Like so many people, this year was a chance for me to enjoy many of my hobbies, hike more, run more, game more, watch more movies and TV, and read some really great books. Below are the books I read this year, and what I thought of them.
Dune (Frank Herbert – 1965)
While Christmas shopping in a bookstore in the before times of 2019, the seminal scifi classic of DUNE caught my eye. It has been a top entry on my list of books to read for many years and being aware of a forthcoming film adaptation by Dennis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) I decided to take the plunge and read the most popular science fiction novel of all time. Turns out, it holds that title for a god damn reason. Massive in its scope and ambition, but still somehow detail oriented, Dune weaves in themes of environment, culture, religion, and idolatry into a sweeping and enrapturing adventure. This book was basically glued to my face throughout January and when I realized I was close to the novel's end, I quickly ordered the sequel.
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
Dune Messiah (Frank Herbert – 1969)
I started reading Dune Messiah the day I finished Dune, and immediately sensed the sophomore slump of the sequel. Although calling Dune Messiah a sequel feels incorrect as it more or less stands as a part four of the original novel. (The original novel is split into three parts.) Dune Messiah brings a lot of the more subterranean themes of the original novel full circle and should be required reading for any readers of the first book, as it elaborates a lot of the ideas that might have flown under the reader’s radar in the first go around. Unfortunately, it also replaces the sweeping adventure and fun of the first book with dense court politics and conspiracies. As such, it is not nearly as gripping as its predecessor but still well worth the time of anyone who enjoyed Dune and wants to spend more time in that world.
“If you need something to worship, then worship life - all life, every last crawling bit of it! We're all in this beauty together!”
Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal (Connor Grennan – 2010)
One of my wife’s absolute favorite books, Little Princes follows the true story of Connor Grennan as he experiences a life changing experience while volunteering at an orphanage in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal. While volunteering at the Little Princes orphanage, Conor discovers that the children are not orphans: they are trafficked. Despite the danger, Conor treks up dirt paths with photographs of the children, miraculously reuniting dozens of families. He goes on to found Next Generation Nepal, the only organization in the world working to reverse human trafficking. I enjoyed this one immeasurably and the slow, methodical work towards a goal that many knowledgeable people inform him is impossible is so cathartic hen it finally comes to fruition.
“I am easily inspired by measurable progress...”
Children of Dune (Frank Herbert – 1976)
Jumping back into Arrakis and the world of Dune, I set into the third novel in the Dune series. Finding a delicate balance between the scope and majesty of the series founding entry, and the denser themes and politics of it’s sequel, Children of Dune follows the journey of Muad’dib’s twin children Leto II and Ghanima as they attempt to navigate their sister and queen regent Alia’s descent in madness. The themes of governance and control hit hard in this election year, and the tragedy of Alia is sad, but engrossing to witness. After falling in love with the original Dune, and being somewhat disappointed by it’s sequel, I found this one to fall just short of a full return to form, but still a worthy story in it’s own right and my second favorite of the Dune books that I have read.
“Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders”
God Emperor of Dune (Frank Herbert – 1981)
Left feeling very curious at the end of Children of Dune, I decided to go one step further and read the fourth entry in the series. Interestingly, God Emperor takes place thousands of years after the first three novels. It quickly answers many of the questions left dangling at the conclusion of Children of Dune, and then inexplicably descends into a slog of dense, indecipherable political philosophy. In this novel, Frank Herbert buries his many interesting ideas and story moments in his incessant need to be the smartest man in the room. Maybe it was franchise fatigue setting in, and I had just delved to deep and too quick, but I did not enjoy God Emperor of Dune, and can only recommend to the most die hard lovers of the original trilogy. I left the world of Dune here but may at some point in the future finish up the last two books in the series.
“This wise man observed that wealth is a tool of freedom. But the pursuit of wealth is the way to slavery.”
The Mismeasure of Man (Stephen Jay Gould – 1981)
A long unread resident of my bookshelf, The Mismeasure of Man was recommended to me by a professor I worked under at Southern, who described it as required reading for anyone wishing to use Data Science as a tool for research. With the pandemic in full swing, I finally had the time to give this a read. In this extended critique, Gould dives through socially motivated research done on throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with craniometry and moving into modern intelligence testing. He demonstrates how otherwise objective scientists are nudged by their sub-conscious or conscious biases to move their data in the direction they feel it should go. The point is well taken, and objectivity is something that scientist endeavor to approach without ever quite reaching. However, the point is laboriously made, and the book becomes an absolute slog in its final third as Gould makes his point with case study after case study. However, I feel I am certainly better of for having read it.
“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
The Voyage of the Beagle (Charles Darwin – 1839)
Another book I had intended to read for quite a while but never found the time, I purchased the audiobook of this journal that Darwin kept as he sailed around the world, making the observations that would later ripen into his Theory of Evolution. It is a fascinating glimpse into the whirring mental machinations of the one of history’s most celebrated minds. Darwin’s delightfully curious nature is a voyeuristic joy, as he gleefully peers into tide pools and swamps, making notes on all manner of natural phenomenon. However, the journal is intimidatingly long, (The audiobook is 24 hours.) and I have chosen to take it in sections between other readings. Will write more about this in 2021’s round up.
“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
Palestine: Peace not Apartheid (Jimmy Carter – 2006)
Another long tenured resident of my bookshelf that I finally made time to read, this book was a gift that my mother gave to my father when it first came out back in 2006. Although this book is somewhat out of date, the nature of the conflict in Israel/Palestine has not been substantially altered in the last fifteen years. Jimmy Carter chooses to frame his nuanced and extensive exploration of the region’s recent history as a personal memoir, detailing his journeys into the region and his relationships to the leader’s involved. After exploring the recent history and nature of the problems facing the region, he details his road map to peace. An excellent book for people looking to learn more about this hot button conflict from a former president who is unafraid to be critical of all parties.
“The blood of Abraham, God’s father of the chosen, still flows in the veins of Arab, Jew, and Christian, and too much of it has been spilled in grasping for the inheritance of the revered patriarch in the Middle East. The spilled blood in the Holy Land still cries out to God—an anguished cry for peace.”
Into Thin Air (John Krakauer – 1997)
John Krakauer’s personal account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that cost eight people their lives is absolutely a best seller for a reason. To have a journalist, novelist and adventurer of Krakauer’s pedigree and talent bear personal witness to a moment in history like this something people should not miss. Easily the strongest recommendation I can make to anyone reading this list, Into Thin Air will pull you into a bone chilling adventure as these climbers lay siege to the world’s tallest and most unmerciful mountain, unknowingly marching towards the deadliest day in Everest’s already deadly history. My only recommendation? Do not read it in the winter like I did. Read it on a beach somewhere.
“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” Hall observed. “The trick is to get back down alive.”
The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen – 1978)
The third book set in Nepal that I read this year, The Snow Leopard is about Peter Matthiessen’s spiritual journey into the Dolpo region of the Himalayas to study the native blue sheep and hopefully glimpse the elusive and rare snow leopard. Matthiessen also uses the trek to visit the Lama at the Shea Monastery and to process his grief after losing his wife to cancer. This particular novel I enjoyed in the form of an abridged audiobook recorded by the author in his later years. I very much enjoyed the intimate experience of an older man reflecting on the grief of his younger self. The author’s voice is somewhat distracting, with a prominent tooth whistle that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. I may pick up the paperback and read the unabridged version at some point in the future.
“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not.”
Charlie Wilson’s War (George Crile – 2003)
This is a book that showed up on my radar because of the Tom Hanks film of the same name. I enjoyed that film and have made a habit of reading the novels that any Aaron Sorkin penned films are based on. (Moneyball, The Accidental Billionaires and Molly’s Game being among the others of this category.) Charlie Wilson’s War is a fascinating story of how a boozy, party boy Democratic Congressman from Texas orchestrated the largest covert war in history by strong arming a reluctant CIA into dumping millions of dollars’ worth or arms, armaments, training, and supplies on the Afghani Mujahedeen to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. Reported on and penned by veteran 60 Minutes reported George Crile, Charlie Wilson’s War is bananas batshit crazy. If it was historical fiction, it would be panned an nonsensically unbelievable. The fact that it’s apparently true makes the experience of reading the tale altogether strange. Contextualized with the 35 years of history following the events of the Soviet’s attempted occupation of Afghanistan, it is a tale of unintended consequences and a case study in the black and white anti-Soviet foreign policy that guided the US for decades. The book itself does drag a bit towards the back half, but is well worth a read if you are a student of history, and far superior to the movie.
“But the terrible truth is that the group of sleeping lions that the United States roused may well have inspired an entire generation of militant young Muslims to believe that the moment is theirs.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid - 2007)
The shortest book I read this year, and easily my least favorite. I would consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be false advertising. I was primed to expect a novel about a young Palestinian international student living and working in New York City in 2001, and the impact that America’s transformation following 9/11 would have on him. Instead, what you get is a short novella about a misguided young man who enters into an unhealthy relationship with a young woman who is still mourning the loss of her lifelong best friend and partner. Around this main story arc, the themes of American wrath and the invasion of Afghanistan are shoehorned in in the abstract. I was left wanting either more, or less from this story. That being said, the framing of the story as a conversation between the author and the reader taking place in a restaurant in Lahore Pakistan in quite nice, and the book manages to raise some interesting questions which certainly has value.
“I suspected my Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by my suit, by my expense account.”