I’m about to quote an article that quotes an article. That seems reliable. You can quote me and take it even further away from the truth. A blurb in the November/December issue of WebMD magazine reads, “Books could add years to your life. In a study of 3,635 people older than 50, book readers were 20% less likely than their peers to die during the 12-year study. (Source: Social Science & Medicine.)” So, the message is: Read books or you will die in the next 12 years. I might be misinterpreting, but you get the idea. Books = good.
Which brings me to my annual review of the books I read in the previous year. My tastes run toward a few types of books: memoirs, biographies, and humorous fiction. Why memoirs and biographies? I like to learn about famous people for two reasons: 1. to learn how they were just like me when they were young (because it’s always, “I was just like a normal person when I was young!”), and 2. to learn the whats and whens about them becoming extraordinary. And why humorous fiction? Because the world is cruel and the bastards are trying to grind us down, so humor keeps me sane.
I read 34 books in 2016, a letdown from the 49 I read the year before. My excuses: my son graduated from high school, and we sent him off to college; I didn’t want to neglect my daughters’ needs; volunteer work got in the way; having a strong relationship with my lovely wife Jen is a constant work in progress; and I spent too much time watching TV and streaming movies. Mostly the last excuse. I read a book every 10 days and saw a movie every 4 days. (No comment on the TV viewing.) Anyway, here are some suggestions for you:
1. The Martian, Andy Weir. First on my list is this sort-of sci-fi novel set only a little bit into the future. Mark Watney is an American astronaut who, through a series of incredibly unlucky events, is left behind on Mars by a crew that presumed him dead. Using only the few supplies abandoned by his fellow astronauts and his wits, he has to figure out how to “MacGyver” himself a way to survive until he can communicate with NASA. I haven’t seen the film version, so I can’t comment on it, but man, this is one thrill ride of a book with a surprising amount of humor. I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, but this really isn’t anything other than a story of a guy trying to overcome his surroundings. Strangely, the main character reminded me of my father-in-law, a scientist by training with a curiosity for how things work and, more importantly, how to make workarounds when things stop working.
2. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, Sunil Yapa. Up next is this fictionalization of the real events of November 1999, when 50,000 protesters descended upon the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings there. This book is serious (a rarity for books that make my list), and I couldn’t shake it from my mind. Told from the viewpoints of several different fictional characters (the police chief, a protest organizer, a runaway, a diplomat, and others), this book weaves together their stories as they move toward a violent and potentially avoidable conclusion. The author doesn’t take sides, and everyone involved is shown as a human being whose motivations we can sympathize with.
3. The Emperors of Chocolate, Joël Glenn Brenner. Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! In July of 2016, I was reading the obituary of Forrest Mars, Jr., the eccentric billionaire co-owner of Mars Inc. and the grandson of the company’s founder. This book was quoted in the obit to highlight the Mars family’s slavish devotion to two things: chocolate and secrecy. And eccentricity. This book is a combination history of the development of chocolate and history of the rivalry between the Hershey and Mars companies. Both companies have traded the title of “World’s Largest Candy Company” over the last several decades, and the top-level espionage between them would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. (Coincidentally, Mars’ headquarters is within 2 miles of CIA headquarters.) A fun read, although it’s pretty long and the last third gets slow.
4. A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers. King Abdullah Economic City is a technology hub being developed in Saudi Arabia (that part is true), and Allan Clay is a consultant for an IT company trying to win over the good graces of the king’s nephew for a major contract (that part is not true); the nephew may or may not be jerking around Clay, whose 2 days in Saudi Arabia stretch into several weeks. This novel deals with culture clash, the frustrations of a middle-aged man dealing with family dysfunction and relationship problems, and the economic downturn of the 2000s. I read most of what Dave Eggers has written because I worked with him at our student newspaper in college (I’m 100% sure he doesn’t remember me), but he’s also insanely talented. The tension and frustration of dealing with politicians and not getting answers will remind some readers of “Waiting for Godot” and anything by Franz Kafka.
5. and 5a. Quench Your Own Thirst, Jim Koch, and Shoe Dog, Phil Knight. This is cheating, I know, but these two memoirs are like bookends (I’m all about the wordplay) to each other. Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams Brewery, and Knight, the co-founder of Nike, have a few things in common: they were innovators in well-established industries that looked to freeze them out, and their personalities shaped the direction of the company. Where they differ: Knight was hell-bent on making Nike the biggest shoe company in the world (he succeeded), and Koch wanted to bring craft brewing back to a beer industry that had foisted big-name beer with little regard to flavor on the world. Knight’s book was more than a business book: he was a runner first, and I appreciated that aspect of his life story. Koch’s book is for anyone who wants to know how to run a successful business and still be considered a nice guy.
6. and 6a. Petty, Warren Zanes, and Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen. Rock legends and their stories. (And yes, I’m cheating again by adding an extra book to the list.) Tom Petty allowed Warren Zanes full access to tell the story of his life, warts and all; Zanes even interviews Petty’s exes and bandmates with whom he had a falling-out. Springsteen’s autobiography is way more of a fever dream by a poet-troubador recalling his younger days. You don’t have to like either the Heartbreakers or the E Street Band to like these books, but it sure helps. The one takeaway from these books: a brutal upbringing can lead to some great art.
7. Mister Monkey, Francine Prose. Under the guise of a straightforward story about the theater, this is a bizarre, funny, thought-provoking novel. Margot, a middle-aged actress stuck in a long-running, wacky off-off-Broadway play for children based on a beloved children’s book called Mister Monkey (picture Curious George), has an awkward on-stage run-in with Adam, the 12-year-old boy who portrays the monkey in an ape suit. From there, we get glimpses into the lives and thoughts of Margot, Adam, the costume designer, the director, the original book’s author, an audience member, and others. “It kept me guessing” would be an understatement.
8. The Sherlockian, Graham Moore. Moore’s rollicking, funny historical novel/modern-day murder mystery starts in 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle contemplates killing off his invention, Sherlock Holmes, having grown tired of the character. Flash forward to today, when Harold White, a copyright lawyer and Holmes enthusiast, is inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, one of hundreds of Holmes-obsessed societies. When a colleague suggests he may have found the long-rumored, presumed-lost Doyle diary from 1883-1901 that may have explained why Doyle killed off Holmes only to resurrect him 8 years later, an unexpected death and the search for the diary lead White on the trail of Holmes and Doyle.
9. Thomas Murphy, Roger Rosenblatt. Poet and raconteur Thomas Murphy battles against aging in this poignant novel. Murphy, a literary giant, feels his mind slipping from him but doesn’t want to give up his freedoms. His daughter, Maire, is onto him and tries to get him to the doctor. The reader jumps back and forth from his present-day Manhattan life to his childhood on the Irish island of Inishmaan.
10. Nutshell, Ian McEwan. This modern tale of deceit and betrayal is told from the extremely unusual viewpoint of a highly, highly precocious 9-month-old fetus growing in the belly of Trudy, a woman who plots the murder of her husband John with her lover, John’s brother Claude (shades of Shakespeare in this one). The baby, whose college-level education and erudite thoughts are thanks to his mother’s tendency to listen to BBC Radio (just go with it), struggles with his feelings of hatred for his uncle, compassion for his father, and a mixture of both for the woman who is keeping him alive and growing. Gripping and provocative.
Other books I recommend that just missed the cutoff: Almost Interesting, David Spade; But Enough about Me, Burt Reynolds; The Bronte Plot, Katherine Reay; The Math Myth, Andrew Hacker; Modern Lovers, Emma Straub; Disrupted, Dan Lyons.