Voyager

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

Life post-Master’s degree

I graduated with my Master’s two-and-a-half weeks ago, but saying I have a Master’s degree sounds fake. I imagine it will for a while, especially since my future career prospects are still a giant question mark.

Since graduation, I’ve done a lot of applying for jobs, but I’m also basking in the very strange freedom of no impending responsibilities apart from maintaining my own existence. To celebrate graduation, my mom took us to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter which was both rewarding and exhausting. We’re happy to have had the experience and to hopefully never need to do it again.

Luckily, this freedom means I have lots of time for my Very Favorite Activities: reading all the books and watching all the TV/movies I can think about. So, to celebrate my first time away from school in 19 years, a mostly successful and rewarding first semester of teaching, and writing a 114-page thesis, here’s how I’ve been spending my hours of entertainment.

Books—I feel like my reading progress should be more substantial since finishing school, but I did finish Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager, an 870-page tome that I expect will be my longest read of 2016, so that makes up for the short reading list. I’ve also knocked out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s though-provoking and beautifully written Between the World and Me, which is essentially 150 pages of reminding white people to check their privilege. We all need more of that in our lives.

As a fairly transitional reading project, I also powered through K.C. Dyer’s Finding Fraser, a light read for fans of the Outlander series. It wasn’t anything terribly enlightening or profound, but it kept me feeling occupied and pleasant for a day or two. I’m also feeling mentally cleansed to delve back into heavier hitting literature, so I’m working through two projects right now: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s my first time with both of these authors, and I think my first attempt at anything Russian, so I’m hoping for rewarding experiences. Once these are done, I plan to resume my work through Arthur Miller’s collected works since I haven’t revisited those since January and Ernest Hemingway’s collected short stories. It’s such a pleasure to know I will never have a shortage of great things to read.

Movies—My movie-watching habits have been surprisingly lame these days, partially because the movies I have watched have been rewatches rather than anything new. I do intend to see Me Before You when it’s released this week, but there hasn’t been much in theaters to draw my attention—partially because the things I am interested in are only available in limited release. I recently built up my Amazon watchlist, so I’ll hopefully start making a dent in some of those films soon.

TV—It’s probably fair to say that I haven’t watched many movies lately because I’ve been busy with TV. Though most shows I watch have stopped airing for the summer, Game of Thrones, Veep, Outlander, and Inside Amy Schumer all keep me busy enough, but I’m also doing plenty of other TV viewing. I finally got to the War & Peace miniseries adaptation that aired in January and February, and I really loved it (this is a big reason why I decided to tackle Chekov). The more I see of Lily James, the more convinced I become that she’s actually made of sunshine.

I also finished the two seasons of Starz’s cult hit Party Down yesterday, though my journey through the show has been a bit strange. I watched the first 3 episodes on my Bluray player, and when I picked up on my iPad, unknowingly began with episode 4 of season 2. I got all the way through the end of season two and backtracked to the 3 episodes of season 2 I hadn’t seen before I realized the problem. I’d been wondering if I’d been paying bad attention (Where did Jane Lynch go? When did Megan Mullally get here? When did Adam Scott start dating Kristen Bell?) or if they just didn’t explain everything very overtly, so I was glad to realize it was my organizational mistake that created the confusion rather than bad viewing habits. I may have to watch it again from start to finish sometime to make up for my stupidity.

I’ve also watched half of Amazon’s Doctor Thorne, which is charming and lovely. I expect to finish it today. And I’ve started season two of Netflix’s Bloodline, but that’s a show that’s too depressing to really binge, so I expect we’ll take some time with it. I’m also expecting that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Grantchester will be the next two projects on my list. Nothing like a period piece to momentarily take you out of a humid Kentucky summer.

What are you reading and watching these days? I’m always looking for suggestions!

2016 Reading List #24:Voyager, by Diana Gabaldon

As of this evening, I’ve had a Master’s degree for two weeks now. Life has been weird (look for a follow-up post soon about other things that are happening in my life). The best of the upsides of this freedom? The time I can spend reading without any feelings of guilt. Ahhhh.

First on my reading to do list was finishing Voyager, the third installment in the Outlander series, after starting it in late March. Diana Gabaldon knows how to write a lengthy book, so though I had been making steady progress, I still had more than 300 pages to go when I took this on my quick jaunt to Orlando after graduation.

Thankfully, lengthy time spent on airplanes and in airports provides the perfect opportunity for some reading catch up, and I was happy to make a significant dent in my reading during my travels. That dent was big enough that I really couldn’t put the book down after I returned home.

Voyager covers lots of time and space in the Outlander world–we begin in 1968 where Dragonfly in Amber begins and ends, but eventually travel back through time to Scotland, followed by a journey to the West Indies, and ending in America. We’re also introduced to several new characters and revisit some surprising and familiar faces.

Though the beginning of the novel feels a million miles away since I started 2 months ago, one of my favorite aspects of Voyager was the development of Brianna, Claire and Jamie’s daughter. I was very thrown by the 20 year time jump in Dragonfly in Amber, but the more time I spent reading Voyager, the more satisfied I became with Gabaldon’s decision to mix up her narrative.

Finishing Voyager definitely left me itching to continue with the series, but I’m putting myself on hold so I can make more progress with other things I’ve been neglecting. Thankfully, the TV adaptation is only halfway through a great second season, so my Scottish-loving heart is still satiated.

My life lately

It feels like years since I’ve updated, but part of that comes from the timing of the semester. Three weeks ago today, I defended my master’s thesis project (and passed!), though it somehow feels like that was really decades ago. Apart from some final copy editing, my thesis is DONE! I’m both thrilled and a little sad to say goodbye to this project. I have a strong sense I’ll return to it in the future (dare I say dissertation?), but I’m quite content to both physically and metaphorically put it on the shelf for now.

Since preparing for my defense and rigorously studying for my oral exam are no longer activities that occupy my days and nights, my time has felt suspiciously free. As a present to myself for my defense, I ordered Voyager, the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series, which was really the perfect treat to come home to. Reading for fun without feeling any guilt is one of the most wonderful feelings.

I’m also entering the final weeks of my first semester of teaching, though that seems ridiculous. Somehow I feel like the semester has just started, when in fact we’re three weeks from its conclusion. I will certainly be sad to see my first crop of students go (though I can’t say every moment of teaching and prepping are all that joyous).

So, to atone for being M.I.A. for a month, here’s my update of the pop culture I’m consuming these days. No one ever said being a teacher meant you couldn’t still enjoy copious amounts of television (and I think I’ve proven that).

Books — As mentioned above, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Voyager–though, at 870 pages, it isn’t what you’d call a quick read. I’m only now closing in on the halfway point in the book, but knowing that there are still several other books in the series to dive into means I’m hungry to keep going.

Before starting Voyager, I’d been reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, though starting a new book meant I sort of abandoned this one until finishing it last weekend. This was the third Steinbeck I’ve read (after Of Mice and Men in 2014 and The Grapes of Wrath in 2015) and very tonally different from the others–Cannery Row is a very place-oriented, descriptive novel, not a plotty one. It wasn’t my favorite, but it’s a book I see myself returning to later in life.

I’ve generally felt like I’ve been slacking on my 2016 reading list, though I’ve still read 22 books thus far this year. Depending on my pace with Voyager, I may work through another Arthur Miller play or something of that sort to speed up a bit and feel like I’m making better progress. I’ve also got Hamilton: The Revolution (also known as the Hamiltome) waiting on me at home. Though I’m regretting the decision to have it shipped there since I won’t see it until next weekend, the distance means I’m not diving straight into another book, so that’s probably a good thing.

Movies — My movie-watching pace has also slowed considerably (though I’ve currently seen 41 new-to-me movies this year, so I really shouldn’t be complaining). I’ve not seen anything very noteworthy either, though I did watch The Danish Girl last weekend. I liked it, but it makes sense to me that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. I’ll likely be spending a quiet weekend in, so this might be a good time to knock a few things off my Netflix and Amazon viewing lists.

Television — It would be fair to say that my movie-watching has been hindered by my TV-watching, because I’ve been doing more than my fair share. As far as current programming goes, I’ve been keeping up with Bob’s Burgers, The Last Man on Earth, Call the Midwife, Girls, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bates Motel, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Broad City, and Outlander (and, because I’m kind of an old woman, even Dancing with the Stars and Survivor). Since Girls, Broad City, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all come to an end this week, my schedule will be a bit freer (though they’ll be replaced next week by Game of Thrones and Veep, so I guess things aren’t changing that much).

As for all these shows… I think The People vs. O.J. Simpson was a really terrific season of TV all around. I smell a well-deserved Emmy in Sarah Paulson’s future (though my ideal situation would feature a tie between Paulson and Kirsten Dunst) and hopefully the same treatment for the stellar Sterling K. Brown. I think Bates Motel is the best it’s been since season 1, and I kind of love the romance between Norma and Alex. I don’t think this is Broad City‘s best season, but there have been a couple standout episodes, including last week’s wonderful Mrs. Doubtfire homage. And OUTLANDER! There’s only been one episode so far in season 2, but I’m enthralled. I’ve rewatched bits of season 1 and can’t seem to get enough of this show lately, so I’m quite happy for its return.

Apart from what’s currently airing, I’ve also done a significant amount of side watching, including lots of Game of Thrones prep. This week I watched the Starz ballet miniseries Flesh and Bone, which was only okay. Lots of pretty dancing, melodramatic storylines, and mediocre acting. And just today (because I’m kind of terrible) I watched all of season 2 of Amazon’s Catastrophe, which I find very charming. Having met these characters last summer in a quick-moving first season, I was glad to see that season 2 developed them further into funny and likeable people (not to say they weren’t that way already). I’ve also watched the pilot episode of the new Starz series The Girlfriend Experience, which I think I’ll stick to since it’s getting good reviews. I didn’t have any particularly strong reactions to the pilot, but I’ll stick it out. And tomorrow’s release of season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix means my weekend will be just a little brighter (in a fairly literal way, considering Kimmy’s costuming).

__________________________

In summary, I’ve been watching a lot of TV–though I swear I do other things too. What things are you reading and watching? I’m always up for additions to my ever-growing lists! 🙂