Tag Archives: The Yellow Birds

What I read in 2014

As you may have read, I have strong feelings about the value of a diversified reading list. In the interest of accountability, at the end of the year (see 2013 here) I look back and make sure that I didn’t only read novels by 27-year-old white women, for example, (though this year I did read White Girlswhich is by a 54-year-old queer black man). Nothing wrong with white girl novels, but I think reading is basically the biggest empathy-building exercise there is, so I want to make sure I’m building empathy bridges with lots of different perspectives.

Also, while there is a particular magic to an author describing exactly how I feel, I generally already know how I feel so it’s often more interesting to read how someone else, someone with a totally different life experience, might interpret the world.

In short, this year I read even more books by women (tipped the scales heavily towards ladies, actually, from about 50/50 in 2013 to 62/38 in 2014… may need to scale that back), way more books by authors of color (from 24% last year to 37% this year) and even more non-fiction. The non-fiction thing is unrelated to diversity of experience, per se, but it’s just an interest marker of my changing tastes.

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So what were my favorites? The very first book I read in 2014, Flamethrowersis still one of the most fascinating and unique reads of my year. Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped was gorgeous and tragic and I cried the whole time. I also went back and read her Salvage the Bones and loved that even more if only because it was slightly less sad for being brutal fiction instead of brutal truth. The strangest collection of short stories I read this year, Karen Russell’s A Vampire in the Lemon Grove, included one in which American presidents are resurrected as horses and it was amazing. Most poetic prose goes to Kevin Powers for his spare, harsh, terrible war novel, The Yellow Birds. Eric Liu’s exploration of Chinese American identity and his own family history, A Chinaman’s Chance, has stuck with me and opened up whole areas of American history I knew nothing about. I would be remiss to not include Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, but it comes with the biggest trigger warning ever. It was by far the hardest book I’ve ever read, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill with plot that I didn’t stop when the going got emotionally treacherous. For cleverest world-building in the sci-fi genre, I’ll recommend China Mieville’s The City and the City, which has added a dimension of whimsy to the way I navigate my own urban jungle.

And drumroll… It was written more than fifteen years ago, but my favorite book I read this year was hands down Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about the Hmong community of Merced, California, and cross-cultural miscommunication in the most dire of circumstances.

What should I make sure not to miss in 2015?

 

 

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Challenge: Reading off the To-Read Shelf

I’m not buying any books between now and January 1, 2015*. Argh, it hurts just to write that sentence! I have a book buying addiction (which goes part and parcel with my reading addiction); last week I walked out of a used book sale with an actual trash bag full of books. And that was my second used book sale of the weekend.

When I have twenty minutes to kill, I beeline to my favorite bookstore (luckily I live in a place with a dozen really good ones) and I never walk out empty-handed. I’m like a ten-year-old on a road trip who needs a memento from every rest stop.

But books are not stupid keychains or snow globes, you’re lamenting! I know! They are so useful and pretty and full of wonder and adventure and insight! And each one is different! I know, I know, I know! I love them too!

So why am I punishing myself with this book-buying ban? Perhaps more importantly, why am I punishing my local bookstore economy that needs my dollars? Because of the To-Read shelf.

Screenshot_8_5_14_4_16_PM-2There are 84 books on my To-Read shelf. Some of them have traveled with me since I left for college eight years ago. Some of them have seen the insides of two dorm rooms and four different apartments. Some of them have traveled literally around the world in suitcases only to be overlooked because something new and shiny was calling from the English-language table in tiny bookstore in a small town in India.

I want to read my To-Read shelf and I don’t think I can do it without putting a moratorium on new acquisitions. It’s like when you buy a new sweater and all of a sudden it’s your new favorite sweater and all your other sweaters (the ones that used to be your favorites) are crap. The To-Read shelf books always gets pushed down below the fresh-off-the-bookstore-shelf books.

This is hopefully a way of reinvigorating my reading the way purging clothes usually reminds me of things I’ve been meaning to wear but don’t. It will make exciting the things that have been perceived as unexciting for all these years. There’s already a working list in my head of the To-Read books that are rising to the top of the pile (The Color Purple, The Yellow Birds, Maus and Aloft) and I’m genuinely excited to get cracking.

*So what are the rules? There are three exceptions to the No New Books rule. I am allowed to buy:

1. Gifts for other people

2. Books at author signings that I can add to my autographed collection

3. Book club books (though I’ll try the library first)

Why these exceptions? This plan is not about money-saving, though it will probably save me a few bucks along the way. I like spending money in bookstores and supporting the literary infrastructure of my city (or cities in which I’m traveling). These exceptions will allow me to continue supporting that infrastructure without accumulating quite as much stuff, of which I have far too much. They will let me keep participating in the booklover’s economy without overwhelming the To-Read shelf with new arrivals every other freaking day.

I don’t expect the To-Read shelf count to hit zero before New Year’s, but anything less than 84 would be considered a win!

Related Post: The last book I loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Related Post: My book club is famous.

 

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