I’ve been on a reading tear the past few months. Of the dozen or so I’ve read, two stand out in my mind as books my readers would enjoy and the third gets an “honorable mention.”
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. This novel takes place in Minnesota (Austin, Minneapolis, some northern suburbs), is wonderfully told and beautifully written. It came out in 2020 and was well-reviewed, which is how I found it. About a third of the way in, I decided to hurry through it and get to my next book. But then the protagonist came to life in my head. When I’d finished, I realized it had been a very satisfying experience. I mentioned it to my cousin and frequent reading partner and he wrote me back saying: “I just finished reading “The Life We Bury” and loved it. Well, that’s probably obvious from the fact that you recommended it a week ago and I’ve already finished it. It was well written, the characters were great and I was extremely familiar with the locales (well, Austin not so much but the Twin Cities and Mason City very much so). Great book.”
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou. This book was mentioned in my Business Ethics newsletter. But irrespective of that, it is history that reads like a crime novel. You don’t have to have even visited the Bay Area to like this book. And with the verdict on Holmes coming out earlier this month, it’s very timely. I think you would love it.
Matrix by Lauren Groff. This is one of those books I bought due to its rave critical reviews (NPR called it one of the best books of 2021) and my interest in books about history. This is historical fiction, featuring the life of poet Marie de France. The writing is incredible, but the tale was not so much to my liking. But seriously, the prose is so exceptional; I would read just about anything this author writes. It tells the story of de France who, at 17, is booted out of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine due to being perceived as too rough and coarse for marriage — too tall, too unattractive, and too butch. Plus, she is the result of her mother being raped, and the medieval shame of all that. She’s sent to England and becomes the prioress of a rundown abbey where the nuns are starving. She makes the best of her circumstances with an amazingly powerful focus, switching out her desire for family into building the order into something powerful and frightening, finding love and fulfillment in the process. It’s a mixture of the sacred and profane, violence, sex and sensuality, and religious ecstasy.
P.S. I love audio books! I’m a person who does well with what Maggie calls background noise. Sometimes, it helps me focus on whatever else I’m doing – sharpening knives, hiking, doing dishes, driving or tinkering in my workshop. I download books from the Phoenix Public Library app “OverDrive.” It’s free, easy, and sometimes frustrating, but it works for me. Ginger has gifted me with a few of her Audible books, and I love that.
Do let me know about books you’ve enjoyed recently. Let’s keep in touch.
My oldest daughter and I are working to get better at recommending books to each other. We quickly realized my old and new favorites might not be right for her and vice versa. Recommending someone read a book is different from telling someone about a book you liked. To do better at finding books we’d both like and could share, I began a summary of my favorite authors and books for her. That effort soon exploded into what you see below. But read on; perhaps you’ll see authors and books you remember fondly or something you’ll want to read. Even better, something you read may cause you to recall a favorite book and recommend it to me.
Christopher Moorebooks: These books are light-hearted, deftly written, and fun. They occasionally dip into the supernatural but in a unique and fun way. One three-book series is centered in a fictitious coastal town: Practical Demonkeeping, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, and The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. Another three books are about vampires in San Francisco and I love them, too. Moore’s standalone novels include Coyote Blue, Island of the Sequined Love Nun and Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, this last one being my favorite of the standalone books. The first of his I read was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, and I got hooked. It was impossible not to begin forming ideas about the author – his age, where he lived, his values, and interests. Meeting Moore at a book signing at Palo Alto’s Kepler’s Books & Magazines one afternoon in 2007, nearly all my ideas proved to be true. He was a soft-spoken young-ish man, in no way full of himself, although well-traveled and clearly in love with Northern California. Reading his books made me smile, and I’ve re-read several. The characters are interesting, the situations fun and bizarre. Moore is one of only a couple of authors I’ve recommended to my younger daughter, Ginger. She read and fell in love with his books, too, although I’m not sure she’s read them all. Moore’s chronicles of Pocket the Fool were not to my liking, but all of the ones listed above are brilliant. I suspect Christie may like these and may even consider introducing some of them to her girls.
John Sandford books: Sandford is best known for his series of detective/crime thrillers, all with “Prey” in the title and revolve around the cases of Minneapolis homicide detective, Lucas Davenport. One of his fellow detectives, Virgil Flowers, spun out another series of books, in the same way The Mary Tyler Moore Show spun out the Lou Grant Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis. All of Virgil’s cases are located in/around the Mankato, MN area. Sandford also wrote a less popular series about a computer hacker, Joe Kidd. Sandford books are a great ride. I read them in order and enjoyed the character maturing, getting married, having kids, and changing jobs. Sandford is still cranking them out. At first, I pegged my fondness for his books on recognizing so many Minnesota landmarks. After all, reading “He sped south on I-35 out of Minneapolis towards Burnsville” creates a clearer mental image to me than, “Thomas drove north from Philadelphia on the 295 towards New Jersey.” After a few books, I realized it wasn’t only the landmarks – he’s just a superb storyteller. Sandford’s popularity is not only for those familiar with Minnesota as each new book promptly shoots to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List. Flowers and Davenport are fun because they’re smart and exercise superior judgment in the face of common practice. They never fail to get the perpetrator. Sandford also dipped into Science Fiction (Saturn Run) and Juvenile Fiction. I’ve read all his Si-Fi books and like them, too. I read one of his JF books and, while decent, it is hard to beat any of the Davenport or Virgil Flowers books.
Lee Child books: Child has created a compelling character in Jack Reacher and features him in at least 25 books. Reacher always gets the hideously wicked bad guys. Given his physical strength, military training, and being smarter than others, he always wins, and I enjoy reading how he manages it. Each book has “set pieces,” situations regular fans love and read the books to find – such as Reacher taking on a group of bad guys in hand-to-hand combat who make the mistake of thinking numbers will somehow overcome Reacher’s physical strength and training. Or, when he uses his skills with a rifle to make impossible sniper shots or when he manages to compel someone into revealing what he needs to know when they think they’ll be able to keep it hidden. They’re predictable, exciting, and fun.
Thomas Perry: This LA-based writer is one I’ve read since the early 1980s and keep coming back to over and over. His books are the equivalent of comfort food. The first I read was Metzger’s Dog. We were living in LA at the time and Perry captured the city and the highways I was so familiar with, making the book come alive. Next was The Butcher’s Boy. This 1982 book was even better than Metzger’s Dog and I was thrilled when this character returned and starred in 3 more books arriving in 1992, 2011, and 2020). He also writes female characters very well and I like his Jane Whitefield series, about a skilled Native American woman who helps people to disappear. His Jack Till series books are good along with many of his stand-alone novels like Nightlife, Fidelity, Strip, The Bomb Maker, The Burglar, Death Benefits, and others.
Taylor Stevens: Ms. Stevens has created a wonderful female protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, the daughter of American missionaries in Africa. The Vanessa Michael Munroe books are international, boots-on-the-ground thrillers featuring a mercenary information hunter who is a mix of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. She is smart, cunning, insightful, and perhaps best of all, a genuine bad-ass. You do not want to fight with her, ever, especially if she has a knife. I loved the first few books, The Informationist, The Innocent,The Doll and The Vessel. I still have The Catch and The Mask to go. Stevens, while an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author with over twenty books, came to writing fiction late. Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, her education ended at the 6th grade. She spent her adolescence as a child laborer. She now lives in Dallas. Her backstory is as interesting as her books.
Carl Hiaasen: This writer, based in Florida, sets most of his books there. He is like a cross between Christopher Moore and Thomas Perry or Lee Child. My favorites include Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, Bad Monkey, Razor Girl, Squeeze Me and, Strip Tease. He’s a columnist too and has several book collections of his columns which I have not read. Not everyone likes these books, but I do. In my mind he’s like Elmore Leonard, but funnier. He’s written an entire series for young readers and I read a couple of them, not knowing they were for kids. But once I’d begun Hoot and Flush, I just had to keep reading. Superb for kids, both boys and girls.
Martin Cruz Smith: This author’s fictional detective, Arkady Renko, first appeared in Gorky Park. I went on to read Polar Star, Red Square, Stalin’s Ghost and finally ran aground in Havana Bay, as it was slow to start and other book commitments were pending. Some of the books are set in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and others take place after the fall of the Soviet Union. I read the paper book versions first but liked them better as audiobooks, where I did not have to struggle with Russian name pronunciation in my head and relied on the voice actor to figure it out.
Scandinavian Crime Thrillers: These books, sometimes referred to as Nordic Noir, are highly gripping, brilliantly plotted, and, sometimes, dark and chilling. My favorites writers are Stieg Larsson and Jussi Adler Olsen with Jo Nesbo a bit behind. My interest began with Larsson’s Swedish trilogy “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” (etc,) and not just because author Stieg Larsson’s name translates in English to “Steve Larson.” I devoured the trilogy and wanted to read more like them, but the author up and died. Jussi Adler Olsen’s Dept. Q novels were the perfect next step. While bleak landscapes, chilling crimes with brooding characters struggling to find justice can be off-putting at first, the quality of the writing, superb craftsmanship in the stories and the plot twists and turns are worth the investment. I’ve given up on a couple of Jo Nesbo books when they got a bit dark. I’ll put Tom Rob Smith in here as well, even though he’s British. His highly acclaimed book, Child 44, is one of the best-crafted pieces of fiction I’ve read. It features MGB agent Leo Demidov and is set in Stalin’s Soviet Union. My cousin, Ron Herem, who’s responsible for tipping me off to Nordic Noir suggested this author, too.
John D. McDonald: This is where it all started. I expect these books from the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s won’t hold up to reading today, but they are superbly fun and highly instructive. I loved them and so did hundreds of thousands of other readers back in the day. McDonald wrote this series of crime thrillers about a Florida-based detective named Travis McGee who lived on a houseboat and drank Boodles Gin martinis. Lee Child and John Sandford followed McDonald’s blueprint to a tee and have created their book franchises. I read every one of the 21 Travis McGee novels. Two other favorite writers of mine, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, openly credit John D. McDonald with inspiring their work. The Travis McGee books all have a color in the title from the first one, “The Deep Blue Good-by” in 1964 to the last one, “The Lonely Silver Rain” in 1984. McGee’s fictional 52-foot houseboat was named the Busted Flush, docked in the Bahia Mar Marina in Ft. Lauderdale. He’s not a cop or a detective but instead bills himself as a “salvage consultant,” expert at recovering lost or stolen items, for which he takes a 50% commission when he recovers them. He’s sort of a beach bum, somewhat retired, and only takes cases if he needs money or they interest him. His ride is a 1936 Rolls Royce converted into a pickup which he named Miss Agnes. McGee always wins, he gets the best lines, outsmarts everyone, and solves the mystery.
Fantasy and Science Fiction: Early on I read the classics, starting with J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy during my college years. Later I moved to Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game and the entire series as well as the Seventh Son books). Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land and a host of others) and, Vernor Vinge were all excellent. My friend Jerry Michalski tipped me to William Gibson’s Neuromancer and I read the first of his Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light, but lost interest at Pattern Recognition – he just lost me. I fell in love with Neal Stephenson after reading Snowcrash in the early 1990s. To this day I think his The Diamond Age is one of the most remarkable feats of imagination ever.
Douglas Adams was amazing, too. A Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy and all of its iterations, including a BBC radio show and follow-on books (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything and finally; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. His Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was also mind-bendingly fun.
Maggie introduced me to the fantasy world of Roger Zelazny when we were courting. This category would be remiss without mentioning all the wonderful books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clark, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert (re-reading it several years later it dawned on me Dune wasn’t only Sci-Fi but maybe one of the best political novels ever written), and Michael Crichton’s books are skillful blends of science fiction, technology and bio-tech.
Recently my nephew, Robert, and my friend Chuk Batko have made some good recommendations. Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, Ernest Cline with Ready Player One and Two, Arkady Martine (A Memory Called Empire – Teixcalaan #1). Bob Meador recommended Mark Helprin books but the first one I found, Winter’s Tale, which is later in the series, had me stopping halfway through. I wrote Bob and said, “On the plus side, it is beautifully written. Sometimes I had to go back and reread passages because I got so caught up in the richness of his ornate sentences and paragraphs. I attempted The Call of Cthulhuand Other Stories by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, as I was told this was the key to understanding Pratchett and Gaiman, but found it too weird for my taste.
Rich fantasies are not so much my preferred sort of book these days. I reread, well truthfully, “began” to reread the J.R.R. Tolkein series and only got halfway through the first one. Attempting to read it a second time, 30 years later, it seemed there was so much “unnecessary” stuff. Long explanations of the Elvish language, poems, and songs, topographical descriptions go on for pages. It made me think of iconic author Elmore Leonard’s advice to budding writers – “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I enjoyed Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and am way into the James S. A. Corey Expanse series, on book seven I think. I’ve completed Babylon’s Ashes and have started Tiamat’s Wrath. The ninth book, which isn’t out yet, I’ve been told is the final one. Yesterday I finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s categorized as Juvenile Fiction and I thought it might be a good introduction into the fantasy world for my granddaughters. It’s actually perfect for that and quite brilliant, really and not surprisingly, won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association.
Other Popular Writers. The following books are ones I’ve read more than once. While superb books, they don’t merit their own sections. They include John Irving (I began with The World According to Garp but my favorite was A Widow for One Year), Robert Ludlum (nearly all of his – who didn’t love Jason Bourne?), Tom Clancy (the first few with Hunt for Red October the best), John Grisham (his legal thrillers first, like A Time to Kill, but more recently I’ve read his Camino Island books and they’re no-stress delights), Mario Puzo (the first three – the essential Mafia books), Scott Turow (the first two Presumed Innocent books were brilliant), Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee books are excellent and provide a view of tribal life in the southwest showcasing its vast space. Anne Tyler (I loved The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons), James Michener (started with The Source, then read several more but grew tired of the formula), Dean Koontz, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Larry McMurtry (his Lonesome Dove books are classic and no one’s written a better western), Anne Rice (vampires), Ken Follett, David Baldacci (pretty up to date on him, and that says a lot – of books, that is), John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – which I’ve begun rereading in anticipation of a visit to Savannah early in 2022), Nora Ephron, David Sedaris (nearly all of his), John Burdett (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series based in Thailand) with thanks to Chuk Batko, again. I would be remiss if I did not mention Cormac McCarthy – his All The Pretty Horses in 1992 had a huge impact on me from a storytelling and writer’s craft standpoint.
Modern History / Contemporary issues: There are almost too many books here to list and not everyone will find this category as interesting as I do. But here are a few of my favorites:
J. Baime’s “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at LeMans (Unbelievable story, incredibly written, all true, and why I’ll never own a Ferrari.)
Simon Winchester. This British-American author and journalist writes amazingly thoughtful and well-researched books. Like Baime, these books are almost impossible to put down once started. My first was his 2018 book, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, thanks to a recommendation from my friend David Barnett. Soon after I discovered his newest book (2021), Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the World, and then 2019’s The Professor and the Madman and after that, The Map that Changed the World. It turns out he’s written 66 books. One of the coolest things about the ones I recently enjoyed was they were in audiobook format and the author reads them himself, and he sounds mysteriously like the most famous of all British actor voices, David Attenborough. Could they be brothers? Or perhaps Americans are suckers for the sound of 70+-year-old British men?
Ron Chernow’s book about Alexander Hamilton was a must-read in preparation for seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing stage production. It was superb, not as compelling to me as Baime or Winchester, but good enough for me to put some of his other books, many about famous American icons like Thomas Jefferson, Washington, John D. Rockefeller are on my “to read” list. As I get older, I find books like this holding more interest.
Malcolm Gladwell: Less about history, more about lessons from modern society and observations of our world. I played a small role in Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point. We got to be friends when he did an article on my company for The New Yorker. He spoke at several of my Personalization Summit conferences. I’ve been reading and recommending his books ever since.
Sapiens and all books by Yuval Noah Harari: In mid-2021, just coming out of the Covid lock-down, I was blown away by Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was moved to write about it and you can read what I wrote here.
The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. I wrote about his book here. Beware, you’ll need to skip down a bit to reach the review of Nichols book, or wade through my introduction to reading as a youngster and how my reading evolved.
Michael Lewis: How in the world did I get this far without mentioning one of my favorite writers in this space? Michael Lewis is brilliant. The first of his I read was Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game. Then I read The New New Thing, then The Big Short,Liar’s Poker, and most recently, The Undoing Project. Lewis takes highly complex subjects, unpacks them, and makes them not only easy to understand but compelling and impossible to put down.
Tracy Kidder: Kidder came out of the gate with his book The Soul of a New Machine in 1981. I was working at Control Data at the time and his insight into how hardware development teams worked struck such an amazing cord with me, I’ve recommended this book to techy friends hundreds of times. It earned him a Pulitzer Prize. His keen observational skills are at work in House (1985) and Among Schoolchildren in 1990. After reading this last one, I finally understood what it took to be a school teacher and how incredibly difficult it is to do it well. And why.
Paco Underhill: After reading his first book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, I thought Underhill was a cultural anthropologist. It turns out he’s not. He’s an environmental psychologist. If you ever hear a teenager complain, “I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” give them this book. I learned and polished my business fundamentals on the retail sales floor and in managing retail stores. Reading Underhill pulls apart everything I thought I knew and was truly amazing. Just a wonderful book.
Religion and Philosophy: Beyond what I studied in college as a Philosophy and Religion major, C. S. Lewis (nearly all his books), Hermann Hesse, John Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Great Philosophers Vol 1 and 2, Pascal Pensées (one of my favorites). I’ve read The Bible cover to cover at least twice and I once even managed to get course credit for doing so. More recently I’ve read two books by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Portable Atheist. In this genre, I can’t help mentioning Penn Gillette’s book, God No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist. At first, you might think, given Gillette’s love of provocation to dismiss this as just more of his shtick, but he puts a deep and sharp intellect on display in a way that is super easy and fun.
Business Books: I already wrote a newsletter about these, so no need to do that again. That newsletter is here. In addition, I’m leaving out motorcycle and car books as well as the photo montage books I’ve written.
Authors I don’t read and other “Not for me books:”
This section may be the most useful of this entire project and the most informative of my tastes. I frequently buy and read books with terrific reviews or recommended by friends and family. The titles below are books I didn’t like. In some cases, I abandoned them before getting all the way through although mostly I finish books, even the ones I don’t like.
Stephen King/Thomas Tryon books: My friend, Dan Knappe gave me his copy of Harvest Home many years ago and I didn’t get through it. Not from boredom – it scared the bejesus out of me. I’ve avoided King and Tryon books ever since, along with most horror writers.
The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine. Recommended in The Week Magazine, billed as “Shocking turns and dark secrets that will keep you guessing until the very end.” Reviews like this can suck me in. I got halfway through this book and quit. It did not hold my interest at all. I did not care what happened to Mrs. Parrish or the other people in the book.
The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah. Recommended by my daughter and she loved it. Overly long and I didn’t care for the characters.
The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. Good book, but after the first few chapters, I felt I’d heard everything he had to say.
The first three Robert Galbraith books featuring Cormoran Strike. I was so excited to read this series when I learned Galbraith was the pen name of J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. However, after reading the first three, I was so done with the Strike/Robin “relationship” and the frequent bone-head actions of the protagonists. The constant descriptions of smoking, tea and coffee drinking, and Strike’s failing to care for his prosthesis drove me mad.
Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton. A modern biography, too wrapped up in her head. Not of interest.
Luster by Raven Leilani. This is a highly reviewed book of a woman in her twenties trying to get a handle on herself and life. While I understand its great reviews, this is not the sort of book I enjoy reading.
The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Well reviewed, but frankly, I answered these questions for myself years ago and someone else’s journey held very little interest or insight.
Terry Pratchett – Several books in the Discworld Series: Mort, Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, Eric, Small Gods. I wanted to love Pratchett – a favorite author of a favorite friend. Pratchett has an incredible imagination and I love his creativity. He just appeals to a part of me that does not exist anymore.
Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. I recently re-read this one because as a 30-year-old, I was blown away. However, it does not hold up well but remains a classic on lists of all-time best Science Fiction books.
Health Books: No surprise, over the past ten years I’ve read many books about health, no doubt in response to my open heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018. I won’t bother to list them all here, but a general observation: Contemporary scientific research has a considerable amount of data on how the foods we eat impact our health, weight, moods, energy, stamina, sense of well-being, and ability to fight disease. Sadly, by the time it becomes common knowledge and understood, millions of people will die early and needlessly and others will lead painful, unhealthy, and unhappy lives. (I wrote about it recently). Scientists knew twenty-five years before anti-smoking laws went into effect that tobacco and smoking were killing people – by the hundreds of thousands. But then it took another twenty years for most people to stop, although some still haven’t. Science knows now that sugar is doing the same thing to an even greater number of Americans. Twenty-five years from now, the food landscape will look much different.
As I conclude this compilation, I keep thinking of other books I’ve read that I forgot or deliberately omitted. The spreadsheet where I attempt to keep track of books I’ve read numbers over a thousand. This averages to 20 books a year for 50 years, which I know is a vast under-count. I have some good reading years ahead. Send me your suggestions, please. By now, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what I like and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t.
Reading and listening to books helps me pass a lot of activities here in the Phoenix heat. You might have seen my take on Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindby now, but if not, it is here. I loved it so much I read it twice and ordered all of Harari’s other books. I’ve been watching YouTube interviews with the author, Yuval Noah Harari, speaking with a very diverse group of interviewers. None of those doing the interviewing approach Harari’s intellect, depth of knowledge, or speed in following a conversation.
In no particular order, here are a few others from my most recent reading list:
Squeeze Me and Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen: For an unknown reason I equate Carl Hiaasen novels with “guilty pleasure.” His dialog and situations are as good as or better than the late great Elmore Leonard. His characters, especially the criminals, are remarkably creative and wonderfully drawn and weird, all at the same time. I’ve been reading his books since the mid-1980s and Skinny Dip, Bad Monkey, and Razor Girl are some of my favs. I recommended Lucky You to my friend, Frank Del Monte. Frank went out and read Squeeze Me, instead, then recommended it to me. Lucky You is an older book, while Squeeze Me has many contemporary characters and themes, but both are vintage Hiaasen. Anyone who enjoys a fun tale, masterfully told with fascinating protagonists and antagonists will love any Hiaasen book.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: I was warned this book was long, and it is. While it is universally praised as a masterpiece, with critics saying author Kristin Hannah is at the top of her game here, I found it overly long. On the plus side, it provided an amazing graphic and detailed view of Alaska in the mid-1970s and the type of people who choose to move there, changing their lives a great deal in the process. Anyone who’s ever lived in Alaska, known someone from there, or has thought about what it would be like to have lived there, will love this peek into Alaskan history. If only there had been more of that. Not being as open to new and different reading experiences as I should be, I grew tired and angry at the litany of poor judgment calls by most of the protagonists. This is a frequent complaint of mine in some books I read – authors who are too lazy or unskilled to create realistic situations for their characters. Having characters make mistake after stupid mistake makes them appear foolish and weak. I like books with strong women characters (strong men characters, too), but this isn’t that. I was so “done” with Leni and Matthew two-thirds of the way in, I hoped they’d die after falling into a crevasse. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you want the main characters to just die and get it over with. And don’t get me started on the judgment of the mother, Cora. Geez, Louise! In the first half of the book, I was rooting for Leni. She is, incidentally, the only character the author fleshes out to any real depth. Her mother, father, and pretty much everyone else, are more cardboard caricatures than real people. Others may love this book. I did not.
Cormoran Strike Series: Seeing a new (to me) series of police/detective procedural novels, I jumped in with both feet after learning the author, Robert Galbraith, was a pen name for the brilliant J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. When reviews compared her protagonist, Cormoran Strike, to Jack Reacher (Lee Child) and Lucas Davenport/Virgil Flowers (John Sandford), I thought I was in for a treat. I read the first one; The Cuckoo’s Calling in print, then did the audiobook versions for The Silkworm and Career of Evil. There are two more in the series. The first book is sort of good, the second less so, and by the time I finished the third one, I was so done with the Strike/Robin “relationship” I quit. I was unable to put up with Cormoran’s assistant/partner’s frequent bone-head actions anymore. How can someone who appears so intelligent at times, calmly walk down a deep dark alley with warning signs practically screaming at you to run? Oh, because she was thinking about a text message from her fiancé. What??? And the main character, Strike, became incredibly tiresome. By the third book, I was bored silly with the constant descriptions of his smoking, drinking tea or coffee, and complete lack of care for his prosthesis. There is a fourth in the series, Lethal White, and a fifth, Troubled Blood with rumors of a sixth. Not for me, I’m done.
With Covid I’ve been reading a lot more and these are only a small sample. I’ll not bore you with all the healthy eating and books on fasting I’ve read. Nor a whole set of books I been “re-reading” after first reading them fifteen to twenty years ago. I wanted to see if they were as good as I remember and if I was impressed as I’d been originally. In most cases, the answer has been no. If that changes, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you have a good time reading and feel free to send along your favorites.
Reading books is an addiction which began for me in grade school and only in my busiest years have I not been in its clutches. You will learn my top four non-fiction books for 2020 in this newsletter, but not before I make you wade through the story of how I became a reader.
By the end of third grade at Lincoln School in Fairmont, MN, I suspect I’d not yet learned to read. Maybe a wee bit, but not very well, certainly. I have reproduced my third grade report card chronicling my failures and my teacher’s recommendation to repeat third grade. My parents, sensitive to the trauma I would undergo the following year as my classmates moved on and I remained with a group of younger kids, transferred me to what was then called a “parochial school” – a church sponsored school. Starting in this new school in the 3rd grade (again) had no noticeable stigma as all the kids were new. What was different was what had happened over that summer.
In the summer of 1959, following my grade 3 failure, I began playing with a neighborhood kid a year older whose parents allowed him to have comic books. This was way cool, as comics were not allowed in our house. I loved reading them, except at first, it was hard to figure out the words in the bubbles above the various characters’ heads. Remembering “sounding out” exercises from school and with my friend’s help, by the end of the summer I was reading pretty well, albeit just comics. My mother noticed my interest in comics and, while she refused to buy Superman, Batman, Archie or Donald Duck, she found “Classics Illustrated,” a publisher who took “stories by the World’s Greatest Authors” and turned them into comic books. Soon I’d read and re-read A Tale of Two Cities, Lorna Doone, The Man Without A Country, The Virginian, Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, Silas Marner, Lord Jim and many others. I still have 17 of these comics in decent — although well-read-condition. When I got older, I felt compelled to read the full novels, and in some cases I did.
In my second shot at 3rd grade, I still hated school, refused to pay attention or cooperate. But a librarian at the school introduced me to Jack London’s novels (White Fang, The Call of the Wild, To Build a Fire) and then to a whole shelf filled with historic fiction. I began tearing through the entire lot. I discovered I could hide a book behind a notebook, out of sight of the teacher, and read throughout the school day, only looking up toward the teacher when I turned the pages. While I could read, I still stunk at school and hated it.
In high school one semester they offered a class in speed reading. That class, along with typing and driver’s ed, were the only classes where I got decent grades. But then, in the 11th grade, two teachers took an interest in me. From one I discovered the debate team and theatre, completely changing who my friends were, and from the second, a single comment changed my life: “You know, you write very well. You should come help us on the school paper.” From C and D grades in 10th grade I made the dean’s list in the 11th, and when I transferred to Mayo High School in Rochester for my senior year of high school, I left the bad student persona behind and spent grade 12 as an A student.
In college I found time to get through my assigned textbooks while adding what my student colleagues were reading as “recreational literature.” I remember devouring The Lord of the Rings books, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and anything by C.S. Lewis. My roommate at the time, Lloyd Schley, was a philosophy major and introduced me to new books and writers. Although having read Huxley, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Vonnegut and Voltaire in my high school Humanities class, Lloyd expanded my philosophical novel list extensively: Hermann Hesse (Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha), Camus (The Stranger, The Fall), Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and Huxley (After Many a Summer). These were before hitting me with harder stuff from Bertrand Russell, Being and Nothingness, Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil), his favorites. I got lost on Nietzsche. I think Lloyd wanted me to read them so we could argue. Whatever the rationale, it worked.
In my thirties, at Control Data, there was one area in which I was insecure. To work in the group I led, you were required to have an MBA to even apply. I wondered if anyone knew I had no advanced business degree. Books like In Search of Excellence, anything by Peter Drucker, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and Megatrends by John Naisbitt became my instructors. CDC would later hire Naisbitt as a consultant and he and I became friends. I also listened to audio tape training programs. One of my favorites was William Oncken’s Managing Management Time. It was a brilliant treatise on how to be effective in large organizations and I listened to it over and over. He was a brilliant speaker and hilarious, and his techniques for bothering to do only the work that mattered as a manager, helped me a great deal. For entertainment, spy novels were the rage and I loved all of John Le Carre’s books as well as those by Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Graham Greene, Ken Follet and Frederic Forsyth. My friend David Barnett this year recommended John Le Carre’s autobiography and it was a delight to read. This was also the period in which I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and from there fell in love with anything Douglas Adams wrote.
So, now I’m retired. I no longer read business advice books. Over the past year I’ve given away over 250 business and investment books, some dearly loved. I now re-read favorite classics and find new authors. I still love fiction and probably pick it up more often than non-fiction. This coming year I will re-read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as I hear they’re making a movie or series about it. My nephew Robert has got me re-interested in Science Fiction and so I’m well into several multi-book epics like The Expanse series.
You made it this far, so you deserve this, my list of the four best non-fiction books I read in 2020. It goes without saying I recommend each highly.
The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, by Simon Winchester (He also authored The Map That Changed the World, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness & the Love of Words and many others.) A master story-teller, Winchester uses precision as a lens to examine history beginning in the Industrial Age. I found the book impossible to put down. I read it earlier in the year and recently listened to it again. I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well. Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes.
Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and their Battle for Speed and Glory, by A. J. Baime (He also authored The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, Big Shots: The Men Behind the Booze). Technically, I may have read this in 2019, I forget. It’s still one of the best page-turning history books I’ve ever read. And they made the movie “Ford vs. Ferrari” staring Matt Damon and Christian Bale from this book.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis (He also authored Moneyball, The Big Short, The New New Thing, and Liar’s Poker)
I’ve read several other Michael Lewis books, and along with Malcolm Gladwell, he makes highly compelling stories of seemingly dry, complex subjects and events. In this book he explores the spider web of concepts influencing human judgement and decision-making and errors in the human psyche. He makes the research of Tversky and Kahneman interesting and their odd friendship relatable.
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols.
I started this book in 2020 and am still reading it, but got more than half-way through in 2020, so am including it here. While scary, it’s very good, never preachy. Unfortunately, this is highly accurate reporting on where things stand right now. If Nichols is going to make recommendations on how we get out of this mess, I’ve yet to see it. But I’ve still got two chapters to go.
For every non-fiction book, I probably read ten fiction stories. So, that list is considerably longer and I’ll save that for another post. If you liked this post, let me know. I know many people don’t read books anymore, but I still love them, although I’m just as likely these days to listen to a book via digital audio as read it. I just don’t fly as much anymore, where I tried to read a book per flight. Here are four quotes from the above books:
“…the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”
― Thomas M. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters