My 2019 in reading saw me finish 20 books with quite a few more left unfinished. I made it a point to read more fiction than usual, which I found quite refreshing. While I didn’t finish my reading challenge of 26 books (I am choosing not to count baby books including such classics as The Pout-Pout Fish, I am a Bunny, Giraffes Can’t Dance, Brown Bear Brown Bear What do you See) it was a good year of reading! Below is the list with quick thoughts, as well as a link to the Taps’ Notes review if available. Enjoy!
The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
I hadn’t read the story of Odysseus and his journey since high school. I picked this translation after reading about Emily Wilson’s translation which is, shockingly, the first one of Homer’s epic done by a woman. In high school I was one of the nerds who enjoyed the trials and tribulations. This read was no different. It was a welcome treat being transported into a world of ancient Greece, where strangers are greeted as guests and fed feasts of meat and wine before being even asked their names, and where “rosy-fingered Dawn comes bright and early.”
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
A story about a young slave in a Barbados, Wash, who forms an unlikely friendship with Christopher (Titch), the brother of his master. Through a topsy turvy story that blends science, travel, and political climate of the day, Edugyan creates an exceptional meditation on the meaning of freedom, and how we are as responsible for freeing ourselves as those who have kept us captive.
Chop Wood, Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf
A story about a boy, John, and his goal of becoming a samurai warrior. A quick read that is, at times, repetitive and rather dull, the point of the book boils down to trust the process and be patient.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I hadn’t read Brave New World before this year (as my wife’s constant surprise indicates, growing up in Indonesia and the International Baccalaureate diploma has left more than a few classics unread). As one historian pointed out, Brave New World might be the most accurate science fiction novel out there which is more than a bit nerve-wracking.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
I got this from Barack Obama’s mid-year recommended list. Given its premise — the story of an intelligence officer who seduces a revolutionary in Burkina Faso to allow for American intervention in the country — I naturally gave it a spin. While a solid read, I found myself a tad unsatisfied by the end, probably expecting a bit more spy novel and a bit less love story.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by Jean Le Carre
A classic from the author that brought you Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Night Manager, this Le Carre novel brings together Cold War spies, deception and double-crosses in a wonderfully slow burn.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This was my favorite fiction read of the year. The first work of fiction by trained zoologist Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing is a story of the ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya Clark and her life by the marsh off the North Carolina coast. The imagery is striking; certainly some of the best I’ve ever read. The story is a true coming-of-age and well worth your time.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A tremendous tale simultaneously depicting the horrors of the antebellum era and the shared spirit of those fighting bondage, The Underground Railroad is the story of a young slave, Cora, and her search for freedom. This Pulitzer Prize winner is a fantastic showcase of Colson Whitehead’s literary talent.
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Set 30 years into a future where man has colonized the moon. Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi thriller is a gripping read and had me wondering about what life will look like when man finally colonizes another planet. I thoroughly enjoyed this look at potential interstellar politics and found myself disappointed the story had to end.
The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change by Ellen Ruppel Shell
This was one of this year’s top reads, a fascinating take on the future of work by The Atlantic correspondent Ellen Ruppel Shell. She explores why we work, the history of ‘jobs’, and the impact the changing nature of work will have on society. It’s a refreshing take on a theme that typically ends with a fairly standard set of doomsday scenarios — jobs will be lost to overseas competition, automation, and robots. Shell transforms these into a compelling narrative that rejects a number of the commonly held beliefs about why work is changing and what the coming years hold.
One Man’s Meat by E.B. White
This is a collection of essays from E.B. White, written following his move from New York City to a farm in New England. White is simultaneously hilarious, witty, and poignant. These essays were followed by White’s most famous works, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. The Pulitzer Prize winner was already displaying his talents through these essays and well worth your time. The book’s cover — White hunched over at a typewriter with nothing but his mind — is quintessential writer and a new favorite image of mine.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ll happily admit to enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s work. For all the criticism about how his work isn’t peer-reviewed, how he misuses other people’s data and often misinterprets complex concepts, the man is entertaining. Unlike his previous books, however, in Talking to Strangers Gladwell doesn’t have a broad thesis he tries to prove with examples. Instead, he talks about one overarching theme: why aren’t we good at understanding people? Talking to Strangers meanders a bit, but is otherwise engaging and thought-provoking, not because it introduces new, Gladwellian concepts like 10,000 hours or the tipping point, but because he discusses things we’re already aware of. Read my full Taps’ Notes review here.
The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer
This was one of the better books on leadership and growth that I’ve come across. The theme is Conscious Leadership: recognizing when emotions (fear, anger, sadness) have gripped our thought processes, releasing these emotions, and switching back to a state of curiosity where we are receptive to all ideas and creativity even if they seem to contradict our own. We can choose to lead from above the line (open, curious, and committed to learning) or below the line (closed, defensive, and committed to being right). A worthwhile read for all managers and leaders, new and seasoned alike.
Tuesday’s with Morrie by Mitch Albom
I read this book on the recommendation of a close friend, and it has joined my ranks of must-reads. A moving story of love, life, and gratitude, it features sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, his one time student at Brandeis University, Mitch Albom, and Morrie’s life post being diagnosed with ALS. Written as an extended interview, it features Morrie’s perspective on “love, work, community, family, aging, forgiveness, and, finally, death.” It is a short book, yet full and weighty. Read my full Taps’ Notes review here.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Atomic Habits is an exploration of the compounding effect of small, positive change. It’s an easy read with several digestible nuggets, largely around one main theme: the need to shift from outcome-based thinking (what you want to achieve) to identity-based thinking (what kind of person achieves what you hope to achieve). Per James Clear, “Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it.”
Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd
As you may be able to tell, I love spy-related content. This book, about how the CIA trains their team to spot deception, certainly fits the bill. The idea that you can detect deception is via training — according to the book “The strategic principle is that if you want to know if someone is lying, you need to ignore, and thereby not process, truthful behavior” — ties in nicely to the point that Gladwell makes in Talking to Strangers. A solid pair reading.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
Jerry Colonna is an executive coach, confidant, and angel on the shoulder of executives around the world. Openly and with daring vulnerability, he shares his journey of growth and self-discovery. A former successful venture capitalist, co-Executive Director of the New York City Olympic games committee and media executive, his journey to leadership coach is unique and one most would not take.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
I read this book on the recommendation of a close friend. Autobiographies have a tendency to be hit or miss. Going into this one I was skeptical. Michelle Obama, for all the amazing things she has accomplished in her career and as First Lady, has largely remained private about her history and family, especially as compared to her husband. After this read it’s clear: Becoming is her coming out party. Read my full Taps’ Notes review here.
Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt et. al.
Bill Campbell is a legend in the Silicon Valley. A former football coach and entrepreneur turned executive coach and independent board member, prior to his death he was the first call for executives including Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. This book is an attempt by former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, and his co-authors to distill the magic that made Bill Campbell the trillion dollar coach.
Working by Robert Caro
Robert Caro is an indomitable literary figure. His remarkable work documenting political power, first with Robert Moses and then LBJ, are must-reads (granted, it will take you some time to get through them!) He has taken a break from his 5th LBJ installment to write Working, a collection of stories and memories on his creative and literary process. Be it a Smith Corona typewriter or Chopin, thick pencils or a classic Buick, for the lionized biographer of LBJ, everything has a purpose (and a story). In Working, like with everything he writes, Caro draws you in and doesn’t let go until long after the last page.