I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying: Essays by Bassey Ikpi — Memoir as a series of vignette style essays dealing with love, loss, displacement, and mental illness. Evocative prose that frequently falls into rhythm; likely due to the author’s background as a poet. Also, a refreshing perspective on many of these topics as Ms. Ikpi is a Nigerian-American immigrant.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi — Essential. Even as an African-American male I found it startling how much it forced reflection on my own beliefs and ideas about how I view the construct of race. If Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is the story of how we got here as a country (and, more broadly, a world), then these are the instructions for getting out.
Parable of the Talents (Earthseed Books) by Octavia E. Butler — The second in the Earthseed books pick up several years from where the last left off. Lauren Olamina is finally settled and nurturing a small but growing community of followers. Things seem to be going well. But, what would a dystopian story be without tension — it can’t (and doesn’t) last long. Told in multiple voices, this book covers the remaining years of Lauren Olamina’s life. Butler is such an amazing world builder and word weaver.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell — A well written and researched book about reclaiming our attention. Could easily be summed up with my statement that “Saying no is saying yes to other things”. That said, Jenny Odell is an artist, bird watcher, and nature enthusiast and she uses that view to tackle the subject matter from interesting angles. Therefore, I was exposed to many artists and ideas I would not have been otherwise by reading this book. Worth the time spent.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline — A rollicking adventure set in a dystopian future where Indigenous people are hunted, captured, and killed. Why? All other’s have lost the ability to dream and Native people have not — their dreams are in their bones. The marrow specifically. And those without dreams are willing to do anything to get them back again. The story follows a young native, having lost his family, connecting up with a ragtag band of other “Nish” and heading north to escape the hands of the “Recruiters”. A fun and fast read with much insight into Native culture and lore.
My reading year got off to a rocky start. I started so many and just lost steam. I found it hard to follow some parts of my reading plan. I simply could not find anything I wanted to finish. So I don’t believe I’ll end up hitting my normal number of books read for the year. I hit the reset button about mid February. But here’s what I can say I read through:
The Man Who Sold The Moon by Cory Doctorow — A band of hackers and makers find love and loss amid Burning Man while they build a robot to make 3D printed shelter panels and, eventually, structures for future spacefarers. A lovely and strangely hopeful vision of the near future grounded in real world constraints and consequences. This novella was included in the collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. I read it in Instapaper for free at on Boing Boing (which is where the link points).
Lethal White (A Cormoran Strike Novel) by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) — The 4th in the series. This time, Robin and Strike are hired by a Parliament Minister to dig up dirt on the folks blackmailing him.Things don’t go exactly as planned… What a big, wonderful, crazy, fun, mess of a detective yarn. If you like a good whodunnit you should be reading this series. So very good.
So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid — A colorfully written treatise on the current state of publishing, why the book has yet to be replaced by anything else, and why small print runs matter even in the face of such overwhelming volume. Recommended in Robin Sloan’s excellent Year of The Meteor newsletter.
The Subtle Knife: His Dark Materials Book 2 by Philip Pullman — A rollicking adventure that continues the events set in motion in The Golden Compass without actually resolving any of them fully. We get an idea what “Dust” is, we get introduced to several new characters, we get even more background and understanding about what’s going on, but it is mainly further setup for the final book in the series (Book 3). Still, a very enjoyable read and I’m looking forward to the next.
Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon — An inspirational end to the three book series he began with Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work. If you are an artist, writer, or creative you’ll find much here to give you a renewed sense of hope and purpose in these times that sometimes feel lacking. I have a special shelf I keep books that I return to when I need a push or a fresh perspective. All three hold a special place there.
Christodora by Tim Murphy — When my wife hands me a book and says, “You should read this next” she’s always right. Wonderful book. The character development and place making are top notch. I felt a genuine compassion for these characters living, using, dying, fighting in the era of AIDS. Especially resonates for those of us that actually lived or knew those who did around the Lower East Side of NYC in the 1980’s.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport — Anyone who has followed my work for any length of time, especially that of my Minimal Mac days, know that I was already onboard this train long before it left the station. Therefore, I personally found nothing revolutionary within. That said, I feel like I’m not the target audience and for that audience I think there’s some great strategies in here for regaining a healthy relationship with technology.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates — A devastatingly important book. I actually have so much to say about it that I can’t simply wrap it up in a succinct review. This is a book that requires broad, serious, and open-hearted discussion. This should be required reading in every American history class.
The Mueller Report — Yep. I read it. Like a book. Got a printed version. You should too. This is important.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee — Another classic that I’d somehow missed along the way. It’s everything my wife and daughter promised me it’d be. Wonderfully executed. There’s a reason this is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. Read it if you haven’t.
His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass (Book 3) by Philip Pullman — A decent finale to this classic series. Full of the thrilling adventure and fully realized world building Pullman is known for. That said, having now finished, I’m mixed a bit on the underlying message of the story. The first thought I had on closing the cover was, “This seems like a lot of work to make such a relatively straightforward statement.” The second thought was, “The characters sure went through a lot of trouble to seek the relatively simple ends they desired”. But, I suspect these are small quibbles on my part because, ultimately, it was great entertainment and exactly what a fantasy book series should be.
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant — The lessons are a bit dated and seem especially so in today’s tumultuous times. That said, there is much to learn from the past and, if nothing else, this short volume does an excellent job of displaying that. It’s the sort of treatise about understanding history that should be a prerequisite for high school and college level history classes.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler — I now get what all the fuss is about. A well written and grounded dystopian novel about a young lady’s coming of age in the midst of societal breakdown. She also has a condition which allows her to physically feel the experiences of others. Oh, and she also invents a religion and becomes a kind of prophet along the way. This was a great read and it’s all I can do to keep from reading the next book in the series right away.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas — A young Black girl witnesses the unjust death of her friend at the hands of a white police officer and must deal with the aftermath. The book paints a very real and compelling portrait of the experience of African-American youth in these times. A wonderfully written book deserving of all of the awards and praise it received.
My reading plan for this year is outlined here. This details why I read a lot of what I read.
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck — A really great “road book” by one of America’s great writers. What’s not to love? I mean, A writer, a dog, a truck, a big wide country, and all of it’s weird, wonderful, strange, complicated, and beautiful people to explore. A classic.
Broken River by J. Robert Lennon — A really fun and unique thriller centering on a house just outside of a small upstate New York town. J. Robert is one of my favorite modern day writers. His deft hand with richly developed characters and fascinating observations of the human experience really shine here. Highly recommended.
How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh — This would be less provocatively called, “How to Make Peace”. Ultimately, that’s what this is about. First, how to make peace with yourself and forgive yourself for you own missteps. Then, by doing so, having the space needed to do so for others in times of conflict and anger.
The Stranger by Albert Camus — Another previously missed classic. An interesting character study of a directionless young man. One of those people who seem to just let life happen to them, floating in its tide. His Mother’s death sets off a rip in that tide. Was not quite sure how to feel about this at the end of it but I’m glad I read it.
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: Books —My continuing quest to read some classic books that I somehow missed in my earlier days. This one was heavily recommended by my wife. It did not disappoint. A steampunkish adventure with a smart young female lead and vivid world building. Though, it left more questions than it answers, that’s par for the course with the first book in a series and has done it’s job in leaving me with the desire to read the rest.
Way Out There: Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker by J. R. Harris — I picked this one up in a wonderful bookstore (Back of Beyond) in Moab, UT while we were on vacation. Already filled with wanderlust and the call of the wild at the tail end of hiking five national parks in as many days, it seemed to call out to me from the shelf. Books about hiking/treking/adventuring by African-American authors are very rare indeed so perhaps it was the friendly face on the cover against a mountain lake backdrop that was the same race and age as me that caught my notice. Regardless, this is an interesting a well written account of a dozen or so treks all over the world by the intrepid Mr. Harris. Inspiring.The right book at the right time for me.
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich — A gift and recommendation from Mr. Sean Sharp. It’s a lovely collection of observations on the American West and life on the ranch. Beautifully written and richly evocative. Rewarding.
How to Read Nature: Awaken Your Senses to the Outdoors You’ve Never Noticed by Tristan Gooley — A nice little guide with exercises that aim to help us reconnect with nature. If one can pay close attention to the natural environment, it can be your clock and calendar, it can tell you much about the past and future, it can tell you about where you are and get you to where you want to go. This book helps one do that.
Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough — My wife, daughter, and I took turns reading this out loud to each other, taking a turn each chapter. Kelly is a friend (and a long time friend of my wife) who’s adult aimed fantasy books I love. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this middle grade offering is such a hoot. The protagonist is the young Kalvan Monroe, a kind of strange kid going to a hippie Free School and dealing with having to bear the weight of his mother’s mental illness. A weird enough life that gets even more so when he accidentally conjures a giant snarky fire hare into existence and discovers he’s far more powerful than he knows or knows how to control. A fun, rollicking, adventure.
A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins — As you may be able to tell, I’m on a bit of a run with these “person decides to leave their normal life behind and go out and discover the “real” America and more than a bit about themselves along the way” books. Perhaps it’s driven by the times. Perhaps it’s my attempt to remind myself that there is more that unites us than divides us. That those things that unite us are the big things — the essential things. That the rest are small details that with humility and compassion we can come to some agreement on. This one, written in the early 1970’s captures the mood of that time well. It’s an America that was still trying to discover itself and, in too many ways, still is today.
How to Relax (Mindfulness Essentials) by Thich Nhat Hanh — Another fine short entry in this series. This one dwells heavily on mindfulness and meditation to reduce worry and appreciate the present moment in order to bring inner peace.
The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life by Joshua Becker. Good guide to decluttering and dealing with stuff with tons of implementable practical advice.
A Monk’s Guide to A Clean House & Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto — This book leans heavily on Japanese culture, homes, and tools but there is still plenty to take out of this in the west. Mainly, the deep connections between our care of the surroundings and our care of our inner beings. This book will resonate especially if you already are attuned to Zen mindfulness concepts.
Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance by Iris Graville — Yet another “person goes off into the wilderness in search of their inner and outer world” books. I can’t seem to stay away from these. This one was given to me by my wife so even the universe and those around me seem to be conspiring to put these in front of me. This one was OK. Not great but a nice memoir of one woman’s journey to find meaning in her life and work.
Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 by Duane Tudahl — Finished reading this amazing book which chronicles the most transformative years in the career of one of the greatest musical artists of all time. Lots of fun, well researched, details and anecdotes. An inside peek into the process and method of how Prince worked and involved (or not) those around him.
Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown (she prefers it lowercase)— On paper, this shouldn’t be a great book. It’s a collection of morning pages, loosely-joined notes, poetry, quotes, interviews, ideas not fully formed, and fan-non-fict of sci-fi author and visionary Octavia Butler. The author tells you up front that she doesn’t have any of this figured out and invites you along to help her do so, so don’t expect any answers at the end. In fact, the hidden secret is that the idea of Emergent Strategy itself has no hard boundaries (“answers” are boundaries) and depends on mass participation driven both e intentionally and organically by individual action. The book, is the author’s action and she’s suggesting ways that others may take theirs.
But, the whole time I was reading it, it was thrilling. Every few sentences I’d run into an idea that was electric. And the whole time I had the feeling the author is on the cusp of something big. That the idea of Emergent Strategy, once we collectively figure it out, could be the answer to so many things. That it could reshape lives and movements in fundamental ways. And, even if that’s not the case it was such fun to be a part of that energy that it’s easily the best book I’ve read this year (and, perhaps, in may years). One that I’ve marked up furiously (and that my wife marked up as she read it before me) and that we will be talking about, referencing, revisiting, and using as a guide for years to come.
Note: I’ve not been sticking very well to the plan. I should fix that or commit to not committing.
Siddhartha: A Novel by Hermann Hesse — A classic that I’d never read. This is a buddhist philosophical fable about a young man’s quest for self-discovery and meaning. Lyrically written and touching.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown — A typically amazing and transformative book by Brené Brown. I’ve long loved her work on shame and vulnerability and how it plays a role in our lives and this one is no different. In this one, she gives practical advice on how to accept and lean into vulnerability in order to have the courage to dare greatly and how to pass such skills onto our children. This is important.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley — The classic dystopian/utopian novel about a genetically and industrially modified society and one outsider’s struggle to find a place within it. It’s a lot of fun and more than a bit unsettling in spots. I’m amazed some of this managed to be written at the time it was with less relaxed tolerance.
Team Dog: How to Train Your Dog–the Navy SEAL Way by Mike Ritland — Probably the best book on dog training I’ve read (and I’ve read a few). What I like most is that the first half of the book is more about training the human reading it than it is about the dog. And, in my experience, this is the best approach. Once you can learn how the dog sees the work then you can form the best relationship with your dog which will lead to better/easier training. I learned more than a bit from this one and it has already helped my dog Winston (and me).
Most of the books on this year’s list have been generous gifts from readers like you form my Amazon Wishlist. I really, really, appreciate those who sent them.
Reinvent Yourself by James Altucher — I’ve enjoyed other books by James Altucher and this one is no different. It’s a series of things he learned from various interviews and observations about the act or reinvention and choosing oneself. That said, if you are looking for more of a how-to strategy guide then you would be disappointed. He does a bit of nuts and bolts work in the final chapters but it’s hardly complete.
Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done by Jocelyn K. Glei — I’m sure this book would prove true and useful to anyone who resonates with it’s basic premise — that everyone hates email. In fact, that declaration is the very first sentence of the book. Since, I’m an alien from another planet who loves email and does not feel overwhelmed by it and already has a long time system in place for handling and responding to it, much of this book was lost on me. There’s some good tricks, tips, and scripts for those not in that place. It’s well written and comes from a place of wanting to help.
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin — A wonderful and diverse collection of essays and interviews with writers about the subject of making a living from the written word. It’s intentionally navel gazey and probably not for anyone not directly involved with or highly interested in the publishing world. That said, one could do a find and replace for writing/art and find that much of the advice, success, and heartache applies.
See Your Way to Mindfulness: Ideas and Inspiration to Open Your I by David Schiller — A simple but lovely little book full of exercises to help one find mindfulness in the every day. It mixes in some good quotes and lovely photos as well. It’s the sort of book you’d get to just keep out on a desk or coffee table and pick it up whenever you needed a bit of meditative inspiration.
[The Dissection Of Vertebrates: a novel by Shawn Mihalik] — I beta read this manuscript for Shawn. I did enjoy it and I enjoy Shawn’s work in general. That said, this was an early draft in need of some polish. I’m including it here mainly as a place holder and to note it among the full books I read.
What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin — If you are familiar with Seth’s work then you know what you are getting. His sage advice and inspiration for showing up and making change, some of which you’ve likely read before on his blog, but beautifully re-organized into a cohesive theme. What made this one a compelling buy for me was the packaging and the sales model. The book itself is more of a very high end magazine — large format with beautiful photos and layout. The sales model is this — buy one and he send you two; buy three and he send you five. The reason? He wants you to share it. This is a book he wants you to spread, organically. Send a copy to keep and and one to share facilitates that.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami — An excellent short memoir that explores Haruki’s life long passion for running and its symbiotic connection to his other passion, writing. Worth a read if you do either but especially resonant if you do both.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder: — I did not dog ear a single page or highlight a single passage in this short but highly important book by a world renowned historian because I would have highlighted and dog eared every single page and word. This is a game plan for saving our fragile republic from the course that history time and time again has showed us it’s headed. My plan going forward is to buy more copies and give them away or leave them in random locations — a true gift to whomever may find it.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson — This book is a modern classic for good reason, it’s funny and well written and provides a fascinating glimpse into a wilderness culture that few ever see. That said, when the writer is talking about his and his friends experiences on the trail, it’s great. But (there’s always a but), far too many times he takes the liberty to go off on a rant about any number of agencies and groups that he’s none too happy with. It’s at these points that the fun stops and it bogs down in facts and figures that, while interesting, take the fun out of reading what is otherwise a great story. I will say that this book was more than a bit responsible for getting me hiking regularly again so that’s an added bonus.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport — A well researched and written how-to guide to developing and maintaining the focus required to get the most meaningful work done. Lots of suggestions and strategies backed up with examples and studies. With the author’s academic background, this is could very easily have come off reading like a dry textbook but, instead, it’s warm and approachable. Many of the things suggested I’m already well versed in (if not a mediocre practitioner at times). That said, I still enjoyed the refresher and new insights. Well worth the time.
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris — I’m a sucker for published diaries of interesting folks and this did not disappoint. Starting with the beginning of his keeping a diary and ending in the early years of his success, it is filled with his interesting observations of the world around him and deep insight into his own struggles. An entertaining read if you are a David Sedaris fan or even just a sucker for diaries like me.
Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan — This was a very fun book. A pure delight to read. The premise may sound kooky to some; A software developer for a robotics startup becomes the caretaker of a magical sourdough starter and, well, hijinks ensure. If you are a fan of Sloan previous book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Book Store (one of my modern faves), you find this equally fun. Also, I dare you to get through this book without the urge to make bread. I’m not supposed to be eating the stuff but baked two loaves in the process.
But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman — What if everything we know — from the laws of gravity to the how current events will be viewed in the future to time itself — is wrong? That’s the premise of this book by journalist Chuck Klosterman. An entertaining read and interesting way to decontextualize the very nature of “truth”.
How to Walk (Mindful Essentials) by Thich Nhat Hanh — Despite the fact that I’ve written my own book about achieving mindfulness at anytime and anywhere, this book reminded me that it is perfectly possible and acceptable to practice walking meditation anytime and anywhere. It has caused me to slow down and pay careful attention to my steps and my breathing in the middle of Target or walking from my front door to my car. A wonderful, brief, lesson that peace can be found in every step.
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson — I finished my reading year with this massive biography of the renaissance genius that was a gift from my friend Shawn. This book is a detailed and rich account of Leonardo’s life and works. Like most biographies, it can be dry at times and, perhaps, too obsessed with details. That said, Mr. Isaacson’s love of the subject is obvious and that makes even the drier chapters palatable.
Making Space: Creating a Home Meditation Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh — This book is less of a “how to” and more of a “why to” which is perfectly fine. Recognizing that mindfulness and meditation should start at home is important. Also covered are brief passages on eating mindfully and sleeping peacefully.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway — Part of my ongoing goal to read more classics. This was a very Hemingway book. The love affair with bullfighting, the fishing, the drinking, the womanizing, and the author’s famous taut prose — they’re all here. But, dig deeper, and you’ll find a story of friendship, honor, and the longing for lives wished and loves unspoken. It’s a fine book. Not Hemingway’s best, but certainly holds a place.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow: Books — This is the engaging and fascinating definitive biography of one of America’s most misunderstood founding fathers. Hamilton is, perhaps, the most “American” of those that helped to form this country. His is a true immigrant story. Born to poverty on a tiny island in the West Indies, an orphan at too early an age, tragedy seemed to beset him on every side in his early life. But, he was an avid reader and fought through every setback with fierce determination. Eventually, making his way to New York City and in fairly short order becoming George Washington’s right-hand-man and trusted confidant. Much of how America runs today, and our interpretation and understanding of the constitution, is a direct and sole result of Hamilton. I started reading this, in no small part, because it is the inspiration for the current Broadway musical of the same name. We were going to be seeing the musical on Broadway so I wanted to “read the book first”. I’m so glad I did!
The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss — This is easily the best book about relationships I’ve ever read. It’s heartfelt, funny, more than a bit maddening. But, it also touched me in a very deep way and made me realize some truths about my (really pretty great) relationship I have with my wife. It helped me see why she and I work well together and made me take stock of how I can make an even greater commitment to her, the life we have built, and ways I can improve in order to continue to nurture and strengthen it. It helped me recognize and admit some flaws in myself that, if confronted, would lead to my being an even better partner to her. With all of that said, this is likely a book that many women will not find as rewarding (and they may even be put off by much of it). This is a “guy” who is clearly writing for other “guys” and the tone, subjects, and conclusions reflect that. But, hey, “guys” could really use a really great relationship book to knock some sense into them. Here it is.
Never Too Busy to Cure Clutter: Simplify Your Life One Minute at a Time by Erin Rooney Doland — This is a practical, actionable, and approachable book that is designed for people who have “lives”. So many other books in the space are written by 20 somethings with no kids and nothing but free time on their hands (I’m looking at you Ms. Kondo). But, for those of us with jobs and kids and schedules packed end-to-end, spending 15 minutes folding a single t-shirt to sit on end is just not going to happen. This book is different. The author understands a normal life because she herself has one that she juggles too. This book is written from that perspective and understanding. It’s the sort of thing that you can pick up, turn to just about any page, and find at least one easy organizing task to make your space a bit better using the time and energy you have at the moment. No matter if that is two hours or thirty seconds, there are dozens of tips and ideas to fit either. The connecting idea is that making just a little bit of progress is far more valuable and rewarding than making none at all. Also, it’s a start — thirty seconds here and 15 minutes there can clean up and organize a whole room. Seriously, get this book. If you even manage to do five of the small tasks it suggests it will be money well spent.
Career of Evil (A Cormoran Strike Novel) by Robert Galbraith — Another fantastic addition to the ongoing adventures of detective Comoran Strike. In this one, Comoran is on the hunt for a serial killer who has his sights set a bit too close to home. That’s all I’m going to say because, this is a whodunnit after all. Robert Galbraith (otherwise known as J.K. Rowling) does the usual stellar job of deftly sketching believable characters and setting evocative sense of place. If you’ve not been reading these you should run out right now and correct that error.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan — I actually read this when it first came out but it was worth a revisit. Good, simple, common sense advice on what we know about eating well and the simple rules that will help one do it. This is one of those you should buy, read, and then pass around to everyone you care about. Consider buying two so you have one to revisit yourself.
Midnight Riot (A Peter Grant Book) by Ben Aaronovitch— The first in what looks like it’ll be a wonderful series. This was so much fun to me and I’m very thankful to the shopkeeper who recommended it to me. Peter Grant is an ordinary London cop who, as it happens, also has a few unusual abilities. That’s all I’m going to say as not to give it away. Let’s just say that if you like detective novels, history, architecture, theater, and magic, you’ll love this.
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines — A gripping read about a young Black teacher in a small plantation town in 1940’s Louisiana who is tasked with the education of another young Black man on death row. Very well done.
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield — I’m already a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s work, especially his books on writing and the creative process, so I knew this would be good going in. In this one, Steven lays out the essential elements for all storytelling by looking back at his own career experiences. By doing so, he provides the framework that all stories need to be successful, whether it is fiction, non-fiction, advertising, screenwriting, and even porn. His treatise being that if one can figure out these essential elements first then getting the rest figured out will be that much easier. Like most of his books, this is one to mark up and dog ear as it’s chock full of wisdom and is in an easily digestible format.
The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd by Mary Rose O’Reilley — My friend Jason Rehmus gave this book to me for my birthday. He hadn’t read it — but knowing that I was a Buddhist and non-practicing Catholic who has always been moved and fascinated by the Quaker tradition and with my love and respect for farming he felt it would resonate with me. Boy, did it! So many shared places and spaces too… I have spent hermitage time at Pacem in Terris and have long wished to visit Plum Village. I’ve dog eared and highlighted so much of the book you’d think it was a craft project. This will go onto a special section of my bookshelf containing books with deep meaning and value that I wish to pick up and re-read again.
Particles: A Novel by Shawn Mihalik — This is a surprisingly gripping fever dream of compelling character sketches and loose connections. One of those books that I couldn’t stop reading even though I had no idea where it was going and, even by the final page, was still not entirely sure where I’d been. Yet, I was strangely still satisfied. In the end, it’s about the tenuous and often foggy connections within and between us all. Shawn is a very good writer and he’s especially good at scratching beneath the surface to reveal his character’s rich internal lives. Highly recommended — especially if you are looking for something beyond traditional narrative.
Night by Elie Wiesel — I’d never read it. Heartbreaking and harrowing. Never let us forget man’s capacity for cruelty towards his fellow man.
The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead — A brutal but gripping novel about a runaway slave and the never ending search for freedom. Colton is a strong writer. This will likely be on many “Best of 2016” lists. The Narrative at times dips in and out of the surreal which, for a student of history in general and African-American history especially, was at times jarring to me. Perhaps that was his point. That said, it did not stop my enjoyment in reading.
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon — I don’t want to say too much about this as I don’t want to spoil it. I really enjoyed this story of a lady who finds herself somewhere unexpected in the midst of grief over the death of her teenaged son. Even though the story is satisfying I still found myself wanting more.
The Optician of Lampedusa: A Novella Based on a True Story by Emma-Jane Kirby — A moving and griping short novella about a regular guy in his fifties in a quaint seaside town who suddenly finds himself thrust into the Mediterranean refugee crisis. I’ve been fascinated lately by shorter published forms and this is a great example that one can tell a complete, fulfilling, and compelling narrative in just over 150 pages.
We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City by Roberta Brandes Gratz — Lessons and stories of survival and grit in post-Katrina New Orleans. The author has a deep understanding of what makes New Orleans so unique and why it is the people and community structure of this great city that are largely (if not wholly) responsible for the comeback it has achieved thus far. The author has a background in Urban Planning and Historic Preservation and so that expert lens is applied throughout to give the many anecdotes and examples a needed weight. It’s not all rosy, the heartbreaks and losses are well covered too. But the reasons laid out behind those further emphasize the many achievements. This was an excellent book that made me quite homesick.
I did not read as much as I have in past years. While I feel a bit bad about that — and very much wish I had made time to read more — the fact is that the house rehab project as well as many other worthwhile, yet time-consuming, factors simply meant my focus was elsewhere. I hope that the coming year brings me more time to make reading the priority it has been in years past.
Here are the books I read this year in the order I read them with a short review of each.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown — A wonderful book that explores the idea that living a whole hearted life means having the courage to love ourselves despite out shame about out imperfections. Great way to start the year.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg — This is one of the writing books. One of those widely considered the gold standard of books on writing. For good reason, it is wonderful. This is actually my second time reading it. The first time, a couple of years ago, I did not highlight or mark it up for easy future perusal. I read through it again mainly for that purpose. I plan on visiting this book and browsing through at least once every year.
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld — This was wonderful book. Two books, actually because… It is the story of an 18 year old debut YA novelist and each chapter about her is interspersed with the novel she write. So, you are reading two books at once, really. Sounds gimmicky but came together quite well. I’m not normally into YA but I highly recommend this one.
The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer — A must read for artists of all sorts. This is a delightful, and often very moving, combination of advice and personal memoir.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac — I’m trying to make it a personal goal to read more of the classics that, for one reason or another, I have missed. Reading this was near the top of that list. I’m glad I did because it is a classic for a reason. Kerouac has a voice all his own. It’s like reading improvisational jazz as interpreted by Woody Gutherie. It is at once relaxed and frantic.
The Circle by Dave Eggers — A ridiculous book, really. Contrived and clichéd in all of the worst ways. And, it went a long way towards finally convincing me that middle aged men are rarely good at writing young female characters. But I powered my way through. It makes its rather simple point about 20 pages in (i.e. Companies like Facebook and Google are evil and we should fear what they stand for) and then spends the rest of the book beating away at this thinly veiled point. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson — This was a really fantastic book. The first 2/3rds of it follow the total destruction of earth following a mysterious event that causes the moon to explode and fracture. Humanity must find a way to survive and very few do. The final third happens 5000 years later. It’s a gripping story of survival, ingenuity, and human nature. My only warning is that, like many of Stephenson’s books, he can at times get a little bogged down in the weeds of technical detail. Fascinating if you are interested, easily skimable if not.
The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna — Normally, when I read a non-fiction book I highlight key sentences and paragraphs to make it easy to find specific important thoughts skim through the book again in the future. It is rare that I will “dog ear” a page. Because, when I dog ear a while page it means everything on the page is important and not a single word is to be missed. I dog eared a lot of pages in this one. Several in a row in many cases. Unlike a lot of the “quit your job and follow your dreams” books, this one is rational, reasonable, and readily admits that jumping off such a cliff is not wise. Instead, it argues that if you can make the time to do the things you should do, you can make the time to do the things you must do. And it gives plenty of examples of those who have done just that. A particular favorite is composer Phillip Glass who continued to work as a plumber even as rave reviews of his work were being published in the New York Times. This is one of those books I now recommend to as many people as I can. Plus, it is beautifully illustrated. Worth getting for that alone.
Darkened Blade: A Fallen Blade Novel by Kelly McCullough — A fine wrap up of the series. Just as fun as all the rest. You should read them all (and look back at my past reviews of them if you’d like to know more).
Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable by Tim S. Grover — This book will either completely piss you off in the first few pages or completely resonate with you. It’s one of those books. For me, it not only resonated but I found myself compiling a list of others I know who needed to read it. I sent one as a gift to a friend only half way though. I knew they would see themselves in there like I did. Tim Grover is a personal training coach to many top athletes — especially in the NBA. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and many other credit him with a large part of their success. His mission, taking players way past their perceived limits to be the very best. Not just the best in the game or the best playing today but the best of all time. He’s the best at what he does and he has the clients and results to back it up. He also makes no bones about that and gives zero fucks about what you think. He is arrogant, cocky, and tells it like he believes it is. In this book, he gets into the mindset and anecdotes of what it takes to play and live a life at that level, who has it (very few), who doesn’t (the vast majority). This is not a book that will teach you how to get there. This is not a how too guide. It will not teach you how to get into “the zone” and stay there. And, as he makes clear, if that’s what you want then you already don’t have what it takes so he can’t help you anyway. What it is is a litmus test. You will either recognize the qualities it takes to meet this kind of success or you will not. Very inspirational to the right person. Worthless hyperbole to most. But, some very interesting and entertaining anecdotes for the long time basketball fan.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — Wow, this is a really wonderfully written book. Set both just prior and 20 years post-apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of earth’s population, it is a story of survival and hope. But not only in the ways one might expect from such fare. It’s really about relationship and connectedness and how even in the worst of times simply surviving is insufficient.
The Gypsy in Me: From Germany to Romania in Search of Youth, Truth, and Dad by Ted Simon — A wonderful account of one mans’ journey, mostly by foot, to trace his Eastern European roots. Along the way, he finds a deeper meaning of his own personal identity. Part travelogue, part memoir, with plenty of political and social inquiry, this book is a unique bird but an engaging read.
The Assured Expectation of Things Hoped For by Shawn Mihalik — A smart and beautiful coming-of-age story about a young woman growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness. This offers an interesting peek into a world many of us turn away when it comes to our doors. Shawn is a really good writer — especially in the shorter form of a novella.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — The classic novel about a group of Long Island upper-crusters and one particular mysterious gentleman. The prose is beautiful and, at times, whimsical with a strong sense of time and place. At its heart, this is a novel about the stories we tell (and the ones that are told) about ourselves in an effort be strive to be better and how it keeps the world from being able it care about who we really are.
It’s Never Too Late: A Kids Book for Adults by Dallas Clayton — Full of wisdom and whimsy, it’s a short inspirational, “kids book” (i.e. with illustrations) meant for adults. Mainly about the value of time and living life to the fullest. This was a gift from my friend Garrick and it was timely and very sweet.
Books I’ve started…
(But have not yet finished.)
The Journals of Henry David Thoreau by Henry David Thoreau — I’m slowly working my way through this, the most reader friendly version of the original 7000 journal pages of one of my favorite writers and thinkers. At only 704 pages, it seems a breeze in comparison. This is something I pick up and read a bit more of when I’m between other books.
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner — This 750 page tome I’m reading as contextual research for a Big Book Project I’ve been (slowly) working on.
The Authentic Swing: Notes from the Writing of a First Novel by Steven Pressfield — About golf and writing and the parallels between the two. Good, easy, book on writing from one of my faves. Some good behind the scenes on the making of the movie, The Legend Of Baggar Vance.
The Martian by Andy Weir — Fantastic and fun novel about an astronaut that gets stranded on Mars and his fight to stay alive and, hopefully, get home. Especially fun for space and science nerds.
Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon — Another wonderful manifesto from one of my favorite creative folks. Solid advice that had me nodding my head in agreement on every page. It was a mistake to go through this the first time without a highlighter and pen in hand. Going to go back through and mark it up. So much good.
Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh — A nice series of essays on finding and living everyday mindfulness by the honored Buddhist Teacher and Peace Activist. Deeply affecting and read at just the right time for me. This is now one of the books I will recommend when people ask me what to read to find out more about Buddhism.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan: — I had put this off for a while but then my wife read it and said, “You would love this”. Anytime my wife says that, a book moves to the top of my list. And I did love it. It’s a fun and engaging read about books, cults (both religious and business), mysteries, encryption, and immortality. Only took me a couple of days. Picked it up and spent every free moment reading it until the end.
Choose Yourself by James Altucher — Fantastic. I reviewed this in longer detail here before. This is a must-read survival book for the new economy. As someone who has “chosen himself” already, I’m often asked by those interested in doing so for books, resources, and my own writings on the subject that I recommend. I can confidently say that this book will now be at the top of that list.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed — Wonderful memoir. Evocative prose. The reasons this book was so popular was not lost on me while reading it. The Minnesota connections resonated with me. Also, gave me a strong sense of wanderlust. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing my ruck and heading out into the woods.
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green — Simply beautiful book about a young woman with terminal cancer. A journey of love, loss, anger, pain, and what it means to be human and dare to dream despite it all. It is a really effortless read that still manages to carry a tremendous amount of emotional weight.
Lexicon by Max Barry — A thrilling and action packed novel about the power of words and the power of love. Could not put this down.
The Sketchnote Workbook by Mike Rohde — A wonderful “next step” followup to his first book. This time, he focuses on the actual practice of Skechnoting and the myriad of situations in which it can be employed. If you care about enhancing the quality and versatility of your note taking, you need this in your library.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan — Smart and well researched investigation into the Life of Jesus of Nazareth by one of the foremost religious scholars of our time. By setting up the times, places, and conditions Jesus lived in — long before, during, and long after his death — Aslan creates a narrative that is vivid and persuasive. I wish he would have spent more time laying out exactly how in a crowd of people claiming the title and role of messiah, it was a dirt poor day laborer from a town of less than a hundred families that is now known and worshiped the world over. Perhaps that is worth another book entirely. Worth a read no matter your faith.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith(J.K. Rowling — The second novel about the adventures of Private Detective Cormoran Strike. As good as the first (better, likely) and a whole lot if fun. I can’t say too much dare I give anything away but, in this one, Cormoran is out to solve a bizarre murder in the London literary world. Highly recommended. Especially, though not required, if you have read the first book.
Babel 17 by Samuel Delany — You know a book will be a big win for me when the hero protagonist is a poet and the McGuffin is the power and complexity of language. This is a well written, taught, and compelling sci-fi thriller. Lots of fun to read.
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore — Same name, same age, same neighborhood, similar family circumstances, but what makes one Wes Moore a Rohdes Scholar and the other a prison lifer. That is the not so easily answered premise at the heart of this book. A fascinating true tale that will give some food for thought to the problems facing so many Black youths today.
Indian Summer by Aaron Mahnke — A good New England thriller that follows the lives of seven childhood friends after one of them is killed in an accident. Steeped in the feeling of a coming northeastern fall and Native American lore.
Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It by Kamal Ravikant — Powerful insight packed into just a few pages. Read it in about an hour. It was an hour well spent.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — Beautiful and sweet tale of a boy named Bod who, after a tragic event, grows up in a graveyard and his relationships with the various residents who have taken him under their care. The theme of growing up feeling between two worlds resonated deeply with me. As always with Neil, prepare for some of the most magical yet completely down to earth writing you have read in a while.
Drawn Blades (A Fallen Blade Novel) by Kelly McCullough — The fifth book in the series finds Aral tied up with his old girlfriend, his old Master, his new Apprentice, and a few Gods that just refuse to stay good and dead. Yet another fun read. I really enjoy these.
3 a.m. (Henry Bins Book 1) by Nick Pirog — A fun little whodunnit about a guy who, due to a rare narcoleptic condition, is only awake for one hour starting at 3am every day. A quick read that, as of this writing, is free on the Kindle.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway — The brilliance of Hemingway lies in his ability to take a simple premise and, from that, create a narrative that is at once epic and sweeping yet personal and tightly told. In this case, it is one of Robert Jordan, an American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerrilla unit in the mountains of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His job is to blow up a bridge but, he finds in the three days he spends with this unit, he builds more bridges than he destroys. There is a reason this is widely considered a masterpiece and the best of Hemingway’s work.
Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination by Hugh MacLeod — I’ve been a fan of MacLeod’s work for a while but had never read this one. He’s always good for a kick in the pants of life when needed.
The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel by Jess Walter — This book was a lot of fun to read. Wonderfully written, witty, and downright LOL funny in parts. It’s the story of Matt Prior, an out-of-work journalist at the dawn of the recession on the verge of losing it all — his wife, his home, his father, his kid’s school. One night, while out to the 7/11 for milk, he runs into a couple of young stoners and begins to hatch a plan to reclaim it all. This was a fun way to end the year.
Here is a list of the books that I read this year. I try to post this up once a year as a reminder for myself that, despite my feeling like I did not read enough, I actually read more than I thought. There might even be a few I have missed recording but this constitutes the bulk of it.
Last year, I just gave a simple list of the books I read. This year, I added a short review to each. It was also my goal to read more fiction than I normally do. I think I did well with that goal but know I could (and want to) do better in the coming year. More on that later.
This also does not include some items I felt deserved a list or two of their own. More on these later too.
So, without further delay…
Broken Blade (A Fallen Blade Novel) by Kelly McCullough — First novel in a series that follows the exploits of Aral The Shadowjack (or Kingslayer). A fast paced mashup of fantasy and hard boiled detective noir. Great start, compelling story and characters, and leaves one wanting to jump right in to the next book.
The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? by Seth Godin — This one fell flat for me. Not quite sure why. I think it is largely because I’m already at where this book wants to encourage the reader to be. That said, it is likely great for those who need it.
The Sketchnote Handbook Video Edition: The Illustrated Guide To Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde — The book I bugged Mike for years to write finally was released and it is better than I could have imagined. It makes the artform he pioneered accessible to every skill level to engage. So, so, good.
Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance by Karal Ann Marling — Fascinating. And confirmed many of my impressions about Disney World.
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. — Simply great. Real, science based actionable information. This gives you all the tools you need to build better willpower. Also, some surprising facts (like how much meditation and simply getting outside for a walk help).
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders — Brilliant and mesmerizing collection of short stories. I’d give more than one appendage to write this well.
Bared Blade (A Fallen Blade Novel) by Kelly McCullough — Part two in the continuing adventurers of Aral. This book is even better than the first of the series. In this round, Aral (and the rest of the books world) is on the hunt of a sacred ring that, if not found, could start a great war. Of course, this means that some would rather it not found. Lots of nice twists and turns. And, you can really feel the fun that Kelly is having writing these. Strongly recommended.
Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind by Jocelyn K. Glei, Scott Belsky — A nice roundup of various essayists on the subject of day/space/energy management for creatives. Some good nuggets here and there within a lot of ‘heard this before but could use a reminder’.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman — It’s been a long time since I read a book so wonderful and sublime that I could not put it down, eschewed all other matters, and finished it in a day. This is just that good. Actually, it is better.
Crossed Blades (A Fallen Blade Novel) by Kelly McCullough — Another excellent entry in the series.
The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living by Randy Komisar — Best book I have read in a while. Finished in only a couple of sittings. Couldn’t put it down. Really resonated.
The Art Of Not Sucking by Hugh MacLeod — Another nice ass kicker and reality bringer from Hugh.
A Drive into the Gap by Kevin Guilfoile — A sweet true story about the author’s father suffering from Alzheimer’s and the mystery behind a historic Roberto Clemente bat. A real win for baseball fans especially.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (the pseudonym under which J.K. Rowling wrote the book) — One of the finest whodunits I have ever read. She has an amazing ability to sketch character’s quickly and confidence in her subject matter that you might swear she has written a hundred of these before. In fact, I would argue that the writing here is stronger than many of her Harry Potter books. Highly recommended.
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, with Illustrations by Skottie Young — I read this to Beatrix and it is really wonderful. A fun story about a Dad who goes out to get a jug of milk and what happens to him along the way (or, at least, what he tells his kids). Not sure which of us loved it more. Not only a great read to a young kid but I’ve heard tell that the slightly older ones really enjoy it as well.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King — I actually read this once, but then had to go back through and read it again — mainly because I failed to highlight and furiously mark up the margins as I should have done the first time around. Easily in my top five books on writing. Certainly my favorite Stephen King book. This should be required reading for anyone interested in the craft.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink — Harrowing and angering account of what happened at Memorial Hospital (refered to by we NOLA folks as “Baptist”) in the days following Hurricane Katrina. I have not yet finished this completely but not sure how much longer I can continue. It is so hard and heartbreaking to read.
Freedom Is Blogging in Your Underwear by Hugh MacLeod — Yep… Seriously, Hugh is great and I try to read all of his stuff. This one is no exception. It is about doing what you love unapologetically and facing the fear that keeps you down.
137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading by Kevin D. Hendricks — though I hardly reached this lofty goal there are some good, practical tips in here about getting more books under your belt. The main takeaway: Replace your smartphone with a good book.
Delight is in the Details by Shawn Blanc — A manifesto on creative work by Mr. Blanc. A great read for any artist about the craft of creation.
Coffee Shop Contemplations eBook by Nick Wynja — Nice collection of essays from Nick’s website. Worth a read. Plus, an examples other online writers should follow (Take your best stuff and sell it to me as a book. I’ll buy it. Others will too.).
MacSparky Field Guides — To call these mere books is to not do them full justice. These are multimedia experiences that are well worth the cost. They use the full power of Apple’s iBook technology to show off just what a modern book reading experience can be in the digital age. I read every one released this year and they are all fantastic.
Here, in no particular order, are the books I have read in 2012 (and I may even be missing a few):
- A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams — Michael Pollan
- Seven Summits — Dick Bass, Frank Wells, Rick Ridgeway
- Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself — Rich Roll
- Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age — Douglas Rushkoff, Leland Purvis
- Anything You Want — Derek Sivers
- Do the Work — Steven Pressfield
- Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work — Steven Pressfield, Shawn Coyne
- Poke the Box — Seth Godin
- Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson
- Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age — William Powers
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — Susan Cain
- The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World — Marti Olsen Laney Psy.D
- We Are All Weird — Seth Godin
- One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic (Kindle Single) — Lawrence Lessig
- The Flinch — Julien Smith (The one is free on the Kindle and worth your time)
- Tales of the Revolution: True Stories of People who are Poking the Box and Making a Difference — Seth Godin (This one is free too)
- Self-Reliance — Ralph Waldo Emerson (This is one I read regularly and this edition is a fine one)
- The Hand of Andulain — Aaron Mahnke
- Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative — Austin Kleon
- Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity — Hugh MacLeod
- Freedom Is Blogging in Your Underwear — Hugh MacLeod
- All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House — David Giffels
- Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman
- Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware (Pragmatic Programmers) — Andy Hunt
- Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other — Sherry Turkle
- This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life — David Foster Wallace
- Frictionless Freelancing — Aaron Mahnke
- Paperless — MacSparky
- For the Win: Cory Doctorow: Amazon.com: Books
- The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal — Jim Loehr, Tony Schwartz
- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains — Nicholas Carr
- The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption —Clay A. Johnson