Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of the Bunch: December 2014

The hosting of the monthly Best of the Bunch linkup has been handed over to me to relaunch. Find out the best book I read in December, and share your own favorite in the linkup below!

This month, I didn't have any 5-star reads out of the 8 books I read, but I did give two books 4.5 stars:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

I liked both of these a lot, but the best was definitely...

Written by one of the Little Rock Nine, this book showed me how little I knew about the history of school integration or what that experience was actually like for those involved. Thanks to the detailed diary Melba Pattillo kept as a teenager, we get an almost day-by-day account of what she went through in her year at Central High School. It's horrifying, as you might expect, but even more so than I expected. Perhaps most valuably for readers who are experiencing their own share of school bullying or other hostile environments, she shares her techniques for dealing with the torture she endured, from what didn't work to what helped her regain a measure of power and control. Except for my frustration with the inclusion of a million introductions before the actual story started, I really liked the audiobook version of this and would recommend it. Either way, this is worth a read.

What is the best book you read this month? Let me know in comments, or write your own post and link up below!

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2015

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This year I had one big goal, which was to diversify the races and nationalities of the authors I read (and their fictional protagonists). Look for a wrap-up on that very soon! For 2015, I have a number of smaller goals to tackle throughout the year.

1. Read some fun books I've put off
As rewarding as my 2014 goal was, I'm a little bit burnt out from reading so much about racism, civil war, slavery, and other forms of oppression for much of the year. I also pushed books I wanted to read by white Americans to the back of the line. To start out 2015, I plan to tackle some lighter fare I've been waiting to read, including Hyperbole and a Half, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Anna and the French Kiss, and Yes Please.

2. Read at least 100 books again
I exceeded this goal this year, but I'm not sure how my reading habits will change if (when) we become parents in 2015. However, my to-read list isn't getting any shorter, so I'd love to get through another 100 books next year.

3. Rate and review every book I read
I find ratings and reviews helpful for deciding what to read, so I want to offer the same for others. I also find that my memory is fuzzy on certain books I read before I started using Goodreads (Did I like this book? Should I recommend it?), so having my own detailed description helps. I managed this for every book I read this year, so I want to continue the trend into 2015.

4. Read books recommended by people I know
I get book recommendations from a lot of different sources, and I want to make it more of a priority to read the books that have personally recommended to me by people I know. I love when I recommend a book to someone because I think they'll really like it and then they come back to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. I've used Goodreads to track who recommended books to me, so it will help me pinpoint which ones to read next year.

5. Finally finish the "classics" list I've been working on since high school
When I was in middle school, my English & Reading teacher had a classroom border featuring classic literature. When I was in high school, the middle school moved buildings and I helped her decorate her classroom in the new building. She had bought a new version of the border, which was fading a bit, and she let me keep the old one. Since then I've been working on reading all 88 classic books featured on the border, and I only have four left to go: The Canterbury Tales, Little House on the Prairie, The Miracle Worker, and Flowers for Algernon.

6. Read more classic children's literature I've overlooked
This year I read a few books that are considered children's literature but which I'd never read before now, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There are still more that I'm looking forward to, including The Princess Bride, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and The Cricket in Times Square.

7. Read some other religious texts
This is probably going to be a longer-term goal than I can tackle in 2015, but after my reading this year covered characters of a wide variety of religions, I decided I should become more well-versed in their texts. The Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, and Tao Te Ching are all on my to-read list.

8. Read some graphic novels
I'm embarrassed to say I have yet to read a graphic novel, but I've collected quite a few names of ones I should try: Boxers, Persepolis, Maus, Watchmen, and Blankets. Other recommendations welcome!

9. Reread at least one book a month
As I've said before, I don't do much rereading, but my book clubs have made me more willing to do so this past year. I've shared the top ten books I want to reread; I'd love to read one a month in 2015.

10. Continue diversifying my reads
When tackling my 2014 goal, I found that I wasn't necessarily lacking for recommendations, I just tended to write off anything unfamiliar as something that wouldn't be interesting to me. Making an intentional effort to read authors of color and non-Americans meant that I was now seeking those books out. I want to keep an eye on my reading balance and make sure I don't get sucked back into reading mostly white American authors.

What are your book-related goals for the next year?

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Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 Bookish Wrap-Up

Emily at Love Woke Me Up This Morning posted 12 questions summarizing her year in reading and invited others to answer the same questions. Here are my responses!

1. How many books have you read this year?
I exceeded my goal of reading 100 books. I'm at 120 as of today, and I'm guessing I'll finish at least one more on the plane ride home tomorrow. That's by far the most books I've read in a year since I started recording my books in 2006. (I've written a little about why I think that is.)

2. Which book surprised you the most?
Probably War and Peace. I expected the whole thing to be a slog, and a lot of it was (especially the War parts), but I actually liked it quite a bit. If you're just looking for the story and don't care about the accomplishment of reading the entire 1,400+ page book, it would probably be worth a read of the abridged version.

3. What book were you the most disappointed in?
That would be Love Does. It had been recommended to me many times, by multiple people, and I absolutely hated it. I thought it was self-indulgent and the author was hugely blind to how his wealth and privilege allowed him to do most of the things he talks about in the book.

4. Did you start any new series?
Series for which I actually intend to read all the books? Only the Thomas Cromwell series by Hilary Mantel. I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies this year, and I'm looking forward to the final book. I also read Cordelia's Honor, which is technically a combination of the first two books of a series, but I don't plan to read the rest of the books in the series, which focus on a different character.

5. Did you finish any series?
Nope. Not a big series reader.

6. What was your favorite book cover this year?

Looking back over the books I read this year, most of them have pretty boring covers, but I like the cover of Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. It's a good representation of the book itself: We see Nadia Bolz-Weber exactly as she is, with all her tattoos and not smiling for the camera, but the design of the text is an intentional callback to the long legacy of religion that continues to inform her faith.

7. What was the best non-fiction book you read?
As I said previously, it's a tie between two: Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon or "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Both were excellent for different reasons.

8. What are you currently reading?
I'm listening to Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals and reading God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène in paperback. I also downloaded the Kindle version of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer to have something to read on my phone, but I don't expect to really get into it until the new year.

9. Any reading goals for 2015?
Stay tuned for a list of 10 goals for Top Ten Tuesday!

10. What books are you looking forward to in 2015?
The only yet-to-be-published book I have on my to-read list is All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven because I've seen so many people gushing about it already. I also look forward to reading the final Thomas Cromwell book and the next Cormoran Strike book, whenever they're published.

Edited to add: I just saw that Rachel Held Evans' next book is coming out in April 2015. I definitely want to read it!

11. What books deserve a shoutout?
These are books I haven't mentioned much but which are also great. I'm pretty sure I've shared all my 5-star books of the year at one point or another, but many of the 4-star books are worth a mention as well:

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern

An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
Spiritual Misfit by Michelle DeRusha
Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by Kathy Baldock

12. Your top 5 books of 2014.
Haha, no. It was hard enough to narrow it down to my top 10 favorite fiction and my top 10 favorite nonfiction of the year. You can check out those lists.

How was your year in reading?

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Top Ten Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

Technically this is part two of last week's Top Ten Tuesday theme, naming my top ten books of the year. Last week I shared my top ten fiction of the year; here are my top ten nonfiction picks:

1. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
For being such a popular book, this was a nicely focused, concise book with a simple premise: Checklists can help make sure things are done the right way, every time, even in crises or complex situations. Gawande explains how a committee can do extensive research and produce a thorough report — for example, on safety in medicine or transportation — but unless it's condensed into a checklist of specific action steps (following the guidelines he shares), the research is unlikely to be applied, at least not widely or well. This is a quick and engaging read that provides readily applicable lessons regardless of your line of work.

2. Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
Venkatesh had an opportunity few ethnographic researchers have ever had: he befriended a gang leader and spent several years getting a firsthand look at how the gang operated and interacted with the community in the projects where they lived. He finds many ways in which traditional ideas about gangs and poverty are wrong and reasons why well-intentioned solutions simply don't work. I learned a lot from this book and found it well-written and memorable.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Skloot manages to weave three stories together: The life and death of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants; the ups and downs of scientific research related to Henrietta's cancer cells, which continued to grow and divide indefinitely after her death; and Skloot's own adventures in trying to get the Lacks family to trust her enough to do interviews with them for the book. Her writing is incredibly readable, even when delving into detailed scientific explanations, and the story itself (all three of them) is constantly engaging. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this.

4. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
King does an amazing job at bringing out into the open the things that white people in the United States and Canada believe about native people but rarely question consciously. He shows how we idealize the "Dead Indian" (the one you see in movies), while ignoring present-day Indians' realities. He provides examples of how seizure of Indian lands isn't just something that happened in the long-ago past. He explains the tricky concept of sovereignty, considers the question of casinos on reservations, and argues that everything comes back to land in the end. This is definitely worth a read.

5. Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon
I've mentioned this several times already, as a favorite new author, a book I want to reread, and possibly my favorite book of the year. It is clear, straightforward, and presents a logical framework for identifying which communication methods are most appropriate for different situations with children. At the core of P.E.T.'s ideas is the notion that a child is a person, which does not sound that revolutionary until Gordon illustrates how we treat children different from every other person in our lives. Highly recommended.

6. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Another repeat mention, my favorite book of November. It's probably the most honest Christian book I've ever read, and Bolz-Weber doesn't waste any time trying to fit your mold of what a Christian "should" be. She cuts through the crap and talks about what is at the core of faith, a faith she can't walk away from no matter how much she may dislike its various cultural trappings and expectations. If you're looking for a genuine book on faith and you don't mind a lot of cursing, put this one on your list.

7. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
An incisive exploration of the stereotypes that affect African American women's identity, both in how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves, and how that impacts the interaction between black women and politics. Harris-Perry does a nice job of outlining the historical prejudices about black women and how those continue to affect perceptions today. I gained a valuable perspective on some historical contexts which I was not very familiar with and a new lens through which to understand media representations of black women and coverage of events involving them.

8. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
This is written as a novel, but it's actually the author's own story. Kuroyanagi attended a unique school in Japan in the 1940s where children were encouraged to explore their natural interests and were taught many lessons from everyday experiences. The stories of Totto-chan learning to behave in school and navigate the world of adults reminded me of the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, though near the end the book tackles serious topics like the death of a classmate and the destruction of the school in the bombing of World War II. I would recommend this book for children and adults alike, whether you're looking for examples of supportive education and parenting or simply want to revisit the innocent time of childhood.

9. "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum
This was the other book I pegged previously as my favorite book of the year. A fabulous, extremely accessible book that could be titled "Everything you've wondered about race but were afraid to ask," this book seems to be written primarily for a white audience but would probably be helpful for anyone to read. Tatum explains the process of racial identity development, but also delves into important areas like how a white person can think about race and racism without getting weighed down with guilt and anger and how the experience of different racial and ethnic groups is similar and different. I wished I'd picked this up years ago.

10. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Aslan turned most of what I thought I knew about the New Testament on its head. I've generally viewed Old Testament stories, particularly the early ones, as more symbolical than literal/historical, but I had not previously brought the same scrutiny to the New Testament. I didn't realize that I was taking the New Testament at its word as a historical document until Aslan pointed out all the things that don't match up to known history. Aslan doesn't take a pro or anti stance on faith or Christianity; he just summarizes what historians generally agree upon related to Jesus' life. If you're a person of faith who also takes science and history seriously, it's worth having the historical knowledge Aslan shares in this book.

What are the best nonfiction books you read this year?

You can find more lists of 2014 favorites at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Good and the Bad of Audiobooks

I love audiobooks. I've been a fan since the time when I had to feed CD after CD into my car stereo on the 6-hour trips between home and college (thankfully there are now such things as Aux plugins and MP3 CDs). I used to take advantage of them only when I was traveling, but now I always have one loaded on my iPhone for my morning jogs or to keep my mind occupied while folding laundry or unloading the dishwasher.

According to my records, I've read a total of 80 books as audiobooks, so by now I have some strong opinions on what makes a good or bad audiobook. In other words, what is there in common among the books I regret reading on audio and among those I strongly recommend others read on audio?

Unfortunately, some of these aspects are hard to determine until you've invested some time in listening to the book, but some you can determine by listening to samples before borrowing or buying, by reading the book summary, or by checking the narrator(s) listed.

The Good: Great reasons to pick up an audiobook

1. Multiple narrators
If a book has different characters narrate different chapters in first person, I love when different people do the voices. It helps a lot with getting into the mindset of that particular character and building mental continuity between their sections. Sometimes in a hard copy book like this I find myself getting confused because I've forgotten which character is narrating, which doesn't happen when there are literally different people talking. I also like multiple narrators when the different characters are different genders or from different countries/regions.

The only book in this category I didn't particularly like on audio was Eleanor & Park; I'm not sure if it's because it sometimes rapidly flipped back and forth between the narrators or because much of the book was dialogue between the two characters and they had each actor imitate the other's voice rather than just inserting them into the audio.

2. Nonfiction
It's frustrating when the narrator of a novel sounds good from a sample but it turns out they don't provide any distinction between character voices, particularly if the book doesn't use many speech tags to clarify. You don't typically have to worry about this in nonfiction, though. I've gotten through some great nonfiction reads by having them read to me, including the lengthy The Emperor of All Maladies. A good narrator can make an otherwise dry or complex explanation come alive with the proper emphasis and pausing, just like a good teacher.

3. Good accents
If a character has an accent, that's not always conveyed in writing, but can be brought out through narration. Assuming the narrator is good at accents or has a native accent, I love getting that added aspect from the audiobook. This added to The Bonesetter's Daughter, which had two narrators, one of whom voiced a Chinese character who spoke with an accent, in contrast to her American-accented daughter. This can even work in nonfiction books; I've listened to some great books where the narrator adopts a light (not obnoxious) Scottish, Australian, or Indian accent when quoting a scholar from that country.

The Mixed: Depends heavily on the particular book

1. Authors as narrators
If an author is a good narrator, it can be enjoyable to hear the book read exactly as they envisioned it when they were writing it. If they're an actor or comedian, they're usually great. But I'm generally cautious when I see "read by the author"; just because someone can write, doesn't mean they can narrate well. I've found that amateurish narrators tend toward overemphasis and awkward phrasing, which can be wearing to listen to over many hours.

2. Bonus material
Some audiobooks have a bonus interview with the author at the end, which can be great if the interviewer is good and the author is as articulate off the cuff as they are in writing, but that's not always the case. Sometimes it's like at the end of A Walk to Remember, when they put in this bonus music video of Mandy Moore dancing around scantily clad, which completely ruined the film's sweet ending after the illusion during the entire movie that she was a terminally ill conservative Christian. Bonus material can be cool or it can end the whole audiobook experience on a sour note. Same goes for downloadable bonus material, which can be great (like including visual elements of the book you would otherwise miss — see below) or terrible (like providing a "book jacket" summary that includes spoilers).

The Bad: Better to read it in hard copy if you can

1. Jumps in time
Maybe this is just me, but I have a hard enough time keeping things straight when a hard copy book jumps around in time and I have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to remember which year we're in. If the date is read once at the beginning of a chapter and I just have to remember it while listening to that chapter, forget it — I'm lost. And if there are cool parts where certain scenes are relived from multiple perspectives? There's no easy way in an audiobook to flip back to the previous time that scene was shared to compare. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, but I wish I hadn't listened to it as an audiobook (despite liking the two different narrators) — I had to rewind to the beginning of chapters many times to keep it all straight.

2. Too many characters
Another reason I flip backwards in books: when a character pops up after a long lag and I can't remember who they are. This can be helped somewhat if they have a distinct voice on the audiobook, but more often than not I get muddled when I can't go back and look up a character (love the search on Kindle for this). Even a good narrator will have a hard time making 20 different characters sound sharply distinct from one another, particularly ones of the same gender and accent.

3. Books with visual elements
I made the mistake of listening to An Abundance of Katherines (in which mathematical graphs feature a large role) and The Lost Symbol (which should have been obvious), rather than reading them in hard copy. Any book that includes drawings, charts, or other visual elements directly referenced by the text is less than ideal as an audiobook.

Do you listen to audiobooks? What would you add to these lists?

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Top Ten Works of Fiction I Read in 2014

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

It's almost the end of the year, and while I plan to read plenty of books over Christmas vacation, I will go ahead and share my favorites from the ones I've read so far this year. I don't think it's fair to try to compare fiction and nonfiction, so this week I'm just going to share my favorite fiction of the year, and next week I will share my favorite nonfiction reads for this year. (Update: Here are my nonfiction picks!)

1. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
You've already heard me talk about this book several times, as my favorite book of October and on my list of favorite new authors. It's like a mix of Terry Pratchett, Forrest Gump, and Ocean's Eleven, with absurd humor, encounters with major historical figures, and a gang of unlikely criminals.

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini
I ended up reading this twice this year, and it was excellent both times. It's not as dark as Hosseini's other books, but just as compelling and realistic in its portrayals of life in Afghanistan (and beyond). Each chapter is a different character's story, but they are all linked and circle around a theme of family, in all its diversity and complexity.

3. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
This one was a surprise. I've picked up a number of recommended middle-grade reads this year and have found most of them lacking, but I found this story solid and enjoyable. Parvana, 11 years old, lives in Afghanistan, with her parents, sisters, and infant brother. When her father is taken by the Taliban, she is the only one in her family who is both old enough to work and young enough to pass for male, so she dresses as a boy to earn money so her family can eat. The conflict is mostly internal, as Parvana overcomes her fears and becomes more independent in her role of provider for her family.

4. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
This book is told in alternating chapters between the daughter of a wealthy white American landowner (Sarah) and a slave girl around her age who is given to her as her personal maid (Handful), set in the early 1800s in South Carolina. I didn't know until I finished the book that Sarah Grimké was a real person and this book was based on her life story. The alternating narration gives voice to both the lack of freedom of slaves and (lesser but still very real) limitations faced by a white woman of that time, eventually leading up to Sarah's involvement with the abolitionist movement and then with the women's rights movement. The writing is beautiful, the story engrossing, and the historical details well woven in.

5. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
This book skirts the line between fiction and nonfiction, since the "story" that creates the outer framework is more of a conceit for sharing Gibran's wisdom than an actual complex plot line. (There's another book that is both fiction and nonfiction, which I put in next week's nonfiction list.) This book had been recommended to me for a long time, and I finally picked it up. Each chapter contains a short reflection on some area of life -- love, friendship, work, religion -- and while the ideas are perhaps not new, they are all phrased so concisely and beautifully as to make this book a treasure. It's worth reading slowly to make sure you understand and absorb each sentence.

6. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
An unexpectedly sweet and memorable book. Mr. Stevens, a 1950s English butler, is a delightfully unreliable narrator who tries to convey professionalism at all times, even when it becomes clear he's talking about deep feelings of love and regret. Highly recommended as an audiobook narrated by the wonderful Simon Prebble.

7. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
A classic children's book I wish I'd read in school. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it deals with racism in the American South in the 1930s, but in contrast, it's written by a black woman, narrated by a black girl, and her black father is the hero. Deals well with both the reality of racism and the reality of how black families prepare their children for a racist world.

8. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
I love a good mystery, and I liked this more than the first Cormoran Strike book, The Cuckoo's Calling. For me, the most satisfying mysteries are those where I can't guess the outcome before it's revealed, but when it is, I see how all of the pieces fit together perfectly and where the clues were dropped all along. This book nailed it.

9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Another book you may be tired of hearing me talk about. The Slate Audio Book Club recently discussed this and I was happy to hear that all of the reviewers loved it as well. It's a quick and funny read but one that tackles all sorts of heavy topics like abandonment and betrayal, animal rights, and difficult family relationships, while continually introducing surprises and plot twists.

10. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I'm not sure if it's because I'm at the point in my life where Alice (thinks she) is in this novel, but the life lessons Moriarty introduces throughout resonated strongly with me. Although aspects of this book have a touch of the absurd (like the giant meringue pie), I was surprised at how well and with what nuance Moriarty dealt with the details of Alice's memory loss and its consequences.

What are the best novels you read this year?

You can find more lists of 2014 favorites at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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What I've Been Reading Lately (Quick Lit)

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit (formerly known as Twitterature) to bring you some short and sweet reviews of what I've read in the past month. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini: A reread that was just as good the second time around. Much less dark than his other books, while still providing unflinching portrayals of real life.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown: Meticulously, sickeningly detailed account of how the United States lied to and betrayed American Indians over and over and over again. The repetition of tactics wore on me after a while and almost made me desensitized, but I still think it's worth a read, particularly for white Americans.

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold: One of the better sci-fi/fantasy books I've read, though still not my preferred genre. The characters were well written, and I liked having a badass female character as the protagonist. I didn't like it enough to want to read the rest of the series, but it reminded me that I do like some books in this genre.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King: A quick, if not particularly easy, read with a conversational style. Whereas Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a historical account, King primarily tackles North Americans' present-day relationships to native peoples. Informative, funny, and brutally honest. Highly recommended.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty: I'd heard mixed reviews of this, but I ended up absolutely loving it. Moriarty refuses to provide easy answers about how our lives end up the way they do, but she still gave me a push to re-examine my own life goals and priorities. Really well done.

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman: Good story, not great writing. Provided some interesting historical background about Chinese immigration to America, but suffered from plot holes and a weak writing style, plus some weird xenophobic aspects. Not bad, not great.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork: A solid, enjoyable story of two teenagers grappling with questions of death, life, race, revenge, and family. Reminded me a bit of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, minus the LGBTQ themes.

Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community by Kathy Baldock: One of the better books I've read that tackles the intersection between Christianity and the LGBTQ community. She chooses breadth over depth, so it's not going to answer every question, but it would be a fantastic read for someone who's just never thought about this much before and wants an overview. Includes many different angles, ranging from historical terminology to psychological research to Scriptural interpretation to personal testimonies.

We Are Water by Wally Lamb: My book club hated this. I didn't hate it, but it wasn't one of the better books I've read this year. The writing itself, on a sentence level, was excellent and kept me hooked, but I had some issues with many of the choices Lamb made both in plot and in character development.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See: A fairly brutal depiction of communist China under Chairman Mao, as seen through American eyes. What kept me engaged were the characters and their development over time, but some of the descriptions of starvation and brutality were hard to take. Recommended if you like historical fiction and can take its less-than-pleasant aspects.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: It was slow getting into this, but I ended up really enjoying it. Smith does a nice job capturing the small moments that make up the experience of growing up, while set against a backdrop of life in poverty. She doesn't shy away from nor romanticize the realities of poverty, and the story is better for that.

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel: Not my kind of book. Did not like the over-the-top magical realism, the one-dimensional characters, the tired love triangle, or the implication that it's OK for someone to rape you if you really love them. I also had a hard time following the jumps in time, and I didn't care about any of the recipes.

What have you been reading this month? Share over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read In 2014

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is the top authors I read in 2014 who were new to me. I've read over 100 books this year, and most of them were by authors whose book I'd never read before, so... this was a little difficult to narrow down. I debated about whether to include authors whose books were among the best I read this year but who, as far as I know, haven't written anything else. I eventually decided yes.

1. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
I loved Americanah (despite finding the ending somewhat lackluster) and wanted to read more from her. I did not connect as much with Half of a Yellow Sun, but I still liked it. Next up on my list is Purple Hibiscus, which is also supposed to be excellent.

2. Reza Aslan
Early in the year I read No god but God, and it turned out the only ebook version available from my library was the young adult version, but it was probably for the best that I started with a very basic introduction to Islam. I was impressed enough with Aslan's writing to put Zealot on my list, which I later read and which kind of blew my mind. I don't think he's perfect, but he's still quite excellent.

3. Nadia Bolz-Weber
I named her book Pastrix as the best book I read in November. Bolz-Weber is beautifully, brutally honest about life and faith, and I'm grateful for her putting her thoughts to paper.

4. Karen Joy Fowler
I'm grateful to the person who recommended We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to me. I had not heard of it or seen any of Fowler's books before. Her other books have pretty terrible ratings, but this is her most recent one, so I'm hoping she's found her groove and will put out more books as good as this one.

5. Thomas Gordon
I found Parent Effectiveness Training incredibly valuable, and Gordon is now up there with Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish for my favorite parental advice writers.

6. Kazuo Ishiguro
I had had The Remains of the Day on my to-read list for quite a while because it's on a lot of lists of classic books, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. His more recent Never Let Me Go has showed up on a lot of newer lists of contemporary favorites, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

7. Jonas Jonasson
I never would have picked up his book The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared if not for book club, but it ended up being my favorite book I read in October. And what a great name, huh?

8. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Her book about the unique Japanese school she attended as a girl (Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window) was so unexpectedly charming -- it reminded me of the Ramona Quimby books -- and apparently she's a really cool person who was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and has a foundation that trains deaf actors.

9. Liane Moriarty
I loved What Alice Forgot and I'm looking forward to Big Little Lies after all the positive press it's gotten. I was impressed by her ability to weave a story that was far-fetched and yet very, very true to life at the same time.

10. Mildred D. Taylor
I had never read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry before this year, and I wish I had. It's one that I look forward to sharing with my children at a time when it's appropriate to discuss the realities of racism with them.

Who are the best authors you read for the first time this year?

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

10 Book Questions

Melbourne on My Mind posted some questions about books and I can't resist an opportunity to talk about my favorite books and reading habits, so my answers are below!

1. What's your favorite Harry Potter book? (Come on, everyone has one)
Definitely Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I love the many different relationships that are explored in the book, whether it's romantic relationships, friendships, professional relationships, and mentor/mentee relationships. I was bummed that of all the Harry Potter movies, this is the one they ruined by changing it.

2. What's the book/series that everyone raves about but you just didn't get?
I was kind of meh about Divergent. I felt like it missed the opportunity to include some great plot twists, going for a pretty bland and cliched climax instead, and there were too many similarities to The Hunger Games for me to see it as something fresh and unique. I also read The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book, and couldn't really get into it.

(I only saw the word "series" when first answering this question, but now I see it could be any book, which would expand the list a lot: The Night Circus, Life After Life, Eleanor & Park, The Book Thief, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao...)

3. Which real world places do you want to visit because of a book?
I am really not a person who longs to travel. About the only places I haven't been that I'd still like to go are Australia and New Zealand, and that's because I know people there, not because of any books.

4. What bookish merchandise are you dying to get your hands on?
I love this iPhone case that Modern Mrs. Darcy mentioned recently.

5. What's your most anticipated book of 2015?
Like, one that's going to be published in 2015? I don't read many books the same year they come out, and I'm even less likely to keep up with anticipated releases. As I mentioned regarding sequels I want to read, about the only two yet-to-be-published books I'm specifically looking forward to are the next Cormoran Strike book and The Mirror and the Light (Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell series).

6. Which book character do you wish you could be best friends with?
Frankie Landau-Banks.

7. What's the last book you gave five stars to?
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.

8. Which secondary character do you wish would get their own book?
How about these ten characters?

9. Which author, alive or dead, do you wish you could meet in person?
I'd love to meet Barbara Kingsolver or Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

10. How many books do you own?
According to my Delicious Library, I own 317 hard copy books, 11 audiobooks, and 15 Kindle books.

Share your answers to these questions in comments or on your own blog!

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Best of the Bunch: November 2014

Today I'm sharing the best book I read in November.

Of the 10 books I read this month, four of them earned 5-star reviews from me:

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

These were all excellent books that I highly recommend, but there is no doubt that the best of the bunch was...

You don't often find books this honest, and you almost never find a "Christian book" this honest. If I could give it more than 5 stars, I would have. Bolz-Weber immediately dispels the idea that becoming a Christian does some kind of Extreme Makeover for your life. She swears a lot (including in the book, just as a heads up), she has a lot of tattoos, and she calls herself a misanthrope who gets irritated with other people really quickly. But she also loves Jesus and sees God's work everywhere, so she's not going to walk away from her faith just because she doesn't fit the mold of what other people expect. She separates Christianity from the many trappings it's acquired over time and talks about living in the way she feels called to live as a person of faith, which is a lot more difficult when it can't be reduced to "don't swear" and "be friends with these kinds of people." A really excellent book.

What is the best book you read this month?

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Finding Time to Read

About a month ago I was thinking about how people often ask how I manage to get through so many books in a week, month, or year. I thought I would start keeping track of my reading time each day as a way to illustrate how I fit reading into each day. I had a pretty consistent schedule -- I would run Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while listening to audiobooks, read a little bit of a hard copy book in the evenings after dinner, and then read for about half an hour on my Kindle before bed.

Well, the week I started tracking my reading, I injured myself running on Monday -- pulled a muscle in my chest -- and had to miss work on Tuesday, so I just lay around and read most of the day, plus I couldn't run again until Friday. I decided that week was pretty atypical, so I stopped tracking and started up again the next week (the week of November 9th).

That week, we had an unusually busy week, having friends over for dinner one night, attending a fundraiser another night, attending a play another night, attending a party on Friday, and hosting our own party on Saturday. Additionally, we had a massive wind storm followed by freezing rain and ice, so my running partner and I took a break and decided to run again on Saturday, except she accidentally slept through her alarm that day. Once again, this was a pretty unusual week, so I decided to keep tracking for another week.

Then I came down with a horrible cold that caused me to miss work for most of the week and also prevented me from running for the first half of the week.

I decided that the elusive "typical week" probably wasn't going to happen, and that it was just as well that I show how reading fits into an unexpected, ever-changing schedule. Obviously I read a lot more than usual on the days I was home sick from work, but I also slept a lot and missed out on a lot of audiobook time due to my limited running schedule and not doing much housework.

I would be interested to redo this again in a few years after we have a child, when presumably I will not have hours to myself in the evenings to lay around and read. I recognize that that's not something that everyone has the luxury of doing, but at this point in my life it's the way I spend much of my free time. (Also why I will stare blankly if you try to involve me in a conversation about recent TV shows that are not Doctor Who.)

Without further ado, here are two solid weeks of my reading time:

Sunday, November 9:
12:18pm: Listened to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee part of Chapter 11 while putting away laundry and making lunch (18 minutes)
4:23pm: Took a walk and finished listening to Chapter 11 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (38 minutes)
8:17pm: Read two chapters of Cordelia's Honor (42 minutes)
9:20pm: Listened to beginning of Chapter 12 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while getting ready for bed (7 minutes)
9:34pm: Read 9% of And the Mountains Echoed before bed (35 minutes)
Total reading time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Monday, November 10:
6:52am: Listened to half of Chapter 12 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while going for a run (36 minutes)
7:53am: Listened to more of Chapter 12 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while unloading the dishwasher (15 minutes)
10:41pm: Read 4% of And the Mountains Echoed (20 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 11 minutes

Tuesday, November 11:
8:45pm: Read one chapter of Cordelia's Honor (23 minutes)
9:29pm: Read 9% of And the Mountains Echoed (39 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 2 minutes

Wednesday, November 12:
8:03pm: Read three chapters of Cordelia's Honor (68 minutes)
9:44pm: Read 5% of And the Mountains Echoed (29 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Thursday, November 13:
4:55pm: Read two chapters of Cordelia's Honor (30 minutes)
10:12pm: Read 10% of And the Mountains Echoed (36 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 6 minutes

Friday, November 14:
9:57pm: Read two chapters of Cordelia's Honor (48 minutes)
11:15pm: Read 8% of And the Mountains Echoed (27 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Saturday, November 15:
12:34pm: Listened to the rest of Chapter 12 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while playing Jetpack Joyride and snacking (35 minutes)
2:22pm: Read 35% of And the Mountains Echoed (140 minutes)
5:01pm: Listened to Chapters 13 & 14 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while making dip for the party (67 minutes)
11:08pm: Listened to the beginning of Chapter 15 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while getting ready for bed (11 minutes)
11:35pm: Read 8% of And the Mountains Echoed (28 minutes)
Total reading time: 4 hours, 41 minutes

Sunday, November 16:
4:12pm: Read the last 7% of And the Mountains Echoed (27 minutes)
5:13pm: Listened to Chapters 15 & 16 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee while playing Jetpack Joyride (62 minutes)
7:03pm: Read three chapters of Cordelia's Honor (72 minutes)
8:52pm: Read 9% of What Alice Forgot (31 minutes)
Total reading time: 3 hours, 12 minutes

Monday, November 17:
11:43am: Read three chapters of Cordelia's Honor (53 minutes)
1:11pm: Finished Cordelia's Honor (77 minutes)
4:16pm: Listened to Chapter 17 and part of Chapter 18 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (53 minutes)
5:55pm: Finished listening to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (51 minutes)
7:18pm: Read intro and first two chapters of The Inconvenient Indian (61 minutes)
Total reading time: 4 hours, 55 minutes

Tuesday, November 18:
3:38pm: Read three chapters of The Inconvenient Indian (72 minutes)
5:08pm: Read part of another chapter of The Inconvenient Indian (17 minutes)
7:17pm: Read a chapter and a half of The Inconvenient Indian (45 minutes)
8:33pm: Listened to two chapters of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors while getting ready for bed (23 minutes)
9:11pm: Read a chapter of The Inconvenient Indian (20 minutes)
9:38pm: Read 6% of What Alice Forgot (21 minutes)
Total reading time: 3 hours, 18 minutes

Wednesday, November 19:
2:25pm: Finished last two chapters of The Inconvenient Indian (52 minutes)
7:19pm: Read 19% of What Alice Forgot (66 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Thursday, November 20:
3:06pm: Read 2% of What Alice Forgot on the Kindle app on my phone while waiting for the doctor (4 minutes)
3:30pm: Read 7% of What Alice Forgot while waiting for my strep test results (25 minutes)
5:16pm: Read 7% of What Alice Forgot (27 minutes)
8:04pm: Read six chapters of The Fire Horse Girl (34 minutes)
9:50pm: Read 7% of What Alice Forgot (20 minutes)
Total reading time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Friday, November 21:
6:52am: Listened to four chapters of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors while going for a run (52 minutes)
3:38pm: Read 6% of What Alice Forgot on Kindle desktop app after finishing all my tasks at work (19 minutes)
4:10pm: Read 4% of What Alice Forgot on Kindle desktop app (15 minutes)
6:23pm: Read 4% of What Alice Forgot on the Kindle app on my phone while Mike was getting a haircut (15 minutes)
10:22pm: Finished What Alice Forgot (89 minutes)
Total reading time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

Saturday, November 22:
11:10am: Read 10% of Walking the Bridgeless Canyon (46 minutes)
1:23pm: Read one chapter of The Fire Horse Girl while eating (6 minutes)
1:55pm: Listened to five chapters of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors while taking a walk (51 minutes)
8:03pm: Read seven chapters of The Fire Horse Girl (58 minutes)
11:40pm: Listened to two chapters of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors while getting ready for bed (23 minutes)
Total reading time: 3 hours, 4 minutes

Some final observations: I spend more time reading every day than I realized. Even on the days when we had stuff going on in the evenings, I still fit in at least an hour of reading before bed, and even on that busy week I read for more than 10 hours. It's not unusual for me to read for a solid hour in the evening (again: things I expect to change with kids), but I also do a pretty good job of getting in 15 minutes here and there while unloading the dishwasher or waiting somewhere. If I didn't have so many podcast subscriptions, my audiobook listening would go way up, since I spend a lot of housework time and my Tuesday-Thursday morning walks listening to podcasts.

When and how do you fit reading into your day? If you recorded it, would you spend more or less time than you think reading each day?

If you're looking for my reviews of the books I finished in the past two weeks, you can always find them on my Goodreads page!