THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Rebecca Makkai

What a great way to kick off the 2019 reading year.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a dense, rich novel that toggles back and forth between Chicago in the mid-80s and Paris in 2015. The Chicago chapters follow a group of gay friends as AIDS ravages their community and upends their relationships, plans and careers. In 2015, one of the characters from the 80s chapters has come to Paris in search of her estranged daughter, and while there she reconnects with some of the people she knew in Chicago after her brother died of AIDS, one of the early deaths in the community.

I was too young in the 80s to truly grasp at the time how devastating AIDS was to the gay community, how it completely changed how these men lived their lives. The Great Believers brings it all into sharp focus, exploring how a positive diagnosis – and a negative one, for that matter – affected how they related to their partners and their friends. It’s hard to imagine a whole generation of men – many of whom had dealt with discrimination and estrangement from their own families – who were planning and looking forward to their futures, only to have them cut off in the cruelest and most painful way. Some passages I marked in the book:

“There was this tiny window where we were safer, and happier. I thought it was the beginning of something. When really it was the end.”

“If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it’s a judgment on your promiscuity. f you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that’s almost worse, it’s like a judgment on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn’t, it’s a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn’t care, it’s a judgment on how much you hate yourself.”

“Let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Because this isn’t Mother May I. You’re not always advancing. I know it feels that way right now, but it’s fragile. You might look back in fifty years and say, ‘That was the last great time.'”

“As he got sicker, it was more and more often that he thought of people – of Charlie, certainly, and of everyone else here or gone: not as the sum of all the disappointments, but as every beginning they’d ever represented, every promise.”

Devastating.

I got totally immersed in The Great Believers, finding myself thinking about these characters often when I wasn’t reading, worried about them and invested in how their lives would turn out. (I had to remind myself frequently that they weren’t real!) Makkai clearly did a lot of research, not just on AIDS and the gay community in the 80s, but also about art, which plays a big prominent role in the book. I also really appreciated her attention to detail, little observations that made the book so believable. She’s an incredibly talented writer.

In the end, The Great Believers is about friendship and loyalty, and how our devotion to one person or cause can have consequences in other parts of our lives. It’s a long book, one that requires attention and thought. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was an immersive and very satisfying read.

2018 Reading Year In Review

This is the first year I easily surpassed my reading goal of 52 books. I ended at 56, with lots of time to spare. So I am happy about that. I took two longish international trips this year that really helped boost my book count. I’m not sure how I am going to repeat that performance next year, but I am giving myself a goal of 60 books for 2019. I’ll have to find other ways to increase my reading, especially since we don’t have any big trips planned.

Last December, I pledged to read 10 non-fiction books this year, and I read 11. I only read 8 male authors this year, so my goal next year is to read more than that.

Here are my overall goals for 2019:

  • 60 books
  • At least 2 classics
  • 12 male authors
  • 12 non-fiction books
  • More #bookstagram posts
  • More author readings (those have fallen by the wayside and I miss them)

When I look back on 2018, I read a lot of pretty mediocre stuff, which makes me sad. I spend so much time reading about and researching books – how am I ending up with so many books on the list that I don’t love? I think I need to be less impulsive in my reading choices. Rather than choosing my next read based on the mood I’m in, I need to be more deliberate and plan my books based on what others I trust have said about them.

Here are my standout reads from 2017:

Best audiobooks were Born To Run (read by Bruce Springsteen), I Am I Am I Am (read by Daisy Donovan) and Kitchens Of The Great Midwest (read by Amy Ryan and Michael Struhlbarg).

Most disappointing books: The Submission by Amy Waldman, Vox by Christine Dalcher.

Books that made me feel stupid: Bobcat And Other Stories by Rebecca Lee, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.

Books that should be required reading for all Americans: The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman, Nomadland by Jessica Bruder, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Books I could not put down: One Day In December by Josie Silver, One True Loves, Taylor Jenkins Reid.

For the last several years, I have tracked the Depressing Themes of the books I read. Here are some of the depressing subjects covered by the books I read in 2018: Iraq war casualties, psychopathic husbands/boyfriends/neighbors (way too many of these!), death, cancer, addiction, divorce, dystopian America with no reproductive freedom, car accidents, family estrangement, brushes with death, dystopian America where women aren’t allowed to speak, infidelity, child illness, the Depression, mental illness, 9/11, plane crash, school shooting, suicide, false imprisonment, accidental death, the economy, illegal immigration and deportation, death, death, death.

The year by the numbers:

  • 45 fiction, 11 non-fiction
  • 11 repeat authors during 2018: Taylor Jenkins Reid, Jean Thompson, Maggie O’Farrell, Katherine Center, J. Ryan Stradal, JoJo Moyes, Meg Wolitzer, Tayari Jones, Laurie Frankel, Caroline Preston, Roz Chast
  • 2 rereads: Kitchens Of The Great Midwest; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
  • 18 audiobooks
  • 8 male authors

How was your 2018 in reading? What were the highlights and what do you have planned for 2019?

THE FOUR: THE HIDDEN DNA OF AMAZON, APPLE, FACEBOOK AND GOOGLE by Scott Galloway

When The Four by Scott Galloway came out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. I work in technology, so this book about Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google was right up my alley. The company I work for, Homesnap, works closely with Facebook, Google and Apple, and Amazon is, of course, Amazon, so I was interested to hear what Galloway, an NYU business school professor, had to say.

The Four goes through each of the Four Horsemen, as he calls them, analyzing how they got so big and powerful, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and what they have in common. He also explains how they are both dependent on and competitive with each other:

Google signaled the end of the brand era… hurting Apple, who also finds itself competing with Amazon in music and film. Amazon is Google’s largest customer, but it’s also threatening Google in search[]. Apple and Amazon are running, full speed, into each other in front of us, on our TV screens and phones, as Google fights Apple to be the operating system of the product that defines our age, the smartphone.

Galloway explains why the Four Horsemen have so quickly outperformed the traditional brands and companies – across many sectors – that were the bedrock of the American economy for decades before Facebook came along. He also identifies the few companies with the potential – but not necessarily the likelihood – of becoming the Fifth Horseman. (Think Uber, Tesla, Microsoft, Walmart).

Even though The Four came out recently – October 2017 – it already feels somewhat outdated. Things have changed for Facebook, for sure, in the intervening months, and Amazon seems to have gained strength in a number of areas even in that short time. (Galloway updates The Four in this 2017 video; I’d like to know what he’d say today.) Amazon really emerges as the company to fear here. Trying to beat them is futile.

If you’re an intense b-school type who lives and dies by numbers, this book might be too light for you. If you like funny, slightly irreverent books about business and technology, this one is for you! I really enjoyed it and learned a lot in the process. If you’re interested in working for one of the Horsemen, then this is required reading.

I listened to The Four on audio. The format – short subsections – lends itself well to audio and I had no trouble staying focused. The narrator, Jonathan Todd Ross, was funny and engaging, faithful to Galloway’s tone throughout the book. If you like audio non-fiction, this is a good one to add to your player.

ASYMMETRY by Lisa Halliday

I picked up Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday because I had heard really good things about it. It’s on a number of Best Books of 2018 lists, and people I know who read a lot of Books Smart People Like either want to read it or read it and loved it.

I did not like it.

Asymmetry is three novellas in one. In the first, a twentysomething editorial assistant named Alice has a relationship with a very famous and successful author in his 60s named Ezra (he’s based on Philip Roth). In the second novella, an Iraqi-American named Amar is detained at Heathrow airport en route home to Iraq to see his family. And in the third, the same author, Ezra, from the first section is interviewed about his favorite music of all time and why it is influenced him. The third section allegedly ties the first two together.

So. Asymmetry is one of those books that I. Just. Didn’t. Get. The first section was good. I liked Halliday’s depiction of relationship between the woman and the author, and all the ways he both pushed her away and drew her to him at the same time. I could have taken a whole book about these two. But then the second part came along, and it’s just so… boring. The scenes at the airport are moderately interesting (what happens to him, though? does he ever make it to Iraq?) but there is all this meandering stuff in between, about the man’s life leading up to the detention, including his childhood and his ex-girlfriend and his career and his grandmother’s house and oh my god I had to skim it. Then there’s the random Desert Island Disc section, where you learn a little more about Ezra and the different music he liked.

This book lost me pretty early on and never got me back.

So, other than some good writing and a compelling story of a basically inappropriate relationship, what was the point of Asymmetry and why do people love it so much? I am waiting for my dad to read it so he can explain it to me. If you’ve read it, please weigh in and tell me what it is that I missed.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis

When I was little, I loved the Chronicles of Narnia series. I had a box set and read them all. I didn’t remember much about them, other than that I loved their dark, mysterious stories, when I decided to pick up the first one, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, to read to my 6 year-old son. He’s a bit younger than I was when I read them (I read them to myself) but we’re in the chapter book phase now and I thought he might like them. 

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is about four siblings, Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund, who are evacuated from London during WWII and sent to live with a professor in the countryside. Bored, they spend their days exploring the professor’s big house. One day, the youngest, Lucy, hides in a large wardrobe and finds herself transported to a magical, snowy land called Narnia. When she returns to the wardrobe, no time has passed in real life and her siblings do not believe her. But soon, her brother Edmund also ends up in Narnia, and before long all of them have gone through the magic wardrobe.

Narnia is under the spell of a wicked witch, who has imposed permanent winter across the land. The spell can only be unbroken when four humans come to Narnia and sit on thrones in the castle. When the kids end up in Narnia together, Edmund is captured by the witch, while the others try to liberate Narnia with the help of a noble lion-king, Aslan.

I enjoyed revisiting Narnia and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It feels just a bit dated, from the British slang to some of the comments about girls, but the book sparked my dormant sense of wonder at fantasy stories about faraway lands. (I don’t read much of that anymore.) I also recognized the Christian imagery, for which C.S. Lewis is famous, much more this time around. It was pretty much lost on me as a child.

Here’s what my six year-old had to say: “It was interesting. I liked what happened in the end. It wasn’t boring. I was worried about what was going to happen to the characters.”

I found some of the book a little scary for a six year-old (one of the characters is captured and treated as a prisoner; Aslan is killed; there is a lot of description of battles and casualties) but it didn’t seem to bother my son.

There are good themes for kids here: loyalty to your family; triumph of good over bad. 

We’re going to start the next book in the series soon.

Best Books of 2018

In past years, I’ve done a Reading Year In Review as my last post of the year, including my standout reads from the last 12 months. This year, I’m adding a Best Books of 2018 post, because everyone else is doing one. (It’s always important to do what everyone else is doing, right?) 

Ok, here goes: my favorite 8 books of 2018 and why I liked them. These weren’t necessarily my favorites as I was reading them, but with time to reflect, they are the ones that I found the most moving and beautifully written, and which have stayed with me over the months. I’ve linked to my original reviews for each title.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is my #1 read of the year. Poignant, with spare writing and insights about being a woman, family and parenting, this book was a recent read and well worth it.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ll read anything she writes, but every page of this collection of stories was enjoyable. Memorable characters, believable situations. I want to re-read this one. 

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. If the purpose of a memoir is to let the world know who you really are, then this one succeeded in spades. It’s long and sometimes meandering but hey, it’s Bruce, so it’s ok.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. The first 3/4 of this book was very slow, but the final quarter made up for it. Heartbreaking, deeply moving and a story that has stayed with me for months.

Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman. Don’t let the subject matter – a severely wounded soldier lying in a coma while his conflicted wife waits for his condition to change – drive you away. This short novel raises a number of ethical questions and is a good reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Theres’s a reason this book is all over everyone else’s top 2018 reads. It’s a small story about a love triangle that says big things about the state of race in America. So well written and beautifully constructed.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman. This one was a sleeper. I liked it fine when I read it, but the main character has really stayed with me and in retrospect I think this was a pretty good book. It’s sad and lonely and atmospheric, and at the same time it’s totally believable.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I re-read my favorite book from 2017 and loved it just as much. I’ll shut up now.

RAY & JOAN by Lisa Napoli

Ray Kroc is best – if erroneously – known as the founder of McDonald’s. He didn’t actually start the company – the first McDonald’s was owned by two brothers in San Bernardino, CA – but Ray did develop the franchise model that turned McDonald’s into one of the world’s biggest brands, making himself a billionaire in the process. Ray’s third wife, Joan, to whom he was married when he died, gave away the billions of dollars in wealth that her husband created, and she is the subject of Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book, Ray & Joan.

The first half of Ray & Joan covers the history of the McDonald’s chain, including its dusty inception, and the early, lean years of Ray’s ownership of the company. A salesman at heart, he made many missteps along the way to success, each of which is covered in the book. Joan, meanwhile, was a young wife and mother when Ray laid eyes on her in a Minnesota nightclub, playing piano and singing. She stole his heart, and while it would be many years before they were together, he never forgot about her. Ray and Joan were fiery, opinionated people who fought often but were drawn together by a passion that survived three marriages to other people.

By the time the Krocs finally got together for good in 1969, Ray was already very wealthy. The causes that he chose to support were determined by his conservative political views, and Joan often felt limited in her ability to direct her husband’s philanthropy. She tolerated his purchase of the San Diego Padres and took a limited interest in his funding of business schools and various health causes.

But as Ray’s health declined, and after his death in 1984, Joan began to take charge of the family fortune and kicked off what turned into a spectacular – and indiosyncratic – philanthropic career. Her first pet cause was addiction, fueled by her frustration with Ray’s lifelong drinking, and she sought out doctors and institutions who would study the disease and provide resources to other who suffered from it. From there, she moved to nuclear disarmament and end of life hospice support and a host of other causes that caught her attention. 

The most interesting aspect of Ray & Joan is Napoli’s coverage of what prompted Joan to give money away.  She was famously private, and hated being solicited or asked for money. When she gave, she almost always did it anonymously, in large part to prevent others from approaching her looking for a similar donation. She’d see someone on the news doing something that impressed her, and the next day a check would arrive from Joan. At the end of her life, she concentrated her giving on two recipients: NPR and the Salvation Army, though the enormous gifts she left both organizations upon her death came with strings and instructions that made them almost as burdensome (especially in the case of the Salvation Army) as they were lifesaving.

Napoli had a blank slate to work with, as no one had written about Joan Krok before, despite her enormous legacy. Napoli did a good job of unearthing the psychological roots of Joan’s motivations, and by the end I had a good sense of who Joan was, with all of her complications and contradictions. The book moves along pretty steadily, and it’s fascinating to track the path of Joan’s hundreds of millions of dollars.

I listened to Ray & Joan on audio. It was narrated by the author, and I didn’t love it. Napoli has a chirpy voice and she enunciates VERY clearly, and sometimes that voice just didn’t match the subject matter. She’d be talking about someone dying, or a terrible tragedy, and she was just too upbeat and perky for what she was talking about, like she was reading a children’s book. Also – warning – listening to this book for 9 hours in the car as you drive around will make you crave McDonald’s, and it gets really bad if you’re at all hungry. To date, I’ve resisted the urge, but it was challenging.

i enjoyed Ray & Joan and am glad I finally got to it, as it has been on my shelf for a few years. I recommend the print over the audio.