Favorite Books of 2019

Is this thing still on?

Fully one year has passed since the last blog post.

Do people even read blogs anymore?

I contemplated putting pixels to screen a few times in 2019, but I held off for two reasons:

  1. The news cycle has become so compressed — and conversations so mono-topical and sophomoric — that it all seems a waste of time; and,
  2. The arrival of our second son completely nuked my creative energies.

The archive seems to hold up pretty well, at least.

And I’ve tackled a few topics in my company’s monthly newsletter, including:

You should subscribe if those topics sound intriguing.

Anyway, since I’ve been too tired to create anything of my own during my down time, I spent loads of hours enjoying the work of others.

I read many good books. These were my favorite.

Lectures on Modern History | Lord Acton

The passion for power over others can never cease to threaten mankind, and is always sure of finding new and unforeseen allies in continuing its martyrology. Therefore, the method of modern progress was revolution.

Learn as much by writing as by reading; be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites; keep men and things apart; guard against the prestige of great names; see that your judgments are your own, and do not shrink from disagreement; no trusting without testing; be more severe to ideas than to actions; do not overlook the strength of the bad cause or the weakness of the good; never be surprised by the crumbling of an idol or the disclosure of a skeleton; judge talent at its best and character at its worst; suspect power more than vice, and study problems in preference to periods …

Lord Acton delivered this series of lectures at the University of Cambridge between 1899-1901. My copy of the book also includes his Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History (1895), from which the lengthier quote above was taken.

The book’s lectures extend from the emergence of the modern state in the 1500s through a series of religious and political revolutions up to and including the American Revolution.

I must have used up an entire pen underlining passages from this book. Lord Acton’s confidence that there is a Providence behind History is infectious. And — as is often the case with book recommendations on this website — it underscores that the dignity of each human should be our paramount concern.

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A Time of Gifts | Patrick Leigh Fermor

Sheltering under the Curzon Street arch of Shepherd Market, we had found a taxi at last. In Half Moon Street, all collars were up. A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade; and the clubmen of Pall Mall, with china tea and anchovy toast in mind, were scuttling for sanctuary up the steps of their clubs. Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops, and our taxi, delayed by a horde of Charing Cross commuters reeling and stampeding under a cloudburst, crept into The Strand. The vehicle threaded its way through a flux of traffic. We splashed up Ludgate Hill and the dome of St. Paul’s sank deeper in its pillared shoulders.

So begins Patrick Leigh Fermor’s long walk from Mayfair to Constantinople, stepping off at the tender age of 18.

A Time of Gifts is the first of three books chronicling his journey, and it’s much the strongest, in my opinion. The writing crackles with vigor and perspicacity.

In one of the most memorable passages I’ve ever read, Fermor describes a scene at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich (he crossed into Germany the year that Hitler came to power). I can’t in good conscience share the whole thing, but a snifter to whet your appetite:

One must travel east for a hundred and eighty miles from the Upper Rhine and seventy north from the Alpine watershed to form an idea of the transformation that beer, in collusion with almost nonstop eating — meals within meals dovetailing so closely during the hours of waking that there is hardly an interprandial moment — can wreak on the human frame … The trunks of these feasting burghers were as wide as casks. The spread of their buttocks over the oak benches was not far short of a yard. They branched at the loins into thighs as thick as the torsos of ten-year-olds and arms on the same scale strained like bolsters at the confining serge. Chin and chest formed a single column, and each close-packed nape was creased with its three deceptive smiles. Every bristle had been cropped and shaven from their knobby scalps. Except when five o’clock veiled them with shadow, surfaces as polished as ostriches’ eggs reflected the lamplight.

How can you not want to read this?

A Time of Gifts takes us to the Danube, and I daresay you’ll swiftly pick up the next tranche, Between the Woods and Water, to carry on to Budapest and beyond.

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Census | Jesse Ball

I smell the wet black dirt and remember days in the garden, when it would have been possible to stand and run to my wife or stand and run to my son. But I did not do so. I concerned myself with parsley or yams or pulling weeds. I had so much and all at once. There is too much light in those thoughts. Light everywhere. It obliterates me. I recoil.

Extraordinary book.

The plot isn’t captivating: a terminally ill widower takes his adult son — who has Down syndrome — across the country to conduct a census.

It’s not meant to be captivating, though. In this “hollow” vessel, Ball delivers powerful meditations on love, cruelty, fatherhood, and fate.

The writing’s spare and somewhat reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, so it’s not for everyone.

But man … the last chapter is a masterpiece. I sobbed when I read it in the early hours of a winter morning.

And even now, reading that chapter brings me to tears. Especially as I turn the page and see the pictures of Ball’s brother as a young boy — a brother who had Down Syndrome and died in 1998.

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Lives Other Than My Own | Emmanuel Carreère

Amid the shouting and confusion, Philippe made his way along the main street to the market, where the morning crowds of shoppers would have been at their height, and as he was steeling himself for a prolonged and agonizing search, he saw Delphine and Jérôme at the foot of the clock tower. They’d just heard such garbled news of the disaster that Jérôme was wondering if a crazed gunman had opened fire somewhere in Tangalla. Philippe went toward them, knowing that they were living their last moments of happiness.

Speaking of books that made me sob …

In Lives Other Than My Own, novelist and filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère weaves together the stories of two families experiencing tragic loss to craft a powerful memoir of epiphany.

One thread tells the story of Delphine and Jérome, whose young daughter disappears when a tsunami hits Sri Lanka.

The other thread follows Carrère’s sister-in-law, Juliette, who is dying from cancer and will leave behind a husband and young daughters.

Through the lives of others, Carrère crafts a tender tale of revelation, illuminating the love and grace that exist in the most ordinary of places, if only we’d open our eyes.

Brace yourself for a gut punch.

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Crossing to Safety | Wallace Stegner

Talent lies around in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky. Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations too many. Something.

This is another novel that lacks much in the way of plot, but Stegner masterfully explores the inner lives of the book’s characters.

On one level, Crossing to Safety is a story of a lifelong friendship between two couples. On another level, it’s about all that drives and challenges us in life — ambitions achieved and unattained, wealth and precarity, freedom and constraint, and much else besides.

I expect Stegner will make another appearance in this “Favorite Books” series. His writing is exquisite.

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The Consolation of Philosophy | Boethius

So why, mortal men, do you pursue happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within?

The Roman statesman Boethius wrote this after he was charged with treason and sentenced to death. The book is structured as a conversation with the goddess Philosophy, who fills a role somewhat akin to Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. Through her line of questioning, Philosophy provides a salutary tonic for the world-weary soul. Pairs well with Plato’s Phaedo.

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Everything Flows | Vasily Grossman

The most terrible of all were not those who believed in the happy life that would set in after the kulaks were all done away with — no, the beasts that seem wildest are not always the most dangerous. The most terrible of all were the ones with selfish aims of their own. They never stopped talking about political awareness — and all the time they were settling personal scores, stealing and plundering, destroying the lives of others. They destroyed others just to get hold of a few possessions, for a mere pair of boots.

The State became the master. The national element moved from the realm of form to the realm of content; it became what was most central and essential, turning the socialist element into a mere wrapping, a verbal husk, an empty shell. Thus was made manifest, with tragic clarity, a sacred law of life: Human freedom stands above everything. There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom.

Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows is a powerful indictment of the Soviet state. And at less than 300 pages, it’s accessible to everyone.

Grossman takes us into the minds of people living in a totalitarian society, and explains why people were so willing to participate in collectivization, purges, and the shipment of fellow citizens to the Gulag. Indeed, he presages some of the topics that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn covers in The Gulag Archipelago (e.g., the trains).

Everything Flows is a literary antivenin for utopian ideas that promise a better tomorrow at the price of human sacrifice today, and is an essential reminder that communism is a reprehensible ideology that must be resisted and extirpated.

Here, it’s worth encouraging you to read Life and Fate (a favorite book of 2013. The book’s prequel, Stalingrad, was released this year, and while it has pages percolating with genius, I found it a bit disappointing.

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Every Man Dies Alone | Hans Fallada

The only thing that matters is this: I must find out what it is with Hitler. Suddenly all I see is oppression and hate and suffering, so much suffering… A few hundred thousand, that’s what that cowardly snitch Borkhausen said. As if the number mattered! If so much as one person is suffering unjustly, and I can put an end to it, and the only reason I don’t is because I’m a coward and prefer peace and quiet, then… At this point he doesn’t dare to think any further. He’s afraid, really afraid, of where a thought like that, taken to its conclusion, might lead. He would have to change his whole life!

Hoo boy, this is a ripping novel based on the true story of a couple who decide to engage in small acts of resistance against the Nazi regime. The book does a phenomenal job of digging into the psychology and paranoia of people living under totalitarian regimes.

Fallada, who at one time was a famous author in Germany, ran afoul of the Nazis, fell into drink and drugs, and was sent to an insane asylum. He apparently wrote this book in 24 days, dying before it was published.

I picked this up shortly after reading Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler — purchased on a whim after reading this Gideon Rachman column. As marvelous as Haffner’s book is, Fallada’s novel seems to probe deeper into the psyche. You might as well read both.

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Blood River | Tim Butcher

But the major lesson I learned on my trek through modern central Africa was that the most valuable asset stolen from the Congo was the sovereignty of its people.

Tim Butcher, Africa correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, gets it into his mind that he’d like to recreate H.M. Stanley’s journey across the length of the Congo River — from Lake Tanganyika at the Tanzanian border all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a trek of 3,000 kilometers, “greater than the distance from London to Moscow.”

Butcher does it solo … on foot, the back of a motorbike, dugout canoe, whatever it takes … through a war-torn landscape teeming with mai-mai, and where the army and police are more likely to shake you down than help you out.

The book is absolutely riveting as an adventure in its own right. But it also provides a wealth of historical context, not shying away from the shameful and wretched legacy that slavery and colonialism have bestowed upon the country.

After turning the last page, I swiftly scooped up a copy of Butcher’s Chasing the Devil, which chronicles a subsequent adventure in which he retraces a walk Graham Greene took through Liberia and Sierra Leone.

What can you say? The man has balls of brass.

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