American literature

Favorite Books of 2016

I know there are many people in the world who rarely read, which is probably one of the most depressing things to know about our society. I feel no shame in the time I spend daily reading or thinking about reading or discussing reading with my roommate.

In 2016, I read 92 books and plays, which is a personal record (I was determined to out-do my 2014 total of 91, so congratulations from me to myself). Unlike past years, I set a few goals at the beginning of the year other than reading a total of 52 books, which included reading works by specific people. By Thanksgiving, I’d accomplished all of those goals, so I’m upping the ante for 2017 (see my new reading list in a day or two if you’re curious about how nerdy/obsessive I can be).

Below, in the order I read them, is a list of my favorite books I read in 2016, followed by some honorable mentions. This list contains books both new and old, some of which have even achieved favorite status. You can consult my full 2016 reading list here.

What books did you love in 2016? Maybe I’ll add them to my shelf.


Brooklyn, Colm Toíbín

Both as a book and a film, Brooklyn has taken deep root in my soul. I adore this coming-of-age story (they tend to be my favorites anyway, but this one is especially great). The novel, which tells the story of a young Irish immigrant Eilis who moves to New York City to start a new life in the 1950s, is just as profound and beautiful as its Oscar-nominated film adaptation. This is a perfect book to enjoy on a cozy winter afternoon.

Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

I grabbed this book at a used bookstore to help fill out my reading list for my master’s comprehensive exams in the spring and was fortunate enough to love it as a piece of literature. I quickly became obsessed with Edna St. Vincent Millay herself (this girl was crazy progressive and hip in the 1920s) and her poetry doesn’t make me feel like an idiot as most poetry does. She’s witty, hilarious, and heartbreaking in equal parts.

‘Night, Mother, Marsha Norman

It’s strange that I only read ‘Night, Mother earlier this year because the story feels deeply engrained in me already. My mom has loved this play for a long time, and I finally understood why when I read it myself this spring. Norman’s play is sparse and simple but still incredibly profound. It’s impossible as a reader not to share the characters’ anxiety as the story progresses in real time toward a potential suicide. I can’t wait to share this play with my students this spring.

Hamilton: The Revolution, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

This may come as a surprise to you, but I’m a fan of Hamilton (okay just kidding I haven’t listened to any other music in a year). Since annotating is one of my favorite pastimes, reading the annotated edition of the complete musical, accompanied by beautiful photographs and behind-the-scenes information, was a dream. Hamilton: The Revolution is a must-have for fans of the musical. Though it’s a little pricier than the Chernow biography upon which the show is based, it’s far less likely to sit untouched on your bookshelf.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

My only prior encounters with Cheryl Strayed came from seeing the film adaptation of Wild  and reading a few nonfiction essays in a writing workshop, but after my roommate loved this one and gave it to me as a graduation gift, I too fell in love. I intended to bring this as my reading material on a long drive to Nebraska over the summer, but I got so into it I breezed through the entire book before our departure. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s Dear Sugar letters, a column she wrote for The Rumpus. Strayed clearly answers each person with deep thought and tenderness, but she isn’t afraid to answer with honesty. Each entry makes you feel understood and valued. I have a feeling this book will be one I continue to share with friends and family.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

After solidifying my love for Amy Schumer in 2015, I of course had to read her memoir when it was released this summer. Schumer doesn’t disappoint in this book that is equally laugh-out-loud funny and sweetly sad. Though I read this book months ago, there are still stories here that I think of and laugh about often.

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

The Book of Other People is a collection of short stories written by several famous authors whose sole prompt was to create a character and write a story about them. As with many short story collections, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag, but the general feeling I had was a very pleasant one. When my roommate and I read this aloud together (now one of our favorite and cutest habits), we sometimes had difficulty stopping ourselves from reading indefinitely. Though many of the stories are great, see if you can get your hands on “Magda Mandela” by Hari Kunzru. It’s a quick read and you will not be disappointed.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

I haven’t even seen A Monster Calls yet but I’m already guessing this will be the #1 tearjerker of 2017. The book tells the story of a young English boy named Conor whose mother’s cancer is continually worsening. Conor is visited nightly by a tree monster, a clear manifestation of his frustration and grief as he watches his mother fade. This is a beautiful story about love and loss. Just maybe skip the eye makeup before reading.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

I’m very rarely a reader of mysteries, especially contemporary ones. However, once I saw the trailer for the upcoming HBO miniseries adaptation of this novel, I was too intrigued not to read it before the February air date. Who knew I’d be such a fan? The book rounds out at over 500 pages, but I couldn’t put it down in the 2 days I spent reading it. I think Moriarty does a great job of telling a dramatic story in a way that still feels authentic (something I’m a little worried about based on the footage from the miniseries). It was refreshing to see a story about women who come from various backgrounds, aren’t all about competition, and keep cattiness to a minimum. Though this was my first encounter with Moriarty, I’ve already purchased her latest book, Truly Madly Guilty, and look forward to enjoying it early next year.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

2016 was a year of Ann Patchett for me. I’d never read her previously, but my roommate and I read Bel Canto together in the fall and I became a fan. Though I generally try not to be too easily distracted by my book purchases, when I bought State of Wonder in October, I couldn’t resist starting it almost immediately. The story is clearly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness, but differs in that it follows a woman sent to retrieve her female boss from the depths of the Amazon where she’s developing a fertility drug. Though I was—and still am—frustrated by the book’s conclusion, it features beautiful writing and some great twists that make for a worthwhile read.

The Penguin Arthur Miller

In my 92 books read this year, this one feels like the biggest accomplishment. In fact, it’s one book that contains 18—this is the complete canon of Arthur Miller’s dramatic works. Miller and I go way back at this point, but before 2016, I’d only read 3 of his plays. This edition isn’t exactly an easy one to travel with—note its comparative size to my cat in the featured photo—but now it has a stately position on my bookshelf made all the more grand by the fact that I’ve read all the words in it. Miller is an undeniable master of American drama, and I loved spending so much time with him this year. If you remember, think of him on February 10—the date not only of his death, but also the anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Death of a Salesman.

Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling

My general relationship with Mindy Kaling over the past month has gone from casual fan to actively seeking friendship (so, Mindy, if you’re reading, let’s hang out!). When I bought this book in the airport a few weeks ago, I was just looking to be mildly entertained on my journey home, but many times I was made to laugh aloud. Then I watched the entirety of The Mindy Project in just a few days, and I became even more enamored. Though it would be wrong to call Why Not Me? a page-turner, it’s still the kind of book you have a hard time putting down.


Honorable Mentions: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, At Fault by Kate Chopin, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

Managing entertainment with a full-time job

Hello, long lost blogging world. Apologies for my absence (not that I assume anyone noticed).

Life has been odd lately, mostly because I’m a person who goes to work every day and teaches people and isn’t a student anymore. These are new things and they’re nice things, but they’re also still a little strange.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed in my life, though, is my constant pursuit to watch and read as much as I possibly can in a day. So, to catch you up on my latest reading and viewing ventures, here’s a quick recap of my life lately.

Books — A few weeks ago, I reached my 2016 goal of reading 52 books, so now, I’m free to enjoy my reading just a bit more. I still have three other reading goals to accomplish: read Arthur Miller’s collected plays, read something by Jane Austen, and read something by Charles Dickens. Thankfully, I’m 5 plays away (out of 18) from checking Miller off the list, and I’m about 1/3 of the way through Sense and Sensibility. Progress! Otherwise, my roommate and I have been enjoying more read-aloud projects (we’ve done a 700+ page collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto so far), and I’ve read both Amy Schumer’s and Jessi Klein’s comedy memoirs in recent weeks.

Movies — I’ve been in a bit of a movie slump lately, mostly because my attentions have been taken up by watching all kinds of TV. Recent viewing experiences have included The Light Between Oceans and Fruitvale Station, both of which were tear-inducing in very different ways. I’m also planning to watch Straight Outta Compton today. Otherwise, I’m doing my best to keep up with all the film festival coverage and anxiously awaiting the release of La La Land and Manchester by the Sea.

TV — This is the area where I’ve been shining my brightest lately. After finishing Felicity a week or two ago, I’ve wandered through lots of viewing. I finally finished rewatching Game of Thrones, including the most recent season, I rewatched most of Rome with my mom, I sped through Netflix’s The Get Down and Amazon’s One Mississippi, and my roommate and I have just started Stranger Things. My current solo TV project is Sex and the City, which I’m slightly embarrassed to say I started watching last Tuesday, and I’m already halfway through season 4. Turns out not having homework means I have a slight struggle making myself turn the TV off.

And in exciting TV news, the Emmy awards are tonight! Here’s hoping for lots of Game of Thrones victories and unexpected wins.

What are you watching and reading these days? I’m always open to suggestions. 🙂

2016 Reading List #56: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I’ve been a terrible blogger of late, but sometimes that’s what happens when you’re a grown up with full-time employment. My lack of posting has no reflection on my consumption of pop culture, though—I’ve been reading and watching things like a pro.

And speaking of reading… Bel Canto was the second shared reading project my roommate and I have embarked upon since the school year started. We decided to read it together over the summer, and it turned out to be a lovely shared experience.

Bel Canto takes place in an unnamed South American country, where a diverse group of people have gathered for a swanky birthday celebration at the home of the vice president, only to have the party overtaken by terrorists in search of the country’s president. Despite the set-up, Bel Canto is a book with minimal violence, and the story is much more about overcoming differences than fighting with enemies.

I had a few issues with bits of the content and characterization, but the story is largely a compassionate one that pulls you in and breaks your heart by the end. I’d definitely recommend it for a quiet/sweet/sad reading experience.

And just a quick, fun tidbit: apparently my roommate and I are influential tastemakers (though we’d always assumed this anyway) because two days after we began reading, the film adaptation of Bel Canto was announced, and it’s set to star Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, and Demián Bichir. With a cast that good, here’s hoping for a satisfying movie.

2016 Reading List #51: Bayou Folk, by Kate Chopin

Because Kate Chopin is just one of the coolest ladies in literature, I jumped right into Bayou Folk, one of her two published short stories collections, just after I finished At Fault a few weeks ago. Though I read two other books and started a third in the time I was reading Bayou Folk, that doesn’t reflect on my feelings about the work. Once again, Chopin is a joy to read.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy Bayou Folk quite as much as I have Chopin’s novels, but that’s probably true of most short story collections. I really loved some, others were fine. I was interested to realize though, that Chopin operates in a way that mirrors what Faulkner is famous for—carrying characters and locations through several different works to create an interconnected network for her writing. It’s fun to jump into a world of familiar names and places and see where the new story takes you.

And since finishing Bayou Folk, I only have one book left to complete my 2016 goal! Look for a post on completing my reading goal soon.

 

2016 Reading List #48: At Fault, by Kate Chopin

I think it’s time we all just take a moment to recognize the joy that is reading Kate Chopin’s works.

I think I’m a little late to the game with Chopin, especially as far as English students are concerned, but I love her. True, deep love.

In high school, I only encountered her short story “The Story of an Hour,” partially because I opted to read something else over The Awakening. I only read The Awakening a few years ago, but I think I had a much better appreciation for the novel with a bit more maturity than the other people who hated it when we were juniors in high school. High school students aren’t really prepared to like novels in which things don’t end happily, but my 21-year-old self could handle it.

In college (and grad school), I revisited “The Story of an Hour” more than once and became acquainted with “The Storm,” which is perhaps the steamiest way you can spend 10 minutes of reading.

I received the Chopin’s complete novels and stories for Christmas and hadn’t gone too deep into it until a few days ago when I was inspired to jump in with At Fault, the first of Chopin’s two novels, originally published in 1890.

To say Kate Chopin is a badass is probably one of the most objective assessments of her character. She was crazy smart, kept a sassy journal, survived the deaths of siblings, parents, and her husband, had six kids in eight years, dealt with the massive debt left to her after her husband’s untimely death, had hushed affairs with men while maintaining a living to provide for her family, and wrote some really great early feminist literature.

At Fault, Chopin’s first published work, wasn’t even written until after she had her kids and lost her husband, and since she died at the age of 54, that’s pretty impressive. When the novel was rejected, she paid for its publication herself.

Did I mention that I love her?

I think one of the craziest things about Chopin’s writing is how very approachable it is—both in terms of content and style—more than a century after original publication. Her stories are often romantic in nature and she’s incredibly bold in the way she addresses female sexuality. I can’t believe there hasn’t been greater effort to adapt her works into TV or film because her writing feels very contemporary.

The only aspect of this novel that really ages it is some of the language used to describe the black servants. Chopin spent plenty of her adult life on a plantation in Louisiana, so it’s not exactly surprising that the treatment of black characters wouldn’t be great, but her clear feminist stance might make you hope she’d write something a bit more tolerant. The best thing to note about her black characters is that they seem much more significant and involved than in many other pieces of Civil War-era writing, but there’s still something to be desired here.

Now that I’ve finished At Fault, I’ve decided to continue through this collection to Bayou Folk, a collection of Chopin’s short stories. I’ll likely be pairing a novel with this reading since balancing short stories and a novel is fairly easy and gets me reading more. Funny how easy self motivation comes when it’s about reading…

2016 Reading List #44: The Price, by Arthur Miller

Something I’m learning from having read nine of Arthur Miller’s plays this year: if you run into a play about two brothers with an unsettled familial past, you can pretty much bet who the author is.

The Price is another simple work by Miller, featuring only four characters and a single set. The action follows a middle-aged man who’s brought an appraiser to buy the remaining possessions of his parents, who lost their fortune during the Depression, before their home is demolished. When the protagonist’s long-absent older brother suddenly returns for the appraisal, unresolved conflicts quickly emerge.

The Price is likely a lesser-known of Miller’s works because it has many of his classic elements without being particularly groundbreaking. If you’re looking for this brother-to-brother dynamic, why go any further than the American classic that is Death of a Salesman? There’s nothing wrong with this play, it just lacks the emotional punch present in Miller’s most famous and beloved works.

Though I’ve been reading Miller’s plays in threes and this would mark the end of my latest trilogy, I’m going to knock one more out before moving on to something else because I’m curious about it. Stay tuned to see my reaction to The Creation of the World and Other Business.

2016 Reading List #32: A View From the Bridge, by Arthur Miller

I guess I’m unofficially reading Miller’s plays in threes.

I’m now 6 plays into his collected total of 18, and most of the “greatest hits” are those I’ve read thus far. A View From the Bridge is a play I’ve only known because the title is familiar, so I was glad to delve in.

Though it wasn’t intentional, I finished the play in 2 sittings, largely because I found the story quite compelling (and unsettling). A View From the Bridge is notably different from many of Miller’s other works because it features a narrator talking for the perspective of someone who knows the course of events in the story, so he warns readers of the turmoil to follow.

The play centers on a working class family in Brooklyn who harbor their Italian relatives as illegal immigrants. Eddie Carbone, the leading man, is very protective of his 18-year-old niece, Catherine, who starts to fall for one of the men staying with them. Miller’s ability to portray generational family tension is on full display here, particularly as questions of love and loyalty arise. The play’s sordid story kept me engaged from start to tragic finish.

Another bit of intrigue with this play is that the most recent adaptation just won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play at last weekend’s ceremony, and I’m very interested in the production. Luckily, the National Theatre’s broadcast of the play will be available sometime later this year, so I’ll do my best to see it.

Now that I’ve knocked out another 3 plays, I’m turning to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles to conquer another thing on my goals for the year. Happy reading!