Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Things I Want That Aren’t Books

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, we are supposed to list the top ten bookish things we want to own that aren’t books. The truth is, I am really interested in trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have, not add to it, and when it comes to bookish things, the thing I want most is more books. But in the spirit of things, I’ll play along as well as I can, without showing you something really original, like say, ten different bookshelves or a bunch of t-shirts with catchy book things on them. (Hi, I like to alienate people.)

1. A trip to the library at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Reading Room and Special Collections at the Rijksmuseum mostly contain books on art history. I am not an art historian by any means but just look at all the treasure in this room in my favorite museum in my favorite city. Even better, when I leave the museum and walk around Amsterdam, I see book stores on every street. Heaven.

2. A dedicated room for my personal library. Actually, I go back and forth on this one. I see pictures of other people’s personal libraries and like any book lover I drool a little bit. But then I think, if all my books are in the library, and not in the living room or piled all over the house as they are now, how will people know I am a reader? What if all they see if the television and the XBOX? No no no. Books everywhere, library too! (And yes, I said I don’t want to accumulate stuff. Books aren’t stuff! They are books!) This one in Belgium looks nice, and I could easily pop over to Amsterdam when I felt like it.

3. I want my goddam books back. Sorry to go all Holden Caulfield on you, but seriously, I want back the books I have loaned to friends over the years. (Not talking about family. At least I know where those books are.) Yes, it is my own fault for trusting people who say they love books and love to read and yadda yadda. Now, when I borrow books from people…*side-eyes bookshelf* *dies of embarrassment*

4. The Riverside Shakespeare. Yes, I know this is technically a book, but really it’s a collected work. Of plays and sonnets and whatnot. That just happen to be in book form. This was the text for my university Shakespeare class in the age of Nirvana, and I sold it back because I needed the money. Maybe you all could live on words, but I needed ramen. I have always regretted selling it, and while I don’t exactly loll around reading the Bard all day, it would be wonderful to have a trusted reference nearby for when I want to look up a line, or just peruse for the hell of it.

The Riverside Shakespeare

This cover is much more attractive than versions with a giant Shakespeare head.

5. The Oxford English Dictionary. Because it’s not a book (or books) it’s a dictionary and it’s for my personal library, duh. It’s a REFERENCE TOOL. Seriously, though: right now I am reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon, and this fantastic dystopian novel is all about etymology and the philosophy of language and the ways technology is changing communication, and it has reminded me of the joy of looking up words and understanding their history, how their meanings have changed over time. If you are a reader and you are not interested in WORDS, then something is wrong with you.

The Oxford English Dictionary

6. Page numbers on my Kindle books. I think I had an option on my old Kindle to display page numbers instead of percentages (at least for some books), but now I am using the Kindle app on my Android tablet and I am back to seeing percentages. It also shows me how much time I have left to finish the book at my current reading pace, which makes me feel like I am in training and need to speed up. It’s like RunKeeper, only for reading. ReadKeeper. Reading is supposed to be relaxing, FFS!

7. And while I am on the subject (sort of) of my Android tablet, I would like to have a pretty tablet cover. no, it doesn’t have to look like a book. I have a Nexus 7. Apparently nobody who owns a Nexus 7 except for me would like an attractive cover. Apparently only iPad and Samsung Galaxy owners want pretty covers. It also would have been nice if the cover I ended up with hadn’t emitted a sickening chemical smell for the first two weeks that was so bad I couldn’t use it and had to keep it in the garage. Do you think I should be worried about the faint glow in the area where it sat while it aired out?

HD677

What I’d like…

 

What I’ve got…smell isn’t so bad anymore, really. You get used to it.

 

8. Electronic copies of my books. I would happily pay a higher price to get an electronic copy of any physical book I buy. For one thing, reading in bed or sometimes in other places I won’t mention here is so much easier on an e-reader. For another thing, when I travel for work and I am in the middle of reading a physical book (especially a chunkster), I have to leave the book behind, which means that I have to start another book on my Kindle. This upsets me greatly. I am not good at serial reading. Not good at all.

9. Disinfected, clean library books. You know what I mean. Water damage. Unidentifiable stains. Skeevy-looking library patrons with head colds who look like they might take out a bag of Funyuns and a melty bar of chocolate and start eating over the pages of an open book any second. Take the money from all those ten cent late fee fines and buy some sanitizer, people. (Seriously, library, hold patrons accountable for wrecking books. MAKE THEM PAY.)

10. Time. What do you mean I can’t own time? I want it. We all want it, I know. More time to read ALL THE BOOKS.

I’m All Out of Love

Have you ever fallen out of love with an author? Recently on NetGalley I requested a book of stories by a writer whose stories and novels I used to love. I have read at least five of this author’s books (three collections, two novels), and one collection in particular I have recommended many times to people who were interested in reading short stories but were not sure where to start.

I was excited about this new story collection. (And I’ll confirm that I am not talking about Lorrie Moore’s Bark, which I own in hardback but have not even opened yet.) The first story was one I had already read when it was published elsewhere. I remember thinking it was okay. On second reading, I was even less impressed.

This author does tend to visit the same themes over and over again, but a lot of authors (Alice Munro, for example) do that successfully over the course of an entire career. I can appreciate this, as long as I continue to see the author handling certain themes or subject matter in new ways—when I can see the author has turned the thing this way, and then again that way, and realized that perhaps long-held ideas were misguided, or the result of pride or vanity or anything, really.

What I found in this new collection was that this author seems to have stopped seeing things through the prism of age or changing culture or world events and is instead viewing them through a single lens, one with an old prescription. I feel as though I have seen these characters before, in these same situations, responding in the same ways, and it leaves me thinking, “Really? Again?” It’s like watching an old friend repeatedly make the same mistakes. Or maybe it’s the way I’m reading? My expectations were too high, perhaps?

I am being purposely coy and not naming names (or even revealing gender) because I feel that I can still recommend the author’s past books. But I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing this one, and I’ll never suggest it.

The Tie That Binds

The Tie That Binds CoverKent Haruf is not a writer for everyone. For example, if you have no interest in what goes on, say, outside of Brooklyn, or anywhere in between New York City and San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle), then Kent Haruf is probably not an author for you. Or if you have no interest in stories about real families dealing with real struggles, not in a sensational, reality TV, Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo sort of way. (I don’t know, what other reality TV families are there? Ah, the Duggars. They probably should have had a guest spot on True Detective.)

The Tie That Binds was Haruf’s debut novel, and it introduces readers to the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where all of his subsequent novels are set. An 80-year old woman, Edith Goodnough, has been charged with murder. As the novel opens, a journalist from the Denver paper has come to town to get the story. When the journalist arrives at the house of Sanders Roscoe, who has lived next door to Edith for his whole life, he’s told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and get the hell out of town. Sanders is our narrator, and after he banishes the journalist he turns his gaze directly to us, the readers, and begins to to tell the story of Edith Goodnough, her brother Lyle, and her father, Roy.

“Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.”

Sanders starts at the very beginning, when Roy and his wife Ada traveled to Holt from Iowa, before Edith and Lyman were born. Sanders has learned the history of the Goodnough family from his father, John, who lived with his mother, the county midwife, on the property next door.

On Roy: “He was a mean sort of private man. I know from personal experience with him, and more muleheaded even than he was private. He hated like the very goddamn to be dependent on anyone for anything.”

What follows is a mystery of sorts, and also the simple stories of lives lived on the plains. What Haruf shows in his spare yet rich prose is how often those can be one and the same thing. After her mother dies, even though she is courted by John, Edith chooses to remain unmarried. Her brother Lyman, on the other hand, hotfoots it out of town for the next several decades, leaving Edith alone to care for their ailing, angry, abusive father.

Any other writer might feel the need to give Edith a dark secret to explain her choice. In short, she feels duty-bound. Lyman sends her postcards from all the places he visits across the United States, and she pins them to the living-room wall, an armchair journeyman awaiting his return. Eventually Roy dies, Lyman returns home, and for a while things are good:

In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun. Or good times. Or better, just the day-in, day-out mean rich goodness of being alive, when at night you lie down in the warm dark pleased with your corner of the world, and then you wake up the next morning still pleased with it, and you know that, too, while you lie there for a time listening in peace to the mourning doves calling from the elm trees and telephone lines, until finally the thought of black coffee moves you up out of bed and down the stairs to the kitchen stove, so that once again you begin it all afresh, with pleasure, with eagerness even. Because yes, Edith had that for a while. During that period it was written all over her face. Her brown eyes shone and snapped for six years.

And then life interferes for the worse. An accident happens, and it changes the nature of the life that Lyman and Edith built together in that short six years. In the end, it leads Edith to murder.

The Tie That Binds is a novel where nothing much happens, yet I’m afraid of giving anything away. If nothing else, that shows how deep Haruf goes into ordinary lives to tell a story–or better, to show that these are stories worth telling. In this first novel I can see all the hallmarks of his later works. The only clue that he might be a less confident writer than in his later novels is how he uses the framing device of the journalist to introduce the real story to the reader. I suspect if this were one of his later novels, he might have found another way in. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, either.

I find it funny that the book synopsis includes this sentence: “As Roscoe shares what he knows, Edith’s tragedies unfold: a childhood of pre-dawn chores, a mother’s death, a violence that leaves a father dependent on his children, forever enraged.” If those things are Edith’s tragedies, then they are also the tragedies of thousands of people across the plains in the early Twentieth century, people living a rough and demanding life on the high plains or prairies of the nation’s middle states. I suppose Edith could be seen as a tragic figure, but for me she emerged as someone who made choices that mystified Sanders Roscoe but made plain, clear sense to her. Ultimately, that is one thing I love about Haruf as a writer: his characters might be ordinary, but they are never without mystery. Four out of five stars.

*image from powells.com; links are not affiliate links

A Land More Kind Than Home (and In-Defense of Three Stars)

A Land More Kind Than Home CoverWiley Cash got a lot of love for his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and rightly so. Told from alternating first-person points of view, A Land More Kind Than Home is the story of faith and religion gone awry. Adelaide Lyle is the town midwife, and she opens the story by explaining why she left the church that was home and family to her for decades in the tiny western North Carolina town where she lives. After another congregant in the church is killed during some….er, questionable worship practices (and the death covered up by the Reverend Chambliss and Adelaide’s fellow congregants), Adelaide decides she must shield the congregation’s children from things that are happening inside the church. She comes to an uneasy agreement with Reverend Chambliss that she will care for the children while the adults worship, an arrangement that seems to work until the day that Julie Hall decides to take her autistic son to the church.

The story’s other narrators are Jess, a nine-year old boy whose mother is one of the church’s congregants, and the Sheriff Clem Barefield. Through Jessie, we learn exactly what happens to his brother inside the church that later leads to his death. Sheriff Barefield rounds out the story by introducing more of the Hall family and its connection to a tragedy in his own family decades earlier.

The story is not a wholly original one, in that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen to Jess’s brother (nicknamed Stump) in that backwoods evangelical country church. But to Cash’s credit, he expertly paces the events surrounding what happens to Stump and Jess, weaving in the Sheriff’s backstory in way that shows us the ties that bind and those that have been torn. In addition, the ending is something of a surprise in terms of choices some of the characters make.

Cash easily could have been much more heavy-handed with all the religious material, but he does a good job of showing how good people can be caught up by a more powerful personality, especially when that personality is promising them everlasting salvation. Reverend Chambliss would have been right at home as a character in HBO’s True Detective, but that’s less because he’s a stereotype than because he’s a simple fact in some parts of the South. Not long after I finished Cash’s book, a news story broke about a preacher in Kentucky killed as a result of snake-handling.

Cash also does a good job moving between characters. In particular, the reader understands Jess’s distress and confusion as he tries to manage what he sees happening to his family due to his mother’s devotion to the church even after Stump’s death.

I hope it doesn’t seem that I am damning this book with faint praise by giving it three out of five stars. It is a solid, well-written debut, one that makes me eager to read Cash’s latest, This Dark Road to Mercy. I’m giving it three stars primarily because the story is not wholly original, and neither are the characters. The author has some characters make interesting choices at the end, but that doesn’t make the book ground-breaking in any way. That said, this novel is definitely worth reading, and Cash will be a writer to watch.

And on the three-star rating: Lately I feel I’ve been grading on a curve. I’ve been giving solid, well-written books four or sometimes even five stars. But some of those books weren’t great, and it occurred to me one day that there is absolutely nothing wrong with three stars. Lately, I think that three stars have generally come to mean, “Meh, it was okay.” To me, three stars means that author got most things right: the writing, the pacing, the character development, the story. But I’ve decided to save those fourth and fifth stars for books that sweep me away, that show me something wholly original, that make me marvel and wonder at the effort–or effortlessness–of the writing.

*image from powells.com; all links are unaffiliated

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Just HAD to Buy…But Are Still Sitting on My Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants are asked to revisit any past topic, so I picked one with which I think many readers can identify—books I simply HAD to have at the moment, but that have consequently sat on my bookshelf untouched for months or even years.

First, the real books, hardback and paperback, that I just HAD to have:

  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – When I first started this blog in 2009, everyone was reading Wilkie Collins, it seemed, and although I am not the biggest fan of Nineteenth century literature, I decided that this might be the book that would change my mind. And who knows, perhaps it would have, had I ever even bothered to read the first page.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbary – This was another title, along with The Book Thief and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, that everyone seemed to be reading in 2009, so I HAD to have it. The only one of those popular titles I eventually read was The Book Thief.
  • The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye – I bought this because Gillian Flynn promoted it on the Today Show when she was touring for her book Gone Girl. I’m a big fan of Flynn’s writing, and I’m always curious to know what my favorite authors are reading. I remembered that I had seen this at the grocery store, so I went that same afternoon and bought it. I’m sure it’s good. Gillian Flynn said so.
  • The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics) CoverThe Ambassadors, Henry James – Every now and again I get this idea that I am going to go back to being a Serious Reader, because being a Serious Reader will make me an all-around Better Person. I’m not a complete fool, and I know I will never read Ulysses (seriously, no desire) and probably will never make it around to reading Proust, so James seemed like the safe choice. No idea why I chose The Ambassadors over any of this other novels. (Full disclosure: The only works of Henry James I have read are Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.)
  • Essence and Alchemy, Mindy Aftel – My first blog was a perfume blog. First I read Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, about the famed “nose” and perfume critic Luca Turin, and I had planned to read this. Turned out I was less interested in the mechanics and more interested in, as they say, the juice itself. I am sure this book is fascinating. Someday I might find out.
  • The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher – A huge chunk of a book filled with Fisher’s essays about food and eating food. I bought this in the early days of my perfume blogging. I probably had some silly fantasy of becoming a real all-around asthete.
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov – This was another book that so many book bloggers I follow and admired have recommended year after year. At least I actually own a copy. Baby steps.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus CoverThe last three books on this list: Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, were all purchased at the beginning of 2013 when I decided that I needed to read more non-fiction. They are lined up on top of a bookshelf in my office, mocking me ever so quietly.

And also, as a bonus, five Kindle purchases:

  • All Things, All at Once, Lee K. Abbott – I bought this last year because I was reading an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn (which I just recently purchased an also have not read yet) and she was talking about what an influence Abbott was for her. I bought this story collection right away. All it takes is someone whose book I think I might like talking about books they liked…and I’m done for.
  • A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava – Someone at The Millions listed this as a “favorite” read for 2012, and also, it was on sale. And also, I don’t read enough foreign authors. And clearly, I still haven’t.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) CoverCatching Fire, Suzanne Collins – I bought this in 2011 because I had read The Hunger Games and it was on sale. Now I’ve seen the movie, which I know probably isn’t exactly like the book, and maybe not even as good, but probably there’s no chance now that I will read it or Mockingjay. I am terrible about trilogies and series. I dont’ know why I bother. But while we’re on the subject, what’s going to happen now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone?
  • Damage Control, Denise Hamilton – I read a review of this on NPR one day right before I was getting ready to go on a trip, and it sounded like a good vacation read so I bought it. This is sort of cheating because I actually did read part of it, but I lost interest very quickly and cannot really remember what it is even about.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter, Oliver Pötsch – It was on sale! I was sure I’d read a pretty good review of it somewhere! (This is actually the story of most unread/partially read titles on my Kindle.)

What books did you just HAVE to buy that you never actually got around to reading?

*All links and images from powells.com; none are affiliate links.

Reader’s Journal: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River CoverA guilty pleasure of mine is following the fashion critics Tom & Lorenzo. I like a pretty dress as much as the next person, and I like the fact that all in all, their criticism never takes an overly personal or ugly turn. (They also happen to do an interesting wardrobe analysis of Mad Men called Mad Style.) Now and again, as they review red-carpet looks, they’ll rate a look as GTNYD, or “Girl, that’s not your dress.” Essentially the idea is that while there’s nothing wrong with the dress and nothing wrong with the person wearing the dress, the two would be better off without each other.

Considering this approach, I’m afraid that I would have to rate Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River thusly: BINYR, or “Book, I’m not your reader.”

This is a tough review to write. I was excited to read Once Upon a River and I expected to love it; after all, Campbell’s story collection American Salvage, which contains two of the seed stories for Once Upon a River, was one of my favorite reads of 2013. And while I still believe wholeheartedly that Campbell is a fine writer whose works are well worth the time, I really struggled to get through this novel.

Once Upon a River tells the story of Margo Crane. Growing up along the Stark River in northern Michigan, fifteen-year-old Margo’s world shifts after a string of difficult events (beginning with the departure of her mother and rape by her uncle) affect Margo and her family. She leaves home just shy of her sixteenth birthday, striking out alone with fantasies of somehow being able to survive alone in the wilderness. Margo idolizes Annie Oakley and dreams of finding someone to love and care for. Sadly, the first person she finds is a man three times her age. Apparently, Margo is not only a capable young woman–a crack shot who can also skin animals and fish for her supper–but she is also beautiful. (And mostly silent, because after the incident with her uncle, she stopped talking for the most part.) She willingly becomes the man’s lover, and while he is kind to her for most of their time together, there’s something disturbing about the way he fetishizes her beauty, her reticence, and her wild nature. There are three more men, two she gives herself to willingly because she is lonely and looking for someone to love.

Once Upon a River, for this reader, is the story of a heart-breakingly lonely person. Margo is only eighteen when the book ends, and she is pregnant and alone. Through a lucky turn of events she has found a way to put a roof over her head. What bothers me about the book is how much it seems to romanticize Margo’s longing, as well as her isolation. She pictures herself as a wolf girl who who can live on her own in the wild, or as a sharp-shooter like Annie Oakley. In reality, she has been abused and abandoned, endured tragic loss. She is uneducated and has few prospects beyond hunting and trapping, keeping the crops safe for farmers and selling skins along the Kalamazoo river. She’s carrying a child she has no real way to care for; she has no support system, no medical care.

In reviews, this book is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Walden. I suppose if Huck had been abused by Jim and then started turning tricks along the river, sure, these books would be more alike. This is not a criticism of Margo as a character, because she does use her wits to survive. But the story is quite bleak, and I’m somewhat surprised at how reviewers have romanticized this book. I don’t think of myself as a prude, but I’m bothered by the idea that this young, abused female character is somehow seen as plucky and adventurous. She uses sex to survive; she uses it as her shelter because she is so alone. (And yes, in some ways she does feel and own desire as well. I don’t want to disempower the character by taking that away from her.) And while I know that not every sexual act that follows an abusive one is tainted by said abuse, the men in Once Upon a River love Margo for her silence, for her wildness, for being an empty vessel into which they can pour themselves. She finally commits her own act of violence against a man out of necessity, and in a sense it drives her into further isolation. I don’t find the fact that she is pregnant and alone at the end (although she is happy, and as I said, she finds a certain stability) to mean that she has finally found something to fill her life up with, found someone of her very own to love. If you’ve seen any documentaries or even reality shows about teen pregnancy, then you know that this is the fantasy of so many teen mothers–that finally, they’ll have someone of their own to love, someone who’ll also be required on some level to love them and want them, too.

The plusses–because honestly, there are a few–are that the story is simply so well written, and Campbell clearly knows and loves the landscape. I am a sucker for a writer who can make place as much a character in a book as the people who inhabit it, and Campbell makes the river come to life. And although I was exasperated by Margo’s story and her relentless bad luck at times, she is well-drawn and the reader cannot help but pull for her. To put down the book and not see Margo through to the end would have meant another kind of abandonment she simply did not deserve.

In the end, my own ideas and ideals fail this book. While I realize that I meant to believe that Margo has her own quiet strength, that she is a survivor–and indeed, I think that’s true–I cannot get past the fact that a quiet reserve so often isn’t enough in this world.

*image from powells.com; all links are unaffiliated with this blog

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.