2016: My Year in Books

I love reading and do it whenever I can, though it competes for my time with my other loves- music, movies, and TV. This year in particular, literature saw me and understood me through some weird times I haven’t been able to vocalize fully (and probably shouldn’t online!) so instead of my usual “odds, ends” end of the year post, I thought I would review my year through the books I read, giving only small glimpses of what they carried me through, and hopefully showing literature’s strength and ability to sustain us.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy:

Started the year reading this with Dorothy and while I sincerely enjoyed the book, it mostly meant a lot to share that experience with her since reading is usually a solitary activity for me. I don’t usually read as a way of escaping, but it became so pleasurable to escape into the older language, concerns (so many things go wrong with sheep all the time!?) and time period of this book. I’ve rarely come across something as beautiful as the end of this book; my heart started to pound and slow and it’s a testament to real love’s ability to wear us (and our false ideas of love) down.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen:

This wasn’t my favorite Franzen…for me, it did not even come close to anything else of his I’ve read. I count him among my favorite authors and The Corrections and Farther Away are among my favorite books so this was disappointing. That said, I appreciated the questions it raised of how to be good and/or pure in a world that increasingly makes it more complex to even know where to begin. Purity and goodness are words and concepts that are now extremely convoluted and this novel grappled with that bewilderment. I was impressed with his ability to write extensively from a female perspective, and especially impressed with some of the complex female relationships in the book that I’ve always thought only females could fully understand and thus articulate. The mother-daughter dynamic, the tricky female friendships fraught with jealousy and genuine love, and the erratic behavior and decision making in response to a terrifyingly nonsensical world; all are situations and relationships I resonated with.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler:

I gained so much (more) respect for Amy Poehler after reading this book. What mostly sticks with me from this book is her openness…not just the openness necessitated by her career and the openness to anything that may come her way, but her openness to having been wrong…to learning and taking responsibility for her actions when that very openness led to a naiveté which hurt others. She writes about some very intimate things, making us privy to mistakes and amends that take a lot of bravery to share. I was in a negative headspace and taking myself and other things too seriously and I picked out this book hoping it would help me out of that place…her desire to have a good time and be a decent human being was uplifting and made me think that maybe life should just be that “simple.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann:

What a warped ride this was…such a unique and taut tone, a too-tight smile beginning to slide. It was mentally exhausting at certain points because it was often unbearably philosophical and the overly detailed pettiness, tawdriness for 700+ pages often left me grinding my teeth…What amazed me about it was its’ darker presentation of inevitability, of fate…we are all part of some purpose-cogs in a machine, boys in an army, paramecium in some cosmic beast’s stomach…This book was the first to present to me the idea that we may be part of something bigger, but not necessarily better.

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe:

One of the most unrelentingly dark novels I’ve ever read. Honestly oppressive and agonizing to read and one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve ever met. The selfishness, self-destruction, self-pitying Bird represents all that is awful in humanity. Made me really think about what I would do faced with the same situation of having a brain-damaged baby on the way. A thoroughly uncomfortable, depraved, and fascinating experience. My only fear is that if someone can write about someone like this, someone like this may exist.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit:

Everyone should read this. Educational and empowering, I plan to reread often as a reminder of how much work needs to be done. Since reading this, I feel like I have become more conscious of the silencing, ignoring, and distorting of myself and other females I encounter. We don’t realize how much our minds have been conditioned by the patriarchy, this book is a good way to realize more of it. Also, one of the most memorable sentences for me came from this book- on Virginia Woolf’s writing…”a compass by which to get lost.”

The Man who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman:

One of the most inspiring people and stories I’ve ever encountered! Nicole and I swapped books- she gave me this and I gave her the Solnit above and I don’t think it’s a book I would have ever read had she not introduced it to me. I’m not very good at math and I have a tendency to feel stupid when I’ve tried to read things with a math slant, but the inclusiveness I felt and the enthusiasm with which I breezed through this book is exactly what those who knew and worked with Erdös probably felt. This gentle genius traveled the world to work on math papers with different mathematicians creating a community which defies many of the ideas we have of geniuses having to be lonely or outcast. He didn’t have a home, had only his love of math and a suitcase, depending on the kindnesses and curiosities of other math-lovers. I was left incredibly inspired by the warmth he had and gave, for his ability to bring people together in what could be a lonely or competitive field. This made me feel closer to my fellow musicians and to realize even more the importance of supporting and invigorating them if I can. I wish I felt as passionately for anything as he felt for math and reading about his dedication inspired me to try.

1Q84 by Harris Murakami:

I read this at a really confusing time of my year. Aomame and Tengo, the main characters in 1Q84 are drawn into a parallel world which is only subtly different from the one we are all in. I felt like the same thing was happening to me. Suddenly, people and structures I knew were askew, irrevocably different and I thought I was going crazy. This book is on the longer side…1000+ pages or so, but for me, it almost wasn’t long enough. This book became the only safe place for me- Murakami’s language the only familiar graspable thing in a place where my own world seemed too different from the one I had known a month earlier. The heft of the book, the solidity of being able to return to one story whenever I needed, these things kept me sane. One of my favorite books is Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicles…in it, the main character often descends into a well…I’ve begun to feel that way whenever I read him. Here is an impenetrable place where you can be, where you can confront and experience things on your own terms. A memorable sentence in this book which has alternately made me despair and exult- blood would not lose its way.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:

I read this book based on ancient Toltec wisdom on a 3-hour flight to Wyoming an emerged there feeling like a different person. The four “agreements” are simple enough, but often, the simple things are the most powerful, especially when presented so clearly. Just thinking about it makes me realize how much I need to re-read it and how I haven’t been mindful of the agreements for months. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially since it’s maybe more spiritual/self-help but during that difficult time in my life, it gave me peace and liberated me from a lot of fear and expectation.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante:

One of the most vivid writers and books I’ve read in recent memory. I’m not sure I should have read it when I did…the desperation, grief, and rage of the protagonist was too close to me. I literally trembled with emotion reading most of this book. It understood me and recognized my feelings in a way I rarely experience with literature…this feeling of recognition is a large part of why I read anything. The visceral quality of her writing flies off the page like a strong stench. I’m not sure if it’s the best or worst thing I could have read at the time, but I know it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard:

Speaking of best things I’ve ever read. This book was wild and lonely, a moving meditation on nature, humanity, and solitude. I read this in the mountains of Wyoming, steeping in the nature around me through her unique vision. I learned so much about nature, its’ beauty and terrors. So many unforgettable moments of turbulence and melancholy, written in such precise language, this book creeps up in your soul and explodes like kudzu, catching in your throat.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I hoped, though I think almost anything would be disappointing after the Dillard. The writing was startlingly modern and familiar compared to the Dillard; something I usually enjoy, but not so much this time. While the subject matter and journey of the book were intimate, I felt distanced from the speaker and unable to fully experience and empathize with her most of the time. When I did feel fully let in, it was an incredible rush, and part of me wondered if the distancing and subsequent revelatory closeness were some kind of purposeful reenactment of her experience training her hawk. I chose this because I really wanted more female memoir/nature after Dillard and I was intrigued by the story of a girl who deals with the grief of losing her father by training a goshawk. (Also, I’ve never encountered the genre “memoir/falconry” and found it the combination fascinating.) I admired her patience with her companion and learned more than I ever imagined I would know about hawks and the author T.H. White. Overall, an interesting reflection on how grief manifests and how we seek to tame our grief, in this case literally the thing with feathers, and understand death and our relationship with it.

The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki:

I’ve always been fascinated with Ozeki who is an author as well as a Zen Buddhist priest. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel “A Tale for The Time Being” and when I saw this (very slim) memoir, I had to pick it up. I learned so much about different zen rituals in this book which proved to be a great jumping off point for more research in these traditional ceremonies and I felt a kinship to her in her search for relating to both American and Asian parts of herself. The book is full of mini-meditations on her life, culture, and family which she has while conducting an experiment (both Asian and American) inspired by the Zen koan- what does your face look like before your parents are born? (before you know any duality) and the art history/architecture professor Jennifer Roberts’ assignment for her Harvard students of looking at a single work of art for 3 hours. This changed my relationship to my face for awhile after reading, as well as my relationship with my instrument, which I talk about in the video blog of my last post.

The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins:

I tend to try and read books before movies come out because I’m really fascinated with the concept of adaptation. Most of the time though, I end up forgetting to see the movie, which is exactly what happened this time as well. This was a fun, well-paced and fast read that definitely made me more paranoid about males in my life. Reminded me of the importance of trying to see situations and people clearly without any expectations or past ideas about them. In the book, that isn’t only toxic, it’s lethal.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein:

One of the best memoirs I’ve read. I was so struck by how Brownstein writes about herself, past and present. With so much understanding, truth, and not seeking attention, love, or any specific emotion from the reader, just telling how things were and are. Never self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, or self-victimizing, which I imagine, are very difficult things to avoid when writing a memoir if you’ve been a person. She knows herself and doesn’t seek to represent/misrepresent herself and she has the utmost respect for truth, her own and the truths of those she knew or mentioned. I was so inspired by this book I wanted to tattoo whole sections and words onto my body (because yes, the writing as well as the life was incredible) so I wouldn’t forget them. She has a beautiful rib cage tattoo that says “dig me out” and the circumstances of those words meant so much to me in relation to many of the situations in this last semester when I felt helplessly trapped. She gave me the courage to dig myself out of unhappiness. I finished the book ugly crying into a pillow euphoric from having been on such a rewarding journey.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin:

More like a manual for living authentically. So incredibly and simply rendered, this book of short stories really made me realize the artificiality of my daily life. The frailty and helplessness with which we face all things- our deaths, our addictions, the deaths and addictions of those we love is shown with so much love, we can empathize with characters we wouldn’t be able to empathize with in another hand. She writes the most complex situations in a way that our response can only be love or understanding- never manipulating our emotions, but transforming us into empathetic beings. I never knew how privileged I was…never fully understood (and still don’t) the things I have which are ordinary to me, which would be luxuries to others…like the ability to converse in this language, to even read and search for a job if I needed. This book made me want to go be someone comfortable without the comforts I think I need because I learned how much I don’t need the way others need. This book is written by someone who is an “outsider” and encounters so many people who are impoverished, criminal, on the fringe of what society would be comfortable with. I connected with this voice so strongly, and it made me realize how much I feel like an “other” in most places in my life. I wept for the people in these stories, and yet I also envied them their living. These experiences in fiction felt at many times more potent, and closer to the meaning of life than my real life.

One thought on “2016: My Year in Books

  1. Very nice, Ling Ling…I’m sure writing these on each book makes you take a step back and assess if the book is what it purported to be, how well it did it and generally allows you to clearly and concisely define to yourself what you just read – and then you can officially “close the book”.

    And just as important is your generosity to share your private thoughts with everyone. It not only gives an overview of each book, it gives insight into you, how you think, what you are like, and what you look for and take away from reading a selected book. That in itself is worth the price of admission!
    As we used to say…Keep on keepin’ on!

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