2016 Retrospective: Book Edition

I read 31 books this past year, which is somewhat of a disappointing number given that my goal was 40 and I spent half the year with way more free time than I had for the last three. Alas!

Anywho, these are my top five favorites. The first couple I read fairly recently so I have a lot to say about them; the last three are from earlier in the year, so I don’t quite remember them as much in terms of specific character and plot points, just how I felt about them.

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

What about the nobodies and the nothings, the invisible girls? We learn to hold our heads as if we wear crowns. We learn to wring magic from the ordinary.

That was how you survived when you weren’t chosen, when there was no royal blood in your veins. When the world owed you nothing, you demanded something of it anyway.

I love Young Adult fiction. I’m also frequently frustrated by Young Adult fiction, especially in the Fantasy genre. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading the same book over and over again, only with different character names and slightly varied locales. Every book seems to feature some brand of ‘chosen one’ with some sort of  extraordinary skill (special witchcraft, special fighting, special power) who I’m constantly told is very special but who has no real defining traits or personality. There are love triangles where everyone is equally awful and unlikable. And world building, a facet of fantasy I think is essential to the genre, is often cast off and treated as a distant fifth priority (behind describing the specialness of the protagonist, the cheekbones of her first suitor, the dark eyes of her second suitor, and all the makeovers she gets to have).

This duology was like a fresh breath of air for both genres. I was so impressed with it, especially given the fact that Bardugo’s previous trilogy sometimes fell into the same tired tropes that I see so often in Young Adult Fantasy. This duology ditched the chosen one narrative and instead presented us with six scrappy pov characters who were actually all interesting and engaging by their own merits. I didn’t need to be hit over the head with just! how! special! they! are! – I got to see what they did and how they acted and what they felt and came to that conclusion on my own. It also gave me two of my favorite fictional characters, probably of all time – Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa. No love triangles in sight, but romances abounded that were all unique and easy to root for (it also gave me a new OTP – Kaz x Inej). The first book is a great heist story, while the second one is a revenge and redemption story. Both the books (and the sequel is one of those rare ones that lives up to the original) are not only well-plotted (the plot twists and turns are so astounding), but well-written (the amount of quotes I could flail over are endless) and feature three-dimensional, well drawn characters. And not just one or two – but six characters that were all distinct and likable. These books were not only my favorite of this year, but likely to be on my favorites of all time list.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

“Loving someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.”

The best way that I can sum up this story is with a quote from G.K. Chesterton – that sometimes a “thing must be loved before it is lovable.”

I can see why this can be a difficult story to enjoy. The Ove we’re initially introduced to is not easy to like. Though the words “grumpy old man” are bandied about, they actually undersell how prickly, bitter and acrimonious he can be. But a quick read of the summary basically lets you know that this story will be like Up, only this time the old man’s new lease on life stems with his burgeoning familial relationship with a pregnant Iranian woman and a raggedy cat rather than a chubby Asian cub scout and a dopey dog. Unlike Up, though, the story lacks a grand adventure and instead operates at a leisurely pace, its characters concerned with things wholly mundane and everyday.

And yet, it it had a way of turning those mundane things beautiful.

This is a simple story about one man’s small life. But I don’t mean small the way that we often use – unimportant or petty or limited. Only that Ove’s life is humble and modest – yet because he has love, it is also enough. But then the love of his life dies. And suddenly, nothing can be enough. So Ove begins to plan for ways to join her. That is, of course, until an Iranian woman and her two daughters bully their ways into his life, until his wife’s former student shows up on his doorstep, until his oldest friend needs help one last time. And through this all, he finds out that he doesn’t have to do it all alone any more. That he never did. That there is life after grief, that there is still love worth sharing even if it isn’t with Sonja.

This book had a story I loved written in a style I adored. I laughed out loud multiple times, either at the author’s consistently creative metaphors or at Ove’s unique way of handling life around him. I also flat out sobbed multiple times too – at the quiet depth of love between Ove and Sonja, at the overwhelming feelings of loss after her death, at the redemptive powers of  love and empathy and compassion. The greatness of this book lies  in its simplicity, in its power to transform every day things – a train ride, a driving lesson, a grumpy old man – into things of beauty. May we all love our spouses the way Ove and Sonja love one another. And may we all have the courage to keep on living the way Ove learns to if they end up passing away first.


Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

We always look for the signs we missed when something goes wrong. We become like detectives trying to solve a murder, because maybe if we uncover the clues, it gives us some control. Sure, we can’t change what happened, but if we can string together enough clues, we can prove that whatever nightmare has befallen us, we could have stopped it, if only we had been smart enough. I suppose it’s better to believe in our own stupidity than it is to believe that all the clues in the world wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I’m always wary of stories that tackle mental illness. There’s a tendency in popular media to either glamorize it or soften it, as if all it does is make you an off-kilter eccentric or tortured artist, as if it can be healed by just loving someone hard enough. That’s why I’m so grateful to have this book, which treats mental illness with an honesty and an openness that was unflinching yet – eventually – uplifting.


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I do have a real soft spot for historical fiction stories set in World War II. I read this and All The Light We Cannot See in the same year and actually really enjoyed both of them. While they were both well-written stories told from duel perspectives, this one came out on top because of the nature of the story that it told.

This book was about two sisters who loved each other but didn’t know how to love one another. About how two sisters learned to live with war and in war and through war. About how two sisters came to love each other again despite a war. Beautifully written with engaging characters, though heartbreaking and tragic in the way that World War II stories often are.


The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.

I’m no stranger to post-apocalyptic fiction – it’s by far my favorite sub-genre of fiction. I’ve read all types of post-apocalyptic scenarios, from zombies to robots, from natural disasters to world wars, from aliens to bio-terrorism. And while some of them have been great (World War Z, Earth Abides, The Girl with All the Gifts, for example), few of them have stuck with me like this book.

Not because it’s especially well-written or well-plotted, though it is both of those, but for how alarmingly plausible it seems. The idea of individual states fighting it out over water rights and Phoenix having to deal with an increasingly hostile environment without its water cut a little too closely for me to be wholly comfortable with. A great novel about a near future apocalyptic scenario set right here in my hometown.

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2016 Retrospective: Personal Edition

  1. Marriage
    love
    Marriage is wonderful. You get to come home every day to your best friend. You have someone who deals with all your quirks and idiosyncrasies and character flaws- perhaps even finds them cute or endearing. You have someone to share your successes, your failures, even the most mundane parts of your day.

    Marriage is also a lot of work. You have to learn how to navigate two separate lives into one. You have to understand how to balance the stress of work and family and life and love. You have to learn which battles to pick, when to compromise and when to put your foot down.

    Maybe because it’s been almost seven years or maybe because we’ve grown up a lot in the past year or maybe because we’ve gotten much more involved in the Church – probably it’s all three – but I truly believe that this was our best year of marriage (although, I do believe that I think this every year). It seems odd, because I know that we also had some of our worst fights this year – but we also worked hard to improve our marriage, to become better spouses for another and to treat one another better and better each day.

    What I really realized this year more than any other and that I don’t think people quite understand about marriage/relationships (I say as though after six years I’m an expert) is that it’s always going to take work. Even when it’s good and both of you love each other and everything is settled – it still takes work. So you don’t need to find someone who is perfect (doesn’t exist) or completely compatible (you’ll always be different people who will change as you both get older), but someone who likewise understands that it takes work and who’s always willing to do the work with you. And whether it’s luck or providence or forethought – I’ve absolutely somehow managed to find that.

    You know, now that I’m at an age where friends are getting married or thinking seriously about getting married, I almost always have to take a second and laugh and think about just how damn blessed we both were when we picked each other. We got married at 21 and 24 after knowing one another for about a year and a half. That honestly seems so crazy to me now. I look at 21 year olds I know and I think about how unprepared they are for marriage. Things could’ve gone so wrong in so many different ways. But they didn’t! In fact, like I said earlier, each year of marriage has been even better than the last. And it’s a lot of things – our relationship with God, the fact that we have strong marriages in our own lives as role models, our close relationship with both sets of our in-laws – but it’s also the fact that we recognized very early on (because both sets of parents told us this) that marriage was going to take work and effort in spite of how much we loved one another. So when we needed to work on things – as all couples inevitably do – we didn’t throw our hands up and say, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! Instead, we just got to work. And our marriage is continually remade and improved and wonderful because of it.

    And now, God willing, I’m hoping that 2017 is once again our best year yet and that I’ll be writing my 2017 retrospective with a baby in arm or one on the way. 😉

  2. Family

    Charles and I always comment (/humblebrag) about how lucky we are that we get along with not only our own families, but with one another’s families. And at no time is this thrown into sharp relief like the holiday season. Every year, I hear countless stories about how other people I know are anywhere from reluctant to straight-up dreading spending time with their families.

    This is a very, very foreign feeling to me.

    If anything, I find myself feeling the opposite every year. I look forward to the prospect of spending time together as a family. And even when it’s kind of a hassle – like it is for Thanksgiving every year – the problem isn’t that we have to spend time with our respective families because they both live here, the problem instead is the fact that there isn’t enough time to adequately spend with both sides of the family.

    I come from a large family who has always privileged spending time together and who has almost always (with the exception of a few rough years in my late teens) enjoyed spending time together. When I got married, it was initially a transition to split the holidays, spending time with another family that I was not as used to seeing or comfortable with.

    But almost nine years of being together has changed that. Now I’m excited to see relatives from another side that I don’t often get to see. It’s a joy to be able to spend time with more family, to sit and catch up, to eat really, really good food that I’m not necessarily accustomed to. This year was a difficult one for Charlie’s family, but the holidays were anything but – they were warm and filled with love and generosity and kindness. There are a lot of benefits to being married. Getting to have even more family definitely ranks up there.

  3. Old Friends

    I don’t make friends easily. Not because I’m especially weird or off-putting or mean, but mostly due to a combination of introversion, laziness, and being really, really bad at making plans/keeping plans. But, what I like to think is that what I lack in quantity, I make up for in quality. The friends that I do make, tend to be friends that stick around forever. Or, at least, as long as I’ve been alive so far.


    When I was seven, I was introduced to Sherrie and Trisha, who conveniently lived right around the block from me. Now, I might be romanticizing it all a bit, but we really had such an ideal childhood friendship. Even though there were three of us, I don’t feel like there was ever an odd man out, so to speak, like there sometimes are with three person friendships. Sherrie and Trisha had a unique bond because they had known each other since they were babies, since they lived across the street and had brothers of similar ages. Sherrie and I had a unique bond because we were both Filipino whose parents ran in the same social circles. Trisha and I had a unique bond of being in the same grade, while Sherrie was a grade ahead of us.

    We were able to grow up in such a way, and in such a time, that we could still act our age. We went to waterparks every summer and California once a year where we spent time acting like silly little kids while we were silly little kids. Sherrie and I often lament (and this really dates us, I guess) that kids today grow up so fast, always with an eye of being older. That didn’t really happen with us. We didn’t really talk about boys – like, real life boys, not The Backstreet Boys – until we all hit high school. Of course, we grew apart during high school. Trisha moved to Colorado, then Utah in high school. Sherrie and I ran in different social circles. But through it all, I’ve known (and I think they feel the same) that I could always rely on them.

    We’ve kept each other updated through the occasional text and social media. They both congratulated me when I got engaged. Trisha and I both flew to Costa Rica to be in Sherrie’s wedding when she got married. Then, this last summer, Sherrie, her two month old daughter, and I flew to Utah to watch Trisha get married. It was such a wonderful weekend for me. To be there with these two amazing women who I’ve known since I was seven years old, all of us married, one of them with a baby, was an almost surreal experience. Even though it had been years – probably not since Sherrie’s wedding two years prior – that we’d gotten together, we all sat in a hotel room and chatted about our lives with a comfort and an ease that made it seem like we’d gotten together every Sunday for the past ten years. There wasn’t any awkwardness or reticence – only the kind of joy and contentment that you find with people who have known you and loved you for a very, very long time.


    In my adolescence, I was what the kids of today would call ‘extra’. The intensity that now manifests as a bright sort of enthusiasm for what I love and for life in general was then an irritating tendency to just be generally over the top and dramatic. Every bad grade meant I was stupid. Every setback a sign that I doomed to failure. Every fight with a boyfriend was the worst thing ever. Every breakup was the end of the world.

    But somehow these two decided that I wasn’t the worst. They constantly assured me that I was smart and talented and capable. They stuck around through the late night phone calls where 18 year old me sobbed into the phone about boys that no longer even show up in my Facebook newsfeed. They made the last two years of high school more than bearable, they actually made them memorable, something worth looking back on (even though we’ve all agreed that we’d never want to revisit them). They got me through my Freshman year of college, when my life turned into a hazy drama that the CW would’ve loved to option as a show.

    And even though we three are now all displaced – one in Portland, the other in Colorado, we got together for the first time in years this Thanksgiving and – again – it was like no time at all had passed. We sat in Kendra’s parents house, raiding her pantry, a ridiculous tv show on in the background, and just talked about whatever came to mind. Just like we had ten years ago. And even though 18 year old us would’ve laughed with disbelief to see how we’d all ended up, I like to think none of them would’ve been disappointed, either.

  4. New Friends
    bookclub
    In the last six years, I’ve attempted to start a book club at least twice. They usually fizzled out within two or three months, mostly due to the fact that I was an unorganized mess without any sense of structure or long-term planning skills. Cut to six months ago, when Kendal suggested starting a book club with all (read: three) of my closest friends from high school. I leapt at the chance, emboldened by the fact that I’d spent three years as a teacher getting my shit together and organizing facets of my life in a way that could be deemed neurotic.

    And it’s honestly been one of the best parts of my entire year. What started out as a group of five old friends getting together to discuss a book has now become a group of eleven ladies – many of whom I’ve never known before this year – whom I all adore and consider friends. It’s not hyperbole to say that this book club basically constitutes my entire friend group. It’s so amazing to look forward to discussing a novel with a variety of ladies – some I’ve known for over a decade, some I’ve only known for two months – who are all interesting and fun and engaging and funny.

  5. Old Job/New  Job

    For the most part, I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of jobs and co-workers. This year I made the very difficult decision to say goodbye to teaching and transition into a less direct service job in education. While I never really regret the decision to leave teaching at this point in my career, I have to admit that I really, really miss it quite often. I miss the kids, the I miss creating a new way to teach a concept, I miss the looks on their faces when they finally get it, and I miss getting to interact and be with my fellow teachers. The last three years of teaching would’ve been so difficult without having such amazing, committed teachers around me to support me as colleagues, mentors and friends.

    When I started my new job, one of my biggest fears was about my co-workers. Not that we wouldn’t get along – getting along with different people is one of the few things I’m pretty good at – but that after spending three years with co-workers that were my friends as well as my colleagues, I’d suddenly be with a group of people that would only be co-workers. It seemed a very lonesome sort of prospect. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. I stepped into another team of like-minded, passionate, hard-working individuals who have quickly become friends as well as co-workers.