13 books I read in 2015

Sharing your influences with others and acknowledging your gratitude for them is advocated by Austin Kleon in his book, Show your work! I was inspired to write this post after I read his book last week, and in this spirit I am sharing a partial list of the books I read this past year (including this one). These 13 books entertained me, informed me, and provoked me to think about and act in the world I live in in new ways. Most were published prior to 2015. They are listed in no particular order — certainly not in rank order. They were all good reading, and each was an unique gift from its author.

· How Paris became Paris by Joan DeJean

I rarely read history, but I was fascinated by this story of the intertwining of Parisian culture (manners, mores, social structure, politics, the development of new technologies and means of communication) and its built environment. Paris is a city that I love, and I was lucky enough to visit it again after I read this book with newfound appreciation of its geographic history.

· Urban alchemy by Mindy Thompson Fullilove

Urban alchemy touches on similar themes as How Paris became Paris, but in a modern context, focusing primarily but not solely on the United States. Dr. Fullilove is a clinical psychologist who studies the effects of community environments on the health and well-being of its residents. There is a French theme in this book also; one of its main “characters” is Dr. Fullilove’s mentor, French urbanist, Michel Cantal-Dupart.

· How music works by David Byrne

David Byrne is generous in his descriptions of his creative process, the history of his life as a multi-media artist and the practical aspects of making a living as a musician. This book inspired me to create for my brother’s birthday a slide show video of his life in pictures — with the Talking Heads “Once in a lifetime“ in the background. It wasn’t the technical aspects of this project I learned from this book, but rather a way of drawing from different kinds of inspiration to create something new.

· Just kids by Patti Smith

More insight into the makings of another incredible artist. I read this after reading a NY Times article about M Train (which I have not read yet); I wanted to know more about Patti Smith and started with her first memoir first. I had no idea about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. The story is gripping, and the writing is beautiful. (Though I don’t count it in these 13, I also read her book of poetry, Augeries of innocence, which reinforced my belief in her talent and her devotion to Art.)

· The sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I read more nonfiction than fiction this year, possibly because I am writing non-fiction myself, but this was one of the novels I did read. It takes place in the US and in Vietnam; I actually started it in the US and finished it in Saigon. I have seen/heard it listed in two ‘best books of the year’ lists. Its theme is the logic of divided loyalties derived from on different sets of ethical criteria and psychological needs. I was a bit startled by the quote from Ho Chi Minh in the book, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” It sounds so American and is such a good reason for revolution.

· Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Another new novel that I loved was Brooklyn. It is a seemingly simple story of romance, complicated by love of home and family. I thought the movie was a beautiful rendering of the written story.

· Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s appearance in a Celine ad made me think about re-reading this book that I had loved so much as a college student. I listened to the book on Audible, skillfully read by Diane Keaton. I still love this book and am more awed than ever by her immense writing talent.

· Contented dementia by Oliver James

My friend Jane recommended this book to me after I told her that my mother’s long-term and moderate dementia suddenly turned severe and delusional. Reading this book, I realized that the way I had been talking to my mother was actually torturing her, reminding her of how much she could not remember. The bottom line — it was not my job to convince her that her “reality” was not real; it was my job to adapt to hers. Very difficult stuff to practice, but it was a game changer once I did. I recommend it to anyone who is close to someone with dementia.

· The new Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

It is way past time for Americans to start talking about institutional racism and how to end it. This brilliant book presents the best, most comprehensive narrative that I have read of how our white supremacist culture created new forms of control over black people after slavery ended — embedded and codified into policies and laws in this country — from convict leasing to the War on Drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of black people. Everyone should read this book and then do something to change things.

· Between the world and me, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

This book is on many ‘best of lists’ for the year and rightly so. It is a personal story that echoes the macro level data provided in The new Jim Crow. It was of special interest to me because of Coates’ Baltimore roots; I moved to Baltimore just a year ago. The world Coates described growing up in is the same one where Freddie Gray needlessly died during police custody this past year.

· A world unsuspected: Portraits of a Southern childhood edited by Alex Harris

This book is a compilation of essays written by Southern writers inspired by family photographs from their childhoods. Some of these writers include Padgett Powell, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Alan McPherson, TR Pearson. The title of the book comes from a poem by William Carlos Williams. I bought this book over a decade ago at a tag sale. I had read only a few essays previously but picked it up again to read through from beginning to end, with interest in how words and images might collaborate with one another. I was not surprised to find that race crops up in the essays of all of these Southern writers growing up — black and white — as a matter of conscience and consciousness.

· Dream work, by Mary Oliver

I love Mary Oliver’s poetry — the spare but comprehensible writing that recognizes and celebrates what is spiritual in the natural. This book also has essays — essays about her poetry and poetry in general. I love to read writers write about their work, their process, hoping to learn something from them. I want to write like a poet even if I am writing prose.

· Show your work, by Austin Kleon

Kleon describes himself as a writer who draws. I am a photographer/visual artist who writes, and I am always looking for role models for how to combine words and images (and maybe music, but I definitely have to collaborate with a musician for that). His guidance on artistic collaboration is welcomed because though I think collaboration is useful, I am awkward at it and I’m sure I could learn to use the internet better for this purpose. Sharing this list of my influences seemed like an easy way to start.

Best wishes for 2016! Happy reading!

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