Friday, January 30, 2015

Best of the Bunch: January 2015

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

Of the nine books I read this month, only one earned a 5-star review from me, and it is definitely the best of the bunch!

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was a totally compelling read. It has the feel of a murder mystery, except everyone's dirty secrets come out long before you actually learn who died. It delves into heavy topics like childhood bullying and domestic violence in a frighteningly realistic way. Moriarty's greatest talent is in perfectly capturing how people think — the defensiveness, the guilt, the doubt, the rationalizing. It's painful and honest and voyeuristic and just so well done.

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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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Reader Problems: Q&A

I loved this question set shared by Cait at Paper Fury. I'm going to share my own answers here!

1. You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?
OK, it's not quite 20,000, but I do have 371 books on my to-read list right now. I consider this a reasonable amount given that I read 100 books a year. (Then again, a good chunk of those are book club reads not off my to-read list, so it will likely take me more than four years to get through everything on my list.) Books that fit with one of my goals for the year go to the top of the list. I use the Wish List feature on OverDrive to mark all the books I want to read, so when I need one to read next I'll just go to the "Available Now" tab of the Wish List and pick one. I'll also put a hold on whichever is most popular (has the most holds), so I'll read that when it becomes available.

2. You're halfway through a book and you're just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?
I used to never quit reading books, but as time has gone on I've determined that my to-read list is too long and my time is too valuable to waste it on books I really don't care to finish reading. In most cases I'll still finish a book — if it's a book club read, or a classic, or a bestseller everyone's talking about — but if it's a book I picked up randomly and I feel like I'm forcing myself through it, I may just let it go. Last year, I abandoned The Monuments Men and Mo' Meta Blues each halfway through, and The Coldest Winter Ever maybe a quarter of the way through.

3. The end of the year is coming and you're so close, but so far away on your Goodreads reading challenge. Do you try to catch up and how?
This has yet to happen. Last year my goal was 52 books, but I had already reached 60 about halfway through the year, so I upped the goal to 100 and ended up reading 120. However, I kept it at 100 for this year and I'm just barely keeping up so far, so we'll see how it ends up going.

4. The covers of a series you love do. not. match. How do you cope?
This is how my Inkheart series is, with two in hardcover and one in paperback. It's annoying, but I buy so few books as it is that I'm not going to buy another copy of a book just to make everything match.

5. Everyone and their mother love a book you really don't like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?
One of the great things about book club is that there's usually at least one other person who shares your feelings, or will at least agree that the parts you didn't like weren't that great. If it's not a book club read, then I'll often skim the Goodreads reviews to find some people who had the same reaction I did (and maybe put it into words better than I could).

6. You're reading a book and you are about to start crying in public. How do you deal?
It's been a long time since this happened; books rarely make me cry, and I read at home most of the time. If it's a book where I have to know what happens next, and I'm among strangers (like on public transportation), I'll probably just keep reading/listening and let a few tears out. But if I can wait until I'm home, or I'm around people who are going to have a strong reaction to me crying, I'll put the book down right away.

7. A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you've forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a synopsis on Goodreads? Cry in frustration?!
It depends a lot on the book. When the third Thomas Cromwell book comes out, I don't feel I'll need to reread the last book because the events of the first and second books were fairly independent from one another, so I imagine the third will be the same (and it's based on history, so I can always Wikipedia the real story to get caught up again). But with The Madness Underneath, I'll probably reread The Name of the Star first because I'm guessing there will be a lot of carryover from the first book and I'll have to remember who everyone is to know what's going on.

8. You do not want anyone. ANYONE. Borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people nope when they ask?
Eh, I'm OK with people borrowing my books, even though I've had a number of books got lost or ruined. It's more important to me to share the stories with people than to keep my books in pristine condition. On my Delicious Library software I can mark who's borrowed a particular book so I know where it is if I'm ever looking for it.

9. Reading ADD. You've picked up and put down 5 books in the last month. How do you get over your reading slump?
Umm... I don't do this. I'm generally reading three books at once (hard copy, ebook, and audiobook), but I won't pick up another one until I'm done with one of them. If I'm terribly bored with all of them (but determined to finish them for one reason or another), I'll try to power through whichever one I'm closest to finishing so I can start on something new that I really want to read.

10. There are so many new books coming out that you're dying to read! How many do you actually buy?
Probably none. I rarely buy books unless I get a gift card to a bookstore. I'll just put them on my to-read list, put holds on one or two at the library, and then read them whenever they manage to come up in my queue.

11. After you've bought the new books you can't wait to get to, how long they sit on your shelf before you get to them?
A long time, since I'm usually trying to finish book club reads and books due back to the library at any given time. I bought Hyperbole and a Half last year and haven't gotten to it yet (in part because of my 2014 reading goal), but I hope to read it soon once I'm done with this month's book club books.

How do you cope with these #BookwormProblems? What other problems do you run into as a reader?

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Ten Books I'd Love to Read (or Have Read) With My Book Club(s)

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

I didn't mean to take a long break there, but it turns out taking care of a baby takes up lots of time ;) Also I went out of town last weekend. Also I got sick. So, you know, life.

This week's topic is books I would love to read with my book club. As I've mentioned, I belong to multiple book clubs, each with a different focus. I'll share some books that my book clubs have read, some that I've suggested for future reads should my book clubs choose to vote to read them, and others that I think would be good for discussion.

1. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Two of my book clubs have read this, although I missed the second one's discussion because I was sick. Not only is it an excellent book, but the variety of stories that interweave to make up this book mean that it's likely there will be something that resonates with each person. There are a lot of great themes to discuss: family, promises, class and privilege, culture.

2. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
I haven't read this in a long time, but I loved it and I bet it would be great for discussion. It takes place in a small town at the turn of the 20th century, and the characters have interesting and complex relationships that would be wonderful to talk about.

3. "Does Jesus Really Love Me?" by Jeff Chu
This is a journalistic exploration of the many ways people have handled the intersections of faith and sexual orientation, from ex-gay therapy to celibacy, from mixed-orientation marriage to same-sex marriage. Chu manages to be (mostly) nonjudgmental, even when interviewing someone from Westboro Baptist, and this book helped me and the members of my book club be more open-minded to different people's life choices.

4. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
This is another favorite of mine somewhat similar to Cold Sassy Tree. It deals with some darker subjects (animal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse), but it's actually a really heartwarming (and heartbreaking) story. I want to reread it, but I'd love to have other people to help process all the emotions this time around.

5. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
One of best books I read in 2014, this is a compelling story, plus one of the main characters is based on a historical figure (Sarah Grimké). The characters' choices would make for a great discussion.

6. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
This is my favorite book, and two of my book clubs have read and enjoyed this book on my recommendation. A surprising number of people felt deeply connected to the characters for one reason or other, and you can talk both about the characters' various decisions and about the larger themes permeating the book related to trust and family.

7. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
I don't think anyone in my book club had heard of this book before, but they all said they liked it after we read it on my recommendation. Through Marcelo's experiences as someone who struggles with social cues, the reader is forced to question why we have certain unspoken social expectations, and whether doing the right thing is always as obvious as we like to think it is.

8. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This is another book that deals with heavy subject matter — the narrator stopped talking after a terrible thing happened to her — but it is rich with opportunities for good conversation. Anderson's ability to steep the book in symbolism without it ever being heavy-handed was amazing to me. I'd love to reread this with a book club.

9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This was originally recommended to me by someone in one of my book clubs. I've shared my love for this book previously on here and have recommended it to more than one of my book clubs, but we've yet to read it as a group. After the Slate Audio Book Club had a great discussion about it, I'm sure it would be good fodder for any book club.

10. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Another favorite of 2014, this book would be excellent to read with my book club that's made up of women in their 20s and 30s. Moriarty is the master of capturing the drama of everyday life, and this book deals largely with how relationships (marriage, friendships, family) develop over time, not always for the best. Big Little Lies would probably be great as well, but I'd recommend this one for discussion first.

What books should I recommend to my book clubs next?

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

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.

One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern: Part mystery, part redemption story, part feel-good tale, this is the story of Kitty Logan, disgraced journalist trying to redeem herself by figuring out what her late mentor's last story idea was — all she left was a list of 100 names. A little cheesy at times, but very sweet. I liked it.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore: Funny at times, but mostly just stupid. I didn't find offensive for the religious elements but for the reductive depictions of women and minorities. Most people seem to love it, but no one in my book club had anything good to say about it.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Adichie is a very talented writer, and this is a frighteningly realistic depiction of life with an abusive parent who self-justifies with religion. Unfortunately not much happens in terms of character growth for most of the book, so it's just a really long and depressing depiction of abuse followed by a quick rush of events at the very end.

God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène: The many characters and multiple settings made this difficult to get into, but ultimately I found this historical novel about the 1947-48 West African railroad strike interesting and informative.

Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals: This day-by-day memoir of school integration by one of the Little Rock Nine was valuable not only because I knew so little about how school integration actually worked but also because of her tips about surviving bullying, which for her was probably worse than what any student nowadays could possibly endure. (I mean, 90% of the school staff was in on it too!)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty: Another fantastic book from Moriarty. This covers difficult topics from school politics to childhood bullying to domestic violence and sexual assault, but does so in an eminently readable fashion. It's like a murder mystery, except you don't find out who gets murdered until after everyone's dirty laundry has come out. Really enjoyed this one.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler: Highly recommended as an audiobook narrated by Poehler and friends. I had a little trouble keeping the chronology of her early years straight, but other than that found the book enjoyable, funny, smart, and valuable.

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson: I can see why people like this book and why it would be good to discuss in school (minus some racist language), given its firsthand exploration of what being a "foster kid" is like. However, I found the character growth unconvincing and the fat-shaming got old quickly.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: I read this because it was on my classics list, but it was a bear to get through. I can definitely see how it would be rich for literary study and interpretation, but as a straight-up read I found many of the stories terribly boring despite a few funny or interesting ones.

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

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Didn't Get To in 2014

I'm back! I took an unexpected break there to go adopt a baby :) He is healthy and awesome and we are all going a little crazy while we wait in our hotel room for clearance to return to our home state. So now you can understand all my references to "if/when we become parents in 2015." Ta-da!

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday. This week's topic is books released in 2014 that I wanted to read but didn't.

Because of my goal to diversify my reading in 2014, I ignored a lot of 2014 releases that I otherwise would have been all over. Also, because I typically get books from the library rather than buying them, I sometimes have to wait a bit longer to get my hands on a new release, though not as long as you might think.

Here are my top ten 2014 releases that I didn't get to in 2014:

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This first caught my attention when I saw that Entertainment Weekly gave it a rare "A" grade. Then it started popping up in m friends' reviews, and it's been on bestseller lists for a while. I have the ebook on hold on the library now and look forward to diving in.

2. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
After loving What Alice Forgot, I pushed this one to the top of the list in 2015. It did not disappoint. I can't wait to see what she writes next.

3. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This one I could have read last year, but I never got to it. I first heard of it from John Green, but it's been recommended here and there since then. I'm not put off by a book in verse (although I may have to take a break after I finish The Canterbury Tales), so I look forward to reading this.

4. The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis
I'm Catholic and a total Pope Francis groupie, so I was excited to see that he'd written a new book. It's a fairly short book, so I don't have any excuse not to pick it up this year.

5. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour
I like a good LGBT YA book if it's done well. After reading Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I went looking for other recommendations and saw that this one is pretty popular. I can be pretty critical on how these issues are handled (see my scathing review of Sing You Home, for example), so I'm interested to see how I like this one.

6. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Kate Rorick and Bernie Su
I was a hardcore fan of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (WATCH THEM) so of course I want to read this companion guide. I was a little hesitant, but the reviews I've seen so far have been positive, so I'm excited.

7. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This was another one I first saw in Entertainment Weekly, and the organizer of one of my book clubs also recommended it at our last meeting. I'm generally not a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, but I've heard this one is different, so I'll give it a shot. I have the audiobook on hold at the library now.

8. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
I love E. Lockhart (The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is one of my favorite books ever), and this book has been getting rave reviews, so I can't wait to read it. I need to get to it soon before anyone spoils it for me!

9. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
I love xkcd and this book sounds like the kinds of lunchtime conversations my nerdy friends and I have, so I definitely want to read it this year.

10. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
This was another one I got my hands on first thing in 2015. I highly recommend getting it as an audiobook, as there's a lot of bonus material you just wouldn't get from reading it in print. I really enjoyed it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to cuddling with my new baby...

Which 2014 books did you not get to last year?

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Diversifying My Reading: A Look Back at 2014's Lessons

In 2013, I undertook what turned out to be a lengthy but worthwhile project to determine whether I was being exposed to diverse viewpoints in my reading. I exported all the books from my Goodreads account (excluding picture books), and for each book I looked up the author's gender, nationality, and race. If the book was fiction, I also included the main character's gender, nationality, and race. Clearly this didn't capture every aspect of diversity, but I wanted to use demographic information that was relatively easy to determine. (If you're interested in a more detailed description of my methodology, let me know.)

I found, not surprisingly, that the vast majority of books I had read were by white Americans, with more male than female authors and protagonists. I decided that 2014 was the year I would bring some balance to my reading.

Knowing that my four book clubs read almost exclusively books by white Americans, I knew I couldn't eliminate these authors entirely, but I could still try to branch out. I set a goal that no more than half of the books I read in 2014 would be by white authors or have white protagonists, no more than half by Americans or with American protagonists, and that there would be an even gender split among authors and protagonists.

First, did I reach my goal? On the author side, I came close, but didn't quite succeed. Of the 120 books* I read in 2014:
  • 50.8% were by male authors and 49.2% by female authors
  • 52.5% were by American authors
  • 51.7% were by white authors

I did a bit better with fictional characters. Out of 76 works of fiction I read this year (63% of all 120 books):
  • There was an even gender split: 31 had male protagonists, 31 had female protagonists, and 14 had both male and female protagonists.
  • Only a little over a third (35.5%) of the main characters were American.
  • Less than half (43.4%) of the main characters were white.

Even though, statistically speaking, I didn't quite meet my goal for the year, I found that seeking out books by people of color, both Americans and non-Americans, was incredibly valuable. I want to share some of my thoughts and observations from undertaking this goal this year.

The first thing I realized as I started to compile my to-read list is that most of the books had fairly heavy subject matter. Books by and about Americans of color dealt largely with experiences of racism (their own or those of their fictional characters) and/or the struggles of immigration, while many of the most well-known books by and about people in African, Asian, and South American countries dealt with civil war, colonial rule, and oppressive governments. (I also read way more detailed descriptions of starvation than I want to encounter again in the near future.)

I think there are a few reasons for this. For one thing, as became abundantly clear to me through my reading this year, it's nearly impossible to be an American of color and not experience some form of racism on a fairly regular basis, so it would be disingenuous not to include that in an honest memoir or realistic novel. And big moments in history, whether it's celebrating a country's independence from colonial rule or suffering through a civil war, are natural topics for authors to gravitate toward when seeking stories.

I wonder, also, if this narrow range of topics is the result of bias among white Americans in publishing, purchasing, and recommending books. That is, we trust people of color to write about "their" areas — slavery, racism, immigration — but when it comes to covering other topics, whether in fiction or nonfiction, there is a tendency to favor white authors.

I don't know this to be true, but it wouldn't surprise me. One thing I found over the course of the year was that I was bombarded with the usual slew of book recommendations from various sources — friends and family, blogs, news articles, lists shared on Facebook, etc. — and as I would look through them to see if there were any by authors of color to add to my to-read list, I found those to be few and far between. When a book by a person of color was recommended, it tended to be a book about one of those topics mentioned above. (Edited to add: This also fits with the fact that black actors tend to win Academy Awards more often for playing "stereotypical" roles like slaves, maids, and abusive or absent parents than for strong historical figures like Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela.)

To get most recommendations, I had to specifically seek out sources like the "Books White People Need to Read" (nonfiction) and "Best Fiction and Memoirs by Authors of Color" lists on Goodreads to find recommendations. The #colormyshelf project was also helpful, although it focused primarily on children's books.

The difficulty with many of these lists was that these books were not considered "mainstream," and thus they were more difficult to get access to. I've discussed my reading formats previously and that I tend to seek out books on Kindle and audiobook from the library first, then look for hard copy library books. Books recommended to me by white authors were more likely to be available in a digital format and, if not, to have hard copies at my local library and not require a special request. I requested many more books this year through PaperBackSwap that just weren't available at any nearby library.

So those were the difficulties in this project: Lack of access to the books, lack of widespread recommendations, and lots of heavy subject matter. What were the upsides?

I learned a LOT, including about things I didn't even know I was ignorant about. I learned about independence and Partition in India (Midnight's Children, A Suitable Boy) and about the forced sterilization programs that took place there (A Fine Balance). I learned about the Rwandan genocide from both a Hutu (An Ordinary Man) and a Tutsi (Left to Tell). I learned about the experience of immigrants to the United States from Nigeria (Americanah), Vietnam (Inside Out and Back Again), India (The Namesake), Afghanistan (And the Mountains Echoed), Haiti (Breath, Eyes, Memory), and China (The Fire Horse Girl). I had no idea about the disappearance of Morocco's Oufkir family until reading Stolen Lives.

I learned about communist China under Mao (Dreams of Joy), the Haitian slave revolts that led to the country's independence (Island Beneath the Sea), and the 1947 West African railroad strike (God's Bits of Wood). I learned about the experiences of American Indians in the United States, from the Old West (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), to the recent past (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), to the present day (The Inconvenient Indian). I read about what happened to slaves who helped out British troops during the American Revolution in Someone Knows My Name.

Among American-born authors of color, I gained a lot of insight about their experiences. I learned about racial identity formation from "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and My Beloved World. I learned about the brutal racism of past decades from The Souls of Black Folk, Warriors Don't Cry, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Fire Next Time, and Sister Outsider, and the stereotypes that still linger today from Sister Citizen, More Than Serving Tea, and Member of the Club. I got an inside look at inner-city Chicago from Gang Leader for a Day.

There were a few nonfiction books by authors of color that taught me things not having to do with legacies of racism and oppression. Atul Gawande's excellent The Checklist Manifesto was a favorite this year, and David Kuo's Tempting Faith was a frightening look at how conservative politicians use faith in their campaigns as a tool of manipulation.

I did read a handful of novels by white authors that featured protagonists of different races and nationalities, but I found most of them lacking. The Breadwinner was an exception (it was a favorite book of the year). The Fire Horse Girl denigrated Chinese culture in an attempt to show how much better the independent-minded protagonist fit in in America; Homeless Bird was like a big middle-grade lesson on the culture of India with a plot built awkwardly around it; and Walk Two Moons, while an excellent story, seemed to shoehorn in a random assortment of references to American Indian culture while not giving the protagonist much of a racial identity of her own.

Reading multiple books on some of the same topics showed me the danger of letting one person's perspective or story represent a whole. For example, the two books on the Rwandan genocide were by two very different people who had very different experiences during that time period and took away totally different lessons from their experiences. On the other hand, reading black Americans' experiences with racism ranging from the early 1900s to the 2000s allowed me to see the common threads, all the things that sadly haven't changed much, as well as those that have.

So was the project worth it? Absolutely. I didn't know how much I was missing until I started actively seeking out these books, and I still have many more on my to-read list that I hope to get to in the years to come.

Even if you don't want to make a structured effort to diversify your reading, I think it's worth considering some of the larger lessons from my year-long reading adventure. If you get recommendations primarily from the same few sources, are you missing out on other great books? Are you passing by certain recommendations because you see them as not relevant to you? (This was a large contributor to my previous lack of diversity.) Are there areas of the world you don't know much about, or periods of history that you only got a rough outline of in history class?

Consider keeping these questions in mind as you cultivate your own to-read list for the year(s) to come. I'd love to hear about your own experiences branching out in one way or another.

Did you set and achieve any book-related goals in 2014?

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*You'll see my Goodreads Challenge meter says I read 122 books. I'm not counting The Message Remix Bible translation because I finished it early on January 1st after working through it for three years (and I wouldn't even begin to know how to classify the authors), and I also rated and reviewed a script I read for a community play I tried out for, but I didn't count that in my book analysis.