Thursday, December 17, 2015

Literary superlatives 2015

I'm no literary critic, but I read quite a lot. In fact, whenever someone asks me what my hobbies are, my first instinct is to proudly proclaim that I took second in a recent BMX competition or that I donate all my time saving Guatemalan sea turtles from extinction, but then I realize that I've never downshifted in my life and wouldn't know what to do with a sea turtle if it bit me in the nose. So I instead meekly say something to the effect of "I kind of read a lot," which I realize a.) immediately turns me into a hapless and uninteresting creature and b.) assumes that reading is not a lofty pursuit, both of which are not true. So I need to stop downplaying the fact that I'm a pretty voracious reader, and instead shout it from the rooftops - I like to read!!

2015 was a year gloriously full of books. I had a few longer commutes that allowed me to plow through books in record time, and I finally mastered the art of the Queens Public Library (a feat I am ashamed to admit took me nearly five years to figure out), which saved my wallet from the Amazon Monster. I also started prioritizing reading for the first time in a while. One of my most cherished moments each day is when I crawl into bed and read a few pages before falling asleep - but for years I ignored this desire, instead letting myself drift off during the Tonight Show and then groggily stumble to bed never having turned a page. But this year I decided to put the kibosh on that bad habit and get into bed BEFORE I was actually falling asleep. Lo and behold, a reader was resurrected.

Instead of doing the typical "best books" roundup, my list is going to be one of superlatives and suggestions and a gentle nod to Friends (because why not). Did you love or hate any of the books I've listed below? What were your favorite books of 2015? And what are you most excited to read in 2016?

The one that made me cry
Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout) Whether you read the book or watch the movie (but please do both, and please read the book before you watch the movie), you'll need some kleenex next to you. Strout's tragically beautiful portrayal of small-town life in Maine made me question my own relationships and confront the inevitability of death, all while tears rolled quietly down my cheeks.

The one that surprised me
Magnetic North (Lee Maynard) I literally judged a book by it's cover (grabbing it off the shelf at the library and only opening it after I'd checked out), and was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that a book about a hardened Vietnam vet-turned-even-harder-biker-dude on a motorcycle ride to the Arctic Circle was a beautiful portrayal of the inability to cope with grief and loss.

The one that made me angry
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo) This one topped the bestseller's list for months, but I honestly can't figure out why. For all it's suggestions on cleaning up one's living space, this 200+ page book could have easily been condensed into a bestselling pamphlet - and I think the irony of buying a book about decluttering was lost on millions of readers.

The one that made me think
Man Seeks God (Eric Weiner) The author took a lighthearted but thoughtful approach to a serious subject (which happens to be my preferred way to face nearly every situation), and delivered a fascinating overview on many of the world's major and minor religions. I firmly believe that familiarity breeds acceptance, and in light of current political situations, it is more important than ever to understand where others are coming from.

The one that turned me into a temporary artistic ninja
The War of Art (Steven Pressfield) A thin but dense text filled with thought-provoking quotables revolving around one's artistic journey and process. Lines like "the amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The pro knows that feat can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist" will have you first rushing for that Moleskine you bought when you felt "creative" and then rallying your craft into a much more focused and driven narrative.

The one that was a classic detective story
The Long and Faraway Gone (Lou Berney) Even though I love good ole' detective stories, I don't normally read them, feeling like my time is better spent on more serious literary pursuits (note to self: it isn't). So it was almost by mistake when I checked this book out of the library - but thank goodness I did, because it was a delightful adventure through and through. Classically noir with just the right amounts of grit and grime, this was a story I could not put down.

The one that made us all argue
Sex at Dawn (Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha) My book club chose this for our Valentine's Day read and though it was way too dry and academic for my liking, it nevertheless generated a fascinating debate on relationships, monogamy, and if humans really are meant to be with multiple partners in a lifetime.

The one that should be required reading for all lit majors people
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) A beautifully curated selection of Patchett's essays and short stories, this is a book to savor and digest. With the exception of one essay, she never specifically lays out tips or advice on how to be a writer, but by the end of the book you will find yourself convinced you just took a master class on the written word.

The one that nearly turned me into a hipster
Eating Wildly (Ava Chin) Here's the thing - I dislike getting dirty, I'm suspicious of unknown trees and plants, and I have a serious and nearly debilitating fear of worms. So imagine my surprise when I found myself googling "foraging trips in NYC" after having read only half of this memoir-turned-cookbook-turned-instruction-manual on digging for your dinner in urban areas. I eventually came to my senses and went to the grocery, but not before saving a few of the recipes included in the book.

The three written by the same author
The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, The Lovers, and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Vendela Vida) I'm a huge fan of reading more than one work by the same author (last year I binged on all 1,191 pages of Donna Tartt's novels), and was more than excited to discover Vida's "women in crisis" series. Diver's Clothes was by far my favorite, and acts as a precautionary reminder to keep a vigilant eye on your belongings at all times while traveling. The other two novels were not as cohesive or tightly wound which made them harder to enjoy, but as a literary oeuvre, Vida creates compelling and complicated female protagonists - which I really appreciate. There are two more books of hers that I have yet to read (a novel and a non-fiction piece), but those are going at the top of my 2016 list.

The one that was my favorite
The Sunlit Night (Rebecca Dinerstein) It's probably wrong to assign the prize of "favorite" because a mother should love all her children, but whatever - this book was my favorite of 2015. A beautiful and lyrical narrative that is also captivating, charming, and with the slightest twinge of fantasy, Dinerstein created a literary cocktail using my favorite ingredients. I haven't bought a book in a while (see: no more clutter!) but I may treat myself, and my bookshelf, to this one so that I can read it again and again.

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