THE BOOKS I READ IN 2017
Here is a list of the books I read in 2017, chronologically from left to right and some thoughts on each of them... if you're into that sort of thing.
1. The Shining - Stephen King
- While we were traveling in New Zealand in 2016/17 I finished the book I had been reading with three days left in the trip. I found a pdf of the book online and started reading from my computer, but I hate reading on the computer so ended up buying the book from a cool bookstore in downtown Auckland. I had never read any Stephen King and Rebecca said this was the best one to start with. If anyone hasn't read it, but has seen the movie and has questions I would say approach them as completely different pieces of art. The book is about a troubled man who is driven to insanity by the house, the Kubrick movie is about a crazy man who is drawn to a house to allow him to play out his insanity. Two completely different things and both are good for totally different reasons.
- I learned about this conflict, and book, from my friend Dan who doesn't really read at all. When he told me he had read this twice and was busy getting his hands on everything else he could about The Peloponnesian War, I was intrigued and so I got the book as well. When I asked Dan why he liked it so much he said it was because in this war you see how history repeats itself in conflicts since then - the most direct would be World War I, when no one thought the different countries in Europe would go to war because they were too evenly matched and two entwined. They did anyway, and we all know how that ended, if they had read about the Peloponnesian War they would have as well. It's also interesting to see how empires end here with Athens getting worn down to defeat. Super interesting book and, like most times in history, fascinating to read how empires crumble because of twists of fate, or the weather on a certain day of battle, or a commander taking a wrong turn and stumbling into a victory or defeat the consequences of which ripple through time.
- Rebecca's sister, Mary Fons, recommended this book to me because she knows I like to read and am interested in art. This book takes an interesting approach - 7 chapters, each chapter is a day in a different part of the art world - from an auction house, to a class room at Cal Arts, to Takashi Murakami's studio, a museum, and art fairs, etc. Well written and with great access to the different subjects featured in the book if you're at all interested in how the art world functions as a social system, a market, and as a mode of expression in itself then I highly recommend this book.
- Artist and journalist David Salle's incredible compilation of essays on art is a must read. David Salle is a painter who does reviews of art shows, so he has a unique point of view. It's rare to find someone who is an artist and also can write eloquently about other artists work without inserting themselves into the review. In this book, he has a lot of insights into the artistic process and is able to quantify what is successful and not successful in the work he is looking at. This book paired with the one above make for a comprehensive understanding of the modern art world... if you're into that sort of thing.
- Written by holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, this book is full of wisdom and insight into the human condition that a student at HRFS, Juliette, told me about. Some great quotes here are... "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." and a personal favorite of mine, “Human potential at its best is to transform a tragedy into a personal triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement.”
- In the genre of pop-science-non-fiction books that seem to be everywhere these days, from books about salt, death, sex, mavens, connectors, and salespeople this one is right there in the middle of them all - and it's about our digestive system from the mouth to the butthole. Learn how that taco you are eating is turned into poo... again if you're into that sort of thing.
- Being a filmmaker who likes both Hitchcock and Truffaut's film I realize that I'm very late to the party on this one and I have to admit that I only read it after seeing the film of the same title... so basically I'm the worst. Outside of all the great insights the two masters share on filmmaking and process, I have to admit that the main thing I got from this book was that Francois Truffaut was a marketing genius. He was somewhat obscure to American audiences and was able to attach his name with one of the most famous American/British filmmakers ever. If you click on the link to the book the current cover has his name and Hitchcock's name next to each other - smart dude. And then Spielberg kind of repays the favor by putting him in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and gets to borrow on Truffaut's COOL. They're all so smart. Favorite Hitchcock film - Shadow of a Doubt (Rear Window and Vertigo are all basically tied for second). Favorite Truffaut film - Day for Night (obviously).
- My favorite writer's first book in the five part series about Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ is a fascinating character in American history; made president when JFK was assassinated, responsible for the most sweeping civil rights legislation to be passed in the history of the United States, The War on Poverty, responsible for Sesame Street (Big Bird is in his presidential museum in Austin, TX - I was able to visit it when I was in town for the Austin Film Festival this year!), and brought down by the Vietnam War. Book One starts with Johnson's family history living as poor (literally dirt poor farmers), to when he was a boy who watched his father be destroyed by the Great Depression, going to a teacher's college and then teaching English to immigrant children in Pedernales, TX. It goes on to him meeting Lady Bird, and going to Washington DC as a secretary, then a member of the Texas House of Representatives. This book ends in his defeat in his bid for the Senate. It ends with him losing and it's only book 1. There are four more books to come! Five books is a huge undertaking to ask anyone to do, but you will be richly rewarded if you decide to start this journey. He's working on book five now, his life's work is almost done and we are the richer for it.
The book is incredible and Caro is the absolute best at writing biographies, no one even comes close (What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer is close). His ability to deliver the character and the nature of LBJ and the detail in his research and ability to string into a narrative makes it a lot of fun to read. When you read this book you feel like you're in the room with him as he's working to get what he wants. If there's anything to be learned from this book is that he was relentless in his pursuit of getting what he wanted - the question of why did he want things is central to these books and is both obvious and obscure, but it seems like the main motivator behind him was the accumulation of power. Power for the sake of power.
9. A Peace to End All Peace (The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East) - David Fromkin
- As my reading lists indicate one of the things I'm interested in is the Middle East. So, this book is the next book in my learning about that region and it's peoples. The book is about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I "A peace to end all peace" is a quote that someone said (sorry, don't recall) about the peace at the end of WWI was a peace to end all peace - and really that's what the book is about. It's about how when the Ottoman Empire was taken apart and divvied up to the great powers how they created a lot of the acute issues the region has had for the last sixty years. My main issue with the book is it's a bit to Euro-centric of an approach to the material. It would be better to hear the point of view of the actual people living in the countries affected, but this is a pretty common issue with this type of book. The issues in the Middle East trouble me, as I'm sure they do a lot of Americans. I've had friends who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our interventionism has had a lot of negative unintended consequences. History can teach us a lot so we don't make the same mistakes. I think it's Mark Twain - history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
- I'll just get this out of the way up top - I will not, never ever, not gonna happen - read Infinite Jest. I'm not going to even try to pretend like I'm going to read it. I like DFW (I'll be using DFW as stand in for David Foster Wallace heading forward) a lot and I think he's a fantastic writer and I'll never read Infinite Jest. Why? Zero interest and his footnote thing drives me bonkers. I also don't really like fiction, so it's an uphill battle from the start. OK, with that out of the way - this book is a collection of different non-fiction essays he wrote for different magazines. If you have heard of DFW and, like me, don't want to read Infinite Jest, I would say this is a great read. The stand-out essays are his review of the AVN Awards (Pornstar Awards in Vegas), the essay on the Maine Lobsterfest, where he was during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (at a house full of basically strangers while at Illinois State University). But, the reason I got the book was because of his essay from Rolling Stone following John McCain in his failed 2000 run for president (read it here if you don't want to read the book). We were hanging out with our friend Alex and he had read it because someone recommended it to him in all of the news regarding Donald Trump.
One of the main themes of the essay was that John McCain is basically who he says he is. All politicians lie, but McCain has this thing that sets him apart. For those of you who don't know the story was that he was shot down during the Vietnam War and subsequently became a POW. Because his dad was an Admiral in the US Navy, he was given the opportunity to be jump to the front of the line and be released from prison (torture, solitary confinement for months, no food or water, etc.) early. But, the way it normally went was a first one in, first one out sort of deal - so if he had taken that deal, he would have skipped over guys who had been there for years and whose turn it was to go. He refused and stayed in a North Vietnamese prison for four more years. The point that DFW makes is in the moment of truth, he made a choice that for most of us is unfathomable - to prolong his own torture and potentially death because he thought it was unfair to others. So, yes all politicians lie but with McCain we have this thing where we know that he's legit, he made a choice to sacrifice himself for others and that'll always be a part of his character. Of course, we ended up electing George Bush twice and now Donald Trump is the president.
I'm going to pull out a quote from this essay which I find incredibly relevant for the 2016 election between Clinton and Trump. This I would say is true for both of the candidates, and for the world that we live in now. This was written in 2000 but feels more relevant than ever:
"Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest – if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself." - DFW, Rolling Stone
The essay is shortish. Go read it now.
- Fiction back into the rotation! I inherited this book from my brother and had been sitting on our shelf for over a decade and I never read it until we went on a trip to Havana, Cuba this year and needed some travel reading. There are three stories here that stick out for me, Two of them, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" are incredible. They are perfect examples of what a short story can/should be. Rich characters well rendered in interesting situations. They don't have character arcs so much as you get a sense of what their arc can be. They are small stories that deliver massive themes and ideas that shake you to your core. They are brilliant pieces of writing. The third one is so delightful in how it unfolds I had to read it twice, then I read it backwards to try to understand it better. It's a perfect machine of a short story - "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes". I want to make it into a film but I'm sure the rights are already taken, also it wouldn't be as good as the book. 6 pages of perfection.
- Back to Dune. Book 2. It's good solid science fiction and a great continuation of the story that started in Dune. I've read the three that Herbert wrote by himself (see below) and this was my least favorite I think. It's a small story full of stuff that needs to happen for the third book to work, but it's kind of a lesser offering here and the least good of the three IMHO. Maybe it's just because Dune was so freaking good, and it's hard to write two masterpieces in a row...
- The main premise of this book is in the title - that when we try to help developing nations, using experts in a top-down approach never works and he has a lot of data to back it up. The approach that he suggests is radical but simple and one that we are focusing on for How to Build a School in Haiti - it needs to be from the people who live in the country in a ground up and inclusive manner. No one reads about development economics for fun, so this was sort of research for the documentary. Also, this has nothing to do with the book, but part of the reason I moved it to the top of the pile is that whenever I passed it sitting on the shelf I read it as "The Tranny of Experts" and I was like, that's not right - I gotta get this book read so I stop thinking that.
- This is a collection of non-fiction essays written by Dr. Oliver Sacks. It's a life-changing, fascinating, beautiful, thought-provoking, wonderfully written, and a collection that is brimming over with humanity. I cannot recommend this enough... if you're into that sort of thing.
- "Jesus Christ, we, as a country, are not gonna make it" - is what I was thinking about while reading this book. I love spy movies and political intrigue and so wanted to read this book to learn more about tradecraft and cool spy stuff. That is not this book. This book is a history of the CIA that is the blow by blow of every single misstep (and there's been so many) that the CIA has made since it's inception after WW2 to today. It's over 600 pages, and is comprehensive so it's a bit of an undertaking. Also, like I said above, it's sort of a slog because you just read about fiasco after fiasco ending with the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. One interesting thing that came up that I had never thought of that Weiner brings up here is the fact that when the CIA was founded in 1947 and entered into the spy game against Russia, UK, France, etc. we were coming up against countries who had hundreds of years of experience doing this already. Russia and Britain had been spying on each other for a long time before we came around flashing cash. The question he poses that has no answer is how do we have a clandestine service in a free and democratic nation? How does that work? How do we lie and deceive in an open society?
- This is Nabokov's OTHER book about hebephilia (sexual preference towards 11-14 year olds). He considered it his pre-Lolita and it's similar in a lot of ways and different in more ways. I'm not even sure what to write about this - it's a wonderful short novella by one of the world's greatest writers. It's so lucidly rendered, and slips into a weird magical realism, like when he says that the date on the calendar is the 32nd... and he gets away with it! Reading this reminds me that things need to work emotionally over intellectually. He's the master of that because he is able to get you to buy into (and even root for) the story in Lolita of Humbert Humber and the non-named protagonist in The Enchanter in their quests to have a young girl. This book would make a great film as well - I don't know why no one hasn't done it yet. Maybe because the only movie you can make about a man who is preying on an adolescent girl has to be based off of one of the world's great novels.
- Book 3 of Dune. A good ending to the story - I know there are more books but I am going to tap out heading forward. I read the "base three" books and that's great for me. I feel like one day people will say the same thing about movies like the Star Wars franchise - "which ones do I need to watch?" 4, 5, 6. (Or maybe 4, 5, 8? Or maybe my preferred method - a scattered 45 minutes of 1, final hour of 2, 3 on fast-forward until the lightsaber battle, all of 4, all of 5, lightsaber battle in 6, lightsaber battle in 7, lightsaber battle in 8, probably lightsaber battle in 9) Don't bother with the others. Because film is such a small investment of our time and books are such a large investment of our time we are more willing to waste our time on bad or middling movies over bad books. But, at a certain moment you've wasted more time watching bad movies than you would have wasting your time reading bad books... Of course, who really reads anymore anyway?
There's a concept in this book that I haven't seen in any of the (albeit limited) science fiction I've read and that's the idea that if you have prescience (knowing the future) it compresses time. So, if you know what's going to be your fate, then what's the point of living life - because the future is compressed to now... sort of takes the fun out of living. It takes the everything out of living. It's common that anyone would want to know their fate - will I get what I want professionally? Will I get cancer next year? Will I find love? Will I make $1,000,000? Will I get hit by a car while on my bike? How many kids will I have? Will I even have kids? Who will be president? What's going to happen to Biff and Marty? But, if you think about it - if you knew the answer to what was going to happen to you in five years, it's almost impossible to imagine life with the certainty of that hanging over your head.
THE BOOKS I READ IN 2016
List of the books I read in 2016. The books are in order from bottom left up and then bottom right and up. Yes, that is a Big Trouble in Little China action figure to the right.
- The Idea Factory - Jon Gertner
- The thing I remember most of this book is I was reading it while on holiday in Vietnam and I left it at a hotel in Hanoi and it had to be mailed to me in Hue. It's a really interesting story about process, about how Bell Labs did what they did and how it changed the world - ends with an interesting challenge to Silicon Valley to try and replicate this model again.
- Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie
- Poirot is a bad ass. This book broke murder mysteries.
- The Apprentice - Jacques Pepin
- Got this as a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law, wouldn't have bought it on my own, but glad I did. Each chapter break has a recipe and I've made some of them, so it's informational AND delicious.
- Start-Up City - Gabe Klein
- Got this after seeing him do a talk at the CLA event in Chicago. He signed it. The signing of a book doesn't change any of the words that were already printed in there. So, my experience reading it is similar to any one else's, it just means that mine has a few more words scribbled in the front than yours.
- The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien
- Favorite part of this book was the short first chapter where he talks about where Sauron came from. The rest I didn't love. As a nerd, I'm glad I read it - but that's about it. Nerd points.
- Political Fictions - Joan Didion
- One of the best books on politics I've ever read. Not THE best - for me it's a tie between What it Takes by Richard Ben Crammer and The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro. But her writing is so clear and she's very good at conveying mood and the world that these politicians exist in.
- Dead Wake - Eric Larson
- Stole this from Captain Mark. It's good. He tells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania (what got the US into WW1..sorta) from everyone's vantage points; the people on the boat, the Admiralty in the UK, the families of those lost, and most disturbingly, the U-Boat Captain. Begging to be made into a Rashomon style film.
- The Glass Key - Dashiell Hammett
- Read this for a film I acted in, Mercury in Retrograde, which shot in August of 2016. When I think of this book I think of all the good friends I made during filming, playing pool in the basement of a weird Mexican restaurant in Grand Rapids, MI.
- The Commission - Philip Shenon
- It's a book about the 9/11 Commission's report on the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It's a great book that talks about all of the politics that went into the creation of a report, throw in some espionage, love affairs, congressional hearings - again, another book that should be made into a 8 part series. Also, I remember my wife pleading for me to not take this book on a plane when we flew because she didn't want to freak people out.
- SPQR - Mary Beard
- The hidden history of Rome. This was a hard read for me, I found that it jumped around a lot and I think I needed to know more about Rome before reading this. This book almost works better as a book you read after you've just read the entire history of Rome.
- The Road to Hell - Michael Maren
- The unintended consequences of aid in Africa. Reading this as research to see how the author took his real life experiences with the complex issues of aid and turned them into a narrative as I work on my documentary, How to Build a School in Haiti.
- A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
- The comedic masterpiece that I had read years ago and re-read because we are using this book at the Harold Ramis Film School for one of the classes. It's great, it's also the one book on the list that probably can't be made into a movie.
- The Quest - Daniel Yergin
- The follow up to The Prize. The Prize is 1,000,000 times better, but this is still interesting if you want to know more about energy and oil in the world. The Prize is a history of the last 100 years, but through the lens of oil. The Quest is a history of like the last 20 years through the lens of oil and renewables. It reads more like a collection of reports as opposed to a cohesive whole.
- Dune - Frank Herbert
- Reading this book makes me hate all of the film versions that exist and makes me skeptical of any that are planned. When I think of this, I was reading it while on holiday in New Zealand, so I think of the stunning scenery of my surroundings and how different it was to the setting of the book. Every time I drank water while on a tramp, I thought about how important it was.
Definitely felt like a light year this year with more fiction in than the previous years. The books I started, but are carrying over into 2017 are The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan and The Shining by Stephen King.
THE BOOKS I READ IN 2015
List of the books I read in 2015. The books are in order from left to right.
1. The Power Broker - Robert A. Caro
2. The Wrong Kind of Muslim - Qasim Rashid
3. Robert Kennedy - Evan Thomas
4. Time Warped - Claudia Hammond
5. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World - Edward Shepherd Creasy
6. Interaction of Color - Josef Albers
7. The Punishment of Virtue - Sarah Chaves
8. The Wrong Enemy - Carlotta Gall
9. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
10. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments with Truth - Mohandas K. Gandhi
11. Night - Elie Wiesel
12. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates - Kilmeade, Yeager
13. Awakenings - Oliver Sacks
14. How we Got to Now - Steven Johnson
15. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
16. Foundation - Isaac Asimov
17. Foundation and Empire - Asimov
18. Second Foundation - Asimov