Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.
As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.
As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.
Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey
Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books. One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”
If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.
Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.
Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.
To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.
Some of you might remember late last year when I reviewed Frans de Waal’s fascinating look at the world of animal cognition Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? What I didn’t mention in my review is both Goodreads and Amazon suggested I follow-up de Waal’s book with another one, namely Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers’ Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health. Since I love reading about diseases how could I resist any book that proclaims the surprising similarities shared humans and animals when plagued by the same diseases. Inspired by their suggestion I easily found an available copy of Zoobiquity through my public library. To Goodreads and Amazon I say good call because I enjoyed this book.
Published in 2012, Zoobiquity is a collaboration of cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers. One day Natterson-Horowitz paid a visit to the Los Angeles Zoo to examine a monkey in the throes of heart failure. During the examination she was counseled by the attending zoologist to be careful, lest she frighten the stricken monkey thereby inducing capture myopathy. Later, the author learned capture myopathy bore a striking resemblance to Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, an affliction suffered by humans when forcibly restrained in hospitals. This commonality served as the inspiration for her and Bowers book.
Each of the book’s 12 chapters is devoted to a specific disease or disorder that’s shared by animals and humans. Before I read Zoobiquity I had no idea dinosaurs could get brain cancer or many koalas are infected with chlamydia. Nor did I know BRCA1, the genetic mutation that causes breast cancer is not only carried many jaguars but also many Jewish Ashkenazi women. While many humans engage in various acts of self-harm like cutting there are horses, dogs and birds that also engage in similar kinds of odd behavior like self-biting and hurtful overgrooming.
Zoobiquity succeeds for several reasons. One, because it’s well-written and fast-paced it’s a pleasure to read. Two, it cover a lot of ground, examining a wide array of creatures from across the animal kingdom. Three, the concept alone that humans and animals share much in common disease-wise makes for fascinating reading. I was surprisingly impressed by Zoobiquity and there’s a good chance it might make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.
I was happy when my book club elected to read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy because I’d heard great things about it for months. Happier still once I found an available copy through my public library. And yes, happy again was I to have enjoyed her book.
Cathy O’Neil’s life story is almost as interesting as the book she’s written. After earning a PhD in math from Harvard and spending a little time in academia she went to work as a quantitative analyst or “quant” on Wall Street. After a few years working for a hedge fund she left the industry horribly disillusioned, upset and angry the algorithms of big data were being misused by the rich and powerful, especially those in the financial and home mortgage industries against the powerless. So angered by all this O’Neil lent her services to the Occupy Movement in hopes of bringing those injustices to light. This book grew out of O’Neil’s fight for justice.
According to O’Neil, those holding the upper hand in society like district attorneys, banks, insurance companies, credit bureaus and pre-hire investigation services employ complex and little understood algorithms designed to maximize profit and/or improve efficiency. Unfortunately, more often than not those being scrutinized by these algorithms tend to be society’s most vulnerable: accused criminals on trial, poor or working poor in need of loans or affordable insurance, and job applicants. This is all made worse because outside of a relatively small pool of industry experts no one in the general public comes close to understanding how any of this highly technical stuff works.
Weapons of Math Destruction is a breezy read that still manages to cover a lot of ground as it addresses in detail how big data is abused by a diverse array of industries and organizations. Because it takes a long, hard looks at both the injustices inflicted, as well as the rich and powerful guilty of committing them Weapons of Math Destruction makes a great follow-up book to two other books my book club also read, specifically Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. If you consider yourself an intelligent and informed person I’d strongly encourage you to read all three of these quality books.
I have a fondness for parasites. Over the years I’ve loved reading about them in books like Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures and New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers: Tales of Parasites and People as well as hearing about them on programs like Radiolab. You can imagine how excited I got when I learned there was a new book on the way with the intriguing title of This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society. Right after hearing that news for several months I kept a watching eye on my public library in hopes it would purchase a few copies of Kathleen McAuliffe’s new book. As luck would have it my pubic library did not let me down. Once a copy become available I happily borrowed it.
As you can guess from the book’s complete title, what sets this book apart from other books devoted to these invasive little creatures is McAuliffe shows how some parasites are able to modify their host’s behavior so the host acts in ways that ultimately benefits the parasite. Probably the best known example of a parasite making a host do its bidding is that of Toxoplasma. When a rodent gets infected with Toxoplasma this teeny parasite alters the rodent’s brain so it’s now attracted to the scent of cats. This makes the rodent easy prey and thus increases the odds the cat will ingest the Toxoplasma parasite. After being ingested it’s eventually passed out of the cat only to be picked up again by another rodent. In addition to Toxoplasma, This Is Your Brain on Parasites also features other freaky parasites like a wasp larva that make spiders spin customized webs and a worm that cause crickets to drown themselves.
While at least one reviewer saw McAuliffe’s science as being “shaky” I thought her book made for interesting and entertaining reading. (Heck, not being a scientist I’m not in any position to say one way or another if McAuliffe knows what she’s talking about.) It also fired me up to read more books like hers, and one at the top of my list is Ed Yong’s recent book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. After hearing all kinds of good things about Yong’s book I can’t wait to read it.
Although I don’t read them at the rate I used to, I’m a big fan of anthologies. You know, those end of the year compilations featuring the year’s best writing in a particular genre, whether it’s short story, essay or mystery. While I don’t consider myself a true crime aficionado, I love The Best American Crime Writing, finding those collections hard to resist whenever an available copy surfaces at my public library. But the one anthology I’ve always loved is the Best American Science and Nature Writing. So when one of my book clubs voted to read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I went running to the public library in search of a copy. After finding one, I leisurely plodded my way through it, reading the selections out-of-order just as I usually do with these anthologies. In the end, I was happy with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016.
Traditionally, the knock of these kind of books is they’re”uneven”, meaning some of the selections are great, some are OK and some, well are meh. With this particular offering, I didn’t get that feeling. Of the pieces chosen for inclusion by guest editor Amy Stewart only Amy Leach’s “The Modern Moose” was not to my liking. In what some might consider a no brainer, Stewart elected to include Kathryn Schulz’s outstanding Pulitzer-prize winning New Yorker article on the horrors of a possible Cascadia mega quake “The Really Big One. ” (When her piece appeared in the New Yorker it generated a ton of buzz here in my fair city of Portland, Oregon.) On a bittersweet note, there’s a short offering from the late Oliver Sacks, one of the last things he wrote before losing his battle with cancer.
I believe behind every successful anthology is a talented editor. With that in mind, there’s pair of pieces in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 I thought for sure I wouldn’t like, but loved the hell out of them. Their very inclusion in this anthology proves Stewart was the right editor for the job. Being male, I had no desire to read Sarah Maslin Nir’s “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” but her powerful and well-written expose of the serious health risks facing nail salon workers is top-notch. Likewise, with every Tom, Dick and Harry weighing in online with their varying opinions on autism, I figured Apoorva Mandavilli’s article “The Lost Girls” on the little known and misunderstood challenges faced by autistic females wouldn’t hold my interest. Much to my surprise it would up being one of my favorites in the anthology.
Reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 reminded how much I miss reading these anthologies. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you start seeing more of them featured on my blog.
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.