2016: Best Books

So it looks like I read about 40 books in 2016, which is not a tremendous number for me. I think one of my resolutions last year was to read more and I'm going to re-up that one. Three books a month is not bad, exactly, but there's not enough room for variety and experimentation at that rate. 

Okay, so what did I enjoy? Let's see. 

The Vorkosigan Series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I won't list them one by one. I'd heard so many people talk about these books before I picked them up--with reverence, enthusiasm, sometimes envy. How can they be so good? How can I do that? So I knew I was in for a treat before I even started and that's a unique experience. Like making a reservation at a five star hotel or something.

I'm always a little wary of books that center on a hyper-brilliant protagonist because the author has to be pretty clever to pull it off, but Bujold clears that bar with inches to spare. I loved the worldbuilding, plots, and characters immediately but the more I read of Bujold, the more I appreciate her writing. It's beautiful without being showy and wise without ever feeling forced. Just wonderful. 

Oh, and since it's not obvious from the above: the Vorkosigan books are space operas. Start either with Shards of Honor (first of the prequel duology) or The Warrior's Apprentice (first Miles book). 

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas. Metaphorically speaking, I've sat on the beach and admired the rising wave of Sherlock adaptations/reimaginings from afar, only dipping my toe in now and again. I like the BBC Sherlock but never rewatch the episodes, I've liked Elementary when I can catch it. Etc. So I was decidedly neutral about the idea of a Lady Sherlock... but I adore Sherry Thomas and she sold me on this new series.

I like the idea of transforming the static genius of Sherlock Holmes into a story of growth and learning. I like the way that Thomas distributed some of canon Sherlock's abilities to secondary characters; there's a generosity of spirit inherent in the change that serves as a pointed counter to the original, which has an almost Randian focus on the brilliance of a lone genius.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. I have been trying to fill in some of my own blind spots about race in the United States. It's an ongoing process and every time I fill in a bit of the picture, see a little more clearly, I ask myself: why didn't I know? Why didn't I care? The answers to those questions are usually depressing. 

The New Jim Crow was the most painfully illuminating book I read on the subject this year. If you're on a similar quest, you should probably read it. 

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. I'm not quite done with this one yet--just a little bit left to read. This has taken me months to finish because it's so depressing that I have to listen in small doses (sidenote: don't do the audio, the narrator is not great.) The book traces the spread of the AIDS epidemic and efforts made to contain and combat the disease.

Let me tell you, I have never, ever in my life read a book where so many people do exactly the wrong thing. At every level--government, research organizations, activist groups--there seem to be 10 people bent on self-destructive sabotage for every 1 who is earnestly doing the hard work of research and organizing. It's breathtaking. If you ever doubted mankind's ability to shoot itself in the foot, scream in pain, then shoot the other foot... boy, do I have the book for you.

This is exactly why I find the book so gripping, however, and so important. Plus, the subject matter is recent enough that it's easy to relate to a lot of these people, to put myself in their place, and see myself making the exact same mistakes. There are a lot of good intentions on display, a lot of elbow grease spent on the problem, and still...

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Hariri. This is one of those books that can subtly shift your understanding of everything. Or maybe it just played to a lot of my established beliefs. Or both--probably both, actually. 

Anyway, it's an acerbic, cynical, self-consciously provocative take on human history, from a largely anthropological framework. I majored in anthropology in undergrad (I double majored, so that and art history), so the sections about early human history gelled well enough with what I remembered from school to give me confidence that this guy had done his research. 

I was hooked early on, by the part about how the rise of agricultural societies is not the story of man mastering the land but of wheat mastering man. It completely blew my mind and I already knew a lot of the basic facts. If that piques your curiosity, give the book a try. 

Made for Sin by Stacia Kane and Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Two very different books that satisfied my craving for good romance. Stacia Kane is one of my favorite authors and she always writes within exactly the shade of gray morality that I find most exciting. Her characters struggle to be bad, or maybe they struggle not to be... it's hard to tell. Plus, fantastic chemistry. Rainbow Rowell is exactly the opposite. Attachments is so sweet and lovely, so charming and poignant. It's uplifting simply by virtue of being about truly decent people, written with empathy and insight. 


Note: the above are all Amazon affiliate links. 


One of the most profound things that anyone has ever said to me, and which I have found to be consistently true, is this: 

The thing you like most about a person when you first meet them is the thing you will hate most about them when you leave them. 

Our best qualities are our worst qualities. An easy, unflappable, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude can be careless and sloppy. A thoughtful attention to detail can be picky and controlling. 

The qualities that make a person special are the qualities that make them distinctive--the qualities that stick out (snag), that draw fire (attract attention). 

It's that two-sides-to-every-coin thing, except that every trait is double-sided. We don't all mesh well with one another and that's not a judgement for or against anyone. It's the natural consequence of developing a personality.