Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The year I read 100 books

I didn't set out to read 100 books this year. It just kind of happened.

How do you accidentally read 100 books in a year? You do it by judging a book contest, not sleeping, and simply for the pure love of books.

Oddly enough, I started the year in a book slump. I finished 2015 feeling like I had read everything; nothing felt fresh or interesting anymore. Which made the beginning of 2016 the perfect time to focus on the stack of books (20, to be exact) I had agreed to read and judge. Two years ago I applied to be a judge for a book contest, thinking it would be a fun way to read a lot of books for free. I wasn't hired then, but they asked me to apply again in 2015; that time I made it onto the initial judges' panel.

I probably shouldn't go too much into specifics, but basically the aim of the contest is to draw attention to great books that wouldn't otherwise be noticed (primarily of the independent press and self-published nature). I lobbied for the memoir category, so I spent January and February reading people's life stories. Most weren't that great and some I didn't bother finishing (if you don't think you need an editor, I don't need to waste my time on you), but I found a couple absolute gems that made the whole experience worth it.

By the time I had submitted my scores and write-ups, I was ready to explore the world of fiction again, and my reading pace hasn't slowed much throughout the rest of the year. In fact, I didn't feel the strain of my ambitious goal until about November, which was when I started favoring short books over long ones. I was too close to my goal not to meet it—and who knows if I'll ever get another chance to read this much again.

It was the luxuriousness of the experience, more than anything, that kept me going. In every stage of my life that involved busyness, I longed for the freedom to just read for hours, not worrying about anything else. This year I had many evenings and weekends where I was able to do just that, because my life is just that awesome. It was one of my silly childhood fantasies that actually came true, like having a piano in my room.

My reading productivity also made me feel like I was actually making a dent on the impossible number of books I want to read in my lifetime. My TBR list is down to 442 books, which is only 50 more books than I had at this time last year!

In summary, it was a great reading year. I hit a reading goal I didn't think was possible, and I did it without hating books at the end. The best part? Now I get to reward myself with a 900-page fantasy novel of my choosing—or several, if I want—because I won't be trying to break any records next year. (Or perhaps it's time to find a new hobby...)

But first: my 2016 book write-up.

Goal: Read 100 books

Books read: 100

Books I didn't finish: 7. This number would be higher if I wasn't trying to finish so many books.

Pages read: 33,474 (335 per book)


  • 5 stars: 19
  • 4 stars: 41
  • 3 stars: 27
  • 2 stars: 12
  • 1 star: 1

First reads: 84

Re-reads: 16

Fiction: 67

Nonfiction: 33

Books by female authors: 49

Books by male authors: 50
*Plus one written by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Longest book: Don Quixote, by Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes. 1032 pages.

Shortest book: State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, by Alexis Rhone Fancher. 54 pages.

Favorite book (fiction): A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. This book can be summed up in one word: charming. It's about a count who is put under house arrest in this elite hotel in Russia, and it's just delightful. Just read it, and you'll understand.

Favorite book (nonfiction): Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, by Krista Schlyer. This was one of the first of many memoirs I read this year. I loved it immediately and it stayed my favorite throughout the year. The ridiculously long subtitle pretty much sums up the subject matter, but it was the writing that hooked me. Some people just have a gift of wordifying difficult experiences—I can't think of any other way of describing it. Schlyer also has a sense of humor very similar to mine, which strengthened the kinship I already felt with her writing. This is not a well-known book at all, but it's one of the most kindred-spirit-est books I read this year. (And that's two words I had to make up in an attempt to describe my love for this book.)

Favorite reread: A Return to Christmas, by Chris Heimerdinger. This is one of several books my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Applegate, read to us that I continue to love to this day. It stayed on my mind for years after, and I always regretted not making note of the title or author. But then, one year at our annual Rushton/Carter Christmas party, I got a little book in a white elephant gift exchange (always a win for me). At first I was excited because I recognized the author (I was a big Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites fan back in the day). Then I read the first few paragraphs and the diatribe on snowflakes felt so familiar—I was stunned when I realized this was "that Christmas book that's kind of like The Prince and the Pauper" that I didn't think I'd ever find again. It was my own little Christmas miracle. So I read it year after year at Christmastime, sometimes reading late into the night on Christmas Eve. Eventually I realized there were other Christmas books out there, so I shelved this one for a while. This year was the first time in nine years that I've read it, and the magic it holds for me was still there. It might even be a little more special to me now, now that I have twin nephews.

Author challenge: Last year I wanted to track down all the books by Wallace Stegner; this year it's Sharon Shinn. While Stegner is the best in the business for satisfying, thought-provoking writing, Shinn delivers the kind of escapist fiction I love without sacrificing good writing or character development. I expect I'll make my way through her backlist in 2017 whenever I need a break from reality.

The great American novel: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner. I still can't believe I didn't study any Stegner in college, but I guess he wasn't dead enough. This book isn't as good as Crossing to Safety, which "won" this category last year, but it's my second-favorite Stegner novel to date (I've read four). Nobody does the American West at the turn of the 20th century better than this guy.

Best escape: The Children of the Promise series, by Dean Hughes. I know LDS fiction isn't everyone's cup of tea hot cocoa, but if you read just one LDS fiction series, make it this one. Parts of it get a bit soap-opera-y, but Dean Hughes knows how to write about war. I got so caught up in the Thomases' lives that I kept half-hoping I would run into one of them at the grocery store or something, and then was depressed when I realized most of them would be dead by now. That's how real this family felt to me, and it's been a looooong time since I've suffered through book withdrawals this intense. (I had to buy the entire follow-up series as part of my therapy.)

Funniest book: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson. My parents gave me this gorgeous, hardbound collection for Christmas last year, and I spent a good part of 2016 basking in Calvin's imagination. (I even found a couple of strips I've never seen before!) There is so much more to Calvin and Hobbes than mere humor, but the humor is wonderful. The perfect treatment plan for stress caused by 2016ness.

Saddest book: Since You Went Away, by Dean Hughes. Because it covers the bulk of WWII, and war is sad.

Weirdest book: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this book is weird. Every movie adaptation I've seen is weird, too. Still not a fan of the story—it's one of those (sorry to use this word again) weird stories I was only able to appreciate as a kid.

Yawn award: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. How do they expect kids to become readers if they keep making them read the driest collection of words ever printed on paper? I hope teachers have updated their reading lists since I went to high school, because, come on. There's better stuff out there. Random sidenote: is 11th grade the adultery year for everyone, or is that just a Payson High School thing?

Pleasant surprise: Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn. I never know what I'm going to get when I read a new author, but when I love the book, it's the best kind of surprise. No—it's a gift. Yes, I'm a nerd.

Biggest disappointment: Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Emphasis on the "modern" part. It didn't work for me for a couple of reasons, the main one being that half the charm of Jane Austen is the old-fashioned values system—take that out and you have warped, less wholesome versions of some of literature's most beloved characters. I know the whole point of updating a classic is making it relevant to today's society (which the author does quite well, actually), but in this case it's to the story's detriment. I haven't had so many negative feelings about a book since I read The Casual Vacancy (and we all know how that turned out).

Most in need of an editor: Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master, by Tao Porchon-Lynch, Janie Sykes Kennedy, and Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy. It's always annoying when the editing step is skipped or rushed over, but it's especially sad when the book could be great, but it's held back back by bad writing. This is preventable, people. Hire editors.

Required reading: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. You've probably heard about this one. It's about a (real) doctor who finds out he has terminal cancer just as he's finishing up his residency. Kalanithi, who is gifted in both medicine and writing, wrote it partly as a way to come to terms with his mortality, and the result is a powerful book about the beauty of life.

Bookish treasure: 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. This book is a staple among book nerds, but I didn't discover it until this year. It's a delightful little book of correspondences between a woman in New York and a bookseller in London. Short, funny, and did I mention delightful?

Most life-changing: The Infinite Atonement, by Tad R. Callister. I incorporated this book into my scripture study over several months—because wow it's loaded. It helped me understand the atonement in more than just general terms; it's the most personal gift I could ever receive. Just this year I've found so many ways to use the atonement in my life, and it's made a difference.

Stayed with me the longest: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. People have found many ways to reflect on the pricelessness of life, but this book is the most unique I've seen. In this book, a guy gets an invoice for an outrageous amount from a company he's never heard of. He later finds out that he's being charged for every experience he's ever had: his parents' deaths, the coffee he drinks, his part-time job at a video store, that spring afternoon he enjoyed the sunshine streaming through his window. Everyone around him is freaking out because of their invoices, but even though there's nothing special about his life, his invoice is higher than everyone else's, and it just gets higher the more he tries to argue his case. It's such a cool book with a great message.

Book I'd like to see as a movie: A lot of the books I read this year would make good movies. At the top of my list, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, is already in development, according to IMDb (starring Jennifer Anniston, which is a casting choice I don't agree with). It's about a woman who hits her head and forgets the last 10 years of her life. In reality, she's a mother of three children and is going through a nasty divorce, but she thinks she's still pregnant with her first child and madly in love with her husband. Perfect romantic comedy material.

Book I'd love to live in: I'm going to cheat a little on this one and pick Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Technically it's the screenplay I want to live in, but the titles of the two books are the same so I guess it counts? I don't really care—I just want to hang out with Newt Scamander for a couple decades.

Favorite character: I'm tempted to sneak Newt into this category as well, but I've already stretched the limits of my self-imposed rules too far. So I did a little digging and remembered that I quite enjoyed Kate from Anne Tyler's The Vinegar Girl. This is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and Kate is hilarious. Reminds me a little bit of my sister Shannan, too.

Least favorite character: Kathy from Troubled Waters, by Dean Hughes. We all have that relative who has to argue with everything everyone says and who thinks they are morally superior due to their constant consumption of the politically correct Kool-Aid. In real life, you can just ignore them or leave the room, but in books I feel obligated to suffer through their arrogance. Thankfully Kathy gets better, but she's unbearable at this point in the series.

Most relatable character: Mattie from A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly. Because she has her own word-of-the-day calendar. And she would agree with me on the next point.

Crush: I had planned to get rid of this category this year, but I just have to say this again: Mr. Darcy ain't got nuttin' on Captain Wentworth.

I didn't read as many stand-outs as I did last year, so narrowing down my favorites to just 10 was completely possible and only a little bit agonizing. So here's my Top 10 for 2016:
  1. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
  2. Almost Anywhere, by Krista Schlyer
  3. The Infinite Atonement, by Tad R. Callister
  4. The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson
  5. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  6. The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson
  7. To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey
  8. Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
  9. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
  10. Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn

All the 2016 books:
  1. The Mapmakers of New Zion: A Cartographic History of Mormonism, by Richard Francaviglia
  2. Rainbows in My Pocket: The Life and Times of a Former Kid in Small Town America, by Zed Merrill
  3. Uncluttered: Discovering Strength and Purpose in the Chaos of Life, by Lisa Giesler
  4. The Lake House, by Kate Morton
  5. Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, by Krista Schyler
  6. L.A. a la Cart, by Richard Asperger
  7. Thorns, by Marguerite Keiffer
  8. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  9. Souvenir, by Kathryn Rhett
  10. Chiseled: A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity, and Divine Wine, by Danuta Pfeiffer
  11. Bethany's Calendar, by Elaine Marie Cooper
  12. Shot Down: The True Story of Pilot Howard Snyder and the Crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth, by Steve Snyder
  13. Eve and the Choice Made in Eden, by Beverly Campbell
  14. State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, by Alexis Rhone Fancher
  15. Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master, by Tao Porchon-Lynch
  16. Jackie: The Adventures of a Little Boy Trying to Grow Up, by John Tammela
  17. A Thousand Nights, by E.K. Johnston
  18. Amazed by Grace, by Sheri Dew
  19. All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
  20. The Four Words for Home, by Angie Chuang
  21. Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark
  22. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley
  23. The Emperor's Soul, by Brandon Sanderson
  24. Shadow's of Self, by Brandon Sanderson
  25. Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson
  26. Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  27. Mistborn: Secret History, by Brandon Sanderson
  28. This Is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp
  29. Harry Potter and the Classical World: Greek and Roman Allusions in J.K. Rowling's Modern Epic, by Richard A. Spencer
  30. The Real Jane Austen: A Life of Small Things, by Paula Byrne
  31. Stars Above, by Marissa Meyer
  32. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
  33. The Nest, by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
  34. Rumors of War, by Dean Hughes
  35. Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, by Anthony Ervin
  36. Since You Went Away, by Dean Hughes
  37. Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
  38. Far from Home, by Dean Hughes
  39. When We Meet Again, by Dean Hughes
  40. As Long as I Have You, by Dean Hughes
  41. 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
  42. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner
  43. The Writing on the Wall, by Dean Hughes
  44. Hearts of the Children, by Dean Hughes
  45. How Many Roads, by Dean Hughes
  46. Take Me Home, by Dean Hughes
  47. So Much of Life Ahead, by Dean Hughes
  48. Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner
  49. Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld
  50. I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh
  51. Rose Daughter, by Robin McKinley
  52. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
  53. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  54. Midway to Heaven, by Dean Hughes
  55. My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
  56. A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly
  57. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
  58. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by Jack Thorne
  59. Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations, by Ron Fournier
  60. When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  61. Silver in the Blood, by Jessica Day George
  62. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
  63. Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
  64. Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
  65. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  66. Letters, by Marjorie Pay Hinckley
  67. Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel
  68. The Only Pirate at the Party, by Lindsey Stirling
  69. Deerskin, by Robin McKinley
  70. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
  71. To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey
  72. My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
  73. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
  74. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
  75. The Infinite Atonement, by Tad R. Callister
  76. Dolly, by Anita Brookner
  77. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
  78. Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn
  79. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
  80. The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson
  81. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
  82. What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
  83. Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
  84. The Bookshop on the Corner, by Jenny Colgan
  85. The Room, by Jonas Karlsson
  86. Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery
  87. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander
  88. The Great Apostasy, by James E. Talmage
  89. The Boys the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
  90. Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between, by Lauren Graham
  91. Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles
  92. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman
  93. The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
  94. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  95. Best-Loved Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen
  96. Enchanted, by Orson Scott Card
  97. A Return to Christmas, by Chris Heimerdinger
  98. Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues that Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes, by Gordon B. Hinckley
  99. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes
  100. Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn

Previous years:

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pearls of 20-something wisdom: Aloneness

When I was in high school, a nostalgic adult said to a big group of us, "You'll never have as many friends as you do now; enjoy it while you can." I looked at my two friends sitting next to me and thought, "Boy, that's depressing."

My twenties have been my most social decade, but it's also the decade I've spent the most time by myself. I'm an introverted homebody, so the uptick in alone time wasn't as difficult for me as I'm guessing it is for other people. But even though as a kid I dreamed of living all by myself so I wouldn't have to share my ice cream with anyone (I could even eat it straight from the carton!), it came with a steep learning curve.

My experience isn't unique; most people in their 20s have to get acquainted with themselves real fast due to new environments and increased independence. When you're on your own, you learn things there wasn't time or space or reason to learn before.

With that extra time and space came challenges I didn't expect to have, especially considering my independent nature. Moving out of Utah County and living in an apartment that didn't look like it was built as a volunteer project in the 1970s was exciting at first, but once things settled down and a new routine was formed, I felt a little lost. Everything had changed: my environment, the way I spent my days, my safety net of people. I slowly realized that the real test to adulthood was just beginning: adjusting to relying on myself for everything. It wasn't the budgeting and the cooking and the keeping the apartment clean that tripped me up—I already knew how to do those things. It was the not having someone around who was obligated to notice when I'd had a bad day, the sudden lack of core people outside work, the long future ahead that I had to traverse on my own.

A hole had opened up in my life, one that I always assumed would be filled by default. But it was all up to me now; the emotional support, the Friday-night entertainment, the sounding board for making decisions. I, and I alone, was responsible for all of it.

Now, a normal person would use this life change as a chance to develop new friendships and to latch on to someone to journey through life with. And while I certainly tried this tactic, I've never been much of a team player. I learn and function best on my own; this hurdle was something I had to tackle by myself.

(Before you start thinking I was lonely and forgotten for six years, let me set the record straight. I wasn't. Moving on.)

Somewhere amidst the solitude I started to figure some things out. I learned how to pray more effectively. I learned to trust, and even rely on, my Heavenly Father. I learned that I can't do everything, but I can do more than I thought I could. I learned how to fill my time with meaningful hobbies and goals. I got to know myself really well and found peace with some of my more inconvenient personality quirks.

I'm not sure I would have learned some of these things if I wasn't forced to do it on my own. If someone else was always around, I wouldn't have put in the work required to become a better, more complete version of myself. I'm lazy, I have no trouble admitting it—if somebody else can pick up the slack, I'm all too happy to let them.

It's why I'm grateful for those difficult first months living in Midvale. It's why I'm grateful I didn't marry in my early 20s like I planned. I needed some time to myself first. A lot of time, because stubborn people are slow learners.

And if you haven't had a quality aloneness period yet, I hope that some day you do. Because as it turns out, aloneness is one of the best things that could have happened for me.