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Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young

August 18, 2017


At the beginning of the summer, we moved back to California from Texas, into a nook of the Santa Cruz Mountains south of Los Gatos. The area has a wild history, inhabited for a long time by various tribes of Native Americans, explored by the Spanish, then by a host of adventurous folks looking to make a life homesteading, logging, mining or farming.

This book is a collection of news stories that originally appeared in The San Jose Mercury Herald in 1934. Young published the full collection in 1979 with some updates, and his daughter republished them in 2002.

The Santa Cruz mountain region is known for its shifting earth—Loma Prieta, the mountain named for the fault line upon which it sits, looms about six miles to our east. But this book deals more with the shifting of the local populations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The region provides a natural (but not easy) passageway from San Jose to Santa Cruz. As modes of transportation evolved, the area was knitted with a network of hunting trails, then logging roads, wagon-worn dirt roads, railways, then eventually highways. Small towns popped up throughout the mountains, but as routes detoured or disappeared altogether, many towns declined and disappeared as fast as they came. Some exist on the map only in the names of roads or, in some cases, as the names of the reservoirs that now cover them entirely.

Stories of the homesteaders who came into the area in the early 1800s read like tall tales. One of the most famous, Mountain Charley, had part of his skull caved in by a grizzly. The doctor pounded a plate out of Mexican nickels and nailed it to Charley’s head. Another Charley—Silent Charley—was one of the greatest stagecoach drivers anyone had ever seen. It wasn’t discovered until his death that he was actually a she—also the first known woman to have voted in a U.S. general election (as a man, in 1868). There are many stories of property disputes, the most colorful of which ended after an armed standoff with one of the parties hacking a corner off the other party’s house, which he claimed came over his property line, so that he could build a fence.

Our property is spotted with redwood stumps, and a couple weeks ago I came across the remains of an old mill on the creek near our house. Both are reminders that 150 years ago, the mountains were alive with loggers, felling giant trees and then lugging them by ox to the mills, sending down the flumes to the Pacific and eventually up the coast to San Francisco.

From the late 1800s to the 1920s, the area was a popular vacation destination, train cars full of tourists arriving from San Francisco every weekend. The mountains were spotted with various resorts, picnic spots, wineries, and an artist’s commune. More than one religious cult sprang up. But as automobiles came into fashion, San Franciscans looked further out to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe for their leisure. Logging fell off as an industry. The railroad was no longer profitable and was replaced by roadways, eventually Highway 17. Still more towns disappeared.

This book may be of little interest to anyone who doesn’t live in the area, but I found it fascinating. It certainly gave me a lot to explore, a few clues as to the history of the land we live on,* and a handful of entertaining stories and trivia about the area.

*After a little additional research, I believe our land is part of what is known as the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

In the late 1700s, the Spanish empire extended from South and Central America far north into what was then called Alta California, which included all of present-day California and several other western states. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish explorer, led a land expedition through present-day California to the site of what would become San Jose and San Francisco. A member of his party was Joaquin Isidro Castro.

When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, Alta California was won with it. And as a part of a large land grant, the great grandchildren of Joaquin Castro each received land. One of those was Maria Martina Castro, who had been born in the colonial town of Villa de Branciforte near Santa Cruz. She and her husband, an opportunistic Irish sailor Michael Lodge, received a 1,668-acre grant called Rancho Soquel. The grant included present-day Soquel, part of Capitola and land to the east. In 1844, Martina, likely at the urging of her husband, complained that cattle from her brother’s ranch to the south were crowding into her ranch and applied for a second grant. This one was a mere 32,702 acres and extended well into the mountains. The governor granted her the massive extension—the Rancho Soquel Augmentation.

When the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War four years later, Alto California was ceded to the U.S. But the U.S. Land Commission confirmed the land grants. In the years that followed, the land was divided amongst Martina’s children, several of them with the surname Lodge. Whether our area, Redwood Lodge, is named for the people or because there was once a lodge there (vacation destination or lumberjack barracks seem equally likely) is unclear. But as best I can tell, we live on a very small part of the 1844 Rancho Soquel Augmentation.



A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

March 11, 2017


This book was recommended to me by my friend Tim. I was surprised not by how much I liked this book, but how much I ended up loving the main character, Ove (pronounced oh-vuh). The way Fredrik manipulates the reader in his development of the main character is masterful. And if “manipulates” sounds too negative, then maybe “reveals” is a better word. Ove is doled out in a way that repeatedly makes the reader feel we know him, only to have that concept of Ove challenged every time new information comes to light.

On the surface, Ove is a curmudgeon. A stubborn, cranky old man who’s rude to his neighbors and obsessed with meaningless rules. But as we get to know Ove, we learn that he’s also a man struggling with loss. Whether intentional or not, the fact that Ove’s name is one letter away from both LOVE and OVER seems significant.

We also learn through flashbacks that Ove is not as selfish as we might have made him out to be. He is just more a man of action—willing to play the role of the hero, albeit reluctantly (or so he would have you think).

“Charming” is a word that comes to mind with this novel, but that feels too shallow. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Ove, and I actually felt a little guilty for judging him early on in the novel. By the end, one has completely reconsidered who Ove is, because we know why he is.

The humor of Ove’s character reminded me of J Robert Lennon’s protagonist in The Mailman (an excellent novel), though in the end there is more redemption for Ove. He is also a more heartbreaking character and, perhaps because of that, will stick with the reader long after they’ve finished the novel.

From Novel to Film: No Country for Old Men ed. by Lynnea Chapman King, Rick Wallach, and Jim Welsh

February 25, 2017



Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men was published in 2005. The Coen Brothers 2007 adaptation was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including for Best Picture. It’s my favorite film, and McCarthy is one of my favorite writers, but this book caught my interest after a recent re-reading of No Country. I noticed a few significant differences between the book and the film, which is in general a very faithful adaptation. By necessity, any novel-to-film adaptation requires omission. I was curious how the choices were made for No Country. This book doesn’t actually answer those questions (the Coens are notoriously coy about discussing their own process), but it’s a treasure trove of interesting literary and film theory.

Unless you’re really into both the film and the novel, this book isn’t for you. It’s a collection of mostly academic essays about the two works. Front to back, it starts with pieces focusing on the book, then pieces that compare the two, ending with an interview with Roger Deakins, the film’s outstanding cinematographer. Some of the most interesting themes across the collection:

An examination of the literary predecessors of No Country’s notorious villain, Anton Chigurh. Most of the discussion focuses on an intertextual examination of other McCarthy antagonists, predominantly Blood Meridian’s the Judge and, to a lesser degree, the “triune” from Outer Dark. But the most convincing case compares Chigurh to Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Heroism and masculinity in the context of the American Western tradition. McCarthy is certainly not the first to call BS on the myth of the American West, and Blood Meridian does it in a more visceral, over-the-top way than No Country. But it would be difficult to find a work that more subverts the notion of American heroism than No Country.

The traditional Western film protagonist is the most iconic of American heroes. He “serves for Americans the same purpose as Hercules did for the Greeks” (Jason Mitchell). And in that tradition, the most standard storyline is the sheriff who fights the outlaws to literally bring law and order to the town. In No Country, we find Sheriff Bell, an introspective, befuddled law officer. He is of the proper lineage, descended from Texas Rangers. Yet he constantly expresses his bewilderment with not only the carnage of the battle before him, not only with the ongoing borderland drug war, but with modern life in general. He is clearly an out-of-step old man, complaining of kids with “green hair” and “bones in their noses.” He remains one step behind the chaos and plainly expresses his unwillingness to engage with the darkness (“a man would have to put his soul at hazard”). When the time comes, he does just that. He refuses to engage, literally backs away from a confrontation with the villain.

Furthermore, we learn that he earned the Bronze Star for his supposed heroics during a firefight in World War II, but the actual story is less heroic than one would like to think—he retreated from a machine gun position, saving himself but leaving his dying comrades. Bell is conflicted, regretful of being the subject of the lie. But when he confessed to his commanding officer that he did not deserve the medal, he was told to shut up and accept it. And he did. Again, a hero might at least stand up for the truth and bear the consequences if nothing else. Instead, we learn of the truth in a quiet conversation between Bell and his old Uncle Ellis. Ellis assures Bell that a more heroic stand would have ended with him dead. But this pragmatism is little consolation. We want our heroes to be heroic. Pragmatic protagonists are not satisfying. And Bell’s order from his superior to take the medal, to go along with the official storyline that he is indeed a hero, is an acknowledgement that Americans value our comforting myths over our uncomfortable truths. McCarthy is having none of this. In Bell, he shows us a representative of the Greatest Generation on his knees, overmatched, bowing out of the fight.

Which brings us to Llewelyn Moss. Moss is a man of action. Capable, decisive, resourceful. An independent man if there ever was one. An interesting essay by Sonya Topolnisky on how costume supports character in No Country describes Moss’s character as a “certain type of man: working class and Western. Moss’s independent, daring nature fulfills what the viewer has come to expect from a Western hero…we see him mastering the terrain, outrunning the bad men, and dexterously manipulating his firearms.” Of the trifecta of main characters, Moss represents our actionable protagonist. He is the everyman we want to relate to, certainly the character we root for. Moss engages with the enemy. He assures Chigurh that he’s going to hunt the villain down, make him his “special project.”

But Moss is compromised from the beginning. His entry into the story finds him as an opportunistic thief. When he comes upon the scene of the shootout in the desert, dead bodies and dead dogs, his first thought is to find the last man standing, the “ultimo hombre.” The one, he knows, who will have the drug money. His decision to take the money is a conscious decision to not just put his life in peril, but to put “his soul at hazard,” as Bell says it. Moss follows this with a second choice—to return later that night to the scene of the shootout to bring “agua” to a dying Mexican drug runner. As he’s walking out of his trailer, he tells his wife, Carla Jean, that he’s fixin’ to do something “dumber than hell.” He knows it is the right thing to do morally, but wrong for his survival. This is perhaps his last truly proactive decision. Everything from this point is reactionary, in relation to the chase. By choosing to participate in this game, he has forfeited his right to free will. He is now living in Chigurh’s worldview, where everything is predetermined by fate. And this in itself is an inversion of the classic notion of a hero, who by definition has agency. “Control matters. Winning matters, and the ability to achieve that victory becomes the Western hero’s defining characteristic…” (“Models of Masculinity,” Stacey Peebles).

And Pat Tyrer and Pat Nickell point out in their essay “Characters as Relics” that, “In an inversion of a Western cliché, Llewelyn Moss frequently runs from his pursuers. His pickup is disabled early—he never has a horse…Moss has no heroic moments, and spends much of the film wounded, weakened or disabled.”

Viewers who found No Country to be a weird or unsatisfying film mostly griped about the ending. This isn’t surprising—the ending is constructed to subvert the classic film narrative. The last we see of Llewelyn Moss alive is walking past the motel pool with a six-pack when a woman catches his eye (in the book she is a hitchhiker he befriends). We next see him via Sheriff Bell’s POV after reports of a shootout. Bell pulls up just as a group of drug-runners are fleeing, and Moss is already dead. This is not the ending we had hoped for. In classic American hero storytelling, the good guy triumphs over the bad guy. At the very least, the hero dies in a heroic display of sacrifice (e.g. Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan) or resistance (Butch Cassidy, Thelma & Louise). What happens to Moss, in cinematic terms, is sacrilege. There’s no putting up a good fight, no heroic gestures, no dying words. It strips away any opportunity to perceive him as a hero. Exactly as it’s intended.

So as main characters, we have a trifecta that includes the villain, a mystified coward and an opportunist who misses the leap and falls voiceless into the chasm. And to rub salt in, not only does Moss get himself killed, but in an inversion of the hero-as-protector construct, he takes his family down with him. After Moss is gone, Chigurh calls on Carla Jean.

Female Resistance in No Country. I’ve read several critiques of No Country as yet another macho work where the women take a back seat while the boys run around shooting up the town. This seems a flawed argument, perhaps based more on screen time than attention to content. To the contrary, the women in No Country are the strongest characters. Sheriff Bell’s wife, Loretta, is an anchoring force. And the only two people to successfully stare down Chigurh are the woman in Moss’s trailer park office (to comic effect) and Carla Jean, who calls Chigurh out on his coin-flip method of determining whether people live or die.

Chigurh:                 Call it.

Carla Jean:             No. I ain’t going to call it.

Chigurh:                 Call it.

Carla Jean:             The coin don’t have no say. It’s just you.

This moment effectively calls BS on Chigurh’s deterministic belief system. It is not enough to save Carla Jean, but as we see in No Country, living is not necessarily the same as winning. If Bell continues to live based on a pragmatic but unprincipled tack, Carla Jean is the opposite. She perishes but serves as the hero who finally wounds Chigurh in a way that counts. One could even argue that while her husband, in the masculine way, wounds Chigurh with bullets but fails to take him out, Carla Jean fires one clean shot at Chigurh’s ideology. “It’s just you.” Everything that Chigurh stands for is called into question in that one line. And as if in confirmation that something has been rattled in him, shortly after leaving Carla Jean’s home, Chirgurh’s car is side-swiped at an intersection, leaving him broken and bleeding, relying on two young boys for help.

Chaos vs Order. The notion of chaos vs order (or chaos theory) is all over McCarthy’s work. It’s often articulated as fate vs control or, as named for the analogy, the “butterfly effect” in which a small event (e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings) can alter a system in such a way that it eventually causes a much larger, unforeseen effect (e.g. a hurricane). In No Country, characters are thrown into stark categories when considered through this lens. Ironically, but perhaps by design, Bell and Chigurh are the two characters that most believe in order, though very different notions of it. Bell’s is a classic conservative social order, where kids respect their elders and men do the right thing. “Ed Tom [Bell] does not understand how a masculine character can act without an internal or social code” (“Gender Systems and Female Resistance,” Erin K. Johns). His despondency, however, is a result of him witnessing this code failing. He believes in a notion of social order that is disappearing and a religious order that is failing to materialize. In one of the saddest moments, Bell says, “I always figured when I got older, God would sorta come into my life somehow. And he didn’t.”

Yet the character with the most stringent code is Anton Chigurh. He believes that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all chained together in a series of perhaps unpredictable but purposeful events. In an early scene, he asks an uncomfortable gas station attendant to call a coin toss, asking the man if he knows the date on the coin.

Attendant:             No.

Chigurh:                 It’s 1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here…

In other words, the events of the world have conspired to bring them to this moment. And when the man wins the coin toss, Chigurh expands on his thesis:

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldn’t even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of the same moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

As if continuing this train of thought in his conversation with Carla Jean:

This is the end. You can say things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.

Also pointed is Chigurh’s comment to Carson Wells before he shoots him: “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use is the rule?” In the film, that is followed by Carson’s response: “Do you have any idea how crazy you are?” Carson doesn’t understand Chigurh’s belief in connected events.

Wells and Moss, though their ideologies are less clearly denoted, are conversely characters that live by the seat of their pants. They seem to thrive in the disorder, both of them clearly believing they are in control of their own lives, that they can navigate the dangerous conflict before them. Both are tragically mistaken.

It’s also worth noting that Wells, Moss and possibly Chigurh are veterans of Vietnam (Moss a sniper, Wells a lieutenant colonel), whereas Bell is a vet of World War II. Culturally, the morally ambiguous nature of the Vietnam conflict as well as the nonlinear concept of messy jungle fighting contrasts starkly with the American role in WWII, the latter being the classic, heroic, clear-cut wartime narrative of the United States. Set in the early 1980s, the post-Vietnam hangover lingers. The myth of America as global hero is called into question.

Differences between the novel and the film. The final theme throughout this collection of essays is where the novel and film differ. There will always be differences required by the length constraints of film, but in an excellent essay by Dennis Cutchins (“Grace and Moss’s End”), he makes the case that through omission the film alters the character of Moss and in doing so alters the thematic judgment of the story. In the novel, we learn via the local sheriff that Moss was killed by a single assassin. The killer finds the hitchhiker Moss has befriended and drags her out of her room. Moss faces the killer with a gun but relinquishes his weapon when the killer threatens the girl. The killer then shoots Moss. The end result is still a dead protagonist, but this moment, nonexistent in the film, sets Moss up as a hero. A man of sacrifice. Even more important, it shows Moss having agency in this moment—he chose to act, and that choice led to his death. So while the film seems to accept Chigurh’s fatalistic worldview, the book is less certain.

I really enjoyed the various angles each essay takes on these two works. I was expecting the book to be more about the making of the film, perhaps a behind-the-scenes of some of the decisions that were made in the adaptation. I’d still be interested in that, but this book delivers in an ultimately more substantial way. It took me back to my film and literary theory classes from college and reminded me how fun it is to unpack works of art. If No Country for Old Men is a piece of art you’d like to unpack, then I highly recommend this book.


no-country   mccarthy_frye  cormac_new_directions

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

February 18, 2017


For most people, the Patty Hearst story is summed up in a single photo. Patty, standing in the lobby of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a machine gun.


That iconic image shocked the world. Hearst, the wealthy granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, had been kidnapped from her Berkeley home in February of 1974 by a radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

When Patty showed up in the bank heist photo two months later, some speculated that she had been brainwashed. This was five years after the Manson trial, so the notion of brainwashing was fresh in the cultural psyche. In fact, when she was finally captured and tried for her part in the robbery, the foundation of the defense was that Hearst had been brainwashed by her captors.

Toobin is clearly skeptical of the brainwashing defense. Hearst comes off as a privileged, confused, pliable mind. The theory I walked away with was that she had everything she could ever need except a purpose. And when the SLA came along, as confused as their ethos was, at least they believed in something. Hearst bought into it. Enough to rob a bank. Enough to spray bullets across a street in broad daylight outside of Mel’s Sporting Goods. Enough to open herself emotionally and physically to members of the group.

Toobin painstakingly recounts the Hearst story almost moment by moment. I kept thinking that it seemed like a Coen Brothers movie. The would-be revolutionaries were hapless and inept, but filled with dangerous ideas and a willingness to kill and die for their ill-conceived cause. In fact, several key members of the group did die for the cause in a shootout with the LAPD’s newly-formed SWAT unit in May of 1974.

The SLA was of the moment—the Bay Area in the early 1970s was a tumultuous and violent place. Toobin makes the point of the country: “America at this moment combined international turmoil, economic collapse and high-level depravity. The historian Rick Perlstein wrote of this period, ‘America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history.’”

The Hearst story is interesting as a bit of sensational trivia, and Toobin’s account of the story is thorough and engaging, but the most interesting aspect of the story is how it captures the bizarre spirit of that particular era. The country still reeling from Viet Nam, the revolutionary upheaval of 1968 splintering into its various micro-movements, the disillusionment and absurdity and San Francisco’s particular flavor of crazy—there is a confluence of all of this in the Hearst story. Jim Jones makes a couple of appearances, as does the Nation of Islam. F. Lee Bailey, here at the beginning of the “celebrity lawyer” era, was the defense attorney who would make the case for brainwashing.

I would recommend this book along with Helter Skelter (Charles Manson) and A Thousand Lives (Jim Jones) to anyone interested in this peculiar decade in history. They capture a desperate search for purpose, for change and for belonging. They are of California and of the moment. They each show idealistic notions perverted in the most macabre ways. And though it may be a stretch to generalize beyond the central characters, these stories all seem to point to a time when, maybe, the American Dream went a little crazy.


All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor by Donald Stratton (with Ken Gire)

January 16, 2017


In late November, 1941, the USS Arizona was scheduled to travel to Washington state for some upgrades. The spirits of the crew were high since this meant they would be home for Christmas. But on a foggy day in October, during exercises near Hawaii, the ship was struck by the USS Oklahoma. Damages were relatively minor, but it kept the Arizona in Hawaii for repairs.

This little twist of fate, among many others, is something Stratton openly grapples with in this memoir of Pearl Harbor. How did the world conspire to place him on the deck of the Arizona on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked? And when he thinks of all the men who were killed in that attack, the haunting question: “Why me and not those who fought beside me?”

This book is a fast read, but big in scope. Stratton recalls life growing up in Nebraska during the depression, his decision to enlist in the Navy, life aboard the Arizona and the events of December 7. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor as the date that the Japanese executed a surprise attack on the US Navy, ultimately pulling the US into the second World War. Stratton’s account gives it historical context, but it also makes it personal. He humanizes the story, giving us a deck-level account of the terror and heroism on the Arizona. And he traces the scars—physical, mental and spiritual—seventy-five years later.

Donald Stratton’s story is a swirl of complicated emotions. Stratton recounts reconciliation ceremonies in which Japanese pilots met American sailors, lamenting that he still can’t find forgiveness in his Christian heart. He discusses his lingering anger at US command, who had several warnings—including the sinking of a Japanese sub near Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7—that an attack could be imminent. And he draws hard-earned lessons from the attack—lack of foresight, poor communication and overconfidence—giving them the added context of the September 11 attacks sixty years later.


Donald Stratton. USS Arizona survivor, American hero.

But the most significant purpose of this book, and the one for which everyone should read it, is the simple fact that it remembers. It remembers December 7, 1941 with all its lessons, and it also remembers the men who died, the men and women who came to the aid of the wounded, and the lives of men like Stratton himself. The Japanese dropped a specially-designed armor-piercing bomb on the Arizona. It penetrated four levels to the ship’s forward magazine (ammo storage). The explosion killed hundreds of sailors instantly. 1,177 Arizona officers and crewmen died that day. Stratton suffered burns on two-thirds of his body. He spent many months of excruciating recovery, years with painful emotional scars. Then, in 1944, he re-enlisted. He shipped out once again to serve his country. That’s about as heroic as it gets.

This book was a surprise Christmas gift from my mom. A great book to start the new year.

My 2016 Book List

December 31, 2016

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At the end of every year, a group of friends and I share lists of the books we’ve read and what we thought of them. It is one of my favorite annual traditions. Over the years, my “reviews” have gotten longer, sometimes more personal. Sometimes they wander. Books are a lens through which I try to understand the world. So these reviews are sometimes just me thinking out loud. And sometimes they’re just about the book.

It seems like forever ago that I kicked off 2016 with some random reads: books on method acting, Japanese artistic philosophy and prison life. None too notable.

But then I hit a string of excellent books: a re-read of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and Helen MacDonald’s amazing H is for Hawk.

For crime fiction, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane. Live By Night (soon to be released as a film) didn’t disappoint.

In other books-to-screen, The Revenant book holds its own. And I re-read No Country for Old Men, the awesome source material of my all-time favorite film.

I read a few novels set during wartime. David Benioff’s City of Thieves rose to the top, though Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is captivating too.

Two novels about the Underground Railroad this year: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters. Both deserve the hype they received.

I started reading stage plays this year and was blown away by Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Like nothing else I’ve ever read.

I was inspired by the ambition of Elon Musk, and the broad scope of Will Durant’s Heroes of History.

In understanding American culture at the moment, Hillbilly Elegy is a must read (paired with last year’s Between the World and Me, it should be required). But Gun Guys was also enlightening and entertaining. And Rise of the Warrior Cop leaves one dumbfounded and angry.

Looking overseas, Black Flags provides a good understanding of how ISIS came to be.

On the lighter side, Mary Roach is always an entertaining read. Grunt is funny and interesting, and Dan Lyons’s tales of start-up life are hilarious in Disrupted.

One book on writing this year, but it was a good one: How to Write Short.

And I like to end my years with a weighty, reflective book. When Breath Becomes Air is crushing. I’m still trying to digest it.

I write about books throughout the year on my blog, but here’s the full 2016 Book List.

As for my short list of recommended books…



A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead



H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko


Thanks to my friend Greg for convincing me to start this tradition 17 years ago. And to my mom who reads every review and makes astute editing suggestions.

What did you read? What did you love? Let me know. Happy reading in 2017!



When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

December 31, 2016


“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.”

When Breath Becomes Air is the bestselling memoir of a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer. He has a studied death. He has seen it in person, had patients and friends die, saw the agony in the faces of families who have suddenly lost a loved one. He knew cerebrally and philosophically that death is a part of life. But he grapples for understanding now that he knows he will know it personally. This is his search for meaning.

“As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know.”

Kalanithi was an obviously brilliant man. A neurosurgeon and writer, highly educated in not just medicine but in literature and philosophy. A man who considered his role as a doctor to be much more than a talented hand with a scalpel. He saw it his duty to understand his patients beyond the treatments and procedures. Before operating on a patient’s brain, he wanted to know what they held in their minds. What they loved. What they valued.

His memoir is an open and personal wrestling with what we all know at some level—that everything we believe about life is a product of cells and chemicals in our body. But he knows this at a deeper level than most of us. He has seen life at its barest, most literal, yet he contemplates its significance on the highest plane.

Kalanithi is humble, likable, vulnerable. He dives into literature, searching for insights on mortality. “I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, to find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again.” He remains positive while accepting his fate, but there is no ultimate answer, only peace.

This is a heart-wrenching book, particularly as death arrives. Kalanithi and his wife chose to have a child while they could, and the final words he wrote are for her. He had imagined a series of letters that she might read when she was older, but he realizes he has no idea what she will be like when she is fifteen. So he leaves her with a simple message:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.

This is an emotionally tolling read, but well worth it. Summed up well in one of the epigraphs, a quote from Michel de Montaigne: “He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”