Why most memorable?
Because “best” and “top” in my opinion aren’t really helpful when it comes to book recommendations. Some books make an impact. Some don’t. These did.
As you’ll see, many of these books were not published this year. A few were holdovers from last year that I never got to and a few more were books that I’ve always wanted to read that I finally made time for.
I started several more books than you’ll see here but I didn’t finish them. Life’s too short to spend time with a crappy book. I also finished other books but for one reason or another they were forgettable. These books, as the title reads, are memorable. Here we go:
Sting-Ray Afternoons – Steve Rushin
I jokingly refer to Steve Rushin as Wordsmith Von Wordsmithson. He is, I believe, the cleverest crafter of sentences we have. Puns. Double-entendres. Name games. Alliteration.They’re all go-to weapons in his author arsenal. The man makes seemingly impossible linguistic leaps with startling regularity. Add that to the joy you can tell he gets from making those leaps and you have one of the most fun-to-read authors around.
Stingray Afternoons is a memoir about his childhood growing up in Minnesota and if you had a childhood that involved baseball cards and bikes and too much TV and brothers and neighborhood friends and sports teams and pop culture and quirky local strangers and unique family members and a town you could explore then you will enjoy this book beyond measure. If that’s all foreign to you and you don’t even like sports, then I can honestly say if you enjoy excellent storytelling and top-notch wordplay and comic timing, then you’ll like this book too.
There’s a Wocket in My Pocket – Dr. Seuss
By my count, I read this book with my son 7,594 times this year. And it never got old. You probably read this book when you were a kid and forgot about it. No, it’s nothing like any of the other books on this list and I wrestled with putting it on here but in the end, I couldn’t leave it off. It’s a very short book and it’s basically about a kid coming to terms with all the goofy things in his house. There are FINDOWS in WINDOWS and BOFAS on SOFAS and a ZOWER in the SHOWER and it’s all a good time. How better to teach a kid that reading and words and writing are fun than by making up goofy words and crazy creatures and rhyming them with real boring household items? This book has always been one of my favorites and if you haven’t opened it in a while, I challenge you to read it without a smile on your face. It’ll take about 5 minutes and it’s worth it.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President – Candice Millard
I discovered Candice last year when I read her book River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s post-presidency exploration of an uncharted Amazon River (you can buy it here) and she soared to the top of my list of favorite writers. Then I read Destiny of the Republic about James Garfield, his road to the presidency, his assassination, the complete and total bungling of his health care and his ultimate death. Although it catalogues real people and real events, it reads like a well-paced thriller and is an incredible portrait of America, politics and physicians around the time of President Garfield. Also, Millard is a tremendous writer who knows how to create an entire character portrait in just a few sentences, introduce them into the plot and then let them unfold perfectly into the narrative. I learned more about the medicine, technology and life in American in the 1880s than I could have ever imagined. It’s the perfect book to read over a few flights while travelling.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller – Ron Chernow
This book is the size of a cinderblock. I think it weighs 400 pounds. Opening to the first page is intimidating…like taking your first step to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro… But I did manage to read this book and it is really, really, really good. (I figure if a book is about 800 pages one ‘really’ isn’t good enough). I knew very little about Rockefeller other than what I remembered from 8th grade US History class – which was nothing beyond the fact that he was crazy wealthy.
What did I learn in this book as an adult? Everything I would ever want to know about Rockefeller; but also about early capitalism and monopolies and economics and self-talk and persistence and systems over goals and partnerships and ruthlessness and greed and charity and family and legacy and on and on. There is a vivid section of this book featuring a young Rockefeller, unable to get a job, going door-to-door dressed in a suit, day after day, applying for work. Each day he fails. The next day he tries again. Over and over. His faith in himself never waivers. He believes he’s destined for something and he keeps at it until someone hires him. Ten years later he’s the most powerful man in town. Ten years after that he’s arguably the most powerful man in America. Ten more years and he’s the richest man in the world. Read it.
Whether you’re a writer or an entrepreneur or you simply exist in the world and work somewhere where they sell things, this book should be a must-read for everyone. I’ve been a fan of Ryan Holiday’s work for a few years and while some of his books deal with lifestyle and mindset, this book covers the lifecycle of creating and marketing pretty much anything you want to create or market. It’s a book about generating quality content from ideas you not only believe in, but have researched and planned for. It’s also largely about embracing the long-game to get that product into people’s hands. There are too many real-world examples to count, from James Bond author Ian Fleming to James Altucher to Holiday’s own projects. Every few pages there is an actionable item that you can take to properly plan, present and position whatever it is you’re trying to get to a consumer. As an author, it’s invaluable.
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton – Jeff Pearlman
Sweetness is an excellent biography by an excellent biographer, Jeff Pearlman. Last year I read his book, Gunslinger about Brett Favre and I bought this book almost immediately after, though I didn’t read it for almost a year. Before reading this, I knew two things about Walter Payton: I wore his KangaRoos shoes and he was always considered one of the top two or three running backs of all time.
Barely a quarter of the way through, Pearlman had already fleshed out a young man you could not help but root for. From Payton’s magnetic personality that in its own way helped heal a recently desegregated community to his Michael Jackson-level dance moves to his seemingly super-human athleticism; you just find yourself drawn to him. I had no idea his older brother was a great football player or why he wasn’t looked at by bigger colleges or even about his early miserable/groundbreaking time with the Bears franchise. The list of what I didn’t know could stretch the length of this book, frankly, which is well worth a read. Individual scenes will stand out as if they’re from a movie and by the book’s conclusion, you’ll have felt like you actually got to know one of the NFL’s greatest players as if he were an old pal – major flaws and all.
Stranger in the Woods: The Last True Hermit – Michael Finkel
Full disclosure, this book was written by a fellow Finkel (Michael) so I was partial to liking it. However, we are not related and I read the book before I actually reached out to Michael for the annual Finkel de Mayo celebration. If you’re interested in what that outstanding holiday is, read it HERE. If you’re interested in a flat out bonkers, true story about a twenty-year-old young man who one day walked into the woods in Maine and lived alone, disconnected from society for almost three decades, then by all means, read this book. The unique nature of the subject alone is compelling as a story of survival and isolation, but as you learn about Christopher Knight and his mindset and his fascinating homemade campsite and his justification of stealing for food you somehow find yourself longing for a taste (very brief, to be sure) of what it must be like to be free from the ties of modern society. The book has also been appearing on Top Ten lists of 2017 all over the place, so you will no doubt have someone else tell you to read it soon, so you might as well buy it now and beat to the punch. I’m also confident it will be a movie at some point so get on board now.
The guys who used to draw Superman comics wore blazers and button-up shirts and ties and worked in a bland office that looked like it was an accounting firm. This blew my mind. Also, DC Comics was so frazzled when Marvel started having success that they began to essentially copy Stan Lee’s crew… But then Lee’s crew got wind of it and started trolling DC. And that’s just stuff you learn in the very early chapters. For about 800 reasons this was one of my favorite books of the year and if you’re a fan of comic books and corporate battles and super heroes, then I’d say this is as close to a must-read as you can get. Between the difference in attitude, the style of characters, the long-term view of their stable of heroes and about a dozen other things and “almosts” (like James Cameron’s early interest in Spider-Man), Slugfest reads like a round-by-round boxing fight between the comic world’s two biggest players. As we all know, the pay-per-views happen every time one of the brands releases a new film and knockout blows are determined at the box office.
Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia – A True Story by FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone
Fuggettahbout it. I loved the movie based on this book and I put it on my list to read a long, long time ago but it always seemed to stay on the back burner. Then, this summer we rented a beach house that had a few well-stocked shelves of books for guests and incredibly Donnie Brasco was one of them. I read it in two days. The book is more like Wolf of Wall Street than the soft ‘R’ Donnie Brasco we saw in the theater and I actually loved the Donnie Brasco we saw in the theater. Now that I’ve enjoyed both, I think the movie was tame and a little slow compared to the book. You get to know a lot more of the inner turmoil that Donnie (Joe) faced on a day-to-day basis in the book and the mafia players are far more fleshed out, though the differences between Sonny Black and Sonny Red and all the other Sonnys can still be confusing. You also get a better feel for where the mafia was as a whole at that point and a better understanding of what it took to infiltrate the culture. Definitely worth a read whether you’ve seen the film or not.
Just Ballin’: The Chaotic Rise of the New York Knicks – Mike Wise & Frank Isola
I originally bought this book as research for the biography of Charlie Ward that I was writing. I had planned to skim it and find the parts that pertained to Charlie and some of the Knicks moments that he was involved in and move on. That lasted about 5 pages. The book is the story of one of the most unlikely and compelling NBA seasons for an NBA team of all time. Of all the major sports, teams are least likely to come out of nowhere to contend for a championship in the NBA but that’s essentially what the ’99 Knicks did. They played a majority of the strike-shortened season thinking that their coach, Jeff Van Gundy, was going to be fired and that they had no chance of making the playoffs. The old stars who made the NBA Finals a few years before were largely gone, replaced with newcomers Latrell Sprewell and Alan Houston to support an aging Patrick Ewing. Then the Knicks squeaked into the playoffs as an 8th seed. Then they won in the first round. And the Eastern Conference Semis. And the Eastern Conference Finals… Then the Finals… It’s a riveting story told by two sportswriters who were there every step of the way. A very cool read for even the casual NBA fan.
Grant – Ron Chernow
I honestly have no idea what drove me to tackle two Ron Chernow books in one year. I didn’t plan on it, to be sure. Each one is the size of a car battery -but I have always been fascinated by Ulysses S. Grant and his wildly unlikely rise to leading the Union forces to victory in the Civil War. Oh, and of course his becoming president. For those who don’t know, in about four years, Grant went from being poor, anonymous, jobless and completely out of the army to the most powerful, popular man in the United States. It’s insane. About fifty times in the first quarter of the book things could have gone a different way and we would have never, ever heard of Grant. Despite initial success in the army, he spent much of his first stint in the military isolated, fighting alcoholism and alone. Then, when he was thinking of joining the Union cause, he had to contend with his awful slave-owning in-laws and a hierarchy that wanted nothing to do with his rejoining the military. Once he re-entered the military and got a command, the rest, as they say, is truly history. He became the most successful general in the world in less than four years, doing more to end the civil war and fight for the rights of the freed slaves than any man in his time. An astonishing achievement that was only the first of many in this fascinating life.
BAOT, as Serrano has called this book, is a tornado of advanced basketball metrics, grade school hoops arguments turned into columns, adult hoops arguments turned into graphics and never-thought-of hoops arguments drawn into dope cartoons with labels and explanations and even Venn diagrams. It’s also a couple hundred thousand words of Serrano’s best feature writing turned into chapters that basketball fans can’t resist bouncing between.
BAOT isn’t something you sit down and read cover to cover. But it’s also not a coffee table book. It’s kind of in the middle. Personally, I left the book in my car and I’d read a chapter or so at lunch for the first month I had it and then eventually I finished it. I don’t remember the exact order I read it in, but my favorite chapters were:
Who’s Your Frankenplayer Made Out Of
If You Could Dunk on Any One Person, Who Would it Be
What if Nick Anderson Made One of Those Free Throws
The “What’s the Most Important NBA Championship” Sections
Was Kobe Bryant a Dork?
Who Had the Better Big Name Game Under Duress?
What Year was Michael Jordan the Best Version of Michael Jordan?
And there are about twenty other chapters. If you’re a basketball fan or a Shea fan, first, shoot your shot, and second, buy this book.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson
The explanation for how the term quark came to be used in science is almost worth the price of admission for this book alone. If you’re at all curious about the cosmos and if you’ve ever wondered about some of the basic laws of our universe and how they’re applied and where they came from and why they’re important, this book is perfect. It’s also short, so you don’t ever feel like you’re knee deep in a black hole and you need a wormhole made of dark matter or anti-matter to escape. Oh, you don’t know what I just said? Maybe you should read the book and find out.
I wrote an extended review of this book HERE earlier in the year. Easily one of my top twenty biographies of all time, joining Leavy’s other masterpiece, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. I’ve long-thought Leavy was in rarified air as a writer and biographer and The Last Boy puts her on my Mount Rushmore. Read the longer review I wrote and then buy the book. I have no doubt you’ll agree.
Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Last Great Character – Marty Appel
It just so happened that almost right after I read The Last Boy, Marty Appel’s biography on Casey Stengel came out and it seemed like the perfect pair of books to read together. Stengel was, after all, tasked with managing Mantle for much of his career and for most people he’s famous largely because he coached Mickey and Roger Maris and Yogi and Whitey and because he won a boat load of World Series titles with the Yankees. I had no idea about his playing career, his oil investments, his sometimes strong, sometimes struggling, always entertaining career as a manager before he got the Yankees job… And I wasn’t aware of how close Casey was to hanging it all up just before the Yankees job was offered to him. Stengel was a baseball lifer and would have retired a semi well-known (for his time), but historically forgettable baseball personality had fate not intervened and brought him to New York for his ludicrously successful Yankees years and his legend-building time with the Mets.
Bonus Book One:
When the Game Was Ours – Jackie MacMullan
You didn’t have to grow up reading the Boston Globe to love Jackie Mac. She has long-been one of my favorite sportswriters and columnists but yeah, I’m a Boston homer so she’s near and dear to my heart. This book came out almost ten years ago and I’ve had it on my bookshelf for most of that time. I read it when I first got it but with Magic’s re-involvment with the Lakers I picked it up again and read the whole thing. Again. You just can’t beat Magic and Bird pulling back the curtain and opening up on their lives, their rivalry and the game they both love. And you can feel Jackie Mac’s presence throughout, bringing the best out of both icons. It’s awesome and probably a must read for younger NBA fans to truly understand the foundation of the modern NBA they’re watching today.
Bonus Book Two:
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Condo
I wrote about this book last year and I’m putting it on here again because I implemented about 40% of the ideas in this book in 2017 and it was awesome. I decided to reread it and aim for the next 40% of ideas in 2018 to declutter once again and as I flipped through the pages for a second time, I realized what drew me to the book in the first place: simplification. You can read my longer review HERE, but suffice to say this book was so memorable and impactful it made this list two years in a row.
Bonus Book Three:
Lessons From Legends: 12 Hall of Fame Coaches on Leadership, Life and Leaving a Legacy – Scott Bedgood
FULL DISCLOSURE: I posted about this book earlier in the year because I was proud to have been involved with it. I’m including it because I find myself bringing up examples and metaphors and lessons from one of the twelve hall of fame football coaches in the book all the time and you might do the same, so I absolutely recommend this book to college football fans, coaches of any sports, parents and kids who love sports. You get insight from Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer and Phil Fulmer and Tom Osborne and Barry Alvarez and so many college legends that you’ll soon be passing off their advice as your own – just like me.
If you’ve made it this far and you’ve enjoyed these recommendations, then allow me to recommend a few of my own books briefly:
My new biography on Charlie Ward just came out. It was endorsed by Tony Dungy and Jeff Van Gundy and it’s been a best seller on Amazon in both basketball and football categories. You can read more about it HERE or buy it here:
Earlier in the year I wrote an autobiography with Pittsburgh Steelers legend “Mean” Joe Greene. Franco Harris wrote the foreword. If you love football or love a Steelers fan or are a Steelers fan, this book is for you:
And if you love everything you’ve read I’ve got some free e-books for you.