Freestyle Friday: In with the old, out with the new…

Okay, everyone. Get ready for a ramble! I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on both the past reading year and the reading year ahead for several months. I had a pretty decent year in reading for 2019, clocking in at 51 books, and for the first time ever, I completed the 20/15/10 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. But it felt like when things missed for me, they missed big time. For example, I abandoned four books, which is high for me. Sometimes I set things aside to read another time because I’m not in the mood or simply too busy or distracted by another book. But these four books were just disappointing in any number of ways, and the worst offender of all was The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo, a debut novel that was getting praise everywhere and apparently received a seven-figure advance. Ugh. The writing is so sloppy, the characters have no arc, the character relationships felt like something dreamed up by a fifteen-year-old…I’d say it’s like a Lifetime movie in novel form, but I don’t want to insult Lifetime. (Okay, apparently this is in development at HBO with Laura Dern and Amy Adams…maybe they’ll pull a Devil Wears Prada? I hated that book but oh, that movie! I love it!)

Another disappointment for me in 2019 was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Everyone seemed to just love it. I thought it felt rushed and sloppy, at least at a plot level, and I was left with so many questions. I was still riding the high of Commonwealth (which I’ve read about five times), so I had huge expectations. Maybe I’ll try it again and listen to the Tom Hanks audio, which is apparently wonderful. I don’t like audio books per se, but Tom Hanks could probably be entertaining reading a seed catalog.

But let’s talk about what I loved! I had four super-favorites (yes, that’s what I’m calling them, because it’s better than “my most favorite favorites”): S.M. Hulse’s Black River, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, and Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Black River is spare, melancholy, and tender in all the best ways. It was so well done, I read it twice in a row. (So technically I read 52 books, yes?) If you like Kent Haruf you must pick this one up as soon as possible. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.

Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins—my god. This novel revisits the Todd family from Life After Life, only this time the main protagonist is Ursula’s youngest brother Teddy. The books spans his entire life, and it’s a more traditional form, although it’s multi POV and bounces around a bit across the years. But the ending! What she did with the ending! Ah, see, I can’t spoil it for you. Atkinson’s writing is so engaging, I did not want to set this down. It was one of my favorite books from the last decade, and honestly I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I plan to re-read it again in 2020. More on that in a bit.

The book that surprised me the most was The Animators. It was wildly popular several years ago, which made me wary. Yet it kept popping back into my mind, so finally this summer I bought the ebook with some credit and I was hooked from page one. Sharon and Mel are such wonderful creations, their friendship is so realistically and richly presented…I was simply blown away. This book broke me and lifted me up and broke me and brought me up one more time. Lately I’ve been feeling wary of popular debut novels. I’d say in the last five years especially, most debuts have been disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s Book of the Month hype, Instagram, book prizes, or all of the above that are to blame. That said, this one deserved every bit of hype and then some. Why can’t they make this into a movie or series? The soundtrack would be amazing…and so many cool opportunities for animation!

(Do you guys occasionally get specific actors stuck in your head as characters? It only happens rarely for me, but I saw Mackenzie Davis from Halt and Catch Fire as Mel. Right now I am reading Tea Obreht’s Inland, and I keep picturing Merritt Wever as Nora. If you haven’t seen Godless on Netflix, watch it! And I must mention, in my mind, the young Philip Seymour Hoffman will always, always be who I see as Bunny in The Secret History. I read the book before I was familiar with him as an actor, but the first time I saw him on screen, the first word that popped into my head was Bunny.)

Well, and then there’s Olive. You either love her or you don’t, I suppose. I love her, but more than the character, I love Strout’s keen eye, dry wit, and overall empathy for her characters, as well as her seamless prose. She has quickly become one of my very favorite writers. I’ll definitely be re-reading Strout in 2020, although the first one I plan to reread is Amy and Isabelle, which was Strout’s debut. (Kind of ironic given all my complaints about debut novels in this post, I know.)

So I could go on and on about my reading in 2019, but let’s focus on 2020 for a bit, shall we? I have some plans, but they aren’t highly structured. The first thing is that this year, I plan to avoid debut novelists. As I said, I’ve been disappointed more often than not lately by debuts. Even if they’re solid first novels, they often aren’t worth the hype being lauded at them. This bothers me because a fine number of second and third books by better writers sort of fall by the wayside. This year I plan to get to some writers’ back catalogs, especially ones where I’ve read one or two books and promised myself (however long ago) I would read more. Right now I’m thinking Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, David Mitchell, and Ali Smith. I’m also planning to tackle the TBR and to read more nonfiction. I’ve made a tentative promise to myself not to buy any books at least until my birthday (you can bet I used up Christmas gift cards and $$ buying books, including pre-ordering a few things coming out early this year, like Liz Moore’s Long Bright River).

But the main thing I did was drop my Goodreads challenge number from 50 to 40 books for the year. Originally I had gone as low as 30 books, but my reader ego wouldn’t let me do it. Even setting the goal at 40 (or at 50, if I’m being honest) makes me feel like a fraud when I say I’m an “avid reader.” (I can see all those 100+ books a year people laughing .) But this year I don’t want to just read so much as study—maybe not every book, but many of them. I want to take a closer look at language and structure and how authors accomplished what they did. This means slowing down and taking more time with books, maybe re-reading passages or whole sections. In the last few years I’ve put pressure on myself to keep up (with who? with what?), but this year is going to be about deep discovery (and re-discovery).

How about you? Are you tired of keeping up with all the new stuff? Have any shiny new goals?

Happy weekend!

One thought on “Freestyle Friday: In with the old, out with the new…

  1. Great post, Priscilla! I’m furiously writing down your reading list. I’m looking forward to the last book in the Cromwell series, by A. S. Byatt …her writing just knocks me out. I just finished reading a whole plethora of biographies of the Manner sisters. There’s some good stuff there, especially the book of letters between the sisters. Fascinating look at life between the great wars and into post war life.

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