Books I Read – 2019
I’ve been accumulating books for years, waiting for retirement to finally hunker down and start reading them. In 2018, I made a good dent in them, reading 39 books. In 2019, I made the big breakthrough, I went nuts. With a book going simultaneously at the gym, on the subway, in parks, and by the side of the bed, and during many transatlantic and domestic flights, I managed to read 73 books. I tried to read more fiction this year, but as usual, I gravitated more toward non-fiction, with a large chunk of the reading dedicated to music related books. The breakdown this year: 77% non-fiction, 23% fiction. Of the non-fiction books, 30% were biographies/autobiographies/memoirs. Music-related topics comprised 16% of my reading. I like what I like, I guess.
In 2020, I think it will be more about quality than quantity. I hope to read Tune In: The Beatles All These Years by Mark Lewisohn, the first (incredibly detailed) volume of his ultimately three-part biography of the Beatles. Volume 1 is 900 pages and only covers their careers ‘til 1962. I also hope to finally tackle Moby Dick by Herman Melville, a dense tome that has been called by many to be the greatest novel ever written. And of course, another Lou Reed biography. I read one in 2018 and one in 2019. I have four more, which, in keeping with my ritual of one a year, should keep me busy in 2020-2021, and probably beyond, as I’m sure one or two new ones will be released. Anyway, he’s my list and short summary of the books I’ve read, along with my personal pics of the best of the best.
Best Four Rock-n-Roll books:
- Beatles ’66: A Revolutionary Year, by Steve Turner
- Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, by Steven Hyden
- 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, by Andrew Grant Jackson
- Lou Reed: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis
Best Four Fiction Books:
- The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Normal People, by Sally Rooney
- Lie with Me: A Novel, by Phillipe Bresson
- Becoming, by Michele Obama
- So Anyway, by John Cleese
- Lou Reed: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis
- Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles
- Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright. Nicely summarizes the reasoning behind Buddhist thought, in a clear and concise way, and explains how mindfulness meditation (which I’ve gotten into over the last year) can lead to (potentially) inner peace and harmony, and a clearer understanding of yourself and the world. I think this book explains it better than any other book I’ve read.
- Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin. I’ve been a fan for years (mainly as S&G, although I like his solo stuff as well). I figure he’s led a pretty interesting life, so let’s take a look. The book is a well-written journey through Paul Simon’s Brooklyn and Queens childhood; his musical career, from his first recordings with Art Garfunkel as Tom and Jerry, through all of the Simon and Garfunkel recordings, to his solo career. You get all of the interesting drama of the Simon and Garfunkel years, including their (still) rocky relationship, as well as the resurrection of his sagging solo career that occurred when he made a dramatic musical style shift with Graceland. It would have been better if this had been an authorized biography, but it was still interesting nonetheless.
- Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, by Sunil Yapa. A novel about a huge anti-globalization protest on the streets of Seattle that turns unexpectedly violent. I think it was written with millennials in mind, as it brings to mind the Occupy Wall Street protests from a few years ago. There are complicated relationships amongst some of the police officers, and between the chief of police and the protestors (one of the protestors being the chief’s estranged son), but the book never becomes all that gripping. In fact, it just gets more tedious as it goes along. Oh well, they can’t all be great.
- Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter, by Peter Singer. Most veterinarians know Peter Singer from his books In Defense of Animals, and Animal Liberation. His interests, however, go beyond animal welfare, and he has written many books and essays on ethics, poverty, and morality. This book is a collection of essays that cover a broad range of topics, from vegetarianism and veganism to cloning, climate change, euthanasia, and religion. Well reasoned and thought provoking, these essays validated many of the positions I already held, and also got me to think about some issues that I hadn’t really thought too much about before (like the ethics of genetically modified food). An interesting read.
- Lou Reed: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis. There are many biographies of Lou Reed out there, but people say that this one is the best. (I’ve read one other; I have three more on my bookshelf.) DeCurtis is amazingly comprehensive, chronicling every phase of Lou’s life, personally and musically, with many fascinating and insightful stories. It also goes into detail about Lou’s bisexuality, something other books tend to shy away from or gloss over. I can’t imagine any biography on Lou Reed being better than this one. I couldn’t put it down.
- Waiting for Eden, by Elliot Ackerman. Very interesting, well-written novel told from the point of view of a dead soldier who is waiting for his hospitalized, severely injured fellow soldier to die and join him. Initially unable to speak or communicate, the injured soldier suddenly regains the ability to understand his surroundings, and starts to realize some troubling truths about his marriage, and what may have occurred before his final deployment. Excellently written and compelling throughout.
- A Briefer History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. I read two other of Hawking’s books, A Brief History of Time, and Black Holes and Baby Universes many years ago. At that time, I felt like I understood them reasonably well. This book was a challenge. I think I grasped most of it while I was physically reading it, but the concepts are pretty esoteric. Very interesting, though. He was quite the genius, and it was no easy task explaining these complex theories in lay terms.
- Frank: A Life in Politics from The Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, By Barney Frank. I always admired Barney Frank for his dedication, intelligence, and wit. This autobiography details very candidly the personal and legislative struggles, setbacks, and victories that Frank experienced in his long tenure in politics. An excellent insight into behind-the-scenes politics.
- My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. An interesting novel, but a bit disjointed and confusing. Like the book All The Light We Cannot See, there are two parallel stories going on, with each chapter bouncing between two very different worlds. Eventually, we see how the two stories relate to each other. They don’t merge, but they come close. There’s a lot of symbolism involving cats and snakes, and some great descriptive writing about the immigrant/refugee experience. I’m not sure I understood it all, but it managed to suck you in. Not great, but very unique. This is the author’s debut novel. I imagine his future books will only get better.
- Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. The title of this book is much more compelling than the book itself. The author hails from Silicon Valley, and his philosophizing about the evils of social media, while they make sense, ring a bit hollow to me. Really nothing earth shattering about his list of reasons. Too much jargon, too much fake philosophy for me. I do think he’s right, though.
- Calypso by David Sedaris. I’ve read all of Sedaris’s books (except his diary, from two years ago). He was on quite a streak, with Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. All were hilarious. Then he came out with Squirrel Meets Chipmunk and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, and they weren’t very funny at all. They were pretty bad, in fact. I thought maybe he’s just lost it. Well, he hasn’t. This book was great. Very amusing stories about his family and his travels. In this book in particular, he addresses some serious topics as well, most notably the suicide of his sister. He also has a moving essay on gay marriage, and other political topics that veer from the generally hilarious tone, but don’t detract at all. It’s really the Sedaris of old, and I loved it.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This author has been getting a lot of hype, and now I understand why. An amazing novel. Poignant, powerful writing, with amazingly vivid characters. Set in Mississippi, it paints an unforgettable image of the south, the poor, jail, drugs, sickness, ghosts, and family dynamics. The writing is pure poetry. One of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory. I’m looking forward to reading others by her.
- Thrive in Retirement by Edward Thurman. I shouldn’t even be reviewing this book, but hey, I picked it up in the bargain bin and once I start a book, I hate abandoning it in the middle, so I muddled through. Being still relatively recently retired, I try to get as much insight as I can so I can live as fulfilling a life as possible now. This book was no help at all. Very trite. Very cliche. Filled with all sorts of banal acronyms for how to approach retirement. Lots of talk about depression, cancer, hospice, and dying. This is not something I’m thinking about at all at age 58. He’s also constantly quoting people, like Mark Twain and Billy Graham and Benjamin Franklin. It’s just boring. Then, to my horror, he starts blathering on about religion and churches and god and prayer, disparaging people who are spiritual but not religious, practically insisting that being a member of a church or religious group is necessary to be able to thrive in retirement. Not very new, not very innovative, and not relevant at all for me.
- Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, by Michael Kinsley. Author Kinsley is a funny guy, and I was hoping this collection of essays, aimed at Baby Boomers (a category I fall into) would be an amusing look at growing old, something that’s happening to me, to my horror and disbelief. Unfortunately, this is more of a guide to coping with Parkinson’s Disease, something he was diagnosed with when he was pretty young. There are some amusing moments, but it’s really mostly about his illness, except for the last chapter, where he proposes a ridiculous idea that Baby Boomers should pay off the national debt, by giving back their social security, as penance for screwing up the world for millenials. Um, no. I can’t say I recommend this book, but at least it was short, and it did have a few witty moments.
- The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto. This is Yoshimoto’s 13th novel, and I’ve read them all. She has a simple, light and fluffy style that I know is a bit lightweight, but I don’t care. This book, like all of hers, is filled with quirky but relatable characters, and even when she introduces something weird or ridiculous, it just doesn’t matter. I like her dreamy little books, and I suppose I always will. Last year, I read “Moshi, Moshi”, which I thought was better than The Lake, but I still liked this one.
- Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, by Annie Jacobsen. A very long book, exhaustively detailed, with a million acronyms, describing the secret ESP and telekinesis programs run by the US military. Not surprisingly, the US program started because we heard that the Russians were doing it. A lot of time is spent on Uri Geller, who some people believe is just a magician, while others think he does possess paranormal abilities. The book remains reasonably impartial regarding him. The most interesting part of the book has to do with the CIA’s remote viewing program, where psychics where subjects use their psychic abilities to view remote locations across the globe. If you already believe that ESP, psychokinesis, etc. is real, you’ll love this book, as it will support your beliefs. If you’re a skeptic, you may find the book frustrating as the author, in my opinion, doesn’t give equal emphasis to the instances where some of the phenomena are debunked, or could be explained in non-paranormal ways.
- Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky. Supposed to be an inside look at what really goes on at hotels. I was expecting a book like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but it was not to be. This book was mostly juvenile stories involving uninteresting characters. When the author talks about how hotels really operate, how to get upgrades, how you can always dispute minibar charges and win, etc., the book gets interesting. But he hardly goes there. I was expecting some useful tips. Instead, you’re introduced to a cast of really boring characters (including the author himself) that you simply do not care about at all. Very forgettable.
- Summer Crossing, by Truman Capote. Capote’s first novel. Really fabulous. It’s the story of a young socialite and the risky romance she gets involved in. The novel is set in New York in 1945, and is somewhat reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Beautifully written. Very poetic, lyrical prose. Apparently, the manuscript was found in Capote’s apartment after his death, with instructions for the housesitter to put all the trash out on the street, including this manuscript. The housesitter kept all of these papers, and this appears to be his first true novel, written before Other Voices, Other Rooms, and published more than 50 years after his death. There isn’t much of a plot, admittedly, but the writing is so wonderful, and the world of these New York socialites is so vivid, and the ending was surprising and unexpected. (Sorry, no spoilers here.)
- Brief Answers to the Big Questions, by Stephen Hawking. My second book by Hawking that I’ve read this year. The brilliant scientist has a way of making outrageously esoteric concepts graspable, and he really outdoes himself in this book. The question and answer format works very well here, as he tackles some of the more philosophical questions about God, time travel, and possibilities of other life in the u
- Old Records Never Die, by Eric Spitznagel. The plot sounded cute: a guy sells and gives away his old vinyl, and then decides he wants to get these records back. Not just the music, but the actual, individual albums that he specifically owned. He would hunt for the actual albums in record stores and conventions, looking for the Bon Jovi album that had a high school girlfriend’s phone number written, in pen, across the back. Or his beloved Replacements album with the half-missing sticker on the cover, etc. It’s a true story, and it sounded like a fun adventure. Unfortunately, very little of the book is about the hunt. Most of the book consists of the uninteresting ramblings of a guy who, I thought, fit the profile of the kind of guys I hung out with and could therefore relate to, in high school and college. Sadly, this guy is just not very interesting. I didn’t care about the bands he obsessed over, and his hipster sense of irony wore pretty thin. I didn’t want to hear about his past girlfriends. His life was boring, and putting up with 90% tedious stories for 10% marginally interesting record hunting wasn’t worth it. The entire book is one long desperate attempt to recapture his youth through these records, and he really belabors the point. I get it. Enough already.
- Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace. My first book by Wallace. (About 8 years ago I tried reading Infinite Jest and could only get through the first 100 pages, with great difficulty. I vow that one day I will read it in its entirety along with Moby Dick and Gulliver’s Travels. Really.) I see why he garnered so much fuss. This book is a collection of short narratives, in the form of a one-sided interview, with a variety of horrible, loathsome men who have a major fear of women. The portrayals of some of these men are scarily realistic, and the writing is completely mind-blowing and captivating. Not every story works, though, but when he’s on, he’s untouchable. Clearly he was a brilliant guy. In some instances, though, it feels like the topics of some of the stories are deliberately, self-consciously outrageous, and his use of some literary tricks that challenge the notion of typical narration feel a little too self-aware. Regardless, many of these short stories are incredible.
- $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by H. Luke Schaefer and Kathryn Edin. An in-depth look at the struggles of the ultra-poor in America. The authors do extensive interviews and reporting on families that somehow manage to survive on $2.00 per day per person. People who move from place to place to place; a woman who sells her plasma twice a week for $30 a visit and who lives in fear that if she becomes anemic or falls below the weight threshold, she won’t be able to donate anymore. Homes that are housing 22 people; kids sleeping 8 to a bed. People selling their SNAP card, which is intended for food, for 60 cents on the dollar, to get cash so they can pay their rent or utilities. The horrible bureaucracy involved in trying to get assistance, since Clinton signed the welfare reform act. It’s eye-opening and depressing. The authors do offer some sensible solutions, but we shouldn’t hold our breath seeing if any politician or political party adopts them.
- Becoming, by Michele Obama. A really wonderful autobiography. She’s so honest, so real, so down-to-earth. I enjoyed hearing about her courtship with Barack, her struggle with trying to find a job that gave her a feeling of purpose, and how she dealt with the transition from being a regular citizen to being a heavily-guarded first lady whose every move was scrutinized. Her passages about the Sandy Hook shooting, and her joy over the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage, were very moving. Of course, the book only served to make me a bit sad, too, as it reminded me how wonderful the Obamas were, and how much I miss them. Hearing her articulate her thoughts so clearly and emotionally and movingly only reinforced the stark difference between such a smart, classy first family and the current vile pieces of garbage who now occupy the White House. Sigh.
- The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. So far, this is the best novel I’ve read this year. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m not surprised at all. An incredible debut novel that gives a very different perspective on the Vietnam War. An epic story about love and betrayal, written in an amazing style. I couldn’t put it down. Fantastic.
- Thank You, Mr. Kibblewhite, by Roger Daltrey. A pretty boring autobiography, I have to say. The struggles of their early years as they tried to make it big were moderately interesting, but Daltrey just isn’t much of a writer. Not much analysis of the music, and not a whole lot of compelling stories. Daltrey is a great singer and The Who are one of my favorite bands, but this book was really dull.
- Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, by Eric Idle. I’ve been a big Monty Python fan for about 45 years now. I own all the DVDs, all of the scripts, most of their books, and several biographies and autobiographies. Although he’s not my favorite Python, he’s hilarious and very talented. The book is filled with many jokes, lots of funny stories, and poignant tributes to George Harrison and Robin Williams, with whom Idle was very close, and whose deaths profoundly affected him. Unfortunately, the book is overshadowed by the constant, endless, over the top name-dropping. He apparently was friends with and hung out with every celebrity in Hollywood, as well as every rock star, and the endless tales of champagne, parties aboard yachts, visits to David Bowie and Iman’s home in Mustique, etc. etc. get tiresome very quickly. The stories about the Holy Grail movie, Life of Brian, their performances at the Hollywood Bowl, their reunion show in London, and the making of Spamalot were very entertaining, but these make up about a third of the book. The other two thirds is just a list of parties and events, and the celebrities who were there with him. Enjoyable, but frustrating.
- When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, by Cleve Jones. A fascinating memoir by Cleve Jones, creator of the AIDS quilt, and lifelong gay rights advocate. This is a very personal, first person account detailing the struggle for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights. Although the story has been told many times, for me, it never gets old. The stories of San Francisco in the 70’s, the wildness of the Castro district, the rise of Harvey Milk’s political career, the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, and our epic supreme court marriage victory… it’s all here, and it’s moving and amazing. Cleve Jones joins my long list of personal heroes.
- Chet Baker: The Missing Years, by Artt Frank. I found this book in a bookstore in Amsterdam. I’ve been a Chet Baker fan for years (I have over 200 of his albums). Most of the books about Baker focus on the salacious. This book promised a different take on the man, and it delivered. A very personal memoir by the jazz drummer Artt Frank. Frank befriended his musical hero, Chet Baker, at a time in Baker’s life where he was struggling, unable to get live gigs or record deals. Frank offered unconditional friendship, looking after Chet while he fought to get off heroin, and doing everything he could to jumpstart Baker’s career. Frank has an amazing memory, and is able to recall the many conversations he had with Baker in great detail, affording a real glimpse into Baker’s life and the jazz world at that time. Frank isn’t a professional writer, and the book has many typos and grammatical errors, but it didn’t matter. I really enjoyed reading about Frank’s devotion to Baker.
- So Anyway, by John Cleese. An absolutely delightful autobiography of my favorite member of Monty Python. I’ve been a fan of the show since 1975, and although I knew much about Cleese’s career in comedy, I didn’t know much about him personally, about his family, his schooling, etc. This book covers it all, and it’s totally absorbing. He’s very self-deprecating, very humble, and totally hilarious. It’s clear that he’s also a very kind person, appreciative of the opportunities he’s been given, and rarely saying a bad word about anyone. He’s met and worked with all of the giants of British comedy, and his stories about them are interesting and amusing. His relationship with Graham Chapman is particularly interesting. What I really like about the book is that 95% of it deals with his career before Monty Python, so nearly all of the content in the book was new to me. I read Eric Idle’s autobiography a few weeks ago; this one is much, much better.
- The Pythons, by The Pythons. After reading Eric Idle and John Cleese’s autobiographies, I found myself plunged into Python mode, and I read this short book of interviews with all of the members of the troupe (except Graham Chapman, who had passed away. They did interview his brother and his long-term partner, though.) It was nice hearing from Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam, although I probably had already hears 99% of the stories about the show, and the subsequent movies. Still, a pleasure.
- Against Medical Advice, by Hal Friedman and James Patterson. The ultimately triumphant tale of a child, Corey Friedman who, at a young age, developed Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety disorder, all of which combined to make his life a living hell. After trying nearly every psychoactive drug imaginable (and suffering terrible side effects) and struggling terribly through setback after setback. He manages, through sheer will and determination, to get some control over his condition on his own, and manages to reach a point where he can function pretty well on his own in society. Unfortunately, the triumphant part comes way at the end of the book, making for a pretty depressing book.
- 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, by Andrew Grant Jackson. I’m very into music, with the music of the 60’s being my favorite genre. I read a lot of books about that era, but this one is undoubtedly the best one I’ve read so far. Filled with fascinating inside information, not just about the artists, but about the social, political, and cultural climate that gave rise to the music. The book is divided into seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn, each section chronicling the seminal events in society and music. Lots of stuff about the Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, Motown, Stax, the Rolling Stones, Vietnam, fashion, drugs… it’s all there, written in a very easy, readable style. I couldn’t put this book down. If you’re in your 50’s, this book is for you.
- Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles. A huge, very detailed, excellent biography of a very interesting character. I’ve always had a fascination for the so-called “beat” writers (although Burroughs, as I learned, bristled at being categorized as such), and WSB was undoubtedly the most interesting of the bunch. The book chronicles, in extensive detail, the insanity that gripped much of this man’s life. The myriad places he’s lived (New York, Spain, France, Mexico, Morocco, Kansas, etc.), the company he kept (Ginsburg, Gysin, Huncke, Kerouac, Corso, countless others), his fascination with guns, his love of cats, his sexual proclivities (men and women; mostly men), his pioneering work with cutting up and re-assembling his words, his collage experiments, his brief immersion in Scientology, his late career as a painter, his evolving into an icon of coolness, and of course his lifelong obsession and prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol. Heroin, morphine, opium, methadone, marijuana, peyote, hashish… you name it, he’s not only done it, he’s become addicted to it. Countless episodes of rehab. The murder of his wife (by his own hand), the neglect of his son, the deaths of his friends, and his own death, at the age of 83. A very well-researched biography of an unforgettable individual.
- I Might Regret This, by Abbi Jacobson. Very disappointing. I love the show Broad City, and I really like Abbi’s character. I was hoping this book would be funny, but it just wasn’t. Not even a snicker. It starts out with her getting in her car for a road trip, but the road trip aspect of the book is very meandering and disjointed. Her musings about show business weren’t very interesting, and some of the comedy bits drone on forever and are simply unfunny. The parts about her improv comedy origins and the beginnings of the show were interesting, but comprise a very small portion of the book. I really expected more from this book. Oh well, they can’t all be good.
- Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis. A bizarre (and very British) story about a thug, Lionel, who looks after his ward and nephew, Des, providing him with fatherly (and very anti-social) advice. Des manages to figure out how to lead a gentle, productive life despite Lionel’s bad influence, until Lionel (while in jail) wins 140 million pounds in the national lottery. Lionel’s thuggish nature, however, isn’t easily changed, and this only causes more problems for Des. The book started out really strong and pretty funny, but I found myself losing interest during the last 25% of the book, as the story began to meander and stagnate. I do like Amis’s way with words, though; I’ve read a few of his earlier books. Not bad, but not great.
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. A series of essays by the Korean-American author. Some of the essays resonated more with me, especially the ones about his gay activism. Others, about tarot cards and astrology, drag culture, and being a writer, didn’t hold much interest for me, although his writing style is great and I enjoyed reading the book, even those essays that didn’t really hit the mark for me. His novel, Edinburgh, has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I’ll probably crack that one open later this year, to see what his fiction is like.
- Night, by Elie Wiesel. While most of my high school friends and peers were assigned this book in whatever history course they were taking, I somehow managed to avoid reading this book until now. I now wish that I had read it back then, when I was more impressionable and would have been more shocked by man’s inhumanity to man. Still, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the cruelty and savagery that Wiesel had to endure. An epic story of survival in the face of unfathomable brutality.
- After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets, by Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman. Although I was only 9 years old in 1969, I was a rabid Mets fan, and the magic of that incredible season has stayed with me for the last 50 years. I’ve read many books and articles about that season, but this one is especially good, as it is written by former team member Art Shamsky, the right fielder. He takes you through the highlights of the season, from a personal viewpoint. There are many priceless stories, and you feel like you know the players’ personalities pretty well after reading it. The book culminates with a trip that Shamsky took last year, where he and a few other members of that team, including Jerry Koosman, Buddy Harrelson, and Ron Swoboda flew to California to visit Tom Seaver. Harrelson and Seaver are declining; Harrelson has mild Alzheimer’s, and Seaver is suffering from chronic Lyme disease. The camaraderie, the stories, the banter that came out of that trip was a delight for any Mets fan. Very enjoyable.
- The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing. A really fabulous book about the loneliness you can feel when you live in New York City. The book is a very insightful meditation on being alone, with the author discussing New York artists whose work reflects that loneliness. There are great sections on these artists, most of whom I was familiar with (Warhol, Hopper, Basquiat, Klaus Nomi) and some I wasn’t (Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz). The author really takes you back to the New York of the late 70s and 80s. It’s part autobiography, part biography, part art history, and part cultural study. I loved it.
- Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, by Danny Goldberg. A memoir by Nivrana’s manager. An interesting accounting of Nirvana’s meteoric rise, from the early indie days through the massive success of Nevermind, and the rest of their recording career. There’s more about the recording business (and less about Cobain) than I expected, but the genius of Cobain’s songwriting and vision for the band comes through very clearly. Many interesting anecdotes from a loyal associate of both Kurt and Courtney. An easy, compelling read.
- Heart: A History, by Sandeep Jauhar. A medical history of the major breakthroughs in cardiac medicine, from cardiac bypass to angiography to pacemakers to heart transplants to artificial hearts. Interspersed are stories relating to himself and his family, as well as some of his patients. I’ve always found books like this interesting, and I did find this one illuminating, but I’m a big fan of Atul Gawande, another south Asian doctor and writer, and the inevitable comparison leaves this author coming up a bit short by comparison. The descriptions of the medical breakthroughs sound a bit detached, and the plight of his patients and his own emotional reaction to their triumphs and failures lacked the warmth and compassion that I feel in Gawande’s books. Still, I enjoyed it and would recommend it.
- Everything Happens For a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler. I admit I was drawn to this book because of the title. It irritates the hell out of me when people make this idiotic remark after something tragic happens. After being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at a young age, the author writes about her philosophical and medical issues associated with her illness. I usually find these books interesting and inspiring. I did not realize how much of this book dealt with religion, and it was really torture to listen to some of the stuff she was spouting. And it just got worse and the book went on. Jesus this, god that, on and on. Interspersed within some of this proselytizing were some genuine insights about how to deal with illness, how people react to it, participation in clinical trials, what not to say to people with cancer, etc. But it got buried under her descriptions of the “prosperity gospel”, and other things that I frankly find delusional. I finished the book, but really didn’t like it at all.
- The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene. This book is a best seller and has been translated into over 24 languages. It’s an old book that has recently experienced a resurgence. I really hated it. It lays out 48 “laws” explaining how to obtain power. Perhaps if you’re a cunning, evil, amoral person whose only intention is to grab power at all costs, often at the expense of everyone else, you’ll enjoy the book. The historical examples he uses to support and illustrate each law often drone on forever, and some of his laws seem to contradict each other. The view of the world he espouses is cutthroat and horrible, and I felt like I needed a shower after reading it.
- Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. I haven’t read as much fiction as I intended, so I went for a classic that’s been sitting on my shelf for decades. A very well written character study. The protagonist, a writer, travels to Venice in the hope that it will cure his writer’s block. While there, he becomes spellbound and obsessed by a beautiful teenage boy. First published in 1912, it touches on many interesting themes, including gay desire, bodily decay, love and suffering. Deserving of all the accolades it has received.
- Wild Tales, by Graham Nash. An excellent memoir. Nash takes you through the heady, exciting times of his first band, The Hollies, through CSN, CSN&Y, and his solo career. He talks about his deep friendship with Mama Cass, his many romances (including, of course, Joni Mitchell), detailed accounts of his good friendships with Stephen Stills and David Crosby, and his rocky one with Neil Young. He spares no details in describing the horror show of David Crosby’s drug addiction. The stories behind some of the specific songs are interesting, and I admire the many humanitarian causes he pursued later in his career. A very candid account and an easy read.
- Three Cups of Deceit, by Jon Krakauer. This book is an exposé of the book “Three Cups of Tea”, by Greg Mortenson. Mortenson built his reputation as a humanitarian, building schools for underprivileged children in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, many of the details in his books were complete fabrications, and much of the money raised by his charity was spent in ways that were completely unaccounted for. Krakauer is a great writer, and his documentation of the deception was compelling, but the ending of the book was pretty unsatisfying, as he never says whether Mortenson suffered any consequences for his actions. It’s like a Lance Armstrong story, but totally unresolved.
- Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, by David Sedaris. Sedaris’s early diary entries are interesting from a historical perspective, and are occasionally mildly amusing, but as the years go on, his life really blossoms, his observations get sharper and wittier, and the book becomes hilarious. Tales of hitchhiking and menial jobs in his 20s, meeting his boyfriend, homophobia and bigotry, struggles with alcoholism, adjusting to New York, international travel tales, learning to speak French, his crazy family… it’s all there. The diary entries stop in 2002, when he’s 46. I’m assuming there’s another entire volume’s worth just waiting to be edited and published, and I can’t wait to read it.
- Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim. A real page-turner of a novel. A courtroom thriller about a Korean family. They own an experimental treatment center that offers hyperbaric oxygen therapy, for illnesses that don’t respond to conventional therapy, like autism and infertility. An explosion occurs at the treatment center, gruesomely killing two people. How did the explosion occur and who caused it? A gripping trial exposes all sorts of secrets between the people of the small rural town in Virginia where this all takes place. An excellent novel that was hard to put down.
- Lust and Wonder, by Augusten Burroughs. A long time ago, I was told that if I liked David Sedaris (and I do), that I would really like Augusten Burroughs. Years ago, his book “Running with Scissors” was getting good reviews, so I gave it a try. I thought it was pretty bad. I gave him a second shot, with his book “Dry”. Again, I did not see the appeal. I know his writing is supposed to be humorous, but it just wasn’t. Well, I needed a book for an Amtrak ride back to New York, and I spotted a book of his, on sale, for $5. The synopsis looked interesting, and by all accounts, it was said to be a fun read. It wasn’t. His observations aren’t very thought provoking or insightful, and some of his actions are either silly or just plain stupid. I kept thinking to myself, “This guy is an idiot”, rolling my eyes with every new dumb thing he said or did. Trust me, this is the last book I’ll ever read by this guy.
- Hype, by Nina Shapiro, MD. An easy to read, straightforward book that seeks to debunk many of the current healthcare myths. She does this by citing the real science behind many of the assumptions, tackling topics such as vaccinations, dietary supplements, genetic testing, tanning, aging, and other interesting topics. Helpful and informative.
- Ratsnakes: Cheating Death by Living a Lie. Inside the Explosive World of ATF’s Undercover Agents and How We Changed the Game, by Vincent A. Cefalu. The author’s stories about specific cases he worked on were fascinating and sometimes very nerve-wracking to read, as the danger he experienced was palpable in many cases. The cast of characters and their antics sometimes were more reminiscent of college buddies and fratboys and less that of trained, respectable professionals, and their personalities were often barely touched on. The author disdained authority and made no secret about it, and his many examples of backbiting and corruption made it pretty clear why he felt the way he did. I had no idea about the history of the ATF, and I finished the book with a good understanding of the dangerous and important work these agents do.
- Under the Knife: A history of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations, by Arnold van de Laar. This was an excellent book, giving a fairly comprehensive overview of the history of surgery through some fascinating (and shocking, and horrifying) surgical cases. These include a story about a man who desperately removed his own bladder stone, Bob Marley’s melanoma (which started as a minor toe problem, until it metastasized to his brain and killed him), JFK’s autopsy, and a variety of strokes, anal fistulas, castrations, gangrene, and buckets of pus. The book is admittedly graphic, and that’s what makes it interesting. This is medicine and surgery in all its glory, and it’s well-written and riveting.
- Jimmy Neurosis by James Oseland. A pretty cool coming of age story that takes place in San Francisco in the late ‘70s. The author is apparently a judge on Top Chef Masters, which I did not know when I picked up the book. The author details the turmoil of growing up as a gay kid in the punk era, dealing with an alcoholic father and a sometimes overbearing mother. I love punk music and the author really captures the grittiness of the scene. He details his emotional journey of self-discovery with insight and wit. A great read.
- You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession, by Piper Weiss. This was a disappointing book. The blurb intimated that this was more of a true crime story, about Gary Wilensky, a tennis instructor and twisted child predator who stalked and pursued rich girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the ‘90s. Only a small part of the book deals with Wilensky and his crimes. Instead, most of the book consists of the random ramblings of a privileged teenager and her rich, upscale life. I just didn’t find it very interesting. The only captivating parts were those related to Wilensky, but there were just too few of them to keep the book interesting. Frustrating.
- Normal People by Sally Rooney. I found this book, about a long relationship (and on-again-off-again romance) between a young Irish couple, to be one of the best novels I’ve read all year. The writing is amazing. The author really gets into the heads and minds of the two main characters, very deftly chronicling their pain and their passion, as their relationship goes through some major ups and downs over the course of several years. Her use of language is precise and incisive, and I instantly found myself relating to the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the book. I really didn’t expect myself to get so immersed in this book, but I found myself really caring about the characters and what happened in their lives. Really fabulous.
- Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari. This is a philosophical book about what the future of mankind will bring. The author discusses many of the latest trends in science and technology, and warns of the consequences of misusing and abusing the knowledge we’re acquiring. I appreciated his argument for the better treatment of animals, and his comments on smartphones, antidepressants, and longevity were thought-provoking and compelling, but a lot of the book is dense and heavy, and covers topics not particularly interesting to me. It’s amazing how much he covers, and the book is definitely thoughtful and entertaining. I suspect it would have resonated more if I had read Sapiens first, but still, it’s a fascinating read.
- Amsterdam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Manfred Wolf. This delightful little book is a collection of stories, both fiction and memoir, all of which have Amsterdam as one of the characters. The stories are all penned by Dutch writers. In some stories, the presence and feel of the city is barely noted, while in others, the city is the main character. The stories are grouped by the parts of the city that they describe: the canals, the Jordaan, the Red-Light District, Gay Amsterdam, Jewish Amsterdam, etc. Some tales were lightweight, while others were absolutely brilliant, like “Soft Landings” by Remco Campert. This was one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I was totally engrossed. “The Decline and Fall of the Boslowits Family” by Gerard Reve was also terrific. Reve’s book “The Evenings” is considered a Dutch masterpiece. I read it last year and I really liked it, so I was glad to have the opportunity to read another work by him. I spend two to three months a year in Amsterdam, and these stories took me on an odyssey through the city’s rich past, making me feel even more connected to the city. A good book for anyone enamored with Amsterdam.
- The Unwinding of the Miracle, by Julie Yip-Williams. A detailed, sorrowful account of the author’s untimely death from colon cancer at the age of 41. Yip-Williams was born with severe vision problems, and her grandmother insisted that her mother and father have the girl euthanized (there’s no other way to say it) by an herbalist. The herbalist refused, and the author overcame her handicaps to graduate college, marry, and have a family, only to acquire and die from colon cancer. The book addresses nearly every practical and emotional issue that a cancer patient might have to deal with, with only occasional forays into sentimentality. The author holds nothing back, and is brutally honest about everything. If anything, it reinforces the notion that you need to live each moment as if it’s your last and cherish the people and things that are important to you while you can.
- Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace with Your Money, by Ken Honda. I was hoping this book would be a nice combination of Zen philosophy and financial management, and that’s what it was, I suppose. He makes some good points about how your attitude toward money is derived from how your parents dealt with money issues, and helps you understand how money can generate thoughts of fear, stress, anxiety, and anger in people. I agreed completely with his emphasis on gratitude, and the importance of being thankful when both giving and receiving money. He did tend to repeat himself quite a bit, however, and his approach was overly simplistic in many ways: think happy thoughts, smile when handling money, thank your money when it comes in, and thank it again when it goes out, etc. I never have considered these types of issues when thinking about money, so if anything, the book was unique and interesting in that regard.
- Lie With Me: A Novel, by Philippe Besson. An excellent coming of age story (and actually, a memoir) about two French high school students who experience first love and sexual awakening with each other. Their backgrounds are very different, however, and as each moves on with his own life, the boys drift apart and lose touch. The protagonist ends up becoming a well-known writer and, by chance, meets up with his high-school lover’s son, allowing him to discover what ever became of the boy he was madly in love with all those years ago. It’s a short book, but it powerfully captures the longing, angst, desire, and passion that rages inside these boys at such a vulnerable age. A cautionary tale about love, loss, and the consequences we suffer when we don’t allow ourselves the freedom to be who we really are. I loved this book.
- The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD, by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. A very interesting, very detailed account of the 28 months that LSD guru was on the run after escaping from jail on a ridiculous drug charge. President Nixon labeled Leary “the most dangerous man in America” and was absolutely desperate to see him recaptured and brought to justice. Fascinating stories about the jailbreak, his escape to Algeria and his joining forces with Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, the enormous amount of LSD, pot, and hashish that he consumed while on the run, the crazy wives and girlfriends, Nixon’s and the CIA’s obsessive henchmen, and lots more. A very enjoyable read.
- Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, by John Waters. I’ve been a fan of John Waters for over 40 years. I’ve seen all of his films and read all of his books. I’ve met him twice, and he autographed his book Crackpot for me. His books have been hilarious, and this one doesn’t disappoint. The guy is completely nuts. The first part of the book deals mostly with Hollywood and his later films, with great stories about the movie industry and the actors he’s worked with. The rest of the book are his musings about Provincetown, Andy Warhol, the fantasy restaurant he’d like to design, the ideal apartment he’d create, how he’d like his own funeral to be conducted, and all sorts of other craziness. A treasure for his fans. Loved it.
- Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, by Walt Odets. A very dense, but enlightening book that discusses the difficulties gay men have faced, and still face, trying to live their lives productively and authentically in the face of intense trauma and discrimination. He focuses on the stigmatization that gay men experience early in life, and the shame, self-doubt, and isolation that results from being seen as different from the rest of society. The author is a clinical psychologist, and he references his actual patients, in detailed case reports, to illustrate many of his points. Many of these patient stories are moving and emotional and make for intense reading, and I doubt there are many gay men in America today who don’t see themselves in more than a few of these accounts. He also delves very deeply into the trauma that the HIV epidemic has brought to gay men and how it is a constant undercurrent in our lives. The book is a remarkably accurate job of describing the lives of gay men in current day America. This is a very important book for gay men, and I encourage all gay men to buy it and read it. A well-written, informative, empathetic, and (thankfully) hopeful jolt of reality.
- The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning, by Scott Galloway. I really had no idea who Scott Galloway was when I got this book, but it looked good when I perused it in the bookstore, so I purchased a used copy. The first part was cool enough, as Galloway, a NYU professor and (as I subsequently found out) unbelievably wealthy entrepreneur, doled out some well thought out nuggets of life wisdom. But as the book progressed, it morphed into a lightweight autobiography of a super-wealthy privileged heterosexual white guy who thinks life has no meaning unless you’re married and have kids. He really needs to shut up about his kids. We get it. You love them. You treat them nicely. All parents should treat their kids nicely. We get it. Enough already. In the last half of the book, he tries to illustrate his points by telling short stories about events in his life, and most of these stories were dull and weakly illustrated the point he was trying to make, which more often than not was that his kids are great and he loves them. It all became very random at the end. No cohesion at all. Most of his philosophy was simply a recommendation to form close relationships with people, be nice to people, etc. No Earth-shattering revelations here. I just don’t know if a self-absorbed entrepreneur should be writing a philosophical book like this. And some of his career advice, like “Don’t follow your passion”, but do what you’re good at doing instead, just seemed wrong to me. You should skip this one.
- Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. A long, detailed autobiography by a performer I’ve always liked, even though I haven’t kept up with his career. Elvis’s father was a very accomplished musician, and I enjoyed hearing about Elvis’s musical upbringing, and his early years at Stiff Records and on the punk scene. Elvis has very broad musical tastes, and he describes encounters and collaborations with George Jones, T. Bone Burnett, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and many, many others. This is not a wild sex and drug autobiography. It’s a thoughtful, well written account of his life, with the main focus being on his love of songwriting. He’s not only a great songwriter, but a great writer in general, and some of the stories about his family, especially his father’s physical decline and eventual death, were very moving. The book was very long and some sections were a little dull, but overall, it’s an excellent book.
- Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This was a strange book. It’s an improbably love story between a woman in her late 30’s and her former high school teacher, in his 60’s. What starts as an acquaintance develops into a friendship, and ultimately, a love affair. The fluffy, dreamy writing is very reminiscent of another female Japanese author, Banana Yoshimoto, who’s a big big favorite of mine. However, the dialog between the main characters is so bizarre and stilted and implausible that it made for difficult reading. The book has no plot at all, and all the characters do is drink drink drink and exchange weird, two-word sentences. I’m sure some of the stilted nature of the dialog had to do with the translation, but still, the book never really resonated in the way that I had hoped (despite the glowing reviews elsewhere).
- The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, by Gish Jen. The author is better known as a novelist, but she’s written this non-fiction exploration of the divide between Western and Eastern culture. She basically divides West from East by how the self is seen. Western people are characterized by individualism and self-esteem, compared to Eastern people, who are flexible and interdependent. In the West we value uniqueness, while in the East, support for the family and community takes precedence. She uses the weird analogy of an avocado pit, calling the Western, individualized self the “avocado pit” self, or “big pit” self (because an avocado has a large, well-developed core), and the Eastern self the “flexi” self, all throughout the book. She concludes by recommending that we somehow find a way to combine the freedom and individuality of the West with the collectivism and cooperation of the east, to get the best of both worlds. The book is filled with example after example (i.e. Westerners have come to expect 50 flavors of ice-cream, while Easterners are perfectly happy with ten), study after study, that illustrate and support her claim. It’s interesting at first, especially the stories about the educational system in China, but you get the idea pretty clearly after just a few examples, and for me, the book went on a little too long. Fortunately, Jen is an excellent writer, and if you find this kind of cultural commentary interesting, her warm, personal writing style will keep you reading.
- The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks. I’ve been a fan and reader of Oliver Sacks for decades. (He actually lived in my building a few years ago, and I would see him on the elevator now and then.) This book is the last one he would oversee before he died. Most of his books focus on neuroscience and intriguing neurology cases he has seen, but Sacks’s love of science went far beyond neurology, and this book is a series of essays on other topics near and dear to him, such as chemistry, botany, and his heroes Darwin and Freud. I found the essays on flowers, plants and worms, and Freud to be a bit too dry and academic for a casual reading, but the chapters on “Mishearings”, “The Fallibility of Memory”, and “a General Feeling of Disorder” were classic Oliver. The other essays have a somewhat philosophical bent, but very readable. For fans of Dr. Sacks, there’s something for everyone in this book.
- Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, by Steven Hyden. This is really a book about pop culture, and the author has made a pretty good career as a writer on the topic. Addressing pop culture through these music rivalries was very entertaining. As a fan of classic rock and alternative music, I really enjoyed the chapters on Oasis vs. Blur, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Eric Clapton vs. Jimmy Hendrix, Smashing Pumpkins vs. Pavement, Neil Young vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd, and of course, the Beatles vs. Stones. Some of the rivalries are real, and some are merely fan-created, but they’re all interesting. The author’s analysis of the rivalries in terms of how it influenced pop culture at the time made the book compelling, even if the rivalries involved performers that I had little interest in (for example, Biggie vs. Tupac, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera). The book was lighthearted, amusing, thought provoking, and a lot of fun. I definitely recommend it.
- The Parade, by Dave Eggers. This is the seventh book of Eggers’s that I’ve read over the years. Like most of his recent books, it takes place in some unnamed, mysterious war-torn country. Two men, using the pseudonyms Four and Nine, are assigned to build a highway using new, very high-tech paving machines. The highway will connect the needy villages with the country’s capital. Four operates very by-the-book, while Nine is more loose and rebellious, breaking protocol frequently by mingling with (and sometimes sleeping with) the locals. The completion of the road is of utmost importance, as there is to be a huge government parade to christen it. Nine recklessness ends up endangering the entire operation. I won’t give away much more of the plot (the ending is relatively shocking), but the book asks us to ponder a number of things: can Western assistance ever really change the situations in developing nations, and the importance of trying to honor our commitments to the tasks we’re assigned, vs. commitments to our own personal standards. Not his best work, but you definitely get sucked into it.
- Hippie, by Paulo Coelho. An autobiographical novel that recounts the days when a generation of young people dared to dream of a better world, and sought that world by throwing their stuff in a backpack and traveling the world, with the journey being more important than the destination. In this book, the author recounts the story of how he met the beautiful Karla in Dam Square in Amsterdam, and on a whim, agrees to join her on a weeks-long bus trek through Europe and Asia, to Kathmandu. Although the main focus is on Paulo and Karla, there are interesting digressions about the interesting lives of some others on the bus. I was expecting more music, drugs, and politics, but I suppose that’s a more American view of the hippie era. In this European view, the focus was more about the spiritual journey, and there was a bit more vague mumbo-jumbo about God than I really cared to read about, especially because they book ties their ideals of peace and love and community strongly to religion, something that I don’t typically tie to the hippie ideal, in America, at least. The book is autobiographical and it is clear that the author has led an interesting life, and he conveys it well. I was hoping for a more general book about the times, rather than this very personal account, but it was engaging nonetheless.
- On Bowie, by Rob Sheffield. A short book written by a talented music writer and major Bowie fan. It’s not just a biography, but a major tribute to one of the most creative musicians/artists of the past century. The author goes through every phase of Bowie’s career, describing with encyclopedic knowledge everything you might want to know about the music, and Bowie’s motivation behind it. Sheffield is the ultimate fanboy, so if you’re looking for any type of objectivity, forget it. Granted, the constant insertion of song titles and lyrics into every paragraph can get a little cheesy, but it made me smile more than it made me groan. It took me a little longer than I expected, because I stopped multiple times to play the songs that he gushed about in the text. A feel-good book for diehard Bowie fans.
- Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, by Steve Turner. A well-written and impeccably researched account of a very important year in the Beatles’ development and creativity. During this year, their song writing skills progressed and expanded dramatically, and they worked in synch with George Martin to develop innovative and creative ways of recording, using unusual microphone placement, feedback, tape splicing, double tracking, tape looping, and all sorts of fresh approaches took their music way beyond what anyone else was doing in the studio. The book also addresses the culture at the time and the influence it had on the Beatles’ lives and music, including the use of drugs, the “Swinging London” scene, eastern philosophy and spirituality, and the war in Vietnam. If your favorite Beatles album is Revolver (as mine is), the book is doubly pleasurable, as much of the year 1966 is spent in the studio recording this seminal album, and the stories around the creation and recording of each song on the album is captivating.
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