Finkel's Fast Five - #153

The 18 Most Memorable Books I Read in 2020

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, some 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 (if a book hasn’t hooked me in 50-100 pages, I’m out).  I also finished other books but for one reason or another they were forgettable. These books, as the title reads, are memorable. If you’re interested, CLICK HERE for my 2017 list and CLICK HERE for my 2016 list. For my 2018 list CLICK HERE.

Without further adieu, here is my list for 2020:

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday

This book by Ryan Holiday and Steven Hanselman (Ego is the Enemy, The Obstacle is the Way) shares one entry/lesson in Stoicism for every day of the year. Other than getting up at 5AM to throw weights around, swim or taunt other dudes who aren't awake yet, I'm not one for daily rituals or affirmations or anything like that. But I like Holiday's books and I like the idea of Stoicism so I figured I'd try starting this January 1st. I read it every day and I loved it. I leave it in the garage and read one page after every workout. Takes 45 seconds max and it gives you a big idea about life to think about during the day. There's nothing magical about it. In fact, I'd say it's practical, if anything. If this interests you, check it out here.

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway

Longtime readers of the FF5 know that I'm a lifelong swimmer, so naturally, this book appeals to me right off the bat... But I was not prepared for how brilliantly written and exciting the book is. Checkoway is a tremendous storyteller and she sets up the impossible circumstances of the main characters and plot expertly: The book is about how a group of poverty-stricken, rudderless, completely written-off Japanese-American kids in Maui did the impossible. They went from having swim practice in the concrete draining ditches leaving the sugar factory (amidst the garbage and refuse because they were banned from local pools) to eventually becoming Olympians by signing a pact with a maniacal coach to train with everything they've got for three years. It's inspirational. It's aspirational. It's a book you'll read and never forget.

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

This book covers more than Kobe and Shaq and Jordan and goes back to Jackson's days as a player for the Knicks, his childhood in North Dakota, his time with the Bulls and anecdotes/lessons about a life in the NBA. It’s also a sneaky-good book on parenting and management. Some really great behind-the-scenes stuff about some of your favorite Bulls/Lakers players and moments, too. You can check it out here.

Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory by Lydia Reeder

The easiest way to describe this book would be something like, “it’s A League of Their Own but for basketball.” But the thing is, A League of Their Own was awesome…and so is this book. It takes place in the 1930s and features Oklahoma basketball coach, Sam Babb, and his effort to recruit and coach a girls basketball team… At first, obviously, they’re not great. Then they become transcendent and face off against Babe Didrikson’s team. It’s a fun read.

Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman

I love this idea and Fehrman’s book is very smart and very fun to read. He also has a gift for chapter titles. Two of my favorites are: The Poet, The President Who Couldn't Spell, and the Campaign Biography and Reagan and the Rise of the Blockbuster. If US History and writing is your thing, then this is your book.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife by Brad Balukjian

This book is, without question, one of the coolest, most unique ideas for a book I've seen in a while. In Brad's own words: "I took a pack of 1986 baseball cards and made a pact: 1. I'd track down all guys inside. 2. I'd chew the gum. 3. I'd write a book about it." If you're a baseball card nerd or used to be, then of course you know he's referring to a classic pack of '86 Topps. How awesome is this idea? The minute I heard about it I knew I was reading it. And it has one of the all-time great sports book covers as well. Check it out.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin

This autobiography is one of the most fascinating and funny books you will find anywhere because it's not only about a legend (Martin), it was written by him. From his earlier years as a failing/mostly unfunny magician, to his years writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with Bob Einstein (Super Dave), Rob Reiner and a host of other icons, to his brilliant insight into what makes something funny, or more to the point, what makes people laugh (and not laugh), this book is worth your time. It's also worth reading for Martin's honest look at what it truly takes to succeed in comedy, including his success-failure-success relationship with Johnny Carson and his decade-long quest to hone his act to perfection. Read it here.

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong.

Having known next to zero about Armstrong, this book was an eye-opener. I had absolutely no clue how far Armstrong rose in his life and honestly, the Baltimore Sun's description of the book is better than anything I could come up with: "this matchlessly vivid book... tells how the bastard child of a part-time prostitute lifted himself out of direst poverty to become the most influential figure in the history of music." How's that for a teaser? And it's dead on. The New Orleans of Armstrong's youth was filled with gun fights, gangs, bars, prostitutes, drunks and on and on. At one point, Armstrong was working 8 to 10 hours a day driving a coal truck and then he'd work from 10pm to 8am playing music at honky tonks and bars. Even if you have no interest in jazz or music history, his life makes for a tremendous read.

Dr. J: The Autobiography by Julius Erving and Karl Taro Greenfeld

Dr. J is easily one of the twenty-five greatest basketball players who ever lived and he's likely one of the top five most iconic. He was the best player in the old ABA and his artistic, soaring style of play helped push the game where it is now. He combined flair (he was the first mainstream player to dunk from the foul line) with skills (he's the only player to win the MVP in both the NBA and ABA) and titles (he won three championships across both leagues). He also sold encyclopedia's door-to-door. That was a hard right turn, no? Ha. In addition to everything you'd ever want to know about Dr. J's life and career, those small facts and anecdotes are the kinds of things that can make a life story even more intriguing...and , is full of them. His story about what Arthur Ashe did to him when they played tennis is hilarious. Such a legendary flex by Ashe. You can order the book here.

Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

I don't know if I've ever enjoyed a book about an icon more. I am putting this book up there with Jane Leavy's book on Koufax and Leigh Montville's book on Ted Williams. I think Jordan is in the same category. From the real story about why he got cut in high school (not what you think) to how much shit he talked to Patrick Ewing when they were both recruits at UNC all the way through their NBA careers, to the first time Jordan realized he was an NBA top dog (and how he stayed there), this book brings it chapter after chapter. It's like 700 pages, so if you were ever going to tackle it, now's the time.

White by Bret Easton Ellis

Ellis is one of my favorite authors. American Psycho. Less Than Zero.When his new book/memoir/social commentary, White, hit the stores I picked it up on day one. And I read the whole thing cover-to-cover on a recent three-hour flight and it was awesome. If you have any interest in Ellis as an author, this is a must-read. He takes us behind the scenes of what it was like to be a part of the Brat Pack and the Literary Brat Pack... What it was like to be a college kid getting paid ungodly sums of money to write... What having a book successfully (and unsuccessfully) turned into a movie is like... What being attacked by the very group who is supposed to be supporting you is like... And much more... He's also an excellent movie critic, loathes groupthink, is a biting social critic and in the end, I just find myself enjoying the way the guy tells a story. Here's the book.

Wizard, The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc Seifer

With Elon Musk and Tesla in the news just as much as the coronavirus, it occurred to me that I didn't really know a whole lot about the man Musk named his electric car after, Nikola Tesla. For those who might not know, Tesla is largely credited with inventing radar, robots, radio and dozens of other electrical innovations. He was so far ahead of his time I'm not even sure we've caught up yet (he died in 1943). Shockingly (because of electricity, get it), there have not been that many full-fledged biographies dedicated to one of the most prolific, scientific geniuses we've had. After a little research I settled on Marc Seifer's biography.  

Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman

Not many authors can tackle a sports team and an entire era like Pearlman can. From the hundreds of interviews to the exhaustive research, he finds the little anecdotes, the background players and the hidden moments among star-studded teams that fill out a story in a phenomenal and unique way. It seems that every year I have a Pearlman book on here and that’s no accident. This book, like his others, is amazing. If you at all care about those early 2000s Lakers teams, Shaq, Kobe or the even just the NBA, read this. You’ll love it.

The Strenuous Life by Ryan Swanson

The Strenuous Life by Ryan Swanson is one of my favorite reads in a long time. It opens with an incredible scene of Roosevelt arriving for an Army vs. Navy football clash as president (then the biggest college sporting event in the country) and follows him as he strides onto the field, sits and cheers on the Navy bench, then switches sides at halftime. It's compelling stuff and it's juxtaposed with all the great physical stuff we like about TR... The boxing and wrestling and martial arts and Tennis Cabinet stuff and his insane point-to-point walks. Can't recommend this book enough.

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly

I love the phrase 'one of one' when describing people because in the history of modern culture, there are so few humans who break through and resonate forever. Houdini was one of one. Babe Ruth was one of one. Muhammad Ali was one of one. And Bruce Lee was one of one. I thought the new '30 for 30' documentary, Be Water, on Lee was decent, but not great, which is why I ordered Matthew Polly's definitive biography of Lee while I was watching it. When I was writing for Muscle & Fitness we put out 12 new issues a year but we used to joke that we really only put out ten, because two covers a year were reserved for Arnold (definitely a one of one) and Bruce Lee. Lee covers were always popular. His fighting. His fitness. His philosophy. His tragedy. It's compelling stuff and so far, this biography is too.

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini

I loathe politics, but one of the things I found extremely entertaining in an election year was the way news media (on all sides, relax) framed stories to illicit the desired reactions from their viewers (anger, frustration, fear, etc...). They do this with imperceptible tone manipulation, subconscious priming, color choices, photo choices, groupthink word assaults and advanced persuasion techniques that you won't believe because you'll frankly feel duped.

I am not saying I am any kind of master in this regard, but I've been re-reading parts of a book I bought a few years ago that will blow your mind about how you're manipulated daily by advertisers and content creators. It's by a world-renowned psychologist and NY Times bestselling author, so it's not some fringe thing. This is hard science. And once you start noticing the tricks, you can't not notice them. It's like you're watching people being hypnotized. That's the best way to describe it. Anyway, I highly recommend you read this book: Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time and when Bryant recently started posting about his next book on Rickey Henderson (which I’m sure will be awesome) I realized I better get to this book first. And it didn’t disappoint. Aaron often gets overlooked by the more charismatic Willie Mays or more tragic and New York-centric Mickey Mantle, but Aaron was the true standard-bearer of Jackie Robinson’s legacy, playing his career outside of major media markets and defining greatness anyway. Dignity. Consistency. Excellence. If you only know Aaron through his hall of fame numbers, I’d suggest reading Bryant’s book to get to know the man.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

I’ve had this on my list to read for years and years. Not only is Agassi one of the more compelling athletes we've ever had, and the last captivating American tennis player, but I'd heard that one of my favorite writers, J.R. Moehringer, collaborated with Agassi on the book and I was curious how it played out.

I'll save you the suspense: it is outstanding. Truly. This is one of the best memoirs I've ever read. It's written with such a fast pace and with punishing honesty (about Sampras and Brooke Shields and his drug problems and his hair and Steffi Graf and everything) and with such depth that you'd think it was written by a writer and a psychologist and a dialogue expert. Highly recommended.

Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and Things That Last by Wright Thompson

I don't know the exact number of authors whose book I will buy without knowing anything about it strictly because of their talent and writing skills, but Wright Thompson is on that list.

His new book, Pappyland is about the caretaker of one of the most coveted whiskey brands in the world. More than that, it's about the rise and fall (and rise again) of a storied family's legacy. The perfect subject with the perfect author. Warning, if you don’t drink bourbon, you’re going to start after reading this book. I did.

If you had fun reading this, then you’ll enjoy my weekly recommendations for books, gear, snacks, workouts, movies, food and more in my Finkel’s Fast Five newsletter. Sign up for the FF5 right HERE:

PS: my book, Hoops Heist, is the #1 new release basketball book on Amazon right now. It was endorsed by Kevin Durant, Gary Payton, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry and more. Two-time NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas wrote the foreword. If you haven’t yet, please buy it here! And if you already bought it, use that link to WRITE A REVIEW. They mean a ton.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading! - Jon