2016: My Reading Year in Review

At the end of the year, I like to look back at what I’ve read. I use both Goodreads and a Google doc to track my reading, and I have different totals: 83 on Goodreads and 111 by my own accounting. The discrepancy is because I re-read a lot of books this year that were already counted on Goodreads. You can change the date read, but if I had already read and rated a book on Goodreads, I didn’t bother with updating the entry.

Why so much re-reading? In a few cases, I read a book, intending to write about it on the blog, but by the time I got around to writing a post, enough months had passed that I felt I needed to read the book again. I also just enjoying re-reading old favorites, and it somehow feels like less of a commitment than starting a new book.

I tend to set yearly reading goals for myself. Sometimes it’s a formal goal, like in 2010, when I decided I would read a poem every day for the whole year. (I achieved that goal, enjoyed it very much, and haven’t read a single poem since. Sigh. Perhaps it was too much of a good thing.) Sometimes, it’s a less formal goal. In 2015, I sort of vaguely decided I should read less YA and make more of an effort to read some adult, literary fiction. I did pretty well with that goal, so I decided to carry it over into 2016 but aim for nonfiction. (I used to read a fair amount of nonfiction, but I hadn’t read any in recent years.)

I read 22 nonfiction books in 2016. Seven of the 22 were science, and seven were about Antarctica. I’m glad I set this goal, because it helped me rekindle my dormant interest in Antarctica (and in particular, Antarctic exploration). My re-fascination with Antarctica was triggered when an acquaintance mentioned doing scientific research in Antarctica, which got me thinking about icebergs. A few weeks of considering white polar wastelands made me delve into my polar exploration shelf. The other nonfiction books were a mixed bag: self-help, history, current affairs, literary criticism, and memoirs.

The rest of the 83 books I read (I won’t count the re-reads here) break down as follows:

Children’s books: 27
Young adult: 23
Adult fiction: 10

If you combine adult fiction and nonfiction, that’s 32 books, so I suppose I did ok at reading books for grown-ups.

The most important book I read this year is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s not exactly a feel-good read, but it’s important and should be required reading for all Americans. I’m very glad I read it and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

I’m delighted that my nonfiction goal led me back to Antarctica, and I enjoyed all of the books I read on the subject, which includes one novel, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. I have more Antarctica on my 2017 to read list. There are so many books on Antarctic exploration that I’m not going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Your Inner Fish by Neil ShubinThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Alone on the Ice by David Roberts
Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Mandy by Julie Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quality-wise, it was a pretty good year, and I can’t recall any major duds.

Next up: 2017 reading goals.


Anastasia Krupnik Is Very Groovy

Anastasia Krupnik
Lois Lowry
First published 1979

My history with this book
None. Lois Lowry is an award-winning author, and her Anastasia Krupnik series was first published when I was in the right age group to read it, but I wasn’t aware of this series until recently. I read Lowry’s The Giver a few years ago and liked it very much, so I decided to give Anastasia a try.

My thoughts
img_3062Anastasia Krupnik has a bit in common with the Ramona books and it also reminded me of some of Judy Blume’s work. Anastasia a smart, funny 10-year-old, who lives with her parents in an apartment in Boston (fitting into the 1970s trend of books about city kids who live in apartments, although it’s usually New York, so Boston is a nice change). Her father is a poet and English professor and her mother is an artist, so they’re slightly bohemian.

Anastasia faces some challenges in her life. Her parents announce that they’re expecting a baby boy, and she’s not thrilled about that. She has conflicted feelings about her grandmother, who’s suffering from dementia. She thinks she may be in love for the first time.

This is a sort of a slice of life book. There’s not a huge amount of plot, and it’s mostly about Anastasia coming to terms with the impending birth of her brother. I really enjoyed the book, and there are some very funny bits, like these two passages::

“Well,” said her father, “my vacation doesn’t start until day after tomorrow. But I only have to teach one class this morning. Do you want to come along?”

“Will it be boring?”

Her father adjusted his glasses so that he could look down his nose at her. “Boring? Dr. Krupnik’s English 202, required for English majors, eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry, three prelims, four papers, and a final exam, boring? He sighed. “Yes, it will probably be boring.”

And this one, where Anastasia’s father responds to a student he clearly finds very annoying:

“That’s very interesting, Miss Eisenstein,” said her father. But he said it with the same voice he used when Anastasia described in detail the plot of a television program. It meant he didn’t find it terribly interesting at all.

There’s a rather rough scene in the first chapter where Anastasia has to read a poem she’s written out loud in class. It’s a pretty amazing poem for a 10-year-old to have written, but Anastasia didn’t follow the teacher’s instructions to write a poem that rhymes, so she gets an F, which her teacher announces in front of the entire class. I was also a creative kid who didn’t always follow directions to the letter, so I sympathize with her.

img_3061Anastasia Krupnik feels a bit dated; there are a lot of things in it that are very 1970s. When Anastasia visits her father’s class, both her father and his students smoke. Anastasia asks her mother if she ever had a love affair before she got married, and her mother tells her all about a failed romance (not that this conversation couldn’t happen now, but something about it felt very 70s). Anastasia develops a crush on a boy who wears in a comb in his hair at all times and likes Roberta Flack. These details were nostalgic for me, but I wonder how they will register for a kid today.

The edition I read is apparently the original cover, and I like how much it references the book. There’s Anastasia, wearing her Amelia Earhart t-shirt and her big 70s glasses, writing in her special notebook, surrounded by lots of discarded poems. It’s very true to the book. And check out how groovy her parents look on the back cover. Her dad could be a minor character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Would I want my kid to read it?

Is there any objectionable content?

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, although the chapters are a little long.

It’s still in print and available as an ebook.



Sheila Is Pretty Great

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great
Judy Blume
First published 1972

My history with this book
I know I read this book as a kid, but I had no memory of it, so it apparently didn’t leave as much of an impression as my favorite Judy Blume books: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.

My thoughts
It’s funny that this book apparently didn’t leave much of an impression on me as a child, because I really enjoyed it as an adult. I recently read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for the first time, so I sheiladecided to read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which is about a minor character in the former book. My husband read both of these books as a kid, and he still remembers being blown away by an author writing related books from two totally different viewpoints. Sheila comes across as a very annoying character in Tales, and she’s something of a nemesis to the main character (who is painted in a negative light in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great).

Sheila Tubman lives in an apartment in Manhattan (in the same building as Peter, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) with her parents and her boy-crazy older sister Libby. Sheila wants to go to Disneyland for the summer, but her parents end up renting a house in Tarrytown instead. Sheila makes a new best friend, Mouse Ellis, and learns to face her many fears, the most serious of which are dogs and swimming. Sheila is forced to confront her fears during her time in Tarrytown, because their house comes with a dog and her mother insists that she take swimming lessons.

Sheila is a quite a character. She’s something of a legend in her own mind, but she’s also a very anxious child with a lot of fears. She hides her fears behind boasting and bravado, but her bluff ends up being called when she makes friends with the very clever Mouse. Sheila thinks she’s good at hiding her fears and presenting a confident, even brash persona. But Mouse figures her out.

“Sheila, if a person is scared of something, a person should just admit it. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “And if I was ever afraid of anything I’d be the first to admit it.”

Which is, of course, totally untrue, as Sheila lies constantly in an effort to hide her fears and whenever she doesn’t know how to do something. The lies are kind of hilarious: She used to be really good at yo-yo’s but she hasn’t played with one since she was two, she can’t go in the pool because she had a cold, she’s allergic to dogs and gets hives inside her body, she can run a newspaper single-handedly.

I found Sheila’s first night in the new house very funny. She’s having trouble sleeping, so she turns on the light, which leads to her seeing a spider on the ceiling, so she wakes up her father. The sense of weary resignation from her father’s gives one gets the feeling that this is not the first time this has happened. Later that same night, Sheila is awoken by a strange noise. This time, she wakes her mother, who is annoyed at first but then gets freaked out by the noise as well (which turns out to be the dog howling at the moon).

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great would be an excellent book to offer to a kid who has some fears. A parent could read along with their child, and use Sheila’s experiences as a good conversation starter.

Does it hold up?
Quite well. Judy Blume’s book are so universal, they don’t really seem dated. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the milkman still delivers milk in Tarrytown. I’m not sure when milk deliveries stopped being common, but I never knew of anyone who had milk delivered in the U.S. (milk delivery in rural Ireland was still common when I was a child).

Would I want my kid to read it?

Is there any objectionable content?
No, except for some mild fat shaming of one of Sheila’s friends.

Can you read it aloud?

It’s still in print and available in audio and ebook format.

80s Flashback: Stranger with My Face

Summer of Fear
Lois Duncan
First published 1981

My history with this book
I remember very clearly reading this book in seventh grade. My best friend also read it, and we had a lot of discussions about it. I recall it being quite suspenseful and scary.

My thoughts
I loved Stranger with My Face as a pre-teen, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it almost as much as an adult.

Our heroine Laurie has a storybook ideal teenage life. She lives with her artist mother, writer father, and younger brother and sister in a beautiful cliff-side house on an island off of Massachusetts. She’s dating the popular Gordon, which has made her part of her high school’s ruling clique. But her newfound status is threatened when she misses a party because she’s home sick and her friends claim they saw her on the beach that night. Laurie claims innocence, but her friends are suspicious, and soon she begins to feel like someone has been in her room and there are more incidents where people think they see Laurie when she couldn’t have been there.

Laurie soon realizes that there is indeed a stranger out there stranger-with-my-facewho looks just like her, a long-lost twin sister who wants her life. This book has lots of gothic elements: a long-lost evil twin, a supernatural twist (astral projection), and a scarred (literally) love interest. Duncan specialized in thrillers, and some of them had a supernatural bent, but of the ones I read as a kid, Stranger with My Face was definitely the scariest and creepiest.

I enjoyed many things about this book: the spookiness of the plot, the sense of atmosphere, the evil villain, and the romance between Laurie and the island’s outcast. I particularly liked that the ending doesn’t tie things up in a neat package. There’s an end to the story, and it’s not an unhappy one, but it’s not necessarily a happy one either. I don’t recall what I thought of the ending when I was a kid, but reading it now, I appreciated that Duncan didn’t go for a big showy happy ending. The uncertain ending feels unexpected for a book of this type.

Does it hold up?
Much better than I expected.

Would I want my kid to read it?

Is there any objectionable content?
Nothing terrible. There’s an adoption plotline that feels quite dated, but probably wasn’t unusual for the time the book was written. There’s also some vague Native American mysticism related to the astral projection plotline that I assume doesn’t have much to do with any actual Native American traditions. The mother of Laurie’s friend Helen says some awful things about their friend Jeff, who has terrible facial scars, but Helen shuts her mother down, and Laurie and her family embrace Jeff and don’t care about his appearance.

Can you read it aloud?
No, it’s too long and the target age is too old.

It’s still in print, but the current version has been revised slightly by the author. I read the original text, so I’m not sure how extensive the revisions are. I believe they are fairly minor. It’s not hard to find used copies of the original text. The cheesy cover pictured here is the paperback edition I read as a kid.