So one benefit of this year here in the crappy town with exorbitant amounts of "alone time" is that I've been able to read a LOT of books. (This ability is mostly thanks to having a Kindle, which seriously saved me this year, but it's also thanks to fun friend Bianca, who lent me paper copies of books to read on the beach.) Quite a few of these books were recommended by my friend Kristin (you may remember her from such posts as the one when a bird attacked me in Foz do Iguaçu, and our trip to Ushuaia, where we saw penguins up close. Heck, she's in all kinds of posts!) Almost all of the books I read were new to me, but I re-read a couple of old favorites with older eyes. I took advantage of Amazon's free and cheap classics for the Kindle when I could. The list is heavy on historical fiction, because books I most enjoy tend to be from that genre. Since we're coming up on the end of the year, I thought I'd share with you just how many books I've read, and which ones I'd recommend.
Danielle's Completed Reading List 2011
More or Less in Order of Favorite to Least Favorite
Beneath the Lion's Gaze - Maaza Mengiste
An absolutely gorgeous book about the rise and fall of the dictator in Ethiopia in the 1970s. I cannot explain the shocking beauty of this book. I think it's important for people living in Brazil to read it. It reveals a lot about the horrors that happen under a dictator and also how people think and react, as humans, and as families.
Good quote: "Hope can never come from doing nothing."
Island Beneath the Sea - Isabel Allende
Another historical fiction novel about the slave uprising in Haiti. The different characters' perspectives are enlightening, and the beauty of the story is the focus on the almost saint-like humanity of the slave protagonist.
Good quote: "Zacharie and I now have a history; we can look to the past and count the days we've been together, add up our sorrows and joys, that's the way love grows, no hurry at all, day after day. I love him as I always have, but I feel more comfortable with him than I once did."
How to Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
Hands-down the best book available on modern Feminism. It's funny and accessible but still critical and informative. Moran discusses and defends The Big Ideas very intelligently. Humor and academic arguments are well mixed, here.
Good quote: "When I hear women talking about how their wedding is going to be / was the best day of their life, I can't help but think, You just haven't taken enough MDMA in a field at 3am, love."
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell
More historical fiction! It took me a little while to get into this book, but I'm glad I waited out the slightly confusing beginning. (It was mostly confusing because of my lack of historical knowledge.) A story about the eighteenth-century presence of the Dutch East India Company in Java and Japan, it was engaging and had lots of focus on the life of a Dutch scribe-turned-translator and his linguistic, romantic, and political challenges. The book was written by a young linguist who went to teach English in Japan and married a Japanese woman. If he can do it, I can do it! (On a smaller scale, of course.)
Good quote: "The purest believers are the truest monsters."
Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
This book is, in general, about the rocky life of an American family from the 80s to present-day. The plot doesn't get much past the general: the point of this book seems to have been a way for Franzen to go to town with some serious character development. If deep and detailed character analysis is your thing, then this book is perfect for you. It typically isn't my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed this book. (Oh, also, the main character works with birds. So that's nice.)
Good quote: "She now sorely regretted the hard time she'd given him about his crusades for other species; she saw that she'd done it out of envy - envy of his birds for being so purely lovable to him, and envy of Walter himself for his capacity to love them. She wished she could go to him now, while he was still alive, and say to him plainly: I adore you for your goodness."
All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy
It's Cormac McCarthy. (If that isn't self-explanatory for you, then it's a book about the lives of men set in the American/Mexican deserts in the 1800s. The writing is amazing and life-changing. I did write about this book once already in the blog. The good quote is there.)
Gang Leader for a Day - Sudhir Venkatesh
This non-fiction, first-person report is about the experience a grad student sociologist has when he integrates himself into the culture of an American housing project in Chicago. I highly recommend it for those of you living in Brazil and trying to make sense of the jeitinho culture. He analyzes the decisions that people make in the absence of resources and government support/protection, and he does it in an open-minded and non-judgmental way. I saw a lot of parallels between the housing project he works in and Brazilian favelas. I learned some helpful and insightful takes on this situation.
I didn't take note of any good quotes in this one, sorry! It's worth reading, though, I promise.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson
Such a lovely book. It's about a sweet old man in England who's trying to come to terms with his wife's and brother's deaths and the speed at which the world is changing. I read it right after my grandfather died, and it made me feel more peaceful. That description makes the book sound cheesy, but it's not. I'd describe it as delicate but steady.
Good quote: "He was conscious of tightness around his head and a slight burn in the throat. This was the dull ache of grief in the real world; more dyspepsia than passion."
Summer - Edith Wharton
It's Edith Wharton. (OK. I'll stop doing that.) It's a well-written dose of subtle and old-fashioned feminist commentary through the story of a young girl in a small Midwestern town in the 1920s or 30s (not sure). The girl meets a young man and "becomes a woman" (you know what that means), and then subsequently gets screwed over, because that's what happened to young women all too often at that time. The Kindle version is only 2 bucks on Amazon, which I think gives this book the best cost-benefit value on this list.
Good, Wharton-esque quote: "She felt instinctively that the gulf between them was too deep, and that the bridge their passion had flung across it was as insubstantial as a rainbow."
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Did you know that Tina Fey wrote a book? It's exactly what you'd expect: a hilarious report of important events in her life. It reads like an episode of 30 Rock. It's just as self-deprecating, except it's peppered with more girl power.
Good quote: "Once I moved to New York in 1997, I discovered the joys of the quickie Korean manicure...You enter, smile, and nod at the manager.
'Pick color,' she chirps back in her Korean accent. You pick out a couple of the three hundred shades of off-white.
'This for manicure. This feet. Magazine okay?' Why are you talking like that?
Now that you've racially embarrassed yourself, you are ready to squeeze into a seat at a tiny table and basically hold hands with a stranger for twenty minutes. That really is the craziest thing the first few times you go, getting used to passively flopping your hands into another woman's hands. It's like something the'd make you do at summer camp as a trust-building exercise, I assume."
Poor Economics: A Radial Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty- Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
I thought this book would also give me some insight into how to think about poverty here in Brazil. It was helpful and I even wrote some sort of academic essays for myself while reading it (because I wanted to organize my thoughts and because I'm nerdy like that), but overall it's a really technical book and it's slow-going if you're not an economist. (I was also annoyed that I coughed up like, 16 bucks for it on Amazon and the charts and graphs were still messed up in the Kindle version.) I thought it was also kind of a cop-out of them to not to commit to any definite, concrete solutions to world poverty. The ending was basically like, "yup, poverty IS complicated! Lots of things work and don't work!" But I will say that their research seems to really get to the heart of the way poor people make decisions with their money, like the psychological aspects of those decisions. Oh, and they really, really criticize the corrupt governments of poor countries and put a lot of blame on corruption to explain world poverty today. Bravo.
Good quote: "We are often inclined to see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and to wonder why they don't put these purchases on hold and invest in what would really make their lives better. The poor, on the other hand, may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long."
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Better than how I remembered it. Fun to re-read after having lived in the tropics. Also, did you know that Conrad was not a native speaker of English, and he still managed to write that well? Jealous.
Good quote: "Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings...you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert...till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -- somewhere -- far away -- in another existence perhaps."
Zieitoun - Dave Eggers
Not my favorite Dave Eggers book, though that's not saying much, since his other books are so monumentally spectacular. It's about a Syrian immigrant in the US who survives hurricane Katrina and stays in town to help his community, only to be unconstitutionally arrested and held in inhumane conditions without a trial, all because of a misunderstanding in the chaos after the hurricane. I guess the only reason I didn't like it that much was because the first half read like his other books, but then the second half was just long and painful non-fiction criticizing the war on terror. I just wasn't expecting that. But since you are, now, maybe you'll like it more than I did.
Good quote: "Usually you needn't risk so much to right a wrong. It's not so complicated. It's the opposite of complicated."
The Other Side of the Story - Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes -- my guilty pleasure! Her stories are like book versions of Sex and the City (and Irish). Slightly stereotypical and very predictable, but super cute and entertaining. Oh, it also gave me a lot of insight into the publishing industry.
Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller
Not as good as I remembered it! I was surprised! But we can still value it in the context in which it was written.
Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain
Lots of this book is like, "Anthony Bordain's Wild Ride". Ya know, written for shock value. But some parts are funny. I guess I just expected it to be more well written because his narration on his show is so well written. But if you're interested in the restaurant industry or in being a chef, I think it'd definitely be a good read for you.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk - David Sedaris
I loooooove David Sedaris, but this one was a little disappointing! So short! Cute and tongue-in-cheek, but it kind of felt like he was just churning something out to meet the book requirement for his publishing contract.
In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan
This book was really popular this year (and maybe last year, too? I don't know). I'm glad I read it to know what people are referring to, but I don't really agree with the guy. He has some helpful rules on how to choose healthier food in the grocery store, but his focus is on conspiracy theories and his conclusion is that Americans just start growing all their own food in their front yards and on their window sills and, you know, get back to the land or something. If his goal is to get busy, working-class, 21st-century city dwellers to eat healthier, I don't think these ideas are very practical or convincing.
The Brightest Star in the Sky - Marian Keyes
More Marian Keys! See above.
Talk of the Town - Lisa Wingate
This was the free featured Kindle book of the week on Amazon the week I got my Kindle. It's a Christian allegory wolf in chick lit's clothing. Barf. OK, I'm being harsh. It wasn't actually that bad. I read the whole thing and I was entertained. I didn't realize it was a religious-themed book until the end. Cousin Ashleigh, you would love it.
The Heart is Not a Size - Beth Kephart
I read this to help my teenage cousin with her homework. It's for teenagers. It's touches on some heavy issues, like anorexia and poverty in Mexico and volunteerism, so good book for teenagers. But it's still for teenagers.
Here Comes Trouble - Michael Moore
I was skeptical when I saw that Michael Moore had written memoirs already. But I tend to agree with Michael Moore. Then I read reviews of this book and it seemed like it would be about ways in which Michael Moore stood up to small injustices. The week I read the review, that sounded appealing, and I hoped I'd be inspired. Instead, it was pages and pages of Michael Moore talking about how awesome he is, even though he reveals that he essentially chooses to do things that will (a) piss his enemies off, just to be difficult; (b) bring him attention; or (c) make him rich. The few phrases he throws in to feign modesty are actually a bit insulting. The only reason I finished reading it was because I'd shelled out the full, new-release price for it.
The Old Testament
That's right. I had to slowly sit down and read the entire Old Testament for a translation that I did. (It was a translation of a "modernized and snarky version of the Old Testament.") The Michael Moore book was actually worse. I'm putting the Bible at the bottom of the list just to be spiteful. I'm actually glad I read it. I got to see just how ridiculous some of the ideas are when applied to modern times. I guess I can see how someone can be trained to read this from birth and be convinced that bigger moral ideas are at play and applicable, but reading it as an adult, it just kind of reminds me of those American Indian folktales we read as American public school children. You know, those ones that are like, "How the wolf got its tail", the ones that totally insult and simplify Native American religions while trying to insist that they're just silly stories, while the Christian Bible is truth.
No, but all meanness aside, I'm also glad I read the Old Testament because it was very interesting from a historical linguistics perspective. It gave me a deeper understanding of Middle English and the changes between it and Modern English (you know, an understanding that I'm sure you're all dying to have). It also helped me understand a lot of Cormac McCarthy and Joanna Newsom references and vocabulary choices. Worth it? I think so.
EDIT: I forgot one! The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. It was lovely! It deserves to be up toward the top. Thanks so much to Stephanie for recommending it.
Phew! What a long list!
Your turn! What have you read this year? What do you recommend? What do you recommend that we avoid! Share, share!
Bianca and I are going on a self-imposed 100-book challenge. We want to each read 100 books between now and the end of 2012. (We're giving ourselves a head start to take advantage of valuable reading time during our vacations.) So I'm not sure if I'll type out a long list like this next year. :) But do join us on our challenge, and give us some ideas of what to read.