2019 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 102 I’ve read so far. Closer to the end of the month, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  1. Star of the North: terrific spy thriller set mostly in North Korea based on a simple premise: what if you found out your twin sister didn’t die, but had instead been kidnapped by the North Korean government? Remarkable characterizations and a realistic portrayal of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. 
  2. Valley of Genius: a compilation of interviews and quotes from Silicon Valley luminaries, some of whom you may never have heard of, tell the story of how Silly Valley came to be what it is today. Features the usual suspects (Jobs, Woz, Stewart Brand), but also mentions many lesser-known people whose contributions, although important, never got the same kind of visibility. 
  3. Freedom’s Forge: do you know who Bill Knudsen was? How about Henry Kaiser? What if I told you that, if not for them, there’s a good chance the US would have lost World War II? True, and fascinating, story. (Along the way, it explains the “Permanente” part of Kaiser Permanente’s name). 
  4. Those Who Wish Me Dead: part mystery, part thriller, part wilderness exploration, the plot and characterization and dialogue here are among the best I’ve ever read. Koryta makes a forest fire into a believable, and fearsome, character as part of this tale of revenge and escape. It would make a terrific movie. 
  5. Chief Engineer: it seems remarkable, maybe even preposterous, to us now that a single man could be chiefly responsible for a huge public works project, but that’s exactly true of Washington Roebling, the titular engineer and the man who gave us (among other contributions) the Brooklyn Bridge. Masterful biography of the man and his wife Emily, whose role in Roebling’s bridge-building career has mostly been skipped over but deserves wider exposure. 
  6. Creative Selection: thoughtful meditation, with lots of amusing stories, about Apple’s design process at the start of the iPhone era by one of their lead iPhone engineers, the man whose epitaph will probably read “Autocorrect Was His Fault.” 
  7. How Bad Do You Want It? Absolutely fascinating survey of what we know about the links between mental resilience and toughness and elite sport performance. Fitzgerald does a masterful job of highlighting different areas of mental development that are applicable to everyday athletes, explaining why they matter, and discussing how to develop them. 
  8. Exploding the Phone: I grew up at the tail end of the “phone phreak” era, and I’d always thought I was pretty familiar with it, but I learned a ton from this well-researched and cleverly told history… including that AT&T used to tape millions of toll calls in a project named “Greenstar” and that John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper didn’t actually invent the technique for making free calls that came to be strongly associated with him. Great stuff if you’re interested in the history of technology at all. 
  9. A Few Seconds of Panic: Most grown men would know better than to try to make it as a walk-on player in the NFL, but not sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. I very quickly started rooting for him as he made his way through Denver Broncos training camp; he had a marvelous adventure and told its story clearly and well.
  10. The Path Between the Seas: speaking of “marvelous adventure,” how abut that Panama Canal? During the nearly 45 years of its construction, countless people died,and the political and commercial maneuvering incident to getting the Canal built left marks that we still see today in the US and Panamanian governments. I knew nothing about the engineering or politics behind this work, so this entire book was a terrific learning experience for me. 

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