Tuesday, October 27, 2015

a third year of books.

Another autumn, another book round-up!  In my weirdly obsessive, borderline-squirrel-like manner, I've been keeping a spreadsheet of every book I've read since October 2012, and each autumn compile a few of my favorite picks from the previous year of reading.  It's been a wonderful way to remember what captured my imagination or changed my opinion on an issue, and it's especially lovely to make a recommendation to a friend who ends up sharing my love and devotion for a particular book or author.  The following list features my top selections from all books read sometime between October 2014 and September 2015. I hope one will catch your eye!



It's What I Do, Lynsey Addario.  Photojournalist Addario opens her memoirs with a gripping description of her capture, along with three other journalists, by Qaddafi-loyal soldiers in Libya during the 2011 civil war.  This opening story (and her eventual return to flesh out details later in the book) is among its most compelling; another stand-out includes her journey to Afghanistan in 2000 to take portraits of women living under the Taliban, photographs that would draw much greater interest post 9/11 and launch Addario's career.  While an award-winning war photographer (including a shared Pulitzer for international reporting), Addario is not always a strong writer; she has a tendency, in telling her life story, to flit over important events and relationships, touching only lightly and summarily on the relational sacrifices she has made to succeed in a field primarily dominated by men.  Nevertheless, the courage and compassion that drives Addario to photograph vulnerable and dangerous situations shines through every page, and it makes for a compelling read.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow.  Born and raised in an impoverished, mostly African American town in rural Louisiana, current New York Times columnist Blow tells a coming-of-age tale marked by isolation and displacement.  Blow's lonely childhood was shaped by a fierce attachment to his mother and preference for quiet and thoughtful play amid a crowd of rowdy brothers, as well as silent encounters with sexual abuse by a relative at a young age.  The latter experience leads to years of rage and self-hatred, even as Blow stumbles into success and even popularity in school, eventually finding success at a nearby state university.  It is particularly jarring to remember earlier accounts of the quiet, sensitive boy as we read later descriptions of Blow participating in brutal hazing practices as a member of an on-campus fraternity.  This is a frank and moving take on issues of race, sexuality, and poverty, and I found it an important and relevant book in light of the current racial conversations happening in our country.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.  This is Didion's stunning and deeply personal account of the year following her husband's sudden death in 2003, marred further by her daughter's frequent and life-threatening visits to the hospital. It's also a meaningful and honest recollection of a forty-year marriage, as Didion's meditations and musings on grief naturally lead her to remember a long and intimate life with John and their daughter, Quintana. The repetition of certain thoughts lend a kind of poetry to the writing ("Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant"), although Didion chooses mostly spare, unadorned statements to tell her story of mourning. I was especially haunted by her descriptions of a sort of grief-induced insanity--keeping John's shoes, for instance, because when he came back, he would need them--hence the "magical thinking" of the title, which comes as a byproduct of loss.

Fast, Fun Reads

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Jowler.  To tell you anything about this book, even at blurb-length, is to give away its biggest secret, so if you can trust a recommendation without any details, stop here and buy/check out the book.

For the more cynical mind: Rosemary, our narrator, is twenty-two, is attending college in California in an attempt to get away from her family and her past, both fractured by the disappearance of her twin sister, Fern.  The twist: Fern was a chimpanzee, and Rosemary's father a developmental psychology professor who volunteered his family to be intimate participants in his research.  As Barbara Kingsolver's review in the Times puts it, "In a story with many beginnings, this is the molten core: a family’s implosion with grief"; indeed, the ripple effects of Fern's sudden departure extend far and wide to every member of the family, even two decades later, and the book is a fascinating exploration of the lives deeply affected by Fern and her disappearance from their lives.  Carrying us through this story of loss is the funny, dry, skeptical Rosemary, who still feels as though she isn't fully human while attempting to make friends in college (an odd and difficult experience, even for those of us raised in 100% human environments).  Fresh, funny, and continually surprising.

Seraphina, Rachel Hartman.  Set in the magical kingdom of Goredd, where a treaty between dragons and humans holds despite protests by pockets of radicals, our heroine is Seraphina: court musician,  secret-keeper, and accidental sleuth.  When a member of the royal family is found decapitated, many suspect a rogue dragon of murder, and Seraphina becomes involved in the investigation alongside the charming Prince Lucien.  Beyond the complex and intriguing plotline, there are several fascinating and wholly unique aspects that set this book aside from typical fantasy fare: the misunderstandings and political tension caused by the inability of dragons to understand human emotions; the fully developed culture of Goredd, with its religion of saints and holidays; Seraphina's mind garden, which must be tended each night to keep her fainting spells at bay.  Simply put, this is an innovative and clever twist on the fantasy genre, and well worth the read.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling.  In general, I'm a much bigger fan of  Tina and Amy, and I've never even watched The Mindy Project.  With that said, I actually enjoyed this book more than Bossypants and Yes, Please, which surprised me, in a happy way.  Perhaps because Mindy is first and foremost a writer--she rose to prominence with the Off-Broadway play Matt & Ben and was first hired as a staff writer, not performer, on The Office--her book is better written than the likes of Tina and Amy, whose humor doesn't always translate as well on the page (forgive my transgressions, humor goddesses).  Mindy's collection of essays are breezy, random, and hilarious; occasionally, there are short chapters made up entirely of lists, as well as a commissioned eulogy by one of Mindy's co-stars on The Office.  I have a hold in at the library for Mindy's newest book, Why Not Me? and look forward to part II of her literary witticisms.


All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews.  It's important to tell you this is a book about suicide, and death, and depression, because those may not be subjects you are willing to dwell on, at least in the sphere of fiction.  With that said, Toews has one of the wryest and most innovative voices I've encountered in fiction, and the loosely autobiographical nature of her writing only lends itself to the realistic yet funny approach she takes for her very serious subjects.  Like Toews, her narrator Yoli was raised in a remote Mennonite household and has a sister (Elfrieda, or Elf) who wants to die, despite having a successful career as a pianist and a loving, committed husband.  While the question throbbing beneath the surface is Will she try again? and Would it be loving to assist her?, the book is also full of unexpectedly funny, searing, and relatable depictions of family, art, and even the health care system.  It's especially refreshing to read a book where the primary relationship of interest is the bond between sisters.

The Likeness, Tana French.  It's mildly unfair to tell you about The Likeness, because you really should start with In the Woods, the first of French's Dublin murder squad series (although each book functions independently, so reading in order isn't a requirement).  Nevertheless, The Likeness was a highlight for me among the five outstanding books currently published in the series, followed closely by The Secret Place, with a more recent autumn 2014 release.  All of French's books are page-turners, deliciously so, and steeped in psychological insight, which sets her work apart from say, your average Law and Order episode.  As the Times review puts it, this book is "one that is more interested in character revelations than in 'Aha!' moments about the plot," although the plot is nothing to sneeze at, either.  Enjoy ripping through each installment!

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr.  Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, All the Light We Cannot See contains profoundly beautiful writing and probably doesn't need my help receiving any more well-deserved publicity.  It's the excellence of Doerr's craft, his careful and poetic attention to each sentence, that causes this book to stand out (for one must be willing to admit that World War II is a moment in history that's been explored at length in many a book and film).  Interweaving the stories of a blind French girl and a technologically-inclined German orphan, Doerr tells his story in short chapters--at times only a page or two--that build in suspense and move the reader quickly through the story, despite coming in at over 500 pages.  I'll confess I was a bit surprised to hear Doerr was awarded the Pulitzer, as this book didn't seem quite as literary to me as past winners of this award; perhaps this is a sign that distinctions between high culture and pop culture are disintegrating, and that's not a bad thing in my mind.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith.  Originally published in 2000, Smith's debut novel reminded me at many turns of the equally excellent Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides' masterpiece about an intersex man.  Like Middlesex, White Teeth follows several generations of two London families, hopscotching across time and continents, to boot.  At the heart of the novel is an accidental and unlikely friendship between Archie and Samad: veterans of WWII, the two continue a friendship after the war when Bengali Samad moves to make his home in Archie's native London.  The book traces the development of their friendship through marriage (Archie, to a young Jamaican woman fleeing her Jehovah's Witness upbringing and no front teeth; Samad, an arranged marriage to the much-younger Alsana), parenthood (a single, pensive daughter for Archie; two radically different twin sons for Samad), and more.  The book explores weighty topics--race, religion, cultural identity within modern life--but it's satire through and through, full of whimsical and hilarious flourishes that occasionally push the bounds of believability.  Intentionally crowded with many different voices and perspectives, Zadie's marvelous story explores the unique challenges of an increasingly diverse society.

Honorable mentions: 
Tell the Wolves I'm Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett


Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.  Technically a memoir, this outstanding book in included in the non-fiction category because Stevenson's primary focus is on the way his life's work has intersected with the fight against inequity and bias in the nation's criminal justice system. While depicting a number of client cases, including several instances where Stevenson has argued before SCOTUS, the narrative backbone of the book tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man on death row for a murder he claims he did not commit. In a strange, nearly whimsical twist, McMillian lived and was arrested in Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee wrote the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird; as in Lee's story, McMillian is a black man accused of inflicting violence against a white woman. Hired as McMillian's lawyer, Stevenson begins grappling with institutional racism, conspiracy, and the way the legal system disproportionately punishes people of color and low economic status in the U.S. The book also traces the founding and expanding of Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson's legal organization dedicated to defending the marginalized trapped in the legal system.  Hopeful, bold, and unspeakably important at this moment in our nation's history.

There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz. First published in 1992, this heartbreaking book follows the lives of Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, two brothers growing up in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex in the ghetto marked indelibly by violence, drugs, and gang activity.  Kotlowitz, a Wall Street Journal reporter, met the boys at ages seven and ten and spent three subsequent years following the Rivers family.  The intimacy and investment Kotlowitz feels for his two subjects is evident, but he's also unflinching in recording the trauma and despair endured by the children growing up surrounded by poverty and violence--and the ways in which this ultimately robs them of any kind of childhood.

Love and Other Ways of Dying, Michael Paterniti.  This collection of long-form non-fictional essays, many of which were first published in periodicals like the New York Times and GQ, puts Paterniti's quirky and powerful voice on display.  His writing often verges on the poetic, so detailed and sensory are his descriptions, but at the center of every investigative essay is something profoundly human.  From the opening story about a terrible plane crash off the coast of Nova Scotia--which had me checking the book jacket to confirm the writing was indeed nonfiction--Paterniti absorbs the reader into the story at hand, seemingly able to make any story completely captivating. Other fascinating encounters recounted in this collection include apple-picking with a living giant, interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and shadowing a salvific figure who haunts a bridge popular with suicidal jumpers in China.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett.  I'm a real lover of Patchett's fiction work, particularly Bel Canto, as noted in the honorable mentions addendum above. Nevertheless, there's something so charming and warm about this collection of non-fiction essays, and I had to recommend Patchett somewhere in this round-up after devouring most of her books over the past year--so here she is. Before writing successful novels, Patchett wrote freelance for a number of magazines, beginning with Seventeen and eventually, for powerhouses like Vogue and The Washington Post. From her account of participating in an arduous Los Angeles policy academy to the titular essay on her first, failed marriage and second, blissful union, it's a joy to serve as an audience for Patchett's saucy observations and innate curiosity about the world. Also fascinating are her descriptions of eventually coming to open and operate a bookstore in Nashville, which unfurls over several essays within this collection.


Like last year, for this final portion of recommendations, I'll actually share a brief passage from each selection, in addition to a descriptive blurb.  While I tend to tear through books as quickly as possible, I try to savor my explorations of spirituality, theology, and well-being on the page, in hopes the ideas and beliefs I encounter will help form and shape who I am off the page.  Sharing a quote I found particularly moving or powerful may be even more persuasive than simply telling you what the book is about...

Daring Greatly & Rising Strong, Brené Brown.  This pair of books, best read in succession, together examine the findings of Brown's fascinating and important work as a shame and vulnerability researcher based out of the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work.  Her intent is to map out the habits and behaviors of people she identifies as living wholeheartedly, which Brown defines as having the courage to be imperfect while maintaining the belief that we are nevertheless worthy of connection and belonging.  Her work has closely paralleled my own work in therapy, discovering that connection and intimacy with others is only possible when we take the risk to be seen for who we really are, warts and all.  Two books deserve two quotes, right?
“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we’re taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness...If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle.  Boyle, a Jesuit priest, details his life and ministry as the founder of Homeboy Industries, an LA-based gang intervention program with the motto "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."  Among the many services offered by Homeboy, tattoo removal, job training, and therapy sessions help prepare gang members for life off the streets, often requiring side-by-side work for members of rival gangs.  From stirring accounts of gangsters finally finding themselves worthy of love and relationship, to moments of hilarious banter between him and the young "homies," Boyle writes credibly on the sacredness to be found in every life--even those on the very margins of society. 
“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott.  If I had to choose my spirit animal, Anne (and Glennon) would be definite contenders.  As a now-liberal-once-slightly-fundamentalist-evangelical, Anne's irreverent and hilarious approach to spirituality gives me hope: that I can love Jesus fiercely and also cuss a little and not hate gay people.  Here, Anne shares what she has learned about prayer, distilling her musings and observations down to three major themes: asking for help, appreciating what we have, and feeling wonder and awe at the beauty we encounter in the world.  Whenever I read Anne, I feel my soul taking a deep breath, particularly when discussing theological topics with some baggage, like prayer.  Since reading this slim volume, I've found myself whispering countless one-word prayers and feeling grateful for the freedom I feel to pray simply and honestly.
“My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, 'I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,' that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, 'It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,' it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table. 
So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. Even mushrooms respond to light - I suppose they blink their mushroomy eyes, like the rest of us. 
Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.”
Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans.  My utter devotion to Rachel is no secret, and her reflections on the church in light of changing convictions and evolving theological understandings was particularly meaningful to read.  Like Rachel, Chris and I left a large evangelical organization in 2013 and found ourselves seeking a community in which we might feel safe and at home, feeling strangely lonely and defensive after departing our tribe.  Centered around the seven sacraments, Searching for Sunday examines Rachel's personal journey with the church, beginning with childhood "sword drills" and Awana, and eventually delving into her post-college deconstruction of church culture and theological issues.  Her journey is relatable, full of doubts and failures, and unwavering in her examination of, in her own words, "all that is frustrating and beautiful and complicated about church."  This is an important book for those who love Jesus but struggle to find their place in the body.
"The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does it follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route."

What have you been reading lately?  Any recommendations for me?

1 comment:

  1. Well written, my well-read child. I'm definitely intrigued by several of your recommendations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. p.s. I could only post a comment as "Anonymous"...you might need to walk mummy through the process.