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  • John Wood

Top Ten Books of 2015

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

10.   Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Haruki Murakami

Another engaging Murakami masterpiece.   I don't always find Japan's most popular novelist to be approachable and his narratives are often a bit more cryptic than I would prefer, but this novel was spot-on for me.  Compelling characters, engaging (and believable) dialogue, a mystery-driven plot twist that sucked me right in.  I did not want this novel to end as I had fallen in bro-mance love with the main character and did not want to stop hanging out with him.

9.  Elon Musk:  Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance

Ashlee Vance's Musk bio is one of the ten best business narratives I've read in the past decade.   Here's a guy who nearly failed on multiple occasions but just kept going, and who was so work-obsessed that he's several divorces in. Yet it's not enough for him to have one big business victory - Tesla.  At the same time, he's also running Space X, while being an early financier and Board Chair of Solar City. What drives a guy like this? What's it like to work with him?  To live with him? You will have all those questions answered by Vance, a most amiable and insightful guide into the life and mindset of one of modern capitalism's most fascinating leaders. This book was "un-put-down-able", and will give you great insight into how much of the future is being invented.

8.  The Wright Brothers, David McCullough

David McCullough does it again! This is a story of innovation and perseverance against the odds. In grade school, many of us learned of two brothers who pitched up at Kitty Hawk and HEY PRESTO, they flew a plane. The full story is much more complex than that, and thank God for that, as the story of these lifelong bachelor brothers is an entertaining read. McCullough is of course best known for his Truman bio (buy it, read it, love it!), but it's worth also giving a shout out to his bio of Teddy Roosevelt's early years, endearingly titled "Mornings on Horseback".

7.  The Prize, Dale Russakoff

How Mark Zuckerberg's highly publicized ("Great to see you, Oprah") $100 million gift to Newark's school system failed to accomplish their lofty and somewhat ill-defined goals. The book features politicians like then-governor Chris Christie and then-mayor Cory Booker, plus teachers unions, education consultants, and a lot of short-term thinking you'd normally associate with a high-frequency trading floor - this book is chock full of lessons on philanthropy. My biggest take-away: never lead with the size of the gift.  Lead with what you hope to accomplish.  Second:  remember that politicians are often better at making bold announcements than at actually following up and “bird-dogging” the initiative to a successful conclusion.

6.  Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra

My wife, Amy, and I have a friend named Caro who majored in Latin American literature.  One night over a glass of wine, we asked for recommendations on novels from Latin America we might never have heard of.  We both loved this sparse but compelling novel, beautifully rendered by the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra.   He is one of those novelists the literary world needs more of - he does not use words he does not need to use, or invent scenes that seem to only be in there to pad the novel (looking at you, Tom Wolfe!).   You can read this entire masterpiece on a three hour flight or in one afternoon by the pool, and months later it will still be with you.   

5.  All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I had the same view on this as our friend Katie - "So many people said good things about it that I wanted to be a contrarian and avoid it."  I almost succeeded, as I had a rough start and abandoned it after 50 pages. Then Amy read it, and could not stop talking about how beautifully it was written, and how drawn she was to the characters. I will not soon forget any of them, from Marie Laure to her loving Uncle Etienne. Plus fun histories on the role radio played in both official and unofficial WW II communications.  A bit long, and by the end I was ready for a conclusion -- but that's about the only criticism I can find.

4.  Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos

Evan Osnos has written a masterpiece. Amy and I both religiously read everything he writes for the New Yorker, so I was eager to pick up his very readable and enlightening portrait of modern China. Along with "The Mountains Are High and the Emperor is Far Away", this is the best non-fiction I've read on China in the last half-decade.  

3.  The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez

This beautiful portrait of first generation Americans speaks volumes about the power of immigration to shape America, and of America to shape immigrants.  Though officially a novel, it reads a bit like a memoir as the characters tell their stories in the first person.   I wish that every bloviating and fear-mongering politician would be forced to read this book, in hopes they would see the inner humanity in their fellow human beings.   I tore through this in two days and was sad when it was over.

2.  Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

My favorite New Yorker cartoonist has drawn and written a masterpiece. In cartoon form, she tells the story of her relationship with her aging parents. While she is confused about much going on in their lives, they are often even more confused by hers. The communication lapses between the parents and their only child are by turn illuminating, hilarious and tragic. It's the best book in "cartoon form" (for lack of a more eloquent description) I've read since Marjan Satrapi's "Persepolis".

1.  Destiny and Power:  The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham 

Jon Meacham is the only journalist to have ever been given access to Bush 41's private diaries, and the result is smashing. This is one of my favorite political biographies of the last decade, which actually surprised me because Bush 41 is not often viewed as being as interesting or heroic as past presidents who have attracted hundreds of biographers. I was not a huge Bush fan during his 12 years as VP and President, but always respected him as an honorable guy trying to do the right thing for his country. Meacham's bio proved to me that my knowledge of Bush was wafer-thin, and I walked away with much more insight into what made him the man he was. In many ways, he was the perfect man for his time and place.  As a bonus, the reader gets wonderful insights into his long marriage to Barbara (love her!).  41 will not be around for much longer, so read this bio while he's still with us. Don't be intimidated that its 800 pages long - I read it in four days because every time I had to put it down (damn you, work!), I began plotting to find even ten spare minutes when I could pick it back up.

I hope you will be inspired to read at least a few of these, and if you do and have thoughts or commentary to share, please let me know!

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