While I can’t say I loved every book I read for Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge, I am certainly glad I did it. I’ve gained new strategies for finding books I will like, which was my ultimate goal. Below are short reviews of each book. There are 7 books preceded with *** – these are books I would heartily recommend to others.
If you’re interested in doing a similar challenge, Book Riot has their new list up for 2016: http://bookriot.com/2015/12/15/2016-book-riot-read-harder-challenge/
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi – A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
This was the first book I read for the challenge, and I was not disappointed. While I don’t think I will be rereading it, I enjoyed the mysticism and eerie blur between reality, truth, and the present moment. Helen does an amazing job of showcasing how our emotions can manifest in our minds and in our physical worlds. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed magical realism and who is entertained by mythologies outside of the western world.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut – A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
I read this book near the end of the challenge, getting a little more disenchanted with the books I had read. I wanted to read a book by an author I knew I enjoyed, and so I found this book by Vonnegut, one of the last books he had written. It is equally as silly and full of quirky characters as the rest of his books I have read. I would mention to anyone considering reading the book that the big “unveiling” at the end is totally worth the wait. Few authors depict humankind in quite the same way or with quite as much truth as Vonnegut.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemmingway – A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people)
I will start out by saying that this was one of the harder categories for the book challenge as I generally dislike short stories. I remembered liking Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and so I thought I would give this a chance. But I hated it. I don’t think I recognized the overdone angst of how difficult it is to be a man in the highest of class of privilege nor any incredibly sexist attitudes towards women in The Sun Also Rises, but this collection of stories was utterly dripping with the #firstworldproblems #whitemanproblems and #idon’tunderstandprivelage hashtags that it was difficult to finish. Thankfully, it was short.
The Raven Girl by Audrey Niffeneger – A book published by an indie press
This graphic novel (possibly?) is pretty adorable. It’s basically a bedtime story for adults, complete with art and a moral that looks to the beauty within. I love Audrey Niffeneger’s writing, and I would recommend this to anyone looking for a short, enjoyable read that will truly pull you out of your own world and into one that is very different from your own.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
I enjoyed this book for its own merits. While I have to be in the mood to read books written in a pre-teen’s language, there were sparks of profound truths that were very enjoyable to read, especially as someone who grew up drawing different conclusions about friendships, relationships, and people that are just a hare outside of normal. However, as far as representing the LGBTQ genre, it wasn’t the best suggestion. While characters in the book are LGBTQ, the main character is not. Finding accessible LGBTQ books was pretty difficult (I tried to get most of these books from the library because $$) so if anyone has suggestions, or can lend me one, please let me know.
***The Circle by Dave Eggers – A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
(Golly gee whiz this was the most difficult category to fill! JK! But seriously…)
This is one of those books that gets better after you finish reading it. I’ve never encountered a book like this before, but I’m considering looking for more like it. I initially thought the book was unremarkable. Simple writing, simple characters, intriguing plot, fast pace. I normally judge books on their ability to depict real, whole human beings in a world so articulately described I feel as though I could visit it. This book doesn’t achieve either of those goals, and while I didn’t like or truly “believe in” any of the characters, the plot is beyond-words relevant to our moral quarries with our blooming technology industry, specifically the line between knowledge and personal privacy. It has been so spooky to watch the technologies I deemed too invasive and futuristic in the book beginning to appear IRL. Please, read this book. Like I said, the pacing is good – you’ll be able to finish it at least within a week.
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami – A book that takes place in Asia
I was super excited to read this book and am sad to say that I was completely underwhelmed. I have heard amazing things about Haruki Murakami, and having trained most of my life in Japanese martial arts and loving all (most) I have to learn about the culture, I was hoping my first foray into Japanese writing outside of haiku poetry would be fulfilling. However, the book is about much of what has been written to death about in the western world – disillusionment of the American Dream. Now, specifically, this book doesn’t have anything to do with the American Dream, but the main character’s disillusionment with what he expected out of life is exactly the same. From a cultural point of view, it seems that the American Dream has affected other cultures, but I don’t want to say that too firmly. I’m not giving up on Haruki Murakami, though – 1Q84 will be my next endeavor…
***Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – A book by an author from Africa
I absolutely loved this book. For anyone familiar with the fantasy genre, this book will be something new. Set in a post-apocalyptic East Africa, this book tackles issues of female mutilation, genocide, blackness, women’s rights, the power of friendship, the fragility of the human body, and the draining nature of being a Warlock struggling to find a legitimate teacher (not kidding). The plot centers around a woman trying to save her life and her people, all of whom live and travel in the desert. Okorafor’s writing is incredibly powerful. I would recommend this book who isn’t afraid of honesty and brutality.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
I was excited to read this book for several reasons: 1) The main characters were Native American; 2) Those Native Americans lived in Canada, not the US; and 3) The main characters fought in WWI, a war I feel is rarely depicted, and few people intimately know details about it. The plot traverses through time, centering on a friendship between two Native American boys and one of those boy’s aunts. It spans two generations and the slow cultural appropriation of Native American culture in their homeland while contrasting the behaviors and beliefs of Native American and western cultures, addressing what it means to be a man and woman in each. The writing is masterful, and the story is illuminating. I would recommend this book to anyone of any age.
***The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – A microhistory
I’m not sure if this book is technically a microhistory, as it borders on being a biography, but I believe that is more due to the nature of the subject – HELA cells – than the genre itself. Regardless, I believe this should be required reading. Rebecca Skloot weaves together the history of African Americans during the early to mid 1900’s in the United States with the history of medical scientific research. From privacy, to permission, to explanation of treatment, we learn about the violation of Henrietta’s body and the moral quarry in using the HELA cells and resulting medical knowledge gained without her consent. Furthermore, Skloot shows us how race relations and lack of civil rights has affected the black communities. Definitely worth a read.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – A Young Adult novel
I considered using this book as the one for the category two up, but once I read it, I decided to use it for YA literature because not all YA literature is great. It’s rare to find a YA book written for a YA audience that can also capture adult audiences. This is one of those books. The main character’s life realizations, personal acceptances, and honest emotionality truly make this book worthwhile and relatable to all ages. As a YA novel, it is also fairly quick to finish, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself teary eyed at certain points throughout the book.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber – A sci-fi novel
While I like sci-fi media, I would not consider myself a well-read sci-fi reader. However, I have many friends who are, and having seen a lot of praise for this book in a lot of places, I thought I would pick it up. I was immediately captured by the writing. While the pacing isn’t fast, it is consistent and engaging, and the writing borders on prose, though it is very readable. My only critique is that it is a little long – I believe the author could have cut many pages from the middle and still have the same effect on readers. However, the story is still so well told that it is also fine as is. And while this book is obviously sci-fi, it is also remarkably human. For anyone who finds the whole genre of sci-fi a little off-putting or weird, this would be a good first book.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks – A romance novel
As a disclaimer, I know this wouldn’t be considered a typical romance novel. And while I find romance novels amusing and have perused many in the bookstore for kicks and giggles, I wasn’t interested in devoting time to one, especially since there are so many, and getting a good recommendation proved to be difficult. So I chose an incredibly popular book to see what all of the fuss was about. It was fine. It reminded me of what I considered love and romance to be as a teenager (ie, comparatively bland), and I have since become enamored with stories of real people and complex love stories. So, if you need something to occupy you on a plane ride but can’t really focus on that type of journey, I would recommend this book.
***A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler – A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
This category was eye-opening in two ways: 1) I actually liked all (but one) of these short stories, and that is a first, and 2) I am definitely a book snob. To begin with point one, I was shocked that I liked this book so much. I judged the book by its cover and its title, all things that I like, but none of which really relate to any of the stories (except for the one I didn’t like, which is the title of the book as well). The author seemed to intrinsically understand the different struggles of Vietnamese immigrants both male and female and portrayed them equally throughout the collection. The writing was beautiful and insightful. This is definitely a book I will recommend to anyone of any age. To point two, I had a difficult time finding interesting and well-written books with recommendations in other genres, but I have since used these awards as a guide for new books and have yet to be disappointed. While it’s difficult to also find books written by women who have female characters, I still use it as a reliable resource for a quality book. Apparently, I’m a snob.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy – A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.)
I struggled to find a book in this category that I could stick with, as I started many, but this one captured my attention. I love Jane Eyre for many reasons – the main character, the sleepy-yet-engaging-and-persistent writing style, and the level of emotional intelligence Charlotte Brontë portrayed in her novel. Margot Livesy effortlessly captured all of these qualities. You know when you read a good book, and you want to read it again, but you know the experience won’t be as amazing because you already know what happens? Well, this book is literally like re-reading Jane Eyre, except you DON’T know what happens. For any Jane Eyre fanatics, this book will make you very, very happy.
The Graveyard Story by Neil Gaiman – An audiobook
I was expecting this to be a painstaking experience, and it was anything but. Neil Gaiman is not only a great writer but also a skilled story teller. I read/listened to this book on my hour long drives to visit friends and was engaged the entire time. Even thought it’s a children’s book, it was absolutely incredible. If possible, the details of this book have stuck with me more strongly than the details of most of the other books on this list, and I’m typically terrible at retaining information audibly if I am unable to take notes on it. I have listened to it twice, in fact, and hope to listen to it again. I don’t think this experience is entirely due to it being an audiobook either – hoping that I would relive this experience, I tried listening to another book on tape, and it was nowhere near the same. That said, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to break the mold of books on tape.
Haiku, The Poetry of Zen, published by Hyperion – A collection of poetry
This category was a bit daunting. I consider poetry to be incredibly personalized and intimate, making it very difficult to just randomly find one that can be impactful for yourself. So, I chickened out and picked a collection of haiku, my favorite poetry style and one that I have studied, so I knew I would enjoy it. And I did. It was everything I expected, and now I have a collection of traditional haiku at my fingertips. #noregrets
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – A book that someone else has recommended to you
I get a lot of recommendations, so I used this category as a catch-all. This was the first book I read for my book club, so it was a recommendation by several people, and it was a good read. It falls into the genre of historical fiction, based on the lives of slave holders and slaves at the start of dissent in the United States. It was told specifically from the perspective of different female characters and their disdain for slavery – both black and white. In most media about this time period, we have the perspectives of white men and their savior complex (not to be harsh, but really…) so this was a refreshing look at the struggles and consequences of freeing slaves. For anyone who would like a more nuanced understanding of this time in US history, I recommend this book, and I recommend reading the post-script as well.
Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco – A book that was originally published in another language
I only made it through this book because my friend recommended it and loves it. I thought that my studies in the Knight’s Templar and a little of the occult that comes with it would make this book an interesting read, but it was incredibly difficult for me to move beyond the machismo, academic pretension, and the mostly unwarranted angst from all of the male characters in this book. (Although I should just say “characters” as there weren’t really any female characters of note or import, except for those that served to fulfill the sexual needs of the main characters and were given as much attention.) If you REALLY like the occult theories surrounding the Knight’s Templar, and you don’t mind reading dense, prose-like writing that doesn’t stop for several hundred pages and somehow seems to praise itself, you would enjoy this book. The writing style is certainly masterful, but I can’t say the same for anything else.
***The Wormworld Saga Daniel Lieski – A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
I wanted to read Mouse for this genre, but given my reading commitments at the time, I settled for something a bit shorter. Let me start with that cliché saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” With that in mind, the art for this story is phenomenal, and does just as much of the storytelling if not moreso than the writing itself. If you’re unfamiliar with online graphic novels, typically they are done in strips, with boxes telling different stories. You click from webpage to webpage as the story progresses. But The Wormworld Saga is one long tapestry of a chapter. Aside from being breathtaking, you literally feel like you are falling into the world of the story as you progress. This a great story for anyone who appreciates good art and storytelling.
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher – A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure
This was a difficult genre for me as I don’t feel like I have many desires to read a book others may consider a guilty pleasure. I am not this way with other forms of media, but I do have some fairly high standards set in order for me to read a book. That said, I figured this book would be easy and entertaining, which is also something people consider a guilty pleasure to be. I was right in my assumption, though I do feel like her first novel, Wishful Drinking, was better. But if you’re looking for something honest and funny and need some encouragement to be vulnerable, this is a good book to turn to.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – A book published before 1850
To be honest, I struggle with the writing styles in this period, and so I looked for something weird and short, which is definitely Alice in Wonderland. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was under the influence of something while I was reading it, so I may try it again. But it was just very strange, and not in a way that I consider interesting. This is coming from someone who enjoys postmodern writing. So, read it if you want, but I would suggest being affected while doing so.
***Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A book published this year
I like this category because I had a very difficult time picking just one book. This will serve as a good strategy in the future if I am in need of a book I want to read. (Actually, the sci-fi book was also recently published. I couldn’t help myself.) I was excited for this book for two reasons: 1) It was written from the perspective that mainstream media rarely represents – a black girl, and 2) It was written as poetry, but not the dense, metaphor-driven type, more like spoken word poetry on paper. The author chose the perfect medium to relate her tale. Sometimes your standard novel format just doesn’t do a story justice, and I believe that would have been the case for this story. I wish that more authors experimented with storytelling and form. Beautifully done.
***Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – A self-improvement book
I am wary of this genre in general, and while I have since come across other titles that seem like they could be a good read, I wanted to stick with someone I knew would be good. Brené Brown did not disappoint. I literally want to buy a box of this book and just randomly give them to friends whom I think could benefit from its lessons. Her writing is so relatable that anyone can read it and understand the words (in fact, it’s almost too relatable, in that I feel it’s a little wordy, but…editing choices and all.) While the concepts are trickier to understand, Brené has a knack for breaking down complex emotional responses into an easily comprehendible explanation.