Posted by: Matt Compton | December 7, 2009

Best Books of 2009

So far in 2009, I’ve read 65 books. I hope to read at least 10 more before the end of December, so there is a real possibility that this list will see a few additions over the course of this month.

But as of now, these are my favorite books from the year 2009. As always, I’d love to hear your reactions and suggestions for other things I should read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize this year. It’s a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, who for a time was Henry VIII’s closest advisor. History remembers him as a villain who helped to execute Thomas More, but Mantel treats him as a very modern character — a self-made man, who was an accomplished soldier, merchant, and diplomat, as well as a secret supporter of the Reformation. At its heart, this is a book about politics — both on the personal and the national level — and Mantel turns all of that turmoil into fascinating story.

The Gamble and The Good Soldiers are two different books about the surge in Iraq. The Gamble, written by Thomas Ricks, takes the broad perspective, focusing on the formation of the strategy, the work that Petreaus and his deputies did to advocate and push for the counter insurgency plan. The Good Soldiers, by David Finkle, focuses on one battalion charged with securing part of Baghdad. Both of them are powerful and hard to forget.

A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias is a portrait of a relationship from the beginning through the course of 30 years. It’s full of emotional impact and loss.

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin is a history of the rubber plantation that Henry Ford tried to carve out of the Amazon. His ambition was to create a model of Americana in the middle of the jungle, but it was a project almost doomed from the start.

Columbine by Dave Cullen is a fascinating history of the Columbine school shooting, which offers up new details and perspectives and cuts down many of the myths that took root in the immediate accounts of the tragedy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a strong short story collection from Wells Tower, none better than the title piece about a crew of Vikings who set out to raid a frequently-targeted island.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is an incredibly powerful book about Katrina and what it means to be both an immigrant and an American. I started it one Sunday morning and did not put it down until I’d read the last page. This is arguably Eggers’ best piece of writing.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann is a fascinating story about an explorer who set off into Amazon in search of a lost civilization, but disappears completely.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a self-reflective novel about the difficulties of growing up, which draws heavily from Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is an account of a tribe of legendary runners in Mexico, a profile of the best ultramarathoners in the world, and an argument for running as an evolutionary imperative. Other books I read this year might be arguably better, but none was more interesting or fun.

The City & The City by China Mieville is a tense story set in a fictional country in Eastern Europe, which is fundamentally detective novel, but draws heavily from science fiction and fantasy.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba is a memoir about a childhood in Africa and the imagination that inspires a boy to teach himself to build a windmill to power his home using castoff parts.

Posted by: Matt Compton | October 8, 2009

The Wild Things review

My latest from Boldtype.

The Wild Things is easily the best book ever adapted from a movie that was adapted from a picture book, but it also succeeds in its own right. Dave Eggers has created a novel that is deeply imaginative, slightly strange, occasionally dark, and ultimately touching.

On some level, we know the story. (Weren’t we all exposed to Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott winner in childhood?) And the world Sendak evokes is so gripping that it is easy to forget that the original book was built around nine sentences. Eggers, however, has produced a work of 300 pages and many, many sentences, which uses the original for inspiration but leaps off to create a world of its own.

There is still a wild boy named Max, of course, and he still bites his mother. Max still visits an island inhabited by wild Things. But before we meet one of the monsters, we spend time in Max’s home. We learn that Max has a sister who has grown too old for the games they once played, and we are introduced to his mother’s younger boyfriend, whom Max is not prepared to accept. When confronted with changes in his actual life, a place filled with Wild Things seems satisfactory by comparison.

On the island, Max is still a king, and he still leads the Things in a wild rumpus. But where Sendak’s monsters are distinct mostly for the way they are illustrated, each of Eggers’ monsters has a unique voice and personality. And where Sendak’s readers have the perspective to understand that Max is dreaming, in Eggers’ story, everything — no matter how strange — is all too real. When the Things suggest they’re ready to eat Max, it’s a threat we can believe.

With Sendak’s original, part of what works so well is the style in which it’s drawn. Anyone who has seen the trailer for Spike Jonze’s film knows that’s true for the movie as well. So too with Eggers’ adaptation. The writing is crisp and alive, and it works, perhaps better than an adaptation ever should.

Posted by: Matt Compton | July 5, 2009

Stone’s Fall review

My latest review from Boldtype.

Stone’s Fall: A Novel
by Iain Pears
Published: May 2009
Pages: 608
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

For a novel that seeks to explain the circumstances of John Stone’s death, Stone’s Fall spends a lot of time exploring the details of the man’s life. The story unfolds in three parts, each narrated by a different character, each set in a different city. That set-up seems straightforward enough, but the narrative grows in complexity as it moves from London in 1909, to Paris in 1890, to Venice in 1867. Details that seem innocent upon first introduction become vitally important later. Minor characters in the early sections step into the spotlight later.

John Stone is a Gilded Age industrialist, who first made his fortune selling self-propelled torpedoes and dreadnoughts. When he dies suddenly, his widow — Elizabeth — hires a young journalist named Matthew Braddock to find a child who may or may not exist. Unraveling that mystery requires Braddock to dig deeply into Stone’s business affairs. The more Braddock learns, the less he understands. Was Stone’s corporation in deep fiscal trouble? Why is Elizabeth connected to an assassination-minded band of anarchists? And who is Henry Cort — the man who ordered London’s papers to withhold details of Stone’s death?

Cort, in fact, is the man who picks up the narrative in Paris. As a young spy, he stumbles upon an international conspiracy to sabotage London finance (which eerily reflects our own banking crisis). Cort needs help from Stone and Elizabeth to end the threat, and offers the reader important details about the background of both. The final section is voiced by John Stone himself, dispatching each lingering question with the same efficiency he brings to the arms business. Some answers are easier to predict than others, but the ending is unexpected and well worth the wait.

Stone’s Fall is an intricate, layered puzzle, and from an author like Iain Pears, we expect nothing less. But this is also a novel about ideas, which finds beauty in the rhythms of commerce and politics. At 600 pages, it demands some dedication, but offers plenty of rewards for the effort.

Posted by: Matt Compton | April 8, 2009

Lost City of Z review

My latest review from Boldtype.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
Published: February 2009
Pages: 352
Publisher: Doubleday

In 1925, Col. Percy Fawcett walked into the jungles of the Amazon in search of a forgotten empire. He had a record of setting off into unmapped places only to emerge months — or even years — later with new discoveries. Fawcett was one of the most famous explorers of his day, so celebrated that he became the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero in The Lost World.

David Grann — who writes about the explorer in his new book, The Lost City of Z — records that Fawcett was convinced, “that an ancient, highly cultured people still existed in the Brazilian Amazon and that their civilization was so old and sophisticated it would forever alter the Western view of the Americas.”

Fawcett’s mission captured the popular imagination, generating international headlines. For weeks,
the world tracked his journey, certain that a great discovery was about to be made. Then, after a final dispatch from somewhere near the Upper Xingu, Fawcett and his team disappeared — never to be heard from again.

One after another, would-be rescuers tried to find Fawcett or some sign of his fate. None succeeded, but dozens lost their lives in the attempt. Over time, his story became as much a thing of legend as it was fact, then slipped directly into fiction altogether.

Eighty years later, Grann — a writer for the New Yorker — finds himself obsessed with learning the truth. Eventually, he heads to the Amazon, following Fawcett’s trail.

The historians and anthropologists of Fawcett’s day were convinced that his mission was a fool’s errand. They believed that the Amazon was too harsh a place to support anything but the most primitive of peoples.

They were wrong.

As Grann searches for Fawcett’s remains, he meets an archaeologist with evidence that something approaching the Lost City of Z might well have existed (even if its streets were not paved of gold). For the reader, that discovery (along with the thrill of the story itself) will have to suffice, however, as Fawcett’s true fate still remains a mystery.

Posted by: Matt Compton | March 27, 2009

Wired for War review

My latest review from Boldtype.

Wired for War

When American forces marched into Iraq, they were little different from generations of warriors before them. They may have had global-positioning systems and highly advanced weaponry, but they were still just human beings.

Now, that’s all changed; our troops are no longer alone on the battlefield. Since 2003, the number of American robots in combat has gone from 0 to 12,000, and the unmanned ranks continue to grow.

War in 2009 is a place where science fiction has become military reality.

P.W. Singer’s new book — Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century — explores the both immediate ramifications of this strange fact and the questions it poses for the

The military first deployed robots in missions that were too dull or dangerous for human soldiers to complete. A Predator drone can spend 24 hours in flight without rest, while the PackBot — built by the same people who make the Roomba — can be tossed through the window of a hostile building to transmit live video of insurgents inside.

But even as the scientists and engineers who design these machines dream of a world where their creations eliminate the need for human causalities, they are hard at work devising ways that robots could be used to kill enemy combatants.

If that leaves you thinking about Skynet, you’re not alone.

Writers and thinkers have been haunted by visions of a future with machines in rebellion for nearly 100 years. The experts with whom Singer speaks all understand the potential for apocalypse and many believe that strong artificial intelligence — which exceeds human intelligence — is less than a generation away. Singer takes comfort in the fact that our fears are leading many to begin grappling with the ethical questions long before we’re in danger of being assaulted by our toasters.

In the meantime, the paradigm for the present is clear. In the past six months, American drones have launched nearly 40 strikes against militants on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing hundreds.

That fact alone makes Wired for War essential reading for the immediate future.

Posted by: Matt Compton | February 25, 2009

Second look at the Kindle

After months of ownership, I’m convinced the Kindle (or a device like it) is on the verge of changing the way that people read.

Read more here.

Posted by: Matt Compton | February 11, 2009

American Buffalo review

From Boldtype.

In 2005, Steven Rinella was one of 24 individuals to win one of the rarest lotteries in the world. For his luck, he was awarded a permit by the government of Alaska to hunt and kill a wild American bison in the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park. For Rinella — a correspondent for Outside Magazine who has been obsessed with buffalo for more than a decade — this hunt becomes an intellectual road trip, which leaves him exploring thousands of years of history, science, and popular culture.

And what a varied trip it is. He takes an old, treasured bison skull he once found on a hike in southern Montana to a laboratory in England to have it carbon dated. He attempts to discover the remains of Black Diamond — the buffalo once housed at the Central Park Zoo in New York and believed to be the model for the engraving on the buffalo nickel coin. He looks for artifacts left behind by the first people to hunt American bison and tells the stories of famous 19th century buffalo hunters who almost exterminated the species.

But at its heart, this is an adventure story which doesn’t disappoint. Even as he tracks his target across the Alaskan wilderness, Rinella is stalked in turn by grizzly bears. He burns dried buffalo chips for fuel; the reader must take on faith that the smoke smells of “cinnamon and cloves, dried straw and pumpkins.” After he makes his kill, he butchers the carcass and carries out a thousand pounds of meat and hide on his back, piece by piece. And, as he returns to civilization, he’s threatened by a freezing river and the onset of hypothermia.

American Buffalo is everything that nature writing should be — Rinella’s prose is muscular, evocative, and utterly dominated by his passion for the subject. This book succeeds where other hunting narratives often fail because Rinella both understands and is willing to explain the inherent contradiction of trying to kill something he holds dear.

Posted by: Matt Compton | January 7, 2009

The Best Books of 2008

Late into the afternoon, on New Year’s Eve, I read my final chapter of 2008. This year, I finished 75 books — down a bit from the 2007 but exactly where I was two years ago.

Perhaps because I spent so much time thinking about the election, 2008 was a year dominated by nonfiction. Nearly a third of the books I read dealt directly with politics, almost half were works of history, and only 35 were novels.

Below you’ll find a collection of my favorites. I call them the best, but of course, they’re only the best that I read.

I’d love to hear reactions if you have similar (or widely different) impressions.

American Buffalo by Steven Rinella
If there is one book from 2008 that I cannot get out of my head, it is this one. I finished it a month ago, and I haven’t had a day go by when I haven’t thought about it.

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll
I don’t know if there is a better observer of contemporary history writing today. If possible, this book is better than Ghost Wars, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
With Malcolm Gladwell you fully expect to be fascinated. You don’t expect to continue thinking about his ideas for weeks after the book is done, but that’s what Outliers delivers.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
It took months before I appreciated this book fully, but living through the 2008 election helps a person to see the world as Perlstein does.

Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
I’ve got a special place in my heart for Sarah Vowell, and this book is her best piece of long-form history.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
This is the smartest, angriest, most emotionally-savvy novel about the world in which we now live that I’ve ever read.

Lush Life by Richard Price
There may be those who are better at seeing the American city, but no one hears it better than Richard Price. The dialogue is so fresh and credible that plot doesn’t matter.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Gosh
The world that Ghosh conjures is wholly original; populated by characters brimming with life, packed with emotion, speaking a mashup of languages that somehow wills itself to be understood. All of it is a joy to read.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
Laura Bush just signed a book deal for her memoir, but I have a hard time believing that anything she writes could be as likable or true-feeling as this novel.

Little Brother by Corey Doctorow
The unlikeliest hero of 2008 is a high school kid named Marcus who finds himself on the wrong side of the Department of Homeland Security, and this novel, ostensibly written for young adults, might just be the year’s most important book.

*Honorable Mention:

The Last Campaign by Thurstan Clark

Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
America, America by Ethan Canin
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 11, 2008

Reviewing Nixonland, properly

When I originally finished Nixonland back in April, my conclusion was that I liked it more than I loved it.

But after months of considering the book (and living through a presidential election where voters screamed, “Kill Him!” in reference to my party’s nominee), I’ve decided that the weaknesses are smaller than I originally thought, and they are far outweighed by the book’s strengths.

My review in Boldtype.

Posted by: Matt Compton | December 2, 2008

Reviewing the Kindle

More than a year ago, I wrote a long post about the future of books, where I speculated about what it would take to change the way I read. This is what I said:

The device I’m thinking of would be small (the size of a book); it would be portable (battery life needs to last at least couple novels); and it would need the right kind of software (the ability to search for any word on any piece of text, the ability to add marginalia, and the ability to link between works — and that’s just for starters).

And the price points would have to be right. Folks will make a substantial investment in the gadget in exchange for cheap digital books. But if you’re going to charge people a lot up front and then stick them again for content, this whole thing falls through.

If someone out there would make and market a device with the right user interface that sells for less than $200 and pair it with a cheap online bookstore, I’d buy it within weeks of it coming out.

Just about a month ago, I started using an Amazon Kindle, and I’m pleased to report that it meets just about every part of that description. The price point is a little higher than what I imagined (and that’s what kept me from buying this thing for nearly a year), but otherwise the Kindle is almost exactly the device I dreamed up.

The result is pretty incredible.

In the time that I’ve owned my Kindle, I’ve read six books on the device (well over 1,000 pages), and purchased six more (for a total of 12) with prices ranging from $.25 to $15. I’ve read it at my desk, on the couch, in the car, and in a deck chair outside.

I can tell you the exact moment that this device made a believer out of me.

When Amazon began marketing this device, Jeff Bezos repeatedly told interviewers that the Kindle had been designed so that readers would get lost in the words. He said it was specifically engineered so that users would forget that they were holding an expensive piece of electronics.

I didn’t believe him.

But about 10 days into ownership, I was reading the Kindle late one night while brushing my teeth. And just like he said, I got wrapped up in the world created by the book on the screen. Without thinking, I sat my toothbrush on the counter and tried to turn a physical page, just as I had done with books my entire life. I only paused for second before I hit the next page button, but that was enough — I was hooked.

Like many people, I had a day or two of trouble with the next page buttons that run long either side of the device. But now that I’m used to the layout of the hardware, it’s been weeks since I’ve inadvertently turned a page.

I originally had trouble with keeping the Kindle in its case, but after I learned how it fits, I’ve had no problems at all. Using the case also helps with the page button problem.

I was initially annoyed that there was no screen lock button (like you’d find on an iPod). But it turns out that the same buttons that turn off the screen-saver also turn it back on. Learning this trick has helped me from losing my page considerably.

What works for the Kindle?

The screen is close to perfect. The Kindle uses e-ink technology, and for the most part, this means that the display renders almost exactly like newsprint. It doesn’t need a backlight so your eyes don’t get tired from reading it. The screen is non-reflective, meaning you can read the Kindle outside in full sunlight.

The added beauty of e-ink is what it does for the battery. Using this technology, you only need power to refresh the screen (i.e. navigating to another page), and that in turn lets the Kindle go for days without needing a charge. I’ve never turned my Kindle off, but I only charge the device about once a week.

Part of the reason I get that kind of battery life is because I don’t spend much time on the Whispernet — Amazon wireless network (leased from Sprint) — which really does use a lot of power. But I do love the time that I spend online with the Kindle. This thing comes with its own web browser, which for the most part, does a great job of rendering major web pages (,, etc.). And of course the Amazon Store has been incredibly well designed, and navigating it is a pleasure.

I love the Amazon Store for the Kindle, in fact. The selection is pretty solid, and continues to grow every day. I’d love to see more backlist stuff, but given that Amazon makes this thing, I’m fully confident that the selection will continue to expand. Every book I’ve purchased comes cheaper than it’s physical counterpart (in some cases dramatically — I bought my copy of The Old Man and the Sea for $.25), which makes the girl happy.

Out of the box, the Kindle will hold at least 200 books, and with an SD memory card, I can bump capacity up to 2,000. For me, that’s a revelation. The whole thing is searchable, and I love the ability to highlight, bookmark, and make notes.

What would I change?

I’d add two features.

I love that there isn’t a permanent backlight, but a small, built-in reading light would be big improvement of my user experience.

The Kindle is a device that screams for a touchscreen. You could replace both the keyboard and page buttons, and it would be almost perfect.

If the pictures of the Kindle 2.0 that are floating around on the Internet are true, this next version includes neither improvement. That doesn’t mean that this new device won’t be worth a purchase, but it does mean that I’ll be happy with my Gen1 model for awhile.

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