A Reading Recap of 2017

I read a lot of formulaic and utterly predictable romance novels last year. I know there’s good writing in every genre, but I was so embarrassed about what I was reading that I didn’t even count those books toward my annual total. It was like eating comfort food (e.g., raw cookie dough, queso) that feels good for maybe two minutes and then my mind would remind me how these books reinforce gender stereotypes and don’t feature any interesting characters who have something important or different to say.

That being said, I did manage to get my hands on the equivalent of some literary vegetables that were invigorating for my mind and overall wellbeing. The list below is about books I’ve read in 2017, not necessarily about books that were published in that timeframe.

Best Nonfiction

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

I follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, and this collection of essays encompasses her wide-ranging areas of interest, from Scrabble to Real Housewives to (most importantly) race. Her immensely talented voice translates nicely from 140 (now 280) characters to long form pieces. Every single essay made me think. (Full disclosure: I was inspired to write this post after she published a similar one on her tumblr.) 

Best Fiction

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

This book has been on my shelf forever and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it. This story about a mixed-race liberal couple whose son falls in love with daughter of a conservative scholar really resonated with me this past year, and offered an insightful look into the stuffy, claustrophobic world of academia.

Best Book We Read in Book Club

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Storied Life is unique in that it was a quick read but was NOT fluff. Fikry is a cantankerous bookseller who finds himself raising a child who was left in his bookshop. That’s what any standard summary will tell you, but it’s so much more than that: it’s a story about marriage, parenthood and books.

A Book I Thought I Wasn’t Going to Like But I Did

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I decided to read this fictional account of the courtship of Kate Middleton and Prince William just after Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle. It was utterly charming and heartfelt, demonstrating that indeed good writing can be found in romance.

Books That Got Great Reviews But I Found Them to Be Underwhelming

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is the third book I’ve read by Sittenfeld (Prep and An American Wife are the others) and the third book that I thought had great potential but fell short. I will keep trying.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

I know Big Little Lies was a huge deal but I thought that book was OK at best and didn’t bother to watch the miniseries. I took one last trip in Liane’s World of Selfish and Self-Involved Privileged Rich White Ladies and I am DONE.

A Book by Anne Tyler That I Think Will Be As Good As Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant But Am Ultimately Disappointed

Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler


I hope I will have more categories next year.

A Reading Recap of 2017

I’m Behind on Television Because My Kid’s Teacher Threw Down a Book Challenge

I haven’t watched Luke Cage, Black Mirror, Mr. Robot, Poldark (besides the first episode), on top of shows from the summer I haven’t gotten around to watching. (Plus, The Crown and The Fall start up on Netflix soon.)

The kids and I have been watching the MLB playoffs. I had a very stressful two weeks of October but by the time the League Championship Series rolled around, all the teams I’d wanted to lose had been eliminated and I only had to sit through two games listening to the insufferable Bob “You Rotten Sabermetrics Kids Get Off My Lawn” Costas. For a man who never played the game, he sure loved to wax lyrical about the Days of Baseball Yore, despite a postseason littered with pitching gems and fielding heroics. 

But the real reason I’ve been behind on television is because of my daughter’s Language Arts teacher, who announced that in lieu of a traditional reading log her students would be participating in a 40-book reading challenge, and the contest would be open to parents.

I never turn down a reading challenge.

I sent in my first selection, with which I’ve been struggling for months, along with an email detailing the many criticisms I had of the work.

My daughter came home and told me the teacher read my email aloud. I was mortified, because fifth graders weren’t my intended audience (I’d called the book extremely self-indulgent), and because I’m at the stage of life in which I increasingly don’t care what people think and my daughter is becoming extremely sensitive to other people’s perceptions of her. I don’t want to compound her discomfort. However, she likes books too  and didn’t seem to mind that I appear to be the only parent in her class participating.

My plan after the World Series is to read books at night during the week and during weekend and catch up on television in the afternoons.

I’m Behind on Television Because My Kid’s Teacher Threw Down a Book Challenge

Contains Spoilers: I Was a Wreck After Reading Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I’ve been struggling with how to describe this book. Something like a plea for the legalization of assisted suicide wrapped up in a chick lit novel. 

It contains some rather alarming cliches that have persisted in literature since Pride and Prejudice: spunky, unassuming woman charms the pants off a debonair misanthrope and they fall in love. 

The sullen gentleman in question is a victim of a tragic accident that leaves him paralyzed from the neck down. Once a vibrant charlatan with an outsized life, he’s been reduced to a shell of a body over which he has minimal control, and which will eventually kill him. His quality of life is so poor that he wants to kill himself, and he’s given his parents a six-month warning.

The love interest is a homebody who’s hired to be his companion, and unbeknownst to her, convince him that life is worth living even in a severely diminished state.

They do, indeed, fall in love. She brings him on outings he never thought he would enjoy and he expands her horizons beyond the little tourist town in which they live.

What devestated me is that the woman tells him she loves him; she’s done all this research on how they can be together, although intimacy will obviously be constrained; he’s been such a good influence on her and now he doesn’t have to doubt that someone loves him. She has a pretty selfish sister, a family that enables the sister’s selfishness and a boyfriend who cares more about physical fitness than her. She is willing to upend her entire life to be with him.

Despite his diminished capacity, he’s a good friend to her: he gives her thoughtful gifts, he challenges her on all levels, he is honest and caring and kind.

He says she and her love are not enough, and it slayed me. I know it’s a silly book (although seriously, the assisted suicide bits are enlightening and it made me really think about how the world is designed by and large for people who have the use of all their limbs and faculties) but it’s just another message that despite giving someone all our love and all of who we are, that it’s not enough. Women are never enough, there’s always something lacking. So not only did she fail at her task to change his mind, she failed as a potential love interest, she failed as herself.

For the man in the book, he returned her feelings but said he’d always feel like he was holding her back, he resents not being the man he wants to be for her (even though she fell in love with him as a paraplegic and it’s sort of insinuated in the book that they would not have met or fallen in love otherwise), she deserves the whole world and he can’t give it to her.

He wanted to kill himself because it’s the first decision he had control over but in doing so, completely negated her choice to want to be with him.

It was a predictable ending, I’m enough of a cynic to admit that him going through with it was the only possible conclusion; it would have been unrealistic for them to be together. That’s a Sparks ending.

Now to go watch some Arrested Development.

Contains Spoilers: I Was a Wreck After Reading Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I’m Irrationally Angry at George R. R. Martin

Overall, my philosophy is always to read the book before seeing its adaptation.* But in the case of George R. R. Martin, I literally can’t because the next season of Game of Thrones is going to be aired without the source material, the perpetually forthcoming novel Winds of War, is published. Indeed, there’s even speculation that GRRM is having so much fun being a famous author that he’s not even going to finish Winds of War.

Last summer, I binge-read and then binge-watched Game of Thrones. Even though the series at this point is diverging greatly from the books, I really enjoyed everything. I was pleasantly surprised to get so sucked in because generally speaking, fantasy isn’t my favorite genre (exception: Stephen King’s Eye of the Dragon is tremendous). 

I loved Game of Thrones because for the most part, the women are incredibly strong, despite their limited circumstances. (See: The Khaleesi and Lady Brienne, my two favorites.)  The character development is superb, and although I think I know how the series is going to end–the dragons being used to defeat the white walkers–I can’t wait to see how it’s going to play out.

I just wish I could have access to all the extra information that the book brings before seeing it unfold on TV.
*I just started binge-watching The Outlander.

I’m Irrationally Angry at George R. R. Martin

Thoughts on A Little Life (Contains Spoilers)

I belong to a neighborhood book club; we’ve been meeting for nearly eight years now. Our first selection of 2016 was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Our choices are all over the place — we’ve read everything from Twilight to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — but this was one of the first books we’ve read so soon after it was published.

Usually I’m a quick reader but it took me a very long time to get through A Little Life, which is a lengthy novel spanning 50 years of friendship shared by four college roommates. It’s the most beautiful book about friendship and loyalty and love I think I’ve ever read, but it’s easily the most brutal book I’ve ever come across in a very long time. I knew by about page 50 that Jude was going to break my heart; every day I was dreading reading more about him and learning more about his horrific past. Yanagihara said in a recent interview that her hope was that people understood sometimes life doesn’t get better, but that doesn’t mean life is not worth living. (She also said she hoped it would sell 5,000 copies. It went on to become a finalist for a National Book Award.)

This wasn’t the first book I’ve read in which the protagonist’s life does not get better. Our book club read The Kitchen House a while ago, and the general consensus was that the book literally should have had the subtitle It Just Gets Worse. I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant novels about Afghanistan, but the one that sticks with me the most is A Thousand Splendid Suns, in which an illegitimate child grows up to be an abused wife who cannot have any children of her own. She is forced to watch her husband take a new wife, and inexplicably falls in love with the new wife’s baby. When she finally snaps and kills her husband after years of enduring humiliation and unimaginable pain, she’s sentenced to death. As she’s contemplating her life while facing a firing squad (it’s just as pitiful than Jude’s, in my honest opinion), she finds herself thankful that she was able to love and she was eventually loved in return, and she couldn’t ask for more than that. I never fail to tear up just thinking about that. (War and Peace, to provide more of a comparison, is among other things a struggle to find meaning in a difficult life, as if discovering that meaning–religion, money, social status, glory from the battlefield, marriage and children, lack of freedom resulting from capture by the enemy–will in and of itself make life worthwhile. 

In A Little Life, Jude struggles with a horrific childhood that he can’t seem to overcome or really even talk about, despite the love and support of close friends. He goes on to become a successful lawyer (all the friends become renowned in their respectful fields) and eventually is able to enter a loving relationship with his best friend Willem. After that happened there was a good 200 pages of the book left and I was so tempted to quit right there and be content with the two of them riding off into the sunset together. 

The worst part wasn’t finally learning what had happened to Jude when he was a child. It wasn’t him losing his legs, or his eventual suicide. It was the sudden death of Willem–Jude’s rock and lifelong friend–in a car crash that had me bawling and doing my worst ugly cry since the ending of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was so angry at the author, at giving Jude happiness and then snatching it away, at leaving one friend at the end of the book mourning the deaths of the other three at way too young an age. I couldn’t read anything else for a while afterward.

I guess I could be more thankful that my boring life (tentative Online Offal memoir title, don’t steal) isn’t as tragic, but I can’t help thinking about those whose lives are just like those characters in the books I’ve read, and trying to deal with resulting melancholy.

Thoughts on A Little Life (Contains Spoilers)

Early Easter Miracles

Our esteemed school board chair did an about-face and apologized to our community¬† in a letter AND in person at the beginning of a school board meeting a couple weeks ago. The new proposed budget for next year includes the reinstatement of full-time art and music instruction at the elementary school level. I’m bitter that my daughter will never reap the benefits of an education that fulfills the whole child (not just testing), but at least my son will get to enjoy two years of it. Next on the agenda for full-time funding: physical education and library science.

Speaking of budgets, Pennsylvania finally will have one after a grueling, nine-month impasse that takes partisan bickering and obstruction to a whole new level. (The governor released emergency funds around the new years to keep struggling schools depending on state funds from closing.) To be clear, no one is happy about it, but at least it’s done.

I finally finished War and Peace. It took me six weeks, and I’m working on the mini-series now. I love the costumes and the set design, and the acting is simply wonderful. It’s a hard time reconciling the post British accents knowing that Tolstoy’s Russian aristocracy spoke French, but Brooding James Norton makes up for it.


Early Easter Miracles