Books of 2015: 21 capsule reviews

bookshelf in library

Photo: Library by Stuart Butterfield | License

I love books. And reading. I’d put reading near the top of my list of the things I most enjoy doing.

In 2015, I made an effort to read more, mainly by dedicating my train commute (~40 minutes each way) to books. I was surprised at how many books I got through without really changing my lifestyle, and I can honestly say that reading more made me happier (even though some of what I was reading was pretty dark). Below are the capsule reviews I posted on Instagram for each book I read last year, along with a letter grade for each. Upon reviewing all the books together for this blog post, I changed some of the original letter grades.

Top 5

Of the 21 books I finished, the following five are the ones that stuck with me the most:

Broken Monsters book coverBroken Monsters” by Lauren Beukes.

John Lennon: The Life” by Philip Norman.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” by Peter Hedges.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America—50 writers on 50 states,” edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.

Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon.

Capsule reviews

Reviews are in chronological order of when I read them:

1. “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” by David Sedaris. Back in the day, I was a huge Sedaris fan. I read “Naked” four times when I was living in South Korea and homesick. Hadn’t read him in a while. His stories have changed but are still written beautifully and made me laugh out loud on public transportation. A.

2. “Broken Monsters” by Lauren Beukes. Gifted to me by my awesome librarian aunt. A sprawling, surreal crime thriller set in today’s Detroit. The kind of book that makes you count the hours to the workday’s end so you can continue reading. A must-read for anyone who has spent time in the Motor City. A+.

3. “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are” by Brene Brown. This one was an Oprah-approved self-help selection. A quick read. I recommend it for anyone who is always running around trying to do 1,000 things. After reading this book, I feel better about Saturday afternoon naps and lazy Sundays, etc. B. Update: Almost a year after reading this book, I think I may need to reread it.
Wonder Boys book cover
4. “Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon. I loved this movie, but the book was even better. Drags a bit in the middle, but the author’s whip-smart turns of phrase will keep you going. About a middle-aged professor who has made a mess of his personal and professional lives. Pulitzer Prize winner. Recommended. A.

5. “The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession” by Susan Orlean. If you live in South Florida, you have to read this book. It’s a profile of a South Florida orchid collector/seller, but it also explains a lot of Florida history as well as the world of rare orchids, which I had no idea existed. The writing is also breathtaking. A-.

6. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. I wasn’t crazy about the movie, then the book fell in my lap, and I loved it. It’s a real page-turner and makes me want to embark on an epic hiking adventure, even though she writes in detail about the challenges, difficulty and discomfort of a three-month backpacking journey. I recommend it. A.
The Orchid Thief book cover
7. “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” by Steven Pinker. This book was an awesome gift from my mother! It was a tad dry, but full of great writing tips and advice that I began using from day one. It also dispels a lot of journalistic editorial no-nos, such as avoiding the singular they and the passive voice. If you write for a living, you’ll find this book helpful and illuminating. B.

8. “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell. Another Florida read! I have mixed feelings about this one. The writing is beautiful, but I found the book slow and confusing for the first 200 pages, at which point it swiftly picked up and shockingly changed direction. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, and I think it could make a great movie. C+.
John Lennon: The Life book cover
9. “John Lennon: The Life” by Philip Norman. I originally wrote that this was my favorite book of the year so far, and it made it into my top five. A must-read if you are a Beatles fan. The best part was learning which songs John wrote and which ones Paul wrote, and the circumstances that led to them. Norman is also a fantastic writer. I won’t give away too much, but there was a lot about John’s life that surprised me, and he truly was a tortured, creative genius. A+.

10. “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” by David Miller. I was inspired to read this because I liked “Wild” so much. I thought it was great—less spellbinding than “Wild,” but more of a realistic account of what a multi-month hike is like. It made me want to try one myself … someday. B.

11. “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain. A really interesting read. His stories are hilarious and educational—I learned a lot about the life of a chef and laughed out loud quite a bit. He goes too deep into the weeds at times, but I would recommend this book—it also has some nice tips for home cooks. B-.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail book cover
12. “Canada” by Richard Ford. This book gripped me from its incredible opening lines: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Richard Ford has a beautiful, sparse style of writing unlike anyone else I’ve read. There were a lot of moments when I couldn’t put the book down. Recommended! A-.

13. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. Pulitzer Prize winner. The book follows a nerdy Dominican-American kid who is absolutely endearing. I loved the parts about Dominican history and Oscar’s stories. But I also thought the book dragged in places, and found the language over the top. B-. Worth a read if you’re interested in Dominican culture!

14. “Yes Please” by Amy Poehler. I LOVED this book. It was a fast read, Poehler has a truly engaging voice, and I enjoyed learning behind-the-scenes tidbits about comedy and her various projects. The book is presented in vignettes rather than a linear storyline, which I thought worked well for her writing style. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, at least not for me, but it is highly entertaining! I’d give it an A.

15: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon. Another Pulitzer Prize winner. This sweeping, lengthy ambitious World War II novel has it all: Art, death, love affairs, magic, escapistry (might not be a word?) and varied settings from Prague to Antactica. I found it to drag in parts but overall loved Chabon’s beautiful writing and epic storytelling. A-.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape book cover
16: “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” by Peter Hedges
. About a dysfunctional family in Iowa. The writing is beautiful and spare, and a lot of the scenes and lines are memorable. However, Gilbert Grape is a 1991 Holden Caulfield, and his misanthropy is hard to stomach at times. Also, he’s 24 and falls for a 14-year-old girl, and everyone in town is somehow OK with this. Still, I recommend it, and I’d read Hedges’ other books. A+

17: “A Short Guide to a Long Life” by David B. Agus, MD. A quick read—I finished it in a few hours—that offers a lot of practical evidence-based health advice. The one concrete takeaway I have applied to my own life is his advice to opt out of submitting to the body scanners at airports. His reasoning is that there’s no long-term research demonstrating their safety. I did some more digging, and I agree. Even if you also get radiation from flying, why not nix the extra unnecessary dose you get in security? I opted out for the first time recently, and it wasn’t bad at all. B+.
State by State book cover
18: “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America—50 writers on 50 states,” edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. Another #nerdread. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about the country in a less-conventional way. Of course, some of the essays are better than others. But you’ll likely learn something new about each state regardless. My favorite essays: Ohio by Susan Orlean, New Jersey by Anthony Bourdain, Illinois (natch!) by Dave Eggers, Maine by Heidi Julavits, Wyoming by Alexandra Fuller. These five essays were the most fun to read. B+.

19: “Foreign Affairs” by Alison Lurie. Published in 1984, it’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about two American academics in London. The writing was compelling, and I enjoyed reading about Americans in England because I studied there in 2002. But 20 years earlier England—or at least the England of this novel—was very different. B+ for great character development and solid storylines.

20: “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami. I’m a huge Murakami fan; this is his most recent novel. I tend to prefer his shorter, more focused books like “Norwegian Wood” over his epic, sprawling masterpieces, which I’ve always found hard to get through. This book follows one man and focuses on two periods of his life. I loved the simplicity of the storyline, and his writing is as solid as ever. It wasn’t the most gripping book I’ve ever read, but it kept me intrigued throughout, and I finished it quickly. A.

21: “Turn Around, Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke” by Rob Sheffield. Another memoir by the author of the excellent “Love is a Mixtape,” which chronicles Sheffield’s 20s and early 30s. “Turn Around” picks up from there and focuses on Sheffield’s love affair with karaoke. He’s a Rolling Stone writer and shares my taste in music and sense of humor, so I always enjoy his books. This one is a bit meandering and off-topic at times, but still an entertaining read. I laughed out loud several times. B+.


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