Happy New Year!
Here's the (now 7th!) edition of my annual round-up of book recommendations! Lots of great books in 2023 and here is my Top 10 list. Also, check out my mid-year 2023 list for more recommendations. As usual this is a very eclectic range of genres and I hope that you'll find something you like! Happy Reading!
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson
Few public figures seem to be in our faces as constantly as Elon Musk. He seems to say or do something nearly every day that is either controversial or in poor taste or just not well thought through. But Musk is no mere shock jock on the radio - he's the CEO of two of the most impactful companies of our time: Tesla and SpaceX. Therefore, his is a story worth understanding and who better to tell it than Walter Issacson. Isaacson does a pretty balanced job on an admittedly challenging subject. He begins by telling the story of Musk's troubled childhood in South Africa with his verbally abusive father and physically abusive schoolmates. He does this more as context than as excuse. It's not that Musk has zero working relationships - he does seem to have somewhat functional relationships with his brothers and the various mothers of his many children. It's with the outside world that the challenges seem to be most acute. Musk's approach seems to be to just drive himself to the point of actual exhaustion - and to drag everybody along whether they like it or not. People burn out and to Musk they are just collateral damage. Oftentimes Musk creates a false sense of urgency and crisis just so everyone is constantly on their toes. Why do people put up with him? One theory is that Musk is someone who tries to elevate the company's mission to something super-lofty in part so that people will then put up with his being a jerk because the broader mission is so compelling and uplifting. Therefore Tesla is more than just a car company like Ford or Toyota. Instead, it "accelarates the world towards sustainable energy". SpaceX is more than just a space/rocket company, it is "making humanity a multi-planetary species". Also to his credit Musk shows himself to be a critical thinker - frequently questioning assumptions that the military or NASA have laid down as law for decades. Isaacson forces us to comtemplate one uncomfortable question: there is most certainly a "demon mode" Musk who gets results but would "angel mode" Musk have been able to accomplish anywhere near as much?
The Great Escape by Saket Soni
This story about Indian workers coming to the United States unfolds in the mid 2000s. Soni is both the author and the protagonist in this story. He weaves a compelling narrative of young men in India who take risky bets eager to earn some money: to get married, or to buy their parents a house, or just to pay off their debts. They all answer an ad in a newspaper that asks for talented welders and pipe fitters to work in the US - specifically in the Texas/Louisiana area. Most enticingly the opportunity comes with what sounds like a guarantee of a green card. On the other side of the classified ads are an eclectic cast of greedy agents in India trying to profit off the desperation of others, unscrupulous immigration lawyers in the US trying to game the work visa system and, as always, a corporation looking for workers they can pay less and get more out of. The corporation, Signal Corporation, is looking for skilled workers to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The workers are forced to pay thousands of dollars in 'fees' for their visas - something explicitly prohibited by US law - but are told they will earn more than enough to make it up. Once in the US they find that things are not what they seem. Their living quarters are squalid and they are all effectively imprisoned. Worse, there is no green card at the end of the dark tunnel they find themselves in. One of them gets in touch with Soni, a labor organizer, who then sees that there are not a handful but actually hundreds of such men in the same predicament. He eventually leads them on a march to Washington D.C. to get them justice. They meet with the Indian embassy for justice only to get a polite brush off. It is a a compelling, dramatic read and in spite of the hardships, an uplifting narrative that I recommend highly. Soni does a fantastic job of telling the backstories of these men and elevates then from faceless prisoners of the byzantine US immigration system to real people with real hopes and dreams.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
This book was written over 60 years ago and after reading it, I understood why it is held in such high regard. Tuchman sets up how the powers of Europe were both distrustful of each other and also convinced of their own superiority and wanting to impose their will on the rest of them. One tends to think that history unfolds with a clear sequence of cause and effect and cause and effect - much like a neat, organized Swiss watch with perfectly meshed gears and in a predictable fashion. In reality it seems like history unfolds rather like a Rube Goldberg device where someone's clumsy elbow nudges a steel ball down a tube and that sets off a series of events and 4 years later, the entire continent of Europe is aflame and 10 million human beings are dead, half of them civilians. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo - a bit of a backwater compared to Paris, London, or Berlin - is that steel ball that sets things in motion and Tuchman then takes us through the events that follow. Tuchman writes in an extremely engaging style without ever sacrificing the seriousness the topic of WW I demands. Here are some gems:
Fateful moments tend to evoke grandeur of speech, especially in French.
Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers - danger, death, and live ammunition.
In the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight
The book is just full of such wonderful language. Read it!
My Father's Brain by Sanjay Jauhar
This was a very difficult read. Jauhar who is a doctor tells the story of how he and his siblings, Rajiv and Suneeta, took care of their father as he slipped ever further into the dark folds of Alzheimer's disease. The father, Prem, is himself a college professor, a genetecist and very opinionated. When he first gets diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), he tries to shrug it off as just 'normal' age-related memory loss. Even as he is in denial, the Jauhar children do everything in their power in the real world to keep him at his home rather than in a medical facility. They are fortunate to have a caretaker who seems more angel than human. We all know how the story is going to end but it still remains a compelling read. Jauhar tells us that caring for someone with Alzheimer's costs nearly $80,000 a year - an amount only a tiny percentage of households can afford. The rest are left to the mercy of the state. And the state is not very helpful. Jauhar is surprisingly candid and tells the story with neither anger nor self-pity but just as a matter of record.
Excellent Advice for Living by Kevin Kelly
Kelly is not your usual self-help author. He was the founding editor of Wired and a technology writer. This book is less of a long story than a collection of 1-page pieces of advice - in fact wisdom - from over the years. Some of my favorite ones were:
If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go further, go together.
Don’t compare your inside to someone else’s outside.
See that old person taking forever in line? That is the future you. Have patience.
You can read this lovely little book in one sitting but it has enough wisdom to last a long time.
A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan
Egan tells the story of the rise of the KKK in 1920s America. Not in the Deep South as one might assume but in the Midwest. The KKK was sweeping the country by stoking fears of a "dilution" of the American bloodline by "undesirables" such as Catholics and Jews, and of course, Blacks. Not only was the KKK spreading terror, it was also a bit of a Ponzi scheme collecting members' dues enriching the top brass as they signed up every new member they had scared into joining them. And yes, a cut from the sales of robes! Few profited as much as David C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Indiana. Stephenson's affluence grew and his influence was wide - the police, the lawmakers and even the judiciary were all in his pocket. Stephenson threw wild parties where women were assaulted and he never paid a price for it. In 1925 he abducted and raped a woman called Madge Oberholtzer. She managed to escape and on her death bed, provided a deathbed declaration that named Stephenson - and the rest of the story is about his trial and eventual unlikely conviction. The sub-title of the book claims that it is the story of how Oberholtzer 'stopped' the KKK. That's a bit of a stretch but having said that, Egan tells the story convincingly of how her testimony manages to finally stop Stephenson. A menace as widespread and dangerous as the KKK needed a counter-attack that was also multi-pronged but for a young woman like Oberholtzer with no influence to speak of to stand up and tell the truth makes this a remarkable story.
Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara
Over ten million electric vehicles were sold worldwide in 2023. And billions of us use smartphones. Every EV and every smartphone out there needs batteries. Current battery technology requires cobalt, a rare earth metal that is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, the vast majority of the world's cobalt comes from the DRC and this book tells the story of how the metal makes its way from Congolese mines and ends up powering your iPhone or your Tesla. As one can imagine, the combination of rich countries' hunger for a metal that is almost exclusively available in a very poor, conflict-stricken country leads to terrible outcomes. A great deal of the mining in the DRC is unregulated - and done by children. Not only are they paid next to nothing, the conditions are risky and long term exposure to the metal causes all sorts of serious health problems. Congo has a troubled past: in the 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium exploited Congo and it's people so mercilessly for rubber that nearly 10 million are believed to have perished as a result during his reign. Even post-colonialism, in the 20th century, Congo's desire to reclaim a sense of agency by it's anti-imperialist prime minister Lumumba is undermined both by Belgium supporting separatism and by the CIA deposing Lumumba - eventually leading to him being tortured and killed. Since then, things have only gotten worse. I finished the book both feeling guilty but also helpless about what the alternatives were.
Factfulness by Hans Rosling
From a book that made me feel helpless and hopeless to one that was uplifting! Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician and statistician. The perspective that Rosling shares throughout the book is that the world is getting better and not worse and that most people think that things are far worse than they are. In fact large majorities believe that some aspects are getting worse when exactly the opposite is true according to the data. Why is this though? Rosling illustrates this with "rules of thumb" - that drive us towards the most dramatic or sensationalist interpretation rather than the more data-driven one. For example the answer to the question "How much of the increased electricity production in 2022 compared to the year before came from renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower?" is fully 85%. But only 12% of people get this answer right. Rosling also talks about how Sweden that today is thought of a Scandinavian Shangri-La was well under a century ago, a poor country with a high infant mortality rate. Rosling holds out the possibility that many desperately poor countries of today could become the Swedens of tomorrow. Part of our skewed sense of reality is from the bias the media betrays in reporting stories. After all, a conflict that breaks out in some distant part of the world is on the TV in your kitchen within mere hours but a story about a country that is doing well is just not deemed newsworthy. Some of this skew could be evolutionary in that only the paranoid Debbie Downers saw predators in the grasslands of Africa and survived to pass on their genes to us. But part of it according to Rosling is an "us" vs "them" mentality and that we should all use data to form opinions of the world rather than rely on our 'gut'. This book has been accused of taking a Pollyanna-ish view of the world and Rosling acknowledges this and counters it with data. I believe it's a good counterbalance to the "the world is ending" narrative from the media.
Anansi's Gold by Yepoka Yeebo
This is the amazing story of one John Ackah Blay-Miezah from Ghana - a con artist par excellence. Anansi was a Ghanain god of trickery and intrigue who fooled people so convincingly that people still believe in his tales. With that inspiration is the story of Blay-Miezah's amazing and audacious con jobs told. At the end of colonialism in Africa, there is a myth that Ghana has a huge treasure hidden away in, where else, a Swiss bank account - $27 billion of it. And Blay-Miezah claimed that he was the sole beneficiary of this but that he needed to go there in person to claim it so that he could bring it back and help develop Ghana. He sells this story so convincingly that he gets himself a diplomatic passport and builds con upon con into a skyscraper of lies so tall and dense that it's hard to tell where the truth ends and the lies begin. And he keeps this charade up not for weeks or months but through years and decades. The part of the rascal's behavior that stayed with me long after I finished the book was the story when he is arrested and fakes a heart attack and asks to be taken to a hospital. En route he asks that they stop at a bank so he can withdraw some money so he can pay the hospital(!) - and his captors oblige. Once in the bank, he then requests the use of the toilet and once inside there, he attempts to escape through the pit under the toilet! It's a story that is so unbelievable that it has to be true. I fully expect this to be made into a movie - or Netflix series - someday.
Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
This is a lovely collection of short stories set in Italy. Lahiri is a British-American author of Indian origin who has now moved to Italy and writes in Italian! This book is the English translation. The common thread in all the stories of this book is that of foreign-ness. Lahiri never quite tells us precisely what part of the world the foreign protagonists are from except that they are not of Italian/European origin. The stories are each very different and textured. There is one of a refugee from a war-ravaged country who hopes to build a new life with his family but is thwarted by his xenophobic neighbors. There is another of a housekeeper who goes to a post-office to run a routine errand and faces subtle racism not quite as severe as the refugee's experience. And one more of two women who meet at a trattoria where there is an even more subtle sense of being an outsider. It's a quick read and certainly worth your time.