At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read one book every month. No business books or marketing texts allowed — just hearty fiction or detailed biographies to sharpen the mind and enrich the soul. Some of these books had been on my list for a while, and others were recommended by trusted bookworms in my circle.
Here is the list from 2020. If you have a recommendation for the 2021 list, please let me know.
Robert Caro. The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
Due to the sheer heft of this biography that covers LBJ’s birth through his first days in the Senate, I carried it over from the end of 2019. Caro is an excellent writer, but this book really shows off his commitment to research and passion for a good story. Johnson originated from the shallow soil patches of central Texas. Throughout his book, Caro reveals the depth of LBJ’s persona as different stages of his life left me with the feels of sympathy, contempt, admiration, nausea and reverence. Lyndon Johnson’s legacy is complicated, but this book clearly demonstrates his political genius.
Richard Pryor. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences.
Growing up in the late 80s and 90s, I just missed what was likely Richard Pryor’s prime. His autobiography details his horrendous upbringing and the hilarious product of his artform. Written in his own vocabulary in his own voice, the text is undeniably crude and incredibly honest. After finishing it, I felt as if I had just read a personal letter from a wise uncle with a tortured spirit. This book shows that like any great performer, Pryor was willing to let you into his damaged little world and feel zero shame when doing so.
Peter Heller. The Dog Stars.
This story is about a man’s struggle to survive in the aftermath of a flu pandemic. I just happened to be reading it when life decided to erupt in our faces. Ironic (and perhaps terrible) timing for the reader I suppose. Much of this book could be classified as action/adventure, but given my surroundings at the time I dug in, it was also emotional and raw. Ultimately, this book is about connections – those lost, those we share now (especially the important bonds we have with our dogs), and those we consistently feel a need to seek out. You should read this book, just maybe not in the midst of an international pandemic.
Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
I was familiar with the story but had yet to read the original text. Given the era in which it was written, Shelley used an olde-world style that would remind you of the “classics” your English literature teacher likely made you read during sophomore year of high school (e.g. Dickens, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, etc.) Hundreds of people much smarter than I have provided their own interpretations of Frankenstein and its allegorical meaning. Many would consider this to have been a horrific year. A public health crisis, political chaos, ongoing social injustice and a pesky little problem with unrelenting climate change have been just some of 2020’s key ingredients. Given the fact that the main character in this story created a monster that ultimately destroyed the world around him, 2020 seems to have been the most appropriate year to read this book.
Cormac McCarthy. No Country For Old Men.
In my experience the book is always better than the movie. I can’t say that in this case because the movie was practically a replica of the book, and they are both excellent. With the exception of a single chapter near the end of this story, the Coen boys did a masterful job of recreating McCarthy’s novel. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie. If not, read the book AND watch the movie. No really – do both. “What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?”
Erik Larson. Devil in the White City.
This book chronicles two different but equally intriguing stories that revolve around the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. One story is about a team of architects that worked to create a World’s Fair experience that would outclass the previous event held in Paris during which the Eiffel Tour was unveiled. No small task. The other story reveals the inner workings of a drug store owner who also happened to be a psychopathic serial killer. Larson is a tad long-winded, but both stories are amazing. As an added bonus, this book details the origin of Cracker Jack, the dishwasher, the Ferris Wheel and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist.
I first read this book the year my eldest was born. As he’s nearly fifteen, I decided to give it another whirl. It was just as rewarding the second time. The Alchemist is a quick read, but I would advise anyone who hasn’t yet read it to take your time. It’s rich with little lessons and bits of inspiration scattered throughout. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who reads this book with an open mind could not feel a sense of genuine and wholesome confidence. It is a story that is worth a read — and a re-read. It currently sits as a treasure on my shelf.
Richard Rothstein. The Color of Law.
As the United States has grown and its population expanded over the past 244 years, not all of its citizens have had the right to choose where they would like to live and pursue opportunities for themselves and their families. Rothstein documents a history of atrocities related to residential segregation in this book. I got the highlighter out for this one, marking passages that were grotesque in their accounts of inequality and prejudice. The facts in this book are both damning and crucial to acknowledge. This book should be required reading for anyone studying American history, especially those pursuing careers in real estate, human resources and public policy.
H. W. Brands. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times.
Dead parents. A permanent scar from a British soldier’s sword. Drunk-off-his-ass debauchery. Temper tantrums that quickly escalated to duels. And that was all before he reached adulthood. Andrew Jackson was absolutely wild, and his character reminds me of the kind of person who is adored by his teammates and abhorred by pretty much everyone else. This book paints a full portrait of Old Hickory, and the individual anecdotes are endlessly entertaining. His loyalty, controversy, passion and cruelty define his status as a lauded American in the most classic sense. Jackson’s legacy simultaneously contributes to his country’s history, folklore and its most conspicuous defects.
Anjali Sachdeva. All the Names They Used for God.
This is a series of short stories that would remind you of The Twilight Zone (or Black Mirror for those born after 1975). I flew through this book. Each story is both hypnotic and weird as hell. The common theme is that each character or subject is working through his or her own set of bizarre circumstances while coming to grips with an impending and completely apparent destination. These stories are somewhat dark, but I also found myself thinking and talking about them days after reading them.
Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential.
This book had been on my list for a while. I could hear Bourdain’s voice when reading his words. I have heard that Bourdain’s talents as a chef were above average, but he is an excellent writer. This book contains an infamous chapter about the restaurant industry’s dirty little secrets: brunch is a sham, the reality of weekday seafood, the quality of meat ordered “well done” and the recycled bread. I most enjoyed Bourdain’s description of life in the back of the house. Those who savor a fine dining experience don’t ever get to see what really happens behind the facade of smiling wait staff and neatly folded napkins. Having worked in a restaurant, I can personally attest to the fact that those who prepare our food are often foul-mouthed, miscreant, modern-day pirates wielding fire, knives, addictive personalities and smoldering duck fat. It’s a good time.
Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project.
Michael Lewis has written several popular books. This one is a kind of follow-up to Moneyball, his story about how the Oakland A’s baseball club consistently fielded a winning team despite a relatively low payroll by identifying and exploiting market inefficiencies. The Undoing Project is an exploration of why these inefficiencies exist in the first place and how they may be caused by our cognitive and perceptive abilities. While the Moneyball story was about math, this one is focused on psychology. I’m only half-way through it, but Lewis once again manages to make a mundane topic fairly fascinating.