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.

Top Ten of the Decade: Movies

In alphabetical order:

  • Best In Show:  Hands down the funniest movie of the decade, by the folks that brought you Spinal Tap.  Seriously, anyone who has ever raised a colicky baby cannot have at least pissed their pants watching the yuppie couple try to locate and replace the bee toy for their substitute baby.  And Fred Willard is in rare form as the stupid color guy, awesome enough to have been imitated several times since.
  • Casino Royale:  Daniel Craig is Bond.  The tension between Craig and Judy Dench is worth the price of admission alone.  But ultimately, it’s the respect shown to Fleming’s original work, albeit updated for the 00’s rather than the 50’s, is really what makes this a great film.
  • Downfall: I remember the horror when this movie was about to come out: Hitler, as a human?  How awful!  Humbug.  It’s Hitler as the pathetic, reckless, shell of a man in his last days holed up in his bunker, from the point of view of a young secretary.  This is the best portrayal of the monster I have seen in film and after reading Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, quite accurate and well done.  Not to be missed.
  • The Incredibles: I put up two Pixar movies, they were that good.  This one is great for the exasperation shown to those who would bring down those whose gifts will benefit us all.  It is a libertarian movie, showing the effects of a fear of excess success.  And best of all, it is chock full of great lines and stylish animation.  [“No kepps!”  “I’m the greatest good you’re ever gonna get!”]
  • Kill Bill vol. 1: A total guilty pleasure.  Sorry, but the extended scene in the teahouse with the Crazy 88’s has to rank as amongst the most singularly entertaining, ever.  And that jar of Vaseline!
  • Michael Clayton: A powerful movie about the moral compromises we make when we’re in over our heads.  Clooney as the title character is extremely likable and sympathetic, and I really enjoyed the ending and the way the story unwound.  Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, the general counsel of the baddies, is also in over her head.  She’s the opposite: school smart, kiss-ass, very unlikable, she falls victim to her moral failures in the end.  And Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens, a man who loses it and ceases his compromises, nearly steals the show.  Possibly my favorite.
  • Minority Report:  This one was pure excellence all around, asking some very disturbing questions about the nature of justice, all while presenting a very disturbing vision of the future without sinking into a dystopia.  How insane would you go having your retinas scanned dozens of times a day for personalized marketing?  And, as much as I hate to admit it, Cruise was very very good in this.  [And who could resist Max von Sydow?]
  • There Will Be Blood: Daniel Day Lewis gives a chilling portrayal of a man who is out to make a buck doing what he does best, and is driven to inhuman acts in the process of becoming rich.  The moral foundations of our nation – religion and business – are sickeningly amoral.  You will want to wash your hands after this movie, but no matter.  It is intense and just good cinema.
  • V for Vendetta: The slew of movies based on graphic novels in this decade provided great entertainment.  I think this one is the best of the bunch, but I am by no means backed up by the critics, who largely panned it.  Fuck them.  This is a straightforward vision of a fascist society in the making, in its execution, and its destruction.  The incredibly talented Hugo Weaving has to give a performance of feeling behind a mask that betrays none, and he is terrific.  Natalie Portman proves herself worthy of a good script and does the shaved head thing with dignity and righteous anger.  And John Hurt plays the mirror image of his Winston Smith character in 1984 as the fascist dictator, mostly seen on a giant screen yelling at his subordinates.
  • WALL-E: This is a cartoon.  I had to keep reminding myself of this as I watched likely the most incredible animation ever depicted on the big screen.  O, and this was accomplished with a mostly mute robot that used mechanical pieces to convey emotional signals.  I guess this too is another libertarian movie in a way, as it warns about the consequences of giving into our lazy instincts and letting other people clean up our messes.