2018: Reading Year in Review

Happy New Year! As I usually do on the last day of the year, I’m posting a review of my year in reading. I took the trouble to make an image of my Goodreads Year in Books and then decided not to post it here. I guess I’m fickle.

First, some data:

  • I exceeded my reading goal of 50 books by one and read 51 books total.
  • I read 15,291 words, which was 2,956 fewer than last year. But I probably made that up quite easily and then some with grad school reading, which isn’t counted.
  • That’s an average of 300 pages per book; last year’s average was 366 pages, so it looks like in general, more of the books I read were shorter. That makes sense to me, as I actively sought shorter books I could finish since I started graduate school. Longer books just seemed too daunting.
  • That works out to about 42 pages per day.
  • My shortest book was P is for Pterodactyl, which I didn’t review. It’s a children’s book with 32 pages. My longest book, which I actually just finished in 2018 and started in 2017, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I read for a 2017-2018 reading challenge.
  • The most popular book I read this year was The Great Gatsby, which 3,391,871 read. It’s still so widely assigned in schools. I wonder how many students are posting on Goodreads? My least popular book was The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, which only 30 people read.

My progress with reading challenges was mixed. I only read 1 book for the Author Love Challenge. I just never did get around to reading the other James Baldwin books I wanted to read, but I am reading If Beale Street Could Talk right now. I came close to reading the 6 books I committed to reading for the Back to the Classics Challenge; I read a total of 5. Only one was not a re-read. I surpassed my commitment of 5 books for the British Books Challenge by reading 11. The Foodies Read Challenge was another close one: I read 5 out of the 6 books I committed to reading; 3 out of the 5 were cookbooks I read cover to cover. I also surpassed my commitment level of 5 books for the Historical Fiction Challenge at 7 books. I knew when I took on the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge that I’d never complete it because the number of books minimum was too high, but I am proud of the fact that the books I read for the challenge represent 11 different countries. I almost completed the Monthly Motif Challenge. It shouldn’t have done so, but the one motif that tripped me up was Vacation Reads. I just couldn’t think of anything to count for that one. So I counted 11 out of 12 books I committed to reading. I only read 1 book for the R. I. P. Challenge this year. I committed to 4, so I didn’t do well, but that was right when I was starting grad school and looking for balance with school, work, and life, so I can’t feel bad about it. I finished the Chronological Sherlock Homes Challenge. I started it in January of 2017, so it was a matter of finishing the remaining stories. I committed to reading 10 books for the Share-a-Tea Challenge, but I ultimately gave up on that one because I just drink a ton of tea, but I don’t drink a lot of different kinds, so it felt funny to say the same thing every time. I only counted 2 books for that one.

Of the 51 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 28 books of fiction
  • 16 books of nonfiction
  • 7 books of poetry or verse
  • No dramas
  • 9 audio books
  • 8 re-reads
  • No graphic novels/memoirs
  • 2 children’s picture books
  • 2 YA/middle grade books

My favorites from selected categories are below with linked reviews if available or Amazon links if not—I didn’t have as much time to blog when I started grad school.

Fiction

There There 

Nonfiction

Poetry

Audio

 

YA/Middle Grades

My least favorite books of the year were We Have Always Lived in the CastleSo Long and Thanks for All the Fish, and The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs.

And finally, here is my map, which includes the settings or home base of the authors for each of the books I read:

Here’s to a happy reading year in 2019!

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

I read Killers of the Flower Moon on the recommendation of a friend. Some of my own family lived in Oklahoma at the time of the events described in this book, though they lived near the Texas border in the southern part of the state rather than near Osage County. This is not history you will likely hear about in school, partly because the victims are subsumed into the greater genocide that white Americans perpetrated against Native Americans.

The book has all the drama of a true crime story. In spite of the fact that the book opens with several Osage murders, the pace is a bit boggy until Grann begins to unravel the web of deceit and murder at the heart and uncovers the vast murder conspiracy to defraud the Osage of their money and oil headrights. It was also difficult to keep up with the large number of people in the story, and a table or glossary of some kind would have helped. Still, the story is riveting, and once the pace picks up, the story is hard to put down and moves swiftly. Punctuated with photographs throughout and descriptions of Osage County, the story also evokes the setting, placing the reader right there in the midst of the events.

Reading this book for me had me wondering about my own family history. Many of my ancestors lived in Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” My great-great-grandmother is listed on the 1900 U.S. Census as living in “Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory.” I have never heard any stories about their relationships with Native Americans. Of course, there is the ubiquitous untrue story about having Native American ancestry in the family. Later on, my grandmother was born in the same area of the state, and I remember visiting my great-grandparents while they were living in Ardmore, OK. In fact, I still have a lot of family living there. I remember my great-grandmother’s younger brother Willard, who grew yellow watermelons and sold them. I remember his twin sister Wilma, who introduced me to German chocolate cake. Looking at the faces of white people in the photographs in Grann’s book was like looking at my own family members. It reminded me again how connected all of us really are and how much of what happened in the past still touches us in the present.

Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Third time’s a charm. I have tried to finish this book twice before, and I stalled out in about the same place both times. I decided to try to finish it this time because Carol Jago is leading a book club discussion of the book on Facebook for the National Council of Teachers of English members. I knew the problem with not being able to finish the book was me. Everyone I know who has read this book loved it, and I love Adichie, too, and I knew I should love this book. For some reason, I was just getting stuck right around the first part that focuses on Obinze. For what it’s worth, I do think the Obinze sections drag a bit, and I’m not sure why because his story is interesting, especially his sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in the UK.

When I was at lunch at work a couple of weeks ago, I complained about getting stuck with this book. One of the people listening to me complain asked me if I’d tried the audiobook. I listen to audio books all the time, but I had this one Kindle, so no, I hadn’t tried the audiobook, but I decided it might be just the thing to get me past being stuck. Once I got past that part, I admit I was riveted by the book. I was puttering around the house the last week or so, listening whenever I could.

One quibble I think I have with the book is the notion that Ifemelu’s blogs take off so quickly in popularity. I suppose some people get lucky in that regard, and yes, I’ve been approached for advertising on my education blog (which I don’t feel comfortable doing), but it seemed a bit unrealistic to me that her blogs both became so popular so fast. However, in the grand scheme of the book, this issue is so minor as to be nearly nonexistent. Adichie offers a thoughtful critique of race and class America, the UK, and Nigeria, as her characters explore their identities and struggle to make it as immigrants.

I understand a movie is in the offing, and that Lupita Nyong’o has been cast as Ifemelu and David Oyelowo as Obinze. The book could certainly make a good film, though I wonder how it will capture all the complexity of the novel. I could see teaching this novel at the college level, though I think it might be a bit too long for high school students, even in AP classes. However, it would offer wonderful opportunities for discussion with a class novel study. I would recommend this book to everyone, but I think white liberals especially have something to learn from this book.

Review: There There, Tommy Orange

This book is a stunner. I checked into it after hearing so many teacher friends talking about it on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. I plan to incorporate it into my curriculum for a new Social Justice in Literature and History course I will be proposing.

Not only is the language masterful, but Tommy Orange created memorable characters, connected in some ways to other characters. All their paths will converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. I haven’t quite read anything like it from a Native American writer, in part because Orange focuses on the “urban Indian.” I learned quite a few things I didn’t know from this book as well. For example, I had no idea Native Americans “occupied” Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The book raises many issues worthy of discussion, from the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, to spousal abuse, to child neglect, to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the importance of storytelling, to recapturing lost culture, to OCD. Yet, it never feels like a novel stacking as many issues as society confronts as it can all at once. It just feels like it’s telling it like it is.

By the end, I was invested in the characters and hoped they might each find some closure. It’s a beautiful, poignant novel, and if I hadn’t read Homegoing this year, it would run away with the title of the best book of the year for me. As it is, it’s a tough call. I might have to have two favorites.

I am calling it a wrap on the Monthly Motif Challenge for 2018 and electing to classify this as a repeat of the “Diversify Your Reading” theme from January. I never did a Vacation Read in July. Perhaps I’ll try to squeeze that last book in during my winter break.

November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

[rating:4.5/5]

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

[rating:5/5]

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

[rating:3/5]

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

[rating:4/5]

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

I read this book along with other administrators and department chairs at my school. While I think it covers an interesting topic well, it’s nothing new to folks who have read The New Jim Crow or who have been engaged in learning and reading about issues of social justice. The book’s real value is in the Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT). These tests are very interesting and typically reveal that we have preferences for people who exhibit the dominant or so-called “default” attribute—white people/black people; thin people/overweight people; young people/old people; non-Muslim/Muslim; male/female. In most instances, even people who share characteristics of the non-dominant group will show implicit bias toward the dominant. For example, many would associate men more with work and women more with the home. Still. There are several tests you can take, and the results are really interesting.

Weirdly, the test revealed I have a preference for black people over white people. I have no idea how to explain this because my results should have demonstrated a preference for white people, especially since I am among that group. Even African Americans who take the test often demonstrate a preference for white people. I was sure I had done the test wrong or “gamed” it somehow. I took it three times. Each time, the result was the same, no matter whether I used paper/pencil, an iPad, or a computer. I just took it again for the fourth time. Same result. Always a moderate or slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. I don’t know what’s up with the result. I’m not disappointed or upset about it, but I am surprised because I expected the IAT to reveal a different result. I have a lot of questions about how malleable the brain is. We are hardwired to categorize and to stereotype because it helped keep us safe when we were developing as a species. Strange “others” were often dangerous. I have done a great deal of work on trying to root out racism. I am not perfect, but I have put in a lot of effort to be better. Has the work I have done in this area changed my brain? I was not raised to be non-racist. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. I had to work very hard to root out explicit bias, so I really expected more of an implicit bias to remain. And in some of the tests, my results revealed an automatic preference for a dominant group. I could stand to lose a few pounds for sure, and my test revealed I have a preference for thin people over overweight people. I demonstrated an automatic preference for non-Muslims over Muslims. The key, as the authors note in the book, is not to beat yourself up because you have automatic preferences you didn’t realize you had—instead, realize you have them and actively work against them. Even the authors admit they have automatic preferences for the “dominant” group when they take the test.

I take issue with the authors’ assertion in Appendix 2:

Explicit bias is infrequent; implicit bias is pervasive. Appendix 1 presented the evidence that early twenty-first century Americans display low levels of explicit (overt) race prejudice in survey studies. This is a well-documented and striking reduction from the overt expressions of prejudice that were commonplace in studies done fifty to seventy-five years previously. (208)

Okay, I know the authors are at Harvard, in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” but really? They think explicit bias is infrequent? They must not be on Facebook or Twitter. True, the tiki torches came out in Charlottesville after this book was published, but Donald Trump was campaigning on his hateful rhetoric when the paperback came out. I don’t know where the authors are looking, but I see overt racial prejudice everywhere. I agree implicit bias is pervasive.

Our discussion of the book this morning was rich and interesting. I suppose the main reason this book didn’t earn more stars from me was the fact that much of the information revealed wasn’t new to me, and perhaps that is why the book felt repetitive. This book might be best for people who are just beginning to explore issues of social justice, or for people who haven’t explored it at all.

R.I.P. Challenge 13

RIP ChallengeIt’s that time of year again. Time for the R. I. P. Challenge! This is my favorite reading challenge for many reasons. There is a real sense of community and fun surrounding this challenge, and it’s also perfectly suited to the time of year.

I hope I’m not biting off more than I can chew because I am starting my doctoral program in a couple of weeks, but I’d like to shoot for Peril the First: reading four books that fall into one of these categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, and Supernatural.

I am not sure what books I will count yet, but follow this challenge and my other reading challenges on my reading challenge progress page.

As a side note, I haven’t updated the blog in a while, but I have read a couple more books that I decided not to review because I was feeling fairly “meh” about them. Both of them are part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

I think everyone has been recommending this book to me. It’s been on my TBR list for a while. Sing, Unburied, Sing is drawing comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Ward acknowledges she was “thinking about” when she wrote, in addition to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Odyssey, though she didn’t re-read any of these books as part of her process. Rather, she turned to histories of Mississippi, particularly of Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Jojo and his mother Leonie narrate most of the book. Jojo is easy to empathize with: he’s known such suffering, and he will know more, but he also is capable of great love. It would be easy to reject Leonie entirely, given her abusive parenting and drug addiction, but Ward doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily. She shows us Leonie’s pain and humanity, too, and even if we can’t forgive her, like we know Jojo will also not be able to do, we can’t dismiss her entirely, either.

The imagery at the end of this book will stay with me for a long time. When Jesmyn Ward places herself as part of a “long line” and says she feels “like all of those writers—from William Faulkner, to Richard Wright, to Eudora Welty, to Margaret Walker,” insisting that these writers have “affected [her] writing,” one can hardly argue (interview excerpts in paperback edition). She evokes the same Mississippi, from the Delta to the clay to the ghosts. Ward centers those stories in our present day, but her novel is also tethered to the past and explores the ways in which we are our histories, our present, and our future all wrapped in one.

In trying to put language to my thoughts, I found myself reading Tracy K. Smith’s review in The New York Times, and she captures my thoughts so well:

Maybe that’s the miracle here: that ordinary people whose lives have become so easy to classify into categories like rural poor, drug-dependent, products of the criminal justice system, possess the weight and the value of the mythic—and not only after death; that 13-year-olds like Jojo might be worthy of our rapt attention while their lives are just beginning.

That’s the magic of this book. Characters that many readers might be tempted to dismiss as unworthy of our attention become mythically important. At the same time, the characters are very real. I feel like I have known them, especially as I lived in the South and have Southern roots. Faulkner famously said once that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere else does that claim feel truer to me than in the South, even though the area of the country where I live now has more “history,” if one measures in the number of years since it’s been colonized. There is a passage from the viewpoint of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died at Parchman Farm, that captures the way history seems to hang onto the land in the South and also captures something of the lyricism of Ward’s writing:

I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me into it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

I was trapped, as trapped as I’d been in the room of the pines where I woke up… Parchman had imprisoned me again. I wandered the new prison night after night. It was a place bound by cinder blocks and cement… I spent so many turns of the earth at the new Parchman… I despaired, burrowed into the dirt, slept, and rose to witness the newborn Parchman. I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. I thought I was in a bad dream. I thought that if I burrowed and slept and woke again, I would be back in the new Parchman, but instead, when I slept and woke, I was in the Delta before the prison, and Native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke. Bewildered, I burrowed and slept and woke to the new Parchman again, to men who wore their hair long and braided to the scalps, who sat for hours in small windowless rooms, staring at big black boxes that streamed dreams. Their faces in the blue light were stiff as corpses. I burrowed and slept and woke many times before I realized this was the nature of time. (186-187)

If you hover over the Mississippi State Penitentiary, previously known as Parchman Farm, in Google Maps, you can’t help but notice how blighted the landscape looks. I am especially struck by the roundness of the landscape. It definitely looks like it holds history.

Mississippi State Penitentiary
Mississippi State Penitentiary via Google Maps

Here’s a classic song about Parchman Farm, one of my favorite old Delta blues songs, by Bukka White.

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

My husband and I finished listening to this one tonight. I had previously listened to and reviewed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I hadn’t gotten around to this one yet. After listening to Hitchhiker’s Guide together, we decided to keep going.

These books are relatively short and pretty funny. My husband remarked after we finished the book that Douglas Adams must not have been an outliner, and I agree, this one felt like it meandered a bit—literally like the writer might have been going along for the ride to see where the characters would take him. I’m not sure it is quite as good as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it’s not bad, and Martin Freeman is an excellent narrator. The production values on this audiobook are considerable as well. At times, Freeman’s voice is digitally altered. I believe this series of audiobooks was released to coincide with the film in 2005, in which Freeman played Arthur Dent.

The book is no good as a standalone. It picks up right where The Hitchhiker’s Guide leaves off, and it ends without tying together any loose ends. It feels very much like what it is: a book in the middle of a series. It’s definitely a fun book and probably more fun in audio