December Reads

My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. I first read this book about 15 years ago. I remembered only that it was about a Jewish boy trying to reconcile art and his religious beliefs and that I liked it. On this reading, though, I will say that it is easily one of my favorites of all time. So highly recommended. **This is the 100th book I finished this year!

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I first read this book as a senior in high school and wrote at least one essay about it for my AP English test. I understood nothing about it. Zero. On this reading, in fact, I was on page 130 before I even vaguely recognized a small detail. That said, now that I do actually understand it better, I both loved reading the book because I was so drawn into the characters and story and hated reading it because parts of this dystopian future don’t seem impossible, which is genuinely terrifying. I’ve heard good things about the television adaptation, and I plan to watch it at some point.

David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (read by the author). This hit the spot as an audio book. It has given me a lot of good things to think about (and bring up in conversation). As you would expect from the title, it’s an exploration of when, why, and how underdogs win. And there were some interesting, encouraging, and helpful insights about what we typically think of as advantages versus disadvantages and the ways advantage versus disadvantage can be reversed or rethought. Altogether a worthwhile read.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t. It’s set in England in 1893 and has a gothic feel, and despite really loving Jane Eyre last month, I think “gothic feel” is not my thing. For me, this book had too many subplots. I would find myself really interested and thinking I had been wrong about that for twenty pages or so, but then my attention would drift again. I think this book would be really great for the right reader, but I liked it far less than I had hoped I would.

Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebaye. This is one of my favorite books I read this year. I loved it. It is the story of a Nigerian couple who agree that Yejide will be the only wife, but then Akin takes another. The book alternates between points of view, and the way the secrets unfold is heartbreaking. This book is so well written and was such an enjoyable* read (*enjoyable except that the story is so sad).

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. I am not typically much of a re-reader, but in the last month or so, I’ve been working to change that, and I’ve been loving it. I was surprised that I actually did remember quite a bit from this book, which I haven’t read since seventh grade. It’s a great story, and, yeah, maybe it’s a little heavy-handed on the theme, but I remember it fondly as one of the first books that was used to teach me how to talk about literature. I’ve been wanting to pick this up since earlier this year when I saw a t-shirt that said, “Stay gold.” Oh man, it gets me every time.

Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? by Peter Walsh. It’s not that this was a terrible book (it isn’t); it’s just that I should have trusted my instinct that it wouldn’t really have much more to say what is in the marketing copy. The idea that physical clutter in your home requires the same kind of emotional energy as extra weight on your body is an interesting one. But this book (squarely in the live-your-best-life-now genre) offered only the most basic of plans: if you don’t like your life, change it. It doesn’t purport to be anything else, though, and that I spent time reading it is on me.

The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum. I really enjoyed this look at the early days of forensic medicine. I admit it made me feel a little weird to be listening to a book about poisoners while I was doing my Christmas baking. I found both the true crime and the science aspects of this book equally fascinating.

The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder. I was so intrigued by the concept of this one—a group of 22 men gather once a year to reenact a famous football play (the play is real, the re-enactment, as far as I know, is fiction). It’s an interesting glimpse into these men’s friendships and social patterns, emphasis on “glimpse.” I suppose my reading life is necessarily a reflection of my own real preferences—I tend to have few relationships that go really deep; here we’re a LOT of characters, and while we did get a bit more about a handful of them, the book just wasn’t about getting to the depths of any of the characters. I did enjoy the book, but it was not a favorite.

Stitches, by David Small. This graphic novel is a coming-of-age memoir and absolutely the perfect format/genre for this story. David Small’s childhood was painful and unstable (perhaps an understatement). That he tells his story with such grace and lack of bitterness was truly moving. And the illustrations are first-rate.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I liked so much about this book. I am absolutely awed (an understatement if ever there was one) by the size and scope and complexity of the known universe, and I really dig efforts at trying to make it even vaguely understandable. I was reminded of a conversation I had with Jason years ago about green vegetables; when I got to arugula, he jokingly accused me of just making up words. That’s how I felt about many of the words and concepts here—I recognize quarks and antimatter and even bosons, but when he got to leptons and Plutinos, I regularly wondered if I was being had. I really love all the attempts to put into perspective the unfathomably vast universe and to explain the theories of what’s in the space in space (my favorite is that he at one point calls dark matter our frenemy). The style is readable and funny, and I’m very proud that I will now be able to get some very nerdy jokes. But with all that I appreciate about this relatively short/small book, I still didn’t love it with all my heart. I think that’s because as accessible as the information was (maximum accessibility, I think), these are still concepts that are so hard to understand. I didn’t feel like I was truly absorbing or retaining the information. I wasn’t skimming, but really grasping the information (for me) would have required both slowing waaaay down and reading it in much smaller sips—not necessarily for people in a hurry, in other words. I liked this book a lot, but I bet I couldn’t pass a quiz about it, and that’s kind of frustrating.

The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. I loved this graphic memoir, which is our book club pick for this month. Bui interweaves her story of becoming a mother with the story of her childhood and her family’s escape from South Vietnam in the 1970s. The pictures are beautifully drawn, and the observations Bui makes and questions she asks will stay with me for a long time.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. I like it that the last book I will finish this year is also my favorite of 2017. I want to tell you nothing about this book, and I want to tell you everything. The Golem is made of clay and created to pass as a human woman. The Jinni (genie) is made of fire and trapped in human form. They each find themselves alone in New York at the very beginning of the twentieth century. The character development in this novel is so well done. I was completely invested in these characters (all of them), and I was genuinely captivated by their stories (backstories as well as continuing plot). Deep, contented sigh and ALL the stars.