My Year in Reading: 2017
In 2017, I had a goal of reading 25 books, cover to cover. At the end of November, my count was only 20, but a lot of cold weather here in Atlanta gave me the opportunity to read a lot over the holidays, bringing my total to 26.
Each of these completed books have their own journey. I barreled through some over a weekend. Others I slogged through over a month. Some went down like a cold beer on a hot day: easy, quick and refreshing. Others books are big complicated meals, that require a lot of work, a lot of chewing and digesting.
And I realized these books tell the story of my year: my travels, my interests, the loss of my mother. In so many ways, these books were important guideposts, providing valuable context, and perspective that I would otherwise not had. These books are not rests from the journey, but critical parts of the journey itself.
Here’s that list of 26. It’s not a ranking. Some of these books were insightful works of genius (Exit West, Lincoln in the Bardo), others weren’t (Tribes, Al Franken’s autobiography). Some were thoughtful personal meditations (Homage to Barcelona), while others tackled big juicy macro topics (Prisoners of Geography, Notes on a Foreign Country). Each contributed in some way to my year.
I’ve organized the books by major categories for the year.
My mother passed away in March, and these two books will forever be a part of my memories of her in those last days.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: I was reading this the night my Mom passed away, sitting beside her late into her final night. I finished it the day after her funeral. This weird, modern classic, by the brilliant George Saunders, tells the story of a group of ghosts living in purgatory, located in a Washington cemetery in the 1860s. These ghosts are dealing with loss, with mourning and with letting go. It’s heartbreaking at times, while hilarious in others. And completely unforgettable.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. My Mom, like the author, was a Lab Girl, back when there were not many of them. I was listening to this audiobook as I was driving back and forth to my hometown during Mom’s last days in March. I included this line from the book in a draft of Mom’s eulogy: [Jahren] said of being a female scientist she feels “the cumulative weight of constantly being told you can not be what you are.” Mom, like Jahren, heard and felt this weight, and also refused to listen.
Spain and Barcelona
I spent a week in Barcelona in April and fell in love with the city, its history and its architecture. These books provided valuable depth and additional understanding to this beautiful city and fascinating nation.
Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin. I finished this on my flight home from Barcelona. It is an overview of the city written by the Irish writer who spent years there. For me, it served as a useful introduction to Gaudi, Picasso, and other masters of the city, as well as its history, architecture and the amazing struggle of the Spanish Civil War, which I was to explore later in books, like the one below.
Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hothschild. The Spanish Civil War, which I knew nothing of before the trip, was so critical to the modern history of Spain. This book describes how three thousand Americans, many communists, gave up everything to come fight for an idea in a distant land, against fascism. These men, women, poor, rich, black and white, fought for a lost cause, but their idealism was an inspiration.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks. George Orwell’s ideas against totalitarianism were developed from his time in Spain as a reporter during the Civil War. This smart book links the two very different contemporaries, the introverted writer, Orwell, and the extroverted politician, Churchill. Each, in their own way, provided their own definition of what freedom meant in the 20th century. From Hicks: “Churchill helped give us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing affects how we think about it now.”
Barcelona by Robert Hughes. Hughes knows everything about this city. And in this book, he packs it with the big events, the big characters, the neighborhoods and the oddballs that populate the city. His chapter on Gaudi is insightful and served as a vital postscript to my visit to the insane and inspiring Sagrada Familia. At other times, the book is a slog, full of minutiae and unnecessary detail. It’s worth the struggle, however for many nuggets of genius.
Morocco and the Muslim World
I had the opportunity to spend the month of October in Morocco through a program at work. Living and working in a Muslim country was an unforgettable, unique experience. These books provided valuable history and perspective for me before and after my trip.
Exit West by Moshin Hamid. A gritty love story between a young couple, living through the horror of migration in the modern world, starting in an unnamed Muslim country dealing with war. This highly original, readable novel opened me to so many perspectives, and was one of my favorite books of the year.
Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen. This book is packed with hard truths that we Americans rarely face or discuss. Too often we fail to discuss the gap of who we think we are vs. how the world thinks of us. We can never truly close the gap between these two worlds unless we face the hard realities of what we have done, and what we fail to acknowledge.
The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shahir. This book was a great preparation for my month in Morocco. The author, bored by his life in middle class England, uproots everything to move to a massive, dilapidated house in Casablanca. Hilarious and insightful, the book covers a year in the life of the author and his family as he rehabilitates the home, acclimates to life in Morroco and rebuilds his own life. The final chapters, involving a goat and the exorcism of spirits, is one of the weirdest, funniest things I read all year.
Let it Come Down by Paul Bowles. After spending three days in Tangier at the end of my Moroccan sabbatical, I was dying to read about this weird city. Tangier was part of no country, and adhered to no rules, for half of the twentieth century. This novel, by long time Tangier resident and expat Paul Bowles, captured that now-departed place, with its collection of miscreants, losers, criminals and sleazeballs. Although the characters are memorable, the plot is a drag. Recommended for Tangier-philes only.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. This book is really about the entire world, and barely touches on Northern Africa. However, it describes the role that geography, like rivers, mountains, and harbors plays in many of the conflicts in our society today. For example the lack of a warm water port drives so much of Russian foreign policy today, including its actions in the Crimea. Also, the boundaries of the Middle East, which drives so much American/Muslim foreign policy, are actually artificial constructs, drawn by bureaucrats with little understanding of the culture and people in these areas. We’re still dealing with their decisions 70 years later. The subtitle doesn’t quite fit. I didn’t count, but I think there were a lot more than 10 maps in this book. Regardless, I learned more in these nearly 300 pages than I did in any book this year.
Modern American Politics
Politics, while often depressing in 2017, still fascinated me.
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. Whipple chooses a creative way to tell the history of the modern American presidency — through the lens of our President’s Chiefs of Staff. Presidential administrations with a strong, well-organized Chief were able to effectively govern, while those where Chiefs of staff were less disciplined, more focused on themselves or just plain sloppy were ineffective. Behind each of the successful presidencies of the last 40 years (Reagan, Clinton’s 2nd term, Obama) you can find a strong manager who aligned the White House to a consistent message and consistent discipline.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. I admired Franken and enjoyed his story. His seriousness as a Senator was impressive, but his humility and humor, so evident in this book, made him so human. Now, it all seems a little regrettable. Franken had very bad tendencies and he did bad things. Now he’s relegated to the dustbin, and, so will this book.
Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza. Souza was the official White House photographer for eight years, and this book highlights the very best pictures of those two terms. This is a book you inhale in a couple of hours. But these pictures stick with you far longer. Some of these pictures are strikingly emotional, honest and truly intimate, especially those with young people. This book highlights the decency of the former president, and provides a stark comparison to the current occupant of the White House.
I should read more fiction. I enjoy that feeling of being grabbed and held hard by a good story.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perotta. I inhaled this over a weekend in September. We were in the mountains, in a cramped little cabin. I stayed up late for two nights gulping this down. Typical of a Tom Perotta novel (others include Election, Little Children, The Leftovers) in that it’s a well-written, bawdy, and funny story of an recently empty-nested, single Mom, her college freshman son, and the hilarity of social media addiction.
The North Water by Ian Maguire. A good read about some tough and despicable characters. It touches on maritime life in the late 19th century, Arctic exploration, insurance fraud, and the darkness of the human spirit. Don’t read if you’re a bad mood.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Weird, speculative science fiction. This book covers all of the following: virtual reality, quantum computing, nanotechnology, Chinese politics, astrophysics, religion, and, oh yeah, an alien invasion. It’s a slow read at time, but the payoff is worth it.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman dryly re-works the classics of Norse mythology. This was an audio book that I enjoyed with my girls. We loved the ridiculous exploits of Loki, Odin, Thor and the gang.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. A popular read for many this year that became more relevant as the year progressed. The Weinsteins, Lauers, O’Reillys and others displayed glimpses of the behavior by men in this book. The TV series is a solid adaptation, but nothing beats the intensity and horror of the Offred’s own internal voice from the book.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Lewis is one of my favorites. I love how he can weave seemingly dry topics like baseball statistics, home equity loans, and the evolution of the offensive lineman into great stories. He does the same here with behavioral economics, as he tells the story of the two pioneers in the field amid the complexities of their long, and intense friendship.
The Power of Moments of Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers are so good at finding these communication techniques that we kind of knew, but never pulled to the surface. Here, the brothers highlight the importance of big moments; in life, in business and in leadership. Too often we leave these moments to chance. Here, the Heaths share ways we can plan and orchestrate these important moments, creating a better work experience and even a better life.
The Captain’s Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker. Walker decomposes the best sports teams in history and finds a single common component: a captain. A captain is the player/coach on the team who selflessly drives the mission of team. The captain is hardly ever the best player or the most talented. These captains don’t need the spotlight. Instead, he or she relentlessly drive the organizational mission and push the team around him to align to that mission. Walker argues that every great team in sports history had a player like Yogi Berra from the Yankees, Tim Duncan from the San Antonio Spurs, or Jack Lambert from the Steelers. You can build strong teams without a selfless captain, but, Walker agues, you can’t have a truly great one.
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. Godin writes insightful blog posts. Unfortunately, his books read like the same. This book is like binging on a Whitman sampler: lots of tasty nuggets, but the overall experience is lacking and missing something. Like a narrative. I would stick with the blogs.
Flight Path: The Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport by Hannah Turner. I loved this book. The author grew up in the neighborhoods that were swallowed up by the Atlanta Airport. It’s a story of trying to find her past home and looking for it in places that no longer exist. The Atlanta Airport is so critical to this city, yet I had never stopped to appreciate the huge human impact of the loss of the people and the neighborhoods that were once there. Turner tells the story of Atlanta’s progress, of which the airport was a huge engine, and the huge personal impact to that growth.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. My favorite rock and roller. And he’s a good writer too. And a wise sage. Here’s one of my favorite pieces of advice I noted: “..If you want to burn bright, hard and long, you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey. That’s what’ll help you make crucial sense and powerful music as time passes, giving you the skills that may also keep you alive, creatively and physically.”
Born a Crime: Stories from a South Africa Childhood by Trevor Noah. The last book I read this year, but one of the best. Noah hilariously recounts tragic events of his youth, including poverty, homelessness, racism, and the near death of his mother. While these topics are dark, this book is nothing but. It’s almost a joyful account of his childhood, and a love story for his amazing mother.
This was my reading journey in 2017. A new journey starts again now.