Two weeks ago I gave you my picks for my favorite novels of 2016. Today, with 2017 just a few days away I’m going to reveal my favorite nonfiction books of 2016. Just like in previous years, when I put together my year-end best of list it doesn’t matter when the book was published. All that matters is it’s outstanding.
- Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson – Larson has a great gift for making history, especially tragic history come alive.
- The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal – Why do people get conned? Sadly, most of the time it’s because they WANT to be deceived.
- Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – 40 years ago a decade-long string of left-wing terrorist acts plagued America. Today, it’s all been forgotten.
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – You think you really know what separates humans from animals? Better guess again.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh – When I told the guys at my neighborhood coffee shop about this book, they jokingly asked me if they’d have to someday testify at my trial. This book won’t make you a criminal, but it will make you look at the world in a whole new light. And you’ll love it.
- Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari – If you wanna understand India, Pakistan and their tense relationship this book is essential reading.
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – North Korea is the mother of all freak shows. By reading this book (the updated version) you’ll learn just how twisted that freak show really is.
- The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 by Amos Elon – A great account of one of history’s most tragic, and sadly ironic episodes.
- Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl – Who knew 1979 was such a pivotal year?
- When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning – Outstanding book on the importance of reading.
- Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski – an insanely well-researched account of Poland’s wartime Jewish underground.
There you have 12 outstanding books. Because they’re so outstanding assigning an overall winner has been agonizingly difficult. However, after much thought and consideration I’m declaring Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right the winner. Highly praised by the New York Times, NPR and Washington Post, Mayer’s book is essential reading for any intelligent, curious and civic-minded person.
I hate doing catch-up posts but with 2016 almost over, I gotta start wrapping things up. Thankfully, the three books I’m featuring in this post are all excellent. Please consider them highly recommend.
- Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer – After listening to Jane Mayer’s interview on NPR and hearing one of my good friends rave about this book, I figured with 2016 an election year I better get my hands on a copy as soon as possible. Once one became available through my public library I snapped it up. Not only is Mayer’s book a detailed expose of the Koch family’s shadowy empire, but it’s probably the best book around that shows how rich uber-conservatives use their vast resources to manipulate the political process. From backing far-right think tanks and policy institutes to funneling massive amounts of campaign money into state congressional and gubernatorial races to funding ultra-conservative “law and economics” departments at the nation’s premier law schools, these powerful right-wing billionaires and their allies cast a deep shadow across America and its institutions. Beyond a doubt, reading Dark Money will forever change how you look at the nation’s political system.
- Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough – Last April in the Books supplement in the Sunday New York Times I read a review of Burrough’s Days of Rage. Intrigued by what I read, I made a mental note of the book and hoped to eventually read it someday down the road. That day finally came a few weeks ago, when cruising through my public library’s online catalog I saw there was an available copy of Days of Rage. I took a chance on Burrough’s 2015 book and my goodness I’m glad I did. Today, when we think of domestic terrorism we think of extremely reactionary groups: Islamist, anti-government, white supremacist or Christian Identity. But from the early 1970s through as late as the mid 80s those doing the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of politically motivated violence were all on the far left: Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Liberation Front and the Puerto Rican separatist organization FALN. All of them detested the current state of the world and saw violence as the preferred means of bringing about the changes they so desired. In the end, they achieved nothing and wound up being little more than historical footnotes. (Ironically, these groups’ only legacy was an indirect one. The FBI would come under fire for how it battled groups like the Weather Underground. As a result the Bureau would have to play nice and be respectful of civil liberties when investigating suspected terrorist organizations.) This is a terrific book and compliments well other books that touch on this era like Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America and Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh- When a good buddy recommended this book with the incredibly cool title of A Burglar’s Guide to the City I simply had to take notice. As soon as a library copy became available I grabbed one. I burned through it in no time because it’s fun as hell to read. Just as Dark Money will forever change how you look at America’s political system, this book will forever change how you look at building security. You’ll lean the best burglars are incredibly resourceful and will stop at nothing. This book is full of great stories like the bandit who liked to rob McDonald’s restaurants just after closing time by entering through the roof; a 19th century architect who hobnobbed with New York City’s rich and famous, asked to see the blueprints of banks and then painstakingly concocted elaborate plans to rob them late at night; and the 14-year-old boy in Lodz, Poland who hacked the city’s tram network. Manaugh also shows how the criminally inclined are using social media to find the best time to burglarize a home (just wait until the owners post their vacation pics on Facebook) as well feeding erroneous data to Waze in order to create traffic-free getaway routes. Trust me, this book is a lot of fun.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned all these years blogging about books it’s the more I enjoyed a book, the harder it is for me to write about it. Writing about books I’m not crazy about it is easy. Heck, just post anything on the blog. On the other hand, writing about great book takes forever. Outstanding books call for outstanding reviews and outstanding reviews aren’t easy to write. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about Frans de Waal’s outstanding book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Let’s just say it’s a book so good I feel out of my league reviewing it.
Had it not been for my book club, I might never have heard of, let alone read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Published in April of 2016, De Waal’s book is a detailed look at the world of animal cognition. Looking at a wide array of animals including primates of all varieties but also birds (especially the highly intelligent corvids like crows and ravens), dolphins, elephants and even octopuses De Waal shows without a doubt the gap, cognitively speaking, between these kinds of animals and humans is surprising narrow. As threatening as this might be to our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy, the ongoing research shows us this gap is getting narrower all the time. While many scientists and researchers accept the conclusions of these new findings some do not, instead preferring to redefine the definition of such cognitive processes like problem-solving, tool manufacturing and usage, communication and sense of self. De Wall calls this habit of raising the intellectual bar so humans feel less threatened as “moving the goal posts.” (One of my favorite stories in the book is that of the chimps in the London Zoo who were trained to take tea just like any respectable Brits. The problem was the chimps did such good job having a proper tea Londoners felt threatened. As a response the chimps were taught to be sloppy and careless when having tea.)
De Waal’s book is just as much about human cognition as it is about animal cognition, specifically how we humans strive to measure animal intelligence but frequently in the end our assumptions and prejudices prevent us from getting a truer understanding of how animals use their brains. Borrowing from the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull, according to De Waal if you wanna understand how an animal thinks, you gotta understand that animal’s surrounding world, or umwelt. Don’t assign a bunch of intelligence tests that don’t reflect the reality of an animal’s umwelt. As an example, De Waal talks about attempts to measure elephant cognition, specifically tool making. Researchers gave elephants sticks to see if they would use them as tools to grab out of reach treats. Researchers failed to take into account that elephants prefer not to use their trunks in that fashion, since it prevents them from using their trunks as a smell organ. A more accurate test of elephant tool-making was giving them boxes to stack in order to construct a make-shift step-ladder. By doing so the elephant could reach a high-hanging snack and thus show elephants can be tool-making creatures.
Not only is this an outstanding book, it’s by far one of the best book I read in 2016. Please consider Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? highly recommended.
One Sunday morning two decades ago while channel surfing on a cable-less TV I stumbled upon an episode of CBS Sunday Morning. Either out of curiosity or boredom, I found myself drawn into one of the show’s news stories, specifically that of a young up and coming writer enjoying his first taste of literary success after his first book was recently published. The more I watched, the more I started to learn his book told of an unlucky crew of fisherman tragically overwhelmed by a monstrous Atlantic storm.
That book was The Perfect Storm and that young up and coming author was Sebastian Junger. Fast forward 20 years, and even though I own two of his books I’ve never read a word of his stuff. That is until now.
Recently, my book club voted to read his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Why we voted for Tribe is beyond me, although I suspect both the author’s reputation and the book’s short length of 200 pages might have been contributing factors. Luckily for me, I found an available library edition and quickly went to work on it. Because it’s so short I finished it off in no time. Even though Junger’s book didn’t rock my world, it still made for stimulating reading. To me anyway, I saw Tribe as Junger’s opportunity to weigh in on the current state of American society. Taking examples not only from history but also from other fields like psychology, Junger examined the challenges we in America face in trying to maintaining a strong sense of community, as well as keeping the rich and powerful accountable to the rest of us (think of the recent financial crises). Lastly, in a significant portion of the book which to me seemed only marginally related to rest of it, Junger asks how do we in America effectively and compassionately help re-integrate our nation’s war veterans back into society.
I saw the book as a kind of extended op-ed piece. While some book club members railed against it, I thought it was OK and welcomed the authors sermonizing on community, war and accountability. In spite of the book’s shortness, I still managed to learn a thing or two. All the stuff about white settlers preferring to live among Indians, even after being captured was new to me. (Although I suspect Junger might have romanticized things a bit. For a fuller and I suspect more historically accurate handing of this subject I highly recommend Linda Colley’s Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850.) In discussing the deadly Springhill coal mine collapse in Nova Scotia in 1958, during the course of their underground ordeal different types of leaders emerged among the trapped men. Depending on the circumstances sometimes macho, take-charge kind of leaders would assert their leadership while other times it was the more nurturing and supportive ones.
Again, I saw this as a kind of extended op-ed piece. I found Tribe, both in style and perhaps in purpose reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff like Outliers and David and Goliath. I also found similarities with other books I’ve read, specifically War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, Dark Age Ahead by the late Jane Jacobs, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank and lastly Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future by Neil Postman.
I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.
The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.
As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.
When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.
The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.
After having great luck with Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox I was on the lookout for other great stuff by or about former Hasidic Jews. When I discovered my public library had an available copy of Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels I didn’t hesitate to get my hands on it. Just like I did with the two above-mentioned memoirs, I whipped through Winston’s Unchosen while thoroughly enjoying it.
Like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Unchosen is a polyvocal text. The voices heard in Winston’s book are rebellious (believe me, in this context it’s a relative term) Hasidic Jews or those trying to leave the community, many of which are from the highly insular and morally restrictive Satmar sect of New York. Slowly, over a long period of time the book’s author Hella Winston, a nonobservant Jew met got to know some of them as they shared their respective life stories with her.
For a disillusioned Satmar or member of a similar community to up and leave is no easy task. Members have been inculcated from day one with religious beliefs that speak of the group’s divine chosen status contrasted with the moral depravity of the greater world, making integration within the lager Jewish community, to say nothing of secular society in general difficult. In addition, young Hasidim are pressured to marry early in life and produce large families, thus making it a challenge to server those family relationships and obligations should they want to leave. Lastly, because of the lack of secular education or quality vocational training, members are ill-suited to make it in the outside world. (Males receive roughly the equivalent of a 4th grade education. Everything after that is religious training. Women, since they’re not allowed to study religious topics like the men, ironically, receive a bit more secular eduction. Both sexes are educated in the community’s preferred language of Yiddish, making interaction with the English-speaking world even harder.)
In Winston’s book we meet an interesting array of individuals including a young man who struggles to leave his community but his lack of resources, confidence, English skills and support network make it next to impossible; a religious instructor who’s lost his faith and a young woman striving to start a halfway house for those transitioning out of Hasidism. My favorite Hasid in Winston’s book had to be Steinmetz, an employee at a Hasidic-approved store who spent his off the clock time reading forbidden books at of all places the library of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Like any good rebellious bibliophile I salute Steinmetz and consider him a man after my own heart!
I found all the life stories discussed in Unchosen fascinating and well worth my time. The individuals featured in Winston’s book are complex and multifaceted, with little, if any black and white and mostly shades of gray. No wonder I enjoyed this book.