Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Reading is one of my life’s great pleasures. Here are the books that I read this year.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. A mind-bending collection of journalism and essays about conservative talk radio, September 11, John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, Tracy Austin’s tennis career and the ethics of boiling large numbers of lobsters alive.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. A sociologist lives among the poorest of the poor in Milwaukee, compiles 5,000 single-spaced pages of notes and turns them into this powerful and depressing book. His sobering conclusion: “This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering–by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.” Solutions, though, are hard to come by.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Very hard to follow, let alone understand and recall, perhaps because my grounding in biology and chemistry is poor. What stuck with me: More of us that we imagine, it seems, is scripted by our genes.

The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports, by Jeff Passan. Every winter, I read a baseball book. This was a good one. Somehow, Passan made me care about forgettable major leaders like Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, by Charles C. Mann. The lives of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, who defined the terms of the debate about whether a finite planet creates limits to growth. My takeaway: Ingenuity and well-regulated markets can overcome so-called planetary limits, if we get the politics right. Right now, we’re failing.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. A young woman known only as Reno—she’s from Nevada—sets a land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, explores the downtown art scene in New York in the 1970s and follows her lover to Italy where she falls in with revolutionaries who resemble the Red Brigade. Kushner’s prose and powers of observation carried me along.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker. The world is getting better in so many ways, except where it isn’t. The threat of climate change casts a cloud over this otherwise sunny account of how how science and rationality have improved the lives of billions.

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope and a Restaurant in Rwanda by Josh Ruxin. See my blogpost, A little bit of heaven in Rwanda.

A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Steven Kinzer. Solid but unspectacular, this is the story of how today’s Rwanda emerged from the genocide of 1994. A bit dated.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. A timely, fast-moving, well-plotted novel about race in America. It’s told through the eyes of an African-American nurse, the lawyer who defends her when she is accused of a crime and the white supremacist whose hatred sets the story in motion.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann During the 1920s, Osage Indians living in Oklahoma become fabulously rich when oil was discovered on their land. Then they began dying mysterious deaths. A shocking and appalling saga, coming soon to the big screen.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan. The writer of The Omnivore’s Dilemma drops acids, chews mushrooms and even ingests the venom of a desert toad while researching the history, science, politics and potential of mind-altering drugs. Fascinating throughout, this is the best book I read in 2018.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. The Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed the fraud that was Theranos explains how the charismatic Elizabeth Holmes fooled a lot of supposedly smart people for a very long time, until she didn’t. A page-turner about gullibility, among other things.

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgetting by Tracy Kidder. The harrowing journey of a young medical student named Deo from war-torn Burundi to the streets of New York and, eventually, back to Africa, all of it beautifully told.

The Beatles by Hunter Davies. The only authorized biography of the Beatles, published in 1968, with a new introduction. A entertaining trip down memory lane.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. A candid look at the early days of Nike. Better than you’d expect.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. When a middle-aged gay writer learns that his lover is marrying someone else, he sets off on a round-the-world trip to avoid the wedding. Hilarity ensues during his journey of self-discovery. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. The first and only graphic novel that I’ve read. Loved it.

Robin by Dave Itzkoff. A thoroughly-reported biography by a New York Times reporter brings back to life the manic brilliance of Robin Williams, as well as his struggles with addiction and depression. Engaging and intimate.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. This delectable skewering of philanthropic and corporate elites is never boring, and it makes an important but hardly surprising point–that rich and powerful people mostly want to preserve the status quo. Giridharadas argues that governments, not markets, will solve tough social problems, but his analysis doesn’t go deep.

Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman. How did today’s restaurant scene come to be? Freedman, a Yale prof and medieval historian–huh?–writes that much of our dining-out culture can be traced to a small group of influential establishments, from Schrafft’s and McDonald’s to the Four Seasons and Chez Panisse. (What, no McDonald’s?) Debate his choices if you like, but enjoy this cook’s tour of iconic American eateries.

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford. It’s Christmas season, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, hard times have befallen Frank Bascombe, the writer turned real estate agent who first appeared in a wonderful 1986 novel, The Sportswriter. Three books and decades later, Frank is older and wiser but not as endearing or amusing as he used to be, as he ruefully ponders the meaning of it all.

Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better by Rob Reich. A Stanford professor puts forth a political theory of philanthropy, and suggests ways in which it could become more democratic. He argues, rightly, that philanthropy is an exercise of power and thus needs more critical scrutiny.

On my list for 2019 are Asymetry by Lisa Halliday, the new biography of Frederick Douglas by David Blight and The Overstory by Richard Powers. Other recommendations are most welcome.

Happy new year, friends!

8 thoughts on “Books I (mostly) liked in 2018

  1. stevelip says:

    Thanks for this list. I put in holds for a bunch of them at our library and already found a copy of Winners Take All. It’s a fun critique of the hypocrisy of the Davos “save the world” plutocrats, though like many things it seems like the diagnosis is easier than the cure.


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Yes, Anand has acknowledged that he did not try to come up with any solutions. His polemic also conveniently ignores such thoughtful and big foundations as Gates, Open Society and the Open Philanthropy Project. But the book is still a great read.


  2. Neil Hawkins says:

    FUN HOME is a remarkable and insightful memoir! Good list! Thank you.


  3. emaibach says:

    I finished my favorite of the year moments ago: The Overstory. Mind blowing. Next up: How to Change Your Mind.


  4. David Williams says:

    I like What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Howe.


  5. Sid Gardner says:

    Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk, a painful,, thoughtful depiction of what neglect of important federal agencies really costs us; Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, and any of the critiques of what the federal Opioid Commission failed to do.


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Sid, and I very much want to learn more about the opioid crisis and small town America.


      1. Sid Gardner says:

        Four-part series running now in the Orange County Register is doing a good job looking at the epidemic. Teri Sforza is lead writer.


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