A year in books: my 52 book challenge

station eleven
In 2013 I gave myself a 50 book challenge, which I completed. It was hard. I found myself finishing up pretty close to the end of last December, stressed that I wouldn’t make the December 31st cutoff. I did, and in a moment of cockiness and euphoria after crushing my goal, decided to push myself further this year by committing to two more books in 2014. Two books: that’s nothing in the scheme of things, right?

Wrong. Fifty-two books is a book a week. That leaves no buffer. No room for accidentally choosing a boring, long book. No room for getting addicted to a podcast or a game on my phone to take up precious commuting time. No room for laziness. No room for slacking.

I’m happy to say that despite this daunting goal, I made it. In fact, I finished my books earlier this year than last year, even with two additional titles. And if all goes according to plan I’ll actually make it to 53.

How did I do it? Kind of like this:

  • I read 100% of the 52 books on my Kobo Aura
  • I borrowed probably 80% of the books from the Toronto Public Library’s Overdrive program; the rest I purchased from Kobo
  • Because I borrowed so many books from the library, the order I read everything was fairly random and relied upon the availability of titles
  • While many of the books were released in 2014, lots of them were older, so these aren’t my favourite books of the year – they’re just books I read this year
  • Forty-nine books were fiction; two were autobiographies; one was a collection of short stories
  • Fifteen books were written by men (16 if you count Robert Galbraith, who is actually J.K. Rowling)
  • My favourite books were the first and the 50th read
  • Much of my reading took place on Toronto’s subway
  • Many titles were recommended by friends (Kara – I’m looking at you!); others were recommended by critics; some were chosen just because I really liked the title or the cover

So, with that, here are the best and the worst that I read this year.

My Favourite Books (in no particular order…except for the first two)

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was the first book I read of 2014, and the best by a long shot. It seems cliched to say it Goldfinchwas my favourite book this year as it did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it’s just so damned good. If you haven’t read it, pick it up. You won’t regret it.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This was the 50th book I finished, and it truly blew me away. The writing is fantastic, the post-apocalyptic story is compelling and the characters are rich. Entertainment Weekly named it the best book of the year, and I understand why. A brilliant book.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Another Pulitzer Prize winner from a few years back, this one follows the crazy life story of a man in North Korea. It’s a book that’s stayed with me since reading it early this year and one that seems even more relevant now in the wake of all of the controversy surrounding The Interview. It’s heavy and often hard to stomach, but worth the work.

4. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This one scared the bejeezus out of me. In a post-apocalyptic world people can’t look outside, because if they do and see an unknown *something* they go insane and kill themselves. This is the world in which a woman tries to survive with two small children. It’s creepy, disturbing and keeps the foot on the gas the whole way through.

5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia. A mystery set in an old hotel hosting a high school music festival. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a coming of age story, a bit of a mystery and a bit of a soap opera. Loved it.

6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler. God, I love Amy Poehler. She’s funny, smart, honest and utterly relatable. I’m not sure this is a work of genius, but I read it at exactly the right time and I love her for it.

7. The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. The story of the rise and fall of Harry Houdini. I found this fascinating. And I love the-confabulisthistorical fiction. And I love magic.

8. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I just finished this a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t left my brain. It’s a tough one – a woman desperately wants to convince her suicidal sister to want to live. It’s raw, real, unvarnished and sometimes really, really sad, but as with all of her writing it just resonates. Don’t read this if life sucks – tackle it when things are good.

9. One More Thing by B.J. Novak. Yes, that B.J. Novak. It’s a book of pretty great short stories. Not every one’s a home run, but there were enough to have me snickering to myself on the subway to make me add it to this list.

10. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A fantastical novel about two otherworldly characters – a golem made of clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalist magic, and a jinni (or genie) set free from an old copper flask. The two are set loose in 1899 New York and turn out to be some of my favourite characters that I encountered this year.

The Worst of the Lot (in no particular order)

1. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Ugh. This was supposed to be *the* beach read of the summer. It was not. The story is self-indulgent, transparent and just kind of lame. Definitely worth skipping.

2. The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Holy crap I hated this book. Told entirely through correspondence, a lifeboatlawyer….actually who cares? It’s just bad. it makes Bridget Jones seem deep and eloquent. Blah.

3. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. A ship sinks in 2014 and a handful of survivors are stuck together on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic. Should be good, right? Nope. Hated the characters, thought the writing was dull and couldn’t have cared less if the protagonist was thrown to the sharks. Awful.

4. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer. Come for the discussions on astrophysics, stay for the sham psychics. Hated this.

5. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I love the ballet. In fact, I went to The Nutcracker just this week. So, a book set in the world of the ballet circa the 1970s should be right  up my alley. Unfortunately this just wasn’t. Boring, badly plotted and written, this just kind of sucked. I did like the book’s cover, though. And I don’t blame the ballet.

6. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve. Oh, man. This one’s bad. A woman loses her memory in WWI and slowly tries to rebuild her past. The writing is so clunky and almost embarrassing. Bad.

7. All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. Agent Orange, bear fighting, the carnival circuit in early 1980s Ontario. Should be okay. Nah. Not so much.

8. N-W by Zadie Smith. It feels wrong to put Zadie Smith on a list of my least favourite books of the year, but I just didn’t dig this one. Skip it and read White Teeth.vanishers

9. Goodnight June by Sarah Jio. Predictable fluff. It felt like it was written for Meg Ryan circa 1992 to star in the movie adaptation.

10. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I hesitate putting this on my least favourite books, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Not terrible, but not something I’d want to read again.

The Rest (Lots of these are very good. Check them out.)

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on this year. I’m looking forward to another year of reading and debating and good storytelling.

So, what do you think: go back to 50 books next year, keep it at 52 or bump it up? I’ll decide before January 1st.

kp

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1 Comment

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One response to “A year in books: my 52 book challenge

  1. As her husband, I can attest she read them all. She’s voracious. And speedy. She even managed to get me to read some of the ones she thought I’d like. I did. And she was right — as she so often is — because I really liked them (specifically, Station Eleven and Bird Box). I think she needs to challenge herself, so I’m voting for her to read 53 books in 2015.

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