Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh, 2015: this was a year of upheavals for me. I left a job at Facebook, a company I loved, and started a new job at Stripe, a company I’m still getting used to. (Can I be that honest, in a lighthearted note like this? I like Stripe and don’t regret my choice, but the adjustment has been harder than I anticipated.) I traveled, with trips to Ireland and England in the early part of the year and Africa in the late spring, visiting Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, and Lesotho, passing through sand dunes, tropical jungles, and snow-capped mountains, plus some short trips to southern California and Utah. I set some goals at the beginning of the year, as I usually do, and achieved some of them: quit my job and travel (yep), finish a quilt (yep), do another triathlon (yep, twice ), be able to do 10 pushups (yes!), write creatively (yeah), write in a journal at least once a month (giant nope).
I didn’t set a goal to read a truly absurd number of books, and yet, in the midst of change, it’s what stayed constant. I typically read somewhere around 100-150 books in a year, already an unusual number, but this year I outdid myself: 285, plus my habit of every article in every issue of the New Yorker. I finished my goal to read every book that’s ever won the Booker Prize (silly, given how few of them I liked, but I am an achievement-oriented person), and I got 65% of the way reading every novel that’s ever won the Pulitzer Prize (much more fun, aside from the paternalist racism of the 1920s and the dude-dominated 1970s and 80s).
The books I read were, as always, a mix of everything, from books that friends had recommended to books whose covers were pretty to nearly every book that made any “best of” list from 2014. (From that, I learned that I share NPR’s taste much more than Slate’s.) Shamelessly copying from a friend, I also analyzed my reading list for gender and racial diversity: 54% of the books I read were by female authors, and 21% of the books were by non-white authors (with 40% of those women). I’m pleased with that gender breakdown, but I could probably up my game on non-white authors. In 2015 I wasn’t trying on either front—being interested in women’s issues and going through all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s and Helen Oyeyemi’s books really helped me out—but now that I’m tracking it in 2016 I might make a conscious effort.
Top 10 Fiction
In no particular order:
  • The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn. I’m going to cheat here and count all 5 novels in the series as one. One would think that every novel about the English aristocracy has already been written, but these still felt fresh and new, a take far darker and more vicious than Evelyn Waugh or Oscar Wilde. These were sharp and sardonic should-I-be-crying-or-laughing tragicomedy, and I loved them.
  • Submergence, by JM Ledgard. I’m not sure that I can describe what I liked so much about this one, or for that matter, what it was even about: a British spy captured by Somalis. Oceanography. Love. Death. It was quiet and serious and unexpected but pulled me in and stayed with me.
  • Tenth of December, by George Saunders. This was my introduction to George Saunders and I don’t know how I missed him before. A short story of his caught my eye in the New Yorker and so I sought out this collection, and found it satirical, imaginative, and all-around fun.
  • Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. Magical realism typically isn’t my thing, but somehow it worked for me when set in Indonesia, maybe because everyday life in Indonesia always seemed to fall somewhere between magic and realism.
  • Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray. It seems odd to say that a book that begins with a major character dying could be funny, but this was funny despite its topic, full of living characters and pitch-perfect sentences I wish I could have written.
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I guess I gravitate towards funny books for my favorite novels, because this, like Skippy Dies and Tenth of December and the Patrick Melrose novels, tackled weighty topics—in this case, the Vietnam War-- with a satirical eye and a generous sense of the absurd.
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m a sucker for books about world-ending epidemics, and this hit the spot.
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer. I hear they’re making a movie of this. It won’t be as good as the book.
  • Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley. No frills here, just a straightforward account of one woman’s life, starting with her girlhood in the early 1960s, told with forgiveness and an eye for detail, with prose to die for.
  • Dear Life, by Alice Munro. Two short story collections in my top 10? What is the world coming to? Alice Munro is clearly a master of the form, though, with vivid imagery, fully-realized worlds, and not a word out of place.
Bonus! I can’t help but mention Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; after reading everything Agatha Christie ever wrote in a few heady months back in 6th grade, I’m still burned out on mystery novels and rarely read them, but these were gorgeously written and featured actual character development in addition to good plot twists.
Top 10 Non-Fiction
This time, in order of how much I liked them:
  • The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright. This was by far and away my favorite book of the year, of any category. I liked it so much that I paced myself, interspersing my reading of it with two or three novels at the same time, just so it would last longer. It’s history made as gripping as a novel, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out what would happen next. (Spoiler alert: 9/11.) I also read and liked Going Clear—so I guess I’m a Lawrence Wright fangirl now?—but thought The Looming Tower was better. Perfect, actually.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah, yeah, cliché, but sometimes the crowd is right.
  • The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist. If you’re looking for a (bitter, sardonic) laugh, read The Economist’s review of this book, a detailed history of slavery and its economic impact on the US, which complained that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims.” If you’re looking for an education, read this book.
  • We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch. Rwanda was one of my favorite places we visited in Africa, and I came home hungry to know more about the genocide, and this book did not disappoint. (Also, if I were making a separate list of the best titles I read this year, this would win.)
  • The Seasons of Trouble, by Rohini Mohan. This was another read inspired by a trip: after we visited Sri Lanka last summer, I wanted to know more about its civil war, and this was a great way to learn.
  • How Not To Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg. Math! Interesting anecdotes! Humor! I’m in.
  • The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. How did I not read this as a school assignment, like everyone else? I really liked it.
  • Soldier Girls, by Helen Thorpe. There are so many stories that deserve to be told, you know?
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. I think you could probably present any sentence from this book to me, chosen at random, and I’d gasp at its perfection.
  • Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End, by Atul Gawande. I love Atul Gawande (who doesn’t?) and now dread aging (who doesn’t?).
And now, for fun, some miscellaneous categories.
Or, how to cheat to get to mention more books I liked:
  • One more Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by BJ Novak.
  • After Birth, by Elisa Albert.
  • Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher.
  • The Seven Good Years, by Etgar Keret.
  • Letters Of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart.
I’m the Wrong Kind of Nerd: Popular Sci-Fi I Disliked
Why do I even keep trying?
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. The only parts I found interesting were the scenes of NASA’s bureaucratic infighting. I can’t imagine anything more boring than calculating water needed to grow potatoes on Mars.
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. Maybe I would have liked this better if I had played more video games in the 1980s.
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. This just felt like a first novel, you know?
Books I Re-Read Without Realizing It
This is why I keep a list.
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler. How could I have forgotten reading this? (My list tells me I read it first in 2003.) I don’t regret reading it again.
  • The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker. My list tells me I first read this in 2010. I do regret reading it again.
What Am I Missing?
All these books were critically acclaimed and…fine. Just fine.
  • Lila, by Marilyn Robinson. I should have just re-read Gilead.
  • My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I have the second book on hold at the library so maybe I will start to see the magic then.
  • H Is For Hawk, by Helen MacDonald. Am I just not as into birds as everyone else?
  • Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin. I found this almost as boring as The Master.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. For years, I’ve had an anti-South policy, in that I’m sick of novels about the South and try to avoid them unless there are mitigating circumstances (i.e. the author is William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor). I’m close to instituting a similar World War II policy: is there a point at which we can all agree that enough WWII novels have been written and authors can start creatively mining other historical settings? Because I think that point was 10 years ago.
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride and How To Be Both, by Ali Smith. I want to be the sort of reader who gets really into cool experimental works and can enthuse for hours about stream-of-consciousness prose, but I am not. I like punctuation. Lots of it. Used properly.
I Have the Whole Rest of My Life Ahead of Me Now
At one point this year I was complaining about having to finish a boring Pulitzer Prize winner (Independence Day, by Richard Ford, if you’re curious) and Mike interrupted my whining to say, “Just think: after you finish this book, you have the rest of your life ahead of you!” That’s how I felt about these books.
  • Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike. The Rabbit books are full of prose I admire, with an attitude towards women I just can’t stand. At one point I was telling Mike about it and summarized the main character’s take on women as "Rabbit thinks about how sexy that woman over there is. Look at her breasts. He wishes she would shut up and stop asking things of him. She's probably going to get fat." Ten pages later, I came upon this sentence: “Women. They are holes, you put one thing in after another and it’s never enough...”, and, later in the same paragraph: “Sometimes when he looks at her from behind he can’t believe how big she has grown...” Turns out I wasn’t exaggerating: the mid-century misogynists don’t need it.
  • Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike.
  • The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. I bought this at a used bookstore years ago because we had read an excerpt once in a high school French class. Why did I think that was a good reason to read a book?
  • Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pyncheon. I mean, I get it, fine, you’re clever, but now can we all just move on with our lives?
Happy 2016, everyone. Go forth and fill it with books.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This Blog Is Dead Except For Book Lists

At this point I've taken up posting them to Facebook first, but for tradition's sake, here's my 2014 list.

I think I began last year’s note by saying that 2013 was a good year in reading because I had finished 115 books, but this year I read 145, so I guess I should start by saying that 2014 was an even better year in reading. (As a side note, since I finally got around to transferring my book list to Excel a few months ago, it was also an even better year in counting. Pivot tables, baby!)

I don’t remember spending that much more time reading, so I attribute this partially to some book-heavy vacations, in Sri Lanka and the Sierras, but also to discovering that I could check out ebooks from the library and read them in my browser instead of my Kindle, which means I could read on my phone while waiting in lines or sitting on a bus instead of just idling around on the internet. I really dig the 21st century.

I should insert some commentary here about any themes in my reading this year, but I just scanned through the list and can’t really find much to say; the theme, as usual, was “whatever I can get my grubby little hands on.” I was pretty mixed between fiction and non-fiction, like last year, though this year I liked the fiction more, probably because I read my way through most of 2013's "best books" lists.

Fiction Top 10, in order
1. Redeployment, by Phil Klay. This was easily my favorite of the year. Last year I commented positively about “The Yellow Birds” almost entirely because I wanted more fiction coming out of the war in Iraq, and this book delivered exactly what I wanted. I laughed, I cried, I recommended it to everyone.

2. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Part of what I like about fiction is its ability to take me inside someone else’s world, and this did that brilliantly. I loved the view of the US through the eyes of an immigrant, I loved the insights into dynamics of race and class and nationality, and I loved the story. There was so much going on in this one, and all of it was perfect.

3. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Join me in being surprised that I liked a Booker Prize winner!

4. Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell. I'm a fan of Karen Russell (I also read and enjoyed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and Swamplandia was one of my favorites of 2012). I love her prose, but mostly I love her weird, weird brain; the story premises she imagines are just too strange for words, and yet she always makes them work.

5. Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I can’t even describe why this and Wolf Hall are so good; they’re slow and don’t always have much in the way of plot, and it’s not like I’m a Thomas Cromwell fangirl or anything (is anyone?), but they just catch you, and you fall down. Yet another reason to eat my words about the Booker Prize.

I have less to say about the next five because I don’t want to trap myself into writing mini reviews of everything; they were all excellent fiction:

6. A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
7. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
8. The Signature Of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Fowler
10. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue


On to the non-fiction!

Non-Fiction Top 8, in order

(I couldn’t come up with 10 that I thought really deserved to be there.)

1. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace. Can you believe this was the first David Foster Wallace I ever read? Everyone has told me he’s brilliant and amazing and all that, but for some reason I never got around to him, partly intimidated by all the hype. About 30 pages into this, I called my dad (one of the main purveyors of the hype) and told him he was right and I was sorry I waited so long.

2. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I think everyone who’s interacted with me in the past few weeks has heard me talk about this one; I’m seeing everything differently because of it, which is all I really want from a book.

3. What It Is Like To Go To War, by Karl Marlantes. His novel, Matterhorn, was on my list in 2011, and this one was just as good. This is Tim O’Brien, all grown up; so many war books are written 5, 10, or even 15 years after the war, so it was new and somewhat startling to hear about war from someone with an additional 40 years of reflection and wisdom (at least if you can look past the Jungian theory).

4. Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. This made me care about baseball, at least for a few hours, which is impressive.

I have no more commentary. The next 4 were good too:

5. Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

6. Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, by Shereen El Feki

7. Brain On Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

8. It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens, by danah boyd


And now, my favorite part, some honorable (and dishonorable) mentions:

Worst Classics
These deserve to be remembered as historical events, not works of art:
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  • Ishi In Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber

Best (and Worst) Jane Austen Fan Fiction
  • Best: Longbourn, by Jo Baker. I thought this was a clever re-imagining that also held up as an independent story.
  • Worst: Death Comes to Pemberly, by PD James. I thought this was neither clever, nor really a re-imagining. I may be biased against it because I listened to it--I'm almost always harsher on audiobooks because I spend so much more time on them--but the plot was a fairly standard (and therefore dull) murder mystery and I thought the characters were cheap stereotypes of their Pride and Prejudice selves.

Best Books With Feminis* In the Title
  • Feminism Is For Everybody, by bell hooks
  • Jesus Feminist, by Sarah Bessey

Best Nostalgia
  • Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. I first read this at 14 and, according to my list, have read it 3 times since then. I’m a sucker for the Middle Ages, and I’m a sucker for time travel (review of Outlander above notwithstanding). This is my ideal book.
  • Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. There’s nothing like Georgette Heyer for a light, fun read when you have a head cold.

Most Forgettable
I read these two books less than a year ago and gave them both 3 stars on GoodReads but literally can’t remember anything about them:
  • Necessary Lies, by Diane Chamberlain
  • The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell

Most Irritating, Dave Eggers Edition
Why do I keep reading Dave Eggers? Seriously.
  • Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?  This is such a fantastic title, and such a disappointing book. 
  • The Circle. I’m so vain, I’m pretty sure this book was about me…but I still didn’t like it. (Someone who lives in San Francisco should be able to write a better book about tech. This was a lazy cliche from start to finish.)
  • The Lost Empire of Atlantis, by Gavin Menzies. This was the book equivalent of getting trapped in the corner at a party with a conspiracy theorist: uncomfortable, but at least you can laugh about it later.
  • Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. The Wikipedia page mentions that Gabaldon intended to write a historical novel, but the character of Claire got too sassy, so she changed her mind in the middle, made her a 20th century woman, and decided to figure it all out later. That could have worked in the hands of a better writer—by all accounts, the TV adaptation is pretty good—but this was Gabaldon’s first, and to me it read like an early draft, before she figured it all out later. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Those Were the Days

Remember when we all blogged? That was fun.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 In Books

I guess I only use this blog for best books lists now. Part of me misses blogging--it was probably good for me to write something other than Facebook posts or work emails--but then the rest of me remembers that I don't actually like writing very much. 

This was a good year in reading, at least by count, even though I continued my New Yorker subscription (and obsession). I read 115 books, many of those on buses and trains during our 4.5-week vacation in India and Nepal. I hate to admit this, but the count is also high because many of those books I read in India were--gasp!--romance novels. I don't typically read them, but for a few days in India we were riding trains and buses in Rajasthan in 115-degree weather and I was sick and surviving solely on orange-flavored rehydration salt water and I desperately needed something to distract me from my misery but couldn't concentrate because of nausea, and, well, Nora Roberts was there. I tore through nearly 15 of the romance novels my mom had on our shared Kindle account, and was thoroughly sick of them by the time we got back to more reasonable temperatures. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at a Fabio cover again without feeling hot and uncomfortable. (And sorry, Fabio, not even in the way you'd expect.)

As usual, I read more fiction than non-fiction, but once again I was surprised by how much better I liked the non-fiction. I don't know for sure why that is, but here's my speculation: I've been a fiction reader for so long that at this point I've read most of the truly great novels out there, and plus I have a much higher quality bar from my wide experience. I'm still newer to non-fiction so I get to choose (and enjoy) the time-tested greats. This year the effect was probably also exaggerated because for a while over the summer and early fall I concentrated on my goal to read all the Booker Prize-winning novels (I only have 8 out of 46 left). I continue to think Booker books are mostly pretentious and unreadable (William Golding? Give me a break!), so the fact that they were heavily represented in my fiction doesn't speak well for the category.

Anyway, on to the lists. Top non-fiction is a pretty crowded field this year, so I added some sub-category breakdowns to make sure some good books get mentioned. 

Top 5 Novels
Schindler’s List, by Thomas Kenneally. I should take back all my Booker Prize criticism for this one. It deserves to be a classic. 
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. I have no idea how accurate to North Korea this is--can anyone?--but it had me hooked anyway.
A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven Peck. The premise sounds like a gimmick (and maybe it is), but it was still genuinely thoughtful. 
Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon. This wasn't in the same league as, say, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I have to put it on the list just for being set in my neighborhood. (Literally: the main characters lived about 1.5 miles away.) It was an odd (and awesome) experience to read a passage about the MacArthur BART station while walking home from the MacArthur BART station.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I don't read much YA but this got such rave reviews that I couldn't resist. I can point to plenty of flaws here but I was still touched; I knew a book about teenagers with cancer was going to be sad, but I didn't know exactly how much I was going to cry. (It was embarassing.)

Fiction Honorable Mentions
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A twist! And what a twist; I can see why everyone on BART has been reading this one. 
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. This was beautiful, and I'm happy to see literature start to come out of the Iraq war, but it wasn't stayed with me the way I'd expect.
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Maybe I'm terrible, but I enjoyed how bitter Mary was.

Top 10 Non-Fiction
I read of lot of depressing history: 
King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown

And a lot of feminist history:  
Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Century of Struggle, by Eleanor Flexner

And even some depressing feminist history: 
Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl

Occasionally I branched out:
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann. This successfully explained the concept of "regression to the mean" to me, a real achievement.
The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. This successfully explained Bayesian statistics to me, another achievement.
The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik. This had the most persuasive argument about why to have children I've ever read. (It boils down to "they're a great psych experiment," but that's more persuasive to me than "they're cute.")
The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. This was just the most British thing I've ever read, and I've read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. (Note: my parents know him, and apparently he really is that British.)

And now, a whole bunch of assorted categories--basically, books I'd want to mention under "best non-fiction" if that list were 25 books instead of 10. 

Best Memoirs
Bad Indians, by Deborah Miranda. Poetic and eye-opening.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  Okay, so this was the world's most incompetent backpacking trip (bringing jeans!??!), and animal lovers should probably avoid this, but Strayed is a really, really, really beautiful writer and managed to make me sympathize with and then even admire her crazy, stupid persona. I also loved Tiny Beautiful Things, so consider this a plug for both. 

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. Look! I read funny feminist stuff as well as factual feminist stuff and depressing feminist stuff. (And I'm not even including all the radical feminist stuff on these lists; Germaine Greer's work hasn't aged very well.) 
Gulp, by Mary Roach. Gotta include a Mary Roach on here. Maybe it's just that I've suffered from digestive ailments, but I thought Gulp was one of her funniest. 
Sleepwalk With Me, by Mike Birbiglia. I think his stand-up is funnier, but I was still reading nearly every other line out loud to Mike. 
Mapheads, by Ken Jennings. I'm easily amused by nerdiness, apparently. 

Best Books By Someone I Know
I don't usually even have a category for this, not to mention three books in the category, but 2013 was an embarrassment of friend riches. 
Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
How Will You Measure Your Life?, by Clayton Christensen 
Elders, by Ryan McIlvain

And finally, Most Racist
Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. This was really disappointing, since I had read some other wonderful books about Native Americans this year, and this was a highly praised Pulitzer Prize finalist, but despite the fascinating story I found it really hard to stomach the author's attitude towards the Comanches, which appeared to be lifted wholesale from the nineteenth-century white sources he was using. I'm no expert on Native history or race relations, but it doesn't take an expert to realize it's ignorant and racist to unironically describe Native Americans as "low-barbarian" or "savage" or "dark-skinned pariahs" or a "backward tribe of Stone Age hunters" or even to call their languages "primitive." (He clearly doesn't know anything about Native languages.) What's even more shocking is that the vast majority of reviews--and, apparently, the Pulitzer Prize nomination committee--don't even mention this.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2012 in Reading

I was worried that this year I wouldn't make my typical 100 books a year. (Why was I reading so little? I'm not really sure, but finishing two quilts and still reading every article in every issue of The New Yorker might have something to do with it.) However, when I counted just now the number was 103, so I guess all those long backpacking trips this summer, with nothing to do in the evenings but read, paid off. That's a relief.

In any case, I know I haven't posted here in forever (um, hi! I still exist!) but I love combing through each year's book list and feeling nostalgic over the really good ones, so ta-da! You get a list.

Top 10 Fiction (in no particular order, I promise)
Game of Thrones: I'm going to count the first book here as a stand-in for the entire series, which I read on buses in Ethiopia and could not put down. I'm not generally a sci-fi/fantasy gal, and nor am I a rape/violence gal, but this was just really, really compelling. It also made me understand that New Yorker article from a while back about fans being angry at George R.R. Martin for taking so long to finish; I'd be pissed, too, if I had been left to wait for so many years after the fourth book. (After the third, maybe, but the fourth? Mutiny.)
Swamplandia!: A book about a family running a failing alligator theme park in Louisiana just seems too precious for words, but I promise you it's much, much better than that sounds.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: If you've read this, we need to talk about it. I was hooked.
The Cat’s Table: I generally find Michael Ondaatje's books about as impenetrable as his last name (look me in the eye and tell me you understood the plot of The English Patient, I dare you), but I really liked this one, a relatively straightforward memoir about a young boy's ocean voyage from Sri Lanka to London.
Zone One: it's ostensibly about zombies but really about cities. And it's worth it.
The Stranger’s Child: I'm surprised by this one's presence on the list, given how much I disliked The Line of Beauty. It was good, though.
Sweet Tooth: I'm not at all surprised that this one is on my list. Ian McEwan does it again.

However, if you know my reading tastes, this is surprising: three (!) books of short stories on my best-of list. Has the internet just killed my attention span or something?
This is How You Lose Her: I recognize that some of what Junot Diaz is doing is cheap, or at the very least repetitive, but I can't help it.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: This one makes the list solely for the title story, which was published in The New Yorker and which I read in church, leading to some awkward moments when I gasped aloud in sheer surprise and delight.
You Know When the Men Are Gone: I listed to several books on tape this year, finding it a pleasant way to entertain myself while tidying the apartment, driving to work, doing the dishes, etc. The only downside is that books on tape are so much slower than actual reading; since I spend more time with them, I'm far more critical of books I listen to. You Know When the Men are Gone is one of the few books on tape that stood up to my harsh feelings. Plus, it's got a great title.

Honorable mentions:
Alif the Unseen: computer hackers + 1001 nights; thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.
The Marriage Plot: I liked this even more than Middlesex, but it hasn't stuck with me in the months since I read it.
The Satanic Verses: It's embarrassing that this 20th century classic is only an honorable mention, especially given how much I loved Midnight's Children, but I think maybe I'm just over Salman Rushdie's one plot.

Top 10 non-fiction (also in no particular order)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Non-fiction reporting that reads like a novel.
Team of Rivals:
I knew how it ended and I still cried.
Operation Mincemeat
: Is this real life?!?
Holy Ghost Girl: Honestly, this might have been the best of the year, and certainly the most unexpected. I listened to this one on tape, and, honest to goodness, I rewound several times just to bask in the prose again. (Note: that's an analog metaphor for a digital action. Of course I was listening to an mp3 on my iPod and I just skipped back in the track.)
Unbroken: I kept turning the pages of this one expecting the protagonist to die any page now; this was a literally unbelievable story.
The 10th Parallel: I'm a sucker for books about contemporary Islam, and I loved the international compare-and-contract deal here.
The Possessed:
I'm also a sucker for anyone who writes for The New Yorker. (See how many times I've mentioned it so far in this post?) I was pleasantly surprised at how this book turned from deep ponderings on Russian novels to a chatty, lightly funny yet profound memoir.
Born Round:
Food memoirs are practically their own genre now, and this should be the prototype.
My Life in France: I could finally see why everyone loved Julia Child so much--her personality came through in the writing, and how could you help but love her?
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: I didn't agree with everything, but if the point was to make me think, well, it succeeded.

Top 5 most irritating
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: I felt insulted, not necessarily by the book's child-rearing philosophies (I don't have a dog in that fight yet), but by the fact that the supposedly ambitious, hard-driving, high-standards-of-perfection author thought I would accept this self-centered, stream-of-consciousness first draft as good enough. The arrogance! If I were her mother I would make her go back and rewrite it until she can do it right.
Farm City: Look, I'm as into the idea of urban farming as any other late-20s Bay Area resident, but can we please not be so obnoxiously superior about it? Your Oakland backyard chickens are producing delicious eggs, not saving the world. The Thoreau-worship in the introduction should have been enough of a warning to me to avoid this one.
The Finkler Question: Has there ever been a Booker Prize book I've actually liked? Answer: yes, but rarely. This was incredibly overhyped (see: Booker Prize) but just seemed to me to be Philip Roth with more British people and less masturbation. It's not like I love Philip Roth, or masturbation scenes, but wow, this one was boring to me.
Three Cups of Tea: I can't decide if it was a mistake to read Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit at the same time as listening to this, but it certainly, er, added some layers to the experience. I'm not sure I'll want to look in a mirror after saying this, but think I actually enjoyed the book more when I could chuckle cynically at Mortensen's supposed heroic do-goodery.
The End of Men: Don' Without veering too far into feminist Hulk territory--because I really am open to the idea that certain aspects of our modern mores have been bad for men, and I was intrigued by her hypothesis that women are more flexible, while the rigidity of performed masculinity leaves men unable to adapt to societal changes--the "end of men"? Really? Based on, what, an overly narrow slice of entirely misleading wage data? Men are ending and women are taking over, see, because childless women in their 20s in urban areas out-earn childless men in their 20s in urban areas...nevermind that urban areas are heavy on white college-educated women and Latino men, and if you actually sort the data by education level and race men outearn women in every category. (Oops. I think I just got me started.)  If all it takes these days to write a bestseller is some snazzy prose, a doomsday headline, and some misleading, misinterpreted, or made-up statistics, I should go ahead and quit my job now to start working on that book I've been planning, We Are All Doomed. (Page 1: 100% of us will die someday!)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ethiopia Diary

I tried to keep a day-by-day account of our Ethiopia trip way back in January, in the hopes that I could turn it into an awesome blog post. Because, of course, I excel at writing trip reports. Like the great posts about the Vietnam trip where I got arrested, or our trip to Turkey in 2010, or our trip to Indonesia in 2011. Oh wait--I didn't blog about any of those? Sigh.

In any case, I kept decent notes this trip, hoping to craft an amazing post, complete with all our best photos, one that might make up for all those other failed posts...and then, since that just seemed exhausting, I did nothing instead.

So let me tone down my ambitions, for once: this is not an amazing post. This is just my scattered notes, and some scattered photos. But look, ma: I'm actually posting!


Ethiopia, December/January 2012

Day 1: We arrive at the airport in Boston. We take family photos--the airport is a surprisingly good backdrop for this--and then change into our hiking clothes for the trip. I am too fat for my hiking pants (thank you, Christmas) and must buy Vaseline to stop a developing rash at my waistline. (Yes, I had to grease myself up to get into pants.) Meanwhile, Mike meets an Ethiopian woman at the airport who is surprised to hear of our destination. She then promptly asks him if he knows Jesus. This bodes well.

Day 2: Still in transit. Does air travel always take this long? My Vaseline is taken away at customs in London, except for what I can fit into a plastic baggie. (Note: a plastic baggie of Vaseline is disgusting.) Not surprisingly, everyone on our flight from London to Bahrain is Indian. We have way too long at the airport in Bahrain, and so we spend our time aimlessly wandering in circles because it was too noisy to sleep.  The flight to Addis Ababa was entirely women, all of them were enthusiastically talking at the top of their 3am. Pleasant!

Day 3: We have a flight on a prop plane to Gonder, which Mike spends enthusiastically taking pictures out the window. We meet some South Africans at airport who had come for a supposed "luxury" lodge in the mountains. It must not have been as luxurious as they thought, since we later saw their note in the national park's guest book: "visiting but never ever coming back again." Too cheap to share their "luxury" transport, we take a bus to the national park's departure town, which is 4 1/2 hours on a dusty road, after 33 hours on planes. We are crammed in me at the back, practically on our neighbors' laps, with everyone on the bus surreptitiously turning to stare. I can't stop humming that Shakira song for the last World Cup: waka waka hey hey, this is Africa! We make arrangements for backpacking at the park office, where the guy has a very proper British accent. Much to our disappointment, the national park officials insist that we have to take a tent.

Day 4: The first day of our trek. We leave from Debark and arrive at camp to Sankaber what feels like a lifetime later: we covered 14 1/2 miles all told, at 10,000 feet, and me with food poisoning, puking the entire way. (Here's some travel advice: don't eat at a place called the Semen Park Restaurant.) We are accompanied by a scout, complete with an antique rifle, who speaks absolutely no English. (He knows "yello," which I think he thinks is "hello.") From him I learn the Amharic names for animals, but not much more than that. We're passing through foothills mostly populated by goat- and cowherds, plus lots of baboons. Mike stalks them; I lie down. In Sankaber I collapse before the tent is even set up and sleep fitfully for the next 14 hours.

Day 5: Sankaber to Geech. We pass several villages and are always, always invited in for a coffee ceremony. Our climb to a nearby peak is amazing--even Scout sits down to appreciate the views. (Scout is an iron man, we quickly learn. I'm not sure what he was eating on the trip--no, seriously, I'm not sure if he even ate at all--but someone should seriously market it.) The landscape changes to the Afro-Alpine zone, which, as far as I can tell, just means lots of lobelia. An old woman follows us some of the way, probably impatient with our slow, fat Western pace. (Scout is equally impatient and terrible at hiding it. All day long, he says "yello! Yello!" I think in this context it means "hurry up, fatty!") We camp that night at 13,000 feet. A British girl in a nearby tent gets altitude sickness and is heard vomiting loudly all night. I am sympathetic.

Day 6: Geech to Chenek, December 31. I'm having a sluggish morning, so I begin counting my steps: 2.186 is the highest number I reach before we pause for some views. The British girl is also afraid of heights; why is she here again? We try to buy a sheep for dinner in camp but it doesn't work out, so we're stuck, again, eating cold rehydrated backpacking food. I don't recommend it. Lots of climbing; the gelada baboons here are skittish, probably because there are far fewer people around. Mike stalks them anyway, while I laugh in delight every time they move because they are just. so. shaggy. At camp that night, a large European tour group (Czech, maybe?) stays up late drinking and singing for New Year's. We still fall asleep almost immediately after dark.

Day 7: Bwahit (from Chenek): We wake up in the morning to see walia ibex, one of the park's most endangered species, frolicking just outside our camp. We stay at last night's campsite at 13,000 feet and aim to summit a 14,500 foot peak as a day hike. I'm too exhausted/altitude weak to go far, so I climb back down, find the world's most scenic bench, and spend the day reading. Heaven! Mike races Scout to the peak and loses, but gets his revenge by practically sprinting down. (He hears a lot of the other Amharic word we learned: K'uss! Or, slowly!) Since the day hike takes less than a day, we spend the afternoon reading, playing cards, and chatting with the other tourists at the campsite. We are the only people who came to Ethiopia specifically for these mountains. Even I have to admit they're gorgeous and we got our money's worth.

Day 8: Chenek to Sankaber. I suddenly feel marvelously strong; hiking along, I think I was born to do this! This is our last day, though, so it's mostly hiking out on a road, trailing Mule Man, who is leading the mule carrying our big backpacks. We pass lots of villages, and lots of small children tending goat/sheep, all of whom have enormous balls. (The goats, not the children.) We pass priest; everyone else genuflects and kisses his cross. When we reach an intermediate campsite, we decide we don't want to walk all the way out, so instead we wait by road and waylay some grumpy Germans, persuading them to give us a ride out. We stay in the town of Debark again that night, where we get to take showers and eat real food. (We tried the Semen Park Hotel again, because we are crazy.) We explore the evening market, where some local children follow us around. When we hold their hands and swing them, they are sold on us forever.

Day 9: We take an early morning (5:30) bus to Gonder. I fall asleep on the bus (I really can sleep anywhere). We stay at the Circle Hotel, which is very circular, and discover a cafe with fatira to die for; as a result, we spend the rest of the day overfull and lethargic. We eat there for dinner, too, but it's less delicious. (Tuna fish on spaghetti?!?) Gonder is full of castles, which were super cool but also super hot. Gonder also has one of my favorite sites, the Debre Birhan Selassie church, whose roof is painted with hundreds of angel faces; it's adorable, trust me. We spent the afternoon walking the city streets, where Mike noticed a teenager carrying a physics textbook and offered to help him with his homework. The double take was tremendous.


Day 10: Bahir Dar. We take another early morning (5:30) bus to Bahir Dar. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?) This city was full of touts; even a guy from the restaurant we ate at offered us a "great deal" on a boat; is everyone in this town in the tourist business? (Answer: yes.) We walked out to Lake Tana, the main attraction, and caught a papyrus reed boat across the river. (Most tourists take a motorboat around the lake to visit the monasteries, but given that women aren't allowed in most of them I wasn't about to overspend on just a motorboat ride.) After seeing a small church on the lake, we hired a tuktuk driver to take us to the Blue Nile falls. The falls aren't very impressive now thanks to a dam, but it was still hilarious/insane to spend two hours in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk on a dirt road. We were entertainment for every single villager along the way.

Day 11-12: Lalibella. The more I enjoyed a place, the worse my notes are. Lalibella, Ethiopia's main pilgrimage site, was spectacular, full of rock-hewn medieval churches. Apparently I was not dressed appropriately for a pilgrimage, as some young girls chastised me: "skirts are for females." (Their word, not mine.) It being Ethiopian Christmas, Lalibella was also incredibly overcrowded. There was no room at any of the inns--fitting for a Christmas visit--and so we stayed at the family home of a young man we met on the bus. (Yes, this is sketchy.) The room was above the stable--also fitting for a Christmas visit--and Mike got fleas.

Day 13-14: Axum. We loved Axum, but that might have just been because we found a pleasant hotel. Again, my notes are spotty since we actually kept busy, touring obelisks, museums, ancient ruins, and staring at the church that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. It was fun for me to discover that I could immediately hear the difference between Amharic and Tigrinya; I am still a linguist at heart. Axum also featured some great old military propaganda, apparently left over from the days when the military wore short shorts.

Day 15: On this day, Mike got to climb a goatskin rope up a cliff to a 6th-century monastery. I got to sit at the bottom and watch him because women are not allowed. And no, I'm not bitter about it at all.

Day 16: Addis Ababa. We flew to Addis Ababa and were hoping to catch a bus to Harrar immediately but the buses were all full, so we had to stay the night. Meanwhile we were relatively near the museum with Lucy's bones, so we walked there with our backpacks still on, assuming the museum would have a bag check area. It doesn't.

Day 17: We take a bus to Harrar. We have lots of time to observe the scenery: lots of cows, goats, and donkeys, and, as we get further east, camels. The oil here comes from Libya, as all the stations proudly announce. China is building roads everywhere. The language here, Orominya, is also noticeably different from Amharic, though for a while I wondered if it was just English doubled, thanks to all the signs saying "hootteella." 

Day 18-20: Harrar. This is too long to stay in Harrar but too short to go anywhere else. We try to negotiate a trip to an elephant park, but fail, repeatedly; the guide we arrange never shows up, and meanwhile everyone tells us conflicting stories about how great the park is (or isn't). We hang around Harrar instead, eating at our favorite restaurant multiple times per day. (Ethiopian food is delicious, but by now I'm getting sick of injera, which is in absolutely everything. One popular dish is torn-up pieces of injera in sauce...that you then eat with a side of injera.) We take a bus out to a nearby town to visit its camel market. We also go hiking in some rock formations near the town; while Mike scales a steep slope, I wait at the bottom, out of sight, and am possibly threatened at knifepoint. (It wasn't really clear what the guy was trying to communicate by pulling out his knife and drawing it across his throat, but I didn't like it.)  This is the closest I've ever been to Somalia (about 100 miles) and, after my friend with the knife, the closest I ever want to be to Somalia. We tour Harar's old city--it's legitimately cool--and, get this, we feed hyenas

Day 21-24: We take a bus back to Addis Ababa to catch our flight. We sleep terribly the night before thanks to hyenas rooting through the trash pile next to our hotel and barking all night long. On our way back we pass two different crashes of long-distance buses just like ours. At this point we have run out of books and have only one Kindle between the two of us, so we trade off between reading and playing cards. I keep track of how often I win or lose solitaire; mostly I lose. After getting off the bus in Addis we walk to the airport; it's fully 5 miles away but we have time to kill. When we arrive at the airport we find out that our Saturday night flight was cancelled and there isn't another one until Monday morning. We kick ourselves for not going somewhere other than Harrar, now that we have an extra day on our trip. Mostly, we want to kick the airline for canceling our flight and not telling us until the day before. (When we get home, I begin a campaign of furious--and constant--emails to the airline and eventually get us a $250 apology.) We hang out in Addis Ababa for another day, mostly walking around doing nothing, and have an uneventful trip back, arriving home two days later than planned. ("I'm trapped in Addis Ababa" turns out to be a very good excuse to miss some extra work.)

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Year of Skills: Part Whichever-Part-Is-Last

October: Aikido

At the beginning of the year I made a list of the skills I might like to learn, the further out of my comfort zone, the better. (Scuba diving? Shooting a gun!??!)  One of the items I put on the list was "martial arts"--yes, that's right, the generic kind--because I've never tried anything like that before, and doesn't that seem like I'm missing out?

(Martial arts must be the one-and-only childhood activity I never tried: at various points before my parents finally gave up and just let me be a shut-in, I did T-ball, swimming, gymnastics, ballet, horseback riding, ice skating, piano lessons and drama. I excelled at nothing, dreaded them all, and--yes, I'm an ungrateful brat--quit as soon as I could.)

In any case, I happened to pass an Aikido Institute a few blocks from my apartment in mid-September, and when I looked into their schedule, by pure serendipity, I found that they were offering a $50 adults-only introductory month of twice-a-week classes. Bingo! Adults-only was ideal (I didn't want to be a Kramer) and Aikido was as good as anything else. (Who doesn't want to be Steven Seagal?)

I had a blast in my four weeks of classes, as much as that surprised me. I got the classic white uniform, much too large for me, and learned very quickly to kneel and say "ohayo gozaimasu." I even learned a few basic chops and throws, though, surprising no one, I vastly preferred to get thrown than to throw others: when you're the thrower, you have to have timing, strength, and confidence. When you're the throwee, you just have to go limp.

There are no pictures of me in my uniform. It was embarrassing.

November: Drawing

I'm not particularly good at drawing…or rather, not particularly good at drawing anything but horses. Thank you, nerdy childhood.

Speaking of my childhood--gosh, I love smooth transitions--I remember my parents taking a drawing class together where they used a book called "Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain" that claims that anyone can learn to draw. Anyone? Yes, anyone, and so I decided, in November, to put this to the test.

(My parents really enjoyed this drawing class, they say, but it didn't last long, because my dad only wanted to draw naked women.)

So for November I bought the book and started working my way through its exercises. I've only gotten halfway (one of these days I'll finish!) but I believe the book, I really do: in only a few weeks, I learned to draw a halfway-decent depiction of one of the chairs in our living room. Dream big, self.

December: Arranging music

Frankly, by this point in the year, I was exhausted. Also, work was crazy--CRAZY--and we were leaving on a nearly four-week trip in the third week of December, so I didn't have much time for anything other than working and packing. However, true to my obsessive nature, I had to pick something, and I had been wanting some new music to play on my harp for a while, so voila: arranging music.

This, too, is something I've dabbled in before, though it was as long ago as high school, when I was taking harp lessons and music theory classes, both of which were natural breeding grounds for experimenting. (As an aside, I graduated from high school ten years ago. TEN YEARS! I can't believe it.) It seems fitting to start and end the year with something I had tried before, though, as nice bookends to a satisfying and interesting year.

I still don't have a piece fully arranged for the harp, of course, and as much as I tell myself that I'll finish it someday, I probably won't. I did work on something for a while, though, starting in December, so it totally counts. For the curious, it was a transposition and adjustment of the piano + viola duet medley of "If You Could Hie To Kolob" and "Adam-ondi-Ahman" found here. If I ever finish it, it will be lovely.


So that's the Year of Skills. A little bit crazy, a little bit interesting. I'm glad I did it, no question, but for 2012 I have made no such ambitious plans; I'm a little burned on huge resolutions, to be honest. I still read The New Yorker every month, a la 2010, and I've rotated quilting and drawing into my roster of relaxation activities, and I'm confident I can scuba dive again the next time I need to, but this year I've got nothing to prove and nothing to strive for; my written resolutions at the beginning of the year were things like "blog more" and "go to the dentist."  Resolution 1? Check. Resolution 2? Time to find a dentist.