- If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore. I was excited to read this 328 page high school essay, almost quit around page 200, and only continued because a political science professor from UCSD (where I got my PhD) become a minor recurring character. I grabbed this book after reading Lepore’s New Yorker article about Simulmatics; her writing style was good and the story sounded interesting. It turns out, however, that there is only enough material about Simulmatics to fill maybe 50 pages of a book, and the best material went into the The New Yorker article. Instead, I got a book that was half about US politics in the 1950s and 1960s, a quarter about the putative subject, and a quarter trying to connect it to current events. The clearest analogy to Simulmatics is Cambridge Analytica: an academic-led company hyping new methodologies (apply computers applied to the generation’s big data), catching positive PR from an election (Kennedy 1960) in which they had no effect, and then shortly imploding in infamy. Instead of inventing the future, whoever made the title, and Lepore when writing the introduction, should have consulted this line from page 323: “Prophecy is ancient. Estimating probably outcomes is a feature of human curiosity.” Since there is in fact nothing fundamentally new about Simulmatics, just the tools available to humans starting after World War II, this story should at least get by on style. Instead, let me provide some choice quotes that illustrate the, frankly, juvenile writing style:
- 226: “If they had survived […] assuming they were lucky, assuming they were very lucky. Shea had, for the first time, glimpsed the war. Minds change in glimpses.” My mind changes in sentences.
- 251: “They wore helmets. They carried rifles. They carried bayonets. They carried tear gas.” Um, I think this was a reference to The Things They Carried?
- 290: “[…] he had become a national leader of the national antiwar movement.” As opposed to a national leader of a regional movement?
This writing distresses because Lepore is a very strong writer. I can therefore only conclude this book is a mixture of a rushed job and very poor editing, once the author and editor realized it should not have been a book.
- Grade: C.
2. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I have not read this 379 page philosophy book since 2010, when I convinced the book group at my Accenture project to purchase it. Like rereading Guns, Germs, and Steel, I was concerned time would reveal my love of it to tied to youth; like that book, I was happy to find my fear unfounded. Since reading the first read, I have experienced several personal and professional Black Swans, have become an adult, and also got a Ph.D. and study a phenomenon, protest, that is in the neighborhood of this book. I am a different person, so the book activated me in different ways. The biggest difference this time is that I did not find his writing style so pugnacious; since I better understand the arguments against Mediocristan tools in Extremistan fields (his words), his arrows at economists, forecasters, journalists, etc. do not feel so sharp. It was also interesting to read my marginalia when he discussed academia and exposure to Black Swans, as I had just accepted UCSD’s Ph.D. admission and had never thought of organizing work around exposure to positive Black Swans. In fact, his discussion of power laws and complexity was my first exposure to those ideas, and I have always kept them in mind as guiding lights when studying protests. The biggest difference in the intervening 11 years is that I realize this book is not really about economics or complexity. It is about how to live in contexts in which one is exposed to negative and positive Black Swans: figure out which one a situation (job, relationship, invitation, investment, etc.) exposes you to so as to avoid the former and seek the latter whenever possible.
– Grade: A.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Wow wow wow ew ew ew is about all I can say for this 309 page novel. Book reviews often describe their book as having beautiful prose written by authors with a keen eye, yet I rarely find those books to live up to the review. Absolutely not the case here. I have never encountered a book so dense with witty observations, rich character studies, or evocative prose. I have also never encountered a book, or at least not since middle school, with so many new words. If SAT:GRE::GRE:Crazy, you would study for Crazy with this book. Here are some words I told myself I will learn: duenna, callypygean, crepitating, pavonine. Almost every page grossed me out, since almost every page is about the author’s ravenous desire for an adolescent girl who eventually becomes his stepdaughter. A really despicable character who repeatedly rapes his charge, it is amazing that a book about that can shine despite the horrible content. I did not like the sense in which the narrator suggests the girl is behaving sexually and therefore consenting, though I think that portrayal is to be interpreted as the narrator’s craziness and not Lolita’s actual behavior. I also found myself often confused by plot details – did the narrator kill Lolita’s mom, were they actually being followed, did people actually know he’s a child rapist? – but that could also be because I read it every night before bedtime. Also, ew to whoever wrote the Vanity Fair blurb calling the book “the only convincing love story of our century.” I will definitely reread it in the future.
– Grade: A+.
4. Educated by Tara Westover. You may remember this 329 page memoir from the breathless coverage it received in 2018. While Westover is clearly strong-willed like her father and very intelligent, unlike her father, this book is the kind that succeeds because it has figured out its target audience. The survivalist family that reviews made sound like off-the-grid homesteaders actually live just outside a town near extended family, run a junkyard, and, after the dumb father almost kills himself, make a lot of money selling homeopathic “remedies” to similar anti-establishment people around the country. There is even a period when the father, who I interpret as a secondary villain but Westover seems to have a soft spot for, takes great pride in his daughter’s choir singing; this singing takes place, you know, in a town. My point is simply this book received breathless praise from all the elite outlets because, let’s be honest, it fit a narrative of an extreme version of what they think Trump country is. It is not compellingly written, at no point are we made to feel sympathetic for almost any character, and Westover never gives us a glimpse of what makes her so special. We see timely support from various characters, only one of whom is family, but we never understand what compels these people to support Westover. Overall, I can’t decide if I hated the father and brother or bait-taking gatekeepers’ shallowness more. I’m sure Westover is very smart, and I am fortunate my upbringing was much easier, but I still found this book tedious and largely forgetful.
– Grade: C+
5. Severance by Ling Ma. I read this 291 page novel after my wife bought it during Covid. Telling the story of a 20-something first-generation American trying to find herself as an adult while a mysterious illness spreads from China, the book is nothing if not prescient. The book’s strength is Ma’s writing, which has frequent pretty turns of phrase and interesting digressions about book publishing, the immigrant experience, and anomie. There are two major problems for me, however. First, the book is too cookie-cutter MFA, a thought I had before realizing she completed it as part of Cornell’s MFA program. The conformity comes from two sources: the author’s refusal to use quotation marks, which in 2021 feels as original as wearing a fedora or fanny pack, and the non-linear chapters. I could be dense, but I did not understand how jumping between the novel’s present and the months before it contributed to the novel except to show that chapters had been rearranged. The second problem is many endorsements’ focus on the book’s “anti-capitalist” (The Cut) critique of “advanced global capitalism” (New Yorker) and “American’s decadent consumerism” (The Paris Review). I’m sorry, but the book was about a young adult finding her place in the world, and that world happens to be book publishing. Yes, Ma’s office scenes often feature absurdity, but so do office scenes in real life; yes, coworkers engage in politics to try to get ahead, which is how the world works; and I see no connection between the disease angle and a critique of capitalism. Instead, I think Ma’s publishers issued PR material with press copies and some lazy reviewers ran with it.
– Grade: B
6. The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Raid Sattouf. My wife bought me this 153 page graphic novel for Chanukah. It recounts Sattouf’s first six years. Like Educated, I found the reading difficult because the father is not made sympathetic. After receiving his Ph.D. in France, he takes a professor job in Libya over Oxbridge, and he leaves Libya after a couple of years to take a professor job in Syria and live in his familia village. While I understand the desire to live where you feel welcome, the father is the only one who seems happy. His wife, a French woman, has no agency, and the son is picked on because of his hair and complexion. The father seems like just another self-absorbed man who would be just as happy without a wife and kid. The highlight of the novel was learning about life and politics in Libya and Syria during the Cold War, when those countries were more formidable than today. I did not know, for example, that Qaddafi outlawed locks on homes because everyone is equal; that policy also meant a family member would always to stay home to ward off squatters.
– Grade: B-
7. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State by James C. Scott. This 256 page interpretation of archeology reinforces the greatness of its author. AtG continues Scott’s lifelong work of presenting normal people’s voice against received histories, almost all of which are told from the perspective of the victor. Here, Scott suggests that early states expanded via conquest because they overexploited their fertile lands. But states were weak, so potential and existing subjects often bled. State collapse may, according to Scott’s interpretation, only be a tragedy to the elites, but it’s the elites’ stories which are recorded. The chapters on population control and bandit states were also revelatory. Though Scott is well-known for his lifelong production of insightful work, it is his writing that steals the show here. I can’t recall ever before having remarked on style in non-fiction writing, but for Scott I was so struck three times that I noted the page numbers of the passages I liked. Look at how he carries the hyphen – “In this man-made and -defended environment — other flora, ” – or makes the exclamation mark work double duty – “Voila! a form of agriculture that an intelligent, work-shy hunter-gatherer might take up.”
- Grade: A
8. An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, 5th Edition by David Gebhard and Robert Winter. I purchased this 472 page guidebook for $2 at a neighbor’s garage sale. I had no idea it is a long-running classic but understand why. Very many vignettes for the included buildings are snappily written and reveal a deep love of architecture. I especially appreciate the book’s structure: each of the 113 chapters focuses on a neighborhood of Los Angeles or city in its orbit, so it will be easy to find interesting structures when I whip the book out in the car in a new area. That said, I do not like the authors’ worldview, which is textbook NIMBY. The favorite buildings are almost always single-family homes, and the strongest rebukes are for large commercial and residential buildings. The Wilshire corridor of high-rise residential buildings in Westwood is “out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.” Of course the real problem is that the surrounding neighborhood has ossified its way into elitism, but the authors think the problem is the opposite. Barbs like this litter the book, boil my blood, and lower my grade of it.
- Grade: B
9. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I was happy to grab this 262 page history book off of the free table hippie neighbors maintain. I love airplanes (December 17, 1903 is one of those dates ingrained in my brain), had never read McCullough, and have enjoyed reading books about old times, so grabbing a free thing that is all of those was a no brainer. It was a solid read. I was disappointed the writing style was not more eloquent, yet the narration was lively and never bogged down. The book flew by. It felt like a non-fiction version of Babbit; I especially loved the huge parade Dayton, the family’s hometown, put on after the three siblings’ return from a long, successful tour of Europe. McCullough does a good job bringing to life two people I had not known about before: Katherine, their Oberlin-educated sister who becomes a maternal figure after their mother’s early death, and the Milton, the patriarch and itinerant preacher. I did not realize that the dream of flight was sort of widespread at the time; it was in the air enough, and enough people had failed, that pursuing the idea made one look like a crank to some people. I also enjoyed learning how optimistic countries were: the railroads, telegraph, start of consumer culture, and then the airplane gave “everyone” an excitement for the future that does not seem to exist in the United States right now. I suppose this attitude was widespread before World War I, and the destruction of it is one of that conflict’s most long-lasting effects.
- Grade: A-.
10. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. I hesitated to start this 299 page current event book because I am trying to read about events at least 100 years old, but I was pulled in right away and looked up two weeks later having completed it. I do not remember where I read about this book or when I bought it, but I am a sucker for North Korea reporting, the author worked at the LA Times, and it was a National Book Award Finalist, so I could not resist. It turns out that reading about North Koreans feels like reading about old time stuff, so I didn’t really feel like I broke my rhythm. Demick does an excellent job writing about her sources’ — defectors living in South Korea — lives in North Korea. Family profiles provided pretext to discuss larger issues like the stigma against former POWs or descendants of Japanese Koreans, the importance of film, Japanese colonialism, and the like. The book especially gave me an appreciation for the death of Kim Il-Sung and the Great Famine that followed soon after. Demick made me feel, through relaying her sources’ experiences, like I was there much more than any video footage I have watched or report read. The sources are fully featured human beings. The book is a keeper.
- Grade: A
11. Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance by Dr. Kelly Starrett (with Glen Cordoza). This 473 page hardcover mobility guide – think lots of targeted stretching and rolling – has been on my shelf for years, but I did not give it serious attention until recently. Starting around March, I started having intermittent pain in my left shoulder that seemed to coincide with bag working posture. Coupled with my ongoing left groin and hamstring tightness, this new pain in an old place was the stimulus I needed to crack this book open and focus. The book is a great reference to have around. The key lessons are to keep a straight line from butt to head, always slightly twist your hands and feet, keep your core always 20% engaged, and realize that arms and legs have the same mechanics, which means the problems and solutions are very similar. Some of those lessons are not new or, more likely, I had internalized years ago. The biggest breakthrough for me was learning to think about loosening joint sockets – where the femur meets the hip, arm into shoulder joint – as opposed to stretching muscles between joints. The joint sockets need to open so that I can maintain my limbs in the correct position, and stretching muscle does not help the joints open. For the pecs, this means lots of targeted lacrosse ball rolling; for the groin, lots of pigeon, runner’s lunge, and similar targeted hip openers. Starrett also emphasizes the need to stretch 10-15 minutes per day, a change I have implemented. I hope that the use of daily mobility movements for my groin and chest will cause a noticeable increase in comfort over the next 3-6 months.
- Grade: A-
12. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour. I bought this 235 page posthumous memoir by best-selling author Louis L’Amour from my Amazon list, though I do not remember where I heard about it. It turns out that L’Amour is one of the most published authors of the 20th century, though I had never heard of him. It’s a lovely book, though it’s hard to give a genre. There are lots of tales of L’Amour’s life throughout the book, but they are usually at the service of explaining the books L’Amour was reading at the time. It is clear I bought the book because L’Amour is a book lover, and the frequent paean’s to the companionship and horizon-broadening value of books warm the heart. Born in 1908, the book provided vignettes of old time living that I have been seeking out the last few months. I learned a lot about boxing in American culture, developing prospecting claims, and working through the Great Depression. The book is not particularly cohesive, but there are frequent enough gems that kept me motivated to keep reading.
- Grade: B+
13. Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong. This 214 page comedic memoir from comedian Ali Wong was a fun, easy nighttime read. Having never read any comedian’s memoir, I learned a lot about the perseverance and abuse tolerance required to become famous. In many ways and like for many creative careers, it reminded me of academia (lottery like payoffs, hard to connect outputs to inputs). The “letters” about her work were much less interesting to me than learning about her parents, siblings, and husband. The “letter” about studying abroad was also fun because she also went to a developing country (Vietnam) and had essentially no boys in the program; I went to Cameroon and was the only boy. I felt she tried too hard in the writing to be funny, which is common in comedy memoirs: just because you are a comedian does not mean your book has to be funny, and the striving often leads to extra sentences that only exist in search of a chuckle. I do not regret reading it but will not be back soon.
- Grade: B
14. I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom. I’m learning that I like to read in themes, so I tore through my wife’s copy of this 277 page memoir. The first thing I learned is that maybe memoirs are not my favorite genre and maybe comedy memoirs are not my favorite subgenre. I enjoyed this book more than Ali Wong’s because Rachel’s humor is closer to mine (Jewish), it was more non-traditional (poems, scanned diary entries, long lists), and page 276. March 2020 with her newborn daughter in the NICU while her longtime songwriting partner, Adam who has written a lot of famous songs, dies from Covid is the best writing I’ve read since Nabokov. I think it’s what people mean when they say they like Joyce or Faulker. Still, jokes often felt forced, which I guess comes with the territory. It was an easy read, I’m happy I did.
- Grade: B+
15. The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown. I loved this excellently written 392 page biography of the Great-Grandson of John Adams. I learned about the book from a review in The New Yorker, the periodical with my favorite book reviews, and chose to read it since it fits my theme of reading about post-Civil War history broadly construed. I learned so much in every chapter, and every chapter was perfect for a 21st century nerd: rarely longer than 10 pages with no wasted words. Brown writes with an historian’s eye for detail but at a modern pace for the nerds who buy it. HA was a gentleman appointee professor at Harvard for a few years because that’s how his world worked. He made frequent months long voyages to places that were not Europe. He wrote what is apparently considered the best political history of early America, and his auto-biography, a social critique of Industrialization, is The Modern Library’s best work of nonfiction of the 20th century. Great writing about an interesting life is a winning combination.
- Grade: A.
16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I hesitated to start my wife’s copy of this 285 page autobiography because I was concerned it did not fit with my theme of reading of reading about post-Civil War America, but I quickly changed my mind once I realized it was about Angelou’s childhood in the Jim Crow South. I had not read a book in this vein since The Autobiography of Malcolm X and I had never read anything by Maya Angelou, so I gave it a shot. I am glad I did, and I am also glad I persevered through the first 100 pages or so. I could not get into Maya’s life before going to St. Louis, I think mainly because she was young and so the observations one makes at that age are basic, which is just normal. It was not until Maya’s chapter on the tent revival and one shortly after about the condescending remarks from the White superintendent delivered at her middle school graduation ceremony that I felt Maya the child realized the unfairness of her world. It is here that the book came alive and her insights and prose start to strike me. I enjoyed her explanation of con men as a survival strategy, a way to fight back against racial injustice; I had never heard it from that perspective and it makes total sense. Maya’s strong, adult spirt is at its fullest, to me, when she perseveres to obtain a conductor job on the San Francisco streetcar line. While she clearly was slowed down by racism from bureaucrats, the bureaucracy still followed the letter of their regulations and eventually hired her, the first Black female conductor of a San Francisco street car. Very very cool and a very very good read.
- Grade: A.
17. Bossypannts by Tina Fey. I (re)picked up this 250 page memoir to continue the comedienne memoir theme. It was not until getting to her time in Chicago that I got deja vu, though my first read was long enough ago that I was happy to reread. This book has the same basic tone as Ali’s and Rachel’s, but I think I liked it more, though I am biased because I already loved Tina Fey. Like Rachel’s memoir, the best chapter was at the end, “What Should I Do With My Last Five Minutes?”. Fey was at her most honest, but also 30 Rock irreverent, when discussing sexism in comedy, including views on aging and motherhood. I enjoyed hearing about starting 30 Rock and the importance of Alec Baldwin, the Sarah Palin impression, and the general wisdom Lorne shares. Like many people, I do not understand why she gave herself those arms for the cover photo; oh well. I also decided that comedy writing is different than literature writing, and one can’t expect the same caliber of writing from comedy writers as from Maya Angelou, journalists, etc.
- Grade: B+
18. Edendale by Phyl van Ammers. I cannot remember where I acquired this 219 page self-published novel. I was very excited to read it because it is set in my neighborhood but about 80 years ago, so it sort of fits my historic period criterion. I stopped at page 39 once I determined the writing style was unedited, not intentionally bare like Hemingway. The most egregious oversight that caused me to soon stop reading: “they saw a tall woman wearing a gray fitted suit with a purple and purple-and-white striped orchid”. Though I did enjoy reading about roads, trams, and landmarks from my part of Los Angeles, it was not worth it for me to make this book the last thing in my mind before sleeping.
- Grade: D
19. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. When I found this 310 page memoir in a used bookstore in Morro Bay so soon after learning it is #8 on the Modern Library’s 100 best works of non-fiction of the 20th century and reading Lolita, I knew the universe was telling me to buy it. Well, I guess sometimes the universe is wrong, as I found this book largely boring. The prose is as special as Lolita but the content is boring. The book ends as Nabokov, his wife, and first child flee France during World War II, and it is not strictly temporally ordered before the final few chapters. If I were interested in butterflies or poetry, I may have found the book compelling. Instead, I felt I was reading for the pearls of beauty, often tied to obscure vocabulary, Nabokov can throw out at any moment, and there were quite a few of those. I did not know how privileged Nabokov’s life was – a grandfather was Minister of Justice, his father was a leading figure in liberal politics, and other members of his extended family were also influential. The family had several homes, including a large dacha with several hundred acres and a few servants outside of St. Petersburg. Once 1917 happened, the book got interesting, but the emigre years only occupied the final 70 pages or so of the book, and there was, sadly, nothing about his life in the US. I will most remember Nabokov describing how as a child he would talk to his chauffeur via a pipe, as cars then still forced drivers to be exposed to the elements while the rich passengers were protected, just like horse drawn carriages.
- Grade: B-
20. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling. The final 100 pages of this 219 page memoir were random musings, but I call it a memoir because I don’t know what else it should be. Like all the books I’ve read in this theme, it was too much of a stand-up routine and not enough of an autobiography. Mindy had a hit 60 minute show during a Fringe Festival in NYC, one thing led to another, and that got her a writing gig on the first season of The Office. Good for her and I like her shows, but this book lowered my esteem of her. Oh well, it was an easy read.
- Grade: C.
21. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks. This 233 page book was great for reading at night but is overall incredibly disappointing. I remember albums from my youth where the title and hit single were the same, and the worst of the worst made the title single the first song. This book is that: the eponymous chapter is the first one, and though not the best it is also not the worst because each chapter is equally frustrating. The chapters are descriptions of Sacks’ interactions with patients from his clinical history whose illness reveals something about how the mind weaves together information so that we as us can get by in life. What sticks out for me is how incapable medicine is at understanding causes of, and cures for, mental illness. The patients do have fascinating interactions with the world, but doctors, at least in 1970 when the book was published, cannot fix these illnesses the same way others can set a bone or prescribe medication that reliably works. I hope that mental … troubles are better understood and treated now, but each chapter left me frustrated for everyone involved. Worse is that Sacks does not use his histories to help the reader understand how the brain may work. The reader is not left with a theory of the mind or even an understanding of which parts seem to control which behaviors. The upside of this brevity and lack of resolution is that the chapters are short and therefore ideal for reading in bed. I learned that “Parksonism” and “retardates” were medically accepted terms then.
- Grade: C+
22. Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice by Emily Midorikawa. I purchased this 259 page introduction of Spirirtualism after reading several new reviews since it fits with my theme of learning about post-Civil War life and is female focused. Overall, I enjoyed the book and liked it more than some of the tepid reviews made me think I would. I had no idea what Spiritualism was before the book, but I did know that people at some time in the past heard ghosts knocking, saw their furniture rattle, and it was somehow part of popular culture. That’s what Spiritualism was, it started near Rochester, NY in May 1948, and women were major players in it. I cannot say if the movement was female dominated or led because the author does not situate the six women’s history within the larger movement. The book focuses narrowly on each woman’s story, rarely pulling back for a wider angle. This specificity is fine, but I would have loved 50 more pages so that I could better understand just how popular Spiritualism was, if it was more than a British and American phenomenon, and what types of entertainment Spiritualists were up against. It was fun to get some side glimpses into water travel (so hard and slow!), medical care (anyone could call themselves a doctor and no one knew what they were doing), and the misogynist origins of lunacy laws in the United Kingdom (it was not uncommon for husbands to have their wives declared insane, often with the consent of a doctor from a for-private asylum that would then take charge of the wife-patient). Overall, not the best book I’ve read, but certainly one from which I happily profited.
- Grade: B
23. Geronimo, His Own Story: The Autobiography of a Great Patriot Warrior told by Geronimo to S.M. Barrett (SMB). This 188 page autobiography was great, more so for me as a political story than from learning much about Geronimo or Apache life. I actually learned very little about Geronimo the person or Apache the people, and then only at the beginning and end of the book. He became a warrior and his wife and kids were killed in a Mexican raid, but otherwise the narration focuses on raids and skirmishes in Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico before concluding with reservation life. All of the characters are flat, and I learned more about Apache culture and history from Frederick Turner’s 32 page introduction than I did from Geronimo or SMB. Otherwise, the most revealing parts come from reading between the lines. For example, SMB frequently inserted footnotes such as this one on page 138: “The criticisms of General Miles in the foregoing chapter are from Geronimo, not from the Editor.” Of course the reader knew that already because the story is literally told via Geronimo’s voice, so the footnote instead suggests the extreme caution by which SMB felt he had to tread; perhaps the book had to pass censors. In the final chapters, Geronimo describes reservation life in cautiously positive terms. He presents himself as appreciative for his time at the 1904 World’s Fair; though showcased as a spoil of war, he was able to earn money from selling his signature and boys & arrows. It was also fun to read his reactions to the technological exhibits there; I have to imagine his reaction is not much different than non-Native Americans’. Chapter 20 has Geronimo saying that Christianity is better than the Apache religion, and the book is dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt since he personally approved the autobiography’s commission. Between the overwhelming narrative focus on raiding, the obsequious tone of the final few chapters, and SMB repeatedly having to emphasize that criticisms of the US Government were solely from Geronimo, this book feels less like an autobiography and more like a prison confession. Very sad.
- Grade: A
24. How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh. This 117 page pocket-size guide is like a reading meditation. My wife purchased it at some point, along with a few of his other books. It’s nice. I like reading meditation books because they are calming; the reading becomes meditative.
- Grade: B
25. Thirty Explosive Years in Los Angeles County by John Anson Ford. I grabbed this 223 page memoir from the Huntington Gardens’ gift shop, possibly my favorite gift shop in LA county. I had no idea who Ford was but bought it because I had never seen this book in other bookshops’ LA history collections. I learned a lot, though I found many later chapters quite boring because they focused too much on transactions and did not give me historical context. For example, I don’t really care how much was paid and to whom for land for municipal golf courses. I especially appreciated Chapter 4, “Sunshine and Scenery for Sale”, because it is the first time I’ve seen an extended discussion of LA’s foundation in real estate development; every other LA book I’ve read assumes the reader knows the history. I also learned that in the 19th century Boyle Heights was a fancy neighborhood; Civic Center in downtown LA took shape thanks to the construction of several county buildings; and Spain aligned LA’s early streets at 45* to cardinal directions to protest from sun and wind. The book is nicely written and in the post-WWII tone of optimistic planning. How nice that positivity must have felt!
- Grade: B+
26. The Souls of Black Folk wth “The Talented Tenth” and “The Souls of White Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois. I also purchased this 243 page essay-based memoir from the Huntington Gardens’ gift shop. I had high expectations going in – they were met – but none about the structure. The book does not have a central thesis, but I enjoy parts of all chapters. Many of the chapters were wonderful, and a few are as well written as Lolita. Early on I learned more about the Freedman’s Bureau than I had from anywhere else, and White America’s quick abandonment of former slaves was heart wrenching to read about. Du Bois’ energy holds these chapter together, and that it was published when he was my age now puts things in perspective. I then realized that Ibram X. Kendi wrote his introduction at an age not much older than my 35. Oh well! I especially enjoyed seeing “;-” as punctuation ;- I couldn’t figure out how he used it, but I always love seeing different writing styles. I think there is a lot about the book that I could not appreciate because it was my bedside reading, meaning I often read it 2 pages at a time and with heavy eyelids. The next time I read it will be during the day.
- Grade: A
27. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. My dad gave me this 462 page novel in 2001, a holiday tradition. I was 15 and couldn’t get into it after 50 pages. I finally picked it up again this year, and boy was I not ready for it at 15. The protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, is his own worse enemy, or actually maybe he’s cunning. Or maybe everyone is horrible and good in their own way. I’m not entirely sure what the message of the book was, but I loved the book. It is easily the second best novel I read this year and could have been the best in other years. Toole is an incredible writer, Nabokovian but uplifting and humorous. I also did not remember it was set in New Orleans or focused on working class characters, both features I really liked. My favorite line was on page 458 when Ignatius is convincing someone to leave his house quickly: “My mother may return with her mob. You should see them. White supremacists, Protestants, or worse.” That line with that author’s name told me everything I needed to know about him, so I was shocked to read the back jacket and see he died 32 in 1969. (I also had not realized the book is set in a pretty old era (post WWII?), which sort of nicely fits in my read-old-things theme.) Wikipedia just taught me out he took his own life and the novel definitely had pieces of him in it.
- Grade: A+
28. Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics by Daniel Hurewitz. This 282 page nonfiction history was worth finishing but not rereading. I forget where I purchased it, but I was excited to find a serious book about Los Angeles’ Edendale neighborhood (Silver Lake + Echo Park). I also thought the book was about Los Angeles’ role in the birth of the gay rights movement, but the book is really about the rise of identity politics. Hurewitz tells this emergence through long chapters about a male cross-dressing vaudeville turned Hollywood star (Julien Eltinge), a few artists, the Communist Party in Los Angeles, and race relations (Japanese internment and the Zoot Suit riots primarily). The book circles back in its last chapter about the Mattachine Society, likely the first gay rights group in America. Though there is some narrative connection across the chapters, mainly it seemed through the Communist Party, I could never really tell if the book was about the emergence of gay rights or identity politics. Learning more about the author and reading the Epilogue, I think it started as the former – he was researching the Mattachine Society and learned about Julien Eltinge – and expanded into the latter to become a book; in that expansion, structure was lost. The book did teach me a lot about the Zoot Suit riots, the Communist Party and the red scare, and cruising culture.
- Grade: B-
29. Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh. I was very excited to receive this 259 page novel as a birthday gift, as I needed a new novel, I had not heard of it, and it had glowing reviews. Boy was I disappointed. I haven’t disliked a book this much since A Farewell to Arms. The first 75 pages went nowhere, Goodreads confirmed many people did not like it for reasons I was not liking it, and fast reading the last 50 pages did not help. Just like watching Isiah Thomas play basketball, this book makes me think, “I could do that.” It’s a lot of rambling interiority that hides very little happening. I can see why some people would like it, but I could not get past how nothing was happening. How hard can it be to write 30 pages about searching someone’s name on the internet, especially when the author is allowed to digress into any topic that strikes their fancy? While I enjoyed several of the digressions, I could consume them by skipping around the middle of the multipage paragraphs, and they were not enough to keep me reading every page. I don’t regret opening it and I don’t regret it dropping it quickly.
- Grade: C-