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.

Favorite Books of 2015

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

This year I read 135 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. Here are my…

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2015

1) The Prom Goer’s Interstellar Excursion by Chris McCoy. Wonderful. Sensationally verbally clever. A kid just wants to go to prom and his date is abducted by aliens. What follows is a Douglas Adams-esque comic journey through space.

2) All Involved: A Novel of the 1992 LA Riots by Ryan Gattis. Excellent. Utterly gripping and masterfully written. A terrific book.

 

 

3) Trick Baby by Iceberg Slim. “The Sting” appears to rip off major elements of this book! Iceberg Slim was a supremely gifted writer with an amazing ear for dialog and description. It’s like reading the best of Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Burroughs.

 

 

4) Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness of Fate in the Individual by Arthur Schopenhauer. This is just a long essay, but I found it tremendously insightful and it stuck with me. It delves deeply into the idea that people are the authors of their destinies far more than they often realize.

 

5) Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Sensational. Truly moving. Experimental for a point – the second person narration creates the perfect feeling of dissociation.

 

 

6) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book lived up to the hype. Such strong, gripping, evocative writing. I keep thinking we’re going to run out of stories to tell about World War II, but extraordinary tales keep appearing.

 

7) Jonathan Stroud – The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon. Just delightful. Really wonderful world-building. The Ring of Solomon might be a perfect book.

 

 

8) Bill Bryson – In a Sunburned Country, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk in the Woods, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, One Summer: America 1927, Neither Here Nor There, At Home. Charming wit and self-deprecation. A wonderful writer and fascinating on any topic.

 

9) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I reread from childhood. Extraordinarily great writing. The protagonist is just so loveable – excellently capturing childhood in the South.

 

 

10) The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. Some moments of true profundity, some moments of great humor and wit, and some moments of unalloyed honesty about the true nature of relationships. Some really beautiful and bittersweet meditations on age, as well. I think this is Amis’s parody of “the British novel.” It’s like an upside down E.M. Forster or Jane Austen.

Favorite Books of 2014

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

I read 100 books this year. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed in 2014.

* Drive by Daniel H. Pink – A lot of great ideas about how to motivate creative problem solving in a business environment. Pink clarifies the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace. Pink also makes a compelling case that creative employees work best when they are given autonomy, an opportunity for mastery of their craft, and a sense of purpose.

* The James Bond books by Ian Fleming – My favorites were “Moonraker,” “To Russia With Love,” “Live and Let Die,” “Dr. No,” “The Man With the Golden Gun,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “Thunderball,” “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Casino Royale.” I’ve seen all the Bond movies and think there is still opportunity to do justice to the depth and complexity of Bond’s character.

* Red Mars and Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – Extremely well-researched and fun imagining of Mars colonization and terraforming. A bit like Asimov’s Foundation series in that there is no clear protagonist – it’s really more about the ideas than the plot.

* American Sniper by Chris Kyle – Extremely compelling read; a complete page turner. A really fascinating portrait of an American hero.

* Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke – The first letter is brilliant – the idea that one should only become a writer if one sees no alternative. The next nine letters contain little to no specific advice on writing, but rather give increasingly vague ideas on love and loneliness. Nevertheless, some moments of extraordinary prose.

* The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar – Astonishingly clear prose reflecting an incredible mind. Caesar is a tireless worker, a brilliant politician and diplomat, and an incredibly successful general. Each strategy and ruse-de-guerre is breath-taking.  So little has changed in politics and warfare in 2000 years; a fascinating book.

* The Civil War by Julius Caesar – Just astonishingly good. Possibly the greatest military leader of all time. He fought in hundreds of military engagements and won all of them against staggering odds. When Bibulus uses his naval superiority to try to blockade Caesar and cut off all supply ships to Greece, Caesar blockades the entire Aegean so Bibulus has nowhere to land his fleet and dies of thirst and exposure. That is just the ultimate testament to Caesar’s confidence and his extraordinary mind.

* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – I reread from my childhood. Astonishingly lyrical prose; like Jimi Hendrix lyrics – a jumble of language that works together to form perfectly evocative imagery.

* Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I reread for the third time. This book is just wonderful on every level.

* Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell – This year I read “Sharpe’s Gold,” “Sharpe’s Havoc,” “Sharpe’s Eagle,” “Waterloo,” “Sharpe’s Sword,” and “Sharpe’s Regiment.” I love everything about these books. I particularly admire Cornwell’s ability to craft insidious antagonists who are often more incompetent, racist, haughty, or immoral, than one-dimensionally evil. “Sharpe’s Regiment” may be my favorite of this bunch, though “Sharpe’s Eagle” is also fantastic.

* The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi – I find these old Japanese texts to be 10% brilliant and 90% inscrutable.  But I suppose that’s the point of zen.

* The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris – An ingenious book that feels extremely current despite being published in 1967. Sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of its day, it evaluates humans from the perspective of a zoologist, and finds how – for all our sophisticated behaviors – we are just fancy chimpanzees.

* Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & The Way to Wealth and other letters by Benjamin Franklin – I reread for the first time in ten years. Such a fantastic piece of work – just an astonishing human being of myriad accomplishments. There is so much to be learned from this book.

* Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson – Fascinating, astonishing, inspiring, and revolutionary. What an amazing man with an amazing life. A brilliant diplomat, from the Declaration of Independence, to the treaty with France that saved the American Revolution, to the British peace treaty ending the war, to the Constitution. Massive contributions to science – he coined the language of electricity with words like “current,” “conductor,” “positive,” “negative,” and “battery.” An incredible mind – so far ahead of his time – and so well accomplished in all things.

* Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – If you ask me, the Stoics are sanctimonious bores. Still, it was interesting to read the diary of an emperor who lived 2,000 years ago.

* Travels by Michael Crichton – Very readable and interesting. To a certain extent a biography, to another extent a travelogue, but mostly it is a man’s quest for meaning. I didn’t realize how successful Crichton was by age 30; that he was a Hollywood director and a Harvard Med School grad. I really just knew of him as a sci-fi best seller.

* Tell-All by Chuck Paluhniak – He’s an astonishing talent. The first few chapters are mesmerizing. Ultimately, this book is not too heavy on plot, but it is a tour-de-force of style.

* Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – Beautifully planned and structured, with a plausible heroine we root for from start to finish.

* Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth – Quite the page-turner. Hard to put down.

* Freeway Rick Ross by Rick Ross – The story of his rise from an illiterate high school dropout in South Central Los Angeles to becoming the largest crack cocaine dealer in LA. An interesting piece of history. Ultimately, the book is slightly disturbing in that Rick Ross comes across as unabashedly proud of what he accomplished as a crack dealer and really shows no remorse.

* Cyrus the Great (Cyruspaedia) by Xenophon – Cyrus was an extraordinary leader, conqueror, and humanitarian. This 2400 year-old book sets the stage for modern biography in that it seeks to instruct in moral character.

* Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters – Very fun. Lots of linguistic British cleverness and certainly a page turner.

* Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull – A very insightful book on how to manage a creative company like Pixar. Fascinating to gather the inside history of the most consistently successful movie studio in history, and how Pixar’s philosophy turned around Disney animation. Building that creatively supportive culture drew a lot from Silicon Valley ideas.

* Hombre by Elmore Leonard – Very well crafted with lots of cleverness and believable details woven into the prose.

* Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua – Permissive American parenting is a big issue that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. I understand why this book is controversial, but it prompts a discussion worth having.

* Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy – I’ve never encountered a writer with McCarthy’s virtuosic powers of word choice, description, and simile; he utters a phrase and the picture springs into the mind’s eye both familiar and fully formed. He is the greatest American author, the greatest living author, and possibly the greatest author, period. Better even than Nabokov in turning a perfect phrase.

* To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway – Say what you will, he is always interesting.

* Einstein by Walter Isaacson – A fast primer on Einstein.

* Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim – Utterly gorgeous prose writing, like Electric Kool-Aid acid test or William Boroughs. Very shocking material. It’s astonishing how all of the 1990’s rap slang was alive and well in the 1930’s. There is nothing new under the sun. This book is far ahead of its time; delving into the Pimp’s psychology, the prostitute’s psychology, and the criminal mindset.

* The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton – Well researched and enjoyable.

* Dataclysm by Christian Rudder – Some interesting observations on the information age.

* Anabasis: The March Up Country by Xenophon – Fascinating tale of Xenophon’s 10,000 Hellenic mercenaries who were hoodwinked by Cyrus the Younger into fighting the King of Persia. The Greek army officers were assassinated by the Persians in a red wedding. So Xenophon, only a young warrior, rallied the Greek mercenaries to fight their way home through hostile territory. A fascinating read and a great adventure.

* Bossypants by Tina Fey – Very funny and with jokes in every sentence. And yet ultimately, this book is an important meditation on feminism.

* Selected Works by Cicero – I found this book tedious and interminable. Cicero himself I found insufferably vain, self-pitying, self-righteous, back-stabbing, and egotistical. Nearly every moral argument in this book fell flat for me. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to glimpse how surprisingly modern Roman society was, in its law, politics, and business.

* What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell – Gladwell is always fun and interesting.  Such a treat.

* Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss – I am not clever enough to decide whether structural anthropology is blithering, unsubstantiated nonsense.  Still, I’ll read anything that discusses the mono myth.

* The Hard Way – A Jack Reacher Story by Lee Childs – Really terrifically smart and well-executed.

* Not Taco Bell Material by Adam Carolla – Really entertaining.

* Rumi Translation by Coleman Barks – Really wonderful modern poetry from a 13th century poet. I slowly savored this poetry collection over the past five or six years.

Books Read 2013

In 2007, I started blogging my favorite books of each year, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.  Aaron is a genius who tragically took his life this year.  He co-wrote RSS at age 14, co-founded Reddit his freshman year at Stanford, and was one of the most prolific Wikipedia editors in the world.  He was a crusader for freedom of information and is greatly missed by the Internet community.

This year I read 75 books. I’ve tracked my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books each year.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

*A Natural History of the Piano – Stuart Isacoff – Fun anecdotes and a surprisingly comprehensive history.

*The Master and Commander series – Patrick O’Brian – I finished this series of 20 novels this year.  They are my favorite historical fiction.  After so many books, you come to love the characters like old friends.  An astonishingly three-dimensional portrait of the Royal Navy and its characters.

*Psmith in the City – P.G. Wodehouse – Full of linguistic cleverness and sparkling dialog.

*Holes – Louis Sachar – Very fun read and cleverly tied together.

*An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope – Published in 1707.  This essay should be required reading for all critics.  So many notable quotes in this essay: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread,” “To err is human, to forgive divine,” and “What the weak mind with strongest bias rules, is pride the never failing vice of fools.”

*River of Doubt – Candice Millard – Great adventure writing with amazing characters.

*Which Lie Did I Tell – William Goldman – Sequel to “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”  In many ways, a very odd book.  But essential reading.

*The Big Short – Michael Lewis – A captivating and lucid window into the financial crisis, its causes and characters.

*To Hell and Back – Audie Murphy – Amazing tale of heroism and character.  Astonishing.

*Marine Sniper 93 Confirmed Kills – Charles Henderson – Some amazing scenes; particularly the duel where he shoots an enemy sniper in the eye through the enemy sniper’s own scope.

*Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon – Tremendously funny, useful, and therapeutic.  I read several screenwriting books this year that I did not find particularly useful.  It is rare to find a screenwriting book written by actual working screenwriters, full of relevant and honest advice about the business of screenwriting.

*Hagakure – The Book of the Samurai – Yamamoto Tsunetomo – (Translated by William Scott Wilson) – A lot of useful philosophy to be garnered from this book.  A samurai makes every decision within the space of seven breaths.  And a samurai always dies facing the enemy.

*You Can Be a Stock Market Genius – Joel Greenblatt – Despite the cheesy title, this is a brilliant book that marries the fundamental analysis of Peter Lynch and Benjamin Graham with the strategy and timing of the derivatives market.

*The Man Who Heard Voices – Michael Bamberger – Fascinating tale of M. Night Shyamalan making “Lady in the Water.”  It is both hagiography and cautionary tale.  Nina Jacobson, then at Disney, comes off as a genius.

*The Elements of Style – William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White – Wonderful.  I grew up thinking grammar was the mindless passion of pedants.  But really the point of grammar is clear and effective writing.

*Sleepless in Hollywood – Lynda Obst – An interesting window into the challenges of being a producer now that studios are changing their business models.

*Zen in the Art of Archery – Eugen Herrigel – I reread this as I became increasingly interested in Samurai philosophy this year.  Zen and mastery of one’s craft are inextricably tied.

*The Life-Giving Sword – Yagyu Munenori – The best part of the book is the preface giving a sense of Japanese feudal history. What a fascinating period.  The book itself is incredibly arcane, obfuscated with Zen koans, but not without a certain sense of poetry.

*The Battle of Brazil – Jack Matthews – Fascinating account of Terry Gilliam’s somewhat pyrrhic victory over Sid Sheinberg and Universal in releasing his version of Brazil.

*Richard III – William Shakespeare – Kind of a propaganda piece for the Tudors at the expense of the Plantangenets.  I liked the first speech, and a few speeches in Act V.  It picks up around Act IV.  It’s unclear why Richard is so clever in ascending to power and so immediately unclever once he attains power.  Although I suppose it’s all motivated by his general misanthropy.  In this new Golden Age of television, filled with anti-heroes, it is worthwhile to revisit one of the original anti-heroes of literature.

*The Unfettered Mind – Takuan Soho – The Zen priest who advised Yagyu Munenori and even met Miyamoto Musashi, offers his ideas on the relationship between zen and swordsmanship.

*Conversations with Wilder – Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder – Wilder’s wit and charm – even as a 91 year old – shine through.  The book inspires a great nostalgia for the greatest generation and the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood.

*Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish – David Rakoff – A rhyming novel of stories of characters who connect across time; I really enjoyed page 94.

*Sharpe’s Tiger – Bernard Cornwell – I read several of the Richard Sharpe novels this year.  So far, “Sharpe’s Rifles” is my favorite.  In Sharpe’s Tiger, Sergeant Hakeswell is one of the most loathesome antagonists I’ve encountered in literature.

*Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan – The subject matter is such a guilty pleasure.  Not literature and yet very satisfying.  Somebody needed to write this book.

*The Green Felt Jungle – Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris – A somewhat dated book cataloguing Vegas mafia corruption in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Informative and very much of its time.

*Difficult Men – Brett Martin – A very enjoyable read about the show runners of the new Golden Age of television.  Martin’s thesis is that the same conditions that created wonderful 70s film – execs taking risks and getting out of the way of writers – is exactly what happened to create the cable television revolution.  Great show runners like Matthew Weiner and David Chase took zero studio notes and maintained complete creative control.  And thus created ground-breaking television.

*The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini – Well done; an emotional book.

*A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy O’Toole – Some very colorful moments.

*The Summer of Katya – Trevanian – Very well written.  Somewhat different from his spy novels.

*Goldfinger – Ian Fleming – Fun and full of ideas.  Dated in terms of its sexism, ethnocentrism, and post-war nihilism.  But an extremely entertaining read.

Books Read in 2012

I read 50 books this year, nine fewer than last year. I’ve been tracking my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

The Sicilian – Mario Puzo He is fantastic at what he does. I thought the downbeat ending is what makes this mafia story less popular than The Godfather.  But very enjoyable escapist entertainment.

Moonwalking With Einstein – Joshua Foer Fun, well-written, and interesting.

Bambi vs. Godzilla – David Mamet He makes arcane arguments, quotes in French, and is constantly cynical.  But I enjoyed this fast, fun read.

Three Uses of the Knife – David Mamet His book, “On Directing Film” made a tremendous impression on me.

The Mailroom – Compiled by David Rensin Fascinating.  A must-read for anyone working in entertainment.  Historically interesting how abusively un-PC the culture in Hollywood was in the 80’s and 90’s.  I find myself mentally referencing this book constantly.

Right Ho, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse So brilliant.  Just laugh-out-loud funny.  I’ve read this book before.  Wodehouse is a genius like no other.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime – P.G. Wodehouse Again, his usual linguistic brilliance.

Pirate Latitudes – Michael Crichton Beginning is brilliant, well-researched, and fun.  Later on it gets a bit silly.  This book is published posthumously, so arguably it’s not Crichton’s fault the story falls off toward the end.

Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling Yes, I finally read the series this year.  Each book is better than the last.  What wonderfully imaginative world-building.  A tremendous accomplishment.  Fantastic, transcendent work.

Wigfield – Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinillo, Stephen Colbert At points as verbally brilliant as P.G. Wodehouse and yet not really a captivating tale as there is no likable protagonist.  Still, very, very clever.

Once a Pilgrim – Will Scully Wow, could not put this book down. One man holds off 1,000 looting, pillaging rebels in the ’97 Sierra Leone coup. True story.

Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian Incredibly well-researched with swash-buckling action sequences.  I’m now on the 7th book in this series and am loving every moment.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom – Baltasar Gracian Some good nuggets of 18th century wisdom.

Many Lives, Many Masters – Brian Weiss, M.D. A fun read; totally not peer-reviewed science.

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls – Peter Biskind Fascinating read about how and why studio movies made incredible movies from 1970 – 1980. Very illuminating.  I mentally reference this book constantly.

Tchaikovsky – Letters to his Family So good.

Where Angels Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster Enjoyed it much more than A Passage to India; lots of fun insight into people and places and behavior.

Whores for Gloria – William T. Vollman Great moments of poetry and innovation; ultimately, the ending left me hanging.

Desperate Characters – Paula Fox Really skilled craftsmanship, brimming with truth and insight.  Not a ton of forward plot here, but just excellently observed – like a good Mad Men vignette.  Extremely Franzen-esque in its honesty.

Agincourt – Bernard Cornwell Really fun and well researched.  A clever way to follow a long bowman through the events leading up to and including the Battle of Agincourt.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy Insightful and courageous but not my favorite Tolstoy.  I also read Prisoner of the Caucuses and that’s a bit more fun.

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga A good read; really informative about the state of India and a page turner from an innovative new writer.

Dark Pastoral – Jessica Hutchins A collection of odd po-mo short stories; she has a gift.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl On surviving the Holocaust – very powerful book and filled with ideas on the meaning of life that resonate and inspire.

Some Screenplays I really enjoyed this year:  “White House Down” by James Vanderbilt; just dynamite execution.  “St. Vincent de Van Nuys” by Ted Melfi – a tear-jerker for sure.  “Django Unchained” by Quentin Tarantino – what a brilliant idea – challenging and fun.

Great Books I Read in 2011

I read 59 books this year, one more than last year. I’ve been tracking my books read since 2004, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

Jaw Breaker – Gary Berntsen – a really fascinating and fun tell-all by the lead CIA operative in Afghanistan.

John Adams – David McCoullough – An incredible American story and deeply inspiring.

True Grit – Charles Portis – Extremely fun although the ending didn’t sit very well.

Making Movies – Sidney Lumet – Worthwhile.

Islands in the Stream – Hemmingway – Strong and innovative writing; humorous dialog and fun adventure.

Carry On, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse – Always a complete delight – Wodehouse is pure genius.

The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck – Really engaging story told with straight-forward powerful language; she’s fluent in Chinese and English so her language seems to reflect Chinese syntax and values.

Daydreaming and the Creative Writer – Sigmund Freud – more of an essay but makes great points equating the writing process to daydreaming, wish fulfillment, and the hero as the ego of the writer.

The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks – In my opinion, this is the book that originated the current zombie fad in popular culture.

The Future of an Illusion – Sigmund Freud – Pretty astonishing work; he rather bravely asserts that religion and God are an illusion resulting from psychoanalytic needs and that the progress of humanity – from a standpoint of psychological maturity – rests in recognizing this illusion and embracing science.

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell – His stories and studies are fascinating and fun – always a pleasure.

Shooting to Kill – Christine Vachon – A specific and useful description of what an indy New York film producer does to actually produce a movie.

Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons – George R. R. Martin – Extraordinary plotting and world building; brutal on the protagonists and therefore the reader. But an overwhelming literary accomplishment.

Tess of the D’Ubervilles – Thomas Hardy – Compelling and innovative in its day.

The Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire – Isaac Asimov – Fun, clever, and wonderfully plotted.

Island – Aldous Huxley – Lots of interesting ideas, but absolutely no plot whatsoever.

A House Boat on the Styx – John Kendrick Bangs – A Bangsian fantasy comprised of compelling sketches.

Cities of the Plain – Cormac McCarthy – So much skilled dialog and his usual fantastic writing sense.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston – Some fascinating writing – rich and colorful description and delightful dialog.

Unfamiliar Fishes – Sarah Vowel – Always enjoy her voice and point of view.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee – Dee Brown – devastatingly good. Every American should read it – astonishing stories.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt – some really good prose writing.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War – Leonard Richards – Pretty interesting how everyone in congress in the 1800’s was packing guns and knives and dueling and brawling at every political debate.

Les Fleurs du Mal – Charles Baudelaire – Some of the poems are sensational; finding profound and beautiful ways to express new ideas on new topics, and influencing every poet who came after.

Michael Strogoff – Jules Vernes – He really created the art of modern adventure story-structure.

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut – Interesting.

The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown – When it comes to plot, he’s the best.

Great Books I Read in 2010

This year I read 58 books, a little more than one per week. As ever, a chipper tip of the hat to Aaron Swartz, who reads over 100 books every year, and inspired me to start blogging annually about the books I read. Swartz is an absolute James Franco of productivity; his article on being productive is worth a gander.

I’ve tracked my books read since 2003. It’s interesting seeing how your perceptions change with time. For instance, I really dogged “Atlas Shrugged” when I read it in 2008, but find myself constantly mentally referencing the book – it’s definitely affected the way I evaluate my world. So what follows are books I loved reading in 2010, whether or not I will still agree with myself come 2012.

The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian

Really very good.  Almost worth rereading sheerly for the clever dialog in the first half. Great rapport between characters and deeply clever descriptions, particularly in the first quarter of the book.

I Am America And So Can You – Stephen Colbert, Laura Krafft, and a bunch of other writers

Colbert is just wonderful – when he’s good, he’s great – some laugh out loud wonderfulisms in here – really well done.

The First Billion is the Hardest – T. Boone Pickens

Everything this guy touches turns to gold. He became a billionaire twice in his career. His predictions on the future of energy are startling. It will be interesting to see if America proceeds with wind power and with natural gas vehicles. I think Pickens’ book is a strong inspiration for seniors as he’s having the best time of his life as an 80 year old, and achieving incredible and growing success in his billion dollar commodities trading business.

Shibumi – Trevanian

A strong read.  A book about character that is heartfelt and inspires the imagination; really a great spy book with extremely clever dialog that feels amazingly current.

On Writing – Stephen King

I particularly enjoyed the first third; you just hear his voice so plainly with its humor, honesty, and realism.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Vernes

Really captivating. A great and imaginative adventure with great ideas.  Granted, the protag is not particularly proactive, but the ideas are neat and there’s great suspense.

Jeeves and The Mating Season – P.G. Wodehouse

Just wonderful and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Hot Kid – Elmore Leonard

The first chapter is astonishingly well written.  All in all a very terse and gripping writing style – highly enjoyable.

“Killer in the Rain” and “The Curtain” – Raymond Chandler

Always a delight.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

A riveting read. Truly fascinating. Empowering and chock full of wonderful and engaging ideas. A great book.

Freakanomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I liked the connection between abortion and crime and the sections on crack dealing and sumo wrestling in particular. This book was a huge best seller in part because it’s great fodder for dinner party conversation. I reference this book incessantly in conversation.

The Loo Sanction – Trevanian

Some really enjoyable stuff and very ahead of its time.  Yet another Trevanian spy thriller with great ideas, impressive action sequences, and clever dialog. Very well constructed.

Goodbye Columbus – Philip Roth

The first half has very good dialog writing. Ultimately, I’m not sure what the book is really about. The big plot point seems to center around buying a diaphragm?  The book felt excellent at capturing a Jewish slice of life for the time period, but what does it all mean?

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

Just gorgeous, masterful writing – absolutely immense; an American classic.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

Very enjoyable read.  Very well plotted and delightfully Swedish.  Perhaps the idea of a father/son serial murder duo is a bit much to swallow.  But the book is so much fun and really stays with you.  Just excellent.

The Girl Who Played With Fire – Stieg Larsson

Really page-turning and impressively plotted.  Larsson was already setting up this story in book one, which is outstanding.

The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest – Stieg Larsson

So much fun.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Lots of color and detail and psychological background that must have been extremely cutting edge in its time.

All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

One of the great accomplishments of American literature by one of the very best; outstanding literature and outstanding writing.

The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell

An exploration of what it means to be Puritan, and what it means to say that America is puritanical.  Interesting and accessible and fun.

Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell

She has a fun, immensely likable voice that is informative in a neat and pleasant way.

Silmarillion – J.R.R.Tolkein

Pretty delightful, amazing how he pulls everything together.  Quite possibly it’s the last chapter that really got me amped up (the whole beginning is a bit meandering).  Fun seeing how Middle Earth was in its last gasp preparing for the final battle of LOTR.   Awesome to see the origins of Isuldur, Elendil, Gondor, Sauron, Mordor, Mirkwood, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Morea, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Hobbits, the Numenoreans, the stewards of Gondor, the Rohanim, and the Wizards.

1776 – David McCoullough

Excellent. Truly outstanding. An amazing tale that brought tears to my eyes and made me proud to be an American.

On Directing Film – David Mamet

Many excellent ideas in here.   For a guy known for his dialog, he adamantly believes the shots should tell the story.  I find myself preferring Mamet’s interpretation of Stanislavski to Stanislavski himself.  Mamet’s a guy who knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy

The first third of the book is immensely gripping and then, suddenly, takes a very cruel turn that alienates me from the rest of the book. The hero switches superobjectives three times in the story, which further alienates me as the story keeps winding down and then firing back up again. The prose is usually gorgeous. Except when McCarthy repeatedly departs from the forward action of the plot to meet with crazy people soliloquizing long Doestoyevskian stories about death and God.  His writing is masterful but this story did not turn the pages for me the way his other books have (although the first 100 pages or so are just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful).  This book was emotionally tough for me, so perhaps I am just too close to it.

“Extra Lives, Why Video Games Matter” by Tom Bissell

Absolutely laugh-out-loud funny. A really enjoyable read. Ultimately, the book does not in any way answer the question “why video games matter.” Which is fine I suppose.

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

A chore to read, but arguably worth it.  I didn’t understand any of the character’s motivations.  They are drawn as straw men for Rand’s arguments. I also notice that like Atlas Shrugged, the lead female gets to have quasi-adulterous relationships with three men without suffering any tangible consequences, a fantasy Ayn Rand attempted but did not quite achieve in her personal life. While I have trouble appreciating The Fountainhead as literature, I’m sure I’ll find myself thinking about the individualist, objectivist, and anti-altruistic ideas she presents for some time.  As mentioned above, Atlas Shrugged is a book that continues to percolate in my mind, years after reading.

Best Screenplays Read in 2010:

Source Code by Ben Ripley

A really tight and superbly crafted script.  Developed at the Mark Gordon company.

All You Need is Kill – D. W. Harper

Based on a Japanese novel and bought by Warner Bros for $3 Million.  Amazing script – excellently written.

Great Books I Read in 2009

This year with 48 books read, I fell a hair shy of my usual goal of 50 books. While I’ve tracked all my books read and movies watched since 2003, I’ve only had this blog since 2007.  So what follows is my third annual posting of Great Books  I Read This Year.

If my 2009 list seems parochial, just know there are a certain amount of New York Times bestsellers I read that I just didn’t get super amped about. Any book on this list below is a book I can confidently recommend.

“Getting Even” by Woody Allen

This was a re-read. Guite a few of these short stories absolutely inspired – particularly the one about the 1930’s private eye searching to find out who killed God. My love of Woody Allen is a borderline violation of the second commandment.

“Chopin in Paris” by Tad Szulc

The subject matter is absolutely riveting – at times I wished the book would never end.  What a fascinating period in world history.

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace

DFW is just such a brilliant, original, likeable narrator. So, so smart in a way that’s wonderful and reminds me of the 90’s and everything I liked about college and living in the constant company of smart people.

“Rebel Without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez

An absolutely amazing story about the luckiest guy in the entire world.

“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace

DFW is just wonderful; the article about English usage is about the most erudite thing I’ve ever read. He is really just fantastic. Just a wonderful read.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has such an enjoyable and minimalist prose.  The first half of the book offers a rare glimpse of a respected author openly discussing their craft. Comparing novel writing to marathon running – two things Murakami excels at.  I have extremely complex feelings about Murakami’s writing, so this is a qualified recommendation. As is “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Murakami that I read this year as well.

“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlien

This was the unabridged version, so it had more scandalous material than the 1961 version. While the book is filled with novel ideas and clever dialog, I wasn’t quite taken with the overall story-telling. The hero of the story has infinite money and power and wisdom and no character arc. All the good guys are always right about everything.  I’m not sure, but I think the moral is that if you’re young and attractive and willing to have sex with a Martian then you get to be enlightened.

“Dune” by Frank Herbert

Pretty amazing. A wonderfully sophisticated universe. Really smart, scheming characters, constant danger and suspense, really sharp dialog, and everything fitting together really snugly in the end. A pillar of the genre.

“Thank You Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse

Just the absolute height of British wit.  Just absolutely brilliant and delightful. I love this author. Genius.

“Beowolf”

Another reread.  Sort of funny how obsessed the author is with “swords” and “slaughter.”  The storytelling is clunky and Beowolf is one dimensional. But dragons guarding treasure and heroes seeking glory? This is where it’s always been at.

“The Man in the Iron Mask” by Alexandre Dumas

Some flashes of the brilliance of Monte Cristo or Three Musketeers, but a plot that goes awry and is a bit sadistic to the reader invested in the story.  This makes my list for some very eloquent dialog and fun action scenes.

“The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri

So much incredible imagination and descriptive power from such an early, early author.  Dante is visualizing special effects that Hollywood studios can only now begin to render.  Pretty remarkable for the 1300’s.  Granted, some of the theology seems a bit judgmental, vindictive, or logically odd.  But good literature.

“The Feudal Spirit” by P.G. Wodehouse

Just fantastic; every sentence is a masterpiece of cleverness and wit.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

What can I say, he’s an amazing writer.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Astonishingly well written; I blitzed through this book in 24 hours. Not particularly uplifting. But his craft is sensational – his description and evocative prose – just so inspiring.

“Painting with Light” by John Alton

How to DP in black and white in the 1940’s. Interesting from a historical perspective, but technologically it is of course extremely dated. Interesting how inventive these early DP’s were, but kind of funny how “realistic” they thought they were being in the 40’s. People will chuckle at us too in 60 years (or much, much sooner).

“I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

Clever situations and logic puzzles.  Although it seems like the characters all have borderline personality disorder.

“Cut to the Chase” by Sam O’steen (compiled lovingly by his wife, Bobby)

Really fascinating view into Hollywood history.  A fascinating man with great anecdotes and rare insight into the editing process.  Very enjoyable and definitely recommendable; also insightful into directing.

“Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse

Absolutely laugh-out-loud brilliant.  Shakespearian levels of linguistic innovation, mastery and genius.

Akira (Books I, II, III, IV) by Katsuhiro Otomo

A classic; Neo Tokyo, post-apocalypse, wonderful artistry, framing, and vision.

“On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin

A masterpiece. Written with that Ben Franklin narrational style of being unbelievably humble, reasonable, charming, objective, and utterly logical. It’s flawless from start to finish – I don’t think there’s a single inaccuracy in the entire work, as far as contemporary science goes. It’s just a pleasure to hear the reasonable workings of a perfect mind. And Darwin’s predictions at the end are astonishing. Man seems to have been aware of natural selection for millennia, via animal husbandry and basic agricultural for instance, but Darwin codifies it with aplomb.

“Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown

Dan Brown knows how to build a compelling story with suspense. He does a wonderful job of putting ordinary people into impossible situations – and then finding an amazing way for them to escape.

“The High Tech Knight,” “The Radiant Warrior,” “The Flying Warlord,” “Lord Conrad’s Lady,” all by Leo Frankowski

A modern day engineer is trapped in 13th century Poland. A guilty pleasure. But honestly very fun.  And well-researched as far as I can tell.

“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling

Some captivating and exquisitely stylish writing.

“A Passage to India” E.M. Forester

Really insightful writing into human manners and behavior.  Granted, it may suffer a bit from the lack of a protagonist.

And the best screenplay I read this year goes to:

“Medieval” by Mike Finch & Alex Litvak

Awesome fun.  Fantastic writing.  A thrill to read.