The Books I Read In 2015

published by Bren

Last updated: May 17, 2020

One of my goals this year was to try and read more.

I never read. Before this year I’d read maybe five books since high school. I read a couple last year, but this year the challenge was to make reading a habit.


Because it’s the advice that keeps coming up again and again. As it’s usually described – when you read, you get to transfer knowledge from the brain of a very successful person into yours for a few dollars. In total I got through 11 books, almost one a month. By most people’s standards I still probably didn’t read much at all, but I’ve read more books this year than any other year of my life. And I agree with the big dogs – you learn a lot.

For those of you who want to know exactly what I’m reading, I’ve listed every book I read this year below, with a few notes. I’d also love for you to share your reads of 2015 in the comments, I’m looking to fill up my list for 2016!

The Art Of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

“I think a life of ambition is like existing on a balance beam. As a child, there is no fear, no sense for the danger of falling. The beam feels wide and stable, and natural playfulness allows for creative leaps and fast learning. You can run around doing somersaults and flips, always testing yourself with a love for discovery and new challenges. If you happen to fall off – no problem, you just get back on. But then, as you get older, you become more aware of the risk of injury. You might crack your head or twist your knee. The beam is narrow and you have to stay up there. Plunging off would be humiliating. While a child can make the beam a playground, high-stress performers often transform the beam into a tightrope. Suddenly you have everything to lose, the rope is swaying above a crater of fire, increasingly dramatic acrobatics are expected of you but the air feels thick with projectiles aimed to dislodge your balance. What was once light and inspiring can easily mutate into a nightmare.”

Most people will have never heard of Josh Waitzkin, but the man is anything but ordinary. As a six year old, he found a fascination with chess after seeing men playing in the parks in New York. After beating many of the hot-shots there, he was discovered by a famous chess teacher who took him under his wing. He was quickly recognised as a prodigy and was the subject of the film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”.

Being the subject of a movie was a big distraction and he claims he was unable to properly concentrate after his newfound fame. Despite dominating the US chess scene, winning every tournament possible and advancing to International Master by age 16, he retired from chess in his early twenties and took up Tai Chi as a way to clear his mind. He describes how he was able to transfer the same learning methods and principles from chess to martial arts, recounting his rise as a competitor in “Push Hands”, the competitive combat form of Tai Chi, eventually leading to a world championship. He has since also expanded his learning to a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under BJJ legend Marcelo Garcia.

The Art Of Learning is part “how-to” and part memoir, where Josh shares his unique learning theories that have allowed him to rapidly excel in whatever discipline he chose. An example – when he started learning chess, instead of learning opening sequences and playing full matches, him and his coach would simply play games of king and pawn versus king -he learned the game backwards. This allowed him to better understand the power of the king and pawn, and how to control space. In his own words: “what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess – what I am best at is the art of the learning.”

I feel it’s not the most practical book, perhaps it’s a bit high level for me, but the story and theories themselves are truly fascinating. Would highly recommend, especially for anyone in martial arts or competitive sport.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

“I got, finally, the hands I always wanted. Hands just like the ones Tyrone taunted me with all those years ago. At the base of my right forefinger is an inch-and-a-half diagonal callus, yellowish-brown in color, where the heels of all the knives I’ve ever owned have rested, the skin softened by constant immersions in water. I’m proud of this one. It distinguishes me immediately as a cook, as someone who’s been on the job for a long time. You can feel it when you shake my hand, just as I feel it on others of my profession. It’s a secret sign, sort of a Masonic handshake without the silliness, a way that we in the life recognize one another, the thickness and roughness of that piece of flesh, a résumé of sorts, telling others how long and how hard it’s been.”

Who doesn’t love Anthony Bourdain? I’ve been a fan ever since I saw him have a foodgasm over a bowl of pho in Vietnam.

Kitchen Confidential is his no holds barred memoir of his early life as an upcoming chef in New York City. After his graduation from CIA (Culinary Institute of America), Bourdain floated around numerous restaurants in New York, some famous, some not so much.

There are lots of great stories, sure, lots of drugs and sex and everything else you’d expect in a famous dude’s memoir, but the real treasure of the book was seeing the scars behind the famous guy we see on TV. You see Anthony Bourdain on his travel show being a clown and eating all this delicious stuff around the world and you just think, this guy’s got it made. But he also did long hours at a shitty job peeling potatoes, he also slept in a mouldy apartment unemployed and almost broke, addicted to drugs, hating life. He went through his misery too. So when we see those people on TV living the dream, it helps to know sometimes they crawled through the mud to get there too, just like the rest of us.

For me, it was less of a chef’s memoir, and more a story of what a man can achieve when he loves what he does and follows his dream, because the ups and downs will test you, but if you push hard enough you’ll come out the other end smiling. Will always be a fan of Anthony Bourdain.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

“I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it.”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly famous memoir tells the story of a successful, married writer in New York City who supposedly has it all, yet is on the verge of a complete mid-life meltdown. Once her divorce is finalised, she drops it all and embarks on a one year journey of self discovery.

A gastronomic chapter in Italy, a spiritual awakening in India and falling in love in Bali – she documents it all in shameless honesty. For her it’s an endless emotional roller-coaster, full of insecurities, loneliness and self reflection.

Elizabeth Gilbert can write. You will know her very well by the end of the book. Some people will see themselves in her and others will find her insufferable, but everything she writes is real and she leaves herself open on the page. Even if she drives you mad, you can’t help but respect the realness.

It’s not a book that I particularly enjoyed (it took me several months to finish it), and I think it’s quite clear I wasn’t the target audience. But as a traveller, it raised many questions to reflect on. What is it about travel that makes it so healing and therapeutic? What are we running from, and toward, when we travel? Is it the people or the places that really make travel so transformational? That’s what made it worth reading for me.

(If you’d like to know more, I wrote a full review here).

Fresh Off The Boat by Eddie Huang

“Dave had no shoes. This was something I noticed was very common with white people down south. They went everywhere with no shoes. Their parents would drive barefoot, then throw a pair of sandals on the asphalt as they walked out of the car and into Publix. I didn’t get it. The bottoms of their feet were all red, there were little pieces of gravel between their toes, and somehow they didn’t care. I mean, Dominicans hate socks and love Aventura, but at least they still got Jordan 7s on. Then Dave invited himself and his stank-ass feet into our house. I liked the guy, but I knew that as soon as my mom saw him walking around on the carpet with his dirty-ass bare feet, she would bug. Everyone knows to take their shoes off in an Asian home, but the fuck you supposed to tell Huckleberry Finn when he rolls in barefoot? There’s no answer for that. It’s unprecedented behavior on our continent, unless you’re a wounded samurai that got his wooden chancletas stolen.”

When you’re Chinese blooded, but you were born in America, are you Chinese, or American? The same question can be asked of Australian Vietnamese, Canadian Indians and British Africans. It’s a question many people growing up as a minority will be familiar with.

Eddie Huang is the host of Vice’s Huang’s World, owner of Baohaus in NYC and the personality behind the TV sitcom Fresh Off The Boat. But what he is just as famous for are his views of race, identity, stereotypes and racial issues. Naturally I relate to Eddie’s story of growing up as an overseas Chinese in a western country, and I’m a huge fan, so I jumped on his memoir.

When you grow up looking different to everyone else, it becomes a part of who you are. It’s something that affects every single minute of your day. Do you belong, or don’t you? It shapes your life, your journey. Eddie writes candidly about his life before 30, and the continuing challenge of finding acceptance as his own person in a society of racial profiles. Mixed in are lots of family hard love, drug dealing, laughs, nuggets of wisdom, many victories, constant hustle and a lot of anger – his story is thrown at you full force in the voice his fans know as uniquely his.

If you don’t relate, much of it may come off as bitter and over-dramatic. But if you’ve experienced a similar upbringing, you will be nodding, laughing, and rooting for him all the way. Thumbs up from me.

The Fastest Billion by Charles Robertson

“Imagine a continent torn by multiple wars, beset by ethnic and religious warfare, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy –all of it complicated by poorly drawn borders, a still potent post-colonial stigma and the incessant meddling of outside powers. With a single exception, per capita income hovers at $400, primary school education reaches only a fraction of the region’s vast population, and its authoritarian rulers ensure any revenue generated by the region’s rich natural resources is spent on personal, rather than national priorities. Too many readers will by now have concluded that the continent referred to above is my own, Africa. In fact, while Sub-Saharan Africa has suffered the same problems in recent decades, the region described above is Developing Asia in the mid-1970s: an area of the world that had endured 200 years of decline, imperial domination and economic stagnation before beginning on the path that would transform it into the most economically vibrant zone on Earth. Just as SSA has suffered through its despots and destitution, so the seedlings of transformation have pushed through the African soil. As an increasing number of economists, investors and financial policymakers have realised, Sub Saharan Africa has emerged from its own malaise, into a dawn that promises growth to rival, if not surpass, that recorded by Asia’s ’Tigers’ over the past two decades.”

We often hear about the hopeless side of Africa, but this book aims to tell the other side – the side of limitless potential, booming economies, a surging population and a continent on the brink of a revolution.

I’ve visited Africa almost every year since 2011, and the change is constant and neverending. One family I met in 2011 was living in a small mud house, without water or electricity. In 2012, they had running water. In 2013, they had electricity. This year they had a flat screen TV, a DVD player and smartphones with Whatsapp. Africa is changing quick.

Every day in Africa medicine is advancing, democracies are emerging and incomes are rising. There are skyscrapers going up in almost every capital. Education is expanding, fast. More people are voting and campaigning in elections. A middle class is starting to emerge. Banking and internet is sometimes more advanced than many first world countries. It is at the forefront of a new age.

The Fastest Billion explores this emergence, through research, hard data, historic comparisons and basic economic principles. It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes of Africa’s development (for those who are interested), and gives estimates of when, and why, certain milestones will be achieved (literacy rates, democracy, GDP levels). It can be repetitive and even overzealous in its enthusiasm (it is without a doubt the most bullish things I’ve ever read on Africa), but having spent much time on Africa it is understandable why. Things are changing there more rapidly than ever before. If you have an interest in Africa, or are planning to visit for the first time, this book will help you make sense of what you’re looking at – a continent on the brink of change.

The Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson

“A year before I was scheduled to be released, there was talk that I would be granted an early release. A lot of national press people were questioning my conviction. My lawyers were talking to the court and to the Washingtons. Apparently, they had reached an agreement. I would pay the Washingtons $1.5 million and I would apologize to Desiree and I would get out of jail immediately. I didn’t even have to admit to raping her, just apologize for it. Some of my friends like Jeff Wald were pushing for the apology. “Mike, I’d admit to raping Mother Teresa to get the fuck out of jail,” he told me. “If I apologize, the prison in my head would be worse than the prison I’m in now,” I told him. So they brought me to Judge Gifford’s courtroom in June of 1994 for a sentence reduction hearing. I was dressed in denim pants, a light blue work shirt, and work boots. The new prosecutor asked me if I had anything to say. “I’ve committed no crime. I’m going to stick with that to my grave. I never violated anyone’s chastity.” That wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. They sent me right back to jail.”

As a fight fan, I love Mike Tyson. I’ve watched almost all his fights, watched all his interviews. He’s a warrior. But after reading his story, I can truly say I admire him. Mike Tyson’s story is a hard one. After reading his memoir I can’t even understand how he’s still alive, let alone how he became one of the greatest fighters of all time.

The book starts with vivid recollections of his troubled childhood, until he’s taken in by legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato. He then documents his rise to becoming youngest heavyweight champion of all time, his up and down boxing career, his debilitating battle with sex, drugs and alcohol, his rape conviction, recounts of his time in prison, how he hits rock bottom after his team, and the world, turn on him, and his eventual journey to finding happiness as a father and husband.

It’s a story of the highest highs and the lowest lows, from a man largely misunderstood. The media, as always, tells you what they want you to know. The memoir fills in the gaps behind the headlines. He is truly a man who has survived it all, and I’d love to shake his hand one day. Best book I read all year.

Models by Mark Manson

“Men don’t seem to understand that if a woman rejects him because he’s short, or because she doesn’t like his hair, or because she finds him boring, then he wasn’t going to enjoy being around her anyway.”

Mark Manson is a blogger I’ve followed for a while now (he should be familiar to many of you too, I share a lot of his articles!). His first book, Models, is a book about women, or more specifically, what men should do to improve their relationships with women. It feeds from his experience as a self-help writer and a dating coach.

I found it a case of somewhat over-complicating things (he himself concedes this in the book) but there’s a lot of wisdom in here. He breaks down situations a lot of guys will be familiar with, and analyses them in a way that will make you go “I never thought of it that way.”

Mark shows, although not explicitly, how your success with women is a greater reflection of what is really going on behind the scenes in your life. Using your relationships with women as a vehicle, he asks you the tough questions you need to answer in order to be the man you want to be. Of course, positive change in your dating life inevitably will feed into all other areas of your life. I feel like that is the greater purpose here.

For me, it wasn’t so much a dating book. It was a book about how to be a man in today’s world – about finding your truth, finding confidence, being self-aware and answering to yourself honestly. Who are you? What do you want? And do you have the confidence to be that person and chase those things? From what I’ve seen, male self esteem seems to be at an all time low in my generation. In the book, Mark touches on the idea of a “new masculinity” – an idea of what it means to be a strong, confident man today, and staying true to your masculine instincts in our changing society.

A good read for guys in their twenties finding their way in the world.

Open by Andre Agassi

“I play a kid I recognize from juniors, Pete Something. Sampras, I think. Greek kid from California. When I played him in juniors, I beat him handily. I was ten, he was nine. The next time I saw him was some months ago, at a tournament. I can’t recall which one. I was sitting on a beautiful grassy hill beside my hotel, just after winning my match. Philly and Nick were sitting alongside me. We were stretched out, enjoying the fresh air, and watching Pete, who’d just taken a beating in his match. He was on the hotel court for a post-match practice, and nearly every ball he hit looked bad. He missed three of every four swings. His backhand was awkward, and one-handed, which was new. Someone had tinkered with his backhand, and it was clearly going to cost him a career. ‘This guy will never make it on the tour,’ Philly said. ‘He’ll be lucky to qualify into tournaments,’ I said.”

I grew up watching Andre Agassi play tennis. My Mum was a big tennis fan and I spent many nights watching Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras duke it out on TV with my brothers.

As an old fan, learning the story behind this guy was fascinating. We learn he hated tennis from a young age, and if it weren’t for his obsessive father who built a court in their backyard so he could train non-stop, he wouldn’t have been a tennis player. We learn he was so embarrassed about going bald he wore a wig during the French Open final, and was so paranoid about it falling off that it lost him the tournament. As a tennis player, he was wildly talented and a total outlier. As a human, he was just like the rest of us.

The storyline is all tennis – his childhood as a prodigy, his rivalry with Pete Sampras, his hate for Wimbledon and the French Open, but the message is about loyalty, family, and what it really takes to be the best in the world. If you’re an old Agassi fan, you will absolutely love it.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

“The announcer called the LA bus. I picked up my bag and got on, and who should be sitting there alone but the Mexican girl. I dropped right opposite her and began scheming right off. I was so lonely, so sad, so tired, so quivering, so broken, so beat, that I got up my courage, the courage necessary to approach a strange girl, and acted. Even then I spent five minutes beating my thighs in the dark as the bus rolled down the road. You gotta, you gotta or you’ll die! Damn fool, talk to her! What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you tired enough of yourself by now? And before I knew what I was doing I leaned across the aisle to her (she was trying to sleep on the seat) and said, ‘Miss, would you like to use my raincoat for a pillow?’”

There are a few names in the travel community that everyone knows – people who are considered the OG’s of the road. Jack Kerouac is one of them.

His adventures hitch-hiking across America are now cemented in legend and his books appear on pretty much every “Top Travel Books” list there is. Even Bob Dylan wrote “I read On The Road in 1959 and it changed my life like it changed everyone elses.” How can you not read it after that?

On The Road is a memoir of Kerouac’s documenting his journeys across America during the 40’s with friend Dean Moriarty. While Kerouac’s character is kind of reserved, Moriarty could be described in today’s terms as that boozy Australian backpacker who’s been travelling forever doesn’t give a shit about anything. It’s a potent mix.

In the end it’s not the wildest story, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. Instead, it represents an idea and a lifestyle, one of freedom, exploration and blazing your own trail. While some will question what kind of life he’s trying to chase, others will understand him completely.

To be honest, I struggled through it. I almost gave up around 50 pages in, not because it was boring but just because of the old style of prose it was written in. In the end, I got through it. It had some great moments but it wasn’t for me. I feel like you need to be an American (or at least have travelled America) to really enjoy it. He would write to the tune of, “And we were back in Virginia, so you know what that means.” Well actually no, Jack, I’m from New Zealand, so I have no idea what that means. Still, I’m glad I finally read it.

What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars by Jim Paul

“I made $248,000. In one day, a quarter of a million dollars. The high was unbelievable. It’s literally like you expect God to call up any minute and ask if it’s okay to let the sun come up tomorrow morning.”

This book came highly recommended from quite a few people. It documents Jim Paul’s incredible run of success as a trader of lumber and bean oil, amassing over a million dollars in profits over a few years, to finally losing it all on one bad trade.

The first half of the book is a memoir. It tells his early beginnings as a hustler at the golf club he used to caddy at when he was a kid, to his rapid rise as a floor trader in New York, and how a love of money and shiny things had consumed him from a very young age. His love for money takes him into an upward and downward spiral of risky trading, somehow coming out on top on every trade, making over a million dollars in a few years and having absolutely everything. Then it all comes tumbling down.

The second half of the book is reminiscent of a university textbook. He talks about different trading strategies, with the focus on being how to not lose money, rather than how to make it. He justifies this approach with the fact that while all successful investors have rules that contradict each other (some diversify, some don’t, some trade long term, some short term), they all have one rule in common which is: don’t lose money. He then explores the psychological side of trading, under the broad idea that to be rich you should focus on not losing money, rather than making money. To be honest you need a background in finance or accounting to really understand the second half. If you’re not familiar with terms like margin call, short selling and futures, it will be mostly gibberish to you.

Still, a fun read for those who are interested (and if you’re in the markets you should definitely read it!)

Making Mavericks by Frosty Hesson

“To say that Mavericks isn’t for kids is doing it an injustice. It’s hardly for people. I’d been surfing it for seven years when Jay had his life-altering moment. I had seen world-renowned big wave riders paddle out, take one look at the building-sized, dark green wall of ocean rushing at them with such incredible force that the water actually gets sucked backward up the face of the wave, and then just turn around and go home. These were people who’d conquered breaks all over the globe, but they simply wanted nothing to do with Mavs. Jay, though, he wanted to slay dragons.”

When Jay Moriarty wiped out on the famous building-sized waves at Mavericks, he became a household name, at least in the surf community. Taking on the granddaddy of big wave surfing at age 16, no one could be believe he survived the wipe out, let alone paddled back out to catch another wave a few minutes later. Some people were just made to be legends.

Making Mavericks is the memoir of big-wave surfer Frosty Hesson, a Mavericks regular and Jay Moriarty’s mentor/coach. There are a lot of ingredients to this story – first, it tells the colourful story of Frosty, who has been a surfer at heart ever since he touched the ocean. Second is the story of Jay, one of those rare people who manages to capture the hearts of an entire community. And lastly, the stories of Mavericks, the mythical waves that only few dared to surf.

Most people outside the surf community will have never heard the names Frosty Hesson or Jay Moriarty, and in my mind that’s what makes the story so compelling. They were regular guys like the rest of us, with jobs and families and bills – it’s what they stood for that made them special. Making Mavericks is a charming tale of friendship, community, finding your peace and chasing dreams, even when life isn’t always perfect. I loved it.

What did you read this year? What should I add to my reading list for 2016? Let me know in the comments below!

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  1. I also read “Fresh off the Boat” – completely different from the TV series (which was a candy-coated adaptation). I thought it was fantastic – not always easy to read (I can relate to Eddie in some ways, but not at all in others) but raw and honest. I didn’t read much in 2015, but I had three weeks with limited internet, so in those weeks I also read “Princess Bari” (Hwang Sok-yong), “Make Your Home among Strangers” (Jennine Capo Crucet) and “Kafka on the Shore” (Murakami Haruki), which I’d all recommend. My favourite was probably “Make Your Home among Strangers”.

    “On the Road” I read for a college class probably some ten+ years ago. Can’t remember much of it – it certainly wasn’t a ‘stand-out’ for me. But I’m also not a US-American, plus I do think in some ways it’s very much from another era.

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