Best Books I Read Last Year

I wanted to make sure I got this one in before January was over!

I read 133 books last year, more than I expected to. I don’t do the Goodreads challenges and don’t really have a particular number of books in mind to read for a year, especially since the number is largely affected by the lengths and genres of the books you read. I get a lot of reading done on my (fairly long) commute on public transportation, which is how I got all of those books read. Some more numbers:

Fiction: 87

Nonfiction: 43

Poetry: 1

Books I don’t know how to classify (specifically, What Is the What and In Cold Blood): 2

Library books: 113

Books I bought: 12

Books I was given: 7

Book I found at one of those little free library things: 1

Rereads: 3

Female authors: 79

Male authors: 53

Anthologies: 1

And here are my favorites:

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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I read this shortly before the show premiered, and it’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. I ended up being disappointed in the show because the book is SO much better. One thing the show got totally wrong was the tone of the book- despite the dark subject matter (murder and domestic violence are plot points), it’s actually very funny, with lots of digs at modern suburban parents. It’s like if Desperate Housewives had better writing and was set in Australia. But the show wasn’t funny at all. Read the book!

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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This completely deserves all the hype it’s gotten. What a fantastic book. It follows two branches of a family through several generations, covering about two hundred years. It starts with Esi and Effia, two half-sisters in Ghana who have never met. Effia is married to a British slave trader, while Esi is sold into slavery in America. Each chapter follows a descendant of one of the sisters, alternating between Effia’s and Esi’s. There are a ton of characters, but they’re all so memorable that I never forgot who anyone was or lost track of anyone’s story. She also gets a lot of complete stories into a relatively short book, which is impressive. It’s almost like linked short stories. Gyasi also does a great job of painting a complete picture of a time and place I wasn’t familiar with- I knew zilch about life in eighteenth-century Ghana before reading this, but the scene is set with enough detail to give a pretty good picture of these characters’ lives. More importantly, this book says a lot about the legacy of slavery through the generations, and it says it in a way that’s effective without being preachy or heavy-handed.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

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I am a big fan of J. Courtney Sullivan, so I’d been looking forward to this for a long time, and it did not disappoint. I love her writing style and her excellent dialogue, but I also love her knack for capturing life as an Irish-American in Massachusetts. There were so many details that I laughed out loud at because they were so familiar- like a character who lives in Weston, the richest town in Massachusetts, having an OFD (Originally From Dorchester) sticker on his car. Everyone in this book seems like a very real person. There were some things that I wish had more resolution, but this was wonderful, and I think you’ll like this book even if you don’t have a personal connection to the subject matter like I do.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Oh, my goodness, this book. It’s a sad but ultimately hopeful book about a socially isolated woman and her developing friendship with a coworker. Eleanor is such a great character- she’s awkward and inappropriate, but as we learn more about her and her tragic backstory, everything about her personality and quirks start to make sense. Her blossoming friendship with Raymond is genuinely touching. Also, this book touches on some beautifully uncomfortable truths about depression, loneliness, isolation, and finding purpose in life when you feel unloved- truths that, unfortunately, I could really relate to.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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This had been on my radar forever- my mother and grandmother both recommended it to me years ago- and I just got around to it this past year. It did not disappoint, but the plot was also not what I expected at all. du Maurier does a fantastic job setting up a creepy, mysterious atmosphere where you know that SOMETHING big is going to be revealed, but the specifics are unclear. I actually recommend going into it as I did, knowing as little as possible (I knew that the narrator was the unnamed second wife of a man whose dead first wife still had a major impact on their lives, but that was it). This is an excellent book, and I can see the influence it’s had on a lot of modern thrillers.

What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan

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This is a heartbreaking but very important book. It’s an expansion on an incredibly moving article Kate Fagan wrote for ESPN about the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, a freshman runner at U Penn. Madison seemed to have a great life- she was smart, gorgeous, and a talented athlete, with many good friends and a loving, supportive family. But she was a perfectionist who put a lot of pressure on herself, and when she had trouble adjusting to her freshman year of college, particularly with not enjoying track as much as she did in high school, it triggered a very intense depression. There’s no villain in this story, no moment you can point to where you can say that she might still be alive if x had happened. There are, however, a lot of contributing factors: the pressures student-athletes face in meeting expectations (the author, a former college athlete herself, shares her own story), the way students feel driven to achievements and prestige without taking their own happiness into account (interestingly, Maddy was also a soccer player and preferred it to track, but she turned down a chance to play soccer at Lehigh when she found out an Ivy League school was interested in having her on the track team).

The one that stands out, though, is the role that social media plays in communication and real life relationships. Although Madison confided in friends and family that she was unhappy at Penn, she hid the depth of her unhappiness, and it’s reflected in the Instagram feed that always showed her looking happy. Incredibly, just hours before killing herself, she Instagrammed a pretty picture of lights in a park in Philadelphia. Yet, even though a lot of her friends were also struggling, she believed that their happy social media feeds gave an accurate picture of them. When I was in college, social media was just becoming a thing- Facebook went live during my sophomore year and smartphones didn’t exist yet. I imagine college, which I loved, would have been a very different experience with today’s version of social media.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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This was SUPER interesting, and before I go on, I want to say that everyone who’s involved in the online book community should read it. One reason why I’ve been reluctant to get too involved in online book communities is because they LOVE public shaming- this article sums it up pretty well. It’s not enough for these people to dislike a book or object to something about it- they have to make sure that everyone agrees with them, no one reads the book, and those who do are shamed for it as well.

But anyway- in this book, Jon Ronson speaks to people who’ve experienced the life-changing consequences of online shaming. Some of the incidents he refers to I remember, some I wasn’t as familiar with, and some I’d forgotten about. There are some fascinating insights into the psychology behind shaming, and it was familiar to me. Even if I haven’t joined an online hate mob or demanded that someone be fired, I’ve been outraged at a stranger’s behavior and satisfied upon hearing of their comeuppance. But the story is often more complicated, and the book reminds us to keep things in perspective. It’s also a good reminder that contrary to what the Internet usually would have you believe, there is, in fact, such thing as an overreaction.

Half in Love with Death by Emily Ross

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Back in 2009, I took a Novel in Progress class through Grub Street, and Emily Ross was a classmate. She was working on an earlier draft of this book, and I loved what I read- I was always excited when it was her turn to workshop. So I was so happy to hear that the book had been published and I could read the finished product!

This is well-written in every way- well-drawn characters, a relatable narrator, believable dialogue, and good description of 1960s Tucson. Caroline is such a great character- sweet and smart but very naive, and even as your sense of dread grows over the course of the book, you want to cling to her belief in a more innocent interpretation of events. Knowing what I know from back in 2009, it’s interesting to see how the story changed shape before reaching its current form.

After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry

 

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I can’t remember the last time I was so moved by a memoir. This is super well-written, and it cannot have been easy to write about something so personal and so traumatic.

When Sarah Perry was twelve, she woke up to the sound of her mother, Crystal, being stabbed to death in the next room. She didn’t see the murderer and had no idea who it was. The killer remained at large for twelve years, until a man’s arrest for something else resulted in a DNA match linking him to the murder. Meanwhile, Sarah bounced around between friends and relatives for the rest of her childhood, and although her mother’s family was grieving, too, they weren’t always very understanding and didn’t always treat Sarah as well as they should have- one aunt was incredibly mean to her. The police also seemed convinced that Sarah knew more about the murder than she was telling them, even though she honestly told them all she could remember through hours of questioning.

The book is more of a memorial to her mother than a true crime story. While Crystal Perry certainly wasn’t perfect- in particular, she tended to get into a lot of toxic relationships- she was a loving mother who worked hard and would have done anything for Sarah. One thing that amazed me as I read this book was Sarah’s resilience. Despite the incredible trauma she experienced, and despite having a rather dysfunctional extended family, her hard work and talent for writing led her to graduate from Davidson, a very good school, and earn an MFA at Columbia. She had a period of heavy drinking in college and carries around a lot of anger, but on the whole, she turned out to be a successful, functional adult, and I think that’s a testament to the strong foundation her mother laid for her.

 

Honorable mentions: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway, Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter.

2017

A lot happened in the world this year. But I honestly can’t think of one interesting thing that happened to me.

No moves. No job changes. Aside from a couple of short trips to New York, no vacations.

No boyfriends- although there was one guy I dated for about a month over the summer, a guy who actually got my hopes up. My last date with him was shortly before my birthday, and the next day, my family was coming over for my birthday. I was hoping we’d end up having the DTR talk and I’d get to tell my family about him. Instead, we ended up realizing that we weren’t long-term compatible and breaking things off.

My rent increased. So did my weight. So did my antidepressant dosage.

I spent a lot of time crying. Dragging myself out of bed every day grew harder. I had a hard time motivating myself to exercise or cook or do anything besides go home and collapse on the couch.

The election of Donald Trump left me overwhelmed with hatred. Sometimes I fight with people over it, and I’m constantly, and sincerely, wishing harm on others. I feel like I love less than I used to. Like it’s harder for me to find any beauty in the world.

I’m sick of constantly feeling sad, angry, hopeless. I want to believe that a better future lies ahead. I want to make myself into a person who can love, and who deserves love.

When I said that to my friends tonight, they told me not to let go of what’s good about me.

I said, truthfully, “I don’t know what’s good about me.” So they told me what they thought.

I have no idea why, despite everything, I still have such great friends. But I’m so glad that I do.

Here’s to a better 2018, and a better me.

 

Musing

There are times when it helps to write out all my feelings and try to identify some kind of deeper truth about where I am at the moment.

There are also time where it’s better for me to just go on with life and try not to ruminate too much, try to focus on doing things I like and that calm me and put my feelings on the back burner.

It’s kind of like something at really struck me in this video of Nicole Cliffe, a writer I love and co-founder of the late, great Toast, talking about her conversion to Christianity. From about 4:30-6:15, she talks a little bit about the differences between Catholics and Protestants, and how admitting to spiritual doubt is a big deal that requires an intervention if you’re Protestant, whereas Catholics just keep going to Mass and going through their rituals and trusting that their faith will ebb and flow throughout their lives.

Did It Have To Be Jesus? ~ Nicole Cliffe from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

 

I keep changing my mind about which time of my life I’m currently in when it comes to dealing with my emotions- a Protestant or a Catholic time.

These Days

I have a lot of thoughts…but lately, not too many that I want to share publicly.

I’ve fallen out of writing, and I’m going to try to use the month of November to get back into it. Not NaNoWriMo, which would be like doing a marathon with no training after not running for years, but trying to write something every day or most days. We’ll see how it goes. I hope I’ll get back into blogging more regularly.

Song of the Moment: “She Used to Be Mine”

This is my favorite song from Waitress. It comes at a low point for the main character, and the lyrics hit me right in the feels. At times it feels like it could be my life anthem:

She’s imperfect, but she tries
She is good, but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy, but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine

I love how Jessie Mueller, the original Jenna, sings “She is lo-o-onely most of the time” so delicately.

Right now, happiness feels absolutely impossible. But I do love this song.

When Love Doesn’t Trump Hate

“Love Trumps Hate.” People started chanting it almost immediately after the election, and it’s a nice thought, that the hatred that now seems synonymous with Trump and his supporters could be overcome.

I wish I could feel that. Instead, ever since the election, I’ve felt absolutely overwhelmed with hatred. Hatred for everyone—like, literally EVERYONE, no exceptions—who supports Trump. And that feeling has only intensified in the aftermath of Charlottesville. I truly, honestly cannot see any value in the lives of those who support a president who says, completely seriously, that there were “some very fine people” MARCHING IN A NEO-NAZI RALLY. It’s hard for me even to think of them as people.

The logical antidote to hatred would seem to be dialogue and attempts at understanding. Unfortunately, every attempt I’ve made to try to understand where Trump supporters are coming from results in me hating them even more. When I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s  Strangers in Their Own Land, about white conservatives in Louisiana, I felt zero sympathy for the people she portrayed—just frustration at their stupidity and inability to look at actual facts that disproved their beliefs. When some of my more patient friends engage their Trump-supporting friends in dialogue on Facebook, I am, again, aghast at their friends’ willingness to believe “alternative facts” if they support their pre-held beliefs. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why my friends don’t end those friendships. And I hate it when people bring up people from struggling, economically depressed areas when the evidence actually shows that the majority of lower-income people did not vote for Trump. From my viewpoint, Trump voters are my dad’s businessman friends and my friend’s younger brother, who graduated from a good college. They’re just selfish, stupid, and awful.

I know nothing productive can come from this intense hatred and anger. From a religious perspective, I know it’s the opposite of what I should be doing and feeling. But, as the Charlottesville events demonstrated, there seems to be no difference between Trump supporters and Nazis—and if you wouldn’t love or defend Nazis, why would you do that for Trump supporters?

I don’t know what to do. Channeling rage into supporting worthy causes doesn’t do anything for me, either. The anger and hatred remain. I don’t like feeling this way, but as long as Trump supporters continue to exist, I can’t imagine feeling any differently.

Do I Love My Country?

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when people are supposed to celebrate their love of the United States of America.

I can tell you, I definitely love Boston. I love Massachusetts. But do I love the US as a whole?

…Eh. It’s okay.

It’s kind of like that old, cranky, racist relative whose presence you don’t enjoy but whom you can’t bring yourself to disinvite from Thanksgiving. Or the apartment that has bad water pressure and a terrible landlord and no air conditioning and heat that barely works, but that you don’t move out of because it’s cheap and convenient.

Speaking of moving, if you’re thinking that if I don’t love it, I should leave, chill. I didn’t say I hate it. But love is a strong word, and while I tolerate America enough that I’m not actively trying to leave, I wouldn’t say I love it.

And if you’re indignantly thinking that people have fought and died for the right for me to say that I don’t love this country, I agree that freedom of speech is a wonderful thing. In fact, so do several other countries. It obviously doesn’t exist anywhere, but it does exist in just about every other developed country. Same for freedom of the press and freedom of religion. It’s great that we’re not, say, North Korea or Syria, but why are we comparing ourselves down instead of up? Why not compare ourselves to Canada or New Zealand, which have all those great freedoms but also have universal health care, guaranteed maternity leave, and less gun violence?

It’s hard to love a country that’s so full of stupid people—or, if I’m being generous, willfully ignorant people. In any case, no one who voted for Trump is smart. I do think that’s a pretty fair statement. Take a look at this Facebook group, which I sometimes read when I want to see how the other side thinks. Or, rather, doesn’t think. Seeing the things that Trump voters believe written out in their own words make it impossible for me to have even the slightest bit of empathy for them.

We are a country that finds value in ignorance and inexperience—hence, the election of Trump, the denigration of educated people as “out of touch” when they’re the ones with more information, the clinging to beliefs in things that are easily disproven—“alternative facts,” if you will.

We are a country that disregards an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is man-made and that our county is the biggest perpetrator of the pollution that causes it, all because people don’t want to make sacrifices and work for the well-being of the world.

We are a country that clings to the Second Amendment—which refers to a “well-regulated militia” rather than the individual right to bear arms, and which was written when it was impossible to perpetuate mass shootings with the types of weapons that existed then—despite overwhelming evidence that there is less gun violence in countries with stricter gun laws, all because people are too selfish and fearful to pass any laws that would make it even slightly harder to possess a weapon that’s much more likely to hurt you or a family member than to be used in any sort of self-defense.

We are a country that regards life-saving health care as a privilege rather than a right, a country where many people would consign their fellow citizens to medical bankruptcy or death because they’re afraid that they might have to pay a bit more in taxes to prevent that from happening.

We are one of only three countries TOTAL that does not guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers.

We are a country where cops are constantly getting away with unjustified shootings of innocent black people.

We are a country with an alarming tendency to disregard inconvenient history in the name of patriotism. It’s true that every country has shameful things in its past, but we have people who take pride in having ancestors who fought for the Confederacy—ancestors who were traitors to their country out of a desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy—and defend public Confederate monuments. We have people who whitewash the horrors of slavery, people who defend horrific things in our history like Japanese internment, people descended from immigrants who were discriminated against who nevertheless would reject refugees fighting for their lives because they’re not from the right country or don’t follow the right religion.

It’s funny how things have changed in the seventy-odd years since World War II, when we fought against a genocidal German regime. Now Germany, which has sheltered many of the refugees we’ve been rejecting, is a moral leader for the world.

And us?

We’re the bad guys now.

So I’m very grateful to live where I do, a place that’s less ignorant than most places in the US. But until the attitudes of much of the rest of the country change, until we acknowledge and reject the worst parts of our history while embracing the best parts, like our welcoming of immigrants from all over the world looking for a better life, I can’t say I love this country as a whole.

A Hard Time

I am having a hard time right now thinking of anything to write about.

To blog about, first of all. I think about things in my life I can blog about and then remember that I already have. I could blog about my trip to New York over Memorial Day weekend and how I saw Come From Away, Waitress, and Anastasia, plus ate some great food, but would that post really be much different from this post, or this one, or this one? I guess I can always do my Song of the Moment and Playlist of the Moment posts and pick up I Read Books again. I suppose there will always be movies and TV shows to write about. I could keep doing the Links of the Week, and I’m sure at some point I will, but those will inevitably include current events, which are just depressing me right now.

It’s a too-familiar feeling, this type of depression. What’s happened, you ask? Well, nothing. Nothing is happening. I still don’t have the three things I want the most. I still fear things staying the same. I still wonder if I really deserve love. I’m still not a very nice person. I’m still lonely. I’m still searching for someone to tell my stories to.

It’s all been done.

I’m having a hard time thinking of anything to write about outside of this blog. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I became a writer who doesn’t write. I’ve lost confidence in the ideas I have, lost faith in the idea that I could ever really write something that other people would enjoy.

I am having a hard time making myself do the things I know I should do: write, cook, exercise, go to bed early, socialize. I am having a hard time accomplishing any of the goals I’ve set for myself. I am having a hard time looking at myself in the mirror, or at happy couples I see in public. I am having a hard time being happy for anyone who finds love or has a baby. I am having a hard time taming the negative thoughts raging inside me.

I am having a hard time right now.

Song of the Moment: Trolley Wood

I recently rediscovered this song: “Trolley Wood” by Eisley. It’s insanely catchy, and I’ve recently found myself humming it to myself.

I’ve also puzzled over the lyrics. Is it a metaphor for an experience that’s impossible to replicate? Is there some kind of significance to the surreal concept of a wood with trolleys rolling around the hills, or is it just a cute but nonsensical term that rhymes with Hollywood? In any case, have a listen.

A Thought

One thing I’ve heard multiple people in relationships say is that when you’re in a good, happy relationship, you’re the best version of yourself. That it’s ideal to find a significant other who brings out the best in you, makes you want to be your best self.

What I’ve never heard anyone say is this epiphany I recently had: the opposite is also true. When you feel chronically unloved, it turns you into the worst version of yourself.