Notable Books We Read in 2015 -- 11/30/15

Here they are -- our favorite books for 2015. As always, it's books we read (or, for some of the lengthier tomes, finished reading) this year, but not necessarily books that were published this year. They are listed below, but not in any order of preference. If you wish to read an excerpt from any of the books mentioned click on the title.

We hope you find this list to be helpful!

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise
Author: Chris Taylor
Publisher: Basic Books

Well ... the seventh Star Wars film will soon be released. And I'm a Star Wars fan. So I must commend this book as an indulgence for any of you who are also Star Wars fans.

And here's just one tidbit -- the original Star Wars plot was influenced in part by Lucas's objection to the heavy-handed U.S. presence in Vietnam. In other words -- at least in some measure -- the Empire was modeled on the United States and the rebels were inspired by the resistance of the North Vietnamese.

In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Taylor traces the series from the difficult birth of the original film through its sequels, the franchise's death and rebirth, the prequels, and the preparations for a new trilogy. In no small part, this book is a biography of George Lucas himself.

Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation
Author: Michael Schaller
Publisher: Oxford University Press

In war, while the battles are the thing most historians focus on, it is the aftermath of the war that ends up having equal or greater importance to history, and most historians completely neglect that aspect of the story. This book is the story of the rebuilding of Japan after World War II. (Contrary to popular opinion, it is a story in which General Douglas MacArthur plays only a small role.)

Did you know (I didn't) that the mindset that led to the Vietnam war was more about preserving non-communist trading partners for Japan after World War II than any concern that communism would arrive, a la the domino theory, on America's shores. It turns out Japan's post-war economy was anemic, and all efforts to boost it were failing. There was a nascent communist movement within Japan, and the largest and most natural trading partners for Japan were China and the Soviet Union. Therefore, U.S. policymakers believed they had to preserve non-communist trading partners for Japan or it would inevitably fall under the sway of Communist China and thus all of Asia would be communist. The best and perhaps only logical candidate for this non-communist trading bloc was Indochina, which thus became of paramount strategic importance to the U.S. The irony here is the thing that finally pulled Japan out of its economic slump was America's Korean War, to which Japan became a major supplier.

Salt: A World History
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Publisher: Penguin Books

Until the advent of refrigeration, which only came about during the last century or so, mankind was utterly dependent on salt as a food preservative. Therefore, cities and societies hovered around areas that contained salt mines -- e.g., Salzburg in Austria and the many English cities whose name ends in "wich" (salt) -- such as Middlewich, Nantwich, Northwich and Leftwich. Salt shaped civilization -- and was so valuable it served as currency, influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. So in an important respect, this book serves to illuminate conventional history.

However, this book is also culinary history, given salt's role in food. So it also provides a procession of facts about food from caviar to ketchup, and much more in between.

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites
Author: Libby O'Connell
Publisher: Sourcebooks

Another book for those interested in the culinary arts.

Written by the chief historian at HISTORY, this is a chronicle of the evolution of American cuisine and culture, from before Columbus's arrival to today.

Did you know that the first graham crackers were designed to reduce sexual desire? Or that Americans have tried fad diets for almost two hundred years? Why do we say things like "buck" for a dollar and "living high on the hog"? How have economics, technology, and social movements changed our tastes? Uncover these and other aspects of American food traditions in The American Plate.

Peppered throughout with recipes, photos, and tidbits on dozens of foods, from the surprising origins of Hershey Bars to the strange delicacies our ancestors enjoyed, such as roast turtle and grilled beaver tail.


Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth
Author: Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans
Publisher: Penguin Group

For years, we have believed that the genetics were directly determinate of our traits. Yet scientists have determined that the expression of the similar genetics can vary widely, and can be heavily influenced by the three "layers" of trillions of cells that sit atop these genetics -- our epigenetics, our microbiome, and our virome. Further, our genetics and these three "layers" can be significantly altered by our environment (for example the notoriously poor eating habits of recent generations) and by direct and intentional manipulation, such as through gene-editing. This brings futurist Enriquez and the Harvard-trained Gullans to proclaim "We are the primary drivers of change. We will directly and indirectly determine what lives, what dies, where, and when. We are in a different phase of evolution; the future of life is now in our hands."

Why are rates of conditions like autism, asthma, obesity, and allergies exploding at an unprecedented pace? Why are humans living longer, getting smarter, and having far fewer kids? How might your lifestyle affect your unborn children and grandchildren? How will gene-editing technologies like CRISPR steer the course of human evolution? If Darwin were alive today, how would he explain this new world? Could our progeny eventually become a different species -- or several? The authors conduct a sweeping tour of how humans are changing the course of evolution -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

(In the science category, two additional books deserving recognition are To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science First Edition, a masterful commentary on the history of science from the Greeks to modern times, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, and The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Author: Adam Tooze
Publisher: Viking Adult

In The Deluge, Tooze carefully examines the aftermath of World War I and the years leading up to World War II, and concludes that much of what happened during that period was the result of European countries attempting to adjust to the ascendance and dominance of the United States.

In the depths of the Great War, with millions dead and no imaginable end to the conflict, societies around the world began to buckle. The heart of the financial system shifted from London to New York. The insatiable demands of war for men and matériel reached into countries far from the front. The strain of the war-ravaged all economic and political assumptions, bringing unheard-of changes in the social and industrial order.

Tooze revisits this seismic moment in history, challenging the existing narrative of the war, its peace, and its aftereffects. From the day the United States enters the war in 1917 to the precipice of global financial ruin, Tooze delineates the world remade by American economic and military power.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
Author: Daniel Walker Howe
Publisher: Oxford University Press

The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. In this Pulitzer prize-winning addition to the series, historian Howe covers the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent.

This book portrays the revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. Howe examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs -- advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans -- were the true prophets of America's future. In addition, Howe reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States.


War and Gold: A Five-Hundred-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt
Author: Kwasi Kwarteng
Publisher: PublicAffairs

For me, every year's reading includes a healthy dose of books on economics, and the best among this year's economic crop was Kwarteng's expose of the pattern of war-waging and financial debt -- bedmates that go back hundreds of years, from the French Revolution to the emergence of modern-day China.

After discovering the Americas, and under pressure to defend their vast dominion, the Habsburgs of Spain promoted gold and silver exploration in the New World with ruthless urgency. But, the great influx of wealth brought home by plundering conquistadors couldn't compensate for the Spanish government's extraordinary military spending, which would eventually bankrupt the country multiple times over and lead to the demise of the great empire.

Gold eventually became synonymous with financial dependability, and following the devastating chaos of World War I, the gold standard came to express the order of the free market system. Warfare in pursuit of wealth required borrowing -- a quickly compulsive dependency for many governments. And when people lost confidence in the promissory notes and paper currencies issued during wartime, governments again turned to gold.

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914
Author: David McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

So I am newly married to a spectacular woman who was born and grew up in Italy, and then, in her high school years, moved to Panama. For college, she moved to the U.S., where she has lived ever since. So, as you might imagine, I am now busily trying to brush up on my knowledge of both Italy and Panama.

For Panama, I found David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas, which tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of constructing an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is a story of astonishing engineering feats, tremendous medical accomplishments, political power plays, heroic successes, and tragic failures. The bonus here is that it also tells the story of the Suez Canal, a necessary precedent to understanding the effort in Panama.

For my new foray in the history of Italy, I read with David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples. It's an eye-opening book which I gladly endorse -- and presumably the first of many more books on Italy which I will be reading.


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Author: Karen Armstrong
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

With the continued rise of terrorism, the need for mutual understanding between cultures has never been more urgent. Religious differences are seen as fuel for violence and warfare. In these pages, one of the greatest writers on religion, Karen Armstrong, amasses a sweeping history of humankind to explore the perceived connection between war and the world's great creeds -- and to issue a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.

With unprecedented scope, Armstrong looks at the whole history of each tradition -- not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Religions, in their earliest days, endowed every aspect of life with meaning, and warfare became bound up with observances of the sacred. Modernity has ushered in an epoch of spectacular violence, although, as Armstrong shows, little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions came to absorb modern belligerence -- and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different faiths in our time.

Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America
Author: Jonathan Darman
Publisher: Random House

"In politics, the man who takes the highest spot after a landslide is not standing on solid ground."

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was elected president in the greatest popular-vote landslide in American history, seemingly bringing with it a long-term era of liberal politics. However, by the 1966 midterms, when Reagan burst forth onto the national stage, the conservative counter-revolution was in full force in a country suddenly riven by riots and protests.

The two towering personalities of this era were Johnson, who grows obsessed with dark forces he believes are out to destroy him even as he publicly revels in his triumphs, and, Ronald Reagan, a fading actor years removed from his Hollywood glory who gradually turns toward a new career in California politics. Just as we watch Johnson's crowning moments, we also watch Reagan waiting for Johnson's majestic promises to prove empty before he steps back into the spotlight, on his long journey toward the presidency.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America
Author: James Green
Publisher: Anchor Books a division of Random House, Inc.

Historians tend to minimize the latter half of the 1800s in America -- "The Gilded Age," to use Mark Twain's famed designation for the period. However, far from a footnote, this period deserves consideration as the most robust and important in U.S. history, particularly when it comes to the economy. Immediately after the Civil War, the U.S. became the world's largest economy, and in the ensuing decades went from merely the largest to a nation whose economy was overwhelmingly dominant. In fact, by the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. had become almost as large economically as England, Germany and France combined. But this success had its dark side, and that darkness was chiefly the chasm of inequality that arose. In some respects, our present age has echoes of this Gilded Age -- the rise of an extraordinarily wealthy class, global economic dominance, and the accompanying uneasiness of rising inequality.

This book covers that period. On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded at a Chicago labor rally, wounding dozens of policemen, seven of whom eventually died. A wave of mass hysteria swept the country, leading to a sensational trial that culminated in four controversial executions, and dealt a blow to the labor movement from which it would take decades to recover. Historian James Green recounts the rise of the first great labor movement in the wake of the Civil War and brings to life an epic twenty-year struggle for the eight-hour workday. (Incredibly, when the eight-hour day was first successfully introduced as law at the state level in Illinois, the major employers of that time simply ignored it.) Death in the Haymarket is an important addition to the history of American capitalism and the class tensions at the heart of Gilded Age America.

A few more books we commend from the world of popular culture:

*Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry;

*Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder by Mark Ribowsky,

*The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song by Ben Yagoda,

*Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty by Robert Lacey

We hope this list helps -- and we thank you as always for your interest in! Thanks!!
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