Top 10 Books of the Year Awards 2012

It's time for the Top 10 Books of the Year Awards!  Feel the excitement in the air as the red carpet fills up with the biggest stars in Hollywood.  Look! There's Meeno Pelucci from the early 80's TV show "Voyagers!"  And stepping out of the white limo are Tim Conway and Harvey Korman.  All the truly big stars here!  The special musical guests have arrived:  Air Supply!  And there's Charles Nelson Reiley who will be serving as the M.C.  What suspense is in the air!  Forget the Oscars, the Grammy's, or the Emmy''s the Patty's! After a year full of very mediocre books (2011), I made sure to stack the deck this year and put on my reading list some guaranteed winners.  That was a good idea.  I read some great books this year, but as usual, the first half of the year had the better books.  I don't know why that happens.  Jamie won our family's "Who read the most books" competition this year--as usual.  This year Marco, for the first time, was a tough competitor.  I came in third at 20 books.

So let's end the suspense.  The Top 10 Books of 2012:

10.  Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis (240 pages).

Michael Lewis travels to a number of First World Nations that have been devastated by the cheap credit crisis that has engulfed much of the world.  Lewis explores how Ireland, Iceland, Greece, Germany and the U.S.A are dealing with suddenly being close to financial collapse.  Lewis makes complicated financial instruments easy to understand.  The essay on Greece is one of the most fascinating essays I've read in the last 10 years.  Most all of these essays are available free online.

9.  Burton:  A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farewell (464 pages).

Richard Burton was one of the great English explorers of the 19th Century.  Although far less famous than Stanley and Livingstone, he traveled far more than they did.  He was an absolute travel addict having explored Sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, Brazil, Paraguay, India, Arabia, Syria, Iceland, Continental Europe, and many other places on 5 continents.  He discovered Lake Tanganyika, traveled across the Western United States and hung out with Brigham Young, and snuck into Mecca after learning how to pass himself off as a Southern Asian Muslim.  He spoke 29 languages and wrote many books that talked about the geography, culture, language, and even sexual habits of all the peoples he visited.  He was a botanist, a master fencer, a cartographer, and ethnologist, a linguist, a solider, a diplomat, and a spy.  He was also a completely self-absorbed jerk.  The level of committment that his wife displayed toward him throughout his life was extraordinary, even if that love was never reciprocated by him.  This is a Penguin Classic book and a pretty great example of a brilliantly researched biography.

8.  Balkan Ghosts:  A Journey Through History  (368 pages).

My favorite travel writer, Robert D. Kaplan takes on the complicated cultures of the Balkans.  He travels to Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece unpacking the complicated and brutal history of this region which has sparked a lot of the world's great periods of instability.  The levels and layers of hatred between the ethnic groups leaves one staggering for breath.  The book, written in the early 90's, has proven to be quite accurate over time.

7.  Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe (320 pages). 

Hey, no laughing!  I'm an 80's kid!  Well, I loved this book.  The autobiography of one of my favorite 80's personalities, and West Wing actor (great show!) Rob Lowe.  Lowe was from Dayton, Ohio but mostly grew up in Malibu.  He crossed paths with lots of famous people throughout the 80's, and those are some of my favorite moments.  The book spends way too much time on his period making "the Outsiders" and barely mentions his tempestuous relationship with Melissa Gilbert, but we'll let that pass.  You get the feeling this is the pretty sanitized version of his life, although he's very candid about his struggle to overcome alcoholism (which he did).  A fun read for 80's kids.

6.  Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the Caucuses by Robert D. Kaplan (384 pages).

Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Syria, are just a few of the often neglected places that Kaplan covers in this book which unpacks the culture, history, and geography of Central Asia.  Once again, Kaplan does a fanstastic job of exposing how ancient beliefs and history completely saturate the current governmental situations of these various nations.  I had read this before, but reading it as the Regional Coordinator for Europe/Middle East was a whole new experience.  The current situation in Syria is completely forseen and broken down by Kaplan nearly 2 decades before it happened.

5.  The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe ( 352 pages).

The story of the foundation of NASA and the beginning of the exploration of Space.  Beginning with Chuck Yeager and the pursuit to break the Soundbarrier, the book takes you through the process of choosing and developing the astronauts and chronicles how they were lauded and exploited by an America desperately searching for heroes in the 1960's.  The incredible risks that these pilots took are remarkable to read about.  Their level of skill and bravery is astounding.  And one gets totally absorbed by the waiting game as they all await their turn to be launched into space.  Although I'm not a Wolfe fan, in this book  he brings each astronaut to life and describes the technological aspects of space travel in a way that is understandable and highlights the incredibe risks taken with each flight.  This was an amazing moment in American history and there really hasn't been anything this audacious since.

4.  Shogun by James Clavell (1152 pages).

The classic novel about an English Sea Captain that is shipwrecked in 17th Century Japan.  In Japan, mostly closed to foreigners, Captain Blackthorne finds a society that in most ways is far more advanced than Europe, but in other ways is more brutal than anything the sailors have ever seen.  Blackthorne falls in love with a Japanese woman and through her, learns about the ancient customs and complicated worldview of the world's most inscrutable country:  Japan.  Full of action and great insights into the differences between the West and East, this is probably the best novel about East Asia in English.

3.  Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (656 pages).

I'm not a techy guy in the least, and even though I own an Apple, I pretty much hate it.  Nevertheless, this book was impossible to put down.  Isaacson does a masterful job of chronicling the rise of Apple and why Steve Jobs was such an innovator in a way that anybody can understand.  Three things really stand out in Isaacson's book:  1) The incredibly competitive tech environment which calls for companies to be incredibly flexible at all times  2) The artistry behind many of the ideas that Jobs' Apple had and how they gambled that aestethics would matter to people and 3) Steve Jobs complicated personality---a genius visionary who was not necessarily a very nice or mature person.  Jobs death shortly before the book came out is covered in detail.  It was a huge loss.

2.  Goat Brothers by Larry Colton.

This was my favorite book of all-time until this year.  I first read it when I was 27 years old and was blown away by it.  Now re-reading it as a middle-aged geezer, I couldn't quite say that it's my favorite book of all-time anymore, or of this year.  However, it remains one of the best books I've ever read and is certainly hard to put down.  Goat Brothers follows the story of 6 fraternity brothers from Berkeley as they go through college and then head out into the world.  They come of age during the tumultuous 1960's (starting college in 1960) and find that the whole United States is shifting its ground underneath their feet.  The social upheavals, the sexual revolution, the women's lib movement ushers in an age that these young men are not quite prepared for.    One becomes a baseball player, another an Astronaut, another fights in Vietnam, another becomes a hippy, and another struggles with mental illness.  The book is really about life's unpredicatable curve balls and within that--is the story of how American began to change in the 1960's.


1.  Lennon:  The Life by Philip Norman (864 pages).

I'm a huge Beatles fan that's read a lot of book about the Beatles, but even so, this one was chock full of new information.  This was a very well-written biography and I couldn't put it down.  Norman previously wrote the best book ever written on the Beatles:  "Shout."  I wondered how much new light could he shed on the Beatles and Lennon after that masterpiece.  But Lennon is full of new details and information about his life, their songs, and his background.  This is a very three dimensional view of John Lennon and one can see in every era of his life, how much his father's abandonment and his mother's early death affected him.  I didn't realize how very personal all his lyrics were---pretty much uncensored inner thoughts.  Some songs like "Mother" have always been obviously personal, but "Help!" for instance, was written when Lennon was struggling with the ridiculousness of Beatlemania.  All of John's material from the White Album is directly related to their disillusioning experience with the Maharishi Yoggi--not just "Sexy Sadie."  Norman's book was full of fascinating new tidbits for Beatles fans.  But it was also a genuinely moving story of a guy wrestling with his demons from childhood.  Paul is my favorite Beatle (and Paul's songs are my favorite songs), but John was certainly the most complicated and colorful character.  Well done, Mr. Norman!

Honorable Mention:

Richard Burton: Prince of Players by Michael Munn.

Not Richard Burton the explorer, but Richard Burton the actor---who was best known for being a great Shakespearean actor and marrying Elizabeth Taylor twice.  Most of Burton's life is filled with sadness, regret, and alcoholism, but it is fascinating to read about English theatre in the 50's and 60's as well as all of the Hollywood melodrama in the 60's and 70's.  "The Robe" was always one of my favorite movies as a child.

Biggest Disappointment: 

Amexica:  War Along the Borderline by Ed Vulliamy.  I eyed this book in the bookstore for a year and was very excited to buy it.  After reading the novel "the Power of the Dog" about the drug wars (which won first place 3 years ago), everything else about the drug wars is kind of a let-down.  I'm not entirely sure why this collection of gripping stories of people struggling with the Mexican cartels was so disappointing.  It's an important subject and he covers a lot of ground, but there was something about the writing style that really took the punch out of this.  Maybe it was reading too much Robert D. Kaplan this year.  After Kaplan, nobody else feels that interesting when they dissect history, culture, and current events.  I'd actually recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the drug war.  I'm not sure why it felt like a misfire for me.


Well that's it from the Shriner's Auditorium in Los Angeles.  The stars are leaving as the press surrounds Philip Norman after winning his "Patty."  Erik Estrada is jumping in his limosine.  There goes Randolph Mantooth and next to him is Cathy Lee Crosby.  We'd like to thank all the A-list stars that attended this year's Book Awards.  Next year's books also promise to be interesting.  A book on Democracy in Haiti, a novel by Ken Follet set in WWI Europe, and an autobiography from a member of Duran Duran are just some of the exciting books that sit on my shelf awaiting to be read.