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!

BBAW Day 5: Keeping It Real, Keeping It Going

Day OneIntroduce yourself (17)Today is the last day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and today’s topic is: how do you avoid blogger burnout? The short answer—I don’t.

Okay, so now for the long (winded) answer. The very few of you who have been visiting this blog over the years know that I tend to disappear for long stretches of time. I can think of only one time, back around 2010, when I actually decided to take a break because it seemed like people were fighting a lot over things (some petty, some very serious like plagiarism). Most times, though, I haven’t made a conscious decision to quit, so that’s why I keep coming back.

I stop blogging generally for two reasons: I’m in a reading slump and have nothing to say, or I get behind on reviews because I have BIG IDEAS. But I think about blogging all the time, and I have enough half-written (or even complete) drafts of posts (some reviews, some not) to prove it. I used to do The Sunday Salon and Booking Through Thursday pretty much every week, but somewhere along the line I decided I should “get serious” and only write reviews. But let’s face it: reviews can be boring to write. Plot summary, opinion, wrap-up. Maybe something interesting about the author. Maybe recommendations to similar books. Some people use lists or GIFs or anything to make a review seem less…review-ish. For me the solution was the idea of the bookish essay. I’m pretty sure I decided to do that after finding Lydia Kiesling’s original (now defunct) Widmerpool’s Modern Library Revue (which became The Millions Modern Library Revue). I love the way she writes. And I didn’t want to copy how she writes as much as I wanted to write more deeply/widely about the books I was reading. I have many, many (unpublished) attempts to do this, but they took a lot of effort and were hard to get right. And even when I felt like I got them right, I was terrified to share them. I worried people would think, “Who does she think she is? What does she think she’s trying to do?” So in other words, I did it to myself: I backed myself into a writing corner with a whole lot of “shoulds.”

In these blog revivals, I’ve tried some of my own regular features (Freestyle Friday) or picked up doing memes again (Top Ten Tuesday). But I admit to being wobbly on these as well, especially Freestyle Friday, which was a weekly post where I just wrote about anything on my mind. It got a pretty good response and was fun to write, but I kept wondering if anyone really wanted to read about my nonsensical, non book-related thoughts. (Oh yes, and then there was my ill-conceived The Album Project, where once a week I planned to write little essays about music á la Nick Hornby. Crickets. Probably rightly so.) I’ve also tried joining a challenge here and there, but I suck at sticking to a list (see #10BooksofSummer: Womp Womp).

The other thing I’ve done in the past to try and revive the blog was to jump on the ARC bandwagon and review pretty much only and everything new. This worked well for a while, until I had more requests accepted than I could manage. To this day, I still have unread ARCs waiting for review. I’m sort of ashamed about that, and it was my own fault for getting so overwhelmed, but for the first time in a long time I felt like a relevant blogger. All the popular kids were talking about shiny new books ahead of their pub dates, and I wanted to do that, too! Except…what can blog readers say when they’re reading multiple posts about a brand new book they haven’t read yet? I got more traffic, but it was kind of a conversation stopper. I got a little bored, and then I started to resent the fact that I had to keep reading ARCs when I really wanted to read all the other books I was neglecting.

The truth is, I don’t have any real answers. I may burn out again. I’ll keep trying and probably keep failing. As much as I love to read, I truly keep the blog going because I also love to write, I like to challenge myself every once in a while, and most importantly, I like YOU. I like being part of a community. Even if I only get one Like or one comment, it totally makes my day.

Thanks to all of you who visited this week. I know realistically I may never hear from some of you again (at least until next year’s BBAW…and I hope there will be a next year) as we all retreat back to our corners of the blogosphere and get on with things, but I hope to see most of you now and again, even if just to give a virtual wave!

BBAW Day 4: Staying Connected

CommunityConnectionDay 4 of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and today’s question is: How do you stay connected to the community? In general, I love blogging because it gives me a chance to socialize from home, to (mostly) avoid small talk, and to have conversations about things I love, and to avoid crowds. But I admit that in the past few years, staying connected has been one of my biggest failures. When I first started blogging, I commented regularly on all the blogs I followed, and I was amazed how quickly I formed friendships with other bloggers. Finding a community online was so exciting, especially for someone like me, who works at home and does not have a lot of daily social interaction outside my husband and the gym. At some point, though, things started to change. People got into petty arguments (not with me, but with each other). Some of the bloggers I followed regularly fell into slumps or stopped blogging. I fell into my own reading slump and started to feel overwhelmed at the idea of keeping up.

If anything has helped me maintain some tenuous connections, it’s definitely Twitter (my link). I still follow many of the same core book bloggers that I added when I joined in 2010. That’s how I knew what people were reading, and typically how I followed links to reviews. I also continued to follow blogs through Feedly (or the now defunct and sorely missed Google Reader), keeping up with reviews even if I wasn’t commenting. I never created a Facebook page for the blog, because I never even shared the blog with friends on my personal page, and frankly it seemed like one more thing to keep up (and fall behind on).

Weekly memes have also been a great way to connect and find bloggers with similar tastes. I used to participate weekly in the Sunday Salon and Booking Through Thursday, and more recently I’ve started doing Top Ten Tuesday. Back in 2009 and 2010 I joined several challenges, but realized quickly that I am not good keeping to a list or a plan when I read. For me the most successful challenge was always the TBR Double Dog Dare, but I’m not sure how much it helped me to stay connected, as it always seemed that while I was catching up on my TBR, everyone else was reading the latest hits. And that’s another thing: I enjoy reading reviews, but if I haven’t read the book, I’m not sure I’m really “connecting” if all I’m saying is, “Sounds great! Another one for the TBR!”

That brings me to comments in general: I hate leaving (or receiving) any kind of comment spam. This seems to be especially bad with memes, where people will respond with “Great list! Here’s mine!” and a link to their post. To me, that seems to be more about driving traffic their own blog and less about having a conversation, and if there’s a link system involved (Mr. Linky) and I have the URL linked to the blogger’s name, I don’t need another link. In general, if I don’t have anything to say, I don’t leave a comment at all, but I admit when I was a more “social” blogger, I was more likely to comment even just to say hello. How about you? Do you comment regularly on blogs you follow, or only when you are interested in the topic/have read the book?

Lately Goodreads (my link) has become a place I visit several times a day to see what readers are doing. I like the quick overview and the ability to comment, although I rarely do, and I don’t see a lot of comments in general. I wish it was more interactive, but maybe it’s how I’m using it. For example, when I finish and rate a book, I get the pop-up suggesting friends to whom I should recommend the book…but I only do this occasionally, with people I know in real life. Do any of you using Goodreads use this feature to recommend books to other bloggers?

I used Pinterest (my link) briefly and with some success. that’s one I’d like to get back to, because I love the visual aspect f it and how easy it is to create boards with different themes, without having to do a list post on the blog or ask people to scroll through a giant list on Goodreads. Finally, I’m most intrigued by Instagram, but I haven’t found a great way to use it. Take a picture of a book a day? I know I need to prowl some book bloggers to get ideas (that sounds creepy, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it to be). If you have ideas, do share!

BBAW Day 3: The Joy (and Anxiety) of Influence

Day OneIntroduce yourselfFor Day 3 of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, participants are asked to talk about what we’ve read and loved because of book bloggers. Without bloggers I probably would have stayed stuck in my little literary fiction corner, never realizing that labels are more about marketing than anything. Since I started blogging, I’ve read so many terrific mysteries, thrillers, and YA novels that I never would have picked up otherwise. Here are only a few of the bloggers who have directed me to some of the best books I’ve ever read (and might never have read without their recommendations).

I can always trust Teresa (at Shelf Love) and Jenny (at Reading the End), who have influenced my reading greatly and in the last few years convinced me to read both Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees (Teresa, Jenny) and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Jenny), for which I will be forever grateful. I think I could have convinced myself to skip both of those books for something easier on the heart and the head, but they were just too convincing.  Whenever one of them raves about a book, it goes on the wishlist, no questions asked, even if I don’t read it right away.

Another book blogger I always trust (and who is one of the kindest people I have met online) is Ana (Nymeth) at Things Mean a Lot. If it weren’t for her wonderful reviews and sincere enthusiasm when she loves a book, I would never have read such terrific books as (links to her original reviews) The Knife of Never Letting Go or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks (because they were YA, one of those genres I didn’t “do” before bloggers like Ana convinced me that good writing is good writing, marketing and pigeonholing be damned). I’m also sure she’s responsible for getting me to read Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt, who became fast favorites.

And although she’s not participating in BBAW and blogs less frequently than in years past, another book blogger who influenced my reading greatly is Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog. Because of her reviews, I’ve read so many amazing books (all links go to her original reviews): Skippy Dies, A Fine Balance, The Devotion of Suspect X, The People Who Eat Darkness, Stone’s Fall, and Lamb—among many others.

Of course, the difficult part is when bloggers you trust disagree. While Teresa and Jenny both hated A Little Life, Jackie rated it her favorite book of 2015. I have it on hold at the library. Things could go either way!

The other difficult thing about blogging is recommending books to people who have done such a wonderful job at recommending them to us. As book bloggers, we want to give back as good as we get, to share everything that excites us about reading. It can be difficult to have reviews fall on deaf ears, or to realize that others might even think we’re nuts for loving a specific book. I guess it’s all part and parcel though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

BBAW Day 1: Introducing Myself

Day OneIntroduce yourself

I decided to join Book Blogger Appreciation Week because I felt like over the past several years I’ve not done a great job at connecting with my fellow book bloggers. When I saw the topic for Day 1—discuss five books that define you—I thought at first I would have no problem, but then I spent the weekend thinking about it and realized what a very difficult topic that is. Naming five favorite books is an easy thing to do, but naming five books that basically tell the world who you are? Whole different story. After careful consideration, here are my selections:

The Secret History, Donna Tartt. I was only 23 the first time I read The Secret History. It had just been published, I and I was in my first semester of graduate school. I grew up in Texas, but I have always had a fascination with New England, with the idea of going “back East” to school, with academic life…I could go on, but let’s just say I identified with Richard Papen in so many ways, an outsider always unsure, a natural dreamer, a drifter looking for a place to belong.

M Train, Patti Smith. I read this whole book on a long flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta. When I finished it I felt like I’d just finished a book-length letter written exclusively to me by my best friend. Smith loves books, gets so involved in her favorite television show she worries over the characters almost as though they’re real people, watches Law and Order marathons, and is possessive of her favorite seat in her favorite coffee shop. If people know us by our friends, I certainly wish I could count her as one of mine.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” Back in the 1990s, way before Mean Girls, this was the book that put a narrative to my own experience growing up as a female. I was always more comfortable in one-to-one friendships, wary of groups, and even today I’m sometimes stunned by the dynamics of women in groups. I’m definitely a feminist, but I also don’t kid myself that as a sex we are always all for each other.

The Best American Short Stories Series. For most of my early reading life, I read novels and biographies exclusively. Short stories were things I read in my English classes only, and like a lot of people I thought we read them because they were easier to discuss and be tested on. It was only after my best friend suggested that I try to write a story that I realized I really had no idea what that meant. How was a story different than a novel? This series supplied my answer, and introduced me to authors like Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, Richard Bausch, and Alice Munro, and made me dare to try to write something of my own. (Still trying, by the way.)

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman/In the Woods, Tana French. I’m kind of cheating here and counting these two books as one, because they changed my reading life. Before I read these novels, I ONLY read literary fiction or classics, and I definitely looked down my nose at people who liked to read mysteries and series. In all honestly, I don’t know where I got the idea that it was all pulp fiction, and I’ve certainly learned my lesson. Reading mysteries has deepened my reading of other types of literature as well. Really, everything is a mystery of one kind or another.

So that’s enough about me. I look forward to reading everyone else’s picks!

Reader’s Journal: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)Charming is a word I would like to see restored. These days when people say “charming” they often mean quaint, or old, or precious. For me, the word evokes the idea of having grace and spunk in equal measure, and knowing when it’s appropriate to use more of one and less of the other, or—to use a gun metaphor—when to fire from both barrels.

Amy Stewart’s debut novel Girl Waits With Gun is a charming book based on a true story that Stewart uncovered when doing research for her non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist. The Kopp sisters—Constance, Norma, and Fleurette—live alone on a farm outside Paterson, New Jersey. The story begins in July 1914, when their horse and buggy are struck by a motor car driven by one Henry Kaufman, a wealthy hooligan who owns one of the silk factories in town. In the street, Constance asks nicely for—and then demands—compensation for the accident. Kaufman and his thug friends scoff at her and then threaten her. All of this sets off a chain of events that upset the quiet lives of the Kopp sisters, but Constance in particular refuses to back down and fights for justice for herself and her sisters. Her case falls on deaf ears at the local prosecutor’s office, but the sheriff of a nearby town becomes her ally, offering the Kopp sisters protection and even teaching them to shoot revolvers.

A less skilled author could have made caricatures of the Kopp sisters, but Stewart does a terrific job of making them each interesting and distinct. At one point, Constance, who narrates the story, describes them as three women with nothing in common and little to say to each other. That they love each other and are fiercely loyal to one another is without question, but Stewart cleverly uses their singular responses to events and their interactions with one another to show how times are changing (but also lagging)—especially for women. Their late mother, an Austrian who never cared for America or bothered to pursue citizenship, had a habit of sharing news headlines about women who were disgraced, injured, or killed in some way, all to convince her daughters that the world was a terrifying place and they were better off at home:

I can’t look at our childhood samplers without remembering the disgraceful fate of Laura Smith, age seventeen, who was lured away from her home by the grocer and ruined by him, or that of thirteen-year-old Lena Luefschuetz, found dead for reasons having to do with her “undesirable companions.”

This upbringing affected the sisters in vastly different ways. Norma, 31, dislikes any and all intrusions from the outside world, preferring to spend time with the homing pigeons she raises on the farm (she trains the pigeons by fastening news headlines—for example, ”Girl Scalded in Kitchen,” on a day when Fleurette is cooking—to their legs). Fleurette, 16, is such an ingenue that it almost seems she believes the stories she reads in the paper are actually fictions just awaiting her embellishment. And Constance, the oldest at 35, is at once restless and pragmatic. With secrets of her own, she is aware of both the lack of opportunities for and the very real threats to women that the world holds. However, she longs for something more than what she has, even daring to picture a life for her independent self apart from her sisters.

Aside from the threat presented by Henry Kaufman and company, a bit of a mystery occurs that draws Constance further into danger and helps develop her relationship to Sheriff Heath in an interesting way. The mystery also brings Constance’s past into play, which helps to explain why she reacts the way she does at the accident scene in the beginning of the story.

Somehow this novel manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Stewart manages to create comic situations about women in very real peril–and not as a result of Henry Kaufman so much as from being a woman in a society still clinging to Victorian ideas. The sisters’ quirks offer some comic relief. Fleurette is forever twirling and selecting special outfits to suit the occasion, even when that occasion is being the well-dressed target of a kidnapper, and Norma is fully devoted to her pigeons. Constance even has the occasion to manhandle Henry Kaufman to comic effect. However, even in moments of humor, we’re always reminded that the sisters face serious trouble. They are running out of money and have no foreseeable means of making income, which means that they may lose their farm–and if they lose their farm, what will happen to them? Fleurette is young enough still to find a husband, but she knows very little of the world as she was schooled at home and has been kept away even from people her own age. Norma and Constance are both essentially spinsters who are not trained in any skill, and Norma especially would rather not spend time with other people if she can avoid it. As the oldest, Constance feels the most responsible, but Stewart makes it quite clear that the options for her are limited on almost every front except the most unexpected.

This book was absolutely so delightful I did not want it to end. Halfway through the novel I was already sorry about saying goodbye to Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, so I was very happy to learn that Stewart is writing a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun called Lady Cop Makes Trouble, to be released in September 2016. Keeping my fingers crossed for a series!

Top Ten Tuesday: With Love, From Me to You

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list our favorite top ten romances (or top ten literary crushes, or something similarly Valentine’s Day themed). I don’t read romance or chick lit, and I don’t get crushes on characters in books (although I do get crushes on books themselves, for whatever that’s worth). I also realize that for many people Valentine’s Day is just another commercial joke, and for other people it’s just another reason to feel shut out of a culture that’s obsessed with couples. Instead of worrying about all that, I offer you ten books I love that are about love of all kinds.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbors. They are also both widowed, with grown children who live elsewhere. They live in a small town in Colorado with people who are prone to judge and talk, but despite that they form a touching relationship. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, like all of Haruf’s work.

Just KidsJust Kids, Patti Smith. This book isn’t just about Smith’s relationship with her love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—it’s a love letter to a culturally revolutionary place and time, and to self discovery.

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Several years ago, I had this to say about The Art of Fielding: “It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.” This is most definitely a book about how love—not just romantic love, but that too, shapes our lives. One of my favorite books ever.

You Are One of ThemYou Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. Sometimes we hang on to romantic ideas, because they infuse everyone and everything with interest, including ourselves. Sarah Zuckerman believes her fascinating childhood best friend Jenny is dead, but a mysterious letter makes her think otherwise. As I said in my short review in 2013, “it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.”

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History, Donna Tartt. Narrator Richard Papen looks back to tell a tale of murder, and of the people and place he loved that changed him irrevocably. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I never reviewed it here, but I did create a soundtrack that speaks to all that love and loss.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke is heartbroken. Her beloved sister Fern is missing. Her beloved brother Kevin is wanted by the FBI. To mend her heart she must confront an awful truth. This book is one of a kind.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild, Cheryl Strayed. To recover from her mother’s death (and all her own subsequent personal little deaths of the heart), Cheryl Strayed hiked most of the Pacific Coast Trail. Some people called this book (and Strayed) self-indulgent, but I thought it was a beautiful account of love and grief and imperfection all together.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Friendships, especially those from childhood, are probably some of the most intense relationships we have, because we are in the process of discovering who we are and who we are not. Elena and Lila are sometimes friends, sometimes almost enemies, but no doubt their lives are entwined and their feelings for each other are strong.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore. In this wistful and slim novella, Berie recalls her best teenage friend Sils and the summer they were both fifteen.