Category Archives: Books

2016 in Reading: Part 1

I am currently in the middle of a fairly lengthy holiday journey across the country to visit with family, so my usual round-up of my year in reading is late and will be quick. But I want to crunch all the numbers as usual, so here we go!

  • Books read: 85.
  • Audiobooks: 6. I focused more on podcasts than audiobooks this year, which has been great, as I love podcasts … but I love audiobooks too. I wrote about this dilemma here.
  • eBooks: 23. This is almost twice last year’s number. I read many more e-galleys from Edelweiss this year, which explains the change.
  • From library: 9.
  • Fiction: 40. This is way down from last year! Last year my reading was 68% fiction, and this year it’s 47%. This change reflects my love of essays and memoirs and my desire to read and write about more of them. I’ll never stop reading novels, though.
  • Nonfiction: 42. Last year my nonfiction reading was 30%; this year it’s 47%.
  • Poetry: 3. One of these had some essays in it too, so I’m counting it in nonfiction as well.
  • Plays: 1.
  • Essay collections: 11. Five more than last year.
  • Biography/autobiography: 25. 12 more than last year.
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 1
  • Books in translation: 7. This is down by two from last year, which I’m not happy about.
  • Books by writers of color: 30. This is the same number as last year, but a slightly higher percentage.

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 62
  • Men: 21
  • Collections with men and women: 2

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 57
  • British: 12
  • French: 2
  • Canadian: 2
  • Indian: 2
  • Nigerian: 2
  • One each by authors from Algeria, Australia, Chile, Ireland, Mexico, Malaysia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 2
  • First half of 20th century: 3
  • Second half of 20th century: 4
  • 2000-2009: 4
  • 2010-2016: 72

I’ll be back before too long with a list of my favorite books of the year. I hope your 2017 has started of well!

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Recent Reading: December 17th, 2016

I have one novel and two nonfiction books to report on this time. First the novel: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane. I’ve seen this described as auto-fiction, a term that … I guess makes sense? Autobiographical novel is better, but frankly I’m not that interested in its autobiographical origins. What’s interesting is that it’s a first-person account of struggling with blindness. The novel opens with the main character — Lina, of course — at a party, discovering that her eyes are filling with blood. She has known that this might happen and has had to be careful to try to keep it from happening, but it was inevitable that it would happen eventually. The rest of the novel is about trying to get by afterward — about learning to cope without sight and living with the hope that her eyes might get better but with the possibility of disappointment as well. It’s a fierce novel, about pain and anger and fear. It’s short, and I think that’s a good thing, because even though I liked the book quite a lot, it would be hard to read a work with such intensity for very long. I like fiction that gets deeply into a character’s mind, even when that mind is an uncomfortable place, and this book satisfies that desire perfectly.

Then there’s The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri, a very, very short book — an extended essay, really — on book covers. It’s a great follow-up to her book from earlier this year In Other Words, which was about learning to speak and write in Italian. That book was also about identity and how language and writing have shaped her, and The Clothing of Books picks up the same theme, just this time in relation to her feelings about book covers generally and the covers of her own books in particular. I like Lahiri’s nonfiction style — translated from the Italian in both cases — which is very simple and straightforward while managing to make intriguing arguments and to suggest depth of thought. Both books are great for people how like to think about language and writing and books as physical objects.

Finally, there’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by the playwright Sarah Ruhl. The essays here are 1-2 pages usually, and most of them are about the theater — Ruhl’s thoughts about her own plays and her experiences working in the theater and also more theoretical ideas about how drama works and what plays can and should do. Ruhl starts with a description of trying to write with small children to explain the genesis of the book: each essay is an idea told briefly and simply, an idea that perhaps she could have expanded if she had had more time. But they feel complete already, or at least most of them do, and I enjoyed them for their suggestiveness and their air of exploration: they are essays in the sense of “attempts” or “assays” into a thought instead of fully-developed and defended arguments, and they are enjoyable in their brevity and incompleteness. This book is a must-read for anybody who has thought about the theater a lot, and interesting for those who haven’t but wouldn’t mind giving it a try.

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Recent Reading, Escapist and non

I’ve been getting back into regular reading in the last couple weeks, but I’ve still been in the mood for books that feel escapist. Rich and Pretty, by Rumaan Alam was perfect — so enjoyable and absorbing and fun — and after I finished it, I wanted something similar. I asked around a bit, looking for a book that would let me get lost in the world it creates, and settled on Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. It, also, was perfect. It’s another “rich people problems” book, which for some reason I find comforting, probably because while there are problems, they aren’t all that serious and they don’t make me feel bad and worried. Seating Arrangements takes place on an island in New England and tells the story of a wedding weekend. There’s the bride and her family — the novel’s main characters — as well as the groom and his family and everyone’s friends. The novel is full of unlikeable characters, which I just love; the worst one is Winn, the bride’s father, who is so horribly self-involved and lacking in self-awareness, and Shipstead captures him so well, it’s just delicious. His biggest worry in life is not getting invited into the country club he so desperately wants to be a member of. Shipstead makes us feel the absurdity of his character, but she also makes us sympathize with him, just a little bit, and I loved that.

As for my non-escapist reading, I finished Sady Doyle’s book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why. This book looks at the phenomenon of the famous woman who completely and utterly loses it, who turns herself into a very public disaster. Think Britney Spears. But also think Mary Wollstonecraft, Billie Holiday, and Sylvia Plath. Doyle looks at the modern meaning of the “trainwreck,” but also at historical examples to show that this is not just a modern phenomenon. Doyle is great at explaining the cultural meaning of this figure — how it developed, the meaning we find in it, and why we just can’t look away. Doyle’s writing is smart and also lively and fun. It’s a disturbing topic, and Doyle offers some useful ways to think about it.

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We Gon’ Be Alright and other reading

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang is a book I began before the disaster of an election almost two weeks ago. I was really appreciating it before the election, but afterward it began to feel even more important. It’s an essay collection with pieces on the idea of diversity, student protest, Black Lives Matter, race and the Oscars, what it means to be Asian-American, and everything that has happened in Ferguson. This last is the subject of Chang’s longest essay where he goes in depth on the history of the city, everything that led up to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the aftermath of his death and the protests. Chang’s writing is clear and incisive, and the book as a whole feels necessary. We need smart people writing good books about race in America right now. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about the book, as I don’t want to get into the details of his arguments, but the book is useful as a way of thinking about the state we’re in.

As for other reading, I haven’t been doing much in the last couple weeks. It’s been a busy and stressful time, and generally not a happy time. I am in the middle of Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam, and although I’m reading it very slowly, I’m liking it. It’s a story about the friendship between two women in their early 30s in New York City as they figure out their relationships and work while keeping their friendship going. Not much happens in it — or at least not much so far — and I’m liking that. A mildly-escapist look at female friendship is just the thing for right now.

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A Body, Undone, by Christina Crosby

This memoir about the aftermath of a horrible bicycle accident was hard for me to read — although good enough not to give up on — because the day after I started it my husband got in a bicycle accident. His accident was not horrible, and he’s fine now, but I felt shaken up about it for a while. Crosby is also a professor who lives in Connecticut … and it’s all just too close to my life! A Body, Undone is a really fascinating read, though, and worth sticking with in spite of my mild queasiness. Crosby’s accident, which took place in 2003, was horrific: she landed on her chin and broke her neck. She has lived with paralysis ever since. The book tells the story of the accident, the immediate aftermath, and how she has changed and adjusted in the years afterward. It also reaches back into her childhood and life before the accident and describes how the accident affected her family, particularly her relationship with her brother, who suffered from MS and passed away not too long after Crosby’s crash.

Crosby’s story is compelling, but I especially liked the more philosophical aspects of the book where Crosby considers how the accident changed her sense of self. She considers the relationship of body and mind and what it means when one’s body no longer functions as it used to. She also makes a point of resisting traditional narratives of disaster and recovery, refusing the usual move toward optimism as her book moves along. I loved the closing chapter where she considers literary conventions and argues that hers is more like a horror story than a traditional memoir:

Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living some part of her life in another dimension, under a different dispensation than that of realist representation. In my case, spinal cord injury casts a very long shadow, the penumbra of which will only grow darker as the years pass and the deficits of age begin to diminish me still further. I’m living a life beyond reason, even if I have invoked some of the stabilizing conventions of realism in this narrative. Those conventions are the ones I know best, but profound neurological damage actually feels to me more like a horror story, a literary genre governed not by rational exposition but rather by affective intensification and bewilderment.

Crosby has created a post-accident life that’s meaningful, but I admired the honesty with which she writes about her suffering and fears of the future.

The quotation above gives you a sense of what the writing is like: Crosby is an academic, and it sometimes shows in her prose. The voice felt a little uneven to me at times. But this problem affects only parts of the book, and the interest I felt in the ideas made up for it.

A side-note: for those who have read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Crosby is the friend who just suffered an accident in that book, and Nelson makes appearances in Crosby’s book as well. As a fan of both writers, I liked discovering their friendship and how they have influenced each other.

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The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel Reaches a Decision! (and other updates)

After not a whole lot of much deliberation, the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel has reached a decision on the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner! The winner is…….The Sellout, by Paul Beatty!!

Okay, the truth is that The Sellout got three out of five votes, so it was not a unanimous decision by any means. But three of us — including me — felt that it was the most deserving novel on the list. If we wanted to settle on a book that all of us actually genuinely liked, Eileen would probably have been our choice, or maybe His Bloody Project, but it would have been one of those unanimous decisions that’s really more about settling than choosing what the majority of us think is the best book.

The official announcement comes down tomorrow (Tuesday, 10/25). My guess is that either The Sellout or Do Not Say We Have Nothing will win. The Shadow Panel was not particularly taken with the latter novel, but it’s gotten a lot of good reviews and strong buzz. So we’ll see.

As for other reading, I recently finished Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World, a book I liked quite a lot. It’s a riches-to-rags story, and also a road trip novel, and also a coming-of-age novel, and also a story about the immigrant experience. It tells the story of the Wangs, a family that has just lost its considerable fortune in the most recent financial crash. The two younger children get pulled out of college and private school — because how can they pay for it now? — and they all drive across country from California to upstate New York where the eldest daughter lives. The story of their journey is fun — add to the list above that this is a picaresque novel — and the story touches on important ideas along the way, always with a light touch. I can’t say it was a super-deep read, but it was enjoyable.

And now I’m in the middle of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, a fantasy novel about magic in Victorian England. I haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, but it’s definitely a novel in that vein. In fact, the cover claims it’s a cross between Susanna Clarke and Georgette Heyer. I’m reading it largely because it’s the first pick for Book Riot’s Riot Read, a super-informal month-long read-along. The idea is that people will read and discuss it across social media, blogs, in comments at Book Riot, or wherever they want to. So far I’m liking the book a lot — it’s a quick read (except I don’t have much time to read right now, so I’m getting through it slowly, but it would be a quick read in other circumstances), enjoyable, light, kind of obvious in its themes but still very well done.

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Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

I really loved — for the most part — reading Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond; it’s the kind of book I like: focused on one character, about consciousness, beautifully written, experimental, or on the borderline of being experimental. It’s about one woman living an isolated life in an Irish town. The book’s chapters can be considered separate short stories, but it’s clearly the same main character in all of them, so I’d call them vignettes from the main character’s life rather than separate stories. It’s the kind of fiction where not much happens, except that everything happens, everything meaning thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams — the stuff that we live with all the time. The book should be boring, but I found myself enthralled with chapters about walks, bowls, her yard, her neighbors, her landlady. Bennett takes you deep into her character’s mind, and it turns out to be a place where the ordinary becomes riveting.

When I said I loved it for the most part, I mostly meant that toward the end the voice begins to fall apart and I became less sure what was going on and what to make of it. It’s like the character begins to sink into dreams and nightmares and leaves everyday reality a little bit behind. I would like to read this book again to see what I make of it a second time — to see better whether the ending fits with the rest and how it does or doesn’t. I may simply have not understood everything the book was doing towards the end.

But overall, I’m fascinated by what Bennett has done. I got this book from the library, but I want a copy on my shelves to pick up again when I’m ready. I think that’s a testament to how much this book got to me.

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