2016 in books, January

For all but the last weekend of this month, it was too cold to be outside. However, it was perfect to lay my hugely pregnant self down on a couch, cover up with a blanket and escape into books.

  • Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
    • My LibraryThing secret Santa sent me this book, which arrived on Christmas Eve. I have done SantaThing twice, and each time my Santa has picked out a book that I never would have found on my own but that I truly enjoyed. Saunders is a phenomenal writer, and his short stories feel complete regardless of their page length. The characters are complex and have to ask and answer hard questions, frequently in disturbing circumstances.
  • The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Holland
    • We’re working on a new permanent exhibit about evolution, the tree of life and phylogenetics. It’s complicated and fascinating. My boss is the one doing the hard research, and I read this book so that I will be able to be a good editor as the drafting begins. Incidentally, the fact that I get to read books about evolutionary biology makes my job even better.
  • Run by Ann Patchett
    • Run is a novel about adoption and family secrets. I usually love Patchett’s books, but I had a difficult time getting invested in this story.
  • Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
    • This book was my first time reading Anna Quindlen, and I anticipate that there will be more of her books in my future. The first half of the book struck me as a cozy story about a likeable family–one that shared many similarities to my own. The second half hit me like a punch in the gut, and I stayed up way too late to see how it would end.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
    • My friend Rachel loans me young adult novels after she reads them. While I’m a fan of YA fiction, I also need to intersperse it with other genres. Rachel makes sure that the best ones she reads make their way onto my radar. The format of this novel was unusual. A teenager receives thirteen audio cassettes recorded by a classmate who recently committed suicide. The narration alternates between her voice on the tapes and his thoughts about what he is hearing. It is fantastic.
  • ContamiNation: My Quest to Survive in a Toxic World by McKay Jenkins
    • I received a copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. McKay Jenkins offers us a frankly horrifying look at the toxins that surround us daily. Jenkins demonstrates through exhaustive research that chemicals are an ever-present reality in our homes, offices, cleaning supplies, toys, lawns and drinking water. While the author does an exemplary job showing how the problem developed and the havoc that it can wreak on human health, there is a dearth of practical solutions to limit personal chemical exposure. He does make some suggestions, but, ultimately, the reader is left with the understanding that while there is clearly a problem, a solution is far from certain. It did make me think about where the things I buy come from and to look for product that are phthalate- and paraben-free.
  • Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen
    • The travel literature sub-genre makes me happy so when I found this book in my neighborhood Little Free Library, I grabbed it. Unfortunately, it was not a particularly interesting read. I am not as well read as the author so a lot of her observations about locations featured in English literature did not resonate with me. Except for 221B Baker Street. That one I got.
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
    • I could not stop reading this book, and since I finished it, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. If you’re familiar with Dave Eggers, you know that he is an author who makes you think about the larger implications of his stories. In The Circle, a woman begins working for a social networking company (like a mixture of Facebook and Google on crack) that is steadily taking over how people worldwide communicate, purchase goods and think. As I read, it struck me how bizarre it was that characters were giving over so much of their autonomy and sense of self to a company. Then it struck me that while the conditions Eggers established were far-fetched, the implications of where social media is taking us were not. It raises questions about privacy and memory that I believe are far from settled in our current digital age.
  • Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler
    • I found this one in my neighborhood Little Free Library. Frankly, I’m not ever sure of what to make of Chelsea Handler. Sometimes her material makes me laugh out loud; other times her jokes fall incredibly flat. This book was what I expected–frequently funny, always irreverent.

2015 in Books, May

Another month’s worth of reading:

  • Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Berry
    • It took me from mid-March until the beginning of May to finish this behemoth. Berry wrote an exhaustive history of flooding on the Mississippi River, focusing his attention on the engineers who unwittingly created a problem, the 1927 flood, and the relief efforts. He shines specially attention on Greenville, MS, and New Orleans to show how the two cities were profoundly affected by the disaster. I knew that the flood was bad, but I did not understand the massive scale of the fallout or its profound impact on African American migration and national politics. I read this one at work in preparation for next summer’s Nature Unleashed exhibit.
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
    • I’ve watched the Disney version of Peter Pan a few times and Hook a few times more than that, but this was my first time reading Barrie’s classic. It was sadder than I expected with children falling out of perambulators, tertiary characters dying and the focus on how the Darlings felt about their children disappearing. None of those elements come across in Disney’s takes, but I found that they are what make the story a classic.
  • Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach
    • Let me preface this review by saying that I met Preston in the archives at the public library when I was doing some Piggly Wiggly research and he was going through newspaper microfilm. He helped me track down some information about 1915-1930 Beale, which I have been researching for the new permanent exhibits at the Pink Palace. This book gave me everything that I needed to understand how this relatively small area came to be the base of African American culture and politics in the Delta. It is well researched, interesting to read and full of anecdotes that make the reading fun. If you’re from Memphis or want to learn about a large piece of the city’s soul, read it. You won’t be disappointed.
  • Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
    • I thoroughly enjoyed Barnett’s take on rain, a topic I usually only consider when I desperately want it for my garden or to avoid it at an outdoor event. She approaches the subject with a mixture of science, environmental activism and cultural history. I think that she was at her best in her chapters on the recent drought in California and Colorado and the consequences of building in floodplains and historically drought-prone areas. Much like Mark Kurlansky, Barnett takes a broad topic and examines it in relation to multiple facets of science and human history. I received this book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.
  • The Water and the Wild by K.E. Ormsbee
    • This book was another from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. The Water and the Wild is aimed at ages 8-12, but it is an entertaining fantasy read for adults as well. Ormsbee creates a world parallel to Earth that is inhabited by sprites, will o’the wisps and fanged beasts. Lottie, the main character, has to learn the rules of Albion while going on a quest with her new acquaintances to retrieve a cure for her best friend back on Earth. Many of the characters are multi-dimensional; however, Adelaide, one of the young sprites, quickly begins to sound redundant with her focus on refinement. Overall, Ormsbee’s book is a well-written world for young readers, which is why I passed it on to my appropriately aged cousins.