I mentioned earlier this year that I belong to a book club in Phoenix consisting of people from all walks of life – doctors, lawyers, a high school football coach, investment advisors, real estate developers, and an independent public relations consultant (me). A few people have asked me what we read and how we select the books we read.
The selection process is informal. As we start running out of books, members lobby for new books to read. We generally come to agreement without much strife. This is in marked contrast to the process my wife’s book club uses. Once a year, they designate one meeting as the day to select all books for the next year. Each member brings a book and makes her case. The group then sets its reading calendar for the next 12 months. Guys just can’t get that organized, I suppose, or we refuse to do so.
Even so, we found a fascinating collection of books to read together in 2010 (affiliate links in no particular order):
The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, by Lee Smith. The book maintains that Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the 9/11 attack on the United States was not so much hatred of the U.S. as it was to demonstrate to the Islamic/Arab world that he was a “strong horse” worthy of being followed.
Wolf Hall: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel. This book is a new look at Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, two powerful figures during the reign of England’s Henry VIII in the 1500s. Historically, More has been lionized and Cromwell demonized. Mantel makes a case that history might have gotten it wrong. I think of the book as a kind of historical Wicked, which gives us a back story calling into question whether the evil witch was bad and the good witch was good in The Wizard of Oz.
This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig’s powerfully told story of his upbringing by a widowed father in Montana. He writes about a way of life that has almost vanished in America, living in small towns in the 1940s and ’50s and ekeing out a living by tending to sheep and cattle. Doig emerged from his boyhood to become one of his generation’s best writers.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. This book is an insightful look at the 2008 financial meltdown. Most of Wall Street – and government regulators – went along with the subprime mortgage phenomenon like sheep to the slaughter. A few, mostly outsiders, were smart enough to foresee the inevitable crash and make billions in the process. You don’t have to be a financial wizard to understand Lewis’s analysis and insights into the meltdown.
One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs’s chilling look at the 1962 Cuban missile crisis? If you think claims that we were on the brink of nuclear disaster are overblown, you need to read this book.
Three Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger’s portrait of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. This book follows LaRussa around during the 2003 baseball season and builds up to a three-game series between the Cardinals and their long-time rivals, the Chicago Cubs. It shows why LaRussa is one of the most sucessful and enigmatic baseball managers in the game today. If you love baseball, you’ll love this book.
Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. Zen gave us all a chance to immerse ourselves again in the thought world of the 1960s and ’70s, when the spiritual, material and technological worlds all seemed interchangeable. Maybe they are, or at least they all can draw from one another. That seems to be one of the lessons from this extremely well-written, enjoyable book.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, Timothy Egan’s book about the great fire of 1910 that consumed public forest lands in Washington, Idaho and Montana. The fire gave America the inspiration it needed to buy into Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of national parks and national forests to be enjoyed by the public, not pillaged by private interests.
Solar, by Ian McEwan, the fictional story of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning, womanizing scientist who is coasting on his laurels. In this wryly humorous novel, McEwan gives us a story of one man’s greed and self-deception and maybe helps us think about our own self-deceptions as well.
The Finkler Question: A Novel, by Howard Jacobson, a comedic novel that examines a serious subject, anti-Semitism. The book won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
Summertime: Fiction, by J. M. Coetzee. In the book, Coetzee uses the device of a writer researching Coetzee’s life to provide a glimpse into himself and also into the culture of South Africa, Coetzee’s homeland. Our club enjoyed this book so much that we gave Coetzee a repeat performance.
Diary of a Bad Year, also by Coetzee. This was a clever book telling the story of an older writer who has been asked to pen a series of essays that will be published along with those of other authors. Each page of the book is divided into three sections. The first section provides excerpts from the essays being submitted. The second section offers diary entries from the writer, who is telling about his relationship with the beautiful, young neighbor he has hired to be his typist. The third section serves up diary entries from her, telling about the tensions she feels working for him and her relationship with her lover, a financial executive who schemes to dupe the writer out of his money.
So, there are 12 of the books I read in 2010, along with several others having to do with theology and the church. The most provocative of these was A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, by Brian McLaren. He offers some exciting ideas about how the Christian faith is coming to some new understandings of itself so that it can stay meaningful and responsive to the challenges offered by the modern world.
Tell me what you’ve read this year, and what you’d recommend. I’m very interested!
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Two standouts for me this year were: Anthill, by E. O. Wilson. A world-renowned entomologist, this was Edward Wilson’s first non-fiction novel, but it won him his third Pulitzer Prize. Bought the book after hearing a fascinating interview of the author on NPR. Another winner for me in 2010 was K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, by Ed Viesters. You don’t have to be a climber to enjoy this well-researched and beautifully written book about tragic and triumphant expeditions on K2. Makes John Krakauer’s story of the tragic 1996 season on Everest seem like child’s play. Viesters is one of the world’s elite mountaineers; he’s an equally skilled author.
Thanks for the recommendations, Bruce. I think I’ll take Anthill to my book club. Have a great Christmas and New Year!