I keep track of the books I read (aside from baby books, which we read by the handful everyday), so I thought this year I’d try something new and share my thoughts on some of the books. For a few years I’ve been trying to read more female authors, more non-American authors, and more nonfiction. This year I read less than previous years (or did a worse job of keeping track), with 29 books over the year. Of 19 unique authors, I had 14 women (best yet!) and 5 men; 11 Americans and 8 non-Americans. I did a bad job of reading nonfiction this year- a paltry 3 books out of the 29. I also got REALLY obsessed with a few scifi series, so let’s talk about those first.
Books by Octavia Butler: Fledgling, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster. Inspired in part by the city of LA celebrating Octavia Butler during 2016, I went on a binge with this masterful fable-teller who works in race, gender, interesting power dynamics, commentary on social structures, and surprising action scenes into her imaginative worlds. The latter four are part of a loose series; the first one is about racist vampires (Yes, you read that right). Plus she wrote this awesome note to herself:
I still haven’t read her most famous books, Kindred and the Parable series. There’s plenty of Octavia Butler to explore and she’s fantastic; can’t recommend her enough.
The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. This series written by two dudes in New Mexico is now a TV show on ScyFy! I have not watched it because the books are sort of gory, tense, and scary, and I don’t handle that well in TV (despite reading stuff like The Walking Dead, Preacher, Watchmen, etc. in graphic novel format). These pleasantly popcorn-y books hide smart literary themes and a surprisingly deep study of their characters- Nemesis Games is my favorite one because each of our protagonists goes on their own adventure and you can appreciate how much they’ve affected each other. The characters feel fully fleshed out and fun, with lots of flaws and learning about relationships and communication. Also, they have to constantly save all of humanity from itself/evil aliens/evil people trying to use alien technology. So that’s a blast. Definitely recommend for sci-fi enthusiasts.
Unrelated science fiction/fantasy books:
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Leguin is great. Perhaps the beginning of feminist science fiction? This is a classic that took me too long to get around to reading. Also great for non-science fiction nerds.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was the first book I read in 2016. Creepy classic Gaiman. He did a reading/speaking event here in Austin near the beginning of the year and we saw him read a few of his short stories and poems; it was astonishing.
Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb: these are the first two pulpy fantasy books in a series. The first book is super fun and includes puppies (not really a spoiler: main character can talk to dogs), but the second book drags. My spouse read the third and said everything stops making sense. The first one is super fun if you want a quick fantasy read with puppies in it! I cried (in a good way).
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: I had read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow and never came around to this third book. I really enjoyed it! The big reveal is SUPER COOL (if no one spoils it for you/you don’t read the prologue) and the pedantic self-righteousness that can plague OSC books is at a minimum (still there but not horrible).
Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois: there are 32 of these; we have maybe 25 of them. Fantastic huge collections of the best short stories from that year in science fiction; Dozois does a really good job of including a huge array of diverse voices. Some of these stories haunt me for years, which means they’re really good. If you run across one of these volumes it’s worth a buy; you can read and reread these for years.
THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: AMERICANAH BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHE. By this point I think I’m on my fourth copy of this book- I keep giving it away to people and telling them that it’s important and that they should read it and pass it on. Plenty of people this year read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is an important non-fiction book but I hear is a bummer (I have not read it yet and will likely not until my very strong pregnancy hormones taper away). This book is fiction, which I think is a little bit easier to swallow and still get similar messages across. Race, immigrant experiences, gender, education, society, and mental health are all tied in to this love story. If you read a single book from the books I have read in 2016, make it this one.
THE SECOND BEST BUT NOT THAT IMPORTANT BOOK I READ IN 2016: OUTLINE BY RACHEL CUSK. This is an experimental-feeling novel where not much happens but you feel a lot of feelings. Beautiful and evocative prose; I read and reread this book and told several others to read it. It feels like having a big glass of water while standing in a waterfall- you aren’t sure where the book (the waterfall) ends and you (glass of water) begin, but you’re enjoying a refreshing experience.
How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a great resource for humans; you could easily replace “kids” with “people” in the title and get the same result. And it includes comic strips if you don’t want to read the whole thing (which is what my spouse did)! Takeaways: feelings are legitimate and difficult to handle, and we need to validate each other and help each other instead of shutting each other down. No one likes getting nagged all the time; people like having some autonomy/power/choice, and thrive off of responsibility/reasonable expectations. The book is chock full of specific and concrete anecdotes and exercises. It’s from 1980 but it doesn’t feel too dated (everyone in it is white though).
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a South Korean novel (one of two I read this year) which is haunting and sad and about the sacrifices of motherhood. I would definitely not read it when in a heightened emotional state. It also makes you want to call your mom
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang is the other South Korean novel I read this year. This is GREAT. I gave my copy to my mother-in-law. It’s a wonderful short fable about motherhood and would make a great mother’s day gift to tell someone how much you appreciate them. Plot synopsis: a hen really wants a baby; she adopts a duck egg and spends her life helping her baby learn to fly/fit in where he belongs. It’s adorable and wonderful. Would also be great for adopted parents.
All other books:
An Abundance of Catherines by John Green: I adored The Fault in Our Stars as a book and movie (and blog post) but hated this book. I’m not sure why I finished it.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova- every few years I reread this hauntingly beautiful and soft first-person novel about a neuroscientist with early onset Alzheimer’s. That should tell you how good I think this book is.
The Devil You Know by Claire Kilroy- a satire about the housing crisis and 2008 recession as it affected Ireland. Generally I like reading non-American authors because it feels like a dip into another culture while still celebrating the universality of the human experience; this one was pretty heavy on the “other culture” part. Always surprising (in a good way) with an Anglophone country. I identified far more with the South Korean novels than this one; maybe because I’m Asian or maybe because this was super Irish.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- a very popular science fiction post-apocalyptic book by a not-science-fiction author. Unfortunately with my delving into sci-fi over the past few years it’s become harder for me to enjoy these sorts for books, because a small voice inside me (that sounds like my spouse) is screaming “how does this make sense?!?!?!” I read this lightly and enjoyed a lot of it, but there are a few pages which sum up what I hated about the book: at some point, several of the characters chat about how they didn’t really pay attention in science class and don’t know how things work. Despite, you know, BOOKS and LIBRARIES and LEARNING.
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold- talk about weird other culture experiences! This Icelandic book is extremely sad and absurd. I’ve enjoyed absurdist Icelandic music and movies but literature might be a bit too much for me.
So What are You Going to Do With That? by Susan Elizabeth Basalla – I wrote about this in my ‘finding a job’ blog post.
Ashley Turner by Dean Koontz- absolutely the worst thing I’ve read since that Justin Bieber book.
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson- calming and funny and smart.
This blog post got really long! Wow! Happy New Year folks! Goals for my year: survive this pregnancy, make sure my kid survives it, have a baby, get a job, keep up a every-other-week schedule on the blog (versus every week for the past two years). Thanks to all who have contacted me about job leads- please keep them coming if you hear of anything in the Charlotte, NC area or remote work that you think I would be interested in/awesome at.