35 in 2015 : What I read this year

In January, I set up a challenge through Goodreads: to read 35 books in 2015. So here are my books—a snapshot of my literary consciousness this year!

1. A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith
My first book of 2015 was a leisurely choice, the prequel to Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. I was so moved by this absorbing novel that I wrote an extensive response (which you can read here). Suffice it to say that Smith’s beloved characters and lively prose are pretty addictive. I won’t tell you exactly how many times I’ve replayed the audiobook this year, but I will say it’s more than four. A Stranger to Command is a book I return to in stressful times; I love getting wrapped up again and again in this story.

2. Remalna’s Children by Sherwood Smith
Continuing my explorations of Smith’s fantasy universe, I choose this short book—which is actually two long short stories. If you’ve read any of Smith’s works, this addition is intriguing and delightful, adding to the Crown Duel story arc.

3. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World  by Claire Harman
This text was a fascinating look at how Austen’s work and reputation have been handled in and out of the academy. While some chapters were a little slow, Harman offers some interesting historical details about Austen’s relationship to money, Austen’s image, and Austen’s occasionally off-color correspondence.

4. Senrid by Sherwood Smith
Alas, a disappointing read. Possibly because this book collects some of Smith’s earliest work, it seems fragmented and a little silly. Though I enjoyed learning about Senrid, who makes an impressive appearance in A Stranger to Command, I did not enjoy this book overall. It is not a cohesive novel, but rather four separate parts which—and I use the term generously—fit together.

5. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
Since reading this book, I have purchased it for several friends and relatives. The Zanders (husband and wife) offer several principles for approaching difficult circumstances. Their anecdotes are far from the saccharine stuff of most self-help books. And the audio version of the text is well worth a listen. Because the Zanders co-authored the text, they take turns narrating, and Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, includes excerpts from the classical pieces he discusses.

6. Danse de la Folie by Sherwood Smith
This book is the first I’ve read of Smith’s forays into historical fiction—and it is superb! Set in Regency England, the book offers a lighthearted storyline and tons of jokes for literary devotees. From the naming of characters to the comments on Regency fashions, it’s obvious Smith has done the research to create this wonderful book.

7. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
If only I could make my students read this book! From Pinker’s brilliant chapter on the structure of sentences (where he introduces “the web, the string, and the tree”) to his intense, 100-page catalogue of the most hotly debated “errors” in Standard English, this text is comprehensively brilliant. Each chapter treats with a different aspect of what makes good writing: the sound of it, the level of complexity, the style, the grammar. I’d say that this text is more accessible than Pinker’s other works on linguistics, so if you’ve never indulged in his work before, start here.

8. His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) by Naomi Novik
This is another book that I keep on my iPhone at all times. Narrated by the talented Simon Vance, His Majesty’s Dragon is the first in the Temeraire series—which occupies about 20% of this list. It’s an excellent dip into Novik’s Napoleonic fantasy world, a world populated by intelligent, witty, mischievous dragons. Read my meditations on guide dogs and dragons here.

9. Throne of Jade (Temeraire #2) by Naomi Novik
I’ll keep my comments brief as I cover the remaining Temeraire novels on this list. In Book #2, the characters travel to China: it’s a strong sequel to the first in this series.

10. The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John McWhorter
From this delightfully snarky linguist comes a fascinating book on how languages work—debunking the pop linguistics ideals that are often most cherished. McWhorter’s sensible analysis asks us to turn our language myths on English and see if they hold true. This book is dense and complex, but it repays the reader’s effort.

11. Black Powder War (Temeraire #3) by Naomi Novik
In this third installment, the characters cover a lot of ground, returning to the battles of the Napoleonic War by way of Turkey. Again, Novik has created a thrilling tale—introducing new characters and adding dimension to the Temeraire universe.

12. Empire of Ivory (Temeraire #4) by Naomi Novik
Well, we’ve gotten to a Temeraire book I didn’t particularly enjoy. This one finds our characters in Africa. Though this one moves the story along, I don’t think it’s as strong as #1-3.

13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I decided to revisit an old classic this summer. I first read this book in high school, and I fell in love with Brontë’s tortured characters and metaphorical landscape. However, WH didn’t hold up to a second reading, I’m sad to say. I got irritated with Catherine’s antics and Heathcliff’s brooding. Perhaps this is a book that fits best with the tumult of adolescence.

14. Victory of Eagles (Temeraire #5) by Naomi Novik
An absolutely outstanding novel in this series! This book broke my heart, repaired it, warmed it, and broke it again! It’s totally worth suffering through #4 to get to #5!

15. Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6) by Naomi Novik
Another strong addition to the series, this novel finds our characters in Australia! It’s a little dreary in places, but I still enjoyed it.

16. The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare
A delightful exploration of canine consciousness, Hare’s book explains how dogs reason and what is important to them. I particularly enjoyed Hare’s history of genetics and his commentary on canine evolution.

17. Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of the Lord of the Rings by Mark Eddy Smith
This is the first book I’ve really despised in a long time. It’s nothing but a drawn-out, poorly written homily that uses Tolkien’s work for convenience. For one thing, the author commits one of my writerly pet peeves: using the word “spiritual” as code for “Christian.” If you mean Christian, just say so. Secondly, he provides only superficial commentary, mostly just reciting the plot of LOTR. For Tolkien fans and Christians alike, this book is a waste of time.

18. Crucible of Gold (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
This time, our characters have traveled to Brazil—and while the book offers fascinating descriptions of Brazilian culture, it’s not a bright spot in the series. I enjoyed it, but I’m unlikely to reread it.

19. French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle
Oh, I am never disappointed by Peter Mayle! I read  A Year in Provence in an undergraduate Faces of France class, and I’ve been hooked ever since. In this book, Mayle explores several interesting culinary traditions in France—from a festival of frogs’ legs to the creation of the Michelin guide. This book is an utter delight, recommended for foodies.

20. The Marseilles Caper by Peter Mayle
A witty, sun-drenched mystery novel set in the succulent city of Marseilles! Read it with a snack nearby! The audio version is particularly yummy; I like hearing someone else pronounce all the French words.

21. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
I learned so much from this book! Pollan’s prose is absorbing, and his references are extensive. I kept flipping to the bibliography and adding items to my Amazon wish list. The book is accessible, philosophical, and fun.

22. The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye
This book contains Frye’s six legendary essays on the purpose and vocation of literature. It’s essential reading for all English teachers and writers, and it’s edifying for everyone.

23. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Here is Novik’s attempt to write something other than Temeraire: she retells a Polish fairytale about a haunted wood, a sorcerer, and an unlikely heroine. My main complaint with this text is that it’s too long. There are several places where I expected the story to end, but it kept on going. The book has some truly beautiful passages and interesting characters, but I would rather it had covered less and told more. The story feels stretched and shallow to me.

24. Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire #8) by Naomi Novik
Another disappointment. This novel that attempts to tie up all the loose ends before the final Temeraire book (which won’t come out until next year). Strong style but weak plot here.

25. The Modern Scholar: The Anglo-Saxon World by Michael D.C. Drout
This “book” is technically one of Audible’s Great Courses, a series of 30-minute lectures centered on a theme. But if Goodreads calls it a book, I’ll call it one, too! If you’re an Old English nut like me, you’ll love this course. They provide rich background about the classics of Angl0-Saxon literature as well as explaining some language and history. Plus, Drout reads several texts aloud, and his pronunciation is admirable.

26. The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
I read this book with great sadness because it was the last one Pratchett worked on before his death. It bears the marks of this untimely composition; some elements of the story are not really fleshed out, and Pratchett’s morals are a little too close to the surface. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable.

27. You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation by Deborah Tannen
Though this book has some gems to offer, it’s not as enjoyable as Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Once you’ve read one Tannen book, it feels like you’ve read them all. Her research involves the same conversational matrix of competition and cooperation, which is fascinating, but this book seemed repetitive.

28. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
An enjoyable and succinct read with lots of cool anecdotes! Gilbert’s advice breaks the tradition of the tortured artist. Instead, she offers a refreshing portrait of an artist who is centered and productive.

29. Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson
Robinson is another writer who uses accessible prose and superb sources. This book tackles several issues in education and offers practical solution to each. It’s dense only because Robinson covers so much ground, dipping into educational history as well as current politics.

30. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Hilarious, engaging, and—believe it or not—educational! Ansari’s witty, flippant book on dating in the 21st century invokes a ton of legitimate psychological research. And for once, he’s not saying that we young people are doomed to intimacy-starved lives. Through research, he offers several solutions to the online dating conundrums and busy schedules we all face.

31. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
What an indulgent read! All writers and English teachers need to read this book—or better yet, listen to Norris read the audiobook. She tackles many of the serious language concerns covered in academic texts, but instead of dry research, she relies on her experience as a copy-editor for The New Yorker. After I finished this book, I was begging to be a Comma Queen.

32. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Since getting hooked on 30 Rock, I wanted to read this book—and I was not disappointed. Fey uses humor and stylish prose to address all kinds of issues: fame, feminism, politics. It’s an excellent memoir.

33. Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
Let’s just say I’m glad I borrowed this one from the library. I was disappointed. Rambling, disconnected, pandering, unremarkable. I think Ellen could do a lot better. I wouldn’t be proud of this book if I had written it.

34. Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol
Incredible. Kozol handles many of the most heartbreaking issues in education without losing hope. His book is a must-read for all teachers, parents, students, citizens. It’s so well done, rich with revelations.

35. The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to a Long and Happy Life by Noble Smith
Now here’s an author who knows how to write about Tolkien—with humor, thoughtfulness, and respect. This little book is enjoyable and informative; I picked up a few Tolkien tidbits from its pages!

So what’s on the shelf for next year? Probably more linguistics, nature writing, biographies, and food writing. And of course, that ninth Temeraire book. I’ve also resolved to read more poetry.

What would you add to the list?

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