Read 50 Books
2021 Personal Goal
At the end of 2020 I transitioned out of public accounting, which meant that I anticipated having a lot more time on my hands. I brought over a number of physical books from the United States (mostly books which had been on my bookshelf for years but I never actually got around to reading) plus I had a growing book recommendation list of 150+ suggestions. To start chipping away at the growing list, I gave myself the New Year's resolution to read 50 books in 2021. This is my short review of each book that I consumed during 2021.
1) Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - 7 January - 529 pages
I tried to read this book when it was recommend to me in high school, but I couldn't get through the first chapter. Ten years later, I'm glad I returned to it even though I had my doubts for the first third of the book. If you go in thinking that it is a book about transsexuality, I think you will be disappointed since that story line is actually only a small portion of the full book. Also on transsexuality, I know this book was praised when it was first published in 2002 for humanizing a transgender person, but I don't think it would receive the same level of praise today since it hinges on the fact that this person was born trans due to generations of inbreeding.
That being said, it was an engrossing multi-generational story that kept me engaged for many hours a day. I had to constantly remind myself that this is a fictional novel since the narrator's account was so believable and relatable, despite his background being so different from my own. Overall- would recommend.
2) Dreyer's English - Benjamin Dreyer - 13 January - 278 pages
Dad gifted me this book, "an utterly correct guide to clarity and style," about two years ago when he was first stating to write his own book. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about delving into a grammar book, but I figured that since I was starting to work as a copy editor, it was probably a good time to pursue these pages.
To my great surprise and delight, this book was witty, charismatic, and entirely enjoyable. It's amazing what a few fun facts and snide commentary via footnote can do to liven up an otherwise drab topic. I was regularly laughing out loud and reading sections aloud to Cameron. Alongside the humor, the book also accomplished its educational objective; I dog-eared nearly 50 pages that I anticipate might be useful references in my personal copy editing and writing endeavors.
3) The Fact of a Body - Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich - 21 January - 309 pages
The cover of the book points out that this is both a memoir and the story of a murder. I typically love memoirs, and murder stories are on trend, but I didn't seek this book out for either of those reasons. I picked it up at a swap meet, largely because it was in English.
Although I think the author tries to hard to use interesting language (sometimes to the detriment of readability) the way she quilted together two stories (hers and that of child's murder) was quite crafty. I think she wrote this book as a cathartic exercise, but I like that she allows the reader to feel mixed emotions (hatred, sympathy, protectiveness) about murderers and pedofiles. She also had a pretty insightful perspective on American law and the contradictions that are inherent within it.
I left the book with some changed thoughts, and also some contradictory thoughts. I'm now contemplating my opinions about jury duty, the death penalty, and cemeteries. Given the dark subject matter, it's hard to say that this was an enjoyable book, but it was interesting and worth the read.
4) The Pawnbroker's Daughter: A Memoir - Maxine Kumin - 24 January - 176 pages
Sometimes when I can't find a book I want to read, I'll go into the King County Library's Kindle collection and search "memoir," which is how I came across this book. Not knowing the author, and given the title, I assumed it was going to be the eclectic musings about Maxine's father and growing up among the oddities and riffraff associated with pawnshops.
I was quite disappointed when the book quickly traveled outside the pawnshop, after just a brief mention in the first chapter, to lay out a fairly chronological account of Maxine's college years, courtship, and ultimately life renovating and caring for a New England farm. Although all of that was interesting, I wasn't able to fully enjoy it since I was still waiting for the key title word—Pawnbroker—to come back into play. I'm sure I also would have connected with it more if I was familiar with Maxine's poetry (which surely is profound given the recognition she had throughout her life), but alas I'm not.
5) Sorry You've Been Troubled - Peter Cheney - 28 January - 192 pages
The most interesting part of this book was the exterior. Pink was the only color added to the front and back covers, and truly the only embellishment to this piece of pulp fiction. The back of the paperback was a full-page add for a self-winding watch ("a boon tot he busy man"!) and on the interior cover was another message educating the reader that "there's a glass-and-half of fresh full-cream milk in every half-pound" of Cadbury's milk chocolate. In true pulp fiction fashion, there was virtually no empty spaces: margins were tight and there were no buffer white pages surrounding the text.
While the visuals provided a charming indicator to the book's era (1950) the chauvinistic undertones (or rather overtones) were somewhat cringey. Regularly drinking 8+ glasses of hard liquor during the workday also came up frequently, and with general admiration and praise. As far as the mystery goes, I was generally disappointed. It followed the standard trope of layout our a hard-to-follow path for a murder that I was not invested in and then ended with a multi-page monologue where the detective tells the murderer exactly how they pulled it off.
I always want to enjoy murder mysteries, but this one, like many others I've read before, was somewhat disappointing.
6) Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt - 4 February - 368 pages
Surely I'm the only one who hasn't read this book some point in their educational background. And I see why; I really enjoyed reading this. My copy of this book had an intro by Jeannette Walls (author of The Glass Castle) who noted that people either find this a very sad story or an amazingly hilarious tale. I'm happy that I'm in the second camp, which surely is a reason why I quite enjoyed the book.
For those who don't know, it's a memoir of a boy who was born in New York and then moves to his mother's hometown of Limerick, Ireland. The McCourt family is very poor. The father typically can't get a job, and when he does he squanders away the wages on alcohol. The mother constantly is pregnant. The younger siblings are either starving or dying. The family's kitchen is flooded with sewage half of the year. If you take a moment to truly think about the situation it's truly quite dire.
Amazingly, it wasn't a horror story about living in poverty, but rather a story of family love and loyalty. It was a story of perseverance and high spirits. At least for me, it was amazingly positive and it lifted my mood to read it.
7) Born This Way: Real Stories of Growing Up Gay - Paul Vitagliano - 10 February - 128 pages
This was another book that I got on my Kindle after searching King County's public library system for "memoirs." I was watching a lot of Ru Paul's Drag Race at the time so it seemed in my wheelhouse. It was a very quick read (probably only about one hour) because only every-other page is text. The offsetting pages are photos and timeline charts.
Essentially, the book is a compilation of short stories of gay people reminiscing about their childhood and providing a one-to-four paragraph memory. There were 100 people profiled, and honestly it felt like the same message was being repeated over-and-over. I'm sure there are people who need to read this book, but I'm definitely not the target audience and I was a bit bored with it.
8) The Polish Table - Magdalena Tomaszewska-Bolałek - 17 February - 122 pages
Someone had posted a PDF copy of this book on the Krakow Expats Facebook page, and as I am currently hyper-focused on Poland and cooking I decided to give it a read. This publication was commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, which I think is part of the reason why is had so many beautiful photos of food cooked in museum-owned ceramics and recommendations for interesting culinary museums, exhibits, and links.
While the book does have sections for the primary staples of a Polish table (both day-to-day and special occasions are addressed) alongside recipes showcasing each of those staples, what I enjoyed most was the history of Polish cuisine. The author gives an engaging overview of when certain ingredients and preparation styles were introduced into the country, how the Polish palate changed based on different occupational periods, and the folklore behind certain dishes. Ofter travelers will say that they learn about a country's culture through its food, but I haven't felt that way about Poland until reading this book. It helped me to understand the dietary depression that Poland only recently overcame and has me now rooting for the continuing diversification around the Polish table.
9) The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen - 24 February - 568 pages
I am not sure if I am smart enough for this book. 500+ pages of metaphors, jumping back-and-forth in time, experiencing five different points of view, and trying to separate reality from delusions is mentally exhausting, especially since there are very few clear pausing points within the pages. That being said, I loved it!
Any story that focuses on a dysfunctional family is almost always a win in my book, but this one was written so skillfully (even if I couldn't always fully appreciate it) and leads you to sympathize with (and also sometimes hate) each member of the five-person family. The book is so truthful, in that things fail or succeed in really realistic ways and in the way that we often feel conflicting emotions. Once I became invested in the characters and got into the rhythm of the book (which in truth was at least 300 pages in) I began to laugh out loud. The three-paragraph description of eating a liver dinner was so artistically done that I had to read it aloud to Cameron for him to experience the same mix of delight and disgust.
My only critique of this book is the title. In the final fifth of the book "correction" comes up as a concept, but I don't think the word means what it symbolizes within this novel. Yes, everyone in the story experiences changes, and arguably most of them are for the better, but to say that they have been "corrected" seems a little too final. That said, I'm sure Franzen's title was expertly chosen and I am too much of a simpleton to understand it.
10) The Baron in France - Anthony Morton - 2 March - 190 pages
The cover of this quick little mystery book claims to be "for sheer excitement." Thought that may be a little far fetched, I will say I was pleasantly surprised to be transported to England and then France in the search for some stollen jewels. The reality of one man's ability to solve super high-profile murders and thievery is a bit unrealistic (but that tends to be how it goes with most airplane paperbacks), so I enjoyed that in this case our hero didn't really figure it out; he just happened to be at the right place at the right time to hear a full confession to someone who uncovered the truth before him. That said, it still followed the unrealistic trope that the bad guy puts up his hands, sighs a big sigh, and gives a full confession. Nonetheless, if it came down to it I would enjoy another Baron Mystery.
11) Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - 9 March - 272 pages
I bought this book for Cameron within our first year of dating, after he missed out on a David Sedaris live reading in his hometown in order to go kayaking with his dad. It seemed an apt gift so that he could experience at least part of the fun that he originally missed out on. Unfortunately, I think he took the gesture as a slight, and has not read it, despite it now having been in his possession for eight years. I have read it, but he has not. To put an end to this nonsense, and to make me feel like I had given him a good gift, I decided to read the collection of autobiographical essays out loud to Cameron.
I find the whole Sedaris family to be quite humorous to read about, and there were more than a few times when my read-allowed was interrupted by chuckles and giggles, but there are also moments when David talks about his years of depression and habitual drug use that are a little too rough to feel like I am allowed to laugh. I thought that at least the essays about living in France as an American ex-pat would be comforting to Cameron, but even knowing there is universal annoyances about living in a foreign-language country doesn't make your own situation any different. Although I enjoyed being a story teller for a few days, I don't think Cameron got any enjoyment out of it, but at least we can now both say that the book served its purpose.
12) 1984 - George Orwell - 17 March - 312 pages
"What a slough!" I thought, as I read through the first 80 pages. It seemed so obvious to me exactly where the narrative was taking us and equally obvious that I was not going to enjoy this book. I was quite happy to be proven wrong. As soon as we moved away from the initial exposition and began on the love affair and secret hideouts I became much more interested.
That said, I do not believe that we are moving towards a society like the one presented in the book, nor do I think we every could at any sort of meaningful scale. I don't think that (most) humans have the ability to think simply, and reading Orwell trying to explain the simplification process of Ingsoc and Newspeak got to be quite maddening quite quickly. There were other elements that I found a little eye-rolley, and some that I'm still a bit confused by. It makes me wish I had the opportunity to read this as part of an English class or book group, since my quick internet search didn't provide any satisfactory answers.
13) Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer - America's Deadliest Serial Murderer - Ann Rule - 26 March - 704 pages
Surely, even if you are not from the Pacific North West, you can throughly enjoy this book, but my favorite parts were reading about the landscape surrounding the Seattle area in the 1980s and connecting it with my personal experiences in Washington. I especially loved seeing semi-obscure names in print, like Camp Waskowitz, where my friend works as an outdoor educator, and Mount Si, a monolith that I have summited multiple times.
Of course that is not the only reason to read this book. Ann Rule, if you don't already know, is the expert in writing true crime novels. She is especially well known for The Stranger Beside Me, her book about her personal relationship with Ted Bundy. This particular book was particularly thorough, which is no surprise given that she had been thinking it through for 20 years as she waited for the horror to come to a conclusion. It's clear that she wanted the victims to be the focus, so at least half of the book is dedicated to photos and short biographies of the dozens of women who were murdered.
14) Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens - 30 March - 379 pages
Although fiction, this book has intricate details about the biology and ecosystems of North Carolinian marshlands. It reminds me quite a bit of reading "Hoot" as a kid, and this story similarly builds from a child's perspective. It is quite a bit sadder and darker, though, given that this book largely jumps between the lonely life of an orphaned outcast and the murder of a town's hometown hero.
The simple writing style makes it easy to connect to, and I found myself chuckling and tearing up during different passages. Yes, that does mean that a few things come together a little too perfectly, but the protagonist undergoes so much hardship in her young life that I felt that the unrealistically good things that happen to her were necessary for balance. Like the millions of other people who've read this, I loved it; this was a re-read for me, and I will happily pick it up again for a third read.
15) The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin - 4 April - 194 pages
I tend to shy away from science fiction, but I've heard so many good things about Ursula K. Le Guin that I figured it was time to give her a try. Guin is a colorful writer and I admired her imagery and sentence structures. I also really enjoyed the premise of this book, the idea that someone's dreams affect reality.
As you might imagine with a concept like that, it's easy to imagine the world quickly getting out of hand, and it does. That was my biggest disappointment with the book; I simply felt like it went amok too quickly and was over too soon. I would have preferred a longer build up, even if just to become better acquainted with the characters. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading another Guin concoction.
16) I Might Regret This - Abbi Jacobson - 9 April - 212 pages
This is another memoir that I started reading before I knew anything about the author. I have never seen Broad City and I'm not on any other Abbi Jacobson bandwagons. I wish I was, because it would have gotten more out of it. It seemed like another celebrity memoir that doesn't have a lot of depth to it, but it does well because the author already has a fan base.
Jacobson goes on a 3-week road trip from New York to Hollywood and documents her thoughts along the way. Most of it was unrelatable to me, since I don't have much connection in the celebrity comedian lifestyle and I don't suffer from insomnia. I had some interest in the road trip part of it, but that was overall inconsequential, since I already have a good sense of what sort of snacks to pack and the proper placement of anything I might want within hands reach during the drive.
17) Dietland - Sarai Walker - 16 April - 338 pages
What a wild ride! I didn't know if this book was going to be about body positivity, about doing all that it takes to achieve a 'healthy' weight, or about something else entirely! In some moments I loved the book, other times I was rolling my eyes, but in the end it was pretty fun. I think this was Walker's first book, and her writing style was a little odd at times, which may have been intentional but I attributed it to being a novice novelist. In the same vein, the ending was a bit abrupt. There wasn't anything that I felt was left unresolved, but I also felt that the final wrap-up was a little too sudden.
All that said, it was a fun read, and I've added a few books from the author's recommended reading list to my personal want-to-read list.
18) Everything is Awful: And Other Observations - Matt Bellassai - 1 May - 257 pages
Bellassiai's writing style is similar to mine – long winded shaggy dog stories that peter out to lackluster punchlines. It was almost exhausting to read, because I was trying to keep up with the pace that I assumed Bellassiai speaks, which is presumably fast.
That said, it was on the more enjoyable side of quasi-celebrity essay collections. One, in particular, really had me laughing. If you want to read only the best, check out the "On Terrible First Jobs" chapter. The last chapter, "On Not Being the People's Choice", is also fairly entertaining. I probably wont seek out Matt Bellassai, but if one of his stand-up sets stated to be advertised on Netflix, there's a pretty good chance that I would add it to my queue.
19) Selected Poems - E.E. Cummings; Edited by Richard S. Kennedy - 6 May - 187 pages
who are you,little i
(five or six years old)
peering from some high
window;at the gold
of november sunset
(and feeling:that if day
has to become night
this is a beautiful way
That is my favorite E.E. Cummings poem, and it is also the opening poem of this collection. I don't think I've ever read such an expansive collection of poems from one poet before this, and although it felt tedious at times, Cummings is clever and innovative, and I left my book with nearly 30 dog ears in the corners marking poems that I particularly liked. The editor, Richard S. Kennedy, split the collection into twelve sections, and as a prologue to each he provided insightful background and explanation to help the reader understand what type of rabbit hole they were about to leap into.
At times, reading Cummings is like trying to decipher a particularly ambiguous modern art painting. As Kennedy puts it, Cummings puts us through "vivacious linguistic acrobatics", yet there are little moments that make so much sense. I anticipate that there will be a few lines that stick with me; the only ink that I added to my book was to underline "(because my tears/ are full of eyes)". I'm sure most of the meaning went over my head, and the more traditional language tended to stick with me best, but I definatley appreciate the artistry.
20) Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves - Frans De Waal - 14 May - 350 pages
Mama was a 50-something year old chimpanzee who kept her community civil during her many-decade reign as the group's top matriarch. During her life at the Royal Burgers' Zoo (in the Netherlands) she assisted with everything from inter-family adoptions to aggressive changes of leadership among the troop's top males. She also become close with De Waal, who studied her and her community for decades, and helped him to identify animal emotions and their similarities to the emotions we, as humans, experience.
De Waal recounts stories that show the obvious emotional intelligence of many animal species (dogs, elephants, rats, whales...) but he clearly favors primates. He dissects what differentiates feelings from emotions, and then goes into how key emotions, like happiness, grief, the will for power, and empathy are represented across the animal kingdom. At times, it got a little too sciencey for me to stay fully engaged with, but that was rare, and nonetheless I always appreciated the overall sentiment.
Did I learn anything from reading this book? Probably, but I didn't walk away from it feeling like me mind was blown. Did I gain a greater appreciation for animal emotions? Maybe, but I never have felt that humans are emotionally superior to animals. Although, perhaps I undervalued the emotional capacity that fish have. How about humans? Well, it turns out we really don't know much about anything when it comes to our own emotions!
21) Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood - 21 May - 462 pages
After reading this book the first time, I thought it was about the ups and downs of a childhood friendship. That might be because the first time it took me six months to finish the book (even though I love her, i tend to have a hard time quickly orienting myself in an Atwood novel), so I definitely missed all of the subtleties. Now, when asked, I will say it is about memories. I might even go as far as saying that it is the best representation of time folds in the space-time continuum that I know of.
Reading this book a second time, with only vague recollections of my first read-through rattling through my mind, felt like I was immersed in a strange memory wheel myself. I had foggy concerns that something bad happened at a certain place, but I didn't quite know what, similar to how Elaine, our painter protagonist, experiences look-backs into her childhood.
Of course I am not the first to say that Atwood is a genius. She parallels science, art, and religious imagery in a way that makes me recognize the beauty and power of each in ways I never have before. Cordelia is Elaine's foiled, but their relationship is still realistic and relatable in a way that only an expert could create. Every part of this book builds a full universe of look-backs and look-forwards, and I am sure I will read it again for another whirl through this world.
22) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - 30 May - 317 pages
I may be a terrible person, because I did not love this book. Maybe it was too hyped up in my mind(after all, it has been getting high praise for decades) or maybe I missed the nuances of Angelou's writing style, but I think I just went in expecting a very different style of book.
I knew this was an autobiography, but I still was expecting high-intensity story telling. There were plenty of interesting moments that Angelou describes, but I almost always wanted to know more of the details, especially of the struggles. It would be crazy to say that Angelou had a care-free childhood, but her optimism (or maybe just factual approach) made it hard for me to fully emotionally connect with this book. There were plenty of characters (mostly her family members) who I wanted to know more about, but I finished the book with only half-images in my mind.
Maybe I should be thankful that I can't relate, because it means my childhood was very different from hers. I didn't suffer from racism or abuse as a child, and I lived with my parents my whole upbringing. I don't associate with a caged bird, but I still would like to know why the caged bird sings.
23) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum - 4 June - 272 pages
Cameron has read most of the Oz series before, and he warned me that they get a little wild after the first few. He thought that Baum just decided to take every fan recommendation that was mailed to him and smashed them into an inconsistent hodgepodge. Well, Cameron was right.
My version of this book included a long introduction (actually, three introductions), plus research essay-style footnotes throughout the book. Baum, in fact, didn't plan on creating a 12-book Oz series, but anytime he ran out of money he would pump out a few more books. He praises his fan's (mostly children) ingenuity and openly admits to using many of their ideas. From the introductions, I also learned about Baum's other careers (including stage producer, window decorator, and poultry farmer) and his feud with the original illustrator. Although interesting, I felt like I was reading a college essay.
Then I got into the book. It's written very simply (it is a children's book after all) but with an Homer-esque epic style of description and repetition. If you've seen the MGM film, you know the bulk of the story, although the film had to leave out some ancillary characters, like the Hammer Heads and the people made of porcelain. Though many of the obstacles the Dorothy-lead gang are inconsequential, they are quite imaginative but still manage to often tie into the 19th century depression-era America that Baum was living in. Baum set out to write an American fairy tale, and gosh golly I think he did it.
24) The Emerald City of Oz - L. Frank Baum - 11 June - 304 pages
If you want a tour or Oz, this is the book for it. We meet a clan of bombastic utensils, a town of puzzle people, the Bun People of Bunbury and the Bunny People of Bunnybury. We also learn more about the evil peoples living outside of Oz who wish to do ill.
This is Baum's sixth Oz book, and it very much reads like a final farewell. All of the loose ends are wrapped up, so that all of our favorite characters may live happily ever after. Even Dorothy's aunt and uncle have settled down in Oz (although hearing Aunt Em complain about everything and suggest eating the talking chickens is a little overplayed in my opinion. She's not that much of a country bumpkin!) I also didn't love that Dorothy now was written to have an accent that didn't exist in the first book, but alas, consistency is not Baum's strong suit.
As with the first Oz book, the major conflict ends rather neatly and quickly. It felt like Baum decided last minute, "and now, there will be a magic object that we never knew existed before but is ideally placed exactly where it is needed to fix all of the problems." I can't be too judgmental; this is a children's book.
25) Glinda of Oz - L. Frank Baum - 17 June - 279 pages
This is the last Oz book that Baum wrote, and it was published after his death. There is a short forward from the publishers honoring Baum as the historian of Oz and notifying his readers that he has gone away. I think he knew this would be his last journey with his Oz friends, since he managed to round up all of the favorite characters from the series and bring them together for an adventure. Or, perhaps, that hodgepodge group always comes together to aid in every scenario that afflicts the land.
I know i didn't read all 12 books, but based on the three I did read I am quite impressed with Baum's creativity. While each of these books did have an element of journeying to meet new and interesting people, the main conflict was fairly varied. In this case. Princesses Ozma and Dorothy seek to mediate two conflicting peoples and find themselves trapped on a sunken island. It takes the combined skills of Glinda the Good, the Wizard of Oz, Ozma (who is a fairy princess), as well as some new magical beings, plus the cleverness of those in Glinda's entourage to raise the island above water level. Like any good children's book, it encourages its readers to be kind and brave and it ends happily. I think my adventures in Oz are ending now, too, but I can say they also ended happily.