The 11th Annual Patty Awards: Top 10 Books of 2016

It's time for the 11th Annual Patty Awards, where I give out the awards for the best books I've read in 2016.  All of the big stars are walking onto the Red Carpet.  Is that Bronson Pinchot walking down the Red Carpet?  Look it’s Scott Baio! There is Kristi McNichol, Robby Benson, and Wink Martindale. All the very biggest global celebraties are here, so let’s go! 

Well, except for a bad run in the Spring, this year was filled with great books, but here are the 10 best:

10)  Abundance:  The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis:  I read a few different books about the future and technological change.  “Abundance,” which is from 2014 was the most out-of-date.  However, it was the best at framing the very positive changes that are happening in bio-tech, artificial intelligence, robotics, energy innovations, the internet of things, and many other areas that are transforming the world.  It gave the best macro-picture of why there are quite a few things to be optimistic about, and how once they scale, we may have found solutions to some of the planet’s most challenging problems.  

9)  The Ice Twins: A Novel by S.K. Tremayne: After losing one of their twin girls, a yuppie couple from London decide to move to a remote island in Scotland to find a fresh start.  Once they move into their new home, strange things start to happen.  Cracking read, especially if you like thriller/mysteries.  

8) A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela: Translated from Italian, the author leads you through an entire day in Ancient Rome.  He is a wonderful writer who brings the old empire to life teaching you about everything from breakfast foods, housing, bathroom habits, the life of the wealthy, life in Rome after dark, and every little aspect of daily life.  It’s the quickest way to enter into the life of Ancient Rome, especially if you want to avoid the very large history books on the subject.  Angela did great with this.  I wish he could do this for other ancient empires.

7) The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbott:   It reads like a novel, but it is a well-researched true story of the origins of the CIA and how, like J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I., the CIA was an over-empowered, rogue agency that often held Presidents captive until Kennedy began dismantling it, and the super-creepy and villianous Allen Dulles retired and passed away.  

6) My Story by Elizabeth Smart:  Elizabeth Smart made national headlines when she was abducted from her home by two mentally-ill strangers that held her captive, tortured her psychologically and raped her.  Only 14 years old, Elizabeth Smart was incredibly composed and mature through her ordeal, constantly protecting her family, staying positive, and not giving into the hate and fear.  The way she has turned this horrendous experience into something positive was extremely inspiring.  She is a very special person.

5) Careless Love:  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick.  This is volume 2 of the two-volume definitive biography on Elvis which begins with “Last Train in Memphis.”  The second volume begins with Elvis going into the army in 1960 and covers his pinnacle, his career downturn, and his tragic final years of illness and addiction.  The final 7 years were more pathetic than I was expecting. Elvis disintegrates as his “friends” and manager Colonel Parker constantly take advantage of him.  All the while, Elvis is lonely and on a spiritual quest.  Deep down he was a very kind and gentle soul with exceptional manners.  Truly heartbreaking.    

4)  Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Empire tells the story of why and how the Comanches were able to resist encroachment by U.S. Forces for over four decades.  Their geographical location, intelligent battle tactics, and de-centralized leadership made them terrifying.  Their predictability helped U.S. Generals eventually begin the process of subjugating them. Gwynne makes it vividly clear that Comanche Territory around Texas and Oklahoma was very difficult to live in. Descriptions of life as a settler on the edge of the very frightening frontier/Indian Country was vivid and frightening. Very nicely written.    

3) American Nations:  A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward.  What if there was an American History book that told the history of the United States in the order that the country truly formed, by different regions—instead of a simplistic Plymouth Rock to Oregon narrative.  Woodward does just that by focusing on the different cultures and ecosystems that covered North America before and during the formation of the 50 United States.  The particular cultures, habits, and sensibilities of the different American regions still exist today, and this book explains clearly why New York City is so different from Appalachia, and both are so different from the Pacific Northwest, which is not like Wyoming etc.   It’s a fresh (and now very relevant) way of looking at the United States. Each region still has deeply held core values that contain their original culture.  Time has not really eroded them.  Fascinating book full of insights on every page.  Excellent!

3) Connectography-Mapping the Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna.  This is probably the best book on Globalization in the past 10 years.  Khanna is an exciting scholar based out of Singapore. I haven't underlined a book this much in a decade.  Despite the current anti-globalization climate, Khanna makes it so clear that connectivity, supply-chains, and infrastructure have already made globalization a permanent reality.  The world may be politically complaining, but every day, individuals, networks and new infrastructure are building something that can’t be undone by politics, a  new nationalism or even nations.  Each page is filled with concrete examples of how fast this inner-connectivity is occurring right now.  Superb!

2) I Want My MTV:  The Uncensored Story of the Music Television Revolution.  By Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. Infinitely entertaining and fascinating story of how revolutionary MTV was (we forget) and how this kooky idea for a TV channel became a global phenomenon.  It is told from the perspective of famous musicians, directors, VJ’s, crew, producers, executives, and other celebrities that were part of its first 10 years.  Lots of your favorite 80’s stars are quoted and it is filled with great gossip, funny stories, memorable quotes and amazing revelations.  While hearing about the crazy origins of your favorite videos is a real laugh, the most fascinating thing about MTV is that it was an unbelievably poor network that successfully convinced the entire world that it was super rich.  In the early years, nearly broke, they showed an MTV learjet landing (where they had just painted the MTV logo on someone else's jet).  While famous artists all began promoting MTV, nobody knew how cheap and close to bankruptcy it always was.  It’s all there:  the VJ’s, Headbangers Ball, 120 minutes, Liquid Television, Daytona Spring Break, Club MTV, MTV Music Awards, Live AID and the creation of reality TV  through a (cheap) show called “The Real World.”  Anyone interested in business would also find the book great as it shows how the executives made the low-budget channel a multi-million dollar success.  But even when it was rich, everyone was still being paid poorly and costs were low.  The first Real-World cast made $7,000.  Cindy Crawford did “House of Style” for free the first year.  This was definitely the most fun book I have read in a long time.  Just like the 80’s, I didn’t want it to end, and didn’t handle it well when it did.  

Envelope please:    AND THE WINNER IS….

1) 438 Days-An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin. This is the true story of an El Salvadoran fisherman who got caught in a storm and got lost at sea without food or water for 428 days in 2012.  Sailing in a tiny boat all the way across the Pacific from Coastal Mexico to Micronesia on the other side of the Pacific, Salvador Alvarenga managed to invent ways to get water, capture food, and stay psychologically sane as he floated for more than a year.  The descriptions of the storms and weather in the middle of the Ocean are absolutely terrifying.  “Twenty miles offshore, it’s a whole different world out there.”  It was thought that it was impossible for someone in his situation to live, but a number of odd variables gave Alvarenga the perfect brain, experience, faith, and body type to survive what would have killed almost everyone else.  The weather and the sea are characters in and of themselves as this book makes it clear that we are all very tiny parts of this big world that is almost entirely covered in Ocean.   I’ll never look at the Sea the same way again.  Remarkable human story.

Honorable Mention: 

Anatomy of an Epidemic-Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness by Robert Whitaker. It’s well-known that anxiety attacks, depression, attention deficit disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress and mental illness are at an all-time high.  Furthermore, Americans are using drugs like Prozac, Ridlin, and Xanax daily by millions of Americans. But do these things help or create a cycle in which the brain cannot heal?  Whitaker was among the pioneers of this kind of medication when it began in the 1970’s.  He worked with PTSD Vietnam Vets and believed in it, but saw the drugs and usage spiral out of control, and found massive problems in the research all sponsored by the drug companies.  Whitaker takes you back through the last 100 years of medical developments, the treatment of mental disorders, and through tons of studies and research in this book.  What he chronicles is the way Pharmaceutical companies deceptively marketed these drugs in ways that the goal would be to never get off of them or be able to.  It’s very eye-opening and disturbing plus backed by research that is very convincing.  What makes it most convincing is his description of how pharmaceutical companies use their power to always remain indispensable to psychiatry.  

Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger.  The movie was great, and the TV show is phenomenal.  Nothing tops the TV show, but the book which it is all based on follows a 1988 high school football team in Odessa, Texas in the most competitive football state in the country.  Losing is not an option, and the entire town lives vicariously through the high school athletes to a degree that is stifling and unhealthy.  The book follows one season in the life of the highly successful Permian Panthers as the coach, players, and school officials try to guarantee a State Championship. The stress on the kids is made clear throughout the book.  The newest edition includes the author’s return visit 25 years later to see how many of the high school players survived the difficult grind of early glory before their life truly began.  He also finds that Odessa and Odessa football has changed.  It’s a great book, but the TV show is must-see TV.

Biggest Disappointment:

Collision Low Crossers:  A Year of the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawadoff. The author got access to the New York Jets for an entire year around the 2011-2012 season.  From Training Camp to the last game of the season, he hangs around the players and coaches to report what life is like in the NFL.  It’s a good book, but it could have been so much more.  There were many issues it didn’t cover about life as an NFL player and seemed more about the choices Bill Parcels and his staff had to make throughout the year. It's more team management than life in the NFL.  I was frustrated.  I wish I could get access and write a book about the NFL.  


Next Year:

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 book about life in Appalachia, the story of ExxonMobil, the Norway youth massacre, a biography of Simon Bolivar, Vietnam Green Berets, and the latest in the biotech revolution.  Support your local library and read some great books this year!