A list of books I've read this year.
Gumballs by Karen Jonas
Karen is the best Americana songwriter that you've never heard of. I bought her book of poems for my wife for Christmas, and since it was sitting there on the coffee table...
It's not poetry in the rhyme and meter sense, it's really a collection of very, very short stories spanning her life from teenage years through marriage and divorce and raising kids and making a living as a musician. I read them all in one sitting. That's part commentary on the fact that are short poems, and part commentary that they are damn good.
Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks by Mark Woods
Journalist Mark Woods gets a grant to visit 12 National Parks over a year to write about the future of the National Park system. Life throws in a curve ball as his mother gets a terminal cancer diagnosis early in the year. Part travelogue, part reflection on family, part essay on the past and future of the NPS, this was a really enjoyable book to read, especially in January when my camper is in winter storage.
Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock 'n Roll by Jay Jay French
This book was not what I was expecting. It's really a business or personal improvement book, wrapped around an auto-biography and the history of Twisted Sister. However, instead of platitudes from an MBA we get business lessons from a former drug dealer turned heavy metal guitarist turned band owner and apparently these days, motivational speaker. The business advice is all pretty standard stuff, just told in a really unique way and built on the acronym TWISTED.
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams by Robert Peterson
I've tried to read a couple of histories of black professional baseball and they were dry and hard to stay interested in. That is not the case with this book. The author does a fabulous job of making the book an interrelated collection of stories about players and teams. I completed the book with a much better understanding of black professional baseball and how it fits into the pantheon of baseball history. And I was entertained while reading, a real win-win.
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
This book was my prize from the white elephant book exchange at a Christmas time book club meeting. The story bounces back and forth between early 1800s London, where the secret apothecary exists to help women rid themselves of abusive or cheating husbands, and modern day London, where 30-something Caroline is rediscovering her love of history on a solo 10th anniversary trip that her husband missed because he was cheating on her. It's a really fun and well paced suspense story that will keep you interested until the last page as the historical story unravels while Caroline closes in on understanding what happened, 200 years later.
It's also a story of a women reconnecting with the things that bring passion to her life, while coming to terms with her decision to junk it all 10 years ago to get married.
The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game by Andrew Forbes
An ode to the game we love, told through a series of short essays ranging from love letters to favorite baseball players, and cards, to memories of games past, to multiple ruminations on the life and career of Ichiro. I probably should have saved this for April when there is no baseball due to the lockout of the players by the owners.
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
Razorblade Tears is set in SW Virginia, same as Cosby's previous book, the universally acclaimed Blacktop Wasteland. The story mines some of the same territory too, as our protagonist is a black ex-con who has turned his life around and is now a responsible family man, although he is estranged from his gay son who is happily married with a small child in Richmond.
Shit hits the fan when his son and son-in-law are brutally murdered in what is obviously a professional hit. After two months of nothing from the cops Ike teams up with the dad of his son-in-law, a redneck ex-con grifter who also failed to accept his son for who is is, and together shit gets very violent quickly as they get mixed up with a white supremacist motor cycle gang and a corrupt public official on the way to the truth, and a very high body count.
Tommyland by Tommy Lee
Chapter 1 features a conversation between Tommy and his penis. Chapter 2 is Tommy's sex tips. It's better after that, but not by much. I bailed at about the half-way point.
Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver
This book by the great Orioles manager Earl Weaver was written in the early 80s, but feels fairly relevant even today. Weaver believed the way to win baseball games was 3 run HRs and pitchers with high strikeout rates. An army of baseball analysts have spent tens of millions of dollars analyzing data over the last 20 odd years to come to essentially the same conclusion. Weaver also hated bunting, sacrifices, and the hit and run. He also hated the 5 man rotation and would probably flip out at the idea that starting pitchers are only good for 6 innings. Overall an entertaining read that has added to my respect for Weaver.
A Well-Paid Slave by Brad Snyder
This is a biography of Curtis Flood, the MLB player that sacrificed his career in to file the law suit to challenge the reserve clause in MLB, which essentially made baseball players well-paid slaves with no agency over their career. Flood was a complicated dude, and actually lost the lawsuit at the Supreme Court, but it was the writing on the wall that led to some concessions by the team owners and another suit that did finally get the players free agency on their terms.
The suit ruined Flood's life and blew up a lifelong alcohol problem that left him bankrupt and miserable. he did find some happiness later on before dying young in his late 50s. Breaking the reserve clause was probably inevitable, but somebody had to be the pariah that tried first. Every MLB player that came after him owes Flood a debt of gratitude. I suspect 95% of the league has no idea who he was.
Fifty Places to Camp Before You Die by Chris Santella
Chris seems to have made a career of writing ""50 Places to Do -Insert Outdoor Activity Here-" books. Obviously any such list is arbitrary and the write ups in the book were all written by locals to the destinations, which gives it more authenticity than somebody sitting in their house in the US writing about camping in New Zealand. Probably 1/3 of the destinations are outside of the US, so as much as I want to camp in New Zealand, it probably isn't happening anytime soon. Also, the book seems to be written for people that are going to fly into the destination and I guess glamp in a cabin or Yurt or maybe rent everything on site. Not a bad book for inspiration, but I really didn't need somebody to tell me I should camp at Yosemite or Yellowstone. The few less obvious destinations were the most interesting to me.
Clutter by Jennifer Howard
Triggered by the overwhelming task of dealing with her mother's house stuffed full of stuff, the author takes us on a trip through time to examine the history of our relationship with stuff. It turns out it's all the Victorian's fault. The dawning of the industrial age made collecting a lot of crap possible, and the a proper Victorian age house in England needed lots and lots of stuff. On our side of the pond, consumption was downright patriotic and is pushed on us from every possible angle. The book helps you see that too much stuff isn't just a personal failing. It's literally history.
Rethinking Fandom by Craig Calcaterra
Hell is Empty by Charles Tabb
I read this on a flight from Denver to Chicago to Richmond. I literally finished the book as we touched down in Richmond. I was hooked from the first chapter, although I pegged the kidnapper in their first appearance in the book. The character has a thought that made me think this person is a psychopath. I was right. I will say the "tells" as Detective Pantera proceeds though the suspect list were pretty obvious to me, as I quickly ruled out each suspect, making my initial guess stronger and stronger. Also, I didn't really buy the relationship between Samantha's mom and the kidnapper, her dad's reaction to the kidnapping, or Pantera's move at the end when he confronts the kidnapper at home. He seemed like way too good of a cop to make that rookie mistake at the end. Overall an enjoyable story though that kept me invested, even though I figured out the bad guy by about page 25.
Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
This book is the perfect antidote to the hell world we live in today. Imagine a parallel earth where Godzilla like monsters flourished and humans never got established. Imagine a team of young PhD (mostly) scientists that have access to the world to study it. Imagine all the scientists are nerds fluent in snark and sci-fi. Throw in some evil capitalists and it's a perfect confluence of ingredients for Scalzi to stir into a very fun yarn. Buy it. Read it.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Colson is very hit or miss with me. This was a miss. Made it close to halfway through and just lost interest.
The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Allegedly one of the funniest books ever written. I was not amused and didn't finish it.
Special characters:my adventures with tech's titans and misfits by Laurie Segall
This is Laurie's story of starting out as an intern at CNN and turning it into a full time job that eventually had her start the tech beat at CNN and become one of the most notable tech journalists in the US. Her observations about how tech titans changed from her first interviews when they were plucky start ups to post-IPO tech luminaries were interesting. Her frustration at the misogyny and glass ceiling at CNN was, sadly, not surprising. The constant references to Web 2.0 start ups I had long forgot about was fun.
Upright women wanted by Sarah Gailey
In an alternate timeline USA we've reverted back to horses as primary transportation because the military needs all the gas and diesel. Most of the country is living under authoritarian rule where possessing the wrong book is good for a hanging. Ester stows away in a librarian's wagon after her best friend is hanged for possessing the wrong pamphlet. Librarians travel the land delivering "approved" reading material to the masses. However, the librarians are not what they seem, and Ester learns that she is not as alone as she thought as a gay person in Texas 2022, I mean the US in this alternate timeline. It's more of a novella than a novel, only 155 pages.
I've Never Met an Idiot on the River by Henry Winkler
Yes, The Fonz wrote a book. About fly fishing. Actually, it's barely a book. It's 6 or 7 essays about fly fishing and his happy place in the river in Montana, and how that applies back to real life. He published a lot of photos in the book too. I got through the entire book in an hour. But it was a library book so I'm not feeling cheated or anything. Fonzie, err, Henry didn't pick up fly fishing until he was around 50. So the old dog new trick lesson there is definitely worth thinking about.
The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart
Part sci-fi with a time travel angle, part noir detective story, part meditation on dealing with grief, and 100% fun story. Rob also wrote The Warehouse, which I read and enjoyed last year.
The Southernization of America by Cynthia Tucker and Frye Gaillard
A series of essays by two noted left of center personalities in the South that looks at what went wrong and how we got to a place in the county where 40% of the electorate are flat out racists.
Hint - they were always there.
It's a short read looking at Jim Crow, Reagan and the rise of the Republican party, the relationship between evangelical churches and the GOP, and Trump (of course). They try to find some reason for optimism, but I didn't finish the book feeling optimistic.
Still Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton
Wil Wheaton revisits his 2004 book Just a Geek. The result is two books in one, the original Just a Geek, and a book's worth of annotations with a happier, more content, more mature Wil wondering what the hell he was thinking when he wrote some of that stuff.
Wilderness, The Gateway To The Soul by Scott Stillman
It's half camping and hiking journal, half meditation on the benefits of being in nature. I get cranky when I've gone too long without being in nature, so I get it.
Baseball and Men's Lives by Robert Mayer
I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book but I got bored 1/2 way through and never picked it back up. It's memoir from a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who became a Mets fans, but it didn't have enough to keep me interested.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
A highly educated yet unmotivated 26 year old follows his girlfriend to the island of Tarawa, in Micronesia. As a former resident of Micronesia, that grabbed my interest. The book had it's moments, but it felt like a really good, long Esquire article that got stretched to a book. I never did finish it.
Driven to Wonder: Eight years in an RV with two kids: A Memoir by Michael Boyink
I heard the author interviewed on a podcast and his book sounded interesting. It was also only 99 cents. I read about 25%. Every third or fourth trip report veers off into a religious observation about how he sees God in nature, or his kids, or whatever. I just finished Wilderness, The Gateway To The Soul by Scott Stillman last month (see review above), I'm not anti spirituality in my camping books, it just needs to be well done. This felt forced, like he had a God quota every 5th camping stop or something.
90 Days in the 90s by Andy Frye
An older millennial living in NYC sees her relationship fall apart and her crypto portfolio blow up. So she moves back to Chicago and takes over her recently passed Uncle's record shop. In the basement she finds a time machine that will let her spend 90 days in the past, so she goes back to the 90s, just before she bailed on Chicago and a relationship to move to NY.
What follows is a fun coming of age story built around 2nd chances and 90s alternative rock. I would have been buying Apple stock, but that's just me.
Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks
A super fun blast from the past when a middle aged GenXer goes home to save the world, again. The problem is nobody but him remembers using 80s video games to defeat an evil dead pirate. Now they have to do it again, but first he has to get everybody to remember the 80s in the first place, as the government has convinced the town they hallucinated it all after a gas leak.
Educated by Tara Westover
Reviewed on the blog.
Tales From the Cafe by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
The follow-up to Before the Coffee gets Cold, 4 more customers of the coffee shop travel in time. If you liked the original you'll like the follow up.
How to Mars by David Ebenbach
A crew goes to Mars as a reality show after winning their places in a popular vote. The ratings drop, then one of the crew gets pregnant, which is a ratings boon. It's a bit of a satire on reality TV and space exploration, but definately a fun read.
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History by Lewis Buzbee
Part memoir of a lifelong book industry worker, part ode to bookstores, and part history of book-selling as a profession. It's an enjoyable, light read. It was written in the 'oughts and his pronouncement in the book that book-selling via e-commerce has peaked is hilariously wrong. Well, not hilarious if you are one of the book-sellers displaced by Amazon.
The House of Daniel: A Novel of Wild Magic, the Great Depression, and Semipro Ball by Harry Turtledove
It's an alternative history set in post-depression, pre-WWII America that follows a journeyman semi-pro baseball player through a season. This timeline of America has zombies, vampires, magicians, and flying carpets, but they are really background noise that don't play a major part in the plot. Zombies are roughly analogous to enslaved people, and vampires are analogous to drug addicts. I kept waiting for something to happen in this book, but it never really does.
The Wall: A Novel by John Lanchester
This dystopian, near future story images a world overcome by climate change and an island nation (England) that has built a large wall around it's entire perimeter to keep the "others" out. All young adults coming of age are required to spend 2 years on wall duty. The story follows a young dude through wall duty, and getting banished for a failure of his unit. I was entertained, but the ending did not stick the landing for me.
3 Miles Down by Harry Turtledove
An alternative history in which the US finds an alien ship disabled under the Pacific Ocean in 1971. Asks a lot of questions about how that might have impacted the Cold War. It's a fun story, a little slow in the first half but picks up towards the end.
The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell
A British jounalist moves to Denmark when her husband gets a job a Lego. She spends the year writing a book about why the Danes are so damn happy. It's a fun read. I won't spoil the answer to the Why question here, but I will say if she is right, it can never happen in the US.
Where I Belong: Small Town to Great Big Sea by Alan Doyle
Alan Doyle was the lead singer of Great Big Sea, the Canadian Folk Rock band that was active and popular through the first 17 or so years of the century. This is his story of growing up in a small fishing village in Newfoundland. It's full of humor and hijinks that will be familiar to anybody in GenX.
Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke
I checked this out from the library thinking it was focused on what the constant trickle of dopamine from our phones is doing to this. It was really more of an addiction 101, told via stories of the author's patients at Stanford. The idea that pleasure and pain exist as a metaphorical teeter-toter that your brain really wants to keep balanced was interesting. But overall the book is mostly anecdotal and I'm not going to start taking cold showers because this book suggests it's a killer dopamine rush.
The Clan Corporate by Charlie Stross
Book 3 of the Merchant Princess series. I read books 1 and 2 about 5 years ago, so it took a while to get back into the story. By the final third I was fully immersed in the story of our accidental princess whose family can walk between parallel earths, and uses this power to transport heroin across the country.
The Bookeaters by Sunyi Dean
One of my favorite books of the year. The story follows a women that is part of a race of beings that live on earth with the humans, however she doesn't eat plants and animals. She eats books. It's a patriarchal society built on managed, arranged marriages to limit inbreeding between the six families in England. When her son is born as a brain eater (just what it sounds like) she goes on the run to save him. It's an inventive, dark, urban fantasy.
You've Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All by Adrian Hon
Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time by Andrew Forsthoefel
Recent liberal arts college grad with no idea what to do with his life decides to walk across America to figure it out via wisdom of the crowds, or at least random people he runs into on a 40000 mile walk. He camps in yards or gets invited in to garages, barns, guest rooms, etc. Every chapter is basically one person he met along the way. I was entertained reading it, and young Andrew learns the answers he seeks must come from within.
Acceptance: A Memoir by Emi Nietfeld
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
I really enjoyed Fargo Rock City by Chuck. but have had a hard time getting into this one. Maybe it's because the stories are mostly 90s focused, and more of an 80s dude. I'm maybe 50% done and don't know that I will get back to it.
Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure by Rinker Buck
I really enjoyed his previous book about building a covered wagon and following the Oregon Trail. This time he built a wooden keel boat and sailed the Mississippi from east of Pittsburgh all the way to New Orleans. Life on the river is less exciting, but more dangerous, as he basically is dodging the large tugs and barges day in and day out. I learned a lot about the history and present of boat traffic on the Muddy Mississippi.
All saints Hotel & Cocktail Lounge by Nathan Monk
A story about learning to adult in the 2nd decade of this century, via a group of friends in some unnamed town that is clearly a small town near Pensacola FL. I like the book, didn't love it. The primary character Leo was prone to long rants, as though he was reading his blog posts as part of the narrative of the story. I agreed with everything he was ranting about, but the rants kept taking me out of the story. The story revolving around a small town conspiracy was really interesting, up to the point they quit following it and it was left unresolved. The will they or won't they settle down relationship between Leo and Joy was less interesting.
Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction by Elizabeth Gehrman