It’s that time again, time to reflect upon the most enjoyable books of the year, and to map out a reading list for 2015. For the last several years, I’ve attempted to integrate more classics into my reading list, along with business, fiction, historical non-fiction, health and science fiction. I read another Michael Lewis book this year (Flash Boys), and several books by Philip K. Dick. In case that author’s name doesn’t ring a bell, Dick published 44 novels and 121 short stories which resulted in eleven popular films including Total Recall and Blade Runner. Though some of his works seem a little dated, many are still thought provoking and entertaining. With such diverse genres, it’s difficult to assemble my top 10 books of 2014, that said, here’s my list, published in reverse alphabetical order, for no particular reason:
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde: If you’re only going to write one novel, this would be an enviable candidate. Written in a classic and compelling style, Oscar Wilde’s tale of a handsome and stylish young man who sells his soul for eternal youth is one of the author’s best known works. This cautionary tale is still eerie today, as Wilde captures the imagination of the reader with dynamic characters including Dorian his well-off friend Lord Henry, and the painter Basil Hallward. For those few still unfamiliar with the plot, the painter creates a picture of Dorian Gray, which is so beautiful, that it makes Dorian wish he would stop aging. His wish is fulfilled and the painting starts aging instead of young Dorian. The consequences are tragic, as Dorian evolves from deceit, to blackmail to murder. Considering the darkness of this work and The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, Wilde shows his great talent and depth with comedic plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived The Holocaust – Edith H. Beer, Susan Dworkin: Edith Hahn was a young woman living in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a ghetto and then into a labor camp. When she returned home some months later, she went underground. With the help of a Christian friend, she created a new identify and became Grete Denner. She then met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her, married her and kept her Jewish identity a secret. In this work, Edith relives her life of constant fear, detailing everything from the birth of her daughter to the drunken Russian soldiers raping random women on the German streets. This work grips the reader with a haunting, disturbing and yet triumphant story.
The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck: This classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about one family’s shifting fortunes amidst a rapidly changing China. The backdrop for the story takes place in 1920s China, during the reign of the last emperor. It’s a classic tale of an honest, hard working farmer, who becomes a wealthy man, and the impact of that wealth on himself and his family. Though this plot has been done many times, the changing social and political backdrop in China make this a compelling and fascinating read.
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World – Eric Weiner: NPR correspondent and self-confessed grump Eric Weiner embarks on a yearlong tour in search of the happiest places on the planet. He selects an eclectic list of countries including Iceland, Qatar, Bhutan, Switzerland and England, in search of happiness, or perhaps what factors contribute to the happiest populations in the world. This reader found the story interesting and amusing, an entertaining read.
The 9 Principles For A Lean & Defined Body – Philip J. Hoffman: I’ve read many fitness and nutrition books and found this to be one of the better that I’ve encountered. It resulted in some profound changes in habits and lifestyle for this reader. Hoffman preaches practical, pragmatic and attainable lifestyle changes, eschewing fads, gimmicks or supplements. His approach to nutrition is similar to Pollan’s In Defense of Food, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Hoffman focuses on nutrition and high intensity resistance training (HIRT = weight training with very short intervals between reps will deliver better results). He also discusses preparation and organization, and the elimination of processed foods. Seizing upon Hoffman’s logical approach, I now average five 30 minutes HIRT workouts a week (45 seconds between sets and reps), dramatically increased vegetable consumption, eliminated processed foods and reduced red meat consumption. The results were impressive, in a five month period I lost 10 pounds, waist size decreased 2 inches and LDL lowered by 25%. I can’t say it will work for everyone, but it worked for me.
How We Got To Now – Steven Johnson: It’s all about perspective and this book offers just that, and new perspective on our technical evolution, and how discovery has dramatically and often surprisingly impacted our lives. Johnson dismisses the notion of the “eureka/light bulb” idea moment, and discusses idea and innovation evolution and collaboration, insisting the great advancements often evolve over decades (or more) and are contingent on a series of discoveries. The book discusses six single innovations: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light, then offers examples of how these innovations intermingle historically, resulting in “How We Got To Now”. How does cleanliness or cold play such a significant role in our society, and what does Las Vegas have to do with these? Johnson offers a compelling and interesting perspective on this and this work is a worthwhile and engaging read.
Flash Boys – Michael Lewis: Lewis delves into the little known and difficult to fathom world of flash trading, which some think is a thinly veiled attempt to skim money off the top from Wall Street, at the expense of every day investors. Both fascinating and concerning, Lewis does an excellent job explaining how flash traders operate, and the required speed and technology allowing them to do so. Though Money Ball remains my favorite Lewis work, Flash Boys is certainly an informative and interesting work.
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.: This fascinating book follows the life of the Clark family subsequently focusing on the eccentricities of Hugette Clark. Hugette’s father, William Andrews Clark, Sr., became one of the wealthiest men in the country, a copper baron and US Senator, and built the largest mansion in New York City, a 30 plus room, Tiffany-decorated monument. A significant portion of his estate was left to his eclectic daughter Huguette, who became a recluse, collecting everything from antique dolls to Monet and Degas, and living the last decades of her life in an austere hospital room. The authors did an outstanding job researching Huguette and piecing together her mysterious and reclusive life. This was a truly enjoyable work, from the historical legacy of W.A. Clark, to the odd and unusual life of his daughter.
Do Androids Dream Of Electronic Sheep – Philip K. Dick: This great novel, first published in 1968, was ultimately used as the basis for the film Blade Runner. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic, nuclear impacted Earth. The plot revolves around Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, who must retire (destroy) six ultra sophisticated, escaped androids. Considering this was written almost 50 years ago, this science fiction work has admirably stood the test of time.
Divergent – Veronica Roth: Divergent is of a similar genre to Hunger Games. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago, based on a society which defines citizens by their social and personality-related characteristics. This has resulted in five distinct factions: Abnegation (selfless), Dauntless (brave), Erudite (intelligent), Amity (peaceful) and Candor (honest) The expected result ensues, with the contentious interaction between these factions. It’s a fast and easy to read young adult work.
Next year I hope to focus on business, fiction, historical non-fiction, and fitness related books. I’d like to read more about the complexities of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East, business innovation and American history.
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