Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Coetzee, David Broder, Disgrace, Home Game, Little Failure, Michael Lewis, Showdown at the Gucci Gulch, Teddy Roosevelt, The Bully Pulpit, The System, The Tastemakers, Visions of Place, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, William Howard Taft, Zane Miller
If you read Part I, you know I did plenty of reading this year but very little blogging. Look, I had a kid, had a very busy year at the office, and every time I sat down to write, well, I just wasn’t feeling it. But I did read some good books this year (as well as some bad ones) so this rounds out the list of books I read but didn’t write about. See you in 2015.
Haynes Johnson and David Broder wrote this book in the late 90s about the Clinton attempt to reform health care. I don’t suppose that this book had a wide audience of people outside of DC and political science classes, but I loved it. It was a detailed look at the effort to improve the health care system in the U.S., and it was also a look at our political system. “The System” is a fascinating story, complete with details about the hundreds of lesser-known political actors who played major roles, and events that contributed to this historic reform attempt. Arguing that the health care debate was an argument about the health of the political system as a whole, Broder and Johnson write: “Founders of The System, as we have noted before, made it very difficult for major changes to occur. But they surely did not see the self-destructiveness and distrust that now hobble American politics: the hatred of government; the demonization of elected officials from President down; the belittling of career civil servants who do the public’s business, sometimes at risk of their lives.” That was 1996 folks. If you want to know more about lobbying, policy communications or politics in the 90s–or now–this is an excellent book.
Showdown at the Gucci Gulch
A fine companion to “The System,” this book by Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum looks at the effort to reform the tax code in 1986. Look guys, I like this stuff. Stop making fun. This book is legendary on the Hill; earlier this year a U.S. Senator recommended it to me. I loved it—a wild look at how tax lobbyists, the Reagan administration and Congressmen overcame the odds to pass the biggest change in the tax code in decades. Prominently featured is one of the most colorful characters in American politics, Dan Rostenkowski. This one is chock full of political tidbits and priceless anecdotes. There are those who say legislating is like sausage-making, and this is that, from the hog to the casing. Tax reform passed and health reform obviously did not–that why these are fine companion books.
Visions of Place
Zane Miller’s excellent book about Clifton should be handed out when you are about to put a contract on a house in my neighborhood. It’s the history of Clifton, its community council (Clifton Town Meeting), and the struggles/challenges of a first ring suburb in an urban city. There’s a lot in this book that makes me dislike things about this neighborhood. The insularity and resistance to any change, no matter good or bad, is frustrating at times. At times in history, the community hasn’t exactly risen to the progressive ideal that it often aspires to. Miller made me consider how a neighborhood, like an ethnic group or a corporation or a family, has its own cultural norms and identifiers. Clifton is probably like any other neighborhood, with a history that still influences its future. This book was a good way to consider that history and give the neighborhood some additional context. And if you are a Cincinnati or urban history fan, you should be going back and reading all of Zane Miller’s books.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
This had to be my least favorite book I read all year. It wasn’t a DNF, but it was close. I was hate reading it by the end. I read it a few months ago, and by the end I was rolling my eyes and reading so fast because I just wanted it to be over. The premise of the book had promise, but I ended up not liking any of the characters and the story just seemed underdeveloped and preposterous. One review I read after I bought the book described as somewhat like science fiction and maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy it. Others did; the New York Times had a column describing it as one of the best fiction books of the year. Not on my list.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Did not finish. I tried. I really did. But I could not get into this book. I know. You loved it. And it won awards. I just couldn’t do it.
Couldn’t do this one either. Gary Shteyngart’s book “Super Sad True Love Story” was awesome. But I just didn’t get interested in his memoir.
I love a good book about food, and this one had me hooked from the beginning. The author, David Sax, does a great job covering food trends from bacon to cupcakes to heritage seeds to vitamins. He travels to farms, restaurants, the Fancy Food show (great chapter by the way) and to neighborhoods with excellent street foods. His aim is to showcase how a food or a flavor becomes a trend. A lot to consider in this book: marketing of food, how to spread an idea (or food) in almost a viral fashion, and where to look for what might be the next trend. If you are a foodie, in the food business, or even just a marketer, you’ll enjoy this book.
This is a collection of stories from Michael Lewis’ writings about fatherhood. I read this when it was still sinking in that I was going to be a dad. It was recommended to me by a few more experienced dads in my social circle. I loved it. Lewis’ typical M.O. is to write about Wall Street or baseball or politics, but here he tackles his own personal experiences with his wife and three kids. It’s full of exaggerations and almost pratfall-like humor, but it was the perfect tonic for a guy wrestling with the big questions of fatherhood. It made me laugh and realize that the ride ahead would be bumpy and also incredible. It has been just that so far, by the way.
The Bully Pulpit
This is the first Doris Kearns Goodwin book that I’ve read. Thought it was an incredibly detailed and fascinating book about Taft, Roosevelt and about the journalists who helped stoke the progressivism of the beginning of the twentieth century. The first quarter of the book was especially interesting to me because of the depth of Cincinnati history that is presented during the Taft chapters. We might drive on Taft Road a lot, but we rarely stop to consider the influence that he and his family (both those that came before and those that came after) had on this city. The book also helps explain what it means to be a Cincinnati Republican—the political approach of William Howard Taft still is evident in the approach of the regulars in the Cincinnati republican machine. I enjoyed the stories about the reporters, but thought they got short shrift in the later chapters, which made the overall narrative of the book less obvious or coherent. But on the whole, a great book about two larger than life (one especially larger) Presidents and how they chose to respond differently to the progressive demands of their citizenry. My only complaint? I felt like she could have written more about the time in her own voice, using fewer quotes from other sources. Contemporary source quotes are useful, but at times it felt like it was over the top and unnecessary.
J.M. Coetzee’s book about a professor in South Africa who loses everything after he is accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student was the subject of our book club discussion a few months ago. It’s a great book and worth reading. But what I actually want to say about it is that it’s a perfect example of why I love discussing what I read. A friend in the book club had a fantastic way of looking a this novel that explained it in a way that I never would have been able to on my own. His analysis was colored by his personal experiences in South Africa and by his knowledge and familiarity with the author. It’s a good reminder that even a quick discussion with someone about a book can be illuminating.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!