Top Ten Tuesday

Favorite Books of 2016

Today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us to list our ten favorite books of 2016. When I sat down to write this post, I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. I had been telling myself all morning to start focusing on small things, like reading and writing and blogging and yoga, and not to think too much about the headlines or about all the things that currently make everything seem somewhat useless or hopeless. This year has been a very tough one, not just for much of the world but for a lot of people very close to me, but up to November I at least thought that we would all get past it. But like a lot of you out there, I feel that since November 8 that the world has tilted. I cannot seem to get over the shock I feel that so much of America is filled with hatred, that so many people willingly believe fake news and that science is equal to nothing more than mere opinion. For the first time ever, I fear the future. I also realize how weirdly lucky I am to have the luxury of that fear. I have lived through a great time of mostly peace and progress and prosperity. Like a lot of people, I assumed the world would more or less continue that way. Not anymore. And now in less than three days, the passing of two more icons. I mean, what the hell?

That said, 2016 really did have one big bright spot for me, and that was reading. I slowed down a bit after November, but at that point I was only two books away from my goal of reading 50 books this year. As of today, I’ve read 54, and I may finish another two before the year is out. I don’t have any fancy graphics and I didn’t write reviews for most of these, but these were the books that made the best impression on me in 2016:

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. For those of us who like stories about families and all their quirks and foibles. I plan to re-read this one in 2017. That’s how much I liked it.

The Turner House, Angela Flournoy. I read this family drama about a group of grown children grappling with what to do about their Detroit family home right after finishing Commonwealth, and I found it every bit as engaging.

Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt. I had no idea what to expect from this strange and wonderful novel. The ending vexed me but overall the story was so original and engrossing I knew it would have to be on this list.

Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue. This novel about a Cameroonian family trying to make a go of life in New York just prior to the Lehman Brothers melt down and the national financial crisis that followed isn’t exactly an uplifting tale, but Mbue is such a good writer and her characters were so wonderful this one was hard to put down. She’s such a confident writer, it’s hard to believe this is a debut (same goes for Flournoy, actually).

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. I wish I could press this book into the hands of every American. I wish that books really could change minds and make people more empathetic.

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews. You might not think you would laugh out loud reading a book about a woman trying to keep her sister from committing suicide, but you would be wrong. This touching, funny, smart book about our obligations to family and ourselves is absolutely terrific.

The Girls, Emma Cline. I keep going back and forth on this one, trying to decide if it’s overrated and I drank the KoolAid or if it really is that good. I think the fact that I read it in July and I am still thinking about it in December probably says more than anything.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. Enter this in the “Why did I wait so long to read this?” category. This classic, beautiful family saga was my most favorite book this year, and another I plan to re-read sooner rather than later.

The Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. I am just a sucker for a New York tale, and I read a lot of them this year, but this one was my absolute favorite.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson. This harrowing tale about an orphan in North Korea has stuck in my brain, almost as though it were a documentary of things that have actually happened. Most certainly, it shows what humans are able to to endure.

You can see the full list of everything I read this year here.

What was your favorite book of 2016?

Top Ten Books on My Holiday Wishlist

For this week’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish), we’re asked to list the top ten books we’d like to receive for the holidays. Hm. Seems like this topic should have come around in November when people were putting together their shopping lists.  I rarely receive books as gifts, so this list is probably more like what I’ll buy myself if I get a gift card, but why quibble? It’s still a gift, from me, to me.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler. Everyone’s saying all the good things about this one. I am number 140 on the library waiting list. I don’t want to wait!

Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson. I have had a sudden urge to read all things Shirley Jackson. I’ve only read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and of course “The Lottery,” in school). This seemed like an interesting second choice.

News of the World, Paulette Jiles. National Book Award Finalist. Western. You do the math.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil. You would never know it to look at me, but I love punk rock. For a music lover, I don’t do a lot of reading about music. I wouldn’t mind starting here.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. I loved Rules of Civility so much, and everyone has had nothing but good things to say about this one. Number 52 on library hold list. See, “Do not want to wait.”

The Summer That Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel. Sounds like such gothic, twisty fun.

Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn. This novel about Jamaica has been on everybody’s best-of lists this year.

Nobody’s Fool/Everybody’s Fool, Richard Russo. I love Richard Russo and I plan to re-read Empire Falls this year. For some new Russo, I’d love to knock these out. Love his writing.

Novels, 1930-1942: Dance Night / Come Back to Sorrento / Turn, Magic Wheel / Angels on Toast / A Time to Be Born, Dawn Powell. Powell is a writer I have long been meaning to read. It would be great to start with this collection of some of her best works.

How about you? What’s on your wishlist?

Ten Books on My Fall TBR (Or, Getting My Diversity On)

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us about books on our Fall TBR. I’ve had a particularly good reading experience so far this year. I haven’t been following any kind of plan. Typically a book pops into my head when I’m getting closer to the end of my current book, and that’s the one I pick up next. But sometimes, when we just follow our whims, we get caught in a rut. The kind of rut I’m talking about isn’t the kind where you don’t know what to read next and nothing satisfies. I’m talking about the exact opposite kind of rut—the kind that’s so easy, you never really think about getting out. It’s like having spaghetti for dinner every night (well, if you like spaghetti. I do. A lot.). It’s nutritious enough, satisfying, tasty. But probably you need a little variation, and you could pump up the nutrition a bit and still eat something yummy. Okay, enough with the food metaphors.

Basically, I had a pretty sad realization. When it comes to reading women authors, I do just fine. I’ve read 42 books so far this year, and 21 of them were by women (not counting the book I’m currently reading, which is also by a woman). But the diversity stops there. I’ve picked up exactly TWO books by by authors who aren’t white (Marlon James, Louise Erdrich). I have plenty of books on my TBR by non-white authors, so I have no excuse, really. Some of my choices were driven by picking up new books from authors I really like (Bonnie Nadzam, Megan Abbott, Maggie O’Farrell, Liz Moore, Ann Patchett). Some of my choices were driven by the fact that I like a good campus novel (The Headmaster’s Wife, The Pursuit of Cool, A Dual Inheritance). Some were driven by my desire to finally try and finish a series (The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay…Too much Ferrante for me all at once; I did not make it to book four). Some things, too many to mention, were just on sale, and some were physical books that have been sitting on my shelf for way too long.

So. Excuses, excuses. This needs to remedied. We all know I’m not great at reading from a list, but here are my top ten diverse reads for the fall, all picked from my current TBR or books I already own:

  1. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa
  2. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
  3. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (I own this one)
  4. Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry
  5. The Turner House, Angela Flournoy (own this one)
  6. Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue
  7. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
  8. Slumberland, Paul Beatty (I know The Sellout is big this year  and up for the Booker, but I own Slumberland already)
  9. Long Division, Kiese Layman (another one I own)
  10. The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura (and another one I own)

I’m excited about all of these books, otherwise they wouldn’t be on my shelf/Kindle/TBR list. I know this list hardly makes a dent, and so many groups/nationalities aren’t even included. The thing is, it’s so easy not to pay attention, to pick up what everyone else is reading, to follow favorite authors, to stay in that comfy zone. Is this racism? I think probably it is. Not the kind that comes from a place of hatred or intentional exclusion, but certainly the insidious kind that comes from being very comfortable with seeing much of what you already know in the world reflected back at you and never thinking much about it. Time for me to wake up and fix it. This is a start.

Ten Books I Picked up on a Whim (Or Every Book I Ever Picked Up, Ever)

The thing about being a reader who has a (mostly neglected) book blog and a Twitter account where I follow all sorts of bookish accounts (book bloggers, critics, authors, publishers) is that it’s very, very difficult to avoid being influenced in some way when it comes to what I read. Everything on my TBR is something I’ve seen recommended somewhere else, however fleeting the recommendation might be. But almost everything I buy or pick up next is based on a whim (well, a whim based on a list). I rarely plan or schedule or commit (as evidenced by the blog) to anything except the very few authors whose books I will pre-order without question (Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, and so on and so forth), and even the arrival of one of these titles doesn’t guarantee it will be my automatic choice for what to read next. Couple this tendency with my willingness to set any book aside that doesn’t grip me at the moment, and you can see, whim is where I live.

Let’s face it: I’m a freewheeling reader. Perhaps I should consider changing the blog name.

Instead of listing every book on my shelf (because that would be way more than 10), for today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), I thought I’d list the last ten books I bought, and the reason why (if I can remember it). Here goes:

Late One Night

Late One Night, Lee Martin. You may or may not have heard me sing the praises of Martin’s Pulitzer-nominated novel, The Bright Forever. Martin has a way with quiet moments in small-town America that renders them both universal and unforgettable.

Mongrels

Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones. Okay, I’m not even going to pretend that horror is up my alley, or that I’m very well-versed in werewolf tales much beyond An American Werewolf in London. I read Jones’s Not for Nothing back in 2014, and let’s just say he has a way with story that makes me think this will be one of those genre-busting books for hardcore horror and literary fiction fans alike.

Mr. Splitfoot

Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt. It was on my TBR, and it was on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. That said, I don’t purchase every book on my TBR that comes up for sale, and I have to say this one was going to end up in my hands one way or another. It just sounds too deliciously unusual to ignore.

Wilde Lake

Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman. I have at least three unread Laura Lippman titles that I could have picked up to read, but instead I had to have Wilde Lake. Why? I read an interview where she mentioned that someone at a reading asked a question about her choice to write the book in alternating first and third person. I’ve been thinking a lot about novelistic structure lately and was so intrigued I felt like I had to read it. Right. Now. So I bought it and I read it and I still don’t know the answer to that question….but this is probably the best Lippman I’ve read, maybe ever.

Into the Darkest Corner

Into the Darkest Corner, Elizabeth Haynes. One of you told me to check out Elizabeth Haynes. It was Wendy at Musings of a Bookish Kitty, as a matter of fact! And this one was on sale and occasionally I do what I am told, so I bought it and will be checking it out. Eventually.

The Round House

The Round House, Louise Erdrich. I have been meaning to read this book for ages. Every time I read an interview with her, I am left with the feeling that I want to read all of her books. Maybe someday I will.

The Circular Staircase

The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart. Sarah Waters said this was one of her influences for writing The Little Stranger. Oh, when are we getting new Sarah Waters?

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joan Chase. Okay, rare instance where I cannot remember where I heard about a book, but it was one of those “I have to have this NOW” purchases through Better World Books. And of course I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to, very soon.

Wild Life

Wild Life, Molly Gloss. Because I loved The Jump-Off Creek, and also was interested in reading more books set in the American West just after I finished Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

The Last Child

The Last Child, John Hart. Um…I can’t remember why I bought this. Another used purchase from Better World Books. I have three of Hart’s titles on my TBR wishlist, so I picked one at random. Ta DAH!

So there you have it. What about you: do you plan your purchases? Is reading on a whim unusual for you?

Did They Really Deserve It?: Ten of My Most Recent Five (and Four) Star Reads

Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, has put me into a bit of an existential crisis as a reader. Today’s topic: our top ten most recent five-star reads. That’s easy enough to track—all I had to do was open Goodreads, and there they are. But as I was scrolling through the list and wondering why I failed to give five stars to some of the books I’ve thought about and recommended and mentioned as references in other reviews again and again, I thought about something I heard said about the Academy Awards (attributed to Matt Damon, I believe), that the Academy of Motion Pictures should wait ten years after a film’s release before it can be considered for any awards. That way, its real impact and influence can be assessed, rather than having the award being driven by hype and publicity or some other political or social circumstance that momentarily pushed the film into the foreground.

With the Tournament of Books going on right now—a tournament that always features the previous year’s most popular and critically well-received books (and a few underdogs)—this idea seems even more relevant. Yesterday one book, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, was knocked out of the tournament, and I saw a fair bit of tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over that fact on Twitter. In the last couple of months it seems that everyone on Twitter or in my Goodreads feed has read this book, and almost everyone has given it five stars. I haven’t read Marra’s book myself, nor have I read the book, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, that knocked it out of the tournament, so consider me impartial. The judge for that round was Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the Southern Reach trilogy, and I did read his explanation, and here’s what I thought: he’s a writer, and maybe he’s a naturally “close” reader, so he’s going pay more attention to the mechanics of the writing, little tricks and things that the writer has employed, and judge them. I also thought he might be unaware of the hype wheel. Yes, the book has been nominated for prizes and praised by critics, but lots of books get praised by critics and nominated for prizes that don’t generate a lot of hype or love among readers and bloggers the way Marra’s book has. I’m not at all questioning the legitimacy of this love (please do not leave a lengthy defense in the comments), but I am asking: what if VanderMeer is right? What if time would have taken a little of the shine off that book anyway and Beatty’s book holds up better over time? What if it were up against a ToB winner from three years ago? (I’m too lazy to look it up.) The point is, immediacy skews our judgement in a lot of cases, and so does our peer group. It happens to all of us.

Okay, enough blathering. I give you my most recent five-star books, and some four-star books that probably deserved five stars.

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)

Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Kopp. I gave this a very enthusiastic five stars as soon as I finished the book because I was completely charmed by its main character. I admit, though, that it took me some time to get into it, and in the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Its possible it only deserved four stars, but only time will tell. I still highly recommend it and am looking forward to the next book in the series.

Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller. This was a book I suspected would be five stars when I was about halfway through it. It’s a beautiful but difficult book to read, and Fuller presents the reader with one of the most compelling unreliable narrators. I think this one will hold up.

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. This was Haruf’s last book, he’s one of my favorite authors, and it’s a little gem of a story about two lonely people forming a very sweet and surprising love. But it isn’t Haruf’s best book by a long shot (in my opinion, it’s Plainsong or Benediction), and as stories go it’s fairly simple. I gave it five stars but would submit it’s only four stars if called on it—that fifth star is there out of sheer devotion.

Landfalls

Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams. I gave this one four stars, yet I find myself thinking about it, remembering scenes from it, and recommending it to everyone. I could not tell you why I knocked off a star. I’ll have to read it again to find out, but I suspect my first rating was wrong.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Another one I gave four stars. Why? I read the first five sections of this book in mere days. I could not put it down. And then I got to “Sloosha’s Crossing,” and it lost me a little, and then I went on vacation so I set it down for a bit, and then I was still in Sloosha’s Crossing when I picked it back up, and I never regained that initial momentum. Again, I find myself thinking about this book all the time. It’s probably a five-star book that I screwed up reading.

M Train

M Train, Patti Smith. Five stars. I absolutely love the way she writes, but admit that this is a purely subjective five stars. It’s a much different book than Just Kids (also five stars, in my opinion), probably not as “good” in terms of literary merit, but I’m not questioning my loyalty here.

Possession

Possession, A.S. Byatt. A very solid five-star book that could probably take out a lot of contenders in the past ten years. Why do I trust my judgement on this one? Because Byatt is such a wonderful writer that she made me willingly read not just about two Victorian poets, but their poetry as well, and I enjoyed every second. A testament indeed.

My Antonia

My Antonia, Willa Cather. Five stars for this one, not given automatically because it’s a classic but because I love her writing and her characters the same way I loved Kent Haruf. Her characters are a part of the landscape in which they live, they are inextricable, and her prose is graceful and simple.

The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. I gave this four stars? Why? I loved this book and never wanted it to end. Classic reader mistake: because I was annoyed with Alma for how she acted over Ambrose, and I went and blamed it on Gilbert, when in fact it’s a sign of a really good book. To be that invested in a character—that’s five stars.

Skippy Dies

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Five stars. Oh, this book! A classic campus novel, an interesting look at Ireland during the bubble, a coming-of-age story with tragic consequences. Published in 2010, this is another novel that I believe could knock out a lot of ToB contenders from the last couple of years.

Do you ever go back and question the ratings you’ve given to books? Do you think it would be better to wait before awards are given out? Should new books be pitted against past winners?

Have a great Tuesday!

Top Ten Books on My TBR This Spring

This week’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us about the top ten books on our TBR. While many people might list new books being published this spring, I have an eye on my backlog of books. Of course, the slightest shift of the wind will change my reading mood, so take this list with a grain of salt. You may or may not see reviews for these books in the coming months…and given that I am officially FIVE books behind in reviews this year, even if I read them, you may still not see reviews. Ahem. Anyway.

Today I’m in the mood for deep books, even some rather big books, and I know that as slowly as I read that this list also an ambitious one I’d be lucky to finish by the end of summer. I’ve included two books I started but never finished (The Plot Against America, which should be interesting in context of what’s happening politically these days, and The Blind Assassin), and the only remaining book left to read by one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf (Where You Once Belonged). Without further ado, here’s my full list:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Crossing to Safety

Angle of Repose

Atonement

The Plot Against America

An Instance of the Fingerpost

East of Eden

The Blind Assassin

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Where You Once Belonged

Top Ten…Er, Top Eight Tuesday: Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list ten books we read in the last year or so that are outside our comfort zone. A simple enough question, but looking at the list of books I read over the past 15 months or so, not an easy one to answer. I don’t spend a lot of time reading outside my comfort zone, probably because the last few years reading has seemed like a struggle, so when I read, I don’t want it to be a challenge. Whatever book I pick up, I want it to be THE book.

That said, I do try to get outside my comfort zone now and again. None of these books are a huge stretch, but they are outside what’s been my more typical fare lately, which I guess I’d call modern literary fiction with a twist.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Assassination Vacation

Unfamiliar Fishes

Nonfiction. I read very little nonfiction, but in 2015 I read three books I’d normally not pick up: I read Into Thin Air because my mother (cough**book pusher**cough) kept insisting that I read it. She said it was terrific. In this, she was correct. I read Assassination Vacation as part of an effort to read from the TBR pile. I picked it because I bought it in 2005 and you know, figured it was time. I loved the way Sarah Vowell writes so much that I immediately bought two more of her books (thereby thwarting my efforts to read what I already had) and followed up Assassination Vacation with Unfamiliar Fishes, a book about the colonization and eventual statehood of Hawaii. (And weird aside: I kept picking up books last year that took me to the South Pacific during times of exploration and colonization: this one, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams. I highly recommend all three, and reading them close together gives you a rich experience.) I have Lafayette in the Somewhat United States sitting on my bedside table and am hoping to read it soon.

Big Little Lies

The Husband's Secret

Chick Lit. I don’t know. Maybe the “chick lit” label isn’t completely fair to Liane Moriarty. She’s just this side of writers like Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah, or Paula Hawkins, only because she deals more in the domestic space and focuses less on mystery. Either way, she has a razor-sharp way with characterization that makes her books compulsively readable. I liked Big Little Lies the best, but they were both solid efforts and would be perfect travel or beach reads.

The Signature of All Things

Possession

Landfalls

Historical Fiction. Okay, first: look at those covers! So gorgeous! Second: do you ever decide that you just HAVE to read a book RIGHT THIS SECOND? That’s what happened to me last year with The Signature of All Things. The joke was on me, because the used copy I bought turned out to have a whole set of pages missing in the book’s final section. Lucky for me, the people at Viking are wonderful and when I tweeted about the problem, they sent me a new copy immediately. This story of a female botanist in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries was absolutely captivating–the characters, the narrative, the science all swept me away.

The same thing happened to me with A.S. Byatt’s Possession—I decided I just had to read it so I bought a used copy. I think I should note here that while plenty of things are outside my wheelhouse, probably nothing is further than Victorian poetry. But this story of two modern scholars uncovering the mystery of a relationship between two Victorian poets through their poems, letters, and journals was outstanding.

Landfalls I bought for two reasons. First I read this post on the author’s blog about the origins of the story (I found the blog via an interview with the author, but I’ve lost that link), which starts with a map she believed was the San Francisco Bay but turned out to be some other place altogether from an Eighteenth century expedition that was ultimately lost. Second, even though I’m terrified of the ocean, I’m completely fascinated by maritime exploration during The Age of Discovery. I was so excited to discover this book that I pre-ordered it, and I was not disappointed. Told from various points of view of people on board the two ships that took that fateful journey, Landfalls is completely absorbing. This was Williams’s first novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

What genres are most outside your wheelhouse? Do you read historical fiction? If so, give me some recommendations!