I’m finally getting my book groove back after hardly reading any fiction in 2019. That is one thing the pandemic has been good for: Now that some of my life’s big time commitments are gone, I finally have a little more time to read. At first I had big dreams of zooming through a bunch of series that I’ve been meaning to read for years, but then I got preoccupied with Wikiwrimo updates, especially some of the large-scale ones that I finally had time to do.
One thing I’ve been trying to do is read less fiction by straight white dudes. I haven’t extended this to nonfiction due to the topics I like to listen to, my preference of listening to nonfiction, and the difficulty in obtaining audiobooks on those topics to start with, especially on a budget.
Since I haven’t written any book reviews in over two years, let’s just go through the highlights of this year’s books. All my books and their star ratings are on my Goodreads profile, but let’s just start from the beginning of the year and go through my favorites.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas: Zomorod is the new kid. Again. But this time her parents say it’s for the last time, so she buys new bedding and furniture like she’s ready to stay and even adopts the name Cindy so she can fit in at her new school. The book takes place in California during the Iranian Revolution of the late 70s, and Cindy’s family experiences harassment as a result. It’s well-written and balances serious topics with middle school life while not being overbearing, and the story draws on the author’s own experiences growing up in the States during that time. And I’ll be honest, it was a relief reading a book without any romance (although there is a possible crush).
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb: I listened to this book, which is written by a therapist about some of her experiences being a therapist (and being in therapy). The story concentrates on five clients (thoroughly anonymized): a narcissistic man in the TV business, a young newlywed fighting cancer, an older woman who wants to die, a woman dealing with bad relationships and alcoholism, and of course Lori’s therapist. While part of this book talks about Lori’s anonymized clients and how they grow, the other part of the book goes through Lori’s own story: her bad breakup, how she dropped out of med school and started practicing therapy, her journey to parenthood, and her own experience in therapy after that breakup. I was in therapy myself at the time, and I found myself thinking a lot about the realizations she had come across, both as a therapist and as a patient.
Patternist series by Octavia Butler: First, I read the books in the following order: Patternmaster, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, and Clay’s Ark. This is a slight shift from both the published and chronological orders, but I like my way better for a couple of reasons. First, I really enjoyed Anwanyu and Doro’s story chronologically and might have found myself caring less if I had read them in published order. Second, Clay’s Ark was my least favorite of the books. If I had read the series in strict chronological order, I might not have continued to Patternmaster. And finally, Patternmaster was a good setup for the full backstory. But for real, go read these books. Anwanyu and Dora’s stories were my favorites, even though I wanted to yell at Doro a LOT. (As a side note, I also read Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy and liked them but didn’t enjoy those as much for some reason.)
Parasitology trilogy by Mira Grant: These books are so good. Maybe it’s weird to be reading about a parasite that takes over your brain during a pandemic, since I read these books in April. But you know what, I found these books to be comforting because in stories about pandemics and apocalypses, the world doesn’t actually end–even the nine thousand times you think it will. These books begin wtih a young woman waking up after being revived by a tapeworm in a world where everyone has harmless tapeworms in them to release medication and protect you from illness. She has to relearn everything–how to eat, walk, interact with other humans, and her old personality is gone. But of course, things don’t always go as well as you think. There are corporate masterminds, sleepwalker parasites, underground researchers, extremists, family tensions, and so much more all clashing together in the trilogy. Oh, and there’s a dog.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: I listened to this book. I only knew of Theranos in passing before listening to it, and holy crap does this book dive deep, from founder Elizabeth Holmes’s upbringing to the whistleblowing. It also brought to light just how messed up the entire affair was, like how Holmes was nineteen and dating the company’s eventual COO (who was twice her age at the time), how this company was in “stealth mode” for ten years, and all the influential people involved in the whole affair, including senators and Cabinet members (both past and future). She was eventually indicted on counts of fraud, and the trial has been pushed to March 2021 due to the pandemic. The author is an investigative journalist, and while many journalists don’t do long-form writing well, Carreyrou’s writing style does this extremely well, even the part where he inserts himself into the story.
The Art of Logic in an Illogical World by Eugenia Cheng: I listened to this book. It’s written by a mathematician but it’s not actually about math. Instead, it’s about the logical underpinnings of math, assumptions, and axioms, and how those translate to the real world and the arguments we make. For example, two people may disagree on a topic not just because of their liberal vs. conservative values, but because of their different assumptions in making their arguments. But emotions come into play too in the real world, and very little is black and white. It also serves as a very gentle introduction to basic logic, something that should be taught in schools but isn’t. I want to throw this book at everyone ever.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay: I listened to this book, which the author narrated, and wow. I’m not fat. She’s raw and open about her experiences, from rape to disordered eating to fat acceptance. But through it all, she doesn’t come to accept her body and wrap everything up in a bow at the end. As a thin person, I did feel uncomfortable through some parts, but that’s the point. I don’t have to have my body on display and have it judged in the way she describes. This is a type of privilege that many people don’t think about unless they don’t have it or someone points it out to them. I’d recommend this to anyone, no matter your size.
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo: This is a cutesy YA romance that came into my life at just the right moment, when the world was burning down even more in June, I had finished my big productive projects, and I needed an escapist novel to burn through. Prankster Clara and Good Girl Rose find themselves working on Clara’s dad’s food truck over the summer as punishment, and Clara finds herself changing in a good way. I won’t lie, Clara and Rose both drove me up the wall in the beginning, even though their behaviors were perfectly justifiable for being teenagers and less able to understand the other person’s perspective. Clara grows a lot over the course of the book, and she finds herself changing in a positive way, then wonders if she’s leaving her old self behind. This is something I could have used as a teen.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: Yet another cutesy YA romance that came into my life just as I needed it. And it’s gay! If you’re in YA circles, you might have heard of this one–the one where the First Son and the Prince go from enemies to secret lovers. This book covers the fictional 2020 election and wow, reading a book that takes place in a pandemic-free 2020 (and with a female president and biracial kids!) was extremely weird. I want to live in this timeline instead, even with the callouts to our timeline’s 2016 election.
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann: Yes, another cutesy YA romance, but this time the narrator is Black and biromantic ace! Alice is cool with being asexual, and no one’s suggesting that she find the right person to cure her. There are also positive therapy experiences as she works through her crush on a coworker. It’s not just a romance — there are other conflicts to drive the story along, like growing apart from her best friend (who she’s living with and who’s in a relationship) and her parents’ pressure to go to law school. My main complaint is that the love interest seems too good to be real, especially when he’s that young, but that’s a minor thing.
Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton: I listened to this book, which details the deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism) among white non-college graduates in America aged 45-54, many of whom live in suburban and rural areas and are working lower-wage jobs where the income has actually declined over the past 40 years (taking inflation into account). It also goes into the opioid crisis, the power of corporations, and the rising costs of healthcare (especially relevant since many of these low-wage jobs don’t come with benefits like health insurance). Even if you don’t read the book, I highly recommend Atul Gawande’s essay on the big points. Since this book was published in March 2020, these problems loom even larger now, and I’d like to hear the authors’ thoughts on the pandemic and how it relates to the book’s material.
There There by Tommy Orange: This is one of those books that several people in my book club have raved about over the past couple of years and I finally got around to reading it. Points in its favor when I read it: It’s short (important since I was having trouble concentrating on anything), not part of a series, stars urban Native Americans, and most importantly is damn good. The twelve narrators are all involved in the first powwow in Oakland in some way, and some of the narrators discover they’re connected along the way. Orange takes on topics that affect the Native community: alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, not feeling Native enough, suicide, poverty, and much more.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi: This is an #ownvoices novel. Fabiola is a Haitian immigrant teen starting a new life in Detroit with her aunt and cousins… but without her mom because her mom was detained at the border. Once she gets to Detroit she discovers that American life isn’t as easy as it seems, especially with all the… suspect activity that’s happening around her. While I liked her boyfriend, the romance did feel sudden and rushed. There are also elements of voudou and the occasional chapter telling the backstories of other characters. While this added depth to a lot of characters (including Fabiola’s romantic interest, who remained a mystery until then), it also made me despise the main antagonist even more.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: I did not know how badly I needed this sequel. I spent nine months on the waitlist for this book and then devoured it in a day, but it was 100% worth the wait. There are three female narrators, but Aunt Lydia (who we see as a minor character in The Handmaid’s Tale) is the real star here. You get to hear her backstory as well as her role in the present while exploring the decisions she made over time. There’s only so much I can say without spoilers. Just go read it if you liked the original.
The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson: I listened to this book, which is long and meaty but not as difficult to listen to as I thought. It makes the argument that a nation’s path to liberty is difficult to achieve (hence the narrow corridor), and events can push a nation in or out of that corridor, and comes with a lot of examples from around the world and through time. In some cases, the state can build up its power and growth at the expense of societal rights — see China. In other cases, society controls the politics to the point where they create a cage of norms that make it extremely difficult for the state to implement changes — even at the citizens’ benefit. See India’s caste system. And then there are states that have been taken over with strong government but have been exploited by the elite for their own power. A balance between the state and society are key to entering the corridor of liberty, but you’re not free once you’re in the corridor. The US is a good example of this; the authors discuss big tech business, the civil rights movement, and the deaths at Black people by law enforcement as examples. This is meaty but so good, and if I weren’t starting a new job in a week and half I’d put myself on the waitlist for Why Nations Fail now.
What’s next? I’m not sure. I have The Sympathizer checked out and some podcasts to catch up on before checking out another audiobook. But I start a new job after Labor Day, so I may not finish that next audiobook before then.