It's time for the 12th Annual Patty Awards, where I give out the awards for the best books I've read in 2017. All of the big stars are walking onto the Red Carpet. Look, it's Lou Ferigno of "The Incredible Hulk" fame, and is that songwriter Stephen Bishop next to him? Being rolled on the Red Carpet now Joan Collins alongside Robert Conrad and William Duvaine. How great to see Peter Scolari and Heather Thomas!! Yes, the biggest names in show business are here! So let's get started!
This year had it's fair share of duds. Really, it was not such a great year, but there were at least 10 books that warrant making the list.
10) Chasing the Scream by Johan Hari: Why has the drug war lasted so long, and why has it been such an abysmal failure? Hari not only looks at the current drug war, but goes back in history to see how illegal narcotics were dealt with. He examines countries where drug treatment and changes have had dramatic effects in drug-use reduction. He travels to Switzerland, Portugal, and Canada and finds that the number one thing determining the drug-free person from the chronic drug user is emotional connection to a trusted network of friends. It's an eye-opening look at addiction from someone who was trying to understand why the addicts in his life were destroying themselves.
9) The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt: Why do we sometimes feel more like two people than one? Why are some people more naturally contented than others? What is the secret to overcoming dramatic adversities in life; and why are some destroyed and others thrive after massive trauma. Looking at ancient wisdom, chemical reactions in the brain, religious practices, and biological tendencies, Haidt identifies the many variables that can affect our level of contentment. Indeed, we are complicated.
8) Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know is (Mostly) Wrong by Eric Barker: This is a fun and enlightening book about common misconceptions that we have about success. It turns out that nice guys really do finish last (for the most part), and 2.9 GPA students are more likely to become the next Steve Jobs than Valedictorians. Crime creates street-gangs, not the other way around, and over-affirming your child is a quick way to lead them to a life of under-performance. When are we at our sharpest, and why is it that IQ is not as important as we think? This book is full of "a-ha" moments and is both scientific and funny. There are tons of interesting stories from all sorts of people--famous and not-so-famous, that show how we often get it wrong when it comes to finding the secret to success.
7) In a Sunburnt Country: by Bill Bryce: For anyone interested in the history, geography, and culture of Australia, this is THE must-read. Not only is Bryce very funny, but he did an enormous amount of research to pull out the very best facts about this unique island/country/continent. As he travels around Australia, you realize how unique and mind-blowingly deadly Australian animals and insects are. We all know that Australia is sparsely populated and full of empty spaces, but Bryce brings a whole new reality to this. The distances and the danger of Australia's great expanse is brought across vividly. And every page is filled with an astonishing fact or anecdote about Australian life and history. Simply fascinating!
6) Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah: Noah is the host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, but he was also a successful comedian in South Africa before that gig. Noah's autobiographical book takes us back to his childhood in segregated South Africa when blacks were treated like animals under the cruel Apartheid system. Noah's unique sense of humor and his poorly educated, but brilliantly resolute and spiritual mother come up with inventive ways to survive, laugh, and love amidst extreme poverty. The stories are touching, give fascinating insight into South African life, but are also rip-roaringly hilarious at times. A few of the stories will never leave my mind and will always bring a smile to my face. The inventiveness and positivity with which so many African poor live their daily lives comes through glowingly in this great book.
5) Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Rage that Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott. This book came in 2nd for last year's Pulitzer and probably should have won. It's a lesser known moment in World War II, but after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle--who despite his goofy name was a true man of character and an American hero---penetrated Japanese defenses and bombed Tokyo shaking the confidence of the Japanese war machine. The challenges they faced, the complicated nature of their sea-air attack, and the exciting assault on the Japanese capital are told in riveting detail in a history book that reads like a movie. History so well-written!
4) Cardinal Sins by Andrew Greeley. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest that has written many novels. In this one, two friends growing up in the 1940's and 1950's in Wisconsin feel called to the priesthood. One is more sober-minded and the other is the more superficial and morally dubious. It is the latter that increasingly raises in the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy making it all the way to the level of Cardinal--and possibly Pope. Along with two female friends from their childhood, they try to escape their provincial town and are rattled by the many disillusioning experiences that life has a way of throwing at us. Very good read and mature writing.
3) The Haj: by Leon Uris. Uris was my mother's favorite writer and she always wanted me to read his books; particularly The Haj. This novel follows the story of an Arab man named Ibrahim who becomes the chief of a small village in Palestine. It is the 1920's and the Jews are settling in the territory and by 1948, they will have established the State of Israel. Along with his friend and neighbor, a Jewish leader of a Kibbutz named Gideon, the two try to keep the peace between Arabs and Jews but it gets increasingly more difficult as the 20th Century rolls on. It's a great insight into what those years prior to the establishment of Israel were like.
2) Homo Deus by Noah Yuval Harari. Harari is an Oxford-educated secular Jew who teaches history in Israel. What happens when computers and their algorithms become more reliable sources of accurate knowledge than human beings? Harari discusses how we've never lived in a world where something we created is more reliable, accurate, and intelligence than we are. What are the consequences of this for humanity? Harari argues that we have not even begun to deal with the philosophical questions that are coming at us at the speed of light.
Envelope please: AND THE WINNER IS….
1) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind also by Noah Yuval Harari. The prequel to "Homo Deus"; how did human beings get to the top of the food chain. What were the specific developments over human history that gave homo sapiens such a massive advantage. Harari talks about the development of the human brain, it's ability to create myths and stories that allowed for larger societies to organize themselves in complex ways, and the way the agricultural revolution brought good and bad to the world and human development. Language, imagination, farming, and technology put human beings on a trajectory toward dominance--until they created the computer. It's a stunning work filled with fascinating information.
Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helen Stapinski. It's very hard to find fiction or non-fiction that does a good job of describing the unique culture of Southern Italy. Matera, one of my favorite places in Italy and the village where "The Passion of the Christ" was filmed, is the location for this true story of a crime committed one-hundred years ago. After a vacation in Matera, a woman from New Jersey begins to uncover secrets about one of her ancestors who was a murderess and whose crime is still remembered in the gossipy, little villages of Basilicata. She moves there and does her own investigative work; and as she unravels the mystery; you learn a lot about Southern Italian culture and the Italian immigrant experience. Lovely book and brand new.
Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra by John Julius Norwich. Sicily is such an unusual place, with such a dramatic, ancient, history. It's hard to understand why this comprehensive history book had to be as dry as it was; and devoid of truly captivating stories. My quest for a great book on Sicily continues.
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!