Updated as of January 9, 2021, with this preface:
During the pandemic year, I read almost 80 books. It has been a pivotal year of The Great Pause. Here are five books I think are worth reading in 2021.
How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
The author does not argue to drop out or away from technology. On page 61, she writes a description of the impossibility of retreat, yet the imperative to try to carve out a mental retreat. She uses bird watching and a low-key app named Inaturalist, to help her identify what she is seeing. Given the quarantine during COVID-19 and the unknowns in Spring 2020, this book was a perfect teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down to stand apart, take the view of the outside. Take a critical break from the media cycles and narratives.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
I read a lot about Churchill and still learned a lot from this book. It is a saga of Chruchill, his family, and defiance during the Blitz. Larson moved to Manhattan and understood for the first time how 9/11 affected New Yorkers more profoundly than he had realized. He wondered about Londoners in WW II being bombed. He used diaries to tell the story of Churchill's first year as Prime Minister. Beaverbrook, Pamela Churchill, Churchill's daughter Mary and his Secretary John Colhill diaries imparted new interpretations. Goring is the Vile person who could be alive today. Goring loved medals, uniforms, putting on makeup and accumulated excesses including stolen items.
Before you Go A novel by Tommy Butler
Butler imagines a world where two godlike-people, Jollis and Merriam, create man and at the last moment Merriam puts in an "empty space" near man's heart so mankind can dream. It turns out man always wants more. If you don't have love/belief/whatever, you may commit suicide. We follow Elliot Chance who sees monsters as a boy, meets Sasha who rebels by putting coded messages in her ad copy, takes weekly walks wth Bannor who has been to the future and knows he will commit suicide. Elliot and Sasha share a long life together. It is a clever novel about needs and choices.
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
One of Dickens shorter novels of 370 pages. Sydney Carton is a dissipated English man who loves the woman as a French Man Chas. Darnay, who left France,his title and wealth to work diligently in London. The banker Mr Lorry from the Tellson's establishment is going to France for business but is pursued by a messenger. When the messenger asks for a response, Lorry says, tell her he is "Recalled to Life."" I don't want to give away the suspense but it takes place during the French Revolution when crowds take over the government buildings and use the guillotine. Powerful message, as relevant today as when written. Great characters, tension, superb writing and Dickens ties it all together at the end.
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, 388 pages
You cannot buy poisons like anthrax and pathogens in Siberia but when the earth defrosts, long standing arbitrary divisions emerge as a result of long-buried poisons. That metaphor is used to describe US laws created by whites, built for blacks. In fact, Nazi Germany emulated our laws accelerating caste to devise their restrictions. She writes about the 8 pillars of caste and explains why Trump reached out to the whites who don't want to be lower in the caste than they already are. Wilkerson provides thorough research for her conclusions beyond Black Lives Matters and what we can do about the situation.
Leaders are readers of books and have a high degree of curiosity. A board chairman recently asked what book I would recommend his management read. We both agreed we did not find any recent business books as interesting as a novel or non-fiction that could be relevant to today’s workforce. While I would list many books I had read this year, the following three books reveal true key learnings to be a success.
The thesis of the book is that libraries represent our communities with history reflecting our societies. (Librarians were women because they could be paid less than men, homeless read at a safe place, etc.) Books hold a special place in our hearts because they can open our minds, answer our questions, amuse us, and give us shared experiences. The book has lots of characters and women in this story at the LA public library.
Comfort me with Apples: The author wrote several books including Delicious! which was a novel that I enjoyed very much. I then read her book called Garlic and Sapphires which also was fun to read as she became the New York Times food critic. Then I read this book about her life after college. She is an excellent writer.
The book begins in 1978 when she is living in Berkeley and just received her first credit card to use for her new job as a restaurant critic for the New Westmagazine. She had been freelancing. Ruth lives a Bohemian style with her husband Doug with six other people. He’s an installation artist going to Omaha. She flies to Paris with the LA critic Colman, goes to Guy Savoy and other top restaurants, has an affair with Colman who knows everyone. Back at home in Berkeley at Channing Way, she senses Doug is having an affair and the discuss having children. Ruth finds another man named Michael and the story becomes quite interesting as she makes choices in her life. I liked the descriptions, the famous people like Danny Kaye who cooks for her, her time in Barcelona, and the surprise ending. I felt like I knew the author at the end of the book.
Women in Sunlight: I could not put this book down. This novel is about three women. Julie is 60 getting a divorce and has a daughter named Lindsey who is into drugs. Camille is almost 70 and is an artist who stifled her talent to focus on her husband Charles who is now dead. Susan is widowed and ran a real estate firm with her husband and has a beach house in North Carolina where the three women stay one summer. They decide to move to Tuscany for a year. They met when touring a 55+ community called Cornwallis Meadows (an ironic name). Instead of choosing that path, the three women apt to go into the sunlight rather than out to pasture.
In Tuscany, they each fulfill their dreams in their own ways. I don’t want to tell you the details because it’s so wonderful to discover them as you read the book. One of their neighbors in San Rocco is a woman named Kit who is 44 and Colin who is an anarchist. Kit narrates and is a poet and a friend of Margaret who reminded me of the character in the novel by the same author called Under the Tuscan Sun. The thesis in Women in Sunlight is that life is about friendship, including others and discovering your passions.
Updated on May 2019
The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels by Jon Meacham. The author lays out the reasons to hope rather than to fear. Over history, fear destabilizes and more emotional and maddening actions occur when people feel vulnerable. In 270 pages, he covers a lot of subjects with pithy examples. He begins with the discussion of the long shadow of Appomattox and shows the United States developing under Theodore Roosevelt and continuing up to the current day. His section on women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, and the civil rights action of the 1960s leads to his conclusion. He suggests the first duty of an American citizen is to know the Bill of Rights and work toward progress and redemption. The last chapter reinforces that if you keep history in mind, you will be confident about what to do in the present.
Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman. This psychological thriller opens with the wife Erin digging a hole to bury her husband Mark who has been shot. Erin is a documentary filmmaker and will interview 3 different people who shape her viewpoint and lead to the shocking ending of her short marriage. While on their honeymoon in Bora Bora, the couple discover a sack filled with money, diamonds, an iPhone and an USB seemingly related to a Russian oligarch who drowned in a private plane crash. Steadman was an actress in Downton Abbey and knows how to build tension in this novel. She makes you wonder which characters are trustworthy or not. She asks, “could the life of your dreams be the stuff of nightmares.” There are many unreliable characters and a twisting plot. The main thesis is that life sometimes is weirdly random. One of my favorite quotes is “Sometimes you’re the lamp post; sometimes you’re the dog.”
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks, published in 2017. Two weeks before his death in August 2015, Sacks outlined this book and asked three friends to arrange its publication. The author describes Darwin and the meaning of flowers, Freud as a neurologist, and the creative self as the major influences in his lifelong learning. Assuming various models and finding discoveries made centuries earlier helps to prove his thesis: society has to be ready for revolutionary ideas. He refers to Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind which sees imitation of skills and gestures as a crucial stage of evolution of culture and cognition. Creativity requires conscious and unconscious preparation. We all borrow – but we need to deeply assimilate knowledge with experiences, thoughts and feelings. It’s a treasure to read the parting gift of such a Renaissance man who was a neurologist, scientist, author and educator. His book, Awakenings, was adapted to an award-nominated film.
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis. In the 1950s until 1981, the Barbizon Hotel was a residential hotel open only to women. It established a safe place for single women who moved to New York City to pursue their professional dreams such as to become a model, secretary, actress, or personal desires, to become a wife to a rich husband. This novel follows two protagonists: Darby who comes to the city in 1952 determined never to marry and to find a job to support herself and Rose in 2016 who placed herself in the precarious situation of depending on a man to support and care for her. Both live in the Barbizon building as the stories of seeking personal fulfillment in 1952 and today intertwine. The author states in an interview that she hopes “The Dollhouse will remind all of us how drastically different life was back then for single girl in the city, and of just how far we’ve come.” The themes of aging, identity and being an independent woman today kept me riveted to the pages.
Updated as of July 23rd, 2018.
For people who want to be inspired at work, I feel the best book of the year is called Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. The title comes from Martin Luther King who said,
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
It is a story of a nurse who has excelled at her job for twenty years in the Labor and Delivery Room. Her superiors banned her from touching the newborn baby of a white supremacist who requested no African-Americans around his wife or baby. Something happens to the baby and she is sued. A public defender, Kennedy, decides to fight for her case. Kennedy is the main protagonist, but there is a surprise ending. Everyone I know who has read it, realizes no one knows what another person goes through in his or her personal life to make them who they are.
Several of my friends recommend that I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This book is one of my favorite novels and I didn’t want the story to end because the author writes so well. He transports the reader to Russia 1922 through 1954 by describing the changes in Count Alexander Rostov’s life and the country. As a 30-year-old, he is an aristocrat sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. He makes friends and shows how to adapt to change. A willowy woman, Anna, drops off her daughter Sophie who grows up in the hotel, becomes a piano virtuoso and ultimately, escapes to the U.S. The Count is part of the Triumvirate who run the hotel, in spite of the hotel Manager nicknamed “The Bishop” who tries to shrink and stymie the life of the Count.
While reading philosophy can often be tedious, to manage our own lives and lead others, we need to find a book that helps us understand how different people express and perceive “the good life”. I enjoyed reading Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. He writes about seven philosophers and what ideas to practice. For example, Plato liked to distance himself from people and Socrates wanted people with whom he could talk about the problem. Seneca focused on one person and his or her inner space. Gutenberg created the press allowing books to create inwardness and allow people to choose when to connect. Shakespeare used paper to spread his concepts. Ben Franklin like positive rituals such as keeping certain hours. I won’t reveal all the secrets. Read the book!
I discovered A Writing Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun as I read other authors who kept referring to this classic book. Heilbrun explains how men and women often would write women’s stories as the culture expected women to behave. The acceptable quest story conformed to social expectations or else women were mad, unusual or likely a bit off. Women need “to reframe their lives as quest plots—narratives framed around ambition and achievement, which is how men’s lives are organized.” Forbidden anger killed women’s voices until some authors like Virginia Woolf changed how to write stories. Too often, identity was grounded through relation to the chosen other. Today, women’s stories, not their lives, serve as inspirations.
Finally, the fifth book I recommend reading is a classic, only 280 pages, published in 1961. The Winter of our Discontent by John Steinbeck seems as relevant in 2018 as when he wrote the novel after the Eisenhower era and the game show scandals revealing greed that enraptured the country. He writes about a contemporary Hawley family living in Baytown, Long Island. Steinbeck conveys the themes of evil and ambitions. Hawley’s ancestors had lost their wealth, and the current day Hawley works as a grocery store clerk. He dreams of someday owning the store. Instead, he uses the $1000 to send his former friend--the town drunk—to rehab. The one action changes the destiny of the Hawley family. The entire story takes place between Good Friday and the July 4th holiday weekend.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, How they communicate by Peter Wohlleben
When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of women in America Politics by Ellen Malcolm
Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike by Phil Knight
We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Hold
News of the World: A novel by Paulette Jiles
taft by Ann Patchett
Updated on January 4th 2018