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 

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