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2016 Best Biography. The Tao of Bill Murray by Gavin Edwards

Best Biography. The Tao of Bill Murray: real-life stories of joy, enlightenment and party crashing by Gavin Edwards.  During a year in which his Cubs win the World Series and he personally receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it’s unlikely that having his biography named a best book of the year by a blog whose readership can be counted on one hand will warrant Bill Murray’s attention.  Then again, he might show up on my doorstep tomorrow.  It is this unpredictable nature, his generosity and his love of life that define Murray’s personality.  Edwards captures Murray’s philosophy of life in ten principles and provides examples of each with stories from both the sets of his movies and from his random encounters with fans around the world.  Will I transform myself into the free spirit that is Murray?  Unlikely.  And this book won’t “wake you up” as Bill hopes to do with everyone he meets, but it will keep you up and turning pages because you won’t want to wait to read the next adventure from his life.

OK, the first two thirds of this book are great.  Unfortunately, in the last third Edwards reviews each of Murray’s fifty-nine films to date with commentary on his performance.  The reviews are adequate, but the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdotes are few and far between.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2016 Best Medical Book.The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Best Medical Book.  The Checklist Manifesto: how to get things right by Atul Gawande.  Once again, my expectations about a book were totally wrong.  And once again, the reality was much better.  I figured Dr. Gawande’s slim title would help me with organizing activities around the house and in my life.  Pretty simple, not too serious.  Instead, he voices deep concerns about the reliability of our hospital care and proposes using techniques from the similarly complex fields of aviation and construction to eliminate preventable errors through the use of checklists.  A general surgeon himself, he forcefully presents the argument that well-structured checklists can raise baseline care, and improve communication, especially in surgical and ICU situations where many specialists have to work together as a smooth system.  He identifies which situations would benefit most from checklists and, although the overwhelming focus of the book is on hospitals, presents concrete examples from Boeing, structural engineering firms and financial fund companies to show how checklists are applied in other industries.  His main example centers on the efforts of the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery program to develop standardized checklists that could be introduced in hospitals around the world.  He describes the development and data-gathering process, developing and refining the lists, and the issues introducing them in to different national and organizational cultures.  Sometimes, there are passages with too much medical jargon, but overall the writing style is very readable.  Most importantly, upon conclusion, readers will be more aware of problems that can occur during surgery and will have new questions to ask their care givers before proceeding.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2016 Best Entertainment Book. The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff

It’s December and time for my Books of the Year List.  I finished 120 books this year with several non-fiction titles showing exceptional merit.  I had to create a couple new categories to fit them all in.

Best Entertainment Book.  The Comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of American comedy by Kliph Nesteroff.  If you are a comedy geek, you must absolutely read this book.  If not, then you may feel like you’re walking uphill through knee-high snow as its 360 pages are dense with information about comedy since 1900.  What Nesteroff does best is trace the progression of comedy through time, both at the artistic level and the business side.  He describes entire comedic family trees: Jack White to Jack Waldron to Jack E. Leonard to Don Rickles to Robert Smigel and Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.  You learn who did “Who’s on First?” before Abbott & Costello and who did the telephone operator bit long before Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine on Laugh-In.  He defines the multiple degrees of separation and connection between joke book writer Robert Orben of the 1940s and 50s and Chris Rock’s success fifty years later.  He points out who influenced (and stole from) whom throughout the 20th century.  But beyond the personalities, he also chronicles how the industry changed from vaudeville to radio to Mob-controlled nightclubs to tv talk shows to the comedy club boom of the 1980s to cable television and podcasts in the new century.  The focus is heavily on stand-up as a presentation form, but he also talks about comedy records, television (though sitcoms are sadly missing) and movies to a lesser degree.  The historical facts are the result of incredible research from written sources, supported by copious endnotes, though no bibliography, and from over 200 interviews with the subjects themselves.  As an amateur student of comedy, I have read several books on the subject and this is the best I have encountered since Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, in 2008.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Book of the Year: The Red Moth

Book of the Year, Best Historical Mystery. The Red Moth by Sam Eastland. Three years ago, I chose one of William Ryan’s mysteries set in Russia as Best Historical Mystery. At the time, I also recommended Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series set in Stalinist Soviet Union featuring Inspector Pekkala, the former personal detective for Tsar Nicholas II. Pekkala was sentenced to a Siberian work camp once the Bolsheviks seized power, but was brought back by the paranoid Stalin because he doesn’t trust any of his own men and because of Pekkala’s unique skills. Pekkala is a fascinating lead character, who struggles to reconcile working for a man he despises with his love for his country and its people’s need for justice. I do suggest starting the series from the beginning with The Eye of the Tsar, but if you don’t feel like reading all the books, then The Red Moth, the fourth book, is the best one yet. The Germans are marching towards Stalingrad and Moscow in the early stages of the war. In addition to capturing territory every week, they are also continuing to plunder the artworks of their defeated opponents. So when a small German plane is shot down near the old Tsarina’s palace and the passengers commit suicide rather than be captured and interrogated regarding their cargo, it raises Stalin’s suspicions. The Germans carried with them only a small painting of a red moth and the Supreme Leader assigns Pekkala and Major Kirov to discover its meaning and whatever else the Germans might be planning. This particular story reveals even more of Pekkala’s history as he is reconnected to people from his past and eventually heads behind enemy lines to a home he left far behind. The main tale is told at a blitzkrieg pace, but still allows for secondary characters and sub-plots to be developed. And the cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more. Fortunately, book five, The Beast in the Red Forest, has already come out. In fact, it is a lot easier to find than The Red Moth, which has not been published in the U.S. yet, but it is worth the effort to track down.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the Year: Historical Mystery Runner-up

Runner-up, Historical Mystery. Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell. Quality historical mysteries should have interesting characters including a good villain and also capture the atmosphere of the setting. Morrell’s second book featuring 19th century author Thomas de Quincey and his daughter, Emily de Quincey, assisting Scotland Yard in mid-century London has all of these elements and more. Prior to returning to their home city of Edinburgh, father and daughter agree to attend one last service at St. James’s Church with their friends, Detectives Ryan and Becker. But when a dead body appears in a curtained pew, they are drawn in to a complex mystery involving an assassin killing and threatening members of the nobility all the way up to the Queen herself. Morrell creates a fine, psychological thriller in this sequel to “Murder as a Fine Art.” The only flaw is that he fails to fully reintroduce the main characters, so readers should consider finishing the good, though less worthy, debut novel to get a better understanding of de Quincey and others.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the year: Non-fiction Runner-up

Runner-up, Non-Fiction. Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang. People often ask me where I find all the books I choose to read. I first heard about Jiang’s book on interpersonal relationships and entrepreneurship when it was reviewed in my college alumni magazine. Jiang was struggling to attract venture capitalists to fund his start-up business and was doubting himself due to the rejections. He decided to try an experiment, with his wife’s approval, where he would be forced to get acceptance from others in order to complete various, quirky assignments, would videotape the interactions and would, hopefully, learn to accept rejection in a better way. Sometimes he failed, but often he would succeed. His video of getting Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the shape of the Olympic rings went viral and he soon was dealing with issues of celebrity and rejection at the same time. He delved further into the academic research on how to ask for help, salesmanship and self-doubt and combines that information as well as his personal story in this entertaining volume.

Honorable Mention, Non-Fiction. China’s Second Continent by Howard W. French. French looks at how China’s foreign policy of assisting African governments with major building projects, both with cheap financing and by immigrating Chinese labor, is helping China gain influence on this developing continent today and its implications for the future.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the Year: Best Non-Fiction

December: time for my Books of the Year.  This was a disappointing year overall with few stand out, must recommend titles, especially among the non-fiction selections.

Best Non-Fiction. The Immortal Game: a history of chess by David Shenk. I appreciate books that take a unique perspective of history such as Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which examines different civilizations by focusing on the dominant beverage of the time. David Shenk’s history of chess is similar in that he doesn’t just recap the developments of the game and its noteworthy players and matches, but also shows its importance in each society over the last 1,400 years beginning with the game’s origins in India. He is able to track the game’s changes through its foundation in the Muslim world into its expansion in Europe in medieval times and to today’s global landscape. He connects chess to broad concepts such as social morality and class standing, the Enlightenment, and totalitarianism. By looking how chess relates to military strategy, mathematics, psychology, politics and artificial intelligence, Shenk takes what could have been a very dry topic and makes it very readable. And by delving into his personal relationship with the game, he adds a human perspective as well.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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