2014

I read a lot of books.  Since so many other subscribers to this site are also big readers, I’ve decided to list out all the books I’ve read this year.  Not only that, but I’ll give a short little review of the books, maybe about 3-4 sentences.  I’ll keep updating this page with each book I finish as the year progresses.

Here’s my profile on GoodReads.  Feel free to friend me there.

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck – Another travelogue from Steinbeck.  This time he travel through rural areas of Russia while it was under Stalin’s dictatorship.  His goal was to catalog what life was like for ordinary people there in a completely unbiased way.  There are many touching parts such as when he talked to a little child in front of a WWII memorial/gravesite who said he was just “visiting daddy”.  That broke me up inside.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck –  I don’t know what else I can say about this book that hasn’t been said.  It’s often considered a Great American Novel.  The Nobel committee cited this book as the fundamental reason he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I never read it in high school or college, but I wish I would have.  It’s become one of my favorite books of all time.  If you haven’t read this book, it should immediately go to the top of your “to-read” list.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, is a renowned marine biologist.  Together the two of them travel around the Sea of Cortez which is now more commonly known as the Gulf of California.  They stop to meet people along the way, but mostly to overturn rocks and collect marine specimens.  It’s good at points, but gets old.  After all, there’s only so much I can read about people picking up rocks.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown – This book is a classic.  I never read it as a kid so it was fun to finally get a chance to read it.  It’s about a kid saying goodnight to everything in the room.  If you get a chance to read this book, take a close look around that room.  What kid has a room like that?  There’s a fireplace in it!  Very weird room, but very good book.

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck – The sequel to Cannery Row.  It takes place many years after the events of the previous book.  Many of the characters have died or left, but there are new characters to learn and read about.  It’s a good one too.  If you like Cannery Row, you’ll probably like this one too.

Corduroy by Don Freeman – It’s a kid’s book, but a good one.  I got it and read it to my son who is still lying in my pregnant wife.  I want to get into the habit of reading to him so I thought I would start with this book.  The story is simple.  It’s about a stuffed bear in a department store and some trouble he gets into.  If you have a child of your own, I recommend it.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – This book is based upon a real street and real people where Steinbeck lived.  It plays out like little “scene-lets” with hardly any overarching storyline.  But the characters and scenes are engaging enough to keep interest.  By the end of it, I felt as if I had been living there at one time too.  Honestly I didn’t want the story to end.  Steinbeck must have thought that too because this is the only one of his books to have a sequel – Sweet Thursday.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck – This is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books and I can see why.  Set up as a Mexican folk tale, the story is accessible and engrossing.  The ending is sharp and stays in your memory.  This is one I’ll likely go back to again and again.

Burning Bright by John Steinbeck – One of Steinbeck’s “play-novellas”.  It follows a couple as they try to start a family, but it’s broken into three “acts”.  Each act follows the story, but takes place in separate time periods – the first in a circus, the second on a farm and finally on a ship.  Strangely I found myself getting into it.  It was an interesting literary experiment.

The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck – This book was the “story about nothing” long before Seinfeld started doing it on a regular basis.  Basically, it’s a group of people sitting in a restaurant waiting for a bus to get fixed.  After it gets fixed, they hop on and ride it until it gets stuck.  Not exactly the most riveting story.  For me, it was an OK story, but rather forgettable.

Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team by John Steinbeck – Ernest Hemingway once said he “would rather have cut three fingers off his hand” than to have written such a book as Bombs Away.  I don’t think it’s as bad as that, but it’s definitely not good.  It’s a propaganda recruitment piece for the U.S. Airforce during WWII.  Overall, it’s bland and technical – a product of its time.

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck – What happens to a small, European town as it’s overridden by Nazis?  That’s the basis for this play-novella.  It’s actually quite interesting to see the progression of the townspeople as they deal this unwanted situation.  Many parts are rather touching.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – There’s not much I can add to what’s already been said about this book.  It’s a classic for a reason: it’s wonderful.  George and Lenny go down in literary history as two of the most remarkable characters in fiction.  It’s a must-read for any book lover.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck – Not much happens in this book, plot-wise.  It’s more of a character dram and it works well on that level.  It’s basically a group of squatters all live together in a house as they have adventures and drink wine.  Plus, strangely enough, it was a modern-day take on the Arthurian legend.  It’s a good, quick read.

The Long Valley by John Steinbeck – A brief collection of short stories.  I didn’t know how much I’d actually like this book, but I ended up loving it.  The highlights for me are, “The Chrysanthemums”, “Johnny Bear” and “White Quail”.  I was definitely glad I picked it up.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – You could see this book as quasi-military doctrine or an interstellar space adventure.  It’s a strange mixture of the two.  It’s amazing how ahead the time this book is since most of the ideas have been adopted by the American military including an all volunteer force.  Most of the major military academies have this book as required reading, the only sci-fi book to have that distinction.  I highly recommend this book.  There is a lot of military talk, but the way it’s presented is really engaging.

Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck’s first novel and it’s not about California.  It’s actually about the rise of Henry Morgan and his life as a buccaneer.  It’s such an odd book to read from Steinbeck considering most people associate him with depression-era California.  While it’s not a masterpiece of fiction, it’s a fun, easy read.

In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck – This book is about a couple of union organizers, from a group who call themselves “the party”, gathering farm workers for a strike.  The best part of this book is to read about the life of these two organizers (who are commonly seen as being from the Communist Party, but it doesn’t actually say it explicitly).  Again, the pacing is a little slow, but if you’re willing to read through it, there’s enough to recommend.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck – Every great author has at least one book that doesn’t quite work.  John Steinbeck worked longer on this book than he did with Grapes of Wrath even though it’s half as long.  The writing is long and over-worked.  That really kills the pacing and story development.  By the time anything gets going, I’ve already checked out.

The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck – It’s a collection of interconnecting stories about a small area of California called “The Pastures of Heaven”.  The stories are short and could be read in just about any order.  There’s enough charm in the plots and characters to recommend it.  It’s pretty short so it doesn’t take too long to read.

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck – I’m reading all of John Steinbeck’s work, starting with this one.  It’s a short read with four interrelated stories combined together into one book.  Each story takes place on a ranch through the eyes of a small boy named Jody.  While the stories don’t connect much, themes of death and coming of age are present throughout.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories by Truman Capote – Read this for Holly Golightly.  That’s why people read this story and why Breakfast at Tiffany’s is remembered.  She’s such a well-rounded character and you start to feel like you really know her by the end.

The Stranger by Albert Camus – The story of a man, his dead mother and an Arab.  Is life absurd?  If you’re familiar with Absurdism, than you probably know this novel.  The main character doesn’t seem to care about anything.  As he says at one point (I’m paraphrasing) – I’ve done some things, I didn’t do others and in the end, none of it matters.

The Rubáyát of Omar Khayyám by Omar Khayyám – Written in the 11th century by a Persian poet, the Rubayat is a classic.  The themes of death, living and wine permeate throughout.  This is one to pick up once in a while just to get your mind moving and thinking.  Many stanzas will make you think of life in new ways.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Immediately after watching the movie, my wife and I went to a store to buy this book.  I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and movie.  Although the two leads can be a little dry and the dialogue was a little forced at times, the story remained the star here.  It’s a fun ride that moved me more than most books.  I highly recommend it.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – How do we find happiness in our experiences?  That’s the basic idea for this book.  Many of the ideas were fascinating and unique.  In the beginning he used a lot of sound logic, but towards the end I could see holes in his arguments.  That probably doesn’t mean his ideas are wrong, but more that further investigation needs to be done.  It’s a good read.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London – Who knew Jack London dipped into Sci-Fi?  The story about the aftermath of a devastating plague, we find the remnants of civilization gone.  London’s description of how the  plague wiped out humanity is good, but the shortness of the book leaves you wanting more.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau – Many of the ideas in this essay are old and I’ve heard them all before so there wasn’t much new to read here.  It’s a short read though and a few good stories from his life.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Sharp – There is a lot of useful information in here about building and maintaining habits.  I’ve borrowed some of the tips and incorporated them into my own life.  One was even the inspiration for a post on this site.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel by Tom Monteleone – As the title suggests, this book is a guide to writing a novel.  The author himself has written many novels and has a lot of great suggestions on how to create your own.  I’m using this book as a way to jumpstart my own novel.

Spartan Up!: A Take-No Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life by Joe De Sena – Written by the founder of the Spartan Race, this book lives up to its title.  There are a lot of great tips about optimizing your life from being persistent to eating well.  In many ways this book mirrors many of the topics I cover on this blog – it’s definitely a good read.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – There’s a reason Amazon listed this as one of the “100 Novels to Read in a Lifetime”.  It’s just damn good.  You’ll fall in love with the characters.  You’ll want to see them come home safely from the Vietnam War.  “On the Rainy River” stands out as a memorable chapter.  I felt as if I was there with the character and could feel his painful dilemma.

McTeague by Frank Norris – The story of a dentist, his wife and money.  Frank Norris writes beautifully here as the action unfolds in a natural, breezy way.  It’s a naturalist novel so it’s dark at times with many references to people “reverting” to their animalistic nature – especially around money.  The story is just so entertaining and, at times, will make you think.

It’s Only Temporary: The Good and the Bad News About Being Alive by Evan Handler – Another memoir.  Seriously, I usually don’t read that many so this year is an aberration. Evan Handler is best known as Harry Goldenblatt from Sex and the City.  In this book, he describes his struggle with cancer – his subsequent recovery, life in the theater and his role on the show.  It’s often quite funny, but also has it’s serious moments.

Daisy Miller by Henry James – While traveling through Switzerland, Frederick Winterbourne beings a relationship with a fellow American travler Anne “Daisy” Miller.  The novella is a psychological description of a young woman’s mindset during the Victorian era.  It’s a story of innocence lost.

Moving Up by John Tschohl – It’s an incredibly short book – I read it in one night.  While it’s organized well, there isn’t much that stands out about it.  There are a lot of pages that are blank and supposed to be used as worksheets by the reader.

Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  After hearing so much about how great this book is, I was expecting a lot.  Unfortunately I was disappointed.  Arnold’s book is rather self-serving.  If you’re looking for a long-winded autobiography about how awesome someone is, you’ve found it.  At no point did it feel as if Arnold was revealing anything about his inner emotions or struggles.  Some of his performances have been described as wooden – I would add this book to that list.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami – Primarily known as a novelist, Murakmi wrote a memoir about various stories, his writing process and (especially) running.  It’s a fun little read, but not too memorable.  This one might be best suited for fans of his novels.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein – While this book may have been groundbreaking in its day, it doesn’t hold up well nowadays.  That’s not to say it isn’t a great book; it is.  But the ideas in it have been so ingrained into our understanding so well that none of it seems as mindblowing as it must have been when it was released.  In a way, it’s a victim of its own success.

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle – This book is billed as a manual for building a faster brain and a better you.  After studying talent for five years, Coyle has managed to put together a long list of useful tips for improving your skills.  There is a lot of great, practical advice in it.

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther – The tragic memoir of a father coming to terms with his son’s struggle with a brain tumor and untimely death.  The stark reality in which Gunter writes almost makes the book feel standoffish as if what’s happening isn’t real.  But the underlying subject matter and portrayal of the Gunther’s son makes the story come to life.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London – It’s a short read, but very dense.  Jack London doesn’t waste space in his writing – every word seems so important.  The book itself – about a domesticated dog on a sled team in the Yukon – explores themes of perseverance, loyalty and primitive nature.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – One part non-fiction, one part philosophy treatise.  While the philosophical concepts are presented well and thoroughly investigated, the difficulty can leave you puzzled at times.  In many ways it will change the way you see the world, but in others, you’ll leave confused.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee – Two couples – one set seem normal, but the other two start acting bizarrely.  The whole play feels like it’s building up to something – something important.  When the strange behavior is finally revealed, it’s both satisfying and heartbreaking.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories by Hunter S. Thompson – This is thoroughly a product of its time.  Now that the Vietnam War and Hippie movement is over, this book feels out of place.  While I can understand it from a historical point of view, there’s little that is on offer for the modern age.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – Mt. Everest.  1996.  A doomed expedition that leaves many dead.  This true story is much more fascinating than I expected.  The direct storytelling only adds to the tragic feel to what really happened up there.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – In the future, firefighters start fires, not put them out.  More specifically, they burn books.  This book has so much depth that it takes several reads to really pick up on it all (for instance, professor Faber is named after a pencil company).  As dystopian as the plot first appears, it leaves you feeling hope for a better future.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – It’s Harry Potter.  I’ve read the first two and I’ll slowly get through them all.  Like the others, the writing is solid and J.K. is a great storyteller.  What else can you say, it’s Harry Potter.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman – Two sons, one with magical powers, meet after the death of their father.  There’s a lot to recommend about this book – it has good humor, strong characters and a good narrative flow.  While it doesn’t feel like there’s much depth, the story is light and fun.

Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams – The story of a toy rabbit that becomes real.  It’s a short book – I read it in about an hour –  but it’s one that captures the imagination.  For such a quick read, there is a lot of heart to it.

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