WHAT A YEAR. 2017 was the year that I decided to go a little easier on myself in relation to my reading goals; the year that began with a lot of politically-motivated reading, and ended with quite a bit of escapist reading; the year that I was able to complete my modified goal of 50 books (!!!), and the year in which I learned a lot about myself and others (again) through this goal. I’m tired, so I’ll do the one thing that energizes me in all circumstances: talk about the books I read.
Book #39: VALLEY OF THE DOLLS by Jacqueline Susann
I started seeing this book everywhere last year, on the 50th Anniversary of its publication. I was intrigued by the premise, especially because of the year it was published (1966) and that it was published by a woman in that time. It was a fun read; a little smutty, like reading a long-winded gossip column, but really satisfying and probably empowering for women of the time (even though everyone’s stories conclude pretty tragically). The book is about sweet innocent Anne, determined brassy Neely, and beautiful aging Jennifer. The women all connect in New York City in the 1940’s while pursuing their dreams of stardom. We follow the women over the next 20 years of their lives, following their climbs to the top as they abandon their families, men, their morals — you name it — without ever quite managing to reach it. The “dolls” are the pills that they take to suffer through it all, and that ultimately lead to their downfalls. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to read back in the ’60s. Jacqueline Susann was a pioneer.
Book #40: AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I LOVED THIS BOOK. I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing, and this was her first fiction I read. It did not disappoint. The two main characters in this novel are Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers in school in Lagos, Nigeria. Eventually Ifemelu travels to America to continue her education while Obinze stays on in Nigeria, then England. I don’t want to ruin anything, because the beauty of this book is the slow unfolding of each character’s past story paralleled with their present day, but it’s suuuch a great book. Race is a central theme, as Ifemelu faces issues of race relations for the first time in her life after coming to America. She begins a wildly successful blog about the topic, and those blog posts on race are scattered throughout the book. It’s a layered and beautiful coming of age story about family and the concept of home and love and race and sacrifice and everything else you’d ever want to read about. I regret waiting so long to pick it up.
Book #41: JUST KIDS by Patti Smith
This book was good, and I probably would have thought it was great had I been more familiar with Patti Smith and/or Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. It’s a memoir about Patti’s life, but more specifically about her life with Robert, a famous photographer. The two met in New York City in the 1960’s and grew together in the world of art that was rapidly evolving at that time. They spent the majority of their time together, working with and motivating each other creatively, while also trying to pay the rent and make it to their next meal. Patti and Robert begin as a romantic couple and end just as much in love with each other, while Robert is dying of HIV years later (it’s not a spoiler if it’s real life, right?) Anyway, I did enjoy this book. I love stories about New York City in all eras, so if nothing else this offered an illuminating account of the city in a pretty formative time period for the arts. I think I would’ve gotten more out of it if I was a huge fan of either of their work, which I’m really not. It’s worth the read either way if you like NYC stories.
Book #42: ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson
Full disclosure, I’m the co-publicist on this book at work, but I’m not just saying that I loved it because I have to (I’d be honest if I hated it, really). But I really loved this book. Alex Hutchinson brings together endless studies and anecdotes and scientific research to this one addictive, readable, fascinating account of the potential (and limits) of human endurance. He focuses on all kinds of physical activities, from running and cycling to polar expeditions. It really reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book in the best way, meaning that you learn a ton without realizing it (and without any of the mental exhaustion) because of the brilliant way he writes it. Alex is an elite runner and Olympic trial-qualifier himself, so he includes stories from his own running career alongside the stories of elite ultra-marathoners and record-setting sprinters, with data throughout from some of the top athletic and brain scientists and their studies. I’m not doing the best job of describing this book, but I think that it could find a place on anyone’s bookshelf, from the casual power-walker to the crazy marathoner trying to break 2 hours. Anyone interested in the mental and athletic capacity of humans will enjoy this book.
Book #43: LANDS OF LOST BORDERS by Kate Harris
Another non-fiction book that I absolutely loved. Kate Harris is a professional explorer, and this book is a memoir about her bicycle journey across the Silk Road, a culmination of a restless child- and young adulthood spent pining for distant, new places to discover. It’s hard to sum this book up, because there’s just so much: her journey from Canada to the states then England for school, her passion for explorers of the past, then her disillusionment as she grows up and realizes that those explorers were only it in for the monetary gain, and ultimately the question of why we are here and what it really means to be human. She discusses the history of the Silk Road and the history of some of those contentious borders along it (namely Tibet and China). It’s such a great story and I really can’t stress enough how much I loved it. One sad thing — it isn’t out until next August. Add it to your to-read lists now, or pre-order it and I swear you won’t be disappointed. Let Kate’s unceasing curiosity and inspiring passion for being alive wash over you.
Book #44: MEDDLING KIDS by Edgar Cantero
This was a fun one, and fits perfectly in the ’80s nostalgia trend happening right now (love you, Eleven.) Meddling Kids is a sort of off-brand retelling of Scooby Doo, complete with a crime-solving dog. There is a group of four friends at the center of this story: Peter is the handsome jock golden boy, Andy the strong, badass tough girl, Kerri is the genius whizkid, and Nate, the nerd and Kerri’s cousin. The group used to gather every summer while in Blyton Hills which is a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon (yes, Zoinx.). The story begins 13 years after the group solved their final crime, and they have all grown uneasily into dysfunctional 20-somethings. Andy rounds up the crew and persuades them to return to Blyton Hills to get closure on their final mystery, a haunted house situation that doesn’t quite feel resolved to any of them. I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did; it’s creative and fresh. I would say if you liked Scooby Doo, you’ll love this book, but I didn’t even really love Scooby Doo and still couldn’t get enough of this book. Read it!
Book #45: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel García Márquez
I got this book as a gift forever ago, and it’s been on my list to read since forever and a half ago, but it always felt daunting. It’s long, for one thing, but it’s also a Pulitzer Prize-winner and a capital-c-Classic. Then our company voted and chose it as the company-wide book club read for December, so I took it as a sign and finally picked it up. I loved it so much. It is the story of a fictional town called Macando, centered around the founding family of Buendía’s. At times, it was hard to follow because literally every character is either named Aureliano, Arcadio, Acadio, or Amaranta, and all their last names are Buendía. Plus, it covers several generations of this family with identical names and similar traits and characteristics. I got used to it after a while. There’s tons of magical realism (one character just… ascends into heaven, for example. She’s outside hanging her laundry to dry, and she just… ascends) but that at play with the harsh realities of life and family and loss and redemption and… it’s a lot. Once I got into the style and extensive character list of this book, I was obsessed. I’m glad I finally read it.
Book #46: STRAY CITY by Chelsey Johnson
This was such a lovely book, and the author went to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop! Always a bonus. Stray City is the story of a woman who is a lesbian, born to a conservative and religious family in Nebraska. She moves to Portland for college, keeping her relationships under wraps from her parents, until she goes home for a holiday break and her mom eavesdrops on an incriminating phone call. After her parents cut her off, she returns to Portland to make a new life for herself. Unable to afford school on her own, she works odd jobs and forms a chosen family. After a particularly rough breakup, Andrea does the unthinkable and sleeps with a man, resulting in an even more unthinkable pregnancy. I swear I’m not ruining anything, this is all on the inside cover of the book. It’s just such a lovely story about finding your people and staying true to yourself and doing your best in a life with no handbook. I highly, highly recommend Stray City.
Book #47: JESUS’ SON by Denis Johnson
I couldn’t resist following up one novel by a University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad with a collection of stories from another alumni. And authors with the same last name! What a coincidence. The exciting part about this book is the majority of the stories were set in Iowa City, where I went to college. Johnson name dropped bars that I’ve frequented (shoutout to The Vine) and Iowa City streets that I have walked on many times. The stories themselves were also so beautifully done, in a gritty way. There are some recurring narratives, which I always like in a short story collection, but also some one-off characters and situations. Some stories are frantic and tragic and some tell stories of characters coming back from rock bottom. They’re all beautiful. It’s a really short collection, so I was both reading voraciously for his beautiful language and trying to make the stories last as long as possible. I highly recommend!
Book #48: TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green
I’m a little iffy about John Green. His YouTube presence stresses me out and I loved Looking For Alaska, but haven’t quite fallen in love with anything he’s written since that book. And even since reading Looking For Alaska, with all the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl media coverage, I’ve questioned whether I only enjoyed that book because I read it at a less “aware” time in my life. All of this is to say that I was a little curious and a little wary when a heard about this new book. But I actually really liked it. The story follows the main character, Aza Holmes, with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When her childhood friend’s billionaire father goes missing under suspicious circumstances, and her friend stresses the excessive reward money for any tips or leads, Aza gets back in touch with Davis with the intention of helping him find his father. Teen romance ensues, along with a lot of what Aza calls “thought spirals” in which she becomes submerged in her own uncontrollable thoughts. The plot itself had some holes and wasn’t necessarily realistic, but the character development was solid. It was touching and heartbreaking and real. Good read.
Book #49: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson
Second to last book of 2017 was beautiful. I cried. This book felt like a warm hug. It’s the story of fraternal twins, Noah and Jude. The story starts from Noah’s perspective, when the two are 13 years old and close as can be. It then rotates to Jude’s narration, three years later, and the twins aren’t speaking at all. I don’t want to ruin anything because a lot of the joy of reading this one is working your way toward the middle, the turning point in the twin’s relationship, and trying to figure out what could have possible happened. This is a young adult book, but it’s so beautifully written, especially the passages from young Noah’s perspective. Nelson impressively navigated the two distinct voices, creating vibrant and believable characters. Everyone should read this beautiful book.
Book #50: THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE: Essays by Megan Stielstra
This book was perfect, and I loved finishing out 2017 on this note. Megan Stielstra is such a great, smart, strong writer and I hereby vow to read everything she ever writes from now until I die. These essays varied in topic, from coping with her outdoorsman-father’s declining health to gun legislation, from higher education in America to brief adages about growing and learning while staying true to oneself. She touches on what it has meant to her to be a writer, a teacher, a Midwesterner, a woman, and just a human in ways that were relatable and inspiring and helped me see beauty in moments that feel like falling apart. I’m doing a poor job of explaining this book but I can’t find language strong enough to emphasize how much I loved it. Event the structure of the essays (which she sums up as “essays on fear”) were innovative and made the story of her life and loves and losses read like fiction. Everyone should read it, and let me know when you do so we can discuss.
Some fun facts:
Out of the 50 books I read this year, 36 were written by women and 14 were written by men. The longest book I read in 2017 was Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche at 589 pages; the shortest book was the poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire at 37 pages (both books were fantastic). I read 15,453 pages total last year (which is a little more than half of what I read in 2016.)
Looking at you, 2018:
This year, I’m setting my reading goal at 75 books. In 2016, I read 95 so I know this is definitely doable. This goal means reading 1 book every 4.8-ish days, which is also definitely doable. Today was a snow day, so I got some extra reading time and just finished my first book of the year. WISH ME LUCK, FRIENDS! Happy New Year, until next time. ◊