Ireland

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

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2016 Reading List #1: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

It’s really great to start my 2016 reading off with such an enjoyable novel. I fell in love with the movie adaptation of Brooklyn a few weeks ago and knew I needed to get my hands on the source text. It did not disappoint.

Apparently I’m in a bit of an Irish literary period, because my last read of 2015 was Martin McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan. So basically all I want is to go to Ireland (preferably if it can be the 1950s) and enjoy life.

Brooklyn tells the coming-of-age story of Eilis (pronounced “ay-lish”) Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small Irish town for a job in Brooklyn. Eilis is a kind and mature young woman who can’t quite decide between being homesick and loyal to her Irish roots and beginning a new life in America.

This book is charming in every way, just like the film adaptation shows. It’s a story of romance, love, loss, and courage, but more than anything, it’s the story of a young woman finding her own way in life.

After devouring this novel, I’m interested in reading more of Colm Toíbín’s writing, especially his 2014 novel, Nora Webster, which seems to have character overlap with Brooklyn. 

Brooklyn was a perfect opener to great reading in 2016, and a lovely novel for a quiet winter weekend at home.

Favorite Movies of 2015

And for my final “best of” list this year, here are my favorite films that I saw in 2015. While 6 of these are films that were released in the last year, some of the others are much older, but also things I’d never seen before.

And, because I watched 130 new (to me) films in 2015, I’ve also included several films as honorable mentions at the bottom. So here are my recent favorites. What are yours?

Brooklyn (2015)

BrooklynThere were three films I’d been itching to see since reading lots of good things after the 2015 Sundance Film Festival: Brooklyn, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Me and Earl and the Dying GirlBrooklyn is the one I saw most recently, but it’s quickly become one of my very favorite of the year, probably even close to first place. I’m a sucker for a British period piece in the winter, so the beautiful 1950s of Ireland and New York present in this film were a lovely little gift. Saoirse Ronan is a perfect leading lady trying to adjust to an entirely new life in a different country and finds herself in a perfectly complicated love triangle. This is a movie I can’t wait to own so I can watch it again and again.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Diary of a Teenage Girl is an interesting case because it ended up on my “best of 2015” lists for both the book and the film adaptation. The film is what brought me to the book, largely because Bel Powley is such a compelling leading lady. She perfectly captures Minnie’s 15-year-old voice and her self-obsessed tendencies. Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, and Christopher Meloni round out the cast with great (and troubling) performances. This is an honest and endearing representation of teenage girlhood.

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex MachinaIt seems funny that my relationship with Ex Machina only began in May of this year because I feel like it’s become a part of me. Ex Machina plays a big role in my master’s thesis project, so I’ve done lots of research and writing about it in recent months. To me, this movie is the most compelling of the year–a sci-fi thriller with a twisty plot and some of the most complex gender roles I’ve seen recently. Alicia Vikander gives a breakout performance as Ava, a robot created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who may or may not have human feelings. This is one that will leave you thinking long after the movie ends.

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Far From the Madding CrowdLike I said about Brooklyn, a good period piece in December is like candy for me, so Far From the Madding Crowd was an especially sweet treat. Carey Mulligan is perfect in the leading role and she’s got a line of suitors that make you hope she’ll find love eventually (until she picks the wrong person first and it’s annoying). Though the story takes place in the 1870s, the gender roles are surprisingly progressive, asking audiences to consider why a woman needs a husband to be happy (answer: she doesn’t, unless she finds the right man). This is another I could watch again and again.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Kramer vs. KramerKramer vs. Kramer was a film my mom and I watched during our unofficial summer film series to clean out our VHS collection. This is a truly devastating film about the fallout of divorce. And with lead actors like Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, you can’t really go wrong. Kramer vs. Kramer is the oldest film on my “best of” list this year (excluding the honorable mentions), but it’s message and characters are still poignant more than thirty years after it’s release.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp FictionPulp Fiction was one of the movies I was always embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen, but my roommate was in the same situation until we decided to go for it this past spring. It certainly isn’t a short movie (but when Quentin Tarantino directs, you can expect that), but the narrative is split into several smaller sections and follows a large ensemble of characters that keep things moving. We were both pleased with how much fun watching Pulp Fiction was. I’ve been in so many film classes with guys who worship Tarantino that I’ve become a bit jaded toward his work, but this is one that lives up to the reputation.

National Theatre Live’s Hamlet (2015)

HamletOkay, so this one’s a bit of a stretch as far as films are concerned, but I couldn’t leave it off the list. I LOVE that the National Theatre makes some of its productions available to audiences worldwide, especially with a production like this one, which was apparently the fastest-selling event in London theater history (I still can’t wrap my mind around how crazy that is). Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciaran Hinds give (obviously) stellar performances as the biggest names in the production, but the entire ensemble is equally wonderful. This incarnation of Shakespeare’s play doesn’t really fit into any specific time period as all the characters are costumed very differently, but it’s all believable and interesting to take in. What I would’ve given to have been a live member of that audience…

Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's ListLike Pulp Fiction, it was a bit embarrassing to be a pop culture-loving person who’d never seen Schindler’s List, but I finally remedied that problem last week. The film lives up to its praise–it’s crushing, tragic, beautiful, and horrible all at once. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes give stellar performances (though it does make me wonder a bit more what it might be like to see Ralph Fiennes play a good guy. Just once!). There are lots of important Holocaust narratives in the world of pop culture, but it’s undeniable that Schindler’s List belongs in the canon of essential viewing to understand the terror of this period in history.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of EverythingThe Theory of Everything was the kind of movie that I bawled my way through, nearly from start to finish. Eddie Redmayne completely deserved his Oscar for his performance as Stephen Hawking. This is yet another British period piece that’s made it onto my list, but this one packs an emotional punch the others don’t really have (though I also, inexplicably, cried an inordinate amount during Brooklyn). The relationship between Stephen and his first wife, Jane, in this film is tender, compelling, and ultimately bittersweet, but it’s fascinating to see how two people could persevere through such difficult circumstances and still remain close.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About KevinAnd now, a very different kind of movie. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror story that begs the question, “why the hell would you want to have kids?” This is pretty much a worst case scenario, but it’s still really freaking scary to think about. I’d long-been interested in watching this movie, but was a little concerned by the first 20 or so minutes of it; there’s very little dialogue and what feels like unnecessarily long takes of grating sounds and imagery, but this all works to set the film’s uncomfortable mood. We Need to Talk About Kevin makes clear allusions to Rosemary’s Baby–it’s like an modernized story of how that baby would grow up to be a terrible human being. Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller both give great performances is this deliciously unsettling film that will leave you feeling all kinds of disturbed.

And, as promised, here are my honorable mentions:

Cinderella, Election, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, In Bruges, The Imitation Game, It’s a Wonderful Life, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Monkey Kingdom, Mud, Nightcrawler, No Good Deed, Selma, The Shawshank Redemption, Trainwreck, Wetlands

What were your favorite movies you saw this year? Feel free to comment below!

 

 

Book #68: The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh

My first encounter with The Cripple of Inishmaan was in 2014, when I saw the play on Broadway starring Daniel Radcliffe. It doesn’t take much more than his name for me to become interested in something, so when my mom and I saw the production in May, we didn’t know much about what we were getting into.

Turns out, the play was more than a pleasant surprise–it was a delight, or at least a delight of the truly dark comedic kind.

The Cripple of Inishmaan takes place in 1934 on the Irish isle of Inishmaan and stars a quirky ensemble of characters in this small town. The lead character, Cripple Billy, is a seventeen-year-old orphan (aka the type of character Daniel Radcliffe knows well) being raised by two pseudo-aunts. Billy is the butt of most jokes on the island, especially from Helen, the girl he naturally has a crush on.

The biggest plot element in the play is that the characters have heard a Hollywood film is being made in neighboring Inishmore about a crippled boy, so Billy and a few others go to audition. We also learn early in the play that Billy has apparently been given a terminal diagnosis from his doctor, so to keep from upsetting his aunts, he hopes to travel to America to die.

The play is hilarious and terribly sad at the same time. If the British are famous for black comedy, this is a perfect example of what that means–snarky, rude, sweet, and depressing all at once. The Cripple of Inishmaan was the first of the books I received for Christmas that I’ve delved into, and it was a perfect (if not bleak) way to end 2015.