When I was in first grade, I read 100 books.
It was some school thing and we had all year to do it. I finished early, thereby validating my misguided perception (consistently encouraged by my parents) that I was smarter and better than the rest of the unwashed miscreants with whom I was forced to receive my education.
Just kidding. Kind of. But I was pretty proud of it.
I still have that t-shirt somewhere, but the butterflies are peeling themselves away from the fabric, trying to flutter to freedom, and going through puberty has effectively prevented me from ever being able to wear it again and subsequently funding the bra industry for the past twelve years. (You’re welcome, Victoria’s Secret.)
I am considering making a new one (size-appropriate and sans butterflies), however, because guess what?
I’VE DONE IT AGAIN.
Yeah, you read it right. In 2013, I read 100 books. I’m not talking about The Atlantic Monthly, whose articles I read in about eight sittings to better myself, or all those Cosmo articles I slorped down while I was couch-ridden and flying high on Percocet after I had my wisdom teeth removed. News articles, magazines, blogs, etc. didn’t count for the purpose of this nerdacious challenge I gave myself last January. (Audiobooks were, however, included. You can’t put 22,000 miles on your car and still have time to read 100 books unless you have a chauffeur. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
So in honor of Oscar weekend, I am doing my own fake awards show. I am calling it the Margos, because Oscar is a funny name and so is Margo and it’s fun to say. I’m not as funny as Ellen DeGeneres, and I can’t order pizza and feed it to Jennifer Lawrence, but we’re gonna give it a whirl anyway. There will be a bonus picture after each category.
Here we go!
There are seven categories: “Best Re-Read,” “Worst Book Ever,” “Most Hipster,” “Least Boring Nonfiction,” “Best Listen,” “Most Thrilling,” and “I Read the Shit Out of that Book.”
The nominees for Best Re-Read are:
- Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
- A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle
Yes, I re-read some of my childhood favorites. Guess what? They were just as amazing this year as they were in 1999 or 2005 or whatever year I first read these amazing books. I originally read them just because I was panicking about my numbers for the 100-book challenge, and I did read most of them in either a single sitting or two sittings. Regardless of their length, however, they affected me deeply even after having read them multiple times.
This year the Margo goes to Harper Lee, because I wish I could write just one perfect novel the way she did.
Bonus picture is me perusing some picture book with bunnies in it while Sister #1 makes some kind of horrible face at the camera. Yes we are matching. Yes that was normal. No I am not (quite) that Buddha-faced anymore.
Worst Book Ever
Here are the nominees:
- Devices and Desires, K.J. Parker
- The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick
- Unveiled, Deborah Kanafani
I really thought Unveiled was going to be good. It’s about a Lebanese college student in America in the early 80’s who marries a high-ranking Palestinian diplomat working in the United Nations. He sweeps her off her feet and brings her into the company of dignitaries, world leaders, and international glamour. He also slowly isolates her from her old life, determined to keep her under his thumb. After her divorce, Deborah traveled to the Middle East to document the stories of other wives of Arab leaders, women like her who struggled and survived.
It could have been good. But…seriously…HIRE A BETTER GHOSTWRITER. Or maybe she didn’t use one. In which case, PLEASE, hire a ghostwriter. You need one.
The Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read; it just has the distinction of being one of the worst that I read last year. Awkward. Overrated. Movie was okay.
Finally, this is a synopsis for the other most egregious offender on my reading list in 2013, Devices and Desires: “When an engineer is sentenced to death for a petty transgression of guild law, he flees the city, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Forced into exile, he seeks a terrible vengeance — one that will leave a trail of death and destruction in its wake. But he will not be able to achieve this by himself. He must draw up his plans using the blood of others…
In a compelling tale of intrigue and injustice, K. J. Parker’s embittered hero takes up arms against his enemies, using the only weapons he has left to him: his ingenuity and his passion — his devices and desires.”
Okay. There’s a lock and a key on the cover. It’s called Devices and Desires. Somebody is going to take off their clothes at some point, right? Of course they are. There’s a lock and key! It’s about passion! The cover art is all Dan Brown “blade and chalice”! …Wrong. So wrong. It. Was. So. Boring. A friend lent it to me, and he will not be named here, but wow. Wow was this book boring. If you were really into simple machines as a kid or you want some endless descriptions of engineering and locks and other crap like that, this book might be right up your alley. The fact that it wasn’t sexy would have been okay if it wasn’t so boring. But alas, it was. And so the Margo goes to:
Bonus picture is me forcing my Grandma to read to me as I am dressed like the American Girl Samantha. (Molly is supervising over there on the left in her red-striped pajamas.)
“Most Hipster Book”
This is the category dedicated to a book that I read before it was cool. There are no nominees. The Margo goes to The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.
I read an excerpt from a free e-book on my Kindle and was so obsessed that I actually bought the digital version so I could read it as fast as possible. Then because it was sublime I had to buy it in hard copy. Naturally. Get your tissues and get ready to become obsessed with John Green’s colloquial yet brilliant prose. That’s what happened to me at least. (This movie had BETTER BE GOOD.)
Bonus picture is me forcing Aunt Beth to read to me. I don’t know what that book is. I do know that the outfit I’m wearing exists in quadruple…because all four of us had a matching jumper. Dear sweet mother of the 90’s.
Now the award for Least Boring Nonfiction.
I don’t really like nonfiction. It’s not my thing. I used to dazzle people with my intimate knowledge of Roman dress, cuisine, and the chronology of the emperors in the first century A.D. Not because I’m some kind of genius/nerd who just remembers these kinds of details, but because I am obsessed with Roman historical fiction and have read way more than is probably healthy. So the years that Caligula was emperor aren’t just dusty dates; they’re a scandalous series of juicy gossip and opulent parties. It’s like a trashy magazine circa 40 A.D.
I learn through stories, so I don’t like nonfiction books because they don’t typically spin a clear enough narrative that my brain can process everything in the book in an orderly fashion. But last year I read a few keepers:
- Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Jon Krakauer
- The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton
- The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
- The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
- Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi
It seems appropriate to cut to the chase in a category dedicated to books that aren’t extended narratives. The Margo goes to:
The book discusses the line between being a successful, driven, hard-charging executive or business person, and being a serial killer. “Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry.” It was interesting, and creepy. I was a fan.
Plus check out how creepy the author looks here:
Either he was going for this whole hipster-murderer look, or Professor Dutton needs to hire a new publicist.
Bonus picture is Sister #1 and me getting prepped to shove some fairy tales down Sister #3’s throat as soon as she is ready to be educated. She is probably hiding.
Onto Best Listen!
For a kid who loved to be read to, I really used to hate audio books. Over the past year, however, I developed a tenuous kind of affection for them, because I spent so many hours in the car and they kept me from falling behind on my reading each month.
The nominees are:
- Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
- If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), Betty White
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
- The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
- Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
I actually disliked The End of the Affair, but it was narrated by Colin Firth, so it was actually pleasant listening to Mr. Darcy just talk at me for eight hours or so. Angela’s Ashes was SO DEPRESSING, but there was something really unique about listening to an author narrate his own work in a rich, Irish accent. Betty White is a delightful human being, and even though her book wasn’t really anything you’d tell your grandkids about, I listened to it while I was stuck on a jetway in Detroit for three hours and I’m pretty sure it saved the life of the screaming baby in the seat in front of me and the child behind me kicking my seat hard enough that I should have sued for whiplash. Water for Elephants was narrated by an old man and a young man, depending on where you were in the story. The effect was magical; by the end I wanted to run away and join the circus.
But hands down, no contest, the winner is Jeremy Irons narrating Lolita:
There could not be a more fitting narrator. Eloquent, intelligent, smooth, slimy, psychopathic: Jeremy Irons (you know, the voice of Scar from The Lion King?) encompassed an incredible range within the text. I was so creeped out the whole book, but I couldn’t stop listening. I actually listened to it on the bike at the gym a few times, and I kept looking around guiltily at everyone else blasting J.T. through their headphones like normal people while I was listening to the extended narrative of a pedophile.
It seems creepy to follow this up with a picture of me as a kid, but I’m doing it anyway. Not sorry.
Bonus picture is me sitting on the floor like some kind of peasant child whose family owns no furniture. I think I’m wearing lime green legging-shorts. Yikes.
The next category is Most Thrilling! otherwise known as, Book that Made Me Gasp Every Other Page
The nominees are:
- World War Z, Max Brooks
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
- 11/22/63, Stephen King
- In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Margaret Atwood is really quite excellent, and I love a good dystopian novel. Stephen King’s book about the assassination of JFK was also fascinating – detailed, intricate, and a page-turner in the exactly literal sense of the word. In Cold Blood was my first experience with Capote, and I’m definitely going back for more.
But as much as I liked all three (and would read them again), they are not going home with the Margo tonight.
You have to understand something about me: I don’t get the zombie thing. Not only do I not get it, but I have this vague distaste for it, sort of like that green slime Nickelodeon used to dump all over people a la Carrie pig blood and it was supposed to be funny but mostly it was just gross. I feel the same way about the whole vampire trend. There are all these shows and books that are supposed to be so sexy and thrilling but mostly they’re just gross and cheesy and awkward. Zombie things are kind of like for me, except instead of the sexy factor they’re just grisly, and I don’t dig it.
Having said that, I loved World War Z (sorry Brad Pitt, but your movie adaptation was lame). Max Brooks tells the stories of survivors of The Great Panic, or The Zombie War (hence the Z). There are stories from all kinds of people all over the world who experienced the destruction the zombies wrought. He is unassuming, and truly takes on the voice of each person whose tale he tells, whether it’s a Japanese teenager who doesn’t realize what’s happened till his Internet is cut off, the crew of a nuclear submarine, a little girl fleeing to Canada with her family, a famous Hollywood director creating propaganda films, or a heroic member of one of the U.S.’s K-9 teams who fought the zombies.
Brooks examines geopolitics, economics, family dynamics, and basic human instincts (and the ability to overcome the lesser ones). It. Is. Fascinating.
The other top contender is Gone Girl. I bought this one to listen to while I was running the roads all summer, and I was so hooked that I actually carried it around with me in my apartment and couldn’t stop listening to it until I was finished. It is the morning of Amy and Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary and Amy is missing. Flynn tells Nick’s story in real time and Amy’s perspective is offered from her long, detailed journal entries. AT LEAST FOR THE FIRST HALF AND THEN YOUR MIND GETS BLOWN. The whole time I couldn’t decide who to believe. It was a fascinating account of the courtship and marriage of a sociopath and a narcissist, who had just enough forgivable traits that you could relate to them…which was terrifying in itself.
So the Margo goes to:
Bonus picture is me nerding out in this plastic chair for which I am precariously large while Sister #1 and Sister #3do normal child things, like play with our German Shepherd. I’m like, nah girl, you good, I got this book.
The final category of the night is dedicated to books I have been meaning to read for years and finally got around to reading in 2013. …And they were just as cumbersome and dreadful as I had anticipated.
The nominees for I Read the Shit Out of That Book are:
- A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
I was actually really nerdishly excited about finally reading all these books. Turning them over in my hands I felt so educated and earnest, so ready to find out why they were so controversial or beloved or considered timeless. Mostly what I have taken away from this experience is that you have to kill a lot of characters and write annoyingly dense prose if you want people to keep banging their heads against a wall over your novel in years to come. I’m not sure if that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
My mother and Sister #4 are going to be throwing popcorn at the screen when they read this, because they have already informed me that it is a mortal sin that I didn’t like Jane Eyre. Let’s be clear about that, though: I liked Jane as a character; I did not like the novel. (STOP WRITING PHYSIOGNOMY EVERY OTHER PAGE, CHARLOTTE; NOBODY LIKES THAT WORD.) And, at the risk of alienating one of my brilliant, beautiful friends who adores it, the Margo goes to:
She is clearly smarter than I am for appreciating Tolstoy for 800millionbajillion pages; I simply couldn’t cope. When it was over I was so relieved I almost cried, because now I can finally, finally say I’ve read Anna Karenina, and pleaseohplease nobody will ever make me read it again.
Bonus picture for the final category of the evening is me in 2012 moving and cataloging all my books (I have over 600; for the sake of my back, I have really got to stop moving.)
I hope you enjoyed the first annual Margo awards, accompanied by a little trip down my literary memory lane. Send me your recommendations to add to my reading list! I will be working on it for at least the next fifty or eighty years, or however long it is before my eyesight finally goes. If you’d like the list of the full 100 books, let me know that as well! I’d be happy to send it along.
Thank you again for joining us tonight at the Margo Awards. Make good choices. Don’t party too hard tonight, kids! You know how those after-parties can be for book awards.