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Monday, December 30, 2013

Books and Music from 2013

One of my goals for my first year in retirement was to read a book a week.  I failed, reading about half the goal.  I had also committed myself to reading every magazine that we subscribe to.  I succeeded in fulfilling that goal, but, because we subscribe to about 14, that turned out to be a huge commitment of time (particularly the Economist) and perhaps got in the way of achieving the book goal. Anyway, here are the two dozen or so books I enjoyed reading (there were a couple others I didn't, and they don't make the list).

Fiction

I don't read much fiction ( I find the real world far more fascinating ) but I enjoyed enormously Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Down the Bodies" about Thomas Cromwell, consigliere and "fixer" to Henry VIII.  Much like John Gardner's "Grendel" turned the Beowulf myth inside out, Mantel turns the myth of Sir Thomas More, which is captured in the film "A Man for All Seasons" inside out, portraying him not as a paragon of virtue and conscience, but as a ideological zealot who sends people to the scaffold for minor departures from orthodoxy while Cromwell becomes a pragmatic, worldly, sometimes overwhelmed family man coping with the vicissitudes and rages of Henry. 

Also read "Up Country" by Nelson DeMille.  An ordinary cop novel enhanced by detailed depictions of life in modern, postwar Vietnam, where the author saw combat in the 60's;  "The Blue Hour" by Alfonso Cueto -- which by coincidence bears many resemblances to Up Country except that it is set in Peru and instead of the Vietcong, you have the Shining Path.  "The Big Nowhere" by James Ellroy, part of his L.A. quartet, like L.A. Confidential, but not quite as good, imo.  Overly baroque plot even by Ellroy's standards.  Began reading Ross MacDonald's L.A. crime novels, starting with "Blue City". 

General non-fiction

In Our Hands by Charles Murray.  A few years old but a good primer on the alternative to the welfare state of a guaranteed basic income.

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen.  Not quite what I was expecting - the press focused on the prediction that the world will become economically more unequal due to technology but when I read it that was a small, secondary portion of the book.  The press is  obsessed with the topic of inequality, probably because journalism is in such an unsettled state.  The book is mainly a meditation on how to find a value for human labor as technology becomes more powerful.  Cowen concludes that people will add value by guiding, filtering and interpreting the output of technology.  A surprising proportion of the book involved the use of human/computer chess as a sort of metaphor for the issue.

The Downfall of Money by Frederick Taylor.  A history of the first years of the Weimar Republic during which Germany suffered the most studied episode of hyperinflation in history.  I was surprised how little economics it contained.  Instead, it was a political history, the theme of which was the hyperinflation stemmed from the new republic's insecurity about its acceptance by the German people, due in part to the government's unpopular decision to sign the Versailles treaty, and due also in part to fears about a Soviet-style takeover along the lines of what transpired in Russia around that time.  So the government threw money at the population to tamp down social disquiet. Interesting perspective.

Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed.  Won the Pulitzer for history and deserves it. Amazing research and integration, elegantly written as well.

The Great Escape by Angus Deaton.   A very high-level, broad-ranging book about the benefits of economic development with a focus on the benefits for longevity and other health measures. 

Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers by Edward Lopez.  Intellectual history of some major ideas in political economy.  Well written for the general reader.

The Undivided Past by David Carradine.  In a similar vein as the preceding book, a wide-ranging intellectual history that argues humanity has never been as divided by race, class, religion, etc as many pundits pretend.

This Town by Mark Leibovich.  Fun, irreverent portrait of life of the political elite in DC during Obama's first term.  Good to read if you are stuck in bed with a cold or laying on a beach, requires zero mental effort.

The Story of Spanish by Nadeau & Barlow.  More a history of Spain and Latin America than of the Spanish language, but decently enjoyable nonetheless.

Books about the Financial Crisis

Other People's Money by Charles Bagli.  Journalist 's account of the flawed Stuyvesant Town real estate acquisition by Tishman Speyer.  Pretty balanced and knowledgeable.

The End of Wall Street by Roger Lowenstein.  The best journalistic account of the financial crisis of 2008.

The Fateful History of Fannie Mae by James Hagerty.  History of Fannie Mae by the WSJ reporter who covered that beat.  Straightforward and a lot more journalistically ethical than Gretchen Morgenson's book.

Books on history in the British isles

Since I was a child I have been fascinated by the history of the British isles.  When I was a pre-schooler, my parents gave me picture books on King Arthur and Robin Hood and I suppose that is where it stems from. This year I read, "The Plantagenets" by Dan Jones which filled in a gap in my knowledge about the period between William the Conqueror and the Tudors, and was written at a general reader level, which I appreciated;  "The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England" by Ian Mortimer, which was a book about daily life in that period, maybe a little dull for someone with no prior interest.  "The Reivers" by Alastair Moffat, which is a detailed history of the conflicts across the English/Scottish border in the 1400s, 1500s etc., which was of interest to me because that is where one of my surnames comes from. But it tells good stories too; "The Plantation of Ulster" by Jonathan Bardon which was an eye-opening history of the brutal invasion and settlement of northern Ireland by the English under James I and later rulers. "Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge" by Lindy Woodhead.   Biography of the man behind Selfridge's in London.  Bought it because the Masterpiece Theatre series "Mr. Selfridge" piqued my curiosity. Good history of the development of the modern day department store.  "London Under" by Peter Ackroyd.  Set of short essays about the stuff that is under modern-day London, including the sewers, the tube, Roman ruins etc.  I had no idea that there were once 10 rivers besides the Thames in the area that we now  call London - the rest have been channeled into culverts underground.


MUSIC:

Pop etc Albums:

Ivan and Alyosha:  All the Times We Had.  Seattle group, debut album.  Eclectic mix of different pop - style genres.  Fine harmonies, some George Harrison style guitar licks. Running for Cover, The Fold and Who Are You stood out.

One Republic: Native.  Great pop/rock anthems.  Particularly liked Burning Bridges, If I Lose Myself and Preacher.

Fall Out Boy:  Save Rock and Roll.  Similar to One Republic in the sense of great anthems for big arenas and stadiums.

Jack Johnson:  From Here to Now to You.  Not too many songs go better with a drink on a summer evening than his, despite being fairly formulaic.  Liked Radiate, I Got You.

Blues / Punk / Other Genres

Tedeschi Trucks Band:  Made Up Mind.  It is uncanny how closely Susan Tedeschi's voice resembles Bonnie Raitt's, and the blues-based songs she performs makes the comparison even more remarkable. Liked the title song, Part of Me and Do I Look Worried best.

Dropkick Murphy: Signed and Sealed in Blood.  Their most conventional album, as to which I had mixed emotions. None of the songs were as good as the best of their prior work, but it was still a fun album.

The Del Lords: Elvis Club.  First album in more than 20 years by what was once a New York based punk band.  This one is more conventional / alt-country, mostly acoustic, and is really very, very good. "Silverlake" was the best of a very good collection.

Robert Randolph & Family Band:  Lickety Split.  The most prominent pedal steel guitarist I know of, several good jams. The very loud "Born Again" was one of my favorite songs of the year.

Eliane Elias: I Thought About You.  Album of Chet Baker songs performed by Brazil's version of Diana Krall. Good for cocktail or dinner parties.

Harry Connick, Jr. Every Man Should Know.  Some really great songs, surprisingly original material and not covers.

New Albums by Old Men:

Guy Clark: My Favorite Picture of You.  Over 70, still writing just amazing songs.  Hell Bent on a Heartache sounds just like you think it would.

Richard Thompson:  Electric.  Several good songs, in particular, Where's Home, Another Small Thing in her Favor, and Good Things Happen to Bad People.

Rod Stewart: Time.  Much to my surprise, as I have come to think of him as a washed-up caricature going through the motions, this is the best album that he has put out in at least 25 years.  "Live the Life" and "Can't Stop Me Now" were two totally upbeat, unapologetic celebrations of his life that I really enjoyed.  And he has a nice cover of "Love Has No Pride".

Miscellaneous songs that I particularly liked.

Sky Ferreira: "I Will"   Very loud driving pop/rock song.

KT Tunstall, " Feel It All".  Same.

Moby, "The Perfect Life". Majestic.  One of the best songs I heard all year.

Avicii:  "Wake Me Up" and "Hey, Brother".  Impressive fusion of pop/dance hooks with serious lyrics.

Boz Scaggs:  "Can I Change My Mind".  Soulful cover of minor 70's hit.

Bowie: "The Stars Are Out Tonight".  Lush production of a straightforward rock song with a punchy beat.

Ashley Monroe, "Like a Rose",  Understated country ballad.

Jason Isbell, "Live Oak".  Same.

George Strait, "The Night is Young" and "Give It All We Got Tonight".  What a shame he is retiring.

Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart, "Them There Eyes".  Boisterous version of a jazz / cabaret standard from 1930, previously recorded by Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and others.

Eugene Bridges, "Dance With You".  Sounds like a 70's soul hit.

Three great guitar instrumentals:

Ronnie Earl, "Pastorale".  Sounds like its title suggests.
Joe Satriani, "A Door Into Summer".  very LOUD!
Bill Frisell, "The Big One'.  Surf guitar by a master of the instrument.