End of year catching up: Books

The first of potentially several end of year posts catching up on things I’ve meant to write about. Today, recommendations for non-fiction and fiction books I’ve had piling up over the course of 2016.


The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth — For someone who loves aquavit as much as I do, it was getting to be embarrassing that I’d never set foot in a Nordic country. This year I got to cross two off my list with visits to Iceland and Norway. My guide going in was this book by an English journalist living in Denmark. Booth is appreciative of the culture while engaging in a bit of friendly myth-busting of Scandinavian paradise. (Also recommended for: Anyone overly enchanted by Bernie Sanders, whose politics are significantly less free market than successful Nordic models.)

Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson — Nathanael Johnson’s work at Grist is consistently some of the best food and environmental writing I follow, willing to question easy orthodoxies. In this lighter book, he explores the urban wildlife of his neighborhood with his young daughter in San Francisco. Reading it had me paying attention to mundane nature in new ways, taking note of local ginkgo trees and pigeons’ feet for the first time.

Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey — I’m admittedly only half-way through this one, but given the strength of the previous two entries in her Bourgeois trilogy, this one is self-recommending. And given ongoing turns against liberalism around the world, McCloskey’s defense of bourgeois rhetoric and values is more essential than ever.

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce — With the opening story in which a reality TV star surreptitiously brings a revived dwarf woolly mammoth home for his Christian mother to hide from authorities, Pierce shows his talent for thrusting ordinary people into imaginatively weird situations. In another engaging story, a man struggles to come to terms with his girlfriend’s confession that she is married to another… but only in her unusually detailed dreams. The stories remain remarkably humane while following through on their odd premises.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes — It’s a controversial German-authored comic novel about Hitler coming back to life in contemporary Germany. Assumed to be an actor, the revived Hitler becomes a hit on national TV, misunderstanding the world and being misunderstood in turn. The story literally asks: If Hitler came back today, would we recognize him? Vermes tackles the question with humor — perhaps too much so, never fully undermining Hitler as protoganist, despite occasional glimpses of his cruel nature. With our own recent election of a white nationalist backed TV star as president, the satire cuts closer to home than when first published.

Honorable mentions: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba had been on my to-read list for too long, and I learned a lot about both the rum company and Cuban history from reading it. Foolproof was a fascinating book on the challenges of managing risk in a complex, interconnected world. I really enjoyed my non-comics introduction to China Mieville’s writing via The City and the City, a detective novel forced into uniquely challenging conditions given its creative setting(s). Lanark was dense and deeply surreal; I think it was ultimately worth the read, though I’m not sure I’d have gotten through it absent long hours spent on planes.