My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever. It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.

Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson.  A powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  Early in the year I returned to reread this wonderful memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia. Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds a richer love for music.

Grant by Ron Chernow.  One of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact, Chernow has  worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this impressive biography of U.S. Grant.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  The release of a new movie of this timeless classic led me to pick up my cherished, signed-by-the-author copy, and reread once again the story that has captivated children and adults alike since its release.

Wanderlust:  A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit.  I reread this book in the late winter after a friend mentioned that she wanted to read something by Solnit, the wonderful historian and essayist.  As often happens, I discovered so much more upon a second reading.

Bad Stories:  What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond.  The author makes the strong case—using examples from Moby Dick and other classics of literature—that we’ve made bad decisions as a country because we’ve told ourselves bad stories for a long time…and “bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously.”

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.  An important new work about poverty in 21st century America and the role of corporate America (both major financial institutions and small mom-and-pop rental firms) in driving housing policies that put profit first and people last.

Evolving Ourselves:  Redesigning the Future of Humanity—One Gene at a Time by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.  This wide-ranging look at how humans are changing the course of evolution for all species challenges one’s thinking on multiple levels.

How Democracies Die

“How Democracies Die”

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  The research over twenty years by these two Harvard professors shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. This accessible book is highly recommended, and should be required reading for the entire country at this point in time.  Given what we are facing as a country, this is my choice for book of the year.

Hero of the Empire:  The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill and The River of Doubt:  Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. I read and enjoyed both of these short, fast-paced books by this best-selling author and story-teller extraordinaire.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobal.  John Harrison’s story, as told by Sobel, is part of a series of books I’ve read over the past year or two about the scientific advances that helped shape the modern world. Once Harrison’s marine chronometer helped sailors determine exactly where they were at sea, everything changed.

The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  Two classics that I read (or reread in the case of TGOW) while taking a summer vacation in Pacific Grove and Monterey, California.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth.  Imagine hearing the phrase “You know, you’re no genius” your entire life and then, years later, being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—in recognition for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology. That happened to Angela Duckworth, and this book summarizes her years of study.

In the Shadow of Statues:  A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu.  This memoir by the former mayor of New Orleans hit home for me on both a personal and professional level.  As Mayor Landrieu notes early in this book on his personal journey to confront the true story behind Confederate monuments, “The statues were not honoring history or heroes.  They were created as political weapons, part of an effort to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”

What Truth Sounds Like:  RFK, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson.  This powerful book takes us back to a meeting between Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin, and others in the 1960s, and brings the conversation forward to our bitter racial struggles of the 21st century.

Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams.  A short but enlightening read about how technology is designed to capture our attention, and what you can do about it—by a former Google strategist turned Oxford philosopher.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.  I ended the year by returning to one of my favorite authors.  The first of the two works of Solnit’s I read in December “explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination.”

Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit. I ended the year with yet another powerful collection of essays from one of America’s most insightful writers.  “Solnit turns her attention to the war at home. This is a war, she says, ‘with so many casualties that we should call it by its true name, this war with so many dead by police, by violent ex-husbands and partners and lovers, by people pursuing power and profit at the point of a gun or just shooting first and figuring out who they hit later.’”

I hope you’ll find one or two things to pique your interest among these wonderful books.  My 2019 list will begin with Craig Nelson’s 2006 biography of Thomas Paine, who I rank along with Roger Williams as one of the two most intriguing, yet often forgotten and totally misunderstood, founding fathers.

Happy reading!

More to come…



Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Playing Music

Playing music with friends over Thanksgiving has pushed me to reorder my schedule to find even more time to play.  And – no surprise here – I’ve loved it.  I’m reacquainting myself with some of the playing of Norman Blake (check out the Nashville Blues video below of Norman and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble) and other musicians I admire.

In the delightful book Practicing, author and musician Glenn Kurtz says,

For me, sitting down to play has very little to do with discipline.  “It isn’t just education and discipline that makes one so devoted to work…it is simple joy.  It is one’s natural sense of well-being, to which nothing else can compare.”  Love of music brings me to the practice room.

I am finding that joy in playing again and it is a wonderful feeling.

So I’m off to play a bit now, and then tomorrow evening I’ll be at the Celtic Christmas concert of the Institute of Musical Traditions for some great acoustic guitar by Al Petteway and Robin Bullock.  If you’re in the Washington, DC area stop by and support live music.

More to come…



Four restful days on the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland brought our summer holiday to a close.  We used this time for unwinding from our western travels, reading, talking as a family – but mostly for being.  The sunset on the river was illustrative of the four wonderful days of weather we experienced…nary a day when the AC was required…but it also struck us as appropriate for an end-of-summer-holiday post.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have access to this retreat for nine years, and there are some traditional activities we’ve taken on during that time.  While our visit was shortened this year, we were still able to visit Cone Island at Solomon’s to buy the traditional “Monster” ice cream cones that Andrew and Claire showcase below.  It just wouldn’t be a summer without a Monster!

Candice and I were also able to finish some reading over the weekend.  Candice completed an out-of-print book she bought on Amazon entitled Nourishing the Soul:  Discovering the Sacred in Everyday Life and said it was transformative in its insights.  The book is a series of 24 essays grouped into topics such as Mapping the Territory of the Soul, the Individual Soul Journey, and Soul and Community.  She recommends it highly.

I finished a small but insightful book I purchased on a whim at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango (motto:  “Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds”) entitled Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz.  On the surface this is the autobiographical story of a prodigy who takes up the classical guitar at age 10, graduates from the New England Conservatory of Music, moves to Vienna for a professional career, quits when he realizes that he’ll never make it to the concert stage, and then after a decade-long hiatus, takes up the guitar again with new insights and appreciation.  He weaves this story around a single practice session undertaken upon his return to the guitar.  But as Samantha Dunn wrote in her Los Angeles Times review of the book, “Practicing is a fantastic example of what memoir as a literary form can best deliver:  a person delving honestly, profoundly, and fearlessly into one aspect of life, not necessarily coming up with answers so much as struggling in the face of life’s big questions.  The core of memoir is the writer moving into deeper levels of self-understanding and awareness.  Magically, although it is a personal journey, it becomes universal, elevating all in the process.”

As I read Practicing I thought about the real musicians in my family – my brother Steve, my son Andrew, my daughter Claire.  They would all read this (well, perhaps Andrew & Claire in later years) with a great appreciation for what Kurtz goes through as a musician.  I enjoyed it on that level, but most of all I took pleasure in the graceful writing and insights that do, in fact, become universal for anyone who has dreamed of achieving something big and has had to deal with the disappointment that comes when one falls short.  Here’s an excerpt that – for me – captures the grace of this book:

Practicing can be a dream world in which you escape the reality of time.  You believe that you have everything to do over again, that you have all the time in the world to achieve perfection.  And every day we must practice.  There is no other way to improve.  Still, practicing, by itself, cheats you of half your life.  Even if you are your only audience, music lives fully only in performance.  Performance brings all the strands together, for a moment, joining the many conflicting voices with which music speaks – the joy, the frustration and anger, the loneliness, regret, and sudden elation.  But unlike practice, every performance has an end.  And without an end, music is just a fantasy….

You must make the music of today.  You have to perform what you hear, what you feel, what you can grasp, today.

At least that’s what I tell myself.  It’s taken me more than ten years to let go of the story of my failure and find a new one I could believe in, this myth of growth and return that helps me continue.  I started practicing again because I felt I could do it better this time.  Now, whatever my fingers allow me to play, I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws.  Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now.  This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve.

I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.  For me, it was music.  The guitar.  But whatever “music” is for you, if you practice for real, eventually it will show you everything that is within you.  Because as accomplished or as disappointed as you may feel now, you don’t know what remains concealed in your hands.  Maybe you’ll never grasp all of it.  What you want may never yield to your touch.  And yet maybe one day a performance will surprise you.  Maybe today your music will reveal all the joy and disappointment, all the love and the fear you are capable of, your whole life, the true concord of your own heart.

I suspect that you don’t need to be a musician to glean something of value from Practicing.  I found it to be a wonderful little book.

More to come…