Saturday, March 2, 2019

2019 Reading List: Southern Lit, Mil-Pop, Science Fiction and More

My initial 2019 reading list is a combination of Christmas and birthday gifts (mostly from my embarrassingly lengthy Amazon wish list), books I never got to last year, and one oldie that I don't think I ever read (i.e., East of Eden).

The stack to the right doesn't include everything that I hope to read, or that I started in 2018 and am still working my way through (ahem, the 26 hours long audiobook on the Ethiopian fight against Italy), or other audiobooks that are in my queue.

December 2019 update: So my actual reading list this year veered a bit from the picture on the right but it was a good year in reading.

See our 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 Reading Lists.

The High Mountains of Portugal
Man Booker prize winning author Yann Martel has crafted a trio of related novellas that lay bare the trauma (sometimes literally) of loss and its psychic weight that can echo across generations like a deep curse. In “High Mountains” we join the journey of three characters: a bereaved widower on a mission to find a lost African crucifix; a grieving, delusional pathologist obsessed with Agatha Christie; and an aging widower/politician who buys a chimpanzee and retreats with the animal to his family’s ancestral village. It’s in this village--in the high (non) mountains of Portugal that all three stories intersect.

Martel has created a world and tale that falls into the realm of magic realism--if you’ve read or seen his other story, “The Life of Pi”, you will have a good idea of what to expect. My jaw definitely dropped numerous times at the action that unfolded but the author tells the story with such skill that the ridiculousness of the situation only draws you in further. My full review is here.

In a dying Australian farm town, tinkering on the edge of collapse due to droughts, a family is found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.  An exiled man-turned-white-collar cop returns for the funeral and finds out his childhood best friend is the assumed killer of his own wife and kids.

Did his friend do it?  What secrets is the cop hiding?  What secrets has the town buried?
This was a page turner that kept me guessing till the end. A great quick read. My full review is here.

Beacon 23
In "Beacon 23", Hugh Howey takes us for a ride with a PTSD'd alien-fighting grunt turned (interstellar) lighthouse keeper.  Yes, Howey imagines a future in which "lighthouse beacons" are placed amidst warp speed preventing asteroid belts.  The lighthouse keepers control a device that, when activated, allows ships to pass through the asteroid belts without collision.  Without that device activated, any passing ship will obliterated.  Couple this setting with a pending alien invasion and a possible love interest and you've got "Beacon 23"--a great story you'l devour. My full review is here.

The Three-Body Problem
This is a trippy novel that's not easily summarized and it's easy to get lost in the more technical aspects that Cixin explores in depth (i.e., nanotechnology, AI, metaphysics, quantum mechanics etc.), particularly when listening to it in 45 minutes blocks on Audible in D.C. traffic over a month's time).  The basic premise, though, is that a technologically superior alien civilization has decided to colonize earth.  The story, however, unfolds amidst a narrative that jumps from the 1960's Chinese cultural revolution, to present day China, to an online VR world/game that the aliens may be using as a communication mechanism.  This is a book that requires mental engagement but one which rewards the reader with a gripping story that readers will grapple with long after they've finished the novel's last pages. My full review will be here.

Ghost Fleet
The premise of the novel is that sometime in the near future China (partnered with Russia) conducts a cyber/space/electronic warfare attack that gives them dominance across the warfare spectrum.  Our fleet and air assets are near completely destroyed (with those remaining rendered useless as they are chocked full of compromised Chinese chips).  With all our U.S. satellites destroyed, the United States no longer has freedom of movement on land/air/sea.

The heart of the story is how the U.S. fights back--this being a combination of insurgency (in the occupied Hawaiian island), a reconstitution of mothballed ships and aircraft, a private-public wartime industrial partnership, and a murky collaboration with Anonymous hackers. Oh, and with the rail gun--lots of focus on the rail gun. The story moves quickly and I burned through the pages as authors Singer and Cole keep the narrative moving with quick dialogue, myriad Sun-Tzu quotes, and sympathetic characters.  My full review is here.

The Furious Longing of God
You can get through the 136 pages in one sitting if you’d like but I think it’s a book that’s best consumed in spurts with time to mull over Brennan Manning’s meditation on God’s love for us. This book likely has a message for any reader, most importantly this:  “Our religion never begins with what we do for God. It always starts with what God has done for us.” My full review is here.

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know
I first wrote read this book back in 2015 and wrote about it here in a post. It's so important to fathers out there that I put in my yearly re-reading list (although it took me four years to read it again)!

In my second reading of this book, it proved to be just as powerful, profound and insightful. The bottom line is that you can't underestimate the role of a father in his daughters' lives. You have to fight for her, engage with her, and continually draw her close to you throughout her life (particularly during those teen years). Don't worry about what other parents do--you worry about your daughter. I'm putting a calendar reminder this summer to give this book another read!  My full review is here. 

Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only To Find Her Again
A candid, emotional memoir of a daughter's struggles, hopes, triumphs, and losses as she copes with her mother's primary progressive aphasia (a rare form of dementia).  The story is about more than the disease itself but about the bond between daughters and their mothers.

Rocks Breaks Scissors
The main point I took away from this novel was that people are crummy at trying to be “random.”  All of this book’s applications are founded on one simple idea. When people make arbitrary, random, or strategic choices, they fall into unconscious patterns that you can predict.

While entertaining to read, I’d say most of his writing is only useful for specific circumstances like taking multiple choice tests, office pools, rock, scissors, paper (RSP), catching fraud, and buying a home. For those circumstances it’s worthwhile to keep a copy of this book around.  My full review is here.

Between the World and Me
“Between the World and Me” is a love letter from a father to a son written with the urgency of a man who knows he may perish at any moment. Coates writes beautifully as he recalls his youth and experiences as a father. His memoir reflects serious inner self-examination as he seeks to create a blueprint for his son to survive and possibly even thrive in a world that Coates argues is stacked against him from a historical, institutional, and psycho cultural perspective.

As Coates warns his son to keep his guard up, he adds, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.” This observation reminded me of Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” which I wrote about it here. My full review is here.

Hillbilly Elegy
I read J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir "of a family and culture in crisis" in less than two days.  Vance is just a flatout great writer as he tells the story of his life growing up between the Ohio and Kentucky along the redneck Rt. 23.

His basic argument is that one of the major issues plaguing Appalachian American is the people there feel hopeless and disenfranchised (and not just politically but in all facets of life).  In short, they feel like their choices don't matter.

In Vance's case the only way he was able to rise above these circumstances was due to the reliable and persistent presence of a family member throughout his immediate family's tumultuous arc.  Oh, that and a stint in the Marine Corps. My full review is here.

Where the Crawdads Sing
I read this beautiful lyrical book in two days--no exaggeration.

"Where the Crawdads Sing" is equal parts murder mystery, searing social indictment, love letter to naturalism, and soaring poetry.  It's amazing that this is author Delia Owens first work of fiction!  She writers with grace and beauty and crafts a narrative that immediately draws in the reader and keeps them turning the pages.

About the narrative--this is the story of a young girl (Kya) abandoned in the swampy wild marshes of North Carolina who not only survives, but thrives despite these dire circumstances.  Along the way she falls in love more than a few times and eventually finds herself facing a set of murder charges.  I'm hesitant to share much more than that as far as the story goes because it's just that good!  My full review is here.

The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon
All that to say, Mcinnis’ razor sharp, satirical story of a young, idealist, peacenik PhD’s foray into the Pentagon brought me back to my days inside the 5-sided torture chamber! “The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon” is a novel about one woman’s evolution? from skeptic to true (ish) believer as she discovers that life inside is nothing like she expected. One of the story’s strengths is that despite the building’s bureaucratic bloviations, the narrator Dr. Heather Reilly’s outlook never devolves into the jaded despair that seems to envelope many an officer stuck there for a three year tour. This narrative framing keeps the novel light and entertaining instead of the sad and frustrating tale it might be if a depressed, worn down, wizened colonel authored it. I’ve thought about the emotions this book made me feel for a few days now, and I think one of the strongest ones is that of exhilaration--author Kathleen Mcinnis has given a voice to the experiences, frustrations, battles, and victories to thousands of staff officers in a way that none of us on active duty are able to.My full review is here.

Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia's Victory Over Mussolini's Invasion (Ethiopia)
I can’t imagine there’s a more well-researched book out there on Ethiopia’s decades long resistance and eventual defeat of an overeager, over confident, overreaching wanna-be colonial power (i.e., Italy). Canadian author Jeff Pearce’s work is strongest as he brings to life the myriad actors, antagonists, and heroes of the saga. It’s worth noting that Pearce is a bit of a Selassie apologist but given the complicated history of Ras Tafari (yup that’s where that term came from) Makkonen’s reign, I imagine this can fall either way. My full review is here.

Homegoing (Ghana)
This masterpiece of historical fiction follows the lives of two separated half-sisters (and their six generations of descendants) beginning in the mid-1700 area of West Africa today known as Ghana. Gyasi uses their two very different paths to highlight not only the horrors of the slave trade but also the bravery and determination of the many who persevered and survived across the span of time. Ultimately, in “Homegoing”, the 25 year-old (I mean wow!) author accomplishes a breath-taking feat in creating a compelling history of slavery told through 14 sequential short stories that you likely ever forget.  My full review is here.

Beneath the Lion's Gaze (Ethiopia)
One of the only African nations to never have been colonized (the five year occupation by Italy is generally not categorized as colonization), one of its darkest periods came during the 13-year socialist-Lenninist-Marxist rule of the Derg. This military junta overthrew an increasingly oblivious Haile Selassie (ending a succession of “solomonic rule” dating back to the 1200s) and set about consolidating power (aka the “Red Terror”) under the leadership of despot Mengistu Mariam. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is a retelling of this time period through the eyes of one Ethiopian family.

The family’s patriarch is a renowned doctor named Hailu who is ordered to keep the victim of a barely-alive Derg torture victim alive--ostensibly so that she can be tortured further. As he struggles with this dilemma, his son Dawit becomes a freedom fighter who becomes known as “Mekonnen Killer of Soldiers.” Author Maaza Mengiste uses the arc of this one family’s struggles to bring to life the experience of Ethiopians who starved under Selassie, only to be persecuted and killed under the Derg and starved again under its leader Mengistu’s reign.

While Mengistu was eventually toppled, like all civil war tales, no one is left unscathed in "Beneath the Lion’s Gaze".  All resistance, no matter how passive--or how righteous, bears a cost. Hailu in particular at the story’s conclusion, is broken so thoroughly by torture that he carries the “appearance of a man dragging death with him through life.” And it is this notion of the inseparable presence of death within everyday life that Mengiste best captures the reality for generations of Ethiopians.
My full review is here.

Shadow King (Ethiopia)
Following the conclusion of World War II, Mussoloni (as the Ethiopians derisively referred to him) concocted a plan to give himself a slice of the colonial pie while simultaneously avenging his country’s late 19th century embarrassment at the Battle of Adua.

Kidane, the military leader in “The Shadow King” remarks to his men that the Italians “have come to rewrite history, to alter memory, to resurrect their dead and refashion them as heroes.”

At exiled Emperor Haile Selassie’s behest, Kidane assembles a local militia to fight against the invading forces. His wife Aster leads the women who trail the fighters, supplying them with food, bullets, and equipment. As Kidane’s forces suffer battlefield losses, Aster eventually convinces him to let her women fight. A character equal parts cruel and inspirational, Aster implores her fellow women to take their place in history and fight. Her servant, and narrator, Hirut describes Aster’s fervor: “She is one woman. She is many women. She is all the sound that exists in the world.” My full review is here.

Season of the Shadow (Cameroon)
Miana's story begins as the inhabitants of a tribal village tucked away in the interior of modern day Cameroon awaken to its huts ablaze and find that 12 of its men have vanished.  This mysterious disappearance sets off a chain of events that, as one might guess, ends in tragedy.  This tale's power comes as the reader is placed in the middle of a people group who's whole order and existence is thrown into havoc.  Even as the reader is keenly aware as to what happened, the kidnapping is so out of place with centuries of accepted conduct and cultural norms that its tribal members can't fathom who the perpetrators might be.  My full review is here.

The Gunny Sack (Tanzania)
Most of the African fiction that I’ve read has focused on the “native” experience (outside of V.S. Naipaul), so I found the “The Gunny Sack” to be an important novel as it focuses exclusively on the experience of four generations of an Indian family in Tanzania and wider East Africa beginning in the late 1800s. Vassanji relates this in-depth experience across the span of Tanzania’s colonization and eventual independence through the backward lens of the narrator Kala who parses through the contents of a gunny sack bequeathed to him by his great grandmother Ji Bai. My full review is here.

To Stop a Warlord: My Story of Justice, Grace, and the Fight for Peace (Uganda)
This book is the story of how one woman created a new paradigm in how NGOs/charitable organizations should/could/can confront atrocity and evil by partnering with the military.  Shannon Davis is the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation and she decided to do something about Joseph Kony and his reign of terror.

The short story is that Bridgeway partnered with a private military contractor to train a special Ugandan military unit to hunt down Joseph Kony and his band of murderous, child-soldier recruiting, rape and pillaging, terrorist men. My full review is here.

Gratitude in Low Voices (Eritrea)
Equal parts memoir, history and adventure novel, Dawit Habte’s “Gratitude in Low Voices” is the story of not only his country’s 91 year struggle for independence but also his own incredible journey from a countryside village in Eritrea to the offices of Bloomberg as a software engineer. As with many refugee stories that have come out of Africa, the western reader will be floored by the tenacity, resilience and grit that the author displays at such a young age as he smuggles himself out of Ethiopia, and finally gets refugee status to start his life over continue his life in the United States. One thing that struck me was Habte’s commentary on the dehumanizing nature of seeking asylum--where you are assumed to be starting anew on a better life despite having a family, people, and country that you call home half a world away. My full review is here.

Small Country (Burundi)
Reading Gael Faye’s “Small Country”, I was reminded of the writing of other writers such as Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu, Maaza Mengiste, Noviolet Bulawayo, and poets like Frank Chipasula, Atukwei Okai, and K'naan. Faye writes with a musician’s flair (and indeed he was a well known rapper/musician before becoming an author), penning lines like: “And when he laughed, happiness washed over the walls of Mamie’s small living room like a fresh lick of paint.”My full review is here.

At the end of the book, Gabriel reflects that “I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.” This summarizes well the crux of the story, Gabriel is Rwandan-French but spends his entire childhood in neighboring Burundi until the effects of the 1994 Rwanda genocide push him even further away to France. It’s there that he considers what exactly he’s lost and finally finds the courage to return and makes a heart-breaking discovery.  My full review is here.

Mister Drainpipe

Author Marc Secchia took a hiatus from his slew of successful fantasy novels to pen this heartfelt love letter to the homeless of Addis Ababa. I tore through this book in less than two days and I’ll warn you that this story will pierce even the hardest heart and (hopefully) change the way you think and interact with the homeless and “least” in your daily life. My full review is here.

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