I remember back in my pre-mommyhood days, I would spend an entire Saturday curled up on the couch reading a book. Those days are gone. At this stage in my life, the reading I do is usually done in small segments on the kindle app on my phone—twenty minutes while I wait at the doctor’s office or thirty minutes while I wait for my daughter to finish her ballet lesson.
Even so, there are thirty-five books that I’ve read in 2015, and I picked a favorite in each of four (very broad) categories. These are not books that were published in 2015. I’m simply picking my favorites of the books I happened to pick up this year.
When it comes to giving a five star rating, a book has to do one of a two things. It has to haunt me—something about the characters or plot has to keep me thinking about it for weeks or months afterward. Or, in the case of non-fiction, it has to contain research that is so fascinating that I refer to its ideas in conversation long after reading it. All of the authors or books mentioned below would get a five start rating from me.
YA Nonfiction: THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD: A TRUE STORY OF ADVENTURE, HEROISM, & TREACHERY by Steve Sheinkin
Sheinkin’s biggest strength is his ability to tell a very educational history and make it read like a novel—the kind of novel that keeps you engaged and eager to see what’s on the next page. This true story has the plot elements it needs to be exciting, but this book’s biggest strength is its strong characterization of Benedict Arnold. There were moments when I loved Arnold and then hated him. There were pages when I shook my head asking, “Why, in God’s name, would these people do that to poor Arnold?” And then the next chapter I would want to grab him by the shoulders and say “Arnold, you sacrificed so much for us. How can you suddenly care so little?” At the end of the book, I blamed him for his own misfortune, but pitied him for the pathetic existence he had at end of his life. By the last page, I realized that even though Arnold’s pride made him reckless and dangerous, all of his actions—whether consciously or unconsciously—contributed to the American cause while costing him his entire livelihood—his happiness, his fortune, and his health. He’ll never have an American monument named for him, but we wouldn’t have won the war without him.
This book has haunted me. Arnold’s character is so complex, his sacrifices so thorough, his choices so enigmatic that I can’t stop thinking about him.
The Notorious Benedict Arnold is actually the second of two books by Sheinkin that I read. The first one, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, is just as well-written, engaging, and thoroughly researched, but Benedict Arnold is my favorite because it focuses on one character, rather than the multiple individuals that Bomb does. Because of that, I felt like I got to know Arnold on a much deeper level than I did any of the various scientists and military leaders described in Bomb. Another reason I like Benedict Arnold better is that I am simply interested in the history of Revolutionary America more than World War II era history. But all in all, both of these books are worth the read. Though Sheinkin’s books are marketed to a YA audience, they are engaging and educational for adults as well—a mark of talented YA writing. Sheinkin is now towards the top on my list of favorite authors. I will buy and read all of his other books as well.
Adult Nonfiction: CHINA IN TEN WORDS by Yu Hua
I read a number of adult non-fiction this year. I would give a five-star rating to a number of them, but I reserve the status of favorite for a little-known book called China in Ten Words by Yu Hua. I read this book before moving to China for the purpose of getting some insight into contemporary Chinese culture. China in Ten Words is basically a collection of ten essays, each focusing on a different aspect of Chinese culture.
Yu Hua depends a lot on personal anecdotes rather than statistics or research to demonstrate his points, but he pulls in statistics and other news articles when appropriate. I liked his use of personal anecdotes because he grew up in such a fascinating time of Chinese history. Born in 1960, the author was in middle school or high school for much of the Cultural Revolution—he was old enough to remember the disturbing scenes, young enough to be indoctrinated by the Communist party, and smart enough to later question Chinese political ideology. Yu Hua had a wealth of personal stories to clearly demonstrate the ten aspects of Chinese culture he wished to discuss.
Many of his anecdotes I couldn’t get out of my head. For example, in one essay, the author remembered joining a group of vigilante teenage boys. Together, the boys beat a grown man until he was bloodied, took him in to the anti-speculation office, and then continued to harangue the man after he was released.
What was the man’s crime? Trying to sell oil coupons to make enough money to pay for his upcoming wedding.
As an adolescent, Yu Hua and the other teenagers beat the man with bricks believing they were “performing a public service” (148). As an adult, the author recalled the episode “with a heavy heart and a feeling of shame” and remembered that when they “were beating him on the head, he controlled his rage and never fought back, just pushed [them] away with the palm of his hand” (151).
It is revelations like this throughout the book that left me engrossed in the pages, amazed at the calculated transformation that took place in Chinese society during the cultural revolution—one that upturned ideas of what was right and what was wrong—what was worthy of admiration and what should cause shame. The author’s attitude as a teenager is a vivid demonstration of the indoctrination of Chinese youth during the cultural revolution.
China in Ten Words is so candid in it’s description of Chinese history, that Yu Hua cannot publish his book in China, even though he lives in Beijing. The Chinese version was published in Taiwan. The book was translated from Chinese into English by Allan H. Barr and published in the US and Canada.
Though some of the essays are more engaging than others, being here in China, I am constantly reminded of some of the things discussed in his book. When I see wealthy Chinese driving Mercedes and BMWs I remember how quickly wealth changes hands in China:
“If you look at the names that appear on the recent wealth rankings in China, almost all of these multimillionaires have come up from the grass roots. These honor rolls tell stories of sudden upswings—of empty-handed paupers transformed overnight into multimillionaires, of glory and wealth that partner fame and fortune. At the same time they recount tales of sudden ruin, showing how disgrace follows glory and how wealth can vanish in the blink of an eye” (169).
When I see another field being gated and developed or new apartment buildings going up, I remember the author talking about how the farmers surrounding cities have had their land taken from them and barely compensated for it.
Though more relevant to me because I see the ideas expressed in this book every day, it would be a very insightful and engaging read for anyone who wants to learn about Chinese history or culture. The author’s style doesn’t read like a boring history or political textbook. It is engaging and conversational, but informative at the same time.
YA Fiction: THE WEIGHT OF WATER by Sarah Crossan
I started reading this book not really expecting much from it. It wasn’t one that I normally would have chosen to read, but in my attempt to stop being a literary snob, I decided to give it a try. My hesitation was that it was a novel written in verse. I (wrongly) assumed that writing a novel in verse was a lazy way of writing. I mean, how could it be a proper novel when it has so few words and no dialogue? Surely it would lack something—a strong plot, robust characters, a lack of narrative thrust. Something had to be missing, right?
Oh, boy. Was I ever wrong.
The language was stunning. I found myself re-reading some of the poems for the sheer joy of the words. Like a proper novel, the plot was well-developed with one scene directly leading into the next. The characters were robustly developed with clear desires and antagonistic forces.
I was so pleasantly surprised with the free verse format of the novel that, after finishing it, I sought out other novels written in verse. I also fell in love with Inside out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, but I liked The Weight of Water better simply for the story.
Crossan’s book is uniquely special, and I foresee that I will be returning to it to study how she managed to achieve the magic that became The Weight of Water.
As a summary, this book is about Kasienka and her mother. They are Polish immigrants who go to England in search of her father who Kasienka rightly assumes would rather not be found. Along the way, she deals with the discomfort of being different, learns the conflicting emotions involved in adolescent love, and faces bullies who choose to be mean simply because they can. The water is the only place she can find peace and a sense of belonging.
This is a touching novel that left my heart aching for the the characters who, even with so few words, I grew to love by the end.
Adult Fiction: AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, reads differently than his others. At times I felt like I was reading a collection of short stories rather than a novel, each chapter taking place in different settings and time periods and focusing on a different set of characters. Yet, all of the stories are intertwined so intricately that each one wouldn’t have happened without the events that took place in the others. The interaction of all the different stories shows how all our choices and actions, for better or worse, affect others for generations to come.
Even though Hosseini does not devote the entire novel to a few main characters like in his other two books. His characterization still builds robust characters who have complex emotions. Within the pages of this book, the characters become real people that the reader will sympathize with but feel annoyed with. The reader will love them and want to shake them all at one.
Hosseini’s descriptions will leave you mesmerized. You will be able to see the place where he puts his characters, but he constructs the settings by weaving it throughout the action and dialogue so that the pacing of the novel never slows to a point that the reader would become bored.
His writing is magical. I love a good story, but when an author tells a good story with prose that’s so beautiful I find myself re-reading a paragraph simply to appreciate the words—the sounds they make or the beauty of a metaphor—and then read it yet again and think, “Good, God! How does this man do this?” Well, I know I’ve found a good writer.
I’m not trying to be a literary snob with this one. I read his other books and was looking forward to this one. I expected to like it, and it did not disappoint.