I read a lot of books in 2018. Most of them were pretty good, some were great, and a few were amazing (there were a couple of stinkers, too, but I’m not here for that).
Books are made to be read and then shared—who am I to hoard so many great books? Let’s spread the wealth! In no particular order, I present to you the seven best books I read last year.
Grant has been something of an enigma to me for years. He’s the greatest battlefield commander in American history, but was drummed out of the military for rumors of alcoholism; he’s often called a corrupt president, but led the charge against the first large-scale domestic terrorist group (the KKK) after the Civil War; he was famous for his reticence, but composed the most valuable primary source on the Civil War on his deathbed.
Ron Chernow cuts through the mystery and contradictions to find the honorable man beneath the myth, and he does it so tightly that the thousand pages of this biography fly by.
2 Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya—William Carlsen
Who first found Chichen Itza and other famous pre-Columbian cities? If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to find ancient ruins and buried cities without the aid of modern technology, look no further.
The story of John Stephens—an American original bursting with enthusiasm, emblematic of his young country in the 1830s—and Frederick Catherwood and their journeys deep into Central America is a rollicking ride.
The steamy jungles, filled with dangers and unknown terrors, jump off the pages. The trials and tribulations that the two go through, all for the sake of archaeology, art, and fame, would make Indiana Jones proud.
Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (Vol. 1: Imperial Machine)—Charles Soule (author), Giuseppe Camuncoli and Jim Cheung (illustrators)
One of the most pleasant side effects of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm has been the extensive ancillary works set in the Star Wars universe. Everybody on the planet has seen the amazing films of the new trilogy, but some of the most exciting and thoughtful stuff has been happening in Marvel’s many different Star Wars comics.
My personal favorite are the House of Stan’s Darth Vader series, especially the second one, Dark Lord of the Sith. This trade is an awesome introduction to Vader’s post-Order 66 exploits, from the creation of his lightsaber to an unexpected connection to Star Wars: Rebels. The Force is strong in this book, my young apprentices.
4 A Closed and Common Orbit—Becky Chambers
I already raved about the first book in Chamber’s series, but this sequel is just as great. While there are a handful of small connections to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this book functions as more of a companion than a sequel.
Concerned entirely with the story of Pepper, a technician, and Lovelace, a ship’s AI (both minor characters from Small, Angry Planet), A Closed and Common Orbit explores the nature of being, intelligence, emotions, and relationships without being cloying or patronizing.
The flashbacks to Pepper’s brutal childhood and struggle for survival would make a great novella by themselves, but the larger story is even better.
Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews & The Central Asiatic Expeditions—Charles Gallenkamp
The adventures of Roy Chapman Andrews are as close to real-life Indiana Jones stories as us nerds can get. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have always claimed to have no factual inspiration for Henry Jones, Jr., but Dr. Andrews is so similar to our beloved archaeologist that he had to have been at least an indirect, subconscious stimulus.
Andrews was the most famous paleontologist in the world in the early 1900s, and his expeditions to Mongolia—one of the most isolated, mysterious, and beautiful places in the world—captivated millions around the globe.
His discovery of dinosaur bones and other ancient fossils tremendously expanded our scientific knowledge of the past, while his exploration of Asia provides a snapshot of a lost, mostly forgotten world that still existed less than a century ago.
This book checks off two of my weird interests: the insane longevity of which humans are occasionally capable and the transition from pre-World War to post-War America.
The oral interviews these hundred-year olds give are life in a microcosm—their stories of new technology, war, society, home life, and love are at once normal and extraordinary. More than anything, it gives you an appreciation for time and for life.
The best way I can describe this book is that it reads like a written version of a Ken Burns documentary, and I say that with the highest compliments.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans & Their Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics—Daniel James Brown
Full disclosure: I know nothing about rowing or the University of Washington. But even this crew neophyte can see the larger principles of this gripping book: the Zen-like state derived from physical activity, the virtues of teamwork, the importance of family, and the evergreen pleasure of dunking on Hitler and his Nazi thugs at the 1936 Olympics.
When placed against the backdrop of the grinding poverty caused by the Great Depression, Brown’s story becomes even more sarisfying. Hulu or Netflix need to develop this into a prestige miniseries pronto!
Take a look at the other books I read this year, and see if you find something you like. Happy trails, my fellow readers!
- The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War—H. W. Brands
- The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—ed. Peter Clayton and Martin Price
- The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid—Bill Bryson
- The First Man in Rome—Colleen McCullough
- Leviathan Wakes—James S. A. Corey
- American Dreams—John Jakes
- Norse Mythology—Neil Gaiman
- The Roosevelts: An American Saga—Peter Collier and David Horowitz
- The Age of Zeus—James Lovegrove
- The Last Wish—Andrzej Sapkowski
- Avengers vs. the X-Men: VS—Kathryn Immonen, Mark Waid, and Jason Aaron (authors), Stuart Immonen and Laura Martin (illustrators)
- Spider-Man/Deadpool Vol. 2: Side Pieces—Scott Aukerman, Gerry Duggan, Penn Jillette, Paul Scheer, Nick Giovannetti, and Joshua Corin (authors), Reilly Brown, Scott Koblish, Todd Nauck, Tigh Walker, and Mike Del Mundo (illustrators)
- Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (Vol. 2: Legacy’s End)—Charles Soule (author), Giuseppe Camuncoli (illustrator)
- World War Hulk: X-Men (Vol. 1)—Christos Gage, Robert Kirkman, Dan Slott, and Daniel Way (authors), Stefano Caselli, Butch Guice, Javier Saltares, Andrea Di Vito, and Ed McGuinness (illustrators)
- Final Crisis—Grant Morrison (author), Doug Mahnke and J. G. Jones (illustrators)
- Dictator—Robert Harris
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—Becky Chambers
- Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West—Christopher Knowlton
- John Quincy Adams—Robert V. Remini
- Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome—Anthony Everitt
- Old Man’s War—John Scalzi
- Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker & the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History—S. C. Gwynne
- America Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II—Jonathan W. Jordan