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My reading goal last year was ridiculous, I admit. I wanted to read 50 books in the year 2016 in a burst of driven enthusiasm. I ended up reading 45. I want to be clear that this was only accomplished by choosing slimmer books with smaller page counts and I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction for this year’s goal, choosing a mere 10 books, in order to allow myself to read longer books at a slower pace.

There were many noteworthy books that I read in this challenge and I would like to share them and hopefully inspire a few people to pick up a title or two. I purchase the majority of my books on Amazon, seeking out used copies that cost between $1.00-7.00, meaning that with delivery the books tended to cost me between $5.00-15.00. It was very workable and I hope you can also locate these books for similarly cheap prices.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the Eqjustmercyual Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford representation, and those who have been denied a fair trial. He is especially focused on individuals who face the death penalty and young people with long, harsh sentences. In this book, he talks about his experiences working in the criminal justice system as a lawyer who takes these kinds of cases. Even more specifically, he looks at racial bias in the justice system and how it disproportionately harms the poor. The humane and empathetic look at criminals who suffer enormously in our current system makes this is a necessary read. Also, his overarching message is very important for those worrying about the upcoming four years: he acknowledges how defeated he has felt, working on a never-ending mountain of tough cases that appear hopeless, but states that rather than give up, he has found it essential to maintain hope — how useful hope is, that it must be nurtured, and that great good can be done if one can hold onto it.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquezchronicles

This novel has the rich and vivid language found in Marquez’s other novels (other than his journalistic News of a Kidnapping) coupled with a narrative that is essentially a mystery story: how did a young man’s murder unfold? Or, more importantly, if everyone knew the murder was going to take place, why did no one stop it from happening? The narrative is fun, looking at the events of that day from numerous perspectives, an atmosphere of absurdity and whimsy surrounding the entire affair. Your mileage may vary, but this has become one of my favorite Marquez novels, and I’ve nearly read them all at this point. It’s also a rather quick read.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker

This book was not largely well-received. This is reflected in its Goodsubstitutereads rating. I can understand where this comes from: to start, teachers are an ornery group, often talked over by people who don’t know anything about education, often pressed underneath the system’s feet. Also, this book has an older white man who is a writer and not a teacher documenting his every day while substitute teaching for a month in a school district. There’s a lot to disagree with in this set-up. However, speaking as someone who was a classroom teacher and has stepped back into a substitute teacher role after moving to a different state, his observations are often relevant and worth reading. Many times, they were not dissimilar to things I have thought. Although he is largely ignorant of the dynamics within education, I enjoyed reading this book and I think his perspective as an outsider is not without value. You may want to couple this book with a Jonathan Kozol book, however, or at least some book written by an actual educator.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiquantumthief

This science-fiction novel is the first of three and I admit that I’ve only read this first part and have yet to make time for the other two. However, even without continuing with the storyline in the next installments, the society-building in Rajaniemi’s novel is fascinating. The plot might seem a little cheesy at first, with a Puss-in-Boots style thief that naturally outsmarts nearly everyone around him, but Rajaniemi makes it work well and the society he envisions on Mars, in the Moving City of Oubliette, is an amazing concoction of futuristic technology, complex government control, subcommunities and their function, and privacy and social engineering — it’s really unique. If you’re a fan of world building and science fiction, this is worth checking out.

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanhhanh

Hanh is a Zen Master and this book is a quick and easy read thanks to his succinct and brief writing style. Hanh has many books on zen and compassion and this one focuses specifically on how to listen with compassion in order to communicate effectively. His message is simple and repetitive, but I found the simplicity of the message extremely applicable to my every day interactions with other people. He talks of writing, speaking and listening as a form of consumption, and as consuming unhealthy food inevitably harms us, consuming toxic speech also harms us. He presents compassion as a useful tool. He gives examples of how practicing compassionate speech (and compassionate listening) can work in different kinds of environments. I found myself re-reading certain useful passages months after completing it.

The Plague by Albert Camusplague

I picked up this book in the oppressive heat of last summer. My god, the environment in which I read this book made its contents weigh even more heavily upon my imagination. This book takes place in the African coastal city of Oran, which Camus also wrote about in his essay The Minotaur, during a period of plague that sweeps through the urban center. The story follows several characters, one a doctor, as they pass through the rise and fall of the plague, quarantined from their loved ones, experiencing profound suffering, ennui, entrapment, compassion, death and self-deceit. Camus tends to explore the same themes of death and ultimate meaning and absurdism in all his work, so those themes are present here as well.

 

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Those who are familiar with Shirley Jackson most likely first read her through her popular classic short story The Lottery, now a staple in high school English classes. I remember being in 10th grade and reading this short story and thinking, “Yes, finally, this is the human brutality I suspect exists in full force out in the world!” Literature is, after all, another tool for exploration as you grow older and everything becomes more twisted. When things grow more demented, we naturally seek answers to the question: What the fuck?

I love Shirley Jackson because she is, at the briefest glance, a housewife and mother of several children, but also much more than that, her concise writing revealing struggles with spiritual darkness and personality-strangling fears, her own life plagued by private demons. Her name carries weight with it in terms of horror, and it pleases me that women spearhead this favorite genre of mine. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance. And now, Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is often considered one of the best literary ghost stories of the 20th century.

Most reviews of the book focus on the opening lines, and they’re just so well-written and bear such an onset of foreboding atmosphere that they grip you in that perfect cold way horror should grip a person upon first encounter:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

These opening lines also invoke that common question when it comes to fear and horror: is what we are experiencing even real? Or is it in our head, related to an ever-worsening grip on reality?

The book was published in 1959, just before the 1960s rich onslaught of now-classic horror films: Psycho (1960), Black Sunday (1960), The Birds (1963), Blood Feast (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The book contains the most basic of horror film tropes, such as the psychological question of the sanity behind what’s happening, and the fault-seeking and anticipation of demise in terms of the characters.

The book has a delightful presentation of characters, similar to what one would expect from a typical horror movie. You can empathize with the characters just enough to care (poor Eleanor, alone taking care of her mother, with such a nasty sister), but their faults needle you in such a way that you can see the downfall coming, anticipate it and imagine what it could be for each character based on their own faults (Eleanor, so needy, so immature and judgmental).

The doctor in the story, the one who arranges for the characters to come visit this haunted house for a scientific experiment on psychic and supernatural activity, states this trope bluntly at one point: “I think that an atmosphere like this one can find out the flaws and faults and weaknesses in all of us, and break us apart in a matter of days.” Hello, every horror movie ever. The horror fan certainly loves to see people battle fear, as we imagine how good of a fight we could truly put up in such a situation.

The descriptions of the house are some of the strongest parts of this book, simple but vivid. The idea of movement is attributed to the hills; they are always hidden, or creeping forward, or suffocating the house. The personification is unsettling. At one point the reader discovers that the house is built in such a way that all of the angles are slightly askew by a small fraction, creating an overall sense of umheimlich and loss of direction. The idea likens to House of Leaves, except 4 decades before its time.

The ending is quick, and some things that do need some description are never explained. I don’t mind that the house is never really fully explained—the antagonist needs some mystery to it—but there are things that really do need some answering. Like what was chasing Theodora and Eleanore outside the house? Without addressing this question, the scene seems off, vague, strange. Not scary. Just a hint would have done.

But overall, lackluster ending aside (horror is so prone to lackluster endings), the book is creepy and enjoyable. Until the banter between the characters becomes too  much at the end (and I think we are supposed to think it’s too much: look at them trying so hard to impress), I enjoyed the dialogue. The question at the end of the day is how real the haunting even really is, or was it in their heads, or the grand delusions of the main character, Eleanore?

Is it the house that kills, or just people, and their paranoia, harming each other and themselves?

Also unsettling is a statement made by Eleanore near the end of the book, where she protests to leaving the house because nothing has ever happened to her before. This is the first time something has ever happened. The idea that we can be so bored with our lives that terror is inviting is not something so unrelatable. For someone who feels trapped anyway by a dull life, fear can be that inviting.

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After I came home from work today, I picked up a copy of Aldous Huxley’s the Doors of Perception. I thought it was longer than it ended up being—thank god, because one can only read so long about a trip. I finished it over the time span of two hours, with an interruption or two.

I feel that if I had read this prior to having done a hallucinogenic drug, I would have taken a lot less from it. It would have been, “What the hell, drapery folds?” But instead, having divulged in lysergic acid and traipsed through a rainy day, I was like, “Hell yeah, drapery folds!” Because the best way to describe such a type of drug is the absolute loss of sensory filters, the hyper-perception that allows you to see more and focus less on typically oppressive things such as time. I remember colors vibrating in my eyeballs, the sky writhing in a watery kaleidoscope like some living cover. I looked at a cloth pattern and was shocked at how beautiful the world could be.

I’ve already believed for a while now that humans seek that thing to help them transcend the banality and suffering of the human condition (stemming from asking myself many times, “My god, why do I do so many drugs? Oh, yes, this is why”). Huxley’s words serve as a healthy reminder that I tend to put a cloak over the world as I move through it, and everyone else is doing the same. Drugs are a tool to shift this cloak around a little bit, to focus less on the rigidity of systems and language and climb through these set structures—but they aren’t entirely necessary.

Though they’re not necessary, it’s also incredibly hard to shake the filters on your own. That survival instinct that “distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.” This is where Zen comes in to help, but habits tend to push those thoughts out of my head and lead me to take a pill or pick up a pipe.

Even my sober friends who shirk alcohol and caffeine will take Xanax.

So, thank you, Huxley! I both feel comforted in my drug use as a developed treatment of the human condition sans or in place of religion, and also reminded that maybe I should try to consciously dust off the film that covers the lenses more often. Also, the next time I do hallucinogens, I need to get myself some gorgeous drapes.

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