Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg
I adored Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, so as soon as I heard about her new book The One Hundred Nights of Hero, I put it on hold at the library.  And this book was just what I needed.  It's all about women being amazing, about the power of stories, about the importance of resisting, even in the face of inevitable failure, and so much more.

 I debated whether I should review this book or not because it's one of those books that I just really loved because it was kind and beautiful.  However, The One Hundred Nights of Hero tackles some really big topics in a gloriously feminist way.  While The Encyclopedia of Early Earth was complex in its layering of stories within stories, the stories themselves were not super complicated (that I remember) and the story was centered on a man seeking love.  The One Hundred Nights of Hero is centered on two women in love.  Cherry is married to an imbecile who challenges his friend to seduce her in 100 nights.  His friend agrees, and is pretty clear that if seduction doesn't work, force will.  Cherry and her love, Hero, come up with a plan to distract the nefarious villain with stories each night.  But not just any stories, stories about women and the power of knowledge and the importance of choice. 


In none of these stories is there a happy ending of "Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, they live happily ever after."  There are stories of love and how beautiful a thing it can be, but Greenberg always stresses that the ability of a woman to choose her fate is equally, if not more, important.  Some of the stories end happily because women find ways to live independently.  Many of them end sadly because the women featured in them do not fit neatly into the strict definitions that patriarchal societies have set for them.

That makes it sound as though this is a melancholy and depressing book, but it is not that at all.  It's absolutely amazing.  There is so much humor, so much kindness and friendship and loyalty, and glorious sisterhood.  Also, the illustrations are beautiful.  And then, of course, there are the stories.

It's an excellent, gorgeous book, and I intend to splurge and buy some Isabel Greenberg for myself for my birthday this year - she's absolutely worth having on your keeper shelf.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Dispatches from Dystopia, by Kate Brown

I heard about Kate Brown's Dispatches from Dystopia:  Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten on NPR's book concierge.  It's a series of essays about "the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history."  In this slim volume (excluding the notes, it is only 150 pages long), Brown goes to Chernobyl and Seattle and many places in between, trying to understand how humans form a sense of place.  She specifically chooses places that are often forgotten or left behind, talks to people who stayed behind when everyone else moved on.

This book was a little different than what I expected, though I am not sure what exactly I expected.  It is really beautifully and empathetically written, though Brown herself has more of a role in the essays than I expected her to.  She acknowledges this at the very beginning, saying that it is difficult for her to be a third party observer when she is in the midst of the story herself.  So instead of talking about the places and the people themselves, she talks about her interactions with the people and places she visits.  In this way, Kate Brown reminds me of Rebecca Solnit.

I really enjoyed this book, mostly because it gives a new perspective on many different places.  Very real to me was the chapter on Seattle's Panama Hotel, where many Japanese-Americans left their belongings before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.  Brown talks about how some words were used over others to make the whole thing seem more palatable, how people were taken away quietly and away from others so that no one had to see what they had brought to bear:
White Seattleites in February 1942 voted overwhelmingly for the Japanese Americans' removal.  Imagine their reaction if Japanese American deportees had left their possessions in plain sight: rain-soaked laundry dangling from clotheslines, produce rotting on fruit stands, goods in shop windows fading in the sun.  The unrepressed possessions of suddenly absent fellow citizens would have told a story starkly divergent from newspaper accounts of "evacuation," safety, national security, and inevitable fealty to race.  The basement full of belongings underscores the myth of what was euphemistically called "evacuation," a term implying benevolence, a federal government seeking to remove Japanese Americans for their own safety.  Like the deportations - indeed, like the deportees - the stockpile was meant to be forgotten.  To me, the Panama's storage room of locked-away possessions served as an icon for the quiet banishment of Japanese Americans from American society.
Much of Brown's book revolves around multiple ways of looking at either the same scene or the same situation and acknowledging the different biases or assumptions that get people to those viewpoints.  For example, she describes how American scientists looked at the impact of radiation on people by first studying the environment and what the minimum exposure level of a person was to an environment; Soviet scientists looked at people, saw the symptoms, and made diagnoses based on the person, not the environment.  The approaches reached different conclusions and led to different pros and cons.  The American method has now encroached on how we view almost all environmental disasters and impacts - upon individuals, not upon a whole system.

One of my favorite things about this book was the way Brown insists that we change our perspective on people who live their lives differently than we do.  She visits Chernobyl expecting to see so many horrors, but she sees that some people do still live there.  She visits another town, Pripyat, that has since been abandoned because of a nuclear explosion but that was really quite a beautiful, idyllic place to live when things were going well.  Meaning, just because people lived in the Soviet Union, that doesn't mean they were all unhappy and miserable all the time.  They had good lives, too.

Brown's last chapter takes her to Elgin, Illinois, a town not so far from where I grew up.   She tells a story that is now familiar to many of us that grew up in America's heartland, the steel belt turned rust belt, the towns that many feel have been left behind as jobs and people and money go to the cities.  But Brown also tells the flip side of the story, of how those towns often made decisions that hurt themselves in the long run, choosing short-term profits and cost-cutting over longer-term investment.  When workers at the main employer in Elgin went on strike to fight for better wages, the company response was fierce and immediate.  "For the following century, the company suffered no more strikes, and Elgin leaders enticed other manufacturers to town with tax breaks, land grants, and arguments that Elgin was 'a poor field for the agitator.'" 

And so, even though unemployment was low, people continued to work well past the age of retirement, and 40% of married women continued to work after marrying and having children to support their families.  And then the factory left, anyway, to find even cheaper labor.  Brown talks about how, for such a prosperous country, America has many towns that look abandoned and left behind, almost ghost-like.  "These are the muted smells and sounds of amputated careers and arrested bank accounts.  Looking at the chain of churches and shops displacing one another in quick succession, feeling something between depression and despair, I think about E.P. Thompson's question - who will rescue these places from the enormous condescension of posterity?"

In some ways, Dispatches from Dystopia has the same central premise as Strangers in their Own Land - we need to give people who feel forgotten and left behind a platform from which to speak and feel valued and empowered, rather than just telling their stories from our perspectives.  But perhaps because Kate Brown made the decision to go to multiple places, to draw parallels between towns in America and towns in the Communist bloc, the American approach to science and free will vs the Soviet approach, it felt much wider-reaching.  So much of what we believe is based on justifying acts, making ourselves feel better, like using the word "evacuation" instead of "imprisonment."  Talking about "diversity" instead of "equality."  And it's only when we really push ourselves to make those connections, draw the parallels, that we can fully acknowledge what we've done and what we can do going forward.

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

If you would like to watch a documentary about the women who still live in the Chernobyl zone, check out The Babushkas of Chernobyl.

While there, you can listen to Holly Morris' TED Talk about the women and what happy, peaceful lives they are living, contrary to what all of us would generally believe.

Holly Morris' story about the Babushkas is also included in this episode of the TED Radio Hour, Toxic.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review-itas: Books that confused me

by Yoon Ha Lee
Guys, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee confused me so much that I cannot even explain the cover of this book to you.  Does it fit with the story?  I don't know.  I mean, the story takes place in space, so that part is accurate.  But what is the spiky thing that dominates the image?  I don't know.

As far as I can tell, Ninefox Gambit is set in a civilization that really likes order.  There appears to be a massive mathematical algorithm (the "calendar") that oversees every tiny thing, especially in the military.  Possibly people exist outside of the military, but it is hard to tell.  There is also a very rigid caste system in place, with different groups of people going into different areas of study and conforming to very specific traits.  The main character, Cheris, is in the military leading her team and somehow goes against the calendar.  This means she's in trouble and she's given a very big, basically impossible task to go kill some heretics, for which she asks for help from this undead ghost who won every battle he ever fought, except he also turned traitor and got an obscene number of people killed.

There was a lot in this book that I did not understand.  This book is like all my fears and feelings of intimidation about science fiction coming to fruition.  Once I got to the end and things started moving a little faster and became more people-focused than calendar-focused (I still cannot grasp this calendar system, and it DRIVES ME CRAZY), I got more into it.  And it certainly ends on a high note that bodes well for the series to follow.  So I eventually got the high-level plot, but I could tell you nothing about the setting.

by Nalo Hopkinson
After my appalling showing in 2016 of reading only four books off my TBR list, I was determined to do better in 2017.  (To be fair, I set a pretty low bar for myself, so I feel confident I can beat it.)  I read and enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, so I decided to give Sister Mine a go.  Many of the same elements that I loved in Midnight Robber are present here - a strong cultural identity, humor, and fantastic female characters at the center.  Sister Mine is often compared to American Gods or Anansi Gods because it is about a family of demigods.  But whereas Neil Gaiman's book is almost entirely about men, Hopkinson's puts women very much at the center of the story.  She plays with gender, sexuality, and many other themes while she wreaks havoc with the lives of both humans and gods.

I listened to Sister Mine on audio, and the narrator is excellent.  I don't listen to many audiobooks any more, but I was pretty much instantly drawn into this one.  I enjoyed many things about this story, but parts of it were just a bit too out there for me, particularly towards the end when things became very convoluted to me.  I really liked many of the characters in this book, but with about two hours to go, I was just ready for the book to end.  There were plot points that came up that didn't make a ton of sense to me or fit into the rest of the story, and then there was this whole section at the end that I was just... I don't know what was happening.  I feel like maybe if I were reading a physical copy of the book instead of listening to an audiobook, it would have been easier for me to understand what was happening.  Or maybe I'm just so confused by the real world that fantastical and science fiction worlds go too far for me.  Regardless, this was a lighter book than Midnight Robber for sure, with humor and pretty great family dynamics.  So if you want to give Hopkinson a try but don't want all the heavy stuff, this could be a good one to start with.  But I wouldn't say it's as strong as Midnight Robber

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson
I took advantage of having a big chunk of free time off work between Christmas and New Year's to tackle a big, meaty book.  I saw Isabel Wilkerson speak during the Chicago Humanities Festival after the election in November, and I had a feeling that her book would be a great one for me to read to start the new year.

The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North over several decades in the 20th century.  Wilkerson conducted hundreds of interviews.  Her book compiles many people's stories, though she focuses on three people who left various areas of the South at different times and went to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to start new lives.

This book is excellent.  It is 540 pages of personal stories, which probably sounds like a lot, but it is not.  It feels like you are in the same room as these people as they tell you about their lives, the decisions they made, the regrets they have, the people they knew.  It's almost like a gigantic, written version of This American Life.

Like many people, I am struggling to come to grips with the way the world seems to be moving backwards to tribalism, distrust, and fear.  Reading Wilkerson's book was empowering.  When she came to speak at the Humanities Festival, she said something that I keep going back to.  I am paraphrasing, but the gist of it was, "The lesson of the Great Migration is the power of an individual choice.  They freed themselves."

Often, when reading books about minorities in the US, the general trend of stories is the same.  People who are different show up.  The people who are already there become angry.  They treat the newcomers badly (sometimes, really really badly).  The newcomers fight for their rights.  Sometimes they win.  It's an important story to tell because it happens so consistently, probably everywhere, but definitely in the United States.  But it's also just depressing and disheartening.  People are so frightened by anything that is different, no matter how superficial that difference might be, or no matter how ridiculous that fear is.  And they fight back in terrifying, brutal ways.

 But even against all that, a backdrop of hate and threats and physical violence, people fight.  And that's what was so, so wonderful about this book.  Even people with very little of their own, barely scraping by and with no rights of their own - they resisted and they fought and they made the world a more accepting and welcoming and equal place for all of us.  As Wilkerson said, "The Great Migration... was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed... It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface."

A few snapshots from this book really stood out to me:
1.  Ida Mae Gladney coming to Chicago in the 1930s and realizing that she had the opportunity and the right to vote and that her vote would be heard and counted.  She had never even bothered trying to vote before.  Many, many years later, she would vote for Barack Obama for Illinois state senator.

2.  Robert Foster's desperate search for a motel to spend the night on his drive to his new life in Los Angeles.  He went from motel to motel and was denied a room at every single one.  Finally, he broke down and told one couple that he was a veteran, that he was a physician, that he meant no harm to anyone and just wanted to sleep.  They still refused.

3.  The story of a man who worked with the NAACP, was locked up in a mental institution, and then escaped with the help of a coordinated effort that had him in a coffin and traveling across state lines in different hearses.

4.  The store clerk who owned a dog and taught that dog many tricks.  One trick was for the clerk to ask the dog if he'd rather be black or dead.  The dog was trained to respond by rolling over and playing dead.

There were many more stories about oppression and resistance, the times people bowed to authority and the times they defied it.  The many ways that people faced indignities and swallowed the insults, turned the other cheek, and then came back to fight another round.  The consequences of leaving behind family and friends to start a new life.  The consequences of working long, hard hours to make a better life for a family that you rarely get to see.  The consequences of moving from the rural south to the industrial north.

I don't think I've done a good job of describing why this book is so moving.  But it's a huge book, and it covers so much!  It's hard to cover all of that in one post.  All I can say is that it is an excellent story of how much progress we've made and the cost of that progress, not only for the country as a whole but for so many individual people.  And it serves as an important reminder that individual decisions matter and can make a difference in the world.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Intisar Khanani's Memories of Ash

I was lucky enough to get an early copy of Intisar Khanani's Memories of Ash back in May when it was first released.  I really love Khanani's work, and I fully intended to sit down and read the book as soon as I received it.  But things do not often work out as well as you wish, and I never got around to reading this book until over the Christmas long weekend.  This ended up working out for the best, though, as I had precious hours in a row to devote to reading and became fully enmeshed in the story.

Memories of Ash picks up about a year after Sunbolt ends.  It's been well over two years since I read Sunbolt and I admit that I was foggy on some of the details (and, er, major plot points).  I highly recommend that you read Sunbolt before you read Memories of Ash, and if you are the type to re-read when a new book in a series comes out, I recommend you do that, too.  I rarely do that and rely solely on memory and chutzpah to get me through, and usually it works fairly well.

Anyway, Memories of Ash begins with Hitomi living a quiet, peaceful life in the country with an older mage, Brigit Stormwind, who is teaching her how to hone her magical skills.  But soon people come for Stormwind, accusing her of treason and other trumped-up charges.  Stormwind is taken away; Hitomi leaves soon after to go and save her.  The rest of the book follows Hitomi as she sets out to accomplish this very difficult task.

One of the greatest things about Khanani as an author, at least to me, is that she rewards her characters for being good people.  So often in fiction, people are shown to be unkind or vindictive or two-faced or untrustworthy.  In Khanani's books, people are shown to be kind and supportive.  They may have different priorities or goals, but they listen to each other and attempt to understand motives.  At a time when it feels like people just talk past each other and don't really listen and are not willing to hear anything they don't want to hear, I cannot express how much I treasure this aspect of Khanani's work.

We learn more about Hitomi's past in this book, and while that knowledge adds intriguing depth and great promise to this series, Hitomi herself remains loyal, steadfast and honorable in light of everything she finds out.  She's a pretty great lead character, so it's no surprise that she makes some really wonderful friends.

In reading this book, I also understood why Khanani spent so much time writing and editing it.  Not only has she constructed a beautifully intricate world and peopled it with a diverse and fascinating cast, but she's also given all of them rich cultural backgrounds and hinted at more to come.  There are a lot of politics at play here and Hitomi has to navigate all of that in addition to trying to meet her own goals.  She has so much empathy for people, and because of that, she really tries to understand what motivates them and what would make them believe her and help her.  If this sounds like manipulation, then I am not describing it well.  Hitomi does not pray on people's fears or weaknesses, she looks for common ground.

And this is one of the reasons I love some types of fantasy and really hate others.  I prefer the premise that people are good and can see some of themselves in others, that power is a privilege that should be wielded fairly and with integrity.  I don't like fantasy that implies that as soon as someone gets power, that person becomes corrupt and savors violence or cruelty (especially towards women).  I appreciate that Khanani seems to have that same vision; most of her characters are kind and strong and stand up for what's right, even the ones with smaller roles.  And that means a lot.  So even if it takes another two years for the next installment in this series to come out, I'll count it worth the wait if it continues this excellent trend.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Things to see and hear: Podcast and TV/Movie Round-Up

Hello, 2017!

One of my unofficial resolutions for this year is to become more informed about local, national, and international news.  Another resolution is just to learn more about other cultures and other ways of approaching the world  to become a generally more well-rounded person who can think outside the box and try to pull a lot of disparate threads together to make a stronger whole.  (A stronger whole of what or for what, I am not sure yet, but that's ok.)

I've discovered a lot of great podcasts and shows over the past few months and I thought I'd share some of those with all of you in case you want to expand your portfolio in 2017 as well!  Be careful - once you start, you probably can't stop!

To be fair, the podcasts are probably more mind-expanding than the TV and movies are, but they are all just fun to share :-)  Based on the below list, if you can think of anything I might like to listen to or watch, please share!

Podcasts

Gosh, there are SO MANY GOOD podcasts out in the world!  And more great ones being made all the time!  Here are a few that I have recently discovered and highly recommend.  I have recently added many new podcasts to my list based on this list of the 50 Best Podcasts from The Atlantic.  However, I haven't listened to enough episodes of many of them to yet to feel comfortable recommending them yet.  However, many of the below podcasts are on that list!  So... trust my judgment ;-)

Investigative Reporting pod:

I do not know why it took me so long to realize that the host of one of my all-time favorite (and now discontinued) podcasts, State of the Re:Union, is now host of Reveal, a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.  This podcast is SERIOUSLY excellent.  Al Letson, an African-American man whose whole professional career and private life seem to be centered around cultural understanding and empathy, recently had an interview with a white nationalist, and while everything about the white nationalist was slimy, everything about Letson was amazing.  This podcast is worth so much, and I hope you listen to it.

Also, I highly recommend you listen to the whole backlist of State of the Re:Union, especially if you are feeling down and need some positivity in your life.

Radio Drama pod:

Homecoming is from Gimlet media and is a fictionalized story with fantastic actors and sound effects that really takes the best of old school radio drama but modernizes it for audiences today.  The story revolves around a governmental experiment on soldiers returning from the front.  It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it's really well-produced and just really cool.


Life in general pods:

 Death Sex and Money is a long-standing but new to me podcast.  I tried it a couple of times before but didn't love it, and then this time I dug into the archives to find stories that really appealed to me and now I just love this show.  The episode that got me hooked?  When the host brought on a cop and the mother of two autistic black sons and the mother spoke to the cop about why she is so worried about her sons' safety in the world as they get older.  Just amazing vulnerability displayed on both sides and a really wonderful episode.

I heard about Michael Ian Black's How to Be Amazing podcast on Reveal and did some back episode listening as well.  He gets absolutely amazing people to come on his show, talk about themselves and the paths they took to get where they are, and just discuss awesome things with him in general.  Michael Ian Black is a comedian, so he is very skilled at getting people to feel comfortable with him quickly.  Another really great podcast for when you are feeling sad about the world and need to be reminded that there are good people doing great things out there.


Mini-series on Mega-topics:

The first season of Marketplace's The Uncertain Hour focused entirely on welfare.  In the US, welfare is highly misunderstood.  After Bill Clinton passed a huge welfare reform act in the 1990s, a whole lot changed about how the benefits are paid out.  Unfortunately, people's perceptions of how the benefits are paid out have not changed at all.  I found this first season so eye-opening and I hope that a whole lot of Americans from all points on the political continuum give it a listen.  There's a lot of room for improvement, especially considering how few people now qualify for housing and food support vs a whole lot of money being spent on family planning.

WNYC's partnership with The Nation resulted in a fantastic mini-series about gentrification in Brooklyn called There Goes the Neighborhood.  It's all about the pros and cons of gentrification, the people who are most impacted by it, the people who most benefit from it, and the people who have the most control over it.  It also looks into historic housing policies and how much those still have an effect today.  The reporters speak to people who have lived in neighborhoods for decades and are being forced out, newly minted college grads and young professionals desperate for an affordable place to stay, and government efforts to rein in gentrification while ensuring that neighborhoods stay vibrant, diverse, and welcoming.

And then one on the Supreme Court and just how massive a footprint it has had on American history.  This is not really a mini-series as I think there are more seasons planned, but the first season was glorious.  If you ever thought political history was boring and dry, More Perfect will change your mind.  I'm so excited about where this series can go - for example, neither Thurgood Marshall nor Ruth Bader Ginsberg have even been mentioned yet.  So... there's no way to go but up.

Diversity-focused pods:

I continue to insist on the importance of understanding other people's points of views.  While I have not yet found a more right-leaning, conservative that I feel I can listen to for a while, I am on the lookout.  If you know of any, please share!
For me, my diverse viewpoint standouts are Code Switch, Still Processing and Show About Race.  Recent episodes from all of these that I loved are -

Code Switch - Hold up!  Time for an Explanatory Comma ( LOVE LOVE LOVE this episode)

Still Processing - Obama's Last Cultural Statement

Show About Race - The End of Identity Politics
 
While I am not sure I love it yet, mostly because it seems to target a younger, college-aged crowd, I would also recommend See Something, Say Something, which focuses on the Muslim-American experience.

Movies/TV/Streaming

1.  SANRACHNA:  When home with my parents over Christmas, we discovered the Indian show Sanrachna.  It's available on Netflix with subtitles, and on YouTube without subtitles.  Each episode is about 20 minutes long and focuses on different aspects of Indian architecture as exemplified in very old buildings - caves, temples, forts, etc.  And not one episode features any of the most popular Indian historical sites (the Taj Mahal, Jaipur Palace, Red Fort, etc).  Instead, they focus on sites from all over the country and from many different eras of history.  It's fascinating because there is so much regional history in India that is rarely taught in other regions of India, or certainly anywhere else in the world.  And the show just makes me realize how much of a rich and varied culture the country has.  Now I want to go on a really nice, long trip back to India and try to see some of these lesser-visited sights.  I wish they had a show all about India's natural wonders, too.  Or, in general, more shows about places all over the world and the history and beauty that can be found everywhere. 

2.  DANGAL:  Sticking with India, I saw Aamir Khan's new movie Dangal over Christmas.  It's a really lovely movie based on a true story.  It tells the story of a man in a small village who teaches his two daughters to become wrestlers.  It's fantastically feminist for India (though it doesn't go as far into the feminism as I would like), and also just a really nice story about the pressures of being an elite athlete and growing up under a pretty no-nonsense father.



3.  ZOOTOPIA:  I'm SUPER late to this one, but I just recently watched Zootopia and it was SO GOOD!  It's just a beautiful story about people trying to overcome stereotypes and barriers, becoming friends, making mistakes, and then working to fix those mistakes.  So much smart dialogue and imagery about diversity and friendship and embracing the commonalities we all have.  I loved it so much, and it is also available on Netflix!  So go to it.



4.  MAN SEEKING WOMAN:  I randomly discovered this show on Hulu, and I love it.  It is a super-quirky and surreal show set in Chicago (yay!) about the difficulties of modern dating.  It's really funny and in many ways is almost like the stream of conscious that can go off on really extreme tangents in your mind.  I've only watched a few episodes, but it's really funny and weird and I think some of you would really enjoy it if you are willing to give it a shot.




5.  INSECURE:  Available on HBO.  I love this show!  It's kind, sweet, and hilarious and brings a ton of humor to important issues.  Issa Rae and her friends talk about what it's like to be women who work, women who date, women who have issues and standards, and women who have each other's backs.  They also bring up the more subconscious biases that many people of color and women face in their daily lives that are so subtle that they can often go undetected.  So great!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The Year in Review


It's pretty depressing reading my 2015 year in review.  I said that 2015 was a tough year and hoped very much that 2016 would be better.

2016 was not better.  It's a true fact (not a false news story) that 2016 was a spectacularly horrible year.  This is not only because of the travesty of Brexit and the US election, but also because of Aleppo and Russia and Prince and David Bowie and Carrie Fisher and Alan Rickman, etc.

Progress comes in waves, which means it moves backward just as often as it moves forward.  We can only hope that, over time, we gain more ground than we concede.  I spent much of 2016 arming myself with information, through books, news articles, podcasts, reporters and movies and all of you.  I anticipate that the number of books I read each year will continue to decline.  Or if not decline, it is unlikely to go up into the triple digits again.  This is not because reading books is becoming less important to me; it is still one of my favorite activities ever.  But I want to become more of an activist, too.  I want to affect change in my community, and to do that, I think I need to be more aware of what is happening around me.  So more news, more work, and maybe fewer books.

So, how did 2016 shape up for me in the booksphere?  Let's take a look!

Total books read:  62, 12 down from 2015's 74.

% books by female authors:  58%
I've been at exactly 58% for 3 years in a row now!  I have started skewing more towards women in my reading.  I don't apologize for this.  Clearly, people should read more women and understand their points of view vs. only thinking of them as baby-making machines.

% audiobooks:  26%
I rarely listen to audiobooks on my commute now; I've mostly switched to music and podcasts.  So the only audiobooks I listen to usually have to catch my interest very, very quickly.

% books by diverse authors:  45%
This is consistent with last year, too.  My general goal is about 50%, so I'm pretty close.

% non-fiction books:  37%
This is the highest percentage and the highest actual number (23) of non-fiction books I have ever read.  I am reading more and more non-fiction as I get older, mostly to try and make sense of the world we live in.  Some of the best books I read this year were non-fiction.  More on those to come.

# of books taken off the TBR list (books read that I owned on 12/31/15):  4
Yikes.  That's a really bad number.  I can't even defend it.  I did read books that I own, but those were books that I purchased during the year so technically they were not on my TBR list. 
My excuse remains what it was before - my tastes are changing, I am reading more diversely, and my shelves don't necessarily reflect that.  Also, I don't purchase many books any more.  I did significantly decrease my TBR list this year because I donated many books.  So progress is being made, just not by actual reading.

# of books checked out from the library:  48
I love the Chicago Public Library so much!  In fact, I am joining the library junior board's leadership team for 2017 and 2018!  I'm very excited.  Obviously, I have a great deal of passion for the library and the work it does for my city; I so look forward to working hard to help it grow even stronger.

Favorite new-to-me author:  
This one is hard, mostly because I read books by entirely new authors to me, and I didn't get a ton of depth from those authors.  But I think I am most excited to read the next volume in the Monstress comic book series by Marjorie Liu and more by Ann Leckie.  I read her science fiction novel Ancillary Justice and really enjoyed it and never reviewed it.

On the non-fiction front, I really enjoyed reading Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies and look forward to more from her.


Best female characters:
I'm going to go all-out on amazing young adult heroines here because they rocked my world this year.  Gabi from Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Agnieska from UprootedI also still love Hitomi from Intisar Khanani's Sunbolt series in her newest outing, Memories of Ash (review forthcoming).

Best narrative voice:
This is probably cheating a bit since it's a collection of short stories, all with different narrators.  Also, I did not review this book, either (which is a travesty; I should have).  But whatever, I MAKE THE RULES HERE. 

Lucia Berlin in A Manual for Cleaning Women was really fantastic.  I heard about her from no one less than Colson Whitehead while he spoke about his book The Underground Railroad (another book I neglected to review).  While I think the collection is possibly a little too long and not all the stories are stellar, most of them are really beautiful, and I highly recommend it.



Biggest sleeper hit:
There were many books I enjoyed more than I expected this year.  But one that I really enjoyed was Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a science fiction novel that was just unexpectedly lovely, all about different species working together for a common cause and just really enjoying it.  This is another book that I never bothered to review, which is unfortunate.

Most unexpected reading themes from 2016:
I read many more short stories and essay collections this year than in years past.  I mentioned A Manual for Cleaning Women above.  I also really enjoyed Painted Cities and The Martian Chronicles.  Sayed Kashua's essay collection Native was also great perspective on life as a Muslim in Israel (though I did not review it).

I am also getting more and more into science fiction!  Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, but I mentioned Ancillary Justice and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet above.  Then there was John Scalzi's Old Man's War.  I am excited to have this exciting new genre to check out, especially with the amazing way that feminists and POC are making it their own.

Best commentary on American race relations:
This continues to be a theme that interests me, and I learned this year just how embedded into the culture and the way we go about our lives race is.  Particularly in relation to housing decisions. Books that taught me about this in 2016, all of which I highly recommend to anyone and everyone.

 
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
The South Side, by Natalie Y. Moore
Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
We Gon' Be Alright, by Jeff Chang

Best commentary on how the slave trade has impacted people all over the world, and over multiple generations:
I realize this is a very specific one, but I just had to find a way to mention Homegoing here.  It was one of my favorites this year and I didn't mention it anywhere else!

Best commentary about trends and changes that have impacted America:
The Unwinding, by George Packer.  It opened my eyes to a lot, and made me very sad and angry, and now I plan to see what I can do to make this country better and stronger.  This book hands down had the most impact on me this year, though it's hard to parse out a book's impact vs world events.  Maybe it is better to say that this book best represented to me what is happening in the world now and made it clear to me that I should fight for what is important to me.


Most obscure topic that I can now speak about with some knowledge:
Carnivorous horses 

Most hyped and lived up to the hype:
Citizen:  An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

Most hyped and did not live up to the hype:
Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.  I much preferred George Packer's The Unwinding
However, Strangers in Their Own Land did jolt me to come back to blogging post-election, so there is that.

Best cover art:
Claudia Rankine's Citizen is pretty amazing.


Most beautiful illustrations:
Hands down, Monstress.  It is gorgeous.

Best audiobook:
I didn't do that many of these this year, but definitely The Sun is Also a Star.  
Also The Scorpio Races.


Best memoir:
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi.  I truly loved this book and I know it's on a very difficult topic for some people, but it's so beautifully written and I hope more people read it.  It's important to read books about experiences that are different than yours.  This is one of those books.
  


 
Last year, I switched it up and did not provide a list of my favorite reads for 2015.  Mostly because I didn't feel like it but also because I'm not sure I trust my opinions on rankings to stand for very long after reading a book or finishing a year.  What should I base my rankings on?  Enjoyment in the moment?  Sticking with me for a long time after?  Changing the way I view the world?  I'm not sure.  And I think I judge differently for fiction and non-fiction and for different genres of fiction and non-fiction, too.  So I think I am done with top books lists because I don't really know how to do them any more.

There are many books that I didn't love in a squeeze-the-book-to-me-and-never-let-go kind of way but that challenged me and my assumptions and made me into a more critical reader and a more active citizen of the world.  Those books will probably have more of an impact on me and who I become than the books that I devoured and enjoyed in one or two sittings.  That's not to say that pure, unadulterated joy for a book is not valuable in and of itself.  It is.  But it's hard for me to compare books like that with books that are about vastly different topics.  So I hope you'll take some time to look through the categories above and see what stands out to you.  And let me know if there is anything you read that fits one of the above categories that you would recommend to me.
  
Many things happened this year that made me sad and disheartened about the world.  It is hard to separate that context from the books I chose to read and how they spoke to me.  I will continue to read books about topics that are relevant and important to the world, that challenge me to expand my worldview.  But I hope I don't lose that joy and exuberance of finding a book that is just pure fun and escapism and happiness.  Because I love that about reading, too.  And I think that's why I came back to blogging after many hiatuses this year.  Because I love the joy it brings me, and I love all of you and the way we can discuss books that we loved and disliked and recommend and just continue being a warm and welcoming and wonderful community.  Thanks to all of you for helping make 2016 bearable.  I admit I don't have very high hopes for 2017, but I know that there will always be books, and all of you.  Thanks for everything!

love,
Aarti