Our 9 Favorite Books of 2015

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe it’s already 2016. One of my favorite things that happened 2015, aside from the amazing full-time traveling, was that Adam and I read a TON of books. Adam really got a head start on the literature during his self-employment in Q1 last year. I think he read more than 100 books last year and I wasn’t too far behind, not that we’re counting or anything. Of those, I picked our 9 favorites from the year.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises, so I’ve tried to keep my “reviews” short and sweet. Our favorites randomly happened to fall into three otherwise unsorted buckets: General Fiction, Travel-Ish, and Non-Fiction.

I hope that this post will inspire a bunch of further recommendations from those who read it. (Please, leave them in the comments, otherwise I’ll be forced to try Anna Karenina for the 4th time.)

General Fiction

Bird Box: A Novel– Josh Malerman, 2015, 272 pages

Grab this if you like your books dark and terrifying. While post-apocalyptic and occasionally gory, it’s not your typical zombie or plague story. The book opens on the day that Malorie, a young mother, decides to row down a river, with her young children, while blindfolded. The story suspensefully weaves past and present into a very tense page-turner.

And, in a bonus recommendation, some elements of the book reminded me of another great post-apocalyptic story, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Giovanni’s Room  – James Baldwin, 1956, 176 pages

Moving from post-apocalyptic to tragically depressing, Baldwin’s story of David, an American in Paris in the 1950s. When the story opens, David confesses that it is the most terrible night of his life because Giovanni will be executed in the morning.

It’s a sad and moving book. Other than that, I can’t really put my finger on why I enjoyed it so much.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov, 1955, 317 pages

Most people are familiar with the basic premise of Lolita. Narrator Humbert Humbert, a middle aged man describes his lust for pre-teen “nymphet” Lolita, in repulsive but beautifully detail. For me, things really got weird when I found myself sympathising with him, and thus even more disgusted. It’s difficult to describe, but if you can get past the initial creepiness, it’s a  witty and entertaining read, full of interesting wordplay and compelling phrasing.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern, 2011, 401 pages

My mom recommended this book to me a few years ago. I read it then, and then revisited it when Adam stumbled across it this year. Simply, it’s a fun love story about two magicians who are forced to battle each other and gradually build a mysterious circus that appears only at night.

Travel-ish Fiction

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel – Adam Johnson, 2012, 480 pages, Pulitzer Prize winner

Here’s another sad story, this one follows Jun Do in modern-day North Korea. He begins life in an orphanage, joins the military but fights underground, becomes a government-sanctioned kidnapper, an intelligence officer and more. It’s a vivid look at country ruled by a madman and filled with cruelty, starvation, and propaganda.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail – Bill Bryson, 2006, 397 pages

Bryson is one of the few authors who consistently makes me laugh out loud. I read A Walk in the Woods in the middle of our US road trip. It’s a great story about getting out into the wilderness, but it also talks about the formation and preservation of the Appalachian Trail.

To put this recommendation in context, In 2015, we read many of Bill Bryson’s works, including Bill Bryson’s African Diary, A Short History of Nearly Everything, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and Shakespeare: The World as Stage. I think this makes Bryson our favorite author of 2015 by quantity of books read, and hopefully it makes A Walk in the Woods stand out even more strongly.

 

Lost Horizon: A Novel – James Hilton, 1933, 272 pages

Lost Horizon is the classic tale of four people who survive a plane crash in the Himalayas and end up at a magical and mysterious monastery called Shangri-La. The protagonist, Conway, is a weary survivor of WWI trench warfare and is drawn to the peaceful, utopian paradise. He and the other survivors must decide whether to stay or risk the dangerous trek back to society. The story is simply written and easy to read, but also thought provoking and still very relevant.

Non-Fiction

Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer, 1997, 215 pages

This is the story of Chris McCandless, a young twenty something adventurer who gave away all his money and possessions and walked into the wild of Alaska with minimal supplies, survived for three months, but then got sick and died of starvation. Krakauer pulls in his own crazy adventure stories and bits from McCandless’s past to interpret McCandless’s motivations. Post-book, we had an especially enjoyable campfire discussion because Adam really sympathized with McCandless’s desire to live on the edge, while I thought he seemed arrogant and selfish in his lack of preparation.

As another bonus recommendation, we also read Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town in 2015, and I found it both depressing and incredibly interesting, just slightly less relevant than Into the Wild.

The Good War: An Oral History of World War II – Studs Terkel, 1997, 608 pages

In this book, Terkel compiles a number of interviews from veterans and others with interesting stories from WWII. He covers all the usual combat areas, but also includes a lot of stories about the homefront. Each chapter is one person’s story, related in their voice. Many of the stories cover areas of war that I hadn’t heard much about before like racism in the military and the build up of the military-industrial complex in the US.

As a final non-top-book recommendation, Adam and I also really, really enjoyed a 5 part, 15 or 20 hour podcast series on World War I by Dan Carlin. It’s called Blueprint for Armageddon. It’s free, too! I probably learned about WWI sometime in school, but not much stuck, so the podcast really helped provide extra historical context for a lot of the other books we read about WWI and WWII.

I can’t predict yet what 2016 will hold for us, but I am pretty confident we will keep finding interesting things to read. Many of the books on this list were recommendations, and we’re just about out of those, so I hope to get a bunch more soon. Please let me know if you have a great one!

 

Note: The book links will take you to amazon.com where your purchase will support future blog posts, at no additional cost to you. Just keep in mind that Adam and I read all these books FOR FREE by borrowing e-books from the Chicago Public Library and we recommend you do the same with your local library. 

4 thoughts on “Our 9 Favorite Books of 2015”

  1. Neat list. I’ve read a few on here. Admittedly I wasn’t able to get past the first 40 pages of The Road, which was disappointing given all the accolades it received. Felt it was unnecessarily verbose at times and couldn’t sink my teeth into it.
    Into The Wild is an awesome read. I lean heavily toward your opinion of the main character, and thought what he wrote in his journal at the end was a very powerful message.
    Happy New Year!

    1. Happy New Year to you too, Dev! Thanks for the comment. I wonder if anyone other than Adam and Krakauer himself didn’t think McCandless was a little selfish and arrogant. Let me know if you find anything else notable to read now that you have a little more free time.

  2. Hi Adam and Leslie: Thanks for your continued blog updates.

    I also enjoyed Krakauer’s book about Chris McCandless. His “Into Thin Air,” about the 1996 Everest disaster was also excellent. I have a different view about McCandless. I think he was struggling with mental illness or a personality disorder. Arrogant? No more so than a homeless person. Having fled his anxieties to the Alaskan wilderness, entirely unable to rationally anticipate or prepare for winter, unable to care for himself, there was no one to save him from himself.

    I have heard Andy Weir’s book “The Martian,” on which the movie is based, is even better than the film.

    1. Hi John! Thanks for reading and for the meaty comment.

      For me on Into the Wild, the main thing that I realized while traveling, and more while backpacking, is that knowing the return to civilization is imminent changed my perspective. On our last day of hiking, I’d already start to visualize our upcoming diner smorgasbord or mentally outline my next blog post. I switched from just enjoying to getting through to the next thing. I could see how someone like McCandless could get more extreme and require more isolation and less safety to have a more authentic wilderness experience. But, I think I’m probably within 1 standard deviation from the norm, Adam’s running closer to 2, and McCandless was somewhere above that. Chris McCandless’ sister has since published a book, the Wild Truth, about how Chris was emotionally abused by his father, and that was a major factor that Krakauer didn’t cover. I am waiting on my library copy and will report back.

      We read Into Thin Air at some point in the past but I don’t remember it as well so may need to revisit.

      We also read The Martian this year and enjoyed it. I will be interested to see the movie because the book spends so much time in diary / ship log style, covering detailed scientific calculations and MacGyver style problem solving.

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