Popular Books Read and Unread in 2015

I like to track my reading in multiple ways, for which I use the various OCD tracking tools on LibraryThing. One way is to track what I read during the year as compared to what others were reading during the same period (here’s the list). It interests me to see what trends emerge.

Here are the most popular books I read last year that multiple others also read:

I can recommend all of these!

Now here’s a selection of what everyone else was reading that I chose not to read, and why:

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: So many people were reading this and talking about it, that I was sure it would be a letdown. Let’s just say that I’ve been burned by uber-popular thrillers in the past.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer and all, yadda yadda yadda. Let’s just say that I couldn’t bear taking on yet another World War II book at this time.
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simpson, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: As we all know, we shouldn’t judge books by their covers (or titles), but these seem way too cutesy for my tastes.
  • The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey: I actually picked this one up and read the first few pages, but I am sooooo tired of zombies. Burned out big time.

Feel free to try to convince me I made a mistake passing any of these up in the comments.

Top Five Reads of the Year

Here are my five favorite reads of the year, a nice mix of old classics and new discoveries. Please post your favorite reads of the year in the comments. (These are books read during the past year and enjoyed, but not necessarily published in 2015.)

  1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (my essay on a kinder, gentler apocalypse)
  2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  3. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  5. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Note: I don’t include rereads in my top 5 list. If I did, I would have to add The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castleand Frankenstein to this list.

A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I discuss a less brutal and, I think, more realistic approach to the post-apocalyptic novel in this essay.

Sci Femme

This essay also discusses Into the Forest (Jean Hegland; 1996);A Gift Upon the Shore (M.K. Wren; 1990); and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985), among various other stalwarts of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. There will be spoilers for these books.

Pop quiz, hotshot. It’s the apocalypse: What do you do? What. Do. You. Do?

If hundred (thousands?) of post-apocalyptic books and movies are to believed, you break out your cache of automatic weapons, gun down every guy you see, capture a woman and lock her in a cage for later, then chow down on some roasted baby.

There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on there. The apocalypse novel is one part fear, one part fantasy. All the rules are suddenly gone; you can do whatever you want! It’s a dim view of humanity that assumes that all people want to do is murder, rape, and…

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Recommended Reading: Station Eleven

This month, I’m highly recommending the  post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven does something that I hadn’t thought was possible: it offers something new and exciting in the post-apocalyptic genre. I have read a lot of post-apocalyptic books, and I was getting burned out on them. It seemed like there was nothing new to say about the fall of humanity. But this novel comes forward and defies my expectations. It is a quiet, moving story, elegiac for what is lost, such as technology and modern conveniences, but still hopeful for humanity. It skips a lot of brutality that is the hallmark of post-apocalyptic fiction by jumping around in time from before the pandemic to twenty years after, eliding those first few difficult years and leaving them up to the reader’s imagination. It also omits the tedious details of survival after our global industrial web has failed us, although some details, such as the survivors setting up small communities in truck stops and airports rather than in the houses of the dead, struck me as absolutely believable. As the world has fallen back into a dark age, some of the survivors have created a traveling symphony and acting troupe, which only performs Shakespeare. They travel from settlement to settlement to bring art and music to the post-apocalyptic world, because “survival is insufficient.”

This novel is not about survival; it’s about people, particularly those invisible connections that link our lives like webs. By moving back and forth in time, following the strands of the web wherever they might go, Station Eleven gradually builds our knowing of and empathy for these people, both those who survived and those who didn’t, even the rare ones who go bad. All of the characters are linked to movie star Arthur Leander, whose death while playing King Lear opens the book, but there are even more connections, gradually revealed, that show how we all are fundamentally linked to one another. While so many post-apocalyptic books are about losing our humanity, Station Eleven is about reinforcing what makes us human, the fundamental connections that we share.

My favorite of all the characters was Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, who was someone I felt I could know or even could have been, in an alternate life. Miranda is an artist who spends much of her time working on an ambitious project called Station Eleven, a comic book within a book that proves to be immune to the flu pandemic. This motif also reinforces the human connections between us, and how those connections are strengthened by the art we make. Even though this book is about much of humanity dying out, it didn’t depress me; it lifted me and inspired me.

Station Eleven is the book I’m rooting for in the 2015 Tournament of Books.

Whittling down Mount TBR…

I’m finding myself getting very picky about what books make it on the To Be Read (TBR) pile. By the TBR, I mean that pile of books that I’m really, truly, gosh-darn-it gonna read in the very near future. Ideally, I want the number of books on the TBR to be fewer than the number of books I read in a typical year, so I have a fighting chance of working my way through it.

Right now, I have several lists going: a list of books I own and want to read soon, a list of books I own and want to read but maybe not right away, a list of books I want to get from the library, a list of books I want to buy from Amazon if the Kindle price ever drops to a reasonable amount, a list of books I’ve heard about and kinda want to read, a list of books related to other books I’ve liked that sound interesting but I don’t know too much about them. There are probably more lists, but I’ve forgotten them.

Too many lists! I spend more time managing the lists than I do reading. So I’ve decided to cull mercilessly,  with one simple test. Am I excited to read this book? If I’m not excited to read it, it goes off the list.

For instance, All the Light We Cannot See is available at the library in electronic format, everyone’s reading it, it’s getting great reviews. So I thought about putting it on hold. But the truth is that I’m just not that excited about it. It may be truly terrific, but I feel burned out on the WWII time period, and I’m also more interested in women writers right now. So I x’ed it off the list.

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course.

StationElevenHCUS2I was going to read something else next, but everyone is reading Station Eleven and saying good things about it, I already own it on Kindle, and it is very much exciting me. I love its cover and its premise! So despite my lists and reading plans, that’s what I started reading last night.

Using this excitement test, I earmarked many, many books from my TBR pile for gradual donation to the Little Free Library or immediate donation to the Big Free Library. Now my physical TBR fits in my bedside table and there are several books on it that I am excited about reading.

I don’t like having a big TBR. It makes me feel like reading is a chore and not a joy. Also, there will always be books available, and they will always be making more books (unless, maybe, the apocalypse). So if I get rid of a book and it turns out I really did want to read it after all, I’m sure I can get another copy when I’m wanting it.

A book does it have its moment, and sometimes that moment passes us by. Books that linger too long on the TBR seem to acquire a patina of sadness. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what it feels like to me. Better that those books move on to someone who will read them and love them and fulfill their purpose.

I will likely keep making lists, though. I do love lists.

Here’s a video from Book Riot advocating the opposite point of view–i.e., just keep adding on to the TBR all you want as long as you have money, time and space for them. (And stop anthropomorphizing books, ha ha!) I don’t tend to agree, because the TBR has weight for me, but I do think I should be able to buy and keep any books I want because I am an adult. I even buy books I’ve already and gotten rid of if I find a particularly beautiful edition. We all love books in our own ways.