Happy New Year! Welcome, 2019, I am so glad you are here. 2018 was another sluggish and isolated year for me. Again, books nurtured and sustained me through an emotionally difficult year. My reading goal was 61 books, which was only a slight stretch from the actual number I had read over the previous few years. Even though reading physical copies of books took a back seat to knitting (during which I listened to audiobooks and podcasts), I managed, finally, to crush my goal.
As always, one of my reading goals is to read more shelf-sitters (or books that I’ve owned for longer than six months). To that end in 2018 I made a list of 12 books, which would account for about 20% of my annual total and only the smallest dent in my personal library. One of these books a month didn’t seem unreasonable or undoable. I managed two—American Fried from Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I won’t be making a similar list in 2018. My favorite way to read is to let one book lead to another organically.
Several themes developed in my reading over the year. One was travel, where my related reading involved preparing for trips to New Orleans and France as well as staying immersed in place after I returned home. You might also notice several books about Alaska on the list. My oldest son spent 40 days this summer hiking north of the Arctic Circle in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Accordingly, I attempted to vicariously experience our largest state without actually stepping foot in it. Some day.
Another theme was reading the first book in a series that I forward to continuing by reading book 2 in the upcoming year. Also, I will endeavor to make a significant dent in the Inspector Gamache/Three Pine mystery series by Louise Penny.
For the third consecutive year, I have participated in the (possibly unofficial) National Short Story Month wherein I read a short story a day. In 2019, I’d like to find a way to indicate these here. The page count for 31 stories is at least one novel’s worth of pages. And, I’d like to be able to refer back to these as I participate in this year’s challenge, if for no other reason than to repeat reading stories as I did at least twice this year.
For 2019, I will continue to aim high by reading another 65 books with a subgoal of 16 shelf-sitters, which would be a record number, but I have a good feeling about this.
1. House of Spies (Daniel Silva): Gabriel Allon, #17 in the series. Kicked off the new year with a gripping thriller set in St. Tropez and Casablanca. My favorite Gabriel Allon book yet. I would like to go back and read the rest of the series, starting with book one.
2. Endurance (Scott Kelly): Audiobook. Scott Kelly reads his memoir about the path to becoming an astronaut as well as the year he spent at the International Space Station. It was a smart and thoughtful and interesting book. If you like science or technology or a good story about human achievement, I recommend this book.
3. L’Appart (David Lebovitz): Easy reading memoir about buying and renovating an apartment in Paris written by one of my favorite food bloggers and social media diarists. I am a sucker for stories like this and should probably read more.
4. Paper Girls 1 (Brian K Vaughn): Graphic novel. After seeing the three-volume bound set everywhere at the end of 2017, I had to check out the individual volumes from the library. Set on Halloween 1988, the nostalgia factor is high.
5. Manhattan Beach (Jennifer Egan): I had such high expectations for a new Jennifer Egan novel. After A Visit from the Goon Squad, I vowed I would read the phonebook, if Egan wrote it. This historical novel was largely disappointing, but I loved the descriptions of deep-sea diving and the drama of recovering things from the ocean floor. The stories, photos, and research Egan shared as part of the Pen Pals series motivated me to finish.
6. Paper Girls 2 (Brian K Vaughn): Graphic novel. More coming of age and aliens.
7. Paper Girls 3 (Brian K Vaughn): Graphic novel. Two more volumes remain, but I have read as much as I’d like.
8. Curry (Naben Rathnum): I picked Curry up first for the jacket and the trim size, but second for the subtitle—Eating, Reading, and Race. Under 100 pages, this is a long-form magazine piece that looks at curry and the subcontinent diaspora through literature, pop culture, and history. Fantastic!
9. The Power (Naomi Alderman): Audiobook. Not as big a fan of Alderman’s novel as Natalie Portman was. It was mostly fine and a little gripping but absolutely marred by a gratuitous rape scene.
10. My Private Property (Mary Ruefle): Book group read. Lovely poems with great imagery that made me temporarily think I should read more poetry.
11. Her Royal Spyness (Rhys Bowen): Her Royal Spyness, #1. As a sales rep, I sold Rhys Bowen mysteries for years without ever reading her. I don’t understand the appeal. This mystery was only okay—a little too cozy, Georgiana (our protagonist/sleuth) a little too bumbling, the reveal absolutely thin.
12. American Fried (Calvin Trillin): Such big love for Calvin Trillin, especially when he’s writing about food. He’s not up for pretentious food but writes in a lush style with keen and funny observations. American Fried is the first in the Tummy Trilogy so I’m looking forward to more.
13. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng): Audiobook. One of the hottest literary novels of fall 2017, which I read mostly to see what the fuss was about. Rich character studies, slow-paced plot of suffocating suburbia. I wish I had read a physical copy rather than listen to the audio.
14. Decision at Delphi (Helen MacInnes): Started reading this in Seattle while on spring break last year, which, with too many distractions, proved to be the wrong time to enjoy another MacInnes. But I’m glad I picked it up again, skimming the first 300 pages and finally finishing. The midcentury time period and richness of place (Greece) amplified this gripping and stylish old-school spy thriller that is also rich in place.
15. A Rule Against Murder (Louise Penny): Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #4. As promised, Louise Penny hit her stride here in Book 4.
16. Mrs. (Caitlin Macy): This modern-day House of Mirth for the hedge fund set was smart and darkly funny on audio.
17. Dear Fahrenheit 451 (Annie Spence): A lighthearted set of love letters and break-up notes from a librarian to her favorite and least favorite books. Cute, funny, fast but the author’s schtick and style got tiresome quickly. That said, I came away with one book recommendation—The Virgin Suicides, which is the author’s All-Time Favorite Book.
18. Annihilation (Jeff Vandermeer): Southern Reach, #1. Even though I still haven’t managed to see the movie version, I really enjoyed this atmospheric and creepy sci-fi novel. Book 2 is up in 2019.
19. Need to Know (Karen Cleveland): Audiobook. I listened to the audio and may have been distracted, but I didn’t find this spy thriller to be gripping or heart pounding or any of the other things promised by the blurbs. Charlize Theron bought movie rights so I’ll likely have my memory jogged when it’s adapted.
20. Tokyo Ghoul 1 (Sui Ishida): Son #1 asked me to read this graphic novel. The series is one of his favorites. And while I might say “the things we do for love,” I did enjoy it. Half human-half ghoul hybrid with a craving for human flesh…what’s not to like?
21. Border (Kapka Kassabova): I chose Border as my book group pick based on fantastic review attention and other accolades. It’s a travel narrative/memoir—one of my favorite genres—set in Bulgaria. The author examined the concept of borders that keep out people (such as the current day Syrians parked at Greece’s border) and those that keep in people (such as Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria). The narrative was poetic, and I found the entire experience immersive. My book group categorically hated it, which resulted in one of the longest, best discussions we’ve had.
22. Temptation of Forgiveness (Donna Leon): Commissario Brunetti, #27. It is always great to be reunited with Brunetti and his family and his coworkers in Book #27.
23. My Life with Bob (Pamela Paul): Since listening regularly, faithfully to the NYTBR podcast, I have become a huge fan of host Pamela Paul. Enough of this book about books and reading habits resonated with me. I think PP and I were separated at birth.
24. Lost Girls of Camp Nevermore (Kim Wu): The plot was very promising—a disastrous camping trip told through the point of view of four characters. Still, it barely passed the 50-page test, and I didn’t much like any of the characters.
25. The Vanity Fair Diaries (Tina Brown): Audiobook/ebook. Delicious—smart and gossipy but never bitchy. Brown’s diaries were the best and the worst of the 80s. And, the publishing setting was very appealing. Great bedtime reading.
26. Why New Orleans Matters (Tom Piazza): Read this love letter to New Orleans, which had been written shortly after Hurricane Katrina, just before traveling to NOLA with John for Jazz Fest.
27. Four Seasons in Rome (Anthony Doerr): Audiobook. I loved this travel essay about Rome. It made me want to drop everything and go. Still not even remotely interested in the novel—All the Light We Cannot See--that Doerr was writing while in Rome.
28. Tangerine (Christine Mangan): Purchased in hardcover after I was reeled in by the Joyce Carol Oates blurb: “As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock.” Plus, the jacket was very pickupable.
29. American Pharoah (Joe Drape): Audiobook. Audible Books offered a free download of the audio to honor Audible the horse’s third place Kentucky Derby finish. I was not disappointed.
30. Improvement (Joan Silber): Book group. These linked stories made the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Best Books of 2018.
31. An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, An Epic (Daniel Mendelsohn): Audiobook. This narrative nonfiction about the author’s father auditing his Odyssey class and then taking an Odyssian cruise in Greece is my ideal memoir. Listening to the audio version was extra personal.
32. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles): It’s not often that I don’t want a book to end. Amor Towles does a remarkable job of character development and world building. The Metropol was rich in detail. Layered and nuanced. Really lovely read.
33. The Art of the Wasted Day (Patricia Hampl): Audiobook. Hampl’s latest, a memoir on the essay (Montaigne!) and a love letter to her departed husband, is a little sad, made more so by the author reading the audio. A 2019 Conversation with Books title.
34. Fleur de Sel Murders (Jean-Luc Bannalec): Commissaire Dupin, #3. Bannalec’s Brittany setting and colorful protagonist had a feel similar to Donna Leon’s or Louise Penny’s series, which is good as I’m looking for Gamache’s successor once I’ve caught up to the most recent releases. Fleur de Sel Murders bumped Kurlansky’s Salt and Eleanor Clark’s Oysters of Locmariaquer up my TBR list.
35. Robinson (Muriel Spark): Buddy Read with my friend Caryl. One day, we’re going to be Spark completeists. I took this on vacation to Cumberland Island, which was sultry and humid, just like the island where our protagonist was plane-wrecked.
36. Calypso (David Sedaris): Audiobook. Sedaris’s darkest but funniest. Gross as it was even the tumor joke did not disappoint.
37. Educated (Tara Westover): Audiobook. If someone told me to jump off a cliff, would I? Yes, yes, I probably would, which is what I did with this book. Everyone was reading it this summer and everyone was raving. I listened to the author read the audio and felt a lot of the negative feels—mostly anger and sadness, but eventually relief for this young woman who was raised by survivalists.
38. Brutal Telling (Louise Penny): Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #5. Really good. A mystery imbued with folklore and populated by newcomers to Three Pines. Penny is getting better with each mystery. This time she sent one of the beloved villagers to prison.
39. Tip of the Iceberg (Mark Adams): Audiobook. Son Simon spent six weeks backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park so I went to Alaska vicariously while sitting in my armchair. The author reads his travel narrative of tracing John Muir’s 1879 trip and the 1899 Harriman expedition’s 3000-mile journey around the southern coast of Alaska. I loved Adams’s comparison of bush planes flying in and out of Juneau to mosquitoes, which are notoriously thick in the 49th state. Reading Muir simultaneously.
40. Quiet Side of Passion (Alexander McCall Smith): Isabel Dalhousie, #12. As always, very good to be back in Edinburgh with the always nosy, judgy Isabel Dalhousie.
41. Travels in Alaska (John Muir). I read Travels in Alaska both as a companion to Mark Adams’s Tip of the Iceberg and as a way to stay connected to oldest son on his backpacking trip in Alaska. Muir’s narrative was extremely adventurous (perilously traversing a crevasse) and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny (rescuing a young missionary who tagged along on an overnight only to fall off a cliff). I intend to read more Muir in the near future.
42. The Idiot (Elif Batuman): For months, I’d been picking up this book and setting it down at my local bookstore, Common Good Books. Finally I picked it up and started reading it straightway rather than waiting until it became a shelf-sitter. Anyhow, I had hoped for more. Batuman is a gifted writer, and I found the novel clever but the protagonist painful. That said, I do love a good campus novel.
43. Give Me Your Hand (Megan Abbott): Megan Abbott is a genius. No one. No one gets into the head of adolescent girls, friendships, and rivalries like she does. This novel was a little predictable and won’t be my favorite but it was still suspenseful and compelling from the first page to the last.
44. The Other Woman (Daniel Silva) audio, Gabriel Allon #18: At almost 500 pages, Silva’s latest Allon thriller could have used some editing and some better character development. A French woman in Andalusia harbors the KGB’s biggest secret. Allon and Russia have an epic showdown. Not as page-turning as #17.
45. The Man with the Seagull on His Head (Harriet Paige): Book group read. Book group members Steve and Julie always pick the small press gems. In this one, our protagonist turns into a famous outsider artist after a seagull hits him in the head. Often funny and charming but also strange and uncomfortable.
46. Chasing the Heretics (Rion Klawinski): A true shelf-sitter. Purchased at Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books back in the day. Actually purchased after I visited Michele in Bordeaux in 1999 because I wanted to read more travel narratives about France, but also because I wanted to visit the Languedoc one day. And, now she lives in the Languedoc so my mother and I went in September. I came obsessed with Cathars and I saw Cathar castles high on mountaintops and wondered how they ever were conquered (starvation, dehydration but rarely from invasion).
47. Rich People Problems (Kevin Kwan): Crazy Asians, #3. Not as good as books 1 and 2, but still entertaining as an in-between book.
48. Labyrinth (Kate Mosse): Languedoc, #1. I was the first person in St. Paul to check this out from the library when it was published in 2005, but I could never bring myself to read it. Caryl recommended it as I was preparing to visit my sister who lives in the Languedoc, so I took it with me on my trip. At 500+ pages, I knew the book would last for the flight and on the rare occasion that I’d have to read over 10 days. Not only was the prose not as cheesy as I’d feared, but I loved being immersed in the setting. Book number 2 in the trilogy is in the queue for 2019.
49. Glass Houses (Louise Penny): Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13. Mr. Bibliotonic gave me a copy of the latest Louise Penny novel for my birthday. And, against my better judgement, I read it anyway, extremely out of order. A few plotlines centered on recurring characters were confusing, and I encountered some spoilers, but it has been Penny’s best mystery so far.
50. 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Craig Brown): Audiobook. A few of the NYTBR editors raved about 99 Glimpses, which, coupled with a Crown binge watch earlier this year, were all the motivation I needed to pick up this unique biography of the more-interesting Windsor sister.
51. Provence, 1970 (Luke Barr): Because of our shared love for Julia Child, my mother-in-law loaned Provence, 1970 to me a few years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. The travel/food essay focused on the year that Julia Child, MFK Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney were all in Provence. Note to self: read more MFK Fisher.
52. Transcription (Kate Atkinson): Even when Atkinson is not at her best, she’s still such a better writer than most. It took me awhile to get into Transcription, which moves through three or four time periods, but when the plot clicked it was very good and darkly funny. Even though the novel is set during World War 2, like God in Ruins and Life After Life, the voice reminded me of Behind the Scenes--classic Atkinson.
53. Outline (Rachel Cusk): Cusk is a genius, and I cannot wait to read further in the trilogy
54. The Library Book (Susan Orlean): Audiobook. Orlean is one of my favorite long-form journalists, and it was such a treat to listen to her read her book. This investigative examination of the 1986 fire that destroyed LA’s Central Library is enriched by a history of libraries and their importance as public spaces.
55. Virgil Wander (Leif Enger): Book group read. Enger’s first novel since Peace Like a River, which was published 10 years ago. On the basis of Virgil Wander alone, I’ve become a huge fan. Set in small-town, North Shore Minnesota, the character development and situations were quirky and earnest. I savored every page as well as the discussion with my book peeps. We love it.
56. Twain’s Feast (Andrew Beahrs & Nick Offerman): Audiobook. Offered as a free monthly selection on Audible. Andrew Beahrs wrote Twain’s Feast several years ago, and instead of reading aloud the book, Offerman hosts a conversation with Beahrs and a few scholars and enthusiasts over a meal featuring Twain’s favorite foods. Surprisingly good.
57. I’d Rather Be Reading (Anne Bogel): I hate to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with Anne Bogel (The Other Mrs. Darcy), mostly by way of her “What Should I Read Next” podcast. a lot of this resonated with me in terms of reading habits and patterns, but some of her generalizations are cringey
58. Shakespeare Requirement (Julie Schumacher): Dear Committee Members was funny, fresh, and page turning. Schumacher’s latest wasn’t, and I couldn’t help think that I’ve already read better campus novels by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Jim Hynes. I did laugh out loud though.
59. Bury Your Dead (Louise Penny): Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #6, in which Inspector Beauvoir visits Three Pines to pick up an investigation from the previous books and in which Gamache visits a friend in Montreal while on personal leave only to stumble across a crime scene. Clearly his help was needed. The pace was slow-going and the back and forth between the two storylines was cumbersome, but still enjoyable.
60. My Sister, the Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite): My friend Tripp R. recommended this book at our last book group meeting in November, and shortly thereafter I started hearing and seeing the buzz generated by end-of-year round-ups. I bought it somewhat impulsively, which was easy given the great jacket and appealing trim size, and I started reading it immediately, which is rare for me. The writing is arresting from the first page. Each short chapter is a gem and kept me turning pages. This novel about sisters and the lengths they will go to for each other is one of my favorites of the year.
61. My Ideal Bookshelf (Thessaly la Force and Jane Mount): Dozens of people—architects, artists, writers, chefs, and more—were asked which books constitute their ideal bookshelf. The definition of “ideal bookshelf” was pretty open to interpretation. Some wrote about favorite books, others wrote about the books that had the greatest influence on them. Almost all were attached to a formative memory. Jane Mount’s illustrations were perfection. The book includes a blank outline of books on a shelf so the reader can add their own collection.
62. The Hangman (Louise Penny): Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #6.5. This short story was terrible. Without space for character development and descriptions of Three Pines, all you have is the mystery. And, always a little weak, the mysteries aren’t why I read this series.
63. The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani): Finding The Perfect Nanny in the neighborhood Little Free Library this summer was a coup even though I ignored it until December when the novel was included in the NYTBR’s 10 best books of 2018. The reader learns who committed the crime on the first page (the nanny). Still, it’s unputdownable.
64. Becoming (Michelle Obama): audio. Listened to Michelle Obama read her fantastic story. I am not going to lie. I felt her formative years were boring, but I know they’re important to establishing where she came from. I wept when she told about Barack’s run for president and the challenges he faced throughout his administration. Have been a fan forever. But I also felt encouraged and inspired by MO’s decision to Step Back (rather than Lean In) and prioritize her family while maintaining her career.
65. My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante): Neapolitan Novels, #1. Finally. I truly feel as if I’m the last person on earth to read the first in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. It took a few attempts before I settled into the prose, and I think a lot could be said about right place/time for reading it. But, once I did settle in, I couldn’t put down this novel of female friendship set in 1950s Naples. Great development of character and setting as well as a surprising ending that makes one want to immediately pick up book two. I can hardly wait to see what Ferrante did there.
Total: 65 (54 in 2017)
Donna Leon: 1
Alexander McCall Smith: 1
Daniel Silva: 2
Louise Penny: 5
Science Fiction: 1
Audio: 17 (20 in 2017)
Books about books: 4
Graphic novels: 4 (2 in 2017)
Shelf-sitters: 7 (6 in 2017)
Books published in 2018: 22 (2017: 23)
Book group: 5
New Orleans: 1
Book 1 of a series: 9
Longest book: Decision at Delphi, 624 pages (2017: Pillars of the Earth, 973 pages)
Shortest book: The Hangman, 87 pages
Total pages read: 19,338 (14,835 in 2017)
Top 10, in no particular order
A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
My Sister, the Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite)
An Odyssey (Daniel Mendelsohn)
Outline (Rachel Cusk)
99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Craig Brown)
Virgil Wander (Leif Enger)
Travels in Alaska (John Muir)
Glass Houses (Louise Penny)
My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)
Twain's Feast (Beahrs and Offerman)