Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read In 2012

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

QuietThe Handmaid's TaleOld SchoolPlease Ignore Vera DietzThe Hunger Games

1. Quiet—Susan Cain

For me, Quiet was a revelation; for others, it is the start of a revolution. The success of this book is heartening, because it proves that there are a lot of people besides me who are interested in what it means to be an introvert in today’s world. One of Quiet‘s virtues is that it reaffirms the value of the introvert in a time when it is almost inexcusable not to constantly manifest extrovert behavior. What’s more, it shows that some of these prized extrovert qualities are actually the cause of some of our current economic and societal problems. It doesn’t knock extroverts (well, only off a pedestal), but it makes a great argument about the need for balance. It’s a great read for introverts and extroverts alike, but it’s especially helpful in teaching introverts to accept, and even prize, the qualities that they may have been criticized for in the past.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood

The story of Offred, a woman who, even in name, is defined by men in her restrictive society, is harrowing and horrifying. It is bleak, it is infuriating, and, worst of all, it doesn’t feel that far out of the realm of possibility. I loved this book not because it was an easy read, but because it was an important one. Particularly in this past year, when woman’s bodies and rights were constantly a source of debate and government regulation, I found its message to be a powerful wakeup call.

3. Old School—Tobias Wolff

No student of literature should pass up the opportunity to read this clever, often hilarious, and very insightful coming-of-age story about one boy’s experience in a writing-obsessed prep school. From its spot-on, uproarious portrayals of famous writers like Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, to its nuanced understanding of everyday prep school life, this book is both fun and incredibly smart.

4. Please Ignore Vera Dietz—A.S. King

As much as I enjoy YA books, I’ll admit that it’s sometimes difficult to find a character who feels 100% real to me. (Of course, the same can also be said for books written for adults.) What most impressed me about this novel, aside from its sheer uniqueness, was how believable Vera Dietz is as a character. She is complex and conflicted, yet, in a genre currently over-saturated with dystopian fantasies, refreshingly ordinary. She is the kind of girl I would like to be friends with: though she is no damsel, she also is not fighting against the whole world. Hers is a quieter courage, but one that is immensely important. The title of this book is ironic, for we should all be paying attention to her.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy—Suzanne Collins

When a series is hyped as much as this one, it can be difficult to judge it solely on its own merits. In fact, these are the types of books I often avoid, or at least put off reading, because it is almost impossible for me to determine how I actually feel about them. I read the first book of this trilogy accidentally; at least, I didn’t set out to read it, and I only started perusing it because my friend had a copy on her Kindle, which I was borrowing. But from the first few chapters I was hooked. A day or so later, I was looking for someone who could lend me the latter two books. And then I devoured those. What I liked about The Hunger Games isn’t easy for me to articulate because I have been bombarded with other people’s opinions as well: it’s sometimes difficult to separate out their feelings from my own. I found the story incredibly interesting, of course, and I loved Katniss both when she was strong and when she was in a weaker, but still totally believable, state. Perhaps what also appealed to me, though, was the fact that these books are so universally beloved, and thus something I can discuss with a wide variety of people. I think the greatest thing about the series is that it really is as good as everyone says it is.

When You Reach MeBetween Shades of GrayPassingState of WonderThe Complete Maus

6. When You Reach Me—Rebecca Stead

Have you ever read a book that made you nostalgic for a place you’ve never known? If so, then you have some idea of the effect When You Reach Me had on me. It is a book that is in some ways deeply nostalgic—for childhood, for innocence, and for a different New York City—but which is also quite timeless. It works beautifully just on this level, but it has the added bonus of being an intricately-plotted time travel story. From beginning to end it is flawless, wonderfully rendered for both children and adults.

7. Between Shades of Gray—Ruta Sepetys

It can be hard to pick up a book knowing it will make you sad. No matter the accolades that have been heaped upon it, this type of book often requires a certain mindset. Between Shades of Gray is obviously no beach read, but it is exquisitely written, at once beautiful, heartrending and, most importantly, truthful. It tells a story that has too often been left out of history, of Lithuanian families forced by the Soviets to relocate to the treacherous conditions of Siberia. Despite the almost insurmountable odds, these people maintained their humanity and helped each other to survive. I was tremendously moved by this story, and glad that the experiences of these people are no longer shrouded in silence.

8. Passing—Nella Larsen

Passing is weird and wonderful and not at all what I expected. On the surface, it is a story about race, particularly as it applies to three black women who are light-skinnned enough to “pass” for white. Yet, it is so much more complex and convoluted than that, at times feeling like a taut thriller that plays with readers’ expectations. The ending is shocking, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Still, it is perfectly fitting for this bizarre tale of secrets, doppelgangers, and race betrayal. I was consistently challenged and impressed by this one.

9. State of Wonder—Ann Patchett

This book has it all: a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, hallucinogenic malaria pills, magic tree bark, a pregnant septuagenarian…. How could anyone resist? Better yet, it is brilliantly written and, despite its absurd premise, completely believable. It’s rare to find a book that is this much fun while still maintaining some semblance of “serious” writing. I look forward to reading more from Ann Patchett.

10. The Complete Maus—Art Spiegelman

One of the biggest debates regarding Holocaust literature is how to present the material, and whether such stories can be told at all. Maus is one of the most inventive takes on this that I have seen: it is a comic book, with cartoon mice and metafiction tendencies. As such, it may not solve any of these quandaries, but it does try to find a new way to present the story of a Holocaust survivor. What I liked about Maus was that it recognizes that not everything can be told in words, and that any version of a story will fall short of the real thing. It calls out its shortcomings, but still manages to be emotionally honest and thus effectively devastating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Get In the Halloween Spirit

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

Although I don’t usually (read: never) participate in blog memes, I thought this topic seemed like a lot of fun. I really like the idea of Top Ten Tuesday, and I’m excited to check out the suggestions that others have generated for this week’s list. Maybe this will be a new thing for me! (Please do not check the status of past “new things for me,” including knitting, exercising, and cooking vegetables.) Regardless, please enjoy my painstakingly-crafted list, which I hope is sufficiently scary, atmospheric, and/or just plain weird. Keep in mind that I’m not exactly a horror connoisseur—the only Stephen King book I’ve read is the one he wrote about writing!

10. Chime — Franny Billingsley

Do you like witches, bog creatures, dead people and self-hating narrators? Striking, florid prose and magical scenarios? What about dreamy landscapes just on the edge of the Industrial Revolution? Chime is one of the most original YA books I have recently read, precisely because it combines all of those elements so weirdly and so wonderfully. It tells the story of a guilt-ridden young girl unable to come to terms with her magical powers, and the evil influences in her life who have poisoned her against her gifts. It’s a strange story, an acquired taste, but one that is wholly enchanting and memorable.

9. Black Hole — Charles Burns

Looking for a graphic novel that will haunt your dreams? Look no further than Black Hole, a visually-stunning (and nightmare-inducing) story about a sexually transmitted disease that turns its victims into literal monsters. The artwork for this comic is amazing, evoking the classic horror movies you like to watch every Halloween, but the story itself is quite dark and bizarre. Characters develop lesions, boils, and even tails, becoming horrifying mutants who must live as outcasts. The whole comic is disturbing, to say the least, but it makes for an unforgettable experience.

8. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Ransom Riggs

Old photographs can be spooky in general, but the pictures included in this YA book take that creepiness to a whole new level. Combining found photographs of magical children who hover, harness balls of energy, or simply aren’t there at all, with a story about a modern day teenager who travels back to the 1940s to meet these strange beings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children offers a reading experience unlike any other. It is eerie, mysterious, and a lot of fun—just the right mix of light-hearted and terrifying to get in the Halloween spirit.

7. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife — Mary Roach

It’s easy to get lost in a good horror story, but there’s no reason why Halloween has to be all about fiction. In Spook, science writer (and skeptic) Mary Roach takes a look at the afterlife, from ghostly apparitions and séances to reincarnation and soul-weighing, to find out whether claims of such occurrences could be for real. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, travels to India to interview the family of a supposedly reincarnated child, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts. The book is great fun, and an amazing journey, but it also has a lot of interesting insights into our belief—or our desire to believe—in the supernatural.

6. A Monster’s Notes — Laurie Sheck 

There are a lot of Frankenstein stories out there, and relatively few of them have anything that touches upon the brilliance of the original. If you’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, and are looking for a new take on the story, consider A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck. Let me be upfront: this is certainly the most avant-garde book on the list. It has variously been described as being “bold,” “baroque,” and “oddly compelling.” (Yeah, oddly.) Nonetheless, it is one of the most moving and original works of contemporary literature I have recently read, and it is completely worth exploring if you are an adventurous reader. While you may not necessarily get scared, you will be enchanted; this is a poetic book that works a magic all its own.

5. The Historian — Elizabeth Kostova

I’m just assuming you’ve already read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but if you haven’t, start there first. Done yet?  Then you’re ready for this academic Dracula story, which makes research a thrill (and will have you thinking twice about digging too deep into the life of Vlad the Impaler). The Historian has all the elements of a good, creepy mystery: strange clues hidden in ancient books, secret tombs and old churches, and even an evil librarian! It’s the kind of book that will make you believe that Dracula is real, and still alive in the present day. Just try going to sleep with that worry weighing on you.

4. Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey is technically a gothic novel parody, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in atmosphere. In satirizing popular books like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Austen conjures up a pretty good haunted house story, even if you know all the spookiness will have a reasonable explanation. It’s a good choice for anyone who eschews horror, prefers the lighthearted side of Halloween, or has just joined a Jane Austen book club. If you’re really adventurous, try reading it alongside the Radcliffe book.

3. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

I would argue that Jane Eyre is the perfect book to read at any time of the year, but it does seem to be a particularly good choice for Halloween, thanks to its gothic DNA. Thornfield Hall might as well be a haunted house, for all its things that go bump in the night. Many of the situations are quite harrowing, and, of course, the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about time. And, actually, I think it might be time for me to revisit it.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

Okay, so there are shorter books to get you ready for Halloween. But this is one of my favorites, precisely because it is so sprawling, so imaginative, and, to put it simply, so magical. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the story of two feuding magicians, but it also brings together a number of equally enchanting characters and subplots. Villains like the gentleman with thistle-down hair are as memorable as the main protagonists themselves, and the numerous footnotes may just contain some of the best fairy tales I have ever read. Worth the time, if you have it; worth making time for, if you don’t.

1. The Monk — Matthew Gregory Lewis

I’m guessing that if you’re not specifically into late eighteenth century literature, the gothic novel, or really, really weird literary curios, then you’ve never read this book. Probably you’ve never even heard of it. Well, The Monk defies any sort of tidy summarization, but suffice it to say that it takes every gothic trope popular in its day and magnifies it by a thousand. It features family secrets, a lusty monk, and, oh yeah, SATAN, who just shows up because…why not? It’s a wild ride, and one you won’t soon forget. Basically, this book is the Halloween spirit, and if you haven’t read it yet, you must.

Stitches: A Memoir

David Small’s family doesn’t communicate. His childhood is full of silence and unarticulated feelings; “home” means nothing more than a place full of secrets and poorly expressed anger. David’s father is a doctor, and he treats David’s many minor childhood illnesses with an excessive number of x-rays. Believing he can cure his son, he instead achieves the opposite. David wakes up one day, from a supposedly simple procedure, with his throat stitched up like a boot, one vocal cord removed. He learns only later—and through a letter that he was not meant to see—that his parents had taken their silence further than he could have imagined: they had failed to inform their 14-year-old son that he had cancer.

As David adjusts to a life of imposed silence, he begins to lose himself in a world where he does have a voice. He starts to draw as a means to release his anger and frustration, as well as to create a place where he belongs. Through a therapist, David is able to recover his self-worth. He is also able to recover his voice, through an unlikely method. David learns to scream, and by screaming he both strengthens his voice and releases the fear and anger that had become such a part of him. In the end, David finds the courage to reject the madness of his family, and to pursue a life of fulfillment, and even happiness.

Stitches is just as depressing as it sounds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to read. David Small is a talented artist, and he communicates his story in a beautiful, if bleak, manner. Channeling a silent movie, he introduces the story with establishing shots and proceeds to tell a tale that requires very little dialogue. He emphasizes the distance between sound and silence, between what is said and unsaid. That he is able to tell his story at all is impressive. That he is able to tell it with such depth, such honesty, and such skill is really what makes Stitches so remarkable.

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Eleven-year-old Roger lives in a dangerous Chicago neighborhood where gangs rule the streets and violence permeates daily life. He has had a good upbringing, and comes from a close-knit family, but he knows that other kids aren’t so lucky. One of his classmates, a boy called “Yummy” after his love of sweets, is one such kid: with no real family to call his own, Yummy looks to impress the older boys who make up a local gang. Yummy has a tough exterior, and a criminal record, but he also loves his teddy bear. He bullies the other kids (including Roger) and steals their lunch money, but at times he’s just like any other young boy, playing with frogs and having sleepovers.

When Yummy commits an awful crime—the accidental shooting of a bright, sweet fourteen-year-old girl—Roger tries to piece together what led the boy down such a dark path. He thinks of Yummy’s mother, a drug addict and prostitute, who has been in and out of jail herself, and of Yummy’s grandmother, who cares for the boy, but has plenty of other grandchildren to worry about. He tries to understand if Yummy is at heart a good kid or a bad one; ultimately, he finds that Yummy, like anyone, has both good and bad in him.

The tragic end to the story is no surprise to anyone familiar with the real-life events that inspired it. Yummy, in a panic, goes on the run; he is wanted by both the police and the gang he had hoped to impress. Eventually, of course, he is found, and his last days come to their inevitable, but no less shocking, conclusion. Yummy, like the life of the boy it is based on, is brief but powerful; it is a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel that lingers in the mind. Sophisticated and sensitively written, it offers no easy answers, but plenty of thought-provoking questions.

Skim

Kimberly Keiko Cameron, or Skim, is a mixed-race high school student with a recently-broken arm and a passion for all things Wicca. She is having a tough time coping with her parents’ divorce, fitting in at school, and figuring out her sexuality. She is also growing apart from her best friend, Lisa, in her quest to define herself. Several changes at her all-girls school are also throwing Skim’s life into turmoil, from the suicide of her classmate’s ex-boyfriend, which has inspired the popular girls to create the over-the-top Girls Celebrate Life club, to the introduction of a new teacher, the spacey Ms. Archer, on whom Skim develops a crush. To cope, Skim keeps a diary in which she records both actual events and her daydreams and musings. This diary, in effect, constitutes the book Skim, resulting in a spare, impressionistic narrative that mixes fact with fancy, and leaves many things unsaid.

Despite the gaps and ambiguities within the text, Skim feels like a real teenager. No matter the situation, her perspective shines through: though often insecure, isolated, and depressed, Skim is still a keen observer of the world around her. She sees through the popular girls who, under the guise of “celebrating life,” are actually alienating their classmates and celebrating themselves. She also recognizes that they are doing more harm than good for the girl most affected by the tragedy, the boy’s ex-girlfriend, Katie. In fact, it is by developing a relationship with Katie, that Skim begins to embrace who she really is: she learns that she is more than the role of the outsider that she played with Lisa, and more than the goth girl, or the half-Asian girl, or the girl with the cast on her arm. Although she is still uncertain about many things, Skim learns that she can be appreciated for who she is—and that she can appreciate herself as well.

While I at first found Skim too spare and too muted to leave any lasting impression, a quick rereading revealed plenty of perfect details I had missed the first time around. Skim is a subtle but thoughtful book, beautifully illustrated and sensitively written. It is also surprisingly funny, sad, and touching—sometimes all at once. Parts of the book do linger, but as a whisper, a feeling. It is not a book that dazzles with big ideas, but rather with understated impressions.

%d bloggers like this: