Each year I look back at the books I’ve read. Here are the books I read for the first time this year that I most enjoyed, regardless of when they were originally published.
Honorary Mention: (Books I re-read this year that were great but didn’t qualify as first-time reads) Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, and The Red Pony.
- The Library at Mount Char (2015) by Scott Hawkins – The story started off fairly odd and seemed a bit like what it would be like if Professor X was a bad guy and the kids at the X-men academy were raised by a crazy cult leader. But then the story shifted and settled down. What ensued completely exceeded my expectations. Every part of this story was perfectly executed. The best thing I can say about this book is that Neil Gaiman is known for stories of ancient gods and mythical powers and does really well in that category–that said, this book by Hawkins surpasses anything by Gaiman and anything else in the genre.
- Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970) by Kurt Vonnegut – In Burning Bright, Steinbeck goes halfway between the novel and a play. The result is interesting but has clunky dialogue and storytelling. In this book, Vonnegut decided to go full-play. The result is interesting because while Vonnegut includes a self-written introduction saying the play is awful and that every part of it fails, I actually thought it was his funniest book and the play format perfectly captured his sarcasm and sense of humor. Highly recommended if you like plays or the author’s other books.
- The 25th Hour (2015) by David Benioff – I hold a serious grudge with Benioff after the way the final two seasons of Game of Thrones plummeted in quality. That said, I have to admit this book was excellent. In terms of debut novels, I’d put this along with Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way as the two best I can think of.
- 5. Island (1962) by Aldous Huxley – ‘Island’ is noteworthy for two reasons:
1. It’s a perfect example of a Utopian novel (rather than the much more common dystopian novel)
2. It’s based almost entirely around dialogue addressing a variety of topics rather than action comprising an actual plot. In that way, Huxley creates a story similar to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and also Atlas Shrugged. Both authors use dialogue to tell readers exactly how they feel about social and political ideas. Island isn’t as much fiction as it is a treaty on what was troubling Huxley.
The lack of engaging plot is certainly an issue. However, the things Huxley discusses are all things that interest me on a 5-star level (the importance of personal spirituality instead of organized religion, the importance of self-actualization instead of consumerism). Highly recommended for anyone who likes those same topics, enjoyed Huxley’s Brave New World, or is interested in a Utopian novel.
- The Travelling Cat Chronicles (2012) by Hiro Arikawa – This is not ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ or ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ but if you’re a cat-lover this is a very easy 5-star read. Very sad and touching.
- To a God Unknown (1933) by John Steinbeck – Maybe the most under-rated Steinbeck book. Obviously, he is known for his classics, and rightfully so, but I’d suggest this should be included with his best books. Usually with Steinbeck it’s clear why his lesser stories don’t measure up to his greats. In this case, I’d say this definitely does measure up to his best books and the reason it’s probably not more popular is because of its questioning of organized religion, which probably offends the sensibilities of many readers. Highly recommended for fans of the author and anyone who has ever felt boxed-in by the religious beliefs they were raised in.
- Deadeye Dick (1982) by Kurt Vonnegut – More typical brilliance from Vonnegut. He makes it seem so effortless each time he combines cynicism with genuine human feeling and humor with tragedy.
- Mother Night (1961) by Kurt Vonnegut – This is Vonnegut at his very best. He does a superb job here, as usual, being cynical and using dark humor to speak to very real issues. I’d put this, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Sirens of Titan as his three best books. The difference here is that unlike those other two books and much of Vonnegut’s other writing, there is no science fiction element here. Yet it’s still a great read. Highly recommended to everyone.
- The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (2020) by Erik Larson – A really good review of specific aspects of Churchill’s time leading up to and during WWII. Like Larson says at the beginning, this is not a detailed biography of Churchill’s entire life. Rather, this focuses on his determination during the war and the lives of friends, family, and supporters around him during this time. I like everything I’ve read by Larson but this may be my favorite of his.
- Homage to Catalonia (1938) by George Orwell – Three things make this book great:
1) It gives insight into Orwell’s life and anti-fascist passion before becoming a famous novelist.
2) You can see multiple instances of things that would inspire him to write ‘1984’.
3) It provides context on the Spanish Civil War, which isn’t even mentioned in high school history classes in the U.S. In particular, his assessment of the false narratives about that war, which existed then and still exist to this day, was helpful in understanding why other countries didn’t really care which side won as long as it didn’t lead to a new government that actually represented the workers’ interests.
Highly recommended for fans of the author or world history.
- Essential Works of Marxism (1968) compiled by Arthur Mendel – This is 5-stars not because I’m a huge fan of Karl Marx or am a Marxist. It’s 5-stars because:
1) As Murakami said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Rather than accept what I’m told about any topic, I’d rather understand that topic for myself and come to my own conclusions. That’s the same reason it’s good to read the major religious books outside of your own religion, read economic theory outside of the system your country adheres to, etc. This book allowed me to understand Marx’s ideas, how Lenin modified them, how Stalin completely altered them, and how China incorporated them. These are all topics that are overly simplified or ignored in U.S. schools that I now feel like I somewhat understand.
2) In George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he talks about all of the various militias that fought the Spanish fascists. There was a militia of Marxists, a militia of Communists, and a militia of Trotskyists. I had no idea these things were different from each other, so reading this book helped me understand the nuances between the various groups.
- Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance (1972) by Michael Hudson – Two important notes about when this book was originally published:
1) The U.S. government pressured the publisher to keep it from being published in other countries.
2) The Department of Commerce stopped making available to the public the types of data Hudson used to compile his assessment.
That automatically tells you this book reveals important truths about what the U.S. is doing in the rest of the world. A short summary: After WWI, every other traditional imperial power was bankrupt and would never be able to repay its debts. After WWII, the U.S. began using its power as the world’s largest creditor to create a world economic policy that would keep all of these other countries (and developing countries) tied to the U.S. dollar even though that created a parasitic relationship. By the time the Vietnam War was ramping up, the U.S. was bankrupt and had become the world’s largest debtor. By this point, every other country’s debt-filled economy was tied to the economy of a country that could also never get out of its own debt. Instead of trying to be fiscally responsible, the U.S. embraced debt as a way of trapping the rest of the world against leaving a dollar system that is effectively worthless. With this debt being insurmountable, the entire system is built on a fictitious set of rules that have been turned upside down. “Austerity” is pointless and just transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. Politicians talking about budget cuts are either offering lip service or else pushing policies that will transfer wealth from the poor to the rich.
The facts that Hudson provides are worth 5 stars. This is a truly eye-opening book and since reading it I’ve added some of his other books to my to-read list and watched interviews with him online. On the other hand, reading this is a slog because of how dry it is. It’s like reading a college textbook. Ultimately, though, it’s worth it.
- Napoleon: A Life (2014) by Andrew Roberts – This was excellent and exceeded my expectations. I feel like I just completed a college course dedicated to Napoleon and am now an expert on him. Part of what makes this biography so wonderful is that Roberts spends a lot of time giving readers each take on key moments in Napoleon’s life, from those who hated him to those who loved him, and then provides historical context to let readers know what is most likely in each instance. This makes the entire book feel much more worthwhile than if the author took a simple black-or-white stance on Napoleon as previous biographers have done. Roberts does a great job of not taking sides while providing as much context as possible on everything Napoleon said and did. Highly recommended for history lovers.
- Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People (2016) by Thomas Frank – A really great look by a Democrat and a true progressive at how the Democratic Party in the U.S. has undergone a transformation in recent decades. Frank provides an objective look at his party in a way that is unbiased, not your usual us-vs-them politics, and does not fear-monger. Highly recommended for anyone interested in politics and modern history.
- America: The Farewell Tour (2018) by Chris Hedges – Everything I’ve read by Hedges has been 5 stars and yet this may be his best book yet. And when I say ‘best’ I mean ‘utterly depressing yet brutally accurate.’ One of the reasons I’m a fan of Hedges is that he doesn’t fall into the left-vs-right nonsense that most political writers and journalists succumb to. His entire mindset is the establishment-vs-people, and that, combined with his appreciation for history and his refusal to try and make things sound better than they are, gives readers an important and honest account of where the United States is and where it’s rapidly trending. (Spoiler alert, the empire is crumbling.) Highest recommendation for anyone who loves nonfiction or real life dystopians.