Thursday, December 13, 2012

Books Read: 2012

41 books read this year; 2 fiction; 39 non-fiction. 

If I were to sum-up my year of reading in one word, that word would be football (or, er, soccer).  At least 8 titles by my count are about the world’s most beautiful game. 

If I were to sum-up my year of reading in two words, they would be Godd Till (@GoddTill). Three of my top eight reads were recommended by him and I thoroughly enjoyed five of the six books he sent my way (couldn’t handle the poetry. God, I hate poetry). 

As usual, I’ve divided the list into my favourite reads, those I’m glad I read and, finally, books that weren’t for me (all sorted alphabetically, or as close as I can come to it). 

I’ve also included a list of books I read aloud to my kids this year… 

Best 

Cardboard Gods, Josh Wilker 
A memoir told, brilliantly, through the author’s childhood baseball card collection (one of those, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that!” concepts). Each card sparks a memory of his young, troubled life. Such a simple, yet smart, technique I’m amazed someone hadn’t used this approach earlier. It’s not so much a book about baseball as it is a great look at growing up in challenging circumstances and working through them. 

Damned United, David Pearce 
This might be my favourite book of the year. A fictional telling of Brian Clough’s 44 days as the manager of Leeds United in 1974. Pearce twins the story with the current events told in the first person by Clough and his previous work as manager of Derby County told in a second-person narrative. I’m not sure if my love for this book was informed by having just finished a Clough bio, but this is some very fine writing. One of the best fictional sports books I’ve read (and I’m not a fan of fiction). 

Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger 
I read this in a single go up at the cottage. It wasn’t on my to-read list or even on my radar. My wife had tucked it into her book bag. For some reason I picked it up after breakfast and could not put it down. There are no filters here. Bissinger has twin sons, one is pursuing his masters degree, the other is developmentally disabled – with very significant challenges. It’s a simple conceit for a book – Buzz decides he’s going to take his son on a cross-country road trip to re-visit all the places they’ve lived and along the way he will be completely transparent and honest with his son. Some of it made me cringe, some of it made me cry. This is the most honest chunk of writing I’ve read in a long time.

Homicide, David Simon
Do you like The Wire? Well, this is the book that launched what is arguably the best ever TV series. Simon, a crime reporter with the Baltimore Sun, took a year off his job to just hangout with the Baltimore homicide squad. This book was the impetus for NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, but many of the incidents detailed in this book made it, verbatim, into the Wire -- including good old Snot Boogie at the dice game.

I Cover the Waterfront, Max Miller
A water front reporter for a San Diego paper, Miller assembled a collection of short essays and simple pieces on the 1930s life, businesses and culture of the local wharf. I really enjoyed the tone and the direct writing. 

My Favourite Year, Nick Hornby (ed.) 
An impressive group of writers each turns in an essay on one meaningful season supporting their favourite soccer club. Roddy Doyle’s piece on Ireland’s run in the 1990 World Cup is magical, a must read. Lots of great, fun, reads in this short collection. Loved Olly Watford’s take on being a ball boy for Watford in 1974.  

Pulp Head, John Jeremiah Sullivan 
Wow, can this guy write. Whether it’s essays on lost blues recordings, Christian music festivals, washed up MTV reality stars or old Southern men of letters, Jeremiah Sullivan creates powerful, riveting prose. Can’t recall reading such a diverse range of topics that were all handled with such confidence and insight.

The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, Richard Nickel 
The back-story on this work is heartbreaking, like it was lifted from Stanley in Gaddis’ The Recognitions. Richard Nickel was a tireless archivist tracking down and photographing Adler & Sullivan’s great architecture before it could be destroyed by countless wrecking balls as cities attempted to re-develop and “modernize” through the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, Nickel was killed when a partially demolished Sullivan building collapsed on him. This work compiles much of Nickel’s photography of so many lost, incomparable works by Adler and Sullivan – 800 plates and 250 essays. It’s an important, often stunning, work. 

Glad I Read Them 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, David Foster Wallace 
I was a teenager in the late 1980s. Most music was awful. Loads of reverb. Bad synth permeated everything. Bands like the Replacements, the Minute Men or Husker Du were a revelation. Twenty years later, you play those tracks for a teenager and they won’t get it. Those revolutionary bands, bands that changed your life, now sound so much like music that’s readily available anywhere. Hell, the Minutemens’ Corona is the soundtrack to Jack Ass. 

I first read David Foster Wallace almost 20 years ago and his texts were revolutionary. Nobody was writing in that style. His use of footnotes was astonishing. Re-reading it today, his style seems over-written, those footnotes once so brilliant are now used at a sports blog run by Bill Simmons. What was once revolutionary, sadly, becomes all too commonplace (but his essay about the cruise line still blows me away).

Adventuresin the Screen Trade, William Goldman 
I Love Goldman. The man wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men and (and!) The Princess Bride. Seriously, what a run of work. This is another set of collected essays about the film industry, the awards circuit and the elements of screen writing. You know what you're getting and odds are it's going to be good.

TheAmerican Way of Eating, Tracie MacMillan 
MacMillan works in the fields among immigrant labourers in California, in the produce section of a Detroit Wal-Mart and on the line in an Applebees in Manhattan to get a better look at how Americans eat. Like Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book, Nickel and Dimed, this book provides an intriguing insider’s perspective on the mechanics and economics of the modern food system and it leaves one with lots to ponder… 

And She Laughed No More… Stephen Foster 
A sequel to “She Stood There Laughing”, Foster’s diary of following Stoke City Football Club through a season in Division One.  In this edition, Foster follows the club through their inaugural season in the Prem (nice photo of Rory Delap on the cover). Lots of funny asides, sports fan angst, and wonderful writing about the ups and downs of supporting a small club. 

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn 
Another Godd Till pick and another good read. Flynn, like his father, aspires to be a writer and, like his father, ends up battling alcoholism, drug abuse and bouts of homelessness

Boomerang, Michael Lewis 
Scary, perceptive observations on the global impact of the 2008 sub-prime asset backed paper collapse. These essays straddle the grey area between black comedy and maudlin tragedy. 

Brilliant Orange, David Winner 
An uneven set of essays about Dutch Football and its relationships with other elements of Dutch culture from the opening of society in the 1960s to art, architecture and politics. I liked the football content, Winner’s work with the cultural elements doesn’t seem to be on the same solid footing. 

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger, Ken Perenyi 
Part confessional, part how-to guide, this plainly written memoir follows Perenyi from trade school drop-out to being an alleged serial art forger with some rather high-profile connections. 

The Cold War: A New History, John Gaddis 
Read this after watching and reading Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy. It’s a very enjoyable, informative, well written take on the Cold War from the end of WWII to the Gorbachev – Regan years. 

The Corner, David Simon 
Want to be thoroughly depressed by the drug war and inner city socio-economics? This is the book for you. Following his year spent on the homicide squad in Baltimore, David Simon spent a year among the people of the streets in inner-city Baltimore. This diary captures all of the squalid, drug infested hopelessness. It’s a powerful read, but man is it depressing. 

Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children 
The title to this one is a bit mis-leading. Yes, there are great letters to and from children, but the book is rather padded out with repetitive biographical bits about Einstein. Guess they couldn't sell many copies if it was a brochure.

The Gift of Ford, Ivor Tossell
I’ve probably forgotten half of the nonsense Ford has been up to in the first two years of his administration and yet I can still cite a very long list of mis-deeds from the wacky to the borderline illegal. Tossell does a great job cataloguing the ups and mostly downs of Ford’s tenure, but more importantly he’s able to put this catalogue of crazy into a larger context of how Toronto arrived at this juncture and where we might go next. It’s a quick, short, engaging read that I’d strongly recommend for any Torontonian or anyone interested in municipal politics. 

The Head Trip, Jeff Warren 
Interesting essays on sleep and dreams. The author undertakes a number of sleep studies/ experiments to see what impact it has on him, including living for a spell using nothing but natural light. Not the type of thing I’d normally read, didn’t really like the format, but was taken in by a number of the essays. 

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Daniel Ariely 
I’m a bit of an Ariely fan-boy and this book didn’t disappoint. Another series of compelling psychology experiments to explore the tension between self-perception, moral codes and cheating. Most of the experiments point to the competing interests inside us all – we all want to think of ourselves as decent, law abiding citizens, but many (most of us) are ok with fudging a few things around the edges. I loved the study involving the blind taking taxis or shopping at the market, some really nice stuff there. 

I’m not really here, Paul Lake 
Another Godd Till selection and another good read. A bio about a late 80s Manchester City football player who suffers an early career ending injury. Nicely touches on the 80s Manchester music scene and some good insights into the life of a pro athlete. Lake went on to become a physiotherapist and I loved his observation that guys who are really injured rarely roll around on the pitch, while those who fake it writhe about like they're on fire. Strangely absent from this book was any mention of the 2010 FA Cup. I'm going to stick with the notion that the game never happened. 

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson 
A great, very detailed look at the history and evolution of soccer tactics. Very enjoyable, even for a neophyte like me. 

Jocks, Leonard Shecter
Like an earlier, far less entertaining version of Jim Bouton's amazing Ball Four. Hard to believe the sports media in the 1960s were this venal and their relationship with the owners was so corrupt.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Lowen 
History professor Lowen looks at the 12 most common American history high school text books and finds them seriously lacking. A great look at why many people don't want to study history and the pressures text book publishers face when they try to explain controversial subjects such as the Vietnam War.

Life Itself, Roger Ebert 
Film critic Roger Ebert's autobiography, told after he lost his voice and much of his jaw due to complications with thyroid cancer. Honest, declarative writing. 

Louis Sullivan’s Idea, Chris Ware and Tim Samuelson 
I'm a big fan of Chris Ware and a big fan of Louis Sullivan. The two of them together is fantastic.  The book is split in two - one half telling the sad story of Sullivan, the second taking a graphic look at the details of his work.  

Men of tomorrow: geeks, gangsters and the birth of the comic book 
After a rather slow, all too detailed start, this book takes off like the proverbial speeding bullet. I've always dug comic books, but I had very little idea of their origins, creators or the business model behind them. Lots of fun insights here - including the incredible fact that Captain America and Superman were selling over one million copies a month in their early days. 

My Korean Deli, Ben Ryder Howe 
White dude from New Jersey (and an editor of the literary Paris Review magazine) marries a Korean-American girl and somehow ends up buying a convenience store in the Bronx with his in-laws. I liked getting the inside scoop on how these stores run, the regulars that haunt them and the vendors that try to rip them off. 

The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov 
Hey, another depressing read! For all those who think the internet is going to bring about a transparent society, freedom and democratic revolutions, Morozov is on the scene with some pretty striking evidence to the contrary. For all the good the internet can do, regimes in Iran, China and elsewhere can use the same technology to support their awful regimes and suppress uprisings. A sobering read in light of the so-called Arab Spring. 

Nobody Ever Says Thank You, Jonathan Wilson 
Brian Clough scored 251 goals in 274 games and earned two caps playing for England before an injury ruined his career in his twenties. As a manager, he took two teams from Division Two football to win the league and challenge in Europe. In between, he crashed and burned with Leeds United and abandoned poor Brighton & Hove Albion. Along the way, he fought endlessly with his bosses, drank, gambled and bought and sold players with abandon while winning four League Cups and two European Cups. A fascinating character and a very good bio. 

Things I Didn’t Know, Robert Hughes 
Hughes was the art critic for Time Magazine throughout the 1970s and was a noted broadcaster and writer. Hughes' book on Goya is one of my favourites - he's incredibly gifted at incisive, powerful writing - for instance, his take on the charge of being an elitist: 

I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist kitsch, no matter how much the demos love it. To me, it is a form of manufactured tyranny. Some Australians feel this is a confession of antidemocratic sin; but I am no democrat in the field of the arts, the only area – other than sports – in which human inequality can be displayed and celebrated without doing social harm. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carre 
Quite liked the movie, so I grabbed the book. It's a decent read. 

Da Vinci's Ghost: The Untold Story of the World's Most Famous Drawing, Toby Lester 
You know that drawing by Da Vinci of the man inside the circle? It's actually called Vitruvian Man and it's based on writings that are thousands of years old. Lester tells a cool story of how Leonardo might have been inspired to draw it and why. The story touches on religion, architecture, the Renaissance and much more.

Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson 
A thoroughly enjoyable read on the makings of modern computers. The chapter on developing weather forecast was eye popping - I'd never thought about the data collection that goes into projecting complicated weather systems or it's origins.  From secret codes and code breaking in WWII to academic infighting at Princeton, this is an interesting history of automation and the things we take for granted. 

The Years with Ross, James Thurber 
A look at Harold Ross and the origins of the New Yorker and the early personalities at the magazine. Loaded with smart tips on writing, quirky characters, great old stories and anecdotes. 

Not for Me 

Imagine, Jonah Lerher (abandoned) - Dreadful. I put this one down before the scandal brought Lerher down. 

In Harm’s Way (abandoned) - One of those bios where the author claims to know what everyone was thinking at all times. There should be a severe punishment for authors who succumb to this trait.

Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, Brad Snyder (not abandoned, should have) - A way too detailed, over-written look at the pre-integration days of Negro League baseball. The author takes on way too much and often loses focus.

The Philosophy of Soccer (sadly, not abandoned) - If you want to read academic essays that border on mental masturbation e.g. whether Marx (or maybe it was Aristotle, like it matters) would have been an Arsenal supporter, this is the book for you. One notable exception - the essay on when it's ok to take a penalty is first class and easily the best thing in this pile of twaddle. 

Writing in Unreaderly Times (muddled through, often angrily) - A collection of essays allegedly about the challenges of writing in these uncertain economic times. Considering how many channels there are to access great content and how much wonderful writing is out there, this book really should have been called Unreadable in Writerly Times.


Kids: 
The Hobbit - my son loved it, my daughter joined us at the midpoint and felt it owed too large a debt to Harry Potter. My memories of this book are all about Smaug, was rather surprised how late he appears in the book and how small a part he plays. 

The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire (Tripods Trilogy) - one of my favourite series when I was a kid. Both my kids loved it. Thanks to Google maps, we were able to track the boys' trek from the English midlands to the White Mountains. I suspect I'll be re-reading this to my kids again in 2013.

A Dog Called Grk, Grk and the Pelotti Gang, Grk and the Hot Dog Trail, Grk: Operation Tortoise - a fun series about a young British boy and his adopted dog Grk. They get into all sorts of problems, international incidents and solve crimes. The Pelotti gang was my favourite of the bunch. 

James and the Giant Peach - Dahl can do no wrong. 

Other 

I read every issue of Lucky Peach I could get my hands on (four, I do believe, maybe five)  It is hands-down the best food writing I've encountered in a long time. Brilliant pieces on a wide array of topics from fresh apricots, food service in the movie Road House, Chinese immigrants in California road-tripping in search of delicacies from home to the guys at Joe Beef talking about diving into grease traps during service and the history of bundt-like cakes. There are far too many great pieces to name here. It's not available on-line, but it is well worth seeking out.

The Blizzard is a similar magazine in that it knows its audience and delivers smart, knowledgeable writing on a single topic - football (the interview in issue six with the guy who has been addicted to Football Manager for 20 years is a head-shaker of a read.) The Blizzard is available online in a pay what you can model (and yes, @GoddTill tipped me off to this great read too. Follow him on twitter and feel free to ask for book suggestions. Perhaps you like poetry, that would make him happy).

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