Happy New Year! I could not be happier that we are on the brink of a new year. 2017 was a sluggish and isolated year for me. Thank goodness for the entertainment value and enlightenment opportunities held in books. My reading goal was 62 books, which was only a slight stretch from the actual number I had read over the previous few years. I fell a bit short with 54, but I’m not disappointed since the average amounted to a book a week. I blame Pillars of the Earth, which, at 900+ pages, was not the page-turner I had hoped it would be. It took me far longer to finish than I anticipated and kept me from getting to still more books.
Reading also took a back seat to knitting. I should clarify to say holding a physical copy of a book took a back seat because I “read” twice as many audiobooks in 2017, mostly while knitting. Many of these tended to be memoirs because I really enjoy hearing the author read their own book, which tends to happen most in this genre. I plan to continue listening to books in new year.
For 2018, I will continue to aim high. Part of my annual shelf-sitter goal includes a list of 12 books that I have been meaning to read for a long time. Managing one a month seems realistic. I’d certainly like to try.
1. Cruelest Month (Louise Penny): Book three in the Gamache mystery series. It felt as if Penny struggled to set up the plot and find her voice, yet the last 20 pages were swift. The mystery was kind of lame, but Penny did some fantastic character building, and she advanced a secondary plot line that was juicy. I have heard that Penny hits her stride in book four, and I’m willing to give her another shot.
2. Day of the Jack Russell (Colin Bateman): We listened to this fun mystery on a road trip. This Carl Hiaissen-esque mystery was set in Belfast and featured a bookseller-sleuth. Great characters and an unexpected ending.
3. The Princess Diarist (Carrie Fisher): A really funny account of filming the first Star Wars movie, including her affair with Harrison Ford. It was poignant to hear her voice so close on the heels of her untimely death weeks prior. Apparently the book version has facsimiles of the diaries she kept on set, so while I would like to have seen them, Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd (my favorite Chanel! Chanel #3), read the excerpts.
4. Big Magic (Elizabeth Gilbert): Part of this self-help book was inspiring and motivating, the other part was smug and unhelpful. Still, I enjoyed hearing Gilbert’s voice giving me assurances.
5. A Really Good Day (Ayelet Waldman): After having been (mis)diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Waldman participated in a self-reporting study of microdosing with LSD to manage her moods. I enjoyed listening to the audio, read by the author, which felt extra-personal. But, the science and history of controlled substances proved fascinating too.
6. Our Souls at Night (Kent Haruf): Book group read. Although this was my first Haruf, the plot seemed very familiar to me, as if I had read it before, possibly in an Alice Munro story. Then my friend Caryl gently reminded me that it had been a Conversation with Books selection a year or so earlier. I enjoyed the ease with which Haruf told this quiet story of late-life friendship.
7. Roller Girl (Victoria Jamieson): Fantastic graphic novel/memoir of a 12 year old girl who comes of age in the rough, fast, colorful arena of roller derby. Set in one of my favorite cities—Portland, Oregon.
8. The Hour of Land (Terry Tempest Williams): A Conversation with Books 2017 title. In Williams’ literary celebration of the national parks, she offers personal narrative combined with classic nature writing. The book was beautiful and provocative and important. It gave me a call to action as we faced a national nightmare. The connection between land, people, and our future is strong, and it need our attention. One of my favorite books this year.
9. People of Privilege Hill (Jane Gardam): Compared to the door-stopper Collected Stories, this was but a wisp of a book. Also, not Gardam’s strongest work, but I did, as always, enjoy spending time with her short, concise, eccentric tales.
10. Angel, Catbird, vol. 1 (Margaret Atwood): Margaret Atwood + graphic novel. I was so excited about the possibilities but was left underwhelmed. I don’t even remember the story or why I felt meh, and I certainly don’t care to read future volumes.
11. High Dive (Jonathan Lee): I picked this up on the basis of one artfully written shelf-talker at Common Good Books. The novel is about a 1986 IRA plot to assassinate Margaret Thatcher while at a conference in Brighton. The story follows the hotel manager and his daughter as well as a young IRA thug. Really sharp writing and very sympathetic characters.
12. Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett): A long-time shelf-sitter. My friend James recommended PofE to me in 1998 while we were on vacation in France. Valuing his taste in all things stylish, I picked it up. And I made it 20 pages before I cast it aside. I tried reading it again in 2002 right after the birth of my second son. And I made it to page 25. So, 15 years later, with great determination I finished all 973 pages of this epic novel about building a Gothic cathedral. It took months to read. I neither loved it nor hated it, but if you want to read a book with good battle scenes, Bernard Cornwell’s are gripping. And, if you want to read a smart historical novel, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are beyond satisfying. I will not be reading Follett’s sequels.
13. Earthly Remains (Donna Leon): As always, very good to be back in Venice with Brunetti and company.
14. Building the Book Cathedral (David Macauley): A delightful companion to Pillars of the Earth. This edition is a revision of the classic that checked lots of my boxes with drafts, process drawings, thumbnails, and editorial notes.
15. Meet Me at the Bamboo Table (A.V. Crofts): A winning combination of armchair travel and stories about shared meals around the world. Photos and sketches enliven the prose.
16. In Cod We Trust (Eric Dregni): Dregni, who won a Fulbright Fellowship the same day his wife announced she was pregnant, spends a year in Trondheim, Norway. The cross-cultural tale was read in preparation for my summer travel to Norway.
17. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley): Winston was reading Frankenstein in English class, which gave me a great opportunity to join him. I was occasionally blown away by the character development and suspense, especially when I remembered that Shelley was 18 when she wrote this.
18. The Rules Do Not Apply (Ariel Levy): A memoir about resilience and rebuilding a life following unexpected tragedies.
19. Exit West (Mohsin Hamid): Influenced by hype, I read Exit West. A love story involving refugees is difficult to describe but absolutely met expectations. The New York Times selected it as a best book of 2017. I wish I had read a physical copy rather than listening to the audio.
20. Difficult Women (Roxane Gay): Another Christmas book stack title that was extremely well chosen. Gay is a fierce writer and her stories feature a range of characters and situations as well as writing styles (“Requiem for a Glass Heart” uses magical realism, for example). Always intriguing and worthy of the accolades.
21. Ms. Marvel, vol 1: No Normal (G. Willow Wilson): My friend Scott F. recommended this graphic novel featuring an unexpected superhero. The coming of age story is enriched by religious and cultural issues.
22. Woman No. 17 (Edan Lepucki): I had enjoyed Lepucki’s first novel, California, and so looked forward to reading her sophomore effort. The story follows the complex relationship between an artist, her two sons, and the nanny (unreliable narrator) who lives in the pool house and cares for the youngest son. So much promise, but ultimately meh.
23. End of the Affair (Graham Greene): I’d forgotten how much I love Graham Greene and his existential angst. This short novel is crisp. The audio read by Colin Firth is perfection.
24. Give the Girl a Knife (Amy Thielen): I love Thielen’s memoir of becoming a chef and returning home from NYC to northern Minnesota. She can cook and she can write. I listened to the audio on vacation while knitting on trains and ferries in Norway. Her descriptions of living in Park Rapids, one of my favorite places in Minnesota, as a child and as an adult will stay with me.
25. The Nix (Nathan Hill): Aside from audiobooks, I only took on fat novel with me on vacation this summer. I suspected that I would spend more time knitting than reading, but then I picked up The Nix and was hooked from the first page. Hill’s Dickensian novel of love and politics was filled with great characters and crazy situations, including a stint in Norway. Plus, the pacing made this 750-page book the page-turning-est novel I read all year.
26. Homesick for Another World (Ottessa Moshfegh). This collection of stories was published around the same time as Moshfegh’s acclaimed first novel, Eileen, had been recommended to me. Also, it was available during short story month. Weird, raw, disturbing characters and situations. I liked some of it, even when the stories made me uncomfortable. Bumping Eileen.
27. Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (Al Franken). Ugh. Oh, Al. Why? My book group discussed this while I was on vacation so I listened to the memoir instead. At the time, it seemed preferable to listen to Al tell his story. I loved it. I laughed. I cried. The book had a great thumbnail history of Minnesota politics, and it served as a primer for government, especially how the Senate fulfills its role in the balance of powers. It established Franken’s efforts to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans in Congress. Franken also attempted to clear the air re: his work on SNL (usually off-color), his wife’s alcoholism, and other matters. Seems there were even more “other matters,” which led to his resignation from the Senate. So despite my initial impression that this book appeared to be groundwork for future (higher) political office, my hopes have been dashed.
28. Dog Gone It (Spencer Quinn): Another dog mystery. This one listened to as Mr. Bibliotonic and I drove to Ely to retrieve oldest son from camp.
29. A Distant View of Everything (Alexander McCall Smith): Always good to revisit Isabel Dalhousie in Edinburgh.
30. Fellowship of Ghosts (Paul Watkins): Because Paul Watkins and Norway. Watkins was one of the beautiful Picador authors in my bag c. 1997 (Archangel). This memoir of the author’s hiking/walking journey through the mountains and around the fjords of Norway was a near-perfect way to extend my summer vacation. Plus, he’s a killer storyteller.
31. Commonwealth (Ann Patchett): Another shelf sitter. A year ago, I found it really important to buy Patchett’s latest on its release date. Then, I let it sit in a pile to mellow. Not many likeable characters and a pretty forgettable plot. Oh well.
32. Lives Other Than My Own (Emmauel Carrere): This unusual memoir came to my attention by way of the New York Times Book Review podcast, where many of the editors had been reading and discussing it over the summer. So much so that I had to check it out myself. The story starts with a chilling description of surviving the 2004 tsunami that hit Southeast Asia before moving to the cancer death of his sister-in-law. Grim stuff but so much beauty and uplift in examining life through the lens of others’ lives.
33. Meddling Kids (Arturo Cantero): I thought I would like this more especially since is was described as a “tour de force of horror, humor, and H.P. Lovecraft” with a serious nod to Scooby Doo. The Lovecraft part made it a little less than I had hoped for.
34. Magpie Murders (Anthony Horowitz): I loved this fun, stylish, sly take on the classic whodunit mystery, plus it’s set in publishing. Initially I listened to the audiobook until the library loan ended, then switched over to the physical copy. Both/either are recommended. I wish I could say more, but just read it.
35. Portage (Sue Leaf): Another shelf-sitter. This memoir was a satisfying account of the author’s family’s adventures through Minnesota and other parts of the US by canoe. Great armchair travel that John and the boys picked out for me on my birthday last year.
36. A Paris Year (Janice MacLeod): In an effort to improve my odds of meeting the year’s reading goals, I dipped into this heavily illustrated memoir by an American in Paris. A delight.
37. Lying Game (Ruth Ware): Unfortunately, I found Ware’s third book to be so similar to her first two books as to be utterly unpredictable. Certainly it didn’t help that even the audio is read by the same performer as to sound identical.
38. Coming to My Senses (Alice Waters): Waters’ sometimes quaint memoir about cooking and the counterculture was perfect read by her.
39. A Stash of One’s Own (Clara Parkes): These essays by popular knitters about their yarn stashes was cozy.
40. Rabbit Cake (Annie Hartnett): A book group read. This quick reading novel was about a strange but loveable 12 year old dealing with the grief inherent in her mother’s death.
41. Heather, the Totality (Matthew Weiner): Weiner’s Mad Men was some of my favorite TV storytelling this century so far. Naturally I was curious to see what he might do in book form. It was dark and twisted and short.
42. Vacationland (John Hodgman): The audio version of this memoir, read by the author, was funny and clever, and I loved it!
43. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carre). I was inspired to pick up TTSS after reading the NYTBR cover review of his new book and watching his interview on 60 Minutes. Tinker is the first Smiley book in the Karla series. It was absolutely unputdownable. I loved the voice, the atmosphere, the language, the characters, and the Cold War history. A lot of the time I had no idea what was going on, but somehow, the plot comes together in the end. My goal is to finish the series as well as to read more spy novels.
44. A Florence Diary (Diana Athill): This beautifully packaged, slim travel diary was charming. The brief notes on a week spent in post-war Florence. It was delightfully pre-Internet, pre-Chunnel, pre-high speed trains, pre-Euro travel.
45. Artemis (Andy Weir): I hadn’t expected to enjoy The Martian, but I did. Enough so that I vowed to read whatever Weir wrote next. The premise of his follow-up sounded promising so imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be terrible. Perhaps it would be more accurate to have categorized Artemis as a thriller or a space opera, but to call it science fiction is far-fetched. Sure the novel is set on a moon colony, but there is little that legitimizes it as sci fi. Also, his main character was so one dimensional, I actually imagined her as played by Matt Damon.
46. A Field Guide to the North American Family (Garth Risk Hallberg). I picked up this curious little thing on impulse at the library. Curious because Hallberg’s first novel, City on Fire, was a doorstopping 900+ pages, and Field Guide is a wisp of a novel at 144 pages. But, I was also intrigued by the “choose your ownvadventure” about two families whose lives are intertwined.
47. Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman). Neil himself read the audio in his plummy British accent. I wish I had been more familiar with the myths before listening. Still, I couldn’t help but picture Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
48. Perils of Morning Coffee (Alexander McCall Smith): I’ve owned this short story for ages even though it has been hiding on my ipad. Not much of a mystery. Rather Isabel was enlisted to clear up a rumor. Still, I had a hard time getting into it, and there just wasn’t much there.
49. Almost Nearly Perfect People (Michael Booth). I was thrilled to find this Bill Bryson-esque, country-by-country survey of Scandinavians and what makes them tick in my Christmas bookstack. I had read Booth’s travel essay about Japanese food and was looking forward to reading ANPP in anticipation of a summer trip to Sweden and Norway.
50. Other People We Married (Emma Straub): In May, I read a few of these stories for my short story month challenge. Despite occasional stories that felt workshopped, I still think Emma Straub is a goddess.
51. Origin (Dan Brown): True confession: I liked Brown’s fifth Robert Langdon thriller. It was not as horrible as Inferno (I had promised myself I’d never read Brown again after this one). As usual the pacing was ridiculous but as an audiobook, I thought it was perfectly entertaining.
52. Less (Andrew Sean Greer): I had planned to skip this one but my friend Kathy W, recommended it to me while I was in a fiction slump. She did not steer me wrong. The novel follows a writer on the cusp of his 50th birthday and is filled with satire and dark humor that reminded me of Jonathan Ames. I love it.
53. Gondola (Donna Leon): I listened to this microhistory about the iconic Venetian mode of transportation.
54. Child Octopus (Matthew Amster-Burton): Found this on my ipad while looking for something short to read. Amster-Burton’s voice is familiar from the Spilled Milk podcast he co-hosts with Molly Wizenberg. This travel guide to Hong Kong had me obsessing about dim sum.
Total: 54 (59 in 2016)
Donna Leon: 2
Alexander McCall Smith: 2
Science Fiction: 0
Elin Hilderbrand: 0
Audio: 20 (10 in 2016)
Graphic novels: 2 (7 in 2016)
Books published in 2017: 23 (2016: 16)
Book group: 3
Sheep: 0 (last year 2)
Trilogies: 0 (last year 2)
Longest book: Pillars of the Earth, 973 pages
Shortest book: The Perils of Morning Coffee, 45 pages
Total pages read: 14,835 (over 16,000 in 2016)
Top 10, in no particular order
The Hour of Land (Terry Tempest Williams)
Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)
Difficult Women (Roxane Gay)
Give the Girl a Knife (Amy Thielen)
The Nix (Nathan Hill)
Less (Andrew Sean Greer)
Fellowship of Ghosts (Paul Watkins)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carre)
Vacationland (John Hodgman)
Lives Other Than My Own (Emmauel Carrere)