I am part of a book group that set a goal of 22 books read for 2022. I am proud to say I read 29 so I have a fair amount of books to choose from for my top 10 list. What are my criteria? I think the first is do I remember the book and refer back to it in conversation and my thoughts. I appreciate great writing in fiction and non-fiction. It was hard to narrow down the list as a number of books I really liked did not make the list. Enjoy the list and hopefully one or two books catches your interest.
First book I recommend is Craig Whitlock’s book the “Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War”.
An engaging account of the 20 years the US spent in Afghanistan. The book highlights fundamental challenges the Military faced during their time in the country. There was no central city that controlled the economy or was there a historical seat of power. Kanduhar was called the capital, but Afghanistan was a series of regions controlled by varios warlords with different allegences and competing agendas. The poverty of the nation impacted life decisions – do I join the police force or go to the field and harvest poppies? At the end of the day when you have a family to feed you follow the money. Having a population that was largey uneducated created a series of challenges for the United States. The book covers in part 4 administrations, by far the most time is spent with GW Bush and Obama as they covered 15 of those 20 years. It was an engaging account of what went wrong in Afghanistan and why. Worth the read.
Second book I recommend is Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad”
I love Mark Twain, there is a reason he his a gigantic icon in American Literature, and one of its most influential. In “The Innocents Abroad” he takes us on a journey to Europe and the Holy Lands. The book is full of Twain’s famous wit and astute observations. The book starts in the Atlantic in the Azores before moving onto the continent. The book is two parts as Twain travels the southern part of Europe and eventually meets with Czar Alexander II on the coast of the Black Sea, before moving to the second part of the book as Twain visit the Holy Lands. Like many great writers, Twain is well versed in scripture which lends to the observations he makes along the journey. It would be fair to say that all great American writers stem from Twain.
The Third Book is “The Growth Delusion” by David Pilling
It seems we have been conditioned over the last fifty plus years to believe that all a country needs for its wealth and happiness is to grow the GDP, that mystical measure of goods and services. I had read Pilling’s previous book “Bending Adversity” about his time in Japan, where in the book he questioned GDP as a measure of success since Japan has a declining population (a trend not unique to Japan). It is a thought provoking book that provides a history of the term GDP – interestingly coined by a Ukranian economist. In the end the argument is being made, is GDP still the best way to measure the success and happiness of a nation? This book makes that open for debate
The fourth book I chose is Evan Osnos’ “Wildland: the Making if American Fury”.
America has been through a tough journey over the past several years. Evan Osnos attempts to capture what has led to this American disfunction and anger over the past few decades. He does so in three different settings. One in West Virginia where he worked post college for a local paper. The second where he grew up in Greenwich Viilage, CT once a humble community now overwhelmed with massive wealth. The third being a black community in Chicago. As he returns to these locations he finds dessolation in two areas and a loss of hope (a loss of the American Dream) and one representing the mega wealth of the 1% of America. America over the past couple of decades has become an angry nation, focused on perceived ill’s done by its government, while ignoring a larger picture in play. This book did a great job in at least providing some understanding as to what went wrong in America and why we are at a inflection point in our history.
The fifth book on my list is Erik Larson’s fantastic book “Devil in the White CIty
Erik Larson is a favorite author who chooses unique events in history. In this case it is the Worlds Fair of 1893 in Chicago. It is a duel story – one of the challenge of creating a magnificent World Expo and the other of a seriel killer. The driver for the Expo was to make something greater than the Paris Expo of 1889. A key figure was the famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead as he desired to make the worlds most amazing fair grounds. On the flip side underneath it all was H. H. Holmes believed by many to be the first modern day seriel killer. The book keeps you engaged as the Expo is under a considerable time crunch and the seriel killer gets better with practice. Fun read.
The sixth book is “There is Nothing for You Here” and given my blue collar roots one I related to
Fiona Hill grew up in the Northeastern part of Engalend. A very blue-collar part of the country and one with history in the coal mines (her father was a coal miner). An area that when Margaret Thatcher came to power was decimated by the free market, whcih Thatcher ushered in as a desciple of Milton Friedman. It serves as notice that though there are great benefits to free market economics, there will always be consequences. Fiona Hill was lucky as she was interested in Education and working her way up. She attended University of St Andrews. She eventually came to the US and worked in the Trump adminstration. She would build a career based on her education as a scholar on the Soviet Union, spending several months in Moscow in 1987 (interesting that I would visit Hungary and Czechosslovakia during that same period). She paints a story of a person, like many, who no matter where they end up our bound by their roots
The seventh book “Ghosts of Spain” returns me to Spain, where not a year goes by I do not read a book about Spain
A country that I have visited several times and one that is close to my heart. Giles Tremlett is a British journalist who works for the Guardian and lives in Madrid. If you are interested in Spanish history and culture this is a great overview of Spain and the differnet regions. It starts with the Spanish Civil War but quickly goes to the diffeent regions of Spain – Basque, Catelnia, Andalusia, La Mancha, etc..You learn about the ETA, Flamenco, etc..It was a really interesting and engaging read and one that made me want to go back to Spain. One thing he pointed out is there are not mant great academics focused on the Spanish Civil War, many are from outside (Paul Preston and Hugh Thomas). The War is not that far removed from memory in Spain, Franco died in 1975, so the pain of that era is still remembered
Th eigth book, “Leaving Las Vegas” and one that was inspired by the movie of the same name, which it was based upon
A book I had on my list since the movie came. I had heard it was an exceptionally well written book (it s also a quick read at less than 150 pages). The book is far more brutal than he movie and dives deeper into alcoholism and prostitution. What stands out is O’Briens writing. It is clean and simple and easy to connect and engage with. It is the only book he released (a few were released posthumously). He died at the age of 33 and the book was called his “suicide note”. I doubt he had a good life, it s a shame he did not realize his talent as a writer. We are all less for it
The ninth book, “California Burning” a non-fiction book that tackles “The Grid”.
An area that until recently has been left to decay, is the US infrastructure. This book documents the cost of Pacific Gas and Electruc going public, where shareholder value takes precedence. Early on PG&E brought in Accenutre as a lead consultant who focused on business value (which meand cutting costs). Consequently they reduced budget in areas like safety. In Nothern California they have over 700.000 utiity poles, many very old (between 50yrs and close to 100yrs). Combine this with global warming and a very dry landscape, with high winds and you have the makings of a disaster. This led to the Camp Fire (Paradise, CA) where 85 people died. This is a facinatig book on how when mutilple things come together due to neglegence and greed that disasters occur. We take the electrical grid for granted but with increasing energy demands combined with climate change we as a nation need to rethink our investments in American infrastructure. This was a book I could not put down
The tenth and final for this years list, “The Divider” and a return to politics.
A political junkie I am. Having read Baker before I knew he was a thorough journalist and combined with his wife it made for a powerful and disturbing read, A lot covered territory covered before. Trumps disdain for military leaders who are not loyal to him, this stemming more from his lack of understanding of the basic checks and balances in the US constituion. A general lack of knowledge of why US alliance exist and their value. Trump was often called a transactional President. Coming from a business world he sought instant gratifcation, almost always in the form of dollars. What comes through in the book is his extreme vanity and lack of self confidence. When challenged it usually led to emotional meltdowns, leading to beratings of those who were in his administration. The Trump administration had high turnover and usually could be traced to the man at the top. He glorified himself at every opportunity. This book is well researched and a engaging read.