|My 2018 reading list|
Here are 9 mini-reviews of favorite books I read, starting with...
1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Unlike a good journalist writing a good lede, I don’t even know where to begin to summarize the reasons this is the last, best and most important book I read in 2018.
This is an epic drama, with life-saving consequences. It’s the compelling, readable story of journalists, editors and their sources who sought the truth. In doing so, they put an end to business practices that had a sociopathic disregard for the public.
This is a cautionary tale for our times. It cautions us to be more skeptical of the “fake it until you make it” culture, about accepting things too readily at face value, and about the dangers of the cult of celebrity. And about greed.
2. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Let me begin in the style of Patti Smith’s Instagram account: This is a wonderful book.
I listened to the Audible.com version, and it’s quirky… read by the author, who drops her “g”s, pronounces piano as “piana,” and drawings as “drawlings.” Also, so many mentions of Arthur Rimbaud and the word Abyssinian. I found it enchanting, however, because it describes a world so different from my own.
This is not, however, a memorial to a lost generation. Long before they became Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Robert encouraged Patti to sing, and Patti encouraged Robert to take photos. Are you a fan of their art? It doesn’t matter. The art they created is inconsequential to the act of its creation.
This is, in the end, a story about the transformational power of love.
3. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
I read or listened to quite a few politically oriented books this year. I hated and I loved this one by James Comey in particular.
Perhaps it was these emotional extremes that leads me to choose Comey's book over “Unbelievable” by Katy Tur (which to me seemed a little too self-absorbed), which I thought was better than “From the Corner of the Oval” by Beck Dorey-Stein (which I thought was much too self-absorbed), which I actually enjoyed more than “Fear” by Bob Woodward (because, by the time I read that, I was numbed of any emotion).
And perhaps, in fairness -- focusing on issues rather than personalities -- a better (certainly earnest) political read might be “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond or “Dear World” by Bana Alabed. You can read my full reviews of all these books on Goodreads.
4. The Odyssey by Homer
Full review (in memory of Robert Vacca)
“Tell me about a complicated man.”
That’s the way Emily Wilson, classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, begins her translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” first published about a year ago.
This was recently released in Audible format, read by the actress Claire Danes – and I found listening to it a bittersweet experience, bringing back memories of my favorite teacher at the University of Notre Dame, the late Greek classics professor Robert Vacca.
Wilson’s translation? It’s beautiful: sparse and direct. Professor Vacca would have loved it.
5. Looking for Alaska by John Green
2018 has been the year I’ve dropped all pretense of who my favorite living author is. It’s John Green -- who is not a “young-adult” writer; he’s simply an excellent writer. This was his first book -- and not his best (since, for me, it flagged after an abrupt plot twist about midway through), but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, half of this book is better than 95% of anything else you could have been reading in 2018.
6. Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us by Dan Lyons
Here let me list books by two other favorite living authors: Dan Lyons and Michael Lewis.
To be sure (a phrase that introduces many paragraphs in this book), I never expected Lyons’ latest to be as good as 2017’s “Disrupted” -- which was a true modern classic, based on first-person stories, and filled with devastating humor and satire. This book is more of a research project, but it’s a research project written by a wonderful writer and a thoughtful critic.
Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis
I read this shorter, older book (originally published in 2010) on a whim on Father’s Day. I found it funny, well-written and an object lesson on the value of remaining whimsical when deciding what to read. It was an enjoyable ride by another wonderful writer. “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” “Flash Boys,” “Liar’s Poker”... none of these books will prepare you for this. Just like no other experience in your life will ever prepare you for fatherhood.
7. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
I didn’t read this book; I listened to it… the production narrated a few years ago by Diane Keaton.
The actress’ measured cadence is so articulate and clear, you can speed up the playback by half, and it’s still perfectly understandable. This is an almost magical way to experience this book. The words come at you in a crazy jumble of images that on some intellectual level make sense -- but then they don’t seem coherent, the center doesn’t hold.
Personally, it reminds me of one of my dearest friends. You go for a walk with her -- say, around one of the many lakes in Minnesota -- and you find yourself transported to another world of seemingly incongruous observations and one-liners and literate confessional narrative.
The endearing difference is that my friend will stop suddenly during that walk, turn to lock eyes with you, then break into a wide smile and ask, “What the hell am I talking about, anyway?” She’ll laugh at herself.
Joan Didion, in this collection of stories, writes the way my friend talks -- without ever laughing at herself or admitting that she doesn’t know any better than you. The thing is, she probably does.
8. Verizon Untethered: An Insider’s Story of Innovation and Disruption by Ivan Seidenberg
My full review (which got me banned from posting reviews on Amazon.com because I was too self-servingly commercial)
The two new books mentioned here were written by people I know and worked with.
First, there’s “Verizon Untethered,” which provides an insider’s insight into questions such as, What did it take to get the U.S. stock market up and running just days after the 9/11 attacks? What was Steve Jobs like as a business partner? How does a company close a $130 billion transaction, or choose a new CEO or disrupt a successful business to stay successful?
It’s a readable primer of interest to business students, technology geeks or anyone curious about the collective impact of individuals who work together with a common purpose. Scott McMurray is the author, but I suspect much of the book’s readability is because of Joellen Brown, who is cited as helping to provide historical context, research materials and several reviews for accuracy.
Joellen, my friend and former colleague, retired at this time last year as chief speechwriter for Verizon C-level executives. She is a masterful editor.
U.S. Route 1: Rediscovering The New World by Mark Marchand
Mark Marchand, another friend and former colleague, self-published this sweet, thoughtful reflection this year about a two-week midlife journey from Maine to Florida. It reminded me of an old favorite book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Although this (unlike “Just Kids,” “The Odyssey” and “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”) is not available in spoken-word format, finishing the bulk of this book while relaxing on vacation, I found it interesting to re-discover the simple joy of reading words on a page. To be honest, I heard the voice of my friend echoing in my mind while I read, adding a dimension of intimacy and soulfulness.
9. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World by William H. McRaven
Since I’m posting these reviews on New Year’s Eve 2018, it seems only right to end on a book upon which you can base a year’s worth of resolutions. My late Dad (who would have been 87 next month) would have just loved this simple book. I thought of him often while reading it. So thank you, Admiral McRaven.
I read “How to Live a Good Life” by Jonathan Fields at the beginning of 2018, which I could also recommend. A lot of sold advice there too -- except perhaps for his chapter on auras.
So there you have it, my 9-ish favorite books in 2018.
To close out the year, as a postscript, I also want to post my “Best 9” Instagram images from 2018.
These are the 9 images most-liked on my two Instagram feeds. First, from @bvarphotos:
And these 9, from @foundinnj:
Happy New Year, everyone! Here’s to 2019!!