Monday, January 4, 2010

Closing the Books on 2009: Best Books of the Year

It's time for my annual retrospective on the books of 2009. However, before plunging into that topic, a couple of points:

  • More and more reading comes from the internet, via blogs primarily, but also on-line editorial pieces from "newspapers" and internet "magazines". These pieces tend to be short and to the point. To a very small extent I've posted some of those that I found pertinent, and one of the resolutions for the new year will be to post those short pieces as they arise.
  • Magazine reading seems to be the big loser, as the articles are a bit longer than most internet pieces, but they don't provide the depth of a book.
  • I start many books and become distracted. I will not count them unless I finished them, or at least got far enough to pass the test.
  • I did some dipping into books that may not receive recognition. For instance, from John Lukacs's Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge (2005), an 894-page book Lukas's shorter writings, including some chapters from his books. Also, essays by Jacques Barzun, another cultural treasure. Michael Dirda, book reviewer par excellance. Anyway, those readings, which prove quite rewarding, don't score points on the "books read". Nevertheless, I still do pretty well, I think. (Curse you! Donna Harris!)

In no special order, the best books of the year:

  1. A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It

    (2008) by Stephen Kinzer. My youngest daughter recommended this book to me, and it was fascinating. Of course, if you're like most people, or me, you think Rwanda and genocide. It was a horror in the early 1990's. However, a lot happened before and after that hellish event. This book covers events leading to the genocide and the years that followed, primarily through the life of Rwanda's current president, Paul Kigame. This book addresses:

  • Issues of colonialism and crackpot racial theories of Belgium missionaries that contributed (if not created) divisions between Hutu and Tootsie.

  • The complicity of the French government in the genocide.

  • The problems of corruption in African governments

  • The failure—indeed cowardice—of the Clinton administration to address the genocide.

  • The abject failure of the U.N. to address the problem, despite having forces on the ground (and it proves especially damning of Kofi Anan, who could have acted much more aggressively to avert the disaster and who fails to acknowledge this failure).

  • The hope of Kigame to create an Asian miracle in Africa.

  • The fact that Machiavellian considerations pervade politics.

  • How Rwanda seeks to reestablish national unity after such a horrible experience, and the role of informal courts in attempting this feat.

  • The conflict between those primarily concerned with African development and African human rights when viewing the Kigame regime.


I could continue at some length, but I trust you get the picture. Really quite a wide-ranging and intriguing book that deals with so many of the issues that African nations face, as well as western nations.

  1. The Irony of American History (1950) by Reinhold Niebuhr. My consideration of Obama's Nobel Acceptance speech led me to this Niebuhr book, and I'm very glad that I did. I'm embarrassed that I haven't read it before. In sum, Niebuhr talks about the tragic and the ironic in politics. The ironic efforts are those that intend good but result in less than good results. In this book, Niebuhr addresses American naiveté, and how we think we're so all-fired good when in fact, we're not. Niebuhr is an Augustinian of the first order, and his appreciation of our national faults and virtues is unparalleled. I was astonished at how much is words, written shortly before I was born, still resonate so much in light of current and recent events. This man was a prophet, and the fact that Obama considers him a guiding light gives me a good deal of hope about Obama's leadership.
  2. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (2009) by Christopher McDougall. Okay, time for some fun, and fun this book was. What a gas! It's about sore feet, bare feet, lost tribes, slightly crazy people, modern error, and human evolution. McDougall weaves a compelling narrative with digressions of teaching that make the book compelling listening (I listened). Whether you're a runner or not, I highly recommend this book for a fun, informative read.
  3. When the Game Was Ours (2009) by Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, with Jackie MacMullan. This Christmas gift from my eldest daughter didn't sit in my reading queue for long, and for good reason. For those of you who are ignorant of basketball (I have to speak bluntly here), these two were great. I saw Magic play here at Iowa, and then I followed him and Bird throughout their careers. This book, based primarily on Bird and Johnson's reminisces, tells how these two intensively competitive and skilled individuals at first only eyed each other from a distance. Then, in 1985, while shooting a commercial for Converse in French Lick (and shame on you if you don't know about French Lick) and with ample helpings of Mrs. Bird's pie, these two rivals came to know each other and understand their common histories and experiences. In fact, while on the exterior they were different, warm and out-going Magic vs. taciturn Bird, Laker v. Celtic, white and black—you could go on—they were very much alike in their dedication and determination to succeed. In the end, they recognized this in one another, and although each would never back down from a competition, they developed a special bond. Who was the greatest player? The question still boggles my mind. An intriguing read.
  4. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003) by Chris Hedges. This book (I listened) was extremely intense. Hedges reported from Central America, the Balkans, Africa, and Palestine for the New York Times. He lived in and reported from war zones. Don't let the title fool you. He understands war and its effect on lives better than anyone else that I can think of. Don't be fooled by the title! See my earlier post (7.21.09) for more in this incredible book and his Empire of Illusions (2009), in which he plays the role of prophet. Hedges is a writer that won't let you off the hook easily.
  5. Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor. See my earlier post (12.09.09): great fun! Delightful. Intriguing.
  6. The Talent Code: Talent Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. (2009) by Daniel Coyle. This was my last completion of the year. This audio book explained new developments in the neurology of learning put into layman's terms. In short, the more we use nerves (the source of any human action or learning), the more myelin those nerves develop, giving them greater speed and bandwidth (i.e., effectiveness). Neural efficiency develops best with "deep practice", and to demonstrate this, Coyle visits a Russian tennis academy, Brazilian soccer history, a music academy in upstate New York (ever heard of Yo-Yo Ma?), and a basketball practice run by John Wooden (via a study done by 2 UCLA professors of education). For anyone interested in learning, teaching, coaching, or parenting (if these don't address you, Reader, then you're a space alien), I highly recommend this book.
  7. Confessions of a Conservative (1979) by Garry Wills. See my post (11.20.09).
  8. John Lukacs books: Last Rites (2009) (04.02.09); Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990) (10.23.09), Democracy and Populism (2005) (05.06.09)At the End of an Age (2002) (10.26.09, etc.). (Lots more bits and pieces of Lukacs, as I mentioned in the introduction.). Well, I've gone on at some length in the past about Lukacs, and as you can see, throughout the last year. I think that he's very perceptive, interesting, and challenging.
  9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
    (2008) and The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009) by Steig Larsson. These two thrillers were great fun. Contemporary Sweden seems not as utopian as one might think. The two characters provide an entertaining juxtaposition. Fast pacing with a plausible enough story line gets you involved, although the second one got a bit too convoluted, yet, I'm hooked. The third (and final) book in the series is due out this spring. It should prove fun.
  10. Redbreast (2008) by Jo Nesbo. Another thriller from Scandinavia, this time from Norway. This book is a police procedural starring Harry Hole, the Oslo detective. However, it reaches back to the Eastern Front in WWII to provide much of the story. Another fast-paced, enjoyable read that gives a glimpse of demons still haunting a Scandinavian nation.

  11. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2006) by Thomas Homer Dixon. Dixon is a Canadian political scientist trained at MIT. This book weaves scholarly knowledge with boots-on-the-ground investigation and consideration of what makes societies work or fail. For more details on this outstanding book, check out my post.

  12. Mind in the Balance: Mediation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity (2009) by B. Alan Wallace. See post 05.26.09.
  13. The Ascent of Money (2008) by Niall Fergusson. See post 03.01.09.
  14. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008) by Jeffrey Sachs. See post 02.08.09.

  15. A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age by Daniel Pink (2005). See post 02.08.09.
  16. Emotional Awareness (2008) by Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman. See post 01.18.09.

  17. Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World (2009) by Tyler Cowen. Thoughts of an economics professor, blogger (Marginal Revolution), and all-around interested guy, focusing a lot on autism and the internet, among other things. A worthwhile tour of some interesting ideas.
  18. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2009) by Steven Johnson. Joseph Priestly: a man who "discovered" (or invented) oxygen and who contributed to democracy in America and religious toleration. A mob burned down his house for his efforts. As usual, Johnson weaves narrative with scientific facts and history to provide an engaging account. We need more like Priestly.


Well, enough for now. There are a number of books that I need to finish. Perhaps, Reader, you'll find something that tickles your fancy. If so, go for it. Happy Reading for 2010.

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