My 2015 in Books

This was my first full calendar year as a teacher, so it isn't too surprising that the number of books I read this year falls far below any other. My goal was to read 50--I ended up with a total of 29. I've been setting reading challenges for myself for 10 years now, and though I'd always like to make my goal, the point is not to up my numbers, but to consistently search out new books, rather than re-reading the old, as is my long-established habit.  

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This year comes with a real treat: all the books I read were ones that I chose. And after years of being in some kind of schooling, and coming on the heels of skimming like crazy for master's comp exams, the freedom is wonderful. 

Most notably, I took up the Tempest Challenge this year, and didn't read a single book by a white straight man. In fact, I don't think I read any books by white men at all. It wasn't a difficult decision--I've largely had it with that demographic getting all the attention--but it did challenge me to consciously expand my boundaries. I read more authors of color, more foreign authors, and more translated authors than ever before. 

Instead, I continued to fall in love with N.K. Jemisin, and discovered the legendary Octavia Butler and the younger Alaya Dawn Johnson. I read the immensely satisfying end to Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist series, and was far from the only person disappointed by Go Set a Watchman. I branched out of my comfort zone with Banana Yoshimoto and Chang-rae Lee, both of which were amazing. I found new favorites in Tahmina Anam and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, who both taught me so much about their home countries (Bangladesh and Nigeria). AndTa-Nehisi Coates made me uncomfortable--and appropriately so. 

 I don't know that I will stick to the challenge next year (mainly because I really want to read Terry Pratchett's final book), but I do know that I will continue to seek out books that broaden my horizons. Because it results in amazing, wonderful, beautiful reading. 

It's hard to pick favorites this year. Though I have mixed feelings towards the year in general, I find that I never regret my year in reading. And 2015 has been stronger than ever. May your next reading year be fulfilling for you. 

The Full List

1.    I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
2.    Death of a King by Tavis Smiley
3.    On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
4.    Breaking Through by Francisco Jiménez
5.    Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
6.    Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
7.    Bluets by Maggie Nelson
8.    Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
9.    The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
10.    Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
11.    Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal
12.    The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
13.    Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
14.    Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
15.    The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
16.    Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalía de Milagros by Sherry Garland
17.    The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
18.    Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
19.    The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin
20.    Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
21.    Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
22.    Oreo by Fran Ross
23.    The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
24.    Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
25.    A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
26.    Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson
27.    The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
28.    Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
29.    The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

For links, overviews, and more specifics, check out my Goodreads list

The Reason I Jump: a review, and a confession

Transient
The other day I was visiting a town called Kamakura, where there’s this huge statue of Buddha. And when I saw it, I was so deeply moved that I started welling up. It wasn’t just Buddha’s majesty and dignity, it was the sheer weight of history and generations of peoples hopes, prayers and thoughts that broke over me, and I couldn’t stop myself crying. It was as if Buddha himself was saying to me, “All human beings have their hardships to bear, so never swerve away from the path you’re on.”
Everybody has a heart that can be touched by something. Crying isn’t necessarily about sadness or meltdowns or being upset. I’d like you to bear that in mind, if you would.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida 

This was meant to be purely a book review. And then it got a little sidetracked by the passage above. So bear with me for a bit, because first I have a confession: 

I have noticed changes in myself since depression.

Well, of course, you say. How could you not change during such a crucial fundamental time? There are the changes that were a result of me fighting back against the depression and anxiety--the mindfulness I now have, the resilience, the stamina. But there are things that continue to surprise me. How much I value kindness in others. And yet, simultaneously, how I’m not willing to take shit--whether shit from anyone else, or shit from myself, or just doing things I don’t want to do. I advocate for myself. I understand the importance of validation, for myself and from others.

But the one that surprises me? Being much more sensitive. Simultaneously resilient and sensitive. I am no longer as ashamed of crying as I once was. And I do it far more often--and not just at sad things either. No longer when I feel frustrated, or stressed. I do it when I am happy. When I am moved. When I am grateful. When I have so many emotions swirling around that I can’t name them before they all escape. That tightness in my chest, the welling up of tears--that’s all become a familiar feeling--a comfort, almost. I don’t know that I welcome it, but I no longer dread it. I know that I am who I am, that I am alive, that emotions are there and are so powerful.

And yet, the one part of me that doesn’t quite welcome it doesn’t look forward to it because I know how it’s still widely perceived. It’s a sadness, a pain, a weakness, something to be hidden.

I wish it weren’t so.

But it will not be that way for me. I pledge that. I make that promise. I will never say I have dust in my eye. I will never say I am sad when really I’m happy. I will never apologize for feeling emotions strongly, for living the life I want to, for being so vivid that sometimes it hurts. Because it is my life, and it belongs to me. And no one is going to tell me otherwise.

Perhaps that’s the reason I related so deeply to The Reason I Jump. Naoki Higashida, a Japanese teenager, has written a simple but perceptive book about the way he experiences the world. For his experience is not only his own--it tries to serve as a voice for all people with autism.

Of course, autism being what it is, a syndrome that we know precious little about, that comes on such a wide spectrum that differs so greatly from person to person, Naoki cannot speak for everyone. But he tries to give a voice to common problems and everyday struggles of his, in hopes that people will understand people like him.  

There are people who would tell you to read this book to understand someone with autism. I would agree with them. But I would also say read this book to understand yourself--because somehow, this Japanese teenager has understood something about you. As is obvious from the start, Naoki is not self-absorbed and insensitive, the horrific stereotype that autistic individuals have been saddled with. On the contrary, he is highly aware and deeply touched by everything around him. But speech, for him and others with autism, is a constant struggle, as are cues and social mores that make no sense.

Through his writing, he is not only able to answer simple questions (why he does certain things that others find strange) but express a deep understanding of his own emotions. This, in a way, has shamed me--I am a lifelong speaker, a writer, fully cognitively aware--why can’t I describe how I’m feeling some days? And yet it is shame that is somewhat inspiring. In spite of his difficulty to communicate in words, or perhaps because of it, Naoki has an incredible awareness of those feelings that can’t be expressed in words. He has motivated me to be better. To be more mindful, more aware. To try my best to be present, aware of my own self.

And that, I would say, is the reason I jump. Why do you? 

Why you should read Kindred

Science fiction has handy gadgets, amazing technology, and futuristic dilemmas. It features lasers, spaceships, and aliens. It takes place on far-flung planets, unheard of galaxies, and ships traveling at light speed. It has plots with chase scenes, dramatic confrontations, and stunning vistas. 

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By any of those measures, Kindred by Octavia Butler is not science fiction. Though it does indeed have time travel, a feature we usually associate with the genre, can you really call it science when it happens without a ship or gadget and without any sort of will or warning? There is no attempt to discover, as in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, what causes the incidents. No attempt to link it to genetics, to make it seem plausible and rational. It simply is. There is no mission, no sense of adventure, no sort of enjoyment or fun. The object is to survive. 

One day Dana disappears from her home to appear on a riverbank where a boy is drowning. She saves his life, and in thanks, is faced with the barrel of a rifle. She's traveled from Los Angeles in 1976 to Maryland in 1812. It's an act she will continue to repeat, as she--a black woman--is again and again drawn back to the life of Rufus Weylin--the son of a plantation owner. 

Taken from her present without warning, and trapped in the past until her life is seriously threatened, Dana has to learn to live in the harsh world of plantation slavery. It is a world where violence and cruelty are everywhere, and escape and agency are impossible. As her stays in the antebellum South grow longer, Dana and her husband find themselves questioning what is real, and if it matters as long as they survive. Playing the part of the slave, Dana struggles to deal with the simultaneous necessity of adapting to the nineteenth century and the horrific consequences that happen when she does.  

Octavia Butler's recreation of antebellum Maryland is harsh and vividly rendered through Dana's eyes as she struggles to balance the world she has known and the one she has been thrust into. Inhumanity and integrity are constantly juxtaposed as Dana chooses to save Rufus, a boy of his time who will grow up to own other humans. Dana struggles to keep her sense of self-worth even as she carries out her duty. Kindred, by telling the story of one woman's time on a plantation, manages to encapsulate all the bitter truths about all who took part in slave society, and leaves us wondering just how much else of that time we have forgotten. 

Fun histories you should read

One of the best parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I get to read a whole lot of fascinating books. One of the worst parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I don’t actually have time to really read those books I find so fascinating. Especially with a reading list of around 80 titles, a lot of those books will get skimmed, or else what we call grad-school read (introduction, conclusion, a review or two). So here are some titles that I loved skimming, but I think you would love even more if you read them all the way through. 

Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II

Transient

 Alan Berube is not your traditional historian--that is, he didn’t get his PhD, pay his dues, and get a position at a university. Instead, he’s a longtime community organizer turned community historian. The book was inspired by an encounter with the letters of gay servicemen, and in the end encompassed the interviews of nearly a thousand gay veterans, both men and women, as well as official archives. The book is a good one, telling of the unusual opportunities that gay men and women encountered in the military, but also of the second war that they were forced to fight--a war against their own commanders, who as time went on became rigidly adherent to anti-homosexual agenda. There are so many wonderful and personal stories in here, and I wish I had time to read them all. You should. (And if you don't feel like reading, there is a documentary to watch.) 

 

 

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

Transient

A fast-paced, well-written, and excellently researched story of a racialized Detroit criminal trial in 1925. Kevin Boyle takes the reader through the life of the main defendant, Ossian Sweet, laying out the world in which he lived and the struggles he went through. Sweet is a grandson of slaves who has worked hard to rise in the world through becoming a doctor and setting up a prosperous practice. Determined to claim his inheritance, he buys a house in a white neighborhood, and when surrounded by a mob, one man is killed. Boyle leads the reader through the ensuing contentious trial, sponsored by the NAACP and argued by famous lawyer Clarence Darrow.  A gripping book with great characters and hard truths that reads more like a novel than a painstakingly-researched history. Well worth it in any aspect.  

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812

Transient

This book has been on my list for awhile, so I'm so glad I finally got a chance to read it. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich provides the reader with excerpts from a seemingly mundane diary of a Maine frontier midwife. Together with town records and other documents of the period, she expands on the hard-to-read shorthand of the diary to show us its immense importance. When examined as a serious document rather than “the work of a woman,” it’s obvious it has huge implications. Whether on the subject of changing medical practices, domestic economy, rural debt, illegitimacy and accusations of rape, Ulrich does a wonderful job teasing out the subtleties and nuances within the diary to form a fantastic picture, not just of Martha Ballard’s life, but of a great portion of the residents of the early republic. 

So go on, head to your local library/bookstore/Amazon. These are all accessible to non-historians. And if you don't like them, you can blame me. But I have a feeling you'll enjoy them.