2015 Reading Challenge: 1st Quarter Check-In

by E.B. Bartels

Yesterday marked the end of March and, therefore, the end of the first quarter of 2015, and so it seems like a good time to update you on the progress of my New Year’s Resolution.

In case you forgot: My goal for 2015 is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

In terms of numbers, 25% of fifty is 12.5, and I’m right on track––halfway through book number thirteen. However, some may argue that I’ve cheated a little by including a couple of young adult books and graphic novels. Plus I also read a short story and an essay that were masquerading as books, so maybe I’m not doing quite as well as I thought, but you all can decide for yourselves and judge me in the comments.

Here’s what I’ve read so far in 2015:

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1. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison: I am totally in love with badass women essayists, and Jamison is at the top of my current list. She does that thing that I love of combining a personal experience with historical/cultural research and commentary, and I think Jamison is brilliant at it. So many excellent essays in here, but I think my favorite was “In Defense of Saccharin(e).”

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2. Embroideries by Marjan Satrapi: Satrapi is the author of Persepolis, her memoir about growing up in Iran after the Iranian revolution. Compared to Persepolis, Embroideries has less of a straightforward narrative storyline––the book depicts a group of women who are friends, family, and neighbors, drinking tea together and sharing stories from their lives. The dialogue is energetic, and I enjoyed bouncing between the different stories and learning about the lives of women in Iran.

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3. The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George: I read this entire book out loud so many times to the Babysitting Charge that I felt I had to count it. George is an epic YA author, and I had never read any of her nonfiction before, but I loved seeing where she got the inspiration for so many of her YA books. Who knew she had so many wild pets of her own? My only complaint: no wolves. I mean, isn’t she most famous for her YA novel Julie of the Wolves? Sheesh.

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4. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith: This was the short story disguised as a book. I got halfway through the story and realized that I had already read it when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and I had simply been deceived by the cute little single-story European edition. Great job, marketing team. (Okay, I guess it is a stretch letting this one count, especially since I had read the story before.)

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5. Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane GayI still can’t stop thinking about this book. Gay discusses so incredibly what it means to be a human––a well-intentioned, messy, flawed, contradictory human. I really loved the personal essays in this collection. A few of the reviews dragged for me, especially when they were about something I hadn’t read or seen and/or don’t care about, but, over all, I wanted to start rereading this book as soon as I finished. I think that Gay’s version of feminism should be adopted as essential feminism. I hope it becomes mainstream feminism. Plus she made me feel better for identifying as a feminist but also loving Jay-Z.

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6. Yes Please by Amy PoehlerPoehler is the best––smart, thoughtful, brutally honest, and hilarious. There were times while reading that this book that it felt rushed, as if Poehler’s agent and publisher had been thinking HEY HURRY UP WE GOT TO GET ON THIS WOMEN IN COMEDY MEMOIR BANDWAGON ASAP (see: Bossy Pants by Tina FeyIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling, etc.) But I was willing to forgive that, and some of the chapters that felt more like filler (the lists, the haikus), just because I love Poehler so much. I might be biased though, because I think you will especially appreciate this book if you’re from the Greater Boston Area. It brought back so many memories of my teenage days at the Burlington Mall and childhood birthdays at Chadwick’s. Yes, I do love Poehler, even if I am from Lexington, and she is just “Burlington trash.” (Rachel Dratch knows what I’m talking about.)

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7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I’ve been in such a nonfiction black hole for the past two-and-a-half years, that it is always fun and refreshing when I read a novel for a change. This is such a great story, with characters I really cared about and grew to know. Plus Adichie is funny as hell and sharp and smart, and I love her commentary on race and racism in America, woven into the plot so seamlessly and thoughtfully. I get what all the fuss was about. This book is excellent.

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8. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: I wrote a whole review of this anthology for Fiction Advocate that will go up on April 16. Stay tuned.

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9. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie BroshThis book is neurotic, weird, amazing, and perfect. Just read it. Any way I try to explain it will sound crazy––it’s not quite a graphic novel, it’s not just illustrated essays, it’s something much more. I still laugh to myself just thinking about the chapter about how dogs don’t understand moving.

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10. Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin: I think this book is my pick for favorite so far of 2015. I’m definitely biased because I’ve met MacLaughlin, I think she is awesome, and we also went to the same high school (good ol’ Noble & Greenough––she was class of 1997, I was class of 2006). BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT I don’t care, this book is SO FANTASTIC. Perhaps I loved it so much just because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: how writing is all in your head, your eyes on a computer screen, how out of touch you are with actual reality, and also trying to find other work to balance out all the writing that uses a different part of your brain, that makes you feel good and happy and accomplished in another way, maybe a job that gets you outside…. MacLaughlin seems to have found the perfect balance, and has written a kick-ass book about it all. Plus, just like Jamison, MacLaughlin adds in so many interesting historical and cultural elements to her own personal story. I know all about the history of screwdrivers now!

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11. If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan: This is another book written by a Nobles alumna––Farizan was class of 2003, and she was a senior when I was a freshman, and so, of course, I always thought she was super cool. Now I think she is even cooler for having written this book. This novel has a great message about staying true to who you are, despite horrific circumstances, but also about how life doesn’t always have a fairy tale ending. I was thrilled while reading it to see a realistic and thoughtful book for young adults as opposed to so much of the saccharine happily ever after YA crap out there. So much stuff marketed to young adults is dumbed down and superficial, and kids pick up on that and hate it. They can handle important, heavy subject matter, and, in fact, already think about it, even if a lot of the stuff targeting them doesn’t show it. I think it’s great that Farizan has taken intense, big issues––such as sexuality and gender identity and feminism and politics––and put them in a book for kids.

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12. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This was the essay disguised as a book. In fact, it’s actually Adichie’s famous TED Talk about feminism––expanded and edited––bound beautifully. Whoops. Again, probably a stretch to count this, but Adichie is brilliant and eloquent and every god damn person in the WORLD needs to read the 48 pages of this slim little book.

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13. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard: Currently reading this one. I’m about halfway through this collection, which every person who writes nonfiction ever has told me to read. No, I haven’t gotten to the essay “The Fourth State of Matter” yet, but I hear that’s the really good one.

As for my goal of reading a majority of books by women of color, I need to do better. Out of the twelve books I’ve finished reading, six were by women of color, though two of those were by the same woman (Adichie). As for the essay anthology (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed), out of seventeen contributors, only three were people of color (17.6%), and saying that I’ve read 6.176 books by women of color is just pathetic in a grasping-at-straws way to hit the majority, so I’m going to let that one go. Besides, three of the seventeen contributors in that anthology were men, so if we’re splitting hairs here, in that way, I’ve also only technically read 11.824 books by women so far in 2015. Yeah. Let’s not do that.

IN SUMMARY: I’m doing okay, but I definitely could be doing a lot better.

P.S. If you can’t wait until the end of the second quarter to see what I’m reading, follow me on GoodReads.

P.P.S. This is not an April Fools Day joke.

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