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Monday, January 1, 2018

Harley King — Best Books 2017

In 2017 I read 60 books, 12 less then 2016, but the second highest number since I have been recording the books I read on Goodreads.com.  Seventy-three percent of the books were fiction, 25% were non-fiction and 2% were poetry. Of the novels, 6 were fantasy, 5 were science fiction, 5 were historical, 7 were young adult and 14 were mysteries. Of the non-fiction books, 5 were biographies and memoirs. Eighty percent of the books I read were e-books, 15% were physical books and 5% were audio books.

Here are the 12 best books that I read in 2017.

12.  Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  
The Red Tent
I have been wanting to read this book for years and I was not disappointed. This is the retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob from the point of view of his daughter, Dinah. The most shocking part of the book was the massacre perpetrated by two of Jacob's sons. I checked the Bible and found it to be true and it confirmed my belief that the Old Testament is very violent. As a child I embraced the love of Jesus found in the New Testament, but I still have a difficult time understanding the angry, jealous God found in the Old Testament. The latter part of the book where Dinah is living in Egypt was less satisfying for me. I would recommend this book to everyone including both men and women.

11.  Peony, A Novel of China by Pearl Buck
Peony: A Novel of China
Pearl Buck tells a fascinating story in Peony about the immigration of Jews to China and how they assimilated into the Chinese culture. Her story begins as the assimilation is almost complete with only a few people still dreaming of returning to their homeland. The story is set in Kaifeng, China in the early 1800's. While the characters in the novel are fictional, the synagogue and many of the events did occur.

Published in 1948, Peony still has a powerful message for us today as we continue to struggle with immigration. Hunted, persecuted and murdered in much of the world, the Jews in China were welcomed and encouraged to intermarry with the Chinese. Time and intermarriage ultimately lead to assimilation.

Brown Girl Dreaming
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the emotional impact of immigration and assimilation.

10.  Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This was a great book of poetry. Jacqueline Woodson tells her life story through short poems. I would highly recommend it to adults and young adults.  Woodson shares what it meant to her growing up black in America.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes
9.  The Girl With the Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson

The Girl with Ghost Eyes is a fast, fascinating read. Set in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1898, the novel tells the story of Li-Lin, who can see the spirit world. After the death of her husband, she is pulled into adventure where ultimately she is the only one who can save Chinatown and San Francisco from a spirit monster. It is a tribute to Boroson's skill as a writer, that the reader is pulled into the fantasy world that he creates and and is able to accept the outlandish world without question.

8.  Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting By 7sCounting by 7s is a young adult book my 9-year-old daughter and I read together. The novelist tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whose parents are killed in a car crash in the first chapter. As the story unfolds we follow the life of Willow Chance as she learns to cope with death and grief. This is a powerful novel that will touch the heart. I recommend that parents read it with their children so they can have important discussions. I also believe that adults can benefit from reading the novel.

7.  The Thing About Jelly Fish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing About JellyfishThis is a fantastic young adult novel that should be read by adults. I read it with my nine-year-old daughter. The story is very emotional because it deals with the death of a friend from drowning and tells how Suzy Swanson, a seventh grader, copes with her grief. The story also revolves around how friends change and grow apart.

Ali Benjamin, a science writer, fills the book with information about jellyfish that educates without being boring or preachy.  I highly recommend this book to adults, teenagers and 9 - 12 year olds. I also recommend that you read and discuss the book with your son or 

6.  The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

The Kitchen God's WifeAnother excellent novel by Amy Tan. She tells the story of a woman, born in China before World War II, and who escapes to America before the communists take over. She tells the story of a woman whose mother abandons her and her father at a young age. She is sent to be raised in her uncle's house because her father does not want her in his house as a reminder of the woman who left him.

The girl's marriage to a young man is arranged by her uncle and approved by her father. The man is both physically and emotionally abusive to her. She is forced to have sex with him whenever he wants. He even forces her to have sex at gunpoint. A pilot in the war against Japan, the young man chases women and even brings them into their house. He forces his wife to watch. The young woman gives birth to several children who are either born dead or die young.

After the war ends, the young woman is imprisoned because she attempts to abandon her husband. When she is released, she escapes to American where she marries a man who is much kinder than her ex-husband.

A few days after I read the book, I listened to an interview with Amy Tan who was promoting her new memoir. I was amazed at how closely the woman in the novel resembled Tan's mother. I highly recommend this book to lovers of novels.

5.  Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKEA fantastic book about the early days of Nike. Phil Knight started Blue Ribbon in 1962 as a partnership between his college track and field coach and himself. Both invested $500. Knight had a contract with a Japanese shoe manufacturer to sell their shoes in the United States. With an MBA from Stanford, Knight could easily have worked in any large company but his love was running shoes. Shoe Dog is the name given to anyone who loves shoes.

With self-deprecating humor, Knight tells the struggles and the successes of the first 18 years of Nike. He talks about how he almost lost the contract to sell the Japanese shoes and how that same company attempted to buy his company. He tells of the cash flow pro
blems that he faced every year and how his bank reached a point in the relationship where they refused to loan him anymore money even when he had millions of dollars in sales. He shares how lousy of a manager of people he was as well of the stories of how the first employees were hired. These employees built the company with him and ultimately became millionaires.

The book ends when Knight takes Nike public in 1980. He closes the book with one final very personal chapter where he covers the remaining 25+ years. Particularly touching is the story of the death of his oldest son and how he failed him as a father.

This book is a must read for all business people as well as entrepreneurs, runners and anyone who has bought Nike shoes. Knight shares the personnel sacrifice it takes to build a very successful company.

4. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull

If you are looking for a great book on business and leadership, then this is the book you should buy and read. Ed Catmull tells the story of the founding of Pixar and its rise to prominence in the world of animation. But the book is also much more. Catmull is a leader who studies and analyzes what it takes to lead other people. He shares the lessons he
 learned. Catmull, as you might imagine, is also a great storyteller, so you won't become bored reading this book. He entices you to keep reading through the stories he tells. This book will be in my top ten books read in 2017.
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Here are a few quotes from the book:

"What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover our problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve." Unfortunately, many managers hide problems from their boss as well as themselves. A leader by definition should be a problem-solver.

"We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them." What Catmull recognizes is that many companies unintentionally inhibit their people. Systems and culture often get in the way of creativity. A leader's job is to help clear the roadblocks.

While Pixar was started by George Lucas, the company was owned by Steve Jobs during its early success years. Catmull provides insight into Steve Jobs throughout the book and closes it with a special tribute to Steve. Catmull thinks that Pixar helped Jobs to grow as a leader and manager. He sees Jobs as kinder and gentler then he is often portrayed.

Catmull writes: "Pixar could not have survived without Steve, but more than once in those years, I wasn't sure if we'd survive with him. Steve could be brilliant and inspirational, capable of diving deeply and intelligently into any problem we faced. But he could also be impossible: dismissive, condescending, threatening, even bullying. Perhaps of most concern, from a management standpoint, was the fact that he exhibited so little empathy."

Catmull talks about learning to manage Jobs and to be persistent. He writes: "When we disagreed, I would state my case, but since Steve could think faster than I could, he would often shoot down my arguments. So I'd wait a week, marshal my thoughts, and then come back and explain it again. He might dismiss my points again, but I would keep coming back until one of three things happened: (1) He would say 'Oh, okay, I get it' and give me what I needed; (2) I'd see he was right and stop lobbying; or (3) our debate would be inconclusive, in which case I'd just go ahead and do what I had proposed in the first place."

Catmull also shares his insights into creative teams. He writes: "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better." He goes on to say: "Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right....It is easy to say you want talented people, and you do, but the way those people interact with one another is the real key. Even the smartest people can form an ineffective team if they are mismatched."

Catmull also spends time discussing trust and telling the truth to each other. He writes: "Telling the truth is difficult, but inside a creative company, it is the only way to ensure excellence....Believe me, you don't want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or matters of policy are being hashed out."

Catmull talks about the importance of making mistakes and learning how to recover. He writes: "Management's job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover."

Creativity, Inc is filled with leadership insights from a leader who has spent his career in the front lines of leadership. Every manager and leader should read and study this book for ideas that will improve their skill at leading teams and organizations. If you read only one book on leadership in the next five years, read Creativity, Inc.

3.  See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng
See You in the Cosmos
In his recordings, Alex shares his trip to New Mexico to attend a rocket festival. He takes a long a rocket he built, hoping to launch it into space with the recordings. In route to the festival, Alex meets Zed and Steve, who help him and drive him first to Las Vegas to help him find his father and then on to Los Angeles to meet his brother. In Vegas, Alex discovers a half-sister, Terra, who joins him on his adventure. When they reach Los Angeles, they discover that Alex's older brother, Ronnie, is in Detroit, so Terra drives Alex back to Colorado, where they discover his mother is missing. Alex has an accident climbing to the roof of his house and winds up in the hospital which triggers an investigation by child services into Alex's home life.

This is an emotional novel that can and will bring tears to the eyes. I read the novel with my 9 year old daughter who was reading it for her book club. Even though it is billed as a novel for young adults, I know adults will enjoy it too. I highly recommend that parents read and discuss it with their children. The book highlights some difficult and emotional issues around mental illness.

Last Night in Twisted River
2.  Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving

Please Look After MomJohn Irving is one of my favorite novelists and Last Night in Twisted River has become one of my favorite novels. Irving is an amazing writer and is a master of what I call circular writing. He takes a theme and explores it through multiple lenses. The story circles around and revisits aspects of the story again and again. Since the main character becomes a writer, the reader is given insight into Irving's writing process. I highly recommend this book to all readers of novels.

1. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Set in Korea, this novel tells the story of the disappearance of the mother of the family and is told from the point of view of the older daughter, oldest son, the husband and the mother herself. The story provides insight into families and how we often hurt and ignore each other. In the beginning, I was somewhat turned off by the older daughter talking in the second person. Once I was beyond this, I found the story fascinating and highly recommend this novel.