My belated 2016 book list and some simple thoughts.
Last year was a very difficult year. As the Atlantic wrote, “2016 took Prince and David Bowie and John Glenn and Muhammad Ali. 2016 gave us Zika, and Brexit, and so many police killings.” Carrie Fisher passed away, and she hadn’t even been strangled by her bra. Senseless and alarming acts of violence and discrimination were committed against people of color and LGBT people and other groups that supposedly have equal protection under the law. The U.S. election happened. I, for my part, developed a disturbing habit of watching CSPAN on the stairmaster at the gym in the mornings, crying with reckless abandon. When John Oliver flipped the bird at the whole damn year, I was with him 100%.
This attitude was partly a mistake. I wish so badly that things had gone differently last year. But there is a small ray of personal light that I mean to hold fast. When 2016 ended, so did an intense year of personal growth for me. To forget the year completely would be to forget what I fought hard to learn, and the beautiful things that happened to me:
- I closed the book on an intensive learning-program that forever changed the course of my life.
- I started a job that brings me great joy, top-notch challenges, and occasionally a terrible, aching despair.
- I work at a company that continually impresses me as it grows, and with people who help me to re-examine what sort of person I want to become, what sort of contribution can I make to this city and this country and this planet. I learned that standing up to hate starts with listening, learning, and respect.
- I finally got some pocket money saved and I know to whom I’m giving it; the ones who matter most to me, who fight the fights that sorely need winning in 2017.
- I moved into an apartment with a living room. I hung some things on the walls.
- I found friends that feed my soul on every level, and we lived our lives together; we surfed, picnic’ed, wined and dined, hiked, ran intervals, voted, protested, donated, cried, partied, danced, sang, improvised, debated, volunteered, and sat quietly together. And we read. We read a lot.
It is this last point of which I am most particularly proud. We formed a book club; we became a talking circle. Every month we came armed with highlighted passages and folded-down corners and things to share with and ask of one another. We argued good-naturedly and talked too loud, but we also listened fiercely. We grew beyond measure. And these meetings fueled me forward.
I promised myself I would put out a summary post last December of the books I had read. My heart was dead and apathetic in December. But it’s alive again. So I am keeping my promise. Here is what I read and what I thought about it, as expressed by a three-point scale I have just devised where 2 is best, 1 is okay, and no 0’s are included because I don’t waste time. Draw your own conclusions.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
- In sum: The perfect non-fiction pick for a book club, incredible storytelling style that had me crawling wikipedia and thinking geology was sexy again. Plus Bryson is one of the only people who might actually have the mid-atlantic accent. He reads the audio book aloud himself, which is delightful.
- On the scale: 2. Read it. Actually, listen to it.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
- In sum: I tried listening to this as an audiobook, could barely cling to the characters’ relationships, and had to start chapters over frequently. It was not the right time for with this book and me. I did not have enough historical context to understand the situation in India this book may so elegantly portray. I gave up about halfway through.
- On the scale: 1. You decide. It’s a classic, though.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
- In sum: Everybody is just a kid from somewhere, gold is not medicine, ordering green beans from a chinese restaurant is not considered a full meal, and time comes for all of us. These are some of the tidbits of wisdom I gleaned from this book. Surprising, depressing, winding and captivating, I flew through it.
- On the scale: 2. Read it.
Taliban: Islam, Oil, and the Great New Game in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid
- In sum: I read this book after getting into an argument at a bar with a racist asshole about Islam, during which he said some things about the Taliban that made me realize I had didn’t really know much about how they’d come to power in the first place. Very thorough and insightful piece of work — not for the faint of heart though, at parts gory and quite an involved read (I had to stop frequently to look things up, review maps, re-read names, etc.)
- On the scale: 1. Read it if you feel a compulsion to learn about the Taliban. Or just read some of it. Unlike taking only some of your antibiotics (which you should never do because you’ll breed super-bacteria and ruin antibiotics for everyone), you’ll still get some of the benefit.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
- In sum: This novel is a surprisingly hilarious account of a black man’s life in a fictitious suburb of L.A., where he takes over running a small farm, faces down the psychological trauma of growing up the son of an experimental psychologist, and accidentally winds up with a house slave he doesn’t want. The author’s cringe-so-good satirical style is uncomfortable in all the right ways, and I had a different emotional response every page of it.
- On the scale: 2. Listen to it right now. Best fiction book I read all year. Maybe ever.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
- In sum: a necessary book, and one that nicely avoids any standard time-linear attempt at autobiography. This thing is peppered with quotes to live by, to paint on your wall, to get tattooed on your inner forearm so you can remind yourself anytime the patriarchy needs trampling. Here’s one: “It’s said that the biggest determinant of our lives is whether we see the world as welcoming or hostile. Each becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
- On the scale: 2. Read it. And listen to it. And buy it, so you can reference it often.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot
- In sum: a collection of stories that paint a picture of San Francisco since the 1950’s. Perfect companion reading for someone new to the city who’s spending the days walking the streets of Haight-Ashbury and listening to Janis Joplin.
- On the scale: 1. Read it if you’re moving to San Francisco or you have the sneaking suspicion you don’t really know anything about the 60’s. DO NOT LISTEN TO IT ON AUDIOBOOK.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
- In sum: I laughed, I cried, I re-imagined my life as a comedic actress, I realized I didn’t want that life, I started it over, and I absorbed some very real management advice I could take to work with me. I hope some day to be able to claim Tina Fey as the comedic voice of my generation, even though I’m unclear to which generations either of us belong.
- On the scale: 2. Listen to it — nothing beats Tina doing Tina.
Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari
- In sum: This is actually a body of anthropological research that reads as real tragedy, thinly veiled by a comedic exterior. If you’re in the online dating scene, this book may convince you that surprisingly, Tinder is the most reasonable choice. If you’re not in the online dating scene and are prone to enlarging the size of your own head and constantly referencing things you’ve read to establish yourself as an expert in conversations where you should really be doing more listening, maybe skip this book. It’s not going to make your single friends love you more.
- On the scale: 1. Choose your own adventure.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
- In sum: if you only have time for one comedian’s pseudo-autobiography this year, this one might not be it. But it is pretty freakin’ hilarious. I listened to the audiobook, read by Amy herself, during a business trip and snort-laughed loudly and repeatedly on the plane.
- On the scale: 1. Perfect beach or plane listening, and a must-read if you are in that business we call “show.”
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- In sum: This is a powerful, moving story that I really am not qualified to describe. Adichie uses the blog of her main character as a platform for oration (and vociferation) on race and racism in America. She has so much to teach. Here are two good nuggets of wisdom:
- On the danger of a single story: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
- On racism: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
- On the scale: 2. Avoid it at your own peril. Listening adds a complexity and richness to the story that made this my #2 favorite book this year.
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- In sum: I re-read this book this year because I am devoted to my bookclub. It was just as luscious the second time. Junot Diaz paints us a portrait of a woman’s life in the Dominican Republic we could never experience, and then he ties it up with the American story of her children attending Rutgers University which hits so close to home I could hardly breathe. I had the privilege of seeing Mr. Diaz speak at the College of William & Mary half a decade ago; he was just as articulate and loose-lipped in person as he is on the page.
- On the scale: 2. Read it.
Homegoing: a novel by Yaa Gyasi
- In sum: You probably don’t need me to tell you, but this Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumna knocked it out of the park on her first novel at-bat. Homegoing introduced me to the terrible and important history of colonialism on the Gold Coast in Africa, a vibrant tapestry of family stories descended from chiefs, slaves, wives, and mistresses, and the magic of a stone swallowed.
- On the scale: 2. Read it. Definitely. I listened to the audiobook but would recommend reading as you’ll want to constantly reference the family tree and reread passages that give you pause.
Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates
- In sum: I listened to this book in a week during my walking commute to work, and it reshaped those streets for me. Coates gives us many things at once to feel; concern for the rituals and requirements of the streets for a young black man in Baltimore, reverence for the hallowed yard of Howard, confusion at what we believe about the definitions of race, and about what those definitions mean to us, guilt for our not knowing, resentment towards this damned American dream, profound sadness that the success of a father means he may never be truly known by his son, and so many other things. You’d do well to dig up some companion reading and analysis for this book: I like the Atlantic’s Book Club articles about it best.
- On the scale: 2. As Toni Morrison says on the cover, “This is required reading.”
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- In sum: This book was mega-hyped to me. I’ll admit the relationship between the blind girl and her great-uncle was quite dear. The characters interact with one another in a bizarre way that illuminate how close France was to complete ruin during World War II, and introduced the northern coast in a sad and lovely way. I found the end of the book deeply dissatisfying.
- On the scale: 1 Listen to it. But don’t put it at the top of your list.
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
- In sum: If you’re not already a Schumer fan, I’m confident this book will change your mind. She covers a number of surprising topics including domestic violence, consent, gun control, and why you should get used to seeing her on the cover of Vogue with a literal fire crotch. I laughed aloud through much of the book, but I found most of it to be rather heavier than anticipated. It’s a slightly complex book now that you’ve been warned (or a moderately complex one if you go in with no warning). I hope Amy would approve of my saying that.
- On the scale: 2 Listen to it. Her voice and delivery make everything better.
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
- In sum: This book is weird. Some of the stories have one too many things. However, The Man Who Invented the Calendar and Kellogg’s are delightful and worth skipping to if you don’t want to hang in through the full thing.
- On the scale: 1. Listen to it.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
- In sum: I cannot believe this true story was not more widely publicized, and if the family involved were organizing a peaceful protest for it now I would be on the next plane the New Orleans. Zeitoun is the stark retelling of a husband and wife who are separated during Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing racist, bigoted ordeal he experiences while illegally imprisoned for weeks while his wife scrambles to find him. The wife’s transformation from prolonged anxiety is raw and scary.
- On the scale: 2. Read it with tissues at the ready.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
- In sum: I read this as a pick-me-up after Zeitoun because I knew I could count on David Sedaris to spin yarns about taxidermy and diabetes into fun bedtime banter. If you’ve never read one of his collections, this is a particularly good place to start. If you’ve never heard his voice, I strongly suggest listening instead, so you can really get the shape of the thing in your mind.
- On the scale: 2. Please. Nearly all Sedaris is pure gold.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
- In sum: I listened to this book while training for a marathon, and you should too. This reflective piece from the prolific novelist gives the reader a window into how one habit changed the course of Murakami’s life. He covers his metamorphosis from a chain-smoking barkeep and baseball fan to one of the greatest writers of our lifetime. He also accomplishes something most distance runners would find inconceivable by calling forth a detailed recollection of his physical sensations, mental meanderings, and emotional fluctuations throughout the course of an ultramarathon. There are many lessons in this life story.
- On the scale: 2. It is not to be missed.
Brain Over Binge by Kathryn Hansen
- In sum: This is a specific book choice and one I don’t expect most of my friends and peers to consider reading. I thought hard about not including it in my list, but it is a book I read (twice) in 2016 and for someone out there, it may be a very important find. This book changed the way I think about eating disorder treatment and, more generally, the way we experience impulses. Though I don’t love some of the language used in it (in particular the phrase “animal brain”) the concepts are simple to understand and quite novel in comparison with traditional treatment approaches.
- On the scale: 1. You will know if this book could be important to you.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
- In sum: Didion brings us the essence of northern California through this first collection of magazine articles that blend a lavish and lengthy attention to detail with gritty reporting on the comings and goings of the people she interviews. Each essay is a portrait, and you get the sense the subject didn’t exactly know they were sitting for one. The author’s signature voice is present but not overdone, and it comes beautifully to life in the audiobook read by Diane Keaton.
- On the scale: 2. Required reading for all Californians, native or otherwise. An irresistible listen.
The Girls: A Novel by Emma Cline
- In sum: This knock-out first novel by 27-year-old Emma Cline reimagines the stories of the women surrounding a certain enigmatic cult leader. She renames him, removes him almost completely from the plot, and migrates the narrative north to the streets of San Francisco. It is, at first glance, the bildungsroman of a teenage girl and her slow, sticky, 14th summer gone horribly wrong. But a closer look reveals an intense focus on the covens of women, on the power of inclusion and the devastation of the opposite, on the way choices about fashion, food, and focus draw party lines more powerful than any passing encounter with the opposite sex.
- On the scale: 2. Read it carefully.
Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
In sum: This book is for anyone who is or who interacts with (or hopes to interact with) women ages 12 and up on a regular basis. Orenstein blew my mind by telling me stories she’d heard which I could have been telling right back to her. My bookclub riffed on this book for 3 hours and 8 bottles of wine straight, and we picked it up again in small group discussions the next week. I gave it to my parents and my brother for Christmas and yacked my face off about it to my friends at work. Key takeaway: “Can there be true equality in the classroom and the boardroom if there isn’t in the bedroom?”
- On the scale: 2. Best for last — my favorite non-fiction book of the year.