2020 in Books: A Review

In 2020, I read 67 books. 21 were non-fiction, 46 were fiction. Oooo, already I am pretty happy with myself since I did not think I had read that much non-fiction.

As I look at my non-fiction books more, I’m even happier since I read fewer memoirs than I thought. My favorite book was The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by Barry. It shot to the top of my to-read list in April, when I thought I should get better perspective on a historical pandemic. It’s really well-written, engaging, and informative. Learning about the disease spread and its likely start in Ft. Riley, Kansas were new information for me. It was also interesting that the incubation time was 48-72 hours, which meant that once it arrived at a place, it hit like a lightening strike. 5 stars, for sure!

Other recommendations from the year include She Said by Kantor and Twoley, Cork Dork by Bosker, Poor Economics by Banerjee and Duflo, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Wilkerson. And if you want a totally satisfying memoir in the beach readiest of ways, try Open Book by Jessica Simpson.

For 2021, I would like to read a more “educational” non-fiction book every month that broadens my knowledge base and academic frame of reference. I’m going to focus on the Navy Surgeon General’s list and Bill Gates’ book blog, but I’m open to other suggestions!

Fiction reading is my joy and if I scroll a little less on my phone, I anticipate even more reading in 2021. I gave myself a little grace to be mindless during parts of 2020 but it’s time to shape up!

On my year in review post, I listed all of my five star reads: Olive, Again by Strout; The Dearly Beloved by Wall; City of Girls by Gilbert; Celine by Heller; Writers & Lovers by King; Milkman by Burns; Deacon King Kong by McBride; Girl, Woman, Other by Evarist.

For Olive Again, I would definitely recommend reading Olive Kitteredge first. I really liked this character- a prickly, off-putting, stoic Maine woman. It reminded me of a more modern Ethan Frome where, due to upbringing and temperament, the character suffers because of how much is left unsaid. In Olive’s case, there is also the addition of what is said is often said in a less-than-constructive way. [By the way, I should have started off saying that I am the worst at describing books in a manner that would make people want to read them. But then this paragraph would have made such a warning redundant.]

The Dearly Beloved was a really thoughtful book on two married couples over several decades. The two husbands are co-ministers at a church, while the wives are as different as me and my college roommate (very). I loved the character of Lily Barrett, but all four members of the quartet are well-developed and complex.

City of Girls was a surprise to me since I find Elizabeth Gilbert slightly insufferable in her non-fiction (Eat, Pray, Love anyone?). This novel was well-told, frothy, and fun. I recommend!

Celine might be my favorite book of the year. This sporadically employed private investigator is a feisty, formidable woman in her 70s with COPD but she can still take on bikers in a bar! I so wish that there was a series based on this character but alas, this book is a one and only (so far!). I do like other Peter Heller books but this is tops for me!

Writers & Lovers opened my eyes to how good a writer Lily King is. The main character Casey is 31 and basically, just trying to figure it out. The writing is excellent and I really like it. There are few unlikeable characters, but none fully demonized which is pretty true to life, right?

Milkman is a similarly themed book of a young woman trying to figure it out but set in the time of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Since I had read Say Nothing by Keefe earlier in the year, I had a pretty rich historical context while reading this novel. It may be a little too dreamy and “literature-y” for some, but still, it was a five star for me!

Deacon King Kong features several characters in inner city 1960s Brooklyn. While there are some heavy themes and circumstances, the book is also hilarious. The title’s character ability to get himself into trouble but then somehow comically escape his fated comuppance/score-settling is laugh-out-loud funny.

Girl, Woman, Other starts as several loosely tied stories featuring a different protagonist before tightening up over the course of the book and becoming a pretty cohesive whole. I almost lost the thread a few times but ultimately, thought the book was fantastic.

So, the above fiction books are listed in order read through the year. If I had to rank them (tough for me!), I would say…

  1. Céline by Peter Heller
  2. The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
  3. Writers & Lovers by Lily King
  4. Deacon King Kong by James McBride

But ask me again tomorrow, I may have a different order!

Best Books of 2015: My picks

2015 was a pretty good year for books.  My total number came in at 33, which isn’t terrible but I thought I had read more.  I guess that’s the surgeon in me- always inflating my numbers!  I’ve included the full list below, which is roughly in sequential order of my reading.  I searched my Kindle list since I download most of my books from the e-library.  I prefer actual books but the portability, ubiquity and weight of my iPhone/Kindle app make the e-versions my everyday go-to.

Picking favorites is always hard for me. I’m much more of a fiction-reader, but I tried to expand my horizons a bit this year.  For 2016, there is a lot heavier emphasis on non-fiction thanks to a few recommendation lists I came across during some of my end-of-the-year research/reflection (post coming soon!).

This year, I have four fiction recommendations:

1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard Flanagan
     This excellent book follows a former Australian POW captured by the Japanese and sent work on the Great Burma Railroad.  It switches among several different times as it looks backwards on Dr. Dorrigo Evans life.  The unexpected inter-relationships among the characters and the plot structure to a horrible climactic event in the work camp are masterfully executed, even if parts of the story itself are horror-inducing.
2. The Bone Clocks David Mitchell
  I love David Mitchell.  I have read almost all of his books and even though I’m not a super-fan enough to recognize all the cameos different characters play in his novels, his attention to detail and clear vision of his body of work as a magnum opus is very impressive.  I really liked the story even though it was a little more fantasy genre-like than I usually read.  
3. The Invisible Bridge Julie Orringer
  There was a lot of WWII reading this year.  I also tried reading The Nightingale after The Invisible Bridge but I thought the books were too similar, head injury to the main character and all.  The Invisible Bridge follows three Hungarian Jewish brothers in the years leading up to and including WWII.  It was a stark reminder, in fictional form, that history is made up of the seemingly mundane everyday events that can only be seen as a cohesive, comprehensible narrative in retrospect.   
4. Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel
  This was a much-buzzed about book early in the year and an enjoyable, well-written read.  Nothing too profound but at the same time, not trashy chick-lit literature either.

I have three non-fiction recommendations:

1. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette Hampton Sides
  This book was amazing.  It’s a great story and the story-telling is superb.  What kept crossing my mind as I read it was, “How is this book even possible?” meaning, how did the first-person documentation in the form of crew logs survive when almost certainly, not everyone would live after this misadventure?  To find out how, read the book!  I won’t spoil it for you and this is a definite must-read!
2. On Immunity Eula Biss
  Some interesting insights into the thought processes of choosing to vaccinate children.  To me, it’s a no-brainer but there are interesting examinations of the domestication and false benign-ness of all things “natural” vs. the complexity of the modern world and science.  In addition, there is an interesting reflection on how the world of complementary medicine has very reassuring, straight-forward language (cleanse, natural, detoxify) while the language of modern medicine is more nuanced and less reassuring (complications, side effects).
3. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Susannah Cahalan
  Thank you sister for my Christmas gift.  This is an easy read and very interesting from both a medical mystery perspective (paging Dr. House) and the fact that our brains are so complex and, at times, terrifyingly fragile to seemingly little insults.

The books can be roughly grouped.  First, to counter-act the high-mindedness of the recs above, I definitely read some beach worthy, chick lit reads.  This is the year I discovered Liane Moriarty and I’m not ashamed!  The best is Big Little Lies.  There are some heavy themes addressed but overall, it’s a really nice read that passes along quickly.  I also read Kevin Kwan’s two books, which were a fascinating, fictional insider’s view to the world of Eastern Asia’s super-super-rich.  Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series was a fun fiction-within-fiction read and also worth reading, especially if you have a background in reading a lot of classics (hello high school reading lists!).

I also read a few comedians’ books, which I really liked despite not having any in my top recommendations.  BJ Novak’s short stories were great and very heavy on the irony.  Is it irony if it’s completely in your face?  I thought there should be an element of subtlety but sometimes, it hits across the face like a baseball bat.

I also read a few memoirs this year, which were all very well done.  I liked Dr. Marsh’s reflections on medical complications but I wish there was more reflection on how to transition from committing the complication to living with it.  In fairness, he did liken it to an open wound healing to a permanent scar but how does one actually live through and process that transition?  It’s something I’m grappling with in my own medical career and any guidance is always appreciated.

Ok, I’m going to wind down with the complete list because this post is getting ridiculously long.  In short, there are no real turkeys on the list below.  [ETA:  The previous statement is a lie!  I would not recommend Pretty Girls!]  I hope 2016 brings you some fun, worthwhile reading in the days ahead!

The complete list
Yes Please Amy Poehler
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr
The Bone Clocks David Mitchell
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austin
Big Little Lies Liane Moriarty
The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty
Three Wishes Leane Moriarty
Redeployment Phil Klay
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories BJ Novak
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette Hampton Sides
Crazy Rich Asians Kevin Kwan
The Narrow Road to the Deep North Richard Flanagan
The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Book 1) Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel
The Martian Andy Weir
The Invisible Bridge Julie Orringer
China Rich Girlfriend Kevin Kwan
The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel Jasper Fforde
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels Jasper Fforde
The Heart and the Fist: The education of a humanitarian Eric Greitens
Something Rotten Jasper Fforde
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot
Food: A Love Story Jim Gaffigan
The Knockoff Lucy Sykes
The Glass Castle: A Memoir Jeannette Walls
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Eric Larson
Pretty Girls Karin Slaughter
Shotgun Lovesongs Nickolas Butler

Do No Harm Henry Marsh
Art of Fielding Chad Harbach
On Immunity Eula Biss
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Susannah Cahalan
The Rosie Effect Graeme Simsion

What I’ve been reading…

Compared to my pleasure reading amount over the past few years, I have been binge reading lately and loving it.  Of course, if my Dad reads this post, he’ll say, “But where are the classics?!?!?”  Right here, Dad, right here.  Well, maybe not but I’ve enjoyed (mostly) all of them and here’s my little synopsis.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn: Ok, let’s get this one out of the way first.  I read this book based on the Powell’s Bookstore list of 25 Books to Read Before You Die and based on this one, I’m going to say nope, nope, nope.  The book is set in the present, but mainly focuses on the Binewski family carnival in the form of flashback.  The story is told by Oly, one of the daughters.   She is the most ordinary of the five children and she is a albino hunch-backed dwarf.  Her parents, you see, conceived all of their children with the purposeful intent of creating little freaks, which mainly meant that the Mom took lots and lots of drugs.  The story has several strands but unifies around the main story of Oly’s relationship with her brother Arty, a megalomaniacal, narcissistic boy with flippers for arms and legs.  He is truly one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever read in fiction and was just a huge “ick” factor through the whole book.  It kept getting worse too…he’s truly a character to revile.  I didn’t like this book but it was like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from so I finished it.  Also, the part of the story set in the present…meh.  It,too, was purposefully weird, but it wasn’t too hard to see intention of drawing parallels between Mary Lick and Arty but it still didn’t make me care about either of those two characters.
Recommendation: Be careful of Powell Bookstore recommendations.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: This young adult book about two kids who don’t fit in at school in his/her own special way find each other and fall in love.  The book is fine and a sweet testament to the validity of first loves and high school loves, which may be trivialized as we reach our “wiser” adulthoods.  The most standout portion of the book to me was where she cuts off contact to Park for a certain period of time and reminded me of the main character in Americannah not writing to her love after an incident America.  In both cases, I wanted to tell the characters, “No, it’s ok!  Don’t wall yourself off!”  But it’s a book and books do what’s been foretold.
Recommendation: Good, but it’s definitely a Young Adults book which I didn’t realize when I read it.

The Circle by Dave Eggers: An insecure woman goes to work for a Facebook/Google megalith company and manages to find insane success within her workplace but only at the expense of everything’s that’s real- family, friends, privacy.  The book is a dystopian novel focusing on the incredible, insidious pervasiveness of social media in our lives.  The worst part of it is that we willingly acquiesce to our loss of privacy and real connections, except for some true stand-up individuals.  Who die.  This book kept me off Facebook for a few days but then like a little addicted lemming, I’m using it again but conscientiously!
Recommendation: It’s not anything you couldn’t read in editorial form in a newspaper nostalgically bemoaning the way it was.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman:  This book was good but the TV show is so great that it was hard to compare.  I thought her discussion of the current imprisonment statistics and minimum sentencing requirements was interesting but I would get more out of it in a more academic book rather than a memoir trying to add gravitas and relevance.
Recommendation: Watch the series!

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami: I loved this book.  I loved what he said about exercise, running, habits and life.  The organization is the beautiful series of narratives that are like an interlocking chain, lazily progressing to the narrative finish line, which is the writer’s run in the NYC marathon and his final recollections after that race.
Recommendation: High

Wildwood by Colin Merlot: Written by the lead singer of The Decembrists, this book focuses on Prue, a young girl who lives in St John’s, Portland and must venture into the fantastical Wildwood to save her brother, who’s been carried off by the crows at the behest of the Dowager Countess.  This book is a pleasant read but not enough that I feel the need to read the sequel.
Recommendation: Sure, why not?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: If I haven’t put myself in permanent timeout with my book club because of recommending Geek Love, I’m going to recommend this book.  The book is told through June Elbus, a 14 year old girl who is grappling with the recent death of her beloved uncle from AIDS in the late 1980s, when fear and misunderstanding about the disease was still rampant.  While there are other books who have dealt with teen’s grief better (that was the biggest strength of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt), I was most captivated by the relationship between June and her older sister.  They had once been the best of friends but through misunderstandings, jealousy and the insecurities of being a teenager, they drifted apart into a dysfunctional dynamic that they seem powerless to stop, despite both of the wishing it were different.  Brunt does an excellent job of tapping into the complexities of being a young adult and while I identified with June in my own recollections of high school, her sister Greta was also a sympathetic character.  It’s one of those relationships where I wished everyone could just get together, have a sit-down and get it all out.  But life doesn’t work that way and relationships have to evolve and progress in fits and starts.
Recommendation: High, but it’s not the most intellectual book in the world

Whew and that’s it!  So, as you can see, I haven’t been overwhelmed by my recent reads but I also have to stop getting young adult recommendations from blogs!  Blog rec lists tend to focus on lighter reads, especially in the Summer when people are looking for beach reads.  Maybe I should listen to Dad and read! all! the! classics!

[BTW, I will definitely write a separate entry for Americanah by Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie.  That book was incredible!!!  I also enjoyed the non-fiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.]

For the First Time in Forever…

Ha, ha.  I am now on the unfortunate bandwagon of having Frozen songs stuck in my head.  But do you know what this means?  1. The 6-year old cool girl clique might accept me (wrong!  They’ve moved on to Sherman and Mr. Peabody!) and 2. I have time to watch movies again!  Hooray!  Boards are over!

So, yes, I watched Frozen on the way back to Japan.  I also saw Philomena and started Silver Linings Playbook but since I didn’t like the book all that much, I didn’t want to spend another two hours of my life on the same story.  Philomena was excellent, though.  I’m also halfway through The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  It’s good, but I feel that I’m not the biggest Donna Tartt fan in the world.  Since I read in reviews that some people felt “meh” about The Goldfinch but loved her first book, I wanted to give it a try.  I’m definitely going to finish it but I’m not the biggest fan of novels that focus on the intellectual and emotional angst of New England liberal arts college students.  I already lived it, ha ha.  Another novel that falls into this category is The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides.  That, too, is a good book but not one I’d tell you to run out and get.  Actually, I’d recommend The Secret History more.

But backing up, I left on Saturday, 29 April.  I am fairly certain I missed the Sakura peak so on my way out, I took a little lame photo of a tree that was already in full-bloom.  This will not win any awards, but I didn’t want to get closer and miss my bus to Narita!

A picture doesn’t do it justice, ha ha.

I studied a lot on my flight and barely slept, like maybe 45 minutes.  This was a mistake.  I had the worst jet lag on this trip.  I haven’t had jet lag this badly since I was a kid when we moved to Spain.  Now, I think stress insomnia had a role but it was pretty horrific.  Even the night before the test, I went to bed around 10, woke up at 3, went back to bed at 5 and slept until 10.  So, fortunately, I got enough sleep quantity-wise the night before (and the night before that) my test, but until that point, I was running on 3-5 hours of sleep a night.  My brain did not function very well.

Or…maybe I was excited because I got to see SMS for 3 days in LA! Yes!  On a government ticket, a person can take up to 7 days of “extended layover!”  It’s charged as leave but I was so happy I got to see my husband!  We hung out in Newport Beach and had a great time.  He was super awesome in letting me sleep and study, although a lot of my studying was b/t midnight – 5 a.m. and sleeping was from 5-11 a.m.  (See above paragraph).

We also celebrated…my birthday!!!  I love my birthday!  I thought it was going to be a little bit of a wash this year, but SMS and I celebrated with a great dinner out at Fig & Olive in Newport Beach.  The dinner was amazingly delicious- we had oysters, steak tartare, branzino fish (“Glazed with fig & 18 year old balsamic vinegar, snow pea, fig, olive oil mashed potato-”  YUM!!!) and the Fig & Olive salad.  I swear this wasn’t as much food as it sounded but it was all so delicious and wonderful.  The restaurant felt very O.C. (lots of plastic surgery) and the people watching was pretty awesome.  After dinner, we headed to Marty and Pamela’s where they had bought me a birthday cake and we had a little party.  Yes!  I even had a cake with candles to blow out this year- awesome!

Also, for the record, I really do like celebrating my birthday on my birthday but this year, 31 March was an acceptable stand-in! 😉  Oooo, and you know what I just realized during this little recap?  I’ve been wanting to go to Fig & Olive for years!  But I only knew of the Melrose Place location.  Yay for accidental fulfillment of life (mini-)goals!

On 1 April, we had a nice morning and early afternoon together before heading out to LAX.  Then it was off to the lovely greater O’Hare airport area for my Osler Review Course and my *dun, dun, dun* BOARDS!

Holy Smokes!

So, one of my staff said that I would talk as if I were from the 1950s.  Now, this confused me because I think I curse like a modern-day sailor but what I suspect is that my Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books from my childhood influenced the words I say when I want to swear but feel like I can’t/shouldn’t.


Holy Smokes, I found such a delicious recipe!  It’s chocolate chili and it is so amazing.  I thought I wasn’t hungry tonight and I ate a bowl and a half while it was simmering.  Well, it was simmering until it was almost burning but then I added water and saved the day!  Oh my gosh, it is so savory and delicious.  I will definitely eat every last bite before I’m off to the US.  I don’t have a picture because even the professional-ish picture from the cooking blog makes it look like dog food.  But it’s delicious dog food!

Pretty much same old, same old.  I’m day-dreaming of the awesome reading binge I’m going to go on after the boards.  I’ll finally go to the Hospital Ladies book club.  I’ll play park golf with my friends and restart the Lonely Hearts supper club. [<–Two of my friends are also in the coupled-off-but-significant-other-not here demographic so we were having dinner together once a week.  Well, it happened twice.  But it was a good idea and we're going to revive it, yeah!]

I also have some pretty challenging/rewarding cases in April and the month is going to end with a week of leave so I can travel with my AWESOME PARENTS!!!!  I am so excited and the envy of all my friends.  My parents are the coolest and you can’t have them because they’re mine!  (And Ed’s, Brady’s and Joe’s- I can share a little bit:)

Oh, and books I want to read follow.  Share if you have any thoughts! [I can hear my Dad, “Where are the Classics?!?!?”]

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer