The best books I read in 2016

Published in 2016:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This should become required reading for all Americans.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I escaped to this book the week of the US presidential election. It was the best kind of immersive experience. The titular character is one I'll never forget.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
I picked up this book during Thanksgiving break and promptly devoured the 600+ pages in two days. So much fun.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This is the best-written book I read this year. Wow. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
It is hard for me to believe Gyasi is a first-time author. This is a beautiful and devastating book.

In the Country by Mia Alvar
I loved this collection of short stories particularly because it is about the Philippines (and I am a Filipina), but I would recommend it to anyone.

Published prior to 2016:

Silence by Shusaku Endo
This rocked my worldview, very much like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory profoundly affected my faith. This is a book you read once and think about for years after.

Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates
I read this book in conjunction with The Underground Railroad, Beloved, and Homegoing. This set of books completely changed my perspective on America's history and legacy, especially as a newly-minted American.

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This is another extremely well-written collection of short fiction by a Filipino author. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I know not everyone felt the same way, but this totally lived up to the hype. It was the perfect book in which to lose myself during a vacation — long and rambling, but also extremely compelling. 

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I read this for a book club and it surprised me in so many ways; it's funny, subversive, and dark.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Gorgeous, haunting, and worthy of every bit of acclaim it has received.

Honorable mentions:

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
This reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except (dare I say it?) I found it even more enjoyable.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I didn't love this as much as Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but you really can't go wrong with Ann Patchett. This book feels like a modern take on Anne Tyler, which is a very good thing. 

You can see a comprehensive list of all the books I read here

Better late than never

I had two books on my to-buy list when I arrived in the Philippines: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Euphoria by Lily King. The problem is, none of the five (five!) bookstores within walking distance carried them. Eventually, one of the bookstores ordered the books for me, but in the meantime, I decided to refocus my efforts on finding and purchasing novels written by Filipino/a authors.

 Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

My new fascination with Filipino/a literature started with Mia Alvar's In the Country, a collection of short stories by a Filipina-American author. I was particularly intrigued by her historical/political stories from the Marcos/Aquino era, a time I vaguely remember but don't really understand. Reading Alvar was a revelation to me — minus one romance novel I stumbled upon as a teenager, I had never read anything by a Filipina author. I, frankly, cut my teeth on books by white men: first John Grisham, later Michael Chabon, Graham Greene. The literary characters that have filled my mind are war correspondents, college professors, cops, lawyers — by and large, white males. (Sometimes Filipina characters do make cameos in these books — as maids, nannies, entertainers.) To be fair, I have encountered books about the immigrant experience that hit close to home (by Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri), but I have never read anything that touches on my Filipino heritage.

In the couple of weeks I've been here, I've been building a collection of books by Filipino/a authors, based on recommendations and reviews. Several purchases in, I was pleasantly surprised to realize all but one are written or edited by women authors. I'm noticing Filipino literature tends to be more subversive, feminist, political, and gritty. This is the stuff I had no exposure to as a student in a Western school system.

Funny story: after reading a few books, I picked up a book by an older white male (the kind of book I've always read, the kind that gets a lot of attention from the media outlets I read) and I was astounded by how alien it is, how far it is from my reality. It's startling to realize so belatedly how the loudest (and most powerful) voices from my literary journey represent a largely homogenous perspective that is not my own. 

Happy to have my eyes (and world) opened. Better late than never.

 

April book report

My reading frenzy, which began in March, is still going strong. I read 11 books in April, which puts me 10 books ahead of my 52-book reading challenge this year.

Here are one- or two-sentences about each of the books I read in April, for future reference:

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Oh, to be Hemingway, when living the life of a starving artist meant maybe cutting short your Swiss ski vacation to a month instead of two! Maybe my favorite parts were Hemingway's scathing descriptions of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Fitzgerald's various, um, insecurities).  

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I'd never read this — and I had no idea there is so much more to the story than the crazy lady in the attic. Talk about a sprawling novel.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

This book surprised me with its spare, matter-of-fact characterization that somehow still left me with a vivid portrait of the main character's complex and paradoxical emotions. I was also surprised by how much I resonated with Toibin's portrayal of the immigrant experience.

What If? by Randall Munroe

I listened to this at 1.5x speed while I was laid up with a concussion and it was such a laughably poor choice for what was supposed to be a brain-resting activity. I did enjoy it — and particularly liked Will Wheaton's reading.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and John Levithan

This started my dive into John Green's back catalog. I loved the characterization of both Will Graysons — one reminds me so much of a few of my 7th grade boys, it's painful.

Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

I usually feel deeply satisfied reading Murakami even though I never understand his books, but this time I just did not feel invested. 

The Collar and the Cavvarach by Annie Douglass Lima

Lima is a colleague from our sister school and she is visiting this month to give a talk in my class, so I figured I should read her book ASAP! Happily, I enjoyed it — I found her made-up world compelling and her characters sympathetic. (I cried!)

Animal Farm by George Orwell

WOW. This was so much darker than I anticipated — almost unbearably dark.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I can see why this remains an enduring Green favorite. He has such a gift for respecting the intelligence and maturity of teenagers.

This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

Being a middle school English teacher gives me an excuse to read fluffy YA novels. I read one of Smith's other books based on a blogger recommendation and I liked it enough to pick this up from the local library.  

No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre

I read this play for my book club — dark, but darkly funny. Makes me wonder who would be in my version of hell...

Books/life

More blogging

My 7th and 8th graders have a book review blog! They're required to do quite a bit of independent reading and I thought this would be a good way for them to process what they've read, see what their friends are reading, and find recommendations.

I'm struggling with the desire to micromanage — I want to go in and change every awkward phrase and grammar error since a blog is so public — but I'm trying to err towards giving them a sense of ownership and keeping things lighthearted.

So far the kids have gotten a kick out of it, I think!

Breaking a dry spell

I have barely read at all this year. Before this week, I'd completed just 3 books (all YA!). I've started A Tale of Two Cities, Of Mice and Men, Middlemarch, The Outlander series, The Nightingale, Big Little Lies, (and more?) but I haven't finished any of them.

The other night, I was very stressed about some travel plans that have been up in the air, and I abruptly decided to pick up a book (instead of my phone) to give my brain a rest. I chose Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (partly because of this article, which Paul had sent to me, and partly because I'd been recommending it to people and I wanted to make sure it held up). It was my favorite book of all the books I was required to read as an English major in college. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it changed my life. It's had a permanent impact on my views on faith and grace. But I'd never reread it until this week. 

I loved it. Not only did I finish it — I also read it in one evening. In some ways, it was simpler than I remembered, but I also found nuance where I hadn't before.

Book club!

My friends/colleagues and I started a book club. We've only met once so far, but I loved it (it ranks right up there with trivia night at the local pub). Book Club — or something like it — is my ideal social event. I get to hang out with a small group of friends, eat good food and drink good drinks, and have lively, thought-provoking discussion. 

During our first meeting, we read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and we ended up talking until 11 PM. We called it a night because we all had to be at school at 7:30 the next morning. 

Our next book is Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, which I have yet to start. I've been wanting to read Waugh ever since we gave our younger daughter "Evelyn" as a middle name, so I'm pretty pumped.

Any recommendations?

Paul just handed me The Zanzibar Chest, which he first asked me to read four years ago. After that... any book recommendations? I'm looking for something like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — fully developed characters, exciting language, challenging themes, a plot. Maybe I should just work my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners I haven't read...