Sunday, January 01, 2017

the year (2016) in books

Happy New Year!! 2016 was another spectacular reading year. Since 2015's goal of 75 books proved to be unrealistic, I set a challenge to read 61 books, just one more book than I actually read in 2015. Among those books, I vowed to read more short stories and more shelf-sitters. During May, I read at least one short story a day, which you isn't reflected in the total number of books read for the year. I'd like to think the stories added up to at least two books. Throughout my choices, a theme developed--trilogies. I finished the Jane Gardam Old Filth trilogy, which set the bar unbelievably high for literary fiction. It was about the most perfect thing I have read since Kate Atkinson's Ursula Todd duo and the first two of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy. The second trilogy I read this year was Ben Winters' Last Policeman trilogy. And, I read two more shelf-sitters this year than the year before. Again I continued to supplement reading physical books with ebooks and audio, and I tracked my reading on Goodreads. 

1. Man with the Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam): The second book in the Old Filth trilogy. The first book Old Filth was such a wonderful surprise that it wasn’t difficult to pick up the sequel almost immediately. This was the story of Feathers’ wife Betty, and I think I liked it best.

2. Before the Fall (Noah Hawley): Book group read. A quick and satisfying thriller on many levels, except for the ending, which was weak. Hawley writes for TV and the pacing was often set for that genre. This thriller starts with a private plane crash that has two survivors--a struggling artist and the 4 y.o. son of a media mogul. The story is told through the passengers' backstories. Not surprising, this book was one of the summer's biggest beach reads and landed a place on the NYT bestseller list.

3. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Carrie Brownstein): Raw and powerful. It was a quickish read that covered Brownstein's Sleater-Kinney career and emphasized how the band "kept it read," never selling out to the big record labels. As a result, their tours were pretty gritty. 

4. Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt (Caroline Preston): Fun novel told mostly through visuals—vintage ads, postcards, candy wrappers, menus, and more. This 1920s Bohemian romance contained collegiate life (Vassar), ocean liner travel, and a stint in Paris.

5. Last Friends (Jane Gardam): The final book in the Old Filth trilogy is Terry Veneering’s story. Veneering was Feathers’ nemesis and his Betty’s occasional lover. Each book in this series had a unique feel as each focused on a different character. No volume felt retread, but instead revealed more of each character in a layered and satisfying way. High recommend!

6. Tamara Drewe (Posey Simmonds): Shelf sitter. This graphic novel's take on Far From the Maddening Crowd was started, abandoned, started, abandoned. Watched movie. Picked up again. Finally finished. Wish I had Hardy’s novel under my belt before reading Tamara Drewe.

7. Girl with All the Gifts (M.R. Carey): Read at my friend Suzanne’s recommendation. Although it had a slow start, I enjoyed seeing how this zombie novel unfolded. Occasionally too intense for bedtime.

8. Lumberjanes, vol. 2 (Noelle Stevenson et al): Friendship to the max! Kick-ass teenage girls battling the supernatural at summer camp. 

9. Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson): A Conversation with Books 2016 title. Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up African-American in the 1960s and 70s, felt so brave and beautiful. Written in verse, it knocked my socks off. I was not alone in feeling this way as Woodson was bestowed with countless honors, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Woodson is a national treasure.

10. The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson): In which the author retreads Notes from a Small Island. Bryson read the audio version, which was a selling point for me right up to the moment early in the book where it appeared that BB seemed to have lost his funny.

11. The Outsiders (M.E. Hinton): My boys have been insisting politely for years that I read The Outsiders, which I somehow missed when I was a teen. True confession: I also haven't seen the movie. The boys each read the book in 7th grade, which was the same year they read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that I hold dear but the boys don't. The Outsiders resonated more with them, and I was curious to see why. As a result, we had some great conversations, sharing notes on the parts of the book that moved us most. More SE Hinton, please.

12. Bloodlines in Berlin (Paul Schue). My friend Paul, a history professor, wrote this novel in his spare time, and generously shared the manuscript with me. Bloodlines is a pre-WW2 mystery/thriller set in Berlin in the 1930s. There is a serial killer whose motivation is racial purification. There are Nazis, natch. The protagonist is a journalist. The novel has great potential despite having been rejected by every publisher and agent to which it was sent. (update: I spoke with Paul on NYE. He's revising the ms., this time dropping the serial killer and focusing on the mystery elements. I'm in favor of that and look forward to reading his revision.)

13. Ready Player One (Ernest Clines): This novel, rich in 80s pop culture, came highly recommended to me, but I have to admit that it started slowly and didn’t gain momentum until Wade started the game. And, then the pace galloped with the speed of a video game. Thrilling. Took me right back to junior high when I stole quarters from my father’s change caddy and hit the arcade with my friends Ann and Kim to play Ms. Pacman, Qbert, Galaga, and Frogger. Much about this book is in oldest son’s wheelhouse so I included a copy in his Christmas bookstack.

14. Knitlandia (Clara Parkes): I found this quick read at the library. The slim volume contains vignettes of knitting and travel destinations, and it was super satisfying. Currently following Parkes on Instagram with no regrets.

15. The Shepherd's Life (James Rebanks): Two summers ago, we spent a week at Yew Tree Farm in the Lake District of England. One of its draws was that it had a small flock of Herdwick sheep. We were obsessed with all the sheep. They were everywhere. And on our many long walks, the boys would collect the wool they found on the ground, on bushes and plants. Rebanks is a third-generation sheepherder in the Lake District and this memoir is a testiment to hard work as well as a portrait of a beautiful landscape, one of my all-time favorites.

16. Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan):  Looking for an escape novel to take with me to Belize, CRA’s juicy, candy-colored cover called to me. It was funny and light and perfect vacation reading.

17. The Last Policeman (Ben H. Winters): At Mr. Bibliotonic’s strong recommendation, Last Policeman, book one in Winters’ near-apocalyptic trilogy also came on vacation with me. The setting was the last months of Earth. The Last Policeman is still fighting crime even though his mission seems pointless. He’s a modern gumshoe, which made for a great character. There are several subplots that are equally compelling. My favorite read of vacation week.

18. Sheepish (Catherine Friend): This memoir told in vignettes was written by a MN sheep farmer who sells fleece for wool, thus touching on two obsessions--sheep and knitting. However, I didn't love the author's voice and would rather the story have had a solid, continuous narrative. 

19. The Nest (Cynthia d'Aprix Sweeney): This novel about a seriously dysfunctional family was captivating and darkly funny. The nest in reference is the inheritance they’re about to receive. Each sibling is counting on the money to save them from their bad life choices. At times, the characters reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s largely unlikeable characters, and I almost liked these better.

20. Gardens of Awe and Folly (Vivian Swift): Another delicately rendered travel journal from Swift. This time the focus is on gardens, particularly those in France. Once again, I have been inspired to flex my watercolor skills.

21. Countdown City (Ben H. Winters): The continuation of the Last Policeman trilogy in which former detective Henry Palace continues to solve crimes against the backdrop of the destruction of earth.

22. World of Trouble (Ben H. Winters): The concluding volume of the Last Policeman trilogy. There is no stopping the asteroid that is on a collision course with earth. Former detective Palace finds sanctuary in the woods with fellow police officers, then goes on one final mission to find his sister’s killer. The series was fantastic.

23. China Rich Girlfriend (Kevin Kwan): Once home from vacation, I also continued to read Kwan's satires of Asia's socially mobile. Very funny and sly. Perfect escape reading.

24. Redeployment (Phil Klay): Winner of the 2014 National Book Award. Last year I dipped into this book during National Short Story Month, and this year, I decided to finish it. These stories are all moving and detail the challenges faced by soldiers at war and at home. I will read whatever Phil Klay writes next.

25. Eligible (Curtis Sittenfield): I listened to the audio version of Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which was fun. In fact the first 11 chapters got me through crown repair at the dentist, and I was grateful for the sly, stylish, funny writing.

26. The Only Street in Paris (Elaine Sciolino): The author, a NYT correspondent, wrote about the street she lives on in Paris. This anecdote-filled narrative about the characters who live and work in the shadow of Sacre Couer/Montmartre on the Rue des Martyrs made me want to travel to Paris.

27. The Edge of Nowhere (Elizabeth George): Set on Whidbey Island (WA), where my friend Krista lives, this YA mystery featured a girl on the run who can hear other people’s thoughts. The need to suspend disbelief was taxing, and I found the book disappointing. George came highly recommended. I should try her adult novels.

28. The Waters of Eternal Youth (Donna Leon): If it’s April, then it must be time for a new Brunetti mystery. I look forward to the newest installment each year so I can reacquaint myself with Venice and the characters of Brunetti’s precinct. The mystery hardly matters and this one was rather meh (was the granddaughter of his mother-in-law’s friend intentionally pushed into a canal and left for dead only to live and be brain damaged?).

29. Everyday Matters (Danny Gregory): An illustrated memoir in which the author teaches himself to draw. Inspiring.

30. Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler): My friend Martin, a bookseller at my local indie bookstore, put this book in my hand. It had buzz. I can see why. This modern bildungsroman was set in the restaurant industry and had a feeling and narrative that was familiar to me (swap the restaurant for publishing). Sometimes I wanted to shake the protagonist, but mostly the author had a nice way with pacing and imagery.

31. The Long Secret (Louise Fitzhugh) A classic. My friend Caryl loaned me this book after I had re-read and enjoyed Harriet the Spy. The continuing adventures of Harriet were even better. So evocative of a time and place. Harriet’s spunkiness was ever-present.

32. A Murder of Magpies (Judith Flanders): I listened to the audio version of this mystery, set in the British publishing industry. The author presented setting and characters with great authenticity. The mood was lighthearted, which was perfect for summer reading.

33. The Singer's Gun (Emily St. John Mandel): Last year I read and loved Mandel’s Station Eleven, and since then have been curious to read her backlist. John and I listened to The Singer’s Gun on a road trip. It’s crime noir with several unreliable narrators and a story that unfolds in unexpected ways. Mandel is a talented writer, and I look forward to reading more.

34. Modern Lovers (Emma Straub): I enjoyed Straub's latest almost as much as The Vacationers, which I read in the Lake Districk (2014). Straub builds great characters and keeps the situations light but smart.  

35. Above Suspicion (Helen MacInnes): The first in a spy thriller series written in the late '30s. MacInnes is in a class with John le Carre and Graham Green. This particular book is set in 1939 just before the outbreak of WW2, and Europe was tense. Our protagonists, an Oxford professor and his wife, have been asked to find a missing asset on the Continent. The narrative never disappointed.

36. Nimona (Noelle Stevenson): What was not to love about Nimona? She was, hands down, one of my favorite characters of 2016. Based on Stevenson’s web comic, this graphic novel was charming and funny and featured one of the best supervillain-sidekick combos ever. Looking forward to a re-read and to pretty much anything Stevenson writes.

37. Exit Wounds (Rutu Modan): Modan’s The Property was one of the last books I read in 2015. Eager to read more, I ordered Exit Wounds, a graphic novel set in Tel Aviv, without hesitation. The protagonist Koby Franco investigates a suicide bombing in which his father may have been a victim. Looking forward to more of what Israel’s bestselling graphic novelist does next.

38. The Travelers (Chris Pavone): After having been disappointed by the first two Pavone novels not meeting the high expectations of sparkling jacket copy, I was going to skip this one. However, I was glad to have stuck with him for one more go. In The Travelers, the author delivered a satisfying spy thriller with a great unpredictable ending. And, the book is set in travel magazine publishing--what's not to like?

39. How to Cook a Moose (Kate Christiansen): This easy, delicious, sometimes inspiring memoir--a riff on MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf--is set in Maine. My Down East summer vacation was prolonged whenever I dipped into it.

40. Lab Girl (Hope Jahren): This truthful and hopeful memoir rooted in lab/field science was on many Best of 2016 lists. I listened to the audio, which was read by the author. Such immediacy. 

41. Cook Korean (Robin Ha): Surprisingly, the St. Paul Public Library carries Cook Korean, a comic book memoir/cookbook that walks the reader through many favorite Korean dishes making them accessible. Unfortunately, I had to return the book before I could test drive the kimchi or bibimbap recipes. Next time!

42. The Woman in Cabin 10 (Ruth Ware): Perfect dog-walk audiobook. This locked-room thriller is set on a "soft opening" for a luxury cruise ship. The protagonist, a travel magazine writer with evident neuroses, sees a woman jump overboard. Or did she? 

43. You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott): Always happy to read the latest Megan Abbott psychological thriller. She writes about teen girls in a creepy, authentic way. This book takes a dive through the world of elite gymnastics and the messed up parental control, athlete perfectionism, and cutthroat competition.  

44. The Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang): My oldest son persuaded me to read this sweet, funny take on comic book origins.

45. Siracusa (Delia Ephron): The novel was told in four points of view--two couples on vacation together in Italy--and the audio was read by four actors/actresses who are actually two husband-wife couples. So many uncomfortable situations and characters pushed to the edges. The audio captured the drama well. I'm glad I chose this medium.

46. A Man Called Ove (Frederick Backmann) Book group read. My biggest complaint about this incredibly popular novel is that it felt sentimental and predictable, but I read on because I thought my perceptions would be changed. Ove was quite a character. I liked what the author did with the novel even when schmaltzy. Ultimately, I couldn't help but love Ove.

47. Stories of Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam): Smart, crisp writing. Intriguing situations and characters in every single story. This was a massive collection--475 pages--with recurring themes (expatriates, abandoned affairs, ghosts), but the stories all varied in style and tone. Gardam is so subtle and clever, I look forward to getting back into her longer fiction because it always rewards.

48. A Fatal Grace (Louise Penny): Penny's second book in the Inspector Gamache series. These are not fast-paced, escapist mysteries. I love all the details of community and characters, even when the mystery is lame. This book featured a curling match (bonspiel), and I appreciated that. Sweep! 

49. Dark Matter (Blake Crouch): This sci-fi thriller was our audiobook pick for a fall road trip to Itasca State Park. Fast paced and complex Crouch's novel plays with alternate realities and time. I was never 100% sure about what was going on until the very end. We had a great time as a family trying to figure it out.

50. Being a Beast (Charles Foster):  The author got down on the ground (and in the air) and experienced the rhythms of the animal world by emulating a fox, badger, redtail deer, and swift.

51. Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple): Released on my birthday. Happy birthday to me!! Where Did You Go, Bernadette was an all-time favorite of the 20-teens so I eagerly awaited whatever Semple would do next. The follow-up has let down a lot of readers, but not me. I recognized myself in the main character, which made me alternately laugh and cry. I suspect it hit home with others too, which may be what they didn't like. Still, I would encourage readers to hang in there (or just go ahead and re-read Bernadette).

52. Fine Romance (Susan Branch): This book is similar to Vivian Swift's illustrated travel narratives, which is why I picked it up. However, Branch and her artwork are schmaltzy, and there were many points in the books where I felt I should have put it down. That said, Branch demonstrated an occasionally interesting point of view, which helped me to see the books through to the end. And, what can I say? I'm a sucker for England.

53. Howards End Is on the Landing (Susan Hill): I loved the premise of this book. After the author made herself a challenge to read only books she already owned for a year, she toured her house making her selections. Her shelves provided a collection of essays base themes and habits in reading. I would love to have written this book!

54. Something New (Lucy Knisley): Lucy Knisley is a long-time favorite. I have read her comic book memoirs about traveling to Europe with her mother, being an artist, and learning to cook, so naturally I would read her treatment of being a bride. I wasn’t disappointed. She’s smart, talented, and honest.

55. Man at the Helm (Nina Stibbe): Last year I read Stibbe’s hilarious letters, which she wrote to her sister when she was a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the long-time editor of the London Review of Books. Her keen eye and comical turn-of-phrase compelled me to run out a buy MatH, her first novel. It was slow-going but because I thought I would love it, I ran out to buy Stibbe’s follow-up, which I have yet to read. Despite occasional draggy-ness, there was an undeniable charm and wit to this, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

56. There Is Something I Want You to Do (Charles Baxter): Baxter’s linked story collection was a book group selection. While I was unable to attend the gathering during which the story was discussed, I started it and read in earnest until something shinier distracted me. I decided to finish it as the end of year approached. The last quarter of the book was fantastic.

57. In the Dark, Dark Woods (Ruth Ware): DH and I listened to most of this audio book on a road trip Up North (Park Rapids and Itasca State Park). It’s about a hen party gone awry. The setting was a glass house in the deep woods, and as such there is a moody atmosphere and a bit of a locked room feel. This was Ware’s first book.  

58. Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo): That Marie Kondo is a handful. I've taken away as may good ideas as those I've rejected because they just don't compute, such as having a wardrobe for only one season, which is just silly (sez a resident of a four-season environment). That said, I am now read to start purging and organizing in the new year. AS I do every year. Maybe some LCMoTu technique will work this time.

59. Super Sushi Ramen Express (Michael Booth): The last book of the year was a travel/culinary memoir in which the author took his family to Japan. To eat. It's smart, breezy entertainment and always left me hungry (for food, for travel). Booth filled the void that Bill Bryson left when he stopped writing witty books about his travels. 

Total: 58 as of 12/18/16 (2015: 60)
Fiction: 42/37
Nonfiction: 16 /23
Women: 39/39
Men: 19/21
Donna Leon: 1/1 (all caught up now)
Alexander McCall Smith: 0/2
Mysteries: /5
Thrillers: /7
Science Fiction: /6
Elin Hilderbrand: 0
Audio: 10
Post-apocalyptic: 3
Travel: 6
Food: 3
Graphic novels: 7
Stories: 3
E-books: 2
Shelf-sitters: 10
Books published in 2016: 18
Memoirs/bio: 8
Book group: 3
Kid’s: 6
Sheep: 2
Trilogies: 2

Total pages read: 16,442

Monday, September 12, 2016

currently reading

Currently reading A Man Called Ove, which everyone seems to also be reading (to wit: NYT bestseller list). It was my book group's most recent selection. They met and discussed the book last week, but I was unable to attend owing to the family schedule but also because I took on a proofreading project for a friend. Reading my friend's thesis got in the way of book group reading. That's just the way it was last week.

So, I have mostly been enjoying Ove. Before I started the book, I was suspicious of potential sentimentality and a certain predictability (cf. Bill Murray in St. Vincent). And, while both of those suspicions have come to bear, I read on because I suspect, based on the readers/friends who recommended this book to me, that my perceptions will somehow be changed. I am looking forward to that possibility. Plus, Ove is quite a character. And, I like the way the author has formatted the novel, built each character, and incorporated a subtle humor.

While Ove is my main read for the moment, I am also listening to Siracusa by Delia Ephron. Friend Kari M. read it recently and mentioned on Goodreads that it had been a solid vacation read. Coincidentally, the novel is about two couples on vacation together in Italy. The novel is told in four points of view, and the audio is read by four actors/actresses who are actually two husband-wife couples (one of the actors is John Slattery; it's hard to separate him from his Mad Men character). What another wonderful coincidence! The novel has so many uncomfortable situations and characters who are pushed to the edges. The audio really emphasizes the inherent drama. I'm glad I chose this medium.

Charles Foster's Being a Beast came in for me at the library. I don't even know how to begin explaining this book, but suffice to say the author's embedded research is interesting. So far, I haven't had an undistracted moment to "get into" the book, but I hope to soon because I think I'm really going to it, especially the exploration of the natural world.

Finally, this morning I dove back into The Stories of Jane Gardam in the hope of finishing up some odds and ends from earlier in the year. "Soul Mates," an eerie story about two couples who meet on vacation then meet up after vacation eventfully, isn't the only story in the collection that channels Shirley Jackson hard

Sunday, January 03, 2016

the year (2015) in books

Happy New Year!! 2015 was another spectacular reading year for me. On Goodreads I set a challenge to read 75 books. This was a huge stretch from last year’s goal of 47 books, which represented the average number of books that I have read over the past few years Last year I exceed that 47 book goal by reading 60 books. In setting a goal for 2015, I thought, if I could read 60 books easily, surely if I tried even harder I could hit 75. Alas, with one more day in the year, I have read a solid 60 books. 60 may be my number. I had also made a goal of reading at least 10 shelf sitters (1/6th of my goal), and I came close by reading 8. Again. I continued to supplement reading physical books with ebooks and audio and to track my reading on Goodreads.This year, I also made my own challenge by reading only short stories during the month of May, national short story month. It took a lot of discipline to stick to the stories, but I got a lot a variety in my reading and finished a few collections, which contributed to my overall bottomline.  

My reading goals for 2016: 61 books, more short stories, more shelf-sitters 

Herewith is a list of the sixty books I read in 2015. A small list of statistics follows.

1.  Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel): book group read; first and last post-apocalypse/dystopic book of the year. I like what the author did here by finding the faith and humanity in what is typically a gloom-and-doom genre.

2.  Brother of the More Famous Jack (Barbara Trapido): I read this book because Maria Semple said to. So funny and whip-smart and charming. Will appeal to readers of Maria Semple and Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm). Give me more Barbara Trapido!

3.  Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill): Punch to the gut kind of writing. Very quick prose style, but provocative. I plan to re-read.

4.  Oishinbo 04: Fish, Sushi, Sashimi (Kariya and Hanasaki): I read almost the entire series in 2014, but volume 4 was out of circulation due to library renovations. I enjoyed being reunited with the characters and the Ultimate/Supreme menu challenge in which two Japanese newspapers were competing. Not my favorite book in the series, but I still craved sushi and travel while I read it.

5.  Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins): I enjoyed the page-turning nature of this book, but was disappointed by the ending, which was predictable and anticlimactic. 

6.  The Blackhouse (Peter May): First novel/mystery in a trilogy. Atmospheric setting on the rugged, wind-wracked Isle of Lewis. Great character and backstory development. Satisfying mystery with judicious use of action and suspense.

7.  All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor): I read this book when I was 8 or so and viewed the series as a Lower East Side analog to Little House books I adored. Lemon crackers and pickle barrels. Shabbat and candles. As an adult, I admired the mother’s gentle and clever parenting skills, especially hiding buttons for the girls to find when they dusted. Props, mom. SHELF-SITTER

8.  Lewis Man (Peter May): Solid follow-up to The Blackhouse with a new mystery and a continuation of our protagonist’s personal story.

9.  Art of Stillness: Adventure in Going Nowhere (Pico Iyer): based on a TED talk. I listened to this audio in great distraction. I think I liked it. I know I could benefit from another listen. AUDIO

10. When It Happens to You (Molly Ringwald):  I picked this up after hearing her interview with Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter on the Tiny Sense of Accomplishment podcast. Love, loss, betrayal. Ringwald can write. STORIES

11. Daughter’s Keeper (Ayelet Waldman): shelf-sitter since 2004. Waldman’s first stand-alone novel was her meatiest in terms of issues and had some complex characters. Glad I finally got around to reading it. SHELF-SITTER

12. A Year in Japan (Kate Williamson): illustrated travel memoir, great art, Japan!

13. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Anya von Bremzen): started out listening to the audiobook, which was difficult to follow casually so bought the paperback to finish. Although familiar with the privations of the Soviet era, I knew nothing of the rich, bourgeois food traditions of Russia. Proustian memories centered on borscht and koulibiac (roughly, a salmon potpie). Near perfect combination of memoir, history, and food writing.

14. The Chessman (Peter May): the gritty conclusion to the Lewis trilogy. Often more story than mystery. Mostly in it for the depiction of place: rugged, isolated Scottish islands.

15. Falling in Love (Donna Leon): the first Brunetti I have read since catching up to the most current book. The opera singer Flavia Petrelli makes a repeat appearance, this time with an obsessed fan.

16. Love, Nina (Nina Stibbe): This epistolary memoir was another recommendation from Maria Semple. Remember, I read anything she tells me to! Covers Nina’s days as a nanny to a literary London family. Funny and clever.

17. Pretty Good Number One (Matthew Amster-Burton). Picked up this culiary-based travel narrative after listening the podcast Amster-Burton cohosts with Molly Wizenburg. Funny and smart. Sushi, ramen, okonomiyaki. Oh my!

18. Evening Chorus (Helen Humphreys): a literary novel of WW2 told in multiple voices. Sad and beautiful. BOOK GROUP.

19. Le Road Trip (Vivian Swift): another illustrated travel memoir with fantastic, inspiring watercolors. Used this in ongoing research for how to craft my own travel journals.

20. In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (Christopher Blain): graphic novel set in Alain Passard’s vegetable-based kitchen.

21. Get in Trouble (Kelly Link): Read during and after short story month. Quirky, weird stories that were often unsettling but mostly good. SHORT STORIES

22. London Eye Mystery (Siobhan Dowd): enjoyable with a few page-turning moments.

23. Summerlong (Dean Bakopoulos): Steamy and probably too autobiographical to make for comfortable reading. My friend Suz and I went to his reading at Magers & Quinn. Charles Baxter was in the audience! We both used to call on DB when he was a book buyer in Madison.

24. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls (Karen Russell): Read for short story month. The title story was a near to perfection as can be. Clever, funny, creepy in all the right ways. Swamplandia now bumping up the TBR list. SHORT STORIES

25. Urban Watercolor Sketching (Felix Scheinberger): Another gift from Mr. Bibliotonic to encourage my budding watercolor forays. Scheinberger has a loose, boldly color style that I love.

26. A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson): I loved this companion book to Life After Life almost as much as the first book. Getting ready to revisit early Atkinson and to finally read the Jackson Brodie books.

27. The Martian (Andy Weir): At some point this year, I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t read The Martian. I really enjoyed it for being a quick read but also for being close to the hard science fiction of spaceships that I loved as a teen but haven’t read for a really long time. Only downside was seeing the movie cast in the widescreen of my mind’s eye.

28. Stone Mattress (Margaret Atwood): More short fiction for short story month. Atwood is at the top of her game here. SHORT STORIES

29. My Favorite Things (Maira Kalman): A celebration of objects! Maira Kalman never disappoints. I love the idea of doing a watercolor “list” of my favorite things from around the house or from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

30. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Vendela Vida): One of my favorite novels this year, as well as my first Vendela Vida. I loved the premise of stolen identity and how the protagonist made the most of taking leave of herself. Slightly exotic Marrakesh was great too.

31. The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain): Not as good as Laurain’s The President’s Hat, I still found this charming and quick. And Paris.

32. Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day (Doug Mack):  "The most important travel app is the off button. And, the most important travel guides are some basic common sense and open mindedness and willingness to go with the flow and trust the Goddess Serendipity." I wish I had followed Mack’s advice on my own European adventure. Even though I enjoy planning the heck out of a trip, perhaps some spontaneity would have helped. SHELF-SITTER 

33. Revenge Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger): easy summer reading, this novel picks up Andy Sachs’ story as she’s started her own magazine and is about the get married. The novel hinges on a misunderstanding. Painful but filled the time on a long drive to Ely to pick up Simon from his adventure camp. AUDIO

34. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee): So conflicted about this one. For all my reading life, I have wanted to read one more novel by Harper Lee. Clearly one of the most controversial books in publishing in a while I am glad I read it, but I am also glad that I had To Kill a Mockingbird, which I hold sacred, under my belt.

35. The Rumor (Elin Hilderbrand): It has become a somewhat annual tradition to read the newest Hilderbrand novel on a transatlantic flight. I read The Rumor on the way home from Portugal. Lacking complicated plot or deeply developed characters, it was an ideal airplane book. Do I remember anything about it now? No.

36. The Moon, Come to Earth (Philip Graham): The author’s dispatches from Lisbon during the year he lived there with his family. With regard to culture and language, some were interesting and some were informative.

37. Primates of Park Avenue (Wednesday Martin): This was pretty trashy, quick, delicious reading. Perfect summer fare. Hard to believe it wasn’t fiction.

38. Cod (Mark Kurlansky): I have intended to read Cod for a long time. Started it while on vacation in Portugal since salted cod is the national dish. I preferred Kurlansky’s Big Oyster.

39. Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal): Liked but didn’t love this foodie novel.

40. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant (Roz Chast): Couldn’t put it down. Loved it so much. Initially I thought that I wasn’t the audience for this book because my parents are of sound mind and in great shape, but the audience for this book is anyone who has parents and who has a heart. An honest, funny, compassionate graphic memoir. A favorite!

41. A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (David Gates). Gates can write, of that there is no question, but his characters are yucky. It was difficult to find a connection to them, and the situations were uncomfortable. I also found that Gates had a dependence on the same devices, which lost any potency quickly. BOOK GROUP

42. A Cottage in Portugal (Richard Hewitt): A shelf-sitter since 1998!! Read to prolong my summer vacation. A Cottage in Portugal  was written/published in the era of buy-a-home-in-Europe-and-fix-it-up (e.g., A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun), but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as its predecessors. I would have liked less drama, more landscape. SHELF-SITTER

43. Novel Habits of Happiness (Alexander McCall Smith): I look forward to every new Isabel Dalhousie novel AMSmith writes. Isabel was on her game in this installment, which had hints of the paranormal.

44. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (William Finnegan): It took me forever to read this nearly 500-page memoir about surfing, but I always enjoyed diving into the prose. Barbarian Days is one of the best books I read this year, easily. Elegant and brawny all at once. The descriptions of surfing never got repetitive or boring. The culture and science of waves delighted.

45. Girl Waits with Gun (Amy Stewart): I wish I had liked this more. It was charming, and the protagonist was spunky. Maybe it was a case of wrong time-wrong place. The cover art wins best of year.

46. Lumberjanes, vol. 1 (Noelle Stevenson, et al): Read at the recommendation of my young friend Charon and was not disappointed. Looking forward to volume 2. Friendship to the max! 

47. Near and Far (Heidi Swanson): I loved the format of this cookbook and the travel essays. It gave me a lot of inspiration for putting together my writing and photography. Looking forward to cooking from it in the new year.

48. Honor Girl (Maggie Thrash): Graphic novel set at summer camp!

49. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party (A.M. Smith): an audio short story I listened to in order to boost my reading stats. Didn’t love. AUDIO

50. Euphoria (Lily King): This novel based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead was one of my favorite books this year. Read for book group, we had a great discussion. It was sensual and exotic with a strong note of mysterious running throughout. Several “what the hell just happened” moments were very satisfying. BOOK GROUP

51. The Grownup (Gillian Flynn): Ack! Maybe one of the worst books I have read this year. It’s basically a very long story (not even a novella) that I was glad to have been able to check out from the library. This story features Flynn’s trademark ugly characters, but also extra visceral and gross. (Shortest book read at 64 pages).

52. Yes, Please (Amy Poehler): When I found a hardcover in the neighborhood little book library, I was ecstatic. However, I had a hard time getting into it and eventually sought an audio version because what I really wanted was to hear Poehler’s voice. I found it really disappointing. More a manual for how to be like Amy Poehler than a memoir. Brightest note was that her voice made a good companion on dog walks. AUDIO

53. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Laura Ingalls Wilder): A trip to DeSmet, SD, with my friend Spinelli prompted me to pick up the Little House series again. Enjoyable. SHELF-SITTER

54. H Is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald): Jury is still out on this. Loved the natural history writing, especially a half-page description of a spider’s web covering a field, caught in the particular light of a setting sun. But, the falcony portions weren’t even that interesting. And, the T.H.White bits…snooze. A NYT Best 10 Books of the Year. SHELF-SITTER

55. Dead Ladies Project (Jessa Crispin): Mr. Bibliotonic gave me a copy of this book for my birthday, which a complete surprise to me as it hadn’t even been on my radar. Most of the time, I wanted to shake Crispin but I loved her observations of place and literary analysis. Solid blend of literary, travel, and personal writing.

56. Syllabus (Lynda Barry): Inspiring graphic memoir/instructional about Barry’s creative writing-cartooning class at Madison. Took away lots of good ideas.

57. Old Filth (Jane Gardam): I loved Queen of the Tambourine when SMP published it in the 1990s and have always meant to pick up Gardam again. Old Filth was on a recommended reading list that Lily King included in Euphoria. It is the first volume of a trilogy that I can’t wait to finish. Gardam is a genius at weaving time and characters, and I can’t wait to see how she treats Betty and Veneering.

58. My Kitchen Year (Ruth Reichl): As much memoir as cookbook, Reichl writes unflinchingly of the pain of losing Gourmet magazine, which, in my opinion, was a blow to the culinary world and to the magazine world. I doubt I will cook from this book, but I really enjoyed reading about how she picked herself up

59. The Pacific (Simon Winchester): The author reads the audio version of this book, which I picked up based on a strong NYT review. His plummy voice adds to the narrative and almost makes you feel like you’re sitting in the room with him. The book is a little more episodic thus less cohesive almost as if it was a collection of magazine pieces. Still enjoyable as a dog-walking listen. AUDIO (Longest book read at 512 pages; good thing it was a listen)

60. The Property (Rutu Modan): The last book I read in 2015 was purchased on impulse at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ. This graphic novel follows an Israeli woman who accompanies her grandmother to Poland to reclaim property stolen from the family in WW2. Modan is a master of the form, and I look forward to reading her backlist.

Total: 60
Fiction: 37
Nonfiction:  23
Women: 39
Men: 21
Donna Leon: 1 (all caught up now)
Alexander McCall Smith: 2
Peter May: 3
Mysteries: 6
Science Fiction: 1
Elin Hilderbrand: 1
Audio: 5
Post-apocalyptic: 1
Travel: 7
Food: 5
Graphic novels: 10
Stories: 5
E-books: 8
Shelf-sitters: 8
Memoirs/bio: 9
Book group: 4
Kid’s: 5
Portugal: 2
Japan: 3
France: 3
England during WW2: 3
Total pages read: 16,520 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Short story roundup: week four

no photo this week and only the briefest of comments to wrap up the inaugural observation of Short Story Month.

"Freeze Dried Groom" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Returning to Margaret Atwood's collection in order to finish it. This story had a Steven King horror quality to it as well as an ambiguous ending the kind of which leads the reader to imagine only the darkest possible solution. Spoiler ahead: A salvage collector who distresses junk and passes it off as antiques buys several storage lockers of abandoned goods. Cleaning them out, he discovers a wedding dress, cake, etc. And, in the corner of the locker, he finds the groom. Freeze-dried.

"I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Sequel to Robber Bride. The characters wonder if their friend, Zenia, has returned to haunt them.

"This Is Not a Love Song" by Brendan Mathews in Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013
I bought this issue with a travel theme and stories about the Faroe Islands and beekeeping several summers ago, but had never looked at it. It has been in a stack sitter on my coffee table. This story was chosen at random. The title is also a title to a song by PIL.

"The Dead Hand Loves You," by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress

"Ava Wrestles the Alligator" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
More Karen Russell. Happily!

"ZZ's Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Friday, May 22, 2015

Short story roundup: week three

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay in Redeployment
This National Book Award, New York Times bestselling collection examines he modern soldier's experience. These stories, which I read at friend Merrill's recommendation, were gutwrenching and heartbreaking. The subtext seemed to follow that they can never really go home again. I purchased this book even though I had vowed not to buy any books for this challenge, but I'm glad I did because I know I'll want to finish reading it.

"Love and Honor and Pity and Pride" by Nam Le in The Boat
I bought The Boat a long time ago--maybe six years ago--and was happy to get to this shelf sitter. When this debut collection was initially published, it was to great acclaim. Most stories center around the immigrant experience, particularly that of Southeast Asians. The first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride," which is a reference to Faulkner, is gorgeous. It features a Vietnamese-born graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop who, facing writer's block, co-opts his father's story for his semester final. What follows is a meditation on father-son relationships and guilt and responsibility.

"The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris in 20 Under 40
I returned to 20 Under 40 to read Joshua Ferris' "The Pilot." I had read and loved And Then We Came to the End, which I read coincidentally right after my 2008 layoff. It was dark and funny. I also read his sophomore effort, The Unnamed, which I did not love. It was a short novel about a man with a disorder in which he couldn't stop walking. It was sad but mostly confusing. Since I feel Ferris has a lot of potential, and since I loved the first novel more than I disliked the second, I turned to a piece of short fiction. "The Pilot" follows an alcoholic screenwriter as he tries to finish writing his TV pilot. His networking escapades and attempts to stay sober are farcical but not always funny. The story left me feeling a little meh.

"Another" by Dave Eggers in How We Are Hungry
My friend Caryl and I saw Dave Eggers read from What Is the What at the Pen Pals series sponsored by the Hennepin County Libraries. I thought this novel about the Lost Boys of the Sudan was pretty genius. Eggers is a little bit of a hottie and wickedly talented and sort of knocked my socks off that day at Pen Pals. I bought a copy of his story collection, How We Are Hungry, because I wanted to read more. Most of the stories in this collection are short in length, and so I dived in with the first, "Another." This is the story of a divorcee who visits Egypt and takes a horseback tour of the Pyramids. His discomfort in the saddle becomes more physically punishing as the tour progresses and the pyramids reveal empty chambers, yet he requires another and another. Could masochism be a theme? Or perhaps the tour is an allegory for a search for self.

"The Lesson" by Kelly Link in Get in Trouble
Back to Kelly Link in the hope of finishing this collection. I enjoyed "The Lesson," the story of a gay couple that is expecting their first child (by surrogate). They take one last fling a trip to private island wedding of friends. Their trip is cut short by the early arrival of the baby, a preemie whose survival is questionable. Freaky folklore and a groom with a mysterious reputation create gorgeous tension throughout.

"The Nimrod Flipout" by Etgar Keret in Nimrod Flipout
I bought The Nimrod Flipout on impulse at Micawber's Books when shopping for the boys' Christmas book stacks--you know: one for them, one for me. It has one of the best jackets ever. The book jacket touted Keret, an Israeli writer, as a genius, and finally I had a chance to see for myself. The title story, "The Nimrod Flipout," is about three buddies whose friend, Nimrod, commits suicide after a psychological break. Almost as a curse, the three buddies have periodic, alternating flip outs. It was strange, and I had a hard time making a connection to the writing.

"Lusus Naturae" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Lusus naturae means "a freak of nature," and so it is that the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's same-titled story has a genetic condition that renders her frightening to others. The girl's family stages her funeral and confines the girl to their home so they won't have to deal with prying neighbors. But the girl grows bored at home and often sneaks out until she's spotted by townfolk. This story was wily and had a lovely whiff of folklore. Atwood wrote it at Michael Chabon's invitation for his anthology, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.