Freestyle Friday: In which I have qualms about dirt that is American

In the last week or so, you can’t be a bookish person and not be aware of what’s happening with Jeanine Cummins’ debut novel American Dirt. So, where does everybody stand on this? I’ll share some thoughts, but if you’re out there, I’d like to hear yours.

Lately I’ve had misgivings about debut novels in general. The exceptional few, like Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, are stunning. But many, many of them are just okay, even though they were objects of bidding wars that ended in seven-figure book deals and spots on celebrity book clubs and are now in development with HBO/Netflix/Hulu/major film studio to become a series or movie.

It also seems lately like literary prize long and short lists are crowded with debut novels, and more often than not, when I’ve picked up one of these debuts, I’ve found myself slightly baffled as to how it was nominated. It doesn’t mean the books are bad, but…not really so good they should be nominated for a literary prize. (Whether or not literary prizes mean anything anymore is another debate.)

I first heard about American Dirt way back in June, and I popped it on to my Want-to-read list immediately. (Although I seem to remember the description being much different back then, making it sound like the book was about how the woman owned a bookstore and formed a relationship with the cartel kingpin based on their shared love of books, and I thought that was an interesting angle for a story.) But near the end of the year, when I was thinking about my reading plans for 2020, I decided that I would go deeper into backlists for known authors and re-read old favorites instead of following debuts. I decided to delete  debut novels I’d added over the last year, which included American Dirt, and that’s when I saw the first warning on Goodreads.

So all that rambling is to say, I was taking it off my list anyway, and then I saw the reviewers starting to say the book was racist. I followed this with great interest, mainly because I just find the whole BOOK MACHINE so very interesting. Let me stop right now and say, if I hadn’t taken it off my list because I was tired of debut novels, the racism thing would have made me think twice about reading it. At the very least, I would have done some deeper investigating….but since everything has blown up, that hasn’t been necessary.  [I’ll note that, since the controversy started, I’ve seen many people I follow on Goodreads add it to their shelves as Currently reading or Want to read. Hm.]

This book is bringing up everything that’s ugly about the world of book publishing and promotion. Early (and not so early) reviewers are doubling down on their positive reviews, while writers and professional critics are grappling with early or recent praise they gave the book. (In a truly bizarre turn, the New Republic went after novelist Lauren Groff for her review in the New York Times, which had promoted said review with a quote from an older draft that didn’t appear in the final version.) The author is said to have identified as white years ago and now in interviews is identifying as (one-quarter) Latina, because her grandmother is Puerto Rican…but Puerto Rican and Mexican aren’t the same! Not the same experiences at all! Was this her agent’s idea? Her publisher’s? HERS? And then, she has supposedly also said she wished someone “brown-skinned” could have written this story, but goshgollygeeshrug, they didn’t, so it just had to be her.  And I hear she did careful research she discussed in an Afterword…but then if she’s so sensitive to these issues, if it’s all so carefully researched, why was she okay with the barbed-wire table decorations at her book party? Why did she get an actual manicure with tiny barbed wires on it? This, at a time when half the country wants to BUILD A WALL. When children are in cages!

And then, enter Oprah. Man.

Now, chances are Oprah (or, more likely, her assistants) picked the book months and months ago. But still. I mean, she read it, right? And really, don’t they keep up with social media? Will she change her mind and pick another book? If she does, will that just make more people want to read it?

What worries me about this book is that it’ll end up courting the exact wrong kind of audience from here on out: conservatives who will buy the book just because they want to support a white author they see as a victim of political correctness. And even if they read the book, from what I’ve heard, they will only have their prejudices and limited understanding of Mexicans and the immigrant crisis confirmed. How does this help anyone?

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not going to read the book. Even if I heard it was the most beautifully written book of the 21st century, I would not touch it with a ten foot pole. I feel like there are so. many. things. wrong. I blame the author, who maybe should have found another way to frame the story. I blame the agent and the editor, for being blind (or callous) about issues of race. I blame the publisher–what happened to all those sensitivity readers they’re supposed to have? (I also blame the publisher for not courting Mexican and Mexican American authors, or at least the ones who don’t write magical realism and folksy tales.) But I blame us all, too, we bookish types, for falling hard for every new, hyped debut, for FOMO and the desire to get a bunch of likes  when we promote advanced reviews on Instagram and Twitter or our blogs. (That said, I have seen lots of bookish bloggers and Instagrammers getting out and promoting Own Voices authors and promising to work harder to drive diversity.)

And then, finally: Do you agree writers can write anything they want to write? I’m seeing this tossed out by a lot of reviewers who loved the book. And honestly. I think that’s because it’s easier than admitting you read something and it didn’t even occur to you at the time that IT WAS RACIST. You know, that’s okay. That’s a part of getting woke, yeah? I would much rather be seeing (white) reviewers saying, “I’m going to go back and reconsider in light of what I am hearing,” instead of “People can write what they want it was a thrilling ride the pacing just oh my god shut up I am not a racist.”

Because I feel a little bit like this whole thing brings up that saying, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I definitely think that white people can and should write about racism, but I also think we need to be very sensitive to how we frame issues and whether or not we’re appropriating or promoting (harmful) stereotypes. (I’m looking at you, The Help.) And I think we have to accept that we don’t get the final say, no matter our intentions.

If you’re still here, I appreciate you listening to me ramble! I’d love to know what you think.

Some other links:

Seattle Review of Books

Tropics of Meta

New York Times

The Guardian

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!

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?

Freestyle Friday: Some recent thoughts on reading

Books for LivingI just picked up Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living a few days ago, and I’ve almost finished it. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves to read. He shares some interesting and sometimes profound thoughts, and I can see it being a book I could pick up and read again, flipping through chapters at random. I love a good book about books and reading.

Books for Living isn’t a compilation of reviews. Every chapter references a specific book, but often the book is tangential to other stories about reading or life. For example, in his chapter about The Odyssey (you know the one), he tells a story about a paper he wrote for his high school Greek class, a paper for which he believed he deserved an A but on which he received a C. When he tells his teacher, Mr. Tracy, that he believed he at least deserved a B, his teacher takes a red pen, crosses out the C, and writes in a B. Then he asks, “Are you sure you don’t want an A?” While Schwalbe struggles to determine just exactly what might be happening, the teacher continues:

It’s a C paper. No matter what grade I put on it, it’s still a C paper. But I’m happy to give it a B or even an A. In fact, why don’t you just tell me what grade you want when you hand in each paper for the rest of the term and save me the trouble of grading them.

Mind you, this takes place in the 1970s, decades before the trend of everybody deserves an A for effort. Looking back, Schwalbe says:

Great teachers help us see ourselves in the broadest perspective possible. Mr. Tracy may have wanted to teach me a lesson about my own arrogance, but he certainly wasn’t trying to discourage me: He was trying to get me to see things as they really are. Encouragement comes in many forms, but excessive or unwarranted praise isn’t encouragement.

Hear, hear.

So what does that have to do with thoughts on reading, besides being a passage in a book about reading? Well, because I’ve been beating myself up about not writing reviews of what I’ve been reading. Some people are terrific at reviewing everything, but only a very few write anything worth reading, at least in my opinion. First, everyone’s reading and reviewing the same books. Second, a plot synopsis (sometimes copied directly from the book jacket) followed by a list of pros and cons and a grade or star ranking does nothing for me, but then again neither do “reviews” that basically take five paragraphs to outline a book’s plot (but not the end!) followed by a few sentences about the reviewer’s opinion and a rating. That’s a book report. I’ve been guilty of the latter myself, when I can’t think of what I want to say, or when I’m trying to write a post about a book that was just fine thanks, but really…doesn’t deserve a lot of my time beyond the cursory “That’s worth picking up” or a decent star rating on Goodreads. It’s like this: Some books are Chipotle. It’s good and a lot of people enjoy it, but my god do we need a thousand reviews about a burrito? No. No, we don’t.

It’s amazing to me the time I spend thinking about this space and what to write here. I think about it so much I tend to forget it’s basically sitting idle. I’m still not ready to give up, but I’m not sure what I want this to be. A place to talk about books, yes. A place to write reviews such as the aforementioned…don’t hold your breath. But I still realize that this is a C-grade blog, and I’m okay with that. Like Schwalbe notes: “When you embrace mediocrity, you embrace humility—you learn to see that no matter how good you are at something, the world probably has people who are more talented at it than you.” (Oh yeah, look at me being all worried about the future of my blog as everything goes to hell around us. Priorities.)

Anyway, if you’re still with me, I’m going to change gears for a second and talk about something about readers that irritates the ever-living hell out of me. I follow a style blogger who sometimes posts about what she’s reading. Recently, she’s been reading Tana French. If you’ve spent any time here, you know I love Tana French, so no, I’m not objective about this at all. But the thing is, this blogger goes on about how she loves mysteries, but more of the P.D. James or Agatha Christie kind: more plot-driven, more whodoneit/howdoneit and less whydoneit. And that’s all good. We all have our preferences. But then she goes on to complain about how French spends so much time on the detectives and their lives and problems. She’s on her third French volume now and gripe, moan, complain. It takes everything I have not to leave a comment that says, Please, just stop reading them. You are not her audience. The whole point of the Dublin Murder Squad series is the Dublin Murder Squad—not the crimes. It drives me batty when people pick up a type of book they typically don’t care for and then blame the author. It’s one thing to say the writing is bad (in fairness, she hasn’t said this), but it’s another to be all, “I don’t really like books about quilting, so I picked up a book about quilting and oh my god when will the author stop with the quilts.” Quilts are the point. But otherwise, you know, I really enjoy her blog.

God, I sound crazy.

Heat & LightIn other news, I broke my TBR Double Dare pledge for the first time in five years. I was scrolling through something somewhere and I came upon a review (not on a blog…I think it was Nancy Pearl) of Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light and decided I had to read it right away, so I used some Google Play credit I had and read it in a couple of days. Oh, it was so good. And then I remembered that back in 2010 when I first got my Kindle I had purchased her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, so I read that, too (take that, TBR). Very interesting to read her latest and then her debut; she’s a terrific writer, completely engaging.

Another book I read recently that I highly recommend is The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney. It tracks two completely unrelated mysteries in the same city, which shouldn’t work but somehow works beautifully. Place and atmosphere seem to bring everything together, and it’s set in Oklahoma City which just somehow works.

That’s it for now. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and happy weekend!

2016: Looking Back

As I mentioned in my Favorite Books of 2016 post, 2016 was a fantastic year in reading for me. Honestly, I can’t remember a better year since maybe 2012. The better part of my reading year was filled with four- and five-star books, and not simply because I was being generous. At the same time, several books I expected to love didn’t make the cut. You can see everything I read this year here, but I wanted to cover a few highlights of my reading year that aren’t just about favorites:

My very favorite books of the year were Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

The book I finished too late to consider for year-end favorites was The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. This fictional account of Truman Capote and his New York society “swans” was a delightful surprise. If you enjoyed this one, I highly recommend The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne, a fictionalized account of the story of Ann Woodward, the socialite accused of murdering her husband.

The best debut author I read was hands-down Imbolo Mbue. Behold the Dreamers, a novel about a Cameroonian family employed by a Titan of Wall Street just before the 2008 crash, is so powerful that feels like it was written by someone who has already churned out award-winning work. Unlike a lot of novels that deal with contemporary events, I can see this one becoming a book that remains relevant because Mbue seamlessly manages to integrate a timeless story about wanting a better life with current events, events that never overshadow the more intimate drama of a husband and wife’s struggles to get ahead. It got some good attention, but I don’t think it got nearly enough. I look forward to reading her next book. She will most definitely be a writer to watch.

Another book I thought deserved more attention was The Unseen World by Liz Moore. Ada Sibelius’s father, the only parent she has ever known, is beginning to lose his mind. In the midst of this crisis, she learns a family secret that sends her on a mission to learn the truth about her father. Moore never lets Ada’s story veer into melodrama, nor does she turn the eccentric Ada into a silly caricature of quirkiness. Moore is a quiet writer, developing deep, original characters without sacrificing plot. I also recommend her novel Heft.

A book from my TBR pile that made quite an impression on me was Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I bought it used five or six years ago after browsing through the (virtual) bargain bins on Better World Books, and then I promptly  stuck it on the shelf and forgot about it, probably in favor of something new and shiny everyone was discussing. This is another debut novel, although Lawson, a Canadian, was 56 when it was published (hope for us all). It tells the story of the four Morrison children, whose parents are tragically killed in a car accident at the beginning of the book. The novel has an unreliable narrator in Kate Morrison, who has very definite ideas about how the family tragedy has shaped everything in their lives. This novel is an interesting and often quietly humorous look at how family roles and myths can lock us into patterns that may actually have nothing at all to do with what really happened.

I re-read three books this year, M Train by Patti Smith, You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon, and Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips. I loved every single one of these books the first time around, and I’m happy to say they remained five-star reads. Re-reading M Train was like visiting a favorite friend, and I suspect it’s a book I could re-read every year without tiring of it. In 2017 I am planning to re-read Just Kids (more on that in a forthcoming “Looking Forward” post), but I may make room for both. I originally read You Remind Me of Me in 2005, on two long plane trips to and from Las Vegas. Like Kent Haruf or Bonnie Nadzam, Chaon is one of those writers who beautifully crafts the small stories of people in the so-called flyover states. Machine Dreams was Phillips’s (probably best known for her novel Lark & Termite) debut novel, and it covers the years from WWII through Vietnam, giving us the changing face of a nation and times through the stories of family of four in small-town West Virginia.

Thirty-six of the fifty-five books I’ve read this year were by new-to-me authors. Of those books, the best surprises were All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. All My Puny Sorrows sounded like a book I would love from the get-go (because who doesn’t love books about suicide, really?), but the humor was completely unexpected. The latter two were both definitely outside my wheelhouse and were books I picked up because they were generating so much buzz with readers I trust. Mr. Splitfoot is absolutely grounded and magical at the same time, and Hunt never gives over to too much weirdness or too much explanation. A Head Full of Ghosts is supremely clever, even for those of us who aren’t horror fans, with fully realized characters and an overall interesting take on family narratives. Oh, and also an honorable mention for Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which didn’t surprise me so much but did delight me to no end.

Thirty-one of the fifty-five books I read were by women, but only a lousy seven were by non-white authors, which is an issue I realized late in the year. To tell the truth, it makes me squeamish to count such things, though, because it makes me feel like I am patting myself on the back and congratulating myself on what a good little white person I am. That said, I realize I need to be more aware. The main thing I plan to do in 2017 is purchase books by non-white authors, so I can vote with my dollar and tell publishers what kind of books I want to see them publish. Except for books by favorite authors, when it comes to white authors I’ll probably start using the library more frequently. As much as I’d love to BUY ALL THE BOOKS, I have too many unread books right now to justify buying more unless the purchase makes a meaningful statement in some way. Given the recently announced Simon & Schuster decision to give a book contract to a white supremacist, I think voting with our wallets is more important than ever.

Only four of the books I read got two-star ratings: Siracusa by Delia Ephron, The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Siracusa and The Kind Worth Killing were on a lot of people’s favorites lists, but for me they both fell flat. The characters in both novels were unlikable and two-dimensional, and their motives were dumb. Still, I have to give credit where it’s due: The Kind Worth Killing had a very tightly plotted pace that kept me turning pages almost against my will. We Are Not Ourselves started out strong but quickly became a drag, as it has one of the most insufferable protagonists…and it started to get sloppy. At one point late in the novel, a main character suddenly has a sister, even though early in the novel it’s explained that he only has a brother. And Empire of the Summer Moon, a non-fiction account of the Comanche in Texas that won the Pulitzer, was shocking because it’s written from a very solid, Western, Christian, thank-goodness-the-whites-came point of view. I stopped at page 61, but up to that point the pages are flagged and underlined and marked with my notes exhorting my disbelief. Check out this little nugget: “This the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp–as though the former were looking back thousands of years at premoral, pre-christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves.” Because morality did not exist until Christians, y’all.

My other biggest disappointments were This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and the third novel in the Elena Ferrante trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. This Must Be the Place barely escaped getting a two-star rating from me because it also had an implausible situation at its core and dull characters. I loved The Hand That First Held Mine so much, I had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. And with the Ferrante, I’m not sure what happened. My Brilliant Friend was breathtaking, but the longer the story went on in the third novel, the more it felt like listening to a friend who has a creep of a partner who makes her miserable but whom she refuses to leave. However, the books are interesting from a sociological standpoint, and Ferrante is very good at putting a reader right in the moment without succumbing to melodrama.

In other sort of bookish news, I finally finished The Gilmore Girls, including A Year in the Life. I’m not going to give away any hints about the ending, but I will say I found it kind of disappointing. Seasons 2-4 remain my favorite, and ultimately my favorite character will always be Emily.

I’ll be back soon with a look forward at all the bookish plans I have for 2017. Happy New Year to you all!

Freestyle Friday: September 23, 2016

Oh, hi there. It’s been a while. Thought I’d just drop by and talk about books for a bit.

I just finished Commonwealth by Ann Patchett this week. I never wanted it to end and I am sorely tempted to read it again right away. I’ve read everything Patchett has published, and I believe this is her very best work. I tend to prefer her fiction more than her non-fiction, mainly because I find her sort of insufferable, but in a likable way. She tries to be self-effacing, but she’s so very privileged and talented (and she works hard) that she comes across as the world’s most inept practitioner of the humble brag. Anyway, that’s not really the point. The point is she has managed to write a family saga that never gets caught up in the misery of dysfunction. The Cousins and the Keatings (and the blended family that results) certainly have their share of weirdness and anger and tragedy, but in Patchett’s tale, they just come across as people brought together by the accident of birth or marriage who somehow learn to co-exist with each other (or the idea of each other) and to have respect, if not love, for each other. I like that she doesn’t play anger or estrangement or grief to the hilt, but instead just lets them be natural reactions to circumstances where those reactions are not necessarily overblown. I’m almost hoping that this book sets up a new model for family dramas. The other surprise about Commonwealth is that it’s funny—and laugh-out-loud funny at times. Oh, I miss it already.

So I mentioned I thought this was Patchett’s best book, so for transparency’s sake, here’s my full list in order from best to pretty good (because let’s face it, nothing she writes is bad):

  1. Commonwealth
  2. State of Wonder
  3. Bel Canto
  4. Truth & Beauty 
  5. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life
  6. The Patron Saint of Liars
  7. The Magician’s Assistant
  8. Run
  9. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (which also contains The Getaway Car)
  10. Taft

Another writer I found insufferable recently (although not in a charming way) was Ottessa Mosfegh. Her interview in The Guardian rubbed me the wrong way. As a matter of fact, I had Eileen on my TBR, but I removed it after reading the interview. The thing is, writers don’t have to be likable. They can be downright unlikable and still be great writers. But I felt like she was insulting her readers, if indirectly, and also other writers, and that doesn’t really work for me. She doesn’t have to do blog book tours or kiss up to anyone, but maybe keep quiet about her contempt. The way I see it is this: plenty of other books on the shelf—plenty of other really good books that were maybe thisclose to being nominated for literary prizes, and Eileen got their spot. I think I’ll read those books instead.

I just started reading All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. We leave for vacation in Amsterdam next Thursday, so I hope to finish that before we go. Of course, that leaves me with the dilemma of what to read on the plane. Last year I tried to listen to audio books. BIG mistake. I fell asleep and missed most everything, so this year I’m sticking with my Kindle. Possible selections are Sara Taylor’s The Shore and Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility. I always buy a couple of books at The American Book Center to read on the trip hoe and as a souvenir. This year I’ve got my eye on Tana French’s The Trespasser, but the other one’s a wild card. Maybe Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Amor Towles’s new one, A Gentleman in Moscow.

I haven’t written in so long, I don’t know if anyone’s still out there…If you are, what’s your favorite Ann Patchett novel? And do you ever decide not to read a book because the author rubs you the wrong way?

Happy Friday, everyone. Enjoy!

Freestyle Friday, 02.20.2015

In the last few weeks I’ve been picking up a lot of short stories (and still staying true to the TBR Double Dog Dare). I have a subscription to One Story, and the issues (which consist, as the title suggests, of one story) have been piling up, so I finally decided to read them all. I think that sort of counts as something from the TBR, yes? I also finally got around to reading Lorrie Moore’s latest collection, Bark. More on that one another time. Right now I’m between books, but I think my next read will either be Skippy Dies or HHhH. I started both of these books last year, and through no fault of theirs set them both aside.

About this time every year I grow tired of all my clothes, but I especially grow tired of my shoes. Why is it so difficult to find cute winter shoes that one can wear with socks? I am not a tall boots person, and I have some black booties and they’re fine, but other than that I typically resort to wearing these old-school New Balance sneakers. I love them but sometimes I want more options than gray sneakers and black boots. Call me crazy. I am amazed at women who can wear ballet flats when it’s colder than, say, 60 degrees outside. That’s a definite no-go for me. I went trolling for some cute loafers or oxfords, but I can’t find anything that doesn’t either look too clunky or too much like I’ve given up on fashion. Also, I have narrow feet, and apparently all shoemakers believe that the only people with narrow feet are nuns over the age of 70. This makes me cranky. I want spring to get here just so I have a few more choices in footwear. Is that so much to ask?

Who’s planning to watch the Oscars? I’ve seen very few of the movies this year. Quite frankly, most of them were too sad for me to work up the energy to go and see them. I loved Birdman (sad) and (of course) The Grand Budapest Hotel (melancholy), so I’ll definitely be rooting for those two. I may manage to get in either Boyhood or The Imitation Game before Sunday. We’ll see. I’ll watch the show for the dresses if for no other reason. At least that’s something cheerful. Or maybe I’ll just give up and watch Guardians of the Galaxy (a.k.a. Burt Macklin in Space) again. (Edited to add: If there were an award for it, Guardians of the Galaxy would also get my vote for Best Mix Tape.)

Even though I’ve been very good about reading from my TBR, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been buying books. I had some leftover Christmas credit on The Site that Shall Not Be Named, so I may have gone a little crazy snatching up titles on sale, including:

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, Nelson Algren. I bought this one after reading an interview with Sarah Gran where she mentioned it. I’m always on the lookout for good books about writing, not because I follow advice, but because I like any book that expands my thinking about the act (I cannot bring myself to say, “the craft”).

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke. This was on super sale and has been on my wish list since it was published. I’ve read many good reviews of this one, and I’m hoping she’ll be joining my list of favorite women mystery writers (along with Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott).

After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman. And speaking of favorite female mystery writers, I cannot resist Laura Lippman. She’s one of those authors I always enjoy. I don’t want this to sound like a back-handed compliment, but her books fit the bill for pure entertainment, and I find myself not nitpicking my way through them the way I do sometimes.

Cry Father, Benjamin Whitmer. I’m not sure where I got the idea about this one, but this dark thriller was compared to works by Philip Meyer and Cormac McCarthy, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer. My mother has been telling me about this book forever. I think she reads it twice a year or something. Also, I am probably the last person on earth who hasn’t read it, so there you go.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins. This went on my “Most Wanted” list the minute I heard about it (and not because of the annoying “this year’s Gone Girl” comparisons. It seems like the hype has started to die down and I’ve seen some lukewarm review blurbs (not full reviews, because I am wary of spoilers).

Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke. I loved Kasischke’s novel Suspicious River (fair warning: it’s incredibly dark), and I haven’t read anything else by her in recent years so I thought I’d pick this up.

Best American Short Stories 2014, ed. Jennifer Egan. I used to buy this every year, but I’ve missed several years (like last year’s, edited by Elizabeth Strout). One thing I love about this short story collection is how each editor really takes it in a different direction. One of the best in recent years was Stephen King (although he was a controversial choice), and one of the most disappointing was Alice Sebold (truly a commercial, mediocre writer, she was a terrifically poor choice). So this year it’s Jennifer Egan, and I hope it will be full of interesting selections.

Best American Mystery Stories 2014, ed. Laura Lippman. For those of you who fear the literary short story, this is a great place to get your feet wet. I’ve only been following this collection for the last five years or so, but I’ve been impressed by the quality of the writing overall. And this year’s editor is Laura Lippman, so the stories are bound to be good.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. I was ready to dismiss this as the novel everyone’s talking about but probably isn’t that great, but then I decided to read The Lola Quartet and changed my mind because I love the way she writes.

The Might Have Been, Joseph M. Schuster. I heard an interview with Schuster on NPR a few years ago (I can’t find the link anywhere, but this article on Bloom is quite good) and decided to add it to my list. It’s another book about baseball that isn’t really about baseball (see Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding), and I loved the fact that this is Schuster’s first novel, published when he was 59. It’s never too late, folks.

Have a great weekend!