(Most Of) What I Read in 2019

(“Most” because I forgot to keep track, so this just has the stuff I remembered to put on Goodreads. )

Politics and Civic Interest
The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Place in the World, Derek Chollet
The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the 21st Century, Angela Stent
Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, Alyssa Ayres
The Conservative Heart, Arthur C. Brooks
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff have Defined Every Presidency, Chris Whipple
Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, Jeff Speck
Romance of the Rails,  Randall O’Toole
I Must Speak Out: The Best of The Voluntaryist, 1982-1999, ed. Carl Watner
Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter
Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Power, Perversions, and  Potential of Heredity, Carl Zimmer
Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and  Utopia, Michael Shermer
The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe,  Steven Novella et al
The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us, Lucy Jones
A Forest in the Clouds, John Fowler
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Stephen Brusatte
What Einstein Told His Cook, Robert Wolke
The Cancer Chronicles, George Johnson
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Revelli
The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The Ice at the End of the World, John Gertner
Wonders of the Solar System, Brian Cox

The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers,. ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean
America’s Forgotten Architecture, the National Trust
Yesterday: Memories of Selma and her People, C.C. Grayson
The Other Side of Selma, R.B. “Dickie” Williams (Re-read — see also 2010 review)
Johnny Reb’s War: Battlefield and Home Front, David Williams
Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Alaska, Mark Adams
Images of America: The USS Alabama,  Kent Whitaker
Of Goats and Governors: Alabama Politics , Steve Flowers
The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain, Ian Mortimer
American Gun: A History of the US In Ten Firearms, Chris Kyle
To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, Arthur Herman
An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, Nick Lane
Dealers of Lightning: XEROX, PARC, and the Dawn of the Computer Age,  Mark Hiltzik
American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations, Thomas Reppetto
The First Family, Mike Dash
The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling
Code Girls: The American Codebreakers Who Helped Win WW2, Liza Mundy
Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings, Lars Brownworth
American Rifle, Alexander Rose
Hamburg: A Place Remembered
The Heritage of Perry County, Alabama
My Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11,Garrett Graff

Technology and Society
 In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives, Steven Levy
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us, Seth Stephens-Davodwitz
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
How the Internet Happened, from Netscape to the iPhone, Brian McCullough
Alone Together ,Sherry Turkle
India Connected, Rav Agrawal
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  Jaron Lanier
More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Ramez Naam

Religion and Philosophy
Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton
Open Life: The Philosophy of Open Source, Hendrik Ingo
The Way of Men, Jack Donovan
The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today, Sam Guzman
My Plain Life: Walking my Belief, Scott Savage
The Lost Gospel of Mary,   Frederica Mathews-Greene

Classics and Literary
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The Whale, or, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
The Conquest of Gaul,  Julius Caesar
Love Among the Ruins,  Walker Percy
The Moviegoer,  Walker Percy
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann Wyss
Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The Grapes of Wrath,  John Steinbeck
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Vicar of Wakefield,  Oliver Goldsmith
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Book One, Edward Gibbon
The Histories, Herodotus
The Education of Henry Adams, Adams
The Federalist Papers,  various
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  Victor Hugo
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy


Societyand Culture
Them: Why We Hate Each Other (and How to Heal),  Ben Sasse
Defending Boyhood, Anthony Esolen
From Here to Eternity: In Search of the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty
Gun Guys: A Road Trip, Dan Baum
Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger

Arts and Entertainment
Prepare to Meet Thy Doom: And Other Gaming Stories, David Kushner
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, Brett Martin

Health and Wellness
The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes
How to Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price
Faith Healers, James Randi
Drop Dead Healthy, A J Jacobs
The Courage to Start, John Bingham
Year of No Sugar, Eve Schaub

Sports and Outdoors
Giant Whitetails: A Lifetime of Lessons, Mark Drury
Whitetail Savvy: New Research and Observations about America’s Biggest Game Animal,  Leonard Lee Rue III

Skills and Readiness
How to Be Your own Bodyguard, Nick Hughes
Surviving Aggressive People, Shawn T Smith
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why,  Amanda Ripley

Odd-Egg Editor, Kathryn Tucker Windham
Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,  Kevin Mitnick
Americanized:  Rebel without a Green Card, Sara Saedi
Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, Doug Gresham
Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee, Wayne Flynt
Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life,   Robert Lacey

Mysteries and Thrillers
The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall, Chris Hall
The Great Bicycle Race Mystery, Gertrude Chandler Warner
Bicycle Mystery, GCW
Metropolis,  Phillip Karr
Needful Things, Stephen King
Hallowe’en Party, Agatha Christie

General Fiction
Becoming Mrs Lewis, Patti Callahan
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
IRL, Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow
Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, George O’Connor
It’s Christmas!, Kathryn Windham Tucker

Science Fiction
Lock In,  John Scalzi
Head On, John Scalzi
Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, James Lovegrove
One Word Kill, Mark Lawrence
Limited Wish, Mark Lawrence
Change Agent, Daniel Suarez
Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan
Kill Decision, Daniel Suarez
Freedom, Daniel Suarez
The Android’s  Dream, John Scalzi

Star Trek and Star Wars
ST: Elusive Salvation, Dayton Ward
ST Enterprise: Tower of Babel, Christopher L Bennett
SW: Queen’s Shadow, E.K. Johnston
ST: Constellations, Marco Palmieri
ST: The Sky’s the Limit, ed. Marco Palmieri
ST: Spock vs Q, Cecelia Fannon
ST:  Live by the Code, Christopher L Bennett

Historical Fiction
Alice and the Assassin, R.J. Koreto
The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
War of the Wolf, Bernard Cornwell
Scarlet, Stephen Lawhead
The Maharajah’s General, Paul Fraser Collard
The Devil’s Assassin,  Paul Fraser Collard
The Lone Warrior, Paul Frasier Collard

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“The Night Before Christmas: The Musical”

A few weeks ago I shared my admiration of Alma Deutscher, a German-English musical prodigy who’s been writing operas since she was  in elementary school.  I recently encountered this video of her singing with her little sister, ‘reciting’ the classic poem to music of her own creation.

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Some voices from 9/11

Below follow some of the more poignant quotes from The Only Plane in the Sky.


Meanwhile, hundreds of feet below the impact zone, people were still going about their day. The World Trade Center complex was so massive that those in the underground shopping concourses didn’t feel the plane hit and did not realize something terrible had transpired until they saw others fleeing.


One of the firemen from Rescue 1 looked up and said, “We may not live through today.” We looked at him, and we looked at each other, and we said, “You’re right.” We took the time to shake each other’s hands and wish each other good luck and “Hope I’ll see you later,” which is especially poignant for me because we all had that acknowledgment that this might be our last day on earth and we went to work anyway.

At the Pentagon:
John Yates: It was pure black. You were in a black room, you didn’t know where you are. What’s the first thing you do? You put your hands out to try to find where you are. Everything I touched burned me.

Last Words:
Mostly, I just wanted to say I love you and I’m going to miss you. I don’t know if I’m going to get the chance to tell you that again.

Rick Rescorla, in a phone call to his wife, Susan: I don’t want you to cry. I have to evacuate my people now. If something happens to me, I want you to know that you made my life.

Constance Labetti, accountant, Aon Corporation, South Tower, 99th floor: I would start to cry, and I’d start to tremble, and I heard my father’s voice. My father had been dead since 1985—and I heard his voice, clear as day, telling me that I was not going to die in this building. I straightened up and kept walking down the steps.

(My favorite part of this story — after Labetti escaped, the people she was with hugged and thanked her. She’d been saying the words she ‘heard’ from her late father and uncle, and inspired them to keep moving.)

Andrew Kirtzman: It was pretty weird that here was the mayor and the entire leadership of the city, and they were as helpless as anyone walking down the street. As a citizen, it was pretty frightening that no one was in charge—or the person who is supposed to be in charge had no way of operating.

Rep. Porter Goss: There wasn’t any plan. You’ve now taken 535 of the most important people in the country and put them out on the lawn.

Pacing President
“Dave Wilkinson: He fought with us tooth and nail all day to go back to Washington. We basically refused to take him back. The way we look at it is that by federal law, the Secret Service has to protect the president. The wishes of that person that day are secondary to what the law expects of us. Theoretically, it’s not his call. It’s our call.”

United We Stand
At 1:00 the phone started ringing, people who want to come and help. I put the names of all these people in an Excel sheet and what it is that they wanted to do. They wanted to help dig out the people at the Pentagon. They wanted to secure the area themselves. They wanted to enlist to go and fight. I had a man who called and he said, “I am 80 years old. I still fit in my pilot uniform from World War II. I can still see. I can still hear. I have kept up with my training as a pilot. Tell whoever you can tell that I’m ready to report for duty.” That broke my heart, this 80-year-old man saying that.

I felt so proud that my community, the Hispanic community, were calling. Suddenly the phones were ringing and saying, “This is the country that we chose to come to. Nobody will destroy our country.” They would say, “I’m not legal in the United States. Do you think they will accept me to do volunteer work?”

John Feehery: I think it was [Rep.] Jennifer Blackburn Dunn who started breaking out in “God Bless America.”
Sen. Tom Daschle: It didn’t take long before everybody began singing along. It was probably the most beautiful part of the entire experience, totally unplanned, totally spontaneous. But probably more powerful than whatever the Speaker and I said. Rep. Dennis Hastert: I remember the chills going down my spine. I remember thinking, This country will be okay. We’ll stand shoulder to shoulder.

He said, “I don’t know what the plan is, but I’m going to be the best husband, father, dad, son that I can be. That’s how I’m going to live my life.”

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The Only Plane in the Sky

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11
© 2019 Garrett Graff
512 pages



If you ever only read one book about 9/11, make it The Only Plane in the Sky.   I have rarely been as absorbed by a book as this one.     It’s a book less masterfully written than edited, for the content here is not the author’s narrative, but rather the impressions, thoughts, and recollections of a staggering variety of Americans who lived through this day.   Through them, we  relieve the sleepy tedium of the day before, the brilliant clear morning that preceded the chaos, the first tremors of confusion,  and then we are thrown headlong into the abyss as everything goes to hell —  and then, finding other survivors, try to find our way out as  citizens and professionals alike turn into heroes.   We are in New York,  D.C,  Pennsylvania,  in orbit, at sea, in places very close and far removed.

As I read this, I felt a renewed sense of thankfulness that I was more sheltered from the day’s events as a student than I would be were they happen today.  We heard the announcement in school, we saw the towers fall on television —  and we sat with the cold dread, the anger, the sadness — but were not constantly exposed to the torrent of information and misinformation circulating throughout the day.   By the time we arrived home,   the picture of what had happened was clearer. But Only Plane superbly demonstrates how people close to the action were confronted with both the immediate horrors around them, and the fear of horrors to come.  When would the attacks end? Who was next?     Reading this, I was profoundly grateful, too, to encounter stories I’d never considered before:  I knew nothing of the Marriot Hotel, destroyed by the debris of the falling towers,   and I was surprised to learn that that Pentagon survived as well as it did because the doomed American-77 flight struck a recently reinforced wedge of the building. Had it hit somewhere else, one of the interviewees commented, the jet could have plowed a path clear through the building.

The stories of interest here are too many to number — seeing how clerks and functionaries in the government rallied to the challenge,   or  seeing the day through the eyes of astronauts or submarine crews who only learned of it 12 hours after the fact  — and they run the gamut of human emotions. I read this often with tears in my eyes, either in appreciation for the amazing nobility of people, or for sadness at loss.      It was fascinating, too, to see so many political figures who would be felled by scandals  and the like in the years to come, here performing admirably.    Even higher-ups whose actions in office I strongly despise here  cut a good figure — Cheney,   calmly managing the government’s backup plans while Bush,  eager to get back to D.C. but held back by the secret service, paces aboard a circling plane — Air Force One, the only plane in the sky.

I can only repeat itself: if you only read one 9/11 book, read this one.  It’s a masterpiece of remembrance.

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The Lost Gospel of Mary

The Lost Gospel of Mary:  The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts
© 2012 Frederica Mathewes-Green
178 pages



We are presently in the season of Advent,  an ideal time to take a look at a question of mine: how do the  Orthodox approach Mary?  I know she’s held in some regard in the Orthodox traditions, because I’ve heard an exquisitely beautiful canon devoted to her.  Frederica Mathews-Greene has been my guide to the Orthodox  before,  so I began this with great interest and was not disappointed. It is not a full book on Mary; instead,  it introduces three ‘texts’ — a Gospel of Mary, a 3rd century prayer, and a similarly ancient hymn —  that indicate that Marian devotion is not a not western Catholic novelty, but  rather part of the early Christian experience which later became exaggerated or ignored altogether by later  traditions.  Mathewes-Green  joins these materials together with historical and theological commentary,  after a clarifying introduction which reveals this Gospel was not “lost”, but simply unknown to the western church.

The Gospel of Mary has the most substance, so I’ll  render a quick precis:  Mary is born after her aging parents, remorseful about their lack of progeny, pledge any child born to God’s service.   Mary is born and enters the service of the Temple at age three,  working there until she nears puberty at which point the priests are commanded by God to summon the area’s widowers to the temple.  Joseph is among that number, and is barked by a dove to be her husband.  Although he has second thoughts when she confesses that’s she’s pregnant, a dream of God assures him that all is well, and he stands by her when the community  tries them for sin.  They survive the trial,  and enroute to Bethlehem for the tax business,  Mary gives birth in a cave.  Jesus is then hidden in an ox manger from  King Herod, who was warned that the king of the Jews had just been born. His cousin John the Baptist is hidden in a mountain, while John’s father is murdered for refusing to say anything.

There are several parallels in the Gospel of Mary to other stories  Christians would be familiar with; a midwife not believing Mary’s virginity until she’d personally tested  it with her hands recalls  Thomas’ doubt in the Resurrection stories, and  Frederica points out that a shrouded baby in a cave  carries far more meaning when the reader looks ahead to see that same body,  again shrouded, again in a cave some thirty-three years later.  As much as I value learning how old Mary’s place among Christian devotion is — regarding her with protective affection, then as an elder sister  — I also enjoyed Mathews-Green’s commentary in general.

I was thinking of accompanying this with Brad Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, but  at the moment I’m more focused on Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps next year..










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My Disillusionment in Russia

My Disillusionment in Russia
© 1923 Emma Goldman
271 pages


“Is there any change in the world? Or is it all an eternal recurrence of man’s inhumanity to man?”    – Emma Goldman, 1921

In 1919, then-notorious anarchist Emma Goldman was exiled to still-revolutionary Russia, along with several other anarchists who had endorsed targeted assassins of those deemed political enemies  — a tactic they called “Propaganda of the Deed”,  but which today we’d understand more concisely as terrorism.   Goldman later realized that such violence generally backfired (see Red Emma Speaks), but in 1919,   she looked to the promise of revolution.    As the title indicates, however, she found in Russia not a hopeful future but a thing whose new terrors were rivaled only by the return of familiar elements from the Tsars.

My Disillusionment in Russia records her first year or so in Russia,  traveling between different cities and meeting luminaries of the age – including Peter Kropotkin,   Bertrand Russell, and Lenin.   Having spent time in Russia as a girl – emigrating to America when she was thirteen – she still retained a workable use of the language, and was able to speak with men and women at all strata of society.   Goldman eagerly sought out American emigres who had ventured to Russia to fight for their dream of the future, but she found many of them either crushed and disappointed, or – more foreboding – in prison.    At every turn she encountered starving wretches much abused by the State, while a new aristocracy had ensconced itself. Those with “pull”  did well for themselves – -getting choice appointments, free meal tickets without work,  etc.   Those without pull, or those who were ideological enemies of the State, could expect starvation, prison, exile,  or execution.  Some horrors came from intent, others from sheer incompetence: even a couple of years into the experiment, bureaucracy had grown so rapidly that getting anything done was virtually impossible.

At first, as Goldman talked to people and took in the sights before her, she excused it as being a consequence of the western blockade, or the war, or perhaps even the violent birth inevitable in a revolution.  Even seven months into her stay she was still holding on to some meager way to justify what was happening. By the time a year had  passed, however, and she’d seen the vigorous persecution of anarchists and the absolute hostility towards actual democracy, let alone free speech – Goldman could no longer view the Bolsheviks as anything other than the same enemy she’d railed against in America.   Most damning was their conviction that the ends justified all means.   In the end, she could only wonder:  is there anything to history, or is it merely a continual loop of man’s inhumanity to man?

Goldman makes for an especially fascinating critic of the Soviet state because she shares much of their contempt for say, religion and capitalism, while at the same time holding the State itself in condemnation.  For the future reader,  it’s astonishing to see that so many of the inevitable failures of the  soviet system ere present from the start: their inability to effectively manage an economy without market price, the stagnation owing from so little incentive to work (aside from the minimum as not to get shot),  the mere shifting of privilege from those with royal sanction to those with ideological sanction, etc.   The horrors, too – the gulags, the executions – were present from the beginning,  vouched for here Goldman just as they were by Solzhenitsyn’s research a few decades later, and documented in The Gulag Archipelago.

Personally, I’d love to one day write a comparative paper between Goldman and Ayn Rand, two anarchists with Russian pasts and with very different appreciations for the role of markets and property – -yet a similar exulting of the individual.



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Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage
© 1992 William Rathje and Cullen Murphy
250 pages


Given that historians often use the contents of middens to glean information about societies which have long faded away, it’s only fair to see what our present landfills (tomorrow’s middens) have to say about us. Largely, they reveal how little we actually know. “The Garbage Project” both intercepted garbage on its way to transfer stations from various pots in the country, and literally conducted excavations in landfills, and it found much to contradict common knowledge. Biodegradables, for instance, don’t. They don’t degrade. This was initially thought to be because modern dumps are sealed against moisture, but there are examples of marginal degradation well before landfill cells became the norm. Also, many of the favored whipping boys for trash — plastic and diapers — don’t take up nearly the amount of space as people think. The lions of trash, going by the stuff that’s actually in the ground, is paper and construction materials. Throughout the book, there’s hints that studying garbage can tell us the truth about people who lie either to themselves or to surveyors: for instance, one Hispanic neighborhood reported that they almost never used prepared baby food, buuuuuuut the contents of their trash bins determined that was a lie. Amusingly, people across the board underestimate how much unhealthy food they eat, and over-report how much healthy food they eat. The book closes with “10 commandments”, urging people to concentrate on the real offenders (paper and construction materials), realize that there’s no approach to garbage that’s a real solution, that instead we need to use landfills, incineration, recycling, and source reduction in concert, etc. The commandments all very reasonable, sober, and not exciting in the least. They don’t even start with a terribly dramatic opener, like “I AM THE LORD THY GOD, WHO BROUGHT THEE OUT OF EGYPT…”

Bottom line: this informative, sometimes amusing, but often dry.

Waste and Want, Susan Strasser
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Trash.  I’ve read this one, but can’t seem to find the review. Curious!
Picking Up:  On the Streets and in the Trucks with the Sanitation Department of New York City
Garbage Land: On the Secret  Trail of Garbage
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter

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