The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff
Far and away the best book so far in 2020. I heard this as a CD audiobook rather than in physical format and recommend it as absolutely the best format for a book like this. It is an oral history of September 11, 2001. A near minute-by-minute accounting stitched together from hundreds and hundreds of people who experienced it first hand - law enforcement, first responders, government and military personnel, parents of school kids, family members of survivors, those who made it out of the buildings, NASA astronauts on the ISS, ATC personnel, and even, most chillingly, from some on the hijacked flights calling reports into the ATC. Everyone remembers exactly what they were doing that morning and this adds to that tapestry of memories. It is assembled masterfully and is an absolute must-hear!
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
This book about climate change depressed me at first. The author makes the point that the damage we have caused already over the past several decades is irreversible and that even changes in the future that are beyond even what the Paris accord commits to will not be enough to fully reverse it. Even as the world is seeing extreme climate events ever more frequently - from hottest days in decades to the arctic ice melting to rising sea levels to Category 5 hurricanes becoming ever more common, the real reckoning is not until 30, 50 or even 100 years later. Remember the Marlboro man? Imagine the level of difficulty in trying to get him to appreciate the importance of stopping smoking if it wasn’t him but his unborn grandkids who would be the ones to get lung cancer. Technology has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and led to a burgeoning middle class. Their needs for a more convenient and comfortable life with facilities such as air conditioning and fossil fuels has led to the unreasonable demands we are making on Planet Earth. Having said all that, I am also optimistic (and I acknowledge that this may just be me being in the Silicon Valley bubble) that technology will be the one to help find a way out with breakthroughs on clean energy.
This Land is Our Land by Suketu Mehta
This book is about one of the hottest-button topics today: Immigration. The author draws heavily on his own and his family’s experiences in being in transit around the world. While most of what one hears, in the US and Western Europe at least, is the perspective of the ‘natives’ as they look fearfully at immigrants at the door taking jobs and causing societal tumult, both real and imagined, Mehta’s take is from those who were once the natives and had to deal with a rather more insistent form of immigration called colonialism. His answer to ‘Why are they here?’ is ‘Because you were there’. As with all such fraught topics, no one book is going to change minds or lead to resolution but it is a very thought-provoking read. His other book, one about Bombay called Maximum City, is also a fantastic read.
Dopesick by Beth Macy
I assumed I was somewhat knowledgeable about the Opioid Crisis having read articles online and in print in magazines and newspapers. But I was shocked at reading the extent and intensity of it on the ground. Beth Macy’s book takes us to the Ground Zero of this epidemic - the Appalachians where economic turmoil, a fraying social net, political gridlock and yes, rampant corporate greed, have all combined to ravage the young (and not so young) of the area. There are no easy solutions offered by the author but she does point to some of the bright spots in an otherwise gloomy landscape. Even though there are political aspects to the story - for example should drug addiction be treated as a criminal issue or a healthcare issue, the author stays off any overt political stance. It’s not an uplifting read by any means but it's worth reading if only to hear about scenes that seems like they are out of Sherlock Holmes and 1890s London's Opium dens but is, in fact, happening in this very time in America.
The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
For a change, I have a Fiction recommendation. This is the account of a 9 year old German boy, Bruno, whose father is a high-ranking Nazi official who moves his family out of Berlin to his new assignment. In Poland. The valid criticisms of the book center around the implausible naivety of the boy - for example Bruno thinks that the place they are in is called ‘Out with’ and that his father’s boss is called ‘Fury’ and wonders why there are so many people wearing the title’s ‘striped pajamas’ behind the barbed wired fence - but also the broader complicity of the Germans in turning a similar blind eye. The actual dynamics are, of course, incredibly more complex than this story gets into but it’s worth reading for the ending. This book became a bestseller as was later made into a British feature film.