Monday, December 28, 2015

Brittany's Top 11 of 2015

Not Pictured: Everything I Never Told  You
There is something really satisfying about looking at Top Book Lists, especially my own (Future Brittany can find her top books of 2013 here and her top books of 2014 here). In spite of kicking ass in the number of books I read in 2015, I managed not to read a single one from the best books of 2015 lists from Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, or the BBC. Nonetheless, I still have thoughts and opinions about this year in books. 

By The Numbers
  • 67 complete books read (9 children books, 12 middle reader books, 16 young adult, 8 graphic novels, 13 non-fiction books or memoirs, 2 short story collections, and 4 narratives written in poetry) 
  • 30 books were read for grad school
  • 64 authors (repeats include Ernest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, and Lenore Look while some graphic novels had multiple authors) 
  • 26 male authors, 37 female authors, and 1 I am not sure of and don't want to misgender 
  • 4 dead authors, 60 living (RIP A. A. Milne, E. B. White, Chester Nez, Ernest Hemingway) 
  • 8 nationalities (American, British, Lebanese, Russian, Canadian, Japanese, French, Afghani) 
  • 3 American Indian authors (from the Navajo, Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, and Laguna Pueblo tribes) 
Things that stand out compared to previous two years: I read more female authors than male authors, I read no plays, and I read books for audiences younger than Young Adult (which is usually 13+). 

Top Books
This year's list was the hardest because the books I read were so different and I found myself making absurd brackets like "Which is better? The non-fiction Pacific Crest Trail memoir Wild or the middle reader narrative poem about basketball and family The Crossover?" and then eliminating both even though I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend both. 

I also didn't do a lot of book reviews this year, so  I had to read summaries of books like And the Mountains Echoed and Colorless Tsukuru Taziki and His Years of Pilgrimage and try to remember how they made me feel. I liked them both and would count both Hosseini and Murakami as among my favorite authors, but could their books really be top books if I couldn't remember them without a review? 

The last thing I'll say before I get to the list is apparently I have unofficial categories in my head for books that are on my top list. For the past two years my top lists have included a Book About Race (Americanah and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), A Fucked Up Book (Dark Places and Gone Girl), A Classic I Should Have Read Already (Handmaid's Tale and Portrait of a Lady), a Pulitzer Winner/Nominee (Three Plays and A Visit from the Goon Squad), A Non-Fiction Book About a Topic More People Should Know About (Into Thin Air and Maus), a Book of Interconnected Stories with Shifting Narrators (Suite Francaise and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena), and this year's list seems to include the same unofficial categories. 

1. Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz: My only regret is that this book wasn't around when I was in high school. If it were, this would be a book that defined me. It won  a million awards including two LGBT awards, one Latino award, and was a Printz Honor Book, which is one of the most important young adult awards. If you're only going to read one YA book, this should be it. Taking place in El Paso, Texas, in 1987, it focuses on the friendship of Ari and Dante. Ari is an angry, lonely teen who has questions about his incarcerated brother that his parents pretend never existed. Dante is a dreamer and an artist. The writing is beautiful, the story is compelling, Dante and Ari's friendship is admirable, and I especially related to Dante and Ari's conversations about what it means to be a 'real Mexican.' The book's popularity will hopefully demonstrate to publishers that a book filled with minority characters can reach a broader audience with universal themes about love, family, and friendship. It is young adult literature at its best. 

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: This Pulitzer prize winning novel is on many top lists and deservedly so. The writing is beautiful, the characters are always interesting and compelling (even if our protagonist is kind of a jerk), and the story seems to particularly resonate with our time as it follows the aftermath of surviving a terrorism attack. It also has a special place in my heart because I don't think I have ever loved reading about a dog as much as I loved reading about Popper (and I read Laika and Dash this year - two dog-focused middle readers that both made me cry). I don't usually want to reread long books - let's be honest, rereading this 800 page book really means I will read 5 fewer books in my lifetime, but I do look forward to revisiting this book again and determining if it is a Great Novel. 

3. The Color Master by Aimee Bender: This short story collection brought me right back to my first experience reading Bender. Each story contains a sensualness or loneliness or frequently a strange concoction of  both. There are no duds in the collection, and while they each stand up alone, together they show Bender's talent in telling completely different kinds of stories that all have the same loveliness. Randy asked if I would recommend this, another collection, or one of her novels for someone looking to read Bender for the first time, and back then I suggested An Invisible Sign of My Own. Now I would recommend this one - I think it is Bender at her best. 

4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: After reading this fantasy romance, I wanted to wear black and white and red for weeks so everyone would know I was a reveur. Two magicians each take on an apprentice who must compete within the arena of the night circus. The descriptions of their magical concoctions are imaginative and just close enough to being possible that the reader is devastated to realize the Night Circus will never mysteriously pop up in town. The story is told in a non-linear fashion with shifting perspectives, which I am always a fan of, and Morgenstern manages to maintain high interest in each and every perspective. When I was out of books on a camping trip, I found myself re-reading it and it was HARD TO PUT DOWN even though I had just read it. 

5. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Every  novel Hosseini writes I love and find equally important. After I read the Kite Runner, I thought it was a great book about an important story that people needed to hear. Then I read A Thousand Splendid Suns and I thought it was a great book about a different important story that people needed to read. When people asked for a recommendation, I would tell them to read The Kite Runner if they wanted to read about men and A Thousand Splendid Suns if they wanted to read about women. And the Mountains Echoed surpasses both books and has a more diverse cast that will grip any reader. It encompasses over fifty years of time and traces several stories from the workers to the warlords to the refugees. 

6. Push by Sapphire: I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that this is one of the most depressing novels of all time, but it's an important story and one that people need to read. There are plenty of books about white women working in urban schools and saving students, but there are not enough books about the actual lives of the actual kids who go to those schools. Sapphire does an excellent job of giving a voice to Precious that is real (based on her own experiences as a teacher) without feeling exploitative or condescending. This book is definitely not for everyone, but more people should read it than do. 

7. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: This novel showed me that Hemingway is not overrated and that I don't hate him. I carried a strict anti-Hemingway prejudice deep in my heart for a decade and never managed to get over it (which, with a minor in English and an MA in English is no small feat). Reading a book by Big Poppa and loving it was a revelation.

8. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre: This book is messed up and I loved it. It's a book I would recommend to people who like Gillian Flynn and Stieg Larsson, but I wouldn't talk about too much because I don't want people to think I'm a sociopathic serial killer. Alex is the first in a series that is being published and translated fairly quickly, giving you something to read in between Flynn novels, and Lemaitre is still alive, so he beats Larsson there (although I have not read the new David Lagercrantz contribution to the series, so I can't say whether or not Larsson's vision lives on). 

9. Code Talker by Chester Nez: After spending a night in Tuba City and checking out various Navajo/Dine museums and sites, I wanted to read a book that would give me even more of an in-depth perspective. The subtitle says "The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII" which was persuasive enough for me. I am not a WWII buff and I have actually never read a military book before, but I couldn't put this down. It covers Nez's whole life, not just the war years, and demonstrates just how amazing the code talkers' work was, especially in contrast to how awful American Indians were treated. 

10. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: This novel attempts to do so many different things and manages to do them all well. It opens on the mysterious death of a teenage girl (we know from the first page where and when her body will be found), and sustains the intrigue resulting from that. It is a family drama, and the shifting perspectives of different family members is so real (but much more compelling than our own family's dramas). It is a historical fiction, covering the 1950s-1970s. It is absolutely a novel about race, but it's also a text about gender norms, and it's also just a story about an American family dealing with loss. This was a book club pick, and even after discussing it for two hours I still felt like I had a lot to think about. 

11. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari: This has been the most recommended book of the year (that is, I have recommended it to basically everyone I know). Ansari pairs up with sociologists and psychologists and old people and young people to try to figure out what romance used to mean and what it means now, in an age where you can swipe through thousands of potential partners and still be completely alone in the world. Ansari can basically do no wrong in my world, from his stand up to this book to his Netflix show Master of None. If a person likes any of his other work or has ever done online dating, I would definitely recommend this book.

Honorable Mentions

  • I have so much love for Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and I hope it becomes as popular as other YA fantasy phenomenons. A secret school of magic for teenagers in Nigeria - anyone who likes series such as Harry Potter, A Clockwork Angel, or Cinder should be stoked that the sequels are already in the works. 
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is another YA book - this time a historical fiction novel - that I have recommended to anyone I know who reads YA. The time is WWII, the characters are two best friends - a pilot and a spy - and I couldn't put it down. Readers will be relieved that there is no love triangle (there actually isn't any romance at all - our two badass heroines are too busy trying to help win World War II!). The sequel, Rose Under Fire, is already out and the Twittersphere says it's just as good if not better than the first. 
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt gave me a lot of trouble when making this list. I loved The Goldfinch. I loved The Secret History. I couldn't put either down. I almost paired them up in the number two spot, but they are too different to put together. Ultimately I decided to give the list spot to The Goldfinch because I can see myself reading it again, over and over, in my life. I might have one reread of The Secret History left in my life, but I would definitely reread The Goldfinch first. It's an arbitrary standard (after all, I don't think I'll ever reread Code Talker and that made it on the list), but a decision needed to be made. 

Top 5 Books I Didn't Count
I took a children's lit class this semester which put me in the situation of having to define what 'counted' as a 'book.' For the purposes of this blog, I counted the book if it was 100 pages or longer. I read 30 books that didn't meet this standard, but I have opinions about them nonetheless.

1. Waiting is Not Easy by Mo Willems: Anyone with children under the age of 10 has surely heard of Mo Willems. The only thing under the age of 10 in this house is my boston terrier, so I had not. I haven't read his most popular book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, but I have read a few, and Waiting Is Not Easy is my favorite. The message is great for kids, the artwork is simple but lovely, and I love what elephant and piggy are waiting for. 

2. Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh: My classmates definitely got tired of hearing me talk about this one. Tonatiuh's art is amazing, as it is in all his works, but the content of this non-fiction picture book is even better. It details the story of Sylvia Mendez's family who is responsible for desegregating California schools way before Brown v. Board of Education. As a Hispanic teacher living and teaching in the Southwest, in a school district where Hispanics are the majority, I am ashamed and angry that I had never heard of Mendez v. Westminster before reading this book. 

3. Little Roja Riding Hood by Susan Middleton Elya: A retelling of little red riding hood that incorporates rhyming Spanglish (it never occurred to me that abuela and telenovela rhymed before reading this) and modern ideas. Abuela and Roja save themselves and take practical measures to further protect themselves from big bad wolves. 

4. Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales: Partly just an excuse to give my nieces and nephew a luchador mask, this book has the most amazing artwork and incorporates Mexican folklore into an imaginative tale about a little boy who loves to wrestle. I realize that three of my five books are about Hispanic families written by Hispanic authors (and all three were books I read outside of class). This has to be more than a coincidence, and I wonder if part of why I love these books so much is because when I was a kid, these books didn't exist, so as an adult they are extra exciting to me?

5. The Adventures of Beekle the Imaginary Friend by Dan Santat: One of the most beautiful picture books I read this year and the story is also charming. Every pot has its lid, every imaginary friend has its person, and sometimes we need to take matters into our own hand to find our person. 

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