2016 Book Recommendations

'Tis the most wonderful time of the year: when people post their book recommendations. Here are some of the books I read this year with comments and recommendations. I'm copying the style of on Aaron Swartz's excellent Review of Books, with books I particularly recommend up top. The links go to Amazon, but they're not affiliate links.

My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Best piece of fiction I read all year. The story follows a young Hasidic Jew who grapples his love for his religion and his love of art. First-person-child-narrators as a genre often fall flat, but this is done very well.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, by Simon Winchester

...And this is the best non-fiction I read this year. An eminently readable account of the past and present of the Pacific Ocean. The stuff-to-come bits feel slightly shoehorned in, but may we all have Winchester's comprehensive-yet-readable writing style.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

As someone said somewhere in a review, this isn't a who-done-it so much as a why-done-it. I almost went to Bennington College, which is thought to be the basis for the book's Hampden College.

Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, by David Feige

A fascinating look into the justice system and public defenders in general, but I found the author to be totally unlikeable, and some of the Amazon reviews take issue with some of the assertions he makes. It's a poor writer who can't write an autobiography where he comes out looking halfway decent. The cast of characters is somewhat unnecessary and hard to keep up with. Worth reading if you focus on the institutional parts and stop trying to keep track of the names.

Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

Ticks all the boxes of a biography in terms of comprehensiveness, but something's still missing. Not particularly compelling, which is a shame considering that the source material is exciting and meaningful.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton

A delightfully funny and surreal piece of short fiction. Read in two sittings.

Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, by Anthony Shadid

Compelling long-form journalism at its best. Shadid is a role-model to foreign correspondents everywhere, particularly in his attempts to understand the region he covers.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Fiction at its most brilliant, and most immersive.

Israel/Palestine, by Alan Dowty

My go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a "how did we get to today?" primer.

Sex With Shakespeare, by Jillian Keenan

A little bit off-the-wall, but an enjoyable autobiography-with-a-twist. Genuine, funny, and conversation.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

This was written in 1987, and so it lives and dies by its immediacy: on the one hand, it's an honest and compelling look at the people who were on the ground floor of the epidemic. On the other, one of the book's central claims about "Patient Zero" has been disproved.