Notable Books We Read in 2012

Here are our regular baker's dozen of notable books we read during this year—whether they were published in 2012 or not. They are presented below—but not in order of preference or importance.

First, a very short book not included in the list:

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

It's just three very short stories, but it's one of my two favorite books in the world. (The other is The Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner, however if you aren't a sucker for Broadway, don't bother.) All three are miniature vignettes by Truman Capote of when he was very, very young -- two involve Christmas, and one Thanksgiving. All three will break your heart. Be sure and get the book that has all three, there are a number of editions that only have one or two of the stories.

Books from the world of entertainment:

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne

f you like any or all of these performers, this deftly written book is irresistible. In 1970, the Beatles were breaking up, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were being pieced together to launch their magnum opus -- Déjà Vu, James Taylor was emerging from obscurity with the song "Fire and Rain," and Simon and Garfunkel were simultaneously breaking apart, fending off irrelevance, and achieving a new heights of acclaim. This book covers it all.

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches

If you aren't a Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis fan, you probably won't enjoy this, but if you are, this is a revelation. It's a long book, but lord, Nick Tosches is a gifted writer! Penned a few years ago, it is as much a history of America in the 50s and 60s, and of the post-war entertainment business as it is the story of Dean and Jerry.

Books on American History:

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro

For me, Robert Caro's four volumes on Lyndon Johnson are as good as it gets. Caro is an unmatched storyteller, and he makes each step along the way gripping and dramatic -- even if you didn't like President Johnson. The books are long, but at the release of each of the volumes so far, I have barely been able to put them down. This fourth volume was supposed to be the last, but Caro decided that Johnson's vice presidency, coupled with the first days of his presidency, deserved a volume of its own -- so we are now hoping for the fifth and final volume to come out in a few years. It is painful to watch as Johnson, long the most powerful man in the Senate (and perhaps the most powerful Senator in history) is emasculated under the Kennedys. But he then rises in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination to engineer the passage of some of the most consequential legislation in our nation's history. You want awkward? Try the plane ride back from Dallas after the assassination -- with LBJ and Jackie struggling with each other's presence on the same plane.

Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye

This is for those of you who have already read a few books on the American Revolution and are interested in digging a little deeper. If you've read anything at all about the Revolution, you know that Rhode Island always seemed out of step with the other colonies. Well, here is Rhode Island in all its glory -- stubborn, recalcitrant, and at the center of the America slave trade and central to Rhode Island were the Brown brothers -- progenitors of such latter day institutions as Brown University and the banking firm of Brown Brothers Harriman. This story centers around the two most powerful brothers, Moses and John -- one of whom spent much of his life campaigning against slavery, and the other, one of its most robust practitioners. This book was a winner of the American Revolution Round Table Book Prize and the George Washington Book Prize.

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States by Michael Lind

We have often complained how history books neglect the subjects of technology and business and focus instead on governments and personalities -- when it can be argued that the most important underlying factors in history are the technology and business trends. Well, Lind's book rectifies that omission for American history, and does it in a way that will captivate the true student of the U.S. Want to know about he booming American opium trade, rum trade and slave trade -- all among the largest early American businesses? How about the theft of British technology to boost American commerce? Or the government-aided Erie canal and transcontinental railroads? Not to mention the contemporary technology boom? It's all here -- and packed into an original and well-constructed theory of American history that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of our nation.

A book on mass murderers and the interstate highway system:

Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate by Ginger Strand

I couldn't put it down. All during my lifetime, the interstate highway has been held out as a shining icon of progressive government. And who can disagree? But there is a dark side, and Strand digs deep into some of the most notorious crime sprees in our history -- and shows how our highways have contributed to a deepened culture of alienation within America and been fertile breeding grounds for serial killers.

A book on how we think:

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Anything Nobel prize winner Kahneman writes is worth reading -- and this is another tour de force on how our minds work. Fully grounded in experimentation and research, Kahneman unmasks our flawed perceptions and irrationality. How much influence do CEOs really have on their companies? How reliable are doctors' diagnoses -- and for that matter how reliable are the predictions of any professional experts? How influenced are we by our environment? It's all fair game for Kahneman, and he does his usual brilliant job in presenting it.

Books on World History:

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

There have been histories written on almost every subject from the trivial to the profound -- salt, plastic, navigation, war, rock groups, embalming, you name it -- but until now, never one about about debt. And debt, far from being a recent financial innovation, has been at the very center of civilization since its outset. Graeber, deeply grounded in archeology, anthropology and more, reveals the true history of money and debt -- and the story is quite different from the "barter to gold to paper" tale we so often hear. More profoundly though, the history of debt is deeply intertwined with morality and human relationships. As an example, there have been societies where money can only be used for human transactions -- such as for marriage or for atonement for a crime -- but never for goods and services. And, as our readers may remember, the use of gold and silver for money arose in tandem with both most of the world's great religions and slavery. Some of our readers have complained that the book is too dense in its ideas and sprawling in its subject matter -- and I would agree it is not for anyone unprepared for a challenge, but it is one of the most important and illuminating books I have ever read.

The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt

For centuries, the great works of the Greeks and Romans were viewed as blasphemous relics of a pagan past. In fact, in the fourth century, Christian patriarchs unleashed anti-pagan mobs to destroy the treasures of Alexandria -- including papyri with the accumulated knowledge of the world. This book is the story of the rediscovery of that past -- especially the radical idea that the world functioned without the aid of gods as found in Lucretius's On the Nature of Things -- that led to the Renaissance. It is a world where monks were often the dregs of society, where it was commonplace for religious leaders to flagellate themselves and members of their monastic orders, and where curiosity was actively discouraged. In this book, we follow a medieval official named Poggio Bracciolini through the treacherous court of the pope and to faraway monasteries -- all in search of old manuscripts in the passionate quest for the precious ideas that would spark the reflowering of science, technology, architecture, the arts and more in Europe.

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling

Most Americans have a poor understanding of China. They may know a few emperors, or be able to reference Chang Kai-Shek, Mao, the Grand Canal and the Great Wall. But for a more complete or nuanced view, it takes a considerable investment of time -- and there are few better ways to begin that journey than Spurling's biography of Pearl Buck. Buck was the daughter of a fanatical American missionary to China, and she grew up deeply enmeshed in the dangerous world of fin de siècle China. Those that remember her do so for her best selling novels on China, especially The Good Earth. This is Buck's story -- with focus on her childhood and young adult years.

Two books on economics:

Okay, okay -- it's not the world's most exciting subject -- but it is one I find fascinating and critical to understanding our world. Let's face it, the profession is tainted -- since most economists completely missed calling the calamity of 2007, when they could have easily caught it if their forecasting models had simply included the metric of debt-to-income. Furthermore, the more I read on the economics, the more I am struck by how poorly written most works in this area are. Happily, we found two books this year on economic history that are powerful exceptions to this.

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed

This Pulitzer prize-winning book details the lives of the four ministers of finance at the financial helms of United States, Germany, England and France who helped navigate their respective countries straight into the rocky shoals of the Great Depression. Their personalities will not comfort you, and the statistics the author brings forward will astound you. For example, before World War I, the American economy was already as large as those of Britain, France and Germany combined, and the gold in the vaults of those four countries was distributed proportionately. But after that war, because of the dependence on the United States for materiel, it held 75 percent of the total gold held by those four countries, and thus the "world of the international gold standard had become like a poker table at which one player has accumulated all the chips."

America's First Great Depression by Alasdair Roberts

Most American histories take you straight from the Pilgrims to Bunker Hill to Valley Forge and Yorktown, then on to Andrew Jackson, the Civil War, the Robber Barons, the roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II, with few if any stops in between. The gaps in our knowledge of our own history are large and looming. This book fills in one of the huge gaps by telling us the story of one of America's many painful economic contractions -- the one in this book began in 1837 and was not fully over until the California gold rush that started in 1848. Like most of our largest economic calamities, this one was caused by rampant overborrowing -- and in this case the borrowers were the states, that followed the spectacular success of the Erie Canal by borrowing massive amounts of money from the British to finance their own canal and railroad expansion. Most ultimately defaulted or restructured at least part of this debt. Integral to the story are the annexation of Texas, the Mexican American War and presidents Martin Van Buren, John Tyler and James Polk.

And book about the subject we love to hate — politics:

A Nation of Wusses: How American's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make us Great by Ed Rendell

A fun read and a rip roaring tale of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and contemporary politics told by legendary former Mayor and Governor, Ed Rendell. The former governor writes as engagingly as he speaks, so there is never a dull page. Does he give himself a smidgen too much credit? Of course not! What politician would? Does he pull any punches? It certainly doesn't seem so -- and he has as many opinions as there are issues. But the book is a blueprint of what is possible if guided by a master strategist with the political skills to back it up. Full disclosure -- I am well acquainted with the Governor and love just about everything he does.

We hope this list helps — and we thank you as always for your interest in!
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