My Favorite Reads of 2016

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2016 was the year that my reading habits changed significantly. Casual reading no longer satisfies me. These days, a book either needs to feature excellent writing or teach me something new, or it won’t hold my interest. I used to need to alternate between heavier books and lighter reads; now I enjoy going from heavy to heavy.

This year, I read a lot about race, class, and privilege in America. This is some of the deepest and most meaningful reading I have ever done, and I feel like a completely different person from who I was at the beginning of the year.

As usual, interesting themes began to appear as the year went on.

On slavery, its horrors and escaping: The Underground Railroad, Homegoing, Grace, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.

On social mobility and entering a new world through attending university: Between the World and MeThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Make Your Home Among Strangers, Hillbilly Elegy.

On 1970s Bay Area counterculture: The Girls, American Heiress.

When I wrote about my favorite reads of 2015 last year, I was struck by how few of the books were published that year. It seemed a bit ridiculous to publish a “best of the year” list from primarily older books.

And this year I made a bigger effort to read new releases. This year I’ll be sharing my favorite novel and nonfiction book published in 2016, as well as all of the other books that were my favorites of the year, listed in no particular order.

The Underground Railroad

My Favorite Novel Published in 2016: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Easily one of the most lauded novels of 2016, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, an escaped slave who traverses the Underground Railroad — which in this book is reimagined as an actual underground railroad. At each stop, it seems like Cora has finally found safety and peace, or as much as safety and peace as she can hope for, until her life is shattered once again.

What affected me the most about this book was thinking about how the people with power control the narrative. Could there have been an actual underground railroad? There very well could have because white people have always held the power and if they didn’t know about it, it wasn’t the dominant narrative. It makes me sad for how much has been lost to history because the people with the least power were the only ones who witnessed it. (This is a very good book to read in the age of Trump.)

This book is hallucinatory and creative and the edges between fantasy and reality are deeply blurred. But the book has several overarching themes, just like Homegoing (which you’ll read about below). The biggest? Escaping slavery was only the beginning. Whether the horrors were experienced during Cora’s solitary journey or spread out along multiple generations like in Homegoing, they were there, they are still there, and they are one of the most shameful chapters of our country’s history.

American Heiress

My Favorite Nonfiction Book Published in 2016: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

I went into reading this book knowing nothing about Patty Hearst except that she was kidnapped and forced to rob banks in the 1970s. That couldn’t have been a better way to go into reading American Heiress. Knowing so little about the story made it all the more exciting — and this story was absolutely bonkers.

Patty Hearst, a 19-year-old heir to the Hearst publishing fortune, was kidnapped by a group of young radicals called the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. After a period of time, she began to believe in their cause and decided to join the group as they robbed banks and planned bombings. It took years before the police were able to track her down. Also, a shootout with the SLA was the first live news event ever to air on TV. How crazy is that?

I’ve read Jeffrey Toobin’s work before, but I have not enjoyed a single book this much since The Martian. It was a wild, insane, dense, satisfying ride and I’ve been discussing Patty Hearst with everyone I talk to since then.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

This is one of the powerhouse novels of 2016, but I couldn’t believe that Homegoing is Ghanaian-American author Gyasi’s first novel. She’s in her twenties. You would expect a book this intricately and emotively written to be the crowning lifetime achievement of a much older author.

Homegoing tells the story of two half-sisters in what is now Ghana. One is sold into slavery; the other is married to a slaver and stays in Africa. The book goes on in vignettes, telling stories of a family member on each side over the course of seven generations, lasting into the present day. In Africa, the characters wrestle with war, kidnappings, mental illness, the long-term effects of colonialism. In America, the characters struggle with slavery, imprisonment, Jim Crow, the heroin epidemic.

There is a belief held amongst some Americans that injustices against black Americans ended with the abolition of slavery. This book is the single best example I’ve ever seen of showing different forms of black bondage being replaced, one after the other, with the same goal of keeping them second-class citizens. (Today, it’s most clearly manifested in our criminal justice system.) Illustrating injustice through the empathetic form of fiction is, in my opinion, the most noble thing a novel can do. Everyone needs to read this book, but the people who need to read it most will not do so.

Read Homegoing in tandem with The Underground Railroad. They share a lot of the same themes.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)

When I moved to Harlem, I made an effort to read more books by Harlem authors, and I discovered a masterpiece. It blows my mind how much Malcolm X was overlooked in school when I was growing up — I knew so little about him when I started the book — and The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the most powerful self-told stories I have ever read.

So many things touched me that I didn’t expect. His discovery of dance (which he found in Boston!) and his love for Harlem. His days in prison, following an arrest for robbery, which he spent reading books every hour of every day. Finding religion in the Nation of Islam and just how intense that organization was. And how he was widely, erroneously reported to be a terrorist until he was gunned down.

This is also one of the best travel memoirs because of how much it changed his point of view. Malcolm X believed that the races were off segregated and gave speeches to this effect — until he went to Mecca, joyfully worshipped with Muslims of every color and background, and declared that he had been wrong all along.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (2015)

No book ripped me open to my soul as much as The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Robert Peace grew up in a rough area of Newark, surrounded by drugs and violence, but he was incredibly intelligent. Between the hard work he and his mother did, he got himself into a private prep school and, eventually, Yale. A few years after graduation, however, he was murdered in a drug dealing dispute. This book, written by his college roommate, seeks to answer, “Why?”

And for me, that “Why?” was filled with agony. Even knowing that Rob ends up dead, I felt sick seeing it unfold slowly. And I’m still trying to figure out how it happened. Rob was anything but a burnout; even after college, he kept his life at home and built himself communities in Rio and Croatia. He dealt drugs for the money; he worked as a baggage handler for the travel privileges. He always had an end plan, but it was just out of his grasp.

Did Yale fail him? Could his death have been avoided if he had a mentor? Would he have moved on if he hadn’t been fiercely loyal to his family and friends? Who can be blamed for this?! We’ll never know. And that hurts. But perhaps this book will give us the steps to prevent other kids in Rob’s extraordinary position from going down the same path.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)

I discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last year and two of her books, Americanah and Purple Hibiscus, were on my list of favorites last year. This year, she cemented her status as one of my favorite writers as I read Half of a Yellow Sun, a tale of war and the short-lived republic of Biafra in what is now Nigeria.

What I love most about Adichie’s books are her characters. With the possible exception of Ifemelu, the protagonist in Americanah, Adichie writes characters that I love so much that I want to hug them and listen to them tell their life stories. Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of an extended family and the important people in their lives as they go from a comfortable middle-class existence to living through war, kidnappings, and starvation. By the time I finished, I was still thinking about those characters and how much I loved them.

I think it’s good to read a book about a period in time that you know nothing about. I never had a clue about Biafra and I’m so glad I know about it now.


Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)

I’ve been a big fan of Lindy West’s writing since her horrific and pants-shittingly hilarious viral review of Sex and the City 2. Shrill was an easy purchase, and it’s one of the best collections of essays I’ve ever read. The funny, truthful stories touch on everything from feminism and the media to body image and life as a plus-size woman to cyberbullying.

This year I read a lot of memoirs and essay collections by celebrities (Shonda Rimes, Amy Schumer) and internet celebrities (Luvvie Ajayi, Mark Manson). In nearly every case, the books were disappointingly uneven with some stronger essays and some weak ones. Not this book. West was the only exception. Every story in this book is razor-sharp and meaningful, whether funny or serious. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch.

I wanted to cheer when I finished this book because I feel like West and I want to see the same kind of world emerge in our lifetimes someday.

Dear Mr. You

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)

It’s always a nice surprise when an actor you enjoy turns out to be a fantastic writer, and not of the fun-time-memoir variety. Mary-Louise Parker is my latest example, and Dear Mr. You is a phenomenal collection of stories that blur between poetry and prose.

Each letter in the book is addressed to an important man in her life. To former lovers. To family members. I absolutely love how she writes each story — it’s ambiguous enough that you can’t quite figure out who is who, so if you’re looking for juicy Billy Crudup gossip, you won’t find it here. In fact, this writing style inspired me when I wrote my 10 Love Stories post.

And this is a book with a great ending. The final letter to a final Mr. You is perfect.

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (2008)

Last year, I discovered Elena Ferrante and Neapolitan Novels, which are now some of my favorite books of all time. This year, I delved in deeper to her other works. The Lost Daughter was my favorite. This wisp of a novella has everything that I love about Ferrante’s work: deeply uncomfortable introspection (but not on the level of some of her other books), keen observations of family dynamics, and the ferocity of Naples.

Leda is a divorced, new empty nester in her late 40s and she takes a trip to the seaside near Naples. While there, she observes a young mother with her daughter and ruminates on motherhood, including what some would consider an unforgivable act she committed while her daughters were young. That same impulse drives her to commit another act on the beach at night.

I love short, tight books that don’t waste a single word. (Movies, too. That’s why the 87-minute Dodgeball is one of my favorite comedies.) This book is perfect.

Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016)

Two girls grow up in the housing projects of northwest London. Both from underprivileged backgrounds. Both biracial. And both with an insatiable love for dance — but only one is talented enough to make it professionally. While I’ve been wanting to read Zadie Smith’s books for quite some time, Swing Time was the first one I picked up, and it won’t be the last.

I’ve been reading a lot about female friendship — the deep love and furtive hate, the competition and sabotage and loyalty and cruelty. The best novels about female friendship are undoubtedly Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. But Swing Time covers female friendship in a different direction — still with lots of highs and lows, but with the difference of raw talent vs. perseverance and nature vs. nurture. The book goes to places I did not remotely expect.

Another thing that I really loved about this book was its depiction of London. Cold, sophisticated and rough, yet familiar and welcoming, like the soft gray blanket you should probably get rid of but sits at the foot of your bed anyway.

Without You There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (2015)

No other country on the planet is more closed off to outsiders than North Korea. Most of the North Koreans that outsiders meet have escaped after imprisonment. But what about the ruling elites? They are perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

Suki Kim went undercover and got to see North Korea’s most privileged class close-up. In Without You, There Is No Us, she tells her account as a teacher at a university. She could trust no one. Her every move was monitored. Her students were earnest and childlike, yet lied with cheer and alacrity. Throughout this book I had the unsettling feeling that I was being watched — not unlike what I’m sure Kim felt 24/7 during her time teaching in Pyongyang.

Anyone who has a passing interest in North Korea should read this extraordinary book. For me, it confirmed my decision to not visit North Korea. At this point in time, I believe there is no ethical way to do so.

What’s Next for 2017?

I’ve decided to throw myself back in and take on Popsugar’s 2017 Reading Challenge! The challenge looks more difficult than 2015’s.

I’ve also given myself additional parameters: every month I will read at least one novel, at least one work of nonfiction, at least one book published in 2017, and at least one book by a person of color. I’ve also identified the twelve toughest categories (like “a book with more than 800 pages” — eek!) and will conquer one tough category per month so I won’t be overwhelmed.

Unlike last time on the challenge, I’m going to make an effort to read books I want to read first and seeing where they fit in rather than picking them out based on the category.

Some books I’ve got my eye on for 2016: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond; Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher; Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton; White Teeth by Zadie Smith; Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah; and perhaps Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow or David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (gotta get that 800-page book somehow!).

What was your favorite book of 2016? How do you choose what to read? Share away!

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66 thoughts on “My Favorite Reads of 2016”

  1. I would have to choose two, both WWII reads, one fiction and one non-fiction. The fiction one was Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, I simply devoured it. The non-fiction one was In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. I’ve read three of his other nonfiction works now but this was my favorite. All of his books though read like a gripping fiction page turner!

    I’ve always loved historical fiction but now that I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve really gotten into historical nonfiction. I love reading about topics I know so little about/didn’t learn about in school. A perfect testament to that is Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice, which was about the ill-fated Polar Ice voyage of the USS Jeanette. I do mix in some whimsical stuff now and then (currently I’m reading A Man Called Ove which is absolutely delightful).

    Another great fiction work I read this year was The Gilded Years which was a fictionalized account of the first female black student to attend Vassar (she passed at the time).

    And not sure if you’ve ever read their works, but some other great female authors of color I love are Jamaica Kincaid and Jhumpa Lahiri.

    1. I just started reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies — it was $2 on Amazon on New Year’s Day. Really loving it so far. And I read Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in college. It was a class on the adolescent in literature and focused on people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

      Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. So many of these books are on my list to read now! I’m glad to hear your review of Swing Time; White Teeth is one of my all times favorite books.

    A suggestion for your 800+ page book: Paris by Edward Rutherfurd. It tracks different characters in several periods of history in Paris. Really interesting!

  3. I find it really interesting to browse through the many book posts that come out right about now for inspiration.. By the way, I’d like to second Raechelle suggestion: Paris, and more of Edward Rutherfurd’s books on cities, are absolutely glorious! Paris is my favourite of the ones I’ve read so far 🙂

  4. Wow, we have incredibly similar taste in books! Almost everything on here is either sitting on the to-be-read shelf in my apartment or on my Amazon wish list. Shrill was a 2016 standout for me, too.

    Dickens is definitely a good option for 800+ pagers… or maybe Anna Karenina? Long, but easily digestible.

  5. Hi Kate,

    I’m a long-time reader from London who never comments (sorry!)…

    I LOVE reading and particularly enjoy your book recommendations, so thank you! For your 800+ page book I wanted to recommend Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s the kind of book that sounds odd, being based around cathedral building in 12th Century England, but it is a brilliantly written, compelling, accurate and insightful look into a completely different life. Everyone I know who has read this book declares it a favourite!

    Happy reading in 2017!

    1. I agree 100%, PILLARS OF THE EARTH is fabulous! One the top 10 list of all-time favourites, and I read a lot! Another good one is Rohinton Mistry’s A FINE BALANCE, also on my top 10 list.

    2. Welcome to commenting, Jo! I’m glad you’re a reader, comments or no!

      I’ve seen that book everywhere but never knew what it was about. That’s a strong recommendation — I’ll take a look at it!

  6. Thanks for sharing all your book recommendations! My Goodreads list just keeps growing.

    I’m reading Just Mercy right now and it is upsetting and angering and disgusting, and also really good because it’s meant to be all of those things (it’s about capital punishment in the south). I think it would fall in line with a lot of your other recent reads on race and class, but from the perspective of the criminal justice system.

    I just finished Without You, There is No Us and really enjoyed it! Also agree with the decision to not travel there. Another travel memoir I enjoyed this year was Beyond the Earth and Sky. It’s imperfect and a little self-indulgent, but it’s interesting insight into life in closed-off Bhutan.

    Being Mortal was an incredible read, and I’m looking forward to reading When Breath Becomes Air in the same pondering-mortality category.

    Best fiction I read this year: A Man Called Ove and All the Light We Cannot See. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is older, but still tops my book recommendations.

    For the 800-page book, if you haven’t read Anna Karenina, I read it a couple of years ago (it was my 500+ page read for the popsugar challenge) and I found it a far faster and easier read than I had expected! I’m trying to decide if I’ll do the challenge again next year. I skipped 2016.

  7. I love the idea of a reading challenge and hearing about it from you makes it even better. I’m really impressed with your taste in books and this post has reminded me that I need to start prioritizing reading once again. it’s easy to put books on the back-burner with school and work to worry about, but if you can do it (being as busy as you are) then anyone can. I’d love to hear how the challenge goes for you! I’m sure you’ll discover some amazing new novels. Until then, have a happy new year~

    1. In terms of being busy, I read the most while in transit. So that works well for my travels, but also if you have a commute. I’m also trying to read before bed more often. It’s a good way to wind down an evening.

  8. Excellent list!! I also loved Homegoing – definitely my favorite book I read this year that was published in 2016. My favorite backlist book this year was Just Mercy. Based on your list, I think you would appreciate Just Mercy, along with Underground Airlines and The Mothers (both 2016 books). Here’s to a great year of reading in 2017!

  9. What a great list! Homegoing and Hillbilly Elegy are on my to-read list already, and I’ve also got the first book in the Neopolitan Trilogy. I’ll be (loosely) following the Pop Sugar 2017 Reading Challenge as well. I’m picking up with Maya Angelou’s autobiographical works, and will finally get around to reading Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil!

    As for this year? I think my favourite books have to be Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The Good Women of China by Xinran was a fantastic read, ditto Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique.

    1. You will love Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil! I think it’s my favorite book about a destination. Nothing else comes close.

      I appreciate your effort, whether intentional or not, to read books by non-white and non-western authors.

  10. I’ve been thinking about getting that Hamilton book before I see the play next month, but I’ll probably grab the audiobook version. I have a hard time reading nonfiction (but I can’t listen to fiction). Who knows why.

    I love Marie Louise Parker-great recommendation! I’ll have to check that out.

  11. Love this post! It left me inspired to read more.

    I really appreciate the thoughtfulness, intelligence, and strength of character that shows through in your blog posts. Cheesy but true. I look forward to reading your own book one day. 😉

  12. I definitely want to read the Patty Hearst novel. James Kilgore, one of the members of the SLA is actually a professor at the University I attended and spoke to one of my anthropology classes about his time in prison. There was quite a bit of controversy over his hiring and I still am not sure how I feel about it when there are plenty of qualified people who weren’t convicted of murder but he has a very interesting life story you might be interested in checking out.

  13. I always love your book posts!! Your 2015 post inspired me to push my boundaries a bit more with reading this year, and I look forward to reading some of these this year. I love seeing the way you’re taking an interest in learning more about the place you live in, it’s very motivational and contagious. Can’t wait to see what you’re reading next!

  14. I read Without You, There Is No Us based on your recommendations here, and I agree–wow. I couldn’t put it down, and it has stayed with me long after I finished. I’ve been recommending it left and right!

  15. Those books sound really interesting, definitely adding some to my reading list! 11.22.63 by Stephen King is a good over 800 page book (I googled…it’s 849!) it’s about a guy going back in time to try and stop the assassination of JFK 🙂

  16. I put most of these books on my library list, thank you! Some of them weren’t available here (Finland) yet so those I will have to wait. My best new literary find this year was Moroccan-French author Katherine Pancol, she has a really quite exhilarating style and it’s very French which I loved. I also really liked The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley, even if it’s quite light to read.

  17. Chernow’s book about Hamilton was fantastic, and definitely helped me have (even) more appreciation for the musical. You should give it a try!

    And I agree, “Homegoing” was a stand out book!

  18. If you are interested in continuing to explore the race and class genre, I recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Its a different angle on the issue of racism and incarceration in America, and like Hillbilly Elegy, I notice that it feels very relevant in light of recent events. Thanks for your list- I’ll be checking a few of these out myself!

  19. My reading habits have also changed massively in 2016. And I’m looking forward to doing even more reading in 2017. I got a Kindle last year and it was absolutely perfect, now that I travel full time.
    I need to check out some of your suggestions – at the moment I’m really into psychological thrillers!

  20. Hey Kate: For more reading on privilege, race, and class in the U.S., I think you’d enjoy The Beast Side (essays) or Cook Up (memoir) by D. Watkins about his experiences as a drug dealer and life in general in Baltimore’s east side. He’s now a writer, obviously, and also worked as a college professor. Also, The Other Wes Moore. That’s been around for awhile and maybe you’ve read it already, but if not I recommend it!

      1. Thanks for the great list!

        I second the recommendation for The Other Wes Moore. It’s a great book, especially if you’re interested in race, class and privilege.

        One of my favorite money saving travel/life hacks has been to borrow library books to my kindle using Overdrive. You can sign up with your library card (if your branch participates) and borrow for free. I’m hooked!

  21. I always feel better the more I read, and your post inspired me to tackle the Popsugar challenge in 2017! Just out of curiosity, do you find that the more you read, the better your writing gets? Could be an interesting side effect of reading more!

    1. I’m glad you’re there with me, Eva! Just finished my book based on mythology (American Gods by Neil Gaiman). I’d like to think that my writing is better, but it’s hard to know for certain. I do know that some books have inspired me to write differently, like Mary-Louise Parker’s book.

  22. White Teeth is one of my favourite books ever. I read it every few years. On Beauty is also excellent, but I wasn’t such a fan of The Autograph Man.
    Also, Jonathan Coe is one of my favourite writers. I’ve read nearly everything he has written and it is always amazing but also fast and enjoyable and hard to put down.

    Love this blog!

    Holly xx

  23. Anddd my already ridiculously long Amazon wishlist just got 6 books longer.

    I didn’t read a ton in 2016 and a lot of what I did read was YA fiction and a lot of addiction-related books. The best, by far, was Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. SO incredible. I think you would really love it.

    Right now I’m reading The Orenda and it’s fascinating so far. Hillbilly Elegy is next!

  24. If you want an over 800+ book, a book I really enjoyed is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It’s not for everyone since it features many characters and it can be hard to remember how all the characters are linked (there is a page at the beginning of the book to remind readers of who is who). It takes place in Hokitika during New Zealand’s Gold Rush in the 1860s. Catton uses astrology from that time period to kind of direct each character’s fate and she is in fact from New Zealand herself. I’ve read it twice so far and I like long books and I don’t mind complicated plot lines but you may find the style of writing is not for you (it’s written in a prose very evocative of that time period).

  25. Haha Kate i liked your reads a lot..i went through Malcom X biography and i loved it..such clear views,he wanted sth and then he got it. Catchy writing amazing book..I ve also read “Homegoing” after i saw it here and it talks bout everything a book should talk about. I m also into travel books now, well written one, i mean not Lonely Planet personal list

  26. “David Copperfield” is beautiful!
    It may be 800 pages, but you’ll want to read just one more short chapter every night. It was my first book by Charles Dickens and it sparked my curiosity about him.

  27. If you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson. Hands down one of the best books I have ever read and I think it would tie in nicely with the types of reads you are going for!

  28. I just bookmarked this post, haha! Thanks a lot for your reviews on the good, the bad (and the ugly?) books Kate, I really appreciate it 🙂 I’m an insufferable bookworm myself but have been reading the same books over again- mostly those by Chris Guillebeau. Thanks to you I think I’ll start with The Underground Railroad.

    Thanks again Kate! 🙂

    Best wishes,

    Ps: Have you come across Moonwalking with Einstein?

  29. If you haven’t booked out your reading schedule for the year, I reccomend The Hate U Give and The Power. Both were published this year and are really good. I also reccomend Oryx and Crake and since you are interested in international lit, did you know the first ever novel from Madagascar is being published in English this month – Beyond the Rice Fields.

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