Late 2019 Review & Goals

I think it makes a lot of sense for the first post after my hiatus to be a post reviewing what I have read so far. I have been preparing for this moment all year by keeping a spread sheet with very specific graphs to analyze my reading in the light of several underlying goals (can you tell that I work in finance?). I have been keeping track of my reading using Goodreads for almost two years now, starting from my 30th birthday when I resolved to be the reader I always wanted to be, but this year I chose some special categories to focus on. I did not set number based goals, but I did choose some special categories and goals to focus on.

Goal #1: Read More Books Written by Women

“Count of Gender” sounds like a great drag name.

I should clarify that “more” books written by women means specifically more books written by women than men. My percentage last year was around 50/50 without really trying. I set this goal in 2019, not because I don’t have several male authors that I enjoy, but because as your typical American student, 95% of the books I read in school were written by men, and it is time to even the score. As I watched this graph take form, it became important to me to push these numbers more toward 60/40 before the end of the year. This has been challenging given that the last few months I have been on a non-fiction kick. I have been picking up every science, natural history, and medical history book I could get my hands on. I find, in general, there is a skew toward the male in the science and natural history genre. In order to meet my 60/40 goals I have had to focus on picking up non-fiction written by women, and picking up some of my best reads of the year in the process.

It is interesting that, as I said above, the natural history genre skews male, but the quintessential classic of nature writing was authored by a woman. This is highly lauded, and for good reason. My opinion of this did not deviate from the general consensus that this is a beautifully written and endlessly important piece of environmental non-fiction. This book covers a wide range of topics, focusing mainly on chemical pollution and how it was affecting the environment in the 50’s and 60’s. I knew when I started reading this, that I would be horrified that most of the harmful environmental practices persist to this day, but I didn’t predict how Carson’s optimistic view that, generally, people would not continue to put up with this in decades to come, would be devastatingly wrong. So, be warned that you will be depressed/impressed after reading this.

I didn’t even realize when I decided on a whim to read this, that it would be one of my books of the year. This book has a simple premise, Sy Montgomery sets out to get to know the octopuses that live at the Boston aquarium. She meets, and becomes close with, several employees and volunteers at the aquarium, and becomes friends with several octopuses throughout the text. This is essentially a memoir, both spiritual and scientific. I usually dislike these kinds of narrative non-fiction books which rely a lot on the authors point of view of what should be scientific facts, but reading this proved that there is a way to do a science memoir that teaches, and moves all at once. I laughed a lot, and I ugly cried at some points. Read this.

Goal #2: Read all different kinds of things…

I don’t have graphs from last year, but as I look over my 2018 reading it is overwhelmingly fiction focused, mostly sci-fi and horror novels, save a hand full of non-fiction books for “Non-fiction November”. I loved so many of those novels, but I entered 2019 slumping hard from taking on several long, involved novels one after the other. This year I resolved to keep myself motivated by varying my reading among several different genres. I am pretty happy with my achievements in this category so far. My top genre has been literary fiction, and that is mostly because I attempted to read many of the books on the Women’s Prize list earlier in the year, but I read a few plays, some really impressive poetry, and dove into some manga (which I haven’t read in years). Some of my favorite reads of the year were discovered by way of this goal.

I have written on this blog about how much I adore the writing of Martin McDonagh before. I use these slim plays as bookmarks in other books so that I always have a back up. I also lend them out, buy them again, get them back, and have somehow three copies of each (my own little McDonagh lending library). I have been pushing The Pillowman into people’s hands since I read it. It is not hyperbole to say that this is my best read of this year, and the best book I have ever read. This play is about violence, it is about trauma, it is about story telling, free speech, family ties, law enforcement, and so much more between the lines. I can’t say much about this without spoiling it, but it is a work of surrealism bordering on sci-fi, told in the language of literary fiction. This isn’t the tried and true Irish black comedy you expect from McDonagh, but it has his acerbic wit. So far everyone that has borrowed it has been just as blown away by it.

I haven’t done my part to represent my low-key love of manga on book internet. My early pleasure reading comprised of 50% manga, 50% Anne Rice. I am still embarrassed to admit that because there is a lot of bad manga out there, getting a lot of attention. That is a whole suitcase that I am not ready to unpack, but listen up, Junji Ito’s Uzumaki is simply a-book-you-should-read if you like horror. Even if you have never read a graphic novel before, there is something universal, and genre transcendent about this book. This is the story of a town taken over by a curse. Each page contains eerie, yet beautiful drawings that haunt and inspire.

Goal #3: Special Categories

This graph surprised me the most, and demonstrated how my reading has evolved, both the topics I am reading about, as well as who is writing the books. If you asked me at the beginning of this year what I like to read, I would have said horror, especially independent horror, and in the past, this has been true. This year, I chose a few categories to monitor, and just read what I wanted. Through this experiment I learned that I love nature writing most of all. This “nature” category is comprised of both fiction and non-fiction books. In my quest to read more books written by women, I focused a lot on the Women’s Prize, which fills my TBR with gems every year, and books written by women in other languages, translated to English.

Clarice Lispector was one of my stand out author discoveries of the year so far. She was a Jewish refugee from Ukraine, raised in Brazil. She wrote in Portuguese and if you are a language nerd, read about the controversy around translating her work, and translating it properly. If you’re looking for something readable, or something with a narrative like…at all, do not pick this up. Reading this was like sticking an electric mixer in the language center of my brain and scrambling it around, challenging my basic understanding of sentence structure and grammar…and I loved it. Sit down and read this with no expectations, forget what you think you know about narrative and characters, and just let it make you uncomfortable. Her prose is both unsettling and dream like, while never excluding the reader from the thoughts of the complex and unlikable characters. I dashed right out and bought a full collection of her work and I intend to read through it slowly over time.

November, December & Beyond

The reason people on book internet focus so much on reading statistics is not because we’re neurotic (not only because…), but because modern reading shouldn’t be a passive hobby. The books on our TBR should be in constant conversation with the people and the world around us, helping us to break out of the same intellectual world we are used to. I cannot tell you all how many times this year I have grudgingly started a book thinking “what is this even about?”, and went on to discover a new author, or a new genre, and learned from it. I read to learn, whether that be through narrative or through non-fiction. That being said, this year has been A LOT, and I hope to find some fun/educational balance in November and December. I am currently reading Kanae Minato’s Confessions, an engaging and suspenseful thriller originally published in Japanese. I am hoping to pick up some more horror/thrillers/crime before the end of the year but I just haven’t been in the mood, and I am hoping Confessions whets my appetite.

I have a pile of books I am really excited about and hope to get to in the new year. I have collected a few non-fiction books that were written and published locally about western Massachusetts natural and historical topics. I have a stack of novels written by local authors as well. “Local” will be a special category for 2020, as I intend to increase my awareness of authors and issues close to home. I also plan to drop the indie horror category from my graphs, and replace it with poetry, a genre I hope to read more of since finishing Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds which I found incredibly moving. My relationship with indie horror isn’t over forever, but on hold until my excitement for it returns (which I am sure it will).

Is anyone else already planning their 2020 reading? How far ahead do you all usually plan your TBR?

It’s good to be back!

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