best books i've read lately

Book Recommendations

Let me tell you about the best books I’ve read since August.

I’ve been on a burner lately. After devouring the Harry Potter series after we moved (Harry Potter being my literary equivalent of chips and queso), I dove into the piles of unread books I hauled across the country. Some have been barely okay, some not even okay, but other have been shining jewels. I love a book that turns on all the lights.

THE LONELY CITY, Olivia Laing

I read this book on our vacation, reading the majority of it, fittingly, in New York City, the city where Laing becomes intimate with loneliness. I’m not sure how to genre this book: memoir? art criticism? treatise? social history? All of this, but something more?

Laing, drawing on her own experience with loneliness writes about the five artists whose work and lives dealt with loneliness: Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, and Klaus Nomi. She explores the way the art of these five men was born out of their own lonely experiences—the art Wojnarowicz created inside the confluence of hustling and the AIDS epidemic and his own abject poverty, Darger’s strange, massive works of violence, created over a lifetime of almost total isolation, the eerie greens and open spaces of Hopper’s paintings, even Nomi’s weird, ethereal music (so strange and haunting I can’t listen to it)—and connects it with the broader social and psychological experience of being lonely. It’s a book about connection. And about what happens when we don’t receive it.

I read it as I tried to read New York City, tried to make my way, psychically, emotionally, through this beautiful, brutal, indifferent and intense city. It contextualized New York, and it contextualized my own loneliness. “So much of the pain of loneliness,” she writes, “is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting? About desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?”

BIG MAGIC, Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic is one of those books I almost don’t want to talk about, because how can I add to what’s already been said? Elizabeth Gilbert’s frank, playful, funny meditation on creative living is wonderful. It’s an invitation to engage with creativity for no other reason than a love of being creative.

I read it as a writer, and, of course, Gilbert wrote it as a writer, but I think anyone with a creative practice could be woken up by it. This book is about taking the results of creativity less seriously, the work of creativity more seriously, and the practice of it sacred. Like she says:

“Pure creativity is something better than necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe. It’s as if all our gods and angels gathered together, and said ‘It’s tough down there as a human being, we know. Here--have some delights.’”

In the short time since I finished this book, I’ve returned to it a hundred times as motivation to finish what may be the worst short story I’ve ever written, to restart a longer project I’ve been kicking around for two years, and to continue to submit a short story I think is possibly the best I’ve written (and has received a dozen rejections already). The mark of this book’s value: I haven’t even gotten it back onto the shelf yet.

THE ORCHARDIST, Amanda Coplin

So many of the books I read I wouldn’t recommend to many. The Orchardist, gorgeous, rich, and poignant, is one of those books. It’s a quiet, poetic novel that tells a broad story in intimate details. I think many readers would find it slow, the plot secondary to its characters and their introspective experiences of the world.

Two girls come to Talmadge’s orchard, a sprawling complex of apples and apricots planted in an isolated Washington valley in the late nineteenth century. They’re pregnant and feral, and after one sister loses her baby and the other kills herself, Talmadge is left with an infant and a young woman too restless for his orchard. This story is told over decades, and the plot spins out over Talmadge’s deep, conflicted love for both the baby who grows into a woman and the woman who grows into a lawbreaker.

I read this book for its language, this sparse, dizzying flood of poetry. Amanda Coplin realizes this removed world with an elegant precision. We see the scope of time, its weight and shape in this quiet novel. She writes, of Talmadge’s experience of train travel:

“It was the rapidity that overwhelmed him and bothered his sensibility. He had moved slowly all of his life. He was used to seeing things drawn out of themselves by temperature and light, not by harsh action. But this was something different. This was how people lived, now.”

The Orchardist surprised me, and soothed me. I devoured its grace whole.

DARK PLACES, Gillian Flynn

Thrillers disappoint me constantly. I always read a few in the fall, and I always end up being let down by most of them. Either the mystery falls apart in the final hundred pages, or it isn’t properly solved, or if it is solved, it’s only done so in some random, pedestrian accident. (OR, looking at you, Into the Water, the mystery is solved only after we understand the reasons why men use women as fatal collateral in their emotional upbringing). But this one? Better than Gone Girl (IMHO).

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a brutal, Satanic attack that took out her mother and two sisters when she was a child. At 32, she’s run out of money, the donations of sympathetic stranger finally used up. To make some cash, the makes a paid appearance at a meeting of true crime fan club meeting. What begins as a way to keep bilking the men and women obsessed with her family’s murder out of money turns into a hunt to discover who actually killed her family and trailed their blood across her walls.

I read this book in three, very full work days. Devoured it. The pacing was excellent, the characters compelling without being likeable, and while Flynn’s writing isn’t to my taste, it’s propelling. And the murder, oh this murder. It’s perfect. It’s creepy; it’s grisly; it’s violent, it’s not built on inherently sexist gender dynamics, and in the last twenty pages, when all our questions are answered, it’s goddamn satisfying.

My reading life waxes and wanes (usually in direct proportion to how much television I’m watching—wonder of wonders), but right now, I’m exhilarated at the clip I’m reading at right now. These were the best of the third quarter.

What’s on my shelf for the rest of the year? A 1999 edition of Granta (the excerpt of Jasmina Tesanovic’s diary of the Serbian Civil War was awful and astounding), likely a few other thrillers, Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World  and I’m thinking a reread of The Age of Innocence.

Tell me what you’re reading. Tell me what I need to be reading.

what i'm reading lately

 Peonies + Bookstack

Peonies + Bookstack

Right now, this country is all jagged outrage and impotent heartbreak. I wrote about my bookshelf before yesterday's Supreme Court decision (although, obviously, after the waves and waves of coverage on detained asylum seekers, babies in cages, and outrageous government-sponsored human rights violations). Books can be escape in desperate times. I hope, instead, they're lightposts, wisdom to combat all this injustice and pain. -

There was a time when books were my safety. I read constantly, voraciously. Friends would joke: I can see from Goodreads that you've read four books in the time its taken me to read one. Do you do anything else? I brought books to parties, because knowing I had one near was enough to stem the anxiety that crowds created for me. I referred my bookshelves, in unguarded and un-ironic moments, as my oldest friends.

In college, I made my roommate wait while I ran back into our apartment. When she saw me tucking a novel into my bag, and she laughed. We're running errands. What do you need a book for? What if something happens, I tried to explain, and I have time to kill?

So you're saying that we get into a car accident. I'm so badly hurt I can't carry a conversation, and you're going to whip out a book while you wait for an ambulance?

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Last year, my reading lifeshifted, and it's taken me the year to acclimate. When I stopped needing books to smother my pain, I stopped reading. I wasn't the walking wounded anymore; I didn't need the band-aids.

It's been a joyful process to rediscover one of my earliest loves. It's led to a deeper relationship and, antithetically, less attached relationship with the texts. It's not an anesthesia, so I'm present for language and wisdom and plot development in ways I wasn't. I've been rereading books to savor them in new and cleaner ways. I'm purging my shelves of what I don't like, expanding my diet to explore what I do, getting more life of everything I read.

In other words, I've found my groove again.

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Under the Tuscan SunBella Tuscany, Frances Mayes: I didn't read these books when they were released a decade ago, didn't see the movie, wasn't old enough to get tired of the Tuscany-as-lifestyle frenzy they created. My mother passed them to me in a stack she was discarding, and I grabbed the first before a work trip I wanted some "light" reading for. Mayes is a fantastic writer. A poet, she operates at the level of the sentence, and I get why these books (the first, in particular) sent the world into paroxysms of Tuscan-fever. Everything is beautiful underneath her pen.

But beneath the language, and all the talk of wines and linens and the cucinia povera and the Etruscan walls (as an aside: I found this all fascinating, even if it was extraneous and vaguely pretension), I found in these memoirs a meditation on home, and who we are when we locate ourselves elsewhere. I'm moving this summer, and Mayes did for me what I ask literature to do: Her memoirs provided shape and language for the hopes I have for our move, for the dreams, the anxieties, the questions, the reasons.

The Good Mother, Sue Miller: Like the Mayes memoirs, The Good Mother is decades old, scavenged during one of my $0.50 per title book bin benders. This novel about a woman who became awake: After a dispassionate marriage, Anna Dunlap begins to lay a new foundation upon which to build a life for herself and her daughter, only to have this new life thrown into chaos by a decision made by her lover. The central crisis of this novel isn't as nuanced as Miller likely meant it to be (although I'm speaking from a vantage point of thirty years), but the intensity of character's experience is. Miller writes  a traditionally "female" story without any of the traditional sentimentality. Motherhood brings deep, radical love, but also compromise and limits. Romance is obsessive and consuming, but there's no prince charming who will save a woman's life. Familial ties are complicated. Love, in all its forms, is complicated. It's a story that embraces, but doesn't try to smooth, the rough corners of our experiences.

Vida, Patricia Engel: This is best book I've read this year. Engel is a sharp, beautiful writer who knows how to make language detonate. I read this very short collection of interconnected stories (140-ish pages) during an April snowstorm that left me snowed in. There's nothing Engel won't touch, and nothing she can't make both beautiful and broken: prostitution, domestic abuse, death, immigration, heartbreak, girls who feel out of place, boyfriends who let you down. I read this book months ago, and still haven't gotten over it.

This spring, I also reread Felicia Sullivan's superb Follow Me into the Dark, Cheryl Strayed's gorgeous memoir, Wild, and slogged through a few so-so titles that immediately wound up in the give away pile.

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Currently, I'm reading Star of the Sea, Joseph O'Connor + The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison. The first, a novel I've had on my shelf for years, is one of my pre-move "read now or toss" books. I will haul the books I love across oceans without regret, but I really don't want to get out to DC with boxes of books I'm going to disappointed in when I finally read them. So far (as in 50 pages in), Star of the Sea, historical fiction about a passenger ship crossing from Ireland to New York, is better than I expected.

The second, I'm reading slowly. Do you ever "save" the books you're most excited for? I've wanted to read The Empathy Exams since it was released, but even though it's been on my shelf for a year, I was hesitant to start it. When I buy a book, I put it on my shelf and wait for months, maybe years, for the "right time" to read it. I'm not sure if this is a sweet piece of my character (the anticipation builds my love) or another way I reinforce the beliefs that I don't deserve to have I want. Either way, I'm finally reading Jamison's essays, and they're as gorgeous as I expected. I'm savoring each essay, one at a time.

Other books on my "to be read: special moving edition" pile: Joyland, Stephen KingIn the Country We Loved, Diana Guerrero, The Wonder Spot, Melissa Bank, A Box of Matches, Nicholson Baker.

What are you reading? What should I be reading?

books i read in 2017

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I read this year for wisdom. I read less this year than I've read in years. I struggled to focus on the page for long periods of time. I started and abandoned at least a dozen books. I grew impatient with writers faster, and found myself avoiding male writers for the better half of the year. I bought books less frequently, and I quit carrying a book in my bag with me. I joked last night that I read so little this year, because I did so much living.While that's only about half-true, I do know that as I made changes to my life this year, I found myself less out of a need for escape, and more out of a need for awakening. Last January dawned black and lonely. I spent five months crawling towards the sun, and when I reached it, it was brilliant, blinding, and healing. Even though I read significantly less, I think I read better books, with more intention, and gained more from their pages than I have in previous years.

I'm leaving 2017 stronger, happier, and more at peace; these books helped shape me.

  • Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending: After talking about how rich my book diet was, it's a bummer to start my (alphabetized) list with this book, because it was not good. I remember thinking that this was one of the those books prolific writers crank out because they've got a deadline coming soon. The characters were weak and one-dimensional, and the plot half filled out.

  • Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins: I brought this (along with three Ferrante novels) to Italy this August, and read it in the first week of our trip. I loved it so much -- for its sweeping romanticism, for its multiple-narrator, multiple-timeline structure, for its unabashed adoration of Italy. I spent the first few months of summer eschewing novels and male writers, but Walter's novel convinced me to return to both.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me: Is there anything I could say about Ta-Nehisi Coates' elegy that hasn't already been said? It is required reading. It is a social history of the systems of race that built and sustain America, and a painful meditation of the personal experience of institutionalized violence. It is angry, and mournful, and unapologetic. This book is intensely personal, and as a white reader, it felt like a window with the shades pulled back. This book is two years old now. If you haven't read it yet, read it in 2018.

  • Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run: I began this book the day it was released in September 2017, but despite my deep, deep love for Bruce Springsteen, I couldn't get into it. I needed this book later. It took me two weeks to read the first 200 pages, and two days to read the next four hundred in two days. Born to Runwas extraordinary in ways I didn't expect it to be. Though he's not old and is still actively creating, Springsteen wrote like a man at the end of his life -- with grace and wisdom and posterity and understanding. He covers the range -- his difficult childhood, the hunger of a young artist, the persistent hold depression, creativity, marriage and divorce, fatherhood (and sonship), politics, death, money. I read this book, because I love Bruce Springsteen, but it's a powerful, painful, and ultimately hopeful meditation on a full life.

  • Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment: Ferrante is brilliant. Last year, I read all the Neapolitan novels, and told everyone that would listen that they should read them too. I'd give the same command about Days of Abandonment except this book is dark and disturbing in ways that even the Neapolitan novels weren't. It's a story of a woman's unraveling, in the hot summer after her husband leaves her and her children. Ferrante writes women with an unparalleled and horrific mastery. This is a novel of undoing, claustrophobic and disorienting and compelling. I read it on the beaches of Sardinia, and on a plane, over the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Phyllis A. Whitney's The Fire and the Gold: A good friend lent me this book in May -- her favorite book and one that she returns to repeatedly for comfort. Published in 1956 and set in 1906, this is a novel about a young woman, set on ending an engagement, but caught up in the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It's a short novel, but it's sweeping and grand and romantic. Although I didn't read much for escape this past year, this book was a perfect escape from a particularly high-stress week. (As a parenthetical, I love when people share with me the books they love. Maybe it's because I love books so much, but it's such an act of trust and intimacy.)

  • Felicia Sullivan's Follow Me into the Dark: This was easily one of the best books I read this year. Sullivan is a brilliant writer (I came to her writing via her now inactive blog), whose fiction is dark, but powerful. Follow Me into the Dark is about mothers and daughters, and women in varying stages of undoing. When explaining this novel (to everyone who would listen, because, people, this book must be read), I struggled to explain the plot without giving too much away, but I landed on some version of: It's a novel about inter-generational abuse, unchecked grief, and the trauma experienced by unloved children, told through the story of three siblings and the history of their family. Sullivan is a gorgeous writer whose words I would ink on my skin, but she's also a unflinchingly brave storyteller who is willing to bring readers, with little promise of escape, into the dark.

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  • Amy Schumer's The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo: I listened to this memoir on audiobook during a work trip that kept me in the car for about ten hours. I expected very little from it -- as a public figure, Schumerisproblematic and I've never connected with her brand of humor -- but my library offers little by way of audiobook, so I gave it a shot. I was surprised by how thoughtful this book ended up being. Most compelling were Schumer's reflections on the trauma she experienced in an abusive relationship, her father's multiple-sclerosis, and her experiences of body and love.

  • Gilian Flynn's Gone Girl: I realize I read this book about five years too late, but I was underwhelmed. Yes, I'd already seen the movie, and knew the twist, but usually, if a book is good enough, it doesn't matter to me if I know the plot or not. I thought Flynn's writing drew too much attention to itself, and the character development not as sophisticated as it was billed to be. I liked the movie better.

  • David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: I was wary of this book when it first came out, because do we really need more white men telling other people’s stories, but this book ended up impressing me. Grann tells the rigorously researched story of the widespread murder of Osage people during the early twentieth century for their wealth and oil rights. This book lagged in the middle, but Grann managed to tell this story with grace, pain, and respect.

  • Kevin Fenton's Leaving Rollingstone: I first read Fenton after attending a panel he was on in 2011. His novel, Merit Badges, is a melancholy ode to youth, friendship, and what we lose as we grow up. Maybe this is the central question of Fenton’s writing life, because Leaving Rollingstone was written from a similar vantage. He begins his life on the family farm in Southern Minnesota, and spends the rest of his adolescence and adulthood trying to find a way to return. Fenton writers like a man in process, not a man with results, and I found his memoir thoughtful, mournful, but ultimately hopeful.

  • Chris Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins: One of the last books I read this year, and one of the most meh. Bohjalian is a prolific writer, but I’ve never read any of his novels. This one fell flat. The plot was compelling enough (dual timelines, set ten years apart: A serial killer is targeting a wealthy Italian family; Nazis are occupying the same family’s villa during the late years of the war), but it was about nothing more than what was on the page. Especially this year, I was reading for so much more than entertainment, and this barely was that.

  • Tana French's The Likeness: This book. I was wary about it, because I read French’s first detective novel, In the Woods, last year, and it’s plot was a disappointment. The Likeness begins with a less compelling mystery than In the Woods -- a young woman, who shares a striking resemblance with a murder detective, is found dead in an Irish farmhouse; the detective goes undercover as the dead girl to try to find out who killed her -- but read as a much better novel. Although French wraps up this mystery well, I think I would have still loved this novel, even if it has as disappointing ending as In the Woods. More so than this book is about murder or detectives or solutions, it’s a reflection on friendship, and connection, and the deeply human need to belong. Of all the things I gained and lost in this past year, I’ve struggled most with the sense that I’ve lost friends. My social circle has shrunk down to a very few, and I’ve felt intermittently hurt and lonely because of this. Maybe I loved this novel, because it asked what it means to belong at a very point in the year when I was asking myself the same question.

  • Glennon Doyle Melton's Love Warrior: For a long time, I avoided anything that too closely resembled “self-help,” because I didn’t believe that a real person (me) could live a life so unlocked.Love Warrior is much more memoir than self-help, but because Melton rose to fame through her self-help-realm blog and first book, it still has elements of direction. I listened to Melton’s memoir on audiobook early in the year, and I feel like I was able to only half-hear it. Possibly one of the most woo-woo things I believe is that books come to us at the right points in time (if we want them to), and this book came to me a bit too early. I’ve since listened to Melton talk about some of the same themes she discusses in her book -- rock bottom, vulnerability, trust and power, loneliness, and I want to read Love Warrior again. I wasn’t ready, at the time, to unlock.

  • Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If I’m being honest, I remember loving this book than I remember actually reading this book. It’s my now-boyfriend’s favorite book, and he recommended it to me in the first few weeks we’d been seeing each other. This book is slim, but I devoured it. (Handsome man borrows you his favorite book on the fourth date, that’s what you do). What I do remember about reading it was that this book seemed to hold every emotion a human being can feeling, and that, if there ever was one, is the perfect description of adolescence.

  • Carrie Fisher's The Princess Diarist: I think we expect more wisdom of people after they pass. I remember feeling this way about Fisher’s last memoir. This book was charming, and enjoyable, but in the weeks following her death, it was billed as some kind of deep dive into the heart and mind of a young woman on the brink of her life. It’s not that -- it’s a teenager’s diary, paired with enjoyable, gossipy essays about that period of her life. I did enjoy this book, but I think I expected revelation, when really, it’s a lot of reflection.

  • Ariel Levy's The Rules Do Not Apply: Another audiobook for another brutally long solo-drive. I found that Levy’s memoir commanded my attention, but very little else. Levy writes well about being a female journalist, about her experience as the wife of a woman with severe addiction issues, and about the late-term loss of her baby, but it failed to do, for me, what good memoirs do: Make the personal seem universal.

  • Louis Erdrich's Shadow Tag: Oh my god, this book was thunder. Erdrich is prolific and masterful, and this is not one of her more popular novels, but it is easily my favorite. Remember what I said about books finding us when we need them? This one came to when I needed it. It tore open the curtains, and shook my bones, and demanded I be awake. It tells the story of a woman gathering her own strength in the middle of her dysfunctional and abusive marriage, and the unraveling of a family along the seam of the parents’ wrecked marriage. It’s a violent, angry novel, and it demanded I pay attention. I finished it on a Sunday, and immediately began re-reading it.

  • Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own: I read this book slowly during my mid-summer literary dry spell, but each time I opened it, I felt like I was being spoon fed wit and wisdom. Spinster is equal parts memoir, literary criticism, and social commentary. Bolick writes about her five “awakeners” -- female writers who composed and comprised Bolick’s development as a woman and artist. Although much was made about the marriage issue -- both the title and Bolick’s meditation on her decision to never marry -- I found marriage was a minor part of this book. Instead, Bolick writes holistically about what it means for a woman to build a life of her own choosing. I picked up this book now, a few years after its publication, because this is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly this year. Bolick doesn’t provide answers, but she does provide solace -- that these questions are hard to ask, and that answers are hard to come by, and that every woman has, if not the opportunity, at least the right to build for herself a good life.

  • Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea: I bought this book years ago, and I’m pretty sure I picked it off the clearance table, because I liked the contrast of a white cover, blue-scale cover art, and raised red lettering. When I finally pulled it from my shelf this spring, I barely knew what it was about. It’s one of those novels where a description of the plot makes the book sound tinny and shallow -- prep school sailor is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner while building new relationships, confronting fresh tragedy, and finding grace and answers for himself in the process -- but Dermont’s novel is rich and graceful and generous. Her portrait of the interior life of Jason, her narrator, is complex and nuanced, while her language is beautiful and playful. I loved-loved this novel, and found so much mournful, hopeful beautiful within its pages.

  • Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers: I’ve never read much poetry, and while I think that the kind of Instagram poetry that Kaur writes is making poetry much more accessible for a wider audience, I’ve never sought it out. I enjoyed reading The Sun and Her Flowers, and burned through it in just a few days, but it didn’t heal me or change me or make me new. There was something too tidy about her poems. Maybe it was the way they were packaged, each section charting the life cycle of a plant, or the way she wrote with such seriousness, but there was a texture or a roughness that I wanted. Life is rarely this tidy, and healing never is. (I also wasn’t aware until after finishing this book that the authenticity of her poetry has been called into question a few times, as has her exploitation of the trauma experience).

  • Nafisa Haji's The Sweetness of Tears: A forgettable book from the very beginning of the year. I believe I remember thinking that the plot spanned too much time, tried to cover too much ground, and relied too heavily on coincidence. I also remember the language being exhausting. I can’t find the book on my shelf, so I must have gotten rid of it immediately upon finishing.

  • Julia Glass's Three Junes: The first book I read in 2017, and maybe my favorite. I read it immediately following my grandfather’s death, and like good novels do, this book helped me heal. It was full, and beautiful, and gorgeously written. Read more here.

  • Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: Again, with the “books finding you.” I read this in 2016 as well, and last year, I was underwhelmed and sometimes annoyed with Strayed’s particular brand of big-hearted truth-telling. This year, when I read it, I was riveted. I said that I read this year looking for wisdom, and I sat underneath the Sugarfountain looking to be cleansed. One thing I know I learned this year: My cynicism is boring, my life is gift, and what’s wrong with fighting hard to make it all beautiful.

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  • Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion: Another one of my book-drought books. I started reading this book in June, and finished it two days ago. This was the first of Daum’s collections that I’ve read, and while I found the collection, as a whole, a little patchy, I appreciated the overall work. I loved the essays “The Best Possible Experience,” “Not What It Used to Be,” and “The Joni Mitchell Problem.” Daum is funny, thoughtful, and “real.” I want to read more of her in 2018.

  • Mary Oliver's Upstream: Selected Essays: I read this book in two rainy days, and it burrowed straight under my skin. Oliver is a beautiful essayist, and this collection is stunning. She writes with the authority of age, but this book is neither confessional or even terribly personal. Instead, it’s a meditation on wisdom, and the natural world, and beauty, and aging. This book is another gift Oliver has given us, and like her poetry, each word on the pages seems deliberate, smooth and beautiful -- pebbles plucked from Blackbird pond.

  • Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys: I struggled to get through this behemoth of a book, but when I finally got to the end, it stripped me bare. This was the first Joyce Carol Oates’ I’ve read, and while I’m currently hesitant to pick up more of her books, this book stayed with me. More here.

  • Amy Poehler'sYes Please: One of the few re-reads. I picked up Yes Please again, because Amy Poehler is so funny, and so generous, and so smart, and she gives so many opportunities in her book to learn. I now own a copy of this book, and it sits on my shelf more like a reference text than a memoir. Creativity? Failure? Love? Friendship? Ambition? She could tell you something about all of it.

As always, friends, I need to know: What did I miss? What else do I need to read? Tell me your titles!

what i'm reading + navigating the next

Of course, of course, I know that I can't know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there's only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don't mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what's coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I've seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it's all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true - two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

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On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather's side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of "we didn't know this coming; we couldn't have known." I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn't planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn't have known, then, what she knows now. That she'd spend more of her life married than not married. That she'd give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they'd each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we're young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy "what's next" is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It's an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I've been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I've read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I'm looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family's central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It's a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me - the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I'm not even sure what; I just known that I've been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I'm currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I've read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again - or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I'm trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

books of 2016: a year in review

 Jane Austen reading room, Mia

Jane Austen reading room, Mia

I had a disorganized year of reading - and writing, but that's for a different day. I read more books that I have in previous years, but the quality was lacking. I want to read books that shake me, makes my bones rattle, and while I absolutely did read a few of these (The Neapolitan Series left me strung out and raw), I also read a lot of filler. This was due in part to the fact that I was reading to clear my shelves - trim away that books that didn't rock me to make way for more that to -, but it was also partly due to the reality of my year.

I can see in retrospect that I spent a lot of 2016 working hard to just get by. A few high-intensity, low-happiness spring months kicked off a very slow slide into the deep anxiety and mild, but tenacious depression with which I am closing out the year. Rounding up all of my 2016 titles made it clear that many of my choices were attempts to read for comfort. The problem was that I reached for a lot of shaky rafts, a lot of escapist reading when I needed to transcend.

While much of what I read this year didn't have the teeth I want from my fiction, I hope to change that in 2017. I'll still be reading to trim (for the first time in my life, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread pages on my shelves), but I want my literary life to feel more like a revival than it did this year. I have a few books on my nightstand that I'm excited about, but I'm also looking for suggestions. (I'm always looking for suggestions.)

So, in alphabetical order, all the books I read in 2016.

  1. Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: I've read this book many times, and each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the grace of the language, and the precision of its observations. This was a comfort read that did not let me down. I read this in the wake of the election. For the first time, I had no sympathy for Newland, and all the praise and power for May and Ellen, each powerful women in their own right.

  2. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None: For all my love of the detective novel (give me an opening and I will diagram for you the social and historical importance of detective fiction), I've never read Agatha Christie. I picked this novel up on a rainy spring afternoon when I went in search of cheer-me-up books. Classic whodunit, and despite all the death, this mystery was a delight.

  3. Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife: This is one of the few books I'd recommend not reading. Historical fiction imagining the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to Charles, the narrative spans her entire adulthood, and attempts to position Anne's story as one of power lost, sought, and reclaimed. The writing was iffy, the narrative structure all over the place, and character development jagged, but the hardest pill to swallow was Benjamin's attempt to excuse and apologize for the couple's attitudes and opinions about Nazi Germany. History has no heroes, and I get the need to reconcile the good with the bad, but reading this attempt to smooth over the Lindbergh's blatantly anti-Semetic, pro-Nazi opinions in post-election 2016 was not worth it.

  4. Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist: My yearly lesson to not read hyped books (or give the hype a few years to die down). After hearing must-read-able this book was, I expected an earth-shaking, ground-breaking treatise on political and cultural feminism. This book is not that. What it is is a series of thoughtful, thought-provoking essays on gender, race, sex, and popular culture (heavy on the latter). My roof blown off, but I benefited from this book, particularly from the critique of popular culture depictions of the Black American experience.

  5. Toni Morrison's Beloved: Transcendent. I've been intimidated of Morrison's writing ever since reading her for the first time when I was eleven (Love, and I was too young), so though I own most of her books, I've only read a few. Beloved was a glorious, harrowing, exquisite experience. There's nothing I can say about Toni Morrison that hasn't already been said, so I'll join the choir and preach. Read this!

  6. Julia Keller's Bitter River: Don't read this. It's a small town cop mystery, but somehow, we go from pregnant teenager dead in a river to terrorist attack in Appalachia. Confused? Me too, and not just because this writer traffics solely in compound sentences and wildly irrelevant tangents.

  7. Tina Fey's Bossypants: I love when smart, funny women write about themselves. Tina Fey is a decent essayist, and is at her best when she's talking about the work or talking about being a woman. I got tired of her constantly making herself the butt of her own joke, but as another girl whose never known what cool is, I appreciated the honesty and humility.

  8. Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps: Mary McCarthy is a master class in observational writing. This is a novel of connected short stories about a young woman in 1930's New York City. It's very much of its time in tone and style, but it's a smart, carefully crafted examination of politics, gender, and social expectation. I read "Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man" immediately following the election, and at a moment when gender, politics and power were all thrown into harsh focus, this story was a particularly haunting and insightful look at petty, privileged men and the radical woman who challenge them.

  9. Rosa Liksom's Compartment No. 6: This was a short, dark, beautiful novel. Translated from its original Finnish, the narrative follows a girl traveling across a late 80's Soviet Union to see hieroglyphs in Mongolia. I wrote a much longer review for Grist that you can read here, but the short of it is read this book.

  10. Ha Jin's A Free Life: The marketing calls this an immigrant's story, but after reading, I think that's too simplistic. Ha Jin uses the immigrant narrative as base camp for the Wu family, but then wraps them in layers of human complexity. As much as Nan, father and narrator, is an immigrant, he's also an aspiring poet, a frustrated father, a husband who pines for a former lover - a fully formed man struggling for identity and abundance in their many forms. This novel is dense, and Jin's writing style jars me, but I am so glad this novel.

  11. Joan London's The Golden Age: This was the best book I read all year. Published in Australia two years ago and released in the U.S. this summer, this novel is about a children's polio recovery home in post-war Australia. It is a stunningly graceful and impossibly hopeful novel about pain, loss, and resilience. It's a short, lyrical, abundant novel that takes life as it is, and sees, without sop or sentimentality, the beauty. Read my longer review for fieldshere.

  12. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: Another re-read. President's Day weekend, Valentine's Day, frigid temperatures and a head cold lined themselves up, and I spent a long weekend reading this. I read this novel for the first time when I was 10, and I was far too young to understand the Confederate nostalgia or the references to the KKK. I thought I was reading a big, epic story with a fierce, mean, tougher-then-hell woman at its center. This was the first time I've read GWTW that I've been critical enough to see both, I'm not sure there's a way to reconcile the blatant racism and historical inaccuracies with this story of powerful women and their survival.

  13. Ali Wentworth's Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales: Audiobook is the way to "read" a celebrity memoir. I listened to both of Ali Wentworth's memoirs on two back-to-back work trips, and each was delightful. This one, the first, covers her adolescence and adulthood up to the point of her marriage. It's fantastically funny, and at more than few points, surprisingly tender.

  14. Ali Wentworth's Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales: Wentworth's second memoir, and I liked it even better than the first. Each chapter is framed by an inspirational quote, and the wisdom that she gained (or didn't) from it. Wentworth deals funny and real in the same hand, and these books of hers are delightful.

  15. Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: I wasn't going to read this. I have strong opinions about why, out of respect for the reader, J.K. Rowling needs to stop writing about Harry Potter, and I was not going to read this post-canon screenplay. Then, at 11 a.m. the morning the book was released, a copy wound up in my cart at Costco. I read it. I kind of wish I hadn't. One of the most beautiful gifts that a good writer can give to their reader is the chance to let the characters live on in each of our imaginations. Cursed Child didn't dim my love of the original books, but it confirmed all my purist, Harry Pottery snobbery.

  16. Kate Morton's The House at Riverton: It's become a habit to read Morton during the holidays, not because there's anything particularly festive about her work, but because she writes easy page-turners with pretty (if sloppy) prose. This was the 2016 read, and I read this while recovering from illness, and mourning the loss of my grandfather. Easily my least favorite Kate Morton book thus far, but it distracted + entertained when I most needed it.

  17. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games: I hadn't read these books or seen these movies until this year. I read the first two of the series (couldn't get into the third) in early spring, during the season when my work is at its most intense. I enjoyed them so much more than I expected. Pure escapist reading, but it was great.

  18. Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire: See above.

  19. Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A coworker nailed it when she said this was the least intimate memoir she'd ever read. It would probably be more accurate to call this book a music biography, and not a personal memoir. That (and the fact that being neither a fan of Sleater Kinney or punk music) aside, I really enjoyed this book. Brownstein writes crisp, muscular prose, and balances narrative with reflection well. The final three chapters, Be Still This Sad Year / Shelter / Home, are are beautiful and piercingly honest. They alone made the whole book worth it.

  20. Tana French's In the Woods: If you bill a book as a police procedural, you damn well better solve the mystery. The main character, male with tortured history, got a little whiny, a little too maudlin, but these small bits aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Right up to the point where they left one mystery unsolved. Mystery, I'm realizing, is a hard genre. Too much hype and nothing by the devil himself will made a decent reveal; not enough, and there goes the story. This story was all build, very little reveal. I've heard her later novels are more conclusive?

  21. Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers: On the few occasions that I've shared the premise of my first novel with people, this is the novel that they've said my story is "just like." (People, for the love of God, don't do this to writers. Sharing our ideas is hard enough, but to hear "oh, I've already read that" is devastating). When I finally read this novel, it threw me into a funk. I didn't love the novel - writing was a little flowery for me (no pun intended) and found the character's motivations unclear - but it did force me to grapple with the parallels to my story (some, but fewer than people assume), and the value of the story I'm trying to tell.

  22. Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend: I read this book in a day and a half (partly because some plane ticket fun kept me in the Memphis airport for about 7 hours). Reading Ferrante is like holding on to a live wire, and trying not to let go. I burned through the entire Neapolitan series, and when I finally came up for air, everything I'd ever read (and written) was ash in comparison. These are, far and way, the most extraordinary I have ever read.

  23. Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name: See above. Holding on to a live wire.

  24. Elena Ferrante's Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: See above. Read anything with her name on it.

  25. Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child: See above. The finest ending. What do you read after Ferrante?

  26. Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are: I read this book slowly over of several months. An exploration into the habit of gratitude, its thesis is that joy does not produce gratitude, but gratitude produces joy. The call is to cultivate a daily habit of delight, and I found that when I practice thanksgiving, I'm a softer, slower, better aware human.

  27. Elizabeth Taylor's Palladian: This is a strange, dark, delightful mid-century novel from the other Elizabeth Taylor. It's a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, and a critique on the genre of Gothic literature. The cast of characters is off-kilter, the familiar - reclusive widower, precocious, motherless child, young governess - planted alongside the odd and out of place - a pregnant female doctor, the mother she has no patience for, very cranky service women, and an alcoholic brother, long in love with the dead mistress of the house. It's jarring to read such a familiar narrative populated by such unfamiliar characters + motivations, but really, really enjoyable. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I liked finally getting to root for the drunk.

  28. Kathleen Tessaro's The Perfume Collector: A forgettable novel. I read it at the beginning of the year and had to look up a synopsis to even remember its plot (I immediately got rid of my copy). It premise is intriguing - mysterious, female perfumer leaves her fortune to a stranger in a different country, narrative unravels who these women are and how they're connected. For me, the novel crumbled when romance and motherhood were reduced to plot devices. By diminishing each of these radical, transformation human experiences, the characters themselves were diminished.

  29. Rosamund Lupton's The Quality of Silence: Another that quickly wound up on the give-away pile. After hearing that her photographer husband died while on assignment in Alaska's Arctic Circle, mother Yasmin and deaf daughter Ruby steal a semi-truck and drive it across the tundra in the middle of a raging winter storm. And they're tailed by a stranger in a pick-up. And someone is sending them photos of dead animals. And there's an environmental terrorist on the loose. The plot give me whiplash, but I held on because I loved Lupton's prose so much. It howled with a lyrical force I can only dream of in my own writing.

  30. Amor Towles' Rules of Civility: I loved this novel. I loved it so much. It's a story of a woman in transition, making the choices that will pave the future that we, the reader, will not see. It's a beautiful meditation on time, choice, and playing life as it is laid.

  31. Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements: A book dripping with critical praise. I liked this novel a lot, the story of a family, with a wide cast of characters (many of whom are given voice in the narrative) in the week leading up to one daughter's wedding. Shipstead's observations are critical and sharp, but her prose is soft and lyrical. I like the balance - it gave the novel a human quality, multitudes contained in one.

  32. Kate Morton's The Secret Keeper: See above about Kate Morton. This was my 2015 holiday read, but I didn't finish it until after the new year. Very enjoyable. Very forgettable.

  33. Garth Stein's A Sudden Light: I wanted to like this novel so badly. I lovedRaven Stole the Moon, and picked up this book, Stein's latest, after a string of aborted attempts on other so-so books. A teenage boy returns, with his father, to the haunted family manor to cash out an inheritance and settle emotional debts, except friendly ghosts with ancestral secrets, and sexy, devious aunts cause problems. The novel read like a second draft that needed a third pass - writing not tight enough, plot holes too big, characters deflated.

  34. Truman Capote's Summer Crossing: This is Capote's first novel, written in the 40's, but unpublished until 2005. I read this in a blink. It's a story of the times - wealthy New York girl having an affair with a working class Jewish boy - and it's written with all the jittery drama of golden age Hollywood. Capote is young here, flexing his voice and reveling in his language. As a young writer, I love reading the early works of literary titans.

  35. Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: The first Hemingway I read was A Farewell to Arms, and it was an electric experience. I didn't know language could do what that novel did. Reading this novel, though, made me understand why people complain Hemingway - he writes whiny indulgences of the wealthy and vain. Not my favorite from the Western canon.

  36. J.R. Moehringer's Sutton: I've had this book on my shelf for several years, and when I finally started reading it, I wished I hadn't waited so long. Willie Sutton, first FBI Most Wanted, was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969, after having his sentence commuted, and he gave one newspaper interview the following day. Told in a series of flashback, Moehringer reimagines that interview and Sutton's early life as a love story. It's not a great novel in a critical sense - it relies on sympathy, sentimentality, and stock myths about pre-war gangsters - but I was swept up by the story, and by Moehringer's clipped, swift prose.

  37. Sarah Pekkanen's These Girls: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of beach read books about girls and their girlfriends and the boyfriends who never quite measure up. Every few months, I'd borrow a stack from the library, and never once was I able to read more than one of these books. This novel was written in that same vein. Three girls, connected through the New York City magazine work (and one hunky writer) deal with heartbreak, insecurities, secrets etc., etc., etc. I found the story vapid, and even its girls looking out for girls message did little for me. I grabbed this book on the way out the door as I were rushed to catch a flight to make it to a funeral. It was a comfort read that gave little comfort.

  38. Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: The cult of Cheryl Strayed is real, and I live on the fringes of it. I think she is a beautiful writer, and can often cut to the heart of human experience. As an advice giver, truth teller, wisdom mama for the millennial generation, I have less patience for her. I read this book slowly over about a month, because taking in all of it without a break would have been too much for me, but on a whole, I loved the book. For all my big-hearted optimism, I can be very cynical, and every now and again, it's good to rein in the princess of darkness and let the sun shine.

  39. Patricia Engel's The Veins of the Ocean: This was the first book I ever read for review (you can read it here), and a very good one to start with. A novel about a Colombian-American woman seeking freedom and redemption from the sins of her family and her former life. The plot is wide ranging, pulling narratives of immigration and dislocation, romance and wilderness, prison and passion, but at the heart is this question about what it mean for a person to be free. A very contemplative and, ultimately, hopeful novel, with a fluid, graceful voice.

  40. Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me?: Remember what I said about liking to read funny women write about themselves? Mindy Kaling's second memoir is a little more traditional than her first (and I liked that), but just as smart and funny. She focuses on her adulthood and post-success career, and hits all the big subjects - body image, dating, celebrity-hood. The reason I love reading funny women write about themselves is the heart of this book: Because it's a good goddamn thing to hear women recognize and applaud their own successes.

  41. Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People: My Halloween ghost story mystery, this novel was not spooky enough or mysterious enough for me. I did, however, love the inspiration for the book. From the dedication that McMahon wrote to her daughter: "Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods...'Sometimes it just happens.'"

  42. Emma Donoghue's The Wonder: This was the first novel I've read by Donoghue - people have been recommending Room to be for years, but I've never actually read it - and I think that tempered my reaction to this novel. It was good, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not the extraordinary work of genius that it's been lauded. It's a story about an Irish-Catholic girl who has been fasting for four months, and one nurse's attempt to discover the trick behind the fast, and save the girl's life. This was a very good story told very well, but for a novel that deals with themes as complex as faith, devotion, and duty, I was disappointed that Donoghue didn't leave the reader more room to mediate on them. Read my longer review here.

  43. Amy Poehler's Yes Please: My adoration of Amy Poehler is, I'm sure, one of the reasons I adored this book so much. It was the very first book I read in 2016, and all year long, I found myself returning to pieces of this memoir. She is as fresh and funny and frank as you could hope a celebrity to be, but she's also wise about being an artist, and being a woman, and being a human. This book was enjoyable, but more than that, it was valuable.

Books I'm Still Reading: Born to Run. Reading Bruce Springsteen's prose is beautiful, and moving, and a little bit like sitting in church...but it's taking me forever and a month to get through. This book will be on the 2017 round-up.

What did you read this year? What should I read next?

All the Books: What I Read in 2015

 Paperback Exchange, S. Minneapolis

Paperback Exchange, S. Minneapolis

2015 was a strange and interesting year of reading for me. I've always, always been an avid reader--even in college, when my peers were loath to even look at another page of writing, I continued to seek out books as both an escape and a lifeline. Except for one lonely, bored summer, reading, and reading a fair amount, has always been a given for me, but this year, I started to feel something new happening in my literary diet. I still can't quite put my finger on what was happening--or why--but here's what I did that felt so different: I finished books I didn't particularly like. I re-read to understand either myself or the text in a deeper way, not simply to burrow into comfort. I read in a wider variety of formats--essays, short stories, memoir, non-fiction. I pushed passed my own literary snobbery, and let myself read what was interesting + what was on my shelf. I finally read a few of those must-read books that I buy and keep unopened on myself because they intimidate me. I also bought books--largely from second-hand stores--at a vicious and unreserved clip, always reasoning that, for a dollar, it can't hurt to try.

As I look back on all the books that I read, it's clear that I was seeking to re-define how + why I read. I read to remain alive and to remain awake, to find clarity, to soften my heart to in-real-life people I meet, to make me a better writer. I read (and write) because telling stories is both the solution and the mystery, the lock and the key.

So here's a snapshot of all that I read in the past year.

  1. Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx: This book thought too much of itself. Proulx radicalized me to the power of the novel when I read The Shipping News at fifteen--I didn't know that you could do what she did to language, didn't know you could tell the story that she told. Maybe it's because I expected the universe of this book, or maybe because that's what she tried to deliver, but by the time I finished this book, it had demanded all my respect and none of my affection. She charts the story of one accordion, and that, at least, is a fascinating and complex narrative to tell.

  2. The Awakening, Kate Chopin: I seem to return to this book ever three or four years. Each reading and a new layer of mastery and beauty unveils itself. It's a slim, masterful hurricane, and for everyone who read it in high school and forgot about it, do yourself a favor and READ IT AGAIN.

  3. The Best Yes, Lysa TerKeurst: This book had a few good practical tips on how to prioritize--how to say "no" so that you can say "yes" to your "best yes." It's also a fog of privilege, simplicity, and yay-rah-rah. A blog post would have sufficed.

  4. California: AHistory, Kevin Starr: California is fascinating, and if you need to learn about the state (as I wanted to for my second-novel-project), read Kevin Starr.

  5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Every summer, I try to read at least one book from the canon, and this year it was the The Color Purple. I won't say too much, because me telling you that this book is good, fantastic, beautiful and human and devastating and hopeful, is to say what everyone else has already been saying for the past 30 years.

  6. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: Another fog of privilege which, I realize, is the point of the plot, but I was disappointed. I picked it on the review that Kwan was the Edith Wharton of twenty first century China. To me, it read like a beach book. A good one, but no Age of Innocence.

  7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson: With Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio turning this story into a movie, there is and will continue to be hype upon hype, but what fascinated me the most was how true Larson's assertion that the 1893 World's Fair changed the world. If nothing else, this was the fair that introduced America to PBR. (And all the hipsters said ahh).

  8. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: Another audiobook. The perfect companion for 600+ miles of driving, and so engaging. I did find some of the things that were said about this book (fog of privilege, self-indulgent) to be true, but she woke up, changed her life, then wrote about it with a praiseworthy degree of vulnerability--and that is brave.

  9. The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton: I read a different Kate Morton book, The Distant Hours, a few years back, and loved it. Female protagonists, Gothic houses + and their secrets, WWII, and quick story. Then I read this, and realized that it was the same book (with a less interesting backdrop) than the earlier one. A bit canned, but Morton knows how to move a story, and that is something I need to know more about.

  10. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin: This was a reread, and it was the book that taught me that not all books are meant to be re-read. My entire life, I've been happy to return the same stories again and again, for both comfort and learning reasons, but this was the first book that I returned to fully expecting something big and was let down. I read the whole series a few years back--burned through them--and I picked up book 1 expecting to get thrown back into the drama and thrall. I wasn't. For me, this kind of heavily plot-driven, heavily-fantastical book is only good one time. (The show however, I'll watch again and again and again).

  11. The Green Mile, Stephen King: My first Stephen King, and I wasn't impressed. I didn't love reading a serialized novel in the format of a traditional novel--the necessary repetitions irritated me to no end. Plus, I have a feeling that Stephen King is supposed to be some kind of scary/creep you, so in 2016, I'm going to give Dolores Claiborne a go.

  12. Harry Potter, 1-7, J.K. Rowling: These were also rereads, but never have have they disappointed. I very much grew up with Harry Potter, my mother reading them to me before Prisoner of Azkaban was released. When cancer consumed my grandmother, and her care consumed my mother, I reread Harry Potter on a loop. I was eight, and these books were both comfort and explanation for the pain and mystery of death. When anxiety wrenched me from myself, I clung to these books as a raft. This summer, I reread for pleasure, not for catharsis, and I learned. Because the stories are tattooed onto me, I was able to pay attention, instead, to how Rowling wrote them, how she moved the plot, how she wrote her dialogue, how she build her characters. Then when I finished them, I wept, and said that no other books are worth reading. Par for the course.

  13. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova: This book soured pretty quickly after I finished it. I loved Dracula, and wrote several lengthy term papers on it in college, and my love of Stoker's novel propelled me through this one. While I loved reading a massive novel dedicated to the detailed analysis of primary sources, in the end, Kostova pulled out far too many threads and didn't tie them up neatly enough, which is especially disappointing in a novel as long as this one was.

  14. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This was, without competition, the best book I read all year, and easily one of the best I've ever read in my lifetime. It was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. Go read it.

  15. Loving Day, Mat Johnson: This was another book that I read based upon a review, and was disappointed in. After 300 pages in Warren Duffy's head, I just wanted out. That being said, it was a phenomenal and fascinating look into the experience of being bi-racial. Johnson has been vocal about bi-racial identity being both marginalized and misunderstood, and this novel felt like it was doing important work of excavating and illuminating what it mean to be bi-racial in a hyper-racial America.

  16. Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True Life Novel, Fred Setterberg: Meh. I read it for research, because it is set in the type of suburb I'm writing about. Beyond that...

  17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich: Again, meh. It was quick and enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. (Except that it was my mother's book, so I actually went home to ask if she also felt iffy about it).

  18. Night Over Water, Ken Follett: Chauvinist. Every woman in this book was clearly in idealized version of what Follett wants women to be (read: charming, spunky, but ultimately submissive, with giant breasts). I read to the end to find out what happens, then immediately stuck it in the give-away pile.

  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: Although a few books on my summer reading list went unread, I am so glad I made it a priority to return to this book. I get it now: the appeal, the humanity, the romance. Jane Austen is a master, and I should have never doubted her most beloved work.

  20. The Queen's Fool, Philippa Gregory: I read She's Come Undone and Wild within a two week window, and I was so electrified by the stories + writing in both that I found myself needing a break from all the greatness. This book happily coincides with a weekend away, and there's something really indulgent about a reading something not-too-deep on vacation.

  21. She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb: See both note above and previous post on this book. I loved it.

  22. Something Happened, Joseph Heller: Second best book I read all year. I was assigned this text in my last semester of college, and although I wrote two essays (for two separate classes) on it, I never actually finished it. Reading this book is what I imagine riding a bull is like--you grab on, and hold on as tight as you can for as long as you can, except in this case, you absolutely should get to the very end. It works as both a historical snapshot of a particular moment in America's history (post-war, post-baby boom, pre-summer of love, pre-hippie burnout), and an incredibly comprehensive character study. I would not recommend this to many people, because it is so hard to read (700 pages inside one man's head + paragraphs that can go on for pages), but it is so worth it if you get to the end.

  23. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe: The last audiobook I listened to this year, and again, it was a companion for a very long drive. I put this on my summer reading list, expecting a good celebrity memoir--some inner-circle gossip, the hard work and good luck it (often) takes to get famous, rounded off with some on-set stories about the West Wing. I got all that, and so much more. Rob Lowe has the gift of being both emotionally vulnerable and deeply straightforward. If you're a Rob Lowe fan, read this. If you're a memoir fan, read this. If you're interested in a good story, read this.

  24. Volt, Alan Heathcock: The only full short story collection I read. It was electrifying (no pun intended). I read this as I was editing my own short story for publication, and it helped get the job done. It was an intense, interesting, deeply compelling set of interconnected stories. It took me four years to read this book, and I am so glad that I finally did.

  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: Another in a series of disappointing books. I had this on my shelf for years--such a good book, they all said--but I just couldn't get it up. It felt flat and stale, and for the last third of the book, I was only reading to finish.

  26. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed: There's a reason why this book jumped onto the NYT Bestseller book in its first week and why Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights before it was published. Strayed is such the darling and titan of the literary world that there's not much I can add, except that this book was so powerful.

I also read a whole landslide of short stories (and had one of my own published!), too many too track down and name individually.

All new year, all new books! What about you, what did you read in 2015? What are you planning to read in 2016?

Bookshelf: "She's Come Undone"

 She's Come Undone

She's Come Undone

I read. Incessantly, obsessively. I've turn the car around because I've left my book at home. I bring books to Target, to work, to friend's homes, to parties. (I always bring a book to a party; it's my shield against agoraphobia.) As much as I love reading, though, I hate reviewing books. (Same with movies). The way that a piece of writing, or a particularly story, hits us is so subjective, so dictated by inherently subjective factors. At least it's that way for me. Reading is intensely personal and intimate, which means that I love or hate a book, it has more to do with me than it does with the actual book. I don't want to put myself in a situation where I'm sending out my "good-bad" judgments out into the online world.

All that to say this: I just read one of the most incredible books I've read in a long time, and I want to talk about it. (A recommendation isn't a review, right? Or maybe it is, and I'm just contradictions and hypocrisy.)

Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone was published in 1992, and I think my mom read it pretty quickly afterwards. I was born that year, so I have spent most of my life knowing that this was one of her favorite books. The summer before I left for college, she bought me a copy of She's Come Undone at a thrift shop, and told me that it's a coming of age story about a fat girl, written in such a convincingly and authentically feminine voice that I won't believe it was written by a man.

It took me five years, and four tries to finally read the book, and when I finally did, I loved it. (See what I mean about reading being highly subjective? I wasn't in the right mood/frame of mind/attitude to read the book the other four times I tried, and thank God I didn't read it then).

This book washed me clean. It's all brokenness and hope. This searing portrait of redemption cut across a lifetime of ugly pain. I finished it this afternoon, and when I did every nerve was ringing out with the overwhelming, aching beauty that I found in this book.

It was this small story, stretched out over years and years of one person's lifetime, about exactly what my mom had told me: An overweight girl fighting through all the demons and angels that life handed her. (My mom was also right in saying that Wally Lamb writes an incredible, real-as-day woman in a first person voice).

As a reader, I sunk into the story line, and could hear the voice of Dolores Price telling me to read another chapter, just another few pages, but this book impacted me as more as a writer. All 600 pages of my airport paperback copy, I felt like I was sitting underneath a fountain. There's this double-sided thing that Lamb does, where he writes about the violent, ugly, and hateful with same intimate, emotional grace that he uses for the lovely, splendid, and poignant, and the effect is just magic. He writes with this power that stripped his characters bare, stripped his readers bare, and then somehow brought us all up together, more clothed and more human.

This book moved me, and it taught me, and it's going to stay with me.