52 Books in 52 Weeks of 2010

2010 Year in Review!

Some said I couldn’t do it. Heck, I even thought I was pretty crazy to tackle this project with all the living I have going on! But read a book a week I did and I absolutely loved it! So what does a book a week, every week for 52 weeks broken down look like? Well, let me tell you:

I actually read 54 books, thanks to a summer vacation. Of those 54…
  • 15 were memoirs
  • 13 were fiction
  • 7 were non-fiction
  • 7 were children’s
  • 4 were mysteries
  • 2 graphic novels
  • 2 were books of poetry
  • 1 each of: short stories, business, play or other type of book
  • 2 were Pulitzer Prize Winners 2 were National Book Award Winners

That adds up to a whopping 13,119 pages! And how did all those rate? Let me tell you:

  • I rated 17 of them 5 stars
  • 16 of them 4 stars
  • 3 stars went to another 16 of them
  • 4 of them got 2 stars
  • Franny and Zooey, my least favorite of the bunch, got 1 star
And my absolute favorites of the year? If I had to pick:
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks would take best non-fiction
  • My favorite fiction would go to The Shadow of the Wind.
  • Since the kiddo was a part of this too, my favorite Children’s would have to be The Quiet Book.

What a year! While it can easily be summed up in just a few words and numbers, this project was like nothing I ever undertook before. The real impact can be found here.

Thanks to all of you who read my blog and hopefully read along with me — whatever books tickled your fancy.

I will be back tomorrow with my proposed reading list for 2011 (can’t imagine trapping myself at the start of the year, but I also can’t imagine needing to find a book that starts with Q at the last minute)!

Have a safe and happy new year. One full of adventure and lots of reading!

Week 52: How Reading Changed My Life – Anna Quindlen

This week has been a gloomy and doomy weather week. Bitter cold temperatures for our desert clime: rain, wind and some even said they saw snow! While I didn’t see any, I saw perfect weather for curling up with a good book; fitting that this is the last week of my book-a-week project. It also seemed rather fitting that during this last week of gray skies and personal contentment that I slide How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen off the shelf. Not sure how it took me so long to read this book that I have owned for a few years and yet it’s a bit serendipitous stumbling upon it now after a year of doing more reading than I have ever done before.

How Reading Changed My Life is lifelong reader and Pulitzer-prize winning writer Anna Quindlen’s account of her most favorite of pastimes. Reading trumped everything for Quindlen, and for that I felt an instant kinship.

“I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement or even learning. I read because I loved it more than anything other activity on earth.”

Many of my current friends can’t imagine me as a shy or quiet person, yet reading was my primary activity of choice up until high school theater pulled me in. Prior to that I had a very small circle of friends, preferring one-on-one interactions over large groups. Looking back I recall Barbara, a girl who preferred her nose in a book rather than sparking up a conversation… a perfect pal! We were bus riding friends, always saving a seat for one another, respecting each other’s quiet ride to school, only the rustle of a page turned passed between us. And even now, years out that quiet and insular shell, I love to read more than I love to do most anything else.

Quindlen shares not just her love of reading and the importance that various books have played in her life, but the value of connection found in reading–especially among women.

“Women seem to see reading not only as a solitary activity, but an an opportunity for emotional connection, not just to the characters in a novel but to those others who are reading or have read the same novel themselves.”

Is that really surprising, though? Just look at the number of book clubs that have sprung up in recent years. Almost everyone I know is in a book club or knows someone who is. My own club has been going strong for over seven years and it is for all of us, one of our most looked-forward to and favorite “me” times of the month. The diversion it creates away from work, children, partners, chores, bills and all the other to-dos gives us opportunity not just to catch up, but to escape for a few hours and talk intelligently, passionately, with no holds barred or judgements rendered on the opinions we share about the book we have just read.

Also not surprising is the popularity of book clubs (and reading in general) amongst women. This is not the same, Quindlen states, for men. She pulls some interesting, although not shocking, data from a 1991 Gallup poll on the differences men and women share regarding reading:

  • Women are more likely to find reading a more relaxing pastime than watching television.
  • College-educated women reported reading an average of 25 books over the space of a year… men only 15.

She goes on to interview bookstore owners, uncovering that women are more likely to read novels, versus men who pick up more biographies and historical books. Just another example of the different ways women and men are wired.

As I flipped through the pages and began taking notes of some of Quindlen’s recommended reading, I began to think about how reading has changed my own life. Certainly, as I was a young adult, it was pure escapism and comfort. In college, my reading for pleasure all but disappeared and was replaced by the large text books, carried in a backpack or satchel that bore a deep indentation on my right shoulder. It wasn’t until 2003, and nine years after college, that I really returned to my childhood love of reading. I proposed the idea of dining and dishing on books to some friends, and on a whim we started a book club. Not only have I read some fantastic books, but I have made and kept some fabulous friendships. Books are one of my favorite topics of conversations and is one of the things that bonds me and some of my closest friends. Truth be told, I probably won’t trust you if you don’t have books–even a single book–in your life.

Over the years, reading has indeed changed my life. It changes the life of everyone I know that does it. When the structure of the words on the page bring tears to your eyes, remind you that you are not alone, or make you laugh so hard your stomach aches, you have been changed in the simplest and most profound ways.

I couldn’t have guessed what a single year of reading a book each week would do for me, but it did more than I could have imagined. Sure I watched less television, but surprisingly, it didn’t cut into my time with the kiddo, my friends or other pastimes. I felt more connected to others (my kiddo and book-loving blogging partner, in particular) this year, more objective and empathetic. Just being exposed to so many different people and circumstances inhabited in the many pages I devoured (over 13,000) will do that for you.

So many people wondered why I would take something like this on, offered me encouragement and praise or lamented they too should read more. I think you all know that I would never discourage anyone from picking up a book; I will always think there’s value in doing that. But the reality is, anyone who embarks on any kind of personal project needs to do so with a real affinity for what they are undertaking and not because the “feel they should.” But just know, that if you do decide to boost your reading, even if only by one book, it will change you.

Grade: 5 stars
Pages: 96
Genre: Memoir

Week 51: Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer – Robert Swartwood

It’s confession time again. And if you are keeping track, this is my fourth confession to date. I needed an easy read this week, the week of Christmas and all; and I didn’t want to skate by on another book of poem’s or kiddie lit. So I did the next easiest thing: I picked up Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer compiled by Robert Swartwood.

Hint fiction? What the heck is that? Yeah, I scratched my head too. But when I saw that it was super short stories, micro even, I was intrigued and confident that this would be perfect for a holiday filled week. I was right on one account, it was easy to get through; I’m pretty certain, however, hint fiction is not my new favorite go-to genre.

According to Swartwood’s Shorter is Better column at The Daily Beast:

“Hint fiction is a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.”

In the book’s introduction, by far the most verbose section of the book, he goes on to say that hint fiction should “tell a story; it should be entertaining; it should be thought-provoking; and, if done well enough, it should invoke and emotional response.”

If a writer can do that in 25,00 words, let alone a mere 25!, I would say that is quite an achievement. And, some of the stories captured here do just that for me. Yet even though they did, I am still feeling conflicted about this book. I don’t think it’s one to sit down and read the whole way through, the way you would a book of fiction. I am certain some of these hints require as much time for processing and reflection as they did in their final construction. Knowing how long I sometimes spend on these posts, I can’t imagine the time and patience it would take these writers, some well known and others I couldn’t place, to string together a handful of words in just the right way to do all the things that Swartwood says they should.

Despite this conflict, some of the stories did elicit various emotions from me… humor, disgust, contentment and surprise… to name a few. And some even had me wishing there was more. So many more, though, were just okay. At the end of the day, and nearing the very end of this project, I am glad I exposed myself to this new art form–its longevity within the literary landscape remains to be seen.

Rating: 2 stars
Pages: 188
Genre: Fiction

Week 50: The Spirit of Christmas – Nancy Tillman

I have always loved Christmas. It’s absolutely-without-a-doubt my favorite holiday of the year. The twinkly lights, beautiful songs, delicious food, parties and get-togethers, finding the perfect gift, time off and all that goes into getting ready for Christmas are all things I look forward to. Sure there’s the stress of the holiday and the anxiety around getting everything done (some years I do, some not so much). And even now as a mother, I admit, I have lost a little sight on the the true gift of Christmas as I search for that “one” toy the kiddo wants (and throwing a few extra things under the tree while I am at it).

In the nick of time, however, a special surprise arrived when we received The Spirit of Christmas by Nancy Tillman (a gift from my parents). It’s a gorgeous book with unique and wonderful illustrations and a story that anyone who celebrates Christmas can appreciate. The spirit of Christmas, Tillman writes, is love.This is an especially important message for me this year as it is the first year of just me and the kiddo for Christmas. My other immediate family is all out of state. Fortunately, we do a pretty good job bridging the distance and staying connected. The Spirit of Christmas, in just a few short pages, reminded me that it’s not important to check every item off my list this month, but the connection I have with the kiddo and my loved ones.

I mean, isn’t that obvious? Sure it is… when you take a minute to slow down, take some deep breaths and are willing to say “no” to the next thing asked of you.

The Spirit of Christmas was a great interruption to the hustle and bustle I have been feeling lately. I think I got a little more out of it than the kiddo did. And, that’s okay. The Spirit of Christmas is now officially one of the holiday to-do’s that must be read each year at the start of the season and maybe even a few times during it.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 32
Genre: Children’s

Week 49: Holidays on Ice – David Sedaris

The holiday season is rapidly approaching and this week I have a perfect little book for those of you feeling a tad naughty this year. David Sedaris, a master of satirical comedy, updated his 1997 classic Holidays on Ice this year with the original stories and a few more thrown in for good cheer.

I read the original Holidays on Ice back in 1997 and absolutely laughed the whole way through it. The Santa Land Diaries is by far the strongest story of the lot, which recounts Sedaris’ work as an elf at Macy’s Santa Land. It is hard to keep a straight face reading about the Macy’s elf culture and rules regarding their costumes:

“…don’t tell me ‘I don’t wear underpants, I’m a dancer.’ You’re not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn’t be here. You’re an elf and you’re going to wear panties like an elf.”

In addition to the humor, Sedaris is full of shock and awe when he shares the lengths parents will go to in order to save a place in line for their child’s moment with Santa:
“I saw a woman unzip her son’s fly, release his penis, and instruct him to pee into a bank of artificial snow. He was a young child, four or five years old, and he did it, he peed.”
My favorite stories remain the original six, with Seasons Greeting to our Family and Friends, Based Upon a True Story, Christmas Means Giving and Dinah, the Christmas Whore being my favorites along with The Santa Land Diaries. I didn’t love the additions, and I am not quite sure if that’s because this is mostly a reread for me. Kind of like when you hear a song for the first time and can’t every really like the cover version as much as the original. Whatever it is, Holidays on Ice remains classic Christmas humor on the edge. And I will warn you; it is not for the faint at heart, nor is it for those who only have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Holidays on Ice is a bit rough, a bit tough and a lot funny. If you like your egg nog spiked and like your humor gritty, curl up and cool off with Holidays on Ice.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 176
Genre: Essays

Week 48: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Ever read a book that you can’t stop talking about it–even before you have finished it? Then once you have finished it, the chatting up really begins? You are recommending it to everyone you encounter, reader or otherwise, and then you have spent so much time talking about it that you kinda forgot to review it on your blog because you have talked about it so much you felt like you have already reviewed it, extolling its greatness from the rooftops… or at least by the water cooler at work? Well, this blabbermouth is finally sitting down and making her recommendation official. The book I just can’t stop talking about is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.I don’t care who you are or what you do. I don’t care what you like to read and what you don’t like to read; I just really hope you read. And when you do, you should read this book. (Really I do care; this tough talk just helps me make my point all the more strongly).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the stunningly true story of a young, black woman growing up in the Baltimore area. Henrietta came from a long line of poor black tobacco farmers without formal education or any real financial means. When illness struck, they relied on the trust and generosity of Johns Hopkins to provide care, at no cost–a trust that was broken when Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in her early thirties.

What Henrietta and her family didn’t realize (for years), was in turn for her care and treatment, doctors retained samples of her cells and tissue upon her death. These specimens were not obtained through informed consent. And unbeknownst to anyone, these specimens would literally change the course of medical history.

Henrietta’s cell and tissue samples were the first that could be maintained and reproduced outside of the human body. Not only did they stay alive, they multiplied at a never-before-seen rate. Her cells were shared with scientists around the world and brought about advancements such as the vaccine for Polio, an understanding of HPV and other cancers as well as other women’s health issues. Completely unaware of their mother’s contribution to science, for many years Henrietta’s descendants were (and still are) living without even basic medical coverage. Ironic, isn’t it?

Have I hooked you yet? If I haven’t, consider this: Henrietta’s cell research (which still goes on today) brought to light serious and ethical concerns around medical consent, the need of specimens for advancements in medicine and whether or not individuals or their families should be compensated for providing or donating cell or tissue samples that lead to cures and medical advancements. The medical community is split on the issue and even after reading this wonderful book, I am not sure where I stand. I know that Henrietta and her family had a right to know her cells were being used. I also know that her family–especially her family (and everyone in the country for that matter)–should have access to medical care delivered by providers they can trust.

As a liberal arts minded person with no penchant for anything to do with math or science, I never would have guessed I would have devoured a book like this. Thanks to Skloot’s extensive research, compassion for the Lacks family and storytelling talents, I couldn’t put it down. The book alternates chapters between Henrietta and her family’s lives and the science and medical communities’ use of her cells for personal and professional gain. The perceptions and opinions the Lacks family has today of the medical community is understandably complicated. But for once, someone told Henrietta’s story truthfully, and for that the Lacks have found a small piece of peace and honor for the woman they hardly knew.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 384
Genre: Non-fiction

Week 47: Hug Time – Patrick McDonnell

It’s Thanksgiving week and there’s so much for which I am grateful, the least of which is extra time! But with extra time that actually means less time for reading and more time for equally important activities like connecting with family and friends, hitting the movie theater, sleeping in, playing games, and all things that a holiday weekend is meant to hold.

Thankfully, I had Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell on hand. This delightful little book was a great way to share relaxing moment with the kiddo and keep my reading on track for the project.

Hug Time centers on Jules, a cute kitty that wants to hug everyone. He makes a list, heads out the door and all over the world, to brighten the day of others with a simple hug. As you can imagine, his friends aren’t the only ones who benefit from such a sweet and simple act of generosity.

McDonnell has written and illustrated Hug Time as he has a number of other children’s books. This is my second McDonnell book and it’s a second winner. I plan on checking out more of his stories that focus on the simple yet most important things we can focus on. You should, too.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 44
Genre: Children’s

Week 46: Stitches: A Memoir – David Small

This week I am back to my favorite new genre, the Graphic Novel, discovered while undertaking this weekly reading challenge! No matter that it’s really the only new genre I have tried all year. It’s also no matter that it’s only the second time I have read from this genre. I mean who’s keeping score? Okay, I am. And at the end of the year I am going to have this wicked cool post full of stats and numbers (or as many stats and numbers that a Communications major can muster) and my fellow book nerds are going to love it and some will think it’s dumb and that’s okay, too.

So, not only being a new genre for me, it’s a new one for the old book club. It’s my turn to host in December and when you are the host, you hold the power to either mandate or offer up some selections from which the group can vote. I decided to shake things up and present three choices, all graphic memoirs. There were a some eager smiles, a few perplexing hmmmmms and even a couple of she-might-be-crazy-to-think-I am-reading-a-what?-an-adult-comic-book?-helllllls-no.

So after everyone softened their gazes and started reading the summaries, the majority settled on Stitches: A Memoir by David Small. While I am not one to gloat It should be noted that two book club members e-mailed me within the last couple of weeks to say they had never read a graphic novel and were pleasantly surprised with Stitches. Now that I have read this 2009 National Book Award winner, I can say that I was as well.

Stitches is the shocking look at a brief, yet life altering period, in David Small’s life. Born to a radiologist father and a homemaker mother, Small grew up in a household that communicated with bangs, slaps, claps and grunts. Communication was completely controlled by the parents (when they communicated at all) and the house was cold and quiet, devoid of any love and affection. When David was just six years old, he developed multiple sinus infections, which his father chose to monitor and evaluate with x-rays. This repeated exposure caused Small to develop throat cancer and required two serious operations on his throat. Complicating matters (more than your own father giving you cancer is complicating) was the fact that Small was never told why he needed surgery. It was only after the second procedure caused him to lose his voice–and what we can guess was years of guilt–that his father confessed.

As wordless as the Small household was, Stitches is almost as quiet. Relying on his tremendous illustrative talent, Small effectively takes the reader through this fear and anger-filled time in his life with compelling imagery and few words. While there are certainly enough issues with Small’s dad to write a book, his mother is a significant contributor to the family’s dysfunction. We learn little about Small’s brother and the story did leave me asking a few more questions than I would have hoped. Despite this, I absolutely loved the way Small uses his ability to draw to present his story. It’s the illustrating (and years with a caring counselor) that enables Small to actually find his voice.

I think it is awesome when someone can write a book or draw even a single picture. But if you can do both? At the same time? That’s ridiculous talent. Seriously. I now officially get why this is an emerging arena for creatives that have the ability to story tell in different ways. It’s no surprise after reading this to learn that Small is now an accomplished illustrator, having won awards for his work on children’s books. His talent is obvious. His story completely fascinating, ultimately redemptive and uniquely his own.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 336
Genre: Graphic Novel

Week 45: The Middle Place – Kelly Corrigan

After reading LIFT by Kelly Corrigan, I was seriously jonesing (does anyone say that anymore? I guess I do) to pick up her first book, THE MIDDLE PLACE. After last week’s book club selection, I wasted no time cracking it open and I am not sure I even put it down once I started.

THE MIDDLE PLACE tackles Corrigan’s battle with breast cancer as a 37 year old mother with two young girls and a doting husband. If that’s not enough, it’s during her course of chemotherapy and radiation that her first love, her adoring and delightful father, is diagnosed with cancer as well.

Dreary and teary, right? Wrong.

Well, a little teary. It is cancer we are talking about. But mostly it’s just a wonderful account of what it means to be a family, and specifically the relationship a daughter can have with her father. And that she, in turn, can create in her own life with her own husband and children.

George Corrigan is in a word, life. He’s exuberant and positive and Corrigan’s biggest fan. To read how she describes her father’s love and support of family, you can actually feel the love coming through the pages. And before this sounds hokey and corny and too good to be true, Corrigan is just so cool. She shoots straight and bares her soul in a way that your heart aches when she’s scared and you laugh as loudly as you expect her to in the many laugh-out-loud moments in the book.

And then there’s Edward, Corrigan’s husband. Edward is a great partner, and supportive husband committed to helping his wife through this disease and remaining a positive and united front with Corrigan as they work through her nausea, physical wear down and hair loss with Georgia (4) and Claire (2). While I certainly hope to never experience cancer, I would totally want an Edward on my team and by my side.

We often hear how important it is that we have positive relationships in our lives. That attitude is a significant contributor to our health and and well-being. It can even help ward off disease. And with a family like Corrigan’s, you can’t help but wonder if that’s true. The perspective they all bring to life’s obstacles–to face it head on and assume the best outcome–is refreshing. Corrigan actually sums this up in the very beginning of her book when describing her father:

“I think people like him because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed–by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake–guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him… People walk away from him feeling like they’re on their game, even if they suspect that he put them there.”

Imagine if we treated every person like they have something wonderful to bring to the table. No matter how small, it would be significant. We could see value in each person we encountered. While we all don’t have the opportunity to meet George Corrigan, as she recommends at the book’s beginning, Corrigan has done the next best thing in writing this love letter to her family and her father for all the world to read.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 288
Genre: Memoir

Week 44: How to Be an American Housewife – Margaret Dilloway

This week’s pick comes courtesy of my book club, a group of dynamic women that have met for over six years and actually talk about the books we read. Oh sure we fit in the offshoots and the tangents where art imitates life, or catch up on work, lack of work, significant others, or a lack of others that are truly significant, and then we find our way back to the book, for better or worse. This month, it was for better, because not only was HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE by Margaret Dilloway a great read, but we also got to talk to the author during our monthly ritual of dining and dishing.

HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE shares the story of a mother and daughter, clashing the way mother’s and daughters can, but it also adds the element of a culture clash. Shoko, the mother, and the narrator of the first half of the book is a Japanese woman who marries an American serviceman to escape her war torn country. Leaving behind the mother and father who encouraged her and a brother from whom she is estranged, she sets up house in California and struggles to fit in with other servicemember wives. Her story begins in the present day, a time when Shoko’s health is failing her and she needs the help of her now-grown daughter Sue.

Sue, a first-generation Japanese-American and the focus of the book’s second half, is a single mother always in search of her mother’s approval while just going through the motions in a job and life that lacks both passion and direction. Struggling to connect with her mother, it’s this very personal request that brings the two closer and bridges years of disconnect between the two.

One of the strengths of Dilloway’s writing is the authentic feel she brings to the the dialogue between Shoko and Sue. As I reader I could experience the tension between Shoko and Sue, so common between mothers and daughters, and the moments of connection and happiness. The book’s authenticity is also driven by Dalloway’s own experiences with her Japanese mother and the dialect she brought to Shoko’s character.

My only struggle with the book was one characters rapid development, which seemed a bit too fast for all that was going on in the story. Certainly not a deal breaker, all of the other elements made for an enjoyable read, lively discussion and interesting perspectives from Dilloway herself during our book club conversation. Her favorite book is Little Women and she enjoys books the depict the realist struggles people experience, while keeping faith and hope alive despite the circumstances. I think the same can be said for HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE.

Dilloway generously makes herself available for book club discussions, just check out her blog to find out how.

Rating: 4 stars
Pages: 288
Genre: Fiction