What I Read | DECEMBER 2016

I returned to my hometown this month, which means I got a LOT of books at my public library.  This is especially noteworthy because somehow in smalltown Illinois, my library is really great at stocking diverse books.  The number of books I read about people of color BY people of color increased this month, which I’m quite pleased about.  I also accidentally read several books with the word “star” in the title, but they had nothing in common beyond that.


case-historiesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson

I’m not usually into the mystery genre, but this book was excellent!  Each character (and there are a lot of them) is detailed and flawed and believable.  There is a lot of violence against women, but that’s the point:  there is a lot of violence against women.  I love a good male protagonist (bonus points for a detective) who understands this reality and grieves it.

hitman-anders-and-the-meaning-of-it-allHitman Anders and the Meaning of It All by Jonas Jonasson

Jonasson is a hilarious writer with amazing dry wit.  This book covers some dark topics (murders, cons, fake religions) and somehow turns our awful protagonists into accidentally good people that we the readers root for.  Yet another reason to go to Sweden!

why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normalWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Oooowww, this book is emotionally painful.  It is the sad and beautiful memoir of a woman raised by an abusive mother who somehow manages to fiercely pursue life and love.  It’s very quotable, and towards the end I was especially intrigued by Winterson’s fascinating ideas about madness – what causes it and how to find healing.

24641800The Demon in the Wood by Leigh Bardugo

This is a short story about the Darkling from the Grisha Trilogy, and I am always interested in the backstory’s of villains.  This story humanizes him and explains his behaviors, but more interestingly, it shows how individual actions are created by, and reinforce, cultural oppression.

5Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

I did not know how much I needed a Muslim Pride and Prejudice in my life, but I did!  This is such a fun and cute book that feels familiar while also being a refreshingly unique interpretation on an overdone classic.  I loved reading about modern Muslim culture in the Western world, and Sofia’s Bridget Jones-esque diary entries are perfection.  I can’t recommend this enough.

17270515Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

This novel in verse about a young Haitian girl who dreams of someday attending school so that she can become a doctor is a beautiful story beautifully written.  Serafina fights for her dreams despite poverty and the Haitian earthquake, giving us lines like: “Without dreams the world is only dirt and dust.”

28588345The Midnight Star by Marie Lu

I loved Lu’s Young Elite series, but I found this final book a lot weirder than the others in a way that doesn’t quite fit.  I had to keep reminding myself that we had already established their magical world, but somehow the mystical realm of death stuff felt out of place.  I also wish that Adelina’s villainy had stuck more – the book never could quite commit to her descent into a lust for power and control.

fish-in-a-tree-335x512Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A cute middle grade book about a dyslexic girl whose new teacher manages to understand her and show her her greatness.  It is simplistic but lovely, and a great book for kids to learn the value of differences.  Definitely something I would have pushed hard when I was a children’s librarian.

17927395A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

This is an excellent sequel to a mediocre book.  I cannot describe how thrilled I was when the stereotypical romance from A Court of Thorns and Roses was revealed to be not protective…but abusive.  Feyre’s growing affections for Rhysand make total sense because he is a feminist fantasy:  an extremely powerful, intelligent, witty man who only wants to let his loved one make her own choices and be her best self.  The plot is non-stop, the romance is sizzling, and I am mad that I have to wait several more months for the next book!

28763485The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This unrealistic but engrossing romance details the one day in which a Korean guy and a Jamaican girl meet and fall in love before she is deported away from New York City.  I rolled my eyes at the love-at-first-site gimic quite a bit, but the book won major points for its unique POV-changing chapters.  We see things from both protagonists’ points of view, but also from parents and the guy who almost ran into them.  Because of that, the story is both tiny (one day) but also broad (so many people affected their meeting).

635797417603710039-laststar-coverThe Last Star by Rick Yancey

The final book in the 5th Wave series is a worse disappointment than the LOST series finale.  So many questions were left unanswered, and some of the answers were so convoluted and ridiculous that I didn’t even try to understand.  I found this to be a very unsatisfying conclusion to what started as a thrilling series.

18263530A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Another novel in verse, this time about an Indian girl who loses and regains her dream of dancing after her foot is amputated.  It’s an inspiring story that feels both diverse and universal.  I really liked the story’s assertion that rather than ruining a person’s creativity, pain and loss can actually deepen and enrich a person’s artwork.

9780545151337_zoomThe Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

This is SUCH a great book.  It feels light even though it covers heavy topics – Pancho is an orphaned teenager who wants to find and kill the man who murdered his mentally disabled sister, but who then finds new meaning in life when he is befriended by a guy with brain cancer.  Yikes, right?  But despite the morbid plot points, this book is so uplifting and inspiring.  That’s the point though: in a world of death and pain, we can still choose to pursue life and love every day that we are given.

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Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan

 

61dF-z3PjxL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_Percy Jackson breathes new life into familiar Greek myths and introduces several less-popular men and women.  You’ve got Hercules and Theseus, of course, but also Phaethon, Orpheus, and Bellerophon.  Most importantly (to my interests), Riordan tells the stories of four heroines!  The ancient Greeks weren’t huge on female inspiration, and I appreciate Riordan’s intentionality in choosing to include Psyche, Otrera, Atalanta, and Cyrene.

The tone of the book is irreverent and modern, much like the Percy Jackson books, which makes sense as Percy is the “author” of these stories.  He has no problem calling out the gods on their weird and/or horrible actions.  For instance, when describing Danae’s imprisonment, Percy says:  Continue reading

Sand in My Bra edited by Jennifer L. Leo

366190Female travelers of the world will love this compilation of travel essays from 28 women headed into hilarious, dangerous, and awkward situations all over the world.  Although some of the essays are generic travel stories, most are distinctly female, and it made me aware of how infrequently I read about women adventurers.  There are stories about accepting imperfect bodies simply by being on a beach overseas, and horror stories of period catastrophes, and a lot of unironic adoration of being female.

I mean, that’s pretty much it.  If you like traveling and you like women, then you will probably like the majority of these essays.  But hey, here’s a quote to entice you just a little bit more:

This is the heart of travel.  This is why we do it.  This is why we are so willing to strap our fragile bodies into metal capsules and fly thousands of miles with hundreds of strangers endlessly exhaling new viruses into our airspace, drink water from dubious sources, eat food virulent with unknown flora and fauna, put up with impossible travel companions, lost luggage, and the legions of mule-like bureaucrats who manage to win positions of petty power in every city and village on earth.  We do it because we love this beautiful dangerous planet and we want to know it personally and, on balance, the pluses far outweigh the minuses, right?

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Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

mindy-kaling-why-not-meMindy’s second book is even better than her first!  Why Not Me? is less a memoir and more a series of essays about her life right now.  I’m happy to learn about her past, but I’ll be honest – I’m more interested in her life as a 30-something professional woman stumbling through love and work and being a role model.  And those topics are made infinitely better because of her hilarious sense of humor.

What I love most about Mindy is that she’s honest – she doesn’t try to downplay the perks of being famous (in fact, she revels in them), but she also freely owns up to its downsides.  It is so refreshing to read about how to be beautiful: fake hair, spray tans, tailored clothing, technological gadgets, bra tricks, good lighting, facial masks, and knowing how to pose for pictures with your arms akimbo.  No nonsense about eating right and glowing skin.  Hollywood beauty is all about hard work, and Mindy does wonders for boosting people’s body images by getting honest.

I also loved her candid enjoyment of sex scenes (“You get to crawl around in a bed with another person you either a) already know well or b) are getting to know better in the most cozy and intimate way possible.  Yes, it’s true that an entire room of people is watching you when you shoot a sex scene.  To that, I say: the more, the merrier!  Most of those people are artists whose job it is to make sure your physical imperfections are cloaked in mysterious shadows.  By the end of the shooting day, you’ll wish there were more people there.”) and the essay about her and B.J. Novak being “soup snakes.”  THOSE TWO.  When will they work it out?   Continue reading

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

I loved this book far more than I anticipated.  I like memoirs written by comedians, so I knew I would pick up Aziz’s when it came out.  I love him in Parks & Recreation, and his stand up on Netflix is some of the smartest, most modern, most feminist comedy I’ve seen.  I knew his book would be funny.  I did not expect it to be so smart!  He’s an insightful guy, but teamed up with Eric Klinenberg, sociologist, this book is everything my humor-loving sociology-major heart could want.

I found it fascinating to look back at courtships of yesteryear (aka 30 or 40 years ago) and compare them to my struggles as a single with an iPhone.  So much has changed with the advent of the Internet and phone apps that allow us to check out singles all over the world.  In an especially effective analogy, Ansari likens dating to a hallway.  Men and women used to enter a hallway with four or five doorways–they peeked through a couple, found one that wasn’t too horrible, and walked through.  Now, singles stand in a hallway with millions of doorways.  This enormity of options means that we are more likely to find someone who aligns closely with our interests, values, and personality.  But it also means that we are often paralyzed, terrified to walk through any doorway for fear that the next one down will be better.

Ansari hilariously describes and analyzes the frustrations of modern dating.  I appreciated his honest assessment of the good and the bad, and I really appreciated how he managed to find humor in it all.  I finished the book both thankful and horrified to be in the dating world at this time in world history.  But at least now I have the tools to understand what I’m going through and hopefully wade through the complications a little more effectively.

81IWfWiI1vLBook Jacket

At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love.  We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection.  This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago.  Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history.  With technology, our ability to connect with and sort through these options is staggering.  Just a few years ago, in 2010, 10% of single Americans said they met their significant other online.  Three years later, in 2013, that number was up to 35%.  We are truly in a new world.  What’s the good in all this change?  What’s the bad?  Why are so many people frustrated?

Some of our problems are unique to our time:  “Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?”  “Should I go out with this girl even though she listed Combos as one of her favorite food snacks?  Combos?!”  “My girlfriend just got a message from some dude named Nathan.  Who’s Nathan?  Did he just send her a picture of his penis?  Should I check just to be sure?”

But the transformation of our romantic lives can’t be explained by technology alone.  In a short period of time, the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically.  A few decades ago people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood.  Their families would meet and, after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid–all by the time they were twenty-four.  Today, people marry later than ever and spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided to take things to another level.  He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita.  They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages.  They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer.  The result is Modern Romance, a marriage of cutting-edge social science and razor-sharp humor to form an assessment of our new romantic world that is as funny as it is groundbreaking.

Release Date:  June 2015

Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date by Katie Heaney

I loved this book, but it also infuriated me.  Two years ago, when I was 25, I wrote 80 pages of a pseudo-memoir about how I was 25 and had so far avoided having an actual boyfriend.  Now Katie Heaney does the same thing, and SO MUCH BETTER.  I’m over my jealousy – this girl is hilarious and we are kindred spirits.  Her every observation (whether about 90s kid culture, junior high horror, or college friendships) is so accurate.  Her personality, like mine, is perfectly suited to obsessions and inaction.  Which is why she’s 25 and hasn’t had a date.

“I just don’t know how anyone ever knows what to do with their bodies.  I catch myself worrying about what my arms are doing when I’m walking alone, and that is just walking.  Alone.

So I am a basket case, generally, and picky, and have almost always had crushes on people who usually don’t have crushes on me, and it’s rare that I’m so attracted to a stranger that I could imagine having sex with him at that exact moment.  And even when that has been true, I am only able to talk about thinking about it, from a safe distance.  I have no idea what I’d actually do about it.  But generally speaking, I’d like to date someone, at least a little, first.  Add all this to my somewhat looming height, an unintentional bracing hostility toward people I don’t know well, and an end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with, and it’s not hard to end up with a twenty-five-year-old who hasn’t had sex.  I put practically no effort into it at all.”

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You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

I’ve been a fan of Felicia’s from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog to her YouTube gaming show with Ryon Day, Co-Optitude.  It was inevitable that I would read her memoir, though now that I’ve read it, I regret letting….one whole month pass.  I should have read this the second it was released! Continue reading