Top Ten Books I Missed in 2017

Is it just me, or were a lot of good books published in 2017? I felt like I was buying something or adding something new to my list every time I turned around. I bought a lot of current books in 2017, which is unusual for me. I tend to buy more backlist titles, probably because I buy most of my books on sale or used. Six of the books on this list are already on my shelves, and I greatly covet the four that aren’t, especially because my library only has one of them. Sigh. Without further ado (and a day late), here are my top ten books I missed in 2017 but plan to read in 2018:

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee. This made so many “Best of” lists this year, and most importantly it was Roxane Gay’s favorite book of the year. We all trust Roxane, right?
The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld. The second I saw Rene Denfeld had a new book out, I had to buy it. I loved The Enchanted, which was beautiful and heartbreaking.
Bellevue Square, Michael Redhill. I had hoped to buy this 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel on my trip to Amsterdam after hearing Naomi and Kim say wonderful things about it, but the American Book Center didn’t have it and Waterstone’s was closed the day I finally made it over there (New Year’s Day). My library does have another 2017 Giller contender I really wanted to read, I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters (published in 2016), but not this one. Maybe they’ll have it by 2018?
The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry. Honestly, I just liked the cover on this one, and everyone was buzzing about it so…trust.
Marlena, Julie Bunting. I love novels about formative female friendships. Last year I had two on my radar, Marlena and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. Sadly, The Burning Girl, while spot on about many of the ways girlfriends can drift apart during adolescence, failed to provide the deeper story I longed for. Maybe Marlena will fill the gap.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley. This was one of the Man Booker Prize nominees that interested me the most after I heard Hannah Greendale review it on her YouTube channel, Beginning to Bookends. And again, that cover! I’m shallow. Sue me.Elmet
The Dark Dark, Samantha Hunt. I was absolutely blown away by Mr. Splitfoot in 2016, and then again by her first novel, The Seas, when I read it last year. The second I heard Hunt had a new story collection out in 2017, I ordered it.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser. Like millions of American children, I grew up captivated by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her childhood and early adulthood in the American Midwest and West. This book sounds absolutely fascinating and takes a close look at Wilder’s relationship with her daughter Rose, who had a great deal of editorial influence on the books. THE LIBRARY DOESN’T HAVE IT. I feel this is un-American.
Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands, by Roger D. Hodge. Because you can take the girl out of Texas…
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel. Several people were talking about this one in 2017, but it came to my attention when it popped up as a recommendation for me after I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. I’m fascinated by people who brave the wilderness and choose a simpler (in some ways) life. Nope, no copy at the library.

Hopefully I’ll get to most of these in 2018! How about you: did you read any of these in 2017, or do you hope to read them in 2018?


2018: Facing the TBR

At the end of 2017, I realized that I have a serious problem: I own a lot of unread books. Usually I kick off January with some sort of TBR challenge, and 2018 is no different. This year, I am joining Roof Beam Reader’s Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. The rules are simple enough: in 2018, I have to read and review 12 books on my TBR that were published before 2017. I can also list two alternate titles in case a couple of my original choices don’t pan out. I can read the books in any order at any time before January 2019. Sounds simple enough, but truth be told I am not the best at challenges. I have great hope for this year, though. Here’s my list:

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa
News of the World, Paulette Giles
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
IQ, Joe Ide
Pleasantville, Attica Locke
Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry
Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
LaRose, Louise Erdrich
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson (alternate)
Wolf in White Van, John Darnelle (alternate)

But my problem goes way beyond 14 books. Way. Beyond. So, I’m setting up some rules for 2018, the first one being that I cannot purchase any new books until my birthday at the end of July, and then again at the holidays. If I want to read something that’s not on my shelves, I have to go to the library. I have only one exception, which is a book I pre-ordered in 2017, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I was a fan of her blog, True Crime Diary, and her work on the Golden State Killer case (so chilling) and was happy to hear that her husband, the actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, was seeing to it that her book would still be published after her untimely death in 2016. That’s coming in February, so until July, that’s it for me. I also plan to limit myself to buying three books, which will be a total of seven for the year. To be honest, I’m actually hoping that I get to my birthday and decide I don’t want to buy anything at all.

I used to do the TBR Dare, committing to reading only books from the TBR every January through April, a tradition I plan to continue on my own since it doesn’t seem anyone is hosting it this year. I’ll use this post to track how many of these other unread books on my TBR I can get through in 2018. Mind you, these books have been purchased (most of them on Kindle sale, my weakness) over a period of more than five years, so no judging! (Or at least, not too much judging.) Most of these are also marked as “Shelved to read” on my Goodreads page, but I’m listing as many as possible here for double accountability. Here we go:

Elmet, Fiona Mozley
Marlena, Julie Buntin
Borne, Jeff VanderMeer
The Dark Dark, Samantha Hunt
The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Tomb Song, Julian Herbert
Gutshot, Amelia Gray
The Blue Fox, Sjón
Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne
Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld
The Dry, Jane Harper
The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee
Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough
Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
The Late Show, Michael Connelly
Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Sunshine State, Sarah Gerard
My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie
Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones
The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis
The Wangs vs. the World, Jade Chang
Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
This Is Your Life Harriet Chance, Jonathan Evison
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
Slade House, David Mitchell
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
Love and Other Ways of Dying, Michael Paterniti
Dodgers, Bill Beverly
Remember Me Like This, Bret Anthony Johnston
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
Western Stories, Elmore Leonard
Made for Love, Alissa Nutting
Lady Cop Makes Trouble, Amy Stewart
Disclaimer, Renee Knight
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin
The Master, Colm Toibin
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joan Chase
The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard
The Observations, Jane Harris
The Report, Francis Kane
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt
Doc, Maria Doria Russell
The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes
The North Water, Ian McGuire
Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh
Regeneration, Pat Barker
The Illusionist, Colson Whitehead
Life Drawing, Robin Black
The Year of Silence, Madison Smartt Bell
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Christodora, Tim Murphy
The Last Days of California, Mary Miller
Loner, Teddy Wayne
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, Piu Marie Eatwell
Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
White Is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Ed Tarkington
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe
White Oleander, Janet Fitch
Dissolution, C.J. Sansom
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell
American Rust, Philipp Meyer
Q Road, Bonnie Jo Campbell
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
The Shore, Sara Taylor
The Infatuations, Javier Marias
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Anton Disclafani
The Map of Lost Memories, Kim Fay
Private Citizens, Tony Tulathimutte
Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, Elizabeth Kelly
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham
The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
Black River, S.M. Hulse
Is This Tomorrow, Caroline Leavitt
The Informationist, Taylor Stevens
The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
Eva’s Eye, Karin Fossum
A Better World, Marcus Sakey
Save Yourself, Kelly Braffet
Welcome to Braggsville, T. Geronimo Johnson
Lost Girls, Robert Kolker
The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow
Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks
The Cowboy and the Cossack, Clair Huffaker
Funny Girl, Nick Hornby
Thrown, Kerry Howley
A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer Dubois
The Might Have Been, Joseph M. Schuster
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Cry Father, Benjamin Whitmer
Nothing Gold Can Stay, Ron Rash
Die a Little, Megan Abbott
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes
Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda
King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
Nora Webster, Colm Toibin
Child 44, Tom Rob Smith
New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig
Long Division, Kiese Laymon
The Maid’s Version, Daniel Woodrell
The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock
Double Feature, Owen King
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman
The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura
Gun, with Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem
Troubles, J.G. Ferrell
All Things, All at Once, Lee K. Abbott
Civilwarland in Bad Decline, George Saunders
The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow
HHhH, Laurent Binet
When It Happens to You, Molly Ringwald
The Nix, Nathan Hill
Ways to Disappear, Ivy Pochoda
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Fobbit, David Abrams
Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

2018 should be an interesting year!

Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachI finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.

Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.

Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.

In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.

And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.

Reader’s Journal: Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by NightAt the age of 82, Sheldon Horowitz has been transplanted from Manhattan to Oslo, Norway. Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea brings Sheldon to Oslo to live with her and her husband Lars after the death of her grandmother, Mabel. Rhea believes, as did the late Mabel, that Sheldon is suffering from dementia that started when his son Saul (Rhea’s father) was killed in Vietnam in in 1975 and has slowly continued to worsen over the years. Sheldon insists, for example, that he was a Marine sniper during the Korean War, rather than the file clerk they believed him to be, and he continues to see the enemy everywhere—around corners, behind trees. He thinks they are always watching, waiting to get revenge.

But the truth is more complicated than that. And that sentence, in fact, could sum up this entirely wonderful, perfectly paced thriller, Norwegian by Night. Sheldon is hapless and guilty. He believes he owes American his allegiance for helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis. As a young Jewish American, he was too young to join the war against the Nazis, so instead he volunteered during the Korean War, joining the Marines. When Saul joins the Navy and heads off to Vietnam, Sheldon is proud of his patriotism, but when Saul returns from his first tour of duty physically unharmed but mentally distressed and wanting to talk about the horrors he experienced, Sheldon tells him to set it behind him and move on with his life. Saul signs on for a second tour and is killed shortly after returning to Vietnam, and Sheldon believes he is responsible for his own son’s death.

But the truth is more complicated than that. One afternoon when Rhea and Lars are out of the apartment and Sheldon is home alone, he hears a violent altercation between a man and a woman in an upstairs apartment. The argument escalates, and he hears the woman leave the apartment. Peering out the peephole in the front door, he sees the woman stop. In his mind, he faces a test: will he refuse entry for someone who has nowhere else to go? Will he sit silently behind the door the way so many Europeans did when they knew their Jewish neighbors and friends needed a place to hide? Sheldon’s actions will send him on a tour of Norway with a small boy in tow.

But the truth is more complicated than that. The man, Enver, who was involved in the altercation is the boy’s father. He’s a refugee from Kosovo, where he fought bravely and brutally against the Serbs for independence. With the war ended and the Kosovo freed, he wants to take his son and return to his home. He’ll stop at nothing. As he pursues Sheldon and the boy, Enver is pursued by Sigrid, a Police Chief Inspector for her district in Oslo.

But the truth is…Okay, I’ll stop doing that. But. The truth is this story is humorous and sweet, melancholy and tragic, fast-paced and thrilling. Derek B. Miller masterfully navigates this third-person narrative told from alternating points of view, presenting at one time a novel that’s both personal and political. The weight of history—family history, national history, religious history—weighs on every character, informs every action. The pride and loneliness of people who are forced to wander, the way they carry their stories and the stories of the people they love, are at the center of this beautiful novel. I long to tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Miller has done such a terrific job at revealing details that move the story forward at just the right moments that to know too much could spoil the pleasure in turning the page. I had a tough time putting it down, and I hope that you will, too.

A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!



Hey, You, Get off of My Shelf

Get it? “Hey, you, get off of my shelf…” You know, like “Hey, you, get off of my cloud…” The Rolling Stones? Anyone?


So last week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) topic was something that makes us instantly want to read a book, so let’s see if you can guess this week’s topic. YES! You in the back row with the yellow shirt (totally your color, by the way), that’s right. Today’s topic is what instantly makes us NOT want to read a book.

Right off the bat, let’s just go ahead and break rule number one (I’m sure I am not the only one doing this): Its cover is stupid/cheesy/just not compelling in any way. That’s right. I judge a book by its cover. For example, if I happen to come across these:

Product DetailsProduct Details

(Hm. These were listed on Amazon under “Best Amish Romance,” like that’s a thing. By the way, my search history is so wrecked now. And no, I wouldn’t read these even if they had a better cover, so maybe not the best example.) Put a woman in a bonnet on the cover of your novel, and I’m probably going to walk on by. I also avoid clowns, most wizards, and evil cat eyes. And while we’re at it, I seriously hate movie tie-in covers, and I’ll go out of my way to find a copy without one if the book has been turned into a movie/TV show. One thing that seriously annoys me about Kindle books is that Amazon now automatically updates covers to the movie/TV-show tie-in. STAHP.

Its title is too dumb to say out loud. Okay, that’s a little over the top. Maybe. Except my Mom tried for years to get me to read a book called Fair and Tender Ladies (by Lee Smith), and I resisted with every fiber of my being because ugh. That title. And then there are titles like Where White Horses Gallop and Butterflies Dance in the Dark. Please! (And, of course, the above-pictured The Healing Heart of an Amish Girl.) If any of these are your favorite books, I am sorry (on so many levels).

Except you know what? Fair and Tender Ladies is a really wonderful book. I’m not kidding.

It’s been blurbed by Jonathan Franzen. I read The Corrections and it was good. Not the best novel of a generation, not the Best American Novel, but good. I’ll probably read Freedom and Purity at some point. All that to say, nothing about an endorsement from Franzen will make me hurry to pick up a book. And apparently I’m not in a hurry to pick up his books, either.

It’s been compared to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This is the book that broke Dave Eggers for me. I like McSweeney’s and The Believer and he does a lot of good for literacy with his 826 Valencia project. Any comparison to that book makes me think, “Hm, so navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, SO POSTMODERN Tristram Shandy ripoff” is not going to have me reaching for my wallet.

It’s written by Dave Eggers. See above. I don’t know why, I just haven’t been able to do it. Lots of people whose opinions I trust think he’s a great writer. On the other hand, I have several titles by Vendela Vida on my TBR. She’s his wife. So that’s something, yes? Come on, someone talk me out of this one and convince me to read one of his books. This is a cry for help.

It’s the first book in a series. So many good series exist out there, but I don’t have that kind of time. I have too many books on my TBR list as it is. So while I am really, really curious about, say, Donna Leon, I probably won’t be rushing to pick up one of her books any time soon. I still have to get through all of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series and Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books first. Bah.

It’s self-published. I know. The Martian was self-published, and look what happened there! You can now buy the book with the movie tie-in cover! It has Matt Damon on it! Look, getting published is not easy. Some self-published works out there might be really good. And you do hear about some breakout authors (Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking) who make a lot of money or get book deals. It seems, though, that a lot of self-publishing happens in genres that don’t interest me all that much (fantasy, romance). I also imagine I would spend more time editing (in my mind, anyway) these titles than reading them.

Its description includes the words “magical realism.” I’m not saying I don’t like magical realism. I’m just saying I won’t rush to pick it up.

It’s titled Fifty Shades of [You Name It]. Do I need to explain this one?

It features a precocious child or an animal as the narrator. Children’s voices are hard to get right, and most adults can’t do it. There are some exceptions. (Don’t come at me with Room because I didn’t make it past page five on that one, and don’t think the movie tie-in cover with Brie Larson will help because I didn’t see the movie.) And I like dogs, but I’m not really interested in any novel narrated by one. Plus, if a dog is narrating, you know the ending will be sad. It’s a given. Don’t pretend it’s not.

Your turn*…what keeps you from instantly picking up a book (or from picking it up at all)? 

*I love connecting with other readers, and I enjoy hearing from you if you have something fun to share. If you are just here to leave a lame comment so you can post your own link (“Great list! Here’s mine!” or “Me, too! Here’s mine!” ), please don’t waste your time.

Reader’s Journal: The Seas

The SeasSometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:

A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.

It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.

Here’s how it begins:

The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:

People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.

Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.

She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.

Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.

When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

I think I have a new favorite author for my list.