My Year in Books 2016



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.


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


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


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


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


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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Review: The Singing Bones


The Singing Bones
The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent companion piece to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The quality of the hardback is excellent, and Tan’s sculptures are exquisite. My only criticism, and the only reason I can’t give the book 5 stars on its own merit is the format. To draw focus to the artist, the tales were distilled into single paragraphs on the facing pages of each photograph. While well-intentioned, there is just no way to take stories as wonderfully simple and flowing as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or Rapunzel and compress them to a few sentences. I know the concept was not to be an illustrated Grimm’s Tales, and I don’t know how best they should have juxtaposed the two, but it was simply stilted. The sculptures are plucked right from the mythological core of each tale and they are staged beautifully. I cannot compliment them enough (and certainly not with mere words). But they belong alongside the full tales or in a book on their own. Every admirer of folklore & fairy tales must check out Shaun Tan.

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Review: Big Fish


Big Fish
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very charming book, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s always refreshing to read a southern writer. I have to say, after reading this book only because I loved the movie (like so many others, I’m sure), that the movie makers did an astounding job of adapting it. The book is chronological, simple, and sparsely told. The movie not only adds characters, nuances, and scenes, it also tells the story nonlinearly and mixes elements of several of the tall tales together.

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Review: The Secret History


The Secret History
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started off so well, opening with a murder, with intrigue, with the premise of well-to-do socialites drawn in to exploring their ancient carnal natures. There was even a passage toward the beginning–by whom I assumed would take on a leading role but turned out to be little more than a side character–about how the Greeks believed in ritualistically cutting loose since repression was prerequisite to cold-blooded, predatory evil. I thought that’s what this book was going to be about, and in the exposition, it certainly seemed headed in that direction.

Around page 150, Henry confides in the narrator the group’s machinations, popping the bubble Tartt so carefully constructed, and dashing the book’s sense of mystery. From there on out came 400 pages of prose consisting mostly of various characters visiting other characters’ dwellings in every conceivable combination to talk about “what to do next.” The author obsesses over drinking, smoking, sexual pairings, prescription drugs, food, and insomnia. I got the same nihilistic impression from Another Country, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, that sense of “how is this kind of depraved, shallow materialism supposed to drive the plot forward?” It’s employed not as a device or critique, but presented as the actual meat-and-potatoes of the book itself, that I am supposed to spend 400 pages caring about these trust fund babies’ furtive glances, hurt feelings, fragile friendships, sleeping and eating habits, blackout episodes, and betrayals. I didn’t.

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Review: Lit


Lit by Mary Karr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly deep, heartfelt memoir. There are lots of references to the author’s childhood and mother that are alluded to either sideways or conspicuously glossed over. I assume it is because the author assumes the reader has read The Liars’ Club. I haven’t, but I intend to, after this. Perhaps the themes of broken childhood and alcoholism are too tightly interwoven to completely separate. My only criticism is that, like most books longer than 300 pages, the author drones sometimes, or gets off on tangents unrelated to the central story. Of course, it is difficult to stick to a central story with the memoir format, but still. There was cuttable material here. What’s left is a well-written exploration of a woman’s interior — that of alcoholism, brokenness, and literary light.

Oh, and funny as hell:

In natural childbirth classes, with women sprawled around the room on wrestling mats, the men had seemed mystified by the process. One night in the car going home, Warren said, When are we supposed to learn the stuff that stops the pain?
We already have, I said. That’s what the breathing exercises are.
My God, he said, that won’t accomplish anything.

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