It's time for the 10th Annual Patty Awards, where I give out the awards for the best books I've read in 2015. All of the big stars are walking onto the Red Carpet. Is that Meeno Pelucci of "Voyagers" fame? Look, it's Don Rickles and Sally Struthers! And there's Nancy McKeon of "the Facts of Life." Truly an astonishing Red Carpet Crowd.
Well, it was a very eclectic reading year full of really good books. There was no real theme this year, it was a hodgepodge of things with an attempt on my part to read more fiction. And so we begin:
10) The Terror by Dan Simmons. A novel about a maritime Arctic expedition that goes horribly wrong in the mid-1800's. Based on real experiences of arctic explorers, this is a novel about a supernatural enemy, and even more frightening, the unbelievable hardship caused by being stranded in Arctic conditions for years aboard a foul ship. Very entertaining and surprisingly educational about life at sea. The amount of suffering these sailors endured in those voyages is amazing.
9) Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davies (408 pages): A classic rock biography of the life and decadent times of Led Zeppelin. Obviously for hard-core Zep fans only, and even then, proceed with caution.
8) China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa by Howard W. French (269 pages). An extremely well-done look at Chinese investment in African resources, land, and infrastructure. By traveling to various parts of Africa, French fleshes out how the new Chinese influence and "colonization" looks very different from region to region and country to country. Excellent in its balanced and nuanced view of China's influence in Africa. Both the positive sides and the negative sides of China's influence are exposed. A crackin' read!
7) A Wind in the House of Islam by David Garrison (Kindle version). The largest global survey of Islamic people groups and their mass conversions to Christianity. Garrison shares true stories from every part of the Islamic World of Muslims turning to Christianity at an unprecedented rate. The number of conversions and Islamic people groups choosing Christianity over Islam has been exploding since 9/11. A highly-recommended overview of something you never hear about: The growth of Christianity and the shrinking of Islam in the Muslim world.
6) The Epic of Eden by Sandra L. Richter (259 pages). The Old Testament in the Bible is very misunderstood, misinterpreted, and complicated. Much of this is due to the fact that this is Ancient Hebrew literature which is concerned with the issues, styles, language, and genres of Hebrew Literature, not Western-style literature. This is a Freshman-level introductory book to the Old Testament that does an excellent job of introducing the main themes of the Old Testament in a way that is very easy to understand and helps it to all make sense.
5) The Sicilian by Mario Puzo (Kindle version). A story that takes place between "The Godfather I" and "The Godfather II" while Michael Corleone is hiding in Sicily after avenging his father's shooting. The story revolves around a Robin Hood-like bandit causing trouble for the Sicilian Mafia in the 1940's. Full of action, but also a fascinating look at the very unique Sicilian culture. Sicily is colorful and mysterious, and this book is a great way to learn about it.
4) The Almost Absolutely Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth (393 pages). I absolutely loved this book that seeks to find whether the Socialist, Democratic Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland) are really as great as people think. Booth is a British journalist that lives in Denmark who is not only a great writer but also very funny. The book shows the good sides and the dark sides of each country, but overall---yes, life in Scandinavia is very good compared to the vast majority of the world's nations. What is remarkable is not only how similar each country is, but how very different they are as well. How history, culture, and geography shape a nation is a subject that always fascinate me, and Booth does his homework. While he doesn't shy away from their problems: high cost of living, divorce rates, immigration issues, etc.,--the overall picture that emerges is of societies that try very hard to provide the most important services for their people so that they are free to pursue their own goals. Everything I hoped the book would be!
3) The Cartel by Don Winslow (Kindle version). The sequel to one of my favorite novels of all time, "the Power of the Dog" which tracks the rise of the U.S. War on Drugs in Mexico. An angry DEA agent and a rising drug lord face off again, but this time in an era of globalized drug trade, Los Zetas, and the anarchy of a Mexican state dominated by competing cartels. Just as good as the first novel and based on real events that are taking place now. It shows you what mess the drug war is.
2) A Kim Jong -Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power" by Paul Fischer (Kindle version). Super-riveting true story of how South Korea's most famous Director and Actress were both kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il to jump start North Korea's fledgling movie industry. As is true with any book about North Korea, reality inside the Hermit Kingdom is as bizarre as humanly possible. The portrait of their life inside North Korea and their desire to escape is a total page-turner. It is often hilarious to read about how absolutely poorly made North Koreans films were. It is also tragic and frightening and, well...utterly insane. This came so close to being number one.
AND THE WINNER IS....
1) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD (Kindle version). Finally, a book that explains why your extended family is so screwed up and why your Uncle is crazy. This is a must-read for anyone from a dysfunctional family, anyone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or trauma, or anyone wanting to understand where psychotherapy is headed. Trauma could be anything from divorce, being fired at a job, or more severely sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, war, rape, car accidents, abandonment or other life-changing traumatic moments. Van der Kolk began studying trauma by looking at Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder in Vietnam veterans. This led him on a journey to understand how traumatic events in our lives affect us psychologically and physiologically. He explains the ways that our bodies act out under stress and how disorders develop. He also chronicles the various ways that medics have tried to deal with this from the rise of antidepressants and SSRI's like Xanax and Prozac, to EMDR therapy, Yoga, and many other techniques. Each chapter is divided into smaller sections so it is not a difficult book to read. The author makes complicated subjects regarding neurology and neuroscience very easy to read. This is a book that will give you a ton of "aha!" moments and explain a lot about you, your family, your friends, and the world we live in. I can't recommend it highly enough--especially to those that have endured significant trauma in their lives or work closely with people that have.
Fate is the Hunter by Ernest Gann (383 pages): Memoir by a pilot who worked during the rise of the airline industry when planes were just being understood and crashes were not at all uncommon. Gann flies people, mail, and war supplies in the 1940's and sees a huge majority of his fellow pilots and co-pilots die. He has near-disaster after near-disaster as the science of aviation has not been perfected and you learn as you go. It's a reminder that the extremely safe air travel we have today came at a huge cost. Many accidents happened and many people died in order for corrections to be made that now enable us to fly almost without fear of anything going wrong.
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez (Kindle version). A journalist from El Salvador hangs out with Central Americans trying to get smuggled across the U.S. border. The journey is extremely deadly as human-trafficking, drug-violence, and robbery and rape threaten migrants at every turn of the trip. Unlike what Donald Trump suggests, the border is already extremely hard to cross and getting more difficult every year. These true stories of people's attempts to escape the violence in their homelands is tragic.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes. A much acclaimed novel about young soldiers fighting in Vietnam and all the complex realities they have to quickly figure out in order to survive. Technically, it's great and educational, but I just found that I didn't care about hardly any of the characters.
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Abridger Institute. Also very acclaimed, this books is about the importance of creating an organizational culture that has a high E.Q (emotional intelligence), which we intentionally try to do at Three Worlds here in Europe/Middle East. I thought the book sucked however, because the whole book is based on a fictitious company that is already full of high E.Q. employees and they are trying to help their new low E.Q. employee. This is not helpful since the vast majority of companies and organizations are filled to the brim with low E.Q. employees and bosses. So if the point is just to say E.Q. is important organizationally, okay. But if this book is somehow supposed to help the poor sod stuck in a low E.Q. environment, forget it. The question is how to get the power to change it. That is much more difficult.
Well, that's it. The big stars are heading home and the limousines are pulling out. We'll be back next year for some more book reviews. Up next year: A two volume biography of Elvis Presley, a journalists look inside the NFL, A biography of Christopher Columbus, A Christian novel about a Roman Centurion, a Novel of the Civil War, and books on Russian history. Thanks for joining us at the Patty's. See you next time!