Thursday, June 4, 2015

2015 Reading list

You can see our lists from 2009201020112013201420152016, 2017, and 2018.

The Martian

I will be the first to admit--I didn't understand even half of all the technical jargon that Andy Weir throws down in The Martian.  But Weir can write--I tore through this tale of intergalactic ingenuity and relentlessness in three days.  Thrilling--yet lined with humor--this is a perfect read for a plane ride or road trip. FOR THE RECORD: I read this before I even knew it was going to be a movie:)

One Day I Will Write About This Place

I almost gave up on One Day I Will Write About This Place because I wasn't prepared for the author's writing style--which isn't really a style at all--it is his way to capture and describe the thoughts of a dreaming, introspective young boy growing up in Kenya.  My complete kindle notes and highlights are on it here.


Fearless is one of the most incredible life stories that I ever heard.   And happiest.  And inspiring.  And most tragic.  And saddest. And unforgettable.  I don't care who you are or what you believe.  Just pick up this book and read about a man named Adam Brown--his story will stick with you--and might even make you a better husband, father and/or christian.  I read this book in three days.


With less than .4% of Americans serving in the military, this is the book the other 99.6% should read.  The idea of coming home as another deployment aptly captures what it's like for so many of our troops who fight our wars and then are supposed to just come back to a place that doesn't feel like home anymore. Klay has a beautiful line in one of the early stories:  "Getting back feels like your first breath after nearly drowning. Even if it hurts, it’s good."  Ultimately, reading this book serves as a cathartic communion of sorts for the reader, a chance for those who haven't served to break bread with those who have sacrificed so much.  My notes and highlights on it are here.

Burning the Days

Burning the Days.  My complete kindle highlights are here.

Light Years

Light Years.  My complete kindle highlights are here


In Humilitas Dickson takes a deep academic look at the history of humility and its shift from an ancient term of denigration to an aspirational one.  Most usefully, he links and develops the ways in which humility can make one a more effective leader.  Unfortunately today humility is all too often ignored virtue--Dickson, however, does an admirable job in bringing it back to the cultural forefront. My notes and highlights on it are here.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

We just finished listening to this book.  Unfortunately listening to a book over a period of six months during your daily commute doesn't lend itself to great notes but we will just say that this book is mandatory reading for every health care professional...or anyone who steps foot in a hospital.  It will make you MUCH more observant making sure that everyone who you come into contact with in a hospital has washed/disinfected their hands.

Metaxas' essential tome on the life of William Wilberforce is not an easy read.  His categoric description of Wilberforce's life is thick with minute details and a sometimes overwrought narrative that can make it a challenge to wade through its pages.  This is not to take away from the skill of Metaxas--my reading tastes just happen to run more Hemingway than Faulkner--and Metaxas falls squarely in the Sound and the Fury school.  Regardless I don't know many authors out there today with the researching acumen of Metaxas--one has only to read his untouchable Bonhoeffer to be assured of this.  He's also someone that takes morality seriously but does it in a manner that is humorous and approachable.  It'd be worthwhile to check out his podcast/radio show as well.  He's on twitter too.

The complexity of his writing shouldn't dissuade you from reading Amazing Grace--committing to the marathon is a worthwhile endeavor because of the magnitude of what Wilberforce accomplished.  This man's entire life itself was one tireless long-distance race dedicated to a near singular cause--abolishing slavery in England.   My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

We Need New Names 

Bulawayo tells a masterful tale of a childhood in a crumbling country and an escape to life in America--specifically in destroyedmichigan (i.e., Detroit).   In the first half of the novel she recounts (with an amazing ear for dialect and inflection) a life growing up on the streets as she and her band of friends roamed their city. 

The detail and richness of her tale reminded me that everyone has a story.  These street kids that bang on our car and smash their faces against our windows here in Tana have their own lives and dreams and intricate games like Darling and her friend's countriesgame. And her story is important because it also tells a story about an America that you wouldn't otherwise hear or be aware of--the Catch-22 life of myriad illegal immigrants--all searching for an identity and no longer finding acceptance in their old lives while having to remain hidden in their new ones.   And in the end, New Names is a heartbreaking story about home (and childhood) not always being somewhere you can go back to.  My complete notes and highlights are on it here

Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness

I've written about Metaxas' Amazing Grace Wilberforce tour de force previously here.  Metaxas hits his literary stride in 7 Men, offering a very readable and concise portrait of 7 key figures in the Christian faith (and the global stage).  One gets the sense that in these brief vignettes, Metaxas is more in his element than in the detailed minutiae of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce.   I base this analysis solely on the episodes of his excellent radio show to which I've started listening.  His shows reveals a natural intelligence and compassion, and most surprisingly (and welcomed), a silly sense of humor.  7 Men contains echoes of all these elements as the reader meets Jackie Robinson (in a more complete manner than you probably knew of him previously), Chuck Colson, William Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, George Washington, Eric Liddell and Pope John Paul II.  My complete notes and highlights are on it here

All the Names

Saramago is a Nobel Prize winner so if I wasn't crazy about his book something must be wrong with ME, n'est-ce pas?  So, something's wrong with me I guess.  I had forgotten that I tried to read his famous Blindness a few years back but was never able to wade my way through his thick verbose interior monologue.  Anyway, I was determined to make it through this one--and with a little patience I did.  Ultimately, All the Names is a story about identity and the significance of remembering.   In it the author weaves a tell of a beaten down aging clerk at the Department of Births and Deaths in a Portuguese town who discovers the card of a woman and sets out to find out who she is.  In this journey his life takes on a depth and a dimension he'd previously never imagined.  For me, though, this novel lacked action.  Once I was about one third of the way through the book I realized that not much was actually going to happen--instead the book was going to be a character study of the clerk. So if you love a good character study--this is your book.

While Clemantine Wamariya's autobiographical introspective is not a book, it's significant enough in its beauty, skill and bravery to warrant its inclusion on our yearly reading list.  The story of her struggles does not fit into any neat or easily digestible categories--but her perseverance will not only inspire but educate you.  My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

Kovite and Robinson have written something special together--they've penned a story that is gripping and unique, funny and sad--a book that's hard to put down.   

War of the Encyclopaedists is a story about war, love and friendship.  And like all good books there's a love triangle, an IED, an Iraqi kid named Monkey, a sperm bank and a sleep study.  With moments of humor and horror, passion and punch, the authors are part of the growing crop of writers (e.g. Klay, Fountain,  Lish, and Roxana) that are setting the war in Iraq into a context that the greater American culture can digest.  The ability to find and create this context in a balanced manner takes grit and talent--Kovite and Robinson have proved they have both in spades.  

One of my favorite lines from the book:

There is no definitive moment when two people become a couple. Elements of intimacy accumulate, and what makes a couple a couple is the gradual recognition of this accumulated intimacy.
My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

The Fishermen

This is Obioma's first novel and it has been met with widespread critical acclaim in places like the Times; it also made the long list for the 2015 Booker Prize.  And for good reason--Obioma stands as the heir apparent to Achebe because of his writing acumen in translating and capturing complex political events with parables and fables (personally, I like Obioma's writing better).  In Fishermen, we hear the tale of a family falling apart amidst the backdrop of the turbulent 1993 elections.  As the family arcs toward destruction, Obioma offers insights about Nigerian family life: the switching between Yoruba, Igbo and English in a single conversation and headscarves tied to indicate you've been praying.  Perhaps one of the best things about this book is that Obioma's is still in his 20's and just beginning. My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

The Cost of Living Like This

One of my favorite things is to have a writer I love tell me about writers he/she loves.  In a complete aside check out this website on 'neglected books'--an amazing compilation put together by writers and editors.  

In Salter's biographical tale Burning the Days (my review here)it's noted that Kennaway was buried standing up (he died of a heart attack at the age of 40).   Having just discovered writers' writer Salter a year ago, I was more than happy to go down the rabbit hole and find out who this writer was that Salter thought worth mentioning in his own biography.  

Needless to say I was impressed by Kennaway's story of one man's gradual descent into destruction. I happen to enjoy a good tragedy and this story's arc slowly sinks while keeping the reader wondering if there's a chance for redemption  But what struck me most aboutLiving Like This, though, was the author's descriptive abilities.  

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

Half Way Home

You'll see there aren't a lot of highlights from Halfway Home--look, you aren't reading Howey for lyrical lines that you can tuck away your whole life.  But I look forward to new books by Howey almost more than any other author.  As soon as you open of his stories you know that it will consume the next few days of your life--you will spend the spare moments of your day tearing through an adventure.  The speed with which Howey moves the narrative reminds me of those choose-your-own-adventure books from when I was a kid, except in this case Howey is at the helm--leading us on an incredible story about resilience and bravery amidst overwhelming odds.

Oh yeah.  I should probably give you a teaser as to what this book is actually about:   A master planet sets out to colonize the universe. If one of its ships lands on a planet that is deemed inhabitable, the entire colony is killed off before they can be hatched from their fully grown cryogenically(ish) frozen state.  Until the kill sequence is interrupted and a group survives...

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

7 Women

Read it Because: You will be floored by the stories you didn't a beer swilling, cigarette smoking Saint and nun.

...or Read It Because: You don't have the time to read seven separate biographies but want the chance to learn all the details you didn't know about the incredible lives of Rosa Parks, Hannah Moore, Joan of Arc, Saint Maria of Paris, Mother Theresa, Corrie ten Boom, and Susanna Wesley. 

Ultimately, Metaxas' is in his element when it comes to biographies--particularly these briefer volumes (versus his voluminous and comprehensive accounts of Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce).   He really nails that je ne sais quoi concerning what a good biography does in its transcendence of our narrow view of events and ideas:

Perhaps the best thing about biographies is that they enable us to slip the strictures of time and provide a bracing corrective to our tendency to see everything in the dark glass of our own era, with all its blind spots, motes, beams, and distortions. We must be honest enough to recognize that each era cannot help having a pinched, parochial view of things, and of course the largest part of that parochialism is that each era thinks it is not parochial at all.

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

The Confines of the Shadow

Read it Because:  You want to understand European colonialism in a deeper context or because you love beautiful, witty writing in historical fiction. 

I came across this book through a post on the Arabist's excellent blog--it was entitled A Libyan Novel You Should Read.   The author of the post--Ursula Lindsey--wrote such a great opening hook to describe the books' author that I've included it here: 

Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite who grew up in Ben Ghazi, was educated and wrote in Italian, and over the course of 40 years penned an extraordinary cycle of novels about the bloody establishment, brief flourishing and troubled aftermath of the Italian colony in Libya. 

So a novel by a Catholic Syrian that grew up in Libya, was educated in Italy and wrote in Italian and his work has only recently been translated into English...awesome.  

Now that Spina's work is once again being read--this tome should easily ascend to the top of the reading list for any budding middle east/maghreb/european history scholar/foreign area officer/foreign service officer (hopefully I caught enough categories there). 

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

City of Lies 

Read It Because: You will learn about an Iran that you never knew existed--trust me--you will be surprised.  And what's more, it is dangerous and ignorant to fetishize the depravity of any enemy without ever taking the time to learn about its people and culture.

Navai pens an expansive love song to the city of Tehran, specifically to its at times majestic at times suffocating at times murderous and at other times lecherous central artery Vali Asr.  The author has recrafted and recreated 8 character studies representing different segments/characteristics of Iranian culture.

In pulling back the Persian curtain, Navai gives the reader the (quasi) guilty pleasure of a behind the scenes tour of what it is to live, die, love, smoke meth and get nose jobs in Iran.

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

Shell Collector 

Read It Because: The same reason you read all of Howey's books--they are thrilling speedy reads with a driving narrative that grips you from the first few pages.  That said, this isn't his best but I applaud his efforts in branching out of his comfort zone.  This tale might be categorized as an "eco-thriller.  You won't see too many highlights below because Howey isn't Faulkner (thankfully), nor does he aspire to be.  I will continue to happily buy and read everything he writes.

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

Confessions of a CPA

Read It Because: It will expand your knowledge of the art of the possible when it comes to saving money.  My father-in-law has explained this before but I am woefully ignorant when it comes to investment and finances so this book was a good opportunity for me to review the principle behind a specific type of life insurance.  My main critique on this book is the incredibly poor editing job. Even basic proof-reading would have caught several of the mistakes.

My complete notes and highlights on it are here.

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