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.