1. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman (2017)
Gaiman follows the tradition of adapting ancient tales into modern tongue. I followed the tradition of listening to the stories orally, i.e., as an audiobook.
2. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
3. 52 Loaves, William Alexander (2010)
If you didn’t know better you would think I was inspired by this book to bake bread every week. On the contrary. I learned
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
3. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene (1948)
Another benefit to being raised Catholic: understanding between communion and confession or eating or sin, and why Scobie is so troubled.
Might be unbelievable or unintelligible to a non-Catholic, but very very real to a lapsed one.
Scobie is a bumbling screw-up, externally. Doesn’t get away with a single dishonest thing—loan, affair, suicide. Sells his soul by degrees.
Helen is a melodramatic teenager. They are a perfect match. Louise is too smart for him.
Foreign setting (British colonial officers and various rogues in World War II West Africa) but completely human novel of love and things that look like love and things that are done for what was once love.
Characters comment on what’s happening in honest emotional reactions—the reaction the reader is having.
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. It quickly became obvious why so many people sing its praises. These disparate forces insisted I read it.
Simple, clear, perfect prose. Powerful arresting sentences, written with the quiet certainty of ancient wisdom.
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)
6. In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson (2001)
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. Dialogues between characters are more like alternating monologues. The way characters pepper in bon mots is not like evenly sprinkled ground pepper; it’s like whole peppercorns that stick in your teeth and detract from the rest of the meal. The novel
8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
I listened to hgttg 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)
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. *stepping 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 will treasure these volumes, and will almost 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, this book did not succeed in that mission. 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)
Gradual intro to bread-baking.
Wasteful but effective starter
Anything can be focaccia.
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.