My Year in Books 2016

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Done!

At the beginning of 2016 I set out to read a book a week. I failed. I read 50 of the 52 books I’d set out to read, but as you may imagine I’m hardly disappointed. Although I read only 4 books more than last year, I read longer books, a total of 12606 pages over last year’s 8903. Although this reflects an average length of only 250 pages, I’m happy with my decision to remain focused on short books, maximizing the variety of my experience. I did a slightly worse job at gender balancing, reading 34 male-authored books vs 16 female-authored as opposed to a 70/30 split last year. Overall I’m pleased with my results and a little wearied. 34 pages a day translates to about an hour of consistent time set aside for the hobby (reading before bed most nights, with the occasional 2-3 hour “curl-up” session). That means I spent 1/24th of my life last year reading books in addition to eating, working, sleeping, etc. That’s pretty substantial, and represents what feels like my realistic upper limit.

Awards

Best Book of the Year: Reading Lolita In Tehran, by Azar Nafisi — I give this the highest praise. The author writes with poise, intelligence, class, and insightfulness about life during a time of revolution. (Runner Ups: The Snow Leopard, The Secret Life of Bees, Longitude)

Worst Book: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — Really, this boring, monotonous, depressing thing won a Pulitzer? (Runner Up: Incubus, Bushwhackers)

Most Overrated: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr — I enjoyed reading it, but it’s about on par with About Grace, a decent, enjoyable book. There is something wrong with the fact that people exploded with unbounded praise over it that I still haven’t figured out. I still contend that The Shell Collector is his best work. (Runner Ups: The Secret History, The Plot Against America, Alice in Wonderland)

Best Indie Book: The Pugilist, by Sylvia McKenzie — Really, this is an impressive new voice in the literary landscape, and you should check her out.

Best War Book: The Coming Fury, by Bruce Catton — Blew my socks off. I learned so much about the Civil War and the months leading up to it.

Funniest: Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe — Do not underestimate the power of this book. It may be a gag gift, but it’s both hysterical and educational. I love an author who plays with form, and this is about as unique as you can get: a labelled picture book, not a novel, not a text book, not a comic strip, not a graphic novel, totally its own thing!

Pinker Award: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker — I’d rate it “best book” but I read the bulk of it in 2015. It deserves its own category. In future years I’ll give the Pinker Award to the nonfiction book that most deeply affects my worldview. For more about this incredible tome, I wrote an entire series of blog posts unpacking each chapter.

Honorable Mention

I can’t help plugging my own book. Impossible is the task to rank or categorize it against the backdrop of existing work, classic or contemporary (I’m a wee bit biased). Yet it is worth mentioning that years of sweat and toil culminated in my own carefully curated drop in the literary ocean on April 28th, 2016 with the publication of The Gingerbread Collection. Thanks to all who contributed, read, and/or reviewed it, and I hope many more of you do so in the future! I am already working on my next big project. May my best work still lie ahead of me.

Click on the icons below to read my individual reviews on Goodreads. (Copied from my 2016 Reading Challenge.)

Review: Daughters of Copper Woman

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Daughters of Copper Woman
Daughters of Copper Woman by Anne Cameron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review. Like Night or Between the World and Me, it’s impossible for me to pass judgment on the firsthand account of an oppressed culture’s history. I can say that I admire the ever peaceful, ever hopeful worldview this tribe embraces. The first few chapters start with their creation myths and I thought, well this will be refreshing. But the book transforms into a selection of stories plucked from an oral history passed down by tribe “memorizers.” The stories are so visceral, told as if they happened yesterday, they lend an instant credence. The story flows to the present, as the author grapples with the question of why this generation’s memorizer has granted permission, for the first time ever, for these stories (that were once a secret protected by a women’s society) to be written down. Her answer is the most wholesome fulfillment of the book. Twofold:

I. Diseases and violence, brought by “the strangers,” has wiped out so many of us that huge swaths of our cultural history has been lost with us. What’s left must be preserved in a modern way.

II. There has been an awakening of late (1981) in women’s awareness of their own innate value and powers that has been systematically suppressed by Western culture and its colonial advance. We have lessons from the Copper Woman that can benefit women everywhere thirsting for a guide to discovering their power. (In modern parlance: Feminism can benefit by studying the ancient wisdom of matriarchal societies.)

Again, this book is not for me. I appreciate its weight, and I heartily recommend it to women everywhere.

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Review: The Snow Leopard

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The Snow Leopard
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been rating a lot of books four stars lately. I wouldn’t call it a rut. There are lots of good books out there and I’m glad I’ve read them. Some, because I feel I should have and I’m glad for the belt notch (The Secret History, The Secret Garden), others because they were remarkable finds and charming reads but they may have fallen just short of greatness (The Planets, The Singing Bones).

The Snow Leopard is a remarkable book, rightfully shelved as a great American travelogue. It fulfills every expectation from its genre. The author perfectly balances his account of a personal, spiritual journey with his physical, geographic, scenic journey. Even the title lends itself to a motif, the goal of seeing an elusive, beautiful creature out in the snowy wastes, and the author does not fail to use this symbol to impart the lessons he learned. I may never set foot in Nepal or Tibet, but I understand how such a sparse, introspective religion as Buddhism could have thrived there. Westerners really only associate Nepal and the Himalaya with Mount Everest, and that very male, western, phallic mission of conquering her summit. Mathiessen’s journey had nothing to do with mountain climbing and everything to do with studying wildlife, visiting temples, and meeting the local lamas. That mission breathes a fresh vitality into the Abode of Snow as a place of discovery, healing, introspection, and wonder.

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Review: The Planets

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The Planets
The Planets by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I strongly recommend this to anyone who has not ever been touched by a sense of wonder in science. I read Longitude a few weeks ago, and stumbled over this one at the bookstore when I was looking for Galileo’s Daughter. I am getting the feeling that I can read anything this author has to write. She has a fluid way of guiding the reader through scientific concepts while educating and entertaining, conveying the childlike sense of wonder that drives her profession. As for those who already have caught the science bug, this is a charming, easy read, but won’t go into much detail or teach you all that much you don’t already know. She reviews the basic astronomical catechism about Saturn’s rings, Mercury’s orbit, the moon’s origin, Neptune & Pluto’s discovery, etc. If you are already hip to that kind of thing, read Music of the Spheres for a mind-blowing, life changing tour through the solar system. The Planets is basically Music of the Spheres lite.

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Review: The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a joy to read. I wish I’d read it at a young age. It never even occurred to me it was a book until I saw it on the shelf. I’d just never heard of it before. So I guess I should say, every fan of this wonderful movie should check out the primary source! It reads like a Beatrix Potter story. Slightly Victorian in tradition (1911), easy to read, introducing young people to difficult concepts like sickness, life and death. Best of all, telling the story in metaphor and in literal plot that it is healthy and magical to spend time outdoors.

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