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On My Bookshelf, February 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

We’re only three months in to 2017 and I already have a very strong contender for best book of the year. Best book I’ve read, anyway.

This was a random read for me. It was offered as a selection from Book of the Month and I picked it simply because I felt I needed to up my novel reading. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I gravitate towards nonfiction. Really boring nonfiction, at that.

I hadn’t heard any of the buzz about Pachinko (and there is a lot!) and was honestly a little wary when it arrived and clocked in at 496 pages. No need to worry though, I devoured the entire thing in an evening over a couple of glasses of wine.

The story was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I didn’t love the second half as much as the first – but to be honest I can’t think of any multi-generational work I’ve read that was as successful when it reached late twentieth-century. Highly recommended. Like, go to the store and get this now. Immediately.

From Amazon.com: “Profoundly moving and gracefully told, PACHINKO follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life. So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A book that’s published in 2017
-A novel set during wartime
-A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
-A book that takes place over a character’s life span
-A book about an immigrant or refugee

*This post contains Amazon Associate referral links.

On My Bookshelf, December 2016-January 2017

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (2016)

From Amazon.com: “For all fans of John Hughes and his hit films such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, and Home Alone, comes Jason Diamond’s hilarious memoir of growing up obsessed with the iconic filmmaker’s movies—a preoccupation that eventually convinces Diamond he should write Hughes’ biography and travel to New York City on a quest that is as funny as it is hopeless.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A book involving travel
-A book with a subtitle

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: An American Hero by Ronald D. Lankford Jr. (2016)

Don’t let the playful topic, decorative layout, and colorful images fool you – this is a detailed historical study of Rudolph and his place in American history and culture. Probably not the best choice for someone looking for simple holiday nostalgia, but a great read for the history-buff. Lankford’s work is well-researched and interesting. Recommended – if you like that kind of thing.

From Amazon.com: “Ronald D. Lankford has written the definitive history of this iconic and much-loved Christmas character. . . . The result is both a glowing tribute and a rigorously researched biography that will appeal to fans and lovers of classic American holiday culture.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A book involving a mythical creature
-A book with a subtitle

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

My husband got me this book for Christmas, not knowing how relevant it would be. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Wishful Drinking, but I’m also not a Star Wars fan. Of course, just being a Star Wars fan is no reason to read this book. In fact, unless you already know about Carrie Fisher’s writing, you would probably be really disappointed. At its core, this is a coming of age story – more about a teenager struggling with the transition to adulthood than behind the scenes stories from the movie. It is a good read if you like Fisher.

From Amazon.com: “When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved—plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naiveté, and a vulnerability that she barely recognized. Today, her fame as an author, actress, and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a teenager with an all-consuming crush on her costar, Harrison Ford. With these excerpts from her handwritten notebooks, The Princess Diarist is Fisher’s intimate and revealing recollection of what happened on one of the most famous film sets of all time—and what developed behind the scenes.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A book about an interesting woman
-A bestseller from 2016

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

This one I read for book club and it is absolutely not a genre I would typically pick up off of the shelf. Call me pleasantly surprised, I enjoyed it overall. Yes, I found the plot of the crime ridiculously tangled and the noir doublespeak ultimately cloying, but Chandler was clearly a master of his craft. And it turns out he didn’t write this first book until he 44 and unemployed during the Depression. Good for him! If you are a fan of this genre, you’ve probably already read this. If you aren’t, this is probably a good one to start with.

From Amazon.com: “In crime fiction master Raymond Chandler’s iconic first novel, a dying millionaire hires private eye Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, and Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.”

POPSUGAR Reading Challenge
-A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read

*This post contains Amazon Associate referral links.

Reading, POPSUGAR Style

I’ve decided to tackle the POPSUGAR Reading Challenge this year. Never heard of it? The site puts out a few lists every year providing prompts to guide your reading. Some are themed, but the main list (this one!) is more general.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to try to read one book for each prompt or if I’ll accept some overlap. I already know that there are a couple I likely won’t try on the main list. Specifically “the first book in a series you haven’t read before” and “a book you bought on a trip.” I’m not a good series reader and usually avoid books that aren’t a one-off as I’ve been disappointed so many times. I’m not crossing that off the list immediately though; there might be something out there for me (make me a recommendation in the comments?). And I won’t purposely plan to buy a book on a trip.

I’ll consider anything I read from the Advanced section a bonus. Seriously . . . who has time for 800+ pages these days? I tap out around 500 or 600, at the most.

On My Bookshelf, August-September 2016

sunlight-pilgrimsThe Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (2016)

So, I just didn’t get this book. None of the plot lines really seemed to fit together for any real purpose and I still don’t have a clue while this story takes place during the last days before a modern ice age. Some of the plot points seemed pointless. Overall, it was just random. Not necessarily bad, but it read more like a lengthy short story than a novel.

From Amazon.com: “It’s November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Each day colder than the last. . . . As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south. But not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived. Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. . . . When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they’ll all be ready.”

the-girlsThe Girls by Emma Cline

Overall, I enjoyed this one. But I found the portions set in present day to be distracting without adding anything to the story and Cline has a tendency to poetically-overuse her thesaurus. Lots of scene-setting that ultimately takes away from character building. A nice read though.

From Amazon.com: “Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.”

Currently Reading: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

*This post contains Amazon Associate referral links.

On My Bookshelf, June 2016

Engineering EdenEngineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature by Jordan Fisher Smith (2016)

The good: This is an excellent story. Well-researched and told with an almost-extreme amount of backstory. It really paints a good picture and I enjoyed reading most of it.

The bad: In cramming all of this backstory, the book jumps around a lot from timeline to timeline. All this happens within chapters – sometimes a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. For the first third of the book, I had trouble keeping up with the characters and how they fit into each timeline. I considered putting the book aside. I think the author did his work a disservice by not organizing the material into larger sections.

In the end, a decent read. But not one I’m likely to recommend.

Just a side note in case you happen to get your hands on an advanced reader’s copy – it had a lot more errors than I would expect for something so close to print. At some points it was actually distracting. This didn’t play into my review at all . . . just a head’s up.

From Amazon.com: In this remarkable excavation of American environmental history, nature writer and former park ranger Jordan Fisher Smith uses Harry Walker’s story to tell the larger narrative of the futile, sometimes fatal, attempts to remake wilderness in the name of preserving it. Tracing a course from the founding of the national parks through the tangled twentieth-century growth of the conservationist movement, Smith gives the lie to the portrayal of national parks as Edenic wonderlands unspoiled until the arrival of Europeans, and shows how virtually every attempt to manage nature in the parks has only created cascading effects that require even more management. Moving across time and between Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier national parks, Engineering Eden shows how efforts at wilderness management have always been undone by one fundamental problem–that the idea of what is “wild” dissolves as soon as we begin to examine it, leaving us with little framework to say what wilderness should look like and which human interventions are acceptable in trying to preserve it.

ShrillShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)

Loved it. I actually wrote an entire post about it, but I might have been just a little bit tipsy so I’m not going to publish it. I have to keep at least a little bit of dignity. But I will share one quote from the book that really spoke to me:

“So, what do you do when you’re too big, in a world where bigness is cast not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing? You fold yourself up like origami, you make yourself smaller in other ways, you take up less space with your personality, since you can’t with your body. You diet. You starve, you run until you taste blood in your throat, you count out your almonds, you try to buy back your humanity with pounds of flesh.”

The entire passage is powerful for me, but the one little bit that really struck home, that really made an impact, is rather unassuming. . . “you count out your almonds.” I have counted out some many damn almonds in my life. Little baggies of perfectly portioned, individually counted almonds. Approved food that was supposed to make everything better. Stupid fucking almonds.

From Amazon.com: Shrill is an uproarious memoir, a feminist rallying cry in a world that thinks gender politics are tedious and that women, especially feminists, can’t be funny. Coming of age in a culture that demands women be as small, quiet, and compliant as possible–like a porcelain dove that will also have sex with you–writer and humorist Lindy West quickly discovered that she was anything but. . . . With inimitable good humor, vulnerability, and boundless charm, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss, and walk away laughing. Shrill provocatively dissects what it means to become self-aware the hard way, to go from wanting to be silent and invisible to earning a living defending the silenced in all caps.

*This post contains Amazon Associate referral links.

On My Bookshelf, April 2016

Some Possible SolutionsSome Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips (2016)

I liked this one. Some of the stories were unsettling. All felt a little bit ethereal. Side note: I received this book for free through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

From Amazon.com:Some Possible Solutions offers an idiosyncratic series of “What ifs”: What if your perfect hermaphrodite match existed on another planet? What if you could suddenly see through everybody’s skin to their organs? What if you knew the exact date of your death? What if your city was filled with doppelgangers of you? Forced to navigate these bizarre scenarios, Phillips’ characters search for solutions to the problem of how to survive in an irrational, infinitely strange world. In dystopias that are exaggerated versions of the world in which we live, these characters strive for intimacy and struggle to resolve their fraught relationships with each other, with themselves, and with their place in the natural world.”

Thousand Naked StrangersA Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard (2016)

This was good and covered a lot of ground – touching, funny, sad, frightening. A great read if you like memoirs and don’t mind the subject matter. I should probably note. . . this is not a blood and guts kind of book. Yes, Hazzard is telling you true stories here, but not to shock or disgust. It’s well done.

From Amazon.com: “A former paramedic’s visceral, poignant, and mordantly funny account of a decade spent on Atlanta’s mean streets saving lives and connecting with the drama and occasional beauty that lies inside catastrophe. In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. A failed salesman turned local reporter, he wanted to test himself, see how he might respond to pressure and danger. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta. His life entered a different realm—one of blood, violence, and amazing grace.”

UndergroundUnderground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami (2000)

Yes, more Murakami. It is nonfiction this time though. Overall, I loved this book. It is basically an oral history of the Tokyo gas attacks. I have vague memories of the attacks (I was only 11 at the time, so watching the nightly news wasn’t really one of my hobbies but I do remember a general feeling of fear and shock), so it was nice to learn more of what happened and why.

From Amazon.com: “It was a clear spring day, Monday, March 20, 1995, when five members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo conducted chemical warfare on the Tokyo subway system using sarin, a poison gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. The unthinkable had happened, a major urban transit system had become the target of a terrorist attack. In an attempt to discover why, Haruki Murakami. . . talked to the people who lived through the catastrophe—from a Subway Authority employee with survivor guilt, to a fashion salesman with more venom for the media than for the perpetrators, to a young cult member who vehemently condemns the attack though he has not quit Aum.”

Oregon TrailThe Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck (2015)

Spoiler alert! He did not die of dysentery.

This book was dense. Really dense. I think it could have been about a hundred pages shorter, but I enjoyed it. Rinker Buck is a lot of fun. As you follow his wagon, you learn about his life, his family, and numerous aspects of American history.

From Amazon.com: “An epic account of traveling the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules, an audacious journey that hasn’t been attempted in a century—which also chronicles the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, and its significance to the country. Spanning two thousand miles and traversing six states from Missouri to the Pacific coast, the Oregon Trail is the route that made America. In the fifteen years before the Civil War, when 400,000 pioneers used the trail to emigrate West—scholars still regard this as the largest land migration in history—it united the coasts, doubled the size of the country, and laid the groundwork for the railroads. Today, amazingly, the trail is all but forgotten.”

On My Bookshelf, March 2016

SarahVowellThe Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell (2002)

I’d never read anything by Sarah Vowell before, although I had heard her one of twice on NPR, so when my sister recommended this to me I decided to pick it up. Or check it out, actually. I audiobooked this one. At first, I didn’t care for Vowell’s pacing or tone, but by the second story I didn’t mind and by the third I didn’t notice. I enjoyed it and will probably read more of her works in the future. She kind of reminded me of me and it is always nice to find a kindred spirit.

From Amazon.com: “In The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell travels through the American past and, in doing so, investigates the dusty, bumpy roads of her own life. In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell — widely hailed for her inimitable narratives on public radio’s “This American Life” — ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?”

StationElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

I have to say. . . I just didn’t love this one as much as the rest of the world seems to. This has happened to be before though; I found The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo practically unbearable. I wasn’t that disappointed by Station Eleven however. I was riveted by the first bit, but started to find the characters somewhat boring and the plot predictable. The story is based around connections between the characters and many of those felt forced to me. Maybe I was just expecting too much. It finishes with just an “okay” from me.

From Amazon.com: “An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all.”

Onions Cure EaracheCan Onions Cure Ear-ache?: Medical Advice from 1769 by William Buchan (1769) edited by Melanie King (2012)

This was fun – original medical advice published in 1769 intended for English-readers unable to get to a doctor. I enjoyed it, but this certainly isn’t for everyone. Not recommended if you don’t usually read “old” literature, as I expect it will just bore you. Also not recommended if you are the kind of person who needs a “don’t try this at home” warning; a lot of these treatments will kill you.

From Amazon.com: “Originally published in 1769, Domestic Medicine was produced for the benefit of those without access to—or means to afford—medical assistance, and copies of the book were found in apothecaries and coffee houses, private households and clubs. In 1797, Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and his crew even had the foresight to pack a copy before fleeing to the Pitcairns. Derived from folklore and the emerging medical science of the day, some of Buchan’s recommendations for how to live a healthy life still ring true: for instance, exercising, enjoying a varied diet, and getting an abundance of fresh air. Others are delightfully dodgy or even downright dangerous, such as genital trusses, the prescription of mercury, or the suggestion that Spanish fly might soothe aching joints. Bringing together an exceedingly entertaining selection of entries from one of the earliest self-help books, Can Onions Cure Ear-ache? offers fascinating insight into the popular treatments of the time.”

Amazing Book No FireThe Amazing Book Is Not on Fire: The World of Dan and Phil by Dan Howell and Phil Lester (2015)

Secret confession time: I watch a lot of youtube vloggers. Like, a lot. As far as this book goes. . . well, there is absolutely no reason to pick it up unless you know (and love!) Dan and Phil.

From Amazon.com: “From YouTube sensations Dan Howell (danisnotonfire) and Phil Lester (AmazingPhil) comes a laugh-out-loud look into the world created by two awkward guys who share their lives on the Internet. More than 11 million YouTube subscribers can’t wait for this book! Since uploading their first ever videos as teenagers, Dan and Phil have become two of the world’s biggest YouTube stars. Now they invite you on a behind-the-scenes journey, filled with absolutely essential advice, tons of humor, lots of awkwardness, and TMI honesty that they will probably regret.”

On My Bookshelf, February 2016

speak_now-book-jacketSpeak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial by Kenji Yoshino (2015)

Wow. Amazing. Already a candidate for best book I’ve ready all year (and it’s only March!). This is the story of what happens when civil marriage meets religious marriage . . . as it played out in the courtroom, not in television ads. I really loved it – I knew I was going to love it when I learned in the first few pages that the lawyers who brought the case against Prop 8 were the lawyers who faced off against each other in Bush v. Gore. How did I not know that? Random facts aside, Yoshino treats the subject, the lawyers, and the witnesses with respect while writing a thorough, but easy-to-read masterpiece. Yes, I said masterpiece.

From Amazon.com:Speak Now tells the story of a watershed trial that unfolded over twelve tense days in California in 2010. A trial that legalized same-sex marriage in our most populous state. A trial that interrogated the nature of marriage, the political status of gays and lesbians, the ideal circumstances for raising children, and the ability of direct democracy to protect fundamental rights. A trial that stands as the most potent argument for marriage equality this nation has ever seen. In telling the story of Hollingsworth v. Perry, the groundbreaking federal lawsuit against Proposition 8, Kenji Yoshino has also written a paean to the vanishing civil trial–an oasis of rationality in what is often a decidedly uncivil debate. Above all, this book is a work of deep humanity, in which Yoshino brings abstract legal arguments to life by sharing his own story of finding love, marrying, and having children as a gay man. Intellectually rigorous and profoundly compassionate, Speak Now will stand as the definitive account of a landmark civil-rights trial.”

*My copy is an uncorrected proof, but is a print fairly close to publication (I noticed maybe two typos and it already has the cover/back info). I’m happy to loan it to anyone I know in real life.

ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (2010)

Very enjoyable. I don’t have anything else to say really, so I’ll let a professional take it from here.

From Amazon.com: “Printing presses whirr, ashtrays smolder, and the endearing complexity of humanity plays out in Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Set against the backdrop of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome, it begins as a celebration of the beloved and endangered role of newspapers and the original 24/7 news cycle. Yet Rachman pushes beyond nostalgia by crafting an apologue that better resembles a modern-day Dubliners than a Mad Men exploration of the halcyon past. The chaos of the newsroom becomes a stage for characters unified by a common thread of circumstance, with each chapter presenting an affecting look into the life of a different player. From the comically overmatched greenhorn to the forsaken foreign correspondent, we suffer through the painful heartbreaks of unexpected tragedy and struggle to stifle our laughter in the face of well-intentioned blunders. This cacophony of emotion blends into a single voice, as the depiction of a paper deemed a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” becomes more about the disillusion in everyday life than the dissolution of an industry.” –Dave Callanan

GhettosideGhettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Levoy (2015)

I was afraid this book would be too painful to read, but I found the emotional parts well-balanced with facts and historical context making it much easer to tackle this difficult subject. It was a dense read, but good. Ghettoside is listed on almost every list of the best books from 2015 for a reason. Recommended.

From Amazon.com: “On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes. But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift. Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder – a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another – and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.”

He Wanted The MoonHe Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him by Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton (2015)

This book came to me through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program (as did Speak Now; I received a copy of the new paperback released a couple of weeks ago. Overall, a good read. This kind of story is right up my alley – I’m fascinated by the history of mental illness and its treatment. The book contains portions of Dr. Baird’s manuscript (written while he was hospitalized) mixed with medical records, Mimi Baird’s memories, and other archival documents. It was an easy read; I tackled it in a couple of hours on a lazy Saturday.

From Amazon.com: “Texas-born and Harvard-educated, Dr. Perry Baird was a rising medical star in the late 1920s and 1930s. Early in his career, ahead of his time, he grew fascinated with identifying the biochemical root of manic depression, just as he began to suffer from it himself. By the time the results of his groundbreaking experiments were published, Dr. Baird had been institutionalized multiple times, his medical license revoked, and his wife and daughters estranged. He later received a lobotomy and died from a consequent seizure, his research incomplete, his achievements unrecognized. Mimi Baird grew up never fully knowing this story, as her family went silent about the father who had been absent for most of her childhood. Decades later, a string of extraordinary coincidences led to the recovery of a manuscript which Dr. Baird had worked on throughout his brutal institutionalization, confinement, and escape. This remarkable document, reflecting periods of both manic exhilaration and clear-headed health, presents a startling portrait of a man who was a uniquely astute observer of his own condition, struggling with a disease for which there was no cure, racing against time to unlock the key to treatment before his illness became impossible to manage.”

My Top 20 Books to Read Before You Die

Making a list like this is impossible, of course. Although lots of people try. The books that need to be on your to-read list aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone says you should read. If you can’t make it through a chapter of Pride and Prejudice without rolling your eyes, it is hardly going to make your life better to finish it.

In reality, reading is a very personal experience. Something that moves me may absolutely bore you to death. While I do think everyone should have some exposure to the classics, trekking through some of those snoozers certainly isn’t the best way to encourage the literary appreciation. And you just aren’t going to die if you never read Shakespeare. You might even enjoy life more because you won’t know that 60% of all movies and books are just a newfangled telling of Shakespeare (or, in some cases, of whatever story he was doing a newfangled telling of). [That being said, I love Hamlet. You should read that one.]

So here is my annotated list of 20 Books to Read Before You Die.* These are the books that gave the the feels, taught me, made me think . . . etc. They are my go-to books when people ask me for recommendations.

Bell JarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
This is on my personal top five books list, so you know it has to be mentioned here. I pull The Bell Jar off the shelf at least one a year, whether I’m re-reading the entire thing or just hitting some favorite passages.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898)
This book is full of sci-fi clichés . . . except then you realize that Wells invented the clichés. It is fascinating the see the beginning of so much of our pop culture in one work.

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
How can you not read a book that has become so divisive? If you actually sit down and read Darwin’s work, you will probably be surprised. It doesn’t say a lot of what you think it does and what it does say is inspired. I considered myself a better-educated person when I finished this. Even if you are just a Darwin-hater, at least read what you are hating on (and then read keep reading because you don’t know enough).

The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe
Okay, so maybe you don’t have to read the complete works. At least pick up something though! Poe’s work has inspired me since I was a child. I can’t imagine creating a list like this without including him. As you read, you will notice so many elements and plot devices that permeate modern books and movies. Poe is the master.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
I don’t think you need to read the entire series, but I do think everyone should give it a try. You at least need to see what the big deal is when something like this comes along and takes the world by storm. Especially since it has staying power and is more than just a fad. Maybe you will love it and read the whole thing. Maybe not.

stiffStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2003)
Mary Roach is one of those authors who make science and history accessible, so I knew she had to be on this list. I picked Stiff because I think the topic is important – how we treat our dead is a very important part of our culture. This books hits on medicine, forensics, ethics. . .a little bit of everything. If you like it, I suggest picking up Bonk next or maybe Gulp.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924)
I think this one would surprise you. The synopsis doesn’t scream “read me, you’ll love it!”, but Forster does not disappoint.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell (1981)
Not all of the must-read books have to make you think. Some can just be fun. This book and its sequel More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (there is a third one, but as an ’80s child it doesn’t land on my radar) defined scary for an entire generation. And it is as much about the original art as it is the stories. I still smile when I see this book sitting on my bookshelf or out in the wild.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
This one is a little dense and probably not for everybody, but the story is absolutely fascinating. Skloot covers science, race, ethics, and politics here making what could be a very dry narrative engaging. Some of you might walk away on the side of science, others on the side of the individual, most of you will be left with the kind of puzzling questions that arise when you look back at our nation’s long struggle with class and race. You will walk away with something though, I guarantee that.

speak_now-book-jacketSpeak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial by Kenji Yoshino (2015)
This one is a new one. I just read it this month (expect a review next week sometime) and it was amazing. It would do everyone some good to read about marriage equality as it is seen by the law and not by the television commercials.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
A classic that I think deserves the hype. It was publicly burned by the Nazis in the early 1930s. That alone should make you want to read it. General rule – if someone has gone to the trouble to stage a public bonfire of books, you should read those books. If the government is the one doing the burning. . . you should drop everything and read that book now.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984) by George Orwell (1949)
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931)

I’m going to group these together as they both serve to fill the “dystopian future” spot on my list. Entertainment that makes you think. You might not read both, but I think you should at least read one. Brave New World is my favorite, but seems like 1984 has more mass appeal. I’ll admit it; I have a soft spot for these kinds of books. But, given the recent surge in zombie pop culture, you might too. Speaking of zombies. . .

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006)
Hands down the best zombie story out there. Forget that movie; it didn’t have anything to do with the book except for the name. And World War Z is really so much more than zombies – it is the story of how civilization would handle a mass epidemic like this. Instead of focusing on one group of people, the story is told as interviews taking place post-panic so you really do get a big picture kind of story. I have read this one multiple times and just typing this makes me want to pick it up again.

First They Killed My FatherFirst They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (2000)
A good book to make you remember that “history” is happening all around you and that you don’t have to travel back hundreds of years to find the kind of atrocities we try to ignore. Okay, maybe that sentence is a little too poufy, but this book really touched me. I suggest you read it.

The American Revolution: A History by Gordon Wood (2002)
You’ll never convince me that you don’t need to learn about history. Especially since the world we live in loves to pull random examples support any point of view (and – really – you can find vignettes in history to support anything you want to say), you need to be able to put things into context. If I can stop you from posting once piece of nonsense of Facebook, I’ll consider this list a success. I picked this book to add to my list because it is 1) interesting, 2) concise, and 3) accessible. The viewpoints of our forefathers can’t be expressed in a quote on a picture of a Minion. History cannot be condensed into a slogan. It is complicated, gritty, inspiring, and discouraging. Go learn!

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
You absolutely 100% must read this book. No ifs, ands or buts. I don’t even need to justify this choice. If you haven’t read it, get thee to a nunnery library!

Five Days At Memorial- Final Jacket.JPGFive Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)
You need to make sure you are emotionally stable before you sit down to read Five Days at Memorial. This story is a painful one, but an important one. I didn’t want to believe the facts I was reading. This is a story that must be told.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)
Another book crucial to modern pop culture. Forget Dracula – this is the cream of the vampire crop in my opinion. And again, forget the movie. Hollywood just can’t handle the end of this book. Okay, so I have several fun books on here about supernatural creatures (I Am Legend hits up both vampire and zombie), but you have to understand that those books are really about people. About society. They can teach us so much and be damn good while doing it.

Maus by Art Spiegelman (serialized 1980-1991)
I kind of feel like Maus is a little bit overdone. It made a big splash as a graphic novel about the Holocaust and people tend to recommend it now without having read it or really paid attention to it. I bet most of them don’t really remember the details of the story. It really is a good book though. I especially suggest this for high school or early college students who haven’t found a way to appreciate history or have difficulty tackling their dry textbooks. Maus makes this list because the way it inspires people to learn is more important than the words (and drawings!) on the page.

See anything you think doesn’t belong here? What would be on your list?

*Yeah, I intended to make this a list of 25 but got lazy.

On My Bookshelf, January 2016

WhoWhatWhenThe Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (2014)

My first book of 2016 was a Christmas present from my parents – sneakily purchased after my mom saw it in this list I shared on Facebook. The book gives you short bios of sixty-five lesser-known (or more like unknown) people who supported, helped, inspired, or worked with the people we think of as “big players” in their respective fields. Each page spread had the bio on one side and a unique illustration on the other. I looooved the illustrations. The bios? Well, I found some better than others, but that is just par for the course with this many authors.

My favorite secret sidekicks? Julius Rosenwald and John Ordway

From Amazon.com: “In the bestselling tradition of The Where, the Why, and the How, this offbeat illustrated history reveals 65 people you’ve probably never heard of, but who helped shape the word as we know it. Muses and neighbors, friends and relatives, accomplices and benefactors—such as Michael and Joy Brown, who gifted Harper Lee a year’s worth of wages to help her write To Kill a Mockingbird. Or John Ordway, the colleague who walked with Lewis and Clark every step of the way. Each eye-opening story of these unsung heroes is written by a notable historian and illustrated by a top indie artist, making The Who, the What, and the When a treasure trove of word and image for history buffs, art lovers, and anyone who rejoices in unexpected discovery.”

Norwegian WoodNorwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)

Hmm. . .this is the first Murakami book I’ve put down disappointed. I knew going in that Norwegian Wood was going to be more straightforward than some of his other books, but I didn’t realize that would make me feel so unsatisfied with the ending. At this point, I’m not sure if the missing surrealism is the reason I didn’t love it or if I didn’t love the story in general. Either way. . . I guess I wasn’t disappointed really, just not as overwhelmed and electrified as Murakami usually leaves me.

From Amazon.com: “Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.”

BarkBark: Stories by Lorrie Moore (2014)

I’d give this books of short stories a 5/10. I enjoyed one of the stories a lot, a couple enough, and the rest were blah. This book has rave reviews, but I’ve always felt short stories are one of those things that are very personal. This just didn’t do it for me.

From Amazon.com: “Here are people beset, burdened, buoyed; protected by raising teenage children; dating after divorce; facing the serious illness of a longtime friend; setting forth on a romantic assignation abroad, having it interrupted mid-trip, and coming to understand the larger ramifications and the impossibility of the connection . . . stories that show people coping with large dislocation in their lives, with risking a new path to answer the desire to be in relation—to someone . . . Gimlet-eyed social observation, the public and private absurdities of American life, dramatic irony, and enduring half-cracked love wend their way through each of these narratives in a heartrending mash-up of the tragic and the laugh-out-loud—the hallmark of life in Lorrie-Moore-land.”