned the Caro book to a friend, who told me that the assigned reading in the one Political Science class he took in college started with The Godfather (Puzo) — so I read it. The assignment makes a lot of sense.

I recommended Bottle of Lies (Eban) to a friend. Her response was “Why didn’t you tell me it’s such a cool detective story?!” I’d described it as “I never really thought about generic pharmaceuticals before, and all my feelings about our healthcare system just got worse.” Her description is better.

The Three-Body Problem (Liu) really is a great read. I don’t know what took me so long to get to it.

In the spirit of fun novels: I can’t remember who to thank for telling me about Midnight Riot (First in the Rivers of London series, by Aaronovitch) but that was fun too. While in this neighborhood, I read I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies Book 1) and a few in that series. I needed escape. This was good escape.

On the “books everyone was talking about” front, Klara and the Sun (Ishiguro) and Weir’s Project Hail Mary were both fun. I’m glad I read No One Is Talking About This (Lockwood); it did a great job capturing just how hectic and scattered life today (esp with social media) is. I hesitate to call it fun because dissociating isn’t (for me) fun.

Red Widow (Katsu) came my way via a former colleague with friends in the intelligence community — a fun spy thriller.

On the darker front: People’s Future of the United States (Anders et al). Collection of contemporary dystopian short stories. Some readers will say it’s too much, others will say that news has already outstripped it. The City in the Middle of the Night (Anders) was also dark. Glad I read it.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry (Zevin) was dark in much more mainstream, every day, hey look at that human condition, in a small town, with people struggling, and… a bookstore! I recommened it… and look at reviews and decide for yourself.

I need to finish News of the World (Jiles). It was great, and I just got overwhelemed.

Non-fiction

Freedom (Junger) really surprised me. It landed well for me and made sense. A world of pain, and quiet, and, well, you keep walking because that’s all there is to do. To me it was a book about where your brain goes when you just keep going. It reminded me, a little, of Kerouac’s On the Road; the difference is that Junger’s book had a point, some sympathetic characters, etc.

Just when you thought you’re done with the US healthcare system, along comes a book like The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town (Alexander). Small community in that part of the country that coastal elites fly over… shrinking tax base, factories closing down, drugs endemic… how does a community hospital survive? So many victims, some heroes, and the villains aren’t doing that great either.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (Bennett, Zirin) Yeah, worth reading. This book made reading Big White Ghetto (Williamson) just that much weirder.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Gottlieb). I listened to this book on a long drive. I remember the moment I shouted an expletive directed to the narrator and turned it off for some quiet drive time. There’s a lot going on here. There are a couple of threads through this book that are so well-done and worth reading.

Tangled Up in Blue (Brooks) Law school professor decides to become part time police officer in DC. I was fascinated.

I’m not a big military history person — enough really smart people I respect mentioned “The Toll Pacific Trilogy” that I went ahead and started it. Pacific Crucible is super approachable and readable. Because we know how it ended, it’s hard to really get how tenuous and awful the first year in the Pacific Theater was. Toll made it interesting. As a warm-up, I read his Six Frigates about, basically, the founding of the US Navy. It starts before the Revolutionary War and persists through the arguments about just paying off pirates in North Africa or going to war. Spoiler: a bunch of those guys from Hamilton ended up making some out of character decisions once they got in power.

I read Running For Local Office for Dummies (Gookin). It was a good overview of what’s involved.

And ending on a positive note: I make room every year to read something NASA related. This year it was Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom, Revised and Expanded (Purdue Studies in Aeronautics and Astronautics) (Leopold).

The Right Stuff portrays Gus Grissom as a bad guy. This book’s version is much more consistent with other first-person accounts of NASA and offers a very different take on what happened. Strong recommend esp for even the mildly geeky.

Book recommendations always welcome 🙏. Happy New Year!

Dean