Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 Best Books

Best books for me means the best ones that I read in 2019 regardless of publication date.  My fare is roughly equal fiction and non-fiction but when I review my notes from the year, the non-fiction stands out.  It's not that the fiction was less engaging than the non-fiction--I don't recall any fiction selections that were bad or terribly disappointing--it's just that the non-fiction seems more significant in retrospect.  The fiction works that do stand out tend to be historical and, not surprisingly, parallel the topics I explore in my non-fiction reading.

Here are my best selections and the notes I made after reading them.  The notes are not reviews but rather my attempt to boil down the complex issues and plots into a single paragraph.  I tend to write the notes quickly and without a great deal of editing.  I corrected  the ones I could find but don't be surprised if some escaped my editorial efforts.


The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Daniel Ellsberg (2018)

Daniel Ellsberg pulls the curtain away from America’s history of nuclear war planning. As a Research fellow at the RAND Corporation he was privy to the workings of the nuclear war machine. What he found was sobering: authority to launch a nuclear weapon/strike does not rest with the President of the United States alone. Instead, various subordinates have that authority under certain circumstances which, although defined, are still open to interpretation. Ellsberg also found that the operational logistics of handling nuclear weapons ere so daunting that actual training was limited. In other instances, security procedures were routinely subverted for convenience. The book also examines how killing people in genocidal numbers came to be acceptable military strategy during WW2. Ellsberg concludes that the US and Russia both have an actual Doomsday Machine: “...a very expensive system of men, machines, electronics, communications, institutions, plans, training, discipline, practices, and doctrine—which , under condition of electronic warning, external conflict, or expectations of attack, would with unknowable but possibly high probability bring about the global destruction of civilization and of nearly all human life on earth.”

The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean, Gerald Horne (2018).

The title sums this book up neatly. In fewer than 200 pages Professor Horne demonstrates how slavery was inextricably linked to the beginnings of capitalism in the 17th Century as European powers began to shake off the feudalism and monarchy. A newly-emergent merchant class began to assert its rights to the profits colonialism fueled by slavery. Without slavery most colonial enterprise would have not been profitable. With slavery colonial enterprise was always at risk of slave rebellion and needed to forge a white identity against what was always a larger population of African and indigenous slaves. Merchants asserted their rights using Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom and liberty—to engage in and profit from economic activity, including slavery—against monarchs. The white identity and Enlightenment ideals found a home on the North American mainland and in what Professor Horne call the successor regime in the United States after 1776.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe (2019)

Focuses on the Provisional IRA (Provos) who, beginning in 1969, conducted a campaign of violence and terrorism against the British occupation of the six northern Irish counties that remained part of Great Britain after the British finally recognized independence for the rest of Ireland in 1921. The Provo radicals carried out cold-blooded actions throughout Northern Ireland and occasionally in Great Britain itself, all justified on the basis of creating a free, independent and unified Irish state. Author Patrick Keefe introduces the reader to the key persons—the Price Sisters, Gerry Adams and many others—who took up arms against the British. Say Nothing is not a hagiography. Keefe does not idolize them or romanticize their violence. He lets them speak their own words and offers background and context for the decisions they made. Excellent history of The Troubles for anyone not familiar with that violent period of Irish history.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (2018)

Lots of history and biology chronicling the role of the beaver in the natural world. Beavers are builders and water managers, industrious and as relentless as the water they work so very hard at controlling for their own survival. Beavers were active throughout North America before the European immigration and their works were evident in most every watershed. Centuries of trapping and expansion have dramatically reduced beaver numbers and brought the remaining beavers into conflict with humans who largely consider beavers to be a nuisance. Goldfarb presents a convincing case that beavers can improve watersheds, water retention and vegetation if managed in ways consistent with their nature. He describes a number of successful (and some still in the development stage) projects that have enabled beavers and humans to coexist to the benefit of both species. Eager is factual and well-written, drawing the reader into the life and challenges faced by North America’s largest rodent.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, David Treuer (2019)

David Treuer writes that Native America has managed to survive the depredations, genocide and loss of land that followed European contact. He reports that America’s indigenous peoples and their myriad cultures have been profoundly changed by that experience but have also adapted to new ways of living and found ways to integrate their culture and traditions into their new environment. Treuer’s history recounts the various policies—often developed with little or no input from native people—that attempted to address the “Indian problem” after killing them off directly was no longer an option after the massacre at Wounded Knee. He also describes the many ways that tribes and individuals resisted the intent of the policies while learning from and adapting to them. Treuer does not ignore the very and other problems still endemic in Indian Country but is optimistic that America’s native peoples and their cultures will survive.

The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor America’s First Black Sports Hero, Michael Kranish (2019)

In the latter decades of the 19th century Americans became aware of, enamored of and finally obsessed with the bicycle. The popular enthusiasm for this new form of transportation gave rise to innovative manufacturing processes and demands for improved roads that later became staples of the automotive age. The enthusiasm made bicycle racing the most popular sport in America. Marshall “Major” Taylor was a black teenager who had a few opportunities to develop his skills as a cyclist that caught the eye of a white mentor who helped Taylor become a national champion despite racial bias that earned him the hostility of the cycling establishment. The World’s Fastest Man recounts the Taylor’s determination to race despite the odds and his success in becoming the recognized champion of his era. The book conveys both the challenges of bicycle racing in those early years and the pervasive racism that infected America and its sports establishment. It’s an interesting and engrossing story.

Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation, Michael Powell (2019)

Canyon Dreams follows the Chinle, Arizona Wildcats in the 2017-2018 basketball season as they seek an elusive state title. The focus is on the game, coach Raul Mendoza and the players but the book covers a lot more ground than the game that gives the arc to the story. Along the way Michael Powell, who lived on the Rez when his wife worked there as a midwife, explores Navajo culture, the land that defines the people, the hardships of life in an unforgiving environment and the challenges facing young Navajos as they forge themselves into a basketball team and try to imagine what life will offer them after graduation. Powell has a good feel for the people and the land which is reflected in his writing.


Novel without a Name, Duong Thu Huong (1995)

The story of the other side in the Vietnam War. Instead of American soldiers in the throes of war, the reader follows Quan, an NVA or VC (it’s not exactly clear which) unit commander as he deals with the rigors of war and his own growing uncertainties after 10 years at war. The novel doesn’t include much actual fighting but rather focuses on life at war in the jungle and the relationship among village friends who have all gone to war. Duong Thu Huong knows of what she writes; she led a Youth Brigade at the front during the war and chronicled the Vietnamese resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1979. The story is anchored in the reality of fighting a war against an enemy that is stronger—conditions in the jungle camps are far more primitive than the most rudimentary American firebase. It also has a somewhat of a mystical feel, Quan finds himself in dreams with ancient figures and the ghosts of his past as he deals with the reality of his present.

Trinity, Louisa Hall (2018)

Fiction. The life of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb, as told by fictional characters who knew him at different times in his remarkable life. Beginning with the security agent tailing him during an unauthorized trip in 1943, through his post-war celebrity, loss of security clearance during 1950’s anti-Communist hysteria to his final year, the narrators explore the facts of Oppenheimer’s life as they observed and speculated about the man, his secrets and his legacy as the father of a weapon of mass destruction. Mixed in with the historical fact and speculation are the various narrators’ own stories and how those stories interact with their understanding of the main character. Trinity gets the history right and presents it in a well-structured and easy to read narrative.

The Huntress, Kate Quinn, (2019)

Taut, well-crafted tale of a Nazi war criminal, Night Witches and an American family caught in the middle. Beginning in 1946 when Annalise Weber enters Daniel McBride’s antique shop in Boston and charms him into marriage the story centers around his daughter Jordan’s suspicions that her new stepmother may be a former Nazi. It moves between Boston and Vienna where a British journalist turned war crimes investigator Ian Graham and his American partner Tony Radomovsky are tracking down Nazi war criminals, including one known as “the Huntress” and takes the reader into Russia’s far eastern reaches where a young Nina Markova learns survival skills and longs to escape her primitive life, to become a pilot and defender of the Soviet Union against Nazi invaders. The multiple subplots gradually weave into a single compelling narrative that includes Jordan’s desire to escape the conventional expectations of women in the 1940s, Ian’s quest for his brother’s killer and Nina’s wartime experience as a member of the Soviet Union’s female bombing regiment known as the Night Witches. All of the characters are well-developed with unique personalities and fears, Jordan and Nina especially. Topic is fascinating, the plots and flow are entirely believable and the work is well based-on history. Makes for a compelling read that becomes difficult to put down as it moves to its conclusion.

The Undertaker’s Assistant, Amanda Skenandore (2019)

Set in 1875-76 New Orleans, The Undertaker’s Assistant follows Effie Jones as she returns to Louisiana following her escape from slavery during the Civil War and learning surgical procedures as an assistant to the Union officer who sheltered her during the war and embalming when she returned with him to Indiana. Effie was a child at the time of her escape and has no memory of her parents or other family but a quick learner whose earliest memories are of battle and the broken bodies that passed through her surgical tent. In New Orleans she quickly finds work with a Unionist embalmer and slowly begins to discover herself and the world around her. Effie is drawn, reluctantly and cautiously into Republican politics of late Reconstruction Louisiana which leads to a romantic attraction of one of its leaders. Along the way, she slowly and awkwardly learns how to function in an established yet changing society. Well-developed characters, enough historical background and local color to give the story depth and context and good knowledge of 19th century mortuary techniques make this a lively and fast-paced read.