Tag Archives: books

What I read in 2014

As you may have read, I have strong feelings about the value of a diversified reading list. In the interest of accountability, at the end of the year (see 2013 here) I look back and make sure that I didn’t only read novels by 27-year-old white women, for example, (though this year I did read White Girlswhich is by a 54-year-old queer black man). Nothing wrong with white girl novels, but I think reading is basically the biggest empathy-building exercise there is, so I want to make sure I’m building empathy bridges with lots of different perspectives.

Also, while there is a particular magic to an author describing exactly how I feel, I generally already know how I feel so it’s often more interesting to read how someone else, someone with a totally different life experience, might interpret the world.

In short, this year I read even more books by women (tipped the scales heavily towards ladies, actually, from about 50/50 in 2013 to 62/38 in 2014… may need to scale that back), way more books by authors of color (from 24% last year to 37% this year) and even more non-fiction. The non-fiction thing is unrelated to diversity of experience, per se, but it’s just an interest marker of my changing tastes.

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So what were my favorites? The very first book I read in 2014, Flamethrowersis still one of the most fascinating and unique reads of my year. Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped was gorgeous and tragic and I cried the whole time. I also went back and read her Salvage the Bones and loved that even more if only because it was slightly less sad for being brutal fiction instead of brutal truth. The strangest collection of short stories I read this year, Karen Russell’s A Vampire in the Lemon Grove, included one in which American presidents are resurrected as horses and it was amazing. Most poetic prose goes to Kevin Powers for his spare, harsh, terrible war novel, The Yellow Birds. Eric Liu’s exploration of Chinese American identity and his own family history, A Chinaman’s Chance, has stuck with me and opened up whole areas of American history I knew nothing about. I would be remiss to not include Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, but it comes with the biggest trigger warning ever. It was by far the hardest book I’ve ever read, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill with plot that I didn’t stop when the going got emotionally treacherous. For cleverest world-building in the sci-fi genre, I’ll recommend China Mieville’s The City and the City, which has added a dimension of whimsy to the way I navigate my own urban jungle.

And drumroll… It was written more than fifteen years ago, but my favorite book I read this year was hands down Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about the Hmong community of Merced, California, and cross-cultural miscommunication in the most dire of circumstances.

What should I make sure not to miss in 2015?

 

 

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Challenge: Reading off the To-Read Shelf

I’m not buying any books between now and January 1, 2015*. Argh, it hurts just to write that sentence! I have a book buying addiction (which goes part and parcel with my reading addiction); last week I walked out of a used book sale with an actual trash bag full of books. And that was my second used book sale of the weekend.

When I have twenty minutes to kill, I beeline to my favorite bookstore (luckily I live in a place with a dozen really good ones) and I never walk out empty-handed. I’m like a ten-year-old on a road trip who needs a memento from every rest stop.

But books are not stupid keychains or snow globes, you’re lamenting! I know! They are so useful and pretty and full of wonder and adventure and insight! And each one is different! I know, I know, I know! I love them too!

So why am I punishing myself with this book-buying ban? Perhaps more importantly, why am I punishing my local bookstore economy that needs my dollars? Because of the To-Read shelf.

Screenshot_8_5_14_4_16_PM-2There are 84 books on my To-Read shelf. Some of them have traveled with me since I left for college eight years ago. Some of them have seen the insides of two dorm rooms and four different apartments. Some of them have traveled literally around the world in suitcases only to be overlooked because something new and shiny was calling from the English-language table in tiny bookstore in a small town in India.

I want to read my To-Read shelf and I don’t think I can do it without putting a moratorium on new acquisitions. It’s like when you buy a new sweater and all of a sudden it’s your new favorite sweater and all your other sweaters (the ones that used to be your favorites) are crap. The To-Read shelf books always gets pushed down below the fresh-off-the-bookstore-shelf books.

This is hopefully a way of reinvigorating my reading the way purging clothes usually reminds me of things I’ve been meaning to wear but don’t. It will make exciting the things that have been perceived as unexciting for all these years. There’s already a working list in my head of the To-Read books that are rising to the top of the pile (The Color Purple, The Yellow Birds, Maus and Aloft) and I’m genuinely excited to get cracking.

*So what are the rules? There are three exceptions to the No New Books rule. I am allowed to buy:

1. Gifts for other people

2. Books at author signings that I can add to my autographed collection

3. Book club books (though I’ll try the library first)

Why these exceptions? This plan is not about money-saving, though it will probably save me a few bucks along the way. I like spending money in bookstores and supporting the literary infrastructure of my city (or cities in which I’m traveling). These exceptions will allow me to continue supporting that infrastructure without accumulating quite as much stuff, of which I have far too much. They will let me keep participating in the booklover’s economy without overwhelming the To-Read shelf with new arrivals every other freaking day.

I don’t expect the To-Read shelf count to hit zero before New Year’s, but anything less than 84 would be considered a win!

Related Post: The last book I loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Related Post: My book club is famous.

 

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Why a Single-Sex Media Diet is a Bad Idea

These OkCupid guys…. I mean really. It’s one thing to mention that your favorite author is Faulkner. Cool, I dig it. Or Hemingway, or whomever. It’s even NBD to list a couple of books you like that happen to be written by men. BUT, when you go to the trouble of listing 40+ books you love because YOU JUST CAN’T DECIDE, and literally all 42 are by guys… for real?

They probably don’t even notice. If that’s the case, this is highly fixable. If they notice and don’t care/don’t think it’s weird/don’t think women have interesting opinions or stories…. well, that shit is beyond repair. Or rather, it is a problem to large for me to fix with a snarky message or internet essay.

But the fixable ones, the ones who are oblivious but open-minded, these are the ones I write to today, in my new piece for Role/Reboot:

Screenshot_7_3_14_11_54_AM-3Related Post: The last book I loved, The Flamethrowers

Related Post: Breaking down the gender of the authors I read last year

 

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My Book Club is Famous, and other readerly things

First and most important, my book club is famous. Not People famous or CNN famous or even Jezebel famous, but it is Afternoon Shift famous on our local NPR station, WBEZ. One of our book club members is a reporter and captured some of our nerdery at last Sunday’s book club get-together.

A piece of her interview that didn’t make the air, but that brings me great pleasure, is our discussion of our “Rules of Book Club.” There are many, but my two favorites are:

1. Read the Book because, come on, this is not a wine club, nor a brunch club, though there might be wine and/or brunch. There are limits to what you can contribute and what you’ll get out of it if you haven’t read the book.

2. No Bookclubbing Before Book Club because we all hang out on any number of occasions and in any number of combinations before the designated discussion, save your thoughts and opinions (as best as you are able) for the larger group so everyone gets the benefit of your brilliance.

If you have book clubs, I would love to know how yours works! Ours operates on a nomination system (wherein, every month, anyone can nominate a book, and all the nominations go on a ballot, we vote for two apiece, and the winner is read).

In other random readerly nerdery, have you listened to the Tavi Gevinson Nerdette podcast yet? Also worth a listen:

And lastly, do you ever have that moment where you’re on your way to a new place, and you’re staring at your phone tracking yourself on the map and you’re like… it should be right here. And then you look up, and it it is right there, and if you had used the eyes in your head instead of the device in your hand you would have found it five minutes ago?

So that feeling, that is how I feel about this article about this Atlantic article about “the Netflix for books.” I’m like… um,… we have that already. It’s called the library. It’s actually cooler than Netflix, because it’s free. Also, it’s been around for hundreds of years…. So really, what you’re saying is that Netflix was a “library for movies.” Not the other way around. Respect.

Related Post: I talk about Lean In on the radio with Vocalo and the Morning AMp.

Releted Post: On the radio, talking about feminist dating.

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The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

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What I Read in 2013

I read a lot in 2013. Some combination of new proximity to my local library, an enthusiastic book club, and my first shot at the quiet and uninterrupted solitude of single-living has resulted in me cranking through the stacks at record pace.

I believe who we read is in many ways as important as what we read. Which voices do we bring into our homes and absorb into our worldviews? Are they just like us? Older? Younger? Poorer? Richer? Colorful?

Some organizations, like VIDA, formalize this count by comparing bylines by gender at major publications. Here’s how my 2013 reading list shook out:

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Included in that blue chunk in the top right were new books like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanahas well as a few overlooked classics, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

Not that 40 is by any means some sort of definitive line in the sand, but I think it’s interesting that most of what I read (with the notable exception of Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent trilogy) was written by real live grown-ups. You know, not 25-year-olds.

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Lastly, was any of it true? I find that, as I get older, my preference for non-fiction gets stronger. I read more journalism, less bloggery, watch more documentaries, fewer blockbusters, read more memoirs, fewer pieces of fiction. Seems like the real world is plenty full of good stories without having to make them up. Cases in point include Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) and Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). I still read a buttload of fiction, but I only expect the slice of non-fic to get fatter every year.

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So what were my favorites? Read everything I mentioned above (especially the Boo and Adichie). For wild cackling on the train, I suggest Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? For when you have six solid hours on the couch and you need an epic American tale, pick up East of Edenwhich I finally read and adored this year. For the quirkiest love story of the year about an autistic astronaut and his bald wife, read Lydia Netzer’s Shine, Shine, ShineTo deepen your love of great American cities, read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (New Orleans), You Were Never in Chicago (Neil Steinberg), or Detroit (Charlie LeDuff). And when you really want to be stunned by what magic tricks a book can do, dare yourself to try Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.
 
What did you read and love in 2013, and what’s next?

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The Last Book I Loved: The Orphan Master’s Son

the-orphan-masters-sonFifty pages into Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son I was like, mom, what did you and your book club get me into? It was so bleak! The double whammy of this grim story and the rapidly-graying Chicago skies was leaving me severely depressed. She told me to stick with it, and so I did, and by the end I was crushing the last 200 pages in a solid Sunday afternoon during which I didn’t drink any water lest I have to peel myself off my couch. When I finished, I was out of breath. And I had to pee. 

The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young North Korean named Jun Do (now that I think about it, I assume that’s an intentional parallel to the English John Doe….God, this book just gets more and more brilliant.) We meet Jun in an orphanage where, as the orphan master’s son, he decides who dies by hypothermia (sleeping too far from the fire) and who dies by ingesting toxic chemicals (laboring at the paint plant). And it only gets darker.

But Johnson is a master. He holds you underwater–you and Jun Do–only as long as you can take it, and not a moment longer. When you think you have to stop, when you need to put the book down and watch Golden Girls, or go to yoga, or listen to Beyonce, he lets you–you and Jun Do–get a gasp of air before you’re shoved back under. There’s a bright spot, something spectacularly brief, but it’s enough to sustain you for the next round in the dark. It’s Jun Do on a fishing vessel realizing that the multilingual voices he hears sporadically through his radio are astronauts circling the globe every few hours.  It’s the elderly woman at the prison camp who shows him how to eat fish eggs out of live fish to stay alive in the dead of winter. It’s the sharing of a can of peaches, a last ditch attempt at dignity and self-determination.

In the second half of Orphan Master, Jun Do emerges from a prison camp with a new identity and a mission to rescue the actress Sun Moon and her children. That dunking game that Johnson is so good at speeds up, pushing you down into an underground interrogation chamber and pulling you up into the warmth of friendship and love. The pace speeds up, careening over these emotional highs and deep into the pits of despair (yes, like Princess Pride). The effect is crazy-making, exhilarating, gut-wrenching…

When it’s all over, you’ll be sitting there on your couch feeling all the feelings and even though you haven’t peed in 200 pages, you won’t want to move. Just sit. Process. Breathe. Wait for the feeling in your toes to come back and your heart rate to settle. It’ll take a minute.

Unrelatedly, have you seen these uncensored Instagrams from North Korea?

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: East of Eden

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