Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Year in Review: 2018 Book List

“‘We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?’” – Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

I saved that quote this fall because it summed up the last few months of my life. 2018 marked some huge changes — Aaron completed his PhD and we moved from Connecticut, where we spent five years, to Washington, D.C., so he could start a new job as an economist. After we moved, I interviewed for and then accepted a position as a SolarCorps Construction Fellow with solar nonprofit GRID Alternatives, and stopped freelance writing to start splicing rails, drilling into shingles, wiring junction boxes, and laying down solar panels. My life spun from rural Connecticut, where I had plenty of time to read in the evenings, to a bustling city with a new job, a two-hour commute, and unfortunately, far less time to spend reading.

My commute involves a switch from the Metro to either a bus or streetcar with a five- to ten-minute walk in between. Reading a book was tricky; I was continually jerking my head up and out of a novel to ensure I didn’t miss my stops. I tried poetry and that didn’t work either. So I started listening to audiobooks, which offered the extra benefit of allowing me to keep my head up and maintain awareness. I’m not totally sold on this way of consuming books — I’d much prefer to flip paper pages — but it has allowed me to better use the time I spend on public transportation. I’ve watched a lot of the city go by while thinking about topics like astrophysics or happiness. I’ve listened to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about black holes, infrared light, and the cosmic perspective, and also listened to some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons recorded in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I’m in the middle of a book about joy co-written by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

I still managed to read some incredible books in paper last year — over 9,200 pages across 30 books, according to my year in books from Goodreads. Below is the list (in alphabetical order)! I don’t recommend all 30 of the books, but past the long list is my top seven from the year (also in alphabetical order) which I do highly recommend. In the past, I’ve released a top 10 list, but as I only read 30 books this year and 10 would be a full third of that, I decided to simply highlight the books that impacted me the most. Combing through those 30 books, I found seven books that boasted a strong hold on me months later, so it’s a top seven this year.

Alif the Unseen ~ G. Willow Wilson
The Animators ~ Kayla Rae Whitaker
A River of Stars ~ Vanessa Hua
Bird by Bird ~ Anne Lamott
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening ~ Diana Butler Bass
Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy ~ Tim Harford
Grounded ~ Diana Butler Bass
How We Are Hungry ~ Dave Eggers
In the Garden of Beasts ~ Erik Larson
The Japanese Lover ~ Isabel Allende
The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 ~ Lawrence Wright
The Monk of Mokha ~ Dave Eggers
Monsoon Mansion ~ Cinelle Barnes
The Music Shop ~ Rachel Joyce
Neverwhere ~ Neil Gaiman
Paris Stories ~ Mavis Gallant
The Phantom Tollbooth ~ Norton Juster
Shadow and Claw ~ Gene Wolfe
The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace ~ Jeff Hobbs
Single, Gay, Christian ~ Gregory Coles
The Snow Child ~ Eowyn Ivey
Speak No Evil ~ Uzodinma Iweala
Stray City ~ Chelsey Johnson
The Themis Files ~ Sylvain Neuvel
   Sleeping Giants
   Waking Gods
   Only Human
This is How You Lose Her ~ Junot Diaz
The Woman in Cabin 10 ~ Ruth Ware
Wool ~ Hugh Howey


The Transall Saga ~ Gary Paulsen


Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths ~ Bruce Feiler
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ Clayborne Carson 

Top 7

Grounded ~ Diana Butler Bass
Bass points to trends some have decried as the end of religion and offers a more hopeful spin, suggesting people still yearn for spirituality but aren’t finding it in many traditional churches. She sketches, instead, how people are finding spirituality in the modern world, and Grounded in particular gave me a lot of hope and drive to pursue an authentic spirituality. I can identify with the dissatisfaction many people feel, and also that longing for something deeper. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in modern religion, regardless of which religion.

The Monk of Mokha ~ Dave Eggers
When I read this book last January, I predicted it would be the best book I read all year. And it certainly was one of them! I wrote in my notes it had been a while since I was so engrossed in a story. I also hadn’t known much about the conflict in Yemen, or how a coffee bean transforms into the steaming, aromatic drink so many people love. The heart of the story was a character around my age working to find his way in the world, and I was swept up in his story of self-discovery. Highly recommend.

The Music Shop ~ Rachel Joyce
This was my last Book of the Month; while I hope to be a member again someday, time just doesn’t allow for it right now! And the book was delightful; it was a magic, romantic whirlwind that I stayed up way too late to finish because I just couldn’t put it down. It was also a love letter to music, and exposed me to music in unexplored or forgotten genres, including some songs I’m still listening to around a year later.

The Phantom Tollbooth ~ Norton Juster
Somehow I never read this book as a child, and that’s a tiny tragedy. I loved the wordplay in The Phantom Tollbooth, and as a writer appreciated the sheer fun of it. I’ll read this book with my own kids someday.

The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace ~ Jeff Hobbs
After finishing this novel, I wrote in my notes it was one of the best books I’d ever read in my life. And I stand by that several months later, as I’m writing this post. It’s a must-read for just about everyone. In telling a difficult story, Hobbs didn’t reduce Robert Peace to stereotypes. He told the story of a human being, and that’s why this novel was so powerful. I don’t want to share too much about it; just get it, and read it.

Speak No Evil ~ Uzodinma Iweala
Washington, D.C. served as the backdrop for this novel, which I read right after I’d moved to the city. I loved learning about the district through the pages, piecing together geography and actually visiting a few of the places described. But that fun tidbit wasn’t why this book makes the list. No, this book hits the top seven for its powerful writing and astonishing ending. What Iweala was doing through this book was brilliant, and it totally snuck up on me. This isn’t an easy read, but it will leave you thinking.

Stray City ~ Chelsey Johnson
I fell in love with Stray City. The writing was gorgeous, and dropped me right into 90’s Portland, where I gained insight into a community I hadn’t been so close to before. Johnson’s writing was tender and raw and vibrant, and totally absorbed me into the story. Her writing style managed to be experimental and fresh without feeling gimmicky. I plan to read every single book Johnson writes and eagerly await her next one.

Bustle published three articles I wrote in 2018: one on Pierce Brown’s Iron Gold, one on Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and the third on Cinelle Barnes’ Monsoon Mansion.

I’ve been releasing my books list since 2012; check out past lists below.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Year in Review: 2017 Book List

2017 was a year of ups and downs. But I think most of us can say this just about any year, and that’s one of the best things about reading: offering perspective. It’s easy to get trapped in the tragedies of the year, and it felt like there were so, so many in 2017. But I read some truly magnificent books that yanked me right out of my head and into another world. I traveled to the hills near Mumbai, the streets of Fuzhou, and World War 2-era Manhattan Beach in books this year. I read about war and behavioral economics and interfaith conversations and black holes. I love combing through the year's list of books and remembering where I was when I read them – like the Nashville airport or crashing on a friend’s couch in Santa Cruz or the lawn by my apartment on a summer day – and how I was feeling at that time.

I was a member of Book of the Month in 2017 and that was a really fun way to read new books months (or, let’s be honest, years) before I normally would. Several of the books on my top ten list were Book of the Month picks.

As always, I don’t recommend every single book – skip past the big list for my top ten if you’d like some recommendations.

American War ~ Omar El Akkad
Artemis ~ Andy Weir
The Blinds ~ Adam Sternbergh
A Brief History of Time ~ Stephen Hawking
Chemistry ~ Weike Wang
Dark Matter ~ Blake Crouch
The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew ~
Exit West ~ Mohsin Hamid
The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew - Three Women Search for Understanding ~ Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, Priscilla Warner
Goodbye, Vitamin ~ Rachel Khong
Heroes of the Frontier ~ Dave Eggers
Infinity: Outrage ~ Víctor Santos and Kenny Ruiz
Inherent Vice ~ Thomas Pynchon
Iron Gold ~ Pierce Brown
The Kingkiller Chronicle ~ Patrick Rothfuss
     The Name of the Wind
     The Wise Man’s Fear
     The Slow Regard of Silent Things
The Leavers ~ Lisa Ko
Lucky You ~ Erika Carter
Manhattan Beach ~ Jennifer Egan
The Mountain Shadow ~ Gregory David Roberts
The Night Manager ~ John le Carré
Pachinko ~ Min Jin Lee
Sing, Unburied, Sing ~ Jesmyn Ward
Travels with Charley in Search of America ~ John Steinbeck
The Undoing Project ~ Michael Lewis
A Visit from the Goon Squad ~ Jennifer Egan
War and Peace ~ Leo Tolstoy
The World and Watertown ~ Greg Beach
A Wrinkle in Time ~ Madeleine L’Engle


The Harry Potter series ~ J.K. Rowling
Shantaram ~ Gregory David Roberts
Red Rising ~ Pierce Brown
Golden Son ~ Pierce Brown
Morning Star ~ Pierce Brown
The Martian ~ Andy Weir
The Silmarillion ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Top 10 List (in alphabetical order)

Artemis ~ Andy Weir
The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew - Three Women Search for Understanding ~ Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, Priscilla Warner
Heroes of the Frontier ~ Dave Eggers
Iron Gold ~ Pierce Brown
The Leavers ~ Lisa Ko
The Mountain Shadow ~ Gregory David Roberts
Pachinko ~ Min Jin Lee
Sing, Unburied, Sing ~ Jesmyn Ward
Travels with Charley in Search of America ~ John Steinbeck
War and Peace ~ Leo Tolstoy

And why I recommend them

1. I know a lot of you read The Martian by Andy Weir! I really enjoyed his second novel. It made me laugh out loud and was packed with all the same science nerdery of The Martian. I’m officially going to read any books Weir writes.

2. I just read The Faith Club near the end of the year and really, really enjoyed this look at three major world religions from three women who practice them. The book was written after 9/11 but is just as relevant today. I liked the book because it wasn’t just a nice summary of how three women practice three different religions. No, these women dove right in to stereotypes and conflicts and the ways religion divides instead of bringing us together. But they did so with respect – and their deepening relationship based on a search for truth and understanding really pulled me in. I’d recommend the book for someone of any (or no) religion.

3. Those of you who read my list last year know I got hooked on Dave Eggers. I finally read his book that came out that year this year and loved it. In another writer’s hands, I don’t think I would have liked the main character, but Eggers conveyed her faults while also humanizing her. I was rooting for her and was captivated by her journey. And her kids were some of my favorite fictional kids ever.

4. All right everyone, ever since I got sucked into Red Rising in 2014, I’ve been telling everyone who will listen to read Pierce Brown’s books. So there’s no excuse. Read them. I got an advance copy of Iron Gold for a forthcoming article and while I can’t say too much, pre-order it. Read the rest of the series first if you haven’t. Read Iron Gold. I’m obsessed. This is my all-time favorite modern book series. UPDATE 1/16/18: Read my interview with Brown on Bustle here!

Pre-order it, people.

5. The Leavers was a beautiful story of family and identity. Ko gave characters I didn’t expect the chance to tell their stories and it made for a really incredible book.

6. The Mountain Shadow is the sequel to Shantaram – which, if you haven’t read, you absolutely must. I wasn’t sure if The Mountain Shadow could live up to it. And while they’re different books, I really loved it. Reading it was a spiritual experience for me, and it was neat to reconnect with characters I’ve known for almost seven years now.

7. Pachinko was my favorite Book of the Month this year. I realized I haven’t read many books about the area of the world in which it is set – Korea and Japan – and I had a lot of fun exploring the setting. But it’s the family saga told in this novel that’s really gripping.

8. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a close second to Pachinko for my favorite Book of the Month. I really loved the characters. They felt real. And I cared about what happened to all of them, from the ones easy to love to the ones I loathed. Ward also blended real-world issues with otherworldly elements in a way that didn’t feel unbelievable at all, but immediate and compelling.

9. This was my yearly Steinbeck. I’m basically reading a Steinbeck every year until I get through the entire canon and loving it! But turned out to be a timely pick for a few months in to a new administration after a turbulent election. The book came out in 1962, and it was fascinating to read Steinbeck’s predictions and see how many came true or turned out differently, and compare the sentiment of the country back then to now. It was fascinating to watch Steinbeck wrestle with what he might take away from his United States road trip, and remember just how big and varied and diverse in just about every sense of the word the country is.

10. I’ve wanted to tackle War and Peace for years. Aaron actually bought it for me from Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara for one of our first Christmases. I never attempted it there and when we moved, it was in a box of books the post office tragically lost. So when I visited Santa Barbara a year ago, and went into Chaucer’s (one of the best places in the entire world) with a little Christmas money, I decided to buy the exact same version Aaron bought me, from the same place, and finally read it. And then – surprise! – I loved it. I loved it so much I convinced Aaron to read it too. It was a really rich reading experience. And what a time to read it – with concerns over possible collusion with Russia, here I was reading a book about Russia. It was good to be reminded there’s more to countries than what’s going on with our politicians. And fascinating to see how Tolstoy views history.

Need more book recommendations? I’ve been writing these up for several years now (mind-blowing!). Here are all the lists from the past:


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Year in Review: 2016 Book List

For the past five years, I’ve recorded the books I’ve read and the dates I’ve read them, with my thoughts on the writing and stories. 17,465 pages and 43 books later, here’s 2016’s list. (You can find the lists from 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012 on the blog too.)

So, I have a confession to make. 2016 was the first year I committed to a Goodreads challenge, and set my goal for books to read at 40. That seemed reasonable – I read a few more books than that in 2015. Unfortunately, I forgot the beginning of 2016 was dedicated to finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Suddenly when I finished the series in the summer (10 months after beginning!) I was way behind on my challenge.

I have hundreds of books on my to-read Goodreads list, so I filtered them by pages, and then…yes…picked the shortest books on my list. I ordered those short books from the library and started gaining ground.

Now this devious and slightly shameful method of choosing books led to some delightful surprises. I read The Stranger by Albert Camus. I read Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. I read The Terrorist’s Son by Zak Ebrahim. I fell in love with books I might not have read, at least this soon.

As always with the book list, I don’t necessarily recommend every book on the list, but you can check out my favorites on the top ten list!

1984 ~ George Orwell
All The Light We Cannot See ~ Anthony Doerr
Animal Farm ~ George Orwell
Another Brooklyn ~ Jacqueline Woodson
Birdsong ~ Sebastian Faulks
Bloodline ~ Claudia Gray
Brooklyn ~ Colm Tóibín
Burning Bright ~ John Steinbeck
The Circle ~ Dave Eggers
Crazy Christians ~ Michael B. Curry
Everything Is Illuminated ~ Jonathan Safran Foer
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ~ Jonathan Safran Foer
The Force Awakens ~ Alan Dean Foster
Giovanni’s Room ~ James Baldwin
God Help the Child ~ Toni Morrison
A Hologram for the King ~ Dave Eggers
Homegoing ~ Yaa Gyasi
Mom & Me & Mom ~ Maya Angelou
Morning Star ~ Pierce Brown
The Prophet ~ Kahlil Gibran
Room ~ Emma Donoghue
Speaking Christian ~ Marcus Borg
A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius ~ Dave Eggers
The Stranger ~ Albert Camus
The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice ~ Zak Ebrahim
Too Loud a Solitude ~ Bohumil Hrabal
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip ~ George Saunders
Waiting for Godot ~ Samuel Beckett
The Wayward Bus ~ John Steinbeck
Wheel of Time series ~ Robert Jordan
    The Shadow Rising
    The Fires of Heaven
    Lord of Chaos
    A Crown of Swords
    The Path of Daggers
    Winter’s Heart
    Crossroads of Twilight
    Knife of Dreams
    The Gathering Storm (by Brandon Sanderson)
    Towers of Midnight (by Brandon Sanderson)
    A Memory of Light (by Brandon Sanderson)
When Breath Becomes Air ~ Paul Kalanithi
You Shall Know Our Velocity! ~ Dave Eggers
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? ~ Dave Eggers

The Top 10 List (in simply alphabetical order)

1984 ~ George Orwell
All The Light We Cannot See ~ Anthony Doerr
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ~ Jonathan Safran Foer
Giovanni’s Room ~ James Baldwin
Homegoing ~ Yaa Gyasi
Morning Star ~ Pierce Brown
A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius ~ Dave Eggers
Waiting for Godot ~ Samuel Beckett
Too Loud a Solitude ~ Bohumil Hrabal
When Breath Becomes Air ~ Paul Kalanithi

Here’s Why I Recommend Them

1. Most of you have probably read 1984 already, but I somehow made it all the way through college without reading it. It seemed especially apt in an election year, but I was surprised by just how deeply I connected with Orwell’s terrifying story, and how relevant it still is.

2. Doerr’s writing is intricate; he crafts sentences elegantly. The one element that lingered with me after the book, though, was the reality of Doerr’s story. He confronted a hard topic – war – through the novel and didn’t flinch away from its ugly realities, yet also softened them with moments of connection and beauty. He didn’t give into clichés – especially in his ending – but wrote the story of people who felt real.

3. I don’t often read books from the perspective of children. (All right, I’m reading Harry Potter right now, but most of the other books on the list center around adults!) But Foer wrote his protagonist brilliantly, and he sucked me right in to the story. I laughed and cried and felt all the rawness of human emotion while reading this book, and most heartily recommend it if you haven’t cracked it open.

4. The best books capture the experiences of a person radically different from you, and reveal to you how similar you are to that person: how human their emotions are; how you’ve often felt the same emotions even if in different circumstances. I’m not a gay man living in France, but in this novel, I felt his feelings and was able to get a glimpse of the world through his eyes. Even better, Baldwin’s writing was incredible; some of the best writing I read all year. I’ll be reading more of his works in the future.

5. I don’t want to give away too much about Gyasi’s book, but the way she structured the novel was inventive and gripping. I loved her writing and the way she wove a common thread of a story through hundreds of years. Homegoing isn’t always an easy book to read, but it’s honest and real, and I eagerly await more novels from Gyasi.

6. Well, I’ve been recommending Brown’s books to you all for years now, and if you haven’t read them, come on, what are you even doing with your life? But seriously. The final book in the trilogy doesn’t disappoint; in fact, it’s magnificent. In my personal review of the book I realized I don’t think I’ve been as emotional about a modern book series as I am about the Red Rising series. I’ve written about it multiple times, recommended it to a wide variety of people, and now I’m here to say you absolutely must read it if you haven’t.

7. I read a startling number of Eggers’ books this year, and most of them could be on this list. For the sake of fairness, I chose just one: the first one I read that propelled me to read more of his works. I absolutely love Eggers’ experimental, outlandish writing style, and just gobble up his books.

8. Waiting for Godot made me mad! I read this book in one sitting and at the end was furious; there was no resolution! So of course, I hopped on the Internet to see why it’s one of the best-loved plays in the world, and as I was reading commentary on the novel, realized just how brilliant Beckett was. I was supposed to be angry. I loved the experience of reading the book, being mad, realizing I was supposed to be mad, reading more commentary, and then realizing this was one of the best books I’d read all year. The experience was everything I loved about being an English major.

9. Honestly, I have no idea how this little novel made its way onto my reading list. But as it was one of the shortest books on there, it made its way into my house as I labored to meet my Goodreads challenge, and I just fell in love with the book. Hrabal’s writing was masterful and quirky and sad and gorgeous. I’m so glad I accidentally read this book!

10. If I had to pick one book to be my 2016 favorite, it’s When Breath Becomes Air. This book was brilliant, and deserves the accolades it received. I think one of the reasons it struck such a powerful chord was that it faced, head on, a topic many shy away from in modern society. Kalanithi wrote about death as only he could, drawing on his surgeon’s background as he battled cancer, while also drawing on his love of literature. This was a beautiful book, and you absolutely should read it.

2017’s starting out with a reread of the Harry Potter series, and I’m excited to see the places I’ll go in novels this year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year in Review: 2015 Book List

What a year! For readers who don’t know, every year I keep track of what I read in a document, along with the dates I read the book, and write a review when I’m finished. I don’t publish those reviews. They’re raw and full of spoilers. But I do publish the list of books that I’ve read. (My book reviews this year totaled 22 pages and 10,738 words, so I’ve basically written a novelette you’ll never see.) I’ve divided the books I read up into fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and unfinished. (Note that just because a book is on this list does not mean I recommend it. For that, go to the top 10 list or just ask me because there were a few I enjoyed that just didn’t quite make the list.)


Aftermath ~ Chuck Wendig
A Sudden Light ~ Garth Stein
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ~ Mark Twain
Elantris - Brandon Sanderson
The Enchantress of Florence ~ Salman Rushdie
Everything I Never Told You ~ Celeste Ng
The Giver Quartet ~ Lois Lowry
   The Giver
   Gathering Blue
Golden Son ~ Pierce Brown
The Goldfinch ~ Donna Tartt
The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate ~ James R. Mills
Heir to the Jedi ~ Kevin Hearne
Hyperion Cantos ~ Dan Simmons
   The Fall of Hyperion
In the Shadow of the Cypress ~ Thomas Steinbeck
The Last of the Mohicans ~ James Fenimore Cooper
The Martian ~ Andy Weir
Mistborn Trilogy ~ Brandon Sanderson
   The Well of Ascension
   The Hero of Ages
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 3 (I read A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Valley of Fear) ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie Klinger
Ocean at the End of the Lane ~ Neil Gaiman
The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde
The Red Pony ~ John Steinbeck
The Revenant ~ Michael Punke
Sabriel ~ Garth Nix
Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel
Warbreaker ~ Brandon Sanderson
Wheel of Time series ~ Robert Jordan
   The Eye of the World
   The Great Hunt
   The Dragon Reborn
The World of Ice and Fire ~ George R. R. Martin


De Profundis ~ Oscar Wilde
The Disaster Artist ~ Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
The Heart of Christianity ~ Marcus Borg
On Writing ~ Stephen King
Outliers ~ Malcolm Gladwell
The Republic of Imagination ~ Azar Nafisi
The Tipping Point ~ Malcolm Gladwell
Things I’ve Been Silent About ~ Azar Nafisi
Unbroken ~ Laura Hillenbrand


The Glance: Songs of Soul-Meeting ~ Rumi


This was the year I realized that if I don’t like a book, I don’t have to keep reading it. Simple yet revolutionary. So these are the three I didn’t finish and why:

The Night Circus ~ Erin Morgenstern
   Everyone raves about The Night Circus, but I just didn’t enjoy the writing style.

Steelheart ~ Brandon Sanderson
   I found I don’t really care for superhero novels.

Watchmen ~ Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
   I found I don’t really care for graphic novels.

The Top 10 List

Making a top 10 list this year was rough. There were too many good ones. So I decided to make a runner-up list, over which I sighed and moaned. There were seriously lots of awesome books this year, and some didn't even make either list! So know that the books on the runner-up list are just as good as those on the top 10 list.

Top 10 (in no particular order)

1. Elantris - Brandon Sanderson
2. Golden Son ~ Pierce Brown
3. The Heart of Christianity ~ Marcus Borg
4. Hyperion ~ Dan Simmons
5. The Martian ~ Andy Weir
6. On Writing ~ Stephen King
7. The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde
8. The Revenant ~ Michael Punke
9. Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel
10. Unbroken ~ Laura Hillenbrand

Here's Why I Recommend Them

1. I made one rule to make things slightly easier: I could only pick one Brandon Sanderson book for the top 10 list. I picked Elantris because I read it about two weeks after someone close to me had passed away, and the commentary on death and separation from people you love in Elantris really struck me. It’s amazing how sometimes you read a book at exactly the right time in your life; almost as if you were meant to read that book then. Elantris was that book for me. Thinking about it now, eight months later, still dredges up all the feelings I felt at that time: loss and yet a sense of peace. Elantris helped me grieve and say goodbye.

2. Enthusiasm doesn’t even come close to how I feel about Golden Son (and Red Rising). Obsessed is a better word that still falls short. If you haven’t read those books, seriously stop reading this and go read them immediately.

3. I’m aware that many of you reading this list won’t identify as Christians, and this book on my list is not a covert attempt to convert you. Rather, it’s a book that made a huge impact on my spiritual life this past year, and changed the way I view Christianity. I think anyone remotely interested in God should read it. And I think it should be assigned reading for anyone who calls themselves a Christian.

4. Hyperion was another one of those books that captured my imagination. It’s written in the style of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and somehow each tale is better than the last. The first tale was my favorite. Then the second one was. And on and on! I loved it mainly because when I was first introduced to the characters, I made judgments about them that were kind of right, but also kind of wrong. Each person ended up being so complex and nuanced – kind of like a real person is. It reminded me you should look deeper than a first impression; there’s always something more to a person that will probably surprise you.

5. I've been shoving The Martian into friends’ faces for months now. I can’t remember the last time I laughed aloud at a book so many times, yet also cried and then stopped to think. Read it.

6. My dad has been recommending On Writing to me for several years, but I’ve never read anything else by Stephen King, so I never picked it up. I finally asked for it for Christmas last year as a good excuse to read it, and absolutely loved it how King told his story and worked in insights about writing. It would be interesting for anyone but was particularly useful to me as a writer. When I sat down to compose this blog post, I started thinking about how his suggestions have seeped into the ways I think about writing and changed them for the better.

7. Oscar Wilde is a literary genius, and I’m only sad this was the only novel he wrote. It was brilliant and elegantly written. I soaked it up and used it as an excuse to think about life.

8. Intending to see the movie, I read The Revenant this month. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the novel. I expected it would be good, but didn’t expect it to be top-10-list-good, yet here it is! It was well-written and fast-paced in the best way, and the ending surprised me. I think I’ll have to pretend the movie isn’t based on the book because even though I like the director and cast, I don't know how any movie could do this book justice.

9. Station Eleven was another book I expected to like, but didn’t necessarily expect to love until I'd read it and realized it was another one of those that was going to stay in my heart. Some of the sentences made me stop because I just had to revel in how beautiful and thought-provoking they were. The book was scary, poignant, exciting, and everything in between.

10. Unbroken made me cry and cry and cry. I’m five years late, so I hope you’ve read this book, but if you haven’t, go now to the library. The story told was an incredible exploration of the human heart and forgiveness, and it will stay with me for a long time.

Runners-Up (Because You Can't Have 15 On A Top 10 List)

1. Everything I Never Told You ~ Celeste Ng
2. Mistborn Trilogy ~ Brandon Sanderson
3. Ocean at the End of the Lane ~ Neil Gaiman
4. The Republic of Imagination ~ Azar Nafisi
5. Warbreaker ~ Brandon Sanderson 

Why I Love These Books Too 

1. I read this book in one afternoon. It was that good. It’s Ng’s debut, and I loved her writing style and how she weaved this story together. It was an insightful look at family, race, and the stories we tell ourselves. It was a privilege to be able to interview Ng this year as well.

2. The Mistborn trilogy is a must-read for any fantasy fan. I fell in love with the characters and how they grew and changed over the course of three books.

3. Gaiman addressed adulthood in this book, and it really made me think. It was thoughtful, dark, and hopeful all at the same time. You can read it in an afternoon. Go do it.

4. Nafisi’s first book made my top list in 2013, and I loved this one for the same reason: for its exploration of difficult topics through literature. Nafisi always reminds me why fiction is so important, and why it means so much to me personally. I also had the privilege to interview her this year.

5. It’s another Brandon Sanderson! Sanderson has an ability to write characters and worlds that I connect to, intensely. I’m excited to read more of his work in 2016.

In Conclusion (A Request)

The first part of 2016 will be taken up with the Wheel of Time series (I’m midway into Book 4 as I write this) but as always I’d love your recommendations of the books you loved this year! You can also check out my lists from prior years: 2012, 2013, and 2014

Friday, June 12, 2015

Seeing the World Through Surrender

“‘You are from Florence,’ he said, ‘so you know of the majesty of that highest of sovereigns, the individual human self, and of the cravings it seeks to assuage, for beauty, for value – and for love.’” – Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence, page 17.

Swept away by the effortless allure of Rushdie’s writing, I read this sentence and thought, ah, Florence, maybe I would instantly love you, maybe in you I would find my soul city.

Modern travelers, at least Americans, seem to fall into this tendency of romantic wanderlust – we go to a place and we love it and it’s magical and perfect and colorful and we could live there forever and even, sometimes, oh, it’s so much better than America.

I thought I would go to India and I too would fall head over heels. I didn’t. India was dirty and smelly and crowded. It was also beautiful, colorful, and full of life. To this day, it captures my imagination and I still find myself drawn to fiction and music about and from India. Yet I’d held an ideal in my head, and I was confronted with the wrongness of that shining stereotype.

Yet reading about the mysterious man from Florence, I realized that romanticism still lurked in me. Were I to travel to Florence, it would not all be like that one lush pin on my “our planet” Pinterest board, a majestic city saturated with history. There would be dirt, prejudices, insecurities, mistakes, unwashed people disdainful of my unwashed presence. Just like any other city. There would be beauty, also like any other city.

But I can’t decide what form the beauty will take before I arrive, and that’s what romanticism does too often.

That’s the problem with social media traveling. We go to take a good shot. We want to gush on Twitter about what a perfect time we had, how grand were the landmarks, how intimately thrilling the side street market we discovered, like Columbus "discovering" America. We fell in love, and we’ll tell the world.

Not everyone is like this, of course. Many photos also capture misery and reality, the illogical smile of a scrawny three-year-old girl. There’s still truth to be found. Yet romanticism can cloud the truth of what we feel when faced with other cultures. We mask it with a smile and a quick four letter word.

So here’s some truth. I didn’t like the Taj Mahal. Sick to my stomach and sick of the stares of Indian men, I entered the dark mausoleum and realized a photograph can hide so much. I was at one of the wonders of the world and I was unimpressed. Does that make me grumpy and sick, even ungrateful? Yes, it does. But when I think of India, the Taj Mahal is not the wonder I remember.

I remember a small hotel room in Varanasi, one that was dark and not all that nice. I’d hardly been able to eat anything at dinner, a malady I’d combatted for the first few weeks of my trip, and, sick and frustrated, I went to that room and finally took one of the anti-nausea medications I’d been prescribed and avoided. Half an hour later, I threw it up and fell into my bed, exhausted but not broken, for I was finally starting to realize the truth of what I’d paid empty, false homage to for a few weeks: I needed to let go and give my suffering to God as an offering of humility and surrender. I’d been saying those words cheerfully to the other members of my group but never meant them. That night, after weeks of falsely waving the white flag, I finally affirmed them in truth, and I surrendered.

It was one of the most powerfully spiritual moments I’ve ever known, and it came not on a sweeping vista but in a small dark room where I lay on an uncomfortable bed feeling the pain of my hunger and the weakness of my soul.

The next morning, I ate, and continued to eat for the rest of my trip.

So should we stop travelling, stop falling in love, stop imagining with that wild romanticism? No. Yet sincerity should be the true quest – about what we see, about our feelings, about who we are and how we experience another culture. We need to be able to sit with the pain in dark hotel rooms. We need to recognize our very small place in a corner of the universe. We need to be honest.

Someday I hope to return to India, and to travel more, but to do so with open eyes of surrender and honesty.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015 Food Journey + Hot Pink Smoothie

Happy 2015…nearly three months late!

I know I haven’t posted since last December. I don’t want to abandon Sputnik Prose, but won’t be devoting as much energy to it as some of the other works I’m writing. In addition to writing for ThriveWire, which I love, I felt that I needed to choose spending time on this blog or focus on my writing projects, and I’ve chosen the latter. Although I won’t be blogging as much, I would like to occasionally to let any readers (hi, Mom) know what I’m pondering and cooking. Find more of my writing at ThriveWire.

However, I did want to blog about food and then share a recipe with you all.

Aaron and I recently decided to make a few changes to our eating habits. Our philosophy is that food should be healthy and fun. Since high school, I’ve believed in natural foods and eating as few processed foods as possible (fake sweeteners are something thing I utterly loathe, as well as soda). However, I don’t believe in the philosophy behind diets, and I hate the idea of counting calories or trying to attain a certain weight.

We only have one life, and I want to enjoy the food I eat, not torture myself. Yet food also has a huge impact on our bodies and the way we feel. I didn’t feel great over the holidays. I ate whatever I wanted, but didn’t exercise. I gained not a lot of weight, but enough to make me feel sluggish and out of shape.

Aaron was also concerned about our sugar intake. I, of course, disagreed. Anyone who knows me in person could tell you I have a huge sweet tooth. Yet in the spirit of continuing the conversation with Aaron, I agreed to read one of the articles that had influenced his decision. I fully expected to disagree. However, after reading this article quite critically, I found myself unexpectedly changing my mind.

The article is worth a read even if you’re not interested. I definitely wasn’t interested. It can be found here.

We both agreed that we wouldn’t eliminate sugar entirely. If I am in the vicinity of some Richardson’s ice cream, I will joyfully eat some Richardson’s ice cream. But we’ve stopped buying things like fruit juice (even unsweetened, because without the fiber found in a piece of fruit, your body cannot absorb natural sugars from fruits as well – read about it here, here, or here) and I’ve been replacing sugar with honey in our baked goods. Honey still has plenty of sugar, but it has less glucose and fructose and more complex sugars. We do eat fruit, but we avoid processed sugar and fruit juice when possible.

Step two was to eat more veggie based meals and sides. I’ve started making less fish or meat than I used to, and adding a vegetable side. I’ve also experimented with veggie-based meals.

Those two goals, combined with yoga for me, and gym time for Aaron, has made my body feel so much better. I joined a yoga studio, and that has been such a positive experience.

I’ve also switched from grains to protein at breakfast. I used to start my day with cereal, but recently found my body craving protein in the morning. One day I tried eating an apple with peanut butter and fell in love. My body loves that burst of protein, and the meal fills me for far longer (like, two hours longer) than a bowl of cereal ever did. Now that I work from home, I also have more time to make a healthy lunch, and while I usually reheat leftovers, a smoothie with yogurt also hits the spot some days. I made the following smoothie to use up some vegetables in my fridge and unexpectedly fell in love.

Be prepared: it’s made with beets. I didn’t like beets, but bought them to use in a vegetable soup, which I thought was okay and Aaron loathed. Then I had a lot of beets left, so I figured that surrounded by fruit, they couldn’t be too terrible.

However, I loved that smoothie. I loved it so much that I’ve made it three times. I actually may continue to buy beets.

Hot Pink Smoothie


1 small beet, chopped
¼ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
¾ cup frozen berries
¼ cup water
½ cup chopped kale


1. Add the beet, yogurt, and applesauce to a blender first to make sure the beets are blended.

2. Add the frozen berries and water and blend.

3. Lastly, add in the kale and blend until you reach your desired consistency. I like super chunky smoothies, but I know many people prefer smoother smoothies.

Serves 1.

Hopefully you enjoy the smoothie, beets and all!

Note: For the sake of clarity, I wanted to state that I don't view vegan or vegetarian eating as diets; I see them as lifestyles. To me, a diet is something define by what you cannot eat. My vegan and vegetarian friends, rather, celebrate what they can eat. I don't believe in placing on emphasis on what you can't eat, but what you can eat.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Year in Review: 2014 Book List

For the third year in a row, I bring you my book list of the past year!

Each year I record the approximate dates that I read a particular book, and then record my opinions on the book. I won’t share all those with you, as this year’s document was 17 pages and 9,690 words long (I think I've found the right profession).

This is the first full list that took place entirely on the East Coast. Here it is.


Americanah ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Book Thief ~ Markus Zusak
By The River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept ~ Paulo Coelho
California ~ Edan Lepucki
Cloud Atlas ~ David Mitchell
Down to a Soundless Sea ~ Thomas Steinbeck
Farewell to Arms ~ Ernest Hemingway
Half of a Yellow Sun ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Hand of Thrawn Trilogy ~ Timothy Zahn
The Hound of the Baskervilles ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In Thunder Forged ~ Ari Marmell
Longbourn ~ Jo Baker
Monstrous Regiment ~ Terry Pratchett
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower ~ C. S. Forester
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1 (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edited by Leslie Klinger
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 2 (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes) ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edited by Leslie Klinger
Offcomer ~ Jo Baker
The Perks of Being a Wallflower ~ Stephen Chbosky
The Princess and the Queen ~ George R.R. Martin
Red Rising ~ Pierce Brown
Seize the Day ~ Saul Bellow
Shadows of the Empire ~ Steve Perry
The Thing Around Your Neck ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Tortilla Flat ~ John Steinbeck
Two From Galilee ~ Marjorie Holmes
A Walk to Remember ~ Nicholas Sparks


Blink ~ Malcolm Gladwell
Daily Rituals ~ Mason Currey
David and Goliath ~ Malcolm Gladwell
Flash Boys ~ Michael Lewis
The Glass Castle ~ Jeannette Walls
How to Fight Presidents ~ Daniel O’Brien
Lawrence in Arabia ~ Scott Anderson


The Hobbit ~ J. R. R. Tolkien
Purple Hibiscus ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Red Rising ~ Pierce Brown (yes, twice in one year)

Here is my Top Ten List:

1. Red Rising
2. Daily Rituals
3. California
4. Americanah
5. By the River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept
6. David & Goliath
7. Lawrence in Arabia
8. Down to a Soundless Sea
9. The Hound of the Baskervilles
10. Two from Galilee

While writing this article, I realized that I justified my dislike of the three books mentioned below, but did not explain why I enjoyed the above ten books. That seemed rather lopsided to me, so I decided for the first time to give readers a brief reason to read the ten books I've recommended above.

1. Everyone needs to read Red Rising. Read it, people! It’s my favorite book of the year. I wrote about it here and here and here.

2. Daily Rituals impacted me in a way I did not expect. It’s a book about the habits of famous creative people, and since I've begun to work from home, I find myself continually mulling over my own daily rituals and how effective they are, or aren't.

3. California was another one of my favorite fiction novels of the year. People complain that modern writers don’t write as well as writers in the past, but they've clearly never read Edan Lepucki. I think she’s a brilliant writer and I can’t wait to read the next book she writes.

4. Americanah…it launched an obsession with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her writing is flawless and astounding. Americanah opened the door on a whole new world for me.

5. Reading By The River Piedra I Sat Down & Wept was a spiritual experience for me. Yet I need not say more here; I blogged about it several months ago.

6. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing continues to astonish me, and David & Goliath was the perfect read for where I was on my journey when I read it.

7. This was the year of nonfiction for me. I love stories and rarely read nonfiction, yet this year I read seven nonfiction books! Lawrence in Arabia was one of my favorites. It launched a mini obsession with Lawrence – Aaron can tell you that I often inadvertently interrupted his studies to start dialoguing about who Lawrence really could have been. The obsession culminated in the viewing and dissection of David Lean’s 1962 movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I’d seen this movie when I was about 14, and while I was watching it, felt like it would be my all-time favorite movie. Yet I hated the ending, and essentially vowed never to watch it again. After I read the book, though, I realized that I had gained enough perspective on Lawrence’s life to possibly appreciate the film. So I watched it, and enjoyed it, and redeemed my 14-year-old self.

8. I was surprised by how precise and lovely Thomas Steinbeck’s writing was. I would almost venture to say he’s a better writer than my beloved John Steinbeck.

9. I couldn't not include a Sherlock story on this list! Aaron and I discovered the BBC series this fall, and that launched a serious literary obsession with Sherlock. I’m three novels short of completing the entire canon. What happened.

10. My grandma recommended this book to me, and I loved the new perspective it gave to the well-known Christmas story.

I've stated this before, but I try to appreciate every book I read. Having said that, there were three that I didn't enjoy this year:

1. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. I felt like Rowling was trying to be as shocking as possible, and while I can appreciate miserable lives and swear words in certain works, they were entirely pointless in Rowling’s disappointing novel. I had to stop this book midway or it would have ruined the Harry Potter series for me.

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I felt like the story had so much potential, but didn't pay off in the end. I expect a character like Charlie to experience some growth or change in his life, and the ending was truly disappointing.

3. A Walk to Remember. Sparks tells but does not show. I loathed Landon in the book, but he’s a good character in the movie. A sad instance where the movie is far more powerful than the book. 

If you’re interested, follow the links to read 2012 and 2013’s lists.

What should I read in 2015? Share your favorite books with me!