This blog post is devoted to sharing ten of my most favorite books I read in 2019. You’ll see that I like to read a variety of books. If you’re interested in learning more about a particular book, click on the book title and the link will take you to its Amazon page.
#10 – Dark Matter: A Novel by Blake Crouch, Genre: Science Fiction
I rarely read science fiction. And my wife, Carol, reads even less than I do. So when she recommended this book, I was more than a bit surprised. It is written such that the science fiction aspect of the book seems reasonably plausible. So I wasn’t having a recurring conversation with myself about “that would never happen.” Instead I had several conversations with my wife about plot twists that kept the story flowing and unpredictable right to the very last page of the book. Bottomline: If you want to read a real page turner this is the book for you.
#9 – Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman, Genre: Biography
Henry Fonda and James Stewart are two of my favorite actors of all time, and probably yours too. Their close friendship started when they met for the first time in a small theater group in New York.
Hank and Jim were an interesting study in contrast. Hank was a liberal Democrat who was married five times with strained relationships with his children. Jim, on the other hand, was a staunch Republican married to his wife, Gloria, for 45 years with close, affectionate family ties with his four children. And yet the relationship between the two iconic actors was strong and enduring to the end.
The book takes you down memory lane discussing the movies and the stories behind the movies that both are known for. The persona that Jimmy Stewart had on screen was very similar to who he was as a person. In contrast, Henry Fonda in real life was cold and very aloof who had very few real friends.
I had known that Jimmy Stewart was a WWII bomber pilot but this book went into greater detail about this part of his life. The recounting of his military service may have been the most interesting part of the book. A fun read.
#8 – The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King, Genre: Sherlock Holmes
Almost 40 years ago, I made a serious attempt to read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t believe I read them all, but I certainly read many of them. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a continuation of the Sherlock Holmes genre.
In the first chapter of the book, Holmes has retired to the countryside to study the life of bees when Mary Russell, a young teenager literally stumbles onto him. This begins the relationship between the quirky, brilliant Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell who has an equally brilliant mind. Holmes realizing Ms. Russell’s many exceptional qualities befriends the recently orphaned young woman and becomes her mentor.
The author, Laurie King, continues the writing style of Arthur Conan Doyle’s. The twists in the plot line and ability to deduce meaning from seemingly insignificant clues is classic Sherlock Holmes at its very best. But I believe she improves upon Conan Doyle’s writing style by adding a secondary subplot between Holmes and Russell. It almost reads like a love story. The emotion between the two main characters is more than a father’s affection for his daughter but less than the attraction between two lovers. It’s something in between. They slowly over time develop a deep love and concern for the other. In my opinion it is an improvement over the original author’s writing style as it shows a more nuanced side of Sherlock Holmes. I enjoyed this book immensely.
#7 – A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin, Genre: History of Space Flight
The book is based on in depth interviews with twenty-three of the twenty-four astronauts that walked the surface of the moon plus many others who worked tirelessly to make the Apollo space program a success. I expected that this topic would be rather dry and predictable since I knew the history of the space race. But the author makes the story come alive by delving into the personalities of the main characters that we have come to know only superficially.
In addition, there were many critical decisions that were made during the Apollo program that were kept from the American public. We didn’t realize how truly dangerous it was for the astronauts to fly into space. We thought is was all fairly routine. This book reveals that it was not.
An example was the first landing on the moon. The public was led to believe the lunar module landed without incident. Not true. Neil Armstrong realized that the lunar module was headed for a debris field of boulders that would have caused a crash landing. At the last moment he took manual control of the lunar module. He landed the craft several miles from the proposed landing site with only 20 seconds remaining before the mission was to have been aborted. A bit of history that most of us are totally unaware of.
If you want to read just one book on the history of the Apollo space program, this is the book.
#6 – Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Genre: US Presidents
The author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, reveals the leadership skills of four presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. My initial reaction to including Lyndon Johnson to this list was skepticism but by the time I finished the book I realized that I had underestimated President Johnson’s leadership skills.
It is interesting to discover that all four presidents had very significant setbacks that disrupted their lives and could have ended their public ambitions before they got started. All four persevered through these very personal traumas that most people would have given up on life.
Goodwin acknowledges that there are no common patterns among the four leaders. They have significantly different backgrounds, abilities, and temperaments and yet all tackled the moral crises of their times.
This is the second book that I have read by this author and I look forward to reading her other books. She is a gifted writer with the ability to draw out the personalities of each of her subjects. It was a surprisingly easy read. Enjoyed it a lot.
#5 – Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King, Genre: Civil Rights
Here is a summary of the book on its Amazon book page:
“Arguably the most important American lawyer of the twentieth century, Thurgood Marshall was on the verge of bringing the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court when he became embroiled in a case that threatened to change the course of the civil rights movement and cost him his life.
In 1949, Florida’s orange industry was booming, and citrus barons got rich on the backs of cheap Jim Crow labor with the help of Sheriff Willis V. McCall, who ruled Lake County with murderous resolve. When a white seventeen-year-old girl cried rape, McCall pursued four young blacks who dared envision a future for themselves beyond the groves. The Ku Klux Klan joined the hunt, hell-bent on lynching the men who came to be known as “the Groveland Boys.”
Associates thought it was suicidal for Marshall to wade into the “Florida Terror,” but the young lawyer would not shrink from the fight despite continuous death threats against him.
Drawing on a wealth of never-before-published material, including the FBI’s unredacted Groveland case files, as well as unprecedented access to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund files, Gilbert King shines new light on this remarkable civil rights crusader.”
The story of the Groveland boys opened my eyes like no other book I’ve read to the extent of racism in the deep South during the 1950s.
#4 –The Compelling Communicator: Mastering the Art and Science of Exceptional Presentation Design by Tim Pollard, Genre: Communication Skills
I read a lot of self-help and business books. These types of books are among my favorite to read. This year was no different, with one notable exception: the books I read in these two genre’s, for whatever reason, were not up to my standard. That is, not until I read The Compelling Communicator. It is the only book in these two book categories to make my list of top ten books for 2019.
As I’m receiving more requests to speak (I gave about 50 radio or podcast interviews this year promoting my book) I’ve realized I need to up my game when it comes to making presentations. I’ve read some really well written books on public speaking but this book is the best one in this category. Why? Because it not only tells you how to give a memorable and compelling presentation, it also tells you why the steps to good communicating work. It focuses on the science behind what makes a good presentation.
The author also identifies the mistakes most speakers make that ensures their presentations will be quickly forgotten. And if the goal of a presentation is to get the audience to do something, then a quickly forgotten presentation fails miserably at accomplishing its primary purpose. Read this book if you want to improve your presentation skills.
#3 – First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas, Genre: Biography
In the past two years I’ve read four biographies on U.S. Supreme Court Justices: Thurgood Marshall (see summary above), Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor. The O’Connor biography was by far the best written of the four.
What follows are a couple of paragraphs from the book’s Amazon page:
“She was born in 1930 in El Paso and grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. At a time when women were expected to be homemakers, she set her sights on Stanford University. When she graduated near the top of her law school class in 1952, no firm would even interview her. But Sandra Day O’Connor’s story is that of a woman who repeatedly shattered glass ceilings—doing so with a blend of grace, wisdom, humor, understatement, and cowgirl toughness.
She became the first ever female majority leader of a state senate. As a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, she stood up to corrupt lawyers and humanized the law. When she arrived at the United States Supreme Court, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, she began a quarter-century tenure on the Court, hearing cases that ultimately shaped American law. Diagnosed with cancer at fifty-eight, and caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s, O’Connor endured every difficulty with grit and poise.”
#2 – A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles, Genre: Political Fiction
This was by far the best novel I read this year. The story opens in 1922 during the Bolshevik Revolution in Moscow, Russia. The book’s Amazon page summarizes the story well: “Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors.”
The humor, the plot lines, the cast of characters and the eventual triumph of good over evil makes this book one for the ages. A Gentleman in Moscow will be read a hundred years from now.
#1 – Grant by Ron Chernow, Genre: Biography
Over the years I have read several excellent books on the Civil War and biographies on Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. I’ve also read the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant. In each of these books I’ve come away with a better understanding of U.S. Grant. But none of the books I’ve read on Grant can compare to Ron Chernow’s deep look into the man who led the Union armies to victory in the Civil War and his subsequent two terms as President of the United States.
This book is truly outstanding and is deserving of eclipsing his other better known biography on Alexander Hamilton. Chernow does an excellent job fleshing out Grant’s humility and moral character, his intellect and leadership skills. The book also gives numerous examples of his gullibility of trusting, untrustworthy people resulting in many embarrassing episodes in his life. If you’re going to read only one book in 2020 this is it.
These are my favorite books of 2019. What have you read lately that you would recommend?
Doug Marshall is the award winning author of Mastering the Art of Commercial Real Estate Investing. Check it out on Amazon.