Favorite Books of 2017

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

This year I read 116 books. You can view them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

Why did I fall short of the 131 books I read in 2016, or the 135 I read in 2015? Three reasons… (1) For scheduling reasons, I’m blogging this a month early (2) Generally, the number of books I read is a counter indicator of my productivity, and I had a whole mess of work deadlines this year (3) Podcasts… So many good podcasts…

Regardless, I read some incredible books this year. Without further ado, here are my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2017

1) Dear Theo by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo are absolutely heart breaking. In the early letters, a young van Gogh has no idea he’s going to be a painter, he just keeps praying to make it through seminary school. He lives in awful conditions, ministering to coal miners. He writes that he doesn’t think he has the stomach for suicide.

His letters reveal him to be an avid reader. He constantly references authors like Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tolstoy, and Voltaire. In the early letters, he’s only drawing because he can’t afford paints. Eventually, he learns water colors. Finally, in his last years, he moves into oils.

He’s so impoverished he keeps getting sick and losing his teeth. He eventually loses his mind as well, famously fighting with Paul Gauguin, cutting off his own ear, and ending up in a mad house. He can’t sell Starry Night. He doesn’t know what to do with Sunflowers. By the time he commits suicide, he has only managed to sell one painting.

2) A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Absolutely delightful. Possibly my favorite book this year. Short on plot but long on eloquent writing. This book has humor, poignancy, and depth. If you love Russian novels, then you will love this American author’s version of a Russian novel.

3) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Captivating and gorgeous writing. Just vivid and honest prose that would make Hemingway proud. It’s a modern retelling of Hamlet, set on a dog-breeding farm in northern Wisconsin. This book is extremely long and I loved every bit of it until the last ten pages. I would offer a “spoiler alert” but Hamlet is 400 years old.

4) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamon. If the way to judge the quality of a book is by how much you think about it afterward, then this is a sensational book. It’s a fascinating read, crammed full of persuasive and instructive ideas. The main thrust of the book is to explain why so many technological and societal advances happened to civilizations on the Eurasian landmass, rather than anywhere else. It turns out that the Eurasian continent simply has far more flora and fauna capable of domestication than any other continent. So if you’re trying to start a civilization in, say, prehistoric Australia, you’re operating from a huge disadvantage. The book’s thesis is that many of the advancements made by European civilization may simply be the result of biological determinism.

5) Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. A fascinating read. King Philip’s War was – per capita – the bloodiest war in American history, and I was never taught about it in school. We tend to think of Plymouth Rock, and then skip 150 years to the American Revolution. But this elides an amazingly complex period. The version of pilgrim history I learned in school was radically oversimplified, namely, that the Native Americans fed the Pilgrims and then the Pilgrims turned around and killed them. Turns out there were 55 years of relative peace and cooperation between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, thanks to intricate diplomacy and relationship-building. When war finally broke out, it was in many ways fought and won by Native Americans against other Native Americans. There were heroes and scoundrels on both sides.

6) Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. So fun, and bristling with style and creativity. The prescience of this book is astonishing. Published in 1992, Snowcrash correctly anticipates the internet, Virtual Reality, and even coins the term “avatar.” It seems that on every page there is a concept Stephenson has anticipated by 25 years. I savored every page of this book – the writing is electrifying.

7) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Here is a book that really captures the imagination. It wonderfully recreates the feel of a medieval monastery. The story presents a compelling murder mystery, but offers so much more. The philosophical and theological debates throughout are absolutely riveting.

8) Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. Extraordinary writing. So much wit, insight, and depth. This year I also read Everybody’s Fool and Bridge of Sighs. Russo is an American treasure.

9) Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson. One of the most jaw-droppingly entertaining stories I’ve read in a long time. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story from the Dickensian upbringing in Bronxville, to a four hundred million dollar fortune, to addiction and destitution. Just an astonishing tale, and hopefully redemptive.

10) Next by Michael Lewis. I’ve now read every Michael Lewis book and each book he writes has such a consistently high level of quality. I believe that many financial analysts, financial journalists, and money managers are absolute charlatans and this book provides plenty of supporting evidence. The book is incredibly prescient and modern for 2001. It brilliantly predicts everything from the rise of internet advertising to the advent of the online shared economy. A fun read.

Favorite Books of 2016

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

This year I read 131 books. You can view most of them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

I read some whoppers this year, like Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ron Chernow’s riveting Alexander Hamilton, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (I choked up at the end). And I read some literature, like Virgil’s Aeneid, James Clavell’s King Rat, and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. But of all the extraordinary books I read, what follows are the ones that stuck with me the most, making them my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2016

1) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Extremely well written, keenly observed, often funny, often poignant, and without a single false note. The plot kept surprising me as well. It was a little experimental (an entire chapter without commas, for instance), but only in ways that served the narrative. Really terrific writing.

 

 

2) The North Water by Ian McGuire. Excellent writing. I mean it’s extraordinarily dark, violent, and nihilistic, but ultimately the hero emerges with his morality intact. It’s a really terrific depiction of the whaling trade. In tone, it reads like a deeply gritty and less dignified Patrick O’Brien.

 

 

3) A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. I thought it was sensational. Four strangers all meet on a rooftop with the intention of ending it all…and somehow develop a fascinating and unlikely friendship. Hornby rigorously prevents the narrative from becoming trite or sentimental. And with his usual mix of humor and pathos, he creates a uniquely enjoyable story.

 

4) Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. Wonderful. Twain’s travelog contains observations and insights on Europe and the Middle East that remain astonishingly modern. Through Twain’s lens, Italy, Greece, and Turkey seem remarkably unchanged from 1869. A fantastically informative and entertaining window into the past.

 

 

5) Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Brilliantly well-written portrait of a downtrodden man trying to take control of his life. This book affected my mood for weeks. Russo is like the Tolstoy of small town America, examining the locale from its wealthiest citizens all the way down to its poorest. And like Tolstoy, he seems to show that the drama of human existence – all the trials and tribulations – affect everyone equally. Every life has both tragedies and triumphs.

 

6) You’re Not Doing it Right by Michael Ian Black. Brutally honest and incredibly poignant, this book is genuinely moving. Michael Ian Black is best known as a comedian, but he is a very powerful writer. So many comedians churn out superficial memoirs and Michael Ian Black is a stunning exception. Each of his stories has the humor of David Sedaris, but often mingled with the tragic emotional depth of a John Cheever or a Martin Amis. This year, I also read his books, Navel Gazing and America, You Sexy Bitch.

7) Total Recall – My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger, his is an incredible story. Raised in an Austrian village with no running water, he became a world champion by age 20. He became a millionaire in Los Angeles real estate before he ever made a dollar from acting. He then married a Kennedy and became a governor. His work ethic, business savvy, and charisma are astonishing. This is one of my favorite books in a long time.

8) The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud. Truly fine writing, not a single loose thread, everything in its place. And with funny dialog and description to boot. Now that I also write middle grade fiction, I appreciate the challenges of the genre; and Jonathan Stroud makes it all look easy. I particularly appreciate that when Stroud’s characters are in the middle of action set pieces, Stroud still focuses on revealing character and relationships. He is a first class writer, and the Lockwood & Co series is terrific for middle grade readers.

9) Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman (along with his partner Amos Tversky) is the Nobel Prize winning theorist behind prospect theory. This book is like a Malcolm Gladwell book on steroids; it’s chock full of surprising revelations about cognitive biases, supported by Kahneman and Tversky’s research into psychology and economics. The bottom line is that we humans are terrible at estimation and our minds are cluttered with logical fallacies.

10) The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Wow, this book is extremely good. It had me hooked from start to finish. Incredibly well-researched and packed with smart ideas, this series revolves around a really clever and charismatic character. Connelly is so skilled a writer that he can make you root for a defense lawyer who advertises on buses. I read a lot of Connelly this year, and his research, his intellect, and his consistency are just astonishing.