2019 in Books: My Top Reads

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When it comes to reading books, I’m consistently inconsistent. One month I’ll plow through ten, and the next I’ll struggle to get through one. I jump around from fantasy to self-improvement to classic literature. I have a reading list, but I’ll cast it aside to read what catches my eye or intrigues my mind.

In other words, I’m an eccentric bookworm. But I’m a proud eccentric bookworm, because it’s that eccentricity that allows me to discover and savor some literary treats that I otherwise would miss.

I read more books this year than in any year past: 106 at publishing time. Of these 106, twelve are books I had read at least once before. About half of these books I read on my Kindle, and the other half as “real” books.

Without further ado (and boring you with statistics), here are the most entertaining, most insightful, and most impactful books that I read this year. I strongly recommend adding them to your reading list for next year!

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

A childhood favorite. | Image: Amazon.com

It’s the book that introduced us to Hobbits, orcs, and the world of Middle-Earth. Tolkien wrote it for children, so it’s an easy read for us adults (and also a great story to read aloud to your kids). But make no mistake; it’s just as entertaining for grown-ups as it is for kids.

While I like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have to admit that I’m more partial to The Hobbit. To me, at least, it’s more driven because it’s more concise, and one doesn’t have to dive into Tolkien’s lore to understand what’s going on. I first read it when I was eleven or twelve, and while I liked it then, I enjoyed the tale much more the second time around.

I enjoyed rereading the story of Bilbo Baggins, a stay-at-home Hobbit who turns into a world traveller and a great adventurer. It’s a reminder to all of us that it’s easy to fall into the comfort of a mundane routine, but that there’s so much more out there in the great big world to see and experience. And you never know; you might find your true calling out there somewhere. But you never know unless you step out of your front door.

One of my favorite quotes was what Thorin said to Bilbo before he died:

There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

A great book from a great writer, and after reading it I now understand better (for the first time, perhaps) why people esteem Tolkien so highly. And now I do, too.

The Apology by Plato

Bust of Socrates dating from the 2nd century A.D. on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. | Author’s work.

This is not a book of its own, but rather an essay by Plato. Plato’s mentor Socrates is on trial for being impious and corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth, and Plato records Socrates’ defense (Greek apologia, hence the title) of himself before the Athenian court.

Whether historically accurate or not, it is an excellent introduction to the man Socrates and his manner of reasoning. With a good translation, it’s also very readable and understandable.

The Apology paints Socrates as a man of conviction, standing firm in his beliefs despite the court’s opinion. It’s one of the greatest speeches I have ever read, and very quotable. Below is one of my favorite excerpts, one that sounds like it could have inspired William Wallace’s famous speech in Braveheart:

I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought I or any man to use every way of escaping death. Often in battle there can be no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.

Propaganda by Edward Bernays

Who’s pulling your mindstrings? | Image: Kobo.com

Want to know how the world works? I mean, how the world really works? How companies, organizations, and governments manipulate public opinion?

While the title calls to mind Communist posters designed to promote hard work and ultimate devotion to the motherland, the book’s subject matter is not as sinister as it sounds—at least on the surface. It was written in the 1920s, when the term “propaganda” didn’t have the negative connotations that it does today. The target market for the book was businesses, specifically marketers.

Bernays breaks down how companies can influence people to buy their products. For example, he explains how the latest high fashion trends from London and Paris are designed by a few people, promoted via prestigious fashion shows, and then suddenly and inexplicably become desirable by the population at large (because “it’s what everyone else is wearing”).

While directed towards businesses seeking to improve advertising effectiveness and public relations, the strategies in Propaganda can also be (and have been) employed by political parties and governments. Bernays himself worked hand-in-glove with the United Fruit Company and the CIA to start a coup in Guatemala in 1954—all to sell more bananas and create a favorable image of Central America in the minds of Americans.

The excerpt below should scare you a little bit:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

It’s an extremely relevant read in the Information Age we live in, where “fake news” is the buzzword and we don’t know who we can trust. If you want to understand how the designs of the few can shape the way the majority thinks, read this book. And then remember to think for yourself.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

A classic illustration for a classic tale. | Image: Wikipedia.org

When I started this book, I didn’t know it was going to be about a dog. Normally, I don’t read dog stories because I’m too fond of man’s best friend (meaning I don’t like stories with dogs that die, like Old Yeller), but since this one came highly recommended, I decided to give it a chance.

The Call of the Wild really surprised me. It took me a bit to get into it, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. (The last half, to me, read easier than the first.) While I’m not sure how accurate London’s portrayal of Buck the dog is in light of what dogs are capable of, it still makes for a good story with highs and lows alike. London must have seen firsthand many of the behaviors, interactions, and fights detailed in the book, as everything is described in vivid detail. (That said, I believe I’ve read that London was prone to exaggeration.)

This is either an excellent book for dog lovers or a terrible one–excellent because of how well London writes about dogs and their relationships with man, and terrible because of the brutality that the dogs are afflicted with, and that they afflict against each other. It’s a “survival of the fittest” kind of story.

If you like high adventure, this one’s worth checking out. If you’re a little bit softer than I am and don’t like stories with bits of animal cruelty (even if it’s the animals being cruel to each other), I’d probably give this one a pass. I, though, will definitely read this one again at some point.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. 

This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Who wants to go to Arches National Park with me? | Image: Goodreads

I decided to pick up this book after reading about it in Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, and also in conjunction with the trip Daniel and I took to Zion National Park in March. I actually took the book with me but didn’t get any time to read it during the trip. (Though I did see it for sale in the Zion gift shop, which is ironic, as you’ll read below.)

Upon returning, I cracked open Desert Solitaire and it enhanced much of what I experienced in Utah. It explained a lot about the natural history of the area, specifically the area around Moab and Arches National Park.

As an environmentalist, Abbey writes candidly, very candidly. It’s a raw read, but a good one. He criticizes pretty much everything and everyone at some point: American standards, capitalism, American wars, Christians, Mormons, The National Park Service (his employer!), the human race, you name it.

While I don’t think all of his heavy-handed, broad-brushed statements are correct, I can certainly understand how he feels justified in saying what he does. This is a book that makes you think about what’s being done to protect nature (and whether what’s being done is really protecting it, or merely making it easier for consumers and tourists to ruin it by urbanizing it).

Aside from all that, Abbey goes on some interesting adventures throughout, including herding cattle on horseback and an expedition through Glen Canyon, which is now Lake Powell. (He has a high opinion of John Wesley Powell, but not of the lake that bears his name or the dam that created the lake or the people who built the dam.)

I thought this book was very much worth reading, especially now that I’ve seen some of Utah myself. I look forward to maybe reading it again someday, perhaps after a visit to Arches National Park. It’s also prompted me to check out more books by Abbey this upcoming year, including The Monkey Wrench Gang and The Good Cowboy.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Original German title: Im Westen Nichts Neues (Nothing New in the West) | Image: Penguin Random House

I read parts of this book in my tenth-grade English class, but never the whole thing. (I also had a broken nose at the time, which temporarily distracted me from my grades!) I remembered it being simple in prose, gritty, and grim.

I read it again and agree with that assessment. This is a book that I think every person needs to read at some point. It simply and purely shows that war is hell. I could sum the book up in those three words, but they still wouldn’t do it justice.

What amazes me, reading this over a century after World War I and nearly a century after its publication, is how Remarque hits around what we call PTSD now, and what they called shell-shock back then. There was no diagnosis for it, but it was every bit as real then as it is now. He does a great job of describing the thoughts and feelings and actions of soldiers, mostly young boys and men, who are exposed to atrocious things and commit the atrocious acts themselves. While Remarque wasn’t necessarily on the front lines or in the trenches as much as his protagonist is, he had to have been there somewhat in order to paint such a vivid picture, I think.

I envision a Saving Private Ryan-esque style of filming as I read this book, and much of the book, to me, could be depicted in the same style as the former’s opening scene. It’s intense, frank, and unapologetic. It needs to be, because people need to know what war is really like. War can be glorious, but this war wasn’t, and that’s why this book is so important. It’s definitely one I recommend and will likely return to someday.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What a classic (and classy) book cover. | Image: Amazon.com

Another throwback to my high-school years. I read this book in eleventh-grade English class, and at the time I liked it because it was short and easy to analyze. My conclusion at the time was that “money and extravagance cannot buy one love, nor can they win back lost love, nor do they provide any ultimate happiness or meaning.”

I reread this book in a span of four days (probably could have read it quicker if I wasn’t simultaneously reading other books), and I have to say that I read much deeper into it this second time around. I realized how interesting and deep Fitzgerald made the characters, how their motivations are communicated through their actions and words. I also found myself relating quite a bit to the narrator, Nick Carraway, especially in the opening chapters when he tells about himself and says that he is the only honest man he ever knew.

For such a short read, it’s a great character study and life lesson. It shows the extravagance of the jazz age and the emptiness of it all when all is said and done. It shows how we cannot recreate the past, or expect the present to fix the past or to fix the past in the present. It shows how desire leads men and women to do extraordinary (if that’s the right word) things. Parts that didn’t make sense to me as an eleventh-grader make sense to me now.

I will likely read this book again sometime in the future, and I’m sure then I’ll glean even more from it than I did on this second read. It’s a classic for a reason, and I can understand how it inspired other great authors such as Ernest Hemingway.

There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Bullfighting and drinking and wandering, oh my! | Image: Amazon

Speaking of Papa Hemingway, one of his works made my list, too. The Sun Also Rises is fiction, but closely based on his travels with fellow expats through France and Spain during the 1920s. There’s romance, bullfighting, soul-searching—and a whole lot of drinking. (Fun fact: The title derives from Ecclesiastes 1:5 in the Bible.)

“Everybody behaves badly.” That could summarize this novel to some extent. I thought it was a good character study (maybe that’s what “the classics” and “literature” are, character studies), but there wasn’t much of a plot. It reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby, which indeed inspired it, just set in Europe. I suppose it does represent the “lost generation” well: No one seems to know what they want in the novel; everyone appears lost to one extent or another. They spend most of the novel going from place to place, café to café, hotel to hotel, drinking and getting “tight” (drunk) at various stages.

The character of Robert Cohn was interesting, and I think everyone can relate to him a bit (not accepting that other people won’t live and act the way you want them to). He reminded me of a more aggressive but less-informed Jay Gatsby, which makes me wonder how much inspiration Hemingway did draw from Fitzgerald.

The bullfights were less brutal than I expected, but still brutal to both livestock and humans, nonetheless. I’m glad I’ve never attended one. (I’m no PETA activist, but I don’t understand why angering a bull and then killing it is considered entertainment—much less subjecting other innocent animals like steers and horses to the bulls’ horns.)

In terms of prose, I found The Sun Also Rises very easy to read, and the dialogue is snappy and realistic. (These are two trademarks of Hemingway’s writing style.) Though there wasn’t much plot, and though I started getting bored with everyone being listless and drinking all the time, I stayed engaged for most of the story. It made me want to visit France and Spain, as well as read more of Hemingway’s work.

I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I really like the use of Caspar David Friedrich’s classic painting Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog for this cover. It fits the story very well. | Image: Amazon.com

Here it is, the classic monster tale that spawned dozens of films and—arguably—the genres of horror and suspense. But let’s get one thing cleared up from the get-go: Dr. Frankenstein is the man who creates the monster, not the monster itself. Got it? Good.

Going into this book, I thought it was going to be antiquated and a bit of a bore. I was pleasantly surprised and found it very entertaining, though still a bit antiquated. It reminded me a lot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (another must-read) in terms of prose, dialogue, and suspense. I also think that the Outsider from Dean Koontz’s Watchers was based in no small part on Frankenstein’s monster.

I think the common conception of Frankenstein’s monster is that he’s this slow, bumbling thing walking around with its arms outstretched—kind of like a zombie. In the book, nothing could be further from the truth. Frankenstein’s monster is agile and intelligent—and that’s what makes him really scary. He even speaks! The fact that Shelley gave the monster feelings, and cognizance of his own conscious, amazed me; I did not expect that at all.

Overall, though a little too verbose in places and definitely Victorian in prose, this is an excellent story and completely worth the read. Any fan of horror, thriller, or suspense stories should crack this one open and enjoy reading from the source.

I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Learn the superpowers of persuasion, then use them for good. | Image: Amazon.com

This book provides a fascinating look into some of the primary ways that people are persuaded to do things that they otherwise might not. The author, Robert Cialdini, is a psychology professor who realizes that sometimes the people who understand the human mind best are (surprise!) marketers and salesmen. Thus, he starts investigating how companies sell products and extrapolates six persuasion techniques used across disciplines: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on human behavior and one that I’ve added to my bookshelf. It’s in an advertiser’s best interest to study these methods of persuasion from an advertising and marketing standpoint; at the same time, it’s in everyone else’s best interest to study these same methods of persuasion in order to resist the methods that are employed (wittingly or unwittingly) against them.

It’s interesting to me to understand how people work and think and react, and how they can be “hacked” when the human “operating system” and its loopholes are understood. The most amazing thing? The mind’s “operating system” is never upgraded, so the same techniques that worked to persuade fifty, one-hundred, or even one-thousand years ago still work today. All this to say, it’s a great book.

All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality…and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he wins, you win.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Is it the only book you need to lead you to success? I’m not sure, but it is one of them. | Image: Damico Gallery

I debated reading this book because Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, wrote about how it’s not necessarily good advice for introverts. Having now read this book for myself… I beg to differ. I think Carnegie proffers some of the best advice on how to deal with people and be liked. (Regardless of extraversion level, that’s what we all really want, isn’t it?)

If I could only own one self-improvement book, it would probably be this one. It’s that good. I’ve already started implementing some of the things I’ve learned and seen the results in real time. It’s great! I’ll be rereading this one for years to come, and studying it and recommending it for sure.

I only wish that I had read it earlier, like in high school when I really needed it. I’m thankful for men like my former boss who taught me some of these “soft” skills before I read this book, as I had already started implementing them and seen improvements in my relationships. Now, with the knowledge gained from this book, I feel I can do even better. In fact, I know I can, and I will. I can’t say enough good things about this book.

When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Original German title: Die Verwandlung | Image: Wikipedia.org

The Metamorphosis is Franz Kafka’s most renowned work, and it’s really a novella rather than a full-length novel. It’s about a young man named Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning transformed into a hideous insect, and how his transformation not only affects himself but also his family.

I read part of this book as part of my German studies in college, but never finished it. I restarted it and read the whole thing in one morning, in about an hour excluding interruptions. I found it interesting as the story progressed, then sad and a bit depressing at the end. (No spoilers, but I will say that Gregor never transforms back into human form.)

I thought that there were two metamorphoses in the story: Gregor’s, and his family’s. Gregor’s metamorphosis is pretty obvious: He turns into a bug. His family’s, on the other hand, is slightly more subtle and much more nuanced.

His family “accepts” him for a short while and cares for him, then eventually grows to detest him in his insect state. But as the story progresses, his family—who began the story almost completely dependent on Gregor for their income—begins to grow and improve because they can’t rely on him anymore. His father gets a job, as do his mother and his sister. They would never have been as happy as they were at the end of the story had Gregor never turned into a beetle. Sadly, Gregor pays the price when his family disowns him, whether implicitly at the beginning or explicitly at the end. (Again, no spoilers.)

For such a short read, The Metamorphosis was much more thought-provoking than I anticipated it to be. I’m glad I read it, I can’t say that I “like” it, but I did enjoy it. I may read it in German next.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

What a way to start a story.

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

If you’re not American, it’s the “Centre” of the earth. | Image: Amazon.com

Jules Verne. The very name conjures up images of submarines and sea monsters, hot-air balloons, and—in this case—subterranean creatures.

There’s no mistaking that, for his time, Verne was the master of the adventure story. He had a vivid imagination and could put his characters in all kinds of fascinating places on earth, under the earth, and beyond the earth. He also had an uncanny ability to foresee scientific achievements like the moon landing, and one wonders whether the Breitling Orbiter 3 (first balloon to circumnavigate the globe) was inspired by his work.

Journey to the Center of the Earth started out pretty strong, and was interesting throughout. It had some high points and some low points, and on the whole kept a fairly believable plot. A scientist discovers mysterious runes that indicate a passage to a subterranean world, so he and his nephew and their Icelandic guide set out to discover it.

The book did have some segments that I thought were too melodramatic (which I chalk up to the literary trends at the time). I found the story interesting, though the characters were pretty flat. And, unfortunately, I read the transliteration, not the translation. Apparently the “translators” took many liberties with the character names and plot, adding and removing scenes as they saw fit. As the old Italian saying goes, “Traduttore, traditore!” Or in English, “Translator, traitor!”

I now want to read the translated version and compare it to this transliterated one to see how different it is, and also to get a much better feel for Verne’s true writing style. And, I later learned, there is a small controversy on how many of his books were adapted into other languages, and my understanding is that there are some more authentic translations of his works starting to come out. So, if you’re a Verne fan, or just like classic sci-fi adventure stories, keep your eyes out for those.

Overall, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a good, adventurous book for all ages. Just see if you can find a version that’s more authentic to the original than I did!

Science, great, mighty and in the end unerring,” replied my uncle dogmatically, “science has fallen into many errors—errors which have been fortunate and useful rather than otherwise, for they have been the steppingstones to truth.

Clockwork Lives by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart

The cover looks way better in person. In fact, this is one of the best-crafted books I’ve ever seen. | Image: Amazon.com

For those who don’t know, I’m a big RUSH fan. I’m also a big fan of Neil Peart, RUSH’s (retired) drummer, one of the most insightful and eloquent men on the planet. Naturally, when RUSH releases a concept album and an accompanying novel, I listen and read!

In 2012, the Canadian progressive rock band RUSH released their nineteenth and final studio album, Clockwork Angels. Musically, it’s everything RUSH fans love: heavy, hard-hitting, and yet full of soul and spirit. It’s a perfect swan song to an almost-unbroken forty-year career.

Along with that album came the novelization of the story, also titled Clockwork Angels, written by renowned sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson. Anderson has written many books in franchises such as Dune and Star Wars, and based his first novel, Resurrection, Inc., off of RUSH’s 1984 two-minutes-to-midnight album Grace Under Pressure. He’s been a friend of the band ever since.

In summary, Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young man named Owen Hardy, who lives in a “clockwork universe,” where everything occurs just as it is dictated by the Watchmaker, who has banished chaos from the world in order to generate a semblance of stability. But the one type of chaos the Watchmaker cannot banish is the human desire for adventure, which causes Owen to buck against the preordained life he lives. A riveting adventure in this straitjacketed steampunk universe follows. And for those who dig classic works and philosophy, this novel is a retelling of Voltaire’s Candide.

Clockwork Lives is a fantastic follow-up to Clockwork Angels. This story follows Marinda Peake, a young lady who is perfectly happy living her life in a clockwork universe, whose life is turned upside-down when her father dies and leaves her a mission: She must venture forth into the wild world, out of her comfort zone, and fill an alchemical book with the stories of the people she meets. Only when the book is full will she be able to receive her father’s inheritance and live happily ever after.

The word I would use to describe both these books is “charming.” There is a strong sense of the classic fairy tale in both. They’re almost lighthearted enough to be like children’s adventure tales, but also serious enough to remind readers that life is tough. The universe that Anderson and Peart set these stories in is fascinating, one that I would really like to explore myself.

For Clockwork Lives, I liked the way Anderson approached the stories of multiple characters through the story arc of one major character (Marinda Peake). Some characters from Clockwork Angels are revisited and fleshed out in greater detail. Others are new. All provide great insight into the “one of many possible worlds,” and eventually into Marinda herself.

There are beautiful illustrations throughout, and reading the hardcover edition is a pleasure in its own right. The gilded red cover makes it feel like a long-awaited treasure and the pages, while new and crisp, look like antiquated parchment.

This was a fun, inspiring read. I will definitely read this one again, probably shortly after I read Clockwork Angels again. I’m hoping for a third book to round out the series!

As if he could sense her impatience with fanciful tales, old Arlen tried to bring the stories closer to home. “Since you’ve never found Atlantis interesting, I’ll tell you about wondrous places right here in Albion.”

“It sounds interesting enough, Father,” Marinda said as she gathered their bowls, wrapped the last of the bread, and cleaned the kitchen. “But Atlantis and even Albion are too far away for me to bother with.”

“Too far away? What is the distance of dreams?”

The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz

Think big and do big things! | Image: Amazon.com

You’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat”? Well, this book posits that “You are what you think.”

To me, The Magic of Thinking Big was a lot like How to Win Friends and Influence People in many ways, but had its own twist. Whereas the former is geared primarily towards how to act towards others, this one is geared towards how to act towards yourself.

I picked up this book based on an excerpt I read from Donald Trump’s bestseller The Art of the Deal. Trump writes the following:

I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. And that gives people like me a great advantage.

That statement made so much sense to me. Most of us box ourselves in with our thinking: “I could never do that.” “I’ll never be good enough.” “That’s impossible.” I started thinking about it, and then lo and behold, I came across this book.

Schwartz lays out some great information about how the mind works and how to really think big. A lot of the information also overlaps what I’ve read in books like The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield, such as how to think and act and understand what one’s unconscious (or subconscious) wants. In my opinion, when you start reading the same concepts in different books, you ought to pay attention.

It’s the kind of thinking that Schwartz advocates that allowed great people to invent cars and airplanes and put man on the moon. It’s this kind of thinking that builds business empires and multiplies value and wealth. And it’s this kind of thinking that, against all odds, created the great nation that I call home.

While this is a great book, it’s also one of those books that you can’t just read once and be done with. I read it over the course of several weeks in an episodic fashion, so I didn’t get the best “big picture” view. I need to go back and review sections and stitch them together so that they make sense in the bigger picture. Schwartz also provides some great checklists and questions for self-improvement that I know I should review and implement.

All that said, I’m very glad I read this book. And I’m constantly challenging myself to think big.

Believe it can be done. When you believe something can be done, really believe, your mind will find the ways to do it. Believing a solution paves the way to solution.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Talk about a killer cover. | Image: Goodreads

A gritty, modern take on the classic Western, The Sisters Brothers came highly regarded. It met all my expectations for it and even surprised me a bit, too (which is usually not a bad thing).

The story is a simple one: Charlie and Eli Sisters are two brothers who work as assassins. Eli is very strait-laced, and Charlie is more like a loose cannon. What starts out as a mission from their mysterious boss named the Commodore to kill a creative prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm turns into many misadventures for our two antiheroes. And the story doesn’t turn out at all like you’d expect.

Two words that come to mind for this book are “dark” and “strange”. There is some brutal violence, but it’s not nearly as bad as something like Blood Horizon by Cormac McCarthy. And certain aspects of the story are just, well, weird, with an element of the supernatural.

That said, I liked how well deWitt brought the characters to life, giving them each their own unique personalities that come through in their actions and voices. I really liked how he crafted the relationship between Eli and Charlie, and how it changed as the story progressed. These characters felt real all around.

The story itself really threw me for a loop; I was expecting a flash-bang kind of ending but it wound up being rather mellow by comparison, and that’s not a bad thing. I expected a lot more killing, and suspected that trigger-happy Charlie would be killed, but for two assassins, I think the total body count was only nine or ten. (Okay, now that I think about it, that is a fair body count, and some of those killed were innocent.)

Overall a great book, and now one of my favorite Westerns. I put it up there with No Country for Old Men in terms of grittiness and non-traditional plot. If you like Westerns and/or you like stories that go in unexpected directions, you might enjoy this one.

Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.

The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

A good book to keep next to your checkbook. | Image: Kobo.com

There are so many personal finance “gurus” out there that it can make your head spin. All these folks put out advice, and many times that advice is conflicting. You’ve got to be careful out there!

Dave Ramsey is one of the few personal finance people whom I will listen to. I don’t know that I agree with all of his advice, but what he says does make sense and is grounded in sound Biblical teaching on money and wealth. So, I figured it would be worth my time to read his book on how to manage money and debt.

I found The Total Money Makeover extremely actionable for one’s finances. I’m not in a deep a debt hole like many people are, but this book has inspired me to work hard and eliminate debt from my life while saving for the future.

Dave encourages working hard to pay off debt, because debt is slavery (Proverbs 22:7). You never own your car, you never own your house, etc. The plan he puts forth, coupled with hard work and dogged determination, can help someone dig themselves out of debt and achieve financial independence.

I’m not well-versed in anything financial, but I do agree with Dave on many things. With the exception of a mortgage, debt is not a good thing. Student loans, auto notes, credit cards… it’s very easy to put yourself in a place where you’re paying creditors for much of your life while not having much to save for your future.

I also agree with Dave about working hard to pay debt off and/or accumulate wealth. Outside of a regular ol’ forty-hour workweek, there are tons of ways to make extra money. Most people wouldn’t consider delivering pizzas on the weekends for another hundred bucks, but when you’re drowning in debt, you’ve got to be vicious.

To this point, I’ve been trying to establish a solid credit score in order to buy a house in a year or two. One way I did that was to take out an auto loan through my credit union in order to build my FICO score—my only debt so far in my life. While this strategy has worked out pretty well, I don’t want to be under the bank’s thumb any more than I have to be, nor do I want to be making car payments for the next three years—so I’m reevaluating my strategy in light of this book.

One thing I disagree with Dave on is credit cards. Dave sees them as a quick way to get into debt trouble—which may be the case for some people. I see them as a way to get free stuff—in my case, rewards points or air miles. That said, I only buy what I can afford to pay off at the end of the month; my cards don’t carry a balance.

All that said, The Total Money Makeover is a great book that can light the fire inside and get you motivated to rule your money—because either you rule your money, or your money rules you. I’m glad I’m reading and learning this stuff now, rather than when I’m thirty or forty years old. But even then, it’s never too late to start making changes.

If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Another enticing cover. | Image: Amazon.com

Watchmen is like what you get when the Justice League grows up—I mean, really grows up. And maybe sells out to the American government.

Taking place during the height of the Cold War, Watchmen tells the story of a group of washed-up caped crusaders who are trying to figure out why they’re being snuffed out one by one. These are not your parents’ superheroes. These heroes are deeply flawed and, dare I say, human like the rest of us (partly because only one really has “superpowers”). Some are flawed to the point of being antiheroes, if not villains themselves.

Having read Alan Moore’s other great graphic novel, V for Vendetta, I wanted to give this one a shot. I’ve never been much into graphic novels, but they do offer a different reading experience than the novels that I’m used to. It also allows for a different kind of storytelling, relying just as much on the illustrations as on the dialogue.

I can’t say that I liked nor enjoyed this graphic novel, but it was interesting and thought-provoking—and I enjoyed it in that sense, if that makes sense. It deals with some heavy subjects and deals with them well. I thought the story and characters were well-crafted. I didn’t like all elements of the plot, nor did I like how gritty it sometimes got, but I did press on, and it was worth it.

It’s well-written and well-illustrated; there’s no doubt about that. I am glad I read it, and I do see how it raised the bar for the graphic novel. I recommend it if you like anything to do with superheroes (assuming you haven’t already read it) and don’t mind some R-rated content.

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.

Rohrshach

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

One series to rule them all. | Image: Amazon.com

Well, I started this rundown with Mr. Tolkien; I figure it’d be fitting to end it with him as well.

Nothing needs to be said about The Lord of the Rings. It’s a classic that stands alone, having created the modern fantasy genre as we know it and inspired countless other books, movies, and games. It’s a treasure trove for people who love diving into world-building and lore. And for people like me who are more “casual” readers, the overarching story has a lot to offer.

There’s a unique sort of magic in these books, and something that resonates with every reader. Whether it’s the undying loyalty of Samwise to Frodo, the brave dutifulness of Aragorn, or the overarching battle between good and evil, The Lord of the Rings has something for everyone.

I first read the series when I was about twelve years old. Dad told me I had to read the books before he would let me see the movies, so I did. At that age, much of Tolkien’s rich storytelling went over my head (partly because I just wanted to see the movies!). Rereading it this year, I gained a greater appreciation for just how well he writes and keeps the reader engaged.

I’m most familiar with the first book in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s also the one that was hardest for me to read. I thought it took a while to get going, and because of that there were many times I wanted to just stop and put it down. But the pace does pick up as the story progresses.

The Two Towers is the ideal second book. Things aren’t going well for our heroes on their quest (otherwise, what kind of a story would it be?), and they aren’t sure how to continue. It is here that Tolkien starts enhancing the story of Aragorn as “the chosen one” while also following Frodo and Sam on their journey to destroy The Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Tolkien is almost telling two (or three) separate stories at this point.

The Return of the King is my favorite in the series, probably because everything happens so fast and the plot keeps rolling right along. There are battles, intrigue, covert operations—a little bit of everything. And while the reader instinctively knows how the story will end, Tolkien does twist things just a bit to keep them interesting.

For anyone who has seen the movies but not yet read the books, you must. For anyone who falls into the other camp, go watch the movies. They complement each other very well, I’m happy to say.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Bilbo Baggins, hero of The Hobbit and uncle to Frodo Baggins. It sums up the series very well.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Conclusion

There you have it! A year in books. I hope this gives you some ideas for what to read in 2020, and that you will enjoy any or all of these as much as I did.

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2 Responses

  1. Congratulations for reading so many books this year! I like reading different kinds of books too. I see that as a way to find balance. Reading non-fiction makes you learn a lot about the world you live in and helps you to act more rationally. Reading fiction makes you more creative and helps you to understand better what other people feel.
    I love Tolkien too. I read the books when I was ten and I was obsessed with them. When the movies came out a few years later, I was really disappointed. They are good but they just could not keep up with my memories of the book.

    1. Thank you, and well written! You are correct about the benefits of reading both fiction and non-fiction. I do think you can also learn how to act rationally from reading fiction (learning from characters’ mistakes), and also learn how to sympathize with others from reading non-fiction (books like Night by Elie Wiesel spring to mind). But you’re right; balanced reading makes one well-rounded.
      I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the LOTR movies. I like the books and I think the movies do a good job of staying true to the story—but again, that’s my opinion. And while I like the LOTR movies, I saw the first Hobbit movie when it came out and didn’t like it much at all. But in both cases, the books will always be better. 🙂

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