Countdown to 2016: 2015 Books

Last year, I read 12 books! This year I also read 12, although, like last year, 2 of them were A Series of Unfortunate Events books that I am reading to my babysitting charge. I’m glad I’ve kept up my reading pace.

books 2015

Overall, I read 2 fiction books,  6 non-fiction books (1 feminism book, 2 journal/memoir books, 2 business books, and 1 regular non-fiction/data book), 3 Children/Young Adult series books,  and 1 book of poetry. All were by American authors. 3 I read for my company book club. 1 was by an author I work with. 1 I read because it related to something I was writing. 3 were women authors. 3 were by the same author (Lemony Snicket). These stats are fairly similar to last year’s. I still didn’t read one non-American author, but I did add more fiction books. I did not read a biography this year, but I needed a bit of a break from biographies. Next year: Continue with this variety–make sure to read 1 poetry book a year and 1 feminism book a year–but make sure to read a biography. Also, try to read at least 1 more fiction book for a total of 3 and more women authors. 3/9 is too low.

I also read 10 New Yorkers (3 more than what I read last year) and 10 New York magazines (2 more than I read last year) in between each book, plus the New York Times and various other magazine and website articles. Plus, every Time Out New York. Next year: Continue with these numbers.

My favorite book(s) of the year:
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Worst book of the year:
I didn’t read any bad books this year, although I can’t say I truly love the business books. They’re at least informative.

The List: 

1. Pastoralia by George Saunders
I’ve had this book for over 10 years (they were giving it out after a writing workshop with George Saunders and Sherman Alexie at the 2004 New Yorker Festival), and I finally decided to pick it up. The stories were a bit depressing, but they were good nonetheless. I especially enjoyed the title story and its alternative universe look at company culture, as well as the craziness of “Sea Oak.” I’m looking forward to eventually reading his more recent book, The Tenth of December.
Finished: February 25, 2015

2. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963 by Susan Sontag
After seeing a play and a film about Sontag, I was curious about her journals and notebooks, especially after reading one of my favorite quotes from them: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” The book is full of many more such gems, and there’s even a dissection of one of my favorite characters, Hedda Gabler. I can’t quite explain my small fascination with Sontag. We are not alike, but at certain moments in the book I found myself relating to her feelings completely. At the film of her that I saw at MoMA in Dec, one of the speakers said that the only way to be like Susan Sontag is to be completely and utterly yourself because that’s what she always was. Perhaps that’s what I relate to most.
Finished: April 2, 2015

3. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
I read this book on and off for a year (you can do that with essays). I’d always thought of Steinem as more of a speaker because that’s how I first encountered her, even though I knew she had also been a writer, and from reading these essays I now understand what a great writer she is. From the political to personal, they all had a clear, strong style and made me think about feminism in a different or more enhanced way. I’m looking forward to reading more of her essays and participating in my own outrageous acts and everyday rebellions.
Finished: May 7, 2015

4. The Cabala by Thornton Wilder
The Cabala is Thornton Wilder’s very first novel. Like his subsequent book The Bridge of San Louis Rey, The Cabala is a series of character studies strung together by a narrator and central situation that culminates in a gut punch of an ending. Even with Wilder’s beautiful writing, it’s hard sometimes to get through those character studies not knowing the ending to which they’re leading, but the ending is worth it. In this ending, [SPOILERS AHEAD!] the narrator encounters the ghost of the poet Virgil, who tells him: “I spent my whole lifetime under a great delusion–that Rome and the house of Augustus were eternal. Nothing is eternal save Heaven. Rome existed before Rome and when Rome will be a waste there will be Romes before her. Seek out some city that is young. The secret is to make a city, not to rest in it. When you have found one, drink in the illusion that she too is eternal.” Powerful stuff about life and also, a little bit, about start-up culture.
Finished: June 12, 2015

5. Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph
This book is a memoir of a man who at 15 years old joined The Black Panther Party. He was in and out of jail as a member of the Panther 21 and later for harboring fugitives, and fought many years in NYC for a revolution. He has had a fascinating life, and it would be a great book for high school kids to read as well, since he was their age. I only wish it had been a tighter narrative in some places, but maybe they’ll make a film version (I think it would make a good film).
Finished: July 16, 2015

6. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
I read this book for work but I also read it to see if I could learn anything about the process of writing musicals. A musical, after all, is a product (yes, art, too, which makes it different from a pure consumer product, but still a product). I found that many of the techniques mentioned are already being employed–we build a “minimum viable product” or, in other words, a first draft, and we test it with a reading/read-through. We can test even smaller features of it by writing songs and performing them at concerts. We take the feedback from these events and incorporate it into our next draft and the next, eventually moving on to workshops and production previews until we have a product/musical that works in front of an audience (and stays true to our vision as writers, that’s where the art comes in). If we find that something isn’t working, we may decide to pivot and tell the story in a totally different way, write a new opening, or scrap the whole thing and tell another story that dramatizes the theme that interests us. The only thing that’s hard to do is move through this “Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop” (a term mentioned in the book) quickly because musicals don’t tend to get investors until much farther down the line and we can’t devote all our time to generating drafts. Still, while it’s good to let ideas sit for a while to gain perspective, it’s also good to move through drafts quickly so you can see what works and what doesn’t. Conclusion: Theater writers have been employing these techniques for years, they just need more money and time in order to employ them faster.
Finished: August 23, 2015

7. All the Wrong Questions Book 3: Shouldn’t You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket
While the mystery was a bit confusing, this was the best book of the series so far. A good companion series and prequel to the Unfortunate Events series. The best part of reading them is seeing how the characters from the first series fit into this one, but the new characters have become fun and interesting too. Now I’m excited for the fourth and last book.
Finished: September 28, 2015

8. The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen
I read this book for work, and like most business books it has an interesting 50, maybe 100 pages and the rest of it is repetitions of the interesting pages. But the premise–that companies have to watch out for disruptive innovations because while they may not seem profitable now if they don’t invest in them they could end up being shut out of the market later on–was interesting and something I am happy to have learned about. And because I relate every business book I read to musical theater writing, I now see the book musical as a disruptive innovation that for many years was not seen as profitable because everyone wanted entertaining revue shows. For years, writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein separately wrote their book musicals, and while they were successful it wasn’t until their book musical Oklahoma in 1943 that the capabilities of the disruptive innovation reached the point at which the market wanted it. And where are all those revue musicals today? NOWHERE! Getting an occasional revival at Encores, but that’s it. No one wants to write or see that kind of musical anymore. So thank you to Rodgers and Hammerstein for having the foresight to stick with the disruptive innovation of book musicals, which changed the musical theater writing industry.
Finished: November 8, 2015

9. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
When I first got this book I was a little intimidated by the length and small print, but most of it actually flew by. I recommend this book for anyone. It’s easy to read and understand (the only chapter I had some trouble with was the climate change chapter, it was a little too technical). It delves into all kinds of aspects of the world–earthquakes, weather, computer chess, poker, terrorism, the spread of diseases–and looks at how we use prediction and probability. I now think a little bit more probabilistically than before, and thinking this way, even with all the uncertainty in the world, feels like a calmer and more rational way of thinking. I read this book for work, but we won’t be discussing it for another couple months. I’d say there is a 1% chance that I will remember 100% of this book at that time, but there is maybe a 75% chance that I will remember about 60% of it.
Finished: December 11, 2015

10. This Version of Earth by Soraya Shalforoosh
I enjoy reading books by people I know, and in this case, I really felt as though I could see that person in the writing. I loved so many of the poems and also the overall arc of the book, and it was nice to read some of the poems on loss right as I was experiencing a loss. I’m so glad I could reach my goal of reading at least one book of poetry a year with this book.
Finished: December 27, 2015

11. The Vile Village (A Series of Unfortunate Events book 7) by Lemony Snicket
I read this book with my babysitting charge, and it was nice to revisit. This book has always been one of my least favorite books of the series, and I was reminded of why. It took us a long time to get through this book (although that’s also a timing thing), and knowing that the better books were about to come made getting through this one even harder. Still, it was also good to be reminded of some of the few interesting aspects of the book.
Finished: Spring, 2015

12. The Hostile Hospital (A Series of Unfortunate Events book 8) by Lemony Snicket
I also read this book with my babysitting charge. This book is one of my favorites of the series, and I had a feeling my babysitting charge would enjoy it, especially since it’s set at a hostipal. I think she did. It’s one of the main turning points in the series, and it has some of my favorite lines, as well as one of my favorite Cout Olaf disguises (this is Mattathias!).
Finished: Fall, 2015

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