Saturday, January 28, 2017

Top 10 of 2016

Though 2016 has sucked in a lot of ways, it's also been a pretty big one around here: we celebrated our first year being married, took a lovely honeymoon to Maine, I turned 30 (and didn't freak out too much), went to see Hamilton, and we bought a house! It's been a decent year of reading, too. Looking back at my list, I read a lot of forgettable books this year, but I did notch some that were gems. With our new house, my commute has gotten to be a little longer, but it's allowing me to plow through books like there's no tomorrow, so I'm hoping that 2017 will be an excellent year for reading!

Just like last year, a group of lovely ladies and I attempted to read all of the National Book Award shortlist (and some of the longlist) and this year we added the Man Booker Prize shortlist which was a nice change since I don't know if I'd have picked up many of those books on my own. We changed the format this year to a wiki-style review system which seemed to work well (though I haven't written reviews for 2 of the books I've read.. moving was time consuming!) and I hope that we keep it up for next year.

Enough with the boring stuff--let's get to why you're here.

This year, I read 51 books. The books on this list are ones that I completed reading between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016. These books were not necessarily published in 2016 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, the titles of the Top 10 books link to the book on Amazon (but go buy it in a bookstore).

Here ya go:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2016

10) LaRose by Louise Erdrich: I've always been a big fan of Louise Erdrich and she did not disappoint with LaRose. The story follows two Native American families after a tragic accident--the father of one family accidentally kills the son of the other. In line with Ojibwe tradition, the father gives the grieving family his own son LaRose as penance. As LaRose is absorbed into this new family, Erdrich follows both families as they adjust to this new life. Her characters are vivid, real, and her storytelling is, as always, exquisite.

9) Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn: It may or may not surprise you that I've always been interested in Charles Manson and his Family. The psychology and sociology of what happened in the 1960s is fascinating. Jeff Guinn brings this to life in this book. It's a biography of Manson, but also a look at the era that spawned him. Manson did not become himself in a vacuum and Guinn really digs deep into how Manson's credo came to be powerful and, in the end, deadly.

8) City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: This is definitely a long one, but worth it. I was actually reading this on the metro and someone stopped me and said "This book perfectly captures being there." It takes place in the year leading up to the blackout in New York City in the summer of 1977. Following the worlds of both the punk movement, art world, and higher society, Hallberg weaves together interesting, connected characters. I have a bias toward books that include margin notes or nontraditional text, and the use of 'zines in this book is well done. This was a good summer read for me!

7) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: I read this one as part of our National Book Award shortlist read, and as you probably know, it won. Whitehead hasn't always been my cup of tea--his alternate realities usually just don't do it for me, and I won't lie, it took me a while to fully grasp why he made the "railroad" an actual railroad, but in the end I think it was effective. I think the story captured the abject terror felt by a runaway slave, as well as the mentalities of the people who wanted to capture them, and the people who wanted to help them. Cora's story is a powerful one that Whitehead tells in a unique way.

6) The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: Here's another book that was part of the National Book Award shortlist. I walked away from this book in a state of awe. Mahajan's story starts with three boys who go to take a TV set for repair in Delhi when a "small bomb" goes off, killing two of the boys who were brothers. The story follows the family of the two boys who were killed and the boy who survived and his family. I came away from this book debating what the moral of the story was, and I still haven't landed on it because I'm still thinking about it, which to me, is the sign of an excellent book. What Mahajan makes clear is the ripple effect of a small event that only may kill a few people and may not necessarily be widely reported in the news. Very effective and thought-provoking.

5) Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: I am a fan of Woodson already and the reason I've loved her so long is her poetic and easy language. She doesn't complicate things but makes her sentences elegant, spare, and bright--I wish I had read this out loud, which is how I prefer to read poetry (when I do). I related very strongly to this story of childhood female friendship and how it changes but also stays with you for your whole life. The story is small but packs a punch, focusing on August who finds a group of three girls when she moves to Brooklyn as a young girl. The girls are inseparable and as they grow up, they lose and find each other. The writing is divine and I definitely cried a few times. 

4) All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood: I could NOT put this book down. Seriously. I was hooked from day one. And it might be because, as my husband likes to point out, all my favorite books are about dysfunctional people and drugs, but I don't care. The story is gripping and I couldn't put it down. Wavy lives with her drug addicted mother and her drug dealing father and is more of an adult than both of them combined. When she meets one of her father's lackeys during a motorcycle accident, the two form a strong bond that will have you cringing and smiling. This is an unconventional story and I wish I had read it with people so I could have gushed about it as I read!

3) Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: There was an article in the New Yorker this year comparing the alternate worlds of Underground Railroad and this book, so I wanted to read it because it sounded intriguing. The premise is that the Civil War never happened, leaving four southern states with legal slavery. So the world is exists with today's conveniences (technology, etc) but also with these four states legally holding slaves. The world is seen through the eyes of a bounty hunter who works for the government trying to catch runaway slaves. He becomes involved in a case that is fishy for  a number of reasons and gets entangled in government secrets. It's an interesting premise and really well executed.

2) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante: I know, I know--everyone read this book this year, but it is so much more than a fad. I was completely enraptured in the whole Neapolitan series and really loved the final installment. The epic story of the friendship of Elena and Lila was beautifully written, elegantly told, and absolutely heartrending. I loved every minute of these books and thought the finale was well done.

1) Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: Big Ann Patchett fan here and I was very excited to read this--Patchett always knows how to get to me. This is the story of two families who become entwined after the father from one family and the mother from another get involved with each other. But the interesting stories for me came from the kids who were part of these families--especially when they are all together during the summers. The story spans several decades and the kids form a bond through their times together. Lovely and really moving.


So that's it! This was a lovely year in my life in reading! Thanks for stopping by and checking it out. Below is the full list from 2016--anything with a star is an honorable mention.


  • *All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones
  • *The Country of Ice Cream Star Sandra Newman
  • The Sunlit Night by Rebeccan Dinerstein
  • *The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
  • The Sudden Light by Garth Stein
  • *Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  • *In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • *Pax  by Sara Pennypacker
  • The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
  • *The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
  • The Past by Tessa Hadley
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
  • Moon Palace by Paul Auster
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
  • *Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  • The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • *The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
  • LaRose by Louise Erdrich
  • The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeer Sahata
  • *The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
  • Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
  • Me Before You  by Jojo Meyers
  • *Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • *The Girls by Emma Cline
  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
  • The Green Road by Anne Enright
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
  • All the Ugly and Beautiful Things by Bryn Greenwood
  • Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers
  • *Chistodora by Tim Murphy
  • *The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
  • *The Portable Veblen by Chris Bachelder
  • *The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
  • Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
  • *The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • Miss Jane by Brad Watson
  • Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
  • *Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Thanks for stopping by. I'd love to hear about your favorites this year, too! Wishing you a 2017 full of good books. 

Stephanie

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Top 10 of 2015

I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I lay, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adopted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of boks. Trasmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass--an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me lfe, and life kills me.
-An Unnecessary Woman
Rabih Alameddine

Well, another year has come and gone, more quickly than usual in fact--if you want time to fly, go ahead and plan a wedding!  Overall, this year has been filled with pretty wonderful things--getting married to a pretty fantastic dude, watching my sister get married to another fantastic dude, getting to see so many friends and family, and taking a few trips. And that's not even to mention the great list of books I've read! 2016 will certainly be a bit different, but I have no doubt that the books will stand up to the fabulous ones from years past.

In 2014, I decided to read all of the National Book Award shortlist nominees, which turned out to be a pretty fantastic little project for myself (though the timeline of reading bled into 2015). It was so fun that I decided to make in an annual thing and invited a few friends, near and far, to join me in reading them in 2015 which made the project even more fun. The books that I read for these little jaunts have certainly been big influences on the list this year.

This year has been a busy one and there is almost too much to say about it, so I think I'll just get to the list and my usual caveats. This year, I read 57 books which is 10 more than last year not sure how that happened!). The books on this list are ones that I completed reading between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2015. These books were not necessarily published in 2015 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, the titles of the Top 10 books link to the book on Amazon (but go buy it in a bookstore).

So here it is:

Stephanie's Top Ten Books of 2015

10) The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: As usual, Geraldine Brooks proves her genius in this retelling of the story of King David through the eyes of his right-hand-man and prophet Natan. Natan has visions and tells David of them, influencing his next moves in many cases. I didn't know much about the story of King David to start out with, but that certainly didn't matter much as I read along. The rich characters, settings, and events that take place really make the book so enjoyable. I was really captivated by David's rise and fall and is often strained relationship with Natan and with his various wives. It kept me intrigued until the very end.

9) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I have a feeling that this is on everyone's list this year. The National Book Award winner for non-fiction, this has been one of the most-talked about books of 2015. Written as a letter to his son, Coates writes about his experience of being black in America. Coates combines research, clear writing, and his own experiences to present a compelling view of American blackness from the perspective of a man who has had to find his own way in a world in which he is considered second class for nothing besides his own skin color. He talks about finding his passion at Howard University, talks about his friend who was killed by the Prince George's County police, his visit to a Civil War site, and puts it all into perspective of an often ignored viewpoint. A good book to read with others, it certainly makes you think.

8) My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: This is the first in a series of novels by Elena Ferrante following two friends growing up together in Italy. Though not a whole lot actually takes place in the novel, it's beautifully written and really explores the ups and downs and ins and outs of female friendship. I adored the prose--it really drew me in and made me care about the characters. I haven't had a chance to pick up the other books that follow this one, but the final installment came out this year and I'm excited to hopefully get to it in 2016!

7) The Storied Life of AJ Fikry  by Gabrielle Zevin: My mother-in-law was the one to recommend this wonderful, lighthearted, beautiful book to me. The story follows a bookseller on a small island whose life hasn't quite turned out the way he had planned. After a precious book of his is stolen, he receives a strange package on his doorstep in the form of a baby girl. A story about how life throws surprises our way, this sweet (but not too sweet) novel is a great one for a long weekend or for when you just need a pick-me-up.

6) On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman: This non-fiction book really stuck with me. As a graduate student in Philadelphia decides to follow the lives of several young black men in a poor neighborhood. Goffman rents an apartment on the same street as the young men she observes and becomes part of their daily lives. Goffman documents their lives through jail time, family accomplishments and troubles, incidents with the police, and how the men and the women in their lives try to live on a daily basis. A fascinating look at the American justice system and the lives of poor, black Americans, this is worth the read. I particularly loved the methodology she wrote at the end, explaining how she worked on the project and why.

5) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: This is not a book for the faint of heart. 700+ pages, this whopper of a book is not what you might call an easy read. It follows the lives of four guys who meet in college and live together. All four are unique in their own way, but in the end the real focus is on Jude, a severely abused and partially disabled man who fights his own demons daily. The writing was great and the author really kept me reading by knowing exactly when to reveal certain facts about Jude's past. Now, before you go out and get this one, know that there were parts where I had to put the book down and walk away to clear my head. But the complexity of the plot and my investment in the characters made me keep reading. (This was a National Book Award nominee for 2015... thanks to Cassie Graesser for helping me get through it. :) )

4) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I was pretty surprised that I didn't see this book on more end-of-year lists. I was riveted by this book about a woman whose son wakes up one day to find his drug-addicted mother gone without a trace. As he looks for her, he finds her "working" on a farm as a modern-day slave. Brilliantly told from the perspectives of the mother, the son, and most fascinating, the drug that is the true slave-holder of the mother, this is one that I couldn't put down.

3) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Another National Book Award nominee from 2014, this was an outstanding book that I really did not think I'd like. It takes place in an America that has suffered from a pandemic that has killed off most of the people in the world. Following a few groups of people who are working to survive, one of the focuses is a man who declares himself a prophet and is a pretty fascinating character. Mostly following the journey of "The Traveling Symphony," this book takes the reader back and forth in time and on twists and turns that you never expect.

2) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy: I love a novel that has an "epic" kind of feeling to it, telling the story of multiple generations of a family and this book fit the bill. It follows the Turner family who have grown up in a house in Detroit for years. As the matriarch of the family begins to lose her health, the 13 Turner children have to decide what to do with the house that losing money in a crumbling Detroit. The story focuses on a few of the children, particularly the oldest whose obsession with a ghost that has been haunting him since childhood changes his life. I loved the prose of this and the way it portrayed a family as well as the way it showed Detroit for the vibrancy it once and still has.

1) All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: I'm guessing that this doesn't come as a shock to any of you that this was my favorite book of 2015, seeing as I've recommended it to everyone and often! I loved the parallel and intertwining of tales of Marie-Laure and Werner, the setting of World War II and the secrets they both carry. Beautifully written and truly heartbreaking, I was obsessed with this book and could not put it down. How this didn't win the National Book Award is beyond me, but at least it got the Pulitzer! This is a long one, but it is absolutely worth every word.

So that's it, dudes. It was hard to decide the top ten this year! Below is the full list of all the books I read in 2015. Anything with an asterisk is an honorable mention!


  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • *The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond (a light one, but a fun read!)
  • 14 by Peter Clines
  • Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Sprecht
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay
  • Paper Towns by John Green
  • The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
  • The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway
  • *Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
  • *An Unnecessary Woman by Rabin Alameddine
  • The Precious One by Maria de los Santos
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
  • *Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
  • Zoli by Colum McCann
  • *Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
  • Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
  • Mobile Library by David Whitehouse
  • *I Am Radar by Reif Larsen
  • *In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
  • God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
  • Delicious Foods by James Hannaha
  • Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
  • Boys Don't Knit (in Public) by T.S. Eastman
  • St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
  • The Sunrise by Victoria Hilsop
  • The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • *Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  • *Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
  • On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
  • Friendship by Emily Gould
  • *Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • *Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope
  • *Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
  • *The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres
  • *Purity by Jonathan Franzen
  • *Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
  • *Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  • *Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • M Train by Patti Smith
  • The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
  • Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
  • *Fortune Furies by Lauren Groff
  • Refund by Karen E. Bender
  • *Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
  • After Alice by Gregory Maguire
  • The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
  • *The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
There you have it. My 2015 in reading in a nutshell. I hope that you all had a great year of reading in 2015 and am wishing you good books in 2016! :)

I'll leave you with two of my favorite pictures from our wedding... because my husband is super thoughtful. 


Wishing you a happy and literary 2016, 
Stephanie

PS: Here are the other Top Ten lists from years past: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Stephanie's Top 10 of 2014

"As long as I can rad, nothing human is beyond my understanding, nothing is totally foreign to my nature... there are no limits to my being... I'm never alone."
-Linda Weltner

Well, friends, I faded and I faded fast. One measly blog post this year! But one is better than none... and it all really just leads up to this post: the Top 10!

This year has been full of wonderful things and lots of changes, but through it all, there are always books. I'm not great with change. I'm a creature of habit, for better or for worse. So when Traber and I moved into the city and merged two apartments (with storage space) into one (without storage space. And that's not hyperbole.) and we were living in a sea of boxes and trying to figure out how we were going to make space for our life here, one of the first things I did was make sure to get myself a library card. This comforted me when I didn't even know I needed comforting. And that library card (and my previous one) led to another wonderful (and diverse) year of reading.

Even though I've gotten horrible at updating this blog, I still make sure that I write this post for a number of reasons. First of all, I love to hear comments from people telling me that they can't believe I loved that book or that they decided to pick something up when they saw it on the list and loved it. I'm not a great conversationalist by any means, but talking about books is in my wheelhouse and this blog facilitates those conversations (at least throughout the week of the post!). Second, and probably most wonderfully of all, it's a chance for me to look at what I've read over the past year and remember. I have a funny relationship with books--I may not remember the plot of a book or a main character's name, but when I see titles, I often flash back to where I was when I was reading it or what was happening around that time or a conversation I had with someone about it. And this is my own way of keeping track of my own life which lately has seemed to go by so quickly that I can't even get a mediocre hold on it.

Anyway, that's just my way of saying thanks for taking a peek at my little list and my little space on the interwebs and thanks for always telling me about a great book you read or emailing to see if I have anything to recommend. Those are small things, but they are some of the beauties in my life.

Okay, time to get to it. This year, I read 47 books which is 3 less than last year (I don't like this trend!). I will give my usual caveat: the books on this list are ones that I completed reading between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014. These books were not necessarily published in 2014 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, the titles of the Top 10 books link to the book on Amazon (but go buy it in a bookstore).

And here it is, folks: 


Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2014

10) The Best of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: At first, I almost didn't put this on my top 10 list, but I couldn't NOT. I have this thing for Nora Ephron--I love her. And not in like an "Oh! I totally love her stuff!" kind of way. No. Like in a how-do-you-so-get-to-the-core-of-life-and-I-wish-we-were-friends kind of way. After Nora Ephron died in 2012, this book was compiled of her best pieces of journalism, essay, fiction, and screenplay. Though this is certainly not comprehensive, it pulls much of her best work together and even includes the screenplay from "...When Harry Met Sally." The best (ever. of all things.) is the last chapters where she lists "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss" (which you can read here) which gets me every time with its simplicity and truth. This is a great one because you can pick it up and read it whenever since it's so very long but compiled of short essays and such. I'm not doing a great job of explaining my adoration for her or for why you should read this, but when it's fall out and the air smells a little different and all you want to do is buy the person you love a bouquet of sharpened pencils, pull this out.

9) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: I feel like I often say that I don't really like suspense or mysterious books, but I've said it so often recently about books I've enjoyed that I don't think I have pull to say it anymore. This little book is told from the perspective of Clay who recently lost his job and happens to find a position at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore which, you can imagine, is open for 24 hours a day. Clay works the night shift and starts to realize that no one actually buys any books, but rather they check out strange books and come in at odd hours of the night. As he gets more and more intrigued by the strange behaviors of the clientele, he starts to investigate and is then roped into a world where codes, books, and mystery are paramount. I loved this for its unique story and its way of keeping me guessing and wanting to figure out the answers along with the characters. A fun, quick read. 

8) Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman: At first glance, I was skeptical of this book and its general aura of "chick lit" (which I don't disparage but have steered away from). But as I kept reading, I realized that it's deeper than it looks. The story is about a woman whose mother has passed away. Her mother wants her ashes to be scattered in her hometown which is a place she never talked about or visited. The daughter gets curious and partially to escape her life and partially out of curiosity, she goes to this rural southern town and learns more about her mother and her self than she bargained for. Yes, there's a love story, but deep down this is a story of family, understanding, and acceptance. It's simply written and I loved the language. I don't know if I was just ready for a love story when I read it, but I was hooked very early on.

7) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I loved this book because it made me think. A lot. The story follows Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant to America whose life goal was to make it to America and live there. As she struggles to understand American life, race relations, humanity, and her own expectations out of life, she points out the disparities, racism, and general lack of compassion she finds as an immigrant. Her rage becomes such that she begins a blog to vent her anger which becomes popular. The story also follows her Nigerian ex-boyfriend who immigrated to London and is there illegally, living a miserable life himself. The language was so sharp and the observations cut right through the skin. I loved the complete openness and sad honesty that the author brought to it. This is a long one, and people have told me that it takes time to get into it, but I recommend trying it.

6) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Patchett writes a type of memoir in essay-sized snippets in this book. Each story is tied together by the fact that they are about Patchett's life and experiences, but they can all be read independently which makes this wonderfully woven book so interesting. All of the essays were compiled from writings throughout Patchett's career as well, which made for an interesting retrospective. Patchett talks about her first marriage (which took place when she was very young and ended quickly) and her current marriage (in which she seems very happy) as well as her decision to open an independent bookstore and her relationship with her father. It's really the story of how she became a writer and why she continues to do it. The essays were poignant without being sappy and read very genuinely. This was a fun one to read.

5) Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Have we talked about how much I love Robinson's book Gilead yet? I read it in high school for fun and then read it in college for class and go back to it every once in a while just to remember. Lila takes us back to the town of Gilead, Iowa where Gilead and Home take place. (It's not necessary to have read those to read Lila, but it does make it a bit more meaningful). This book tells the story of Lila who was kidnapped by a woman named Doll when she was a girl. They live the lives of gypsies basically and Lila grows up to have a very particular world-view. After happening upon the town of Gilead, she stays around for a while and ends up marrying the minister in the town who is more than twice her age. The story is beautifully and heartbreakingly told in words that make you want to read them out loud as you go.

4) Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: I kept seeing this one on the shelves at the library and I finally picked it up and I'm so glad I did. I stayed up at night to read it! The story starts with Pete Snow who is a social worker in middle of nowhere Oklahoma. His own personal life is pretty messy but he cares about what he does. And when he comes across a basically feral boy who is found at the elementary school, he buys him clothes and food and tries to take him back to the boys parents. The boy leads Pete into the woods where he lives with he deranged, paranoid father who is attempting to take down the government and doesn't believe in the American dollar. Pete becomes more entwined with the family and things spin out of control to the point where the FBI is involved and a movement is begun. The backstory of this father is insanely fascinating and I just wanted to keep reading more. Parts of the end seemed far-fetched and a little much, but the storytelling outweighed that. Pete's story is interwoven with the story of his own daughter (whose mother takes her to New Mexico where she runs away and lives on the streets) and a boy who Pete sent to foster care (and whose story doesn't quite mesh or end in my opinion). Seriously. So good.

3) The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: Here's another one where the storytelling was so good that it was hard to put down and stop thinking about. Amy Tan is no stranger to novels about mothers and daughters and this one follows that motif pretty closely. It starts out in early 1900s China where a white woman named Lulu is running the courtesan house in a prevalent town. Her daughter, Violet, is half American and half Chinese and is raised in the courtesan house. Tan does a fantastic job educating us (without our knowledge that we're learning something) about China at that time and particularly about the lifestyles of courtesans. The story focuses on the mother-daughter relationship of the two women and when Lulu goes to America but leaves her daughter behind, Violet must survive as the world seems to be ending around her. As she grows up, she has a daughter who is taken away from her--a story that she learns rings true for her own mother as she later learns. A gripping story of deceit, love, trust, heartbreak, and history, the poetic language and intricate details make this book one of those ones that made it hard to be at work during the day--I just wanted to keep going!

2) The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Chances are that you've heard about this book or read it--it seems to be one of those ones I kept seeing other people reading this year! Kidd's novel is a retelling of the true story of the Grimke sisters--two sisters from a conservative, southern family in Charleston, South Carolina who eventually were exiled by their family for their views on abolition and women's rights in the 1830s. The story starts when Sarah Grimke is given the gift of her own slave girl on her 11th birthday. It's a gift she does not want and certainly didn't ask for. The slave girl is Handful, whom Sarah befriends (though the friendship is certainly not condoned nor fully realized) and teaches to read and write. The novel is told in alternating chapters by Sarah and Handful and you see this tension but love that this relationship holds. Sarah and her sister Angelina become staunch and vocal abolitionists and crusaders for women's rights and their views are often too much for even the truest abolitionist of the time. So wonderfully told, I loved the dichotomy of the two stories as the girls grow up together and how they made some difference in each others' lives. Though the Grimke sisters and Sarah Grimke's slave girl had been forgotten for so long by history, Kidd brings them back to vibrant life here.

1) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: One of the first books I read in 2014, it is the one I have talked about, recommended, and obsessed over more than any of the others. The story, the writing (though sometimes a little long-winded), the intrigue... I couldn't get over it. I've been perusing general reviews of this book recently and there are a lot of people who just couldn't get on board. But man, I was all in. The story starts out with Theo Decker and his mother who duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to escape the rain and to see the Dutch masterpiece called The Goldfinch when terrorists attack the building and Theo's mother is killed. The story follows Theo as he finds a home with a friend's family and mourns his mother and moves on with his life, all while keeping a very valuable and costly secret of where the painting ended up after the attack. There's a little bit of teen angst-y stuff in there, but Theo's vagrant lifestyle, his involvement with gangsters and drug dealers, and his overwhelming love for his mother and for the painting that entranced her moves the story along so that by the end, I couldn't stop. This is a very very long one, but it's so worth the time investment.

So there you have it. Perhaps it's a predictable list, but I hope there is something in there that you might want to pick up. Below is the list of all the books that I read this year. Any honorable mentions that could have made the list have an asterisk next to them:

  •  *S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • *Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Weight of a Human Heart  by Ryan O'Neill
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger
  • Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris (was anyone else disappointed with this?)
  • *Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • *The Circle by Dave Eggers (read this with a book club!)
  • The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly
  • Detroit City is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli
  • The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  • One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, adn Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Enon by Paul Harding (don't read this unless you want to be super depressed. Forever.)
  • First Love by James Patterson
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by Brad Ricca
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
  • Run  by Ann Patchett
  • The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
  • Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman
  • The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Most of Nora Ephron  by Nora Ephron
  • The Visionist  by Rachel Urquhart
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • *We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • *Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
  • *Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  • Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
  • Us by David Nicholls
  • Fourth of July Creek  by Smith Henderson
  • *Euphoria by Lily King
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (I hated this so much I didn't know what to do with myself by the end)
  • *The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  • *The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
I've already got an AMAZING start on 2015 with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr under my belt (Seriously. Breathtaking.) and I'm looking forward to sharing all of this year's picks with you a year from now (because if my track record proves anything, I won't be back here until then--I have a wedding to plan, people!).

Thanks for reading and for your recommendations throughout the year (you know who you are) and for always asking "So what are you reading now?" It's my favorite question to answer.

If you'd like to see my lists from years past, here they are: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Wishing you the best reading in 2015, 
Stephanie

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Winter Blues and Literary Remedies

"He felt like something in a jar."
-Cormac McCarthy
No Country for Old Men

T.S. Eliot claims that "April is the cruellest month," but I'm going to contest that and say that February is basically the worst. January and February are my least favorite months, and there should be no need for explanation on that, particularly with the weather we've been having this year. I'm ready for baseball and outdoor beers and sunshine and Vitamin D and not having to walk hunched over on myself because it's too cold to stand up straight. You know what I'm saying?

And though these two months are often the worst, they often bring about the best reading. I don't know if my instincts are naturally sharper when I'm winter-depressed or if the gods take pity on me and hurl good reading my way, but either way, I'm thankful. I tend to rely on a good story more during this time of year than any, and 2014 has not yet let me down.

So, I thought I'd debrief you all on what I've been reading to keep my meager spirits up during snow, ice, and frigidity in hopes that you will find something that will get you through until Spring (if it ever gets here).

Here's what I've been reading since January 1:

S. by J.J. Abrams and Dough Dorst: I asked for this for Christmas and I was lucky enough to get it and have a nice long Christmas Break to read it over. I was so intrigued by the concept: the actual "novel" is a book called "The Ship of Theseus" which is written by the (fictional) mysterious author V.M. Straka in 1949. But that's only part of it. There is a whole other storyline going on in the margins of the book as two present-day graduate students try to decode the messages and mysteries of the book. The pages are full of their marginalia and ephemera like newspaper clippings and photographs and postcards that give them clues as they try to figure out who Straka (and his translator) really are. I'm not doing this book justice, I know. But I will say this--if you love books and the history of books, you should read it. I will warn you--it's a book you should probably read at home and keep there. The chances of things falling from the pages are pretty good, and I was so engrossed in it on the train one day that I missed my stop. There seem to be lots of theories on how to read it (some say read the novel all the way through then go back and read the marginalia from the grad students), but I just read it all at the same time. So as I read the novel, I was reading the notes. I may go back and re-read it to see if it's better doing it novel then notes. As you can expect from J.J. Abrams, it's a great journey with a lot of head-scratching but satisfaction.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: This was on a lot of "best of" lists for 2013, so I wanted to try it and see. It's a young adult book but every review I've seen claimed that you should overlook that moniker and just read it and they are right. Eleanor is an awkward-looking girl living in a broken home and having to fend for herself for most of what she needs. Park is a comic-book loving boy who is initially embarrassed to have to sit next to Eleanor on the bus. The two eventually strike up a friendship that turns to love. Though complications arise (of course), the story is believable and makes you look back on that first overwhelming, obsessive love you had. Short and quick, this novel encompasses the reality of being "different" in high school and what it's like to find someone who likes you just the same. (If you like anything by John Green like The Fault in Our Stars pick this one up too.)

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess kids are all grown up and trying to deal with life. After witnessing and being part of their father's death when they were kids certainly didn't bring the three siblings closer together, yet it binds them in a way that only a tragedy can. Brothers Jim and Bob moved from their small Maine hometown to New York  and are called back to help their sister Susan's son who pulled a pretty serious prank. In the course of helping their nephew, the brothers learn things about each other and come to some realizations about themselves in the process as does Susan. I think it captures the crazy nature of siblings really well, even though the circumstances are not typical. I liked this more than Olive Kitteridge and about on the same level as Amy and Isabelle.

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill: Sometimes, you just need a break from a novel and a good short story collection. If that's the case, then I recommend this one. Though the stories tend to be a little heavy (many take place in war-torn Africa and other such locales), O'Neill infuses his stories with a sense of hope and wonder. One story that stuck with me is the one where a woman's relationship with her mother is examined. Her mother is a writer and often uses her daughter's life as inspiration for her works and their relationship is extremely strained. It (like the other stories) is well told and emotionally gripping.

The Goldfinch by Dana Tartt: Stop what you're doing and get this book. I know, I know, it looks daunting with it's 800-something pages, but I DEVOURED this book and everyone I've talked to about it said they did too. The story takes place in New York City where a boy, Theo, is on his way to a school counseling session with his mother when they get caught in the rain and go to the art museum as a detour. While they are there admiring the painting "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius, an explosion hits the museum and in the melee, Theo comforts an old, dying man and takes the painting from the museum. No one notices that Theo has taken the painting, but this is the impetus for the crazy turn his life takes as he tries to deal with losing his mother, the strange return of his father, the kindliness of strangers, and the draw of drugs and escapism, all while keeping the stolen painting close and safe, holding on to it as though it's all he has left. Another book that I was completely engrossed in, I absolutely recommend this no matter what you like to read--it's got a little of everything.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: The second I picked this up, I almost immediately put it down, mainly because I hadn't realized what it was about until I started reading it. It had been a big read a few years ago and I randomly saw it at the library and just picked it up. I'm not really one for thinking about the apocalypse or doomsday, so I almost put it down, but I'm glad I didn't. The story begins a few years after most of the human population has been annihilated by the flu and there are very few survivors, one of whom is Hig, our narrator, who lives with his dog  and in the vicinity of a kind of crazy neighbor. They reside near an airplane hangar where Hig can fly his plane to get supplies and take a respite from the shelled out life he lives. When a voice comes over the radio one day, he decides to pursue it, and is shot down as he passes a farm on his way. Though he doesn't find what he thought he would at the end, a renewed hope is born and he continues to survive. It's brusquely but poignantly written and one that really makes you think.

Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger: Take this title to heart--it perfectly describes the theme of the book. Coincidence is at the heart of the story of Azalea who as a child was left at a carnival with no parents. She is adopted and eventually raised in Uganda by a missionary which ends tragically, as one can imagine. Throughout her life, Azalea is overwhelmed by the amount of coincidences she sees as guiding her life: her birth mother and adoptive mother and father die on the same day. As other stars collide in her story, she is convinced that her death is written in fate. After reading an article about him, she seeks out Thomas, who is an expert in coincidences. Though the two become romantically involved, they can't agree on the idea of coincidence and destiny, which causes turmoil and a big act to be taken. As Thomas relays the story of Azalea's lifetime of coincidences, I started to wonder about fate and destiny, and it took me on some interesting paths. A good book to pick up if you want an intriguing story that keeps you guessing from page to page.

So that's what I've been reading (and a few others, but I think I'll save them until next time), and I hope you find something there that can help you through March! As always, I love your recommendations, so please tell me what you've been reading. I'm fearing a dry spell soon as I've had such good luck lately!

Thank goodness for good books on wintry days.

Happy Reading,
Stephanie

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Stephanie's Top 10 of 2013

Once upon a time, she began. I stood at the door and listened. There isn't a story in the world that isn't in part, at least, addressed to the past
-TransAtlantic
Colum McCann

Glasses on. Hair up. PBR on the bedside table. You know what that means...it's time for the top-ten list for 2013!

If you've been following my meager output of posts over the past four years, you know that this is my favorite post to write. I love looking back at (another) year gone by and seeing it through the books I've read. Looking at book titles helps me orient time--I remember what I was doing, how I was feeling, where I was going when I think about "X" book. I'm sure that that seems sad or boring, but I'd disagree (but then, of course I would). It means that I've not been alone for my journeys and adventures, my ups and my downs, my confusion and my clarity--these stories, these characters, these seemingly one-dimensional pages have been with me and help shape and revise my world-view on a daily basis. It's what I love about books (even those that I don't remember as well as I wished I did): they are part of me just as much as my right hand or my eyeballs are part of me.

Looking back at my 2012 post, I'm sad to say that my prophecy was correct: I did run out of my infamous (if only to me) favorite paper on which I recorded my book lists. I now have to scour bookstores to find the right notebook paper, which I think will be a fun adventure. I can't just switch to a new paper willy-nilly! But also as I look back at my 2012 post, I realize how many things have changed: I have a new job where I feel like I'm doing something good (and you can visit the blog I started for the Driskell Center HERE). I didn't have a list of things to do this year like I did for my 25th year, and I really missed it. There was a lot of traveling and friend-seeing (much to my joy) and celebratory events this year which really buoyed my soul. I got my braces off and now have straight teeth! My roommate and I moved (of course we did--it's our M.O.). I feel a little older but not so much wiser, unfortunately. This was a good year and I think that it comes through in the list of books I've read during it.

So, enough with the philosophizing! On to the list! This year, I read 50 books which is 2 less than last year (that seems to be the trend..). Still not bad, though! I will give my usual caveat: the books on this list are ones that I completed reading between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013. These books were not necessarily published in 2012 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, the titles of the Top 10 books link to my original post about the book (if there was one--if not, I linked to the Amazon page) and I listed the year it was published.

And so, the moment we've all been waiting for:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2013

10) The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig (2012): This is one where I wrote a lot about it in an earlier post this year, so if you want to know more about it go ahead and click on the title. I loved this book because of it's great use of life--the story isn't about just one person or one event. It connects history with our daily lives and shows the wonders of growing up, learning, and finding out who you are.

9) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012): This book is brilliantly told and a really raw and gripping read. When I re-read my review from this year, I actually think that I missed an aspect that now stands out so much clearer: yes, the book is about the disconnect between war and home and it's a story about mass media, but I think more than that, it's a story of the ridiculous nature of what we tend to care about today as seen through the eyes of someone who has seen and experienced so much more than the average person. And though Billy longs to blend in with his peers at home, he just can't because of how life has changed him. A really thoughtful and good read.

8) The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2013): In my last post, I mentioned that I was reading and loving it, and I never updated you. So, update: I loved this. This was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick this year and I really wish I had gotten to read it with a book club. Each chapter is told my one of Hattie Shepherd's 12 children whose stories overlap slightly but all really stand alone. Hattie is a black woman who moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration in the 1920s. After she loses her first-born twin babies, Hattie loses a lot of hope but has 10 more children, all of whom go on to do very different things: one is a preacher, one a mentally ill woman, etc. But all of their stories seem to be influenced or touched in some way by their mother Hattie who, though a hard character to love, is compelling and sympathetic. I really loved this book and the interconnections.

7) And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (2013): It's not much a surprise that this was an amazing book--Hosseini's other two books were wonderful and this one doesn't disappoint. A book that focuses on one event that forever impacts many people (even those not alive when the event took place), this story of family, love, and sacrifice is one that everyone should read. I love reading books by Hosseini because he does an amazing job of giving me a peek into a world that I know very little about, and he does it well here.

6) The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (2013): I wrote a lot in my review from May 2013, so click on the link for the title of this one to get an idea of how much I loved it. It's a great story with unforgettable writing and a real page-turner.

5) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2007): Traber and I decided to read this together after he saw a preview for the movie version and thought "This looks like something Stephanie would like." Smart man. The story is about a German girl whose mother gives her up for adoption right in the middle of Hitler's rise to power. After being placed with her new Mama and Papa, a strange thing happens: a Jewish man who is on the run from the Nazis comes to hide in their basement. A friendship grows and let's just say this: I was bawling my eyes out on a train home as I finished this. It's so well done. Here's my advice though: don't let the first chapter scare you away--just get through that and you'll love it. Also, the movie was super well-done and if you get a chance to then visit the Holocaust Museum afterwards, do it. 

4) The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013): It's no secret that I basically adore everything Jhumpa Lahiri writes, and rightly so: she's a brilliant writer who is able to conjure up characters so real and so universal that every time I finish a book by her, it goes in a different direction than I expected and I don't want to put it down. The Lowland is a story of two brothers born in India who grow up during the restless 1960s. The brothers are very different--one stays in India, fighting for the people's revolution and the other goes to American to study and teach. After one of the brothers dies, the other takes over many family responsibilities including his dead brother's wife. It's a great story about cultural differences, family loyalty, and brotherly (and complicated) love. 

3) The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012): This won the National Book Award in 2012 and rightly so. The story about a Native American boy whose mother is brutally raped, touches on the holds of tradition, the sad reality of growing up, and the constant pull to family and truth. Beautifully and brutally written, it's a must-read.

2) Canada by Richard Ford (2012): I said in my post about this book that this would definitely be in the top 10 for this year, and it did make it as high as #2. A gloriously and carefully written, almost-adventure, coming of age story that kept me engrossed from page 1. Read the review by the link in the title to get more details, but do read the book, whatever you do.

1) TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (2013): This is a completely lovely book and McCann almost outdoes himself with this one. Based on real-life events and people, McCann recreates and gives life to the first transatlantic flight and the men who flew it... and the letter that they didn't get to deliver. The stories told from different eras are connected by the fact that the letter carried by the pilot does not get delivered and the end is wonderful and awe-inspiring. This is the second book by Colum McCann to make it to my number 1 book of the year, so that might tell you something!

And that's the story, folks. Below is the complete list of 50 books I read during 2013. I've put an asterisk next to books that were also amazing so get an honorable mention.

  • The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
  • *This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz 
  • *Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Canada by Richard Ford
  • Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
  • The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
  • Call the Midwife; Shadows of the Workouse by Jennifer Worth
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • In the City of Bikes by Pete Jordan
  • *Life of Pi by Yann Mantel
  • The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (this book wins the award for weirdest this year)
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • The Astor Orphan by Alendandra Aldrich
  • The History of Us by Leah Stewart
  • Season of '42 by Jack Cavanaugh
  • The Lion is In by Delia Ephron
  • TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • *Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • *You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
  • *The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
  • *The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove  by Karen Russell
  • *The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
  • *Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown
  • Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (I read all 7 this summer which was really fun and you should know all their names so I'm not typing them all out!)
  • *Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc) by Delia Ephron
  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (runner-up for weirdest book..)
  • The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
  • *Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
  • *Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • *The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
So goodbye to a great year of reading! I'm excited for the new things this year (a new Sue Monk Kidd book?! A new Miss Peregrine?! I'm so excited!) and it started off great with the amazing S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. (I was obsessed. If you love reading and books, please buy it.)

Thanks, as usual, for reading, asking for recommendations, and generally making this year great. I hope that lots of good things and good readings come your way this year!

And if you want to see my book lists of years past, you can see them here from 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012

Happy Reading, friends, 
Stephanie

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Catching Up From Summer Insanity

"There is always room for at least two truths."
-Transatlantic
Colum McCann

I think my summer can be summed up in the fact that I haven't updated the blog since MAY! What?! So much for trying to stick to my goal of one post a month... oh well. This summer was crazy hectic with going to five weddings within three months of each other, trying to figure out my then-new job, and lots of wine festivals, baseball games, and summer fun! But don't think that means that I stopped reading... no sir. If anything, I read more with all the travel!

I think it would be too much for me to write about every single book I read, so I decided that I'm going to give you the highlights from this summer's list and then at the end, I'll list the other books I read. I will say that I did really hit a lot of disappointing reads this summer, but I think it was just a rut because recently, the literary gods have been smiling upon me.

Enough with the chit-chat--let's get to it. Here are the best books I read this summer:

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Every single time I read something by Colum McCann I am always amazed and then want to sit down and read it all again. His new book did not disappoint. If you have been reading this blog or have ever talked to me about books, you know I love a good story where various, seemingly disparate stories all influence each other in the end--and no one does that like McCann. The story starts with the two men to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic who are supposed to deliver a letter that does not make it to its destination. The stories that follow include one of Frederick Douglas's trip to Ireland, Senator George Mitchell's visit to a war-torn Ireland, and an Irish woman who escapes to America. Though the stories only slightly touch each other in the telling, their relationship in the end is astounding. Written in his usual beautiful, lyric, and heart-punching prose, McCann reminds us that each decision and move we make does mean something.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: Another thing I love is a good war story, and Fountain delivers with this one. Protagonist Billy Lynn is part of a squad who performed amazing feats in Afghanistan and they are being honored at an NFL game on Thanksgiving Day. The whole book takes place during this one day, but Lynn's mind is elsewhere: still at war, with his family, with his fellow soldier who died. The squad leader is trying to get their amazing story sold to a producer so a movie can be made, and it is here and in many other creeping places that Fountain weighs in on mass media, the notion of fame, and yet also the tragedy of war. The characters seem very real and the writing is great.

Dear Life by Alice Munro: Chances are that you have heard of this one recently, as Munro just won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. If you are a fan of short stories, then you have certainly read some of her work, and if you read The New Yorker, then you've basically read this entire book already (so many of the stories were ones I'd already read over the past few years in the magazine!). Each story has a very raw, real sense to it. Though the stories aren't connected in any tangible way, Dear Life is held together by its severely frank tone and the Munro's amazing ability to delve into the real essence of life. I loved the last section which is a set of essays that are semi-autobiographical and talk about Munro's life growing up--it was fascinating.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: I am not usually one for mysteries, but this suspenseful novel caught me by surprise. In the early 1980s, the Cold War is "raging" and two 10 year old girls living in Washington, DC are becoming fast, though unusual friends. Sarah's home life is horrible, and Jennifer seems to lead the perfect life. One day, the girls decide to write a letter to the premier of the Soviet Union to ask for peace, but only Jennifer receives a response. Jennifer is invited to the Soviet Union, her story becomes world-famous, and the girls friendship is strained. When Jennifer's plane crashes with her and her family on it, Sarah is devastated. Ten years later, Sarah receives a letter which implies that Jennifer is still alive and that the death was faked. Sarah goes to Moscow and the story becomes very interesting. I loved the sense of suspense that Holt captures, but also how realistic she portrays friendship.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: Obviously this was not the first time I've read this book, but it was the first time that I listened to it. With so many travels this summer, Traber and I found ourselves trying to find more things to listen to together on road trips, and this one was my suggestion since he'd never read it. If you don't know anything about this book, please go get it now. I know it's a "children's book" but it's really a book for all time. I was constantly reminded of how much I loved and felt a kinship with Claudia, why I love museums, and why I love reading. I mean, tell me that you don't want to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan: I have loved every one of Sullivan's books that I've read, and based on how I flew through this one, I'd say I loved it too! The book follows four different couples each in a different stage of married life, and throughout the story, we are treated to snippets about Frances Gerety (a real woman) who is one of the main people responsible for the prominence of engagement rings in our society. The individual stories are wonderful and really do surprise you at points and the tying in of Gerety's story is brilliant, making the reader consider the many ways that individuals think about marriage, love, and commitment. I loved this one, and if you enjoyed any of her others (Maine and Commencement), you'll enjoy this one too.

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown: I saw this in a bookstore in Seattle and immediately went to Kramerbooks when we got home and bought it. In very short, often illustrated snippets, Brown glances over things that make a person an adult. Placed into themed chapters ("Love," "Cooking," "Money," "Get a Job," etc), Brown doesn't go into super-detail about how to do some of the things that she recommends, but it did get me thinking about some things that I should be doing in my late twenties.  I always love these little self-help books (for some reason, I always read them in late summer) and this one was fun--I laughed out loud several times, realized that I'm not as bad off as I thought, but also thought about what else I can be doing financially, around my house, and in my personal life to make it even better than it is now. A super-fun read, especially if you're just out of college or trying to figure things out in your 20s and 30s.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Oh my God. Have you read this book? I devoured it. I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns but I don't think I loved them like I love this book. The story centers on one action: that of a recently widowed, poor man with two children and a new wife who sells his six year old daughter to a wealthy couple who cannot have children. The girl is brought up to never know her origins, but she is always aware that something is missing. Each chapter is told by a different character whose life is touched in some way by this act, and it's so beautifully brilliant that I couldn't put it down or stop thinking about it. Though in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, it is constantly engaging and awe-inspiring. So good.

Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron: I have just finished re-reading all of Harry Potter in about two weeks (I know), and I was so happy to have something this lovely to come down from my Harry high on. I am a HUGE Nora Ephron fan (I can quote all of You've Got Mail by heart and every time I think of "What I Will Miss" and "What I Won't Miss," I get tears in my eyes) so by extension I also enjoy Delia Ephron. After Nora died a few months ago, Delia wrote this book of brilliant, rambling, hilarious essays which, as only an Ephron can, made me laugh on one page and then cry on the next. Delia talks about collaborating with Nora and being her sister, she writes about her mother (and how she can't write about her), and about her dog (which, while I don't like dogs so much, was hilarious because she knows how she sounds when she writes about it). I zipped through it in a few hours and loved every second. I mean, she writes a whole essay on how "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" is to blame for being on "walkabout" in her 20s and giving her false ideas about love (but about how much she loves it). How could I not love this book?

The other books I've read between my last post (with short descriptions) and now have been:
  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (weird)
  • World War Z by Max Brooks (better than I expected)
  • The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich (forgettable)
  • The History of Us by Leah Stewart (sweet)
  • Season of '42 by Jack Cavanaugh (not the best basball book I've read, but not bad)
  • The Lion Is In by Delia Ephron (silly, but fun)
  • The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (engaging)
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (was disappointed I didn't like it more...)
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (I wished I liked it)
  • The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (pretentious.. so I enjoyed it)
  • Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig (good Western.. not as good as The Bartender's Tale)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (always a a good re-read)
  •  All seven Harry Potter books (as amazing as ever.)
I'm sorry it's been so long since my last post--I wanted to tell you all about what I've been reading, so I tried to make the intro short here... hopefully I won't have to catch up so much next time and can regale you with long-winded stories about why I love reading or how fall simply can't make up it's mind to come or not or, frankly, how is it November this week?! I am halfway through The Twelve Tribes of Hattie right now and am LOVING it, so I can't wait to finish it and get back to you!

I hope that fall is treating you well with apple pies and crunchy leaves and bouquets of sharpened pencils (see? I told you... Nora is everywhere).

Keep Reading,
Stephanie

Monday, May 13, 2013

No Braces, New Job, Busy Life, But Still Reading!

"She was the dream of the place that bore her, and she did not even know it."
-The Orchardist
Amanda Coplin

It's been a while since I updated here, but there's been a lot going on, so let's update on that first, then we'll get to the book talk!

First of all, my braces are off! Basically, this closes out my 25 year goals and it feels great! I'm so happy with how it all turned out and I'm beyond thrilled to be able to eat (basically) whatever I want (the Doritos intake has been a little absurd... don't judge). Straight teeth are amazing and it was so worth the time and money! Also, reading out loud (my guilty, only-when-I'm-alone pleasure) is so much more enjoyable and sounds a million times better!

Second of all, I am now in the third week of my new job as the Archivist at the University of Maryland's David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora! The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of starting something new, but I'm so excited to be able to work with these super amazing materials and to have a new challenge!

This past month has also been the beginning of what is going to be a very exciting and busy summer full of lots of weddings, wine festivals, shows (Anything Goes and Book of Mormon!), friends, parties, and (hopefully) some good reading! In true DC fashion, Mother Nature isn't sure what season it is, but that's okay, because it's an opportunity for me to wear my yellow coat!

So you can blame my lack of updates due to all that! :)

Though life has been busy, there's been no shortage of good books being read around here, and there are a few that I'm really excited to tell you about, so let's get to it!

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: When I was in college, one of the best classes I took was on Post-Modern literature and one of the books that we read was Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, and while I don't remember much about it, I do remember that I wasn't a huge fan when I read it, so I was kind of hesitant to pick up The Round House, but I'm lucky that Pat Holzheimer loved it enough to make it one of his top 5 books from last year on his blog! The story is mildly graphic, but quite solidly written. The story centers on a Native American family living in peace until a tragic event happens to the mother. The story is told through the eyes of Joe, the teenage son and only child of the Native American judge and his wife, who is traumatized after being brutally raped. After the rape, Joe's mother shuts herself away from her family completely and Joe is determined to solve the mystery of who did this horrible thing to his mother and essentially changed the lives of his entire family forever and irreparably damaged what was good in his life. Told in a very blatant and essential way, Erdrich brings to life the tragedy, heartbreak, and  confusion that surrounds the horrible crime of rape and what it means to the family of the victim as well as the victim themselves. Interwoven with Erdrich's signature Native American stories and morals, this is a wonderfully written book that will stick with you long after you've finished it.

In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan: A recent HarperCollins book, this one was sent to me a while ago, and I only just got to it! In this memoir, Pete Jordan weaves together his own personal story of moving to Amsterdam and the history of the bicycle in that very bike-centered city. Jordan moves to Amsterdam initially for school, but then his wife follows him there and they make there home. There is no doubt that part of the reason behind Jordan's decision to completely relocate to Amsterdam was the fact that there are more bikes than people in the city and Jordan is obviously crazy about bikes. While you do get some of his own story of his move, what he focuses on more is the history of the bike in Amsterdam which is focused more on the role of the bike during the Nazi regime, which does get pretty interesting. Although generally, I kept feeling like I should love this book, I just couldn't get into it. I don't know if I just kind of found Jordan annoying or not genuine, or what it was, but I was relatively lukewarm about this. I will say that he does a very comprehensive job of getting the history of the bicycle in this very interesting city and getting to the meaty and interesting parts of that history. Not a bad history lesson, but kind of a slow memoir in general.

Life of Pi by Yann  Mantel: Traber and I saw this movie a few months ago, basically on a whim (Silver Linings Playbook was sold out) and I am so glad that we did! It was a beautiful movie (though the screen was very dark at the theater, which was the theater's and not the movie itself's problem) and the only thing that I was disappointed with was the fact that for some strange reason, I hadn't yet read the book. Though I almost always think the book is better than the movie, sometimes it's harder to think that when you see the movie first--I don't know about you, but I always end up not using my own imagination quite as much. But Mantel's visuals and descriptions were so specifically beautiful, I really was able to get my own view of the events that follow Pi as he survives alone on a lifeboat for several months with only a Bengal tiger as company. The twist is perfectly executed and in no way trite or cliche (as twists can be) and the language was so magnificent yet poignant that all I wanted to do was keep reading. I can honestly say that in my "old" age, I usually don't want to read before bed usually (I end up falling asleep), but I just had to keep reading until my eyes got too heavy on the nights I was reading this. I'm sure you already know the premise of the story, so I won't go into too much detail except to say that if you haven't read it, I really highly recommend it and think that if you love The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you would be happy that you picked up Life of Pi.

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin: Stop everything. Go to the library or bookstore or Amazon or whatever your preferred method of acquiring books is and get this. I'm serious. I'm in love with this book and am pretty sure that it is going to be a really hard decision for best book of this year between this and Canada. This was another one that I simply couldn't put down and basically had me obsessed for a week and a half. Coplin's novel focuses on Talmadge who owns an orchard in Washington state. His life was a hard a relatively lonely one that included walking partway across the country during the late 1800s with his mother and sister after his father died, finding a cabin in an orchard and settling down there, having his mother die while he was still a teenager, and then having his sister disappear shortly after. Talmadge relies on few people and knows very few people in town, so when two pregnant runaway teenage girls show up in his orchard, he has few people to consult about what to do with them. Possibly against his own better judgement, Talmadge begins taking care of the girls, later finding out the horrible conditions that they ran away from. With the help of one of his few close friends, Talmadge helps the girls deliver the babies, and though one of the babies doesn't make it, Talmadge takes in the surviving baby as though it was his own. The events that follow are both tragic and life-affirming and Coplin follows the sisters, the new baby, and Talmadge all in an elegant swirl of prose. Through amazingly deft prose, style, and the perfectly placed short chapters, Coplin does an amazing job of leading you up to the climax of the story and making your heart beat faster as you wait for some kind of collision to come. It's amazing how the style of something so simple as telling a story can make my heart beat faster and the hairs on my arms stand up. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the plot is well-wrought, but what really struck me was the telling of the story and the way Coplin drew me in with simple yet elegant words and storytelling that can often go unnoticed but that really made the book for me. You'll like this one if you liked Canada, The Bartender's Tale, or The Art of Racing in the Rain. Simply wonderful.

To put it very simply: books are awesome. I'm pretty sure that's all one needs to know in life to be happy. Am I right?

I hope that this maybe jumpstarts your summer reading plans and that you get lots of time to read some amazing things. I hope to not wait too long before my next post! :)

Keep reading,
Stephanie