Year in Review: Reading in 2017

Copy of Reading From Home(1)

I’m taking my cue from Adam at Roof Beam Reader this year, and presenting my 2017 review in the form of a big, bookish survey. It wasn’t the most prosperous year in terms of reading, but I wanted to revisit a few of the books I found and loved along the way.

The Big, Bookish, Year-End Survey

Number Of Books Completed: 45
Number of Re-Reads: 2
Fiction / Non-Fiction: 19 vs. 26
Library Books vs. Owned Books: 38 vs. 7

Best Book(s) You Read In 2017?

Fiction:
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Non-Fiction:
Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Traveling With Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

30753783Most surprising (in a good or bad way) book you read? I picked up Shannon Leone Fowler’s memoir, Traveling With Ghosts, based solely upon the cover. I never thought I’d actually finish it, but it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year. I also picked up an audiobook again this year, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and I’m loving it. I am not an audiobook fan, in general.

Favorite new author you discovered? Yaa Gyasi, Becky Chambers, and Lindy West were all pleasant surprises.

23399020Best book from a genre you don’t typically read? I am not generally a fan of science-fiction, but I really enjoyed Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The world-building and character development were both intricately designed. I  liked it so much that I followed it up with another sci-fi entry (and a YA one, at that), Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s Illuminae. 

Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year? That distinction might belong to Illuminae, actually — I raced through that one.

4957350Book you read in 2017 that you are most likely to re-read? I am a big fan of re-reading, but I didn’t do nearly enough of it this year. Of this year’s selections, I would love to read several again: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, and Jean Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

28256410Favorite cover of a book you read in 2017? As I mentioned, I picked up Traveling With Ghosts simply because of the cover, which has an iridescent outline that doesn’t show well in pictures. I also loved the covers of Nine Island by Jane Allison, and Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

Most memorable character of 2017? Willie Grimes from Benjamin Rachlin’s Ghost of the Innocent Man will certainly stick with me, and he happens to be a real live person. I’m also a big fan of Alfred Borden, one of the dueling magicians (the better one, obvs) in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, and Eleanor Oliphant is another character I won’t soon forget.

33296278Favorite passage from a book you read in 2017? “Hell is the absence of people you long for.” — found in Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (similar to another quote I love: “Desire, a venerable teacher had once told him, is this: To wait beneath the stars for someone to return, alive, from the field of battle.” From Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni.)

Did you complete any reading challenges that you had set for yourself this year? Nope! My original goal was to read 60 books in 2017 (I completed 45), and to read twenty of my own unread books ( I completed 7). Double failure. It’s almost impressive how bad I am at this.

Book(s) you are most anticipating in 2018? I’ve got a few on my listmostly backlist: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, to name a few.

One thing you hope to accomplish in your reading/blogging life in 2018? I need to pick up the pace with my reading, and find a more enjoyable way to blog about it or give up the gig altogether. I’m going to aim for sixty books again in 2018 and more if I can manage it, and I’ll try to make sure that half of them are my own. Aside from that, I’m up for anything.

What were your favorites of the year? Any plans for 2018?

 

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A Reading From Home Challenge & A Tour of the Unread

I mentioned earlier this month that I don’t plan to take on too many challenges next year. Aside from a year-long readalong of Les Miserables, I have only one other project on the horizon: an endeavor to read more of the books I have at home.

Reading From Home(1)

I attempt to do something like this every year, but I seem to keep moving further and further from the goal. In 2017, only 7 of the books I read were ones I owned (a measly, weasly 15%). I know that I’ll never be able to cut out library books entirely, but I think I can achieve a slightly better balance than that. Currently, I have 100 unread books at home, and some of them have been languishing for five years or more. It’s time for me to put up, or shut up.

In 2018, I’m going to attempt a 50-50 split — to read, in other words, one of my own books for every library book I read. I’m also going to cull books from my collection more often. I just donated fifteen books this week, books that I no longer have any interest in reading. I hope to do this more frequently; to make sure that my collection reflects my current reading habits and intentions, not the ones I had ten years ago. I’ll also be much more restrictive about purchasing new books. With clothing, I have a one-in, one-out policy because of limited space; I think that’s a good model for reading, too.

To put this more succinctly:

  • In 2018, I will try to achieve a balance by reading 50% library books, and 50% owned books. This means reading one of my own books for every library book I complete.
  • I will try a one-in, one-out policy: I won’t add another book to my collection until I’ve read one I already own.
  • I will cull books more frequently, donating books I am no longer interested in reading.

This will be a low-key challenge in terms of blog engagement, but if you want to follow along with my progress, I’ll be listing the books I complete right here!

a tour of the unread(1)

Just for fun, I thought I’d highlight a few of the unread books in my collection. Most of them have been sitting around for 3-5 years, a few even longer than that. Without further ado, my TBR.

The Five Books I’ve Owned the Longest:

Oldest

Five Books of Non-Fiction:

NonFic

Five Books I’m Most Excited To Read:

Excited

The Five Newest Books On My Shelves:

Newest

This is just a sampling, twenty of the nearly 100 books I own, but I think it’s a good indication of the collection. A lot of non-fiction, a bit of literary fiction, and a few classics mixed in. I’ll definitely be tackling Les Miserables as part of my readalong, and H is for Hawk has been on my nightstand for a month. As for the rest, we’ll just have to see.

Reading Plans in 2018: A Year-Long Readalong

In general, I don’t like to begin the new year with a whole bunch of reading plans. I am usually able to focus my energy on one or two projects at a time, and not much more. To that end, I’ve chosen to participate in only one reading challenge in 2018: a year-long, chapter-a-day readalong of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Les Miserables

The Les Miserables Readalong is the brain-child of Nick at One Catholic Life. He noticed, while reading David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables, that there are exactly 365 chapters in the famous book — one for each day of the year. He decided to read the book in just this way; to build a daily routine that included time spent reading the book, savoring each chapter slowly, and intentionally stretching the experience over a full calendar year. He explains his reasoning much more eloquently below:

“Imagine getting up early each morning and as part of your daily routine opening up one of the truly great books of the world and spending a little time with unforgettable characters like Jean Valjean, the Bishop of Digne, Fantine, Javert, and little Gavroche. Or imagine settling in each evening before going to sleep, losing yourself in the world of 19th century France: galley slaves, the sewers of Paris, the battle of Waterloo, the barricades. And finally, imagine waking up on December 31, 2018, knowing that you are about to finish the last chapter of one of the longest and most profound books ever written. This is the extraordinary adventure of the Les Misérables Read-along.”

I was drawn to this challenge for a couple of reasons: firstly, because Les Mis is a book I’d like to read but can’t quite stomach the size of, and secondly, because the idea of spending an entire year absorbing a book sounds immensely appealing right now. It forces me, firstly, to address my daily routine with more intention. It also falls right into line with efforts I’ve been making to read (and live) more mindfully.

Part of the challenge, for me, will be carving out a regular space in my daily routine. Another challenge will be keeping the pace: neither falling behind nor moving ahead, but savoring the story one chapter at a time. I’m actually excited to read with this much intention — it’s not something I do much of anymore.

This challenge will run from January 1 — December 31, 2018. If you’re interested in joining, you can download Nick’s daily schedule here!

Nonfiction November: Added To My TBR

Nonfiction November

Nonfiction November is coming to a close. Though I didn’t get as much blogging done as I’d hoped to, I was able to complete four nonfiction books this month, which is as many books as I read during all of September and October combined. I only hope I can keep the momentum going.

This week’s prompt, hosted by The Emerald City Book Review, asks bloggers to highlight new nonfiction books on their TBR. For me, that’s quite a list. Some of these choices were inspired by bloggers participating in this month’s event, but others I found while scouring for books to read. I’m including just a fraction of them here (my TBR list, at this moment, tops 270 books. I’m afraid to dig too deep.)

Nonfiction On My To-Read List

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Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (2017). I didn’t have a chance to read this during Nonfiction November, but it’s still at the top of my list. I’m just waiting for my hold to come in at the library.

The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (2018). This book was recommended by Angela at Musings of a Literary Wanderer, and it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I’ll be first in line for this when it comes out in January.

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain by Lucy Jones  (2016). I saw this recommended on multiple blogs and at least one Booktube channel, and honestly the cover is what drew me in. Foxes are one of my favorite animals, and this sounds like a thorough and respectful study. I’m reading a similar book on animals and nature now — Craig Childs’s The Animal Dialogues — and really enjoying it.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon (2015). Another book that has been on my radar for a while, but has been cast aside due to its (considerable) size. Now that this is available in paperback, I might be able to handle it.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (2017). This book might as well have been designed for English-majors-turned-public-librarians. I’ve seen enough rave reviews to put this on my list.


Thanks again to the bloggers behind The Emerald City Book Review, Doing Dewey, JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves and Sophisticated Dorkiness for hosting such a wonderful event. Nonfiction November has helped to kick me out of my reading rut, and I enjoyed each of the four books I read this month: All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Ghost of the Innocent Man by Benjamin Rachlin, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, and The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs. I’m so grateful I had an opportunity to participate, and I can’t wait until next year!

Nonfiction November: Recent Reads & Recommendations

Nonfiction November

November, for many readers and bloggers, is all about the nonfiction. In honor of this week’s prompt hosted by Doing Dewey, I thought I’d share a few of my recent reads in that department. I’m a big fan of nonfiction and probably read more of it than I do fiction, now, gravitating toward memoirs, biographies, and books about natural science, history and psychology. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed recently:

Recent Reads

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Traveling With Ghosts: A Memoir by Shannon Leone Fowler (2017). One of the best memoirs I’ve read recently. Traveling traces Fowler’s decision to take a long, meandering trip through Europe after her traveling companion — and fiance, Sean — is killed by a box jellyfish in the waters of Thailand. His sudden death, in the midst of one of their many trips, leaves Fowler staggering. Her decision to travel again is mapped in this memoir, along with her grief. In her travels, Fowler explores territories that have also experienced loss — war-torn Sarajevo, embattled Tel-Aviv, and many places in between.  As both a travel memoir and as a testament to Sean’s life, this book works beautifully.

1The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (2016). This is a book I knew almost nothing about, but wound up enjoying very much. In it, Olivia Laing tries to get at the root of loneliness — what causes people to feel so disconnected from others, how they overcome the feeling (or not, in some instances), and the shame associated with admitting to it. Laing explores the topic through the lens of art, and particularly the 20th-century art scene in New York City, where Laing finds herself living as a single transplant. The book is a hodgepodge in the best sense of the word: part social history and part memoir, with just the right amount of careful analysis to engage the reader.

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Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (2015). Probably my favorite non-fiction read of the past twelve months, despite the difficult content. In Nagasaki, Southard does for the bombed city of Nagasaki what John Hersey did for Hiroshima: recreates the devastation that affected — and continues to affect — hundreds of thousands of lives. Southard spent years interviewing survivors of the atomic bomb, and focuses on the stories of five people in particular who survived the bombing as teenagers. Their movements are captured not only in the days and weeks following the event, but in the years and decades that have since passed. This is a beautiful, haunting book that explores an uncomfortable, but important, episode in history.

3

All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister (2016). I can’t remember what led me to pick up this title, but I really don’t want to overthink it: I am definitely a member of Traister’s target audience. All The Single Ladies explores the emergence of a new economic, cultural, and political force in the United States: the unmarried woman. Though the book was a bit repetitive in places, it highlights the various obstacles still barring women from complete independence while tracing the progress that has been made. Over a period of five years, Traister interviewed hundreds of single women from all walks of life, and includes their stories here.

4

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (2017). A well-researched, fast-paced book that reads like an episode of Law & Order. Rachlin is a native of my home state, and this is his first book. In it, he presents the story of Willie J. Grimes, a man wrongfully convicted of rape in 1988 who, despite repeated attempts to appeal his case, served more than two decades in prison. Rachlin also explores the origins of The Innocence Project, an organization that arose in response to repeated wrongful convictions being overturned, and which works to exonerate innocent victims that are imprisoned. Though the subject matter is bleak, Rachlin’s story is immediately gripping. Readers will quickly rally behind Grimes, who is worthy of all the effort that writing this book entailed.

 

 

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

Nonfiction November

As part of nonfiction November, an annual event celebrated by multiple bloggers, I’m taking a stab at the weekly prompt. This week, readers have been asked to either compile recommendations about a topic they’re interested in, or share their expertise on a subject they’ve read a lot about. For me, that means sharing and recommending some of my favorite books about maritime disasters.

I’m not sure where this interest sprang from, exactly, but I’ve traced its origins back to writer Anne Lamott, who wrote in passing that she had a serious obsession with writing about the arctic. That led me to Alfred Lansing’s classic book of arctic survival, Endurance, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Below, I’ve recommended some of my favorite nonfiction books that feature arctic travel, sea travel and exploration, and — of course — survival amidst disaster. I also included a few of my favorite fictional takes on the subject.

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I have to mention Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, since it apparently started this whole thing off. Endurance, published in 1959, tells the story of Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose ships became encased in pack ice during an expedition in 1915. Shackleton and his crew of 27 spent over a year hacking out an existence on the ice floes of Antarctica, before making a desperate attempt for rescue. Lansing,’s account, which is informed by the testimony of several survivors still living at the time, is thoroughly gripping, and the story would be completely unbelievable if it weren’t entirely true.

Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice is probably my favorite of the bunch, though it is slower than the others mentioned here. In it, Sides expertly recreates the failed American expedition to reach the North Pole in 1878. Like Shackleton, explorer George De Long becomes quickly entrapped in pack ice and must shelter his crew through multiple winters on the ice, and then in the wilds of Siberia. Alongside his story, Sides explores the unusual circumstances that led to De Long’s expedition, which includes a brilliant exploration of New York City during the height of the Gilded Age. If you liked Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, you’ll appreciate what Sides accomplishes in this book.

For maritime disasters, see: Titanic. Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, published in 1955, is the definitive account of the sinking. Like Endurance, it was published at a time when many survivors of the sinking were still alive, and so it includes several first-hand accounts. The book is short, but perfectly recreates the events of the Titanic’s sinking minute by minute. It has all the immediacy you might expect from such a re-enactment. If you can get a hold of it, the audio version of the book, performed by Martin Jarvis, is equally fantastic.

I won’t go into great detail, but a few other books I’ve read and enjoyed include In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, and Alone by Richard E. Byrd.

And if you’re looking for any fiction on the subject, I can happily recommend a few more: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.


I swear I don’t have a thing for ships. I get seasick? Anyway, hope you find something you here to like.

 

Open Journal: “Start Again, I Heard Them Say.”

open journalOver the past year, I’ve meandered through a series of unexpected setbacks: some of them personal, some work-related, but most frequently — and most devastatingly — mental. For a few months, these setbacks were debilitating. I was unable to make any forward movement in my life, and actually had a fair amount of backward movement. I spent months in a state of near-constant anxiety, sleeplessness and fear, and then, when that let up, I experienced the worst wave of depression I’ve ever had. I’ve wavered between these two conditions (anxiety and depression) for the better part of two decades, now, and I’ve become better at protecting myself from the fallout. But last fall was the worst I’ve ever known. I endured, which was all I could do.

The strange thing about anxiety is that life goes on, but your life doesn’t. It feels as if everyone else is moving forward without you, and despite your best intentions, it’s all you can do to keep yourself upright. When the symptoms subside and you have a moment to survey the damage, you’ll often notice that your life looks the same way you left it. But now, you’re a year older. Now, you’re behind.

It has been about nine months since the worst of my symptoms slackened, with a few minor flare-ups in between. But mostly, I feel better. Mostly, I feel ready to move forward again. I am ready to write and to move, to travel and to learn. I’ve decided to do these things while I feel the urge to, because I don’t know when I’ll be knocked off my feet again. A large part of me hopes that I’ll never be derailed by depression or anxiety again; but a smaller part knows that I will.

There are a few things that have helped me immensely in the past several months, and I’m trying to incorporate them into my life as cushions, now, against future setbacks. Some of them have to do with the way I treat myself, which is weird and indulgent and not totally relevant to this post. Others, though, have to do with writing; with maintaining a record of my life and holding myself accountable to it. Learning is another: honoring my interests and my curiosity; continuing to reach toward new things. And movement, too, has been vital. When nothing else made me feel better, moving did. Pushing my body distracted and challenged me when I couldn’t push my brain any further. Music, friends, family — all of these helped in their own ways, too. Strangely, one of the things I had to give up on was reading. I haven’t been able to properly focus on a book in months.

The purpose of this post is to put a new plan into place. I’ve never had a strict sense of the direction my life was headed in and I still don’t, but I know that there are a few things I want to do now, or in the near future, while I’m level and steady and calm. These are also, for the most part, activities that helped to alleviate the worst symptoms of my anxiety and depression over the past year, and that will hopefully allow me to avoid another sudden resurgence of either. I’m posting this here so that I have a record of it, and so that a few other people do, too. I’m posting this here so that I have an open channel to return to whenever I feel inspired. I’m posting this here so that I can find my way back to good health the next time I falter. I’m told that this is part of being accountable. No (wo)man is an island.

The (New) Road Map:
For When You Lose Your Way

#1. Continue to Move, and Incorporate Yoga
Regular exercise is something I’ve always struggled with (as is, more tellingly, my weight). But it was one of the most helpful activities I’ve taken on recently, and seems to help in any capacity or amount. This isn’t heavy lifting; this is walking breaks at work. This is hopping on an elliptical machine once or twice a week. And lately, this has involved doing yoga.

9780761193111I’ve always loved the idea of yoga, and it’s often been recommended to me because of my anxiety. But in my experience, telling an anxious person to “relax” and “breathe” is just, like, the worst advice ever. It is the opposite of relaxing. And my complete inability to relax in any quantifiable way has always made me feel like a failure. But for some reason, in the past month, yoga has simply clicked. I joined a vinyasa class and am pushing my body in new and challenging ways. I’m remembering to breathe. I’m sitting with myself, in stillness and silence. I’m reading books again, if only books on yoga (including Jessamyn Stanley’s Every Body Yoga). These are big things.

A big part of this road map will include regular movement in any capacity I choose, with a particular focus on yoga. If the movements become too much, the breathing is always there and always helpful. I’ve found myself returning to my “yoga breath” even at work now, when a patron or a co-worker leaves me fuming. It helps.

Some of my smaller goals here include:

  • Joining a gym / fitness facility
  • Taking a yoga class once per week
  • Moving or exercising, in some capacity, five times per week

#2. Learn New Skills, and Take Up New Hobbies
Aside from reading (which I’m not doing a lot of), I don’t have a huge list of hobbies. I have even fewer skills. But there are a few things I’ve always wanted to get better at doing, and it’s time I put some real effort toward that. Aside from continuing to work toward my graduate degree in library media, which I began in June, here are some things I’d like to work on:

  • Cooking: Learn to bake or cook five new meals.
  • Guitar: Learn to play five new songs on my acoustic guitar.
  • Reading & Writing: Read whatever calls out to you and don’t waste time on what you can’t absorb. Journal as often as possible.
  • Complete my Master’s degree.

#3. Update My Passport, and Then Use It
Though I hate most of the details involved with traveling, I love exploring new places. It’s been almost three years since I went anywhere new, and I’ve been ready for something big. I renewed my passport last summer, and booked a trip with a friend who is in a similar situation — single, living alone, heartsick and restless and tired. In October, we took off for a twelve-day tour of Portugal and Spain, which was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. And for the first time in my life, I had no desire to come home. In fact, I panicked at the idea of returning to the life that was waiting for me, the life I’d built. This plan is partly in response to that feeling: an effort to build a life more in keeping with the one I’ve always wanted. A life I’d be happy to return to. I hope to continue traveling in some capacity every year, whether short trips over the weekend or cross-country treks. I’m going to make it a goal to visit one new country each year.

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Rock formations in The Algarve, Portugal.

#4. Take Care of Myself, and Others
Continuing to check in with myself — to slow down, to breathe, to write — will be vital. Part of taking care of myself also involves practicing mindfulness, which I’m getting better at. Falling under this category, too, is getting a second tattoo, something I’ve wanted to do for a while (and finally did, in September). I think of tattoos as totems — physical markers that remind me to stop, breathe, reflect, and remember. The tattoo I have now is hidden from view; I wanted one that I could see every day. It’s there now; an outline of blooming wildflowers on my wrist.

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I’m including a section about taking care of others, too. Partly because it’s something I enjoy doing, and partly because it’s another way of getting me outside the boundaries of my own life.

Some of my  goals here include:

  • Getting a second tattoo
  • Buying fresh flowers for my apartment once per month
  • Donating to a charity twice per year
  • Continuing to practice mindfulness and breathing each night before bed

#5. Make My House a Home
Part of what triggered my relapse last year was moving into my own place. Because of that, it’s taken me a lot longer than I’d hoped it would to make that space my own. One of my goals over the next year is to finally finish furnishing my apartment. Some of those tasks include:

  • Buying or acquiring the last few pieces of furniture I need
  • Buying or acquiring three original pieces of artwork
  • Taking on a renovation project

I’ll stop there, because I think this list reflects all of the “big ticket” items I have in mind. But I’m also going to make a continuing effort to seek out friends and family, to spend time with my nieces and nephew, to maintain relationships with former co-workers and classmates, and to spend time with people other than myself. Think of that as another current running beneath all of this.

Again, I write this here mostly for me. I keep trying to pin down why, exactly, I’m making this public; why I want other people to see it. And I think it comes down to making it matter. Making it known. I’m not sure why that’s important to me at this stage in the game, but it is.

So here we are. Here I am.