The End of Year Book Report (#7)

It’s that time of year again to see what I’ve been reading. I had a long stretch toward the end of this six months when I didn’t read much. Sometimes I’m just not feeling it, as odd as that might seem for someone who reads as much as I do. But there are still plenty of books here for you to examine and decide if they interest you. Happy reading!

Title: You Are Not So Smart
Author: David McRaney
Date Finished: 7/5
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: This book joins Sapiens and The Coddling of the American Mind in my list of “essential reading for everyone.” This book will help you learn how to think better and, by extension, be more empathetic through understanding why people make the decisions they do. In a series of short, approachable scenarios with real-life context, you’ll learn why you don’t know what you think you know and why your decisions are somewhat out of your control. There’s also a website and a related podcast if you’re interested but don’t really want to read it. I only marked the book down from a ten because I read a lot of books like this and they all reference the same landmark studies – the Milgram experiments, the Zimbardo prison experiment, the gorilla suit in the basketball game, the kids and the marshmallows. I skimmed those parts. But if you don’t read these kinds of books, these studies will be new to you, and they are eye-opening.

Title: Master Pip
Author: Lloyd Jones
Date Finished: 7/5
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This was an AirBnB acquisition, as I am fond of the “leave a book, take a book” philosophy. The books I pick up are generally ones that would never come into my world otherwise, but seem worth taking a chance on. This book had an original concept, unusual characters, and unexpected plot twists. It takes place on an island in the south Pacific in the middle of a civil war, and as you can imagine, some pretty horrifying events take place. Even though it’s fiction, as is generally the case with novels, it reflects the reality that too many people have gone through, and I think that makes it worth a read. There’s a movie too, though I don’t think I’ll watch it.

Title: Shuggie Bain
Author: Douglas Stuart
Date Finished: 7/21
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: A classic epic of poverty from the British Isles. Think Angela’s Ashes. The comparisons are inevitable. It’s hard to read books this long as fiction and not assume everything in them really happened to the author. I felt bad for the little protagonist, so alone in the world with no one but a drunk mother and so uncomfortable in his own skin but no one to relate to. It really puts into perspective for readers with no experience how all-consuming alcoholism is and how awful the effects are when someone can’t pull it together and prioritize food and family over booze. I found this to be a solid, engaging story, but I didn’t find anything about it that made it worth of all the acclaim it received.

Title: Recursion
Author: Blake Crouch
Date Finished: 7/22
Finished: No
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: Sometimes you like one book by an author so much that there’s no way anything else of his can live up to the hype in your mind. I loved Dark Matter but this book didn’t really do it for me. I kind of finished but really just skimmed through the last 50 pages. It got too sci-fi and couldn’t really follow what was going on any more with all the repeated lives and how the characters knew each other. This just isn’t my genre and it was probably a fluke that I loved Dark Matter. This one was pretty good at the beginning though and I was super into it for a while. This was also an AirBnB acquisition. I think I need to start a category just for that: books I intentionally picked up versus books I took a chance on because they were free.

Title: The Names of the Stars
Author: Pete Fromm
Date Finished: 8/11
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: Guess what? AirBnB book! Not an acquisition though as this listing in Silverton, Colorado actually requested you not take any books. No problem – not a single other one of the books there looked interested to me. But I loved this memoir of the author’s life in the wilds of Montana. I admire it, even if I don’t want it. Being in the wilderness with nothing to do but check on salmon eggs and write sounds amazing. Well, maybe it is the type of job I’d like to try once – mucking out ten miles a day, every day, through the grizzly territory. The author had so many encounters with wildlife. It was funny, though, how he missed his boys so much and wanted them to be with him but didn’t really seem to care if his wife was there. Eh, I get it.

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Date Finished: 8/15
Finished: No
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 4
Notes: I’ve wanted to read this book for a while because I’ve heard from so many places how good it is. Turns out, it’s not for me. Even though it was published in 2001, the style of the writing felt stuffy and old fashioned and inaccessible. Maybe because the story is set in the 1930s. When I struggle with the writing, I can’t get attached to the characters either. I just didn’t care. And the inciting incident didn’t even happen until halfway through the book, which can be fine…if you care about the characters. I carried this book around with me for five months until I finally decided to watch some YouTube clips of the movie to see how it ends and be done with it.

Title: The Romanovs
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore
Date Finished: 8/29
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I loved this book but it was really, really, really long. Also, it seems that every single Russian monarch was named Peter or Catherine, so it got really confusing to listen to. This is definitely a book that needs to be read in a physical copy so you can flip back and forth easily; audio doesn’t work for this one and I doubt Kindle would either. That said, if you are a fan of Russian history, there’s no doubt that this is the book to read to know all about the Romanovs. It was engaging and thorough, though you need to be prepared for a whole lot of gore.

Title: Rising
Author: Elizabeth Rush
Date Finished: 9/2
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: A friend gave this to me because she had an extra copy and I took it with me on my trip to Montenegro and Croatia. It might not have been such a great plan to read about how major flooding is going to displace so much of the world’s population when you’re visiting countries that make heavy use of their coastlines for living and income, but it’s an important read. The book provided a good mix of the author’s research and first-hand accounts from people who have been affected by changing sea levels. I wasn’t really a fan of the other, memoir-type elements of her life that she brought into her narrative (sexual harassment, for example), but what I loved was how eloquently she described the ripple effect of climate. The following quotes are rather long but will stick with me for a long, long time.

Researchers recently found that the bodies of young moon birds are shrinking because the ice on their arctic breeding grounds melts earlier each year. When the ice melts earlier, the plants bloom earlier, and the insects that eat the plants emerge earlier too, long before the fledgling moon birds are able to feed. Without the nourishment of insect larvae, the juveniles’ bodies do not grow to full size. When they fly south, away from the Arctic, and the warmth that is made visible in their shrunken feathered wings, they cross the equator and encounter an inescapable truth. Smaller bodies come with shorter beaks.

Because their beaks are shorter, the moon birds are incapable of digging nutrient-rich mollusks from their wetland winter feeding grounds. The hunger of these abnormally small moon birds forces them to gnaw on seagrass rhizomes, which sit closer to the surface. These interconnected root systems are what hold the marine meadows together. They give them shape. And so with each rhizome-packed nibble the moon birds take, the seagrass beds slump a little more, slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide. Maybe the moon birds will go with them.

I fall asleep with this image floating in my mind: bite-by-bite, the short-billed red knots unknowingly unknotting the web of their survival.

Rising, Elizabeth Rush

Remember, the last time carbon dioxide levels were the same as they are today, the ocean was one hundred feet higher.

The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was during the Pliocene epoch, 2.6 to 5.3 million years ago, when mega-toothed sharks prowled the oceans. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high, the tectonic plates beneath India and Asia collided, forming the Himalayas. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high, California’s Sierra Nevada rose up and tilted its granite face west. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high, armadillos migrated north across a newly formed land bridge between today’s North and South America. Dogs headed in the opposite direction. But no one can remember these things, because humans didn’t exist.

What we might remember, however, if only faintly, is this: Fifteen thousand years ago, carbon dioxide levels increased rapidly and so did the height of the sea. Fifteen thousand years ago, human beings were transforming from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Fifteen thousand years ago, we domesticated the first pig. Roughly fifteen thousand years ago, the woolly mammoth started to go locally extinct and with it the giant sloth.

And fifteen thousand years ago, meltwater pulse 1A occurred. Hal points to it when people ask if sea levels have ever risen rapidly before. Some even speculate that meltwater pulse 1A might be why we have the story of the flood.

Rising, Elizabeth Rush

Title: Sunburn
Author: Laura Lippman
Date Finished: 9/8
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: After reading Rising, I needed something easy and harmless. Having previously enjoyed a Laura Lippman book with my Boulder book club, I opted for this. And true enough, I read it in just two days. This novel is good mix of mystery and romance and drama and all the things that keep you turning pages. A brain buster it is not, but a well-plotted, fast-paced distraction it is.

Title: The Full Monte: A Fulbright Scholar’s Humorous and Heart-Warming Experience in Montenegro
Author: Paul Dishman
Date Finished: 9/18
Finished: No
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: Sometimes I don’t finish a book simply because its time has passed. Such is the case with this memoir. I always pick a first-hand account of the places I travel to read while I’m there, but if I don’t finish them while I’m there, I hardly ever do once I come home. Dishman does a great job of mixing his own experiences living in Montenegro with history and cultural knowledge, keeping you interested equally in the facts and the memoir. Sometimes, though, the book got choppy and a bit hard to follow. One thing to note if you are looking to this as a definitive account of what Montenegro is like. Dishman lived in Montenegro over a decade ago. That may not seem all that long, but for countries that used to be communist, 10 years is a very long time. So some things he says aren’t true anymore, but if you’re thinking of going to Montenegro, I highly recommend this book to get a feel for the culture.

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sakaya Murata
Date Finished: 10/2
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: This is a super short read that is definitely worthwhile about the life of a woman is an underachiever. Shortly into it, I started groaning about where I thought the plot was going, but it didn’t go there after all. It’s an interesting cultural commentary, even if it’s from a different culture (Japanese) than mine. The themes of what it means to be successful in work and love and life are universal.

Title: We Run the Tides
Author: Vendela Vida
Date Finished: 10/8
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: It would be impossible not to relate to this story about a group of teenage girls as their relationships to each other change at this pivotal age. It doesn’t read like a young adult novel – and it’s not – but it seems weird to be so in the mind of this teenage girls and feel everything she is. I didn’t care for the ending though, where we catch up with the girls in adulthood and see what’s become of them. It’s not that it was bad; I just would have been happy leaving the story in their teenage years. I often feel that way about denouements. They rarely interest me.

Title: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Author: Carson McCullers
Date Finished: 10/12
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: This is an American classic that’s been on my to-read list for far too long, and I finally picked up a copy in a little free library in Arkansas. It was better than some of the other classics I’ve attempted lately, but also verged too often on the author preaching to the reader. Essentially, there are five primary characters that interact and sometimes McCullers appears to be devote time page to them just to expound on something she wants the reader to know. Still, I was invested enough to read to the end, even after I ruined the climax for myself by reading an article about McCullers that mentioned what happened to the main character in the book. I did skim through the last 50 pages or so because there was too much politics and lecturing, and not enough story.

Title: The Anatomy Lesson
Author: Nina Siegal
Date Finished: 10/15
Finished: Yes
Format: Hard cover
Ranking Out of 10: 6
Notes: Another book that is not my genre, like the historical fiction I read back in April. This book came from a thrift store in West Virginia in one of those moments where you just don’t want to walk away empty handed. The main story was fascinating – I loved how how the author built this whole novel around a painting (Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp). But to me, this would have been better as a short story. With so much backstory that I didn’t much care about, it felt like the author was trying hard to stretch this to novel length.

Title: Uncanny Valley: A Memoir
Author: Anna Wiener
Date Finished: 10/18
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book took me almost a whole year to read, but I can’t explain why. I really enjoyed it every time I picked it up, but for some reason, I never picked it up. It was that book that I opened on my iPhone Kindle app when I was stuck somewhere with nothing to do, waiting for someone or something. Being in the tech world myself, the author’s experiences were relatable. The hot-headed young CEOs who know nothing at all about management and people but act like they are gods, the insane benefits tech workers get, the stunted maturity of all these people working in a place that pampers them, people getting magically rich overnight and the negative consequence of a rapidly rising tech class, the battle with her own soul about working in tech versus following her passion for literature and creative writing. I didn’t like how the author used long adjective filled descriptions to “hint at” all the tech companies she refers to in the book instead of just naming them. I recognized so many of the companies and I’m sure many other people do too. I’m sure that was for legal reasons but damn it was annoying. But as much as it annoyed me, the author’s ways with words is impressive. So many phrases stood out to me. I started bookmarking them, but there are too many.

Title: The Woman They Could Not Silence
Author: Kate Moore
Date Finished: 11/3
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: If you want to be super angry at the world, read this book. It’s about a woman named Elizabeth Packard who was locked in a mental asylum for years because she disagreed with her husbands religious views and so he claimed she was crazy. At the time (and that time went all the way through the 1950s), men could lock women away just like that. And of course, the staff at the hospital was corrupt as well and her doctor was horrible and controlling and manipulative. Packard’s perseverance in trying to make sure her children knew the truth, getting justice for herself, and improving conditions in the asylum was miraculous. She never gave up no matter how many times life kicked her in the teeth.

Title: Break in Case of Emergency
Author: Jessica Winter
Date Finished: 11/3
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book took me a little bit to get into. I almost set it aside, but I’m glad I stuck with it because I really like it. It’s essentially just the story of a 30-something woman in New York trying to navigate the normal life experiences – career, friendships, wanting to have a baby – but the author really makes you care about the main character, Jen. Jen makes stupid mistakes in life that we can all relate to, but even more so, she has a horrific boss. There were so many cringey interactions with this boss and while it’s incredible that Jen can’t stand up for herself, it’s also understandable given what she wants out of life. The horrible boss reminded me of a former boss a friend of mine had. In the end, I liked this one only slightly less than I liked The Fourth Child.

Title: Grandma Gatewood’s Walk
Author: Ben Montgomery
Date Finished: 11/5
Finished: No
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: I can’t believe I’d never heard of Emma Gatewood, but I’m so glad this book was recommended to me. If you’ve never heard of her either, she was the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian trail. She was 67 years old and a domestic abuse survivor who simply set off with canvas shoes and not much else to see if she could do it. Seriously. She gained fame along the trail but for the first few months, the going was really rough. She had no plan, no organized food drops like people have today, no proper clothing. She didn’t even tell her family she was going. There were some parts of the author’s editorializing I didn’t care for – for example, acting like the families that didn’t help Emma along the trail by letting her (a total stranger who generally just appeared to be a homeless person) sleep in their house for a night were so horrible – and I mostly stopped reading after Emma reached Katahdin because, like I said, denouements rarely keep my attention – but this book is a must-read for anyone who is seriously into hiking.

Title: Hard Truth
Author: Nevada Barr
Date Finished: 12/9
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 5
Notes: Another acquisition from an AirBnB, this time in Savannah. An Amazon review of this book entitled “Dark, unpleasant, extremely violent” says that “Compared to other Nevada Barr stories this book is dark, with plenty of gratuitous violence to and by children and to Anna.” True. This book was more gruesome and less intriguing mystery than I hoped for, but that’s not why I didn’t really like it. What most irked me was that the author went heavy-handed on her use of the thesaurus. Have you ever used the word “limpet” in your life? No? Me either. But it was in this book 50+ times, sometimes twice on the same page. There were other questionable word choices too, especially in the context of the characters using them. But it was a page turner and I needed an easy read.

Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Date Finished: 12/11
Finished: Yes
Format: Audio
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book is most unusual. A New York Times reviewer said “There is an entire world of literature outside the West that is not adapted to our markets, in debt to our trends or in pursuit of our politics.” True, I read this book in translation from a Korean writer’s novel. But the review is not just about the story; it’s equally about the main character, Yeong-hye. She opts out of what society expects of her, to an extreme point, and how much that infuriates the people in her life pleases me. I wasn’t actually rooting for her because she went so far off the deep end, but did have respect for her and glee about her effect on people around her.

Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Date Finished: 12/13
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 9
Notes: Mohsin Hamid continues to delight and in general, I’m enjoying this shorter novel format. The Han Kang and Sakaya Murata novels were also about two-thirds the length of standard American novels. Maybe that’s why – because these are non-America authors and the publishing standards in their countries are more open to other formats. Anyway, I blew through about 60 percent of this book on my flight to Ecuador because it was so good. I like the story-in-a-story storyteller style, where the narrator is recounting events to someone else, but the circumstances of the storytelling are also a story in themselves. Did you follow that? I’m also a fan of endings that leave a bit up to the interpretation of the reader, although this one was a little too open-ended for me. I wanted a more direct answer to what was happening, but I understand why the author didn’t provide it.

Title: Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto
Author: Anneli Rufus
Date Finished: 12/24
Finished: Yes
Format: Paperback
Ranking Out of 10: 8
Notes: This book I picked up in a used book store in Tucson. I started reading it in September but then set it aside for awhile because the intro really was too “manifesto” for my taste. But I’m glad I resumed it because Rufus made a lot of good points, like this description of the book states: Rufus rebuts the prevailing notion that aloneness is indistinguishable from loneliness, the fallacy that all of those who are alone don’t want to be, and wouldn’t be, if only they knew how. She also makes many good arguments for why the media needs to stop portraying the desire to be alone as something freakish or indicative of a dangerous person. She points out how the media erroneously jumps to call killers like Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Klebold/Eric Harris loners when the truth is that the former was very well liked by people he served in the military with and the latter two had a large group of friends. Others, like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, were extremely sociable. But such is the cultural bias. She distinguishes outcasts from loners (involuntary aloneness versus voluntary) and loners from introverts. If her definition is to be taken as gospel, I think I fall somewhere in between loner and introvert. I saw myself in some aspects of this book and not in others. Overall, this is a good read if you just skip the intro.

Title: Nature’s Silent Message
Author: Scott Stillman
Date Finished: 12/28
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 10
Notes: If I were a religious person, this would be my bible. It’s the kind of writing I want to take out in nature, to the very places that Stillman describes, and read out loud. It’s the kind of writing that is so evocative it makes you want to cry over the beauty of nature even though you’re only reading about it on a kindle while waiting for takeout food. It’s that good. Stillman’s message is about the importance of listening to what mother nature has to say and being receptive to it and seeking it out. I feel this. I feel burned out after five straight days a week of working behind a computer doing technical writing and nothing can make me feel better except getting out into the wild. This is another nice short book, about half the length of a regular book, and I’m probably going to get a hard copy to annotate and carry around.

Title: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Author: Anita Loos
Date Finished: 12/28
Finished: Yes
Format: Kindle
Ranking Out of 10: 7
Notes: I realize this is going to seem like a very odd book for someone like me to read, especially since I was reading it simultaneously with Nature’s Silent Message. But it came recommended by a highly literary writer, someone who researches her books intensely and sprinkles in so many literary/cultural/historical references into her books that you have to read them five times to understand them all. None other than Lauren Groff. So obviously I was going to give it a try. I’ll say that it was enjoyable (and short!) and clever in that you do see how Loos subverts the reader’s opinion of a dumb blonde. But I’m not quite sure I get a hype from Groff or other reviewers. Obviously it was a runaway success, but I did get a bit annoyed at reading all the intentional typos and bad grammar, since this was written as Lorelei’s diary.

Books I Started But Didn’t Get Far Enough Into to Rate Before I Quit: Thirteen Ways of Looking (Colum McCann), Life After Life (Kate Atkinson), A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (George Saunders), Likes (Sarah Shun-lien Bynum), Hey Harry, Hey Matilda (Rachel Hulin), Sexing the Cherry (Jeanette Winterson), The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab)

Books I Read for Professional Development: The Making of a Manager (Julie Zhuo)

YA Novels for Research: I Wish You All the Best (Mason Deaver), I’m Not Dying With You Tonight (Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal), We Were Beautiful (Heather Hepler), Five Total Strangers (Natalie D. Richards)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s