Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Every year for the last several years, I've had this goal of reading 52 books during the year, and then on New Year's Day I started writing a post with short reviews of all of the books. Most years, this is a long post, but not a terrible slog of reading and writing, because most years I barely make more than 52 books, as the totals for all of the years I've done this show:

2007: 49 books
2008, the first year I started the blog post: 44 books
2009: 53 books
2010: 52 books
2011, the year when I settled into a new average: 76 books
2012: 74 books
2013: 79 books
2014: 87 books

After 2014, several people mentioned how long it took them to read that entry, and I was exhausted after spending over three hours putting it together. In the last few months of 2014 I started reading a regular book while also reading a Kindle book on the treadmill, and from that moment on whenever you see me I'm actually reading two books at the same time, all the time. Given that I'm reading twice as much as I used to, I decided that this entry would be way, way too long if I did it the way I have been, so this year I started doing monthly tallies instead:

January: 10 books
February: 8 books
March: 8 books
April: 14 books
May: 5 books
June: 7 books
July: 6 books
August: 5 books
September: 8 books
October: 10 books
November: 10 books
December: 8 books

I read 99 books in 2015.

Here are the ones that I liked the most:

Torn by Justin Lee

In January I said: I heard Justin Lee speak on campus last year and put Torn, his book about being gay and being Christian, on my wish list immediately after, but it took me this long to get to reading it. Part autobiography and part spiritual debate, Lee argues that Christians have made a mistake and turned away from Christ by their treatment of gay people, and that there is a path to being in committed gay relationships and to staying true to the teachings of Christ. I'm not sure many Christians will actually read this, but it sort of made me want to go give church a try again. That didn't actually happen, but for about a week there I did give serious thought to it, so that should be a sign of how well-written this was.

Living in a deeply Christian area of the country, I know a lot of people who struggle with being LGBTQ+ in our community, and I feel like the message here could help them reconcile their own religious beliefs with their identities and also help them to discuss it with their friends, families, and churches. This book convinced me that it is possible to reconcile being gay and being Christian, so now every time I hear people default to the "it's wrong because it's a sin" argument I feel like really, they just don't like gay people and are using their religion as an excuse.

Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects

In March I said: Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects was a fascinating look at 100 objects in the British museum, and how they represent the history of civilization. Starting at axe heads and stone tools, the book moves through religious iconography, currency, technological advances, exploration, trade, social issues (I was surprised to see a chapter about LGBT equality and one about equal rights for women) and ends, with object #100, with a look toward the future.

Things that I liked:

a) I learned a lot. For example, I had no idea that paper money was invented in China.

b) Even though the book is 700 pages long and can seem intimidating, each chapter is short, only 5-7 pages, so you can slowly chip away at this and still feel like you're making progress.

c) The author doesn't shy away from negatives. He doesn't pretty up the negative aspects of colonialism, war, slavery, or intolerance.

d) This really is a world history. The author includes multiple chapters on the civilizations and cultures of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. I was concerned that since all of the objects are housed in the British Museum this would be a history of the world from a Western Civilization perspective, but this is very globalized.

The thing that I didn't like was that in the entire book the author only mentions once or twice the idea that any of these objects, several of which are unique and culturally and historically significant to specific countries around the world, should be returned to their places of origin. I probably wouldn't have thought about it, but the author himself raises the point in one chapter that there have been discussions about returning this object to its homeland, but it's really better off being kept safe in London where everyone can enjoy it. That, to me, smacked of "old white patriarchy", but when I discussed it with my friend Jackie and Keri, they both pointed to the current situation in Iraq where ISIS is destroying historical artifacts, so I can see both sides of the argument. Every country isn't Iraq, though, and there are probably several where the object could be returned, since the "everyone" who can see things in the British Museum is actually a rather narrow slice of the whole of humanity. On the other hand, this probably isn't the kind of argument I can settle in one paragraph, either, so I'll move on.

I said a lot about it in March, so I'll just sum it up again by saying this was a really fascinating read.

Fred Venturini's The Heart Does Not Grow Back

In April I said: The protagonist of Fred Venturini's The Heart Does Not Grow Back, Dale Sampson, has a painful, wonderful gift: he can regenerate lost limbs and organs. Traumatized by the high school tragedy that revealed his ability, Dale is depressed and adrift until his best friend convinces him to take his talent to television, and Dale becomes rich and famous as The Samaritan, a man who gives away limbs and organs to people on the transplant list. When the girl who got away in high school comes back into his life, Dale sees a chance to do things over and right past wrongs. The only problem is that she needs something, too: his heart, the one organ of Dale's that will not grow back. Funny, crude, and at times heartbreaking, this is a novel of hope and loss that I was glad I read.

It's been a couple of weeks, but I'm still thinking about this book. I'm wondering if I still will be by the end of the year.

It's the end of the year, and I still am. Mostly I've thought about how our experiences in high school shape us more than we like to give them credit for sometimes, and how some people never really move past it. It's also a story of sacrifice, and makes you wonder where your own limit would be when you try to figure out if someone is asking too much.

Jon Krakauer's Missoula

In May I said: Jon Krakauer's Missoula was a fast, searing read. While people have tried to argue that the city of Missoula, Montana, doesn't have a problem prosecuting sexual assaults, facts are hard to argue with, and Krakauer documents case after case, a count that ultimately climbs into the hundreds. At the same time, he brings a humanizing tone to the story by framing his investigation with the specific stories of a few cases involving women assaulted by members of the college football team, which was apparently allowed to behave with impunity and without consequences. Sexual assault on college campuses, and the way that colleges respond to it, has been an increasingly debated topic within the past year, and this book highlights the reason why: things have to change.

One of the things I like about Krakauer's writing, and have since I read Into Thin Air, is that his narrative voice doesn't pull any punches. He gives credit where credit is due, but is also more than willing to assign blame when it's needed. While he does allow the reader to draw their own conclusions in some cases, his conclusion is also always obvious, and he doesn't flinch away from uncomfortable truths. This is a topic where too much is hushed up and made polite already, so it's nice to see someone acknowledge the parts of sexual assault that are horrible but also try to move the discussion forward beyond that, and to try to find ways to change things for the better. This is definitely a good read, especially for those working in higher education or with young adults in any capacity, but given the subject matter it probably goes without saying that this may also be triggering for some people.

We must continue to discuss this issue and work against it until it is no longer an issue.

Rebecca Harrington's I'll Have What She's Having

In July I said: Rebecca Harrington's I'll Have What She's Having was hands-down the best book that I read this month. I laughed over and over, once even snort laughing so loud that people around me at lunch heard me and stared, but I don't care because her talking about being dizzy from hunger on Posh Spice's "5 Hands" diet was killing me. She got dizzy and hungry on a lot of the diets in this book, which was her account of trying out different celebrity diets for a week. Another highlight is her account of the jittery caffeine overload caused by drinking ten Diet Cokes a day on Karl Lagerfeld's diet plan (Karl Lagerfeld has published a diet plan? Who knew?), and trying to follow the workout videos from Madonna's trainer while following Madonna's diet. There wasn't a lot of substance to this, but Gwyneth Paltrow's sesame pancakes (which actually sound more like crepes) sound like something I actually want to try, and I'm concerned that Dolly Parton's account of how she chews food just for the flavor and then spits it out is actually an eating disorder. Overall, I really enjoyed this book.

This was just a breezy, funny book. I even ended up making the sesame pancakes. Spoiler: They were kind of gross.

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life

Yesterday, I said: My friend Leo bought me Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life for my birthday. It was challenging to read in some places because it resonated with my own life in some ways, but deeply moving. It made me cry on the treadmill twice, so I finally just went on a three hour reading binge to finish it. I'm a little disappointed that I didn't see the main twist coming, but I was so under the spell of the story that the possibility never entered my mind even though I've guess the same thing correctly in movies I've never seen. This was a very absorbing book, and worth the read. It's hard for me to sum up all the things I felt while reading this, but it's still sticking in my head several days after finishing. I'm already thinking about possibly rereading it, but need to give myself a little time before I do.

I still don't know how to talk about this book, as I did not read it so much as experience it. It's definitely worthy of all of the acclaim that I've heard about it this year.

So, that's the best of what I read this year. This is not to say that everything else I read was terrible. I really enjoyed a lot of things I read, and some of them were really good, but these are the ones that still stick out in my mind as "I'm really glad I read that".

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