Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Year in Books

I’ve been in Samoa for a little over a year now, and I’ve been averaging a book a week, which is a bit surprising to me – I thought I would be reading much more than that. I certainly have more downtime now than I’ve ever had before, but I guess the content of the books is different. In college, I would have a book or two going for each class, and one for fun on the side. Here, at any given time, I’m ready 2 or 3 books, sometimes 4, and 1 or 2 magazines. I couldn’t tell you many details about most of the stuff I read, but the big ideas stick. Anyway, just for fun, I’ve been writing down the books I read when I finish them, and here is the list of books from Year 1. Some with comments/summaries/opinions, and recommendations about what to read and why. I say you can trust my opinion because another PCV has told me TWICE now “That book you recommended was so good! I’m going to read anything you recommend.” Once is a fluke, but obviously my opinion on books can be trusted J
Lord of the Flies
Little Bee – story about a girl from Africa who shows up on the doorstep of an English woman who saved her life. I didn’t find it to be super compelling, but other people have loved it.

The Girl Who Played with Fire – I highly recommend the Steig Larsson series. This is the second book. The first is hard to get into, but worth it when it gets exciting (about halfway through). Loved the second book
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – memoir. Insightful and reflective at times, but more often, I felt it read like a journal entry.

Days of Gold
A Certain Slant of Light – interesting concept, about a soul wandering around the human world because it hasn’t been able to let go of the death of her body and the mistakes of her life.

The Power of One – MUST READ. I love this book
The Prodigy

The Return of Merlin – Actually a Deepak Chopra novel based around the stories of King Arthur. I liked it, lost some of the references because I haven’t read any of the King Arthur/Lancelot/holy grail stories
Tuesdays with Morrie – LOVE this book, and in general I’m a huge fan of Mitch Albom. The reflections and life lessons of a dying man, highly recommended.

The Last Lecture – also the reflections and life lessons of a dying man. I actually read these books back to back over the course of about 24 hours. Don’t do that. Actually, I would tell you not to even bother with this book. Compared to Tuesdays With Morrie, this book is too full of the memories and stories he wants to share and less about life lessons to pass on.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – final book in the Larsson trilogy. Still exciting, still highly recommended.

Into Thin Air – Very compelling read, although I got lost at times because he also mixes in the history of Everest. Made me want to read more books about climbing mountains
Fight Club – surprisingly close to the movie (I saw the movie before I read the book). Good book, I’ll have to read it again to understand it better

A Culture of Makebelieve – I also LOVE Derrick Jensen, but I wouldn’t recommend his books to everybody. I also wouldn’t recommend reading this book when commencing Peace Corps service
For One More Day – I’m always a fan of Mitch Albom, but this isn’t my favorite book of his

When You Are Engulfed in Flame – David Sedaris, generally always interesting
The Waste Lands – Book 3 of the Steven King Dark Tower series. My favorite book in the series, made me want to watch Firefly after I finished it.

Wizard and Glass – Book 4 of the series, also pretty good.
Wolves of the Calla – Book 5 of the series, also good, but where it starts to go downhill

Song of Susannah – Book 6 of the series. Shorter than most of the other books, it goes a bit out of the story to focus on only one character
The Dark Tower – Last book of the Dark Tower series. I almost couldn’t finish it because I was so fed up with it, but that’s just my personal opinion. Overall, a very interesting series, complex and original stories, with lots of cultural references and allusions to other stories. Once you make it to the last book in a 7 book series, how can you not finish it?

Snow Country
Ishmael – Another one of my favorite books ever, but again, I don’t think it would appeal to all audiences

Reading Lolita in Tehran – Excellent book! It’s subtitle is “A memoir in books.” She is a literature professor who teaches an underground Western lit reading class during the Iranian revolution. Expertly weaves together analysis of literature with real life situations. I wrote one of my college professors to recommend using it in class because I loved it so much.
Atonement – I was a little underwhelmed. Interesting story, but not quite what the back cover promised it would be.

The Hunger Games – First book of the Hunger Games series. Excellent books, all of them!
Timequake – Probably my favorite Kurt Vonnegut I’ve read so far. Premise of the story is that an accidental slip in the space-time caused everyone to relive the past ten years, but they can only do exactly what they’ve already done.

Life of Pi – NOT a true story, don’t be fooled by the author’s note/introduction/whatever it is. Good book though. I recommend it.
Catching Fire – second book of the Hunger Games series, must read.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell, always interesting. I read it to try to get ideas for how to get people in my village involved in a health challenge. My health challenge didn’t really take off, but I still recommend the book.
The Happiness Project – Simple and fairly easy read, some good ideas and reflections.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – This was the first book that got the response of “I will always read whatever books you recommend to me.” MUST READ. I love Jonathan Saffran Foer, and I think this book is a little bit more easy to grasp than Everything is Illuminated. Both stories include multiple perspectives, both laugh-out-loud funny in places, and both moved me to tears.
Relentless Pursuit – A look at Teach For America. I liked it because it included stories from both TFA teachers, TFA higher ups, school administrators, and a history of the organization. Comprehensive, and having been both a volunteer and a staff member within the same organization (Women’s Resource Center in college), I like getting the full story from multiple perspectives best.

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha – RPCV story. She was in Africa at the turn of the century, 1998-2000 I think it was. Seemed to me like a general re-telling of her experience. More observation than reflection.
When Things Get Dark – Also an RPCV story, Mongolia 1999-2002 (he extended for a third year). The back cover promises it to be a riveting, shocking story about his dealing with alcoholism as a PCV, but it reads more like an attempt at a confessional without any real reflection. He includes sections about the history of Mongolia, which are nice to have, but don’t really add to the overall story.

The Great Gatsby – It’s the third time I’ve read this book, second time I’ve read it outside school, and I still feel like I’m missing the critical parts of the story. Some things just go way over my head. But I caught more this time, mostly because it was one of the books analyzed in Reading Lolita in Tehran, so I had a better idea of what to look for.
Push – WHOA. Heartbreaking, inspiring, intense…I loved the voice of the book

The Vampire Tapestry – Not so great, and not a big addition to the vampire genre. You don’t need to bother with this one.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I finished this book and asked myself, “What was the point?” Crazy stories, no real unifying sense to the book, I’ll probably just stick to the movie versions instead of reading it again

Dracula – What interests me most about Dracula is that Dracula seems to be THE authority of what a vampire is, and every other incarnation of vampires that I’ve come across always dismisses some part of Dracula as just a myth, or just a cover up, or whatever. Long book, but a great read.
Gone With the Wind – Another long book. Actually, a really, really long book. Fortunately, the story moves through most of the book, but near the end, I found myself thinking “When will it be over?”

American Taboo – highly recommended for currently serving PCVs, not recommended for people going into PC, and if you are friends/family back in the States waiting for the return of a PCV, do not read this book until they get back. If you want to read it at all. Don’t even Google it to see what it is about.
Twilight – guilty pleasure, quick and absorbing read.

The Unberable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. Second book I’ve read by him, I think I understood this one better. I consider him interesting, but I don’t know I would call it highly recommended.
Mockingjay – last book of the Hunger Games series. MUST READ.

New Moon
The Ponds of Kalambayi – third RPCV book I’ve read, and the first one I really liked. I felt I could relate to his account of PC service, even though he was in Africa in the 80s and had a motorcycle. Highly recommended.

Breaking Dawn

Through Painted Deserts – interesting book. Felt slow and tangential at places, but reflective and thought-provoking at others.
Dead Aid – book written by a female African Economist (educated at Harvard and Oxford) about how international aid perpetuates the cycle of poverty in Africa. Highly recommended for anyone interested in social justice, international, or governmental work.

But Do They Have Field Experience? – collection of stories from people who have worked in developing countries. Some are from PCVs, some are from people on international volunteer trips, some are from ambassador’s wives, very interesting.
Sway – This was the other one that earned me the “I will always read whatever books you recommend.” Quick, compelling read because the authors jump from one example to the next every 2 or 3 pages or so. Very interesting book, talks about why people make stupid decisions even though they know better.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – recommended for the Big Bang Theory audience. It’s about a guy who is a mechanic for time machines, then he gets stuck somewhere outside of time. Lots of wordplay (he likes to spend most of his time in the present indefinite tense), lots of cosmological concepts, confusing in places, and makes you slow down and think in other places.
Ender’s Game – Sci-fi about kids in battle games. Overall, I like it. However, I saw the ending coming from a mile off.

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