Books are like relationships. Sometimes you know instantly that this is “the one”. Sometimes you start out cold and yet somehow it grows on you. A book can thrill you or haunt you or hurt you or surprise you or annoy the heck out of you. If you’re lucky, a few of them will feel like gifts.
I struggled to rank the top ten reads this year. I mean, it’s hard to say you like one best friend more than another, right? The main criteria for choosing the best of the best is a lot like friendship, though: these are the books that brought me joy to read. The books I never wanted to end. The books I want to share with others and keep forever on the shelf.
Here are five of my top ten reads of the year:
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
Audiobook narrated by Norbert Leo Butz; 13 hours 21 minutes, 400 pages
File under: This one sneaker-ed up on me!
Normally I’m the last to choose a book about business or sports, which is why I am so late to the party with this one. Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir burst on the scene to stellar reviews but I just assumed it wasn’t for me. I’ve never even owned a pair of Nike’s and have taken a dim view of the company’s recent forays into thuggish wokesterism.
But I recently saw a few quotes from Knight in the news and he struck me as a thoughtful guy. And I noticed that his book is narrated by one of my favorite Broadway actors (Norbert Leo Butz absolutely stole the show as Eliza Doolittle’s father in Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival of My Fair Lady).
So I picked it up. And I could not put it down. I could not stop annoying everyone around me with how starry-eyed I was about this book. Knight was a young man with a big dream and despite his skeptical father’s opinion that he was just “jack-assing around” and should settle down to a staid career in accounting, he lived on the edge and, of course, the rest is history. His climb to the top reads more like a thriller than a spreadsheet and I’ve decided not to ding my 5-star review by having learned that ghostwriting was involved (J.R. Moehringer of (yuck!) a more recent and tawdry celebrity memoir that shall not be mentioned here.) Whoever wrote it, Shoe Dog is an inspiring read.
The Lincoln Highway: A Novel by Amor Towles
Kindle, 588 pages
File under: Road trip!
I’m a huge fan of Amor Towles, having reveled in his Rules of Civility and gloried in A Gentleman from Moscow (did you know they’re making it into a movie???!!!). I had reveled and gloried so much that about a quarter of the way into Lincoln Highway I realized I was disappointed in it because what I really wanted was to keep reading about The Count and the apple trees of Nizhny Novgorod.
So I had to get right with this tale of young Emmett Watson, whose hardscrabble Nebraska origins and hard knock life leads him and his younger brother, Billy, on a most remarkable journey along the remarkable Lincoln Highway, which debuted in 1912 and stretched from New York City’s Times Square to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Towles is a brilliant writer. He could make a grocery list read like literature. He sneaks in a pasta recipe and teaches The Odyssey while moving his characters down the road in a 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser. He is also a gentle writer and his plots glow with forbearing kindness. His books are a gift, and this one is no exception.
Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin
Paperback, 368 pages
File under: Peace like a river…
“The more I thought about it, the more obsessed I became with the idea of a swimming journey”, writes Deakin, the English writer and environmentalist whose unconventional life was cut short by a brain tumor in 2006. He leaves behind this quirky testament to “wild swimming“, which has him flinging himself into the sea, creeks, pools, mud holes and rivers from the Scilly Islands at the southeastern tip of England to the River Cam to the Fens of Eastern England and the wilds of Scotland. “There is no anti-depressant quite like sea swimming”, he remarks. “I immerse myself like the fox getting rid of his fleas. I leave my devils on the waves.” I thoroughly enjoyed this read, though I shivered throughout – Deakin considers “mid-sixties Fahrenheit” to be “by no means cold”.
Trinity: A Novel of Ireland by Leon Uris
Audiobook narrated by John Keating; 34 hours 13 minutes, 850 pages
File under: the (bad) luck of the Irish
This is the sweeping-est of sweeping sagas and who cares that the characters are somewhat carelessly constructed amalgams purposed to move the reader forward through the hapless and perpetually tragic history of the Irish people. “In Ireland”, the author declares “there is no future, only the past happening over and over.”
Ireland in 1800 was a country of eight million. Two to three million had no land or jobs. Their land was stolen by the British aristocracy, their souls are preyed upon by a corrupt Catholic church and then, just for good measure, the potato blight comes along and a million souls perish. A common sight was that of dead women and their children lying by the side of the road, the skin around their mouths tinged green from eating grass in their last starving moments.
Another million emigrated to the United States (thank you, brave ancestors!) and those who stayed behind scraped by as tenant farmers on what was rightfully their own land while women flocked to work under harsh and dangerous conditions in the textile factories. All this, of course, gives rise to political resistance and the book’s main character, Conor Larkin, represents a forebear of those who despair of their plight and turn to the violence that eventually becomes the IRA.
This was a long, long read and yet I never wanted it to end. Great story-telling!
Zorrie: A Novel by Laird Hunt
Audiobook read by Holly Palance; 4 hours 34 minutes, 176 pages
File under: Back home in Indiana
Please, please let me reverently press this slim volume into your hands and convince you to lose yourself in every page. Zorrie , a National Book Award finalist, was the most lyrical read of the year for me, a book I wish I could read over and over for the first time. It is exquisitely paced and infused with grace, the concept of gratitude for small things, grief, and the passage of time.
Zorrie was an orphan raised in early 20th century Indiana by her grim-lipped aunt who called the past “nothing but a tinker’s circus of two-bit shadows”. When the aunt dies, Zorrie is left destitute and hits the road, ultimately doing a brief stint in the Ottawa, IL radium factory. Lucky for her it was brief, as other young women, who adorned themselves with the flourescent radium on their nights out on the town, paid with their lives.
Like all of us from Indiana or wherever our origins might be, Zorrie felt the magnetic pull to home, and returned there to a life that unspooled in poetic simplicity. No matter how dull we think our path may seem, there is beauty, and magic, all about if we lift our heads to notice it.
Next week: the tippy-top five reads of the year…
Big fan of the Dog of Shoes. Knight’s story is worth reading for any would-be entrepreneur; better than any pile of business books you can buy.