Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What I Read and Why, Plus Favorites from 2015

I read 42 books in 2015, which is quite a few more than I read the year before -- I blame pregnancy and nursing for the increase.  Goodreads sent me an email to tell me about my reading last year, complete with graphics that showed which book was the most popular of what I'd read (The Graveyard Book) and which was the least (Barefoot to Billionaire).  

The 42

Looking over the books was interesting.  Last year, I read a lot more fiction than I usually do, some of it on audiobook while I ran or tackled projects around the house, others on my kindle while I endured the last few months of pregnancy.  The Emporer's Soul, Elantris and Still Alice were my highest rated fiction books.

But nonfiction is my true love and has been ever since I was a young mom and realized my book addiction was interfering with my parenting.  I loved to read and while that was mostly good, the fact that I would get so engrossed in a story that I would stay up until the wee hours to finish "just one more chapter" was not so good.  I was tired enough getting up with babies at night; I didn't need to deal with fiction-induced sleep deprivation as well.  So I switched to reading nonfiction, which fed my insatiable desire to read without the late night binge-reading.  No matter how interesting a nonfiction book or engaging a memoir, I just don't get the same "I have to see how this ends!" feeling from them, and thus I can close the book and turn off the light at a reasonable hour.

When I first switched to reading nonfiction, I felt a bit like a sugar addict switching to a whole foods diet:  a bit deprived, but also virtuous.  And back then, pre-blogs, Facebook, and Goodreads, it was actually hard sometimes to find interesting nonfiction books.  I read a lot of parenting books, a lot of history (David McCullough), and a ton of biography.

Today, it's a lot easier to find good books.  I have dozens of friends on Goodreads who post about wonderful books and many of the blogs I read post about the best books they've read.  I have so many books on my to-read list, but like my life, it's a bit scattered.  I have some listed on a "To Read" memo in my phone, some on Goodreads, and some on my wishlist on Amazon.  I really need to get a better system for deciding what to read next, particularly as I'm finding it more and more difficult to get through all the books I check out from the library.

It would help if my library didn't make it easy to check out more than I have time for.  I have a little addiction to the "New Nonfiction" table they keep stocked with all sorts of interesting reads.  Even as I pick up my holds and track down the books I really intended to read, I always stop at that table and end up sidetracked in my reading. As I scan the titles, I'm always finding something that just sounds amazing.  Unlike my earlier reading days, I find I really have little interest in history (with the exception of memoir or super interesting biography) and I'm pretty much done with parenting books.  My loves now are culture, science (especially social science, psychology, and medicine), and memoir.  Especially memoir, and especially if it's a story of someone who grew up in a culture much different or challenging than mine.  I love to get a peak into someone's life story and why they are who they are.

This past year, I learned about Parkinsons Disease, the latest research on aging, congruences between MesoAmerican culture and the Book of Mormon, ancient Jewish temple worship, the Chilean mine disaster, how well-intentioned efforts to end poverty can go terribly wrong, civil war and terrorism in Sri Lanka, obsessive-compulsive disorder, how North Korea is crazier than a dystopian young adult fiction book (though this book is a better one for understanding North Korea), how the northwest coast of America should brace themselves for a tsunami, and what marshmallows and preschoolers teach us about self-control, among other things.  It was a good reading year (notwithstanding the time I wasted reading Austenland, my only one-star book of the year).

If you're like me, you're already looking up these books, finding them fascinating, and putting them on a to-read list that you'll then forget about in favor of that alluring "New Non-fiction table" at the library.

Of all the books that I read this past year, here are five that stand out in my mind:

1.  Temple Theology - An Introduction by Margaret Barker.  Barker is a scholar, studied at Cambridge, and is a Methodist preacher.  The way she had of describing and opening up the symbolism and meaning of Old Testament temple worship really opened my understanding of how temple worship was designed, then and now, to bring us to Christ.  It was a short book, but very dense.  I gained so much insight from reading this.  The author has written several other books that I want to read soon.

2.  The Marshmallow Test:  Mastering the Art of Self-Control.  Members of my Church might remember this talk about patience given a few years ago by Elder Uchtdorf that cited a study of preschoolers and marshmallows.  This book was written by the original creator of that study, who has spent his career studying the long-term effects of being able to delay gratification.  In short, kids who can resist temptation later on go on to have higher SAT scores, and more successful lives.  The book was wonderful.  The author talked about his own struggles to quit smoking and one interesting part, was about how people react when finding out they carry the breast cancer gene.  From my review:

 "Essentially, the author says that each of us are ruled by a "hot brain," which is inclined to be tempted by immediate rewards, and a "cold brain," that calculates and measures choices and consequences. Building self-control involves accessing the cold brain when the hot brain is more likely to be in control. 
There were a lot of interesting studies in the book. One that fascinated me involved how poorly people judge what effect bad news might have on them. Specifically, they found that women tested for the breast cancer gene sometimes fell apart when they found out they had it. So they eventually developed role playing to help women decide whether or not to get tested. Actually coming face to face with what could happen if they did have it was a lot more realistic for those to make a choice as opposed to just a bland recitation of the possible risks and benefits. 
Another section of the book talked about how to access the cold brain to step back and re-evaluate difficult and painful life experiences (such as getting hung up on a betrayal by an ex-boyfriend), and how that can help a person move forward."

3.  Still Alice.  This is fiction that felt like a memoir, exploring the life of a woman who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer's.

4.  The Idealist:  Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty.  This book took a look at the programs set up by a man determined to end poverty essentially by throwing a lot of money at it.  Unfortunately, life, economic incentives, corruption, and even weather intervenes to keep lofty goals from  being realized.  Ending poverty is just not as simple as some people want it to be.  (As a side note, I've read dozens and dozens of glowing articles about micro-credit and and how it works so well at bringing people out of poverty, but recently solid research has shown it doesn't really do what we thought it would.)

5.  Elantris.  My kids got me into reading Brandon Sanderson this year and he is a master of storytelling and world-building.  This was one of my favorites (and just may have kept me up until the wee hours to finish).

What were your favorite reads in 2015?


sandersclan said...

I almost exclusively read fiction but tried to add in some non fiction this year and found several I really enjoyed. I actually started based on your recommendation to read the story about the Chilean miners. Non-fiction I loved this year we're
The Lost City of Z
In the Heart of the Sea
Courtships of the Prophets
My favorite fiction was probably The Immortal Nicholas

sandersclan said...

I almost exclusively read fiction but tried to add in some non fiction this year and found several I really enjoyed. I actually started based on your recommendation to read the story about the Chilean miners. Non-fiction I loved this year we're
The Lost City of Z
In the Heart of the Sea
Courtships of the Prophets
My favorite fiction was probably The Immortal Nicholas

swedemom said...

I didn't have as great of a non-fiction reading year as I have had in the past. My ability to concentrate was a bit compromised with other demands on my time and on my ability to think and ponder.

This year I have already a few books that have been great. I get a lot of good reading recommendations on the Leonard Lopate Show (an NPR show from New York.) I like the non-fiction recommendations but usually don't read the fiction recommendations because they tend to be unfulfilling or bad stories.

I'm a fan of podcasts like Freakonomics or the Ted Radio hour because they feed my thirst for information but can be consumed while cleaning.


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