Books I Read in 2019

  1. Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse by Bob Woodward. The biggest surprise I had while reading this was to find out that Trump doesn’t come across as the psychopath I was expecting. I still disagree with 99% of his actions, but now I see they are actually often calculated actions. Woodward’s book includes this quote before the Mueller report revealed it, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” The book does reveal that the White House environment truly is as toxic and chaotic as it appears from the outside. There is no coherent team plan, and Trump seems uninterested in cultivating one.
  2. The Queen: Aretha Franklin by Mikal Gilmore. This is a relatively short audio book and covers Franklin’s career from singing in church as a child, to her 38th studio album Great Diva Classics, released in 2014. A lot of Aretha’s family life is revealed, because it’s intertwined with her art. Multiple partners and then brothers managed her career. She lost her parents and suffered domestic abuse. The book does not dig deep into the personal stuff, but instead shows the impact it had on her career at that time. It also showed how Aretha kept herself working and kept her optimism by sheer willpower (and a dash of denial).
  3. The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro. I didn’t realize till I finished it, but this is not the complete life story of LBJ, but stops soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, while Johnson is still a US Representative. The journalistic thoroughness is astounding, and a detailed picture was painted of the life of the former President. The story (because it is told as a story) begins with Johnson’s grandparents and the emmigration of people to West Texas to begin a life. The author clearly believes that understanding LBJ requires understanding his heritage, and that is one of tough, simple, country folk that live their entire lives in poverty and die early from hard work. Caro does a laudable job of illuminating the life of generations of West Texans, and he returns frequently to more stories to illustrate what life was like out there in the 1800s and how it changed over the years, always lagging behind the modern life of people in the cities. An unflattering portrait of Johnson is revealed from his toddlerhood, of an awkward child who bullied and manipulated to gain personal attention and power from the earliest days, and how he surrounded himself with the few who were willing to put up with him so they could ride his coattails. LBJ had a cult of devotees who were willing to show him the absolute deference he demanded, and he rewarded them. The book spends an extraordinary amount of time on the life of Sam Rayburn, House Speaker from Texas, which is relevant because Rayburn is one of the people that LBJ manipulates into liking him, and then Rayburn helps him establish his footing in the House once Johnson is elected. It becomes clear throughout his lifetime that LBJ only did things that he calculated were going to help him achieve his astonishingly bold ambitions. He sucked up to everyone, changing his position in 5 minutes when he turned to the next man. He instructed associates to burn his letters, refused to give statements to the media during certain times, refused to send telegrams on certain topics, all to fiercely protect his position on anything, or opinion about anyone, so that everyone surrounding him believed he was on their side and agreed with them. He lied and cheated without reserve, enthusiastically taking illegal money from oil companies and buying votes when it was common to buy votes. I can’t stand the man after reading this book. I did find one redeeming quality, and that is that LBJ worked his ass off from day one. Never to study for school, but if it would improve his political career, Johnson worked harder than anyone. 18 hour days were the norm. He was a genius at political strategem, and a genius for sniffing out appointments that would place him in a position of power over other people. With power roles, he began doling out favours and never let those people forget it, and you can bet he came back and collected on every one. He did a lot of good for Texas (and maybe for the country too, but the book didn’t go that far), but don’t mistake it for good intentions. Johnson was all about promoting himself. If bringing power to rural citizens would make him famous, then he would do it, and improving quality of life for his constituents was an accidental side effect.
  4. A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain. A short story about a section of the early life of Marie Sklodowska (later Marie Curie). It was interesting and I picked up some knowledge about that time in Paris and about Marie and her future husband Pierre and their relationship. It ended too quickly, as short stories often do.
  5. Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean. This book appeals to me because it is about smokejumpers, a topic I feel close to, having grown up in the West where they are a fact of every summer and also close to a smokejumper training base in McCall, Idaho. I grew up in a US Forest Service family, knowing what smokejumpers were and hearing their stories. It also appeals to me because the area he talks about in Montana is close to what I called home growing up in northern Idaho. The places and people he describes are familiar to me because of an identical culture, even if I haven’t been exactly to those places. However, his writing style is annoying. Too much flowery poetry, blah blah. He takes every opportunity to foreshadow, when it is entirely unnecessary, saying something like “Though the day was beautiful, he didn’t know that by the end of the day, beauty could not make up for the tragedy in store,” or some similar phrase. Yeah yeah yeah, tell the story already. Understand that the author died before publishing and the final version was edited by someone else, though I must believe the editor would have tried to accurately capture the author’s voice. Although the style is irritating, the story is astounding and dramatic and meticulously documented and researched. I constantly got the impression that I was listening to a sweet old man tell a story he loved telling. It’s not my prefered style, but I’m willing to forgive his idiosyncracies to get the story out of him. What a story.
  6. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. This is an incredible story.  On an interesting note, it reminded me repeatedly of Major Pettrigrew’s Last Stand, which I reviewed in 2012.  Holy mother of god, can Rowling create textured, realistic characters. I realized that I read all the Harry Potter books because I love fantasy, and totally missed the fact that she’s an exceptional author. I cannot believe that people haven’t raved themselves hoarse over this book. It’s raw. It’s ugly and painful. It reveals the stark reality of being human so well it was as though she was writing a documentary, not fiction. Rowling must have experienced some of these life events, or it never could have been created so perfectly. Like a gruesome car crash beside the highway, I couldn’t look away for a moment. In a nutshell, it’s about a dispute over municipal boundaries in a small English town. The main players are the members of town council, people thinking of running for council, and their teenage kids. Holy shit it’s beautiful. So achingly beautiful because it shows us who we are, and shows us that there is no other way to be, because we are human, and frail. It shows us many faces of love, and how powerful it is when one of us needs to be loved.
  7. Junk by Les Bohem. Narrated by John Waters. It’s actually a pretty good book, but ugh, John Waters’ narration was terrible. I mean terrible. He’s got a great voice, but it seemed zero comprehension while reading. Every third sentence was stated with incredulity/eager enthusiasm no matter what the mood. Put an exclamation point after every sentence. “The house was SURROUNDED by a picket fence!” He emphasized things all wrong so I was constantly confused until I learned to ignore his voice, listen to the words, and simply figure it out in my mind while he went on to the next sentence. Anyway…. Good story. It’s an end of the world novel that begins with some kind of disease spreading through modern day America. Turns out, the “disease” is actually a gene switch that has been flipped, and humans have a variety of ways of dealing with it. Or not. Magic and betrayal save the day. Barely. I enjoyed reading a novel set in today, with references to current pop icons and pop events, such as the main character who does a vlog on conspiracy theories, and how consumerism consumes us.
  8. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It was a little hard to get initially engaged. I blame that on the scarcity of information available today about the original Norse mythology. It begins as a list of what we know. But soon enough an entertaining saga emerges, and it gave me my first real education on the gods Odin, Thor, Loki and all the others, without Marvel’s influence. It’s Gaiman’s attempt to get to the real roots. I heard the names of many gods – most of whom I had never heard of before. I learned for the first time how critical a role the giants play in the life of the gods of Aasgard. It’s accessible for children or adults, with bizarre and sometimes violent stories told in a lighthearted way that make you uneasy, like Grimms fairy tales.
  9. The Other West Moore by Wes Moore. I heard the author interviewed on the radio and became mildly interested in this book. The premise has the appeal of a sound bite: Two boys with the same exact name grow up at the same time in the same neighborhood. One is a Rhodes scholar and attended Johns Hopkins and Oxford and is today a successful businessman. The other one is in prison for murder. True story. The author wants to know why, and reaches out to the Wes Moore in prison. Interestingly, they build a friendship over their conversations about what happened. At one point in the story he asks his friend about fates and expectations. His friend says that he believes that people’s fates are determined by other people’s expectations; if they are expected to succeed, they will succeed, and if they are expected to fail, they’ll fail. At the end, Moore states that he doesn’t agree with Wes’ take, and believes in other aspects, such as having the freedom of choice, and the resources to make choices. He hasn’t convinced me though. His life (and my life) included key people who stepped in at critical moments and expected more of us, and our lives reflect that though statistically we were never meant to have the successes we had. As I read it, I noticed that each young man had obstacles, and the author kept having some person show up who showed that they cared, and they believed in him. I do agree with the author that success requires a degree of luck, but I agree with Wes in prison: humans become what the people who raised us think we are. The book is well done. It’s honest and humble and uncomfortable. It’s revealing and discouraging and hopeful. I hope you read it.
  10. True West by Sam Shepard. This was an audio freebie because I subscribe to and so I read it. It’s a famous play I’ve never heard of, that was recorded. Mainly it’s two brothers talking, joined by their mothers’ voice at the very end. It’s in the genre of taking a personal look at struggling people with all their flaws and having the confirmation that, yep, life can suck and when we’re happy we’re just deluding ourselves. The emotion reminded me of Death of a Salesman. The brothers try to write a Hollywood script, it sucks, they fight all the way through and at the end get into a huge fight and one kills the other. The end. Apparently some of my all-time favourite actors have done this play. I’ve never seen it. I’m not a fan of this super miserable stuff.
  11. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. This is a great book and I’m so pleased since I’ve been a Noah fan for years. A pet peeve of mine is when stand up comedians write books and they’re trying to be funny. It does not work. Anyway… Noah’s book is not that. Instead, he tells his story about his parents (one white, one black – which is against the law) and his childhood in South African apartheid in his earnest, curious, humble way. I wasn’t expecting to find out what a troublemaker Noah was as a young person. Man that little dude pushed boundaries. God bless his mother. He was a hustler from a young age, finding ways to earn money so he could buy the clothes and food he wanted (McDonalds!!) instead of what his family provided. He jumped into life head first and wow, what a life. The insane adventures he had are totally plausible when told by Noah. Each adventure comes with a lesson about South Africa, about poverty, about racism, about growing up. I love that he did that in every single story. He manages to never be annoying, because he doesn’t lecture, he just lays it out there, and you’re already into the next paragraph when your brain puts it all together. Suddenly I would get a chill, and think “…. oh, shit.”
  12. You Do You: Proud to be Fabulous is not a book but a collection of stories like a Moth podcast, hosted by Tan France and Nikki Levy. (another audible freebie) The stories are all LGBTQIA themed and are each wonderful. I loved them all, listened to it twice.
  13. The Dead Drink First by Dale Maharidge. Yet another free story on audible. Seems like is designed for this kind of production. It’s an audio documentary by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. His research and investigation skills serve him well when he goes on an 18-year quest to find out more about his dad’s life in WWII, and in particular, the identity of a man in a photo that hung on the wall in his father’s home all his life, but that his father refused to talk about. In the beginning he explains what it’s like growing up with a person suffering from “shell shock,” which is what they called PTSD and TBI in WWII. It’s a hard life and the author and his brother are clearly still wounded by it and yearning for an explanation, though their father has died. The voices of his interviewees over the years are included, some mysteries are unraveled, some heroes (both those in the war and not) are revealed, and some unfinished chapters are finally completed. It’s very compelling.
  14. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. Published in 1864, this long novel is the first in a series and contains things I enjoy in a book. It is a strong commentary on womens’ rights, or lack thereof. Multiple examples are provided of how women were clearly not considered competent, or resilient, or clever…and also how those very women have many men in the story by a virtual leash – and not always consciously. I especially appreciated the politics and the fact that the author never lost track of storylines, even those that seem unimportant in the overall scheme of things. I also appreciated gaining an education of society in England at that time.
  15. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. My third Stegner book, and I am again struck by what a talented writer he is. There is no event in this story, just a detailed description of what it is like to live a life with a partner for a very long time. While the characters are interesting and the writing compelling, I was just never really into it. There are two couples who meet and become fast friends while they are young, and the book follows them into their 70s. Everybody’s got personality issues, particularly Charity, the bossy controlling one. I know it’s supposed to be some profound reflection on how life actually turns out, which is not what you expected, but there is a beauty in the reality after all. Meh. I guess I’m not in the right frame of mind for it.
  16. Count Zero by William Gibson. Second in the series, after Neuromancer. Gibson writes scifi at a level of intelligence that requires engagement from the reader. I began it when I had a lot on my mind, and after an hour I had absorbed nothing and had no idea what was going on or who was in it. I had to start over from the beginning, later when my brain was clear. I do think Count Zero was easier to follow than Neuromancer, but the book was not as exciting. There are a couple story lines (Turner the hired tough-guy, Bobby the initially clueless whiz kid, Marly the intelligent & passionate art-lover) that come together in the end. One bad guy seems to be eliminated in the end, after several good guys get destroyed, and that’s a nice temporary conclusion.  It’s clear, however, that there is some kind of emerging force in cyberspace and no one knows what its ultimate aim is. This is the same message introduced in Neuromancer, and I hope that book three is all about revealing what’s going on.
  17. Becoming by Michelle Obama. It’s a lovely story about a woman making her way in the world. And of course, the world she finds herself in is a place of incredible power and influence. She’s strong-willed and opinionated, and finds so much love to take and to give. She loves her community, her family, her work, her man, and her kids. She loves the people she meets and dedicates much of her life to finding ways to help. She learns lessons and is humbled and her fire keeps burning. Obama writes a story that’s honest and real, and she gave me renewed inspiration in this adventure we call life.
  18. The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich. In this short book Zwillich explains how John C. Houbolt made it possible for us to get to the moon on the timeline set by NASA and the President. He had the idea of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous and while absolutely everyone ignored him from day one, Houbolt never wavered in his conviction. He wasn’t the most pleasant man, but he knew what he was talking about, and eventually everyone else agreed with him. Sadly, it has taken a very long time for anyone to acknowledge his contribution because others took credit.
  19. A Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs by Ben Garrod. A fun documentary-style book that includes many voiced interviews of specialists in the field of paleontology. Garrod maintains his childlike wonder about dinosaurs all the way through, and asks every single scientist what their favourite dinosaur is. They explain about sizes, feathers, mating, diets, trace fossils, bones and teeth. Garrod humorously notes that with dinosaurs, the hips don’t lie. It’s a quick summary of the history of dinosaurs, which emerged due to one of our planet’s mass extinction events, all the way through to their decimation due to another mass extinction event. But wait, the dinosaurs are still here! Birds are the modern day dinosaurs that survived the Yucatan meteor.
  20. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I’m glad Brown wrote this book. It’s a revealing and painful look at many chapters of settler, government, and military interaction with the indigenous people of North America. The author stated the intent to put things in the words of the Indians whenever possible, and I could see this in the stories, and I appreciated it. I noticed that when the Indians had a nickname for a white person, that’s the name that was used, rather than his given name. Identifying with Indians as I do, it was painful to read, and it took a long time for me to get through it. It’s a long book, but I also had to take breaks from all the misery and betrayal. I was so often reminded of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, because there is this overbearing, condescending occupier who pushes the indigenous people to their absolute limits until the people lash out in frustration and anger, and then the occupiers shake their heads and say, “We’ve done so much for you, and you are never grateful, you just attack us.” That’s the story of Indians in America. Yes, the conquerors could have merely wiped them all out as is the case often in history when one group invades another. But the white settlers insisted that they were honorable and always looking out for everyone’s best interest. Declaring that was always disingenuous and they seem never to be able to admit it. Mexicans who were absorbed into the boundaries of America were given citizenship before the Indians. Freed slaves and the descendants of slaves were given citizenship before the Indians. American Indians are overlooked, ignored, idealized, hated, cheated, and abused to this day. Every new chapter that included someone saying, “We just want peace,” was making my heart ache by the end of the book.
  21. It’s Not What It Looks Like by Molly Burke. This was a free book on Audible that I picked because it’s written by a woman who is blind and I’ve been trying to educate myself more about people with different abilities. Burke sounds like someone my 22-year-old would love, because she’s into fashion and positive action, building people up and empowering others. She takes her influence and finds ways to put it back out there. She does this through choices I would never make, like becoming a Dove spokesmodel and touring the world to give inspirational speeches. So I got to learn about how to be a good person but with a completely different personality than me. I also was grateful to be educated about Burke’s perspective on not being sighted, and about how I should treat service dogs.
  22. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – an adaptation for Audible of the original 1881 novel. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read Treasure Island before, which is surprising. I was into the story from the first chapter. In this audio version, actors do the voices and there are sounds of the sea, and gulls, and cannon fire. It was quite exciting. There’s a mystery, it’s scary, a boy becomes brave and saves the day and goes back home to his mom in the end. Great choice for kids! Except maybe for all the rum. 😉
  23. Internment by Samira Ahmed. A protest novel written by a journalist who is alarmed by current events in the United States. She explains the novel is written “15 minutes into the future,” and references many actual events. There is a disingenuous disclaimer at the end in which “any resemblance to actual people or events is coincidence.” Ahmed unflinchingly quotes from the current President (“murderers and rapists,” “shithole countries”) and reports US border policy actions (“children were separated from their parents at the border”). This is a YA novel that is easily interpreted as a warning flag and a call to action. In the story, people of the Islamic faith are determined to be enemies of the state and at first denied a few rights, then banned from certain public areas, all the while public rhetoric and extremist groups explode across the country. Eventually Muslims are rounded up and sent to a test Internment camp – with plans to expand the program if it goes well. Layla, the 17-year-old heroine of this story goes to Manzanar, and never stops recalling the similarities of how her family’s situation is just like the Japanese Americans who were originally interred there. Her boyfriend left behind is Jewish, which helps the reader continue to make parallels. When Layla and her family actually had to climb onto cattle cars for part of their transport, my body went cold. The insidious racism and xenophobia in the book are real, and very familiar to me in my country today. The constant danger is not contrived. Ahmed shows how easy it is to slip from allowing racist leaders to chant inane rhetoric, into truly heinous crimes in the name of national safety.
  24. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This was my favourite book of all time from about 1990 to 2015, when I read Shantaram. I only recently found out there were sequels! Before I read book #2, I decided to read book #1 again. Pillars of the Earth is really an epic, in a time when that word has lost its power. It tells the story of a couple of families through several generations, and the setting focuses on the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, a fictional cathedral and town. Set in 12th century England, technological advances in the building of large stone structures are revealed to, and discovered by, characters as they work on the cathedral for generations. Follett’s mastery of character development is what makes the book worth reading. You quickly learn to hate the evil William and Waleran, you begin cheering for Ellen and Jack and Aliena, you respect some, suspect some, and grow to care about the people of Kingsbridge and wish for the success of their small town as they do. I love the careful detailing of foundations and wall-building and quarrying and blueprints and master masons, pointed arches, flying buttresses, colored glass windows and all the behind the scenes magic (and money and politics) that is required to build a cathedral. I loved getting the education. I was also fascinated to learn about the power and wealth of the church and the way politics can easily get out of hand without a capable leader, and how some people will not hesitate to use others for their own gain. An astonishingly good book.
  25. World Without End by Ken Follett. The book begins gradually and the action is more restrained than the first book. Halfway through, the plague brings devastation and as Follett did in the first book – somehow the ones that most deserve to die, don’t. But then, yay!! Finally wicked Godwyn succumbs. The characters are still interesting, but they don’t do as much as their forbears, 200 years earlier in Pillars. Still set in Kingsbridge, the town shrinks and fades without capable and ambitious leaders. There are no clear villains, and no clear champions at first, and then as the years go by, some emerge. It doesn’t feel like I received as much medieval construction education, but maybe that’s because I was looking for it. This book covers bridge construction in great detail, and addresses the addition of a tower. I was fascinated with Caris’ discovery of how to make scarlet cloth. I remained frustrated with Caris’ reluctance to marry her beloved Merthin, but realize that if I had more determination as a young woman, I would have made the same choice.
  26. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett. A continued trend of shorter peaks of drama and more recounting of historical fiction. We learn about real figures and real events of history, with no more construction information. The characters continue to be on a scale of pretty bad and somewhat better, eliciting little clear excitement or passion. This seems to reflect Follett’s interest in explaining history through the eyes of fictional characters. It’s fine. It’s actually one of my favourite genres. It’s just that it’s nothing at all like book 1, and book 1 captured the heart and soul of the world.