Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On the Beginning of a 25th Year

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all these scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compuslive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compusion tries to justify itself.
-"On Keeping a Notebook"
Joan Didion

This past December, I turned 25 (cue the horrifying music and thunder here). A few months before what turned out to be a pretty non-monumental date, I started freaking out a little. I think it had something to do with the fact that A) I was no longer in school which was scary and different, B) adult life began to set in with a real job and student loan payments, and C) I don't think that my 13 year old self ever really thought I'd turn 25. It seems so... old. So...cosmopolitan. Yet here I sit, a bona fide 25 year old in her roach-y, small apartment, far away from many of the people I love, writing about one of the few constants in my life since I was 13 years old--books.

In the light of turning the big 2-5, I copied a friends idea (thanks Cassie!! oh, and Liz too!) to make a list of 25 things I want to do while I'm 25. Ever since Cassie had the brilliant idea, more than a year ago, I'd been secretly stashing ideas in some back room of my brain of things I wanted to do while I was 25. Though my list does not quite hit the 25 mark (there are 17 goals--still not bad!), I spent a lot of time curating this list of things both big and small that I want to accomplish this year.

The reason I'm telling you this (besides the obvious fascination with talking about myself in print?) has to do with the fact that in addition to trying 5 new restaurants (done!), trying 25 new beers (well on my way!), find the perfect lip color (a girl can dream), get braces (booyah!), and write one letter a week (so much fun--I want to write about doing this at some point--it's so therapeutic!), one of my goals is to update my blog at least once a month. Last year I was so very terrible at it (read: I never updated) and I read so many good things that it seems like a waste. So, I'm getting back on the saddle, friends.

January has proven to be a big month for people looking for recommendations. I think with the new year and all, people want to read more, and rightly so! (As you may have seen in my last post, there have been some pretty fantastic things that have been coming out recently.) I'm always happy to make lists for anyone as long as they are willing to answer a few very simple questions, especially because it gives me a chance to sit down and go through several years worth of lists and to spend time thinking solely of books and the person for whom the list is being made. (On that note, if you're looking for something good to read or want a list or anything, never hesitate to email or comment!) In the spirit of a big month of several big lists, I thought it might be fun to reflect on my month of reading in much the same way that I compose one such list.

Although this month has not seen a great volume of books being read, the quality has been extraordinary. Some are lucky finds, while others have been longingly awaited, but all had something different and wonderful about them:

-The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern--Oh. My. God. I actually started reading this two days before the new year and thought I might have finished in 2011, but it wasn't meant to be. I actually picked this up on a sort of a whim. I'd had it in my library queue (which is usually a joke) and was waiting on it. Lots of early "top book picks" of 2011 had this book on it. But I think what drew me more was that it looked so different--not just the cover, either, but the premise and the writing. Luckily my roommate got it for Christmas, so she let me snatch it while she was reading something else. I was blown away. Clocking in around 500 pages, The Night Circus is actually a little hard to put into words. There is a magical element to the story, but I wouldn't call it magical realism and I wouldn't call it fantasy either. But that's kind of what I loved about it--it is uncategorizable. The premise of the book is that two older men agree to hold a competition in which they choose a pupil to whom they will train for a big duel although they are not told what form it will take. It ends up becoming the Night Circus which only opens at dusk and closes at dawn and contains magical tents, amazing characters, and the beautifully woven story of the competitors who make it real. My favorite part is that the book turned out not to be what I thought it was about the whole time (at least in my interpretation) and I love when things surprise you like that. I really don't want to give too much away, so just go pick it up for yourself!
If you liked Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Tiger's Wife, you'll particularly like this one!

-Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan--This is the second novel from the author of Commencement (which I haven't read but is on my nightstand because a friend said that it was better than this one!), and if I'm correct in my review-reading has similar under-tones as Commencement: female friendship/family, growing older, and a little smidge of Catholic guilt strewn on top. The story follows three women of three separate generations in one semi-dysfunctional family. The matriarch is the grandmother who has a dark secret following her, one of her daughters has never felt like she fit in and is still mourning the death of her father, and her daughter is faced with an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent end of a relationship. I liked the structure of the story (I love a non-linear telling) where each woman told alternating chapters and the character development. The end was a little bland, but overall, I enjoyed it.
Read this one if you liked Little Bee, The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow, The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok, or Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos.

-The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach--I had been waiting and waiting and waiting for this book since it came out in September of 2011. I put it on hold the day it came out and finally got it 4 months later, and it was worth the wait. One of the more highly anticipated novels of 2011, the book has a very interesting story behind its publication (there was an article in Vanity Fair that told about the 9 years spent writing and bidding to get his book published... I need to read it yet). The story follows a group of people all tied to the fictional Westish College located in Wisconsin including the president of the college, his recently returned daughter, and three members of the baseball team: a stunningly gifted shortstop, the teammate who plucked him from obscurity, and a brilliant scholarship student who gets involved with a risky affair. I love baseball, so this book held me there, but even if you aren't one for the sport, it's about more than baseball. It's about religion and dedication but not necessarily to a god or supernatural being, but rather about the religion we create for ourselves around an aspect of our lives and what happens when it's taken away from us. It's a novel about finding oneself in the midst of becoming something different than you expected. It's brilliant.
Did you like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Freedom by Jonathon Franzen, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann? Pick this one up!

-Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion--Compared with the others in this short list, this book is ancient, but no less fantastic. I read Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (which so affected me that I found myself crying in the airport last year) and was looking forward to her newest book Blue Nights (again... in my library queue) and came across this group of essays in the library catalog. Separated into three sections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem compiles some of Didion's greatest essays from the 1960s including the piece for which the book is named which chronicles the counterculture of the 1960s in Haight-Ashbury with brilliant clarity, "On Keeping a Notebook" which I actually read twice just to hear the words again and to be reaffirmed, and "Goodbye to All That" in which she looks back upon her time spent in New York City as a young, naive girl. I don't love all of Didion's work and won't even pretend to get all of it, but many of the essays still ring true today--about growing up and looking back and family and memory. A great book for a quick but engrossing read.
Pick this up if you like short stories or essay writing.

For right now, that's all I got. I hope to really keep on top of this an to update once a month at least. I'll keep you apprised of the progression of my 25 year goals and of what I'm reading as I fade into old age. :)

Next on the pile: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta which I just started and I have a feeling is really going to freak me out... but sometimes you need that.

Happy Reading,

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2011

Another year, another chance to look back and appreciate the fabulous reading I've been doing. This is an activity I continue to look forward to and a lot of time and effort goes into my now-annual Top 10 of the Year book list. As I've said in posts past, I love looking back at what I've read this past year that surprised me (my love of The Hunger Games), disappointed me (Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman), challenged me (I just could not get through Little Dorrit as much as I love Dickens), and consistently kept my love for reading at an all-time high (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Sula by Toni Morrison, The Cider House Rules by John Irving).

My year has been chock-full of changes and new things--a new apartment, a new job, a new Master's degree--and through all that change (and if you know me, you probably know how I feel about change. I mean, you're talking to a girl who eats the same lunch every day, here) my constant reading has kept me grounded while letting me explore new worlds and ideas. It's why I love reading--there my be disappointments, but there is always something new and exciting to dive into that has the promise of greatness.

I know that I have not updated the blog as much as I've wanted to (read: at all), but I'm hoping to change that this year. It is one of my "25 things to do while I'm 25" which also includes writing a letter to someone once a week, finding the perfect lipstick color for me, reading five books from my "to read before I die list," and writing a short story among other things. Although my new year started with a whimper (seeing as I lost my purse/had it stolen at the bar on NYE with my iPod, camera, and pretty much everything but my phone in it), I'm determined to make 2012 as baller as possible. So, as I say so long to a pretty fabulous 2011, I give you my Top 10 List of 2011.

Out of the 54 books that I read this year, I've chosen the 10 that I considered to be the best. These are typically the ones that I have been recommending to people (both upon request and randomly to strangers or anyone who will listen), but it was hard to choose this year because I read so many amazing things. A reminder-these are books that I have read between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011. These books were no necessarily published in 2011 (though 3 of them were and 4 were published in 2010) 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.

So here goes:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2011
10) The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)-- This was my first Kingsolver book, and I picked it up on a recommendation from a friend. The story follows a boy whose parents are separated and lives both in the US and Mexico. During his time in Mexico, he works for then becomes part of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's inner circle and later becomes Leon Trotsky's secretary when he is exiled to Mexico. The story chronicles his entire life and is mostly taken from his own diaries. When he becomes an adult, he becomes an author and tells his secretary to burn one of his diaries, but she doesn't, and from that we get a fuller story of his life. Obviously well researched and a wonderful telling of the story, The Lacuna is a longer book, but anyone interested in history, art, or the 1930s-1950s in general will enjoy it (and if you're anything like me, learn a little about something, too!)
9) The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)-- As always, I am hesitant to follow any kind of fad when it comes to books (one of the many reasons I'm not going to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but my roommate was pretty excited about the series after finishing it, so I took a chance even though it's not my usual style. Am I glad I did. If you are one of the few people on earth who have not read it, Suzanne Collins weaves a thought-provoking story of Katniss who lives in a post-apocalyptic world where two kids from each"district" is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games which is a televised competition in an arena where the object of the game is to remain the last one alive. With a brilliant plot that has so much relevance in our reality television-obsessed world and pretty good writing and detail, this series will probably take you less than two weeks to read because you won't be able to put it down. Don't let the fact that it is technically a "young adult" book deter you!
8) Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire (2011)-- I'll admit that I may be biased on this one due to my undying love for Wicked in general, but I'll also admit that although I adore Wicked, I was not a huge fan of the second and third books in the series. But when I heard that Maguire was publishing the fourth and final book in the series, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. Out of Oz brings Dorothy Gale into the mix a little more and takes us through the wars that are happening on Ozian soil. G(a)linda is held captive, the Grimmerie makes another important appearance, and Liir's daughter plays a huge role. This is one that I debated putting on the list because I can't really recommend it to people unless they've read the previous books, but it was so good that I had to. Also, I saw Gregory Maguire at the National Book Festival this year and he was amazing. Here's the link to his speech: http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=5282 Even if you're just a fan of the musical, you should watch because he talks about it quite a bit!
7) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)-- After finishing this book, I had to take a step back and appreciate its beauty. Diaz is an unbelievable story teller and does an amazing job of chronicling the short life of Oscar de Leon and his family. Oscar is an overweight kid who loves fantasy and science fiction and just wants to be loved. His family is followed by a curse that was inflicted upon them long ago in the Dominican Republic and they can't seem to escape. A very raw, real voice permeates the story and the overlapping individual narratives of the de Leon family fit perfectly together. The story shifts between the US and the Dominican Republic and relates a tragic story with hints of magical realism, family fable, and rife with the search for identity.
6) Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)-- Although this might not come as a surprise seeing as it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Just Kids is amazing. When I picked it up, I was prepared for a lot of drug-riddled stories of rock stars, but although there is a little of that, it is not what you might expect. What this is really about is a deep, abiding friendship between Patti Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe who died from AIDS complications at the age of 42. Smith details the pair's friendship through the rough times they both had getting started and the love story that they had, though their love was not romantic. Smith's memoir is about the beauty and strength of true friendship even in the face of differences and the existence of soul mates.
5) The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)-- You're probably not surprised that this book is on my Top 10 list. This has to be one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Wilkerson relays this history of the Great Migration, during which African Americans traveled from the South and settled in Northern cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago between 1915 and 1970. It is obvious how well researched this book is, but what makes it outstanding is the way that Wilkerson relates it. She interviewed three individuals who participated in the Great Migration at one point or another to three different cities, using their experiences to depict the true heroism of those who migrated and the immense challenges they faced. I know it's long and non-fiction, but it is worth picking up. You really learn something about an oft-untold part of American history and you get an inside look at three amazing people. Wilkerson was also at the National Book Festival this year, and though I didn't get to see her in person, I did watch the recording and am providing it here: http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=5270
4) State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)-- This was my first Patchett book and I was blown away. The story follows a research scientist Marina Singh who is sent to the Amazon to find the remains of a dead colleague. A new drug is being researched and the head of the research team is studying and living among previously unknown natives, and has become the domineering and unmanageable leader of the project which is studying the women of the group who continue to get pregnant well into their 70s. Singh goes to find her dead colleague and ends up becoming engrossed in the project and almost swallowed by the Amazonian "heart of darkness" as it were. Well written and very plot-driven, you will not be able to put down this one and will audibly gasp at many parts.
3) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (2011)-- I hate flying. It makes me nervous and one of my worst fears is literally falling out of the sky and plunging to earth. With that said, I was reading this novel on my way to Ohio at some point this year, and I didn't even realize that we had taken off because I was so engrossed in The Tiger's Wife. This is Obreht's first novel (and I kind of hate her because she's only 26 and she's brilliant) and I cannot wait for her second. The story takes place in the Balkans, where a young doctor is faced with her grandfather's death and she is determined to find out about the mystery behind his death. Interwoven with stories that her grandfather told her about his life, the narrative takes on a magical realism quality. I actually liked the stories that were told about the grandfather's life more than the overall plot, but it all fits together so well that they become almost indistinguishable. You won't be able to put this one down.
2) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)-- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is one I have recommended to pretty much everyone I know (and some random people in bookstores and libraries). This is my favorite kind of narrative--each chapter is told by a different person with different but overlapping stories. It's hard to explain unless you read it, but it does focus a lot of the music industry and mainly around a group of people who were friends and band members in high school. Egan is an amazing writer who even has one of the characters tell her story in Powerpoint slides. With a fresh format and characters that are so relatable, I highly recommend Good Squad. Not only is Egan's book fantastic, but I was lucky enough to see her at the National Book Festival, and she was outstanding. I'm really bummed because it's not online yet to share, but when it is, I'll post it, because it was great. Seriously. Read this book.
1) Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)-- This book was my choice for the "book club" I had with a few friends earlier this year. I don't even know if I can convey the crazy awesomeness that this book is. The story is told by five year old Jack who has been held captive in a room with his mother "Ma" for his entire life. Donoghue does an amazing job of capturing the five-year-old's thoughts and way of looking at things and how he is forced to eventually grow up and assimilate into a strange world. Though this is a seriously disturbing story, there is hope and wonder that shine through as well. I was addicted to this book while I was reading it and zipped through it pretty quickly. Do yourself a favor and pick it up!
And that's it! It was really hard to choose this year, but I'm confident in my choices. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Did you read something spectacular this year? I'm always looking for recommendations, so please comment or email me! :) As always, if you'd like a book list, all you have to do is ask! It's one of my favorite things to do.

Here is a list of all the books I've read this year in order:
(an asterisk indicates an honorable mention and a double asterisk designates the top 10)
*The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore
**The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
**Room by Emma Donoghue
Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
**A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
*Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny Von Eschen
Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz
Running the Books by Avi Steinberg
*Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
*An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares
*The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
*On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
*The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
*The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
*Bossypants by Tina Fey
**Just Kids by Patti Smith
The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma
*As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon
Van Gogh: His Life and Art by David Sweetman
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
**The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
**State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Soloist by Steve Lopez
*Faith by Jennifer Haigh
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
**The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
**The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
**The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
*Drown by Junot Diaz
*Sula by Toni Morrison
*Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos
**Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
*White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
*Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
*Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis
*Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

And that's all I got! I hope that your 2012 started out most wonderfully!
Happy New Year and happy reading!