Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Best of 2016: Books I've Read

Anyone else a pagemaster? 

As Marcus Tulius Cicero said... "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
If you weren't already aware, reading is one of my absolute favorite pasttimes.

Growing up in a small, rural, pre-internet town meant that there wasn't a whole lot to do, particularly in the winter when it was super cold outside. For years, my town didn't even have a true video rental store - you could find 10 or so of the latest faves at the gas station, but that was about it. Not exactly mecca for children's entertainment.

But I was a lucky kid, because I loved to read. Reading has always been an extremely important tool for helping me to learn more about the outside world, to travel in my mind, to practice empathy with those who are different from me by learning from my experiences. I've never had a ton of money, but reading has always been a way for me to transcend my situation and to grow.

My reading has gotten more focused and ambitious over the years, and I feel like I'm really starting to hit my stride. I read everything from children's books to graphic novels to poetry to non-fiction to modern classics and members of the "literary canon."

To see the culmination of my reading in 2016, click on this link. And if you're interested in following my reads year round, please do! You can follow my Goodreads page here.

A few of my absolute standout favorites are listed below; keep in mind, that not all of these books were published in 2016, but they are books that I read in 2016. Being new does not equal greatness though; don't miss the old goodies thrown in with the shiny new books below.

Most Beautiful Children's Book: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Just look at this cover - LOOK AT IT. The photorealistic paintings here are unbelievable, and the story is just as good. I have one word for this book: GORGEOUS. It seriously has the most beautiful illustrations I've ever seen in a children's book. The amazing, amazing paintings tell the story almost without words. Kids and grownups will be blown away by how beautiful this is. The story itself also stays true to Madiba's past; although a little oversimplified for my taste, it is a kid's book so they get away with it. This is a quick, beautiful read that is a wonderful story for any child or grownup.

Best Memoir (tie): Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and Shrill by Lindy West

Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books that snuck up out of nowhere and is destined to be a classic. I saw seen laudations for this book all over the place last year, and now I know why. This gorgeously written, straightforward memoir should be required reading for understanding white people living in poverty. It offers a straightforward diagnosis of and treatment for the problems created by this poverty, as well as a complex, compassionate understanding of the community from a member of it. J.D. Vance is not trying to tell everyone's story, he's explicit to the Appalachian community of his past; but I suspect that many of the truths he finds here could also readily apply to other poor communities across America. This book is a damn good read on its own, but considering everything else going on culturally in America right now, it's a good place to start for building bridges across the great chasm of lived experience here. This is a masterpiece - everyone should read it.

I was another unexpected hit, but I'm *so glad* it was. It seems that memoirs by funny women are all the rage now. Recent years have seen additions from Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and many more. I enjoy this genre although I haven't found it terribly deep before. Shrill, however, completely changes the game. Lindy covers so much ground so well, particularly issues that aren't often discussed at large. She has a very non-dramatic account of having an abortion (which is remarkable for its normalcy); many essays on the difficulty of being a fat woman in our culture; discussions of interracial relationships; stories of fighting (and slaying) internet trolls; what it really means to be a woman working or a big fan of comedy; and so much more.

Malcom Gladwell's final podcast in the (truly excellent - run to listen if you haven't yet) Revisionist History series focused on the true definition of satire and eviscerated contemporary comedians (including Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey) for being brilliantly funny but not ever accomplishing anything with their satire. I think Gladwell was right on those points, but I would be very interested to see what he thinks of Lindy West. Her writing is so original and so important. You will find yourself out-loud guffawing as you read passages and then immediately pause and cry, when you really think about what it was she just said. Lindy is funny, but it's the kind of funny that sends an arrow straight through your heart. So much of what she says is heartbreaking, the more so because it is true. It is only her fierce defense of her right to normalcy, her staunch attacks on anyone who might deny her (or any person) that right, and her unwavering moral compass, that save this book from being a totally devastating, depressing indictment of Western society.

Best Cookbook: Appetites by Anthony Bourdain

I know, I know. I'm a Bourdain whore, and I'm not ashamed. He is just so thoughtful, such a magnificent writer, so deliciously sinful (but not TOO sinful). It's no secret that I adore Anthony Bourdain, so it should be no surprise that I absolutely loved his newest book. It's very simple, no-fucks-given, and perfectly in tune with the Bourdain brand. As he says, this is not intended to be a revolution in recipes; rather, it's a list of the kind of things he likes to make at home, particularly for his daughter. These are very straightforward recipes but with a lot of deliciousness. And be prepared, should you have diet restrictions: these are riddled with gluten, dairy, meat, and all sorts of other things that aren't particularly good for you (but taste amazing). This was a great holiday read and it's perfect for cozy, comforting recipes now that the weather is getting cold. I also loved the unique kinds of photos used here. There isn't much in terms of photographing actual recipes, but it fits neatly into the visual aesthetic Bourdain promotes on his TV shows and is totally consistent with his brand.

Best Play: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

I tried, I really, really tried, not read this and to not like it. I thought why ruin Harry Potter? Is J.K. Rowling really that greedy, to need to expand this already huge franchise? Why is this even a play? But I finally caved and read this, and boy was I wrong. It is excellent, truly unique, and innately readable for any person, even someone like me who doesn't love to read plays or screenplays very often. I spent the Thanksgiving weekend re-watching all of the Harry Potter movies and I read this immediately after. I am SO glad I did! This book manages to be truly original and is an excellent followup to the Potter series. It opened up a lot of new possibilities to the original series and some interesting new information as well. It's also extremely imaginative and I would love to see it on stage. I have no idea how they would pull off some of the effects listed here! I hope it tours so I get a chance to see it.

Best Novel: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Sometimes something hits you that is so visceral, so immediate, that it feels like a punch in the gut. Yaa Gyasi's magnificent debut is one of those books. It's always hard to know, when a book received an insane amount of hype, if it really is as good as everyone states. In the case of Homegoing, have no fear: the hype is well deserved. This is one of those books that sinks deep into your bones, takes hold of you and just won't let you go. The story is heartbreaking in many respects - any tale really getting at the heart of racial injustice committed through colonialism is bound to do that - but so, so important. It's also wonderful to see a book showing, very tangibly, how the policies of one person, one society or one parent can in fact affect generations of people thereafter, particularly in America. A single arrest, a single kidnapping, a single slaveowner, can have impact on a family that lasts far, far beyond what the initial instigator could ever have imagined. African and African American women are fiercely redefining literature right now and it is SO EXCITING. Gyasi, Chimamanda Ngoche Adichie, Zadie Smith and so many more are the new literary vanguard. Get out of their way because they are going to redefine our cultural landscape and it couldn't come soon enough.

Best Essays: The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin

2016 could be defined partially as "The Year Becki Discovered Ursula K. Le Guin." I've been hearing for ages about how wonderful she is but I just hadn't read any of her books. No more. I've been entranced with all of her work I've encountered so far and I intend to try to read through all of her work in 2017 (quite a goal, as she has loads of books!). I loved her fiction but what really sold me on Le Guin is this collection of her essays, speeches and other bits and bobs. There are so many beautiful passages and so much wisdom in this book; what a treasure! Le Guin is an absolutely fabulous writer and has some gorgeous essays here. She is a study in eloquence and brevity and her treatises on writing and reading should be required for any aspiring authors. My favorite parts, however, are the biographical essays and her thoughts on political issues, including gender in just about everything, the problem of representation in art (hint: there's not nearly enough diversity of all stripes), current politics, and why women wear such ridiculous shoes. This was a thoroughly charming book to spend a fall day with and I loved being surprised by its richness and beauty. Highly, highly recommend for Le Guin fans, essay fans, feminist readers, and aspiring authors and auteurs.

Best Poetry: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

I came to Warsan Shire (as I'm sure most people have post-Lemonade) thanks to Beyonce, but I am so very glad I did. Her haunting, lyrical, gorgeous, evocative poetry deeply touched me. Shire is able to translate something deep and ancient through her words, channeling the depths of pain, the wisdom of the ancestors, the ties back through womankind throughout the ages. Her emotions are raw and striking, and her vision of the world is one that can keep you ruminating for a long, long time. I've often thought the future of our world lies in the hands of Muslim women, and if Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is any indication, we are in some very thoughtful, powerful hands.

Most Beautiful Coffee Table Book: Biophilia by Christopher Marley

There really isn't a word big enough to describe how vibrant these photographs are. This was the most gorgeous photo book, offering truly fascinating new ways to observe nature. Biophilia has all the artistic prowess and presentation of a master artist - think Ansel Adams meets Jackson Pollock and Jane Goodall. It's a fascinating mashup that gives equal weight to scientific observation and artistic presentation. My fiancee and I had an awesome afternoon sitting next to each other and pouring over each gorgeous page. I can imagine that this is good for all ages - grownups can appreciate the art and kids will adore the bright colors and safe way to observe creatures they could never otherwise see so closely. 

Most Important Non-Fiction: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein 

Klein has always been a bastion of leftist movements, but this is (in my opinion) by far her best work to-date. Klein is easily one of the best researchers I've read, and she will make you care very much about climate change after reading this book. It is impeccably researched and thorough, covering every aspect of the issue from the causes to the effects, different ways of treating the issue, each solution's viability (or non), and hope for the future. Klein is especially good at representing the importance of climate change to underrepresented populations, particularly people of color, the global poor, women and indigenous groups (the latter receives particular focus with entire chapters focusing on treaties, land rights, progressivism and more). Her information could be taught as a history lesson in addition to a scientific treatise, and it contains very important information (especially for those of us in the wealthy and whiter West) to be considered as we figure out how to solve this issue collectively (and is particularly relevant as we have watched the Standing Rock protest continue over the last few months). 

Klein also manages to leave you with hope as you finish the book, rather than despair. This is difficult to pull off in books about serious, depressing subjects such as man-made climate change, yet she really drives home the ways that all of us can contribute to solutions for this serious problem. This Changes Everything should be required reading for every citizen. If we are ever going to solve these major problems, we will need the information Klein shares at hand. This is a stunningly good read and an extremely important one, particularly in the age of Trump: READ. IT.

Best Graphic Novel: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Nerdy books about strong, smart women are always favorites of mine, so this falls right into my sweet spot. Many people don't know anything about Ada Lovelace, and that's a shame: she's a key figure in the history of the computer (truly inventing computer coding, or at least the earliest form of it), has an impressive familial pedigree, and is just all-around interesting. This book has the best of everything - nonfiction, biographies, graphic novels, even footnotes. (Yes, Padua is a footnote savant, and you will understand what I mean when you read it - step aside David Foster Wallace, there's a new footnote champ in town!). 

Best of all, this book is FUN. It makes what could be a really complex subject - computer programming and hardware design via Victorian era mechanics - so engaging and accessible. I also love that it does a bang up job of elucidating the contributions of a woman to this field. As with so many new industries, computers and programming were initially dominated by women, although now we seem to think of tech as strictly a male field. I think the cultural assumptions of what women are "capable" of could be much affected if we did a better job of sharing stories such as Ada Lovelace's, and with such an entertaining format available to us we have no excuse not to do so. Anyone could enjoy this book, especially if you want to learn more about coding, the history of technology, have a steampunk fetish or just need a break from dry nonfiction.

Best Travel Book: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is one of America's national treasures, and this travel memoir is another reason why. His writing is so simple, yet so lyrical - reminiscent of Hemingway but truly a style of its own. In fact, Steinbeck may be my favorite American author. He tends to be remembered less than more glamorous figures such as Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner, but Steinbeck to me knows the true America. This is demonstrated in this book, which details Steinbeck's road trip through America in a small camper with only his faithful dog Charley as a companion.   

Like Norman Rockwell's astonishing portraits of middle class, mid-20th century America, Steinbeck is able to take truly mundane interactions and make something extraordinary out of them. The people he encounters throughout this trip, especially in the deep south (where he encounters true, vivid racism for the first time), all provide profound insights to the character of America at this time, and the foundations our present political situation is built on. It's easy to forget how quickly things have changed in the last 100 years (from no electricity to smartphones, for example), and there is much wisdom to be found here. For a relaxing visit to quieter times and to understand the foundation of our current politics, Travels with Charley is not to be missed. 

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