My Favorite Books Read in 2015

Took a while, but here it is, my 23rd annual recommended reading list. In no particular order, my favorite books read in 2015.


Review | East of Eden :: My Favorite Book of 2015

East of Eden
John Steinbeck (1952)

I savored every chapter in this classic of American literature, a tale of good versus evil for the ages. Years ago, I began reading the Steinbeck canon in chronological order, of which I’m about half-way through. East of Eden jumped ahead this past fall when my subscription series at Steppenwolf included Frank Galati’s stage adaptation, and I knew I wanted read the book before I saw the play. I’m so glad I did, as it allowed me to discover this wonderful work on its own terms.

Galati’s adaptation, like the 1955 James Dean movie before it, winnows down the 500-plus page novel to the climactic Cain and Abel story of Adam Trask and his twin sons Caleb and Aron; and while condensing the massive plot to a manageable night’s entertainment centering on sibling rivalry is understandable, it unfortunately discards much of what makes East of Eden a rich, rewarding reading experience.

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Review | The Martian :: Ultimate Escapist Fun

The Martian
Andy Weir (2011)

Outer space adventures are really not my genre, but I find survival stories intriguing, and on that front The Martian did not disappoint. Author Andy Weir obviously did his homework; The Martian is filled with enough science to feel like the real deal without bogging the story down. And quite the story it is. When a freak storm forces the scrubbing of a long-term Martian mission, the crew evacuates, thinking they’re leaving behind one of their own, already dead. But astronaut Mark Watney is very much alive and now he’s stranded in a hobbled base station, with a limited food supply and no way to escape or signal Earth. Watney calls on all his engineering skills and dark wit to survive until help can (hopefully) come to him.

As Watney bides his time on the red planet, visits back on Earth expand the character roster and clue readers in on preparations for Mark’s rescue, once his presence is known. Author Weir sharply draws his protagonist, giving him a dark sense of humor, in addition to keen Magiver skills and a never-say-die will to survive. As things progress, and one thing after another goes wrong, Watney never gives up and neither does the reader, willing to suspend enough disbelief (Watney is often a very lucky guy), to enjoy the wild, exciting ride. The Martian is a gripping page-turner, right up to its satisfying conclusion.

These Painted Letters Tell a Story

The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents
Adam Van Doren (2015)

I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy: A) American history, B) American architecture, C) gorgeously illustrated art books, or D) all of the above. Painter Adam Van Doren visited fifteen homes of U.S. presidents where he was granted special access and spent extended time–then rendered each place in watercolor illustrations for a series of letters he wrote to his friend, noted historian David McCullough. Thanks to McCullough’s encouragement, the artist turned his personal project into a book.

Van Doren paints the exterior and interiors of each home, with the eye of a trained architect (which he is) and a wonderful attention to detail that illuminates the sense of place and character of each president who lived there. In his letters, Van Doren talks about his process and experiences getting to know each site, and through the work, each president.

As I’ve been to more than a few of the homes featured in this book, it was extra fun for me to revisit highlights of recent road trips. I would encourage anyone with an interest in cleverly presented U.S. history to spend time with this lovely book.

Double Book Review :: Secret Romance Under Pressure

The Paying Guests
Sarah Waters (2015)

Bel Canto
Ann Patchett (2005)

Quite by chance, I read these two books back-to-back and in reflection, I was struck by their similar themes and plot points. Another thing they have in common? I highly recommend them both as thought-provoking, strikingly well-written narratives, perfect for discussion.

Bel Canto, originally published in 2005, had a resurgence last year with the world premier stage adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Patchett based her story on a 1996 terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. She reimagined events by including an international opera star among the hostages. As the crisis stretches over months, a strange symbiosis between captors and captives develops, including two secret love affairs, one involving the soprano and a Japanese businessman, and the other between a star-crossed Japanese translator and one of only two female guerrilla soldiers.

In The Paying Guests, published in 2015, author Sarah Waters sets her characters in a London neighborhood in 1922. The Wrays, a middle-aged widow and her spinster daughter Frances, live together in the family home. The upper-class Wray family is greatly diminished; both brothers were killed in the Great War and their grief-stricken father followed them in death, leaving Frances to grapple with a mountain of debt and her mother’s care. Under such financial strain, their servants have been let go, and Frances sneaks in the housekeeping while her mother is out, so as not to witness the shame. Mother and daughter have consolidated to the first floor, making ends meet by renting second floor rooms to Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young married couple, genteelly referred to as “paying guests.” Despite their class differences, Frances and Lillian become friends and then lovers, and eventually the story takes a dark turn as secrets lead to tragedy.

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Book Review: The Simple Art of Simplifying

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Marie Kondo (2014)

In the ten months since reading this book, I’ve been amazed by the number of friends and acquaintances I’ve encountered who have purchased and/or read Life-Changing Magic, eager to tackle the clutter in their lives. Every time, I happily launch into an enthusiastic endorsement for the KonMari Method. I don’t exaggerate when I say, that for me, this was a truly transformative reading experience.

In case you haven’t heard, Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo has become a one-woman industry, creating and marketing a “revolutionary” method of de-cluttering and organizing one’s living space. Her KonMari Method can be summarized in two words: spark joy. Basically, if an item doesn’t “spark joy” for you, then you happily let it go. Following Kondo’s advice, you begin by piling together everything you own of one particular type (starting with clothing) and then, after you marvel at the amount of stuff you own, take each item in hand and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” If not, you thank it for whatever use, purpose, or meaning it had in your life, and then you let it go.

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Henry Clay: The Essential American :: Larger Than Life In His Day, Nearly Forgotten Now

Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)

Having just finished a 400-plus book on the venerable statesman Henry Clay, I feel as if I’ve taken a survey course on American politics, complete with a field trip to Clay’s Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky in December. During a career that spanned four decades and ten presidencies, Clay (1777-1852) served as a Congressman, Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, beginning his term on the eve of the War of 1812. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Senator, and though wracked by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he passionately worked on his final, great compromise, legislation he hoped would repair the cracks in a crumbling Union. Though he succeeded in his task, less than a decade passed before the United States dissolved into Civil War.

As a career politician, much of the book revolves around the intense (and sometimes venomous) politicking that went on during Clay’s four decades of public service, including three unsuccessful, and often contentious, bids for the presidency. Once again, reading history proves that dirty politics is by no means a modern game.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period of Clay’s life, a fascinating pivot point in U.S. history. Henry Clay is often regarded as the finest orator of his day and the greatest senator in U.S. history; this extensive yet readable biography does much to illuminate why, as well as fill in the important moments in an oft forgotten period of American history.

(Note: This book is part of my Presidential Reading Project.)

Wedding of the Waters :: An Important Footnote in US History

Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation
Peter L. Bernstein (2006)

When on vacation, I like to read books set in the places I’m visiting, so this past summer while on a road trip through New York state, I eagerly took the opportunity to read about the Erie Canal. I’m intrigued by canals, their role in history, as marvels of engineering, and visually, as manmade rivers cutting through countryside and industrial landscapes.

Wedding of the Waters fulfilled on all counts, educating me on this fascinating and crucial piece of U.S. history. Author Peter Bernstein extols the important role the Erie Canal played in the the political, social, and economic development of New York state and the westward expanding empire of the United States, as well as bourgeoning cities like Buffalo, fortunate to be included on the route, while other towns, like Black Rock were bypassed and consigned to fade into history.

Construction of the Erie Canal, a monumental (and thought by some a monumentally foolhardy) undertaking, was begun in 1817 and would eventually cover a distance of 363 miles and 565 feet of elevation difference. The canal was officially opened in 1825, celebrated with a grand procession of flatboats traveling from Buffalo to Albany, and then down the Hudson River, where water from Lake Erie was ceremonially poured into New York Harbor. New York City and the Empire State were never the same.

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H is For Hawk :: A Transcendent Memoir

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald (2014)

Meditative. Outstanding. Transporting. Informative and life affirming. Following the sudden death of her father, the author takes on a falconer’s most difficult challenge, to train a goshawk. This transcendent memoir is an honest revelation of love and loss, the power of grief, and the natural and unexpected path out of profound pain, delivered with rich, moving prose.