Book Highlights, Lowlights, and the Dud of 2016

2016 was a good year for the bookshelf and, increasingly, earbud. I still have difficulties with fiction on Audible or Overdrive — sometimes I want to pause or flip back a page or two which isn’t convenient. For self-help books (not covered below), perhaps its even ideal. What non-fiction loses when listened to in note-taking ease it gains in immersion.

Most of my highlights for the year were of slightly older vintage, so these are my personal highlights (and a few lowlights) rather than the best originally published in the year.

The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante (9/10): My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child.

Four intensely rewarding novels of the intertwining lives of friends and rivals Elena and Lila. They are prodigies of a small town in Naples in post-war Italy. The identity of the author “Ferrante”, heretofore unknown, was dramatically unmasked this year. Who cares?

These stars of the novel are all part of family constellations, pulled towards each other by the gravitation of fate and pulled apart by personal ambitions. Three generations of the same families are covered. History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes at this small scale level, set against mid-twentieth century political and social changes.

There are no mawkish answers in these relationships, and by the time the most overt literary structuring is used — a dramatic symbol from the first book which is revisited at the end of the fourth, I was choked up. The writing is beautiful translated to English, the original Italian must have hit some spectacular heights.

 


The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel. 9/10.

Accounts of one Army unit first in Iraq during the “Surge” of 2007, and the aftermath and recovery by the men that made it back. They are latter day Iliad and Odyssey in a era when the gap between the military and civilian lives of Americans ever widens. These books would well be specifically paired with Bob Woodward’s The War Within, the DC insider detailed view of the same time in policy-making circles, as well as Days of Fire, covered below.


Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance 7/10

A Horatio Alger story if Alger’s characters’ had been raised by single, abusive mothers. I listened to this book on Audible, where the impact is enhanced by the author’s narration.

Vance made it out of Appalachia via the military, Ohio State, and on to Yale Law School. Way out: he now works for Peter Thiel’s Mithril Fund and lives in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, in the Wall Street Journal year end book review Republican Senators from both the states featured – Kentucky and Ohio – recommended the book. It is more of an indictment than elegy–of the decline of responsibility in these communities.

There is no buttressing of his own experience with data about family formation, or thoughts on the opiod epidemic afflicting the region. Would that have made the work stronger or weaker? There is an honest appraisal of the afflictions and envy of the class of his birth. He claims from experience that the visceral revulsion of all things Obama is rooted more in jealousy than racism.

Steps others take for granted (that college aid exists, much less how to apply for it; there are different types of wine; that networking can be a powerful career accelerant) are discovered and reflected on. Is there a public policy solution to ameliorate this? Aren’t there several dozen already and it is a cultural revival that is needed? Or more Tiger Mothering (Amy Chua has a role as a mentor of Vance’s at Yale) and less blaming.

There is some thematic similarity to the Neapolitan Quartet above: they are both bootstrap stories. Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics & Culture of Decline by Theodore Dalrymple which I enjoyed this year covers a doctor’s view of the decline of responsibility in the equivalent social class in Britain.

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith 7/10.

It is quite a feat when your name, already synonymous with wealth, becomes eponymous with an (idealized?) wing of a political party. This biography emphasizes the political journey and administrative talents of a mid-century icon. No biographer approaches Robert Caro for diligence, breaking ground thought lost and the ability to re-create the political scenes as they were lived by participants at the time. Richard Norton Smith is in the same ballpark however, and the presentation to the reader of the choices Rockefeller has to make at the time admirably comes to life.

On foreign policy issues, “Rocky,” who got his start in politics in Latin American affairs for the Roosevelt administration, was as committed an anti-communist as his GOP rival Barry Goldwater. He was considerably more liberal than the rest of the party on issues raging from civil rights and taxation to the role of the state in higher education (SUNY is maybe his most lasting mark on NY.) Revolts at the Attica prison and within the Republican electorate made this appointed vice president drop off the ticket for 1976, finishing his career not with a bang but a whimper.

Gossipy material including family infighting, his art acquisitiveness, the tragedy of his son Michael in the South Pacific, and various adulteries are covered liberally. He was the first major party power that was divorced – at a time when this was still looked askance by the voters. This isn’t just a policy wonk book. If we are to have faith in government, should we have faith in such a man to lead it? New York voters did, sending him to the governor’s mansion for five terms. Smith allows readers to arrive at their own conclusions.

Rockefeller died at the last of his staffer-mistresses’ apartment in 1979. Humiliating, but it avoided what would have been the final indignity for him, which was to see the triumph of the Goldwater wing with Reagan’s ascension to the presidency in 1980.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by Bob Stanley (7/10)

“Onomatopoeia” is when a word sounds like what it describes – Stanley applies this for example to the name “Bo Diddley.” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a titular version of that concept – enthusiastically crackling along (as the subtitle says) the story of pop as seen by a very literate musician-enthusiast who makes sure never to dawdle on his personal favorites, or belabor minutia (such as Tune In on the Beatles does). Stanley doesn’t much place the music in political contexts or give any sociological context more than necessary: what he does on this front is mostly geographic (how the relative isolation of Harlem or Nashville influenced genres.) This a narrative about how one artist responds to another with a helpful, knowledgeable fanboy to help along the way. Books on any art could follow this example (as Paul Johnson’s 2003 work Art: A New History did) to more liberally share convictions on what’s good and what’s bad.

You feel like you’re having a discussion over a drink with this musical Virgil. Do you like Johnny Cash? Oh, of course you do. Why?

“…in spite of all this kudos, if you asked anyone to name more than four songs by him they’d struggle: “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue.” That was pretty much it. Still, the music was almost beside the point. If you squinted, he looked like an American eagle; he could even look, with his furrowed brow and soulful eyes, like the pioneering spirit of his entire country, and he was quite happy not to dispel this image. In this respect, he was more of a myth than anyone else in this book.”

Stanley reaches an apogee talking about the apex of concept album rock between the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Have Spotify fired up and ready to go as you read it.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles. 7/10.

One shorthand theory of fiction is all books are about entering or leaving a city. Dear American Airlines is about when you’re stuck in the airport in between. Miles’ first work of fiction takes a distinct form for the Epistolary Novel: a single letter, a two hundred page angry customer service letter from protagonist Bennie Miles to AA while stuck at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

A sometime teacher and translator, and longtime drunk, Bennie is hoping to make it to the west coast for the wedding of his estranged daughter. The whole – a plot recounting his marriages and drinking – is less than the sum of its parts which are, unlike his airport burrito, tasty.

…true stories are about food and made-up stories are about love. This line flitted into my mind a few minutes ago ago I was chewing a “famous” “Baja” Chipotle Chicken Burrito from the Burrito Beach outlet. (I accompanied my six-pound burrito–a steaming hippo turd disguised as cuisine–with an “Arizona Green Tea,” in order, I guess, to completely short-circuit my gastrointestinal receptors…When I dumped my uneaten leftovers in the trash, the whole can trembled.) p. 70

But the novel is well paced between sarcasm and reflection, a coming of middle age tale. He works out his own salvation and in the end relents from the refund demand of his ticket, and life.

 

Days of Fire by Peter Baker 7/10

A riveting account of the see-sawing power relationship between Bush and Cheney, written in a style a notch above the standard Bob Woodward insider fare. Baker carries less water for his sources, and is more interested in history than settling scores. (Compare shared sources between Baker and Woodward, such as National Security staff aide Megan O’Sullivan.) Neither Bush nor Cheney are particularly reflective nor open personalities so this first draft of history has to make some guesses and keep the narrative moving. I will likely write about this more extensively in another post alongside other Iraq War and Bush material. If foreign policy is about making a lot of lesser-of-two-evil choices maybe we should just be involved in fewer situations where such choices have to be made.

 

 Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff. 6/10.

A fun, if repetitive, read before you get in a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh. Markoff is the former tech and now science beat reporter for the New York Times.  Machines is a follow up to his excellent account of the relationship between the computer industry and counter-culture in What the Dormouse Said, but doesn’t reach the same captivating peaks. Markoff provides a fine introduction to the history of robotics and artificial intelligence, namely the repartee between “AI” (Artificial Intelligence, a standalone robotic-computing solution. Think of a self-driving car, or 2001‘s Hal.) and “IA” (Intelligent Augmentation, small exists to humanity. Think Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Clippy.) You want hype cycles and nuclear winters? This book has ’em, all of them.

If you are already familiar with the general cycles of AI/IA history the book can be mined for its  decent bibliography of cultural works on robotics: The myth of the Golem, Accelerando by Charles Stross, Daemon by Damon Suarez, various films including Transcendence some of which I missed.

Still in the end I don’t think the book was fully baked. Most chapters relied substantially on previous reporting he did, and didn’t quite hang together. Some chapters built a little further on previous reporting – Markoff is someone very familiar with Magic Leap and finds it promising. Subsequent coverage this year thinks the company is more Magic than Leap. Editors should have caught the repeated introductions of various dramatis personae. It was not only grating but a clue the sections didn’t work well together. The book feel into rapid obscurity that not reversed by the paperback issuance this summer. It is an snapshot for an introduction to a future that may be closer than we think, a fitting final entry which may loom larger as the years go by.

However, there are surprisingly good introductions to this world-changing technology, and this was the best of the bunch for 2016.

Miscellaneous other notes

Television is the New Television by Michael Wolff (5/10) was an engaging fast read with a somewhat contrarian view, but the book’s importance is limited to a very small set of media players and investors. I spent a great deal of time listening to James Macgregor Burns’ The American Experiment, a three volume history of the United States. It was hit & miss. It strangely faded in power as it hit Burns’ areas of expertise: FDR & beyond in modern political history. Burns’ concern about the Constitution’s separation of powers as an impediment to justice is not well supported by the material he presented in a good workmanlike fashion.

Invisible Bridge & Nixonland by Rick Perlstein were fantastic and merit a longer discussion alongside the first of his trilogy, The Coming Storm. Will write on those later.

Disappointments

What Doomed Detroit by Kevin Williamson. Williamson is one of two horses in the race for my most favored political columnist so this is a painful inclusion. There are some things that doomed Detroit, sure, but its the least persuasively argued of any of the pieces of his I’ve read and there is such rich fodder to have fed upon. Reading this was like watching Mike Trout miss a gently hanging curveball. I’m still eager for the next swing. (Starting on Once in a Great City by David Maraniss to stratch this itch.)

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson has flashes of dazzle and grand philosophic challenge which are impaled by characters wouldn’t be more two dimensional if Michael Crichton had written them. Coming off the dazzling Anathem I read in 2015 this was a very slow moving long-form disappointment.

Who am I to pooh-pooh a Pulitzer winner? But Jon Meachem’s American Lion on Andrew Jackson and Destiny & Power: The American Odyssey of George Bush were extremely underwhelming. Both disproportionately focus on family relationships to the expense of more detailed policy considerations. I don’t think much is learned about Jackson that wouldn’t be found through Wikipedia, more efficiently. There is no real thesis beyond maybe he wasn’t as uncouth as some opponents thought. Pffft. Destiny & Power is a whitewash: Meacham continues to work with Bush on editing his diaries which were amply quoted from. The story of Bush’s willingness effectively to say anything to get elected — not just in the crass campaign of 1988 but before — is told here but shrugged off. . The book gives to me heretofore unknown detail about the willingness of George H. W. Bush to go to war in the Gulf with or without congressional authorization. It’s appalling at many levels of not only policy but rule of law. What’s the difference between Destiny and Entitlement? How good of an administrator was he? What role really was played in his son’s presidency? Too many obvious questions were not just unanswered but were untouched.

Dud of the Year

Disrupted by Dan Lyons. A cantankerous whine of a memoir from someone capable of much better. Find out what happens when a smug journalist who is too good for the successful startup that hires him decides to mock everything about it indiscriminately. It is easy to read between the lines and feel sympathy for all his colleagues and bosses. Hubspot’s biggest failure was hiring Lyons, who enjoys painting all of his (younger) colleagues with the stereotypical brushes he resents when applied to him. Is Hubspot full of laughable excesses? Sounds like it. Boy he sure thinks those young salespeople are goofy and social media girls really trite. Is it a crappy fraud, borderline pyramid scheme? Maybe but HUBS’ value has trebled to almost two billion in market capitalization since Lyons left. The tell-all book that tells nothing is the dud of the year.

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