Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 in books

I read 36 books in 2016. I ranked them from my least favorite to favorite, included a little bit about what I liked about each book, a tiny summary and when you click on each title, you can see my more detailed review on Goodreads. Happy reading!

36. Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks- I tried really hard to say something positive about every book on this list, but there's a reason this one was my least favorite of the year. It's so bad! It's blatantly anti-drug propaganda that has little to do with reality. The diary entries might be written by a teenage girl, but most likely an overprotective mom. I'm sure this was written with good intentions, but it's so poorly done, it's laughable.

35. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi- A beautiful story about a neurosurgeon making the most of his final years on earth, but it was obvious his skills were in the operating room and not the written word.

34. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany- So really not the best writing at all and you can't compare it with any of the original seven but I was so thrilled to be back with characters I had grown up with.

33. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- Really fascinating topic in medicine but I was left with a lot of questions about who exactly is Henrietta Lacks?? Also it seemed the author was very intent on proving that she got "the real scoop" and was different than any other journalist who ever tried to write about Henrietta Lacks, which was annoying.

32. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed- Advice collected from Cheryl Strayed's website This book made me appreciate my miniscule problems and how fortunate I am. Strayed broadly took a "do what makes you happy" approach for a majority of her readers' problems, and for some of them this mentality was a good solution, but for many it only seemed selfish.

31. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire- This poet inspired some of the lyrics of Beyonce's "Lemonade" album. I didn't feel much reading these poems, but poetry speaks to everyone so differently, so I shy away from not recommending this, as it might change your life?

30. The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook- My favorite part about this book was learning about what went on to create my favorite songs of the 90's and early 2000's. It does destroy the illusion of artists' "writing" their own music.

29. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez- Definitely not as good as One Hundred Years of Solitude. I also have little patience for womanizing main characters. This is a story of unrequited love and a man who lost the love of his life so he deals with it by sleeping with as many women as possible.

28. The White Album by Joan Didion- Still waiting for Joan to speak to me the way she's spoken to every other cool literary Instagram girl on my feed. This is a collection of essays about Didion's life and cultural observations in California. Like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking, there were some wonderful gems, but overall I was left wanting more.

27. Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinov- Witty, but nothing revolutionary. Read Thinking Fast and Slow before you read this and if you still want more, then pick this one up.

26. The Secret History by Donna Tartt- I loved The Goldfinch so I gave this one a try. Goldfinch was full of lengthy descriptions of seemingly mundane things and so was The Secret History, but this time I found them less beautiful and more boring. The plot is interesting although the characters are horribly pretentious. It's still an engaging and dark story about a group of students at a small college in Vermont

25. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut- This reminded me of Catch-22 but a much funnier and time-traveling, outer space version.

24. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick- This was mostly an obligation read as it was chosen by my book club, however I did vote for it in an attempt to learn about the city I now inhabit. This is an excellent account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, however Nathaniel Philbrick really goes into minute details of things as trivial as names of mistresses and meals eaten. Some of these details I enjoyed but many I found unnecessary. I am also not big into American history, so I felt like I was doing reading for a class. But I think if you do enjoy learning about history, this is one of the more enjoyable and entertaining historical accounts written.

23. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit- Or Feminism if You are a White Middle to Upper-Class Woman. The first essay of which this book is named was amusing and funny, but that was one of the few I enjoyed fully. This collection of essays had some bright moments but it fell short of all the high praise it has received. I think this is a very nice introduction to feminist ideas but should be coupled with more substantial and diverse feminists.

22. My Struggle Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard- So far my least favorite Knausgaard. This one is so whiny and it seems all of Karl's problems could be fixed if he would just stop acting like a misogynistic pig and stay faithful to his partner. There are still gems because it is still Knausgaard and he is still excellent at writing about writing, but I really had no patience or sympathy for his artistic struggle in this one.

21. If This Isn't Nice What Is?: Advice for the Young by Kurt Vonnegut- A funny collection of graduation speeches all of which are exactly how you would imagine a Kurt Vonnegut commencement address would be.

20. The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan- Another collection of essays about New York City. Some were boring, some were great. All made me want to move to New York.

19. My Struggle Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard- Brilliant beginning, boring lengthy middle, excellent thought-provoking end. Book 2 deals with Knausgaard's personal and professional relationships and struggle to maintain relevant in a constantly changing literary world.

18. The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz- To read if you love New York City, think it's the best city in the world and/or think New Yorkers are better/cooler than everyone else. I adhere to all three standards so this book was a hoot for me. It is a combination of the short story collections Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. It's very pretentious and silly, but Fran Lebowitz is 100% aware of it.

17. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery- Oh what a delightful book this was. I can't wait to share this with my children some day. I loved the main characters, Paloma and Renee, and shared their affinity for Japanese culture and was equally fascinated when Kakuro Ozu moved into the building. This is a sweet story of friendship with little gems of wisdom.

16. My Struggle Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard- Here's another person's description of Knausgaard since I've already given you two: Knausgaard's brooding Scandinavian obsessiveness has a way of getting under a reader's skin, not because his life is so exciting and eventful--it isn't--but because it's so familiar. Book 4 was cool because it had nods from Books 1-3, like little gems nudging you and saying, "hey remember this?"

15. The Sellout by Paul Beatty- Kurt Vonnegut meets Dave Chappelle. (I can't take credit for that comparison). This book is outrageous and unlike anything I've ever read. It's a satire on race in America and it is hilarious, disturbing and outlandish. The main character is an African American man, who in an attempt to "put his city back on the map" enslaves another African American man and tries to re-segregate the country, starting with his surrounding towns. Yep. It's whack. I liked it, but found much of the un-PC black stereotypes exhausting. Still it is wonderfully unique and definitely worth a read.

14. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman- Really the only book you need to read about social science/psychology. All about systems 1 and 2 and how they help us make decisions, form biases, opinions and anticipate. Makes you change the way you think about thinking. (P.S. Michael Lewis's new book is 50% about Daniel Kahneman!)

13. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong- I wish I read more poetry this year. I have very simple criteria for poetry: if it makes me feel (happiness, sadness, joy, pain, longing, loss, etc.) and I can return to it many times, I think it is good and worth reading. Night Sky with Exit Wounds did exactly this. Most of the poems dealt with family, war and romance and often I read stanzas which made me audibly gasp or sigh (another good sign for poems). As I read more poetry, I am able to revise my definition of what it is to me. For now: poetry is putting into words the most exact feelings of the heart and impressions of the soul.

12. The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan- The story of how a small bombing in New Delhi in 1996 influences the lives of its victims' families, friends and how a traumatic event can determine the entire course and choices of a human being. I was reminded of Nabokov's Lolita, in which the author is able to bring humanity and decency to one the most vile literary characters, Humbert Humbert, a paedophile. Mahajan mirrors Nabokov by illustrating the life of a terrorist and how one is not born with hate and has fundamentally human physical and psychological experiences which can cause an individual to perform the most inhumane acts of violence.

11. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson- This is a book almost all of my most well-read friends have read and loved and I finally read it. It took me a while to really appreciate the subtlety of Gilead, but in its subtlety lies its beauty. These are the words of a Christian preacher to his son, and while it does not push a Christian agenda, it does radiate a light that is so simple and elegant, I can see why so many people consider this a favorite.

10. Purity by Jonathan Franzen- Purity has a cast of zany characters who I was so fascinated with and needed to know their life stories. I was not fond of the main character Pip, but the story was intriguing enough for me to speed through the pages. Franzen always seems to weave "hot topics" (i.e. global warming) into his novels and this time he chose to put a spotlight on computer hacking and its effects on modern-day journalism by creating a Julian Assange-like antagonist. Strong writing, not my favorite Franzen, but still one of my favorites of 2016.

9. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Hochschild- This was the first book on my "How Did Donald Trump Win the Election and Who Are the People Who Voted for Him" shelf. Arlie Hoschild is a scholar from Berkley, California who traveled to the Lousiana Bayou to interview and learn from individuals who identify with the culture and ideals of the conservative right. Perhaps the most surprising part of this book to me was how some of the ideas and philosophies of these people were actually similar to mine and how much I could empathize with the struggles they were facing after eight years of the Obama administration. Another important lesson I learned was that not all Tea Party members are confederate flag bandana wearing hillbillies- most are honest, hard-working, patriotic Americans looking to create a better future for themselves and their children. This book is eye-opening and I hope to read more like it in 2017.

8. Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante- This is a collection of letters and interviews between Elena Ferrante and publishers, editors and reporters collected from her earliest works to present-day. The first half of the book is primarily on Ferrante's first two novels, which I haven't actually read, but surprisingly I got so much from these pages as she talked about her writing process, where she draws inspiration and the importance of feminism in her writing. The greatest lesson I learned after reading Frantumaglia was the amount of labor, pain and love that goes into writing a novel. I am inspired to write and read more after reading this.

7. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace- The more DFW I read, the more I lament the loss of a man so attuned to the idiosyncrasies of American culture and could put his observations so perfectly into words. Can you imagine what he would have to say about the 2016 election?? LOL. This is a collection of unrelated essays that are wonderful, brilliant and hilarious.

6. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante- I began the Neapolitan Novels at the end of 2015 and read the concluding volume in the series at the very beginning of 2016. Ferrante is incredible and has captivated the world with the tumultuous relationship of Lila and Elena. Lost Child finds the two women in their adulthood where much has changed with marriages, separations and children, but many things remain exactly as they were when Lila and Elena were losing their dolls in their childhood neighborhood in Naples. Ferrante has captured the intensity, emotion and strength of female relationships. I laugh at speculation that Ferrante is actually a man, because no man could ever write so eloquently about women, their passions, fears and loves, as accurately and perfectly as the woman behind the name "Elena Ferrante."

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance- This book made nearly every 2016 list I read and I thought it was an excellent memoir and so relevant in today's political climate. J.D. Vance grew up in Ohio Appalachia, true hillbilly country. Vance tells the story of how he overcame the mess that was his childhood and adolescence and achieved the American dream, but how he would not have been able to accomplish anything without the love and stubbornness of his hillbilly family. This was the second book on my "How Did Donald Trump Win the Election and Who Are the People Who Voted For Him?" shelf. This book does not answer that question explicitly, but it shed light on working class America and the philosophies and ideologies that are born in communities like Ohio Appalachia.

4. My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard- I found the first book in Knausgaard's series to be the most sporadic and unpredictable, which was part of its initial charm when reading it. Once you realize he lacks the normal memoir formula (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, death), you can let go and enter a world that is both foreign (geographically and culturally) and familiar (universal human experiences- love, loss, growing up, etc.)

4. My Struggle Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard- Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's 6 volume biography was my favorite so far. I have yet to read Book 6, but I will say the best thing about these books is Knausgaard's ability to write honestly. I find many memoirs and biographies are either too heavily self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating. Knausgaard writes about his life and writing process in a way that is completely human and normal, void of flattery and flowery prose. I loved Book 3 because most of it dealt with Karl's childhood and teenage years, which he touched on in his first book and were my favorite parts. Book 3 was like an extension of everything I liked in Book 1. These are books about writing books, but I think it's a testament in itself that I have read five and still want to read more.

2. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer- I still can't stop thinking about this book. Contemporary fiction is my favorite genre and Foer is one of the best in the game. Having read Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I was prepared for some weird sex scenes, but not nearly the amount of pages JSF devoted to gross teenage boy sexual exploration. I want to wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone because I truly loved it, but don't want you to think I'm a creep because of said parts.  Besides that, Here I Am is an incredible story about the Blochs, an upper middle class Jewish family. Julia and Jacob, the husband and wife, feel distant in their marriage and much of the book centers around memories from Julia and Jacob's earlier years as a couple. Their sons are Max, Benjy and Sam whose quirks and intellectualism I found hard to believe sometimes, but could entirely be how the children JSF associates with are like. An unexpected natural disaster occurs in Israel and JSF delves into Jewish-American relationships and the state of Israel, much of which I found fascinating, particularly the rituals and traditions. JSF's greatest strength is his ability to write people- their feelings, thoughts, relationships, fears, etc. You can't read this book without smiling or nodding at the striking familiarity of it all.

Between any two beings there is a unique, uncrossable distance, an unenterable sanctuary. Sometimes it takes the shape of aloneness. Sometimes it takes the shape of love.

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- My favorite book I read this year was about a Nigerian immigrant woman named Ifemelu. Ifemelu moves to the United States for school and leaves behind her longtime sweetheart, Obinze. In the United States Ifemelu learns what it means to be black for the first time in her life. My parents are immigrants, and one of the most striking things I found when reading Americanah were the common and even identical observations they make about American culture and citizens. Many parts made me laugh or smile, while others reminded me of my own prejudices and racism I have thought or said at some point in my life. This is an important book to read if you are a feminist and/or find yourself appalled, outraged or disturbed by the explicit racism that still exists today. Here are some favorite lines:

"Why didn't she just ask, 'Was it the black girl or the white girl?"
Ginika laughed. "Because this is America. You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things.

She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.

1 comment:

  1. Americanah is one of my all time favorite books! I can gush about that one forever and ever. Also, can I just say that I am so glad someone else shares my opinion on When Breath Becomes Air?? It's been on a bunch of "my favorite books of the year" lists and I don't get it. Anyway, this is a great list overall and I'm excited to check some of these books out!

    I blogged about my favorite books from this year right here: