January Books of the Month

Whenever I am in Montana, I tend to go dark across social media, focusing on spending time with family and being outdoors over writing blog posts, responding to emails, or posting to Instagram. (I deleted Facebook in August 2019 followed by Twitter the next month.) I planned to return to blogging once my vacation ended.

Then, work threw my team and I through another re-organization, and I was too mentally scrambled to organize my bookish thoughts in coherent ones. I’m really pleased with where I ended up in the office hierarchy; my brain is finally getting the mental stimulation it has been craving for months and there are a number of new skills I will develop in this role.

But a steady flow of work means I’m back to where I was in 2016 and 2017 — eager to avoid the computer at all costs when I arrive home from work in the evenings. Which is great for my reading — I read ten books in January — but no so great for updating the blog or commenting on others’ posts. So, until I can strike the right balance between blogging and other hobbies, I plan to share more concise thoughts on what I’ve read on a monthly basis.

1. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil — O’Neil’s book was published in 2016, making it one of the earliest to raise the alarm on how algorithms are riddled with biases and, therefore, should not be used as independent decision makers. Each chapter introduces a case study from across industries in support of her argument. Unfortunately, most of these case studies have made their way into mainstream media, meaning I didn’t gleam much new information from reading it. (Nonfiction — print. Crown, 2016. 259 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

2. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates — I have read two of Coates’ nonfiction books — Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power — and I have always felt unable to craft a review that would do justice to the power of his writing. So, to say that his first novel — a blend of historical and science fiction centered on a conductor for the Underground Railroad — was of the most anticipated reads of 2019-20 for me would be an understatement. Sadly, the novel didn’t live up to the high expectations I had for it. The magical realism felt out of step with the brutal psychology explored by Coates through his main character. And the lyrical writing, which I normally love, was interspersed with long, clunky passages that bogged the story down. (Fiction — print. One World, 2019. 403 pgs. Library copy. Book club selection.)

3. Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder — My first five star read of the year! Funder, an Australian broadcast journalist, moved to the newly reunited Berlin to work at a TV station largely controlled by people from West Berlin. Her interest in the experiences of East Berliners became a side project after the station manager told her there is zero interest in the viewpoint of former DDR citizens. The deeply personal interactions she chronicles in this memoir-slash-biography with former Stasi informants, students like her landlord,  and a mother and son separate by the Wall among others helps illuminate the phenomenon of Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the East that is partially being blamed for the rise of far-right parties in Germany today. Fascinating, informative, and humanizing. (Nonfiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2011. First published 2002. 288 pgs. Purchased.)

4. And the Wind Sees All by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson — Set in an Icelandic fishing village on a summer’s day, this novella recounts the lives of the villages a young woman named Kata sees as she cycles down the main thoroughfare. The entire story takes place over a two minute span — yes, you read that correctly — and, admittedly, I’ve forgotten most of the individual stories in the 27 days since I finishing the book and sitting down to write a review. What I haven’t forgotten is Thorsson’s beautiful descriptions and a feeling like I was on the bicycle with Kata watching the villagers go about their day. (Fiction — print. Translated from the Icelandic by Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery. Peirene Press, 2018. First published 2011. 173 pgs. Purchased.)

5. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann — The central premise of this book of Mann’s lengthy book is that North and South America had thriving, major civilizations predating or rivaling those in the Middle East or along the Mediterranean traditionally held up as the cradle of civilization/democracy/etc. He also argues that the pristine wilderness encountered by colonists in the 1600s and, later, by American settlers moving west in the 1800s was actually the result of centuries of manipulation by Indigenous tribes. These arguments, of course, entirely upends what I learned in public school about the Americas prior to Columbus’ mislabeling of the continent in 1491.  But I wish the information had been organized differently — it was hard to ground myself in time and space — and that Mann had allowed the information to being interesting rather than merely insisting that it was. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Vintage, 2006. First published 2005. 864 pgs. Library copy.)

6. Mariana by Monica Dickens — This Persephone Classic opens with a young adult woman wondering if her husband was one of the sailors killed on a sunken ship announced over the radio during the early days of World War II. Then, the novel asks readers to hold onto that level of suspense as the story jumps back in time to recount how this woman — Mary, not the titular Mariana — met her husband, starting with her as a child raised by her widowed mother and actor uncle. It was an enjoyable albeit slow examination of one woman’s life during the early nineteenth century when marrying well was the goal. But I think it is telling that I completely forgot about the first chapter’s hook until it was reintroduced in the final chapter. (Fiction — print. Persephone Books, 2008. First published 1940. 377 pgs. Purchased.)

7. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein — If you’re looking to feel optimistic about our ability to combat climate change, Klein’s book is not for you. She eviscerates environmental non-profits as beneficiaries of the destruction of our climate largely through their cozy relationship with business and calls the complete abandonment of our globalized, capitalist system. She’s persuasive as hell; it’s hard not to agree with her points after such a clear, well-documented argument. But given the intrenchment of this system across class in America, I finished the book feeling utterly hopeless for and depressed about the future. (Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Simon & Schuster, 2014. 350 pgs. Library copy.)

8. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery — I first read Montgomery’s classic tale of a redheaded orphan adopted by a brother and sister from Prince Edward Island in 2011, and yet somehow I felt a wave of nostalgia as I listened to the audiobook on my way to and from the ski hill. Perhaps it has to do with the bitter feelings over the cancellation of “Anne with an E” or excitement over a planned trip to PEI this summer? Either way, it was so wonderful to return to Avonlea with Anne that I bumped my four star rating from 2011 to a solid five stars. (Fiction — audiobook. Read by Shelly Frasier. Tantor Media, 2008. First published 1908. 10 hours. Library copy.)

9. A Bride’s Story, Volume 11 by Kaoru Mori— The last time I reviewed a book in this series was after Volume 7 was published, yet this continues to be the one series where I constantly check on the publication date of the next volume. (Vol. 12 was published in Japan in December 2019; no word on when to expect the English translation.) This volume picks up a storyline first introduced in Vol. 3 with Talas and Smith finally reuniting. I cheered this development and appreciated the backstory into how they found one another. Overall, though, Vol. 11 felt like a bridge between the previous volume and the next as Talas and Smith spent the entire time preparing for their journey. There are hints about what could happen in Vol. 12 from Smith’s friend insisting that his proposal of marriage and/or proposed trip could go badly. The artwork is as lovely as ever, though. (Fiction — print. Translated from the Japanese. Yen Press, 2019. First published 2018. 187 pgs. Library copy.)

10. The Bitterroots by C.J. Box — Given how Paradise Valley ended, I had zero expectations that Box to release another book featuring Cassie Dewell. I like her far more than the protagonist of his long-running Joe Pickett series, but Box rarely has a kind word for overweight women or people from Bozeman or non-Trump supporters or…anyone really. Yet, the man crafts crime novels that keep me on the edge of my seat, and his latest was no exception with plenty of twists and the haunting, creepy shadow of the Lizard King. I only wish the ending hadn’t been so rushed and conducted in such a tell-not-show kind of way. It robbed Jody Haak — and I — of the opportunity to watch a powerful, maniacal family fall. (Fiction — audiobook. Read by Christina Delaine. Macmillian Audio, 2019. 9 hours, 49 minutes. Library copy.)

So, there are the ten books I read in January — four nonfiction and six fiction with two of the six audiobooks — and my first monthly recap for 2020. My favorite of the month was Stasiland by Anna Funder, followed closely by Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (despite the hopeless feelings it encouraged). Next month, I’ll be sharing thoughts on a number of book club selections and the next novel in Montgomery’s series, if not the third as well. (I’m number one on the library’s waitlist for the audiobook.)

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