Here are the books I have read since January 1, 2016, starting with my favorites. I have written a brief review of each one. Hopefully you will find this helpful whenever you are looking for a book recommendation!
Andy’s Top Books of 2016 (so far)
When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi
Paul was just finishing a residency in neurosurgery when he found out he had stage 4 lung cancer. In this unfinished memoir, published posthumously, he reflects on a brilliant life cut tragically short. Central to the book is Paul’s search for meaning during his final years. Should he use them to finish his residency? Write? Or just do nothing? What is the point of living if you don’t know how long you have left? But, of course, that is the question we all have to answer for ourselves in one way or another. Paul ultimately decides not to give up on life; he returns to medicine and even has a child. This, he says, finally brings him peace. A moving epilogue is written by his wife.
Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes has created something that defies categorization. Part memoir, part self-help, part stand-up comedy, Year of Yes is the story of what happened when Rhimes decided to spend a year saying “yes” instead of “no”. What makes this book such a pleasure is the author’s candid and often hilarious voice and her openness in discussing difficult issues like how these decisions sometimes conflict. Ultimately, she realizes that saying yes to one thing (like giving a speech) necessarily means saying no to something else (like playing with her daughter), and that navigating these trade-offs in a way that feels authentic to herself is what “yes” is really about.
Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions by Professor Jay Garfield
In this series of 36 lectures, Garfield will take you through religious texts (Bhagavad Gita, Tao de Jing, Book of Job) along with writings by Eastern and Western philosophers (Confucius, Buddha, Aristotle, Mill, Nietzsche, Kant, Hume) and contemporary thinkers (Gandhi, Dalai Lama). Garfield highlights relevant passages from these texts and distills the important components. Specifically, he seeks to uncover what members from each of these intellectual traditions believed about meaning and purpose in our lives. There is no simple answer to this question but the litany of ideas presented here and the deep knowledge and expertise of the speaker makes this an important and enlightening listen.
Other Recommended Reads
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
A thoroughly well-researched treatise on how capitalism, and, in particular, global free trade, is impacting the environment. Unique in that it offers viable solutions rather than just complaining about how messed up everything is. A central thesis of the book is that love will save the planet, not hate. If everyone just loved their own land enough to refuse to let oil companies drill and build pipelines there then the government would be forced to start backing green energy instead. A big way this will play out in North America is by environmentalists getting together to help native Americans enforce their treaties guaranteeing them the right to continue living, hunting, and farming on the land of their ancestors.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
This is the truly epic tale of Edmond Dantes, a kind and trusting young man who is on the brink of becoming captain of his own ship when he is wrongfully sentenced to life in prison at the age of 22. Dantes loses everything. His bride-to-be marries another, thinking Dantes dead. His father dies without Dantes to look after him. The ship he would have captained is given instead to the first mate. Dantes escapes from prison 14 years later and vows to devote the rest of his life to getting revenge on those who were responsible for framing him. An important theme of the book is that only a man who has experienced ultimate despair can experience ultimate bliss. Superbly written and impressive in scope with compelling characters and interesting historical context, this is a recommended read.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys
A quick and enjoyable read with some very profound implications. Keys does a masterful job of taking us inside the head of Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded man who works at a bakery and attends night classes at a school for “special adults”. Told completely through Charlie’s journal entries, the book chronicles his experience in a research experiment that substantially increases his intelligence to the point where he is smarter even than the scientists who designed the study. However, as he gets smarter, Charlie starts to realize that people he once considered friends have actually been making fun of him. Was he better off before he got smart?
Other Books I Thoroughly Enjoyed
The Martian by Andy Weir
Told predominantly through log entries recorded in a tiny vehicle on Mars, this is the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is left behind by his crew after they are separated in a storm. Trapped alone on Mars, unable to contact Earth, and with only a limited supply of food, Mark must innovate or die. The author does an excellent job with technical details that add interest and credibility to the situations. Ultimately, one thing that feels lacking is a strong character arc for the protagonist. Mark Watney undergoes some harrowing stuff and you root for him as a reader but there is not a sense that he really grows or changes during the book.
Brainfluence by Roger Dooley
This book on “neuromarketing” (which is basically behavioral economics done inside of an fMRI machine) is essential reading if you are in advertising, own a business, or promote anything. There is definitely information in here that will help you improve your marketing materials in some way. Further, Brainfluence is filled with quick, actionable suggestions that can be immediately applied. The stories are not overly long and provide meaningful examples of the concepts. However, Dooley is a blogger-turned author and this feels more like a collection of blog posts than a true book. There are 60 short chapters and no clear sense of organization to the book as a whole.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Just plain fun! Young D’Artagnan is on his way to Paris with a letter of recommendation to join the Musketeers of the Guard but he loses the letter on the way. Unable to immediately join the guards he, nevertheless, becomes fast friends with the three most badass musketeers: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. These three troublemakers get mixed up in all kinds of crazy political drama and harrowing sword duels. Dumas, writing in 1844, four years prior to the French Revolution, portrays the old regime in a satirized way, making them seem absurd, unfair, and petty as they squabble over internal power dynamics and the like.
Other Books (Not Recommended)
Radical Acceptance by Professor Tara Brach
This book is basically a mixture of recycled Buddhist teachings and Brene Brown-style “embrace your imperfections” lingo. Tara comes across as a bit scattered and there is no clear organization. One aspect I found interesting was her emphasis on pausing and noticing your natural reactions to things before you act. Again, this is not new but she has good ideas on applying it to your own life. Really nothing in this books is new but she does try to tie it all together with stories from her own life and her clients. It is long and is a decent overview of Buddhist thought. You can’t help but reflect on yourself as you read it. Worth a read if you are into that kind of thing.
Before Happiness by Professor Shawn Achor
Here Achor sets out to identify the things extremely happy people (or “positive geniuses”) do that the rest of us do not do. He comes up with five: they see reality with a more broad perspective, develop a clear map outlining how they will achieve their goals, find a way to boost their energy as they follow the map, find solutions to overcome obstacles, and then transfer their own positive reality to others. My main qualm with this book is similar to my thoughts about most positive psychology books I have read: Achor tries to tackle way too large of a question for a single book and, thus, though there are many interesting ideas here, the book as a whole is just too general to be truly useful.
Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges by Professor Amy Cuddy
Amy Cuddy is great and I think the ideas and research she presents in this book are fascinating and inspirational all that. However, the amount of information in this book can be distilled into 15 minutes. In fact, essentially it says that the relationship between posture and confidence goes in both directions so if you spend time standing in expansive postures before, say, a speech or an interview, it has a significant impact on how you come across to other people. I highly recommend Cuddy’s TED talk because you will get this same information in much less time! There are some thought-provoking studies discussed in the book so if you really like the TED talk you might find the book worthwhile as well.
Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
This is the second book from Duhigg, a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. Duhigg’s first book, The Power of Habit, is a masterpiece. He has a skill for illustrating concepts through interesting stories and Smarter Faster Better contains many such informative and amusing narratives. However, the concepts about productivity that Duhigg touches upon here are not particularly novel or helpful and some even seem to contradict each other. The book is entertaining and very well written but if you are looking for useful tools to increase your productivity I do not recommend it.