Books of the Year: 2010

Back in my younger days, it was no problem keeping up with the latest movies, music, and books, and then putting together a year-end Top 10; but with a baby in the house, it's virtually impossible to keep up with music (too expensive, too much time in dank clubs) or movies (tough to find 3 hours to dedicate). I can still read books, (the library is free, and I can always read on the bus or at night) though, so here are some of the best books I read last year:

All The Devils Are Here by Betheny McLean & Joe Nocera - one of the better books about the financial crisis and one of the few that examines the crisis from the mortgage lending side and its relationship to Wall Street and Washington DC. Surprisingly for MSM reporters, the authors treat their subjects as the sophisticated businessmen and policy makers that they are, rather than as the "greedy" "ideologues" in so much popular literature. This is right up there with Gillian Tett's Fool's Gold for explaining the financial products underlying the Crisis.

Radical-In-Chief by Stanley Kurtz - book of the year for conservatives, this is an excellent work of scholarship that plumbs the depths of Barack Obama's political development to answer the question: is the President a socialist?(Kurtz says, yes, and even Obama's apologists would have to admit that he spent most of his political career surrounded by socialists). But, forget the President, this is also an impressive history of socialism in America since 1980, as the American hard left made a conscious decision to "cover" its goals in favor of a strategy of gradualism and "non-reform reform." Some familiar names pop up here: Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenbach, Harold Washington, Carol Mosley-Braun, Jan Shawkovsky. Did you know that Jesse Jackson went to Cuba with Rev. Wright back in 1984? This book is full of information not easily summarized, but should make you wonder: how is it that the public debate is able to label finely various gradations of "right-wingers," without similarly labeling and defining the radical left?

Last Call by Daniel Okrent. A history of Prohibition that is more, ahem, sober than you might expect, even with Al Capone and all of those bootleggers. Okrent brings a lot of forgotten figures (some of whom were once among the most politically powerful Americans in the pre-Depression political scene) to life to answer the question: how and why would Americans pass a constitutional amendment forbidding the sale of alcohol and then repeal that amendment just 12 years later? Biggest surprise: Prohibition's most vigorous proponents were political progressives (one early dry even referred to herself as a "Christian Socialist"), rather than the fundamentalist blue-noses you would expect.

Spoken From The Heart by Laura Bush - a special book from a great lady. If Republican women need a bildungsroman, this is it

Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove - a true memoir that covers Rove's periphratic childhood, his evolution as a political operative, and his work for George W Bush. Rove may have his flaws - and he'll set your teeth on edge when he admits the Bush White House did a lousy job responding to its scurrilous critics (yeah, no s***, dude) - but as an analyst of American political trends and voting patterns, he is literally without parallel. We're lucky he's on our side.

The Next 100 Million by Joel Kotkin - Kotkin is a rare bird: an urbanist and futurist who is also a cock-eyed optimist. Kotkin sees the America of 2050 as a thriving, suburbanized nation whose government has decentralized and has a lighter footprint in American life. Although he's a Democrat, he nonetheless thinks these are good things.

The Greatest Trade Ever - by Gregory Zuckerman. the story of how John Paulson (and a few other scattered mavericks), virtually alone on Wall Street, bet against the mortgage market and made billions along the way. valuable for its depiction of financial analysts as sophisticated businessmen, rather than as f-bomb throwing cokeheads (those are the guys who worked for the firms that failed).

The Rational Optimist - by Matthew Ridley. another cock-eyed optimist looks at the sweep of human evolution - whether social, cultural, or scientific - and sees nothing but promise for the future. A worthy antidote to the anti-growth jeremiads of gloom-ridden progressives

The Politician by Andrew Young - if you are a conservative, you really ought to read this book just for the sheer pleasure in all of that sweet, sweet schaudenfruade. Edwards, it's hard to remember this, was once the Great White Hope of the left, a slick handsome guy who seemed able to sell progressive policy to Bush-era America. Such was his importance to the Cause that when he got his mistress pregnant, the "adversarial" press and even his primary opponents stayed mum, rather than admit that their golden boy had feet of clay. Aside from the scandalous bits, Young also takes the reader behind the scenes of big time Democratic fund raising, where the filthy rich donate millions to fund the redistribution of other people's wealth.

Start Up Nation by Dan Senor. a very good look at Israel's vigorous high-tech sector.

Pops by Terry Teachout. a great biography of Louis Armstrong that does what all musician's bios should do: describes the high and low points of his personal life, discusses his greatest works (and most valuable collaborators) and doesn't get bogged down in "after this gig, that gig" detail. Teachout quotes extensively from Armstrong's journals and correspondence, which give a flavor for the man.

Crash Course by Paul Ingrassia. a look at the causes and consequences of the other great economic crisis of 2008, the near deaths of GM and Chrysler. Ingrassia pulls no punches and spares nobody. Management and labor both takes their lumps in nearly destroying America's car industry (although Ingrassia does pass over questioning whether the federal government's decades-long efforts to micromanage car design through CAFE standards, among other things). One number captures the sheer size of GM's troubles: at the time of its bankruptcy filing, GM had approximately 800,000 contracts outstanding. Look also for a special appearance by Stan O'Neal at a GM board meeting, advising everyone that GMAC should invest heavily in mortgage securities (forehead slap). Reading this book, you realize America's elites may not be particularly elite.

Trotsky by Robert Service. One of the few Trot bios out there written by a non-leftist, so this is definitely a warts-and-all portrait. Trotsky spent his pre-Revolution adulthood living the life of an underground subversive and leftist intellectual, so a lot of this book focuses on Trotsky's life as a polemicist and as a participant in the endless meetings that are the true hallmark of the international left. Disappointingly, Service does not include nearly as much information about Trotsky's military affairs during the Russian Civil War. Also, after reading this book, I still had no idea what exactly a "Trotskyite" is, except maybe "an admirer of Trotsky."

Saving Freedom by Jim DeMint. Did you know that Jim DeMint wrote a book? And that it was published back in 2009, on the 4th of July, no less? And that, in those heady pre-Tea Party days, he was already laying out a principled, free market method to reform America before it slid fatally into European-style socialism? And did you know that he flat out states, over and over again, that the Democratic Party is a de facto socialist party and that the President himself is a socialist? Isn't it funny, how the MSM keep asking Jim DeMint and the Tea Party "What is it that you want?" and yet it has simultaneously ignored a book explaining just that? Read this book and you'll know why. It is a tightly reasoned and effective statement of conservative governing principles that, if it ever became as well known as Audacity of Hope, would undermine any and all "Tea Party = Crazy Extremist" headlines.

Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin. a real page-turner about the Crash of '08. Eschews analysis in favor of a facts-and-personalities look at those frenzied months when Wall Street seemed to self-destruct right before our eyes. Chapter 15, about the Lehman Weekend is definitive, and filled with drama.

The Book Of Basketball by Bill Simmons. One of America's best social and cultural commentators is a sportswriter who lives in LA and works for ESPN. While Simmons fills his writing with wisecracks, pop culture references (with a heavy 1980 - 1996 emphasis), and complaints about his wife, underneath is someone with an intuitive grasp of the psychology, economics, and personalities that define professional sports in America. This is his doorstop-sized book on basketball and its place in American popular culture and sports history with fresh evaluations of players past and present. Not too many surprises here (most of the ideas in this book have circulated through his columns over the years), but this is invaluable.

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