What I Read, 2018 Edition

Following my highly successful – I liked it, I mean – 2017 end of year book list, I have decided to make the post a tradition.  What follows is the list, in chronological order, of books I finished in 2018.  If I put an asterisk after the title, it means I started the book in 2017.

  1. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America* by Colin Woodward – My favorite part about being an academic is the book fair at the annual conference.  While most books are academic and therefore expensive, some popular presses are there and sell books for $1-$10.  This book, by Colin Woodard, is one of those.  I bought it at the 2017 APSA conference and plowed through it for a few weeks but set it down when I could not determine if it was depressing or uplifting.  You see, it turns out that America has always been torn between a battle of the smug, homogenous Yankees and the elite, aristocratic Southerners, with the other groups (the New York tristate area, the mid-Atlantic states, the the Midwest, Appalachia, the Mountain West, the Southwest, the West Coast, and others I don’t feel like looking up right now) in various alliances with those two.  Changes in national policies are then the change in the coalitions that rule together, according to Woodard.  The thesis is interesting and well-researched, though I am not enough of an expert to determine if he is correct or not.  So the book is depressing in that it may mean our current moment is periodic, but it is uplifting if it means our current moment may pass.  The book is well written, and I am happy I read it.

  2. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America* by Nancy Isenberg – Purchased at the same time as American Nations, this book was everything that was not.  White Trash lacks a clear thesis, compensates with needless details, and feels rushed to press in response to Donald Trump’s election.  The book is actually a cultural history, but I did not realize that for the first hundred to two-hundred pages because the earliest documents are archival.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that every page had at least one paragraph where the topic sentence came in the middle or end.  The only binding theme of each chapter is chronology, and each chapter feels like a random collection of essays about various cultural items.  But the most difficult part is that I cannot tell if this book is about class or race.  I think race was used to keep the lower white classes in line, but I also think those classes were often considered like a different race because of their poverty and, in some parts of the country, lineage from specific European ethnic groups.  If I were a more disciplined reader, I would have set it down after 200 pages.  But I finished it because I’m a masochistic, though skimming eventually intruded.
  3. China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan- A beach read, but still not very satisfying.  Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians felt fresh, but like many sequels, it feels like all the good ideas went into the original.  Kwan relies too much on adverbs and adjectives to convey the characters’ opulence instead of specific details or having the luxury conveyed as a scene unfolds.  For example, a passage might read, “Rachel walked into the most luxurious, over the top hotel suite she had ever seen, at the Peninsula Shanghai.”  Instead, the idea could be conveyed with something like, “Rachel thought the bellmen had yet to arrive with her bags.  In fact, they were already unpacked and put in their proper room’s closets.  Her dresses – one casual, one dressy, and a couture because you never know – were in the master bedroom, while the lesser clothes found themselves in one of the other bedrooms.  Nick’s tuxedoes had their own space, in the entryway’s closet.  Nick did not appreciate this gendered slight, but the cedar lining imparted a subtle scent on the clothes that had a calming effect.”  Anyway, the book was moderately enjoyable and I do not regret having read it on a mini-vacation, but I strongly wish the earnest author had mightily struggled to severely limit the attempted dexterity conveyed with his irritating inclusion of adverbs and adjectives.
  4. Making It by Norman Podhoretz – I had known Norman Podhoretz as part of the post-war New York City Jewish intelligentsia who was also a leading neoconservative. For some reason, the memoir of his first 40 years, Making It, recently received a new printing and subsequent flurry of press coverage, which is how I learned he made the political turn after its publication. Having also always liked that era and those people from afar but only knowing them through longform magazine articles, I was excited to have a front row seat. It turns out Podhoretz is a great writer, which makes sense since he was paid to be a writer and was literary before turning towards politics. The book contains interesting observations and phrases on almost every page, making it the first book I have read in 2018 that I could not put down. Highly recommended.
  5. The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang- I borrowed this book from my wife for our summer vacation. She warned me she could not finish it, so I expected it to be beach-quality. I was wrong. While the writing and story are not at the level of The Sympathizer, they are quite good. The former is much better than in Kevin Kwan’s series, and the latter allows the author to expound on many facets of American culture, from immigrant ambition, status, the 2008 economic crisis, Nawlins, and, most convincingly, contemporary art. The author is especially knowledgable about that last topic, as she covered that world for various New York City publications before publishing this book. Enjoyable and recommended.
  6. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – Daughters do not appreciate the sacrifices their immigrant mothers made, the mothers lament their Americanization, and everything that happened in China was tragic. Such is the plot and message of The Joy Luck Club. A good read, I nonetheless did not like this book as much as WvtW. I think I would have appreciated the stories more if I kept track of each character across the chapters, which is difficult because of the novel’s structure. I can appreciate the book for its role in American culture and am happy I read it, but what I will ultimately remember is its unrelenting tragedy.
  7. Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan – I have now completed the trilogy of Kevin Kwan’s series, which I’m pretty sure is the first time I’ve completed any book series.  That fact says  more about their ease of reading than literary quality.  I almost did not read this after his boring second book, but I’m glad I did.  For whatever reason, it was better than the second.  I enjoyed how he injected his voice in footnotes (though wish they did not die out by the middle of the book), actually developed a character (won’t spoil who), and gave me some exposure to Thai royalty.  There was also a greater amount of brand dropping than in the second novel, which is good, though there was still too much emphasis on superlatives on every page. My biggest grip is that Kwan does not know the coffee scene: one character brings another coffee from “Verve Coffee in Los Angeles”, which is supposed to show how cosmopolitan the characters are.  While there is a Verve Coffee here, it is based in San Francisco, and neither character has an LA connection.  In other words, I think Kwan had a good experience with Verve during some time in LA and wanted to reinforce his characters’ sophistication because that page did not yet have a name drop.
  8. Wherever You Go, There you Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn –  If you tell people you are reading or have read this book and they recognize it, you’ve probably found a friend.  Indeed, a friend recommended it to me in a conversation about stress and meditation.  Combined with intermittent meditation sessions from the Calm app, this book has been a great introduction to meditation.  “I love that book.  Each chapter is like a koan,” exclaimed another friend.  I think that’s the best way to describe the book’s structure: each chapter is essentially the same lesson, is short, and does not need to be read in order.  In other words, the structure is perfect for the internet generation, even though it was first published in 1994.  A book to which I will return.
  9. Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny  by Witold Szablowski.  The best part of being a professor is that the annual meeting of political scientists features a wonderland of book publishers, many of whom discount their titles.  I was able to grab this book from Penguin in exchange for my business card, just like I did last year and the year before.  I read a mixed review of Szablowski’s book in the NYTimes, but it was worth a shot for free.  The book was enjoyable, but the sweeping thesis implied by the subtitle was nowhere to be found.  I learned a lot in the first half about Roma, the tradition of dancing bears, and European Union politics.  I did not get an impression, however, that the bears still suffer the captive mentality they had when they were performers.  The second half is then a series of profiles of different people in former USSR countries.  The profiles are interesting – I especially enjoyed learning about the Stalin museum and car smuggling in Ukraine – but do not make the connection back to pre-1991 times clear.  An easy, fun read, but not one that taught me about living under tyranny.
  10. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama.  Not only can you not judge a book by its cover, you cannot judge it by its title either.  This book was a history of the political development of the world, with a focus on Europe, the Anglo-Saxon world, and Northeast Asia, from the 19th century to the present.  It’s a great book if you have never read other magnum opus works from people like Daron Acemoglu, Samuel Huntington (Fukuyama’s advisor at Harvard), Paul Kennedy, David Landes, Paul Romer, and so on.  But I’m a nerd and so have, and this book felt just like those.  I do not feel like I learned about why societies decay.  (Mancur Olson is still best at that.)  I honestly could not tell you what the thesis of this book is.  It is another one I got at reduced price at an academic conference, so I do not feel like I wasted money.  It is a marvelous catalogue of knowledge; writing this kind of book requires a lifetime of dedication and organization, and I commend Fukuyama for that.  But I would only recommend this book to people who have not read these kind of books before.
  11. Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East by Ralph S. Hattox.  I saw this book at an awesome bookshop in Honolulu that I learned about in Hawaiian Airlines’ inflight magazine.   An academic historian wrote it, possibly from his dissertation, so it is dry.  That said, it is short and full of information on every page.  It was very interesting to see how (not) far back the historical record goes and how the institution of the coffeehouse threatened certain sectors of society.  The book was enjoyable enough, enough so that I bought a copy for a friend.  Recommended if you like coffee and are a bit nerdy about it.
  12. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.  I find myself with a greater appreciation of period pieces, probably because my wife has been watching Great British Baking Show (everything with a British accent is automatically a period piece) and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  This appreciation caused me to tear through Orwell’s novel – probably a memoir – about a poor guy wandering between from Paris to London.  The book was very simple and matter of fact, which made it feel like a nonfiction portrayal of the interwar life of the working poor (Paris) and tramps (London).  Having previously read Burmese Days: A Novel I am convinced all of Orwell’s writing, probably even 1984 and Animal Farm, is memoir.  Recommended.

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