Top Reads for December

Now that the end of the year is upon us, it’s time to read all the last-minute bestsellers and big books of the year we didn’t have the chance to get to before, including: Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors, the latest from Pulitzer Prize–winning Jennifer Egan, along with other books included in the New York Times Most Notable Books of the Year list. Plus: Are neo-Nazis really just like us?

Tribe of Mentors

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Alex P.: Tim Ferriss is an expert at distilling things down to their essence. So it comes as no surprise that over his years as a podcast host, he’s kept track of the lessons learned from leaders and luminaries in every field. Whether or not you have a personal mentor, there’s plenty to be learned from the experts interviewed within this Tribe —  from Arianna Huffington to Yuval Noah Harari — and it covers much more than simple career advice. A great gift idea for, well, just about anyone.

It’s All Relative

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Alex K.: A.J. Jacobs is my cousin. You might not know it, but he's yours too. In It’s All Relative, Jacobs explores humanity’s interconnectedness, culminating in what he hopes will be the world’s largest family reunion. His story, like so many, spans centuries, continents, and cultures, from petty criminals to saintlike figures, from massive reunions with the infamous Hatfields and the McCoys to his living room with his wife and three kids. The narrative is hilarious, touching, and thoughtful, sometimes all in the same paragraph. It’ll make you want to hug your parents, laugh with your siblings, call your aunts and uncles, and even smile at your newly discovered cousins on the street. Ultimately, you'll feel awed at what makes us human, and closer to your cousins all around the globe.

Manhattan Beach

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Katie: In her newest novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan has created a gripping work of historical fiction meets crime story, set against the backdrop of the omnipresent ocean. On the surface, Manhattan Beach presents itself as more traditional than the postmodern, shifting narrative of Goon Squad. But don’t turn your back! Egan’s inventiveness covertly rises up and washes over you, hitting like a sneaker wave.

The sweeping saga is set in a New York that is first and foremost a seaport. The ocean, ports, and piers dominate the storylines of the three main characters: Anna is a diver during World War II, inspecting the submerged bottoms of ships for bombs; her father Eddie is an underworld “bagman” for the longshoremen’s union; and, Dexter Styles is a gangster whose power emanates from the waterfront. Egan never lets us forget that the sea dictates the rhythms of their lives.

Egan weaves in fascinating historical details in this superbly researched novel, but they don't get in the way of the story's flow. The only thing that disrupts Egan's page-turning plot for me is the startling beauty of her sentences. Every other page I would find a sentence I wanted to share with a friend.

The Making of an American Nazi (The Atlantic)

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Karyne: One wouldn’t think that “Nazis” would be at top of mind in 2017. Yet, here we are, in the wake of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a violent white nationalist rally led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. And with two profiles published within a week — one in The New York Times, the other in The Atlantic — it gets harder and harder to say that the movement is still “on the fringe.”

In the December issue of The Atlantic, Luke O’Brien profiles Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi site, The Daily Stormer, which has been likened to an anti-Semitic (now-defunct, but that’s another story) Gawker. Rather than normalizing Anglin’s behavior — as critics of The New York Times article insist that piece did (“Nazis. They’re just like us!”) — O’Brien’s piece maps out the steps Anglin took from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist.  

It’s an in-depth fascinating and disturbing look at someone who’s leading a movement of hate. And after Charlottesville, and after the president retweeted anti-Muslim videos to his 44 million followers, it might be time to stop thinking of these people as fringe, and start figuring out how to stop them.

Janesville

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Ashley: Sometimes it’s hard to believe the Great Recession started over a decade ago, and harder still to accept that it supposedly ended years ago. Janesville — winner of this year’s Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year award — is a moving chronicle of one Wisconsin town (Paul Ryan’s hometown) hard-hit by the recession after General Motors shuts down its plant. In the beginning there’s hope for change, but with each passing year the hope dwindles away into gritty perseverance and sometimes tragic defeat. Journalist Amy Goldstein tackles job retraining and the limits of charity in a town with not enough fortune to spread around. Many are left deciding between two poor options. Of one man who lost his job at the GM plant and then decided to relocate to another plant, Goldstein writes: “He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less, or anything he needed to do more.” By now everybody’s read Hillbilly Elegy, but Janesville is equally important to understanding how America got into this frayed and tattered state, all through personal anecdotes that give a glimpse into a much larger economic picture. 

American War

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Andrew: Omar El Akkad’s American War is breathtaking. Elegiac. Timely. And so much more. 

Set a century into the future, after the United States as we know it has radically changed due to a second civil war, rising sea levels, and eco-system collapse, American War is a warning of a future we should be fighting with all our power as a society to avoid.

El Akkad works as a journalist (this is his first novel) and his profession shows in the writing. He handily describes an America that’s familiar but shockingly different, altered as it would be by a century of strife and climate change. Much of the book takes place in refugee camps, with internally displaced Americans, and it’s heart-wrenching to imagine how quickly the America we know could change so much.

If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction or are concerned about the path that the United States and the world are on, give American War a try. You’ll be hooked — I know I was.

The Evolution of Beauty

Alex P. (again!): Following its inclusion on the New York Times’ top 10 books of the year, I picked up The Evolution of Beauty, curious about how a scientific book might approach the aesthetic theme. For this alone, the book is fascinating: It’s rare to see scientific rigor applied to something like the beauty of a peacock feather. An ornithologist by trade, Richard Prum easily bridges this gap — after all, ornithology is a biological pursuit, but birding, what first enamored Prum, is all about the visual markers that differentiate this bird from that. If the idea of analyzing beauty through birds doesn’t really do it for you, though, never fear; the book may start with what’s attractive about peacocks, but it ends with what’s attractive about human beings.


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