Your Favorites for the Year
I asked a number of regular readers what their favorite book of the year was and, happily, got an eclectic list.
Alice: Favorite from this year was A Disappearance in Damascus, by Deborah Campbell.
Sue: Right now I’m reading The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, revised and translated by Ken Liu. I’m only a little more than half-way through it, but I think I like it a lot. Anyhow, it’s different from what I usually read. So is The View from Flyover Country, by Sarah Kendzior (I mean, also not finished, also different, and I like it).
Sarah: If you like sci fi/genre fic, I recommend The Expanse—super fun! I spent a ton of the year reading that.
Also loved The Body Keeps the Score about trauma and the nervous system.
Oliver: The Metaphysical Club – Not news to you! I didn’t really know what pragmatism was until I read this. Really absorbing intro to the first pragmatist thinkers and the historical circumstances that conditioned their thought. Reading it I had the rare experience of having my worldview actually altered. Especially by the encounter with John Dewey.
Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard – A kind of terrifyingly perfect novel shaped like a mobius strip. I don’t think I’ve felt so reproached by a work of fiction. But it’s also just sad and beautiful.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin – Outrageous and bleak sound collage from Weimar Germany.
Honorable mention is not a book but an essay, “Special Journey to Our Bottom Line” by Elizabeth Schambelan (published in n+1), of which I know you’re aware!
(Rob: I liked The Metaphysical Club too, especially the part about Dewey encountering the Pullman strike in 1894 on the way to his job at the University of Chicago. And the Schambelan essay was good too, a breathtaking amount of research on a subject that came from way left field.)
David: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Definitely my favorite. I read a lot of older books this year that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Very few new books. Of the new ones, Nickel Boys was at the top of the list—but also probably top of the list regardless
Matt: The Birth Partner (5th ed.) by Penny Simkin (with Katie Rohs), which advertises itself as “a complete guide to childbirth for dads, partners, doulas, and other labor companions,” is by far the most useful book I have ever read and a favorite of the year not just for its practicality but also for the nice, clear, easy writing style. There are some pleasant hand-drawn illustrations as well as bullet-pointed lists, gridded charts, and multi-paged sections highlighted with a dark orange background for quick reference––all design features geared toward high didacticism. One interesting feature of the 5th edition is the switch to gender-neutral language, which reflects our society’s broadening acceptance of multiple family configurations. Thus the authors refer to a “pregnant parent” or “birthing person” rather than “pregnant woman” or “mother.”
Adam: I think the best book I read this year was Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, about John Paul Vann and the Vietnam War. I couldn’t put it down. This may mean I’m turning into an old man.
Marguerite: Conversations with Friends and Normal People by Sally Rooney. I had trouble remembering what I read this year because not a lot of it stood out (except for the books that were either really hard or really bad). I guess I don’t read a lot of “fun” books like these, and it was thoroughly enjoyable to blast through each of them in a few days––something I realized don’t do often.
Lucas: In a world where we’re paralyzed by fear around current events… the classic Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is a reminder that there are no new stories under the sun. Regardless of age, language, creed, or identity, we are always living the same chapters of the same journey. And we’re being carried by a deep, unifying, worldwide, subconscious current underneath the veneer of our demographic differences.
Michelle: Definitely Robert Caro’s Working. By a long mile.
Peg: My favorite is Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. It’s very cleverly written, something you pointed out to me––the first part of it can become hard to read, unless you understand it as a reflection of the youth it describes.
Dillard is only about 5 years older than I, and as a white person growing up in a city, she had some childhood experiences similar to mine.
(Rob: I agree. The first page of the book is an Olympian feat of writing.)
Guy: My dad’s book, Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human and Brought Our World to the Brink (2015), is really quite good. (His name is Richard L. Currier)
Pushing Ice (2005) by Alastair Reynolds is both superior hard science fiction and a great yarn
I think Caroline Alexander’s recent (2015) translation of the Iliad is a masterwork that should become the standard
I’ve already written about many of these, so I’ll include just a short note about each one. But these are things I would recommend to anyone.
A nonfiction story about a beekeeper in rural Macedonia that most documentarians and writers would kill for. I know I would!
“Not Enough Deliliahs”
by Andrew O’Hagan (London Review of Books)
Hilarious. “She went at her Cobb salad like a demon.”
Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
by Kim Phillips-Fein (Norton)
By examining what happened to New York City in the late 1970s, Phillips-Fein is able to explain everything about what went wrong with the US.
The Wire Season 4 (HBO)
A season of television primarily about children, sweetness cut with brutality. I also really enjoyed Wu-tang: An American Saga this year.
“Is Poverty Necessary?”
An Idea That Won’t Go Away
by Marilynne Robinson
A wandering, complicated, and heterodox take on the vexing issue of poverty. A great work of economics that you really can’t imagine a contemporary, professional economist ever writing.
How Boeing’s Managerial Revolution Created the 737 Max Disaster
by Maureen Tkacik (The New Republic)
This article argues it wasn’t inexperienced pilots that caused the 737 MAX crashes, but a cynical managerial desire to suck as much money out of Boeing as possible, even if it meant that their planes were less safe.
“The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years”
Slate’s books team selects the definitive works of reporting, memoir, and argument of the past quarter-century.
By Dan Kois and Laura Miller
Pretty good list.
“How the Teamsters pension disappeared more quickly under Wall Street than the mob”
By Elliot Blair Smith (MarketWatch)
For anyone who watched The Irishman, and wondered with happened to Jimmy Hoffa’s pension fund, this is the article for you.
Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment
By Zoe Schiffer
Very stressful read. My first thought was that many people venerate start-ups, but they are often terrible places to work. Trying to break into a market requires tremendous effort and capital, and often the only way to do this is to work like crazy. They are people trying to squeeze two pennies out of one. Maybe some people want to do this, but for most people, it is a waste. The founder of Reddit once said that founders are “emotionally broken people,” and I would say that this could easily be applied to the founders of Away. Bad people in a bad situation.