For my last blog post of the year, I’d like to share with you some of the books that I enjoyed reading in 2014. I made a conscious effort this year to do less work-related reading, which isn’t always easy — so many books about business, sustainability and the environment come my way from publishers and authors — but I’m glad I did.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. It’s the story of an extraordinary young man named Rob Peace, who grew up in a poor, violent, drug-addled suburb of Newark but managed to escaped–temporarily–in part because he was blessed with devoted parents. His father, known as Skeet, was a street hustler who spent the final years of his life in jail, convicted of murder, yet managed to teach Rob both perfect penmanship and the dirty street-fighting tactics to deploy in a tight spot. His mother Jackie had little education and not enough money, at one point, to pay a few hundred dollars a year of tuition to keep Rob in a Catholic elementary school where he was thriving, but she instilled in him a sense that he was destined to do great things. He was, in fact, not only brainy but tough and possessed of an insatiable curiosity and lifelong quest for new experience that carried him, not just to Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, but to Ipanema beach in Rio (after teaching himself Portugese) and Croatia, with a high school buddy–trips that he was able to afford after taking a job as a baggage handler at Continental Airlines because the perks included free standby travel. Rob also provided for himself and helped support his mother and grandparents by dealing marijuana, in copious quantities, to his priviliged classmates at Yale.
Rob’s freshman year roommate was as aspring novelist named Jeff Hobbs, a well-to-do son of a doctor whose father, brother and sister were all Yale grads. Rob and Jeff, who Rob mockingly calls “Da Jeffrey.” become unlikely and close friends who live together throughout their time at Yale and, while Hobbs remains mostly in the background, his connection to Rob Peace, and admiration for him, lends this book a deeply-felt emotion. Hobbs also turns out to be a dogged reporter who reconstructs Rob’s life before and after Yale in vivid and mesmerizing detail.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my favorite novel of the year, is also about race, class, privilege and identity. It’s the coming of age story of a spirited young girl from Nigeria named Ifemelu, who comes to New York on a student visa and, after stints as a nanny and worse, finds fame as a blogger. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and it’s hilarious. (She writes a lot about hair.) Eventually, Ifemelu makes her way back to Nigeria where she re-encounters her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, who has made his fortune in England. The book, which pushes 500 pages, sprawls a bit but it is never dull, and Adiche is a shrewd observer of human foibles.
Like many of us baby boomers, especially those with aging parents, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about growing old. I read two terrific, but very different, books on the topic. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes a compelling case that the America’s health care system has valued longevity above all else, without much consideration of the question of how we want to pass our final years. That makes it sound like a treatise and it’s not; it’s a series of stories about people growing old, including not only Gawande’s patients but his father. Equally moving is Roz Chast’s laugh-out-loud and cry-to-yourself graphic novel, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, about what happens to her parents (and to her) when they are no longer able to live in the Brooklyn apartment they had inhabited for nearly half a century.
I’ve always been attracted to books that explain complex, arcane, even obscure subjects in entertaining ways. Michael Lewis and Elizabeth Kolbert are willing to bring their gifts for storytelling to the toughest of subjects, so I’ll read just about anything they write. Lewis’s Flash Boys is an unexpectedly lively book about high-speed trading on Wall Street, of all things. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert travels far and wide, from Costa Rica and Paris to the Great Barrier Reef, to show us how we are on a path to destroying fully half of the world’s species this century. It’s not as grim as it sounds, perhaps because she brings a wry sense of humor to science writing.
There’s been an explosion of smart journalism about food lately that has brought forth a number of excellent books, two of them written journalist colleagues and friends. In American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Paul Greenberg explores the roots of the US’s seafood deficit, and argues that we should buy more fish that are caught (or farmed) nearby. Sam Fromartz, a Washington, DC-based writer and a skilled baker, travels across the US and Europe — baking baguettes in Paris, rye bread in Berlin and sourdough in California–to bring us In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Baker’s Odyssey. Sam’s book will inspire you to try baking. I haven’t done so yet, but maybe next year.
Other books that I enjoyed this year:
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Does spending time with groups of people invigorate you–or deplete you? If it’s the latter (as it is with me), you must read this book.
The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle. The columnist and blogger argues that one of the secrets of America’s success is that we don’t hold it against people when they screw up.
All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai. A New York Times writer’s account of the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is fresher and more relevant to today’s world of journalism and entertainment than you might expect.
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. A moral philosopher as well as an economist, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments to guide people on how to live, as Roberts explains in this reader-friendly volume.
Vietnam, Now by David Lamb. A Los Angeles Time reporter who covered the war in the 1960s returns in the late 1990s to see what has changed, as capitalism arrives in Vietnam. I read this to prepare for my holiday trip to Vietnam and, in fact, I am posting this blogpost from Hanoi–a sentence that certainly could not have been written 10 or 15 years ago. Vietnam was part of my adolescence. I opposed and protested the war during high school (where my anti-war speech on graduation day drew catcalls) and I’m excited to be visiting this vibrant nation of 90 million people for the first time. One thing I can tell you already–Vietnam is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in its history, and that can be said about a surprising number of places in the world today. The world has its troubles, to be sure, but for all its woes, tomorrow is likely to be better than today, and next year is likely to better than this. And that’s one reason to look forward to 2015.
Enjoy the holidays and happy new year.