B99: amy

2016 Reading List

In 2015, I set out to spend a year reading only authors of color. Although the project was challenging, I think it made a permanent difference in how I read. This year, although I did not set any goals or do any research, 12 of the 26 books I read were written by people of color. My strategy was pretty simple: if I had a choice between two books, I chose the one written by someone different from me. This year’s selections focused less on issues of race and culture than last year’s. Many of the books I chose were memoirs about medical school (don’t ask why, I get obsessed with random subjects a lot), and the writers mentioned their ethnicity only in passing. But I don’t think the point of this project is to have a Very Educational Experience about race in the United States every time you read; it is also to see that in spite our society’s many racial, religious, and cultural divisions, certain emotional experiences are the same for everyone. (Apparently a medical education would damn near kill us all.) Other books were dystopian YA novels set in made-up worlds where American racial categories do not exist. At first glance, I thought the author’s race wouldn’t matter in that kind of setting, but when I paid attention, subtle differences emerged. For example, in An Ember in the Ashes, most of the villains were blonde-haired and blue-eyed, while the heroes had dark skin, hair, and eyes. On the other hand, in the Selection series, all the main characters appeared to be white people, especially the prettiest girls. Our society enforces racial stereotypes in a lot of subtle ways, and making white people heroes and brown people villains is a powerful one. Nothing is more likely to erode those stereotypes than including more diverse voices among our storytellers.

Five Stars
The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama - Renowned political scientist Frances Fukuyama chronicles the entire history of government, starting from the prehistoric bonds between family groups, working up through ancient China, and moving through Africa and Latin America until he winds up at the French Revolution. So it’s 800 pages long, and not exactly light reading. That said, I was totally in awe of the intellectual rigor of the research, and it changed what I think about democracy, capitalism, and communism. This is probably not interesting unless you have a specific interest in political science or history, but if you do, you’ll love it.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker - I was sure I’d read this book in college, but I was wrong, and I’m really sorry I missed out on it for so many years. The book tells the story of two African-American sisters in the pre-civil rights South. Celie suffers sexual abuse from her father and physical abuse from her new husband. Meanwhile, her sister Nettie escapes to finish her education and become a missionary in Africa. I loved the two characters’ voices and most of all, I loved their honesty. In a series of letters, they talk about violence, women’s rights, religion, sex, drugs, and homosexuality - basically, everything our country doesn’t discuss frankly. The story is so engaging you could enjoy this as a chick lit/pool book sort of read, but then you would overlook all complex, nuanced consideration of race relations, colonialism, and religion. Highly recommended.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys -- I avoided this book for two years because I thought it was the eight millionth sequel to Shades of Gray. Actually, it’s the haunting story of a teenage girl deported to a Siberian labor camp by Josef Stalin. Before reading this book, I had no idea that Stalin liquidated almost a third of the population of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Teachers and military officers, among others, served almost two decades in the gulag. When they were liberated, repressive Soviet policies kept them from telling their stories. This book is fiction, but based on heavily researched fact. The protagonist felt achingly real to me -- so real that I cried, which is almost unheard-of for me. After finishing her story, I couldn’t start a new book because I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as good. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so wrapped up in a story, and if you’re only picking one thing from this list, this is the book I recommend. Fans of Code Name Verity would particularly enjoy it.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi - Months away from finishing his neurosurgery residency, Dr. Paul Kalinithi discovered he had a rare form of metastatic lung cancer. With only a few years left to live, he had a baby, wrote a book, and continued performing grueling 9-hour brain surgeries in his commitment to live life to the fullest. This is not a perfect book; sometimes the long philosophical tracts felt self-indulgent, and I skimmed long sections about his love of literature. But what remains is a moving tribute to a man’s search for meaning in a limited life. I feel like this book is going to stick with me for a long time.

Four Stars
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue - There’s a writing exercise where you imagine that your main character has a simple desire, like a glass of water, and he can’t get it. This book is basically a variation on that plot: Jinde Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon, wants to keep his job. This simple premise is the fodder for an extraordinary amount of suspense. Will Jinde’s asylum application be approved? Will he be laid off when his boss loses his job? How will he handle his boss’s wife’s unreasonable demands? In some ways, this is a familiar immigrant story about how the American Dream is harder to achieve than it first appears, but its unique setting during the 2008 financial crisis creates powerful commentary on power and privilege in America. Every one of the characters is both sympathetic and flawed, and the author made me feel completely immersed in their world. No wonder this manuscript sold for $1 million.

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande - In a series of essays, a surgical resident contemplates medical dilemmas including how to train doctors without harming patients, how to treat pain that seemingly has no cause, and whether doctors or computer programs make better decisions on patient care. The sections on self-discipline, logic, and the importance of practice really resonated with me, plus I got to learn about flesh eating bacteria.

This Won’t Hurt a Bit (And Other White Lies) by Michelle Au - In a memoir spanning fourth year of medical school through the end of her residency, Michelle Au charts the grueling process of becoming a doctor, with the added challenge of an unexpected pregnancy in the middle of her training. This book reads like really good chick lit with an engaging protagonist, a worthwhile goal (with no real suspense about whether the protagonist will achieve it), and lots of humorous misadventures along the way. At the same time, the book addresses many important dilemmas faced by working mothers today. Recommended for your summer poolside reading.

The Selection, The Elite, and The One by Kiera Cass - Ahem. Um, I’m embarrassed that I read these, and even more embarrassed that they’re in the four star section of my book list. It wasn’t my fault, okay? Blame it on the Harvard University Bookstore. Yes, you read that right. The Harvard University Bookstore introduced me to a dystopian YA series that fuses The Hunger Games with The Bachelor. I bought the first book as a “blind date” - it was wrapped in brown paper with a vague description on the outside. And honestly, it’s horrible trash. It’s predictable and cliched. It’s very clearly written to appeal to thirteen-year-old girls. And yet. I couldn’t put it down. And then I bought the rest of the trilogy. The heroine is seventeen-year-old America Singer, who’s chosen to compete with thirty-four other girls for the chance to marry Prince Maxon. America doesn’t want to be there because she already has a boyfriend, but then she meets the Prince and thinks she might be able to love him too. I had to know if she would pick Gale or Peeta Prince Maxon or her handsome-yet-impoverished boyfriend back home, Aspen. I can’t really tell you it’s a good series. I can tell you that I was completely wrapped up in its world, the characters felt like my friends, and I missed them when they were gone. Read at your own risk.

Three Stars
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry - This book was on the line between three and four stars for me. Set in a vaguely Puritan society, it tells the story of Judith, a teenage girl who’s held in captivity and then returned to her village with her tongue cut out. It’s an interesting commentary on rape culture and slut shaming, but the book felt self-consciously overwrought to me. I mean, a girl getting her tongue cut out is dramatic enough. You don’t have to try to make it extra intense. I’m not sorry that I read it, but I was also not sorry to finish it.

An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch to Light the Night by Sabaa Tahir - This book doesn’t add anything new to the dystopian YA genre, but it’s still a pretty gripping read. Elias is a top cadet at an elite military academy, and Laia is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who gives up her ordinary life to become a spy for the Resistance. Their worlds intersect when Laia is sent to pose as a slave at Elias’ school. Laia’s spy antics and Elias’ moral conflicts create a lot of suspense, so this is a great book to read when you’re looking for absorbing brain candy. Not recommended when you want to read something deep, innovative, or intellectually challenging. Trigger warning for Game of Thrones level violence, torture, and threats of sexual assault.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi - This book tells the story of two sisters in Ghana who are separated by the slave trade. One marries a handsome British officer and lives in luxury above the slave fort; the other is kidnapped, shoved in the dungeon, and shipped across the Atlantic. Published with a lot of fanfare after a $1 million book deal, it’s better in concept than execution. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation of the family, until finally we arrive in the present-day United States. Although I learned a lot about black history, I felt like the book abandoned each character just when their narrative got interesting. Either it needed to be twice as long, or it needed to reduce the number of generations it covered and stick with them longer.

Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation by Sandeep Jauhar - Sandeep Jauhar wasn’t sure he really wanted to be a doctor, but he went to medical school anyway, even though he’d already earned a on PhD in physics. This book mostly chronicles his intern year, which is supposedly the hardest year of a young physician’s life. I enjoyed learning more about how medicine is practiced, particularly in the ICU, but Jauhar’s personality grated on me. His self doubt reminded me of my size two girlfriends who lament that they’re getting “fat” -- that is, his insecurities seem manufactured, and if they’re real, they demonstrate a disturbing lack of perspective. He also devotes an unnecessary quantity of time to describing the physical appearance of female coworkers, sometimes including their breasts. It was a good enough book for me to move through quickly, but not so good I’d recommend it to others.

The Southern Vampire Mystery Series by Charlaine Harris - I’m not going to lie. These books are problematic in every way that pop culture can be problematic: implicit and explicit slut shaming, damsels in distress, questionable portrayals of gay and minority characters, and a poor understanding of sexual consent. That I could ignore these issues and enjoy the books is a mark of the privileges I’ve had in my life. But damn if they’re not some grade A brain candy to distract you while you take a twenty-hour bus ride with thirty students in tow. Sookie Sackhouse is a telepathic cocktail waitress who falls in love with a rich, brooding vampire named Bill. Bill is “mainstreaming,” meaning he’s trying to fit into regular American society, now that vampires have announced their presence to the world, started drinking synthetic blood, and secured legal protection from the American government. He and Sookie have a lot of sex. He picks her up and carries her frequently. When they break up dramatically, Sookie has affairs with werewolves, shapeshifters, and a vampire with amnesia. The world building is really entertaining, and I loved Sookie herself, who felt like a real person I could’ve met in my small town.

Two Stars
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta - Initially, I was excited to read this story about two Nigerian girls who fall in love. However, the main character has few distinguishing characteristics beyond her sexuality, and her relationships aren’t developed in enough detail to make the reader care about them. Sometimes the book feels like a public service announcement for LGBT rights, which isn’t surprising since it was written with the express purpose of convincing Nigerians to be more accepting of LGBT people. For Americans who have already overcome their prejudices, this book doesn’t have a lot to offer.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
This fifty-page novella narrated by the seven-year-old son of a fictional Mexican drug lord didn’t have enough plot to be interesting. The narrator’s voice is a fascinating combination of childish, eccentric, and amoral, but a story can’t be engaging without some kind of conflict.

Did Not Finish
The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey
I was pretty excited about this book because a girl who fights aliens to rescue her brother sounds pretty bad ass. I was into it until the author revealed his poor understanding of sexual consent. Basically, a dude starts kissing the heroine and she says no several times, but he keeps kissing her and pushes her onto the bed. This, apparently, is supposed to be a sexy moment. Unfortunately, it is actually sexual assault. I read a couple more chapters, but by then it had detoured into a forced romance where the dudes were clearly the real main characters. No thanks.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Every year, there’s one critical darling I can’t finish, and this is it. I quickly grew absorbed in the narrative of two escaped slaves, and then I found out that the Underground Railroad in this book is an actual train. Obviously, there’s some kind of important symbolism there, but I didn’t stick with it long enough to find out. I hate magic realism (while, obviously, I acknowledge its importance as a literary genre, yada yada) and I couldn’t get back into the story after that.
I have got to check out When Breath Becomes Air and The Color Purple very soon.

Yeah, the issues with consent in The Fifth Wave are very hard to swallow for me too :/
I've been wanting to read Between Shades of Gray! I'm a big fan of Code Name Verity, so I think I would like it.

I found An Ember in the Ashes completely un-gripping and downright boring--I just disliked the main characters so much! Not even brain candy for me.
Interesting. I've heard a lot about Homegoing and The Underground Railroad. Good to read your take on these and the others. The only one I've read is The Color Purple, though that was so long ago I barely remember it. Should give it a reread...
I love this post. Bookmarking books on my virtual wish list right and left. Thank you so much for putting the work into writing this up and sharing it! :D