Top Ten of the Decade: Books

Well, I just had to turn it up to 11, as Nigel Tufnel would say.  So I call this a Top Ten, but there are 11 books on the list.  Sorry.

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, Michael Chabon.  I’m sure this is on the list of many people’s Top Ten.  Beautifully written with a terrific plot and chock full of surprises, this is the book that made Chabon.  The team of the perennially-driven survivor Kavalier and his somber cousin Klay – who is living a closeted life – experience rags to riches to…well, read the book.  By the time you end up in Antartica, you are almost unsurprised.  If I wanted to expand this list to a Top 25, I would have also included The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Gentlemen of the Road.
  • Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein.  There is so much to Spinoza that fascinates me.  His philosophy has made it possible for religion to thrive in America.  That’s right.  This soul that said such horrible things that he was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community has made it possible for his Jewish brothers to thrive in the most powerful, influential, and free country in the world.  Goldstein lays this out with a beautiful story of not only Spinoza’s life and journey, but her own.  Did you know that Spinoza made a living as a lens grinder [the toxic effects of which would kill him at an early age], and that his work there was known to the greatest pre-Newton mathematician of Europe, Christiaan Huygens?  Wow, just…wow.
  • Charlie Wilson’s War, George Crile.  How was the Cold War won?  Well, we forced the Soviets to kill their economy in an arms race.  But really, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Afghanistan, and the story behind the covert ops that pushed the Soviets out is told by Crile in a cool, collected way, relying on direct interviews with the participants.  The film version, while entertaining, doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the operation, the innumerable roadblocks, and the changing cast as the years went on.  A cautionary tale of history for everybody.
  • Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace.  Wallace is famous for Infinite Jest, but I think his non-fiction is really what sets him apart as the writer of our generation.  This is his 2nd collection, and it is a beaut.  Some essays are simply subjects he’s thought about, some are based on actual reporting.  “Authority and American Usage” is of the former type, and cuts to the heart of how to walk the tightrope between prescriptive and descriptive usage of an evolving language – the debate resembles the divide between liberals and conservatives.  “Big Red Son” takes you to the AVN Awards in Vegas [o my], and “Host” is an attempt at an observational view of right-wing talk radio.  In “Host”, he completely strips the medium of any pretension, and literally predicts the economic crisis of 2008.  If I had to pick a best book of the decade, this would be it.
  • Gaming the Vote, William Poundstone.  Possibly one of the most frustrating aspects of life today is to see a solution to a problem stated so clearly, and yet know that it has no chance of being implemented.  Such is the case of how we count votes in the US.  There are ways to do it so that crises that occurred in 2000 just never happen, and Poundstone clearly lays out the work in this field.  Some interesting math comes into play, but it is never so advanced that it is unreachable for someone of average intelligence to grasp.  The problem, of course, is the same problem as that which befell us when Carter tried to move us to the metric system in the 1970’s: we are too stupid to make such a change.  And so we are hopelessly stuck with the same stupid system, and we will have yet another disaster like in 2000.  And I’ll bet this is why the country is so polarized.
  • The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell.  I struggled with this one.  Yes, it’s in my Top Ten, but I would never tell anyone to go read this.  It’s sick, demented, perverted, the product of someone who needs some therapy.  Coprophagy: will I ever need to see this word again in a book?  I bloody well hope not.  Yet, this fictional memoir of a Nazi in the Eastern Front is incredibly accurate and thought-provoking as well as horrifying.  And a real page-turner: I finished this > 1000-page time in about 2 weeks.  I do not like his preference for Greek mythological ethos, which leaves one scratching the head [why is intent not important in crime?], but his portrayal of the Eastern Front from the Nazi perspective is terrific and a real eye-opener.  I understand the horrid reviews [mixed in with terrific reviews], but for better or worse, I have to say that I am glad to have read the book and it has made a mark on me.
  • Hitler vols. 1 and 2, Ian Kershaw.  No, Mao wasn’t the cruelest person of the Century.  Not Stalin.  Hitler.  Even I could not believe this – and I am Jewish and lost relatives in the Shoah – but there you have it.  Only Hitler started a World War based on racial superiority that killed upwards of 50 million souls.  Mao and Stalin were mainly cruel to their own.  Hitler was cruel to everybody: Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Westerners, and yes, Germans.  He was a dude with amazing power, gifts of rhetoric that brought him that power, and a serious gambling sickness.  Kershaw spares nothing in this 2000-page bio.  Hitler garnered amazing power through the apathy and idiocy of the western states that he took over through 1940.  Then, it all slipped away through his gamble into Russia.  Kershaw, through the gift of Goebbel’s diaries, documents the behaviors that led to the destruction of Europe and all the souls within it, as well as the near-obliteration of the Jewish people there.  Reading this book changed me forever.
  • Mao, Jung Chang & John Halliday.  An 864-page indictment of what I thought – at least for a while after reading this – was the worst, most cruel human being of the 20th Century.  A lot of leftish people think this book is way too harsh, but the facts speak for themselves.  Mao was not really a Communist: he was an opportunist.  His only true purpose was the increase of his own power, no matter what.  Look at the 5 things you will learn about Mao in the Amazon link.  They are horrifying.  The famine of 1958-61 was caused by nothing more than Mao’s need to export wheat to Russia for weapons and, more importantly, face.  38 million people died in particularly gruesome ways as a result.  I finally understood what The Cultural Revolution was about – it’s the same as any threatened dictatorship.  And let’s not forget the Korean War.  Mao ruled and terrorized a nation of an almost limitless supply of human meat, and he used that to gain a most terrifying power.
  • Nixonland, Rick Perlstein.  This is not a biography of Nixon.  Rather, this is the witness to a birth of a movement that elected Nixon and continues to polarize the country to this day.  Nixonland begins not in 1968, with Nixon’s election, but in 1965, with the Watts riots.  The polarization of the country comes between those who desire change from the injustice suffered by disadvantaged minorities, and those who demanded the safety of the status quo, no matter what it did the those minorities.  The racial polarization between 1965 and 1968 spawned Nixon and his henchmen, and we have never really been relieved of this polarization.  Perlstein has penned a terrific narrative which illustrates this with incredible clarity.
  • Now I Can Die In Peace, Bill Simmons.  The 2004 Red Sox have spawned many books, from the diary format of Faithful to Dan Shaughnessy’s putrid marketing opportunity for his Curse.  But nothing stands out like Bill Simmons’ collection of essays leading up to the 2004 Goeterdaemmerung.  Simmons has the unique ability to use movies, TV,…any pop culture to make his point.  And he just nails it with “Zihuatanejo”, that magical place from “The Shawshank Redemption” which is where we Red Sox fans finally got to when out beloved team knocked off the Yankees in the most sick, insane way possible, and then swept the World Series from a 105-win team as easy as a sneeze.  I must have read this, like, 12 times.
  • A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power.  Why are we so much better at building monuments to slaughter than actually preventing it in the first place?  Samantha Power lays it out, bare, and takes no prisoners.  There continues to be evil, real evil, in the world, and it is in our interest to stop it.  Vietnam, Mogadishu, and Haiti have scared us into not acting.  So much downside and almost no upside, we are told.  So, time after time, we have stood there, limp dicks in our hands, while hundreds of thousands are killed in horrific ways.  This book will anger you, as well as make you understand why the world continues to watch events in Darfur and just sigh.