Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Favorite Reads of 2017

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Of the books I read this year, these stand out.


The Last Girlfriend on Earth And Other Love Stories, Simon Rich (2016)

Inventive, quirky and often laugh-out-loud funny short stories about seeking, finding and losing relationships. A boy's coming of age is chronicled by the condom he carries in his wallet. A Scared Straight program warns young men what lies ahead (trips to Bed Bath & Beyond) if they continue to pursue relations with women. A man's personal ad seeks an intelligent woman named Chloe because he has that name indelibly tattooed on his chest. The stories are very short—the last one mentioned is a mere two paragraphs—and eminently readable.

Orphans of the Carnival, Carol Birch (2016)

Julia Pastrana was an oddity. Born with genetic defects that left her covered in Black hair and enlarged lips, she performed as the “ugliest woman in the world” and was often billed ass the like between. Orphans of the Carnival creates a story of her life that sounds almost contemporary. In the story the reader sees Julia as a woman seeking her own identity in a world that considers her a freak. She veers between frustration and helplessness at her condition and a woman who is able to leverage her uniqueness into a small fortune. The reader also gets a taste of the hoopla surrounding her in life and in death.

The Delight of Being Ordinary, Roland Merullo (2017)

Subitled “A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama”, the story takes the reader on a short getaway by Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. The trip is the Pope's idea, much to the dismay of his personal assistant and cousin, Paolo, whom he asks to arrange the trip during the Dalai Lama's visit to the Vatican. The Pope has been disturbed by dreams of Benito Mussolini and other signs and wants to get away. The Dalai Lama accepts the Pope's invitation and Paolo smuggles them out of the Vatican with the help of make-up, disguises and a Maserati provided by his ex-wife. The trip ranges through the Italian countryside, explorations of religious doctrine and its meaning in real life and relations between husband and wife. The plot is sufficiently plausible for the reader to suspend belief and simply enjoy its clever twists, philosophical excursions and lyrical descriptions of the Italian countryside.

The Eastern Shore, Ward Just (2016)

Ward Just, who began his career as a journalist, traces the career of Ned Ayres from the small-town Herring, Indiana Press-Gazette town to Washington, DC and ultimately to the sunset of the American newspaper. Ayres begins his career by skipping college to dive straight into local reporting, defying his father's expectations. Immersed in the immediacy of the daily newspaper. He very quickly develops editorial skills which become the basis of his career, taking him to Indianapolis, Chicago and ultimately Washington. Just weaves this story around the routine of the newspaper and its allure for one man—Ayres never marries—and tells it with fully developed characters in a coherent story line. The story celebrates the heyday of the American newspaper, when the news printed on its pages was as vital as any electronic marvel we enjoy these days. And the story also sees the end of that printed consequence as those electronic marvels changed how news is transmitted. Writing (or mostly not writing) his memoirs in retirement on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Ayres gently drifts into history along with his profession.


Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy (2015)

Non-fiction. Hill and Gaddy trace the rise of Vladimir Putin from obscurity to his implacable hostility to the west. They dissect the various influences on his thinking and action. Putin is at once the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the Operative. Each of these influences informs his thinking and serves as the basis for his actions. The last—the Operative—examines his career as a KGB and FSB agent and shows how he uses those skills to probe, understand and outmaneuver his adversaries. Gaddy and Hill also demonstrate that Putin is a strategic thinker with a clear understanding of what he wants and plans accordingly. They note that he is flexible in his methods if not his goals. They also point out his weaknesses. Putin has had little contact with westerners or understanding of western thought and is prone to fall back on stereotypical Russian fears of external threats. He is also a one-man show, ultimately responsible for all aspects of Russian national life when his subordinates fail to meet the expectations. They warn that Putin should be taken seriously.

Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets, Svetlana Alexievich (2016)

Svetlana Alexievich interviews Russians and other former Soviet nationalities on the fall of Communism and the rise of oligarchic capitalism. The voices she records span the gamut from the most dedicated Soviet to the most fervent new capitalist. Throughout the work are the stories of people who feel betrayed by the change, either from the loss of everything they believed in and worked for as citizens of the Soviet Union or from the sense that the new Russia is a diminished rump state where the only value is money and riches. Interestingly, the picture that emerges from the stories resembles what Americans feel about their own nation in the early 20th century, that the nation is diminished from its great power days and is beset by alien immigrants who threaten its longstanding culture.

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon, Rosa Brooks (2016)

Non-fiction. Rosa Brooks, an attorney specializing in international law and experience in both the US State and Defense departments, examines the nature of war and the military in the 21st century. She argues convincingly that the separation between war and peace that human society has long attempted to maintain is becoming less operable in a world where war is no longer only between nation-states and can take on different forms that are not readily addressed by military solutions. Brooks describes the asymmetrical nature of war in the post-911 era and the dangers it poses to American democracy and institutions. She further details the extensive efforts societies have made throughout history to contain war, noting that each era developed norms based on their understanding and experience of war. Central to the discussion is the idea that any construct we use to understand war, peace, civilian, military and even the nation-state is in reality nothing more than an attempt to understand and control events. In effect, humans thought it up, humans can also change it. Of course, changing long-held beliefs and arrangements is never easy and Brooks' experience provides her with a unique perspective for recommendations that attempt to bridge the civilian-military divide and develop workable arrangements to tame the all-too-present human tendency for aggression.

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam andthe Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016)

An extended essay on how societies, with particular emphasis on the United States and Vietnam, remember and mis-remember war. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American son of refugees who fled South Vietnam after the Communist victory in 1975 and is now a professor at the University of Southern California. All societies remember their own war dead as heroes and remember the enemy for all of their duplicity and aggression according to Nguyen. But this universal predilection is a barrier to full reconciliation because the two sides remain at odds. Even when a society seeks to recognize the adversary, reconciliation is incomplete with out fully recognizing the humanity and inhumanity on both sides. Nguyen also notes that war memories are highly circumscribed, focusing primarily on soldiers and ignoring the civilians or other nations affected by the war. This is a highly philosophical work and worthy of a second read.