Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Stephen Kinzer

Undoubtably the strangest, most disturbing, book I read this year.

The story of Sydney Gottlieb and the early years of the CIA is almost too cruel, to horrible to really comprehend. Yes, I knew about MK Ultra (where the CIA drugged unsuspecting people with LSD) and I knew about the CIAs involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro. Sure I’d heard stories of the CIA using a fake hippie crash pad to drug unsuspecting people and monitor their reactions, but I didn’t know it was all traceable back to the same guy. Nor did I know this dude when not ruining the minds of other people, was interested in meditation, made his own yogurt and was a serious student of folk dances around the world.

It’s a surreal read, but also a chilling one. When the crimes fo the early CIA are laid out, one after the other, it shocking, even when none of it is new.

Recommended.      

Brakeley’s Skiing with Henry Knox

Skiing with Henry Knox: A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail
Sam Brakeley 

I have a real soft spot for books like this.

Young dude decided to take on doing the Catamount Trail, (a cross country ski route that runs the length of Vermont) in a single push. Ostensibly he’s doing this to give himself time to make a major life decision, but it’s also just a cool adventure. He weaves the tale of this quite challenging, and very cold, adventure with a retelling of an expedition by Revolutionary War officer Henry Knox engaging in a winter campaign through New England.

A fun read, and is inspiring me to think bigger about my own adventures.

Recommended for the enthusiast

Eyre’s Death in Mud Lick

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic 
Eric Eyre

The worst book I read this year. A full of himself reporter takes the destruction wrought on West Virginia by big pharma and attempts to turn it into a hero story about himself. In almost every case it’s a bad idea for a reporter to put himself in the middle of a story, which is exactly what Eyre does here. There’s a good story lurking in here, about communities destroyed, and battles for justice, but its buried under so much ego it never really sees the light of day.

That this made best of lists absolutely blows my mind.

Not Recommended.

Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Becky Cooper

True crime for fancy folks. An investigation into the murder of a student at Harvard in the 1960s that turns into an investigation into the way power works. The way Harvard, men, and the state all use power against those who would attack it. Very well crafted and written. I flew through it. It’s rare a book is both this readable and thought provoking.

Recommended.

Calle’s True Stories

True Stories
Sophie Calle

Been sitting on my shelves for years and years. So happy I finally took down this little book of aphorisms and photos (both original and found) by the wonderfully bizarre performance artist / writer Sophie Calle.

I have followed Calle’s work for decades. It has often focused on the contradictions of desire, obsession and misogyny, all of which hits different, and more profoundly, in a post-me too world. A worthy addition to her long career.   

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Odell’s How To Do Nothing

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Jenny Odell

I may be the last dad in brownstone Brooklyn to read this book, but I’m glad I did. It lives up to the hype. The central premise you probably already know – there is power in slowing down, in paying attention, in resisting the never ending demands on our attention. This is a theme cropping up all over in recent years from the Shallows to Deep Work.

But Odell takes things a bit further. This isn’t just a book about resisting twitter, it’s a book about resisting capitalism and its obsession with speed and growth. It’s about rooting yourself locally and taking the time to know, really know, the world around you. In today’s world, that’s a radical notion, and one I am very interested in continuing to explore.

On a personal, how do I want to live my life, level, this may be the most important book I read this year.

Recommended.

von Straten’s In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Giorgio von Straten, Simon Carnell (Translator)

A wonderful little book chronicling the stories of books lost to time. By “lost books” von Straten isn’t referring to rare books, or even books we know were published, but no longer have. Here’s he’s talking about the even more mysterious, the books written, but never published, and in many cases, never read. He’s talking about Byron’s memoirs, destroyed to protect a reputation, or Benjamin’s possible final work, dragged with him across Europe only to disappear at his death. An engrossing look into the missing corners of literature and total fun for the bibliomaniac such as myself.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Sibley’s Birding Basics

Sibley’s Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds
David Allen Sibley

David Sibley, is the author of perhaps the most popular guide to birding in the U.S. Sibley’s Guides. Gorgeously illustrated with his own renderings and written in a wonderfully dense, descriptive way, my Sibley is one of my favorite books.

This is his complementary guide for getting into birding. Calling this a book about the “basics” of birding is a bit of a stretch. This includes detailed information on plumage, changes in appearance based on age, determining size and color and more. Absolutely fascinating for a beginner birder like myself and written in the most wonderful, hyper clear, prose.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Schultheis Bone Games

Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence 
Rob Schultheis

This one is a pretty deep cut in the world of endurance literature. The premise is that extreme sports (mountaineering, ultra endurance events, etc) are a modern, western, form of vision quests. An attempt by domesticated, bored, largely affluent, westerners to reconnect with something dangerous and life affirming.

This isn’t a new idea, but Schultheis ties these ideas to his own story in an engaging, and at times inspiring, way. Perhaps not the greatest book ever written about the spiritual aspects of sport, but still deeply enjoyable for those interested in this area.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

Maria Konnikova

Perhaps the most fun I had reading a book this year.

Here’s he premise: Konnikova, a New Yorker writer with a phd in psychology hires one of the world’s greatest poker player to teach her the game with the intent to eventually compete in pokers marquee event, the World Series of Poker. Standard fare in the participatory journalism narrative.

Except it turns out Konnikova is good. Very good. And she uses her understand of psychology, probability, and, sexism is do very well. You have the great writing you’d expect from a New Yorker writer with a great narrative and bouts of true surprise all of which add up to a enjoyable, informative read.

This one is just lots of fun.

Recommended.