Sunday, November 25, 2018

Books Roundup 2018

This year I have torn through the books (in paper, not digital, I just can't with the e-readers). Reading brought relief when grieving the loss of my pregnancy with Baby AB, relaxation while on the beach in Hawaii, and welcome entertainment while in Peci where there is no internet or even a good phone signal. Here is the list of the 16 books I've read so far in 2018:

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
This was my first book of the year. Fresh with grief and having taken a physical pummeling from the loss of the baby and resulting hormonal swings, I desperately needed a book I could lose myself in. My mom gifted me this book at just the right time. A mix of anthropology, adventure travel, and radar technology, this true story tells of a lost city being found in the Honduran jungle. Incredible to think that entire empires lie buried under vegetation. The title annoyed me (smacks of white male expedition marketed with exotic language to the people back home - which is exactly what it is on some level) but still I really enjoyed the story.

Song of the Lion and Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman
I grew up reading Tony Hillerman's mysteries and remember staying up late, flipping the pages until my hands ached, unable to pull myself away from the stories of Leaphorn and Chee and the Dinè (Navajo) way of life. As a New Mexican, I appreciated the sense of place and often took Hillerman books with me while living abroad to soothe my saudades (or perhaps just make them worse). When I found out that Tony's daughter Anne had continued the mystery series, emphasizing the perspective of Bernadette Manuelito, a female detective, I was excited to return to the characters and scenery I so enjoyed years ago. Unfortunately it was a letdown. Perhaps I'd excessively built up my expectations, or maybe it was the difference of reading as an adult vs. a teenager, but I found the storylines to be predictable and lacking that urgent page-turning quality I remembered in the original series. I read these on while on our honeymoon in Hawaii in February, and they were definitely good enough for a beach read or to pass the time on the plane. I don't plan on reading more in the series, though... 

Love Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman
This one hit me hard. Part travel narrative, part political essay, part memoir. Intelligent yet humble writing, and deep honesty from the author about his past mistakes. I loved the stories, felt compassion for the characters, and appreciated the complexity of the situations in which the author found himself. It also stirred up nostalgia for East Africa, and a desire to keep traveling and keep writing no matter what. Fantastic book, I can't wait to read more from him.

Shark Drunk by Morten Stroksnes
The story of trying to catch a Greenland shark, a poorly-understood cold water giant that I'd first heard about while watching the tv show River Monsters and found fascinating. I was expecting a mix of science, adventure, and Nordic culture - and I suppose it was all of those things - but somehow the book dragged on and felt bland. Maybe it was because of translating nuances (it was originally written in Norwegian), or maybe it was just an accurate portrayal of the slow pace of time while fishing. Whatever the reason, I found it very difficult to get through and nearly abandoned ship several times before finally, stubbornly, turning the last page.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
This was perhaps my favorite of all 2018. A true story, set in San Francisco and Yemen, about a young man who successfully revitalizes the Yemeni coffee industry despite widespread skepticism, production challenges, and war. A story of entrepreneurship, agriculture, development, politics, immigration, cultural ambassadorship, and global commerce. And, of course, coffee. I learned so much and can't wait to try a cup of specialty Yemeni brew one day here in San Francisco, even though it is hard to find and costs $16/cup, and as a pedestrian coffee drinker I am unlikely to appreciate its subtle aroma and palate qualities. Still, because of this story, I want to try it.

The Sober Diaries by Claire Pooley
I LOVED THIS BOOK. My interest in sober living started about three years ago as I contemplated the role alcohol played in my previous marriage/life chapter. My ex was a happy and frequent drinker, as was his family, as were our friends. Our respective cultures reinforced this norm, as did our lifestyle (expat development workers and frequent travelers tend to be a heavy-drinking lot). Without really noticing, I'd become a habitual drinker. Bored? How about a drink. In an airport? Obviously time for a beer. Celebrating? Drink. Bad news? Drink. School sucks? Have a glass of wine with that essay. Work challenging? Drink to decompress. Gallery slow? How about some bubbly to pass the time. Weekend? Day drink. Weekday? Vino with dinner. Anything, anything at all? Drink. Of course we were both very responsible people, kept up our obligations, never had "consequences," and in his eyes never had a problem...but for me there was a quiet and increasingly desperate feeling that something was very, very wrong. I started to cut back on my own consumption, and then after our divorce I had the opportunity to further examine my own habits and behavior and make some big changes. I still have an occasional drink, but my relationship with alcohol has changed completely. It is now the exception rather than the rule. I don't get drinks on auto pilot, and I certainly don't buy into the idea that you need alcohol to have fun, or cope, or be accepted. My current husband has a very similar approach, and our life is sober most of the time, often for long stretches. THIS BOOK WAS SO AFFIRMING OF THESE DECISIONS. Claire Pooley is a hilarious writer, and hearing how she became sober and then how she beat breast cancer while maintaining sobriety was inspiring. I highly recommend it, especially if you are reexamining your relationship with alcohol.

Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya
It's always fun to read a book set in your hometown, and this was no exception. Magical, mystical, poignant, and engaging. I hadn't read Rudolfo Anaya since high school, and it was like visiting an old friend. The storyline was compelling, felt ancient and modern all at once, and I loved the characters. Anyone with a connection to New Mexico will particularly enjoy reading this book.

Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
What a punch to the gut and embrace to the heart. I bawled and cringed and laughed while reading Cheryl Strayed's no-bullshit advice to others, punctuated with devastating and uplifting stories from her own life. My friend Heather had recommended this to me shortly after we lost Baby AB, and I was happy to find this in my mom's bookshelf. Definitely helped me find perspective and strength.

Deep South by Paul Theroux
This road trip narrative tells devastating and hopeful stories from America's southern states. I appreciated the author's attempt to present many perspectives, cultures, and ways of life. From gun shows to shacks in the Delta, economic ghost towns to sites where black youth were murdered, churches to restaurants, and the long stretches of highway in-between, the reader comes away with a real sense of the history and struggle and complexity of the region. I found the more academic interludes a little hard to get through, but the actual stories from the road were captivating. Highly recommend.

Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
I enjoyed reading all of the previous Dave Robicheaux detective novels, and this was no exception. Gritty, well-written, and full of Louisiana culture. The storyline was unpredictable and made for a real page-turner, although not ideal for bedtime reading because of the often gory situations.  

Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews
More not-ideal-before-bedtime reading, but oh so good. These spy novels are intelligent, complex, and compelling tales of politics, love, loyalty and betrayal. The main characters are very well developed. I enjoyed all the Russian language and culture, and the recipes at the end of each chapter are an unexpected bonus. I can't wait to read the final book from this trilogy.

The Pregnancy Instruction Manual by Sarah Jordan and David Ufberg
The Baby Owner's Manual by Louis Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht
Now that I'm pregnant again (baby Anastasia is due in February 2019) my friend Marjana gave me these books that she'd enjoyed reading before her first child was born a several years ago. They are practical, easy to understand, and comprehensive. That said, both books are oriented to heterosexual couples and pander to antiquated gender roles. Mom gets tips for how to dress during pregnancy (avoid stripes that make you look larger that you already are!) and Dad is reminded to switch off Sports Center and make himself useful around the house. I get that it's an attempt at humor, but ugh. Otherwise useful books, and I'm sure I'll be consulting them in the future.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
This book is my Bible right now. I want to have an unmedicated vaginal birth in a hospital, so I'm trying to read everything I can about how birth is a natural and empowering process that women are entitled to experience free from a culture of fear. I love reading all of the birth stories from the Farm. These women and midwives are incredibly inspiring. I'll likely reread this about 10 times between now and February!

That's it! I'm proud to have read so much and look forward to squeezing in maybe one or two more books before the end of the year. What have you read lately that you really enjoyed?