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What I read in 2018: non-fiction

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Dec. 29th, 2018 | 05:09 pm

My friends list, while compelling, doesn't count.

Our excellent public library system got me back into reading in a big way in 2018, completing 32 books for the year. As usual I mostly read non-fiction, and below are the 26 titles from that category. In general I learned a ton, especially from the memoirs that offered insights into lived experience that aren't commonly found elsewhere.

On the other hand, some of these were wonky to a fault, delving so far into a specific topic that they came out the other end of irrelevance. I suppose one must produce something quite original to be published and widely distributed, but with the handful at the bottom of the list I found myself reading faster just to be done. Still finished everything, though! And I've basically had my fill of books about politics for a while now. In early 2019 I will only make an exception for John Dingell's new book, because he's the GOAT.

Here they all are, ranked and with commentary on my top 5.

  1. Tara Westover Educated: A Memoir: This is at the top of many individuals' and publications' Best of 2018 Lists, and I think the consensus is accurate. Her account of growing up in rural Idaho with a father eternally suspicious of the outside world and a housewife-turned-midwife mother was painfully detailed in some parts. Ultimately, it's widely relatable to any kid that had little exposure to the Big Wide World but had to know what it offers that one's family bubble cannot. In particular, her older siblings have very jarring, and very human, experiences that made me want to fight for each of them, and Westover is honest about where she and they go on their journey to adulthood. You might cry more than a couple of times, but it's worth the ride. This one also goes in my all-time favorites list.

  2. Miriam Pawel The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation: We may be hurting for competent, thoughtful leaders in the public sector in 2018 (ok, we definitely are). But digging beyond the Trumps and Mays of the world, we do have these, and Pawel wrote a painstakingly detailed account that follows three. Those are imminently retiring California governor (and one time state attorney general, mayor of Oakland, and candidate for president) Jerry Brown, his sister Kathleen, former state treasurer and one-time gubernatorial candidate, and, one generation back, their father Pat, also an attorney general and governor. The number of interviews she conducted is an insanely impressive feat, to get a fuller picture of where this family came from and what inspired them to govern as they did. Given the many offices held by the three Browns over multiple decades, this could have been an insurmountable topic, but Pawel whipped it into a smart narrative that put the details where they did the most good. Jerry Brown is the primary subject, but many other family members and friends are included. Recommended if you want to feel more optimistic about public service and how wealthy people can contribute positively.

  3. Dave Holmes Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs: Do you remember MTV in the late 90s? I think much of my friends list was in the States and of the right age to at least have a passing familiarity. Myself, I was obsessed for just about all of ages 12 to 17, and as such I remember all of their gimmicks, high and low. Dave Holmes was a central participant in one of those: the reality show-like contest to become one of their on-air VJs. But he starts this story well before that, as a gay kid in a Catholic household (and later college) that took to popular music as a refuge and became an encyclopedia of 20th century rock. The style is original, with an era-appropriate song assigned to each of the parts of his life, of which my favorite was being a 20-something with a degree and smarts but no real idea how to navigate a heartless corporate world (song: The Man Who Sold the World). Even if you didn't grow up with MTV, it's witty and not too clever.

  4. Alyssa Mastromonaco with Lauren Oyler Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House*: Most of the DC politics books I read this year ended up fairly far down on this ranked list. Why? Even if historically important, the play-by-play narration of events was often tiresome, and most authors didn't seem to have a good sense of what actually counts as important to the story at hand, if not the larger context. Not so here! Mastromonaco was a campaign vet by 2008, and entered the White House as one of the senior staff in charge first of advance and later domestic policy. This was a surprisingly human take on what working with and for Obama was like, down to the mundane and humbling parts of a job that is extremely important and also all-consuming. An unsung highlight of this book by critics, in my opinion, is the chapters about her post-White House life, trying to figure out where her talents could be utilized and what to leave behind in DC.

  5. Deborah Fallows and James Fallows Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America: If you've read online thinkpieces about rural America in the past few years, you may have come across the authors. The Fallowses are prolific writers and interview subjects, and had a career worth of work reporting on small towns even before this book. Our Towns is their apparent opus, an account of several years flying their private plane to multiple small towns and digging in to the assets and personalities of those places, which can be (but aren't always) different from the large cities that tend to dominate the American experience. I do have a minor gripe, which is an occasional tendency to be too sympathetic to bad choices, when I would expect experienced journalists to tell the situation** like it is. Still, if you want to know what small towns and cities are doing other than growing our food, this is a good place to start.

And the remainder!
  • Daniel Doctoroff Greater Than Ever: New York's Big Comeback
  • Deborah Hicks The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America
  • Barbara Ehrenreich Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer
  • Richard Rothstein The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
  • Bill Dedman Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
  • Lisa Servon The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives
  • Joseph Rodota The Watergate: Inside America's Most Famous Address
  • Stuart Rojstaczer Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age***
  • Marilyn Waring Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth
  • Jeff Goodell The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
  • Jonathan Alter The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies
  • Adam Winkler We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights
  • Bob Woodward Fear: Trump in the White House
  • Felix G. Rohaytn Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now
  • Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel Sweet and Salt: Water and the Dutch
  • Emmanuel Petit Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change
  • Chris Hayes Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
  • Atul Gawande The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
  • Timothy Beatley Blue Urbanism: Exploring Connections Between Cities and Oceans
  • Arne Duncan How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education
  • Michael T. Walsh Baltimore Prohibition: Wet and Dry in the Free State

My next post will contain the accompanying list for fiction!

*Also my favorite title in a long time.
**I started to type out the most prominent example in the book, but it became spoiler-filled and so long that I think I may save for a standalone entry.
***Bonus: this title had been on my to-read list for something like 12 years! I never say it's too late.
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