For my fifth annual Reading Recap I decided to do something a little special: procrastinate for five months before finishing it. In my defense, I was very busy around New Year’s, and I am very not-busy now.
1. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman (2017)
I am a sucker for tradition. Even if I don’t follow them myself, I admire their observance. Norse Mythology scratched my tradition itch in two ways.
Firstly, Gaiman follows the tradition of adapting ancient tales into modern tongue. These stories are entertaining by 21st century standards. I respect this retelling from a popular author for its potential to influence a new generation with old myths.
Secondly, I followed the tradition of listening to the stories orally, i.e., as an audiobook. Just like a classic translation of Homer’s epic Greek myths, I can’t be bothered to sit down and read these tales. Norse Mythology was good company for a long drive.
2. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
Americanah succeeds in being two types of novel at once: both a literary tale of relationships, loves, friendships, and lives lived, and a commentary on dichotomies in society (American vs. Nigerian, European vs. African, “Non-American Black” vs. “American Black,” immigrant vs. native, poor vs. wealthy, probably more).
Adichie describes a discrimination double-whammy: being both an immigrant and black in the United States. The main character, as a black person in the U.S., is subject to the people around her making myriad assumptions based on her skin color, but as an immigrant she doesn’t even know what those assumptions are. As she describes in her blog:
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care….If you are a woman, please do not speak your mind as you are used to doing in your country. Because in America, strong-minded black women are SCARY. And if you are a man, be hyper-mellow, never get too excited, or somebody will worry that you’re about to pull a gun.
I enjoyed Americanah for its insights into a culture that is not my own, and for the pure enjoyment of the story and writing.
3. 52 Loaves, William Alexander (2010)
I spent 2019 baking artisan bread every week. What splendid luck that William Alexander did the same thing several years ago and documented it in this memoir. 52 Loaves was a perfect companion for my journey; Alexander had roughly the same plans (bake artisan bread each week), goals (improved skills, consistently well-formed and delicious loaves), and desires (quit our old lives and become a baker in a European monastery). Alexander hilariously portrays himself as a manic character, driven by single-minded passion for perfection.
I learned a lot about the practice of baking bread from dedicated cookbooks (see below), but Alexander does the work of historical and scientific investigation into bread baking and condenses it down into the tastiest morsels. He traces the timeline of bread baking from Egypt and Morocco to England and France, and dips into the science of flour, yeast, and heat–all without feeling like a textbook. I gleaned useful tidbits of bread knowledge and felt validated by his experience of the same restrictions and frustrations. Any amateur bread baker should find 52 Loaves informative, engaging, and comforting.
3. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene (1948)
This book was on my shelf as a gift from my Dad, but I was inspired to finally read it by the many favorable mentions it receives in Americanah. Disparate forces insisted I read it, and now the force is with me: this book is incredible.
Many of the main character Scobie’s emotions, thoughts, and actions are influenced by his Catholic faith; they may be unbelievable or unintelligible to a non-Catholic, but very very real to a lapsed one. Catholic or not, The Heart of the Matter is nothing but clear, perfect prose. Every page glows with powerful sentences that arrest you in the moment, written with the quiet certainty of ancient wisdom. Regardless of its foreign setting and circumstances, the novel is simply human. It is a tale of love and things that look like love and things that are done for what was once love.
4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
One should never read a book out of obligation. Unfortunately I let obligation drag me through 800+ pages of gratuitous abuse, self harm, and psychological torment. This novel is about one character, but the author couldn’t settle on one way to tell his story. The reader is subjected to jarring changes in narrative voice and meandering back stories of irrelevant characters. The personal stories of intense violence and trauma may be gratifying or affirming to certain readers; I’ll leave A Little Life to them.
5. The World According to Garp, John Irving (1978)
How many times have I read Garp? 4? 6? It’s hard to say. I keep returning to it. I proclaim to the world that it is perfect, that it is one of my favorite books. Then the thought creeps into my head, “You first read Garp as a teenager. There’s no way it’s as good as you remember.”
So I read it again. And it’s as good as I remember. It is perfect. It is one of my favorite books.
6. In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson (2001)
I lifted my moratorium on Bill Bryson’s personal narratives (see: 2015’s Reading Recap on Notes from a Small Island) because a trip to Australia deserved an Australian travelogue. Bryson did what he does best: read a bunch of books about Australia, took a trip around the country, and connected the best bits of history with his lived experience. My trip did not go beyond Sydney, but Bryson took me across the continent. His combination of intelligence, curiosity, and wit make In a Sunburned Country a delight.
7. Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher (1987)
Postcards from the Edge is interesting as a look at the inner thoughts of an addict through the cycles of addition and recovery—while using, deciding to get clean, mid-rehab, post-rehab, relapse. It also explores how a recovering addict returns to their old life (work, family, relationships, self-image, etc.) without their old crutch.
As a piece of literary fiction, PftE leaves a lot to be desired. The narrative structure changes frequently, and there is a lack of fluidity to unify the various formats. Similarly, dialogues between characters are more like alternating monologues. Bon mots should be peppered in like a fine ground spice; these characters shake bon mots out like whole peppercorns that stick in your teeth and detract from the rest of the meal. The novel moves quickly, and it’s fine.
8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
I listened to THGttG in one sitting (driving), having read it over a decade ago. It is everything I remember it being: clever, funny, playful, an entire mythology created from scratch. It felt more like a children’s book than I remember it being (when I was a child), but that doesn’t detract from the delight it imparts.
9. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, Robert Hughes (1986)
“Australia started as a penal colony, and its population descended from convicts.” I grew up “knowing” exactly this much about the nation’s history, and I decided to expand my knowledge before visiting last fall. The Fatal Shore introduced the world (including Australians) to the reality of Australia’s origins as a Commonwealth nation. It revolutionized the way I see Australia, its people, and its history.
The Fatal Shore follows a complete historical path from the “discovery” of Australia by Europeans, the reasons Britain chose to send convicts overseas, the terrible voyage from England to the South Pacific, the horrifying reality of prisoner life (and death), the inhumane treatment of natives, the eventual abolition of transportation, and finally the reluctance of modern Australians to acknowledge the “convict stain.”
The cruelty of “the system” is breathtaking. Hughes uses contemporary accounts to describe lashings and other gruesome punishments meted out at the whim of whomever happened to govern at any given time. The parallels with the American system of slavery are striking, as are the differences. The effects of European colonialism on Aboriginal people is touched on throughout the book, including one dedicated chapter, though that subject is not the book’s focus. There are consistent references to government policies and social structures that guaranteed cruel treatment of Aborigines for generations.
After reading The Fatal Shore, I cannot laugh at easy jokes about Australians-as-convicts. The truth is ugly and horrifying, and it imbues the Australian people with a complexity and strength that deserves more compassion. Despite my description here, The Fatal Shore is a fantastic read. I was fascinated and engrossed from the first to the last page.
10. You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life, Jen Sincero (2013)
Imagine the Works Progress Administration sent researchers door-to-door collecting all the sticky notes posted on Americans’ bathroom mirrors. Then the inspirational quotes written on all those sticky notes were transcribed into a single book. The result would have the tone, coherence, and usefulness of You Are a Badass.
Like many popular self-help books, You Are a Badass is a watered down compilation of better teachers’ advice. It mixes pop psychology, Eastern spirituality, the law of attraction, and whatever else might boost the readers’ self-esteem. Sincero’s dubious claims are delivered in cringe-inducing language that renders the book painful to read. For example, each chapter starts with a quote, and one quote is credited to “Albert Einstein; scientist, awesomist.” The gall.
I’m particularly perturbed by the way Sincero sings the praises of meditation and surrendering, but recommends it in service of a goal and manifestation of your desires (money, love, car, job, etc.). You want X; surrender and X will come to you. I take offense to this order of operations. If you surrender and still expect X, when X does not come you may become frustrated and disillusioned. Maybe you didn’t surrender well enough; maybe surrender is bullshit.
The point of surrender is that X may or may not come to you, but whatever does (whether X or even Y or Z) will be in tune with the universe. If you surrender your expectations, when X, Y, or Z arrives, you can welcome it as natural. Holding on to X is not surrender. *steps off Tolle soapbox*
11. Do It Now: Essays on Narrative Improv, Parallelogramophonograph (2016)
This brief collection of briefer essays about improv is simple and direct, like the notes a coach might give after a show. I appreciate that the authors don’t pad the pages with theory or anecdotes, which thicken a book but don’t help an improvisor. These essays are geared toward improv forms that tell one continuous narrative over the course of a set. I haven’t performed such a form yet, but I expect to return to these essays if and when I ever do.
12. Poem a Day: Volume 3, Retta Bowen, et al. (2004)
This is the third and final volume of this series. I began each day of 2017-2019 with these poems, and I am a little sad to be left on my own again, without this curated daily selection. After a disappointing Volume 2, Volume 3 returned to what I loved about Volume 1. The selections showcase the English language. The editorial snippets are brief, interesting, and relevant to the poem. The poets’ dates of birth and death are included, and the poem is almost always connected to the specific day of the year (e.g., poet’s birthday, day it was written, day it was inspired). I treasure these volumes and will certainly return to them in time.
As mentioned above, baking bread was a big part of my 2019. I frequently referred to blogs, r/Breadit, and Youtube, but I primarily taught myself from books. The three below taught me almost everything I know.
Full disclosure/not an ad: A baguette class at Zingerman’s Bakehouse taught me how to knead and how to shape baguettes. Worth every penny.
B1. Bread Baking for Beginners: The Essential Guide to Baking Kneaded Breads, No-Knead Breads, and Enriched Breads, Bonnie Ohara (2018)
According to the introduction, Ohara learned to bake bread from many disparate sources of information, and she wants her book to be a single, unified reference of all that knowledge for the benefit and convenience of a beginner baker. As nice as that sounds, I had many questions this book did not answer.
I followed this book for my first loaves and each one flopped. Only very annoying people on the internet make a perfect loaf of bread on their first try, but I had immediate success when I tried a Flour Water Salt Yeast recipe. Is that because I worked out my beginner bread-making kinks with BBfB recipes? Or because Forkish’s methods are easier to follow and more reliable? Who can say.
Even if I’ve never enjoyed a basic loaf of bread from this book, I am indebted to it for one crowd-pleaser I make often: chocolate babka.
B2. Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, Ken Forkish (2012)
I recommend this book to anyone beginning to bake bread. Forkish gradually introduces readers to different elements of bread-baking. First, you work on mixing and shaping dough. Then you add steps to develop more flavor and improve the loaf’s quality. Finally, you create a sourdough starter and work with different variations on naturally leavened breads.
Forkish’s starter feeding method is incredibly wasteful, but I am still using the same starter I birthed fifteen months ago by his recipe. Instead of 400g of flour I only use 20g to feed it, but I don’t dispute that his creation method is effective.
The bacon bread recipe is spectacular. Make it ASAP.
B3. Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson (2010)
The first loaf of Robertson’s Basic Country Bread I made was magical. The oven spring was higher, the crumb was airier, and the crust was crisper than any sourdough I had made before. Similarly, the first sourdough baguettes I made from Tartine were more delicious, crispy, and beautiful than anything else I’ve ever made.
And that’s about it. Tartine Bread goes in depth on one base sourdough method, and expands it with variations. It would have been a mistake to begin with this book, but it was a perfect book to use post-FWSY for sourdough work.
Since I have consistently failed to make a decent pure sourdough loaf from FWSY, the Tartine recipe is the one I return to and experiment with. I have successfully made the recipes for sourdough with walnuts and with sesame seeds, and I frequently experiment with various ratios of different flours.
The three books I loved the most (excepting Garp) were The Fatal Shore, The Heart of the Matter, and 52 Loaves. If you enjoy reading history, fiction, or memoirs, I will recommend these in a heartbeat.
By my calculations I read one book a month last year–a pitiful showing for myself. I ended the year highly motivated to read, and I have already reached a higher total for 2020.