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…


I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been

A Wrinkle in Time

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a big week in our household, as we acquired a new hip and celebrated a birthday.*  As a small child, you may have received a new puppy on your special day.  Others years may bring clothes for college or gifts for the new apartment. Later, you might rejoice with a new child or a special trip abroad. On occasion one might celebrate a birthday with a broken shoulder.  Now that we’re in the new hip stage (for a second time), I’m comforted by this thought of the author Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what ‘putting away childish things’ means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and ‘be’ fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. The quote popped into my head as I was thinking of Madeleine L’Engle and the buzz about the new A Wrinkle in Time movie that will be released later this week. The folding of space and time is at the core of the story, as is the power of love over evil. My children both read the book when they were young, and it remains among the most influential of their lives. Candice took a week-long writing class led by L’Engle some 25 years ago and returned with a copy of “Wrinkle” signed by the author to me.  I pulled it out last weekend when a colleague said she had been encouraged by my earlier note to “read when it is inconvenient” and — in the midst of our recent board meetings — began to re-read the book before the movie’s launch.  I was equally inspired by her enthusiasm, and quickly finished re-reading this wonderful tale late last week.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

As Candice continues her recovery from surgery, I’m using the time to think anew about what it means to be three, thirteen, twenty-five, forty, and (ahem) more all at the same time.  L’Engle’s push to retain a child’s awareness and joy seems like a great place for all of us to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*Just to be clear, the two things did not happen to the same individual.  Candice acquired the new hip (her second). I celebrated the birthday and acquired two new baseball-themed ties.  While adjusting to the new hip is an all-in family activity, I suspect that I’ll be the only one wearing the baseball ties.

The Blessing of Silence

Madeleine L’Engle – the well-known author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction – is a writer I return to again-and-again when I’m looking for wisdom from a different perspective.  As Candice and I took time off this past weekend to celebrate our anniversary, I found time to re-read L’Engle’s Two-Part Invention:  The Story of a Marriage, which is the one book both of us included several years ago on a list of influential readings.

Reading that book made me think of L’Engle’s other writings, selections of which became the basis for a collection of daily readings entitled Glimpses of Grace.  Over the weekend I looked at the reading for March 20th.  It was titled “The Blessing of Silence” and while the references to transistors and records are dated, it is still worth a read.

“Why are we so afraid of silence?  Teenagers cannot study without their records; they walk along the street with their transistors. Grownups are as bad if not worse; we turn on the TV or the radio the minute we come into the house or start the car. The pollution of noise in our cities is as destructive as the pollution of our air. We show our fear of silence in our conversation: I wonder if the orally minded Elizabethans used “um” and “er” the way we do?  And increasingly prevalent is what my husband calls an articulated pause: “You know.”  We interject “you know” meaninglessly into every sentence, in order that the flow of our speech should not be interrupted by such a terrifying thing as silence.  If I look to myself, I find, as usual, contradiction….Yet when I went on my first retreat I slipped in silence as though into the cool waters of the sea.  I felt totally, completely, easily at home in silence.  With the people I love most I can sit in silence indefinitely.

We need both for our full development; the joy of the sense of sound; and the equally great joy of its absence.”

 As we go through our work day (in our open office spaces), as well as our time with friends and family, silence can be a welcomed change in a world filled with noise.  As L’Engle says, we need both for our full development.

Think about when and how silence can enhance your life, and have a good week.

More to come…


Twelve Influential Books (And a Few More Thrown In for Fun)

What if Everybody Squeezed the Cat?Since  I left Facebook about 18 months ago, I miss 99.5% of the silly contests, lists, and challenges that clog the social media world.  And even when I was on FB, I would occasionally take one of their lists – such as the five albums I’d most want on a desert island – and expand that into blog posts (as in album #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5).

But the other day, my sister Debbie put up a list of ten influential books in her life, and asked Candice to do the same.  The challenge was to come up with the list quickly.  Both Debbie and Candice had great lists, and that made me think about what my list would look like.

So…here is my off the cuff list of twelve books that I’ve read (and usually re-read, and re-read).  Since this is my blog, I’m not going to be bound by the FB convention of ten.  And, in fact, you’ll see I’ve thrown in a bonus book or two along the way. Through the years these works have influenced me to  various degrees.  And I present them in no particular order.

1.  If Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover – This 1960 book is the first I really remember reading as a child, and it has stuck with me now for some 55 years.  The premise is very easy to understand, and the illustration at the top shows it perfectly.  On the left page is a cute drawing of one kid doing something that probably – to him or her – looks perfectly harmless.  Such as squeezing the cat. Or making a splash in the sink. Or dropping tacks on the floor (one of my favorites).  Then, on the opposite page is an illustration that shows what would happen if everybody did that particular thing.  This book is still the reason I pick up garbage as I walk along the sidewalk and then invariably think, “This miscreant needs to read If Everybody Did.”

2.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs – Another book from the early 60s (1961 to be exact) where writer and activist Jacobs turns her fire on modernist city planning and architecture that turned its back on what made cities great. This is a terrific book for preservationists and those who love urban communities.  One of my great joys in life was when our son Andrew wrote his college essay on how Jane Jacobs changed his life.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark3.  All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – This classic 1946 novel about corrupt Southern populist Willie Stark is as fresh today as when Warren first put pen to paper. I re-read this about once a decade and am reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It was also turned into a great movie, starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark.  When told there is no political dirt on an opponent, Stark replies with the classic line, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud.  There’s always something.” Read Nixonland or Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein and you’ll see what Warren means.  Heck – and you just got two more great recommendations wrapped up in one selection!

4.  How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell – You just knew there would be a baseball book. The Bos’ first book of baseball essays, published in 1982, is still his best.  How can you not love a book where the first chapter is entitled, This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.

5.  Truman by David McCullough – David McCullough has many excellent histories and biographies, and I have read them all.  His John Adams ranks right up there, but I still give the edge to McCullough’s 1992 biography of a president who – until this massive work came out – was seen as an accident between the two titans of FDR and Dwight Eisenhower. That historians no longer view Truman in this light is due to McCullough’s scholarship and storytelling abilities.

6.  Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle – This is the one book that is on Candice’s list and mine.  Perhaps when you read the subtitle – The Story of a Marriage – you’ll understand why.  The jacket blurb describes it well:  “The story of a marriage of true minds and spirits–a brilliant writer’s tribute to lasting love.”  While I don’t always hit the mark personally, I am always blessed when I read L’Engle’s short but lovely book. L’Engle’s book Glimpses of Grace is also a favorite.  As one reviewer says, “she affirms the virtues of imagination, intuition, and intelligence.” No small feat these days.

7.  The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor – The eccentric yet incredibly talented Southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote best in the short story format. O’Connor’s stories are spiritual in a very unique way, and this work captures them all.  I’ll still pull it down on occasion and read A Good Man is Hard to Find or some other wonderful tale.  For those who want to delve deeper, check out The Habit of Being, a collection of O’Connor’s letters, and the hilarious Living With a Peacock from the 1961 Holiday magazine.  This latter article is the only one I’ll quote from extensively, because it ends on such an exquisite line:

Some people are genuinely affected by the sight of a peacock, even with his tail lowered, but do not care to admit it; others appear to be incensed by it. Perhaps they have the suspicion that the bird has formed some unfavorable opinion of them. The peacock himself is a careful and dignified investigator. Visitors to our place, instead of being barked at by dogs rushing from under the porch, are squalled at by peacocks whose blue necks and crested heads pop up from behind tufts of grass, peer out of bushes and crane downward from the roof of the house, where the bird has flown, perhaps for the view. One of mine stepped from under the shrubbery one day and came forward to inspect a carful of people who had driven up to buy a calf. An old man and five or six white-haired, barefooted children were piling out the back of the automobile as the bird approached. Catching sight of him, the children stopped in their tracks and stared, plainly hacked to find this superior figure blocking their path. There was silence as the bird re­garded them, his head drawn back at its most majestic angle, his folded train glittering behind him in the sunlight.

“Whut is thet thang?” one of the small boys asked finally in a sullen voice.

The old man had got out of the car and was gazing at the peacock with an astounded look of recognition. “I ain’t seen one of them since my grand­daddy’s day,” he said, respectfully re­moving his hat. “Folks used to have ‘em, but they don’t no more.”

“Whut is it?” the child asked again in the same tone he had used before.

“Churren,” the old man said, “that’s the king of the birds!”

The children received this informa­tion in silence. After a minute they climbed back into the car and con­tinued from there to stare at the pea­cock, their expressions annoyed, as if they disliked catching the old man in the truth.

8.  Good to Great by James C. Collins – I usually have a management handbook somewhere in my reading pile, but the one I return to year after year is Jim Collins’ 2001 classic Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. When you hear me talk about confronting the brutal facts or the flywheel effect, you’ll know I’m quoting Collins.

9. The Edmund Morris trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt – These are three books, but since it is my blog post I’m counting them as one.  This massive work, beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, followed by Theodore Rex, and ending with Colonel Roosevelt is a biographical tour de force. The middle volume, when Roosevelt sat astride the world as president, is probably my favorite, but that is only at the margins.  You should read them all.

10.  Lincoln’s Greatest Speech by Ronald C. White, Jr. – I’m going to end with my own Civil War trilogy, beginning with a little known book on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  This is a book that historian David Herbert Donald has called both “learned and accessible,” and I agree.

11.  Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills – This winner of the Pulitzer Prize is better known that White’s book, and the speech it covers is more famous.  This is such a  great book that speaks to the power of words.  Highly recommended.

12.  Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson – Still the best single volume history of the Civil War, now more than 25 years after it was published, Battle Cry of Freedom is still incredibly popular.  A recent interview with the author explains why:

The book’s popularity is not hard to explain. McPherson miraculously manages between to recount the origins of the war and its progress in virtually every theater of fighting through its entire four years, explain the political maelstrom that engulfed both the North and South, touch on heartbreaking stories of individual warriors, follow the machinations of government officials, and describe the military, cultural, and social consequences of the greatest cataclysm in American history, all while carrying the reader along within a brisk and vivid narrative.

Last Best League13.  SUMMER READING LIST BONUS:  The Last Best League by Jim Collins – No, this is not the same Jim Collins of Good to Great.  This Collins is the former editor of Yankee magazine.  His Last Best League is a wonderful, loving tribute to the Cape Cod Baseball League – with its small towns and wooden bats – and the book is a delight to read on a summer night…or as you prepare for the playoffs.  I recommend reading this book and watching the movie Bull Durham (Best baseball movie ever. Period.) during the same month.  You’ll never want to talk about football again.

So there you have it.  A (rather) quick grab-bag of reads.  I hope you find something to enjoy.

More to come…


St. Nicholas Day 2009: We Are Always Every Age We’ve Ever Been

Last year’s post about St. Nicholas Day generated a number of favorable comments from friends and family.  Several friends especially remembered the Madeleine L’Engle comment that we are always every age we’ve ever been.

So on St. Nicholas Day 2009, when Andrew got a new Calatrava-inspired tie from the Milwaukee Museum of Art and Claire received a beautiful scarf in her favorite color of purple, I will link back to that original post for those who missed the first time or for those who’d like to see it again.

Keep up those childhood memories.

More to come…


St. Nicholas Day and a Love of Childhood

I awoke early this morning and came downstairs while everyone is still asleep.  It is  St. Nicholas Day, and I had to smile at the sight of two rather large teenage shoes – one from each child – sitting expectantly on the landing.  The memories came rushing back.

St. Nicholas Rescues the SeafarersWe’re not German and I didn’t grow up celebrating St. Nicholas Day, but Candice loves a good holiday – especially one associated with a saint that could help counter-balance the commercialization of Christmas.  So soon after the twins arrived we decided we’d celebrate St. Nicholas Day and it became a tradition. 

The gifts are similar year to year.  Candice always finds the gold coin chocolates.  The gifts are modest.  This year they include something for Claire’s hair and a “Bush countdown calendar” for our progressive teenage son.  With St. Nicholas Day, the twins birthday, and Christmas all coming within a three week period, we have to be prudent on the gift buying front.

That’s what I like most about our St. Nicholas Day celebrations:  the simple nature of the children’s expectations and the gratitude for small things.  Each year there’s a wonder as to what St. Nicholas will bring.  There’s a thankfulness for tradition – that we simply remembered to celebrate. 

But of course Andrew and Claire aren’t children anymore.  Last night at a holiday party, someone commented on the picture of the two of them in our recent A Year in Photos post.  They look like young adults, and – in fact – that’s what they are.  They live very busy lives and could just as easily have skipped right over St. Nicholas Day.

But the conversation before we all fell into bed last evening was about the safety of having St. Nicholas putting out chocolate while Lilly roamed the house during the night.  How very far we’ve come, yet how near and dear they remain.  Perhaps Madeleine L’Engle – the author of Andrew’s favorite book A Wrinkle in Time – was right.  Perhaps we are always every age we’ve ever been.  So when we’re 53 years old, we’re still 4 and we’re still 12 and we still love a childhood tradition.

More to come…