“I read nothing this year. Nothing,” I thought. Hey, I’m the mother of a toddler trying to get her career back on track. I don’t exactly have an overflowing cornucopia of leisure time. When I do, I almost always choose the oblivion of sleep over waking pursuits. That’s just the Garfield in me.
But looking back, I surprised myself. I somehow squeezed in 10 books this year! This is my reading list for 2015:
Author of the Year: Stefan Zweig
Europeans might be surprised to see Stefan Zweig as my literary discovery of 2015. He was born in the 1880s; his writing, which peaked in the 1920s-1930s, is practically required reading in this part of the world. Well, nobody in Asia reads Zweig in school, so his works have been a revelation to me. It was a trip to Zweig’s hometown of Vienna that piqued my curiosity about him.
Should you wish to discover him as well (which I highly recommend!), here’s my essential Zweig:
Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures (Stefan Zweig) – This short volume was originally published in German as 14 short tales; for some reason, four were lost en route to this English edition. Here, Zweig recounts 10 pivotal events in which the decisive action (or in some cases, inaction) of a single individual could have changed the entire course of human history.
The prose is sparkling and succinct, each word carefully considered and chosen. Zweig transports and provokes: never have I wanted so badly to reach into the past and give someone a good, hard bitchslap as I did after the chapter on Napoleon. Easily the best book I read in 2015.
The World of Yesterday (Stefan Zweig) – Zweig’s definitive work is a must for Europhiles. This autobiography spans his school years in Vienna and life as a writer in Paris, Berlin, and London. Zweig’s description of Belle Epoque Paris alone makes the Paris of today look like a grubby tourist trap in comparison. If you love this continent, you will fall even harder for Zweig’s Europe, which reads like a dream. Then you will weep for the Europe that was lost to the Great Wars. Somebody take me back, please.
Chess (Stefan Zweig) – A tightly written novella about a chess match between two masters who meet on a ship crossing the Atlantic. A one- or two-sitting read, and a good one.
Stories Set in Europe
The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton) – The blurb on the cover of The Miniaturist is spot on: it is indeed haunting, magical, and full of surprises. It’s also a vivid recreation of Amsterdam in its golden years of wealth and exploration. As a resident of Amsterdam I found the story easy and pleasurable to visualize, mostly because the city center still looks as it did hundreds of years ago. Very enjoyable.
The Paris Wife (Paula McLain) – A fictionalized account of the life of Ernest Hemingway—a literary genius, but also a colossal asshole—as told by Hadley Richardson, the first in a string of Hemingway wives. Makes me thankful for my awesome husband; also makes me want to read Hemingway. Thanks to Jason for recommending this!
Wild (Cheryl Strayed) – I hate hiking and I hate Oprah’s Book Club-type books, so I didn’t think I’d like this one. But, surprise surprise! I found Cheryl Strayed’s account of her 1,800-km solo hike of self-discovery… well, unputdownable. It’s a badass, less saccharine version of Eat Pray Love. The movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon is also fairly respectable. Another Jason-recommended hit.
I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, With a Twist (Betty Halbreich) – Looking for something fun and light with a splash of sassy? This autobiography of Betty Halbreich, legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman is just that. Steel butterfly Betty chronicles her transformation from pampered housewife to badass style icon in Mad Men-era New York, leaving a trail of fashion, secrets, and glamour in her wake. Not as fluffy as you’d think.
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (Esther Perel) – I discovered psychotherapist Esther Perel via her fascinating and somewhat controversial TED talk on infidelity. Europe-born and New York-based, Perel’s views on modern relationships and the undercurrents that shape them—intimacy, freedom, desire, sexuality, and commitment—are much more liberal and open-minded than what I’ve grown up with.
Yet I find myself, after both being married and living abroad for eight years, nodding my head more than once while reading her book. Her TED talk is subtitled “a talk for everyone who has ever loved.” Whether you’re in a committed relationship or not, I’d say this book could be described as the same.
Writing and Creativity
Throughout Tala’s first two years of life, work for me was mostly a happy accident: something I was thankful to have but nothing I could actually devote any ambition to. That changed in 2015; this year, I actually wanted to accomplish things.
I don’t read a lot of books related to my profession (I’m most stimulated by creativity in the wild), but these two were excellent resources for me this year.
Creative Personal Branding (Jurgen Salenbacher) – In the age where everyone is a brand, Jurgen Salenbacher provides a way to take inventory of yourself with the aim of defining your personal brand. I’ve seen a lot of personal branding “gurus” out there and found them too cloying, New Agey, or hard sell; Jurgen Salenbacher is none of those things. I found his writing clear, thoughtful, direct and quietly powerful. I also found his process geared towards developing an authentic way of presenting yourself that’s rooted in your true passions and strengths—here, your personal brand is something you live, not just for show.
I bought this to help me kickstart my own professional identity as a freelance copywriter and producer (coming soon!). I ended up spending six months with this book, taking my time to complete the exercises in each chapter. I highly recommend it if you wish to start a new venture, find a new direction, or simply re-envision and reframe yourself in a new way.
Copywriting: Successful Writing for Design, Advertising & Marketing (Mark Shaw) – I don’t buy marketing, advertising, or copywriting books, because I’ve read too many terribly written ones. People tend to gift me with them, which is a risky proposition.
This book, a gift from Marlon, has been one of the very few to hit the mark. The chapter on branding was so well-worded, it made me realize why this is the kind of work I want to do more of. A good resource to come back to again and again.
What books did you read in 2015? And what should be on my list for 2016?