Top Ten Book Reviews

I’ve written over 100 book reviews for this site and plan to write many, many more. Here’s a list of the ten most popular reviews:

  1. Tani and Sera’s False Nationalism / False Internationalism

  2. Coates’s Between the World and Me

  3. Mandel’s Station Eleven

  4. Fink’s Five Days at Memorial

  5. Martin’s Game of Thrones

  6. Chopra’s Shapeshifter

  7. Levitin’s The Organized Mind

  8. Kraus’s I Love Dick

  9. Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building

  10. Jurek’s Eat and Run

2014: My Year in Books

I’m still not really sure how this happened, but in 2014, I read 52 books. I’ve tracked every book I’ve read for the last 26 years, and 52 books is a record. I’m sadly proud of this.

A couple of things certainly helped. First, I finished a long-term goal of reading the complete works of Shakespeare – and the plays are relatively short. Second, I traveled to Washington pretty regularly and spent many early morning and late night train rides with my head in book. Third, I have no taste and read a fair amount of dude thrillers (note the spy novels and multiple entries for Lee Child novels) which go pretty quick.

Here are some highlights and lowlights:

Best Non-Fiction Book: Five Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink. I liked this book so much I wrote a actual review of it. Suffice to say, it haunted me for weeks after, and I pressed it into the hands of many of my friends. If you want to see journalism done really well, you should read this.

Best Fiction Book: Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle. This book was written for me. The Mountain Goats are one of my favorite bands, I’m obsessed with the 1970s, love any fiction that involves games, and had a bit of a troubled adolescence myself. Perhaps others won’t be as taken by it as I was.

Worst Fiction Book: I have no literary taste. I’ll read Lee Child with the same vigor as I read the Bard, but even I am ashamed to have read the The Madmen of Benghazi, Gerard deVilliers. It’s among the worst books I have ever read – poorly written, full of horrific (and often racist) clichés, and its not even engaging. In my defense, deVillers was written up by the New York Times, which is why I picked this pile of shit up in the first place.

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Lure of Long Distance, Robin Harvie. I have a very high tolerance for reading about people running around in circles as a means of self-discovery; but this was just the worst sort of navel gazing. That a mainstream house published this makes me think Harvie has got some sort of family connections.

Some statistics worth noting:

• 35 of the 52 books (or about 65%) were fiction. This about matches most years.

• 20 were works of the Bard. That is not average I’ll write a separate piece at some point about this whole read all the plays thing, but suffice it to say I’m glad that stupid project is over.

• Only 3 books I read were written by women (and I’m given myself the co-written Locked Room). That’s pretty embarrassing. More on this in my upcoming post on my reading goals for 2015.

Below is a complete list of the books with my annotation of whether I recommend it for the general reader, recommend it for the enthusiast interested in the subject matter or if I think you shouldn’t bother at all.

1. Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews — Recommended for the enthusiast

2. As You Like It (Folger Edition), William Shakespeare – Recommended for the enthusiast

3. Consider Phelbas, Iain M Banks – Recommended for the enthusiast

4. The Schools of Night, Alan Wall – Not recommended

5. Twelfth Night, (Folger Edition), William Shakespeare – Not recommended

6. Echo Burning, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

7. Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovery Myself, Rich Roll — Not recommended

8. Cycle of Lie: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, Juliet Macur — Recommended for the enthusiast

9. Hamlet (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended

10. Exodus and Revolution, Michael Walzer — Recommended for the enthusiast

11. Going Long: Legends, Oddballs, Comebacks and Adventures: The Best Stories From Runner’s World, David Willey (ed) — Recommended for the enthusiast

12. The Snowman, Jo Nesbo — Recommended for the enthusiast

13. 14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life, Alberto Salazar — Recommended for the enthusiast

14. The Cairo Affair, Olen Steinhauer — Recommended for the enthusiast

15. Decoded, Mai Jia – Not Recommended

16. The Director, David Ignatius — Recommended for the enthusiast

17. Five Days At Memorial: life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink – Highly Recommended

18. Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About Science of Raising Children But Were Afraid to Ask, Dalton Conley — Recommended for the enthusiast

19. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

20. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Richard English — Recommended for the enthusiast

21. Trolius and Cressida (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

22. Without Fail, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

23. Why We Run: A Natural History, Bernd Heinrich — Recommended

24. The Lure of Long Distance, Robin Harvie – Not Recommended

25. All’s Well That Ends Well (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

26. Measure for Measure (New Cambridge), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

27. The Locked Room, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo — Recommended for the enthusiast

28. The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story, Richard Preston – Recommended

29. The Madmen of Benghazi, Gerard deVilliers – Not Recommended

30. Othello (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

31. Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle – Highly Recommended

32. King Lear (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended

33. Macbeth (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

34. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer — Recommended for the enthusiast

35. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America, Andrew Coe — Recommended for the enthusiast

36. Antony and Cleopatra (Royal Shakespeare Company), William Shakespeare – Recommended

37. Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Oceans Tell Us About Ourselves, James Nestor — Recommended for the enthusiast

38. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, David Allen – Recommended

39. Coriolanus (Oxford), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

40. Persuader, Lee Child — Recommended for the enthusiast

41. Timon of Athens (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

42. Pericles (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

43. Cymbeline (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

44. The Winter’s Tale (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended

45. The Tempest (Pelican), William Shakespeare – Recommended

46. Henry VIII (Folger), William Shakespeare — Recommended for the enthusiast

47. Two Nobel Kinsman (Folger), William Shakespeare – Not Recommended

48. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, David Margolick — Recommended for the enthusiast

49. Monsuier Pain, Roberto Bolano – Recommended

50. Foreskins Lament: A Memoir, Shalom Auslander – Recommended

51. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf – Recommended

52. Tales from Out There: The Barkely Marathons, the World’s Toughest Trail Race, “Frozen” Ed Furtaw – Recommended for the Enthusiast

Book Review: Five Days At Memorial

We all remember Katrina. The natural disaster of the hurricane, and the piss-poor response from local, state and federal agencies in its aftermath, remains one of the low points of modern America. Like many, I was shocked, and ashamed, that anyone had to live through something so awful. And I was angry that so many had to struggle so hard, for so long, without adequate assistance.

Many, I am sure, are still struggling today.

But I live far from New Orleans. And with time, Katrina faded from my memory.

That is, until I read Sheri Fink’s 5 Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital. * If you followed the Katrina news, you probably remember at least the broad strokes of what happened at Memorial – during the immediate aftermath of the storm, with floodwater surrounding the hospital, and evacuation happening in a haphazard and unpredictable way, a number of staff people allegedly euthanized patients.

Memorial Medical Center, surrounded by flood waters.

However if you’re like me, you only remember the barest outline of the story and know little of what happened to the people involved after CNN stopped carrying it on the evening news.

Well the full story is here and it is a tragic and disturbing.  Fink recounts  it in detail, giving us an almost moment-by-moment account of what happened in Memorial during the storm and of the investigation that happened after. By and large it’s a nuanced presentation of complex situation. No one comes off as an obvious villain and few remain virtuous.

Boats evacuating staff and patients from Memorial. These boats were most likely part of the flotilla of volunteers who reached Memorial days after the storm.

It’s  creates a haunting book full of the kind of moral challenges I don’t normally get in my reading. You should check it out. Though the story of Katrina is familiar, I was still shocked by the chaos of the situation and troubled by the decisions made throughout the storm by the government, hospital management, and the health care providers. We want everyone to be perfect, to always make the right call, but they don’t.  And it is clear from the first moments of the storm that this group of people, at this hospital, were woefully unprepared for what was to come.

I wish different decisions had been made at Memorial (and I am not just talking about the alleged euthanasia). I’m sure some of those who were there do as well. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and perhaps, as one of the doctors under investigation argued, you cannot judge what happened unless you were there.

There is some validity to this argument. Yet isn’t judging situations in which we were not involved exactly what we ask our juries to do everyday? At the heart of every trial is the weighing of evidence and the delivery of a verdict of guilt or innocence by people who were, by necessity, not there.

Are there situations too extreme for our society to judge by its normal standards? Was Katrina one of them? I finished the book with no answers. And I’m still wrestling with the questions, bringing it up at every dinner party and group run I attend. Its not something many people want to discuss, but I can’t stop thinking about it.  And that is as strong an endorsement as I can give any book.