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2015 Book List with Commentary

January 1, 2016

Winter

The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan

I expected Michael Pollan to be some sort of demagogue, a firebrand, a man calling for the food revolution. Put everyone up against the wall who wasn’t down with the future! Give me Sustainable Farming or give me death! A suave writer with a gift for words and hard science to back it up. I didn’t expect him to be an author who seems almost timid. I had looked at his followers, the people around Seattle who demonize the commercial farming industry, buy all organic and seemed to radiate an earnestness at the farmer’s market, that desperate passion. I understand. Global warming terrifies me too. Maybe Botany of Desire isn’t his best book, maybe his style has advanced, or maybe the seeds of food revolution around Seattle were sown by something else, suspicion over the slick packaging of meat, a series of unhappy meals, a great organic meal, I don’t know. But Michael Pollan was wimpy. He explores four big plants: the apple, the potato, the marijuana plant, and the tulip, and how they influence people just as much as we influence them. He gets in a weird argument with a Johnny Appleseed historian. He gives you the Potato Famine from the plant’s point of view. He gets a little high and describes the room he’s sitting in in immense detail. He explains why the Dutch were insane to sell Tulip Futures. It was no big realization, it ended more in a sputter than a bang. Our book club realized all four of these plants grew in Washington, and we talked about where our food comes from, but I did not have an epiphany about food thanks to Michael Pollan. I did think the apple chapter was the best though. I’ve actually used that chapter in conversation.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Something I attempted to do more this year was to read local. Sherman Alexie was one of the biggest holes I identified in writers from the Northwest. He gets read in schools, for chrissakes, but the most I’d ever read by him was some articles for The Stranger. I borrowed this book up from Peter. Ostensibly, it’s about a Native American band getting ahold of Robert Johnson’s cursed guitar, and propelling them to fame, although not quite fortune. In simple, clear language and sentences, Alexie sketches out the absolute poverty of the Spokane reservation. He doesn’t make their world maudlin, or over-dramatic, but simply accurately represents their life — the ups, the down, the good times, and the bad. It was good, but very, very sad. After this book, and the rest of the Tournament of Books, I started trying to mix up my reading to include more people of color.

Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The third book in the Gentleman Bastards series. Staehli loves this series, and pushed this tome into my hands. I liked this book better than the follow-up, Red Seas Under Red Skies. We got to see more of what Locke and Jean were up to, and the broader context of what their actions meant. Flashbacks also meant more of the characters we liked from the first books came back, and Locke’s first love was explained. There were some fun theater allusions, but I still think the first book was definitely the best.

My Drunk Kitchen: A guide to eating, drinking, & going with your gut, by Hannah Hart

Hannah Hart is amazing. I’m surprised that she wasn’t included in the biggest Youtube earners list by Forbes, although her videos don’t usually make it to millions, but she was able to turn herself cooking while inebriated into a full-time job. Anyway, the Drunk Kitchen videos are amazing, and as Hannah became more confident in her videos, she started talking to other Youtube celebrities about cool projects, took a trip around the US in a Winnebago, and then began teaming up with other stars. Part of the reason Hart has been a success is because she’s such an infectious optimist with amazing delivery. But a big chunk of this comes across in person. In book format, some of the charm was gone, and the writing wasn’t quite up to par. Also, she is self-admittedly not great at cooking, so the recipes weren’t the best. Which is okay, because this is actually an inspirational self-help book disguised as a cook book, reflecting Hart’s own journey from simple entertainer, to entertainer with a message.

Glow, by Ned Beauman

Beauman’s first novel, The Teleportation Accident was a surprise hit for me two years ago. When I heard he had another book coming out, I was eager to read it even when facing down other reading for the Tournament of Books. This book about sleep disorders, foxes, underground dance music, pirate radio, and bizarre psychotropic drugs is fun. It’s a little short, and the plot flits around pretty quickly, and I think we could have a better ending, but this was fun. I think there is a little category of writers who are writing some new, modern day weirdness, one of which I read in the Spring and liked a whole lot more. You’ll see when we get there.

At Risk, by Stella Rimington

Phoebe picked this for book club. Written by former MI5 chief Stella Rimington, this is the first of a series of mystery books. It started off strangely, aiming at that series component with some character background that never really comes up again in this novel. I liked the book more once it turned into a spy novel. A very procedural spy novel, again because Stella Rimington helped run MI5, so there are some fun actualities about trying to find someone who entered the country legally, but it being like a needle in a haystack when you don’t know their name, only their gender. Even though this was written in 2004, there are definite echoes of current issues that surfaced this year: Muslim extremists recruiting European nationals to become willing participants in attacks against their own country. Very current.

The Tournament of Books

All the Birds, Singing; by Evie Wyld

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Two of my favorite books of the year were All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld and Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. This year, Charlotte and I egged one another on to read as many books as we could in The Tournament of Books, by the The Morning News. Many of the books I had never heard of, much less read, All the Birds, Singing especially so. It was recommended into the hands of the organizers by a book shop in Chicago. Both books in roundabout ways are about trauma and not fitting in. I tend to avoid books with trauma as a central theme. The Room, Winter’s Bone, books that evoke abuse are not “go-to reads” for me, no matter how beautiful the writing. I am a reader who does appreciate a good sentence, but I’m reading for plot, for what happens, for exploring new and unknown and forgotten things. Science Fiction and Fantasy were those things for me, and constituted the bulk of my reading for many years, but my 10th grade honors English teacher didn’t see them as “serious books.” When I was told that my taste was bad, that these books didn’t belong, I fell into a funk. Books transport, they give company to the lonely. As an only child, I was lonely a lot. Never wanting siblings, but wanting more friends. Miraculously a friend came along, my friend Wes, who had a more mature taste in movies, and insisted I borrow a few. I think I started with Mulholland Drive or maybe Y Tu Mama Tambien, but it set me down a path to take movies much more seriously, to lend a critical eye to this format of stories too.
My books languished for a year and a half, until my senior year, when I took my AP Literature class, specifically British Literature, and copious amounts of books and plays were on the docket, demanding I read a lot. I didn’t take to Tess of the d’Urbervilles very well, nor Crime and Punishment, but I was enraptured and spooked by what I thought was the much more plausible A Brave New World, enjoyed the punchy pacing of Lord of the Flies, entirely fascinated by the feminist subtext of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, spirited away by the weirdness of the Hunger Artists by Franz Kafka. I re-discovered my passion for reading. There was something about the unknown, the weird, the perhaps unknowable entirely outside the bounds of science fiction and fantasy that Mrs. Wheeler taught me to appreciate and hunt for.
All the Birds, Singing, and Annihilation are these kinds of books. All the Birds, Singing alternates chapters going forward and backward in time from a central point (think Memento). We see where our heroine is, and how she got there. Wyld includes some excellent foreshadowing and call backs, which link previous desires and unintended consequences. We start in England then dip back to Australia, where Jack is from and move back and forth. I learned a great deal about sheep shearing, which sounds unpleasant, and we learn about predator and prey, and that complex relationship that stalks its way through the novel, as we struggle to determine what the threats are, and how close they are to breaking down the door.
Annihilation was more in the vein of science fiction, though I hesitate to call it such. Our main character, The Biologist, operates from a scientific point of view, but is exploring Area X, an area the rest of the world thinks is an environmental superfund site, but in reality is something much different, a pristine place where nature has reverted control over the land, and something is keeping it that way, despite the best efforts of an entire organization, Southern Reach, to investigate. This reminded me of some of the early X-Files a little, yet so much more fleshed out, allowed to breathe and explore what the unknowable actually wants, if it even has wants.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Speaking of books about trauma, this one was tough to get through. This was the one book that Charlotte read before the Tournament of Books began, and she loved it. She had to encourage me to continue to read when I wanted to quit, to put it aside because the Tournament had advanced and it looked like An Untamed State wasn’t going to make it much farther. Charlotte’s encouragement and Gay’s reputation as a thoughtful writer encouraged me to finish the book. In thinking about my reluctance, I think it was my own privilege that made me want to not finish. Reading about trauma isn’t pleasant for me, but with All the Birds, Singing, or Annihilation, there is a veneer of strangeness, of separation that creates a reasonable distance. Whereas An Untamed State is about a kidnapping, and what happens over 13 days to Mirelle, our main character. There is no separation. This story is about dealing with rape, and torture, and the society that creates the circumstances for these to be acceptable options. It is about family pride, and patience, what it takes to heal, or if healing can ever really occur. Reading about these events can be a solace for some readers, for those who need an example of strength, or escape from the normal every-day microaggressions into something more explicit. Seeming something extreme can help you feel a bit better about your own life.. Gay is always careful to escape easy categories. Mirelle is difficult, argumentative, headstrong. When I first read this book, I found some of her behavior with her husband unrealistic — shutting him out, not talking to him for days, ignoring him. That seemed outrageous behavior, who really does this? But having read Americanah at the very end of the year, I am thinking that this might just be truly different way for black women to approach relationship problems, and I am culturally white, so I’m not exposed to this style often. Overall, I’m glad to have read the book.

A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall, by Will Chancellor

I read two different novels loosely about college or at least college-aged characters for the Tournament of Books, and had very split feelings about them. A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is a book about the in-betweens of life. As such, it’s difficult to pin down. Chancellor covers American academia without ever making this a campus novel. He takes us across Europe, but this is no travel novel. Main characters Owen Burr and his father Joseph Burr grow and grow, finding themselves, but you would be hard pressed to call this a coming of age tale or a bildungsroman.Owen Burr, the Olympic level athlete loses his eye in a college water polo match, dashing his hopes as a career. He splits for Europe to start a career in art, and his worried father Professor Joseph Burr follows him months later after no contact. The characters attempt to take their place among the many, many allusions, name droppings, and outright fictionalizations of famous artists, philosophers, poets, musicians, and politicians. I did my best to recognize many of the philosophers, but some of the artists left me totally blank. Chancellor seemed to honestly want to have a far-ranging conversations about the in-betweens of the world, one that made many, many references as examples. His characters chat about somewhat odd topics: like what would be your top three albums of all time that you could never listen to again? Or when does performance art start or stop? or why do the Olympics matter?  It’s a messy novel, all over the place, but never displeasing. It has a genuine desire to talk about these subjects that I enjoyed and connected with. I enjoyed my weird time with the novel, and wanted good things to happen to the characters.

Wittgenstein Jr., by Lars Iyer

This book, I almost didn’t like. In fact, this book was one of my least favorite books of the year, right up until the last thirty pages. Until that point, Iyer has been writing highfalutin academic prose light on most of the details, setting the campus life of parties and drugs against the academic contortions of a possibly too-brilliant philosophy professor, as we follow a sympathetic student, very worried about his professor’s state of mind. Toward the end of the novel, Iyer made a choice (that maybe others saw much, much earlier than I did) that put the beginning of the novel in a totally different light. Then I actually really liked the book. In part because it did something powerful: it normalized an experience of a minority, without us knowing the character was a minority. This book made me question all of my assumptions as a reader. Beyond that, this novel is pretty slight, and I have absolutely no idea who I would recommend this to.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Another novel featuring British campus life, this novel is somewhat controversial. If you’ve never read any David Mitchell, then this next part may get a little complicated, but I will do my best.
Prior to this novel, I had read two other David Mitchell novels: Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I had mixed feelings about Cloud Atlas (see Fall for more on this one), but loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. In reading the both of them though, and talking to others who have read other David Mitchell novels, it’s clear that Mitchell has a definite style: one that’s gently funny with snappy dialogue, has a mixture of the unexplainable fantasy softly woven into the narrative (never outright science fiction or the workings of God, but far flung chances, or strange obsessions repeated). Typically, they are presented without comment. His books often have fractured narratives, meaning we switch characters and perspectives throughout the novels. Mitchell has proven himself an adept writer about different styles – science fiction, histories, modernist comedies, near-future dystopias. Although while Mitchell’s writing is top notch, I have questions about his overall goal. Is he just mimicking things, or using them to prove a point? The themes seem to be both about not being able to explain everything in life, but also the futility of trying to do so. Does everything need an explanation? That’s one of the central questions at root for the criticisms of The Bone Clocks. Because it turns out that all of his books, as disparate as they have been, all exist in the same ur-narrative, and their keystone is The Bone Clocks. Characters or relatives of those characters from each of those novels pop into the narrative around a new character: Holly Sykes. Holly can hear voices as a kid, and the voices graduate to Ms. Constantin, a late night visitor who tells Holly not to tell others about her visits. But eventually Holly tells her mom, who takes her to visit a nice Doctor, who makes the voices go away. As the book skips around in perspective, Holly is always a figure, a central piece as she travels around Switzerland, marries and has children, becomes an author, and grows old.  As the secret world parallel to ours is revealed, the voices in her head are revealed to not just be idle chatter, but something far more strange but also somewhat sinister.
But in writing this book, some argue that Mitchell retroactively makes his other books worse because he explains and explains. The mystery and the associated thrill of not knowing, disperses under the weight of explanation. Mitchell is a good enough writer that I kept enjoying the book the whole way through, but upon reconsideration, and thinking about what I’ve read, I was dissatisfied with the novel. Where Jeff Vandermeer and Evie Wyld chose to keep their mysteries hidden, Mitchell exposed his to the light, gleefully explaining why things were happening. And as it turns out, that makes the novel less fun. There is a tradition in Science Fiction of presenting a new concept, a new technology, and then examining how that one alteration affects human behavior. But the fascinating part of that kind of science fiction is the human exploration of how we would behave and react when exposed to a new situation. Mitchell instead apes the worse science fiction novelists who want to explain how the cool thing they invented works, and why it’s important. It removes the human element, and I think that’s what this novel and some of his others are missing: that fun sense of humanity. It comes across as an imitation, rather sincere. The sentence by sentence construction works, but the overall feeling of satisfaction or revelation never comes through.
Obviously I had some feelings about this book, and this New Yorker article by James Wood helped me sort through those feelings very well.

Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is among the strangest books that I read this year. That and Octavia Butler’s Dawn. Silence Once Begun is written as a series of transcripts of conversations between the author and different people surrounding a man condemned to death 20 years earlier in Japan. Members include his family, friends, and witnesses. The prose is spare, describing the bare minimum of the scenes, and often as a reader you have to interpret the silences, the biases. This is because the central mystery about the man who supposedly murdered 10 elderly folks systematically did not speak at all in police custody, his cell, his trial, or anywhere else. To anyone, about anything. Once arrested, he spoke rarely, only referring back to his signed confession, which turned up at the courthouse with, having signed it in a bar bet. The novel has this strange feel of almost reality. I wasn’t sure if this was based off of a real event and lightly fictionalized, or was written so well that it seemed like it could be real. I was frustrated by parts of this book, liked others, but the twist at the end, and there was a twist, seemed unoriginal, inauthentic.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I had a lot of feelings about this book while reading it, but find them harder to sum up. Emily St. John Mandel wrote a light apocalypse novel. A disease spreads, people die, some people live, and then they attempt to begin again. We switch back and forth between the beginning of the outbreak and 15 years in the future.
What I like about this novel though is that it is largely about art. Music, theater, comic books, myths, stories, the things we tell one another to survive, to make life worth living. The novel explores where the notion to create these stories comes from, how we create or change those stories, and how those stories can define us, or inform us, or how we can reject them entirely. Or how two people’s interpretation of the same event can spin two wildly different results, based on the information they have. This novel was a pleasure to read, and maybe I should revisit it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Charlotte’s favorite book of the tournament. Well written in punchy sentences that depict a certain kind of New York lady. One you may identify with, who maybe drinks a little too much, lives in a too small apartment, and has a job that she likes, but maybe isn’t that great. She gets married, and the relationship takes off and struggles, and attempts to come back from  actions that can’t be taken back. The writing is almost like vignettes, some only a single, short sentence long. We weave in and out of this narrative, like someone’s combined social media postings, except very well written. It is the examination of a relationship, and what that means. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my favorite.

SPRING

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

Upon finishing the Tournament of Books. I read the second book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Alas, the Biologist is gone, but instead we get Control. We get a look inside the disorganized backwater institution attempting to understand Area X. We discover that maybe living on the edge of something unknown has a profound effect if you start paying attention. Not quite as good the first, but still excellent and weird. At the end of March, I pledged to read more books that I already owned.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

How to describe Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It is a genre book without irony. There are no nudge nudge, wink wink references to other books or films. There is only the pulpy plot: a man accidentally fixes an old clockwork doomsday device and must prevent the end of the world. There is a bad-ass lady spy, a mad scientist, London gangsters, a possibly immortal Nepalese warlord King, sewer scavengers, and mad monks who built the Art Deco crossed with steampunk technology. And all of it is taken seriously! Harkaway writes like Charles Dickens, with intricately described background characters popping up for a scene or two before fading back to whence they came. The world feels lived in, like there are more stories to tell. This was some of the most fun I had reading all year. This was the book that absorbed me, made me read past my stop on the bus (more than once). A rip roaring tale with some actual character growth.

Self-Inflicted Wounds, by Aisha Tyler

A book club book! This is the only audiobook I “read” all year. Thinking about it now, and my predilections towards audiobooks, I prefer people reading their own material, and I prefer people talking about themselves. So I guess I only like audiobooks if they’re memoirs/ personal non-fiction like David Sedaris? Regardless, this was fun. Aisha Tyler was an enormous nerd, grew up in a strange family (her dad sounds like a total badass), and injured herself a lot. She tells her own story pretty well, and doesn’t apologize for who she is.

Dataclysm, by Christian Rudder

I got this as an advanced reader’s copy from Kate. One of the things that lured me to use OkCupid was their neat statistics website OkTrends. It turns out that Christian Rudder ran that part of the website and used a bunch of that data to write this book, re-examining that data with new things from eHarmony, Match.com and other dating website, as well as some general statistics. With this intimate data, he is able to draw some fascinating conclusions. Because I followed OkTrends religiously, not much of the data was new to me, but he positions to the book as a way to watch people say one thing and do another. Jake calls it lying with actions rather than words. Here the data is laid out across some basic factors of identity and dating, which provides some fascinating insight into issues of race, class,  and culture. We may say we’re willing to date someone of a different race, but how often do you actually message someone from a different race? Rudder is smart about the limitations of his data, and what conclusions he is willing to draw, pointing out flaws and other areas to examine. This was a swift read for one of the only non-fiction books I read all year.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

One of the only books I’ve plucked from a Free Little Library. Chabon has been a little hit or miss with me, I tend to like his longer works, not his shorter stuff. This was the book that solidified that for me though. At first, the idea of two record store nerds in the East Bay struggling with running successful business against new money gentrification, race in a predominantly black neighborhood, and being parents didn’t sounds that exciting. But Michael Chabon is a master of context. Putting familiar ingredients in new situations, drawing out the complexities of time, place, situations, upraising, the myriad of factors that simultaneously make us unique and just like everyone else. I wound up really liking this book, the weird rhythms of the language, the frank conversations about race, class, and gentrification. Chabon doesn’t shy away from the inbetweens, the white guy who identifies more with black culture than white culture, the kid who doesn’t identify as gay but does play around sexually with his other male friend, the cultural importance of home births in some cultures against the recommendation of western medicine. While written in 2012, I feel like this novel was making observations that wouldn’t become mainstream for another year or two.

The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, by Sharma Shields

I tried to read more local this year. This book was getting some good local press, Sharma Shields is from Spokane, so I decided to go for it. This book reminded me a little of George Saunders, a little of Catherynne Valente, but taking place around the state I call home. The book follows Eli over the course of his life as he attempts to find Sasquatch (or Mr. Krantz), who he met when his mother chose to leave his father for a life with Sasquatch. Weird monsters abound in chapters that read like short stories, but feed into one another. I was alarmed how jaded some of the characters became, how unstable, but then this is a story about monsters, what was I expecting?

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

My book club book this year. Charlotte and I both loved the extremely crazy Night Film, the second book by Marisha Pessl. Maddo suggested this to me many years ago, and Book Club picked it. This was not as crazy as I wanted it to be. It reads as a very literate bildungsroman that takes a real left turn in the last 100-150 pages. It’s like Pessl decided that she wanted to give the most insane but potentially plausible answer possible to the question of whodunnit and why. That was the kind of insanity that occurred in Night Film, which is my favorite of the two books. We felt okay about this book. I haven’t had a hit in like two  years at Book Club.

SUMMER

For summer, I played Summer Book Bingo with the Seattle Public Library.

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Collection of Short Stories square. My friend Aaron gave me his kindle shortly after I gave mine to Madeline. His came loaded with some books, and I had always meant to read more Vonnegut, hearing that Slaughterhouse Five, while popular, was not necessarily his greatest work. I was surprised at Vonnegut’s unique blend of New England sensibilities against utterly bizarro situations. It reads like easy-going absurdism, but I really liked pretty much all of this. Alas, I never followed up with more of his work.

Count Zero, by William Gibson

The Published The Year You Were Born square. A re-read, but one I didn’t remember at all. This book was much more coherent and much better than I remember. Gibson has a knack for futurism that I never appreciated until I re-read this. A treatise on power, money, and the ease with which people will trade their humanity for longer life and more power is portrayed on a great scale with hackers struggling to get by, and huge corporations battling for the control. I think Gibson picked up with Bradbury left off.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Banned Book square, and a book club book to boot! Most of my experience with Toni Morrison is from mandatory readings of Beloved and Song of Solomon. This is one of the only stories I read this year explicitly from the point of view of a child. It was simple, refreshing, but also incredibly sad. Morrison has a way of sketching out families, traditions, and communities with ease. In book club we talked a lot about internalized racism, but also subtler racism, the ways we act without thinking. You could also see Morrison building her powers as an author here. She already has a voice in this book, but as she wrote more, she became one of the most outstanding authors we have today. I’d be willing to read more Morrison after this.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

The Prizewinner Square. Gibson wrote the first book ever to win the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year. It deserved it. I mis-remembers a lot of Neuromancer, and found it very engaging the second time around. I was sold more on Gibson’s talent as an author to uniquely envision the near future. He was right in many, many ways. We don’t live in domes, but the communication, use of technology to placate the masses, the shrinking sense of time, the control of massive corporations, these are all things that have come to pass. All we’re missing is some of the local space tourism, and we’re getting there, we’re getting there. This book played out as a twist on a heist plot, but with enough different and philosophically different that it deserved to be its own thing. I loved re-reading this book.

Dawn, by Octavia Butler

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks square. I had wanted to read Octavia Butler’s Brood series, and when I saw it pop up on the hashtag, I was excited at the opportunity. What I wasn’t expecting was how alien this book would actually make me feel. As I said earlier, one of the immense powers of science fiction is to imagine a new situation, and to explore humanity’s reaction to that situation. In what ways do we adapt, or fail to adapt to the needs of our own survival? Butler composes one of the most powerful, most authentic reactions to encountering an alien civilization that I have read in a long time, possibly ever. The revulsion, curiosity, and difficulty flow throughout the writing. Lilith, our hero, engages in a Henrietta Lacks like exchange with an alien race, trading her cancer for the chance to rebuild human civilization several hundred years after we’ve nuked one another into oblivion. The aliens gathered all the survivors they could, and began experimenting with them to see who could adapt, who could tolerate them, and who could be swayed. Butler creates a novel that I found difficult to finish, but also singularly compelling because of how blatant but also nuanced the discussion of race, attraction, humanity, and gender roles came into play when put into context with the aliens she created. I want to keep reading these books.

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

The Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit square. This is a half-re-read for me. Sarah Vowell was recommended to me by some literary friends in 2011 or 2012. I picked up this book, stormed through the first half in an afternoon, and it fell by the wayside. I indulged too quickly and got sick. I picked it back up again to prepare for my Hawaiian vacation. I enjoyed giving this a second chance. Having heard Vowell on This American Life since then, I was able to follow her voice much better than before. I enjoyed learning about Hawaii, and things I learned in the book helped inform my journey! Some of the island history and resulting politics helped me navigate conversations a little better, and figure out where we’re supposed to be going. Also, it helped explain the immense amount of churches on the island.

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

The Outside Your Comfort Zone square. I had to read this book for work. I have nothing to say about this book, except that it sort of sickens me to see another book of his on the airport shelves when traveling this Christmas.

The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson

The Memoir square. I don’t read many memoirs, and was having a hard time figuring out what to expect. However, This turned out to be one of my favorite books of the summer, and one I talked up to friends. It made me re-evaluate what I think of as a memoir (my first introduction was George H. W. Bush on The Simpsons), and their cultural currency as unique stories, told by the people who lived them. G. Willow Wilson is a local author, introduced to me by my grandmother in LA. She sent me both of her books. I read Alif The Unseen in 2013, which I thought was fine, but didn’t want to dive deeper into her work. But this was literally the only memoir I had in the house, and it was waiting to be read.
Wilson writes about her conversion to Islam as a teenager, her decision to teach abroad in Egypt, and falling in love with a local man. This book is so wholly about different cultures colliding, coming to terms with the choice for assimilation — become an ex-pat or make the jump to “go native.” It’s a rich topic, especially within the religious context. As Americans, our culture expects immigrants or visitors to go native in America as quickly as possible (while we also remain skeptical about their motives or true allegiances), yet we seemingly cannot understand Americans who immigrate to other communities, for love, for politics, for a better chance at a life they don’t feel comfortable with here. For me, this book showed me a unique perspective, and opened up a whole new world for me that was hereto unknown. I very much want to read Wilson’s other work now.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

The Graphic Novel square. I had heard about Nimona before, but never committed to reading it. I saw Noelle Stevenson’s art on Tumblr (dwarf racist party dad) but didn’t connect the two. Kate lent the book to Charlotte, who lent it to me. I really, really enjoyed this. Comic books are strange things. We develop language through imitation, first learning to speak, to associate words with objects. Then we begin to ascribe meaning to the objects and the words. When we are learning to read, we see pictures of the objects we learn the words for, learning the shape of the sounds that we say to convey the meaning of our thoughts. Eventually, as we grow older, the pictures drop away into simple text. Not so for comic books and graphic novels, which keep the dialogue, but eschew description for a visual language, one that maybe we have forgotten to read, or must re-learn how to read. Visualization is how we first learned to communicate, and there is something about the combination of words and images that I think is still potent and different than what a standard novel may put forth. I loved Nimona, in part because Stevenson plays with shapes and our expectations about what those shapes mean, quite literally. Nimona is a girl, or at least seems like it, who teams up with the villain of a kingdom, but maybe he is not the villain? Like I said, Stevenson’s art toys with our expectations of visual language, and begins to subvert our readings for a more engaged and thoughtful presentation of identity.

Monster of the Year, by Bruce Coville

The From Your Childhood square. Bruce Coville was my favorite author as a kid. Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, these books helped define my childhood. They blended monsters and mystery with science fiction, with the child’s narrative of being special or selected, chosen to go on this grand adventure. As an adult, there are many things that I can see as borrowing or being homages to great works of science fiction and fantasy, adapted for a child’s eyes. Monster of the Year was a favorite of mine as a kid, because we loved Halloween. Although I now see it as being pretty slight (two kids accidentally run a Monster of the Year contest that attracts your classic movie monsters who turn out to be real) compared to some of the other richer works that develop the characters more. Something I like though is that Coville makes an interracial friendship just because, and also a Step-Dad. Normalizes it for kids! I read this in like 90 minutes.

This One Summer, by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

The Finish in a Day square. Another graphic novel, this one pushed into my hands by Staehli. This One Summer reminded me of Blankets, but in a good way. The story follows two girls, Rose and Wendy becoming teenagers at a lakeside cottage. This is apparently a summer tradition, but things are different as they age and begin to adopt new interests: horror movies and boys, and not engage with others, like horsing around and swimming. Rose’s parents are arguing about things that seem incomprehensible to her, and we begin to catch on. This is a subtle work that boasts amazing art, in particular for swimming scenes. There’s a lot of rich visual language in swimming that the Tamaki’s play with, in particular for navigating out of the shallows of childhood and into the deeper waters of adolescence and teenagerdom. In the same way that Craig Thompson plays with the blankets of snow, blankets on a bed, and blanket emotions in his teenage graphic novel, The One Summer plays with swimming into the deep end. I really liked this book.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The Author Under 30 square. This book came up last year in the Tournament of Books, and I put it on my to-read list. I forgot about it until I saw it in a bookstore when I was visiting a bookstore in Victoria, Canada  last year (Munro Books, founded by the short story and now Nobel Prize winning Alice Munro!). Researching writers under 30, Catton was one of the only non-children’s writers I could find. She was 29 when this was published and won the Man Booker award. The Luminaries is quite a good, a take on old-fashioned Victorian novels, where a group or one specific man recounts his travails to an audience. Yet this one is given a twist by adding usually unheard of voices in New Zealand: Chinese laborers, native Maori tribesmen, the underclass, an unwilling prostitute, their actions all mapped to the zodiac during a specific period of time. The plot is actually dictated by star patterns. I don’t pretend to know the zodiac, but the novel is entirely pleasurable beyond that piece. Neither Charlotte nor Kate could finish this, and I can see why. Unless you’re super intrigued by the central mystery and willing to wade through the artifice, you don’t have a chance. I did both and was very pleased with my decision. It also reads well for extended sessions, as this is what I read on the plane back from Hawaii.

Heat, by Bill Buford

The Re-read square. This was my second or third re-read of Heat. I find new things in it each time. Essentially the history about Italian Cooking through the starting point of Mario Batali, but also about the growth of the celebrity chef industry, this reading one made me want to visit Italy more than in previous versions. I found the portrayal of early Food Network fascinating in a sort of anthropological sense. The network has changed so much from its origins as a sort of “how-to for different cuisines” roots. Now it is basically for foodies. I did some research, and Bill Buford alludes to writing a book about French Cooking after thoroughly exploring Italian cooking for this book. 10 years later, that is still the case, as he researches and prepares different French food. I cannot wait for that book!

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Turned into a Movie square. Also a book club book! Kazuo Ishiguro got a lot of press earlier this year for The Buried Giant. I forgot that he also wrote this book about a sort of dystopian future England where certain children are very sheltered from the world in order to prepare them for a life of working in hospitals. We follow Kath, as she cares for the sick and dying all over England. At least that’s what it appears to be, but as we’ve learned, not everything is as it appears. Never Let Me Go is a strange little tale, written so close in this insular world that doesn’t seem bad, but more existentially exhausting. Roads and sick rooms, Kath’s existence seems so lonely, despite being primarily about her kept-up relationships with her friends from school and their time there. There are some echoes of Britain’s best paranoia books like 1984, but also some of it’s exquisite domestic fiction, which Ishiguro wrote, famously “The Remains of the Day.”

Native Guard, by Natasha Tretheway

The Collection of Poetry square. I don’t read much poetry, despite writing self-professed poetry texts for five years now. I still have a few  poetry collections on my bookshelf, but I was reading for speed, and all of them were at least 350 pages long. Native Guard, the prize winner of the bunch, was also the shortest at just under 90 pages. A true chapbook, rather than collection of a poet’s entire work. I really liked this, in part because I got a much clearer sense of theme from this collection. Tretheway writes about race, specifically the heritage that can come with family, the good parts and the bad parts, and dealing with the frustration and weight that can come with family, but also the pride and purpose of identity that is the second edge of the sword. I had read some of these poems in college, and was glad to come back to them anew. Also, it turns out that I really like imagery about skeletons, bones, and earth, which feature heavily.

Artful, by Ali Smith

The Checked Out From the Library square. I thought it was going to be non-fiction, a collection of essays and topics. Then the book turned out to be a book of fiction based on a series of lectures Ali Smith gave as a guest lecturer. But they’re framed as her deceased husband’s lectures (which may be truth), and during the middle of each, her writing wanders off to more journaling type work about seeing her dead husband (like something out of a George Saunders story), and her trying to re-build her life after his death. It’s a story about criticism, the things we leave behind, and the importance we give some things. I’m still not sure what I think about this. Some gorgeous writing, that was almost more about the rhythm of the words than their actual content, which is usually not my thing. I think that is why I struggle with it.

FALL

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link

A short story collection. This was a book club book, but I read it after we discussed it. Link has long been on my to-read list, but on the back burner. I leaped at the chance to finally read her and was surprised. She’s a formalist and an absurdist. Some people don’t realize this, but absurdists are usually excellent formalists, because they must know the conventions they want to break, and the ways they break cleanly, so the reader will want to continue reading, no matter how weird the story gets. At the same time, Magic for Beginners is a bit dated. I feel like Link is riffing of a certain kind of literary fiction written around the 90s and early 2000s when this came out. Having read some of those books, I’m able to pick up a bit of what she’s throwing down, mocking traditional gender roles, wholesome families, workplace dramas, and retellings of fairytales. These were pretty rote for the time, and I had to read a lot of these short stories in my undergrad class. She twists these conventions until they scream, turn into cats, turn into men wearing cat costumes, and then turn into mean wearing cat costumes on a television show you meant to watch but never did. They’re interesting intellectually, but I wouldn’t say they’re a fun read, necessarily.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Or as I called it: Neal Stephenson’s overly elaborate D&D Campaign. This is really two different stories sort of smooshed together. In the first two thirds of the book, humanity struggles to survive when the moon randomly explodes. Significant questions about getting people into space, who to send into space, and how to survive there while the moon then rains down comets for about 5000 years makes for good science fiction. There are real stakes, interesting characters (including a Neil DeGrasse Tyson mock-up), solid science, disturbing political dynamics, and some fun dry humor. The last third of the book jumps far into the future and literally plays like a D&D Campaign. I would love more stories to occur in the world that Stephenson has created in the last third, although I’m not sure how likely that will be. I read this over a weekend when I was really sick, so this may be worth a re-read.

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake

I tried. I really did. This was my second crack at Titus Groan. I got 300 pages into this thing, an oddball series written by one of the official British WWII artists dedicated to portraying the war. The only novels he ever really wrote were the Gormenghast Trilogy, which starts here. But the plot was stagnant, taking forever to move, all the characters are grotesque, and our title character is a baby for the majority of the entire story. It wasn’t fun to read, and wikipedia told me that it took another book before things really got going. WIth that death knell, I gave Kate back her family heirloom copy of the book.

Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss

The worst book I read this year. I wanted to join Indiespensible all year, and finally managed to snag a spot in September. My books shipped in October. The actual book they sent was Did You Ever Have a Family, see below. They also sent some coffee and an Advanced Reader Copy of this book, Prentiss’s debut. It is terrible. I liked reading about art scenes in A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall, but these were interminable. The male characters were all brilliant and selfish, the female characters were long-suffering muses, New York played itself, and I didn’t care about anything. I regret this book.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

To cleanse my palate, I decided to finish off the Sprawl Trilogy of William Gibson. This was again a quick propulsive read, bringing together characters from the first two novels as they attempted to deal with the consequences of spawning out a truly unregulated Artificial Intelligence, one that didn’t want to conquer the world, or destroy humanity, but instead had an existential crisis and fractured into many different personalities that take the form of Haitian Voodoo gods. That’s when things got weird on this version of the internet. This was a satisfying conclusion on the whole trilogy, and it made me want to take up some of Gibson’s other novels.

Lumberjanes, by Noelle Stevenson

For our one year anniversary in October, Staehli gave me a packet of graphic novels, which made me very pleased. We had both read Nimona, and I wanted to read Stevenson’s more regular work: Lumberjanes. I was totally pleasantly surprised. One of the TV shows we fell in love with this year Gravity Falls, and Lumberjanes reads as an alternate version of that: girls in the woods at slightly dangerous feminist summer camp battling against potentially supernatural forces that includes references right out of Indiana Jones. This was fun, affirming, and well-written. I definitely want to go back and re-visit this

Did You Ever Have a Family?, by Bill Clegg

The actual book I received for my Indiespensible package. I was afraid to read this, because it sounded sad. It didn’t sound like a book I would have chosen for myself: the morning of a wedding in small town Connecticut, tragedy strikes, people die, and everyone has to sort through their grief. This sounds like weepy literary fiction, the very kind that I find little to no interest in. But the tastemakers at Powell’s didn’t pick wrong here. I was surprised at how moving the writing was, how well it navigated small town politics, and different voices of characters. I was blown away when a small town on the Washington coast, Moclips, became a major setting of the novel. A bunch of friends spent two long weekends in that small town, and one time both Charlotte and Phoebe stayed in the very motel Clegg sets the novel, I think in perhaps the same room. This blew my mind, and it made me re-think about my connection to local fiction. It was a total surprise to see something that connects to me and the setting I find myself. I try to buy local with my groceries, my gifts, my booze, why not my literature? How many times do I need to read about New York, a place I have visited, but have no real frame of reference for? Many of the unfilled squares on the Summer Book Bingo were local things: local authors, stories set in WA. I was pleased when I read about places around here, and I want to make a bigger commitment to reading local in the future.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

A re-read for me, but a Book Club book. Having had such strong feelings about the Bone Clocks earlier this year, re-visiting Cloud Atlas wasn’t high on my list of things to read. But the opportunity to re-visit helped crystalize some of my thoughts about Mitchell as an author, but also organize my own perceptions. I think Mitchell is the least successful the closer he gets to contemporary times in Cloud Atlas, and when he is more speculative or historical, he benefits enormously. I think that is because we can tell when he’s not being realistic or emotionally honest, whereas the abstraction of setting in these other places helps distance us from an emotional reaction. I was better able to follow the similarities in each of these books this time through, how each story sets the other one up, and the theme becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on. It was also fun reading about Hawaii again, having been in some of the exact spots mentioned in the book. That was a lot of fun. I would still recommend Cloud Atlas to a certain kind of reader who was curious.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I won this book at a training for the college. I galloped through the first half, put it on a shelf and didn’t pick it back up again until almost a year later. I’m glad I did. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie got a little internet famous a few years ago for her fabulous TED talk about the danger of a single story. The story most people have of Africa doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are over 50 different countries there, each with its own government, culture, middle class, city life, and way of being. This book does well to help dispel some of the stories I had about Africa, while illuminating the African perspective into America and England. Adichie is a keen observer of race, class, and how those things change depending on what country your in. Race doesn’t matter so much in Nigeria, but class matters much more. In America, we focus so much on race rather than class. In England, class stratifies within a race too. We follow Ifemelu and then Obinze as the grow up in Nigeria, and then seek lives outside the country before returning. This is a book both about its characters, but also the way they experience those huge concepts of race, class, culture, and being ex-aptriots. I would recommend this to a wide audience.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Another book club book. I saw the movie in October (it’s great!) This is more science than fiction. Weir dreams up some neat ideas, and commits to the scientific principles. His gift isn’t in the writing though, and telegraphs some of the “twists” without any subtlety. But that’s not quite the point, I suppose, since Mark Watney is in an environment that is trying to kill him at seemingly all times. This works pretty well as a fun science thriller, where also everyone is doing their jobs pretty well. That’s something that I think is really fascinating: everyone is working at high capacity to get work done, and yes, mistakes are made, but they are calculated mistakes, rather than sloppy ones. I think you could watch the movie and do perfectly well.

Saga, Volume 3, by Bryan Vaughn
Saga, Volume 4, by Bryan Vaughn
Saga, Volume 5, by Bryan Vaughn

Staehli gave me volumes 4 & 5 for our anniversary. I re-read three to remember where things were going. We jump around in time, the inter-species family goes through some really messed up travails (what do fugitives do for work?), but some of my favorite developments were from people outside of the family: the Will, his sister, Sophia, and of course, Lying Cat. For anyone looking for a comic book with gorgeous art that isn’t about superheroes, but is science fiction/fantasy, Saga is an excellent option.

Statistics

I read 51 books this year, one shy of my 52 goal. I read:

  • 6 graphic novels (not counting the regular comic strips I read)
  • 2 memoirs
  • 4 non-fiction books
  • 8 science-fiction books
  • 2 short story collections
  • and 23 fiction novels

I re-read 6 books. I read 29 books by men, and 22 books by women (better than in previous years!). I read primarily Americans: 35. 5 Brits, 4 Canadians (3 being William Gibson), an Australian, an New Zealander, a Nigerian, and a Native American from the Spokane tribe.

Of the books I read, 26 primarily featured women characters, and I was all over the place with character identification in terms of race. Lower on the LGBTQ/ability spectrum.

Next year, I think I will spend some time tackling those longer books that have sat waiting on my shelves, the fat books I have been avoiding. I think I will focus less on numbers, and more on clearing the queue of the likes of A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, and maybe even Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I bought while drunk.

Happy 2016

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