Month: December 2015

A Year in Review [2015 Version]

I’m proud of and satisfied by the reading I’ve done this year. Much of what I read is inexpensive, light-hearted romance or mystery that I find on Amazon – but I also legitimately try to challenge myself by reading harder and more diversely. I have my various book club memberships to thank for truly pushing me in new directions I wouldn’t go in otherwise. Here are some of my successes, failures, challenges, accomplishments, and disappointments from a year of my reading life.

  1. Biggest accomplishment – Each year, I try to challenge myself by beginning and sticking with something longer that I know I would normally give up on. Last year, that challenge (and my Girl Book Club) led to me reading The Goldfinch, which was long, as well as NW, which I found almost unbearable but stuck with. This year, the award-winner for this category was Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. I had never read any of Franzen’s books before, but I’ve read and talked about him ad nauseam prior to reading this. He is a polarizing writer–he crafts unlikable and sometimes TSTL characters that are self-obsessed and depraved. I found this book to be, just, plodding. The politics were so very boring, and the whole thing just felt entirely self-serving. All that being said, the last 25% was really great and interesting, and I’m relieved I stuck with it and feel most proud in particular of not giving up on this book.
  2. Best fantasy – This is a genre I dutifully avoid for no other reason than I can’t control my eye rolls. Shape-shifters? Faeries?  Paranormal? High Fantasy? Nope nope nope nope. However, I had heard about A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas from several different people and places well before it came out, which is always a pretty good sign. Not quite dystopia but also not in fantasy-land, this world-building was gradual and atmospheric. It reminded me at times of TA Barron’s Merlin series that I absolutely devoured as a kid. People critiqued the main character, Feyre, as a Katniss-wannabe, but you know what? If being a badass female warrior/hunter makes you wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Also, the romance was pretty ground-breaking for a YA book. Minimal, tasteful, but also pretty daring. Props to Ms. Maas on this one–I pre-ordered the second one already.
  3. Most unusual – For this category I chose Every Day by David Levithan. This is a book I’ve seen kids carrying around at school for years. It wasn’t until I met him at the Anderson’s YA Lit Conference that I actually bought and read it with my Kid Book Club. Its premise from Goodreads: “Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl. There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.” I can’t thank my awesome book club kids enough for pushing my thinking about this book far more than I would have if I read it independently. Not quite sci-fi and more like philosophical drama (a genre I just invented), this book challenged me to think about gender, sexuality, and identity in ways that were disorienting and uncomfortable. But I really liked it. I’ve never read a book like it.
  4. Best young adult – This is a tie between Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz and More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. Both books were by and about men/teens that identify as gay and Latino, and both were so unlike anything I’d ever read. I’ve heard it said from several people that if books like this existed when they were young adults, they would be different people today. Both books handle the topic of being a young gay person discovering their sexuality so respectfully and interestingly. Aristotle and Dante is also poetic and beautiful, while More Happy Than Not is incredibly inventive, gritty, and unique. I loved both of these books so much. A close runner up in this category would be Kissing in America by Margo Robb, but I’ve already raved about that.
  5. Most life-changing – All the hype about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is incredibly well-deserved. Mr. Coates is truly a craftsman. His words are art, and this book reads unlike anything that’s been written ever (or at least in a while). Sincere, angry, hopeful, truthful, and lyrical, this is honestly required reading. For everyone. Everywhere. It’s being described as “non-fiction,” but I would argue that this is more memoir. It’s about life and living and dying, and I think about this book almost daily.
  6. Biggest disappointment – Is it redundant to point out the ubiquitousness of John Green? I fell deeply in love with Gus and Hazel’s story several years ago–just like the rest of America. I am not immune to a well-written love story, no matter how overly saturated America was in it. That being said, I felt inclined to read his entire backlist to double check if there was another such gem in there, and the closest everyone promised me I would get is Looking for Alaska. The thing about John Green is that he is genuinely a really great writer. He is smart, funny, and poetic and not bland, offensive, or generic like many NYTime best sellers. Ultimately, though, this book was so silly and unrealistic–just desperate, really, to capture a whimsical but impossible young adult experience that I found myself sorely disappointed.
  7. Most over-hyped – At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I have to say that Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins was underwhelming. People are saying it is single-handedly responsible for keeping physical book stores in business, so I mean, that’s super cool. And admittedly, I read it in two sittings. But it was just so… forgettable. Of course it’s going to be a movie featuring Justin Theroux and Emily Blunt, and of course it’s going to be a blockbuster. Whatever. Joining the canon of best-sellers with girl in the title makes me wonder why people are so drawn to these ultimately bland thrillers. I didn’t purchase this book and would be fine filing it away is “been there, done that, can’t remember it.”
  8. Most interesting – I’ve found my taste for non-fiction has evolved drastically since I began reading non-fiction for fun after college. I’ve become more picky. I no longer take authors at their word that their writing is “non-fiction” or true. Many non-fiction authors have also either admitted that they cut corners and didn’t fact check or gotten exposed in an ugly way when they took liberties with the truth. The main reason my standard for investigative non-fiction has been elevated is Columbine by Dave Cullen. So much of what we read and see on the news about current events is an immediate reaction to an event. This reaction is often devoid of important facts; indeed, it sensationalizes untruths and straight up reports things that aren’t at all accurate. This is the cost of 24/7 news channels and Internet reporting. Dave Cullen takes a tragic event and digs–so deeply–into it. Taking almost ten years of research to craft this 417-page book, one cannot help but marvel at the intensity of the investigation involved to write this. In this novel, he is debunking myths still believed today about this event and that are still haphazardly applied to all kinds of terrorist attacks and/or mass shootings. The implications for his discoveries are vast, but this doesn’t even touch upon the fact that he is an incredible storyteller. Recreating the events of the day, diving deeply into the psychology of a killer, and clarifying the implications of the event on a community and country all combined are an incredible task, and he does it so well and so truthfully. It is very uncommon for a non-fiction text to reflect this level of research, and that was what made this the most interesting read of 2015 for me.

Other highlights I might have (but not necessarily) covered already on here and would strongly recommend: In the Country by Mia Alvar, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Ghost Network by Catie DiSabato, The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Books I didn’t get to (yet) and am disappointed about: Go Set a Watchmen by Harper Lee, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, The Martin by Andy Weir (tried but abandoned), Mosquitoland by David Arnold, George by Alex Gino, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Negroland by Margo Jefferson, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

It’s hard to say why so many readers talk about their reading lives on a year-by-year basis, but I can say for myself that I enjoy goal-setting this way and often remember books by the experience I had and place I was when I read them. 2015 was a great year for books – I can’t wait for what comes next.

Holiday Gift-Giving Book Recommendations [2015]

Giving a book is an incredible thing. It doesn’t have to be condescending (I read this book because I’m so well-read, so you should be more well-read too). In fact, it’s a great way to show you’re thinking deeply about someone else and care sincerely about his/her/their interests; it isn’t necessary that you’ve read the book yourself first. However, suggesting you both read it and then get together to talk about it is like a DOUBLE gift!

Also, before you read my list, read 10 Tips for Giving Book Gifts (so that you don’t make any egregious mistakes!).

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For people who love social justice

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Coates’s rumination on being (and surviving as) a black man in America is required reading. For anyone interested in identity politics, this will both inspire and devastate you.
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – One of the best books of 2014, this book of essays provides page-turning critiques of pop culture and media from one of the most forward-thinking women alive today.
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Adichie – A small text, this is something a person could read in one sitting. It’s the transcript from Adichie’s Ted Talk , and it’s an absolutely stunning little book. Plus, I wish we could all be as cool as Sweden.

For people who love dystopia

  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – This book would be an excellent gift for the Hunger Games fan in your life. Beautiful world-building, it’s an interesting twist on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy from a few years back.
  • Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas – More fantasy than dystopia, this book explores nuanced and sophisticated story-telling regarding complex power dynamics all surrounding a really well-written love story. Like, really well-written.
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – This book follows the story of a girl spy-turned-slave as she fights to free her brother from the oppressive regime; she meets and falls for a high-ranking soldier for the empire who has rebellious ambitions. It’s so suspenseful that it’s borderline stressful. This is for action fans.

For people who love history

  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough – If you know someone who has read McCullough’s previous projects (namely John Adams or or 1776), I’ve heard this is an awesome one to listen to on audiobook.
  • Dead Wake by Erik Larson – I actually think all of Larson’s book in hardcover would be an awesome gift for someone you really like because he is universally acknowledged as one of the best non-fiction writers alive today. This is about the sinking of the Lusitania, which is what provoked the US to get involved in WWI.
  • Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940 by John Kelly – I’ve heard about this book from a few different places, and it boasts a 4.41 rating on Goodreads.  A very narrow time in the WWII history, I’ve heard this is a gripping account that any history buff would enjoy.

For people who love to laugh

  • Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling – I think Kaling’s books are great gifts because they are endless discussion fodder for people who are close friends. I also think they are re-readable, which isn’t something I’d say about Bossypants or Yes Please.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day – A charming, earnest writer, she showcases her rags-to-riches story in a very engaging way. An honest and enjoyable read.
  • Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman – Having only skimmed this, I was impressed with the Americans he chose to include in this piece. What I did read made me laugh out loud.

I have plenty more thoughts on books I’ve read this year (especially romance, young adult, middle grade, and picture books).  Here are two more links if you’re interested in other ideas: