Happy solstice and best wishes for a great holiday season, everyone.
I’ve decided on my book challenge list for next year. It’s winnowed down from the Amazon editors’ Best Books of 2016 list, which includes both fiction and non-fiction. I picked books that interested me, with a few stretches that I ordinarily wouldn’t have chosen. There are 24 books on my list, down from the original 100. Here they’re still in Amazon’s order, with the best book of the year at the top.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family, by J. D. Vance
The Nix, by Nathan Hill
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, by James McBride
Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson
My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, by Chris Offutt
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, by Lee Smith
A Hundred Thousand Worlds, by Bob Proehl
Miss Jane, by Brad Watson
The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford
A Torch Against the Night, by Sabaa Tahir
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith
Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers, by Terry McDonell
Now: The Physics of Time, by Richard A. Muller
Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters
This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How , by Kathleen McAuliffe
Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, by Gerri Hirshey
The last book on my 2016 reading list was Purity, which I started but really strongly disliked. I’m not going to finish it. My book list this year included a lot of literary fiction, which has always been a category which I’m hesitant about. Not because of the length or the language, but because of the common themes. It seems to be a genre where everyone is miserable and tortured, in a very upper-middle-class sort of way, and I don’t generally find that kind of novel either illuminating or rewarding as a reader. There are always exceptions, and I’ll keep reading books I’ve heard good things about, but I don’t plan to focus on the category in the future.
I considered doing a few different things next year; the Guardian has a list of the 100 most important novels written in English, about a third of which I’ve read already at some point, so I thought of doing a multi-year challenge with that. I may revisit that idea in the future, but for 2017 I want to stick with current writing. Amazon just released a list of the 100 best books of 2016 (their editorial list, not the best-seller list based on customer purchases), and there’s about 20-something of them that particularly interest me. I figure if I can narrow it down to 24 books, that’s two books a month and entirely doable in a year. And since they’re new but not brand-new, I’ll be able to get most of them from the library without much waiting.
Oh yeah, I still haven’t finished War and Peace either. Total bucket list stuff. I really wish the new, highly-recommended translation I have in print was available in audiobook, because I think I could crank through the whole thing a few minutes at a time much easier in audio.
This month I finished All the Light We Cannot See. I enjoyed it and understand why it has been so popular. I do think it wasn’t particularly challenging or surprising – a bit sappy.
Completed: Between the World and Me; H is for Hawk; An Ember in the Ashes; The Wright Brothers; Hold Still; Americanah; Becoming Nicole; The Nightingale*; A Little Life*; The Girl on the Train; All the Light We Cannot See
Still to read: Purity
Books read this month: 1
Books read total: 11
Percentage of year complete: 83%
Percentage of books complete: 92%
This month I finished The Girl on the Train. I listened to most of it as an audiobook, but finished the last 10% on Kindle. I’m not usually one for thrillers so maybe that’s why this didn’t really grab me. It was well-constructed, but it was just a long game of “is this character violently psychopathic, or just a horrible person?” bingo. Not my favorite thing.
Completed: Between the World and Me; H is for Hawk; An Ember in the Ashes; The Wright Brothers; Hold Still; Americanah; Becoming Nicole; The Nightingale*; A Little Life*; The Girl on the Train
Still to read: Purity; All the Light We Cannot See
Books read this month: 1
Books read total: 10
Percentage of year complete: 75%
Percentage of books complete: 83%
I took a four-week intensive course during most of July and the first week of August, so unsurprisingly I didn’t get any non-coursework-related reading done. After that I started A Little Life, got a couple hundred pages in, and realized that it was turning into a very different book than I thought, and not in a good way. I won’t bother to write a review, since I didn’t finish it, but the one from the New York Review of Books sums with my opinion.
This left me in a bit of a quandary, since A Little Life was a replacement book for one that I’d already not finished (Fates & Furies). Ultimately I decided that I’m still going to count it, since I did engage with it meaningfully. And further, under those rules I’m also calling (quasi-)done The Nightingale, since I also read a significant portion of it before stopping. My goal for the year was to expose myself to the kind of books I rarely read, and I’m succeeding in that even if I don’t finish and adore everything on the list.
Read: Between the World and Me; H is for Hawk; An Ember in the Ashes; The Wright Brothers; Hold Still; Americanah; Becoming Nicole; The Nightingale*; A Little Life*
Still to read: Purity; The Girl on the Train; All the Light We Cannot See
Probably will never happen (unless I get stranded on a desert island with only it): War & Peace
Books read this month: 1
Books read total: 9
Percentage of year complete: 66%
Percentage of books complete: 75%
I didn’t complete any books on my list in May. In June I finished Becoming Nicole, by Amy Ellis Nutt. This is a nonfiction book, about a transgender teenager in Maine and her family. It had some interesting insights, but it almost felt too personal and invasive. Obviously the family had agreed to share a lot with the writer and knew that the book would be published, and wanted to share their experiences. It’s just my own penchant for privacy, I guess, especially for those under 18. The one aspect of transgender life that I hadn’t thought much about was that given increasing knowledge and hormone therapy, children who feel decidedly transgender before puberty can now receive medication that delays/changes puberty and then have surgery at 17 or 18, as long as parents/doctors agree. That’s a very different experience than having to wait until you’re older, or realizing your transgender-ness when you’re older and have been an adult for a while.
The year’s half over and thanks to my early binge reading, I’m still ahead of schedule despite my recent slowness. Then again, I’m less than 50 pages into War & Peace and it’s probably as long as the rest of the books put together!
I’ve eliminated a couple books as I’ve gone so it seems like a good idea to repost the entire list with my changes and what I’ve completed so far.
Read: Between the World and Me; H is for Hawk; An Ember in the Ashes; The Wright Brothers; Hold Still; Americanah; Becoming Nicole
Still to read (original list): Purity; The Girl on the Train; War & Peace
Eliminated: Fates & Furies; The Nightingale
Added: All the Light We Cannot See; A Little Life
Books read this month: 1
Books read total: 7
Percentage of year complete: 50%
Percentage of books complete: 58%
Argh! I wrote this up for March, but apparently I never scheduled it to actually post. Just came to do an April post and found that March wasn’t up either. As it turns out, I didn’t finish any books on the list in April, so a two-month post is just fine. March below:
I’ve decided to replace last month’s hated DNF, Fates and Furies, with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s another one that has come up on a lot of the ‘best books of 2015’ lists. My mom read it and quite enjoyed it. So, replacing the Groff with the Doerr, that keeps my list at 12 books for 12 months.
I completed two books this month, Hold Still by Sally Mann, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Hold Still is an odd beast of a memoir, written by a controversial photographer. Her approach to the world certainly differs from mine, but she’s a thoughtful, almost brutally honest memorist, which made the book very powerful if not always enjoyable to read. Americanah was great, and deserves all the praise it’s gotten, although I was a little disappointed in the resolution of the romantic plot.
I have also started reading War and Peace. When I was doing research about the various translations last year, I saw the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of 2007 recommended, so that’s the version that I bought. More recently I see that some translators disagree with their interpretation and there’s quite the division in the field about it. Who knew there was so much literary translator drama in the world?
Books read this month: 2
Books read total: 6
Percentage of year complete: 25%
Percentage of books complete: 50%