Reflections on My 2015 In Reading

At the beginning of last year, I resolved to read 40 books in 2015, largely the result of having failed in the previous year to do just that. Anyone who knows me well will probably tell you I can be quite driven when I feel so inclined (particularly when I feel I have previously failed to achieve something).

My resolve was reinvigorated when, halfway through the year, my sister, who also committed to reading 40 books in 2015, told me that next year she would probably have to try for more, because it was “too easy” getting through 40 in a year. If I had been having doubts about the feasibility of forty, that quenched them. (I am competitive only with myself and with my sister, apparently.)

Forty books in a year means you’re reading approximately three books a month, with four months in the year in which you read a total of four books. If you’re reading at an even pace throughout the year. Reader, I did it.

2016-01-14 14_18_10-Goodreads _ Stacey’s Year in Books

via Goodreads

There were actually things I liked about the challenge of getting through forty books. I would be zoning out, half-watching something on TV and half-playing a game on my phone, not fully engaged with or committed to either thing, when I would ask myself: “Would I rather be reading right now?” and finding the answer was often yes. (I’ve decided it’s mostly healthier for me to commit 100 percent to one thing than be 50-50 on more than one thing at a time.)

But forty is a lot of books, and, frankly, it leads to a lot of poor choices.

Poor choices like staying up to finish book number 40 at about 2 a.m. on January 1. (The bulk of it was read in 2015, so it totally counts.)

Poor choices like finishing books you weren’t even really that engaged in just because there was less left to go in one of them than starting and finishing something that really might engage you.

Poor choices like choosing to read lighter fare (I won’t call it trash) instead of something more challenging simply because you could get through it more quickly.

So for 2016, I’ve decided my mantra is read better. I decided to follow the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge, which is to pick one book for each category she’s chosen for the year and read those twelve books in 2016. With the freedom to read whatever else I want (which will of course include plenty of lighter fare) in whatever quantity I want in addition to those twelve books. I’m pretty excited about it.

Here are my twelve books (all credit for these categories, again, goes to the Modern Mrs. Darcy!):

  • a book published this year — The Rose and the Dagger
  • a book you can finish in a day — The 39 Steps
  • a book you’ve been meaning to read — Caliban’s War
  • a book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller — The Glass Sentence
  • a book you should have read in school — Far From the Madding Crowd (I was supposed to read Thomas Hardy in my Victorian lit class, though not this one, but I think I would rather read my car manual than ever read the rest of Jude the Obscure, so this one will have to do)
  • a book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF — picked by my sister, Fangirl (funny story: I originally recommended this book to my sister, though I hadn’t read it, which she did not remember when she did finally read it, and now she won’t stop talking about it to me)
  • a book published before you were born — Angle of Repose
  • a book that was banned at some point — Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • a book you previously abandoned — Wolf Hall
  • a book you own but have never read — The Towers of Trebizond
  • a book that intimidates you — All My Puny Sorrows
  • a book you’ve already read at least once — Heaven to Betsy

Do you have a reading resolution for 2016? Please share!


Summer Reading 2015 Edition

Now that we’re more than a whole week into fall, I thought it might be time to talk about my summer reading [insert eye roll at myself]. It was another busy summer — but whose wasn’t? I managed to uncover a few gems in spite of that, and even, which I’m frankly quite proud of, read a non-narrative nonfiction book!! Why don’t we begin there?

gut_coverGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, by Giulia Enders. I’m honestly still a little surprised by the fact that I managed to read all the way through a non-narrative nonfiction book and — even more surprising — wave it enthusiastically in the faces of other people because I enjoyed it so much. I give all the credit to the author’s clear enthusiasm for her topic, which comes right off the page. For a piece of non-narrative nonfiction to hold my interest longer than an average essay or news article is saying something. And while I suppose that my enjoyment could just be indicative of my own navel-gazing tendencies, I still found this discussion of the digestive tract both engaging and fascinating.


pigeon_english_coverPigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. I confess I picked this book for its awesome cover. Based on the true story of the murder of Damilola Taylor, Pigeon English is told through the voice of Harrison Opoku, a Ghanian immigrant in London with his mother and older sister. When a boy who lives on their council estate is murdered, Harri decides to investigate, enlisting the help of his friend Dean, whose expertise comes from watching the American television show CSI. Kelman created such a delightful voice for Harri! It was impossible not to love him. This book is a portrait of innocence in a gritty urban environment where children lose their innocence quickly; it broke my heart a little. Harri’s voice, and his sense of wonder and joy, were a delight, which is why I hate to talk about nits with this book. But in the interest of full and fair disclosure, Kelman includes occasional snippets told in the voice of a certain pigeon that Harri has befriended, and I truly think the book would have been better without these. It’s a small part of the book, though.

wrath_dawn_coverThe Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh. This is a re-imagining of the legend of Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. As in the legend, the caliph of Khorasan takes a new wife each night, only to have her executed the next morning. When this fate befalls her best friend, Shahrzad volunteers to marry the caliph, secretly vowing revenge, only to encounter in the caliph something completely unexpected. When I was investigating the book before reading it, I saw a bunch of gushing reviews from very young-looking girls on Goodreads, and I admit I was leery about the book because of this. May this not be the last time I prove the fangirls correct: this is young adult romance done right, and love is not too strong a word to describe my feelings for this book. In what I think is the first time ever in my reading career, I pre-ordered the second book before even finishing the first.

What about you? What were your standout reads of the summer?

How I Decided to Give Hardy Another Try

“It was like Middlemarch with LESS JOY,” I found myself saying to my sister the other day. She had asked me about Thomas Hardy, who I was supposed to read in a Victorian Lit class I took.

You’ll notice the “supposed to read” there. I never actually finished the book that was assigned (Jude the Obscure). (I didn’t do very well in that class.)


Penguin classic, cover illustration by Coralie Bickford-Smith / image via Goodreads

She was asking, not, as I thought, because of references to Hardy in another book the both of us had just read (Love, Nina — which was a delight and you should probably go read it immediately), but because there is a new adaptation of one of Hardy’s novels coming out as a movie: Far From the Madding Crowd. Notably not Jude the Obscure. There also hasn’t yet been a Penguin clothbound classic with a cover illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith for Jude the Obscure. If there were, the illustration could easily be teardrops (as emblematic of poor decisions) falling from clock faces. (Seriously, go check out the plot summary!)

Anyway — so my sister is currently reading Far From the Madding Crowd, which apparently is described by someone, somewhere as the “happy Hardy”. And this of the author about whom The Guardian has a guide-to-grimness infographic: Bleakness Is My Weakness! I thought to myself, why not?

I’ve also been in a period of wordlessness — blame the thousand extraneous circumstances conspiring to bring one down (bleakness is also my weakness?) — and sometimes what it takes for me to get out of that funk is a book that makes me think about the language, in the context of its usage (to understand as I read) but also on a larger scale, to lament its loss in phrases like “point of espial”.

So here we are. Far From the Madding Crowd. Time alone will tell if this will become my next Middlemarch. Happily, it’s not as long.

The Comma Queen

I’ve written before about how Mary Norris’s job at the New Yorker is one I not-so-secretly would prefer to the job I actually have. An excerpt of her forthcoming book (Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) appeared in this week’s issue of the magazine. The whole article is just cool (someone else has already called it “exquisite”); in it she says delightfully witty things like “The serial comma is a pawn in the war between town and gown.”

confessions_comma_queenAnd, her book is the #1 new release in the etymology category on Amazon! Etymology was another career-choice-other-than-accounting that I sometimes fantasized about. This was probably around the time I was reading Beowulf — Seamus Heaney’s version with the side-by-side Old English and modern English — for a Medieval Literature class.

Even if you don’t get as excited about grammar and punctuation as I do, you should go check out this article. All the discussion about how meaning is affected by how we choose to say things — simple comma placement and questions of authorial intent — this is stuff I love to think about. In her own words:

To understand how the language works, though — to master the mechanics of it — you have to roll up your sleeves and join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts.

Because there’s nothing cooler (to me) than knowing exactly what you mean to say, understanding how to say it, and saying exactly that.

Notable Reads of 2014

I decided I had to call this post “notable reads” of the year because I so rarely catch a book on the year it’s released, and “best of 2014” seemed to have a different connotation in my head. Without further ado, here are my standout reads of 2014.

076Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. I loved this book. And I really wasn’t sure when I started it that I would! By the end, it had pulled me in, heart and soul. It made a big splash the year it was published (2012), and Nancy Pearl recommended it as a best-of-the-year that year, so in all likelihood you’ve already heard about it, so I’ll be brief. It’s the story of an English spy captured by the Nazis in World War II — but really it’s a story about friendship, love and friendship. I cried so hard as I finished reading it that my pajama sleeves no longer sufficed as stand-ins for kleenex and I had to get out of bed (twice) for the real thing to mop up all my tears. (I can be real here about crying while reading in bed and the lengths to which I will go not to leave the warm cocoon, right?) It was the sort of book that, immediately upon finishing, I wanted to call a friend and cry about together.

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. I’ll be honest: unlike the rest of the world, I did not love this book. So why is it in my notable reads of 2014?  It was a great story — it was a fresh perspective on World War II (told from a non-Nazi perspective inside Germany) — I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.


  • I started it in January.
  • This summer I begged a friend “JUST TELL ME WHO DIES! I KNOW SOMEONE MUST DIE!”
  • She told me who died.
  • When I picked the book up again, quite literally the next page held the same information (who was going to die).
  • I finished it on New Year’s Eve, shut in the bathroom at my parents’ house, holding tissues to my eyes.

So, yes, this book essentially took me all year to read, off and on. My biggest objections were the writing style and the really heavy-handed foreshadowing (which somehow still didn’t prepare me for the ending — which was likely the author’s intent). More than anything else, the constant narratorial interjection of bullet lists (I tried to be clever and imitate it above) felt very “interrupted” and choppy. By the end, I’d decided it was its own kind of lyricism, but perhaps not exactly to my taste and better suited to an oratory style of storytelling than a written one. In spite of those small issues I had with the book: such a beautiful, sad story.

thewheelspinsThe Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Did you catch The Lady Vanishes on PBS a while back? This is the book that movie was based on, and it was every bit as stylish, and had every ounce of the period glamour and romance, and — what’s more — stronger characterization and excellent writing. I have great admiration for authors who can give a complete sense of character with just a few lines, like this: “Their formal bow, when Iris squeezed by them, was conditional recognition before the final fade-out. ‘We’ll speak to you during the journey,’ it seemed to say, ‘but at Victoria we become strangers.'” In case you aren’t familiar with the TV movie, this psychological thriller follows Iris, a young socialite, as she travels home from Europe to England on the train. She is helped by a kind stranger who suddenly disappears, leaving no trace and whom everyone denies having seen.

Also on my list of notable reads for 2014 are Never Have I Ever, by Katie Heaney, and The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. I’ve already talked about both of them, but they’re definitely worth checking out if they pique your interest.

And now it’s your turn! What stands out from your 2014 reading? Please share! I’m always looking for books to add to my To-Be-Read pile!