Well, it’s almost a new year, and you know what that means. No, it’s not time to start a diet (well, maybe it is). It’s time for a final check in with the 2015 Reading Challenge. I try to be honest in this blog, so let me state for the record: I kind of forgot about our vow to read outside our comfort zones. At a certain point, I just started reading the books that spoke to me, for whatever reason. In total, I read 27 books this year (possibly 28; I’m hoping to finish Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours by the end of the year, thus fulfilling the category, “A Pulitzer Prize-winning book”).
What’s your total for the year? I didn’t break 30, which is the number of books I read last year, but that just means I have a new goal for 2016. Below is a brief list and summary of my most recent books read. If you’re interested in learning about the rest of my 2015 reading list, check out the March and July installments of “What Have You Read Lately.”
Gorge–Kara Richardson Whitely
(A book with a one-word title)
Kara Richardson Whitely climbed Kilimanjaro three times, and her most recent trek happened while she weighed 300 pounds. Her accomplishments are astounding and her depictions of food addiction are honest and raw. Like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, this book makes me want to hike a mountain (a small mountain. Maybe more of a hill).
One Last Thing Before I Go–Jonathan Tropper
(A book with a number in the title)
One Last Thing Before I Go is typical Jonathan Tropper: humorous and heartfelt, with a dollop of the morose. In short: washed-up rock star/subpar father of a teenage daughter learns he has a potentially fatal heart condition and tries to decide whether to go through with a life-saving surgery. I am a big, big fan of This is Where I Leave You, a previous Tropper novel. Unfortunately, this pales in comparison. You never want to look for reasons to put a book down, but there were times when that happened with this one.
Everything I Never Told You–Celeste Ng
(A book by a female author)
From the first sentence (and it’s a doozy of a good one), I could not put it down. This is the story of how the mysterious death of a favorite daughter strains an already tenuous Chinese-American family in 1970s Ohio. Questions that arise reveal how little the family truly knew about the girl. I found the writing to be absolutely exquisite, delicate, and moving. In addition to family dynamics, the book also explores racial and cultural identity in a very thoughtful manner, asking this bigger question: Is it better to fit in or to stand apart? Be warned that despite overwhelmingly positive formal reviews, I have read quite a few Goodreads and Amazon reviewers who found the characters to be unsympathetic and the story too depressing. I disagree, so read it for yourself to form your own opinion.
Go Set a Watchman–Harper Lee
(A book with bad reviews)
I have personal opinions about the circumstances surrounding the publication of this book. But I will just say, in my opinion, no, of course this book is not as good as To Kill A Mockingbird. And why should it be? At this point, it is a well-known fact that Go Set a Watchman is really a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. Some scenes feel underdeveloped and some of the dialogue is choppy. Perfectly reasonable for a draft, but not really acceptable for a published novel. On the bright side, my image of Atticus and Maycomb County is untarnished because, like the final episode of Roseanne, I prefer to think that this is just an aberration, a funny little peculiarity unrelated to the established narrative.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikrey–Gabrielle Zevin
(A book a friend recommended)
The friend who recommended this utterly charming book is one of our awesome LPL librarians. She also recommended Fun Home and made me aware of Gorge, so Helene deserves a big Thank You! Thirty-nine-year-old widower A.J. Fikry is an unlikely romantic hero: He’s cranky, he drinks too much, his small-town bookstore is failing, and don’t get him started on the state of publishing. Revealing much more would diminish the magic of this book–and the experience of reading it really did feel magical. I started it on a Friday evening and finished Sunday around noon. I think that says it all. I have my fingers crossed that this gets scooped up by Hallmark and made into a picturesque Hallmark Hall of Fame Sunday night movie (I mean this as the highest compliment; I adore Hallmark movies in a thoroughly unironic way).
The Hand that Feeds You–A.J. Rich
(Also a book a friend recommended)
Do nice people attract murderers? Can we ever really know a person? Inspired by the betrayal of a friend in real life, A.J. Rich (a nom de plume for co-authors Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment) explores the dark underside of love and altruism. When the main character, Morgan, learns her fiancee was not who he claimed, she enters a dangerous and winding mystery. Although it felt weighed down by useless details (do we really need to know the names of every cheese store, bar and park where Morgan goes?) and an overzealous dog rescue subplot, the story was suspenseful and kept my attention for the most part. Another awesome LPL librarian deserves the credit for passing this one along to me (Thank you, Amy!).
After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story–Michael Hainey
(A book based on a true story)
I’m not sure After Visiting Friends exactly fulfills the spirit of this category. It is technically a biography…so doesn’t that mean it’s based on a true story? Semantics aside, this was a slow burner; it took some time to warm up, but once it did, I found myself easily reading a hundred pages during a road trip (don’t worry, I wasn’t the driver). Michael Hainey, an editor for GQ, was only six when his father, a seasoned Chicago newspaperman, dies suddenly. His death is never explained to Michael, and when the son discovers inconsistencies in death notices, he decides to use his journalistic skills (a family trait) to learn the truth about a man who had become more of a myth than a father to him. I could feel my anticipation rising as Hainey inched closer and closer to the ultimate truth. I also particularly enjoyed getting a peek inside the world of old school newspaper reporting.
Why Not Me–Mindy Kaling
(A nonfiction book)
I think Mindy Kaling is great. I love her TV show, The Mindy Project, and will forever associate her with the wildly delusional Kelly Kapoor from one of my all-time favorites, The Office. This is her second collection of essays, coming a few years after Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns). I’ve read the previous collection and enjoyed both. Kaling’s gift is in relating her embarrassments and admitted flaws with an honesty that makes her relatable and, of course, laugh-out-loud funny.
(A book written by someone under 30 (If my research is correct, Julie Murphy was 29 when this book was published in September))
After a long stretch of adult novels, I sank my teeth into some really fantastic new Young Adult fiction, starting with this southern-tinged gem. I devoured Dumplin’ over 5 days, in between work and school. The story revolves around Willowdean Dickson, a plus-size teen in a small Texan town famous for its yearly beauty pageant. The easy way to explain the plot would be to say that Willowdean enters the pageant and unexpected consequences unfold. In reality, this book is about so much more: romance, friendship, self-esteem, etc. Murphy’s nuanced story shows what it’s like to be an overweight girl in a way no other book I’ve read really has. Books like Dumplin’ send a powerful message to young people: You are worthy, no matter how you look.
Everything, Everything–-Nicola Yoon
Another great YA book. This one mixes compelling illustrations to tell a modern, star-crossed style love story. Madeline is basically allergic to the world and lives a solitary life confined to the home she shares with her overprotective mother. Although she is more or less resigned to never seeing the world, she finds herself wanting more out of life when she falls in love with her new neighbor, Olly.
The Thing About Jellyfish–Ali Benjamin
Fun fact: You can find this book in both our Children’s Room and the YA Area, which clues you in on the complexity of this beautiful book. Ali Benjamin has written a very tender and mature story of friendship and loss. I was moved by her descriptions of the natural world and impressed with how beautifully she used science as a metaphor for those kinds of emotions and experiences that can be so hard to articulate.
All the Bright Places–Jennifer Niven
Wow, the reviews for this book were pretty incredible. I went into it expecting a heavy story: two teens, Violet and Finch, meet atop their school’s bell tower, each considering whether they should jump, and gradually develop a powerful relationship. The book was heavy, and I will warn you now that it was sad. But, it was also funny and poetic, and romantic in a surprisingly grand way. The character of Finch, in particular, shone so brightly (pun intended) that he stays in your head long after you’ve finished the book.
I hope that you find your way to at least one of these books, if you haven’t already. If my choices aren’t your style, please send me some recommendations! Tell me what you’ve read this year that you loved or hated. What books have you read in 2015 that have stayed stuck in your head like literary earworms, for better or worse?
At the very least, I hope these What Have You Read Lately installments have encouraged you to read…something, anything. I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store for us bookworms!