Archive for the '2016 Books' Category

2016 in books

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

For the past several years, I’ve kept a list of every book I read and every movie I saw. I take the little address-book thingie in the pocket sized Moleskine calendar, and use that, starting at one end for books, and upside down from the other end for movies. I watch WAY fewer movies than I used to. For whatever reason, perhaps that I started a new job at the end of the year, I read fully a third fewer books this year than in the previous two years. So, I only read 89 books. I’ll take it, and be glad for the good life that comes with it.

A straight-out list of books would be boring, wouldn’t it? So I’ll start with the funnest stuff: the books I absolutely loved. These are the books I didn’t want to put down, that stayed with me, that I recommended not only to friends but to strangers.

These books that made me resent whatever or whoever made me put them down:

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber, a moody, wintry mystery with great writing.

Ancillary Justice, a mind- and gender-bending space opera with a terrific main character.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, about a world of literary demi-gods who rebel against their adoptive father.

Company Town by Madeline Ashby, set in a world where physical abnormalities have been effaced, one woman chooses to wear hers like a badge. Or a defense.

The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey. Just loved this take on a tired trope of monsters.

Vacationland by Sarah Stonich. These interconnected stories set in northern Minnesota drew me in and made me love this set of characters.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I didn’t care for State of Wonder, and never liked Bel Canto as much as others did (I prefer The Magician’s Assistant) but I was enthralled by this history of two twined families. I didn’t have time to read it, and I read it anyway.

The Trespasser by Tana French. I skipped her past couple books after being disappointed in Faithful Place, but I flat out flew through this, and was THRILLED at the how it played out. Plotted like a mothercusser. So impressive.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, about a teen with Asperger-y tendencies, whose father urges him to get out into “the real world” with unexpected results. I really loved getting inside the head of this unique character.

These books made me laugh, a lot:

Locally Laid by Lucie Amundsen, about a clueless family who decide to start a chicken farm. In Duluth.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. So good I’m not consigning it to a comic-book category.

This not only made me laugh, but made me think and was in general way better than it needed to be, taking on gun control, body issues, consent, and more:

Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

There were also a lot of solid, entertaining reads:

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle.
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachman, should have irritated me but didn’t.
Station Eleven (again) by Emily St. John Mandel.
The Golem and the Jinni (again) by Helene Wecker.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
The Nest by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney.
Tenth of December by George Saunders.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson.
Boys of My Youth by JoAnn Beard.

These books were good, with maybe some great bits, but didn’t take me to the next level:

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein.
The Turner House by Angela Fluornoy. Driftless by David Rhodes.
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (no, not as good as Where’d You Go Bernadette)
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradel.
It’s OK to Cry by Nora McInerny Purmort.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

These made me think about how I am, and want to be, in the world:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, ed. by Sun Yung Shin

There were fun read-alouds with my boys, who are now 10 and 13 years old:

The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams.
Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, and Conrad’s Fate by Diana Wynne Jones.

Helped me with my writing:

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

They’re classics for a reason:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.
Dubliners by James Joyce.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte.
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

These books just didn’t work for me:

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Blindness by Jose Saramago.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Finally, the booby prizes. The Girls by Emma Cline. Started it, gave up about 30 pages in. Wasn’t hooked, and the style of writing clashed with the subject for me.

Worst of the year: Jane Steele by Lyndsey Faye, a cheeky murder-y retelling of Jane Eyre that seemed to be on track to modernize the tale and remove some of its ugly racism, but then stabs itself in the foot by making a non-white woman the villain and other ghastly racist bits. Wish I hadn’t read it.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

I requested So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell from the library after seeing it mentioned in an online discussion between two authors I admired, Kate DiCamillo and Rebecca Stead at Number Five Bus.

At 135 pages, it was deceptively slim. I thought to read it in a few hours. Instead, I labored over it for days. I struggled to connect and “get” this book. I had to read, then re-read passages. I couldn’t keep the three families in it straight. More than once I’d see a character named, and in frustration, I’d say aloud “Who?” or, “Who the hell is ____?”

This is the longest 135 page novel I have ever read.

So why did writers I admire themselves admire it?

BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Blindness by Jose Saramago was on my TBR pile, (to-be-read, but you knew that, right?) for a long time, one of those big-themed books others deemed a classic. I remember when the movie came out and people complained that it wasn’t as good as the book, and somehow this book got built up in my mind that it was a masterpiece that I SHOULD read, and was somehow deficient for not having read it. So, I finally read it.

And while maybe when it came out, it was big and important, I’m willing to go out on a limb and call it “Not a lasting classic.” Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it’s an ambitious book about what happens when things in the world go off the rails. And I wonder if book like this are like American presidents–they get elected, hang out for four or eight years as the dystopic fear story, then get slowly forgotten. I mean, how many people still read Neville Shute’s On the Shore? Or: Lucifer’s Hammer, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stand, Blindness, The Road, or your apoca-fic choice.

In Blindness, people start going blind, it’s catching, and eventually everyone is blind and things are violent, chaotic, and literally shitty. What is interesting and unique about this book as opposed to the zombies, nuclear apocalypse, sun going out, what have you, is that a virus of blindness is more easy to imagine than zombies, yet how completely it did, and likely would really, shut the world down. That one thing, sight, would bring the world to a half if it were gone. How would we feed ourselves? Like the sun in The Road, if vision is gone, if food stops being produced, then how can things continue?

If, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much talked of immortality.

Like The Road, Blindness is bleak and horrible, and has very little hope. While it has moments of loveliness, like a ritual cleansing in the rain of several characters, they weren’t enough for me to want to stay with this book. I read it, I thought about it, saw what it was saying, decided it spent too much time on ugliness, and I’ve moved on.

THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

artofmemoir

As soon as I heard about Mary Karr’s book The Art of Memoir from this interview at NPR, I wanted it, wanted it RIGHT NOW in the way that I often crave books by authors whose work I both like and admire. First with The Liar’s Club and most recently with Lit, Karr has won me over with her ability to tell a good story in a strong voice. If you haven’t read Karr, did you like Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle? That book probably couldn’t have found an audience if Karr hadn’t paved the way with Liar’s Club.

Art of Memoir hit a sweet spot for me in that it’s both a memoir plus a book about writing memoirs. I’m attempting, and more often lately failing, to put together a memoir of my own about specific times in life, and rather than sitting down to the do the hard work of writing about hard things, I’m often flitting about the internet on Facebook, Twitter, or hey, even taking time to blog here! So her book is a good reminder for me to stop cussing around and get to work, already:

After a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful — it’s ‘fun’ only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.

(Distracted aside: I don’t care if the blog is dead. I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I love it and while I don’t do it as regularly as I did in the years prior to social media, I’m still not gonna quit.)

If you read and liked (enjoyed, loved, admired, what have you) any of Karr’s other books, I think you’ll like this one too. She gives gritty behind-the-scenes insight about what went into the writing of those books. When she does go into details about writing, she sets those sections off for those who are more interested in the memoir part than in the writing craft part. But for those of us nerds who love both? This is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of books: two great things that go great together.

If you haven’t read Karr, go check out Liar’s Club and Lit first; I wouldn’t recommend this one to start with. Unless you’re a writer, and then this is as good a place as any.

LOCALLY LAID: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm–From Scratch by Lucie B. Amundsen

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

Locally Laid by Lucie B. Amundsen

Locally Laid by Lucie B. Amundsen

The cover is an answer to that old joke. Guess what?

Chicken Butt!

Lucie is a friend–our kids went to preschool together. I would say nice things about Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm–From Scratch no matter what, but since it is charming, sweet, sad, funny, well-written, and educational I won’t need to euphemize. (That’s a word, right?)

I hope you’ve heard of Locally Laid, the farm. They’re located in North Minnesota, which is not an ideal place to start a farm. When Lucie’s husband Jason lost his job, he thought it was a good idea to start a chicken farm. They’d had good luck with back yard chickens, and there weren’t many locally sourced, ethically farmed eggs in near Duluth. How hard could it be?

Lucie did not think this was a good idea, but she and their two kids went along with it. While Jason started the farm, she took various writing jobs, pursued an MFA in the Twin Cities, washed eggs and became Locally Laid’s “marketing chick.”

My favorite chick was the tawny-colored Buff Orpington. She promised to one day be a bodacious plus-sized model of a chicken, wearing fluffy pantaloons under full feathery skirts and with as charming a personality as her appearance suggested. Predictably named Buffy, she didn’t mind being handled and rather seemed to enjoy the company, clucking softly with a closed beak as I picked her up and stroked her silky feathers.

While the farm’s name has a cheeky double entendre, it is meant first to be taken literally–these eggs are from local chickens raised on pasture and allowed to roam outdoors.

Reading the details of how this farm came to be, with the numerous obstacles, setbacks, and reality checks along the way, is an emotional roller coaster. I wanted the farm to succeed. I wanted Jason to sleep. I wanted Locally Laid to win the Super Bowl contest. I wanted to hear more from Lucie’s son Milo, because he stole the scenes he was in. Some of these things happened, some didn’t, and some sorta kinda did.

Locally Laid is a lovely mix of memoir and education on the state of agriculture in general, and chicken farming in particular. I was reminded more than once that I’m one of many people who has thoughts, opinions, and feelings about chickens, yet has never actually wrangled one. If you’ve read and enjoyed Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, then belongs next to them on the shelf.

Support a writer and farmer; buy this book, read this book. It will make you smile and you’ll learn stuff.

HOW TO BUILD A GIRL by Caitlin Moran

Saturday, February 27th, 2016

howtobuildagirl

I feel about Caitlin (pronounced CAT-lin) Moran’s novel like I do about the writer in general–she says some amazing, provocative, hilarious things. But her enthusiasm could often use some judicious editing, as well as increased awareness.

The novel is a barely disguised autobiographical novel about Johanna Morrigan, who grew up poor in Wolverhampton in public housing and went on to brazen out a career as a music journalist starting in her teens.

I read and mostly enjoyed Moran’s How to Be a Woman, though I think it would more accurately be titled How to Be a White Woman. So the details of teen life in this book are familiar. Johanna is smart, does embarrassing things, is obsessed with sex and music.

Where this book shines is in the frank, realistic talk of teen sexuality, and in the unvarnished portrayal of living in a poor family. Johanna is both funny and heartbreaking. Where it falters, though is in the loosey-goosey time and tense switches and frequent adult voice flashbacks, e.g., “Currently she has post-natal depression –but we don’t know this yet.” (18) My friend Amy was really bothered by the utter lack of birth control/STD protection. And while it makes sense that a teen in the 90’s would have been cavalier about it, Moran might have even mentioned it, even to insert something like, “I know know how utterly irresponsible it was, and how ridiculous coming from a family where my mum cried for years after having unexpected twins.”

Here, go read these quotes, because they are too numerous and good to choose from, and include ones both funny, sad, and insightful.

The Guardian’s Digested Read does a good job of showing the good/bad.

And yet, it’s funny and charming. Johanna makes terrible mistakes, but as she tries out her new personal, Dolly Wilde, the titular built girl of the title, she often amazed and impressed me with her humor, her smarts, her moxie. Ultimately, I found this winning, but I wish this had gone through another round of strict edits so Moran’s exuberance, insight, and humor would shine more brightly.

ORIGIN by Diana Abu-Jaber

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

origin

Let’s talk about shelf-sitting books. Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber was one of my shelf sitters. I bought it at a book festival in October of 2011, having heard her speak on a panel with some other authors, whose books I also bought. Abu-Jaber’s novel Birds of Paradise had just been released in hardcover. While she talked, she mentioned that a book group in Minnesota had recently read her previous novel, Origin and really liked it as a winter group read. I bought other books that day at the festival, ones that I purged in last year’s Marie Kondo-inspired book clearing, because when I picked them up, I felt guilt, but when I picked up Origin, I still wanted to read it. That one small endorsement, about it being an atmospheric book for winter, had stuck with me.

I selected Origin for one of my book groups to read this month. I’m happy to report that I found it fabulous, I tore through it, I’m so glad I kept it around, sorry only that I didn’t read it earlier, and I’m recommending it highly.

What I’m not happy to report is that my library system and the ones around it have just a tiny number of copies of it. I picked the book for the group before checking the library (rookie mistake). I’m sad because it appears that this book is a fading gem, one that got great reviews when it came out, but not the attention that other similar books have. Before I write about the book, then I’m going to say that if you’re a fan of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, or Ann Patchett’s Sense of Wonder, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or other literary,psychological thrillers, I think you’ll like Origin, too.

In Syracuse New York’s winter, crime-lab tech Lena Dawson is approached by a grieving mother whose baby’s death has been ruled as SIDS. The mother insists this is a mistake, and has contacted Lena because of rumors that Lena has special insight into children’s cases. Lena is disturbed by the encounter, not only because it’s emotionally jarring, but also because it shakes loose painfully vague memories Lena has of her own past.

The two mysteries–of the crib death and of Lena’s past–unfold in gorgeous prose, stunning imagery, and great psychological layering. Lena struggles to navigate her work and relationships, and the clues are dropped like delicious breadcrumbs, which drew me quickly through the book.

In the end, one of the mysteries was less compelling than the other, but the sum of the book, its mysteries, its many shocking reveals, the satisfying “click” as pieces fall into place, all make it one of my favorite reads in recent memory. I loved it, and can’t wait to talk about it with my book group.

MY YEAR ZERO by Rachel Gold

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

myyearzero

I was given an advance e-copy of Rachel Gold’s teen romance My Year Zero in exchange for an honest review.

When I met Blake, I had no idea that she would destroy my life. She was this small person, darkly incandescent, vibrating with nervous energy. Eyes blue-gray like a kingfisher’s wing (moving as fast). I should have known by the way she went on about infinities and zero. Who falls in love with zero?

But I’m ahead of myself. The story doesn’t start with Blake. As with most great stories, it starts with sex. Excerpt From: Rachel Gold My Year Zero (advance review copy).

Lauren is a sixteen-year-old artist who lives in Duluth. More than just about anything, she wants a girlfriend, but candidates are pretty rare in northern Minnesota. Then she meets Sierra, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota. Sierra invites Lauren to the Twin Cities and introduces her to a group writing an online space opera. Lauren’s a fan of manga and anime, so her storytelling abilities, both written and artistic, make her an immediate darling of the creative group.

As Lauren becomes more involved with the story group, her already difficult relationship with her lawyer father becomes further strained when she tries to assert herself and spend more time in the cities. Lauren and Sierra begin to date, but rather than the fairy-tale romance Lauren envisioned, the reality is emotionally neglectful and abusive. Lauren grows closer to Sierra’s friend Blake, whose struggles with bipolar syndrome help Lauren see how her own emotional issues might be exacerbating things with her father and Sierra.

Lauren and the group of storytellers are a varied and interesting bunch, even when they behave immaturely and unlike-ably, which they all do–they’re in their late teens, after all. The story they’re spinning is a book-within-a-book, so really My Year Zero is two books in one.

Lauren is an appealing character. Her relationships with her father and Sierra are upsetting and all too believable. They make the book complicated and intriguing. There were many great details about the Twin Cities, though I wished for a bit more about Duluth and Lauren’s life there outside of her relationship with her dad. The pace slowed a bit in the middle, but was strong toward the end. I enjoyed going on the journey with Lauren as she fell in and out of love, tried to figure out who she was, and tackled the challenges in her life rather than hiding from them.

“Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

Elizabeth Gilbert is a controversial writer. Some people love her books, some hate them. Some people think she’s a great writer, others think she’s terrible. Eat, Pray, Love was an international mega-bestseller, one that I liked a lot. I never read her two following books, Committed or The Signature of All Things, but I heard similarly divisive things about them.

The wildly divergent opinions on her and response to her work is a big reason I enjoyed Big Magic, her book on “Creative Living Without Fear.” She discusses her work, the responses to it and her response to it so lightly, so un-offendedly, that it’s a pleasure to read. And that’s even before she talks about creative process, how ideas are living things that can thrive or live and die, or how writers shouldn’t quit their day jobs. It’s not even just about writing, either, but in general about living a creative life, and doing things that stretch your brain or body in ways that are joyful and celebratory.

When I talk about “creative living” here, please understand that I am not necessarily talking about pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts….I am speaking more broadly. I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. (p. 9)

This is an excellent book to borrow from the library, and would be a delightful gift for the creative and curious people in your life. I’m afraid if I recommend it too highly than one of the many people who doesn’t like Liz Gilbert will say they can’t believe they paid $25 for it. But there’s a lot of smart stuff in here, alongside a lot of common sensical stuff that might be dismissed as obvious. But, especially for writers, there is a great anecdote about Gilbert and writer Ann Patchett that I liked so much I shared it aloud to my husband.

Others who have read it, what did you think?