Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Book Reviews

2019 in review: books

Wrapping up this year, I figured I’d make a list of all of the books I read in both fiction and nonfiction. I try to periodically take a break from reading about things like parking lots to read books about, you know, dragons or whatever. But a balance is quite useful.


City of Quartz (Mike Davis) – ★★★★★ – A bleak, yet magically captivating narrative about the past, present, and future of Los Angeles. Davis engages an interdisciplinary approach to reading history through a Marxist lens, examining the city’s history of neoliberal paradoxes, its shining Meccas of capitalist success, and its downtrodden, warrens of depravity, and how they all came to be. The “interdisciplinary” approach is a matter of analyzing not only power and money but also, specifically, the use of land in the process of building a city and its wealthy. Think Howard Zinn’s People’s History but focused on urban planning in L.A.

Parking and the City (Donald Shoup) – ★★★★★ – I mean, duh. Still haven’t finished this one, either, but I’m well on my way and hope to finish before my trip to LA in February, along with City of Quartz and a few other books on the illustrious history and future of America’s favorite dystopian metropolis.

Fentanyl, Inc. (Ben Westhoff) – ★★★★ 1/2 –  I’m working on a piece about this, so I won’t give away too much, but Westhoff has done it again! He chronicles the rise of novel psychoactive substances, or NPS, and examines how dangerous it is for drugs like fentanyl to exist in completely unregulated states. He also tracks it back to the source– usually from China these days- and proposes some solutions to how we might address the burgeoning opioid crisis.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyou) – ★★★★★ – Carreyou’s book isn’t quite as much of a wild ride as Bethany McLean’s chronicle of Enron, but it’s a good read. His chronicle of the spectacular rise and fall of Theranos is as much investigative journalism as it is a profile of the company’s crazypants CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. An impressive story of how one woman and her right-hand man and lover, Sunny Balwani, duped some of the most famous names in the United States into investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a company that couldn’t actually do a whole lot right. Pair with the documentary!

The Burnout Generation (Anne Helen Petersen) – ★★ – This was a quick read from my Audible freebies list. It wasn’t terribly memorable. I find it also pretty sloppy when books attempt to critique work culture without critiquing capitalism. At least adopt some Andrew Yang-esque, centrist, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, corporatist centrism. Next!

Thick (Tressie McMillan Cottom) – ★★★★★ – Cottom’s book, chronicling her experiences as a writer, an academic, a mother, and, generally, a black woman in an increasingly less white society, manages to cover the full range of human emotions, moving from being coolly insightful to hilarious to heartwrenchingly tragic. I particularly enjoy the sense of humor and cool introspection that she maintains when writing about even those most difficult subjects. In comparison to other leading black intellectuals who shape not only black intellectual discourse but, increasingly, American discourse as a whole, Cottom is neither a neoliberal nor, perhaps, an “Afro-pessimist” (Ta-Nehisi Coates has been called both). Rather, she is wholly immersed in discussions of blackness and oppression while recognizing the importance of contradictions, Marxist dialectics, and critical interpretations of multiple true narratives. In other words, Cottom is not myopically preoccupied with the idea of blackness, but rather focused on the connectivity between blackness, perception, social rules and convention, oppression, and, hopefully, progress. Thick is really a must-read.

Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap (Ben Westhoff) – ★★★★★ – I’ve never been a huge fan of gangsta rap, but Westhoff’s history of its origins is a fascinating one. Westhoff traces the rise of rap as a cultural phenomenon and also digs deep into the individual histories of the artist who made the genre. I’ve always said that I enjoy many of the corollary stories and events more than a lot of the actual music in the nascent genre of gangsta rap– as well as the products of it. I’ve always been more of a fan of, say, Belle and Sebastian than of the Smiths, but you can hear the influence of the latter in the music of the former, and the same is true with a lot of hip hop that derived lessons from early NWA which, on its own, honestly has not aged well, along with a lot of other early rap. Original Gangstas is at times as much about L.A. as it is about the music itself and the community that begat it. It’s also an expansive story– a must-read.

The Smartest Guys In The Room (Bethany McLean) – ★★★★★ – The epic chronicle of the rise and fall of Enron. A spectacular tale! 

Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) – ★★★★★ – Gladwell is very popular. I started reading him in high school but it took me a long time to get back into his newer stuff. This book is a good read for anyone, really, but it deals with human behavior, learning and cognitive processes, behavioral economics and how people make decisions. This was super useful when complementing Carreyou’s book on Theranos and other readings on behavioral economics.

Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (Lester K. Spence) – ★★★★★ – Spence’s book critiques popular ideas about respectability politics among black Americans and the idea that black Americans must simply “hustle harder” in order to succeed against historical structures of racism and oppression. Spence instead adopts a more fundamental, Marxist critique that castigates not only neoliberal institutions in American society but also blacks who embrace them. He looks at examples throughout the American economy including banking, jails, policing, and incarceration, as well as churches and schools. Spence is not riding a high horse when he issues critiques of the likes of Tavis Smiley, Cornell West, Barack Obama, or even going back to America’s O.G. black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois– but rather seeking a deeper truth in the form of critical and structural resolution of what he views as an intellectually deficient discourse in black America. A short book but a dense read.

Lands of Lost Borders (Kate Harris) – ★★★★ – I heard Kate Harris interviewed on CBC Radio 1 Windsor and was pretty floored– about the narrative of a pair of young women who rode their bikes across the largest continent in the world along perhaps the oldest historical trade route in the world. It’s a great piece of travel writing, but sometimes frustrating in Harris’ seeming unwillingness to connect the dots, either in her own experience as a repeat-dropout of haute academia, or in the places she visits. Seems like there are some stories that could be told as part of this that aren’t, but it’s ultimately an enjoyable read of a truly incredible sequence of places and people.

My Years with General Motors (Alfred P. Sloan) – ★★ 1/2 – This is, unquestionably, the most boring book I’ve ever read in my entire life. (For this dubious honor, it beat out Men and Meridians, a painfully-detailed, two-volume history of Canadian land surveying, which I’ve attempted to read over the past decade). I picked it up after it came up a number of times in my strategy class. The second star is for the value in understanding Sloan’s characterization of the birth of GM as a horizontally integrated firm, rather than vertically integrated company like Ford. GM grew by aligning and then acquiring competing firms, while Ford sourced most of its bits internally– from the lump of coal that fired the furnaces that melted the ore to the parts that went into the steel frames of the cars. There are some interesting stories, too– like that of Billy Durant, who essentially leveraged his company-furnished equity to borrow a bunch of money to fund a lavish lifestyle and risky investments and loss his ass in the process, requiring the board to bail him out in a behind-closed-doors negotiation that Sloan discusses with minimal detail. It’s amazing to consider what people used to get away with until you realized that the CEO’s in the telecom frauds of 2000-2002 did the exact same thing. (Hmm emoji). Finally, you learn a lot of interesting tidbits, like the fact that Charles Kettering, who served as chief of something at GM for nearly three decades (1920-1947), and after whom, along with Mr. Sloan, Sloan-Kettering is named, devised the use of tetraethyl lead as an antiknock additive in engines. Yes– one of the most toxic substances known to man helped fund a long-established cancer research institute.

Sloan displays a sociopathic level of emotional detachment from his workforce, and he only breaks this character once to talk about how much he hates unions.

The more things change, etc.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Cathy O’Neil) – ★★★★ – A quick read. Instructive for understanding the value of things like big data and such analytical methods– and how they can, inadvertently or intentionally, restrict democratic access, due process, and competitive markets.

Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Dan Fagin) – ★★★★★ – I read this before I went to North Jersey for a wedding in the spring. It’s a really great read, and I wrote about it when I finished it.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Andrea Wulf) – ★★★★ – A wonderful history of one of the more important figures in American naturalism– who should be discussed alongside more prevalent, US-born names. Unbeknownst to many Americans, Humboldt was historically honored as a leading voice of naturalism in the United States (Humboldt Park, Chicago?). I file this under my longstanding interest in the whole “machine in the garden” construct– of man vs. nature, the will to master nature, and the will to seek to understand it. 

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Mark Blyth) – ★★★★  – Anyone who knows me– or, indeed, has read this blog- knows that I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of austerity. It’s perhaps the least talked about subject but the most important one in understanding why a lot of things in our society are so dysfunctional these days. Blyth isn’t necessarily the most engaging writer, but he sets up a lot of good illustrations to help the reader understand the history of austerity, how it has played out in recent years (“Too Big To Fail” in the US vs. “Too Big To Bail” in the Eurozone, for example), and where it might be going in the future.

Nationalism and the politics of culture in Quebec (Richard Handler) – ★★★★★ – I read this for my study program in Québéc, which I wrote about in September. It’s a great read, though it’s probably less relevant if you aren’t interested in, living in, or doing business in Canada. 


Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan) – ★★★ – I was really skeptical of this book because the idea of rich people scheming and blowing money on dumb stuff for a whole novel seemed like a frustratingly awful subject matter. But I found it in the Detroit Public Library and so I checked it out. It takes awhile to get started, but it does move. What is frustrating about Crazy Rich Asians is how the book plods through scene after scene of just really awful people hating each other, while our generally quite likable protagonist, oft blown off, maligned, insulted, and beaten down by a myriad of awful characters, remains woefully underdeveloped. Kwan does deliver some lovely imagery, though, and often weaves in plenty of humor and absurdity. We are left believing that he does, though not exactly taking a radical, Marxist angle, have some serious critiques of the lifestyles of Singapore billionaires, and we’re able to enjoy the 

Borne (Jeff Vandermeer) – ★★★★ 1/2 – I loved the Southern Reach trilogy. I even enjoyed the film of Annihilation, which received some mixed reviews, but was visually spectacular. So, I figured I’d try this one. Borne is a really weird book, so it won’t be for everyone. The plot is hard to describe, but is basically about this weird, shapeshifting creature alongside the struggle for existence of a beaten-down pair of lovers in a postapocalyptic city. Our protagonists are a mixed bag, not particularly likable or deep. Borne is likable, but weird. Following the shattering– though not unexpected- conclusion of the novel, we’re left thinking that maybe he’s really more of a metaphor than a creature whose shapeshifting properties are as relevant as his allegorical meaning. Vandermeer, who loves birds and nature and stuff, is obsessed with the mutability and flux of living things, and this is evident in both Borne and the Southern Reach. Borne is also, subtly, a cautionary tale about the limits of human technological innovation, as it portrays a stark world decimated by both tech and disaster.

A Winter’s Promise (Christelle Dabos, first in the Mirror Visitor series) – ★★★★★ – I typically avoid fantasy because most of the time I don’t know what to do with it. But I greatly enjoy things that are fantasy or sci-fi but where the intrigue is more in the depth of storytelling than in the fantastical elements as a backdrop– think Star Trek Deep Space Nine, which feels more like West Wing in space than it does like Treknobabble-laden high sci-fi. A Winter’s Promise, which came across my radar purely virtue of AI-led marketing, is set a wonderful and clever world of high magic, schemes, and intrigue.

I don’t need to rehash the whole plot, but protagonist Ophelia departs her Ark, one of many that float in the firmament and house all of humanity (following the destruction of the “old world,” which, it is hinted, is the one in which we currently live), for one in the frigid North, where she is to be wed to a weird dude who is both revered for his position as Treasurer and hated because he’s both a bastard but also kind of a jerk (he’s portrayed as one of those brooding, giant-chested, supertall anime characters, I thought, kind of like Squall). The book’s plot is relatively straightforward, but its backdrop is wonderfully rich, laden with a cast of loyal servants, treacherous rogues, and, of course, the family Ancestors, who are immortal beings that carry the bloodline of each Ark. We can’t decide who to be more in awe of– perhaps the wealthy cad Archibald, who enjoys bedding married, older women, and owns this huge estate, or perhaps the stocky butler, who saves Ophelia in a pinch and trafficks in these weird, coveted, but rare devices that are sort of the Mirror Visitor equivalent of a porno Viewmaster. It’s certainly a weird world, but a lovely one, and one you will sink right into if you can dig this kind of fantasy. I’m well into the second book and can’t wait to finish.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloane) – ★★★ – Chronicling millennial and young gen-Xer malaise in the daily grind of the big city while also delving into a cleverly concocted melange of historical esoterica and high fantasy hijinks, Penumbra is a fun, quick read, though not a particularly deep one. There’s a lot of wishful thinking that Sloane conveys into the narrative. This is fun– and welcome- but the execution of a plot that meanders to a relatively unimpressive climax is somewhat plodding.

How Long Until Black Future Month (N.K. Jemisen) – ★★★★ – I had no idea what to expect from this, but it was largely a delightful set of stories. Jemisen’s introduction, illustrating her own struggles in starting as a writer, is instantly relatable. Her stories are no different, and cover a range of everything from high fantasy or sci-fi to more magical realism. The art of brilliant storytelling is that stories exist in a compact package and can be picked up or put down in between them. But the gesamt element of the whole here is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

The Help (Kathryn Stockett) – ★★★★ 1/2 – This was a relatively quick and enjoyable read that I audiobooked in Montanner and Idaho. It looks at race relations in the midcentury Southern United States through the lens of black maids in the homes of wealthy white folks– and through the eyes of the young progeny of one such family. It’s funny. It’s a brilliant mixture of subtle and stark. It’s at times dark, vicious, and brutal, and at times painfully human, hopeful, and optimistic. Plenty has been written about this and they even made a film (which I have yet to see), so I don’t need to add too much more, but it’s worth the read.

The Hazel Wood (Melissa Albert) – ★★★ – I liked this book until I didn’t like it. It’s excellent in its blending of realistic fiction and fantasy. But moving toward the story’s climax involves a long, plodding section of wandering to and fro that I just wasn’t about– felt haphazard and it kind of threw off the rest of the book for me. Much like the “wandering in the desert” section of the final Harry Potter book that I thought was sort of J.K. Rowling’s literary way of saying, “fuck y’all, I’ve made it.” But it’s very well-written overall and gets good reviews, so you, dear reader, must decide for yourself.

Embassytown (China Mieville):  – ★★★★ – I group China Mieville into the same category as comic Sarah Silverman or Cartoon Network’s Rick and Morty– great, but almost too weird for me- but I have become a huge fan in recent years. I started with the Bas-Lag trilogy last year, which is a complete acid trip in and of itself. Embassytown is similar. It cannot be described so much as it must be experienced. The novel chronicles the experiences of a woman who returns to her home on a distant consular outpost. It is not science fiction so much as it takes place in a sci-fi setting. (This is just as Bas-Lag is equal parts George Orwell, Final Fantasy, and Charles Dickens, but not necessarily any one genre). In classically Mieville style, he occludes established conventions of social structures to try and bend reality toward his artistic will. He’ll write stuff like, “on the sixteenth moonday of Septembruary,” and you’re like, “lol whut?” It isn’t quite the masterpiece of Bas-Lag as it stretches even Mievillian parameters of weirdness sometimes, but it comes together.

Cat’s Eye (Margaret Atwood): ★★★★★ – Atwood chronicles, in what the reader can only imagine is at least a partially autobiographical work, the return of an established artist to her increasingly trendy hometown of Toronto to reflect on her upbringing in what was previously an extraordinarily stodgy, conservative town. The artist struggles with old friendships and against the tide of a rampantly misogynistic art world– which, indeed, even permeates her own romances- as she seeks to reconcile her place in the world. The story is rife with clever musings on the meanings of family and friends, love and sex, loyalty and betrayal, and takes some unexpected turns as Atwood deftly maneuvers the plot through the decades.

An Object of Beauty (Steve Martin): ★★★★★ – Who knew Steve Martin was a novelist?! And a bit of a renaissance man, to boot. I started this in 2015 but never finished it and read the whole thing through this summer over a weekend. It’s an enjoyable chronicle narrated by an effectively omniscient narrator who is the supporting role, covering in almost journalistic passivity the life and times of aspiring art world doyen Lacey Yeager, his lifelong crush– and a diabolically conniving operator to boot. This takes the reader across the globe as Yeager scours the world for precious art, and back to her various galleries of association in New York and beyond, following the hijinks of weird rich people along the way. An enjoyable and quick read with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Shipbreaker (Paolo Bacigalupi): ★★★★★- Young adult– often grouped with the Hunger Games and similar, fantastical thrillers. A wonderfully narrated, though dark glance into the dystopian future of climate change. Crews of lithe, young, disposable labor work to strip old ships of their valuable parts in the postdiluvian Gulf Coast. The major plot motivator is the shipwrecking of a space-age craft owned by some rich people. Nailer, our protagonist, makes the decision to save the life of a radiant, young maiden instead of killing her and taking her stuff, which arouses the ire of some of his ship-scrapper cohort. But this sends our two young protagonists onto an adventure toward flooded New Orleans to discover some uncanny truths, finding new friends and enemies along the way.

(These links are routed through Amazon Associates, so if you buy stuff I get like ten cents. But if you buy stuff through your local bookstore, more of that money will stay in the local economy.)

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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