One Book Short

book-1014197_960_720Teen has a numbers quirk: they have to be even. The stereo and TV can’t be set to 9 or 11, but to 8 or 10. He’s thrilled that his birth date contains all even numbers, and irked by his rugby bag: #733.

So I won’t bother to tell him that, as of this moment, I’ve read 49 books in 2016. I might still squeeze in one more, but not in time to also blog about it. So as far we are concerned, 49 it is.

49 tops the even 30 I read in 2015, and blows away the 9-13 read by the “average” American (Pew Research Center, January 2014). I guess I could wow Teen with my page count: those 49 books contained 15,662 pages, with an average length of 326. My shortest book was also even: Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, 64 pages; my longest book, odd: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, at 531. Among Goodreads readers, the most popular book I read this year is the new Harry Potter play, The Cursed Child, while the least popular was I Dare Me by Lu Ann Cahn; and the highest rated book (for good reason!) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

My go-to genre: literature/fiction at 25 (favs this year: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, Euphoria by Lily King, and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld). Young adult comes close at 13 (favs: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson). I read more than my usual of non-fiction (two completely different, life-changing favs: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold). Surprisingly, I only read one book on faith/religion but it’s a practical book on prayer (Fervent by Priscilla Shirer), and not surprisingly, only one book of short stories which I gave up on (What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi – smart, just not for me).

I’ve summarized my 2016 reading in four posts: March 4, March 31, May 26, and September 29. Below are the books I’ve read in the last few months.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A year ago my teenage son read Just Mercy as extra credit for his high school Social Studies class. This year he read Kafka and Camus for an English class unit on existentialism. As I took up Just Mercy this month, I thought they might be of the same genre: how can it be that we live in a country founded on freedom and still incarcerate–on death row, no less–a hard-working, well-respected man with no evidence beyond skin color and fear? He might as well have woken up a bug. That might have been a better life.

Stevenson’s passion for justice and mercy for those who have been treated with less dignity than the very least of these, combined with his gift of storytelling, has opened my eyes to an aspect of America I wish didn’t exist. In this election year, I feel a new weight of responsibility to research the candidates and measures on the ballot. The headlines and bullet points cannot reveal the whole picture. Those without a voice rely on those of us who do to sing a better, more accurate song of freedom.

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a companion piece to Life After Life, this book was not what I’d hoped. I was initially glad we weren’t flipping through lives and time again as we did in Ursula’s story, but to the contrary, Teddy’s story plods along in a rather unexciting way. Even the war scenes felt mostly, surprisingly, slow. Had I not already invested hours reading the first book, I would have given up on the several hundred pages of this one.

Until the last gut-wrenching chapter.

If you haven’t read or didn’t like Life After Life, I won’t recommend this to you. If you read/like LAL, hang in there with this one.

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

LOVE! After many years, I reread one of Jane Austen’s books while on vacation. Still great, of course, but I have changed and I couldn’t love it the way I had. It felt (I know, writing these words might be sacrilege to some…) trite, superficial.

This book, though…? This book made Austen’s characters and stories real in such a great way. I honestly couldn’t put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours, including time off to sleep. I loaned it to a friend who did the same thing. We both grinned goofy-ridiculous grins because the book is goofy-ridiculous grin worthy. So. Much. Fun!

Everyone Brave is ForgivenEveryone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t particularly want to read another WW2 book, but Cleave’s Little Bee remains one of the most compelling books I’ve read. I’m so glad I gave this one a chance, as it has cemented Cleave among my favorite authors. His writing is so fresh–personal, vivid, funny, poignant. His characters become real people you’d like to know (or not). The story is so specifically focused that you almost don’t notice the war, but then, you also get new and horrifying details about the war. I’d recommend this book to just about any reader.

Today Will Be DifferentToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One weird day, and 50 years of Eleanor’s life.

She begins the day with a set of resolutions to become a better, more productive, healthier human being. (Don’t we all do that some days, even beyond our January determination?) She doesn’t achieve most of what she sets out to do/be. It’s too pie-in-the-sky to think sheer will power can override years of dysfunctional habit. But through flashbacks, we learn some of the Big Why’s that led to Eleanor’s current state of peculiarity. And through odd events that pile up one after another, she comes to new insights and revelations.

“Today” may have been as strange as any previous day in her life, but I believe in hope that Eleanor’s tomorrow will be different.

SweetbitterSweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I worked as a restaurant hostess for one short college-years summer, and that was more than enough restaurant work for me.

It was also enough to conjure specific memories–sights, smells, personalities, stress–while reading Sweetbitter. I didn’t like restaurant work, and I didn’t like this book.

The writing was fine–specific, clever. But I am not a “bright lights, big city” kinda gal, while Tess claims the day she moved to New York was the day of her real birth. She longs for Big City adventure, and yet it seemed that her world got smaller and then smaller still. She repeatedly made stupid choices she could have avoided – ones she knew she should have avoided. That’s not very interesting.

And the Big Betrayal she experiences just didn’t seem that big to me. She chose awful “friends” who hurt her. But everyone, including Tess, is so clearly awful that it didn’t seem surprising or even all that bad.

Honestly, this book was enough to make me want to avoid going to restaurants–the facade, the pretension, the dirt. I think I’ll cook at home.

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project, #2)Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confession: I have never read Austen’s original Northanger Abbey. But this book was entirely uneven… Sometimes it felt Austen-formal, others it revealed its updating. Maybe the fault is mine, that I’m not familiar with how Brits currently view social strata, influencing their behavior/attitudes. That aside, vampires? I wasn’t sure if the author was joking or serious. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, an update of Pride & Prejudice was fantastic; McDermid’s attempt at Northanger Abbey wasn’t.

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for two reasons: someone gave me a gift certificate and a recommendation, and I’ve been reading about racial injustice. Some of it was difficult to read, the violence of white supremacy, for example, but also the implication that I might be more racist than I admit. Indeed, Picoult says as much in her afterword: “I was writing to my own community–white people–who can’t recognize racism in themselves.” In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because it’s a fantastic book (it’s okay, kept me guessing) but because it offered me different views on race in the US. And for the many who are more inclined to popular fiction than nonfiction sociology, this book will serve a good purpose.

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