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,

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
Colum McCann

Glasses on. Hair up. PBR on the bedside table. You know what that'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,