Friday, December 30, 2016

Brittany's Top 9 of 2016

By The Numbers
  • 74 complete books read (17 children books, 44 books for young people, 4 graphic novels, 33 non-fiction books or memoirs, 1 poetry book, 10 audiobooks, and 43 for grad school) 
  • 68 authors (repeats include Libba Bray, Kiera Cass, Steve Sheinkin and Sy Montgomery while some books had multiple authors)
  • 42 female authors, 25 male authors, 1 I’m not sure of
  • 1 dead (RIP Lawrence Anthony), 2 unknown (Bibi Dumon Tak, Loic Dauvillier)
  •  15 nationalities/ethnicities besides white American: Chinese American (Malinda Lo), Korean American (Linda Sue Park), Israeli American (Irin Carmon), African American (Kadir Nelson), African American (Taye Diggs), Mexican American (Duncan Tonatiuh), Pakistani (Malala Yousafzai), British (David Almond and Paula Hawkins), British Canadian (Andrea Spalding), South African (Lawrence Anthony), Zimbabwean (Graham Spence), American Indian (Eric Gansworth), born in Germany but lives in America (Sy Montgomery), writes in French (Loic Dauvillier), writes in Polish (Bibi Dumon Tak)
  • 1 American Indian author from Onodaga Nation (Eric Gansworth)

Things that stand out compared to previous three years: I read more books than ever (high of 74 compared with low of 36), but 17 of those were children’s books and I had a whopping 43 books I read for grad school. Last year was the first year I read more women authors than men (57%), and this year I read an even higher percentage of women (62%). My reading of dead authors is the lowest it has ever been – when I was finishing up my MA in English I read 19 dead authors while this year I only read 1. I listened to tons of audiobooks this year thanks to my running habit and a new long commute. 

Top Books 
Constructing my top 10 this year was tricky because so much of my reading was for grad school, and I didn’t necessarily love what I read. Over the last few years I’ve developed unofficial categories of favorite books which this year I didn’t fill. I didn't read a Classic I Should Have Read Already, or a Pulitzer Winner/Nominee, or a Book About Race. Even though I read far more books, I could only muster up a top 9 this year. 

My love for Miranda July is pretty endless, and this charming, depressing, sexy, lonely novel is her at her utmost. Any person who enjoyed her movie or her short story collection will love this book, although I would understand why someone might hate it.  Even though this was my thid book of the year, I was misquoting one of my favorite sections to a friend just a few days ago. “The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed. We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment.” The writing is beautiful, the plot is fresh, and the characters are incredibly real: a perfect top novel.

Like the woman herself who has inspired generations of women to be more badass nasty women, this book inspired me to read more non-fiction by/about women (Carrie Brownstein, Amanda Palmer, and Malala Yousafzai were tackled this year – I have Phoebe Robinson, Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Shonda Rhimes on my list for next year). She is a brilliant woman who deserves all the love the current generation of feminists gives her. This well-written, well-researched, entertaining biography allows those men and women to solidify what they already suspect about RBG based on her memes. The empty seat on the Supreme Court bench makes this book even more timely now than it was when it was published last year.
3. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Not writing a review of this book is my greatest book regret of the year. For this quick review, I tried to pin down a single characteristic that makes the novel exceptional and realized it does almost everything perfectly. The writing is exceptional: this is especially impressive since the novel is essentially one giant flashback which is a tricky plot device. The voice is exceptional: Eileen the narrator is such a different person from Eileen the character, and we get to witness the chain of events that connects these two women. I ached to know more about Eileen the narrator, but so much of who she is is defined by no longer being Eileen the character. The tone is exceptional: it is so slow-moving in the beginning and yet I couldn’t put it down. It builds up a perfectly taut tension. The plot is very good, but it only has to be when everything else is perfect. I did tweet one quote from it, but I do remember telling Randy it was a difficult book to tweet because of the nature of Moshfegh’s style which is not pithy or quick: “Nowadays perhaps we’d call the attitude blasé. It is a particular posture of insecure people. They feel most comfortable denying any perspective whatsoever rather than proclaiming any allegiance or philosophy and risk rejection and judgment”. 

4. The Diviners by Libba Bray
I just finished this book last week and have already recommended it to one person in every group of people I have encountered since then. I did not love the idea of this book. It is a 1920s historical fiction fantasy young adult novel – two of the three genres that describe its essence I have basically no interest in. I downloaded it as the first book for my Audible account because I was going on a road trip and it was 18 hours long, nominated for an Audie, and its sequel won an Audie – so I figured I would be getting my $14 worth. It was so good that when my road trip was over I immediately tried to find a paper version at my library so I could continue reading and, when one was unavailable, I downloaded the e-book and read it on my phone (which I almost never do). I really liked Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, but it was a little too long, a little too meandering, and a little too heavy handed with Life Lessons. Bray has learned much since then. Even though The Diviners series is a long sprawling book, it is tight and purposeful and engaging and so effortlessly diverse that all wannabe novelists should have to read it just to study how one could incorporate different ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities in one book without being an After School Special (and again – in the 1920s!) Evie, a party flapper girl, gets sent to her uncle in New York City after she makes a bad gin-fueled decision at a party. See, Evie is a diviner – she can touch an object and know the secrets of the person who owns it. Fortunately, her uncle Will runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (aka: The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies). As horribly mutilated bodies pile up in the city, Evie tries to help her uncle help the police find the serial killer without revealing her powers. Fortunately, she’s not the only diviner around. [Unofficial Category: Book of Interconnected Stories with Shifting Narrators]

This hybrid book (let’s say it’s two/thirds non-fiction book about octopods, one/third memoir about Sy Montgomery) stole my heart during my spring semester and as soon as I read it I knew it would be one of my favorite books of the year. I didn’t think much of octopods before reading this book (which is to say: I neither liked nor disliked them because I really didn’t think much about them), but now I’m obsessed. I would never say no to an opportunity to see an octopus and it is one of my dreams to touch one. The only disappointing thing about this text is that it is so informative that it was hard to do any of my own research – everything fascinating about octopuses is right here in this book. Highly recommended for anyone who likes well-written and researched non-fiction.

In a really unfortunate plot twist, I do not like Kiera Cass anymore* although I still dig her books and recommend them to my middle schoolers all the time. The Selection was another surprise series as I’m not a fan of The Bachelor and don’t watch any reality TV beyond The Great British Bakeoff – that’s the level of competition I can handle. Nonetheless, I couldn’t put down The Selection, its sequels, and its assorted related writings. In fact, it’s hard to consider the book on its own because it’s basically worthless by itself. As a whole series, it has a really interesting premise (35 random girls chosen from the population are thrown together in a reality-TV-style competition to win the prince’s heart, a position as future queen, and most importantly for America Singer – financial stability for her family) with interesting characters and interesting twists. The series continues to the next generation coming of age and their Selection. The writing is not the most amazing, the character development isn’t the most believable, and the romance is absolutely over the top. However, the politics that creep in during the early novels and completely overtake the last few is what makes this series stand out from other YA romance.

7. My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
The first thing I loved about this novel was Rebecca Lowman, the narrator of the audiobook. Her voice was perfect on Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and while I still enjoyed it on Fan Girl by Rainbow Rowell, the deep silkiness of her voice belongs with dark characters. Fortunately, this book and its main character, Aysel Seran, are quite dark. The novel opens on teenage Aysel at work at a call center browsing an online message board, Smooth Passages. It’s a personals-esque site where people find partners to make suicide pacts with. Aysel finds a good match for herself in FrozenRobot and the two begin a journey towards suicide together. It’s tricky to write anything about the book without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that it’s rare to find a book that gets the feeling of depression right, and this one gets it right. The pacing is a slow wade through water and the characters are distant and difficult to invest in, but those features contribute to the getting-it-rightness.

8. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
This is a book with no 1 or 2 star reviews on Amazon.  On goodreads, 84% of its thousands of ratings are 4 and 5 star reviews. Steve Sheinkin is an amazing non-fiction writer, and although his target audience is young adults, all non-specialists would benefit from reading any of his books. My mom was 10 when the Vietnam War ended and my dad was in Mexico, so I didn’t grow up hearing anything about it from my family. My social studies teachers in high school weren’t great (sorry - I say this as a teacher, but they really weren’t), and as an English Education major I only had to take one history class in college. In other words, everything I learned about the war I learned from Tim O’Brien, which means I know nothing outside of the soldier experience. This book is meticulously researched, well-written, engaging, easy-to-follow, and contains such an important part of America’s history: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.  Perhaps the best part is the Epilogue entitled “History Repeats Itself” where Sheinkin connects Ellsberg to Snowden and current issues around government secrecy and whistleblowing today. [Unofficial Category: A Non-Fiction Book About a Topic More People Should Know About]

This book was a desperate airport buy when I thought I would die if I read one more book for grad school (I did read more books for grad school and did not die). This book, like the Soul of an Octopus, is part memoir part non-fiction book written by someone who is not a scientist. However, I entered this book with quite a bit of elephant knowledge because I have always loved these beasties. Fortunately, since the book is Anthony’s firsthand account of his tribe of elephants, everything is new and engaging. I would only recommend this to people who are interested in Africa or game reserves or elephants, but those people can expect to love this charming book.  

Honorable Mentions
  • The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Both of these books made good attempts to fill the hole that is left when Gillian Flynn continues to not publish a new novel. Both novels are marketed as psychological thrillers about missing women and both novels have shifting perspectives and chapters that aren’t in chronological order. The Good Girl is about a wealthy girl who is kidnapped and dragged into the woods. It has alternating chapters from the perspectives of the Mother, the Kidnapper, and the Detective which are either from Before the kidnapping ends or After the kidnapping ends. The Girl on the Train is about a woman going missing in a small suburb in England. It has alternating chapters from the perspectives of Rachel, the exwife, Anne, the new wife, and Megan, the missing neighbor. Readers of both books seem to love them or love to hate them – I thoroughly enjoyed both. [Unofficial Category: A Fucked Up Book]

  •  I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick 
I had to read the Young Readers Edition for grad school which has a different coauthor and (I've heard) less history/politics. It's a good book and and important book, but it didn't quite make my top 10. I think if I had read the original it probably would have. 

These four non-fiction young adult books all consider different aspects of equality, social justice, and identity. They were all very very good and readers who are unfamiliar with the topic should absolutely pick them up. Young adult nonfiction is one of my new favorite genres - they tend to be broader in scope, shorter in length, and easier to grasp than their adult counterparts which often have an expert audience in mind. 

Top 5 Books I Didn't Count
I’m still in grad school for youth librarianship which means I’m still having to decide what ‘counts’ as a book. For kids – everything counts. It breaks my heart to hear kids, parents, and teachers say a book doesn’t ‘count’ because it is too short or has pictures or is an audiobook or whatever. For the purposes of this blog though, I counted books that were 100+ pages and put those under on a different list. I only read 19 books that didn't count, but I still had a top 5. 

 1. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri illustrated by Randy DuBurke: This graphic novel is based on the real story of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member murdered by his gang. Yummy committed murder, arson, and armed robbery,  but his gang feared he would become a police informant if caught. The visual nature of the genre made this one particularly difficult to read and had many of my classmates wondering if it was 'appropriate' for young people. That was one reason why is was discarded as a finalist for our class's mock book award committee (someone in my group also felt it shouldn't win the award because it would be eligible for a minority-literature award so it didn't need to win a mainstream award, and in real life it was in fact chosen as a Coretta Scott King Honor Book). I agree that the book is intense, but it's problematic to say that one 11-year-old's real life experience is inappropriate for other young people to experience second-hand. I put this book in the same category as the best YA Holocaust literature - it's difficult but incredibly important for young people to read, preferably with an adult to process it. 

2. When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis: I am particularly interested in social justice and civil rights. Because I read so much in this genre, I wasn't expecting to be impressed with this book when I saw the cover and read the title. I figured it would have the usual people that we have all been learning about every February since 3rd grade. I was surprised, delighted, and totally blown away. Beautifully illustrated with lovely poems, the subjects include Zora Neale Hurston, Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, and Aung San Suu Kyi among others. A wonderful book to inspire kids to learn more about civil rights leaders they may have never heard of before. 

3. Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems: Last year I had never even heard of Mo Willems, and he took my number one spot on Top Books That Don't Count. I have read many of his darling Elephant and Piggie books, but this one is top notch. Elephant and Piggie are playing catch with a ball when Snake appears wanting to play too. Willems does a fantastic job of showing how people are uncomfortable addressing differently abled people and how being different shouldn't mean being left out. 

4. How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman illustrated by Allen Say: This charming classic tale (originally published in 1987) features a little girl telling the story of her parents falling in love. Her white American father was in the military where he met her Japanese mother. Although they were quite smitten with each other, each was too shy to ask the other on a dinner date because they worried about looking foolish in front of each other maneuvering chopsticks or a fork and knife. This book needs more love in 2016 than it gets, especially as the population of mixed race people continues to grow in America. I would recommend this for every child's bookshelf. It's a perfect mirror for any child who is living in a multicultural home and a beautiful window for any child who is not. 

5. Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh: who can do no wrong which you can clearly see based on all the medals on the cover. Another amazing non-fiction book from Tonatiuh (last year his picture book Separate is Never Equal was also on my Top 5 List of Books That Don't Count), this one tells the story of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist who is most well known for his calaveras, or skeletons, living their best skelelives. Informative and fun and beautifully illustrated in Tonatiuh's signature style mixed with Possada's totally different style - it has everything a children's picture book should. 

*A Note on Kiera Cass: In looking up her basic biographical details (female, alive, American) I discovered a pretty unfortunate controversy: a person gave the book a one-star review on goodreads which resulted in Elana Roth, Kiera Cass’ agent, calling the reviewer a bitch while they both discussed how to try to game the GoodReads system in order to bury her review. How do we know all this? Because they had the conversation publicly on Twitter (probably not on purpose). Like everyone on GoodReads, I review books for fun, and sometimes I don't like a book, and I should be free to say so. I realize Kiera Cass earns her living based on what people think about her books, but she is quite successful and that review probably wasn’t going to affect her book sales. Of course, the best/worst part is that the one-star review might have had a smaller audience, but thanks to Cass and her agent, it has been linked to and blogged about repeatedly as people discussed the controversy, becoming so big that even Publishers Weekly even wrote about it. Ouch. 


Christopher said...


Brent Waggoner said...

Great recap, and great to see Mo Willems pop up here. His Knufflebunny books are good too-funny and then the last one maks the room really dusty for me. I enjoyed the author breakdown as well.