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Monday
Jan252016

The Best Books I Read in 2015

A hallway line-up of the books I read in 2015--good, bad, and boring. January 2016.

Time for my annual review of the best books I read in the year past, following the tradition of my posts in 2013 and 2014. (Have I really had this blog for so long?)

Aside: I read in The New York Times that Bill Gates has this same practice on his blog. What excellent company.

In 2014, I didn’t read as many books as I typically manage in a year, and this year my reading fared even worse. My 2015 total: A measly thirty-six.

Partly, I blame having taken off only one day in the entirety of 2015 (my birthday). As I read a lot while on vacation, a lack of time away from the grind meant a lack of reading time. And as the grind this year felt particularly intense, even day-to-day reading opportunities suffered.

I will say, though, that I enjoyed what I read in 2015 a great deal more than I enjoyed 2014’s selection. Last year, I scratched together a list of quality recommendations. This year, I struggled to pare them down. How did I get a better set of books in 2015? Perhaps I’ve improved at reading between the lines in reviews and not getting too enticed by attractive covers in book store displays. Though I can probably just credit luck.

As with every year, the books I rate as favorites in my end-of-year review caught in my consciousness, made me feel, made me think, and prompted me to start discussions. As I looked at the year’s stack, it surprised me to see how many books I’d recently read that I’d already mostly forgotten. If I can’t remember much about the book only months after I read it, I won’t rank it as a favorite.

Interestingly, despite such a heavy year, I can classify none of my favorite reads as “light.” I read plenty of so-definable books, yet none made the “best” list, even if I’d still recommend them. (So if you want pointers for a less intense read, let me know.)

Here goes the 2015 best-books list:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Didion may have hoped to discover a back way through grief in chronicling the twelve months after her husband died. Alas, this text affirms that no shortcut exists. Didion’s gem of a book—brief, with each page a gut-punch—testifies to grief’s harrowing journey and the scars it leaves. Even so, it assures readers that time assuages pain from even the worst traumas.
  • The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. At times, this book felt like a slog. A former slave narrates, and his tale provides a painstaking step-by-step accounting of adventures with legendary abolitionist John Brown. Yet the end, even with historical record making the facts predictable, surprised me. The power of this book’s message goes beyond the injustices of slavery into the value and importance of even the most seemingly outlandish quests.
  • The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. In near stream-of-consciousness fashion, Ferrante details a woman’s mental and physical unhinging when her beloved husband confesses his infidelity and wish to leave the marriage. In keeping with the main character’s frantic distress, Ferrante’s novel reads at a fever pace. This resonant story captures perfectly a woman in emotional crisis.
  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Each short story in this volume—all snapshots of a military perspective during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—shook me. At each tale's close, I wanted to stop everything and process what I’d read. Yet I couldn’t put the book down—the stories compelled me too much; I felt too hungry for more. I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Klay’s book, even months later.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs roomed with Peace during their time as undergraduates at Yale; after Peace’s murder in the illegal drug trade, Hobbs wrote this book in an attempt to understand how someone with a route out of a rough life ended up right back in the thick of it. This book explores the complex forces working against changing lives—and it still chews at my consciousness.

I won’t know if any of these texts made my all-time favorites list for years, when I can look back on them from a greater distance and with broader context. But from where I sit, months after closing their covers, I’d go beyond simply recommending to frankly encouraging you to read any—if not all—of them.

Which books did you love most in 2015?

Saturday
Jan022016

I Made It: Bring on 2016

Proof-of-life photo. Somehow, I managed to survive 2015. October 26, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Maybe every year is peculiar in its own way. A lot happens in twelve months.

Yet, unlike many other years I can remember, 2015 had soaring highs and lows. Amid a lot of intense, nearly overpowering craziness in my personal and professional life, I stood witness with all of you to mind-boggling insanity in the world near and far, from race relations traumas to the rise and entrenchment of terrorist groups.

Goodbye, 2015.

Each year, I set goals. In this process, I review the year past to look for successes and failures and to reset my thinking for the upcoming twelve months.

In review, working through my professional goals in 2015 took more bandwidth than I’d anticipated. Further, I had a few adverse-event surprises (maybe I’ll write about them someday, but not now, not in this post). Together, this double whammy knocked me off course in almost all life facets.

Including writing. I didn’t get back to it. At all. Not on this blog—obviously—or elsewhere. I can’t quite articulate why. I lost my writing mojo to intense stress and the concomitant mental exhaustion. Even today, it hasn’t quite come back.

Of course, we can only plan for so much. We can point our course in one direction and strive our best to head that way, despite buffeting from winds, weather, and sea monsters.

Although I didn’t reach my destination for 2015, I made good strides in some areas—progress I wouldn’t have made without a general direction in which to strive. I learned quite a bit in the process. I made some positive personal and professional changes based on my experiences. And though I got knocked down, I didn’t get knocked out.

And amid all the ridiculousness, the good and the bad and the crazy, some truly beautiful things emerged. As they will, when you pay attention.

Let’s focus on the good things.

  • The People. Circumstances in 2015 forced me to watch my friends and family step up in times of need—and I felt astounded and humbled by each person who provided physical and moral support. The people in your life influence your physical wellbeing, your happiness, your contentment, your fulfillment, and your personal and professional growth. Choose your associates wisely; all of us have limited time to invest in building relationships. And please: Tell and show the people in your life what you value and appreciate about them. We never have enough time to say and do the things we’d like to say and do.

  • The Work. I’ve nearly completed some large professional operational changes. I have a few finishing touches ahead, yet the heaviest lifting is complete. As with all changes, I wish I’d made these a long time ago. You know how it goes. Hindsight, 20-20, and so on. Having it mostly done, even later than I’d have liked, feels really, really good.

  • Service. At midyear, The Johns Hopkins University named me the chair of its Second Decade Society, one of the boards of its school of arts and sciences. I’ve had an incredibly rewarding experience that has deepened my appreciation for the institution. I’ve met some amazing current students, faculty, administrators, and staff; I’ve built connections with incredible fellow alumni; and I have learned more about my alma mater than I feel I’d known even as a student. As a result, I’ve gained far more than I’ve given, even though I’d intended the opposite upon accepting the role.

  • Ramona. The two of us? Still a dynamic duo. We beat the doctors’ timelines. Maybe she sensed that in this challenging year, I couldn’t face her departure; she rallied well after we sorted her medications. Yet I still haven’t come to terms with the fact that she will die, just like all of us. And I don’t think I ever will.

So what does 2016 hold?

Let’s hope for goodness and beauty. For us all.

This 2016, I’ll focus on loving more, experiencing more, deepening more. In the last few years, I’ve grown immensely professionally through some rough knocks. In 2016, I will stay the course to carry through the initiatives I put into play at work in 2015. Yet, now that the intense generative effort has gained the momentum needed to assume a life of its own, I’ll take time to nurture myself, experience a little more of the world, and appreciate ever more deeply the amazing people I’m lucky to know.

And maybe, in the process, I’ll find my way back to writing. Even a little.

Tell me: How does 2016 look for you?

P.S.—For all of you who read this and engage me in dialogue as a result, thank you. You enrich my world.

Friday
Jul032015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

The full stack of 38 books I read from start to finish in 2014. January 1, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Typically, I read voraciously. Though not the fastest reader, preferring to think through the writing, plot, and message as I go and for a bit upon closing the cover—I always have a book underway and usually manage to get through one or two a week. (Not having a television helps. Try it.)

In 2014, I didn’t read nearly as extensively as usual. Whether of the positive or negative kind, things kept getting in the way. I read a mere thirty-eight books.

Yet, though I didn’t keep my usual pace, I enjoyed the books I read in 2014 more than I enjoyed the texts I encountered in 2013. (And no, reading less did not mean that, therefore, I appreciated each read more.)

In addition to the books I mentioned in my post about my favorite reads from the first half of the year—all of which I’ll still stand by as worthwhile reads—I’ve listed below some of my other truly memorable books from 2014. These books all stuck with me in one way or another, well after I put them down, popping to mind while on a run, or grocery shopping, or in conversation with a friend—even long after I’d started and finished other texts:

  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: Maybe this coming-of-age and growing-up epic resonated with me because the ensemble cast shares my generation. Regardless, Wolitzer has done an amazing job of clearly defining each character, and the story arc feels beautiful and heartbreaking—just like life. 
  • The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman: A slim yet powerful volume about how cascades of actions and inactions take a couple down paths of no return. An exploration into the complexity of “right” and “wrong.”
  • Love All, by Callie Wright: This book meditates on marriage, family, and interpersonal intimacy and the truth that try as we might—and believe what we will—we each live in an individual box with sharp edges and opaque walls. We never stop growing up, and the attendant growing pains never cease.
  • Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson: I hated the movie “Groundhog Day.” (Yes, I know it has a cult following. I don’t do cults.) Only at the behest of a vehement neighbor did I read this book—which seems to endlessly restart, especially in the first third—about the many ways a life can play. The book contemplates the myriad small choices we make each day that influence our lives, the lives of others, and even the course of history.
  • The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan: The cover of this book prompted a friend’s incredulity about my reading “chick lit.” Yes, the book centers on the diamond industry—and the marketing of engagement rings in particular. Yet the setting (yep, pun intended) allows the author to muse on the culture of marriage through a suite of female characters, all of whom have made disparate choices that have equally disparate conclusions. The common thread? A single career ad woman named Frances Gerety who made the diamond “forever.”

As with the best of anything, each of these books has a flaw somewhere. (Oh hey. Another diamond pun.) Some of these novels had more than one problem—and some had issues bigger than others. Yet they all succeeded. We overrate perfection—which often sucks all the beauty and flavor from art and from life.

Did any make my all-time favorites list?

I won’t know until more time passes. For a book to rank as a favorite, I have to enjoy reading it while feeling mentally and psychologically challenged by its content. An all-time favorite has to give me a fun read while also provoking thought long after I’ve put it down—with bonus points for prompting me to close the back cover and hold it in my hands for a few moments, sad that I’ve finished the book.

What books did you love most in 2014?

Sunday
Jan182015

Race Relations: Better Today—or Worse?

A fight between black and white that had little to do with race relations. Sometimes, sports are our most diverse arenas. November 21, 2014. Houston, Texas.

As regular readers know, I have a group of friends—all of whom have blogs—that bands together for one post per month on a round-robin topic.

This month’s subject, posed by Will Pora, confounded more than a few of us:

Have we gotten closer to or further from racial equality?

Yowza.

The topic arrived at a pertinent time. Numerous recent world events have highlighted extreme tensions between nationalities, government systems, ethnicities, races, and religions.

Do I need to enumerate them?

Black deaths in the United States at the hands of law enforcement, none of which resulted in indictments. Murder of French journalists at the hands of Muslim extremists. North Korea accused of hacking Sony due to concerns about a film’s depiction of Kim Jong Un.

And race relations in the United States seem to have received heightened attention—or perhaps I’ve only grown more attuned to the discussion due to musing on Will’s prompt. In recent weeks, the following items hit my radar:

We may feel race relations have grown worse due to the increasing attention to tensions in the news today.

Yet I’ll stand with President Obama in feeling that the coverage of these events—and the resulting broad outcry of indignation and outrage—shows willingness to bear witness to the ugly aspects of our society that we’d rather not face.

When we bring awful facts to light, rather than sweep them away in horror and embarrassment, we encourage dialogue. And dialogue means progress. When we stay silent, we perpetuate ignorance. Bringing issues into a public forum incites change—even if it means conflagration in the short term.

I’ve written about interpersonal tension on this site before, specifically in my posts about misunderstandings and my post about radio’s evidence of inequality.

And I hope the strife of today proves an inflection point into a better future.

None of us grow without struggle and discomfort. People do not like change. Groups grow more dysfunctional during change before they emerge improved.

Yet real change happens incrementally. Today’s troubles won’t make tomorrow perfect. We have very, very far to go. As Pew Research Center found in the summer of 2013, race equality will prove a work in progress for a long time.

Further, cascading disparities in racial socioeconomics, education, demographics, health care, and more have grown endemic—so much so that they’ve become culture and subculture. These divisions won’t erase quickly or easily.

Keep striving, my friends. We have work to do.

And on the broader question, about tension in the world increasing or decreasing, I’ve written most pointedly on the topic in my post about human nature and intolerance. I still stand by that article’s points.

Significant progress on race relations won’t make for a world without tension. Peace on earth has never existed—and likely never will. (As much as I love the notion.)

What do you think?

Have we grown closer to or further from racial equality?

P.S.—Want to see how my blog friends answered Will’s question?

Thursday
Jan012015

Shrugging off 2014 and Staring Down 2015

New Year's Day should always include the bright, optimistic green of matcha. January 1, 2015.

Like some sharks, humans must keep moving to survive.

A date marking the start to a new year—an arbitrary designation—has only the significance we give it. Though I recognize that one day looks much like any other and agree that no one should wait for any given date to start or stop anything, we all need prompts.

Since I started truly setting and tracking my goals a few years back, the end of the year has served as my prompt.

Reviewing 2014

I didn’t come anywhere close to achieving my goals in 2014.

However, a year-end review showed more progress than I’d noticed, even if it did highlight a few spectacular failures and starting-point mistaken notions.

Though I slaved away professionally in 2014, I didn’t make my professional goals. (Far from it.) And because I worked ridiculously hard all year, I failed at hitting my spiritual targets. (I define “spiritual” as mental wellbeing and happiness.) As I’d weighted my professional and spiritual life facets most highly for the year, much of my frustration with 2014 came from my failures to make the progress I’d wanted my most critical areas.

Silver linings:

I hit my health goals out of the park, doing better than I’d have expected on all targets, even the hardest ones. (In a recent yoga class, I mused that I may have hit better health in 2014 than I managed throughout the last two decades.)

Further, I met most of my financial, family, and educational targets—although I can’t give myself much of a back-slap there, as I hadn’t cast any of those facets as stretch areas.

And I met my social goals, yet I see in hindsight that I didn’t set my targets well in this area. With my professional life running rampant over every other aspect of my existence in 2014, even meeting my meagre social goals left me feeling that I didn’t spend nearly the time I would have liked with the people who matter to me most.

I See You, 2015

My professional goals still get top billing in 2015, as a few epiphanies over the past year have begun to blossom. I feel solid enthusiasm about what I have underway, though I’ve stayed realistic about the challenges and possible obstacles.

No false confidence here.

The dissolution of toxic professional stress will make achieving the goals I’ve set in other facets easier as well. (How could it not?) I’ll reenter the world of the living. I’ll have more flexible and free time. I’ll see a little more of the world—and even my own little corner of it. (Yes, beyond the office.)

I’ll read more. I’ll actually get some of these nagging writing goals tackled, goshdarnit.

My poor house, which needs some love and attention, will get it. I’ll keep at the health and financial improvements. And I’ll serve as a much, much better friend and family member.

And I’ll get back to this blog, from which I took a much needed break at the end of the year. I had to cry uncle somewhere.

Will I write as many posts? Maybe at times. Will the nature of the content evolve? Probably.

Yet everything moves, evolves. As it should. People and things that stop evolving stop growing. And when they stop growing, they stop fully realizing the possibilities of their existence.

Goal setting pushes growth.

What do you see on your 2015 horizon?