Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reading is Fundamental: 2011

After a feverish year of reading in 2010, I really dropped the ball in 2011. I had been in the habit of reading in bed for a few hours every night, but then I started worrying it was compromising Tom's sleep. That was the end of me and reading, apparently. But now it's 2012 and I'm back on the wagon, Tom's sleep be damned*. In the meantime, here are what paltry reviews I have to share from 2011.

Bossypants- Tina Fey
I was predisposed to liking this book because of loving 30 Rock, and it didn't disappoint. I felt it was a little short, which is an indirect compliment disguised as a complaint. She's funny, self-deprecating and thoughtfully articulates things I'd imagine a lot of funny/offbeat women have felt. My only complaint is that she seemed torn between her celebrity and her normality, and at times came off as defensive. I hope she writes more books because I would probably read them all.

Crossing to Safety- Wallace Stegner

I really loved this book. In my mind, it's right up there with Angle of Repose. Crossing to Safety is a sweeping story of decades of friendship between two couples and OH DID I CRY. I cried so hard I couldn't read any more. I cried so hard I woke Tom up at 2 am with my crying. I cried so hard that I awakened to puffs of white tissue littering the bed and floor, thinking, groggily, "What happened last night?" The characters were so vivid and realistic to me that I equated characters with corresponding people I know and love. That is Stegner's gift. He writes so that you see people you know in his characters and therefore feel deeply invested in the outcome of the characters' lives. It's incredible. Needless to say, the misfortune that befalls the group at the end of the book was therefore devastating. I had revelations about myself, my family and my friends. I don't know if this book will have the same impact on other people as it did on me, but in the off chance it does, you should read it.

In the Garden of Beasts- Erik Larson

This is the third Erik Larson book I have read (after Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck) and I still remain a fan of his. My favorite of the three was far and away Devil in the White City because of its ingenious employment of dual narrative in which I found both plots equally fascinating. Thunderstruck, which I reviewed last year, was a weaker subject but still utilized the same dual narrative style. In the Garden of Beasts was the first of his books that I read that dealt with a single narrative, and I found myself wishing he had employed his standby style one more time. The story focuses on the family of William Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin during Hitler's rise to power. It is painstakingly researched, but the story often became insular in its focus on the Dodds with little checking in on the major factors that were impacting their life in Berlin. A chapter, for example, spent great deal of time on Dodd's decision not to attend the annual Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, but not so much as a sentence is afforded to the rally itself or what impact it had. The thought I kept having as I read was that I just wanted the end of every chapter to have a "Meanwhile, Hilter/Goebbels/Goring/Rohm, etc..." section that checked in with the major players in the party and the status of the movement in order to give the Dodds' experiences more context.

8 Weeks to Optimum Health- Andrew Weil

I borrowed this book from Ryan when I was visiting him in D.C. It had a lot of really interesting perspectives and tips which will hopefully make me healthy enough to grow a beard like Andrew Weil's. Look at that thing. It's beautiful. He looks like a perfect hybrid of Santa and Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat. Also, apparently you should be refrigerating your olive oil. Who knew?

Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness/ Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together/ Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe/ Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour- Bryan Lee O'Malley

I finished the series and it's still awesome.

Letter to a Christian Nation- Sam Harris

This book has really thought-provoking perspectives no matter where you fall on the faith spectrum. Harris wrote it as a response to the criticism from the Christian right to his previous book The End of Faith. For that reason, sometimes Harris comes off as unnecessarily aggressive and condescending, which I am sure alienates a lot of readers. I understand how he got that way, since the criticism he was responding to was not exactly good-natured itself, but sometimes he really outwits his critics with relish. I don't imagine Letter to a Christian Nation is wildly popular among non-atheists, but I would love to be a fly on the wall and be able to hear Christians discussing this book

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon- David Grann

This is probably my favorite book of this year. The Lost City of Z tells the amazing story of British explorer Percy Fawcett and his life-long love affair with exploration. His single-minded determination to find an ancient lost city in the depths of the Amazon is simultaneously inspirational and foolhardy. He completely eschews creature comforts (and his wife and children) for a life among myriad predatory creatures and tribes. I had dueling thoughts while reading this book in the comfort of my bed. The first was that I never want to go to the Amazon because it seems as though everything is conspiring to kill you there. The second was that I wish I had in me Fawcett's drive and passion which allowed him to ignore that aforementioned fear and discomfort. He was cut of a different cloth than most men, but I am grateful people like him roamed the earth. Grann ties the story together beautifully by capping the book with his personal experience retracing Fawcett's final expedition.

Tinkers- Paul Harding

Tinkers is a really beautiful book, but I didn't love it as much as I expected to. Perhaps I wasn't the intended audience. A clock repairman on his deathbed recounts his life and the life of his father, an epileptic peddler. It employed beautiful imagery of a man's life winding down and becoming silent and still like a clock unwound.

Secret Ceremonies- Deborah Laake

What a sad story this was. Laake was raised LDS, attended BYU, and after a series of truly terrible marriages and a struggle with depression, she committed suicide in 2000. This book got a lot of press for revealing the ceremonies within the Mormon temple, but beyond that there's a really staggering story of oppression and a fascinating study of gender roles. I couldn't always relate to Laake and didn't agree with her handling of many situations, but she went through some really hellacious experiences in her short life.

Odd Girl Out- Rachel Simmons

This book literally changed my life. This was a recommendation from Kam, not surprisingly. Reading this book (and Curse of the Good Girl) was deeply cathartic. Things I had viewed as lifelong weaknesses of mine I realized are skills that were devalued or even discouraged in my upbringing. Namely, I realized that my conflict aversion was not something unique to me, but that it was evidence of a larger problem of girls learning alternative aggression rather than any real skills to cope with conflict. Girls are taught so many alternatives to direct communication (silent treatment, withholding of affection, rallying other girls to support your cause that another girl has wronged you, joke mocking, not inviting a girl to events, etc.) but not actual skills that resolve conflict. Therefore, girls essentially bully one another as a means to express disapproval and indirectly incite change in a friendship. However ineloquently I may have expressed that, Rachel Simmons makes up for my weakness with her direct, relatable writing and exhaustive experience working with and interviewing teens. Although this book is written about teenagers and their social sphere, the book is sadly applicable to women of all ages since the skills we learn (or don't learn) in middle and high school often become the baseline for all female communication. I would highly recommend this book to women who feel that they wish there was a deeper level of intimacy they could feel with other women, but feel dispirited by the current state of female interaction. This book is for you if you've ever said, "I just prefer hanging out with guys because they're honest with you." Don't give up on women entirely! There are some of us out there who want the same things as you. I would highly recommend you read this in your book club, or just read it with some friends.

Daytripper- Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon

A really beautiful graphic novel. Another excellent suggestion from Hoai.

The Spectator Bird- Wallace Stegner

This isn't my favorite of Stegner's novels but, as always, he really gets to the heart of the pains of aging and regret. In topic, this could be a companion piece to Tinkers. It deals with an aging literary agent who is reminded of his bittersweet past with a countess in Denmark as he reflects on his life. For selfish reasons, I preferred Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety to The Spectator Bird because the former two dealt with topics I found more relatable. I know this was a well-written book, but it didn't strike me the way some of his other books have.

The Curse of the Good Girl- Rachel Simmons

After so recently reading Odd Girl Out, some of the impact of The Curse of the Good Girl was lost on me. I'm not even sure if I can comment on which is the superior book, because I feel that whichever one I had read first would have blown my mind. Simmons writes this book "for" the mother of a pre-teen as a sort of how-to guide to setting up your daughter to develop into a fully articulated woman who is not crippled by a constant need to conform. While that could easily be uninteresting to someone like me (childless, less than a decade out of teen-dom herself), it was eye-opening. It centers around the argument that girls are taught that conforming to the societal norm of "the good girl" is more important than individualism, expression of thought, and proper management of conflict. I think this and/or Odd Girl Out should be required reading for all women, especially those planning to raise girls of their own.

The Big Short- Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is the master of simplification. It's not that he dumbs the story down, it's just that he writes as casually as he can while still conveying the vital information. This book deals with a decidedly complex topic (the housing/credit bubble and subsequent late-2000s financial crisis), but Lewis starts with a clean slate and describes every step and every contributor. While that sounds like it would guarantee tedium, the book rarely got thicker than I could muddle through. The characters in the book are unbelievable- more like caricatures than anything we non-Wall Street folk would ever encounter in our lives. It's these lively personalities that keep the book humming and break up the densest chunks. The unsettling reality that sinks in as you read the book is that, with very little exception, nobody knew what they were doing. They knew they were making money hand over fist, but the logistics of their fateful trades were lost on them. Traders just emulated other traders at competing firms with no thought for the larger implications of their greed. Like other books and movies on this topic, it leaves you with a disturbing lust for blood because none of the thoughtless, selfish megalomaniacs who set up this scheme suffered any real consequences. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who likes learning and being angry.

As always, thank you for reading and please recommend books to me that you love, too.

*He's fine.


  1. I assumed you were crying over Andrew Weil. Very enjoyable read!

  2. I love book talk with you. Your annual book posts don't disappoint! ;)

  3. i love learning and being angry! i've actually been meaning to read this book for a while now, though, i'm currently butt-deep in books on my to-read list, when will this sickness end?!

  4. I feel like I'll be helping and harming you by offering this, but you can borrow that book if you want... gah, that made your butt situation worse, didn't it? Have you already finished Hunger Games?

  5. I completely agree about Bossy Pants. I really enjoyed it but grew tired of Tina Fey's celebrity insecurity.