My 2016 reading list - I dare you not to find something you like
These exercises inevitably turn into a "look how smart I am" post, but I love when others do them. My friend Jonathan Tepper usually does one every year, and I always find something interesting on it. Tyler Cowen's 2016 non-fiction list is here, and is full of gems. The FT editors’ recently gave their suggestions too, Shane Parris has chimed in, and Toby has listed the favourites of FinTwitter where my suggestions, inexplicably, have been left out. No matter, however, because I have listed them all below.
Some of the titles invariably are from 2015, but I thought I that I would include them anyway. In addition, I should note that over half of them have been consumed via Audible. If you don't already have a subscription, go get one. I have separated fiction and non-fiction. I dare you not to find one or two that would be worth your time.
America's War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew J. Bacevich (2016) - This book came to me via one of Dan Carlin's podcasts. It is an fascinating history of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East since the failed Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 attempting to free U.S. hostages stuck in Iran. Bacevich is highly critical of the U.S. foreign policy so be warned; this book is far from unbiased. But that doesn't really matter. Bacevich mostly keeps his cool and manages to conjure up a really interesting history about how U.S. foreign policy and military doctrine has evolved in the past three-to-four decades. I listened to this book via Audible, which is a great way to consume a book like this. It's basically a 16-hour history radio show. No wonder Dan liked it!
Silk Roads - A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan (2015) - This is basically a history of the modern world told from the perspective of Asia and the Middle East. It is a detailed account of how Asia and the Middle East have interacted with Europe throughout history going back as far as the Crusades. Frankopan's underlying point is that this is the right way to tell the story, and that we shouldn't always tell the standard Europe-centric version. But I am not really sure that this point is forcefully made in the book given that it cycles pretty much interchangeably between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I just enjoyed for what it is, namely a highly enjoyable history lesson. I listened to the bulk of this book while holidaying in Slovenia, and remember spending a whole day driving through the mountains in the company of Mr. Frankopan's story. I could think of worse companions for a road trip!
Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age, Will Durant (2001) - Will Durant was crazily productive, and it is really difficult to know where to start with him. This one, though, is as good a place as any to begin I think. It basically takes a quick tour of a number of the world's biggest historical figures and puts them in the context of their contemporary setting. It's almost like an ode to these characters, which is very much in tune with Durant’s view of history. It's been a while since I read it, and I think I will go back for second servings soon.
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Marc Levinson (2014) - I am cheating here, because I never really finished this one. This obviously isn't the best way to start a recommendation, but bear with me. In essence, this is a very detailed account to the rise of container shipping. I got lost in the discussion on how the dimensions of modern containers ended up being what they are today. I think the book is worthwhile recommending, though. It is the story about world trade of goods, an it describes the disruptions which followed this new technology. Modern lessons can undoubtedly be learned here! The early account of New York harbour and longshoremen communities' interaction with the rise of the container is fascinating. I will definitely find time to finish this one next year.
The Microfoundations Delusion: Metaphor and Dogma in the History of Macroeconomics, J.E. King (2015) - This is one of several books that I have read on this topic in 2016. The others are this, this, and this. This is part of a project which I started here, and where part 2 has morphed into a bottomless pit of work. King's book essentially is an alternative history of macroeconomics, and attempts to answer the vexing question of how the heck academic macroeconomic methodology has come to look like it does today. These books are extremely wonky, and they will be difficult and/or boring for most people. But consider this homework then dear reader. Many commentators who take part in discussions about how wrong central bank's DSGE model's are—and how wrongheaded the use of math is in economics—have no idea about how we ended up here. In particular, they have little idea of how specific the standard macroeconomic methodology is compared to alternative ways to understand and discuss macroeconomics. In that sense, I highly recommend these volumes as a basis for understanding.
Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700, Lauro Martines (2014) - I was almost tempted to channel my inner Gollum here and keep this one to myself. It is that good. If you only pick up one of my recommendations let it be this. I am currently on my third reading of some of the chapters. Martines’ account fuses the stories of military and civil society in the renaissance to bring alive one of most violent periods in European history. The author's perspective on the armies and sieges of the wars that raged during these years belies the fact that what this book really does, is to tell a story about the renaissance in Europe as a grim period for the continent's people at large. It was a time of conflict and fluid interactions between non-state actors, and where bloody conflict consumed almost all the continent's human and natural resources. Your perspective on European history, and the period which followed after Westphalia, will be forever changed after reading this book. Its stories has inspired the plot of my first novel, and I am sure that will be going back for more inspiration soon.
The Innocent/Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan (1998/2013) - I always try to read a couple of Mr. McEwan's books a year. I like his stories, and his prose is annoyingly good. It is a standard that I will never come close to, but it is something to aspire to. The Innocent and Sweet Tooth are both set in Cold War Europe, and features a male and female main character respectively. In the Innocent, Leonard travels to Berlin to work for a joint British-American surveillance team. He meets Maria, and loses his innocence, but not only in the way you think. In Sweet Tooth, we follow Serena who rises in the ranks of MI5 in the 1970s Cold War cloak and dagger between the West and East. Both of these were Audiobooks, and well worth it.
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler (2015) - This book was a number one bestseller and shortlisted for several of the big prizes in fiction. Those accolades are deserved in my view. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that it does so well. In the main, it is "simply" a saga of the Baltimore based Whitshank family. One of the most wonderful things about it, though, is that Tyler allows herself time to calmly tell the story of the Whitshanks. There is an odd, but also fascinating, congruence in this sense between the pace of the story and narration, and the pace of the Whitshanks' life. The relationship between Red and Abby and their children is to use a well-worn cliche; authentic. But it is truly remarkable to be able to tell a story in this way. I would defy anyone not to have a second look at their own family after reading this. Finally, I should note that Kimberly Farr's performance as a narrator on the Audible version is splendid.
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton (2015) - The most fascinating thing about this book was that the Audible version is narrated by the author herself which gives the story a very intimate aspect. This is Burton's debut novel, and she is definitely a grand talent in the making. The Miniaturist is set in the male-dominated world of 17th century Amsterdam, but it explores this world from the point of view of women with strong and fascinating character traits. In addition, the title is in reference to an almost Almodovar-like magical realism, which fuses well with the overall plot. You'll savour this one once you get going with it.
Conspiracy, S.J. Parris (2016) - This is basically Agathe Christie set in 16th century Paris. Giordano Bruno is trying to untangle a murder mystery that has trails running deep into the heart of the French royal court. The investigation pits our hero against no other than the Duke of Guise and Catherine de Medici. It's a great thriller, and I think the author manages to capture the ambiance of the historical period very well. In particular, I like the way Parris manages to deal with the personification of some of that period's most foremost characters. It isn't easy to grapple with how to put people like this into print, and set them up in an exciting murder mystery. But that is exactly what Parris does. This is not the only novel that Parris has done with Bruno as a main character. I am looking forward to reading the rest. Finally, the narration performance of Daniel Philpott is absolutely fantastic. The way he cycles between French, Italian and English accents, and the way his tone shifts through the dialogues is masterful!
Honeydew, Edith Pearlman (2016) - As an amateur short story author I make it my business to read as many as I can. As a result, I do manage to go through quite a lot, and I can't list all of them here. Try the classic anthologies if you want to start somewhere; there are loads of wonderful reading time shoved into these volumes. Honeydew, however, is special because it is, as far as I know, Mrs. Pearlman's first release and it is an absolute gem. It is really difficult to describe. You have to sample it, but Honeydew is probably one of the most dexterous collections of stories that I have ever come across. Each character and setting are so unique that you think it would have taken a normal author a lifetime to come up with it. But Pearlman just seems to serve them up as, well ... pearls on a string. This is a very special collection of stories.