The Seven Best and Five Worst Books I Read in 2019

On Christmas Eve we had some friends over and something was said about hobbies.  My son and daughter were in the conversation and my son said, “Dad doesn’t have any hobbies.”  He didn’t say this dismissively or critically, he just said what he perceived to be fact.  It’s actually what I would’ve said about me too.  My daughter, however, without missing a beat, said, “Dad has hobbies – they’re reading, watching PTI*, and being alone.”

I recount that to you because I was really encouraged by this revelation.  My daughter showed me a whole new perspective on life.  I’ve never been able to come up with an answer when people ask if I have hobbies.  I usually just mumble something about being a CPA and they accept that to mean that I have no creativity, so of course I don’t have any outside interests (plus it immediately ends the conversation because they’re scared to death I’ll talk about work).  Now, however, I’m a hobby guy; and I’m not just any hobby guy – I have THREE.  Some haters may quibble about my interests meeting the definition of a hobby – but why can’t ‘being alone’ be a hobby?  It’s something I commit to, it takes me away from my responsibilities, it fills time I otherwise could be spending with family – I’d argue it meets all the requirements.

So now that I know I have a full life, I thought I’d give you the benefit of my number one hobby of reading.  The following is a list and reviews of the seven best and five worst books I read during 2019.  You might ask, “Why seven best and why tell us about the worst books you read?  Don’t most people list the five or ten best and leave it at that?”  Ah, my friend – you answered your own question.  That’s what EVERYONE ELSE does.  I could write a blog post on the five best books I read during the year but then it would be like hundreds of other blog posts all over the internet.  I aim for contravention.  Plus – I couldn’t pare down the list to just five on the best books.  As for the worst – why not tell you some titles to stay away from?  If I recommend some books to read, why not recommend some to avoid?  I have a bad habit of not putting a book down even after I decide it’s a total waste of time, so why not put that wasted time to good use and warn you off from wasting time of your own? 

So here’s the list.  I’ll give you the good books first and end with five that took parts of my life I’ll never get back.

The Seven Best Books I Read During 2019

Hellhound on His Trail – Hampton Sides
Very readable story of how James Earl Ray stalked and killed Martin Luther King and was the target of a massive manhunt after the assassination.  I learned a ton.  I had no idea that Ray actually made it to Europe before he was caught (I always thought he was caught right away). The author does a great job of putting the reader into the times and describing the mood of the country and the powder keg King’s death set off.  He details how the Johnson Administration responded and what effect King’s death had on the surviving Civil Rights leaders.  I was fascinated from the first page to the last – very recommended.

Valley Forge – Bob Drury & Tom Clavin
The book tells of the events leading up to the notable winter of 1778, the actual winter itself, and then the battle immediately following the winter.  Very well written, extremely well-researched, and reinforced my already-high estimation of George Washington.  He really is my favorite American of all time.  The obstacles he had to overcome as commander-in-chief – especially during Valley Forge – would have undone a lesser man.  Quote from the book:  This is where the personal embodiment of the world’s first laboratory of democracy stood in the thirtieth month of the American Revolution – blamed for losing both New York and Philadelphia; his troops resembling an army of beggars; his supply lines a laughable calamity; and his authority nibbled and nipped at from all sides by jealous and power-hungry subordinates.  All this might have been enough to induce a commander of lesser character to throw up his hands and return home to his wife and family.  Washington, needless to say, was not that commander.  Fun fact about Valley Forge – the winter actually was somewhat mild but that mildness made things worse because of the wet and mud that made everything miserable.  A colder winter would have been easier to survive.  The authors summarized the story this way: The Valley Forge winter, the greatest and most costly symbolic victory of the rebellion, had been a cold season out of Revelation, less the city of gold with its walls of glistening jasper.  And the massive responsibilities that George Washington had singularly borne on that windswept plateau became the seed for what the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, citing the Gospel of Matthew, had once foreseen as the creation of the mythic “shining city on the hill.”  No other man, at no other time, in no other place, can boast of such an achievement.  More men died at Valley Forge – roughly 2000 – than died in any single battle of the war.  Highly recommend the book.

Guests of the Ayatollah – Mark Bowden
Another compelling book by Bowden (author of Blackhawk Down, Finders Keepers, Killing Pablo, etc.).  Fascinating read about the Iranian hostage crisis.  The book isn’t new – it was written in 2006 – but I just heard about it this year.  Very recommended.  Tells just about anything you want to know about the events that occurred and does it without any angle – he doesn’t take a conservative or liberal approach.  Reading the book made me angry all over again and reinforced what I already thought about Jimmy Carter.  Hugely comprehensive and a long book, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Elvis in Vegas – Richard Zoglin
Don’t hate me for liking rock n roll bios.  The book is mainly about Elvis’ comeback in Vegas in 1969 (after wasting most of the sixties making forgettable movies); however, in giving the context of the comeback, the author recounts the entertainment history of Vegas and an overview of Elvis’ career.  Really enjoyed the book.  With all the history and how he establishes the setting as well as describing the details of the shows Elvis performed, it was a fun and interesting read.  The one thing about it, however, is that even though the author raves about Elvis’ early shows in Vegas – before the drugs and the weight took their toll – when I watched some highlights on YouTube they still seemed schmaltzy and nothing nearly as good as his pre-army fifties performances.  The bottom line with Elvis is that no matter how you look at it, his career was sad and his life ultimately sadder when you consider what he could’ve been.  Really good book, though, and recommended to anyone who’s an Elvis fan or just a music bio reader.

The Volunteer – Jack Fairweather
Book is the true story of a Polish man – Witold Pilecki – who actually VOLUNTEERED to be caught and sent to Auschwitz during WWII.  The plan was that he’d be able to get the truth of what was happening in the camp out to the public and also that he could potentially foment an uprising in the camp that could ruin it.  Really intriguing book about one heck of a patriot for his home country.  Also paints a picture of just how barbaric a place Auschwitz was.  The sad thing is that he DID organize an underground of sorts at the camp, but it really didn’t do much other than perhaps save a few lives.  He did get reports out to both Britain and the US about what was really going on but neither side either believed it or wanted to mess with it.  He eventually escaped from the camp toward the end of the war and then worked even harder to get the truth of the camp publicized.  His life ended when he went back to Poland after the Soviets occupied it and was eventually killed by the communists.  Not a great ending to his life.  He was an incredibly conscientious man and incredibly committed to his country.  The book was a very compelling read and I recommend it to anyone interested in Holocaust history.

The Institute – Stephen King
Yes, I like a good King book every now and then.  This is just what you want in a novel – total escapism and entertainment.  How in the world he thinks of some of this stuff is totally beyond me.  This was WAY out there – it’s about kids with telekinetic and telepathic abilities who are used by a shadowy international organization to kill people and change history.  The kids are exploited, used up, and eventually discarded.  A brutal story with a satisfying ending.  The whole book was enormously readable.  Definitely recommended to King fans or anyone headed to the beach.

Educated – Tara Westover
If you’re in a book club you’ve probably read this.  It’s the memoir of a woman who grew up on a mountain in Idaho to a family headed by a bipolar dad who was fanatically paranoid about the government and didn’t allow his kids to go to school, go to the doctor, use a hospital, or engage with the government in any way.  Hers was a brutal upbringing filled with isolation and abuse at the hands of her older brother (who had an untreated head injury and was essentially a psychopath).  Amazingly, she overcomes her lack of schooling and bizarre background and goes on to earn her PhD at Cambridge.  She also has two other siblings (there are six kids in the family) who earn PhDs.  When everyone reaches adulthood, three siblings have doctorates and three don’t have high school diplomas.  The book is an account of her life and her struggle to overcome the hold her father’s views had on her.  Her family is Mormon, but her dad mixed Mormonism along with his anti-government paranoia to essentially fashion his own version of religion.  Really good read – recommended to just about anyone.

The Five Worst Books I Read in 2019

Bing Crosby, Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940-1946 – Gary Giddins
This apparently is the second in a string of biographies about Bing Crosby.  I watched a documentary on TV about Bing and read a good review of this book and so decided to read it.  Definitely a mistake.  The fact that this HUGE book covers only seven years of his life is laughable.  The author treats Bing like he was Churchill.  The book was so exhaustive it felt at times like I was reading in real time (not sure which took longer – for Bing to live the seven years or me to read about them).  The author goes into WAY more detail than is necessary.  It had some good parts but it easily could have been half as long.  I swear it actually grew pages as I read it.  I probably should have given up after about 50 pages or so but once I got into it, I wanted to finish it.  Not recommended unless the reader is the biggest Bing Crosby fan of all time.  I can’t believe there are people who read all these books or an author who apparently is giving his life to research and write them.

No Beast So Fierce – Dane Huckelbridge
This is the true story of the Champawat Tiger, a man-eating tiger that killed an estimated 430+ people in the early 1900s in Nepal and India.  It would’ve made for a good magazine article.  As a book, it was slow-moving and boring.  You could tell the author struggled to make it book-length – lots of filler.  And his propensity to add descriptions like, “we can imagine how his heart was pumping as he heard the roar…” was irritating.  Probably should have given up on the book early on and not finished it, but kept expecting it to get better.  Not recommended at all.

All the Way – Joe Namath
Autobiography that probably took Joe and a tape recorder about 20 minutes to write.  Laughably bad.  Total stream of consciousness style with chapters supposedly built around the Jets’ stunning upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III, but really built around nothing as it’s not written in any linear way.  The only good thing about the book is it’s short so at least it wasn’t a huge waste of time.  It was a total waste of time, but not a HUGE waste of time.

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack – HM Naqvi
Very bizarre novel written in the first person about a 70-year-old man in Pakistan and his odd life.  Book was a little hard to follow and the many characters were very hard to keep track of.  The author also used Middle Eastern terminology that was difficult to understand.  Even beyond that, however, it was just a very odd story.  I finished the book because it was compelling enough to keep my interest but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone and certainly wouldn’t choose to read it knowing how weird it was.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking
Book that was interesting in parts and largely dry in others (although my intelligence level probably had something to do with parts seeming dry to me).  Generally glad I read it but wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The book could’ve been entitled “Liberal Pagan Genius Gives Answers to Big Questions” but that probably wouldn’t have been quite as marketable (and apparently Hawking liked to keep “Brief” in all his book titles since it worked out so well with the book that put him on the map).  His answers to “Does God exist” (He doesn’t) were interesting in that I’d never heard how someone explains the Big Bang occurring without a cause.  He claims there is a way for something spontaneous to happen.  He also claims that God couldn’t have caused the Big Bang because time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so there was no way for God to exist to cause it.  He doesn’t, however, have an explanation for the appearance of DNA on earth that caused life.  The bottom line is that science goes to great lengths to eliminate God (he even talked about how scientists worked so hard back in the fifties and sixties to come up with answers that didn’t include God) and at the end of the day there are always unanswered questions that only God can be the answer to.  Not a horrible book but was glad it was ‘brief’.

* PTI is Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk show on ESPN that features two older guys arguing with each other about sports.  I watch it faithfully.

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