My Favorite Audible Books of 2017

The last few years my Audible listening had been dominated by big book series—J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). I didn’t have any such book series this year, but the year was dominated by two things:

  • Our trip to Italy, which spurred an interest in Michaelangelo (and I didn’t include it here, but I listened to two books in the Pimsleur Italian Lessons series, worrying fellow drivers as I fumbled and gestured in frustration as I learned some rudimentary Italian for the trip).
  • A desire to better understand where we are politically, by reading two books (Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land) that offered insight into disaffected Trump voters and two (Notes of a Native Son, We Were Eight Years in Power) from African-American authors that explored what it means to be Black in America.

In the second half of the year, I listened to more fiction, which I find to be a better genre for Audible than non-fiction. The flow of being told a story—even a modern, disjointed timeline like that in A Visit from the Goon Squad—is easier to follow than plowing through a historical list of places, names and dates in non-fiction. Though I keep doing regardless—right now, I’m listening to a long book on The Reformation.

Anyway, here’s my list, pretty much in order it was listened to:

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

After the election, J.D. Vance became the designated spokesperson for Appalachian America, which is funny, because he did most of his interviews from California, where he worked for a Silicon Valley VC firm (he recently moved to Cincinnati, close to his southern Ohio hometown). The most resonant part for me was the description of his Mamaw (grandma), whose fierce determination that he find a good life sat at odds with her own embrace of outrageous behavior and suspicious worldview that made such a life almost impossible. The lesson I took from the book is that, in these circumstances, it takes a person as formidably disciplined, smart, and well-intentioned as Vance to manage the leap to a better life—and that this truth is awful news for the vast majority of folks without these gifts. Also, that the Information Economy runs on education and educated people, and these were, and are, in short supply in Vance’s hometown and the region. Until that changes, and until resentment isn’t the first order of business for people there, things aren’t going to change much in Appalachia.

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The Agony And the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo, by Irving Stone

I know that more recent scholarship paints a picture of a more difficult, and more sexually fluid, person, but I really enjoyed this (long) book nonetheless. I remain in awe of his life and work. The work is, in a word, amazing. The scale of, say, The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel (or heck, the chapel in whole) boggles my mind. His Moses sculpture in the Church of San Pietro in Rome looks as if it could stand up and immediately kick ass in a WWE event.

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Moses, in Church of San Pietro, Rome. Check out those guns and the James Harden beard!

Astrophysics For People In a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

You’d have to be in a very big hurry to find this book useful. The author narrates his book (as does Vance, above) and sometimes I felt like he must have spent more time on he narration than the actual writing. Find a little more time and read something like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything instead; you’ll be better for it.

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The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The anti-women rhetoric of the election and the power of the Women’s March served as a bracing tonic before listening to Atwood’s story, and I read it with the sense that, while not close to this world, we’re closer than we have been in a long time, that the forces that could make such a thing possible are on the ascent. The attempts to negate coverage of women’s health procedures in the debate over the ACA is just one of many data points that this didn’t change as the year progressed. The story feels so relevant. Plus, Atwood is an excellent writer/storyteller. And no, I haven’t watched the Hulu series yet (no Hulu).

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

This was an illuminating book that helped me to understand why people vote so directly against their interests. The short answer seemed to be: Fox News. The longer one involves a metaphor the author, a UC-Berkeley prof who spent several years in a Louisiana bayou parish, developed from many interviews with the people there—one in which people feel as if they are standing in a long line awaiting the American dream and can see (less worthy) others cutting in front of them while their relative position isn’t improving. It also was very explicit about the environmental compromises the subjects were willing to make for jobs—even as it poisons them, their families, and the places they love. It was a bit of a slog, but glad I listened.

Notes Of a Native Son, by James Baldwin

Listening isn’t the best way to digest Baldwin’s rich, meaty essays—I often felt like I could spend 15 minutes trying to understand all the veins of thought captured in a single phrase or sentence. Even so, Baldwin is so smart and his observations of America so spot-on (even 63 years later) that I’d keep hitting the 30-seconds-rewind button on my phone.

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We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This compilation of Coates’ articles from The Atlantic would be OK if it was only that, but what makes it really good is the essays he wrote that fill in the spaces between the already-published pieces—Coates looks back at the years of the Obama Presidency and offers some fresh insight into the strengths and weaknesses he now sees in his pieces and their arguments. That was really good. And even if you don’t read or listen to this book, you need to read The Case for Reparations. I bridled at the term, but Coates is persuasive that there is an obligation to right this monstrous, so-big-it’s-almost-incomprehensible wrong. As a white person, the historical record makes me feel a bit like writing a check and then jumping off a cliff.

On the lighter side, Coates recently spoke to Bill Simmons on this podcast, and dropped the nugget that he thinks he might be up for a change to writing fiction—as well as arguing with Simmon about the best season of “The Wire.” Mostly I walked away from the podcast with the sense of just how wearying it must be to be the public voice for any cause. And that’s a shame, because Coates is intelligent with a mastery of his facts and style. He is a worthy successor to Baldwin, and Coates’ fatigue points to how special Baldwin was. (Of note, Baldwin was 31 when he wrote Notes of a Native Son in 1955, and he died in 1987, at age 63. Coates in 42.)

A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Where to even start. Egan’s breakthrough novel loops and winds the lives of aging recording exec Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha, going backward and forward and through all the feelings—satire, tragedy, there’s even a chapter in Powerpoint. Super-enjoyable, it made me want to read Egan’s newest book, Manhattan Beach, which was thoroughly enjoyable. Both tapped into this deep mystery about the glory and folly and will and accident that transforms people’s lives.

Artemis, by Andy Weir

By the author of The Martian (which I haven’t read but really enjoyed the movie), this story happens on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, where a young woman smuggler gets caught up in industrial espionage scheme that leads to murder and unexpected repercussions. It’s geeky and snarky and I can’t quite say I liked Jazz Bashara, which was OK.

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Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

Set in wartime New York City, this novel is about a young woman who wants to be a diver, her disappeared dad, and the gangster that connects the two. Egan is the real deal and this was a super read.

My Favorite Audible Listens This Year—and the Opposite

What I’ve listened to on Audible this year.

All the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling. Yup, I started in January and by May I’d gone through seven books and reached Train Platform 9 3/4 with Ron, Harry and Hermione surrounded by little ones headed to Hogwarts (oops, Spoiler Alert—though judging by all the disbelief I ran into for reading the books now, it seems every person in the world who can read already HAS read these books). I really enjoyed the books—Rowling has pulled off a real Pixar triumph: an accessible work of art in which both children and adults can find deep value and enjoyment—and I’ve been jonesing to listen to the last hour or so of the final book, from when Harry approaches the Death Eaters’ camp till the scene ends in the great hall at Hogwarts, for a good two months. A few favorites. Favorite book: Prisoner of Azkaban. Favorite character: Prof. Remus Lupin. Most satisfying scene: that last one where Valdemort and Harry circle each other, with the weight of all that story leaning in on this final confrontation. Six months of commuting was time well spent.

The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. Truth is, fiction lends itself better to audio books than non-fiction; following a plot is a more natural experience than trying to follow the dates, names, and facts of history. Even so, I like to switch between the two, especially when listening to a long series of fiction books like the Potter series. So I listened through this exhaustive review of the major cultural centers of the world at the time of the European Awakening. And, sitting here, I can’t tell you one damn thing I learned while listening. Bauer’s approach, and I’ve listened to another book by her, is to switch between cultural centers across the world, and it often becomes a succession of warlords supplanting each other. I get bored and disconnect. I guess the Renaissance World—or Bauer’s approach—just isn’t my cup of tea. I happily jumped back to the last two books of the Potter series after this.

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek. Could have been 40 pages long. I’ve really tired of obvious self-improvement books. I don’t think I’ll be reading any for a decade, at least. I think I’m better off putting that time to being attentive and kinder—to myself, to others.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I enjoyed this book, about the lure of virtual worlds over (an awful) reality, more than I expected. It made me remember me and my friends in the ’80s, which was nostalgic and warm for a bit, but I stopped playing video games somewhere around Asteroids and Missile Command (and started obsessively playing Strat-O-Matic baseball against myself, keeping detailed stats; don’t ask how you do that) and I don’t have a particularly strong nostalgia gene, so it started to curdle after a while. It’s a bit on the long side, but after reading those final Harry Potter books, it was pretty breezy.

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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehesi Coates. Moving, powerful, concise, its father-to-son triumph being that it serves both as invitation to taste of the amazements and adventures of life and a cold caution to the brutal truths that exist in this very same world. I felt all that this summer when I read it, and 100 times more after this recent election and the palpable sense of dread, vulnerability, and regression as we await the new administration. I started to read Coates’ eulogistic appreciation of Barack Obama’s presidency earlier today and I just don’t have the heart yet to finish it. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it’s sure taking its fucking time. On that, I think, Coates and I would agree.

The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Abridge. I read this because the Crusades are one of those things that is such a big part of the historical context of the relationship of the West and Middle East, but I knew almost nothing about it. I knew Christians had gone to the Middle East to reclaim the “Holy Land,” I knew they had been ultimately unsuccessful — but I also had heard of Crusader States. What were they? And I knew Richard the Lionhearted was an English king who joined the Crusades, but that was about it. I also knew almost nothing of the Muslim caliphates, and men like Saladin, and how that all played out. When I read about the history of this part of the world, I am reminded that we imagine ourselves past history—that somehow this teetering present can remain, poised on this very moment, forever, no matter how just or unjust the moment is — but that’s what people always think, that they are outside the flow of history, when we are assuredly in it. And those who believe themselves on top will again be on the bottom, and the reverse as well. (That’s actually the wellspring of my hope these days; history is not done with me or us.) This book was immensely helpful in clarifying my understanding of the time and place. It is long, though, maybe longer than it need be.

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Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. Speaking of long, Chernow’s work is an exhaustive recap of a most amazing, peripatetic, and brilliant life. Alexander Hamilton was so fully human — capable of the loftiest thoughts and the most amazing projects, and yet so often a victim of his own passions, poor judgment, and insecurities — as to leave me both awestruck and pitiful. How does one cram so much experience into one short life? How can someone be both so transcendent and so mired in the petty and petulant? I don’t know, but my gosh, I see why Lin-Manuel Miranda would drink deep of this Founding Father’s life. Bring even half of it to life and you have a hit. Judging by the reviews and songs, Lin-Manuel did a good bit more than half.

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Born to Runby Bruce Springsteen. The autobiography is good—candid, thoughtful, full of detail, maybe even a little masochistic—but the best part of the audiobook is that Springsteen reads it. It’s like having Bruce himself sitting in the seat of your car, telling you stories. There’s nothing like actual rueful laughter to convey, you know, rueful laughter. Lots of life advice can be plumbed from the book: take care in the people you surround yourself with; understand contracts BEFORE you sign them; know what you want and cling to it, staunchly, obsessively … my favorite though comes from his song Long Time Coming: “Yeah I got some kids of my own/Well if I had one wish for you in this god forsaken world, kid/It’d be that your mistakes will be your own/That your sins will be your own.” As a parent, as a citizen, as a human in the world, amen. (Speaking of Bruce, I enjoyed this list of his 300-plus songs, from worst to best.)

And that’s it. After looking at this, I’m going to do more shorter fiction in the coming year—and I’m committing to actually read books, with my eyes even! It’s good for your brain, says science, which I’m still a fan of. That said, I’m curious and open to ideas for my 2017 reading (and listening) list. Please use comments to provide recommendations. Thanks in advance!

The Best Books I Listened to in 2014

I tend to read in my car—audiobooks, that is, though my eyes are getting bad enough that it probably wouldn’t matter a whole lot if I actually read while driving. And I “read” a pretty fair amount, about a book each month. In fact, I consumed exactly 12 in 2014. Here’s what I thought of them:

Fiction
Gone Girl. Enjoyed it, haven’t seen the movie yet. Gosh, there wasn’t a likeable character in the whole darn story.

Salem’s Lot. I generally don’t like scary things anymore, but listening on the road, in the summer, in bright sunlight, took away the creepiness. It wasn’t as creepy-crawly as actually reading it in my room late at night as a teen.

World War Z. Maybe I do like scary stuff, because this was my other fiction audiobook last year. And I think I’m much happier reading zombie fiction than watching it. Yuck!

Non-fiction

Salt Sugar Fat. I found this very engaging, and I thought Michael Moss did a very good job of explaining the reasons why food scientists make the choices they do without harping every single minute on why it’s so bad for you. In fact, when I was reading the extensive section on Coca-Cola, I developed a huge craving for one. So I’ll blame him for the fact I made little progress on eliminating soft drinks from my diet this past year. Also, I have more of a “salt tooth” than a “sweet tooth,” so I found his section on that fascinating.

The New Jim Crow. Really powerful, though I didn’t quite finish it. Like a lot of non-fiction books, I felt like, alright, I get the point, and chose to pull up before the finish. That said, it did connect some dots with the justice work my wife pursues through the Unitarian Unitarian Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network, which she serves as board co-chair.

The Everything Store. This book fascinated me, especially the details on how Jeff Bezos conceived of the company as so consumer-focused. The parts about how ruthlessly Amazon competes (treating its rivals and own employees badly) almost made me reconsider my Amazon Prime membership. But I couldn’t quite pull the trigger.

Going ClearVirginia and I listened to some of Lawrence Wright’s opus on Scientology on our trip to Vermont, and she couldn’t take it. L. Ron Hubbard, as exhaustively researched as he is in this book, is just such a monstrous creep and flimflam artist—and the organization he left behind is proof that his imprint was lasting. Talk about an institution built on whim and ego—and formidable tenacity and grudge-keeping. It could have been an hour shorter.

Hatching Twitter made me like Ev Williams, dislike Jack Dorsey, and not want to use the social media platform for about 4 months. I’ve gotten over it, though the idea that Twitter is for conversations is so patently untrue it makes you question your sanity. It’s a broadcast medium with a heavy dose of network effect.

Spirit

I don’t know how else to characterize these two books.

Radical Acceptance. This is Tara Brach’s book on how cultivating acceptance can make you more fully alive. Frankly, I found it much less interesting than the teachings she posts as podcasts. Could be the book’s reader, who I think has done other books I’ve listened to—Gone Girl? Whatever it was about the product, it was one of those, “I get it. Is this over yet?” books.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I really enjoy Rob Bell, the “universalist” Christian minister, but this book really felt, again, like he was stretching an essay into a book. I enjoyed it, but he could have used an editor. I liked Love Wins about 45 times better.

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The 2014 Audible book list:

Radical Acceptance
Gone Girl
Salt Sugar Fat
The New Jim Crow 
Going Clear
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
Zealot
Creativity Inc 
Hatching Twitter
Salem’s Lot
The Everything Store
World War Z

Never Enough

“Scarcity captures the mind.”

That’s one of the key statements in a fascinating book I’ve been “reading” recently. (I’m never sure what to call what I’m doing when I listen to a book on Audible: “reading” or “listening” or “consuming”? I could use some guidance.)

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Muchby Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, provides a sort of unified field theory of scarcity, one that explains the mechanism of scarcity across categories—from the physical (say, the poor, who lack essentials, and those who are comfortable but feel they are lacking the latest shiny thing, for example) to the temporal (anybody out there feel as if they don’t have enough time to do everything they expect of themselves?) to the relational (loneliness).

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Muchby Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Sendhil and Eldar provide a couple useful concepts in understanding the captivity of our minds.

Tunneling. Focusing on the item of scarcity. Dieters who can’t think about anything but food. Lonely folks who fixate on an upcoming date. Those without money on ways to get it.

Bandwidth. The amount of mental resources available. In the most basic formulation, tunneling captures a portion of one’s bandwidth. Decisions made while distracted by tunneling tend to be worse than those made with one’s full attention. The argument here is that persistent scarcity is a headwind on all decision-making, a “tax” of sorts.

Slack. A reserve of some type that lessens the scarcity mindset, alleviates tunneling, and preserves bandwidth.

The authors are a behaviorial economist and a psychologist, and the book is well worth a read. It helped me to put some of my own behaviors and patterns in context, especially around “wanting mind,” and to better understand the decisions through a scarcity lens. As I ready for a service trip to Haiti, it served to remind me to listen closely to those I will meet rather than try to “fix” something or someone. For all of that, I’m grateful.

Oh, Jerusalem!

Occasionally I break away from reading Game of Thrones and other fiction and I remember how much I actually prefer non-fiction.

I especially like to read non-fiction about topics I once thought I knew something about but, upon reflection, realized I was clueless about:

  • the Romans
  • the Civil War
  • Napoleon Bonaparte

Which brings us to Jerusalem, the subject of a new “biography,” by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Audible).

It’s quite long (25 hours), which is not an impediment as I listen on Audible while driving. And it’s fascinating, though honestly, there are so many reversals and bloody reprisals that it’s hard to keep track. Couple things strike me:

  • Jerusalem has been passed about among empires, religious zealots, and greedy local warlords for going on 3 millennia.
  • There has been exactly one sharing of power in the city between more than one religious group—in 1264 AD. That’s it. And the German king who entered the agreement was a true wild card who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on more than one occasion. The precedent for peace is vanishingly slim.

And you wonder why the current antagonists can’t sort out what seems an eminently fixable situation. But it would be bucking a very long tail of history.

I guess, though, if you’re the Israelis and looking at history, you have to be feeling as if time is getting short, no matter how strong your army and how influential your friends. That has rarely mattered very much for very long in this corner of the Mediterranean.

Different Religions, Different Gods

Stephen Prothero wrote this really interesting book, God Is Not One, where he argues what seems in retrospect to be an obvious point—that Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists don’t share the same beliefs and by extension don’t worship the same god(s). The question, I guess, is whether each worships a different god, or the same one seen through a specific social/cultural filter. His argument about what each religion sees as “the problem” is really pithy and fun. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m not ready to throw in the towel, but I’ve enjoyed the perspective a lot.

More on God Is Not One:

Book reviews: LA Times | Washington Post | WSJ | Huffington Post

Belief.net: Don’t judge book by its cover

Prothero on Colbert

Prothero on NPR’s On Point: With Tom Ashbrook

Best books of ’07

Amazon has this list, topped by A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. Virginia got very weary reading this book, and very grateful that she was married to me rather than an Afghani. So I liked this book 😉

The best books I read this year were:

  • Jesus For the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong
  • The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson
  • The River of Doubt, Teddy Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

And more to come. What were your favorite books of the past year?