I read a ton of terrific books in 2015, but when it came to blogging, boy did I slack off. So, with the year quickly drawing to an end, I need to hustle and do a little year-end catch-up post to and briefly go over those books that regrettably didn’t get featured on my blog. Fortunately for me, WordPress has that great “gallery” feature that allows me to post pictures that you the reader can just scroll through with the flick of a finger. I’ve found this feature ideal for posting book lists and therefore lends itself well to a little catch-up project like this.
- The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird – This is a terrific book and I have Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness to thank for bringing it to my attention. Just like he did with his earlier book Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 Bird serves up a detailed and nuanced history of the modern Middle East. Highly recommended.
- A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal – Yet another book I saw at the library, decided to take a chance on and in the end, really enjoyed. So few children survived the Holocaust. One more reason why the world needs to read Buergenthal’s memoir.
- Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma – It’s almost 10 years since I read Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. When I’d heard that Buruma had written a history book about the year 1945 I wondered how he would approach the subject. After reading Year Zero I was not disappointed. A Dutch citizen and an expert on East Asia, Buruma strikes me as man who straddles both East and West. As a result, Year Zero takes a more global approach when compared to Savage Continent. And compliments it perfectly.
- Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum – To relegate Applebaum’s Gulag: A History to my year-end catch-up list and not give it its own posting is a shame. That’s because it’s an outstanding book and easily one of the best I’ve read this year. I even enjoyed it more than her later book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 which ended up being my favorite nonfiction book of 2013. Gulag is one of those rare books that covers a lot of historical detail while being readable as hell. Wanna know all about Stalin’s Gulag? Then read this book. Highly recommended.
- In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong – Just like A Lucky Child, this was another library book I decided to take a chance on and ended up enjoying. Wrong’s depiction of Mobutu’s rise and fall and with it, that of Congo (Zaire), unfolds like a Shakespearian tragedy. Great book about modern Africa.
- The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass – A few months ago this one popped up on Goodreads as a book I might be interested in, based on my reading history. When a copy became available at my local public library I grabbed it. Holy cow, Goodreads was right. This is a superb book. No wonder it was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. As the subtitle declares, few, if any Americans know anything about West Pakistan’s brutal military crackdown and subsequent genocide in what’s now Bangladesh. In telling this forgotten story, Bass details all the secret geopolitical goings on between United States, Pakistan, India, China and Soviet Union. According to Bass, in aiding and abetting Pakistan Nixon and Kissinger come across as a pair of Machiavellian racists. Another book I highly recommend.
- What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe – What would happen if you pitched a baseball near the speed of light? Put a submarine in orbit around the earth? Cranked up a blow dryer to thousands of degrees? Took a swim in a spent-nuclear fuel pool? Munroe’s What If? is one of those rare books that’s light, smart, irreverent and funny. Both myself as well as Jean from the blog Howling Frog Books found this a fun read.
- The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt – For close to ten years I’ve been eyeing this book as it’s sat on the library shelf and never grabbed it. Finally, a few months ago I finally did so. My goodness, why did I wait to so long? Berendt’s rich and sophisticated look at the eccentric, corrupt and larger than life denizens of Venice makes for highly entertaining reading. Now I need to read his break-out book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann – I received a copy of this book as a present and regrettably like many books I receive as presents it took me years before I got around to reading it. Too bad because Mann’s book is very good. For years most Americans have been taught that before the arrival of the Europeans the Americas were a pristine and unblemished paradise, untouched in any way by the continents’ native inhabitants. We Americans were also taught these same first inhabitants lived simple, unsophisticated lives and with only a few exceptions built no impressive communities. Mann’s book destroys these misconceptions.
- 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann – Again, another gift book that went unread for too long. In Mann’s follow-up to 1491 he looks at how the world dramatically changed as a result of what’s been called the Columbian Exchange: the transfer of peoples, plants, animals and diseases between the globe’s Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Some of this was explored by Timothy Brook in his 2007 book Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World but Mann in 1493 does it masterfully. Maybe because I enjoy books that show me why the world is the way it is I enjoyed 1493 more than I did Mann’s earlier 1491. I have no problem recommending this excellent book.
- Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard – Recently, my book club opted to read this one after it won a Goodreads Choice Award. Looks like both the Economist and the Washington Post named it a book of the year. After finishing early last week I’m not surprised. While tons of have been written and discussed about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki’s destruction seems to warrant only a footnote. Southard’s book not only puts a human face of one of humanity’s darkest moments, but also shows the long-term impact of the bombing and how it’s shaped today’s world. This book is both grim and great. Highly recommended.
- Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World by Mitchell Stephens – In my Nonfiction November post, I mentioned my quest to read stuff that might help explain why things happen in the world. I also mentioned such a quest will probably inspire me to read stuff that’s “philosophical, metaphysical, theological and scientific.” I’m sure that’s why I was drawn to Imagine There’s No Heaven. Stephens has written a kind of atheist’s history of Western Civ. While the historical stuff makes for interesting reading, my favorite parts of the book dealt with humanity’s attempts to find meaning in life when confronted by a godless universe. (Without trying to create gods of our own to slavishly follow – French Revolutionary extremism, Communism, Nazism, etc.)
- Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – This one has been on my list for a long time, ever since I read her 2006 book The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, with many individuals having strong opinions about her one way or another. In Infidel, she recalls her life growing up in Somalia as well the time she spent living in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Germany, Holland and now the United States. She also discusses what made her start questioning Islamic culture, Islam and then later, religion in general. I hope to read more of her stuff in the coming year.
- All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen – I grabbed a copy of this one at the public library after it popped up on Amazon as a suggested follow-up book to Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Deen’s memoir compliments Feldman’s perfectly, but also Hirsi Ali’s. His departure from the closed-off world of Hasidic Judaism was a slow and painful one. But in the end, for him well worth it. Even though Deen’s slightly nonlinear storytelling might not always lay things out as straightforward as I’d prefer, this is a very powerful and compelling memoir.
- The Day of Atonement by David Liss – Did you really think I’d read all that nonfiction and not a single piece of fiction? When I stumbled across a copy of Davis Liss’ most recent book The Day of Atonement during one my weekend public library visits how could resist? I found The Day of Atonement thrilling, fast-paced and smart. I think I even liked it more than his 2003 novel The Coffee Trader– and that was one of my favorite works of fiction from last year.
- Blood of Victory by Alan Furst – What would any decent year-end catch-up list be without some Alan Furst? Last year I read a ton of Furst’s novels but this year I’ve only read three. Compared to those three, I liked Blood of Victory more than The World at Night but maybe a little less than Night Soldiers. This one is set mostly in the greater Balkans and since that part of the world I’ve always found fascinating, I liked it. Of course, just like all the novels in Furst’s Night Soldiers series there’s a trip to Paris and with it an evening at the Brasserie Heininger.
Well, there it is. I’m finally feeling caught-up. Hopefully, next year I’ll do a better job staying up on things and not have to crank out another year-end laundry list. But knowing many book bloggers, including myself, love little lists, maybe you’ll see something like this post in the future. And if I do say so myself, when looked at in its entirety, it’s an impressive list. Oh, if there’s anyone from the FTC who’s reading this and wants to know, well over half these books came from the public library. As for the rest, Gulag, 1491 and 1493 were gifts. What If? and Nagasaki I purchased because they were my book club’s monthly selections. Amazing what a person can do with just a library card.