Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Hunger Makes Me a Modern GirlI can’t seem to get it together to write a full post about any one thing, so I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts about what I’ve read over the last few weeks. (I guess, technically, one does not “jot” using a keyboard, but whatever.) Lately fiction is not doing much for me, which is highly unusual. I’m much more likely to set aside something nonfiction to start a new novel, but these last few weeks I’ve started four or five novels and stopped because I felt sort of bored. I picked up a stack of books at the library on Friday, so I felt pretty hopeful about that. I read one book right away, not a novel but Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I resisted picking it up when it was published in 2015 because I was worried about it being too…I don’t know. Gossipy? Self-aggrandizing? Navel-gazing? (It’s none of these.) The truth is I’m not big on celebrity memoirs, but a couple of weeks ago I read Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and enjoyed reading about Sonic Youth, so I thought I’d give Brownstein’s book a chance. I really like Sonic Youth, but Sleater-Kinney is one of my favorite bands. Both Gordon and Brownstein talk some about their childhood and their families and how those things shaped their worldviews and desires (Gordon had a schizophrenic older brother; Brownstein’s mother battled anorexia and left the family when Brownstein was 14, and her father eventually came out as gay), but in both cases they focus primarily on the evolution of their bands and of making music. Gordon’s book is more bittersweet, especially given her split with husband and band mate Thurston Moore, and she seems to still be working through much of her heartache on the page, yet without becoming maudlin. Brownstein is often laugh-out-loud funny and self-effacing, especially when discussing her childhood:Girl in a Band

The dance I choreographed—and I use the term “choreography” loosely, the way you’d call adding milk to cereal “cooking—was a combination of marching and punching, and probably resembled aerobics being done by a penguin.

Still, most of the book is about the band. She clearly loves and admires Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss. Amazing some of the hits these women take in reviews of their books, especially for revealing that much of the time they don’t feel particularly cool, that they landed on things like a look or a sound more by trial and error than through some innate sense of fashion or sound. Yet other reviewers go after them both for being too intellectual, too distanced, not emotional or gossipy enough. And then in Brownstein’s case there are a slew of reviews from people who’ve never heard of or never liked Sleater-Kinney. Sorry if this is a spoiler, but Brownstein barely talks all about Portlandia, the show she created with Fred Armisen. Some reviewers were clearly disappointed that the show didn’t feature more in the book, because that was primarily how they knew her. I thought that was kind of odd—why would someone write a memoir about doing a few years on a cable television show? (Okay, six years, but Sleater-Kinney has been around for more than 20 years, so whatever)—until I remembered that it’s 2017 and if you’ve made it to the age of 22 and appeared in a commercial for a local tire store, you’ve probably written a memoir.

Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American SpaceflightAnother memoir (!) I read and enjoyed was Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Dean Lazarus. Lazarus becomes interested in spaceflight after doing a bunch of research for her first novel, which is about a girl whose father works for NASA and the Challenger disaster. She continues researching even after publishing the novel, reading everything from astronaut autobiographies to early journalistic accounts from Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. She befriends a NASA employee on Facebook and eventually decides to write about the final flights of the three working space shuttles. The book is as much about the history of spaceflight as what it means to write about it, to stand outside and experience other people responsible for making something truly otherworldly happen. If you’re looking for an objective history of the American space program, this might not be your book. Mostly, Dean spends a great deal of time (rightly) worrying about the future of NASA. She has serious doubts about private space programs like SpaceX (which, since the book’s publication, has launched multiple rockets headed for the International Space Station, and just recently successfully re-used both rocket and launcher, something that was also intended for the shuttle program). She spends a lot of time discussing something I wonder about a lot myself, which is how and when America fell out of love with the idea of space, of getting to Mars, of creating something that transcends petty earthly “accomplishments.” (Seriously, I’ve seen The Martian at least ten times, and I cry every time, not from joy but because of the alternate present and all the lost opportunity it represents. Don’t even get me started on Star Trek.)

Finally, I read a terrific personal essay collection, Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio, which definitely left me wanting to read more personal essays, so I picked up Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterniti, which I’m looking forward to reading. On the fiction front, right now I’m reading Louise Penny’s second Inspector Gamache book, A Fatal Grace, and I’ve got C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings and Samantha Hunt’s The Seas out from the library, so who knows? Maybe my fiction slump will end.

How about you? Have you read any of these? Any good nonfiction to recommend? Happy reading!

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!

January Reading Wrap-Up

Over the last few years, January has been one of my better months for blogging. This year, even though I’ve been reading steadily, the idea of sitting down and writing about books has seemed kind of pointless. Many other book bloggers have expressed this same anxiety and heart-heaviness and wonder about the use of it all, so I know I’m not alone. For myself, I find avoiding Twitter and Facebook helps. For a while scrolling and scrolling made me feel connected, but it started to take on a life of its own, and I’d reach the end of the day with nothing accomplished—no work, no exercise, nothing. The only reason I read as much as I did was because I made it a point to get up in the morning and NOT to look at any headlines or social media but to open my book instead.

Alys, AlwaysI picked up Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl on New Year’s Eve and finished it quickly. You can read my thoughts about it here, or you can just trust me when I say I highly recommend it and you should get to it sooner rather than later. I’m doing the TBR Dare again this year, but in December I had also put a bunch of books on hold at the library that came available that first week of January: Version Control by Dexter Palmer, Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple, The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel, and Alys, Always by Harriet Lane. The only one I managed to read was Alys, Always. It’s a dark little book, with a wry, somewhat sociopathic heroine who carefully inserts herself into the lives of a famous writer and his family after she witnesses a tragic accident. I tried with all the others, but I just wasn’t hooked and decided not to force it.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkInstead, I moved on to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. I’ve always liked punk rock (you would never know it to look at me, now or then), the raw energy and the cheek of it. Please Kill Me focuses primarily on the New York scene, which was heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, but also by the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges out of Detroit. It’s basically an anthology of collected interviews with people on the scene (including Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell from Television, along with artists and journalists and other folks on the scene), arranged chronologically and by topic. It was interesting to read this book from a sociological standpoint at this point in time. The rise of punk followed the decline of utopian hippie idealism and the rise of economic instability. A lot of these kids were blue collar; they were disillusioned and disaffected. Very few of them had any musical training at all. Serious drug addiction, especially heroin addiction, was rampant. I think if you transported a lot of these people into the here and now, they would be like a lot of people who voted in our current president: angry and overlooked, with a lot of uncertainty about the country. They saw no easy future, they saw their friends dying in Vietnam, they saw all the institutions they had previously trusted as corrupt. That said, the music wasn’t a political statement—it was an escape, and in a weird way a highly romantic one at that. If you’re not familiar with much punk music, or at least the kind coming out of New York in the early 1970s, you might not know how much of it was influenced by the rock and roll of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. They hated all the commercial, progressive rock, the long guitar solos, the post-hippie syrup. In a lot of ways they were children. The one thing they all agreed on: Patti Smith was the real deal, the true queen of punk, always true to herself and her vision (and for the record, not a drug addict). If you’re interested in music history at all, it’s an interesting read, and it’s amazing to consider their influence all these years later. So many of them died too young, some long before they got to understand what a profound influence they had.

What with Please Kill Me and all the bad news in my Twitter feed, I decided next I needed something light to read, so I picked up the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Still Life. I found it well-paced, smart, and surprisingly funny. I don’t often commit to reading series, but as soon as the TBR Dare is over I’m putting these on hold at the library. Brain candy, with all-natural ingredients.

The Atomic Weight of LoveAfter Still Life, I picked up The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. Not going to kid you, the cover attracted me. It’s the story of a woman who marries a scientist involved in the Manhattan project, and how his life takes over her own plans and ambitions, and how she finds love and life in Los Alamos. Overall I really enjoyed it. The writing was beautiful, although I had some weird quibbles with it while I was reading that I had ultimately let go by the end. For one thing, the main character, Meri, goes to the University of Chicago to study science, but all of the conversations she has with her professor and things she thinks about come across as elementary. Another strange quirk I noticed was that almost all the female characters were described in terms of their weight (“ a red-headed woman with a thickened waist”; “Anorexic Peggy Hilson dressed only in Beatnik black”; “the crisp presentation of the fat-free stewardesses”). Silly things, I know, but sometimes it’s like having a tiny rock in your shoe, one that’s not really worth it to dig out but bothers you from time to time just the same.

Most recently I started reading a book a publisher sent me back in 2010 (ouch) called Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells–Our Ride to the Renewable Future. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, because the author Amanda Little takes a close look at how incredibly dependent we are on petroleum products and what sort of alternative energy sources might help us break that dependence. It’s crazy to think, but some of the book is already dated (the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla were not then on the market, for example). On the other hand, since we’re about to see massive deregulation and drilling and fracking…well, I’m just going to stop here. This one really deserves its own post.

And finally, I had a few more books on my hold list come up at the library: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m reading now, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of black Americans from the South to North from 1915 to 1970, which I plan to read next. After that I may pick up more non-fiction, because it’s just seemed more appealing lately, but we’ll see.

Wow, that was a long one! Going forward I’ll manage all this through individual posts or a weekly wrap-up. Stay safe out there, stay strong, #resist, and tell me what you’re reading!

Reader’s Journal: Lab Girl

Lab GirlIn my other life, I’m a scientist. When I say, “my other life,” I don’t mean my life outside the blog; I mean my life in an alternate universe. I do things in a lab that involve other scientists, and also math. I do whatever kind of science I’m interested in at the moment, obviously. Mostly, I work on things that  have to do with going into space. You know, it’s rocket science. But sometimes I am in a lab looking into space through a large telescope, or else looking through a microscope at rocks or plants. I may or may not wear a lab coat. I am always taller. Always.

In this life, I was in my third year of college before I realized that I was not bad at math or science. In fact, I was borderline good at it. But by the time I figured that out, I had already switched majors too many times (five: drama, communications, drama again, fashion merchandising—don’t ask—and English) to believe that my parents would happily support me through an additional year or two of college because I wanted to switch from English to, say, geology. Alas, I after getting an MA I ended up leaving academia and entering the “real” world as a technical writer, and it was in that job that I realized I should have been a computer science major. But life and finances and reality being what they are, I also realized that was probably not going to happen.

So what does my little sob story have to do with Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl? It’s simple. I’m illustrating how completely unfair it is that I, a former English major and current “content creator,” cannot just wake up one day and decide to “do science”—but Hope Jahren, who spent most of her life in a lab studying plants, can just pick up a pen (or a laptop) and write a really fantastic book. Honestly. Where does she get off?

In Lab Girl, Jahren tells the story of her childhood, her struggles as a student and trying to establish herself as a woman scientist, her experience with mental illness, and her remarkable relationship with her best friend and lab partner, Bill. Between more personal chapters, Jahren also includes interesting shorter chapters about plants and trees based on lectures she has delivered to her classes over the years. All of this could really be so much blah blah blah, but Jahren has a terrific way of connecting her passion for science with the narrative of her life without resorting to hokey metaphors:

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something more important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.

I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new.

I suspect this is a book that many parents might hand off to daughters in their early teens who are already showing a budding interest in science, but if that’s the case then the parents should read it, too, because there’s a lot to discuss. She writes openly and honestly about her mental illness (bipolar disorder) and how she tried to deal with it on her own before finally getting help. She also does not shy away from the difficulties of being a research scientist—especially one who is female:

Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.

And in explaining how the National Science Foundation funds (or fails to sufficiently fund) research scientists:

…$7.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science–not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well.

[Six million dollars for the NSF’s paleobiology program] still sounds like a lot of money. Perhaps we could agree that one paleobiologist from each state in the country should get a grant. If we divide $6 million by fifty, we get $120,000 for each contract. And this is close to the reality: the NSF’s paleobiology program gives out between thirty and forty contracts each year, with an average value of $165,000 each. Thus, at any given time, there are about one hundred funded paleobiologists in America…Note also that there are a lot more than one hundred paleobiology professors in America, which means that most of them can’t do the research they were trained to do.

The heart of the book, though, is about her longtime friendship with her lab partner, Bill, who is unconventional, antisocial (er, maybe misanthropic would be a better word), stubborn, humorous, intelligent, and hard-working. In Bill she finds a true (non-romantic) partner to support her work and really, her heart. This part of the book gives it strength by rounding out the story, but it’s also the book’s only real flaw. Most likely Jahren’s preservation instinct is to blame; she’s clearly aware, even in terms of their friendship, of crossing any boundaries that might be too personal or reveal too much. While I appreciate that instinct, about halfway through the book the anecdotes involving her relationship with Bill start to become repetitive. Some of the action drives the story along (i.e., now we are here in this place, researching this new thing), but the exchanges between her and Bill start to seem like a couple of people performing a vaudeville act. I think this is less a function of the writing than the probably very real way they interact, but if you’ve ever spent time with two people who seem to have a shorthand or very particular way of interacting, you know it can be exasperating after a while. The good thing is that it’s very clear that they care for and support each other a great deal, even during the worst of times.

Ultimately, I felt like Jahren brought the same passion to her story about science and friendship that Patti Smith brought to her memoir Just Kids. Both books are about a bond, and about discovering a life’s passion (plants on one hand, poetry on the other). “Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted,” writes Jahren. Truer words were never spoken.

2017: Looking Forward

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe the holidays are already over, but I don’t think many of us are sad to say goodbye to 2016. While 2016 may have not been the best year in more ways than I care to list, as I mentioned in my year-end review post, I had an unusually strong reading year. With my first pick of 2017, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, that trend seems to be continuing. I’m not even a third of the way through that one and I’m already in love with it. Something about Jahren’s writing and worldview remind me of my beloved M Train, so I can see it easily taking a place on my year-end favorites list. Crazy, right?

My reading goals for this year are very loosey-goosey, but I am joining a couple of challenges. For the fifth year in a row, I’ll be joining the TBR Dare (formerly known as The TBR Double Dog Dare and created and previously hosted by James), which has been taken over by Lizzy and Annabel. The general idea is to tackle your TBR by reading books exclusively from your shelves from January through March (or longer if you dare). I have about five books that I placed on hold at the library well before the new year, but aside from those I’ll be reading books I already own well through April.

This year I also decided to join Book Riot’s Retro Rereads group. I am hoping to reread at least 12 books (one per month). While I’m not going to pick them all out ahead of time, I have a few in mind: Just Kids by Patti Smith, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Crooked Hearts by Robert Boswell, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant.

I’d also like to read more non-fiction this year (I only read three works of non-fiction last year, and two of those I didn’t even finish). And as someone who used to read short story collections almost exclusively, last year I didn’t read a single collection, so that needs to remedied as well.

As for blogging, my main goal is simply to blog more. I’m not sure what that will look like, but when I was doing my year-end post I realized how little I shared of this terrific reading year. I’m not going to commit to writing formal reviews of everything I read, but I definitely would like to share more, even if I’m just posting some favorite passages from what I’m reading. If you’re generally interested in keeping up with what I read outside the blog, you can also follow me on Goodreads.

So that’s it for me in a nutshell. What are your reading plans for 2017?

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!