This post is a work in progress. More descriptions to come.
Reading has always been important to me. I read for relaxation, for inspiration, for motivation, and for entertainment, sometimes all at the same time. The following books had my attention in 2017.
I’ve broken the books below down into categories, based mostly on where these books belong in my head. Some of them are funny, some of them are depressing, some of them are easy reads, and some of them are seriously dense. Take your pick! My comments below.
When in Rome….
While traveling in Italy I thought it would be fun to read about Italy and educate myself. I was correct, but I made some strange choices, none of which I regret.
The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
This is a fascinating, grotesque and bizarre whodunit about a serial killer lurking the hills of Tuscany, killing young lovers in their cars at night. The story takes you all the way from Florence’s renaissance history with the monk Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities, right up to present day with Amanda Knox. It’s hard to believe that either of these things have anything to do with a serial killer in Tuscany in the 1970s and 1980s, but they both do.
You get to read about the macabre underbelly of Tuscan society. The many young couples who, because they still lived with their parents, used their cars for sex in the countryside; the creepy men who made a habit of watching and exchanged notes with each other about the “best” spots and which cars were the “good cars”; the men who made a sight-seeing type business out of introducing others to “the good cars” for a fee; the other creepy men who made a business of watching the peeping toms, snapping pictures of them from the surrounding bushes then using them for blackmail. And finally, the creepiest of all. The man who murdered these lovers in the act.
There’s also a man, a suspect who was ultimately cleared of suspicion, who carries around surgical equipment and claims to be a doctor, but is not. He goes so far as performing surgery on people despite having no medical training. His favorite pastime is renting hotel rooms near graveyards, where he ventures out in the wee hours of the morning to, as he calls it, “have a look.”
We also get to learn why “Picnicking Friends” is a national Italian joke meaning “people who are up to no good together.”
The killer was never caught. I made the brilliant decision to read this while staying in Florence, which of course led to some interesting nightmares. It is, apart from being deeply disturbing, a fascinating look into the culture of Florence versus Italy overall, and a primer in Italian politics and why you should never ever get on the wrong side of the law there.
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
A deeply depressing book about the death of the aristocracy as a class in Italy, specifically in Sicily, following Italian unification. This mood-killer of a book follows the noble family Salina, the father a powerful aristocrat in Sicily known as “The Prince” and also “The Leopard”, during the risorgimento. One of his daughters is in love with his nephew, who shuns her for a prettier girl from a rich, but not noble, family. Despite steamy romantic scenes that unfold in the unoccupied rooms of this palace in the Sicilian countryside, the doomed couple goes on to have an unsatisfying romantic life riddled with infidelity, the marriage is a total failure, the daughters Salina all die unhappy widows. The family loses it’s social standing in the post-unification political shakeup.
History by Elsa Morante
This third depressing book I picked up while traveling Italy did teach me some very interesting things about Italian history. It follows a family living in Rome through World War II. You get to learn about the battle between fascism and communism in Italy. Everyone dies.
Each part of the story is broken into two sections. First, the author gives you an overview of what is going on in the world, what battles are happening, who is winning, how many soldiers are dying, the decisions powerful men are making from their high offices. Then it dives into the day to day life of the main characters, showing you their hunger, terror during bombings, family disputes, romances and mundane, everyday lives.
The overarching point of the whole thing is “War is terrible, violent, destructive and a complete and utter disaster for everyday people involved. There is no glory in it and nothing redeeming about it.”
Italy seems like a very cheerful place when you visit it. There’s wine! There’s singing! The food is amazing! It’s beautiful!
But an expat who lives there told us a different story. At Mercado Centrale, Chris and I met a group of American chiropractors living in Italy. We drank too much and let them adjust us in a wine bar. It was one of our more colorful life decisions recently. I don’t regret it.
He said “You know, Italy is a very depressed country. You won’t sense it in the cities, but you go into the countryside, and you’ll feel it. There isn’t much economic opportunity. There’s a kind of hopelessness. The people are really depressed.”
Now I get it. If these books are representative of the psyche of Italy, then they’re bound to be depressed. All that wine and ravioli and the beautiful people just barely cheer them up.
Terms of Endearment, Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry is a favorite author of mine, so I returned again to this book which I read many years ago. It’s still hilarious and definitely worth the read. There’s a move from the 80s with Jack Nickolson in it which I’ve never seen.
The mother in the book, Aurora Greenway, is excessively dramatic, vain, difficult and generally hilarious. A widow, she keeps several suitors circling around her, spending most of her days wandering her mansion in a silk robe feeling depressed about how many men are in love with her. Her daughter, Emma, fails to live up to Aurora’s high expectations, which usually sends Aurora into dramatic fits.
Aurora’s maid, Rosie, has difficulties with her redneck husband, Royce, which culminate in Royce driving a potato chip truck through a Houston dance hall.
I really can’t do it justice here. If you love Texas, you’ll love this book.
A Farewell to Arms
This book happened to be on the shelf at a beach house we stayed at this summer. I picked it up because it was the only readable book. The rest were for show, like old encyclopedias and manuals about how to build a boat. I think the book was there by mistake because clearly the rest of them were not meant to be read.
I finished it, because I’m not a quitter, but man was this depressing. American man joins Italian army during World War I for reasons that are never explained. Tries to seduce British nurse, then accidentally falls in love with her. They drink so excessively that I felt drunk just reading it. They’re constantly pouring each other hard alcoholic beverages, even during her pregnancy. He eventually deserts his post in the Italian military, and now disgraced, bums his way around Italy trying to reunite with his now-pregnant girlfriend. They flee Italy by rowing across Lake Cuomo all night, then spend all day in bed in Switzerland getting drunk for months on end, until she eventually dies in childbirth. The man character is in such an alcoholic haze that he doesn’t seem to really care one way or another. The end.
You know, looking back on this selection it’s a wonder I made it through 2017 with my cheerful demeanor intact.
Christianity and Theology
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis, starting from the time I was a child and read his children’s works. Then he carried me right into adulthood with his hilarious and awesome works of theology.
What I love about the Screwtape Letters is they are such a poignant look into human behavior. The premise of the book is that a senior demon is writing letters of advice to his nephew demon, Wormwood, as Wormwood attempts to secure a young man’s soul for hell.
What I love about it is the temptations are so petty and so real. He’s not being tempted to great acts of violence or anger, but rather the small ones we all face. The temptation to be annoyed with his mother, or to judge the people sitting near him in church for their unfashionable clothing, or to get angry about someone messing up his schedule. The demon’s advice about how to most effectively manipulate human beings is hilariously accurate. It’s a brilliant look at human nature that will also keep you laughing.
At least if you have my dorky Catholic theology nerd sense of humor.
The One By Whom Scandal Comes by Rene Girard
This is a dense one. I was introduced to Rene Girard’s work by my father, and was sad to learn that he died recently before I had a chance to meet him. It’s a long story but that was actually an opportunity I had and didn’t take advantage of.
The book opens with “Why is there so much violence in our midst? No question is more debated today. And none produces more disappointing answers.”
Girard was a Catholic theologian with some theories that raised a lot of eyebrows, both inside and outside the church. To do my best to summarize a few of them to the best of my understanding…
Religion doesn’t cause violence. Violence causes religion. Human beings are violent. We developed religion to control ourselves.
Human being are inherently competitive and acquisitive. We want things that others have. We mimic one another in many things, but especially in wanting. If one person wants something, then another will want it, and will draw more and more people in to wanting it. The result is often destruction of the thing that was originally wanted, after it gets lost in the violence that ensues. Taboos were one way of managing this so we didn’t all kill each other.
He points to Shakespeare as being an example of a thinker who understood this. Many of Shakespeare’s works follow this pattern: People are fighting. They don’t even really remember why. The reason is irrelevant. The violence has taken on a life of its own. The thing over which they are arguing is completely forgotten in the fight. Violence escalates, everyone dies. Just look at Romeo and Juliet. People think it’s a love story. It’s not. It’s a tragedy. And Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us that it’s all for no good reason.
Girard’s work offers an explanation for a range of mysteries: human sacrifice, taboos, culture, myth, ritual violence, the development and evolution of religions, violence in the modern world. It’s a kind of theory of everything.
If you’re still with me, you may be scratching your head asking “And after all that, how is this guy a Christian?” The answer to that question is too complex for me to attempt to address in this short post. But suffice it to say that reading his works has strengthened, not weakened, my commitments as a Christian. If you want to understand why, you’re just going to have to slog through some works by Rene Girard.
Killers of the Flower Moon
This book retells the story of the Osage Murders that occurred in Oklahoma in the 1920s. This is an incredible story that most people don’t know, but they will soon. This was one of the first cases assumed by the FBI. Because of this book, a movie is in the works, which will draw a lot of attention to the tribe and to Osage County if it gets any traction.
I’ve known the story since my childhood, because my family is Osage through my father’s side of the family. This is an old story to me, but a new story to many.
The Osage Tribe came into a huge amount of oil wealth in the 1920s. They had negotiated to maintain mineral rights on their reservation even if the land was sold off. It turned out that quite a bit of oil sat under that land, and so the tribe found itself with a sudden influx of money. Unscrupulous people sensed an opportunity, and began systematically murdering Osages for their inheritances. In some cases, they strategically murdered family members to concentrate greater and greater inheritances into one person before killing them. Sometimes that one person was their own wife.
The conspiracy ran deep. In many cases, many people colluded together; the police, the coroner, you name it. The methods ranged from bullet to poison to dynamite. You cannot make this stuff up.
The fact that this story has taken so long to become a sensation is a mystery to me.
Comanches: The History of a People
This is a great primer in the history of the settlement of the new world. The title implies it’s about the Comanches, and it is, but in order to tell the story properly, the author goes all the way back to the Spanish settlement of the Americas.
This book reveals some really fascinating things I didn’t know before I picked it up. I didn’t know that the Comanches and the Apaches held off Spanish settlement of the present day United States. The author argues that Spain didn’t lose Texas, California, New Mexico and so forth, but rather that they never had them to begin with. The Plains tribes effectively help them back from ever settling this vast territory they claimed to control.
I also didn’t know how successful the Comanches were at embarrassing the US army on the Plains and how long they held out in their huge territory that spanned parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
I found the entire book fascinating and an excellent primer for anyone interested in Texas history.
I’ve read some reviews of the book and have the impression that many readers find this work unflattering to the Comanches, inaccurate and outright racist. I will say the author does not seem to be going out of his way to be politically correct nor to spare anyone sensibilities about rape and violence. I will certainly concede that it’s likely, by relying on records written by settlers and soldiers, that we don’t have an entirely accurate picture of what the Comanches were really like at that time. Of course the settlers blame them for all manner of atrocities, and they might not all be true. But unfortunately we don’t have contemporary Comanches letters or diaries, since they weren’t writing them. It’s the same difficulty and bias inherent in any attempt to retell a historical story: we rely on the sources we have.
At the end of the day, I thought the work was well researched, fascinating and showed an admiration and a respect for the tribes. Respect, really, for all people in the story. Alien cultures doomed to never understand one another.
Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road by John Joseph Matthews
This book was written by a distant relative of mine, and the name pretty much tells you what to expect. It’s about the Osage Tribe coming to terms as a people with their life on a reservation. It’s told from the perspective of the Osage agent, a real historical person whose papers Matthews relies on to tell the story.
If you don’t know much about Indian history, then you might not know the role of an agent. The tribes were sent agents whose job involved distributing food, keeping law and order, and being the mediator between the tribe and the US government. Many were corrupt. It seems our Major Miles in the story was not, but rather a man of strong character and good intentions. That’s not to say his morality and cultural assumptions didn’t clash with the Osages, but the story is basically one of a man doing the best he can to help the tribe do what he sees as inevitable and necessary: accept the white man’s road.
But don’t quote me too soon, because I’m not quite to the end of the book yet. Maybe he’ll royally screw up before this is all over.
Psychology, Money and Success
The Power of Habit
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris
I am a Tim Ferris fan, for sure. There is a Facebook group called “Tribe of Titans” which I jokingly say is a Tim Ferris cult following group. That’s not really that far off. I am a part of it and regularly participate in events. So, yeah, I’m kind of into Tim Ferris.
Chris and I would not live in Austin today if it weren’t for his book The Four Hour Work Week, which inspired us to say “We can move to Austin with no jobs if we want to!” And then we did. And my friend Naveed jokingly said “except it’s more like the 400 hour work week.” Yeah, we haven’t really gotten the four hour part down yet.
Tools of Titans is a series of interviews he did with a bunch of successful people from all kinds of backgrounds. There are musicians and inventors and comedians and authors and athletes. Really, just about any area in which a human can achieve greatness.
If you like short reads, then this one is nice, because you can read each interview as a stand-alone.
But if you like short reads, you probably didn’t make it this far down my post.
High Hanging Fruit
A good read for real estate agents interested in improving their marketing and getting online leads. Everyone else can ignore this one.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
One of my favorites of the year. I’ve been telling everyone about it and trying to get them to read it ever since I finished it. It is not only hilarious but also inspiring. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, tells hilarious stories about failing his way to success in the corporate world, the restaurant industry, and all kinds of other awesome failures in which he’s dabbled.
It’s a great read if you’re feeling down about yourself, need some motivation, or are recovering from an embarrassing failure yourself. He’ll tell you about his failed nutritious burrito project, called the Dilberito, that made people “fart so hard your intestines formed a tail,” or the time he was so bad at his job as a bank teller that he got promoted out of it, or the time that he launched a website for bad ideas and found out that people’s bad ideas are actually, truly, bad.
It’s awesome and hilarious and actually useful in life and business. I’m all about laughing while I learn. It’s my favorite way to learn things.
I hear he’s written a book about Trump called “Win Bigly” which I will definitely be reading next.
Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards
This was a great read for me as a salesperson, because it’s all about understanding people, tailoring your communication to how they’re wired, and making better connections. But it’s also a fantastic read for anyone who wants to go on better dates, strengthen friendships and overcome social awkwardness.
Uncomfortable at networking events? Have trouble making and keeping friends as an adult? Completely confused about how to show people you care about them? This book is for you.
Vanessa Van Edwards is cheerful, disarming, self-deprecating and well-researched. My only complaint is she can be a bit cheesy sometimes. But her research and insights into human psychology, packaged in a way that goes down very easy, are solid.
Spirituality and Peaceful Living
The Power of Intention by Dr. Wayne Dyer
A New Earth by Eckhard Tolle
Loving What Is by Byron Katie
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A story about an Olympic runner then WWII pilot shot down over the Pacific who floated around the Pacific on a raft for an unimaginable amount of time, before being captured by the Japanese and kept in a prisoner of war camp.
The movie, which you probably know about, is also great, but what it skips is his redemption and conversion experience, as well as journey in forgiveness, that happens after the war is over.
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
I started a garden. This was, and still is, a great resource. It has growing times, temperatures, soil Ph suggestions and all kinds of stuff for every vegetable and herb under the sun, as well as recommendations on natural pest remedies.
We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
A collection of essays by a political cartoonist. Tim Kreider takes the mundane of everyday life and looks below the surface, making the everyday feel significant and hilarious. He asks the big questions like how to draw the line between stalking and the grand romantic gesture; how to resist the temptation, in middle age, to compare ourselves to our friends and agonize over the road not traveled; what to do when you lose a friendship over peak oil.
He tells us about his awkward romantic encounters and drunken escapades, one of which results in him being stabbed in the neck with a stiletto and almost dying. Another pick me up if you’re not feeling so great about yourself. At least you haven’t been stabbed in the neck with a stiletto, am I right?