Best Reads of 2016

A bookshelf piled with colorful books.I read a lot. Probably about one book per week. But I have a terrible memory. Most of them fade from my brain within a few days.

Not these books though. These books made an impression. They’re the ones I can’t stop thinking about, the ones that keep springing to mind in conversations about unrelated topics.

Off the top of my often-rock-hard head, here’s what’s sticking with me from 2016.

Mysteries/Crime Novels

The Juniper Song series, by Steph Cha. I love modern takes on classic noir, and this series by a young LA writer is delightful. The protagonist, Song, is a Korean-American fan of Raymond Chandler who falls into becoming a private detective. She’s gruff and loving, with a core of steel, and makes terrible decisions regularly (always a plus for a protagonist). As with all great noir, LA becomes its own character, from starlit Hollywood sign to seedy underbelly. Start with Follow Her Home, the first in the series.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen. This is probably the best-written novel I read this year. It’s about the first eight black police officers in Atlanta, Georgia, right after World War II. Feels alive and raw, especially with the violence and anger igniting around race today, but leaves you with a feeling of hope, not despair. Also pulls off the hat trick of feeling completely authentic without becoming stiff with research.

The Trespasser, by Tana French. French is a reliably excellent crime novelist from Ireland. Her first novel, In the Woods, is not only one of my favorite mysteries, but also one of my favorite novels, period. This new one, as always, features characters who feel so real I can’t believe they’re not walking around Dublin right this moment.

Nonfiction

Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein. A frank, thoughtful, and lively examination of the messages around sexuality that girls are absorbing, and how they are responding. Good for anyone who is close to a pre-teen or teenage girl.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and has an intelligent perspective on white poverty in that region today. I like how he has compassion for the people he’s writing about, and never condescends, while also being crystal-clear on how this population does itself injury.

Naked at Our Age, by Joan Price. Price is an authority on sexuality later in life. In this book, she shares stories and tips on maintaining a healthy sex life at any age. I appreciate her clear and candid voice, and also her broad view of human sexuality—there are many ways to find intimacy and fulfillment, and most of them we don’t usually see portrayed in the media. Her website is also a terrific resource.

Fiction (Plunge into the Darkness)

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis. Already reviewed this one here, but it’s worth re-mentioning. Thrilling and original, with another awesome tough female protagonist.

Fiction (Take Your Mind Off The Darkness)

Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub. Fun and engaging story about two families living in hipsterized Brooklyn.

I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy. Delicious cotton candy about a commitment-phobe undermining herself on the eve of her wedding to Mr. Right (or is he?!).

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these, and which books made an impression on you in 2016.


Photo by The Real Cloud2013 via Creative Commons license.

Unrepentant outlaws

Bookstore window with sign reading "Any amount of books"I’m upset and terrified by Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. It gives me a feeling of intense powerlessness.

I’m scared that the national and global economies will crash.

I’m scared that there will be widespread rioting and my family and friends will get hurt or killed.

I’m scared that he’ll launch World War III.

I’m just scared.

As I figure out the best ways for me to fight back—or at least to remain constructive in a bad time—volunteering has been making me feel better.

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It usually annoys me when someone writes about their volunteer work, because it comes across as kinda self-righteous. So, as a disclaimer, I don’t volunteer because I’m some saint or perfect person.

Often, when I’ve signed up for a volunteer project, and the hour arrives, I don’t really want to go. I’d rather stay home and read, or watch Vikings on Amazon Prime. Those activities are delightful and don’t inconvenience me in the slightest.

But then I do go, and 100% of the time, I feel better afterwards. (Hey, sort of like working out.)

It’s not that, because I’m a good person, I volunteer. It’s the opposite, really. I volunteer because doing so makes me a better person. And I get way more out of it than I give.

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I volunteer through Boston Cares. They’re a good organization for commitment-phobes. They publish a calendar, and you can sign up for as many or as few activities as you want.

Lately, I’ve been giving some time to the Prison Book Program. My friend Nance, who volunteers a LOT more than I do, got me into it.

We read letters sent by prisoners from across the country, in which they ask for books. Many prisons don’t have a library, or only a small one. Family members and friends aren’t allowed to send books to prisoners. Book donations have to come from a bookstore.

So we are the Lucy Parsons Bookstore—an all-donations “bookstore,” run by volunteers, named for an anarchist labor activist, in the basement of a Unitarian church in Quincy, MA, where John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and JQA’s wife Louisa lie buried in the next room.

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Reading helps prisoners feel human. It helps them feel less trapped, and keeps them calm in a stressful environment. It helps them educate themselves.

It also reduces recidivism. When prisoners get some education during their time incarcerated, they’re less likely to reoffend and wind up back in prison after their release.

Stats on prisoner education are a bit elusive, maybe because this is such a forgotten population. The ones I can find that look legit are from 2003, and say that 68% of prisoners don’t have a high school diploma.

I’ve heard anecdotally that the average education level for prisoners is around Grade 8. The most frequently requested book is a dictionary.

Their letters put my life in perspective. One man wrote that he’s been living in a one-man cell for 6+ years, and reading books is the only thing that keeps him going. Another requested books about “unrepentant outlaws.” One sent me a list of his 25 favorite authors. Another said he’s due to be paroled in 2045. He’s 52 years old.

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I don’t know these men and women’s crimes. Some of them have done awful, destructive, violent things. Others shouldn’t be locked up at all. Many are in there for making bad choices, having bad luck, and/or having poor impulse control. Or, they got swept up in the round-up of men of color for drug offenses, real or imagined.

Why they’re in there doesn’t matter. Books are a civil right. And they’re comforting. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I’ve felt the power of a book to soothe me when I’m upset, or to sharpen how I think about a topic.

After boxing my last set of books for the night, I walk out of the church and look up at the moon. I realize how lucky I am to walk down the street freely, to go where I want. To go to the library the next day and read whatever I desire.

When a prisoner asks for a particular type of book, and I’m able to find it and send it to them, it feels like a small concrete victory.

We need more of those these days.

Photo by Glen Scott via Creative Commons license.

Toronto, Part 1: Fredelle

Graffiti of the word "Toronto" in red with green borders.

Graffiti Alley introduces itself.

Toronto had been calling me my whole life.

Somewhat odd, maybe. Seems more like something people say about Hawaii or Tuscany than about a city in Ontario. But I’ve always thought of Toronto as a cosmopolitan place—a place full of brilliant, delightful people.

This is because of a large figure in my childhood: Fredelle. Fredelle was my mom’s best friend when I was a kid, and we’d go visit her in the small town in New Hampshire where she lived for part of the year. The rest of the time she lived in Toronto, a mythical Emerald City where I’d never been.

Fredelle was a first-rate storyteller, and had a keen eye and ear for bullshit. She’d grown up on the Saskatchewan prairie, and had no patience for anything less than honesty.

For me as a child, she was the ultimate in intellectual and cultural knowledge. She’d traveled all over the world; she’d written memoirs and books about raising creative kids. She baked sesame cookies that were notorious for burning if you left them in even one minute too long (which she never did). She was independent and a feminist, though I don’t remember her ever using that word.

Fredelle could have a sharp edge. I remember telling her that my school had gotten a new American flag that had flown above the state house previously. She said, “Anya, that’s the kind of thing that doesn’t interest me at all.”

But her interest, when you had it, was laser-like and unforced. When she listened to you—and even when she was the one telling a story—you felt surrounded by her brilliance and her complete attention. I wonder what she would have made of our fragmented world of cell phones, apps, and swiping left and right.

A business sign saying "This is the place," hanging outside a brick building.

Because Fredelle lived part of the time in Toronto, I associated the city with high culture. What culture meant to a nine-year-old, I’m not sure. Some combination of graciousness and fearlessness, and lots of art all around.

Fredelle died of brain cancer when I was a teenager. Her loss to my family was surgical, both abrupt and enormous. Strangely, though I was sad when she died, I don’t remember grieving hugely. Maybe this was because I was at the height of teenage self-absorption, or maybe it was because I already considered her, at 67, to be quite old.

I never visited Toronto during Fredelle’s lifetime. But this week, I finally traveled there. Decades after she painted a bright picture in my mind of a city of kindness, sophistication, and order, I explored it as an adult.

More later on what I found there.

Dedicated to the memory of Fredelle Maynard, 1922-1989.

Photos in this post by me. View my other Toronto photos.

 

 

Book Review: The Wolf Road

A wolf looking alert against a wilderness background
Elka’s a 17-year-old girl living in what used to be Canada. But the Cold War got hot back in the 1980s, and now North America’s a partial wasteland, partial wilderness. You have to be tougher than nails to survive.

The Wolf Road tells the story of Elka’s cross-country journey looking for her parents, who left her as a baby to seek their fortune in the wilder-than-a-Western west. She narrates the tale, and her voice is extraordinary: hard, fierce, and rich with dark humor. As we learn more and more about her past, we see increasing amounts of emotion and love–and also a core-deep darkness that’s hidden even from herself, until it finally detonates.

I’ve had it up to here with post-apocalyptic books, but I loved this world Beth Lewis created. It’s vital and raging and real, just like Elka herself. Lewis (a Brit) also gets points for creating a distinctive North American rural dialect for Elka.

A gorgeous, original book.

Photo credit: Mark Kent, via Creative Commons license

Book Review: Smarter Than You Think

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Clive Thompson’s new book, Smarter Than You Think, is subtitled “How technology is changing our minds for the better.” What sets it apart from other tech writing is that Thompson is neither a utopian nor a dystopian: he’s more of an evidence-based optimist. His book is a thoughtful, clear examination of what he calls “our Google-drenched world.”

Smarter Than You Think covers a mosaic of topics, from search literacy to memory to gaming. What unifies its chapters is the theme of humanity interfacing with new media. Thompson addresses a bunch of interesting questions here.

Is the Internet really “rewiring our brains”?
Well, yes, but any experience we have, and any sentence we read, does the same thing. And it’s impossible to do control-group experiments about the effects of new technology, because we’re all so saturated with it.

Is the prevalence of Google making our memories worse?
No, but we are outsourcing some of our “transactive memory” to search engines, in the way that we have always done to our friends and spouses.

Research has shown that couples share memory, with one remembering things like the kids’ daily schedules and the other remembering, say, the password for the online savings and checking accounts. Today, we outsource much of our shared memory to Google in addition to sharing it with other people.

Are video games making kids dumber?
Hardly. The use of strategy-based games such as Civilization in classrooms has been shown to increase kids’ engagement and up their reading scores. Kids collaborating on World of Warcraft create their own complex formulas for beating bad guys–in effect, college-level algebra. But these same kids might be failing their math class because they are completely disengaged there. Thompson argues that games can be used intelligently to increase kids’ investment in their own learning process.

There are so many cool anecdotes and factoids in this book. I especially enjoyed Thompson’s discussion of how reading people’s Facebook updates gives us a kind of “ambient awareness” (low-level ESP) about what’s going on with them.

“Our new tools are powerful,” Thompson writes, “but only if we’re taught how to use them.” He sees the hazards and pitfalls of misuse of technology as clearly as its mind-expanding powers. I agree with him that tech, like electricity, is neither good nor evil unless we make it so. His vision of a world where the brute power of computing meshes with human intuition is realistic and inspiring.

Jane Austen and the Hazards of Children

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the great pleasures of having a Kindle is that I can download books for free that are in the public domain. Right now I’m reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen. The following quote made me laugh:

You know it is very bad to have children with one that one is obligated to be checking every moment; ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that;’ or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.

These words are spoken by Mrs. Musgrove, a goodnatured but inelegant character, to the protagonist, Anne. Anne is unmarried and doesn’t have children. She was pressured into turning down a suitor at the age of 19–a man she truly loved–and now, at 27, is considered faded, over the hill, and well on her way to spinsterhood.

Austen accurately shows how Anne gets pressured into a care-giving role by her somewhat flakey relatives. She becomes an unofficial nanny for her sister’s children when she visits them, because everyone assumes that is her natural role. After all, she likes the kids, and she doesn’t have a husband or suitors to take up her time.

In a poignant detail, Austen describes how Anne is always called upon to play the piano when her extended family throws parties, but is never expected to dance.

Austen never portrays Anne as whiny or bitter about her situation. And Austen never asks us to pity her. The book also includes an older childfree couple who are portrayed as content in each other’s company, socially active, and not blighted or lessened by their lack of a child.

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion relatively late in her life. I wonder if she was looking back on her own youthful crush object, Tom Lefroy. Unlike Anne, Jane was not pressured to reject Tom–instead, his family forced him to move away from her, believing their match to be financially impractical.

It’s unknown if this was a great loss that haunted Jane forever, or a mere childish dalliance that she got over fairly quickly.

Either way, it was Tom who caved to his family’s pressure, not Jane to hers. Perhaps her sympathetic portrayal of Anne, and giving Anne a second chance at love, helped Jane forgive Tom for his weakness.

Jane didn’t live a wildly unconventional or political life, but her mind was unusually free. Her family encouraged her to read, to write, to dance, and to express herself. I bet that if she were alive today, whether or not she wanted kids herself, she’d be fully supportive of those of us who are childfree by choice.

Book Review: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself

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Jen Kirkman has always known she didn’t want to have kids. In her new book, she’s endlessly entertaining as she finds witty comebacks to the questions she gets all the time:

Questioner: If you don’t have kids, who is going to take care of you when you’re old?

Kirkman: Servants?

Questioner: Men have to spread their seed. It’s in their DNA.

Kirkman: He can spread his seed all he wants. I have a magic pill that prevents it from growing.

Kirkman is better with the zingers than most of us, since she’s a comic who writes for Chelsea Handler’s shows. But her book isn’t just a series of one-liners. She’s calm and clear about her decision not to reproduce: “I’m not mother material but I’m a nice person, sure. And I’m a nice person because I’m usually in a good mood and I’m usually in a good mood because I’m not responsible for raising a child I don’t want.”

Kirkman delights in turning childfree phobias on their head. She’s not worried about dying alone, because it would be annoying to die surrounded by young, healthy people. She also writes about her affection for her friends who are parents, and for their kids, and how her love for them has no bearing on her own decision not to have a baby.

If you’re childfree by choice, this book will crack you up and make you feel like you’ve got a strong, eccentric ally in your corner.

Let’s Get “Decisive,” Part 2

We’re great at giving advice to others. We’re terrible at making decisions for ourselves.

So the authors of Decisive recommend that, when you’re facing a tough decision, you ask yourself, “What would I tell my best friend to do?” It’s amazing how quickly this clears away any haze around the issue.

Humans are kinda weird. In theory, it shouldn’t matter whether the decision is facing me, or my best friend, if I’m trying to analyze it logically. But for some reason, just giving ourselves that little extra bit of breathing room yields better results.

Let’s Get “Decisive,” Part 1

I just read Decisive, the new book by Chip and Dan Heath. They’re wonderful writers who focus on how people can communicate their ideas and make changes in their lives and businesses. (Their first book, Made to Stick, is a classic.)

Decisive contains many small but powerful ideas, so I’ll break them down into a series of posts, and put a childfree spin on each one.

Decisive Rule #1: Widen your spotlight.

We often get trapped into either/or decisions without quite knowing how we got there. So the “spotlight” of our attention is focused very narrowly, and there may be excellent options just outside its range. According to the Heaths, any time you’re wondering “whether or not” to do something, beware, because there are other options you’re leaving off the table.

For example, instead of obsessing about “whether or not” to move in with your boyfriend, ask yourself: “What makes me happy about our relationship? What would I like to see change?”

Maybe it bugs you that you always have to pack a bag before heading over to your guy’s place for the weekend. If he gives you use of a dresser drawer and you can keep some clothes there, how will that feel? A relief? More pressure?

Widening the spotlight helps us chop up a big meaty question into bite-sized pieces. And it helps us reframe a problem, so that our creative mind can attack it with gusto.

 “Whether or not” to have a kid is one big, overwhelming question. But even though it seems like the ultimate either-or decision, shining a slightly broader spotlight shows that it’s not.

There are many ways for me to nurture people other than raising a child. Mentoring and teaching jump to mind right away.

There are lots of ways for me to be creative, without creating a new human life. Writing, singing, doing crafty art projects, and cooking all satisfy that urge.

And there are lots of ways for me to have kids in my life, without crossing that huge whether-or-not line to becoming a mom.

What do you think about the “widen your spotlight” idea? Has this ever worked for you?