For many years around this time, I have written about books -- notable, interesting, subjects of special significance, usually recent publications.
This year's column is stained with sadness as a result of the recent death of a great writer and good friend, Roy Reed. Roy is best known for his years of exceptional newspaper reporting, especially with the New York Times, but he was a notable author as well.
Without question, his book on Orval Faubus, The Life and Times of an American Prodigal is at the top of the list on Arkansas politics and on the man who dominated the state for a decade. Reed also wrote the autobiographical Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent's Adventures with the New York Times and Looking for Hogeye, essays on the South, plus Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette, based on oral histories of those who worked at that much-lamented newspaper.
Normally, my focus in these annual columns is on books on politics, public affairs and biographies. However, The Undoing Project is difficult to categorize. Author Michael Lewis is best known for Money Ball, an approach to baseball personnel decision-making and strategy involving an intensified use of statistical data. His books have covered a variety of subjects, often dealing with sports or finances. This latest book describes the work of two Israeli psychologists (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky) who developed the field of behavioral economics, undoing assumptions about the decision-making process. Lewis believes they are more responsible than anyone for the reliance on algorithms rather than depending on human intuition.
In this absorbing account, Lewis asks "how they more or less anticipated a book about American baseball written decades in the future? What possessed two guys in the Middle East to ... figure out what the mind was doing when it tried to judge a baseball player, or an investment, or a presidential candidate. And how on earth does a psychologist win a Nobel Prize in economics?"
We see the increased use of stats and big data in political campaigns, although the human/personal element can't be overlooked. Usually there's a steady outpouring of political books -- by aspiring candidates or by political analysts, often offering behind-the-scenes looks at campaigns. That genre was pioneered by Theodore White, the first volume devoted to the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy vs. Nixon. These days I don't find much that jumps off the shelves. Newt Gingrich on Donald Trump doesn't grab me. When Hillary Clinton's What Happened may be the best on the 2016 campaign, that illustrates the paucity of significant offerings.
It's hard to focus on a specific campaign (2016) when that campaign continues every day. However, all these years later, we are still intrigued by the Kennedys. Veteran journalists Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie take a renewed look at The Road to Camelot on JFK's campaigning, when the Kennedy team "invented modern presidential politics."
Chris Matthews has written extensively on the Kennedys and now turns to Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit. RFK was known as both ruthless and idealistic and Matthews explores those strains in his life, including his time as chief counsel for the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by John McClellan from Arkansas.
The photogenic Kennedy family represented a generational change, with the torch passed to JFK from Dwight Eisenhower, but not before the under-appreciated Ike issued his farewell warning about the influence of the military-industrial complex. Bret Baier in Three Days in January describes Ike's legendary address and the surrounding events, a time far removed from today's hyper-polarization.
When possible, I like to look back at books I started reading but put aside for whatever reason. In this case it was Richard Goodwin's Remembering America, published in 1988. Advisor and speech writer to JFK, RFK and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin captures some of the flavor and failures of the tumultuous and televised 1960s.
The 60s brought us the Vietnam war and some of today's best fiction relates to Vietnam and Vietnamese in America -- particularly the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with The Sympathizer, at times dark and deep, at others humorous and exhausting -- reflecting the duality of the title character. He follows that with The Refugees, a collection of stories about the complexities of immigrant life.
I always welcome the latest from John Grisham and his newest, Camino Island and The Rooster Bar, bring some enkindling narrations and veer away from the typical legal thriller. John LeCarre, a favorite novelist of the Cold War era, is back with A Legacy of Spies. prequel to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), the book that made LeCarré famous and popularized spy novels.
Finally, and closer to home, there are two new informative books on Fayetteville I recommend: The Square Book, an illustrated history of the Fayetteville Square by Anthony Wappel and J.B. Hogan, and A Brief History of Fayetteville by Charles Alison.
Commentary on 12/20/2017
Print Headline: Books from last year worth readers' time