As many of you know, I’m an avid reader, made much more so by belonging to a fantastic book club here in Austin. It has changed my life for the better, and if there is a single recommendation I could offer to someone, it's to join a book club. You will be exposed to works you probably would never have heard of, learn lots of new stuff, appreciate good writing, and meet interesting people. Look for a group that is open to new ideas and not one-dimensional, as they will only serve to reinforce their existing positions. That's not a way to grow and develop.
I strongly prefer hard-cover printed books, and spend some time combing the used hard-cover used book sections of both Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com searching for specific titles in good condition. It’s amazing what treasures you can find, and these come in uniquely and carefully packaged shipments from all over the U.S. All these little treasures add up, however, and now twenty years of collecting books has resulted in a full library.
Looking back over the 2014 reading list, there were 14 non-fiction selections and 14 novels. I usually read the fiction first when there is a book club selection of both a fiction and a non-fiction for the month. In my personal (non-book club) reading list, I read four novels and four non-fictions. Fiction is my preference, however it’s hard to find really compelling fiction, while non-fiction generally is enjoyable and informative.
My friends, knowing of my reading “affliction,” often ask me to recommend books. Here is my list of the most memorable among a wonderful group.
The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox (NF) A fascinating story of decoding an ancient language of the Minoan civilization from Crete, where neither the language nor the characters were known.
The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (NF) This is a mandatory read for anyone interested in the times of Jesus and the Jewish people in the era of Roman rule in what is now Israel and the surrounding areas. The work is controversial and the author has been criticized for his lack of religious qualifications. I found the work fascinating and illuminating.
Doctor Copernicus, by John Banville. (F) (I'm a fan of anything by Banville.) This is a story of Copernicus, who first discovered that the Earth rotates around the Sun, not vice-versa, and his struggle to be a believer as well as stay alive under the strict Catholic teachings to the opposite.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (F) After seventy-plus years on this Earth, I read it! It took me twenty times to put the book down and then to start again. But, I did it. This thing is a mandatory read for a person once in his/her life. It's almost impossible to describe the plot, but it's worth it in the end. If only that you can say you did it.
My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy (NF) As a big fan of Conroy's elegant, syrupy style, I loved it. It's a paean to the joy of reading.
Here is the complete 2014 group:
1. Personal selections (non-book club)
tinkers, by Paul Harding (F) A story of a peddler, a tinkerer, his travels and experiences. (the small "t" is correct)
Travels in the Skriptorium, bu Paul Auster (F) Paul Auster is perhaps the most popular American writer in parts of Europe, including Germany, but not well-known to most Americans. This book stretches the imagination. At least now I know who Auster is, for the next discussion on arcane literature.
My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy (F) Comments above.
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard (NF) Ms. Dillard's story is about her life in writing (duh) but with good tips on how to compose a good read.
Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson (NF) For Bryson fans, a galloping memoir tale. Not my favorite from the TK.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (F) Comments above.
Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (F) Creative fiction that takes place in the early American Northwest.
Story Craft, The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, by Jack Hart (NF) It's what it says in the title. I read it before starting "Contact Sport," my NF book coming out in September. Solid Stuff.
Out There, by Sarah Stark (F) Innovative fiction. Her debut novel got rave reviews in Publisher's Weekly. It's a sobering read on the trials of PTSD in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled ingeniously with, and using, One Hundred Years of Solitude as a backdrop.
2. Here are the book club selections, in order:
The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko (NF) Fantastic, thrilling history of the Grand Canyon and the dams that both created the lakes and threaten the canyon.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (F) Tey's last book, a crime investigation masterpiece about the times and death of Richard III.
The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan (NF) History of a famous photographer (Edward Curtis) and his quest to capture the lifestyles of Native Americans before their cultures were completely overrun by the European-based civilization in the U.S.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich (F) Gripping and startling crime story about an assault on an Indian reservation.
The Son, by Phillip Meyer (F) Popular fiction about Texas, with the tough and focused people who populated the land and ran roughshod over their enemies.
The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan (NF) Comments above.
Elephanta Suite, by Paul Theroux (F) Three short stories that take place in India. The author is a master writer who has written something like 35 works, mostly travel books. His fiction is memorable and penetrates to the core of what it's like to be human.
Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart (NF) Humorous memoir of an Eastern European Jewish kid who immigrated to the U.S. Think "Steingart" when pronouncing his family name.
Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado (F) South American "mystical fantasy" fiction by a master writer.
Slingshot: AMD’s Fight To Free An Industry From The Ruthless Grip Of Intel, by Hector Ruiz (NF) Usually the winners and victors write history, but not in this case. Ruiz combines an inspiring story of his rise from modest circumstances on the Mexican side of the U.S. border to the top suites of corporate power, along with what it's like to compete with a very tough industry-leading company that combined being the best at most things along with taking every legal (and illegal) step possible to maintain that dominant position. Interestingly, Intel's laser-like focus on the desktop (along with Microsoft) has led them (both) to fall far behind in the mobile area (tablets and smartphones).
The Violinist’s Thumb, by Sam Kean (NF) Study of DNA and how biology evolves and evolution happens. Amazing deep dive into the subject.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson (F) Stranger than fiction (and apparently mostly true) story of the dark side of North Korea and the way reality is distorted for the citizens. So incredible and disturbing, this was hard for me to read.
Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds (NF) A seminal book about psychology and the dilemma of decision making when the only best option is the lesser of bad choices. At least you will be able to talk about "the trolly-ology dilemma" at your next cocktail meeting or Mensa meeting.
Father of Two, by Ken Hurwitz (NF) Very good story, with a bit of a surprise ending, about a son's long-term efforts to find out how his journalist father died.
The History of the Internet and the Digital Future, by Johnny Ryan (NF) Good read for nerd-central folks. Nice recap of the evolution of the Internet.
Disquiet, Please!: More Humor Writing From The New Yorker, Edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder (F) A collection of the magazine's short humor stories. Lots of stories!
In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides (NF) The story about the history of gaining knowledge of the Arctic region, and the first attempts to sail into the polar latitudes. Breathtaking detail based on exhaustive research. This book includes fascinating information about Russia's Siberian polar regions and the native peoples there.
Doctor Copernicus, by John Banville (F) Comments above.