Bill Bryson, Chuck Todd, Dave Eggers, Dragnet Nation, How Google Works, Joshua Ferris, Natchez Burning, One Summer, Rawhide Down, Spam Nation, The Circle, The Free, The Good Lord Bird, The Stranger, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, To Save Everything Click Here, Willy Vlautin
I didn’t write nearly as much as I wanted to this year. We had a baby in July and the months leading up to it were a whirlwind. Come to think of it, the months after were a whirlwind too. But I’m adjusting to a new schedule and miss writing. So here I am, with two posts featuring a total of 22 books that I read this year but didn’t write about. Maybe you’ll find something you like, maybe you’ll forgive the fact I haven’t been blogging and throw me a comment or two, and maybe you’ll send me some recommendations for 2015. I read some great books and some not-so-great books in 2014, and without further ado, here’s Part I of what I read and didn’t blog.
Dave Eggers’ latest book was a satirical look at the cult-like aspect of Silicon Valley social media type companies—a riff on Google and Facebook. Eggers’ dislike of social media is well known, and he lets it rip here. The story focuses on a young woman who goes to work for The Circle, a social media platform/company, and she slowly becomes enveloped in the increasingly creepy culture and mission of the company. The story itself is well-crafted but the underlying warning about oversharing and privacy is what really will get readers thinking. Eggers is seen as a caricature by some. Not me. Ever since “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (the memoir that started so many contemporary memoirs) and “Zeitoun,” (a book that is so good it makes me angry), I’ve been in the camp that Eggers is an incredibly important American author. “The Circle” does not disabuse me of that notion.
To Save Everything Click Here
This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read all year. Evgeny Morozov is a author and columnist and this book focuses on the perils of “internet solutionism”—technology as a panacea for every problem. He counters many well-accepted arguments of today: that big data can solve any problem, that data collected from the general public is perfect, and that total transparency is the best path. He laments that our reverence of “the internet” and all of the technological trends that have come with it prevent us from considering clearly what is right and wrong about openness and transparency and data. He writes about PolitiFact, Yelp, FitBit, and even Gawker’s memes. In doing so, he does what great writers do, leaves the reader challenging pre-existing assumptions about everything. His critique of “internet-solutionism” might make you stop and think twice the next time someone tells you they are going to use an algorithm of big data to solve all your problems. And it might even frighten you a bit about the radical changes that are happening in our world and society due to the unchallenged assumption that the internet and data can solve everything.
NB: I read “To Save Everything Click Here” and “The Circle” back to back and it worked well for me. One is dense prose and the other is an easy to digest story. I’d recommend this if you are trying to tackle these. I tried at one point to do a whole essay on both of these books; maybe I was feeling ambitious or maybe my subscription to the New York Review of Books was inspiring me. But in a perfect indication of my performance this year on the blog, I scrapped the idea as a crying or smiling baby was more pressing.
How Google Works
I read about one business book a year, and this was my 2014 entry. I thought it was a pretty decent romp through the business lessons that Eric Schmidt and his co-author Jonathan Rosenberg learned while they were senior executives at Google. There’s a chapter on email tips, a page on how to set up a corporate law department (that is actually terrific) and many nuggets of wisdom that you’ll want to highlight and drop in your next interminable strategy meeting. It’s an airplane read and if you are in business, you’ll probably get something from it. The chapter on great talent includes some tips for both interviewing and hiring. And most of all, I loved the authors’ endorsement of failing. A notion you hear often but not always so clear. They say: “Management’s job is not to mitigate risks or prevent failures, but to create an environment resilient enough to take on those risks and tolerate the inevitable missteps.” Very true.
I really wanted to like this book. Chuck Todd is one of my favorite political reporters. I think he’s far smarter than most, definitely more attuned to the nuance and detail of politics than anyone on TV right now. But his latest book about President Obama, “The Stranger,” was lacking for many of the reasons that the Washington Post outlined in their terrible review. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the book, but it ended up feeling like a superficial litany of the political wars of the Obama era. The book felt a bit rushed, almost like he found out he was getting the Meet the Press job and had to hurry the second half of the book. But here’s the thing, Todd makes some good points about the President’s style and how that has contributed to today’s troubling political climate. It points out repeatedly how he hasn’t developed deep relationships on the Hill, within either party, and how he is more of an introverted personality. Overall, I don’t know that this book contributes much to the body of work that will help us consider this President and era.
This was Willy Vlautin’s followup novel to “Lean on Pete,” one of the best books I read in 2011. It would be tough to top that book for me, but Vlautin still wrote a fine book that is right in his wheelhouse: about individuals who, though down on their luck, possess a level of grace and determination to be admired. Vlautin is from the west, and that shows. I enjoy reading western authors—their style and tone is different from their eastern literary counterparts. Maybe it’s grittier or grey-er, but there’s certainly a feel to novels set particularly in Oregon, Washington and the upper west. This is a story of a veteran, his nurse, and the night manager of the home where the veteran lived. The characters’ lives are not at all glamorous, but there’s a quiet beauty in them. The New York Times compares Vlautin to Stewart O’Nan, and that’s high praise.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
I loved “Then We Came to the End,” by Joshua Ferris—it was one of my favorite fiction books several yeas ago. I didn’t like “To Rise Again…” nearly as much but it has won several awards and received a better critical reception than his first novel. Ferris is a talent that should be watched. The story is a bit fantastical—a lonely dentist sees his life come apart when someone starts stalking him online in a religious and personal way. The novel is incredibly inventive and funny in a sort of weird way throughout. How often do you like dentist humor? I mean, aside from Bill Murray, it’s a pretty rare genre. This wasn’t my favorite Ferris novel but I appreciated it. Look forward to his next one.
The Good Lord Bird
It’s a close call between “The Good Lord Bird,” and “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” as my favorite fiction of the year. Rachman’s book was a delight throughout but didn’t get the critical reception I thought it deserved. “The Good Lord Bird,” on the other hand, was the National Book Award winner. Deservedly so. This book is a fictionalized account of John Brown’s raids in Kansas and Harpers Ferry. It’s about a young man, Henry, who John Brown believes is actually a girl, Henrietta. Hijinks ensue. The book is mostly true to history, replete with cameos by Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Brown’s story is brought to life and his impact on history gets its due. Henry/Henrietta forces us to think about identity, courage, and truth. I think it would be a great book club novel; highly recommended.
If you don’t read KrebsOnSecurity.com, you aren’t following the best-sourced data security reporter in the world. His latest book is fascinating—it’s all about spam and spammers and the underground economy that makes spam a profitable enterprise. Krebs broke the Target and Home Depot breach story, and his reports always give us a view into a world that most of us don’t ever consider. How often do you get a spam offer to buy prescription drugs? Krebs writes about people who do buy these drugs, often thinking they are from Canada but later finding out they are from India or elsewhere. He writes about the internal split between two of the biggest spammers and how their business models were interrupted by business and government investigations. It’s a wild crime story with sketchy and colorful characters from the underground. You won’t look at your junk mail box the same ever again.
Reporter Julia Angwin has written a fascinating look at what it takes to go “off the grid” and what happens when you do. (You can look at a lot of the books that I read this year and see a bit of a theme, I suppose.) Angwin writes about escaping the claws of data brokers and other organizations that know more about us than we think. It was an instructive and at times creepy book. I don’t share the same hyper-skepticism of some of the privacy advocates quoted in here, but Angwin raises some good points and has contributed to what is and should be an ongoing public conversation about privacy and data.
This book has a funny story associated with it. The morning my wife went into labor, I thought it would be a good idea to download a book to take to the hospital while we waited for the baby to arrive. The book was Greg Iles’ “Natchez Burning.” I thought I’d have some time to relax, read, and just wait while, you know, labor happened. Those of you with kids (or with half a brain) are laughing now. Needless to say, I didn’t even get to think about the book once we got to the hospital. Several months later, I remembered it and read it. It’s a story of Penn Cage, the Mayor of Natchez. He’s been the subject of three other books, but I heard you could also start with this one. The book was 800+ pages and it read pretty quick, kept my attention, and had a great mystery/thriller/suspense plot As I neared the end, things weren’t wrapping up and there were tons of loose ends–too many to resolve in the 30 or so pages I had left. As it turns out, the book is the first of three. I read this damn book for weeks, trying to plow through the 800+ pages and you’re going to tell me there’s two more books coming before everything is resolved? Fail. Maybe I’ll bring Part II to the hospital in a few years.
One Summer America: 1927
No. More. Bill Bryson. This book had promise–Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, and Calvin Coolidge. A remarkable year. You know I hated his book “A Walk in the Woods,” but thought maybe he would prove me wrong with this one. He didn’t. Suggest that you go back to the original and completely accessible sources that Bryson used to piece together his book and read those. Far beter option.
This short book recounts the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. It’s a quick read but full of interesting stories about how the government, law enforcement, and media reacted. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of stories about Al Haig trying to stage a coup. An important read about the last attempted assassination of a U.S. President.
Thanks for reading and check out Part II in a few days.