Category: Books

Favorite fiction of 2019

Linn Ullmann, Unquiet: A Novel.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha.

Aladdin, a new translation by Yasmine Seale.

Broken Stars: Contemporary Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.

Sally Rooney, Normal People: A Novel.

I did try many of the more famous recommended novels of the year, and mostly didn’t like them.  Still, I don’t feel this list is coming very close to capturing the year’s best fiction — I think I’ll have a better sense in two or three years and then I will report back.  In the meantime, what do you recommend?

Best non-fiction books of 2019

It was a very strong year for non-fiction, these were the best books, more or less in the order I read them:

Toby Green, Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.

Alain Bertaud, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.

Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities.

James W. Cortada, IBM: The Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon.

Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.

T.C.A. Raghavan, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan.

Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History.

Ana Fifield, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.

Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon.

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Bruce Cannon Gibney, The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System.

Ben Westhoff, Fentanyl, Inc.

Ben Lewis, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting.

Judith Grisel, Never Enough: the neuroscience and experience of addiction.

David Sorkin, Jewish Emancipation: A History of Five Centuries.

Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.

Lydia Davis, Essays One.

Fuchsia Dunlop, The Food of Sichuan.

Frederic Martel, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.

Alan Galley, Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire.

Robert Alter, translator, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (or should that go under “fiction”?).

Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, more here.

And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year?  You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups.  But again a strong year all around.

Of course the year is not over yet, this list is for your holiday shopping, I’ll post an update toward the very end of December.

In the meantime, apologies to those I missed or forgot…

*Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power*

That is the new wonderful and stunning book by Pekka Hämäläinen, here is one excerpt from the opening section:

Two centuries earlier, in the middle years of the seventeenth century, the Lakotas h ad been an obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world of Native Americans and European colonists that had emerged in the Eastern Woodlands of North America.  They had no guns and no metal weapons, and they carried little political clout, all of which spelled danger: the odds of survival were slim for people who lacked access to Europeans and their new technologies of killing.  That crisis set off what may be the most improbably expansion in American history.  Lakotas left their ancient homelands and reinvented themselves as horse people in the continental grasslands that stretched seemingly forever into the horizon.  This was the genesis of what I call Lakota America, an expansive, constantly transmuting Indigenous regime that pulled numerous groups into its orbit, marginal and dispossessed its rivals — both Native and colonial — and commanded the political, social, and economic life in the North American interior for generations.  Just as there was Spanish, French, British, and the United States of America, there was Lakota America, the sovereign domain of the Lakota people and their kin and allies, a domain they would protect and, if necessary, expand.  A century later, the Lakotas had shifted the center of their world three hundred miles west into the Missouri Valley, where they began to transform into a dominant power.  Another century later they were the most powerful Indigenous nation in the Americas, controlling a massive domain stretching across the northern Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

…Yet they never numbered more than fifteen thousand people.

I will blog this book a bit more, for now I’ll just say it is very much in the running for very best book of the year.  It brings Native American history to life in a conceptual manner better than any other book I know.  You can buy it here, I found every section gripping and highly instructive and fun to read as well.  Here is a very good and accurate Parul Sehgal NYT review.

My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?

And:

COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.

*The Decadent Society*

The author is Ross Douthat and the subtitle is How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.  Excellent book!  It has a real dose of Peter Thiel (and some Tyler Cowen), and most of it comes as fresh material even if you have read all of Ross’s other columns and books.  Imagine the idea of technological stagnation tied together with a conservative Catholic critique of decadence, and in a convincing manner with a dose of pro-natalism tossed in for good measure.  There is commentary on Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jordan Peterson, and much more.

America’s problems are not what you think they are!

Definitely recommended, due out February, and you can pre-order here.

Garett Jones on open borders

I am very pleased that the new Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith open borders graphic novel has hit #1 on The Washington Post non-fiction bestseller list.  I am also pleased to see Garett Jones examine the idea in a new short paper, here is part of his critique:

I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S.residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities: because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore, a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I will be sure to link to Bryan’s reply when it comes.

Bonus CWT episode with Fuchsia Dunlop

Here is the transcript and audio, and wonderful photos, over a Chinese meal at Mama Chang in Fairfax, run by the famous Peter Chang.  I am not acting as lead interviewer, so this is more like a “Conversation with Tyler chiming in,” nonetheless numerous D.C. area food luminaries are present, as are other members of the Cowen family.  Here is one brief excerpt:

T. COWEN: You learned Chinese food in China, of course, much of it in Sichuan province, Hunan province. As Chinese teach food, how is the method of education and training different from, say, Great Britain or the United States?

DUNLOP: Well, I haven’t been to culinary school in Great Britain or the United States, so I’m not sure.

T. COWEN: You’ve been to school in these countries.

DUNLOP: The first thing is that when you go to cooking school, you are learning the building blocks of a cuisine, which is like the grammar of a language. So the basic components, the basic processes and flavors, which you then put together to make a multitude of dishes.

Whereas, I guess, if you were studying French cuisine, you will learn some classic sauces, a bit of knife work, techniques of pastry making. In China, in Sichuan, absolutely fundamental was dao gong (刀工), the knife skills.

[Lydia] CHANG: I actually have a story to share about Dad’s cutting knife. He said when he first started learning, in school, there’s only limited time, but he wants to really excel at it. So he returned back to the dorm, started cutting, using cleaver to cut newspaper to practice.

Some of you will like this a lot, but don’t expect a normal CWT episode.  And here is Fuchsia’s wonderful new book The Food of Sichuan, a significantly updated new edition of the old.

The Anarchy

William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. He burst upon the scene in 1989 as a precocious, if occasionally a bit snotty travel writer, with In Xanadu in which he traced the path of Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Xanadu in Inner Mongolia. He really hit stride, however, with City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, an essentially perfect example of the “Year in” genre that combines humor, history and analysis and remains to this day an excellent guide to historical Delhi. In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple traveled from Greece to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to understand the ancient roots of the Christian populations in these countries. Sadly, Dalrymple’s trip has become in some respects a last document of cultures now disappearing under the stress of war, revolution and suppression. As Dalrymple aged he turned more and more to pure history. In The Last Mughal and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalyrmple gives what I think are the definitive accounts of the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the British invasion of Afghanistan of 1839-1842. Especially notable in both of these books is that Dalyrmple draws on previous ignored or underused Indian and Afghani accounts. There are other books, collections of journalistic essays, photographs and more but I will mention just one more, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a beautiful and unforgettable account of nine people in modern India each walking a unique religious path.

In his latest book, The Anarchy, Dalrymple recounts the remarkable history of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. I review The Anarchy at EH.net. Here’s one bit from my review:

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.

Read the whole review and buy the book. It’s a hell of a story.

*Walter Raleigh: Architect of Empire*

An excellent book, by Alan Gallay, this one will make my year-end “best of” list.  It has merchant voyages, royal monopolies, hermeticism, captive Inuits brought to London to perish, conquests of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, virgin queens, charter cities, and the best overall understanding of early British colonialism/imperialism I have seen.  It is perhaps better read than excerpted, but here is one bit:

[John] Gilbert would not sail again for America until 1583. For three and a half years, English resources that might have gone to overseas expeditions to America had to be devoted to Ireland — the pope’s decision to become militarily involved in Irish affairs deterred the English America; in the coming decade American colonization would be frequently sidetracked by the same three things: events in Ireland, relations with Spain, and the English propensity to go plundering at sea.

And:

For colonization to succeed, the English required investors, sailors, and colonists.  All were difficult to come by.  The English intended to turn the New World into a haven for English Catholics as a way to solve multiple problems: rid England of religious dissidents, obtain investors, and alleviate overcrowding by moving surplus populations of the unemployed overseas to become useful.  English Catholic interest wavered, however…

I am sure to read the whole thing through, you can pre-order here.

What I’ve been reading and browsing

1. Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.  I read this one straight through, it does more to bring the Aztecs (a misnomer, by the way, as it is technically the name of the military alliance…a bit like referring to “NATO people”) to life than any other book I know.

2. Daniel M. Russell, The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics.  I don’t need this, but I suspect useful for many.

3. Thomas O. McGarity, Pollution, Politics, and Power: The Struggle for Sustainable Electricity.  A very useful of the last four decades of transformation in the electricity industry.

4. Norman Lebrecht, Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World 1847-1947.  An informative and engaging account of what the title promises (you can learn more about Heine and Alkan and Moholy-Nagy).  Nonetheless the author never really addresses the question of why that period was quite so remarkable for Jewish achievement, relative to the rest of world history.

5. Edmund Morris, Edison.  Lots of impressive research, but this book didn’t have the emphasis on innovation and institutions that I was looking for.

There is also Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.

And:

COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

“And what a decade it was”

From Alex X.:

With the decade coming to a close, I would be curious on everyone’s favorite of the decade [gives list of categories]:

Without too much pondering, here is what comes to mind right away:

Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or A Touch of Sin.  Might Winter Sleep by next?  It was probably the best decade ever for foreign movies, the worst decade ever for Hollywood movies (NYT).

Blockbuster/action film: Transformers 4?  Big screen only, live or die by CGI!

Album: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Single: I don’t see an obvious, non-derivative pick here that really stands out.  Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” probably is the mainstream choice, but do I ever go over to the stereo to put it on?  Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” is another option, but is it such a big step beyond Prince?  Lorde or Beyonce?  LCD Soundsystem seems more about the entire album, same for Frank Ocean.  Something from Kanye’s Yeezus?  To pull a dark horse option out of the hat, how about Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes“?  Or Death Grips “Giving Bad People Good Ideas“?  I’ve spent enough time on Twitter that I have to opt for that one.

TV Show: Srugim, Borgen, The Americans.

Single Season: Selections from same, you know which seasons.

Book Fiction: The Ferrante quadrology and Houllebecq’s Submission.

Book Non Fiction: Knausgaard, volumes I and II.

Athlete of the Decade: Stephen Curry or Lebron James.

What are your picks?

What I’ve been reading

C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, is a beautifully written history of exactly what the title and subtitle claim.

Also noteworthy is Richard Brookhiser, Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Essays, a kind of companion volume.  Can you beat the title, especially given world trends today?

Eric Schwitzgebel, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.  Collected essays, interesting throughout, and among other points Schwitzgebel shows that ethicists do not in fact behave better than other human beings, higher rates of vegetarianism aside.

I do not have time to read David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, but based on a browse it is 918 pp. of substance on everything from the Polynesians to the monsoon to sailing across the Atlantic, and then some.

I am a big fan of Yuval Levin, and now he has a new forthcoming book A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.