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.
6. Listen to Me (2016) by Hannah Pittard
I love everything Pittard writes, and for my money she’s one of the most under-rated writers out there today. This story, like her others, feels very genuine, and like always her writing is simple and honest. I’m not sure why it has a low overall rating other than maybe it’s different in scope and topic from her other books, it’s a simple husband and wife story, or the quarreling between the couple feels too real for some readers. For me, this was another excellent book by an excellent writer.
5. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
A lot of classic science fiction falls flat for me and doesn’t stand up to the test of time, but this was excellent and exceeded my expectations. In fact, in terms of pure science fiction, this might be the best book I’ve ever read. (I don’t count books like ‘1984’ or ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ as pure sci fi even though they technically fall into that category.) I really liked Heinlein’s extended parallel of the American Revolution (and in a smaller context, the foundation of Australia) as the basis for a story detailing the moon’s inhabitants wanting to govern themselves. Really well done in almost every regard.
4. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2013) by Audrey Niffenegger
It’s rare when a bestseller lives up to all of the expectations built around it but I’d put this alongside The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, and a very few select other novels that enjoyed wide commercial success while also living up to the hype. Every part of this story was executed to near perfection, and I can understand why it was so popular when it came out. A really great blend of literary fiction and science fiction.
3. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) by Haruki Murakami
Each time I read one of Murakami’s books the totality of his writing impresses me even more. It’s to the point now where I’d say he is in my list of top 3 favorite living authors. Murakami has two main branches of storytelling: 1) Quiet literary (Norwegian Wood, Men Without Women) and 2) Magical realism (Killing Commendatore, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). This story falls into the first category and leaves you feeling like you’ve learned secrets about life and the pain that people carry. The way he writes about the loss that Tazaki carries with him is truly poetic.
2. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (1999) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Another great work of fiction by a guy who lived through the utter despair caused by the Dresden fire bombings and somehow became a humorist afterward. In thirty fictionalized interviews Vonnegut discusses death and what it means and strips away the silly notions people have about it. If you like Vonnegut, this is a must-read.
1. Sputnik Sweetheart (2002) by Haruki Murakami
This blew me away for all the same reasons as Wolf In White Van, which was my favorite book read in 2019. At face value, this is a story of an unrequited love triangle. On that level, it’s satisfying and a good read. But when you read between the lines and start making guesses at what really happened (not a straight forward unrequited love triangle), this book is absolutely amazing. It is possible to interpret the events that unfold in a variety of different ways, and each way is fascinating and left me wishing I could sit down with Murakami to ask him about it. There are a lot of possible interpretations but no clear answers, and yet I came away feeling like I’d read a subtle masterpiece. If you’ve read this book and want to compare thoughts, send me a message. I could talk about it for hours. It was that thought-provoking.
7. The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now (2017) by Thich Nhat Hanh
A really good overview of Buddhist philosophy as it relates to everyday life. Recommended if you’ve read similar books and enjoyed them but if you’re just starting out I’d give a higher recommendation to Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment and also to The Art of Happiness.
6. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) by Chris Hedges
It says a lot about Hedges and his ability to assess modern social and political trends that this book is not as good as his War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning or Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt and yet it is still a 5-star read. In it, he analyzes the various aspects of American culture and life that are based on fabrications, distractions, and the like. The result, he argues, is a top-to-bottom culture in which serious issues are ignored in favor of various types of entertainment and spectacles. Reality TV takes the place of reality. News coverage discusses a soundbite or tweet rather than our crumbling infrastructure. The list goes on and on. The last section in particular is Hedges at his best, where he talks about the ramifications of all of this and the result it will have on the country and everyone in it. Highly recommended for anyone who has ever read or listened to Hedges, likes an alternative to the sugar-coated Hollywood and corporate news products, or fans of real-life dystopia.
5. The Art of Happiness (1998) by Dalai Lama XIV
I enjoyed the Dalai Lama’s take on what it means to be happy and how that state can be achieved. My favorite idea of his from this book was that if there are five billion people in the world, there should be five billion different religions, and people need to be skeptical of the world and what they are told rather than just blindly accept others’ religions or views. I could have done without the psychiatrist trying to interpret the Dalai Lama’s teaching but that didn’t detract too much for me.
4. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002) by Chris Hedges
I love Hedges and everything he writes, and this book is no different. His experiences as a war correspondent exposed him to the results of genocide, mass killings, and intense civilian suffering, and he takes all of the things he saw during that time to write this assessment of how war corrupts people, politics, and popular culture. I often thought of Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket while reading this. The two books complement each other nicely and could be read together. If you are anti-war, you’ll find this book to be powerful and well thought-out. If you’ve never considered the long-ranging impacts of war, you’ll find this book insightful and it will undoubtedly change your perspective on the endless wars being fought around the world.
3. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different (2020) by Chuck Palahniuk
I’ve read a lot of good books by authors providing writing advice but this might be my new favorite. Palahniuk does an amazing job of alternating between hilarious stories, thoughtful advice, personal experiences, and events that impacted both himself and other authors he knows. After reading this I’m amazed it doesn’t get as much acclaim as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is also amazing. If you’re interested at all in becoming a writer or becoming a better writer, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
2. This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto (2019) by Suketu Mehta
There is a lot of misinformation and fear these days about immigrants. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in a thorough assessment of what it’s like to be an immigrant, why they leave their countries, the impacts they have, etc. Mehta provides an in-depth analysis that simply isn’t provided by any of our news outlets, and whereas the 24/7 news cycle is built to create fear and hysteria, Mehta writes about realities. Three key facts that he writes about in detail are:
1) The vast majority of migration around the world is caused by people fleeing instability created when the U.S. government topples foreign governments, funds radical groups, supports harsh regimes, etc., especially as it relates to Central America and the Middle East.
2) Immigrants and particularly illegal immigrants cause far less crime than citizens.
3) Immigrants, including illegal immigrants, give more into the economy than they take out.
When you understand these things, much of the noise and false claims regarding immigrants fades away and you’re left with the fact that these are people trying to stay alive and find a better life for their families.
We understand people by being able to empathize with their plights, and Mehta has written a book that makes it very easy to empathize with immigrants. Everyone should read this.
1. Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (2019) by Matt Taibbi
An excellent analysis of how the media not only misinforms but actively wants you to fall into one of two teams so you can despise the other side. Taibbi is entertaining and witty throughout and has credibility as one of the very (VERY) few journalists who doesn’t fall into the “us vs them” mentality that has poisoned every facet of our society.
It’s funny to see how some readers take offense at Taibbi’s highlighting that both sides are responsible for peddling conspiracy and nonsense, but once you’re able to distance yourself from blindly following one team it’s easy to see the author is absolutely correct. Read Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media and then this and you’ll not only see the world in a different light, you’ll largely free yourself from Plato’s cave.