Reader’s Journal: Why you should read Anthony Marra (if you haven’t already)

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis year I’ve read both of Anthony Marra’s books, The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Both works were on so many ‘Best of’ lists the years they were published that I was wary, but I needn’t have worried. They both live up to the hype, especially The Tsar of Love and Techno, a series of linked stories set across the former Soviet Union (Chechnya, a Siberian city called Kirovsk, Leningrad/St. Petersburg) that move between the Soviet era just before World War II to near present day. Recently I saw someone on Goodreads say about a book that the best way they could share how much they loved the work was simply to quote from it extensively. This is exactly how I felt about The Tsar of Love and Techno, and to a lesser extent A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which was Marra’s debut novel, as I seemed to find myself highlighting some turn of phrase or passage on every other page. In fact, I underlined so much that the best way for me to share my feelings might simply be to hand someone the entire book. I’ll admit that A Constellation did drag a bit in places; it’s more bleak than The Tsar, dealing exclusively with the aftermath and devastation of both the First and Second Chechen Wars for a small group of characters. A Constellation covers only five days in the present but moves across time to share the lives of the principal characters. In both books the characters are connected either as family or friends, or by history or direct circumstance, and at times by all of the above. Some of these stories take too long to tell, the suspense building not to a bang but a whimper that can leave the reader feeling that the time spent on something that the plot reveals as inevitable might have been better spent on another character, another story. This is why I think The Tsar is better: Marra seems to have honed these connections, to have figured out exactly how much to tell in one place so that later, when a small but significant detail from an earlier story appears as a major element in a later one, the reader feels the power of the mystery of coincidence. There is much less of a feeling of “of course” and more of a sense of wonder at the ping and response of human activity across time.

The Tsar of Love and TechnoTwo things I loved in both books. First, the humor, which I completely did not expect. A Constellation has its fair share, especially when it brings together two of the primary characters, Akhmed and Sonja. He is a mostly incompetent village doctor who would prefer to be an artist; she is a talented surgeon who studied in London but returned to Chechnya for complicated reasons having to do with her younger sister. At the beginning of the novel, Akhmed brings a  child, Havaa, to the hospital where Sonja works, hoping that as a doctor Sonja will agree to take the homeless child into her care if he agrees to help her manage patients in the hospital. To test him, she asks what he would do with an unresponsive patient brought into the emergency room. He  responds that he would give the patient a questionnaire:

She had asked what he would do with an unresponsive patient, and he, in a blundering moment, had taken it to mean quiet or unwilling to talk , and had thought of the mute village baker, who communicated only through written notes—which had proved problematic the previous winter when the baker suffered from a bout of impotence he was too ashamed to write down, even to Akhmed. Akhmed had resolved the problem—shrewdly, he thought—by giving the mute baker a questionnaire with a hundred potential symptoms, of which the baker checked only one, and so had saved the baker’s testicles, marriage and pride.

Marra is highly adept at using humor to bring levity to the darkest moments. Although occasionally slapstick, this humor is often the most complicated kind, pulled from moments of misunderstanding or desperation to remind us all that the human condition is equal parts comedy and tragedy.

The second thing I love is a small thing: how Marra tells us something significant about even the most seemingly insignificant characters. For example, a man in A Constellation who is brought in after hitting a land mine:

The man, and he was a man, it was so easy to forget that with all his insides leaking out, had graduated from architecture school and had been searching for employment when the first bombs fell. When the land mine took his leg, he had already spent nine years searching for his first architectural commission. Another six and three-quarter years would pass before he got that first commission, at the age of thirty-eight. With only twenty percent of the city still standing, he would never be without work again.

I love this especially because it’s something I wonder about not even so much in novels as in real life, just passing people on the street or in the grocery store. These little glimpses make these bit players into something whole, give us a chance to see the detail framed against the bigger story.

A Constellation was Marra’s first book, but I recommend reading The Tsar first. I think they’re both worth reading and the quotes I’ve shared above are both from A Constellation, The Tsar is just…better. I’m not sure, but perhaps with A Constellation, Marra needed to write out all the blood and horror and betrayal to get some perspective, because it’s certainly the perspective piece of things that makes The Tsar the better book. And so, to convince you, I will leave you with a string of quotes (but I promise it’s not the whole book) from The Tsar. You’re welcome.

Radiographs of broken ribs, dislocated shoulders, malignant tumors, compacted vertebrae had been cut into vague circles, the music etched into the X-ray surface, the center hole punctured with a cigarette ember, and it was glorious to know that these images of human pain could hide in their grooves a sound as pure and joyful as Brian Wilson’s voice.

Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air.

Despite inheriting her grandmother’s beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich.

You see, Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him.

The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raised, rallying the schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help.

I fear for her future in a country whose citizenry is forced to assemble its own furniture.

Then she’s gone and I’m left alone with the assistant whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs.

Danilo, a contract soldier, body build like a flour sack and brain wired like a firecracker…

The megalopolis in his mind has quieted to a country road. He does his work, he eats his bread, and he sleeps with the knowledge that today hasn’t added to the sum of human misery. For now at least it’s a peace of a kind he hadn’t imagined himself worthy of receiving.

Kolya entered the chorus with an orchestra of punch-drunk madmen living in him, belting the tune to the velvet yellow, to the misting lake, to the carcinogens no song could dislodge from his capillaries, and in this amphitheater of decimated industry, on this stage of ice and steel, he taught the granddaughter of a prima ballerina to dance.

The strip of concrete, scabbed in gray forest, stretched to the intersection where it linked with another sidewalk, which in turn intersected with another and another, circumscribing the limits of her life. How often had she walked down them silently? How often had she censored her thoughts, her judgments, her beliefs, her desires, consigning them to some region of her soul where they couldn’t betray her?

Took a long time to understand the American mindset. The fear of their cruel and capricious government weighs heavily on their psyches. They’re more inclined to believe they’ll lose what they have than receive what they want.


The Elephant in the…Book?

Something happened I just have to talk to you about. Recently, I read a book by a favorite author. I was mesmerized and thoroughly enjoying the experience until I hit the last few pages. Why? Because it seems the author (and the editors) made a huge mistake! Sorry, this is going to be a bit confusing, because I don’t want to reveal the book and author: In the middle of the book, the first-person narrator talks about a past event where she met a specific character. In the last few pages of the book, the narrator recalls a memory in the same time frame as that event, where another character specifically reveals that the person the narrator described meeting would not be attending the event for medical reasons. At first I thought this might be an issue with an unreliable narrator and perhaps I had missed something, but I went back to the initial event and at no point is there any surprise (“But So-and-So WAS there, even though Whosis had said So-and-So would not make it!”) or explanation (“The reason must not have been as bad as Whosis said, because So-and-So was there, which made me more suspicious”).

I keep trying to work out how this could have happened. The narrator meets this character in the middle of the book, and then at the end of the book we’re essentially told the narrator never did get to meet that person. And it’s interesting because our impression of the related character, Whosis, hinges on each of these events. I keep telling myself I must be misreading. Honestly, I can see how it could happen, because looking at a draft over and over again, you can start to take it for granted that everything’s in order, even if you read it all the way through. I certainly don’t want to point this out as a flaw, because the book is so good overall. Maybe people won’t notice? I’ve looked through Goodreads and no one has mentioned it, but I wonder if that’s because so many of us get to the end of a book–especially a thriller–and are so wrapped up in the conclusion that things like this don’t register. Have you ever experienced anything like this in a book? Did it change your opinion of the book or author overall?

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!