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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

2016 Retrospective, Part 1

According to Goodreads, I've read 35 books this year. I guess that's OK considering my inability to concentrate hard enough to read a single book from the month of October until December, but I want to do better. The only way to do better is to try to write posts about the books I read and so I will continue to write posts every Wednesday until I either become too famous and get these ghost-written by a team of interns or I die or I get bored with it.

Speaking of interns, if you ever read a book and want to write about it, I'd be happy to host your review. Also, if you have a blog and want one of my posts on there as like a guest post we should talk, too. I really like just talking to people so even if neither of those things apply to you we should talk.

Anyway, back to 2016, which was a weird year that for the most part was very good for me even though it ended in such a way that I had a lot of thoughts about which you can read in blog form if you just scroll down further. Looking through the book list, though, I'm reminded of some great times. When I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example,  I was flying to West Virginia for a training about stream restoration that was so amazing. I got to see some historic battlefields, and Harper's Ferry, and I made new friends. I don't ever make new friends. Noteworthy!

I set out just now to write a post about the best books I read in 2016, but I don't know if that fits the spirit of this blog. I'm not really reviewing books here. There are lots of people who review books. Instead my hope is to take a book with a theme that is appealing or interesting to me and talking about that theme with a light dusting of review. You know how on brownies sometimes they put that powdered sugar on top which doesn't really add flavor but if you breathe in before taking a bite you start coughing? That's what the review part of the blog is. It's a nuisance, but makes it look fancy.

Instead, I'm going to go through my posts of 2016 and highlight my favorites, regardless of whether I loved the book or not. If you want to know my favorite books of the year, I'll post a list on the Howie's Book Club Facebook page which you should really "like" if you ever read this blog ever. Also if you ever read a book you learned about from my blog, I'd love to hear about it. (See the end of paragraph 2 above)

OK, here we go. All quotations are mine.

On January 5, I wrote about Chimamanda Adichie's book We Should All Be Feminists and proclaimed myself "the dean of donnybrook." It was a weird month.

"Listen, I'm a wizard with words. I'm the Tom Brady of treatise, the dean of donnybrook, the queen of quarrels. So when I say that I can't even describe how done I am with people assuming they know what feminism is and then proceeding to tear apart some grotesque mockery, just believe me. You guys, I am so done."

On February 1, I wrassled with the very complex topic of civil disobedience. I'm still not sure if this post is successful, but it was interesting to re-read. It's about The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.

"And there’s the dilemma. God spoke to John Brown and told him to abolish slavery. And nobody was going to come between John Brown and God. But God also told the slave owners in Ephesians 6:5 “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Lincoln’s own take was this: “My concern is not whether God is on our side. My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” Both statements were rallying cries to rebellion, war, and death."

February 8, apparently, found me in a depression. "It’s a very scary thing to look straight into the darkness in the world and try to figure out how to fix it, you guys. And maybe it’s especially dangerous when you’re a walking, talking pile of refuse consisting of cast-off Chik-Fil-A wrappers and half-eaten questionable Greek food, animated in a manner not unlike Pizza the Hut in Spaceballs. You gaze at this void with your beady little detritus eyes and vegetable oil tears roll down your Styrofoam cheeks."
In this state I still managed to muster a blog post about Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. A great book whose main character is a misogynist, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about a dumb internet phenomenon called "the red pill." This post is inexplicably one of the most viewed posts I've written.

In March 7, I talk about one of the darkest periods of my life and how pleased I was to no longer be a homeowner. If that sounds weird, try this:

"Depending on where you live, if you rent your place, someone is going to ask you when you want to buy. I imagine this is similar to other questions that seem innocent enough but are loaded with discomfort, like "when are you graduating," or if you're single at a friends' wedding and someone asks when it's going to be your turn. "You guys going to have a kid or what?" You're sharing needles at the crackhouse and your buddy asks when you think you'll get H.I.V. Like, give me some time, you know? Let me live my life."

The book was The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy.

On March 28 I read Room. I can't think of another book with such a harrowing story that ends up being so beautiful. Here I wrote about why I read stories that are difficult, and why I think we all should.

"We look back and we see a long chain of abuse and violence and if we look forward and see that chain unbroken then we're doing something wrong. That chain only gets broken when people look straight into the eyes of someone telling a bad story, really listen, process, and then say, "this ends here." I meet them all of the time. Social workers, police officers, nurses, teachers. You want to talk to someone who has seen darkness? Ask the therapist who spends her time just out of college in a mental institute for violent sex criminals. Then ask yourself why."

On April 4 I wrote a post about another Adichie book, That Thing Around Your Neck. I don't know if the post is particularly noteworthy, other than that it made Kristin laugh so hard she cried. You guys, I'm in the room almost every time she reads my blog posts. She NEVER laughs. 

June 6, a red-letter day! I published my most-clicked on post ever! This post was featured on Elena Ferrante's official website! I don't know. I think that's pretty cool. I love Ferrante and am just realizing now that I should read more of this series.

Anyway, I think the post stands up on its own even without its (extremely relative) success. It's about toxic masculinity and how it hurts dudes as much as it hurts women (which is a lot). The book is The Story of a New Name

"The women in this book are not the only prisoners. The men who feel compelled to play their roles are withheld as well. When self-worth is tied exclusively to financial success in the eyes of their neighbors, the men in the village all find themselves indebted to the same family. When a wife does not obey the social norms of how a married women should "behave," it reflects not on her choices, but on her husband's ability to control her."

June 20's post is about the book Company Town, by Madeline Ashby. I'm told by Goodreads that it was the least popular book I read. I thought it was fun, though. Mainly I used the book to talk about self-compassion, which is something I thought a lot about in 2016 and am still working on.

"I often spend several hours with someone who is going through the" worst time of their life and I'm just a guy. I don't have the right degrees for this kind of thing. The only thing I have to offer is me, and you've read the blog, "me" is a mixed bag. I'm like trail mix. There's some M&Ms in there, but you're going to have to deal with a whole lot of raisins to find them."

On July 14 I talked about The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It's a beautiful book and it got me thinking about vegetable gardens, which are surprisingly important to me.

"One year in junior high I lost all of my school books. Every one of them. I still don't know what happened. Sometimes we would sled on them during winter, but that seemed fine. I can't imagine that having anything to do with it. Anyway, it cost $80 to replace them. I had to work it off in my mom's garden at a rate of one dollar an hour. She still says it was the best garden she ever had. Now she pays migrant workers the same rate (JK!) (I think!)."

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing affected me more profoundly than any other book this year. I think about it every day. On August 15, I wrote about it. This post is mostly about privilege, but it's also mostly about how to argue effectively. It's mostly not about Homegoing. You should read it, though.

"I got into an argument with a stranger not too long ago which went poorly from the get go. I used the phrase "white privilege." This made said stranger very angry and led to the common response to this phrase of "I work very hard and have never gotten anything in my life because I was white." Very quickly we were no longer talking about the issue at hand and instead I was asked if I was glad that police officers were being killed. How did this go so bad so quickly? Oh. Words. I drop the privilege bomb and on the other side of the computer someone says to themselves, "Oh, I'm dealing with one of these people," before cracking his or her hairy knuckles, taking a giant swig of moonshine, and pounding out a diatribe about rap music and thugs."

Okey doke. That's pretty good for now. I'll post another of these things next week and it will be back to business as usual. Thanks again for reading this, like so much. I know it's a hassle and life in general is a hassle but for some reason this means a lot to me so if you're ever thinking "how do I make someone feel good about themselves with minimal effort?" The answer is read ol' Howie's blog every once in a while.