Reading Diversely: A Follow-Up

Back in October, I shared a Book Riot video about reading diversely (aka, reading books written by non-white authors). The video’s creator, Amanda Nelson, encouraged readers to take a look at their “numbers” — the number of authors they’ve read vs. the number of authors they’ve read who are non-white — and try and improve those percentages.

So I accepted the challenge. How has 2014 stacked up after making it a point to read more diversely?

To recap from the last post:

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30%. 1 was written by a person of color, so 4.3%.
  • As of October, I’d read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (4.7%).

And now, two months later?

  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 24 books. Exactly 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color (Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami, and Octavia Butler).

12.5% obviously isn’t great — but it’s a lot better than my percentage last year (and the percentage this year was on track to be, before I decided to pay attention). It makes me hopeful that when I look back at my 2015 reading list, it’ll be more well-rounded. Or, as a recent Book Riot post put it:

We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help even know which perspectives to try out. — “The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

How has your reading year shaped up so far? (I realize we still have 2 weeks of 2014 left…I personally plan on getting one more book squeezed in there!)

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Fall Book Reviews

This was totally unintentional, but the apparent theme of my fall reading list? Depressing ‘R’ Us. Not that any of these books were bad, per se — we just had a whole onslaught of “whomp, whomp” themes. Manipulative friendships, religious cynicism, multiple suicides… it was a whole big bucket of WHEEEEEE!

So let’s get started on this parade, shall we?

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cats_Eye

I’ll start out by saying that since this is an Atwood book, it is, of course, wonderfully written. But Cat’s Eye is wildly uncomfortable. This is the story of Elaine, who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her painting career. While there, she recalls her entire childhood and young adult life — and it’s in the remembering of that childhood that shit gets WEIRD.

If I had to pinpoint one theme of the book, it’d be this: children are horrible and cruel and do terrible things to one another. Enter Cordelia. Cordelia, Elaine’s supposed best friend, is the ringleader of a group of girls who do awful things to Elaine. Just awful. And this is what makes Cat’s Eye such an uncomfortable read — all the terrible things these children do? They all read true. Children can be absolutely cruel and manipulative — but often aren’t seen as such, because come on, they’re children!

About halfway through the book, Atwood pulls a masterful switch on us. I don’t want to tell details, but at a high level — Atwood slowly transforms Cordelia from the antagonist into… well, not the protagonist, for sure. But sympathetic, yes. And that’s why I think Cat’s Eye is worth the read — to watch a master author at work. Sometimes being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

Oh man. Here comes confession time. I’d never read Travels with Charley, but enjoy a lot of Steinbeck’s other work. So after our California road trip adventure, I decided it was high time to pick up this book. I know a lot of people who love it, and I mean come on, it’s a classic! Man road trips across the country with beloved dog. What could be better than that?

The whole time I was reading it, all I could think of was…

The Simpsons - Old Man Yells at Cloud

I’m sorry, you guys, but most of the time Steinbeck just came off as a cranky old man who was frustrated by the direction his country was headed. Everybody was doing everything wrong! Kids these days! IT USED TO BE BETTER WHAT IS HAPPENING TO AMERICA!

Did anyone else get this impression while reading this book? Was it just me?

Now, it must be said — since this is Steinbeck, there are moments of beautiful lyricism and insight. The last third of the book seemed to hit its stride (once he reaches the West coast — Steinbeck just can’t hide his love for the Best coast). But the rest was a bit of a slog, and if I hadn’t been committed to finishing this one, I may have set it down early. AND THAT IS MY AWFUL CONFESSION.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

This is the one book that breaks the depressing mold… which is odd, considering that it has a murder-mystery-suicide at its core.

I’ll admit it — I never would have picked up this book (let alone found it) if J.K. Rowling hadn’t been revealed as the author. Even still, I didn’t have super high expectations. I thought it’d be a fun read, but I knew it wasn’t going to be Harry Potter.

And then I couldn’t put it down. The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t the best written book I’ve ever read, nor the most original — but it’s fun. It’s just plain fun. The characters are interesting, the plot intriguing. You turn each page thinking, “What happens next?” Which is a quality I remember the Harry Potter books having — sitting at the kitchen table, unable to set the book down, NEEDING to know what happened next. Ms. Rowling, bless you for that — we need books like this, books that get people interested in reading.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

THIS. This was the surprise read of the season. Several friends recommended it, but I knew nothing about the plot. When I started reading it, all I felt was a big fat “meh.” White middle-class 20-something explains family drama. Yup, I thought, I’ve read this before. I almost set the book down, but for whatever reason decided to continue on just a liittttle bit further.

And then — the twist. The thing that makes this book NOT your regular family drama. There had been hints dropped along the way, but I’m not always so quick on the uptake. And in case YOU, dear reader, are not so quick on the uptake… I’m not going to say what The Twist is. I’m not even going to hint at it. Which makes the book pretty damn difficult to review. So I’ll just say this: I ended up LOVING this book. It’s going to be on the 2014 Favorites list, for sure. It made me think, it had me emotionally invested, it had my mind-grapes muddled for days. I read the end on an airplane, which was a TERRIBLE IDEA. I had to stop reading several times because it got me too worked up. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not THE best-written book I’ve ever read, but the plot — and the questions and moral ambiguities the plot raises — more than make up for it. Seriously, go read this one.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cats_Cradle

Last winter (OMG almost a full year ago??) I read Slaughterhouse-Five and LOVED it — and to my immense shame, I admitted that I’d never read any Vonnegut before. So I thought, “Ok, let’s try another.” And Cat’s Cradle… man, this was one cynical book. Cat’s Cradle seems to be Vonnegut’s anti-religion creed, anti-society creed — the prose equivalent of giving up on all mankind. And that’s really saying something, because Slaughterhouse-Five ain’t exactly unicorns and sunshine. But I mean, look at this:

And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing.”

Fantastic prose — DEPRESSING AS HELL. I’m definitely going to be reading more Vonnegut, but this one wasn’t top-of-the-list for me. I consider myself a realistic; I don’t necessarily consider myself a cynic.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood

This is a case of “Not for me.”

Last fall (HOW, HOW HAS IT BEEN A YEAR), I read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I wasn’t crazy about it, but enjoyed it enough that I wanted to check out Murakami’s fiction.

Norwegian Wood is objectively a good book. It’s a quiet book about important things (suicide and depression, mostly — I KNOW HOW TO PICK ‘EM, AMIRIGHT?). Just like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the writing quality is high — even beautiful in spots. There is no doubt that Murakami is an excellent writer. But about halfway through… I got bored. I thought maybe things would pick up, so I pushed on. And then I got to a point where I was far enough along that I couldn’t NOT finish, but dammit I just wanted the book to end. So, yes, I finished this book. Mostly out of spite. Good work, me.

But I can’t call this a “bad” book. Because it’s not a bad book — even as I was desperately trying to finish it, I could tell that. It just wasn’t for me. I think these days I need more plot — less introspection, more action. My college self probably would have loved this book — heck, I would have wanted to write this book — but we change, and as we do, our tastes change. Others would enjoy this book. Just not me, not now.

That wraps up the Fall Reading Fun Times. Dear LORD I need to chose some more uplifting books. Any recommendations? Have you read any of these?

Reading Diversely

Last week I was wasting time getting up-to-date information on Twitter, when I stumbled upon a couple tweets by Amanda Nelson, the managing editor of Book Riot.

Curious, I watched Nelson’s video. Her point, in a nutshell: “If you’re not paying attention and doing it on purpose — reading diversely on purpose — what you’re going to do is read mostly white people.” Due to a LOT of different factors, the majority of books that people read are by white authors (and mostly white male authors, at that). It’s not really through any fault of their own, but unless people consciously pay attention to the diversity of their reading list, that’s just the way the chips are gonna fall.

To demonstrate this, Nelson shared the numbers from her own reading logs, both before and after she started paying attention to reading diversely.

  • In 2012, Nelson read 92 books — 4 were by “people who were not white,” so 4.3%.
  • In 2013, her percentage was 3.6%.
  • So far in 2014 (after she started paying attention to reading diversely), 15 out of 91 books have been written by people of color, putting her percentage at 16.4%.

So I was curious. I took a look at my Goodreads account and studied the authors from the past couple years. (Note: I only started using Goodreads in 2013, and don’t have a log of my reading prior to that.)

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30% (admittedly, 3 of the 7 were Margaret Atwood). 1 was written by a person of color (Haruki Murakami), so 4.3%.
  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (Sherman Alexie — 4.7%).

Ouch. I assumed my percentages wouldn’t be great, but interesting to note — even though Nelson reads a LOT more books than me, our percentages are similar. Which goes to prove what she’s saying — if you’re not paying attention, you aren’t reading diversely. My percentage of women writers is pretty damn good. And you know why? A couple years ago, I made the conscious decision to start reading more books by women authors. If I made the same decision regarding ethnic diversity, how much better could I make those percentages?

(I know some readers at this point are asking, why does it matter? Why should I be concerned at all by the ethnicity of a writer? To which I would say — watch Nelson’s video. She more eloquently explains all of this than I ever could. Why do I personally care to make my reading more diverse? Because it’s a big, big world, with a lot of people, and a lot of different experiences. I feel more educated, more aware, if I get even a snippet of that diverse experience.)

I’ve had Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison on my reading list for a while — think I’ll boost them up. Any others you’d recommend? How do you ensure that you’re reading diversely — or do you decide to at all?

Summer Book Reviews

This past spring, I read so many books I had to split the reviews up into 2 posts. Summer? Let’s just say that the state of my reading list reflects how summer went for me. But THAT’S OK. Summer is the season of beach reads and page turners and “guilty pleasures,” so I certainly won’t feel guilty about how many books I did or did not read.

(I should note that there are 2 other books not included here that I tried to read, but I abandoned them both around the 50-page mark. Life’s just too short for books you aren’t diggin’, friends.)

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

After driving to Washington desert country this spring, I decided to finally, FINALLY pick up this book. Lopez is like some sort of demigod among nature writers, and any environmentally minded lit major beams at the very mention of Desert Notes. I’m actually rather surprised I never read it in college, given the number of professors I had who were in love with Western American literature. Apparently I needed a trip to the desert to be in the right state of mind to pick this one up. (A good book is not only good based on its own merits, but based on where you are in your own life, as well.)

And after all that lead-up, the book was… good? A very different read for me. Objectively beautiful writing. There’s no plot to speak of; it’s the power of words and descriptions that draws you in, dreamy and wandering. While this type of writing may not be my typical cup of tea, it’s still good to branch out and see what other genres have to offer. It inspired me to write a short, weird little travelogue — you never know what may inspire future work. And now I would REALLY like to go check out the Alvord desert, the desert that inspired this book.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

While browsing Austin Kleon’s blog, I found this snippet he wrote about Leonard: “His books are my reset button, where I turn when I’ve stalled out and I’m bored with my books, and I just want something awesome that won’t annoy the shit out of me or leave me hanging.” I felt the need for a reading reset, so I decided to give Kleon’s method a shot. And I have to say, it pretty much did the trick — this was just a plain ol’ fun book. Good dialogue, likable characters, simple prose that drives the plot forward. Many people would classify this as a “junk food” book, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty damn good writing.

My only qualm — the whole time I was reading, I couldn’t get the movie version out of my head. I haven’t seen Get Shorty in a LONG TIME — yet with each line I read, there were John Travolta and Gene Hackman, delivering all the dialogue. Which is not the WORST thing in the world, but I like to form my own visions of book characters. Next Leonard book I pick up, I’m going to choose one where I haven’t seen the movie.

California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

Oh man. This book. I have feelings about this book.

I was one of the many people who pre-ordered this much-hyped book after Stephen Colbert promoted it on his show. I ordered it for two reasons: 1) any boost for independent bookstores is awesome, and I wanted to be a part of that (I chose to order from Parnassus Books, myself); and 2) the book itself actually sounded totally up my ally. Dystopian speculative fiction set in California? Yes, please!

California starts out strong enough — Lepucki has an interesting writing style, fairly straightforward but with the occasional poetics thrown in for good measure. She did a good job depicting the relationship between Cal and Frida, the young husband and wife at the center of the book — their relationship is far from perfect, but it is believable. And then… things started to turn a little south. As it nears the finale, the book begins to suffer from “showing vs. telling” (one of my biggest writing pet peeves), but I was willing to look past that to see where it went. It IS an intriguing plot line — I flew through the whole thing pretty quickly.

But the ending. Oh god, I HATED the ending. I can’t remember the last time I actively disliked a book ending so much. I finished and may have actually said out loud, “THAT’S IT?” I won’t spoil anything here, because that would just be lame — but if anyone else out there has read this book, I’m very curious to hear other’s reactions.

All that said — I would still be interested to read a second book from Lepucki. This one had a bit of “first novel” syndrome about it, but she’s clearly a talented writer.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Speaking of Parnassus Books — a friend of mine recently went to Nashville, and I told her she should visit this bookstore. Tara, bless her, DID stop in, and while she was there texted me: “Which Ann Patchett books should I buy?” You see, novelist Ann Patchett co-founded Parnassus Books. I had to confess that I had not read any Patchett, but that This is the Story of a Happy Marriage was well-reviewed on Goodreads. After this shameful exchange, I decided I should remedy this and picked up the book myself.

I can now retroactively recommend this book with 100% confidence. Patchett is primarily a fiction writer, but for years she earned her bread-and-butter by writing nonfiction magazine articles. She selected and organized the best of those articles for This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, while also writing two new stories for the compilation — one about writing called “The Getaway Car” (highly recommended for all you writer folk out there), and another story about the birth of Parnassus Books. The other articles focus on marriage, divorce, dogs, re-marriage, family, friendship. If these seem like broad themes — well, yes, they are, but Patchett writes about them with such specificity that they seem new. She’s an incredibly talented writer, and beyond that? She just seems like a nice person. You finish a story and think, “Why are Ann Patchett and I not friends? We’d be great friends.” I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work.

(Can I mention, too, how much I adore that book cover? Great design, that.)

What did you read over the summer? Any delicious guilty-pleasure reads? I’ve kicked off my fall reading list with Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, so I think the next season is off to a good start…

Spring Book Reviews: Part 2

OH HAI! This is a tad bit late. Part 1 went up two weeks ago, and I meant to have Part 2 done the following week… but, well, the last book took longer to finish than anticipated. That’s one downside to the Kindle — even with that little percentage bar, it’s harder to judge your reading progress than it is with an actual, physical book staring you in the face.

But! Without further ado. The rest of the books I read this spring…

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles

Honestly, I’d never heard of this book and never would have picked it up if it weren’t for Lauren’s Better In Real Life Reading List. She asked people to participate in book reviews/discussions, and The Age of Miracles was my assigned book (just like school! But without the tests and drama). I’m definitely glad I read it — it was thought provoking and fairly well-written. But let me warn you, this book put me in a DEEP FUNK. If I may quote myself… (Is it weird if I quote myself? Whatever.)

It’s fitting that the book brings up those uncomfortable middle-school feelings, because they tie in well with the main theme: the haunting passage of time. How quickly it goes by, how cruel and unrelenting it is. Time spares no one and nothing and makes you realize that, ultimately, you are alone in the world. If that all sounds depressing… well, yeah actually, this book was a bit depressing. I kept waiting for the uplifting twist, the silver-lining ending… and it never really arrived. This book has loneliness and fatalism at its core.

Seriously, NO SILVER LINING here. You’ve been warned. If you’d like to read ALL MY THOUGHTS on this book, pop on over to Better In Real Life to see the full discussion.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Once and Future King

You guys… I feel so much guilt over this one. I seriously considered not including it here, because I’m ashamed by what I’m about to say.

This book is a titan — a classic of the genre. It’s influenced so, so many writers, and many consider it to be the best fantasy novel ever written. I use the title to make puns all the time — “Oh yes, that’s our Once and Future Garage” — but my dirty little secret? I’d never actually read it. So I figured, you know, if I’m invoking this book to make bad jokes, I should actually read the thing.

And I… didn’t like it. I tried, really I did — I went well past Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule — but I kept running into 2 problems: 1) I couldn’t get the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone out of my head, and 2) I don’t really like White’s writing style. He goes on for ten pages about the rules and techniques of jousting, and all I could think was Oh my god I don’t care about jousting I don’t care about this stupid knight please get to the stupid story.

But I wanted to stick it out. I figured if I could just get through Part One, maybe it would pick up, maybe I’d get into it… but I finally had to give up. I was skimming entire sections just to try and get to “the good part.” Eventually, I realized that “the good part” would never come for me — The Once and Future King and I were not meant to be. Pour one out, move on. (I still reserve the right to reference the title in my bad puns, though.)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

A while back, a coworker and I were exchanging book recommendations. MaddAddam had just come out, so I enthusiastically recommended that series. With equal fervor, my coworker recommended this book (while also suggesting a nerdy-girls book club at work — YES, PLEASE).

And now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it! And general consensus — definitely glad I did. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, in a future world where horrible blights and crazy pesticide-resistant beetles have destroyed global agriculture. Most countries have fallen into chaos and famine, but the Thai Kingdom remains, self-sufficient and sealed off from the outside world. The book follows a cast of characters — some intent on Thailand’s continued independence, some who would like Thailand to open up trade with the outside world. Conflict ensues.

The world building drew me into this book — Bacigalupi does a fantastic job painting this futuristic society, where calories are currency and an ice cube is considered a huge waste of energy — but the characters didn’t quite do it for me. Each chapter is told from a different point of view (there are, if memory serves, five rotating narrators), and this switching made it a harder for me to get into the story. And our titular character, Emiko the Windup Girl… well, I had issues. She’s “New People”, a humanoid sex slave designed to serve without question. And that ingrained desire to serve makes for a weird main character. She remains passive as horrible, terrible things happen to her, and when she DOES act, she regrets it afterwards and constantly apologizes for her actions. I wanted her to stand up for herself, take charge, leave all the assholes behind who kept hurting her — but that wasn’t the character. Which annoyed me, because I wanted her to be that way. At the end of the day, I did enjoy the book — but I felt like I could have enjoyed it more. Which is an odd experience.

That’s a wrap for spring! And next we have summer… oh, summer reading. The most wonderful reading season there is (why else would everyone and their mom put out summer reading lists?). What will you be reading in a sunny hammock, while sipping on a beer and kicking off your sandals? I haven’t quite decided on my list yet, so I’m quite eager for suggestions.

Spring Book Reviews: Part 1

IT IS TIME! For a recap of the books I read this spring. I normally try to do a seasonal recap all in one post, but as I was writing this one, I realized it was getting looooong. I don’t feel like I did a ton of reading this past spring, but maybe I did? Or maybe I just have more thoughts than usual. Whatever the reason — here is Part 1. Part 2 shall be revealed next week.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton

Lost Cat

As I read this book, one word kept popping into my head: charming. Which, I have to say, doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for a book, but in this case it is. This book follows the exploits of Tibia and Fibula, brother and sister cats living with their humans in San Francisco. At the story’s start, Caroline Paul crashes an experimental plane, an accident that results in a lot of broken bones and time spent at home with the cats. And then one day during her recovery… Tibby disappears.

He comes back. And I’m not ruining anything by telling you that! The book follows Caroline’s exploits as she tries to figure out where Tibby went to, and more importantly (to her) why he would even leave in the first place.

This is definitely a book that requires a hard copy. MacNaughton‘s illustrations add SO MUCH wimsy and delight to the story – I’d go so far as to say the story isn’t complete without them. Seriously, don’t even THINK about buying an e-ink version.

Now, it goes without saying that this book is pretty much only for crazy cat people (like myself). BUT. I would also say that it’s a good read for someone who loves a crazy cat person and wants to understand the depth of the crazy. It’s a really loving portrayal of the relationships we form with our pets and the value of animal companionship.

I’m Starved for You and Choke Collar by Margaret Atwood

ImStarvedforYOu ChokeCollar

So… you all know I love me some Margaret Atwood. When I found out she was writing a Kindle Singles series? SIGN ME UP. The series is called Positron, and it’s set in a seemingly lovely but actually horrifying dystopian future (so, you know, par the course for her). I eagerly read the first installment, “I’m Starved for You”… and wasn’t completely hooked. But I was intrigued enough to pick up the second, “Choke Collar.” And after that… I felt done. No need to pick up the third.

I think part of my problem with these is the format itself: serials. I’m slowly learning that it may not be the story format for me. Once I get into a story, I want to dive in — the inherent breaks that come with serials stall me. I had the same issue with Chuck Wendig’s “The Forever Endeavor” (found in the lovely Fireside magazine). Loved the premise, was super intrigued — but couldn’t keep up the momentum. If it’s ever collected into one volume that I can read in one chunk, sign me up.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

You’ve probably heard of Austin Kleon — he’s a bit of a golden boy these says. Rightly so, I’d argue. I was a big fan of his first book, Steal Like an Artist, so was super eager to pick this one up. Show Your Work! completes the cycle set forth in Steal Like an Artist — you’re influenced by others, you “steal” from them, and in turn you should share your work and your influences so others can discover and steal, too.

For me, personally, Steal Like an Artist was the more valuable book — it had more insights that seemed directly applicable to me. But I’d definitely recommend this new one, too. The thing that struck me most about it is how it advocates for generosity — not something often talked about in creative circles. No one is an island (despite the prevalent myth of the lone creative genius), so we might as well play nice and share our enthusiasm with one another.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

When I traveled to Stockholm and Copenhagen with my friend Hen, she raved about this book. She said I had to read it, especially after traveling to Viking lands. It took me a couple months after our trip to pick it up, but I finally did.

Considering that I was a history minor in college, I’m kind of surprised I don’t read more historical fiction. That may change after reading this book. It’s set in England, during the Viking raids of 800’s, and follows the story of an English boy who’s taken in by Vikings. I really enjoyed learning more about this time period (which I previously knew very little about), and it encouraged me to do my own research outside of the book itself. And I have to say — Cornwell did his homework. The book has just enough detail to make you really feel this time period. (One reoccurring thought: SO DIRTY.)

All that said — I felt like the book was a bit bloated. By the last 100 pages, I was just ready to be done with it (never a good sign). And the main character Uhtred didn’t totally do it for me. He wasn’t a Mary Sue… but at times he felt dangerously close. The Last Kingdom is the first book in a seven-book series, and I’m still undecided if I’ll pick up the rest.

That’s a wrap for Part 1! As I work on getting Part 2 together… Have you read any of these? Your thoughts? What have you been reading lately? My reading list needs an injection of fresh material, so I’m eager for recommendations.

Winter Book Reviews

Ok ok, so technically we still have four more weeks of winter, technically I’m early with a “Winter Book Recap.” But! Since I’m currently reading my own book, and March is right around the corner, I figure now is the appropriate time to take a look back at the books that helped me slog through winter.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Androids This may sound odd, but I read this book not based on its own merit, but because of the other works it’s influenced. Blade Runner is the obvious correlation here, but Janelle Monáe has said in interviews that it’s a big influence on her work, too. I was curious about a book that could inspire so many, across so many genres.

And you know what? This was a really, really good book. Simple and straightforward prose, but a complex idea: what does it mean to be human? This is where science fiction really shines: creating an other-worldly scenario to tackle all-too-human questions. I’m laughing right now reading the quote on that cover — “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka” — because it’s totally true. This is pulp fiction in the best sense — a fun, action-packed read that still makes you think.

Did it have its issues? Sure. The pacing seemed a little off in parts, and the female characters aren’t the most well-developed. But all in all I’m definitely glad I read it, and definitely understand why it’s considered a classic in the genre.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

I have a confession to make: up until this book, I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, considering that I practically lived in my college’s English department. And confession time isn’t over yet: I’ve been somewhat avoiding Vonnegut. He seemed like another White Dude Writer whom you’re Supposed to Read. But then Slaughterhouse-Five was on sale for less than a latte, so I scooped it up. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading Vonnegut sooner, because my first thought upon finishing this book was, “I wish I were back in college so I could discuss this with fellow English nerds.”

This book, man. It was so good. SO GOOD. I don’t know what I expected from Vonnegut, but it wasn’t this — simplistic prose, a sci-fi angle, a keen eye for just-right details. (How did I not know Vonnegut is considered a science fiction writer? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?). But most of all, I love that this book doesn’t leave any answers. It is both fatalistic and hopeful, dismally sad and darkly comedic. And Billy Pilgrim — was he really abducted by aliens? Did the skull fracture break his brain? Is he suffering from horrible PTSD and these are his coping mechanisms? The answer to all these questions is “yes” — they can all be true, all at the same time, just as they can all not be true. As a writer, I’m definitely going to need to re-read this book to study how Vonnegut does it.

3. The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer

Nope, sorry. This book was a “not for me.” I heard about it on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and it sounded right up my alley:

Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…

Awesome! Sign me up! But somehow this book… bored me. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. But to me, it was slow and boring. I followed Nancy Pearl’s advice on this one and put it down after about 100 pages. It has a LOT of good reviews, though, so clearly others enjoyed it. Maybe you would, too? Let me know, I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing

I already talked about my adoration for this book — but it does bear repeating. This is an AMAZING book for all you writers out there. The chapters are short, easily digested in any time increment you may have. Goldberg is at once encouraging in a maternal sort of way, and matter-of-fact in a no-bullshit way. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

One part that struck me in particular — in the last chapter, she talks about how it feels to finish a book. The combined exhilaration and letdown. The joy and the loneliness. I had just finished my first draft, and the words struck home. This woman gets it, guys. Whatever “it” is. Seriously, if you write at all, check this book out.

5. The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

Cormorant

This book! And it’s ah-maz-ing cover. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I finished book two of the Miriam Black series. This one involves a road trip down to the Florida Keys. Which, I have to say — Wendig does a great job describing. You can practically taste the Keys. Now I want to go and snorkel and drink rum and eat fresh fish caught by a cormorant.

Without getting spoilery, I’ll just say — there were a lot of returning characters that I didn’t expect to show up, and I was pleased they did. One qualm, however — there were times when Wendig referenced characters or events from the previous book, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who they were or what they had done. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the overall book in any way, but a little more “catching the reader up” would have been nice.

I was surprised at the gut reaction I had to reading the last page — it was a (surprisingly) emotional ending with a character you’ve really come to care for. Miriam shows a LOT of personal growth in this book — more so than we’ve previously seen. She confronts difficult relationships and doesn’t find easy answers. All in all, it felt like a good direction for the character to go in. Also, the set up for the next book? SUPER intriguing. I’m in.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie

The members of my writing group were shocked — shocked! — when they learned I hadn’t read any Sherman Alexie. So seeing as he’s speaking at the upcoming AWP conference  (which I’m attending wheeee!), I figured now was a good time. The Absolutely True Diary is technically a young adults book, but I’m here to tell you that it is totally enjoyable as an adult. It’s a quick read, but it never feels like you’re being talked down to (as some poorly written YA books can do). The narrator, Junior, is a Native American kid who leaves his reservation to attend the adjacent “white” school. In many ways, this book seems to be a love song to the reservation that Junior knows he MUST leave for his own good — yet it still breaks his heart to do so.

It amused and saddened me to think that there are a lot of schools that ban this book. This is, on the whole, a pretty innocent book — it tackles some BIG complex issues, yes, but Junior is a good kid. He does well in school, he works hard, he loves his friends and family. He is actively trying to create a better life for himself. Those seem like good messages for young adults. But the fact that he *gasps* mentions masturbation makes the book unfit for young eyes. Come on, America. Let’s pull it together here, ok?

Winter always seems like such a cozy time for reading. What books did YOU pick up? Anything I should add to my own list?