Last year was full of hits.
This year I didn't have as much success finding good reads. I am finishing up Pushing the Limits to hit my reading target for the year. It's another Henry Petroski book mostly about bridges. Some good stories, but there isn't much of a unifying theme, with chapters on the St. Francis Dam disaster and the Aggie Bonfire collapse oddly juxtaposed.
The Grapes of Wrath was a memorable classic. I was occasionally distracted by scenes meant to build sympathy for the Great Depression characters that didn't make much sense. At the outset, we find the Joad family and their neighbors being evicted from their farms by the bad old bank. It was bank loans that allowed them to keep their land when times got tough, but now times are tougher and the bank has sent bulldozers. One of the arguments the family makes to establish their claim to the land is that they worked so hard on it, starting by murdering all the previous residents. Property rights are complicated, I guess.
Later, in California, the poor migrants suffer further at the hands of big business. In an arresting scene, they watch in desperation as surplus food is destroyed to prop up prices and profits.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
If you assume that business is evil, this scene is climactic confirmation. But if you live in the real world, you might wonder why we don't see businesses producing goods only to destroy them. When vendors have excess inventory, they often reduce prices, perhaps even selling at a loss to get some revenue. When food products get old, a store might trash them or might earn some good will by donating the food, even though this may reduce demand for their products.
So why, during the Great Depression when people were hungry, were food producers destroying their goods? The Agricultural Adjustment Act was a New Deal effort to raise agricultural prices by reducing surplus. Perhaps it was justifiable to subsidize the agricultural sector despite the bad optics, but Steinbeck allows the reader to lay blame on the profit motive: "children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange."
The novel tells a great story, and it was not boring like Pride and Prejudice, which was assigned reading for my kid. Much like War and Peace, much of the "action" takes place in ballrooms and salons, and the drama comes from interpreting wooing signals. I don't mind a romance, and enjoyed three Thomas Hardy books over the summer, but Jane Austin was disappointing after the first sentence.
Vaclav Smil's How the World Really Works delivered on its ambitious title. I fill too much of my attention span with things that appear on screens: entertainment or the latest technology advances or current events and politics, things that seem important in the moment. I forget about the material house I live in, the energy used to build and heat it, the vast network of inputs that make my lunch possible. Smil traces "the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia" which make modern life comfortable. The challenge of decarbonization is stark. We think of wind turbines and solar panels, but electricity is just a part of the energy mix. Even if the affluent world can greatly reduce emissions, there is a much larger developing world that also wants Ikea kitchens and smokeless heat.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was very good. I read Andre Agassi's memoir in time to know who Nick Bollettieri was when he died. The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson was a great seafaring adventure but started to list toward the end. I'll try to put together another end-of-year compilation.