Favourite Books of 2023-ish

Ah, another year in which I kept a vanity URL functional, yet failed to exercise any writing aptitude outside of work. Welp, here’s some books.

Truth be told, it was a bit of a down year for me in terms of quantity (good, but not as many as I’d like) and quality (for fiction in particular). I read a number of novels I either liked or that I quite liked, such as Lily Brooks-Dalton’s The Light Pirate (2022) and Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Sanctuary (2022), but few if any novels I loved. Part of that was just reading too many trendy but flawed near-future or cli-fi dystopian books. Consequently, my favourites are all non-fiction, but I think there are some real bangers here.

Raw Dog – Jamie Loftus

Once I heard Loftus describing her hot dog pilgrimages, the machinations and capitalist exploitation of hot dog contests, and her upcoming book on Behind the Bastards, I knew I was probably going to end up reading said book, and that it would have to be the audiobook.

I have no idea who I would recommend this book to. It’s a hot dog history carefully wrapped in the bun of a travelogue and garnished with a breakup story, with solidly leftist politics. It’s a strange beast, but the mashup of history with travelogue keeps the story moving and lively.

Loftus’ narration is a ton of fun and really makes the book come alive. She does a great job emoting, throwing in accents, etc. I don’t know if it would come off quite the same in print.

The Wager – David Grann

Believe the hype. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers another gripping nonfiction read laced with mutiny and murder. I’ve read several shipwreck/failed expedition types of stories before and after this one, but it may very well be the best. In audiobook form, it’s well-paced, and delivered with gravitas and panache by narrator Dion Graham.

The Fund – Rob Copeland

A triumph of the “Get a load of this a**hole” genre of biography/organizational expose targeting Bridgewater Associates’ famed Ray Dalio and his principles. 

Copeland paints a picture of a young man with hustle who slowly transitions into becoming a ludicrously rich, sociopathic office tyrant on the strength of a few extraordinary “a broken clock is right twice a day” investment calls. The absolutely deranged office behaviour and Orwellian (in the true senses of the word) environment is bizarre and makes for a series of fascinating and interlocking stories. In audiobook form, there’s excellent narration by the venerable Will Damron.

Palo Alto – Malcolm Harris

If you are an ardent fan of Silicon Valley and its culture or superstar founders, you may hate this book, but hopefully it will challenge you in good ways. Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World is a vital, withering rebuke of Silicon Valley and the current state of capitalism that I really hope finds a larger audience over time.

Malcolm rejects the “Great Man of History” hypothesis repeatedly, and spends perhaps shockingly little time talking about Jobs, Musk, or titans of the farther past. Instead, this is a book that focuses on ecosystems and forces, which is really not what tech fans want to hear. Harris argues that many Silicon Valley “innovations” are inevitable products of their environment (material, political, legal, etc.) rather than strokes of genius that demand the preposterous valuations and deference they’re often granted. Rather than offering a profile of a company or Silicon Valley giant as a microcosm, this book is intent on showing how it all comes together, and how “capital” is much larger and more significant than venture capital and “line goes up” economics.

A lot of people felt the book’s main prescription, , to be whimsical, impractical, and the basis for undercutting its critiques. However, even if it isn’t a feasible solution at a practical level, I think it serves as an effective bookend to the narrative of the book. To me, Harris is arguing that Silicon Valley was born of sin and dispossession, and the only absolution is to divest itself of those ill-gotten lands.

The Great Displacement – Jake Bittle

I think some of us have the tendency to think of climate migration and climate refugees in the larger macro sense, with the need to try to offer some semblance of justice to the people of the global south, but Bittle turns his focus to the US instead. It’s entirely worthwhile and doesn’t feel ethno- or geo-centric: by showing just how drastic the effects can be in the largely temperate, developed areas close to home for a Western reader, it hits with an immediacy, and the reader can extrapolate (with some prompts from Bittle) the dangers on a global scale.

Bittle selects excellent examples that show just how intractable and thorny these issues are, and how it’s often a regular person that gets left holding the bag. Perhaps in part because I live in Atlantic Canada, I think I have a tendency to look at some situations in places like California or Florida in particular and judge some of the homeowners for being ‘greedy’ by electing to live in reckless waterfront developments in hurricane country or McMansions and farms in parched fire-prone areas, etc. While I still think that can sometimes be true, it can of course also be very reductive and it places the blame on the victim. Bittle shows how a mess of municipal and state interests collide with corporate greed to create many of these issues. He also takes pains to show that the ultimate victims are rarely the rich: it’s those of lesser or modest means (and especially people of colour), and the community as a whole who suffers. In particular, I was struck by his stories of how difficult this whole thing can be from an Indigenous reconciliation perspective (and I’m sure how that then unfairly pits residential and agricultural interests against them) and how basically one run-in with a climate change issue can almost ruin your entire financial future, such as the Coast Guard couple who bought a townhome in which catastrophic, almost uninsurable flood risk was undisclosed, nearly leaving a young family with an unsaleable home.

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall – Alexandra Lange (2022)

This is the authoritative book on the institution that is the mall. Lange craftily weaves together design, sociology, history, and business in a way that shouldn’t leave any readers out. As someone who went to university for a business degree in marketing (including some retail marketing courses) and became more left over time (and became an avid listener of 99% Invisible to boot), the book completely hit the sweet spot for me, and I think Lange does an admirable job incorporating sociological elements of gender, ethnicity, class, and gentrification without ever coming across as preachy.

Easy Money – Ben McKenzie and Jacob Silverman

Easy Money isn’t a transcendent read, but for its target audience of the layperson, I think it completely achieves its objectives and I can’t knock it. I’m not sure if it’s the best book on crypto period, but on balance I do think it’s a better read than Zeke Faux’s more hyped and fortuitously timed Number Go Up, which is dishier and juicier but doesn’t quite have the same economic/moral rigour.

Easy Money provides a very well-rounded introduction to the whole scene that focuses mostly on the biggest, most flamboyant figures and fraudsters, and bolsters its arguments with some critiques of the current iteration of capitalism, ineffective governance, and regulatory capture.

As someone pretty well-versed in crypto skepticism, there really wasn’t a lot new here, but I found it to be a pleasant recap, and the fact that it’s framed as McKenzie’s journey and features some of the ‘how the sausage is made’ of the reporting gives it more grounding than works that are more theoretical. Hopefully this book will inspire readers to explore the work of some of the people that McKenzie credits, especially Gerard, Diehl, and White.

In the audiobook version, McKenzie is very pleasant as an audiobook narrator, ably providing both smarm and gravitas when called for. For a professional actor (yes, the guy from The OC, folks) moonlighting as a journalist, this is a strong first outing, which is a real credit to McKenzie and to Jacob Silverman.

Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks – Patrick Redden Keefe (2022)

This collection offers excellent examples of what longform/magazine writing should be. As with any collection, quality will vary, but there isn’t a weak piece in the bunch, and I liked the choice to end the book on a bittersweet note with Radden Keefe’s Anthony Bourdain profile.

Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us – Rachel Aviv (2022)

A deeply humane book that asks questions about narratives and the way we diagnose and treat mental illness through the lens of several stories, including a compelling non-Western example, which can be an oversight in this genre. 

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet – Jeff Goodell

Another book that I didn’t find to be transcendent, but I felt that I had to include it because of the way it stuck with me. It’s very good climate book that trods familiar ground without feeling inessential. Like Bittle, Goodell skillfully keeps things at an appreciable human scale while explaining macro issues. He does an excellent job setting the tone early with a tragic story of a young family dying from hyperthermia, which he uses to illustrate what happens to the human body in extreme heat stress. Successive chapters explore different parts of the world and different aspects of extreme heat’s effects on everything from agricultural and migrant labour to urban architecture.

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