Some great books that I read this year, and a few not-so-great:
Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, by Stephen Kinzer. A terrific book about the rise to power of the Sandinistas, who overcame violent opposition from the US-funded contras in the 1980s. I read this while on vacation in Nicaragua in January, as outrage grew in the US over Russian “hacking” of the US election. How quickly people forget that the US did its own “hacking” (and worse) in Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. A fictional memoir that purports to be the story of Chabon’s grandfather as he lurches across the second half of the 20th Century, from his pursuit of Werner von Braun in occupied German to his encounter with a pet-killing reptile in a Florida retirement community. Some great moments, but this Chabon fan preferred Kavalier & Clay and Telegraph Avenue.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. A brilliant, overachieving neurosurgeon, about to complete his studies, faces death from brain cancer. Haunting and inspiring.
One Shot at Forever, by Chris Ballard. A hippie English teacher leads a small-town, high-school baseball team in rural Illinois on a memorable journey in the 1970s. With a cameo by Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker.
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a curmudgeon, either. Ove isn’t who he seems to be.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. How Mexican heroine and Oxycontin devastated vast swaths of rural America. An amazing saga, well told, by an enterprising and seemingly tireless reporter.
MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live–One Meal at a Time by Kristie Middleton. You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian to alleviate animal suffering, argues an executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is the gentleman, sentenced in 1922 by the Bolsheviks to spend the rest of his life in an elegant Moscow hotel. Beautifully written, and a page-turner.
The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. The formidable trio of Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker and Chris Christie agree to fix Newark’s public schools. It doesn’t go well.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Put down your cell phone, turn off Facebook, ignore Twitter and read this book if you want to do more work that matters. You can skip the first half, which explains why deep work is important; the second half explains how to do more of it.
Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter by Peter Singer. Is it OK to serve turkey at Thanksgiving? Buy expensive art? Have sex with an adult sibling? You have questions. The world’s most influential philosopher has answers.
The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan. How the very rich throw their weight around, using philanthropy. My thoughts, here.
Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination by Adam Lashinsky. This was a must-read for me because Adam is a friend and former colleague at FORTUNE. Very well done, but events rapidly overtook the story when Travis Kalanick was ousted from Uber.
Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping to Solve Some of the World’s Biggest Problems, edited by Jennifer Lentfer and Tanya Cothran. Why giving money to grass-roots groups makes sense. My thoughts, here
Turn Right at Macchu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, by Mark Adams. A travel writer who had never before slept in a tent recreates the journey of Hiram Bingham. Hilarity ensues. A prelude to my hiking trip in July in Peru.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilderson. How often do you finish a 640-page book and wish for more? The best book I read this year, If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and order it now. Just awesome.
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. An ambitious novel of secrets and lies, featuring an idealistic young college graduate, a Julian Assange-like figure hiding in the highlands of Bolivia and an investigative reporter. Not my favorite Franzen, but still good.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Spare and simple, beautifully written, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and daughter who are estranged until the daughter is hospitalized. Too quiet for my taste.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. I absolutely loved the audio book. Then, well, you know.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. A famous American opera singer and her biggest fan, a Japanese electronics mogul, are held hostage in an embassy of a Latin American nation, along with vividly-drawn collection of revolutionaries and captives. Lyrical and riveting, all the way to the shocking finale.
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright. An expert on evolutionary psychology puts forth three startling and powerful claims in this book. First, meditation will help you see the world more clearly. Second, it will make you a happier person. Third, it will make you a better person. His arguments are compelling.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Who’s in the kitchen with Anthony? “Wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths.” Deliciously funny.
The Golden Donors: A New Anatomy of the Great Foundations by Waldemar A. Nielsen. This 1985 account is dated, but it’s so well written that reading it was a pleasure. Besides, history matters. (Thanks to Ben Soskis, who recommended it.)
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler. A lively professional memoir by the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Insightful and, believe it or not, funny.
Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts. How to spend months–or years–traveling the world on the cheap. Hey, a guy can dream.